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Can the USFI reconquer hope?

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Richard Brenner reviews “Socialism or Barbarism on the Eve of the Twenty-First Century”, Programmatic Manifesto of the Fourth International (USFI)

The historic shift in the world situation since 1989 has shattered many of the illusions of the international left. Stalinism has collapsed. Social democracy has declined in numbers and its leaders shifted sharply to the right. National liberation movements are defeated or in serious retreat.

All this has come as a terrible blow to political tendencies that had based their entire strategy on adaptation to these forces or on schemas involving the uninterrupted development of their socialist potential.

The United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) is probably the most durable practitioner of this method. Since its foundation thirty years ago it has systematically trimmed its politics and programme to whichever national political formation happened to stand at the head of the masses.

The Programmatic Manifesto adopted by the USFI in 1992 has finally been published in English in the USA.1 Even a casual reading reveals that the decline of the forces which the USFI has aped for three decades has introduced a note of deep disillusion, pessimism and even despair into their analysis.

The 1980s were a decade which witnessed serious defeats for the working class. These were possible because no mass revolutionary parties and international were built during the decisive class battles of the 1970s. So no serious challenge to the various reformist and petit bourgeois formations for leadership of the working class and the other oppressed classes was made. This was the fundamental cause of the failure to translate objective opportunities into real revolutionary victories. And it gets scarcely a mention in the USFI’s programme. The strategic and tactical lessons of these defeats are not examined.

The USFI trusted the existing leaderships of the 1960s and 70s to project a leftward orientation that would yield “mass left wings” roughly adequate to the task of socialist revolution. The total failure of these forces to live up to the USFI’s expectations is now attributed, not to their own false estimate of these alien class leaderships, but to unfavourable objective conditions. There were no victories because victories were not possible.

This denies the possibility that the many mass struggles of the 1980s could have developed into anti-capitalist challenges to the state or the Stalinist bureaucracy or the possibility of a new leadership being forged in struggle. Was there no anti-capitalist potential in the struggles of the South African workers’ movement or the actions of the workers of the Stalinist countries in 1989-91?

Of course, Marxists recognise that a sharp decline of existing mass workers’ parties will, in the absence of revolutionary alternatives, involve retreats in the previously achieved levels of class consciousness if parties entirely unconnected to the workers’ movement take advantage of the political vacuum. But at the same time the weakening of the hold of mass reformist parties over the working class partly removes the political shock absorbers that post-war capitalism relied upon to contain serious upheavals. Moreover, the economic crisis and stagnation of capitalism and the widespread political crisis create a favourable objective basis for rebuilding the fighting potential of our class, yet this time upon a revolutionary basis.

The USFI is blind to this aspect of the international situation. They speak of an “epoch of a growing mass labour movement” which now, for structural reasons, is at an end. They one-sidedly emphasise the loss of those elements of mass social democratic and Stalinist organisations such as youth organisations, trade unions, sporting and cultural societies, without recognising that what is involved here is not simply a weakening of existing class organisation in certain countries but also the undermining of counter-revolutionary apparatuses that have held the working class movement in check.

The USFI sees in the decline of Stalinist and social democratic parties throughout the world “a serious loss from the point of view of rapidly constructing strong revolutionary organisations” and “a serious loss for the class as a whole”. This is because:

“. . . tens if not hundreds of thousands of active and exemplary militants—cadres and leaders of workers’, feminist and anti-militarist struggles, movements of solidarity with ‘third world’ peoples—have broken in recent years with the Communist and social democratic parties. But in the present context, most are skeptical about the possibility of creating something better.”

How sharply this pessimism contrasts with Trotsky’s fighting response to the far more serious disillusionment of militants from the mass organisations in the 1930s. In the Transitional Programme of 1938 he combined realism as to the immediate results of the defeats with an unshakeable optimism in the new forces arising ready for struggle and capable of rallying to the revolutionary vanguard if only the revolutionary vanguard proved capable of providing a lead:

“The defeat of the Spanish Revolution engineered by its ‘leaders’, the shameful bankruptcy of the People’s Front in France, and the exposure of the Moscow juridical swindles—these three facts in their aggregate deal an irreparable blow to the Comintern and, incidentally, grave wounds to its allies: the social democrats and anarcho-syndicalists. This does not mean, of course, that the members of these organisations will immediately turn to the Fourth International. The older generation, having suffered terrible defeats, will leave the movement in significant numbers . . . When a programme or an organisation wears out, the generation which carried it on its shoulders wears out with it. The movement is revitalised by the youth, who are free of responsibility for the past.”

