Dec 31, 1988
What was this ‘revolutionary method’ which Trotsky felt urgent to pass on to the new generation?
It involved the skills acquired through experience, but above all it involved the will and the ability to succeed in transforming society using social forces and their revolutionary might in struggles, however small. This was the method which the Russian revolutionaries had started to implement in 1917 under Lenin’s leadership.
The revolutionary tide had ebbed unexpectedly and dramatically. In the name of communism the Stalinists were working to push it back even further. What was needed was to find the means to force history back onto its course, using the resources of the working-class movement.
To this end, a whole proletarian generation was available, a communist generation. Though it was now heading for catastrophe without understanding that a false road had been followed for several years, it had not taken the revolutionary road simply to end up as cannon-fodder for some sinister ‘Father of the People’.
Trotsky hoped that, through the forthcoming revolutionary crisis, this communist generation would rejoin the Fourth International
Despite the disappointments and the severe blows it had experienced, the working-class movement had still the strength to change the world.
The new generation, born with the century, had experienced success as well as failure. But in either case it had waged strikes, insurrections and revolutions. It had taken what was best in social-democracy before being won over to the best of communism—the revolutionary impetus of bolshevism.
With the rising revolutionary wave this generation had fought in different countries under a common flag. Through this common struggle it had become deeply internationalist. It had become even more consciously so with the foundation of the Third International in 1919, even though joining a new organization and adopting a new program could not by itself bring about a real understanding of the ‘revolutionary method’ referred to by Trotsky.
Yet, all through this period, this generation had discovered many ways of organizing, legally and illegally, aimed both at spreading ideas and intervening in events. From the early 1920s, it had covered the whole capitalist world with a network of communist cells and nuclei, for political as well as military purposes, which were all based on a communist consciousness, solidarity and morals. It started to function as a revolutionary yeast against the capitalist order.
The sharpest and most experienced battalions of this generation were in the USSR. By the end of the 1920s, the old Bolshevik generation was becoming exhausted and demoralized, and it gradually capitulated to the Stalinist bureaucracy.... But another, younger, generation was also active. It was this which made up the militant backbone first of the Trotskyist opposition in the USSR then of the International Left Opposition after 1927-1929 when Trotsky was exiled and eventually expelled from the USSR.
This generation succeeded in convincing militants in the various sections of the Third International that Stalinism was a mistake. These militants were either contacted abroad by members of Russian diplomatic missions or even in Moscow during travels or conferences. Some were influenced, some were shaken, some actually won over in this way.
By the end of the 1920s the Stalinist dictatorship was still far from stable. But it became wary of the situation and tightened its grip. People were arrested and even deported. Unlike the older generation the youth held out longer against against Stalin. But it was to meet with the same tragic end. Trotsky was left without any practical means to direct the work of this generation and it ended up in the jails and the camps, particularly in Vorkuta where two to three thousand Trotskyist oppositionists were systematically executed in small groups between March and May 1938.
Yet the discussions and the debates continued in the USSR itself. But always secretly, behind the scene. In 1937 Ignace Reiss, a senior official in the GPU, rallied to the Left Opposition raising a host of relevant criticism against Stalin’s policies (he was immediately murdered by agents of the very same GPU). Probably others made the same choice as they approached the end of a career of renouncements and servility. They were best placed to know that servility to the regime could no longer safeguard their lives and they chose to meet an honorable end.
At the beginning of the 1930s, there were probably tens of thousands of militants in the USSR who could have been invaluable for an International—even within the secret police, whose members were often former communist activists. But because the repression had left Trotsky isolated from these militants for the time being, his hopes were pinned on the working-class movement in the rest of the world with its enormous untapped potential.
Trotsky’s policy of building a new International—a worldwide party of socialist revolution—was of course based on the strength of the communist program and methods, on the political heritage of Marx and Engels with the developments made by the Bolsheviks. But it was also based on the invaluable human heritage made of the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of communist militants all over the world, and of the millions of workers these militants were able to pull behind them.
Of course some of these communist militants were irreformable, corrupted to the core by Stalinist gangsterism. As a rule these were the ones selected by Stalin to lead the International and its sections. But Trotsky thought he had a chance to regain from them the leadership of the militants.
In 1933, when Trotsky decided to break from the Third International, he was making a desperate search for a way to address this working-class movement, in particular the German working-class.
With nearly six million votes in the 1932 general election, the German Communist Party was both a mass party and a workers’ party. It was the party of a working class which, since the end of the First World War, had been through difficult periods—of poverty, unemployment and merciless struggles, of strikes, insurrections and demonstrations and of revolutions which had ended up in death, imprisonment, political bans and periods of underground work.
The German Communist Party encompassed a wealth of militancy steeled over the past years in these strikes and numerous bitter struggles. It was also a wealth of political consciousness and culture and it was a fund of political and military organizational skills.
Most of the men and women of this communist generation had been in their late teens during World War I. Within a few years, between 1914 and 1923, they had experienced both jail and underground activity. The banning and repression of communist activities had been almost uninterrupted—during the War, after the failure of the 1919 insurrection in Berlin and in Bavaria, and again after the revolutionary events of 1921 and 1923. They had been engaged in a permanent struggle against capitalism. Having had to fight as much against the social-democratic watchdogs of imperialism as against the most outspoken reactionaries, they had few illusions about either.
Most of these young communists, whether from a working-class or a middle-class background, had climbed over barrack-walls in 1917-1918 to spread anti-war literature. They had been jailed for this, for refusing to be drafted into the army or as deserters. Others had taken part in the soldiers’ uprisings of 1918. Most of them, including the youngest, had taken part in or even led strikes, among the sailors or in the huge ordnance factories in Berlin, particularly in March 1918, in order to strengthen Trotsky’s position in the Brest-Litovsk negotiations.
