Confronting a World in Turmoil
Seventh International Conference of the IBT
The International Bolshevik Tendency held its Seventh International Conference in 2014 in the United States. Delegates and non-delegate members from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, Poland, New Zealand and East Asia gathered for a week to discuss and vote on outstanding questions of program, participate in educational sessions and elect a new International Executive Committee, which completed the transfer of leadership to a younger generation.
International conferences are the highest decision-making bodies in a Leninist organization and are tasked with assessing the group’s work over the preceding period and analyzing changing political dynamics on both a global and local scale. Today, the situation as a whole is one of turmoil – the world economy has failed to pull itself out of the slump that followed the crisis of 2007-08, and there are signs of an impending second implosion of the financial system, the consequences of which seem likely to be catastrophic. The toll on the working class has been heavy, as governments and employers continue to drive down living standards. The anarchic character of capitalist production is devastating the environment, with the effects of global climate change already being felt and incalculable destruction to come. The imperialists have responded to the interlocking crises of capitalism-in-decline with renewed militarism and attacks on democratic rights, most egregiously represented by the mass surveillance of the “Five Eyes” of the Anglo-American intelligence apparatus.
The IBT conference convened in the context of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, shortly after Crimea had opted to join Russia. The re-configuration of Ukrainian territory, which came against the backdrop of U.S. and German imperialist assistance to the Maidan movement and coup, provided the assembled comrades with an opportunity to discuss the significance and meaning of these events in a global context. Our conclusions are outlined in detail in the article “Ukraine, Russia & the Struggle for Eurasia.”
The Tasks & Perspectives document, adopted at the end of the conference, noted our capacity to produce “high quality propaganda applying the revolutionary program to world events and to intervene on a limited scale in areas where we are present.” The IBT remains a small propaganda group primarily concentrated in imperialist countries. In the recent period, we have continued to publish regularly in English, German and French, and our website features articles in 12 different languages. The conference discussed the changing nature of revolutionary propaganda, and in particular the role of our journals 1917 and Bolschewik in an age in which most readers access our material online, often via social media. We agreed that henceforth articles would usually be published on our website as soon as available and later printed in 1917 and Bolschewik.
We have published analyses of events in the Middle East (Egypt, Libya, Syria) and noted the weaknesses and inconsistences of many of our leftist opponents on these questions. We have written on the European Union and on the specific effects of the financial crisis on Greece and Ireland. We have also commented on a wide variety of other issues, including abortion rights, gay marriage and the necessity to defend Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, and noted the intersection in both cases with questions of special oppression.
Our extremely limited resources and the quiescence of the labor movement in most localities in which we are active have largely prevented us from directly impacting the class struggle or mass movements of the oppressed, but where possible we have attempted to intervene, as the Tasks & Perspectives document observed:
“Instances of class combativeness often occur in areas of the world where we have little capacity to intervene, for instance Latin America, where our lack of Spanish language capacity excludes us from participation in this very important milieu. Two exceptions in which we were able to stage limited interventions with accompanying propaganda were the Occupy movement and the Quebec student strike. Both showed the potential for upsurges, but also the general political weakness of resistance amid rightward movement in society.”
Our Competitors: The Disintegrating Left
Through our publications we continue to act as a pole of attraction for subjectively revolutionary militants. The primary function of the IBT has always been that of a propaganda group, focusing our polemical fire on self-identified revolutionary organizations and attempting to intersect those who already have some familiarity with Marxism. As this leftist milieu disintegrates and shrinks, we must attempt to address our propaganda to people with little or no background in the ideas of socialism without forgetting the importance of drawing “lines of demarcation” with ostensibly revolutionary organizations.
The conference spent some time discussing the international organizations that lay claim to the Trotskyist tradition, many of which have recently suffered splits and, as a result, are smaller and weaker. Not only have they shrunk in size but many have shifted their politics even further to the right, adapting to existing low consciousness. The nominally Marxist left has entered a period of identity crisis: fundamental concepts like class, party and revolution have been discarded by many in the hope of “staying relevant.”
