IMT World Congress 2018 Voting
Marxist Theory

Marxism vs. Sectarianism

Opportunism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin. Both must be combated by connecting with the aspirations and movement of the working class if the program of revolutionary Marxism is to become a mass force.

The IMT’s work continues to expand and our public profile is steadily rising around the world. With most other left organizations in crisis and many disappearing altogether, the steady, largely unnoticed work we have done in the US over the last two decades is beginning to give results. The payoff from our collective hard work is a growing influx of quality contacts and members and the potential to grow even more quickly in the years ahead.

However, our successes also make us a bigger target for the reformists and sectarians. We take inspiration from the fact that our political opponents are worried about us—proof positive that we are striking the right balance. And we can expect that their attacks and slanders—in the real world and on social media, in the open and in the shadows—will only intensify. It is in this context that we must analyze and learn from a recent attempt at “entry” and disruption of the IMT by a virulent ultraleft sect—the Internationalist Group, a splinter group from the infamous “Spartacist League.”

Marxists welcome and encourage honest, open, constructive, and comradely debate. We could not function as a living, dynamic organization if differences did not arise from time to time, and if we did not use them to refine our understanding of this or that question. When differences do emerge, these should be discussed calmly and politically with a view towards strengthening the work of the organization and raising everyone’s political level.

Differences sometimes develop in the course of common work as conditions change and new phenomena arise. Comrades also have the right to change their minds and positions. But we must also have a sense of proportion. There is no need to become defensive or entrenched in a particular position. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, after clarifying what the differences really are, the historical process itself will shed light on the questions involved and provide a satisfactory resolution.

Unfortunately, in typical sectarian fashion, the differences raised during the recent attempted infiltration were neither honestly presented nor motivated. There was no interest in genuine clarification or in improving the IMT’s work. The aim was to “score points,” confuse, demoralize, and “head hunt” as many members as possible. This is clearly evidenced in a bulletin they produced on this question, which featured heavy redactions to paint the IMT as “bureaucratic.” (see the addendum below)

However, due to the calm, political, and professional way all the IMT comrades involved in this episode handled themselves, the sectarians’ effort was a total failure. The IMT lost only the individual who willingly served as the “spearpoint” of their intervention—who decided to abandon ship long before the political discussions were concluded.

Most importantly, the comrades who went through the process of these discussions sharpened their political understanding and emerged with even stronger conviction that the IMT is the only organization that truly represents the legacy of the Russian Revolution and Trotskyism.

The IMT does not typically engage with sectarian grouplets that represent no one but themselves and never will. However, in the current epoch, given the predominance of reformism, some individuals repulsed by it will turn to ultraleft sectarianism in a misguided attempt to “bend the stick” in the other direction. A little “stick bending” is sometimes necessary. But sectarians only bend the stick in one direction and never bend it back.

In order to arm our members and readers with political arguments and confidence to counter ultraleftism whenever they encounter it, we believe this episode presents us with a useful opportunity to make a number of political and organizational clarifications.

Above all, we hope to add clarity on the question of the Marxist method. In the final analysis, what we are dealing with here is the question of Marxism versus formalism; dialectics versus formal logic; scientific socialism versus unscientific dogmatism.

The importance of dialectics and Marxist theory

Revolutionary Marxists have had to swim against the stream for decades, tirelessly defending the revolutionary program, method, banner, and traditions. The tide is beginning to turn but we are still swimming against the stream of reformism.

It cannot be denied that the skyrocketing interest in socialism is pregnant with potential for the future. But we must also understand that at this early stage, various reformist tendencies will inevitably be predominant. Without a mass labor party tradition and class-struggle union leaders to offer a clear way forward, how could it be otherwise?

Our task is to find ways to transform the modest quality we have accumulated into far greater quantity. The only way to do this is to energetically find ways of connecting our ideas with the aspirations of the masses, starting with the advanced layers.

To achieve this, we must combine principled politics with a patient approach when it comes to dispelling the inevitable confusion and illusions many people still have in bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties, leaders, and ideas. But we must not qualitatively water down our ideas in the pursuit of numerical quantity. There are no artificial shortcuts. Maintaining our high political standards while seizing opportunities to grow is the art of building a Marxist organization.

We should be clear as to the petty-bourgeois nature of both opportunism and sectarianism. The best defense against the pressure of alien class ideas is to proactively educate our comrades in the fundamentals of the Marxist method.

A positive grounding in Marxist theory, a sense of proportion, and deep historical understanding are essential. The IMT takes this work more seriously than any other organization on the left. This is evidenced by the volume and quality of the political material we produce. Our aim is to develop comrades who can think for themselves and analyze the complex phenomena of our times from a consistently working-class and revolutionary socialist perspective.

A low theoretical and political level and even disdain for theory is dominant throughout US capitalist society, including on the left and in the labor movement. This must be consciously combated. Simply memorizing a few formulas or slogans is totally useless in the real world. Reality constantly presents us with new combinations and convergences, which can only be understood dialectically.

Trotsky in 1938
Trotsky insisted on the importance of theoretical training to combat pragmatism and empiricism—the “greatest curse of American thought.” / Image: Public Domain

To avoid rigid and mechanical thinking—the unfortunate intellectual inheritance of the United States—we must work consciously to absorb the Marxist mode of thinking and analysis. Trotsky was adamant about this, and upon his arrival in Mexico in 1938, had the following advice for the leaders of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP):

Upon going back to the States, you comrades must at once take up the struggle against [Max] Eastman’s distortion and repudiation of dialectical materialism. There is nothing more important than this. Pragmatism, empiricism, is the greatest curse of American thought. You must inoculate younger comrades against its infection.

This is precisely why the US section of the IMT has produced a new book on the revolutionary philosophy of Marxism and is spending the year collectively working through it.

“Freedom of criticism”

As a philosophical and political worldview, Marxism embraces change, contradiction, and impermanence. The method of Marxism is dialectical and materialist. It provides us with a framework for analyzing processes, not merely for the sake of it but in order to more effectively intervene in the class struggle. When applied to the complex question of party building in the epoch of imperialism and capitalist decay, it is often referred to as Bolshevism.

The hallmark of Bolshevism is unwavering, principled class independence on all political questions, combined with infinite tactical flexibility. Its organizational method is based on full freedom of discussion combined with unity in carrying out the democratically decided tasks. Of course, on the basis of changing events, needs, and opportunities, the priorities, perspectives, and even program may have to be flexibly updated or even changed. But the broad lines are decided collectively and any decisions taken by any elected body can be reviewed, modified, or reversed by the body that elected it. In this way, the organization can take democratic decisions and implement them effectively and in a timely manner, without getting bogged down in endless debates over secondary or tertiary questions.

There are some, however, who assert that any and all individuals should—and must—go into writing on any question they want whenever they want, and that the discussion should continue as long as they themselves decide. This reveals the thoroughly petty-bourgeois, individualist outlook of the sectarian when it comes to organizational democracy and collective decision making.

This is strikingly similar to the concept of “freedom of criticism” that Lenin combated on many occasions—a “freedom” that leads only to paralysis and demoralization as the organization is held hostage to the caprices of individuals who do not have the group’s collective best interests at heart. In Lenin’s conception and practice, the revolutionary tendency must “cleanse” itself of such tendencies, not through Stalinist persecution and purges but through honest and political discussion, debate, and clarification. In a 1905 article titled “Party Organization and Party Literature,” he developed this idea:

The party is a voluntary organization, which would inevitably break up, first ideologically and then physically, if it did not cleanse itself of people advocating anti-party views. And to define the borderline between party and anti-party there is the party program, the party’s resolutions on tactics and its rules, and lastly, the entire experience of international Social Democracy, the voluntary international associations of the proletariat, which has constantly brought into its parties individual elements and trends not fully consistent, not completely Marxist and not altogether correct, and which, on the other hand, has constantly conducted “cleansings” of its ranks. So it will be with us too, supporters of bourgeois “freedom of criticism,” within the party.

The Marxist method

The truth is concrete and our analysis and conclusions must flow from the facts. If our conceptions do not fit the facts, then these must be adjusted—because we can’t change the facts. In the final analysis, theory, which is generalized from practical experience, must be connected back to reality if it is to be useful.

However, this does not mean it can simply be copied and pasted onto reality. Sectarians, with their “black and white” and “one size fits all” thinking, understand only one side of this equation.

Far removed from the real world, sectarians operate in a world of fixed categories, preconceived schemas, and purity tests. / Image: Public Domain

Although they consider themselves the most “orthodox” of Marxists and dedicated followers of Lenin, the method of the sectarian grouplets is the very opposite of Bolshevism. Instead of understanding Marxism as a method to be applied to living reality, they treat the words of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky as if they were commandments handed down from on high, to be referred to and repeated like scripture, applicable at any and all times, regardless of the concrete circumstances.

Sectarians operate in a world of fixed categories, preconceived schemas, and purity tests. For them, the class struggle is a sterile laboratory, far removed from the real and messy world of contradictory interests and consciousness. Ultimately, sectarianism stems from and leads to mental laziness. After all, there is no need to tackle complicated problems in an all-sided manner when you can just look up the formula and plug in the answer. They make a caricature out of Marxist principles, thereby transforming them into their opposite.

As Trotsky succinctly explained:

Though he swears by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectical action and reaction between a finished program and a living—that is to say, imperfect and unfinished—mass struggle… Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class.

And as he outlined in “The ABC of Materialist Dialectics”:

Every worker knows that it is impossible to make two completely equal objects. In the elaboration of bearing-brass into cone bearings, a certain deviation is allowed for the cones which should not, however, go beyond certain limits (this is called tolerance). By observing the norms of tolerance, the cones are considered as being equal. (“A” is equal to “A”). When the tolerance is exceeded the quantity goes over into quality; in other words, the cone bearings become inferior or completely worthless.

Our scientific thinking is only a part of our general practice, including techniques. For concepts there also exists “tolerance” which is established not by formal logic issuing from the axiom “A” is equal to “A,” but by the dialectical logic issuing from the axiom that everything is always changing. “Common sense” is characterized by the fact that it systematically exceeds dialectical “tolerance.”

In other words, whenever we take a particular position or raise a particular slogan, it is correct within certain limits. Outside those limits, it may no longer be correct and can even turn into its opposite. From something useful that helps raise class consciousness, confidence, and unity, it can become an obstacle to these aims.

This also applies to the elaboration of political perspectives. Perspectives are an indispensable guide for orienting our work. But they must not be treated as an iron-clad prediction good for all time. If conditions change beyond certain limits, “dialectical tolerance” is exceeded and the perspectives must be updated or reworked altogether. As Trotsky noted in In Defense of Marxism:

Every historical prognosis is always conditional, and the more concrete the prognosis, the more conditional it is. A prognosis is not a promissory note which can be cashed on a given date. Prognosis outlines only the definite trends of the development. But along with these trends a different order of forces and tendencies operate, which at a certain moment begin to predominate. All those who seek exact predictions of concrete events should consult the astrologists. Marxist prognosis aids only in orientation.

And as he explained elsewhere in the same work:

The dialectic is not a magic master key for all questions. It does not replace concrete scientific analysis. But it directs this analysis along the correct road, securing it against sterile wanderings in the desert of subjectivism and scholasticism.

The use of quotations

Another important aspect of the Marxist method is the use of quotations. Extracts from classic writings and speeches can help illustrate the parallels and differences that can be drawn from similar situations past and present. Marxists aim to convince those who disagree with us with coherent, convincing, and well-thought-out arguments. Used in this manner, quotes from the great Marxists of the past can be extremely useful.

