The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Our Political Tradition:
The Program of the Fourth International, 70 Years Later

Oct 6, 2008

The following article first appeared in Issue #115 (October 2008) of the journal "Lutte de Classe" [Class Struggle] published by the comrades of "Lutte Ouvrière" [Workers' Struggle], a revolutionary group of that name active in France.

On September 3, 1938, two dozen delegates gathered at Périgny, a small town near Paris, in the home of Alfred Rosmer, who had been one of the most determined activists in the struggle for proletarian internationalism in France during World War I. They were holding a conference, the aim of which was to proclaim the birth of the Fourth International.

Most notably absent from this meeting was Leon Trotsky, the conference's main instigator as well as the author of the Transitional Programme, which was to be adopted by the conference. In fact, Trotsky had been unable to leave Mexico, the only country willing to welcome him in a world in which no country would grant him a visa.

For five years, Trotsky had been arguing for the need to launch a new International. Until early 1933, his International Left Opposition was fighting for the return to a revolutionary program within the Communist International and its national sections. But then events caused Trotsky to change his political orientation. When confronted with the Nazis' conquest of power, the German Communist Party collapsed without a fight. Two months later, the Executive Committee of the Communist International put its seal of approval on the suicidal policy of this party. There was no significant reaction within the ranks of any of the CP's national sections. Trotsky made the following assessment: "An organization which was not awakened by the thunder of fascism shows that it is a dead body that nothing will resuscitate."

The struggle for the construction of the new International was taking place in a situation very different from the days in which its predecessors had emerged. The Socialist International (or Second International) had been born in the last two decades of the 19th century, at a time when the working class movement was in full swing. After the collapse of this International, in August 1914, the Communist International (or Third International) took over. But this was at a time when the Russian revolution was generating great hope among the oppressed throughout the world. In 1933, by contrast, the process of building the new International took place against a deeply reactionary backdrop – the triumph of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR and Nazism in Germany.

The working-class struggles of 1936 had been no more than an upsurge. The French capitalist class, with the complicity of the Popular Front coalition, promptly regained most of the ground it had been forced to concede as a result of the June 1936 strikes. In Spain, the proletarian counter-offensive, while halting the uprising of Franco's generals in July 1936, left the country under the control of socialist and communist political parties determined to demonstrate to the capitalist class that they were trustworthy. The events of May 1937 in Barcelona signaled the end of any hope of social revolution.

On the Eve of a New World Conflict

The march toward World War II was gathering momentum. As early as 1933, Hitler's arrival in power had shown that the German capitalist class was determined to challenge, by force, the stranglehold imposed on it by the Versailles Treaty. Germany's overt rearmament, its resumption of conscription and the rearmament of the Rhineland, in 1935, confirmed this orientation. In March 1938, the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria – had been the first stage in Nazi Germany's expansion. The fast approaching war was precisely why Trotsky wanted to unfurl the banner of the Fourth International.

However, the small number of participants in the Périgny conference showed the numerical weakness of the new International's supporters. In fact, for most activists outside the USSR, the debates which had shaken the Bolshevik party were difficult to understand. In particular, from 1928 onwards, the Communist International's leftist turn, with its crude exposure of social-democracy as the "twin brother" of fascism and slogans such as "class against class," concealed for most activists the counter-revolutionary nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy. When, in 1935, the Communist International made a U-turn and began to hail Popular Fronts – that is, unity not just with the social-democratic parties, but even with "left" bourgeois parties – to justify the communist parties' support for bourgeois governments (as was the case in France) or even their participation in them (as in Spain), most activists saw this merely as a correction of the excesses of the previous period. They evidently no longer had any political compass. This explains in part the acceptance, without much opposition, of the French CP's new support for "national defense," the Marseillaise and the national flag.

The only section of the International Left Opposition with real significance – both in terms of numbers and in terms of the political capital it incorporated – was its Soviet Union section, despite the fact that repression and deportations made its existence largely informal. However, its activists were almost totally exterminated from 1936 to 1938. The Moscow trials were only the visible tip of the iceberg, involving former leaders of the revolutionary period, who had eventually given in to pressure and torture. But thousands of activists, whether from the Civil War days or from the younger generation, who shared the ideas of the Left Opposition, were also exterminated, albeit more discreetly.

Stalinist violence was not confined to the USSR. All the Trotskyist activists of the time were at the receiving end of this violence. But it was most devastating among Trotsky's closest collaborators. Erwin Wolf, who had been Trotsky's secretary during his stay in Norway before becoming secretary of the Committee for the Fourth International, disappeared in Spain, in the aftermath of the May 1937 uprising. Rudolf Klement, who had been Trotsky's secretary during his exile at Prinkipo, before working in Paris where, according to Trotsky, he was providing him with "considerable help," disappeared in July of the same year. Finally, Leon Sedov, Trotsky's son and closest collaborator, was murdered by the GPU in February 1938.

The Importance of the Program

For Trotsky, the proclamation of the Fourth International at this point in time (in 1938), was a way of asserting a clear program in preparation for the coming years, which were bound to be difficult for the working class movement. Trotsky was anything but sectarian. He always proved willing to co-operate with other revolutionary currents. But he considered the question of the program vitally important for the current laying claim to the heritage of the International Left Opposition.