But the only forces which the USFI can imagine as taking the place of discredited reformist parties are those of the right: “Reactionary and retrograde ideological tendencies invade the vacuum thus created.”

The potential for revolutionary socialists to utilise this crisis to present a new programme to working class is absent from their analysis. And this is hardly surprising when one considers that the USFI’s entire strategy has been based on covering up the need for the organisational, political and programmatic independence of revolutionaries. The USFI boycotts the presentation of a clear Trotskyist alternative to the vanguard of the working class, and instead confuse their banner with the left wing of Stalinism, social democracy, ecologism, pacifism and petit bourgeois nationalism.

After pointing to the difficulties that the imperialist democracies are having in the changed conditions of the new world order, it nevertheless asserts that we are seeing a strengthening of the powers of the state:

“. . . sowing the seeds of a racist, pre-fascist culture. In the face of this reality, blindness is impermissible. Refusing to clearly see the current dangers—along with who and what are responsible for them—is just as irresponsible and cowardly today as it was before Auschwitz and Hiroshima.”

Now the LRCI is the last tendency to downplay the threat posed by the rise of fascist parties in Europe. Our programme contains a militant and practical answer to the rise of the fascist gangs, with the call for the formation of defence squads, for no platform for fascists, and the workers’ united front. Despite their injunctions about the impermissibility of blindness, the USFI’s “programme” contains not a word, not a single practical proposal as to how the workers’ movement is to prevent the growth of the fascists.

Instead they spread the defeatist notion that we are already living in a pre-fascist culture. This has nothing in common with revolutionary realism, far-sightedness or responsibility. It is a demoralised, and to those who believe it, demoralising prediction of the probable outcome of the current crisis. Trotsky, in the 1930s, condemned these sort of “dire warnings” that suggest that the battle is half lost before it is fought.

The USFI go beyond the prediction that the right will benefit from the current crisis of the official Labour movement to the idea that only the right can benefit from it. The Manifesto toys with the notion that the decline of Stalinism and social democracy is not a result of their betrayals and defeats, but a feature of an objectively grounded decline in the very conditions for collective organisation. This is little more than a tacit acceptance of the propaganda of the neo-liberals, tinged with nostalgia for the good old days of state sponsored welfarism or bureaucratic planning :

“Individual consumption is encouraged at the expense of collective consumption (social services) . . . Artificial ‘needs’ are stimulated. Frenetic over-consumption of ‘new products’ is promoted through advertising and market techniques, exploding the myth of ‘consumer freedom’. Late capitalism breeds a permanent atmosphere of unsatisfied needs, which feeds a permanent generalised frustration.

In addition, growing privatisation in the sphere of consumption more and more deprives individuals of the elementary fabric of human relations. The rule of crude egoism, of ‘every person for her or himself’, which is already a source of unbalance, crisis and growing irrationality in the realms of output, of income and of work, now extends its havoc to the spheres of consumption and leisure.

This privatisation plunges people into an even deeper solitude, cynicism and psychological depression by reducing their capacity for mutual communication, affection and reciprocal sympathy—things which become possible when life revolves around a collective unit, be it large or small. This creates new and serious obstacles on the road of acquiring socialist consciousness, of engaging in the fight for a qualitatively superior social order. These obstacles are not insurmountable, but they are real. Concrete strategies to overcome them must be worked out.”

This Frankfurt School litany of cultural pessimism is utterly reactionary. The increased alienation of the individual under capitalism is the objective cause behind the decline of the “collectivist” ideologies of welfarist social democracy and of Stalinism. It is not the political bankruptcy and treason of these leaderships that has undermined our organisations, but the development of capitalism itself which has reduced the capacity of the working class to develop and maintain socialist or collectivist aspirations. What attorneys for the labour bureaucracy these people are!

