The following is an article written by a former COFI supporter in Australia in 1993. The references to the WRT within the article refer to a former internal tendency within the Workers Revolution Group of Australia at that time. The article takes up in depth our understanding of the relationship between the task of building the proletarian revolutionary party and the development of working class consciousness.
(Excerpted – with slight editing – from the major Resolution passed at the WRG Conference, moved by the Revolutionary Party Faction.)
In the epoch of imperialism and the decay of capitalism, the capitalist system is incapable of maintaining systematic improvements in the standards of living of the world’s working masses and preserving democratic rights (where they exist at all). Capitalist society is now an absolutely reactionary social system. The imperialist epoch is the epoch of wars and revolutions as capitalism thrashes around in its death agonies. The death agony of capitalism has repeatedly subjected the world’s masses to military dictatorship and impoverishment. All around the world, capitalism threatens to plunge humanity once more into the catastrophic cycle of depression, fascism and world war. Only the world working class can lead humanity out of the historical impasse of capitalism, by making the world socialist revolution.
The death agony of capitalism and the consequent misery for the world’s masses can only be terminated by the conscious workers’ revolution. The socialist revolution is a conscious act of the working class. To realise this necessity, the vanguard fighters of the working class must be armed with a conscious strategy, a revolutionary program, and a revolutionary vanguard party. Revolutionary class consciousness of the necessity of socialist revolution and of the methods needed for victory develops in the working class only by means of building the revolutionary party.
The revolutionary party, based on the Leninist concept of the vanguard party and composed of the class conscious vanguard fighters of the working class, is the sole historical organ of revolutionary consciousness. This conscious strategy and vanguard instrument for the preparation and leadership of the socialist revolution can only mean the recreation of Trotsky’s world party of the workers’ socialist revolution, the Fourth International.
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 meant simultaneously the victory of the Leninist concept of the revolutionary vanguard party and the smashing defeat of the Menshevik theory of the broad “Marxist” party. The Mensheviks held that the working class “spontaneously” develops towards revolutionary consciousness and that therefore the task of Marxists was to organise a party that would reflect this development. By relying on spontaneous militancy for the development of revolutionary consciousness, the Mensheviks delegated the historical tasks of the revolutionary vanguard onto the spontaneous historical process and inevitably built an opportunist party that eventually betrayed the socialist revolution. By contrast, Lenin, understanding that revolutionary consciousness did not develop “spontaneously” but had to be constantly fought for, set out to build a vanguard party capable of fighting for the Marxist program and transforming the revolutionary potential of spontaneous militancy into revolutionary consciousness.
The working class develops towards political consciousness through the clash of rival leaderships and the political conflict between parties. Revolutionary consciousness can only develop by means of the dialectic between revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice, formulated in the program and developed only by means of the revolutionary party .The task of the revolutionary party is to win the majority of the working class to the revolutionary banner by means of the fight for the transitional program: that is, to transform the revolutionary potential of spontaneous militancy into revolutionary communism and defeat all middle class misleaderships active in the workers’ movement.
To turn aside from the Leninist theory of the vanguard party to the Menshevik strategy of reliance on spontaneous militancy means in reality to turn aside from the socialist revolution. The working class cannot “spontaneously” develop towards revolutionary consciousness even under the most revolutionary conditions. Revolutionary consciousness develops only through the fight for the revolutionary party. Revolutionary consciousness will not appear “spontaneously” in a revolutionary situation and the revolutionary party cannot be improvised on the basis of this “spontaneous” consciousness. To base the strategy of the workers’ vanguard on this assumption in the 1990’s is criminal abstentionism. The socialist revolution is only made possible when the revolutionary party prepares the revolution: that is, when the preparatory period is used for the formation a Leninist vanguard party.
“The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat”, states the founding program of the Fourth International, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (the Transitional Program). This remains true today. Trotsky summed up the centrality of the revolutionary party in this famous expression: “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership”.
This is the Leninist-Trotskyist conception of the centrality of the revolutionary party in the epoch of capitalist decay: in the epoch of the historical crisis of workers’ leadership, the entire world capitalist crisis “is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership”.
As time goes on [the reformists’] desperate efforts to hold back the wheel of history will demonstrate more clearly to the masses that the crisis of the proletarian leadership, having become the crisis in mankind’s culture, can only be resolved by the Fourth International.
This is the conception of the Communist Organisation for the Fourth International of the necessity for the revolutionary party and the essence of the historical crisis of the capitalist system. The crisis is the crisis of revolutionary leadership, not a crisis of proletarian spontaneity. That is why the International Secretary of the COFI and the leadership of the LRP have issued a statement that “workers will come to communist consciousness only through the work of building the revolutionary proletarian party”.
Leninism is based on the fact that the development of class consciousness takes place only through the intervention of the revolutionary party. The revolutionary party is the only organ of class consciousness, not the general strike or even the soviets. Workers pass through the experiences that we need in order to become conscious communists, but only on the condition that the vanguard party constantly intervenes to explain the revolutionary implications and dynamic of the struggle, advances the revolutionary strategy and tactics necessary for victory and openly fights for the revolutionary program. This is why the LRP leadership’s statement that “workers come to communist consciousness only through building the revolutionary proletarian party” is a scientifically accurate and precise definition of the role and centrality of the revolutionary party in the development of class consciousness.
