The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (7) – a second opposition

A second opposition document has a quite different analysis than that of the text reviewed in the previous posts.  It is written by a member of the German FI section and a member of the French Anti-capitalist Party, into which the section in that country dissolved itself.

It argues that there has been a second major wave of capitalist globalisation, which amounts to a new phase of capitalist development.  It notes that “this new stage [of capitalism] results from the development of the properties and contradictions of capitalism, which it accentuates and brings to a higher level, an “epoch of transition from capitalism to a higher social and economic system”, the objective conditions of which have matured and strengthened worldwide.”  Unfortunately this line of analysis is not explained or developed further.

This new phase of development has taken place “after a long period of defeats and decline of the labor movement”.  It also notes that the victory of Stalinism in the world labour movement and suppression of its revolutionary rivals “left the revolts of oppressed peoples the prisoner of nationalism in the aftermath of World War II.”

It notes that “the proletariat was unable to give it an internationalist perspective. This revolutionary wave, however, shook the world by enabling millions of oppressed people to break the yoke of colonial and imperialist oppression. But far from moving towards socialism, the new regimes sought to integrate the world capitalist market.”

“A new international division of labor is taking place through the economic development of former colonial or dominated countries, especially the emerging ones – a globalization and not a mere internationalization of production, “an integrated world economy” in Michel Husson’s words.”

It also notes that “the neoliberal offensive . . . led to the collapse of the USSR”; that “capitalism has triumphed worldwide” and that “the balance of power has changed, the combination of economic neoliberalism and imperialist militarism has destabilized the entire planet. The first world power no longer has the supremacy it enjoyed: a new rival, China, is emerging in a multipolar world. The instability of international relations can no longer be contained by a single power which, in turn, feels threatened.”

“The emergence of new powers with imperialist views or regional powers which defend their own interests increasingly undermines America’s leadership capacity and makes the international situation more chaotic. The US response is Trump’s policy “Make America great again”, to assert their economic and military supremacy through trade war, protectionism and militarism.”

“How far can the tensions and imbalances go? In the long run, nothing can be ruled out. We need to understand the possible evolution of the world situation to formulate a solution to the crisis we are being dragged into by the ruling classes. There is no reason to rule out the worst hypothesis, a globalization of local conflicts or a widespread conflagration, a new world war, or rather a globalized one. The evolution of the war in Syria is another example of that as was the war in Ukraine.”

“A more aggressive imperialist policy of China could result from its internal contradictions, from the inability of the Chinese ruling classes to address social issues, to perpetuate the social order without providing an outlet for social discontent. We are not there, but nothing allows us to rule out the possibility that a war for global leadership may be the outcome.”

This section of the text is concluded with the following summary:

“The ruling classes and countries face a crisis of hegemony which opens a revolutionary period. It creates the conditions for the birth of another world.”

The next section, “the rise of a powerful international working class”, notes that “the world working class has grown considerably within a global labor market in which workers compete, jeopardizing the gains of the “labor aristocracy” in the old imperialist countries and undermining the material basis of reformism of the last century.”

“The working class is more numerous than ever: in South Korea alone, there are more wage-earners than there were in the whole world at the time of Marx. The working class forms between 80 and 90% of the population in the most industrialized countries and almost half of the world population. Overall, the number of industrial workers rose from 490 million worldwide in 1991 to 715 million in 2012 (the data is from the International Labor Organization).”

“We must make our main concern the task of rebuilding or building a class consciousness. The labor movement is on the defensive but is engaged in a long and deep process of reorganization we want to help and contribute to its organization as a class, ‘as a party’.”

The document makes a number of points on what it believes are the implications of its analysis for the elaboration of revolutionary strategy.  This includes the view that the material basis of reformism is weakened because imperialist superprofits are eroded, and that the internationalisation of the world economy “gives internationalism a concrete expression rooted in the daily life of millions of proletarians.”

While the latter is more straightforwardly true and needs to be elaborated, the former assumes that greater hardship will generate, or at least more readily facilitate, development of class consciousness among the working class; and this is controversial and not at all obvious.