The sects, however, seem to believe that merely quoting a respected source is enough to “win” and end the argument. They use quotations to whip people into line—which only reinforces these groups’ cult-like behavior.

Further, the Marxist method has always been to quote political opponents fully and in context—not to selectively present quotes in isolation as a kind of “smoking gun.” This kind of “point-scoring” has nothing in common with honest political debate. Trotsky referred to this method as falsification through amalgam.

By taking out-of-context quotes—and often only fragments of quotes—and combining them with assertions, assumptions, conflations, and outright inventions, a “gotcha!” argument can easily be cobbled together. This method was perfected by the Stalinists and is also used by the bourgeois enemies of the Russian Revolution—but it has nothing to do with genuine Bolshevism.

What are we building and what stage are we at?

The IMT is dedicated to building a mass revolutionary party capable of guiding the world working class to political and economic power. Once our program connects with and is consciously implemented by tens of millions of workers, the entire planet will be transformed. Needless to say, however, this is easier said than done!

The art of party building lies precisely in transforming the revolutionary program of Marxism into a mass force that can actually change society. This is not a linear process. While the DNA for a successful future mass organization may be contained in a politically and organizationally healthy small grouping, the revolutionary party is not a homunculus that merely grows in size from small to medium to large to massive.

The IMT calls itself a tendency and not a party precisely because at this stage we are just that—an international Marxist political tendency in the labor, youth, socialist, and other movements. Our goal in each country is to become a party—and ultimately, a mass party—but such a party cannot simply be declared. We have the humility and revolutionary optimism to understand that we are just the embryo, but that under certain conditions—and those conditions are rapidly maturing—we can grow very quickly and become a decisive factor in the class struggle.

As Trotsky wrote in relation to the emergent Fourth International:

Its ranks are not numerous because it is still young. They are as yet chiefly cadres. But these cadres are pledges for the future. Outside these cadres there does not exist a single revolutionary current on this planet really meriting the name. If our international be still weak in numbers, it is strong in doctrine, program, tradition, in the incomparable tempering of its cadres. Who does not perceive this today, let him in the meantime stand aside. Tomorrow it will become more evident.

Once a mass socialist/communist/labor party exists, it must be organizationally independent. However, a handful of Marxists laying the basic foundations for a future mass Communist Party is not the same as a mass Communist Party. The stage we are at is that of winning the “ones and twos” and training them in Marxist theory and Bolshevik organizational methods. At a certain stage, we will win the 5s and 10s and eventually the 100s and 1,000s. But we do not have the hubris to proclaim ourselves the party of the proletariat or to relate to other parties, organizations, and movements as if we had already earned that recognition by the working class. The various virulent “Trotskyist” sects, on the other hand, already believe themselves to be the party of the proletariat and of world Trotskyism. This total disconnect from reality severely distorts their approach to the working class and other formations on the left.

Leon Trotsky
Trotsky: “If our international be still weak in numbers, it is strong in doctrine, program, tradition, in the incomparable tempering of its cadres. Who does not perceive this today, let him stand aside.” / Image: Public Domain

Yet again, Trotsky has some important insights on the difference between a tendency and a party. In the mid-1930s, he urged his French supporters in the Communist League to “turn” towards the French Socialist Party (SFIO) to connect with the rapidly radicalizing layer of young people that had joined that party. The aim was to transform the numerically weak forces of Trotskyism into a larger force by joining the SFIO and winning the best individuals to a revolutionary program.

This was the same Socialist Party that betrayed the world working class at the outbreak of World War I. But this was no longer 1914, it was the 1930s, and due to the vagaries of history, it was to the SFIO that the most advanced layers were turning. When Trotsky himself was accused of betraying the “principle” that the party of the working class must be independent, he replied in a kind of FAQ in a 1934 article entitled “The League Faced with a Turn”:

18. But the proletarian party must be independent. Quite so. But the League is not yet a party. It is an embryo, and an embryo needs covering and nourishment in order to develop.

In other words, we need a sense of proportion. At the embryonic stage we are at, when the IMT orients to any field of work, for example, the movement around Bernie Sanders, there is no question of compromising our revolutionary program or of subordinating the party of the working class to the parties of the bourgeoisie. Our aim at present is to connect with and win the most advanced layers to our program and perspectives—wherever they can be found. As we have explained in dozens of articles and will explain yet again further below, we have never once crossed the class divide while carrying out this work. Had we done so—as the CWI has—we could have temporarily won more support. But this kind of opportunism would mean the death of the IMT as a revolutionary embryo for the future—as the CWI and others are finding out.

So while our general aim is to lay the basis for the emergence of a “revolutionary party,” we understand that we are still at an early stage of development and that there are many more phases of development yet to come. Nonetheless, we represent the embryo of a future party. Our program, though it may not yet connect with the masses, is our qualitative guide to sinking ever-deeper roots in the working class and to serious quantitative growth in the future.

The importance and use of the program

Trotsky explained that:

The significance of the program is the significance of the party. The party is the vanguard of the class. The party is formed by selection from the most conscious, most advanced, most devoted elements and the party can play an important historical political role not in direct relation to its numerical strength… The [Bolshevik] party guided the Soviets throughout the whole country thanks to correct policy and to cohesion… In what does the cohesion consist? This cohesion is a common understanding of the events, of the tasks, and this common understanding—that is the program of the party.

Petty bourgeois anarchists and intellectuals are afraid to subscribe to giving a party common ideas, a common attitude. In opposition they wish moral programs. But for us this program is the result of common experience. It is not imposed upon anybody for whoever joins the party does so voluntarily… The program is the articulation of the necessity, that we learned to understand, and since the necessity is the same for all members of the class, we can reach a common understanding of the tasks and the understanding of this necessity is the program.

And the form the program takes in the epoch of the terminal crisis of capitalism is transitional. Here is how Trotsky explained his transitional method:

The central task of the Fourth International consists in freeing the proletariat from the old leadership, whose conservatism is in complete contradiction to the catastrophic eruptions of disintegrating capitalism and represents the chief obstacle to historical progress. The chief accusation which the Fourth International advances against the traditional organizations of the proletariat is the fact that they do not wish to tear themselves away from the political semi-corpse of the bourgeoisie. Under these conditions the demand, systematically addressed to the old leadership: “Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!” is an extremely important weapon for exposing the treacherous character of the parties and organizations of the Second, Third and Amsterdam Internationals…

Of all parties and organizations which base themselves on the workers and peasants and speak in their name, we demand that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers’ and farmers’ government. On this road we promise them full support against capitalist reaction. At the same time, we indefatigably develop agitation around those transitional demands which should in our opinion form the program of the workers’ and farmers’ government.

Is the creation of such a government by the traditional workers’ organizations possible? Past experience shows, as has already been stated, that this is, to say the least, highly improbable. However, one cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.), the petty-bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists, may go further than they wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie…

It is impossible in advance to foresee what will be the concrete stages of the revolutionary mobilization of the masses. The sections of the Fourth International should critically orient themselves at each new stage and advance such slogans as will aid the striving of the workers for independent politics, deepen the class character of these politics, destroy reformist and pacifist illusions, strengthen the connection of the vanguard with the masses, and prepare the revolutionary conquest of power.

Much has changed since Trotsky penned these lines—for example, the numerical weight of small farmers—but the fundamental method remains the same. The Democratic Party is a bourgeois party, not a workers’ party—never once have we asserted otherwise. Nevertheless, for decades, for lack of an alternative, many workers have had illusions in the Democrats. This is a fact, whether we like it or not. And in this epoch of the belated world revolution, we must add reformist socialists like the “independent” Bernie Sanders and the editorial board of Jacobin magazine to the list of those Trotsky would have sought to “expose as treacherous” by systematically addressing “the old leadership” with the demand: “Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!”

Bernie Sanders
We must engage in a friendly, patient manner with those who have honest illusions in people like Sanders because they do not yet see a revolutionary alternative. / Image: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

As we have explained in dozens of documents and articles, Sanders finds himself at the forefront of a mass, left-leaning movement which, in a confused way, is seeking the path of least resistance through a “traditional” party. This is complicated by the fact that the “traditional” party many workers vote for is a capitalist party. It gains electoral support by pandering to the workers and the oppressed. It has been able to get away with this because there exists, as yet, no mass working-class party.

However, the Democrats cannot square the circle of its working-class electoral base of support with its fundamental defense of capitalist-class interests. This is why these processes have the potential to rip up the two-party system if it gets out of the hands of the ruling class. A similarly convoluted process is also playing out in the Republican camp, which must likewise appeal to layers of the working class to bolster its numbers at the polls.

How can Marxists take advantage of the rising politicization in such a confused situation? Without passing over into actual support for any capitalist party or politician, we must seek to connect with the mood of the masses in order to help them draw fully revolutionary conclusions, starting with the advanced layers.

This requires making positive demands—i.e., explaining what we are for—not merely denouncing what we are against. Most people learn best through experience, not lectures. When our perfectly reasonable demands are ignored or rejected by the labor leaders and reformists, workers will begin to draw conclusions as to whose interests the reformists really represent. This is why we must engage in a friendly, patient manner with the rank and file of DSA and with those who have honest illusions in people like Sanders because they do not yet see an alternative.

As Trotsky explained in The Transitional Program:

It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.

While they swear by Trotsky’s The Transitional Program in every breath, there is nothing transitional in the sectarians’ method. These grouplets have no need for a transitional bridge from today’s consciousness to the need for socialist revolution. They think it is sufficient to declare the need for socialist revolution. They have no skill or interest in connecting with people moving to the left. All their theories and critiques exist in a vacuum.

Take, for example, the US IMT’s demand for a “mass working-class socialist party.” Sectarians reject this formulation because they assume such a party will be reformist in nature, and therefore, will not be “pure.”

As it happens, it is almost inevitable that such a party, when it arises, will be reformist. When in history did a mass workers’ party emerge out of thin air fully armed with a socialist program and Bolshevik methods? Even the Bolsheviks spent more than a decade working within the same party as the Mensheviks before they emerged as an independent party. As Lenin explained in relation to revolutions: “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.” The same basic principle applies to the broader socialist movement and a mass workers’ party in its infancy.

Engels clearly understood this as far back as 1886. As he outlined in a letter to Florence Kelley:

It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than durch Schaden klug werden [to learn by one’s own mistakes]. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans.

The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist, Henry George, or Powderly, will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own. Therefore I think also the Knights of Labour a most important factor in the movement which ought not to be pooh-poohed from without but to be revolutionized from within, and I consider that many of the Germans there have made a grievous mistake when they tried, in face of a mighty and glorious movement not of their creation, to make of their imported and not always understood theory a kind of Alleinseligmachendes Dogma [only-saving dogma] and to keep aloof from any movement which did not accept that dogma.

Our theory is not a dogma but the exposition of a process of evolution, and that process involves successive phases. To expect that the Americans will start with the full consciousness of the theory worked out in older industrial countries is to expect the impossible. What the Germans ought to do is to act up to their own theory—if they understand it, as we did in 1845 and 1848—to go in for any real general working-class movement, accept its faktische [actual] starting points as such and work it gradually up to the theoretical level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical views in the original program; they ought, in the words of The Communist Manifesto, to represent the movement of the future in the movement of the present.

But above all give the movement time to consolidate, do not make the inevitable confusion of the first start worse confounded by forcing down people’s throats things which at present they cannot properly understand, but which they soon will learn. A million or two of workingmen’s votes next November for a bona fide workingmen’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform.

