David North
Leon Trotsky and the Development of Marxism

Article Three

The founding of the Fourth International in September 1938 represented the culmination of Leon Trotsky’s life as a Marxist and proletarian revolutionist. All the events since 1933, when, in the aftermath of the defeat of the German working class by the Nazis, he first issued the call for a new International, had fully confirmed his analysis of Stalinism as the principal and most deadly agency of imperialism within the international workers’ movement.

Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, completed on the eve of the first round of the Moscow Trials in August 1936, which inaugurated the systematic physical extermination of the entire generation of Bolsheviks who had led the 1917 October Revolution, established the scientific foundations of the world revolutionary perspectives for which he fought.

The defense of the nationalized property relations established by the October Revolution and the regeneration of the USSR was shown to be possible only through the political revolution, the armed uprising of the Soviet masses against the counterrevolutionary Kremlin bureaucracy. This political revolution was shown, in turn, to be dependent upon and inseparable from the revival and upsurge of the international revolutionary struggles of the working class in the major capitalist countries and the oppressed colonial masses against world imperialism.

Thus, Trotsky’s politics always took as their point of departure considerations of a scientific and principled character. The founding of the Fourth International arose out of objective historical necessity. On the other hand, those centrist elements who opposed the founding of the Fourth International invariably based their arguments on considerations of an utterly subjective nature.

While insisting that they did not disagree with Trotsky’s assessment of Stalinism, centrists argued that the launching of the Fourth International was a futile venture. They claimed that the Trotskyist movement was too small and isolated to “proclaim” a new International—apparently forgetting that Lenin issued the call for a Third International when his voice was all but drowned out by the chauvinist proclamations of the leaders of the Second International during the first years of World War I. The centrists warned that the time was not “ripe” for founding the Fourth International, that a new world party could arise only out of great events.

Trotsky replied:

The Fourth International has already risen out of great events: the greatest defeats of the proletariat [Germany, Spain] in history. The cause of 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. Long live the Fourth International.

But has the time yet arrived to proclaim its creation? … the sceptics are not quieted down. The Fourth International, we answer, has no need of being “proclaimed.” It exists and it fights. It is weak? Yes, its ranks are not numerous because it is still young. They are as yet chiefly cadres. But these cadres are pledges for the future. Outside these cadres there does not exist a single revolutionary current on this planet really meriting the name. If our International be still weak in numbers, it is strong in doctrine, program, tradition, in the incomparable tempering of its cadres. Who does not perceive this today, let him in the meantime stand aside. Tomorrow it will become more evident. (The Transitional Program, Labor Publications, p.42)

Nature of the Imperialist Epoch

The difference between Trotsky and his centrist opponents on the question of founding the Fourth International was not merely one of timing. Underlying all the issues which separated them were fundamentally opposed conceptions of the nature of the imperialist epoch.

For the centrists, whose belief in the omnipotence of the existing bureaucracies in the workers’ movement always set the tone for their essentially verbal support for the socialist revolution, the defeats of the working class during the 1920s and 1930s were seen as a series of essentially unconnected episodes. Insofar as they attempted an explanation, the centrists attributed the defeats to any number of unfavorable objective circumstances. The role of proletarian leadership was only one of many factors. Lurking in the background of such superficial appraisals, though usually left unsaid, was the embittered opinion that the working class was the cause of it own misfortunes and incapable of overthrowing capitalism.

In contrast to this subjective perspective, which led directly to despair and capitulation, Trotsky, through an analysis of the entire historical experience of the working class since the advent of the imperialist epoch, arrived at the following conclusion:

The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.

This passage—the opening sentence of the Transitional Program—is known, one can safely say, to all but the newest members of the Workers League and the sections of the International Committee. But what is, at first glance, apprehended, is not necessarily comprehended. The utter simplicity and clarity with which Trotsky presented the most profound ideas often leads the inattentive reader to pass lightly over insights and truths arrived at by Trotsky after a lifetime of political struggles and sustained theoretical labors. Thus, in considering the significance of the Transitional Program’s opening sentence, which immediately advances the fundamental reason for the existence of the Fourth International, it is necessary to understand Trotsky’s (and Lenin’s) conception of “the nature of the epoch.”

A problem which frequently arises is that “the nature of the epoch” is approached simply from the standpoint of certain historically-given contradictions of the world capitalist system from which the inevitability of the socialist revolution is derived. But these contradictions are seen as something quite apart from the revolutionary practical activity of the working class and its conscious leadership. This is a mechanical and, therefore, false approach. While “objective” and “subjective” factors can be isolated and held apart in our thought for purposes of analysis, these factors are in constant dialectical interaction in the actual development of the class struggle.

