International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 20 (1994): Capital, Labor and the Nation-State

Petty-Bourgeois Radicalism and the Working Class

December 18, 1992, marked five years since the untimely death of Comrade Keerthi Balasuriya, the national secretary of the Revolutionary Communist League, the Sri Lankan section of the International Committee of the Fourth International. Keerthi Balasuriya, who was struck down by a heart attack at the age of thirty-nine, played a critical role in the fight for Marxism, opposing the opportunist degeneration of what was the leading section of the ICFI, the British Socialist Labour League. The International Committee held meetings throughout the world to commemorate the life and work of this revolutionary fighter. This address was delivered by Peter Schwarz to the meeting held in Stuttgart on December 20, 1992.

In 1968 Keerthi Balasuriya was not even twenty years old when the RCL was founded and he was elected as its national secretary.

On December 18, 1987, when he died at the young age of thirty-nine, he had led the RCL for nineteen years, during which time it had become a recognized political force far beyond the borders of Sri Lanka.

Without doubt, Comrade Keerthi made his most important political contribution during the last two years of his life. He played an irreplaceable role in breaking the International Committee from the opportunism of the Workers Revolutionary Party[1] and rearming it in the best traditions of Marxism. One could say with a certain justification that we would not be meeting here today without the contribution which Comrade Keerthi made to the building of the Fourth International.

Comrade Keerthi was not just an exceptional leader of the working class in Sri Lanka. His work did not just have great significance for the oppressed masses in the so-called third world. He was first and foremost an internationalist, a leader of the world proletariat, who understood the inseparable connection between the class struggle in the developed and underdeveloped countries and who fought tirelessly to build the Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution.

I well remember October 21, 1985, when I met Comrade Keerthi and the leaders of the other sections of the International Committee in the WRP center. The political explosion, which eventually destroyed the WRP, had just reached its high point. The day before, without any prior consultation with the delegates of the International Committee, Gerry Healy had been expelled from the party by the Central Committee.

The atmosphere in the WRP headquarters was like a henhouse when the fox has just broken in. The cadre were running about as if they had lost their heads. Their political opinions changed by the hour. Some of them assured us of their respect for the International Committee only the next day to announce their break with Trotskyism. Others ran to the Pabloites, to the Stalinists and to the bourgeois press. Behind the scenes, conspiracies were being eagerly hatched and provocations set in motion.

The mood amongst the International Committee delegates was quite different. There was no trace of panic. We needed just a few hours to come to a political understanding. From this time on, an intensive collaboration began which will be recorded as being theoretically and politically one of the most fruitful in the history of the Marxist movement.

If published in book form, the writings of those two years up to Comrade Keerthi’s death would fill several volumes. In retrospect one can say with pride, that it would not be necessary to alter a single line. Alongside David North, the national secretary of the Workers League,[2] who had already presented a written criticism of the WRP in 1982-1984, Comrade Keerthi played a leading role in working out these documents, not just those published in his own name but also those published in the name of the International Committee. Above all, he contributed decisively to the statement “How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism” (Fourth International, Vol. 13, No. 1, Summer 1986), which was a settling of accounts with the WRP.

For Comrade Keerthi, this was a time of political liberation. For years he had been totally politically persecuted by the WRP leadership and isolated from the International Committee. They rightly feared that his principled Marxist views could become an obstacle to their own political opportunism. He described this himself in the article “The Struggle of the Tamils and the Betrayal of Healy, Banda and Slaughter” (Fourth International, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring 1987).

Following the split, Comrade Keerthi flourished. I have seldom seen a person laugh so often and so heartily as Comrade Keerthi did in those two years. His laughter had nothing to do with the bitter cynicism of the demoralized revisionist groups. He possessed the humor of a man who could boldly look the daily problems and dangers of political life and the conjunctural swings of the class struggle in the eye, without losing that critical detachment which is indispensable for a farsighted political leader.

Above all, he could always laugh heartily about the political stupidities, intrigues and petty disputes of the renegades, only then to rebuke them sharply with his matchless political wit. This had nothing to do with arrogance. Nothing could be further from Comrade Keerthi’s character. His superiority had its roots in his firm belief in the historical mission of the working class, which he did not doubt for one minute.

