Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Fourth International, February 1946



The First Five Years of the Communist International

A Book Review


From Fourth International, February 1946, Vol.7 No.2, pp.53-55.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


By Leon Trotsky.
Translated from the Russian and edited by John G. Wright.
384 pages, with full index. Pioneer Publishers, 116 University Place, New York. 1945.
Cloth $2.50; paper $1.50.

The documents in this two-volume English edition of Trotsky’s writings and speeches cover the first four Congresses and the first five years of the Communist International. Volume I begins with the Manifesto of the First World Congress, held in March 1919, and ends with the documents relating to the Third World Congress held in June-July 1921.Volume II begins with material from the Third to the Fourth Congress, and ends with documents pertaining to the period after the Fourth World Congress. Trotsky’s works from this time on bear more and more the imprint of his irreconcilable struggle against the spreading ideological decay of Stalinism, for it was in the fall of 1924 that Stalin advanced his notorious concept of the possibility of building “socialism in one country.” This idea marked the qualitative point in the field of theory where the caste interests of the swiftly growing bureaucracy in the Soviet Union became expressed. Thus the book The First Five Years of the Communist International appeared at the end of the revolutionary and the beginning of the counter-revolutionary period of the Comintern.

The monstrous campaign against Trotsky’s program, which did not end by any means with his assassination, has drawn a veil of obscurity over all the programmatic documents of this early period of the Third International. World capitalism, of course, has every interest in seeing that they remain well interred. The Stalinist bureaucracy, which has occupied itself with rewriting the history of this period, has likewise done its utmost to hide and suppress the programmatic documents advanced under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. In translating and printing The First Five Years of the Communist International, Pioneer Publishers not only carries out a historic duty in making available to the present generation basic materials of this almost forgotten period of the Third International, but even more important it provides model analyses for the solution of the great postwar problems of the Second World War now confronting us, problems similar in essence to those which confronted the Bolsheviks at the close of the First World War.

In his 1924 Introduction, Trotsky divides these years of the Third International into two phases. Immediately following the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks took as their objective in European politics the working-class seizure of power. However, the absence of steeled revolutionary parties precluded success. The Third International failed to win over the majority of the working masses in its first upsurge. A tactical shift was called for. This shift, carried out at the Third World Congress in 1921, concentrated the attention of the Communist cadres on the problem of winning the masses, preparatory to the direct struggle for power. Trotsky’s Introduction, written for a Russian edition of The First Five Years of the Communist International published in Moscow in 1925, sums up the experiences of these two broad phases of revolutionary history.

Manifestoes Show Lenin’s Program

Among Trotsky’s writings of the first phase, special attention should be paid to the Manifestoes of the First and Second World Congresses. These important documents, summing up the program of Bolshevism, were officially adopted by the Third International. A comparison of these Manifestoes with the chauvinistic declamations of the Browders of every country during the war will reveal better than anything the foul depths reached by Stalinism since the time of Lenin. Whoever wishes to know what Lenin’s program for the postwar period of today might have looked like can find it by reading these Manifestoes of the First and Second Congresses.

Other writings belonging to these years include Orders to the Red Army and Navy, reports on crucial aspects of Bolshevik activity delivered at various gatherings, articles published in the Bolshevik press, and personal letters intended to advance the great aims laid down in the formally adopted theses of the International. The student of the Bolshevik revolution and its desperate struggle to survive against the combined assault of world reaction will find in these documents the key to many political problems of that period he may have puzzled over. Trotsky’s great intellect, equipped with the dialectic method, ranges over the most complicated questions of working-class politics and of party organization, analyzing, synthesizing, clarifying the burning issues that confronted the world proletariat, from the rude field of armed conflict to the sphere of politico-psychological evaluations. From these documents it is possible to gain a most illuminating insight into the major political developments of many lands, including America, in the days following the First World War.