From the earliest days, the Communist Party had had to set up an illegal military organization to defend itself as well as to prepare for an offensive—this was one of the twenty-one conditions required to join Lenin’s Communist International. In this process and amidst many difficulties, the Communist Party and the working-class movement had acquired some experience and skills for the class war.
There were many revolutionary militants among the German Communists. Trotsky knew their value and for that reason he was looking for a way to reach them. Of course their qualities were not without problems. But because of their military activity within a mass communist party, they could have become the intermediaries between him and the mass movement which Trotsky needed in order to lead the future struggles or to build a revolutionary leadership capable of leading them.
The working-class movement did not have the leaders it deserved. This was specially the case in Germany. The capitalists had deprived the working class movement of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Leo Jogisches by murdering them—political purges were not Stalin’s invention. The task had been completed by the methods used by the Stalinist International—each political turn arbitrarily decided in Moscow, each error for which the International refused to admit responsibility, resulted in the elimination of a complete leadership team.
Somehow Stalin’s policy boiled down to, ‘to change the policy, change the leadership’. As a result neither the German Communist Party nor any of the major European communist parties had ever been able to build a real autonomous leadership, that is a leadership trained, skilled and steeled through the experiences of a whole period. Every time the young bodies of the communist parties got their fingers burnt by events, their brains were replaced by brand new ones which had learned nothing from past mistakes.
The quartermasters and functionaries operating from Moscow kept repeating ‘left, right, left’, never at the right time. Under their guidance, an impressive stream of leaders had passed through the leadership of the German Communist Party—Levi, Brandler with Thalheimer, Fisher with Maslow, Neumann with Thaelmann, then Thaelmann without Neumann, etc.. These Stalinist methods resulted in a total lack of leadership. By the end what was left was simply a figurehead, a paralyzed Thaelmann, in no position to grasp the sudden changes in the situation and incapable of leading a revolutionary party in a period of crisis.
By March 1933 Hitler had already been in power for a month. After the Reichstag arson, thousands of communist activists had had their houses ransacked, their books thrown out of the window. Many had been jailed and thousands of others forced underground, sleeping rough in the odd corridor. And yet, as late as in the last election allowed by Hitler, the Communist Party still polled five million votes. It was a few hundred thousand less than before, but an enormous achievement in the circumstances.
Unfortunately while the bolshevik traditions and the methods of class struggle were spreading to Germany, Stalinist bureaucratism was settling in Russia, depriving the young German communist tree of its sap. It became more and more a caricature—an apparatus made up of tens of thousands of activists who were committed in the extreme, so much prepared for anything that many tended to turn to ultra-leftism or to adventurism.
The length and breadth of Central Europe, the Communist International had won over and trained legions of such activists, the vast majority of whom remain unknown. In Germany, after the banning of the party and the persecution of its membership in 1919, in 1921 and again in 1923, the knowledge of how to rebuild the communist network through underground ant-like work had become as commonplace among communist activists as was the skill of producing and distributing illegal literature. Emigrating and finding a way to resume political work was soon to become commonplace as well, just as it had been for the entire generation of Bolsheviks.
When Mussolini’s, Hitler’s and Franco’s booted thugs scattered the European revolutionary ant-hill, the damage was enormous. Yet these dictatorships, brown or black, could not have killed the hope or the tradition. The failure of the leadership, leaving the working-class movement disorientated, did far more damage.
The nazi terror did not deter communist militants—the most resilient, the most convinced and the best prepared among them—from trying to rebuild organizations locally. It did not prevent communist slogans from blossoming again on the walls, including such slogans as Long live Trotsky, long live the Red Army in Berlin during Stalin’s great purges. Nor did it prevent the circulation of a whole range of underground opposition literature, most of which was communist. The activists sought to re-invent what they needed. But what they lacked as dramatically as before was a policy—the policy which Stalin’s Comintern, by then politically dead, had for a long time already been unable to offer.
All these fragile organizations which were brought back into activity were like ships without a rudder. In each country, in each section of the Communist International, militants went against the storm, striving to put together their energies and skills so that their ideal would not sink.
In Mussolini’s Italy, where the repression was less severe than in Hitler’s Germany, communist militants maintained small local underground organizations. They did it on the basis of what they considered a correct communist line. But after World War II, the Moscow Stalinist apparatus rewarded them by calling them Bordigo-fascists or Bordigo-Trotskyists while urging the Italian Communist Party into an alliance with the king in government.
In Spain, despite Franco’s victory, some militants remained undeterred and carried on uninterrupted political fight. Militants like Quinones, a middle-rank party cadre of Russian and Romanian origin, who succeeded in setting up the first national underground leadership of the Spanish Communist Party in April 1941. He had arrived in Spain in 1931 as an instructor sent by the Communist International. Jailed for a period, after the defeat of the Republican troops he gained credit amongst other militants thanks to his knowledge both of politics and underground work. He gathered around him an ‘internal leadership of the Spanish Communist Party’ which started sending representatives to every region in order to regroup all the available forces.
These communist militants were not Trotskyists. They were Stalinists. They knew nothing of the Fourth International. When they did, they had only hate or contempt for it. But despite the political aberrations imposed on them by their leadership, they remained communists to the core and militants of great value. Because there were tens of thousands of such militants, Trotsky decided to launch a new International. He hoped that whatever their present feelings, their eyes would at some stage be opened by the policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy which went from betrayal to catastrophe. Raising the political flag of a new International was to prepare for this, providing these militants with a perspective to which they could turn.
The working-class movement on which Trotsky based his hopes of rebuilding an International had one distinctive section—the new militant generation in the United States, pioneers, lifelong union and political agitators, propagating the class struggle.
In Europe the working-class movement was busy rebuilding its links and activity underground. Meanwhile, in America, also deeply in crisis although in a different way, the movement was acting openly and on a mass scale.