He observed the petty disputes amongst the renegades with the interest of a natural scientist who studies the functioning of another class, the petty bourgeoisie, from which the working class must politically and ideologically break, in order to act as a revolutionary force. This is why nothing could be further from his mind than to descend to the same level as their personal spitefulness. All his political writings are characterized by the striving to educate the working class politically and to cut a deep trench between them and the petty-bourgeois swamp for which Healy, Slaughter, Banda and the other renegades all spoke.

There can be no doubt that his death came much too soon and it was a heavy blow for the International Committee. The consolation remains that, at his death, he had laid the foundations which made it possible for others to take up and continue his struggle in Sri Lanka, Germany, Great Britain and many other countries.

Up to the present, not a single one of the renegade groups which have sprung forth out of the WRP has been in a position to explain politically their break with the International Committee. Instead, there has been much slander and gossip. The Greek renegade, Savas Michael, specialized for a time in concocting long-winded conspiracy theories about the split, which could have easily been lifted from the pages of a third-rate spy novel—until he himself fell victim to a conspiracy and was thrown out of his own organization by Healy!

In this “light fiction,” the role of the villain was regularly ascribed to David North. Following Comrade Keerthi’s death, even Slaughter announced in his newspaper,[3] that only the scheming of David North had prevented a collaboration between his wing of the WRP and Comrade Keerthi. Nothing could have been further from the truth!

The political biography of Comrade Keerthi makes plain that there was absolutely nothing accidental about the role which he played during and after the split with the WRP renegades.

Comrade Nesan has already reported in his speech here today on the struggle which Keerthi led in 1971 against the WRP because they supported the Indian invasion of Bangladesh.[4] At this point I will deal with a document which Comrade Keerthi wrote one year earlier, at the age of twenty; his book about the Janatha Vimukti Peramuma, which I hope we will soon publish in English and German.

The JVP came out of the Maoist wing of the Stalinist Communist Party at the end of the 1960s and rested on radicalized layers of unemployed youth and peasants. At the time Comrade Keerthi was writing, they still called themselves socialists and wrapped themselves in Marxist phraseology. Later, at the end of the 1980s, they turned into an openly fascist organization which terrorized the working class and its organizations.

The significance of Comrade Keerthi’s book does not lie just in the fact that he exposed the petty-bourgeois class character of the JVP and the germs of their later fascist evolution with an incorruptible Marxist eye. More importantly, he analyzed petty-bourgeois radicalism as an international phenomenon. Thus, fifteen years before the split in the International Committee he attacked precisely those political positions which the WRP, in the course of their degeneration, would make their own.

For fifteen years the WRP were able to suppress Comrade Keerthi’s voice inside the International Committee and to isolate him. In doing this they rested upon the political authority which they had gained in the past, on their large apparatus and not least on the social weight of the Stalinist and social democratic bureaucracy and the petty bourgeoisie to which they were adapting. The collapse of this bureaucracy and the growing class polarization in all countries of the world, which was politically fragmenting the petty bourgeoisie, created the objective preconditions by which the Marxists could regain control of the International Committee in 1985.

I repeat, there was nothing accidental in Comrade Keerthi’s role in this. He had been politically prepared for this for a long time.

The struggle for the political independence of the working class against every shade of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politics forms the axis of Comrade Keerthi’s book. Its central message reads: Only the working class, armed with a Marxist party, can overthrow capitalism and build a new socialist society.

The role of petty-bourgeois radicalism in general and the JVP in particular consists of lumping together the working class and all other oppressed classes and layers in society and, in this way, subordinating them to a bourgeois program. The interests of the working class and of other oppressed layers—such as peasants and other small producers, unemployed youth, etc.—are in no way identical. In his book Keerthi Balasuriya writes: “The working class is the means through which the capitalist class extracts its surplus value and accumulates its capital. The working class itself is the most important of all the productive forces under the capitalist system. Therefore, the struggle of the working class to emancipate itself from capitalist exploitation becomes the struggle to destroy the fetters imposed by the private ownership of the productive forces. Because of this relationship between the productive forces and the working class, only this class can become the gravedigger of capitalism....

