The Legacy of Leon Trotsky

Part III: Building the Fourth International

Regroupment & Entrism

Following the debacle of Third Period Stalinism in Germany, Trotsky recognized the necessity to launch a new International and sought to turn the Left Opposition outward, away from its previous orientation to the Comintern. After years as an external faction seeking to regenerate the CPSU and other sections of the International, in the summer of 1933 the Left Opposition changed its name to the International Communist League (ICL) and attempted to regroup with other leftist tendencies outside the Third International that identified with the Bolshevik tradition and began advocating for the creation of a new revolutionary leadership for the workers’ movement:

“[U]nder discussion now is not the immediate proclamation of new parties and of an independent international, but of preparing for them. The new perspective signifies first of all that talk of ‘reform’ and demands to restore oppositionists in the official parties must be put aside as utopian and reactionary.… The Left Opposition ceases completely to feel and act as an ‘opposition.’ It becomes an independent organization, clearing its own road. It not only builds its own fractions in the Social Democratic and Stalinist parties, but conducts independent work among nonparty and unorganized workers.”
—“To Build Communist Parties and an International Anew,” 15 July 1933

The ICL claimed the allegiance of some 4,000 to 5,000 militants spread across a dozen countries with a high proportion of intellectuals and few cadres with deep roots in the working class. It also lacked the resources for much of a full-time staff. In contrast, the Second and Third Internationals each had millions of adherents, significant bases in the labor movement, innumerable publications and powerful apparatuses.

Despite these shortcomings, the ICL’s consistently revolutionary political line provided some important openings which were pursued with vigor:

“As early as June 15, 1933, that is, before the turn toward a New International, Trotsky addressed to the sections of the Left Opposition an article, Left Socialist Organizations and Our Tasks, in which he pointed out a new field of activity: The victory of German fascism had brought a crisis to the Social Democracy. The Comintern was losing its power of attraction. We could expect that the centrist organizations of the left would turn towards us. It was therefore necessary to turn our attention and our efforts in this direction.

“In fact, the whole political atmosphere, our orientation towards a new International, the arrival of Trotsky in France, actually attracted towards us the eyes of organizations which, in different periods and under different circumstances, had broken with the Second and Third Internationals. Numerous were the visits in Saint-Palais of leaders of these organizations (German S.A.P., English I.L.P., Dutch O.S.P. and R.S.P., etc.). The Dutch party of Sneevliet (R.S.P.) declared itself ready to join our ranks immediately.”
—Jean van Heijenoort, “How the Fourth International Was Conceived,” 1944

The first step forward in the regroupment effort was the August 1933 signing of the “Declaration of Four: On the Necessity and Principles of a New International,” which pledged to carry out “joint work for the regeneration of the revolutionary proletarian movement on an international scale.” The three groups which co-signed this document with the ICL were the SAP (a left split from the German SPD in 1931) and two Dutch groups, the OSP (which broke from the social democrats in 1932) and the RSP (organized in 1929 by cadres expelled from the Dutch CP, led by veteran communist Henricus Sneevliet). The “Declaration of Four” outlined key programmatic points upon which a revolutionary party should be built: proletarian struggle for power culminating in the “dictatorship of the proletariat”; working-class internationalism and the repudiation of “socialism in one country”; revolutionary defense of the Soviet workers’ state; internal party democracy and “democratic centralist” norms; and the need for a new Fourth International. In the end, the Trotskyists’ insistence on programmatic clarity and revolutionary principle precluded unity with the other document signatories, whose conception of international organization tended toward a more federated, rather than democratic-centralist, model, which in turn led them to political oblivion within a few years.

In America the Trotskyists successfully seized the regroupment opportunities that presented themselves:

“The American section [of the ICL] had decided early in 1934 that the way to apply the new 1933 [regroupment] orientation in the U.S. was to propose a fusion with the left centrist American Workers Party [AWP], headed by A.J. Muste…. There had been attempts in 1933 to fuse the German and Dutch sections with centrist groups in the London Bureau but they had fallen through. So the fusion of the American section with the AWP around a month after the October ICL meeting was the first time that this particular merger experiment was carried through. And it was a successful experiment, uniting the American cadre with an important group of effective mass workers and integrating most of them into the movement for the Fourth International.”
—George Breitman, “The Rocky Road to the Fourth International, 1933-1938,”

The regroupments by the Trotskyists in the 1930s differ from recent “unity” campaigns by much of the contemporary far left because they were based on struggle for solid political agreement, not hasty paper unifications on the basis of a political lowest common denominator and an agreement to disagree (until the inevitable future split).

