Ideas & Debates
IDEAS & DEBATES
On Internationalism: A Response to the Partido Obrero
Claudia Cinatti of the PTS engages Pablo Heller’s arguments, published in the Partido Obrero press following the Trotskyist Fraction’s Tenth International Conference. The following is a discussion on Gramsci’s concept of ‘organic crisis,’ the concept of revolutionary internationalism, and what it looks like in practice.
January 02, 2017
This article was originally published in La Izquierda Diario Argentina.
A recent article by Pablo Heller appeared in the pages of Prensa Obrera [Workers’ Press], the newspaper of the Partido Obrero [PO - Workers’ Party], on September 15. Heller’s article criticizes some of the descriptions and analysis of the international situation that came out of the Tenth Conference of the Fracción Trotskista - Cuarta Internacional (Trotskyist Fraction - Fourth International - FT-CI), and takes aim at the use of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “organic crisis.”
Heller accuses the FT-CI of having a superficial analysis of the international situation. The only thing he offers in its place, however, is a rehash of the PO’s classic catastrophist analysis: the system is “permanently bankrupt” and therefore the “question of power” must be considered (it is not clear what power he is talking about. Which country? Throughout the world?). This way of thinking is completely removed from the concrete analysis of the concrete situation, which Lenin referred to as “the living soul of Marxism.”
It seems that either the PO does not believe their own characterizations or this analysis is pure charlatanism. Their response to such catastrophe was based on nothing more than a round of discussions in Montevideo organized by the Partido de los Trabajadores [PT - Workers’ Party of Uruguay], the only (small) partner the PO has outside of Argentina; historic PO leader Jorge Altamira did not even attend. All of this is a testament to the national Trotskyism that is typical of the PO.
Heller reproaches us for using Gramsci’s concept of “organic crisis” in opposition to the metaphysical catastrophism of the PO. He then complains, “Having such an abundance of socialist literature at its disposal, the PTS favors the ideas of Gramsci to which a wide variety of currents lay claim: autonomists, radical democrats, reformists and Stalinists.”
Would Heller have us throw out the writings of Rosa Luxemburg on economics, the mass general strike, and the strategy of eroding the influence of social democracy simply because autonomists use them to attack the idea of a Leninist party?
Unless the PO has expelled Gramsci from the tradition of the Third International, the thirty-two Prison Notebooks make up a valuable part of the “abundant socialist literature” and are equal to the works of Rosa Luxemburg and other revolutionary Marxists. We have the enormous fortune of having such material at our disposal and would be very foolish to not use them to analyze both current reality and our political action.
Most surprisingly, Heller here suggests that Gramsci should be prohibited from use because all sorts of reformists, autonomists and Stalinists use his categories and concepts. This cannot be a serious argument. If we were to subscribe to such a view, we would not be able to turn to any Marxist classic. Wasn’t the most monstrous dictatorship of Stalinism justified in the name of Marx and Lenin? Didn’t the German Social Democracy use the names of Marx and Engels to justify their social-chauvinism? Wasn’t Trotsky used by political opportunists after the Second World War to justify their adaptation to Stalinism? Would Heller have us throw out the writings of Rosa Luxemburg on economics, the mass general strike, and the strategy of eroding the influence of social democracy simply because autonomists use them to attack the idea of a Leninist party?
We could not be more opposed to this method, which on the theoretical level not only complements the PO’s political self-proclamation but also contradicts the whole revolutionary tradition of Marxism. Imagine Trotsky discounting all of Lenin’s writings on this basis.
As the present example shows, this can only lead to the poverty of theory and political routine-ism.
From catastrophe to metaphysical catastrophism
In his definition of the international situation and its tendencies, Heller has little to contribute beyond the usual catastrophism of the PO: in light of the cyclical crises of capitalism, they say, the situation is essentially one of permanent “collapse” and “bankruptcy,” from which a “new cycle of ascendency” (sic) is forecasted.
Though Heller would be loathe to admit it, the PO’s catastrophism is the political equivalent of the ‘ever-developing revolutionary situation’ of the Morenista current—even though the PO uses the term “Morenista” perjoratively.
You will not find a single reference in the FT’s documents or articles that endorses such nonsense. On the contrary, the principal conclusion of the Tenth Conference of the FT-CI was that, eight years after the start of the crisis, and after a first stage in which China and the BRICS countries in general acted as a counter-tendency to the highly critical situation in the advanced core economies, we are now in a new phase of crisis at the level of the Lehman Brothers affair (or even larger), along with both military and even revolutionary “catastrophes.” Furthermore, the conditions created by this crisis that continue to drag on — without either a Great Depression or a solid recovery — are the basis for new political phenomenon of both the left and the right as well as tendencies towards class struggle. The clearest examples of the expression of right-wing “anti-globalization” populism are Donald Trump and the Brexit vote with similar protectionist and demagogic nationalist language on both sides of the Atlantic.
