David North
The Heritage We Defend

The Fourth International in World War II

Trotsky wrote long ago that a hallmark of petty-bourgeois renegades from Marxism is their disrespect for the traditions of their organization. True to form, Banda goes so far as to mock the memory of the countless Trotskyist martyrs who perished during World War II while waging an underground struggle against fascism.

Banda’s political cynicism toward all questions of principle is expressed in the paradoxical charge that the European Trotskyists “abstained from participating in the Resistance and played little or no part in the struggle to project a revolutionary defeatist line.”

Banda has apparently forgotten that the program of revolutionary defeatism in those Western European countries occupied by the Nazis could be upheld by the Trotskyists only through a fierce struggle against the policies of the official “Resistance” movements, led by Stalinists and their bourgeois allies, which were rooted in popular front class collaboration and support for US and British imperialism. Moreover, as we will explain later, the Fourth International had to wage a bitter struggle against revisionist elements who endorsed popular frontism in the Resistance movements on the grounds that supraclass “national liberation,” not the anticapitalist struggle for workers’ power and socialism, was the only historically feasible basis for the fight against Nazism.

After the war, those who shouted loudest about the Fourth International’s supposed abstention from the Resistance movements were the most right-wing elements within the world movement. Led by Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman, they were, along with the Shachtmanites, in the process of capitulating to imperialist democracy and becoming transformed into anticommunists.

It is a political absurdity to denounce the Trotskyists for playing “little or no part in the struggle to project a revolutionary defeatist line,” because outside the Fourth International, there was no other tendency in the workers’ movement that opposed the imperialist war! The Trotskyists were hounded and persecuted by a “popular front” of fascists, “democratic” imperialists and Stalinists precisely because they upheld the banner of revolutionary defeatism and proletarian internationalism.

World War II tested the cadre that Trotsky had assembled and trained during the previous decade. In a life and death struggle whose personal consequences were often tragic, the Trotskyists proved again that they could swim against the stream. In Europe, the Middle East, South America and Asia, the cadres of the Fourth International defended the program of world socialist revolution.

Let us briefly review the record of revolutionary struggle which the renegade Banda dismisses with such contemptible scorn.

The French Trotskyists Marc Bourhis and Pierre Gueguen were executed by the Nazis on October 22, 1941. Their comrade Jules Joffre was shot in 1942. In October 1943, the secretary of the French section, Marcel Hic, was arrested by the Gestapo, deported to Buchenwald and then to Dora, where he was murdered. Dozens of other French Trotskyists were arrested and also perished in the Nazi death camps. Despite the repression, the Trotskyist PCI published, starting in August 1940, seventy-three clandestine issues of its newspaper, La Verité, whose circulation was 15,000 copies.

After the European Secretariat of the Fourth International was organized in 1943, the French comrades assumed responsibility for the publication of a theoretical organ, Quatrième International. The Trotskyists also published a German-language newspaper, Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), which was circulated among German working-class soldiers. This heroic demonstration of revolutionary internationalism cost the lives of several German and French comrades, including a number of soldiers won to Marxism.

The editor of Arbeiter und Soldat, Paul Widelin, was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris in the spring of 1944. He was quickly brought before a firing squad and shot in the Bois de Vincennes. But he was not killed. Picked up by a passerby and taken to a hospital, Widelin was able to get a message to the Trotskyist underground, which made arrangements to rescue him. Before he could be saved, Widelin was betrayed by a member of the hospital staff. The Gestapo seized him and this time made sure Widelin was dead.

In Holland, nine members of the RSAP, a party which had been associated with Trotskyism, were executed on April 12, 1942, following a public trial by the Nazis. Among those executed was Henk Sneevliet, who sang the “Internationale” as he faced the firing squad.

In Belgium, the leader of the Trotskyist movement, Leon Lesoil, was arrested in 1941 and murdered. Among his comrades executed by Nazi firing squads were Renery, Van Belle and Lemmens. The brilliant young Trotskyist, A. Leon, the author of the valuable study, The Jewish Question, was arrested in 1944 and deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Despite this savage repression, the Belgian comrades produced a French-language newspaper, Lenin’s Voice, which had a circulation of 10,000, and a Flemish-language newspaper, The Class Struggle, which had a circulation of 7,000.

