David North
The Heritage We Defend

The “Three Theses” of the Retrogressionists

In Banda’s treatment of the war years, he uses phrases such as “in Europe sections abstained from participating in the Resistance,” which are calculated to provoke a contemptuous attitude toward the Fourth International among those who have not had the opportunity to study its history.

The Fourth International’s refusal to subordinate the political independence of the proletariat to the program of “democratic” imperialism, and its determination to work out a principled line toward the Resistance movements, are transformed by Banda into a lying allegation: the Trotskyists, political cowards as always, “abstained”! Another reason for burying the International Committee! Down with Trotskyism!

Not surprisingly, Banda shows no interest in tracing the historical origins of the dispute over the attitude of the Fourth International toward the World War II Resistance movements. He does not care to examine who it was who raised similar criticisms of the Trotskyist movement during the 1940s or study the political positions with which such criticisms were linked.

Rather, in passing, Banda refers to Cannon’s struggle against the Goldman-Morrow faction as “an alibi and convenient diversion which did nothing to stop the descent into pragmatism of the worst kind.” Like a pickpocket anxious to get away from the scene of the crime, Banda immediately moves on. Why the haste? From this offhand remark, it might be assumed that he is dealing with a minor episode which was of no particular importance in the history of the Fourth International.

But that is hardly the case. The struggle led by Cannon against Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman represented the continuation and deepening of the battle waged by the SWP in 1939–40, under the leadership of Leon Trotsky, against the petty-bourgeois opposition of Shachtman, Burnham and Abern. The fight against the Morrow-Goldman minority faction eventually assumed the form of an international struggle against petty-bourgeois and right-wing elements throughout the Fourth International.

The fact that Banda glosses over this struggle and treats it as simply “an alibi and convenient diversion” is significant in two respects.

First, it demonstrates again that Banda’s conception of the history of the Fourth International and its inner-party struggle is entirely subjective. He is incapable of uncovering the objective connection between the struggle of tendencies within the Trotskyist movement and the development of the world capitalist crisis and the class struggle. Rather than examining the political biographies of leaders within the Fourth International as a contradictory reflection of objectively existing social relations, Banda sees them only as the good, the bad and the ugly.

Second, an analysis of the issues which arose in the course of the struggle against Morrow, Goldman and their international retinue exposes the reactionary political and theoretical ancestry of the charges which Banda now levels against the Fourth International. As we have previously pointed out, he is an eclectic who employs bits and pieces of old revisionist arguments which were answered long ago to the satisfaction of all Trotskyists except, as it now turns out, Michael Banda.

Not only the criticism of the Fourth International’s attitude toward the official Resistance movements, but also Banda’s charge that “the entire FI—bereft of Trotsky’s dialectical ability and vision—was completely confused by the post-war situation because the leading Trotskyists, such as Cannon, had made a fetishistic dogma out of Trotskyism,” repeats the allegations of Felix Morrow.

This is how Felix Morrow explained the source of what he considered, in 1946, the terminal crisis of the Fourth International:

This mad clinging to outworn formulas—that is the source of all the disputes between us. What Comrade Cannon calls our “unchanging program.” There is the heart of the dispute. For Cannon and his followers the program must not have rude hands laid upon it; it is sacred, inviolable. …

Central to our understanding of the dispute is to understand the situation created by the death of Trotsky. The death of Trotsky was bound, sooner or later, to lead to a political crisis of the Fourth International, and that is what we are confronted with—a political crisis on an international scale. It was bound to happen because Trotsky’s death created a gap which nobody could fill either individually or collectively.[1]

Morrow’s denunciation of Cannon’s “unchanging program”—or what Banda calls making “a fetishistic dogma out of Trotskyism”—was an attempt to overthrow the program of the Fourth International. The similarity between the two approaches is neither superficial nor accidental. The theoretical garb of the petty-bourgeois opponents of the Fourth International consists, from generation to generation, of the same old hand-me-downs. Nevertheless, each new generation of revisionists—from Shachtman in 1940 all the way to Banda in 1986—flatter themselves to have discovered anew the fatal flaw of Trotskyism.

Let us review the origins of the struggle against the Morrow-Goldman faction and their supporters in the Fourth International, which included, incidentally, both Banda’s beloved Grandizo Munis and Jock Haston of the Revolutionary Communist Party, as the British section was then known.

