the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Oct 19, 2018
This Leon Trotsky Circle presentation is a little different from usual since three comrades will give presentations: Pierre Royan of Lutte Ouvrière, Max Céleste of Combat Ouvrier (Guadeloupe and Martinique) and Judith Carter of Spark (United States).
Eighty years ago, on September 3, 1938, about 20 activists from 11 countries, including the United States, the Soviet Union, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Brazil, Poland, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands, gathered in a house in a Paris suburb. (In addition, 13 other national sections were also mentioned.) They founded the Fourth International and adopted as their program a text written by Leon Trotsky a few months earlier, The Transitional Program.
It was Trotsky’s decision to create a Fourth International. Trotsky had been exiled to Mexico and prevented from leaving the country. The creation of the Fourth International was an important political act. It signified that the Third International, which had been created in the wake of the Russian Revolution, was politically dead, having definitively betrayed its goal of being the worldwide political party of socialist revolution. Stalin had turned the Third International into a diplomatic tool. It was time to rebuild the workers movement under the flag of a new International.
Those in the international communist movement who had joined the Trotskyist movement represented a very small minority compared to those who were under Stalin’s thumb. Above all, almost all the leaders of the revolutionary current, the Soviet Trotskyists, had perished in Stalin’s camps.
But the decision to create a new International was fundamental. Trotsky and his family had been slandered and persecuted by Stalin’s henchmen. Nonetheless, in 1938, Trotsky remained well known throughout the world as one of the main leaders of the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s companion. Trotsky embodied the refusal to surrender to the Stalinist apparatus. While he subjected the Stalinist regime to ruthless criticism from the point of view of revolutionary communism, he also unconditionally defended the USSR against the imperialist powers.
It was “midnight in the century”, to use the expression of Victor Serge, a Belgian anarchist militant, who had joined the Russian revolution and participated in the Trotskyist struggle. Hitler was in power in Germany. As early as 1933, Trotsky wrote that German imperialism ruled over one of the greatest industrial powers in the world. But, he said, it was stifling within its own borders and would, once it had subdued its working class, attack its direct competitors, the French and English imperialisms. Humanity would once again be plunged into world war. In reality, the war had already begun. In Spain, on the battlefields of the civil war the air forces and armies of Hitler and Mussolini were dealing out death. Japan had invaded China, carrying out mass killings. And Mussolini had already conquered Ethiopia.
In September 1938, Trotsky had a better understanding of the world situation and the state of the workers movement than anyone else. But he wanted to prepare the working class for war and future revolutions. He wanted to give it a program that was in the continuity of the Russian Revolution and Marx’s ideas. And he wanted to give it an international organization. He did this despite the numerical weakness of the organization.
Trotsky knew perfectly well that as long as there was not a mass upsurge, the entire program would only reach a small minority. But this minority could take hold of this program and reach out to the rest of the working class with it.
Even today, the future of the workers movement and the future of humanity are linked to this program. Once the proletariat starts to move, if it fully adopts this program, it can overthrow capitalism.
— Arlette Laguille
The 1917 Russian Revolution destabilized the whole capitalist system. It opened up a 20-year period of class struggle that was politically rich and exceptionally intense, unparalleled in the history of the workers’ movement. Those 20 years forged Trotskyism, which is first and foremost the legacy of the Russian Revolution.
The revolution took everyone by surprise when it erupted in Russia after two-and-a-half years of world war. As Trotsky later wrote, “Even Lenin said that the socialist revolution would come later rather than sooner ... [And] if Lenin saw things that way, there’s not really anything to be said about how others saw it.”
The revolution had been brewing on the front lines, in the mud and the cold of the trenches of the filthy imperialist war that the capitalists were waging with the bodies of the population and where men were dying like rats, bombed, machine-gunned and gassed. It had been brewing behind the lines where male and female workers were dying of hunger and exhaustion in armaments plants. The revolution broke out in Russia because it was, as Lenin said, “the weakest link in the chain of capitalism,” the most backward country under the hated Tsarist regime. It had already been shaken 12 years earlier by a first revolution, that of 1905.
On March 8, 1917, to everyone’s surprise, female workers and women in St. Petersburg took to the streets to protest against widespread shortages, especially the lack of food. How would the workers respond to these strikes and demonstrations? Would they leave the women out on their own? And when the women were joined the following day by the workers, the question was what were the soldiers, who were peasants in uniform, going to do? Would they join the revolt and turn it into a revolution? Within five days, every enemy of the Tsarist regime, pretty much the whole of society, had come together and overthrew the Tsarist regime. It was only the beginning.
At first, the winners were the bourgeoisie and their allies in the major imperialist powers, France and Great Britain, who intended to continue the war, at the expense of the soldiers, in order to feed their appetite for annexation. So, if the workers and soldiers really wanted to stop the war, they were going to have to do more.
The revolution wouldn’t have gone far without Lenin. He was persistent and had unshakeable confidence in the working class and the most backward masses. Nor could it without the Bolshevik Party, that had been created, formed and developed for years in order to take the revolution as far as possible in the interests of the oppressed. The Bolshevik Party was a revolutionary communist party that linked the fate of Russia’s oppressed to the oppressed of the world to overthrow capitalism. The Bolsheviks took power in October, that is, eight months after the February Revolution. During the October Revolution the conscious revolutionary perspective incarnated by Lenin’s Bolshevik party converged with the need for millions of oppressed people to see the combat they had started through to its conclusion, if they didn’t want to be thrown backward.
And they weren’t thrown backward; despite the threat of being crushed by the bourgeoisie and the dominating classes, despite the pressure from the petty bourgeoisie who claimed to know how to lead the proletariat but who in reality were under the thumb of the bourgeoisie. But it was also in spite of hesitancy in their own ranks. The German revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, wrote from her prison, “They dared.” As Marx said of the Paris Commune “they stormed heaven.” They dared to rely on the illiterate masses and the simple soldiers, on their awakening consciousness and their desire to free themselves from their chains and submission.
The war had turned Europe into a bloodbath. Revolution was brewing everywhere. It took less than a year for it to break out in Finland, Germany and Hungary. Millions of the exploited throughout the world were challenging the social order, creating fear and loathing in the dominant classes across the globe. In 1919, in a confidential memo, Britain’s Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote,
“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social, and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.”
In March in the same year of 1919, the Bolsheviks founded a new international, The Communist International or Comintern (also known as the Third International), to allow workers from all countries to break away from the socialist parties which had betrayed them in 1914. Communist parties were founded everywhere.
During this revolutionary wave, soviet republics were constituted in Hungary, Bavaria and Slovakia. A wave of strikes swept across Italy. Plants were occupied by armed workers who were organized into proletarian militia. But, in the end, the uprisings and revolutions were crushed. The revolutionary wave subsided. It had nevertheless stopped the imperialist forces from crushing the power that came out of the Russian Revolution. And in 1920, at the end of the civil war, that power was still there. But it was isolated.
No revolutionary had foreseen this situation. The communist future was seen as a worldwide victorious revolution, with the global economy in the hands of the exploited, reorganized and planned according to the needs of all humanity. But what could the Soviet Union do, surrounded as it was by capitalism, reduced to only its terribly backward human resources? The Soviet Union was immense with exceptional riches in raw materials. But there had been very little industrial development under the Tsarist regime. The immense majority of the population was made up of very poor peasants, whose agricultural methods were rudimentary. And the general cultural level was considerably behind that of the Western world.
The young Russian working class had only come out of the countryside one or two generations before. It was a lot less educated and cultivated than that of the developed countries. Over the years of struggle against Tsarism, thousands of conscious fighters had come from its ranks. And, as Lenin said, the revolution had been,
“one of the moments of special exaltation and tension of all human faculties—the work of the consciousness, the will, the imagination, the passion of hundreds of thousands of men spurred on by the harshest class struggle.”
But after the takeover, the problem was posed on a very different scale. The new society was based on the active and direct participation of the masses. The new state was based on the soviets, which were committees, bodies of worker democracy, elected by workers and poor peasants. But the action of the masses was not limited to the soviets. At all levels of economic and social life, in the workplaces, administrations, schools, in the cities and the countryside, millions of oppressed people were called upon to take part in the concrete management of society.
There was a fierce and generalized determination to get an education, to be cultivated, to fight against illiteracy, ignorance and superstition so that, as Lenin said, “every unskilled laborer or cook” could run the state. But the weight of backwardness was as immense as the country.
Politically and economically isolated, the Soviet Union was unable to overcome the underdevelopment that had been inherited from tsarism. That was what would be the source of its degeneration and the domination of a bureaucracy personified by Stalin. In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky summarized the link between the backwardness of the country and the weight of bureaucracy with the image of a queue in front of a shop:
“When there are enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When goods are scarce, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and who has to wait.”
