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Revolutionary Regroupment: Not Just an Option but the Only Serious Way Forward for Trotskyism

Gerry Downing

The struggle for revolutionary regroupment is essentially the struggle to re-establish the Marxist method: the struggle to re-elaborate and re-conquer the method of the Transitional Programme adopted by the Fourth International at its founding conference in 1938. Having first established the necessity for building a revolutionary party to lead socialist revolution the question immediately arises; how do we establish this party as the real leadership of the class? Certainly neither by opportunist capitulations to the left bureaucracy nor by sterile self-proclamation.

The Transitional Programme was not a schema dreamt up by Trotsky in the thirties to re-direct his followers in difficult times. It is the essence of the communist method of work, distilled from the experiences of the first three revolutionary internationals before these were destroyed by Anarchism, reformism and Stalinism. It is the application of the Marxist dialectic. It is the practical solution to the central problem for revolutionary Marxists; how do we solve the dichotomy between subjective and the objective, how do we give subjective expression to the objective strivings of the masses to make the socialist revolution?

We cannot develop the transitional method without developing a sophisticated approach to the united front. The Leninist-Trotskyist Tendency (LTT) have developed their analysis of these questions at their last Congress and produced them in In Defence of Marxism, No.4 in the resolutions on the united front and the anti-imperialist united front. We cannot, after all, land blows on our opponents in the labour movements, national liberation movements, organisations of the specifically oppressed, etc, if we are not engaged with them in common struggle. And we cannot get a real united front operation until there is a real movement in the masses to force the bureaucrats to lead, or mislead, some struggles.

The collapse of Stalinism in eastern Europe in 1989, and in the former USSR in 1991, clarified for some the nature of the period. The bourgeoisie is in the driving seat, aided by its political agents in the workers’ movement. It is accelerating its offensive begun after the mid-seventies with increasing successes. For serious Trotskyists the awful truth is apparent in such moments. When opportunities presented themselves, those who called themselves Trotskyists could advance no viable tactics to defend the class, let alone take forward their strategy of socialist revolution.

We can only regard with contempt those groups who deny the defeats and therefore do not re-assess, do not seek to learn the lessons of past defeats – the mindset of the now thankfully collapsed Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP/Workers Press) who proclaimed to their death that the miners’ strike of 1984/85 was not defeated. Many groups who hailed the fall of the Berlin Wall as the opening of the political revolution (Workers Press, USFI, Lambertists, Morenoites, etc) against Stalinism persist with the claim that the world revolution is proceeding swimmingly, despite the obvious movement in the opposite direction. Some, like the LRCI, tie themselves in knots with silly theories of "a counter-revolutionary phase in a revolutionary period". In fact getting the nature of the period correct is in many ways more important than agreeing whether or not these are now capitalist states. However, the continued denial of this, despite the clear empirical evidence to the contrary, does speak of a serious failure to apply the Marxist method.

The old, old problems in the labour movement were everywhere apparent in the politics and practices of self-proclaimed Trotskyist groups like the Healyites, the Mandelites, the Morenoites, the Lambertists, the Sparts and Lutte Ouvrière, to mention just a few. There was the maximum programme for abstract propaganda for the socialist revolution (for some solely within their own groups), there was the minimum programme of realisable reforms, and between the two there was no connecting bridge of the transitional method to advance the consciousness of the masses. There are many maximalists, more minimalists, but few transitionalists.

Because we had no understanding of the transitional method we could do little to influence the course of these struggles. Our implantation in the working class was too shallow, our influence too slender to make any substantial difference to the outcome of these epoch-making struggles. The political strategy of the bourgeoisie swept the class aside, and we could not prevent it. We are increasingly marginalised by this rightward drift. We desperately need to get our act together to begin to turn things around. The hold of the bureaucratic mis-leaderships, both right and left, on the working class must begin to be challenged and broken if the class is to regain its consciousness of its separate identity and interests as a class and the methods of struggle necessary to defend those interests, its confidence in its own ability to fight and win its own demands on its own account. These are the essential first steps on the road to revolution.

