The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The SWP:
On the Road to Abandon Trotskyism?

Oct 31, 1983

The Socialist Workers Party and the Revolutionary Workers League have issued a new political journal, the New International. (The RWL is the Canadian section of the Fourth International; the SWP, because of a reactionary U.S. law, cannot be affiliated with the FI, but it has always identified itself, on the political level, with the FI.) The main article, an edited version of a speech made earlier by the national secretary of the SWP, Jack Barnes, lays out a perspective which also is encapsulated in the title of the journal itself.

The axis of the perspective is that there is a “convergence” of revolutionary forces which would allow for the construction of a “new, mass, communist International.” Barnes says:

We are living through one of the great turning points in modern world history. Socialist revolutions have been born and are being born in our hemisphere. And with them have emerged – for the first time since the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist International half a century ago – new proletarian leaderships that head governments as well as mass parties. Revolutionary continuity on the level of proletarian revolutionists in power is being reknit. That is the meaning of the victory and consolidation of the Cuban socialist revolution, and of the new revolutionary victories and rising tide of struggle in Central America and the Caribbean since 1979.

The perspective opened up by the revolutionary leaderships in Central America and the Caribbean for a fusion of the forces struggling to build communist parties points the way forward politically toward a new international working class movement – the goal of conscious proletarian revolutionists since 1848. That mass world revolutionary organization doesn’t yet exist, and it’s not right around the corner. But that is the direction of motion. And that is why the stakes are so high for us in learning from and contributing to the process of political discussion and clarification that, at whatever pace, can lay the groundwork for a new mass, communist International. (Pages 25-26, NI, Fall, 1983.)

To prove that there are now opening for Trotskyists to take part in the construction of this new communist international, Barnes quotes leaders of some of the Latin American CP’s, who supposedly are questioning their Stalinist assumptions. The major proof of such questioning is presented in the form of an article by Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, one of the leaders of the Cuban state apparatus today, and long-time leader of the Cuban CP, going back to the years before it merged with the 26th of July Movement. In this article, Rodriguez, it is true, says that Stalin may have been wrong on a certain number of things (which at this stage in the game is not all that startling, given that most Stalinists say that today). He also says that sooner or later it will be necessary to come to grips with a reevaluation of the Stalin period – apparently later rather than sooner, given the fact that this ten-year-old article hasn’t produced such a reevaluation in the intervening period.

But there is something else presented in Rodriguez’s article, and it is this which in fact underlays the content of the whole journal: that is, an attack on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, an attempt to counterpose, as the Stalinists have always done, Lenin to Trotsky. The same ideas are developed more fully in Barnes’ article. They are even apparently what underlay the choice of the two articles on the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Ireland, articles which show Lenin and Trotsky in disagreement over the possibilities for success of the national struggle in Ireland.

The contents of the new journal are a continuation of the debate which has been going on in the Fourth International for several years now over the question of permanent revolution. It is a debate which counterposes leaders of the SWP to Ernest Mandel, one of the leaders of the FI.

A Dispute Already Resolved by History

In the first place, we think that the argument as it is posed by the leaders of the SWP is an academic, and moreover a scholastic one. They make a comparison of texts to show that Lenin disagreed with Trotsky’s theory in the years before 1917: on the basis of this textual examination, they resurrect a 75-year-old debate long after that debate had been resolved by history. (In our opinion, moreover, their argument has been constructed on the basis of very selectively chosen quotations, taken out of their original context.)

The dispute between Lenin and Trotsky was resolved in real life, that is in the Russian Revolution. Both were able, on the basis of how they had envisioned the struggle for power in backward Russia, to arrive at the same conclusion in practice, that is, that the democratic revolution of February 1917 would be thrown back unless the proletariat took power itself, through its own organs of power, through its militias; unless the proletariat found the way to bring the whole peasantry with it, knowing full well that as they peasantry began to follow the working class, and even before, it would begin to differentiate itself into its landless and landed layers, into its poorest, in-between and wealthy layers. Moreover, and this was equally important, both Lenin and Trotsky insisted that the revolution would be strangled if it did not find the way to spread, if it did not, that is, become permanent on the international scale, to use the terminology employed by both Trotsky and Marx to describe this process. The move by the Bolsheviks after taking power in 1917 to found the Communist International was the organizational expression of this.

The real disagreement is not between Lenin and Trotsky, no matter how many acrimonious quotes one can produce from the period before 1917 which show Lenin attacking Trotsky’s views on the peasantry and Trotsky attacking Lenin’s. The real disagreement found Lenin on the same side as Trotsky: in 1917, they stood together and put behind them once and for all those old debates about the peasantry and about the party. Opposed to them are all those who said then, or say now, that in the underdeveloped countries the revolution must first go through its bourgeois democratic stage; who would say, therefore, that the working class should put itself behind bourgeois or petty-bourgeois forces, parties or leaders and therefore does not need its own organs of power, and not even its own party; who would say that there is no need for an international party of the working class.

