The following document was adopted by the ICL’s Eighth International Conference.
The collapse of the Soviet Union represented a fundamental change in the world situation. Given that its existence had defined politics on the left for almost 75 years, the USSR’s destruction required an in-depth re-evaluation of the world situation and the tasks of communists. In the years following this disaster, the ICL conducted multiple discussions and published substantial documents with this stated aim: the 1992 International Conference document, the 1994 SL/U.S. Conference document, the 1996 IEC Memorandum and the 1998 “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program” (IDOP). These documents are consistent in their analysis of world events and the tasks they set out for the party. However, far from representing a defense of Marxism in the opening years of the post-Soviet era, they are fundamentally revisionist. The tasks set for the party vacillate between a minimum program which is purely liberal and a maximum program which consists of guarding abstract Marxist formulas for future days. The documents all deny—sometimes explicitly but mostly implicitly—that the communist program has any decisive role to play in the struggles of the period at hand.
The World Situation
Marxism can guide the working class in its struggles because it is based on a scientific understanding of the class’s interests—both immediate and historic. A party that claims to be Marxist but does not have a correct political and economic appreciation of the current period cannot guide the working class according to its class interests. Severed from a materialist grounding, the tasks it will set for itself, and for the proletariat, will necessarily reflect the interests of other classes.
The ICL’s understanding of the post-Soviet epoch was wrong on practically every count, starting with the way it described the international situation. The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the triumph of U.S. imperialism and opened a period of relative geopolitical stability in which the imperialist powers jointly plundered the world under the umbrella of American hegemony. For the ICL, however:
This analysis, which was in complete contradiction to actual world events, was consistently upheld by the ICL throughout this period, including in its IDOP:
This totally wrong analysis did not originate from a lack of available facts or the complexity of the political dynamics of the time but from how the ICL conceived of its tasks. Nowhere in the hundreds of pages setting the tasks of the ICL is it demonstrated that the Marxist program provides the essential answers to the political and economic situation confronting the working class in the post-Soviet period. Whether strike waves in France, the situation in Germany following the counterrevolution or the peasant uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, our portrayal of events did not lead to the conclusion that Trotskyist leadership is decisive. We certainly asserted this fact, but such assertions were merely grafted onto events instead of flowing from the portrayal of the struggles themselves, whose every turn highlighted the conflict between the class interests of the proletariat and the program of its leadership. Rather, the ICL answered the wave of liberal triumphalism and the left’s defeatism by proclaiming that “Communism lives in the struggles of the working people and in the program of its revolutionary vanguard.” From a scientific program to guide the working class on the road to power, Marxism was transformed into an idealistic spirit of rebellion.
With this starting point, the ICL’s analysis of the world situation necessarily papered over the contradictions of the post-Soviet period in favor of impressionism and liberal exposure, as in the 1992 Conference document:
The conditions of life under capitalism are certainly brutal, but exposing this reality is not sufficient to motivate the need for social revolution. Empirical data showing human misery can be countered by empirical data showing social progress—especially in the 1990s and 2000s. The difference between a UNICEF flyer and the communist program is that the former presents facts that will evoke liberal outrage while the latter explains the class dynamics of world events to guide the working class in its struggle to overthrow imperialism. Since the method and aim of the ICL’s program was closer to the UNICEF leaflet than the communist program, its analysis of the world simply refracted the dominant ideology through a Marxoid prism. The result was an understanding of the world totally disconnected from reality and a capitulation to liberalism.
Liberalism as a Paper Tiger
The victory of U.S. imperialism over the Soviet Union expressed itself ideologically in the form of liberal triumphalism. Liberalism became the dominant ideology throughout the world and exerted a huge pressure on the workers movement. The ICL acknowledged the threat of liberal triumphalism only to brush it off as insignificant as early as 1992:
The ICL instead presented the world as defined by right-wing reaction:
From this and everything else written by our tendency in this period, one would conclude that the main obstacle we were confronting in the workers movement was chauvinist reaction akin to Europe in the 1930s. Flowing from this, the ICL set its task as that of confronting reaction and backwardness, presenting itself as completely unique in this regard:
This was disorienting, to say the least.
