IBT’s Third International Conference:

A Significant Step

A fusion with the Ukrainian Young Revolutionary Marxists (YRM) capped the Third International Conference of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) in early October 2001. This represents a significant step forward politically for the IBT, which had previously been based exclusively in imperialist countries. The inclusion of militants shaped by entirely different political experiences adds an important dimension to our ability to understand the world and, ultimately, to change it.

The YRM derived from a circle of Kiev teenagers who, in 1989, obtained a copy of Leon Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed, and discovered that it contained a wealth of political insights profoundly relevant to the events taking place around them, as the forces of capitalist restoration gained momentum in the Soviet degenerated workers’ state. From that original grouping, a broad spectrum of leftist organizations, all critical of Stalinism and, in most cases, identifying themselves as Trotskyist, has reappeared in Ukraine.

The youth who formed the YRM were distinguished by their determination to remain politically independent of both Stalinist and liberal-bourgeois forces. They took a defensist stance toward the Soviet Union (while it existed), opposed capitalist counterrevolution, and adopted Trot­sky’s perspective of proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist ruling caste. After investigating the various international ostensibly Trotskyist currents, in 1998 the YRM provisionally concluded that it stood closest to the IBT. Of particular importance for the YRM was our position of favoring the military victory of the Stalinists over Boris Yeltsin and the forces of capitalist restoration in the decisive August 1991 showdown in Moscow.

The core cadres of the YRM originated as pro-socialist, anti-Stalinist youth during a period of intense social and political turmoil. They developed in an intellectual milieu in which the serious study of the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin was not uncommon, and in which there were even a few traces of the historical influence of Christian Rakovsky, who headed the Ukrainian Soviet government in Lenin’s time, and later became a central figure in Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition. The YRM comrades consciously set out to reestablish the authentic tradition of Bolshevism from the early days of the revolution, before the gray Stalinist nomenklatura took over. This proved a difficult task, as there had been no organized expression of revolutionary Marxism in Ukraine for at least half a century. Yet to their considerable credit, the YRM succeeded in closely approximating key elements of the Trotskyist program through their own unaided efforts.

The initial decision to pursue discussions with the IBT was opposed by a minority within the YRM who rejected the view that Yeltsin’s victory represented the triumph of counterrevolution. These comrades broke with the YRM and gravitated toward the League for a Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI) which, at that point, claimed that Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet Union remained “workers’ states,” albeit “moribund” ones. This peculiar nonsense was abandoned by the LRCI not long after the former YRM minority announced that they had constituted themselves as the LRCI’s Ukrainian section. While the LRCI has dropped the “moribund workers’ state” theory, it stands on its support to Yeltsin and the forces of counterrevolution in August 1991.

In November 1999, shortly after the pro-LRCI minority split, an IBT representative visited the YRM in Kiev. While the YRM found some of the IBT’s terminology, analytical distinctions and methodological approaches unfamiliar, it was clear that both groups were very close in fundamental political conceptions. For example, the YRM immediately embraced the distinction between military and political support as useful in expressing their position of preferring the victory of the Stalinists over the Yeltsinites, while simultaneously upholding the perspective of workers’ political revolution against the nomenklatura.

The YRM leadership understood the importance of coming to terms with the history of the Trotskyist movement after Trotsky, and seriously studying the issues confronted by revolutionaries during the past six decades. This investigation substantially deepened their political agreement with the IBT.

The YRM comrades adopted the IBT position on interpenetrated peoples, which was originally developed by the then-revolutionary Spartacist tendency in the 1970s to address the national question in places like Ireland and Israel/Palestine, where two or more peoples occupy a common territory. In Ukraine, Russian-speakers are oppressed in the west, while Ukrainian-speakers are oppressed in the east. The YRM also noted the parallel between the racist persecution of the Tatar minority in the Crimea and the situation of blacks in America.