In Greece, Pantelis Pouliopoulis, leader of the Trotskyist “Archeo-Marxists,” was executed along with seventeen of his comrades in June 1943. When brought to his place of execution, Pouliopoulis spoke to the soldiers of the firing squad in their own language and produced a mutiny. When the soldiers declared that they would not carry out their bloody assignment, the Nazi officers had to intervene and personally carry out the executions.

The Italian Trotskyist Blasco was murdered by the Stalinists. A contemporary report of an eyewitness, published by The Militant on September 30, 1944, described the work of the Trotskyists in Italy:

The Trotskyists of Italy are mainly workers, veterans of Mussolini’s prisons, tried and tested in the harsh underground struggle against fascism. I talked with one Trotskyist worker from Rome, a hardened revolutionary fighter. It was from him I learned that there is a large Trotskyist group in Rome and also in Milan.

This worker had first met Trotskyists inside Mussolini’s prisons, where he had been confined for eight years. The prisons were veritable universities for revolutionary education. They had formed a Trotskyist group inside prison. From Milanese revolutionists in the same prison, my informant had learned that there were “hundreds” of Trotskyists in the industrial Milan area.

In 1944, with France still occupied by the Nazis, the European sections of the Fourth International organized a six-day conference, managing to evade the grasp of the Gestapo. It issued a communique which correctly summarized the historic significance of the conference:

“That, in a Europe blood-stained by more than four years of total war, crushed under the most hideous yoke of the imperialisms, whose prisons and concentration camps are gorged with the victims of the most savage and most systematic repression, our organization has been able to hold its European assembly, to work out and define its political line of struggle, of itself constitutes the most eloquent manifestation of its vitality, its internationalist spirit, and the revolutionary ardor by which it is animated.”[1]

At this extraordinary gathering, the Trotskyists debated their attitude toward the popular Resistance movements. While opposing the chauvinism fanned by the Stalinists and Anglo-American imperialism, the delegates recognized the necessity of penetrating the masses being drawn into the struggle against the Nazis. It was above all vital to fight for the perspective of socialist revolution against all efforts, abetted by the Stalinists, to replace the Nazis with reconstructed bourgeois states in the occupied countries. In a document entitled, “The Liquidation of the Second Imperialist War and the Revolutionary Upsurge,” the conference declared:

Though the proletariat must refuse the alliance with its own bourgeoisie, it cannot be indifferent to the mass struggle against the oppression of German imperialism. The proletariat supports this struggle in order to help and speed up its transformation into a general fight against capitalism. This attitude implies the most energetic struggle against attempts by the agents of the national bourgeoisie to get hold of the masses and make use of them for rebuilding the capitalist army and state. Everything must be put to work, on the contrary, to develop the embryos of workers’ power (militias, committees, etc), while the most energetic fight must be carried on against all forms of nationalism.[2]

The document specifically stressed the importance of attempting to make inroads into the popular Resistance movements. It stated that the Fourth International must “ ‘take into consideration this will to struggle on the part of the masses, and to try, despite the many dangers resulting from the national forms which this struggle takes on, to guide it toward class goals.’ ”[3]

Toward this end, the document called on the Trotskyist cadre “ ‘to make this propaganda penetrate into the ranks of the partisans, with a view to regrouping the latent revolutionary forces existing therein on a political and organizational class basis.’ ”[4]

Trotskyists who worked within the large Resistance movements faced not only the danger of arrest by the Gestapo. They also had to evade detection by the Stalinists, who had no qualms about collaborating with the Nazis against the Fourth International, just as the Communist Party in the United States collaborated with the FBI against the Socialist Workers Party.