The struggle waged by Trotsky and the SWP against Burnham, Shachtman and Abern was a political milestone in the transformation of the Socialist Workers Party into a Marxist proletarian party. It marked a decisive break by the SWP with petty-bourgeois propagandists who were alien to the workers’ movement and who succumbed to the class pressures exerted by imperialism upon the revolutionary vanguard on the eve of America’s entry into World War II.

James Burnham, the ideological leader of the minority, declared his opposition to dialectical materialism and deserted to the camp of democratic imperialist reaction little more than one month after the split in April 1940. Shachtman’s group, which called itself the Workers Party, still claimed to be Trotskyist while rejecting the Fourth International’s characterization of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state and refusing to defend it unconditionally against imperialist attacks.

Underlying the renegacy of Shachtman was the skepticism of a broad layer of petty-bourgeois intellectuals who, beneath the impact of proletarian defeats, the apparent strength of the Soviet bureaucracy, and the specter of war, lost all confidence in the perspective of socialist revolution. As Trotsky explained:

All the various types of disillusioned and frightened representatives of pseudo-Marxism proceed … from the assumption that the bankruptcy of the leadership only “reflects” the incapacity of the proletariat to fulfill its revolutionary mission. Not all our opponents express this thought clearly, but all of them—ultra-lefts, centrists, anarchists, not to mention Stalinists and social-democrats—shift the responsibility for the defeats from themselves to the shoulders of the proletariat. None of them indicate under precisely what conditions the proletariat will be capable of accomplishing the socialist overturn.[2]

Though the split with Shachtman was decisive from the standpoint of politics, theory and organization, this did not mean that the social pressures that had produced Shachtman’s degeneration and betrayal had abated, nor that the Fourth International had made a clean break with all the petty-bourgeois elements within its ranks. As long as capitalism exists, and even in the immediate aftermath of the socialist revolution, there will be no “final struggle” against revisionism. The outbreak of the war, its devastating impact and unforeseeable consequences produced new differentiations within the Fourth International.

The earliest intimations of new revisionist tendencies within the Fourth International came in 1942 with the publication of a document by German emigré Trotskyists entitled, “Three Theses on the Political Situation and the Political Tasks.” The position advanced in this document recalled Trotsky’s 1939 warning that petty-bourgeois skepticism leads inevitably to a political deadend: “If we grant as true that the cause of the defeats is rooted in the social qualities of the proletariat itself then the position of modern society will have to be acknowledged as hopeless.”[3]

This was, more or less, the position at which the authors of the “Three Theses” arrived with their theory of “retrogression.” Convinced that the defeat of the German working class and the conquest of Europe by the Nazis was irrevocable, the “retrogressionists” of the IKD (International Communists of Germany) concluded that the perspective of socialism had been removed from the agenda of history for the foreseeable future. The war, they believed, would rage on for decades. Their pessimism assumed apocalyptic dimensions. “Wherever one looks,” they wrote, “there are destruction, gangrene and anarchy in alarming degree which seal the catastrophe of culture.”[4]

Hitlerism was not the product of rotting capitalism, but the birthmark of a new social system: “The prisons, the new ghettos, the forced labor, the concentration and even war-prisoners’ camps are not only transitional political-military establishments, they are just as much forms of new economic exploitation which accompanies the development toward a modern slave state and is intended as the permanent fate of a considerable percentage of mankind.”[5]

The old conceptions of the class struggle had been rendered invalid. “The political situation … is characterized above all by the destruction of workers’ and non-fascist bourgeois parties … With certain exceptions, there is no longer an independent traditional bourgeois or proletarian political or workers’ movement… even the ‘national’ bourgeoisie is being more and more crushed … Under such circumstances protests against growing suffering must find another outlet.”[6]

The new movement would consist of “all classes and strata,” combined in a united struggle for the “national liberation” of Europe. All talk of overthrowing capitalism was irrelevant: “The transition from fascism to Socialism remains a Utopia without an intermediate stage, which is basically equivalent to a democratic revolution.”[7]

By the end of 1942, the defeat of Hitler at Stalingrad—which marked the beginning of the end of German fascism—shattered the central tenet of the “Three Theses,” the perspective of the interminable war and the protracted domination of German imperialism. But rather than abandon their old theory, the retrogressionists simply revised it to make it even more all-embracing and still more categorical in its rejection of the perspective of social revolution.

