Nick Beams addresses 70th anniversary meeting

Capitalist breakdown and the revolutionary perspective of the Fourth International—Part 4

By Nick Beams
8 October 2008


Published below is the final part of a report delivered on September 28 by Nick Beams to a public meeting in Sydney on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Fourth International. Beams is a member of the WSWS International Editorial Board and National Secretary of the Socialist Equality Party (Australia). Part 1 was posted on October 4, Part 2 on October 6 and Part 3 on October 7.

The current crisis brings into sharp focus the fundamental political issues now confronting the working class. What plan, what program, representing the interests of the mass of the world's people, can prevent the catastrophe that now threatens the whole culture of mankind: economic chaos, the threat of war and a deepening crisis of the natural environment? And what kind of political party must be built to lead the struggle to implement it? These are the burning questions of the day.

In elaborating the perspective of the Fourth International in 1938, Trotsky explained that it should be called the World Party of Socialist Revolution, in accordance with its nature and its historic tasks. The eruption of World War I in 1914 had ended for all time the viability of national programs and perspectives.

The world party, he explained, embodied a program, that is, a closely knit system of ideas that elaborated its essential tasks. A program was not merely a set of immediate policies and demands, but was grounded on an assessment of the historical and strategical experiences of the international working class. Only on the basis of such a conception was it possible to educate and train a revolutionary leadership. It was not the party that made the program, but rather the program that made the party, he insisted.

This conception was opposed by all the various centrist tendencies and organisations at the time--many of them larger than the sections of the Fourth International--which claimed that this insistence on drawing the lessons of history and principle was dogmatic and sectarian. What was needed was to bring together all the oppositional tendencies and groupings to create a new and broadly based organisation. But it was Trotsky's perspective that was verified in the coming events. Not one of these other parties was able to survive the Second World War.

The post-war period posed new problems and challenges to the Fourth International. The restabilisation of the bourgeois political order, made possible by the betrayals of the Stalinist parties, coupled with the economic revival that followed, seemed to invalidate the perspectives on which the Fourth International had been founded. Furthermore, the conquests of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Eastern Europe and the victory of the Chinese and Yugoslav revolutions seemed to refute the thesis that socialism could only be achieved through the building of the Fourth International as the new international revolutionary leadership of the working class.

The new situation created tremendous political pressures within the Fourth International. These pressures were to find their expression in the development of revisionist theories, which maintained, in various forms, that rather than being obstacles to the achievement of socialism, the Stalinist and labour bureaucracies together with the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois nationalist leaderships, could actually, under mass pressure, become vehicles for its realisation. These revisionist perspectives began to be advanced by the two most prominent post-war European leaders of the Fourth International, Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel.

In a document entitled "Where are we going?", issued in 1951, Pablo wrote: "For our movement objective social reality consists essentially of the capitalist regime and the Stalinist world. Furthermore, whether we like it or not, these two elements by and large constitute objective social reality, for the overwhelming majority of the forces opposing capitalism are right now to be found under the leadership or influence of the Soviet bureaucracy."

This passage summed up the impressionist method that was to form the heart of the post-war revisionist outlook. The world was simply divided between the US and its allies on the one hand, and the Soviet bureaucracy on the other. The working class had no independent role to play and, consequently, neither did the Fourth International. It was reduced to the role of a kind of pressure group acting on the large bureaucracies that dominated the working class.

At the Third Congress of the Fourth International in 1951, Pablo spelled out the implications of his new outlook. It was necessary, he argued, to subordinate all questions of the independence of the Fourth International to "real integration into the mass movement" in every country.

This meant nothing less than the liquidation of the Fourth International. It was this perspective that led James P. Cannon, the leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the American Trotskyist party, to issue the Open Letter to the Fourth International. And it was the Open Letter, which reasserted the key principles on which the Fourth International had been established in 1938, that led, in 1953 to the founding of the International Committee of the Fourth International.

