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The Open Conference project: a balance sheet

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Statement of the MRCI International Secretariat, May 1988

In October 1985 the British Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) expelled its long time leader Gerry Healy. The organisation and its “international”, the International Committee (ICFI), were thrown into crisis. A series of splits has reduced both the WRP and the ICFI, with which it now has no links at all, into insignificant sects. At one point a potential advance from this crisis in the ICFI appeared to be the possibility of a large open conference of international tendencies claiming to be Trotskyist, being convened by the WRP (Workers Press).

The MRCI welcomed the WRP’s call, originally made in 1986 and repeated in early 1987, for an international conference. We did so, not because we believed one such gathering in itself would produce a principled revolutionary regroupment, but because it offered an opportunity for groups that laid claim to the mantle of Trotsky’s Fourth International to test that claim in open debate. The refusal of the major centrist organisations like the USFI, the Lambertists and the Morenoites to discuss programmatic questions with other tendencies has for a long time helped seal their members from the influence of communist criticism. The open conference could have provided the means of opening these organisations to communist ideas.

To have served such a purpose it was essential that an open conference be just that—open, non-exclusionist. No conditions, apart from a claim to be Trotskyist, should have been placed on participants. Such conditions could all too easily be used as an excuse by the major centrist organisations to justify their non-participation in an open debate. They could cry foul, and in the eyes of their members this would have been a justifiable response. The WRP went ahead and provided Mandel and Lambert with just such a ready made excuse. They developed a love affair (which has now, for no good political reason, been terminated) with the Morenoite international, the LIT.

Under the influence of the LIT the WRP introduced, as a precondition for participation in the conference, ten points which embodied the idea that the WRP and Moreno had, in however imperfect a form, represented a revolutionary continuity of the Fourth International. As they well knew the USFI, the Lambertists and a whole host of other organisations could not accept this analysis.

The MRCI, for reasons very different to the centrist fragments of the Fourth International, could not accept this analysis either. Moreover, we recognised the putting forward of the ten points as preconditions for what it was—a shabby manoeuvre designed to preclude a real open discussion on disputed questions.

In the event the LIT/WRP manoeuvre achieved its goal of blocking a large, non-exclusionist, open conference. The Preparatory Committee, set up by these two groupings and the GOCQI of Varga, systematically excluded a series of organisations—some of which had spent large sums sending delegates to Britain for the initial meeting.

Not surprisingly after this farce was finished the WRP and the LIT fell out. The LIT got a small British group out of it and seemed content. Led by Healy’s long time henchman Cliff Slaughter the WRP suffered yet more splits reducing it to a real membership of no more than sixty or seventy. Together with Varga they are now talking, very vaguely, of another open conference project.

Other groupings on the international left who disagreed with the WRP’s chicanery, such as the International Trotskyist Committee (ITC), WSL (USA) and ourselves declared a continuing commitment to a genuine open conference in 1987. At that time the MRCI believed that there was still the possibility of using the flux caused by the explosion of the International Committee to convene a big open conference. Such an event could even have pulled in some of the larger tendencies which claim to be Trotskyist or at least dissident sections of them.

We maintained our clear idea of the function of such a conference. It should debate the key questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics that had been systematically distorted by centrism of the USFI, LIT, IC, etc, variety. It should seek to hammer out agreement on a revolutionary attitude to all of the problems of proletarian revolution world-wide. To this end we put forward the document we had produced as a submission to the WRP-called international conference, the “22 Theses in defence of Trotskyism”.

We submitted this document to the international left as a basis of debate. It attempted to identify what we regarded as the key problems of revolutionary strategy, the key errors of the centrists and the way forward. We intended the document to be open to amendment to test whether or not real agreement could be reached between the MRCI and other tendencies as a step towards principled international regroupment. These conceptions remain at the heart of the MRCI’s method of building an international tendency. Debate on differences, not backslapping because of partial agreements, is the way to a regroupment that will not result in yet another unprincipled fusion followed by a split.

