Leon Trotsky

Trotsky Contra Sneevliet

(December 1937–February 1938)

Source: Bulletin Interieur International, édité par le Secretariat International pour la Quatrième Internationale, no. 3, Beginning of May 1938.
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2010.

December 2, 1937

Dear Comrade Sneevliet:

I didn’t directly respond to you latest delayed letter concerning Reiss because we are separated not only by that tragic individual question, but by all the other important questions; I would even say by our entire conception of revolutionary activity and political solidarity.

This unhealthy situation has lasted years, as many years as your organization has adhered to our international organization. Many younger comrades, better informed concerning the political line and the organizational methods of the Dutch section, have since 1934 insisted on the need to openly clarify our profound divergences on the theoretical, political and practical plains. I have opposed these proposals in my letters and conversations. Not that I was in agreement with your political line – this, never, – but I feared that the premature opening of a general discussion without a preparatory period of common experience could only provoke an irreparable split. I was guided by the idea that your organization has a pre-history and education quite different from all the others. This is why I insistently recommended to our comrades to give your organization more time to reorganize and reeducate itself. Naturally we hoped not only to “teach” our Dutch comrades but to learn from them.

I must say that the hopes I placed in this prudent and patient method have been shown to be false. The Dutch party or rather its leaders have intervened in our international life and in the life of each section with vigor and at times with extreme brutality. Such was their attitude at the time of the entry of our French, then Belgian, and later American sections into their respective socialist parties. Such was their attitude towards the German comrades. The Dutch party, or rather its leaders, have never hesitated to openly oppose the most important decisions of the entire international organization and to act independently, as was the case in Spain. At the same time you considered the Dutch party taboo to all the other sections. Any critical word concerning your general policy and more particularly your union policy was considered a crime. In other words, you demanded a completely exceptional position for the Dutch section. When I wrote a letter to our international conference in which I expressed a few critical considerations on your political line you took that letter as a pretext not to participate in the conference. You later declared that you didn’t recognize the formally elected International Secretariat. You act absolutely independently on all questions of international organization. On the Reiss question you acted without the intelligence and participation of the Russian comrades, and I think that this absolutely incomprehensible attitude contributed to the tragic denouement. I write this in all honesty because I consider this a personal letter. I am making a final attempt to save your ties to the Fourth International and, at the same time, the future of the Dutch party.

Finally, you must understand that no one in our international movement is inclined to tolerate any longer the absolutely abnormal situation where the Dutch party covers itself in the flag of the Fourth International and carries on a policy in flagrant contradiction with all our principles and decisions.

The NAS [1] has definitively become a stone tied around the neck of the party, and that stone will drag you to the bottom. A party that doesn’t participate in real mass unions is not a revolutionary party. The NAS only exists thanks to the toleration and financial support of the bourgeois government. This financial support depends on your political attitude. This is the real reason that the party, despite all our insistence, has not elaborated a political platform. This is also the reason that as deputy in parliament you have never maintained a truly revolutionary discourse that could serve our propaganda in Holland and overseas. Your activity has a diplomatic and not a revolutionary character. You are tied hand and foot by your position on the NAS, and the NAS itself is not a bridge to the masses, but a wall separating you from them.

When we criticize a false union policy in other countries the people answer, “And your Dutch organization?” When we criticize the Menshevik and completely fatal policies of the leadership of POUM you intervene to lend them support against us and you do this under the flag of the Fourth International. Do you think that a serious revolutionary organization of whatever kind can indefinitely accept such a situation? We are very patient, but we can’t sacrifice the elementary interests of our movement.

Personally I am ready to do everything to assist the Dutch party in rejoining the ranks of the Fourth International. From Cannon’s letter I know that he is similarly disposed. I doubt that anyone ... [Translator’s note: sentence missing from copy of letter] If you want to persevere in the verbally ambiguous attitude towards – though in reality against – the Fourth International, it would then be better to have an open and honest split. You will then remain with the NAS and us with the Fourth International. We will create a section in Holland and will attempt to realize via open struggle what we are incapable of realizing through patient collaboration and fraternal discussion.

