Swimming Against the Stream
IBT Fourth International Conference
The fourth international conference of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) was held in Western Europe in March 2005. It featured a number of wide-ranging discussions and debates on program, perspectives and organizational priorities, and concluded with the election of a new international leadership. An extensive series of educational sessions on some key historical experiences of the Marxist movement in the early 20th century ran concurrently with the conference.
The discussions were framed by a sober recognition of the current problems of the international workers’ movement on the one hand, and an appreciation of the enormous potential for massive class struggle on the other. Our failure to make significant breakthroughs in the recent past has not shaken our commitment to maintaining a hard communist organization with an undiluted Trotskyist program. The Tasks and Perspectives document adopted by the conference opened with the following observation:
“At our fourth conference the IBT will remain what we have always been—not merely a splinter, but a splinter of a splinter. We are not appreciably closer to the realization of our objectives than we were at the last conference. Our chief accomplishment during the past few years has been to have maintained the existence of authentic Trotskyism in the world.
“While we are no closer to constituting a stable propaganda group, we have consistently demonstrated the political capacity to correctly assess the fundamental problems confronting the international workers’ movement and, given our extremely modest resources, to intervene intelligently in the politics of the international far left. Our status has improved marginally relative to our chief opponents, if only because they have, in various ways, regressed while we have more or less managed to stand fast.”
The document noted that the current period has been shaped by the 1989-91 counterrevolutions in the former Soviet bloc—”defeats for the proletariat perhaps more significant than the fall of the Paris Commune 120 years earlier.” There has been a catastrophic fall in living standards in the former workers’ states while in the “developed” countries (where we are still primarily located), the level of class struggle has declined, trade unions have shrunk, and there has been a general shift to the right across the political spectrum—from mainstream bourgeois parties to the social democracy (including the remnants of Stalinism) and the “far left.”
The conference document noted that, among many young people in the imperialist countries, there is a “widespread and growing popular perception that capitalism is a manifestly irrational, profoundly unjust and perhaps unsustainable social system.” At the same time, there is little evidence of serious attempts to organize and act on this sentiment. Rebellious youth we encounter today are far more likely to subscribe to some inchoate mix of anarchist, reformist and liberal ideology than to the nominally socialist worldview that was typical a generation ago. In the U.S., the unprecedented outpouring of opposition to the attack on Iraq was absorbed rather easily into the electoralist shill game via Howard Dean’s faux anti-war candidacy and then channelled into the Bush/Kerry contest over who could best implement Bush’s policies.
While many preconditions exist for outbreaks of mass social struggle, the politics of the anti-globalization/anti-war protests remain essentially liberal. Left groups seeking to recruit from this milieu generally adapt to it politically by downplaying their ostensibly socialist ideology. The supposed atheists of the International Socialist Tendency are going further than most with their lowest-common-denominator attempts to ally themselves with mullahs and “faith communities.” In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, the International Socialist group distinguished itself by campaigning for the introduction of sharia (Islamic) law for the resolution of civil and family disputes.
In this period, recruits to the IBT are likely to remain exceptional individuals who want to understand the fundamental motor forces determining global politics, and who are attracted by our consistently revolutionary program.
Our ‘Trotskyist’ Opponents
The most spectacular rightward devolution among our immediate political opponents has been that of the British Workers Power group. After several decades spent claiming to be the first Trotskyists since Trotsky, these confusionists have now concluded that Karl Kautsky’s notion of an all-inclusive “party of the whole class” is superior to the Leninist-Trotskyist concept of a revolutionary vanguard party (see “Fifth Wheel Internationalists,” 1917 No. 26).
The Spartacist League/International Communist League (SL/ICL) remains our most politically significant international opponent, despite its record of erratic programmatic zig-zags, the evident demoralization of its cadre and its unhealthy, introverted existence (see our pamphlet, “Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?“). While the SL/ICL has of late experienced difficulty recruiting and politically developing new members, its Trotskyist veneer, and the capacity of what remains of its talented but aging cadre to still occasionally produce quality propaganda, allows it to attract some serious young would-be revolutionaries.
