Leon Trotsky

Progressive Paralysis

The Second International on the Eve of the New War

(July 1939)

Written: July 29, 1939.
First Published: Fourth International [New York], Vol.1 No.1, May 1940, pp.13-16.
Translated: Fourth International.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Public Domain: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

THE INTERNAL LIFE of the Second International remains as a rule beyond our horizon. This is partly due to the fact that we long ago settled accounts with the social democracy; partly due to the fact that this “International” has virtually no “internal life” inasmuch as its various parties exist in complete independence of one another. In recent years the Second International tried to make itself as inconspicuous as possible so as not to reveal its internal contradictions. However, the approach of the war has driven it out of its state of passive equilibrium. We have the remarkable testimony of F. Dan, the leader of the Mensheviks, as to this. In scarcely any other social democratic publication is it possible to find so frank a portrayal of the internal struggle in the Second International as provided by Sotsialisticheski Vestnik, the Menshevik organ issued in Paris. Frankness, as is always the case in such instances, is evoked by the intensification of internal struggles. In complete harmony with the entire character of the social patriotic “International” the groupings take place along national lines, that is, along the lines of the interests of the bourgeois “fatherlands.” Just as the capitalist world is divided into the fat cows of imperialist democracies and the lean and greedy cows of the Fascist dictatorships, so the Second International has broken up into a “satiated” group who still remain shareholders in their national imperialist enterprises and a group of lean cows driven from the national pastures by fascism. The struggle proceeds precisely along this line.

The leading role in the Second International prior to the first World War was played by the German social democracy. Since the Versailles peace, leadership in the International as well as in European politics has been with England and France. As for the United States, the incontestable and in many ways decisive influence of her politics on the Second International is exerted not through the weak American Socialist Party but directly through the European governments. The docile social democratic agency in this too only apes its capitalist masters. Just as the League of Nations in the last analysis adapted itself to the policy of the United States, despite the fact that the latter stood apart from European combinations, so the Second International, especially in the person of the British and French parties, considered it its duty at every step to keep an eye on Washington and to sing pans to Roosevelt as the anointed leader of the alliance of “democracies.”

As the last Socialist Congress at Nantes frankly acknowledged, the fat parties consider as their basic task not only the defense of the national independence of their country but also their colonial possessions. Social patriotism is only a mask for social imperialism we established this back in 1914. Inasmuch as the imperialist interests by their very nature conflict with one another, there cannot even be talk of a unified international policy of social patriots of various countries. In the best case, agreements of individual parties among themselves are possible, corresponding to the international combinations of their respective governments.

The camp of the lean parties is depicted by a different picture. In the character of their ruling bureaucracy, in their entire past and in their aspirations these parties do not differ from the fat ones. But they, alas, have been deprived of pastures just as the imperialist fatherlands which cast them out were deprived of colonies. The fat ones are most of all concerned with preserving the status quo both within their own countries as well as internationally. For the lean ones, status quo implies impotence, exile, meager rations. The Italian, German, Austrian, and now the Spanish socialist parties too are not directly bound by the discipline of national imperialism which rejected their services with a kick. They were cast into an illegality counter to their traditions and their best intentions. Because of this, naturally, they have not in the slightest degree become revolutionary. They do not of course so much as think of preparing the socialist revolution. But their patriotism is temporarily turned inside out. They stubbornly dream that the armed force of the “democracies” will overthrow their national fascist regime and enable them to reestablish themselves in their former posts, editorial offices, parliaments, leading bodies of the trade unions and to reopen their bank accounts. While the fat ones are interested only in being left in peace, the lean ones, on the contrary, are interested in their own way in an active international policy.

The general picture of the two camps is somewhat complicated by the Russian Mensheviks. As was shown by their conduct during the February revolution, this party differs in no way whatever from the German social democracy or the British Labour Party. The Mensheviks only entered later than the others upon the arena of social patriotism and fell under the wheel before the others, the wheel that crushed them rotating not from left to right but from right to left. Thanks to years of illegal existence, the experience of three revolutions, and two exiles the Mensheviks have acquired a certain skill which enables them to play something akin to a leading role in the camp of the lean ones. But that makes them all the more hateful to their fat comrades in the International.

