Capitalist Crisis & Revolutionary Opportunity

Sixth International Conference of the IBT

In April 2011, delegates from all sections of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), as well as non-delegate members and close sympathizers, met in Western Europe for the organization’s Sixth International Conference. The international conference, the highest decision-making body in the tendency, discusses and debates outstanding programmatic issues, evaluates the work of the preceding period and outlines future perspectives. It also has the responsibility to elect a new International Executive Committee.

The global economic crisis provided the backdrop for a variety of discussions, including recent developments in inter-imperialist relations, the growing stresses in the European Union and the increasing weight of China in the world economy. The “Tasks and Perspectives” document, which was adopted with only minor modifications, began:

“Global capitalism is mired in its most severe crisis since the 1930s. The historic proportions of the present slump—the first great depression of the 21st century—point to the fact that we have entered a new phase of capitalist decomposition. The coming period will be marked by intensified class struggles and sharpened global contradictions….”

With international capitalism “teetering on the brink of a second wave of financial and economic collapse associated with falling aggregate demand and the unprecedented levels of public debt incurred over the past two years,” the document noted that trouble in any sector (such as the unfolding crisis in the Eurozone) could “quickly spread throughout the globalized economy” and projected that:

“The ruling classes are likely to respond by pushing austerity measures that far outstrip the severe cutbacks that have already been made and/or proposed, and they may attempt to drive down wages to subsistence levels. Under these conditions, the ability of the working class to resist will initially, in many cases, be undermined by material hardship, but the eventual consequence must be a revival of raw class struggle and the creation of conditions in which the ideas of revolutionary socialists will gain a potential base among the broad masses not seen for generations.”

We also observed that U.S. imperialism’s failed military gambits in Afghanistan and Iraq had exacerbated the economic downturn and contributed to growing geopolitical instability:

“Combined, the ‘wars’ will end up costing the American ruling class trillions of dollars—a liability that has only compounded the looming debt crisis associated with the financial meltdown, threatening to unseat the U.S. dollar as the currency of international exchange. Millions of working-class Americans, disproportionately blacks and Latinos, have lost their jobs, their homes and any remaining hope that the lives of their children would be more materially secure than their own.”

At the same time, we are witnessing important and historically unprecedented changes in the capitalist world order:

“The Chinese deformed workers’ state has emerged as a major factor in world politics and the global economy as the relative position of the U.S. deteriorates….The United States, the leading capitalist power, is massively indebted to China, which props up the American colossus for fear of destabilizing a global economic order on which it uneasily depends. More than that, China is redirecting its investments from American Treasury Bills to acquisition of minerals and other raw materials from Latin America to Africa, often in direct competition with imperialist powers.”

The economic crisis has also highlighted the limited and fragile character of European economic integration:

“The economic crisis has exacerbated tensions within the European Union (EU), though the German and French bourgeoisies—at the heart of the bloc—plan to continue cooperating within this framework for the foreseeable future. The EU is an unstable alliance, and a breakdown or radical redesign cannot be ruled out in the coming period. The euro has not been able to displace the U.S. dollar as the global currency, and its maintenance required the bailout of the Greek and Irish economies with only grudging acceptance from Germany, whose chancellor recently had to quash serious speculation about a return to the Deutschemark.”

The prospect of deepening European instability poses the possibility of radical shifts and disjunctures in a global economic order long dominated by the U.S.:

“Russia, which has, against the odds, managed to reassert itself as a major player on the world stage, is another complicating factor. Moscow, although playing a weak hand, seeks a spot at the top of the global imperialist order and has developed stronger ties with Germany. The collapse of the EU could trigger a rapid realignment of ‘great powers’ the likes of which have not been seen for some time.”

Explosive Class Struggles on the Horizon

The tempo and intensity of class struggle in Europe are likely to rise dramatically in the coming period:

“The global economic crisis has resulted in the virtual bankruptcy of Iceland, Greece and Ireland, while Portugal, Italy and Spain are on the brink of meltdown. Workers and youth in those countries have responded to the capitalists’ ‘recovery’ program (austerity and unemployment for the masses) by launching important protests and labor actions….The chances of pitched class battles in the coming period are high.”