As the economic crisis of the 1930s propelled millions of workers and youth leftward, many joining the existing social-democratic parties, which in turn began to take on a more radical hue. In an attempt to intersect these elements, Trotsky advocated that his followers in France join the SFIO (French section of the Second International) whose leaders were in the process of establishing a common front with the Stalinist Communist Party. This tactical maneuver, known as the “French Turn,” was also applied in other sections where the Trotskyists joined (or “entered”) larger working-class political formations in order to win leftist elements within them to consistently revolutionary politics (see “The ‘French Turn’,” 1917, No.9). In Leftwing’ Communism, An Infantile Disorder (1920), Lenin had sketched out a similar tactic regarding the possibility of Third Internationalists in Britain affiliating to the Labour Party:

“I cannot deal here with the second point of disagreement among the British Communists—the question of affiliation or non-affiliation to the Labour Party. I have too little material at my disposal on this question, which is highly complex….it is beyond doubt that, in this question too, as always, the task consists in learning to apply the general and basic principles of communism to the specific relations between classes and parties, to the specific features in the objective development towards communism, which are different in each country and which we must be able to discover, study, and predict.”

The argument for affiliation was that revolutionaries would be able to connect to the Labour ranks, and through their exemplary activity gradually win over the more leftist elements. Entry is a tactic that is really only useful in situations when there is major leftward movement within non-revolutionary organizations. It cannot become a long-term strategy without gutting it of any Leninist content in favor of a return to the Kautskyist notion of a “party of the whole class.” As Trotsky observed: “Entry into a reformist centrist party in itself does not include a long perspective. It is only a stage which, under certain conditions, can be limited to an episode” (“Lessons of the SFIO Entry,” Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935-1936, 30 December 1935).

French ICL members joined the SFIO in August 1934 in the midst of a working-class upsurge. The party’s right wing had just walked out, and the leadership, moving sharply leftward, called on all revolutionaries to join the SFIO to fight for socialism. Within the SFIO the Trotskyists formed a faction, the Bolshevik-Leninist Group, which began publishing a newspaper, La Vérité. Despite complications throughout the entry due to internal differences, when the Trotskyists left the SFIO in early 1936 large numbers of Socialist youth came with them and the French section had more than tripled in size.

In the U.S., the Socialist Party (SP) was also growing quickly and most of its new recruits had illusions that it was a party for overturning capitalist rule. This led to a walkout by a section of its rightwing leadership at the end of 1935, pushing the party further to the left. The American Trotskyists were welcomed into the SP in 1936 with a couple of provisos-- they had to close down their publications, The Militant and the New International, and they were not allowed to join as a group but only as individuals. Within the SP they quickly established good relations with many on the left wing, particularly among the youth. This alarmed the SP leadership who moved to expel the Trotskyists in late 1937. James P. Cannon, the historic leader of the SWP, summed up the results:

“We accumulated invaluable political experience, and we more than doubled our forces as a result of the entry and one year’s work in the Socialist Party.”
Our entry into the Socialist Party had facilitated our trade union work. Our work in the maritime strike in California, for example, had been greatly aided by the fact that, at the time, we were members of the Socialist Party. Our comrades had better connections in the automobile workers union where, up to then, we had never had anything more than an occasional contact. The basis had been laid for a powerful fraction of Trotskyists in the automobile workers union.”
“We had won over to our side the majority of the Socialist youth and the majority of those Socialist workers really interested in the principles of Socialism and the Socialist revolution.”
“Partly as a result of our experience in the Socialist Party and our fight in there, the Socialist Party was put on the side lines. This was a great achievement, because it was an obstacle in the path of building a revolutionary party. The problem is not merely one of building a revolutionary party, but of clearing obstacles from its path. Every other party is a rival. Every other party is an obstacle.”
—James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism, 1972

Programmatic firmness and tactical flexibility—hallmarks of the Bolshevik-Leninist tradition—were infused into the movement by Trotsky, often with great difficulty, in a period marked by historic upheavals and the rise of reaction but which also presented revolutionary opportunities.

Popular Frontism & the Spanish Civil War

The tumultuous years between Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933 and Operation Barbarossa (the 1941 Nazi invasion of the USSR) saw wild oscillations in Soviet foreign policy—with the Comintern zigzagging along behind. Stalin, terrified by the rising power of fascist Germany, was anxious to forge “anti-fascist” alliances with capitalist “democracies,” particularly Britain and France. The role of the Communist Parties outside the Soviet Union was to facilitate this diplomatic game by embracing “unity” with the “progressive” bourgeoisie. In both France and Spain in the mid 1930s the Communist Party deliberately squandered major revolutionary opportunities in pursuit of “popular front” (aka “peoples’ front”) electoral coalitions with their erstwhile “social fascist” social-democratic competitors as well as outright bourgeois parties. The liquidationist policy of the popular front produced results that were hardly less disastrous than the previous Third Period sectarianism.

