Spartacist English edition No. 58
Fourth ICL International Conference, Autumn 2003
The Fight for Revolutionary Continuity in the Post-Soviet World
The International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) held its Fourth International Conference in Europe in late autumn. As the highest body of our democratic-centralist international organization, the ICL conference was charged with charting our course in the coming period. That in turn requires a candid and critical assessment of where we have been in the past period, in the spirit of V. I. Lenin's words:
"A political party's attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfills in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification—that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses."
—"Left-Wing" Communism—An Infantile Disorder (1920)
Even more so than usually, pre-conference debate and the conference deliberations were marked by an intense re-examination of our public interventions and internal functioning in the recent period, casting a harsh light on problems and revisiting contentious or unresolved questions.
We remain in a period conditioned by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92. The final undoing of the world's first workers state has ushered in a global offensive against the working class and oppressed, and an ideological climate, dominated by widespread belief in the "death of communism," in which proletarian consciousness has been thrown back. At the crucial hour, in sharp contrast to much of the left, the ICL stood at our post in defense of the gains of the October Revolution of 1917. Nonetheless, the weight of this world-historic defeat has affected us as well, serving to erode the understanding of our revolutionary purpose in the fight for new October Revolutions.
Organized internal discussion was formally launched with a call issued on behalf of the International Executive Committee (IEC) some three months before the conference. This was followed by the drafting of a main conference document by the International Secretariat (I.S.), the IEC's resident subcommittee in our center. The IEC approved the draft document for submission to the conference following consultation and amendment, and conference delegates were elected in all of our sections.
In fact, however, intense internal discussion was already well underway by the time the conference call was released. What provoked it was the decision by some members of the Workers Vanguard Editorial Board, along with comrades in the resident Spartacist League/U.S. and I.S. leaderships, to excise from the published version of a 12 June 2003 letter from the International Bolshevik Tendency (BT) a postscript grotesquely accusing SL/U.S. National Chairman James Robertson of "vulgar chauvinism" (see WV No. 806, 4 July 2003). The vile smear by the BT—a tiny group founded by renegades who left our organization at the onset of Cold War II (the Carter/Reagan years) and whose purpose appears to be our destruction—was intended to invalidate several decades of our history, as well as to imply that the ICL membership are not revolutionary socialists but merely slavishly obedient tools, fools and perhaps racists themselves.
In a flat violation of our democratic-centralist practice, the existence of the "P.S." and the decision to excise it were concealed from the bulk of the IEC and from comrade Robertson himself. An Editorial Statement in the next issue of Workers Vanguard (No. 807, 1 August 2003) noted that this excision implied guilt through evasive silence and stated that these actions "could be borrowed from the practices of centrism, i.e., a divergence between what we stand for and what we do."
The failure of the WV Editorial Board and elements in the I.S. to defend our party and its integrity provoked an outpouring of outrage from cadre around the ICL. Comrades emphasized that this was a blow at the programmatic continuity which links us to the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of James P. Cannon through the fight of the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) in the early 1960s against the SWP's revisionist degeneration. The pre-conference discussion was dominated by an attempt to grapple with the political drift from our revolutionary purpose that took graphic expression in the WV Editorial Board's actions. Our main conference document soberly noted, "An inability to deal with the world created by the fall of the USSR, and the consequent retrogression in consciousness, lies at the root of the ICL's current crisis."
The document added: "Failure to recognize the period we are in and the necessary relationship of our small revolutionary vanguard to the proletariat, and the absence of the Soviet Union as an active and defining factor in politics, have led to disorientation. Frustration and impatience over the disparity between our small size and slender roots in the working class and our proletarian internationalist purpose have led both to opportunist lunges and sectarian moralism." Accompanying this was an increasingly abstract and sterile approach to politics, and a pattern of breaches of our Leninist organizational norms by central cadre in the I.S.
By the eve of the conference, a sharp internal polarization had developed. However, it became clear that the frustrations and antagonisms which had developed toward those responsible for such organizational breaches and for the broader political drift that had led to the excision of the P.S. had been deflected into a false fight: an attempt to find a fundamental deviation in the party on the nature of Stalinism. It took considerable effort to establish that there were no fundamental programmatic differences on this score, and to put the conference back on track to deal with the real problems the ICL faces. The false fight served to deflect a full exploration of actual departures from our program and purpose, together with their causes and the means for rectification.
The conference was able to take some steps to clarify and rectify these problems through wide-ranging debate and discussion, and elected a new, significantly broadened international leadership. The main document, adopted unanimously by the delegates following substantial discussion and amendment, insisted:
"What is posed today is whether we will fight to maintain our revolutionary continuity or buy into and ultimately surrender to the worldview of our opponents. To these opponents, the issue of revolution, the Russian question, is an 'old' question that does not fit into their 'new world reality.' But as James P. Cannon stated powerfully in 1939, 'We are, in fact, the party of the Russian revolution. We have been the people, and the only people, who have had the Russian revolution in their program and in their blood'."
Historical Antecedents of the ICL
In an early conference session, James Robertson gave a presentation on programmatic and other antecedents of the ICL, dealing with an earlier period where enormous changes in the world engendered political disorientation. Robertson stressed the importance of the Russian question in the political evolution of the youth who were the core of the Revolutionary Tendency inside the SWP. The fall of Stalinism in East Europe and the USSR has massively validated Trotsky's view of the bureaucracy as an unstable caste, an excrescence on the collectivized property forms which were the basis for the USSR and the deformed workers states of East Europe. But in the post-WWII period, many ostensible Trotskyists reacted impressionistically to the expansion of Stalinism into East Europe, coming to view Stalinism as a stable alternative to capitalism and the wave of the future.
