The following article originally appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 28 (Spring 1987).

On the WRP’s Call for a Conference to Discuss the Crisis of “Trotskyism”

Re-Create the Fourth International!

The British Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) issued a call in January addressed to “all Trotskyists” for an International Conference later this year to take up the “urgent task of re-organisation of the Fourth International.”

The inspiration for this call comes from the rising tide of working-class struggle from South Africa to Central America, in the Stalinist bloc and Western Europe. Workers are demanding, through their actions, a revolutionary leadership counterposed to the middle-class nationalists and opportunists they are saddled with. They are by no means yet conscious of what they seek, but the political significance of the growing upheaval is clear to Marxists.

On the other hand, the various centrist leaders calling themselves Trotskyist have rotten and bloody records in responding to the need for revolutionary intransigence. Gerry Healy capitulated to the obscurantist politics of Khomeini and Qaddafi. The British affiliates of Ernest Mandel are indistinguishable from Tony Benn and other national chauvinists in the Labour Party; their United Secretariat, the most prominent pretender to the heritage of the Fourth International, advocates class collaboration in the popular fronts in Nicaragua and El Salvador as the path to social revolution. The influential Militant group does the same for South Africa.

Moreover, the “Trotskyist” label has been affixed to people who “understood” Ho Chi Minh’s need to murder the Vietnamese Trotskyists; it still is claimed by those who backed Jaruzelski’s counterrevolution against the Polish workers. Practically the entire milieu accepted Pol Pot’s Cambodia as a workers’ state. Some now refuse to give unconditional military support to nationalist fighters against imperialist in Lebanon, Ireland and elsewhere. The figure of Leon Trotsky, who fought tenaciously against all forms of corruption in the working-class movement, has been mummified by idolaters with blood on their hands.

Trotsky never ceased to maintain that the crisis of this whole epoch of capitalist decay could be summed up as the crisis of proletarian leadership. That is why the organizational and political independence of the revolutionary party was the first principle of the International Left Opposition. It is based on the irreconcilability of the class struggle under capitalism. All the pervasive issues – opposition to imperialism, socialist revolution instead of stagism, internationalism rather than nationalism, proletarian independence as opposed to class collaboration – are embodied in the independence of the vanguard party.

The history of those who claim to speak as Trotsky’s “orthodox” successors proves how right he was. The bitter irony is that calls to revive the Fourth International are being addressed by and to the very organizations whose theory and practice have been responsible for disorganizing and destroying it.

Nevertheless, some elements are questioning fundamentals and seeking a new road, recognizing the demands placed on them by the level of struggle. That is an important development. In our previous issue we analyzed the explosion that took place in 1985 inside the WRP and its international affiliates, formerly led by the notorious bureaucrat and charlatan Gerry Healy. We wrote:

As the bulk of the middle-class and labor-aristocratic left is pulled rightward, loyalty to the proletariat pulls other sections to the left. No wonder that in the wake of the British miners’ strike, as a consequence of both its proletarian potential and its bureaucratic betrayal, a few gusts of wind blew Healy’s little empire to shreds.

We also noted that the surviving WRP embodied “the most promising political ferment” within the debris of Healyism. In fact, the WRP itself recognizes that the workers’ struggle is responsible for both its own internal crisis and for the disarray in which the various self-styled Trotskyist groups find themselves. Further, it asserts that the reviving struggle contains the seeds of a rebirth of the revolutionary leadership the proletariat desperately needs. It is on this basis that the WRP issued its conference call.

The WRP is not the only tendency moved to act. Many organizations around the world have committed themselves to discussion; some already have regroupment strategies. Few have gone as far the WRP’s insistence on a re-examination of fundamentals. Given these groups’ treacherous history, unless a fearless re-examination is made they will provide only a path toward liquidationism rather than the necessary Bolshevik leadership. The very meaning of Trotskyism is at stake.

The End of the Fourth International

The Fourth International, founded by Trotsky on the eve of World War II, decayed in the 1940s and finally collapsed in the early 1950s. Its sections had unavoidably gone their separate ways during the World War. Despite acts of great heroism, some parties had made serious concessions to imperialist patriotism. And all lost their bearings when it came to the unexpected march of Stalinist revolutions across Eastern Europe. In 1948 the international leadership shamefully tailed after the dissident Stalinist Tito just before he capitulated to Western imperialism.

