“The history of the cwi” was first published in 1998. To mark the 30th anniversary of the cwi it was republished as “a socialist world is possible” in August 2004 with a new introduction.
The thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) took place in April 2004.
The International Secretariat (IS) of the CWI decided to celebrate the activity and contribution of the CWI to the workers’ movement internationally over the last 30 years by republishing an amended version of the pamphlet, ‘History of the CWI’, first written in 1997. The period since then has, however, been full of important events, incidents and developments – both objectively, and in the workers’ movement. The role and influence of the CWI has developed but also changed, and in some regions and countries quite dramatically.
We have seen the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement, as well as the colossal elemental movement of millions in opposition to Bush and Blair’s war in Iraq. This has been accompanied by a ferocious defensive struggle by the working class, particularly in Europe, against the brutal neo-liberal offensive launched by the capitalists against their rights and conditions. This has resulted in a series of strikes – some of them one-day general or public sector strikes – throughout the continent.
In view of this, the IS of the CWI felt that it was necessary to provide an update of the views of the CWI, both in relation to these developments and on how our role contrasts with the views and actions of others claiming to be Marxist or Trotskyist. Of necessity, this will involve an analysis of the policies and programme of other organisations and how they compare with those of the CWI. This method of making contrasts was employed by the great Marxists – beginning with Marx, as well as Engels, Lenin and Trotsky – when dealing with ideas, trends and organisations which they believed did not meet up to the needs of the working class and labour movement.
It has to be recognised that this method – polemics – fell somewhat out of fashion in the “post-modernist” period, particularly in the 1990s. “Conversations” – polite exchanges which passed as “debates” – became the norm for the ideologists of capitalism and their echoes, the leaders of the ex-social democratic and communist parties. The superiority of capitalism and the triumph of the “market” were to be automatically accepted; discussions were intended to take place within this context.
The sharpening of the political situation, however, particularly in the first few years of this new century, has resulted in more intense conflicts than was the norm in the 1990s. For instance, over the Iraq war there have been divisions even between the ruling circles of the US and Britain on the one side, and France and Germany on the other. Similarly, the embittered mood of the working class at the betrayals of right-wing labour and trade union leaders has resulted in angry demands within the labour movement for a lead to be given from the top and a clearer class explanation of the way forward. As always, the precondition for understanding what methods and organisation the working class needs in this era is organically linked to the understanding of the main political features of the situation. This, in turn, involves understanding recent history and how changes, some of them extremely sharp in character, have taken place or will take place in the next period.
The situation in the 1990s proved to be difficult terrain for the CWI and others who stood on the left, particularly the socialist and Marxist-Trotskyist left. The collapse of Stalinism ushered in an entirely different period to that which had confronted previous generations in the 20th Century; it was the most difficult, in a sense, for 50 years. No other Trotskyist ‘International’ understood so quickly and clearly the main features of the situation which flowed from the collapse of the Berlin Wall as the CWI. With the Berlin Wall collapsed not just Stalinism but also the planned economies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
In contrast, as we shall see from an analysis of the positions of different organisations, some acted like political ostriches. They buried their heads in the sand, refusing to recognise until much later that these events represented a major defeat for the workers’ movement internationally. Some saw it as a ‘setback’ but not of a decisive character. Others viewed it as a terrible historical catastrophe; socialism and the prospects for a socialist revolution were off the agenda for decades, if not for ever. The CWI concluded that the collapse of Stalinism was a defeat and a serious one, but not on the scale of those of the interwar period, when fascist regimes triumphed in Italy, Germany and Spain. These had prepared the way for the calamity of the Second World War and its countless victims.
The collapse of Stalinism did provide world capitalism with the possibility of indicting ‘socialism’ as an ‘historic failure’ (it falsely equated socialism with the Stalinist regimes). This, in turn, provided them with the opportunity to conduct a ferocious ideological campaign against the ideas of socialism. At the same time, they argued from a thousand platforms that only the ‘market’ could provide a permanent model for humankind. This was summed up by Frances Fukiyama’s ‘sophisticated’ assertion that “History has ended”. By this, he meant that liberal, capitalist democracy could not be improved upon. It was, therefore, the only form of organisation of society which was now possible or desirable.
Greenspan declares triumph of “market economies”
The Wall Street Journal, more crudely, simply declared on behalf of the big business jackals that it represented, and world capitalism as a whole: “We won!”.
Even recently, the spokespersons of US imperialism – seeking reassurance for themselves and their class in a more troubled world than appeared likely in the post-1989 situation – extolled the virtues of their system and made the same point. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, and chief economic guru for US capitalism, recently declared when in Berlin: “I have maintained over the years that the most profoundly important debate between conflicting theories of optimum economic organisation during the twentieth century was settled, presumably definitively, here more than a decade ago in the aftermath of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Aside from the Soviet Union itself, the economies of the Soviet bloc had been, in the pre-war period, similar in many relevant respects to the market-based economies of the west. Over the first four decades of post-war Europe, both types of economies developed side by side with limited interaction. It was as close to a controlled experiment in the viability of economic systems as could ever be implemented.
