Despite the tidal wave of commentary on Hugo Chavez’s call for a Fifth International during a conference of left parties in Caracas on November 19-21, 2009, it is difficult to find his actual words. Thanks to Australian activist Roberto Jorquera, you can read them here.
I want to take a few minutes to reflect on these issues, particularly to point to the importance that this call has […] In relation to the Fifth International I ask this special congress to include this issue in its debates so that we can analyse it and put it into context and study this proposal and its context. This proposal to call on political parties, revolutionary parties and social movements, to create a new organisation that is able to adapt to the time that we are living under and the situation that we live under; to put itself at the forefront of the people of the world and their calls; to become an instrument of articulation and unification of the struggles of the world’s peoples so that we can save this planet. It is important that the congress discuss this issue. That is why I made the call.
The Fifth International — let’s remember that the First International was established in 1864. Karl Marx with a number of other comrades called for the First International. Many years later Frederick Engels called for the establishment of the Second International at the end of the 19th century. And then at the beginning of the 20th century Vladimir Lenin with many other great revolutionaries established the Third International, and Leon Trotsky in 1936-37 established the Fourth International. All of them had a context but remember that all four Internationals, experiments to unite parties and currents and social movements from around the world, have lost their way along the road for different reasons — some degenerated, lost their force, disappeared soon after their formation. But none of them was able to advance the original aims that they had set themselves…
I honestly believe that the time has come to convoke the Fifth Socialist International and we call on all the revolutionary parties, socialist parties and currents and social movements that struggle for socialism and against capitalism and imperialism to save the world. Let us reclaim Rosa Luxemburg’s slogan “Socialism or barbarism”. Let us save the world. Let’s make socialism. Let us save the world and destroy capitalism. Let us save the world and destroy imperialism. That is what it is about. That is the essence of this congress.
As might be expected, some diehard supporters of a Trotskyist international were troubled by the idea that they were obsolete. Speaking for Socialist Action, a group that dusted off the banner of the Fourth International after the SWP—the group that expelled them—tossed it aside, Gerry Foley found the composition of the gathering where Chavez spoke decidedly at odds with socialist goals:
However, if Chavez meant what he said or understood what he was calling for, he chose an odd venue for his call. The Caracas gathering of alleged left parties included the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, the main party in the lower house of the Mexican Congress), which has never been a socialist party and is no longer even a populist one. It also included the ruling Workers Party of Brazil, which has cast aside whatever socialist program it ever had and administers a neoliberal regime hardly different from its right-wing predecessor in government.
Unlike Socialist Action, their European comrades were more open to the idea of working on this new project, not a big surprise since they were much less inclined to worship at the altar of James P. Cannon. Writing for International Viewpoint, Francois Sabado was generally more supportive of the initiative but warned about possible links with the “anti-imperialists” associated with Venezuelan foreign policy realpolitik:
Chavez’s call for a Fifth International also constitutes a point of support when it poses the question of a new International, independently of the Second (Socialist) International of which organizations like the social democratic parties, the Mexican PRI and the Brazilian PT are members. But it is also necessary to clarify a question in the construction of a new International, that of the difference between state policies and the development of a political project. One thing is to conclude economic and commercial agreements with states which have anti-imperialist governments, to conclude such agreements with other states, including some which have reactionary regimes, or to oppose attacks of imperialism against certain countries. It is quite another thing to give political support to regimes like those of the Chinese Communist Party or the Islamic Republic of Iran… The project of the Fifth International cannot in any way at all be associated with these regimes.
I quite agree with this proviso but doubt that it will matter very much in light of China and Iran’s well-established aversion toward revolutionary socialism.
Another contender for the Fourth International crown is led by Alan Woods, the leader of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) that has been distinguished by its favorable attitude toward the Bolivarian revolution even if their own modus operandi is decidedly at odds with the free-wheeling style of Venezuelan Marxism. To start with, the IMT would agree that the Fourth International was a failed project going back decades at least:
It is not possible here to go into more detail about the mistakes of the then leadership of the Fourth International, but it is sufficient to say that Mandel, Cannon and co., lost their bearings after the war and this led to a complete abandonment of genuine Marxism. The so-called Fourth International degenerated after the death of Trotsky into an organically petit-bourgeois sect. It has nothing in common with the ideas of its founder or with the genuine tendency of Bolshevism-Leninism. The sectarian attitude of the pseudo-Trotskyist sects towards the Bolivarian Revolution is a particularly crass example of this.
