Except for the people still committed to the Fourth International project and to varying degrees, there is little doubt that the it has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Given its dialectical–joined at the hip–association with the USSR, it is no surprise that the decline of Stalinism globally has made its mission problematic at best. However, there were clear signs that the movement to build a Trotskyist international was doomed from the outset. In this article I want to focus on its origins and in the next on how and why it has led to so many splits and so little influence. I say this as someone who spent more than ten years in the American section of the Fourth International (or at least one of the multiple movements owing its legacy to Leon Trotsky) anxious to help people understand why a different approach is necessary. All this is building up to some parting thoughts on Hugo Chavez’s call for a fifth international in the final post in this series.
To start with, it is necessary to understand why Trotsky broke finally with Stalin and his Comintern. Just as the Second International’s failure to oppose WWI prompted Lenin to build the 3rd international, the Communist failure to effectively challenge Hitler convinced Leon Trotsky that a new international was necessary. Up until Hitler’s triumph, Trotsky’s orientation was to the “left opposition”, a scattered band of people both inside and outside the USSR who supported Trotsky’s critique. Of course, Marxists who did not support his critique were condemned to fend for themselves. If you had agreed with Bukharin, for example, there would have been few compelling reasons to join a current you were ideologically at odds with. Leaving aside a myriad of other problems, the Trotskyist movement never questioned the wisdom of founding a world movement that grew out of a faction in Soviet Communism. The strongly doctrinal cast of the movement in its infancy would shape its trajectory in years to come—unfortunately.
Perhaps Trotsky had no other option except to create a new movement given the enormity of the disaster that Stalinism was responsible for. Needless to say, the Social Democracy was also at fault, but few people in the early 1930s had many illusions in the reformists’ ability to do much more than defend the immediate interests of trade union members.
In the late 1920′s, Stalin had embarked on an ultraleft course in the USSR and the C.P.’s tended to reflect this ultraleftism in their own strategy and tactics. In Germany, this meant attacking the Socialist Party as “social fascist”. The Socialist Party was not revolutionary, but it was not fascist. A united SP and CP could have defeated fascism and prevented WWII and the slaughter of millions. It was Stalin’s inability to size up fascism correctly that led to this horrible outcome.
In 1931 the Nazis utilized a clause in the Weimar constitution to oust a coalition government in the state legislature of Prussia. Prussia was a Social Democratic stronghold. The Communists at first opposed the referendum, but their opposition took a peculiar form. They demanded that the Social Democrats form a bloc with them at once. When the Social Democratic leaders refused, the Communists put their support behind the Nazi referendum, giving it a left cover by calling it a “red referendum”. They instructed the working class to vote for a Nazi referendum. The referendum was defeated, but it was demoralizing to the German working-class to see Communists lining up with Nazis to drive the Social Democrats out of office.
The first statement urging the formation of a Fourth International appeared in the Militant on September 23 September 1933. Signed by opponents of Stalin, The Declaration of Four on the Necessity and Principles of a New International made Germany into a litmus test:
The German events revealed with no less force the collapse of the Third International. Despite its fourteen-year existence, despite the experience gained in gigantic battles, despite the moral support of the Soviet state and the plentiful means for propaganda, the Communist Party of Germany revealed under conditions of a grave economic, social and political crisis, conditions exceptionally favorable for a revolutionary party, an absolute revolutionary incapacity. It thereby showed conclusively that despite the heroism of many of its members it had become totally incapable of fulfilling its historic role.
The position of world capitalism; the frightful crisis that plunged the working masses into unheard-of misery; the revolutionary movement of the oppressed colonial masses; the world danger of fascism; the perspective of a new cycle of wars which threatens to destroy the whole human culture – these are the conditions that imperatively demand the welding together of the proletarian vanguard into a new (Fourth) International. The undersigned obligate themselves to direct all their forces to the formation of this International in the shortest possible time on the firm foundation of the theoretical and strategic principles laid down by Marx and Lenin.
It was probably a harbinger of future developments that two of the four signatories would eventually drop out of the project to form a new international. Like Andres Nin and others who had initially gravitated to Leon Trotsky politically, they decided that a broader movement was necessary including ties with the Right Opposition in Russia made up of Bukharin’s supporters. The declaration, however, made it clear that it would not accept partial solutions of the “three and a half” variety:
No less energetically must be rejected the theory of the Austro-Marxists, centrists and left reformists who, under the pretext of the international character of the socialist revolution, advocate an expectant passivity with regard to their own country, thereby in reality delivering the proletariat into the hands of fascism. A proletarian party that evades the seizure of power under the present historic conditions commits the worst of betrayals.
The documents of the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938 can be read here. There you will also find some useful commentary including a 1946 article by John G. Wright (the party name of Joseph Vanzler, an American Trotskyist born of Jewish parents in Russia in 1902). Wright died at the age of 54, about a decade before I joined the SWP and I always heard him referred to in reverential terms. This was the first time I ever looked at his article on the formation of the Fourth International and a passage sticks out like a sore thumb in a way that it wouldn’t have when I was a Trotskyist militant. He writes:
One of Trotsky’s favorite sayings was: “It is not the party that makes the program; it is the program that makes the party.”
Precisely because of this primary stress on program, Trotsky’s decade of struggle to reform the Third International became in the most direct sense the preparation for the Fourth International.
This approach—and it is the only correct one—obviously invests ideas with extraordinary importance. Indeed we can say without any fear of exaggeration than none attach greater significance or power to ideas than do the revolutionary Marxists. Like Marx, Engels and Lenin, Trotsky regarded ideas as the greatest power in the world.
Lenin’s Bolshevik Party valued its ideas as its most potent weapon. Bolshevism demonstrated in action, in 1917, that such ideas, once embraced by the masses, become convened into an insuperable material force.
