A Brief History of the Marxist Tendency

When it comes to Trotsky’s writings most groups claiming to be Trotskyist would accept Trotsky’s conclusions in his major works as an analysis of the period Trotsky was writing about. What we have to do is apply the ‘method’ of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to today’s world. So it is not a question of harping on different interpretations of Trotsky. The most important thing is to discuss the period we have been through and the stage we are at now.

Trotsky had expected a revolutionary wave at the end of the Second World War and he had expected the Fourth International to become the dominant force within the Labor movement. There was a revolutionary wave. The Civil War in Greece, the resistance movement and the strikes in both Italy and France towards the end of the war and immediately after it, the Chinese revolution, the struggle for independence throughout the Colonial world, in Britain the landslide victory of the Labour Party in the 1945 elections, etc., all show that Trotsky’s prognosis was correct. The only problem was that the forces of the Fourth International were too weak to be able to play a fundamental role in these unfolding events. The result was a major historical defeat of the revolutionary movements that emerged at the end of the War. Where there were victories, such as in China, these took the form of Stalinism, i.e. deformed workers’ states modeled on the Soviet regime.

The break-up and splintering of the Trotskyist movement is rooted in that period. The then leadership of the Fourth International was totally incapable of understanding what was happening. If you read the writings of leaders like James Cannon (leader of the American SWP at the time) in the late ’40s and early ’50s you will find a totally wrong perspective. His perspective was one of the immediate crisis of capitalism and thus revolutionary developments in the short-term. In 1946 the Fourth International held its International Pre-Conference. The manifesto for that conference was written by Ernest Mandel.

That manifesto clashed totally with reality. The leadership of the Fourth International had developed the theory that capitalism would not be able to develop the productive forces beyond the level of 1938, and that any boom was out of the question. This proved to be totally false. The defeat of the working class after the War was the main political pre-condition for an upturn in the economy. The United States had emerged enormously strengthened from the War. It was the main capitalist Superpower that had accumulated huge profits from war production. For fear of revolution in Europe the USA pumped in huge amounts of money into countries like Germany, Italy, France, etc., to revive their economies. The destruction caused by the war meant a huge reconstruction program was necessary. All this laid the basis for the biggest economic boom in the history of capitalism.

The leadership of the Fourth International couldn’t come to terms with these new developments. They did not understand that a reappraisal of the situation was necessary. The fact is that they thought they could hold their forces together by promising revolution “round the corner”. Such a policy could only lead to the break-up of the International.

As Lenin explained, if you do not correct your mistakes then you will stumble from one mistake to another. The end result is sectarianism. Not having understood their mistakes they went further along the road of degeneration coming up with all kinds of strange theories. From one of immediate revolution they swung over to the theory of the ‘bourgeoisification’ of the working class in Europe. For instance in April 1968 Ernest Mandel in a meeting in London declared that there would not be a movement of the European working class for at least twenty years. This was on the eve of the momentous May 1968 movement of the French workers!

The leadership of the British section of the Fourth International, the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party) understood the changes that were taking place and developed different perspectives. The main theoretician of the RCP was Ted Grant. He is still active today, and is a member of the Socialist Appeal editorial staff. If you access our web site you will find a book called The Unbroken Thread. It is a selection of Ted’s writings from 1938-83. You can judge for yourself, but in the section on Economic Perspectives written in 1946 you will find an analysis of the unfolding economic upswing, a much more sober appraisal of how things were developing.

Again on China the leadership of the Fourth International were saying that Mao would have compromised with Chang Kai Shek. Ted’s writings on China reveal a much more precise understanding of what was going on.

I would also add that Ted made a major contribution to Marxism in his writings on the development of ‘proletarian Bonapartism’ (i.e. bureaucratically deformed workers’ states) in eastern Europe, China, Cuba etc. The leadership of the Fourth International first started off by refusing to accept that what we had in Eastern Europe were regimes modeled on Soviet Russia. Then they swung the other way (without explaining why) and even declared some of these countries (China, Cuba, Yugoslavia) ‘healthy workers’ states’, abandoning that definition as soon as it became untenable.

