National Sections of the L5I:

The crisis of working class leadership

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Stalinism’s passage from decline to outright collapse has had major consequences for the world labour movement. This applies both to pro-Moscow Stalinists in the West and to “Marxist-Leninist” (Maoist) currents in the semi-colonial countries. In the imperialist countries and the workers’ states in which capitalism is being restored, Stalinist parties are becoming social-democratic. This may take the form of a relatively slow evolution (as in France and Portugal) or a rapid transformation into parties with a social-democratic programme (as in Hungary, Italy and Poland).

The strong Italian Communist Party has finally split, its greater part becoming a social democratic party (the PDS). The majority of the trade union, municipal and parliamentary officials followed this course as did the bulk of their working class electorate. The traditional Stalinist rump (Rifondazione Communista) is not a serious contender for national power. The combination of reformist electoralist practice with the symbolism of Leninism and an attachment to the degenerate workers’ states had lasted for the forty years of the Cold War—with the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc it was no longer viable.

In Spain the fragmentation of the Communist Party (PCE)—punishment for their betrayal of the workers’ opportunities in the aftermath of the Franco regime—has been partly overcome. But the PCE has been unable to broaden its support, despite the growing disillusion of the working class with the right-wing social-democrats of the PSOE. In France the Communist Party (PCF) survives as a Stalinist party. It has suffered only minor social democratic splits (Renovateurs). Despite the electoral collapse of the Socialist Party, the Stalinists seem unable to stop their own electoral decline (for example by mobilising the youth), even though the PCF continues to head the biggest workers’ union, the CGT.

The reason for this is that the PCF collaborated with the Socialist Party in its wave of attacks on the working class. It is incapable of advancing a policy fundamentally different from that of the Socialists. In Great Britain the Stalinists, who have never been an electoral force, are no longer an important component of the trade union bureaucracy or of the trade union vanguard.

In the semi-colonial countries, the Maoist currents have collapsed (India). The attempt to regroup Maoist forces in an “International Revolutionary Movement” has been a failure (retreat of the PCP-Peru, TKP/ML-Turkey, RCP-USA). The failure of the guerrilla strategy, from the Philippines to Turkey and Peru, and their accommodation to the national bourgeoisie and the ruling bureaucracies of the degenerate workers’ states, lie at the root of the crisis which is wracking this current.

In Eastern Europe, large “post-Stalinist” parties still exist, notably in Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and the Eastern Länder of the unified Germany. In Poland and Hungary they have even won elections under the new bourgeois democratic systems and have become the main parties in government. These parties have adopted programmes which are either largely or totally social democratic, though their old party bureaucracies remain largely in place. There is little sign that they are recruiting a new generation of workers or youth, or inspiring any real resistance to restoration.

In Russia, other CIS states and certain Balkan countries (most notably Serbia and Romania), old style, hard line Stalinist forces still exist. They are instruments for defending the remaining privileges of the bureaucracy. They have been able to retain passive working class support by standing for the maintenance of state industries against the neo-liberal privatisers. But they have made no positive appeal to the masses to defend the planned economy or participate in the construction of a new plan. Most of them mount no clear opposition to capitalism or the market as such. They combine their opposition to the West with violent national chauvinism and even anti-semitism. Many have formed blocs with nationalist, racist and even fascist forces (such as the Moscow National Salvation Front and the Milosevic-Seselj bloc in Serbia up to the autumn of 1993).

The social democratic and labour parties in the capitalist West are all on a right wing trajectory. The pace of their moves to the right varies from country to country, but the pattern is uniform. All of these parties are keen to weaken their organisational and political relationship to the working class. In some cases (Spain) social democrats are pursuing neo-liberal programmes (the path to this having being charted by the New Zealand Labour Party). The old Keynesian commitments to full employment, state ownership of industry and welfarism have either been ditched or diluted to such an extent that the difference between social democracy and bourgeois liberalism, in policy terms, has become ever narrower.

The oft cited social democratic “Swedish model” is in outright crisis. Only in Austria has social democratic corporatism yet to break up. Links between the social democratic and labour parties and the trade unions have been deliberately undermined by reformist leaders, consciously cultivating an image to appeal to the bourgeoisie and the middle classes.