“The results, evident with the dismantling of the Wall, were unequivocally in favour of market economies. The consequences were far-reaching. The long-standing debate between the virtues of economies organised around free markets and those governed by centrally planned socialism, one must assume, is essentially at an end. To be sure, a few still support an old-fashioned socialism. But for the vast majority of previous adherents it is now a highly diluted socialism, an amalgam of social equity and market efficiency, often called market socialism. The verdict on rigid central planning has been rendered, and it is generally appreciated to have been unqualifiedly negative. There was no eulogy for central planning; it just ceased to be mentioned, and a large majority of developing nations quietly shifted from socialism to more market-oriented economies.”.1
However, against the background of a looming world economic meltdown and the catastrophic chaos in the wake of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, these comments by Greenspan amount to little more than whistling in the dark to keep up the spirits of the possessing classes that he represents. His remarks pertain to the previous era of the 1990s. For a while in the 1990s, socialist consciousness – and the broad understanding of the working class, in particular – was undoubtedly thrown back. Weakened though it was, the basic potential power of the working class remained intact. The relationship of class forces was not as significantly weighted in favour of the ruling class as it was in the 1930s.
The ideological campaign of the bourgeois undoubtedly had a material effect in underpinning neo-liberal policies, which weakened the rights and conditions of the working class. The other side of the coin, however, is that intensified capitalist globalisation has lowered national barriers, certainly as far as the ‘free movement of capital’ is concerned. It has led to the rapid transfer of resources from one country and one continent to another. All this has compelled working class people into thinking in continental and even world terms. In other words, capitalism has prepared the objective basis for a new internationalism in outlook, manifested, in the first instance, in the powerful ‘anti-capitalist globalisation’ movements of the late 1990s and the early part of this century.
From London to Seattle, from Prague to the historic and bloody clashes in Genoa and Gothenburg, at Nice, Quebec, Porto Allegre, Paris and Mumbai, inhumane, ‘modern’ capitalism, and its brutal juggernaut of globalisation, were rejected. In the first instance, this has been manifested in the changes in outlook and the actions of young people, supported, in some instances, by significant sections of workers. In the germ, this is a new internationalism that identifies with the struggle of the ‘people’ in continental and global terms. However, a class differentiation will come at a certain stage. Karl Marx was the first to recognise “globalisation” in his day, the development of a world market, and with it, the world working class, which made possible ‘world history’: “The proletariat can…only exist world-historically, just as communism, its movement, can only have a ‘world-historical’ existence.”2 And further: “The extension of markets into a world-market, which has now become possible and was daily becoming more and more a fact, called forth a new phase of historical development…”.3
This was at a time when the interdependence of the world, through the development of a world division of labour, was in its “infancy”, compared to today and largely invisible to the mass of the population.
Big movements of peoples
How different the situation is today. Through the internet, worldwide satellite television and its 24-hour news, foreign travel, etc., the binding together of the world is a palpable and visible reality recognised by the majority of the world’s population!
Television and even mobile phones are increasingly available in some of the most economically underdeveloped and deprived regions of the planet. This is a manifestation of Marx’s law of “combined and uneven development”; the latest word in technique is battened on to feudal and semi-feudal social relations. Technology is employed in economically underdeveloped societies which have yet to complete the “bourgeois-democratic, national and democratic revolution”. Involving a thoroughgoing land reform, unification of the country and the development of these societies along modern lines, this revolution was carried out by the capitalists in Europe hundreds of years ago. However, in large parts of Asia, Africa and even in Latin America, the bourgeois-democratic revolution can only be carried through by the working class coming to power and mobilising the rural population behind them, thereby establishing workers’ power – a workers and peasants’ government. This in turn would entail going over to socialist measures, on a national, continental and world scale. This is the essence of Trotsky’s ‘Theory of the Permanent Revolution’. It retains its full validity today in those countries which are kept in backwardness and poverty by capitalism through the perpetuation of feudal, semi-feudal, and archaic social and economic relations.
But humankind does not stand still and is not acquiescent in the face of stagnant or deteriorating conditions. Worldwide means of communication put on view a better life for some in the world when set against the grinding poverty of the majority. It produces a magnet for the most energetic section of the population in Africa, Asia and Latin America, or those with resources, to seek access to the advanced goods and higher living standards in Europe, in Japan and the US. There have been big movements of people, migrating from deprived areas by taking any opportunity to escape or they have been driven from their homes by wars or persecution.
The reaction of the capitalists to this is shot through with hypocrisy and contradictions. They are forced to depend on immigrants to fill low-paid sweated jobs, as well as trying to plug the “skills gap”. Through the influx of younger immigrants, they are also attempting to compensate for the aging of their populations. At the same time, the capitalists still seek to use immigrants as scapegoats for the ills of their system. Talking of “Fortress Europe” is also an attempt to outflank the European far right, who threaten the electoral position of the main capitalist parties.
However, while immigrants beat a path to the doors of the advanced industrial societies, an opposite process is taking place – a massive ‘relocation’ of jobs, both in manufacturing and in recently created ‘service’ occupations – to China, India and other parts of the ‘underdeveloped’ world. This now includes Eastern Europe, if not Russia, as well. This poses sharply on a national scale the need for a programme for workers, particularly the trade unions, to defend their jobs against this pernicious ‘outsourcing’, as well as defending the union rights of immigrant workers. This is merely the latest manifestation of the ingrained drive of the capitalists to ‘maximise’ their profits. If this be at the cost of the loss of millions of relatively high-paid jobs in the manufacturing sector replaced, they reason, in some cases only partially, by temporary lower-paid jobs in the so-called ‘service’ industries – then so be it! To take one example of the fate of workers in ‘modern’ capitalism; one third of the Spanish labour force is on temporary contracts with an average time span of ten days!