My bullshit antennas send off signals whenever I hear a reference to “genuine Marxism”, but let’s not get bogged down with “more detail” as Woods put it. Instead, it is of some interest to see how Woods sees his relationship to a new international:
What position should the Marxists take? As Marxists we are unconditionally in favour of the setting up of mass international organisation of the working class. No genuine mass International exists at present. What was the IV International was destroyed by the mistakes of the leaders after Trotsky’s assassination, and in effect is only alive in the ideas, methods and programme defended by the IMT. The IMT defends the ideas of Marxism in the mass organisations of the working class in all countries. It is within these organisations that a discussion around the proposal of the Fifth International should be promoted with urgency.
I would say that there is a cognitive dissonance between Woods’s being “in favour” of a new international and his blustering claim that the Fourth International “is only alive in the ideas, methods and programme defended by the IMT.” This kind of petty proprietorship mentality is better suited to detergent commercials rather than revolutionary socialism.
Departing from the world of Trotskyism, the reaction of socialists and radicals has tended to be bothered less with qualifications about Chavez’s erstwhile allies in Brazil or elsewhere. Znet, an important website run by Michael Albert, a veteran of the 1960s New Left, has embraced the idea.
Given Albert’s tendency toward elaborate blueprints such as the kind found in “Participatory Economics” (Parecon, he calls it), I am not surprised that his proposal for a Participatory Socialist International is filled with details about how things should be run (you’ll note the inclusion of the “participatory” brand naming.)
- members, employees, staff, etc., of each new International member organization would in turn gain membership in the International
- individuals who want to be members of the International but have no member group that they belong too, would have to join one
- every member group would have its own agenda for its separate operations which would be inviolable
One of the more interesting contributions to the discussion from the Latin American left comes from Carlos Fonseca Terán, the deputy secretary of the International Relations Department of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). While the FSLN has become a fairly opportunist formation, Terán shows that the Sandinista cadre can still sound like they mean business.
In the same fashion that I have been doing on Unrepentant Marxist, Terán gives a historical overview of the various international socialist organizations that includes barbs directed against both the Stalin’s Comintern (I never took up this formation in my overview since it was so clearly an aberration) and the Fourth International. Terán has some particularly interesting revelations on how the Nicaraguans related to the Comintern during the “3rd period” even though he makes no specific reference to the term:
Sandino appealed to the workers of Latin America to join the Latin American Union Confederation, a union arm in our continent of the Communist International; and to assume as their own the resolutions of the Anti-Imperialist World Congress in Frankfurt, convened by the International. According to Ramón de Belausteguigoitia’s narrative in his book With Sandino in Nicaragua, it was usual to hear the anthem of the International in the camps of the Army for the Defence of National Sovereignty of Nicaragua.
At one point, as is known, these cadres separated from Sandino. This took place a result of guidelines issued by the Mexican Communist Party in what was extremely sectarian behaviour. Such guidelines were questioned within the International, despite the fact that the Mexican Communists believed they were complying with the new line existing in the world organisation. It defined the strategy of class against class, meaning that the communist parties should break with everything that did not signify a commitment to socialism.
While Terán is correct in his assessment of the Fourth International’s endless capacity for fragmentation, he really does not understand what drives it. For him, it is a belief that the “the socialist revolution must be global or not at all,” an analysis sadly dredged up from the Stalinist archives. All the rest stands:
Following Trotsky’s assassination and death in 1940, his followers became characterised for their highly polemical behaviour which was to lead them to successive and endless internal divisions. That approach was not unrelated to their view that the socialist revolution must be global or not at all. As a consequence, this international organisation has not promoted a single revolution in any country, precisely because they did not conceive of it within national borders. That stance led to inaction of its members. The lack of revolutionary processes to promote and defend led to replacing practical tasks of the revolutionary struggle with excessive polemics, with ensuing sectarianism. The lack of combining theory with practice has characterised this version of the International throughout its trajectory and is the origin of its divisiveness.