In response to a leftist upsurge by Spanish workers after WWI, the bourgeoisie supported a 1923 radical rightist coup by General Primo de Rivera who ran a military dictatorship until he was ousted in January 1930. Popular opposition to monarchist-military rule forced the exile of King Alfonso XIII in April 1931, and led to the creation of a bourgeois republic headed by republican and “socialist” parties. In October 1934, a miners’ strike in Asturias brought about an armed insurrection that resulted in a bloodbath, with 5,000 miners killed and some 30,000 taken prisoner. In the aftermath a political pact was made between the bourgeois republican parties and the Socialist Party (PSOE) known as the “Frente Popular” (Popular Front). In February 1936, the Frente Popular alliance won the general election on a platform that precluded any fight for workers’ power in advance:

“The republicans do not accept the principle of the nationalization of the land and its free reversion to the peasants.... The republican parties do not accept measures for nationalization of the banks...[and] workers control claimed by the delegation of the Socialist Party.”
—quoted in The Stalin School of Falsification Revisited

The Communist Party of Spain (PCE) had refused to support the first republican government in 1931, but with the abandonment of the “Third Period” and the new popular- front turn, the Spanish CP eagerly embraced the Frente Popular candidates in the February 1936 elections and instructed its elected members in the Cortes (parliament) to vote with the government.

The election of the Frente Popular in February 1936 panicked the Spanish ruling class, resulting in a rightist military revolt on 17 July 1936 led by General Francisco Franco. The Spanish working class responded immediately by organizing armed militias which routed the police and captured army garrisons in much of Spain. In Barcelona, Catalonia and Aragon insurgent workers and peasants took over the factories and landed estates abandoned by the wealthy elites.

This revolutionary upsurge alarmed Moscow as it threatened the entire international strategy of “unity” with the exploiters adopted at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in August 1935, a policy that Comintern General Secretary Georgi Dimitrov specifically explained was counterposed to that of proletarian revolution:

“Now the fascist counter-revolution is attacking bourgeois democracy in an effort to establish the most barbarous regime of exploitation and suppression of the working masses. Now the working masses in a number of capitalist countries are faced with the necessity of making a definite choice, and of making it today, not between proletarian dictatorship and bourgeois democracy, but between bourgeois democracy and fascism.”
—“The Unity of the Working Class against Fascism,” August 1935

When PSOE leader Largo Caballero took over as prime minister in September 1936 he brought two prominent representatives of the Spanish CP into his cabinet: Vincent Uribe as Minister of Agriculture and Jesus Hernández as Minister of Education. Hernández had clearly spelled out the PCE’s opposition to any talk of social revolution a month earlier in the party newspaper Mundo Obrero:

“‘It is absolutely false’, declared Jesus Hernandez, editor of Mundo Obrero (August 6, 1936), ‘that the present workers’ movement has for its object the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship after the war has terminated. It cannot be said we have a social [i.e., revolutionary] motive for our participation in the war. We communists are the first to repudiate this supposition. We are motivated exclusively by a desire to defend the democratic republic.’

L’Humanité, organ of the French Communist Party, early in August [1936] published the following statement:
‘The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Spain requests us to inform the public, in reply to the fantastic and tendentious reports published by certain newspapers that the Spanish people are not striving for the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but know only one aim: the defence of the republican order, while respecting property.’”

—Quoted in Felix Morrow, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain, 1938

In March 1937, José Diaz, the PCE General Secretary, addressing a plenary session of the PCE’s Central Committee, explained why the party opposed the expropriations of the capitalists carried out by workers and peasants during the previous summer’s revolutionary upsurge:

“[W]e should not lose our heads and skip over reality, trying to carry out experiments of ‘Libertarian Communism’ (Anarchist) or ‘socialization’ in the factories or in the countryside. The stage of the development of the democratic revolution through which we are passing requires the participation in the struggle of all anti-fascist forces, and these experiments can only result in driving away a very important section of those forces.”
“If in the beginning the various premature attempts at ‘socialization’ and ‘collectivization,’ which were the result of an unclear understanding of the character of the present struggle, might have been justified by the fact that the big landlords and manufacturers had deserted their estates and factories and that it was necessary at all costs to continue production, now on the contrary they cannot be justified at all. At the present time, when there is a government of the Frente Popular, in which all the forces engaged in the fight against fascism are represented, such things are not only not desirable, but absolutely impermissible.”
The Communist International, May 1937, quoted in “Spain: War & Revolution,” 1917 No.18

This spontaneous uprising of 1936 created an extremely unstable situation with many parallels to the “dual power” established in Russia in February 1917. The critical difference was that in Spain there was no sizeable revolutionary party capable of leading the spontaneous upsurge of the masses to victory.

