David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

The International Editorial Board and the perspectives of the ICFI

During the past year the International Committee sponsored two major theoretical and political projects: first, the series of nine lectures on “Marxism, the October Revolution and the Historical Foundations of the Fourth International” that were delivered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 14–20, 2005; second, the meeting of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site, held in Sydney, Australia, January 22–27, 2006. Your reaction to these events is a devastating self-exposure of your abandonment of Marxism and hostility to the political outlook and traditions of the Trotskyist movement.

We are not surprised by your angry response to the reports and lectures delivered at these meetings. Notwithstanding your official “protest” over the ICFI’s alleged failure to respond to your documents, you quite clearly recognized that the theoretical conceptions and perspective elaborated in the presentations represented an unequivocal repudiation of your campaign to infiltrate the disoriented anti-Marxist pseudo-utopianism of Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse into the Fourth International—that is, to fundamentally change the theoretical and programmatic foundations and class orientation of the Trotskyist movement. That is what you are actually referring to when you write: “the substance of the lectures and reports issued from these gatherings [does not] suggest any new openness to critical debate.”

You describe the editorial board reports as “more a simulacrum of a perspectives document than the real thing: they are less a guide to revolutionary practice than a version of Foreign Affairs with a Marxist coloration. They are indeed editorial board reports—i.e., perspectives for more journalism. The question of what is to be done hardly enters into them at all, aside from ritualistic statements at the end about the need to build the revolutionary party. In other words, the essence of a revolutionary perspective is missing in these reports, but this is the very thing the IC refuses to discuss.”

That is the sum total of what you have to say. There is no analysis of the material that was actually presented. Your indifference to the content of the reports—which collectively represented the most comprehensive examination of the world political situation ever presented at a gathering of the International Committee since its founding in 1953—provides the key to an understanding of your own political outlook and class standpoint.

Let us review the content of the 2006 IEB meeting, which you so contemptuously dismiss as a “simulacrum of a perspectives document...” What you reject is the International Committee’s effort to establish the objective foundations of the prospects for socialist revolution, based on a comprehensive and integrated analysis of the world political and economic situation. The approach taken by the IEB to the development of world revolutionary perspectives is best explained by presenting a lengthy citation from my opening report:

Any serious attempt at a political prognosis, at an estimate of the potentialities within the existing political situation, must proceed from a precise and accurate understanding of the historical development of the world capitalist system.

The analysis of the historical development of capitalism must answer the following essential question: Is capitalism as a world economic system moving along an upward trajectory and still approaching its apogee, or is it in decline and even plunging toward an abyss?

The answer that we give to this question has, inevitably, the most far-reaching consequences, not only for our selection of practical tasks, but for the entire theoretical and programmatic orientation of our movement. It is not a subjective desire for social revolution that determines our analysis of the historical condition of the world capitalist system. Rather, the revolutionary perspective must be rooted in a scientifically-grounded assessment of the objective tendencies of socioeconomic development. Detached from the necessary objective socioeconomic prerequisites, a revolutionary perspective can be nothing more than a utopian construction.

How, then, do we understand the present stage of capitalism’s historical development? Let us consider two opposed conceptions. The Marxist position is, as we know, that the world capitalist system is at an advanced stage of crisis—indeed, that the outbreak of the world war in 1914, followed by the Russian Revolution in 1917, represented a fundamental turning point in world history. The convulsive events of the more than three decades between the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945 demonstrated that capitalism had outlived its historic mission, and that the objective prerequisites for the socialist transformation of world economy had emerged. That capitalism survived the crisis of those decades was, to a very great extent, the product of the failure and betrayals of the leaderships of the mass parties and organizations of the working class, above all, the Social Democratic and Communist parties and trade unions. Without their betrayals, the restabilization of world capitalism after World War II—drawing on the still substantial resources of the United States—would not have been possible. Indeed, despite the post-war stabilization, the global opposition of the working class and oppressed masses in the old colonial regions to capitalism and imperialism persisted; but its revolutionary potential was suppressed by the old bureaucratic organizations.

Finally, the betrayal and defeat of the mass struggles of the 1960s and 1970s cleared the way for a capitalist counteroffensive. The economic processes and technological changes that made possible the unprecedented global integration of the capitalist system shattered the old working class organizations, based on national perspectives and policies. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—based on the bankrupt anti-Marxist program of a nationalistic pseudo-socialism—was the outcome of this process.

Despite the rapid territorial expansion of capitalism in the 1990s, the historical crisis persisted and deepened. The processes of globalization, which had proved fatal to the old labor movements, raised to an unprecedented level of tension the contradiction between the globally integrated character of capitalism as a world economic system and the nation-state structure within which capitalism is historically rooted, and from which it cannot escape. The essentially insoluble character of this contradiction—or, at least, its “insolubility” on any progressive basis—finds daily expression in the mounting disorder and violence characterizing the present world situation. A new period of revolutionary upheaval has begun. That, very briefly, is the Marxist analysis.

What is the alternative perspective? Let us consider the following counter-hypothesis:

What the Marxists termed, to use Leon Trotsky’s florid phrase, the “death agony of capitalism,” was, rather, its violent and protracted birth pangs. The various socialist and revolutionary experiments of the twentieth century were not merely premature, but essentially utopian. The history of the twentieth century should be read as the story of capitalism overcoming all obstacles to the inexorable triumph of the market as the supreme system of economic organization. The fall of the Soviet Union and the turn of China to market economics represented the culmination of this process. This decade, and, in all likelihood, the decade that follows, will continue to witness the rapid expansion of capitalism throughout Asia. The most significant element of this process will be the emergence of China and India as mature and stable world capitalist powers.

