United Secretariat of the Fourth International

USFI Congress 1965

My generation entered the scene at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s. I joined our organization in 1960. We had a base amongst workers in Liverpool and there was also a base amongst a very promising layer of students who joined our organization at Sussex University. We were, at this stage, part of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI). We had been forced into a very unprincipled fusion with Mandel’s organization in Britain, the Internationalist Group, later the International Marxist Group (IMG), in mid-1964. The old, rather self-mocking, slogan of the Trotskyists at that time was, “unhappy with fusions, happy with splits”. And sure enough within six months – towards the end of 1964 – because the amalgamation had taken place on an unprincipled basis, there was a split. In order to clarify the situation of a split organization with two distinct groupings, Ted Grant and myself attended the Congress of the USFI in 1965. Our arguments for continuing to be recognized as the only official British section of USFI were rejected. This decision was in the tradition, unfortunately, of the leaders of this organization who preferred pliant followers able to carry out their line, rather than genuine collaborators, even with serious political differences. Our tradition has always been to try and argue out differences politically. The tone for the USFI was set by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the United States. James Cannon was an able workers’ leader but possessed certain Zinovievist, that is maneuverist, traits. An honest approach towards the different sections of the USFI was foreign to this leadership.

The Congress of the USFI took place in the Taunus Mountains, in Germany, in November/December 1965. We submitted alternative documents and amendments to those of the leadership. We had differences on the character of modern capitalism and economic perspectives. We maintained, I believe correctly, that Mandel’s ideas were neo-Keynesian in content. We also differed with them on perspectives for the Common Market, as the European Union was called at that stage. The USFI leadership clearly thought that European capitalism was at the point of “take-off”, that capitalism would be able to unify Europe. We also differed with them on the analysis of the colonial and semi-colonial world. We were in support of the national liberation struggle, even under bourgeois leadership, but without in any way giving a shadow of political support to the leadership of these movements. The US SWP, which was then part of the USFI leadership, believed that Castro was more or less carrying out the tasks of genuine Trotskyism at that stage. There was no need, according to this organization, for a political revolution in Cuba, i.e. the creation of soviets, the election of officials, the right of recall, etc. On the other hand, in the course of the conference deliberations we managed to extract from the leadership a difference between Mandel, on the one side, and the US SWP, on the other, in relation to China and Mao Zedong. When we questioned Mandel about a formula in their document about the need for an “anti-bureaucratic movement” in China, he admitted that the US SWP believed that a political revolution was necessary but that Mandel, Maitan and Frank believed that it was not. In general, however, despite the fact that our documents were the only real opposition at the congress, our ideas were not addressed and hardly referred to.

Refuting our arguments, Mandel & Co. recognized two sympathizing groups of the USFI in Britain, ourselves and the IMG. This was completely unprecedented in the history of the Trotskyist movement. While there are examples of an official section and sympathetic groups being accepted, there was no precedent for an official section to be de-recognized or put on a par with a “sympathizing” group. In our book this was a form of expulsion, moreover, one undertaken in an underhand and dishonest fashion. We decided that the time had arrived when we must turn our backs on this organization and the squabbling sects who described themselves as “Trotskyist”.

Out of the USFI

We tried to follow the advice of Marx and Engels to their followers in Germany in the 1870s. Writing to Babel, one of the leaders of what later became the mass Social Democratic Party of Germany, Engels commented, in 1873: “It is easy to pay too much attention to one’s rival and to get into the habit of always thinking about him first. But both the General Association of German Workers and the Social Democratic Workers Party together still only form a very small minority of the German working class. Our view, which we have found confirmed by long practice, is that the correct tactics and propaganda is not to draw away a few individuals and members here and there from one’s opponent, but to work on the great mass which still remains apathetic. The primitive force of a single individual who we ourselves attracted from the crude mass is more than ten Lassallian renegades, who always bring the seeds of their false tendencies into the party with them.” (The Lassallians were the followers of Ferdinand Lassalle who founded the General Association of German Workers in 1863.)

Marx commented earlier, in 1868: “The sects see the justification for its existence and its ‘point of honor’ – not in what it has in common [emphasized by Marx] with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it.”

We decided to face up in Britain, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and elsewhere to the task of reaching those workers, particularly young workers, who had an interest in left politics and could be won to a Marxist and Trotskyist position. There were many very good comrades in the small Trotskyist groups, many who were raw revolutionary material, but the opportunities of transforming them into rounded-out Marxists were squandered by the mistakes of the leadership of these groups.

