Building the fourth tendency: One banner, many flags

Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group (faction of the SWP) calls for communist rapprochement

In March 1921 the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) split and fought to the death over the ice at Kronstadt. The programme of the minority was for rebuilding workers’ democracy, elections to soviets, free speech, etc. The majority backed the Bolshevik government and its policy of war communism, which now came to mean war between communists. A majority of Kronstadt communists supported the uprising and many Red Army units either refused to fight or were reluctant to do so.

With these tragic events, the Russian revolution imploded. As a temporary measure, factions were banned inside the party. This became permanent. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union began the long process of degeneration and decline, which came to an end in 1991, when the USSR was abolished. Over these 70 years, the communist movement has been deeply divided.

During and after 1921 Lenin became seriously ill and later died. Not before he had become very worried by the growth of bureaucratic state power and the danger posed by Stalin. Following the death of Lenin, Stalin ousted Zinoviev, Trotsky and eventually Bukharin. The split between Stalin and Trotsky led eventually to the foundation of the Fourth International and Trotsky’s murder. In the 1940s the Trotskyist movement split. Armed with the theories of Raya Dunayevskaya and Tony Cliff, a new tendency arose based on the view that the USSR was state capitalist.

What kind of workers’ state was the USSR? The Trotskyists swore blind it was a bureaucratic and degenerate one. The state capitalists, on the other hand, claimed that without proletarian democracy, it was not a workers state at all, despite nationalisation of the means of production.

One of the central issues was the question of revolutionary workers’ democracy. Without revolutionary democracy, within the soviets and in the communist parties, it was impossible for the working class to win the world revolution. History has proven that communism without revolutionary democracy is like a car without an engine. It just does not go anywhere. It is a lesson that all communists need to learn and apply.

After 1945, the cold war kept the communist movement divided. In the UK three main tendencies dominated the movement. The Stalinists were organised in the CPGB. The Trotskyists were organised into the Socialist Labour League (SLL) - later to become the WRP - and also in the rival Militant Tendency. The International Socialists, since renamed the Socialist Workers Party, became the focal point for the “state capitalists”.

From the mid-1970s, the struggle between these three tendencies for the right to challenge capitalism was confronted by a new set of circumstances. World capitalism moved into crisis and mass unemployment returned to the industrial centres. The world crisis soon impacted on the USSR. Threatened by huge foreign debts and an unproductive and uncompetitive economy, the ruling class in the USSR took the path of market reforms.

During the 1980s the CPGB and the WRP broke up. The Militant Tendency enjoyed a relatively successful period when the Labour Party moved left. Later it split between Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe. The old Militant Tendency became first Militant Labour and then divided between England (Socialist Party) and Scotland (Scottish Militant Labour). The state capitalist tendency has remained relatively intact and focused on the SWP. But it has produced a host of tiny groups of dissidents including Workers Power, Revolutionary Communist Party, who left the tendency, and the RDG and International Socialist Group who remained as state caps.

Between the tragic events of Kronstadt and the end of the USSR (1991) the communist movement has been steadily breaking up and fragmenting. It would be surprising if the shock waves from those 70 years did not continue to reverberate for many years to come. Revolutionary democratic communism has been a tendency waiting to be reborn. It has been struggling for life within the wreckage of the Stalinist, Trotskyist and state capitalist tendencies.

The ending of the USSR in 1991 is in many ways a watershed for the communist movement. In the past, rapprochement between the three main tendencies was objectively impossible. Every occasion that the Soviet Union intervened abroad, in for example Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan, these divisions widened and splits were inevitable.

Since 1991 the objective circumstances are ripe for rebuilding communist unity and rapprochement. The communist movement can be turned in the opposite direction. We can see examples of elements from the old tendencies beginning a dialogue. Debating and drawing lessons from the Soviet experience remains the major source of communist theory. At heart are the central theoretical questions of what constitutes capitalism, socialism and communism. But this debate will not be shattered by an invasion of soviet tanks or the stepping up of the nuclear arms race between the USSR and the USA.

Today the process of fragmentation continues. New fragments are appearing all the time. For example, we have seen the Socialist Democracy Group and, within the last few weeks, Socialist Perspectives emerge. At the same time we can see movement in the opposite direction, towards unity. We have seen the SLP and the Socialist Alliances bring comrades together. But these moves to unity are not based on revolutionary democratic communist politics. They are not primarily about communist unity. They are about left unity against Labour.

The time is now ripe for a new pro-rapprochement tendency. The basis for this is not “Stalinism” or “Trotskyism” or “Marxism-Leninism” but revolutionary democratic communism. However, without the conscious action, intervention and support of communists, it will not happen. Spontaneity will not create a new tendency. Revolutionary democratic communists, in whichever tendency they currently reside, must work for this new unity. We must win the argument with other comrades that in the new post-USSR epoch all communists have a duty and responsibility to work for communist unity. This must be a central strategic task. We must work to gather all revolutionary democratic communists under one banner. But we must make it clear that each constituent group can carry its own flag.

It is in this context that the organising committee of the revolutionary democratic communist tendency has invited the CPGB, RDG, Open Polemic, Republican Worker Tendency, Marxist Bulletin, Socialist Democracy Group, and Socialist Perspectives to the first of three meetings. At these meetings we intend to discuss the ongoing process of forming a new tendency. 

The emergence of a new tendency, alongside the three old tendencies, may prove to be the most significant development in the communist movement since 1991. Cynics may wonder whether we really need a fourth tendency. Aren’t three enough? The answer is that we need a fourth tendency because the other three are failing. We need a fourth tendency to provide an alternative way forward to that offered by the SWP, Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Britain. We need a fourth tendency to work for communist rapprochement.

The fourth tendency may be the smallest, but it will survive if, and only if, it meets the needs of our movement at the present time. We have to show that rapprochement can work. To begin with, we will draw together comrades and groups that have come from all three of the old tendencies. Certainly there will be state capitalists from an IS/SWP background and comrades whose background was in the Stalinist and Euro-Stalinist CPGB. There is every possibility that some revolutionary democratic Trotskyists will participate.

Of course this new initiative may fail. There have been plenty of past failures. There are many reasons why it could go pear-shaped. There are sectarian groups which refuse or fail to work seriously for unity. There is a history of sectarian rivalries that have poisoned relationships within our movement. We have the egos of all the various leaders. We have the machinations of spies and agents within our movement who are paid to ferment divisions and splits. Even if we can overcome this, we may still fail. But even a failed attempt is well worth the effort. For like every struggle, there is much to learn in the process and much to gain. 

Let us raise the banner of revolutionary democratic communism.

We will soon begin to see who rallies to our side.