The Seventeenth World Congress of the Fourth International (FI) took place on the chilly Belgian coast from 25 February to 2 March 2018. Jo Taku reports.
This congress takes place eighty years after the FI was founded by revolutionary Marxists on the outskirts of Paris in the extremely difficult conditions of 1938 Nazi-occupied Europe. Leon Trotsky in exile wrote the founding document ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’, usually referred to as the ‘Transitional Programme’ after the demands it included; transitional demands such as to open the books of the large companies and implement a sliding scale of wages linked to inflation. Such demands are ‘transitional’ because, reasonable though they are, they cannot be met by a capitalist system which relies on trade and diplomatic secrecy and on shifting the burden of economic crises in times of austerity onto the working class. The transitional demands link theory and practice, link Marxist theory of how the capitalist economy works with political practice to overthrow this wretched economic system. The link between the two is sometimes named as ‘praxis’, and this praxis in one form or another runs as a red thread through the history of the FI up to the present day.
The Fourth International continues the Marxist tradition of the first four congresses of the ‘Third International’, congresses which were rooted in the revolutionary practice of the 1917 October Revolution. Those first four congresses, in 1919, 1920, 1921 and 1922, operated as a space of debate and sharing of experience from Russia, of course, and from communist parties that were being formed around the world to extend and protect the revolution. Each congress was a place for the theorisation of the quite unexpected leap from Tsarist feudalism to the construction of socialism, an experiment in freedom that was brutally crushed by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1920s. Trotsky’s call for a new international in the 1930s set itself against this bureaucratic counter-revolution headed by Stalin and the disastrous transformation of communist parties of the Third International, the ‘Comintern’, into diplomatic tools of Moscow. The criminal twists and turns of political line transmitted to the German Communist Party by this highly centralised bureaucratic apparatus – an apparatus that separated the ossified ‘theory’ which Stalin treated as a quasi-religious worldview from manipulative ‘practice’ – had left the working class defenceless in the face of fascism. We face such dangers again and new threats alongside an intensification of repression around the world to which sections of the FI and other revolutionary organisations are subjected.
The twists and turns of the bureaucracy are tragically mirrored in the various splits and purges of the myriad groups and ‘internationals’ that have spun out of the history of the Fourth International since 1938 and the murder of Trotsky by a Stalinist assassin in Mexico two years later. At every point in that history of the attempt to connect theory and practice we have been participating in a praxis which takes us forward in the struggle against capitalism, a praxis in which it is absolutely essential that we avoid two traps: we have to avoid academic-style theory which tells us how the world is or should be rather than learning from the experiences of revolutionaries around the world; and we have to avoid a simple direct jump into activity without the critical reflection that practical engagement with different contexts enables. Praxis was a signature concept in the work of Hungarian Hegelian Marxist Georg Lukács who, before he went on to head the Star Wars film franchise (not), developed an account of the collective self-conscious agency of the working class. The notion was taken up by anti-Stalinist dissident philosophers in Yugoslavia, the Praxis Group which the FI was in close contact with in the 1960s and 1970s.
Reflections and interventions on how to link theory and practice were the stakes of the debates from 1917 just over a century ago, and they were the stakes of the debate at the Seventeenth Congress in 2018 which brought together delegates from Sections of the FI as well as sympathising organisations and permanent observers and visitors. Nearly 200 revolutionaries were able to travel to the congress, a major accomplishment in the face of travel and visa restrictions for many comrades. Some sections were missing, a disappointment, but the Philippines section made it, as did delegates from other countries in Asia and across the Americas.
The three main documents worked up over the last few years by the elected leadership of the FI, the International Committee, separated out three main aspects of an orientation to contemporary struggle in different contexts around the world. This was a contentious choice itself, and one which the ‘opposition platform’ refused to go along with (and that platform stayed firm to its one document which was voted on at the end of the conference along with a second opposition text on the new era and tasks of revolutionaries that had been submitted by a minority of the FI leadership). It would be possible to argue that such a separation into a first text on capitalist globalisation and geopolitical chaos (what we are up against now), a second text on social upheavals and fightbacks (forms of resistance), and on role and tasks of the FI (what we must do in order to build that resistance and our own organisations) itself cut into praxis, that is, separated theory from practice. Did it? No.