Despite the resolution of the old dispute in practice, more than sixty-five years ago, today the leadership of the SWP has rediscovered it. And on that basis, the SWP has concluded that to adhere to the theory of permanent revolution is to put an obstacle in the way of making the revolution in the underdeveloped countries. But never once does Barnes show where this was true. That is, he never examines the question in practice. He asserts all the old assertions about Trotsky undervaluing the peasantry, but never once does he show where such an undervaluation stood in the way of the working class making the revolution in any country, ever.

Permanent Revolution – Strategy for Power or Academic Justification?

The problem confronting the working class in its fight for power in a country like Russia in 1917, or in the underdeveloped countries today, is precisely that it must find the way to lead the peasantry against the existing power. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was (as was Lenin’s formula of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry) essentially a strategy for guiding the proletariat to power under the conditions which confront it in the underdeveloped countries, guiding it to power and onto the international plane to consolidate and extend its power, to open up the road for socialism.

It is in this sense, above all, that the debate is academic, and on both Mandel’s side as well as Barnes’. Neither Barnes nor Mandel examine permanent revolution from the standpoint of whether it is an efficient guide to activity of the working class on the road to power. Rather, they examine whether or not it’s an efficient way to analyze and label states where the working class never took power. Both Mandel and Barnes agree that the workers revolution can be made in the underdeveloped countries by forces other than the working class; and that a workers state can be built up without the working class itself ever taking or wielding power.

In a speech given in 1980, and later reprinted by the SWP in an Education for Socialists bulletin, Jack Barnes says this quite explicitly. In speaking of the Castro leadership, he says:

The point is not to speculate on what they would do with another Czechoslovakia. The point is that their thinking on how the working class can govern has in fact changed. How do you build people’s power? What is the role of the trade unions? How do you go from workers’ control toward workers’ management? How long will this take? How do you go from governing for the working class to the working class governing? (emphasis in the original). The Cubans are beginning to grapple with this problem, which is the challenge of the historical sweep of the transition period. (pg. 35, Proletarian Leadership in Power.)

That is, in 1980, almost two decades after the Fourth International (United Secretariat) had agreed that a workers state had been constructed in Cuba; several years after the SWP found it to be even more perfectly healthy than they had thought, essentially freed from all bureaucratic deformations, the Cuban leadership is still governing for the working class, just beginning to grapple with the problem of how the working class could govern. Maybe, because it was from a speech, the formulation is more bald, but such an idea is the foundation of the very conception that a workers state can be constructed by forces other than the working class itself.

The very same conception infuses the way Mandel views China, Cuba and a number of other states. Let us add that it is not just Mandel and Barnes who view the question in this fashion. Most of the Trotskyist organizations have viewed the nationalist revolutions which marked the period after World War II as proletarian, socialist ones. The debate between different tendencies within the United Secretariat of the FI, the debate between the USec and the different grouping which have left it and proclaimed themselves as competing Fourth Internationals, has essentially revolved around the relative “health” or “deformity” of these workers states where the working class is not and never was in power; over the degree to which the policies of the leaderships of these states is “revolutionary.” For example, today in the debate over Cuba, Mandel is more critical of the policy of the Cuban regime than is Barnes. What has not been debated in the FI is whether they are states where the working class took power, whether these revolutions hold out prospects for the spread of the socialist revolution.

In the hands of most of the Trotskyist organizations, permanent revolution was turned into a method of justifying the socialist labels that they were ready to give to the nationalist revolutions. It became the justification used by many Trotskyists as they tailed after these new revolutions, that is, after the Stalinists or the petty-bourgeois nationalists who were leading the struggles of the oppressed masses into the dead end of nationalism.

Permanent Revolution – Class Struggle or Automatic Process?

According to the FI, how were these so-called workers’ states put in place? In East Europe, it was the Red Army of the USSR which marched in, putting in place regimes composed at first of the CP’s, plus elements representing the remnants of weak and discredited bourgeois parties; those states became workers states, according to FI, when the CP’s kicked out the bourgeois elements from the government and began to nationalize the means of production at the time the Cold War began to advance. In China, Viet Nam, Korea and Yugoslavia, the CP, which found itself at the head of a peasant army, or peasant guerilla army, coming out of the period of the wartime resistance, marched into power, and then later transformed the power, under the attacks of imperialism. In Cuba, it was a group of petty-bourgeois nationalist intellectuals who did roughly the same thing. That is, according to the FI, the dictatorship of the proletariat came into existence without the conscious mobilization and self-organization of the working class itself.

According to this line of reasoning, the leaderships which headed those regimes, whether Stalinist or petty-bourgeois nationalist, were forced to go beyond what they had intended because of the pressure of changing objective circumstances, to the point that the state was supposedly qualitatively changed.

In other words, there was a kind of automatic process which allowed a bourgeois state to be transformed into a workers state without any concrete change in the state, except the label that the state apparatus put on itself. Implicit in this analysis is an automatism which replaces the class struggle as the driving force of history, which takes the question of social change out of the hands of social classes and makes it dependent on the change in consciousness of a few individuals.