In the USA, in the context of the depression, the upsurge of unionization was taking on an objective political character. Many struggles were taking place, often offensive in nature, starting locally and spreading far and wide. For instance the 1934 national textile strike started in the deep South but flooded the rest of the country, involving over 400,000 strikers. It used the ‘flying squadrons’ technique: the strikers went from mill to mill; once one was closed down, they jumped into their cars and drove to the next textile center, preempting any attempt by the police to prevent pickets being set up.
From 1934 to 1936, communist militants—both Stalinists and Trotskyists—played their part in the wave of strikes over the recognition of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), the new industrial union set up as a challenge to the old AFL (American Federation of Labor). Through this intervention the American communists were trained in the class struggle.
These struggles nourished the revolutionary imagination and stimulated the activity of the American Trotskyists, most of whom were intellectuals isolated from the working-class movement. Trotsky suggested to them that: Do you not think it would be feasible to make a general census of the party and establish who are all the comrades not bound by their jobs to a certain locality, especially New York? The comrades on relief could then be distributed throughout the provinces in provincial industrial centers. The best thing, it seems to me, would be to create from these comrades two or three, or so, special brigades and to send them out for the ‘conquest’ of a certain town or of a certain branch of industry in this town.
In 1939, at a time when Trotsky was mostly involved in trying to orientate the work of his American comrades, he stressed time and again the need for them to find a way to the members of the American Communist Party.
The long list of obstacles and difficulties which he kept getting in response to his arguments did not deter him. He knew every item on the list and could even think of a few more. But his line of reasoning was consistently the same: the communist movement which existed around the Third International was the only fertile soil in which the Fourth International which he wanted to build could grow.
Of course the task was difficult, in two different ways: The first task is to compromise this party in the eyes of the workers. The second is to win as many as possible from the ranks of the party. And yet it had to be done with great patience, without ever giving up, always bearing in mind the fact that a worker who is awakened by an organization is thankful to it and it is not easy to break with it, particularly if he cannot find a new road. We consider him as lost too prematurely. It is not correct.
Just as the Third International had emerged from the Second, Trotksy’s Fourth International could only emerge from the Third, by attracting the best elements among the masses, the militants and even its leaders. Where else could the necessary forces be found? There was an absolute necessity to find the means to reach the real living movement—the parties and militants of the Third International who were the only ones still having communist ideals and skills.
By 1938, Trotsky no longer expected that a regroupment around a new International would take place immediately nor did he expect a revolutionary upturn in the short term. Among the many hypotheses he had made about the way in which the new International could emerge, he had even envisaged that it could emerge much later, in many years, among the rubble and ruins left by the victory of fascism and the war.
By 1938 Trotsky knew that the war was unavoidable. Precisely because the communist generation around the Third International had failed to find its way back to the revolutionary road. Once the imperialist bourgeoisies had each defeated or neutralized their own working class, they would be able to settle their accounts with one another, which meant they would throw the proletariat onto the battlefields.
He also thought that the unavoidable involvement of the USSR would be another critical factor. Neither imperialist camp could allow it to remain outside the conflict to consolidate itself while imperialism was weakened by the war. At a time when the Red Army had just been beheaded by Stalin, the involvement of the USSR in the war could reveal its fragility and lead to defeats which in turn could spark off social explosions.
Of course the Russian bourgeois social forces could use this opportunity to try and take their revenge on the working class with the help of one of the imperialist camps. But the Russian working class could also use it to take its revenge on the bureaucracy in the name of communism. The coming war could allow Trotsky to resume contacts with the Russian proletariat if it were pushed on the revolutionary road.
Trotsky could only get prepared for such a possibility, on the basis of which he launched the Fourth International.
What then was this new-born International?
Of course, it had a program: a consistent set of analyses, of perspectives and methods of struggle. This alone was an enormous asset.
Even Leopold Trepper, the organizer of the ‘Red Orchestra’, one of the largest intelligence networks during World War II (an instrument which the Stalinist bureaucracy also put to work for the benefit of the imperialist camp fighting against Hitler), paid tribute to the Trotskyists in his memoirs: They waged a total war against Stalinism and they were alone to do so..., but they should never forget that they had a huge advantage over us, a consistent political system which could replace Stalinism....
Of course, the Trotskyists do not forget that. They know that this is an enormous asset. But they also know that it is not enough to have the right ideas, nor even a consistent program, in order to convince.
When the Fourth International was declared in 1938, so was its weakness. Trotsky had no time for complacency. This weakness was his starting point when he wrote The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a political crisis of the leadership of the proletariat. This was the very first sentence in the Transitional Program, the founding program of the Fourth International.
No, there was no worldwide party of proletarian revolution. In fact Trotsky was probably more isolated than he had ever been. He had failed to set up a leadership. He had failed to win over to his perspectives even one section of the real working-class movement. He had failed to provoke any breaks from the leaderships of the Second and Third International, or from the trade union movement.
In terms of numbers, the new International was minute even though it had already militants and sections scattered all over the world. In 1936 a first conference for the launching of the Fourth International had gathered in Paris representatives from nine countries: France, Belgium, Holland, Britain, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, USSR and USA. By the time of the launching conference, there were already groups in twenty-two other countries who sent apologies. Some of these groups failed to make it to the launching conference because of the conditions in which they operated—dictatorship and repression. But for most of them it was because of their extreme weakness. And yet, already, there were Trotskyist militants in all five continents.
But numbers were not the main weakness of the new International, which lay in the kind of militants whom it brought together, in their social and political background, in their political experience, in their relationship with the proletariat and with the working-class movement.
There were exceptions though, like James Cannon, one of the founders of the American Communist Party, who had come over to Trotskyism in 1928. Ch’en Tu-hsiu, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, who joined Trotskyism after the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in 1927, could have been another exception. However, being jailed by Chiang Kai-shek and then isolated in China under Japanese occupation (where he died later), he remained cut off from the new International and was unable to help it.
