Our political tradition - The programme of the Fourth International, 70 years on

From Lutte de Classe #115 - October 2008 (published in Class Struggle #82 - Britain)
October 2008

On September 3rd, 1938, two dozen delegates gathered at Périgny, a small town nearby Paris, in the home of Alfred Rosmer, who had been one of the most determined activists in the struggle for proletarian internationalism during World War I. They were holding a conference, the aim of which was to proclaim the birth of the Fourth International.

Most notably absent from this meeting was Leon Trotsky, the conference's main instigator as well as the author of the Transitional Programme, which was to be adopted by the conference. In fact, Trotsky had been unable to leave Mexico, the only country which was willing to welcome him in a world in which no-one would grant him a visa.

For five years already, Trotsky had been arguing for the need to launch a new International. Until early 1933, his International Left Opposition was fighting for the return to a revolutionary programme within the Communist International and its national sections. But then events caused Trotsky to change his political orientation. When confronted with the Nazis' conquest of political power, the German Communist Party collapsed without a fight. Two months later, the Executive Committee of the Communist International put its seal of approval on the suicidal policy of this party, without this causing any significant reaction within the ranks of its national sections. Trotsky made the following assessment: "An organisation which was not woken up by the thunder of fascism shows that it is a dead body that nothing will resuscitate."

The struggle for the construction of the new International was taking place in a situation which was very different from the days in which its predecessors had emerged. The Socialist International (or Second International) had been born in the last two decades of the 19th century, at a time when the development of the working class movement was in full swing. After the collapse of this International, in August 1914, the Communist International (or Third International) took over. But this was at a time when the Russian revolution was generating great hope among the oppressed across the world. In 1933, in contrast, the process of building the new International took place against a deeply reactionary backdrop - the triumph of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR and Nazism in Germany.

The working-class struggles of 1936 had been no more than an upsurge. The French capitalist class, with the complicity of the Popular Front coalition, promptly regained most of the ground it had been forced to concede as a result of the June 1936 strikes. In Spain, the proletarian counter-offensive, while halting the uprising of Franco's generals in July 1936, left the country under the control of socialist and communist political parties bent on demonstrating to the capitalist class that they were trustworthy. The events of May 1937 in Barcelona signalled the end of any hope of social revolution.

On the eve of a new world conflict

The march towards WW2 was gathering momentum. As early as 1933, Hitler's arrival in power had shown that the German capitalist class was determined to challenge, by force, the stranglehold imposed on it by the Versailles Treaty. Germany's overt rearmament, its resumption of conscription and the rearmament of the Rhineland, in 1935, confirmed this orientation. The Anschluss - the annexation of Austria - had been the first stage in Nazi Germany's expansion. The fact that the war was approaching fast, was precisely the reason why Trotsky wanted to unfurl the banner of the Fourth International.

However, the small number of participants in the Périgny conference was significant of the numerical weakness of the new International's supporters. In fact, for most activists outside the USSR, the debates which had shaken the Bolshevik party were difficult to understand. In particular, from 1928 onwards, the Communist International's leftist turn, with its crude exposure of social-democracy as the "twin brother" of fascism and slogans such as "class against class", concealed for most the counter-revolutionary nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy. When, in 1935, the Communist International made a U-turn and began to hail Popular Fronts - that is, unity not just with the social-democratic parties, but even with "left" bourgeois parties - to justify the communist parties' support for bourgeois governments (as was the case in France) or even their participation in them (as in Spain), most activists saw this merely as a correction of the excesses of the previous period. They evidently no longer had any political compass, which, for instance, goes some way towards explaining the acceptance, without much opposition, of the French CP's new support for "national defence", the Marseillaise and the national flag.

The only section of the International Left Opposition with real significance - both in terms of numbers and in terms of the political capital it incorporated - was its Soviet section, despite the fact that repression and deportations made its existence largely informal. However, its activists were almost totally exterminated between the years of 1936-1938. The Moscow trials were only the visible tip of the iceberg, involving former leaders of the revolutionary period, who had eventually given in to pressure and torture. But thousands of activists, whether from the Civil War days or from the younger generation, who shared the ideas of the Left Opposition were also exterminated, albeit more discreetly.

Stalinist violence was not confined to the USSR. All the Trotskyist activists of the time were at the receiving end of this violence. But it was most devastating among Trotsky's closest collaborators. Erwin Wolf, who had been Trotsky's secretary during his stay in Norway before becoming secretary of the Committee for the Fourth International, disappeared in Spain, in the aftermath of the May 1937 uprising. Rudolf Klement, who had been Trotsky's secretary during his exile at Prinkipo, before working in Paris where, according to Trotsky's own words, he was providing him with "considerable help", disappeared in July of the same year. Finally, Leon Sedov, Trotsky's son and closest collaborator, was murdered by the GPU in February 1938.

The importance of the programme

For Trotsky, the proclamation of the Fourth International at this point in time (in 1938), was a way of asserting a clear programme in preparation for the years to come, which were bound to be difficult for the working class movement. Trotsky was anything but sectarian. He always proved willing to co-operate with other revolutionary currents. But he considered the question of the programme vitally important for the current which laid claim to the heritage of the International Left Opposition.

