SEP public meetings in Australia

The enduring significance of the founding of the Fourth International

By James Cogan
3 October 2008

The following speech was delivered by James Cogan to a meeting in Sydney held by the Socialist Equality Party (Australia) on September 28 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Fourth International. Cogan is a staff writer for the World Socialist Web Site who has written extensively on the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tomorrow we will commence the publication of the report given to the meeting by SEP national secretary Nick Beams, entitled “Capitalist breakdown and the revolutionary perspective of the Fourth International”.

We are meeting today to discuss the critical and enduring significance of a congress that was held in Paris on September 3, 1938, to found the world movement to which the Socialist Equality Party belongs: the Fourth International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution.

The founding of the Fourth International will forever be linked with the name of Leon Trotsky, the strategist and co-leader alongside Vladimir Ilyich Lenin of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the greatest opponent of the bureaucratic apparatus headed by Joseph Stalin that emerged in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s and subsequently usurped power from the working class.

Trotsky first issued the call for all genuine socialists to establish the Fourth International in July 1933, in the aftermath of one of the greatest defeats suffered by the international working class: the coming to power of the Nazi regime in Germany.

The Great Depression had produced conditions in every major capitalist country to which we may soon be able to directly relate. Finance, industry and trade disintegrated. Millions of workers were thrown out of work, sending unemployment to between 20 to 30 percent. The bankruptcy of the capitalist system had been definitively exposed for broad layers of the population.

Nowhere was the crisis greater than in Germany. Millions of workers—among whom there was a long and rich tradition of socialist organisation and culture—looked to the Communist Party for leadership to carry out a revolution in Germany like that led by Lenin and Trotsky in Russia in 1917. They wanted the abolition of the profit system and the reorganisation of society in the interests of the vast majority of the population.

Fascism developed as the political reaction of the German capitalist class to the economic crisis and the threat of socialist revolution. It was a movement that sought to defend capitalist rule through the complete physical destruction of all the historic organisations of the working class, above all their political parties and trade unions. The Nazis drew support from sections of the middle class who had been ruined by the economic crisis as well as from disorientated layers among the millions of unemployed.

Trotsky described the upheaval in Germany as the “key to the international situation”. The taking of power by the working class in the most powerful state in Europe would vastly strengthen the position of workers in other countries who were engaged in ferocious class struggles directed against the catastrophic consequences of capitalist breakdown. Alternatively, the victory of fascism and capitalist reaction would raise the terrible danger of a second imperialist world war.

In the years leading up to 1933, Trotsky issued warning after warning to the German working class and to the Communist Party. He called for the formation of a United Front of the two parties of the German working class—the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.

Trotsky’s call for the united front aimed at uniting the strength of the millions of workers who followed the Communists with those sections of the working class, still the majority, who had illusions in the reformist Social Democratic Party.

The United Front meant a principled agreement on practical measures to defend workers’ organisations and meetings from fascist attack. The Communist Party would at the same time maintain its organisational and programmatic independence from the Social Democratic Party and would not relax its political criticism and exposure of the social democrats’ bankrupt perspective. By agitating for a United Front, the Communist Party would demonstrate to social democratic workers that it was serious about fighting fascism and defending the interests of the working class. At the same time, the Social Democratic leaders’ vacillation and resistance to any serious struggle would expose their dependence on, and support for, the capitalist state.

The leadership of the Third International and the German Communist Party, however, refused to act to unite the working class against the threat of the Nazis and mobilise it for the taking of power. Labelling the Social Democratic Party “social fascists”, the Stalinists maintained that the social democrats were a greater threat than the actual fascists. Steeped in passivity and fatalism, the Stalinists’ approach was summed up in their infamous boast, “After Hitler, Our Turn”.

This attitude—matched by the prostration of the Social Democrats—emboldened the most powerful sections of the German ruling class to throw their support behind the fascists. The Nazis never secured a majority of the vote and recorded less support than that of the working class parties. But in January 1933, Hitler was placed in power without a single shot being fired.

Within weeks of Hitler taking office, the Communist Party had been declared illegal and democratic rights suspended. Thousands of communist workers were arrested. Trade unions and the Social Democrats were also soon illegalised. And yet still the Stalinists did nothing. The largest socialist movement in the world outside of the Soviet Union was crushed without any organised resistance.

“Socialism in one country”

Since 1923, Trotsky and his supporters, organised in the Left Opposition, had been waging a determined political struggle to reform the Third International and its national sections. This struggle aimed at returning the Communist International to the central political perspective on which it had been founded—that of world socialist revolution.

Stalin had summed up the repudiation of this perspective in 1924 in the anti-Marxist theory of “socialism in one country”. This nationalist program expressed the interests of a privileged bureaucratic caste that had developed under conditions in which the Soviet Union was economically and politically isolated.

Socialism in one country” was used to justify policies that were aimed not at developing socialist revolution internationally, but rather at protecting the privileged position of the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union.

The consequence was a series of defeats for the international working class throughout the 1920s. In 1923 a revolutionary opportunity was squandered in Germany; in 1926 the British General Strike was betrayed; and in 1927 the Chinese working class was smashed. Trotsky had issued detailed critiques of the Stalinists’ criminal responsibility for each of these defeats and fought to reorient the Communist International.

Germany was the turning point. In the aftermath of a shattering defeat of the German working class, Trotsky waited to see what the reaction would be within the Third International. But the Stalinist regime simply declared that the correct line had been followed and prohibited any discussion on the matter. Not a single Communist Party, anywhere in the world, raised a word of opposition or demanded an assessment of the causes for the disaster in Germany.

