The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (3) – broad parties

The third document  of the majority is entitled ‘Toward a text on Role and Tasks of the Fourth International’.  Its basic premise is the following:

“Our understanding of the role and tasks of the Fourth International at a national level is that we want to build parties that are useful in the class struggle. That is to say parties that can assemble the forces and decide on actions that have an effect and advance the class struggle on the basis of a class struggle approach and programme, the ultimate goal of such a party being obviously to get rid of the existing (capitalist) system, in whatever general terms this may be expressed.”

This is presented as a continuation of long standing policy, a policy its critics in the opposition have branded a failure, one admitted to, at least by implication, in the immediately following sentence – “This perspective commits the forces of the FI to being an integral and loyal part of building and leading these new parties, not simply aiming to recruit or wait to denounce eventual betrayals.”

It might be said that if the ultimate point of building these parties is to lead the overthrow of capitalism, but that instead it leads to eventual betrayal, an obvious objection arises – what’s the point? If these parties must lead the overthrow of capitalism, do they not have to have this objective in the first place in order for this to be so, to be revolutionary in their programme, as their opposition critics claim, and not merely “useful”?

Of course, there is no guarantee of success.  But surely, if one believes that a party can and must overthrow capitalism, then having an explicit programme of doing so is a necessary prerequisite?

I stated in the first post that small Trotskyist organisations suffer from an inability to learn from their capacity to actually implement their programme, but in this case the objective of the FI for some time has been to build large and successful anti-capitalist parties, and the experience has been one of repeated failure.

Instead of learning from this failure however the objective now appears to be so diluted as to become almost homeopathic, with an inability to actually measure the positive content of the proposal.  No balance sheet, no real evaluation and learning from experience becomes possible, partly explaining why it appears not to have been carried out.

It should be noted that the document situates this perspective within a period of “geopolitical chaos” and “crisis of class-consciousness,” and in my view states correctly that:

“The project of a socialist society offering an alternative both to capitalism and to the disastrous experiences of bureaucratic “socialism”, lacks credibility: it is severely hampered by the balance sheet of Stalinism, of social democracy, and of populist nationalism in the “third world”, as well as by the weakness of those who put it forward today.”

“In a large number of dominated countries, broad vanguard forces are now sceptical about the chances of a success of a revolutionary break with imperialism; and sceptical about the possibilities of taking power and keeping it in the new world balance of power”… “revolutionary internationalism appears as a utopia”.

This view has been criticised by the opposition within the FI as unnecessarily pessimistic and a means of ditching the historic revolutionary programme of the movement. In my view the assessment of the majority about the generally low level of class consciousness and of the working class movement across the world, with obvious national and regional variations, is broadly correct.

To deny it is to retreat into make-believe, and to do so only in order to hold tight to an historic politics, which it is believed requires the possibility of more or less short-term potential for socialist revolution. But this period of working class history has passed.  We do not live in the shadow of the Russian Revolution and do not see mass efforts to repeat it in any form in important capitalist countries.

This tide of rising working class struggle was smashed by reaction, including fascism, and world war; then solidified by a strong hegemonic US capitalism, in which genuine working class socialism, Marxism, was capped and suffocated by a mass of Stalinist and other state-socialist concrete.

When the level of class struggle rose again in more developed countries in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was defeated not by fascism but by bourgeois democratic forces, aided by the role of Stalinist and social-democratic parties. Now the latter have been severely weakened or discredited in most countries, a view has arisen that there exists some ever-present working class constituency on the left which only has to be tapped into by revolutionaries.  This, however, has been exposed as a rather naïve, marketing-type view of politics.

What the FI majority (and opposition) have failed to do is to explain how working class political consciousness has been formed in the past and how it can be reconstructed today.  The betrayals of Stalinism etc. ultimately reflect the strength of capitalism, but more importantly the relative weakness of the working class as a revolutionary subject.  In periods of defeat all sorts of confusion and misdirection takes place and the policy of the FI shows this confusion in spades.