The purpose of this programme was to bridge the gap between the workers' day-to-day struggles and the fight for the conquest of power by the proletariat. It was only Trotsky himself who really had the ability to conceive such a programme. This was not only because of his personal abilities, but because Trotsky's experience was not confined to that of small groups. As a former prominent activist of the Second International and a former leader of the Third International, he had the experience of large working class parties which were involved in every possible kind of political activity, from day-to-day work to the struggle for power. Indeed, in 1917, together with Lenin, he had led the Bolshevik party during the period of maturation of the Russian revolution and through the conquest of power. Thereafter, he had played a decisive role, first in the launch of the Communist International and then, in its operation, during the formative years of its first four congresses.

The USSR - defending what had been achieved

In his programme, Trotsky was able to encapsulate systematically the policy implemented by the Communist International between 1919 and 1923, whether in the industrialised countries or in the colonial and semi-colonial countries. At the same time, he defined what the policies of revolutionaries should be in the countries where the working class lived under the yoke of fascist regimes or military dictatorships. He also spelt out the attitude that revolutionaries should have towards the USSR, where the Moscow Trials had shown the depths to which the utterly abject bureaucracy could sink. For Trotsky, revolutionaries had to combine a struggle against this bureaucracy, with the objective of a political revolution aiming to bring genuine Soviets back to power, with the defence of all of the existing social transformations which had been made possible by the October revolution.

Trotsky had no illusions as to the general direction taken by the majority of the bureaucracy. He wrote in the Transitional Programme: "The extermination of the generation of old Bolsheviks and of the revolutionary representatives of the middle and young generations has disrupted the political equilibrium still more in favour of the right, bourgeois wing of the bureaucracy and of its allies throughout the land. From them, i.e., from the right, we can expect ever more determined attempts in the next period to revise the socialist character of the USSR and bring it closer in pattern to 'Western civilization' (..)".

Seventy years later, Trotsky's approach to the question of the defence of the achievements of the revolution still remains full of valuable lessons. His book, "Revolution Betrayed", still provides the only valid explanation of the degeneracy of the USSR. In addition, when the bureaucracy finally rejected the phraseology it had inherited from its origins in order to celebrate the wonders of private property (for its own benefit), the Transitional Programme still provided the only means by which to define the tasks of the proletariat, if it resumed the struggle in this context - namely the need to fight both for a return to workers' soviet democracy and for the defence of collective property and planning.

The former Soviet bureaucracy ditched the "communist" mask it had used for so long, to the point of "rehabilitating" czar Nicolas II, whom Lenin used to call "Nicolas-the-hangman". The billionaires who emerged out of the liquidation of a large part of the USSR's state property today parade their "nouveau riche" style in luxury hotels across the world. Nonetheless, Russia is still considered as a more or less alien body in the imperialist world. And, today, the only valid way for revolutionaries to approach the question of the tasks that the Russian proletariat would have to set for its struggles, still lies in Trotsky's methodology.

The Transitional Programme - a response to the capitalist crisis

The financial crisis which has shaken the capitalist world since the summer of 2007 (although its first cracks go back much earlier than that) is a striking illustration of how irrelevant were the claims that the market was the best possible regulator for the economy, and that crises belonged to the past, together with the class struggle.

In fact, the capitalist classes have been waging a ruthless class struggle, attacking workers' living standards relentlessly and striving to increase their profits by reducing the share of national income which goes to waged workers.

At a time when the increasing domination of finance capital over the economy has caused a worldwide crisis, which the trustees of capitalism in government themselves have been finally forced to compare with the Great Depression of the 1930s, the objectives set by the Transitional Programme are more relevant than ever.

Take, for instance, the sliding scale of wages - in order to protect workers from having their purchasing power eroded by inflation - and the sliding scale of working hours - in order to combat the social disaster resulting from unemployment and involuntary part-time or casual work. These are not intended to be items included in an electoral programme, whose implementation would depend on the goodwill of Parliament, but are objectives for workers' struggles. As such, they require the mobilisation of the working class for the purpose of exercising its control over companies and imposing the end of commercial secrecy, as a condition to make this control meaningful.

Against the backdrop of today's crisis, the Programme's objectives of expropriating private banks and bringing the credit system under state control in order to end the domination of finance capital are just as strikingly relevant.

Who can claim that these objectives, which were at the core of the Transitional Programme, have become outdated?

Democratic demands and socialist demands

The section of the Transitional Programme dealing with "backward countries" remains just as relevant today because, despite the colonial empires' collapse after World War II, the imperialist powers carry on ruthlessly looting their former colonies or those of their rivals. As a result, the populations of these countries are invariably subjected to the rule of military dictatorships, which are generally mere instruments in the hands of the major imperialist powers. Hence, the question of the link between democratic demands and the struggle of the working class for power, is posed in the same terms in these countries as it was in Russia in 1905, or in China in 1927.