In Europe, and in other countries where the social democratic tradition is strong, this shift to the right has resulted in declining membership levels. The reformist parties have become ever more the habitat of middle class career politicians as opposed to the mass of the working class. In turn this has caused electoral decline. The net result of this process, taken together with the collapse of Stalinism and the relative decline of the class struggle from the middle of the 1970s onwards, has been to weaken political class consciousness within the ranks of the working class.

We do not mourn the decline of the reformist parties. But the absence of mass revolutionary parties has meant that the erosion of reformist “socialist” consciousness has not yet resulted in the growth of revolutionary socialist consciousness. Instead it has led to reduced expectations, apathy and even the growth of reactionary ideas within the working class.

However, the social democratic and Labour parties are not dead. Electoral victories remain possible (as in Sweden). In Europe, the regroupment of these parties around EU projects for a “social market”, in the context of the discrediting of conservative regimes, could even lead to significant revivals for parties like the French Socialists and the British Labour Party.

In the semi-colonies, the picture is somewhat different. Here social democracy is traditionally weak and the Socialist International’s sections have tended to be bourgeois parties. Those Social Democratic parties which were bourgeois workers’ parties tended not to join the Socialist International but to float between it and Stalinism (as in Chile). The decline and fall of Stalinism has led to the emergence of a Labour/Workers’ Party movement modelled on the Brazilian PT. Moves to create such parties have been witnessed in the Pacific area and South Africa as well as in Latin America. Drawn to this project are a motley collection of ex-Stalinists, ex-guerrillaists and ex-Trotskyists.

This movement criticises neo-liberalism, but accepts the role of the market while emphasising state intervention to regulate the worst aspects of capitalist competition. The overall direction of this confused current is towards the right, resigning themselves to neo-liberal programmes while seeking to shelter the poor from their worst effects. Meanwhile the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois nationalist forces in Africa and in Latin America have thrown off the Stalinist colouration thay once adopted, espousing instead the virtues of the market and liberal democracy.

The political balance sheet of the world working class movement over the past five years is preponderantly negative: organisational decline and collapse, ideological degeneration and programmatic capitulation.

What is the state of the bedrock organisations of the working class—the trade unions and other forms of workplace organisation? Worldwide the trade unions are under attack. Even the International Confederation Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)—now the only serious international federation since the collapse of the Soviet core of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU)—reports that 260 union activists were killed by death squads or security services in 1992. In the same year 40,000 workers were victimised for demanding union rights or better pay and conditions.

Latin America is the most dangerous continent on which to be a trade unionist. The ICFTU reports a “wave of restrictive legislation . . . across the continent”. The informalisation of the economy and the neo-liberal shocks from Peru to Argentina and Mexico have hit the unions hard.

In the Middle East, the rights of trade unionists are very restricted or non-existent. In Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Jordan the unions are under heavy state “supervision”. In the Gulf petro-monarchies there are no trade unions; the immigrant workers who make up a large percentage of the workforce lack citizenship and civic rights as well. Faced with the abuse of “human rights” in this region, the hypocritical imperialist powers do not mount the slightest pro-democratic propaganda.

In Asia the remarkable growth of the so-called “tigers” was in part based on the suppression of trade unions. In South Korea, which experienced the highest average annual GDP rise between 1980 and 1991 (10%), the working class has won not only a degree of trade union rights but used them to increase real wages. The unions also played a major role in establishing democratic rights. After a period of decline in the class struggle, 1994 saw growing resistance. The occupation at Hyundai and the austerity plans of the new government herald a new phase of struggle in South Korea. In Indonesia and Taiwan there are still no free trade unions. Trade unionists suffer severe repression, along with other campaigners for human rights and oppressed nationalities.

In a number of African countries the unions have been in the forefront of the struggle for democratic rights. In Nigeria, Malawi and, of course, South Africa mass strikes have played a vital role in forcing democratic concessions. The price of this activity has often been the tying of the unions into a popular front or their subordination to bourgeois politicians such as Abiola in Nigeria. In South Africa three years of acute economic crisis have led to soaring unemployment. Real wages actually fell in 1992 after several years of increasing as the unions won redress for decades of depressed wage levels caused by the apartheid dictatorship. The ANC-National Party settlement is supported by the leadership of the COSATU trade union federation. But at the same time there is clearly pressure from the rank and file within some unions to secure independent political representation for the working class. Proposals for a Workers’ Party have re-emerged in some unions such as the metal workers.