This is the conception that the petty bourgeois Menshevik tendency in the COFI – the “Workers Revolution Tendency” – is in the process of rapidly abandoning. The WRT believes that “the working class is instinctively, spontaneously revolutionary socialist in the right material conditions”. That is why the WRT bases itself on the revisionist manifesto, Revolution and Stagnation in Marxism, that claims that “spontaneity requires a revolutionary party to be ultimately victorious” (p.41). For the WRT:
Spontaneity requires the [Fourth International] to be ultimately victorious.
Because the working class is “spontaneously” Trotskyist, the Fourth International is only “ultimately” necessary.
The revolutionary potential of spontaneous militancy must be transformed into revolutionary communism by the conscious intervention of the revolutionary vanguard. Because spontaneous militancy taken alone never gets beyond political radicalism, the revolutionary party is immediately necessary. The concept of “spontaneity” that the WRT defends is completely opportunist. The WRT counterposes the “spontaneous revolutionism of the workers” to the communist position.
This difference contains the essence of the difference between Bolshevism’s insistence on the necessity for the class conscious, revolutionary vanguard party and all forms of Menshevik tailendism and the “spontaneously socialist”, broad “Marxist” rearguard party that flows from this.
The WRT’s “demystification” of “spontaneity” in the article “Ascent to Mount Olympus?” is very revealing. “In fact”, remarks the WRT helpfully, “it’s quite clear what ‘spontaneous’ means. The term means essentially the same thing in an everyday, a political, a botanic, a chemical or a physical science context”.
“Each phenomena in nature (including humans) has its own dynamic”, the WRT argues. “Spontaneous combustion” is a “telling illustration of spontaneous processes in general” (p.2). It is indeed.
In essence spontaneity means acting according to blind objective laws. That is why the WRT is able to compare natural and social processes from this point of view: the WRT is openly stating that “spontaneity” means without conscious intervention. That is why the WRT rejects the formulation that “workers will come to communist consciousness only through the work of building the revolutionary proletarian party”. The WRT gives the example of “natural and unconstrained” and “a spontaneous action or remark”. Then the WRT takes the example of the near general strike in Australia on 11 November, 1975 as evidence that it is “obvious on 11 November 1975 what ‘spontaneous’ meant”:
It meant a natural response to accumulated contradictions ... not any sort of systematic or conscious response (p. 3).
The WRT could also have added: unconsciously, automatically, acting on the impulse of blind laws. The WRT is directly saying that the development of class consciousness is like spontaneous processes in nature insofar as it is an objective process, requiring no conscious intervention by the vanguard. That is why the WRT talks about the working class being “instinctively, spontaneously revolutionary socialist”. So the WRT believes not just that there is a revolutionary potential contained in spontaneous militancy, but that the working class is spontaneously conscious.
A major characteristic of centrism is the delegation of the historical tasks of the revolutionary party onto the “spontaneous historical process”. Objective processes replace the conscious intervention of the vanguard, enabling the centrists to constantly postpone the decisive tasks of the vanguard and delegate them to the objective “historical process” and the “spontaneous actions” of the masses. The centrists refuse responsibility for the concrete tasks of the fight for revolutionary party leadership and throw them onto the masses, blaming the masses for defeats and appealing to disembodied objective processes to carry off, the tasks of the vanguard. The centrists constantly applaud the “spontaneous actions” of the masses as an alibi for their own refusal to speak the truth to the masses and advance a definite program and strategy.
Marxism is the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process and corresponds to the direction of the spontaneous movement of the working class. This is certain. But to reduce the complex dialectic interaction between the masses and their party leaderships to the “historical process” and the “spontaneous consciousness” of the masses means in reality to replace the revolutionary party with blind unconscious forces. Reliance on spontaneous militancy and the “spontaneous historical process” for the development of revolutionary consciousness is fatalistic and leads to defeat.
Appeals to “spontaneity” and the “historical process” ignore the fact that the masses act not just “spontaneously” or on the mysterious impulse of the “historical process” but according to the programs they follow and their conscious conceptions of the world. The crisis of capitalism drives the masses to revolt because the intolerable contradictions of daily life clash with the conceptions of the world that the masses hold. The masses act through their parties and leaderships, improvising them when necessary. Pure spontaneity nowhere exists. Action is always conscious action. Very often this action contradicts the conceptions the masses hold of their own practice: soviets may be thrown up as the organs of radical democracy. As Lukacs explained: “Men perform their historical deeds themselves, and they do so consciously. But ... this consciousness is false” (History and Class Consciousness, p. 50).
This false consciousness can only be overcome by counterposing revolutionary communism to spontaneous militancy. The dialectical leap from spontaneous militancy to class consciousness and from the unconscious historical process to conscious understanding of this process is itself a conscious act. This transformation of spontaneity into consciousness and the unconscious historical movement into conscious revolutionary leadership can only happen through the medium of the revolutionary party.
The objectivist worldview of the centrists reduces the working masses to mere objects, acted upon by the “historical process” and the blind forces that engender “spontaneous struggles”, capable only of “instinctive” consciousness and the impressions that brute exploitation manages to stamp on the blank slate of the mass mentality. Conscious intervention disappears from history. The highest expression of working class self-consciousness, the revolutionary party, becomes a mere appendage of the “spontaneous historical process” and not its decisive conscious leadership.