The purpose of this program was to bridge the gap between the workers' day-to-day struggles and the fight for the conquest of power by the proletariat. It was only Trotsky himself who really had the ability to conceive such a program. This was not only because of his personal abilities, but because Trotsky's experience was not confined to that of small groups. As a former prominent activist of the Second International and a former leader of the Third International, he had the experience of large working class parties involved in every possible kind of political activity, from day-to-day work to the struggle for power. Indeed, in 1917, together with Lenin, he had led the Bolshevik party during the period leading up to the Russian revolution and through the conquest of power. Thereafter, he had played a decisive role, first in the launch of the Communist International and then, in its functioning and internal life during the formative years of its first four congresses.

The USSR: Defending What Had Been Achieved

In his program, Trotsky was able to encapsulate systematically the policy implemented by the Communist International between 1919 and 1923, whether in the industrialized countries or in the colonial and semi-colonial countries. At the same time, he defined what the policies of revolutionaries should be in the countries where the working class lived under the yoke of fascist regimes or military dictatorships. He also spelled out the attitude that revolutionaries should have toward the USSR, where the Moscow Trials had shown the depths to which the utterly abject bureaucracy could sink. For Trotsky, revolutionaries had to combine a struggle against this bureaucracy, with the objective of a political revolution aiming to bring genuine Soviets back to power, defending all the existing social transformations made possible by the October revolution.

Trotsky had no illusions as to the general direction taken by the majority of the bureaucracy. He wrote in the Transitional Program: "The extermination of the generation of old Bolsheviks and of the revolutionary representatives of the middle and young generations has disrupted the political equilibrium still more in favor of the right, bourgeois wing of the bureaucracy and of its allies throughout the land. From them, i.e., from the right, we can expect ever more determined attempts in the next period to revise the socialist character of the USSR and bring it closer in pattern to "Western civilization" ...."

Seventy years later, Trotsky's approach to the question of the defense of the achievements of the revolution still remains full of valuable lessons. His book, "Revolution Betrayed," still provides the only valid explanation of the degeneration of the USSR. In addition, when the bureaucracy finally rejected the phraseology it had inherited from its origins in order to celebrate the wonders of private property (for its own benefit), the Transitional Program still provided the only means by which to define the tasks of the proletariat. If it resumed the struggle in this context, it would need to fight both for a return to workers' soviet democracy and for the defense of collective property and planning.

The former Soviet bureaucracy ditched the "communist" mask it had used for so long, to the point of "rehabilitating" Czar Nicolas II, whom Lenin used to call "Nicolas-the-hangman." The billionaires who emerged out of the liquidation of a large part of the USSR's state property today parade their "nouveau riche" style in luxury hotels across the world. Nonetheless, Russia is still considered as a more or less alien body in the imperialist world. And, today, the only valid way for revolutionaries to approach the question of the tasks that the Russian proletariat would have to achieve in its struggles, still lies in Trotsky's methodology.

The Transitional Program: A Response to the Capitalist Crisis

The financial crisis which has shaken the capitalist world since the summer of 2007 (although its first cracks go back much earlier than that) is a striking illustration of how irrelevant were the claims that the market was the best possible regulator for the economy, and that crises belonged to the past, together with the class struggle.

In all the industrialized countries and in most of the under-developed ones, the capitalist classes have been waging a ruthless class struggle, attacking workers' living standards relentlessly and striving to increase their profits by reducing the share of national income that goes to wage workers.

At a time when the increasing domination of finance capital over the economy has caused a worldwide crisis, which the trustees of capitalism in government themselves have been finally forced to compare with the Great Depression of the 1930s, the objectives set by the Transitional Program are more relevant than ever.

Take, for instance, the sliding scale of wages – in order to protect workers from having their purchasing power eroded by inflation – and the sliding scale of working hours – in order to combat the social disaster resulting from unemployment and involuntary part-time or casual work. These are not intended to be items included in an electoral program, whose implementation would depend on the goodwill of Parliament, but are objectives for workers' struggles. As such, they require the mobilization of the working class for the purpose of exercising its control over companies and imposing the end of commercial secrecy, as a condition by which to make this control meaningful.

Against the backdrop of today's crisis, the Program's objectives of expropriating private banks and bringing the credit system under state control in order to end the domination of finance capital are strikingly relevant.

No one can claim that these objectives, at the core of the Transitional Program, have become outdated!

Democratic Demands and Socialist Demands

The section of the Transitional Program dealing with "backward countries' remains just as relevant today because, despite the colonial empires' collapse after World War II, the imperialist powers carry on ruthlessly looting their former colonies or those of their rivals. As a result, the populations of these countries are invariably subjected to the rule of military dictatorships, which are generally mere instruments in the hands of the major imperialist powers. Hence, the question of the link between democratic demands and the struggle of the working class for power, is posed in the same terms in these countries as it was in Russia in 1905, or in China in 1927.