The document states that “the fight against the rise of reactionary, nationalist, neo-fascist, or religious fundamentalist forces generated by the social decomposition produced by the policies of the capitalist classes is now the central political issue. The solution lies in a class policy for the revolutionary transformation of society.”

Again, this is true; we only need look at the reaction in Britain to the rise of some far-right forces to see the left rush to action in order to oppose this far-right, with little more than a platform of opposition.  The blindness of some is revealed by some groups doing this while also being supporters of Brexit, which has strengthened the far right they wish to oppose.

Unfortunately, again, while it is correctly noted that “our main concern [is] the task of rebuilding or building a class consciousness”, the problem is how this is to be done and, for a workers’ party, how to assist the development of the working class movement upon a socialist basis.

The document notes that “a revolutionary party cannot be proclaimed. It is formed in the struggles and will only play a decisive role when it becomes a mass party and has the political and organizational means of putting forward a consistent revolutionary orientation, of organizing mass struggles and of leading broad sectors of the working class. ”

Its answers however, which consist of two parts, are not convincing:

The first is organisational: “Aware that this mass party cannot be the result of a linear development of any small organization whatsoever, we seek to bring together and unite the revolutionary forces, organizations and militants who fight against capital and the bourgeois order, for the abolition of the capitalist system and for socialism.”

The second is programmatic: “we should define the central elements of a transitional program for the twenty-first century and its declination according to the different regions of the world, especially at the level of Europe, and from there, the bases and the framework from which we could combine construction policy and initiatives for regrouping anti-capitalists and revolutionaries.”

The first seeks a solution in uniting revolutionary organisations around a revolutionary programme when they seek to justify their separate existence on the basis of their programme.  Upon such unity it is argued that others will then be convinced to join, begging the question why they have not joined one of the existing organisations already.

The document states that “consequently, our efforts of political and organizational regroupment can in no way allow any misunderstanding: an association of revolutionary and reformist forces can ultimately only weaken the strength of our program and our intervention.”

There is however a world of difference between weakening your politics in order to create a reformist or politically confused organisation, until you don’t know what your ‘real’ politics are, and working alongside larger numbers of workers with confused or reformist ideas in parties and movements, in the knowledge that it is only with the workers that one can move forward.

The text provides a better analysis of the development of world capitalism and also of the historic development of the working class and its movements, and a more sober assessment of their subjective weaknesses compared to the working class’s growing objective strength.  It also makes salutary points on the need to rebuild or build class consciousness, and that the labour movement is on the defensive but is engaged in a long and deep process of reorganisation.

But its perspective on how all this can happen is weak and it has nothing to replace the idea of the majority that the leap to relevance of small Marxist groups can be made by the perspective of trying to collaborate in building “broad parties”, even though its criticisms of the latter are correct.

Ultimately it suffers from the same debilitating perspective of the other opposition; that it seeks to build a separated revolutionary party that will lead the working class to state power when it must see the process from the other way round.  This is, that it is in the development of the existing working class and its existing movement from which a working class party will be created.

Working alongside reformist workers will therefore be inevitable.   The question is, on what basis do you work with them, what sort of movement do you seek to build with them and on what programme do you seek to unite in struggle with them?  Once you understand that you can build no movement without them and therefore develop no meaningful programme separate from them, the questions facing Marxists appears differently from one of numerical recruitment to organisations with revolutionary programmes that are incapable of implementation because they are divorced from the mass of the working class.

Back to part 6

Forward to part 8

The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (5) – the opposition need for a revolutionary party

The documents of the opposition to the leadership of the Fourth International have the benefit a greater clarity of exposition. In their document ‘Let’s seize the opportunities, and build an international for revolution and communism’ the opposition criticises the majority line of building broad parties “without clear programmatic and strategic boundaries”, leading to betrayal of the traditional revolutionary programme of the International.