I hesitated a long time before writing you this letter for, allow me to say this, I know your spirit, which is impulsive and ready to take the most important decisions under the influence of personal impulses. It is also possible that this letter will provoke in you a reaction contrary to the intentions with which it was written. It is possible that you will use this frank warning to hasten the split, but I have no other choice. The denouement, especially since the Spanish experience and the Reiss incident can no longer be put off. The moment of the final decision has come. The future of our relations depends entirely on your attitude towards the coming conference. This is why I address this final appeal to your sense of revolutionary responsibility. The day I receive a telegram or letter from you announcing that your section will participate in the conference on the same basis as every other section will be a very good day not only for myself, but for the Fourth International and in particular for the Dutch party. If you decide otherwise both of us will know what must be done.


My best fraternal greetings:

Comrade Trotsky’s letter to the International Secretariat six weeks later

Coyoacan, January 21, 1938

Dear Comrades:

It is possible that my preceding letter wasn’t explicit enough, given that it suggested to you that I maintain illusions concerning Comrade Sneevliet’s attitude and intentions. No. Unfortunately, after five years of uninterrupted experience I can no longer allow myself the least illusion. The only thing we can reproach ourselves for – and I don’t exclude myself from this – is the same thing as in the case of Nin: we were too patient, too indulgent, too tolerate towards Comrade Sneevliet’s attitude. In such cases it is always difficult to say at what moment it was necessary to go over to open struggle. I believe this moment came with Sneevliet’s intervention in the Spanish question. His attitude in this question was an open betrayal of the most elementary principles of revolutionary Marxism and of all of our decisions. It is he and his like who inspired more confidence in POUM in their own confusion and more distrust towards revolutionary Marxism. We have seen the results.

Unfortunately, it was precisely at that moment that the Moscow trials occurred, the arrests, etc. All our questions were absorbed in these new questions and the Dutch question continued to drag along. The IS did its duty. Everything the IS wrote about and against Sneevliet was and remains absolutely correct. This is precisely the reason Sneevliet never dared answer with political arguments, on the contrary using as is his wont abusive language that is totally inadmissible and in no way justified. Sneevliet is not in the least interested in Marxism, theory, or a general orientation. What interests him is the NAS, a small bureaucratic apparatus, and a parliamentary post. Above all Sneevliet uses the flag of the Fourth International to protect his opportunist work in Holland. Since the NAS is financially entirely dependent on the government Sneevliet has avoided any precise i.e., Marxist policies in order not to provoke the anger of the government against the NAS. The RSAP [2] only ever was and remains the political appendage of the NAS, which itself is not viable and in the last few years has fallen from 25,000 to 12,000 members, and probably fewer.

On the Spanish question, on that of the Popular Front, not to mention on internal politics in Holland Sneevliet occupies a position in no way superior to that of the parties adhering to the London Bureau. Even more, he has never hidden his having dual ties with the IS and the London Bureau. In practice he broke his ties with the IS about a year ago or more, I think. He has used this time to prepare his organization for the definitive break. He has always refused to commit to an honest discussion on the divergences. On the Reiss question he conducted himself in an absolutely disloyal fashion towards the Russian section, which largely contributed to the tragic denouément.

In my opinion the IS did all it could do to facilitate collaboration and it can’t be reproached for having failed to change the nature and the leadership of RSAP, which is profoundly opportunist, trade-unionist, and anti-Marxist.