The consequence of this is the impoverishment of significant sections of the working class. Formerly high-paid, securely employed workers with hard-won rights have been replaced by a new army of the poor –not just unemployed but ‘working poor’. This is creating the conditions for a massive revolt of low-paid, impoverished sections of the working class. It could develop along the lines of the uprising of the gas workers, dockers and match workers, in Britain, during the late nineteenth century. This was paralleled by similar movements, at different stages in history, in other countries in Europe and in the US. The argument of the ‘high priests’ of capitalism is that the process of globalisation is inexorable. It cannot be stopped. Moreover, it will ultimately benefit everyone by creating new jobs in new industries, both in the neo-colonial world and in the industrialised (now becoming de-industrialised) sectors of the world economy.
Tell that to the women workers in the maquiladores in Mexico, where the venal bosses prefer female labour, usually single mothers, because they are the least able to resist through strike action the onslaught of capital’s drive to cut wages and conditions. The proponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – between the US, Canada and Mexico – argued that the Agreement would be for the mutual benefit of the working class in both North and Central America. Instead, millions of US jobs were relocated to Mexico, while the conditions of the working class in Mexico, allegedly ‘benefiting’ from these jobs, actually deteriorated.
From their experiences, the idea will ineluctably grow within the ranks of the working class that the employers should not be allowed to close factories like a child closing a matchbox or move productive facilities from one country or continent to another without resistance.
The need for a common policy of workers in different countries – for instance, in Europe, in the next period – co-ordinated through the trade unions for common rates, will take root amongst workers. The same process will develop in relation to workers in China, India and elsewhere. Already they are ferociously resisting the newly-arrived venal capitalism that wishes to super-exploit them and their families. This new internationalism on an industrial plane is paralleled on the political terrain. Efforts are being made, fumbling and faltering as they are, to seek to link up international, continental and world political resistance. Utopian though they are, even proposals like that of the British environmentalist writer George Monbiot to establish a ‘world parliament’ (outlined in his book ‘Age of Consent’) to check and control capitalism, are manifestations of the demands arising within the anticapitalist movement for international, political solutions to the problems which exist now.
This process has been furthered by the increased awareness of the colossal polarisation of wealth, both within and between nations, which has developed in the 1990s. The ten richest people on earth possessed, in 2002, a combined wealth of $266 billion. This is five times the annual flow of aid from rich nations to poor ones. It is roughly sufficient to pay for all the United Nations’ “millennium goals”, such as halting and reversing the spread of AIDS, malaria and other infectious diseases, reducing infant mortality by two-thirds and lowering the number of maternal deaths in childbirth by three-quarters between now and 2050.
The statistics that demonstrate the scale and depth of world poverty are well rehearsed. Big parts of the world’s population are now conscious that half of the globe lives on $2 a day or less, and one-fifth on less than $1 a day. Despite a global surplus of food, 840 million people are officially classified as malnourished, as they lack the money required to buy sufficient food. One hundred and eighty-four million people are unemployed throughout the world (and this excludes the ‘underemployed’). The World Bank has estimated that 54 countries, with a combined population of 750 million people, have actually seen deterioration in their real incomes in the past 10 years.
The real power on the planet is vested in 500 individuals (predominantly rich men and with only a few women). They control the majority of the means of production – the organisation of labour, science, technique, etc. The institutions of world capitalism – the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, buttressed by military alliances such as NATO – are subordinate ultimately to this power, which is reflected through the so-called ‘hidden hand’ of the market. National governments seem powerless against ‘investors’ who, in the new deregulated global capitalism, can bring governments to their knees unless they come to heel like obedient dogs. The Clinton presidency in the United States was forced by the pressure of the market, particularly the buyers of government debt, to abandon its tepid stimulus programme in 1993. Clinton turned himself into an “Eisenhower Republican”. This was in order to satisfy what the former president called “a bunch of fucking bond traders”.4
First stages of global revolt
The movement against capitalist globalisation represents the first stages of this international revolt against the world capitalist system.
Its great merit is that it has mobilised millions of people, particularly young people, into action for the first time. Not all of those participating in the movement consciously opposed capitalism; they were initially in revolt against the effects of capitalism on living standards, the environment, increased militarisation, the drive to war and the monstrous future which this system has conjured up for humankind.
Up to now, where the labour movement and the working class have participated in the anti-capitalist movement, it has usually been in a subordinate position, not coming out as an independent force or with its own political banners. This is largely because of the role of the right-wing trade union leaders, supported, of course, by the leaders of the ex-workers’ parties in Europe and elsewhere, who are now bulwarks of world capitalism. Nevertheless, it is not possible to overestimate this movement, in its scope as an anticipation of future mass movements of the working class. A mass movement of the workers will be more conscious of capitalism being the barrier to further progress and will instinctively pose class demands as a solution to the problems of the world.