The revolutionary potential of spontaneous militancy is objectively revolutionary. It is true therefore to state that the working class is spontaneously (objectively) revolutionary and the unconscious historical process is the historic trend of the working class towards revolution and the workers’ dictatorship. Consciousness of the historical process does not develop spontaneously and unconsciously. This is true for both the vanguard of the working class and the class as a whole. Trotsky expressed the relation between spontaneity and consciousness and between the unconscious historical process and the Marxist program in In Defence of Marxism:
Scientific socialism is the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process; namely, the instinctive and elemental drive of the proletariat to reconstruct society on communist beginnings. These organic tendencies in the psychology of workers spring to life with the utmost rapidity today in the epoch of wars and crises (p. 104).
Trotsky’s entire point in In Defence of Marxism is that the revolutionary party is the highest expression of proletarian consciousness in the revolutionary epoch, because Marxism (“the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process”) does not develop “spontaneously” out of the “historical process”; precisely because this “instinctive and elemental drive” and its expression in the “organic tendencies in the psychology of workers” can reach maturity only by means of the fight for the revolutionary program, the revolutionary party is the necessary historical organ for the development of revolutionary (Trotskyist) consciousness for the vanguard workers as well as for the class as a whole. This is not to deny that the existence of spontaneity or the historical process. The whole point of the fight for the Fourth International is that while the working class (including the advanced workers) is spontaneously (objectively) revolutionary, the working class (including the advanced workers) is not spontaneously conscious.
The WRT takes up the opposite position. The WRT has reduced the dialectical interaction of the revolutionary party and the class to the flat abstraction that “the working class is instinctively, spontaneously revolutionary socialist in the right material conditions”. For the Menshevik tendency, objective circumstances act on workers to “make” workers into communists. The WRT talks of “workers being made into revolutionary socialists” by objective events and goes so far as to state that “the working class is spontaneously revolutionary” and that the role of the revolutionary party is not to transform this spontaneity into consciousness, but to recruit “workers revolutionised by objective circumstances”!
This is an automatist, spontaneist and opportunist distortion of Marxism. It is a reified view of the working class. It is completely false.
Trotsky regularly stigmatised false appeals to objective processes in place of the conscious intervention of the revolutionary party. In answer to the SAP (a German centrist party of the 1930’s) who claimed that the new international “will be the result of the historical process and it will be able to take form only through the actions of the masses”, Trotsky replied that delegation of the task of the development of class consciousness from the revolutionary party onto “spontaneity” and the “historical process” means only – in the final analysis – hostility to the Fourth International. That is why Trotsky stated that:
If the centrists were able to understand the inter-relationship between the ‘masses’ and the vanguard, between the ‘historical process’ and the initiative of the minority, they would not be centrists. (Trotsky, Writings 1934-35, p. 274.)
The advanced workers can develop the revolutionary International and the strategy of the permanent revolution without the writings of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. Workers can develop the scientific worldview of Marxism without reference to Marx. This development can happen only in theory and be tested only in consciously revolutionary practice. This relation between theory and practice and between historic experiences and the tasks of the class conscious workers – that is expressed only by means of the revolutionary program. The revolutionary program can be defended and developed only by building the revolutionary workers’ party. Workers come to revolutionary communist consciousness only in the fight for the revolutionary party.
Consciousness of the need for the revolutionary International and the revolutionary program will develop only in the fight to form the revolutionary party. It will not arise “spontaneously” and then be applied in the building of the revolutionary party. The Fourth International will not be recreated “spontaneously”.
The operation of the law of value drives the working class to revolt. The working class is spontaneously (objectively) revolutionary. Many times, the working class has thrown up soviets in defiance of its traditional leaderships. This is an objectively revolutionary act. But soviet consciousness is not yet scientific revolutionary consciousness. Equally many times, the working class has constructed its soviets with radical democratic or subjectively socialist consciousness and has been betrayed. Radicalism is not a partial form of communist consciousness but false (bourgeois) consciousness. And consciousness and action do not generally coincide except in the actions of the revolutionary party. The operation of the law of value drives workers to revolt, but at the same time the operation of the law of value means the enslavement of labour to capital, the growth of inequalities and the labour aristocracy inside the proletariat, and the propagation of commodity fetishism and the reification of social relations. The revolutionary leap from spontaneous militancy to revolutionary class consciousness can only be done by means of building the revolutionary party.
The labyrinth of surface appearances of capitalist society is the material basis for capitalist ideology. In the distorted world of surface appearances, the real social relations manifest themselves on the surface in inverted forms as material relations between things. This is called reification. But the apparent material relations between things are only a manifestation of the real social relations between people.
Key to the domination of the working class by the bourgeoisie and the imposition of capitalist (reformist) ideology in the workers’ movement is the alien intrusion of the imperialist derived labour bureaucracy. The labour bureaucracy appears on the surface to stand between the classes, mediating, “negotiating” and “regulating” the class struggle. In reality, the labour bureaucracy acts to maintain the subordination of the working class to capital and reinforce the domination of capitalism. The reformists defend the capitalist system and the capitalist state. They depend on the system of wage slavery for their bureaucratic apparatus and power. The surface appearance that the system can be reformed is only a necessary mask for the ideological enslavement of the working class, introduced into the working class by the alien intrusion of the labour bureaucracy and the labour aristocracy.
The need for the revolutionary party as the organ for penetrating the surface appearances and revealing the real relations and the need for the revolutionary party to combat the alien intrusion of reformism are two sides of the same coin. The labyrinth of surface appearances masks real relations within the workers’ movement and between the working class and the bourgeoisie – especially, the intrusion of the labour bureaucracy and aristocracy into the workers’ movement.