Marxist revolutionary optimism demands that communists not give up on gains achieved by the working class unless they have degenerated to the point of no return. By this method the end of the Fourth International as a revolutionary party came with the Bolivian revolution of 1952. Its section, the POR, was influential within the proletariat and had a chance to play a decisive role. Instead, with the International’s enthusiastic endorsement, it acted in classically Menshevik fashion, tailing the so-called “anti-imperialist” but even more anti-working class bourgeois nationalist party.

The Bolivian adaptation was intimately linked to the “deformed workers’ state” theory originated by the Fourth International’s chieftain, Michel Pablo. It held that counterrevolutionary petty-bourgeois forces like the Stalinists in Eastern Europe could carry out the socialist revolution and that “defense of the Soviet Union” was still on the order of the day. Trotsky observed that betrayal abroad always reflects class capitulation at home. Pablo’s deviation followed this pattern; it arose from accommodation to the popularity of post-war reformism in its Stalinist and social-democratic forms at home.

Pablo’s innovation also drew the organizational consequence: liquidation of Trotskyist cadre into the reformist and nationalist parties. This logic still hangs like a sword of Damocles over the future of every would-be Trotskyist defensist. Why not join the Stalinists if they are stronger than you and can make the revolution too?

Shortly after the Bolivian disaster the International shattered, as different strands sought different middle-class forces to adapt to – but all claimants had already abandoned in practice the fundamentals of Trotskyism. Since then there have been more fragmentations and correspondingly many blocs, regroupments and reorganizations (which then proceeded to re-split and re-merge) – all based on the denial of the centrality of the class-conscious proletariat for Marxism. With the gutting of the Fourth International and the break in revolutionary continuity from 1952 on, communists have no alternative but to fight under the banner of re-creating, not just reorganizing, the authentic world party of socialist revolution – the Fourth International.

How does the WRP proposal for reorganization fit into this picture? First of all, it is by no means clear that the WRP favors formal organizational steps in any immediate sense. The post-Healy WRP is an admittedly heterogenous group; the best elements within it may merely be seeking a clarifying discussion over vital questions that have been suppressed for so long. Other elements may want an inconclusive discussion so that they can merge with the more right-wing pseudo-Trotskyists inside the Labour Party who follow Mandel and Alan Thornett. Some may prefer the flirtations of the Latin American-centered Morenoite bloc. We are hardly close enough, politically or geographically, to judge. We can only approach the new international discussion with profound caution, given the history of unprincipled chicanery that has characterized post-war “Trotskyism” in general and Healyism in particular.

What is at Stake

We do not hide our objectives. Our disagreement with the entire “family of Trotskyists” is fundamental. Were this not the case we would grit our teeth and join in the moves to reorganize the existing splinters into one formation. Differences that are not those of class are secondary; to use them as an excuse for organizational separation is sectarian.

We are not alone in recognizing the seriousness of our differences. For many in the milieu, our unorthodox “statified capital” position on the “Russian question” and our consequent rejection of Soviet defensism are grounds for dismissal. But that is not even the heart of the matter. We have no more in common with the traditional (and to us Bukharinite) state-capitalists or new-class-societyists than we do with the orthodox workers’-statists. All surrender in theory the Marxist principle of the centrality of the conscious proletariat for socialist revolution. All abandon in practice the absolute independence of the proletarian international party from Stalinism, social democracy and petty-bourgeois nationalism. These are the fundamental questions from which the differences over Stalinism derive.

These issues convince us that the defensist and third-campist milieus are centrist. Centrism, however, is not etched in stone. Its ranks contain many subjective revolutionaries devoted to the achievement of a classless world – as well as the hardened cynics, habitual reformists and middle-class maneuverers. The post-World War II expansion of the middle class is collapsing along with the prosperity bubble that made it possible. Thus the material base for reformism is eroding. Under the current conditions of impasse at the top and upheaval below, centrism will inevitably polarize between the lieutenants of capital and the loyalists of the proletariat.

This is the perspective from which we assess the International Conference that we have been invited to attend. We will make every effort to intervene in the discussions now going on and in the conference itself. However, we declare ourselves to be observers rather than sponsors: we have no wish to present ourselves under false colors or to pretend that agreement exists where it doesn’t.