The anti-capitalist movement has concentrated on opposition to many of the institutions of world capitalism, such as the IMF and World Bank. This flows from the policy of many of the leaders of the movement. They do not believe it is possible to direct a frontal attack on capitalism and, therefore, wish to channel it merely into a critique of aspects of modern capitalism. Some, like George Monbiot, are searing in their criticisms of the World Bank, the IMF and even the United Nations. Monbiot also shows in detail the futility of imagining that serious “reforms” of these institutions are possible, as some others in the anticapitalist movement have suggested. But having gone far in his criticism, Monbiot draws back and, in effect, seeks solutions within the confines of the system.
The millions-fold movement from below, however, is crossing over the threshold which Monbiot and other leaders of the movement baulk at. In the future it will go much further. Its activists are searching for a programme and ideas which can create a real alternative “new world”. This cannot be a renovated capitalist programme but must be socialist in content. The mass movement against the war in Iraq has resulted in a profound change in consciousness of all layers in society but particularly amongst young people. Marxists have always pointed out that war is the midwife of revolution. For instance, the 1905 Russian Revolution was ushered in by the Russo-Japanese War and the 1917 Russian Revolution by the First World War. The Iraq War has not yet led to a revolution, apart from the mass resistance in Iraq to occupation, which is potentially the beginning of a revolution. But it has led to a revolution, or the beginning of revolution, in the outlook of millions who have been radicalised by these convulsive events. In the minds of many, the need for an alternative has been posed, with some embracing socialism.
How to realise this “new world” demanded by increasing sections of the movement is a key question. History, including recent history, has shown that this will not be achieved either ‘spontaneously’ or ‘semi-spontaneously’. The twentieth century was marked by heroic movements of the working class, revolutionary upsurges, which reached out to take power from the capitalists. In some cases power slipped from the hands of the working class. This was the case in Spain, 1936-37, where initially four-fifths of the country was under the control of the working class. In Chile, under Allende in 1973, 40 per cent of land and industry was taken out of private hands, while in Portugal, in 1975, a mass movement from below compelled the government to nationalise the banks and, through them, 70 per cent of industry. The failure of the working class to hold onto power arose not at all from its political ‘immaturity’, but entirely because their own organisations, in particular, their leaders, at the head of mass socialist and communist parties, proved a barrier. In almost every case these leaders handed power back to the capitalists, rather than seek a solution to the workers’ needs and demands through revolution.
All these movements were instinctively internationalist – looking for solutions on the international plane – and evoked tremendous support from the world working class as a consequence.
From its inception as a force in its own right, the working class looked for a solution not just on the national sphere but internationally, as well. The Communist League was organised by the young Marx and Engels in the 1840s when the influence of Chartism in Britain – the first independent industrial and political movement of the working class worldwide – was still felt. Indeed, there have been five serious attempts to harness the mass political power of the working class on a world scale: the Communist League, The International Working Men’s Association, also organised by Marx and Engels, the Socialist (Second) International, the Communist (Third) International, following the Russian Revolution, and Trotsky’s Fourth International. All of these organisations played an important role in raising and enhancing the power and understanding of the working class, as we have explained in the History of the CWI.
Yet, in this first decade of the twenty-first century, when capitalism demonstrates its failures and, at the same time, globalisation enhances the case for real internationalism and an international organisation, there is no mass political international of the working class based on mass parties. The task of the CWI is to help to create the conditions for the formation of such an International. However, this is only possible on the basis of learning from the lessons from the past and, particularly, from the failings of previous Internationals. A big step towards such a mass International would be the creation of mass parties on a national level. But the outline of such an International cannot be left until the creation of such parties. A powerful embryo for a mass International must be created in the new explosive period that is opening up. We believe the CWI can play a vital role in this process.
However, the political terrain is littered with the remnants of failed and would-be ‘Internationals’. Some of them had very shallow roots in the real movement of the working class, if any at all. Most of these organisations are fragments. Most are either organically opportunist or ultra-left; many of them, unfortunately, stand under the banner of ‘Trotskyism’. We explained in the 1997 of the ‘History of the CWI’ the reasons why Trotsky’s original conception of the ‘Fourth International’, launched in 1938, did not take off. It never became a mass force, although in some cases Trotskyism had a powerful effect on the labour movement, such as in Sri Lanka, Latin America, Vietnam, France, and Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. The reason why the ‘Fourth International’ did not succeed was because of a combination of unfavourable objective factors and difficulties, together with the mistakes made by the leaders of the ‘Fourth International’.
The twenty-first century, however, presents an opportunity to learn from the past. The process can begin – some steps at least can be taken – to lay the foundations for such a new International. But this task is, first and foremost, political. The only justification for trying to build a political organisation, separate and apart from others, certainly as far as Marxists are concerned, is the existence of serious differences on policy and programme. Incidental, secondary, personal or tactical differences are not sufficient justification for maintaining a different organisation, particularly when such an organisation is numbered in dozens, hundreds or even thousands.
For this reason, following the collapse in the Berlin Wall and the new situation which opened up, the CWI did explore the possibility of whether we could arrive at agreement on fundamental issues with other trends within Trotskyism. We discussed and corresponded with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI, sometimes known as the Fourth International). We had connections and discussions with the Trotskyists around the ‘Morenoite’ current, largely based in Latin America. We sought to work, and still do (unfortunately with little success) in common organisations and alliances with the International Socialist Tendency (IST), whose most prominent section is the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain. We approached these discussions with an open mind in the hope that, as we had done, these organisations would perhaps learn from their past mistakes, readjust their political stance and, thereby, lay the basis for common work and possible political agreement on the tasks ahead.