“On the other hand, the up-country peasants, the agricultural workers from the Northern Province and other such middle class elements are petty producers. Their problems do not have the same origins as those of the working class. Overwhelmed by the agonies caused by the devastation of their petty production due to the transfer of the productive forces into the hands of imperialists and the big bourgeoisie, and by the pains due to the loss of their rights and privileges, this middle class does not oppose imperialist and capitalist exploitation as such. They oppose only the manifold obstacles imposed on their lives by this system.”

The JVP rested on these petty-bourgeois layers, which were radicalized as a result of the international economic crisis, and formulated their fears and worries. But they did not have a scientific program for the overthrow of capitalism. The struggles which they organized were straight protests, whose aim was to reform the capitalist system and restore its equilibrium, not to overthrow it.

“Instead of building a revolutionary party through the struggle for revolutionary consciousness in the working class and overthrowing capitalism,” Comrade Keerthi wrote, “they cherish the belief of maintaining some kind of stability in society by intimidating imperialism through a protest movement built by raking in sections from the middle class....”

He then shows the reactionary consequences of such a perspective:

“Petty-bourgeois radicalism, existing independently from the working class, proceeds not in the direction of overthrowing capitalism but in that of creating so-called social stability within the capitalist system itself.

“The radicalized German middle class joined Hitler’s Brown Shirts, ending up in 1933 as the weapon with which the proletarian revolution was crushed, and so Germany achieved its ‘social stability.’

“Middle class radicalism comes forward, particularly at the first signs of a radicalization in the working class, not to overthrow the existing social order but to protest against it. By such expressions of protest it attempts to prevent the proletarian revolution on the one hand and the threats issued by the capitalists on the other.”

If the working class subordinates itself to the program of such petty-bourgeois protest movements, any revolutionary way out of the social crisis is blocked.

In his book, Comrade Keerthi investigates in detail the political forms, sometimes very radical, which such petty-bourgeois protest movements can take, and the theories on which they are based. He deals with the notion that the “armed struggle” is a substitute for, or is synonymous with, a revolutionary perspective.

This view, already shared by the Pabloites around Mandel, was also taken up later by Banda, Healy and Slaughter in order to justify their support for bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists such as Arafat, Gaddafi, Khomeini and others. Comrade Keerthi writes: “Posing the question of revolutionary leadership in the colonial and semi-colonial countries in an oversimplified manner, as the petty-bourgeois revisionists do, reducing it to the formula: ‘armed struggle vs. the peaceful road’ reveals nothing but an attempt to avoid the real questions of building the revolutionary leadership.

“Many elements, claiming to base themselves on the experience of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution, try to reduce the question of the revolution simply to a matter of carrying out, in one way or another, a protracted ‘people’s war’ or some other kind of armed struggle. These attempts have nothing in common with the Marxist position on revolution.

“Which class can provide the leadership in the revolution? What alliance should this class establish with other classes? On which principles should this alliance be based? These are the vital questions of principle suppressed by those who reduce the revolution in these countries to a question of the armed struggle.

“Moreover, these theories of ‘pure armed struggle’ or ‘extending the revolution from the country to the town’ are totally incapable of either comprehending or elaborating the experiences of all the struggles of the working class from the Paris Commune up to the present time.

“The Marxist conception, which emphasizes that the working class cannot come to power by peaceful means, has nothing whatsoever to do with the stupid formula that victory is ensured simply through arms.”

The necessity for the political independence of the working class from the influence of petty-bourgeois radicalism does not of course mean that other oppressed layers in society can play no role in the socialist revolution.

The question is much more, Who leads whom?

Comrade Keerthi stressed time and again that it is the working class which must lead the oppressed layers of the petty bourgeoisie. However, this presupposes their complete independence from the bourgeoisie. This is the crux of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. The working class must break with those parties—such as the Stalinists and LSSP[5]—which subordinate them to the capitalist class. Keerthi Balasuriya writes:

“The peasantry and other sections of the oppressed masses cannot be mobilized into a struggle against imperialist barbarism without a struggle to make the working class of Sri Lanka independent of the capitalist class. The reason for this is that none of these layers is able to establish its own power in a struggle against imperialism. The peasantry, as well as the oppressed masses of the North and other oppressed layers, can be mobilized in a struggle against imperialism only by rallying behind the leadership of the working class, the only class in modem society which can take the leadership of the struggle against capitalism. Peasants and the other oppressed masses cannot be united under the leadership of the working class as long as the latter is tied to the capitalist class.

