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Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis

The Revolution Unfinished?

3. Foundations of the 4th International

This period of Trotsky’s life is dominated by three themes:

In addition, and sometimes linked to these main preoccupations, he wrote a mass of material on Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany, dealing with everything from the trade union question to the contradictions facing the various ruling classes. He wrote on the tactics of the united front and on “entrism”. And he wrote three major historical works which were to become Marxist classics: My Life, an autobiography written in the early 1930s; A History of the Russian Revolution; and The Revolution Betrayed.


(i) The political campaigns

A year after his expulsion from Russia, Trotsky helped to set up the International Communist League, which held its founding conference in 1930. Its programme was a direct response to second period Stalinism, characterised as it was by the programme of socialism in one country, and diplomatic alliances with bourgeois and social democratic forces in other countries.

The ICL was very small, but contained followers in countries which included the US, China, Germany, Spain and Britain. The ICL considered itself an expelled section of the Third International, fighting to regenerate it. At this time the Third International was still considered a revolutionary force and there was no talk of forming a new international.

But the programme of the ICL was already out of date when it was outlined. By 1928, Stalinism had begun to move into its Third Period. According to Stalinist theoreticians, the third period of capitalist consolidation was characterised by “rapid development of the contradictions in the world economy” and a “maximum sharpening of the general crisis of the world economy”. Third Period Stalinism represented a sharp even dramatic, break from the right wing policies of the Second Period. The Third Period saw in every working class struggle, in every ruling class problem, the imminent revolution It was as ultra-left as the preceding period had been ultra-right. It was a crude response to the mounting contradictions of world capitalism in the 1930s – contradictions which included the Wall St. Crash of 1929, unheard-of inflation, and the growth of fascism in Germany and Italy.

So Trotsky’s political work and writings in the 1930s were to be directed against the absurd zig-zags and turns in Corn me tern policy. These errors brought out much of the best of Trotsky’s work, allowing his sharp sense of social movements and trends to come to the fore. His analysis of fascism was strongest in its strategical sense. He cut through the disastrous characterisation of social democracy as social fascism and developed the concept of the united front as a basis for working class and left wing unity. As an actual in-depth analysis of the roots of fascism, particularly the psycho-sociological basis it was less useful and therefore not necessarily transferable to other periods. It underestimated the grip of fascist. ideas and as is recurrent in Trotsky’s writing overestimated the power of revolutionary leadership. For example, he wrote :

Fascism would in reality fall to pieces if the Communist Party was able to unite the working class and by that alone transform it into a powerful revolutionary magnet for all the oppressed masses of the people. (Fascism, Stalinism and the United FrontInternational Socialism Journal Special, p.13)

But before long another Comintern zig-zag took place, taking policy to the right and Trotsky’s attention was rightly diverted to attacking the opportunism of this new turn. The central Comintern concept was the “People’s Fronts” which would unite not just social democrats (i.e. the previous “social fascists”) but also “entire nations” in the cause of peace and anti-fascism. In France and Spain the policies led to a failure to develop revolutionary situations and the communist parties played important roles’ in channelling the movements into safe reformist directions.

As Trotsky wrote about Spain:

Notwithstanding the fact that the Spanish proletariat stood in the final day of the revolution, not below but above the Russian proletariat of 1917 – by setting itself the task of rescuing the capitalist regime, the Popular Front doomed itself to military defeat.

(ii) Building the 4th International

In 1938, against a background of impending world war, fascist and quasi-fascist regimes in control of large chunks of Europe, the defeat of the Spanish revolution, in Russia – purges at home and increasing accommodation to bourgeois governments and parties abroad – and the growing patriotic nationalist feelings in working class organisations in much of the rest of Europe, the Movement for the Fourth International became the Fourth International.

The founding conference, with lasted one day, was attended by 21 delegates from 11 organisations. The largest was the American SWP with around 1,500 members. Some of the groups were mere handfuls of people. The FI as a whole had no mass working class following or implantation.

The isolation of the 4th International was strongly conditioned by the campaign of slander by the Stalinist regime. Millions of left wing activists were successfully immunised against Trotsky by the Moscow show trials and the constant repetition of charges that Trotsky was a fascist agent etc. There can be little doubt that for survival purposes alone, Trotskyism had to organise its forces. The continuity of revolutionary Marxism or what they called “Bolshevik-Leninism” was linked to that survival.