Banda has chosen to “forget” about the struggle waged by the Trotskyists on the European continent. As for the work of the Fourth International in Britain during the war, he seems to recall nothing at all, except a political error by Healy in relation to the Independent Labour Party. Regardless of whether this specific allegation is true—that Healy momentarily considered joining this centrist organization—it has no bearing whatsoever on the conduct of the Fourth International during World War II.

What Banda fails to mention is that following the long-delayed fusion of the Workers International League and the Revolutionary Socialist League—a process in which Healy, after correcting his earlier mistake, played a major role—the newly-formed Revolutionary Communist Party came under almost immediate attack from the war-time coalition government led by Winston Churchill.

At the fusion conference in March 1944, the sixty-nine delegates adopted a resolution on “Proletarian Military Policy” which declared:

The second World War into which capitalism has plunged mankind in the course of a generation, and which has been raging for more than four years, is the inevitable outcome of the crisis of capitalist methods of production, long predicted by the revolutionary Marxists, and is a sign of the impasse out of which Capitalism cannot lead the mass of humanity. … It is the duty of revolutionary socialists to patiently explain the imperialistic policy of the ruling class and to expose its false and lying slogans of the “War against Fascism” and the “War for Democracy.”[5]

The growing radicalization of the British working class and the active involvement of the RCP in a wave of strikes was answered by Churchill with the arrests of four leaders of the Trotskyist party in early April 1944: Jock Haston, general secretary of the RCP, Roy Tearse, Heaton Lee, and Ann Keen. They were accused of “furthering, aiding and abetting” strikes in the Tyneside declared illegal under the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act. The RCP leaders were the first representatives of the British working class to be tried and convicted under this infamous law, which was passed in the aftermath of the defeated 1926 General Strike.

Lee and Tearse were sentenced to twelve months in prison. Haston was sentenced to six months. The prison terms would have been much longer had it not been for the storm of protest within the workers’ movement.

Wherever it had cadre, the Fourth International fought for its revolutionary program. In Egypt, the puppet government of King Farouk banned the Trotskyist newspaper Al-Majalla Al-Jadida. In Palestine, the Trotskyists published newspapers in Hebrew, Arabic and English, vehemently opposing the formation of a Zionist state while fighting for the unity of Arab-Jewish workers in the struggle against British imperialism.

In Uruguay, the government, citing the prosecution of the Trotskyists in Britain, demanded action against the militants of the Fourth International working in Montevideo. In a hysterical speech given on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies, the Minister of the Interior waved the newspaper published by the Revolutionary Workers League, Contra la Corriente (Against the Stream), and shouted, “These people are now amongst us. They say that this is actually an imperialist war; that the working-class must not believe in the vote; they malign parliamentarism; they say that the victories of justice must be supplanted by the social tragedy of direct revolutionary action.”[6]

In reply to the allegation that the Trotskyists opposed the war, the Revolutionary Workers League “pled guilty,” declaring in an open letter:

We characterize this war as an imperialist war—as the Minister of the Interior states—because all the countries that participate in it except the Soviet Union, do so for imperialist interests. This war will be really and truly for democracy only when the peoples take into their own hands the conduct of the war. Does this policy favor a Hitler victory? We defy anyone to show us one single act of ours that has favored the development of Nazisms. No one desires the defeat of Hitler as we do and since 1930 Trotskyism has been the only force that warned of the Nazi danger, while the British and Yankee capitalists supported the economic development of Nazism.[7]

This open letter was widely circulated and discussed throughout the workers’ movement in Uruguay.

No account of the work of the Fourth International during World War II should be taken seriously if it fails to mention the heroic and inspiring activities of the Trotskyists of Ceylon and India, whose unceasing struggle against British imperialism provided a classic demonstration of revolutionary defeatism in practice.

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was formed by a group of fifty workers and students in December 1935, while Ceylon was still a British colony. Within a short period of time, the LSSP won the allegiance of nearly seven million workers and peasants. It organized the unions of railroad workers, general laborers and plantation workers. The LSSP also conducted work among the poorest sections of the peasantry. Combining electoral activity with its mass work, the LSSP won the election of N.M. Perera and D.P.R. Gunawardena to the Ceylon State Council in its first election campaign. In 1942 the LSSP declared for affiliation to the Fourth International.

