frontline issue 4

The Future International

Indonesian Students

We are pleased to publish this contribution from Roger Silverman to the ongoing discussion on internationalism and on what kind of International we need today. Roger was formerly a leading member of, and a full-time worker for, the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI). He now describes himself as a campaigner in England for the ideas of the ISM.

Replying to a question about the future International in Frontline No. 3, Alan McCombes repudiated 'ultra-centralised, top-down hierarchical structures' and pronounced an end to the disproportionate role of 'a small group of popes and cardinals'.

Writing as one of a select band of defrocked cardinals, I recognise only too well the picture he draws. Why does this tradition seem so out of place today? Alan drew attention to one underlying material factor, when he predicted on the basis of electronic information 'a flourishing of international discussion', in which ideas will more and more be disseminated 'horizontally rather than vertically', and warned that 'the communications revolution will eventually force all international organisations to reassess their own structures.'

The sound technological basis for this democratic leap forward coincides with important political factors. These include organic changes in the composition of the working class, which have demolished entire communities and partly eroded their militant traditions; the demise of Stalinism; the movement of reformism more and more directly to the side of the bourgeoisie; and the extent to which the labour movement has been thrown back politically. All these factors have combined to radically alter the nature of the immediate tasks ahead for Marxists.


The tradition so graphically described by Alan is the product of a bygone era. Within the confines of a prolonged and relatively stable historical period, in which the crucial issues had already been defined by long-settled prior polemics, members of the CWI accepted by definition a stringent line on theory, perspectives, strategy and even tactics. During this period the leadership enjoyed a legitimate political authority. This regime was not altogether harmful. It implied a rigorous theoretical education and allowed a fine-tuning of perspectives. Future cadres were trained; a precious legacy was bequeathed.

Once the old world order had broken down, in the new climate of instability, the old routines no longer worked. Just as the time-honoured brittle old perspectives which had endured for three decades shattered against the new reality, so too the organisational structures described by Alan had become pass' and redundant. In place of the genuine authority of the past came a ludicrous parody in the form of zig-zags, denunciations, expulsions.

The CWI was proud to trace its line of ancestry back to 1938 and the struggle of Trotsky to create the basis for a future International. In the midst of the most terrible defeats, Trotsky had anticipated the revolutionary movement which would spring to life amid the wreckage left by the impending world war. In fact, once this movement had subsided, the International did not materialise, due to the postwar stabilisation of reformism and Stalinism. But it was crucial to establish the historical credentials of the future International on razor-sharp principles. Denouncing in a single breath the Stalinists, social democrats, bourgeois liberals and fascists, its founding document declared that 'the Fourth International... uncompromisingly gives battle to all political groupings tied to the apron strings of the bourgeoisie.'

In their turn the pioneers of 1938 traced their antecedents back to the traditions of the first four congresses of the Communist (Third) International, which had likewise been founded on a fight to the death, against reformism. At its second congress in 1920, delegates were warned that 'the Communist International is threatened by the danger of being watered down by elements characterised by vacillation and half-measures, forces which have not yet finally discarded the ideology of the Second International.' The congress laid down no less than 21 conditions for affiliation. To make doubly sure, Lenin even added a list of named individuals who would never under any circumstances be admitted to the new International. This was a necessary pre-emptive step to avoid fatal contamination.


On the other hand, when Marx and Engels helped to found the First International (the International Working Men's Association), their objective was to unite all the disparate, nascent workers' organisations around the world - no matter how limited - into a single organisation. Even outside the parameters of the working class, it strove to encompass all genuine movements of protest against the existing order.

That International embraced English craft unions, French workers' co-operatives, scattered groups of German exiles, even Italian nationalists and Russian bomb-throwing anarchists. Quite apart from all manner of charlatans, heretics, and adventurers, even its most heroic groups of pioneer workers were confused.

The sectarian Proudhonists of France, Spain and Belgium were opposed on principle to strikes. The Lassalleans of Germany (who resisted persistent approaches to join the International) were secretly collaborating with the reactionary dictator Bismarck. The intrigues of the anarchist Bakunin were eventually to wreck the organisation. And the British trade unionists were frankly terrified by all manifestations of what they called 'continental socialism'. The counterparts of none of these tendencies could conceivably have been admitted, let alone invited, into the Third or nascent Fourth Internationals.

There were manifestations aplenty within the IWMA of vanity, pomposity, opportunism, sectarianism, cowardice, adventurism and corruption. What there was not was the existence of a conscious social stratum hell-bent on systematic betrayal of the working class. The mission of Marx and Engels was to unite all the existing embryonic organisations of opposition to capitalism into a single world-wide movement in which they could pit their scientific ideas against those of the assorted sectarians peddling their quack panaceas.

They affirmed that 'the Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties.' What marked them out? Simply that they 'are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section', and that 'on the other hand, theoretically, they have... the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march.'

