Fourth International: Marginalisation and its Discontents

The seventeenth congress of the Fourth International (FI) will be held in March 2018, and in preparation for this, the general line of three documents – on Capitalist Globalization, on Social Upheavals and a document toward a text on Role and Tasks – were approved by the International Committee in February 2017 to open the World Congress Discussion.

The sixteenth congress was held in 2010, with representatives from sections of the FI, sympathising organisations and visitors from over 40 countries. Some important organisational and political steps were taken. For example, a section of the FI was recognised in Russia, very significant for us, of course, and there was recognition of a shift of the centre of gravity of the FI to Asia. Politically, the trajectory of the FI toward an open inclusive revolutionary politics was continued; sustained discussion of anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics, sexual politics and feminism begun at earlier congresses was taken forward, and extended to encompass a conscious turn to ‘ecosocialism’. A number of key documents from 2010 are publicly available, and there is a documentary film record of the congress, mainly in French but with interviews with participants in different languages.

It is very difficult to briefly summarise the political line agreed in the three documents opening discussion for the 2018 congress. It is a little easier, perhaps, to do this by attending to some of the key programmatic differences that have been emerging in the past years, differences that revolve around contrasting balance sheets of the FI project to build ‘broad parties’. A lot hangs on this phrase, and some of the debate is muddled by exactly what constitutes a ‘broad party’, and what examples of success and failure by ‘broad parties’ should be mobilised to argue for continuing and deepening this perspective or for abandoning it. One reason for focussing on this particular aspect of the wide-ranging documents is that a Fourth International Opposition Platform has been formed to contest the ‘broad party’ approach and to contrast it with, they say, ‘building an international for revolution and communism’. Here I point to some of the problems with Opposition Platform approach, argue that a real revolutionary alternative actually lies in an extension of the perspectives elaborated in the three agreed documents, documents that require some amendment and nuance.

Between the lines

What are the stakes of this complaint about the failure of the ‘broad party’ perspective, and how useful is it? It is but one way into the debate that has now opened up and that will be carried out in sections of the FI around the world up to and including the congress in March 2018. The danger is that focussing everything around a false opposition between ‘broad party’ and ‘revolutionary international’ could obscure the many different political lines of agreement between comrades in very different contexts and organisations around the world.

The FI is not run on a ‘democratic centralist’ basis, and the agreed line of march at the congress has to manage a delicate balance between grasping a shared international perspective on the mutations of capitalism and neoliberalism on the one hand, and enabling the specific problems faced by sections and sympathising organisations on the other. More than that, there is a danger that the crucial political gains that have already been made in terms of anti-racist, ecosocialist, feminist and sexual politics could be overshadowed by this forced polarisation between the current international leadership and the opposition. On both counts, we have enough cases of sects and even ‘internationals’ that parade a ‘correct line’, littering the world with rhetoric to which no-one listens and which even provokes feelings of repulsion among new generations of activists suspicious of left parties of any kind. That is why it is necessary to bear those broader organisational and political issues in mind as we approach the documents and try to make sense of them and where they lead us.

The first document presents an overview of the development of new forms of imperialism, authoritarian regime and far-right forces, the threat to women, LGBT+ people, human rights and the environment, pointing out along the way that the demand for democracy ‘acquires a more subversive dimension that is more immediate than was often the case in the past’. It opens onto the second and third documents concerned with ‘the dynamics of popular resistance’ and ‘the conditions of construction of militant parties’.

The second document notes the shift in political geography from what the FI once called ‘the three sectors of world revolution’, the rise of the service sector and precarious employment, population displacement, and the development of different forms of resistance (new forms of trades unionism, self-organisation in cooperatives, debt struggles, ‘transversal’ peasant struggles, democratic and social justice movements, youth struggles, women’s mobilisations against violence, rape and feminicide, LGBT+ struggles, migrant and anti-racist movements, and protests against global warming). It points to successful mobilisations against dictatorial regimes and to defensive struggles, including against betrayals by social movements.