The historical movement of the working class is a conscious process. Unlike the middle class intellectuals and the labour bureaucrats (who learn and develop through university study and empirical generalisation from individual experience), the working class develops its class consciousness on the basis of collective struggle, collective experiences and by means of collective, mass organs of struggle (parties, trade unions, soviets...). The masses at all times try to blast a way forward onto the revolutionary road. This collective conscious process tends to be scientific because the thought tends to correspond to the real world. The working class movement is constantly driving towards consciousness of the revolutionary objective and methods. But without the revolutionary party the advanced workers cannot make the revolutionary leap and “spontaneously” develop revolutionary class consciousness. The revolutionary party, with a definite program and theoretical conceptions of the world remains the only way to develop, test and apply the generalisations drawn from lived experience. Without conscious revolutionary leadership, the consciousness of the advanced workers (and therefore of the masses also) remains partial, incomplete, tendential.
The different layers of the working class develop towards class consciousness at different rates. This heterogeneity has its roots in the alien intrusion of the labour aristocracy and labour bureaucracy into the working class and the consequent split in the workers’ movement between communism and reformism. The intervention of the bourgeoisie via the labour aristocracy is decisive in imposing reformist illusions on the working class.
At every step, the experiences of the working class clash sharply with the reformist illusions imposed on the class by the reformist bureaucracy and by capitalist society in general. The contradiction between experience and (false) consciousness is the mainspring of the tendency of the advanced workers to develop a scientific conception of politics and what needs to be done. To penetrate beneath the surface appearances to the essential relations and the driving forces of capitalist production requires “the power of abstraction” (Marx) – a conscious act – and active and conscious intervention into the actual class struggle. The result of this process of abstraction and practical action can only be the development of revolutionary theory. This theory can only be expressed by means of the formulation of the revolutionary program: that is, the building of the revolutionary party.
The bourgeoisie intervenes decisively into this process. The bourgeoisie creates a labour aristocracy and promotes the growth of a parasitic labour bureaucracy within the workers’ movement. This alien intrusion into the working class represents the main obstacle to the development of class consciousness and the principle enemy of communism. The reformist bureaucracy imposes reformist illusions on the working class, and maintains reformism in the workers’ movement by means of opposition to militant action and relentless war on the communists.
At every stage of the class struggle, the masses (including the advanced, revolutionary minded workers) find the program and leadership that corresponds to their conceptions of political realities and what needs to be done. But workers begin their development towards class consciousness not as blank slates but as definite members of the working class with definite ideas of the world (reformism, generally speaking). As the advanced workers and the masses fight their way towards class consciousness, the agents of the bourgeoisie intervene to disrupt this movement. In Trotsky’s words:
[The left reformists] transform the political helplessness of the awakening masses into an ideological maze. They constitute an expression of the forward move, but also act as a brake on it.
The program and consciousness of the labour bureaucracy acts to limit the forward movement of the masses. Development towards class consciousness can only take place by means of the political combat between the parties active in the workers’ movement.
The working class in general and the advanced workers in particular mature through political conflict. The development of the working class towards class consciousness can only take the form of the political struggle of tendencies and parties. For this reason, Trotsky explained that:
The “idea” of socialism is the theoretical expression of the historic trend of the proletariat coordinated with the logical development of capitalist society. The relation between class and “idea” is not mechanical but dialectical. The class attains self-consciousness not through revelation but through difficult struggle, which also takes the form of an internal struggle within the proletariat itself.... It is inevitable, therefore, that in the process of development of the proletariat a crystallisation of the most far-sighted, courageous, of the elite, of the real vanguard, should take place. (Trotsky, Writings 1934-35, p. 262.)
The transition from the general consciousness of the mass workers’ movement to the revolutionary consciousness of the revolutionary party represents the transition from quantity to quality and from spontaneity to scientific revolutionary theory. The transition from the general consciousness of the need for radical social change to revolutionary class consciousness can take place only through the medium of the revolutionary party.
The development of the League for the Revolutionary Party (USA) is itself evidence for this. The LRP is not an intellectuals’ but a workers’ organisation. It is the product of a series of sharp conscious struggles, moving from Shachtmanism to revolutionary Trotskyism and then defending the revolutionary program from the degeneration of the Revolutionary Socialist League. This was in no way a “spontaneous” process. The development of the revolutionary program of the COFI could only have occurred through the fight for the revolutionary party. The statement that “workers will come to communist consciousness only through the work of building the revolutionary proletarian party” is based on direct experience.
In the case where the advanced workers must improvise a revolutionary party leadership from scratch, without knowledge of Trotskyism and the Fourth International, they will do so only by means of building their revolutionary party. Spontaneous militancy generally seeks to blast a way onto the revolutionary road. But the awakening of the advanced workers can take place only through their fight to build the historical instrument of class consciousness – the revolutionary party – and only by means of the fight to develop revolutionary theory, program and party leadership – not before it. The dialectical leap from spontaneous militancy to revolutionary consciousness takes place only through building the revolutionary workers’ party in political combat with the opportunist parties and tendencies in the workers’ movement. The idea that workers are “made into” revolutionary socialists by “objective circumstance”, that the advanced workers are “instinctively, spontaneously revolutionary socialist” outside of the revolutionary party, expresses the really naive and mechanical view that spontaneous consciousness develops through the industrial struggle. Political combat appears here as a supplementary means of “recruiting workers revolutionised by objective circumstances”.
