The Australian SWP’s Break From Trotskyism and its Relevance Today

Detail of Diego Rivera’s ‘Man at the Crossroads’ fresco in the Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City. Notably represented is Leon Trotsky, holding the red flag of the Fourth International, with Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.

By Nick D.

In August 1985, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – later renamed the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) – voted to leave the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI) founded in 1938. Prior to this, the SWP had functioned as the Australian section of the FI.  

As part of this process, two reports were adopted by the SWP National Committee, one of which was The 12th World Congress of the Fourth international and the future of the Socialist Workers Party’s international relations by Doug Lorimer. It was reproduced in the pamphlet The Democratic Socialist Party and the Fourth International.

As Lorimer explains, the first purpose of the report was to provide an overview and analysis of the 12th World Congress of the Fourth International held in January 1985 and attended by a four-person delegation from the Australian SWP. The second purpose was to explain why the National Executive of the SWP believed the party should leave the FI.

Lorimer’s account of the FI Congress begins with comments on “organisational manoeuvres” and conflicts between factions of the FI. While useful in developing a sense of the general atmosphere of the Congress, these early pages are not of great relevance today.

What is of more interest are accounts of the debates on Eastern European socialism in the context of anti-imperialism; on Trotsky’s theory permanent revolution; and the most useful approach to internationalism.

Socialism in Eastern Europe

It is clear in Lorimer’s article that the Australian SWP was on the same page as the other FI factions about the general character of socialist states in Eastern Europe such as Poland and Hungary.

Using a classical Trotskyist framework, they argued that like the Soviet Union, Eastern European nations were “bureaucratically-ruled socialist states”. That is, while economically they were based on a socialised mode of production, political power was in the hands of the state bureaucracy – rather than the working class.

It follows from this position that for full workers democracies to emerge in Eastern Europe, the working class needed to carry out political revolutions against the privileged bureaucracy who had usurped power. That is, their main task was to preserve the gains of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist mode of production but extend the political power of the working class.

According to Lorimer’s account, the FI Majority had, however, lost sight of the dual, contradictory character and role of Eastern European states. That is, from the perspective of the working class, the state is both positive and negative: defending against capitalist restoration while also defending the entrenched privileges of officials. In contrast the states in imperialist countries have a single, unified purpose: to preserve the rule of the property-owning class.

Lorimer writes, “In a bureaucratised socialist state, the repressive apparatus has a dual role and character. It is used to defend the social conquests of the proletariat, the new socialist forms of property, against imperialism, and it is used by the bureaucratic oligarchy to protect its material privileges and monopoly of political power against the working class”.

Lorimer argues that by ignoring the contradictory character of the socialist states in Eastern Europe and their relation to imperialism, the FI Majority failed to place the struggle against bureaucracy as subordinate to the overall struggle against imperialism.

Lorimer explains this with the following analogy: “Just like those who fail to place the struggle for democracy in bureaucratised trade unions within and subordinate to the struggle against the bosses are led, no matter what their intentions, into providing objective aid to the class enemy, the Fourth International majority’s approach to the antibureaucratic struggle in the USSR and Eastern Europe, leads them objectively to reactionary positions”.

Permanent Revolution

According to Lorimer’s account, the 12th Congress session devoted to discussing Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, “avoided the debate around the Trotskyist permanent revolution theory as opposed to the Leninist two-stage strategy”. Luckily, substantial theoretical debate did occur, albeit under different agenda points.

What firstly emerges in Lorimer’s article is that the FI Majority – although they refused to admit it and instead clung onto Trotsky’s permanent revolution schema – were in effect already in agreement with Lenin’s theory of 2-stage revolution. That is, they understood that:

“Revolution in the oppressed capitalist countries must unfold in two stages — a democratic stage in which the revolutionary vanguard seeks to mobilise the broadest multi-class alliance against imperialism and its agents, followed by a socialist stage in which the revolutionary vanguard seeks to mobilise an alliance of the workers and other sectors with interests opposed to capitalism”.

This view is, in reality, counterposed to “Trotsky’s single-stage, simultaneous democratic and socialist… [that] explicitly excludes the idea of a distinct democratic stage preceding a socialist stage”. According to the Trotskyist permanent revolution theory, which was the programmatic centrepiece of the FI since its inception:

“Once the revolutionary workers possess state power they are forced, no matter what their intentions are, to immediately implement socialist measures… [because] democratic and socialist tasks are telescoped together, that is, carried out simultaneously, no distinction is drawn between the character of the revolutionary regime that solves the democratic tasks and the regime that implements the socialist tasks.”

In the face of revolutions unfolding in a distinct two-stage process – particularly the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua – Lorimer argues that the FI Majority’s approach was either to assert that Trotsky’s theory was the same as the two-stage theory; or to distort reality to make it fit the schema of permanent revolution.

In the case of the former, Lorimer points out that Lenin’s two-stage theory of revolution in the colonial and semi-colonial countries has since the 1905 Revolution, been counterposed to Trotsky’s permanent revolution. As a result, no amount of reworking Trotsky’s writings could make up for the fact that according to his theory, the democratic and socialist tasks of revolution in underdeveloped countries are telescoped together.