What has happened in historic terms is that, to use Trotsky’s words, the “theory of collapse” has triumphed over “peaceful development” (“Marxism in Our Time,” April 1939). This does not, however, establish catastrophism as some sort of messianic truth. As we know, there are “unstable equilibrium” (Trotsky, 1921), countervailing tendencies, and booms and busts, which among other things create differences in terms of political timing, delaying some processes while allowing others to survive, etc. All this is vital to our activity, which is neither more or less than our revolutionary politics.
Trotsky and Gramsci
The PTS and FT-CI do not consider Gramsci’s conception and strategy for revolution to be superior to the theory of Permanent Revolution. But it does not follow that we need to eliminate ideas such as “organic crisis” and “hegemony” from our strategy or from our conception of revolution. These categories enrich our definitions and allow us to lay out bold political orientations, above all when situations are not “classic” ones and cannot be characterized (whether the PO likes it or not) as a direct confrontation between revolution and counterrevolution. These are the situations that predominate in periods of “capitalist putrefaction” (see Trotsky’s “Whither France?”, in particular the section ‘Dialectics and Metaphysics’).
For over a decade we have been developing this very theme. Much has been written in Estrategia Internacional (International Strategy) in Spanish, and English-language examples include the newly released book “Gramsci and Trotsky, Strategy for the Revolution in the West” by Matías Maiello and Emilio Albamonte.
The weak content of Heller’s critique suggests he either has not read Gramsci, read it a long time ago and forgotten it, or worse still, has not understood any of it. Perhaps a quick look at Gramsci’s notes on Machiavelli or “Gramsci for Beginners” would have been useful before he started writing.
If he had done this, he would have known that the category of “organic crisis” implies an economic, political and social crisis (Gramsci refers to this as a crisis of the state) that can be initiated not only by the action of the exploited but also by the “failure of the ruling class.” Such a crisis sets off a period of political ruptures of the masses from their traditional parties and changes ways of thinking. These situations in which “the old has not died and the new has still not been born” are conducive to the emergence of “aberrant phenomena,” and makes “solutions of force” inevitable. These “solutions of force” include both Bonapartist turns and convulsive tendencies in the class struggle (such as the parliamentary coup in Brazil).
According to Heller, “Gramsci emphasized the preeminence of the political superstructure and the ‘subject,’ which were based on the rejection of the tendency for collapse. But revolutionary subjectivity is the profound understanding of these disolutory tendencies, in terms of program and political action.” [emphasis ours] The only valid conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that one cannot deal with a complex work such as Gramsci’s in four lines. Nor does it transform him into a convert of capitalist harmony.
Gramsci did not deny “catastrophic ‘incursions’ of the immediate economic element (crises, depressions, etc.)” and in fact noted that in the most advanced economies, the political superstructure had developed a greater capacity for resistance. Have we not seen this with the enormous amount of state intervention during the first years of the crisis of 2008?
Gramsci did not deny economic crises, but he did place a limit on what they alone could do. He said that crises can only create a favorable terrain for revolutionaries, but in no way can they guarantee a revolution. Unless one is suffering from economistic blindness, it is evident that the struggle for state power depends on a range of factors, such as the relationship of forces between the classes, the transformation of the victories of the exploited into a material force, the psychology and the mood of the mass movement, and in the final analysis, the existence of a revolutionary leadership. It depends on a range of factors that do not all mature at the same time.
In the words of Gramsci, “mass ideological factors always lag behind mass economic phenomena.” It is clear that he was not the first one to make this elemental observation of the discordance between objective and subjective factors, but it is the principal problem that, among other things, reveals the need for the building of a revolutionary workers’ party and a revolutionary international and not the ridiculous idea that collapse will occur regardless.
Trotsky was radically opposed to both catastrophism in a metaphysical sense and economism which is almost the same thing. While the paths may have been different, Gramsci moved in a similar direction to try and establish a precise relationship between objective and subjective phenomena. Trotsky suggested that in certain circumstances, “the crisis may give a mighty impulse to the revolutionary activity of the working masses; under a different set of circumstances it may completely paralyze the offensive of the proletariat and, should the crisis endure too long and the workers suffer too many losses, it might weaken extremely not only the offensive but also the defensive potential of the working class” (“Flood-Tide,” December 1921).