The WRP’s Call

In contrast to previous calls for international discussion and regroupment, the WRP recognizes that the desperate crisis of Trotskyism must be resolved, that they themselves have betrayed Marxist political as well as organizational norms, that fundamental questions have to be discussed anew. (In this they differ distinctly from the other discussants, even those enthusiastic about the proposed conference, who all act as though their politics are in fine shape.) The WRP’s document is also refreshingly free of the usual centrist sneers at “sectarians” for whom firmness of principle is still a Bolshevik virtue.

Indeed, much of the Conference call – especially the ten political points that the document highlights – has a very left-wing air. It attacks “liquidationism into social democracy and petty-bourgeois national movements.” It characterizes Stalinism as “counterrevolutionary through and through” (although at the same time it defines the states created by Stalinism as workers’ states, which must mean that Stalinists succeeded in making a working-class revolution, however deformed). It defends all national liberation movements against imperialism, and properly rejects “any formulas which imply a leadership role for bourgeois or petty-bourgeois forces.” All these are slaps in the face of the majority of pseudo-Trotskyist formations.

There are also serious problems with the WRP document. The Russian question is one, of course. The statified capitalist understanding of the USSR and similar countries is the only way to maintain Trotsky’s proletarian intransigence against counterrevolutionary reformism and Stalinism.

Another weakness is the WRP’s “reaffirmation of the Transitional Program’s demand for ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’.” This demand is tactical, used for breaking the mass of workers from their treacherous leaders in a revolutionary crisis. However, it has much more often been wielded by pseudo-Trotskyists as an after-the-fact justification for supporting popular frontist or Stalinist regimes. (See our article Myth and Reality of the Transitional Program,” in Socialist Voice No. 8). For example, the alleged “workers’ government” in Nicaragua provides the Mandelites their excuse for not advocating the creation of a Trotskyist party in that country. The WRP’s too-abstract formulation undermines the revolutionary interpretation by not specifically criticizing the opportunist alternatives.

But the fundamental misconception of the WRP is the implication that there exists a family of Trotskyism – that all those styling themselves Trotskyists, whatever crimes against Marxism they may have committed and still defend, are somehow bound together in defense of certain fundamental principles. The WRP suggests without actually saying that the Fourth International still exists: in multiple organizations if not one, in common political concepts if not a common body. In its words:

The continuity of the Fourth International has been a contradictory process, but it consists in the struggle for the continuity of Bolshevism against Stalinism, and against the liquidationist revisionism which has transmitted this Stalinist pressure into the Trotskyist movement.

But the crisis of the “Trotskyist movement” is precisely that its leading figures and organizations have not fought for Bolshevism against Stalinism. It is contradictory indeed to assert that Trotskyist continuity lies in the struggle against liquidationists and simultaneously to affirm that the liquidationists share this continuity. Such confusion is inescapable on the part of comrades who forget that in 1952 no section or leader of the International stood against the POR’s liquidationism in Bolivia. That betrayal severed the continuity of Trotskyism.

It is apparent that the WRP call reflects an opening to the left but not a clear break with the centrist milieu.

Morenoite Maneuvers

The opportunism inherent in the “family of Trotskyism” notion is underscored by the very issue of the WRP’s paper that contains the call for the International Conference. In it the WRP runs an uncritical obituary of Nahuel Moreno, the founder and leader of “Trotskyist” organizations that have wrapped themselves in the Peronist flag when not devoted to Castroism or Sandinism. (Workers Press, January 31, 1987.)

The Morenoites’ current organization, the International Workers League (LIT, its initials in Spanish) was born out of a recent split from Pierre Lambert’s right-centrist social-democratic outfit in France. It proclaims its strategy of the “revolutionary united front” with non-Trotskyists as the method of building the party – in contrast with the insistence of the WRP’s ten points on the struggle to build “revolutionary parties of the working class, sections of the Fourth International, in every country.” The Argentine section, the MAS (Movement for Socialism), was created as a bloc with centrists and “other left currents,” and its present “Trotskyist” status is questionable.

