Principle not diplomacy
Mike Macnair explores the Mandelite ‘Fourth International’ and its commitment to fudge, concealing differences and upholding bland generalities in unity projects
Andries Stroper’s October 13 report of the September 25 socialist conference in the Netherlands produced a critical comment from Jack Conrad in this paper’s letter page (October 20) - and this, in its turn, generated an equally sharp reply from comrade Stroper the following week.
The issue at stake is the approach of the conference to the Ukraine war and, in particular, to the Netherlands section of the Mandelite ‘Fourth International’ Socialistische Alternatieve Politiek (SAP, formerly Socialistische Arbeiderspartij). Of course, the Mandelite ‘FI’ has adopted a pro-Nato line in this war, backing demands for increased arms supplies to Ukraine when this is the existing policy of the US and Nato, and when the arms supplies already in operation are close enough to “co-belligerency” in international law to worry pro-US international lawyers.1
The effect is that the FI sections in Nato countries have in substance adopted a policy of support for their own capitalist states in war, by the same route as the pro-Entente socialists in 1914: that is, making the self-determination of nations (‘plucky little Serbia’ and ‘bleeding Belgium’) primary, and inter-imperialist conflict secondary. Honourable exceptions can be found in the US group, Socialist Action, and (less clearly) the Greek OKDE-Spartakos.2
Comrade Conrad charged the Netherlands comrades of the Communist Platform (CP) with ‘centrism’, meaning that they had preferred unity with the Mandelite social-patriots to taking a clear political stance on the war question. Comrade Stroper’s response argued that the CP and its individual comrades and co-thinkers did fight against the SAP, etc on the war question in the run-up to the conference and at it, and that the formulation the conference adopted on the national question did amount to rejection of the Mandelites’ arguments.
In this article I am not concerned mainly with the Mandelites’ collapse into social-patriotism. However, I will make two brief observations on this. The first is that the Mandelites’ road to social-patriotism has, I think, been brought about by their enthusiasm for ‘whatever moves’ - in particular in the form of street demonstrations.
This has then reached the point that they are unable to distinguish between an actual mass movement, on the one hand, and, on the other, a “well-orchestrated swell of public protest” or demonstrations ancillary to a coup operation, like the demonstrations mounted against Mossadeq in Iran in 1953 or against Allende in Chile in 1972-73. The 2014 ‘Euromaidan’, mobilising a few thousand people, was fairly plainly the second sort of event. The people targeted by such operations do not have to be on the left: merely people who fail to do what the USA currently wants - witness the US elaborate efforts to capture the opposition to the Iranian regime. The effect of the Mandelites’ approach is to be led by the nose by one or another faction of the capitalist regime: Ukraine is only the most recent instance.
My second observation is that supporting your own state in war inevitably poisons all other politics. It does so in the first place because war costs money and sacrifice: and the working class globally is being asked to accept substantial material sacrifices in rising energy prices, grain prices and so on for the sake of western ‘sanctions’ - siege warfare - against Russia. How can the FI really campaign for working class action against the cost-of-living crisis, when they themselves support ‘sanctions’ and demand that more resources go to “arm, arm, arm Ukraine”?
It does so secondly because the state underwrites the capitalist order, and it has been through state controls and interventions that the gains of the working class in the later 19th century and down to the 1970s have been rolled back in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We live under a sort of capitalist order where the state artificially constructs ‘private’ businesses which depend on subsidy and cannot go bankrupt - analogous to the Roman imperial period state which artificially promoted ‘cities’, or to the European counter-reformation ancien régimes which artificially promoted ‘nobilities’ and clericalism. Any serious socialism thus needs as much disloyalism towards the existing states as was displayed by the Dutch ‘Sea Beggars’ in 1569-72, or the British opposition political leaders who invited a full-scale Dutch invasion in 1688.
Defencism towards your own state, in contrast, paralyses political action - not only directly against the state, but also a long way less than the immediate overthrow of the state. This was very visible in the Corbyn leadership’s craven capitulation to the ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign in the Labour Party and its ‘parliamentary cretinist’ approach to the Brexit question; setting it up for radical defeat in 2019.
My main concern in this article, however, is not the Mandelites’ collapse into social-patriotism. It is clear from comrade Stroper’s reply that the Netherlands CP comrades do seek to fight against social-patriotism. Rather, it is the Mandelites’ diplomatic approach to the construction of unity - which runs much deeper in the history of Mandelism, and is as poisonous in the long run as social-patriotism. Comrade Stroper’s article and letter imply, I think, that the CP comrades have not fully grasped how this Mandelite method works and why it is to be rejected.