Moreover, if this hypothesis is correct, we may assume that within twenty years or so capitalism will enter—in accordance with the paradigm of W.W. Rostow [4]— its “takeoff” stage in Africa and the Middle East. Countries such as Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria (and/or perhaps others) will experience explosive economic growth. Thus, during the next half century—perhaps even in time for academic observances of the 200th anniversary, in 2047, (only 41 years from now) of the publication of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto—the global triumph of world capitalism will be completed and secured.

Does this hypothesis offer a realistic basis for the understanding of contemporary global processes? If it does, then there is little left of the Marxist revolutionary perspective. We would not be obligated to renounce our concern for the conditions of the working class. Indeed, there would be no shortage of conditions to be concerned about. We would attempt to formulate a program of minimum demands to improve the conditions of the world’s poor and exploited. This, however, would be, to some extent, an exercise in social philanthropy. For erstwhile Marxists would be obligated to recognize the utopian character of the revolutionary project—at least for the historically foreseeable future. And they would be compelled to substantially revise their understanding of the past.

But is the hypothesis—of a globally triumphant capitalism—realistic? Is it reasonable, in light of all previous historical experience, to imagine a set of conditions that would allow the world capitalist system to resolve, or at least contain, the many potentially explosive problems already visible on the economic and political horizon before they threaten the very existence of the existing world order?

Do we consider it likely that geopolitical and economic conflicts between the major world powers, within the framework of the imperialist system, will be resolved on the basis of negotiation and multi-lateral agreements before they reach, and even pass beyond, the point at which they profoundly destabilize international politics?

Is it probable that disputes over access to, and control of, raw materials critical for economic development—especially, but not limited to, oil and natural gas—can be settled without violent conflict?

Will the innumerable struggles for regional influence—such as those between China and Japan or China and India for dominance in Asia—be resolved without resort to arms?

Is it likely that the United States can continue to pile up current accounts deficits, to the tune of trillions of dollars, without fundamentally destabilizing the global economy? And can the world economy absorb, without significant financial turmoil, the impact of a major economic crisis in the United States?

Will the United States be prepared to retreat from its hegemonic aspirations and accept a more egalitarian distribution of global power among states? Will it be prepared to yield ground, on the basis of compromise and concessions, to economic and potential military competitors, whether in Europe or in Asia? Will the United States graciously and peacefully accommodate the rising influence of China?

On the social front, will the staggering rise in social inequality throughout North America, Europe and Asia continue without generating significant, and even violent levels of, social conflict? Does the political and social history of the United States support the view that the American working class will accept, for years and decades to come, a continuing downward spiral of its living standards, without substantial and bitter protest?

These are the sorts of questions that must be answered before concluding that world capitalism has entered upon a new Golden Age of expansion and stability. Those who would answer all the above questions in the affirmative are placing heavy bets against the lessons of history.

In conclusion, I briefly explained the analytical method that guided the International Editorial Board:

The main task to which we will devote ourselves this week is to provide an outline of the main features of the rapidly developing crisis of the world capitalist system.

Lenin wrote in 1914 that “The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts... is the essence (one of the ‘essentials,’ one of the principal, if not the principal, characteristics or features) of dialectics.” In accordance with this theoretical approach, the reports that we will hear will examine, from various sides and aspects, the development of global crisis. [5]

My opening remarks were followed by:

You have nothing to say about any of these reports. You offer no response to the question that I posed in opening the International Editorial Board conference. You do not state whether you agree or disagree with the analyses presented by the reporters. Comrade Nick Beams offered a comprehensive review of the development of the world capitalist economy, placing particular emphasis on the disequilibrium within the world system and its far-reaching implications for both inter-imperialist relations and the international class struggle. This analysis forms a critical foundation for the perspective of the ICFI. What is the reason for your silence on this report?

Comrade Cogan’s report was devoted to the single most important international event: the American occupation of Iraq. Your document makes no reference to it, nor do you raise the question of the war. Are you in agreement or disagreement with Cogan’s analysis?

Were I to continue down the list of reports, the same question would be repeated, again and again. Why do you fail to concretely address any aspect of the political analysis presented by the ICFI in its extensive reports? Your non-response cannot be explained as mere indifference. What is involved here is the outright rejection of the Marxist concept of perspective, which strives to root revolutionary practice in the most correct and precise analysis of the objective world possible. As far as you are concerned, this is simply a waste of time. You do not believe that the type of reports delivered at the editorial board conference is in any way related to the development of what you consider to be “socialist consciousness.” What you mean by that term, as we shall explain in greater detail somewhat later, differs profoundly from the conception of revolutionary consciousness that inspired the work of the best representatives of Marxism.

You want the International Committee to concern itself primarily, not with politics and history, but with psychology and sex—particularly as presented in the works of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. These subjects are, for you, the basis upon which “socialist consciousness” and “socialist idealism” should be constructed. That is why you respond with cold indifference to the work conducted by the International Editorial Board. Its attempt to elaborate a world revolutionary perspective, based on a study of the historically-developed socioeconomic and political contradictions of capitalism as a global system, is rooted in a Marxist political tradition from which you have become totally alienated.


W.W. Rostow, (1916–2003) was one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War. His 1960 book The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto proposed a “take-off model” of economic modernization.


Report to WSWS International Editorial Board, January 22–27, 2006. www.wsws.org/en/articles/2006/02/ssdn-f27.html