The German proletariat has the most powerful trade union movement in Europe, both in terms of numbers and concentration in huge industrial unions. The DGB federation has 11 million members, 3.39 million of whom are in the most militant of the unions—IG Metall. The years since re-unification have seen a steady revival of union activity, despite the continued class collaborationist pact signed between the government, unions and employers. In May 1993, the East German metal workers engaged in their first official strike for sixty years.

In the autumn of 1993 coal miners, building workers and the unemployed took to the streets in large numbers. The announcement of severe job losses and the cancellation of previous agreements indicates a serious employers’ offensive. The intensification of the class struggle in Germany is inevitable over the next period. The important question is whether the German workers can develop some sort of rank and file initiative and control over their struggles.

In France the labour movement appeared at first to be cowed by the crushing electoral defeat of the Socialist Party and the return of a new right wing government with a massive parliamentary majority. Yet the first serious offensive of the Balladur government against the public sector revived the spontaneous resistance of the French workers. The strength of the Air France strike threw the government into disarray and led to a rapid climb-down. At the same time, the Socialists, despite their systematic betrayal of workers’ interests, began to show a revival of support.

The French working class remains organisationally weak. The unions, politically divided and constantly waging internecine battles, have never been strong, yet they have declined further in size by 70% over the last 16 years. Today, they organise less than 10% of the workforce. As the great upheavals of June 1936 and May 1968 show, this lack of unionisation also allows for the development of explosive class struggle situations which the bureaucracy can only control with difficulty. Following the collapse of the PCF and the weakening of the Socialist Party, this instability has grown. This in part explains the readiness of the current government to compromise. However, without the development of strike committees and rank and file organisation, it is difficult for the largely non-unionised workforce to achieve the full fruits of their struggles.

In Belgium and Italy, general strikes against austerity measures have brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets. In Italy there is a serious problem caused by the division and bureaucratisation of the unions. This crisis of leadership was manifested in 1992, when the workers pelted the sell-out bureaucrats with nuts and bolts. But despite the rise of the COBAS movement of the late 1980s, the rank and file have not been able to stop class collaborationist deals such as the abandonment of the scala mobile.

In Britain the upsurge of resistance to the closure of the remaining coal mines in the autumn of 1992 was frittered away in popular front charades with Tory “rebel” MPs. One year on, the miners were butchered without a serious blow being struck in response. Across Europe the same task faces trade unionists: to build a powerful movement of the rank and file against the bureaucracy. Such a movement must not be limited by localism or economism. Nor should it actively seek premature splits in the unions. Nevertheless it must mount a real challenge to the treacherous leaders. Such a movement will require a revolutionary communist vanguard at its core.

In Russia the key question is whether the onslaught of Yeltsin and Gaidar on millions of jobs wil provoke a response from the working class. Russian workers showed no signs of wishing to defend the parliament during Yeltsin’s October 1993 Coup, and they totally ignored the call of the official unions for a general strike. But neither have they shown much enthusiasm for Yeltsin.

The Russian working class remains a sleeping giant which still has to recover not only from the destructive effects of more than fifty years of Stalinist atomisation and de-politicisation, but also from nearly a decade of reliance on and co-operation with their managers. In the years since perestroika, and especially since the economic shock treatment began, workers have gained more and more control over the work process. Their managers have to work in an alliance with the workers (they are elected by the workforce). The result has been the constant raising of wages and payments in kind, roughly in parallel with the rise in prices.

The Russian working class has not yet created mass organisations of struggle. Their unions are not trade unions in any recognisable sense of the term. The Federation of Independent Unions of Russia (FNPR) claims 50 million members from a workforce of 72.5 million. Workers still receive their social security, sickness and invalidity benefits through it. Thus their membership is not voluntary. The FNPR is closely linked with the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists, forming a corporate structure at plant level.

There are also forty or so “unofficial” unions, but little hope can be placed in them to lead a fightback against the effects of the coming shock. In all the CIS states their membership does not exceed 500,000 and the three largest in Russia—the coal miners, the air traffic controllers and airline pilots—do not have more than 100,000 members. These unions have received large sums from the AFL-CIO, and are heavily corrupted by the entrepreneurs and mafia of the private sector. Nevertheless, the stirrings of the Polish and the Ukrainian workers show that when the full impact of the decisive moment of restoration becomes clear to the workers then mass resistance is possible.