Attempts by more militant elements of the European proletariat (particularly in Greece) to resist bourgeois austerity have thus far had little impact: “The working class has fought back, but it is disorganized and badly led. Indeed, the most important factor hampering even effective defensive action is the treacherous labor bureaucracies and the reformist political parties.”

The Tasks and Perspectives document projected the inevitability of resistance in the U.S., but observed that there have been “few signs of a generalized working-class or socialist revival: these are dark times in the belly of the beast.” However, the surprisingly rapid rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement across North America in the autumn of 2011 reflects a profound dissatisfaction with the status quo that could portend explosive class battles in the near future. Given a combination of a low level of class consciousness and the abject servility of the official leadership of the workers’ movement, we anticipated that popular resistance might initially take non-traditional forms:

“We may see the development of new organizations that go beyond the scope of OROs [ostensibly revolutionary organizations] or trade unions or even united fronts, which combine elements of a political party with those of a campaign or bloc. We must be careful neither to embrace these too eagerly nor dismiss them as not conforming to preconceived ideas of organization, but should make a sober assessment of the political basis of these formations.”

The document projected that the inspiring “Arab Spring” uprisings which toppled pro-imperialist dictators in Tunisia and Egypt would be unable to address the contradictions of capitalist “underdevelopment” in the absence of an authentically socialist leadership rooted in the working class. The global crisis of proletarian leadership can ultimately be resolved only through the creation of a mass international revolutionary party capable of leading the working class and oppressed in a struggle to seize power, expropriate the bourgeoisie, overturn “free market” tyranny and establish a socialist planned economy on a world scale.

Conference attendees also participated in a concurrent educational series, including a session on some of the most important lessons to be gleaned from the long history of revolutionary trade-union work. While we are the inheritors of a rich tradition of Trotskyist interventions in the organized labor movement, the IBT unfortunately does not currently have the forces to undertake this type of work in a concerted fashion. Nonetheless some comrades have been able to carry out limited exemplary actions. For instance, in 1917 No.32 we reported on a teachers’ walkout to protest educational cuts that was initiated by an IBT supporter in New Zealand. For several decades IBT supporters and friends have also been intimately involved in strike actions by dockers in California, which have provided a practical demonstration, albeit on a relatively small scale, of the social power the working class can wield with militant leadership. Despite the inadequacy of our current resources, the IBT recognizes the strategic importance of the fight to build a class-struggle leadership in the trade unions, and we are committed to undertaking this vital work as opportunities present themselves.

Our Political Opponents

Whether in the mass organizations of the proletariat or on other fronts of the class struggle, winning fresh forces to the Marxist program requires a combination of tactical flexibility and political intransigence. The reforging of a mass, revolutionary international party will be a complicated process involving splits and fusions among existing leftist formations and the skillful development of exemplary mass work to politicize and build a base among broader layers of the working class and oppressed. As a small sub-propaganda organization, the chief priority of the IBT today must be to seek to forge a pole of international regroupment through struggle for programmatic clarity within the left and workers’ movement. As Lenin insisted, the responsibility of revolutionaries at every stage in the development of a proletarian vanguard party is not only to provide leadership on the ground in actual class struggles, but also to formulate a clear Marxist response to key issues facing the working class while drawing sharp “lines of demarcation” with reformist and centrist pseudo-socialists.

In many areas where we are active, most of the organizations of the “far left” have been moving incrementally to the right for several decades, thus increasing their programmatic distance from us and the Leninist-Trotskyist political tradition they claim to uphold. On the one hand, this rightward drift, recently manifest in a widespread willingness to embrace NATO’s “humanitarian” cover story for bombing Libya, reduces the likelihood of any significant regroupment from their ranks. On the other hand, the contradictions are sharpened for any of their members who take the heritage of Bolshevism at all seriously, while the distinctions between hard-communist class-struggle politics and flabby social-democratic lesser-evilism have become much more obvious even to relatively inexperienced people.

