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Why Socialists Fight for an International Organization

Over the last two centuries, the working class has built up four different internationals. Today more than ever, socialists need an international organization. But what does that look like in practice?

Nathaniel Flakin

February 15, 2020
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Model of a proposed monument to the Comintern from 1920

Life in the U.S. today is so full of horrors: (concentration camps, right-wing terror attacks, suffocating debt) that it is easy to forget that the rightward shift of the Trump administration is very much an international phenomena. Trump’s racist policies are just one expression of this global shift, similar to those of Orbán in Hungary, Salivini in Italy, Brexit, etc. The forces of this xenophobic “international” mutually reinforce each other.

Capitalism is a global system. The capitalists, their corporations, and their states engage in fierce competition with each other for profits — but they also coordinate their efforts to exploit and oppress billions of people in the world. This “capitalist internationalism” finds its expression in institutions like the G7 and the G20 or the World Economic Forum.

As the new socialist movement in the U.S. tries to get organized, we also need to think internationally. U.S. imperialism, despite its relative decline, remains the hegemonic power in the world. Whatever happens here has massive effects: Trump’s initiatives can cause millions of people around the globe to suffer; conversely, advances by the U.S. Left can give inspiration to working people in many countries. When the Left limits its vision reforming the U.S. state, they can end up supporting reactionary projects of the ruling class, such as Bernie Sanders’ opposition to open borders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s support for the imperialist coup attempt in Venezuela.

For socialists, a local organization is not enough. But a national organization is not enough either. From its origins, the socialist movement has always fought to build up international organizations. Only an international organization provides the framework to resist the different national pressures and develop correct revolutionary policies. This article will give an overview of that history and argue that socialists today need to fight for a revolutionary international.

The Four Internationals

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels joined the League of Communists in 1847, it was mostly composed of German workers, but they were dispersed throughout Europe. The pair wrote a manifesto that was published simultaneously in a number of European languages (although not as many as the authors had hoped).

The first genuinely international organization of the working class was the International Workingmen’s Association. It was founded in London in 1864 by British trade unionists trying to establish links with workers from other countries. Marx and Engels joined and quickly became leading figures. The International supported the revolutionary uprising of the Parisian workers who founded the Paris Commune in 1871. But after the Commune’s defeat, the International was rocked by debates about whether the working class should undertake political actions or fight for political power. After the Commune’s defeat, reaction spread across Europe and the International moved to the U.S. before dissolving.

The Socialist International (or Second International) was founded in 1889, while Engels was still alive. By this time, the workers’ movement had built up mass political parties in different countries, the largest being the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The International’s founding congress proclaimed Workers’ Day on May 1, in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs in Chicago. This International, led by figures like Karl Kautsky, organized workers’ solidarity against the danger of war. But when World War I broke out in 1914, almost all member parties capitulated to “their” capitalist governments by voting for funding for the war.

The Communist International (or Third International) was born in 1919 out of the ruins of the second. The Second International had collapsed because reformists and social chauvinists had slowly taken over its member parties. As a result, when V.I. Lenin and other revolutionaries took up the fight for a new international, it was based on a clear delimitation from reformism. In 1917, revolutionaries had taken power in Russia in the October Revolution. But the Bolshevik Party that led this revolution understood that socialism could not be built up in a single country. This is why they founded the “Comintern” as soon as possible.

The Fourth International was founded in 1938, as a result of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Revolutions had been defeated in Germany, China, and other countries. The young Soviet Union remained isolated, surrounded by imperialist states, and as a result of its backwardness, a privileged bureaucracy could usurp power in the Soviet Union. Many Bolsheviks fought against this degeneration — the most famous one was Leon Trotsky, the main leader of the October Revolution next to Lenin. They founded a Left Opposition in the Communist International. As the Stalinists began a policy of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie, and eventually dissolved the Comintern in 1943, the Trotskyists founded the Fourth International to maintain revolutionary continuity.