The overwhelming majority of the Trotskyist militants were intellectuals. Most of those who had previous political experience had come out of the social-democracy not of the communist parties. At best they had been members of the latter for a short period, but at a time when these parties were already controlled by the Stalinist bureaucracy. What little politics they had learned in those parties had nothing to do with Leninism and bolshevism.
Most of the militants who had come out of the Third International a few years before to join the Left Opposition had already left. Yet they would have been best qualified to pass on to the younger militants the real revolutionary traditions of bolshevism and of the Third International. Many had been murdered by Hitler’s thugs or, more often, by Stalin’s—like the Russian militants, like Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov, like the German militant Rudolf Klement. Others like Andres Nin in Spain had slowly drifted to the right.
The fact was that in 1938 the Fourth International was no stronger than the Left Opposition had been in 1933. Moreover three quarters of those who had made up the Left Opposition in 1933 had since broken away from Trotskyism.
Trotsky was clear about the people whom he was regrouping within the Fourth International. His assessment of them is spelled out consistently. In 1939, he noted: This environment creates special groups of elements around our banner. There are courageous elements who do not like to swim with the current—it is their character. Then there are intelligent elements of bad character who were never disciplined, who always looked for a more radical or more independent tendency and found our tendency, but all of them are more or less outsiders from the general current of the workers’ movement. Their value inevitably has its negative side. He who swims against the stream is not connected with the masses. Also the social composition of every revolutionary movement in the beginning is not of workers. It is the intellectuals, semi-intellectuals, or workers connected with the intellectuals who are dissatisfied with the existing organizations.... We are all very critical toward the social composition of our organization and we must change it; but we must understand that this social composition did not fall from heaven, but was determined by the objective situation and by our historic mission in this period.
Without doubt the objective situation accounted for the social and political composition of the newly-born Fourth International. Ten or fifteen years earlier a period of retreat had started for the working-class movement as well as a period of decline for the revolutionary movement. When one defeat follows another, when fascism is spreading over the world, when the official ‘Marxism’ is the most powerful organization of deception of the workers, was Trotsky’s own description of this period.
By the time the Fourth International was founded, Stalinism had succeeded in isolating the revolutionary Marxist movement from the real working-class movement. On one hand, this was done physically by jailing or murdering the best elements of a whole generation. On the other hand, politically Stalinism laid claim to be the inheritor of the Russian Revolution and of bolshevism in front of the working class worldwide.
During the decisive years of the struggle against the Left Opposition within the Third International, the Stalinists had taken an ultra-left course—that of the ‘Third Period’. This falsely radical course was a temporary one which only served to pave the way for the ultra-opportunistic course that followed—that of the ‘Popular Front’. But because of this apparent radicalism, Stalinism had succeeded in trapping the Left Opposition in a position where it looked more moderate and less revolutionary, eventually isolating it.
The objective conditions explained the state of the revolutionary movement. But having assessed the situation, the task of the revolutionaries was, as Trotsky pointed out himself, to change it. This is what the Trotskyists either found to be impossible or found themselves to be unable to do. They failed then and they have failed in the 50 years since.
It was the situation of the Fourth International which made such a tragedy of Trotsky’s murder. Trotsky was not only a leader of outstanding intellectual capacity—although this alone would have made his death an immense loss for the movement. Above all he was the only representative of the revolutionary tradition in the Fourth International comprised as it was of men and women with no such tradition, whatever their individual qualities. In addition to his intellect Trotsky alone embodied the experience of the movement without which it was impossible to define a policy for the class. He alone had enough credibility and prestige for such a policy to attract the militant generations of the Third International either during or after the war.
He was the only one who could pass on the experience accumulated by the revolutionary proletarian movement, particularly that of the Russian Revolution and of Bolshevism. His death broke a vital link with this experience. This was obviously the reason for his murder in Coyoacán on 21 August 1940.
The living link between the militants of the Fourth International and the revolutionary generation of the 1920s broke with Trotsky’s death.
The leaders of the Fourth International who became the official trustees of Trotsky’s heritage were not in a position to pass on the organizational and practical revolutionary experience of the best years of the Third International, let alone build on it. At best, those who remained loyal to Trotskyism to the end only maintained the revolutionary link on a theoretical level by upholding the letter of the revolutionary program. Compared to so many others who ended up rejecting Trotskyism altogether, this is not to be scorned. If there are still today militants and groups all over the world who see themselves as Trotskyists, as revolutionary communists fighting for the proletarian revolution, it is due to these comrades. But this is far from sufficient to establish a new worldwide party of the proletarian revolution, which was the goal and the very reason for launching the Fourth International.
In the years following Trotsky’s death, the militants and the organizations which made up the Fourth International had to confront the dramatic conditions created by the World War. But this alone cannot justify everything that happened, in particular the ineffectiveness of the Fourth International in the immediate post-war period. For it was for just such a period that the Fourth International had been created in the first place.
The Fourth International and the Trotskyist movement remained an ideological current which could claim supporters all over the world. But their numbers were always small and they never had either weight or impact in the working class or in the working-class movement, nor even any real links with them.
The real class struggle went on even though the revolutionary Marxist current had no part in it. This lack of real involvement gave the Trotskyist movement that particular flavor which its opponents have used time and again as evidence that Trotskyism is a thing of the past and can only survive in the shape of small, impotent and ridiculous sects.
Without going into details over the history of the Fourth International, it is true that this can often be reduced to long strings of quarrels over definitions and slogans, of splits which are such a joy for our opponents and such a pain for our friends. Militants who have neither weight in the real class struggle nor links with the real working-class movement can be easily tempted into using words as a substitute for deeds. As long as one does nothing, talking bears no consequences. Why should militants avoid splitting when their impact remains insignificant whether they split or not?
