The Fourth International

The Long March of the Trotskyists

Chapter 3: From 1929 to 1933 Formation of the International Left Opposition

The years 1929-33 marked the greatest economic crisis in the history of capitalism. Tens of millions of people were thrown out of work -- or never even got a job after leaving school. The social crisis thus brought on ended not in a gain for socialism but in the victory of fascism in Germany. Colonial revolts and revolutions were on the increase; the Chinese Communists set out on their 'long march '. In the Soviet Union the period of the five-year plans began under the leadership of Stalin, who succeeded in strangling the Bolshevik Party. In this period, despite their policy of class collaboration (the theory of the 'lesser evil'), the Socialist parties were generally not in government. The Communist parties followed an ultra-left sectarian policy (the 'third period'). The combination of the two policies -- Socialist and Communist -- paralysed the proletariat.

Stalin expelled Trotsky from the Soviet Union early in 1929. Even at that time he would have got rid of Trotsky in a more permanent way, except that -- as Zinoviev and Kamenev revealed after the troika broke up -- he feared an assassination might boomerang against him; his position was still far from secure, while Trotsky still had considerable authority in the USSR. Inside the USSR itself, Trotsky would never have discontinued his activity. He had refused to make an agreement to that effect when Stalin had demanded it. It was after this refusal that Stalin saw only one solution -- to forbid any relationship, any contact, between Trotsky and the USSR. That was the purpose Trotsky's exile was intended to serve. Let us not forget that in the past Stalin had considered the pre-1917 revolutionary emigration as something of little importance. Later Stalin was to admit that he had made a mistake in exiling Trotsky. It was probably from that moment on that Stalin started the preparations for Trotsky's assassination.

Upon his arrival in Turkey, Trotsky set himself the task of creating an international Bolshevik-Leninist faction to fight against the disintegration of the international revolutionary movement. As early as 1924, centrifugal currents had been appearing in the Communist International and in most of its sections, but, except in the USSR, practically no group (apart perhaps from the Bordigists in Italy) had developed distinct political positions of its own -- its own well-rounded programme. On the contrary, during the 1924-29 period a series of numerically tiny groups had been formed, generally without solid ties to the working class, quarrelling amongst themselves, and without any real political cohesiveness. This can very well be explained by the fact that the Communist parties had arisen from currents of very diverse origin in the working class movement, and there had not been enough time before the onset of the degeneration to re-educate and unify these parties on the basis of the theoretical, political, and organisational experience of Bolshevism. As soon as the ebb in the revolutionary movement appeared, as soon as the impact of the Bolshevik Party's degeneration was felt in the Communist International, reactions on the most diverse political bases occurred amongst those who avoided getting caught up in the Stalinist corruption. Thus in France, between 1924 and 1929, half-a-dozen different oppositions appeared, all of them very heterogeneous.

Immediately upon his arrival in Turkey, Trotsky addressed a letter to all of the groups and individuals who found themselves in opposition to Stalinist policy. Signed 'Gurov', the letter projected an international regroupment and asked each of them what their positions were on the three basic questions: the USSR, the Anglo-Russian Committee, and the Chinese revolution. In this letter and in other documents that followed shortly thereafter, Trotsky distinguished three fundamental currents in the Communist International around which the different groups were, or would be, gathered -- in a more or less clear-cut fashion:

(a) The Left Opposition, which defended the fundamental political and organisational policies of Leninism advocated by the Bolshevik-Leninists in the Soviet Union.

(b) The right opposition, oriented by the right wing of the Bolshevik Party (Bukharin) and composed of groups opposed to Stalinism, not because of its fundamental policy, not on the question of 'socialism in one country', but more particularly because of its 'ultra-left' errors. These groups, the most important of which was that of Brandler in Germany, each tried to have an independent national policy, with the result that they found themselves moving towards the social-democratic left.

(c) In the centre, the Stalinist faction, the bureaucratic wing in the service of the Kremlin.

In his letters, Trotsky also specified that the problem of the internal regime of the party, no matter how important it was, nevertheless had to be considered subordinate to fundamental political problems, and there could be no question of entering into a bloc with the right (Brandlerites) because, while we had the same criticism of the party regime that they did, there was complete and total disagreement between us and them on the essential political problems, on the general political orientation.