The Communist Left of Spain (ICE), led by Andrés Nin, was one of the largest sections of the International Left Opposition in the early 1930s. In September 1935, Nin engineered a fusion between his group and Joaquín Maurín’s Workers and Peasants’ Bloc (BOC), adherents of Nikolai Bukharin’s Right Opposition, to form the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM). Trotsky opposed the merger, arguing that the result was a group with a “centrist “ (i.e., non-revolutionary) program.” Trotsky severed relations with Nin when the POUM gave electoral support to the Frente Popular. In September 1936 the POUM entered the bourgeois government of Catalonia and Nin became Minister of Justice.

The break with the POUM reduced the number of Trotsky’s adherents in Spain to a tiny handful who lacked the weight to play any significant role in subsequent events. Yet their program was powerfully vindicated when Trotsky’s warnings of the terrible price the Spanish workers’ movement would have to pay for the POUM’s class-collaborationist capitulation to popular frontism proved prescient.

When the Frente Popular electoral bloc was formed in January 1936, Trotsky immediately denounced the Socialist, Communist and anarcho-syndicalist signatories, but reserved his harshest criticism for the POUM: “The former Spanish ‘Left Communists’ have turned into a mere tail of the ‘left’ bourgeoisie. It is hard to conceive of a more ignominious downfall! … [Their] conduct is nothing else than betrayal of the proletariat for the sake of an alliance with the bourgeoisie.” (“Treachery of the POUM,” quoted in Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution [1931-1939]).

Trotsky characterized popular frontism as the “main question of proletarian class strategy” and pointed to the historical parallel with the situation in Russia in 1917:

“The question of questions at present is the People’s Front. The left centrists seek to present this question as a tactical or even as a technical maneuver, so as to be able to peddle their wares in the shadow of the People’s Front. In reality, the People’s Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch. It also offers the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism. For it is often forgotten that the greatest historical example of the People’s Front is the February 1917 revolution. From February to October, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who represent a very good parallel to the ‘Communists’ [PCE] and Social Democrats [PSOE], were in the closest alliance and in a permanent coalition with the bourgeois party of the Cadets, together with whom they formed a series of coalition governments. Under the sign of this People’s Front stood the whole mass of the people, including the workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils. To be sure, the Bolsheviks participated in the councils. But they did not make the slightest concession to the People’s Front. Their demand was to break this People’s Front, to destroy the alliance with the Cadets, and to create a genuine workers’ and peasants’ government.

“All the People’s Fronts in Europe are only a pale copy and often a caricature of the Russian People’s Front of 1917, which could after all lay claim to a much greater justification for its existence, for it was still a question of the struggle against czarism and the remnants of feudalism.”
—Leon Trotsky, “The Dutch Section and the International,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36) [emphasis in original]

The Comintern’s “new” popular- front orientation was simply a return to the discredited Menshevik strategy of two-stage revolution—i.e., building a broad cross-class alliance in defense of bourgeois democracy, and postponing the fight for socialism to the indefinite future. The corollary of this program is the necessity to respect bourgeois property:

“According to the Socialists and Stalinists, i.e., the Mensheviks of the first and second instances, the Spanish revolution was called upon to solve only its ‘democratic’ tasks, for which a united front with the ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie was indispensable. From this point of view, any and all attempts of the proletariat to go beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy are not only premature but also fatal.”
“The Bolshevik point of view, clearly expressed only by the young section of the Fourth International, takes the theory of permanent revolution as its starting point, namely, that even purely democratic problems, like the liquidation of semi-feudal land ownership, cannot be solved without the conquest of power by the proletariat; but this in turn places the socialist revolution on the agenda. Moreover, during the very first stages of the revolution, the Spanish workers themselves posed in practice not merely democratic problems but also purely socialist ones. The demand not to transgress the bounds of bourgeois democracy signifies in practice not a defense of the democratic revolution but a repudiation of it.”
—Trotsky, “The lessons of Spain: the last warning,” 17 December 1936

The Stalinists argued that a bloc with democratic elements among the Spanish capitalists was necessary for the immediate task of defeating Franco and winning the civil war. Rejecting Dimitrov’s proposition that workers faced a “definite choice … between bourgeois democracy and fascism,” Trotsky returned to the Bolshevik experience:

“Furthermore [argue the Stalinists], on the agenda stands not the revolution but the struggle against insurgent Franco.