Robertson noted that the anti-Stalinist left of the time was dominated by two symmetrical revisionisms. Michel Pablo and his supporters insisted that the degenerated workers state in the Soviet Union and deformed workers states in East Europe would last "several centuries" and that Trotskyists must give up on the fight to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy by political revolution. They argued that the only choice for revolutionaries was to enter Communist and/or other reformist parties around the world and push them in a revolutionary direction. With their liquidationism, the Pabloites destroyed the Fourth International in 1951-53.
The leader of the other revisionist trend was Max Shachtman, who broke with the Fourth International in 1940 when he abandoned the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defense of the USSR. The Shachtmanites came to view Stalinist "bureaucratic collectivism"—which they defined as a new form of class society—as a wave of horror competing with imperialist capitalism for world domination. Under the impact of the Cold War, the Shachtmanites evolved into social-democratic reformists—and some into imperialist apologists—as they came to see "democratic" imperialism as a preferable alternative to "Stalinist totalitarianism."
With ostensible Trotskyism dominated by liquidationism and demoralization born of impressionism, Robertson spoke of how difficult it was to reacquire the lessons of the early Communist International and of the fight of Trotsky's Left Opposition against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Robertson was part of a developing left wing inside Shachtman's youth organization in the 1950s. This left wing was propelled into the SWP by the proletarian political revolution which unfolded in Hungary in 1956. During this revolution (ultimately crushed by Soviet troops), the Hungarian bureaucracy split, with many going over to the side of the insurgent workers councils—vivid evidence that this was a brittle, contradictory caste, not a new social class.
The SWP had fought to uphold the historic program of Trotskyism, first against Shachtman and then against Pablo. But the Cold War had an impact on its cadre as well. Only a few years after the leftward-moving Shachtmanite youth joined the party, the majority of the SWP cadre embraced the liquidationist methodology of Pabloism under the impact of the Cuban Revolution. Hailing Fidel Castro as an "unconscious" Trotskyist, the SWP gave up on the struggle to forge revolutionary proletarian parties to lead workers revolutions around the world. At the 1961 SWP convention longtime party cadre Morris Stein exclaimed that the Cuban Revolution was the only revolution he was likely to see in his lifetime. This was emblematic of the demoralization that led to the SWP's descent into centrism and then reformism. Thus it was left to the younger cadre who formed the RT to take up the fight for revolutionary continuity (see "Forty Years of Spartacist," page 14).
Robertson noted that it is an unfortunate fact of life that individual life spans do not necessarily correspond to the rhythms of political developments. In his autobiography, My Life, Trotsky noted that the German Reformation and the French Revolution, representing two different stages in the evolution of bourgeois society, were separated by almost three centuries. The rhythm of political developments has certainly accelerated over the last century, an epoch of capitalist decline where proletarian revolution has been on the historic agenda. Nonetheless, as Trotsky commented in My Life, one cannot "measure the historical process by the yardstick of one's personal fate."
Impatience and impressionism, epitomized by the likes of Michel Pablo, are the characteristic weaknesses of cadre who have been schooled in only one historical period. From our origins as a small group of revolutionary Marxists in the United States, the ICL has struggled to cohere a historically evolved, collective international cadre as the only evident road toward a reforged Fourth International. Individual Marxists will not necessarily live to see revolutionary proletarian opportunities in their lifetime. Nonetheless, many ICL cadre have lived through one such opportunity—the nascent political revolution in East Germany (German Democratic Republic—DDR) in 1989-90.
The Fight for Trotskyism in the DDR, 1989-90
The main agenda point at the conference began with three presentations. The first report reviewed the work of the ICL and our International Secretariat in particular since our last conference in 1998; a second was devoted to China; and the third, given by a leading member of the Spartakist Workers Party of Germany (SpAD), specifically addressed recent internal discussions comparing our experience in the DDR and Soviet Union with developments in China today.
We threw all our resources into the struggle to effect a proletarian political revolution in East Germany as part of the fight for the revolutionary reunification of Germany under the rule of the working class. This defining struggle of our party, and our fight to mobilize the Soviet working people against imperialist-backed counterrevolution in 1991-92, heavily informed the conference deliberations.
The October Revolution was the signal event of the 20th century, opening a new epoch for humanity. In ripping power from the hands of the capitalists and landlords, the working class rose up to become the liberator of all the oppressed of Russia and a beacon for the proletariat internationally. For much of the 20th century, Marxism-Leninism—even when only in name—was the dominant influence in the left wing of the workers movement in much of the world. But by the late 1970s, the "Eurocommunist" parties of West Europe were repudiating even lip service to the dictatorship of the proletariat, while the bulk of the pseudo-Trotskyist left joined in tailing behind imperialist "human rights" anti-Sovietism. Little more than a decade later, the vast majority of the left, from the West European Communist parties to most ostensible Trotskyists, either collapsed or stood openly with the forces of "democratic" counterrevolution.
Where much of the left caved in to imperialism and counterrevolution, we can be proud of what we fought for and stood for. We said, "Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!" as Soviet forces fought to defeat a CIA-backed insurgency of anti-woman Islamic fundamentalists in the 1980s. We denounced the Soviet withdrawal in 1988-89, offering to organize an international brigade to fight in Afghanistan and raising funds in solidarity with the civilian victims in the besieged city of Jalalabad. Against the counterrevolutionary onslaught led by Boris Yeltsin in league with the Bush Sr. White House in August 1991, we distributed over 100,000 leaflets in the Soviet Union raising the call: "Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!"
