Leon Trotsky

Open Letter for the
Fourth International

To All Revolutionary Working-Class Organizations and Groups

(Spring 1935)

Written: Spring, 1935.
First Published: New Militant [New York], August 3, 1935.
Translated: New Militant.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters, copy of New Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2003. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Hitler’s assumption of power, which did not meet with the slightest resistance on the part of the two “mighty” working class parties – one of them, moreover, basing itself upon the USSR – has decisively exposed the internal putrefaction of the Second and Third Internationals. In August 1933 four organizations formulated for the first time in a programmatic document the new historic task: the creation of the Fourth International. The events that have transpired since that time have been irrefutable confirmation that there is no other road.

The annihilation of the Austrian proletariat has demonstrated that victory cannot be gained by issuing a last-minute call for insurrection to the masses, disoriented and drained by opportunism, after the party had been driven into a blind alley. It is necessary to prepare systematically for victory by means of revolutionary policies in every sphere of the working class movement.

The very same lesson immutably flows from the annihilation of the Spanish proletariat. Under all conditions, especially during a revolution, it is impermissible to turn one’s back upon the toilers for the sake of a bloc with the bourgeoisie. It is impossible to expect and demand that the duped and disillusioned masses will fly to take up arms upon the belated call of a party in which they have lost confidence. The proletarian revolution is not improvised by the orders of a bankrupt leadership. The revolution must be prepared through incessant and irreconcilable class struggle, which gains for the leadership the unshakable confidence of the party, fuses the vanguard with the entire class, and transforms the proletariat into the leader of all the exploited in the city and countryside.

Following the ignominious downfall of the principal section of reformism – the completely corroded German Social Democracy – the left wing of the Second International went down in ruins in Austria and Spain. But these fearful lessons passed by without leaving a trace; the leading cadres of reformism within the party and in the trade unions have degenerated to the marrow of their bones. Their personal interests and their patriotic views bind them to the bourgeoisie and they are utterly incapable of taking the road of the class struggle.

The parties of the Second International calmly reconcile themselves to the fact that their Belgian president, at the very first beck and call of finance capital, joined hands with the Catholic and liberal middlemen to salvage the banks at the expense of the toiling masses. In the wake of Vandervelde there followed de Man, the vainglorious critic of Karl Marx, the originator of a “Plan”; nor did the “left” centrist, Spaak, fail to betray the socialist opposition in return for the livery of a minister.

Mindful neither of lessons nor warnings, the French Socialist Party continues vainly to clutch at the tailcoats of the “Republican” bourgeoisie, and it pins greater hopes upon the friendship of the Radicals than upon the revolutionary might of the proletariat. In all other countries, in every part of the world, in Holland, Scandinavia, and Switzerland, Social Democracy, despite the decay of capitalism, remains the agency of the bourgeoisie within the working class and reveals its utter inability to mobilize the masses in its own defence against fascism.

Should the electoral successes of the Labour Party raise it once again to power, the consequence would be not a peaceful socialist transformation of Great Britain, but the consolidation of imperialist reaction, that is to say, an epoch of civil war in the face of which the leadership of the Labour Party will inevitably reveal its complete bankruptcy. The parliamentary and trade union cretins have yet to be convinced that the threat of fascism in England is no less real than on the continent.

The turbulent development of the crisis in the United States – the unending chain of strike struggles and the growth of working class organizations – against the background of the possibilities provided by the demagogy of the Roosevelt “plan”, run up against profoundly conservative and bourgeois forces within the working class movement. As for the Stalinist party, it is hog-tied by the solemn declarations of Litvinov, who, in return for the recognition of the USSR by Yankee imperialism, publicly renounced the American Communists. This party, corrupted by a decade of unprincipled manoeuvres and liquidationist experiments with parties (Farmer-Labor Party) that have nothing in common with proletarian parties either in their composition or program. This Stalinist party, upon orders from Moscow, confines itself to the role of a movement of radical intellectuals, functioning in the United States as the servant of Stalinist diplomacy. But the deep-going crisis of American capitalism is awakening wide layers of workers from their semi-provincial slumbers, gradually dispelling bourgeois and petty-bourgeois illusions, impelling the proletariat toward large-scale class actions (Toledo, Minneapolis, San Francisco), and creating for the revolutionary Marxist party an opportunity to gain a widespread and profound influence upon the development and organization of the American working class. The historic role that accrues to the Fourth International and its American section, not only within the confines of the Western hemisphere, but on the world arena as well, is of exceptional importance since the smashing of American imperialism is of exceptional importance for the world proletariat.

