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International Socialism, Winter 1980


SWP Visitors to the Congress

The Fourth International’s XIth World Congress


From International Socialism 2 : 7, Winter 1980, pp. 120–128.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The First Congress of the Fourth International was held in 1938. In the forty-one years between then and the XIth World Congress there have been major wars, revolutions and social upheavals of all kinds. It is most unlikely that the next forty years will be any less stormy. It is therefore a matter of some importance to examine closely the nature and possibilities of an organisation whose claim is that it is “The World Party of Socialist Revolution.”

Represented at the last World Congress were organisations in a large number of countries – sixty according to the official count. Not all of these organisations are members of the Fourth International (FI); for example the Socialist Workers’ Party of the United States (SWP-US) is prevented by law from membership but it is nevertheless in very close political alignment. According to leading members of the FI the total membership on a definition which would include people like the SWP-US is between 10,000 and 15,000. In our estimate, it is probably at the lower end of this scale.

Well over half of this membership is concentrated in Western Europe with the largest groups (sections) located in the Spanish State and France followed by Sweden and Britain. The SWP-US is a substantial organisation and the sections in Canada, Mexico and Columbia are also of some size. Beyond this there is a Japanese section of some substance and a large number of very much smaller groups of militants.

It is obvious, therefore, that while the FI has nowhere established a mass workers’ party it nevertheless remains the largest international grouping of revolutionary socialists in the world. It follows that no perspective for the growth of the far left on an international scale can simply ignore the FI. The only serious question to ask is how to assess its value in order to consider what sort of relations we should have with it.

A full political judgement of the FI was difficult at this Congress. This is partly because Congresses are not the best place to make judgements on revolutionary organisations: it is much more important to know exactly how the fine speeches work out in the practical reality of the class struggle in this or that country. An additional reason was that the whole of the Congress was dominated by the reverberations of a major split which took place immediately before the proceedings opened. Consequently, not only did a great deal of the Congress take place in closed session, but the political character of other sessions was marked by the legacy.

Before passing on to the character of the remaining debate, it is important to clarify the nature of the split which took place. In reality, what has occurred is that two disparate groups have united – largely over the question of the Nicaraguan revolution – and decided to break away from the FI.

The first and largest of these groups was known inside the FI as the ‘Bolshevik Faction’. This consisted of a number of groups in Latin America under the leadership of the clandestine Argentinian Socialist Workers’ Party (PST). The faction is closely identified with the line of its main leader, Nahuel Moreno. Together, this grouping constituted the bulk of the strength of the FI in Latin America.

The second current which split was part of what is known inside the FI as the ‘Leninist-Trotskyist Tendency’ (LTT) and in particular the bulk of the LTT’s French supporters. For some time, the French section (LCR-F) has had an orientation towards regrouping with an organisation called the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste. This group, known together with its various international supporters as the CORQI is a ‘Trotskyist’ group in the sense that it stands on the Transitional Programme but is also, in practice, a bureaucratically-run and fairly opportunist sect. Its main leader is one Lambert, and the organisation is often known as the Lambertistes; an analogy which those familiar with the term ‘Healyite’ will recognise as significant. The LTT, particularly in France, are supporters of regroupment with the Lambertistes.

It seems clear in retrospect that both of these groups were engaged in factional manoeuvres within the FI. It is a characteristic of the internal life of the FI that it is dominated by long term currents of opinion and fully-formed factions within the organisation. Thus the Bolshevik Faction was organised for some years with a perspective of winning as much as it could inside the FI. When it became clear that this was not going to result in the Bolshevik Faction having domination, it was decided to split and take as much as was available. From the point of view of the CORQI, the operation was designed to persuade as large a number of people as possible of the necessity to split with the FI.

The issue upon which both groups converged was the current revolution in Nicaragua. During the fight against Somoza, the Bolshevik Faction had organised the ‘Simon Bolivar Brigade’ of foreign militants to fight alongside the Sandinistas. The record of the Brigade is a matter of substantial controversy but it resulted in the eventual expulsion from the country of the non-Nicaraguan members after the establishment of the rule of the FSLN. The way in which the majority of the FI responded to this caused a big row. From the first, they opposed the formation of the Brigade and, when it was expelled, their leading representatives present in Nicaragua issued a statement saying that the Sandinistas were in the right. This position was later modified by the FI leadership to one which condemned the actions of the Brigade but argued that it was wrong to settle arguments with armed forces when they concerned differences of opinion in the labour movement.