To acknowledge the problem is not to descend into pessimism. It is to face reality squarely and seek the answers to lead the class out of this impasse. The Fourth International descended into centrism at the end of the Second World War. The centrist products of the process of fragmentation since then have all but lost the ability to relate to the masses via the transitional method. They substitute either opportunist capitulation to left bureaucrats and/or left nationalists, or else they use the method of sectarian self-proclamation without attempting to relate to the masses at all. This is not to deny that there have been many serious attempts to re-assert this method, particularly since the sixties, but they all failed eventually.

The key lies in our attitude to the vanguard, to the left labour-movement bureaucracy, left bourgeois nationalists and the bureaucratic mis-leaders of the movements of the specifically oppressed, and therefore to the masses themselves. These questions contain the whole heritage of revolutionary Marxism. Its future depends on our ability to re-elaborate and re-apply that heritage in the resolution of these questions, in practice, in the class struggle today.

Contained in these principles are the seeds of the differences that divide the left in Britain and internationally: do we call for a vote for the British Labour Party and why, if so are there exceptions, do we call for a vote for bourgeois workers’ parties in general? Do we call for a vote for them when they are in a popular-front coalition, do we work inside the mass bourgeois workers’ parties, do we place demands on the bureaucratic mis-leaders of the working class and if so what type of demands under what circumstances?

Is it ever possible to call for a vote for a petit-bourgeois national-liberation group and under what circumstances? Do we support the right to self-determination of oppressed nations in all, circumstances and if not what are the exceptions? At what stage do we positively advocate and fight for these rights as opposed to acknowledging and arguing against them for the sake of the unity of the working class, i.e. at what stage is opposition to self-determination detrimental to forging the unity of the working class? Is the defence of a workers’ state always higher that the right to self-determination and are they necessarily counterposed? Do we advocate the right to self-organisation of the specifically oppressed and does this contradict the struggle for the unity of the working class in struggle? What is the correct method of work in this milieu?

All the above questions have been fought out among those claiming the heritage of Trotskyism over the past period. We are partisan on these questions, we have fought for our political line on these questions in our publications and interventions. The purpose of this article is not to supply detailed answers to all these questions (this is the task of other articles in the regroupment struggles themselves) but to outline the method behind how we arrive at answers. Of course a correct method will not guarantee correct answers to every question but does guarantee a generally correct orientation. Below is outlined what we regard as the correct method.

The practice of the transitional method
To carry out entrism and fraction work effectively presupposes a democratic-centralist international tendency with coherent and integrated political perspectives, and a leadership which has the confidence of the membership on the basis of a proven track record. Without this, attempts to carry out work in mass political organisations will lead to various forms of routinism, adaptation or national exceptionalism, and political differences will inevitably lead to confusion and splits.

The tactics advocated by Trotsky in the 1930s towards mass workers parties retain their validity and do not depend merely upon the particular conjuncture which prompted them. By extension, they also apply under some conditions to other formations (e.g. petit-bourgeois nationalist movements) which have the allegiance of the mass of the working class. Such experiences have shown the variety and flexibility of the tactics necessary to build the nucleus of mass Trotskyist parties.

We reaffirm the stages necessary in entrist tactics – particularly the necessity of a period of implantation; the maintenance of the democratic centralism of the entrist group (whether or not it has a publication); and the recognition of the correct time to split. This requires a careful estimate of the trajectory of the host centrist, reformist or nationalist organisation, and particularly its rank and file. These tactics are necessary for work within large, bureaucratically-controlled organisations.

With centrist groups who move to the left and are of more comparable size to our own the possibility exists of winning the entire group to Trotskyism and we should work for that if we fuse with or join them – with due humility on our part, recognising that because of the crisis of Trotskyism we ourselves may have much to learn from our new group or partners in fusion. We stress that this is not to be seen as a raiding party but as real and ongoing political struggle – a battle for Trotskyism which emphasises always the road to the working class via the ideological struggle to win the vanguard – openly fought for wherever we get an audience.