Unfortunately, the conclusions which most of these organisations drew from the new world situation confronting the working class and the Marxist movement were at variance with ours, and in some cases quite decisively so. The collapse of Stalinism, symbolised in the fall of the Berlin Wall, was one of those decisive moments in history which, unless correctly assessed, can lead to grave mistakes, in policy, programme and organisation. None of these other organisations adjusted to the main features of the immediate post-Stalinist situation as quickly or as clearly as the CWI.
Scottish Socialist Party
The ‘terrible nineties’ that followed the collapse of Stalinism, is the objective source of the opportunism of many organisations.
Paradoxically, developments within the CWI – the movement away from a revolutionary Trotskyist position by the leaders of what was to become the Scottish Socialist Party – inadvertently encouraged this process. The formation and electoral success of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has now become a model for some of those who are in headlong retreat from Marxism and Trotskyism. The decision of the then leadership of the CWI section in Scotland, in the late 1990s, to set up a broad socialist formation, the SSP, while effectively abandoning the revolutionary party, represented a fundamental break with the revolutionary programme, tactics and strategy of the CWI. This development, led by individuals who had played an important role in the CWI in the past, such as Tommy Sheridan, Alan McCombes and others, was not at all accidental. It was the product of the difficulties of continuing to argue for a revolutionary programme and approach in a dramatically changed political climate.
The proposals of these comrades, at the outset, did not appear to many as representing a fundamental departure from our analysis and programme. After all, it was the leadership of the CWI not the leadership of the Scottish section, Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, who initially called for a new mass workers’ party. This was based upon our analysis about the ‘bourgeoisification’ of the social democracy in Britain (New Labour) and, ultimately, social democracy worldwide. Despite the attempts of Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan to try and picture the CWI majority as rejecting the idea of forming a broad party, such arguments cut no ice with the majority of the CWI membership.
Our objection was to their liquidation of the revolutionary current within such a formation. The arguments in and around these ideas can be thoroughly examined by visiting the CWI website at www.marxist.net. The leadership of the CWI, with an overwhelming majority of the CWI behind it in the debate over this issue, correctly foretold the political evolution of what later became the leadership of the SSP. Despite their denials that this was their aim, we predicted their political backsliding and their ultimate liquidation into the SSP. This involved a shift towards reformism that, in practice, amounted to the winding up of Scottish Militant Labour, which had been a revolutionary party. To begin with, when Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes formed the International Socialist Movement within the SSP, this was not obvious. However, in January 2003, the leadership proposed winding up as the ISM, as the SSP was “doing the job”. The proposal was put on ice until after the Scottish parliamentary elections that year. In October of the same year, it was raised again. It was agreed to maintain the ISM but there was little enthusiasm to build it. They needed to retain the semblance of an organisation because of political opposition within the ISM, as well as because of the danger which would then be presented to their position by other platforms within the SSP, particularly the CWI. The reality is that the ISM is the faction of the majority of the SSP leadership.
Despite this, the SSP has partially filled the vacuum which exists to the left of Labour and has had a measure of success electorally, as well as growing in numbers. Its electoral success in the 2003 Scottish parliamentary elections raised its profile further, as has the affiliation of the Scottish Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) branches to the SSP. As a result, in some quarters of the ‘revolutionary left’ internationally, this has been invoked as a model of how to lay the foundations for new parties of the working class. Heavy emphasis is laid on the need to go ‘broad’, involving, in practice, the submerging of revolutionary organisations into such formations. This seems to be justified by the success of the SSP. However, what is forgotten in all of this are the limits to what has been achieved in Scotland. Concrete, specific conditions exist there and, with different conditions elsewhere, it may not be possible to immediately reproduce an SSP-type party. Undoubtedly, the national question has given a sharpness to the political situation in Scotland, from which the SSP has benefited. However, the Socialist Party in England and Wales also has a credible record on the electoral field. The SP successfully stood in eleven elections at local level, leading to the election of socialist councillors and their re-election. Since 2001, the votes won in Coventry, during election campaigns for the Socialist Party’s Dave Nellist, have been consistently the best of parties to the left of New Labour in England and Wales. Moreover, while the SSP polled a credible 5.2% of the vote in Scotland during the 2004 Euro elections, the SP (CWI) in Ireland won 5.5% across Dublin in the same EU poll. These election results underline the fact that electoral support can be won without abandoning a consistent Marxist and Trotskyist programme.
We welcomed and supported the setting up of the SSP – despite the completely false claims of the leadership of that party that we were opposed (for more details, see www.marxist.net). But we insisted on continuing with the maintenance and building of a clearly-identified Marxist trend within the SSP. This corresponds with the tactic set out in the 1990s – the dual task of fighting for and rehabilitating the basic ideas of socialism and, at the same time, building new parties of the working class while maintaining the ideas of revolutionary Marxism within these new organisations.
The SSP leadership subscribed to the first task but have abandoned the second, and vital, task for Marxists in this era. Through impatience – a drive for short-term popularity – they have watered down the ideas they formerly adhered to when in the CWI. Now neither they or we, nor any other serious organisation in the international movement today, would describe the SSP leaders as consistently ‘Trotskyist’. They seek to put as much distance as possible between their present position and their revolutionary past in Militant and Scottish Militant Labour, as well as in the CWI.