I could go into a lot more detail about the mistakes of the then leadership of the Fourth International, but I think these short points suffice to show that Mandel, Cannon and co., lost their bearings after the war and this led to a zigzagging away from a genuine Marxist analysis.

What I would like to emphasize is Socialist Appeal’s approach towards the mass organizations. As opposed to all the other groups we believe that the workers when they move into action will not go towards some small grouping on the fringes of the Labor movement. They will move through their traditional mass organizations.

The whole history of the international labor movement confirms this. The Third Communist International itself was not born of small sects, but developed from the left-wing of the Second Socialist International. The Bolsheviks were a faction of the same party as the Mensheviks for many years before emerging as an independent force. The French and Italian Communist Parties developed from within the Socialist Parties. The German Communist Party likewise gained its mass force from a split to the left of the SPD, etc.. etc. In Britain the Communist Party did emerge from the fusion of four smaller groupings. But I would advise you to read Lenin’s ‘Left-wing Communism, infantile disorder’ (published in 1920) and note the advice Lenin gives to the British Communists. He advises them to go into the British Labour Party!

This was not a tactic invented by Lenin. It was part of the tradition of Marx himself. Back in 1848 the German Communists dissolved their organization to enter the Democratic Party because at that stage the most advanced workers were to be found there. The First International itself was made up of all kinds of elements from genuine Communists to British Trade Unionists, often represented by Liberal-inclined individuals.
If we apply these lessons to today the conclusions we can reach is that genuine Marxists, i.e. Trotskyists must orientate towards the mass organizations. The dilemma of the epoch is the totally degenerate Social democratic leadership of the movement stifling the aspirations of the workers (see Blair in Britain, Jospin in France, Schroeder in Germany, etc. etc.,).

But it is very easy to declare the official leadership as degenerate. The task is to build up an alternative. The question is this: is it sufficient to simply declare “the revolutionary party” and wait for the masses to come to you? We think not. Marxists must go to the workers and patiently explain an alternative. We think Lenin’s advice to the British Communists back in 1920 is even more relevant today than it was then. This is one of the main points that distinguishes us from all other groups claiming to be Trotskyist. We do not think this is a detail.

You may have heard of the Socialist Party/CWI. This group was formerly known as The Militant tendency. It worked within the Labour Party and Ted Grant was its founder and main theoretician. Unfortunately the majority of the British leadership developed along similar lines to the leadership of the Fourth International at the end of the Second World War. Although there are many differences there are also many parallels that can be made.

On the basis of a correct orientation to the Labour Party and the Trade Unions the Militant tendency had become a powerful force on the left in Britain. At its peak it had about 8,000 supporters. It had three Labour MPs supporting its ideas, it controlled Liverpool Labour Council and had many important trade union leaders. It also led the magnificent Anti-Poll Tax movement in the 1980s, culminating in a demonstration in London of 250,000 people (on the same day a further 50,000 demonstrated in Glasgow, Scotland). Unfortunately the majority of its leadership began to draw the wrong conclusions from the events of the 1980s.

The 1980s saw a temporary stabilization of capitalism on a world level. There were many contributing factors that led to this. One was the defeat of the struggles of the 1970s which had begun with the 1968 movement. In the 1970s we saw a turn to the left throughout the world. In Europe this was translated into a big increase of votes for the Socialist and Communist parties. All these parties, together with the trade unions, saw a substantial increase in membership. On this basis, as events unfolded, we saw an increasing radicalization of the rank and file. This in turn led to the development of strong left currents within these parties.

In Britain we had a Labour government from 1974 to 1979. Because of its right-wing policies that Labour government prepared the road for the coming to power of Thatcher. This brought about a questioning of the Labour leadership on the part of the ranks of the Labour Party. These were the conditions in which the Militant tendency developed as an important force. Having said that it is also necessary to remember that however impressive its growth was it was still a very small force compared to the size of the British labor movement. This meant that it was not strong enough to offer an alternative leadership to the working class.