The Soviet state, to which the Mensheviks fell victim, in the meantime turned so drastically upon the proletarian revolution that it became a desirable ally to the imperialist states. In harmony with this the British and French socialist parties are extremely interested in a rapprochement with the Kremlin. Small wonder that the Russian Mensheviks have fallen under such conditions into the position not only of poor but compromising relations in their own International.

From Dan’s article we learn that the “lean ones” proposed a year and a half ago that the International take up the “problem of the struggle for democracy and peace in our epoch.” It is the question of that “active” international policy which would give back to the lean ones those lost layers of fat. Naturally one must have an unusual reserve of petty bourgeois narrow mindedness not to understand to this day the iron law of the transformation of bourgeois democracy into its very opposite and to continue to accept democracy as a supra-historical suitcase in which it is possible to carry a volume of Das Kapital, a parliamentary mandate, extra suspenders, a ministerial portfolio, stocks and bonds, the “final goal” of socialism, intimate correspondence with one’s bourgeois colleagues, and anything else you please except, of course, explosives. In point of fact, bourgeois democracy is the political formula for free trade, nothing more. To make one’s aim in our epoch the “struggle for democracy” can be done with the same success and sense as the struggle for free trade. However even this program proved too radical for the Second International. “After a year’s delay,” complains the author of the article, “it (the Executive Committee) finally made the attempt to bring up for discussion the problem of the struggle for democracy and peace in our epoch.” But, alas, “this attempt ended in failure.” The resistance came of course from the side of the fat ones. “The bigger and more influential parties of the International who have preserved their legal status,” writes Dan, “did not desire widely to unfold the discussion and carry it to the end”; they rejected “abstract theorizing” and “sterile argumentation.” In simple language, they refused to bind themselves to any kind of joint decisions which might in the future place them in conflict with the interests of their own national imperialisms.

The nub of the matter is that the “lean” sections of the Second International view the slogan of struggle for democracy against fascism seriously; because they themselves are victims of fascism and are, naturally, inclined to take back their lost posts with the aid of democratic tanks and battleships. This circumstance renders them very dangerous to the “solid” sections of the Second International. Let us recall that precisely at the beginning of this year the British and French diplomats did everything in their power to attract Italy to their side. Needless to say, if this attempt is successfully terminated the British and French sections of the Second International would adjust themselves perfectly to an alliance with Rome, whereas the Italian section would find it very difficult. All its fantastic hopes for a brighter future, namely, restoration of the past, lie in a military defeat of Mussolini. It is hardly surprising that the fat and the lean ones find it increasingly more difficult to arrive at “unanimous” resolutions or even to sit at the same table.

The terminology employed by the Second International is somewhat different from the one we propose. The fat designate the lean simply as “dead”; while labelling themselves alone as “living,” complains Dan. According to the same author these living ones “have chosen to proclaim the existence of an impassable gulf between the revolutionary (?) situation of the illegal and the reformist legal parties, i.e., they have essentially proclaimed as artificial their unification in one International.” Wells, Hilferding, Nenni, Dan himself, and other fighters “for democracy in our epoch” can be viewed as “revolutionists” as little as a bankrupt grocer can be taken for a proletarian. Nevertheless the factual information of the leader of the Mensheviks retains all its validity. The respectable parties of the sated colonial empires have declared that they have no business in one International with the illegal parties of the hungry imperialist countries. “... The elimination of the decisive participation of illegal parties in determining the policies of the International has become their immediate goal,” continues Dan. “As is well known, they have to a considerable measure realized this during the sessions of the Executive Committee held in Brussels May 14-15.” In other words, the fat ones have driven the lean from the leading organs of the Second International. They have thus resolved the “problem of struggle for democracy and peace in our epoch.”