Thus, they point out that in Italy for example the “FI comrades supported in Parliament the formation of a Prodi government and voted for the war budget.”  Furthermore –

“Our ability to defend either the principle of class independence or to maximize the ability of our social class to act independently from the bourgeoisie and its State, is undermined when support is given to a politician linked to a bourgeois party, like Bernie Sanders, or to a personality with no ties to the labour movement, like Pablo Iglesias.”

Through this mistaken policy of the FI, the opposition argues that the majority “implicitly gave up on the relevance of revolution, seeing it as something to be accomplished in the distant future.”

It is not however clear to me that the opposition document makes any more convincing case that (their conception of) revolution is more relevant today, or in the short term, than that of the majority.  Small organisations without the participation or support of the mass of the working class bring the reality of revolution no nearer if they have no means of making their revolutionary programme the activity of the working class itself.

As Marxists, and therefore laying claim to a theoretical understanding superior to that of the mass of reformist (at best) workers, the opposition text should set out what the preconditions for socialist revolution are, and how Marxists might contribute to the working class accomplishing such a revolution.  But these preconditions appear to be assumed rather than explained.

Assertion of working class independence is fine and many of the criticisms of the experience of carrying out the majority perspective are true, but the traditional programme put forward by the opposition is presented in abstract terms and for Trotsky a programme must be concrete and have practical relevance.  I have addressed this problem before – here, here and here – so I will not repeat the arguments there.

The document fails to explain what independent working class politics means in a period like today, which is decidedly not a revolutionary one, or to be more specific, not one in which the working class in its majority seeks to conquer political power.

The problem that I pose is not one that the opposition would probably recognise, for they see the working class coming rapidly to political consciousness out of capitalist crises and the mass action prompted by such crises.  In the document they explain their conceptions, which are the traditional ones of many Marxists.  So, let’s look at what these are.

The opposition states that “We do not share the current FI leadership’s appreciation of the current situation. While it does feature an increasingly violent onslaught by the bourgeoisie, it is nonetheless contradictory and holds possibilities for revolutionary communists to be heard and to gain strength.”

It must be said that the last part of this involves a weak claim and one rather solipsistic.  No explanation is given as to how the mass of workers will come to socialist political consciousness, although it might be inferred this is a result of “revolutionary communists” being heard and gaining strength, that is, mainly through propaganda.

The epochal task of transforming the capitalist mode of production to socialism is however reduced to building an organisation that is currently without significant influence.  How this might be expected is unexplained.

One is left with an impression similar to that of listening to bold and incredible religious claims – the more enormous the claim the more requirement there is to provide equivalent justification for it.

The main opposition text asserts that the tendency for the rate of profit to fall is at the root of the capitalist crisis but this is neither proved, nor is it necessary.  In the document, it is implied that the capitalist crisis will not be escaped from spontaneously but through a historic defeat of the working class. The assessment is therefore incapable of understanding the massive growth of capitalism over the last period, which is reflected in the document’s own acknowledgement that:

“In fact, the working class is globally more numerous today than ever. In South Korea alone there are as many wage-earners today than there were in the whole world at the time of Karl Marx. The working class, which in our view is composed of wage workers who do not exercise management power, today constitutes between 80 and 90 per cent of the population in the most industrialized countries, and almost half of the total global population.”

“Globally, the number of industrial workers worldwide went from 490 million in 1991 to 715 million in 2012 (ILO data). Industry even grew faster than services between 2004 and 2012! The industrial sector did not shrink, but the agricultural sector did, from 44 to 32 per cent of the global workforce.”

But this incredible growth could only happen through rapid accumulation of capital, which makes a nonsense of any claim that capitalism has been in more or less permanent crisis during this period.  How could such accumulation have occurred with a declining rate of profit?  Either it did not fall or a fall does not reduce massive accumulation of capital.  Neither of which is a comfortable view for those making the argument.

A large number of the authors are Greek and it is understandable that the crisis conditions in that country may have coloured conceptions of the world capitalist system. But Greece is not the world and the world is not Greece.

