What is the Fourth International for? Mike Macnair discusses the recent congress of the USFI

The May issue of International Viewpoint carries reports of the 15th World Congress of the Fourth International, the international organisation to which the British International Socialist Group (ISG) is affiliated. The ISG’s Socialist Resistance newspaper contained a briefer report by Greg Tucker in March, with a slightly different slant; but International Viewpoint is the house organ of the Paris bureau of the Fourth International, so its report is more ‘from the horse’s mouth’.

It tells us, to start with, that the February congress had around 200 participants, representing sections and sympathising groups from 35 countries, with eight sending apologies, and a diverse range of “guests”, including among others the Australian Democratic Socialist Party, the Italian Partito della Rifondazione Comunista and our own Socialist Workers Party. From the number of participants and the delegate ratio usually employed for these congresses, we may guess that the organisation regroups something around 5,000 members. These will be overwhelmingly in the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) and the Brazilian Democracia Socialista (DS), with the other groups considerably smaller.


Both the Socialist Resistance and International Viewpoint reports call the congress a “relaunch”. This is unsurprising, given that eight years have passed since the last one - nearly three times the three-year time limit provided for by the Fourth International’s 1946 and 1974 statutes. The new congress has revised the statutes, among other changes extending the period to five years.

In addition, the new statutes provide for an executive bureau to be directly responsible to the international executive committee, removing the old ‘unified secretariat’, which in turn elected the ‘bureau of the unified secretariat’. This gave the organisation the name, ‘Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International’ (USFI or Usec to outsiders), which distinguished it from other ‘Fourth Internationals’. It reflects, belatedly, the departure in the late 70s and 80s of the coalition partners who made the USFI ‘unified’. On the other hand, the organisation’s main competitors in claiming the name of the Fourth International have collapsed into groupuscules (notably the ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’, led by Gerry Healy, which imploded in 1985-86). Though there are other Trot ‘internationals’ as large as the Fourth International, by and large they do not use the name.

The USFI-Fourth International has therefore re-inherited the name of the organisation founded by Trotsky in 1938 - effectively by being the last man standing. It had a slightly better claim to the name than the competitors anyhow. The organisation founded by Trotsky and his co-thinkers in 1938 collapsed in 1939-42; a large minority of the survivors reformed an international organisation under the same name in 1946, and the recent congress is the 15th, counting from the first in 1946. In 1953 the British, French and US majorities and some other groups split, claiming that the ‘Pabloite’ majority led by Michael Raptis, aka Pablo, was engaged in liquidating the international. In the end, the ‘Pabloite liquidators’ of the USFI turn out to have succeeded in maintaining the organisational forms of an international organisation where their anti-Pabloite opponents ... liquidated them.

There is a clear link to a second positive distinctive feature of the USFI-Fourth International: that is, that it maintains at least some of the forms of internal democracy. Greg Tucker in Socialist Resistance comments that, as a result of a ‘process of convergence’, “no-one found it necessary to organise factions or tendencies at this congress - the first time for many years that this has been the case” (March). It is certainly true that the USFI-Fourth International has been for many years and still is an organisation in which political debate takes place to some degree openly, and in which the struggle of organised tendencies and factions does not lead to short-term expulsions.

But if the USFI-Fourth International has preserved the forms of an international organisation, and to some degree a democratic organisation, the question it has never succeeded in answering is: what are these forms for?

The answer offered by the 15th World Congress, as quoted by François Vercammen in International Viewpoint, is that, “Our principal task as the Fourth International consists in contributing to a vast reorganisation of the labour and social movement on a world scale with our perspective: the constitution of a new internationalist, pluralist, revolutionary, militant force with a mass impact.” But if the task is simply one of “contributing”, why bother with an international organisation with its own press and apparatus and national sections, each with their own press and leadership? And what would make the hoped-for “new internationalist, pluralist, revolutionary, militant force with a mass impact” “revolutionary”?

