The Latest From “The International Marxist Tendency” Website-Trotsky and the struggle for a Revolutionary International (1933-1946) –Trotsky and the struggle for a Revolutionary International (1933-1946)– Parts One to Four
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Trotsky and the struggle for a Revolutionary International (1933-1946)– Parts One to Four
Written by Patrick Larsen Tuesday, 22 November 2011
The figure of Leon Trotsky has created a new wave of interest among historians and writers of all types. Recently two new books about the Russian revolutionary have appeared; the first being the work of U.S. Professor Robert Service and the second of Bertrand M. Patenaude, a historian at California University. Both of them belong to that class of commercial literature typical of the bourgeoisie, full of factual errors, which tries to present Trotsky as an authoritarian politician who only lost to Stalin because he lacked tactical skills.
Another work, much more sympathetic in its style and its content, is the new novel by Leonardo Padura, “The man who loved dogs”. It tells the stories of Trotsky and his assassin, Ramón Mercader, both stories projected on the life of Iván, a Cuban who represents the post-revolutionary generation on the island.
We have dealt with this important contribution elsewhere. But although it has great value in reclaiming the general legacy of Trotsky, it does indeed contain some mistakes in the appreciation that the author has of aspects of Trotsky's political activity.
The main reason is that the majority of facts about his life which are presented in the book have been taken by Padura from Isaac Deutscher's trilogy – The Prophet Unarmed, The Prophet Armed and The Prophet Outcast. This biography, although it contains some interesting facts, has the major disadvantage of having been written by a person who lacked a firm comprehension of the method of Trotsky. He therefore fell into a whole number of misinterpretations of key elements of his life, especially concerning the last phase of it.
What all these books have in common is the absence of a serious analysis of Trotsky's attempt to found a new revolutionary international, the Fourth International. All of them regard it with a certain suspicion, emphasizing its reduced numbers, its isolation from the working masses and the splits which took place in the movement.
While most of Trotsky's biographers were full of praise for his great literary works such as My life or the History of the Russian Revolution they never understood why the creator of the Red Army spent countless hours of his last years writing letters, critiques, manifestos and programmes which only reached a handful of people and in many cases dealt with practical questions in the day-to-day work.
In our opinion this great flaw was mainly due to the fact that all of these writers were intellectuals on the margins of the workers' movement. They did not have the knowledge or the experience of a participant and consequently their books were not written with the methodology of a revolutionary militant.
However, when one reads the hundreds of letters that Trotsky wrote to create and train a new Marxist leadership, and when one studies the activity of his followers during the Second World War, it is impossible not to be impressed, faced with the magnitude of the lessons that this epoch contains for the future.
The objective of this article is, on the one hand, to serve as an introduction to the reading of Trotsky's last writings, and on the other hand also to extract the principal lessons of the attempt to create a Fourth International. For reasons of space, we cannot go into a detailed analysis of the subsequent history of Trotskyism and we will therefore limit ourselves to give an overview of the main reasons for the decline of the Fourth International after the end of WW2. For a more complete history, we recommend the work of Ted Grant: History of British Trotskyism, The origins of the collapse of the Fourth International by Fred Weston and The theoretical origins of the degeneration of the Fourth - Interview with Ted Grant.
In the work of researching the material for this article, it has been necessary to reclaim the real Trotsky, buried under a mountain of distortions and manipulations. By saying this we are not only referring to the monstrous lies of Stalinism nor only to the caricature presented by the bourgeois historians. We also refer to the “theoreticians” of the small self-styled Trotskyist sects, who have hijacked the name of the great revolutionary.
Always fond of internal rows and personal antagonisms, these gentlemen always had a modus operandi, a style and a life completely separated from the real mass movement. Their hysterical denunciations and their schematic views never allowed them to enter into contact with the living workers' movement and consequently they gave a very bad name to Trotskyism; something which has alienated many workers and made them refuse to collaborate with the 4th International and its subsequent fractions.
Trotsky himself, who had a profound knowledge of the psychology of the masses, did everything to throw out sectarianism and educate the cadres in the Bolshevik method of winning the majority. In this article we will show how he made several attempts to push his followers towards the mass organizations, not only to influence them, but also to constantly renovate his own movement, give it new life blood and break with the vicious circle of the small-group environment.
“The most important work of my life”
It was in the year of 1933 that Trotsky came to the conclusion that a new revolutionary international was necessary. Before this, he had maintained the position of building an opposition within the official Communist Parties in order to fight for a genuine Marxist programme. But it was a huge political event which made Trotsky change his mind: the catastrophe in Germany, where the crazy “theory” of the Third Period and the consequent refusal to form a united front with the Social Democrats, whom they called “social-fascists”, which opened the gates for Hitler to come to power.
From that moment on, Trotsky came to the conclusion that the Party and the International not only had been incapable of taking a correct stance in the decisive moments. They had also been organically incapable of learning from their mistakes and they had proclaimed the big defeat of the German working class as if it was a victory (“After Hitler, our turn!”). He therefore thought that such an organization was doomed and could not be reconquered as an instrument for the proletarian revolution.