Our intervention in East Germany in 1989-90 was the most sustained in the history of our international. We initiated a call, taken up by the ruling Stalinist party, for a united-front protest demonstration—against the fascist desecration of a Soviet war memorial and in defense of the DDR workers state—that brought out some 250,000 people to East Berlin's Treptow Park on 3 January 1990. As Treptow showed, the impact of our program was far greater than our numbers alone would indicate. Our revolutionary propaganda was getting a hearing in the factories of East Berlin and among DDR army units, some of which picked up our call for workers and soldiers councils. For the first time in more than six decades, Trotskyists addressed a mass audience in a deformed workers state: our speaker called for the forging of an egalitarian communist party and for the rule of workers and soldiers councils. The Treptow mobilization posed the possibility of organized working-class resistance to the imperialists' drive for capitalist annexation of the DDR. Ten years later, justifying his decision to pull the plug on the East German deformed workers state in the face of a frenzied imperialist anti-Communist barrage after Treptow, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged as much in a TV panel discussion on the events of 1989-90:
"We changed our point of view on the process of unification of Germany under the impact of events that unfolded in the DDR. And an especially critical situation came about in January . In essence, a breakdown of structures took place. A threat arose—a threat of disorganization, of a big destabilization. This began on January 3 and [went] further almost every day."
As we wrote in the document of our Second International Conference in 1992, "The workers of the world, and we among them, suffered a grave defeat with the victory of the Fourth Reich. But we fought" (Spartacist No. 47-48, Winter 1992-93).
In the last decade there has been a wealth of new documents and histories published about the fall of Stalinism in the Soviet bloc. The ICL needs to review the fight against capitalist counterrevolution in the DDR and the Soviet Union in light of this new information, as part of our political rearming. The conference voted to mandate an international educational project and discussion on this topic.
Conference delegates also reviewed some wrong or one-sided formulations that have occurred in internal debates and articles about our intervention in the DDR. Prior to his defection from our ranks in 1996, Internationalist Group (IG) leader Jan Norden had proposed a bogus "regroupment" initiative toward the putative left wing of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the remnants of the East German SED (Socialist Unity Party) Stalinists who sold out the DDR. At a public talk at Berlin's Humboldt University in January 1995, Norden amnestied these class traitors by claiming they had been "paralyzed" at the time of the counterrevolution and could not "conceive" of a political revolution—which would have been aimed at their overthrow. Norden denigrated and denied the ICL's role as the conscious revolutionary vanguard, repeatedly intoning that "the key element was missing, the revolutionary leadership." In reply to Norden, one leading comrade countered that "we were the revolutionary leadership" and that the SED-PDS, far from being paralyzed, "led the counterrevolution" by doing all within its power to prevent a proletarian political revolution.
These assertions of our revolutionary purpose contained an important kernel of truth against Norden's rush to abandon Trotskyism and the ICL. At the same time, they were polemical excesses in the heat of battle. As one comrade noted at the time, a more dialectical way to express our intervention was that "we were the revolutionary leadership in the struggle to become." Nonetheless, formulations such as "the PDS led the counterrevolution" and "we were the revolutionary leadership" were wrongly reasserted in our polemics against the IG and in subsequent internal disputes. A dogmatic insistence by the I.S. on these formulations in debates in and with our German section damaged our work, and served to foreclose critical evaluation of our 1989-90 intervention.
An understanding of the capitalist counterrevolution in East Germany does not lend itself to a pithy slogan, nor can it be separated from the role of the West German imperialists and the Kremlin Stalinists. It was Gorbachev who called the shots in East Germany. By the time the SED regime collapsed in the fall of 1989, the Kremlin was no longer committed to maintaining Soviet military and therefore political dominance in the DDR. When Treptow raised the spectre of organized working-class resistance to counterrevolution, Gorbachev moved rapidly to give a green light to capitalist annexation of the DDR. Treptow was a turning point; afterward the SED-PDS as well embraced counterrevolutionary reunification.
After considerable discussion, the following amendment to the conference document was introduced and unanimously accepted:
"It is not correct to say 'the PDS led the counterrevolution in the DDR' and 'we were the revolutionary leadership' in the incipient political revolution in the DDR in 1989-90. These formulations are better: 'We were the only contender for revolutionary leadership of the working class in the revolutionary situation in the DDR in 1989-90. We can be proud of our fight for revolutionary leadership.' And 'When the Kremlin sold out the DDR to West German capitalism, the SED-PDS tops adapted to the betrayal and became the PDS'."
The conference also reaffirmed the statement in our 1992 conference document summarizing our role in the DDR in 1989-90: "Although shaped by the disproportion of forces, there was in fact a contest between the ICL program of political revolution and the Stalinist program of capitulation and counterrevolution."
The counterrevolution in the USSR and each of the East European deformed workers states must be analyzed in the concrete, as must the growing threat of counterrevolution in the remaining deformed workers states, notably China. In Germany, there was a powerful imperialist capitalist class in the West, but in the USSR there was no capitalist class at all. There the indigenous forces of counterrevolution issued out of the bureaucracy (and elements of the intelligentsia and the criminal layer) as it underwent terminal collapse. In several East European countries, notably Albania, Bulgaria and Romania, capitalist restoration was effected under the leadership of the various Communist parties in the absence of "market reforms" and of any immediate imperialist military threat. And in the case of China, there is an extant bourgeoisie overseas and in the region (Hong Kong, Taiwan), as well as a capitalist class being nurtured on the mainland that in alliance with foreign imperialism aspires to topple the deformed workers state.
China: The "Russian Question" Today
In addressing China, of major concern to the delegates was the dearth of ICL propaganda on that question from May 2002 until the period just before the conference—almost a year and a half. Comrades noted that there had been felt incapacity to address the historically new situation in China, and that the failure to grapple with this expressed a tacit agnosticism toward the fate of the deformed workers state. China is the "Russian question" today. But it is posed in a new and unprecedented way. In calling for unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union, we had to argue against various forms of bourgeois and "left" anti-Communism. In defending China, we confront the view now common in both bourgeois and leftist circles that China has already become or is irreversibly becoming capitalist. And underlying that impressionistic view is the reality of the massive inroads that capitalism has made at the socio-economic level there. As the reporter on China remarked:
"In 1992, when it was clear that the Soviet Union was gone and was not coming back, who in our tendency would have predicted that over a decade later the People's Republic of China would continue to be a bureaucratically deformed workers state with the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] exercising a monopoly of political power and even less open dissent and fractiousness than we had seen before? Well, if somebody in our tendency was that prescient, he or she should be giving this report, not me."