The trade unions and workplace organisations are the bedrock of the world workers’ movement. They are the womb of class consciousness, repeatedly giving birth to it no matter how many defeats are suffered. In the present phase of the collapse or withering of “workers’ parties”, revolutionaries must turn to the workers in the workplaces: in the factories, the mines, the shops and the offices. Yet the existing trade unions, both in countries with low and high levels of trade union struggle, whether over a century old or formed in the past decade, face a common enemy within—the trade union bureaucracy. The central task for revolutionaries is to be the foremost fighters for the creation of ?ghting democratic workplace organisations that can take control of their national unions and oust this bureaucracy.

Among the urban poor and rural poor peasants, new popular organisations of resistance are created, smashed and recreated time and time again as a necessity for day to day survival. From the outset brave, self-sacrificing leaders will be needed to withstand the paramilitary assassination squads and the latifundists’ murder gangs. The corruption and incorporation of these leaders into a privileged conservative layer is less of a threat than the failure of these leaders to raise the political horizon of the oppressed, their fear and unwillingness to consciously unite all the piecemeal struggles for survival into an irresistible force capable of smashing the capitalist state.

In time the damaging ideological consequences of the collapse of Stalinism, which took place hard on the heels of a series of savage attacks against the workers of the main imperialist and semi-colonial countries, will begin to die out. A new generation of youth is coming into political activity. Youth will play a key role in the coming radicalisation. They are less scarred by the defeats of the last decade, less awed by the old workers’ parties and the trade union officialdom. Their experience is of a world bourgeoisie gloating over the fallen Stalinist bureaucracy, declaring the end of history and the eternity of the market economy. But they are also witnessing a slide into economic stagnation, the outbreak of genocidal national wars and imperialism’s bloody “peacekeeping missions” in the Gulf and Somalia.

These young people, trained and educated in ever greater numbers by capitalism itself, yet faced with unemployment or the harshest forms of exploitation in the ”informal economy”, are increasingly willing to fight. They are prepared to fight not only for themselves but for all the oppressed and exploited: against racism and fascism in the imperialist countries, against dictatorship and the death squads in the “third world”, against the old bureaucrats or the new rich in the collapsing workers’ states. To organise the youth is a central task in the revitalisation and reconstruction of a mass revolutionary workers’ movement.

A profound change is beginning to make itself felt. The room for manoeuvre afforded by the weakening of Stalinism—and in certain countries its total disappearance—will give revolutionaries ever greater possibilities for intervention and for winning a new generation of militants who want both to fight and to learn the real nature of revolutionary politics, Marxism and Trotskyism.

The major problem facing the world working class is the absence of a worldwide revolutionary leadership standing as an organised political alternative to disintegrating Stalinism, to bourgeoisifying social democracy and to petit-bourgeois nationalism. The tremendous damage done to Trotskyism by the centrists was displayed during the crisis of the degenerate workers’ states. The larger centrist formations (Militant/CWI, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) and the British Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialist Organisation) have provided no focus for the building even of the first nuclei of revolutionary parties.

Groups like the Spartacists have terribly discredited Trotskyism and soiled its banner by confusing it with Stalinism in the eyes of the workers of Eastern Europe. None of the centrist currents have been able to orient the world workers’ movement correctly against process of capitalist restoration in the workers’ states. As expected, the British SWP, because of its economistic and capitulationist theory of “state capitalism”, failed absolutely to defend the historic gains. Others, like the Militant, shadowed the Stalinist chauvinists. The Morenoite current, the International Workers’ League (LIT) one-sidedly analysed the democratic upheavals in 1989-90 in Eastern Europe as solely part of the process of proletarian political revolution, and were blind to the dangers of capitalist restoration.

The centrist “Fourth Internationals” are mostly in decline or outright fragmentation. When the USFI was created thirty years ago it regrouped about three quarters of all those in the world who regarded themselves as Trotskyists. Now it is no longer the largest “Trotskyist” International. It is in a state of constant factional strife as its leaders adapt to the Greens, tail the “anti-imperialists“ as they move rightwards, and imitate the social democratic left. It is probable that they will eventually abandon the claim to be the “Fourth International” in favour of creating an International with small scale reformist forces.