First, a little Trotskyist history: not because Trotsky is to be treated as holy writ, but just as part of the background. I begin with a couple of Trotsky quotations from 1933:
In the last years not a few documents have been written, including an official Comintern programme which had one single aim: to gloss over ideological contradictions, reconcile irreconcilable opinions, justify total errors and conceal the oscillations of the leadership, not to speak of its formulas …
Uniform, literary, ostentatious ‘declarations’ are not needed by the Left Opposition. Such declarations abound in the Comintern, whose allegiance - already sworn to ‘the general line’ and the ‘leaders’ - ties its hands when it comes to unexpected vacillations and manoeuvres. We do not counterpose the holy ‘general line’ to its sinful ‘application’, as the Christians counterpose the spirit to the flesh. Only through the flesh does the spirit become manifest. Only through the application does the real value of the general line become manifest.3
Trotsky’s references to the “general line” are to the CPSU practice of voting on the “general line” of documents in the post-1924 period, rather than voting directly on the actual and amendable text, in order to create majorities which included radical disagreement.
Then there is this from 1934:
c. Centrism voluntarily proclaims its hostility to reformism, but it is silent about centrism; more than that it thinks the very idea of centrism ‘obscure’, ‘arbitrary’, etc. In other words, centrism dislikes being called centrism.
d. The centrist, never sure of his position and his methods, regards with detestation the revolutionary principle: ‘State that which is’; it inclines to substituting, in the place of political principles, personal combinations and petty organisational diplomacy.
e. The centrist always remains in spiritual dependence upon right groupings, is induced to court the goodwill of the most moderate, to keep silent about their opportunist faults and to regild their actions before the workers.4
In spite of these arguments, and repeated comments of the same sort by Trotsky, the post-war Fourth International was characterised by the persistent use of documents which restated the pre-war ‘orthodoxy’ in general and abstract ways - creating what were, in fact, false majorities, within which the actual concrete political issues remained to be decided.
The diplomacy was partly internal. But it was also diplomatic towards the groups with which the FI was trying to work or to reconcile. Thus in the 1946 international conference and 1948 second congress, the FI was leaning towards unification with the third-campists who had split from it since 1938, and had stressed the demand for withdrawal of Soviet troops from eastern Europe - which would in practice have meant the prompt entry of ‘western’ (not yet Nato) troops. The Tito-Stalin split and the Korean war led the FI leadership to hold out hopes in left wings emerging in the communist parties (at least where these had a mass character) and the 1951 third world congress ‘spun’ the texts delicately in this direction. And so on.
Fourth International documents have, down to very recently, retained the character of ‘orthodoxy’ in abstract, but this ‘orthodoxy’ covers operative consequences which are very different, and which usually subordinate programmatic and strategic coordinates to the tactical framework: “to gloss over ideological contradictions, reconcile irreconcilable opinions, justify total errors, and conceal the oscillations of the leadership”.
I said that Trotsky is not to be treated as holy writ. Indeed, that Trotsky’s approach in the 1930s was ‘sectarian’ has almost become a generally accepted orthodoxy. So I do not say that it is sufficient to say that Mandelite broad-frontism and the use of diplomatic documents, diplomatic silences (and “general lines” that go along with this policy) is “centrist” because this was Trotsky’s diagnosis of this policy when he encountered it in a variety of groups and trends both outside and within the small movement which in 1938 created the Fourth International. It is perfectly possible in principle that Trotsky was simply wrong.
We can, however, form an assessment of the consequences of the Mandelite policy, as it has been applied by the Mandelites in the last 50 years. And this assessment is inevitably rather damning. I have written about it several times over the last 20 years, and one of the pieces - my 2014 review of the late Daniel Bensaïd’s book translated as An impatient life - the FI people actually put up on their own International Viewpoint website.5 In June 2012 my two-part review of the book New parties of the left explored the history since the 1980s at considerable length.6
There are, in fact, persistent patterns visible. The Mandelites’ diplomatic approach leads them, within broad-front unity projects, to act as gatekeepers supporting the ‘official left’ leadership against ‘sectarians’ who fail to accept their diplomatic approach. The Fourth International Supporters’ Caucus in the Socialist Labour Party carried this to the extent of serving as agents for purging left opponents (before they were themselves purged). But the Mandelites in the Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), and in Rifondazione Comunista in Italy offered themselves as “responsible” and “non-sectarian” “Trotskyists” - whose role was still to function, by virtue of their diplomatic method, as ‘left’ supporters of the leaderships against left critics. The end result in the PT was that the majority of the Mandelites became simple supporters of the PT leadership; in Rifondazione the Mandelites broke at the last minute with the leadership, after Rifondazione had joined a coalition government which participated in the war in Afghanistan, and the split processes - given the absence of a clear factional battle in advance - ended in the simple collapse of Rifondazione.