What is more doubtful, however, is the inflated claims of significance and leadership which distorted and continues to distort Trotskyism. The historic task that Trotsky gave the FI was determined by his analysis of the epoch and the specific conjuncture. Mankind was faced with the choice between “socialism or barbarism”. The desperate gamble rested on the assumption that the objective conditions were not merely ripe, but over-fulfilled. In the Transitional Programme, the political basis of the FI, he wrote:

The orientation of the masses is determined firstly by the objective conditions of decaying capitalism, and second by the treacherous politics of the old workers’ organisations. Of these factors, the first, of course, is the decisive one; the laws of history are stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus. (p.7)


In all countries the. proletariat is racked by a deep disquiet. The multi-millioned masses again and again enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative machines . (p.7)

It follows, therefore, that:

The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership. (p.6)

On the one hand, capitalism was about to cease to exist. On the other, the working class was ready for revolution, and Trotsky confidently expected that mass working class uprisings would “fill the sails” of the FI and rapidly turn it into a genuine workers’ organisation.

The second major component of the Transitional Programme was an analysis of the nature of the communist parties.

The Third International has taken the road of reformism at a time when the crisis of capitalism definitely placed the proletarian revolution on the agenda ... the bureaucracy which became a reactionary force in the USSR, cannot play a revolutionary role in the world arena. (p.37)

More importantly, Trotsky firmly believed that the Russian CP and the whole of the Third Inter national were on the verge of collapse. In 1939 he wrote:

Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position ii we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class, just a few years or even months prior to its inglorious collapse? (The USSR in War)

Unfortunately, neither aspect of the Transitional Programme was correct. The Russian CP was certainly far stronger than Trotsky gave it credit for, for reasons we explain in the next section. On the more important question of the stability of the system the projections were obviously factually incorrect. In a relatively short space of time, far from collapsing, capitalism was to enjoy its longest period of uninterrupted and sustained growth. Far from being “socialism or barbarism”, the reformist solution was once again open for the system. Nevertheless, this was after the war. Trotskyists will point to the special facts not only of war and inter-imperialist rivalry, but. the treachery of Stalinism, technological and other “booms” etc. It is true that the specific factual predictions are not the main thing. It is also true that it was very difficult for Marxists to foresee stability in the 1930s. Socialism or barbarism, with the rise of fascism and the slump did appear to be the choice. In this sense the Transitional Programme was a genuine attempt to provide a solution to this final crisis. In it Trotsky writes:

It is necessary to help the masses in the process of daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion; the conquest of power by the proletariat. (p.8)

For a pre-revolutionary situation, allowing for certain exaggerations, the Transitional Programme was excellent. Transitional demands, sensitively handled could fulfil their intended function as bridging factors. The weakness, however, was not that it didn’t predict the future, but that it did not adequately describe the existing period. Because even in the 1930s there were important changes maturing in the womb of the capitalist system, which were to act as a spring-board for the post-war boom and radically alter the content of class struggle. We get a hint of this failure to grasp the new dynamic of capitalist development when Trotsky writes in the Transitional Programme:

New Deal politics (in the USA) ... like Popular Front politics ... opens no exit from the economic blind alley. (p.6)

And a year later he described Roosevelt’s New Deal economics as “reactionary and helpless quackery”. (Foreword to The Living Thought of Karl Marx) Unfortunately, it was precisely this “quackery” which was to be the basis on which international capitalism re-stabilised itself.

We would not be overcritical of Trotsky for not grasping these admittedly new developments. But what is a strong criticism is that his whole methodology and conception of the epoch precluded him from seeing any elements of stability or revival genuinely re-asserting themselves. Trotsky turned the concept of the epoch, as an epoch “of war, crises and revolutions” into a vastly exaggerated and mechanical assertion of the collapse of capitalism. The perspective of the Transitional Programme stands oddly against one of his own criticisms of one of the phases of Stalinist politics:

We reject the apocalyptic presentation of the “third period” as the final one; how many periods there will be before the victory of the proletariat is a question of the relation of forces and the changes in the situation ... We reject the very essence of this strategic schematisation with its numbered periods; there is no absolute tactic established in advance for the “second” or “third” periods. (The Turn in the Communist International and the German Situation, 1930)

This methodology and characterisation of the epoch is the basic flaw behind many of the aspects of modern Trotskyist politics as we will examine fully later. But before this we have to turn to examine the evolution of Trotskyism without Trotsky in the post-war period.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002