What the authors have confused is the ever-present contradictions of capitalism, with its exploitation, oppression and inequality, and its tendency to war and violence, with capitalist crisis.  The former exist, even when capitalism is booming, in fact such things as exploitation must increase in such circumstances, but this does not mean capitalism is in crisis, as if a non-crisis capitalism entailed peace, equality, and humane and genial progress.

The problem with capitalism is that even when it achieves progress it does so through brutal oppression and exploitation, and yes, through recurrent crisis, which is how the system resolves temporarily some of its contradictions, only to create the basis for further crises in the process.  But this isn’t the same as crisis as understood by the document, which is one that calls into question the reproduction of the system.

The authors of the document note that:

“By reorganizing industry worldwide, capitalist globalization created new working classes in the southern countries, whose potential was shown by the recent mobilizations: the wave of strikes happening in China since 2010, the 2015 massive strikes in Bursa, Turkey, the formation of mass militant unions in Indonesia, the role of the union movement and of mass strikes demanding the resignation of South Korea’s Prime Minister in late 2016.”

They note that:

“we also see the renewed interest in socialism illustrated by Jeremy Corbyn’s double leadership victory in the British Labour Party, and the renewed interest in socialist ideas in the United States. All these signs indicate that the elements for anti-capitalist awareness are present. It is, nonetheless, a very uneven and limited process. Currents hostile to socialism are reaping the fruits of the deep discontent. The electoral audience of the FIT in Argentina, the recomposition of the union movement in South Africa, despite the limitations of both experiences, and above all, the renewed interest in “socialism” in the United States indicate that anti-capitalist ideas can acquire a mass audience.”

The document notes that they need to build the labour movement independent of the official union leaderships, and so capable of self-organisation.  But they state that the “elements for anti-capitalist awareness” that are present are “very uneven and limited’, that anti-capitalist ideas “do not yet have “a mass audience” and the type of labour movement they seek has yet to be built.

So, we have recurrent capitalist crises.  We have huge growth in the size of the working class and the creation of new working classes across the globe with enormous potential. We are told that the elements for anti-capitalist awareness are present (but not what they are), while anti-capitalist ideas “do not yet have “a mass audience” and the type of labour movement sought has yet to be built.

We are also told that there is “an increasingly violent onslaught by the bourgeoisie”, and one that is usually considered to have gone on for years, with more than a little success.  Yet one other, it would seem, is that the current, more or less immediate, relevance of socialist revolution has not diminished.

To be continued.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (4) – a return to Marx?

The FI majority has opened up the question of what sort of party the militants of the Fourth International should be building, and it is not the traditional answer of a ‘revolutionary party.’  Any objective evaluation of the experience of it in practice would judge it a failure, but it isn’t the practical experience that I want to review.

I want to consider the views of the leaders of the Fourth International in light of those of Marx and his understanding of the building of a workers’ party and the role of communists within it.  This was set out a long time ago in the Communist Manifesto –

“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?”

“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.

They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”

“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”

“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

And –

“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”

“In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.”

“In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”

Marx and Engels realised that achieving the aims of the Communist Manifesto would take time.  So, for example, after the revolutions of 1848, they considered that German workers would need to go through “a lengthy revolutionary development”, through a process that involved “clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are.”

In this process he would rely “for the ultimate triumph of the ideas set forth in the Manifesto . . . solely and exclusively upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion.”

How these principles were, and are today, to be applied depends on the circumstances pertaining in a particular country and at a particular time, but it is clear that for Marx the working class was to be as united as possible and that the communists were not to separate themselves from them or from their movement on account of “any sectarian principles of their own.”

Their role included being “practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others”.  And this image of “pushes” is in some ways better than that prompted by the more often used word “leads”, since it leaves little room for believing that the party will overthrow capitalism with more or less aware workers in tow behind.

Instead communists would, with their “advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”, help the working class in “clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are”, based “solely and exclusively upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion.”

This approach to the creation and building of a working class party may be described as one “useful” to workers, as embodying as wide a gathering of workers as possible in defence of their interests, even if yet imperfectly understood.  But if this approach of Marx is clearly not consistent with the conceptions of the FI opposition in relation to the nature of the party that must be built, it is also not the approach proposed by the majority either.

