The Struggle for Revolutionary Leadership
IBT’s Fifth International Conference
The International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) held its fifth international conference in April 2008, with delegations representing all sections, as well as members at large, from a total of seven countries. International conferences, held every three years, allow the organization to critically assess the work of the preceding period; to take stock of the overall state of the class struggle; to discuss unresolved programmatic issues; to project appropriate tasks and perspectives for the future and to elect a new leadership to guide the tendency until the next conference. Our international gatherings also serve as important venues for cadre education.
Although our conference took place several months before the spectacular implosion of the world financial system, it was already evident that global capitalism stood on the edge of a precipice. The Tasks and Perspectives document noted the existence of “profound disequilibria” and anticipated the possibility of a major economic dislocation, while observing that, in the short term at least, neither the circumstances in which we work, nor our immediate political perspectives, would likely change a great deal. Though we will seek to take advantage of any opportunities for mass work beyond our immediate milieu, our small size and lack of influence mean that our objectives remain essentially unaltered:
“Our strategy remains to build an international propaganda group to act as a pole of revolutionary regroupment, becoming the nucleus of [the revolutionary] party. All tendencies on the left and in the workers’ movement are products of the history of the struggles between the contending aspirant leaderships, and the programs they embody, whether they are primarily shaped by the history of the Russian Revolution of 1917 or by more contemporary trade-union organizational exigencies. Our organization is not unique in seeking to have its program lead the working class. Our uniqueness lies in our program being the historically-evolved revolutionary program of the working class, as developed by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party in the Russian Revolution and continued through successor organizations, most latterly the international Spartacist tendency, until its degeneration in the late 1970s.”
The conference document made a frank assessment of the considerable challenges facing the IBT, but pointed to the incremental improvement of our relative position within the international “far left”:
“We have not in this period made any large step forward; we remain tiny, fragile, dispersed, mostly restricted to the imperialist countries and with a press, which, though of the highest quality, is thoroughly insufficient….
“Nevertheless, as we could report last time, we find that our standing in relation to our opponents has improved, not so much through our own tiny steps forward, as their steps backward, both organizationally—they continue to bleed—but also programmatically as, apparently seeking an easy way out of the difficulties handed to activists by the early 21st Century, they move to the right, ditching elements of politics necessary if they were to maintain a claim, however spurious, to the mantle of revolutionary [Marxism].”
The rightward degeneration of much of the “revolutionary” left, as well as increased access to an international audience via the internet, creates significant opportunities for any group that can credibly claim to uphold the tradition of authentic Marxism. There are already some important signs—in France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland and elsewhere—of a revival of mass struggles against capitalist attempts to solve their economic difficulties by redoubling attacks on working-class living standards. A renewed wave of political radicalization could generate leftward movement within some ostensibly socialist organizations whose leaders have made their peace with the bourgeois political system. Criticism of groups that purport to represent a revolutionary alternative for young working-class fighters therefore continues to be a central element in the struggle to expand the influence of the Marxist program.
Decline of Pseudo-Trotskyism
The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers’ state in August 1991 ushered in a period of capitalist triumphalism. The bourgeoisie’s “Death of Communism” propaganda offensive helped disorient and demoralize historically pro-socialist layers of the international working class. The Stalinist parties most closely associated with the Kremlin bureaucracy shrank dramatically, but the effects were felt by virtually every organization identifying with Leninism and the October Revolution. The leaders of the “Trotskyist” groups that supported Boris Yeltsin and the forces of capitalist restoration signaled that they no longer possessed any revolutionary impulse.
Among the most prominent of these organizations was the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec), which after decades of liquidationism has for all intents and purposes ceased to exist as an ostensibly Trotskyist formation. Its leading section, the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, formally abandoned any reference to “Trotskyism” when it finally dissolved itself into the “New Anti-Capitalist Party” (NPA) in February. Despite a few suggestions about the desirability of “revolutionary transformation” in the fine print, the NPA’s focus is on reformist electoralism and class-collaborationist maneuvers (see “No to Popular Frontism!,” 1917 No. 30).
The International Socialist Tendency (IST), which broke with the Trotskyist movement by refusing to defend the North Korean deformed workers’ state against the U.S.-led imperialist alliance in the early 1950s, was one of the few organizations to grow in the immediate aftermath of the triumph of counterrevolution in the USSR. Yet its main section, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain, recently suffered a humiliating setback with the collapse of its ultra-opportunist “Respect” gambit (see our statement, “Class Collaboration—at the Ballot Box and on the Streets,” March 2008). There is little evidence that this shameless attempt to hitch a ride with alien class forces has produced any serious critical discussion within the IST (apart from some bureaucratic scapegoating), although the organizational consequences are readily apparent in the reduced influence, activity and effectiveness of the SWP and most of its international satellites.