In formal programmatic terms, the political organization closest to us is the U.S.-based Internationalist Group (and its somewhat ephemeral League for the Fourth International—IG/LFI). Like the IBT, the IG was founded by cadres driven out of the ex-Trotskyist Spartacist tendency. During its decade-and-a-half existence, the IG has refused all proposals to discuss our common history and the lessons to be derived from it (see our letter to the IG of 15 December 1996, reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No.6). The IG leadership has also avoided any serious discussion of the substantive differences that have arisen between us, including their blanket denunciation of participants in the 1999 anti-WTO “Battle of Seattle,” their rejection of the Fourth International’s policy on workers’ sanctions in the 1930s (see 1917 No.31) and, most recently, their repudiation of the call to “jail killer cops” (see “‘IG on Jailing Killer Cops,’”). To cover their unwillingness to engage in serious programmatic debate, the IG leadership has on occasion stooped to the sort of misrepresentation and outright slander characteristic of the degenerate Spartacist League (SL) of the 1980s and 1990s.

The IG’s leading cadres are talented and energetic, and, on most questions, our programmatic positions are substantially similar. Yet their aversion to seriously addressing their own origins, and critically evaluating the profoundly flawed practices they assimilated as part of the leadership of the degenerating International Communist League (ICL—the international tendency headed by the Spartacist League/U.S.)], has produced a brittle organization with a sometimes sectarian and occasionally near-hysterical leadership style and a stilted internal life. While the IG’s leadership is capable of producing sophisticated and informative propaganda on a wide range of issues, its attempts to project the image of a far larger and more influential organization, and distaste for serious political interaction with leftist opponents, have resulted in an inability to develop new cadres. After a decade and a half, the IG/LFI has yet to report on a founding conference (or any other sort), perhaps because no such gathering has taken place. This is not a healthy sign from an organization that at one point or another has claimed to be active in at least a half-dozen countries.

The increasingly insular and cultish Spartacist League/U.S. and its international affiliates continue to drift away from their origins as the Trotskyist opposition to the American Socialist Workers Party’s descent into reformism in the 1960s. The SL’s downward political trajectory combines sectarianism (recently extended to a rejection of the united-front tactic in general and specifically in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal) with bizarre opportunist lunges—the most spectacular of which was the overtly pro-imperialist support for American military forces in Haiti in 2010. After months of defending the indefensible—chiefly in polemics against ourselves and the IG—the SL eventually repudiated its position as a social-imperialist capitulation, but could not explain how such a position was swallowed by the entire membership without demur. The SL has referred to this capitulation as their “August 4th”—a reference to the betrayal of the Second International at the outset of World War I. We see their Haiti position (which had been preceded by a series of earlier social-patriotic capitulations) in somewhat less world-historic terms as evidence that the ICL cadre is now so depoliticized that it is effectively brain dead (see “Sclerotic Spartacists Unravel,” May 2010). While its weight in the left has continued to shrink, the ICL’s formally Trotskyist posture on many issues still allows it to attract (and then destroy) the occasional high-quality young recruit. Given the rightward drift of the left generally, the SL/ICL remains an important opponent for us, particularly in North America.

In Britain, our most important opponents are probably the heterodox centrists of Workers Power (WP—flagship of the League for the Fifth International [L5I]). Workers Power is a politically unstable organization with an appetite for mass work, an essentially unserious attitude to questions of political program and, paradoxically, a capacity to sometimes approximate hard-left Trotskyist positions—which makes it more attractive to some youthful radicals than its larger more staid “Trotskyist” competitors.

