SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 124 - December-January 2008-09

1938 anniversary: founding the Fourth International

Just over 70 years ago, on 3 September 1938, the founding conference of the Fourth International was held near Paris. The main inspiration and organiser behind the declaration of the new international was the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, who, however, could not attend the inaugural meeting because he was in exile in Mexico. NIALL MULHOLLAND looks at the developments which led up to the conference and the significance of the Fourth International.

TROTSKY CONSIDERED HIS efforts in creating the Fourth International his most important work. To him, it was more important than the development of his theory of the permanent revolution, which brilliantly foretold the general outlines of the 1917 Russian revolution. More important than his key role, second only to Vladimir Lenin, in leading the successful October socialist revolution. And more important than his leadership of the Red Army, which defended the young Soviet Union against invading armies of counter-revolution.

Although founded in 1938, the Fourth International emerged out of a struggle that began in the Soviet Union in 1923, shortly before the death of Lenin, and then spread throughout the world. This was a struggle for genuine Bolshevism, initiated by Lenin and continued by the Left Opposition and later the International Left Opposition, led by Trotsky, against the privileged, Soviet bureaucracy led by Joseph Stalin.

In the major congress document of the Fourth International, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, Trotsky declared: "The Fourth International… is deservedly hated by the Stalinists, Social Democrats, bourgeois liberals and fascists… Its task – the abolition of capitalism’s domination. Its aim – socialism. Its method – the proletarian revolution..."

Today, when the capitalist press or pro-establishment politicians refer to the Fourth International, it is usually to pour scorn on Trotsky’s attempts to lay the basis for a mass international. These representatives of the profit system, along with numerous former lefts, sneer that the fate of the Fourth International is further proof that all attempts to forge a socialist international to challenge capitalism are doomed to failure.

This cynical, impressionistic argument ignores Trotsky’s conception of the Fourth International as primarily concerned with preserving, defending and developing the priceless heritage of genuine Marxism, in a time of big defeats and betrayals for the international working class, and preparing its young leaders – "pledges for the future" – for the big class struggles to come.

Its origins were not just rooted in the struggle against Stalinism, but also in the previous workers’ internationals. The First International (the International Working Men’s Association – IWMA), was established in 1864 by the founders of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. This was a great step forward for the international working class, bringing together socialists, trade unionists, radicals and other militants. Its ideas and influence grew across Europe and North America, including among leaders of the short-lived 1871 Paris Commune, the first example of a workers’ government. However, worsening difficulties with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and his supporters led to splits and to the dissolution of the IWMA, after the transfer of its headquarters to the United States in 1872.

The Second International, founded by Engels in 1889, was an association of national, social-democratic parties, including both revolutionary and reformist elements. Its strongest and most authoritative section was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). However, decades of capitalist economic growth had the effect of creating a conservative bureaucracy in the unions and social democracies, despite their formal adherence to Marxism. The Second International was torn apart in 1914, when most its sections supported ‘their side’ in the imperialist war.

The Third (or Communist) International was organised under Lenin’s leadership and with the authority of the 1917 Russian revolution, as an attempt to create an international of workers’ parties with an anti-imperialist and revolutionary character. During its first years (1919-24), the Third International (also called the Comintern) was a genuine internationalist body and it held congresses each year, despite the enormous difficulties of civil war and famine faced by the young Soviet Union.

Emerging bureaucratic rule

THE OVERTHROW OF tsarism, landlordism and capitalism by the working class, led by the Bolshevik party (which later became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, CPSU), was a beacon to the working masses and poor around the world. It inspired revolutionary movements throughout Europe. But after the failure of those revolutions, including in Germany (1918) and Hungary (1919), mainly due to the inexperience of the leaders of the young communist parties and the counter-revolutionary role of the social democrats, the Soviet Union remained isolated. Degeneration appeared in the apparatus of the new regime in economically and culturally backward Russia. After years of war, revolution, civil war and severe privations, the mass of workers became exhausted and apathetic.

Stalin emerged as the leading representative of those layers in the apparatus who had become concerned with the advancement of their own increasingly distinct interests at the expense of the international working class. Keenly aware of the dangers to the revolution, Lenin, in 1923, called for the removal of Stalin from the post of general secretary of the CPSU because he was using it to bureaucratise the party and state apparatus. Lenin prepared a fight against the bureaucratisation of the Russian Communist Party and the Soviet state, "a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations", but he died before he could carry it out. With Lenin out of the way, Stalin gradually eliminated his main opponents, starting with Trotsky (who was marginalised before being driven into exile in 1929), until he became virtual dictator of the party and state by the 1930s. In tandem, the Third International became increasingly transformed under the leadership of the Stalinist bureaucracy into an instrument of Russian foreign policy.