The Marxist view is that class consciousness matures only through the clash of rival political leaderships, only through the political class struggle. This is the real sense of Trotsky’s remark that even without Marx and Lenin “the working class would have worked out the ideas it needed, the methods that were necessary to it, but more slowly”. It means that “workers will come to communist consciousness only through the work of building the revolutionary proletarian party”.
The WRT comes to the opposite conclusion. For the Menshevik tendency, the historical agent of class consciousness is “objective circumstances” — general strikes and revolutionary crises. Workers are “made into” revolutionary socialists and then build the revolutionary party. The WRT opposes the statement that the sole historical organ of class consciousness is the revolutionary party. For the WRT, the main historical organ of class consciousness is the spontaneous mass struggle and the general strike in particular. The role of the revolutionary party is not to develop the consciousness of the advanced workers into revolutionary consciousness and intervene to lead the class as a whole to class consciousness. No. The task of the revolutionary party is to: “participate in that dynamic [by which workers become instinctively, spontaneously revolutionary socialist] ...by recruiting workers revolutionised by objective circumstances”!
The WRT believes that “the working class is instinctively, spontaneously revolutionary socialist” and therefore that the main problem is “the treacherous role of the reformist misleaders in sidetracking the tremendous potential of the workers’ mass movement”. The need for conscious revolutionary leadership disappears, to be replaced by the need for mass action. As Revolution and Stagnation in Marxism states: “With the working class an independent revolutionary class, Marxists must propagandise for the best way to unite the entire working class in action. This means actions like the general strike”.
In the last forty years, the working class has not lacked spontaneous militancy and revolutionary determination. The working class has suffered a series of disastrous defeats because of the absence of revolutionary party leadership. The historical crisis of revolutionary leadership has never been deeper in the entire history of the Marxist movement.
Trotsky derived from the revolutionary character of the epoch not the need for mass action, but the burning need for revolutionary leadership. The WRT’s conception of the crisis of revolutionary leadership has nothing in common with that of Trotsky, who wrote in the Transitional Program:
The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. It is now the turn of the proletariat, i.e., chiefly of its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.
The Transitional Program advances a system of propositions that form the basis for the fight for the Fourth International. The working class is an international revolutionary class and therefore needs a conscious revolutionary leadership and the revolutionary strategy of the permanent revolution. The crisis is not one of spontaneous militancy and revolutionary determination but one of revolutionary leadership:
Again and again the multi-millioned masses enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines.
From this it followed for Trotsky that “the crisis of the proletarian leadership, having become the crisis in mankind’s culture, can only be resolved by the Fourth International”. The main weapon of the revolutionary party vanguard is the program of transitional demands, designed to mobilise a conscious revolutionary assault on capitalism and expose the reformist and centrist misleaders:
[T]he Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very foundations of the bourgeois regime. The old “minimal program” is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in the systematic mobilisation of the masses for the proletarian revolution.
The need for the revolutionary party, the Marxist understanding of the crisis of revolutionary leadership and the open fight for revolutionary party leadership with the weapons of the transitional program and the general strike – these are the fundamentals of the Fourth International.
The Menshevik WRT has a totally different idea of the driving forces and the necessary solution to the world capitalist crisis. Because “spontaneity requires the revolutionary party to be ultimately victorious” and the working class is “instinctively, spontaneously revolutionary socialist”, the need is mainly for the general strike, and only “ultimately” for the revolutionary party. As the final programmatic statement of Revolution and Stagnation in Marxism sums up, “the working class needs a new oppositional leadership committed to mass action in the unions and on all fronts of the class struggle. ...Within a real workers’ united front we will argue that a revolutionary socialist party must be built by the working class, to lead our class to the revolutionary seizure of state power”.
The logic of this position is to substitute a program for “sparking” mass action on a minimal basis, for the transitional program designed to counterpose revolutionary leadership to reformist misleadership. This is because the WRT believes that revolutionary consciousness develops “spontaneously” in mass action. The task of the party is to “participate” the spontaneous dynamic by “recruiting workers revolutionised by objective circumstances”. Only “within a real workers’ united front” does the revolutionary vanguard counterpose itself to all existing leaderships and fight to build “a revolutionary socialist party”. The rest of the time, the revolutionary vanguard camouflages itself as “a new oppositional leadership committed to mass action”. This is a program for “sparking” mass action, not a program for the fight for revolutionary leadership and class consciousness.
The crisis of revolutionary leadership therefore reduces to a crisis of the self-mobilisation of the working class, a “crisis of spontaneity”. The logic of this position is that the task of revolutionary workers becomes not to raise up the advanced workers to revolutionary consciousness but to “spark” mass actions.
The basic concept of the party advanced by the Menshevik WRT is that “spontaneous militancy needs to be organised in a conscious Leninist revolutionary workers party" (Internal Bulletin No. 22). The essence of the WRT position is the refusal to counterpose revolutionary communist leadership to militant reformist consciousness. That is why the WRT exclaims with horror, “spontaneity is to be built on, consciously, not opposed” at the suggestion of the need to counterpose revolutionary leadership to all forms of militant reformist misleadership. Spontaneous militancy will always mature into a form of bourgeois consciousness and be defeated without the revolutionary vanguard party.