Contrary to his biographers, Lev Davidovich considered that the task of forging this new International was the “greatest work of his life”. In 1935, in one of his lesser-known works, Diary in Exile, he wrote the following:
"And still I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life—more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.
“For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place—on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring—of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with ‘Trotskyism’ (i.e., with the proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May, 1917, and the outcome of the revolution would have been in question. But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway. The same could by and large be said of the Civil War, although in its first period, especially at the time of the fall of Simbirsk and Kazan, Lenin wavered and was beset by doubts. But this was undoubtedly a passing mood which he probably never even admitted to anyone but me.”
“Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word. There is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve. The vicissitudes of my personal fate have confronted me with this problem and armed me with important experience in dealing with it. There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International. And I am in a complete agreement with Lenin (or rather Turgenev) that the worst vice is to be more than 55 years old! I need at least about five more years of uninterrupted work to ensure the succession."[i]
The first steps: The bloc of the four
According to Trotsky, the new international would of course not fall from the sky from one day to another, but would be the result of a process of formation. It would include different sectors of the workers' movement who had arrived at the same conclusion or were drawing close to it. The degeneration of the Third (Communist) International and the bankruptcy of the Second International, in the context of the rise of fascism and the worst crisis in the history of capitalism created a vacuum on the political scene.
It was in such a situation that Trotsky received with great enthusiasm the news of the formation and the rapid turn to the left of the ILP, the Independent Labour Party of Great Britain. The leaders of the ILP were even for a short time flirting with the idea of setting up a new revolutionary international, although they subsequently abandoned that position. Other organizations, especially left-wing splits from the Socialist parties in Europe, were coming closer to the very same conclusion.
The followers of Trotsky, the Bolshevik-Leninists, participated in that debate and in the conference which was held by fourteen labour organizations and parties in Paris in August of 1933. This meeting had certain similarities with the conference of Zimmerwald in 1915, which, in spite of the enormous theoretical confusion, organized those who opposed the First World War. Just as in Zimmerwald, in the Paris conference a left and a rightwing appeared. The adherents of the left were four organizations who came out signing a declaration for a new International. These included, apart from the International Left Opposition, the SAP of Germany and two Dutch organizations, the RSP and the OSP.
This initiative, in spite of the programmatical limitations and the subsequent disagreements, showed how Trotsky was absolutely willing to collaborate with other groups, even with people who came from other traditions within the workers' movement. He was never afraid of an open and honest discussion with groups or individuals who were moving in the direction of Bolshevism. However, at the same time he insisted on transparency and honesty on the part of his allies and reserved the right to always put forward his own position:
“Revolutionary irreconcilability consists not in demanding our “leadership” be recognized a priori, not in presenting our allies at every occasion with ultimatums and threatening with a break, with the removal of signatures, etc. We leave such methods on one hand, to the Stalinist bureaucrats, on the other to some impatient allies. We realize full well that disagreements between us and our allies will arise more than once. But we hope, more than that, we are convinced, that the march of events will reveal in deeds the impossibility of participating simultaneously in the principled bloc of four and in the unprincipled bloc of the majority. Without resorting to any unbecoming “ultimatums”, we claim however our full right not only to raise our banners but also to state openly to our allies our opinions regarding what we consider to be their mistakes. We expect from them the same frankness. Our alliance will thus be strengthened."
The French Turn
Trotsky was completely conscious of the weakness of his forces, not only from a numerical point of view, but also from the point of view of the lack of political experience of his followers. In one of the discussions he had with a visitor in his house in April of 1939 he explained it in these terms:
“We have comrades who came to us, as Naville and others, 15 or 16 or more years ago when they were young boys. Now they are mature people and their whole conscious life they have had only blows, defeats and terrible defeats on an international scale and they are more or less acquainted with this situation. They appreciate very highly the correctness of their conceptions and they can analyze, but they never had the capacity to penetrate, to work with the masses and they have not acquired it.”[ii]
This was one of the main reasons why he began to recommend a sharp turn towards the Socialist parties, and especially their youth organizations, beginning in France. In his opinion, the Trotskyists should enter these organizations to win the best proletarian elements. This tactic, which was later referred to as “entryism”, was not only about getting a numerical growth in terms of militants, but also about giving new life to the internal regimes of the Trotskyist groups.
This was a vital point for the educating of Marxist cadres in the harsh school of the class struggle. From the Old Man's point of view, it was not sufficient merely to comment on the life of a party from the perspective of an external observer. On the contrary, it was crucial to converge with the masses in revolutionary action, fighting shoulder to shoulder with the left against the right:
“It is not enough for a revolutionist to have correct ideas. Let us not forget that correct ideas have already been set down in Capital and The Communist Manifesto. But that has not prevented false ideas from being broadcast. It is the task of the revolutionary party to weld together the ideas with the mass labour movement. Only in this manner can an idea become a driving force.
