Internationalism and international links

By Murray Smith

The development of the Scottish Socialist Party [SSP] is not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a process of rebuilding the left internationally. In this article, we look at the relationship between the building of national parties and an international movement.

As Marxists and internationalists, we do not conceive of building a socialist party just in one country, but as part of an international movement. Until January of this year, the ISM was part of an international organisation based in London, the Committee for a Workers' International [CWI]. We took the decision to leave this organisation as a result of growing political differences which first became apparent when the CWI opposed the launching of the SSP three years ago. It gradually became clear that we had radically different and incompatible views concerning the tasks of Marxists today and the kind of parties we should be building.1

Some people would say that an organisation which is not part of an international is inevitably condemned to some kind of “nationalist degeneration”. Indeed, there are those who argue that this is already the case with the SSP. It is of course true that it is possible for a socialist party to fall into a narrow national view of politics, and that lack of organised links with socialists in other countries can facilitate this. However, there is nothing automatic or inevitable about it. While revolutionary socialists should aim to be part of an international organisation, it is not true that this has to be the case at every moment, as a look at the history of the workers' movement will show.

When the First International (which had been formed in 1864) broke up in the 1870s, there was no international organisation until the creation of the Second International in 1889. Marx and Engels never ceased to believe in the necessity of a workers’ international and to work towards one, but they did not seek to artificially re-form one at all costs when the conditions were not yet ready. When the Second International was launched in 1889, it brought together much broader forces in the form of the new mass workers’ parties which were being formed in Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century. At the same time, the influence of Marxism steadily increased within these parties. Closer to our own times, both Militant and the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] originated and functioned for a number of years as national groupings before becoming the centre of international tendencies.

Looking at our situation today, the first question that has to be asked is: what should be the relationship between building a national party and building an international? This actually relates to the nature of the socialist revolution. While it is true that socialism cannot be built in one country but only on an international scale, it is equally true that the process will begin by the working class coming to power within the framework of national states. In other words, the revolution may be international in content, but it will be national in form.

That means that a party which aspires to lead this process must have deep roots in its own country and its own working-class movement. Each national reality is a specific combination of general trends and each workers’ movement has its own particular features. The party has to be capable of working out its strategy and tactics within this framework, and therefore of thinking for itself. That does not mean that national situations cannot be discussed internationally or experiences exchanged. It does mean that strategy and tactics cannot just be handed down from an international centre. That each party has to work out its own tactics may seem like common sense. However, a feature of some existing international groupings is that they not only analyse the general trends in world politics and economy but seek to formulate tactics that are applicable everywhere.

An international worthy of the name will bring together parties that have proved their worth in their own countries and which are able to participate as equals. A characteristic of some of the present international groupings is to have a “leading party” which then seeks to duplicate itself and to establish sections in other countries on the basis of more or less complete ideological agreement. Simply belonging to such an international for the sake of it carries its own dangers. Small organisations with weak roots in their own countries are not necessarily helped by being fed precooked analyses which they are then supposed to simply adapt to their own national reality.

What kind of international do we need today?

There is broad agreement within the SSP that we have to develop and strengthen our international links and eventually move towards an international alliance of socialist parties. The questions we have to address are how to build such links and what kind of international do we need to build today.

A look at history shows us that the kind of international which is appropriate at one moment is not necessarily so at another. It also shows that history does not advance in a straight line. Following the collapse of the Second International when its main parties supported the imperialist war in 1914, the left wing forces within it which began to regroup were initially very weak and dispersed. But when the Third International was formed in 1919, it was as a mass revolutionary international that had the support of millions of workers. That was possible because the consciousness of broad layers of the working class had evolved rapidly under the impact of the first world war, which had vividly demonstrated the horrors into which capitalism was leading humanity, and of the Russian Revolution, which had shown that there was an alternative. It was therefore not simply a question of re-establishing the Second International but of moving forward, of establishing a mass international on a higher political level.

History was moving forward. In fact, we can say that each of the first three workers’ internationals reflected a step forward in the development of the consciousness and organisation of important sections of the working class.

But history also sometimes goes into reverse, or at least takes detours. The isolation of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the bureaucracy had turned the Comintern into a tool of Stalinist foreign policy long before it was formally dissolved in 1943.