Thus we saw throughout the 1980s a gradual decline of the trade unions and the Labour Party. A whole generation had been betrayed and this led many to abandon active participation in the Labour Party and the unions. This decline made it difficult to defend genuine Marxist ideas within the Labour Party. The fact of the matter was that what was taking place was a turn to the right within the Labor movement. This was possible because the bureaucracy of the labor organizations was becoming relatively free of any control on the part of the ranks of the movement.

Unfortunately the majority of the leadership of the Militant drew the conclusion that the problem was the Labour Party itself. They began to develop the illusion that setting up an ‘independent” organization and ‘flying the banner high’ would solve their problems. That was a big mistake. They left the Labour Party, and since then have declined to the point that they have become much weaker (from about 4,000 in 1992 they have now fallen to about 400!). Having made one mistake they then compounded it by drawing pessimistic conclusions about the whole objective situation. They talk of the labor movement having been thrown back one hundred years, etc.

It is a process which we have seen many times. They have gone from one extreme to the other, just like Cannon and Mandel before them.

Now we are facing the beginnings of a totally new situation. The world economic crisis is the most serious since 1929. It has already provoked big movements in Asia. Indonesia is in the forefront, but many more will follow. On this basis we see the masses returning to the traditional mass organizations of the working class. In Britain four years ago, mass opposition to the Tories was translated into a massive Labour victory. In France the Socialist party has benefited from the same process. In Greece we have the PASOK in power. The same has occurred in Germany, etc. etc.

At this stage the masses are not moving into the traditional organizations, especially where they are in government. That is the case in Britain today. And that is why we have launched Youth for International Socialism as a means of attracting the best of the youth. But in the long run things will change. Blair will most likely win the next election, but then he will be forced to attack the gains of the working class once more. At the moment he is benefiting from the lowest unemployment figures for 25 years. Last year wages in Britain went up by over 5% with inflation at less than 3%, which means many workers have actually had a real increase in wages. But this won’t last for long.

Look at the situation in Italy. The Center-Left coalition lost the elections, although they had the same policies as Blair. But in Italy unemployment is nearly 10%, twice the level in Britain. Wages went up last year by only 2%, with inflation at nearly 3%, a real WAGE CUT. Now internal conflicts are opening up in the PDS, which at some stage could lead to a split between the more openly bourgeois elements and those bureaucrats closer to the labor movement. The Berlusconi government will inevitably provoke a reaction among the workers at some stage and this will have an effect on the trade unions, on the PDS and on Rifondazione Comunista. In that situation Rifondazione Comunista (if it had a genuinely Marxist program) could have an effect on the workers looking towards the PDS.

In Britain, Blair will not maintain his present position for long. The recession is just beginning to have an effect. Within a year or two Britain could be in a serious recession, this will lead to many people losing the confidence they have at present (that “New” Labour can guarantee economic growth) and this will lead to defeats for Labour in the future. In those conditions internal criticisms will open up in the Labour Party. This process will probably start first in the trade unions. We already have symptoms of this. See the strikes on the London Underground, the wildcat strikes of the postal workers. And if Blair goes ahead with his plans to privatize the health service then he will face a major confrontation with the health workers. All this will eventually have an effect inside the Labour Party, and when that happens Marxists must know how to orientate to this process.

Once the movement explodes there will be a need for Marxist ideas. Without these the workers and youth will struggle but will not have the leadership they deserve.

On the question of the mass organizations I think we should avoid any misunderstanding. We believe that when the mass of workers will begin to move in a decisive manner then they will move through the traditional mass organizations. That is a lesson from history and it is quite easy to understand why.

In “normal” periods of relative stability the masses are not involved in political activity. In fact they tend to see politics as something alien to them. In these periods it is only a minority of the workers and youth who are interested in political activity. Sometimes in fact this minority can actually become an obstacle to an involvement of the masses precisely because of their conservative and routinist approach.

