Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The darker the night the brighter the star

12. Why the Fourth International failed to take off

Trotsky’s optimism

THROUGHOUT the ‘thirties Trotsky again and again repeated that the vanguard forces of revolutionary socialism were in no way weaker than those which rallied around Lenin during the first world war. Thus on 31 May 1930 he wrote: ‘The Opposition has become an international factor and as such it is continually growing’. [1] On 23 March 1934 he wrote: ‘It is true that the organisational base for the Fourth International is as yet very narrow. In 1914, however, the basis for the Third International was even narrower.’ [2] Six weeks later he stated: ‘I am certain that we are more numerous than Lenin was at the end of 1914 when he proclaimed: ”Long live the Third International”.’ [3]

One advantage, he argued, was that international coordination already existed among the Trotskyists. Thus on 28 February 1935 he asserted, not for the last time, that:

Our great advantage over 1914 consists of the groups and organisations of hardened Bolsheviks that we have almost everywhere, which are internationally aligned and, therefore, subject to international control. [4]

In the spring of 1935 Trotsky wrote an Open Letter for the Fourth International, saying:

Genuinely revolutionary organisations, or at least groups, exist in all countries. They are closely bound together ideologically, and in part also organisationally. Even at present they represent a force incomparably more influential, homogeneous, and steeled than the ‘Zimmerwald left’, which in the fall of 1915 took the initiative in preparing for the Third International. [5]

On 10 October 1938 Trotsky wrote:

... the position of the revolutionary vanguard is far more favourable today than it was twenty-five years ago. The main conquest is that before the war there already exist in all the most important countries of the world tested cadres, numbering hundreds and thousands of revolutionists in growing numbers, welded together by the unity of a doctrine, and tested in the school of cruellest persecutions by the imperialist bourgeoisie, the Social Democracy, and, in particular, the Stalinist Mafia. [6]

Even the outbreak of war was seen as an opportunity for the Trotskyist movement to build. Writing on 5 September 1939, as World War Two began, Trotsky claimed:

The Fourth International now comprises only a small minority. But the party of Lenin also represented only an insignificant minority at the beginning of the last war and received nothing but spite from the cheap heroes of the phrase. War is a severe school. [7]

In the Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution of May 1940, Trotsky went so far as to describe the forces of his movement as far superior to the internationalist socialist forces existing at the beginning of the First World War:

... it is impermissible to put on the same plane the present revolutionary vanguard with those isolated internationalists who raised their voices at the outbreak of the last war. Only the Russian party of the Bolsheviks represented a revolutionary force at that time. But even the latter, in its overwhelming majority, failed, except for a small emigré group around Lenin, to shed its national narrowness and to rise to the perspective of the world revolution.

The Fourth International in numbers and especially in preparation possesses infinite advantages over its predecessors at the beginning of the last war. [8]

On 8 June 1940 he repeated the claim.

However, Trotsky believed that not only was the subjective element – the cadres of the Fourth International – superior to the revolutionaries at the beginning of the First World War, but the objective conditions also were more favourable to the rise of mass working class revolutionary action. In the theses, War and the Fourth International (10 June 1934) Trotsky wrote:

Even if at the beginning of a new war the true revolutionists should again find themselves in a small minority, we cannot doubt for a single moment that this time the shift of the masses to the road of revolution will occur much faster, more decisively and relentlessly than during the first imperialist war. A new wave of insurrections can and must become victorious in the whole capitalist world. [9]

The grip of Stalinism did not daunt him. In the spring of 1935 he insisted:

The betrayal of the cause of the international revolution by the Soviet bureaucracy has thrust the world proletariat far back. The difficulties that face the revolutionary vanguard are incredible. Nevertheless, its position at the present time is incomparably more favourable than on the eve of the last war. [10]

On 10 October 1938 Trotsky wrote:

Mankind has become poorer than it was twenty-five years ago, while the means of destruction have become infinitely more powerful. In the very first months of the war, therefore, a stormy reaction against the fumes of chauvinism will set in among the working masses. The first victims of this reaction, along with fascism, will be the parties of the Second and Third Internationals. Their collapse will be the indispensable conditions for an avowed revolutionary movement, which will find for its crystallisation no axis other than the Fourth International. Its tempered cadres will lead the toilers to the great offensive. [11]

Hence the victory of the Fourth International was not far away. An introduction Trotsky wrote for the first Afrikaans translation of the Communist Manifesto ended with these words: ‘When the centennial of the Communist Manifesto is celebrated, the Fourth International will have become the decisive revolutionary force on our planet.’ [12] On 18 October 1938, in a speech entitled, The Founding of the Fourth International, Trotsky underlined the point:

Ten years! Only ten years! Permit me to finish with a prediction: During the next ten years the program of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions and these revolutionary millions will know how to storm earth and heaven. [13]

I quote Trotsky on the same theme again and again in order to establish the fact that his statements on the speedy victory of the Fourth International were not throw-away remarks, but were a constant theme throughout the ‘thirties and until his death.

What were the assumptions behind these perspectives? There were basically three: 1) The final crisis of world capitalism undermined any possibility of the survival of reformism; 2) the Stalinist parties outside the USSR would be transformed into purely reformist parties; and 3) the Stalinist regime inside the USSR was very unstable and was condemned to a quick demise.

Regarding the first point, Trotsky wrote in the programme of the Fourth International, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International:

Mankind’s productive forces stagnate ... in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms ... every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state. [14]

In The Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution Trotsky wrote:

All the countries will come out of the war so ruined that the standard of living of the workers will be thrown back a hundred years. Reformist unions are possible only under the regime of bourgeois democracy. But the first to be vanquished in the war will be the thoroughly rotten democracy. In its definitive downfall it will drag with it all the workers’ organisations which serve as its support. [15]

... the last war gave birth to the October Revolution upon whose lessons the labour movement of the whole world lives ... the conditions of the present war differ profoundly from the conditions of 1914. The economic position of the imperialist states, including the United States, is infinitely worse today, and the destructive power of war is infinitely greater than was the case a quarter of a century ago. There is therefore sufficient reason to expect this time a much more rapid and much more decisive reaction on the part of the workers and of the army. [16]

Regarding the second assumption – the transformation of the Stalinist parties outside the USSR into purely reformist parties attached to their own national bourgeoisie – Trotsky wrote on 10 October 1938:

The growth of the Communist parties in recent years, their infiltration into the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie, their installation in the state machinery, the trade unions, parliaments, municipalities, etc., have strengthened in the extreme their dependence on national imperialism at the expense of their traditional dependence on the Kremlin.

... until recently, the chauvinism of the French, British, Belgian, Czechoslovak, American, and other Communist parties seemed to be, and to a certain extent was, a refracted image of the interests of Soviet diplomacy ... Today, we can predict with assurance the inception of a new stage. The growth of imperialist antagonisms, the obvious proximity of the war danger, and the equally obvious isolation of the USSR must unavoidably strengthen the centrifugal nationalist tendencies within the Comintern. Each of its sections will begin to evolve a patriotic policy on its own account. Stalin has reconciled the Communist parties of imperialist democracies with their national bourgeoisies. This stage has now been passed. The Bonapartist procurer has played his role. Henceforth the Communo-chauvinists will have to worry about their own hides, whose interests by no means coincide with the ‘defence of the USSR’ . [17]

In relation to the third point – the instability of the Stalinist regime in the USSR – in his article of 1 February 1935 The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, Trotsky argued that Stalinism, as a form of ‘Bonapartism ... cannot long maintain itself; a sphere balanced on the point of a pyramid must invariably roll down on one side or the other’; hence ‘the inevitable collapse of the Stalinist regime’ . [18]

One outcome might be capitalist restoration. In the theses, War and the Fourth International (10 June 1934) Trotsky wrote: ‘... in case of a protracted war accompanied by the passivity of the world proletariat, the internal social contradiction in the USSR not only might lead but also would have to lead to a bourgeois-Bonapartist counter-revolution.’ [19] On 8 July 1936 he put forward an alternative scenario:

The USSR will be able to emerge from a war without a defeat only under one condition, and that is if it is assisted by the revolution in the West or in the East. But the international revolution, the only way of saving the USSR, will at the same time be the death blow for the Soviet bureaucracy. [20]

Trotsky was so convinced of the instability of the Stalinist regime that on 25 September 1939, in an article, The USSR in War, he wrote:

Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall? [21]

Let us now deal, point by point, with Trotsky’s arguments.

First, his comparison of the strength of the revolutionary internationalist organisations in the ‘thirties with those existing at the beginning of the First World War. It is really astonishing to read Trotsky on this point. What was the strength of the Bolshevik party on the eve of the First World War? In the general election of 1912 the Bolsheviks won six deputies to the Tsarist duma (parliament) while the reformist Mensheviks won only seven. All the Bolshevik deputies were elected in the workers’ curias, whereas most of the Mensheviks came from middle class constituencies. In the seven gubernias which returned Menshevik deputies, there were altogether 136,000 industrial workers, while in the six which returned Bolshevik deputies there were 1,144,000. In other words, the Menshevik deputies could claim 11.8 percent of the workers’ electors, and the Bolsheviks 88.2 percent.

The Bolsheviks had a daily paper, Pravda, whose circulation was quite impressive, especially if one takes into account the illegal status of the party publishing it. It ranged between 40,000 and 60,000 a day, the higher figure being achieved on Saturdays. Under the oppressive conditions of Tsarism this was a great achievement; and the paper’s ideas found response among hundreds of thousands of workers.

There was widespread support for Pravda by workers. In 1912 it received money contributions from 620 workers’ groups, while the Menshevik paper received donations from 89 groups. During 1913 Pravda received 2,181 money contributions from workers’ groups and the Mensheviks 661. In 1914, up to 13 May, Pravda had the support of 2,873 workers’ groups, and the Mensheviks 671. Thus the Pravdists organised 77 percent of the workers’ groups in Russia in 1913 and 81 percent in 1914. [22]

Then again, compare Rosa Luxemburg’s organisation, the Spartakusbund, organising and influencing thousands of workers, with the German Trotskyist organisation which, according to Trotsky in 1932, failed to recruit even ‘ten native factory workers’! (See p. 159) In terms of the calibre of leadership, who, except for Trotsky, was of comparable stature to Lenin and Luxemburg, or even lesser figures such as Bukharin, Radek, Liebknecht and Rakovsky?

Let us now deal with Trotsky’s three assumptions about the objective factors that would lead to the speedy success of the Fourth International. We shall deal with them in reverse order. The third, as we shall explain, will determine the effect of the second, which itself will determine the effect of the first.

With hindsight it is clear that the Stalinist regime in the USSR was far more stable than Trotsky assumed. It did not behave like ‘a sphere balancing on the point of a pyramid’, it did ‘emerge from a war without a defeat’, without being ‘assisted by the revolution in the West or in the East’, and it survived far longer than the few months or years Trotsky gave it. The source of his misjudgement, as we have already suggested, was Trotsky’s faulty analysis of the economic and social basis of the Stalinist bureaucracy; it was not balancing between classes, but was a ruling class.

If the Stalinist regime had collapsed after a few months or years, Trotsky’s assumption on the second point, that the Stalinist parties would have been transformed into pure reformist parties would have proved correct. Breaking the link with the Kremlin, they would have become dependent on the local bourgeoisie, on the national state machinery, the national trade union bureaucracy, the municipalities, etc. They would have been transformed into traditional social democratic parties. However, because of the strength and stability of the Stalinist regime in the USSR and its expansion after the Second World War into a number of other countries – East Europe, China, North Korea, North Vietnam – the ‘centrifugal nationalist tendencies within the Comintern’ remained in check. Unlike the social democratic parties which were ready to sell themselves to the national bourgeoisie, the Stalinist parties were, in accordance with Soviet foreign policy, only for hire.

Because the Stalinist parties remained intact, and even grew during the war, basking in reflected glory from the mighty Soviet Union and still claiming the mantle of the October Revolution, the mass revolutionary upsurge that the war produced, as Trotsky had indeed predicted, did not lead to the collapse of capitalism in the West: it gave new strength to the Communist and Social Democratic parties and they collaborated in shoring up capitalism. This made it possible for a new expansion of capitalism to take place. Instead of economic stagnation under which ‘every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits’ of capitalism, we witnessed a massive expansion of capitalism in Western Europe and a flourishing of reformism. As Mike Kidron pointed out, ‘the system as a whole has never grown so fast for so long as since the war – twice as fast between 1950 and 1964 as between 1913 and 1950, and nearly half as fast again as during the generation before that.’ [23] In consequence the Social Democratic and Communist parties, far from disintegrating, emerged in the post-war period stronger in number and support than ever before. And reformism flourished on the basis of a rising standard of living.

Trotsky’s three assumptions regarding the objective situation facilitating victory of the revolution were intimately connected; once the assumption regarding the instability of the Stalinist regime in USSR failed to materialise, the others fell.

It was this problem, not any tactical mistakes, that negated Trotsky’s predictions of a victory of the Fourth International over the following few years. As we have already mentioned, the Bolshevik leaders did make mistakes, and serious ones at that, during 1917 and the period of the civil war; but they were not enough to prevent the forward march of the revolution. It was the objective social-political forces – above all the Stalinist bureaucracy’s role as gravedigger of the revolution during the Second World War and its aftermath – that falsified Trotsky’s prognosis.

The Transitional Programme

AN INTEGRAL part of Trotsky’s perspective of the inevitable death agony of international capitalism and the impending collapse of Stalinism, was the programme of transitional demands that he formulated for the Founding Conference of the Fourth International.

Social Democracy traditionally divided its programme into two parts: minimum demands which could be realised under capitalism, and maximum demands which would constitute the establishment of socialism. Between the two there was a complete break. This reflected the reformist nature of the actual policies of Social Democracy: at present Social Democracy would defend the immediate interests of workers, but in the future, after the workers had elected Social Democrats to government, socialism would be on the order of the day. Between the minimum and maximum programmes there were no bridges.

Of course Trotsky did not spurn minimum demands, insisting that it was necessary to defend workers’ immediate interests in the here and now. But he opposed restricting the struggle to what was compatible with capitalism. Hence he rejected the mechanical separation of the minimum programme and the maximum programme. He therefore proposed

a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. [24]

Trotsky argued that it was necessary to build a bridge between the immediate aims of the working class movement and its ultimate goal.

This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat. [25]

One example of a transitional demand is the demand for a ‘sliding scale of wages and sliding scale of hours’:

Against a bounding rise in prices, which with the approach of war will assume an ever more unbridled character, one can fight only under the slogan of a sliding scale of wages. This means that collective agreements should assure an automatic rise in wages in relation to the increase in price of consumer goods.

Against unemployment, ‘structural’ as well as ‘conjunctural’, the time is ripe to advance, along with the slogan of public works, the slogan of a sliding scale of working hours.

These transitional demands fitted a situation of general crisis, of capitalism in deep slump But under conditions of a massive expansion of capitalism, as took place after the Second World War, these demands were at best meaningless, and at worst reactionary. To limit wage rises to the rise in the cost of living was a demand of the capitalists and against the aspirations of the workers who wanted to improve their living standards. And in conditions of more or less full employment, a ‘sliding scale of hours’ is really meaningless.

Similarly, other demands in Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, such as the establishment of ‘workers’ defence guards’, ‘workers’ militia’ and ‘the arming of the proletariat’, certainly did not fit a non-revolutionary situation. Sadly many Trotskyists dogmatically repeated these slogans.

The basic assumption behind Trotsky’s Transitional Demands was that the economic crisis was so deep that the struggle for even the smallest improvement in workers’ conditions would bring conflict with the capitalist system itself. When life disproved the assumption the ground fell from beneath the programme.

Organisational measures

IN FACE OF the vast chasm between the grand tasks posed before the Trotskyist movement and the puny resources at its disposal, Trotsky looked for specific organisational measures to shore up the movement. To compensate for its weakness, Trotsky argued that every section should participate in a discussion of issues facing other sections. Thus he wrote to the Executive Committee of the Communist League of France on 22 December 1930: ‘For a Marxist, internationalism consists first of all of the active participation of every section in the life of the other sections.’ [26]

On 7 March 1936 Trotsky repeated the same argument in a letter to British supporters: ‘The adherents of the Fourth International belong ... to an international organisation whose members are spread all over the world, who work closely together, mutually criticising and controlling each other.’ (My emphasis) [27]

When there was a faction fight in the French section with Raymond Molinier, or in the German section with Kurt Landau, every section was expected to be informed of the conflict and was expected to take a stand. Similarly, when Trotsky argued that the French comrades should enter the Socialist Party, it was expected that all other sections should take a position on this tactical issue. In practice the result was mayhem. The Spanish, Dutch and Greek sections, and the majority of the German leadership not only opposed the tactic but split away from the movement. So did Eugene Bauer (the international secretary), Georges Vereecken (secretary of the Belgian section), A.G. Muste (one of the leaders of the American Workers’ Party) and others.

The problem with Trotsky’s approach was that it is very difficult to draw immediate tactical lessons from one branch of a national organisation for another. How much more difficult is it to do the same on the international scale.

Compare this idea of one section intervening in the tactical disputes of another with the practice of the Comintern under Lenin and Trotsky where it was quite uncommon For example, when, at the Second Congress of the Comintern (July-August 1920) the question arose as to whether the British Communist Party should seek to affiliate to the Labour Party, the only person to speak on the subject outside the British delegation was Lenin. The German, French, Italian and other delegates did not have the confidence to speak on such a tactical question, and it was not expected of them to do so. And the cadres of the Trotskyist movement were far less experienced than those of the Comintern under Lenin and Trotsky. How could the intervention of the weak German Trotskyist group in a faction fight of the French section strengthen it? As the main weakness of the German group was its tiny size, poor social composition and lack of implantation among the workers, would the fight against Rosmer, or later Molinier, or even later Naville, have made it less introvert, more able to relate to workers in real life struggles? The tying of one weak Trotskyist group to another weak group, could increase, rather than overcome weakness. It was not a case of addition, but multiplication: a fraction of 1 times another fraction of 1, is not larger than the original fraction.

Another method Trotsky employed in the hope of buttressing the movement was a very elaborate and tight organisational structure. At the founding conference of the International Left Opposition in Paris in April 1930, an International Bureau to handle administrative matters and coordinate relations with other national sections was established. Its members were Rosmer (France), Sedov (representing the Russian section), and Kurt Landau (Germany). Later Nin (Spain) and Shachtman (USA) were co-opted into the Bureau. However the Bureau found it difficult to function,

partly because of the distance of most of its members from the centre in Paris, partly because of the sharp factional strife that gripped the major sections. As a result, an International Secretariat (sometimes called the Administrative Secretariat) was set up in addition to the International Bureau. All three members of the first IS – M. Mill, Leonetti, and Naville – were resident in Paris. When the German and French factional crisis deepened, the relative authority of the IB and the IS became one of the issues disputed. [28]

Rosmer withdrew from the International Bureau and from the French section in November 1930; Kurt Landau broke with the International Left Opposition at the beginning of 1931; M. Mill, a Stalinist plant, withdrew at the end of 1932; Pierre Naville found himself in opposition to Trotsky in early 1931.

Of the five members of the International Secretariat in 1932 – Witte, Eugene Bauer, Roman Well, someone called Kin or Kiu and Leon Sedov – only Sedov remained in the Trotskyist movement two years later. Witte and Bauer joined the London Bureau and Well the KPD. The fate of Kin (or Kiu) is unknown.

The July 1936 conference of the International Communist League adopted very elaborate Rules Governing the Leading International Bodies. In addition to a General Council for the Fourth International, there were a Bureau and an International Secretariat. [29] Two years later new statutes replaced the Bureau with an International Executive Committee, composed of 15 members belonging to the most important national sections and elected by the Conference. [30] On paper this sounds fine. It was very much a copy of the structure of the much larger Comintern. Unfortunately, with the basic weakness of the movement, it did not contribute to any real stability. Thus of the 15 members of the International Executive Committee elected in 1936, by the end of the Second World War, five were killed (including Trotsky and Sedov), and of the remaining ten, only two were still active in the movement – James P. Cannon and Carl Skoglund of the American Socialist Workers’ Party.

The founding conference of the Fourth International in September 1938 adopted the proposal that in case of an outbreak of war the Executive Committee of the International would be transferred to the Western hemisphere. The proposal went into effect as soon as the war started. A resident committee composed of the members of the International Executive Committee was established in New York. When the factional struggle inside the SWP became acute it turned out that most of the resident members of the International Executive Committee supported the Shachtman-Burnham faction in opposition to Trotsky.

The structure of a political organisation cannot rise very far above its real base. A small group of communists, like those belonging to the Communist League of the 1840s, would not have been helped by a structure that fitted a far larger organisation of hundreds of thousands or millions like the Comintern. And an over-heavy structure under such conditions could only be an unnecessary burden. The organisational structure must be proportional to the power driving it forward. The highly elaborate structure of the Trotskyist movement did not in any way add to its efficiency, or even stability. It contributed to a turnover of personnel in the leading bodies which was probably as great as amongst the rank and file.

This complicated structure was grafted on to a very exaggerated perspective of revolutionary success. Duncan Hallas’s description of the latter’s impact is apt. There was

an element of near-messianism in Trotsky’s conceptions ... In a desperately difficult situation, with fascism in the ascendant, defeat piled on defeat for the workers’ movement and a new world war imminent, the banner of revolution had to be flown, the programme of communism reasserted, until the revolution itself transformed the situation.

Perhaps it would have been impossible to hold his followers together without something of this outlook, which, if so, was therefore a necessary deviation from his mature view. But its later costs were none the less real. [31]

Did Trotsky have a choice?

COULD TROTSKY abstain from trying to build a new international? Rejecting Stalin, could he have gone into the ‘watchtower’ – as Isaac Deutscher many years later recommended? Deutscher writes:

It seems that the only dignified attitude the intellectual ex-communist can take is to rise au-dessus de la melée. He cannot join the Stalinist camp or the anti-Stalinist Holy Alliance without doing violence to his better self. So let him stay outside any camp. Let him try to regain critical sense and intellectual detachment. Let him overcome the cheap ambition to have a finger in the political pie. Let him be at peace with his own self at least, if the price he has to pay for a phoney peace with the world is self-renunciation and self-denunciation.

This is not to say that the ex-communist man of letters, or intellectual at large should retire into the ivory tower. (His contempt for the ivory tower lingers in him from his past.) But he may withdraw into a watchtower instead. To watch with detachment and alertness this heaving chaos of a world, to be on sharp lookout for what is going to emerge from it, and to interpret it sine ira et studio – this is now the only honourable service the ex-communist intellectual can render to a generation in which scrupulous observation and honest interpretation have become so sadly rare. [32]

Deutscher does not tell us what is the difference in practice between inhabiting an ivory tower and a watchtower. In both cases no action is expected. Yet he says this in the name of Marxism, the science of revolutionary action!

Could Trotsky follow Marx’s and Engels’s behaviour in the years between the end of the 1848 revolution and rise of the First International (1864)? Apart from the necessity of earning a living, Marx devoted these years almost entirely to research for his Das Kapital. As the politics of émigré conditions in the post-revolutionary period were futile, full of public squabbles and internecine strife, Marx and Engels were quite happy to withdraw into their studies. On 11 February 1851 Marx wrote to Engels:

I am greatly pleased by the public, authentic isolation in which we two, you and I, now find ourselves. It is wholly in accord with our attitude and our principles. The system of mutual concessions, half-measures tolerated for decency’s sake, and the obligation to bear one’s share of public ridicule in the party along with all these jackasses, all this is now over. [33]

In reply Engels wrote on 13 February:

At long last we have the opportunity – the first time in ages – to show that we need neither popularity, nor the support of any party in any country, and that our position is completely independent of such ludicrous trifles. From now on we are only answerable for ourselves and, come the time when these gentry need us, we shall be in a position to dictate our terms. Until then we shall at least have some peace and quiet. [34]

Marx and Engels could take this position because they believed 1) that there was no opening for revolutionary activity immediately, as capitalism was flourishing, and 2) that the theoretical work they were engaged in at the time was a contribution to the future when the revolution would be back on the agenda. In November 1850 Marx summed up his perspective for the coming years in the Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung:

With this general prosperity, in which the productive forces of bourgeois society develop as luxuriantly as is at all possible within bourgeois relationships, there can be no talk of a real revolution. Such a revolution is only possible in the period when both these factors, the modern productive forces and the bourgeois forms of production, come in collision with each other. A new revolution is possible only in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, just as certain as this crisis. [35]

What faced Marx and Engels in the 1850s was an expanding, progressive capitalism which increased the size and power of the proletariat. What faced Trotsky eighty years later were the horrors of counter-revolution, fascism and war. Trotsky would not have been a revolutionary if under these circumstances, he spent his time in the watchtower, or even in book research not related to the immediate tribulations and struggles facing the international proletariat.

Trotsky made a heroic effort to build a revolutionary party, a revolutionary international under the most unfavourable conditions. The continual defeats of the working class brought about by the policies of Stalinism and Social Democracy did not strengthen workers’ confidence and independence from these mass organisations, but the contrary. Defeat fed defeat. There was very little space for the green shoots of Trotskyism to grow. In no country did the Trotskyists achieve the minimum critical mass required to be effective in building a real mass organisation. There was a chasm between what the historical situation demanded and what was possible. And if in these impossible circumstances Trotsky made some mistakes in the way the Fourth International was built – its over-ambitious structure, mistaken perspectives, including the semi-messianic spirit affecting it, let that be. Without trying to build a revolutionary party Trotsky would not have written his brilliant articles and essays at the time, analysing the situation and putting forward the strategy and tactics necessary for working class advance. Without the effort of building the revolutionary international, Trotsky’s contribution to Marxism, which kept it alive and preserved it from ossification, would not have been achieved. Trotsky’s uncompromising hostility to capitalism, fascism and war, to Stalinism, to reformism, made it necessary for him to make every effort, even if he paid with his heart’s blood, to fight them in the here and now. Hence he had to make the effort, even if it did not prove very successful, to build the international. Without this, the tradition of Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky would not have been carried forward by future generations.

However, struggling to build the Fourth International, which Trotsky did from 1933 onwards, was not the same as formally declaring its existence, which he did in 1938. The former was absolutely necessary, whilst the latter was almost certainly a mistake.

Trotsky himself recognised this distinction between ‘building’ and ‘declaring’ in 1933 when he wrote: ‘It would be an unlawful pretence, to say nothing of adventurism, to proclaim that the new International had been established today’. [36] In 1935 when he still denounced as ‘a stupid piece of gossip’ the idea that ‘the Trotskyists want to proclaim the Fourth International next Thursday’. [37]

The problem with announcing the foundation of the Fourth International when the Trotskyist current was so weak was that it generated delusions of grandeur without in practice advancing the movement in any way. Organisationally it confirmed the tendency to pretentious, top heavy structures, that we have already criticised. Politically, it tended to raise the Transitional Programme to the status of a classic document on a par with the Communist Manifesto in the minds of Trotsky’s followers.

These disadvantages became particularly damaging after Trotsky’s death. Inexperienced and untempered Trotskyists without a serious base in any national working class assumed the role of ‘international leadership’ and defended the perspectives and demands of the Transitional Programme as holy writ even when they clearly no longer fitted reality.


1. WLT, 1930, p.261.

2. WLT, 1933-34, p.268.

3. Ibid., p.291.

4. WLT, 1934-5, p.204.

5. WLT, 1935-6, p.24.

6. WLT, 1938-9, p.77.

7. WLT, 1939-40, p.85.

8. Ibid., p.219.

9. WLT, 1933-4, p.329.

10. WLT, 1935-6, p.23.

11. WLT, 1938-39, p.78.

12. WLT, 1937-8, p.27.

13. WLT, 1938-9, p.87.

14. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, Reisner, pp.180, 183.

15. WLT, 1939-40, p.213.

16. Ibid., p.218.

17. WLT, 1938-9, p.71.

18. WLT, 1934-5, pp.181-2.

19. WLT, 1933-34, p.316.

20. WLT, 1935-6, p.360.

21. Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, London 1971, pp.16-17.

22. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.1, pp.325, 340, 351.

23. M. Kidron, Western Capitalism since the War, London 1970, p.11.

24. Reisner, p.184.

25. Ibid., p.183.

26. WLT, 1930-31, p.114.

27. WLT, 1935-36, p.266.

28. WLT, 1929-33, p.369.

29. Reisner, pp.151-2.

30. Ibid., p.178.

31. D. Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism, London 1979, p.95.

32. I. Deutscher, Heretics and Renegades, London 1955, p.20.

33. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol.38, London 1982, p.286.

34. Ibid., p.289.

35. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Vol.10, London 1978, p.510.

36. WLT, 1933-4, p.207.

37. WLT, 1934-5, p.274.

Last updated on 5 August 2009