The development of the bureaucracy began right at the start of the new regime. The Bolsheviks knew the “professional dangers of power,” as a leader of the Trotskyist opposition, Christian Rakovsky, would later say. The Bolsheviks knew that every state creates a bureaucracy. But they were counting on the masses to act directly to limit the phenomenon of bureaucracy and they were counting on the spread of the revolution to Europe’s developed countries to get rid of it once and for all.
The isolation of the Soviet Union meant that it had to make do with nothing but its own resources while waiting for a new period of revolution. In order to restart the economy and feed the country, taking into account the country’s backwardness, those in power decided to give a little more leeway to private initiative. A new economic policy, the NEP, opened up the possibility of personal enrichment. To allow peasants, small industrialists or commercial middlemen to enrich themselves implied relying on capitalist forces to restart production, but under the control of the workers state. Lenin and Trotsky knew that this reinforcement of hostile social forces had to be watched closely and that this was the work of the party.
But the heroism of the civil war in which all the forces had been expended in order for the revolution to survive meant that the women and men had given everything they had. Faced with the difficulties of everyday life coupled with the retreat of the international revolutionary wave, a fraction of the workers had lost hope and deserted the soviets. Without the permanent control of the oppressed, the petty bourgeoisie in both the cities and countryside put pressure on the state and party bureaucracy to gain certain advantages.
Even though these social forces exerted pressure on the party, corrupting some of its members, the party also fought against those forces. Despite his illness, Lenin wanted to lead the fight, with Trotsky, against Stalin who already personified the bureaucracy. But Lenin’s illness caught up with him. It deprived him of the ability to speak or to move. Therefore, Lenin wasn’t able to carry out his final battle. That left Trotsky to lead the fight. The party had to be won over to the same revolutionary spirit as in 1917. The party had to bring together all those who were keeping the flame alive, particularly the younger members, in order to rally and convince the others. It was inside the party that the revolutionary workers were to be found.
To give a concrete idea of what kind of fight this was, the memoirs of a Trotskyist, Grigory Grigorov, are worth quoting at length. At the end of 1923, Grigorov, who had joined the party as a fighter in the Red Army, was sent to Rodniki, a center of the textile industry. In his memoirs, Grigorov describes the situation of the working class and that of the members of the local party apparatus:
“The majority of workers lived in miserable wooden houses that were practically collapsing and, since there was nothing to burn, they were very cold. There were great long queues for food....
“The local committee members of the party received everything they needed at a distribution center that was not open to the public, a situation which they considered perfectly normal. The morale of the permanent members of the party was very low: they drank vodka and home-made rotgut even when working and, in the evening, they played cards and partied. I was invited to a meeting of women textile workers by the young activist who ran the women’s sector of the party committee. She informed me enthusiastically that soviet power had completely liberated women. But, as far as she was concerned, that wonderful ‘liberty’ had a down side—she was suffering from a venereal disease ... she complained, with a frankness to which I was not accustomed, ‘Can you believe the “gift” that a bastard from the party committee gave me!’”
Grigorov stayed there for a few days and was invited to a meeting of the party members at a plant. The meeting began with a speech from the leader, Balakhnine, a member of the party, obviously:
“[Balakhnine] began by listing what he had done for the working class in the past. As he did so, he seemed very pleased with himself.... Then, quite unashamed, he began to criticize Trotsky, reminding us of his differences with Lenin, first calling him a liquidator, then a Menshevik [the socialists who betrayed the revolution in 1917]. [Then], he even went so far as to say that Trotsky had been opposed to the armed insurrection in October and that, because he was now attacking true Leninists, he was an ideologist of the petty bourgeoisie. And he concluded by making a toast in honor of the central Leninist committee. One or two people applauded and then there was a long silence. The secretary of the local committee of the party then suggested that it was question time.
“At that point, the workers, also members of the party, asked numerous questions:
“‘How could Lenin have given the leadership of the Red Army to the Menshevik Trotsky? Why was Trotsky held in high regard when Ilych [Lenin’s family name] was in good health? And who is Stalin? We don’t know him. Why are we given stale and frozen bread? How long will the workers have to wait for their rights? Why does the plant canteen give us food that we wouldn’t give to a dog?’ Various noises and exclamations accompanied these questions. ‘They’ve become bureaucrats.’ ‘They’re no longer in touch with the workers.’ ‘They’re gagging us.’ ‘They promise us that we’ll have heaven on earth tomorrow but they’re making us suffer today while the chiefs are already in heaven.’”
Grigorov knew that the director had followed instructions from the apparatus who were campaigning to discredit Trotsky. So, he intervened to set the record straight on Trotsky and his role both before and during the revolution. Then he started on the fight against bureaucracy inside the party and the state:
“Because of Lenin’s illness, there was a struggle for power in the central committee while, in the Politburo, a majority stood against Trotsky, the most popular figure in the party and the army. But the population wasn’t interested in this struggle. What it found important was to solve the essential problems: improve housing conditions, increase salaries, food supplies. Workers must exercise their right to take part in the decisions that concern their existence.”
Grigorov’s speech was met with loud applause. The leader tried to discredit him by shouting, “Grigorov is a Menshevik teacher. Who do you trust?” But a worker answered, “Hey, Balakhnine, you should have studied at school before sitting in a director’s chair.”
Two resolutions were voted. The director’s received 19 votes, Grigorov’s 150. But here’s what came next:
“When the results were read out, there was a very surprising incident. Balakhnine took a pistol out of his pocket and aimed it at me, saying:
“‘Mensheviks like him should be shot’
“A group of workers jumped on him, snatched the pistol away from him and he left the room. Then everyone sang the Internationale and there were cries of ‘Long live the leaders of the revolution, Lenin and Trotsky!’, ‘Long live the organizer of the Red Army!’
“It was some time before we went our separate ways. The secretary of the local party committee came to me and said!
“‘I’m going to lose my job because of this meeting. And I’m not going to thank you for it’.
“To which I replied:
“‘You have nothing to worry about, you’re a worker, you’ll go to work at the factory. But for me it’s a little more complicated. But I have absolutely no regrets about having told the truth to the workers.”
This shows that bureaucratic gangrene had spread, taking the revolutionaries unawares. Within the party, they had seen some people get richer and democratic life regress. Nevertheless, at the same time, all militants, including the bureaucrats, had found themselves fighting side by side on the front lines of the civil war. So, in good times and bad, why not trust the reassuring message from the party apparatus that things were getting better? It took courage to appear openly as an opponent and follow Trotsky when the whole party apparatus was against him. Trotskyism was born out of this fight.
By the end of 1923, several thousand activists, had joined Trotsky to form the Left Opposition. Around this nucleus, there were tens of thousands of party members who were clandestine supporters. Among them were the older Bolsheviks who had been in the Tsar’s prisons, had been deported or exiled. But above all, there were the young members who had joined the party at the time of the revolution or during the civil war. Together, they embodied the October Revolution and Bolshevism.
They were active in the communist party because it was their party. They wanted to regenerate the party, bring back a democratic way of functioning, give it back the sense of being the party of the working class. For 10 years, the oppositionists refrained from building a new party. Nonetheless, given their audience, given their presence in the working class and given the competence of their activists and leaders, they were indeed a real party, in a way that the Trotskyist movement would never know again.
At the beginning of 1926, the oppositionists managed to win back a few of their former comrades, those who followed Zinoviev and Kamenev, who until then stood with Stalin against Trotsky before changing sides. Victor Serge was politically active in Leningrad at the time and relates the about-face of several old Bolsheviks:
“I had known pretty much all the old party leaders in Leningrad since 1919 ... they seemed to have undergone a change of heart overnight; I could not help thinking that they must have felt deeply relieved to escape from the stifling fog of lies and shake our hand? They spoke admiringly of Trotsky, the same man they had covered with abuse a couple of days ago. They described, in considerable detail, the first talks he had held with Zinoviev and Kamenev.”
In 1927, the Joint Opposition presented a political platform for the XVth party congress. It was the revolutionary program of the working class of the Soviet Union. The platform called for an increase in workers’ wages “to go hand in hand with the increase in industry profits.” It said that the workers must seek an alliance with the poor peasants in order to fight the rich peasants by doing away with taxes for the poor peasants and increase the taxes for the wealthy peasants and the small capitalists, while freezing the taxes for the middle peasants. The platform stated that state industry should be developed “so that the lowering of prices affects above all objects of mass consumption among the workers and peasants.” It insisted on the inextricable link between the future of the Soviet Union and revolution on an international scale. And it highlighted the struggle against bureaucratic behavior by demanding that democracy return to the inner workings of the party.