If we look at the movement of the working class from a long historical viewpoint we see periods of revolutionary upheavals in which the mass of the workers come into activity. We have seen periods such as this in 1918-21, the ’30s in some countries, 1943-48, 1968-69.

What we saw was a revolutionary reawakening of the working class. Parties and trade unions which were small in terms of activists suddenly filled out. The Italian Socialist Party had about 60,000 members in 1918, but by 1920 it had grown to over 200,000. The Socialist Party led trade union federation, the CGIL, grew from 250,000 to 2,150,000 in the same period. This was in spite of the CGIL having played an openly counter-revolutionary role during the First World War.

Here we have an important historical lesson. In the first decade of the century an opposition had developed within the Italian Socialist party but unfortunately it decided to split prematurely from the Socialist Party and later also led a split from the CGIL in 1912 and founded the revolutionary syndicalist union the USI. These people believed they were providing the workers with a channel for their revolutionary aspirations. That was not to be the case.

The CGIL remained the dominant trade union organization, in spite of its treacherous role. All the USI achieved was a division within the ranks of the working class that simply isolated the more advanced workers from the masses.

When the conditions that were brought about by the war pushed the masses into action they went to the CGIL and the Socialist Party. It was only by going through the “school of reformism” that a mass left-wing developed within the Socialist Party and the CGIL. This was to crystallize at a later stage into the formation of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921. The masses needed to see for themselves the activities of these reformist leaders before they would be prepared to look for a revolutionary alternative.

A similar process developed in France where the then SFIO (Socialist Party) changed its name to the Communist Party and adhered to the Third International in 1920. We saw a similar process in Germany where the USPD was born from a split in the SPD. The bulk of the USPD was later won by the German Communists and the KPD was formed.

In general we can see how the mass revolutionary parties of the Third International were born from the inner differentiation of the Socialist Parties.

But what happens when the movements that brought these parties into being ebbs? If the revolutionary aspirations of the masses are betrayed and the working class goes down to defeat we see a mass exodus from these parties. Only a rump remains active, and these quite often tend to be the elements more loyal to the party bureaucracy. They draw the wrong conclusions from the defeats and serve as a further brake on the workers and youth as a whole. In such a situation it becomes more difficult to defend revolutionary ideas and the Marxists find themselves more isolated.

It is precisely in such a situation that ultra-left sectarian tendencies (as well as reformist ones) can develop. The anarchists emerged as a force within the First International after the defeat of the Paris Commune. The ultra-leftism of the leaders of the Fourth International can also be explained in the same.

But what we are interested in here is the process whereby a layer of advanced workers in the movement can also develop sectarian ideas. Precisely because they are more advanced they would like to push the struggle forward. But because they do not have a Marxist understanding of how the movement develops they can become impatient with their own class.

At a time when the masses are not involved in politics, when they are not actively participating in the mass organizations, the leadership of these organizations can move over to the right. The workers after a period of defeats, or during a long boom such as in the period of the boom of the ’50s and ’60s, can tend to delegate politics to the leadership. Without an active participation of the masses it is not possible to put a check on the reformist leaders.

If we do not understand how the class moves then we can draw the wrong conclusions in such situations, as does a layer of more advanced workers. When there is an ebb in the movement this strengthens the bureaucracy of the trade unions and mass workers’ parties. Some of the more advanced workers continue their struggle against this bureaucracy but do not find an echo among the ranks. From this they conclude that these organizations are too bureaucratic to work in and end up leaving them to set up new unions or parties with the idea of offering the working class an alternative. Unfortunately they find that outside the official organizations things are not so easy. That is because there is no short cut, no magic formula to resolving the problem. If there is an ebb in the movement due to past defeats you cannot simply resolve it by declaring an “independent” revolutionary party. The movement of the working class has its own tempo, its own timing. You cannot prematurely force it to move more quickly.

