Max Shachtman


The 4th International
Is Launched

(November 1938)

Source: The New International, Vol. IV No. 11, November 1938, pp. 325–327.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, June 1999.

The dramatic and tragic political events of the last month in Europe were characteristic of the situation which dictated to the thirty delegates who came from eleven countries to attend the world conference of the revolutionary Marxists in Switzerland on September 3 the decision to found and organize the Fourth International – World Party of the Socialist Revolution.

These events served to underscore heavily the fact that the working class, the toiling masses in general, have at their head a leadership in the form of the two old Internationals which is not only incapable of organizing their resistance to the most monstrous of all the products of capitalism – totalitarian war – but is actually the most vigorous force at work in the ranks of labor itself mobilizing the masses for enthusiastic support of the war.

The period in which we live is preeminently the period of world economy and world politics, in which any form of self-enclosed existence – be it autarchy, isolationism, or socialism-in-one-country – is either an illusion or dupery. The last quarter of a century has strikingly emphasized the indispensability of international organization, leadership and strategy for the proletarian movement. The working class can no more do without them than individual army corps can dispense with a directing general staff. When the old general staffs of the working class, the traditional Internationals, have proved themselves to be not merely bankrupt but a direct obstacle to the further progress of the labor movement, it is imperative that no time be lost in restoring the world revolutionary organization.

How blind one would have to be not to see the reactionary role played by the Second and Third Internationals during the critical September month when Europe see-sawed over the brink of war, a role neither unexpected nor accidental, but analyzed and forecast by us years in advance!

What a contrast they presented even to the Second International on the eve of the war of 1914–1918. As is known, all the important parties of the International turned patriotic and chauvinistic, and formed a “civil peace” with their respective capitalist class once the war actually broke out. But in the terror-filled weeks before the beginning of August 1914, they at least made an effort to appear before the masses as opponents of the imminent holocaust. The International Socialist Bureau met in Brussels to discuss – very despondently and without much conviction, it is true – what could be done to mobilize the workers against the war-mongers. The rafters of Brussels’ largest hall rang with the voices of thousands of workers echoing Jaures’ eloquent denunciation of the rulings class of all Europe. Similar scenes were repeated in most of the other European capitals and important population centers.

Even these impressive, if ineffectual, gestures were, however, everywhere absent in the crisis moments of 1938, when, a bare twenty years after the end of the last War to End All Wars, the world seemed to be catapulting to a new and infinitely more horrible disaster.

What passes for the leadership of the Second International – its world Bureau – did not even consider it necessary to hold a meeting for the purpose of appraising the situation and issuing a declaration that would guide the workers of all the countries who are affiliated to it. How could it meet? What could it say? Its policy is determined in each country not by proletarian internationalist considerations, but by the policy of its respective national bourgeoisie, or, as in the case of the exiled German social democracy, the bourgeoisie of another nation which has given it asylum, and which it considers at least for the time being as its very own – the French. With what felicity the social democracy followed the methods of its national ruling classes down to the minutest detail! Just as Chamberlain consulted with Daladier, without bothering to ask for the opinions of the Czech bourgeoisie, so did a delegation of the British Labour Party, headed by Sir Walter Citrine, consult in September with the leaders of the French Socialist Party without bothering to ask for the opinions of their “comrades-of-the-International” of the German and Czech social democracies. When Chamberlain, just before leaving for Munich, finally condescended to inform the great and democratic British Parliament of his policy and decisions, the leader of the British Labour Party, Major Atlee, could say no more than his colleagues on the other benches: he too wished the Prime Minister Godspeed! It was too solemn a moment for His majesty’s Loyal Opposition to put forward its own independent position on the war question, which is symbolized by its attacks on the Tory government for failure to speed up the production of military airplanes. That the parties of the Second International have been voting with religious monotony for the war budget in every country where they are still allowed to vote, is too well known to need comment.