But none of this happened without a struggle between living social forces. In 1923, Trotsky’s Left Opposition (Bolshevik-Leninists or ‘Trotskyists’) was established as a faction of the CPSU and proposed the ‘New Course’ in October: to campaign against the bureaucratisation of the party, for young proven working-class elements to take leading positions in the party, for elections for party positions, and a plan for industrialisation and pro-poor peasant policies.

A struggle erupted over Stalin’s so-called theory of ‘socialism in one country’, introduced in 1924, which postulated that a socialist society could be achieved inside the borders of a single country. Stalin’s theory was anathema to genuine Marxists but reflected the interests of the privileged tops. In reply, Trotsky pointed out that, while the Soviet Union must industrialise and modernise, generally, this was a long way from socialism: a society with higher labour productivity and standards of living than in the most advanced capitalist societies. This presupposes the working class taking power internationally and establishing a world socialist planned economy.

Disastrous policies

STALIN’S SOCIALISM IN one country, Trotsky correctly warned, would lead to disastrous policies within Russia (including the forced collectivisation of agriculture) and transform the Communist International (Comintern) into a counter-revolutionary tool of Stalin’s foreign policy. Eventually, in 1943, at the request of his allies, Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt, Stalin dissolved the Communist International.

Comintern policy in the 1920s and 1930s resulted in disasters for the international and Soviet working class. Trotsky’s warnings were proved correct but, paradoxically, the mood of isolation and despair among the Russian masses resulting from these international defeats strengthened the Stalinist bureaucracy.

A revolutionary opportunity again developed in Germany in 1923, due to a severe economic crisis and the French invasion of the Ruhr. A majority of the German working class turned towards the Communist Party. But the party leaders vacillated and missed an exceptionally favourable opportunity to struggle for power, allowing the German ruling class time to recover. Comintern leaders, Stalin and Grigori Zinoviev, also had responsibility for this wasted opportunity, as they had no confidence in the German party taking power and urged it to hold back.

Another blow to the working class came when the British general strike of May 1926 was betrayed by the reformist leaders of the TUC. The Comintern, under the leadership of Stalin, was complicit in this betrayal, as it had allied itself with the ‘lefts’ in the TUC officialdom through the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee. Trotsky had warned that the Anglo-Russian Committee was acting to protect the reformists against criticism of the left.

In China, Stalinist policy led to bloody defeat. A revolutionary situation developed from 1925-27, which the merchant and industrial bourgeoisie in the nationalist Kuomintang sought to exploit for their own class interests. The Russian bureaucracy was hostile to the development of an independent workers’ and poor peasants’ movement in China, in which they had no faith. To serve the needs of its narrow nationalist policy, the Comintern instructed the Chinese Communists to enter the Kuomintang. This renunciation of an independent class policy meant opposing the creation of soviets (councils of workers and peasants) during the rising tide of revolution and an agrarian revolution. As the Kuomintang army marched on Shanghai, workers instinctively realised the danger and rose up and seized the city, only to be told by the Comintern to allow Chiang Kai-shek’s forces to enter in April 1927. The Kuomintang then set about massacring the communist workers.

The disastrous Comintern policies led Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, two ‘old Bolshevik’ leaders, to break from Stalin. Along with Stalin, these two veteran leaders had made up the triumvirate which arrayed itself against Trotsky and the Left Opposition from 1923-25. In July 1926, Zinoviev stated at a plenary of the Central Committee of the CPSU that "on the question of the apparatus-bureaucratic repression Trotsky was correct against us". From July-October 1926, the Left Opposition temporarily joined Kamenev and Zinoviev to form the United Opposition. They opposed the right-wing, pro-kulak (rich peasant) trajectory of Stalin and Bukharin, calling for a return to workers’ democracy and for industrialisation.

However, after the bureaucracy counter-attacked, expelling the Left Opposition leaders from the party, Kamenev and Zinoviev capitulated to Stalin. By the end of 1927, the dominant Stalin faction had decisively defeated the Left Opposition, imprisoning or exiling its leaders. Alarmed at the danger posed by the kulaks, who had become increasingly powerful as a result of Stalin’s policies, Stalin broke with Nikolai Bukharin, and decreed brutal five-year plans which brought untold human misery and the country close to catastrophe.

Assembling the forces

IN FEBRUARY 1929, Trotsky was deported to Turkey. By then a considerable number of dissidents in Europe and the Americas had been expelled from the communist parties and the Communist International. Some of them created small groups that proclaimed sympathy or solidarity with the Left Opposition. During this period, the major programmatic statements of the Left Opposition were formulated by Trotsky.