“Fascism, however, is not feudal but bourgeois reaction. A successful fight against bourgeois reaction can be waged only with the forces and methods of the proletariat revolution….”
“In the struggle against the socialist revolution [in 1917], the ‘democratic’ Kerensky at first sought support in the military dictatorship of Kornilov and later tried to enter Petrograd in the baggage train of the monarchist general Krasnov. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks were compelled, in order to carry the democratic revolution through to the end, to overthrow the government of ‘democratic’ charlatans and babblers. In the process they put an end thereby to every kind of attempt at military (or ‘fascist’) dictatorship.”

Trotsky characterized the Spanish anarchists as having “no independent position of any kind in the Spanish revolution”:

“All they did was waver between Bolshevism and Menshevism. More precisely, the Anarchist workers instinctively yearned to enter the Bolshevik road (July 19, 1936, and May days of 1937) while their leaders, on the contrary, with all their might drove the masses into the camp of the Popular Front, i.e., of the bourgeois regime.”
“In and of itself, this self-justification that ‘we did not seize power [in either July 1936 or May 1937] not because we were unable but because we did not wish to, because we were against every kind of dictatorship,’ and the like, contains an irrevocable condemnation of anarchism as an utterly anti-revolutionary doctrine. To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters. The essence of every revolution consisted and consists in putting a new class in power, thus enabling it to realize its own program in life. It is impossible to wage war and to reject victory. It is impossible to lead the masses towards insurrection without preparing for the conquest power.”
“In opposing the goal, the conquest of power, the Anarchists could not in the end fail to oppose the means, the revolution…. Thus anarchism, which wished merely to be anti-political, proved in reality to be anti-revolutionary and in the more critical moments—counter-revolutionary.”

As the bourgeois components of the Frente Popular gained strength they moved to reverse the gains that remained from the July 1936 uprising—taking land from the peasants, breaking up the militias and recreating a centralized military apparatus controlled by the Republican government. In 1937 the POUM was outlawed, and its leaders arrested. Nin was murdered in June by agents of Stalin’s GPU. The shift to the right demoralized the workers and hastened Franco’s victory.

The defeat of the Spanish Revolution, resulting from the pursuit of class-collaborationist policies, starkly vindicated the Bolshevik-Leninist program that was defended most eloquently and passionately by Trotsky:

“By way of compensation, a new generation of revolutionists is now being educated by the lessons of the defeats. This generation has verified in action the ignominious reputation of the Second International. It has plumbed the depths of the Third International’s downfall. It has learned how to judge the Anarchists not by their words but by their deeds. It is a great inestimable school, paid for with the blood of countless fighters! The revolutionary cadres are now gathering only under the banner of the Fourth International. Born amid the roar of defeats, the Fourth International will lead the toilers to victory.”

Fourth International: Rearming the Leninist Vanguard

The founding of the Fourth International in September 1938 took place in the shadow of the sharpening inter-imperialist rivalries that erupted in World War II. The preceding five-year period, which Trotsky considered the “prehistory” of the International, had been rich with political lessons in the class struggle, as the Stalinist-led Comintern stumbled from one disaster to the next. The insanity of the “Moscow Trials” (1936-1938), in which bizarre and grotesque allegations were levelled at party members, many of whom made false confessions before being summarily executed, discredited communism among many radicals who had previously been sympathetic to the Russian Revolution. Trotsky, who was convicted in absentia of heading a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center” dedicated to killing Stalin and other Soviet leaders, spent much of a year organizing a campaign to expose the monstrous accusations. By the conclusion of the “Great Purge,” only two of Lenin’s “General Staff of 1917” (i.e., the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party during the October Revolution) remained: Stalin and Trotsky. All the others who had not died of natural causes had been shot, committed suicide or “disappeared.”

By 1938, the various centrist organizations with which the Trotskyists had earlier engaged with were well on the road to political oblivion. The three organizations which had co- signed the “Declaration of Four” in 1933 proclaiming the need for the Fourth International ended up in the centrist London Bureau (aka the “3½ International”) along with the POUM, Britain’s left-social democratic Independent Labour Party (ILP) and various others. The ICL’s “entries” in the Socialist parties in France and the U.S., which had won important gains, had drawn to a close. With no other significant sources of recruitment open, and the dark shadow of impending world war deepening, Trotsky and his associates concluded that the time had come to found the Fourth International.

In March 1938, four leading members of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP), James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman, V. R. Dunne and Rose Karsner, visited Trotsky in Mexico where he had been granted asylum. The SWP was the most significant section of the ICL so it was important for Trotsky to reach agreement with its leadership on the founding conference of the new international. During the meeting Cannon inquired:

“‘On the organizational side of the question—shall we consider this conference as a provisional gathering or as the actual founding of the Fourth International? The prevailing opinion among us is that we would actually form the Fourth International at this conference. We think that the main elements of the Fourth International are now crystallized. We should put an end to our negotiations and maneuvers with the centrists and henceforth deal with them as separate and alien groupings.’