In Britain, the Mandelites have been through a series of ‘unity projects’ - both in the form of broad-front projects and ‘revolutionary regroupment’ projects within these. The broad-front projects have not lasted - but neither have the ‘revolutionary regroupments’. The organisation which is now ‘Anticapitalist Resistance’ was before that ‘Socialist Resistance’ and before that in turn the ‘International Socialist Group’ (ISG).
The ISG originated in 1987 as a regroupment. On one side were tendencies which had recently split from the old International Marxist Group-Socialist League - principally the International Group led by Phil Hearse, Dave Packer and others; on the other the Socialist Group of Alan Thornett, John Lister and others, who had recently been expelled from Sean Matgamna’s Socialist Organiser group (itself a collapsed regroupment; now Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - or is it ‘Atlanticists for Workers’ Liberalism’?). The regroupment was joined by elements of the Chartist Minority Tendency which ran Labour Briefing; by the Socialist Labour Group, the British group of the Lambertiste ‘Fourth International - International Centre for Reconstruction’; and by some others. By the early 1990s the group was plainly merely an enlarged International Group: Alan Thornett had become fully integrated in the Mandelite core, the Socialist Group wing had withered away, and most of the other tendencies (including what became the Fourth International Supporters’ Caucus in the Socialist Labour Party) had split off. The 1990s were to see a series of further splits and attrition, which reduced the ISG to a small size.
In part these splits were attributable to dogmatism on the part of the splitters. In particular, for the Chartist Minority Tendency and the Lambertistes, Labour Party entry was a matter of strategic principle and any involvement at all with attempts to regroup the left which went beyond the Labour left therefore amounted to a ‘principled’ basis for a split.
More fundamentally, however, what made it impossible for the differences within the ISG to be contained within a single organisation were two fundamental and linked features of the Mandelite ‘tradition’: the diplomatic conceptions both of ‘the united front’ and of party unity. The original 1987 unification was on the basis of agreement on documents which were fuzzy on questions of principle, rather than openly and clearly expressing points of difference: they could therefore be agreed by comrades who held mutually opposed strategic conceptions. The Mandelites also work in the same way in relation to their version of the policy of the ‘united front’: it involves, for them, diplomatic accommodations of their public political positions to the people they plan to work with.
These diplomatic approaches have two consequences. The first is that, since strategic and programmatic principles are never clarified, any unification is in fact not on the basis of principles, but of tactics. As soon as the tactical agreement is overturned by new developments in the political situation, the basis for unity disappears. The second is that the public press of the group has to apply the diplomatic approach to the group’s current external collaborators. As a result, the press is bound to be politically anodyne in character and controlled by a narrow group who ‘really’ understand the tactic.
A trivial example from my own experience - in 1986-87 I wrote for the IG-ISG’s journal a critique of Militant’s policy of introducing socialism through an ‘Enabling Act’. My critique was based on the politics of British constitutional law. Publication was refused on the ground that this would be read as an implicit critique of the IG-ISG’s Labour-left allies. I was perfectly well aware that I held minority positions in the IG-ISG, though I was surprised to find that I held them on this particular question, and I was an old lag (long-time dissident). So this little bit of bureaucratism was no great shock to me. For other comrades - who had believed what was said in the unification discussions, when tactical differences came to the fore, and as a result they came up against this bureaucratic-clique self-censorship of the group’s press - reasons for staying in the group were weak.
The political approach of diplomatic silence in broader organisations thus entails the silencing of dissenting views which might disturb the broader diplomatic unity. And this is turn produces unmotivated and unprincipled splits and attrition of membership at the base.
The common criticism of Trotsky’s approach in the 1930s as ‘sectarian’ is thus radically misconceived. The diplomatic self-censorship approach itself produces not only unprincipled unity, but also anti-democratic functioning and short-lived unity, broken up by the next sharp turn in politics.
‘Unity is strength’ is an old motto of the workers’ movement (though it has antecedents going even further back in history). It is the elementary basis of trade unions and other workers’ organisations: the capitalist class wants the workers to compete against each other, whether as individuals or as sectional groups; to get decent wages, working and living conditions, workers need to organise the maximum possible unity.