This is because the majority also does not propose to accept the working class and its movement as it exists and fight within it “In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through”, including “for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class . . .”

It may be argued that both the working class movement and the approach to building working class parties has evolved and developed since these early conceptions of Marx and Engels, and this is true.  But it is not true that these principles were discarded by them, and for all their apparent elementary, if not rudimentary, nature, they are still more developed than the formulation of the FI majority text, which may be considered consistent with Marx and the Manifesto only through some addition to the FI formulation and not through simple interpretation.

Marx and Engels made clear that their approach held good, not just by repeatedly standing by the Communist Manifesto in their later political careers, but by their intervention into the evolution of the workers’ movement subsequent to its writing.

Both argued the necessity of a separate working class party opposed to the bourgeoisie and both recognised the different circumstances and evolution that such a party might go through in each country – “our theory is not a dogma but the exposition of a process of evolution, and that process involves successive phases”, said Engels.  In France at one point, in relation to a party with roots in the working class, they believed it would be a step back to seek to scrap their more or less developed socialist programme for the sake of greater numbers.

On the other hand, in relation to America Engels stated that “a million or two of working men’s votes . . . for a bona fide working men’s party is worth more than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect programme.” And “anything that might delay or prevent that national consolidation of the working men’s party – no matter on what platform – I should consider a mistake.”

This did not mean that the theoretical gains of Marx and he should be ‘parked’, as it would be described now.  When Marx wrote that “every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” it did not prevent him simultaneously defending the theoretical gains he had made in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme’.  He favoured unity between the two German working class parties meeting in Gotha but did not approve the programme on which it was to be based, writing that “if, therefore it was not possible  . .  to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy.”

This too might seem not inconsistent with the view that the working class party must be ‘useful’, as the FI majority text puts it, except that, as I have said, this can only be the case for a party that can be considered a genuine section of the working class; not one defined solely in relation to it being an ‘advance guard’ or some unclear consideration of ‘broadness’; and what is useful is what is useful to the working class in its immediate and long-term struggle, as noted above.

Such an approach may seem closer to Marx and Engels’ collaboration in the First International and its explicit expression as an organic development out of the existing working class movements in various countries.  Such a template might seem more fitting for an international organisation.

Of course, Engels considered that the next Workers’ International would be “directly Communist and will openly proclaim our principles” (those of Marx and himself).  This proved not to be the case, although the Second International was heavily influenced, at least initially, by them.

However, it should not be expected that mass phenomenon, such as a mass workers’ movement, can escape the material basis on which it is to be built and the political weaknesses of the Second International ultimately reflected the growth and development of imperialism and nationalist division.

Subsequent attempts to build an International arose out of a world-wide crisis occasioned by World War and based itself on the initially successful revolution in Russia.  The subsequent Fourth International was based on a view of the irrevocable, immediately tangible decline of capitalism and a more or less proximate socialist revolution.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and the material basis for the party as envisaged by Trotsky did not exist.  The mass of the working class in Europe did not move to a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism; so the FI shifted its attention to where there were struggles that appeared to offer something comparable, in what was known as the third world and to other layers and components of the population.

For Marx and Engels however the development for a workers’ party could only be a product of the development of the working class itself. The role of Communists was to work with them at all times – “it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position or even organisation”.  What mattered was that any working class party was a “distinct workers’ party”, reflecting the masses “own movement – no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement.”

In the Communist Manifesto this meant that in France the Communists allied with the Social Democrats and in Switzerland they supported the Radicals.  In the First International it meant uniting Proudhonists and English trade unionists amongst others. Their judgement depended on the criteria we have just set out and at what stage of evolution they considered the working class and its movement was at, not from the criteria of a revolutionary programme in itself, divorced from where the working class had reached.

It would seem obvious today that we do not unite the most active parts of the working class and its movement by positing the unity of small revolutionary organisations, which is entirely inadequate, or of creating “broad’ parties which are broad only in their political heterogeneity and not in their mass.  It should be obvious that you do not go to the working class by first seeking new “broad” parties that do not yet have its allegiance, at least not unless it can be reasonably confidently said that this is where the working class is, or shortly will be.