In these countries, fighting for democratic demands implies that revolutionaries should defend any state measure that may loosen the imperialist stranglehold, while never aligning themselves behind bourgeois nationalist forces, nor giving up the struggle for the political independence of the proletariat. As Trotsky wrote, "Sooner or later, the soviets should overthrow bourgeois democracy. Only they are capable of bringing the democratic revolution to a conclusion and likewise opening an era of socialist revolution."

The Transitional Program also considered the question of the link between democratic demands and socialist demands in fascist countries. For the time being, this issue may not seem relevant. But in view of the present economic crisis and the total apathy of the large organizations which claim to defend workers, who can be sure that this question will never be raised again?

The Fourth International after Trotsky

While Trotsky was still alive, the decision to launch the Fourth International was met with much reluctance within the groups supporting him, and, in some cases, with overt opposition. In Spain, the majority of the Spanish Communist Left supported Andrés Nin's policy of merging with the Workers' and Peasants' Bloc to form the POUM (Marxist Unification Workers' Party). When it was tested by events in 1936, the POUM ended up giving its support to the Popular Front in the February elections and providing a minister to Catalonia's bourgeois government six months later. In France, in 1935, a whole section of Trotsky's supporters followed Pierre Frank's and Raymond Molinier's policy of seeking to form a "mass body" to regroup activists on the basis of a program limited to a few points, that is, without a real program. This led to the formation of La Commune and the GAR (Revolutionary Action Groups), both of which were short-lived, while demonstrating in a negative fashion the importance of adopting a clear political program.

The problem was that, except in the USSR, most of those who had joined the International Left Opposition were intellectuals. This was especially true of France which, due to its recent history, ranked high in Trotsky's preoccupations. The Stalinist leaders had built up a veritable moral wall between these intellectuals and the working class base of the French Communist Party, which was difficult to overcome. By contrast, it was much easier for Trotsky's followers to maintain contact with a social democratic milieu, which still used "revolutionary" rhetoric, and from which many of the young Trotskyist activists originated, especially from 1935 on. Many of these young activists had kept ties in this milieu, which was not, however, a good political school for them.

Nevertheless, Trotsky hoped that amidst the convulsions resulting from the impending war, the Fourth International would be able to gather strength and lead large-scale revolutionary struggles, just as the Third International had done 20 years earlier. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

In the absence of any revolutionary proletarian upsurge, objective circumstances explain to a large extent why the Trotskyist organizations failed to play a decisive role. The "holy alliance" formed after 1941 by the allied imperialist powers and the Soviet bureaucracy to prevent the war from giving birth to revolutionary explosions in the industrialized countries, proved effective. The imperialist nature of World War II was largely concealed from the masses under the pretense of the "democratic crusade against fascism." While the war did result in revolutionary convulsions, these were confined to colonial and semi-colonial countries, in which the absence of a proletarian leadership gave petty-bourgeois forces free rein to take the leadership of the masses and to propel themselves to power.

In addition, Trotskyist activists were confronted with the gangster methods of the Stalinists, who went as far as murder.

However, these external circumstances do not explain why most of the groups claiming allegiance to the Fourth International ended up capsizing and sinking politically. Trotsky had been fully aware of the dangers resulting from the petty-bourgeois composition of most of the Fourth International's sections – as shown by the emphasis he put on working class recruitment, when he intervened in the internal crisis of the American SWP in 1939-40, weighing in on the side of the tendency grouped around Cannon, which contained most of the proletarian militants of the SWP.

Eventually, this petty-bourgeois composition took its toll. This process began in France when, after the country's military collapse in May-June 1940 and its occupation by German troops, some Trotskyist currents embarked on a policy of united action with what they described as the "French-thinking bourgeoisie." This process continued in the form of an almost systematic tail-ending of all the currents that expressed themselves within the ranks of the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie. Thus, for example, most of the Trotskyist organizations characterized the post-World War II People's Democracies as "deformed workers' states." That amounted to adorning the Soviet bureaucracy with revolutionary capacities, despite the fact that this bureaucracy had done everything possible to stifle the proletariat in the aftermath of the war. The same characterization was made of Mao Zedong's regime in China, despite the fact this regime came to power riding the wave of a peasant insurrection, without the working class playing any role. The list of nationalist movements similarly portrayed as "socialist" is endless – from Yugoslavia, to Indochina, Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam and Nicaragua, to mention only the most prominent.

The Fourth International failed to withstand the shock of World War II and to remain an organization setting itself the task of leading the struggles of the working class toward world socialist revolution. After Trotsky's death, it had lost its political compass.

Of course, this did not stop a number of leaders of the groups claiming to be Trotskyist, often among those who had opposed Trotsky while he was alive, from proclaiming themselves as an international leadership. Since the political authority of these self-proclaimed international leaders was not recognized by the Trotskyist movement as a whole, the result was a long series of splits over the years. It became difficult to draw a comprehensive chart of all the groupings that pretended to be "the Fourth International" in one shape or another.

Nevertheless, while a proletarian International is yet to be built, the 1938 Transitional Program remains an irreplaceable capital for all those who have undertaken this task. While the world has undergone deep changes over the past 70 years, underneath these changes the same problems are just as acute as they were then, at least for those who choose to devote their militant activity to defending proletarian politics.