Trotsky’s Struggle for the Fourth International
by John G. Wright
first published in Fourth International, August 1946.
[John G. Wright (1902-1956–legal name Joseph Vanzler) joined the Communist League of America in 1933 and was elected to the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party/U.S. in 1939. Wright translated many of Trotsky’s writings and served as an SWP staff writer in New York until he died.]
All of Leon Trotsky’s basic teachings are concentrated in the major task of his lifetime’s activity–the building of the Fourth International.
For an entire decade–1923-1933–he struggled to reform the Third International, which he had founded together with Lenin. When Stalinism paved the way for Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany; when this betrayal passed over the heads of the completely degenerated Stalinized parties, history itself proved irrefutably that the Third International was beyond reform. It died ignominiously as had the Second International before it. What died with these old Internationals was not revolutionary Marxism, but two virtually duplicate sets of false ideas and practices–nationalism, opportunism, reformism. In brief, petty-bourgeois adaptation to capitalism and capitulation to it. A new International became necessary. As Trotsky tirelessly repeated, this was–and is–the basic task of our epoch. It was to this task that he devoted his best energies and the last years of his life.
For Trotsky, the building of the Fourth International was least of all a question of abstract theory or of an “organizational form.” He heaped scorn upon all those who posed the issue in this manner, because such an approach stands everything on its head. Trotsky saw that the world party of the working class is first of all a closely knit system of ideas, that is to say, a program. On no other basis is it possible to train, temper and fuse the proletarian vanguard internationally and nation-lily. From the given system of ideas–or program–flows a corresponding system of strategic, tactical and organizational methods. The latter have no independent meaning or existence of their own and are subordinate to the former.
One of Trotsky’s favorite sayings was: “It is not the party that makes the program; it is the program that makes the party.”
Precisely because of this primary stress on program, Trotsky’s decade of struggle to reform the Third International became in the most direct sense the preparation for the Fourth International.
This approach–and it is the only correct one–obviously invests ideas with extraordinary importance. Indeed we can say without any fear of exaggeration than none attach greater significance or power to ideas than do the revolutionary Marxists. Like Marx, Engels and Lenin, Trotsky regarded ideas as the greatest power in the world.
Lenin’s Bolshevik Party valued its ideas as its most potent weapon. Bolshevism demonstrated in action, in 1917, that such ideas, once embraced by the masses, become convened into an insuperable material force.
Here is how Trotsky formulated this approach in a personal letter to James P. Cannon:
“We work with the most correct and powerful ideas in the world, with inadequate numerical forces and material means. But correct ideas, is the long run, always conquer and make available for themselves the necessary material means and forces.”
Trotsky’s ideas derive their power from the same source as Lenin’s: both are the correct expression of the struggle of living forces, first and foremost of the liberationist struggle of the proletariat. They represent not only the product of profound theoretical analysis (without which it is impossible to understand reality) but also the unassailable deductions from the march of history for the last hundred years (that is to say, from 1848 when Marx and Engels first expounded the laws governing the movement of capitalist society).
There are ideas and ideas. As against the correct ideas of Marxism, there is also the power of the false ideas. The former serve he interests of progress, of the world working class; the latter only play into the hands of reaction and deal untold injury to workers all the oppressed and to society as a whole. False ideas, like correct ones, do not fall from the sky. They, too, express one of the living forces engaged in struggle, namely: the camp of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.
Like Lenin, Trotsky rejected the notion that the policies of opportunist tendencies represented merely mistakes in “theory.” Theory is scarcely involved in the policy of the treacherous “Socialists,” who each time base themselves on the current needs of propping up the rule of decaying capitalism. Theory has even less to do with the Kremlin’s policy, which is each time determined by practical needs of safeguarding the privileges and power of the ruling clique. Fear of the proletarian revolution has long ago converted both the moribund Second and Third Internationals into agencies of world imperialism. Hence flows the necessity of an irreconcilable attitude towards them. For the first condition for unifying the workers is a complete break with all the agencies, direct or indirect, of the bourgeoisie.
The basic plank of a revolutionary program is–internationalism. Mere acceptance of “internationalism” is hollow mockery unless accompanied in practice by complete rejection of nationalist policies, in whatever guise they may manifest themselves. It was precisely against the nationalist deviations of the Soviet bureaucracy, most crassly expressed by Stalin’s theory of “socialism in one country,” that Trotsky launched his life-and-death struggle against Stalinism. He warned that the adoption of Stalin’s theory would imperceptibly but inescapably shunt the Third International onto the tracks of opportunism.