This is the incontestable conclusion of long experience. If I proposed that you write one more time to Sneevliet inviting him to participate in the international conference and asking that his party participate in the international discussion it was not because I personally had the least illusion. Rather it is because I have the impression that the other sections, particularly those of the new world, haven’t sufficiently followed the organic evolution of this problem and it was possible to have the impression that it wasn’t the organic opportunism of the leadership of the RSAP but the bad “methods” of the IS that led Sneevliet to prepare a rupture with the Fourth International and an eventual adherence to the London bureau. (I hope that no one has forgotten that Sneevliet had ferociously fought against the resolution of our last conference concerning the London Bureau. There’s no reason to be surprised at this: he felt himself to be targeted by this resolution.) On December 2 I sent Sneevliet a personal letter where I made a final attempt to provoke a response on his part. He did not answer this letter. This is why I am sending a copy of this letter to all sections.

The Dutch question must be part of the international discussion before the conference. It is a question of the first order that the union experience of Sneevliet be analyzed in order to rule out once and for all the possibility of an analogous policy in other sections. Here and there we see people playing with the idea of “clean” unions. This policy means inevitable destruction. The Fourth International cannot tolerate such a policy in its ranks without dooming ourselves to a certain death. In this question as in others the Dutch experience demonstrates what is not to be done.

I am simultaneously sending an open letter to the press of the RSAP, a copy of which is attacked.


The open letter spoken of by Comrade Trotsky in his letter to the IS

To the editorial Board of De Neiuwe Fakkel and De Internationale
Copy to all sections of the Fourth International with the request it be published

Dear Comrades;

You have done me the honor on more than one occasion of publishing my articles. This is why I am certain you will not refuse to publish the following brief letter.

From the very beginning of your party’s existence party I was in disagreement with its leaders, and above all with Comrade Sneevliet on all fundamental questions. In fact, the leadership of the RSAP has always been in irreducible opposition to all the other sections of the Fourth International, and for the past two years the divergences have become increasingly exacerbated.

In full agreement with the overwhelming majority of our international organization I considered and consider Sneevliet’s policy in the field of the union movement disastrous.

I considered and consider absolutely inadmissible the absence in the RSAP of a program of revolutionary action and the unprincipled character of its agitation, a character that grows out of that absence.

I considered and consider that the policy of the leadership of RSAP towards the policy of the Popular Front has always remained equivocal, i.e., obscurely and sometimes even openly opportunist.

Comrade Sneevliet’s policy on the POUM question was in total opposition to the ABC’s of the class struggle and has caused indisputable harm to the Spanish Revolution and the Fourth International.

I considered and consider Sneevliet’s parliamentary activity opportunist.

I considered and consider inadmissible the unfriendly attitude of the leadership of the RSAP towards the other sections and towards the International Secretariat.

I considered and consider that in all the fundamental conflicts between Comrade Sneevliet and the International Secretariat the correct view was always with the latter.

The International Secretariat proposed dozens of times to your Central Committee the opening of an honest discussion of the issues in question. You have obstinately refused to fulfill this elementary obligation in regard to your own party. In place of a discussion your Central Committee resorted to the expulsion from the organization of the true supporters of the Fourth International. This measure can signify nothing but the preparation of a rupture with the Fourth International and the passing over to the camp of “left” social democrats, gathered around the London Bureau.

I did not receive a response to my last letter to Conrade Sneevliet dated December 2, 1937 which asked him if your party intended to participate in the international conference. It is even more important that the official requests of the International Secretariat have remained without a response.

The present letter, which draws up the balance sheet of an attempt at collaboration which has lasted five years, of an attempt at friendly criticism, of reciprocal explanation and rapprochement is aimed at saying openly what the situation is. Everyone must bear the responsibility for his political line. The members of your party and of the Fourth International will judge.


Revolutionary greetings,
L. Trotsky

The Nieuwe Fakkel, weekly organ of the RSAP, published this open letter in its issue of February 18, 1938, with the following commentary


What was bound to happen has happened. The above document appears to be a solemn anathema. Here we are expelled from the fraternal community of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International, of which Trotsky is the infallible head. We don’t know if a council of popes of this fraternal community was held before the heretic was judged and condemned. They concern themselves little with such solemnities at that address.

