This article first appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 53 (Winter 1997).
In 1976 a small number of comrades founded the League for the Revolutionary Party. It is no secret that the past twenty years have been hard times for all those who call themselves communists. Today however, we look backward upon our accomplishments with tremendous pride. And, most importantly, we eagerly look forward to the coming days with even greater confidence than we had to begin with.
Jim Cannon, the leader of the original U.S. Trotskyists, spoke of the early time when they were almost totally isolated by the strength of the Communist Party, which under the orders of Stalin had just expelled them. He referred to that period as the “dog days.” In contrast, the LRP – today’s Trotskyists – has had its “dog years.” Our organization was born at the beginning of a historic decline in the class struggle in the U.S., during which reformist leaders kept a tight grip on the masses, beating them into cynical passivity.
While we have recognized political errors as well as missed opportunities, altogether they are only a minor reason for our inability to break out of isolation. The real barrier has been the nature of the period we have gone through. Oppressive circumstances still affect us, but the cracks in the encircling walls are beginning to widen appreciably. Mass struggles are on the horizon.
Trotsky taught us to have little patience with those who judged an organization by size alone. Such people, he said, had only achieved trade union consciousness, not revolutionary consciousness. The decisive question in evaluating a political organization is the power and relevance of its political ideas. If our politics actually reflect the real interests of the working class and point out the road ahead, then with the necessary initiative and courage the numbers will come.
The past twenty years have witnessed the collapse of leftist organizations of far greater size and power than the LRP. Some have simply died. Others survived organizationally as husks, but have surrendered the aspects of revolutionary politics that once animated them.
In addition to newer comrades, a large percentage of the original cadres of the LRP are still with us, certainly as compared to other groups. Leftists whose standard for judgment is sheer activism tend to burn out and leave the movement quickly. We retain a toehold in industry when many others surrendered theirs. Comrades endured because our political ideas not only provided an accurate guideline to what was happening in the world over and again, but they were so clearly the ideas of authentic Marxism.
Our political program has always been starkly clear, and it remains so to this day: the LRP stands for proletarian socialist revolution. We are uncompromising in our interracialism and internationalism, making the struggle to re-create the Fourth International our most important task. We have made these clarion calls the center of our everyday work, not the usual leftist holiday incantations.
Of course, communism demands a high level of activity. Armchair theorists are worthless, because Marxism learns its lessons and finds real proof of its positions only in practice; its entire reason for existence is to help carry on the living class struggle. The party’s ability to lead its class can only be developed by these means. This requires the most careful attention to theory and analysis before, during and after active intervention. As Lenin observed, there can be no revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory.
Given the course of the class struggle over two decades, we have had only limited opportunities to participate in strikes, mass demonstrations and other working-class actions; but we have tried to take advantage of each. Our trade union work has been restricted to a handful of unions; but in those unions our supporters have a long record of open revolutionary work against the bosses and the bureaucracy. Our efforts at fighting to give direction to working-class student movements are well known but likewise restricted to a few locations. Knowing that capitalism is teaching yet another generation of Black, Latino, immigrant and women workers that oppression and superexploitation are its everyday weapons, the LRP has thrown itself into struggles against racism, chauvinism and sexism. We take pride not only in the amount of work that we have done for our small numbers but also in its political quality – and how much we have taught others and learned ourselves from these experiences.
In 1975-6, the Revolutionary Socialist League expelled its internal political minority, the Revolutionary Party Tendency, for its efforts to keep the RSL on a revolutionary course. Inside the RSL we had been subjected to a sustained anti-democratic attack which substituted lies and organizational restrictions for political argument. The Central Committee majority not only banned all members from reading our main document but suddenly ordered the end to the political discussion itself. After inventing a constantly changing series of charges, they threw out first our leaders and then all of us. (For an assessment of our fight, see Socialist Voice No. 1.)