A year on we are obliged to recognise that life has moved on and the forces interested in a real open conference of this sort are negligible. An open conference now would not bring together any major forces which claim to be Trotskyist. Nor would such a conference provide any better an opportunity to debate differences between the smaller international tendencies, opportunities that already exist through the process of bilateral discussions. On the contrary, the effort needed for smaller tendencies to organise an open conference would very probably obstruct such bilateral discussions. Moreover, there would be a real danger of creating the illusion that open conferences, in and of themselves, are what is needed on the international left. They are not.

Unless they serve a definite purpose they will become a refuge for groupings and individuals who shy away from taking decisions, reaching conclusions and fighting around a definite programme of action in the international class struggle. They can become talking shops. For this reason we do not regard the convening of an open conference of the smaller groups on the international left as a priority for us to fight for, nor as an immediate practical perspective to work towards.

It is this belief that guides our response to yet another proposed “open Trotskyist conference” being suggested by the GOR (Italy) and RWP (Sri Lanka). During 1987 the GOR/RWP made strenuous efforts to obtain a place in the WRP organised Preparatory Committee. To do so they were willing to abandon previously held positions on the IC and declare that the FI was not dead but merely “dislocated”, that its “continuity” was maintained by “the fight organised by the International Committee, even with weaknesses and contradictions, against Pabloism” until the early 1970s.

For all its talk about serious programmatic agreement the GOR/RWP was willing to drop its criticisms and endorse the WRP’s Ten Points at the first hint of a big bloc of supposed Trotskyists. None of this saved the GOR from being unceremoniously sent packing when they could not swallow the final indignity demanded by the Preparatory Committee, namely the characterisation of the LIT as a revolutionary organisation. It is not at all clear that any significant forces would be attracted by this conference.

The experience of attending the “US Open Trotskyist Conference” confirmed for us the potentially negative aspects of such conferences. The US conference was held at Easter 1988 in San Francisco. It was sponsored by the Co-ordinating Committee for a US Open Trotskyist Conference. The organisations comprising the Committee were the Revolutionary Workers League (ITC), the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and the Workers Socialist League (WSL). Other US organisations attending the conference were the International Socialist League (FI), the League for a Revolutionary Party, the Marxist Trotskyist Tendency and the Bolshevik Tendency (BT). The US Spark group sent their apologies. As well as many individual socialists there were representatives from the MRCI, the ITC, the Internationalist Faction (Britain), the Irish Workers League and the International Communist League of Austria.

The conference was the second held in the USA as part of the process of international discussion amongst groups that regard themselves as Trotskyist over the past two years. The intention of the Co-ordinating Committee in convening the Easter Conference was expressed in a short statement by them:

“We do not view the April Conference as a short term tactic to create an international alliance in opposition to any tendency or tendencies, but rather as a series of open gatherings moving towards a broader regroupment of Trotskyist forces.”1

This approach to the conference embodied both the strengths and the weaknesses of the sponsoring organisations. It certainly revealed the possibility for organising a democratic conference. In stark contrast to the exclusionist and manoeuvrist approach of the WRP/LIT “Preparatory Committee”, the Co-ordinating Committee ensured that every organisation present, delegates and observers, had ample opportunity to argue for their positions.

However, such democracy could not overcome the fundamental weakness of the conference which was its lack of perspective for serious revolutionary regroupment. Whilst the participating organisations all claim to be seeking some resolution to the fragmentation of the Fourth International, none of them were able to steer the conference in the necessary direction.

The MRCI representatives argued that the key tasks facing revolutionaries seeking regroupment are to assess the programmatic degeneration of the FI into centrism in 1951, and to reach a common position on strategy and tactics, on the political programme, which could form the basis for a refounded Leninist-Trotskyist international. The first step therefore must be to characterise the errors of centrism. We have put forward our own positions on this in the 22 Theses. These outline the points on which we consider the centrist fragments of the FI to have departed from a revolutionary perspective and programme for the working class.