When a decisive break with the Democrats and Republicans happens and the unions put their vast resources and millions of members into building a class-independent party, this will represent a seismic shift in American politics—even if it is initially dominated by reformists seeking to save capitalism. It will mean that the key pillars of bourgeois political rule have been knocked badly off balance and that the masses have become radicalized to a degree never before seen in US history. We cannot predict in advance precisely what form, rhythm, or order this process will unfold in, but we can be sure that it will open enormous possibilities for the Marxists.

In the 1930s, Trotsky sought to imbue the leaders of the American SWP with his method—to keep the big strategic and principled picture in mind while seizing every tactical opportunity, however small, to build the organization. One of the SWP’s leaders, Max Shachtman, eventually split to the right, unable to grasp dialectics and preferring instead to rely on good old fashioned pragmatism. The following 1938 exchange on the question of a labor party perfectly illustrates the mechanical approach of Shachtman and the misnamed “Trotskyist” sects:

Shachtman: Now with the imminence of the outbreak of war, the labor party can become a trap. And I still can’t understand how the labor party can be different from a reformist, purely parliamentary party.

Trotsky: You put the question too abstractly; naturally it can crystallize into a reformist party, and one that will exclude us. But we must be part of the movement. We must say to the Stalinists, Lovestoneites, etc.: “We are in favor of a revolutionary party. You are doing everything to make it reformist.” But we always point to our program. And we propose our program of transitional demands. (our emphasis)

Will we succeed in winning the entirety of the future mass workers’ party to a revolutionary socialist program? That is impossible to predict. But even if we don’t, we would have a mass field of activity to work in and could win, not only the ones and twos, but the tens and twenties. Whether or not we win the majority is not the question. The important thing is that we would have many hundreds or thousands more supporters than we do today. This is the art of party building. But this is a closed book to grouplets like the Internationalist Group.

Sectarians view the world through the rigid binary of “positive” or “negative.” They fetishize isolated facts, divorcing them from overall social processes. They predict a future mass workers’ party will be dominated by reformists—an easy prediction to make—and thereby determine that they should put a “minus” sign next to it even before it arises. After all, “reformist = bad!”

Never mind that millions of workers and youth would inevitably be brought into political activity through the process of building such a party—many thousands of whom would be wide open to joining a tendency like the IMT that is fighting against the reformists for a revolutionary program. In fact, all the work we are doing today is in preparation for these future struggles.

We are clearly not in favor of a reformist labor party; as Trotsky said, it would be “absurd” for us to advocate that. But whether or not such a party can keep the working class within reformist channels will ultimately depend on the intervention of the Marxists. As can be seen at present in the British Labour Party, it will be a struggle of living forces—not something predetermined in advance.

The sectarians equate our demand for a mass socialist party with support for reformism. This is the crude political level of these people, who abandon the masses to the reformists without a fight. Instead, they content themselves with “being right” in the abstract as they self-righteously scream “fake socialists!” from the sidelines. No one’s understanding is advanced a single iota through such methods.

The fight against sectarian ultraleftism

Opportunism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin. They are the two main pressures Marxists face when working in any movement. Opportunism is the search for shortcuts through class collaboration, while sectarian ultraleftism is the fear of being tainted by contact with messy reality, leading to abstention from the real world. With reformism on the ascendant, it is inevitable that some people will recoil from this and turn toward sectarianism—imagining themselves to be great “Leninists.”

While the pressures of opportunism often have a mass character—e.g., we have to resist the “lesser evil” arguments of mass parties, organizations, and media—sectarianism is equally pernicious, even if the pressure from that direction is typically minuscule by comparison. Alien class pressures must be resisted, no matter which side of the political spectrum they come from.

Lenin and Trotsky wrote extensively on sectarian ultraleftism and opportunism, as did Marx and Engels. Trotsky once noted that a sectarian is an opportunist afraid of their own opportunism. It is far easier to be a “hardliner,” to be “intransigent,” and to reject having anything to do with anything “impure” than it is to engage with complex phenomena in the real world. It is not for nothing that Lenin called ultraleftism “an infantile disorder”—the product of immaturity and pretentious bravado.

In his article, “Sectarianism, Centrism and the Fourth International,” Trotsky characterizes sectarianism as follows:

The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion, the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum. Then the task would be solved.

And as he explained in The Transitional Program:

Sectarian tendencies are to be found also in our own ranks and display a ruinous influence on the work of the individual sections. It is impossible to make any further compromise with them even for a single day. A correct policy regarding trade unions is a basic condition for adherence to the Fourth International. He who does not seek and does not find the road to the masses is not a fighter but a dead weight to the party. A program is formulated not for the editorial board or for the leaders of discussion clubs, but for the revolutionary action of millions. The cleansing of the ranks of the Fourth International of sectarianism and incurable sectarians is a primary condition for revolutionary success.

It is also worth quoting at length from Trotsky’s illuminating article on the debates that surrounded the Spanish Revolution, “Ultralefts in General and Incurable Ultralefts in Particular (A Few Theoretical Considerations)”:

Marxist thought is concrete, that is, it looks upon all the decisive or important factors in any given question, not only from the point of view of their reciprocal relations, but also from that of their development. It never dissolves the momentary situation within the general perspective, but by means of the general perspective makes possible an analysis of the momentary situation in all its peculiarities. Politics has its point of departure in precisely this sort of concrete analysis. Opportunist thought and sectarian thought have this feature in common: they extract from the complexity of circumstances and forces one or two factors that appear to them to be the most important (and sometimes are, to be sure), isolate them from the complex reality, and attribute to them unlimited and unrestricted powers.

In that way, for the long epoch preceding the world war, reformism made use of the very important but temporary factors of that time, such as the powerful development of capitalism, the rise in the standard of living of the proletariat, and the stability of democracy. Today sectarianism makes use of these most important factors and tendencies: the decline of capitalism, the falling standard of living of the masses, the decomposition of democracy, etc. But like reformism in the preceding epoch, sectarianism transforms historic tendencies into omnipotent and absolute factors. The “ultralefts” conclude their analysis just where it should really begin. They counterpose a ready-made schema to reality. But since the masses live in the sphere of reality, the sectarian schema does not make the slightest impression on the mentality of the workers. By its very essence, sectarianism is doomed to sterility…

It is only on the basis of this practical activity, intimately linked with the experience of the great mass, that the trade union leader is able to lay bare the general tendencies of decomposing capitalism and to educate the workers for the revolution…

The socialist character of the [Spanish] Revolution, determined by the fundamental social factors of our epoch, is not, however, given ready-made and completely guaranteed right from the beginning of revolutionary development. No, from April 1931 onward, the great Spanish drama has taken on the character of a “republican” and “democratic” revolution. During the years that followed, the bourgeoisie was able to impose its stamp upon events, even though the Leninist alternative, communism or fascism, retained—in the last analysis—all its value. The more the left centrists and the sectarians transform this alternative into a suprahistorical law, the less they are capable of tearing the masses away from the grip of the bourgeoisie. Still worse, they only strengthened this grip. The POUM paid dearly for this experience—moreover, unfortunately, without drawing the necessary lessons.

If the left centrists hide behind Lenin in order to imprison the revolution within its original framework, that is, the framework of bourgeois democracy, the ultralefts draw from the same Leninist alternative the right to ignore and to “boycott” the real development of the revolution.

“The difference between the Negrín government and that of Franco,” I said in a reply to an American comrade, “is the difference between decaying democracy and fascism.” It is with this elementary consideration that our political orientation begins. What! exclaim the ultralefts, you want to restrict us to a choice between bourgeois democracy and fascism? But that’s pure opportunism! The Spanish Revolution is fundamentally a struggle between socialism and fascism. Bourgeois democracy does not offer the slightest solution… And so on.

The alternative, socialism or fascism, merely signifies, and that is enough, that the Spanish Revolution can be victorious only through the dictatorship of the proletariat. But that does not at all mean that its victory is assured in advance. The problem still remains, and therein lies the whole political task, to transform this hybrid, confused, half-blind and half-dead revolution into a socialist revolution. It is necessary not only to say what is but also to know how to use “what is” as one’s point of departure. The leading parties, even those who speak about socialism, including the POUM, are doing everything they can to prevent the transformation of this despoiled and disfigured halfway revolution into a conscious and completed revolution.

At the moment of revolutionary upsurge, the working class, impelled by its instinct, succeeded in establishing important landmarks on the road to socialism. But these are landmarks that have been swept away by the leading parties. It is not at all difficult to skip over this contradictory reality by contenting oneself with a few sociological generalizations. But that does not advance developments by a hairsbreadth. It is necessary to overcome material difficulties in action, that is, by means of a tactic suited to reality…

The left centrists as well as the incurable ultralefts often cite the example of Bolshevik policy in the Kerensky-Kornilov conflict, without understanding anything about it. The POUM says: “But the Bolsheviks fought alongside Kerensky.” The ultralefts reply: “But the Bolsheviks refused to give Kerensky their confidence even under the threat of Kornilov.” Both are right… halfway; that is, both are completely wrong.

The Bolsheviks did not remain neutral between the camp of Kerensky and that of Kornilov. They fought in the first camp against the second. They accepted the official command as long as they were not sufficiently strong to overthrow it. It was precisely in the month of August, with the Kornilov uprising, that a prodigious upswing of the Bolsheviks began. This upswing was made possible only thanks to the double-edged Bolshevik policy. While participating in the front lines of the struggle against Kornilov, the Bolsheviks did not take the slightest responsibility for the policy of Kerensky. On the contrary, they denounced him as responsible for the reactionary attack and as incapable of overcoming it. In this way they prepared the political premises of the October Revolution, in which the alternative Bolshevism or counterrevolution (communism or fascism) evolved from a historic tendency into a living and immediate reality.

We must teach this lesson to the youth. We must inculcate the Marxist method into them. But as to the people who are a few decades past school age and who persist in counterposing to us at all times—to us as well as to reality—the same formulas (which they have, by the way, taken from us), it is necessary to recognize them publicly as incurables who must be kept a few feet away from the general staffs who are elaborating revolutionary policy.

Sectarians never miss an opportunity to inform us that Marxists should “say what is.” This is ABC. But as we often say, there are a few other letters in the alphabet. But as Trotsky explained in the above excerpt:

It is necessary not only to say what is but also to know how to use “what is” as one’s point of departure… It is not at all difficult to skip over this contradictory reality by contenting oneself with a few sociological generalizations. But that does not advance developments by a hairsbreadth. It is necessary to overcome material difficulties in action, that is, by means of a tactic suited to reality.

Trotsky’s Proletarian Military Policy

When it’s convenient, sectarians love to quote Lenin, Trotsky, and James Cannon, chapter and verse, as if their writings were the King James Bible. But when it’s inconvenient, they blissfully ignore or retroactively re-contextualize the parts they disagree with. The question of the Proletarian Military Policy (PMP), a policy developed by Trotsky in the run-up to WWII, is a prime example of a position they reject because they never understood Trotsky or Lenin’s method. Instead, they fall back on stock positions and formulations from the past. In particular, they refer mechanically to Lenin’s WWI policy of “revolutionary defeatism,” without taking into account the changed context, without accounting for the changing consciousness of the masses.

How to approach World War II and the mass draft was a key question Marxists had to confront in the late 1930s. The PMP was developed for a particular situation and time, based on a dialectical understanding of how the working class viewed the war against Hitler, while also accounting for the isolation and weakness of the revolutionaries vis-à-vis Rooseveltism and Stalinism. It goes without saying that we would not necessarily adopt precisely the same policy today under any and all conditions. It is the method used by Trotsky that interests us—and which completely disinterests the “Trotskyist” sects.

