The Fourth International and the circle spirit

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The Fourth International and the circle spirit

This extract from The Struggle for Socialism in the Imperialist Epoch, a 1984 resolution of the Australian Socialist Workers Party (later the DSP) is of interest because its view of the “aristocracy of labour” differs somewhat from the present view of the DSP leadership.

The observations on the labour aristocracy question are obviously influenced by the Australian SWP’s rather negative experiences during what was called “the turn to industry”, which lasted from about 1978 to 1983 in Australia.


The Fourth International has its origins in the 1922-23 political alliance formed between the two central leaders of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, to fight the rise of the Stalin-led bureaucracy within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Lenin died in the early stages of that fight. But Trotsky carried on, organising the Left Opposition faction within the CPSU and the Communist International. After the victory of the Stalinists in the CPSU and the Comintern, Trotsky embarked on the construction of the Fourth International.

29. The Fourth International

Like other currents in the labour movement, the Fourth International has also been subject to the influences of its environment and its particular experiences. Because of the dominance of Social Democracy and Stalinism within the proletariat and the overall ebb of the world revolution, the Fourth International came into existence largely isolated from the major forces and events of the class struggle. The objective possibilities for beginning to overcome this isolation were severely limited during World War II, and when the world revolution resumed an upward course, the small sections were either bypassed or further isolated by the anti-communist witch-hunt launched in the major imperialist countries.

But objective difficulties alone cannot account for the fact that the Fourth International remains very much a minority current after four decades of rise in the world revolution. In no country does a section stand on a basis of rough parity of influence with Communist or Social Democratic parties except where the latter have themselves been reduced to relative insignificance. Instead of growing in step with the progress of the world revolution, the International and particular sections have repeatedly suffered crippling splits or committed political errors leading either to opportunist adaptations or to continued isolation from the class struggle. The fact that such setbacks have often coincided with or closely followed periods of encouraging growth in membership and influence is in itself evidence that objective difficulties are not the only source of these errors.

Without overlooking or detracting from the many real achievements of the International and particular sections, it must be said that as a current the Fourth International has not yet overcome the vices of the “circle spirit” against which Trotsky often warned. There is an inescapable pressure on small, isolated groups to retreat into the endless elaboration of the written program as a substitute for active involvement in the class struggle. Particular points of the program that set the group apart from other currents or the labour movement as a whole can then be elevated above their real importance — that is, they become sectarian fetishes serving to reinforce the group’s isolation. The only way out of such a vicious circle appears to be the sudden junking of the program in pursuit of shortcuts. Moreover, the particular programmatic “points of honour” are themselves likely to include mistakes of greater or lesser importance to the degree that they were developed in isolation from the class struggle; such mistakes become self-perpetuating in that they prevent the group from intervening in struggles and thereby deprive it of the possibility of checking and correcting its program in practice.

These sorts of pressures on the Fourth International have been multiplied by a false conception of the way in which a revolutionary International can and should function. This conception was referred to in a resolution adopted by the International Secretariat in 1954, which described the Fourth International as “constituted exclusively on the basis of agreement of the cadres with a precise program, strategy and tactics” (The Development and Disintegration of Stalinism, p 26). The idea that there can be agreement on universal strategy and tactics — and this, moreover, prior to any real testing of them in practice — is utopian and if seriously pursued can only lead to hair-splitting and isolation. It has led to a false view of the role of the international centre as a democratic-centralist headquarters of the world revolution, prescribing strategy and even day-to-day tactics for national sections. This view has inevitably been an obstacle to the proper role of the centre, which should be to assist the building of sections and especially the building of strong leadership teams in each section by facilitating collaboration and discussion between them.