The 1929-33 period of our international movement was essentially a period of principled delimitation and formation of cadres. That was the period in which a large number of our sections were formed and in the course of which we learned, if such an expression can be used, to 'talk Trotskyist'. It was during this period in France that the group which published La Vérité (The Truth) was established (September 1929) and organised the Ligue Communiste (Communist League) in 1930. It was in April 1930 in Paris that the first International Conference of Bolshevik-Leninists took place, which was to give birth to an international centre, very weak at the time, that would become the International Secretariat. The development of our movement led to the Copenhagen Conference of 1932, attended by Trotsky, and to a 1933 conference that adopted the 'eleven points' summarising our basic programme. Let us take a look at the principal problems confronting the Trotskyist movement at that time.

Defence of the USSR

Beginning in 1929, the opponents of Stalinism were faced with the problem of defence of the Soviet Union, occasioned by incidents that occurred during the summer of 1929 on the East China railroad.

At that time, the Trans-Siberian Railway included a section that passed through Chinese territory. [1] Agreements did exist between the USSR and China on the management of the railroad on Chinese territory. These agreements had been established by the two countries on an equal footing, after Lenin's government had voluntarily repudiated all treaties concluded by Tsarism that were of the 'unequal treaty' type between the imperialist powers and China. After the victory of the counter-revolution in China, Chiang Kai-shek wanted forcibly to expel the Soviet managers of that part of the railroad. From the strategic point of view, that constituted a great danger for the USSR, since the Pacific port of Vladivostok would thus be cut off from all of Siberia. In answer to Chiang, the Soviet government sent the Red Army to enforce the rights of the Soviet state, at which point denunciations of 'Soviet imperialism', and other arguments we have often heard since, took place among a number of opponents of Stalinism. It was more or less at this time that Hugo Urbahns, leader of the Hamburg insurrection of 1923, began to expound theories on the existence of 'state capitalism' in the USSR.[2] It was at this time that Trotsky wrote The Defence of the Soviet Union and the Left Opposition, the first fairly complete examination of a question that was to be raised many times thereafter.

In this pamphlet Trotsky defines the class nature of the Soviet state, product of the October Revolution. The aim of any war against the USSR would be to destroy the bases of the society (collective ownership of the means of production, etc.) rather than its repressive regime. The defeat of the USSR would also bring in its wake colonisation of the country by imperialism, which would thus be assured a new lease of life. This defeat would result in profound demoralisation of the masses throughout the entire world. But defence of the Soviet Union does not at all consist in accepting or supporting Stalin's policy. On the contrary, the latter is one of the greatest dangers threatening the USSR -- Stalin hunting around the world for 'allies', to the detriment of the world revolution. This policy must be bitterly denounced, even in time of war. 'For the defence of the Soviet Union, always! For the defence of Stalinism, never!' The only real defence of the Soviet Union in the event of world conflict is the revolutionary struggle of the international proletariat in all the capitalist countries, 'allies' or not of the USSR.

The united front against the Hitler danger

The main struggle waged by the Left Opposition from 1930 on was the struggle for the united front in Germany against the rise of fascism. The Left Opposition's policy was radically opposed to the Stalinist policy of the 'third period', which can be summarised as follows: capitalism has entered a period of final crisis; consequently (by virtue of Stalinist logic), the entire bourgeoisie is turning fascist, and along with it its party in the working class, the social-democratic party, which is becoming a social-fascist party; consequently, the danger of war against the USSR is becoming imminent; and consequently the masses are becoming radicalised, placing on the agenda general strikes, revolutionary days, leading to armed insurrection. The political consequence of this 'logic', of this theory of'social fascism', was that there could be no possible question of entering a united front with a social-fascist party; on the contrary, it was necessary to fight this social-fascist party, to cut right through it, in order to get at the bourgeoisie and at fascism, the 'twin of social fascism'.