For many years the ICL leadership was extraordinarily vituperative toward us, but over the past few years they have attempted to find a programmatic difference which would allow them to attack the IBT from the political high ground of the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition they once represented. The polemical exchanges they have initiated on the national questions in Quebec, Tibet and Kurdistan have, in every case, resulted in political defeat for the ICL. Their attempt to brand us as anti-Kurd chauvinists turned out to be particularly painful. Our simple reminder of their founder/leader’s documented record of gross chauvinism on this question touched off an internal tsunami in the ICL.
In recent years there has been a noticeable decline in both the political self-confidence of ICLers and the group’s programmatic homogeneity. Failing to win the various political fights they picked with us, their members have taken to informally characterizing us as “sterile academics” and “pipe-smoking professors”—allegations similar to those made by the more sophisticated members of the Maoist Progressive Labor Party against the Spartacist League 35 years ago.
The Internationalist Group (IG), whose leadership, like our own, is largely composed of former Spartacists, occupies terrain between ourselves and the ICL on many questions. The IG has correctly criticized some recent ICL deviations, but still defends all the errors that were made prior to 1996 when they were kicked out. Our 2005 Tasks and Perspectives document noted that our most outstanding recent success in opponent work was recruiting the IG’s one-man Dutch “group” (see “Dutch ‘VVI’ Joins IBT: From the IG to Trotskyism,” 1917 No. 26). The IG leadership was acutely embarrassed by the exposure of the Potemkin village character of its “League for the Fourth International.” The IG’s refusal to make any serious attempt to account for its own political origins belies its claim to be building a Trotskyist cadre organization.
Setbacks, Activities & Prospects
In reviewing our work since the previous conference, we began with lessons learned from our “fusion” with a group of Ukrainian con artists associated with Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International (see “CWI Leadership’s Role in Ukrainian Fraud: No Innocent Explanation,” 1917 No. 26). These skilled impostors fooled us, along with a number of other organizations. When we became aware of the hoax, we played a central role in exposing these petty thieves.
A less public, but more significant, setback was our failure to successfully regroup with a small circle of Argentine comrades who appeared to be rather close to us programmatically. This is partly attributable to language difficulties, but a more important factor was a gap in political culture manifested in differences over the tasks and priorities of a micro-propaganda group. In retrospect, we concluded: “Given our capacities and very limited resources there is not obviously a lot more we could have done to advance this collaboration, but it represents a lost opportunity.”
The central strategic task of the IBT remains the development of a stable propaganda group capable of acting as a pole of revolutionary regroupment internationally. Much of our work therefore involves the production of highly polemical materials. Our activity in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal has been something of an exception to this. Mumia’s defense is an important focus for opposition to the racist death penalty in America and has been taken up by a wide variety of forces internationally. Our participation in the campaign has therefore brought us into contact with a broader political spectrum of groups and individuals and it has provided our comrades with some limited experience in exemplary united-front work. Our most important contribution has been the publication of a pamphlet documenting the history of Mumia’s frame-up that has been well received.
The main reporter on the IBT’s Tasks and Perspectives document noted that our leadership core has been tested over an extended period of time, and has exhibited both a high degree of programmatic homogeneity and an ability to effectively collaborate. “And for the most part,” the conference document noted, “their decisions have been widely approved by the membership of the organization.” The passage of time and the aging of our leading cadre will mean that the leadership collective is likely to change considerably over the next period.
Imperialism—Epoch of War & Revolution
One of the conference’s themes was the considerable instability in the international political order today and the rising tide of inter-imperialist tensions, most dramatically the Franco-German opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At our second international conference in 1998, a few members broke with the IBT, claiming that inter-imperialist rivalries had been decisively subordinated to the “globalization” orchestrated by the World Trade Organization. Concluding that the Leninist-Trotskyist program was no longer applicable, these comrades accepted the capitalist triumphalist proclamations that many of the fundamental contradictions of imperialism had been resolved by global economic integration.