With regards to the latter approach, it is clear that the FI Majority was impacted by the fact that living revolutions in the Global South were clearly unfolding in a distinctly two-stage process. Rather than recognising that reality had disproved theory, the FI Majority instead gave contradictory explanations.

For example, they argued that the Sandinista’s had established a “dictatorship of the proletariat” to denote the pre-socialist, democratic stage of the Nicaraguan Revolution. But this label makes no sense because, in Lorimer’s view, it was obvious that the Sandinistas had not established a proletarian dictatorship.

The Sandinistas were in fact completing the democratic tasks of the revolution – such as national independence and agrarian reform – in order to mobilise masses of people against imperialism and its most reactionary agents.

Once these enemies had been overcome, it would then be possible – based on both subjective and objective factors – to embark on a higher stage of the revolution. In the context that existed at the time – where a victorious revolution could expect support from the Soviet Union – this could include full expropriation of the capitalist class and the establishment of a nationalised, planned economy. In other words, the Sandinista Revolution was taking place in two distinct stages.

Approach to Internationalism

In the final sections of Lorimer’s article, he argues that the FI had become an obstacle to building an “international revolutionary movement” based on mass action and class struggle. This was primarily because revolutions were being fought and won by socialists across the world that had no connection whatsoever to the FI.

Not only had the FI failed to lead a single revolution since its formation in 1938, it remained isolated from living revolutions across the world. Lorimer argued that this isolation was because the FI was built around a “precise program, strategy and tactics” and was unwilling “to learn from those who’ve actually succeeded in making revolutions”. Lorimer writes:

“How does the Fourth International leadership propose to respond [to Cuba, Nicaragua etc.]? They say they must “participate fully in these processes”. But at the same time continue “to keep our sights set on the need for the Fourth International” and to defend its program, since this has supposedly been proved right — though not by the Fourth International leading revolutions, but by other people doing this with a different program.

The comrades refuse to see that by continuing to keep their sights on building an international organisation on a program that is different from those of the people who have made revolutions they are blocking any real possibility of participating fully in the process of building of new parties in Latin America. These parties will not be built through identification with the Fourth International and its program. They will be built only by identifying fully with the mass revolutionary parties in Nicaragua and Cuba, by assimilating the lessons, the policies, the program, that enabled those parties to make revolutions.”

Instead, Lorimer proposed leaving the FI and pursing a new approach to internationalism. This new approach would consist of actually relating to these revolutionary parties – such as the Cuban Communist Party, the FSLN, the FMLN and Vietnamese Communist Party – as well as other Marxist parties battling to overthrow capitalism – but outside the narrow Trotskyist tradition.

Lorimer writes that this approach is, “…not becoming a cheer squad for these revolutions and their leaderships, nor seeking some sort of franchise from them. What is involved is establishing relations so that we can engage in a political discussion — an exchange of views and experiences — so that we can learn the lessons of how they built parties, how they made revolutions.”

Sectarianism in Imperialist Australia Today

Lorimer’s characterisation and critique of the FI remains useful today given the prevalence in imperialist countries of sectarian tendencies unwilling to relate to Global South revolutions and revolutionaries.

Many of the largest organised socialist groups in Australia – such as Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and Solidarity – refuse to genuinely engage with, and learn from, overseas parties that are outside their political tradition. A look at the international speakers for the recent Marxism 2023 or Keep Left conferences shows these groups would prefer to invite independent activists and academics than members of Marxist parties from Australia’s direct region – such as India and the Philippines.

Another related issue – discussed in-depth in Lorimer’s article – is the inability to relate to revolutions as they unfold in the real world. It is almost always the case that whenever a revolutionary movement that has succeeded in seizing state power, such as in Cuba, Vietnam or Venezuela, it is dismissed as ‘state capitalist’, Stalinist or another label.

Revolutions that have occurred since the collapse of the Soviet Union – such as in Venezuela – have not had available to them the favourable trade terms and aid from the USSR that was indispensable to earlier revolutions, such as Cuba. In this new context it is not possible for revolutions in small Global South countries to rapidly move to expropriate the entire capitalist class.

They remain stuck for a long period of time in the first stage and all the contradictions associated with it. For the sectarians armed with Trotsky’s theory and failing to understand the objective conditions for Global South societies within the imperialist global system – the only thing holding them back is that the leadership is wrong – the wrong program once again.

As well as a departure from sectarianism, what is needed today is an approach that seeks to develop a concrete understanding of the contradictions, nature and realities of revolution outside the imperialist core.

Diego Rivera was a prominent Mexican painter and muralist, his works depicted the life of the indigenous people and their culture. His mural Man at the Crossroads, was made when he was achieving mass popularity. Nelson Rockefeller, a member of the Rockefeller family, commissioned the mural but painting was eventually destroyed before it was finished due to criticism over the portrayal of “anti-capitalist” sentiments, such as the portrait of Lenin and the May Day parade. Rivera had back and white pictures of the incomplete piece before its destruction allowing it to be recreated at a smaller scale at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. It was renamed Man, Controller of the Universe. The mural depicts the political ideologies that were dominant at the time – capitalism and communism – on two sides of the mural, divided by the central figure. León Trotsky, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx can be seen on the left, with a headless figure, the workers sit on the fallen head. On the right, there is a classical structure wearing a Christian cross but has references to Zeus, the father of the Greek gods.

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