The WRT’s view is that rank and file reformists can win real strike victories and that therefore the Marxist position of the need for communist strike leadership is “sectarian ultimatism”. This bears witness to the fact that the WRT’s semi-spontaneist views are a remnant of the post-war prosperity bubble and an expression of profound demoralisation.
The revolutionary potential of spontaneous militancy was able to force the reformists to lead partial victories during the period of post-war prosperity. The worldwide defeat of the working class created the conditions of capitalist boom and defeat of the revolutionary party leadership that enabled the capitalists to grant temporary concessions, and the reformists to lead limited mobilisations. This period is now over.
Already, strikes under the leadership of traitors can result only in semi-strikes and semi-victories – at best. This does not rule out a temporary period of wage militancy in an economic upturn or exceptional strike victories under the leadership of rank and file militants. These are exceptional cases. They do not apply under the current capitalist offensive. The general rule is that as the crisis of capitalism deepens, conscious revolutionary intervention will be necessary for even partial victories.
For the WRT, it is no longer Marxism to consider revolutionary communist strike leadership an immediate practical necessity. To consider that as the historical crisis of capitalism deepens, “not a single workers’ industrial dispute can be won without Marxist leadership” will become increasingly the case is now for the Menshevik tendency simply “sectarian”.
The Marxists have always considered the reformists to be a brake on the workers’ movement. For the centrists, reformism represents a partial movement forward, even despite the reformist leadership. The centrists consider the reformist leadership to be a blunt instrument to be driven forward by the “historical process” and the workers’ “spontaneous struggles”. Communists fight against reformism on the basis of the understanding that reformism is counterrevolutionary. Reformism leads not to strike victories, but to counterrevolution and fascism. That is why the world capitalist crisis reduces immediately to the crisis of workers’ leadership – because the betrayals of the reformists lead inevitably to the catastrophe of world war and fascism.
The disastrous record of the last ten years in Australia alone is a forceful argument for the need for the revolutionary party. The labour bureaucracy has systematically isolated and betrayed every strike for the last decade. Since 1983, the bourgeoisie has relied upon their Labor lackeys to implement the mounting capitalist offensive. Without exception, the union bureaucracy has sabotaged and sold-out every one of the bitter strike struggles for the last ten years. Raising the illusion that strikes can win real victories under reformist leadership at present only weakens the resolve of the class to shrug the Labor Party monkey off its back and prepares fresh defeats.
At the same time the opportunist tendency maintains that a general strike is necessary! For the last few years, the Workers Revolution Group has stressed again and again: isolation is fatal. A general strike is necessary to defeat the capitalist offensive and begin a workers’ fightback. But the need for revolutionary leadership only rises sharply with the escalation of the struggle. The general strike above all needs revolutionary leadership. If isolation is fatal and the general strike is necessary, why then is communist strike leadership suddenly not absolutely necessary? To raise the slogan of the general strike and fail to raise the need for revolutionary strike leadership means that the WRT has gone over to the manipulative politics of the middle class socialists.
To call for more militancy as the way to win the needs of workers is fundamentally false. The reality is that it is a deception to pretend that militancy alone can win strikes and defend workers from the capitalist offensive. To pretend that militant rank and file action can win real strike victories despite the sell-out leadership union bureaucracy and the Labor Party means attempting to manipulate the rank and file into militant struggle in spite of the traitors.
The fact is that the capitalist offensive can only be fought successfully by revolutionary workers, who understand that the capitalist system is incapable of maintaining generalised reforms and must be overthrown to defend workers’ living standards. Only conscious revolutionary workers, who understand that the sell-out role of the union bureaucracy and the Labor Party flows from the labour bureaucracy’s defence of capitalism, and who fight for the revolutionary program capable of uniting the whole working class and winning the rest of the class to the revolutionary party, can possibly lead victorious strike struggles under today’s conditions. The leadership of honest rank and file militants is not enough. In the epoch of capitalist decay, generally only revolutionary political struggle – a conscious revolutionary assault on the capitalist system – can win economic and industrial demands. This is doubly true now that the whole capitalist system worldwide is plunging towards depression and the capitalist class is on the offensive.
Revolutionaries tell the truth to our class. Only the leadership of the revolutionary party, the re-created Fourth International, can lead today’s struggles to victory. Strikes under the leadership of traitors can at best be only semi-strikes and semi-victories when they do not lead to outright betrayal. Isolated strikes are doomed. Only generalised action offers any prospect of victory under conditions of mounting capitalist offensive. Even general strike action cannot permanently defend workers or win anything more than partial and temporary gains, without a revolutionary leadership. This is the essence of Trotsky’s point that:
The general Marxist thesis “social reforms are only the by-product of revolutionary struggle” has, in the epoch of the decline of capitalism, the most immediate and burning importance. The capitalists are capable of ceding something only if they are threatened with losing everything. (Leon Trotsky on France, p. 79.)
The deepening crisis of capitalism accelerates the tendency in all of the imperialist countries towards Bonapartism and military dictatorship, as the prosperity required to sustain parliamentary democracy runs into conflict with the need of the capitalist classes to deepen the exploitation of the working class. The historical laws of the decay of capitalism drive spontaneous militancy and “the laws of history are stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus” (Trotsky). That is the sense of understanding that the potential for general strikes, uprisings and revolutions matures “spontaneously” and with “historical inevitability”. The masses at all times try to blast a way forward onto the revolutionary road. This potentially revolutionary pressure increases as the crisis of capitalism deepens. But the key to unlocking this revolutionary potential remains in the hands of the leadership of the workers’ movement. Reliance on spontaneous militancy means only fatalism and abstention from the struggle to develop the revolutionary leadership necessary to challenge the reformists for hegemony in the international workers’ movement.