These questions may sound rather abstract. But the need to “relaunch” the Fourth International reflects the fact that (as the resolution quoted by Vercammen delicately notes) “there is a significant gap between our underlying influence within movements and the political and organisational strengthening of our organisations”. Others have put it more crudely. The SWP’s Alex Callinicos a couple of years ago commented that “... the LCR in particular sometimes gives the impression that its activists in specific movements operate fairly autonomously, while the Ligue itself until recently took a low profile outside elections” (International Socialist Tendency website, ‘Regroupment, realignment and the revolutionary left’, undated). The ISG is also pretty recognisable in this portrait. A document put forward in 2000 by leaders of the ISG said:

“... there were already [in 1991] practical consequences, some of them disastrous. The clearest examples were in Germany and the Spanish state, where fusions with formerly Maoist groups led to a liquidation (virtual in the first case, explicit in the second) of FI forces. In Switzerland the section simply disappeared, without any process of fusion whatsoever (and without any report to the membership, or even to the leadership, about what had happened). In the USA the decision of one wing of FI supporters there to help create Solidarity was more ambiguous. Solidarity as an organisation has continued, and even (in the context of US politics) made some modest gains. But the identity of an explicitly FI current has been completely submerged, and the numbers of individuals who remain members of the FI has shrunk year by year.

“Latin America felt the effects of the ‘new’ thinking as well. The Peruvian section disappeared into the PUM. And during the course of the 1990s our Mexican section, the biggest in the International at the start of the decade, broke apart, as different wings started warring with each other, chasing after alliances with either the Cardenista movement or the Zapatistas” (ISG draft resolution to the USFI, 2001).

In short: the particular version of ‘regroupment’ - most recently ‘reorganisation of the labour and social movement’ - espoused by the Fourth International’s leadership since 1985 gave no political reason for its organisations to exist and consequently has led to a creeping tendency for them to dissolve.

Equally, the question of what counts as ‘revolutionary’ is not merely abstract, but rather concrete. The Brazilian DS holds (so far) a ministerial post in the popular front and presidentialist government of Lula in Brazil. Comrade Tucker reports doubts about this among the delegates to the world congress: good, but the fact that the Fourth International’s section winds up taking partial responsibility for a bourgeois government says something about its political ideas.

The French LCR calls for a vote for Chirac to keep Le Pen out, subordinating class independence to lesser-evilism. And, on a far smaller scale, the British ISG turns itself into a ‘less sectarian’ tail to the British SWP in the Socialist Alliance. It even writes and moves the resolution to give the SWP leaders a free hand for manoeuvres with the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) and the mosques. And these manoeuvres, in turn, attempt to feebly replicate the popular front strategy practised by the old Stalinised CPGB in the middle 1930s and episodically between then and its collapse.

What’s it for?

There can be no justification for maintaining a political organisation which has nothing to say to the workers’ movement which is not already being said by someone else. A Communist Party is not a substitute for the class movement: thus Marx and Engels in the Communist manifeso:

“The communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.

“The communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only:

(1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

(2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

“The communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

The Fourth International founded in 1938 offered a clear line of march to the workers’ movement. They expected World War II to display the same general military, economic and political dynamics as World War I, with the altered element that it was necessary to defend the USSR and to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy, which they expected to split down the middle between revolutionary defencists and pro-Nazi defeatists. The Transitional programme they adopted in 1938 was adapted to this expected line of march, but the course of the war comprehensively refuted their assessment and as a result politically smashed the 1938 international to smithereens.

The 1946 congress claimed to be the continuity of the 1938 international, but this ‘continuity’ was founded on a refusal to draw up any critical balance sheet of pre-war Trotskyism. In the result, all its descendants have been characterised by a brittle, dogmatic, formal adherence to the 1938 programme, coupled with a practice which plays this programme down in favour of one or another sort of get-rich-quick ‘party-building’ scheme - whether it is the voluntarism of the ‘anti-Pabloites’, the strategic entrism of the Grant tendency, or the ‘regroupmentism’ of the ‘Pabloites’. By pretending to stand on the 1938 programme and line of march, they in fact cease to propose any programme or line of march. Sooner or later the brittle, dogmatic orthodoxy collapses into something else.

USFI’s political collapse

By 1979 the USFI had been holding out to its militants for more than a quarter of a century the illusion that ‘our time will come’: that is, that the politics of the 1938 programme would somehow become relevant if the international could just make the ‘breakthrough’ somewhere. Trotskyism - including the USFI variant - had, however, remained stubbornly politically marginal through the Portuguese revolution in 1974-76, the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions in 1979, the Polish events of 1980-81, and the rise of the South African workers’ movement in the 1980s, leading to the fall of apartheid. The brittle Trotskyist orthodoxy of the USFI’s formal positions, undermined by its theoretical errors, was due for collapse, and collapse it duly did.