This warning was swiftly verified by events. In England during the critical period of the labor movement in 1925-27, the Stalinists followed a false and opportunist policy (the policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee). In China the Stalinists betrayed the revolution of 1925-27 by pursuing a typical Menshevik policy of collaborating with the native bourgeoisie (Stalin’s bloc of “four classes”), in the name of establishing not workers’s rule but the “democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants.” In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s false policies manifested themselves at the time in an opportunist economic policy (slow tempo of industrialization, fostering of neo-capitalist elements: “kulak grow rich,” etc.) and subsequently in the adventuristic economic policy in connection with the First Five-Year Plan.
The great lessons of these experiences in China, the USSR and England were the axis of the struggle inside the Russian party, and they later became the basis for the education and unification of the original world Trotskyist movement.
Internationalism became the very hall-mark of Trotskyism. Writing in 1938, on the Ninetieth Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, Trotsky said:
“The international development of capitalism has predetermined the international character of the proletarian revolution. ‘United action, of the leading civilized countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat,’ [wrote Marx and Engels in 1848]. The subsequent development of capitalism has so closely knit all sections of our planet, both “civilized” and “uncivilized,” that the problem of the socialist revolution has completely and decisively assumed a world character. The Soviet bureaucracy attempted to liquidate the Manifesto with respect to this fundamental question The Bonapartist degeneration of the Soviet state is an overwhelming illustration of the falseness of the theory of socialism in one country.”
The Elaboration of an International Program
Trotsky’s primary objective from the outset was to elaborate an internationalist program, and to select groups and individuals on this programmatic foundation. No sooner were his hands untied for work on a world scale (by his exile to Turkey in February 1929), than he began hammering home the cardinal consideration that whoever assigns a secondary importance to the international factor is traveling on the road to national opportunism. “National programs can be built only on international ground.” “Our international orientation and our national policy are indissolubly bound together.”
“It is undeniable,” he explained, “that each country possesses the greatest peculiarities of its own. But in our epoch their true value can be estimated, and revolutionary use can be made of them only from an internationalist point of view. Only an international organization can be the bearer of an international ideology.”
Trotsky’s touchstone for evaluating “tendencies in world communism”–and therefore his touchstone for political collaboration–was: the position taken by any given group on the above-listed three questions which he designated as “classic” (Anglo-Russian Committee, Chinese revolution of 1925-27, Soviet economic policy in conjunction with the theory of socialism in one country). In his opinion only an organization which demarcated itself ideologically from all others on these issues, could prove viable, capable of action, capable of withstanding the test of events, and finally able to unite the proletariat under its banner.
Why? Because in each case fundamental principles of revolutionary policy were involved. Agreement meant the possibility for joint work within a common organization; disagreement either excluded such a possibility or rendered it extremely remote.
While attaching paramount importance to questions of principle, Trotsky invariably subordinated questions of tactic, organization and the like. In March 31, 1929, in the same letter in which he lists the “three classic questions” as the decisive criteria, he adds the following highly illuminating comment:
“Some comrades may he astonished that I omit reference here to the question of the party regime. I do so not out of oversight, but deliberately. A party regime has no independent, self-sufficient meaning. In relation to party policy it is a derivative magnitude. The most heterogeneous elements sympathize with the struggle against Stalinist bureaucratism…. For a Marxist, democracy within a party or within a country is not an abstraction. Democracy is always conditioned by the struggle of living forces. By bureaucratism, the opportunist elements in part and as a whole understand revolutionary centralism. Obviously, they cannot be our co-thinkers.”
Of no less significance is Trotsky’s refusal not only to unite but even to effect blocs with the Right wing, even though at the time it was a tendency within the Communist movement. This is an important lesson in principled politics. Only unprincipled politicians enter into political collaboration with those with whom they disagree fundamentally, but with whom they happen to have temporary agreement on secondary issues. Trotsky was unyielding on this score.
In March 1929 he wrote:
“Two irreconcilably opposed tendencies are usually listed under the label of opposition: the revolutionary tendency [the Trotskyists] and the opportunist tendency [Bukharin-Brandler-Lovestone wing]. A hostile attitude toward centrism [the reference here is to Stalinism] and toward the “regime” is the only thing they have in common. But this is a purely negative bond. Our struggle against centrism derives from the fact that centrism is semi-opportunist and covers up full-blown opportunism, despite temporary and sharp disagreements with the latter. For this reason there cannot even be talk of a bloc between the Left Opposition and the Right Opposition. This requires no commentary.”
Trotsky safeguarded the movement from being converted into a melting pot of divergent ideological tendencies not only by a principled and serious attitude toward unifications but also by a similar attitude toward splits.
