We print below a presentation by comrade Perrault, secretary of the International Secretariat (I.S.), at the Eighth International Conference.
I want to start with a quote from Cannon which encapsulates the central task of this conference:
In some cases, we must go back 30 years to get to the old program; in others we need to go all the way back to Trotsky. But that is what we are doing, not inventing something new but going back to basics and applying them to the current reality.
The most essential point that will run through the entire proceedings of this conference is the question of revolutionary leadership. This is the fundamental point on which we floundered, and it is by fighting to reassert it that we have been rearming over the last two years. But what is revolutionary leadership? The answer is simple to the point of sounding simplistic. To provide revolutionary leadership is to guide the struggle of the working class in a manner that will “bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat” (Communist Manifesto). Since the capitalist mode of production is based on the exploitation of the working class, advancing the interests of the proletariat must necessarily bring it toward the seizure of power. The difficulty, however, isn’t abstractly asserting these points but approaching every problem from the understanding that the proletariat needs its own, independent path of action and that only Marxism can provide it.
Another important theme in this conference will be the question of the Marxist method; that is, the need to root our program in a dialectical-materialist study of the living class forces of society. The next reporters will elaborate on this question in relation to the world situation and the question of permanent revolution. For the time being, I just want to link this question once more to revolutionary leadership and insist that the Marxist method is first and foremost partisan. We approach the world not as neutral observers but as the most consistent fighters for the class interests of the proletariat. You cannot make sense of reality if you do not approach it as an active factor seeking to influence and change it. The method and the aims cannot be divorced.
The main substance of my report will be to evaluate the work of the ICL from our intervention in the DDR (East Germany) and the Soviet Union up to today. The point is not to aimlessly ponder our past but to shape our future. I will approach the question not as a neutral observer but with the stated agenda of changing the ICL’s trajectory—to put the party on track to provide revolutionary leadership for the working class internationally. Without this starting point, any evaluation of our past is sure to get lost in the bottomless pit of confusion and sterility that characterized our party for the last 30 years. It will necessarily flip-flop between insisting on the formal correctness of certain aspects of our program and simply presenting ourselves as without any contradictions and dead as a revolutionary party. Neither of these is correct. The only way to properly evaluate the ICL and its contradictions is through measuring its work based on how it sought to advance the interests of the working class at a given time and place.
If there is one point I want comrades to assimilate from this report, it is that advancing the independent interests of the working class is the decisive question for revolutionaries. The second you lose track of this you are lost. As I already said, the whole conference will insist on this point.
The ICL’s Fight Against Counterrevolution
No event since the Second World War compares in historical significance to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Any evaluation of the ICL’s recent record must start from here. Our party’s action in these events tested our revolutionary mettle. We entered 1989 a tiny tendency plagued by significant deficiencies and problems. But revolutionary parties are not born from immaculate conception. Whatever problems we had, we fought with all our might to provide an alternative road for the working class in the DDR and USSR.
Despite our minuscule forces, we did not hitch ourselves to anyone’s wagon but fought to chart an independent path corresponding to the objective interests of the working class. The events in 1989 and 1990-92 screamed out for opposition to counterrevolution in struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy, which was literally liquidating itself and the workers states. This is what we fought for, and we were the only tendency in the world to do so at this crucial turning point of the 20th century. This establishes our revolutionary credentials without a shadow of a doubt.
It is important to understand what made our intervention revolutionary. It wasn’t only that we mobilized all our forces to fight counterrevolution. Nor is it that we had a sizeable impact far outweighing our forces. It is that, against all reactionary roads on offer, we fought for the only path that could advance the historic interests of the working class.
The ICL After 1991: Dropping Revolutionary Leadership
Now how does this compare to the role we set for ourselves after counterrevolution? It couldn’t be more different. You only need a quick read of some of the hundreds of pages written to define our tasks in the post-Soviet period to see that we did not even offer the pretense that our program could play a decisive role in the events of the period. I will not repeat the points in the document submitted on this matter [see “The ICL’s Post-Soviet Revisionism”]. Comrades have read the document and I am eager to know your opinion on the three main points it outlined. I will limit myself to repeating the following quote from the 1992 International Conference document, which really encapsulates how we set our tasks:
Let’s pick this apart. First, the task set is not to advance the interests of the working class but to “revive the communist movement.” The communists as the vanguard of the working class will grow as the position of the working class strengthens, not in isolation from its struggles.
But how did we propose to “revive the communist movement”? We outlined four points: expose the crimes of Stalinism, expose immiseration under capitalism, expose the danger of nuclear war, re-emphasize the liberating goals of communism. None of these points have anything to do with working-class struggle. This is the opposite of our intervention in the DDR, where the energies of our entire International were concentrated on leading the working class, not in the abstract but in the heat of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary upheavals.