The ICL had been caught unaware by the incipient political revolution that occurred in China in June 1989. From our inception as a tendency we focused on the deformed workers states under direct military threat from U.S. imperialism: Cuba and Vietnam. In the 1970s and '80s our justified disgust at the Beijing bureaucracy's criminal alliance with U.S. imperialism against the Soviet Union led us to pay qualitatively too little attention to developments within China. This was compounded by the fact that our attention was focused in the late 1980s on the unraveling of Stalinist rule in East Europe and the USSR. Against the Maoists, social democrats and pseudo-Trotskyists of various stripes who were at best indifferent to the fate of the USSR, we warned that should this military and industrial powerhouse go under, the Chinese deformed workers state could not long survive in isolation. As a general historical statement this warning was and remains correct. But translating this into a short-term projection following the collapse of the USSR led to an implicit understanding that China and the other deformed workers states (Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba) would in short order follow suit. The 1994 SL/U.S. conference document asserted: "The Chinese Stalinists, with the support of Japanese and significant sections of American imperialism, are moving to attempt a cold restoration of capitalism from above" (Spartacist No. 51, Autumn 1994).
What were the main factors underlying this analysis and projection? With the destruction of the Soviet Union, American imperialism was increasing its direct military pressure on China. The Pentagon began shifting the bulk of its forces from Europe to the Far East and actively pursuing plans to develop effective first-strike capacity against China's small nuclear arsenal. The Beijing regime was increasingly opening China's economy to the pressures of the world capitalist market, thereby strengthening those social forces that will give rise to imperialist-backed, openly counterrevolutionary factions and parties when the bonapartist Stalinist regime enters into a political crisis. Added to this was the ideological pressure of imperialist triumphalism ("death of communism") to which the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy and intelligentsia were certainly not immune.
Looking at China in part through the prism of the last period of the Soviet Union, we projected the disintegration of the Stalinist bureaucracy in a comparable time frame. However, the Chinese Stalinists also looked at what had happened in the Soviet Union, drew their own lessons and have acted accordingly. Unlike the Gorbachev regime, the Chinese Stalinists did not accompany the introduction of their variant of perestroika (market reforms) with glasnost (political liberalization). By maintaining its monopoly of political power and organization, the CCP regime has been able to carry out its economic policies, more or less, and enforce the laws and regulations governing the Chinese economy.
More fundamentally, the Beijing regime is still constrained in implementing "market reforms" by the fear that it could be toppled by social—especially working-class—unrest. This came close to happening in 1989 when student-centered protests for political liberalization and against corruption triggered a spontaneous workers revolt. Its suppression by regime-loyal army units was a close thing, as more than a dozen senior commanders of the People's Liberation Army initially refused to carry out orders to suppress the Tiananmen protest. Again unlike the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, the Chinese workers have already experienced a measure of capitalist exploitation—and they don't like it.
For the past several years, there have been large-scale and widespread popular protests and labor struggles, especially over the massive layoffs in state-owned industrial enterprises. To date, through a combination of repression and concessions, the regime has managed to contain these at the level of localized economic actions. Nonetheless, at its base China is a profoundly unstable society. Sooner or later, the explosive social tensions will shatter the political structure of the ruling bureaucratic caste. And when that happens, the fate of the most populous country on earth will be starkly posed: capitalist enslavement and imperialist subjugation or proletarian political revolution to open the road to socialism.
In this regard, our 1994 formulation was wrong in implying that a restoration of capitalism could take place while the Stalinist regime remained intact. Correcting this, the current conference document noted:
"The Stalinist bureaucracy is incapable of a cold, gradual restoration of capitalism from above. A capitalist counterrevolution in China would be accompanied by the collapse of Stalinist bonapartism and the political fracturing of the ruling Communist Party. What would emerge from the collapse of a Stalinist bonapartist regime, i.e., capitalist restoration or proletarian political revolution, would depend on the outcome of the struggle of counterposed forces."
While stating that "mistakes in predicting the tempo at which events unfold are in themselves not fatal," the document warned against a proclivity to accept the regime's juridical pronouncements regarding privatization of state-owned industry, entry into the World Trade Organization or admission of capitalists into the CCP as "end game." This proclivity had been sharply criticized in an I.S. motion in June 2000, which stated that to premise our conclusions exclusively on the actions and intentions of the bureaucracy "relegates the proletariat in China to the role of being merely the passive object of either the Stalinist bureaucracy or the imperialist bourgeoisie, not a force capable of its own independent action" against the continued erosion of the gains of the 1949 Chinese Revolution. The decisive arena in which capitalist counterrevolution would have to triumph in China (as it did in East Europe and the former USSR) is the political arena, not simply through a quantitative economic expansion of the private sector.
