The Fourth International

The Long March of the Trotskyists

Chapter 4: From 1933 to 1938 -- Preparing for the Fourth International

A slight economic recovery occurred from 1933 to 1938, due largely to preparations for a new world war. The spread of fascism in Europe was barely held in check by the mass movements in France (June 1936) and in Spain, where fascism unleashed a civil war that was to end in tragedy for the working masses. In the Far East, Japan embarked on what was to prove a hopeless war against China. In the Soviet Union, execution of the five-year plans was accompanied by a monstrous lowering of the standard of living and suppression of the rights of the working masses, by the extermination of the Bolshevik cadres and the entire revolutionary vanguard. The dissension of the previous years between Socialist and Communist parties was replaced by a policy of 'unity'in order to build 'popular fronts'. This class collaboration with sections of the bourgeoisie had results as disastrous for the cause of socialism as those of the preceding period.

The economic crisis of 1929 had important political consequences, beginning in 1932-33. At the end of 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president of the United States. In an effort to revive the economy, he inaugurated the New Deal, which proved favourable to development of the trade union movement in the United States -- in a proletariat hitherto under the sway of craft unionism, where workers in the huge plants had not been organised. The rise of the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) would take care of that. But aside from the United States, this change had no immediate repercussions, the American proletariat's big step forward on the political level still remaining to be taken. No doubt this will be the result of the next great crisis, which in the United States will not necessarily be exclusively economic in origin.

Hitler came to power in Germany early in 1933 as a result of the combination of the policies of the two working class leaderships, reformist and Stalinist. For different reasons and in different ways, both were opposed to united action by the workers. Both engendered inertia, passivity, and lack of resistance in the German proletariat as a whole, in face of the growing Nazi movement. Both acted like competing shopkeepers and placed their interests as opposing cliques above the interests of the class they claimed to represent.

A turn in our general orientation took place when Hitler came to power. We abandoned the struggle to reform the Third International and set our sights on building a Fourth International and new revolutionary parties. This decision was not taken in one stroke. We began in the early months of 1933 by abandoning the struggle to reform the German CP, because it was obvious that a party which had failed in so serious a situation was historically doomed. (See Trotsky's article,'The German Workers Will Rise Again -- Stalinism, Never!') We were waiting to learn the reactions in the other CPs and in the Communist International. These reactions were negligible, and the Executive Committee of the Communist International unanimously approved a report by Heckert endorsing the whole previous Stalinist policy in Germany -- even though, in their heart of hearts, most of the leaderships of the CPs were hostile to these policies. Stalinism had definitively triumphed in the Communist International. As the revolutionary International of the proletariat, the Comintern was dead.

Following this vote of the ECCI, an International Plenum of our movement during the summer of 1933 almost unanimously decided on the change in our international orientation. Until then we had spoken in terms of reforming the Communist International, reforming the Bolshevik Party, and reforming the Soviet state, without always making a distinction among them in our statements. The orientation towards building new revolutionary parties and, by extension, a new party in the USSR, called for a clarification of our position vis-a-vis the Soviet state. At that time we made a careful distinction between reforming the Bolshevik Party, henceforth an impossibility, and the still possible reform of the Soviet state, which remained a proletarian state. Later, in 1935, our point of view developed on this question too, and led to our affirming the necessity of a political revolution in the USSR as a degenerated workers state -- a political, not a social, revolution, because what was needed was not a fundamental change in the Soviet Union's production relations but the destruction of the omnipotence of the bureaucracy and the re-establishment of workers democracy.

We were dealing with a country where property relations were different from those of a capitalist country and corresponded to those of a transitional society towards socialism (collectivisation of the means of production, monopoly of foreign trade, planned economy), but where the working class and the toiling masses were deprived of power and of all democratic rights which could enable them to reform and correct the situation. Trotsky reminded us of the history of bourgeois revolutions, recalling particularly that in spite of all that the great French Revolution had achieved, two more revolutions -- in 1830 and 1848 -- were needed to complete this revolution from the bourgeois point of view. He thought that the October Revolution too would need to be completed by a revolution which would aim not to change the basic property relations but to re-establish socialist democracy in the workers state.