The Ukrainian comrades’ grasp of the complexities of the national question was evident during a discussion at the conference of the Leninist approach to immigration and the problems with simple-minded, anarcho-utopian demands for “open borders.” The YRM delegates used recent examples from post-Soviet Eastern Europe to demonstrate why Marxists must oppose, as a matter of principle, all bourgeois immigration controls, but also remain sensitive to the ways in which large-scale population transfers can be used by reactionary demagogues to promote chauvinism and undercut class consciousness.

United Fronts vs. Propaganda Blocs

One of the characteristic differences between Trotsky­ism and centrism lies in their respective attitudes toward blocs for propaganda. This is an issue the YRM was forced to come to grips with during the intra-bourgeois wrangle that erupted in Ukraine in late 2000, when evidence emerged of President Leonid Kuchma’s complicity in the murder of a prominent critic (see accompanying article). While most of the left eagerly enlisted in the popular-frontist movement spearheaded by Kuchma’s bourgeois rivals, the YRM correctly denounced Kuchma’s crimes, while refusing to align itself with any wing of the exploiters.

In March 2001 the YRM joined LRCI supporters and other leftists in launching a bloc on the basis of defending democratic rights and combating the rapidly growing fascist threat. But this attempted united front failed to undertake any concrete actions, while expanding the scope of its political basis of unity to include a call for the “Liberation of Ukraine from the IMF, oligarchs, bourgeoisie and their lackeys, and from betrayers of the working people.”

The IBT warned the YRM comrades that participation in a bloc with reformists and centrists on the basis of demands that amounted to a call for socialist revolution implied political confidence in the credentials of their “revolutionary” partners. The YRM had been uneasy about the “leftist” drift of the basis of unity, but had been unsure how to proceed. They quickly grasped the distinction between a genuine united front (a bloc for action in which the participants maintain their own distinctive political identities) and a bloc for propaganda, where participating organizations submerge their differences and present themselves as sharing common political goals and a common strategy.

In fact, the objectives of the LRCI supporters and the YRM in this particular situation were very different: the LRCI wanted to mobilize the working class—”independently,” of course—behind Kuchma’s capitalist opponents, while the YRM refused all political support to the bourgeois opposition, and called instead for independent working-class mobilizations in defense of democratic rights and against fascism. By promptly and decisively correcting its initial error, the YRM demonstrated its political seriousness, and simultaneously deepened its understanding of the uses (and abuses) of the united-front tactic.

A Great Tradition

The Tasks and Perspectives document recorded that the IBT remains a tiny and widely dispersed sub-propaganda group. Since our last international conference we have recruited some valuable youth, particularly in North America and Germany, but we have also lost a layer of older and more experienced comrades, who had made important contributions in the past. These losses were unavoidable, as the individuals involved had simply worn out as revolutionaries.

While the majority of the IBT’s historic core cadre has not lost its revolutionary will, it is simply a fact that the “class of ‘68” is getting on in years, and, as the conference document noted:

“The number of IBT cadres trained in our predecessor revolutionary organization are now very few and older than is optimal for revolutionary leaders. Comrade Lenin’s jest, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, that all revolutionaries over 50 should be shot would create more openings on our leading bodies than we could easily fill at present.”

A crucial test of a revolutionary organization lies in its ability to reproduce revolutionaries. This is why it is necessary to imbue young comrades with an awareness that they are the bearers of a great tradition. As James P. Cannon observed in The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, revolutionaries are distinguished by their attachment to “the doctrine, the methods and the tradition of Marxism.” The struggle for revolutionary continuity remains central to our perspective of building an international propaganda group capable of acting as a pole of attraction for revolutionary regroup­ment.

In preparation for the conference, a number of important documents from the history of the Trotskyist movement were circulated within the IBT and YRM. Educational sessions organized in conjunction with the conference included talks on the fight against Pabloism in the 1950s, the building of the international Spartacist tendency (iSt) and the struggle of the IBT’s predecessor, the External Tendency of the iSt, against the degeneration of the Spartacist League (SL) in the early 1980s. Another presentation compared the strengths and weaknesses of the Spartacist League of the 1970s with those of Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party in the 1930s and 40s. There were also discussions on the history of revolutionary youth work, legal defense work and revolutionary trade-union work in the United States.