We have a formulation of the task of Marxists that reeks of equivocation.  So, the majority FI “want to build parties that are useful in the class struggle.” But this invites questions, such as what on earth does useful mean? How useful and useful for what, to whom, and to what end?  If it is to overthrow capitalism then we are no step forward, but are invited to accept any such claim in “whatever general terms this may be expressed.”

The text says, “that is to say parties that can assemble the forces and decide on actions that have an effect and advance the class struggle on the basis of a class struggle approach and programme.”  What change in the conduct of the class struggle is intended; as a contribution to what working class organisation, strategy and raising of consciousness? What exactly is the class struggle programme proposed, or is it one useful to the class struggle as it spontaneously, or if one prefers, organically arises?

We are told that “the ultimate goal of such a party being obviously to get rid of the existing (capitalist) system, in whatever general terms this may be expressed.”  Unfortunately, the first sentence is not only imprecise but also incomplete – and replace capitalism with what and how?  “In whatever terms this may be expressed” leaves nothing excluded and nothing by which to evaluate inclusion.

Building a party that is useful in these terms appears vacuous.  Not for nothing is it therefore explained that “the key idea is that we cannot generalise a model for what the FI has to do”.

The appearance is given of a leadership that is politically exhausted and has nothing much to say.

There are lessons that have been, or need to be, learned from the struggles of the working class in the last two centuries, which might be considered to be the foundation of the programme that socialists should advance, in order to make themselves “useful”.  What are they?

One of these explains a fundamental problem with the formulation, which is that it implies abrogating a task of the class and devolving it to the party, for it is the working class that must overthrow capitalism and create a new society, because that new society is precisely the expression of its own power – through the relations of production and the subordination of its own state to its social power and control.

It is no answer to such a criticism to say that what is being proposed is that the party leads the working class, because the party is itself created by the class through its struggles, and the party can only arise from a class conscious working class.  If the party is to be a mass phenomenon it can arise in no other way.

The working-class party has an important role to further the development of class consciousness in the working class, so the role of the ideology and programme of the party, as well as the quality and dedication of its members, is crucial.

The struggle for an adequate Marxist politics therefore loses none of its importance, and it is not a question of surrendering its theoretical gains to court popularity, or surrendering its politics in pursuit of alliances with those who would betray it.  But the overthrow of the system can only be accomplished by the working class itself. As I have said before, the working-class party cannot rise further than the class is aims to lead, or to make itself “useful” to.

If it is far in advance of the class consciousness of the mass of workers then it will not be a mass party and its programme can be as revolutionary as you could wish, but it will be an ideal construct on a very different material base, and will be in vain.  A working-class party can only truly be revolutionary if it represents, is part of and helps raise the political consciousness of, the mass of the working class through its theoretical and political clarity; but it is the working class which is the revolutionary subject.

This, anyway, was the view of Marx, and it will be necessary to look at his approach in the next post in order to contrast it again with the approach of the FI.  Ironically, such a comparison makes more sense of the view that the working-class party must be “useful”.

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The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (2) – fightbacks and alternatives

Photo: Attac

The second majority text ‘Social upheavals, fightbacks and alternatives” notes that the struggles by different groups in society for democratic rights, including the ‘global justice’ movement, takes place – “in a situation where an “international workers’ movement” no longer exists.”

It goes on to say that “refusing the consequences of capitalist policies does not automatically provoke an anticapitalist consciousness. The social identity of workers does not create a class identity as such.”  It asks “what is the capacity to include these struggles in a strategic political programme of radical challenge to capitalist society, the oppressions it has created or restructured?”

Again, as in the first document, the text starts from movements outside the main working class movement and considers its needs rather than from the working class itself, its class interests and its struggles.

Here, however, this is not the main point I want to make, for the weakness is less prominent in this text.  The paragraph quoted contains important truths, including that “refusing the consequences of capitalist policies does not automatically provoke an anticapitalist consciousness. The social identity of workers does not create a class identity as such.” (If we interpret the latter as a real socialist consciousness.)