“Trotsky replied that he agreed ‘absolutely’ with what Cannon said…. ‘Naturally we are a weak International,’ he said, ‘but we are an International.’”
—George Breitman, “The Rocky Road to the Fourth International, 1933-1938”

Six months later the Fourth International was founded at a conference outside Paris, France. An SWP pamphlet on the event reported:

“[T]hirty delegates met … on September 3, 1938, to found the Fourth International, to approve its program of action…. The delegates represented directly eleven countries: the United States, France, Great Britain (England and Scotland), Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy, Latin America [sic], Poland, Belgium, Holland and Greece.”
“In addition to the organizations in these countries, there were quite a number of others which, for a variety of legal and physical reasons, were unable to send delegates but which are nevertheless wholeheartedly pledged to the Fourth International: Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Chile, China, Indo-China, Union of South Africa, Australia, Spain, Norway, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Canada, Switzerland, where sections exist, as well as small nuclei which, many of them for reasons of illegality, do not even have a regular press: Lithuania, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, New Zealand, Sweden, Ireland, Palestine, India, etc.”
—“The Founding Conference of the Fourth International,” 1 January 1939

The “program of action” approved by the conference was Trotsky’s The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (aka the Transitional Program). Trotsky characterized its adoption as a “great achievement” and the movement’s “most important conquest.”

The central premises of the Transitional Program are clearly expressed in its opening lines:

“The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat. The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind's productive forces stagnate.”

The advent of the imperialist epoch and the outbreak of the first global inter-imperialist conflict in 1914 marked the end of capitalism as a historically progressive mode of production. While this pointed to the objective need for working-class rule on the basis of socialized property forms, revolutionary Marxists reject the notion that capitalism must inevitably collapse. The central lesson of the Bolshevik Revolution is that a successful seizure of power by the working class requires the leadership of an organized revolutionary vanguard, composed of the most politically advanced elements of the class. The “crisis of leadership” Trotsky referred to was the absence of the subjective factor in the revolutionary equation: “The chief obstacle in the path of transforming the pre-revolutionary into a revolutionary state is the opportunist character of proletarian leadership; its petty bourgeois cowardice before the big bourgeoisie and its perfidious connection with it even in its death agony.” The anarchists, social democrats and Stalinists had all revealed themselves as completely incapable of providing revolutionary leadership. Instead, Trotsky projected, “the wheel of history will demonstrate more clearly to the masses that the crisis of the proletarian leadership, having become the crisis in mankind’s culture, can be resolved only by the Fourth International” (Ibid.).

The key problem is to bridge the gap between the objective need for social revolution and the political backwardness of the working class.

“It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.
“The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old ‘minimal’ demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective. Insofar as the old, partial ‘minimal’ demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism—and this occurs at each step—the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old ‘minimal program’ is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution.”

The idea of transitional demands had already found explicit programmatic expression at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922 (see “Revolutionary Continuity and Transitional Demands”). Trotsky’s contribution in drafting the Transitional Program was to codify the historical experience of the workers’ movement, particularly the lessons of the October Revolution.

The mass homelessness and unemployment resulting from the economic crisis of the 1930s, were addressed in the Transitional Program by demands for decent housing for all and full employment through a “sliding scale of wages and hours”:

“…the slogan of a sliding scale of wages…. means that collective agreements should assure an automatic rise in wages in relation to the increase in prices of consumer goods.

“…the slogan of a sliding scale of working hours…. [means] all the work on hand would then be divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every worker remains the same as it was under the old working week. Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the movement of prices. It is impossible to accept any other program for the present catastrophic period.”
Transitional Program

To complaints by the big capitalists that such demands are “unrealizable,” revolutionaries respond: “If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands, inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish” (Ibid.). The program proclaims the necessity of fighting “uncompromisingly against any attempt to subordinate the unions to the bourgeois state and bind the proletariat to ‘compulsory arbitration’ and every other form of police guardianship—not only fascist but also ‘democratic’.” Successful defense of workers’ interests requires picket lines, “the basic nuclei of the proletarian army”. “In connection with every strike and street demonstration, it is imperative to propagate the necessity of creating workers' groups for self-defense.” In answer to the deadly threat posed by scabs, fascists and cops, “It is necessary to advance the slogan of a workers' militia as the one serious guarantee for the inviolability of workers’ organizations, meetings, and press.”