Engels gave this advice to Marxists in the US:

”….It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than “durch Schaden klug tererden” [to learn by one’s own mistakes]. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist, H.G. or Powderly, will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.”

Taking this into account, the sense in which being ”useful” makes most sense is being organised as part of the broader working class movement; being useful not only, or even mainly, in practical terms but also in theoretical and political terms.  But this will only be so if the working class itself finds the workers’ party a useful instrument for defending and advancing its interests.

And yes, “the ultimate goal of such a party’ would “obviously [be] to get rid of the existing (capitalist) system, in whatever general terms this may be expressed.”  These general terms to be worked out and developed by the workers’ party, with input from its “most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others.’  This advanced section has “over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

From such a vantage point the majority view makes more sense seen from the perspective of the First International, updated and modified by a clear understanding of the evolution of the working class and workers’ movement from this time.  As this series of posts has been at pains to argue, it is from the latter that any programmatic and organisational lessons must be drawn and applied.

The next post will look at the documents of the minority opposition.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

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”.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

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.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Towards a Revolutionary Party in Ireland?

swpieA friend sent me a link to an article he thought was dreadful saying it might be worth me replying to.  By coincidence I had looked at the site on Sunday to see the latest on what the Socialist Workers Party was saying and thought I would read one of the articles.  I saw this one but thought I wouldn’t waste reading yet another article on the revolutionary party.  Read one you’ve read them all.

Of course being bad isn’t necessarily a good reason to review something but I read it in my lunch break anyway.

Having done so I thought that it really is woeful and although it makes some unremarkable decent points these are put in the service of an argument so flabby it barely evokes disdain.  Lots of questions are raised but only in the question-begging sense and all the real difficulties are avoided.  Like when was the last time a party that could reasonably call itself revolutionary was built in Europe?

The article gives three reasons “why a revolutionary party must be built.”  The first is to “bring together activists from Clondalkin and Ballyfermot, Artane and Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Sligo, Wicklow and Wexford.”  The author has in mind the recent anti-water charges campaign but also recent strikes. “Without a party the tendency would be just to sit back as individuals either cursing at the TV or worse being influenced by it.”

A revolutionary party will tell workers not to trust their trade union leaders.  Their activists will provide workers with good arguments against racism because they have “people who know the facts, the history and the arguments.”

Why you need a party for activists to unite, in the water charges campaign for example, is not explained. In fact pretty obviously you don’t need a party, never mind a revolutionary one, you just need a democratic campaign.  Unfortunately the anti-water charges campaign never became such an organisation, which it should have been the priority of socialists to create.

Why you need a revolutionary party so you don’t sit on the couch and swear at the TV is beyond me.  I recall the SWP standing one of its leading members for leader of Ireland’s biggest trade union SIPTU but his manifesto never mentioned social partnership and the policy of open collaboration of the unions with the bosses and the state.  One part of history with its arguments and facts the author appears to have forgotten.

The second reason for needing a revolutionary party is that “forming a left government is, in itself, not enough.” The working class has to “move towards revolution and smashing of the capitalist state.”  Were I an innocent abroad I would wonder why the SWP, as part of People before Profit, stands in elections with a programme totally devoted to winning governmental office.  Because if it doesn’t the manifesto doesn’t make any sense.  No mention in it of distrusting the capitalist state never mind smashing it.

The final reason is that while revolutions may break out spontaneously they don’t succeed without a revolutionary party.  The author gives the example of the Irish revolutionary process between 1919 and 1923 and “the counter-revolution” that betrayed the 1916 rising.  A perfect example of what is wrong with the whole article.

Between 1919 and 1923 there was no socialist revolution to betray and 1916 was no such a revolution.  More facts and history misunderstood and arguments I take to task here, here, here and here.  To be fair to the SWP I don’t recall reading any left wing group doing anything other than paint the 1916 rising in colours of red that it didn’t display at the time.

