What we shall adopt from the experience of the past four Internationals

The Fifth International must rest on the shoulders of the four working class Internationals our predecessors built. It must take the best elements of each of them, learning the lessons of their early achievements and ultimate failures, adapting them to the needs of fighting for the world revolution and socialism in the 21st century.

The First International

In 1864, English, French and Belgian workers’ representatives meeting in London formed the International Working Men’s Association. Also present were English followers of Robert Owen, former Chartists, Christian Socialists, Irish, Italian and Polish nationalists and a small group of German communists. The latter were refugees, resident in London, amongst them Karl Marx. Rapidly he became key figure in its coordinating body, the General Council.

The International, as it came to be known, consisted of workers organised in unions, co-operatives or in small socialist and anarchist circles. The French were largely followers of Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the founder of anarchism, and a few followers of Auguste Blanqui, a heroic figure who placed great emphasis on armed insurrection directed by secret societies. Later, the followers of the Russian Mikhail Bakunin, the second founder of anarchism, joined it.

Marx set out to win them to understanding the need for an international political organisation. He explained to the English trade unionists that it is not sufficient to fight only for economic gains against their own particular bosses but to fight the whole capitalist system of wage slavery. To guide the work of the International, he drafted The Inaugural Address and the Provisional Rules.

This short and concise political manifesto already stated the basic principle of working class political independence, and the need to take state power in order to abolish all class rules and, indeed, all classes: "To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes." It further stated:

"That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves, that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule."

The Inaugural Address and the Provisional Rules were to form the basis of the first programmes of the new workers’ parties that were founded right around the world over the next three decades.

From Marx's intervention we must learn that circumstances may oblige revolutionaries to initiate the founding of an International with leaders who are not in their judgement revolutionary communists, if they stand at the head of mass militant working class forces.

However, creating a non-revolutionary International was not Marx’s aim, as some people claim today, and it cannot be ours. Nevertheless, Marx did realise that the fully developed expression of revolutionary communism, which he and Engels had embodied in the Communist Manifesto sixteen years previously, could not simply be repeated when trying to draw together mass workers’ organisations. He commented in a letter to Engels: "It was very difficult to keep the thing (the Address and the Rules) in a form which made our views acceptable at the present stage of the labour movement. Time is needed before the movement, now revived, will permit the old vigour of language."

Yet, even in the nineteenth century, during the growth of capitalism into a worldwide system, the decisive movements of the class struggle, 1848-49 and 1870-71, posed the seizure of power point blank. Indeed, the latter saw the first seizure of power by the working class, though in a single city; the Paris Commune of 1871. Under Marx’s leadership the General Council supported the Commune and drew the correct lessons from it; namely the need to smash the old capitalist state machinery and replace it with a council of recallable delegates and the universal arming of the people. However, the heterogeneous character of the International’s mass base made this a Pyrrhic victory for Marx. The British trade unionists withdrew their support in horror at such revolutionary lessons, evolving into Liberals. The anarchists, too, though for the opposite reason – they rejected the dictatorship of the proletariat – split the International.

Thus the First International collapsed as a victim of English bourgeois reformist trade unionism and "European" petty bourgeois, decentralising anarchism. As a result of the historic regression caused by Stalinism and the collapse of the degenerated workers’ states, thanks to its betrayal, similar forces can be seen at work in the movement of today. They must be fought in the arenas where they influence the working masses not just by literary exposure alone, or in small discussion forums of self-selected "Trotskyists."

The Second International

The Second International focussed on the necessity of building well-organised political parties, of utilising elections and mass trade unionism to achieve working class identity. Under the leadership of German Social Democracy, it pledged itself to political independence from all other classes, refusal to share government with bourgeois parties, and saw this intransigence as a necessary preparation for the inevitable and approaching social revolution. The Second International also saw the triumph of Marxism over all the petit bourgeois "socialisms" of the nineteenth century. Through its left wing (Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Lenin and Trotsky) it also gave birth to its successor, an International tasked with actually leading the proletarian revolution. Learning from historic defects and the fate of the Second International (the betrayal of 1914) we must break from all those for whom elections and trade unionism become ends in themselves, those prepared to assume office within the straightjacket of the bourgeois state and to rule on behalf of the capitalist class, those who support the imperialist fatherland in time of war, those who reject the party as a combat organisation of the proletarian vanguard.