The current situation does not fit into the PO’s rudimentary scheme of “catastrophism vs. organic crisis.” The FT-CI Conference discussed the characterization of the capitalist crisis that we have seen progressing since 2008, one which is of a historic character — economic, political and social – but one which has not seen a rise in working class struggle in the principal countries of the core and periphery, such as it did in the crises seen between 1968 and 1981, for example. This characterization is not based on fatalism but is instead understood as the product of the neoliberal offensive of the last decades and the role of the union bureaucracies and the reformist political leaderships of the workers’ movement which have led to setbacks and defeats for the first responses of the exploited to the capitalist crisis. Examples of this are the thirty general strikes in Greece against austerity that have ended in impotence and a Syriza government applying the plans of the Troika, not to mention the defeat of the Arab Spring.
Neo-reformism and counterrevolution
Heller tells us that we embellish the new reformism of organizations such as Podemos or Syriza by calling them “reformists” even though they do not have the presence in the workers’ movement that traditional Social Democratic and Stalinist reformism does.
In terms of their social content, we do not have any difference of opinion about these formations: reformism has a counter-revolutionary nature because its objective is the reform of capital and class compromise. These formations are center-left, the majority of which is petty-bourgeois. They emerge either as a diversion from the movements of struggle, such as that of the ‘indignados’ in the Spanish State, or as new political phenomena, such as the youth-fueled victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the face of the right-wing Blairites of the Labour Party and the millions of young people that found in a vehicle for the expression of their hatred towards the bosses’ parties in the “political revolution” of Bernie Sanders.
The problem is that, if anyone has at some point idealized these neo-reformist formations, it was the Partido Obrero, who in 2012 set fire to their international tendency by calling for a vote for Syriza (and even raised the analogy of the “tactic of the workers’ government”) against their own Greek comrades who ran on their own in the elections of May 2012 in an effort to uphold the idea of class independence and later called for a critical vote for Antarsya.
In the end, the Syriza government was neither a “government of the left” nor an “anti-austerity government”. As we now know, within five months of assuming government, it had capitulated to the Troika and applied a brutal austerity plan.
The difference between an international conference and a phantom meeting
Capitalism as a social system is doomed. This is a historical truth. What is just as certain is that it is only going to disappear if it is overthrown by a proletarian revolution, for if it is not, the catastrophe will acquire barbaric dimensions.
For this, the task of revolutionaries is not to predict inexorable catastrophes (an infinite number of sects and gurus already exist for this job). The task is to prevent capitalism in its crisis from splitting and breaking apart the ranks of the working class, the only social force that can provide a progressive solution together with its exploited and oppressed allies (the urban and rural poor, women, and the youth who make up the bulk of the “precariat”), and to prepare the conditions for the offensive struggle for power. Revolutionaries work to avoid catastrophe by means of a proletarian revolution in countries whose importance can change the course of history.
What is needed for this is the construction of revolutionary internationalist workers’ parties that undertake work within mass organizations and through class-struggle fractions in the trade unions, youth, and women’s movements. Also necessary is an advance along solid foundations and a common political practice towards the construction of an international revolutionary organization, the Fourth International.
That was the main focus of the Tenth Conference of the FT-CI. Along with the PTS of Argentina, the compañeras and compañeros of the Movimento Revolucionário de Trabalhadores [MRT - Revolutionary Workers’ Movement] of Brazil participated as well. The MRT opposed the recent institutional coup from a position independent of both the center-left Partido dos Trabalhadores [PT - Workers’ Party] and the pro-coup right-wing to which the Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado [PSTU - United Socialist Workers’ Party] capitulated. MRT militants also took part in the long-running strike at the University of São Paulo in their capacity as members of the union leadership and ran five MRT candidates in October’s elections in a campaign that acted as a rallying cry for the working-class left and reached millions with a clear position of class independence.
The comrades of the Movimiento de los Trabajadores Socialistas [MTS - Socialist Workers’ Movement] in Mexico were also in attendance at our Tenth Conference. These comrades have recently put forward the independent anticapitalist candidacy of Sergio Moissen in the Federal District of Mexico City after decades in which no such candidacy based on working class independence has existed because the so-called revolutionary left has dissolved itself into ‘Zapatismo,’ the PRD and now Morena.
The delegation also included members of the Partido de Trabajadores Revolucionarios [PTR - Revolutionary Workers’ Party of Chile] such as Bárbara Brito, who has been recognized by the Chilean media as one of the ten principal leaders of the student struggle of 2011.
