The Spark

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

For a Trotskyist Organization in the Working Class

Dec 31, 1971

Since the Russian Revolution, the proletariat has not taken power anywhere else in the world. Moreover, it has not even been in a position to take power. For the proletariat since 1917 has not put forward the necessary instrument for its emancipation: a revolutionary party, with roots in the working class, tempered in the struggles of the working class.

This situation is due to objective factors. First, the Soviet bureaucracy has consolidated and maintained itself; as a consequence the Communist Parties have definitively gone over to the defense of the bourgeois order. Second, the imperialist countries have been relatively stable since World War II.

The Soviet bureaucracy, having crushed any working class democracy in the USSR, gave a disgusting image of what it called “socialism” and “communism” to the international working class. Moreover, the transformation of the Third International into a mere representative of the Russian bureaucracy’s diplomatic interests led to the betrayal of the working class by the various Communist Parties whenever there was a revolutionary situation (Germany, China, Spain). The vanguard workers were discouraged and either quit or went along with the reformist politics of the CP’s.

Not only did the Soviet bureaucracy crush the working class in the first and only proletarian state in the world, but it also had the same policy in the countries under its control after World War II (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc.). And the working class masses were pushed toward the declining social democracy or, worse, toward the so-called liberal bourgeoisie.

And finally, the imperialist countries have been relatively stable once they overcame the destruction of World War II and the economic crisis which followed it. The proletariat itself has seemed to become integrated into the capitalist system in the industrial countries. The modern proletarian has many illusions about improving his lot within the framework of this society. As a result the mass reformist working class parties like the Socialists or the Communists and the powerful trade union bureaucracies have continued to exist in the industrialized capitalist countries.

All of these objective factors stood in the way of creating truly revolutionary workers’ parties, but the objective factors are not the sole cause of the situation. Most of the existing revolutionary groups made no serious attempt to confront the difficult theoretical and practical tasks which the objective situation created. As a result, they became or remained isolated from the working class. They made excuses for their isolation from the working class simply by pointing to the objective factors.

To excuse oneself this way is to be mechanistic, that is, to deny the possibility of individuals and groups intervening consciously in the historical process. Many of the groups who use this excuse claim to be Marxist. And yet Marxism has long ago shown the invalidity of such a mechanistic approach.

The Failure of the Fourth International

After the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet state and the consequent degeneration of the Communist International, there has been only one serious attempt — both theoretical and practical — to ensure the continuity of the workers revolutionary movement. That was the attempt of the Left Opposition and the Fourth International to overcome the bankruptcy of the Third International. However, it did not succeed. Today the Trotskyist movement consists mostly of rival tendencies, each claiming to be the Fourth International. These tendencies are much more preoccupied with fighting each other — on the pretext of an ideological struggle — than with creating an actual revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat.

However, the creation of the Fourth International in 1938 was a necessity. It was created to assert that internationalism and revolutionary Marxist ideas continued to survive despite the betrayals of the Second and Third Internationals. Although the Fourth International failed to carry out its political perspective after World War II, the program was not at fault.

The cadres on whom the Fourth International rested were not prepared for the task of building revolutionary workers parties. The Fourth International inherited the theoretical capital of the Third International, but it did not inherit the experienced human material, for the Fourth International has developed very differently than the Third International. The Third was born under the impulse of the Bolshevik Party, which itself was created and developed first within the framework of the Second International and then in the Russian Revolution. But between the Third and the Fourth Internationals there was a rupture, a ditch of blood — the Stalinist massacres of the thirties. The revolutionaries of Russia 1917 were dead, and their experience could not be transferred. Most of the cadres building the Fourth International had come directly out of the Second or Third Internationals in their decline, or out of the anarcho-syndicalist movement, all of which were very bad schools. These cadres tended to betray the Transitional Program by their actions, while mouthing its words in their writings.

The Influence of the Petty Bourgeoisie in the Trotskyist Movement

For several decades, revolutionary ideology has been able to survive only among petty bourgeois intellectuals. It is from this milieu that the Trotskyist organizations have drawn their cadres and in which they have their influence. Throughout their histories, these organizations have been unable to leave this milieu and function in the working class.

Trotsky himself many times stressed the necessity of organizational measures which would force militants of petty bourgeois origin to break with their native milieu, in order to put themselves at the service of the working class. Most of the Trotskyist organizations simply did not realize the absolute necessity of these measures and as a result were incapable of implementing them. Others openly rejected Trotsky’s position.

As a result, these groups either ceased to, or never did participate in the daily struggles of the working class. And now most of them abandon the working class in their theoretical positions. The majority hold that the industrial proletariat can be replaced in its historical role by other social forces in the economically underdeveloped countries, e.g. the peasantry or nationalist intellectuals. They also exaggerate the role that non-proletarian social categories, particularly students and intellectuals, can play in the advanced capitalist countries.

Finally, instead of simply supporting national or racial liberation movements, they tend to treat these petty bourgeois nationalist organizations as if they were proletarian revolutionary organizations.

In all this, these groups have simply brought their theory in line with what has long been their practice.