In February 1976 we launched the LRP. Even though we knew that the utterly bureaucratic way that the expulsions were conducted stemmed from the fact that the RSL could not successfully deal with our political positions, our spirits were not lifted. Instead, it would be fair to say that our mood was that of grim resolution. The fact that the RSL had abandoned the revolutionary road was a tragic defeat. The bizarre character of the expulsions that signalled this desertion and defeat stood in counterpoint to the enthusiasm that had accompanied the formation of the RSL.
The RSL had been born out of a split in the International Socialists in 1973. The IS at that time was composed of both left Shachtmanites and followers of Tony Cliff, the leader of the British IS (now the Socialist Workers Party). The IS, as opposed to the other political groupings in the United States and around the world who claimed a heritage in Trotskyism, believed that Russia and the rest of the Stalinist nations were not degenerated and deformed workers’ states. ISers either claimed that these states were a new “bureaucratic collectivist” form of society, neither capitalist nor socialist; or else they held a very similar view that it was a totally new stage in the development of capitalism. Both views saw the Stalinist states as reactionary but as superseding traditional capitalism.
With the ebb of the 1960’s student movement, the IS had thrown itself into the working class and built up a considerable presence in major trade unions. As such it was centrally affected by the enormous working class explosions of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. In the wake of the massive French general strike in 1968, country after country around the world followed suit with massive proletarian uprisings. In the U.S., revolts ripped through the ghettoes and wildcat strikes broke out in a rising crescendo across the country. One by-blow was the split in the IS in 1973 out of which emerged the RSL, taking nearly half the membership.
In the fight against the IS right wing, we predicted that their work in building reformist “rank and file caucuses” in the unions, in which revolutionary politics were never to be raised, would inevitably lead the IS to align itself with mildly left bureaucrats. Today, the Solidarity group, which descended from the old IS, has openly abandoned even the pretence of Leninism and rests comfortably in the back pocket of Ron Carey of the Teamsters, Jerry Tucker of the Autoworkers and the like. They have even crossed the class line to endorse the bourgeois reformer Ralph Nader for U.S. president.
The RSL at its birth was tremendously energized. At last, we felt, there would be an organization which fought for an open revolutionary alternative to the bureaucrats; a group committed to the reconstruction of the revolutionary party in the U.S. and the rebuilding of a genuine Trotskyist Fourth International around the world. As opposed to the flotsam and jetsam of the centrist far left, the RSL fought for Marx’s idea that the working class itself could achieve revolutionary consciousness, build its own party and free itself and the world from capitalism. Authentic communist consciousness was no gift from condescending saviors.
Consequently, we rejected the cynical IS views of Stalinist Russia, both of which, rhetoric aside, dismissed the working class as the revolutionary agency undermining that system. In the RSL, we began to evolve the theory of Stalinism as statified capitalism. We rejected the degenerated and deformed workers’ state theories of the mainline pseudo-Trotskyists. Whatever errors in theory Trotsky made in his analysis of the USSR in the late 1930’s, he never believed that counterrevolutionary anti-proletarian Stalinists could make the socialist revolution and build workers’ states – the position adopted by the post-World War II pseudo-Trotskyists after contemplating the spread of Stalinism to East Europe and parts of Asia. It is not by accident that today so many of these epigones amicably share the Solidarity group with the former ISers.
In the early 1970’s, the mortal crisis of capitalism returned dramatically to the surface of events. The bourgeoisie began its offensive against all the gains made by the working class and the former colonial peoples around the world. In the U.S., the 1973-5 economic recession hit workers hard, and the labor bureaucracy was successful in isolating strikes and diverting the workers toward the Democrats and electoral non-answers. Thus, the working class and the oppressed minorities were set up for the massive retreat in the face of the capitalist attack that is still going on to this day.
This containment of the class struggle had its impact on the far left, driving groups to the right. Cynicism, above all about the role of the proletariat, deepened. In the RSL the leadership declared that the workers’ struggle in the coming years would be confined to “trade union and democratic demands.” This was not just a prediction but an announcement that the RSL would abandon raising the need for revolution as the class goal and conform to a reform perspective.