In the meantime the Third International does nothing except squander the remaining shreds of influence and authority acquired during the first five years of its existence. In Austria and Spain the Communist International, despite extremely favourable circumstances, not only failed to create an organization that was in the least bit influential, but systematically compromised, in the eyes of the workers, the very idea of a revolutionary party. The Saar plebiscite is evidence that the German proletariat lost every vestige of confidence not only in the Social Democracy but in the Communist Party as well – the party that so ingloriously capitulated to Hitler. In Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia, on both American continents, and in the Orient the sections of the Communist International, burdened by twelve years of fatal policies, are unable to emerge from their obscurity.

True, after the German débacle, the Communist International substituted the capitulatory policy of the united front at any price for the adventurist policy of the “third period.” However, the experience in France, where this latest turn has attained its greatest development, demonstrates that the Communist International, with all its contradictions and zigzags, manages to retain its function as a brake upon the proletarian revolution. Rejecting the creation of a workers’ militia in face of the immediate fascist danger, substituting its program of immediate demands and a policy of parliamentarism for the struggle for power, the Communist International is the sower of the worst illusions of reformism and pacifism, gives actual support to the right wing in the Socialist Party against the left, demoralizes the proletarian vanguard, and clears the road for a fascist overturn.

Finally, the founder of the Communist International, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, has been completely crushed during the last few years by the uncontrolled bureaucracy, which has turned the dictatorship of the proletariat into the conservative absolutism of Stalin. By means of persecutions, frame-ups, amalgams, and bloody repressions, the ruling clique strives to nip in the bud every manifestation of Marxist thought. Nowhere in the world is genuine Leninism hounded so rabidly as in the USSR.

The most recent opportunistic somersault of the Communist International is intimately linked with the Soviet turn in foreign policy toward the League of Nations and the military alliance with French imperialism. The ruling bureaucracy of the USSR has definitely arrived at the conclusion that the Communist International is incapable of affording it any assistance whatsoever against the war danger and that at the same time, it hinders the work of Soviet diplomacy. The humiliating and truly servile dependency of the Communist International upon the Soviet upper crust is expressed in a particularly glaring light in connection with the recent declaration of Stalin, approving the national defence of French imperialism.

Through the medium of an imperialist minister the leader of the Communist International passed the order to the French Communist Party to conclude a patriotic truce today with the French bourgeoisie. Thus the Third International, whose congresses have not been convoked for almost seven years, has now officially gone over from the internationalist position to that of the most outright and servile social patriotism. Whether or not the Seventh Congress, so continually postponed, convenes the Third International will not be resuscitated. The Stalin-Laval communiqué is its death warrant.

Meanwhile, the destructive forces of capitalism continue their hellish work. The disintegration of the world economy, the unemployed in the tens of millions, and the ruin of the peasantry put the task of the socialist revolution imperiously on the agenda. The toilers, embittered and aroused, are seeking a way out. The prostration, collapse, and putrefaction of the Second and Third Internationals leave the proletariat without revolutionary leadership and impel the petty-bourgeois masses onto the road of despair. The bankrupt leaders seek to shift the responsibility for the triumph of fascism onto the “passivity” of the proletariat – thus political betrayal is supplemented with slander.

Thrashing in the grip of insolvable contradictions, capitalism is preparing to plunge into a new slaughter of the peoples. Ministers and diplomats openly speculate whether the outbreak of the war will come in one or in three years from now. All the governments, vying with one another, are preparing the most destructive instruments, and thereby from every side they are hastening the explosion, which may be immeasurably more frightful than the war of 1914-18.

The leaders of the so-called working class parties and the trade unions sing loud the praises of the beauties of peace, babble about “disarmament” exhort their governments to make peace among themselves, arouse the hopes of the working masses in the League of Nations, and at the same time swear fealty to the cause of “national defence” i.e., the defence of bourgeois rule with its inevitable wars.

Under cover of the “united front” and even of “organic unity” Soviet diplomacy is preparing, behind the backs of the class-conscious workers, class peace between the sections of the two Internationals and the bourgeoisie of those countries which are in military alliance with the Soviet state. Thus, the outbreak of a new war must lead to a new betrayal, which will eclipse that of August 4, 1914.

