Seventy-five years of the Fourth International

By David North
4 September 2013

Seventy-five years ago, on September 3, 1938, the Fourth International was founded at a conference held on the outskirts of Paris. The work of the conference had to be completed within one day due to precarious security conditions. During the 12 months that preceded the conference, the Trotskyist movement had been under relentless attack. Though he lived in exile in Mexico, Leon Trotsky was viewed by the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union as its most dangerous political opponent. Stalin was determined to destroy the international movement that Trotsky had created during the decade that followed his expulsion from the Soviet Communist Party in 1927 and his deportation from the USSR in 1929.

Leon Trotsky

In September 1937, Erwin Wolf, a political secretary of Trotsky, was murdered in Spain by agents of the Soviet secret police, the GPU. During that same month, Ignace Reiss, who had defected from the GPU and declared his loyalty to the new International being founded by Trotsky, was assassinated in Lausanne, Switzerland. In February 1938, Leon Sedov—Trotsky’s eldest son and most important political representative in Europe—was murdered by the GPU in Paris. And in July 1938, only six weeks before the founding conference, Rudolf Klement—the leader of the movement’s International Secretariat—was kidnapped from his apartment in Paris and murdered.

Sedov, Wolf and Klement were elected honorary presidents of the conference, and the French Trotskyist, Pierre Naville, informed the delegates that “Owing to the tragic death of Klement there would be no formal report; Klement had had a detailed, written report in preparation which was to have been circulated, but it had disappeared with the rest of his papers. The present report would be merely a summary.”

The hellish conditions in which the conference was held reflected the political situation that confronted the international working class. Fascist regimes held power in Germany and Italy. Europe teetered on the brink of war. The infamous Munich conference at which British and French imperialism surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler—with the acquiescence of the capitalist government in Prague—was to be held only several weeks later. The Spanish revolution, having been misled and betrayed by its Stalinist and anarchist leaders, was rapidly approaching defeat after more than two years of civil war. In France, the Popular Front government of 1936-38 had done everything in its power to demoralize politically the working class. In the Soviet Union, the terror that had been unleashed by Stalin in 1936 had annihilated virtually the entire generation of Old Bolsheviks. The betrayals of the Stalinists and Social Democrats had sabotaged the only means by which the outbreak of a second imperialist world war could have been prevented—that is, the socialist revolution of the working class.

The main task facing the delegates attending the founding conference was the adoption of a document that had been drafted by Leon Trotsky. It was entitled “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.” Its opening sentence, among the most significant and profound in the annals of political literature, stated: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”

With these words Trotsky summed up not only the situation as it existed in 1938, but also the central political problem of modern history. The objective prerequisites—i.e., the international development of the productive forces, the existence of the revolutionary class—for the replacement of capitalism by socialism were present. But revolution was not merely the automatic outcome of objective economic conditions. It required the politically conscious intervention of the working class in the historical process, based on a socialist program and armed with a clearly elaborated strategic plan. The revolutionary politics of the working class could not be less conscious than the counterrevolutionary politics of the capitalist class it sought to overthrow. Herein lay the historic significance of the revolutionary party.

But the decisive role of the revolutionary party, which had been positively demonstrated in October 1917—when the Russian working class, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, overthrew the capitalist class and established the first workers’ state in history—was confirmed in the negative by the defeats of the 1920s and 1930s. A series of revolutionary opportunities had been lost by the false policies and deliberate betrayals carried out by the mass Social Democratic and Communist (Stalinist) parties that commanded the allegiance of the working class.

The political bankruptcy and reactionary role of the Social Democratic parties of the Second International had been laid bare as early as 1914, when they repudiated their own internationalist programs and supported the war policies of their own national ruling classes. The Communist (or Third) International had been formed in the aftermath of the October Revolution, in opposition to the betrayal of the Social Democracy.

But the growth of the state bureaucracy within the Soviet Union and the political degeneration of the Russian Communist Party had far-reaching consequences for the Communist International. In 1923, the Left Opposition had been formed under Trotsky’s leadership to combat the bureaucratization of the Russian Communist Party. But the bureaucracy, which found in Stalin a dedicated representative of its interests and privileges, fought back savagely against its Marxist opponents. In 1924, Stalin and Bukharin proclaimed the program of “socialism in one country,” which repudiated the program of socialist internationalism—that is, of Permanent Revolution— upon which Lenin and Trotsky had based the Bolshevik conquest of power in October 1917. The Stalin-Bukharin program provided an anti-Marxist theoretical justification for the practical subordination of the interests of the international working class to the national interests of the Soviet bureaucracy.