The Healyites have not recovered from their fissure into several competing sects in 1985-87. The Morenoite LIT split into three components in 1992. At its last congress (1994) the largest of these fragments split further. The International Bolshevik Faction, led by the Colombian PST, was expelled along with several other South and Central American sections.

Only the International Socialist Organisation—led by the British SWP—is growing on a world scale, although in Germany and Sweden the Militant is experiencing certain success with its Youth against Racism in Europe campaign. The Lambertists are extremely weakened with the disappearance of the youth organisation of their French parent section, and a crisis in their Spanish section. However, through the framework of their “open conferences” they maintain many links with the flowering labour movements in the imperialised countries.

The fight against centrism is an integral part of the struggle to build a revolutionary party. Wherever the centrists are moving leftwards or where they are deepening their roots among the youth, the oppressed or the working class, revolutionaries must combine accurate and sharp political criticism of them with various forms of the united front tactic, aimed at exposing their failure to measure up to the real tasks of the class struggle in practice. With regard to the disintegrating centrist currents, the task is to rescue the best cadres, those least demoralised by their centrist miseducation.

The absence of a revolutionary leadership in central and eastern Europe and in a number of semi-colonial countries—even one at the stage of constructing small combat parties—has already greatly magni?ed the effect of the defeats of the late 1980s and early 1990s. This is not just a Trotskyist cliché. Parties with a few thousand members, providing they had the correct programme, well trained cadres and roots in the mass organisations of working class and the oppressed, could have either prevented defeat, or—by hammering home the lessons of defeat—could have undergone a great qualitative and quantitative transformation, becoming real parties of the proletarian vanguard.

The absence of a democratic centralist revolutionary International means that the working class has to learn repeatedly from defeats. At the moment these defeats—from Nicaragua to Russia, from Palestine to Ireland—are at the hands of the democratic counter-revolution.

That the counter-revolution is “democratic” is not due to the benign character of the imperialist or semi-colonial bourgeoisie but ?rst and foremost to the considerable remaining strength of the world workers’ movement, to the bastions which this and previous generations of workers’ struggles have erected within a capitalist world.

We stand at a historic turning point. This is testified to, not only by the re-ordering of the world and the crash and fragmentation of mighty states, but also by the “cunning of history”, the sudden and unexpected reversals which these events have unleashed.

The slogans of democracy, of national freedom, of human rights have been so many weapons in the hands of the exploiters over the past years. But capitalism in its imperialist, its semi-colonial and its restorationist form is not able for long to extend these rights to the mass of the exploited. These slogans will turn from being instruments of deceit into means for exposing capitalism and mobilising for its overthrow.

In the present period—marked by sharp turns from revolutionary to counter-revolutionary situations, by the fragmentation of states along national and ethnic lines, by constitutional crises in the old imperialist countries—there is an urgent need to use revolutionary democratic slogans. Marxism has never renounced these slogans. But they must be used not to present a reformist perspective of gradual growth from political to social and economic democracy, but rather to expose the fraud of parliamentarism, the “rule of law” and presidential rule.

In the coming years it will be necessary for revolutionaries to utilise tactics to expose reformism.

These will include giving critical electoral support to mass reformist workers’ parties, and raising concrete demands on them. Where no such parties exist, or where trade unions are tied to a popular front alliance with bourgeois forces, revolutionaries must campaign for the unions and other workers’ organisations to break with the bourgeiosie and in certain circumstances to create a workers’ party.

Taking into account all these areas of struggle and the opportunities they present for building revolutionary parties and a new Leninist-Trotskyist International, the LRCI advances as its key slogans in the coming period:

• Defend every last gain of the planned and statified property in the degenerate workers’ states.

• Defend democratic rights against the forces of the bourgeoisie, against imperialism, against fascism, with revolutionary methods.

• Defend the gains of the workers and poor peasants within capitalist society with mass direct action: fight for transitional demands and workers’ control in the spheres of jobs, land, social welfare and wages.

• Defend the semi-colonial countries against the plunder of the IMF and the “peacemakers” of the USA and the United Nations.

• Young people, especially young workers, are the future: they will build new revolutionary parties and a new, Leninist-Trotskyist International.

• Prepare for a new wave of intensified class struggle, for deep revolutionary crises. Fight for the resurgence of genuine revolutionary Marxism!