U.S. and World Politics

Liquidationism Yesterday and Today

Open letter to the opposition within the “Fourth International”

Socialist Viewpoint received a proposal from a reader that we open the pages of the magazine for a discussion among political groups who consider themselves to be revolutionary socialists. The subject we proposed to the various groups was “Why should people join your organization?” As a continuation of this proposal, we are reprinting excerpts (with permission) of “Liquidationism Yesterday and Today, Open letter to the opposition within the Fourth International” submitted by The International Bolshevik Tendency. We continue to encourage other groups to participate in this sharing of ideas. —The Editors

[Socialist Action] Comrades, we read with interest your document “Opposition formed in the Fourth International,” published on February 3, 2017 on the website of Socialist Action, the American affiliate of the “Fourth International” (FI). This document, signed by leading comrades from France, Spain, the U.S, Canada, Italy and Greece, is a critical account of the political trajectory of your tendency over the last decade with the stated aim of initiating discussion:

“This contribution is the basis of a first unified effort to launch a debate leading to the next FI world congress. We defend the present relevance of an international that grasps the opportunities in the present situation, and that builds an international for revolution and communism. Based on the political key points of this contribution, we want to foster a broad debate addressed to revolutionary currents both inside and outside of the FI.”

You make clear that you consider your organization to be at an impasse that requires an entirely new orientation. We welcome the opportunity to discuss some of the questions raised in this document as part of a process of political clarification that might, in the best case, lead to principled regroupment on the basis of a shared revolutionary program, but should at least help to clarify the scope and depth of the historical differences, their origins and development for all participants.

“Broad Parties:” Liquidationism of the 21st Century

The document focuses its critique on the strategy of participation in “broad parties” of the left (the Anticapitalistas in Spain, Syriza in Greece and Lula da Silva’s ruling party in Brazil,) a policy it characterizes as a “catastrophe.” It describes how the sections that liquidated into these reformist formations began by abandoning any pretense of a revolutionary perspective and ended up supporting capitalist governments in their attacks on the working class. Yet there is a telling omission—the French Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA) barely gets a mention. The NPA was formally launched in 2009 when the former French flagship section, the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR), dissolved in an attempt to build an all-inclusive “broad party:”

“We speak to women and men of all origins, with or without papers[,] who think their lives are worth more than profits: to youth who answer ‘resistance!’ in the face of attempts to leave them a precarious future; to activists in community groups and trade unionists who take action every day in their neighborhoods or on the job; to socialist, anti-neoliberal and communist activists, to all national and local political organizations or currents, who think it is time to unite, beyond former divisions, and above all those who have not found a party appealing enough to get involved.…” —International Viewpoint, February 2008

As we pointed out at the time:

“The programmatic and organizational framework of the NPA is that of the Second International—not of the Leninist Third International or Trotsky’s Fourth International, neither of which admitted parties like the NPA.…

“The NPA’s campaign for the European elections made it clear that rather than challenging the existing consciousness of its electoral base the NPA adapts to it. In its first official meeting, the NPA’s National Political Committee summed up their electoral message as advancing ‘a social, democratic and eco-friendly Europe’ and ‘an anti-militarist and anti-imperialist Europe of women’s rights’ (Tout est à nous! 26 March 2009).”
—“NPA: France’s New Reformist Party,” 1917, No. 32, 2010

Some of the signatories of the opposition statement are still members of the NPA, which might explain why it is barely mentioned while Syriza is openly criticized:

“In the name of the necessity of a ‘new program’ and ‘new parties’ adapted to the ‘new situation,’ the FI leadership supported Alexis Tsipras right up to the 11th hour (quote from the FI declaration of August 2015.) The example of Greece is extremely telling. It demonstrates the impossibility of reformism as a solution in periods of capitalist crisis. Not only did the Syriza-led government prove to be one of the harshest of bourgeois governments, but Syriza itself switched almost totally, in just about one year, from left reformism to bourgeois social democracy.”

This distinction between left reformism and bourgeois social democracy is meaningless. Syriza and the NPA are politically essentially identical—apart from the disparity in their electoral success. The NPA’s goal, like Syriza’s, is to reform the existing system. Instead of seeking to overturn the mechanism that generates endless war, exploitation and oppression, these reformists aspire to help it present a greener, more humane face. Should the French electorate ever flock to the NPA en masse as Greek workers did to Syriza, there is no reason to expect the outcome to be different for the simple reason that “capitalism can’t be fixed,” as we pointed out to the youthful supporters of the Occupy movement several years ago.