“Therefore the revolutionaries must fight for the class independence of the working class against the LSSP and the Stalinists, who have tied the working class to the capitalist class.”

The call for a broad “revolutionary” or “antiimperialist alliance,” as is characteristic of all the petty-bourgeois protest movements, serves precisely to prevent such a class independence of the working class. Comrade Keerthi states:

“Every unity established as an adaptation to the conditions existing in the mass movement shall turn into a unity with the bureaucratic apparatuses dominating it.

“Under the present conditions, where capitalism has launched a series of barbaric attacks against the working class and the oppressed masses, when Trotskyists are asked to discard ‘petty theoretical differences’ in order to build ‘the broadest possible unity to fight against the common enemy,’ this means that all the theoretical and practical achievements of the Marxist movement should be thrown overboard in the name of an alliance made by subordination to the present level of consciousness in the workers movement, dominated by the bureaucratic leaderships.

“But it is the task of Marxists to make the working class independent as a class from all other classes and make it a politically conscious force which will defeat capitalism and not to create a broad unity, which only seems impressive from the outside.

“This is the main lesson of the victorious Russian revolution, as well as all later revolutions which were defeated.”

In an underdeveloped country such as Sri Lanka, where the peasantry and other parts of the petty bourgeoisie form a larger part of the population, this question is of greater significance, but it is just as important in the developed capitalist countries.

The crisis which shook the capitalist world between 1967 and 1975 unleashed protest movements everywhere. In his book, Comrade Keerthi writes about “black power,” the student movement and the pacifist opposition to the Vietnam War.

These movements based themselves on sections of the middle class which protested against the consequences of the world economic crisis but adamantly repudiated the overthrow of capitalism. They fought for the retention of their own privileges and at most turned to the working class as a means of achieving their own aims.

The Black Power movement responded to white racism with black racism, and so attempted to drive a wedge between black and white workers. Arguing that it was necessary to avoid “sectarianism” and that the “broadest alliance” possible must be formed, the peace movement excluded all class questions and united the most varied elements in one organization—from aristocrats such as Bertrand Russell, bourgeois politicians, priests and trade union bureaucrats up to workers.

Comrade Keerthi drew the following balance sheet of these movements.

“Under the pretext of forming such ‘non-class’ fronts, the middle class, radicalized by the impact of the capitalist crisis, has been working on an international scale to divide the working class racially and nationally, forming alliances of every description to prevent the upsurge of the working class from entering an independent path from the bourgeoisie.

“Although these fronts and movements outwardly appear extremely militant, behind this exists a very specific compromise with the capitalist system. For example, because the ‘Black Power’ movement refuses to see the ‘problem’ of black people being a result of the crisis of the capitalist system, it has become an extremely reactionary movement, hell-bent on achieving reforms within capitalism exclusively for black people. The objective of ‘student power,’ which refuses to see student problems as part of the general crisis of capitalism, is also interested only in obtaining some reforms within the system.

“Their attempt to win only reforms within the capitalist system is not the sole reason why these movements become reactionary. It is because in attempting to get reforms exclusively for their group or layer, they sabotage the common struggle against the capitalist system by turning away from the common struggle of the working class against capitalism.

“In the epoch of imperialism, the epoch of a single world economy of world politics, class struggles that erupt in every country cannot be divided on a racial or sectional basis. All the class struggles that occur in every country in the world become part of the world socialist revolution for the overthrow of the world imperialist system.”

The petty-bourgeois radicals found their support in Pabloism.[6] The Pabloites formulated all the ostensibly Marxist theories which could serve to justify the subordination of the working class to the petty bourgeoisie.

Comrade Keerthi joined the Trotskyist movement at the age of seventeen. He began his political life when the betrayals of Pabloism, and the devastating consequences of this, were at their greatest: the entry of the LSSP into the bourgeois coalition government of Mrs. Bandaranaike. The energetic struggle which the International Committee conducted against this betrayal brought Keerthi into its ranks and made him a life-long irreconcilable opponent of Pabloism and every form of petty-bourgeois politics.