By painting the world as being in a dark age of chauvinist reaction with only the ICL defending democratic rights, we could present the most basic liberal demands as inherently revolutionary:
But why would the masses join a small communist organization to defend abortion or fight racism when there were mass movements and bourgeois parties claiming to stand for these same liberal principles? The only way to win the oppressed to communist leadership is to show how their current leadership—in this instance the liberals—paralyzes and undermines their struggle at every turn due to their loyalty to capitalism. But this required a fight against liberalism! Since the ICL denied that liberalism was even a force—the IDOP does not even mention liberalism—not only did it not build a communist pole in the various struggles of the time, but it totally capitulated to and tailed their liberal leaderships. To the extent that the various programmatic documents of the ICL in the post-Soviet period advocate specific intervention in the world, it is generally liberal activism or trade-union economism.
Marxist Jargon and the Communist Future
One would be remiss, however, to argue that the ICL was simply liberal in the post-Soviet period. The ICL did not solely define its role based on a minimal program of liberalism; it also aspired to the more historic role of transmitting the communist program to future generations. The IDOP describes this perspective as follows:
But what did the ICL mean by its “full program”? In the same IEC Memorandum which claimed the ICL was unique in opposing homophobia, we make the following reaffirmation of the need for communist intervention:
Such reaffirmations of abstract communist principles are rife throughout the ICL’s propaganda. While every single sentence is formal Marxist orthodoxy, the paragraph is entirely abstract and gives no indication of the political obstacles to bringing the working class to revolutionary consciousness. The question of revolutionary leadership can only be posed concretely, in opposition to the program and ideology of the dominant forces in the workers movement. But with the ICL denying the hold of liberalism in the workers movement, no amount of “transitional demands” could lead the working class to revolutionary consciousness.
This balancing between liberal activism and maximalist jargon defined the work of the ICL throughout the last 30 years. When the party went too far on the road of open capitulation to liberalism, it generally pulled back into a sectarian reaffirmation of the goals and worldview of communism. This tendency was already present in the 1992 International Conference document:
This statement very clearly encapsulates the perspective of the ICL after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We sought to “revive” the communist movement by exposing the bankruptcy of Stalinism and the horrors of capitalism and preaching the joys of the communist future. But divorced from a fight against the actual obstacles confronting the working class today, reaffirmations of even the most radical-sounding communist principles amounted to nothing more than liberal utopias.
IG and ICL: Two Satellites in the Orbit of Liberalism
The most significant split in the ICL’s history is the one which led to the creation of the Internationalist Group (IG) in 1996. As such, it is important to evaluate whether the IG represents the revolutionary continuity of Marxism in the face of the ICL’s revisionism in the post-Soviet period. In one of the IG’s founding documents, “From a Drift Toward Abstentionism to Desertion from the Class Struggle” (printed in a July 1996 pamphlet with the same title), former Workers Vanguard editor Jan Norden and longtime SL/U.S. cadre Marjorie Stamberg make the following critique of the ICL:
This is essentially correct. The ICL did not stop intervening entirely in class struggle—something the IG itself recognized—but in the fights with Norden and later with the IG, the ICL essentially argued that communist intervention could not play a decisive role in the current course of events because of the “retrogression of consciousness” in the post-Soviet period.