Within the Second International, from 1903-1912, Lenin actually created a different type of party from that of the SPD, Bolshevism, even though he was not, at first, clearly aware of its generalised applicability. After the great betrayal of 1914, through participation in the amorphous anti-war Zimmerwald-Kienthal movement as a communist left wing, but above all because of the victory of Bolshevism in 1917, this party proved able to create a Third International (1919-23), to spread the lessons of Bolshevism to the whole world. The Fifth International's parties, too, must be democratic centralist combat organisations, not election machines dominated by parliamentarians and municipal councillors and their allies in the trade union bureaucracy.

The Third International

The Communist International, founded by Lenin and Trotsky in 1919, drew the lessons of the failure of the Second International when it was faced with war and chauvinism at the beginning of the First World War in 1914. It insisted on building fighting parties that did not tolerate any gap between words and deeds. It generalised the experience of the class struggles where workers, peasants and soldiers organised themselves in workers’ councils (soviets) to debate and decide their demands and tactics to win their struggles and to elect and control their leaders.

The Third International, added to the lessons of the Paris Commune those of the October Revolution, that socialism can only be built if the working class, in alliance with all exploited and oppressed, smashes the old capitalist state, its bureaucracy and machinery of repression and creates its own new type of state, only a “semi-state” in Lenin’s words, because the masses will be armed and their network of councils will run society. Such a state will be the fullest kind of democracy for the working classes but will at the same time be a dictatorship for the exploiting minority since it will crush their revolts and take away their ownership of the factories, the banks and the land and turn them into social property. This is what the proletarian dictatorship means. On the basis of a democratically planned economy, inequality between developed and underdeveloped nations, between the rich and the poor, will all wither away. Eventually there will be a world and a society without states or classes.

The Third International also understood that capitalism had led to a world divided between a small number of dominating, imperialist states and the vast majority of people living in colonial or semi-colonial countries (that is, countries which whilst formally independent are economically and politically subjected to the imperialist ones). It concluded that revolutionary socialists must support the struggles of oppressed nations against imperialism. And it concluded that socialism could only be successfully built if, after each national revolution, a workers’ state is not left isolated in one country but spreads internationally. Finally, the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky gave us the understanding that the working class must always support the struggles of the peasants against the big landowners, of indigenous peoples and of those resisting racism, of women, youth, lesbian and gays, fighting for their liberation. Only by this can a strong alliance of the working class and all oppressed be created.

The Third International saw itself not as a confederation of national parties, each pursuing its own strategy, but as single world party of social revolution. Whilst it proclaimed itself communist and proletarian, it also saw itself as the "tribune" of all the exploited and oppressed people of the world, drawing in the fighters against all oppressions, national, racial, gender etc. Thus, it was not a narrowly "workerist", that is, in the end, an economistic International. Hence its slogan: Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!

But the fate of this International after Lenin's departure from its leadership and death, under first Zinoviev's leadership (1923-5) and then Bukharin’s (1925-28) and finally under Stalin's dictatorship over the Comintern (1928-1943) is also a warning to all of us, that bureaucratism and collaboration with supposed "anti-imperialist" or "antifascist" bourgeois regimes will weaken the independence of the workers and lead only to historic defeats, as it did in the 1920s and 30s.

The International must never be subordinated to the interest of any state, not even a healthy workers’ state. How much less can it agree to be the instrument of a bourgeois state and its foreign policy and alliances?! Venezuela under Chávez, a bourgeois state preserving private ownership of the means of production, is allied to other such states and seeks as its allies any states with common antagonism to the USA. This has led Chávez to praise China, Iran, and Zimbabwe despite their repression of oppressed nationalities and workers and youth struggling for democratic rights. It has led to a block with Cuba, which does not allow free trade unions or alternative working class political parties. This lesson of the Third International, the need for class independence from any state, the right and duty to criticise the actions of any government, is essential to an International acting as the world leadership of a revolutionary class.

The Fourth International

The Fourth International was founded in 1938 after a 15-year long struggle by Leon Trotsky and his supporters against the degeneration of the USSR into a Stalinist dictatorship and against the mis-leadership of the workers’ movement by the social democratic, "Communist" and centrist parties. The Fourth International gave us the lessons that socialism not only cannot be built in one country but also that it must inevitably degenerate into a bureaucratic dictatorship if the revolution is not spread internationally, both to the industrially developed and to the semi-colonial countries.