Since July 1936 there have been many clues that things could only come to this. It was then that the leadership of the RSAP left a conference which, following indications received from Oslo, was to fail to reach its true destination. Despite this that conference took on the meaning of a founding congress of the Fourth International. This meaning is unconditionally recognized by Trotsky’s “international organization.” Outside of this international organization no mortal realized that the Fourth International exists in any other way than as an idea which must be born and develop after the Second and Third Internationals have become unusable as guides for the working class’s forward march to socialism.

L.D.T. speaks of a period of five years of contact during which he hasn’t managed to make of Sneevliet and those who think like him “supporters of the Fourth International,” as he conceived it. In fact, before December 1932 there was no direct contact between the Dutch RSP and the group around Trotsky; there was a concordance of positions on several points. This sufficed to provoke their entering into contact with each other. L.D. Trotsky’s role in the proletarian movement and the Russian Revolution, his words and acts, exercised a sufficient force of attraction to awaken desire for contact. At that moment Trotsky and his people were still busy trying to cure the Third International. Several years before this we in Holland had already carried out our definitive break with the Third International.

After we had arrived at an agreement in the middle of 1933 on the subject of the constituting of new revolutionary parties and a new International it was agreed, through personal contact in Copenhagen between Trotsky and Sneevliet, to establish a link between the RSP [3] with the Trotskyist formation. From that moment the possibilities for effectuating commonly agreed upon preparatory work for the Fourth International were sought for. Normal organizational contact with Trotsky’s center only lasted until the founding of the RSAP in 1935. From the time of the fusion our party had abnormal ties with the Trotskyist center and the London Bureau. In the course of the first year of the existence of the RSAP a severe ideological struggle contributed to the political positions of the unified party being more in agreement with those of the Trotskyist center than with the London Bureau. The extremely abnormal concepts that revealed their existence in this Trotskyist center concerning an international center and its tasks; the every bit as abnormal organizational ideas in this center; the “abrupt turnings” in the field of tactics, policy and organization in this Trotskyist center and its subdivisions caused the situation to mature to a point where the delegation of the RSAP was led to withdraw from the international conference and to consider that the RSAP wasn’t tied by the results of this conference.

We are not now going to examine the points numbered by us in the act of accusation that forms the essential portion of the anathema. For some weeks a commission set up by the leadership of the party has been preparing the party’s position on the question of international relations. Certain of these points – numbers 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 – cause us only to raise question marks. We will not be able to judge them as long as we don’t have solid and probative documentation demonstrating the correctness of the accusations as they are formulated. On point 1 it is a question of a real divergence in points of view; the same goes for point 4. In relation to the Spanish Civil War we too see that a wrong was done to the Fourth International, but by the IS and, let us name him, by Trotsky.

Not a hair of our head dreams of denying Trotsky’s many great qualities as a revolutionary fighter. It is precisely because we attribute so much meaning to these qualities that we have for many years placed Trotsky’s articles within the grasp of Dutch workers. We take the liberty of doing so yet again in the future. But this appreciation changes nothing in the fact that experience has taught us that they are completely in error when they declare that the Fourth International can be constituted by this path alone, whose direction is known only to L.D.T. and is determined only by him. We and other organizations around the world that recognize the need for the Fourth International will determine in common within the framework of our own group the work that must be done for the Fourth International. Finally, there is a sentence in Trotsky’s anathema with which we are in complete agreement: “everyone must bear the responsibility for his political line.” We bear this responsibility also when we accept the necessary parting of the ways and even when we see with apprehension that a true worker’s party must be exposed to the “political education” of Trotsky’s center.


February 15, 1938
H. Sneevliet


1. Nationaal Arbeids Secretariaat – Left-wing union federation.

2. Revolutionair-Socialistische Arbeidspartij – Revolutonary Socialist Workers Party, born in 1935 of the fusion of the Revolutionair-Socialistische Partij and the Onafhankelijke Socialistiche Partij.

3. Revolutionair-Socialistische Partij.

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Last updated on: 12 September 2015