The document correctly notes the numerical increase in the world working class, which rather raises the question how this could have happened without much expanded capital accumulation, and since the first document describes the world situation as one of permanent crisis and is unsure whether we have been living in a long period of stagnation.

Yet, while noting that wages have stagnated in the old industrialised countries it cannot deny that in new areas of production, and especially in China, real wages have increased.  Again, however, we have the curious counter-position of state and corporate power, as if they were in some sort of opposition when it comes to workers’ rights.

And again, it is unclear what processes it thinks are going on. For it states that:

“The overall picture is that of a world undergoing massive changes in many regions with an increase of the number of wageworkers bringing about significant social upheaval. This is happening at a time when economic development is not occurring alongside nation-states developing structures and services able to ensure better living conditions. Exactly the opposite in most cases; we observe a worsening of daily living conditions in many ways, aggravated in many regions by war and climate change.”

Yet it also states that:

“Quantitatively, the working class is constantly growing. It should be noted that its centres of growth have strongly shifted to Asia, probably tomorrow to Africa. In these areas the development of trade-union forces follows numerical growth, the growing social weight of wage workers, lay the bases for class consciousness but in general they do not have the strong political structures that provided a political backbone to the European labour movement, although the contradiction in that model was to often to delegate ‘political’ questions to political parties.”

“Powerful workers’ struggles are still taking place not only in the old industrial countries, in Latin America, but also in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, in Turkey, in the Indian Subcontinent, and in Asia.”

“But in the era of globalization the need for trade unions to take up broader issues including racism, all forms of discrimination and housing has become greater and a spur to radicalization.”

From this it proposes a number of tasks for trade unions, including:

“to take into account the reality of precarisation in all its forms and therefore stimulating and creating the structures to organize all those concerned, in particular by the development of structures beyond enterprises, in the zones of industrial activities, neighbourhoods and localities” and “the imperative need to co-ordinate this organizing on an international scale, relying on the actual networks of the production chains in which the workers are competing against each other. “

It also proposes “the pressing need to create, out of the struggle for rights, a class identity providing resistance movements the programmes necessary to challenge the capitalist structures of society and to carry through a project of overthrowing this system.”

It does not however take on board and develop the remark in the first majority document, that it is necessary “to find more permanent forms of action”, seemingly a recognition that the creation of working class identity, class consciousness and organisation is not simply a result of episodic struggle, and not even of the lower level of continual struggle that is inevitably “reformist” in character, and often too summarily dismissed by ‘revolutionaries.’

Here, it must be noted that trade unions are not a “permanent form of action” in the sense of an international movement, although this is an objective to aim for. As representatives of fragments of the working class, and not the whole, engaged in sectional struggles that can only temporarily push back against the competition of workers as they sell their labour power, they are engaged in “guerrilla fights” as Marx put it, and not against the wages system as such, although they can be schools for such a struggle.

Such a criticism may seem premature and inaccurate, because immediately following the identification of the need for struggle and resistance movements there is a section on just such a mode of self-organisation that may be permanent, one with the potential to advance and secure working class consciousness and organisation – workers’ cooperatives.

The document notes the rise of production cooperatives as part of workers’ and peasants’ resistance to economic crises, and it notes correctly that “these experiences, albeit limited, put forth the question of control, of workers taking back the means of production, and also the choice of production linked to social needs.”  In other words, they provide the material foundation for the working class to appreciate the need for, and their capacity to create, the basis of a new society in opposition to capital and its state.

Unfortunately, the lessons of the experience referred to are not developed, so their role in a transition from capitalism and their potential to form a transformational mechanism to socialism is not appreciated. A different document submitted as part of the debate does however directly address the question and we shall discuss this in a later post.

Instead however, we again have a focus on the tasks of the small revolutionary left, its concerns and its potential for growth, rather than an analysis of the development of the working-class movement as a whole and how Marxists can play a part in this development.