A fourth main document, on the destruction of the environment and an ecosocialist alternative, could also be accused of separating out one aspect of the current global context of exploitation, resistance and revolutionary tasks. However, the key question was whether the contributions around these documents that took up the bulk of the time comrades were together would also weld these separate theoretical-practical issues together. The proof of the pudding would be in the eating (as Engels once remarked in an essay on utopian and scientific socialism), in this case, for the vegetarian minority, alongside the eating of too much cheese and quorn cutlets in a total institution with us packed into shared bedrooms at night and well sealed off from the freezing wind and sea outside.
The discussion and voting consolidated a profound shift that had taken place inside the FI in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of any pretence that socialism had existed in that part of the world and the first signs that China too was taking a path from bureaucratic repression to full-blown capitalism. The 2003 World Congress of the FI rewrote its constitution to finally break from the impossible unwieldy task of maintaining itself as a ‘world party of socialist revolution’ (which had been proclaimed in Trotsky’s founding document) to be run on Leninist democratic centralist lines. This shift in perspective was also bitterly contested by the opposition platform who view it as a profound mistake, and they still also contest the parallel shift from building democratic centralist revolutionary groups around the full programme of the FI to an orientation to ‘broad parties’ of the left. These broad parties of the left provided the context for being able to argue for revolutionary ideas, a much more complicated and difficult task than simply unfolding the flag of the FI and waiting for the working class to rally to it. After all, with all the hundreds of orthodox Leninist-Trotskyist groups around the world that have emerged from the FI over the years, we have had many empirical tests of the thesis advanced by the opposition platform; not one of these theoretically-pure groups have struck lucky, and it is clear we need to tread a different path which actually connects with ongoing struggles.
A repetitive theme running through the World Congress, a theme which tangled itself around the red thread of praxis, was the idea advanced by the opposition platform – sometimes explicitly and many times implicitly – that if only they had the chance to present themselves openly as revolutionaries with the right programme, then there could have been breakthroughs, or at least we could avoided some of the demoralising failures we have experienced over the years. It is as if the working class is reaching out here or there with its hand ready to grasp the revolutionary flag, and the vanguard party in the right place at the right time with the right programme needs to put that flag into that eager hand.
The failure of the Workers Party in Brazil, of the regroupment process around elements of the communist party in Italy, and of the Syriza government in Greece are each, in one reading, evidence of the failure of broad parties, or, on another reading, of the force of circumstance, of the balance of forces that were against us in every case, and from which we must learn and rebuild ourselves. Each reading of these situations and of the way they can be linked together is grounded in a kind of practice, revolutionary praxis, and that is precisely what made the debates at this World Congress so sharp.
For many comrades of the Greek section of the FI who stand now with the opposition platform, for example, even the attempt to build Syriza was doomed to fail. For them, they repeated, Tsipras as leader of Syriza did not ‘betray’ when he caved in to the EU, he was always going to betray, and that betrayal needed to be mobilised against in alternative left coalitions like Antarsya. If so, shame on the FI leadership for sowing illusions in what Tsipras and Syriza could or would do. But then, does this mean that the four different parts of the FI who now work in Brazil in the new broad party PSOL are equally culpable, part of the same pattern of compromise and failure, as if the shift to the right of the Workers Party under Lula was inevitable and unavoidable? At what point should we shout ‘betrayal’ against those we are allied with us as we build a left alternative. It is gratifying to be able to say that you have been proved right, but every such prediction and complaint against the reformists is itself ‘performative’, it has effects, and usually those effects are to isolate yourself from any and every movement. This is what will be insisted on by those who are with the FI majority leadership, including comrades in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. If so, shame on the sectarians for sabotaging what is being created, the conditions in which we can learn and build from those we struggle alongside.
In some respects the opposition platform are right, the Greek section was effectively sidelined by the FI leadership which was intent on supporting Syriza and it ignored the warnings and crucial necessary independent activity on the left by our comrades. A critical honest balance sheet still needs to be made of these events. But the ‘pattern’ that the opposition platform claims to find in the broad party projects of the FI, a theoretical fiction which relies on an abstract return to the good old days before 1995 when we were a world party composed of Leninist democratic centralist sections, leads to gross accusations and misrepresentations; false accusations that the Danish comrades in the Red Green Alliance voted for war in Syria, for example, or that our comrades in the Spanish State are colluding with the leadership of Podemos. Obsession with this ‘pattern’ of betrayal would, among others things, lead comrades in Britain to begin denouncing Jeremy Corbyn now instead of building for Labour victory in the next election. Work in the Labour Party and for Corbyn creates the conditions for revolutionary debate, in line with a transitional method. We know this from our own praxis.