It is not necessary to have revolutionary consciousness to begin a general strike: that is why the general strike is a united front demand. It is necessary to have revolutionary party leadership to win it. And it is generally necessary to have the revolutionary party to force the reformists to call the general strike.
The reformists retreat from the general strike because the general strike raises the question of state power in its starkest form. When forced into action by mass pressure, the reformists fight to control the movement and contain the general strike to a bureaucratic semi-strike. Then they generally organise the betrayal. This was the case of the British general strike of 1926.
The WRT disagrees. The Mensheviks believe that a real general strike (not a bureaucratic semi-strike like 1926 in Britain) is possible under reformist leadership. The WRT angrily challenges: “ Any comrade who wants to categorically deny that a general strike was possible [in 1975] (because there was no mass revolutionary party)”.
As evidence that a general strike was possible, the WRT cites the “spontaneous mass movement” and the “spontaneous dynamic towards a general strike”. No communist denies that the potential for a general strike existed. The whole point is that the spontaneous movement lacked a conscious revolutionary leadership and so potential was never transformed into actuality. The WRT’s example of spontaneous militancy is in fact a perfect illustration of the need for the revolutionary party. The example of the general strike movement in 1975 is an example of the crisis of revolutionary leadership.
It was not the fault of the working class that the general strike movement in 1975 was defused. It was not for lack of spontaneous militancy. It was because of the treachery of the Laborites and because the organised forces fighting for the general strike proved too small. Only the revolutionary party will fight consistently for the general strike: the middle class radicals and centrists will vacillate. It is for this reason that the revolutionary party must be built right now.
In the context of a polemic in defence of the “spontaneous” revolutionary socialist consciousness of the working class, the clear logic of this position is to substitute agitation for the general strike for the fight for revolutionary leadership. Stimulating militancy and not the fight for class consciousness is the best way to form the revolutionary party. After all, the general strike is expected to “spontaneously” produce many workers who have been “made into revolutionary socialists”, which the revolutionary organisation can simply soak up by means of “recruiting workers revolutionised by objective circumstances”.
This turns the world completely on its head. The revolutionary party is not built in anticipation of the general strike but in order to fight for the revolutionary tactics as the basis for the fight for revolutionary leadership. Without revolutionary party leadership, the probability of general strike action decreases dramatically. The task of the communists is not to “spark” actions like the general strike and then fight for leadership. No: the task of the revolutionaries is to fight for revolutionary leadership from the start, by exposing the reformists and at the same time proposing practical action based on the actual needs of the working class.
The lack of revolutionary leadership “would pose very serious problems” states the WRT, tacking on the need for the revolutionary party to the argument for spontaneity. “Very serious problems” like ... certain defeat! Trotsky was absolutely categorical on this question:
A general strike is the sharpest form of class struggle. It is only one step from the general strike to armed insurrection. This is precisely why the general strike, more than any other form of class struggle requires a clear, distinct, resolute and therefore revolutionary leadership. In the current strike of the British proletariat there is not the ghost of such a leadership, and it is not to be expected that it can be conjured out of the ground ... The fundamental importance of the general strike is that it poses the question of power point blank. A real victory for the General Strike lies only in the winning of power by the proletariat and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. (Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain)
For this reason, it is sheer deception to raise the slogan of an indefinite general strike without carefully explaining to the advanced workers the revolutionary implications of the struggle, the possibility of betrayal contained in reformism, and the urgent need for a revolutionary party. Nevertheless, as Trotsky says, this party cannot be simply conjured up. That doesn’t mean that an indefinite general strike is futile. On the contrary, even an indefinite general strike that is defeated through betrayal by the VTHC leadership and the ACTU will have the invaluable effect of temporarily throwing back the bosses offensive. A tremendous radicalisation would begin in the working class. Many advanced workers would come to the conclusion that a new leadership of the working class is necessary.
The general strike clears the ground for the formation of the revolutionary party. But the revolutionary party cannot be “conjured out of the ground” by producing “spontaneously revolutionary socialist” workers. This is metaphysics, not Marxism.
The Menshevik case is as follows:
Workers are impelled by the objective conditions of capitalist exploitation to spontaneously (objectively) revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system. Unlike the semi-Kautskyite comrades, revolutionary socialist workers realise that the working class thinks. Workers’ experience of class struggle under conditions of revolutionary crisis and mass workers’ action (like the general strike) clashes sharply with the reformist illusions imposed on us by the opportunist misleaders. Some workers – the advanced workers – spontaneously become revolutionary socialists on the basis of their own experiences. They develop a revolutionary socialist understanding of political realities and what needs to be done. That is why the working class is instinctively, spontaneously revolutionary socialist under the right material conditions. That is why Trotsky said that: “the working class would have worked out the ideas it needed, the methods that were necessary to it but more slowly”, even without Marx and Lenin. But the working class is not homogeneous. Different layers mature towards class consciousness at different rates. Many parties are active in the workers’ movement introducing middle class distortions into the class and preventing the class as a whole form reaching a unified consciousness. The workers who develop the revolutionary socialist understanding of the world first need to organise themselves into the vanguard revolutionary party. The task of the revolutionary party is to recruit spontaneously revolutionised workers and intervene to lead the backward workers to revolutionary socialist consciousness. Marxism does not deny that the historical organ of class consciousness for the working class as a whole is the revolutionary party. Spontaneity requires the revolutionary party to be ultimately victorious. Nevertheless, leadership is a relation within the working class and not a relation between workers and intellectuals, as the semi-Kautskyite comrades think. Building the Marxist party to lead workers is the only way to defeat the alien intrusion of bourgeois ideology. To deny that some workers spontaneously become revolutionary socialist means only to maintain a radical version of “socialism from outside”. The revolutionary workers’ party is a workers’ party, not the tool of “the vehicle of science ...the bourgeois intelligentsia”.