The IG Split
A sizeable part of the document submitted on “The ICL’s Post-Soviet Revisionism” deals with the split between the ICL and the Internationalist Group (IG). This is obviously a very sensitive issue. We have spent decades throwing hostile and confusing polemics at each other, probably half of which consist of accusing the other party of lying. Most outside observers cannot see the difference between the two organizations—a fact which remains true despite the growing political gap. The only way to make sense of all this is to seize on the decisive question, revolutionary leadership. That is, to evaluate both organizations according to how they have contributed to advancing working-class struggle. When you look at it this way everything suddenly becomes much clearer. It becomes obvious that neither of us could make an argument as to why Marxism and not liberalism—the dominant ideology of the period—was the tool to advance the interests of the working class and the oppressed. That is really the central thing. Once this is clear, it is much easier to look with clear eyes at the secondary aspects of the disputes. In engaging with the IG in the future—and really any other left organization—it is crucial to always start not from their abstract doctrine but from how their intervention seeks to impact class struggle both internationally and domestically.
From 1992 to 2017
I could spend a lot of time going over all the different fights and party regimes between 1992 and 2017. But not only would this take forever, it would not be interesting or useful. If you look at this period through the lens of revolutionary leadership, it is easy to see that no matter the specific opportunist or sectarian bent we were on, our starting point was never to motivate why a Marxist leadership was crucial against the liberal leaderships of the struggles at hand. We certainly threw rocks at the leaders, from the antiwar movements to the anti-globalization movement and the various movements of identity politics. But we couldn’t argue why you needed to be a Marxist today.
I could produce hundreds of quotes showing this. However, this isn’t necessary. Every comrade who was in the party at the time knows that this was our perspective and themselves argued with a contact or new recruit that the point was to have a program nice and warm for the future, not for today. For those who weren’t in the party, I think the difference in approach from what we write now and any article written in the last 30 years jumps out clearly. Here is part of a message we recently received from a sympathizer in Britain which speaks to this:
I think this external point of view is worth a hundred quotes.
The 2017 International Conference
Now, it’s important to be clear that not everyone is happy with the ICL’s new orientation. Here is a much less favorable evaluation of our new course from Brunoy, an ex-member and historic cadre of the Ligue trotskyste de France:
The “young revisionist Québécois nationalists” is how Brunoy refers to me and the rest of the Montreal collective throughout his document [laughter]. He goes on:
Interestingly, for Brunoy the turning point is the 2017 International Conference, when comrade Coelho “let the foxes into the henhouse”:
Brunoy is right to give particular emphasis to the 2017 conference, but he is wrong in saying that it marked a qualitative turn in the ICL.
Brunoy and our other opponents hate 2017, and mostly it is for the wrong reasons. What they hate about 2017 is precisely the one point that was correct: our assertion that the struggle for national liberation is not an obstacle to be moved to the side but a motor force for revolution. The 2017 conference was different from the rest of the post-Soviet period conferences because it corrected (albeit very partially) a revision of Leninism which went back to the early years of our tendency. That said, if we go back to our fundamental criteria of revolutionary leadership, it is easy to see that the 2017 conference, like everything else we did in the post-Soviet period, was not about guiding the working class in world events and was thus fundamentally flawed. We stated explicitly:
Quite absurdly, we claimed that burying ourselves in internal polemics would arm us for the world. Well, unsurprisingly it didn’t. The leadership was elected based on moralistic and liberal fights, with a grain of essential programmatic truth. And sure enough, when we were hit by the pandemic, the entire organization collapsed. In this sense it is true that 2017 paved the way for the 2020 collapse, but not in the way Brunoy argues. It was the failure to fight for revolutionary leadership in 2017 that led to our collapse, not the reassertion of basic Leninist points on the national question.
The 2020 Collapse
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic gave striking confirmation that world events are the real test for parties claiming to be revolutionary. Instead of reacting to the greatest world crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union by providing a road of struggle for the working class, we embraced the response to the pandemic pushed by the liberal bourgeoisie and very literally liquidated. This is where the evolution of the ICL becomes both more contradictory and interesting. How is it that we managed to go from total collapse to where we are today at this conference, setting the basis for a fundamentally different and revolutionary course?