In a new document, entitled “Capitalist Barbarism or Socialism,” which appeared in 1944, they claimed, “The development toward the modern slave state is a world phenomenon which arises out of capitalist putrefaction.”[8]

The historical development of mankind, they argued, had been thrown back generations, if not centuries, placing before the working class the task of reconquering national freedom as the precondition for socialist development. Retrogressive development

is a process that appears before us as the horrible battle for self-preservation of a society doomed to death, and harks back in reverse order to the end of the Middle Ages, the epoch of “primitive accumulation,” the Thirty Years War, the bourgeois revolutions, etc. In those days it was a question of smashing an outlived economic form and of winning the independence of nations—now it is a question of abolishing independence and of shoving society back to the barbarism of the Middle Ages …

Socialism … is sucked into the past. … The proletariat has again, as formerly, become an amorphous mass, the characteristics of its rise and its formation have been lost.[9]

The historical content of retrogression was summed up in the formula, “out of slavery, bondage, lack of national independence, industrial dependency and backwardness, into industrial backwardness and dependency, lack of national independence, bondage and slavery.”[10]

So as to allow no room for any false optimism, the IKD theoreticians proudly proclaimed that “we have fixed the beginning of the retrogressive movement quite concretely in the Russia of the victorious October revolution. Hence, we have incorporated the victorious October revolution in the retrogression, considering it in its inner contradiction as an isolated revolution in its counter-revolutionary transformation.”[11]

In place of German fascism, the retrogressionists ascribed to the United States the role of proprietor of the universal “slave state.” The fundamental conflict in society was now the struggle of nations to achieve their independence.

Before Europe can unite itself into “socialist states,” it must first separate itself again into independent and autonomous states. It is entirely a matter of the split-up, enslaved, hurled-back peoples and the proletariat constituting themselves again as a nation. …

The most pressing political problem is the century-old problem of the springtime of industrial capitalism and of scientific socialism—conquest of political freedom, establishment of democracy (also for Russia) as the indispensable precondition for national liberation and the founding of the labor movement.[12]

Socialists had to recognize that the

retrogressive movement has on a large scale compressed all the problems posed in the rising development of the whole of bourgeois history and its pre-history. … And the retrogressively provided, indispensable formal means for the solution of the world crisis of capitalism and socialism—the means for which the revolutionists need only stretch out their hands—is called: national freedom. By this, we mean to say: the national question is one of those historic episodes which necessarily become the strategic transition point for the reconstitution of the labor movement and the socialist revolution. Whoever does not understand this historically necessary episode and does not know how to use it, knows and understands nothing of Marxism-Leninism.[13]

By way of their tortured perspective, the retrogressionists arrived at the negation of the fundamental Marxist conception of the political independence of the working class and a new justification for class collaborationist “People’s Frontism.” In the context of the situation prevailing in Europe in 1942–45, this meant the complete subordination of the workers’ movement to the bourgeois-led Resistance organizations: “ ‘Revolutionists have the choice either to give unconditional support to these movements or to withdraw altogether from politics.’ ”[14]

The retrogressionists of the IKD insisted that the sole viable perspective was that a new epoch of democratic national revolutions had arisen, in which the working class could do no more than tail behind the leadership of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois Resistance leaders: “There is good ground for the fact, and it should stimulate reflection, that neither in Capitalist Barbarism nor in the Three Theses or anywhere else did we occupy ourselves with ‘proletarian’ revolutionary prospects. Except for scorn and contempt, not a single word will be found in our writings about this revolution-rubbish of the Fourth [International].”[15]

From almost the moment it saw the light, the perspective of the retrogressionists was opposed and condemned by the Socialist Workers Party. In 1942 the SWP warned in a party resolution:

Official patriotism serves simply as a mask to conceal the class interests of the exploiters. The subsequent capitulations of the French bourgeoisie to Hitler have proved this to the hilt.

The aspiration of the masses of France and the other occupied countries for national liberation has profound revolutionary implications. But, like the sentiment of anti-fascism, it can be perverted to the uses of imperialism. Such a perversion of the movement is inevitable if it proceeds under the slogans and leadership of bourgeois nationalism. The “democratic” imperialist gangsters are interested only in recovering the property which has been taken away from them by the fascist gangsters.