Lying behind these different positions are a number of arguments. If we leave aside the deeply-obscure question of the behaviour of the Brigade, the question central to the discussion is what strategy should be followed by the FI in relation to the Nicaraguan revolution. For the Bolshevik Faction, the new government in Nicaragua is a bourgeois government, the FSLN is trying to build a bourgeois state, and it is thus necessary to try to build an independent revolutionary party which can overthrow the new state. This in substance, is also the position of of the LTT; both inside and outside of the FI.

The opposite pole of opinion is that represented by the SWP-US which holds that the new government is a ‘workers’ and farmers’ government’ in which the bourgeois ministers are irrelevant. For them, the task of the FI is first to mount a campaign to defend the revolution and secondly to advise the Sandinistas as to how best to carry things forward. It would, thus, be the summit of sectarianism to try to build the FI in competition with the revolutionary leadership of the FSLN.

In between, there are a number of positions. The Congress finally adopted a splendid compromise which allows all things: the government is a coalition with the bourgeoisie but the question of which class is then dominant apparently remains unresolved. In addition, the political perspective agreed seems to be a combination of diplomatic persuasion and some attempt to win people to the FI.

Now, it will be clear, at least to readers with long memories, why the question of Nicaragua forms an irresistible magnet for the sectarians of the Bolshevik Faction and the LTT. The position of the SWP-US pretty well amounts to a re-run of the classic position of Michel Pablo. The SWP-US position came to appear as a willingness to sacrifice, indeed to dissolve, the FI, as Pablo had been accused of doing on the question of Algeria. Any split which can be represented as being against ‘Pabloite liquidationism’ conjures up the historic ghosts of the 1953 split. Consequently, this was the issue for the 1979 split.

The result was that some 25 per cent of the FI walked out before the Conference. The bulk of the Bolshevik Faction [1] who left are in Latin America. The bulk of the LTT who left are in France; amounting to perhaps 25 per cent of the LCR-F. The two tendencies are now trying to hold a further Conference to provide an alternative pole of attraction. The Socialist Workers’ Party Britain (SWP-B) was invited to support this but it is our judgement that the whole thing is a sectarian operation without any serious purpose and we have thus declined to attend.

As a result of all this skulduggery – in which all parties seem to have played a fairly compromised role – the FI Congress, which had been prepared for some years with a view to a big fight against Moreno, suddenly found itself in a bit of a vacuum.

It should be clear from the above that the claim of the FI to represent a genuine world party must be treated with some scepticism. Even at the formal level, the statutes of the FI – quite wisely in our opinion – are some distance from genuine democratic centralism, but this is relatively unimportant. Much more significant is that the test of great events finds the FI unable to agree on united action. In fact, Nicaragua is simply the most extreme form of this, in that it has resulted in an open and public split. The harsh reality is that, if we look at the major upheavals of the last few years in which the FI has had forces on the ground, there have been equally deep divisions. In the case of Portugal in the period 1974–75 the FI had two sections in the country, pursuing diametrically different policies. Again, if we take the question of Iran, although there is a single organisation – the HKS – it is in practice divided into two major factions which, on the evidence of their delegates at the Congress, have quite different analyses of the situation and are consequently pursuing quite different policies and publishing quite different papers.

Let us be quite clear about this: we are not here discussing difference of opinion but an inability to agree upon a single course of action in any one situation. In fact, in the FI, differences of opinion are quite widespread, and this is no bad thing, but it is an elementary requirement of a Leninist Party that it follows one general line. The test of events demonstrates beyond question that the claim of the FI to be a world party is simply false.

What then, is the FI? When challenged with the above arguments, the more sophisticated militants of the FI reply that it is united around the programme: the Transitional Programme. This, again, does not seem a very serious argument since, if the transitional programme is a commonly-agreed guide to practical action then the situations we have just described would not arise. If, on the other hand, the transitional programme is merely a point of historical reference without practical consequences then there is an obvious problem in deciding what the boundaries of the FI should be since, if we take this as the crucial test, there are clearly many militants, such as the Healyites, who agree at this level but are not in the FI.

The only realistic assessment of the FI is that it is a current of opinion and its conferences etc. are a debating society. This is not something to be ashamed of, since it is a fairly large society and has a potential of becoming much larger. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of its members believe it to be much more than a current and there is no doubt that it tries to be very much more. This seems to us to have deleterious effects upon the substance of the debate.