These tasks were entirely different from those of Lenin in 1921 or Trotsky in 1938, whose avowed goal was necessarily to set up new parties to challenge respectively the existing bureaucratically degenerate parties of the Second and Third Internationals.

Does this signify a principled difference between Marx and Engels on the one hand and Lenin and Trotsky on the other? Not at all. Marx himself commented that 'time is necessary before the revived movement can permit itself the old audacious language'. Conversely, Lenin regarded himself as a loyal and orthodox supporter of Kautsky right up to 1914, and at first refused to believe reports that the German social-democrats were supporting the Kaiser's war.

The breadth of the IWMA corresponded to the tasks of the hour. It was not at all a mark of liberalism, but a necessary preliminary stage in a bold campaigning offensive by the Marxists. The IWMA was to become a worldwide ideological workshop, in which all the rival ideas could be tested out in practice against the experiences of the workers in victory and in defeat.

As Murray Smith explains in his excellent analysis of the question of internationalism in Frontline No. 2, 'each of the first three workers' internationals reflected a step forward...But history also sometimes goes into reverse, or at least takes detours.' Due to particular historical conditions, as he points out, 'what succeeded the Communist International was not a new mass revolutionary International.... It was a cluster of small international tendencies.'

During the three-decade 'unforeseen detour' that followed the second world war, however, it is right to accord to the precursors of the CWI the credit for having had the courage and insight to modify Trotsky's by now superseded perspectives, explain the processes now unfolding, and work out fresh tactics. It is this painstaking work over several decades that laid the foundations for the CWI's remarkable success in establishing Trotskyism as a serious force within the labour movement in Britain and some other countries. However, as with their perspectives, so too with their organisational methods, what began as a healthy initiative degenerated over five decades into a ritual fetish.


What conclusions are we to draw for our work today? The perspective of the CWI was that the future International will arise, as in 1921, from mass splits in long-established traditional parties, in revolt against their ruling bureaucracies. That perspective is redundant. Once again the workers have no party. There are no longer in existence mass workers' parties which need only be mobilised around our programme. The upheavals of the '80s and '90s have changed the political landscape. Today the immediate tasks facing the working class are not those of 1921 or 1938.

The Stalinist bureaucracy - which in its day played the deadliest role in leading the working class to defeat - has vanished into history. And the reformist bureaucracy has for the moment largely abandoned its earlier primary role as a brake on the labour movement, to become instead more and more openly the figurehead of capital. What does this mean for the future International?

The working class has grown immeasurably in its unprecedented latent power. But the gap between its objective power and its subjective consciousness has never been wider. In terms of ideology the movement has been thrown far back. Once the working class springs to its feet, it will have to learn afresh through victories and defeats its true historic mission.

Meanwhile, youth protest has erupted in primitive single-issue campaigns. Even the long-buried ideas of anarchism have sprouted again. We have to win a new generation to the elementary principles of scientific socialism. The challenge once again is to link the spontaneously erupting manifestations of raw anti-capitalist protest, and the struggles against imperialist globalisation in the ex-colonial world, and harness them to the rising mood of militant opposition within the trade unions.

Such a forum would, as Alan says, be 'pluralistic' and 'democratic' and 'would allow specific ideological groupings to organise'. Its structure would in fact be similar to that of the Scottish Socialist Party, but it may have to encompass a much broader range of opinion. Alan mentions Che Guevara. We could find ourselves rubbing shoulders with figures incomparably more remote from Marxism. We would work alongside all kinds of disparate and na've forces - all on the simple but strict proviso of their sincerity in fighting capitalism, and probably their recognition of the key role of the working class. Our function, in Murray's words, would be to 'rehabilitate the perspective of socialism'. This will be a necessary elementary stage in the building of a revolutionary International.

Of course we must turn our backs on sterile sectarianism - but not at the cost of blunting our theoretical sharpness. We cannot accept the kind of bogus tolerance in vogue today, which in the name of unity glosses over the need for honest comradely debate over issues of vital importance to the working class. As in the 1860s, to quote Marx, 'the need of the moment is: bold in matter, but mild in manner.'

Engels explained that the aim of the IWMA was 'to weld together into one huge army the whole militant working class of Europe and America. Therefore it could not set out from the principles laid down in the (Communist) Manifesto.' Yet it is a stunning tribute to the genius of Marx and Engels that within seven short years they had already won the argument. It took the defeat of the Paris Commune, but their magnificent analysis of its lessons was written already in the name of the General Council. The IWMA itself was dashed against the rocks of reaction, but once the tide had turned and the newly emergent mass parties and trade unions had established the Second International in 1889, it was under the proud banner of the ideas of the Communist Manifesto. On the day of the first world-wide general strike on May Day 1890, Engels celebrated what he considered the triumphant consummation of their historic life work.

'Today... the European and American proletariat is... mobilised for the first time, mobilised as one army, under one flag, for one immediate aim.... If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes!'

If we too succeed in engaging as an organised tendency in tireless debate throughout the broadest united layers of world-wide resistance to capitalism, then we will see our ideas become once again a material force.