Comrades noted earlier difficulties in writing propaganda about China. One example was a polemic against the IG's opportunist search for a wing of the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy that was putatively committed to defense of the workers state and the struggle against capitalist restoration ("IG on China: Looking for a Few Good Stalinist Bureaucrats," WV No. 715, 11 June 1999). We recalled Trotsky's statement that the bureaucracy defends the collectivized economy only to the extent it fears the proletariat. But we bent the stick too far and argued that "the CCP bureaucracy is intent on restoring capitalism" and "the main force leading the drive for capitalist restoration today is the Stalinist regime itself," implying that the Beijing bureaucracy was no longer subject to the constraints of its parasitic position atop the collectivized property forms and had taken on attributes of a ruling class. In a subsequent polemic with the IG, we effectively corrected our earlier article, stating:
"In China today, insofar as it is pushing market-oriented 'reforms,' conciliation of imperialism and repression of workers' struggles, the bureaucracy is leading the drive for capitalist restoration. Top elements of the bureaucracy and their offspring have entered into partnerships with American, Japanese and European capital, or with the Chinese bourgeoisie which was not destroyed as a class by the 1949 Revolution but was able to keep its cohesion by fleeing the mainland. At the same time, there is a crucial difference between the act of counterrevolution itself and the lead-up to it. In that sense, the Beijing regime is not committed to capitalist restoration and sectors of it might balk at the consequences, particularly in fear of the kind of devastation wreaked on the industrial and military power of the former Soviet Union and, in some cases, because of genuine concern for the current and future plight of the workers and peasants."
—"IG: Still Looking for a Few Good Stalinist Bureaucrats," WV No. 746, 17 November 2000
However, WV never made clear, as it should have, that we were correcting the earlier polemic. And it would have been better to have stated that the Beijing bureaucracy is "promoting and greatly strengthening the forces of capitalist restoration," rather than "leading the drive for capitalist restoration."
The reporter on China observed that the problems we face today are rooted "in the objective complexity of the situation and the historically unprecedented post-Soviet international context." But, he warned, "We have to be much more scrupulous than we have been about testing our prognoses against the actual course of events.... There should be no subjectivity here, because otherwise we will invariably distort reality so as to conform to our prognoses, which is the exact opposite of historical materialism."
Youthful Activism and the "Death of Communism"
While this is a reactionary period, it is also a very contradictory one. The U.S. imperialist war against Iraq engendered the biggest demonstrations in years in North America, Europe, the Near East and many Asian countries—impelling millions of young people into political struggle—and even political strikes and labor actions against the war. The U.S. military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq were relatively easy but the occupation, particularly of Iraq, is another matter. Much of the semicolonial world is marked by significant instability. In Latin America, discontent with neoliberal regimes has generated a wave of nationalist populism. Throughout Europe, North America and elsewhere there has been a significant rise in youthful activism, much of it associated with the "anti-globalization" movement. The sections of the ICL are recruiting, albeit unevenly. Yet the political worldview of the generation that has been politicized by hatred of "global capitalism" and opposition to the war against Iraq is for the most part far removed from historical materialism and a proletarian perspective, and these youth confront a world in which Marxism is widely portrayed as a relic of the past.
Marx and Engels noted in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism produces its own gravediggers in the proletariat. The workings of capitalist imperialism propel millions of proletarians into struggle against war, unemployment and racism. But to forge a "class for itself" that can vie successfully for state power requires the intervention of a Leninist vanguard to advance the acquisition of revolutionary proletarian consciousness and root out forces of national, racial and religious division. The destruction of the USSR has made this task more difficult, as the "Call for the Fourth Conference" pointed out:
"We no longer have even a nominally Marxist proletariat. The European revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871 and most importantly the October Revolution of 1917 took place a long time ago and seem remote from present experience and consciousness of most working people. The weight of the defeats and the ensuing social catastrophes of capitalist counterrevolution flatten the understanding of our cadre that the ICL was, and is, the party of the Jalalabad campaign, of Treptow, the party of the Russian Revolution, and of new Octobers, leading the way to the coming transformation of the world."
One comrade noted that we could project our organization becoming a revolutionary leadership in Germany in 1989-90 because this conformed to the objective situation. In the 1960s and '70s, when many of the leading cadre of the ICL joined our tendency, the Vietnamese made a successful social revolution against U.S. imperialism, while the French imperialists were defeated in Algeria. The more advanced sections of the proletariat were motivated by revolutionary strivings; the French bourgeois order survived the May 1968 general strike only because of the treacherous betrayal of the Communist Party. Today there are certainly militant defensive labor struggles, but the workers in the main do not connect them with the goal of a new October Revolution. Our nominally Marxist opponents are largely left social democrats. For example, while 30 years ago the members of the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) were adulating the leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party with chants of "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh," in 2002 the LCR gave electoral support to right-wing French president Jacques Chirac.
The failure to take into account the changes in the terrain on the left in the post-Soviet period, which includes the proliferation of anarchoid groups, contributed to a sectarian decision to boycott on principle the November 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. A motion of the SL/U.S. Political Bureau motivated this on the grounds that the protests would be "dominated by national chauvinism, racist protectionism and counterrevolutionary attacks on the Chinese deformed workers state" (WV No. 725, 10 December 1999). It was correct to draw a sharp line politically against the reformist left that enthused over the "battle of Seattle" and tailed after the anti-Communist, pro-Democratic Party labor bureaucracy. However, the way to do this was to intervene with our communist propaganda addressed to the left-liberal and radical activists who were drawn to Seattle out of a desire to protest the worst excesses of capitalism—not to equate them with the anti-Communist AFL-CIO tops.
This abstentionist policy was reversed in practice through internal debate on the eve of another "anti-globalization" protest in Washington, D.C. the following April. We have stood out as the revolutionary Marxists who take on anarchist and syndicalist prejudices polemically while forthrightly defending militant anarchist youth against bourgeois state repression and the violence-baiting of the "left" tails of the bourgeoisie. But the failure to publicly correct our abstention on principle from the Seattle protests was damaging and disorienting both for our cadre and for those who follow our work.