We have already seen how the Bolshevik Faction had its ‘warlord’ in the shape of Moreno. He was not the only warlord in the FI: there is a great deal of evidence that suggests that this is the basic organisational principle of the FI. Within the current FI, there are two major blocs, the ‘Europeans’ and the ‘Americans’. These geographical characterisations are only approximate but, on most of the major issues which were discussed there was a powerful tendency for the line-up to take place. Each of these blocs has its own warlord. The Europeans have Ernest Mandel, the Americans, Jack Barnes.

The divisions between the two blocs are fairly substantial. As we have seen, Nicaragua provides one particularly messy example, but Indochina is even clearer. Despite the fact that there was general agreement on the practical task of a campaign for massive aid for Kampuchea free of political strings, the Congress spent a day debating this question. What they were considering was the class character of the former Pol Pot regime. Now this, as we have argued before (in issue 2 : 5 of this journal), is an important debate which raises crucial theoretical questions about a whole number of issues, but the debate at the Congress was very barren. When the Americans argued that Pol Pot headed a capitalist state, the Europeans pointed out that one of his first acts had been to liquidate the capitalists. When the Europeans argued that Pol Pot headed a workers’ state, the Americans pointed out that one of his first acts had been to liquidate the workers. Thus, no headway was made and it was agreed to ‘continue the debate’.

The blocs which dominate the debate appear to be fairly rigid and the general character of the debate is thus not a very productive one. A good indication of this came from the discussion around the question of Socialist Democracy. The main point at issue here was whether the FI should argue that socialist democracy could only be established if there were a number of soviet parties legally permitted. Despite some slightly opportunist formulations, the document bearing this title is generally quite unexceptionable and was consequently agreed by the FI leadership when first presented. Subsequently, the Americans discovered that one of the implications of this formulation was that Cuba does not meet the criteria laid down. The Americans, however, are convinced that Cuba is a healthy workers state. (Incidentally another example of diplomatic arrangements between blocs was that the previously hotly disputed question of Cuba was specifically not discussed at the Congress.) The SWP-US thus moved into opposition on Socialist Democracy. This placed some components of their bloc in a most uncomfortable position. An example was the Australian SWP which originally adopted the document unanimously at one of their Congresses. By the time they reached the World Congress they had been informed of the change of line and thus found themselves in the forefront of denouncing the document for all sorts of revisionist crimes. The Europeans made much play with this sudden conversion.

So long as the questions at issue are simply ways of interpreting the world the existence of the blocs provides an obstacle to serious discussion but does not seem to have very damaging consequences. Of course, the selection of subjects for debate purely on the grounds that they are of factional significance, and the conduct of debate along the lines of “my faction right or wrong” contributes to miseducating the comrades and is definitely not a healthy situation, but it need not lead to dangerous mistakes. But, since the FI does at least try to behave like a revolutionary party, even the most faction-ridden debate eventually has some consequences for changing the world.

The most outstanding example of this at the Congress was the debate on the World Political Resolution. This document was written some years ago and even when new hardly had an incisive character, as was pointed out by numerous delegates who characterised it as ‘worthy platitudes and banalities’. The reason for this, according to Bela Tampoe, the leader of the Sri Lankan section, was because this sort of formulation was the only one upon which Barnes and Mandel could agree. Consequently, the general debate was not very enlightening.

Much more interesting was the second section of the debate, quite separate from the general theoretical discussion, which concerned practical tasks. A separate report, delivered by Jack Barnes, spelt out the central axis of the work of the FI as being the problem of turning to the class. The bulk of the international is now united upon the importance of trying to develop a base in the industrial proletariat. This, of course, represents a considerable step forward for the FI compared with the orientation adopted at previous Congresses.

Unfortunately, the basis for the turn to industry was seen as being one of transforming the social compositions of the various sections by means of sending people into factories; what the FI calls ‘colonisation’. This proposition was accepted in principle by the vast majority of those speaking. The only public opposition came from the remnants of the LTT who argue that the central question is a further debate upon the question of the programme of the FI. Nobody at the Congress felt able to put forward an alternative perspective for turning to the class which would stress the need to transform the sections, and in particular their press, into organisations capable of attracting and holding new proletarian members. Indeed, the absence of political discussion from this session was very striking; while there was very little recounting of particular experiences the vast majority of speakers concentrated on the internal measures needed to ensure that the current members of the FI turn themselves into manual proletarians.