Workers Power, the largest left split ever to emerge from the SWP, spent roughly the first decade of its existence posturing as a serious, hard-left Trotskyist organization (see Trotskyist Bulletin No. 3). But Workers Power was incapable of completely breaking from the Stalinophobia of its parent, and consistently backed pro-imperialist forces throughout the Soviet bloc. Its supporters were physically present on the Yeltsinite barricades in August 1991. From there it was only a short step to its scandalous refusal to defend Bosnian Serbs against NATO air strikes in August-September 1995, and its subsequent solidarity with NATO’s Kosovar auxiliaries during the imperialist attack on Serbia in 1999 (see “O, What a Tangled Web,” 1917 No. 17, and “NATO’s —Humanitarian’ Terrorism,” 1917 No. 22). In July 2006, Workers Power suffered a deep split, with a substantial minority, including most of its experienced cadres, leaving to found Permanent Revolution, a group that is chiefly oriented toward the left-Labourite milieu. What remains of Workers Power is more inclined to politically adapt to whatever seems popular with low-level youth activists.
The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), headed by Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party of England and Wales, has a long-established reformist view of the capitalist state reflected in solicitousness toward cops and prison guards (see Marxism vs. —Militant’ Reformism). In 1992, a sizable chunk of the group’s cadre broke to the right when the Taaffe leadership turned away from deep entrism in the Labour Party. The dissident minority launched the International Marxist Tendency, whose affiliates are chiefly distinguished by their inclination to burrow into social-democratic (and bourgeois-populist) parties, and also by their uncritical adulation of Venezuela’s bonapartist president, Hugo Chávez (see “Venezuela & the Left,” 1917 No. 30).
Stagnation & Degeneration in the Anti-Pabloite Tradition
Tendencies that trace their origins to the International Committee (IC) wing of the historic 1951-53 split in the Fourth International are among the more credible contemporary claimants to Trotskyism. Despite important flaws, the IC upheld the necessity of a conscious Marxist leadership as a precondition for socialist revolution, and resisted the liquidationist course set by Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel.
The U.S.-based Socialist Equality Party (SEP) headed by David North claims continuity with Gerry Healy’s corrupt fragment of the IC. The SEP presents an impressive journalistic façade with an online daily publication on their World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). The quantity of the articles posted on the WSWS, and the fact that many are of a relatively high quality (even though the political edges are usually rounded off), gives the impression that the SEP is a considerably larger and more dynamic organization than it actually is. The fundamentally revisionist character of the Northites’ worldview was evident in their support to the forces of counterrevolution in the Soviet bloc and their assertion that the Chinese deformed workers’ state established in 1949 has always been capitalist. Their refusal to defend workers’ states against imperialism is paralleled by their claim that trade unions have become simple agencies of the capitalists. It seems reasonable to assume that the SEP’s view of unions is linked to the role that North and other leading members play as proprietors and managers of a multi-million dollar printing company in Michigan (see “Being Determines Consciousness,” 1917 No. 30).
The increasingly wobbly and irrelevant Spartacist League/U.S. (SL), mothership of the International Com-munist League (ICL), is chiefly significant for historical reasons—in the 1960s and 70s it was the organizational embodiment of the Trotskyist program. Today the SL’s degeneration is so far advanced that many good young militants are simply repelled by the frequently strident and cultish public behavior of its members. Yet it retains a capacity for revolutionary posturing that continues to attract some serious youth, most of whom are soon burned out by life in the SL/ICL.
The group’s highly-bureaucratized leadership, centered on founder/leader James Robertson, has frequently been stung by our criticisms (see Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?). Their responses have tended to oscillate between attempts at political argument and vituperative denunciation. For an example of how we have dealt with the former, see “On Combating Religion & Social Backwardness,” 1917 No. 27; regarding the latter, see On the Logan Show Trial.
It is unusual these days to see the Spartacists marching on demonstrations—they are more apt to merely walk alongside trying to flog their papers to passers-by. In formal programmatic terms, the SL/ICL has been developing in an idiosyncratic sectarian direction, adopting positions that are presumably intended as some sort of internal loyalty test for the membership. An outstanding example is the assertion that it somehow violates communist principle to demand the imprisonment of individual cops who gun down innocent civilians (see “On Jailing Killer Cops” elsewhere in this issue). Another example is Robertson’s claim that Engels, Trotsky, James P. Cannon, etc. grievously erred by endorsing the tactic of standing revolutionary candidates in bourgeois elections for “executive offices” (see “Of Presidents & Principles,” 1917 No. 30).