'The revolution which the bureaucracy is preparing against itself will not be social, like the October revolution of 1917. It is not a question this time of changing the economic foundations of society, of replacing certain forms of property with other forms. History has known elsewhere not only social revolutions which substituted the bourgeois for the feudal regime, but also political revolutions which, without destroying the economic foundations of society, swept out an old ruling upper crust (1830 and 1848 in France, February 1917 in Russia, etc.). The overthrow of the Bonapartist caste will, of course, have deep social consequences, but in itself it will be confined within the limits of political revolution... The proletariat of a backward country was fated to accomplish the first socialist revolution. For this historic privilege, it must, according to all evidences, pay with a second supplementary revolution -- against bureaucratic absolutism.' (Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed, Chapter IX)

Trotsky's idea of a new, political revolution in the Soviet Union remained for long a purely theoretical notion, specific to the Trotskyist movement. With the international crisis of Stalinism, however, this notion has passed from the realm of theory and has begun to be outlined in reality. Thus others as well as Trotskyists have adopted it, although often in a confused fashion.

The preceding period of our history had been chiefly characterised by the grounding of our movement in the bedrock of principle. In the new period, we added to it a large measure of organisational flexibility. At the time of our struggle to reform the Third International, we assiduously separated ourselves from all currents that had an equivocal attitude, no matter how tiny, on this question of reform. But declaring that the Third International was no longer capable of being reformed meant placing on record an enormous setback to revolutionary consciousness, and it was not possible to tell in advance what a new International and new revolutionary parties would be and in what ways they would be established. Certainly we intended to try to gain acceptance for our programme, as being the most complete expression of the proletariat's experience to date; but we could not foresee how we would reach this goal, i.e. what organisational paths the construction of revolutionary parties would follow. Nor could we foresee what the evolution of our relationships with other revolutionary currents in the working class movement would be. Two experiments were made in this regard -- one limited in scope, the other much larger.

The 'Declaration of the Four'

From July-August of 1933, the question of regroupment of the revolutionary forces was placed before us in concrete form following the calling by the British ILP (Independent Labour Party) of a conference open to all organisations outside the Second and Third Internationals, for the purpose of examining the world situation and the situation of the labour movement in light of the Nazi victory. We decided to participate in this conference to make our position known and to try to get together all the organisations that were willing to promulgate -- to the working class of the world the need for a Fourth International. This participation was somewhat similar to that of the Bolsheviks, in other circumstances, at Zimmerwald and Kienthal. The result was the 'Declaration of the Four' -- a document signed by our international organisation, the League of Internationalist Communists; by the German SAP (Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei -- Socialist Workers Party); and by two Dutch organisations, the RSP (Revolutionair-Socialistische Partij -- Revolutionary Socialist Party) and the OSP (Onafhankelijke Socialistische Partij -- Independent Socialist Party).

The SAP consisted of some of the left socialists who, critical of its reformist line, had broken with German Social Democracy in 1931-32. Shortly before Hitler came to power, leadership of the SAP passed into the hands of Walcher and Frölich, two former leaders of the Communist right opposition (Brandlerites) who had broken with the latter to join the SAP. The Dutch OSP corresponded in origin to the German SAP. The RSP was led by Henricus Sneevliet, a Communist leader for many years, who had come into conflict with the Communist International over trade union policy in Holland, where he was an official of the NAS (Nationaal Arbeiders Syndikaat -- National Workers Union), a labour federation that included Communists and anarcho-syndicalists. In his struggle against the latter, Sneevliet had been led to organise his union faction into a political party.