The third document warns against generalising a model for what the FI has to do, but rehearses the shift of orientation in the mid 1990s – the decision that ‘the perspective of building small mass vanguard parties based on the full programme of the FI had met its limits’ – and the shift a few years later to ‘a pluralist functioning that goes beyond simple internal democracy in a way that fosters both convergence and discussion, allowing for the functioning of a revolutionary Marxist current as an accepted part of a broader whole.’ It warns against ‘the elitist and or sectarian behaviour of far left groups in the social movements’, and even countenances ‘the dissolution of existing organisations’ (as has already occurred in the case of some sections of the FI) while ‘maintaining a framework of the Fourth International’.

Viewed through the lens of the ‘opposition platform’, we have three documents that continue a general line that has failed, and the prospect of dissolving our organisations in some cases into broader social movements evidently fills them with horror. Viewed from the perspective of the current international leadership of the FI, we have an opposition that is disappointed and impatient at the progress toward world revolution and which appears to believe that returning to the FI as a ‘world party’ which marks itself out from all the others will immediately solve the problems we face and will win recruits with the correct line. This line must, they say, break from ‘political forces or governments acting in the framework of capitalist management’, and work with forces with a ‘communist programmatic basis’ based on the working class as playing ‘a central role’ as part of a battle for a ‘transitional programme’ (embodied, they say, in the demand ‘No layoffs, for workers’ control over hiring’). Sections of the FI must be built as ‘revolutionary vanguard parties’ which aim at regroupment of revolutionaries internationally in the FI as a ‘world party’. There are complaints that the kinds of alliance that the FI has made in different countries have fostered the illusion that Western states could and should arm the oppressed.

The problem is that the problems we face are quite a deal larger than us, and we actually face a choice between a consistent approach to existing social struggles through which we gather around us activists who respect our engagement with different forms of politics, respect us enough to join us, and an opportunist tactical party-building operation which actually ends up making more enemies than friends among those who are actually doing more to bring about social change than we have been able to.

It is true that the ‘broad party’ approach could be seen as, and could actually be implemented in an inconsistent opportunist way, and that is the aspect of it that is homed in on by the Opposition Platform. Yes, the shift of allegiance from one contender for the status of ‘broad party’ could easily be read as some kind of way of merely going with the flow, abandoning our revolutionary compass points. That shift into the flow of most popular radical politics is what was once referred to in Trotskyist sect-jargon as ‘tailism’, tailing behind events, social movements or even leftist bourgeois parties.

However, the ‘revolutionary vanguard’ approach which confuses the vanguard with the party, and which leads to the party imagining that it is itself the vanguard, is actually the one most prone to inconsistent opportunism. That is the lesson we learn from comrades in struggle in the new social movements when they point to the way so many of the ‘left parties’ manoeuvre themselves in a way that is instrumentalist and dishonest when they aim to recruit what they view as the most ‘advanced’ sections of the movement and then use those new recruits as mouthpieces for their own revolutionary line.

Actually, ‘tailing’ behind is not at all what is meant by building a broad party (even if there have been occasional lapses in practice into the kinds of things the Opposition Platform fears). It is important, then, to clarify what it means and what it should mean in such a way that connects directly with the broader political and organisational steps forward the FI has made. This term ‘broad party’ covers a range of different social forms that include: anti-capitalist initiatives that problematise the concept of party as such; anti-racist and feminist mobilisations that involve the building of horizontal networks; intersectional initiatives that rework divisions based on sex and gender; and eruptions of democratic alternatives from within the heart of social democratic parties that connect with social movements. This surely is what the claim that democracy now ‘acquires a more subversive dimension’ means; these new social movements draw attention to the radical role of the demand for democracy, not merely as an expansion of bourgeois democracy but as something that challenges the undemocratic practice of ‘vanguard parties’. That demand is ‘transitional’, and then turns the demand for ‘workers’ control’ into something that is genuinely transitional.