Not by accident, the RSL crystallized its position on calling for a labor party in the U.S., thus joining with the rest of the pseudo-Trotskyist milieu in a parody of the position adopted by Trotsky in the late ’30’s. In our faction fight, we pointed out that Trotsky had put forward the idea of such a party to a militant working class which had just created the CIO industrial unions and, facing an impasse, had to broaden its struggle to the political arena. Addressing these millions of fighting workers, it was impossible to be sectarian and just say “join us, the small Trotskyist party,” – these workers wanted a party that reflected the enormous power shown by their mass struggles. He argued that we, like them, want a mass independent workers’ party; therefore we call for it.
However, because we do not want a reformist party, we put forward our transitional program of class-wide policies that inexorably point to revolution but are also desired by workers who believe they can be achieved through reforms. Fighting side by side with the mass of workers and discussing the lessons of the struggle, we could win them to the idea of a revolutionary party, which we always advocate openly.
For Trotsky, the labor party demand was a tactic applicable under particular conditions. For the RSL and the rest it had become a permanent strategy, good for all situations. To raise it at a time when the working class was in retreat could only mean creating a reformist party or a playtoy for leftish bureaucrats. The RSL had adopted the manipulative idea of stagism – today a reformist party not created by working-class mass action but by the bureaucrats, tomorrow a revolutionary party. Under that scheme tomorrow never comes. Reformism, according to Bolsheviks, is a counterrevolutionary trap and not a step toward revolution. Thus the RSL, we pointed out, was heading toward capitulation.
The predictions we made twenty years ago have been more than proved. The bankruptcy of this labor party policy has been illuminated garishly by the Labor Party founding convention described in our last issue. The RSL, seven times our size at the time of the expulsion, disintegrated and finally disappeared. The times tested its cadre and its politics and found both corrupted, as we had predicted.
The adaptation of the various left groups to reformism via rank and filism and labor partyism reflects the conservative prejudices of the privileged middle class and aristocratic upper layers of the working class. The LRP recognized early that a healthy revolutionary organization pays special attention to the most oppressed and exploited layers of the working class. These layers’ conditions show the future of the whole of the working class; thus the historic interests of the working class are represented by the immediate interests of the most oppressed.
In the United States, this has meant paying special attention to the oppression of Black people, which has been an indispensable weapon of American capitalism. It has increasingly become the model for ruling classes around the world seeking to divide and weaken their own working classes.
From the beginning, the LRP concentrated on elaborating its interracialist strategy as an essential accompaniment to Marxist internationalism. The concept of proletarian interracialism was developed in response to the ghetto rebellions of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Those uprisings were the source of the real gains Blacks wrested from capitalism. Not only did the “inner city” workers and unemployed challenge the U.S. state; they also exposed Martin Luther King’s pacifist integrationism as a blind alley. Likewise, their acts sharply contrasted with the Nation of Islam’s combination of militant rhetoric with social passivity.
Capitalism in this epoch demands the superexploitation of oppressed workers; it can tolerate neither color-blind equality nor a separate Black national economy. Proletarian interracialism is rooted in the idea that genuine liberation and real equality can only be achieved through socialist revolution. It champions the right of Blacks to have their own independent organizations as a necessary step in the re-creation of an interracial working-class vanguard party.
A party that cannot foresee the general course of world events gives fair evidence that it is not a Marxist party. No one can predict with exact timing every sequence of actual occurrences. However, seeing the general direction of society is both necessary and possible for communists. Without this, no revolutionary strategy is possible. All individuals and all groups, no matter how well armed politically, make mistakes. The decisive question is how well they learn from their mistakes by testing them constantly against reality and come closer to approximating the course of coming events.