Abandonment of Marxist position
The speeches of Tommy Sheridan are not consistently socialist and Marxist in content.
For instance, as the convenor of the SSP, he explained in an interview on the BBC that, “there are a number of countries which have a successful mix of public ownership and high taxation… like Norway and Denmark they manage to combine high levels of public ownership with high taxation for the wealthy.”
This implied that capitalist Norway and Denmark were the benchmark for the kind of Scotland that Tommy Sheridan wanted to see. He then went on to state: “I don’t think there’s a need to nationalise Tesco right now. What I think there’s a need for is to impose on Tesco proper wages and employment conditions. What we would be doing is regulating business. You don’t have to own it, you just regulate it.” (‘The Herald’, Glasgow, 30 April 2003).
In the same interview Tommy Sheridan said: “What we’re saying is that in a future independent, socialist Scotland, we want to work on training, on skills. We want to offer a very high-skilled economy, a motivated workforce for big business. If that can work in Germany and France, where they have higher wages, better standards and produce better products, why can’t that work here in Scotland?”
Leaving aside Tommy Sheridan’s wish to offer the big bosses a “highly motivated workforce”, workers in Germany, some on 2 or 3 Euros an hour, and French workers, who see their pay and conditions under attack from Prime Minister Raffarin’s neo-liberal programme, do not consider that they are “high paid”! Moreover, on a capitalist basis, “high wages” are becoming a thing of the past, in Germany and elsewhere.
In the SSP newspaper, ‘The Voice’, Kevin Williamson, a close collaborator of Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes, puts a non-class ‘liberal’ position (without any comment by them): “Those who see politics purely in terms of either capitalism or socialism have yet to make any serious attempt to explain how a controlling class can be prevented from arising to a position of power in a post-capitalist society. The rest of us need to put forward practical alternatives.”
The same kind of retreat – compared to when they were in the CWI – applies to the SSP’s stand on international issues. This goes from uncritical support of the Cuban state of Castro, which they describe as “socialist”, to a complete abandonment of the socialist solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – of a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel within the framework of a socialist confederation of the Middle East. In effect, at the 2002 SSP conference, they accepted the Socialist Workers’ Party’s false slogan of ‘a Palestinian state with minority rights for the Israelis’. Although at a subsequent conference this position was watered down, nevertheless, in the SSP newspapers and the public statements of leading SSP members, the idea of a Palestinian state with minority rights for Israelis still appears. Such an abstract slogan would never be accepted by the Israeli population, with the implication that their own separate state would be liquidated and they would be forcibly incorporated into another, ‘Palestinian state’.
At the time of writing, because of the brutal, repressive measures of the Sharon regime, and their effects on the Palestinian population, with malnutrition and hunger in the Palestinian areas, the majority of the Palestinians, in despair, seem now to have abandoned hope of a “two-state” solution. One section of the Palestinian bourgeoisie has coupled the idea of the abandonment of the goal of a separate Palestinian state, with the Palestinians fighting for equal rights within the Israeli state. They hope that on the basis of demographic factors – the higher birth rate of the Palestinian population – the Israeli Jews will become a minority within their own state in ten to twenty years’ time! Of course, the Israeli bourgeoisie would never accept such a solution. They would opt, if necessary, for the forcible evacuation of even the present Israeli Arabs and the repartition of the area. In other words, a scenario for endless bloody conflict stretching into the far distance would be the consequence of any of the “one-state” solutions on offer. The same applies to the caricature of a genuine “two-state” policy, the proposal of Sharon for what amounts to a “Bantustan” for the Palestinians. Even though, temporarily, the idea of a socialist solution can seem to recede, in the long run it will gather the support of the majority of the Israeli and Palestinian population.
The political, theoretical and organisational backsliding of the ex-CWI members in Scotland has, in turn, become the benchmark for a similar process affecting other organisations formerly claiming to be Marxist. Some of them still formally claim to be under the banner of the “revolutionary left” and even of “Trotskyism”. For the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia, the International Socialist Tendency and the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), the approach of the SSP leaders has either served as an “inspiration” for a rightward shift or even as a “model” – the prototype for the kind of party that can be established elsewhere.
From the time of Karl Marx, scientific socialism, with Trotskyism as its expression today, has always seen itself, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, as “The movement of the future in the movement of the present”. While always relating to the real level of consciousness and of understanding of the working class, the task of genuine Marxists on issues of programme, tactics and organisation is to direct the gaze of the more developed sections of the working class towards the goal of socialism. Necessarily, this involves the clear demarcation between a consistently Marxist approach and the ideas and methods of left reformism and even centrism, which can develop in periods of sharp social tension. Those who wish to tread in the footsteps of the SSP leaders are in effect sacrificing the future of the working class for short-term gains today.
United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI)
On the international plane, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) looks towards the SSP, which more and more corresponds to their own view of politics.