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. At that time capitalism appeared to be all-powerful – almost invincible. The patriotic capitulation of the International came utterly as a surprise, even to Lenin. Everywhere the revolutionary elements were caught unprepared. The first international conference – very small numerically and its majority indecisive – took place more than a year after the outbreak of the war. The formation of revolutionary cadres proceeded slowly. The possibility of proletarian revolution was rejected even by the majority of the “Zimmerwaldists.” Only the October victory in Russia in the fortieth month of the war produced a change in the situation, providing a mighty impulse for the formation of the Third International.

Today the internal weakness and corrosion of capitalism are so evident that they serve as the main theme for fascist demagogy. In the colossal crisis in the United States, in the no less colossal unemployment, in the economic adventurism of Roosevelt, in the sweep of the strike struggles, and in the ferment within all working class organizations are being lodged for the first time the conditions for a mighty development of the revolutionary movement in North America. The example of the first victorious proletarian revolution lives in the memory of the masses. The experience of the great events of the last twenty years has been burned into the consciousness of the best militants. Genuinely revolutionary organizations, or at least groups, exist in all countries. They are closely bound together ideologically, and in part also organizationally. 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.

Within the reformist parties and trade unions, opposition groupings are emerging and growing stronger. Some of these assume the form of independent organizations. Within the sections of the Communist International, as a consequence of the prison régime, the opposition assumes a more mute and masked character, but it is developing there as well. Even in the USSR the need for ever new purges and repressions is proof of the fact that the bureaucracy is unable to root out the spirit of Marxist criticism which is so hateful to it.

The oppositionist moods and tendencies bear today a predominantly centrist character, that is, intermediate between social patriotism and revolution. Under conditions when the traditional mass organizations are in the process of collapse and decomposition, centrism represents in many cases an inevitable transitional stage, even for progressive working class groupings. Marxists must be able to find access to all such tendencies in order, by example and propaganda, to speed their passage to the revolutionary road. In this the condition for success is irreconcilable – criticism of the centrist leadership, exposure of the attempts to create a Two-and-a-Half International, and a ceaseless explanation of the fact that the revolutionary tasks of our epoch doom, beforehand, to ignominious bankruptcy, those unifications which are hybrid and amorphous.

The slogan of “unity” of all working class organizations regardless of their program and tactics is being zealously propagated at present by the centrists, and is being ably exploited by the reformists, who are more farsighted, and who fear, with good cause, being thrown overboard. The centrists often substitute the idea of merging the two old Internationals for the idea of a new International. In reality, unity with reformists and social patriots of the Social-Democratic or Stalinist variety signifies in the last analysis unity with the national bourgeoisie, and consequently the inevitable split of the proletariat, internationally as well as nationally, especially in the event of war. Genuine unity of the International and of its national sections can be assured only upon the revolutionary Marxist foundation, which in its turn can be created only by a break with the social patriots. To remain silent about the principled conditions and guarantees for proletarian unity is to join in the chorus for broadcasting illusions, duping the workers, and preparing new catastrophes.

The humiliating and hopeless position of the old Internationals is adequately characterized by the fact that the president of one became the humble minister of his king, while the real master of the other uses the world proletarian organization as so much small change for diplomatic deals. Regardless of what unification manoeuvres the two equally corrupted bureaucracies may undertake, it is not they who will create the unity of the proletariat, and it is not for them to point the way out. The efforts of the centrists to reconcile the irreconcilable and to save by means of patching together the pieces what is fated to be destroyed, are foredoomed. The new epoch requires a new International. The primary condition for success on this road is the close consolidation nationally and internationally of the genuine proletarian revolutionists, the disciples of Marx and Lenin, on a common program and under a common banner.

Any attempt to prescribe an identical course for all countries would be fatal. Depending upon national conditions, upon the degree of the decomposition of the old working class organizations, and finally upon the state of their own forces at a given moment the Marxists (the revolutionary socialists, the internationalists, the Bolshevik-Leninists) can come forward, now as an independent organization, now as a faction in one of the old parties or trade unions. Surely, no matter what the time or the arena may be, this factional work serves only as a stage on the road of creating the new parties of the Fourth International – parties which may be created either through the regroupment of the revolutionary elements of the old organizations, or through the agency of independent organizations. But on whatever arena, and whatever the methods of functioning, they are bound to speak in the name of unqualified principles and clear revolutionary slogans. They do not play hide-and-seek with the working class; they do not conceal their aims; they do not substitute diplomacy and combinations for a principled struggle. Marxists at all times and under all conditions openly say what is.