During the same period he wrote:
“It is not always, nor under all circumstances, that unity within an organization must remain inviolate. In cases where the differences assume a fundamental character, a split at times appears to be the only solution possible. But care must be taken that this be a genuine split, that is, that the split should not depart from the line of principled differences, and that this line be brought clear-cut before the eyes of all the members of the organization.”
In the first seven years of its existence the Left Opposition experienced approximately a score of splits. The political opponents seized upon this with glee as proof of an intolerable “internal regime.”
Trotsky dismissed this contention with contempt, pointing out that “it is necessary to take not the bald statistics of splits, but the dialectics of development.” A movement irreconcilably defending its program against opportunism, against centrism, against ultra-leftism could not have possibly avoided splits under the most favorable conditions, and all the less so in the period of catastrophic defeats and universal disorientation of the labor movement.
Beginning with 1930 a whole series of splits occurred over the constantly recurring differences relating to the class nature of the Soviet Union. If in 1939-40 this issue precipitated the struggle inside the Socialist Workers Party, then in 1930, at the very inception of the European movement, it led to a break with Urbahns in Germany, Louzon in France, Overstraaten in Belgium, etc.
When the turn from propaganda groups to mass work was launched in 1934-36, another series of splits occurred in France, England, the U.S. and elsewhere over the tactic of entry into the Socialist parties where left wing tendencies were crystallizing (the famous “French Turn”).
But precisely because the movement had a banner and a program from which it refused to swerve, it was able to overcome each internal crisis and to forge steadily, even if slowly, forward.
Trotsky’s Struggle for the International
Parallel with Trotsky’s irreconcilability in defending the internationalist principles of the movement was his adamant insistence upon the necessity and primacy of the international organization. “Only an international organization can be the bearer of an international ideology.” The organization form flows from and must correspond to the party’s platform.
From the outset, he insisted on the speediest possible consolidation of all his genuine co-thinkers into an international body. “From its first steps,” he wrote in February 1930, “the Opposition must therefore clearly declare itself as an international faction–as did the Communists in the period of the Communist Manifesto, or of the First International, or of the Left Zimmerwald at the beginning of the war (1914-18)….In the epoch of imperialism, a similar attitude imposes itself a hundred times more categorically than in the times of Marx.”
This conception of party building was hotly disputed and opposed by all the varieties of centrism who favored a “broader,” more “all-inclusive” organization. In practically every country in Europe, especially France, voices were raised in favor of the more accommodating perspective. Their fundamental criterion for political collaboration was as simple as it was false: opposition to Stalinism. These people sought to operate in politics much after the manner of those who, strike up close personal friendships solely on the basis of mutual and pet dislikes. Trotsky fought the centrist trends implacably. For example, in answer to Paz and Treint, the French champions of an “all-inclusive” organization, be wrote:
“They dream of creating an international association which will be open to everybody: those who support Chiang Kai-shek and those who support the Soviet Republic [in the 1930 conflict over the Manchurian railway]; those who endeavor to save the ‘autonomy’ of the industrial unions from Communism as well as those who struggle for the influence of Communism in the trade unions; those who are for a united front with the Right wing groups [the Bukharin wing in Russia; the Brandlerites in Germany; the Lovestoneites in the U.S., etc.] against the official party as well as those who are for a united front with the official party against the Right wing groups. This program for a melting-pot is being advanced under the slogan of ‘party democracy.’ Could any one invent a more malicious mockery of party democracy?”
Trotsky’s criteria for the building of the International, it will be observed, were not at all based on purely negative bonds. What he invariably sought was not unity for unity’s sake, but unity based on community of ideas. No selection was worthwhile in his opinion unless it was a selection of co-thinkers animated by common basic views, by the same fundamental principles.
This was Trotsky’s position during the years when the movement functioned as a faction of the Third International; this remained his position after 1933 when the movement turned to the task of building the Fourth International. The English ILP, the German SAP and others then came to the fore with proposals for a new melting pot. Trotsky rejected an “all-inclusive” International just as he had previously rejected an “all-inclusive” international faction. In the five years that elapsed between the issuance of the call for the Fourth International and its Founding Congress in 1938, the centrists played out to the fullest measure their experiment of creating a “broad,” “non-sectarian,” “non-dogmatic” International organization. Their catchall International, the London Bureau, otherwise known as the “International Bureau of Revolutionary Socialist Unity”–a pretentious body, without a banner, without a program, was a conglomeration of parties and groups moving simultaneously in all directions. As Trotsky predicted, it fell apart without leaving a trace.
The Norwegian Labor Party of Tranmael broke with the London Bureau and entered the capitalist government of Norway. The Swedish Socialist Party, one of the original mainstays, had found its way back into the embraces of the Social Democracy; the German SAP traveled in the same direction. The Brandler-Lovestone “international” that adhered to the Bureau in its heyday simply dissolved. The splinter exile groups (the Italian Maximalists and the Austrian Red Front “lefts”) gave up the ghost. The ILP, the lone survivor of this galaxy, continued to vegetate.