Even 10 years after the October Revolution, in the midst of the ebb of the revolutionary tide, the revolutionary program resonated among many workers and activists. Its inherent truth touched the youngest members. The positive reception that the Opposition received represented a mortal danger for the bureaucracy. They had to be silenced. Just prior to the Congress, Stalin excluded the Opposition from the party. Its militants were either deported or imprisoned. The apparatus succeeded in forcing some to capitulate. But thousands stood firm, despite the repression, just like Rakovsky, one of the few leaders of the Opposition to have attended the congress. When Rakovsky was asked by the Central Committee to surrender, he replied: “I’m getting old. Why ruin my biography?” He was deported.
Trotsky was also deported to Kazakhstan. Then, in the beginning of 1929, Stalin had Trotsky expelled from the Soviet Union in order to separate him completely from the rest of the Opposition and to cut off the Opposition’s head. But even without Trotsky, even when under repression and imprisonment, the Opposition did not give in. Their analyses and their tracts continued to circulate in the plants and working-class neighborhoods.
In the mid-1930s, the Opposition even gained new members amongst the youth and workers. So, Stalin had them all liquidated.
Facing the terror, the relentless persecution over a period of years, the oppositionists had no other means to fight than to refuse to capitulate. If they submitted, they would have allowed the apparatus to sully everything they had fought for, to say that they were liars and traitors to the working class. The vast majority of the Opposition who had followed Trotsky since 1923 preferred to die rather than surrender. This heroic gesture was above all political. It is impossible to understand their determination unless we first see that they had been carried on the wave of the revolution, that they were faithful to the fight in the USSR and elsewhere, and the unique moment in the history of class struggle in which they had caught a glimpse of the complete overthrow of capitalism. They knew that they were the last ones to personify Bolshevism and that they must not give in if they were to pass this heritage on to new generations.
The communist movement had developed on an international scale at the same time as the degeneration of the soviet state. Militant workers had split from the socialist parties and anarchist unions to follow the Third International and study Bolshevism “as if in Russia.” But they had barely taken this step when they were faced with internal struggles within the soviet party, struggles whose implications they didn’t grasp.
James Cannon, at that time one of the leaders of the U.S. Communist Party, who later became a Trotskyist, writes of his own lack of understanding at the beginning of the Left Opposition:
“I was not at all satisfied. I was never enthusiastic about the conflict in the Russian party. I didn’t understand it ... the criterion used to judge the leaders in Moscow was: who was the loudest against Trotskyism and against Trotsky.”
Even when the Comintern’s policy that the Opposition was fighting had catastrophic consequences, the immense majority of communist activists throughout the world didn’t understand the reasons. In China in 1927, when a proletarian revolution had broken out, the International forced the Chinese communists to support bourgeois leaders who turned against the working class and crushed the revolution bloodily. But Cannon admits with sincerity:
“We American country bumpkins knew nothing about the subject. China was a long way away. [And] we had never seen any of the Russian Opposition’s theses.”
When Cannon discovered the theses, he joined Trotsky.
The general ebbing of the revolutionary wave had reinforced both the bureaucracy in the USSR and the conservative tendencies in communist parties. The combination of the two changed Lenin’s Communist International into a Stalinist International that was to become a weapon against the revolution. The victory of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933 revealed just how fatal this evolution was.
During the rise of Nazism in Germany at the start of the 1930s, the German working class was organized into two big workers’ parties: the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party. The Communist Party had been decapitated as soon as it was founded in 1919 with the assassination of several of its leaders, including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It had risen and grown during the following revolutionary periods, but it soon fell into blindly following the Stalinist apparatus.
The German workers’ movement had considerable organized forces. Coordinated to fight the Nazis, these forces could have created a powerful united front. But determined struggle against the Nazis meant fighting against capitalism and for a workers’ revolution. The leaders of the Social Democratic Party didn’t want that. Their policy can be summed up as hoping that the German bourgeoisie didn’t bring the Nazis to power. The Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party had also given up on the revolutionary fight, which it hid behind suicidal sectarianism. This was illustrated by its policy of “social-fascism,” which considered that the Social Democratic Party and the Nazi Party were “twins.” This prevented workers from organizing together in united fronts. Disoriented by what the leadership of the Communist and Social Democratic parties did, the German working class was handed over to Hitler without a fight. As soon as he assumed power, Hitler crushed the workers’ organizations, assassinated its activists or imprisoned them in concentration camps.
The destruction of the German workers’ movement was a crushing blow. Yet no leader of any communist party in the world criticized Stalin’s policy. This was proof of the complete bankruptcy of the Third International.
Hitler’s victory meant that German imperialism was going to prepare for another world war. Nazi Germany was an obvious threat to the USSR. But the Soviet bureaucracy was incapable of seeing the revolutionary explosions of the proletariat as anything other than a threat to its own existence. Thus, it looked to the imperialist countries for allies. And it used the Communist International to help carry out its own diplomatic maneuvers. For what Stalinism had to offer its imperialist allies was its ability to deceive the working class.
Under Moscow’s orders, the leaders of the Stalinized communist parties held out their hand to everyone on their right, including socialist parties and bourgeois parties. In Spain and in France they helped organize Popular Fronts, whose aim was to channel the workers’ protests into electoral politics. Simultaneously and linked to this, they did not tolerate the least independent expression from their left that might have challenged their betrayal.
The Comintern intervened consciously as a counter-revolutionary force for the first time when the Spanish proletarian revolution broke out in July 1936. A victorious Spanish revolution would have immediately found support from the French working class. In June 1936, French workers had just carried out a general strike, which included factory occupations. At a time when fascism was spreading across Europe, this would have been a considerable political reversal. But the bureaucracy feared proletarian revolution even more than it feared world war. A new workers state would have revealed to all workers just how much Stalinism was a fraud. So, Stalin did everything he could to strangle the revolution.
Stalinists and socialists, working together in the Spanish Popular Front, forced the exploited to renounce their revolutionary demands on the grounds that, in the fight against Franco’s extreme right, they shouldn’t frighten an imaginary republican bourgeoisie. With the complicity of the anarchist leaders from the powerful CNT union, they stifled the uprising of the masses. The bourgeoisie chose to follow Franco and the Stalinists assassinated the Spanish revolutionaries.
Stalin sent arms to Spain, not to the workers but to those bourgeois leaders who claimed to be republican. He also assembled troops for that purpose. Militants from all over Europe answered the call of the Communist International to form the International Brigades. They came to fight Franco, believing that they were offering their lives so that communism could take revenge on Hitler, Mussolini and all the dictators in Europe. But these same militants only provided Stalinism the troops that it used to crush the Spanish Revolution.
Only by presenting himself as Lenin’s successor could Stalin succeed in imposing on communist militants of all countries something that no bourgeois or reformist party could. Stalinism reintroduced bourgeois ideas—nationalism, electoralism, etc.—inside the communist movement, even though these ideas had nothing to do with Bolshevism, nor with anything that the workers’ movement had previously achieved. Without Stalinism, the bourgeoisie could not have achieved this political regression, this corruption of the workers’ movement. By appropriating the Russian Revolution’s flag, Stalinism turned itself into a far more deadly poison for the revolutionary workers’ movement than all the reformist poisons of the past.
When the Fourth International was founded in 1938, it was made up of only small organizations.
Throughout the history of the workers’ movement, from the time of Marx onward, a revolutionary current was always present in the working class. From generation to generation, when the class struggle went through periods of violent storms or periods of calm, this revolutionary current was always transmitted from militant to militant, each one teaching the next. Even if this continuity was ruptured, when new parties or a new international had to be created, this transmission of experiences, of political and organizational capital, was possible. Socialist parties were founded by militants who had learned from Marx and Engels. After the Russian Revolution, the communist parties had been created from the revolutionary currents of socialist parties or workers’ unions founded by anarchist tendencies.
For the first time in history, Stalinism broke this continuity of human militants. It exterminated the Soviet Trotskyists and corrupted the communist parties to the point where they became parties that served the interests of the bourgeoisie. Revolutionary ideas became little more than shadows.
However, even in this state, these ideas continued to haunt the bourgeoisie. In August 1939, a few days before the declaration of war between France and Germany, Hitler met with the French ambassador in Berlin and said to him:
“I believe that I will win and you believe that you will win but what is certain is that German blood and French blood will flow.”
The French ambassador replied: “If I really believed that we would win, I would also fear that the war would have only one victor, Mr. Trotsky”. To which Hitler in turn replied “I know.” For the bourgeoisie, Trotsky personified its fear of proletarian revolution. And that was when Trotsky could count on very few partisans and was pursued by the Stalinists, as well as the so-called democratic governments, and he could only find a place to live in Mexico. And even then, he was always in danger.
Trotsky was assassinated by one of Stalin’s agents on August 21, 1940, less than two years after the foundation of the Fourth International. Politically, the Fourth International did not survive Trotsky’s death because he was its only true leader. Despite the courage of the militants in Europe and the United States who joined him, they had neither the experience nor the stuff of militants from the Soviet Left Opposition. They had never been in direct contact with Bolshevism. Where could they have found it? Certainly not in the Stalinist parties and even less so in the reformist socialist parties.