The war danger, which is a life and death question for the people, is the supreme test for all the groupings and tendencies within the working class. The struggle for “peace”, “the struggle against war”, “war on war”, and similar slogans are hollow and fraudulent phrases if unaccompanied by the propaganda and the application of revolutionary methods of struggle. The only way to put an end to war is to overthrow the bourgeoisie. The only way to overthrow the bourgeoisie is by a revolutionary assault. As against the reactionary heat of “national defence” it is necessary to advance the slogan of the revolutionary destruction of the national state. To the madhouse of capitalist Europe it is necessary to counterpose the program of the Socialist United States of Europe, as a step toward the United States of the World. Marxists irreconcilably reject the pacifist slogans of “disarmament”, “arbitration”, and “amity between peoples” (i.e., between capitalist governments), etc., as opium for the popular masses. The combinations between working class organizations and petty-bourgeois pacifists (the Amsterdam-Pleyel Committee and similar undertakings) render the best service to imperialism by distracting the attention of the working class from reality with its grave struggles and beguiling them instead with impotent parades.

The struggle against war and imperialism cannot be the task of any sort of special “committees.” The struggle against war is the preparation for revolution, that is to say, the task of working class parties and of the International. Marxists pose this great task before the proletarian vanguard, without any frills. To the enervating slogan of “disarmament” they counterpose the slogan of winning the army and arming the workers. Precisely in this is one of the most important dividing lines between Marxism and centrism drawn. Whoever dares not utter aloud the revolutionary tasks will never find the courage to solve them.

During the year and a half that has elapsed since the publication of the first program of the Fourth International, the struggle for its principles and ideas has not abated for a single day. The revolutionary national sections and groups have grown in number: some of them extended their ranks and influence, others attained a greater homogeneity and cohesion. Organizations within the same country have united (Holland, USA); a number of programmatic and tactical documents have been elaborated. All this labour will indubitably proceed much better if correlated and unified on a world scale under the banner of the Fourth International. The impending war danger does not brook a delay in this task for even a single day.

The new parties and the new International must be built upon a new foundation: that is the key with which to solve all other tasks. The tempo and the time of the new revolutionary construction and its consummation depend, obviously, upon the general course of the class struggle, the future victories and defeats of the proletariat. Marxists, however, are not fatalists. They do not unload upon the historical process those very tasks which the historical process has posed before them. The initiative of a conscious minority, a scientific program, bold and ceaseless agitation in the name of clearly formulated aims, merciless criticism of all ambiguity those are some of the most important factors for the victory of the proletariat. Without a fused and steeled revolutionary party a socialist revolution is inconceivable. The conditions are difficult; the obstacles are great; the tasks are colossal; but there is no reason whatever to become pessimistic or to lose courage. Despite all the defeats of the proletariat, the position of the class enemy remains a hopeless one. Capitalism is doomed. Only in the socialist revolution is there salvation for mankind.

The very sequence of the Internationals has its own internal logic, which coincides with the historic rise of the proletariat. The First International advanced the scientific program of the proletarian revolution, but it fell because it lacked a mass base. The Second International dragged from the darkness, educated, and mobilized millions of workers, but in the decisive hour it found itself betrayed by the parliamentary and the trade union bureaucracy corrupted by rising capitalism. The Third International set for the first time the example of the victorious proletarian revolution, but it found itself ground between the millstones of the bureaucracy in the isolated Soviet state and the reformist bureaucracy of the West. Today, under the conditions of decisive capitalist collapse, the Fourth International, standing upon the shoulders of its predecessors, enriched by the experience of their victories and defeats, will mobilize the toilers of the Occident and the Orient for the victorious assault upon the strongholds of world capital.

Workers of the World, Unite!

We herewith append the Declaration of Four on the Fourth International. Not a single line of this manifesto has become antiquated. The present letter is only a restatement of the Declaration of Four in the light of the experience of the last year and a half.

We call upon all parties, organizations, factions, both within the old parties and within the trade unions, all revolutionary working class associations and groupings who are in agreement with us upon the fundamental principles and upon the great task we have posed – the preparation for and building of the Fourth International – to send us their signatures to the present Open Letter, together with any proposal or criticisms they may have. Individual comrades who have not been connected with our work up to now, if they seriously intend to henceforth join the common ranks, should get in touch with us.

The initiating organizations who are signatories to the Open Letter have resolved to create a Provisional Contact Committee between those parties and groups which stand upon the position of the Fourth International. The Provisional Committee is to be entrusted with the issuance of an information bulletin.

In the immediate future the committee is to assure the regular and collective working out of the fundamental programmatic and tactical documents of the Fourth International.

The question of preparing an international conference will be decided on the basis of replies received and the general course of the preparatory work.

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Last updated on: 17.3.2007