We know of no other group calling itself Marxist which predicted the direction Stalinism would turn. In the first issues of this magazine, we observed that the USSR, while strong militarily, was weak economically; the Stalinist countries were crippled by the system’s inability to eliminate all the gains of the working class made as a result of the October revolution. We predicted that the crumbling Stalinist economies would have to adopt the more traditional capitalist forms, like privatization and the market, to intensify their exploitation of the workers. We also indicated that they could go only part way in decentralizing economies, given the dominant centralizing and concentrating tendencies at work in all forms of capitalist society, especially in this epoch.
Internationally, despite the obvious hostilities, Stalinism was far more a prop for Western imperialism than a serious economic rival. At the height of the Cold War, we wrote that in all probability a future hot war would occur among the U.S., Japan and Germany; not centered on a struggle between the U.S. and the USSR.
We were laughed at by the left when we made these predictions. No one laughs now. Events in the East have confirmed our projections. The mainline pseudo-Trotskyist theory, in contrast, foresaw nothing. The momentous events culminating in 1989-91 took all these outfits by surprise. Their theory postulated a class difference between the “workers’ states” and capitalism; yet Stalinist rulers moved from one to the other peacefully!
The advocates of bureaucratic collectivism faced the same contradiction. The Cliffite state capitalists, spared that problem, nevertheless predicted nothing, having claimed that the U.S.-USSR cold war could only intensify. This notion stemmed from the outlook they shared with the other theories, namely that Stalinism, whether progressive or reactionary, would supersede traditional capitalism. Reality buried that nonsense also.
These analyses in all their variety were rationalizations for pragmatism, not guides to action. The false theories, reflecting the left’s underlying middle-class outlook, saw the Stalinist states either as progressive societies embodying workers’ power in a distorted way, or as systems where counterrevolution had wiped out the proletarian revolutionary gains or even the proletariat itself. Either way, the system was powerful and the working class deemed weak.
In contrast, our world view led us to see that Stalinism was in a state of permanent crisis, an exacerbated reflection of the overall world capitalist crisis. The working class was objectively very powerful but subjectively weak because of the absence of the revolutionary workers’ party and its struggle to advance class consciousness.
The decisive event that severed the last connections between the Bolshevik party of communist workers who led the revolution, and the state which was increasingly the property of the Stalinist bureaucracy, was the Great Purge at the end of the 1930’s. This consolidated the Stalinists as a ruling capitalist class. And unlike the “orthodox Trotskyists” who denied this counterrevolution, we maintained that the socialist revolution could only be made by the working class with its revolutionary party in the lead. They, on the contrary, did not let the crushing of the working class by the Stalinists in East Europe, China and elsewhere prevent them from seeing a progressive role for Stalinism and declaring the creation of “deformed workers’ states” in these countries.
We have constantly fought for Karl Marx’s central theme that the proletariat could achieve revolutionary consciousness only through its own class actions. Our defining concept has therefore been the struggle for the revolutionary party as the instrument of the advanced workers themselves.
While we have been restricted to a membership in the United States for most our organization’s life, we have always understood our politics to be that of an international tendency, the basis for a world party of the working class. The interests of the working class are international and can only be solved through the world socialist revolution. A party of the most class-conscious workers, bringing together their experience of class struggle in all corners of the globe, is necessary for the victory of the socialist revolution.
We seek to re-create the Fourth International, the world revolutionary party led by Leon Trotsky after the destruction of the Third International, and the inheritor of the revolutionary politics of the first three Internationals.
In 1987, after extensive political discussions which confirmed general political agreement, we formed a fraternal relationship with the Workers Revolution Group (WRG) in Australia. (See PR 28.) The world party we fight to build will be based on democratic centralism, whereby an international leadership will direct the general political struggles of its national sections. But our limited resources prevented such a centralism. Our fraternal relationship recognized this, expressing the fact that our two groups had broad strategic agreement but could not be responsible for each others’ important tactical decisions.