Upon the outbreak of the war between German, British and French imperialism in September 1939, Perera and Gunawardena were arrested in violation of their parliamentary immunity. Two other leaders of the LSSP, Colvin De Silva and Edmond Sammarakkody, were arrested at the same time. The party’s printing presses were seized and its publications confiscated. A terror campaign was initiated against the party by the armed Rifle Corps of the Ceylon Planters Association. This criminal persecution of the LSSP by British imperialism preceded the official illegalization of the party by British Governor-General Sir Andrew Caldecott on March 13, 1942.

In the midst of this brutal repression, the LSSP, the Revolutionary Socialist League of Bengal, and the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of the United Provinces and Bihar held a conference in March 1941. It outlined a Trotskyist program for India which was submitted for discussion. This was followed by the election in November 1941 of a Provisional Committee, which functioned as the leadership of the whole movement. The program based on extensive discussion of the draft was adopted in May 1942 and an all-India party formally launched.

In April 1942, in the midst of the preparations for the launching of the all-India party and coinciding with a great upsurge of mass struggle against British imperialism, Perera and Gunawardena staged a daring escape from the concentration camp in which they were being held, with the help of a jailer whom they had won to Trotskyism. The jailer had smuggled in elegant clothing for the prisoners and obtained the required duplicate keys, and at the appropriate time, Perera and Gunawardena, along with Sammarakkody and De Silva, dressed themselves as visiting dignitaries and made a ceremonious and graceful departure from the prison. To add insult to injury, in a gesture calculated to complete the humiliation of the British imperialists, the escapees threw the jail keys back over the wall once they were outside the prison.

The British authorities, stunned by the escape of their most feared opponents, placed a price on their heads and scoured the country to find them. Finally, on July 15, 1943, as a result of the treachery of a Stalinist agent named Kulkarni, who had infiltrated the Trotskyist movement in Bombay, Perera and Gunawardena were arrested. As in the United States, Latin America and Europe, the Indian Stalinists collaborated directly with imperialist authorities in the persecution and suppression of the Trotskyist movement.

The Ceylonese leaders were incarcerated in Indian prisons for five months before being returned to Ceylon for trial. On February 8, 1944, before an imperialist court in the city of Kandy, Perera and Gunawardena issued a statement defending the policies and program of Trotskyism:

Why were we kept in detention? I challenge the right of Sir Andrew Caldecott, agent of the Bank of England and tool of the capitalist class in Britain, to issue a warrant for my arrest and detention. What right has the ruling class of Britain to rule over this island except superior force? Britain has as much right to rule over the people as the Nazis to rule over the people of Denmark and Norway, or the Japanese imperialists to rule over Formosa and Java. NO MORE. The British ruling class came to this island as pirates and have remained here as plunderers. The British Empire was built up by perjury by day and forgery by night.

Ever since my return to this island in 1932, my colleagues worked with ceaseless endeavor to disseminate the idea of scientific socialism among the petty bourgeois intelligentsia and the advanced sections of the working class. The spontaneous labor movement which displayed tremendous vigor and militancy in the twenties had spent its force in the stagnant waters of trade union politics by the early thirties. After three years of work in the propagation of Marxism, we had developed a sufficiently large nucleus, imbued with the ideas of scientific socialism, that we were in a position to launch the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, in December 1935. The history of the party is known to the people of this country. Suffice it to say that it put itself at the forefront of every struggle against imperialism and the capitalist class in this country ever since the party was founded.

The leadership of the LSSP from its very inception refused to come under the leadership of the Stalinist Communist International and remained ever loyal to the principles Lenin and Trotsky stood for in their day. In March 1940 the party, under the influence of the teachings of Trotsky, expelled the Stalinists who were trying to smuggle into the party Stalinist contraband. In 1942 the LSSP became a section of the Fourth International, founded by Trotsky and the comrades of the International Left Opposition.

