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A narrative of “Chaos and complexity” offers no defence in future struggles

Report on the 17th World Congress of the Fourth International

27 March 2018

The latest World Congress of the Fourth International took place in Europe at the end of February.

The opening session was addressed by Alain Krivine, a veteran of the May 1968 events in France. The address implied continuity between the revolutionary uprising of the Paris spring and the analysis and activity of the Fourth International today.

There is much to doubt in this account. If anything, the 17th congress marked the end of a physical continuity in that many of the French '68ers who dominated the central direction of the FI are now gone.

The failure of physical continuity was mirrored by a failure of political continuity. The old leadership has fragmented and moved to the right. A revolutionary perspective has been replaced by a profound pessimism. No general line of march was proposed. A time of complexity and chaos was envisaged, with each national section free to do as it wished.

Much to explain

However there was opposition, much of it from younger comrades, who advanced an alternative programme around “Let’s seize the opportunities, and build an international for revolution and communism”, while a paper “The new era and the tasks of revolutionaries” was presented arguing for a middle way, the debate was between the majority and the youth arguing for a revolutionary perspective.

The majority had much to explain. In 1995 the world congress proclaimed a new epoch, new tasks and a new party, moving away from the transitional programme for socialist revolution that had previously defined the international. That change mutated into a policy of "broad mass parties" and a wave of liquidation of FI sections into reformist groups that eventually collapsed, leaving little behind.

The leadership of the French section, having led the charge towards liquidation, were unable to find a suitable candidate broad party and dissolved into an association with their own base, forming the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA). The result was disaster. Although there are many dedicated revolutionaries in the NPA, the organisation quickly shrank and fragmented, with many of the old leadership moving further towards reform.

Greek experiment

However the most immediate need for explanation hangs around the Greek experiment. The FI leadership, ignoring the warnings of the Greek section, OKDE, that the Syriza was in government with the far right and that it had no intention of mobilising the working class or confronting European capital, allied with Syriza against their own section.

The role of Syriza in the implementation of savage austerity has not led to a change of heart. Rather the majority savagely attacked the left opposition and the three main documents confuse and divert attention from this monumental failure.


The documents, (Capitalist globalization, imperialisms, geopolitical chaos and their implications, Social upheavals, fightbacks and alternatives and Towards a text on Role and Tasks of the Fourth International), rather than presenting a Marxist analysis, continued and amplified a practice of reportage - this and that happened - one struggle moved up, another down. What did it all mean? It meant there was complexity and chaos. The three documents, which were essentially three different justifications of the one line could have been presented as one. Broad generalisation hinted at major changes away from classical Marxism. New imperialisms were suggested without any definition of imperialism. International trade union bureaucracies were introduced as victims rather than collaborators. The Marxist concept of solidarity seemed to be presented as a humanitarian impulse rather than a political imperative for class conscious workers. Opposition to imperialist intervention was presented as “campism.” The document on tasks read as a list of justifications for past mistakes with no concrete proposals. The Trinity of documents simply took up time and confused the issues. The overall massage was that everything had changed. What had not changed was our response. We would continue as before.

Close examination of issues was avoided. The regional meeting on Europe broke with tradition in not taking reports from sections on the class struggle in their area. Instead a weak and warmed-over draft of a potential manifesto for future European elections was discussed.

“Useful” parties

There are two main formulations. Our task now is to build "useful" parties. What is useful is left undefined. The direction to sections is: "do what thou wilt." When we apply this to the Portuguese section, in alliance with the capitalist government of the Socialist Party, and to the Spanish section, subordinate to the populist Podemos movement, the Danish section who support military intervention by their government in the Middle East, we can see the direction of travel.

Equally important is what is ignored. There are no questions about the role of the Portuguese section. The Spanish section expels youth but ignores a member who supports building warships for the barbaric Saudi regime. In the run-up to the congress a leading figure appeals for a European Syriza in combination with reformist parties and without consulting the International - silence.  Gilbert Achcar, the source of many articles in International Viewpoint about the Arab Spring, is reported during the congress joining with other academics in calling for imperialist intervention in Syria. There is no response.

Essentially the answer to criticism from the left was defiance. The failures in Brazil, Italy, Spain, Portugal and above all Greece were simply the fortunes of war, not failures of policy. In future we should build better Syrizas which will actually deliver reform. The most extreme form of this position came from the British section, Socialist Resistance. They had the reasonable strategy of joining the Labour party and working with Corbyn supporters. However their representative took one step further and indicated uncritical support for Corbyn - we should wait and see how things go. There was no need for separate demands or for a left critique of Corbyn. No-one seemed to wonder what the function of the organisation was if wait and see was the only tactic.

Global Justice

In the background to the debate there were worrying signs of a limited political consciousness in some delegates. One delegate looked back to the glory days of the Global Justice Movement, seemingly unaware of the limitations of that movement or of the political retreats that the international had made in accommodating to it. Others seemed to embrace the ideology of intersectionality and be unaware of the unique role of exploitation of the working class as labour power was combined with capital and consequently the fundamental role of class in the fight against capitalist rule.

One text, on ecology, did not involve a sharp division between majority and minority. Here the issues ran across the congress. The text was generally supported, but there were concerns that some formulations saw environmental degradation as a consequence of human activity generally rather than closely bound to the capitalist mode of production. In addition the majority seemed blind to a contradiction between the ecology text and the main majority documents. One argued the case for immediate action to save the planet, the other ruled out the possibility of working class revolution in this epoch.

A sustainable line?

The overall outcome of the congress was a sweeping victory for the majority and only a handful of votes for the majority (only the proposers voted for the compromise document). However that is not the whole story. The minority now have a formal position on leadership bodies. Due to expulsions in national sections they have been left half in and half out of the international. There has been growing support for the document “Let’s seize the opportunities, and build an international for revolution and communism” and new signatories now include militants from from Germany, Mexico, USA (Solidarity), Ireland, Denmark, China (Main land and Hong Kong)

At the same time it is hard to see how the majority position is sustainable. What we should expect from revolutionary groups is Praxis – class analysis of society, clear and honest debate, a line of march which everyone follows, and a summing up of how the class struggle actually evolved in order to adjust and modify the strategy of the group. This is not happening. The FI leadership fills an administrative role rather than a political one. A line of "all is chaos" and advice to sections "do what thou wilt" does not seem sustainable, especially when we remember that parliamentary reformism has a logic of its own, pressing to the right.

Above all there are developments in the class struggle. As the majority preach of an epoch of defeat the ongoing capitalist crisis is reflected by new mobilisations of youth and workers and by a new willingness to act independently of traditional leaderships. It is this ongoing struggle which will justify the minority defence of a revolutionary strategy.

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