Of all the large pseudo-Trotskyist internationals, it is clear that the Morenoites’ is the one that the WRP is most entangled with in the pre-conference preparations. It had been negotiating with Moreno before his death, and the ten points appear to be an emanation of dealings between the two groups. Undoubtedly the Morenoites hope to emerge from the proposed International Conference with a bloc between themselves and the WRP on any basis whatsoever. Such a lash-up would be no more lasting than the Morenoites’ previous affair with Lambert and would make a mockery of all the high-minded principles advanced by the current WRP – but it would be perfectly consistent with Morenoite and Healyite history.

Despite its declared admiration for Moreno, the WRP does not seem to have swallowed his line. Last November, for example, there was a “Conference of Trotskyists and Revolutionary Socialists” in San Francisco addressed by representatives of the WRP and the British Mandelites. Here the Morenoites wanted the specific points to be conditions of entry into the international conference, in order to exclude Mandel’s United Secretariat (which does not favor building Trotskyist parties in all countries, namely not in Cuba and Nicaragua.) In fact, the LIT had at first wanted to exclude Mandel & Co. by fiat without troubling to find a political excuse for doing so.

The WRP, on the other hand, insisted at that time on an open conference. But in its published call the issue is smudged. “We will fight to defend and develop [the ten points] before and during the Conference,” the WRP writes, suggesting that they are not conditions of admission. However, right after the points are listed, the document extends its call for “a Conference on this basis,” implying the exact opposite and seemingly offering a concession to the Morenoites. Whatever this means, it is undeniable that the WRP is being less than forthright in its dealing with the highly maneuveristic LIT.

Murkiness from MRCI

Another intervention into the preliminary rounds of pre-Conference maneuvers is that of the Movement for a Revolutionary Communist International (MRCI) led by the British group Workers Power (WP). MRCI characterizes the Conference as an opportunity for genuine Trotskyists to confront pseudo-Trotskyist centrism, which is precisely correct. (Workers Power, January 1987.)

But it too fudges its intentions. MRCI concretizes its aims by calling for a “bloc of all those willing to combat centrism, both in theory and practice, in any such conference around a principled common declaration against the centrist distortions of Leninism and Trotskyism.” This reads like the pinnacle of Bolshevik candor except that the “centrist distortions” remain unspecified. Instead, the groups invited into the bloc are listed: the GOR of Italy, the RWP of Sri Lanka and the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) of the U.S. and Canada.

What are the unique principles shared by these groups that enables them to fight jointly against centrism? MRCI does not say. Nor can it: the BT, a Spartacist splinter, defends the armed suppression of the Polish workers in 1981 by the Jaruzelski regime – in contrast to the MRCI, the FOR and the RWP. What greater crime against Trotskyism can there be than to endorse Stalinist enslavement? If MRCI’s bloc has to embrace both sides of a civil war, no wonder the specifics of its political basis are left murky.

A revolutionary pole can only be based on a concrete revolutionary program, not an amalgamation of groups with deeply divergent politics. On the other hand, centrism by its nature uses revolutionary rhetoric to conceal reformist practice. Proposing joint political propaganda with the BT without demanding renunciation of its defense of Stalinism shows that MRCI’s “anti-centrist” bloc is itself a centrist dodge.

Further, although we would clearly not join such a bloc, it is indicative that MRCI does no challenge us to participate. Obviously MRCI is less embarrassed by a tendency soft on Stalinism than by the LRP, which supports workers’ revolution against Stalinism but considers it to be capitalist. This shows that MRCI is operating under the “family of Trotskyism” methodology in practice, even though it rejects such a view in theory.

MRCI’s centrist maneuver comes as no surprise, for Workers Power and its affiliates have ambivalent positions on key questions of proletarian independence. WP stays out of the Labour Party but – like the Cliffite SWP – invariably advocated voting for it, even when (as in 1979) Labour has been leading the bourgeois assault on the workers. It nominally favors building the revolutionary party in Britain, but in practice postpones a sharp counterposition to reformism until the moment of revolutionary crisis (see “A Powerless Answer to Reformism,” Proletarian Revolution No. 23.) For the oppressed countries similarly, it has resurrected the “anti-imperialist united front,” the Stalinist method of subordinating proletarian independence to bourgeois nationalism, from the oblivion Trotsky consigned it to in 1927.