When the Second Imperialist World War broke out in September, 1939, the party characterized the war as an imperialist war and took a revolutionary defeatist line. My colleagues and I continued to intensify the class struggle and the fight against British imperialism. War is the continuation of politics by other means, i.e. by more forcible means. The character of the war is determined by the class that conducts the war. The war was and remains an imperialist war for markets, for sources of raw materials, for colonies. The “democratic” powers and the Axis powers are fighting to determine which group shall dominate the world. Democracy and Fascism are but two sides of the same coin. Over-ripe and decadent capitalism develops into Fascism when the working class fails to overthrow capitalism and set up its own form of government—the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Party refused to change its characterization of the war on the entry of the Soviet Union into the war. It was quick, however, in defining the war as an imperialist war on the part of every country involved in it except the Soviet Union and China. The Soviet Union is a workers’ state, though deformed. Thus the Soviet Union is fighting a progressive war in defense of the gains of the October Revolution. The Party supports the Soviet Union in this war and is doing everything in its power to enable the working class to render every independent assistance to the Soviet Union in this war. It stands for military victory against the counter-revolutionary forces of Hitler’s Europe.

We support the war of the Chinese workers and peasants for national liberation from the yoke of Japanese Imperialism. But the party works for the defeat of British imperialism in this war by the forces of the colonial masses and the working class of Britain.

The war has set in motion social and political forces that the ruling classes of the warring imperialist powers never bargained for. Fascism is already tottering in Europe, thanks to the hammer blows of the Red Army. But Fascism is taking shape in Great Britain and America.

The fate of the Empire of the Mikado is sealed. The paper houses of the Mikado will go up in flames. But the working class in Japan is likely to settle accounts with the landlords and the capitalists of the Rising Sun—not the armed forces of America and the British Empire. Before this war is over civil war will spread over Europe and Asia. The Soviet Union will play a dominant part in the shaping of the world in the coming years.

Revolutions are on the order of the day. There is no room to believe that the European working class has not benefited from its experiences since the October Revolution in 1917. In the wake of the fall of Fascism working class revolutions will break out in Europe. The fall of Japanese imperialism will give rise to colonial revolution. Lenin characterized this epoch as the epoch of wars and revolutions.

I escaped from prison in April, 1942, for the purpose of helping the tiny group of Fourth Internationalists in India to build a party of the working class that can take advantage of the crises in Indian society that are breaking out in rapid succession. My colleagues and I timed our escape to be in India at one of the most important crises in her history. We are glad that we were able to play an infinitesimally small part, no doubt, in the movement that took place in India from August 1942.

We were arrested on the 15th of July, 1943. After spending five long months in the jails of British Imperialism in India, we are back in the dungeons of British imperialism in Ceylon. Time is with us. IMPERIALISM IS DOOMED, THE FUTURE IS WITH THE WORKING CLASS. The working class of Ceylon under the leadership of the Sama Samaja Party will play its part in the coming years.[8]

There is good reason to believe that this statement by Gunawardena and Perera contributed to the political education of two young brothers from Kandy—Michael and Anthony Van Der Poorten—and inspired them to break with their bourgeois upbringing and to dedicate themselves as Trotskyists to the struggle for socialist revolution. And yet this glorious chapter in the development of the Fourth International during World War II is not even mentioned by Banda, the name used by Michael Van Der Poorten during his four decades inside the Trotskyist movement. In attempting to destroy the Fourth International, he is forced to kill that which was best within himself.

The subsequent capitulation of the LSSP after 1953 can no more detract from its great achievements in the early years of its existence than the degeneration of Banda can nullify the significance of the contributions he once made. Rather, when compared to the promise of the early years, the historical magnitude of the betrayal is shown in all its enormity.


National Education Department Socialist Workers Party, Towards a History of the Fourth International, June 1973, part 2, p. 31.


Ibid., p. 31.


Ibid., p. 32.


Ibid., p. 32.


The Militant, 6 May 1944.


The Militant, 8 July 1944.


The Militant, 9 September 1944.


The Militant, 14 October 1944.