One cannot deny that in their actions there is much logic and sense. The rulers and their retinue have always, as is well known, preferred the company of fat people and mistrusted the lean. Julius Caesar suspected Cassius precisely because of his leanness and his hungry look. Such people are inclined to be critical and to draw reprehensible conclusions. “Your bourgeoisie which was incapable of acquiring colonies in time, is now trying to disturb the holy status quo; that is why they have driven you into illegality and turned you into a disruptive element in the Second International; you must understand yourselves that you are only intruders in a solid organization which has in its ranks ministers and, generally, pillars of law and order.” This is what the living, or the fat ones, had in mind.

The “lean” (or the dead) tried to argue that at the founding congress of the revived Second International held in Hamburg in 1923 a beautiful set of statutes was adopted which recognized, as Dan puts it, “the sovereignty of international socialist policy over the national policy of individual parties and the decisive role of the International not only in peace but also in wartime.” Not uninteresting is the fact that the above points were introduced into the statutes upon the initiative of Martov, the leader of the Russian Mensheviks. Martov’s “points” remained, as is self evident, only on paper. The parties which signed the new statutes in 1923 were the same ones that committed treachery in 1914 minus the revolutionary wing. The case hardened social-imperialists were all the more ready to make verbal concessions to their allies of the Second International because they themselves were still in need of cover on the left flank. In those days the Comintern was still a revolutionary organization. The “sovereignty” of international principles? Of course! Provided “our” colonies, “our” markets, “our” concessions, including of course our democracy are safeguarded. The regime of the Second International rested upon this equivocation until Hitler made a breach in the Versailles system.

But even for the extreme “left” opposition the “sovereignty of international principles” signifies, as we already know, not the independent class policy of the proletariat but only an attempt to arrive at agreement with other sections on the question: The victory of whose bourgeoisie is most advantageous (for the lean) ? In the apparatus of this International not a single individual is to be found who seriously holds the position of proletarian revolution. To all of them the proletariat is only a force auxiliary to the “progressive” bourgeoisie. Their internationalism is the very same social patriotism, only crushed, discredited, afraid of venturing into the open, and ever in search of camouflage.

Dan explains the policy of the “living” parties by the “routine” of their political thought, by their “nearsightedness,” “empiricism” and other intangible causes. The “nearsightedness” of this explanation literally strikes one between the eyes. Empiricism prevails in politics whenever a certain group finds it disadvantageous to draw its own thoughts to their logical conclusion. Existence, it was once said, determines consciousness. The labor bureaucracy is an integral part of bourgeois society. In his capacity as leader of “His Majesty’s Opposition,” Major Atlee receives a substantial salary from the royal exchequer. Walter Citrine earned a title in the nobility. Members of parliament enjoy great privileges. The trade union bureaucrats receive high salaries. All of them are chained by continuous links to the bourgeoisie, to its press, its industrial and other enterprises, in which many of these gentlemen participate directly. These circumstances of day to day existence are of incomparably greater significance in guiding party policy than is the principle of “internationalism” which was smuggled into the Hamburg statutes.

Dan has nothing at all to say about the French party, apparently out of politeness to the hosts whose hospitality the Mensheviks enjoy. However, in France things are not much better. Despite the incontestable talent of the French for logical thought, the politics of Leon Blum in no way differs from the “empirical” politics of Major Atlee. The leading socialist and trade union cliques have their roots intertwined with those of the ruling stratum of the Third Republic. Blum is merely a conservative middle bourgeois who fatally gravitates to the society of the big bourgeois. During the Oustrich investigation, the case of the banker and swindler, it was revealed in passing that Blum frequented the arch bourgeois salon, where he rubbed shoulders with conservative politicians and financial moguls, among them Oustrich in particular, and through the latter arranged, over a cup of coffee, a post for his son. The day to day life of the tops of the French labor party and the trade unions is comprised wholly of such colorful episodes.