The 'Declaration of the Four' proclaimed the need for a new International, for new revolutionary parties, and defined the main points on which they should be built. While it did not set forth our whole programme, the Declaration did contain our essential points. On a world scale the results of the 'Declaration of the Four' were minimal. In Holland, nevertheless, the two organisations held common rallies, and then merged to form the RSAP (Revolutionair-Socialistische Arbeiderspartij -- Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party). Later this party joined our movement, then split with us during the Spanish revolution, when it supported the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista -- Workers Party of Marxist Unification). The opposition to this line in the RSAP was based on the youth, led by Sal Santen. During the war, it was these youth who organised the Dutch section of the Fourth International. Sneevliet, who led the RSAP and who broke with the movement for the Fourth International on the question of the war in Spain, nevertheless remained extremely close to us. He died a hero during the war, shot by the Nazis.

As for the leaders of the German SAP who lived in exile, they behaved like inveterate centrists. Shortly after having signed the 'Declaration of the Four', they became the bitterest enemies of Trotskyism and were at the bottom of all the centrist groupings (the London Bureau, etc.) that spread indescribable confusion among the vanguard in the period preceding the Second World War. After the war, Walcher became a functionary in East Germany; Frölich, on the other hand, was a sympathiser of our movement.

The first draft of a transitional programme

Before going into the second experiment, by far the more important in building the revolutionary party, a few words should be said on the political situation resulting from Hitler's accession to power. The Nazi victory cut off the prospect of revolution in Germany for an entire period. Throughout the rest of Europe, reaction was sharply on the rise, but not without resistance. In Austria, where the working class was completely under the influence of the Social Democracy, the clerical reaction, led by Dollfuss, propelled the workers into armed struggle under Social Democratic leadership, and they fought for one week in February 1934. The crushing of the Austrian proletariat by Dollfuss opened the way to the Nazi victory in Austria -- the fascists took power after killing Dollfuss and eliminating his party.

The centre of the European working class movement shifted to France after 1933. Hitler's victory upset the equilibrium established in Europe at Versailles in 1918; this, in turn, laid bare the most formidable crisis in government that France had ever experienced -- a crisis that continues to this day. For the first time, it was apparent to all that France was no longer a first-rate power. To re-establish its position, or rather to maintain it, French capitalism had no other recourse but to lower the standard of living of the masses -- which could only be done by inaugurating a 'strong state'. French capitalism tried to get rid of parliamentary forms by means of the reactionary coup of 6 February 1934. But from the point of view of the bourgeoisie, the blow was struck prematurely. The French working class, literally whipped into action by this blow, awoke to the fascist danger, and there was a great deal of political tension in the country as a result.

Against the growing fascist danger, we advocated a united front of working class organisations in France. But to implement this, a programme of action was needed on the basis of which the working masses could mobilise to extricate themselves from the situation into which capitalism had plunged them. It was in that spring of 1934 that the first Bolshevik-Leninist programme of action was drawn up with Trotsky's collaboration. This document is of interest mainly because it constitutes the very first draft of a transitional programme. The following year, the Belgian comrades drew up a similar programme (against the decree laws in their country), and comrades in other countries followed suit. Thus the Transitional Programme adopted in 1938 by the founding congress of the International, far from being an improvisation, was the fruit of various earlier experiences in the different sections of the International.

As we have said, the French Trotskyist organisation, the Ligue Communiste, waged a systematic campaign for the united front. In the week following 6 February, a united front was established between the Ligue and the Seine Federation of the Socialist Party, which was under the influence of Marceau Pivert. Mass pressure for united action intensified after February 1934. In July of the same year, the Socialist and Stalinist leaderships, forced to respond to the pressure from below, signed a pact for unity in action. This pact did not rest on any concrete revolutionary policy; but the very fact that the two leaderships, who had fought each other so violently for so many years, called on the working class to counterpose a common front to the fascist gangs aroused enormous enthusiasm in the masses.