The Fourth International collapsed after the Second World War. Confused by the contradictory results of the world war — which, against Trotsky’s expectations, had led to the strengthening of Stalinism and the rise of a new hegemonic imperialist power — the international’s leadership began to adapt to Stalinist, social democratic and bourgeois nationalist parties. This centrist degeneration led Trotskyism to splinter into competing factions. Now many tendencies exist that trace their heritage back to the Fourth International, but none can represent a clear line of revolutionary continuity. Revolutionaries today need to struggle to refound the Fourth International, on the basis of the strategic lessons embodied in its program. 

Advice from Trotsky

After he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929, Leon Trotsky began building up the International Left Opposition to Stalinism in the Communist International. Some wondered if these small groups could create an international tendency. Trotsky wrote to some Italian leftists in 1930:

Your conception of internationalism appears to me erroneous. In the final analysis, you take the International as a sum of national sections or as a product of the mutual influence of national sections. This is, at least, a one-sided, undialectical and, therefore, wrong conception of the International. If the Communist Left throughout the world consisted of only five individuals, they would have nonetheless been obliged to build an international organization simultaneously with the building of one or more national organizations.

It is wrong to view a national organization as the foundation and the international as a roof. The interrelation here is of an entirely different type. Marx and Engels started the communist movement in 1847 with an international document and with the creation of an international organization. The same thing was repeated in the creation of the First International. The very same path was followed by the Zimmerwald Left in preparation for the Third International. Today this road is dictated far more imperiously than in the days of Marx. It is, of course, possible in the epoch of imperialism for a revolutionary proletarian tendency to arise in one or another country, but it cannot thrive and develop in one isolated country; on the very next day after its formation it must seek for or create international ties, an international platform, an international organization. Because a guarantee of the correctness of the national policy can be found only along this road. A tendency which remains shut-in nationally over a stretch of years, condemns itself irrevocably to degeneration.

This International Left Opposition within a few years formed the Fourth International. Trotsky’s advice is more relevant than ever, as capitalism has become a much more international system in the more than 80 years since the Fourth International was founded. But many organizations that consider themselves socialist limit themselves to national borders. This is true of reformist organizations, who have no vision beyond the reform of bourgeois nation-states; but this is also true, paradoxically, of organizations coming out of the Trotskyist tradition. 

The Democratic Socialists

The Democratic Socialists of America was founded as the U.S. affiliate of the Socialist International — the stinking corpse that had been revived after the betrayal of 1914. The reconstituted Socialist International was a federation of pro-capitalist social democrats who built — and later destroyed — welfare states in Europe. The international’s current president, George Papandreou, is the former Greek  prime minister who began the brutal austerity program under the direction of German imperialism.

But the current Socialist International also includes corrupt bourgeois government parties that emerged from national liberation or progressive movements, such as the MPLA from Angola, the Indian National Congress, the PRI in Mexico, the APRA from Peru, the UCR from Argentina, and the PPP from Pakistan. (Full List.)

At its 2017 convention, the DSA voted to leave the Socialist International — doubtless a progressive step. But since then, it has established only loose connections with organizations in other countries. The DSA’s latest convention included, according to one list, delegates from the Workers’ Party (PT) of Brazil and Die Linke of Germany — two parties that have run the governments of capitalist states and carried out brutal austerity programs against their own supporters. Politically, the DSA most resembles neoreformist parties in Europe such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in the Spanish State (even though the DSA has the particularity of belonging to a bourgeois party).

But for the DSA, linking up with Syriza and Podemos in an international organization would introduce some uncomfortable questions. Syriza came to power in 2015 and implemented the exact program that the majority of the DSA’s leadership is advocating (as elaborated by Bhaskar Sunkara). This attempt to manage capitalism in the interest of working people led to a horrible betrayal, and Syriza has now been kicked out of office, after imposing a series of crushing economic cuts on the working class in Greece. Likewise, Podemos has now entered the Spanish government as a junior partner of the social democratic PSOE, responsible for social service cuts, imperialist wars, and brutal repression of the Catalonian people.

