International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 15 No. 3-4 (July-December 1988)

50 Years of the Fourth International

This speech was given at a Workers League meeting held on November 6, 1988 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Fourth International.

Fifty years have passed since the founding of the Fourth International in September 1938. By the yardstick of history, this is not all too long a period of time. But it is one which encompasses the most tumultuous events. One would have to be blind not to recognize the vast political changes and social transformations which have shaken the globe during the past half-century. In some respects—and this is due in no small degree to the impact of scientific and technological developments—the world of 1938 appears almost provincial compared to that of today. The national boundaries, the frontiers created by both politics and geography, were then far more formidable than they are today in a world of jet travel and instantaneous computerized global communications systems.

It is not surprising that the ideologists of the ruling class should proclaim that the sheer magnitude of scientific advances and technological changes have rendered Marxism irrelevant, and, of course, they point with glee to the crisis inside the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China as the “proof” of the failure of Marxism. And yet, far from invalidating the premises and principles upon which the founding of the Fourth International was based, the impact of scientific and technological developments upon the structure and functioning of the global capitalist economy, and, we must add, the crisis of the Stalinist bureaucracies, vindicates the historical perspective of the Fourth International and imparts to it a profound contemporary relevance.

Indeed, one has only to read the founding document of the Fourth International, The Transitional Program, to be astounded by its amazing freshness. Entire passages read as if they were drafted last week, not fifty years ago:

The economic prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have already in general achieved the highest point of maturity that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Cyclical slumps, under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems...

International relations present no better picture. Under the increasing tension of capitalist disintegration, imperialist antagonisms reach an impasse at which separate clashes and bloody local disturbances ... must inevitably coalesce into a conflagration of world dimensions. The bourgeoisie, of course, is aware of the mortal danger to its domination represented by a new war. But that class is now immeasurably less capable of averting war than on the eve of 1914.

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, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. All now depends on the proletariat, i.e., chiefly on its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.

The historic contradiction confronting mankind today remains essentially the same as that which existed in 1938 and which culminated, within one year of the founding of the Fourth International, in the eruption of World War II. For all the innovations in the sphere of the productive forces, humanity remains bogged down in the outmoded and reactionary social relations of capitalism. No intelligent person doubts the awesome potential of nuclear power, the silicon microchip and biotechnology. But this technology remains subservient to private ownership of the means of production, that is, to the greedy, mindless and socially destructive pursuit of personal profit by a negligible minority of the world’s population.

Moreover, the globalization of production has transformed the socialist principle of scientific economic planning and the rational utilization of the world’s productive forces into not only a realizable goal, but also an unpostponable necessity without which civilization cannot survive, let alone advance to a higher material and cultural level. However, the productive forces remain strangled within the confines of the basic form of bourgeois political organization, the nation-state system, which, unless abolished through the world socialist revolution, will become the graveyard of mankind.

For the most part, official bourgeois society, having gorged itself on the paper profits of the “roaring eighties,” seeks to reassure itself and the complacent and ignorant middle class that everything is, more or less, in order. Its propagandists in the depraved capitalist media dismiss every sign of impending catastrophe, such as the Wall Street crash of October 19, 1987, with soothing platitudes. They try to ridicule the Marxists who foresee the disasters which lie ahead and who warn the working class as panic-mongers and insane prophets of doom.

And yet, amongst themselves, inside the academic sanctuaries where the policy options available to the bourgeoisie are analyzed, the well-paid and elite strategists of the ruling class betray their doubts and fears about the future. One such strategist, Robert Gilpin, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs at Princeton University, has written a book in which he frankly states, “The long-term survivability of a capitalist or market system, at least as we have known it since the end of the Second World War, continues to be problematic.” And, without attempting to answer it, he poses the following question: “As American power and leadership decline due to the operation of the ‘law of uneven development,’ will confrontation mount and the system collapse as one nation after another pursues ‘beggar-my-neighbor’ policies, as Lenin would expect?1

The very fact that the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs at Princeton University invokes the name of Lenin and concedes that history may yet prove him correct exposes the anxiety which grips the ruling class and its own lack of confidence in the viability and future of capitalism.

When confronted with the undeniable facts which demonstrate the desperate position of capitalism, its apologists attempt to take refuge by pointing to the crisis of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. However, the conditions which exist in these countries represent the failure not of socialism and Marxism, but of their antithesis, Stalinism.