With war already raging in Europe, US imperialism was clearly preparing to enter on behalf of the Allies, and the ruling class was whipping up national-chauvinist patriotism to prepare the masses for an unprecedented mobilization of soldiers and industrial production, combined with austerity. Although the aims of the war were clearly imperialist, millions of workers instinctively understood that fascism represented a mortal threat to their class. Millions were willing and even eager to “fight for freedom,” despite the hardships and dangers of war, not merely from a cynical, bourgeois-imperialist perspective, but from a working-class perspective.

Marxists do not and cannot have a sentimental or pacifist approach to war, which is the continuation of politics by other means. It goes without saying that we oppose imperialist wars. But there is also a reason we have the slogan, “no war but the class war!” The Red Army built by Trotsky used rifles and artillery just like a bourgeois army. Its soldiers endured discipline and suffered death and dismemberment just like soldiers in a bourgeois army. But its class basis was fundamentally different, and this is what made it progressive.

Red Army
The Red Army used rifles just like a bourgeois army. Its soldiers endured the same discipline and danger. But its class basis was fundamentally different, and this is what made it progressive. / Image: Public Domain

It represented the only historically progressive class, the working class, which led the poor peasants and oppressed nationalities in a revolutionary war against the capitalists, landlords, and imperialism. There is a reason Trotsky was subsequently denied the basic bourgeois-democratic right of asylum by every country in Europe when he was expelled from the Soviet Union; he was the architect of a “new model army” of the proletariat—an unforgivable crime!

The ruling class benefits from having an unarmed working class without military training. This makes it easier for its “bodies of armed men” to subjugate the masses. The idea of the armed masses terrifies the bourgeoisie. History shows time and again that they would prefer to work out a deal with their imperialist rivals rather than to arm the workers (see, for example, the Paris Commune). It is no accident that disarming the workers and poor peasants is the number one priority of the forces of bourgeois order whenever they reestablish control over areas liberated by armed partisans, for example, in postwar Italy or France.

But due to the scale of the threat presented by fascism and Japanese imperialism, the US ruling class was compelled to arm and train millions of workers and small farmers. But they wanted to do it on their terms and in their interests.

Added to the context of the situation was the weakness of the revolutionary leadership. I.e., the Marxists were not in a position to replace FDR with a revolutionary workers’ government before the US entered the war. The US was going to enter the war in spite of the opposition of the Marxists. Faced with this reality, how best to connect with the workers in the context of the mass enthusiasm to fight fascism? How best to undermine the control the capitalists had over the soldiers they relied on to carry out their imperialist aims? How to do this while also preparing for the all-but-inevitable postwar revolutionary wave, for the time when the inter-imperialist war could be transformed into an inter-class war?

As Trotsky explained in a July 9, 1940 letter to SWP leader Albert Goldman:

It is very important to understand that the war does not nullify or diminish the importance of our transitional program. Just the contrary is true. The transitional program is a bridge between the present situation and the proletarian revolution. War is a continuation of politics by other means. The characteristic of war is that it accelerates the development. It signifies that our transitional revolutionary slogans will become more and more actual, effective, important with every new month of the war. We have only of course to concretize and adapt them to the conditions…

We are absolutely in favor of compulsory military training and in the same way for conscription. Conscription? Yes. By the bourgeois state? No. We cannot entrust this work, as any other, to the state of the exploiters. In our propaganda and agitation we must very strongly differentiate these two questions. That is, not to fight against the necessity of the workers being good soldiers and of building up an army based on discipline, science, strong bodies, and so on, including conscription, but against the capitalist state which abuses the army for the advantage of the exploiting class. In your paragraph four you say: “Once conscription is made into law, we cease to struggle against it but continue our struggle for military training under workers’ control, etc.” I would prefer to say: “Once conscription is made into law we, without ceasing to struggle against the capitalist state, concentrate our struggle for military training and so on.”

We can’t oppose compulsory military training by the bourgeois state just as we can’t oppose compulsory education by the bourgeois state. Military training in our eyes is a part of education. We must struggle against the bourgeois state; its abuses in this field as in others.

We must of course fight against the war not only “until the very last moment” but during the war itself when it begins. We must however give our fight against the war its fully revolutionary sense, opposing and pitilessly denouncing pacifism. The very simple and very great idea of our fight against the war is: we are against the war but we will have the war if we are incapable of overthrowing the capitalists.

In September 1940, just a month after Trotsky’s assassination, and still under his political influence, the SWP passed a “Resolution on Proletarian Military Policy.” In it, they summed up the PMP:

Under conditions of mass militarization the revolutionary worker cannot evade military exploitation any more than he can evade exploitation in the factory. He does not seek a personal solution of the problem of war by evading military service. That is nothing but a desertion of class duty. The proletarian revolutionist goes with the masses. He becomes a soldier when they become soldiers, and goes to war when they go to war. The proletarian revolutionist strives to become the most skilled among the worker-soldiers, and demonstrates in action that he is most concerned for the general welfare and protection of his comrades. Only in this way, as in the factory, can the proletarian revolutionist gain the confidence of his comrades in arms and become an influential leader among them.

The total wars waged by the modern imperialists, and likewise the preparations for such wars, require compulsory military training no less than the appropriation of enormous funds and the subordination of industry to the manufacture of armaments. As long as the masses accept the war preparations, as is indubitably the case in the United States, mere negative agitation against the military budget and conscription cannot, by itself, yield serious results. Moreover, after Congress had already appropriated billions for armaments and was certain to pass a conscription bill without serious opposition, such negative agitation against conscription was somewhat belated and easily degenerated into mealy-mouthed pacifism. This proved to be the case with the organizations (Thomasite Socialists, Lovestoneites, etc.) affiliated with the preposterous conglomeration which calls itself the “Keep America Out of War Committee”—a vile and treacherous tool of the “democratic” imperialists.

The hypocrisy of their pacifism is indicated by the fact that, simultaneously, they declare themselves in favor of the victory of Britain. Equally treacherous is the purely pacifist agitation of the Stalinists, employed today on behalf of Stalin’s foreign policy under the Hitler-Stalin pact; and certain to be abandoned tomorrow when Stalin so orders, if he finds it necessary to switch partners. The pacifism of Browder and the pacifism of Thomas stem from different roots but are identical in their betrayal of the interests of the working class. Under the rule of a modern imperialism which is already arming to the teeth, an abstract fight against militarism is at best Quixotic…

The revolutionary strategy can only be to take this militarism as a reality and counterpose a class program of the proletariat to the program of the imperialists at every point. We fight against sending the worker-soldiers into battle without proper training and equipment. We oppose the military direction of worker-soldiers by bourgeois officers who have no regard for their treatment, their protection and their lives. We demand federal funds for the military training of workers and worker-officers under the control of the trade unions. Military appropriations? Yes—but only for the establishment and equipment of worker training camps! Compulsory military training of workers? Yes—but only under the control of the trade unions!

Such are the necessary concrete slogans for the present stage of the preparation of US imperialism for war in the near future. They constitute a military transitional program supplementing the general political transitional program of the party.

US imperialism prepares for war, materially and ideologically, without waiting to decide in advance the date when actual hostilities shall begin or the precise point of attack. The workers’ vanguard must likewise prepare for war without dependence on speculative answers to these secondary questions. The militarization of the country in preparation for war is taking place before our eyes. All our work and plans for the future must be based on this reality.

In other words, when the revolutionary Marxists are unable to offer a working-class alternative and the ruling class imposes its alternative on us, we must nevertheless find ways to raise revolutionary ideas among the workers. Similarly, we are by no means “for” bourgeois democracy. But when we cannot yet replace it with workers’ democracy, to abstain from bourgeois elections “out of principle”—as many anarchists do—would cut us off from those who are politicized by such elections. Without fomenting any illusions whatsoever in these institutions, parties, or politicians, we use these opportunities to raise revolutionary ideas, planting seeds that will bear fruit once experience disabuses people of their illusions.

Virulent sects like the Spartacist League and the IG retroactively reject the PMP. Using their typically mechanical approach, they accuse Trotsky and Cannon of reformism and social-patriotism and assert that the PMP was “anti-Leninist.” They even quote Max Shachtman favorably against Cannon:

The PMP was a misdirected attempt to turn the American working class’s desire to fight fascism into a revolutionary perspective of overthrowing its “own” imperialist state. The core of the PMP was a call for trade-union control of the compulsory military training being instituted by the state…

James P. Cannon, leader of the SWP, defended the policy, primarily against the criticisms of Max Shachtman who had recently broken from the SWP and founded the Workers Party. Essentially, the PMP contained a reformist thrust; it implied that it was possible for the working class to control the bourgeois army. The logic of the PMP leads to reformist concepts of workers control of the state—which stand in opposition to the Marxist understanding that the proletariat must smash the organs of bourgeois state power in order to carry through a socialist revolution.

Revolutionary Marxists are crystal clear that the bourgeois state apparatus cannot be reformed or evolved out of existence. The state is an organized expression of class violence. There is a reason we included Lenin’s State and Revolution among our first volume of Marxist classics and emphasize it as a must-read text for all new members. But in the simplified worldview of the sectarian, all that is needed is to point out that “the proletariat must smash the organs of bourgeois state power in order to carry through a socialist revolution”—as if that were a great revelation or the end of the story. They leave out just one small detail: how are we to turn that correct idea into a mass reality? They gloss over the inconvenient fact that even the most correct idea or program is impotent unless it connects with the masses.

Let us not forget that Max Shachtman was a petty-bourgeois intellectual with a “take-it-or-leave-it,” agnostic approach to dialectical materialism. He upheld pragmatism instead of dialectics as a guide to action and eventually swung far to the right, even supporting US imperialism’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Although the sects obviously repudiate the openly reactionary positions Shachtman later took, the fact is that they utilize the very same anti-dialectical, “pragmatic” method.

After Trotsky’s death, Cannon lost his bearings completely on many important questions, and he deserves plenty of criticism for his role in shipwrecking the Fourth International. Cannon’s actual implementation of the PMP reflected his organic lack of a dialectal understanding of the problem. But the approach formulated by Trotsky was loaded with potential, and at least Cannon tried to carry it out. And yet, the sects repudiate him for one of the positions on which he was formally correct.

For a positive example of how the PMP was successfully implemented, we need look no further than the inspiring work of Ted Grant and his comrades in Britain during WWII. This is detailed in The Permanent Revolutionary by Alan Woods, the History of British Trotskyism by Ted himself, and in articles like “Reply to the RSL,” from 1943. In this important piece, Ted reiterates Trotsky’s approach, explaining:

The masses are becoming critical of capitalism and imperialism, but feel themselves paralyzed by fear of the consequences of a Nazi victory. The military policy and the Old Man’s writings give us the weapon that provides the answer to the questions which are troubling the masses.

In one of the writings Ted was referring to, the aptly titled article, “Learn to Think,” Trotsky was scathing against the sectarians:

Certain professional ultraleft phrase-mongers are attempting at all cost to “correct” the thesis of the Secretariat of the Fourth International on war in accordance with their own ossified prejudices. They especially attack that part of the thesis which states that in all imperialist countries the revolutionary party, while remaining in irreconcilable opposition to its own government in time of war, should, nevertheless, mold its practical politics in each country to the internal situation and to the international groupings, sharply differentiating a workers’ state from a bourgeois state, a colonial country from an imperialist country.

The proletariat of a capitalist country which finds itself in an alliance with the USSR [states the thesis] must retain fully and completely its irreconcilable hostility to the imperialist government of its own country. In this sense its policy will not differ from that of the proletariat in a country fighting against the USSR. But in the nature of practical actions considerable differences may arise depending on the concrete war situation.