But the worst aspect of this history has been that since Trotsky’s death, the policy of the Fourth International, of most of its national sections and later of the various splits which have claimed its heritage, has been a long process of drifting behind more politically influential currents in the name of ‘efficiency’.
These trends were justified in a number of ways. Sometimes they were described as mere tactics, sometimes they were given a political or theoretical justification. But they all led one way or another to abandoning in whole or in part the very principle of revolutionary communism: the duty to preserve, to defend and sometimes to establish from scratch the organizational and political independence of the proletariat, in particular the duty to preserve the independence of the workers’ revolutionary party whatever the need may be for long or short-term alliances.
On the contrary these trends involved tail-ending political forces which either no longer represented the working class or indeed had never represented it. They ended up not only lining up Trotskyist militants behind these political forces but also actually helped to impose the anti-proletarian policy of these forces on the working class.
This was the case for instance during World War II, in German-occupied France, several Trotskyist groups lined up behind the ‘Resistance’, i.e., behind the Stalinist and Gaullist nationalists.
Again it was the case around 1950, when Michel Pablo advocated that the Fourth International should integrate itself into the Stalinist and social-democrat organizations. His argument was that in the years and, as he wrote, even in the centuries to come, only these organizations would be able to play a revolutionary role, in spite of themselves. The turn advocated by Pablo was not only due to a reaction of panic among revolutionaries who had to face the very difficult situation created by the Cold War. It was also an extreme but logical consequence of the opportunist line followed over the previous decade.
In subsequent years the United Secretariat of the Fourth International and Pablo himself were to give up bit by bit the policies and theories which they had conceived in the 1950s. But they did not give up their systematic search for political forces which could replace the revolutionary proletariat as well as the revolutionary communist party. They actually renounced building it even though most of the time they would not admit it.
Hence the Trotskyists tried to jump on the bandwagon of a whole string of leaders and organizations—Tito, Mao, the Algerian FLN, Castro, Ho Chi-Minh, Arafat, the South-African ANC, the New-Caledonian nationalist Tjibaou, the Irish Sinn Fein, etc.. These are only a few examples amongst many similar cases.
It must be said that every one of these attempts was opposed by one section or another of the Trotskyist movement. But most of the time they were opposed in the name of a different but similar choice. Such was the case for instance with the two factions of the French ‘Parti Communiste Internationaliste’, the forerunners of today’s LCR and PCI, which fought one another in the 1950s because one had chosen to support the Algerian FLN whereas the other one supported the MNA. Yet both the FLN and the MNA were nationalist organizations which had nothing to do either with socialism or with the proletariat.
As a result, fifty years after its foundation, the Fourth International has little to show for itself. Its audience in the working class has not grown, nor has its impact in the class struggle. And its ranks are no more numerous, only, probably, somewhat more divided.
Having said that it must be pointed out, specially for the benefit of those who snicker whenever they hear the word Trotskyism, that it is the only current which has survived to the left of Stalinism. This fact alone is evidence of the validity of the Trotskyist program. It is also to the credit of militants who defended this program against grossly mistaken policies despite difficult circumstances.
However, the Internationalist Communist Union has developed outside the various organizations claiming allegiance to the tradition of the Fourth International. This was the only way for us to carry out a policy free from any compromise over the fundamental question of the political and organizational independence of the revolutionary proletariat. But the ICU has developed on the basis of the Trotskyist program and, despite deep differences, has tried to maintain as many links as possible with the Trotskyist movement. The existence of militants and organizations which kept defending the Trotskyist program all over the world—however contradictory their policies may have been in relation to the program—has been an important help for us. We are conscious of this fact and we acknowledge it.
For this reason we consider ourselves as part of the Trotskyist movement and we feel in solidarity with it despite all its weaknesses. For this reason we are Trotskyist, fully and without reservation.
Such is the balance-sheet—the assets and the liabilities—of our movement.
There are, it must be said, mitigating circumstances. It is not easy to steel revolutionary organizations, to train its membership in revolutionary work, in historical periods which, overall, are not revolutionary.
This does not mean that over the last decades there have been no opportunities which could have led to a revolutionary situation. In fact there were many, all over the world. But such historical periods do not often offer a second or a third chance within a short time for the benefit of revolutionaries who have not learned the skill of grasping opportunities when they arise.
But it may well be that, since the early 80s, things have started to change in this respect. The long period of respite for imperialism which followed World War II was not really affected by the upsurge of the colonial revolutions. But it probably drew to a close when the economic crisis erupted at a time when the market economy was spreading all over the world with more frenzy than ever before.
The objective conditions in capitalist society are once again becoming favorable, all over the world, for the rebirth of a worldwide proletarian revolutionary movement and for the rebuilding of an International worthy of the name.
Over the last thirty years, particularly over the last two decades, a revolution has taken place in most Third World countries, both in those usually described as ‘newly-industrialized’ and in those where the economy has remained much more backward. It is not a new industrial revolution similar to that of the 19th century in Europe. It is an urban revolution or rather, an urban explosion. Over a period three times shorter than the duration of the industrial revolution the living conditions of masses ten, if not a hundred times larger, have been transformed radically.
Until recently it seemed that London and New York represented the peak of what the capitalist system would ever reach in terms of urban gigantism and proletarian concentration.
Today the populations of Cairo, Jakarta, Buenos Aires, Seoul and Calcutta have exceeded the ten million mark. Following close behind are Manila, Tehran, Istanbul and even Bogota in Colombia. All of these are now approaching the same figure and are in the same league as Moscow and Chicago, close behind Paris.
Yet this is still nothing compared to the new urban galaxies such as Rio de Janeiro, Peking and Shanghai which are now around fifteen million. Nothing again compared to Sao Paulo and Mexico which have, in one stroke, reached the level of Tokyo-Yokohama with over twenty million inhabitants to become the most polluted cities in the world.