By 1930, the Left Opposition groups in a number of countries had advanced to a position where they felt they needed to coordinate their activities in a more organised form. On 6 April 1930, national representatives met in Paris and declared the first international conference of the Left Opposition. Ideological clarification developed through the International Bulletin, theses, resolutions and manifestos. But an international meeting, a ‘pre-conference’, was not held until February 1933.

Until 1933, Trotsky opposed calls for a new international made by some oppositional trends to Stalinism. He argued that the communist parties still represented the most militant sections of the working class, despite their Stalinist leaderships. Although Stalin did not allow any real opposition within the Third International, if the Left Opposition turned its back on those workers, it would be further isolated as Stalin wished. Trotsky believed that big events, inside and outside the Soviet Union, could stir the masses and give the Left Opposition the chance to grow rapidly.

However, Trotsky changed his position when Adolf Hitler took power in 1933 and smashed the mighty organisations of the German working class. As the Nazi menace had grown, Trotsky advocated a united front of the mass workers’ organisations – the social democrats and communists. But, under the leadership of the Comintern, the German communists followed an ultra-left policy of denouncing social democrats as ‘social fascists’ and kept the working class divided, thus allowing Hitler to come to power.

The February 1933 pre-conference of the International Left Opposition took place just one week after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany, before he consolidated his victory and when the Left Opposition still expected the German working class to resist the Nazis, even leading to civil war. But the German Stalinists showed complete political bankruptcy, and Hitler soon crushed the workers’ movement with ease.

For Trotsky, the destruction of the German working class without a struggle signalled the collapse of the Third International and the adoption of the Stalinist leadership of a policy of conscious counter-revolution. When the leaders of the Comintern declared its policy in Germany had been flawless and banned any communist party debating the issue, which they docilely followed, Trotsky declared: "An organisation which has not been wakened up by the thunderbolt of fascism… is dead and cannot be revived".

For the rest of his life, Trotsky set about the difficult task of assembling the forces of a new international. He was in no doubt of the historical issues at stake and his role: "I think the work on which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life… now my work is the most ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word… to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method". (Diary in Exile)

The break with the Comintern

AFTER HITLER’S VICTORY, the Left Opposition concluded in August 1933 that further efforts to regenerate or reform the Comintern were futile. The Left Opposition ceased to be a faction of the Comintern and became an independent movement towards the creation of a new international and new revolutionary parties throughout the world. To express this change, it changed its name to the International Communist League (Bolshevik-Leninists). The ICL also came to the conclusion that a ‘political revolution’ would be necessary in the Soviet Union to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy and to restore real workers’ democracy.

To assemble the forces necessary to launch a new international in extremely difficult circumstances, Trotsky looked towards various left centrist parties that had been repelled by the Stalinist policy in Germany and had drawn some lessons. The Declaration of the Four, signed in August 1933, between the International Left Opposition and other left organisations (the German SAP, and the Dutch parties, the OSP and RSP), was an example of this orientation. It proclaimed the need for a new international and new revolutionary parties. The results of the declaration for the ICL were minimal. The German SAP moved to the right and denounced the declaration. The Dutch parties merged to become the RSAP and joined the ICL, but later split over the civil war in Spain, although opposition youth in the RSAP came out for the Fourth International.

Growing radicalisation in Western Europe in the 1930s led to the growth of the social-democratic parties, especially to the growth of their youth wings and the leftwing. The ICL called on its sections to orientate towards these leftward moving elements to win them to a revolutionary position. In October 1934, a resolution was passed at an ICL meeting which pressed the French comrades to enter the French Socialist Party. The ‘French turn’ was subsequently carried out by other sections, as well.

The three years following the 1933 pre-conference were spent gathering leading cadres for the Fourth International and developing its programmatic positions. In July 1936, the ICL sponsored an international conference for the Fourth International. Trotsky, then in Norway, wanted this to be the founding conference of the Fourth International, but the delegates disagreed, arguing that the time had not yet come. They were only prepared to go as far as to rename the ICL the Movement for the Fourth International.

The possibilities for advancing the emerging new international were dealt a severe blow when the Spanish section, one of the largest, broke with Trotsky and merged with the centrist workers’ and peasants’ bloc to form the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in 1935. Eventually the POUM joined the Spanish Popular Front government.

The Comintern policy of popular fronts or people’s fronts called for alliances between the workers’ parties and the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, in the name of a struggle against war and fascism. Popular front governments came to power in Spain and France in 1936. By subordinating the independent interests of the working class to the so-called ‘democratic capitalists’, popular frontism led the working class to historic and bloody defeats, opening the path for fascism and world war.