If any single document is to be singled out as “greatest” in this collection, it is without doubt the remarkable Report on the World Economic Crisis and the New Tasks of the Communist International. Trotsky delivered a resumé of this report at the Third World Congress; it was handed to the delegates in complete form as a written report for their more considered study. One of the finest models in Marxist literature of the application of dialectic thought, it analyzes the basic developments in the world situation which necessitated a change in the tactics of the Third International. The report belongs to Trotsky’s writings of the second phase of this early period he describes in his Introduction.

Analysis Is Applicable Today

Workers seeking a scientific understanding of politics cannot do better than apply themselves to study of this brilliant analysis. In all essentials it applies as much today as in the period of its composition. Its astonishing validity and applicability to current problems arises from the fact that not one of the contradictions of world capitalism has been mitigated or ameliorated since then; on the contrary they have been deepened, sharpened and exacerbated.

Marxists are required, in the development of an objectively revolutionary situation, to first of all, clearly demarcate themselves, along programmatic lines, from all opportunists and centrists. Once that task is accomplished, the strictest scrutiny of the actual process of events is necessary in order to make constant tactical adaptations to the needs of revolutionary strategy.

The First Five Years of the Communist International, is in essence, a textbook which teaches these lessons on the basis of the experiences of the Comintern in the revolutionary period following the First World War.

No one can today contest the fact that the post-1918 period in Europe had all the elements of an objectively revolutionary situation. The economy had broken down completely. The ruling class was rocking uneasily on its throne, shaken by the social convulsions unloosed by the October Revolution in Russia. Everywhere the working class shook off the torpor of the “national unity” poison of the war years. Strike struggles and mass political demonstrations swept the continent in waves, resulting (as in Germany and Austria) in half-way “constitutional” revolutions, and in aborted proletarian attempts at seizure of power (as in Hungary and Bavaria.)

The first question before the revolutionary Marxists, the Communists under Lenin and Trotsky, was: How can this objectively revolutionary situation be transformed into a successful proletarian uprising?. The Communists naturally approached the problem with characteristic optimism, with the unrestricted will to resolve it. As the first task Lenin and Trotsky saw the need to combat all forms of revisionism, all forms of compromise with it under centrist labels; the need for absolute clarity on program. The fight for program is embodied in the documents of the first two congresses of the Comintern and summarized in the famous “21 points” of affiliation.

The next task the revolutionary leaders saw in the building of mass communist parties, solidly based on program and rooted in the working class. Such parties were not at hand. Only in Russia had the revolutionary Marxists built up their own independent mass Party, the Bolshevik party. In the rest of Europe the revolutionary Marxists had existed before the war, and even in the course of it, only as small propaganda groups and sometimes as isolated individuals, within the mass parties of the opportunists, the social democracy.

Could such small groups grow overnight, so to speak, into mass communist parties? The Bolsheviks approached this question too with characteristic vigor. The possibility existed. In the midst of a full-scale objectively revolutionary situation such a development could take place at a rapid tempo.

In the first years of the Comintern they did what they could to aid this development, in the main by their great programmatic contributions. The rapid growth out of splits and fusions of the German Communist party, the French Communist party, etc., testified to the fact that their hopes were not unrealistic.

But the growth of the Communist parties in Europe, swift as it was, did not keep pace with the changing social and economic situation. While revolutionary Marxism was gaining constantly in organized numerical strength at the expense of the opportunistic social democracy, the European bourgeoisie had utilized the lack of a prepared revolutionary leadership, to adjust the objective situation to its advantage. As Trotsky points out in speeches and articles reprinted in this book, the capitalists proceeded first to restore the “class equilibrium” at the expense of the “economic equilibrium.” That is, it aided the social-democracy by granting widespread reforms to the masses. That provided it with a temporary stabilization on a “conciliationist” basis. At the same time, it combined this policy in the countries where the social democracy remained strong with a policy of outright terror, in countries where the threat to its power became more direct (Hungary, Bulgaria.) That provided it with a more permanent stabilization on a Fascist basis. For Europe as a whole, as well as in individual countries, it combined these two policies in order to achieve a “class equilibrium.” The reestablishment of this “class equilibrium” permitted the European bourgeoisie to tackle the problem of the “economic equilibrium.” But that problem required the aid of the American imperialists and could only produce new contradictions, on a much wider, on a world scale.