From 1933 onwards, Trotsky sought to build a new, Fourth International, on the basis of a rejection of Stalinism and reformism and agreement on the tasks facing socialists in that period. He did not set out to build the tiny and narrow international grouping, limited to his own followers, that was finally established in 1938, but to regroup broader forces. But an unbroken series of defeats for the working class throughout the 1930s did not create the conditions necessary for the establishment of a new mass international. Trotsky understood this. But he thought, making the analogy with twenty years earlier, that the postwar revolutionary wave would create these conditions. One of the reasons he thought so was that he believed that the Stalinist bureaucracy would not survive the war. In fact, it emerged strengthened. So when the revolutionary wave in Europe arrived, capitalism was able to survive it in Western Europe at the price of leaving Eastern Europe as a Soviet sphere of influence, in the framework of the accords made with Stalin at Yalta.

1945: a very different world

History had taken an unforeseen detour. After the defeat of the postwar revolutionary wave, capitalism took on a new lease of life, and entered on a 25-year-long period of expansion, the longest in its history. On this basis, social democracy also had a new lease of life and was able to negotiate reforms which improved the situation of the working class. Stalinism emerged reinforced by the creation of Soviet-style regimes in Eastern Europe and the revolutions in China, Yugoslavia and Vietnam. To a large extent the focus of revolution shifted to the colonial world under nationalist or Stalinist leaderships. This meant that the Fourth International confronted a very different world from the one that Trotsky had envisaged, an international order that was only to begin to break down in the 1970s and finally shatter in 1989. Many new phenomena had to be identified and explained: the postwar boom, the reinforcement of Stalinism, revolutions led by Stalinists, the colonial revolution and so on. Tactics had to be worked out to deal with a situation in which small Trotskyist groups were faced with powerful reformist and Stalinist bureaucracies.

The new situation after 1945 meant that in the advanced capitalist countries (and almost everywhere else) the Trotskyist movement was in a marginalised and isolated situation. This favoured the development of the crises and splits that have marked its history. The prevailing organisational conceptions and structures didn’t help.

The Communist International had highly centralised structures. That could be justified in a period of virtual international civil war, when revolution was on the agenda in several European countries. And its leadership, which was essentially the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, had enormous authority. Even then, every effort was made to discuss and convince, not impose decisions, and to keep all genuine revolutionary forces within the international.2 The statutes of the Fourth International were modelled on those of the Third, and were also highly centralised. That might have been justified on the eve of the war. It was totally inappropriate after 1945, especially when applied by leaders who lacked Trotsky’s experience and political authority. This type of functioning exacerbated debates that were already difficult and contributed to the fragmentation of the movement. It also led to conceptions of democratic centralism that had little to do with those of the Bolshevik Party and were in fact quite bureaucratic. The functioning of the most sectarian Trotskyist groups was actually closer to Stalinism than to the traditions of revolutionary Marxism.

Decades of fragmentation

What succeeded the Communist International was therefore not a new mass revolutionary international, even a minority one. It was a cluster of small international tendencies. For several decades these organisations existed, sometimes splitting, sometimes merging. Each operated and trained its members on the basis of its particular analyses and its critique of the others. Surveying the panorama, it is difficult not to think of Marx’s famous definition of sectarianism: “The sect seeks its raison d’etre and point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the class movement”.3 Marx considered that sects corresponded to a certain phase of development of the workers’ movement, before it had assumed a mass character, and that this phase was being superseded. In the same letter, he explained that “a new stage of development had been reached and that the sectarian movement was now ready to merge into the class movement and to completely abandon its separation. As far as its true aims were concerned, the sect like all other working class sects would bring them as an enriching element into the general movement.”

Marx probably thought that the period of sects was over. But history has shown that sects have appeared and persisted where revolutionary Marxists have been faced with powerful reformist bureaucracies. Thus, faced with the Labour Party, the first British Marxist groups were sectarian propaganda groups, each putting forward what Marx called its own panacea for the working class. This tradition left traces on the early Communist Party, which was formed from these groups, and arguably on the subsequent history of Marxism in Britain. In the same way, the postwar isolation of Trotskyism produced sectarian politics.

All of the Trotskyist groups were very small and quite isolated from the working class in the 1950s. All of them started to grow in the 1960s from among youth. Some sank roots in the working class. All of these groupings aimed to become, or at least to contribute to building, mass revolutionary parties. All of them evidently thought they had the particular combination of program, perspectives and tactics that would make this possible. All of them went through periods of triumphalism when they were convinced they had achieved “take-off”. None of them succeeded, which meant that in their own terms they were failures. But several of them have achievements to be proud of. It is beyond the scope of this article to draw a balance sheet of the various components of the postwar Trotskyist movement. But Militant in Britain was certainly one of the most successful in terms of building a substantial organisation based in the working class and of leading important struggles, as was the party led by Nahuel Moreno in Argentina. Sizeable organisations have also been built by some sections of the USFI [United Secretariat of the Fourth International], by the SWP, by Lutte Ouvrière and by others. So Trotskyists did build significant organisations. But nowhere did they make serious inroads into the mass support for reformism.