It deepened the communist understanding of the united front tactic that criticism of the treacherous role played by the reformist and union leaders must be combined with a systematic campaign to organise the rank and file by calling their leaders to fight against the class enemies. It also learned from the experience in China and other countries in the 1920s and 1930s that, while it might be necessary to fight together with sectors of the national bourgeoisie against imperialism, it is equally important that the working class does not submit to other classes but takes a leading role in this struggle and hence turns against the national bourgeoisie once it betrays the struggle. Finally, it deepened the understanding of the revolutionary programme of the Communist International in relation to the day-to-day demands for higher wages, democratic reforms etc. by arguing for the mobilisation and organising of the working class and the oppressed for transitional demands. Such transitional demands, like workers’ control in enterprises or workers’ and popular militias, are characterised by their challenge to the economic, political and military power of the ruling class that opens the way to socialist revolution.

The Fourth International was built and founded in a period of deep political reaction and had to swim against the adverse tide of repression and defeats for the working class – in Germany (1933), in Austria (1934), in Spain (1939), and the Great Purges in the USSR (1936-38) which were aimed directly at wiping out the thousands of Left Oppositionists. Its historically specific task was to fight against the bureaucratic degeneration of the world's first workers’ state by means of political revolution, and the replacement of the Third Communist International as a worldwide revolutionary party.

The Fourth International's militants heroically participated in, and even led, mass movements and revolutionary struggles before, during and after the Second World War but the Fourth never became a mass International. It underwent centrist degeneration and collapse between 1948 and 1953 with its Third Congress (1951) embodying this new form of centrism. This degeneration/collapse was not because of any weakness inherent in its programme nor because its declaration had been "premature" or should have awaited a revolutionary upsurge. Before it could fuse its revolutionary cadres with the masses in new revolutionary parties, its leading cadres were disoriented by the survival and expansion of Social Democracy and Stalinism following the second imperialist War, an outcome not foreseen in Trotsky's pre-war perspectives.

After a short period of trying to justify pre-war prognoses and perspectives, the undeniable expansion of degenerate workers’ states to Eastern Europe and to China, Vietnam and Korea, fatally disoriented it. Unable to analyse the new situation on a revolutionary basis and to re-elaborate its programme to deal with the radically changed circumstances, it degenerated into centrism.

The reorientation, led by the post-war leaders, Michael Pablo, Joseph Hansen and Ernest Mandel was in fact a capitulation to Stalinism, Left Social Democracy and Third World nationalism. It took the form of a processist, objectivist acceptance of the leadership of these forces as necessary for a whole historic period. Without any operative reason to exist as the strategist of world revolution (including the anti-bureaucratic political revolution) the FI then collapsed into centrist fragments. The development of an extended period of economic expansion for capitalism in the period 1950-70, itself unprecedented in the imperialist epoch, and the explosion of revolutionary struggles in this period in the "Third World" (including the formation/expansion of new degenerate workers’ states in Cuba and Vietnam) gave further impetus to this degeneration.

However, despite falsifying or abandoning the revolutionary heritage of Trotskyism many of these fragments continued to preserve elements of its programme and lessons, to train cadres and to issue and translate the works of Trotsky and his co-thinkers. The main branch of the centrist Fourth International (the former United Secretariat) recognises the futility of its own existence and seeks to join a new International, should other forces establish one on a significant scale. Its main theoretician, François Sabado, has hailed, if cautiously, the call of Hugo Chávez.

Chávez himself has expressed a positive attitude to Trotsky and Trotskyism as he understands it. He explicitly recognised the Fourth International as part of the continuity of the Internationals by calling for a Fifth. This is certainly a unique position from a head of state, since it includes an expression of political sympathy, although in 1937 President Lazaro Cardenas gave Trotsky refuge in Mexico. It is of course no accident that Chávez, like Cardenas, is the head of a semi-colonial state which has asserted its independence of imperialism and supported the antiwar and anticapitalist movement. He has praised Trotsky's Permanent Revolution and Lenin's State and Revolution. But can he, as the president of a state machine that still defends capitalism, have understood it? The downfall of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism by the CCP also weaken the prestige of Stalinism as against this "Trotskyism." Whilst Chávez’ misuse of Trotskyism is something we have to fight, even the fact that these issues are open to public debate, on the agenda of mass organisations, is an enormous step forward from the situation between 1945 - 2000 and we have to take advantage of this skilfully and in a principled manner.



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