Trotsky recalled the enormous role played in the Russian Revolution by the emergence of soviets (aka workers’ councils):

“Soviets are not limited to an a priori party program. They throw open their doors to all the exploited. Through these doors pass representatives of all strata, drawn into the general current of the struggle. The organization, broadening out together with the movement, is renewed again and again in its womb. All political currents of the proletariat can struggle for leadership of the soviets on the basis of the widest democracy. The slogan of soviets, therefore, crowns the program of transitional demands.

“Soviets can arise only at the time when the mass movement enters into an openly revolutionary stage. From the first moment of their appearance, the soviets, acting as a pivot around which millions of toilers are united in their struggle against the exploiters[,] become competitors and opponents of local authorities and then of the central government. If the factory committee creates a dual power in the factory, then the soviets initiate a period of dual power in the country.

“Dual power in its turn is the culminating point of the transitional period. Two regimes, the bourgeois and the proletarian are irreconcilably opposed to each other. Conflict between them is inevitable. The fate of society depends on the outcome. Should the revolution be defeated—the fascist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie will follow. In case of victory—the power of the soviets, that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist reconstruction of society, will arise.”

Much has changed since 1938, but the fundamental irrationality of global capitalism remains, as does the necessity for a profound reorganization of human society. The Transitional Program remains relevant today because it provides a guide to resolving the central problem facing humanity: the mobilization of the working class for state power.

Trotsky’s Last Struggle: Defending the Gains of October

A year after the founding of the Fourth International, a serious political dispute erupted in its leading section that was to result in a deep split. Between August 1939 and April 1940, an internal factional dispute wracked the American SWP over the class nature of the USSR (often referred to as the “Russian Question”). Trotsky played a major part in what was to be his last political struggle. The vast majority of the Fourth International supported the SWP majority in asserting the Left Opposition’s historic position that the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers’ state that must be defended against capitalist attack. The SWP majority was led by James P. Cannon, who collaborated closely with Trotsky throughout the course of the factional struggle, documented in Cannon’s The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (1940). The ICL had addressed the class nature of the Soviet Union in 1933, in the context of its shift from a policy of advocating political reform to outright political, as opposed to social, revolution aimed at removing the parasitic caste headed by Joseph Stalin:

“ … the privileges of the bureaucracy by themselves do not change the bases of the Soviet society, because the bureaucracy derives its privileges not from any special property relations peculiar to it as a ‘class,’ but from those property relations that have been created by the October Revolution and that are fundamentally adequate for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

“To put it plainly, insofar as the bureaucracy robs the people (and this is done in various ways by every bureaucracy), we have to deal not with class exploitation, in the scientific sense of the word, but with social parasitism, although on a very large scale….”
—“The Class Nature of the Soviet State,” October 1933

Trotsky provided a fuller assessment of the character of the USSR a few years later in The Revolution Betrayed (1937):

“The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.”

A political revolution to overthrow the political monopoly of the Stalinist apparatus would leave intact the collectivized property relations, and in advocating it Trotsky maintained the position of “unconditional defense of the USSR” against capitalist restoration:

“What does ‘unconditional’ defense of the USSR mean? It means that we do not lay any conditions upon the bureaucracy. It means that independently of the motive and causes of the war we defend the social basis of the USSR, if it is menaced by danger on the part of imperialism.”
—“Again and Once More Again on the Nature of the USSR,” In Defense of Marxism

The signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact in August 1939, followed by Soviet occupation of eastern Poland and military intervention in Finland, outraged many European and North American left-liberals and radicals who had previously counted themselves among the “friends of the USSR.” The wave of anti-Sovietism that accompanied the outbreak of World War II created pressure in the SWP to abandon the position of Soviet defensism. The oppositional minority, led by James Burnham, Max Shachtman and Martin Abern, did not agree among themselves —Burnham was rapidly breaking from any pretense of revolutionary politics, Abern claimed fundamental adherence to Trotsky’s views while Shachtman occupied a shifting middle ground—but they all wanted to distance themselves from the SWP’s historic position of Soviet defensism.

Burnham, the ideological leader of the minority, wrote:

“It is impossible to regard the Soviet Union as a workers’ state in any sense whatever…. Soviet intervention (in the war) will be wholly subordinated to the general imperialist character of the conflict as a whole; and will be in no sense a defense of the remains of the Socialist economy.”
—“On the Character of the War,” 5 September 1939, cited in Introduction to In Defense of Marxism

A month later Shachtman told an SWP plenum that the Soviet invasion of Poland was an “imperialist policy,” and that what was required was a “revision of our previous concept of the ‘unconditional defense of the Soviet Union’” (cited in Ibid.).