In a letter written in March 1954, Cannon summed up the issues that had arisen in the split, insisting that the Lenin-Trotsky theory of the revolutionary party, and its role as the leader of the revolutionary struggle, dominated all others in the present epoch. To maintain that the socialist transformation could somehow be carried out in a semi-automatic fashion was to abandon Marxism completely.

"No, it can only be a conscious operation, and it imperatively requires the leadership of the Marxist party which represents the conscious element in the historic process. No other party will do. No other tendency in the labour movement can be recognised as a satisfactory substitute. For that reason, our attitude to all other parties is irreconcilably hostile."

The founding of the ICFI in 1953 signified the opening of what was to become a protracted struggle against opportunism within the Fourth International. In 1963, the SWP moved to reunify with the Pabloites, on the grounds that the issues that had divided the movement a decade before were resolved. The reunification was based on a common assessment of events in Cuba--that Castro's petty-bourgeois nationalist movement had established a workers' state, and that Castro himself had become an "unconscious Marxist." All the issues of 1953 were raised again, albeit in a different form. If socialism could be achieved in Cuba under the leadership of the petty-bourgeois nationalist forces led by Castro, then what need was there for the Fourth International.

Moreover, the character of the Cuban regime was symbolised by the fact that Che Guevara--the icon of revolutionary struggle for all the middle class radical groups--warmly greeted Ramon Mercader, the assassin of Leon Trotsky, when he was released from imprisonment in Mexico and travelled to Cuba.

The repudiation of the liquidationist perspective of the SWP was led by the British Trotskyists, Healy, Banda and Slaughter, who deepened the struggle against Pabloism. Their stand was vindicated in 1964 when the LSSP, the Sri Lankan section of the Pabloite movement, entered the bourgeois coalition government of Mrs Bandaranaike.

All the historical and theoretical issues that emerged in the struggle against Pabloism were to erupt in the split in the ICFI in 1985-86, produced by the national opportunist degeneration of the British section, the WRP.

Differences with the political line of the WRP had been raised by the Workers League in 1982 over the ever-increasing opportunist shift of the party, especially in relation to the petty-bourgeois nationalist movements in the Middle East. These criticisms were suppressed by the Healy-Banda-Slaughter leadership.

But in 1985, when the opportunism of the WRP led to an explosion in the party, the criticisms of Workers League national secretary David North were able to win support from the majority of the sections of the International Committee and from a tendency in the WRP itself.

In the course of the split, Gerry Healy summed up the outlook of all the opportunist opponents of Trotskyism. He denounced the International Committee for seeking to pursue "whiter than white socialism of the purest water and the smallest number." In other words, adherence to principle, to the program of Trotskyism, could only produce isolation. Like Pablo before him, and his call for the Fourth International to integrate itself into the "real mass movement", the orientation of Healy, and of the various tendencies that split from the International Committee, was to the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The struggle against the WRP opportunists marked a turning point in the protracted and difficult struggle waged by the Trotskyist movement in the post-war years.

All the opportunist tendencies that attacked the Fourth International throughout the post-war period had drawn their strength, in the final analysis, from the domination of the Stalinist bureaucracies over the working class. But in 1985-86, enormous shifts in the world economy were in the process of shattering the structure of global politics. The Stalinist bureaucracies, upon which the opportunists based themselves, were about to collapse.

In the final analysis, the crisis of the WRP was the outcome of vast changes in the world economy--the globalisation of production-which have seen the decay and disintegration of all those parties and organisations that based themselves on a nationalist perspective.

Moreover, the victory of the International Committee in 1985-86 over the national opportunists of the WRP was the harbinger of an historic political shift. The globalisation of production, the integration of the world economy and, above all, the integration of the international working class, have today created the objective conditions for the perspective of the Fourth International--the construction of the World Party of Socialist Revolution-to be realised.