What is more, Stalinism tried to build an impenetrable wall between these weak Trotskyist organizations and the working class. In the USSR, Stalin had had nearly all Trotskyists executed. Even if he had managed to have Trotsky and other Trotskyist leaders and militants such as Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son, assassinated, it was not as easy to eliminate revolutionaries in other countries. His word was law, however, for the proletariat where he dominated. Stalinists systematically used moral pressure and physical violence against Trotskyists to stop their ideas from permeating the working class. Trotskyist militants were denounced as agents of imperialism, or called names like “Hitlero-Trotskyites.” There were few revolutionary militants in the factories. But when the Stalinists discovered them, they tried to get the revolutionaries fired. And the revolutionary militants who showed up openly at the factory gates were beaten up and issued death threats.
By bringing gangster methods into the workers’ movement, Stalinism also destroyed its own militants. It taught them to trample on worker democracy, to silence other opinions and not to trust their base because it could become too independent. Among its leaders it cultivated the arrogance and contempt of those who do the thinking for workers and decide what is best for them.
Stalinism eliminated the militants who were capable of transmitting Bolshevik traditions. It created a divide between the working class and revolutionary ideas. But it couldn’t destroy what Trotsky had written: his texts, his analyses, his programs still remain and they are priceless.
By the end of World War II, the Trotskyist movement was completely smashed. Militants had been killed, some in the Nazi camps, some assassinated by Stalin. There were Trotskyist militants in quite a few countries, in Europe, America, Asia, South Africa. But usually they were in tiny groups, without an implantation in the working class. Officially, the Fourth International continued to exist. Ten years after its foundation, it managed to hold a second world congress.
Trotsky alone had personified the policy and the program of the Fourth International. He had led a massive workers’ party and two revolutions. He had formed the Red Army, made up of several million people, and led it to victory. And he was one of the founders and principal leaders of the Communist International with tens of sections in the world, with many of the militants representing, at least in the beginning, the soul of the revolution in the working class of their country.
On an international scale, those Trotskyists who had turned to him in the 1930s were in the large majority young intellectuals who were cut off from the working masses and who only partly understood the advice he gave them. During a discussion with the U.S. militants in 1939, Trotsky described the French Trotskyists this way:
“We have comrades who came to us, like Naville and others, 15 or 16 or more years ago when they were young boys. Now they are mature people and during their whole conscious life they have had only blows, defeats and terrible defeats on an international scale and they are more or less acquainted with this situation. They appreciate very highly the correctness of their conceptions and they can analyze, but they never had the capacity to penetrate, and work with the masses, and they have not acquired it.”
Naville, who had been in close contact with Trotsky, stopped his political activity after the war. But those who led the Trotskyist organizations in France and the rest of Europe had the same faults that Trotsky mentioned. In the U.S., Cannon and the worker militants around him had managed to permeate the working class to some extent. And it’s no coincidence that their organization closely followed Trotsky’s advice. But the only ones who really spoke the same language as Trotsky, who had the experience of revolutionary militant activity among the masses, were his Soviet comrades who had practically all perished.
The militants at the origin of our current broke away from the main Trotskyist movement in France during World War II. After France’s military defeat of 1940, the majority of the main group had put forward a policy of a “united front with all those who think the French way,” which meant abandoning internationalism. But for our current’s militants, the choice to break away was above all motivated by the need to link their fate to that of the working class, on organic, human and practical levels. They returned to the fundamental idea of building an organization aimed at workers and workplaces. In his report on the organization in 1943, Barta, a militant of Romanian origin, who led the small group, “Communist Union,” explained the reasons for constituting an independent organization:
“The ideas of the Russian opposition, which were the basis of the birth of the Fourth International current, were not able to penetrate any working-class milieu in France.... These ideas were adopted above all by intellectuals who lacked real communist traditions and who, from 1928 to 1933, had no possibility of fighting on the terrain of workers’ struggles. This gave the communist opposition in France a petty bourgeois character which made any subsequent development of the movement haphazard ... at a time when the situation (the workers’ struggles in 1934 and 1939) could objectively have served as a solid base for the propagation of the ideas of the Fourth International.
“Since the beginning of the war we have been committed to creating an organization of the revolutionary Bolshevik type. Bolshevism, together with an appropriate policy, implies ... a real and extensive contact with the working class and a daily participation in its struggles; it is inspired by the daily and permanent interests of the working class.”
Through its militant activity, the Communist Union managed to win workers over to Trotskyism and to train them as party cadre. Among them was Pierre Bois, who went on to lead the strike at the Renault factory complex in Billancourt (Paris region) in April-May 1947, when thousands of workers held out against management, the government and the domination of the Stalinist union, the CGT, by organizing themselves democratically in a real strike committee. This strike had an impact on a national level. The Communist Party understood that with the beginnings of the Cold War, it would have to choose between continuing to participate in the bourgeois French government and its alliance with the Kremlin. Not wanting to be discredited by the workers, the French Communist Party ministers gave their support to the strike and they were expelled from the government.
The militant success represented by this strike did not, however, change the way that the rest of the Trotskyist movement carried out its militant activity. And the Communist Union remained alone in the choices that it made for its militant activity.
After Trotsky’s death, for all those with the objective of building organizations based on Trotskyism, there was the problem of how to orient themselves politically in a world, in which Stalinism, claiming to be the one and only representative of communism and of revolution, was disfiguring those ideas. The ideas of true revolutionary communism were only to be found in books. And at that time, it was difficult to find any of Trotsky’s works.
One of the most fundamental analyses of Trotsky and the Left Opposition was that of the USSR. In March 1934, when Stalinism had led the German workers to the slaughterhouse and handed them over to Hitler and when Stalin was throwing all the Trotskyists in the USSR into prison, Trotsky said:
“The result of the great October Revolution in Russia was the Soviet state. It showed the strengths and the possibilities that lie within the proletariat. The Soviet state remains, even today, the flesh of our flesh and the blood of our blood. In these difficult times, we call on the honest worker to defend the Soviet state.”
From the beginning of the Left Opposition, Trotsky had already opposed militants who no longer wanted to uphold this view of the USSR. After the war and the death of Trotsky, other militants, even though they claimed to be Trotskyists, questioned Trotsky’s reasoning with regard to the Soviet Union.
It was of course obvious to everyone that behind the official propaganda, the Soviet Union was moving further and further away from the socialist ideal of equality and fraternity. The bureaucracy’s privileges, its reactionary and counter-revolutionary policy, were increasingly disgusting. And the dictatorship was brutal.
But the Soviet society was the result of a revolution, a social earthquake of unprecedented magnitude in human history. The direct action of the masses had shaken the old social relationships to the core. In 1917, the oppressed had freed themselves from all forms of oppression, and in a radical way. Things could no longer be the way they had been, starting with the way they thought. They had fashioned the new social relationships which had, in turn, changed them deeply and durably. Only a proletarian revolution that rallied tens of millions of individuals to its cause for years could have done it. No coup d’état, no palace revolution, not even a peasants’ revolution led by the petty bourgeoisie could have accomplished this.
Saying that the USSR was a dictatorship just like others would be to brush aside its proletarian revolutionary origin, consider that it had no importance for Marxist revolutionaries, for fighters of the socialist emancipation of the working class. Moreover, dismissing it in such a way was often done under the pressure of anti-communist propaganda that was very strong at the time of the Cold War and that largely took over the socialist parties.
From the end of 1947, central European countries like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, etc. were occupied by the Soviet army. Stalin’s bureaucracy set up governments that the bureaucracy controlled completely. These countries were later called “Peoples Democracies,” claimed to be socialist and throughout this period of tension between the USSR and imperialism, these regimes were formally allied to the Soviet Union. But what was the nature of these states?
The majority of the Trotskyist movement decreed that these peoples’ democracies were, like the USSR, degenerated worker states. But to consider these states and the USSR as being the same would be like saying that the Stalinist bureaucracy could play the same role as the conscious action of millions of workers, and that the army and Stalin’s political police taking over the state apparatus could have the same effects as one of the most profound social revolutions in history. In other words, there was no need of the working class to overthrow capitalism.
We in our movement have always upheld the fundamental precept that nothing can replace the conscious intervention of the working masses. And we considered that these states, even if they came under the authority of the Kremlin, had not changed their nature and remained bourgeois states. Only the Soviet Union was a workers state stemming from the 1917 October revolution that had degenerated.
After World War II, there were revolutionary explosions of the oppressed masses in the colonial empires and the countries dominated by imperialism. In order for the militants of our current to understand these revolutions, they first looked at the role of the working class as a political force, as well as whether or not there was a workers’ party to represent their political interests.
