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Taking the fifth?

We all remember the end of last year for the dismal outcome, at Copenhagen, for concerted international action to deal with the world’s problems. Just a few weeks before, however, another meeting took place. In November last year, the International Encounter of Left Parties met in Caracas. At that meeting, Hugo Chávez, in typically theatrical style, declared that it was time ‘to convene the Fifth International, and I dare to make the call, which I think is a necessity’.

What would a Fifth International look like? More of the same Trotskyist rhetoric, or something new and radical that, while rejecting the neoliberal consensus, does not tie itself up in dogma, recognising that all theory is contingent – that nineteenth-century critiques of capital, however brilliant for their time, are not the be-all and end-all?

Despite no mention of it on their website, it appears that Australia’s own Socialist Alliance were involved in the discussion: they pushed for the inclusion of climate change as one of the main issues of concern. Michael Albert – activist, co-founder of the ZNet radical media hub and proponent of participatory economics – has embraced the proposal, cautioning that it should be radically different from its predecessors.

Most politically sophisticated people of today’s movements would not sign up with an old-style International. Even considering the relatively few eager souls who would sign up, most would not remain inspired for long. Predictably, support would not grow strong enough to win major change. We can’t win a new world without attaining wide and deep support, and we can’t attract wide and deep support offering structures and methods embodying the core ills of the past.

The whole post is worth a read, as is the proposal following it, endorsed by a long list of people including Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. At points the proposal tends to the platitudinous – applying Simon Hoggart’s wry ‘law of the meaningless opposite’ to the statements of intent (solidarity, diversity, equity, peace, justice, sustainability, democracy), and it is hard to see who – right-wing nutters aside – would reject them (in favour of isolation, homogeneity, inequality, etc).

But perhaps this is the point: to achieve a broad base of support and escape death by obscurity, the fate of many left initiatives. Fair enough, but there is the sense that it is trying to be all things to too many different viewpoints, and, as such, suffers from a lack of clarity, especially about means (‘prepare materials, pursue actions, carry out endeavours’). Perhaps unfairly, I could not help but think of the whimsical Pugwash number ‘It’s Nice to be Nice’.

Browsing for some reaction, I was struck by the fact that Jacob Richter’s critique of Albert’s proposals were based on a perceived lack of theoretical rigour, and the subordination of class struggle to other concerns. I would have expected this from the orthodox Marxists at the League for the Fifth International – no relation to the current proposal – but there I found, along with predictable misgivings about ‘entrusting the initiative of the founding a new workers’ international to the head of a bourgeois state’, objections on a more empirical basis: what kind of a man has Chávez shown himself to be?

It should not be forgotten that Chávez recently supported and solidarised [sic] with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s brutal repression of the workers, women and youth of Iran who were fighting for democratic rights and with Robert Mugabe’s prolonged attempts to do the same in Zimbabwe.

ZNet has carried a lot of articles with a perspective on Venezuela that tends to the rose-tinted, perhaps encouraged by the receptiveness of the regime to sympathetic foreign groups. The picture of Venezuela we get in the west is also a distorted one (Chávez, democratically elected head of state, is routinely described as a ‘dictator’), but there are serious and continuing questions over its record on human rights and justice.

If Chávez is cynically using those elements of the Left that can be corralled into a bloc to consolidate his own power, it will not be the first time that good people’s sincere desire to improve the world has been channelled to ignoble ends. On the other hand, if grassroots organisations stay away, any governments and states involved will dominate the proposed International by the law of gravity. I hope the Socialist Alliance will look beyond their own membership, and sound out the broader Left within Australia before going to the inaugural conference at Caracas in April.

Joshua Mostafa is an Anglo-Bengali expat, who, with his Susanne, lives in the Blue Mountains with their various children and other animals, where he works for a digital publishing company, and writes stories, essays and poems. http://joshuamostafa.info/

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  1. “Browsing for some reaction, I was struck by the fact that Jacob Richter’s critique of Albert’s proposals were based on a perceived lack of theoretical rigour, and the subordination of class struggle to other concerns.”

    The third lack pertains to historical knowledge: the struggles and resolutions of the IWMA, the resolutions of the original Socialist International (2nd), and that the Internationals themselves don’t have a linear continuity (see 2-1/2 and 3-1/2 internationals).

    Trotskyists are far from being orthodox Marxists in the sense of the pre-renegade center tendency of the Second International, the viewpoint taken in my critique.

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