The founding conference

IN 1936, FEARING that the heroic example of the Spanish revolution could inspire a resurgence of class militancy in the Soviet Union, Stalin unleashed the Moscow show trials and the mass extermination of Left Opposition supporters and ‘old Bolsheviks’ in the Soviet Union. "A river of blood" separated Bolshevism and Stalinism, Trotsky remarked.

It was with the background of these historic defeats for the working class that the founding congress of the Fourth International (the ‘World Party of Socialist Revolution’) was held on 3 September 1938 in France. Just 21 delegates, representing eleven countries, met in conditions of extremely tight security, with plenary sessions limited to a single day. Many sections and sympathisers could not attend for security reasons. The long arm of Stalinist repression nevertheless found its way into the congress, as it was later revealed that the de facto Russian delegate was a GPU (secret police) agent.

As well as the physical liquidation of the biggest section (the Russian Opposition) in the months running up to the meeting, the movement also lost leading figures at the hands of Stalinist agents, including Rudolph Klement, responsible for the preparation of the founding conference. A personal tragedy hit Trotsky, when his son, Leon Sedov, a leading Left Opposition figure in his own right, died in a Paris hospital in circumstances that pointed to a GPU assassination.

The two Polish delegates to the congress presented a resolution opposing founding a new international, arguing that it was premature. In the major congress document, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (also known as the Transitional Programme), Trotsky replied directly to the doubters: "Sceptics ask: But has the moment for the creation of the Fourth International yet arrived? It is impossible, they say, to create an international ‘artificially’; it can arise only out of great events etc, etc. The Fourth International has already arisen out of great events: the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history…"

The signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact, in August 1939, led to political crisis in the US section (SWP) of the Fourth International, with a faction, led by James Burnham and Max Shachtman, arguing to change the SWP’s position of defence of the Soviet Union. This minority, reflecting the pressure of bourgeois public opinion, questioned the characterisation of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state which must be defended against imperialism despite the bureaucratic caste that had usurped power. The majority of the executive centre of the Fourth International, which was transferred to New York at the start of the war in Europe, proved to be supporters of the Shachtman-Burnham group.

An emergency conference of the international was called to discuss the political issues debated following the Stalin-Hitler pact, to assess the nature and development of the war and to establish a cohesive and functioning leadership. Trotsky wrote the Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War for the May 1940 emergency conference, his last programmatic document.

A new international

TROTSKY PREDICTED THE coming world war would provoke mass revolutionary movements, which would transform the fortunes of the Fourth International. Its small forces, however, were hit hard by wartime conditions, with many of its young militants killed either at the hands of fascism or of Stalinism. The greatest blow the young international suffered, an inestimable loss, was the assassination of Trotsky, at the hands of a Stalinist agent in Mexico, August 1940.

Nevertheless, Trotsky’s political prognosis was generally correct. Europe was swept by revolutionary movements after the second world war and the working class could have come to power in a number of countries, if it had a leadership worthy of the name. A successful revolution in any one European country would have marked the start of a European and world socialist revolution, which would have also swept away Stalinism and reintroduced workers’ democracy in the Soviet Union. But the social-democratic and communist parties, which had a mass base and influence among the working class in Europe, at the time, diverted a socialist transformation and, thereby, saved capitalism.

The Fourth International was unable to play a decisive role. Moreover, in the post-war period, it did not succeed in becoming a mass force because of a combination of unfavourable objective factors and difficulties, together with the mistakes made by its leaders. In some cases, Trotskyism had a powerful effect on the workers’ movement, such as in Sri Lanka, Latin America, Vietnam, France and, in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, under the banner of the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party). The ‘Militant tendency’ led the 1983-86 Liverpool council struggle against the Thatcher government and the successful mass anti-poll tax campaign of 1989-90.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), established in 1974, developed rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s and now has sections and groups in around 40 countries, on four continents. (See: A Socialist World is Possible – History of the CWI, by Peter Taaffe, available on, for more on why Trotsky’s original conception of the Fourth International did not take off, and for details of the origins and development of the CWI.)

Today, as world capitalism enters its gravest crisis since the 1930s, there is a crying need for a mass political alternative of the working class. The task of the CWI is to help to create the conditions for the formation of such an international. However, this is only possible on the basis of learning from the lessons of the past and, particularly, from the failings of previous internationals. The creation of mass parties, on a national scale, will be giant steps towards a new mass international. But we cannot wait for the emergence of such parties before developing the scaffolding of such an international in the new explosive period ahead. The CWI can play a vital role in this process.


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