The need to carry out entrism or fraction work arises from the impossibility of small groups applying the united front towards mass organisations from outside. We must not confuse common actions between left groups for genuine united fronts, despite their frequently similar method. To do so leads all too often to substituting the one for the other, and results in sectarianism and self-proclamation sheltering behind a verbal commitment to united front policy. The LRCI, for instance, maintains that there is no distinction between common actions and united fronts, and increasingly turns its back upon mass organisations in favour of "build the party" exhortations.

No revolutionary organisation today is in the position of the KPD in the early 1930s, when Trotsky advocated the workers’ united front. With its mass following, the KPD would have been able to put the larger SPD under extreme pressure and win its mass base if it had applied the united front. Today, with tiny forces, we must be prepared, in countries where it is relevant, to work among the vanguard of the working class within the mass social-democratic movements on a Ions term basis where this is possible.

It really is necessary to make a comprehensive assessment of the period and where we stand in relation to it. The sectarians who call themselves Trotskyists will forever quote Trotsky on these points to prove entryism is not allowable, that to vote for Labour is a betrayal, etc.

"The Communist Party cannot fulfill its mission except by preserving, completely and unconditionally, its political and organisational independence apart from all other organisations within and without the working class. To transgress this basic principle of Marxist policy is to commit the most heinous of crimes against the interests of the proletariat as a class."

The US League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) reproduces this quotation in its "Reformism and ’rank-and-filism’: The communist alternative". The quotation is undated and unsourced. It is from Trotsky’s Writings on Germany and refers to a Communist Party that polled six million votes. To directly equate the tasks of the LRP or similarly-sized groups with the tactics appropriate to a mass party of the working class, which Trotsky was attempting to win to revolutionary politics, is incredibly stupid. They obviously hope that readers were unfamiliar with his advice to the French Trotskyists to enter the Socialist Party and his similar advice to Cannon and the US Trotskyists to adopt a similar tactics. Ahistorical quotation-chopping can teach nothing.

The balance to strike between open, fraction and entry work can only be assessed on the basis of real experiences and an estimate of the dynamics within reformism (e.g. whether a left current exists or is developing which can be won to revolutionary politics). However, we explicitly reject the notion that Trotskyists should constitute themselves as "the left of the left" – i.e. as part of a continuum stretching from left reformism to revolutionary Marxism. Such a formula, beloved in the USFI, obliterates or blurs the qualitative difference between reformism, no matter how left, and revolution.

We must first of all establish the difference between propaganda and agitation. This is necessary because there is both a distinction between the vanguard and the class, and a dialectical interconnection between the two which we must understand.

Vanguard and masses, propaganda and agitation
In The History of American Trotskyism, J.P. Cannon, following Plekhanov, wrote: "Propaganda he defined as the dissimilation of many fundamental ideas to a few people; what we in America are accustomed to call education. Agitation he defined as the dissemination of a few ideas, or only one idea to many people. Propaganda is directed towards the vanguard, agitation towards the masses."

The vanguard of the working class often acts in contradiction to the masses, pushing the masses out of their passivity. Strikes do not happen because one morning the workers simultaneously get angry and walk out. No, they have been prepared for this struggle by the constant propaganda of a small but vitally important vanguard. These are politically advanced workers who know the basis of the class struggle; the bosses only concede what they are forced to by strike action or the threat of it.

Of course a political "vanguard" of another type emerges and develops. Under the impact of big political events the petit bourgeoisie and the students become radicalised and are attracted towards revolutionary solutions and groups (e.g. after Paris 1968). The obvious problem with this layer is that it lacks implantation and political connection with the masses and the organised working class in particular. Various Trotskyist centrist groups then supply this detached vanguard with an ideology which denies or blurs this problem. Ultimately the capitalists’ class itself will concede nothing of substance unless they are threatened by the spectre of the revolution itself. But remember that for all its radicalisation ’68 was sold out by the Communist Party who had no implantation where it really mattered, in the workplaces.

