Liquidationism Yesterday and Today

Open Letter to the Opposition within the ‘Fourth International’

2 June 2017

Comrades, we read with interest your document “Opposition formed in the Fourth International,” published on 3 February 2017 on the website of Socialist Action, the American affiliate of the “Fourth International” (FI). This document, signed by leading comrades from France, Spain, the U.S, Canada, Italy and Greece, is a critical account of the political trajectory of your tendency over the last decade with the stated aim of initiating discussion:

“This contribution is the basis of a first unified effort to launch a debate leading to the next FI world congress. We defend the present relevance of an international that grasps the opportunities in the present situation, and that builds an international for revolution and communism. Based on the political key points of this contribution, we want to foster a broad debate addressed to revolutionary currents both inside and outside of the FI.”

You make clear that you consider your organization to be at an impasse that requires an entirely new orientation. We welcome the opportunity to discuss some of the questions raised in this document as part of a process of political clarification that might, in the best case, lead to principled regroupment on the basis of a shared revolutionary program, but should at least help to clarify the scope and depth of the historical differences, their origins and development for all participants.

‘Broad Parties’: Liquidationism of the 21st Century

The document focuses its critique on the strategy of participation in “broad parties” of the left (the Anticapitalistas in Spain, Syriza in Greece and Lula da Silva’s ruling party in Brazil), a policy it characterizes as a “catastrophe.” It describes how the sections that liquidated into these reformist formations began by abandoning any pretence of a revolutionary perspective and ended up supporting capitalist governments in their attacks on the working class. Yet there is a telling omission – the French Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA) barely gets a mention. The NPA was formally launched in 2009 when the former French flagship section, the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR), dissolved in an attempt to build an all-inclusive “broad party”:

“We speak to women and men of all origins, with or without papers[,] who think their lives are worth more than profits: to youth who answer ‘resistance!’ in the face of attempts to leave them a precarious future; to activists in community groups and trade unionists who take action every day in their neighbourhoods or on the job; to socialist, anti-neoliberal and communist activists, to all national and local political organisations or currents, who think it is time to unite, beyond former divisions, and above all those who have not found a party appealing enough to get involved.…”
International Viewpoint, February 2008

As we pointed out at the time:

“The programmatic and organisational framework of the NPA is that of the Second International – not of the Leninist Third International or Trotsky’s Fourth International, neither of which admitted parties like the NPA.

“The NPA’s campaign for the European elections made it clear that rather than challenging the existing consciousness of its electoral base the NPA adapts to it. In its first official meeting, the NPA’s National Political Committee summed up their electoral message as advancing ‘a social, democratic and eco-friendly Europe’ and ‘an anti-militarist and anti-imperialist Europe of women’s rights’ (Tout est à nous!, 26 March 2009).”
“NPA: France’s New Reformist Party,” 1917, No. 32, 2010

Some of the signatories of the opposition statement are still members of the NPA, which might explain why it is barely mentioned while Syriza is openly criticized:

“In the name of the necessity of a ‘new program’ and ‘new parties’ adapted to the ‘new situation,’ the FI leadership supported Alexis Tsipras right up to the 11th hour (quote from the FI declaration of August 2015). The example of Greece is extremely telling. It demonstrates the impossibility of reformism as a solution in periods of capitalist crisis. Not only did the Syriza-led government prove to be one of the harshest of bourgeois governments, but Syriza itself switched almost totally, in just about one year, from left reformism to bourgeois social democracy.”

This distinction between left reformism and bourgeois social democracy is meaningless. Syriza and the NPA are politically essentially identical – apart from the disparity in their electoral success. The NPA’s goal, like Syriza’s, is to reform the existing system. Instead of seeking to overturn the mechanism that generates endless war, exploitation and oppression, these reformists aspire to help it present a greener, more humane face. Should the French electorate ever flock to the NPA en masse as Greek workers did to Syriza, there is no reason to expect the outcome to be different for the simple reason that “capitalism can’t be fixed,” as we pointed out to the youthful supporters of the Occupy movement several years ago.