There is a tendency in the party to present our reorientation as a constant and gradual process, that somehow the core of the current international leadership has been fighting the same fight since 2020 and maybe even as far back as 2017. There is an element of truth in this, but fundamentally it is wrong. What is true is that in 2020 there was resistance to liquidating the party into liberalism. But this is all it was. Don’t get me wrong. Without this tendency the party would be dead right now; in that sense it was crucial. But resistance to becoming liberals is a far cry from being communists. We limited our role to that of left critics of the Spartacist League/U.S. We were not charting an independent path but simply pushing for less liberalism. The result was a confusing mess of mostly shallow and unintelligible political fights.
This led to the infamous International Executive Committee (IEC) delegation to the SL/U.S. in the summer of 2020. During this trip the delegation pushed a polarization based on liberal moralism, accusing some comrades of being insensitive on the black question and claiming programmatic agreement with others deemed more sensitive. At bottom this represented an attempt to flip the page on the struggle shaking the party and once more just give a facelift to the ICL’s liberal course—that is, to have a big fight, condemn a group of comrades, make some abstract points about revolution and continue on a fundamentally similar path.
The fight waged against the delegation was slow to get off the ground, and if you look back at the main document criticizing what it did, you’ll see that it is quite rigid and abstract. But there is one essential point: the refusal to go back to business as usual. We had an understanding that liberalism had brought about the collapse of the party and that we could not conciliate it, no matter the price. Here is what I argued at the December 2020 IEC plenum:
This is the basis on which the I.S. was elected in 2020. In some ways it sounds like what I am arguing today. But it is fundamentally different.
First, it was false to claim that the problems of the ICL were all due to the SL/U.S. But more importantly, the assertion about the political independence of the working class and the need to split with reformism was posed totally abstractly, totally divorced from the gigantic crisis shaking the world at the time. So, on the one hand the refusal to conciliate was of decisive importance in getting us to where we are today. But on the other, it did not represent a fundamental break because it was disconnected from our actual intervention into the world.
I believe most I.S. comrades can pinpoint the exact time and place when our bubble burst about the fights we had been waging “against the revisionism of the SL/U.S.” In March 2021 we finally organized a serious discussion on the Covid-19 pandemic. As we were working on the motion articulating our opposition to the lockdowns, we referred to Lenin’s writings during the First World War, in particular his July 1915 article “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War,” where he argues:
It was in working on that motion and thinking about this point by Lenin that it hit us. While the pandemic had been raging for an entire year, causing the working class incalculable suffering, we—the so-called vanguard of the proletariat—had spent the year engulfed in internal discussion, providing no road for the working class. We certainly weren’t taking advantage of the difficulties experienced by the capitalists to advance the struggle for revolution. At that moment it became clear just how bankrupt our course had been. Up to that point our direction of travel was crucial, but the content of what we were fighting for was fundamentally wrong.
The IEC statement against the lockdowns [see Spartacist (English edition) No. 67, August 2022] represents the qualitative turn in our International because it put forward a program corresponding to the interests of the working class in this world crisis. Although late in doing this, the ICL remains unique in putting forward such a perspective.
My understanding is that comrades from the Bolshevik-Leninist (B-L) group have vacated their position calling for “workers’ lockdowns.” Let me nonetheless make a few remarks on this question. We can discuss the tactical question of how best to put forward an independent proletarian perspective in the pandemic, but we must be clear that to be principled this perspective must be explicitly counterposed to that of the bourgeoisie.
Who knows how a revolutionary workers state would deal with a pandemic? It would depend on the concretes. Shutting down certain segments of the economy would not be excluded on principle, but that’s not the point. The main point in the pandemic as it actually happened was that to defend its own interests the working class had to fight, not accept simply staying locked up and following the dictates of their rulers. In popular consciousness lockdowns administered by the working class would at best be understood as lockdowns with additional social measures; at worst they would be seen as workers enforcing the draconian measures themselves. In neither case would it do anything to drive a wedge between the policy pushed by governments and the interests of the working class. Instead, it bridges the two.
I believe that the reason for wanting to raise calls such as “workers’ lockdowns” comes from an inability to refute the moral propaganda during the pandemic about “saving lives.” The key argument for the working class to advance its interests in the pandemic was that it needed to oppose the government’s response even though it was fighting the virus. If you can’t explain how government responses were detrimental to the working class, you are bound to either take the idiotic position that communists don’t care about human lives or try to bridge the interests of the working class with the rulers’ lockdown policy. The key to breaking through this dilemma was to show how fulfilling the interests of the working class during the pandemic—both immediate and long-term—collided with the current social and political structures. It then becomes clear that the working class shouldn’t have supported government policies but needed its own independent and counterposed strategy to defend its safety and livelihood.