Workers Power’s constant attempts to swim with the stream of petty-bourgeois radical opinion have led to many political gyrations. This adaptationist impulse is evident in its recent unexplained alternation between mutually contradictory calls for the construction of a “revolutionary tendency in the Labour Party” and an “anti-capitalist party” along the lines of France’s reformist Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste.

A willingness to support whatever “mass movement” happens to be popular at any given moment led the nominally Soviet-defensist WP to back Lech Walesa in the 1980s, Boris Yeltsin in 1991 and virtually every other counterrevolutionary formation that arose during the protracted process of capitalist restoration in the degenerated and deformed workers’ states of the Soviet bloc.

In 1995, the “anti-imperialists” leading Workers Power refused to defend Serbia against NATO bombers—a shameful betrayal replicated by their recent embrace of imperialism’s auxiliaries in carrying out “regime change” in Libya. The L5I’s distance from Trotskyism was perhaps most clearly illustrated by an apparently serious suggestion that the collection of Third World nationalists, trade-union bureaucrats and liberals that lead the World Social Forum declare themselves “a new world party of socialist revolution” (see “Doubletalk & Zigzags,” 1917 No.32).

The New York-based League for the Revolutionary Party/Communist Organization for the Fourth Inter-national (LRP/COFI) is a state-capitalist variant of a “Third Camp” current that defected from the Trotskyist movement over 70 years ago. The LRP has a moralistic petty-bourgeois streak that shapes its attitude on a variety of questions, including Israel/Palestine. At the same time, the LRP has managed to stay its political course over the years and can at least be counted on to say what it means and mean what it says. Moreover, it has the capacity to approximate a revolutionary position on some questions of vital importance to the American workers’ movement—particularly the necessity of a hard break with the bourgeois Democratic Party and “third party” liberals like Ralph Nader. This is sufficient to qualify it as one of the more serious leftist organizations in the U.S. today.

The International Socialist Tendency (led by the British Socialist Workers Party [SWP]), the two groups deriving from Ted Grant’s Militant Tendency in Britain (the Committee for a Workers’ International and the International Marxist Tendency) and the United Secretariat (USec) are the more active ostensibly Trotskyist formations we encounter internationally. While each is thoroughly reformist, they all possess the social weight, geographical dispersion and ability to present a sufficiently plausible Marxist face to allow them to continue to recruit serious militants. The USec is distinguished from the other three by the political heterogeneity of its sections, which in some cases has resulted in several affiliates in the same country. In recent years the North American Socialist Action (SA) grouping has been operating as a sort of left opposition within the USec.

The Tasks and Perspectives document observed that the general shrinkage and rightward evolution of many of the ostensibly Trotskyist currents have not been equally characteristic of Maoist and anarchist formations, some of which have increased their influence in areas where we are active. Our continuing involvement in the struggle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, which has brought us into contact with some of these groups in the past period, has underlined the importance of engaging with militants who may identify with leftist traditions openly hostile to Lenin and/or Trotsky.

Taking Stock, Moving Forward

In assessing our work since our 2008 conference, we noted that despite some limited successes (e.g., gaining supporters in France and Poland), we have yet to make any major breakthroughs internationally and have in fact suffered some reverses. In 2010, one recently-recruited comrade left the IBT to become an anarchist in the aftermath of the explosive protests against the G-20 in Toronto. More significantly, we failed to win over members of the Coletivo Lenin (CL) in Rio de Janeiro, some of whom eventually aligned themselves with Sam T., a talented but troubled former IBT member who departed in September 2008 after deciding he was no longer prepared to carry out the directives of the organization. Our failure to win the Brazilian comrades came as the disappointing culmination of several years of effort and represented the loss of what had appeared to be a promising opportunity to undertake work in an extremely important part of the world.

Despite our small forces, IBT comrades play a modest but real role in “far left” politics in those areas where we are active. We intervene in major political mobilizations and meetings, organize educational classes, hold public forums and, when possible, participate in united-front actions with other groups. We also regularly attend major international leftist events, including the annual Liebknecht/Luxemburg commemoration in Berlin, the Left Forum in New York, the Fête de Lutte Ouvrière near Paris and the SWP’s “Marxism” in London.

