Fourth International

Fourth International Debates Party-Building Strategy

Jeff Mackler  /  July 2010


More than 200 delegates, observers, and invited guests from some 45 countries attended the 16th World Congress of the Fourth International (FI), Feb. 23-28 in Belgium. The FI is the world socialist organization founded in 1938 by Leon Trotsky with the help of cothinkers worldwide, including James P. Cannon, the pioneer of American Trotskyism.

The draft reports prepared by the FI leadership to initiate the pre-World Congress on-line discussion appear in the International Viewpoint website under “Documents of the FI.” A critical assessment of these texts, entitled, “Socialist Action USA: A contribution to the pre-World Congress discussion,” appears in the same place.

Three main resolutions were presented for discussion and debate. The first two, on “The World Political Situation” and on “Capitalist Climate Change and Our Tasks” were accepted with little dissent and accompanied by a generally rich and productive discussion.

But there were sharp disagreements with regard to the third report on “The Role and Tasks of the FI.” Socialist Action cast its fraternal vote in favor of the first two resolutions and against the “Role and Tasks” text. Reactionary U.S. legislation bars Socialist Action’s formal membership in the FI. Its delegates therefore participate in a fraternal capacity only.

“The World Political Report” contained a description of the terrible effects on the world’s working classes due to the international capitalist economic crisis, a crisis that was properly judged as flowing from fundamental structural flaws in the capitalist system itself.

The second resolution and reports on the world climate crisis represented an important theoretical advance, as well as an important contribution to the world workers’ movement more generally. The text on climate change combined a thoroughgoing Marxist analysis with the science of ecology, a wealth of factual material, a rejection of a “productivist” (capitalist or Stalinist) way out, a series of transitional and immediate demands, proposals for united mass actions, and a broad appreciation of the magnitude and importance of the climate crisis issue.

The resolution began with a clear and unequivocal statement of the magnitude and importance of the issue: “The climate change that is underway is not the product of human activity in general but of the productivist paradigm developed by capitalism and imitated by other systems that claim to be alternatives to the former. Faced with the danger of a social and ecological catastrophe which is without precedent and is irreversible on a human timescale, the system, incapable of calling into question its fundamental logic of accumulation, is engaged in a dangerous technological forward flight from which there is no way out.”

Debate on “Tasks” resolution

The third resolution debated at the World Congress, “The Role and Tasks of the Fourth International,” drew serious criticism from a number of delegates. The text expressed the view that the priority of the FI today must be the construction of “broad anti-capitalist parties” everywhere—as well as a “new international based on such parties.”

The FI’s primary objective since its founding has been to build mass revolutionary Leninist parties worldwide aimed at the organization of the working class and its allies among the oppressed to take political power and construct socialist societies. Unclear in the resolution was whether its call for “broad anti-capitalist parties” was meant to supplant the FI’s historic party-building strategy.

The debate also concerned the role of FI parties that would participate in these “broad anti-capitalist parties.” Were they to organize as a tendency, caucus, or some such formation designed to win new FI members to a clear revolutionary program and party—or were they to become absorbed into such parties without a clear revolutionary program and Trotskyist identity?

This issue was particularly relevant in light of last year’s dissolution of the French section of the Fourth International, the Revolutionary Communist League, into the New Anti-Capitalist Party, and the absence of any organized FI current within the organization. Was the NPA to be the new model for revolutionaries as opposed to building a Leninist party?

The text had been prepared by the FI’s International Committee after deliberations over the course of more than a year. Some 72 comrades took the floor to express a wide range of views on the resolution.

As the discussion proceeded, it became obvious that there was little agreement among the delegates as to the meaning and purpose of “broad anti-capitalist parties.” Neither the ambiguous language of the text nor the reporter explained whether these parties were envisioned as an alternative to building revolutionary parties based on the historic program of the FI or even whether these parties were to be socialist at all.

In Socialist Action’s view, a tactical decision as to what kind of formations revolutionary socialists participate in must be subordinate to our strategic objective—the construction of revolutionary parties aimed at the organization of the working class and its allies in the struggle for socialism. Of course, party-building can take many forms, from participation in reformist or social-democratic parties, to principled fusions, or unifications with currents with whom we find major programmatic agreement and with whom we find ourselves working together toward the same goals in the mass movement.

Indeed, the struggle to unify the working class in united-front mass actions that challenge specific polices of the capitalist class (such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or attacks on immigrant rights) is a central tool of revolutionaries throughout the world to advance our common cause and simultaneously win the best fighters to socialist politics.

Build the Fourth International!

While the “Role and Tasks” text was approved by the great majority of the delegates, the vote was not without major reservations and also reflected a view that the discussion would be continued.

It was clear from the concluding remarks of the reporter for “The Role and Tasks of the FI” text that the sharp World Congress debates had an important impact on the FI leadership. The reporter essentially accepted an amendment to the text indicating that the disparate views were far from resolved and that the debate would continue at future FI meetings.

A significant number of World Congress participants were enthusiastic, serious, and well-informed youth, an indication that FI sections have been able to assemble a layer of young fighters to replace the older cadre in the years ahead.

The World Congress took place at a difficult time for revolutionaries throughout the world—a time when the attacks on the world’s working classes have taken a great toll while resistance has been generally limited. These defeats undoubtedly weighed heavily on the Congress deliberations, leading some to look for shortcut solutions that ignore the rich lessons of the past.

It became increasingly evident during the World Congress that the critical need to build the Fourth International, based on the construction of revolutionary socialist parties of the Leninist type, will remain central to the FI’s future discussions and debates.