The ultraleftists consider this postulate, the correctness of which has been confirmed by the entire course of development, as the starting point of… social-patriotism. Since the attitude toward imperialist governments should be “the same” in all countries, these strategists ban any distinctions beyond the boundaries of their own imperialist country. Theoretically their mistake arises from an attempt to construct fundamentally different bases for wartime and peacetime policies…

Defeatist policy, that is, the policy of irreconcilable class struggle in wartime cannot consequently be “the same” in all countries, just as the policy of the proletariat cannot be the same in peacetime. Only the Comintern of the epigones has established a regime in which the parties of all countries break into march simultaneously with the left foot. In struggle against this bureaucratic cretinism we have attempted more than once to prove that the general principles and tasks must be realized in each country in accordance with its internal and external conditions. This principle retains its complete force for wartime as well.

Those ultraleftists who do not want to think as Marxists, that is, concretely, will be caught unawares by war. Their policy in time of war will be a fatal crowning of their policy in peace-time. The first artillery shots will either blow the ultraleftists into political non-existence, or else drive them into the camp of social-patriotism, exactly like the Spanish anarchists, who, absolute “deniers” of the state, found themselves from the same causes bourgeois ministers when war came. In order to carry on a correct policy in wartime one must learn to think correctly in time of peace.

While the war lasted longer than Trotsky had initially anticipated—in large part due to the heroic sacrifices of the Soviet workers—a mass revolutionary mood and opportunities for the socialist revolution erupted both during and after the war. Yet again, the lack of a strong Marxist leadership meant that the potential was not made actual, and the Stalinists and Social Democrats succeeded in saving capitalism.

But who can deny the potential that existed, not only in Europe, but also across broad swathes of Asia, the Middle East, and beyond? Even the US military saw a wave of strikes and protests that bordered on mass mutiny, which unnerved the ruling class. Once fascism and Japanese imperialism were defeated, the soldiers wanted to be sent back home as quickly as possible. This is detailed in the article “Lessons of the Post-WWII Soldiers’ Movement: the Strikes of 1945–46.”

We are entitled to ask: would the “orthodox Trotskyist” sects have supported this wave of resistance by the “workers and poor farmers in uniform?” Would they have urged the “armed bodies of men” to raise economic and social demands, such as full employment with union representation, and that the returning soldiers be allowed to keep their arms?

Seeing as they have retroactively denounced Trotsky’s approach to engaging with the process of mass working-class military mobilization—so as not to “foment illusions in reformism”—we can surmise that they would have instructed their members to evade the draft at that particular time. Thus, they would not have been in a position to support the postwar soldiers’ movement even if they did support it.

Such is the fate of sectarians: so “radical” in theory, so impotent in practice. As Trotsky once noted, “Sect is a term I would use only for an organization of a kind that is forever doomed, by virtue of its mistaken methodology, to remain on the sidelines of life and of the working class struggle.”

The question of the police

One of the main attacks on the IMT by the ultraleft sectarians is that we allegedly “love cops.” They cite two articles in particular, one by the British comrades and one by the Canadians, using quotes taken entirely out of context to “prove” that the IMT has betrayed the basic Marxist position on the state. What’s the real score?

As noted above, Lenin’s position in The State and Revolution—which is based on Engels’s writings—is our foundation and we put a lot of emphasis on educating comrades in this classic work of Marxism. In dozens of articles, for example, the highly recommended “Marxism and the State,” we make the following crystal clear:

The question of the state in capitalist society is of key importance for Marxists. We do not see it as an impartial arbiter standing above society. The fundamental essence of every state, with its “armed bodies of men,” police, courts and other trappings is that it serves the interests of one class in society, in the case of capitalism, the capitalist class.

Without the repressive state apparatus, the capitalists could not maintain their rule for a single day. They require a special force with special powers and privileges—including the power to threaten and use lethal force—to keep the majority in line. As a social force, the police are clearly part of the “armed bodies of men” which defend private property of the means of production and the personal wealth of those who hold the lion’s share of it.

The very sight of the police makes millions of poor and working people’s blood boil, and justifiably so, as they are rightly seen as the personification of the system’s institutional oppression and injustice. Racism, corruption, misogyny, brutality, and abuse of authority are rife in police departments around the US and the world. Revolutionary Marxists would never in a million years put forward the idea that workers can depend on the capitalist state apparatus, including the police, to defend them or their interests.

This is our starting point. But when theory slams into the real world, things can get much more complicated. Especially in exceptional moments, arriving at a correct position is not as simple as self-righteously parroting a few phrases from Lenin.

For millions of poor and working people, police are rightly seen as the personification of institutional oppression and injustice / Image: Fibonacci Blue

Relations between and within classes, as well as relations between and within the different layers of real-world social formations, are dialectically complex and dynamic. Flowing from this, Marxists recognize that the state apparatus is not a monolith, is not homogeneous, and is not impervious to the class pressures and moods of society. If we are to arrive at a correct position in any particular situation, we must start our analysis with a concrete look at the fundamental class relations involved.

One’s class is determined above all by one’s relation to the means of production. For the two main classes, the relation is clear: capitalists own the means of production and exploit labor power to generate profits; while workers, who own nothing but their ability to work, must sell their labor power for a wage, working the means of production owned and controlled by others. But there are other classes and layers in modern society.

The petty bourgeoisie comprises those who both work themselves and exploit labor, who own or control some property, but by and large, are dependent on, and/or in debt to the big banks and other companies that dominate the economy. There is also the lumpenproletariat, “declassed” individuals who may have once been members of one or another class, but who now have no clear relation to the means of production, who live as “criminals” or on charity. There are also those who, for all intents and purposes, legally or illegally, are held as bonded laborers or slaves.

So where do the police fit in? The police neither own nor work the means of production. They are paid primarily from tax revenues collected mainly from the working class and petty bourgeoisie. As such, they are not workers in a scientific sense. But neither are they capitalists, petty bourgeois, lumpens, bonded laborers, or slaves. Many of them strongly identify with the ruling class and believe in its version of “law and order.” Many have a petty-bourgeois outlook and see themselves as “standing above” the rest of society, though they do not understand this from the perspective of the Marxist theory of the state. Others have a fully declassed, lumpen outlook. They blatantly abuse their power and engage in corruption and illegal activity themselves, often with impunity.

However, as far as their daily lives and conditions are concerned, most individual police are closer to the working class. They live in working-class neighborhoods, have working-class spouses, and send their kids to working-class schools. They work for a wage which their families depend on to pay the rent or mortgage, car payments, credit cards, student debt, etc. Many individual police clearly and even proudly identify as “working class”—sometimes far more than many white-collar workers. In that sense, they may, within certain limits, be considered “workers,” though we would not argue that they are part of the working class. While this may not fit into the sectarian’s rigid societal schema, it is a fact.

Wisconsin Cops for Labor
Events like the Wisconsin Uprising do not fit the “black and white” mold of the sectarian on the question of the police. What is the Marxist attitude to these events and the police in general? / Image: Flickr, Richard Hurd

Furthermore, there is a spectrum when it comes to law enforcement: from the small-town cop, county court bailiff, NYPD school safety officer, and prison guard, to the State Troopers, FBI, Secret Service, etc. Most workers—including the most oppressed and even lumpenized elements—tend to recognize these distinctions. The neighborhood cop you went to high school with is likely to be viewed differently—and will interact with you differently—than the riot police called in from another jurisdiction to put down a strike or protest movement.

But even this does not exhaust the question. One’s class outlook is not automatically determined by one’s class origin or status, though that does play a preponderant role. For example, not all workers are conscious and militant class fighters. Under the pressures and conditions that prevail in much of the US, many workers adopt a petty-bourgeois attitude. They admire the billionaires as “self-made” men and women who have earned their wealth “fair and square.” They think the super-wealthy should be emulated and revered—not hated and overthrown—at least, not yet.

Some petty bourgeois individuals are conscientious and pay and treat their workers fairly well. Others look down on their employees, bully them, and treat them like mere fodder for exploitation. Some, like Marx and Trotsky, did more than their fair share to further the cause of the working class and socialist revolution. And there are even rare instances of individual bourgeois—like Engels—casting their lot in fully with the working class.

Most individual cops join the police, not because they are committed pro-capitalist ideologues, clearly aware of their role as defenders of bourgeois property relations, but rather, because they have no other job prospects or have honest illusions that by becoming a police officer they will be “helping their community” or even “combating racism.” How does one classify a former auto worker who becomes a cop? Or a cop who becomes an auto worker? “Once a cop always a cop?” “Once a manufacturing worker always a manufacturing worker?”

Then there are the private security guards, the railroad police, and corrections officers working at private prisons, who do not work directly for the state. There is also the question of whistleblowers from within the state security apparatus, from the FBI to the NSA, who from time to time break ranks and risk imprisonment to tell the world what they know about the nefarious activities of their agencies.

All of this inconveniently breaks the “black and white” mold of the sectarian, but it is nevertheless how things are in the real world. Life and society are contradictory and we must deal with things as they are, not as we would like them to be. The aim of a class analysis is not to categorize and pigeonhole every individual in society. This would be impossible, due to the many blurry areas that exist and constantly change. Rather, we must look at broader class interests, forces, processes, and dynamics.

It is incomprehensible to those who live in a pseudo-Leninist fantasy world, but among all institutions, Americans polled only have a “great deal of confidence” in the military (74%), small business (67%), and the police (54%). Compare this to the 11% approval for Congress and 37% for the presidency and Supreme Court. While Marxists do not base our fundamental positions on Gallup polls and the masses’ episodic lack of a class perspective, these kinds of moods must be explained and taken into account.

During the events in Ferguson and the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, the spotlight on the police terror imposed on poor black and Latino neighborhoods lowered confidence in the police generally. But when such rampant brutality is not highlighted as graphically in the media, the general view tends to trend in a positive direction. How to account for this?

In this world of scarcity and alienation there are some terribly screwed up individuals out there. Most ordinary workers think it is a good thing that there is a force that “protects” them from such people and that they are kept away from the “good” people in society. For most people, the idea of abolishing prisons means “letting out all the murderers and child molesters”—and this terrifies them. And in this epoch of never-ending school shootings, many people are all in favor of having armed police in schools. This is all further exacerbated by the mass media and the ruling class’s “divide and rule” strategy. The reality is that even in the early days of a workers’ state there would be some kind of policing and even prisons. The problems of the old society would not evaporate overnight. However, these entities would be democratically run by the workers in the interests of the majority.

Interestingly, the above-cited Gallup poll also found that just 22% of those polled have a “great deal” of confidence in the criminal justice system, which shows that there is a healthy distrust of the institutionally racist and oppressive judicial system as a whole, while those who actually enforce and defend those same laws and institutions are seen differently. This is likely because most police officers and soldiers are someone’s relative or personal acquaintance, and are even considered “heroes” by many of those who know them and are concerned for their well-being.

Or take the example of the “cops for labor” during the “Wisconsin uprising” in 2011. As our comrades reported at the time:

It’s truly inspiring to see the transformation of the workers and students in Wisconsin. It seems everyone has an opinion on the topic and that no one is apathetic. I watched thousands of students pour into the capitol screaming “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” It’s clear that a whole new generation is being introduced into labor solidarity. Yesterday the police actually had a march, where over a thousand cops and their families came in with signs that said “Cops for Labor” and raising their fists in support. What a spectacle to witness!

In another article, “Wisconsin Shows How to Fight Austerity!“, we noted:

Walker is under pressure from all sides. The billionaire Koch brothers, bankrollers of the Tea Party, have surely made it clear to him what is at stake for the rich: more cuts are needed and organized labor’s power must be curtailed. But he is also under the pressure of thousands of workers and students demonstrating around and inside the capitol rotunda day and night. And as the solidarity demonstrations nationwide have grown larger, he is under pressure from other state governors and the federal government to relent before the struggle intensifies further and gets “out of control.” A victory by the workers in Wisconsin would embolden workers everywhere. There are also tensions within the Wisconsin government, especially between the governor and the police.