Reforging the ICL
Publishing the lockdown statement was a qualitative turning point, but the struggle was far from over. Once on track to provide revolutionary leadership to the working class, we came face to face with a wall of accumulated methodological and political revisionism which blocked us at every turn. It was one thing to take our sword out of its sheath; it was another to learn how to sharpen and wield it. When you look at the ICL’s record since 2021, you see that our course has been a revolutionary one: we have sought to provide leadership to the working class in the main events that have shaken the world and the countries where we have sections. Our interventions have been modest and uneven but crucial. I will now elaborate on the tortuous path and different stages we went through to make these interventions happen.
1) Reaffirming the Split Between Reform and Revolution
Almost immediately after publication of the lockdown statement, there were attempts by various sections and a part of the I.S. itself to present the dividing line in the workers movement as being for or against lockdowns. Against this it was necessary to reassert the fundamental lesson of Leninism—that the dividing line in the workers movement is between reform and revolution. Whereas this was abstractly done back in December 2020, this same point became concrete and directly related to our intervention in the pandemic. Now don’t get me wrong. If you look back at the fights we had on this question in 2021, you’ll find plenty of very theoretical and somewhat abstract points. But unlike in 2020, the question of splitting the workers movement along the lines of reform and revolution was wielded to defend a fundamentally revolutionary intervention into world events.
This same political point was crucial in the Spartacist League/Britain, where to put the section back on track we had to correct its capitulation to Labourism in the Corbyn years. In the 2021 SL/B conference document, we reasserted the following basic point:
Put simply, we fight for a revolutionary party, not a more left-wing social democracy. The SL/B conference also extended this understanding to the trade-union question. Against decades of past practice, we argued:
Now, both points quoted above were absolutely crucial. But very quickly the tendency in the party became to simply repeat them as rote formulas. We have had to insist time and time again that asserting these truths divorced from concrete struggle is meaningless.
This brings me to the next point: tactics. In Germany we rearmed differently than in Britain. We started by making a key intervention and then deepened our theoretical foundation. Once it is understood that revolutionary leadership is about guiding working-class struggle, the need to exploit contradictions and polarizations in society becomes obvious. This requires the proper use of tactics. The Spartakist-Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands campaign to drive the NATO/EU supporters out of Die Linke (Left Party) in the context of the Ukraine war was a concrete application of the fight for revolutionary leadership and the need to split the workers movement between reform and revolution [see “Throw the EU/NATO Supporters Out of the Left!”, Spartacist (English edition) No. 67, August 2022]. By putting pressure on left social democracy to fight back against the social-chauvinist wave gripping Germany, we were able to show very clearly why only a revolutionary program could provide a real basis to oppose the war.
Of course, we could have stood back and abstractly called for revolution against German imperialism. But that would have done nothing to advance the interests of the workers movement. The course we fought for provided a way to fight German imperialism while strengthening the authority of the revolutionary vanguard. Our interventions exposed how the left wing of Die Linke would rather dump its pacifist anti-NATO program than break unity with warmongers.
Any semi-decent leftist who looks at the German political context today—with the right-wing Alternative for Germany becoming the strongest political force—must concede that the Spartakists were right about throwing NATO/EU supporters out of the workers movement. Failure to do so has totally paralyzed and demoralized the left. Meanwhile, reaction has the wind in its sails, benefiting from the growing opposition to the Ukraine war.
3) Getting at the Roots of Post-Soviet Revisionism
To go back to the more internal front, at the start of 2022 we found ourselves in the infuriating situation that, almost a year since the publication of the lockdown statement, practically no section had advanced in the slightest. This pushed us to dig deeper and get to the source of this paralysis. If our problem had only been the pandemic, then we should have bounced back when the political issue was settled. But that didn’t happen, and it became increasingly clear that what we were pushing for in the pandemic was totally different from the International’s perspective in the last 30 years.
It is through fighting to provide revolutionary leadership in the world today that we could understand our problems in the preceding period. You could never understand the problems of the ICL simply by studying our internal discussions. Again, it’s only by fighting for a revolutionary course today that you can make sense of our previous disorientation.
4) Permanent Revolution
In the case of our sections in nationally oppressed countries, even going back 30 years didn’t do us any good. We were first confronted with the problem in Quebec. To put forward a revolutionary program in the pandemic, we had to expose the illusion that the state is the key instrument for the advancement of the Québécois nation. But to break this illusion we had to recognize that it had a legitimate basis. The development of a proto-state enabled the Québécois nation to push back against anglophone domination and brought significant social progress. It is by looking to Trotsky’s writings on permanent revolution that we were able to crack this problem and understand the role of the Quebec bourgeoisie as a semi-oppressed, semi-ruling class which, while taking the lead of the national struggle, undermines it and betrays it at every turn.