These positions are all concessions to party liquidationism and are linked to the Pabloite deformed workers’ state theory that the MRCI shares with the other “Trotskyist” centrists. Together with its waffling over clear-cut opposition to counterrevolutionary Stalinism, this record undermines MRCI’s attempt to outflank the WRP from the left.

The Debate over Stalinism

MRCI’s openness to the BT reflects its own theoretical softness on Stalinism. Workers Power denies the WRP’s view that Stalinism is thoroughly counterrevolutionary. On the contrary, says WP, counterrevolution is only the “predominant character” of a “highly contradictory” phenomenon, because the Stalinist bureaucracy is still forced to defend “post-capitalist property relations.” (Workers Power, March 1986.) On the theoretical level if not in practice, this position is strikingly similar to that of the Spartacists and the BT.

What WP overlooks is that the bureaucracy defends nationalized property solely because it owns it; Stalinism does not defend but rather destroys the centralized (and therefore potentially planned) character of state property. Workers Power needs it theory of Stalinism as partly revolutionary because it has no other way of accounting for the Stalinist seizures of state power after World War II. According to WP, they created “degenerate workers’ states” that were never transitional to socialism (see “The Theory of Permanent Counterrevolution” in Proletarian Revolution No. 21) – a contradiction in terms and with reality.

Thus in this dispute the WRP is formally correct. For Trotsky at the very end of his life, Stalinism had moved from bureaucratic centrism to all-out counterrevolution because it was an unstable, conservative force that was setting the stage for the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. From our point of view, the restoration was completed on the eve of World War II; therefore Stalinism is counterrevolutionary because it is capitalist in the epoch of capitalist decay.

But the WRP’s superiority is purely formal, in that it leaves unexplained the Stalinist revolutions that allegedly created workers’ states by crushing the workers’ movements. In the WRP’s past, Healy (like Mandel) used his recognition of the counterrevolutionary nature of Stalinism as a means of capitulating to it: since the Chinese Communists had made a revolution, for example, that meant they were no longer Stalinist! The current WRP is looking for a way out, and has invited us to reply to a major discussion document of theirs on the post-war overturns.

The WRP’s unresolved position exposes it to the danger of abandoning the centrality of the proletarian party, a theoretical adaptation that Workers Power had already made. No wonder WP finds it impossible to avoid giving permanent electoral support to the Labour Party. Its revolutionary/counterrevolutionary theory of Stalinism is rooted in the more immediate need to see British reformism as ambivalent. This makes Workers Power downplay the immediate task of building toward the revolutionary party in counterposition to Labour.

MRCI’s professed desire to put up a fight against centrism is laudable in itself. It contrasts with what will undoubtedly be another variety of intervention at the international conference, typified by many of those at the San Francisco meeting. These groups are a variety of small fish, circling around each other to find the best vantage point for a little bite. Some are looking for a convenient excuse for fusions that hide long-lasting disputes under the table in the hope of an immediate ripoff; others are busy defending their sectarian exclusiveness despite the absence of fundamental class differences. This has nothing in common with the revolutionary method.

Our Intervention: Proletarian Independence

As it shapes up now, this conference will not lead to the re-creation of the Fourth International. But it may provide an arena for clarifying sorting out of tendencies. The key to the conference’s success is that there be a serious reconsideration of fundamental questions.

Our intervention in the international discussion will concentrate on fighting for our analysis of Stalinism, reformism and the revolutionary party. The Russian question, on which we hold so distinct a view, is central; it is in reality the question of the nature of capitalism as a whole in this epoch. We have no need, however, to make it an ultimatum. If left defensists fight consistently for revolutionary party independence, they will inevitably come to Marxist conclusions on the nature of Stalinism. We therefore challenge them to form a bloc on the party question. The struggle will prove which of us is right.

Any attempt to form a principled bloc against centrism must be based on clear concrete tests – lessons derived from the practical struggle, like those Trotsky specified in his campaign for the Fourth International in the 1930s. These must include the various ways in which “Trotskyist” centrists have chosen the wrong side of the class line on the party question. As outsiders to the defensist milieu, we hold that those who see themselves as its left wing should fight over the decisive questions that stain their tradition’s recent history, and therefore adopt the following points as the basis for their bloc.