The ruling bureaucracy of the Second International is the least independent, the most cowardly and corrupted section of bourgeois society. All shifts in the situation whether to the right or the left are of mortal danger to them. Hence their sole urge: to maintain the status quo; hence their compulsory “empiricism,” i.e., fear to look into the future. The policy of the Executive Committee of the Second International can perplex only those who contrary to the evidence of reality insist on considering the social democracy as the class party of the proletariat. Everything falls immediately into its proper place, if one clearly understands that the social democracy is a bourgeois party, fulfilling the function of a “democratic” ’brake upon the class struggle of the proletariat.


The conduct of “empiricists” on good salaries, “has in reality already paralyzed and castrated the International politically,” complains Dan. According to him, during the five month period following its January session, the Executive Committee failed to react to a single international event of major importance (Czechoslovakia, Albania, etc.). “It is as if it (the Executive Committee) had sunk into a state of political encephalitis.” And the leader of the Mensheviks asks: “Is the Socialist International really threatened with the death that has already befallen the Communist International? ...” He continues: “Will the first blast of the war tempest really wreak more havoc with the foundations of the international socialist unification of the proletariat than was the case in 1914? Or will this unification collapse itself even before the storm breaks!” The word “really” has a discordant ring, since in question here are long established processes and long ago predicted consequences. But be that as it may, rhetorical questions from a Menshevik pen acquire special force. They signify that the flood waters have risen above their chins. Dan does not hide this. Here is his “conditional” prognosis for the Second International: “Its transformation into a kind of League of Nations carries with it the threat of the same death from which its Geneva prototype is dying (if it is not already dead!) before our very eyes death from progressive paralysis.” To which we need only add that this progressive paralysis started in August 1914 and has today entered its final stage.

Astonishingly enough, precisely at the threshold of a new war, at the moment when the social democratic opposition began to feel premonitions of the collapse of its own International, the Comintern found the Second International ripe enough for alliance and even for fusion. This apparent paradox is wholly in accordance with social law. The Comintern herd now likewise consists of fat and lean cows and the reciprocal relation between them approximately parallels that in the Second International. In its diplomatic plans the Kremlin takes into account the fat parties of the Second and Third Internationals and not the poor and pitiful splinters of sections smashed by Fascism. The Second International ejects “democratically” from its leading organs the leaders of illegal parties; the Kremlin shoots them “in a totalitarian manner” in batches. This minor difference in technique leaves undisturbed the basic political solidarity. Just as the international social democracy constitutes the left flank of democratic imperialism, led by Great Britain and under the supreme control of the United States; just so the Comintern the direct instrument of the Soviet bureaucracy is, in the last analysis, subject to the control of the very same imperialism. Following in the footsteps of the Second International, the Comintern has today publicly renounced the colonial struggle for emancipation. Atlee and Politt, Blum and Thorez work in the same harness. In case of war the last remaining distinctions between them will vanish. All of them together with bourgeois society as a whole will be crushed under the wheel of history.

We must once again repeat that in our cursed epoch, when all the forces of capitalism as it rots alive, including the old labor parties and trade unions, are directed against the socialist revolution, the march of events provides the proletarian vanguard with one priceless advantage: Even prior to the outbreak of the war all the starting positions have been occupied, both Internationals in their death agony are openly entering the camp of imperialism and just as openly against them marches their mortal enemy, the Fourth International.

Philistines have mocked at our interminable discussions on the question of internationalism, at our “captiousness” towards all social patriotic and pacifist deviations. To these gentlemen our ideas seem “abstract” and “dogmatic” only because our ideas formulate the basic tendencies of historical development which remain impenetrable to the superficial mind of opportunists and centrists. These basic tendencies are now emerging into the open, while the structures built on conjunctural foundations are toppling. The parties of the Second and Third Internationals from now on will disintegrate and crumble. The cadres of the Fourth International on the contrary will serve as the axis for the mobilization of increasingly broader proletarian masses. We leave it to skeptics to bare their rotten teeth. We march forward on our road.

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Last updated on: 22.4.2007