A History of Liquidationism

There is nothing particularly new about the drive to liquidate into “broad parties.” This is essentially the same policy pursued since the 1950s by the political ancestors of today’s “Fourth International,” Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel. They argued that the imminence of a global “war-revolution” meant that there was no time to build Trotskyist parties. Instead, the cadres of the Fourth International were encouraged to find permanent refuge in existing, reformist workers’ parties, whether Stalinist or social-democratic, in order to remain in touch with their working-class base and rapidly gain influence once the masses began moving to the left. The organization led by Pablo and Mandel thus developed a political orientation fundamentally opposed to that of Trotsky’s organization, rendering illegitimate the claim to the name “Fourth International,” which continues to this day.

In response to the rise of a mass of subjectively revolutionary youth and a parallel increase in combativity in the European working class in the late 1960s, Pablo and Mandel began to see new vanguards, particularly in the mass worker-student struggles in France in 1968 and Italy’s “hot autumn” of 1969.

The opportunity presented by this upsurge was enough for the Pabloite leadership to turn away from its deep entry policy (with a few exceptions such as the British Labour Party) and call for the construction of independent, ostensibly Trotskyist organizations, the largest and most successful of which was the French LCR. Yet as the wave of New Leftism began to recede, the international leadership once again began to look for opportunities to merge with larger formations to their right. Ernest Mandel, in a 1976 interview, put it like this:

“In my opinion the future of the revolutionary movement is in the kind of groups which are broader than those which call themselves Trotskyist. Groupings which, however, unite with sections of the Fourth International.”
Topo Viejo, November 1976 (quoted in Spartacist, No. 25, 1978)

Even at the height of its enthusiasm for independent formations, Pablo and Mandel’s organization exhibited a tendency to politically adapt to whatever seemed currently popular with the masses. In Latin America, this meant a disastrous turn to guerrillaism, while at the same time offering electoral support to Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular – a project premised on the possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism via class collaboration. Similar policies were pursued in France and elsewhere. These betrayals are documented at length in “Revolutionary Program vs. ‘Historical Process’,” a polemic between the Bolshevik Tendency and a former member who had moved into the orbit of the so-called “Fourth International.”

Capitulating to Counterrevolution

This impulse to politically adapt to whatever was currently popular was particularly evident in the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet bloc in 1989-91. Despite a formal position of defending the degenerated and deformed workers’ states against capitalist restoration, in practice Mandel & Co. aligned themselves with forces that actively worked towards the counterrevolutionary destruction of the collectivized property system. In the August 1991 confrontation between conservative Stalinist elements of the CPSU and the forces supporting Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin’s pro-capitalist course, Mandel came down on the side of capitalist restoration:

“The … [Stalinist] putschists wanted to severely limit or even suppress the democratic liberties that existed in reality.… This is why the putsch had to be opposed by all means available. And this is why the failure of the putsch should be hailed.”
International Viewpoint, 3 February 1992

At the time, Mandel insisted that the conservative Stalinists behind the coup were no less interested in capitalist restoration than their opponents. It is true that the coupsters made contradictory statements about their intent to both defend the socialized property forms and respect private property, but as we commented at the time:

“a Marxist analysis of the Soviet ruling caste is not primarily based on what the bureaucrats think, much less what they say in public. The key to explaining the political behavior of different social classes and strata lies in their objective social position and the material interests that derive from it. Unlike the bourgeoisie, the Soviet bureaucracy was never a property-owning group. In August 1991, as at the height of Stalin’s power, its privileges derived from its role as custodian of the centrally administered, state-owned economy. As the power of the center came under mounting attack from rebellious nationalities, breakaway bureaucrats and free marketeers, it was natural that some sections of the central state and party apparatus would attempt to reassert their prerogatives. This was the significance of the power struggle within the party that preceded the August coup, and of the coup attempt itself (see IBT September 1991 statement).”
—“Soviet Rubicon & the Left,” 1917, No. 11, 1992

Mandel and his followers took a different attitude to Cuba, aware that since the 1960s Cuba has remained more popular among radical youth and workers than the Soviet Union. Although the USSR was created by a workers’ revolution and underwent a process of degeneration while Cuba was deformed from its inception, from a Marxist point of view the two states were essentially similar in nature. Both were based on collectivized property, which is why Marxists defended them against capitalist restoration, but with a Stalinist ruling caste, which monopolized political control and represented a transmission belt for capitalist influence. In both cases the road to socialism could only be opened by a proletarian political revolution to break the grip of the bureaucratic stratum and establish the direct rule of the working class.