This vision of a near omnipotent and totally reactionary capitalism drugging and incapacitating its would-be grave digger is a petit bourgeois dystopia. It also engenders reactionary utopian solutions based on a desire to resist the extension of the alienating effects of modern “late capitalist” society. Marx welcomed the development of capitalism over preceding modes of production, not because it brought deepening alienation in its wake but because it gave rise to the modern proletariat, a revolutionary class whose interests lay in establishing a new collectivised order. But if modern capitalism has reached a stage where it systematically undermines collectivist organisation and consciousness rather than developing the objective basis for them then why not resist capitalist development entirely? The USFI programme nods in this direction with a romantic-reactionary pastoral idyll, in support of pre-capitalist culture against the encroachments of bourgeois development:

“In the countries of the ‘Third World’, the cohesion at the heart of the village community, even where it is undermined by the caste system as in India or by a growing social differentiation, has also constituted a serious counterweight, blocking a total domination by prevailing bourgeois ideology and values.”

What wretchedness! The hungry, landless rural toilers of the semi-colonial world: their communities, though without adequate healthcare, drainage, and sanitation, suffering diseases and high infant mortality rates eradicated in the West by modern medicine, suffering high levels of illiteracy due to lack of sufficient schools and teachers, can take heart. They are at least barriers to the advance of a bourgeois culture which will bring the “solitude, cynicism and psychological depression” that the leaders of the USFI are so cruelly suffering in Amsterdam, Paris, and Brussels.

But all is not lost! Section 20 of the Programme is entitled “For the Reconquest of Hope”. Any reader getting this far will wonder whether these words are intended for the working class or are simply a project for the authors’ own psychological therapy.

The revolutionary Fourth International under Trotsky concluded its 1938 programme with the words:

“The advanced workers, united in the Fourth International, show their class a way out of the crisis. They offer a programme based on international experience in the struggle of the proletariat and of all the oppressed of the world for liberation. They offer a spotless banner.”

Unlike the programmes drafted by Bukharin for the Stalinised Comintern or Kautsky for social democracy, Trotsky was not interested in abstract truisms about the socialist future and vague appeals for solidarity and struggle. The Transitional Programme provided a method and a system of demands that could be applied and focused to produce action programmes for the working class in particular concrete conjunctures. The USFI does not provide such a programme. It does not even claim to. It even expressly disclaims the need for such an approach. Why it does so is clear enough. Its real method can be seen in its comments on the “movement” against the alienation of labour under capitalism:

“Revolutionary socialists do not approach this real movement with pre-established criteria. We do not judge it according to whether or not it can be co-opted by the established order, is gradualist or non-gradualist. Given its emancipatory nature it has the potential to strike at the very heart of bourgeois society (active strikes). The task of revolutionary socialists is to realise this potential and to stimulate it through our support and through practical political and theoretical initiatives. We try above all to progressively unify this movement until it attacks the bourgeois disorder in its entirety.”

The lesson drawn by the “Fourth International” is that spontaneous working class movements and also the “new movements” of a multi-class character too, should not be “judged” each according to its politics; whether it is “gradualist” (i.e. reformist), or even whether or not it is being transformed into an agency for maintaining capitalism and policing the working class. Whatever its character, rest assured that it has the potential to strike at the “heart” of capitalism.

But for the working class to realise its revolutionary potential it must precisely learn to “judge” its “gradualist” leaders by harsh revolutionary “criteria”, learn to renounce their existing leaders and to struggle against them. In short, the working class must build a new party that is committed to revolutionary communist leadership. That is the kind of “support” the workers’ movement needs, that is what the “practical political and theoretical initiatives” of the Trotskyists should be directed towards. To “progressively unify” the mass of the working class in struggle it is necessary at one and the same time to divide them from the traitorous leaders and from anyone who seeks to shield them, whether in practice or through the literary circumlocutions of the “Programmatic Manifesto”.

This does not mean a refusal to participate in trade unions, real class struggles or any other form of sectarianism, but it does demand an uncompromising fight against the two great reformist apparatuses within the working class movement and a commitment to a set of revolutionary politics independent of those forces.

To advise the workers not to judge their leaders or to tell them not to develop concepts and categories by which to recognise the politics, ideas and propaganda of their leaders is to disarm them in the face of Stalinism and social democracy. It is to obstruct the realisation of the emancipatory potential of the working class.

The entire Programmatic Manifesto of the USFI avoids precision on every serious revolutionary task in order to hold together a motley array of groupings, each adapting to the very different programmes being advanced by differing forces on their respective national terrains. The shrinking and splitting of the USFI sections worldwide gives reason to believe that this catalogue of depressions, fads and exhortations to “hope” will not do the job. And there really is hope for all of us in that! l

1 Programmatic Manifesto of the Fourth International, published by US Supporters of the Fourth International, April 1993, price: $1.00