The police union has already demonstrated in support of other public sector employees, marching under “Cops for Labor” banners, and the [police] union declared it would refuse to remove demonstrators from the capitol building. After the interesting revelations of a “prank call” to Walker by a blogger impersonating David Koch, during which Walker admitted he had toyed with the idea of planting provocateurs among the demonstrators, his relationship with the police chiefs has been icy. Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney told a press conference Monday: “When asked to stand guard at the doors, that duty was turned over to the Wisconsin State Patrol because our deputies would not stand and be palace guards. I refused to put deputy sheriffs in a position to be palace guards.”

In other words, the very institution designed to keep “order” is hostile to the governor. If public sector and private sector workers and students join together in an all-out one day general strike, these pressures and tensions would be magnified further and Walker could be forced to give in. Walker claims that his actions will make Wisconsin “open for business”—but a general strike and broad support among small business owners for the union protesters isn’t quite the effect he intended!

In the end, the State Patrol, which is more geographically and operationally divorced from the local population in Madison, and which clearly has more reactionary individuals in its ranks, had to be called in to clear the capitol rotunda. The problem in Wisconsin wasn’t the existence of police unions, it was that the labor leadership tailed the Democrats, who did everything in their power to contain and limit the movement. In the end, the Democrats preferred to allow Walker to remain in office than to be pushed into power themselves on the rising tide of a mass, class-conscious movement.

And as we wrote during the Occupy Wall Street movement:

Those who say the police are not on our side are correct in a sense; the police force is set up against the interests of the working class. Yet, things are not so clear and simple in reality. The police force is still made up of individuals working for pay. However, as part of the state apparatus, they are not employed to create wealth but to safeguard it. Their position as part of a coercive force also distances them from other state workers employed in education, administration, maintenance, social services, etc.

How then, do we explain the “cops for labor” during the mass demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this year? Firefighters and police were exempt from Walker’s proposed law and even so, hundreds of them joined the occupation of the capitol. Are these the actions of a unified reactionary bloc, marching in lock-step to smash the unruly workers? The police are unionized, and clearly a layer of the police in Madison saw themselves represented in organized labor. Although their job involves protecting the capitalist state, a significant layer also has an interest in defending itself through defending labor.

The structure of the police is very hierarchical, something familiar to most workers. So, it follows that there are layers of the police more privileged than others, and thus more invested in maintaining the status quo. This is especially important in the context of the crisis of capitalism. As workers the world over have seen in the last few years, the capitalist class will spare nothing in its desperate struggle to save itself. Like a drowning man, it will pull down anything it can with reckless abandon in order to keep afloat for another moment. The bourgeoisie will not even spare its own state apparatus; all over the world, austerity measures are stripping the state machines bare. In the US, police forces are being cut, drastically in some cases. Naturally, most of the cuts are among the lower ranks of police, and this contributes to building dissension.

And in this lies the key to correct orientation. Anything that draws attention to the antagonisms and contradictions between the different layers of the police, while also pointing at the antagonism between the rank-and-file officers and the rich they are hired to defend, thus splintering the force, is good for the politicizing workers. Anything that alienates us from the broader masses of our class, while also steeling the ranks of the police by chasing the would-be sympathizers into the arms of reaction, assures our defeat.

Ultimately, only the conscious, revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class can succeed in dismantling the coercive apparatus of the capitalist state. As part of this struggle, an independent mass party of labor, armed with a socialist program, would put forward the demand to nationalize the financial sector, and many police officers would agree. The heavy battalions of labor, by waging a relentless political and economic struggle against the 1%, while also calling on the police unions to defend the rights of working class Americans, would make it much more difficult for the bosses to maintain control.

Or take the example of the Tunisian Revolution. As we explained at the time:

“Several dozen police officers, some in civilian clothes and some in uniform and wearing red armbands, arrived today [Friday 21] at the Regional Workers’ Union in Ben Guerdane [on the border with Libya], to demand the formation of a trade union in order to defend their moral and material rights,” reported Hssine Betaïeb, a UGTT trade unionist to AFP. “They have told us that whatever the regime might be, they will never in the future use violence against the population again.”

This is very significant. It is clear that in a police force composed of 120,000 people there are many different layers, from the brutal torturer to the callous anti-riot police, to the traffic police, etc. Some of them wish to disassociate themselves from the Ben Ali regime in order to protect themselves. Others have been infected by the prevailing revolutionary mood and are bringing out their accumulated grievances. What is true is that the state apparatus in Tunisia, the armed bodies of men in defense of private property of which Engels spoke, has been extremely weakened by the revolutionary events, though not yet completely destroyed.

This was graphically demonstrated when the demonstration on Saturday arrived at the office of the Prime Minister, which was protected by barbed wire and the presence of anti-riot police. Faced with thousands of angry demonstrators carrying Tunisian banners and a Che Guevara flag the police could only plead with the protestors: “Do whatever you want to do but please don’t storm the office of the prime minister.” Had there been a clear leadership, they could have taken over the Prime Minister’s office. The government is truly suspended in mid-air, in the face of the developing revolutionary movement.

All of this is to highlight the fact that the question of the police is a complex and many-sided issue. So how can we separate the essential from the inessential?

As always, our starting point is to consider whether or not something increases working-class unity, confidence, and consciousness. If it does, we support it; if it doesn’t we oppose it. As a corollary to this, we may add that we support that which cuts across the cohesion and confidence of the ruling class and those it leans on to maintain its rule.

Dialectics shows that contradictions exist everywhere—including the bourgeois state apparatus. Disputes can and do arise between the individuals who carry out the functions of the state and their masters. In many instances, the disputes are of a reactionary character. As an example, a few years ago, some of the inmates of the notorious Rikers Island prison in NYC were going to court to testify against mistreatment by prison guards. The corrections officers’ union organized a job action to stop these people from testifying. This was a reactionary strike and we were completely opposed to this.

But there are other, exceptional occasions, when the “armed bodies of men” confront the ruling class and make demands upon it, as occurred during the soldier strikes after WWII. Or when the police or prison guards go on strike for higher wages and/or better conditions for themselves and the prisoners they guard. In the context of the ongoing attacks on public sector workers, these struggles can have an effect on the broader working class, as was the case in the Alberta prison guards’ wildcat strike.

Our position always depends on the concrete circumstances. For example, we opposed 1972 truckers’ strike against the Allende government in Chile, which was orchestrated by the CIA. / Image: public domain

In such conflicts, should the workers encourage those on strike, try to spread the job actions to the public and private sectors generally, and push for broader demands? Or should they adopt the position of the sects and support the rest of the bourgeois state in its quest to crush the strikers? Does it not further the interests of the working class if the forces the capitalists depend on for intimidation and repression are divided, demoralized, no longer unquestioningly loyal, or even in open defiance?

We do not have a one-size-fits-all approach. While we support police unions linking up with the rest of the labor movement insofar as this can, in certain instances, weaken the bourgeois state, we do not support making any reactionary concessions to the police unions in order for them to remain within the broader umbrella of organized labor.

Likewise, we do not automatically support every strike or every mass movement; it depends on the concrete circumstances. For example, the 1972 truckers’ strike against the Allende government in Chile, which was orchestrated by the CIA to ramp up the pressure in order to topple his government.

It is in this overall context that we must understand the IMT’s position on police and prison guard unions and strikes. For starters, anyone who reads our material objectively will see that the vast majority of references to the police focus on explaining its function as part of the capitalist state apparatus in defense of capitalist interests. Only in rare and exceptional cases, when conflicts erupt within the state apparatus, do we concretely consider the question of police or prison guard unions and strikes.

When the police withhold their labor and refuse to be used as tools for repression, are we supposed to ignore the fact that there has been a change in the situation? When cracks begin to emerge in the state apparatus, should we or should we not seek to widen those cracks and further loosen the bonds of discipline? When the police show up and are ordered to break up a picket line, are they more likely to break discipline if they are appealed to by the striking workers as fellow union members—or if they are immediately told, “f*ck you, pigs! Cops out of the labor movement!”?

In the context of heightened class struggle or a revolutionary situation, if even a small section of the repressive apparatus can be neutralized through inter-union fraternization, we believe this would be a good thing—and most workers would agree. Far better to stop some, if not all the police from the cracking workers’ heads by leveraging the pressure of a mass movement to divide the forces of repression. The “Trotskyist” sectarians love to spout on about “Leninist principles”—especially since most them are petty-bourgeois professors and grad students who will never be on the receiving end of a police charge.

Let’s look at some concrete examples from the writings of the IMT, starting with “The ‘Spirit of Petrograd?’ The 1918 and 1919 Police Strikes in Britain.” Instead of taking a couple of lines out of context, as the ultraleftists do, we will quote somewhat at length:

Marxists have always maintained that at some stage the intensity of the class struggle affects even the “armed bodies of men” of the bourgeois state. Such an example was the police strike in Britain at the end of the First World War… Under the leadership of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers, militantly class-conscious policemen conspired to overturn their role as the subservient body of the state.

The revolution had begun: or so it seemed when the very sentinels of the State revolted in the late summer of 1918. “Spirit of Petrograd! The London police on strike!” cried a jubilant Sylvia Pankhurst, expressing the excitement of other British revolutionaries. “After that, anything may happen. Not the army, but the police force is the power which quells political and industrial uprisings and maintains the established fabric of British society.”

There could not have been a worse time for this unthinkable strike to happen. The specter of revolution haunted Europe as never before; the British working class was flexing its muscles; and the Great War still raged in Europe. According to one senior Scotland Yard official, the police were “mutinying in the face of the enemy.” Little wonder, then, that the sight of 12,000 furious Metropolitan constables marching on Whitehall sparked panic among ruling circles. According to one government figure of the time, the supposed defenders of the status quo had surrounded Downing Street with “a very menacing attitude… [and] made the occupants feel that they were really face to face with a revolution. Would the very heart of the British Empire be stripped of its defenses at a time of such crisis?

It was in reference to these events that we (somewhat jokingly) referred to “Bolshevik Bobbies” when 25,000 angry police marched through London in 2008, in the broader context of rising austerity and heightened class struggle. It would appear, however, that because they oppose police unions “in principle,” the ultralefts approve of British imperialism’s efforts to crush the 1918–19 strikers. The outcome of the strike was to victimize those in the police force who were more sympathetic to the workers, and to ensure that those who remained on the force were ultra loyal to the capitalist state. Was this a positive outcome for the working class?

The problem in 1918–19 wasn’t police unions, but the very opposite—the fact that the police wanted to form a union. The bourgeois opposed this, fired all the strikers, and stripped them of their pensions—a harsh message for anyone who dares unionize or defy the ruling class. To this day, UK law prohibits the police from joining ordinary unions. Why is this? Why was the Alberta prison guards’ strike also opposed and attacked by the ruling class? Only a hidebound sectarian could fail to understand that the ruling class sees these movements as threats because they could spread. And yet, the “pure” sectarians find themselves on the same side of the barricades as the bourgeois state, repeating their mantra like unthinking drones: “no cop unions!”

Another classic example of the sectarians’ amalgamated use of quotes is the following fragment from Trotsky’s writing, which is presented as the “final word” on the question of the police: “the worker who becomes a policeman is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.”

This quote comes from an important booklet, “What Next,” written by Trotsky in 1932, which deals with the fight against fascism in Germany. When read in its full context, the purpose of the article is crystal clear. Trotsky was criticizing the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for not mobilizing the workers against the fascists. Instead, the SPD was urging the working class to simply rely on the bourgeois state and police to defend them.