Two organizations that on many questions still retain a certain programmatic identity with their Trotskyist past are the International Communist League (ICL, based on the Spartacist League/U.S.) and its 1996 offspring, the Internationalist Group (IG) whose international affiliates are organized as the League for the Fourth International. The ICL appears to be comfortably ensconced in its sectarian isolation, reinforced by the introduction of the occasional bizarre novelty position and an increasing programmatic codification of its departure from Trotskyism. It is of less interest than ever before. The IG is more dynamic, less given to overt programmatic revisions and actively seeks to intervene in the struggles of the oppressed. Yet its leadership continues to place personal prestige over political program, as evidenced by its refusal to engage with the IBT, despite the close proximity of the formal positions of our two organizations on many issues. This unwillingness to attempt a study of the depth and scope of the issues that separate us is an expression of sectarianism born of political insecurity. During almost two decades of existence, the IG has studiously avoided any serious assessment of the roots and development of the political degeneration of the once-revolutionary Spartacist tendency, instead insisting that all was well until exactly the point that their founding cadres were driven out.
One of the more interesting political tendencies internationally is the Trotskyist Fraction-Fourth International, which continues to produce propaganda combining orthodox formulations with political adaptations to petty bourgeois radicalism. While the group mainly exists in Latin America, they have comrades in Spain and France (where they lead a grouping inside the NPA-the Courant Communiste Révolutionnaire) and have obtained the adherence of the German Revolutionären Internationalistischen Organisation. In most countries they operate as small propaganda groups, though the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas in Argentina is large enough to engage in limited mass work.
The International Socialist Tendency has suffered dramatic (and well publicized) setbacks in recent years. In 2010 a few dozen people, including some leading cadres, left Britain’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and formed Counterfire. More recently, the SWP has lost significantly more members, particularly youth, over accusations of leadership bureaucratic abuse and cover-up of sexual assault, with some forming alternative groupings with rightist trajectories. Similar, although smaller, departures took place from the American International Socialist Organization amid complaints about bureaucratic abuse. Taken together, these splits represent significant setbacks for the political trend identified with the late Tony Cliff.
The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), which can at times present a more or less orthodox Marxist face, has a history of adaptation to reformist illusions regarding parliamentarianism and the bourgeois state. For some years there have been indications of leftist dissent within the ranks of its leading section (the Socialist Party of England and Wales [SP]). To date, the only substantial difference to break out into the open has centered on the source of the global economic slump and the validity of Marx’s observations regarding the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This dispute resulted in a number of expulsions and resignations. The CWI was buoyed by the electoral victory of Kshama Sawant in Seattle, yet while she was elected after campaigning as an open socialist (itself a significant development in the context of U.S. politics), her success was achieved by dispensing with any Trotskyist pretenses and wholeheartedly embracing social-democratic reformism.
The International Marxist Tendency (IMT) is significant in size internationally and growing in some areas, while suffering substantial losses in others. Its modus operandi continues to be entrism. In some cases this involves operating inside bourgeois political parties (e.g., in Pakistan), but most frequently it means constituting a ginger group inside mass social-democratic parties (usually of the most moderate variety, e.g., Britain’s Labour Party or Canada’s New Democratic Party).
The United Secretariat, which claims the banner of the Fourth International, is about as far removed from the politics of Trotsky’s organization as it is possible to be while retaining the moniker. And it is a house deeply divided. On the right are the likes of Alan Thornett who advocate the formation of social-democratic parties and hail the Greek Syriza as a model. The former members of the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire who disbanded to form a “New Anticapitalist Party” on an overtly reformist basis also belong in this wing. Espousing views somewhat to the left of this current are formations such as the Revolutionär Sozialistisicher Bund (RSB) in Germany, Socialist Action in the U.S. and the OKDE Spartakos group in Greece – but none of these have shown the capacity to break decisively with the liquidationist methodology that the more rightwing elements have followed to its logical conclusion.