Without this development, not at all reducible to the influence of small groups or to Marxism as a set of ideas or political practice, there is no viable perspective for this Marxism or its adherents.

The failure of such an approach is reflected in the acknowledged frustration of the small revolutionary organisations (SWP, SSP, LCR/NPA) and the organisations of the world justice movement (WSF and ATTAC).  It is noted once more that “Struggles for democracy and social justice as such do not automatically lead to a struggle for the overthrow of the systems of oppression.”

So, it is impossible to understand why in the same section it is stated that “we must address new challenges in the construction of an international revolutionary movement, an anti-capitalist movement based on the defence of rights and social justice.”

The failure of the perspective of attempting to build revolutionary organisations out of struggles for “democracy and justice” is hardly surprising.  In my series of posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism (starting here) I have begun to point out the contradictions within capitalism out of which its overthrow and replacement can be built.   Such an alternative understanding of Marx and his approach is not the basis of the perspectives put forward by the FI for building a working-class party.

The third majority document addresses the role the Fourth International sees for itself, the tasks it should set itself and is the subject of the next post.

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The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (1) – Capitalist globalisation and imperialism


The next series of posts will review some documents and debates arising from the most recent 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (FI), commonly referred to as the USec (United Secretariat), which is perhaps the largest of the inheritors of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International set up in 1938.  It was held in February and the documents discussed and reviewed are published on the ‘International Viewpoint’ web site here.

I will review the positions of the majority and then the minority documents, including a debate on the experience of Greece and in particular the role of Syriza.  I have attended two such meetings before and was for over 35 years a member of the organisation.  In my experience, it was the most democratic of the small Trotskyist formations although its internal life was by no means unblemished, and some minority opinions expressed in the documents reviewed criticise the democratic functioning of the organisation.  Since I have no way of verifying the claims and counter claims I am not going to make any judgement on the questions raised.

I should mention that my experience is limited and has not included membership of FI organisations in less developed countries, which are important components of the FI and its supporters, including the Philippines, Pakistan and Brazil.

During my membership, you could say and write what you wanted. Organised tendencies and factions were allowed, and the texts reviewed are testament to the continued existence of these democratic rights.  The FI also had the significant benefit that it contained people with critical faculties and different views who wanted to discuss and debate.  In most other formations the lack of debate, of discussion of real differences, lies not just in the lack of democratic functioning but in the lack of any significant divergence in views among members.  In other words, the sect-like internal life of these organisations had penetrated the membership, who in my experience often rejected charges that their organisations were undemocratic because they didn’t really have anything different to say anyway.

If this often unhappy consequence of being a member of one of the small Trotskyist organisations did not and has not infected the FI, the size and position of the organisation means that it nevertheless suffers from other shortcomings.  It is in no position to implement its programme to any real extent, and years of such inability means it has been unable to learn the lessons that such an ability would have facilitated.

This has telescoped its concerns to the one area in which it has some real and direct responsibility, which is building its own organisations. Unfortunately, this has only helped exaggerate its focus on the idea that the decisive problem currently facing Marxists and the working class more generally is building a revolutionary party; as if we were in the 1920s or 1930s with a mass working class movement ideologically under the influence of socialist politics and the various currents of that movement.  If such were the case then trying to create a mass revolutionary party from an already radicalised class would, at least on the face of it, have some plausible rationale, even if it failed in the more propitious circumstances of these years.

Today, it’s as if the question of revolutionary leadership of the working class is currently decisive even when the working class is no longer in its majority committed to the socialist project in any of its forms, whether reformist or revolutionary.  The majority of the working class may favour reforming capitalism but this is not as a result of commitment to a reforming socialism, to which a revolutionary alternative may be posed as the more or less immediate alternative.

The current series of posts are not meant to be anything more than some commentary to the texts discussed and are not comprehensive alternatives.