They are perhaps the most widely known international organisation identified as Trotskyist. Yet, the USFI, by its own admission, claims that at its World Congress in 2003 there were participants from 40 countries (not all of these were members of the USFI). This is a similar figure to the number of different countries in which the CWI has sections, groups or members at present. While the USFI has a sizeable presence in France, through the LCR, this is not the case in most Western European countries. The strength of the different ‘revolutionary left’ Internationals is not just a question of present strength but of potential. This, in turn, depends upon a correct analysis of the stage through which society and the working class is passing and all the political conclusions that flow from this. Whether an organisation numbers dozens, hundreds, thousands or even millions is important in relation to the effect it can have, but what is ultimately decisive, when sharp turns in the situation take place, is the political premise of these organisations. It would be criminal to form or maintain a separate political organisation of the left unless there are fundamental differences that cannot be accommodated within one organisation or through the unification of different organisations. At the same time, a revolutionary party is not the same as any transitional broad formation, in which different political positions, organisations and trends, some of them differing wildly from others, can collaborate and work together.
The need for unity flows from the basic trend within the working class to combine its forces against the common enemy, the capitalist class. Woe betides any political party or current that in critical periods stands in the way of this urge for unity! Marxists must always seek common cause, particularly with genuine organisations that have roots in the working class, in specific actions, in united front-type initiatives, etc. But this must not be at the cost of dipping or hiding the Marxist banner, or watering down or not advancing the programme of Marxism. The future of the different ‘Internationals’ will be determined by their political approach now and in the future and by whether their ideas meet the needs of the current situation.
Neither the IST nor the USFI have ever over a period consistently put forward a Trotskyist or Marxist analysis. The USFI, claiming lineage from Trotsky, is recognised in ‘intellectual’ circles as the representative of ‘orthodox Trotskyism’. Unfortunately, this is not the reality, as an examination of the USFI’s current analysis and programme will demonstrate. To take on the designation of ‘Trotskyist’ is to defend the heritage of Trotsky, his method of analysis and, in general, his activity in the workers’ movement. This does not mean a carte blanche acceptance of everything that Trotsky did as being right. In a recent series of articles in the USFI’s ‘International Viewpoint’ journal, dedicated to Trotsky, a series of criticisms and attacks on his ideas and methods appeared. Rather than taking up some of the mistakes that Trotsky made – and in his lifetime he admitted to them openly, unlike the USFI and its leaders today – USFI writers attack “mistakes” he never made; they lambast his strong rather than his weak points! In so doing, they echo, unconsciously perhaps, the criticisms of the Stalinists about Trotsky’s alleged “weaknesses”.
Trotsky and the revolutionary party
Take for instance the question of the need for a party. Francois Vercammen, Secretary of the USFI, wrote an article entitled: “The question of the party: Trotsky’s weak point”.
Vercammen comments: “His weak point is the problem of the party…Trotsky did not have the capacity (1903-1917) or the opportunity (after 1917) to participate directly in the construction of a revolutionary party, in its main aspects (beyond general analyses and perspectives), namely the elaboration and implementation of a political line and concrete tactics, a collective work inside a central leadership, the construction of a political-organisational apparatus, work in common with other cadres and militants; and more generally the implementation of an internal dialectic which prioritises the experience of party militants in the elaboration of a line. Between 1903 and 1917, having broken with Lenin, he did not try to organise a current or a party (confining himself to an activity as a journalist and orator).” 5
This incredible misinterpretation of Trotsky’s position within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) reflects the criticisms aimed at Trotsky by bourgeois hacks dabbling in a “sociological” explanation of the revolution. This, in turn, is a reflection of the slanders made by the Stalinists. Trotsky’s weakness is not that claimed by Vercammen – a misunderstanding of the need or the character of a party. He participated fully in the RSDLP, which required an understanding of the need for a party and the character of the party at that stage. Vercammen’s dismissal of “general analyses and perspectives” ignores Trotsky’s major contribution to the success of the socialist revolution – in his monumental work, the book ‘Results and Prospects’, which explained and developed the ‘Theory of Permanent Revolution’. In this, Trotsky correctly anticipated the main forces involved in the first and second Russian Revolutions and, in particular, the decisive role of the working class as the primary force in the alliance with the peasantry, which allowed it to take power in October 1917.
Trotsky’s mistake – openly admitted by him, in his ‘Diary in Exile’, for instance – was not on the issue of the party, the need for such a party, the character of such a party, etc. It was on his “conciliationism”, his hope for a reconciliation between Bolshevism and Menshevism between 1907 and 1912. He hoped that, as in the 1905 Revolution, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks would be forced together under the pressure of the masses. Incidentally, he was not alone in this. The ranks of the Bolshevik party put so much pressure on Lenin that on a number of occasions between 1906 and 1912, he was compelled to undertake “unity” negotiations with the Mensheviks. Moreover, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were united in common organisations in many parts of Russia (outside of Petrograd), up to September 1917. Unlike these particular ‘Bolsheviks’, Trotsky never entertained political illusions in the Mensheviks, but sharply and widely diverged from their political programme and perspectives. Therefore, on the political characterisation of the Mensheviks, Trotsky was at one with Lenin. We repeat, where Trotsky made a mistake was not on the question of the party. It was on the illusion that under mass pressure both wings of the RSDLP would be compelled to come together and be forced to accept the main lines of his approach towards the revolution, outlined in the permanent revolution, and the strategy and tactics that would flow from this. Lenin, on the other hand, understood earlier and more clearly that the Mensheviks had already gone over to petty bourgeois and bourgeois conceptions of the coming revolution.
