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a socialistworld is possible: the history of the cwi by peter taaffe
new introduction

The revolutionary party today

As well as the USFI’s mistakes in France and elsewhere, the organisation has thrown out fundamental principles of revolutionary organisation; rejecting Lenin and Trotsky’s conception of the revolutionary party and the revolutionary International; instead they favour broader formations like Rifondazione Comunista (RC) in Italy and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).

Of course, it is not sufficient in the present period, marked by capitalist globalisation and post-Stalinism, to merely repeat by rote formulas from the past. This is as true in the sphere of organisation as in political ideas. In explaining the need for organisation, it has been particularly important to take account of the new generation’s suspicion of any ‘top-down’ organisation. Amongst this layer there is a pronounced reaction against the bureaucratic character of both Stalinism and the ex-social democracy, which anyway, on the organisational level, imitates Stalinism. This has sometimes taken the form of a sweeping rejection of ‘organisation’ in general and even of ‘politics’, at least of bourgeois politics, and the concept of a ‘party’. Marxists are therefore compelled to take account of this. Unfortunately, in some cases this has gone too far, involving an attempt to adapt in an opportunist fashion to passing and transient moods. For the USFI, this borders on a rejection of the past, both of their own organisation and of the historical contribution of Trotsky and ‘Trotskyism’ to the struggles of the working class.

As an example, take the writings of Daniel Bensaïd, one of the theoreticians of the LCR in France, the best known section of the USFI. He comments on what he claims was, “One of the most debatable characteristics of Leninism, democratic centralism”.13

In the 1990s, Marxism came under ferocious attack as it does even now and the CWI has been prepared to debate Lenin’s conception of the party, the character of the party that he built in Russia and its application to the workers’ struggle today. The centralist aspect was undoubtedly emphasised by Lenin and the Bolsheviks because of the underground struggle against the Tsarist dictatorship. At the same time, the Bolshevik Party was extremely democratic – the most democratic mass workers’ party in history. Without this democratic element – fully displayed particularly in the period between February and October 1917 – the working class, or its most advanced layers, would not have found a home within that party. Nor would the masses have transferred their hopes and support to the Bolsheviks, which led to the October Revolution. At one stage in the 1990s, the CWI took account of the prejudices against the idea of democratic centralism, distorted by the heritage of Stalinism – bureaucratic centralism – and proposed using instead the phrase “democratic unity”. However, it soon became clear that this phrase confused rather than enlightened; we were compelled to revert to Lenin’s phrase, which does, when it is properly explained, reflect what the working class demands from their organisations in struggle.

Workers’ organisations need and demand the maximum amount of democracy, particularly in the present period, when the capitalist class promotes worldwide illusions in bourgeois democracy. At the same time, the capitalists have concentrated and centralised their power, economically and also in their state machine. Spontaneous, semi-spontaneous and anarchist conceptions of organisation against this concentrated force of the capitalists, is not only inadequate but can be fatal in the serious struggles of the working class, which impend in the next decade. A genuine democratic, centralised revolutionary party is not akin to the Stalinist model. That was top-down, bureaucratic centralist, dominated from the top by self-appointed leaders, a party caste. In the modern era this model is imitated by the ex-social democratic leaders, as in Blair’s New Labour Party. This party is an undemocratic, as well as bureaucratic, nightmare compared to twenty years ago, when the Labour Party was at least partially a vehicle for the struggles of working class people in Britain.

The new generation of young people and workers, it is true, do not want a rigidly controlled party, in which the leadership is omnipresent and supposedly omniscient. For instance, a new mass workers’ party in Britain, of necessity, would have to have some of the features of the Labour Party in its formative period and in its ‘best days’. Namely, it should be broad and federal in character – because of the different strands that would be represented initially – and welcoming to all those who would be prepared to struggle on the basis of a basic socialist programme.

On the other hand, a revolutionary party is not a transitional formation, as is the case with a new mass workers’ party. It represents the coming together of the most conscious revolutionary forces, who have understood the need to create the embryo of a combat party, which can take on mass proportions at a later stage.