A history of Liquidationism

There is nothing particularly new about the drive to liquidate into “broad parties.” This is essentially the same policy pursued since the 1950s by the political ancestors of today’s “Fourth International,” Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel. They argued that the imminence of a global “war-revolution” meant that there was no time to build Trotskyist parties. Instead, the cadres of the Fourth International were encouraged to find permanent refuge in existing, reformist workers’ parties, whether Stalinist or social-democratic, in order to remain in touch with their working-class base and rapidly gain influence once the masses began moving to the left. The organization led by Pablo and Mandel thus developed a political orientation fundamentally opposed to that of Trotsky’s organization, rendering illegitimate the claim to the name “Fourth International,” which continues to this day.

In response to the rise of a mass of subjectively revolutionary youth and a parallel increase in combativity in the European working class in the late 1960s, Pablo and Mandel began to see new vanguards, particularly in the mass worker-student struggles in France in 1968 and Italy’s “hot autumn” of 1969.

The opportunity presented by this upsurge was enough for the Pabloite leadership to turn away from its deep entry policy (with a few exceptions such as the British Labor Party) and call for the construction of independent, ostensibly Trotskyist organizations, the largest and most successful of which was the French LCR. Yet as the wave of New Leftism began to recede, the international leadership once again began to look for opportunities to merge with larger formations to their right. Ernest Mandel, in a 1976 interview, put it like this:

“In my opinion the future of the revolutionary movement is in the kind of groups which are broader than those which call themselves Trotskyist. Groupings which, however, unite with sections of the Fourth International.” —Topo Viejo, November 1976 (quoted in Spartacist, No. 25, 1978)

Even at the height of its enthusiasm for independent formations, Pablo and Mandel’s organization exhibited a tendency to politically adapt to whatever seemed currently popular with the masses. In Latin America, this meant a disastrous turn to guerrillaism, while at the same time offering electoral support to Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular—a project premised on the possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism via class collaboration. Similar policies were pursued in France and elsewhere. These betrayals are documented at length in “Revolutionary Program vs. ‘Historical Process’,” a polemic between the Bolshevik Tendency and a former member who had moved into the orbit of the so-called “Fourth International.”

Capitulating to counterrevolution

This impulse to politically adapt to whatever was currently popular was particularly evident in the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet bloc in 1989-91. Despite a formal position of defending the degenerated and deformed workers’ states against capitalist restoration, in practice Mandel and Co. aligned themselves with forces that actively worked towards the counterrevolutionary destruction of the collectivized property system. In the August 1991 confrontation between conservative Stalinist elements of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and the forces supporting Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin’s pro-capitalist course, Mandel came down on the side of capitalist restoration:

“The…[Stalinist] putschists (coup d’état supporters) wanted to severely limit or even suppress the democratic liberties that existed in reality. …This is why the putsch had to be opposed by all means available. And this is why the failure of the putsch should be hailed.” —International Viewpoint, February 3, 1992

At the time, Mandel insisted that the conservative Stalinists behind the coup were no less interested in capitalist restoration than their opponents. It is true that the coupsters made contradictory statements about their intent to both defend the socialized property forms and respect private property, but as we commented at the time:

“A Marxist analysis of the Soviet ruling caste is not primarily based on what the bureaucrats think, much less what they say in public. The key to explaining the political behavior of different social classes and strata lies in their objective social position and the material interests that derive from it. Unlike the bourgeoisie, the Soviet bureaucracy was never a property-owning group. In August 1991, as at the height of Stalin’s power, its privileges derived from its role as custodian of the centrally administered, state-owned economy. As the power of the center came under mounting attack from rebellious nationalities, breakaway bureaucrats and free marketeers, it was natural that some sections of the central state and party apparatus would attempt to reassert their prerogatives. This was the significance of the power struggle within the party that preceded the August coup, and of the coup attempt itself (see IBT September 1991 statement.)” —“Soviet Rubicon and the Left,” 1917, No. 11, 1992

Mandel and his followers took a different attitude to Cuba, aware that since the 1960s Cuba has remained more popular among radical youth and workers than the Soviet Union. Although the USSR was created by a workers’ revolution and underwent a process of degeneration while Cuba was deformed from its inception, from a Marxist point of view, the two states were essentially similar in nature. Both were based on collectivized property, which is why Marxists defended them against capitalist restoration, but with a Stalinist ruling caste, which monopolized political control and represented a transmission belt for capitalist influence. In both cases the road to socialism could only be opened by a proletarian political revolution to break the grip of the bureaucratic stratum and establish the direct rule of the working class….

We are sending this in the spirit of your expressed desire “to foster a broad debate addressed to revolutionary currents both inside and outside of the FI.” We agree that such a debate about the historic roots of the current profound global crisis of proletarian leadership is of immense importance and we look forward to further exchanges on these critical questions.

Comradely greetings,

Christoph Lichtenberg, for the International Bolshevik Tendency

International Bolshevik Tendency, June 2, 2017