The processes referred to above do not, of course, represent the sum total or even the most important part of what the Fourth International is, but they have always operated as a tendency or pressure and will continue to do so while the International remains a small minority current within the labour movement. Their most harmful effects can be seen in several widely held views that tend to prevent sections from intervening in and influencing the class struggle to the degree that is possible in the present objective and subjective conditions. These errors are:

  • an underestimation of the role of national liberation struggles within the worldwide fight for socialism, in particular a programmatic error of downgrading the anti-imperialist united front and the democratic stage of revolution in the semicolonial countries, from which flow a sectarian attitude towards national liberation movements; this error was largely responsible for the delay by the majority of the FI in recognising the creation of a workers and peasants’ government in Nicaragua in July 1979;
  • a tendency to view the united front as a weapon primarily against political opponents (to bring about their “exposure”) rather than against the class enemy;
  • an overestimation of the place, within the tasks confronting the workers states and within the world revolution, occupied by political revolution against the ruling castes in the bureaucratised socialist states;
  • a view of program abstracted from the practice of parties, which leads to judging other currents by their words rather than their deeds and thus to the view that the Fourth International is the only Marxist revolutionary current;
  • an attitude towards other class-struggle or revolutionary currents that downplays their achievements and seeks for programmatic differences rather than practical agreements;
  • a reluctance to put our program into practice, as seen in the failure to orient to the industrial working class and establish a base there when the conditions for doing so exist.

While an understanding of these mistakes is helpful, they are not to be overcome primarily by refining programmatic documents. Without the immersion of sections in the day-to-day battles of the class struggle, the attempt to correct errors will lead only to new programmatic distortions. Marxists have always recognised that practice is the necessary corrective of theory, and the objective situation today offers us abundant opportunities to check our theories in practice. In doing this, the sections will of course be subject to pressures to adapt in an opportunist direction, and will need to call on their programmatic clarity to resist them. But the greatest danger of opportunist errors in the Fourth International today lies not in external pressures but in the failure to recognise sectarian errors: if these continue to be identified with Marxism-Leninism, frustration with continued isolation can lead to the discarding of the International’s correct Marxist-Leninist positions.

The greatest progress in overcoming the sectarian circle spirit is being made today where sections are most deeply involved in the labour movement of their own countries and in internationalist activities supporting the workers and peasants in other arenas of the world revolution. Further efforts in this direction are made more urgent by both the development of the world revolution and the needs of party-building in the present period. The 1979 World Congress correctly urged sections to increase their efforts to gain an implantation in basic industry. Analysis of the main trends in world economy and politics accurately assessed the present period as one in which the International’s long-term proletarian orientation could be advanced significantly through parties deliberately working to achieve such an implantation. Achieving an industrial base is also an increasingly important element of party-building in a period in which objective forces are impelling the industrial working class towards a higher level of class struggle.

The Congress was also correct in describing the turn as a tactic to correct the anomalous composition of the Fourth International brought about by years of isolation from the mainstream of the labour movement. If seen as a strategic panacea rather than a tactical corrective, the turn would inevitably disorient the sections.

The manner in which the turn to industry was projected, however, contradicted the above considerations. The resolution and report were overly mechanical, attempting to prescribe a universal recipe for all sections. They imposed a goal of having the overwhelming majority of members in basic industry in the shortest possible time, without taking sufficient account of the specific objective conditions sections faced or the stage they had reached in cadre development and party-building. For some sections this goal was realistic, but for others it clearly was not.

This projection of a universal tactic inevitably tended to interfere with the goal it was intended to achieve by setting many sections priorities not corresponding to their real needs or possibilities, with the result that the desirability and/or possibility of establishing a strong industrial implantation began to be put in question. In order to correct this situation, it should be made clear that gaining a base in the industrial working class continues to be a priority for sections that have not yet done so, but the pace and methods must be realistically adapted to the difficulties and opportunities facing each section.

Generalising this tactic led to even more serious errors by encouraging some parties to generalise it in time as well as in space and thereby to convert it into a permanent feature of party life rather than the relatively short-term measure projected by the World Congress. Experience has already shown that this converts the turn into a moralistic and supra-historical fetish. The next step on this workerist path is for the party continually to shift its implantation into ever-more-exploited layers, without regard for the real possibilities of party-building or influencing the class struggle, and without regard for the disruptive effect on other areas of party industrial work. This in turn produces pressures to regard broader and broader layers of less-exploited workers as part of the labour aristocracy and to adapt to the labour bureaucracy by dismissing the possibility of the party helping to initiate struggles that would undermine the bureaucracy’s hold on the unions. And the latter outlook implies a doubting of the possibility of revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries and a retreat into an abstentionist, propagandist existence that reinforces the sectarian isolation which the turn was intended to help overcome.

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