An example of this and a centerpiece of the 1995-96 struggle with Norden was the ICL’s denouncing as inherently opportunist any “regroupment perspective” with the Communist Platform (KPF)—a grouping within the PDS, the remnant of the Stalinist ruling party of East Germany (DDR). In 1995 the PDS was openly embracing social democracy under the blows of a vicious anti-Communist witchhunt pushed by the German bourgeoisie. In this context it was entirely conceivable that the more left-wing elements of the PDS could have been won to Trotskyism as the only program able to fight against capitalist reaction. No matter how likely or not such a scenario was, it was the duty of revolutionaries to fight as hard as possible against the consolidation of what would become Die Linke (Left Party) a few years later, by winning its best elements to a revolutionary program and pushing the rest toward direct liquidation into the Social Democratic Party. The ICL’s rejection of any perspective toward the KPF was a sectarian betrayal. As for the fight waged against Norden on this question, it was demagogic and false.
The focal point of the fight was the speech Norden gave in January 1995 at Berlin’s Humboldt University in front of a KPF audience. In the article justifying the expulsion of Norden and his supporters, the ICL argued that in his speech, “while invoking the program of Trotskyism, Norden presented a liquidationist view which denied the ICL’s role as the conscious revolutionary vanguard, repeatedly intoning that in Germany in 1989-90 ‘the key element was missing, the revolutionary leadership’” (“A Shamefaced Defection from Trotskyism,” Workers Vanguard No. 648, 5 July 1996). In fact, Norden’s speech did not deny the role the ICL played in the DDR, and it was true that the element missing in 1989-90 was revolutionary leadership. The ICL fought with all its might for leadership of the working class in the short-lived opening it had, but it was defeated in this attempt and counterrevolution prevailed. Numerous other accusations were made about the speech being soft on Stalinism, all of which were based on specific formulations that were not inherently unprincipled.
That the attacks against Norden’s 1995 speech were fallacious does not, however, mean that its content was principled, nor that the orientation toward the KPF that our German section pursued under his leadership was principled. The real problem in Norden’s speech is that there is not a single argument as to why Trotskyism was necessary in 1995. It was correct to seek to win elements of the KPF to Trotskyism—the very fact that they sat through a speech by the editor of Workers Vanguard speaks to this. But to do this it wasn’t sufficient to simply talk about the ICL’s past accomplishments, it was necessary to link them to the fight for revolutionary leadership in reunified imperialist Germany. Trotskyism vs. Stalinism in 1989 was important to highlight only insofar as it was used to motivate Trotskyism vs. social democracy in 1995. But this was not the perspective of the speech because it was not the perspective of the ICL. The ICL had no answer as to the qualitative importance of Trotskyism in the struggles of post-Soviet Germany, and neither did Norden.
Far from being opposed to the ICL’s perspective in the first years following counterrevolution, Norden and later the IG agreed with its fundamental lines—a point they consistently and truthfully insisted on. Norden played a central role in writing the 1992 International Conference document and the IG refers to it authoritatively. The founding cadre of the IG voted for the SL/U.S. 1994 Conference document. As for the 1996 IEC Memorandum, Norden opposed only the four paragraphs related to the fight against him over Germany. He characterized the rest of the document as “very good on the description of the period coming after the tremendous defeats for the working class represented by the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and East Europe” (quoted in “The Post-Soviet Period: Bourgeois Offensive and Sharp Class Battles,” in July 1996 pamphlet). These are the very documents which outlined the revisionist tasks and perspectives for the ICL exposed above. Every opportunist mistake or sectarian stupidity of the ICL in the last 30 years can be traced back to these documents.
Accordingly, the article launching the IG’s publication echoed the main elements of the ICL’s totally wrong analysis of the world:
While the IG claims to have upheld the fight for revolutionary leadership against the ICL, the truth is that when it came to how this was concretely posed in the post-Soviet period they were just as disoriented.
The problem is not that the IG projected sharp class struggle following the fall of the Soviet Union. Class struggle did not die in 1991, and there were major struggles around the world which provided important openings for communist intervention (South Africa 1994, Italy 1994, France 1995, Mexico 1999, etc.). The central question for communists is the political content of these interventions. Whereas the ICL tended to hunker down and reject tactics and transitional demands, the IG raised “transitional” demands that did nothing to drive a wedge between the working class and its opportunist leadership. “Active intervention in the class struggle” is not revolutionary if it does not help the working class overcome the obstacles in its way. And despite their different leanings, neither the IG nor the ICL had an answer to liberalism, the dominant ideology internationally and the main political obstacle they confronted in the workers movement. In short, neither provided revolutionary leadership.