This pact had another result that concerned us. At the very moment that our campaign for an SP-CP united front was to a certain extent successful, paradoxically enough the consequences of this victory were unfavourable for our organisation. All the sympathetic response we had met with, partly in the CP and much more in the SFIO,[1] which had recruited a substantial number of workers, often former CP members -- all this sympathetic response was lost to us. This was not due to hostility, but rather to a lack of political clarity on the concept of a revolutionary party and the need for such a party -- especially in the united front and to the very strong attraction exercised by the CP-SP united front. Our meetings were no longer attended; our organisation became very much isolated, as it had been before. Inevitably, a crisis developed. We searched for a way out of this isolation; for a way to establish connections with, and links to, a mass movement the likes of which had never before been seen in France and which was growing larger with each passing day; for a way to be with the masses in action.

'Entryism '

Our second big organisational experiment, aimed at building a revolutionary party, took place at this point. In our efforts to move towards a stronger organisation, we were to pass through a stage in which the Trotskyist group would temporarily lose its organisational independence by entering a mass working class party. Trotsky himself raised the question of the Ligue Communiste entering the SFIO. The move was decided on in September-October of 1934. This policy, called entryism, was subsequently extended to other countries. At first it aroused a great deal of disagreement within our international organisation, even causing splits. It was with a great deal of resistance that the October 1934 International Plenum ratified the policy of the French Trotskyists' entering the SFIO. Since then the majority of the organisation has considered this tactic admissible.

For an entire initial period, the activity of the Bolshevik-Leninist Group [2] in the SFIO was conducted with remarkable political clarity. This attracted numerous young people, particularly the whole Jeunesses Socialistes (Socialist Youth) tendency, organised under the name Jeunesses Socialistes Revolutionnaires (Revolutionary Socialist Youth), into the organisation's ranks, thus renewing its membership. On the other hand, our exit from the SFIO while the Popular Front was being organised took place under very unfortunate circumstances, and the split among the Bolshevik-Leninists occurring at that time caused us to lose part of the benefits obtained from our entry.

In other countries, notably Belgium and the United States, entryism had better results. In Belgium, where the organisation had a working class base in the Charleroi Basin, it acquired a strong mass base in the Borinage. In the United States, the Socialist Party never recovered from the blow it suffered when the Trotskyists left.

On the contrary, Nin and Andrade in Spain, who had opposed the entry of the French Trotskyists into the SFIO, did not delay in uniting -- on an incorrect programmatic basis -- with the Worker-Peasant Bloc in Catalonia, thus forming the inveterately centrist POUM.

The rise of fascism and the war

On an international scale, this entire period was dominated by the rise of fascism and the approach of the new imperialist war, despite high peaks of workers' struggles, notably the movements of June 1936 in France and a few other countries, and the civil war in Spain. In the course of this period, three large struggles dominated the activity of our international movement:

1. The struggle against the Popular Front policy, with especial reference to Spain and France. With a tenacity born of desperation, our organisations fought the class collaborationist policy by means of which Stalinists and social-democrats -- this time united, not divided -- prepared the worst of catastrophes for the working class movement. The Popular Front constituted the first big period of class collaboration for the Stalinists. On that occasion, however, they were not (except in a very limited fashion in Spain) seeking ministerial posts. This came later, and became widespread in another period of class collaboration by the Stalinists -- the period following the close of World War II.

The united front and the Popular Front incorporate two very opposite conceptions. Since the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921, the united front has meant the unity in action of big working class organisations to achieve more or less extended common aims. Before 1933 the Trotskyists advocated the united front between the CP and the Social Democrats in Germany against the rise of Nazism. The united front of the mass organisations of the working class is a generally positive fact -- if, however, the revolutionary yeast can act in it. This is never the case with the Popular Front, which is a political combination -- a bloc of working class reformist parties with wings of the bourgeoisie. In these cases the bloc is realised on a bourgeois programme, a class collaborationist programme.