Far from refuting Trotskyism—that is, contemporary Marxism —the worldwide putrefaction of the Stalinist bureaucracies, their open transformation into direct agencies for the reintroduction of capitalist property relations in the USSR, China and throughout Eastern Europe, signifies the greatest vindication of Trotsky’s struggle for the Fourth International.

The founding of the Fourth International was the product of a 15-year struggle waged by Marxists within the Soviet Union and internationally, under the leadership of Trotsky, against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Bolshevik Party and the Third, Communist International. Fighting to defend the nationalized property relations established in 1917-1918, Trotsky and the Left Opposition insisted that the survival of the first workers’ state depended, in the final analysis, upon the victory of the international working class. They rejected as anti-Marxist and wholly reactionary the position initially advanced by Stalin in 1924 that the Soviet Union could realize socialism within its own borders independently of the struggles of the international proletariat against world capitalism, the so-called theory of socialism in one country.

As Trotsky tirelessly explained, the very survival of the USSR, not to mention its achievement of socialism, depends, in the final analysis, upon the victory of the international working class. The relative economic backwardness of the Soviet Union vis-a-vis the advanced imperialist states—a legacy inherited by the first workers’ state from czarist Russia—cannot be overcome within the framework of the isolated workers’ state, encircled by world imperialism and denied access to the world market and the international division of labor. Trotsky and the Left Opposition emphasized that the development of the Soviet Union toward socialism was possible only to the extent that its day-to-day policies were based on the conscious recognition that October 1917 was only the first stage in the world socialist revolution; and that, moreover, all the difficulties confronting the first workers’ state were bound up with the fundamental problem of extending the October victory into the advanced centers of world imperialism, that is, into Western Europe and North America.

The nationalist program of “socialism in one country” was directly responsible for the historic defeats suffered by the international working class in the 1920s and 1930s, the most terrible of which was the victory of Hitlerite fascism over the German working class. The historic necessity which impelled Trotsky to found the Fourth International was the fact that Stalinism had, by 1933, destroyed the Communist International as a revolutionary force. The accumulated betrayals of the international working class had completed the transformation of the Stalinist bureaucracy into a counter-revolutionary organism functioning as an agency of world imperialism in the international workers’ movement. Trotsky’s call for the Fourth International was inseparably linked with his demand for the violent overthrow of the Soviet bureaucracy in a political revolution. He insisted that a political revolution was necessary in order to safeguard what remained of the October Revolution—principally, the property relations established after the Bolshevik victory.

Trotsky opposed all those who claimed that Stalinism had already liquidated the workers’ state, that the bureaucracy had established a new form of class rule, that there existed no qualitative difference between the Soviet Union and the imperialist states, and that nothing remained of the USSR worth defending, even against an imperialist attack. However, he explicitly warned that the rule of the bureaucracy would lead inevitably, unless overthrown by the working class, to the restoration of capitalism inside the USSR.

Trotsky refuted the claims of those who asserted that the bureaucracy had succeeded in transforming itself into a new ruling class. The bureaucracy parasitically exploits the property relations established by the proletariat in the aftermath of October 1917. It has not worked out its own special forms of property relations nor has it, until now, restored private ownership of the means of production. Trotsky pointed out that it was not enough for the Stalinist bureaucrats to betray the revolution; they had to overthrow it, that is, they had to destroy the property relations established by the October Revolution and restore the rule of private property.

However, Trotsky warned that the social and political evolution of the bureaucracy proceeded along precisely such a counterrevolutionary trajectory. As he wrote in 1936: “Since of all the strata of Soviet society the bureaucracy has best solved its own social problem, and is fully content with the existing situation, it has ceased to offer any subjective guarantee whatever of the socialist direction of its policy. It continues to preserve state property only to the extent that it fears the proletariat.”

Moreover, he noted that the bureaucracy recognized that its own social privileges remained insecure as long as they lacked the enduring foundation that can only be provided by the right to the direct ownership of property and the ability to transmit such property to family through the institution of inheritance. As Trotsky noted, “It is not enough to be the director of a trust; it is necessary to be a stockholder. The victory of the bureaucracy in this decisive sphere would mean its conversion into a new possessing class.”

Since the founding of the Fourth International, Trotsky’s assessment of the social nature and historical trajectory of the Stalinist bureaucracy has been under attack from many directions. Of course, the Stalinist bureaucracy sought to conceal its usurpation of political power from the proletariat and its betrayals of world socialism by presenting itself as the legitimate descendants of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party. Even after 1956, in the wake of the exposure of monstrous crimes of Stalin, these were presented by Khrushchev and his successors as merely the product of distortions produced by the mystical phenomenon that they called “the cult of personality.” Despite these crimes, they claimed that the party of Lenin remained in tact and its course had always been in the direction of socialism. Above all, they upheld the infallibility of the line of “socialism in one country.”