The SPD leaders’ aim was to undermine the class cohesion and fighting spirit of the workers, fomenting illusions in bourgeois “rule of law”—in order to defend capitalism. They knew that, in the context of the profound crisis of German capitalism and the revolutionary experience of just a few years earlier, if the workers took up arms to fight the fascists, things could get out of their control and capitalism would be imperiled.

We agree 100% with Trotsky: the working class cannot rely on the bourgeois state to defend the workers’ interests against the fascists or anyone else. We can rely only on our own class and our organizations. As we all know, the SPD leaders’ treachery—along with the Stalinists’—ultimately led to the rise of Hitler.

However, what Trotsky was not discussing here, was a situation in which the police are in revolt or otherwise confronting their masters. Trotsky was not discussing the British police strike of 1918–19. As he was quite busy building the Red Army and fighting the Russian revolutionary civil war, he never commented on those particular events in Britain. But we can be sure that if he had, he would not have simply copy-pasted his position from one context to another, or vice versa. For example, in very different context in the very same country—the revolutionary ferment in Germany in the early 1920s—the very same Trotsky wrote the following:

I named just now the basic forces of the enemy, the 100,000-strong Reichswehr, the size of which was laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. This is an army of volunteers, consisting almost exclusively of peasants, who have been subjected to the appropriate processing by their Fascist officers. To a certain extent the 135,000-strong police force is also a weapon in General Seeckt’s hand. It is composed mainly of urban workers, except in Bavaria and Wurtemberg. Whereas the Reichswehr consists of young countrymen, 95% of whom are unmarried, the police are workers, the overwhelming majority of them with families, who have been driven to join the police force by unemployment and other circumstances. In Brandenburg-Prussia this police force is to a considerable extent made up of Social-Democratic workers, and forms the guard of the Prussian Minister of the Interior, Severing. The law forbids policemen to belong to political parties, but allows them to belong to trade unions, so that these policemen are in most cases members of the free (Social-Democratic) trade unions.

Competent persons estimate that one third of these policemen will certainly fight against us (mainly in the rural areas), one third will stay neutral, and about a third will fight alongside us, or will help us. Thus, arithmetical calculation shows that the police force will be paralyzed, and it will be eliminated as an independent force. Here, of course, everything depends on the policy, the tactics and strategy that we develop. But what is most important is that we should not look on the Reichswehr and the police as something united and monolithic. Such a conception is radically wrong.

The young German Communist naturally exhibits, as a rule, more or less the same psychology as our young Red Army man. When he first gets into an awkward situation in battle, it seems to him that his enemy is something terrible, fearless and so mighty that, if this enemy brings his weight to bear, it will destroy and crush him, for he, the poor devil Petrov from Penza province, is a weak creature, and he feels sick at heart… That is why an important element in the training of Semyonov, or Petrov, is educating him so that he knows that the enemy, too, is also a man, that he, too, has a heart that can feel sick… And we, having learned very well how to link ourselves with the masses, have all that we need in order to fulfill that task properly. (our emphasis)

As we can see from the above quote, Trotsky did not treat the police as one monolithic reactionary bloc. He did not call for the police to be thrown out of the free (Social Democratic) trade unions, and he did not think that no police officer could ever be won over to the revolution. On the contrary, in the specific conditions he was referring to, he believed that “one third will stay neutral, and about a third will fight alongside us, or will help us.” One can certainly disagree with Trotsky, but one cannot deny that Trotsky’s method led him to draw this conclusion at that time.

Instead of adopting simplistic slogans and mindlessly repeating them under any and all conditions, the IMT follows Trotsky’s method and analyzes each situation concretely from the perspective of what will best further the interests of the broader working class.

We underline the fact that police brutality is a function of a society divided into classes, and not merely a matter of individual sociopaths—though the police do have more than their fair share of these people. Above all, we emphasize that the question of the police can never be resolved within the limits of capitalism, and explain that to end police brutality, we must end the system of private property of the means of production that makes cops and the state necessary in the first place. This is what we fight for and what we have always fought for, no matter how the sectarians try to sow confusion by distorting our dialectically nuanced position.

The masses, electoral politics, and the use of slogans

Bourgeois electoral politics is a minefield, particularly in a country without a mass working-class party or tradition. However, it is a minefield Marxists must navigate, precisely because millions of workers continue to have illusions in bourgeois elections. The ultraleft sects accuse the IMT of “fomenting illusions” in people like Bernie Sanders and AOC. Is this really the case?

To begin, we should understand that for the sectarians, the mention of any bourgeois or petty-bourgeois politician or party in anything but a sullen, hostile, denunciatory tone, is the equivalent of “sowing illusions.” Marx’s approach—“bold in matter, mild in manner”—is completely alien to them. But anyone who reads our material honestly and in its broader context will see the following:

  1. We have always maintained a principled class-independent position—not once have we called for a vote for or entry into the Democratic Party (or the Republican Party).
  2. As the consciousness of the masses, and particularly the advanced layers has changed, driven by the crisis of capitalism, we have adapted our slogans—but not our principled position. Can anyone seriously deny that a colossal sea change has taken place over the last few years, for example, on the question of “socialism?” Should we continue to use precisely the same slogans and formulations of the pre-Sanders/Trump era?
  3. Far from “fomenting illusions,” we have been accompanying the masses through their experience, raising their political understanding and horizons by raising positive demands. Simultaneously, we have explained the fundamental class interests, relations, and dangers having any illusions whatsoever in the Democrats. For example, around the question of so-called “lesser evilism.”

Unlike Socialist Alternative, the DSA, and others who tailed Sanders as a Democrat in 2016, and have veered even further to the reformist right on this question ahead of 2020, we have maintained a principled position. We have not looked for artificial shortcuts but have instead planted our principled banner for the future, even if this cuts us off from quick and easy short-term gains. We understand that quality of ideas and cadres is of the utmost importance at this stage and that the quantity will flow from this in the future.

At the same time, we have balanced between appealing to those who have already broken with Sanders and the Democrats, and those who still hope against hope that that is a viable path to “socialism.” We have consistently explained the need for a mass, independent working-class socialist party based on the unions, as well as the need to build a cadre organization that can fight for a revolutionary program in that future party.

Achieving all of this is not as simple as proclaiming the need to “Reforge the Fourth International!” It requires patient explanation, theoretical arguments, and historical examples, as well as timely slogans and demands that connect with the current stage of class consciousness and raise it further.

Trotsky’s thinking on the question of bourgeois-democratic demands and bourgeois democracy in general sheds important light on how Marxists can and should effectively engage with broader political questions. The key is to accompany the masses in their “life teaches” experience, without crossing the line of class collaboration. Along with the case of the Proletarian Military Policy, discussed above, Trotsky’s advice to the US SWP re: the Ludlow Amendment is another brilliant example of his principled yet eminently flexible method.

On the eve of WWII, Congressman Louis Ludlow of Indiana proposed an amendment to the US Constitution which would have mandated a national referendum on any declaration of war by Congress, except in cases when the United States had been attacked first. The masses had certain illusions in this bourgeois-democratic reform, as they feared the coming war and sought ways to hold their political leaders to account. How should Marxists successfully connect with those who had illusions in this amendment, without “sowing illusions” ourselves in bourgeois democracy, liberalism, or pacifism?

No democratic reform, it is understood, can by itself prevent the rulers from provoking war when they wish it. It is necessary to give frank warning of this. But notwithstanding the illusions of the masses in regard to the proposed referendum, their support of it reflects the distrust felt by workers and farmers for bourgeois government and Congress. Without supporting and without sparing illusions, it is necessary to support with all possible strength the progressive distrust of the exploited toward the exploiters. The more widespread the movement for the referendum becomes, the sooner will the bourgeois pacifists move away from it; the more completely will the betrayers of the Comintern be compromised; the more acute will distrust of the imperialists become.

The referendum is not our program, but it’s a clear step forward; the masses show that they wish to control their Washington representatives. We say: It’s a progressive step that you wish to control your representatives. But you have illusions and we will criticize them. At the same time we will help you realize your program. The sponsor of the program will betray you as the SRs betrayed the Russian peasants.

He added:

The Ludlow referendum, like other democratic means, can’t stop the criminal activities of the sixty families, who are incomparably stronger than all democratic institutions. This does not mean that I renounce democratic institutions, or the fight for the referendum, or the fight to give American citizens of the age of eighteen the right to vote. I would be in favor of our initiating a fight on this; people of eighteen are sufficiently mature to be exploited, and thus to vote. But that’s only parenthetical.

Now naturally it would be better if we could immediately mobilize the workers and the poor farmers to overthrow democracy and replace it with the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the only means of avoiding imperialist wars. But we can’t do it. We see that large masses of people are looking toward democratic means to stop the war. There are two sides to this: one is totally progressive, that is, the will of the masses to stop the war of the imperialists, the lack of confidence in their own representatives.

They say: Yes, we sent people to parliament [Congress], but we wish to check them in this important question, which means life and death to millions and millions of Americans. That is a thoroughly progressive step. But with this they connect illusions that they can achieve this aim only by this measure. We criticize this illusion. The NC declaration is entirely correct in criticizing this illusion. When pacifism comes from the masses it is a progressive tendency, with illusions. We can dissipate the illusions not by a priori decisions but during common action.

I believe that we can say to the masses, we must say to them openly: Dear friends, our opinion is that we should establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, but you are not yet of our opinion. You believe you can keep America out of war by a referendum. What will you do? You say you do not have enough confidence in the president and the Congress elected by you and that you wish to check them through a referendum. Good, very good, we absolutely agree with you that you must learn to decide for yourselves. The referendum in this sense is a very good thing, and we will support it. Ludlow proposed this amendment but he will not fight for it. He does not belong to the sixty families, but he belongs to the five hundred families. He launched this parliamentary slogan, but this is a very severe fight and can be conducted only by workers, farmers, and the masses—and we will fight with you. The people who proposed these means are not willing to fight for it. We say this to you in advance.

Then we become by and by the champions of this fight. At every favorable occasion we say: This is not sufficient; the magnates of the war industry have their connections, etc., etc.; we must check them also; we must establish workers’ control of war industry. But on the basis of this fight in the trade unions we become the champions of this movement. We can say it’s almost a rule. We must advance with the masses, and not only repeat our formulas but speak in a manner that our slogans become understandable to the masses.

Trotsky also developed this idea in the Transitional Program:

Slogans as well as organizational forms should be subordinated to the indices of the movement. On guard against routine handling of a situation as against a plague, the leadership should respond sensitively to the initiative of the masses… It is impossible in advance to foresee what will be the concrete stages of the revolutionary mobilization of the masses. The sections of the Fourth International should critically orient themselves at each new stage and advance such slogans as will aid the striving of the workers for independent politics, deepen the class struggle of these politics, destroy reformist and pacifist illusions, strengthen the connection of the vanguard with the masses, and prepare the revolutionary conquest of power.

This is invaluable material and highly instructive when it comes to our approach to the movement behind Bernie Sanders. “Without supporting and without sparing illusions,” we have sought to support “with all possible strength the progressive distrust of the exploited toward the exploiters,” represented, in this case, by the DNC and the deeply distrusted and hated Clinton-Obama wing of the Democrats.

At the peak of the 2016 movement, before Sanders capitulated to Hillary, at a time when he himself didn’t explicitly rule out an independent run, we essentially said: “Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!” The IG sees this as “fomenting illusions” in Sanders. However, our target audience was not Sanders himself, who was almost certain to bow to the pressure of the ruling class (as we pointed out on multiple occasions). Rather, we were addressing those followers of Sanders whose confidence in the Democrats had been shattered, and above all the advanced ones and twos who were angry and looking for socialism outside the two-party system.