Our single most important activity is the regular (if infrequent) publication of propaganda in English, German and French. Given our limited resources, we often have to choose to address some issues at the expense of others. In doing so we attempt to take up the most important questions and those most likely to push forward the process of revolutionary regroupment:

“As the political level of our competitors has declined, we cannot assume that the majority of the younger comrades who join OROs care, or even know, about some of the defining moments of the 20th century, or are aware of some of the basic elements of Marxism. However, it would be wrong to conclude from this that our task has shifted toward becoming the ‘educator of the masses’ or that it requires a programmatic adulteration of Trotskyism. What sets us apart is our program, and the program of revolutionary socialism must be presented in clear and accessible terms in order to attract the best elements. The weapon of polemical critique remains our most powerful one.”

There are, of course, trade-offs: our limited ability to comment in a timely manner on important issues of the day can make it impossible to intersect some potentially serious people. In an attempt to broaden our audience, the conference document noted that “it will be useful for us to produce more introductory socialist materials for the raw elements (both organized and unorganized) we encounter on demonstrations and at political meetings.” But we remain committed to placing a priority on addressing vital issues confronting the international workers’ movement. The history of the Trotskyist movement has repeatedly confirmed the importance of quality over quantity—doing fewer things better—as the only way to forge effective revolutionary cadre. Trotsky outlined this policy for the International Left Opposition in July 1931:

“Our strength at the given stage lies in a correct appre-ciation, in a Marxian conception, in a correct revolutionary prognosis. These qualities we must present first of all to the proletarian vanguard. We act in the first place as propagandists. We are too weak to attempt to give answers to all questions, to intervene in all the specific conflicts, to formulate everywhere and in all places the slogans and the replies of the Left Opposition. The chase after such universality, with our weakness and the inexperience of many comrades, will often lead to too-hasty conclusions, to imprudent slogans, to wrong solutions. By false steps in particulars we will be the ones to compromise ourselves by preventing the workers from appreciating the fundamental qualities of the Left Opposition. I do not want in any way to say by this that we must stand aside from the real struggle of the working class. Nothing of the sort. The advanced workers can test the revolutionary advantages of the Left Opposition only by living experiences, but one must learn to select the most vital, the most burning, and the most principled questions and on these questions engage in combat without dispersing oneself in trifles and details. It is in this, it appears to me, that the fundamental role of the Left Opposition now lies.”
—“Some Ideas on the Period and the Tasks of the Left Opposition”

Many of the leading comrades of our tendency are members of the “class of ’68”—and they are getting on in years. Their contributions remain critical, but at the past two conferences we have deliberately sought to increase the weight of younger comrades in our leadership collective. These comrades have taken on important responsibilities and have generally performed them well. Today, they carry out much of the work of the tendency.

Building a Marxist organization can be a very slow process during periods of retreat and/or relative class quiescence. Today, with the prospect of accelerating class struggle, we stand poised to enter a different period, one characterized by higher stakes and greater risks. The cadres of the IBT face the future confident that the programmatic acquisitions of the past that we have fought hard to maintain and defend through the lean years will soon find a vastly larger audience, and that with the influx of fresh forces we will have opportunities to play a much more significant role in the class struggle. Our Tasks and Perspectives document concluded:

“We find ourselves at a conjuncture where capitalism stands discredited in the eyes of millions of people around the world. The working class is looking for a way out of their misery, but their traditional leaders do not lift a finger to change the situation and in fact work to reinforce the power of the bourgeoisie. There is a crisis of proletarian leadership that can be solved only on the basis of the historic program of Trotskyism—represented after the destruction of the Fourth International by the RT/SL and its political continuation, the IBT. Our tasks include seizing every opportunity that comes our way to win new adherents to the program of Bolshevik-Leninism. Our perspective is to survive and grow by expanding what we are programmatically, not by changing it.”