The program of the Fourth International came under attack not only from the Stalinists, but also from those who presented themselves as supporters of Trotsky. First, as we have mentioned, from those who, defining the USSR as “state capitalist” or “bureaucratic collectivist,” denied the existence of a workers’ state in any form and thus rejected the defense of the Soviet Union.

Even more insidious and far more dangerous to the Fourth International were those tendencies which, in the aftermath of World War II, called into question Trotsky’s evaluation of the bureaucracy as a counterrevolutionary force within Soviet society, attributed to the bureaucracy a positive historical role, and thus began to dilute and undermine the perspective of political revolution. Within the Fourth International, a tendency originally led by Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel advanced the position that the political revolution would be ultimately realized through a protracted process of internal self-reform initiated by the bureaucracy itself. Thus, the task of the Fourth International was not to independently mobilize the Soviet working class against the bureaucracy, but to extend political support to those “progressive” tendencies which emerged from time to time from the bowels of the totalitarian bureaucracy.

The inevitable outcome of this political capitulation to Stalinism has been the prostration of all these opportunists before the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev. In one form or another, they have sought to discover in the policies of glasnost and perestroika the realization of the perspective of progressive bureaucratic self-reform. What they all deny is the fact, upon which the International Committee has emphatically insisted, that the policies of Gorbachev are the conclusive vindication of Trotsky’s warnings of the ultimate counterrevolutionary consequences of Stalinism. While the opportunists have adapted themselves to Gorbachev, we have continuously insisted that perestroika marks a qualitative leap toward the restoration of capitalism within the USSR by the bureaucracy.

Just last July, one of these petty-bourgeois opportunist groups, the Spartacist League, became hysterical over our reference to the bureaucracy as “counterrevolutionary through and through.” They quoted with horror the Bulletin's statement, “Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) are the road to the restoration of capitalism in the USSR and the transformation of Stalinist bureaucrats into capitalists.” These pathetic middle class radicals asserted, “The Northites’ ‘analysis’ of where Gorbachev’s Russia is going is unmitigated Third Campism”—that is, a form of anticommunism.

That is not all. A group of renegades from the International Committee, led by Cliff Slaughter, also condemned our analysis of Gorbachev’s policies. In an article published last July, they wrote: “It is Gorbachev’s attempted transformation of the economy which has led some tendencies which claim to be Trotskyist to condemn him for restoring capitalism.’

“This is a rejection of Trotsky’s conception of Soviet economy.... Even more important, this attitude implies that support should be given to Gorbachev’s more ‘conservative’ opponents. Instead of grasping that the political revolution of the Soviet workers for the ending of all bureaucratic power is now beginning, these people confer on the Gorbachev wing the powers of a class, or even a superclass, which can change social relations at will.”

Finally, there is the position of Gerry Healy, who after spending decades fighting opportunism has become the most unrestrained opportunist of them all (proving once again that those who come late to Christ come hardest). He wrote as recently as the September issue of his misnamed magazine, The Marxist Monthly, “Much depends upon the struggle between the Gorbachev and Ligachev trends. No Trotskyist can be neutral in this decisive stage of the political revolution in the USSR. We must critically support the Gorbachev wing insofar as they open the doors to the publication of Trotsky’s writings and those of Lenin’s ‘Old Guard.’ “

So distant are all these tendencies from principled proletarian revolutionary politics that they cannot conceive of fighting for an independent Marxist line in the working class. They need the support of one or another faction of the bureaucracy like a one-legged man needs the support of a crutch. The limits of political reality are defined by the factions within the Stalinist bureaucracy. Everything is reduced to Gorbachev or Ligachev. None of them even attempt to provide a scientific analysis of the political struggles raging within the bureaucracy from the standpoint of the larger and fundamental conflict between the bureaucracy as a definite social caste and the Soviet proletariat. In other words, what they avoid is any concrete analysis of the actual socioeconomic content of the programs advanced by bureaucracy, and especially by its predominant Gorbachevite wing, within the framework of the contradictory social relations which exist in the USSR.

The timing of these attacks on the position of the International Committee was especially significant; for it has been in the course of the past summer—the high point of the internal struggle within the bureaucracy—that the pro-capitalist character of Gorbachev’s policies has been definitely established.