One task in the discussions will be to acknowledge some of the missteps made by the FI – taking seriously some of the complaints of the Opposition Platform – while avoiding a retreat into the kind of ‘vanguard’ politics that has been discredited in new social movements and most working class organisations. The task here is to retain independence of movement in and alongside the movements we build, retaining our independence through participation in the FI. We will need to extract ourselves from the binary between ‘broad’ and ‘revolutionary’ which makes it seem as if ‘broad’ means political compromise and as if ‘revolutionary’ is a guarantee of the correct line, and orient ourselves within the new forms of struggle in such a way as to cut across the ‘broad party’ versus ‘vanguard party’ opposition. What capitalism is as such has mutated, and what it is to be anti-capitalist has also changed, and so it is from within a different map of global exploitation and oppression and with different compass points that we have to act. That much is clear in the FI documents, but another step needs to be taken within the framework they have laid out; in place of the Opposition Platform step back, another step that really is a step forward.

We need a more revolutionary approach to the question of ‘broad parties’ and to the building of social movements, movements that represent a qualitative shift from sectional protest to internationalist anti-capitalism. This approach needs to be based on an analysis of the wider effects of neoliberalism, of the return with a twist to the classical free-market liberal economics that existed at the birth of capitalism and on analyses of segregation of communities and political resistance.

The nature of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism needs to be grasped as comprising three elements, three key ideological and material mutations in global capitalism. The first, which is often fore-grounded in left analysis, is the stripping away of public welfare, something that is a traumatic shock to those used to state provision in some parts of the world, but not so strange to many parts of the world which have never had this public welfare. For most parts of the world, this aspect of neoliberalism is business as usual for capitalism, perpetual social insecurity and precarious economic existence in which women are expected to supply the care on an individual or familial basis that is not collectively provided. The second and third aspects are intertwined.

The second aspect is that the state, far from rolling back, actually rolls forward, intensifies in force. While any welfare provision is withdrawn, punitive sanctions are applied to those who fail to take responsibility for their own lives, and the securitisation of everyday life goes hand in hand with the transfer of powers to private security agencies. The second aspect of neoliberalism, then, is the intensification and distribution of police powers of the strong state, both through the concentration of powers in the nation state apparatus and through the delegation of authority to private companies or, in many parts of the world, private militias (including of narcotics and trafficking gangs). This second aspect is intimately bound up with misogyny, male violence, with the reinforcement of patriarchal authority structures.

The third aspect is the individualisation of everyday life, but far from heralding a simple return to classical liberal contract economics in which the worker is supposed to freely sell their labour power to an employer, this neoliberal version of individual responsibility carries with it a deep appeal to feelings of personal responsibility, so that women are not only made responsible for the care of families but made to feel guilty if they refuse that responsibility. We are all made anxious, made to feel anxiety as if it were only something internal to us.

This peculiar combination of welfare-stripping, intensification of state power and individualisation under neoliberalism has immense consequences for the capacity of the working class to resist austerity and violence, to build an alternative to capitalism. It puts misery onto the agenda of capitalist ideology and demands a response by the left to the misery experienced by those who live under capitalism today, misery which isolates and paralyses those who already suffer materially, misery which works its way in to the lives of those who try to resist what is being done to them.

Capitalism has always brought about the immiseration of communities and individuals, true. But what is being wrought now on a global scale is an ideological assault integral to neoliberalism which has material roots and material consequences. This is apparent, on the one hand, in the hypocritical appeals to ‘well-being’ and programmes of ‘mental health’ which include distribution of free pharmaceutical remedies for ‘mental illness’ in the developing world to hook populations onto medication which numbs their experience of oppression, and therapeutic self-help advice on television and in popular magazines which encourage each individual to ‘take responsibility’ for their distress and find personal solutions to what are actually political problems. It is also apparent, on the other hand, in the concern with personal solutions that are increasingly replacing collective action, in the ‘flight into therapy’ of some on the left (and in the feminist movement) who, disappointed with the prospects of political change, look to their own self-care and one-to-one care of others as the priority to enable them to survive. We should not underestimate either the way this impacts on left practice or the way some left groups react against it, closing themselves up and becoming more authoritarian.