The whole face of the planet has been transformed by this revolution. A few landmarks can help in grasping the scale of this transformation. In 1970, less than twenty years ago, the majority of the world urban population was in the industrialized countries, although the margin was already very small. This period is now over. Since 1985 the balance has been reversed dramatically. The urban population in the Third World is now three hundred million stronger than that of the industrialized countries. According to United Nations statisticians, by the year 2000 the urban population in the Third World will be double that of the industrialized countries, bearing in mind that during this period the urban population of the rich countries will keep growing.
In short, in a matter of fifty years, the predominantly rural character of the Third World will have disappeared for ever.
The objective conditions for a proletarian revolution have not decayed, they have matured even more.
Many Trotskyists have been torturing Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution for a long time. They took away its living sap to substantiate the idea that the world’s future was no longer in the hands of the proletariat, but rather in the hands of the peasant masses of the poor countries. The whole point of this twisting and turning was to follow Third-Worldist theoreticians and to provide a theoretical foundation for lining up behind nationalist leaders.
Yet neither the colonial revolutions nor their nationalist leaderships have lived up to the promise or the expectations which the left intelligentsia of the industrialized countries had held out for them. The new regimes have turned one by one into as many new dictatorships. By winning their independence they won only their independence from the masses who had fought to establish them. More than ever they had to comply with the political and economical diktat of the Western loan sharks.
What was the best way to address the peasant masses? What miraculous formula would enable the peasantry of the poor countries and their nationalist leaders to achieve a proletarian revolution unconsciously, unwillingly and even while fighting against it?
The strategists of the Left never gave the answer. It was given without warning by imperialism itself and was as brutal as it was definitive. The laws of the world capitalist market and of unequal exchange which were forced willy-nilly onto the Third World regimes started emptying the mountains and the countryside of the poor countries. They drove the rural populations into the towns where they joined the already huge urban proletariat as workers or as unemployed.
In 1917, Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution was victorious while using a historical short cut in the overwhelmingly peasant-dominated Russia. Permanent Revolution meant that under the leadership of a young highly concentrated proletariat, it was possible to bypass the stage of the bourgeois revolution. This was partially achieved in the USSR although it backtracked later on. But almost ten years later in China it failed because of Stalinism. After World War II a European revolution could have been the revolutionary engine for the transformation of what became to be known later as the Third World. It did not happen.
Does it mean that today, after all these revolutions which were either betrayed or defeated or failed, it may be too late? Have the objective conditions for a proletarian revolution decayed? No. Imperialism, using its own brutal methods and historical twists, has eventually accomplished these bourgeois revolutions in its own ways: on one hand by adapting to decolonization, on the other by creating a massive rural exodus in the Third World.
This urbanization has not created any real industrial economy, but it has helped to make the proletariat of these countries much more powerful than their native capitalist class. Far from decaying, the objective conditions for a proletarian revolution have matured even more.
Today, it is not even necessary to bypass the stage of the bourgeois revolution. In the poor countries, as much as in the industrialized countries, the proletariat is now in a position to take power and implement proletarian democracy within the huge metropolitan centers in which it is concentrated.
As their economic crisis developed from 1973, the imperialist strongholds started to export it towards the Third World and Eastern Europe. At the same time a swift and massive proletarianization was taking place in all the Third World countries.
The results were soon visible. It was no coincidence that, in the Philippines in 1986, the US Army chose to drop their support for the old dictator Marcos as a result of huge popular demonstrations with some 500,000 flooding the streets of Manila, whereas 18 years of communist guerrilla warfare in the mountains had not moved the regime by one inch.
It is not a coincidence either if, in the following year, a month-long wave of industrial strikes set South Korea alight. Yet this half-country, which emerged from the Cold War and has currently one of the largest US military bases in the world, had been seen for the previous 36 years as an unwavering outpost of the West against the so-called communist camp. The Western bosses used to praise South Korean workers for their docility and their low wages. All of a sudden these same workers have come to the forefront of the world class struggle. Their example could well become an inspiration for all of us, although not in the way our bosses would have hoped.
Over the last 20 years the urban population in that country—and within it the proletariat—has doubled. In 1985 it reached 60% of the overall total and the proportion has probably since increased even further. The recent events cannot be separated from this growth.
They can only remind us of the developments within Tsarist Russia 90 years ago. Then, the development of capitalism uprooted hundreds of thousands of peasants who flocked towards the industrial centers. The 1905 revolution was the starting point of the wave of spontaneous mass strikes which so impressed the vanguard of the European working class movement of the time.
The only difference between then and now is that similar developments are bound to take place in a whole series of countries at least as suddenly as it did in Russia but on a much wider scale.
Beside Latin America, Africa and Asia, the USSR and Eastern Europe have also experienced an accelerated growth of their urban population and proletariat.
Such is the case in Romania for instance, where the urban population has doubled in 20 years. Despite Ceausescu’s repressive grip on the country, a series of strikes have taken place over the last years, forcing the regime to back down several times, such as the 1987 strike in Random which came very near to insurrection.
It is even more the case in Poland which, though industrialization is less recent than in Romania, saw its urban population grow from 50 to 60% over the last 20 years with well-known political and social consequences.
Finally it is the case in the USSR itself, despite the seemingly stable appearance of the bureaucratic dictatorship. Over the past 20 years more than a thousand industrial centers have mushroomed, not to mention the fast growth of the existing towns. Today 70% of the population live in the towns as compared to 50% only in 1965.
It is even the case in Armenia and in Azerbaijan. The ‘Karabakh national question’ may be discussed today using the old language which was commonplace 100 or 150 years ago when the Caucasus was split in as many different national guerrillas as there were different peoples in the mountains. Yet these areas are now totally industrialized with enormous productive units—to such an extent that a 3000-strong factory is considered small in Karabakh!