Permit me to review the course of events since the late spring of this year. In May, Reagan and his entourage were invited to the Soviet Union to cement even closer relations with American imperialism. Then, in late June, the Soviet bureaucracy held its extraordinary Nineteenth Party Conference, the first since 1941, which was presented as initiating a decisive step forward in the program of perestroika. And indeed it did, for the Nineteenth Conference marked the initiation of an all-out ideological, political and practical assault on the property relations established by the October Revolution.

The opening shot was fired by Gorbachev himself, in his long-winded address to the party conference, which was largely devoted to a denunciation of nationalized property relations and collectivized agriculture. In essence the speech was a tribute to the potential glories of private property and at the same time a bitter attack on the evils which supposedly flow from the elimination of private ownership of the means of production.

Much has been written and said about the well-known problems of Soviet agriculture. The low level of agricultural productivity and the chronic shortages are usually cited as the supreme “proof’ of the failure of collectivization and socialism. This vulgar analysis is generally characterized by a complete lack of historical perspective. In every country of the world the development of agriculture depends upon the level of industry and technology. The problems of Soviet agriculture are bound up with the state of its industrial development, whose uneven and distorted character is, in the final analysis, the product of the nationally-isolated and shut-in character of the Soviet economy as a whole. In other words, the essential cause of the crisis of Soviet agriculture is to be found in the reactionary program of socialism in a single country.

Gorbachev, however, adopts the standpoint of every bourgeois opponent of socialism; and openly proclaims that the source of the crisis of Soviet agriculture lies in collectivization itself, in the creation of state farms and in the abolition of private enterprise in agriculture. He told the June conference, “We must overcome the estrangement between farmer and soil. We must make the farmer sovereign master, protect him against command methods, and fundamentally change the conditions of life in the villages.”

In both the speeches of Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders, one finds frequent references to the importance of ending the “estrangement” and “alienation” of man from nature and the forces of production. This is an issue of no small importance about which Karl Marx, in particular, had a great deal to say. However, Marx’s conception of alienation and its historical roots in the socioeconomic development of man is diametrically opposed to what is now being written and said by Gorbachev and his advisers.

For Gorbachev, the source of alienation and estrangement lies in the abolition of private ownership of the means of production. One of the major aims of perestroika is to restore private ownership of the productive forces and thus “do away with man’s estrangement from the means of production...” He asserted only last month that “the most important thing today is to stop the process of depeasantization and to return the man back to the land as its real master. On state farms and collective farms, people have become divorced from the land and the means of production. By tearing people away from the land and the means of production, we have transformed them from the masters of the land into day laborers.”

As a denunciation of Marxism and socialism, not even Ronald Reagan’s speech writers could improve on these words. Gorbachev now says that the nationalization of the means of production leads to the alienation of man, and that it is only through private property that this alienation can be transcended. What is then left of the entire historical and philosophical foundation of socialism?

In the early 1840s, when Marx was in the process of working out the theoretical foundations of scientific socialism, he subjected the concept of alienation to the most profound materialist analysis. He established that alienation, understood as a socio-historical phenomenon—that is, as the estrangement of man from the product of his labor, and the transformation of that product of labor into an alien power which dominates man—finds its concrete social expression in private property. Private property is grounded upon the alienation of labor: it is the possession and enjoyment by one man of the product of another man’s labor. Private property, the product as well as the embodiment of alienated labor, reinforces this alienation, and reproduces it in ever more horrific social forms, to the extent of the dehumanization of man and the nullification of his human senses.

Thus, as Marx discovered, the ending of man’s alienation requires the transcendence of private property. This, in turn, can be achieved only by that world historical force that is without property, the proletariat, and whose own liberation thus signifies universal liberation, and the reconstitution of society as truly human society.

This fundamental premise of Marxism is rejected by the Stalinist bureaucracy, and with it all that constitutes the scientific and historical foundation of Marxism. To give another example, Gorbachev’s principle ideological mentor, Aleksandr Yakovlev, gave a speech in Riga, Latvia, on August 10, in which he stated: “It is not the movement of commodities, capital or even work force, but the social implications of the processes accompanying this movement that determine whether a market is socialist or capitalist. The difference is not in the forms of society’s existence or the instruments and means of this existence. It is the place of the individual in society that matters.”