The irony of this analysis is that it is this automatic process, divorced from the class struggle, divorced from the conscious intervention of the working class, and unfolding only on the national plane which the FI, up until now at any rate, has designated as the permanent revolution. Trotsky’s theory, which is nothing less than a strategy for the working class to intervene in the class struggle in its own name, nothing less than a guide to revolutionaries who would try to make this process conscious, was transformed into an academic approval of nationalist revolutions, the leaders of which at a certain point in the process took upon themselves a “socialist” label.

Junk the Theory – but Keep the Same Conclusions

Having reevaluated permanent revolution, Barnes draws no different conclusions than Mandel draws in arguing against him, no different conclusions than the Trotskyist movement in general has drawn over all these years, no different conclusion about what has happened in the underdeveloped countries than the SWP drew before this reevaluation. It is an indication that for the SWP, something other than the correctness of a “theory” is involved here.

Is permanent revolution, as Barnes says, an obstacle to Trotskyists who would lead the proletarian revolution in the underdeveloped countries? Is it that, or is it that the Trotskyist label stands in the way of the SWP begin accepted by the Stalinists and nationalists who head Cuba? Today, Barnes wants to get rid of the permanent revolution, or rather to get rid of the phrase, since he maintains the same interpretation he had attached to it before. What about tomorrow? Is this just the first step in getting rid of the Trotskyist label? Why else does he say: “Most of us will not call our movement ‘Trotskyist’ before this decade is out, just as Trotsky never did. We in the Socialist Workers Party, like Trotsky, are communists.” (pg. 86, NI, Fall, 1983.) Hedged around as it is, nonetheless the prediction seems pretty clear.

Do the leaders of the SWP see the irony of the fact that in order to attack permanent revolution, they have resorted to the same selective quotations and the same slanders used by Stalin – slanders which have long since been exposed? Maybe for the SWP leadership it isn’t ironic – maybe it’s just a signal to the Stalinists.

It is clear that the SWP wants to be embraced by the Cubans. What else can it mean when the SWP which currently considers itself part of the FI issues a journal that in effect is a call for a “New International”? What does all their academic attack on permanent revolution mean other than being a way to ingratiate themselves with people who are tied to the Stalinist bureaucracy of the USSR?

Where Is the SWP Going?

What can the SWP expect from the Cubans? Certainly not the construction of a new international. The policy of the Cuban leadership has never been a policy of revolutionary internationalism, it has never once moved in the direction to construct an international workers’ party. If the Cuban regime had thought it necessary to build an international, they would not have waited twenty-four years to do so, while being at the head of the Cuban state. Instead of a policy to extend the revolution, it has looked for alliances with different regimes, or bourgeois nationalist movements which could gain power, alliances which it hoped to use to defend itself against the pressures of U.S. imperialism.

Obviously, there is nothing which prevents the Cubans from inviting the SWP to a conference here or there, or from accepting that the SWP be a propagandist for Castro and his regime. But that is not the same thing as the construction of a world party of revolution, which has as its aim the overthrow of the bourgeoisie all over the world. In effect, Barnes acknowledges that when he says, “That mass world revolutionary organization doesn’t yet exist, and it’s not right around the corner, but that is the direction of motion.” (p. 26, NI, Fall 1983.)

The only thing that the SWP leadership could really hope for is a stamp of approval from the Cubans. Whatever their changes for success – and we don’t think they have many – SWP leadership seems ready to go so far as to repudiate Trotskyism. It is this which makes its positions different from those of Mandel and the rest of the FI.

Maybe Mandel’s positions are illogical today; that is, if Castro were at the head of a real workers state, it would be necessary to look for the opportunity to build up the international with him. Nonetheless, the FI is not ready to abandon Trotskyism, and it is not ready to abandon the political criticism it has of the Castroist current – it still disagrees with the Cuban leadership’s approval of the policy of the Russian bureaucracy against the Polish workers and against the Czechoslovakian or Afghanistan people; its denial of real workers democracy in Cuba; its support of bourgeois governments in Latin America or Africa.

The SWP leadership is ready to abandon such criticism. For several years now, its main preoccupation has been to find excuses for the Cuban regime in its domestic or foreign policies, to gloss over the negative side, while exaggerating the positive ones.

Unfortunately for the SWP, the prospects that the Cubans will establish real links with the SWP relate less to whether the SWP junks Trotskyism, or praises each aspect of Castro’s policy; it relates more to how much aid the Cubans can expect from the SWP. And probably the SWP is too small an organization to be of much interest to the Cubans.

It’s one of the reasons we can still hope that the SWP will stop itself on the road it is taking now, and will stay, or come back, to the ground of Trotskyism. In any case, we think it is a task of the whole American-Trotskyist movement to fight to convince the SWP to stay on the ground of Trotskyism.