The whole of Asia was shaken by the Chinese Revolution, which led to Mao’s Communist Party taking power in 1949. The poor peasants in the countryside rose up against their oppressors, the landowners and the warlords of the past. Mao’s party took the lead in this revolt. But where was the proletariat? Where was its political action? Despite its weakness in numbers, it could have played a leading role, as the workers’ revolution in the same country had shown in 1927.
But the Chinese Communist Party was no longer a workers’ party. After the bloody repression of 1927, it left the cities and went into the countryside. It became a guerrilla apparatus. It was cut off from the working class and was unable to offer any radical opposition. The original evolution of the Chinese CP had turned it, despite the name it continued to use, into a petty bourgeois radical nationalist party whose leaders had learned at the communist school of Stalinism how to brandish communist ideas in order to dupe the masses in revolt.
There were Trotskyists militants in China, some of whom had been won over to the Opposition as early as in 1927. Although there weren’t many, Mao saw them as a threat of independent proletarian politics and physically annihilated all those who could not escape.
Mao set a precedent. In Vietnam, North Korea and elsewhere, a series of nationalist leaders used his methods in their fight against imperialism after World War II. Every time, there were militants in the Trotskyist movement who claimed these “revolutionary processes” “automatically” gave birth to new “workers’ states”. Some people were not entirely comfortable with this and felt obliged to add the adjective “degenerated” or “deformed”. But no matter the term, it didn’t change the fact that these states bore no resemblance to what had been achieved in Russia in 1917.
Since then, both Vietnam and China have opened up spectacularly to the capitalist market. The Cuban regime is headed in the same direction. And the ill-named people’s democracies have joined the capitalist fold. The fact that history has shown our movement’s analyses to be correct is not what is important, nor the convictions on which they were founded and which were denied by the rest of the Trotskyist movement. Allowing people to believe that Stalinist bureaucracy or petty bourgeois nationalist groups, however radical they may be, can play the same role as the working class is the same as turning one’s back on Trotskyism. It adds up to a refusal to defend the proletarian revolutionary program on the grounds that it could have been done by others.
What characterizes our current is our loyalty to the working class and to Trotskyism. At a time when the French Communist Party was all-powerful in the French working class and set up a barrier around it to stop Trotskyist ideas from getting in, the militants who started our current never gave up. They didn’t seek to look at other classes who might have been substitutes for the working class. Despite all the difficulties, they created a Trotskyist workers’ organization. The difficulties are no longer the same today. What we have to face is not Stalinism but the decline in the fighting spirit and the profound depoliticization of the working class. But the perspectives remain the same—to find the way to bring Trotskyist ideas into the working class—with the same wholehearted confidence in the proletariat. For us, revolutionary communists, there is no alternative.
What follows are the presentations of our comrades in Combat Ouvrier and Spark. Afterwards, the presentation from Lutte Ouvrière will continue.
Our group has been active in Martinique and Guadeloupe since 1971. These two islands were French colonies for a very long time. In 1946, their legal status changed to being French overseas departments. But for the next half century they continued to suffer direct colonial oppression. Only towards the very end of the 20th century did they obtain relative equality with France and the recognition of democratic political rights.
Seventy-two years of this very gradual change did not erase the three centuries of slavery and colonialism. We are a Trotskyist group that belongs to the ICU (Internationalist Communist Union), alongside several other organizations including Lutte Ouvrière (LO). Today, in these two small islands in the West Indies we remain a small group. But we have been faced with a series of situations that recall those in other poor, colonized or partly-colonized countries where there have been problems of emancipation from colonial, imperialist and racial oppression. The difference in scale does not exclude similarities, analogies and comparisons.
After Combat Ouvrier was founded in Paris in 1965, we immediately directed our militant activity towards West Indian emigrant workers. At the same time, we were confronted with the nationalist ideas that were in fashion at the time, the ideas promoted by the diverse nationalist organizations that then influenced both students and politicized young workers. These organizations’ ideology was a mixture of Maoism, Castroism, Guevarism, Black Consciousness (“Negritude”) ... It also borrowed from the Algerian National Liberation Front (NLF), which had been victorious in its war against French colonialism, and from the Vietnamese NLF which, having defeated French colonialism, was at war with U.S. imperialism. On top of all that the mixture was sprinkled with a pinch of Marxism.
During this colonial period in the West Indies, the forces of order shot on sight striking workers and the level of misery was comparable to what continues to exist in Africa. The Communist Parties, which had been Stalinist almost from their foundation, were already deeply nationalist—and had been for a long time. At the beginning of the 1960s, more active nationalist organizations emerged, advocating autonomy or national independence from France. In 1963, the most important groups were the GONG (“Groupe d’Organisations Nationales de la Guadeloupe”) and the OJAM (“Organisation de la Jeunesse Anti-Colonialiste de Martinique”). Both had connections with and were supported by student organizations.
These organizations’ and parties’ primary goal was what they called “national liberation.” They relegated the working class and the poor to what they named “the second stage.” After national liberation, this second stage was supposed to be socialist—which in reality was a hypothetical future. What the nationalists really want are for Martinique or Guadeloupe to become independent countries, with the petty bourgeoisie or the bourgeoisie in power. As for the working class and the poor classes, their role is to accept to build Guadeloupe or Martinique by making all the sacrifices necessary in the name of Guadeloupe and Martinique “patriotism” and “love of country.” At the end of the day, they are reduced to being foot soldiers serving the interests of the local bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. This is what the nationalists, like in China and Vietnam, called the “democratic and people’s national revolution” (the DPNR). It was similar to the “alliance of the four classes” advocated by Mao in China, that is to say the alliance of the peasantry with the working class, the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. This program was at the source of many illusions among politicized workers and youth. It was elaborated to help forge a bourgeois nation that would be independent from French imperialism—but not in order for the interests of the workers and the poor to triumph.
Given the frequency and strength of the workers’ struggles in the West Indies, some pro-independence groups chose, from the 1970s onward, to melt into the working class and form unions. They sought to use workers’ struggles to provoke social and political agitation that would put them in a position to negotiate some form of independence with Paris. They have not succeeded so far because the workers do not follow them down that road, even though one of those nationalist unions, the UGTG (“Union Générale des Travailleurs de Guadeloupe”), remains the largest union on that island.
From its inception, it was necessary for our group to denounce colonialism, its crimes and massacres, and to fight for the emancipation from colonial oppression of the peoples of Martinique and Guadeloupe. But it was vital to put forward the interests of the workers and the poor as the first priority in that fight. In our 1965 manifesto, we wrote,
“For three centuries, our country has been under the direct and bloody domination of French imperialism. For three centuries, we have been colonized and treated as vassals. Our economic development is paralyzed by the pressure of French industry, our national culture is destroyed and the French citizenship that we have been granted since 1946 is actually used to suck our blood. This citizenship is a sham and barely hides the impoverishment of our population and its exploitation by French imperialism....
“ In this struggle ... we will not only have to oppose the henchmen and mercenaries of imperialism, we will not only have to overcome our own hesitations: we will also have to fight those who, in our midst, see themselves already as the future profiteers and leaders of the independent West Indies. Our struggle for independence is the struggle of the poorer classes for a better life. It is not the struggle for the West Indian bourgeoisie to profit from trade without fear of imperialist competition, or for some doctors, lawyers or other ‘elites’ to later occupy positions of wealth and privilege, while they preach to us about work, patience and hope.”
Fifteen years later, the West Indies witnessed a revival of nationalist activism. Separatist groups planned bomb attacks to force the French government to negotiate the independence of the West Indies. There was a decade of nationalist activism of this kind, from the end of 1979 to July 1989. In this period, the nationalist groups’ activism, though it did not meet much formal approval from the population, still aroused a certain sympathy. So, we had to find activities and slogans that were appropriate in this new and unprecedented situation; we had to devise a policy consistent with the interests of the workers in the struggle against French imperialism. We had already assessed the fact that the population expressed a feeling of racial rather than national oppression. This feeling, stemming from the slave society and the plantation economy, is easy to understand: everything today is still directed and controlled by a minority of whites on islands where there is a majority of blacks. To distinguish ourselves from the nationalists who called for an independent state, we devised the slogan: “For a State controlled by poor blacks that is independent of whites and the rich.”
On the other hand, with the nationalists organizing a number of individual attacks, we supported radical clandestine groups in our press. But we did so in our own way, by trying to get workers and young people in the neighborhoods involved. This was the case, for example, with our support for the actions of the “Committee against Genocide by Substitution”, which led harsh, violent actions against the symbols of racial oppression in the neighborhoods inhabited by whites and against their property.
So, as communist revolutionaries, as Trotskyists, one of our first tasks is to understand and take into account the feelings of the oppressed masses. The program of the first four congresses of the Communist International and the Trotskyist program enabled us, as Marxists, to try to find and understand the feelings of the masses in general, the masses of countries under domination, and of the black and colored masses of our countries.