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The majority document on the world situation is more descriptive than analytical and tends to pithy statements and aphorisms that are unhelpful.

We are told that “the state of war is permanent”, although for much of the population in Europe, North America and other countries war is not a directly experienced phenomenon, while for others it is a daily horror.

We are told that “the social fabric is disintegrating”, where again for much of the world it is not.

“Peoples” are paying an “exorbitant price” for the new neoliberal order” but there is no definition of what this neoliberal order is, or whether the rise of populist nationalism across the globe is bringing neoliberalism to an end.  Too often the document counterposes this neolibreral order to ‘government’. i.e. state intervention, or to put it in Marxist terms, counterposes the capitalist system to the capitalist state that defends it.

This neoliberal order is supposed to lead to structural instability and “to a state of permanent crisis.”  This is repeated in terms of capitalist globalisation accommodating itself to “crisis as a permanent state of affairs”.  But, as Marx said, there is no such thing as a permanent crisis; and if the statement is meant to refer to a permanent political crisis, then unfortunately the word “crisis’ becomes so unfocused as to be rendered unhelpfully imprecise.

Reading the documents of the majority brought that old feeling back when I read these sorts of texts in the past and wondered – what is being said here?  As if aware of the problem of their view of ‘crisis’, the authors say that “if this is really the case, we must profoundly change our view of crisis as a particular moment between long periods of ‘normality’”, although this helps explain nothing.  We are left wondering what is meant by suggesting we live in a period of permanent crisis and what it implies for the working class and socialist politics?

The lack of clarity continues when the document discusses “the global justice movement’, which with “the consequences of climate change . . . also offer a new field of potentially anti-capitalist convergences. However, the lasting effects of the defeats of the workers’ movement and of neoliberal ideological hegemony, the loss of credibility of the socialist alternative, counteract these positive trends. It is difficult to situate within a longer-term perspective the sometimes considerable – success of protest movements.”

The search for ‘resistance and ‘struggles’ (partly a product of the usually marginal character of Trotskyist organisations) means they don’t have a clear perspective on the nature of protest movements or what sort of perspective they could possibly have without a class-conscious workers’ movement.

So the document starts not from the latter in order to assess the former, and thus gets the focus the wrong way round, like looking through a telescope from the wrong end.  No amount of success for protest movements will achieve socialism and the key question facing Marxists is the reason for, and what can be done about, the defeats of the working class and its current low level of socialist consciousness.

Later we are told that “we have well and truly entered a world of permanent wars (plural)” and stands for internationalism, but situates the difficulties for it within a general “humanitarian crisis”. Internationalism is posited as the task of “militant left currents and social movements in particular”.

We are told that “After a period when the very concept of internationalism was often disparaged, the global justice wave, then the multiplication of “occupations” of public squares or districts, have restored it to its full importance. Now it is necessary for this revived internationalism to find more permanent forms of action.”

It leaves largely ignored that it is the internationalisation of production and the political forms which grow upon it that forms the material basis for the working class to develop its organisation and class consciousness, the only class that can present itself as the bearer of these international relations in a progressive form and that can form the basis of “more permanent forms of action.”  No protest movement can do this, and running after the next one that comes along without situating it within a perspective of working class organisation is the perpetual short cut that small organisations excel in, and which are a short cut to ever diminishing circles.

As a framework of analysis that would allow Marxists to understand the world capitalist system, in all its variety and complexity, the document fails.  Good points within it are simply only that.  Its lack of clarity is exhibited in many ways including the questions it poses at the end, which include – “are we in a period of long stagnation?”

The first majority document ends by informing readers that “the analysis of the dynamics of popular resistance is the subject of the second text presented for discussion at the next World Congress; and the conditions of construction of militant parties that of the third.”

In its content the first document partially anticipates both of these because it has so little to say on how the capitalist system is working today and what this means for the working class, in its composition, organisation and potential class consciousness.  The second and third majority documents will be the subject of the next posts.

Forward to part 2