The reason a revolutionary party is needed in a time of revolution is apparently because the working class will not have a uniform level of political consciousness.  And this is true.  What we don’t get explained is how the majority of workers will develop revolutionary consciousness.  It is this problem that I have been looking at in my series on Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism.  And this is the real problem, given the total lack of real revolutionary challenge to capitalism for nearly a century.  In some countries, including Ireland, the challenge has never occurred or even looked likely.

The real deficiency with the hastily constructed article is the avoidance of this problem coupled with a view that a revolutionary party will be built by groups like the SWP.

Any movement of the working class capable of building a challenge to capitalism, that at some stage will achieve its overthrow in a political and social revolution, will be created over decades. It will involve political radicalisation that can only be the result of profound and lasting strengthening of the working class not simply in ideological or political terms but through its developing economic and social power – proving that ideas and politics reflect the economic and social development of society.  In short – the working class and its radicalisation will create the mass workers party capable of revolution and not small organisations.

This is what Marx meant by “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”  The alternative conception of the SWP is of a crisis in which workers search for a solution and a revolutionary party becomes big enough to convince them to follow it in overthrowing capitalism.  It is not the result of a long-determined objective of greater numbers of workers based on their prior accumulation of economic, social and political weight in society that culminates in the conquest of political power.  Instead it becomes a question of accumulating, not this power, but the cadres of a small but ever-increasing organisation.  This prognosis becomes ridiculous when the smallness of the organisation reveals itself clearly to be inadequate to this historic task.  And the SWP author cannot help betraying this reality.

He claims that there is substantial radicalisation of the working class in Ireland North and South and that significant progress can be made in building a revolutionary party.  The first slip is to fail to define ‘significant’ and the second is to assume that the SWP is that revolutionary party.  The final one is the conclusion to the article where the task is reduced to recruiting individuals and having regular and interesting meetings.  In between is the attempt to buttress the first claim by pointing to the anti-water charges movement and the marriage equality referendum victory in the South.

As the author says, the anti-water charges movement reflected not only anger at this measure but also at the economic crash, the bank bail-out, wage cuts, the USC, Household Charge, community cuts, health cuts, housing crisis and “everything else”.  However the “water charges were a piece of pain that the working class felt it could do something about.”  However if we were really approaching the creation of a mass revolutionary party then this would simply not be the case.  The working class would feel it could do something about all these other injustices and would reflect its knowledge that it really did have the power to do something about all of them.

The anti-water charges campaign has led to no cumulative mass organisation of workers able to take up the other attacks.  The marriage referendum involved a democratic question that did not question capitalism so why would it lead to mass socialist radicalisation?  In the North the case for radicalisation rests on flimsy evidence that amounts to a few strikes, “small campaigns” and the election of two PbP candidates to the Stormont Assembly.  It therefore has to ignore the failure of the strikes, the smallness of the campaigns and the continued dominance by two sectarian parties one of which has ideological views about gay rights, women’s rights and evolution that might embarrass Donald Trump.

This overestimation of the significance of current facts is testament to a small organisation that thinks it has made it big, which it has in comparison to its previous history and others on the left, but which retains a narrow view of the world that ultimately reflects its still limited position in society.  The small mindedness of its politics is the failure to appreciate just how far away we are from revolution being on the agenda.  A cause for despair only if you fail to appreciate the facts, fail to understand history and have no arguments as to how revolutionary politics would be relevant in a prolonged non-revolutionary situation.

The SWP author is right to note that in Ireland there is no mass social democratic or Stalinist parties.  It is therefore the case that formations like the SWP/PbP and the similar Socialist Party/Anti-Austerity Alliance can potentially play a much more significant role in advancing the political organisation of the working class.  However to do this they will have to discard the narrow sectarian practices of the past, and face up to the more difficult questions that they face.  To do this would mean a truly revolutionary evaluation of their political history, the arguments they have unthinkingly relied upon and the real political facts of Irish society and its place in the world.  This article shows how far they are from carrying out such a task out and ironically how far they are from any sort of revolutionary party.