The first phase, in 1979, was an abandonment of the Marxist conception of the working class in favour of a sociological conception of the working class as ‘industrial workers’. The initiators of this turn were the US Socialist Workers Party, who used it to motivate a voluntaristic effort to ‘proletarianise’ the sections by sending everybody to take industrial jobs.

Exactly alongside this development and also proposed by the US SWP (and initially resisted by Mandel) was a ‘new understanding of class alliances’ in Latin America: that is, a shift away from the ‘permanent revolution’ (and, for that matter, Leninist) politics of the leading role of the working class in national and democratic revolutions, towards the inter-class blocs beloved of third world Stalinism. Once the Marxist concept of class is revised, the grounds for supposing that the working class has to take the lead are gone.

The abandonment of the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat began a little earlier, but took longer. The ‘Resolution on socialist democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat’ was drafted in response to the triumph of the social democrats in the Portuguese revolution. In its initial form it argued that revolutionary politics could only attract the masses through the masses having the experience of a “higher form of democracy”: ie, a dual power with soviets. This schema (not unlike the Revolutionary Democratic Group’s) was provisionally adopted in 1979. In the same period Eurocommunism was explained as a left turn of the European CPs in response to the pressure of the working class ...

By 1985 the majority had drawn further lessons from the Polish events: the rule of law, separation of powers and parliamentarism were now necessary learning experiences the masses had to go through. The idea of the class rule of the proletariat, still maintained in the original draft, was beginning to mutate into a synonym for classless ‘socialist democracy’. With this background, it was unsurprising that the USFI identified first Gorbachev and then Yeltsin as representing moves to the left in Soviet politics.

By 1992 the ideas of ‘the social movements’ and the ‘alliance of the dispossessed’ had found their way back from the policy for the third world into the policy for Europe, and the USFI had embarked on the course of ‘regroupment’ on the basis of vague sentiments, rather than any definite programme, which animates its current policy. The result is certainly a “radical non-sectarian current”, as Vercammen describes those with whom the current Fourth International seeks to regroup. It is less clear that it actually has anything to offer the workers’ movement except the fatuous advice to ... resist the bourgeoisie’s attacks, be active. Thus Vercammen again, on the international movement against globalisation:

“How to impose the strong claims of the ‘movement of movements’? For that a force in society is needed, which is none other than the mass of the exploited and oppressed on a world scale, whose decisive core is located within American and European imperialism. We need one or more political formations with a mass character which are within the movement and which propose a strategy.”

But what strategy? The truth is that without an understanding of the need for class politics and for the independent political organisation of the working class there can be no strategy which is not either a reprise of social democracy or of Stalinism.

Nor does the policy even offer concrete regroupment: “... our congress opened the way to debates, initiatives, meetings with the currents of the revolutionary left to test the convergences, without that leading to a new structure in the short term.”

Unsurprising! The truth is that the sort of ‘non-sectarianism’ proposed - “a fraternal debate within the radical, revolutionary left against sectarianism and ‘vanguardism’” - is actually directly opposed to the sort of democratic regroupment on a clear, even if limited, programme which could possibly escape the wilderness of sects.


The brutal fact is that when we decode the Fourth International’s documents and place them in the context of the historical evolution of this movement, what we find is not a new politics at all. It is merely a left-talking variant of Eurocommunism. The ‘rejection of Stalinism’ turns out to be adherence to the bourgeoisie’s concept of democracy under the rule of law. Class politics is dissolved into a grand alliance of the “exploited and oppressed”. “Non-sectarianism” means shoddy manoeuvres and diplomatic agreements in back rooms behind the backs of the rank and file militants and the rotten anti-democratic methods of the Social Forums, and is, in fact, profoundly sectarian.

The Brazilian DS’s participation in the Lula government, the LCR’s call to vote Chirac and the ISG’s tailism of the SWP turn out not to be accidental deviations, but the logical consequences of the actual policy of the Fourth International expressed in its documents.