What worries Gorbachev is probably much less the old nationalist wording of the democratic demands of the Armenian mass movements as formulated by their present leadership than the fact that all over the USSR, workers facing the local bureaucratic cliques could easily identify with these democratic demands. What worries Gorbachev much more is the specifically proletarian weapon which is being used in support of these demands—strike action. It is the fact that the rest of the working class may well feel that the Armenian strikes are not such a bad way to make oneself heard and to put Perestroika to task.
Of course it can be argued that the overall urbanization process which is taking place throughout the world does not necessarily lead to a growth of the industrial proletariat as is the case in the USSR, in Eastern Europe, in Korea and in a few other countries. And that in most cases the new proletariat of the shanty town dwellers, mostly unemployed, has more to do with an under-proletariat.
Is the Third World proletariat—the new battalions of capital’s reserve army—as marginal and apolitical as it is described?
Certainly neither more nor less than the English working class described by Engels in 1843—the very same working class which inspired Marx to write Capital and which he saw as the gravedigger of the bourgeoisie. Today, while under the present economic crisis imperialism manages only to survive without solving any of its fundamental contradictions, this worldwide urbanization of the poor tends to take on a much more explosive character. The moral, political and cultural gap is not that wide between proletarians living in British inner-cities like Toxteth and Tottenham, in American ghettos like the Bronx and Watts and those in the poor districts of Karachi, Dacca, Mexico and Kingston. If only because partly at least they are the same people.
After working in a Ford factory in Britain for ten or 15 years, a Pakistani worker going home to his relatives is bound not to recognize his former village. Just as many British workers would fail to recognize the place where they were born, no more would a Jamaican or Puerto-Rican worker who, going back to his native country, discovers buildings where there used to be cultivated fields, not to mention all the shanty towns mushrooming along the roads.
When leaving London for Kingston or Los Angeles for Mexico, you may find more slums, less homes with electricity or drains, but you will find the same outlook and state of mind in all proletarian districts in the world. The same as in the shanty-towns of Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires where mud is everywhere but where people manage to watch television using a bit of dodgy wiring when their electricity is cut off through lack of money. The same as in the black ghettos of Los Angeles and Chicago, as in Washington where dustbins have to be piled up onto the roofs of houses because the local authorities cannot afford to pay for adequate dustbin collections and fear the proliferation of rats!
Even the cultural gap is not what it used to be. Not only because portable radios and televisions have invaded the poorest districts much quicker than proper sewerage and hygiene. It is not unusual for a worker who came directly from his village in Nigeria to Britain, to go home to find that his old village has disappeared. And when he does manage to find the inhabitants of his old village, it is more often than not in a shanty town around one of the larger centers. In these shanty towns one learns more in a year than in the old village in a whole lifetime, if only because of the mixture of dozens of different nationalities—people from Burkina-Faso, Ghana, Cameroon, Benin, etc., who came there looking for a job, not to mention the tens of thousands of Europeans who are more numerous than they were in colonial times but remain closely sheltered in the rich white areas even more than the white South Africans do.
The practical social consequences of apartheid are not a monopoly of South African towns. Social apartheid, the class divisions in society, is to be found in all the large cities worldwide, in the poor countries as well as in the rich.
When, in the last century Marx analyzed in Capital the in-built contradictions of capitalism, it was still at that time an audacious theoretical anticipation. But as early as World War I, these contradictions became an integral part of reality. Since that time Marx has been vindicated in the most tragic way. But at every stage the defeat of the proletariat has allowed the capitalist system a further respite.
Today the tremendous technological advances made in industrial production, urbanization, communication and transport, have turned the planet into a very small world while at the same time its population has grown enormously. Marx’s prognoses are more than ever tangible physical realities.
The poor countries have been first to foot the bill for the world capitalist crisis and in the most brutal way. As a result there were a whole string of hunger riots in the early 80s, in Cairo, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Tunis, Casablanca, etc.: the list is in fact much longer.
Since then things have got worse. In other countries the hunger riots have been replaced with a series of social upsurges. In Haiti, in the Philippines, in Korea, in Burma, they have raised the problem of the social revolution in a way which is not so remote from the way it was raised in Russia in 1905 or in February 1917.
More and more strikes have taken place in the hardest hit European countries, like Romania, Poland, Yugoslavia ... and even in Britain.
We are already in a stage of the crisis—started six or seven years ago—when the imperialist governments, led by the USA, have jointly chosen to issue a second bill—only this time both the poor countries and the poorest layers of the rich countries are expected to pay.
The Western bourgeoisies are now waging a conscious economic war against their proletariat. Building on the threat of unemployment, they are trying to force them into accepting living conditions which have been so far considered as a feature of the Third World: precarious employment, casual jobs, low wages, reduced benefits of all kinds, in particular reduced unemployment benefit when not slashed altogether.
As usual North America has shown the way. The US governments have boasted of having defeated unemployment. In reality they have only created a situation where poverty and homeless are spreading from the unemployed to those in work. Today, in the USA, one can be working while being poor, really poor!
All these strikes, the potential revolutions which are taking place thousands of miles away and which we see only on television for the time being, could well belong to the near future of the working class in the rich countries—the countries which still hold three quarters of the world economic power despite their much smaller population.
This means that the period of social calm, when the Western working class was domesticated at the expense of its Third World brothers, is coming to a close.
As for the polite gestures which Reagan and Gorbachev are exchanging, they should fool no-one. The present detente between the USA and the USSR shows a systematic attempt at settling a number of conflicts and at defusing some of the powder kegs inherited from the 1945 Yalta conference and from decolonization. It is probably just another Yalta, in the political and social spheres, in other words a mutual agreement between the USA and the USSR aimed at preparing for future explosions, which will leave both regimes a free hand to deal with their own areas.