One way of conceptualising this two-fold shift into the realm of the personal is to see it as a ‘feminisation’ of relationships (a very different and regressive stereotypical feminisation to the ‘feminisation of struggle and organisation’ that revolutionaries in the FI have been arguing for); feminisation because it is the taken-as-given commonsensical ideological qualities of women that are appealed to and harnessed in various governmental and NGO projects for ‘well-being’ and therapeutic change. There is, in sum, a widespread globalising ‘psychologisation’ of politics and of the experience and response to misery that we need to address. We need to put this on the agenda, alongside and interconnected with the other forms of social struggles, as revolutionary mental health politics (a politics that encompasses mobilisation of the millions in, or treated under the auspices of public or private mental health services). This question needs more work.

This neoliberal ‘psychologisation’ of individuals, communities and populations needs to be tackled in the context of three other related mutations of life under global capitalism which we can group all-too briefly under the heading ‘segregation’.

Forms of segregation

There are three aspects of this segregation, segregation that neoliberalism feeds and conditions, that each have consequences for the way we organise ourselves as revolutionaries. They are consequences that, on the one hand, make it all the more impossible for classic Leninist vanguard parties to operate and, on the other hand, make a distinctive revolutionary orientation by us to broad social movements even more crucial.

The first, which should be painfully obvious to all Trotskyists, is the fragmentation of the left. It is something we see all around us in the left as Stalinist politics goes into crisis after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and of our own framework that conceptualised our work in ‘three sectors of world revolution’. The Stalinist parties, already in disarray as a result of the centrifugal effects of ‘socialism in one country’ and their adaptation to their own bourgeoisie under ‘Eurocommunism’, have lost their compass points. Some of the residues of those parties try to retain those compass points with ridiculous and dangerous support for Putin, for example, or campist allegiance to other pretend-left authoritarian regimes or movements (Assad, for example). This fragmentation is something we also see closer to home in the sectarian conflicts between different interpreters of Trotsky or Luxemburg, and in the proliferation of different national groups and ‘internationals’. This rivalry affects every activist who comes into contact with us, provoking questions about what we are really and what we stand for and how we are to be distinguished from all of the others who say almost the same thing. It is rivalrous fragmentation that is evidently not going to be solved by ‘regroupment’ initiatives to bring all the Leninist vanguard groups together.

The second aspect of segregation is to be found in the political diversification of what it is to be ‘revolutionary’. It is clear that the conditions for political resistance are giving rise to a multitude of formulations which differentiate the people from the ‘caste’ or the ninety-nine percent from the one percent. This proliferation of terms to describe exploitation and oppression should not be treated merely as ideological mystification, or as a misunderstanding of the underlying conditions that can be clarified with a healthy dose of correct Marxist analysis. The diversification of struggles reflects the diversification of different dimensions of power, around dimensions of ‘race’ or gender or sexuality or disability as well as around different experiences of class organisation.

The third aspect of segregation is the radical separation of different life-worlds, so that the revolutionaries in each group actually seem to inhabit a different mental universe from their rivals, and, worse perhaps, the revolutionaries live in a bubble and comfort themselves by finding reflections of the truth of their own particular analysis in the echo chambers of social media. This particular kind of segregation is one that also reinforces the sectarian hope that one correct revolutionary vanguard line will solve the problem, and the vanguard group that imagines that it has the solution itself cuts itself off all the more surely from the diverse contradictory social struggles that are happening around it. This is why participation in the broad social movements, and even, in some contexts, participation in the double reality of a broad party alongside revolutionary discussion in our own organisation as part of the FI is so vital. It is only this participation that will enable us to navigate and move across some of the boundaries that divide radically different radical life-worlds from each other.