There were also comrades from the Courant Communiste Révolutionnaire (CCR - Revolutionary Communist Current) of France, who fight within the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA - New Anticapitalist Party) for a revolutionary strategy. CCR militants were extremely active in the impressive struggle of the student and workers’ movement against labor reform as well as the ‘Nuit Debout’ movement. The Révolution Permanente website played a very important role in these struggles, which at a highpoint during these struggles registered 600,000 visits in one month. The website is now recognized as one of the principal sites used by youth who are now starting to take part in the debate about political life and familiarizing themselves with the positions of the left. CCR comrade Guillaume Vadot has now become a well-known public voice against the brutality of the French police, who have been emboldened under the current state of emergency.
A delegation from Clase contra Clase (CcC - Class against Class) in the Spanish state, who are campaigning to put in place a working class alternative in a situation where most of the left - both local and international - have capitulated to Podemos, attended as well. There were also some of the young comrades from Revolutionäre Internationalistische Organisation (RIO - Revolutionary Internationalist Organization) of Germany that are building a revolutionary organization in the heart of capitalism. The organization has members of Kurdish origin and maintains a Turkish section of their news website. Also taking part were the youth that have taken up the pioneering task of opening up political work in the United States with the development of Left Voice, our tendency’s English-language publication, as the axis of their work. Along with all these comrades there were delegations from Bolivia, which included Javo Ferreira who has polemicized with Bolivian Vice-President García Linera, and others from Venezuela and Uruguay.
All of these organizations are members of the FT. Even those in countries in which their political work is at an initial stage making use of a digital news website, which provides left-wing positions on national and international politics, the class struggle, mass culture, and questions of gender, etc.
In a short period, the Brazilian MRT’s Esquerda Diário has become the principal digital news source of the left. With an average of over 250,000 visits a month it easily surpasses the sites of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL - Socialism and Freedom Party) and the PSTU, and has become a clear expression of the voice of those who are confronting the ongoing coup from a position independent of that of the center-left Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT - Workers’ Party) of Dilma Rousseff.
La Izquierda Diario in Mexico, nearing 200,000 visits a month, has transformed itself into a valuable tool for the teachers who are utilizing it to voice their fierce resistance to the neoliberal education reforms of Peña Nieto, speaking against its repression and as an expression of international solidarity. It is a conflict in which the comrades of the MTS in Mexico are making a very serious intervention.
But we know that this is only the beginning of a political development that has great potential to develop into a new form of Leninism. Among the most important conference resolutions was a plan for the expansion of our La Izquierda Diario international news network which currently consists of eleven news sites in five different languages. We will develop as both a tool for the diffusion and debate of revolutionary ideas as well as for the organization of new layers that are moving closer to becoming party militants. We also hope to participate in the convergence of sectors of the Trotskyist movement that are moving left and beginning to confront the opportunist politics of their organizations’ leadership.
Heller tries to counterpose our conference to the phantom meeting in Montevideo, which was bombastically called the “Latin American Conference of the Left and the Workers’ Movement,” but in which neither the Latin American left (apart from the PO, the Uruguayan PT and some friends from Brazil), or the workers’ movement took part. The thesis adopted at the meeting dedicates pages to promoting the PO and criticizing the PTS but devotes only five lines (400 characters with spaces) to the tasks of their conference which will be … the distribution of its thesis (!).
Evidently, the PO cannot focus its forces on the construction of the “revolutionary general staff” of the international proletariat. Neither does it seem to have the capacity to maintain the association it founded with the Ergatiko Epanastatiko Komma (EEK - Workers Revolutionary Party) of Greece and the Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori (PCL - Communist Workers’ Party) of Italy. Altamira was already complaining of the paralysis of this tendency at the PO Congress of 2012.
Because of the history of the PO and its scandalous tendency towards national Trotskyism, none of this surprises us. In its decades of existence, the PO can only point to two accomplishments. One, its participation in the Forum of São Paulo in the 1990s, in which they could not reach an agreement with the Brazilian PT, the Cuban CP and other Stalinists. Two, the failed attempt of the Coordinadora por la Refundación de la Cuarta Internacional (CRCI - Coordinating Committee for the Refoundation of the Fourth International) that proposed to “immediately” refound the Fourth International years ago, but judging by its website and the lack of any international or even Europe-wide action, ceased to exist some time ago. In the section of its website marked the “latest,” one can find a declaration from 2010 and the last issue of Obrero Internacional from 2007, the front page of which bears the catastrophic title “Capitalist Bankruptcy.”
No matter how hard Heller tries to make his point, to paraphrase a famous Argentine who appropriated the words of Aristotle, the only truth is reality.
Translation: Sean Robertson