When a new vanguard layer first begins to develop organically from the ranks of the working class, it is faced with a dilemma. It can join a "Trotskyoid" cult which supplies it with a (distorted) explanation of how the world works in class terms but has no practical application for these politics. If it joins, its members become ultra-left freaks who harangue the working class from the sidelines but are unable to re-discover their initial connections with the class and leadership potential.

Or, alternatively, they are convinced by the arguments of the left bureaucracy (and its centrist and Stalinist apologists) that the connection with the ranks of the working class must be maintained at the expense of the struggle for all revolutionary solutions or radical initiatives. Thus the corrupting influence of the bureaucracy and its apologists is supplemented by the ultra-left radicals who have no transitional method to build a bridge that leads the workers from mass action to revolutionary solutions. The vanguard are isolated because they do not understand that propaganda is for educating a new leadership and mass agitation for the proximate struggle is to win the confidence of the class by showing them a real way forward.

If we do not understand this we will not be able to relate to the working class at all. We will not be able to distinguish between the vanguard and the masses and will not know how to relate to both jointly and separately. Truly to relate to such mass action, the communists must realise that the key link to grasp, in order to have possession of the entire chain is the communists’ relationship to the vanguard, not directly to the masses.

The correct method is commonly referred to in the US as the flanking tactic, mobilizing against the boss and catching the bureaucrats in the cross fire of socialist propaganda when they refuse to fight or fight inadequately. This dual tactic is the essence of the united front work in trade unions and in all its other applications. We must make a united front not only with those who seriously want to fight but most importantly with the representatives of the bosses and careerists who represent the trade union bureaucracy that are forced into action by the pressure from the working class.

In order to continually direct our fire at the main political problem facing workers in struggle, the crisis of leadership, this offensive must reject two pitfalls; that from the right and from the ultra-left. The ultimate consequences of both errors are the same, whatever the good intentions of some ultra-leftist rank-and-filers.

The right tactic relies on getting members elected to positions of influence in unions, etc, and tends to oppose mass actions. The ranks are thus increasingly excluded because deals need to be stitched up with opponents to the right. This can be called electoralism. Whilst most who operate this method deny that this is what they are doing, the details of the sordid compromises to defend positions and abandon opportunities to mobilise their members make clear who is operating the method. The CPGB were totally consumed by electoralism from the 1950s. Today many Broad Left caucuses that the Socialist Party (Militant Labour) dominate, like the CPSA, pursue the same line. The SWP tend to vacillate between electoralism and sectarian abstentionism.

The second wrong tactic is ultra-leftist workerist rank-and-fileism and its modern variant, "build-your-own-labour-movement" groups and individuals. The "build-your-owns" differ in the shrillness of their rhetoric and in whether to stand for union positions, etc, but the effect is to leave existing bureaucratic leaderships and structures intact whilst "saving their own souls" by being more ultra-left (and ineffectual) than everyone else. It basically rests on a pessimistic, petit-bourgeois, lack of confidence in the ability of the working class to fight the employers and to do anything about the treachery of their own leadership in the trade unions and labour movement in general at the same time.

A version of this abstentionism is the "build your own labour movement" line pursued by the Workers Press before they collapsed in disarray, the International Communist Party, who are for smashing the trade unions (together with the Tories, Blairites and BNP), many within Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, etc. Often there is a "live and let live" tacit agreement between many workerist rank-and-filers and the "build-your-owns" and the bureaucracy where these blame the working class for not being super-militant and thereby provide a get-out for the bureaucracy who would fight if only the masses would! The ranks of the working class understand immediately that they need a leadership to fight the capitalists and are obliged to accept the leadership they have if another is not offered.

Trotskyist regroupment
We must establish at what stage we are in the process of Trotskyist regroupment. Whilst we have a programme for an orientation to all who call themselves Trotskyists and other centrists we must realise that the prime task today is left Trotskyist regroupment. We must get together a critical mass for intervention in the class struggle before we can have any appreciable effect on the larger centrists groups of Trotskyist origin, let alone others. Therefore we need to be very organisationally flexible whilst maintaining programmatic inflexibility.