The DSA is not part of any international organization. This is particularly dangerous in the “belly of the beast” where the national pressures of the largest bourgeois political apparatuses in the world are so strong. It is no coincidence that at the last DSA convention, there was not a single voice calling for a break with the capitalists’ Democratic Party. A truly socialist political course in the interest of the global working class can only be developed with some counterweight to the pressures of the imperialist bourgeoisie, i.e. an international framework. This lack of internationalism can also affect organizations from a revolutionary socialist tradition.

The International Socialist Tradition

The International Socialist Organization (ISO), once the largest socialist organization in the U.S., dissolved in March. In direct contradiction to its name, it was never an international organization. Its decision-making and discipline were always confined to national borders. It had an occasional meeting with socialists from other countries, and sent an “observer” to meetings of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, but these discussions were never even shared with the membership, let alone part of vibrant international discussions.

Even though the ISO is no more, it is important to critically examine its legacy, since for several decades it had a huge influence on revolutionary socialists in the U.S. And the ideas that led it to reject concrete internationalism are still defended by other organizations. Therefore we will look at its history. The ISO was founded in 1977 as part of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), a current led by the Palestinian-Jewish-British Marxist Tony Cliff. Cliff had broken with the Fourth International in the 1950s because he no longer considered the Soviet Union to be a degenerate workers’ state. He believed that an international organization could only be built as the result of a fusion of strong revolutionary organizations at a national level.

Based on this idea, Cliff’s organization in the 1970s, the International Socialists (IS) in Britain, tried to establish links with other similarly-sized groups in different European countries. They held a series of meetings with Lutte Ouvrière from France, the Guevarist Partido Revolucionário do Proletariado – Brigadas Revolucionárias (PRP-BR) from Portugal and the “semi-Maoist” Avanguardia Operai (AO) from Italy. They committed to “greater international cooperation,” but did not advance toward any kind of common organization.

In the 1980’s, after the IS had transformed into the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Cliff began constructing “clone” groups in other countries. This was the basis of the IST. However, since the IST refused to act as an international organization, preferring to think of itself as a voluntary association of like-minded groups, it lacked any framework for democratic decision-making. In practice, the IST’s line was dictated from London — first by Tony Cliff and then by his successor Alex Callinicos. 

This led to the expulsion of different groups from the IST that had (relatively minor) political differences with the SWP in the late 1990s and early 2000. This is how the ISO ended up in national isolation, which they maintained for several decades until their dissolution. In the end, Cliff’s theories about the impossibility of building an international organization in the here and now simply led to him building a fabulously undemocratic one.

Why We Build a Trotskyist Fraction

So why are we in favor of rebuilding the Fourth International? Each of the four internationals represented a certain continuity with its predecessor, as well as a programmatic break. The First International was rocked by debates about whether workers should form their own political parties or not — the second was founded on the basis of answering this question in the  affirmative. The Second International embodied the model of a common party for reformists and revolutionaries, which the third rejected at its founding. The continuity of the revolutionary movement in the new era of imperialism required a break with an outdated concept.

The Fourth International, for its part, continued the work of the Communist International, enriched by the lessons of the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union and the rise of fascism. More than 80 years later, the Trotskyist program requires certain updates. But Trotsky’s Transitional Program still represents the most advanced lessons of the class struggle.  

Left Voice is associated with the Trotskyist Fraction – Fourth International. That is an international tendency fighting for the reconstruction of the Fourth International based on its historical program. This does not mean throwing different Trotskyist and socialist groups into a pile. Rather, it means discussing with the advanced sectors of the workers’ movement, the women’s movement, the LGBTQ+ movement and the Left, in search of common conclusions from the most important questions of the international class struggle. This was also the historical method with which the Fourth International was built.

We don’t consider ourselves an “international” or the nucleus of a future revolutionary international. Instead, we are a tendency trying to recreate the continuity of revolutionary Marxism. Our proposal, in the U.S. and around the world, is to form a Movement for a Revolutionary Socialist International. We know that a revolutionary international will not emerge overnight. But it is essential for socialists to begin building now. 

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.


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