Such revolutionary parties today would not be on the strict pattern of Lenin’s concept for Russia in the early part of the twentieth century. The revolutionary party would borrow heavily from the tremendous example of the Bolshevik party but would add to those past experiences the democratic traditions and methods of the working class in each country. How it would conduct itself internally – through debates and discussions,  the latitude that would be given to organised minorities within the party, how this would be expressed, not just internally but publicly – are all issues to be debated and discussed in the course of the creation of such parties. But one thing is absolutely certain: while maximum democracy and discussion are necessary, so also is the need to act in unison once decisions are taken. This elementary concept is understood, for example, by every serious worker involved in a strike, where majority decisions impose discipline upon the minority, and they have to accept the decisions and act on them. It is fundamentally no different when it comes to the actions of a revolutionary party.

This approach towards building the party has been unfortunately abandoned by the USFI and replaced by a concept which involves virtually ‘anything goes’ – an extremely loose organisational form. The same applies to the question of a new mass International. What would be the character of such an International and how would it be built? The USFI’s answer is to throw overboard the real lessons of Lenin and Trotsky’s contribution on this issue. Unfortunately, they have opportunistically bent to the pressures of the 1990s, which have been carried over into the first part of this century. This becomes clear when examining the ‘balance sheet’ the USFI leaders have drawn about their past experiences, the character of a party and the International that is required in the modern era. At the recent USFI World Congress, the leaders come out for, “The constitution of a new internationalist, pluralist, revolutionary, militant force with a mass impact”. They explain: “This assertion implies a significant revision of what the Fourth International could carry out. It is not ‘the World Party of Socialist Revolution’ (the objective adopted at the time of its founding) or even the central nucleus of such a future party. The 65 years that separate us from this proclamation have not been marked by a process of gathering of the revolutionary forces but by ruptures, separated groups, and splits. We are one Trotskyist current among others, one revolutionary current among others. The chapter is closed when the Fourth International could have the perspective of being carried to the head of the revolutionary process, with the help of a huge militant effort, a correct analysis and a successful battle inside the Trotskyist movement”.14

In other documents the USFI state that the model which they are aiming for is something similar to the First International, that is a broad, pluralist but not specifically Marxist or Trotskyist International. It is true that the CWI, in discussions with the USFI and others in the early 1990s, suggested that, in the light of the new situation which was posed before the Trotskyist movement and the workers’ movement, in general, an international organisation or forum similar to the First International could play an important role. This could help in the process of theoretical clarification, working out the basis for common work, etc. But we never perceived this as the finished article, the ultimate goal of revolutionary Marxists. It was seen as a transitional organisation – as Marx and Engels had originally perceived the First International – towards a firmer ideological organisation later, based on the ideas of scientific socialism. To return to the concept of the First International as the finished historical model for the working class is a mistake. If such an organisation came into being, we would participate. We would not, however, dissolve our forces but maintain our distinct ideas and programme, as well as organisation, within such a formation. In other words, as with the conception of new, broad, mass workers’ parties on a national scale, such an International would not constitute, as Tony Benn, a leading left figure in Britain, and others have envisaged, a ‘Fifth International’. It would be more of the coming together of different organisations, a federal form of organisation which could allow collaboration, discussion and some common actions. Yet it would not be an end in itself, certainly as far as Marxists and Trotskyists are concerned.

It is quite clear that the USFI has given up on the idea of an International – leave aside its name for the moment – which aims to become the ‘World Party of Socialist Revolution’. The USFI even maintains that it does not even aim to be the “central nucleus of such a party” or International.  The justification for this is the alleged “failures” of Trotsky’s original concept of a mass revolutionary Fourth International. As we pointed out in the History of the CWI, the failure of such an International to develop was because of the objective realities of the outcome of the Second World War, together with the mistakes of the leaders of the USFI (following the death of Trotsky) at key periods of its history. The CWI has never believed that the realisation of Trotsky’s idea of a mass International would be achieved just by “militant effort, a correct analysis and a successful battle inside the Trotskyist movement”.15

A new revolutionary Fourth International will be the product of a clarity of ideas, which takes as its starting point the methods of Trotsky and of the International Left Opposition, continually updated and sharpened, plus the addition of new fresh mass forces. The precondition for this is the emergence of a new generation of young people and workers who, through experience, will see the need, specifically, for such a revolutionary party.