In other words, the nature of society is not to be determined by the objective character of the production relations upon which it is based. According to Yakovlev, in the definition of a given society, no essential significance is to be given to the objective character of the mode of production, the relation of the producer to the means of production, or the fact that one class appropriates the surplus value produced by another class. No special importance is to be attached to the fact that labor power, a man’s ability to work, is transformed into a commodity; that this commodity is used by those who own the means of production to realize surplus value; and that this surplus value is transformed into capital.

What is the significance of these and other astounding and reactionary formulations to be found in the speeches of Soviet bureaucrats, which glorify the individual over society, deprecate the working class and its collective struggle, and frankly proclaim that the ownership of property is the supreme right which must be protected by the state? The answer is that the open assault on Marxism and socialist principles by the bureaucracy is the ideological coefficient of its political attack on the property relations established in October 1917 and its own direct preparations to restore capitalism and assume the role of an exploiting class.

In virtually every country dominated by the Stalinist bureaucracies, this frantic rush toward capitalism and the intensified exploitation of the working class is underway. In Hungary, virtually all restrictions on private ownership of the productive forces have been lifted. Foreign corporations are being allowed total ownership of Hungarian companies. A stock exchange is now functioning. And, in order to entice capitalist investment, subsidies for state-owned industries are being slashed and plans are being made for mass layoffs. Some 60,000 industrial workers are slated to lose their jobs in 1989. And, under the whip of the IMF, a sharp rise in prices will be permitted.

In Poland, the same policies are being implemented. The new prime minister, after announcing his plans to shut down the Lenin shipyard, openly proclaimed his admiration for British Prime Minister Thatcher, and warned that his government was ready to deal with strikes against layoffs and declining living standards.

In China, the implementation of pro-capitalist policies has produced a horrifying deterioration in the conditions of the working class. The level of exploitation has become so brutal that even Business Week magazine reported with some disgust the conditions which exist in Chinese factories which produce goods for US-owned corporations:

Today, dozens of lawbreaking factories can be found in the four economic zones, on their fringes, and spreading further into the mainland. Chinese investigators recently discovered children as young as 10 making toys, electronic gear, garments, and artificial flowers. They work up to 14 and 15 hours a day at salaries ranging from $10 to $31 a month. Often workers sleep two to three in a bed in dormitories....

Chinese law officially bans hiring youth under 17 or making people work more than eight hours a day, six days a week. But the law is hard to enforce because economic reformers promoting foreign investment are pitted against those representing Chinese labor unions. Now, the economic reformers are being blamed for importing social ills.

Hong Kong has added to the problem. It already has a labor shortage, and it forbids youths under 15 from working. Women are now allowed to work more than 10 hours a day, including overtime. So Shekou, just 50 minutes by hydrofoil from Hong Kong, looks inviting. ‘We can work these girls all day and all night, while in Hong Kong it would be impossible,’ says a Kader executive on the Shekou shop floor....

Since May, the Chinese press has documented numerous horror stories. In the largest special economic zone, Shenzhen, mainland investigators dismissed almost 500 workers who were under age 16 in 22 factories. In July officials found that more than 40 out of 200 businesses were employing girls as young as 10 for 14-hour days at $21 a month. Officials also discovered that 13-year-olds recruited by free-lance agents from China’s poorest province, nearby Guangxi, were working in electronics and garment factories.

If workers refuse to work in 24-hour shifts, “they can be blacklisted from getting extra hours in the future.” As Business Week admits, the US companies pretend that they know nothing of the conditions which exist at the Chinese plants at which their children’s toys are made. They prefer not to know about the pregnant women who are fainting on the shop floor.

These conditions are paving the way for a great revolutionary resurgence of the proletariat in China, Eastern Europe, and, above all, in the Soviet Union. The Russian working class has not made three revolutions in this century and sacrificed 20 million lives in the struggle against German imperialism’s attempt to restore capitalism with the armies of Hitler so that a decadent caste of corrupt bureaucrats could abolish with a few decrees the remaining conquests of October 1917.

The political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy is as historically necessary as it is inevitable. The struggles of the Soviet, Eastern European and Chinese proletariat will unfold as part of the world revolution. Thus, at this historical juncture, the profound significance of the Fourth International emerges so clearly. It alone has elaborated and defended the political basis upon which the proletariat can realize its historical interests.

The struggle between Trotskyism and Stalinism has transcended the dispute between world revolution versus socialism in one country. The latter has openly dissolved itself into the program of capitalist restoration. Now, Trotskyism versus Stalinism is openly socialism versus capitalism. Thus, Trotskyism emerges as the undisputed platform of the whole historic program and vision of scientific socialism. Therein lies the world historical significance of the Fourth International.