Many of our criticisms of the contemporary SL parallel those of the New York-based Internationalist Group (IG), and its League for the Fourth International, which, like the IBT, was founded by former Spartacists. The IG’s central cadres, who were driven out of the SL in 1996, are people of unquestioned commitment who possess both a great deal of experience and enormous energy. However, they have consistently resisted seriously appraising their own history and the roots of the SL’s degeneration, preferring instead to brush such questions aside. We have on several occasions suggested to the IG that refusing to candidly acknowledge past mistakes can lead to compounding them, or, at the very least, make it difficult for new recruits to assimilate the importance of programmatic clarity and historical continuity within the revolutionary movement. The SL’s disgraceful attempt to sabotage the 1984 anti-apartheid boycott by dockers in San Francisco (see Jack Heyman’s speech elsewhere in this issue) is the sort of question the IG will have to come to grips with if it is to play a constructive role in the process of building an international Trotskyist current with enough social weight to affect the outcome of the major class battles looming on the horizon.
Crisis of Proletarian Leadership
Every historical period has produced its own particular assortment of centrists and renegades within the socialist movement, but, as several educational presentations at the conference demonstrated, revisionism has always derived from the same fundamental impulse: a lack of confidence in the revolutionary capacity of the working class. It frequently finds expression in attempts to take political shortcuts to gain mass influence. Bolshevism, by contrast, is rooted in the conviction that the proletariat has both the social power and the objective material interest to reconstruct society from the ground up.
The conference document emphasized the importance of our careful and patient work developing the political capacity of our younger members to defend and apply the historic program of Trotskyism:
“Prophecy is dangerous, and in the past we have prophesized neither leaps forward, nor back. But we have always nursed a reasonable hope for a leap forward—and it never actually came. And that is how things are today, too. Our work, in the next few years as in the past, is primarily for the maintenance of the revolutionary program, the gradual primitive accumulation and training of cadres and the slow, systematic establishment of ourselves as a pole of authentic revolutionary politics. But we also look for opportunities to make leaps forward, particularly for opportunities to recruit in more than ones and twos, through political struggle among leftward-moving groups, both in localities where we have branches and beyond.”
The document pointed to several factors that suggest that the next period may present more opportunities than we have seen in the recent past:
“First, our competitors offer less and less competition. This very right-wing [devolution] (sometimes assisted by our own polemical clarifications) has seen a tendency for programmatic ambiguities in our opponents to be resolved in the direction of ever-deeper degeneracy.
“Second, we are, just slightly, a more effective organ-ization. The patient, slow, careful work we have done, and the incrementally greater political weight and collective competence we have achieved, has made the chance of leaps forward somewhat greater in the future than it was in the past.
“Third, the passage of time since the two great shaping events of our time (the destruction of the Soviet Union and the American imperial —War on Terror’) has allowed some redevelopment of semi-conscious resistance to capitalist disorder and thereby [created] a generally more favorable environment for us.
“And fourth, there are some indications of upcoming economic fluctuations of an order that may translate into changing social conditions and changing patterns of plebeian resistance, and therefore better conditions for the selection, training and testing of revolutionaries….”
The May Day 2008 shutdown of American West Coast ports by dockworkers protesting the Iraq War—the first political strike against an imperialist adventure in U.S. history—was a vivid demonstration of both the potential social power of organized labor and the vital importance of the “subjective factor” if it is to be wielded effectively. This “illegal” strike, prepared by decades of work by dedicated, politically-conscious militants, provides a positive example of how breakthroughs in the class struggle can be achieved. The dockers’ courageous action will stand as an inspiration for a renewal of working-class struggle against the irrationality of a social system in terminal decline.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, with inter-imperialist war drawing ever closer, Trotsky highlighted the centrality of revolutionary organization if humanity is to transcend capitalism:
“Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period, at that—a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”
The stage is set for a wave of turbulent social upheavals around the globe. Harnessing the energy of those who suffer from the insanity of a system of production for private profit requires the construction of an international Leninist combat party through a process of splits and fusions within the “far left” and the massive expansion of Marxist influence among tens of millions of working people. The IBT looks forward to participating in the creation of a mass, revolutionary workers’ party—a reforged Fourth International—based on the historic program of Bolshevik-Leninism.