Socialist Equality Party (United States)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (United States)

The Early Struggles of the International Left Opposition

The Left Opposition found support outside the Russian Communist Party. A breakthrough occurred when Trotsky’s Critique of the Draft Program of the Comintern, prepared for the Sixth Congress held in 1928, fell, through a stroke of luck, into the hands of James P. Cannon, a veteran revolutionary and founding member of the American Communist Party. After studying the document, he and the Canadian revolutionary, Maurice Spector, decided to take up the fight for Trotsky’s positions. Soon after returning to the United States, Cannon—supported by Max Shachtman and Martin Abern—initiated the struggle for the positions of the Left Opposition within the Communist Party. A statement written by Cannon, Shachtman and Abern was presented to a meeting of the Political Committee of the Communist Party on October 27, 1928. It declared:

The attempts to revise the basic Marxist-Leninist doctrine with the spurious theory of socialism in one country have been rightly resisted by the Opposition led by Trotsky. A number of revisionist and opportunist errors in various fields of Comintern activity and its ideological life in general have proceeded from this false theory. To this, in part at least, can be traced the false line in the Chinese revolution, the debacle of the Anglo-Russian Committee, the alarming and unprecedented growth of bureaucratism in the Comintern, an incorrect attitude and policy in the Soviet Union, etc., etc. This new “theory” is bound up with an overemphasis on the power and duration of the temporary stabilization of capitalism. Herein lies the true source of pessimism regarding the development of the proletarian world revolution. One of the principal duties of every Communist in every party of the Comintern is to fight along with the Opposition for the teachings of Marx, Engels and Lenin on this basic question.[1]

Cannon was expelled at that very session of the Political Committee. He proceeded to found the Communist League of America. Thus, the Trotskyist movement in the United States, which was to play such a significant role in the development of the international Trotskyist movement, began on a principled foundation. Its point of departure was not a dispute over organizational issues or national tactics, but, rather, the decisive questions of international revolutionary strategy. The document that inspired Cannon, Trotsky’s Critique of the Draft Program, was a comprehensive indictment of the nationalist orientation of the Stalin leadership and its failure to assess the strategic experiences of the international working class since the October Revolution of 1917. In his assessment of the world political and economic situation, Trotsky criticized the draft program’s failure to analyze the rise of American imperialism and called attention to the implications of the struggle of American imperialism to establish and maintain its hegemonic position. While foreseeing a major economic crisis in the United States, he did not believe that this would lessen America’s dominant position in world politics:

Just the contrary is the case. In the period of crisis the hegemony of the United States will operate more completely, more openly, and more ruthlessly than in the period of boom. The United States will seek to overcome and extricate herself from her difficulties and maladies at the expense of Europe, regardless of whether this occurs in Asia, Canada, South America, Australia, or Europe itself, or whether this takes place peacefully or through war.[2]

The Wall Street crash of October 1929 marked the beginning of a global depression that plunged capitalism into the greatest crisis in its history. Beginning little more than a decade after the end of World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the bloody social and political upheavals that arose out of it, provided another crushing refutation of all the complacent nostrums of the revisionists and reformists. Capitalism was brought by its own contradictions to the brink of collapse in Europe, Asia and even North America. That it survived these upheavals, at an incredible cost in human lives, is attributable to the political betrayals of the mass organizations of the working class led, first and foremost, by the Stalinists and Social Democrats. The Fourth International arose on the basis of the struggle, led by Trotsky, against these betrayals. The record and lessons of these struggles form, to this day, the essential historical, theoretical and political foundation for the education of Marxists.

After his arrival in Turkey in 1929, Trotsky continued to fight for a correct policy in the Soviet Union, calling for a planned and rational program of industrialization. The aim of the International Left Opposition remained the political reform of the regime in the Soviet Union, and the return of the Communist International to a correct revolutionary line, based on Marxist principles. In the late 1920s, in the face of mass famine caused by the peasantry’s withholding of grain from the cities, the Stalinist bureaucracy reversed its previous orientation to the peasantry and promotion of market policies with a brutal and unplanned program of industrialization, collectivization of agriculture, and the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class.” Its program of rapid industrialization, based on the perspective of economic nationalism and autarky, bore no relation to Trotsky’s proposals for a planned program of state industrial development that utilized the resources of the world economy and its international division of labor. Ultra-leftism in domestic policy was accompanied by a sharp turn in the Comintern to sectarian political adventurism, based on the theory of the “Third Period.” The political perspective promoted by this “theory”—or, to be more precise, anti-theory—hypothesized a continuous “radicalization of the masses,” devoid of contradictions and apparently unrelated to objective economic, political and social processes. All problems of political strategy and tactics were reduced by the Stalinists to the simplistic shouting of radical slogans. Trotsky warned that the Stalinist hypothesis made a mockery of Marxist political analysis. He wrote:

It goes without saying that from the point of view of our epoch as a whole the development of the proletariat advances in the direction of the revolution. But this is not a steady progression, any more than the objective process of the deepening of capitalist contradictions. The reformists see only the ups of the capitalist road. The formal “revolutionaries” see only its downs. But a Marxist sees the road as a whole, all of its conjunctural ups and downs, without for a moment losing sight of the main direction—the catastrophe of wars, the explosion of revolutions.[3]


James P. Cannon, The Left Opposition in the United States 1928-31 (New York: Monad Press, 1981), p. 32.


Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (New York: Pathfinder, 2002), pp. 28-29.


“The ‘Third Period’ of the Comintern’s Errors,” in: Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), p. 28.