  1. Rejection of popular-frontism, the strategy of political support to bourgeois parties and governments (even those in conflict with imperialism): no political support to even the “shadow of the bourgeoisie,” as Trotsky insisted in regard to Spain in the 1930s; no alliance with the Bolivian MNR in 1952; no coalition government in Ceylon in 1964; no political adherence to the ANC in South Africa today.
  2. Independence of the proletarian party in the struggle against imperialism: renunciation of the strategy of “anti-imperialist united fronts” as in China in 1925-28; proletarian military blocs with but no political support to the Chinese Maoists in 1949, the Cuban Castroites in 1959 and the Bonapartist Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the petty-bourgeois nationalist rebels in El Salvador today.
  3. Opposition to the liquidationist positions of “multi-vanguardism” or strategic “revolutionary united fronts” and for the construction of Trotskyist working-class parties in all countries: neither the Cuban CP nor the Nicaraguan FSLN nor the Salvadorean FDR-FMLN represent the vanguard party.
  4. Opposition to strategic entrism: no long-term entry into social-democratic or Stalinist parties as advocated and carried out by Pablo, Shactman and their followers in the 1940s and ’50s; opposition to the present-day long-term entrism into the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the Australian Labor Party, etc.
  5. No permanent blocs or united fronts; no political support to social democracy: the use of all proletarian weapons, including the general strike, against social-democratic as well as conservative and liberal governments; no permanent electoral support to the mass-based reformist parties, e.g., no vote for British Labour in 1979 or the French SP in 1981; in the U.S., no support for the Democratic Party or any of its politicians even if they run as “independents.”
  6. Independent parties to carry out the proletarian revolution under Stalinism: in Hungary against the Nagy government in 1956, in Poland against the reformist Walesa leadership in 1980-81, etc. The proletarian program for a democratic centralist workers’ state against Stalinism opposes all decentralist economic schemes (including those of “self-management”).
  7. Re-founding the Fourth International on international democratic centralism: no colonialist bureaucratic facsimiles like Healy’s or the Spartacists; no petty-bourgeois decentralist, nationalist and undisciplined blocs like Mandel’s.

We challenge the WRP, the MRCI, the GOR, the RWP and all comrades who see the need to fight for a revolutionary policy against the right-wing drift to adopt such a program. The above points are by no means the full program of a revolutionary international, but their adoption would be a major step towards a principled regroupment around the most fundamental questions of our time.

The underlying logic of these points, together with a favorable development of the class struggle, would bring the defensists’ theory into sharp contradiction with their practice. Their “degenerated/deformed workers’ state” position would be on a collision course with reality and would be shattered by the impact of great events.

In particular, if they rejected the purely democratic reforms typical of most “deformed workers’ state” views and agreed with us on the need for centralism, then they would in reality be advocating a social revolution. Centralization of the Stalinist economies requires a revolutionary transformation of the system that has been in operation since the mid-1930s, an overthrow of the class relations of production.

Developments on the world political scene also give our capitalist analysis of the Stalinist system practical support. For one thing, the reforms of Gorbachev and Deng – their adoption of openly capitalist techniques to stimulate their crisis-ridden economies – call into question the notion that the Stalinist economies are in any way “post-capitalist.” For another, as our tendency has long predicted, the international balance of forces is moving away from its present position where the U.S.-USSR confrontation is central; the American ruling class’s main national enemy may soon be Japan, or West Germany, or a combination of both of them as in World War II, or a bloc of one or both of them with the USSR. The question of “defense of the USSR” would then become secondary even to defensists.

If such comrades actually conducted a theoretical and practical struggle against those whose views lead to liquidating independent Trotskyist parties into Stalinism and social democracy, they will inevitably be forced to adopt our world view, including our position that Stalinism and the Stalinist states are alien to the working class.

The fundamental link between “Trotskyist” liquidationism and Stalinism, developed in the 1940s, was the adaptation to bourgeois nationalism conducted through the medium of the mass reformist parties. Defensist comrades today who carry their fight against party liquidation to the end will have no alternative but to jettison their position that socialist revolutions can be made by anyone other than the proletariat under vanguard leadership.

It is a criminal act to construct a political cover for counterrevolution. To do so in the name of Trotskyism is unspeakable. The Fourth International will rise again out of the struggle to cleanse Bolshevism of this hideous stain.