Ultra-Left Tendency

It was precisely this new turn in the objective situation, which raised new problems for the Communist International. The Communist parties had grown, but had not matured sufficiently to meet this changing situation. They were still acting on the basis of the revolutionary situation which existed at their birth. This lag in development showed itself in the ultra-left tendency which expressed itself with particular sharpness in the German party. At the Third Congress of the Communist International, Lenin and Trotsky were confronted with this tendency.

In The First Five Years of the Communist International appear Trotsky’s speeches and articles which deal with this problem too. These works go into detail to scrutinize the changes brought about in the objective situation and, without moderating the revolutionary perspective of the author, to point out the necessary readjustment in strategy as well as the required tactical adaptations flowing therefrom.

The present volume is the first of two dealing with these five eventful years and covers only the period ending with the Third World Congress, at the end of 1921. The second volume, which is still unpublished, will deal with the period from 1921 to 1924 which brought other, though not less important, problems of revolutionary strategy to the fore.

For the Fourth International, the first period after the conclusion of the Second World War—more precisely, from the fall of Mussolini in 1943 up to the present—has also been a period requiring the reaffirmation of the basic Marxist program above everything else. The objective situation at the conclusion of the Second World War has been no less revolutionary in its implications than that following the First World War. It was truly continental in extent, and in that sense an advance even beyond the situation at that time. Everywhere in Europe the masses flocked to the parties they considered revolutionary, the working class parties, the Socialists and Stalinists. Even in England, the masses have turned completely left and found their organized expression in the majority Labor Government. On the other hand, the new betrayals of the Stalinist parties, heaped upon those of the Social Democrats, have prevented as swift and decisive a revolutionary sweep of this leftward movement as could be noted in some countries after the last war. Revisionism and opportunism were even more malignant and more dangerous than in Lenin’s day. The task of the Fourth International, clearly indicated, was no less urgent than that of the Bolsheviks in the early Comintern. Clear demarcation in program from the opportunists and centrists. For, without this solid base there could be no growth on a substantial basis. In that task, the Fourth International today has acquitted itself in the best tradition of Lenin and Trotsky as the documents of the movement in America as well as in Europe attest.

But the objective situation is undergoing constant change. The revolutionary situation has not deepened and matured. The revolutionary parties have not grown swiftly. With the aid of the social reformist and Stalinist traitors, the European bourgeoisie—more bankrupt and more shaken than ever before—appears once more to have temporarily succeeded in reestablishing a very shaky, unstable “class equilibrium.” The masses, ready for the struggle for power and armed in the course of the struggle against the Nazi oppressor, have been disoriented and disarmed by the opportunist parties to the advantage of the Anglo-American imperialist conquerors. The Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union has utilized the Red Army for the same counter-revolutionary purpose in the territories under its occupation. These factors have brought a temporary shift in the objective situation which requires of the Trotskyist an adjustment in strategy and an adaptation of tactics similar in certain respects to those undertaken by Lenin and Trotsky at the Third Congress.

But like the latter, the Fourth International will undertake these tasks without yielding an inch in Marxist program, and without giving up an iota of the basic perspective of proletarian struggle for our revolutionary epoch. For, the new “stabilization” of the objective situation is even less real, even more tenuous than in Lenin’s day. The revolt of the colonial peoples, in Indonesia and Indo-China—where it has flared with extraordinary force—and in China, India, in the Near East is already brewing to set new sparks for a world-wide revolutionary conflagration. The victories in the British elections of the Labor party likewise lay the ground for a tremendous new revolutionary wave even closer to the continent. Moreover, the great, elemental upsurge of the American working class is bound to shake the very citadel of world capitalism and imperialism.

For the Trotskyist, therefore, reviewing perspective and readjusting tactics means building a springboard from which to prepare for a greater leap in the struggle between the world proletariat and the imperialists, in the struggle for socialism.


Top of page

Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Last updated on 8.2.2009