The end of a historical cycle

Today, however, we can see that the historical cycle that began in 1945 has ended. The onset of the crisis in 1974-75 and the neo-liberal offensive, the bourgeoisification of the social democratic parties and the collapse of the Soviet Union have eroded the objective basis for the prolonged domination of reformism and Stalinism. On the basis of their own harsh experience, sections of the working class are beginning to draw the lessons and to look for an alternative to these parties. In Western Europe this has now been seen in a whole series of elections where radical socialist forces have mounted a challenge from the left. But it is also occurring on the terrain of industrial struggle. For example, in France, where working-class resistance has been strongest in the 1990s, struggles are not led to nearly the same extent as in the past by militants linked to the traditional mass parties, and where they are, these militants act to a large extent autonomously from those parties.

This opens the way for building new parties that can challenge capitalism and put forward a socialist alternative, even if the process is only in its earliest stages. But it is necessary to start from where the working class is. The offensive of the ruling class has taken its toll, not only in inflicting defeats on the working class and rolling back many of the gains of the postwar period, but also on the ideological level. Consequently we have not only to fight the neo-liberal agenda on a practical level but to challenge its ideology and rehabilitate the perspective of socialism. The impact of Imagine4 shows the possibility of successfully doing this.

In Western Europe it is possible to identify a trend towards new regroupments that are rooted in the present struggles of the working class and which seek to offer a socialist alternative. It is sometimes said that these formations are simply occupying the space to the left of social democracy left vacant by the decline of the Communist parties. That would be a superficial analysis. It is not only the Communist parties that are being deserted by their base, but also social democracy. In Scotland the SSP already occupies an electoral space bigger than the Communist Party ever did, although it does not yet have the same influence in the trade unions.

In the post-Stalinist countries, the working class has been thrown back materially by the process of economic and social regression that has resulted from the restoration of capitalism. It is also much more difficult to defend a socialist perspective there after the experience of Stalinism. Nevertheless, the building of new workers’ organisations is unmistakably under way in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and it is important to develop links with them.

In Latin America there has been a rise of the mass movement over the past couple of years, with general strikes and movements of peasants and indigenous peoples. In Bolivia and particularly in Ecuador, these movements have taken an insurrectional form. And Washington’s “Plan Colombia” raises the spectre of increasingly direct us involvement against the guerrilla movements in that country. It is against this background that a recomposition and realignment of the left is taking place. Since 1990, the São Paulo Forum has brought together the Latin American left in its broadest sense, including radical bourgeois parties like the Mexican PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution] and the increasingly right-wing leadership of the Brazilian Workers’ Party. Now an identifiable left wing is emerging within the Forum. In Asia, new parties and, sometimes, politically revitalised older parties are emerging. The Australian DSP [Democratic Socialist Party] has played a very useful role in establishing links between these parties.

Recomposition on what basis?

On every continent the process of realignment and recomposition of socialist forces that is taking place involves parties and movements of extremely diverse origins, including Trotskyism, Maoism, Stalinism and Guevarism. The recomposition that is taking place will be on the basis of the answers brought to the task of fighting for socialism at the dawn of the 21st century. This will require an analysis of the present phase of capitalist globalisation, an assimilation of the lessons of Stalinism and a perspective of socialism that is inseparable from democracy. It will require working out the necessary strategy and tactics to help mobilise millions of people in the struggle for socialism and to build parties capable of guiding this struggle.

It is in this way that real parties and a real international can be built. Internationals are not built by ideological preselection, but by bringing together forces that are capable of meeting the challenges facing the working class at a particular period. We ask people to join the SSP, not on the basis of being Marxists or Trotskyists, but because they agree with the basic aims of the party, and within that framework there is room for considerable diversity. In the same way, the SSP can come together with parties of differing origins in an international socialist alliance.

Experience is showing that the living forces of socialism today do not all come from a Trotskyist background; far from it. It is also showing that not all those who do come from a Trotskyist background are up to the tasks of the present period. It is quite striking that the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91, far from resolving the crisis of the Trotskyist movement, has in fact accentuated it. All its components have been affected in various ways by internal conflicts, a questioning of old methods, sharp debates, crises, splits. Of course, it is true that in this period the entire workers’ movement has been shaken up from top to bottom. But any idea that the collapse of Stalinism would simply herald the victory of Trotskyism has been shown to be simplistic, to say the least.