All manner of entry work, all temporary combinations and liaison committees are possible, provided we hold firmly to our goal. In fact these are mandatory tactics in the present period to allow the fullest development of political struggle and conflict. This is the only serious orientation which recognises the programmatic, theoretical and organisational fragmentation of those claiming continuity with the Trotskyist heritage since the forties. We must bear in mind that while we have much to teach because of the very good theoretical work done by the LTT and WIL, nevertheless we have much to learn also. It is frequently the case that those who are the loudest in proclaiming the necessity for organisational purity to defend political orthodoxy are the last to struggle for those politics when the wider arenas open up. We must Jointly struggle to test out these theoretical conquests in practice in co-operation with other left Trotskyists. This is the only real way we will educate ourselves and the only real basis for regroupment.

In recognition of this dislocation, in conjunction with other left Trotskyists we have scheduled a regroupment conference hopefully in September 1997. We want to have the participation of as many as possible of the left Trotskyist groups who are committed to the project of exploring the prospects for regroupment. This will necessarily entail groups with different political positions on a range of issues.

The lack of an authoritative international centre has not made possible the depth of political debates on crucial questions like Bosnia, the national question, specific social oppression, etc. So individual, relatively isolated groups may arrive at positions which they later feel obliged to defend but which they would not have developed if proper and wide-ranging political discussion was possible. It is therefore politically important to tackle historical differences in the context of developing a common political line on current issues.

Issues like Bosnia and the national question do involve questions of method and these need to be fought out seriously to narrow differences. But for instance, whilst it is important that we have a measure of agreement on the collapse of the Fourth International into centrism between the death of Trotsky and 1953, it is not necessary to agree on all the detailed assessment of exactly when and why.

Since 1989 the main "Trotskyist" groupings internationally have seen intense factional struggles between "optimists" and "pessimists", between "objectivists" and "voluntarists", between "liquidators" and "party builders", between "entrists" and "anti-entrists" – the factional line-ups are endless! But they are the product of a common crisis. The LIT, the CWI (Militant) and the FI(ICR) (Lambertists) have all suffered major splits or purges in recent years.

For a number of years, the USFI has been in thrall to various versions of "recomposing the workers’ movement". In practice this has meant a series of botched – and sometimes disastrous – "regroupments" with non-revolutionary (Stalinist, Green, left-reformist, etc) forces aimed at building new workers’ parties. In no country has this tactic (which threatens to become an overarching "strategy") been successful. In some countries it has effectively dispersed the Trotskyist vanguard to the four winds. In fact, this method has been consciously counterposed to regroupment with genuinely revolutionary forces, who are ritually denounced as "sectarian" for failing to suffer from, the same illusions as us. Others such as the Morenoites and the Lambertists have likewise sought to accommodate to the right-wing drift of the workers’ movement internationally by hiding their Trotskyism behind broad party fronts and workers’ parties, etc.

Revolutionary regroupment and intervention in mass parties or new political formations are different – if often linked – tasks, and must not be confused. Revolutionary regroupment presupposes winning a minimum necessary level of agreement on a revolutionary programme and grouping together conscious vanguard fighters for the purpose of intervening in the wider workers’ movement, whether in the form of fraction work, entrism or as an independent party.

The level of agreement necessary to enter new radical formations alongside other leftists is correspondingly lower, since it is a tactic aimed not at dozens and hundreds, but at tens of thousands. However, the link between the two tactics lies in the necessity for revolutionaries to act as a disciplined "core" in reformist and centrist parties. Without this, no amount of grandiose "recomposition" schemes will add up to a row of beans at the end of the day. Herein lies the importance of an active attitude to regroupment. It follows from this that serious members of the USFI, the Lambertists, Morenoites, etc, must give up the pretence that they are the world Trotskyist movement and instead seriously assess the other forces which lay claim, to the name of Trotskyism and orientate to them on that basis.