The concept of the “revolutionary party” advanced here is radically false. The essence of this position is that historical organ of class consciousness is not the revolutionary party but spontaneous mass action (and the general strike in particular). Workers arrive at class consciousness apart from the fight for the revolutionary party. The argument presents revolutionary workers developing “spontaneously” and the revolutionary vanguard party as an organisational solution to the “spontaneously” maturing vanguard. This is a cheap way of manufacturing the vanguard! The revolutionary cadre will mature without the revolutionary party: the role of the revolutionary party is to recruit these “spontaneous” revolutionary socialist workers. Instead of the fight for revolutionary leadership, we have a recruitment drive to soak up the vanguard. This is the opposite of the Leninist-Trotskyist concept of the revolutionary vanguard party that constantly intervenes to win the revolutionary minded (advanced) workers to the revolutionary program and splits the pro-capitalist workers from their backwardness by defeating the reformist misleaderships.
The semi-spontaneist position presents the role of the revolutionary “vanguard” party as leading the backward workers. The vanguard matures outside of the revolutionary party. The revolutionary party then intervenes to lead the pro-capitalist workers to class consciousness. “The advanced workers are spontaneously revolutionary socialist but must intervene to lead the backward workers”: this is a program for tailending spontaneity, a broad “Marxist” party and an orientation to backwardness.
Worse, since the argument presents the spontaneous mass struggle as the historical organ of class consciousness, this is a mechanical “two step” program. In “step one”, revolutionary workers are produced “spontaneously” in mass actions. “Step one” delegates the historical tasks of the revolutionary party onto the “spontaneous struggles” and the “historical process”. The arena for shedding backwardness is the spontaneous struggle and not the actions of the revolutionary party. But pro-capitalist views (backwardness) are a relative category, not a metaphysical absolute. According to the semi-spontaneist position, the masses split from their backwardness in mass actions, not “on condition that they find a vanguard”. Mass struggle and not the revolutionary party generates revolutionary workers: it follows that the tactics and program of the “revolutionary party” must be to “spark” more mass action to free the pro-capitalist workers from their backwardness. Then they too can be recruited. Therefore, “step two” is an intensified version of “step one”. This is the opposite of the conscious struggle for revolutionary party leadership.
Lenin restored the decisive element of will and consciousness to the Marxist program and insisted on a vanguard party that fights for the revolutionary program. The Mensheviks believed in the “historical process” and formed a rearguard party that adapted to backwardness.
The operation of the law of value impels workers to objectively revolutionary struggle against capitalism. The working class is spontaneously (objectively) revolutionary. Workers’ experiences of the class struggle clashes sharply at every step with the reformist illusions imposed on us by the labour bureaucracy. This is the mainspring of the tendency of the most advanced workers to work out a scientific conception of politics and the necessary methods of class struggle. This development takes place only through the fight for the revolutionary party. There is no conscious revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory. Revolutionary theory can only develop from the actual class struggle and be tested and developed in the living class struggle. This can only be done by building a party around its program. Conscious revolutionary practice is developed, centralised and organised by means of the revolutionary party. But the working class is not homogeneous. Different layers mature towards class consciousness at different rates. The bourgeoisie intervenes decisively into this process. The alien intrusion of the labour aristocracy and bureaucracy represents the major obstacle to class consciousness and the principle source of confusion implanted within the workers’ movement. Many parties are active in the workers’ movement, introducing middle class distortions into the class and preventing workers from reaching revolutionary consciousness. The development of revolutionary consciousness can only take place in the political struggle of tendencies in the workers’ movement and the conscious fight for the revolutionary party. The revolutionary vanguard workers must constantly intervene to split workers from their pro-capitalist illusions and develop their consciousness into revolutionary class consciousness. The task of the revolutionary vanguard is to develop the mentality of the rest of the class, not to delegate this task onto the “historical process” and “spontaneous mass actions”. Spontaneous militancy is no answer. The fight for revolutionary leadership is the only way for workers to arrive at class consciousness. Nevertheless, leadership is a relation within the working class, not a relation between workers and intellectuals. The revolutionary workers’ party is the historical organ of class consciousness: workers develop revolutionary consciousness only in the fight for the revolutionary party.
Revolutionary workers follow the communist norm set out by Trotsky: to “say what is”, to explain the revolutionary dynamic of the transitional program and the general strike, to explain the need for revolution and the revolutionary party while participating in strike struggles, to fight for reform demands by raising the need for revolutionary political struggle against capitalism, by proving to other workers the need for the revolutionary party on the basis of common experiences of practical action. It is only on this basis that the Fourth International can be re-created.