Five years later the LRP and WRG established fraternal relations with the League for the Revolutionary Party (FRP) of Sweden. At the same time, the three fraternal groups adopted the name Communist Organization for the Fourth International (COFI). (PR 41).
The 1992 general strike in Melbourne, Australia saw the WRG participate in a decisive class battle and win important experience for our international tendency. In the wake of the defeat of that struggle however, the cynicism that spread within the left infiltrated the ranks of the WRG and decimated the group. Then in 1995, political differences between us and the FRP of Sweden made it necessary to dissolve fraternal relations. (PR 46 and 48.) Today we maintain the banner of COFI as we move toward international ties which will be crucial in re-creating the Fourth International itself.
Our analysis of Stalinism is far from simply a historical question: it is key to our perspective on the mass revolutionary struggles looming on the horizon. We were able to foresee the collapse of Stalinism because we understood how the statified property relations of the East made those economies most vulnerable to the developing economic crisis of world capitalism. Thus we predicted that the collapse of Stalinism in the East would presage a similar crisis in the West, and so the deepening industrial stagnation and financial instability testifies.
Most pseudo-Marxist groups acknowledge that capitalism is headed for a crisis, but their theories point to the opposite conclusion. Those who saw Stalinism as progressive should expect a world capitalist resurgence on the basis of its collapse. Those who saw its societies as capitalist but nonetheless the trend of future capitalist development only show their confusion and pragmatism today.
The working-class eruptions in East Europe during the 1980’s showed Gorbachev & Co. the handwriting on the wall and brought the system down. Today, capitalism’s bestial agencies, national chauvinism and racism, are doing the dirty work of promoting fratricidal war among toilers around the world. Capitalism is forced to use these weapons because its system is collapsing.
In the post-Stalinist states, bourgeoisification is not proceeding easily; workers do not look favorably on the rampant inflation and mass unemployment that the “Western model” has brought them. In the West, the huge French strikes in late 1995 were echoed in late 1996 and are only a token of what is coming. In the South, the socialist-minded working class of South Africa grows more and more explosively angry over the lack of change brought about by the same old ruling class, now dappled with black faces.
The reformist misleaders of the working class avoid struggle by capitulating to capitalist attacks. They allow huge reductions in wages and massive growth in unemployment. They embrace division of the working class by openly accepting national chauvinism and covertly adapting to racism.
Nevertheless, mass upheaval and class confrontation are absolutely inevitable; a successful revolutionary conclusion is not. The fight to expose the reformist bureaucrats who dominate the unions around the world as well as their social democratic parties must be intensified. The class struggle received a magnificent shot in the arm when the grip of the Stalinists in the West as well as in the East was shattered; now the rest of the bureaucracy must be smashed if revolution is to succeed. A vital element in the political work necessary in order to re-create the authentic Fourth International is the fight against cynicism, especially cynicism about the revolutionary capacity of the world proletariat. Today, that is the major ideological armament of decadent capitalism and a chief weapon in the hands of its defenders within the workers’ movement, the bureaucrats.
The centrists, relatively small and dispirited today, still serve as a vital weapon for the bureaucracy. Their cynical theories still enable them to poison the growth of consciousness and to play a role in detouring advanced workers away from the crucial task of re-creating their revolutionary party. Combat with these forces is an important element in the struggle to build the vanguard party in the U.S. and abroad.
In contrast to the maneuverism of the cynical condescending saviors of Middle-Class Marxism, we reaffirm our belief in the lesson taught us by our major teachers – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky: a fighting working class needs to know the truth above all else. After twenty years, the LRP remains dedicated to the idea that a proletariat in action, aware of its real mass power, led by its most conscious vanguard, can destroy the rule of murderous capitalism and create a truly human society.
The Bolsheviks taught us that bad times steel the cadres of a revolutionary party fully as much as good times and successful class struggles. It is no accident that the LRP has not only endured the dog years but has gone far toward arming itself politically for the coming struggles.