This international policy of Stalinism had its most dreadful repercussions and its most horrible results in Germany, where the workers, faced with the Hitlerite gangs, found themselves divided. Still worse, in certain cases (the plebiscite in Prussia) the Stalinists voted together with the Nazis against the Social Democrats. Another fact: following the assassination of some thirty Berlin workers on 1 May 1929 by police led by the Social Democratic prefect Zoergiebel, the Communist Party declared that all Social Democrats were also Zoergiebels who had to be struck down. Children of Social Democrats were then 'little Zoergiebels', and the order was given to Communist children's organisations to beat up Social Democratic children at school. Shortly before Hitler came to power, members of the German CP and the Nazis had common picket lines during the strike of the Berlin public transport system, which was run by a Social Democratic municipality. This 'third period' policy created a rift between Social Democratic workers and Communist workers and rendered the German proletariat helpless in the face of the rise of the Nazis.

The Left Opposition led an international struggle against the line of 'social fascism' and in favour of a united front of the German Communist and Social Democratic parties in order to stop Hitler. That campaign was based on a series of pamphlets by Trotsky: What Next?, The Only Road, Letter to a German Communist Worker, Germany: The Key to the international Situation. The development of the situation and our intervention led the Stalinists, who had wanted to avoid the issue, to take a position on the Nazi danger. In France the CP leadership called an information conference of the Paris region, at which the then secretary, Semard, branded the German question 'the Trotskyite hobbyhorse'. A public meeting of the CP at Bullier Hall was the scene of violent fist-fights between Stalinists and Trotskyists.

Later, forced to respond to the workers' anxiety about the fascist threat, as well as to serve the Kremlin's diplomatic manoeuvring between the democratic countries and Hitlerite Germany, the Communist International organised the 'Amsterdam Committees' for the fight against fascism. It was one of the first experiments with a 'mass'-type organisation controlled by the Stalinists. Our organisation 'participated' in these Amsterdam and Paris (Pleyel Hall) Congresses in order to expose them as subterfuges. They were just that -- on many counts. The Stalinists separated the fight against war and fascism from the revolutionary struggle for power. [3] In that way, they spread the idea that the rise of fascism could be stopped and imperialist war prevented within the capitalist system. Even at that time the policy of 'peaceful coexistence' was already taking its toll. This policy was not invented by Khrushchev, as many bourgeois, social-democratic and pro-Chinese observers pretend. In the Criticism of the Programme of the Communist International, written by Trotsky in 1928, there is a denunciation of this policy of 'peaceful coexistence'. The differences between Khrushchev and Stalin related not to the basis of this policy -- that is, obtaining a global agreement with the capitalists in order that the Soviet Union might quietly build 'socialism in one country' but to the different conditions under which they attempted to implement this policy. In both cases the interests of the revolutionary struggles of the masses were subordinated and even sacrificed to the needs of the Kremlin's diplomacy. It must be noted that the same leaders of the Chinese CP who so strongly denounced this policy when carried out by the Soviet leaders are, for the same reasons of 'socialism in one country', now proceeding along the same lines with regard to Chile, Iran, Sri Lanka, Sudan, etc.

Under the banner of Leninism and the October Revolution, Stalinism reintroduced social-democratic and opportunistic ideas. The door was opened to collaboration with the 'anti-fascist' bourgeoisie or bourgeois 'friends of peace', and the Kremlin took its first steps on the road to the Popular Front in France and Spain. In their attempts to build 'mass'-type class collaborationist bodies like the 'Amsterdam Committees', the bureaucracy perpetrated a massive confusion in the working class. They claimed they were building a united front through this method of organisation, whereas they were in fact only regrouping people who had accepted their leadership in advance. Thus did they distort -- in the minds of revolutionary workers and in the masses -- the concept of a united front among working class organisations.

The fight to reform the Communist International

As we said, a great number of our sections originated in this period, which was also marked by numerous internal crises in our movement. Since there were no large-scale workers' struggles taking place in many countries and since our movement did not have much of a mass base, personal aspects of our internal discussions often assumed undue importance. But the personal elements of these fights were closely bound to, were grafted onto, political and organisational problems. All these crises were phases of the struggle to establish connections with the masses and to build revolutionary leaderships. Only philistines, only centrists, can sneer at these fights instead of trying to understand them. In this period, an attempt at collaborating with the Bordigists, in the same international organisation, proved fruitless. The Copenhagen Conference registered the impossibility of our being in the same movement, under the given circumstances.