Our position on the attempt to transform organisations by exhorting existing members to change their jobs was spelt out in the last issue of this journal, but we regard the whole of this debate to be so marked by voluntarist errors that it is important to repeat some aspects of our arguments, even if it is only for the sake of the historic period.

In the first place, the current social composition of the FI – overwhelmingly white-collar – does not arise accidentally but results from the previous political line of the FI. There is nothing for the FI to be ashamed of in having made a mistake of orientation; the danger lies in the fact that the attempt to correct the mistake will be pushed through for the wrong reasons. In terms of Barnes’ report arguing for industrial work, this danger was very clearly present: he effectively argued that there had been a qualitative change in the nature of the class struggle on a world scale over the last couple of years which now made it correct to try to recruit manual workers in a way that was incorrect a few years ago. Now quite apart from the fact that, in Europe at least, a glancing acquaintance with the record will show that this is not the case, it is much more worrying that such an analysis is ultimately based on triumphalism. What is being argued is that the final crisis is coming, it is coming quickly, that there is not enough time to recruit the necessary worker cadres and therefore it is essential to transform the cadres that exist into workers in order to meet the tasks.

In the course of the European debate, later in the Congress, it was to become clear that the same policy of ‘diplomatic silence’ underlay this triumphalism too. The need for proletarianisation now was not analysed in terms of earlier mistakes which, as the LCR-EE (Spain) speaker argued, had kept the FI outside mass workers’ struggles at their height (e.g. in Portugal). Instead it was argued that it was the external situation that had changed, not the FI itself. And that could only be successfully argued by insisting that the world situation had now become ‘pre-revolutionary’.

The consequences of that political position were expressed most clearly by a leader of the ‘American-oriented’ New Zealand section. He spoke of colonisation as a ‘crusade’, and spoke of reaching a level of something like 80% of membership being industrial manual workers in a couple of months. In order to do this the only essential thing was for the leadership to ‘inspire’ the members to transform themselves from doctors to dockers. Now, quite by chance, the New Zealand section made the turn in the middle of a big wave of class struggle culminating in a General Strike. Not surprisingly, they have found a wide audience for their politics and perhaps the religious tone of their contribution is partly the result of that. What is certain, as many members of the FI agreed in private, is that there will be a downturn in the struggle and that the New Zealand section will face real problems: either they retreat or they will destroy themselves.

This was not the only position argued at the Congress. The Swedish section, for instance, argued for a much steadier, better prepared turn with the aim of recruiting substantial numbers of worker militants. They, for example, were the section who had thought things through to the extent that they realised that a proletarian organisation requires a very different type of internal debate to the current voluminous kind that the FI has. As they remarked, once the FI begins to recruit substantial numbers of genuine proletarians either it will change the nature of its internal debates or it will create two classes of members: the intellectuals who read the fifty-page resolutions and the workers who do not.

Between the two extremes, there were a number of intermediate positions. Although this, in itself, is a healthy sign since it is an implicit recognition of the fact that while the Congress may pretend to lay down the line, what is going to happen in this or that section will be up to the sections themselves. What was unhealthy, and in our view disastrous, was that the character of the debate prevented any discussion of the divergences.

Now, these divergences matter: there is a real danger that the only group of revolutionary socialists in New Zealand will destroy themselves. No-one in the course of a long debate even raised a single criticism of their position despite the fact that clear alternatives were presented. Further, it is not that the comrades of the FI are so out of touch with the reality of working class politics that many of them cannot see the dangers; most will probably agree with the above observation on New Zealand. However the diplomatic protocol between the warlords prevents this sort of discussion.

Thus the FI falls between two stools. While it is clearly not a genuine international party it does make some efforts to act as though it is one. But since it is built out of blocs of quite incompatible direction and composition the very efforts to work as an international place severe restraints upon its value as an arena in which serious difference can be thrashed out.

Having said that, it should be noted that the two blocs are not of identical character. The bloc dominated by the SWP-US appears to be extremely homogenous and to have a political direction marked both by the general sense of triumphalism remarked upon already and, at the same time, an extreme propagandist approach to political work. An index of this is the character of their work in industry. According to their leading comrades, once they establish a regular paper sale in a factory they attempt to convince the individual to take a subscription. For them, the certainty of postal delivery of the paper is much more important than the regular organised contact between party militants and their periphery. As a matter of fact, this is no mere lack of experience, since the comrades defend this position with great vigour.