By April 1940, Shachtman and his followers, having split from the SWP to found the Workers Party, were advocating the defeat of “Stalinist imperialism”:

“If, at a later stage, the present war between the imperialists should be transformed into an assault upon the Soviet Union, the slogan of defensism would have to be raised again, for it is not to the interests of the socialist world revolution and the working class to have one-sixth of the world, which the October uprising removed from the control of imperialism, restored to capitalist exploitation. In the present war, however, the world proletariat, the Russian included, cannot take upon itself a shadow of responsibility for the participation of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the imperialist conflict. The revolutionary vanguard must put forward the slogan of revolutionary defeatism in both imperialist camps….”
— “The Soviet Union and the World War,” New International, April 1940

The next year Shachtman reneged on his promise to defend the Soviet Union from imperialist assault. In 1941, when German imperialism invaded Russia, Shachtman argued: “There is therefore no place in this war for defense of the present Soviet régime under Stalin’s dictatorship” (“The War in Russia,” The New International, September 1941).

During the 1939-40 factional struggle, Trotsky drew a distinction between the revolutionary defense of the USSR by the Fourth International and that of the Stalinist policy “now being conducted under the slogan: ‘For the Fatherland! For Stalin!’”:

Our defense of the USSR is carried on under the slogan: ‘For Socialism! For the World Revolution! Against Stalin!’ In order that these two varieties of ‘defense of the USSR’ do not become confused in the consciousness of the masses it is necessary to know clearly and precisely how to formulate slogans which correspond to the concrete situation.”
“We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production of the USSR: that the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR is subordinate for us to the question of the world proletarian revolution.”
—“The USSR in War,” In Defense of Marxism

The factional struggle in the SWP was conducted in accordance with the rules of Leninist democratic centralism. The minority was afforded every opportunity to air their views internally and the majority bent over backwards in an attempt to avoid a split.

When the minority did leave, they took out roughly 40 percent of the membership, including much of the youth and an important layer of journalists and talented intellectuals. In May 1940, only a month after leaving the SWP, Burnham renounced Marxism and the next year published The Managerial Revolution (1941), which impressionistically projected the Stalinist ruling caste, Germany’s Nazi rulers and Roosevelt’s New Dealers in the U.S. as “managerial bureaucracies” which were emerging as a new global ruling class. In the 1950s Burnham went on to be one of the original editors of William F. Buckley’s ultra-conservative National Review. Shachtman ended up as a right-wing social-democratic Cold Warrior who infamously defended the CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. In 1962 he published The Bureaucratic Revolution: The Rise of the Stalinist State, in which he sought to prove that the USSR was a “new form of class society” he dubbed “bureaucratic collectivism.” The political trajectory of the Shachtmanites graphically illustrated Trotsky’s observation that revisionism on the “Russian question” could quickly progress “from a scratch to the danger of gangrene.”

Postscript: Trotskyism after Trotsky

World War II, which devastated Europe and killed tens of millions, took its toll on the Fourth International. Many important cadres were murdered by fascists or Stalinists (including Trotsky himself) and those who survived were relatively inexperienced and easily politically disoriented by the dramatic changes in the global world order. The International was too shattered to take advantage of revolutionary opportunities thrown up in the immediate aftermath of the war. The leadership which did gradually emerge, under Michel Pablo, evolved into a revisionist current that sought to address what it took for a “New World Reality” by turning the Trotskyist movement into a left pressure group on Stalinists and Third World nationalists (see “Yugoslavia, East Europe and the Fourth International: The Evolution of Pabloist Liquidationsim,” “Genesis of Pabloism” and “Revolutionary Continuity & the Split in the Fourth International”).

The Fourth International split in 1951-53 with Cannon’s SWP denouncing “Pabloist revisionism.” A decade later the SWP reunited with the Pabloists over a shared uncritical enthusiasm for what they imagined to be the “unconscious Trotskyism” of Fidel Castro and the rest of the leadership of the Cuban Revolution (see “Cuba and Marxist Theory”). The political forerunner of the International Bolshevik Tendency, the Revolutionary Tendency of the SWP, resisted this objectivist revisionism, and was expelled as a result.

Today, three quarters of a century after the assassination of Trotsky, many of his ostensible followers continue to search for short-cuts to success. In a constant search for “new” forms of political organization and strategy, they end up recycling the worn-out, discredited revisionism of the past.

Trotskyism is the revolutionary Marxism of our time—the political theory derived from over a century and a half of working-class experience. Trotsky’s legacy lives on in the struggle to reforge the Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution, as the indispensable lever in humanity’s struggle to escape the irrational barbarism of capitalism and lay the basis for the rationally-planned, socialist world order of the future.