Our Second International Conference document of 1992 foresaw the re-emergence of anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist tendencies; subsequently we published a historical pamphlet, Marxism vs. Anarchism, directed at such youth. However, we did not gauge the extent to which communism has been equated with failed Stalinism in the post-Soviet period. With the aim of arming our comrades to better address this sort of consciousness, the recent ICL conference featured a stimulating educational presentation on the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and the role of the "Friends of Durruti"—left anarchists who were critical of the treachery of the Spanish anarchist leadership. The talk was given by a young comrade from the Trotskyist League of Canada who had himself been won from an anarchist background.
The conference took note of opportunist departures that accompanied the pattern of sectarianism. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the intervention of leading cadre outside our center was crucial to our continued capacity to function under extraordinarily difficult conditions. This entailed an ongoing struggle to combat opportunist flinches as well as empty bombast in our propaganda. The most pronounced example of the former was our failure for a full month to publicly state that Marxists draw a distinction between attacks on institutions like the Pentagon—which directly represents the military might of U.S. imperialism—and random terror against innocent civilians, as in the case of the World Trade Center. Our position on this question had been codified at an SL/U.S. West Coast Central Committee group meeting on the night of September 11, where one comrade noted, "If it were just the White House or Pentagon, that's life (although it is also stupid as one of the problems with terrorism is that it always gets innocent people—here there were the people on the commercial plane as well as the Pentagon cleaning staff)." The failure to state publicly that we viewed the Pentagon attack differently from that on the World Trade Center was all the more notable given that this line was endorsed at an SL/U.S. Political Bureau meeting four days later. As the Fourth ICL Conference document noted, "This was a political flinch in the face of the wave of American patriotism following the September 11 attacks."
Impatience and disregard for objective reality is frequently the handmaiden to opportunist lunges and get-rich-quick schemes. In this regard, it is useful to keep in mind the advice of comrade Trotsky: "After all, opportunism expresses itself not only in moods of gradualism but also in political impatience: it frequently seeks to reap where it has not sown, to realize successes which do not correspond to its influence" (1924 introduction to The First Five Years of the Communist International). Where we have had successes, it has been through intelligent criticism and intervention against our opponents—not through inventing a false reality in order to avoid political obstacles.
The sharply changed terrain on the left and among young activists, and its implications for our work, was summarized in a letter written by long-time ICL cadre Joseph Seymour shortly after the conference:
"Predictably, the post-Soviet period has given rise to significant leftist groups, tendencies and milieus which do not speak and do not want to learn the language of 'Marxism-Leninism.' Such groups and tendencies are characterized by theoretical eclecticism and/or a reversion to pre-Marxist concepts and modes of thinking. The latter is true of the more orthodox anarchists while the broader 'anti-globalization' movement is characterized by eclecticism....
"It is very difficult to effectively address leftist groups, tendencies and milieus whose worldview, whose very methodology, is so different and distant from ours. Because it is difficult, I think there has been a tendency to avoid this task and to underestimate its importance for the ICL in the current period."
The political consciousness of members of those groups which continue to claim the Trotskyist tradition as well as the remaining Stalinoid groups has also changed. This is especially so for their younger members, whose consciousness was formed during the post-Soviet period. Seymour noted that a source of disorientation in the past period "has been a search for the same kind of leftist activists which we recruited in the U.S. in the early 1970s and in West Europe in the mid-late 1970s and early '80s," i.e., individuals who had studied and accepted, at least formally, the doctrinal principles of Leninism, and could be recruited and assimilated to our tendency fairly easily. He added:
"In approaching Trotskyoid groups in Europe we should operate from the premise that we are targeting serious and thoughtful left social democrats with rational humanist values. More than that we should not expect. With one important difference the same approach should operate with regard to Trotskyoid groups in Third World countries (e.g., Brazil, South Africa). The difference is that many members of these groups are closer to being left populist nationalists rather than left social democrats."
Reformism and the Post-Soviet World
As part of the pre-conference discussion, comrades reviewed earlier documents guiding our international work. A critical assessment of past work is a necessary task for a Marxist organization; only popes are infallible. One symptom of our political problems was that much unfinished business remained in that regard.
Citing Trotsky, a 1996 IEC Memorandum stated that reactionary periods like this one disintegrate and weaken the working class and its vanguard, lowering the general ideological level of the movement and throwing political thinking back to stages long since passed through (see "Norden's Group: Shamefaced Defectors from Trotskyism," International Bulletin No. 38, June 1996). It correctly stressed that the ICL must swim against the stream and retain its programmatic positions. However, the memorandum underestimated the strength of reformist tendencies. Referring to Trotsky's writings on centrism in the 1930s, it stated "that the political exposure and destruction of our centrist opponents is the key task in opponents work." At the same time the document wrongly projected that the bourgeoisies "are also dumping the intermediaries and brokers (parliamentarist and trade union) they previously maintained and cultivated, the better to contain and control the working class."
The assertion that our key battles right now are with the centrists (like Norden's IG) is misleading and understates the extent to which political consciousness has been thrown back. There is little that exists today that is classically centrist, i.e., organizations in political motion, breaking to the left from reformism, or to the right from revolutionism toward reformism. Trotsky was writing during the Great Depression, when the bankruptcy of the Stalinized Comintern in the face of Hitler's rise to power generated significant left-centrist currents in the social-democratic parties. The centrist formations of the 1970s have moved sharply to the right, particularly in the context of Cold War II when they bowed to the drive of their own bourgeoisies to reconquer the Soviet Union for capitalist exploitation. As an index of this rightward motion it is notable that several putatively revolutionary organizations—including the French LCR and the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Workers Power—signed an appeal to the European heads of state in 2002 to take a public stand against the impending war on Iraq, falsely treating the European bourgeoisies as a progressive counterweight to U.S. imperialism.