At that time the Pabloites were proclaiming Fidel Castro a “natural Marxist” and glorifying the guerrilla struggle. In Europe, Mandel announced that it was no longer the workers but the students which were the vanguard of the socialist revolution. In the US the Socialist Workers Party[7] used its influence in order to keep all politics out of the anti-Vietnam War movement. The justification was always the same: It is not possible to build a Marxist party in the working class. Instead, a clever “tactic” must be found to mobilize the masses and bring them into conflict with the ruling class.

Comrade Keerthi commented on this with the words:

“Their desperate attempts to provoke clashes with the ruling class did not have as their aim the creation of socialist consciousness within the working class and the oppressed masses in order to carry out a conscious struggle against capitalism. They completely underestimate, or even ignore, how deep bourgeois ideology is embedded in the working class and the counterrevolutionary role of the leaders of the working class organizations. It was merely an empirical adventurist action calculated to ‘somehow’ push the oppressed masses into a conflict with the ruling class.

“Although the empirical ‘tactics’ of arousing the masses assumed different forms in different countries, according to the peculiar conditions in each of them, behind these ‘tactics’ lies the same political method: the rejection of the working class and the Marxist theory of the class struggle.”

Today the same “empirical tactics” can be observed from all those who declare that one must “do something” in order to control racism and fascism, but who do not waste a second’s thought on what the origins of these phenomena are.

In the latest edition of their newspaper, the Pabloite VSP[8] propose that there should be an occupation of parliament in order to defend the right to asylum. While we are meeting here, thousands are gathering nearby in a candlelight procession against right-wing extremism. As far as fascism is concerned, such impotent demonstrations are completely without effect. They merely serve to create illusions in the state and its institutions.

The Red Army Faction,[9] who for years murdered leading political and economic figures, represents the same kind of protest politics, only in a more extreme form. Their perspective does not go much further than to try and “intimidate” the state. And to “‘somehow’ bring the oppressed masses into conflict with the ruling class” through empirical adventures. In reality their “armed struggle” against the German bourgeoisie merely served to create confusion in the working class and to provide the state with the necessary excuse to utilize its justice and arm the police.

I have quoted at length from Comrade Keerthi’s book because it possesses a burning relevance.

There can be no doubt that the world today is in the deepest crisis since the 1930s. Now, as at the end of the 1960s, the petty bourgeoisie constitutes itself politically much faster than the working class. The petty-bourgeois movements which arise in this way are used to dull every independent political struggle of the working class.

In a certain sense, today, the role of such petty-bourgeois movements for the preservation of capitalism are more important than in the period between 1967 and 1975. Today, in contrast to then, the large bureaucratic apparatuses in the workers movement, the Stalinist and social democratic parties and the trade unions, are largely discredited.

We witnessed this during the winter of 1989-1990 in the German Democratic Republic: the Stalinist regime collapsed with hardly any resistance, but the petty bourgeoisie were able to place themselves at the head of the movement against the Honecker regime and to channel it into the direction of capitalist restoration.

A similar danger arises today. The mass demonstrations against racism, in which millions participate, are without doubt the precursors of powerful class struggles, unleashed by the mass layoffs and cuts which the government and the companies are presently carrying out. However, all the organizations which participate in these demonstrations desperately seek to direct them into the backwash of the capitalist state and society—from the Greens, the various Stalinists in the PDS and DKP and the Maoist MLPD, right up to the Pabloite VSP. Such symbolic actions as the lighting of candles result in absolutely nothing, other than that the participants feel that the state and government stand on their side.

Out of the fear that this movement against racism could become independent, the government has now even banned two fascist parties and arrested some of their leaders. This maneuver did not cost them much effort; indeed, it offered them a welcome excuse to test out laws and measures which, in the final analysis, will be used against a revolutionary movement in the working class.

The danger of fascism cannot be averted in this way. This is only possible through the independent mobilization of the working class. This was the central message of our conference “Against Racism and the Danger of War” in Frankfurt. The crucial task is the construction of a new revolutionary leadership, the Fourth International.