In a letter to James P. Cannon, Trotsky once wrote: "We work with the most correct and powerful ideas in the world, with inadequate numerical forces and material means. But correct ideas, in the long run, always conquer and make available for themselves the necessary material means and forces." Trotsky's perspective is now being verified.

At a superficial level, the past 20 years, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, have been difficult. It appeared to millions of people that the perspective of socialism had lost all validity. They did not understand that the disintegration of the USSR, far from representing the demise of socialism, was the end product of the decades-long betrayal of the October Revolution by the Stalinist bureaucracy. The analysis of the International Committee, that the collapse of the USSR was the outcome of socio-economic processes that would, sooner rather than later, shatter the foundations of world capitalism and the post-war political order, was far from apparent. Indeed the opposite appeared to be the case--capitalism was undergoing a new lease of life. It was, according to some, even the end of history.

But the ICFI's analysis has been verified in the breakdown of the world capitalist order that is now underway--a breakdown that has very definitely placed the perspective of world socialism back on the historical agenda.

These developments underscore the critical importance of the more than 50-year struggle waged by the ICFI to defend the program of Trotskyism against all forms of revisionism and opportunism.

In 1903, the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was regarded by many in the socialist movement as a product of the immaturity of the revolutionary movement in Russia, or was simply put down to those "quarrelsome Russians". But in 1917 the Mensheviks formed the chief political prop for the bourgeois government overthrown, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, in the October Revolution.

We are once again entering such a period of history. The struggle waged by the revolutionary movement against opportunism is going to assume decisive importance in the development of the struggles of the working class, and it will become clear to millions that the conflict between Marxism and opportunism is one of revolution or counter-revolution.

Let me direct your attention to developments in France--a country where it has been said that the class struggle is always fought out to a conclusion.

There the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR), the Pabloite party, is set to found a new anti-capitalist party (the NPA) at the beginning of next year. In an interview last March, the leader of the LCR, Olivier Besancenot, spelled out the explicitly opportunist basis on which this new organisation is to be built.

"The NPA aims to integrate currents from various traditions of the radical left. Does this integration have as its condition an explicit discussion on the legacy of these traditions, or can it only be done through practice and the convergence of concrete struggles. The discussion on the various ideological and historical ‘legacies' can be interesting. It will also undoubtedly be long. But we cannot start with that! Especially since the objective is to bring together men and women who, rightly, do not have a long history of party political commitment and do not identify with any of these traditions particularly."

There is no mistaking the political meaning of this rejection of history and principle. It constitutes a declaration by Besancenot to the French ruling class that under conditions where its chief props, the Socialist Party and, above all, the Communist Party--which played such a crucial role in rescuing French capitalism in 1936, in 1944-45, and again in 1968--have collapsed, the NPA stands ready to fill the breach. In the approaching revolutionary crisis, it will enter a bourgeois government to preserve the capitalist order.

And the bourgeoisie has replied: message understood. That is why Besancenot is the darling of news and talk shows, and the political commentary circuit.

It seems that the message has also been received across the Atlantic. The New York Times of September 13 features a very favourable article on Besancenot, based on an extensive interview. It describes him as the "extremely adept leader of the hard French left, a beacon for disaffected young members of the Socialist Party and the remnants of the once-powerful Communists." And what guidance is provided by this beacon! The headline on the article sums it up: "Light on the left guides his comrades towards France's mainstream."

Seventy years ago, in greeting the founding of the Fourth International, Leon Trotsky wrote: "We are not a party like other parties. ... Our aim is the full material and spiritual liberation of the toilers and exploited through the socialist revolution. Nobody will prepare it and nobody will guide it but ourselves."

The old parties, he continued, were rotten through and through. The "great events which rush upon mankind" would not leave one stone upon another of these outlived organisations. "Only the Fourth International looks with confidence at the future. It is the World Party of Socialist Revolution. There never was a greater task on the earth. Upon every one of us rests a tremendous historical responsibility."

In the context of the events now unfolding, these words have acquired even greater significance.