The tendency to see social democracy/reformism disappearing as a force in West Europe was in part an impressionistic response to the very real efforts of the West European bourgeoisies to dismantle what remains of the "welfare states" erected as a means of diverting proletarian unrest in the period following WWII. But as one comrade noted in a March 2002 letter to the I.S.:
"The particular reason for the 'welfare state' was taken away with the demise of the Soviet Union. But that does not mean that there are no limits to the bourgeoisie's immiseration of the working class. As long as there is capitalism, the question of reform or amelioration is not permanently or even in the middle run off the agenda. The ruling classes of the advanced world are not predisposed to spend money to ameliorate the conditions of the masses but reform is not an on-off switch where before you couldn't lose and now you can't win."
The letter noted that the view that the material basis for social democracy had been removed with the destruction of the USSR was ultimately sectarian: "Either there's the Soviet Union and concomitant 'welfare states' or there's no Soviet Union, no possibility of reform/adjustment, no role for Social Democracy, i.e., nothing other than us."
The 1996 IEC Memorandum was drafted at a time when most of the major West European countries were being administered by right-wing bourgeois parties. After social democrats started being elected somewhat later, the I.S. projected that discontent with these governments and the mass reformist workers parties would directly benefit the ICL in an organizational sense. It was held that our opponents on the left would be easily discredited by virtue of their having supported the election of the social democrats and that we could make substantial organizational gains. An I.S. Memorandum of January 2000 exaggerated what were defensive labor struggles and posited:
"In Europe and elsewhere, the conditions which have given rise to the growth of the fascists can also lead to proletarian explosions which will go outside and beyond the framework of bourgeois parliamentarism provided by the existing reformist misleaders in the workers movement and their centrist tails. This could provide opportunities for exponential growth for even small Trotskyist propaganda groups, provided we actively seek these opportunities and intervene effectively."
This projection substantially overstated the existing consciousness of the working class and, conversely, underestimated the real political obstacles that must be overcome in order to win workers and youth to a Marxist perspective. Similar mistaken projections disoriented our work in the U.S. as well. After having initiated a hugely successful united-front labor/black mobilization that drove the Klan out of New York City in October 1999, we extrapolated from this powerful defensive struggle to project a qualitative leap in proletarian class consciousness and wrongly posited a unique opportunity for mass recruitment of young black workers.
When working people in Europe began expressing discontent toward Jospin's French popular front or the Blair government in Britain, our larger left opponents like Lutte Ouvrière and the British SWP adapted to this by becoming more critical of the governments in power without in any way altering the fundamental reformist content of their programs. Recruiting individuals requires winning them politically away from a reformist or left-liberal worldview to genuine Marxism, a process much more difficult than exposing a right-wing social-democratic party.
The projection of "historic breakthroughs" and exponential growth was disorienting, particularly to the European sections, and led as well to cadre being falsely criticized when they were unable to achieve these unrealistic expectations of recruitment. It was in this context that the statement "we were the revolutionary leadership"—which had been raised appropriately, albeit in exaggerated form, in the struggle against Norden's liquidationism over 1989-90—was reasserted at a 1999 SpAD conference by representatives of the I.S. and imposed on our German comrades as a sectarian formula ripped out of any context. At the same time, the I.S. wrongly insisted on asserting as a slogan of intervention in Germany (but not in other ICL sections) the one-sided and incorrect formulation, "the PDS led the counterrevolution," which could only serve to sterilize polemical combat against the reformist PDS.
Thoughtful Marxist intervention requires attention to developments in a given society, not empty bombast. Britain, for example, has seen a growing schism between the Labour Party leadership under Tony Blair and the party's historic trade-union base. This split is not being propelled as Leninists expected, through a proletarian revolt against the right-wing Labour leaders. Instead, Blair & Co. are moving to break from Labour's working-class base and even from the union bureaucracy that surmounts that base, with the aim of transforming the party into a bourgeois formation analogous to the U.S. Democrats. In this context, we paid close attention to Arthur Scargill's establishment of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP). In the 2001 general elections, the Spartacist League/Britain extended critical electoral support to the SLP, giving us an active vehicle to demonstrate opposition to Blair's New Labour while counterposing the Bolshevik program to Scargill's "Old Labourism."
A panel discussion on specific characteristics of the imperialist system in this period included reports by comrades from our American, British, Japanese and South African sections. One reporter commented on the loss of American hegemony in the imperialist world in the early '70s as the U.S. got bogged down in its losing counterrevolutionary war in Vietnam. This opened up a period of resurgent interimperialist competition. However, he continued, "things do not stand still in the world, and the American capitalists fought back against their West German and Japanese economic rivals, mainly by going after the unions in the U.S. and jacking up the rate of exploitation. Enter the Carter/Reagan/Bush years. Coming at the end of this period, the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union gave enormous impetus to a second round of global capitalist investment."
Our 1996 IEC Memorandum projected too rapid an escalation in diplomatic and military tensions among the imperialist powers, stating that the partitioning and occupation of Yugoslavia in the wake of the nationalist civil wars of the early '90s "lays the basis for future conflicts and wars, including possible use of nuclear weapons." Such telescoping of the pace of developments can only lead to political disorientation. In fact, it took more than a decade for there to be a major rift at the diplomatic level between Washington and the main European powers, over the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The relationship among the various imperialist powers is different than in the period before WWI and the October Revolution inasmuch as no power can as yet compete with the U.S. on the military level. However, U.S. imperialism's overwhelming military hegemony does not reflect a similar qualitative economic superiority, and inevitably its rivals will seek to redress the military balance. Growing interimperialist tensions put different pressures on our various national sections, which must be addressed through ongoing examination and discussion.
A number of comrades spoke to a discussion in the ICL about the character of advanced capitalist countries that play little to no independent role on the world scene. An amendment to the main conference document was adopted, affirming, "Neither export of capital nor military strength are in themselves sufficient to make a country imperialist. The question is historically derived and concrete. Britain, Canada, Australia, Switzerland are part of the imperialist division of labor— variously senile, jackal, junior partner imperialists." Further discussion was mandated on these and related questions, notably the unique character of South Africa.