The Stalinists justify such a line by pretending that the working class must not isolate itself from the petty bourgeoisie, that it must not frighten it by socialist demands and aims, by the use of force, etc. The aim of the Popular Front policy, according to the Stalinist~, is to cajole the petty bourgeoisie, to accustom it to march with the workers parties, and to create a broader and broader 'democracy' finally culminating in socialism.

All these arguments are wrong. One should not identify the petty bourgeoisie with parties -- like the Radical Party in France which are capitalist parties whose electoral base is made up of the petty bourgeoisie. It is not true that the working class becomes more attractive by diluting its programme. It is not true that the Petty bourgeoisie is essentially parliamentarist, electoralist, hostile to force. The example of the Nazis in Germany shows this only too well. The Nazis used the most brutal force and a 'socialist' demagogy, not fearing in the slightest to put the word 'socialist' in the name of their party. The petty bourgeoisie cannot be attracted by sweet words. This social layer has no political stability; it is attracted by those who show strength. Every worker who has been on strike has a clear experience of this. When strikers are determined, small shopkeepers often sympathise with them; when they are hesitant, undecided, the latter immediately turn against them. The Popular Fronts never ceased to be characterised by their hesitations and their softness, owing to the presence and pressure of bourgeois politicians. The working class can only win a section of the middle classes to its side, and neutralise another section, by being strong, decided and determined.

2. The struggle against centrism. This struggle was characterised by a denunciation of the policy of the London Bureau and centrist organisations such as the Spanish POUM, the English ILP, the German SAP, and the Norwegian NAP.[3] The struggle against centrism also required entering the PSOP[4] -- an unhappy experience because of the French Trotskyist movement's state of disintegration at the time.

In Marxist literature, the characterisation 'centrist' is applied to all tendencies or groups that fluctuate between revolutionary Marxism and reformism. Some very diverse organisations are thus included in this category. There have even been some mass organisations of a centrist nature, for example, the Independent Socialist Party of Germany (USPD -- Unabhtingige Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands), which broke with the Social Democracy during the First World War and part of which participated in forming the German Communist Party in 1920.

The struggle against centrism is one of the most difficult and yet essential tasks of revolutionary Marxists. Reformism has an unmistakable shape, and the struggle against it is comparatively easy -- at least with working class militants who do not rely only on day-to-day demands, especially in periods when capitalist contradictions are crudely revealed. Centrism, however, needs more than theoretical denunciations in order to be fought efficiently. To carry out this task requires very great flexibility, because centrism takes the most varied and oscillating forms. It easily adopts a revolutionary vocabulary, mostly adopted from Marxism, but its actions usually fail to correspond with its words. It should not be forgotten that Kautsky's centrism dominated the Second International for twenty years, and it took August 1914 for Lenin himself to grasp it thoroughly. And for many years the Communist parties, before they became completely bogged down in reformism, followed a centrist policy which duped very large sections of the masses.

Centrist currents often go out to win large sections of the masses by offering short cuts, throwing overboard part of the revolutionary Marxist programme. Not to believe in short cuts, to defend the revolutionary Marxist programme as a whole, is regarded as evidence of 'sectarianism' by the centrists. But up to now no victorious revolution has travelled such a road; and, far from having proved the necessity to simplify revolutionary Marxism, the experience has enriched it. This will be even more true for the victory of socialist revolutions in countries with a more developed economy and much more complex social structures. No-one will triumph with a second-hand programme, with leaderships unable to answer the more complex problems raised by revolutions in such countries. It may perhaps be more tempting, in the light of the difficulties encountered by the Trotskyist movement, to set out on a seemingly shorter road with a lighter theoretical and political burden. But all those who have acted thus -- and there have been many of them in half a century -- have come to nothing. They have only hindered the process of building revolutionary parties and disoriented numerous militants, particularly when the weakness of the Trotskyist organisations prevented them from vigorously opposing these centrist experiences.