We all now increasingly live in a world that has already for centuries of capitalism’s existence been grim reality for much of the population at the margins of the ‘developed’ capitalist world, a world of perpetual crisis, insecurity and precarious employment. Mass migration across national borders, internal dislocation as a result of various different strategies employed by neoliberal shock capitalism also means that the segregation that organises the experience of the oppressed and of the revolutionary left now occurs inside every major city rather than in ‘other’ exotic locations. That much is evident if we ask ourselves now, with the end of the ‘three sectors of world revolution’ framework that once guided our work, how many sectors of world revolution there are today. The answer is many, many and segregated, segregated in such a way that demands solidarity but which solidarity as such cannot repair, cannot put an end to.

With and in the margins

Instead of imagining that we can completely comprehend, control and predict the contradictory intersection of social struggles that will at some point give rise to challenges to the state and make visible the different forms of social organisation that already go beyond the limits of capital, we need to be open to the unexpected. That means working flexibly in diverse social movements, working in a world that is not organised as yet around any ‘core’ but which, in practically every version of resistance today, operates at the margins.

Here there is a further connection between the neoliberal psychologisation of misery under contemporary capitalism and the necessity for revolutionary activity in the broad social movements, and even in the building of broad parties. The Leninist vanguard approach which pretends to be revolutionary is actually not only a return to the past, but a return to a particular version of old left politics that is saturated in patriarchal vertically-organised disciplinary conceptions of organisation. It is the broad open inclusive approach of building horizontal alliances across the party and organisational borders that turns out to be the more ‘revolutionary’ option. It is revolutionary because it keys into the personal experiential misery of those subject to different intersecting forms of exploitation and oppression, and it addresses that misery instead of simply trying to patch it over with an appeal to macho instrumental control politics. It learns from different forms of anti-racist struggle, and particularly feminist struggles attuned to various strands of sexual politics, learns that with fragmentation, diversification and radical separation of life-worlds come isolation and hopelessness. Working with and collectivising those experiences is then ‘therapeutic’, not bourgeois individualising therapy but revolutionary social activity that empowers us in the very process of doing politics. We thereby turn our very marginalisation into a weapon.

We already know this, some of us, from the negative example of vanguard organisations that employ violence against their rivals or have been called out by women activists at the sexual violence that operates inside the party apparatus. That is why we take seriously the argument that the oppressed see power ‘from below’, and that autonomous self-organisation of the oppressed is crucial to the internal functioning of a revolutionary Marxist party worth the name. How we organise our own political debates, how we structure our own groups, has to be ‘prefigurative’, anticipating the forms of life beyond capitalism and patriarchy that we aim for in our broader political interventions. We must be of the margins and reflect that marginal diverse nature of the experience of oppression inside our organisations, not only in terms of the theoretical language we use to describe reality but also in terms of our practice, our relationships with each other as comrades.

Neoliberalism and segregation demand a political strategy that deliberately works at the margins. It may be, for example, that in some specific situations a group or, why not, section of the FI, could operate as a vanguard party of the old type, and succeed in quickly gathering together a cadre which has the confidence of significant sections of the working class. That should not be ruled out as impossible, but our overall strategy has to be open and flexible enough to include that as a possibility rather than impose it as a model. Inclusive open revolutionary politics is one that also enables us to approach the task of building broad parties of the left, parties and movements that bring together revolutionary Marxists with feminists and LGBT+ groups and anti-racist and migrant activists and, why not, those who still think of themselves as reformists or social democrats or autonomists.

In other words, we need to cut across ‘revolutionary’ and ‘broad’ party political divisions to intervene as real revolutionaries in such a way as to make what is broad into something transitional. That won’t be brought about by forcing formally correct transitional slogans on the movements we work with. That understanding of ‘transitional demands’ also needs to be worked through in practice in a quite different way in this new context of neoliberalism and segregation. It will be through our revolutionary practical engagement with those we do not fully agree with that we will learn from the margins and make the margins into a transitional force, a force that will build an alternative to capitalism from within its heart, anticipating the form of society we want to live in.