The history of the ‘new parties of the left’ is yet another demonstration of this very elementary point. By uniting, those on the left have shown themselves able to grow and have an impact well beyond their initial numbers. In contrast, the disunity of the small groups of the far left renders us politically impotent and ineffective. Because it is opposed to the most elementary interests of the working class, and hence to the instincts of the broad layer of trade union activists, etc, disunity opposes the groups to the class which they aim to organise.
The history also shows something else which follows from the last point. This is that disunity and the multiplication of small groups is not a result of separation from the broader class movement, but rather tends to produce this separation. In a certain sense this should already have been obvious from the history of hostile, competing far-left groups within the British trade unions and Labour Party. But the inability of the Trotskyists to unite as such within the PT and within Rifondazione demonstrates, yet again, that involvement in a broader movement - in the PT, clearly a class movement - does not solve the problem. I address this point to the Trotskyists, but it is, of course, equally true of ‘orthodox’ Maoists and of those non-Maoist, anti-revisionist trends which cling to the conception of the monolithic ‘party of a new type’. Anarchists have always been ultra-fissile, since this is merely the logic of their ideas.
However, ‘unity is strength’ contains within it an implicit potential trap. That is the idea that if we all thought the same way and spoke the same way, we would be stronger still. This idea is instantiated in the form of the ideas of the monolithic party, and of the party which keeps its own differences hidden and speaks in one voice only to the outside world.
It is also instantiated in the idea of ‘strict unity of will’, which carries with it forms of ‘labour monarchy’: the idea that unity is to be achieved through the role of a single, charismatic central leader. Or, in other words, the cult of the personality: of Lassalle, of the dead Lenin, of Stalin - and, on a smaller (and declining) scale, of Lula in the PT, of Bertinotti in Rifondazione, of Tommy Sheridan in the Scottish Socialist Party or of George Galloway in Respect.
The capitalist regime prefers workers’ organisations to have such a single identifiable leader. Such leaders de facto promote the ideology of the necessity of one-man management, which is part of the ideology of capitalist rule, and is expressed in the ‘single person’ - monarch, president or prime minister - found in all capitalist state constitutions. Single leaders are also more amenable to corruption, integration in the normal capitalist political circus, blackmail, or ‘exposure’ of this or that scandal, than collective leaderships. Hence, the capitalist media will positively promote the ‘single identifiable leader’.
The conceptual trap arises from a misunderstanding of the nature of workers’ unity. This is not an organic, spontaneous unity like the unity of a family, a tribe or a peasant village. It is a unity consciously constructed - among people who are members of diverse families and from diverse localities and, often enough, national backgrounds - in order to achieve specific goals in the everyday struggle with capital. Put another way, it is a unity constructed out of and on the basis of the real degree of individual liberty - to choose your employer, landlord, and so on, to migrate - which is provided by capitalist impersonal market relations.
The consequence is that real, effective workers’ unity must be unity in diversity: must be accompanied by variety, disagreement and discussion. Otherwise, the unity will break up, whether in splits, or in the attrition of individual members leaving or merely retreating from activity. That means open democratic functioning.
Stalinist monolithism worked because it was backed by the combination of the prestige of the Russian Revolution, with direct and systematic intervention in the ‘official communist’ parties by the Soviet state, both with the carrot of subsidy and the stick of exclusions (and in the Soviet-style regimes, police action). Attempts to copy it by groups without state backing merely produce small cults and endless splits.
In the Labour/Socialist parties, attempts to create strong monolithism have been rarer. The recent history of the British Labour Party is a fairly striking example. It is perfectly clear that the effect is attrition of the party’s ability to mobilise at the base. This is, again, in the interests of the capitalist class, because it produces increased dependence on the capitalist media in elections.
There is a second element of the trap. Suppose that the leadership of the workers’ organisation is in fact captured by the capitalist class through corruption or integration into the regime; and that it has sufficient power, with the backing of the bourgeois state, to suppress or marginalise dissent. In this case, to choose unity is to choose silence and compliance with capitalist interests. This does not only occur with parties, but also with trade unions: the ‘New Unionism’ of 1880s Britain and the Congress of Industrial Organizations of the 1930s USA both involved partial splits in trade union organisations.
Hence, above, I said ‘maximum possible unity’. It is not an absolute given that full unity is possible. Whatever judgment one might make of the tactics and of the failure to prepare for the possibility of a split, the anti-governmentalist wing of Democracia Socialista was right to split with the governmentalists; Sinistra Critica was right to split Rifondazione. And so on.
The Mandelites’ diplomatic approach to unity is that of Georgi Dimitrov, which he argued at the 7th Congress of Comintern: the idea of the united front as an agreement involving the suspension of criticism, as opposed to Trotsky’s ideas and those of the Third and Fourth Congresses of the Comintern, which argued for unity in action with freedom of criticism.