In the period preceding the Second World War, these small centrist groupings sought to break the masses away from the old parties, without, however, developing a cohesive programme as a basis for a new, revolutionary International (that's what they called the'sectarianism' of the Trotskyists!). They did not, of course, attain their objective. But they did succeed -- and that was their main activity -- in raising all kinds of obstacles to theoretical and political clarification among the vanguard militants who were disgusted with the old parties and disoriented by a terrible decline in the working class movement. During the Second World War, the London Bureau showed no sign of life. The same held true for the SAP and the PSOP. In England, the ILP was nothing more than an empty husk.

3. The struggle against the Moscow trials was one of physical defence, a struggle, literally, for the very existence of our movement, a struggle against an avalanche of slander, of frame-ups, of widespread brutality and Stalinist crimes against Trotskyist militants, in a whole series of countries outside the Soviet Union. (In France, Leon Sedov, Rudolf Klement; in Spain, Erwin Wolf, Moulin; in Switzerland, Ignace Reiss.)

From 1936 to 1938, three big trials took place in Moscow, in which the role of prosecuting attorney was played by the ex-Menshevik Vishinsky, who became foreign minister after the war. In the first trial, the defendants (Zinoviev, Kamenev, I.N. Smirnov, etc.) 'confessed' to having plotted against Stalin out of greed for power. In the second trial, the defendants (among whom were Pyatakov and Yagoda, organiser of the first trial) 'confessed' that they and the defendants in the preceding trial had conspired to re-establish capitalism in the Soviet Union. In the third trial, the accused (Bukharin, Rakovsky, etc.) 'confessed' that they all, including those executed following the previous trials, had for a long time been spies in the service of the (German) Gestapo, the (British) Intelligence Service, the Mikado, etc. In addition to these 'trials', this period saw the execution, also as plotters, of the most important heads of the Red Army (Tukhachevsky, Gamarnik, Putna, etc.).

In all these trials, the main defendants were Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov. Trotsky was pictured as a counter-revolutionary agent -- from time immemorial! These trials served to prepare the groundwork for the assassination of Trotsky and Leon Sedov and for the liquidation of the Bolshevik Old Guard who, in the difficult period of the war then looming on the horizon, could have become the centre of a revolutionary opposition to the Stalinist faction. Despite our campaigns, despite the irrefutable evidence placed before the Dewey Commission[5] proving that these trials were infamous political machinations, Stalin attained his objectives -- with the seal of approval of representatives of American big business, such as Ambassador John E. Davies.

This period as a whole was characterised by great demoralisation in the vanguard of a working class more and more on the downgrade. For our movement, the most painful example of this was the fragmentation of the French Trotskyists, which reached such a state that at one point the International declared it could no longer accept responsibility for their actions.

* * * * *

In 1936 an international conference of supporters of the Fourth International was held. Trotsky wanted the birth of the Fourth International announced then and there, but his proposal was not accepted by the conference, which called itself merely 'Movement for the Fourth International'.


[1] 'Section Francaise de l'Internationale Ouvritre -- French Section of the Second International, official name of the Socialist Party.

[2] The name adopted by the Trotskyist organisation when it joined the Socialist Party.

[3] The NAP (Norsk Arbeiderpartiet -- Norwegian Labour Party) was a mass party that broke with the London Bureau and subsequently fulfilled the traditional social-democratic role in Norway.

[4] The PSOP (Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan -- Workers and Peasants Socialist Party) was formed by the 'revolutionary left' tendency in the SFIO, which Blum expelled when the Popular Front fell apart. The PSOP was led by Marceau Pivert, who joined the 'old house' after the war and became an assiduous anti-Trotskyist.

[5] A commission of socialist-minded and liberal intellectuals formed to investigate the charges against Trotsky made in the Moscow trials of 1936-37. It was headed by John Dewey, the most reputable bourgeois philosopher and educator in the United States, and brought in a not-guilty verdict for Trotsky.

Last updated on: 13.2.2005