* * *
The early splits in the Trotskyist movement which we have already recounted were in reality only anticipations of the two subsequent struggles upon the outcome of which the very fate of the International depended.
The first of these came in connection with the Spanish Civil War which erupted in 1936; the second coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War.
The internal crisis in connection with the Spanish Civil War was precipitated by the following developments:
Under the leadership of Andres Nin the majority of Spanish Trotskyist section merged with the semi-nationalist Catalan Federation of Maurin. The product of this fusion was the POUM (Party of Marxist Unity) with a typically centrist program. This sacrifice of principles for the sake of “unity” led unavoidably to disastrous results. The POUM was not a revolutionary party at all, but like its prototypes merely gave the appearance of being one. It began its career by engaging in electoral maneuvers with the Spanish People’s Front and ended by the entry of Nin into the bourgeois government, that is to say, by the commission of the greatest crime of all in a period of the socialist revolution.
The policies of the POUM were supported not only by the London Bureau, to which it was affiliated, but met with widespread sympathy among revolutionary workers throughout the world. As a matter of fact, there were illusions about the POUM within the ranks of the Trotskyists.
A break with the POUM implied swimming against the stream, including broad sections of class-conscious workers. Trotsky did not hesitate. He did not change his course.
In January 1936, after the POUM entered into an electoral bloc with the Spanish People’s Front, Trotsky branded its course as treachery, and added in conclusion:
“As far as we are concerned we prefer clarity. In Spain, genuine revolutionists will no doubt be found who will mercilessly expose the betrayal of Maurin, Nin, Andrade and Co., and lay the foundation for the Spanish section of the Fourth International.”
Franco’s assault came in July 1936. The POUM did not effect a change in its policy, but slid further and further on its false and perfidious course. Trotsky continued to criticise and oppose. The subsequent fate of the POUM bore out his position to the hilt. It is hardly necessary to point out that had a different policy been followed, the Fourth International would have assumed responsibility for the terrible defeat in Spain and could have been, in consequence, badly compromised.
Trotsky’s Break With Sneevliet
Among the organizations that sided with the POUM was the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party of Holland (RSAP) which under the leadership of Sneevliet and Schmidt was one of the signatories to the August 1935 call for the Fourth International. Trotsky remained firm, even though this meant a break with one of the largest mass parties affiliated to the Trotskyist movement at the time.
Despite this grave internal crisis, and without the RSAP, it became nevertheless possible by September 1938 to convene the Founding Conference of the Fourth International.
Less than a year later, in July 1939, Trotsky was able to declare:
“The international organization of Brandler, Lovestone, etc., which appeared to be many times more powerful than our organizations has crumbled to dust. The alliance between Walcher and the Norwegian Labor Party and Pivert himself (leader of PSOP, a French counterpart of the Spanish POUM) burst into fragments. The London Bureau has given up the ghost. But the Fourth International, despite all the difficulties and crises, has grown uninterruptedly, has its own organizations in more than a score of countries, and was able to convene its World Congress under the most difficult circumstances.”
The movement could derive this inner drive and power from one source, and one source only–its unassailable ideas, its correct and tested program. This is how Trotsky explained it in July 1939:
“The Fourth International is developing as a grouping of new and fresh elements on the basis of a common program growing out of the entire past experience, incessantly checked and rendered more precise. In the selection of its cadres the Fourth International has great advantages over the Third. These advantages flow precisely from the difficult conditions of struggle in the epoch of reaction. The Third International took shape swiftly because many ‘Lefts’ easily and readily adhered to the victorious revolution. The Fourth International takes form under the blows of defeats and persecutions. The ideological bond created under such conditions is extraordinarily firm.”
Within a few months after writing these lines, Trotsky was to engage in and lead, for the last time in his lifetime, another decisive struggle for the program and tradition of the Fourth International. This was the 1939-40 struggle against the petty-bourgeois opposition within the SWP. Involved here was still another attempt to revise and overthrow the colossal conquest of the revolutionary vanguard–its theory, its political principles, its organizational ideas and practices. Precisely because of its scope, the 1939-40 struggle recapitulated the essential features of all the preceding struggles.
The extraordinary firmness of the ideological bond that binds the movement created by Trotsky has been decisively confirmed by the emergence of a stronger and more homogeneous Fourth International out of the fiery test of World War II. What safeguards its future is the very same thing that has safeguarded its past, namely: it is being built in the same way and with the same ideas and methods that Trotsky taught all his co-thinkers.
[first published in Fourth International, August 1946]