Many people tell us that it is time to act to assist the foreigners who are threatened. “We cannot wait until the working class has made the revolution,” runs the standard argument. Here two things are mixed up—concrete action cannot be counterposed to a political perspective.

The same argument is used to justify sending the army to Somalia or Yugoslavia. They tell us: “We are against this in principle but now it is time to act.” This argument fails to see that there is not just a “now,” but also a “before” and an “after.”

The hunger in Somalia and numerous other countries of the world is the product of their decades-long exploitation by imperialism. The images of starving children—who also exist in Iraq and other countries but which are not shown—serve merely as a cynical excuse to massage public opinion in favor of the recolonization of these countries. The same is true in Yugoslavia, where the German government has for a long time been the main warmonger.

As far as racism and xenophobia are concerned, we are also for concrete action, but we place no trust in a government and state which provide a breeding ground for the brown plague. We call instead on the working class itself to become active and to build defense committees.

In addition we would be deceiving the working class if we were to have them believe that such practical measures alone could dispel the danger of fascism. Fascism, like war, is an inevitable product of capitalism in its decline. Therefore, only the overthrow of capitalism by the working class can eliminate these dangers.

In conclusion, let me say the following: five years after Comrade Keerthi’s death the Fourth International is considerably stronger politically than for many decades. This is in no small part due to his efforts.

In the crisis of 1967 to 1975 the opportunist decline of the WRP prevented the International Committee from intervening energetically. The field of battle was left mainly to the Pabloite opposition. Comrade Keerthi’s voice was suppressed inside the International Committee.

Today, the International Committee is not just in a position to raise its voice loud and clear worldwide, but the revisionist opposition are also in the process of disintegration and are barely capable of action. Therefore I address you fully in the spirit of Comrade Keerthi when I call on you to make 1993 the year of the greatest offensive for the building of the Fourth International.


Until 1985, the WRP was the British section of the International Committee of the Fourth International. Its leaders, Gerry Healy, Mike Banda and Cliff Slaughter, played a considerable role because of their long years of experience in the Trotskyist movement. Since the beginning of the 1970s the WRP underwent an opportunist degeneration, until in the winter of 1985-1986 it disintegrated and turned its back on the International Committee.


The Workers League is the Trotskyist party in the US, in solidarity with the International Committee. The reactionary Voorhis Act prevents it from being a member.


Slaughter’s article is quoted and answered in the introduction to the Fourth International magazine, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 1988.


In a series of letters written in 1971, Keerthi Balasuriya protested against the fact that the WRP “critically supported” the Indian bourgeoisie, who stood militarily on the side of Bangladesh in its war of independence against Pakistan. He wrote: “The task of the proletariat is not to support this or that side of the warring bourgeoisies, but to use each conflict within the camp of the class enemy with the aim of seizing power under the perspective of a federal socialist republic. Only in this way is it possible to satisfy the social and national aims of the multimillioned working people of the subcontinent.” This exchange of letters is published in the Fourth International magazine, Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring 1987.


The Lanka Sama Samaja Party is a reformist party in Sri Lanka which belonged to the Pabloite United Secretariat for a long time. In 1964 it entered a bourgeois government and took on a key role in the defense of bourgeois rule against the working class.


Pabloism is the political tendency which, in 1953 under the leadership of Michel Pablo, rejected Trotsky’s view that the Stalinist bureaucracy is counterrevolutionary through and through and which ascribed to the Stalinists and numerous petty-bourgeois tendencies a progressive role. Today the most important representative of Pabloism is Ernest Mandel.


In 1953 the Socialist Workers Party in the US called for the founding of the International Committee. In 1963 they joined the Pabloite United Secretariat.


The Vereinigte Sozialistische Partei (United Socialist Party) is an amalgam of the German members of the Pabloite United Secretariat and Stalinists. It publishes the newspaper Sozialistische Zeitung.


The Red Army Faction was a petty-bourgeois group led by Andreas Bader and Ulrike Meinhof, who based themselves on the “armed struggle.” They were responsible for a number of spectacular kidnappings and murders of prominent political and economic figures. They died in prison, apparently by committing suicide, Meinhof in 1976, Bader eighteen months later.