This of course is only possible as long as they can rely on absolute social stability (but for how long?) both in the rich Western countries and in the USSR itself.
Over the last period, year in and year out, potentially revolutionary situations have kept developing. There is already, to an extent, a new generation of militants coming out of the urban proletariat.
It is a fighting generation made of hundreds of thousands of proletarians, of uprooted youth, who have proved everywhere their readiness to risk theirs lives in strikes and demonstrations: in Chile, in the black ghettos of the Cape and Johannesburg, in the suburbs of Manila, Seoul and Rangoon, in the Palestinian occupied territories and, even closer to the imperialist strongholds, in the working-class districts of West Belfast.
These young fighters know that the lives and the morale of others depend on them, that they cannot allow themselves to be scared. Obviously they are ready for all revolutionary sacrifices.
But this is a generation which has been recruited, trained and organized by the military-political machines which are the heirs of the various post-war nationalist movements and of the Stalinist methods they adapted to their needs. The flag of this generation is nationalism. Their heroism is called ‘armed struggle’ or ‘terrorism’.
The militant generation which existed at the time of Trotsky had had a direct experience of the revolutionary storms which followed World War I. It had been trained by these storms. Above all it had lived through the whole process of building the Communist International under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. The real tragedy was that, in the name of the corrupted brand of Marxism favored by the Stalinist bureaucracy and on the basis of a caricature of Leninist methods, these militants were used to implement the worst policies within the working-class movement.
This revolutionary generation, which had been aroused and unified behind the same ideal by the Communist International, became politically disorientated and corrupted in its practice. The real drama was that eventually it was incapable of passing on to the following generation the revolutionary capital of the International!
Since then history has followed its course. Other militant generations have emerged one after the other all over the world. But each time their level of political consciousness was lower than that of the previous generation. Their leaders kept changing side, drifting from communism to nationalism, from the standpoint of the proletariat to that of the bourgeoisie until, in the end, they had no class reference at all.
Fascism and Stalinism—the former acting from outside the working-class movement and the latter even more effectively from inside—have, with the additional contribution of the exterminating wave of World War II, fulfilled their task: they created a political no man’s land between generations through which the old revolutionary traditions could not be transmitted.
Today the generation which is at the forefront of all the political and social struggles, from Chili to South Africa, from Argentina to the Philippines, from Poland to Azerbaijan and to Northern Ireland, is largely proletarian. But it has no idea of proletarian internationalism, even as an old souvenir, even as an abstract reference. A whole revolutionary historical experience is lost for this generation. In this respect the international working class movement is now far more backward than it was fifty years ago.
Yet the nationalism of today’s militant generation is no more natural or spontaneous than a proletarian consciousness. Nationalism has become the flag of this generation only because the nationalist intellectuals were the only ones to offer a flag. Where intellectuals claiming to be proletarian internationalists existed, they renounced the defense of their ideas and explained that the nationalist leaders could be trusted.
Neither is it the living conditions in the ghettos and the shanty towns which push the young militants towards nationalist demands which confine them within the boundaries of their native country.
Twenty-five years ago, Malcolm X used to say: The most formidable blacks in the USA are those in the ghettos, because they have no religion, no conception of morals and citizenship. Nothing frightens them. Because they are constantly frustrated, they are always restless, impatient to take action. And whatever they do they always do it with the utmost commitment.
Malcolm X, who was a black nationalist militant, may have never suspected that his description of the blacks in the ghettos was very similar to that which Marx gave of the proletariat in general. Yet these proletarians from the ghettos and the shanty towns, who are proletarians in the most restricted sense, who have been deprived of everything including religion, morals and any illusion in citizenship, who can show such commitment, why should they not become internationalists, since they have no fatherland, nothing to loose but their chains and a whole world to conquer? Why should they be less receptive to an internationalist education than to a nationalist one?
Why should the South African blacks, piled up as they are in their townships, have to believe that their emancipation can take place within a future Azania (as the nationalists call South Africa), as if changing a name could end poverty or even white domination? After all the South African blacks can see for themselves how in the former Rhodesia the black nationalists have failed to solve these problems despite Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe!
In 1903, in the slum districts of Warsaw, when a young Jewish proletarian, most of the time illiterate and half unemployed, was spotted for his courage and commitment by the Bund, the Bolsheviks, the Polish Socialist Party or any other tendency in the socialist movement (and at grassroot levels, most young workers could not tell the difference), he was invited to take part in the educationals which each group made a point of organizing in the unions in which they were most influential. And the competition to build influence within the unions was fierce.
In these educationals people became familiar with the socialist organizations abroad and a lot was said about internationalism. It was part and parcel of the basic militant outlook of the time which any conscious workers had to be taught to start with. To be suspected of not being internationalist was an insult while claiming one’s internationalism was a gesture of pride.
In most cases young socialist workers would only further their political education in jail, in what were more or less favorable conditions. These were the ‘revolutionary universities’, as militants used to say.
If a militant got out of jail at a time when resuming underground work was too difficult, the party would sometimes help him to go abroad. He would be directed to France, Britain, Germany or Switzerland, depending on the opportunities, the underground network available to cross the borders, the contacts which existed. Once he was there, what happened was a question of individual luck. But, if willing, the revolutionary worker could then complete his political training while establishing links with the legal organizations which existed in the rest of Europe.
At first, the revolutionary emigré, whose experience was confined to utter poverty, was taken aback when he attended political meetings in Germany where the militants dressed like bourgeois—or so it seemed to the vagrant Polish militants. Then, once he got used to it, he would use every opportunity—public meetings, electoral campaigns, etc.—to learn as much as he could. As happened frequently among political emigrés he would also go through periods of demoralization and isolation. But overall, when he went