During this entire period, we were opposed to building a new International and new revolutionary parties. The essence of our political line was to struggle to reform, to regenerate, the Communist International and its sections. Although expelled, we considered ourselves a faction of the Communist International and of the Communist parties, a faction struggling to put these organisations back on the correct revolutionary road. In that period we came up against tendencies that wanted to form a new International, that said there was no longer anything that could be done with the Communist International and its sections. Our answer was that our attitude towards working class organisations could not be dictated by subjective considerations such as our expulsion, nor even solely by the policy followed by the leadership of those organisations. The birth and continued existence of revolutionary parties and of a revolutionary International correspond to a historical situation, to given objective conditions that cannot arbitrarily be dismissed with a few strokes of the pen. The Communist International and its sections had at their command the historic capital rising out of their origin, their connection with the Russian Revolution, their years of struggle in working class movements. These organisations had deep roots in the masses. Stalinism was squandering the historic capital of the Third International, but only great historic events could show whether it was definitively finished, doomed from a revolutionary point of view, despite our efforts to regenerate it.

From 1923 on, we had seen the Left Opposition in the Communist parties grow, with (and by means of) every revolutionary upsurge of the workers. We had no grounds for saying that the bureaucratisation of these parties was irreversible. It should not be forgotten that the CPs of that era, although already led by Stalinists, were quite different from the political machines of today. They were still revolutionary formations. Finally, in our struggle against the policies of the 'third period', we had warned that a defeat of the German proletariat and a victory for Hitler could constitute precisely the historic event likely to change our course with regard to the Communist International. We must bear in mind the world situation at that time. The European working class constituted the majority of the world working class; the colonial movements had only just begun.

For Trotskyists, the International cannot be an arbitrarily created organisation; it must be the concretisation, the embodiment of all the principles of revolutionary Marxism and of the vanguard of a historical epoch. The First International marked the epoch when the working class movement for the first time disengaged itself from bourgeois and petty-bourgeois republican currents and organised itself independently on a class basis, even if it lacked clarity on a theoretical level. The Second International before 1914 marked the epoch of capitalist ascendancy and the expansion of bourgeois democracy in various countries, in which the working class movement in these countries organised itself in mass parties and mass trade unions. In this epoch Marxism became the dominant political current in the working class movement.

The Third International -- in its first five years, the only ones when it was truly the Communist International -- marked the epoch of the October victory, the first assaults of the socialist revolution in the whole world. As long as the Third International contained revolutionary forces potentially capable of throwing off the bureaucratic yoke and regenerating it, the Trotskyist opposition was totally hostile to the building of another pole. It considered that to do so would be to divert and dissipate revolutionary forces in a project divorced from what was still the international centre of the socialist revolution. But when the German proletariat was defeated by Nazism, when the Communist International unhesitatingly underwrote Stalin's policy -- which bore such a heavy responsibility for this defeat -- then it became useless to attempt to revive a body which had been shown to be lifeless. The epoch had arrived for a new revolutionary International. How long its gestation would last could not be predicted. But in any case it was necessary to start work immediately.

It should be noted that later on, when we turned towards the construction of a Fourth International and new revolutionary parties, practically none of the people who had condemned our policy of reforming the Third International and had taken a position against us in favour of creating a Fourth International practically none of these people joined us in this task. Most of them continued to form ultra-left groupings. This proves that there were much deeper differences between us and those who criticised us at that time than the possible reform of the Communist International. Actually, these divergences stemmed from totally different concepts of the party and its relationship to the working class.


[1] Since then, a line has been built that goes only through Soviet territory.

[2] The theory of 'state capitalism' was really not new. It had been created right after the October Revolution by Social Democrats like Otto Bauer. Karl Kautsky, etc.

[3] It is obvious that a revolutionary party must conduct specific campaigns and actions against fascism and imperialist war, but these actions must be anti-capitalist in character.

Last updated on: 13.2.2005