Obviously the presence of a mass revolutionary party can change things rapidly, but even the Bolsheviks back in 1917 did not immediately emerge as the dominant force in the working class. The workers needed to go through the experience of the Provisional government before they were prepared to follow the Bolsheviks. That explains why, initially, the Mensheviks were much stronger than the Bolsheviks. That explains why Lenin posed the tactic of the United Front. The Bolsheviks offered the Mensheviks and other workers’ organizations a united front against the capitalists. They called on the Mensheviks to break with the bourgeoisie with their famous slogan “Out with the ten bourgeois ministers”. This tactic combined with an implacable opposition to the Russian ruling class and their political representatives prepared the ground for the passing over of the mass of the workers to the Bolsheviks.

As I said previously Lenin provided a precious education for the Marxist cadres in his work ‘Left-wing Communism, Infantile disorder’. We must learn from that and from the experience of the labor movement itself over a period of decades.

An example of how not to develop tactics is what the followers of Ernest Mandel did in Italy in 1968. They had been working inside the Communist Party. This was very difficult work, especially in a period in which the Italian Communist Party was in decline. It was losing members and its membership was growing older.

In 1968 the student movement revealed that things were beginning to stir in society. At that stage it was a minority that was moving and this came into direct conflict with the bureaucracy of the Communist Party. Based on this process the followers of Mandel decided to leave the Communist Party and set up an open independent organization. But they had a totally wrong perspective.

In 1969 there was a massive movement of the Italian working class, of revolutionary dimensions. But this did not lead to a crisis of the Communist Party, as many on the left had thought, but to its development. The Communist Party began to grow, in particular among the youth, both students and workers. At one stage it had about two million members. But precisely because it was growing, opposition ideas did begin to develop within the Communist Party. A new generation of young workers and students was coming into political activity looking for a way out of the impasse of capitalist society. This was reflected in the early stages with the development of the Manifesto newspaper, which gathered around itself about 100,000 members of the Communist Party. Unfortunately the leaders of this grouping also drew the wrong conclusions after they were expelled. They could have helped to form a mass opposition inside the Communist Party. Instead they left and dwindled to a grouping of about 10,000 before disappearing altogether.

From 1968 to 1977 the Communist Party continued to grow. After the 1976 elections the leadership of the Italian Communist Party reached an agreement with the Christian Democrats and betrayed the aspirations of the Italian workers. This led to an internal crisis, especially after the defeat in the 1979 elections. Had there been a Marxist tendency working patiently inside the Communist Party at that time it could have made big gains and transformed the whole situation. Instead we witnessed the demoralization of the ranks of the Communist Party and its long-term decline. But the workers who abandoned the Communist Party did not join any of the many ultra-left “revolutionary” groupings on the left. This also led these groups to enter into a crisis, with many of them disbanding.

We must learn from these historical examples, and develop a perspective for the future. The workers will be forced by the crisis of capitalism to go once more onto the offensive. Where will they go? Again, they can only go to the traditional mass organizations, and we have to prepare to intervene in that process.

In the meantime does that mean that we sit and wait in party branches waiting for the masses to arrive? That would be ridiculous. In the conditions of today we must find channels to the most advanced workers and youth. We must intervene in working class and student struggles and offer an alternative. On this basis we can build up the forces to build a Marxist tendency to prepare to intervene in the mass organizations in the future. That is why we have to develop flexible tactics, but without abandoning the fundamental perspective on the traditional mass organizations of the working class.

Today, at least in most of the advanced capitalist countries, the conditions for a rapid development of a mass Marxist party do not exist. There are still big illusions in reformism. These will not go away simply by declaring the revolutionary party. The illusions of the masses will be torn down by event themselves. Capitalism is entering a period of great convulsions. Big movements will take place. The workers will put their traditional mass organizations to the test. Over a period of years they will come to the conclusion that the leaders of these organizations offer no real alternative. The workers will put pressure on these organizations and a process of radicalization will take place similar to what happened after the First World War, in the 1930s, after the Second World War and in the 1970s. On that basis with a correct orientation a small Marxist force can begin to grow rapidly. But to achieve that, the nucleus of that Marxist force must be built now. That is why now we must know how to win the best workers and youth, while at the same time maintaining a perspective for the future developments inside the mass organizations.

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