The shift in the 1990s, away from democratic centralist world party to broad parties and alliances in social movements, was in response to a dramatic transformation of the conditions for revolutionary work and enabled two things; it was to a new ‘praxis’ open to anti-imperialist struggle and to the diversity of forms of resistance to multitudinous forms of oppression. On the one hand, it enabled an opening of the FI to parts of the world that had until then either deliberately or unwittingly been treated as outposts in which the flag should be planted. On the other hand, at the same time, it enabled an opening to feminist and LGBTQI and anti-racist activity, and, of course, to ecology, to ecosocialism, to an eventual self-definition of the FI (at the last World Congress which took place in 2010) as a revolutionary ecosocialist international.
Practical experiences from around the world directly linked with theoretical questions in the congress. Around the question as to whether China should be characterised as imperialist, for example, comrades from the Antilles and Pakistan explained how Chinese strategic investment and control buttressed local regimes. This debate gave us a different vantage point on the vexed question of ‘campism’, that is the temptation to side with the enemy of your enemy; concretely the temptation of some US-American comrades of the FI to combine valiant defiance of their own government’s military adventures with implicit support for China and Russia and then, a slippery slope, to the Assad regime in Syria.
The closed section of the congress voted on amended documents, delegates heavily endorsing the main texts and then electing a new International Committee (IC). The IC met immediately after the congress to elect a Bureau charged with the day-to-day running of the FI between its annual meetings. Four new sections of the FI were recognised at this congress as well as new sympathising groups and permanent observer organisations. Organisations from over 40 countries now participate in IC meetings alongside existing FI sections voting at this world congress. In some countries there is more than one section which are in the process of merging (as has happened since the last world congress in the case of Germany) or which are operating together as publicly visible parts of a section of the FI (as is the case now in Brazil where the four groups which constitute the section today are all working together in PSOL).
On a world scale, these leadership bodies, the IC and Bureau, are almost the equivalent of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and then the Politbureau, but with a crucial difference; we speak openly about the differences in our organisation and are keen to learn from comrades and activists outside this ‘party’ that is no longer a world party at all. It is the tradition of the FI that voting is open on the floor of the congress, and that as well as votes for or against, abstentions and ‘no votes’ are recorded as well as indicative votes by the outgoing leadership, sympathising organisations and permanent observers. The amended ecosocialist document was overwhelmingly carried (apart from a couple of opposition platform delegate abstentions or votes against), as was a statement on the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh (for which some opposition platform delegates inexplicably submitted a ‘no vote’ – this in line with a distancing from the FI overall, a refusal to take any responsibility for decisions collectively made in the congress, something which augurs badly for the next years).
Among other things, not all positive to be honest (representation of women on the Bureau is now actually worse than before, and this will be addressed by the new 40%-women IC), this World Congress of the FI marked another significant shift in the centre of gravity of the international. We were originally rooted in Europe, the site of our first congress in 1938, and even when there were significant numbers of members in Latin America they were still often guided from Europe, and then from time to time rebelled against that. That problematic aspect of our history as a ‘world party’ was continued in even more extreme form in other rival internationals that split away and claimed to really be or to be reconstructing the FI (with some such international tendencies still directly ruled from London).
What we saw at the 2018 congress was a conceptual shift in terms of intersectional and postcolonial perspectives; which could be seen also as a deliberate engagement with some of the new ‘revolutionary keywords’ of the kind that FIIMG (the Fourth International in Manchester) has been noting and exploring in the practice of the new social movements. The theory and practice of the first fifty years of our revolutionary century which was inaugurated with the October Revolution in 1917 was hobbled by the rise of the bureaucracy in the workers states, and it has been in the next fifty years, from the rebellions and new wave of struggles in the late 1960s that Trotskyists have learnt from different movements of the exploited and oppressed around the world. Now over 40% of members of the FI are in Asia, with new perspectives and histories to enrich the revolutionary tradition. Reports on the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam, Islamabad and Manila made it clear that this ongoing development of revolutionary theory is being combined with practice. This was praxis, and the path ahead will be global debate combined with action to end capitalism, not simply to interpret the world but to change it.