Revolutionary Leadership

The unique characteristic of this epoch—one in which all the economic prerequisites for the socialist revolution have long ago reached maturity—is the exceptional, i.e., decisive, role of revolutionary leadership. The social revolution is an objective necessity: the conflict between the productive forces and the social relations, between the bourgeois nation state and the world market, has built up the most acute revolutionary tensions within the very structure of capitalist society. But the inevitable explosion engendered by these continuously accumulating tensions can become the socialist revolution only through the conscious intervention of the revolutionary party based on Marxist theory.

However, the development of such a conscious leadership, capable of organizing and leading the assault against capitalist society, does not proceed in a straight line in conformity with the development of the objective contradictions of world imperialism. Sad to say, as the capitalist crisis worsens, the leadership of the proletariat does not automatically improve. The relationship between Party and Class is the most complex and contradictory of all social phenomena—not only because the working class itself is comprised of numerous layers whose political development proceeds unevenly, but also because the bourgeoisie itself intervenes continuously and relentlessly in this process. While sparing no resource to hold the mass of the exploited in utter ideological bondage, the bourgeoisie strives at every point to influence, if not directly control, the political development of the revolutionary vanguard.

The systematic and scientific study of this enormously complex relationship of Party and Class, the development of specific forms of theoretical, political and organizational warfare against bourgeois domination of the workers’ movement, really began with the emergence of Bolshevism in Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

Under the pressure of the First World War and the collapse of the Second International, Lenin was compelled to understand the historical and social roots of opportunism and to extend to the world arena the lessons of his 15-year struggle against opportunism in Russia.

Lenin established in 1916 that capitalism had been transformed into imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism on the eve of the socialist revolution. But while formulating the most concrete concept of imperialism (“the concentration of production and production has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies … the merging of bank capital with industrial capital … the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities … the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations … the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed…”), Lenin did not stop at explaining the economic characteristics of this new historical stage. He analyzed the significance of this new epoch in relation to the development of the international workers’ movement and the worldwide struggle of the oppressed.

Lenin demonstrated that imperialism was synonymous with the corruption of the official leaderships of the working class (i.e., the Second International, the trade union bureaucracy in the United States) and their transformation into the open agents of the bourgeoisie. From this arose the necessity of founding the Third (Communist) International.

In keeping with the changed class relations engendered by imperialism—the unrelenting efforts of the bourgeoisie to subvert the leadership of the working class; the passage of the Second International into the imperialist camp—the Communist International was founded under the banner of ruthless and uncompromising ideological and political struggle against all forms of opportunism. Unlike the parties of the Second International, which not only accepted the presence of a right wing but actually allowed it to grow and exercise control over the organization as a whole, the new parties of the Communist International was compelled to wage unceasing warfare against every opportunist element that reared its head.

There was to be no place for an official “opportunist” faction in the Communist International (also known as the Comintern). This was embodied in the 21 points for admission to the Third International that were debated and passed at its Second Congress in July–August 1920.

This demand for war against opportunism, written into the statutes of the Comintern, arose from the vast historical experience of the World War and the betrayal of the working class by the Second International. The great political development made by Trotsky himself between 1914 and 1917, when he shed the last vestiges of left centrism and completed his transformation into the revolutionary leader to whom Lenin was to refer as the best Bolshevik, occurred under the impact of the war. Except for Lenin, no other revolutionist made as profound an analysis of the collapse of the Second International.

Like Lenin, though independently of him, Trotsky dealt with the growth of opportunism as an objective social phenomenon. He related opportunism to the historically determined consolidation of the powerful national capitalist states during the latter half of the 19th century and the adaptation of the emerging labor movements to these states. As always in Trotsky’s writings, a vast knowledge of historical processes provided the content of his theoretical analysis.

The development of the labor movement in England, France and Germany, Trotsky explained, could not help but be bound up with the economic and political strengthening of the capitalist states of Europe. The historical maturation of these powerful states provided the foundation for the development of national labor movements and also, over a period of many decades, of “socialist” opportunism.

In examining the history of the greatest party of the Second International, the awesome German Social Democracy, Trotsky revealed the social and political mechanism of both its success and its ultimate degradation:

Theoretically the German labor movement marched under the banner of Marxism. Still in its dependence on the conditions of the period, Marxism became for the German proletariat not the algebraic formula of the revolution that it was at the beginning, but the theoretic method for adaptation to the national-capitalist state crowned with the Prussian helmet…

The great centralized trade unions of Germany developed in direct dependence upon the development of national industry, adapting themselves to its successes in the home and foreign markets, and controlling the prices of raw materials and manufactured products. Localized in political districts to adapt itself to the election laws and stretching feelers in all cities and rural communities, the Social Democracy built up the unique structure of the political organization of the German proletariat with its many-branched bureaucratic hierarchy, its one million dues-paying members, its four million voters, ninety-one daily papers and sixty-five party printing presses. This whole, many-sided activity, of immeasurable historical importance, was permeated through and through with the spirit of possibilism.

