The struggle against centrism and the founding of the Fourth International

Part one

By Bill Van Auken
15 April 2009

Below is the first part of a lecture delivered at a summer school of the Socialist Equality Party held  in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in August 2007. The second and third parts were posted April 16 and April 17. For other lectures from the 2007 school, click here.

Comrades, next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Fourth International, the world party of socialist revolution, which is today led by and embodied in our world movement, the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI).

No one would deny that there have been immense changes over the course of the past seven decades, which have seen a world war, as well as innumerable regional wars, the extension of the Stalinist bureaucracy into Eastern Europe, followed by its self-liquidation, the rise and subsequent degeneration of the anti-colonial movements and the decimation of the official labor movement in country after country.

Yet, the essential questions confronted in the founding of the Fourth International and posed so intransigently by Leon Trotsky in the years and months preceding his assassination stay evergreen. That is, the historic epoch in which we live remains that of the world socialist revolution, which has its source in the irreconcilable social and economic contradictions of world capitalism. The essential political problem posed to humanity by this epoch—that of resolving the crisis of leadership within the working class through the development of a world party armed with an international strategy of socialist revolution—has never been posed more acutely.

In 1992, in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the International Committee drew up a political balance sheet of this and previous experiences and arrived at the conclusion that, in the face of the decades of betrayals by the old bureaucratic leaderships and their impact upon the political consciousness of the working class, it was necessary to overcome not only a crisis of leadership in the working class, but also a crisis of perspective. Our task consisted of fighting for a revival of a socialist culture in the working class, a task to which the World Socialist Web Site and this school itself are dedicated.

Under conditions in which a growing radicalization of the working class is becoming evident all over the world, a serious study of the history of the Fourth International is a decisive preparation for the coming struggles. It is only this party that consciously assimilated the strategic experiences of the working class through the course of the momentous and often tragic struggles of the twentieth century.

As we reviewed in earlier lectures, the decision to found the Fourth International was taken in 1933 in response to the catastrophe in Germany. The coming to power of Hitler, without any organized resistance from the working class, and the absence of any subsequent discussion in the Communist International over the implications and causes of this unprecedented defeat, proved conclusively that the Third International was dead for purposes of revolution, having been transformed into an agency of the Kremlin bureaucracy and an organizer of defeats for the working class.

Trotsky’s decision to call for the building of a new international was obviously not taken lightly. Over the previous decade, he had insisted that, despite the crimes of the Stalinist leadership, the struggle to reform the Communist International and win its parties back to the revolutionary program of its first four congresses could not be prematurely abandoned.

Hitler’s victory, however, was for the Third International what the voting of war credits had been for the Second—proof positive that it was finished as a revolutionary organization. A new world revolutionary party was required.

For Trotsky, the call for a new international was not—as many of his centrist opponents saw it—merely a tactical or organizational question, but rather an unpostponable historical necessity.

This conception was substantiated further by his analysis of the Soviet regime in the wake of the German catastrophe, which was reviewed in the previous lecture on The Revolution Betrayed. The material interests of the bureaucracy that had usurped both political power in the Soviet Union and the leadership of the Third International were irreconcilably opposed to those of the working class itself. This counterrevolutionary bureaucratic apparatus could not be reformed, but had to be overthrown by means of a political revolution.

The founding of this new international party was prepared through the decade of struggle waged by Trotsky and the Left Opposition between 1923 and 1933, in which Trotsky and his followers fought the development of the Stalinist bureaucracy and carried out a merciless critique of is programmatic zigzags. In the course of this struggle, the fundamental questions of Marxist strategy and tactics were defended and positively developed, most important among them the perspective and program of revolutionary internationalism against the Moscow bureaucracy’s national reformist orientation.

Forces were assembled around the International Left Opposition on the basis of agreement on the fundamental strategic experiences of the working class, including the betrayals of the British General Strike and the Chinese revolution, and defense of the perspective of permanent revolution against the Stalinist theory of socialism in one country.