This is what they mean by national liberation. The interests of the masses are profoundly different. The tasks of the workers of the occupied countries is to put themselves at the head of the insurgent movement and direct it toward the struggle for the socialist reorganization of Europe. Their allies in this struggle are not the Anglo-American imperialists and their satellites among the native bourgeoisie, but the workers of Germany … The central unifying slogan of the revolutionary fight is the “Socialist United States of Europe” and to it all other slogans must be subordinated.[16]

The scope and implications of the dispute widened. The outlook of the IKD retrogressionists was embraced by none other than Shachtman and his Workers Party, who had also condemned as a form of “social chauvinism” the SWP’s military policy. It denounced the SWP’s slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe as “the sheerest kind of abstractionism and dogmatism … Before the masses can see the ‘Socialist United States of Europe’ as a realistic slogan, they undoubtedly want to have at their disposal independent national states.”[17]

Predictably, Shachtman’s impressionism produced the most bizarre political results. In Asia, where genuine democratic tasks remained to be solved, the Workers Party opposed the national struggle waged by the Chinese people against Japanese imperialism on the grounds that no support whatever could be given to the bourgeois nationalist Chiang Kai-shek. But in Europe, where the democratic revolution had been concluded long before, Shachtman insisted that the proletariat be subordinated to the reactionary national bourgeoisie of the occupied countries.

Shachtman, naturally, denounced the refusal of the Trotskyists to totally bury themselves within the official Resistance movements and adapt themselves to their bourgeois programs: “the sections of the Fourth International … proved to be politically sterile … [because they] failed to become the most ardent and consistent champions of national liberation, of the central aim of these revolutionary democratic movements.”[18] In its analysis of Shachtman’s position, the SWP made clear that the real issue was not whether or not Trotskyists should participate in the Resistance struggles against the Nazis.

Revolutionists participate in every movement, when it assumes a mass character, but they do so with their own revolutionary program and methods. The Workers Party resolution, however, called for political solidarity with these People’s Fronts; for participation in the People’s Front movements, as a People’s Fronter. The IKD mentors of the Workers Party had written that these movements must be “unconditionally supported.” And this is the nub of the difference between ourselves and the Shachtmanites.[19]

Trotsky had warned only a few years before that the outcome of impressionism is the disintegration of theoretical thought, and this was concretely exemplified in the IKD documents. Its authors had been swept off their feet and turned upside down on their heads under the impact of great historical events.

Despite the almost impenetrable complexity of their prose and the pompous display of erudition, the theoretical formulations of the IKD were, in essence, nothing more than subjective constructions whose historical projections proceeded directly from one-sided impressions of the surface appearance of political developments. Inevitably, the class content of their impressionist method revealed itself in political conclusions that advocated capitulation to bourgeois democracy and thereby assisted the betrayals of the Stalinists and social democrats.

As is invariably the case with impressionists, they were blind to the actual unfolding of the historical process which they claimed to be explaining. From 1943 on, the proletariat was on the move throughout the continent.

Inspired by the awesome social force unleashed against the Nazis by the Soviet Union, the working class launched a mighty offensive against German imperialism and its bourgeois allies. Especially in France, Italy and Greece, the armed masses had the opportunity and sought to take the power. These struggles were betrayed by the Stalinists, who, based on the agreements between the Soviet bureaucracy and Anglo-American imperialism, accepted the maintenance of capitalist rule in Greece and Western Europe.


SWP Internal Bulletin, vol. 8, no. 8, July 1946, pp. 28–29.


Leon Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism (London: New Park Publications, 1971), p. 15.




SWP Internal Bulletin, vol. 8, no. 10, August 1946, p. 15.








International Communists of Germany, “Capitalist Barbarism or Socialism,” New International, Supplement, October 1944, p. 331.


Ibid., pp. 333–34.


Ibid., p. 333.


Ibid., p. 334.


Ibid., p. 340.




SWP Internal Bulletin, vol. 8, no. 10, August 1946, p. 16.




Ibid., pp. 16–17.


Ibid., p. 18.


Ibid., p. 19.