In these countries, taking the democratic programme on board implies that revolutionaries should defend any state measure that may loosen the imperialist stranglehold, while never aligning themselves behind bourgeois nationalist forces, nor giving up the struggle for the political independence of the proletariat, because, as Trotsky wrote, "sooner or later, the soviets should overthrow bourgeois democracy. Only they are capable of bringing the democratic revolution to a conclusion and likewise opening an era of socialist revolution."

The Transitional Programme also considered the question of the link between democratic demands and socialist demands in fascist countries. For the time being, this issue may not seem relevant. But in view of the present economic crisis and the total apathy of the large organisations which claim to defend workers, who can be sure that this question will never be raised again?

The Fourth International after Trotsky

While Trotsky was still alive, the decision to launch the Fourth International was met with much reluctance within the groups which supported him, and, in some cases, with overt opposition. In Spain, the majority of the Spanish Communist Left supported Andrès Nin's policy of merging with the Workers' and Peasants' Bloc to form the POUM (Marxist Unification Workers' Party). When it was tested by events in 1936, the POUM ended up giving its support to the Popular Front in the February elections and providing a Justice minister to Catalonia's bourgeois government six months later. In France, in 1935, a whole section of Trotsky's supporters followed Pierre Frank's and Raymond Molinier's policy of seeking to form a "mass body" to regroup activists on the basis of a programme which would be limited to a few points - that is without a real programme. This led to the formation of La Commune and the GAR (Revolutionary Action Groups), both of which were short-lived, while demonstrating in a negative fashion the importance of adopting a clear political programme.

The problem was, that outside the USSR, most of those who had joined the International Left Opposition were intellectuals. This was especially true of France which, due to its recent history, ranked high in Trotsky's preoccupations. The Stalinist leaders had built up a wall between these intellectuals and the working class base of the French Communist Party, which was difficult to overcome. By contrast, it was much easier for Trotsky's followers to maintain contact with a social democratic milieu, which still used "revolutionary" rhetoric, and from which many of the young Trotskyist activists originated, especially from 1935 onwards. Many of these young activists had kept ties in this milieu which, however, was not a good political school for them.

Nevertheless, Trotsky hoped that amidst the convulsions resulting from the impending war, the Fourth International would be able to gather strength and lead large-scale revolutionary struggles, just as the Third International had done twenty years earlier. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

In the absence of any revolutionary proletarian upsurge, objective circumstances explain to a large extent why the Trotskyist organisations failed to play a decisive role. The "holy alliance" formed after 1941 by the allied imperialist powers and the Soviet bureaucracy to prevent the war from giving birth to revolutionary explosions in the industrialised countries, proved effective. The imperialist nature of WWII was largely concealed from the masses under the pretence of the "democratic crusade against fascism". While the war did result in revolutionary convulsions, these were confined to colonial and semi-colonial countries, where, however, the absence of a proletarian leadership gave petty-bourgeois forces free rein in taking the leadership of the masses and propelling themselves into power.

In addition, Trotskyist activists were confronted with the gangster methods of the Stalinists, who went so far as to resort to murder.

However, these external circumstances do not explain why most of the groups claiming allegiance to the Fourth International ended up capsizing and sinking politically. Trotsky had been fully aware of the dangers resulting from the petty-bourgeois composition of most of the Fourth International's sections - as was shown by the emphasis he put on working class recruitment, when he intervened in the internal crisis of the American SWP, in 1939-40. Eventually, it was this petty-bourgeois composition which took its toll.

This process began in France when, after the country's military collapse in May-June 1940 and its occupation by German troops, some Trot skyist currents embarked on a policy of united action with what they described as the "French-thinking bourgeoisie". This process continued in the form of an almost systematic tail-ending of all the currents which expressed themselves within the ranks of the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie. Thus, for instance, most of the Trotskyist organisations characterised the post-WWII People's Democracies as "deformed workers' states" - which amounted to adorning the Soviet bureaucracy with revolutionary capacities, despite the fact that this bureaucracy had done everything possible to stifle the proletariat in the aftermath of the war. The same characterisation was made of Mao Zedong's regime in China, despite the fact that this regime had come to power riding a peasant insurrection, without the working class playing any role. The list of nationalist movements which were similarly portrayed as "socialist" is endless - from Yugoslavia, to Indochina, Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam and Nicaragua, to mention only the most prominent among them.

The fact is that the Fourth International failed to withstand the shock of World War II and remain an organisation which set itself the aim of leading the struggles of the working class towards a world socialist revolution. After Trotsky's death, it had lost its political compass.

Of course, this did not stop a number of leaders of the groups which claimed to be Trotskyist, often among those who had opposed Trotsky while he was alive, to proclaim themselves as an international leadership. Since the political authority of these self-proclaimed international leaders was not recognised by the Trotskyist movement as a whole, the result was a long series of splits over the years, so much so, that it even became difficult to draw a comprehensive chart of all the groupings which pretended to be "the Fourth International" in one shape or form or another.

Nevertheless, while a proletarian International is still to be built, the 1938 Transitional Programme remains as irreplaceable capital for all those who have undertaken this task. While the world has undergone deep changes over the past 70 years, underneath these changes the same problems remain just as acute as they were then, at least for those who choose to devote their militant activity to defending proletarian politics.