In response, Trotsky wrote in July 1933: “An organisation that was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of bureaucracy demonstrates that it is dead and that nothing can ever revive it. To say this openly and publicly is our direct duty toward the proletariat and its future. In all our subsequent work it is necessary to take as our point of departure the historical collapse of the official Communist International.”

This assessment was confirmed in Spain, where a revolutionary movement of the working class developed in 1936 against an attempted military-fascist coup. As in Germany in 1933, a victorious revolution would have dramatically altered the balance of forces internationally in favour of the working class.

But the Stalinist regime consciously intervened to protect Spanish capitalism. Under the banner of the so-called “Popular Front” between the Spanish Stalinists and the bourgeois liberal parties, Soviet personnel assisted the Republican government to physically suppress sections of the working class that had seized control of capitalist property and were seeking to develop the war against the fascists into a struggle for a workers’ state and for socialism. The ultimate result was the bloody decapitation of the anti-fascist movement and the victory of Franco.

The advent of the Popular Front, in Spain as well as other countries, confirmed the transformation of Stalin’s regime into an openly counter-revolutionary agency in world politics. The Stalinists viewed any revolutionary movement of the working class internationally as a threat to their own bureaucratic dictatorship within the Soviet Union.

The corollary to the counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism in Spain was a political genocide in the Soviet Union directed against opponents and potential opponents of the bureaucracy.

The declassified records of the Soviet secret police, the GPU, show that at least 1,548,367 Soviet citizens were arrested during 1937 and 1938 alone, in what is known as the Great Purge.

Victims included tens of thousands of Communist party members and their families; virtually the entire officer corps of the Red Army and Navy; thousands of academics, engineers, scientists and other specialists, as well as artists and intellectuals suspected of critical thought.

Of those who were arrested during the Great Purge of 1937-38, the official records show that 681,692 were executed, most after a summary trial lasting less than 20 minutes. Those who were not executed were condemned to labour camps in the wastelands of Siberia, where hundreds of thousands died.

The subsequent history of the twentieth century—and above all the subsequent history of the Soviet Union—can only be understood in the context of this mass murder.

Any Soviet citizen with even the slightest personal or family connection to Trotsky and the Left Opposition was especially targeted for liquidation. As a result, the purges deprived the Soviet population of the finest representatives of an international socialist culture that stretched back into the nineteenth century. Those whom Stalin had killed were the human embodiments of the greatest revolutionary movement that history had seen.

The murder campaign was not confined to the borders of the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s GPU sought to behead the international Trotskyist movement by assassinating its leading figures. Stalinist agents in Spain had Trotsky’s secretary Erwin Wolf arrested and murdered in July 1937. Ignace Reiss, a defector from the GPU who had declared his allegiance to the Fourth International, was murdered in Switzerland in September 1937. Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son and close political collaborator, was murdered in Paris in February 1938. Rudolph Klement, the secretary of the Fourth International, was kidnapped and brutally murdered. Klement’s body, decapitated and with his legs severed, was found in the Seine River just five weeks before the Fourth International’s founding congress.

Stalin’s chief target was Trotsky himself. Stalin had come to bitterly regret his decision to expel Trotsky from the USSR in 1929. He closely followed the exiled revolutionary’s writings and preparations for the Fourth International. An entire department of the GPU, personally directed by Stalin, was devoted to planning his assassination. This ultimately resulted in Trotsky’s murder by a Stalinist agent in Mexico on August 20, 1940.

Struggle against centrism

Stalin, however, failed to prevent the consolidation of genuine socialist internationalists into the Fourth International—an achievement that Trotsky regarded as the culmination of his life’s work.

The Fourth International was established through a political struggle waged not only against Stalinism and social democracy, but also against centrist organisations. Various centrists declared agreement with Trotsky’s analysis of the counter-revolutionary role of the old organisations, but insisted that the formation of the Fourth International would be “premature”, that Trotsky did not have sufficient support, and that the Fourth Internationalists were too small.

A new International, they claimed, could only be established on the basis of a great event comparable to the Russian Revolution, which they claimed had inspired the formation of the Third International.

Trotsky answered in scathing terms. Lenin and other internationalists had called for the establishment of the Third International not after the Russian Revolution, but in 1915, in the darkest days of the First World War and at a time when virtually every party and leader associated with pre-war socialism had betrayed the working class by supporting their capitalist governments’ war effort.

The crucial question in the founding of the Fourth International was not numbers, but political clarity. The first responsibility of a socialist is to tell the working class the truth. The truth was that under the leadership of the Stalinist Communist parties, or the reformist Social Democratic, Labor and trade union apparatuses, the working class would be incapable of advancing its independent interests against the barbarism being produced by the capitalist system.

Just 30 delegates assembled on September 3, 1938, to found the Fourth International. The congress was held in a private residence—that of Alfred Rosmer, Trotsky’s long-standing comrade and friend—and could meet only for one day due to serious security concerns.

The assembled delegates directly represented 11 countries—including the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Holland, South Africa and the Soviet Union. Others from countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa and Australia were unable to attend but later endorsed the congress and its resolutions. While small in numbers, the assembled delegates represented the accumulated political knowledge and experience of the working class and ensured the continuity of the struggle for international socialism.

In the one day of formal proceedings, the Fourth International’s founding congress adopted a series of resolutions, including an historic founding program, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, also known as the Transitional Program.

Summing up the lessons of the past decades and defining the necessity for the Fourth International, the Transitional Program began: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”

It definitively answered the centrist sceptics who insisted that nothing could be done except to wait upon events.

The Fourth International,” it stated, “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 the purposes of revolution. Long live the Fourth International!”

The perspective and program of the founding congress lives today in our world movement. The principles for which the Fourth International has fought and defended over the past seven decades, often under conditions of great difficulty, must now become the basis on which the world socialist revolution is prepared and organised.

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