In forty-five years history did not offer the German proletariat a single opportunity to remove an obstacle by a stormy attack, or to capture any hostile position in a revolutionary advance. As a result of the mutual relation of social forces, it was constrained to avoid obstacles or adapt itself to them. In this, Marxism as a theory was a valuable tool for political guidance, but it could not change the opportunist character of the class movement, which in essence was at that time alike in England, France and Germany…

Marxism, of course, was not merely something accidental or insignificant in the German labor movement. Yet there would be no basis for deducing the social-revolutionary character of the party from its official Marxist ideology.

Ideology is an important, but not a decisive factor in politics. Its role is that of waiting on politics. That deep-seated contradiction, which was inherent in the awakening revolutionary class on account of its relation to the feudal-reactionary state, demanded an irreconcilable ideology which would bring the whole movement under the banner of social revolutionary aims. Since the historical conditions forced opportunist tactics, the irreconcilability of the proletarian class found expression in the revolutionary formulas of Marxism. Theoretically, Marxism reconciled with perfect success the contradiction between reform and revolution. Yet the process of historical development is something far more involved than theorizing in the realm of pure thought. The fact that the class which was revolutionary in its tendencies was forced for several decades to adapt itself to the monarchical police state, based on the tremendous capitalist development of the country, in the course of which adaptation an organization of a million members was built up and a labor bureaucracy which led the entire movement was educated—this fact does not cease to exist and does not lose its weighty significance because Marxism anticipated the revolutionary character of the future movement. Only the most naive ideology could give the same place to this forecast that it does to the political actualities of the German labor movement. (War and the International, Young Socialist Publication, pp.57-60)

Revisionism was defeated in the German Social Democracy only in the domain of theory. But on the field of practice, it became entrenched and prospered. ‘‘The parliamentarians, the unionists, the comrades continued to live and to work in the atmosphere of general opportunism, of practical specializing and of nationalistic narrowness.” (War and the International, p.60)

Trotsky drew special attention to the political psychology of opportunism:

In default of revolutionary activity as well as the possibility for reformist work, the party spent its entire activity on building up the organization, on gaining new members for the unions and for the party, on starting new papers and getting new subscribers. Condemned for decades to a policy of opportunist waiting, the party took up the cult of organization as an end in itself. Never was the spirit of inertia so strong in the German Social Democracy as in the years immediately preceding the great catastrophe. (War and the International, p.63)

Thus, the growth of opportunism was organically linked to the economic and social conditions of pre-1914 Europe, an epoch of “gradualism,” of stability, of illusions in the historical viability of capitalism and bourgeois democracy. It was an epoch when the progress of the workers’ movement was measured over decades, and when the task facing working class leaders seemed to be no more demanding than patiently guiding the movement along the familiar paths of union negotiations, parliamentary debates and holiday rallies.

All these time-honored tactics and staid routines were blown apart by the explosion of imperialist contradictions, whose subterranean development had gone unnoticed by virtually all the leaders of the Second International. Decades of “victory-crowned tactics” led, with the sudden outbreak of war in August 1914, to a political catastrophe of unprecedented historical magnitude. The utterly reactionary political physiognomy of men who had, for decades, claimed to be revolutionaries, was revealed within a few hours. Despite the anti-militarist and anti-imperialist resolutions that had been adopted by the Second International at its Stuttgart Congress in 1907 and at its Basle Congress in 1912, all the major sections of the International were swept along with the chauvinist tide and submitted to the ruling class of their countries.

The political spinelessness of the Second International’s leadership was revealed by Victor Adler, the leader of the Austrian Social Democrats, shortly after his country’s declaration of war on Serbia. Addressing the Bureau of the Workers’ International in Brussels, which had met to discuss the imminent threat of a general European war, Adler stated:

The war is already upon us. Up to now we have fought against war as well as we could. The workers also did their utmost against the war intrigues. But don’t expect any further action from us. We have a state of emergency and martial law as a backdrop. I did not come here to address a public meeting, but to tell you the truth, that we are already marching to the borders and martial law holds sway at home, no action is possible here. (Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg, Monthly Review Press, p.200)

This was the state of mind that prevailed throughout the International and led each section to vote war credits to finance the imperialist slaughter. Theoretically unprepared and politically bewildered by the abrupt change in the course of political development, the leaders of Social Democracy passed over, inexorably, into the camp of the class enemy.

“The mistake of the Revisionists,” wrote Trotsky, “was not that they confirmed the reformist character of the party’s tactics in the past, but that they wanted to perpetuate reformism theoretically and make it the only method of proletarian class struggle. Thus, the Revisionists failed to take into account the objective tendencies of capitalist development, which by the deepened class distinctions must lead to the Social Revolution as the one way to the emancipation of the proletariat.” (War and the International, p.60)

This historic betrayal by Social Democracy vindicated the profound revolutionary foresight embodied in Lenin’s life-long struggle against all forms of revisionist opportunism. Only in Russia, beginning with the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), held in 1903, was the struggle against opportunism carried to the point of a split. In 1912, at the Prague Congress, Lenin completed the organizational break with Menshevism through the formal expulsion of the opportunists from the RSDLP. What set Lenin apart from all other leaders of the Social Democracy was his refusal to deal with opportunism as a legitimate tendency within the Marxist movement.

In the German Social Democratic Party, opportunist practice and the theoretical defense of Marxism by such leaders as Kautsky coexisted peacefully. However, it must be said that even in the domain of theory, the struggle was not pursued all too energetically. Kautsky took up the cudgels against Bernstein, who repudiated all the most fundamental propositions of Marxism, only at the insistence of Plekhanov. The latter’s demand that Bernstein be expelled from the German party was rejected. The careful boundaries set upon the theoretical struggle against revisionism had definite political roots. Vigorous prosecution of the struggle against revisionism in theory would have led inevitably to direct conflict with opportunism in practice, i.e., with the trade union bureaucrats and parliamentarians whose influence and power within the party were considerable. Such a struggle would have revealed the contradictions within German Social Democracy far in advance of the outbreak of war in 1914.

Herein lay the political significance of Lenin’s struggle against revisionism and opportunism. The same organic processes that were eroding the Social Democratic parties of western Europe found expression—though in different forms—within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. This was the political content of Menshevism. But that these organic tendencies, which nourished revisionism, did not vanquish the Russian Social Democracy is explained by the war waged by Lenin against all forms of opportunism which tended to fortify or passively reflect bourgeois consciousness in the working class.

Thus, in the entire process of its ideological, political and organizational development, Bolshevism proved to be the conscious expression of the proletariat’s historical tasks in the new imperialist epoch of wars and revolutions.

In combating all forms of bourgeois ideology in the workers’ movement and in drawing the most uncompromising political and organizational conclusions from these struggles, Bolshevism gave a finished historical form to the proletariat’s revolutionary role.

It was this which Trotsky himself came to realize in the aftermath of the collapse of the Second International. For all its profound insights into the origins of opportunism in the European labor movement, War and the International did not yet provide an answer to the fundamental question: exactly how are the organic tendencies toward opportunism, generated by the whole pressure of imperialism upon the workers’ movement and the systematic corruption of the existing leadership of the working class organizations, to be combated? The answer to this question was given in the theory and practice of Bolshevism.

As Trotsky later wrote:

Gradually I reappraised my view of the relations between party and class and between revolutionary action and proletarian organization. Under the impact of the social-patriotic treachery of international Menshevism, I came, step by step, to the conclusion that there was a need not only for ideological struggle against Menshevism (which I had earlier recognized—though to be sure with insufficient consistency) but also for an uncompromising organizational break with it. This reappraisal was not accomplished in one sitting. In my articles and speeches during the war one may find both inconsistency and backward steps.

Lenin was absolutely right when he opposed any and every manifestation of centrism on my part, emphasizing them and even intentionally exaggerating them. But if the period of the war is taken as a whole, it becomes quite clear that the terrible humiliation of socialism at the beginning of the war was a turning point for me from centrism to Bolshevism—in all questions without exception. And as I worked out a more and more correct, i.e., Bolshevik, conception of the relations between class and party, between theory and politics, and between politics and organization, my general revolutionary point of view toward bourgeois society was naturally filled with a more vital and realistic content.

From the moment when I clearly saw that a struggle to the death against defensism was absolutely necessary, Lenin’s position came through to me with full force. What had seemed to me to be “splitterism,” “disruption,” etc., now appeared as a salutary and incomparably farsighted struggle for a revolutionary independence of the proletarian party. Not only Lenin’s political methods and organizational techniques, but also his entire political and human personality appeared to me in a new light, in the light of Bolshevism, that is, in a truly Leninist light. One can understand and recognize Lenin for what he is only after becoming a Bolshevik. (“Our Differences” in Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), Pathfinder Press, pp.265-66)

The advent of the imperialist epoch, the outbreak of World War I, and the disintegration, almost overnight, of the Second International, lay bare, for the first time, an historical crisis of revolutionary leadership in the working class. In searching for the revolutionary answer to this crisis, Trotsky came to understand the political and historical implications of Bolshevism at a level exceeded only by Lenin himself. That is why, in 1917, Trotsky joined the Bolshevik Party, and was immediately propelled into the forefront of its general staff, and, in October, as chairman of the Military–Revolutionary Committee, organized the armed insurrection and the seizure of state power by the working class.