Equally, ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ organisations routinely use the arguments which were deployed by Stalin and his co-thinkers against Trotsky and his co-thinkers in the 1920s, rejecting the arguments to be found in the 1920s opposition platforms and in Trotsky’s book The Third International after Lenin, and operate regimes which are less transparent and democratic than the western ‘official communist’ parties were.
The ‘party of a new type’ and the Dimitrov conception of the united front are interlinked. If the basis of the ‘revolutionary party’ is to be unity of thought and the absence of public criticism, it inevitably follows that a united front can only exist with (at least partial) suspension of criticism. Put another way, in the ‘Dimitrov united front’, the big bureaucrats of social democracy and trade unions, and the lesser bureaucrats of the CPs, scratch each others’ backs, keeping differences private and away from the masses. In forms like Respect and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition the same dynamic operates between the lesser bureaucrats of the ‘official left’ and the micro-bureaucrats of the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, and so on.
The Mandelites preserved, where the ortho-Trots abandoned, the idea that dissent within the party is normal, and a partial (not complete) rejection of the use of factitious disciplinary charges to expel opponents. Until the mid-1970s, they shared with the ortho-Trots the idea that public dissent is unacceptable. The rise of Eurocommunism, however, led to more or less open factional battles within the communist parties, and in these conditions the Mandelites were led to a degree of open dissent: it was obviously untenable that the Trotskyists should be visibly less open than the ‘official communists’. At first public disagreement was usually rationed, in the sense that it was limited to faction ‘tribunes’ in pre-conference discussion periods; gradually, though still incompletely, it has become wider.
The Mandelites have, nonetheless, retained the fundamental Dimitrov conception of the united front, and the existence of large classes of disagreements which are kept private in the leaderships, not disclosed to the membership (or a fortiori to readers of the party press). The open expression of disagreement is avoided, not usually by disciplinary measures, but by the construction of a spurious unity through diplomatic documents and resolutions. This is true both in the internal life of their own organisations, and in broad-front projects to which they are party. The cases of the Mandelites’ operations in Brazil, Italy and Britain make clear where this policy leads: in the end, to confused and demoralising splits.
Effective unity over any serious period of time will require a clear break with bureaucratic centralism and monolithism - both in its ‘Stalinist’ form of bureaucratic suppression of dissent, and in the ‘Mandelite’ form of fuzzing over differences by diplomatic formulations, for the sake of a unity which is, at the end of the day, unity on tactics only.
Unity has to be on the basis of a clear strategic programme; one which is accepted as a basis for common action, with differences openly recognised, rather than ‘agreed’. It requires the open expression of internal differences in the party press, not self-censorship. That means that it does not work to hold off on voting on concrete issues - like the war - and vote only on ‘general lines’ and general principles. However much comrades may start with good intentions, this course of action unavoidably sells the pass to those who are committed to the Dimitrov conception of diplomatic unity - together with all its negative consequences.
Eg, lieber.westpoint.edu/ukraine-neutrality-co-belligerency-use-of-force (March 7 2022), when we see wriggling to avoid the conclusion that the Nato arms supplies to Ukraine amount to co-belligerency.↩︎
Socialist Action: eg. socialistaction.org/2022/10/21/obliterating-russias-nord-stream-pipelines-and-crimea-bridge-us-imperialisms-trillion-dollar-fossil-fuel-gambit. OKDE-Spartakos: www.okde.org/index.php/en/announcements/86-anakoinwseis/969-a-critique-to-the-decisions-of-the-executive-bureau-of-the-fourth-international-concerning-the-war-in-ukraine.↩︎
‘On the preconference of the Left Opposition’, March 1933: www.sites.google.com/site/sozialistischeklassiker2punkt0/leon-trotsky/1933/leon-trotsky-a-great-success.↩︎
‘Two articles on centrism’, February/March 1934: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1934/02/centrism.htm.↩︎
‘Daniel Bensaïd: repeated disappointments’ Weekly Worker July 31 2014: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1021/daniel-bensaid-repeated-disappointments. See also internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3513.↩︎
‘The Fourth International and failed perspectives’ Weekly Worker June 7 2012 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/917/the-fourth-international-and-failed-perspectives); ‘Strategy and freedom of criticism’, June 13 2012 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/918/strategy-and-freedom-of-criticism). See also ‘“Regroupment” or rebranding’, July 2 2008 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/728/regroupment-or-rebranding); and ‘EuroTrotskyism’, June 4 2003 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/483/eurotrotskyism).↩︎