Our 2005 conference featured considerable discussion of the proposed European Union (EU) “constitution.” In intra-bourgeois disputes over questions of the degree of integration between different imperialist economies, (for example, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty in Europe), Marxists take a “plague on both your houses” position. In 1988, we supported neither free traders nor protectionists in the wrangle over the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA). But when the FTA was extended to include Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the character of that trading bloc fundamentally changed from an arrangement between imperialists to an instrument for the imperialist domination of a neo-colony. We therefore changed our position from one of indifference to that of outright opposition. Similarly, when the West European powers sought to incorporate the former deformed workers’ states of the Warsaw Pact, we changed our position on EU integration (see “Imperialist Expansionism & the EU“).
Conference participants also devoted attention to the dangers confronting Cuba, China, Vietnam and North Korea—the remaining deformed workers’ states—and the implications of defending them against capitalist restoration. The counterrevolutionary processes underway in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s contained many important lessons, and our discussion on this experience was enriched by the contributions of comrades who witnessed the destruction of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) and its assimilation by West Germany.
Swimming Against the Stream
In assessing contemporary political questions, conference participants frequently looked to the experiences of our revolutionary predecessors. Throughout the conference, current problems were assessed in the light of lessons from the revolutionary past. For example, the discussion of Marxist tactics in the 2004 Venezuela referendum, when imperialist-backed rightists attempted to recall Hugo Chávez , was illuminated by a comparison with the Bolshevik attitude toward Kerensky’s Provisional Government in 1917 (see “On the 2004 Venezuelan Referendum: Principles & Tactics“).
The educationals held in conjunction with the conference focused on the early history of German communism, from the end of World War I to the abortive “German October” of 1923. “The struggle for Marxism,” as one comrade observed, is largely “the struggle against pseudo-Marxism.” The German experience demonstrated that it is not enough to recognize and polemicize against revisionism, as did Rosa Luxemburg, the leader of the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). It is also necessary to give the political struggle for revolutionary consciousness organizational form, to embody it in a cadre formation that fights to win leadership of the workers’ movement on the basis of the program of Marxism. Luxemburg had only begun to undertake this task when she was assassinated by right-wing thugs at the direction of the pro-imperialist traitors leading the SPD. The setbacks in Germany during the extraordinary 1918-23 period negatively confirmed the essential propositions of Leninism—particularly the need for a disciplined, revolutionary vanguard party to lead the working class to victory. The Russian workers triumphed because they had such an organization, while the far more powerful German proletariat was defeated for lack of one.
The political tradition in which we stand—that of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and the Fourth International—represents an indispensable link between the barbaric present and the socialist future. But it is only possible to make significant progress toward this objective by forging a cadre organization larger than the IBT is today by several orders of magnitude.
The primary responsibility of revolutionaries in a non-revolutionary period is to defend the essential programmatic acquisitions of the past, to speak the truth to the masses, and thus to patiently prepare the groundwork for the successful revolutionary insurrections of the future. Life offers no guarantee of success for Marxist organizations or the individuals who comprise them. But one thing is certain: the working class can never triumph without a leadership that is able to swim against the stream:
“The working class, especially in Europe, is still in retreat, or at best, in a state of hesitation. Defeats are still too fresh, and their number far from exhausted….Such are the conditions in which the Fourth International is developing. Is it any wonder that its growth proceeds more slowly than we should like? Dilettantes, charlatans, or blockheads, incapable of probing into the dialectic of historic ebbs and flows, have more than once brought in their verdict: ‘The ideas of the Bolshevik-Leninists may perhaps be correct but they are incapable of building a mass organization.’ As if a mass organization can be built under any and all conditions! As if a revolutionary program does not render it obligatory for us to remain in the minority and swim against the stream in an epoch of reaction! The revolutionist who uses his own impatience as a measuring stick for the tempo of an epoch is worthless.”
—L.D. Trotsky, “A Great Achievement,” 30 August 1938