Many of the most important disputes between the ICL and the IG have revolved around countries that suffer national oppression: Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Bolivia, Greece, Quebec. Whereas the IG was correct in denouncing some of the ICL’s most egregious betrayals in relation to these countries (2010 Haiti betrayal, refusal to fight for independence for Puerto Rico, etc.), they uphold the ICL’s historic program, which is the source of these capitulations (see “In Defense of Permanent Revolution”). The IG—just like the ICL in the past—opposes bourgeois nationalism in oppressed nations based on sectarian class purity instead of seeking to break its hold on the masses by showing how it is an obstacle to both social and national liberation. This approach is entirely counterposed to the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution. It rejects the fight for revolutionary leadership of democratic struggles and necessarily leads to chauvinist capitulation.
The ICL and the IG have spent almost three decades engaging in polemics dominated by hair-splitting and mutual slander while pursuing fundamentally parallel courses. This has been to the detriment of political clarity in the workers movement internationally. The fight that took place against the founding cadre of the IG in 1995-96 was politically unprincipled. Regarding the organizational measures taken against these former members, the record must be set straight. A proper investigation is mandated. There must also be a reckoning on the question of the ICL unilaterally breaking fraternal relations with Luta Metalúrgica/Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil (LM/LQB). These fraternal relations were intertwined with the internal factional disputes of the ICL, and our article justifying our break with LM/LQB provides no principled grounds for our action (“A Break in Fraternal Relations with Luta Metalúrgica,” Workers Vanguard No. 648, 5 July 1996).
The ICL is committed to breaking the status quo, to conducting serious political clarification and debate with the IG and engaging as much as possible in common action to defend the basic interests of the workers movement. Despite important programmatic differences, the ICL and the IG are relatively close on many issues. On the crucial question of China, the two are almost unique in our stated position for unconditional defense of the workers state and political revolution. As both tendencies recognize, we are entering a period of intense turmoil and conflict in the world. The course of events and struggle is sure to shake up the left, and it is the duty of both organizations to further political clarity over questions of revolutionary strategy in this new period. The fight to reforge the Fourth International is more urgent than ever. It cannot tolerate cover-ups, demagoguery, mudslinging or sectarianism. As Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Program (1938):
How to Explain the ICL’s Degeneration?
The destruction of the Soviet Union posed a major turn for the ICL. Whereas the terminal collapse of the DDR and the Soviet Union brought to the fore the ICL’s strongest qualities—staunch Soviet defensism, revolutionary determination, internationalism and tactical flexibility in action—the following period brought its weaknesses to the fore—dismissal of liberalism, revision of permanent revolution, American-centeredness and doctrinal rigidity. The ICL was a tiny International centered in imperialist countries, whose growth had already been stagnating for some years. Counterrevolution brought about a wave of demoralization and the party cracked under the pressures of this new period. The fact of the matter is that it was unable to effectuate the turn that was posed.
This was not a preordained outcome, nor was it irreversible. There were many turning points in the last 30 years that should have led to an in-depth re-evaluation of the ICL’s course. It was no secret to anyone that we were increasingly disoriented. But the more the years passed, the deeper the conservatism and opportunism became entrenched. The party’s historic cadre proved incapable of correcting our trajectory.
Yet the ICL was not dead. Despite decades of rejecting the task of providing revolutionary leadership, the party still managed to recruit a few handfuls of cadres internationally strongly committed to the fight for communism and attracted to the ICL by its revolutionary past. It took a global pandemic, the collapse of the organization and three years of struggle, but events have shown that there was still enough revolutionary juice in the ICL—including in some dogged old-timers—to fundamentally reorient the party and embark once more on the arduous path of revolutionary struggle.