The Theses on the National and Colonial Questions and the Thesis on the Negro Question were published under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership during the first four congresses of the Communist International. These two texts in particular provided us with the right orientation. Later, during a discussion with American militants on the situation of black people, Leon Trotsky said:
“The question of religion has absolutely nothing to do with this question of the nation. The Baptism of the Negro is something entirely different from the Baptism of Rockefeller: These are two different religions.”
In the same way, the feeling of oppression of West Indian workers, who are black or colored, toward their white boss is different from the feeling of oppression that can be felt by a doctor, lawyer or a manager who is black or Indian toward white administrators and other colonial and racial institutions. These two forms of oppression are different and they are felt differently among black people themselves.
Today we can verify this through events. A fraction of nationalist leaders has managed to obtain a semblance of local power in Martinique. And it will soon be the case in Guadeloupe with the creation of a single assembly replacing the general council and the regional council. We are a long way from independence and even from autonomy. But those little crumbs of power are enough to satisfy the local officials at present. They now have partial control over fees and taxes paid by the population, as well as the money that comes from the French government and the European Union. The population has no control over all this money. On the contrary, the officials use it to exert pressure on the population. The same kind of officials are at the head of the independent states in the Caribbean in all the surrounding islands.
Our political existence and identity have been forged in the struggle against the nationalists’ program and attacks, as well as in our militant activity in the working class. Our group has some experience of the workers’ struggles, those led by our comrades in the workplaces and in the trade unions.
All this gives us the possibility to express the communist, Trotskyist position in periods of social upheaval or of rising nationalist activism, even when we are a minority. And it was our Trotskyist formation that allowed us to find the most accurate answers in these situations, to come up with class-based responses, communist responses in the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles within the population and the young people who are working class and student.
Of course, the struggles have not been revolutionary. We have not had that kind of experience. But we do have a revolutionary program, the program of Lenin and Trotsky.
I would like to add that in our geographical zone, the history of the descendants of the African slaves and the Caribbean Indian tribes is the same. Capitalism exploits millions of poor Blacks throughout the Caribbean, from Margarita (an island off Venezuela) to the Bahamas. In Haiti, where our sister organization, the OTR (“Organisation des Travailleurs Révolutionnaires”) campaigns on the same program as ours, there is a much larger and more diverse working class.
Imperialist exploitation and poverty have turned these islands into a powder keg. There is a considerable potentially explosive revolutionary force of the workers and poor that will ignite one day. The revolutionary virus is contagious. The problem is not whether it will happen, but when it will happen.
Workers must build their own revolutionary communist parties, which are indispensable for the success of future workers’ revolutions.
To conclude, comrades, let me say that today in the West Indies, as in Europe, the USA and elsewhere, everything seems to be going in the opposite direction from what we want.
But it is precisely for this reason that our existence is so important, even in small countries and whatever our numerical strength. Our existence is an essential link between yesterday’s struggles and future revolutionary parties and worker revolutions, whatever path leads to this construction and this new historical period.
Does the United States seem to you like an enormous obstacle to social revolution? Sometimes it does to us also.
It’s not only the economic dominance of American imperialism and the military might of the American state. We can also ask, does the working class even see itself as a social class?
American workers are not politically organized as a class. They have no mass party of their own, and have never really had one. Moreover, the working class, with its long historical legacy from slavery, still is marked by deep divisions. Among the white workers—and this can include even many of the most recent immigrants—there is a sense of “privilege”—a very petty and mean privilege, it’s true, but privilege nonetheless. Among the black workers, the most oppressed section of the working class, there remain distrust and bitterness toward the “whites”—that is, almost everyone else.
These are exactly the problems that Trotsky focused on in his discussions with the American Trotskyists at the time The Transitional Program was being discussed and adopted by the new Fourth International. In discussing a labor party, or later an independent black party, he argued that revolutionaries should struggle for the transitional demands in the programs of these organizations.
Starting in the mid-1960s, insurrections by the black population shook American cities. Like many others at the time, I was looking for answers to events that cried out for answers.
By accident, I came across an article: “The Black Revolt in the U.S.A.: A Hope for All Humanity”. It started with these words:
“For the past three years, the United States of America, the first world power and bastion of imperialism, has seen social warfare in its most radical form ravage its territory—a form which seemed to have disappeared from Europe for a long time, never again to reappear in a country enjoying a ‘high standard of living’: urban insurrection, which brings the masses into the streets and sets the cities on fire.”
And it ended with these words:
“The American citadel of world imperialism has appeared for the last forty years to be the only one impossible to take from within, or at least, the one the fall of which seemed the least probable, when compared to the weak and vacillating bourgeois powers of old Europe. The strongest link, which seemed never destined to yield and, on the contrary, seemed to provide the fist which would come to the rescue of the faltering arms of its European and Asian brothers, now reveals a flaw. The flaw will cause the link to break.”
To those on the left who insisted that the poor black population should refrain from violence because only the whole of the American working class could take power, this article answered, NO. It is through the struggle of the most combative section of that working class that the whole of the working class can be pulled along not only to understand their commonality of interests, but to gain the same level of consciousness. It is not through propaganda, but in action that the consciousness of both white and black will develop.
For me, this article was a thunderbolt. It provided a perspective that I could not find in the American left. I also have to admit, I was amazed to discover it had been written in another country ... France. Maybe it was a small lesson in internationalism!
The article I quoted from was written in 1967 by Voix Ouvrière, but it started from the reasoning that Trotsky had made in discussions with the American SWP in the 1930s.
In 1967, the opportunity was not realized. And the situation has changed in many ways in the last half century. But the basic situation hasn’t changed since then, nor since Trotsky affirmed the following in 1933:
“I believe that by the unheard-of political and theoretical backwardness and the unheard-of economic advance, the awakening of this working class can proceed quite rapidly.... It is then possible that the Negroes will become the most advanced section.... They will provide the vanguard. I am absolutely sure that they will in any case fight better than the white workers.”
The question for any American organization is how it will find its way to this, the most oppressed part of the working class. Trotsky’s reasoning remains as relevant today as it was in 1933 ... or in 1967.
The other problem—the lack of a working class party in the U.S.—also preoccupied Trotsky. In 1938, discussing with the SWP, he said that the first step in the political education of the working class is to have its own mass party, and that this first step in the U.S. had already been due five or ten years earlier. It’s nearly a century later, and that first step hasn’t yet been taken.
I cannot pretend that Spark, with our small forces, has the means to weigh on the issue, but at least we could find a concrete, practical way to intervene about it.
In 2016, we began working to put Working Class Party on the ballot in Michigan. Our goal was to carry out an electoral campaign around our ideas—specifically that the working class needs its own political organization to intervene in the class struggle.
The electoral machinery in the American states is complex and inhibiting. We had to get the signatures of 31,000 voters in Michigan who said they supported putting a new party on the ballot, and we needed a margin of ten or twenty thousand above that to be sure of meeting the goal.
We weren’t sure that we could find tens of thousands of people who agreed, and even if they agreed, how many would be willing to put their names on a paper to be filed with the state.
Trotsky, discussing the Labor Party slogan with the SWP, in response to doubts that the workers were not interested in the idea, said, “We can measure the mood of the workers only by action, and only if the slogan is put on the agenda. But what we can say is that the objective situation is absolutely decisive.”
He could have been talking directly to us.
De facto, the name of this electoral slate on the ballot, Working Class Party, itself became a political slogan, in a situation which called for the working class to organize itself politically. It allowed some part of the working class—at least in Michigan where we campaigned—to express their wish to have their own party.
Workers responded to our campaign beyond anything we imagined. When we first went out on the street, asking strangers for their signatures, we met a few blank looks, and a few hostile remarks. But many more would grab the petition and say, “where do I sign?”
An anecdote. A comrade was having her hair cut in a shop in rural Michigan. She started to ask the young woman cutting her hair to vote for Working Class Party. The woman drew back and said, “Working Class Party? What a good idea! Why didn’t someone think about this before?”
When our votes came in, in 2016, not only did we have many times more than we expected, two hundred thousand. We had almost one fourth of all our votes in areas of the state where we never campaigned. At least some of them must have voted for our candidate simply because, for the first time, they could vote Working Class.
In 1938 already, Trotsky could say that the unions just coming out of the big fights for the CIO had already come to an impasse, and the only way out for the working class was to join together in political struggle to influence the class struggle. The SWP itself didn’t have the means to offer itself to the working class as this party. Thus, he discussed with the comrades of the SWP ways to intervene in actions of the unions to set up a party.
Our election campaigns obviously cannot do what Trotsky was discussing in 1938; but it let us intervene, at our level, about the same problem. The response we got testifies to the relevance of what Trotsky said so many years ago about the American working class, including the idea that things could move much faster than anyone expected, in the United States, this big obstacle to revolution.
Continuation of the presentation by Pierre Royan for Lutte Ouvrière
You have to be blind or totally ignorant not to see that society is sinking into crisis. Crises come on top of crises: economic, financial, political, ecological and political crises. In reality, there is only one crisis: that of a dying social organization that is dragging all humanity down.
Unemployment plagues the whole of society. Finance is developing like a cancer that constantly threatens the entire economy with a new financial crash whose devastating consequences will certainly be greater than in 2008, which was already catastrophic and accelerated a generalized reactionary development.
Countries that were presented as emerging just a few years ago, such as Turkey or Brazil, have fallen into recession. Others, such as Argentina, are once again strangled by creditors. Soup kitchens are overwhelmed and prices for basic necessities are skyrocketing. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya in particular, the crisis has meant war, unheard-of destruction, hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of displaced people.
In Europe, the United States and Brazil, far-right parties have come closer to power or are already in power. In the poor countries of Asia and Africa, this reactionary evolution has long been manifested through the growth of forces that are religious fundamentalist or ethnic. Their audience is growing. And in the absence of an organized labor movement, they have imposed themselves as representatives of the struggle against imperialism.
At the end of the day, this social organization is dragging humanity towards another disaster, an ecological one. Marx already wrote that capitalism had only developed “by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” But today, the damage caused to the environment by the capitalist economy is of a completely different magnitude. Climate experts are constantly warning us of the irreversible and catastrophic consequences of the rise in global temperature. But despite the loud declarations by governments, nothing is actually being done. On this question and on any other concerning the future of society, the bourgeoisie is completely irresponsible. Their thinking seems to be “after me, the flood.” The urgency of the situation requires a coordinated response from the entire human community. But a social organization where private ownership of the means of production and capitalist competition prevails and one which is also dominated by the rivalry between imperialist states, is absolutely incapable of such an undertaking.
The bourgeoisie’s intellectuals are compromising themselves overtly when they dare to claim that capitalism represents a future for humanity, unless of course the future of humanity is chaos and barbarism. This social organization is responsible for two world wars, the two greatest massacres in history. And that is already enough to indict it. Its defenders praise entrepreneurial freedom and free competition. But capitalism itself has long since stifled these freedoms. Lenin already wrote about imperialism as the supreme state of capitalism:
“This is something quite different from the old free competition between manufacturers, scattered and out of touch with one another, and producing for an unknown market.... Capitalism in its imperialist stage leads right up to the most comprehensive socialization of production;... Production becomes social, but appropriation remains private. The social means of production remain the private property of a few. ... the yoke of a few monopolists on the rest of the population becomes a hundred times heavier, more burdensome and intolerable.”
That was a hundred years ago. Today these aspects have proliferated. Monopolies are even more powerful, their parasitism even more unbearable and, at the same time, the economy is closer than ever to “the most comprehensive socialization” as Lenin said. But before making that final leap, i.e., making the economy a collectively controlled common good, we must put an end to the reign of private ownership of the means of production. And this can only be done through the conscious action of a class which has nothing to lose but its chains: the proletariat, the only existing revolutionary social class.
Capitalism survived a century of decay because the bourgeoisie managed to crush the proletarian revolutions when they emerged at the end of World War I and then because it managed to subjugate the workers movement with the help of Stalinism at the end of World War II.
When the Second World War broke out, the memory of the revolutionary years of 1917-1919 was still alive in the minds of the bourgeoisie. They still feared the reactions of the proletariat. Then, in 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill, the leaders of the imperialists who were to emerge victorious from the conflict, met with Stalin at his home in Yalta, in the Soviet Union to set up a sacred counter-revolutionary alliance. Stalin announced the dissolution of the Communist International, renamed the Red Army, which had become the Soviet Army, and turned it into an army for the repression of the population in the countries it occupied. The Allies, on the other hand, organized waves of deadly bombardments to terrorize the civilian population. In Dresden, Tokyo, then in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the first atomic bombs, they massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians. Where the European labor movement had not already been destroyed by the fascist dictatorships, it was crushed under the combined repression of the bourgeoisie and the Stalinist bureaucracy at the end of the war.
The bourgeoisie had averted a revolutionary wave in Europe. But it was unavoidable in Asia. In Indonesia, India, China, Korea, Indochina millions of oppressed people revolted. Here again Stalinism played its counter-revolutionary role. The Stalinist parties advocated submission by the workers to the national bourgeoisie. And in the name of the struggle for independence, they silenced any proletarian revolutionary program. In Vietnam, Ho-Chi-Minh, like Mao in China, had Trotskyist militants murdered because they represented the danger of an independent proletarian policy. This wave of revolutions forced the colonial powers to concede the independence of the countries they controlled, but imperialism nevertheless remained.
And in the aftermath of all these events, what remained of the workers movement no longer threatened capitalism. To a certain extent, capitalism had a free hand.
So, after years of destruction, capitalism seemed to regain a certain dynamism. In reality, the governments had taken charge of the reconstruction of the economy for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. This impulse, which ran out of steam in the early 1970s, did not represent a new rise of capitalism. It was based on the devastation of World War II, and took the contradictions of capitalism to an even higher degree. Trusts, thanks to government support, had now acquired continental or global production capacities. And the forces of production clashed with the limited size of markets at the scale of the world. In the early 1970s, the world economy was once again plunged into crisis.
The capitalists no longer expected markets to expand. To find outlets for their capital, governments opened up the public sector to private investment. This provided capitalists with guaranteed markets from which they could profit, including in transport, mail, hospitals, water management ...
One area in which unlimited amounts of capital flowed on a scale never seen before was finance. Through banks and many other institutions, the financial sphere operates in society like a gigantic loan shark, placing capital wherever it can earn the most, burying households, businesses and governments in debt. This parasitism stifles the entire capitalist economy but it guarantees the bourgeoisie continued enrichment.
The craze for financial investments has led to an explosion of speculation: on real estate, the stock market, currencies, commodities, corporate and government debts, and many other things. To support the development of this speculation, governments have abandoned, one by one, all the rules that restrained this casino economy.
Marx wrote that a capitalist “is never so unhappy as when he doesn’t know what to do with his money”. And he added: “This is the secret of all great speculation, of all profitable companies, but also of all bankruptcies, of all credit crises, of all trade tragedies.” In the era of financialization, this inherent need for capital to find somewhere to invest in order to earn as much as possible and as quickly as possible has led to a dizzying increase in the amount of capital in circulation.
But this ever-increasing mass of money that grows ever more colossal contributes nothing to the development of production. It’s parasitic. The problem is still the private ownership of the means of production and its capital. This prevents this accumulated wealth from being used rationally and in the general interest.
Of course, there have been discoveries and innovations, as well as investments in production. New markets have emerged, such as the smartphone. But when the working class’s standard of living continues to decline, for a worker to buy a laptop, money isn’t spent on something else: food, housing, transport, healthcare. The new smart phone market has not expanded the global market. It has only increased competition between different sectors of the economy. No new market has brought a second wind to global capitalism. Even the opening of the new markets in the USSR, Eastern Europe and China has not lifted the global economy out of the slump. Ultimately, these markets represented little compared to the huge production capacities of the trusts, which could absorb increased demand without really having to reinvest. Moreover, the forces of production that developed in these countries were added to those that already existed and aggravated economic competition and the crisis.
The world economy is now driven above all by the ups and downs of finance. With each of its crashes, tens of millions of workers and poor peasants around the world are impoverished. Governments go bankrupt or, as in Africa, even disintegrate, opening up power vacuums that are filled by armed militias. The imperialist states intervene to save the financial system from collapse by opening the floodgates of public credit. But this just fuels the next phase of speculation and sets the stage for a new collapse with more devastating consequences.
From both an economic and a political point of view, the capitalist social order can only increase chaos. As Trotsky wrote in 1938: “the bourgeoisie itself sees no way out.” All social life is disintegrating and reactionary forces are threatening the working class and society as a whole. But humanity will not allow itself to be led to the slaughterhouse without reacting. And the working class will revolt. But it needs to have a revolutionary program.
A program is not dogma, it is a guide for action. And The Transitional Program, although it was written 80 years ago, remains the most reliable guide. Even though society has since undergone changes and transformations, in many ways the world today looks like the one of 1938. Above all, this program is based on a Marxist, scientific analysis of capitalism in crisis by the only revolutionary leader who was able to draw general conclusions in order to guide the working class in its struggle towards social revolution.
The class consciousness of the oppressed is a long way from what it needs to be today. But the role of revolutionaries is to say how things stand, to tell the truth to the workers by finding ways to link the current state of mind of the working class to the needs of the situation.
The Transitional Program was written with the aim of
“overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation.) 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.”
This program is not a list of partial demands. None of them is realistic within the framework of capitalism, none of them is acceptable to the bourgeoisie without the revolutionary pressure of the masses. If Trotsky differentiated them in The Transitional Program in order to make them as concrete as possible, they are deeply linked to each other. The sliding scale of wages and hours, workers’ control over production, factory committees, workers’ militias, the expropriation of banks and large industries—all these demands are inseparable.