As we extended this understanding to Greece and then Mexico, it became clear that our party’s whole history on permanent revolution was revisionist. This realization didn’t come through poring over volumes of Trotsky—although that was certainly necessary—but by fighting to provide answers for the working class now. You cannot take a single step in this direction if you think that defending Greek borders is entirely reactionary or you denounce measures to educate the peasantry in Mexico as a reactionary ploy to transform them into…literate workers.
5) Stalinist Bureaucracy
The exact same process occurred in relation to China. To advance the interests of the working class there, you must confront the Stalinist bureaucracy. This is true in general just as it is in relation to the defense of China against imperialism and counterrevolution. The defense of China requires a struggle against the Stalinists. For any who may still have lingering doubts about our recent articles being too harsh on the Stalinists, I’ll let Trotsky do the answering:
As this shows, there is no such thing as being “too hard on Stalinism.”
6) Fighting Centrism
A key lesson highlighted during the SL/U.S. conference last December is the importance of breaking with centrism. The question is whether the Marxist pole will fight to be hegemonic or if it will make concessions compromising and restricting its own activities and principles. It is one thing to take correct principled positions and another to draw the practical conclusions of these positions and fight in accordance with them. The independent action of the working class gets posed most acutely over centrism. Unity or split with opportunism—that is the question. It was crucial to elect the SL/U.S. leadership based on a sharp fight against centrism. That said, the struggles in the SL/U.S. since the conference show that the fight against centrism isn’t a one-time deal but gets posed all the time in every aspect of our work.
7) Guiding Working-Class Struggle Through Every Twist and Turn
At the current stage, most sections have been able to take some significant steps in reasserting our fundamental tasks and/or have made significant interventions into domestic events. But revolutionary leadership is not just planting the programmatic banner or making a few good interventions. It is a constant process which is never settled but gets tested again and again. To win the allegiance of the working class, we must build a party that can guide its struggles at every step of the way, whether it is on the offensive or on the defensive.
The most experience we have had with this is in the SL/B, where in the past year we were able to make a series of interventions at decisive points of the strike wave that shook the country. At each stage of the conflict, we fought to advance the struggle while driving a wedge between the Labourite leaders of the movement and the interests of the working class. Every single turn in the situation required fights inside the party to get the new orientation right. In seeking to guide the struggle, we were naturally driven to rely heavily on our few tendrils in the labor movement. We could not provide leadership to the struggle without knowing the mood and pressures in the working class. Our intervention was based on a constant back and forth between our members in the unions and the SL/B leadership. In fact, this process led our members in the unions to become integral parts of that leadership.
This highlights the type of party we are seeking to forge, a revolutionary workers party. A party composed overwhelmingly of workers and whose policies reflect their class interest. The role of intellectuals in such a party is to break with the methods and attitudes of the petty bourgeoisie and subordinate themselves to furthering the interests of the working class. You cannot build a working-class party in an ivory tower, cut off from the working class. For the time being, our roots in the workers movement are minuscule. But we must be crystal-clear about our perspective and we need to work in accordance with it, right here and now. Overall, our intervention in Britain was modest, and we certainly made mistakes. But I do think it is rich in lessons and a small example of what it means to provide revolutionary leadership.
In fact, I think the same can be said of the entirety of our course in the last two years. It is important to keep in mind that the process we went through is sure to be repeated in one way or another in left groups all over the world. The current political turmoil internationally is exercising great pressure on the Marxist left, and there are sure to be polarizations and openings. The documents submitted to this conference provide answers to the most crucial questions posed today. We must intervene very aggressively with this material. But it will also be crucial to bring out the lessons of our struggles and hopefully help make it easier for others who, like us, are seeking to chart a revolutionary course. This is in part the objective of having the B-L group at our conference this weekend.
To conclude: As I incessantly repeated throughout my report, we must approach every question from the point of view of providing an independent working-class perspective based on advancing the fight for socialist revolution. Then the next step is to concretely root this perspective in a Marxist understanding of the class forces and obstacles at any given time and place.
After three years of arduous struggle, we have made some gigantic strides. But this is only the starting line. Let’s not downplay how precarious our situation remains. Our party is far from consolidated on the politics of the conference documents. We must further steel ourselves; world events promise to be unforgiving and will severely punish any faltering. Whoever doesn’t have the stomach for a constant and grueling struggle isn’t in the right party. As the conference loomed some comrades understood this and quit. So be it. We go forward determined as ever, and clearer than ever on our tasks in this new period. This conference is the first step.
Down with centrism and sectarianism! Forward to the reforged Fourth International!