Experience is the most powerful teacher. But this can be accelerated through well-timed and thought-out slogans and demands. However, this is not as simple as “denouncing” someone—people need to draw their own conclusions. Our aim was to drive a wedge into the cracks that had opened between the DNC and those who support the Democrats against the Republicans for lack of an alternative. Subsequent events prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are many thousands of people who are “angry and looking for socialism outside the two-party system.”

To paint the IMT as reformists and class collaborators, the ultralefts must present a one-sided, highly redacted selection of quotes, culled from thousands of words written at every stage of the Sanders phenomenon. It is a total misrepresentation to say that the IMT has “a long-standing position” of calling on Sanders to build a mass socialist party. How we wrote about Sanders before his candidacy took off was very different than how we wrote about him on the eve of his capitulation at the DNC, or how we write about him today, though our fundamental position has remained the same.

Not once have we said that Sanders running as a Democrat would or could bring about socialism or that his brand of “socialism” is anything but left populism or right reformism, at best. What we have said is that, even today, he could serve as a catalyst for a break with the Democrats that could potentially unleash forces that could get out of the control of the ruling class—and that this could open the road to a struggle for genuine socialism and revolution.

How we raise demands in the movement depends on many factors. Lenin’s position throughout the course of 1917 was for the working class to take power and carry out a socialist revolution. But the main slogans he developed included “Peace, Land, Bread!” “Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers!” and “All Power to the Soviets!” He did not propose slogans such as “Overthrow Capitalism!” “Down with Kerensky!” “For a Socialist Revolution!”—although these were his aims.

The key was to win the masses, who still had illusions in bourgeois democracy (which was only a few months old at the time in Russia). These not-terribly-radical sounding demands nonetheless had colossal radical content and led eventually to that result, by helping the masses draw the conclusion, through their own experience, that capitalism was the root of the problem.

Building a mass revolutionary party and overthrowing capitalism will require great tactical flexibility. A dialectical approach is necessary if we are to maintain our principled content while dynamically adjusting the form to the changing conditions. For example, at one point Trotsky was for breaking with the Socialist Party, at another time he advocated entry into the very “same” Socialist Party that had betrayed the workers in 1914. But it was only “the same” in name and form—the content and potential for workers’ struggle had changed in the interim. And Lenin was in favor of the young forces of the British Communist Party joining the Labour Party—a party he characterized as a “bourgeois workers’ party.”

Likewise, Trotsky was for a certain period against supporting the formation of a labor party in the US. Later on, he was in favor. And although he was actively building the Fourth International, he was at the same time in favor of sending some US comrades into the Communist Party—the party headed by Stalin which was trying to assassinate him at that time—on a reconnaissance mission to ascertain possibilities for growth through that work. Far from being a “flip-flopper,” Trotsky recognized that the changed conditions required a different tactic or presentation in order to achieve the same fundamental goals. Were Lenin and Trotsky guilty of “fomenting illusions” in the Socialist, Labour, and Stalinist Communist Parties?

Or look at the example of the revolutionary potential that existed in Greece in the summer of 2015. Unfortunately, the comrades of the IMT who intervened at Syntagma Square were too few to have a decisive impact on events—but they did their damndest! They sold hundreds of papers and distributed thousands of leaflets, calling on the leadership of Syriza to break with the Troika and with capitalism, moving might and main to help push the energy of the masses beyond Tsipras’s reformism and in an openly revolutionary direction. If the ultraleft sectarians had had anyone there, we can imagine they would have simply denounced Tsipras as a traitor. Instead of helping the masses learn from experience, accompanying them through the inevitable series of successive approximations, and possibly even helping to push things over the edge, they would have been content to gloat that they were “right all along” when Tsipras capitulated and the mass movement entered a deep ebb.

The point of developing political perspectives isn’t to be “right” for the sake of it but to anticipate the most likely class-struggle scenarios, in order to guide us as we intervene in the contradictory whirlwind of events. For example, it would be easy to be “right” and say that we “knew all along that Sanders would support Hillary.” In fact, we said from the beginning that this was the most likely outcome. But life and mass consciousness are more complicated than that. Nothing is absolutely predetermined in advance.

Had we not engaged with those who had illusions in Sanders with a constantly updated exposition of our basic principled position, we would not have made the gains we have over the last few years—and which we continue to make. Some of our supporters today started out as Bernie Sanders supporters. As far as we’re concerned, just one of these comrades, who has learned from their experience and can subsequently help win others to a revolutionary perspective, is worth one hundred ultraleft sectarians who “knew all along” that Sanders would support Hillary.

And as regards our work in the underdeveloped, ex-colonial countries, the ultralefts again scold us for breaking with alleged “Trotskyist orthodoxy.”

In countries where the law of uneven and combined development is sharply and chaotically expressed, the theory of permanent revolution is the key to understanding the dynamics of revolution and counterrevolution. In these conditions, in particular, given the belated socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, all kinds of hybrid political formations can and do arise. The workers and poor peasants cannot wait until the workers in the more economically developed countries make the revolution, nor can they wait for their mass organizations and parties to pass sectarian-approved purity tests.

This was the case with the PPP in Pakistan, the PRD in Mexico, and the PSUV in Venezuela. But while the conditions in these countries are often more unstable and confusing, due in part to the more amorphous class relations, our fundamental method remains the same. Where the Marxists are present only in embryo and no mass working class party exists, we must win the most far-seeing individuals wherever we can find them, educate them in the Marxist method, and orient them to the working class. This sometimes means working in and around some of these hybrid formations. If it is a sin to accompany the workers, urban poor, and poor peasants through the experience of trying to find a way out of the impasse of capitalism, while fighting to win them to revolutionary Marxism, then we ask forgiveness of the keepers of the sacred tablets, for we have sinned.

Frankly, all of this seems so ABC it is almost embarrassing to have to repeat it again and again. But for the ultralefts, Lenin and Trotsky’s method is incomprehensible. They simply cannot grasp that it is not merely the specific words that matter but rather, the theoretical, strategic, and tactical method that lies behind those words. As for the IMT, we embrace the Marxist method, not because “Lenin and Trotsky said so” or because they were right 100% of the time, but because they were brilliantly right ninety-nine times out of a hundred.

Conclusion

The American left has been going through a slow motion crisis for decades. It defied the laws of gravity for a long time—but everything has a limit. In this epoch of rising class struggle and capitalist crisis, the chickens are finally coming home to roost, as their political and organizational errors lead to a colossal crisis of political confidence in their leaders and ideas.

The IMT is a small organization. We have been mocked for this many times in the past. But our critics missed an important detail—we are the only ones with healthy revolutionary Marxist DNA. This is what gives us confidence and has sustained us through the many ups and downs of the last thirty years.

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Our course is based on the genuine ideas of the Transitional Program. We invite all those who are serious about seeing the victorious socialist revolution in our lifetime to join the IMT / Image: Socialist Revolution

We are still assembling the first core of cadres and are still mainly in a propaganda phase. People want and need lots of ideas and explanations if we are to win them. People are more critical, and to some degree, more cynical than ever. Agitational slogans play an important role in our work but most people today won’t be won over by agitational slogans alone—though that too will change in the future.

By basing ourselves on the genuine ideas of the Transitional Program, we have stayed the course. We understand that perspectives are a science, while party building is an art. We are neither sectarians nor opportunists. We see the class lines clearly and have always maintained our class independence. Our task is to make this line clear to the rest of the working class through patient explanation and common experience—not holier-than-thou denunciations.

Our main task remains the same as Trotsky outlined in 1938:

The strategic tasks consist of helping the masses, of adapting their mentality politically and psychologically to the objective situation, of overcoming the prejudicial traditions of the American workers, and of adapting it [their mentality] to the objective situation of the social crisis of the whole system.

The strategic task of the Fourth International lies not in reforming capitalism but in its overthrow. Its political aim is the conquest of power by the proletariat for the purpose of expropriating the bourgeoisie. However, the achievement of this strategic task is unthinkable without the most considered attention to all, even small and partial, questions of tactics. All sections of the proletariat, all its layers, occupations and groups should be drawn into the revolutionary movement.

This is the course the IMT is charting. We invite all those who are serious about seeing the victorious socialist revolution in our lifetime to join us.

*****

Addendum

A few weeks after the IG supporter’s departure from the IMT, the IG produced a booklet with the usual critiques of the “reformist left”—which, in their view, includes the IMT. They presented the individual as the leader of the “Left Opposition” of the IMT, a heroic martyr who endured the vicious repression of the leadership as he steadfastly defended Trotskyism. The truth is that he led no such “Left Opposition,” won no one to his views, and left of his own accord after being given every chance to convince his comrades. But why let the facts ruin a good story?

The base dishonesty of these people is fully revealed when one looks at what they redacted from the US EC’s correspondence with [redacted]. From the material that has been removed the purpose is obvious: [redacted] and the IG wish to paint a picture of the IMT as undemocratic, and having answered him only organizationally and not politically:

  1. From the EC letter dated March 14th a substantial part of the first paragraph has been removed:

“None of the disagreements you raise in it emerged during your time in NYC; you did not raise them with comrades in MSP when they first arose, and you did not raise them with comrades you knew well from your time in NYC—although you saw some of them over the holiday break. Instead, you waited several months and then presented a fully worked-out position in writing, even before basic discussions could be had on the questions you raise.”

  1. At the end of this same letter he has removed the invitation by the EC to meet with him if he was in NYC during spring break:

“We understand it will soon be Spring break at the U of M. Might you be back in NYC for a few days? If so, that would be an excellent opportunity for you to meet in person with comrades from the National Center to discuss your criticisms in person. We look forward to your answers to the above questions and hope to have the opportunity to meet in person if you are going to be in NYC for Spring break.”

  1. In the EC Letter dated March 25th he deletes a substantial part of the first paragraph also mentioning attempts to bring him to democratic political discussion:

“We thought we would wait a few days before replying to see whether or not you would answer your local comrades and whether we might be able to discuss in person in NYC while you were on Spring Break. But you have clearly decided to ignore their request for clarification as well and have not responded to our invitation to meet and discuss. With membership rights come membership responsibilities. Among these responsibilities is that one must always be honest and forthright with one’s fellow comrades. Your non-answer speaks very much to the contrary.”

and also:

“A full discussion of the points you have raised has begun in MSP in your branch and at the MSP aggregate meetings. The topic of the most recent aggregate was changed at the last moment to address your questions (although several comrades had already prepared lead offs on other topics). Several future MSP aggregate meetings have been set aside to discuss each question in turn so as to raise everyone’s political understanding of the questions involved.”

  1. At the end of this same letter he removes yet another invitation to discuss with the EC:

“We nonetheless await your responses to our very straightforward questions, and once again extend our invitation to meet in person to discuss any and all of your disagreements in person if you are still in NYC. If you are truly serious about clarifying your ideas and concerns, this would be a perfect opportunity to discuss.”

  1. Yet another deletion from the EC letter from the 26th of March:

“Why did you not reach out to discuss your doubts with comrades in New York, with whom you once had a close political and even friendly connection? Why did you not accept or even acknowledge the EC’s invitation to meet in person while you were in NYC, or to at least explain why that was not possible? Perhaps you would not have been convinced by our arguments, but shouldn’t your own comrades have had the opportunity to discuss these questions with you? At what point did you begin trusting the word of a sect more than that of your own comrades?”

These omissions say everything that needs to be said about these so-called defenders of “Trotskyism.”

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