After the departure of most of its older cadres (who existed for a few years as Permanent Revolution but have now disbanded), the League for a Fifth International (L5I) has continued to fragment, although it remains fairly active, mainly in Britain and Austria, in its classic centrist fashion. A group of young cadres who left the British Workers Power group a few years ago have pursued an overtly liquidationist course.
The anarchists vary a great deal depending on the locality. If there is a general pattern of development over the last period, it is that the more serious, “ideologically based” anarchists active a decade ago (e.g., Platformists) have largely disintegrated, while less politically-defined anarchism and lifestylism predominate in the milieu. While the Black Bloc can still make occasional headlines, their numbers are small. Attempts to revitalize anarcho-syndicalist traditions in Germany (FAU) and the U.S. (IWW) have had very limited success.
Forming Revolutionary Cadres: The Road Ahead
The crisis of the ostensibly revolutionary left in most areas of the globe where we are present is profound: it is shrinking, fragmented, aging and demoralized, all of which has translated into a willingness to embrace overt reformism at a time when the utter bankruptcy of global capitalism has never been more apparent. As the necessity and potential for revolutionary intervention has increased in recent years, the capacity of the far left to even approximate such an intervention has markedly decreased.
This paradox occurs in the context of a difficult objective situation that is largely shaped by the past betrayals and failures of ostensibly revolutionary organizations, an accumulation of defeats for organized labor and a lowering of the general political consciousness of the working class even among the more active layers, resulting in large part from the destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers’ state. Instead of breaking from the class collaborationism, opportunism, sectarianism and/or liquidationism that have disarmed, disoriented and disorganized the working class (and continue to do so in the midst of tumultuous world events), most ostensibly revolutionary groups have been pursuing the logic of their politics to a dead-end. The only solution is to reverse this process through a radical programmatic reorientation. While it is unlikely that significant sections of long-established groups will be capable of this, there is every reason to think that serious militants, particularly young ones carrying less political “baggage,” retain the capacity to learn from the mistakes of the past and break from the legacy of reformist illusions and opportunist adaptations in the direction of genuine Marxism.
The IBT exists to facilitate this process – to promote the development of revolutionary cadres with the programmatic capacity to participate in the reconstruction of an international party of socialist revolution that can change the world. We do not see building a revolutionary party on a global scale as a simple process of recruiting more people to the existing IBT. Rather, we look forward to participating in what will inevitably be a long and difficult struggle – with leaps forward and reverses, splits and fusions that dramatically reconfigure the movements of the working class and the oppressed and lay the basis for the Rebirth of the Fourth International, World Party of Socialist Revolution. This will be above all a political struggle, a fight to preserve, develop and implant a consistently revolutionary program in the consciousness of the most advanced layers of the working class.
We are painfully aware that the setbacks suffered by the workers’ movement in recent decades are significant, and that as a result resistance to the accelerating barbarism of capitalist rule is disorganized and generally misled and that the influence of Marxism is at a historic low. While enjoying considerably greater freedom to organize and espouse our views, revolutionaries today find ourselves in a position that is in some ways analogous to that of the persecuted, isolated Bolshevik-Leninists during the dark days of Hitler’s ascendancy and the destruction of the Third International as a force for revolution by Stalinist reaction. We nonetheless intend to continue to work, guided by the perspective laid out by Trotsky in 1933:
“But how explain the fact that our grouping, whose analysis and prognosis has been verified by the entire course of events, is growing so slowly? The cause must be looked for in the general course of the class struggle. The victory of fascism seizes tens of millions. Political prognoses are accessible only to thousands or tens of thousands who, moreover, feel the pressure of millions. A revolutionary tendency cannot score stormy victories at a time when the proletariat as a whole is suffering the greatest defeats. But this is no justification for letting one’s hands hang. Precisely in the periods of revolutionary ebb tide are cadres formed and tempered which will later be called upon to lead the masses in the new assault.”
—“To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew”