Ernest Mandel

The Reasons for Founding the Fourth International

I. Conjuncture and structure

It has been alleged that the founding of the Fourth International had been determined by two predictions of Trotsky which turned out to be wrong. First, that the Second World War which was then imminent, would lead to a huge revolutionary upsurge by the international working class which would be greater than the one after the First World War and would largely bypass the traditional working class organisations and give a genuinely revolutionary current the historical opportunity for a decisive breakthrough. Second, that the Stalinist bureaucracy would come out of the war greatly weakened, if not overthrown, thereby losing its political stranglehold over the more militant sections of the international working class and anti-imperialist movement.

Undoubtedly these perspectives kept different groups of Trotskyist cadres in various countries motivated in the late 1930s and early 1940s. When they turned out to be wrong it had important consequences. Many of them broke with the Fourth International and often even with the workers’ movement.

Others tried to adjust their continuing commitment to world revolution to a world which looked quite different from the way they had expected it to look a few years earlier. In order to still achieve that revolutionary goal, they thought it essential to revise essential parts of the Fourth International’s program, both with respect to capitalism’s further perspectives and the nature of the Soviet Union.

In any case the 1949-1953 period saw the biggest crisis in the history of the Fourth International which led to a disastrous split. It took the movement 10-15 years to overcome the negative results of the crisis, first through the 1962-63 reunification and then through May 68 and the subsequent radicalisation. Today the Fourth International, while still much too weak, is much stronger than it was in 1938, 1949-53 or in 1963.

This fact alone would already be sufficient to prove that all those who believe that the founding of the Fourth International was somehow connected to the short-term perspectives mentioned above are very much mistaken. History has proved again and again that any working class or revolutionary organisation, be it national or international, is built on quicksand if it comes out of a judgement on conjunctural circumstances or any other sort of analytical idiosyncrasies. Only those organisations with a program and activities corresponding to the historical needs of the proletariat, as expressed in many struggles for decades if not generations, are built on firm foundations. Such organisations will ultimately have a real influence if they also learn how to exploit opportunities and avoid disastrous mistakes.

The First and Second Internationals corresponded to the need for wage earners’ class independence. This remains a key task of the class struggle as long as capitalism exists, as vital today as it was 125 or 90 years ago. The Third International combined that need with the aim of a revolutionary overthrow of international capitalism in the imperialist epoch. Today this is as burning a task as it was in 1914 or 1919.

The founding of the Fourth International corresponds to historical reality on an international scale of similar nature. We have to examine in a scientific way, without personal or “generational” impatience, disappointment or discouragement, whether these historic needs are as real today as they were 50 years ago.

Trotsky’s conjunctural articles – especially the more polemic ones – contain incomplete, imprecise or even mistaken short-term perspectives – just like similar writings by Marx, Engels and Lenin, not to speak of their later co-thinkers, even the most gifted ones. However, such errors are by and large absent from his main programmatic writings of that period, especially they three key ones: The Transitional Programme, The Manifesto of the Emergency Conference of the Fourth International of May 1940 (his political testament), and The Revolution Betrayed. The same is true of his three previous key programmatic works: his Critique of the Comintern Programme, Permanent Revolution, and his thesis The Fourth International and the War, which is too little read and studied today. [1]

This point can be easily confirmed by the following paragraph of the 1940 Manifesto regarding the historical schedule for Trotskyist perspectives:

“The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective ... The question of tempos and time intervals is of enormous importance; but it alters neither the general historical perspective nor the direction of our policy.” [2]

The same remark applies to the use of the world “period” throughout the initial chapter of The Transitional Programme.

But even stronger confirmation of the non-conjunctural reasons for founding the Fourth International, established by George Breitman, is that Trotsky and his main followers had already decided to found the Fourth International in 1936. [3] At that time war was not imminent and the European revolution had not suffered major defeats (with the exception of the Nazi victory in Germany). In fact, revolutionary victory was still possible in Spain and France. It would probably have prevented the outbreak of the Second World War. The huge Stalinist purges of 1936-38 could also have been prevented.

We also have reliable information that the decision to found the Fourth International was taken as early as 1933, with the Comintern’s final demise as a revolutionary organisation, in the same way as Lenin’s call for the Third International was made as early as 1914 when the Social Democratic parties capitulated. [4]


1. This document is especially important because it projected a dual tactic (combined tactic) in the event of world war in the imperialist countries allied to the USSR and then in the imperialist countries attacking the USSR. The realism and necessity of this combined tactic was largely confirmed by the experience of the Second World War. Trotsky was practically the only one who thought through this tactic in such a way as to avoid any renunciation of the class interests and political independence of the proletariat in the imperialist countries allied to the USSR.

2. Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, Pathfinder Press, New York, p. 218.

3. See The Rocky Road to the Fourth International, by George Breitman, BIDOM, New York 1988.

4. See Lenin’s article of November 1, 1914: Situation and Tasks of the Socialist International.


Last updated on 16.8.2004