Even under the most favorable external conditions, the Trotskyist movement did not develop itself as a political presence in the working class. For instance, in the United States, the early Trotskyist group participated peripherally in the development of the CIO. At first most of its working class activity was carried on through the arenas of the Communist Party, Muste’s American Workers Party, the Socialist Party, etc. The group which became the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was able to attract militants and take them with it, but it was unable to develop them as cadre for continued independent political work in the working class. By the end of World II, the SWP was on the sidelines as the big post-war wave of strikes began.

During all this period, the SWP defended Marxist revolutionary ideas, but that was not enough because its practice did not allow it to implant itself in the industrial working class, especially in the most exploited layers.

In France, the Trotskyist militants stayed on the sidelines during the revolutionary upsurge of 1936. Most of them repeated this spectator role in 1945-47. More recently they used the May 1968 experience to reinforce their illusions about the vanguard role of students and other non-working class strata.

The situation is worse in the economically underdeveloped countries. For most Trotskyist organizations, the movements of national liberation in these countries carry the hope of socialist revolution. But in none of these countries do the Trotskyists direct or even influence these struggles. In Algeria, Cuba, China, Viet Nam, the Middle East or Latin America, they play practically no role. In a few of these countries, they had a separate influence in the working class prior to World War II (in Viet Nam), but that has been destroyed. Since World War II, the only influence they have had (in Bolivia or Ceylon) resulted from their merging with a nationalist movement (swallowed up by a nationalist movement would be a better description). The situation today has reached its logical conclusion. These groups now concentrate their activity almost exclusively in petty bourgeois arenas.

In the United States, the SWP has tail-ended the black nationalist movement and is now active mainly among students, who are the main force in the anti-war movement and the women’s liberation movement. The Spartacist League, Workers League and Vanguard Newsletter also prove unable to leave these same milieus and involve themselves in the working class.

We believe that the failures of the Trotskyist organizations come from their passive adaptation to external conditions and particularly to their own original milieu. A revolutionary organization can at first be composed of petty bourgeois intellectuals, but it must not stay that way. It is necessary that its ties, its contacts and its preoccupations be turned toward the workers. This demands a great deal of effort — organizational methods and pressure on the membership — to turn the organization out of its petty bourgeois milieu. This is difficult, it is true, but it must be done. If a revolutionary organization composed of petty bourgeois members waits passively for the workers to come to it because of the correctness of the ideas it defends, it will wait a long time — so long, in fact, that it will no longer even seek to be a proletarian organization.

This is what happened to the majority of Trotskyist organizations. Work in the petty bourgeois arenas, which they formerly accepted as a necessity, they now proclaim as a virtue. They pretend that students, petty bourgeois intellectuals, and nationalist leaders are the vanguard which by its action will catalyze the working class into revolutionary consciousness. The myth of exemplary action was long ago expounded by the anarchists. It is revealing of the social composition of the Trotskyist organizations that they have taken up this myth today. It is also tragic.

For a Working Class Revolutionary Party

The socialist transformation of society can be accomplished only by the working class, consciously fighting in its own class interests. A workers state cannot be created by other social forces. The working class allies itself with other social classes and categories in the struggle against capitalism, but it must be conscious of its own interests, and its interests must direct the struggle if the resultant transformation of society is to lead in a socialist direction.

A working class revolutionary party is the first prerequisite to such a transformation. The task today of a revolutionary group is to construct it or at least to participate in its construction. We cannot pretend to resolve the question of the party with only our own forces. But we can show that a correct organizational practice allows revolutionary ideas to escape the petty bourgeois intellectual prison and gain influence in the working class. And that is an indispensable condition not only for the building of true revolutionary workers parties but also for the rebuilding of the Fourth International.

We believe that the only possible programmatic basis for revolutionaries rests on Marxist ideas in the tradition of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky; the first four Congresses (1919-1922) of the Communist International; the struggles of the Left Opposition against the Stalinist bureaucracy; and the Transitional Program of the Fourth International.

The above programmatic points hold the following practical implications for our work:

The only social class on which we can base ourselves as an organization is the working class. The organization must bring together militants from the working class and militants of petty bourgeois origin who have broken with their class, but it must guard itself against ever becoming an expression of the petty bourgeois layers of society. The organization must be primarily based on the industrial working class.

Therefore, all members of petty bourgeois origin must prove their ability to recruit and develop worker militants. If a petty bourgeois militant is unable to devote the major part of his or her activity to this aim, or is ineffective in this work, he or she should be removed from all decision making within the organization.

We are militantly active as a conscious fraction of the proletariat and not as a fraction of other social classes or categories wanting to “enlighten” the proletariat or to “lead” it. The militants whom we develop will have to focus their activities, whether propaganda or intervention, within the working class, at the level of the proletariat’s consciousness, but with the objective of elevating this level of consciousness.

Such work is not possible within the existing Trotskyist organizations. Even if they have not all formally renounced the conception that the proletariat is the only social force capable of transforming society in a socialist direction, the practice of every one of them permits no such activity. Their own work is directed almost exclusively away from the industrial proletariat. They are not rigorous in the selection and development of their members. This only serves to give increasing weight to the petty bourgeoisie in these groups.

We consider ourselves part of the Trotskyist movement. But for all the above reasons, we have decided to be politically active independent from these existing organizations.

Reprinted from The Spark, 1971