The sliding scale of wages and hours means that workers’ wages should keep up with price increases, and the number of working hours should be divided among all workers without a reduction in pay. To win this, the capitalist class has to be forced to shoulder the cost of all the risks in the market and production, and not the workers. At stake is the survival of the working class, and the bourgeoisie should take responsibility for the contradictions of its own system by paying out of its profits! But how could the proletariat impose this on the bourgeoisie without the exploited permanently auditing both production and distribution in order to control prices in the stores? How could this happen without the unemployed being involved through local committees? And how could this happen without first and foremost a democratic organization of all workers in the workplaces? In such periods of class struggle, employers will not stand by and just let millions of workers control the economy. They will seek to mobilize militias in order to fight workers’ committees or picket lines and the proletariat will have to respond by organizing its own workers’ militia.
The sliding scale of wages and hours will be how work is organized in a socialist society. Nothing less. But, if the sliding pay scale is taken out of its revolutionary context and isolated from the rest of the transitional demands, it could be something that many European governments could claim that they have already achieved. Many European governments have already passed laws that contain the automatic revaluation of the minimum wage based on an official price index.
In the eyes of the population, banks are responsible for the economic chaos. To the vast majority of workers and many segments of the population, it would appear completely justified and full of common sense to expropriate all banks and merge them into a single public banking system that would finance the economy in the interests of the population. But this can only be envisaged if it is accompanied by control, from below, by the population and bank workers, and as a step towards the expropriation of the entire bourgeoisie.
In fact, none of the transitional demands can be conceived without the conscious and direct action of the masses, that is, without workers’ control. In 1917, just before the October Revolution, Lenin contrasted the “bureaucratic and reactionary” control of the state to the “democratic and revolutionary” control of the masses, and added: “In point of fact, the whole question of control boils down to who controls whom, i.e., which class is in control and which is being controlled.”
These demands can only take hold of the masses in periods of social explosion. But when millions of workers embark on this path, consciousness evolves very quickly. A revolutionary organization can only hope to make this program heard if it is transmitted by revolutionary worker militants who have already appropriated it and who can transmit its content, the transitional demands, in a concrete way, trusting in the ability of the proletariat to realize them. Then this program will become the program of the working class and it will organize itself in the party that represents its interests.
Talking about the rise of fascist danger in the United States in 1938, Trotsky explained to his American comrades:
“The duty of our party is to seize every American worker and shake him ten times so he will understand what the situation is in the United States. That it is not a conjunctural crisis but a social crisis. Our party can play a very great role. What is difficult for a young party in a very thick atmosphere of previous traditions, hypocrisy, is to launch a revolutionary slogan. ‘It is fantastic,’ ‘not adequate in America,’ but it is possible that this will change by the time you launch the revolutionary slogans of our program. Somebody will laugh. But revolutionary courage is not only to be shot but to support the laughter of stupid people who are in the majority. But when one of them is beaten by Hague’s [Frank Hague, the mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey, in many ways functioned like a fascist.] gang he will think it is good to have a defense committee and his ironic attitude will change.”
Today, to put forward the demand for the creation of workers’ militias seems to be out of the question. But the electoral successes of the far right and, above all, the deepening of the economic crisis, which has worsened the situation of entire sectors of the petty bourgeoisie, could create the social and political conditions for the emergence of fascist militias, similar to what happened in Europe in the 1930s. The events in the German city of Chemnitz two months ago are a warning. Following a homicide, there was an extreme right-wing demonstration of several thousand people in that city. Small groups hunted for immigrants, beating many of them. This shows that we can move from the electoral successes of the far right to violence by organized groups overnight. And the murders in Brazil of left-wing militants by far-right militants illustrate the same thing.
When capitalist society sinks into crisis, when it ruins social strata that until then lived in relative comfort and formed the basis of the political stability of parliamentarism, then the bourgeoisie needs new ways to govern. And it finds it in politicians who exploit the anger about the social situation by turning it against scapegoats. As the class struggle intensifies and the crisis continues to worsen, on the one hand the bourgeoisie will want to subdue the working class even before it mobilizes, on the other hand there will be ruined and enraged people ready to be enlisted to attack workers’ organizations.
The working class will then face the problem of defending itself, its trade unions and political organizations, which will be the target of these militias. The workers cannot do this by depending on legality. To demand the prohibition or disarmament of extreme right-wing militias is to rely on the government that will support the militias tomorrow, if the bourgeoisie so requests. Faced with the rise of fascism, the working class must respond through the class struggle. It must organize its own self-defense groups to protect its strikes, demonstrations, workers’ organization meetings or union headquarters.
In The Transitional Program, Trotsky wrote:
“The struggle against fascism does not start in the liberal editorial office but in the factory—and ends in the street. Scabs and private gunmen in the plants are the basic nuclei of the fascist army. Strike pickets are the basic nuclei of the proletarian army. This is our point of departure. In connection with every strike and street demonstration, it is imperative to propagate the necessity of creating workers’ groups for self-defense.”
Every step in the organization of workers’ self-defense will be a threat to the bourgeoisie and will push it to turn even more towards fascism. But the terrible lesson of Hitler’s victory was that there is no worse policy for the proletariat than to avoid the fight. The fight against fascism is a fight to the death. Reformist and legalistic illusions, which suggest that the bourgeois democratic varnish could be a bulwark against fascism, can only disarm workers. The working class can only fight fascism if it realizes that this fight is against the bourgeoisie and its state, and that it leads to proletarian revolution.
Here is what Trotsky wrote towards the end of The Transitional Program:
“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives these are the rules of the Fourth International.”
Ever since Marx, the labor movement has claimed that the proletarians have no homeland. And, ever since Marx, the labor movement has created, whenever possible, international organizations. The Fourth International could not survive without Trotsky. But even if there is no such organization for the moment, revolutionaries must reason on this international scale.
When Cannon was a leader of the American Communist Party, he was always trying to “solve things on an American scale”, he said. And he added: “One of the most important lessons that the Fourth International has taught us is that, in modern times, you cannot build a revolutionary political party solely on a national basis. You must start with an international program and, on this basis, you build national sections of an international movement.”
It is also for this reason that The Transitional Program is so important. That’s the scale on which Trotsky was thinking. And our daily struggle, our daily efforts, in workplaces, in working class neighborhoods, to build a workers’ organization and a future party, cannot be separated from building a future International. A party of the international proletariat must be built, a party that represents the interests of the exploited on a global scale and intervenes in political life from this point of view.
At the time of the First International, that of Marx, the labor movement had not built powerful parties in any country. But the International was already the political expression of the developing proletariat and in several countries, militants and workers felt represented by it. The political stands Marx took guided them. Only an organization that sees social revolution as a perspective and carries the revolutionary agenda of the working class can play this role.
Even if the framework of the bourgeoisie’s nation-states is a reality and is the framework in which political life takes place, the workers’ struggle is fought on an international level. What happens to workers in one country foreshadows what will happen to others in the future. The far right is in power in Poland, Hungary and Italy and may well be here tomorrow. And if the proletariat in one country regains confidence in its collective strength, it will have consequences for the working class on an international scale. The social order against which the proletariat is fighting is the imperialist world order. The Russian Revolution threatened the entire capitalist system precisely because it was proletarian and its very existence challenged capitalist domination and millions of oppressed people around the world recognized themselves in it. With his theory of “socialism in one country” Stalin went against this fundamental class-based impulse in order to justify both abandoning any internationalist perspective and defending, not socialism, but the privileges of bureaucracy in a single country.
We cannot know how and when an International taking up the program of Trotsky’s Fourth International will be created. The events of the class struggle that will precipitate its creation will undoubtedly be international. The creation of the International, along with the creation of revolutionary communist workers’ parties having real political weight in several countries, will surely all come in the same movement.
Discussing the problem of the absence of a revolutionary party on the eve of the Second World War, Trotsky asked the question: “Will we succeed in preparing in time a party capable of leading proletarian revolution?”
And he continued:
“In order to answer this question correctly it is necessary to pose it correctly. Naturally, this or that uprising may end and surely will end in defeat owing to the immaturity of the revolutionary leadership. But it is not a question of a single uprising. It is a question of an entire revolutionary epoch.
“The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars, and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective. History will provide it with enough opportunities and possibilities to test itself, to accumulate experience, and to mature.
“... But the great historical problem will not be solved in any case until a revolutionary party stands at the head of the proletariat. The question of tempos and time intervals is of enormous importance; but it alters neither the general historical perspective nor the direction of our policy. The conclusion is a simple one: it is necessary to carry on the work of educating and organizing the proletarian vanguard with tenfold energy.”
That is what we must do.