The impact of this fundamental revision of Marxist theory on the practice of the Third International and its affiliated parties was catastrophic. In the course of the 1920s, those leaders of national Communist parties who failed to fall in line with the dictates of Moscow were bureaucratically removed and replaced with compliant and incompetent factotums. Disoriented by the policies formulated by Stalin—who ever more openly viewed the Third International not as a party of world socialist revolution, but rather as an instrument of Soviet foreign policy—the Communist parties staggered from one disaster to another. The defeat of the British General Strike in 1926 and, one year later, the defeat of the Chinese Revolution were critical milestones in the degeneration of the Third International.

In 1928, having been exiled to Alma Ata in Central Asia, Trotsky wrote The Draft Program of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals on the eve of the organization’s Sixth Congress . This document was a detailed elaboration of the theoretical and political causes of the defeats suffered by the Communist parties during the preceding five years. The main target of Trotsky’s critique was the Stalin-Bukharin theory of “socialism in one country.” He wrote:

In our epoch, which is the epoch of imperialism, i.e., of world economy and world politics under the hegemony of finance capital, not a single communist party can establish its program by proceeding solely or mainly from conditions and tendencies of development in its own country. This also holds entirely for the party that wields the state power within the boundaries of the USSR. On August 4, 1914, the death knell sounded for national programs for all time. The revolutionary party of the proletariat can base itself only upon an international program corresponding to the character of the epoch, the epoch of the highest development and collapse of capitalism. An international communist program is in no case the sum total of national programs or an amalgam of their common features. The international program must proceed directly from an analysis of the conditions and tendencies of world economy and of the world political system taken as a whole in all its connections and contradictions, that is, with the mutually antagonistic interdependence of its separate parts. In the present epoch, to a much larger extent than in the past, the national orientation of the proletariat must and can flow only from a world orientation and not vice versa. Herein lies the basic and primary difference between communist internationalism and all varieties of national socialism.

It is important to recall that the central emphasis placed by Trotsky on the primacy of a world orientation arose not simply from general theoretical considerations, but from his analysis—which Trotsky developed in 1923-24—of the global implications of the emergence of the United States as the principal imperialist power.

Trotsky was barred, of course, from attending the sessions of the Communist International. His writings were already proscribed within all the Communist parties. However, through some extraordinary mishap, Trotsky’s Criticism was translated into English and came into the possession of James P.Cannon, who was attending the Sixth Congress as a delegate of the American Communist Party. Persuaded by Trotsky’s Criticism, Cannon, with the assistance of a Canadian delegate, Maurice Spector, smuggled the document out of the Soviet Union. On the basis of the analysis presented in the Criticism of Fundamentals, Cannon—joined by Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and several other leading members of the Communist Party—began the fight for Trotsky’s ideas outside the Soviet Union. Soon expelled from the Communist Party, Cannon and Shachtman formed the Communist League of America, which played a critical role in the emergence of the International Left Opposition.

When it was formed in 1923, the aim of the Left Opposition was the reform of the Communist Party on the basis of the program of revolutionary internationalism, and the reestablishment of open debate within the party in accordance with the principles of democratic centralism. With the establishment of the International Left Opposition, which rapidly gained adherents throughout the world, Trotsky sought to achieve the reform of the Communist International. As long as there remained the possibility that the disastrous policies of Stalin might be reversed through the growth of opposition within the Soviet Communist Party and the Third International, Trotsky refrained from issuing the call for a new International.

The situation in Germany between 1930 and 1933 weighed heavily in Trotsky’s calculations. With the collapse of the German economy in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash of 1929, Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party emerged as a mass force. Whether or not Hitler came to power depended on the policies of the two mass organizations of the German working class, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD). These two parties commanded the allegiance of millions of German workers and possessed the power to defeat the Nazis.

Having been exiled in 1929 to the island of Prinkipo, off the coast of Turkey, Trotsky wrote voluminously, analyzing the German crisis and appealing for united action by the two working class parties to stop Hitler’s march to power. But the SPD, subservient to the bourgeois state and opposed to any politically independent action by the working class, would not countenance even a defensive struggle against the Nazis. The fate of the German working class was, instead, to be left in the hands of the corrupt and criminal bourgeois politicians of the Weimar regime who were scheming to bring Hitler to power. As for the KPD, it adhered blindly to the Moscow-dictated definition of the Social Democracy as “social fascist”—that is, the political equivalent of the Nazi party. The Stalinists rejected Trotsky’s call for a United Front of the KPD and SPD against Hitler. In a political prognosis that must be counted among the most disastrous miscalculations in history, the Stalinists—justifying their own passivity—proclaimed that a Nazi victory would soon be followed by a socialist revolution that would bring the Communist Party to power. “After Hitler, us,” was the Stalinist slogan.