Any attempt at regroupment should take such a characterisation as a starting point for discussion, followed by a thorough debate on programme around central issues such as Stalinism, petit bourgeois nationalism, social democratic reformism, tactics in the class struggle, especially for revolutionary situations. This is not being “ultimatistic” as the Morenoite ISL characterised the position of the MRCI, rather it is placing openly and honestly before all those who consider themselves Trotskyist, those positions on which we think the major centrist groups have misled and therefore potentially betrayed the working class. A discussion of these areas of dispute is essential if we are to avoid yet more rotten stitch-ups which claim to be regroupments but which blow apart at the first serious test of the class struggle.

The US Open Conference did not approach these questions in a serious fashion. The bulletins of the conference (the third one was given to delegates on the evening prior to the conference, the second we only received two weeks before the conference) contained no detailed documents. Granted, the organisers had limited resources, but without proper documentary exchanges in advance of a conference, differences—often reflected in differences of formulation—will not be properly discussed at the conference. Inadequate time was given to the section on the “Crisis in the Fourth International and prospects for resolving it”. More time was spent on areas of practical collaboration within the USA which, whilst necessary in working out joint actions, will not in itself resolve the burning task of the crisis of leadership in the world working class.

This reflected the differences within the Co-ordinating Committee itself. From the statements of the Committee it is clear that they underestimate the significance of programmatic debate as a route to regroupment. Collaboration can become an excuse for not confronting differences of programme. We are clear that the MRCI will collaborate practically with any tendency in the workers’ movement providing such collaboration is based on action that serves the interests of the working class. But a conference of people who regard themselves as Trotskyists, as fighters for the resolution of the crisis of leadership inside the working class, should not need an open conference to discuss such collaboration. They need such a conference to debate the political causes for the collapse of the Fourth International and the programme necessary for refounding a revolutionary international.

The conference was, therefore, a wasted opportunity. In the absence of a focused debate on documents encapsulating different political lines, each group presented what they thought were central issues (special oppression in the case of the FSP, Poland in the case of the BT, Gorbachev in the case of the WSL). At the end of the debate no conclusions were reached and differences which had been inadequately debated were not really clarified. Of course the organisers could claim that this was merely an initial step. If so it was in the wrong direction. It was towards the creation of a permanent discussion framework, not towards revolutionary regroupment.

The danger exists that the groups on the Co-ordinating Committee, now committed to organising a similar event in 1990 plus assisting in an open conference in Europe, will not learn the lessons of the San Francisco meeting. The lure of an endless merry-go-round of committees and conferences, as solace for the real isolation the left faces in the USA and elsewhere, may well prove too much for the Committee. For this reason we warn the Committee of the danger of an open conference industry that will not get any of us one step closer to programmatic clarity and hence regroupment. Moreover we say that the differences of perspectives on the Committee need to be openly debated. The groups on the Committee have their own radically different perspectives for revolutionary unity.

The WSL believe it can come about on the basis of recognising a world family of Trotskyism. For the FSP unity must be on the basis of programmatic agreement to orientate primarily towards the specially oppressed. While the ITC’s concept of “Trotskyist centrism” has led them to differentially favour the USFI, the betrayals and centrism of the USFI are in fact no less dramatic than those of the others the ITC describe as true centrists (Lambert, Healy, etc). By suggesting otherwise the ITC undermine, in advance, any consistent fight against centrism.

None of these groups has placed regroupment on the basis of a re-elaborated Transitional Programme, one purged of centrism altogether, to the fore as an urgent task of the moment. We express the hope, however, that through the discussion of such documents as the MRCI’s 22 Theses, through debating amendments or through the production of alternative theses from other groups, organisations like the RWL (ITC), who are committed to international regroupment will realise why the MRCI always insists—programme first.

In a statement to the conference the observers from the MRCI declared their support for the convocation of a non-exclusionist, democratic international conference. However having assessed the results of the US conference and the “Preparatory Committee” experience we state our belief that a meaningful international conference is now no longer a realistic perspective for the immediate future. Should events on the international left or in the international class struggle revive the real possibility for such a conference then we will, clearly, review our position.

The MRCI would like to thank the conference organisers for inviting us and allowing our full participation. We also thank them for their tribute to the memory of comrades who have been killed or have died in recent years, including comrade Remi Malfroy of the French section of the MRCI, who died last year.