The death of Fidel Castro occasioned an obituary by Jeff Mackler, a leading member of Socialist Action and one of the signatories of the document, which introduced a more critical attitude toward the Cuban bureaucracy than exhibited in the past. Previously Socialist Action had argued that the ruling bureaucracy in Cuba was a composite in which a Stalinist wing was opposed by Castro’s followers, the supposedly revolutionary component of the regime. The article “Fidel Castro’s legacy,” discusses, to our knowledge for the first time, the fundamental flaw of the Castro regime:

“But Fidel and his well-intentioned revolutionary fighters tended to underestimate the critical importance of constructing urban-based mass revolutionary workers’ parties of the Leninist type and instead focused on relatively isolated rural guerrilla warfare, not as an adjunct to the seizure of power but rather, as the central directing agency of the revolution.
“While successful in Cuba, Cuban-supported rural guerrilla warfare had to be abandoned as it became clear that isolated guerrilla struggles, especially with U.S. imperialism on the alert as never before, could not substitute for the construction of deeply rooted and disciplined, urban-based, revolutionary working-class parties.
“Like all human beings, Fidel Castro and his compañeros in the Cuban leadership were never without flaws, mistakes, and shortcomings. Despite its socialist and democratic spirit and practice, beleaguered Cuba failed to establish the forms of direct democracy that characterized the highest point of the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky.”

The Castroists were “well-intentioned” petty-bourgeois radicals who sought to depose a brutal dictator. They were not initially aiming to uproot capitalist property, but merely to restore a form of liberal democracy in Cuba. To suggest that they “underestimate[d]” the importance of building Leninist workers’ parties is therefore at least slightly absurd. Castro never had any intention of building a Leninist organization. His political journey from petty-bourgeois guerilla fighter to Stalinist bureaucrat was propelled by a sequence of reactions to the hostile moves of U.S. imperialism and countermoves by the Soviet bureaucracy which offered vital material support to the fledgling regime. Comrade Mackler salutes the Castro regime’s “socialist and democratic spirit and practice,” but this does not sit well with the facts: the Cuban regime threw self-described Trotskyists into jail and destroyed the printing plates of a Spanish-language edition of Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution (see “Defend the Cuban Revolution,” 1917, No. 11, 1992).

According to Socialist Action, the Cuban Stalinists simply need to implement workers’ democracy:

“The Cuban leadership’s forging of democratic workers’ councils today would be the surest way to ensure the ongoing commitment of the Cuban people to the revolution’s historic goals, as well as the efficient planning of an economy that best represents the interests of the Cuban masses.”

A ruling bureaucracy cannot transform itself into its opposite – the only way in which Cuba’s workers can exercise their own direct rule is by breaking the grip of the Cuban Communist Party through mass mobilizations in a workers’ political revolution. This position was initially advanced by the forerunners of our organization, the Revolutionary Tendency in the Socialist Workers Party (U.S.), who were expelled in 1963 for the crime of asserting that it was necessary to build a Trotskyist party in Cuba and opposing reunification between the SWP/U.S. and Pablo/Mandel on the basis of their shared capitulation to Castro.

What Next?

The opposition’s rejection of the ultra-liquidationist course of the leadership is an important first step to reconstructing a viable revolutionary movement, but it is only a beginning. It is necessary to recognize that the current grotesque revisionism is the logical extension of the group’s past practice and political methodology on which it has been based for over 60 years. A genuine revolutionary party can only be built by brutal honesty and programmatic struggle against those currents that are objectively leading the working class from defeat to defeat. This is not always popular, but there is no other way.

We are sending this in the spirit of your expressed desire “to foster a broad debate addressed to revolutionary currents both inside and outside of the FI.” We agree that such a debate about the historic roots of the current profound global crisis of proletarian leadership is of immense importance and we look forward to further exchanges on these critical questions.

Comradely greetings,
Christoph Lichtenberg
for the International Bolshevik Tendency