Guerillaism and the USFI

We had fundamental differences with the USFI’s approach on the role of students in the revolution, and particularly on guerrillaism. Their position on guerrillaism resulted in the destruction of many potentially fine revolutionary fighters. It is not a question of ex post facto criticisms but, at the time when the USFI was engaged in sectarian adventures in Latin America and elsewhere, we polemicized against them. In January 1972, for instance, when it was revealed that there was a split between the mainly European sections of the USFI and the followers of the US SWP, we utilized the opportunity in internal material to explain our position to our comrades and to theoretically inoculate them against the ideas of Mandel and others.

The main proponent of guerrillaism, at least publicly, was Livio Maitan. We will give just a few quotes from a document, written in 1972, of our criticisms of his position:

“Of lesser importance but still necessary is the arming of ourselves against the ideas of the different sects. The Bulletin has already carried criticisms of different tendencies in this country. This short piece is to familiarize the comrades with the present evolution of the United Secretariat [USFI], the organization we were expelled from in 1965. Internal documents of [the USFI] have come into our possession that reveal a split between the mainly European sections of the USFI and the followers of the American SWP. The issue around which both tendencies have polarised is that of guerrilla war (but it doesn’t stop there) and the attitude their organization has taken towards it. This is of particular interest to our tendency as it was one of the questions which we attempted to raise at their 1965 World Conference and which was dealt with at length in our document of the Colonial Revolution presented to that Congress and rejected without discussion. (See our document on the Colonial Revolution and the Report of the Congress):

“Maitan gives a number of quotes from the great Marxist teachers. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are transformed in Maitan’s hands from the masters of scientific socialism into guerrilla romantics who anticipated Guevara, Debray and their ilk as proponents of the idea of peasant based guerrilla operations. Thus, in a reply to earlier SWP criticism, Maitan has torn out of context extracts from Engels, Marx and Lenin in order to demonstrate the validity of guerrilla war! He quotes, for example, from Engels’s Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggle in France, which refers to insurrection as an “art”. Engels was dealing with the problems of a proletarian uprising in the cities! Where the great teachers of Marxism have supported guerrilla warfare, it has only been as an auxiliary to the movement of the working class in the cities. Maitan’s attempt to utilize articles by Lenin on guerrilla war in 1906 are a complete distortion. He makes Lenin appear more as a theoretician of the Social Revolutionaries, in looking towards guerrilla war and the peasant movement as the most important factor in the situation at that time, than of the Bolsheviks. In reality, the Bolshevik Party had fought a relentless theoretical battle against precisely these ideas, insisting on the prime role of the industrial proletariat, while giving every support to the peasant movements in the countryside and attempting to bring it under the influence of the proletariat.

“Trotsky elaborated this idea in his work on the Permanent Revolution and elaborated in numerous articles on the incapacity of the peasantry, because of its social position, its lack of cohesiveness, etc, to plan any independent role in the Revolution; either it supports the proletariat, as in the Russian Revolution, or the bourgeoisie.

“Lenin did support guerrilla war in 1906, as an auxiliary when he considered the Revolution was on the upswing. Later, when it was obvious that an ebb had set in, Lenin opposed the continuation of guerrilla war, as he did the faction of Boycottists amongst the Bolsheviks who opposed any participation in the Tsarist Duma and the possibility of even limited legal work. He would have condemned as a slander those who, because of these articles, would have accused him of propounding the theory of guerrilla war as outlined by Maitan.

“The position is even worse in the case of Trotsky: “On the question more specifically of rural guerrilla warfare, Trotsky grasped the importance of armed peasant detachments in the Second Chinese Revolution.” (USFI International Information Bulletin, January 1968, page 13). The impression is given that Trotsky greeted the peasant guerrilla war in China enthusiastically and uncritically. In reality, as the following extracts from Trotsky will show, he warned that because of the predominantly peasant social basis of the Chinese “Red” Army, it could come into collision with the proletariat if it defeated Chiang Kai-shek and entered the cities:

“It is one thing when the Communist Party, firmly resting upon the flower of the urban proletariat, strives through the workers to lead the peasant war. It is an altogether different thing when a few thousand or even tens of thousands of revolutionists assume the leadership of the peasant war and are in reality Communists or take the name without having serious support from the proletariat. This is precisely the situation in China. This acts to augment in the extreme, the danger of conflicts between the workers and the armed peasants… Isn’t it possible that things may turn out so that all this capital will be directed at a certain moment against the workers?… The peasantry, even when armed, is incapable of conducting an independent policy.” (Peasant War in China, September 1932)

“As we know, the “Red” Army did shoot down those workers who rose in support of it in the cities. Because of the impasse of Chinese society, the Chinese Stalinists were able to use the peasant army to maneuver between the classes and construct a state in the image of Moscow. (See Colonial Revolution document)

“And as if it were written for today, Trotsky answered the “guerrillaist” arguments… when he remarked in passing: “The Russian Narodniks (“Populists”) used to accuse the Russian Marxists of “ignoring” the peasantry, of not carrying out work in the villages, etc. To this the Marxists replied: “We will arouse and organize the advanced workers and through the workers we shall arouse the peasants.” Such in general, is the only conceivable road for the proletarian party.”