Trotsky was more conscious than anyone else of the impact of the defeats suffered by the working class as a result of the betrayals of Stalinism and social democracy, and he was very aware of the relatively modest size of the forces adhering to the program of the International Left Opposition. Yet, his historical prognosis was based on a scientifically grounded optimism that the crisis of capitalism was insoluble and that a correct political program would cut a path to the working class, which, despite these betrayals, remained a revolutionary class and in many countries was entering into mass struggles of an objectively revolutionary character.

The London Bureau

The five years between Trotsky’s call for the Fourth International in 1933 and the holding of a founding conference in 1938 were marked by a continuous struggle against a wide range of centrist political organizations active during this period, particularly in Europe, many of which professed sympathy with Trotsky’s perspective and some of which declared themselves for the Fourth International.

The struggle against centrism and the necessity for the Trotskyist movement to intervene in this milieu was posed sharply in the summer of 1933, when the British ILP (Independent Labour Party) called a conference open to all organizations outside the Second and Third Internationals to assess the crisis confronting the international workers movement in face of the Nazi victory. The Trotskyist movement decided to participate in the conference to fight for its positions and try to win over the best elements there to the struggle for the Fourth International.

This intervention was formalized in the “Declaration of the Four,” a document signed by the International Left Opposition, the German SAP (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei—Socialist Workers Party) and two Dutch organizations that would subsequently merge under the leadership of Henricus Sneevliet.

The pivotal aim enunciated in this statement was the formation of the Fourth International in the shortest possible time:

“While ready to cooperate with all the organizations, groups and factions that are actually developing from reformism or bureaucratic centrism (Stalinism) towards revolutionary Marxist policy, the undersigned, at the same time, declare that the new International cannot tolerate any conciliation towards reformism or centrism. The necessary unity of the working class movement can be attained not by the blurring of reformist and revolutionary conceptions, nor by adaptation to the Stalinist policy, but only by combating the policies of both bankrupt Internationals. To remain equal to its task, the new International must not permit any deviation from revolutionary principles in the questions of insurrection, proletarian dictatorship, soviet form of the state, etc.” (1)

This declaration set out the principled attitude that the nascent Fourth International took towards these centrist parties, which at that moment were turning sharply to the left. The Trotskyist movement was obliged to conduct this intervention both to clarify the political questions that separated it from centrism and to win over the best elements that otherwise could become trapped in this milieu.

In two of the previous lectures, we have already reviewed the political trajectory of two of the more significant of these parties—the Spanish POUM and the German SAP.

It is worth making a brief survey of some of the other organizations in the camp of centrism during that period. Among the best known was the British ILP, an organization that predated the Labour Party, with which it was long affiliated. Imbued with pacifism and even Christian beliefs, it had opposed the First World War, resulting in the jailing of its principal leaders, including Fenner Brockway.

In 1920, it disaffiliated from the Second International and voiced sympathy for the Soviet Union. Its centrist wavering between reformism and revolution found peculiar expression in its request to be admitted to the Third International with a special waiver allowing it to disavow support for armed insurrection. Needless to say, its application was denied. In the early 1920s, it joined with other European left socialist groups in a body that became known as the Two-and-a-half International.

Its call for the 1933 international conference came less than a year after it disaffiliated from the Labour Party and began to turn leftward.

The French PSOP (Socialist Party of Workers and Peasants) was led by Marceau Pivert, who joined the French Socialist Party (SFIO) in 1919 and consistently remained on the party’s left wing. He was a member of the “Bataille Socialiste” (Socialist Battle) tendency, which refused to support a bourgeois government and in 1935 founded the “Gauche Revolutionnaire” (Revolutionary Left) faction. In addition to his strictly political role, he was also involved in the production of a number of political films, and under the Popular Front was given responsibility for the French media, including press, radio and cinema.

Pivert welcomed the mass strikes and factory occupations, publishing the 1936 article “Everything Is Possible,” in which he appealed for revolutionary action. (The Stalinist French Communist Party published a reply, “Non! Tout n’est pas possible!”—”No! Not Everything Is Possible!” defending the pro-capitalist policies of the Popular Front government).

Pivert was forced out of the SFIO as a result of his left-wing views and founded the PSOP. In Pivert, however, these left politics coexisted with membership in the Freemasons, an organization dominated by petty-bourgeois morality and hypocrisy that deliberately covered over class divisions. In the end, Pivert proved incapable of breaking with the right-wing reformists. His PSOP dissolved with the outbreak of the war, and, after the war, he returned to France to rejoin the SFIO.