Here is how Trotsky formulated this approach in a personal letter to James P. Cannon:
We work with the most correct and powerful ideas in the world, with inadequate numerical forces and material means. But correct ideas, in the long run, always conquer and make available for themselves the necessary material means and forces.
Trotsky’s ideas derive their power from the same source as Lenin’s: both are the correct expression of the struggle of living forces, first and foremost of the liberationist struggle of the proletariat. They represent not only the product of profound theoretical analysis (without which it is impossible to understand reality) but also the unassailable deductions from the march of history for the last hundred years (that is to say, from 1848 when Marx and Engels first expounded the laws governing the movement of capitalist society).
There are ideas and ideas. As against the correct ideas of Marxism, there is also the power of the false ideas. The former serve the interests of progress, of the world working class; the latter only play into the hands of reaction and deal untold injury to workers all the oppressed and to society as a whole. False ideas, like correct ones, do not fall from the sky. They, too, express one of the living forces engaged in struggle, namely: the camp of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.
To start with, you will note that there is a much greater emphasis on ideas than you would expect normally from a revolutionary organization. You will also note that the program is practically synonymous with ideas. This is, of course, a formula for the launching of just about every “Marxist-Leninist” group, and Trotskyists in particular, ever since the 1930s. A set of ideas, or program, is identified and then you go out and recruit people to those ideas, in most instances through a newspaper like the Militant. Once you establish a nucleus of a vanguard party on those ideas, it will greatly enhance your changes for leading a revolution.
When I was having discussions with Peter Camejo in the early 1980s about a different way of thinking about these questions, he said something to me that I will always remember. He said that a program, or set of ideas, cannot exist in advance of a revolutionary struggle. It is the struggle itself that will help to shape the program. Activity (or praxis, to use a fancy word) is necessary to help clarify our ideas. There is a constant dialectical interaction between ideas and activity and to formulate a program based on “the march of history” in advance of such activity will inevitably lead to idealistic and sectarian problems. Of course, Peter said this with a lot more panache than I ever could but I think I am presenting them correctly. Here is another way to put it, something I heard from an old-timer who showed up for a talk by David Harvey to the Brecht Forum years ago. He said that the left should not get stuck in the position of the guy who once said that he planned to become a capitalist as soon as he could put together a couple of million dollars.
Probably the best thing—and the least idealistic—that came out of the founding conference was the Transitional Program, which had the merit of being grounded in the living struggles of the 1930s. This founding program was based on the need to avoid the minimalism of the Social Democracy and the kind of maximalism that the CP during its “third period” adhered to. Transitional meant that slogans would be based on the here and now but would have a logic that led to the question of which class would rule society. As Trotsky put it in his discussion of the sliding scale of wages, a demand very much in sync with conditions today, what might appear reasonable to the average worker is anathema to the bourgeoisie:
Under the menace of its own disintegration, the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. The right to employment is the only serious right left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. This right today is left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation. This right today is being shorn from him at every step. Against unemployment, “structural” as well as “conjunctural,” the time is ripe to advance along with the slogan of public works, the slogan of a sliding scale of working hours. Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility. On this basis all the work on hand would then be divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every worker remains the same as it was under the old working week. Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the movement of prices. It is impossible to accept any other program for the present catastrophic period.
Property owners and their lawyers will prove the “unrealizability” of these demands. Smaller, especially ruined capitalists, in addition will refer to their account ledgers. The workers categorically denounce such conclusions and references. The question is not one of a “normal” collision between opposing material interests. The question is one of guarding the proletariat from decay, demoralization and ruin. The question is one of life or death of the only creative and progressive class, and by that token of the future of mankind. If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. “Realizability” or “unrealizability” is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.
The problem for the Trotskyist movement is that the Transitional Program, as dynamic as it first appears, can become idealized in the hands of a sectarian group. For example, during the 1960s when the U.S. was boiling over with discontent over the war in Vietnam, the Workers League, a small group connected to Gerry Healy’s International Committee for the Fourth International, decided that “for a labor party” was a transitional demand around which all struggles should be subordinated. While the demand for a labor party did not occur in the Transitional Program in 1938, it had raised to that level in discussions between Trotsky and James P. Cannon in Mexico City that year. For the Workers League, it had become a mantra. They would show up at antiwar conferences in 1968 composed mainly of college students who knew little about the trade union movement and shriek at them for not voting in favor of their resolution. Now, nobody would say that the Workers League was the most crazy group in the Trotskyist movement (a topic taken up in my next post) but they were clearly in the running, the “sweet sixteen” to put it in NCAA terms (go, Butler).
Not having read the Transitional Program for perhaps 35 years, I took a fresh look at it this morning in order to help me prepare this post. I was startled to see a section titled Against Sectarianism that must have missed my attention in the past. But it must have been on Peter Camejo’s mind when he wrote an article with the same title in the early 1980s analyzing the SWP’s problems. I was struck by Trotsky’s conclusion, made just after his dismissal of his “centrist” opponents, the worst offenders:
However, sectarian tendencies are to be found also in our own ranks and display a ruinous influence on the work of the individual sections. It is impossible to make any further compromise with them even for a single day. A correct policy regarding trade unions is a basic condition for adherence to the Fourth International. He who does not seek and does not find the road to the masses is not a fighter but a dead weight to the party. A program is formulated not for the editorial board or for the leaders of discussion clubs, but for the revolutionary action of millions. The cleansing of the ranks of the Fourth International of sectarianism and incurable sectarians is a primary condition for revolutionary success.
With those words in mind, I wonder what Trotsky would have made of the movement based on his ideas—the topic of my next post.