The tragic denouement came on January 30, 1933. Appointed chancellor by the aged President von Hindenburg, Hitler came to power legally, without a shot being fired. Both the SPD and KPD, organizations with millions of members between them, did nothing to oppose the Nazis’ triumph. Within days, the Nazis, now in control of the state apparatus, set their terror into motion. Within months, the SPD, the KPD, the trade unions and all other mass working class organizations were smashed. The twelve-year nightmare, which would cost the lives of millions, including the vast majority of European Jewry, had begun.

Trotsky waited several months after Hitler’s accession to power to see whether the German catastrophe would evoke protests and opposition within either the remnants of the KPD or the Third International. But the opposite occurred. The Stalinist organizations, within Germany and in the International, reaffirmed the correctness of the political line that had been dictated by the Soviet bureaucracy.

The outcome in Germany convinced Trotsky that there existed no possibility for the reform of the Communist International. Therefore, in July 1933, Trotsky issued a public call for the formation of the Fourth International. This fundamental shift in policy in relation to the Third International led Trotsky to a further conclusion. If the possibility of reforming the Communist International did not exist, the perspective of reform was no longer valid for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. To change the policies of the Stalinist regime would require its overthrow. However, as this overthrow would be aimed at defending, rather than replacing, the nationalized property relations established in the aftermath of October 1917, the revolution advocated by Trotsky would be of a political rather than a social character.

The events between 1933 and 1938 confirmed the correctness of Trotsky’s new course. During the five years that followed Hitler’s conquest of power, the Stalinist regime emerged as the most dangerous counterrevolutionary force within the international workers’ movement. The defeats that were caused by the policies of the Kremlin bureaucracy were not the outcome of mistakes, but, rather, of conscious policies. The Stalinist regime feared that the success of social revolution in any country might inspire a reawakening of the revolutionary fervor of the Soviet working class.

As Trotsky worked systematically for the formal establishment of the Fourth International, he encountered two major forms of opposition.

The first was that of tendencies and individuals who refused to draw any conclusions of a principled character from the international experience of the class struggle and the betrayals of Stalinism and Social Democracy. While occasionally expressing sympathy and even agreement with one or another aspect of Trotsky’s analysis, they refused to commit themselves and their organizations to the fight for a new revolutionary International. In effect, these tendencies—which Trotsky designated “centrist”—sought to find a safe middle-ground between revolution and counterrevolution. Underlying their unprincipled political maneuvering were thoroughly opportunist calculations. They were determined to prevent international program and principles from impinging on their national tactics. The parties that exemplified this form of national opportunism were the German Socialist Workers Party (SAP), the Spanish Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), and the British Independent Labour Party (ILP). The latter organization, led by Fenner Brockway (later Lord Brockway), played a major role in the establishment of the so-called London Bureau.

The second argument against the formation of the Fourth International was that its proclamation was premature. An International, it was claimed, could arise only out of “great events,” by which was meant a successful revolution. At the founding conference, this position was advanced by a Polish delegate, identified in the minutes as Karl, who argued that a new International could be created only in a period of “revolutionary upsurge.” The conditions of “intense reaction and depression” were “circumstances wholly unfavorable for the proclamation of the Fourth.” The delegate stated that “the forces constituting the Fourth were disproportionately small in relation to its tasks,” and that “It was therefore necessary to wait for a favorable moment and not be premature.”

As he drafted the founding document of the Fourth International, Trotsky anticipated the arguments of the Polish delegate:

Skeptics ask: But has the moment for the creation of the Fourth International yet arrived? It is impossible, they say, to create an International “artificially”; it can arise only out of great events, etc., etc. All of these objections merely show that skeptics are no good for building a new International. They are good for scarcely anything at all.

The Fourth International has already arisen out of great events: the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history. The cause for these defeats is to be found in the degeneration and perfidy of the old leadership. The class struggle does not tolerate an interruption. The Third International, following the Second, is dead for purposes of revolution. Long live the Fourth International!

In October 1938, Trotsky recorded a speech in which he welcomed, with evident emotion, the founding of the Fourth International.

Dear friends, we are not a party like other parties. Our ambition is not only to have more members, more papers, more money in the treasury, more deputies. All that is necessary, but only as a means. Our aim is the full material and spiritual liberation of the toilers and exploited through the socialist revolution. Nobody will prepare it and nobody will guide it but ourselves. The old Internationals—the Second, the Third, that of Amsterdam, we will add to them also the London Bureau—are rotten through and through.

The great events which rush upon mankind will not leave of these outlived organizations one stone upon another. Only the Fourth International looks with confidence at the future. It is the World Party of Socialist Revolution! There never was a greater task on earth. Upon each of us rests a tremendous historical responsibility.