The Europeans, on the other hand, are much less homogeneous. The various European sections presented a number of different approaches to industrial work. For example, the debate on the European resolution involved a discussion on the notoriously chameleon-like concept of the ‘class struggle left wing’. Although the debate failed to generate very much clarity on exactly what is meant by this term, a number of different interpretations did begin to emerge. One trend of thought – which is quite familiar from the experience of the British section – argues that the major danger in the turn towards industry is that of ‘economism’. In order to ensure that this disease does not run rampant, it is essential to make sure that ‘politics’ are brought into industrial work. This, of course, is an extremely silly argument since, as the comrades will very soon discover, the problem with industrial work – in Britain at least – has never been that there are no politics inside the factory gate but that there is an overwhelming dominance of politics. The problem is that these politics are reformist. Thus, the version of the class-struggle left wing which stresses winning alliances with those who are prepared to talk about ‘political issues’ like, for example, Nicaragua will in effect fail to mount any serious challenge to the bureaucracy. We in the British SWP now have at least a decade of experience which points to the blunt fact that the trade union bureaucracy is very willing to espouse left-wing causes in words, particularly when they are remote causes, but very reluctant to lead struggles.

That is why we have developed the theory of the rank-and-file strategy which argues that the central axis of trade union work must be directed at the base and must be committed to leading action against the bosses. For us, the question of alliances with this or that bureaucrat is a secondary and tactical one: the main thrust of our work cannot be subordinated to the need to make this or that alliance. In our perspective, winning of verbal support for whatever issue is only of significance in so far as it aids our ability to build action on that issue.

The main speaker, introducing the Resolution, was contemptuous of ‘basist’ connections. Yet he was also anxious to insist that the FI did not see its political task as ‘influencing the bureaucracy’. The problem, as the following Spanish speaker pointed out, is that the notion of ‘a class-struggle left wing’ within the labour movement is deeply unclear. If it is a principle of independent organisation of rank and file workers under the political leadership of revolutionaries (leadership won in practice) then it is either ‘rank-and-filism’ or it is nothing. Certainly no alternative was offered. If it is not a method of analysis-and-organisation (practice) then it is a list of political positions (back to the Transitional Programme) from which revolutionaries can launch their alternative list of candidates for union elections. The American SWP, in practice, uses it in the second sense.

Clearly, therefore, there are, within that bloc of the FI which looks to ‘Europe’ for its political identity, currents which are developing in a healthy direction and which have begun to learn from their experience of work in the labour movement.

The FI, then, is an important force with whom the SWP in Britain should try to develop some sort of relationship. From our point of view, a continuation of the debate begun in the last issue of this journal would be a valuable development. We would wish to make only one condition for such debates: that they should be conducted in the public press of the participants.

Will the comrades of the FI be willing to enter such a debate? That depends upon a number of things. The question of whether the FI considers the SWP in Britain to be a ‘revolutionary marxist’ organisation was put to the vote at the Congress. It was very narrowly carried. The leading body of the FI – called the ‘United Secretariat’ – necessarily reflects the political compromises upon which the FI is founded so, even though they might be guided by that vote, it is highly likely that they will adopt a temporising attitude in order to keep everybody as happy as possible.

On the other hand, the obvious approach of discussing directly with the individual sections will probably be blocked by the sensibilities of the leaders of the British section. Of course, there is a certain amount of slightly hypocritical posing in the IMG insisting that we discuss only with the FI. For their part, they are rather more selective: for example, the World Congress voted against the idea of women’s caucuses in the party but the IMG, quite correctly, have no intention at all of winding up their caucuses. But whatever the reality, we have to face the fact that, if the leaders of the IMG insist in standing on their international dignity, then the other sections will probably go along with them.

The dilemma does not seem to us insoluble. If it is possible to satisfy everybody by means of particular formalities then we have no objections. For us, political clarification is rather more important than constitutional niceties. We are sure that a formula can be found which will enable this journal and the journals of the various sections of the International to carry further discussions between the SWP in Britain and the FI. Such debate can only be to the profit of both organisations, and the international revolutionary movement in general.

Footnote by ETOL

1. In the printed text “LTT” but from the context this is obviously incorrect.

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