The parties of the Third International differed from the Second only in their more rabid patriotic zeal, in their unrestrained agitation for an immediate holy war of the Democracies against the Dictatorships. Daladier, in his statement to the Chamber’s military commission defending the abrogation of the 40-hour week in the interests of “national defense”, was able to refer good-humoredly to the antics of his Stalinists friends who demanded of him that he play the part of Don Quixote riding to the defense of imperilled civilization. Throughout the period of the Chamberlain-Hitler negotiations, the Stalinist press in England, France, Belgium and Czechoslovakia carried on an unbridled campaign of chauvinism which put even the outright reactionaries to shame. Shifting away from Daladier in France, the Kremlin hirelings frantically applauded the saber-rattling speeches of Henri de Kerillis, spokesman for the fascists in the Chamber. In England, the only demonstrations organized by the Stalinists were those that condemned Chamberlain for not immediately launching a war against Hitler; “British honor” and “England’s interests” – these were the mouth-filling shibboleths of the Stalinist manifestations. Unbelievable as it sounds – yet, what is unbelievable about Stalinism nowadays? – the “communists” in Dublin, where the writer happened to be on the eve of the Munich agreement, ran up and down the city calling upon all good Irishmen and true to rally to the defense of that institution so deeply beloved by Erin – British Democracy.

It is this complete absence of a revolutionary international leadership that compelled the conference of the Bolshevik-Leninists not only to reaffirm their view that the two existing Internationals had become counter-revolutionary, but to found the new International. Properly speaking, the struggle for the new International dates back to the seizure of power by Hitler in 1933 and the lamentable capitulation of the communist and social-democratic parties, which retired from the field of battle without even firing a shot. It was then that the world movement that had developed around the struggle of the so-called “Trotskyist Opposition” in the Communist International, announced the abandonment of its ten-year-old position of concentration upon reforming this International. It issued the call for a new communist International and new communist parties to replace those that had collapsed so ingloriously.

In the period of intense discussion and ferment that followed in the radical movement after the German events, the movement for the Fourth International gained strength in one country after another. In 1934, the famous Pact of Four in favor of the new International was signed by the International Communist League, the Independent Socialist Party of Holland and the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Holland (the two last-named organizations were soon to fuse into one), and the Socialist Workers Party of Germany. If the new International was not actually founded until four years later, it was only in order to allow for the elapse of a necessary period in which the fundamental discussions and the clarification and taking up of positions could occur. This was necessary, even if to a much smaller measure, for the International Communist League as well as for the numerous groups which were breaking or had already broken away from the old Internationals.

In this respect, the last four-five years have been among the most instructive and fruitful in our century. To the superficial observer, they appear to have constituted a period of chaos, of endless unifications and an even greater number of splits, of pointless academic disputes and meretricious personal recrimination – all largely incomprehensible and leading to nothing more positive than the constant churning up of stagnant water. The more careful observer, however, could discern both meaning and purpose in the developments of this period. Out of chaos comes the star, said the philosopher; and what appears to many to have been the chaos of these last five years was in reality the all-important period of gestation of the new international revolutionary movement.

Every movement that seeks to adapt itself intelligently to an important turn in history, finds almost invariably that there are elements in its ranks who, either because of forces and ideas latent in them or because of the conservatizing influence of yesterday’s tactic, are unable to adjust themselves to the requirements of the new situation and, consequently, fly off at a tangent. In the past half-decade of the International Communist League’s evolution, this phenomenon took the form of various ultra-leftist groups which in substance resisted the determination of our movement to become the effective leadership of the revolutionary vanguard. The struggle against these groups had only had a profound educational effect upon our movement, helping to inoculate it more deeply against infantile radicalism in its senile stage, but served to dissipate the legend injudiciously disseminated by our adversaries that there was something “innately sectarian” about the “Trotskyist movement”. In the course of the struggle, which was often sharp and almost as often led to splits in our movement, the contending currents were subjected to decisive tests. Everywhere, and without exception, the ultra-leftists, who soon revealed that they were really imbued with a deep-rooted conservatism, stagnated and then began to decompose to the point where many of them disappeared into the political void. No less telling is the fact that in this whole period those that succeeded in maintaining a vegetable existence never managed to establish any serious international relationships among themselves; that is, none of them succeeded in rising above the level of a purely national existence. While our movement continued to move forward to deeper solidity and influence, Weisbord, Field, Oehler, Bauer, Eiffel, Vitte, Lasterade, Vereecken, Ridley, etc., etc., having nothing left but wind-blown debris to show that at one time they were living groups.