With the perspective afforded by three quarters of a century, it is possible to judge whether history has vindicated Trotsky’s appraisal. What remains of the old organizations—Stalinist, Social Democratic and centrist—whose political shipwreck was foretold by Trotsky? The Second International exists only as a center of anti-working class operations and conspiracies directed by the CIA and various other state intelligence agencies. The Third International was officially dissolved by Stalin in 1943. The Stalinist parties throughout the world continued to orbit around the Kremlin bureaucracy for several more decades, until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 swept them into the garbage dump of history.

No, let us not exaggerate. The Russian Communist Party, though much reduced in size, continues to exist. It holds demonstrations in Moscow alongside Russian nationalists and fascists, where placards bearing the portrait of Stalin are waved alongside banners that have the swastika emblazoned upon them. And it is true that the “Communist Party” holds power in China, where it presides over the second largest capitalist economy in the world, whose police state regime guarantees that super-profits extracted from the working class are transferred to the transnational corporations of the United States and Europe.

The Fourth International, the sole revolutionary organization, has successfully navigated the shoals and rapids of such an extended period of history. Of course, it has passed through intense political struggles and splits. The internal conflicts reflected the vicissitudes of the class struggle under continually changing international socio-economic conditions and the realignment of social forces—not only within the working class, but also among different layers of the middle class—under the impact of these changes.

Political cynics, who ferment in abundance in the bubbling miasma of ex- and pseudo-left academics, are fond of pointing to the splits within the Fourth International. Such people, who submit in silence to the crimes of the capitalist parties to which they give their vote year after year, understand nothing of the class dynamics of politics. Nor, on a personal level, can they understand why anyone, anywhere, would conduct a determined and uncompromising political struggle over matters of principle.

Fifteen years after the founding of the Fourth International, in November 1953, the emergence of a pro-Stalinist tendency led to a split in which fundamental questions of class orientation, historical perspective, and political strategy were involved. The combined pressure of the post-war restabilization of capitalism, the still immense political influence of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and the increasing political self-consciousness of a growing middle class found expression in the development of a new form of opportunism. This new opportunism, known as Pabloism (derived from its best known exponent, Michel Pablo), rejected Trotsky’s characterization of the Soviet bureaucracy and Stalinism as counterrevolutionary. It envisaged the realization of socialism in a process that was to unfold in the course of centuries, through revolutions led by the bureaucracy and its affiliated Stalinist parties. It even suggested that a nuclear world war would create the conditions for the victory of socialist revolution. The Pabloite theory also attributed revolutionary capacities denied by Trotsky to numerous bourgeois national and petty-bourgeois radical movements, especially in the colonial and “Third World” countries.

The essential content of Pabloism’s revision of Marxist theory and the Trotskyist perspective was its rejection of the central role of the working class in the socialist revolution. The International Committee of the Fourth International was formed in 1953, at the initiative of James P. Cannon, to fight against the influence of Pabloite opportunism, whose political logic and practice would lead, unless opposed, to the liquidation of the Fourth International as a revolutionary working class party.

The political struggle against the influence of Pabloism raged within the Fourth International for more than 30 years. This struggle was brought to a successful conclusion in 1985 when the orthodox Trotskyists of the International Committee regained the political leadership of the Fourth International. The objective factors that contributed to this victory were the deepening global crisis of capitalism, the deep crisis of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and the evident bankruptcy of all labor organizations based on a national reformist program.

However, these objective conditions alone would have been insufficient. The defeat of the revisionists and opportunists by the orthodox Trotskyists of the International Committee was achieved because the latter consciously based their work on the vast political and theoretical legacy of Trotsky and the Fourth International. This legacy, which had been developed and built upon over decades, was an immense source of political strength. In the final analysis, the development of the world crisis of capitalism and the class struggle unfolded in accordance with the perspective developed by Trotsky and the Fourth International.

Seventy-five years—three quarters of a century—is a substantial period of time. Obviously, much has changed since the time of the Founding Congress of the Fourth International. But the basic structures and contradictions of capitalist society persist. For all the technological innovations, the situation that confronts modern capitalism seems no less desperate than it was in 1938. In fact, it is worse. When Trotsky wrote the founding document of the Fourth International, the world bourgeoisie was plagued by an intractable economic crisis, abandoning democracy and racing toward war. Today, as we celebrate 75 years since the founding of the Fourth International, global capitalism is… plagued by an intractable economic crisis, abandoning democracy and racing toward war.

The words of Trotsky, written 75 years ago, retain an extraordinary immediacy:

All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. It is now the turn of the proletariat, i.e., chiefly of its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.