The conference also discussed the issue of standing for executive offices in bourgeois elections. Communists do not accept positions that make them responsible for administration of the bourgeois state, which necessarily means class collaboration. The German Communist Party's decision to enter the regional governments of Saxony and Thuringia in 1923 was part of the political disorientation of the party that led to the derailing of a promising revolutionary situation (see "A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern," Spartacist No. 56, Spring 2001). However, Cannon's SWP ran candidates for president of the U.S. and other executive offices, while the Spartacist League/U.S. has run for local offices like mayor. The conference document asserted:
"It is principled to run for such offices, as long as our candidates explain beforehand that they have no intention of assuming such offices if elected and make clear why it is necessary to forge a workers government to expropriate the capitalists and sweep away their machinery of class oppression. An article in the January 1932 Young Spartacus, the newspaper of the youth group of the Communist League of America, spelled out the attitude of the Trotskyists to assuming executive office: 'Can, then, a Communist participate in a bourgeois government in the capacity of a director? The answer is: No. Participating in the work of the government, i.e., taking a seat in the ministry or cabinet, means only one thing—to aid in the suppression of the working class. This the Communist cannot do'."
A number of smaller working commissions were convened in the course of the conference. There was a lively discussion in the Women's Commission on our assessment of prostitution in Europe in the wake of the destruction of the Soviet Union, taking up our historic position of opposition to laws against prostitution, which—like gambling, pornography, drugs and drinking—is a "crime without a victim" (see "Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Woman, Anti-Sex: U.S./UN Crusade Against 'Sex Trafficking'," page 60). Most ICL sections publish periodic Women and Revolution pages in their sectional presses. Comrades noted that, in articulating our vision of the future, of social emancipation premised on the proletarian conquest of power, articles on the woman question and broader social issues are a particularly apt vehicle. As the conference document stated, "We have fought to be a Leninist tribune of the people, championing the most oppressed and vulnerable in society, whether it be the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) or Muslim immigrant women victimized for wearing the headscarf."
Noting that there is currently no politically defined milieu in leftward motion and that we do not know where struggles will break out, the document reasserted the importance of having a geographic spread, as wide as our resources permit, and of sinking roots in the proletariat where we are, in order to be able to better pre-position the ICL to influence future struggles. The document outlined elements of our current and future tasks as including the centrality of the fight for China and the need to address this through more thoughtful propaganda; relevant propaganda to intersect the anarchist milieu where many of the more radical youth are; continuing to champion the cause of oppressed immigrants and minorities who are the first victims of the worldwide economic recession and the "war on terror." The conference reaffirmed that given our present size, circumstances and structure the main task of the I.S. is the production of appropriate, necessary and urgent literary propaganda, mainly in the quadrilingual Spartacists. We envision a more regular and frequent production of Spartacist, which should enable it to serve as a guidepost for the sectional presses.
More generally, in a period when one cannot presume that leftist-minded activists accept Marxism, we need articles that give a more thoroughgoing exposition of our worldview to our membership and readers. The "death of communism" ideological climate has imposed on us the important task of defending not only the basic principles of Marxism but also the rational humanism of the Enlightenment. We have to defend the latter against a large fraction of the self-professed left. Our South African and Mexican sections, among others, had to debunk Third World nationalists who cheered on the criminal bombing of the World Trade Center as an "anti-imperialist" act.
In determining our tasks in the coming period, we are guided by the understanding laid out in the ICL "Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program," which was adopted at our Third International Conference in 1998:
"'Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action.' The International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) is in the forefront of the struggle for a socialist future. The ICL is the only international organization which presently has a correct general conception of the world situation and of the tasks facing the world proletariat. The disparity between our small numbers and the power of our program is huge. Currently the sections of the ICL are or aim to be fighting propaganda groups. Our immediate task is the education and formation of cadres, recruiting the most advanced layers of workers and youth by winning them over to our full program through explanation of our views in sharp counterposition to those of our centrist opponents. Revolutionary regroupments on the program of Leninist internationalism are the means to resolve the disproportion between our small forces and our task."
—Spartacist No. 54, Spring 1998
Numerous comrades throughout the ICL came forward in the course of our recent internal struggles, demonstrating that we do have a real international cadre. The conference delegates elected a new IEC to serve as the highest political body of the ICL until another conference is convened. The reporter for the nominating commission, which was charged with proposing and presenting a slate for the incoming IEC, noted Cannon's admonition that the leading cadre should be "an inclusive and not an exclusive selection" ("Factional Struggle and Party Leadership," November 1953, Speeches to the Party). The new IEC contains elements from the old leadership—including comrades who made serious errors but whose talents should be used as part of a broader collective—as well as comrades elected to our leading body for the first time, particularly from our European sections. It is both younger and has a broader geographical spread than the outgoing IEC. The conference expressed its strong view that the IEC must play a more central role in the political direction of the ICL in the future; the job of the I.S., its executive arm in our center, is to orchestrate necessary political discussion throughout the IEC. Recognizing the need for our international leadership to pay more attention to our American section, two IEC members were appointed as representatives to the SL/U.S. Central Committee, just as there are IEC representatives on some of the other sectional leadership bodies.
Strongly reasserting our determination to maintain our revolutionary continuity and go forward to reforging the Fourth International, the document of the Fourth International Conference stated:
"What is critical is that future workers revolutions must have a Bolshevik political arsenal; their cadres must be educated in the experiences of the Bolshevik Revolution, the early Communist International, Trotsky's Fourth International and our own ICL. New gains will be won only by those who prove able to fight to defend past gains. The ICL tenaciously fights to uphold the banner of new Octobers."