One explanation for the present difficulties of the Trotskyist movement is that the objective situation has been very difficult. This explanation is favoured by leaderships who seek to explain away falling memberships and perspectives that have been proved wrong without putting themselves in question. It is of course partly true, and certainly was in the 1990s. This is particularly the case in Britain, where the effects of international developments were compounded by the consequences of the defeats inflicted by Thatcher. But it is clear now, although we are still in the early stages, that the pendulum is swinging back towards the left, that there is a rise of the mass movement in a number of countries and the beginnings of a radicalisation of youth in reaction to capitalist globalisation. But it is precisely the possibilities opened up by this more favourable situation which create problems for some organisations.

The much more fundamental explanation is that the epoch of small, competing, ideologically defined internationals is over. In many ways they played a useful role in defending, against the dominant forces of reformism and Stalinism, a perspective of socialism that was both revolutionary and democratic. They sometimes played a not negligible role in the struggles of the working class. But there is no longer any objective justification for the existence of competing small groups. That does not mean that they should just disappear, though some will. But instead of seeing themselves as the revolutionary party or the nucleus of such, they have to bring their contribution to the building of broad parties that represent the new movement of the class—to bring their “true aims ... as an enriching element into the general movement”.

A new situation for Marxists

The task of Marxists today is to participate in the rebuilding of the workers’ movement on socialist lines. The new mass international which needs to be built after the bankruptcy of Stalinism and social democracy cannot just be a Trotskyist international, far less the simple product of one of the existing internationals. It is quite normal that in this situation there should be conflicts. There are always those who seek to cling to the old ways. And it is logical that in all the main Trotskyist currents there are not only debates but two broad tendencies, on the one hand those who cling to the shibboleths of the past and to outmoded organisational forms, on the other those who seek to redefine the tasks of Marxists in the new period.

It is not a question of repudiating the past. But the way to carry on the best traditions of the preceding period, such as the struggle at Liverpool or the movement against the poll tax, is to move on and take up the challenges facing us now.

That means building the SSP and moving towards an international regroupment of socialist parties. The central task facing socialists and more specifically Marxists today is to rebuild mass working-class parties to resist neo-liberal globalisation and the capitalist offensive, to rehabilitate the perspective of socialism and to move from resistance to overthrowing capitalism. We have to start from that and to take Marxist methods and politics into these parties. That should be the role of the ISM in Scotland and internationally.

The period of international organisations which not only defined themselves as Trotskyist but were based around a particular definition of Trotskyism is over. But the basic ideas of Trotskyism can play a decisive role in the present period provided that those who defend them can do so in a constructive, creative and non-sectarian way. That should be our guiding line. That does not mean that we defend every line that Trotsky or Lenin or Marx ever wrote, but that we put forward the basic ideas of revolutionary Marxism. And those ideas can begin to win a mass audience today if we can express them in a way which is understandable by ordinary people.

Our immediate tasks

First of all, we do have to avoid the danger of analysing events in Scotland in isolation and to situate them in an international context. But it is possible to do this without being part of an international. We should free ourselves from any idea that international analysis and world perspectives have to be handed down from an international centre. We can do that right here in Scotland, provided we take the question seriously, keep abreast of international developments and discuss them. And also develop links with socialists in other countries. One of the deformations of small group politics was people sitting in London or Paris working out a program for the revolution in some far-off country. It is of course possible from a distance to arrive at a broad understanding of what is happening in other countries. But it is much more fruitful to do so in a dialogue with socialists from those countries.

Secondly, we have to look at what the SSP is capable of doing in terms of international activity. This will of course involve participating in the movement against capitalist globalisation, not only by taking part in international demonstrations but also by building the movement here in Scotland with all those who are prepared to be involved. It will also involve developing solidarity with the ongoing struggles of workers and oppressed peoples in other countries.

Thirdly, we can continue to develop links with socialist organisations in other countries. In general, we should have an open attitude to discussing and cooperating with socialists from other countries, without imposing our own agenda. But we should work towards a regroupment of those forces committed to the defence of the interests of the working class and to a socialist perspective, with the aim of building a pluralist international. In working towards this new international, we should aim to strengthen the influence of revolutionary Marxism within it.


1. The ISM’s documents relating to the debate and our decision to leave can be found on the web site <>. See also the debate in International Socialist No. 6.

2. See in particular Marcel Liebman’s Leninism under Lenin.

3. Marx to Schweitzer, October 13, 1868, in The First International and After (Pelican Marx Library).

4. Tommy Sheridan and Allan McCombes, Imagine: a Socialist Vision for the 21st Century, Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2001.