Then there was the Dutch group led by Henricus Sneevliet. As a young railroad worker, Sneevliet had led a number of militant strikes, including one national walkout in defense of striking seamen. Disillusioned with the failure of the conservative union and social democratic bureaucracies to support these actions, he left the Netherlands for the Dutch East Indies, the former colony that corresponds roughly to present-day Indonesia. There he organized both a rail union and a socialist society that brought together Dutch and Indonesian workers in a common organization. With the war and the Russian Revolution, his political work achieved growing success, including among the Dutch troops, leading to his expulsion by the colonial authorities.

He was given major responsibilities by the Communist International, including as its representative in China, where he became one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. He soon came into clashes with the Stalinist leadership of the Dutch party, breaking with it in 1927. In 1933, he was jailed for publicly supporting a mutiny by sailors on a warship off the Dutch Indies, calling it the opening shot of the colonial revolution. He was released only as a result of his election to parliament.

While he affiliated to the International Communist League (the name adopted by the Trotskyist International Left Opposition following 1933), he broke with it five years later. He was unwilling to subordinate national tactical considerations involving his trade union work in Holland to the strategic task of building a new revolutionary international party and opposed Trotsky’s critique of the role of the Spanish POUM. Sneevliet disbanded his party after the German occupation, founding a resistance group known as the Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front. Captured by the Nazis, he was executed by a firing squad in 1942.

Loosely organized in the so-called London Bureau, formally known as the International Bureau of Revolutionary Socialist Unity, most of these parties consisted of organizations that had split from either the Second International or the Third, but adopted a centrist position between them and Trotsky’s struggle to build the Fourth.

The London Bureau was a body with no clear political banner, some of its affiliates moving to the left, others to the right, some orienting towards social democracy, others to Stalinism. The Norwegian NAP and the Swedish Socialist Party, among the original mainstays of the organization, ended up back in the fold of Social Democracy as participants in capitalist governments. In the end, all of these groups, some of which were considerably larger than the parties adhering to the Fourth International, ended up confirming Trotsky’s prediction in the “Transitional Program” that “The great events which rush upon mankind will not leave of these outlived organizations one stone upon another.” Barely a trace was to emerge of any of them in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The leaderships of these disparate groups were united only by their insistence on the need for a “broad” “non-sectarian” international organization, by which they meant one that would leave each of them free to pursue its own interests by orienting to different sections of the existing bureaucratic leaderships in their own national political environments.

The growth of centrism in this period had deep-going objective political roots. On the one hand, the catastrophic and systemic crisis of capitalism that characterized the 1930s had rendered the programs of those parties affiliated to the Second International, which proposed the gradual amelioration of the conditions of the working class by means of incremental reforms rather than social revolution, manifestly unviable. On the other hand, the Communist International, which still attracted the support of millions of workers around the globe based on its false identification with the October 1917 revolution, was incapable of and opposed to the organization of the working class for revolutionary purposes.

Ultimately, centrism represented—and still represents—a secondary agency of imperialism, whose specific tasks are to block the path of the revolutionary party to the working class and throw up ideological obstacles to the working class’ theoretical and political clarification.

Many of these groups were prepared to swear formally to internationalism and accept that the Stalinist bureaucracy had betrayed the working class and suppressed the genuine Bolshevik Leninists in the Soviet Union. On principle, they were even prepared to accept the necessity for a new international. But in practice they maintained that the time was not right, that Trotsky’s call was premature or that a new international could not be created in a period of defeats.

Trotsky insisted on the necessity of distinguishing between the centrism of the workers, who inevitably pass through centrist phases and even centrist organizations on the road to revolution, and the professional centrism of the leaders of these organizations, whose task is to contain the movement of the workers and divert it back into the safe channels of reformism and subordination to the bourgeoisie.

Trotsky sought patiently to win those layers of workers passing through these organizations to the Fourth International, while waging an implacable struggle against the opportunism, skepticism and pessimism that prevailed within the leaderships of these groups.

 Writings of Leon Trotsky [1933-44] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), pp. 49-52

To be continued.