On Recent Departures From the IBT

Regular readers of APST (alternative-politics-socialism-trotsky) internet newsgroup may have recently come upon a 21 February statement by three ex-IBT members in New York (led by Jim Cullen, a former 1917 Editorial Board member) explaining their resignations from our organization. Losing members is not usually a cause for celebration, particularly in the case of comrades like Jim, who made significant contributions during his ten year membership. These resignations were prepared by a lengthy political discussion during the course of which it became clear that Jim and his co-thinkers had developed very profound differences--not only with the current political views of the majority of the IBT, but also with the validity of the efforts of the Revolutionary Tendency/international Spartacist tendency to preserve the legacy of the Fourth International under Trotsky. These differences were profound enough for our departed comrades to call into question the possibility, and perhaps even the utility, of constructing a democratic-centralist organization on the program of Trotskyism in the current period.

In the first issue of our journal, 1917, we declared:

"We are partisans of 1917. We base ourselves on the program and strategy of the leadership of that revolution, Lenin and Trotsky. We stand on the documents of the first four congresses of the Communist International; on the struggle of the Left Opposition against the Stalinist political counterrevolution; on the founding documents of the Fourth International and the revolutionary traditions of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) led by James P. Cannon from the 1930s to the 1950s. The SWP leadership abandoned the struggle to build a Trotskyist vanguard in the early 1960s in favor of reliance on the objective process of history....Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the programmatic heritage of Trotskyism was represented by the Spartacist tendency. This tradition we claim as our own."

We would not change a single word of this today. But our three ex-comrades, all of whom joined our group on the basis of explicit agreement with this perspective, have changed their minds. Their differences were expressed centrally over the question of whether the Transitional Program, drafted by Trotsky in 1938, retains its essential validity today. During internal discussion Jim wrote:

"The fundamental question about the TP today is thus: Did the post-war world represent a continuation of the same epoch as Trotsky describes in the TP, in which case the perspectives it contains remain fundamentally our own? Or did it, on the contrary, represent a different epoch, in which case a re-evaluation of perspectives is called for?"

Such a "re-evaluation of perspectives" must ultimately pose the question of the feasibility of socialist revolution in this historical period. In their 21 February statement Jim and his adherents take particular exception to our statement that, "the fundamental economic processes of the capitalist world economy, the role of national states in them, and the relationship between state power and economics has not changed" since the time of Lenin. This is the nub of our difference.

We agree with Lenin that the outbreak of World War I in 1914 signaled, on a global scale, the complete exhaustion of any progressive historical mission for world capitalism, and put socialist revolution on the agenda. We share Lenin's assessment of the imperialist epoch as one chiefly characterized by wars and revolutions. We therefore consider the fundamental lessons of Bolshevism (codified in the Transitional Program) to be as valid today as they were in 1918, 1938 or 1968.

The three comrades who left the IBT have draw different conclusions. They think we are mistaken, and that since 1945 we have been living in a new "epoch" of capitalism in which socialist revolution has not been on the historical agenda, at least in the imperialist countries. Consequently, they now consider the Transitional Program to be only of historical interest.

There can only basically be two kinds of programs which proworking class organizations can advocate. One is a "transitional program," i.e., a program to connect the struggles of today with the necessity of socialist revolution. The other is a reformist or "minimal-maximal" program--i.e., a program premised on the belief that workers' interests can only be advanced by accepting the inevitability of the indefinite continuation of capitalist rule, while hoping that humanity is somehow able to make the transition to socialism at some point in the distant future. In the Transitional Program Trotsky attempted to synthesize the key political lessons learned from the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution, the revolutionary Communist International and the Left Opposition.

Comrade Cullen is not the first to consider the post-war capitalist expansion to have rendered the Transitional Program irrelevant. Michel Pablo and Tony Cliff (who did not agree on much in the early 1950s) both came to this conclusion almost 50 years ago. While the views of Pablo and his followers went through many subsequent permutations, Cliff's attitude remained fairly consistent over the decades. Jim has come to share Cliff's view on this question:

"These transitional demands fitted a situation of general crisis, of capitalism in deep slump. But under conditions of a massive expansion of capitalism, as took place after the Second World War, these demands were at best meaningless, and at worst reactionary. To limit wages rises to the rise in the cost of living was a demand of the capitalists and against the aspirations of the workers who wanted to improve their living standards. And in conditions of more or less full employment, a `sliding scale of hours' is really meaningless.
"Similarly, other demands in Trotsky's Transitional Programme, such as the establishment of `workers' defense guards,' `workers' militia,' and `the arming of the proletariat,' certainly did not fit a non-revolutionary situation. Sadly many Trotskyists dogmatically repeated these slogans.
"The basic assumption behind Trotsky's Transitional Demands was that the economic crisis was so deep that the struggle for even the smallest improvement in workers' conditions would bring conflict with the capitalist system itself. When life disproved the assumption the ground fell from beneath the programme."
--Trotsky: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star,
Tony Cliff (1993), p 300

We do not think the ground has fallen away from beneath the Transitional Program--we assert that it remains, in its essentials, as relevant today as the Leninist tradition which it codifies. Cliff has no use for the Transitional Program because his organization abjures "sectarian" insistence on struggling for the revolutionary program in favor of tailoring its politics to the enthusiasms of the moment. Jim's political/organizational conclusions are as yet somewhat cloudier, but the direction is clear enough from his comment that it would be "absurd" for he and his followers to consider launching any sort of organization.