“Not once are these fundamental principles of Marxism posed, i.e. of the social role of the working class, organized in large scale industry, being the only class capable of developing the necessary cohesion and consciousness to carry through the tasks of socialist revolution.

“On the contrary, having bent to the mood of the rural guerrillaism reflected within their own ranks, it is only one step removed from hailing the latest outbreak of urban guerrilla war as a step forward: “We also envisaged the possibility of essentially urban guerrilla warfare and armed struggle.” (USFI International Information Bulletin, page 17)

“One of the ideas fought for almost from the conception of the Marxist movement against the anarchists and terrorists has been that of mass action by the proletariat as the main lever for the social revolution. No self-sacrificing individual or small group armed with bomb and pistol, is able to bring about the downfall of the capitalist system. On the contrary, individual terror can bring down a wave of repression on the whole labor movement, as has been the case in a whole series of countries, of Latin America and of Quebec recently…

“Hansen, on behalf of the SWP in replying to the arguments of Maitan and Mandel, gives a crushing indictment of the present open “guerrillaist” orientation of the majority in his own international organization. Many correct points are made against the majority with which we would… agree.

“But Hansen’s criticisms are at the same time leveled at the positions which he and the SWP held only yesterday and which they have not completely abandoned.

“Many of the ideas and even the formulations relating to the role of guerrilla war and by implication the peasantry are borrowed from our documents presented at the 1965 World Congress.

“If the SWP now claim that they have consistently held this position they would have to explain why they opposed our document presented to the World Congress where a clear Marxist perspective is given in relation to developments in the colonial and semi-colonial world. Ours was the only position which started out from the fundamental ideas of Marxism, the primacy of the working class and the need for the Marxist cadres to root themselves amongst the proletariat.

“In fact the pro-Castro and hence pro-guerrillaist orientation is one of the themes of Hansen’s document. He quotes with approval the earlier reunification document in 1963 which founded the present United Secretariat: “Guerrilla warfare under a leadership that becomes committed to carrying the revolution through to a conclusion, can play a decisive role in undermining and precipitating the downfall of a colonial and semi-colonial power. This is one of the main lessons to be drawn from experience since the end of the Second World War. It must be consciously incorporated into the strategy of building revolutionary Marxist parties in colonial countries.”

“There is no attempt, as we have done in our material, to first of all lay down the main strategy of Marxist tendencies in these countries of first concentrating the small forces available amongst the industrial workers while, of course, giving every assistance to armed action by the peasants and attempting to tie in these movements together with that of the organized workers. The “experiences” referred to are those of Cuba, Algeria, etc, i.e. of the methods of rural guerrilla warfare…

“Perhaps the most pertinent point in all the documents is that made by Hansen against Maitan: “One of the items in the evolution of comrade Maitan’s thinking might have been the internal developments in the Italian section of the Fourth International at that time when, if I am informed correctly, the bulk of the youth were lost to a Maoist current”! (USFI International Information Bulletin, page 22)

“This statement alone is a complete vindication of the criticisms we made at the time of the 1965 Congress and in our document on The Sino-Soviet Dispute and the Colonial Revolution [written by Ted Grant]. We warned them: “No concessions can be made to the degenerate nationalism of all wings of Stalinism… Those comrades who dream of an ‘easier’ approach are deluding themselves. Nor is it possible to imagine an opportunist approach on “current”, “modern” lines will succeed, while the revolutionary approach is left for the bedroom. “Why should any cadres in the Russian wing, or the Chinese wing, approach the Fourth International unless it has something to offer? What have we to offer at this stage except the theories of the masters, reinforced and enriched by the experience of the last decades?” (Colonial Revolution, pages 25-26)

“The pro-Chinese position of the whole of the USFI not only failed to win over sections of the CPs becoming critical of Moscow but on the contrary resulted in the going over of a section of the Italian USFI youth to Maoism! They preferred the real Maoists!”

This position of the USFI did untold damage in Latin America. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands, tens of thousands, of young people and workers in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and elsewhere who were initially attracted to Trotskyism, were led into the blind alley of guerrillaism by the leaders of the USFI. They had a similar position of uncritical support for the Provisional IRA in Ireland. Needless to say, their position as political attorneys for different guerrillaist leaders did not result in any substantial gains for their organization. On the contrary, as we see above, it led at a certain stage to the recruitment of potential supporters for Trotskyism to go over to these guerrillaist movements. The USFI destroyed many potentially important revolutionary fighters.