As for those who scoffed disdainfully at our allegedly permanent process of schism, and who travelled light under the banner of “Unity”, they have not a very encouraging balancesheet to show. They not only did not succeed in averting splits – they have had little else but splits to record in the past period – but they did not learn anything from their splits and subsequent disintegration. The world is strewn with once large organizations which, under the slogan of unity with everybody in an “all-inclusive party”, ended up reduced to the smallest and least effectual of sects. The Italian Maximalist party of Balabanova, which tried to hold together the incompatible extremes of communism and social democracy in one party, which continues to bewail to the present day the “arbitrary splitting of the united Italian party by Lenin and Trotsky” some two decades ago, has become the tiniest of all Italian groups, a hazy myth around the head of its traditional spokesman. The tens of thousands of members of Britain’s Independent Labour Party, whose leaders talked all the more about the virtues of “unity” in order to talk all the less about revolutionary principle, have been reduced to less than two thousand effective members – outnumbered today in the decisive London area by the despised “sectarians” of the unified British Bolshevik-Leninist organization. An even crueler fate overtook the German Socialist Workers Party (SAP). What happened to the “all-inclusiveness” of the Norman Thomas party in this country should be no less instructive to those still capable of learning from life.

Of all the currents and movements in the international working class, only the Fourth International can boldly and honestly claim the heritage of the great principles and traditions of revolutionary Marxism and its past protagonists. The movement for which it speaks has demonstrated the consistency, virility and lifeworthiness, determination and capacity, to mobilize the masses once again for the conclusive victory over exploitation and class rule. The two old Internationals have long ceased to pretend that they are our revolutionary rivals; they are only reactionary obstacles to the working class which it will sweep aside in its forward march. The groups outside the two Internationals still inimical to our movement – the disintegrating London Bureau and the disintegrated Brandler-Lovestone International (what, by the way, has happened to it? It would be interesting to read an official accounting!) – find that their revolutionary pretenses have become quite transparent.

The road is left free to the Fourth International! The future belongs to it!

Beside constituting the Fourth International, and adopting the statutes that correspond to a serious, centralized world party, the main job of the international conference was the adoption of the Revolutionary Transitional Program of the International – the program of immediate demands for the period in which we are fighting. The importance of this program cannot be overrated. Not only and not so much because of the thoroughgoing analysis it makes of the present period, for that analysis has been made before, but because of the rounded and concrete program it presents to the working class, the peasantry and the colonial peoples of the world for immediate action on all the pressing problems of life and struggle that now confront them. The program – it has already appeared in full in the international conference number of the Socialist Appeal and will shortly be printed as a separate pamphlet-corresponds magnificently to the requirements for such a document laid down by Rosa Luxemburg some two generations ago:

In actuality our whole program would be a miserable scrap of paper if it were not capable of serving us for all eventualities and in every moment of the struggle, and to serve us by virtue of its being practised and not by its being shelved. If our program is the formulation of the historical development of society from capitalism to socialism, then obviously it must formulate also all the transitional phases of this development, it must contain them in their fundamental features, and therefore also be able to indicate to the proletariat the corresponding attitude in the sense of approaching closer to socialism in every given moment. From this it follows that for the proletariat there cannot, in general, be a single moment when it would be compelled to leave its program in the lurch, or in which it could be left in the lurch by this program.

Our international program of action, which will be read and re-read as one of the classic documents of Marxism, does not confine itself to the demand for the socialist republic, nor to general and abstract denunciations of the danger of war and fascism and the offensive of capitalist reaction. On the contrary, it is a document that indicates the line of action that must and can be taken by the proletariat today, now, in light of the contradiction between the objectively revolutionary situation and the ideological backwardness of the working class itself. It is a powerful weapon for cutting the bonds of political enslavement which fetter the international labor movement and at the same time a means of leading it into battle with slogans and demands that correspond to its aspirations and interests and to objective reality. Throughout it is permeated with the determination-repressed or suppressed by all other sections of the labor movement-to restore the class independence of the workers, that indispensable prerequisite to effective struggle; and it indicates the concrete practical steps by means of which this will be accomplished.

It will indeed be accomplished! The Fourth International is inspired by an irrepressible confidence in the resourcefulness, the initiative, the powers of recuperation, the invincibility and final triumph of the proletariat. If we are curt and contemptuous towards whimperers, people who have retired from the class struggle with despondent sighs, short-sighted people who identify a period of reaction, however black, with the conclusive defeat of the revolution, people who ascribe their own weakness, indecision and blundering to the proletariat – it is only because we have no patience with anyone who stands to any extent in the way of the serious movement that is resolved to continue the work of mobilizing the masses for the decisive assaults upon the enemy. Better that all these gentlemen stand aside and do their wailing and contemplating in private, before they are moved aside in a less polite way.

We go ahead under the banner of the Fourth International, with our old convictions, our tested principles, and with no doubts as to the final outcome.


Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 11 September 2015