Whatever one thinks of such absurdities, we do not subscribe to the notion that the working class can be liberated without the agency of a Leninist party. Nor can such a party be thrown together in the course of an upsurge in class struggle. We have no reason to revise the assessment we made in the first issue of 1917:

"The revolutionary vanguard is distinguished above all by the fact that it is the bearer of the historically derived programmatic knowledge necessary to advance the struggle for workers power....The importance of a revolutionary organization in the workers movement in periods of ebb in the class struggle is primarily to serve as an ideological pole to which to recruit and train the cadres necessary to lead the inevitable struggles to come. A revolutionary vanguard cannot be improvised on the spur of the moment. It will not emerge semi-spontaneously in the `process' of the class struggle."

The Transitional Program was written by one of the Marxist movement's greatest thinkers, and we see no historical or theoretical reason to junk it. Moreover, our senior cadre have personal experience, largely through participation in the exemplary trade-union work initiated by the then-revolutionary Spartacist League/U.S. of the 1970s, in the possibilities for carrying out effective, practical class struggle activity on the basis of the Transitional Program. This was one of the most important political contributions by the Spartacist League in its revolutionary period, and the record of it provides a concrete, historical proof of the continuing relevance of the program of our movement. In the abstract it can be difficult to appreciate the power of the program to intersect the consciousness of workers in struggle. But those of us who were fortunate enough to have participated in this work have seen in life that, if it is flexibly and intelligently applied, the Transitional Program is more than a historical relic.

* * *

Attentive readers may note that in their 17-page explanation for their quit (Part 1), our ex-comrades hardly touch on the issue of the Transitional Program. This may reflect a certain subjective difficulty in facing the full implications of their break with revolutionary activity. Similar considerations made Jim anxious to walk out at the beginning of a scheduled day-long discussion on his differences regarding the Transitional Program. We are glad he at least stayed long enough to provide an opportunity through written discussion to deepen the understanding and commitment of our membership to the traditions of Bolshevism.

Rather than address the core issues in dispute, (at least in Part 1 of their statement), Jim et al expound on the interesting, but politically secondary, question of how to approach current developments in the EU. It is a bit difficult to understand the issues posed in this dispute clearly from the description which appears in our ex-comrades' quit statement, but, as they indicate, the dispute originated in a discussion of the position taken by former IBT members associated with the Marxist Bulletin within Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party in Britain. The passage Jim found so objectionable reads as follows:

"We reject the Maastricht plan for a imperialist super-state as well as the Eurosceptics' alternative, which points to an autarkic, protectionist Britain. We must prepare for aggressive resistance to all capitalist attacks on wages, living standards and social services, whether these are advanced on the grounds of promoting European integration, safeguarding British sovereignty or simply making British industry `competitive'. Workers' struggle across national lines--not nationalist poison--must be our reply to capitalist attacks.'"

This is clearly in accord with our previous published positions on the 1992 Maastricht referendum, as well as on the 1988 Canada/U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Jim and his supporters claim to be so appalled at the "ultra-leftism" and "abstentionism" of this position that they found themselves forced to abstain from further involvement in the difficult task of building a revolutionary Marxist political organization.

* * *

The political direction of our former comrades is clear enough for people who have some political experience. Last week's Weekly Worker, published by the Communist Party of Great Britain (which was amused that the IBT was hotly disputing positions originally put forward within the SLP) reported that Jim et al "seem to be on a liquidationist trajectory."

The past several decades have not been easy ones for those who seek to carry on revolutionary activity, and in few places has it been more difficult than in North America. In such circumstances it is not surprising that the backwardness of the political environment finds expression within the ranks of those who seek to transform it. Jim is not the first, nor will he be the last, whose revolutionary commitment has eroded over time and who has sought to cover a political retreat under the banner of "deepening" or "updating" the Marxist tradition. In his famous essay, "Stalinism and Bolshevism: Concerning the Historical and Theoretical Roots of the Fourth International" (29 August 1936) Trotsky observed:

"Great political defeats inevitably provoke a reconsideration of values, generally occurring in two directions. On the one hand the true vanguard, enriched by the experience of defeat, defends with tooth and nail the heritage of revolutionary thought and on this basis attempts to educate new cadres of the mass struggle to come. On the other hand the routinists, centrists, and dilettantes, frightened by defeat, do their best to destroy the authority of revolutionary tradition and go backward in their search for a `New Word.'"

Jim and his friends have been discouraged by the course of political developments in the last quarter of this century (and particularly the past decade) and have simply concluded that we, and those whose work we are continuing, have misread history in a rather fundamental way. While we cannot endorse their current views we recognize that, as they no longer believe in what we stand for, it was appropriate for them to move on. Perhaps now, freed of all organizational responsibilities, Jim and his comrades will find the time to engage in some of the "fresh Marxist thinking" they advocate. While we must naturally reserve final judgement until we see the results of their efforts, we are willing to venture a prediction that it will neither qualify as "fresh" nor "Marxist."

International Bolshevik Tendency, 14 March 1998