Much of the rest of Terán’s article is taken up with interesting if not always correct interpretations of what “democratic centralism” means today, as well as recommendations on how the Fifth International should function. Frankly, I would have a lot more enthusiasm for the comrade’s proposals if the FSLN had been setting a better example for the left over the past 20 years or so. I do recommend reading it if for no other reason than if such an international arises, the FSLN will have a significant voice owing much to its earlier credentials as a revolutionary and non-sectarian movement.
Terán’s article appeared on Links, the website of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, a group that is on record as favoring the sort of rethinking of revolutionary politics shared by the NPA in France. It is very much in tune with the ideas of Bolivarian socialism and the November call for a new international, which would be very much in line with their own perspectives.
Two Socialist Alliance members, Frederico Fuentes and Kiraz Janicke, are reporting on location from Caracas and participated in the conference where Chavez issued his call. I would strongly urge reading Fuentes’s article that appeared shortly afterwards and that adds much to the excerpt translated by Jorquera above (Jorquera was formerly a member of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia which dissolved into the Socialist Alliance.) Fuentes writes:
At the same time, the conditions to build socialism are ripe, he argued. “That is why I ask…that you allow me continue to go forward, together with those who want to accompany me, in the creation of the Fifth Socialist International.”
A new international without manuals and impositions, explained Chavez, and where differences are welcomed.
He sharply criticized the example the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which imposed its dogmas such as “socialism in one country” on its satellite parties internationally. This led many CPs in Latin America to turn their backs on Che Guevara due to his rejection of Soviet dogmatism, Chavez said.
In rejection of the failed projects of “real socialism” and social democracy, a new International should embody the spirit and accumulated heritage left to humanity by the founders of the first four Internationals: Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Jose Carlos Mariategui and Leon Trotsky he stated.
It should also incorporate the ideas of Latin American radicals and liberators such as Simon Bolivar, Francisco Morazan, Maurice Bishop and Sandino, Chavez contended.
A new project of left coordination has to be an international to confront imperialism, defeat capitalism and struggle for 21st Century Socialism. It is necessary to work together in the elaboration of a manifesto around which to unify criteria in regards to 21st Century Socialism, he continued.
Chavez’s response to the interjection of one delegate who stated that there already existed other organizations for coordination among political parties was swift and sharp: there exist many spaces for discussion, but none for concrete action, which is why today many of them are finished.
“We have wasted a lot of time, we continue to waste time, looking for excuses to justify our inactivity. I consider such behavior to be a betrayal of the hope of our peoples”. What we need is a unity of left parties, “but parties that are truly left.”
I want to conclude with my thoughts on Chavez’s call which will have a tentative character for two reasons. First of all, I am loath to issue pronunciamentos in the Coyoacan manner to begin with. Second of all, it is difficult to render an opinion since so far nothing much more than rhetoric exists. Unlike the case of starting a new socialist party in Venezuela, getting a new international off the ground will be a much more difficult task given the global reach of the project and the bad habits accumulated by many of the cadres drawn to the project despite their best intentions. But if nothing else comes out of it except the idea, that would be a step forward since as Chavez and Terán have correctly concluded, it is time for a brand-new movement.
In my view the best thing that could happen is if the comrades of the Fourth International gave up on the idea of keeping Trotsky’s project alive (it is brain-dead, I’m afraid) and throw themselves into a new movement selflessly. This would provide some of the initial impetus needed to get things going as well as reflecting the “French turn” represented by the creation of the NPA.
We are living in a period in which very important attempts to break with sectarianism are being midwived by a growing economic and environmental crisis. Trotskyists have a very important role to play in moving the struggle forward if they realize that there is no reason to maintain an organizational framework that has outlived its historical mission. As the leader of a mass movement in Venezuela that has the support of millions of workers, Hugo Chavez might not be as brilliant as V.I. Lenin, but he is operating under much more favorable circumstances. It would be a shame if Chavez’s invitation is declined because he does not correspond to the ideal that we have in our minds about Lenin’s successor. Lenin wrote a last will and testament shortly before he died and it is mostly surely of historical interest. But given the historical gap between the writing of that document over 85 years ago and the urgent tasks facing the left today, it would be a good idea to put the Stalin-Trotsky succession debate to rest once and for all. If nothing else, the idea of 21st Century Socialism and the call for a Fifth International forces us to think about the future rather than the past. It is about time.