Despite this perception of Lenin’s, Trotsky was more correct in his analysis of the coming revolution and particularly the role of the working class as the main agency leading the proletariat to take power, drawing behind it the mass of the peasantry. It is an historical fact that Lenin, in effect, abandoned the ‘algebraic formula’ of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” after the February Revolution and then, in practice, fully adopted Trotsky’s position.
There was no fundamental difference between Trotsky and Lenin in their approach, tactics, strategy, etc, for the revolution. The same could not be said of Stalin, Kamenev or Zinoviev. Vercammen can write, quite absurdly, that: “It was Lenin’s determination to attach himself to the ‘real movement’ in Russia, combined with a succession of complex socio-political conjunctures, which fashioned and rooted the Bolshevik party in [urban] Russian society. It was the policy of Lenin which was determinant and not his ‘conception’ of the party, such as is commonly understood (Democratic Centralism, The General Programme)… It was the political weakness of Trotsky which was at the base of his defeat at the level of the organisation. One can follow it up in the following manner: before 1917, his extraordinary capacity to grasp the significant general tendencies of the era and to draw strategic perspectives did not allow him to develop a revolutionary policy (and he was unable or unwilling to create a militant collective). His weakness on the party is located in this framework.”
And yet, as we have stated, Trotsky rather than Lenin had the clearest perspective of the forces and the outcome of the Russian revolution. Vercammen lauds Lenin’s policy quite correctly in relation to 1917 – and yet speaks of “Trotsky’s political weaknesses”. And all of this, which we have answered many times before against Stalinists, is part of an alleged defence of Trotsky! The roots of his latter-day criticism of Trotsky’s alleged mistakes flow from the incapacity of the USFI itself to build sizeable organisations in the past. Vercammen points to the failure of his organisation in 1965-68, and compares it to the period of 1895-1914, when Lenin was able to establish an outline of the revolutionary party which matured and took power in October 1917. Unfortunately, Vercammen misunderstands the whole character of the 1965-68 period and its different conjunctures. Stalinism and social democracy, he claims, began to “break up” in the period prior to the May events of 1968. This is just not true. Reformist organisations and the consciousness that goes with them still, in general, held a grip on the minds of the masses in this period. For us,as Marxists, social democratic and mass Stalinist parties were an objective factor, which could only be overcome by events. This happened to some extent in the revolutionary events in France of May-June 1968. However, the absence of a mass revolutionary party and leadership at this time allowed the Stalinist French Communist Party and the reformist ‘Socialists’ to re-establish their control and derail this potential revolution.
In Britain, during the 1970s and 1980s, Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, made breakthroughs in Liverpool and in the anti-Poll Tax struggle. Unfortunately, as we have explained elsewhere, this promising beginning to the building of a mass revolutionary party was cut across by the boom of the 1980s and, of course, by the collapse of Stalinism. Vercammen’s rewriting of Trotsky’s role and Trotsky’s alleged ‘weakness’ on organisation and the party, etc, combined with his sublimated political criticisms, betrays an impatient approach to the problem of assembling the outline of a party and building such a force. This task involves understanding the different stages through which the working class and its level of understanding will pass. It means being prepared to stand against the stream in certain periods, at the risk of being accused of being sectarian. But it also means assembling a working-class cadre, rooting the party in the working class neighbourhoods and organisations – trade unions, co-operative societies, etc. – and seizing the opportunities to create a mass or semi-mass base, as and when they arise.
Incredibly, Vercammen accuses Trotsky of being “indecisive and confused (even after 1905) on the question of electoral support to the liberal bourgeoisie”. This is done without any attempt to explain what Vercammen means by this. However, when it comes to the question of the peasantry, he directly attacks Trotsky and thereby one of the main elements of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution. Vercammen states: “In 1906, and the years that followed, he satisfied himself with two theoretical generalisations which translated above all the prejudices of European Marxism at the time (post-Marx): historically, the countryside follows the town and the peasantry the proletariat (industrial, urbanised); at the same time, the peasantry is incapable of following an autonomous political line and creating an independent organisation”. He goes on further to echo the criticisms of the Stalinists, and the latter-day theoretical ‘Stalinists’ of the DSP in Australia, in arguing: “Trotsky did not seek, unlike Lenin, the construction of a real workers’ and peasants’ alliance, with all its demands. By its abstract character, the theory proved a veritable trap for Trotsky”6 This is merely an echo of the Stalinists’ argument on the “underestimation” by Trotsky of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry.
The Permanent Revolution
A similar point is made by Michael Lowy in International Viewpoint, allegedly defending the theory of the permanent revolution.
The author writes: “The theory of the permanent revolution has been verified twice in the course of the history of the 20th century. On the one hand, by the disasters resulting from stageism, from the blind application by the Communist parties in the dependent countries, of the Stalinist doctrine of the revolution by stages and the bloc with the national bourgeoisie, from Spain in 1936 to Indonesia in 1965 or Chile in 1973.”7
Michael Lowy then goes on to say that the theory has been verified on the other hand, “Because this theory, such as it was formulated from 1906, has largely allowed us to predict, explain and shed light on the revolutions of the 20th century, which have all been ‘permanent’ revolutions in the peripheral countries. What happened in Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam or Cuba has corresponded, in its broad outlines, to Trotsky’s central idea: the possibility of combined and uninterrupted revolution – democratic and socialist – in a country of peripheral capitalism, dependent or colonial. The fact that, overall, the leaders of the revolutionary movements after October 1917 have no
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