The publication of a new edition of the Transitional Program was one of the IBT’s major accomplishments between our second and third international conferences. In it we outline how Trotsky’s program for the Fourth International was derived from the experiences of the Third—the revolutionary Comintern of Lenin’s time. The book also documents one of the most important, but least appreciated, chapters in Trotskyist history: the exemplary work of SL supporters in the 1970s in building caucuses based on the Transitional Program in several strategic unions in the U.S.

Anti-Imperialism & ‘Anti-Globalization’

The operation of the global capitalist order has created the objective conditions for revolutionary explosions in practically every country on the planet, as the conference resolution noted:

“The underlying economic trend toward increasing polarization between the haves and have-nots of the global economy has deepened considerably since the ‘death of Communism.’ In the Balkans, the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, the Middle East, Indonesia and many other regions, massive social upheavals could erupt at any moment. In the traditional imperialist neo-colonies and former Soviet bloc countries poverty, disease and ethnic strife are rampant. The precipitous decline in living standards in the former USSR threatens all semblance of social order. The social and economic catastrophe inflicted on the masses of the African continent continues to worsen without any prospect of remission. In China the growth of capitalist production, which threatens to impoverish hundreds of millions of workers and peasants, also is increasingly colliding with the political monopoly exercised by a Stalinist bureaucracy, whose power is rooted in a system of economic and social organization alien to capitalism.”
—Tasks and Perspectives 2001

The U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan began while the conference was in session, and there was considerable discussion of its political impact, particularly on the “anti-globalization” movement. The main conference document observed:

“This new wave of undifferentiated radicalism is still in its infancy. It has experienced no major defeats, and its influence has continued to spread among youth internationally. Political differentiation in this milieu has so far proceeded relatively slowly: protectionism, eco-reformism, third-world localism, liberal utopian internationalism and militant anarchism are all combined, in different proportions, at most major events. This movement has developed independently of the ostensibly Marxist left, and its central cadres are non-revolutionary anarchists and/or ecology and ‘human rights’ activists. We can anticipate that responses to the opportunities for the ostensibly Marxist left presented by the inevitable process of differentiation in this movement will both parallel old differences and create new ones.”

The assault on Afghanistan poses issues that lie outside the framework of the shared assumptions that have permitted the “anti-globalization” mélange to appear relatively politically coherent. The responses have ranged from pacifism and pro-imperialist reformism to a revolutionary impulse to oppose the imperialist aggressors. Those “anti-globalizers” animated by a desire to see the defeat of the U.S.-led coalition constitute a critically important layer of youth which Marxists must seek to politically engage.

For the Rebirth of the Fourth International!

Our objective is to forge the nucleus of a disciplined, international combat party capable of once again making revolutionary Marxism a material factor in world politics. The key task for the IBT today, as a tiny international sub-propaganda group, is to defend the historic program of Trotskyism against revisionist distortions. To this end, we must pay particular attention to those political tendencies that superficially appear closest to the Trotskyist program, in order to engage and regroup the genuinely revolutionary elements within them, while drawing a clear line of demarcation between the historic program of Bolshevism and centrist imitations.

Commenting on the defection of several key leaders of the Left Opposition, Trotsky noted:

“Renegades are always distinguished by short memories or assume that other people have short memories. Revolutionaries, on the contrary, enjoy good memories, which is why it can be truthfully said the revolutionary party is the memory of the working class. Learning not to forget the past in order to foresee the future is our first, our most important task.”
—“A Wretched Document,” 27 July 1929

The Third International Conference of the IBT represented a small, but important, step forward on the long path to the rebirth of the Fourth International. The IBT today remains a minuscule organization, but we stand on the shoulders of the revolutionary giants who have preceded us. We embrace our political heritage and we are proud to participate in the struggle to ensure that Bolshevism not only survives on this planet, but ultimately triumphs.

Published: 1917 No.24 (Feb 2002)