“A revolutionary organization does not mean a paper and its readers. One can write and read revolutionary articles day in and day out and still remain in reality outside of the revolutionary movement. One can give the labour organizations good advice from the sidelines. That is something. But that still does not make a revolutionary organization.(...)
“In relation to the Socialist Party, the League has shown not only insufficient initiative but also a hidebound sectarianism. Instead of taking for its task the creation of a faction inside the SFIO just as soon as the crisis in the latter became obvious, the League demanded that every Socialist become convinced of the correctness of our ideas and leave his mass organization to join the group of La Verite readers. In order to create an internal faction, it was necessary to pursue the mass movement, to adapt oneself to the environment, to carry on a menial daily work. Precisely in this very decisive field the League has not been able to make any progress up to the present – with very few exceptions. A great deal of valuable time was allowed to be lost. (...)
“The criticism, the ideas, the slogans of the League are in general correct, but in this present period particularly inadequate. The revolutionary ideas must be transformed into life itself every day through the experiences of the masses themselves. But how can the League explain this to them when it is itself cut off from the experience of the masses? It is necessary to add: several comrades do not even see the need of this experience. It seems to them to be sufficient to form an opinion on the basis of newspaper accounts they read and then give it expression in an article or in a talk. Yet if the most correct ideas do not reflect directly the ideas and actions of the mass, they will escape the attention of the masses altogether” (Trotsky, The League Faced with a Turn, June 1934[iii])
Afterwards, Trotsky made the same recommendations for his followers in England concerning the ILP and in the United States concerning the Socialist Party. In many cases his followers received the advice with a lot of conservatism and opposed entering the organizations in question, or in some cases only a handful entered and did so too late to influence the left-wing tendencies that were developing in the rank and file of the Socialist parties.
Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution
The country where this refusal on the part of Trotsky's comrades to accept his advice generated most controversy was Spain. The study of Trotsky's position in regard to the Spanish Revolution could merit a whole article or a book apart[iv], but in this occasion we will limit ourselves to the most important lessons.
Since the proclamation of the Second Republic in April of 1931, Spain had lived through a revolution of enormous dimensions in all spheres of social and political life. The subsequent incapacity of the republican-socialist government to keep its promises, especially the agrarian reform which would have benefitted the poor and exploited peasants, led to the electoral defeat of the left in the elections of November 1933. What followed afterwards is known as the “bienio negro” (the two black years).
The heroic resistance on the part of the workers, when faced with the entry of the ultra-right-wing CEDA party in 1934, represented the beginning of the armed insurrection and the proletarian commune in Asturias. This experiment was only cut across by the ferocious repression on the part of the army, led by general Franco. This was the very same officer who led a new coup d'etat in July of 1936 with the aim of destroying the revolution once and for all. But the brave workers of Catalonia and in other parts of Spain rose up and prevented a Fascist victory. In effect they made themselves the masters of Barcelona and other parts of Spain. Thus the Spanish civil war commenced in July 1936 and lasted for three years, up until Franco's final victory in April of 1939.
This was the context in which Trotsky tried to build a revolutionary party which could play the same role as the Bolshevik Party had played in Russia in 1917. A victory for the revolution in Spain would have acted as a real earthquake, which in turn would have changed the whole balance of forces internationally. That is why the amount of attention which Trotsky paid in dealing with the Spanish revolution, (something that the majority of his biographers ignore), is completely justified.
From 1930 onwards, one of his old friends, his former secretary, Andreu Nin, had been living in Spain. Nin was a relatively experienced cadre who had been many years in the Soviet Union, working as the President of the Profintern, the Federation of red trade-unions. From his arrival in Spain, he began to correspond with Trotsky about the problems of the revolution and the tasks of the Spanish communists. Nin began to develop more and more differences with the Old Man. While the former wanted a fusion with the right-wing-Communist group of Joaquín Maurin on an eclectic programme, Trotsky insisted on maintaining ideological clarity and discipline.
In the course of the year 1934, the same phenomenon of radicalization of the Socialist Youth which had been seen in France was repeated in Spain. The Spanish Socialist Youth even reached a point where they invited the Trotskyists to enter the Socialist Party in order to “bolshevize” it[v]. The main leader of the Socialist Party left, Largo Caballero, who organized his followers around the paper Claridad, spoke in favour of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and quoted the writings of Lenin on more than one occasion. But instead of grasping this historic opportunity, Nin and his friends opposed Trotsky's call to enter the PSOE and the FSJ. The Stalinists were more intelligent and they managed to make a fusion between their own miniscule youth organization and the Socialist Youth, thus conquering a solid base in the working class youth.
The fusion of Nin's group (Izquierda Comunista) with Maurin's Catalan group (The BOC), led to the formation of the POUM (The Workers' Party for Marxist Unification). Although it was very much accused of being Trotskyist by the Stalinists and although its members showed a lot of courage during the civil war (including Nin himself who was brutally tortured and murdered by the Stalinists), the POUM was never a Trotskyist party. Instead of carrying out the revolution from below, building the power of the workers' and peasant committees, it vacillated between reformism and revolution.
It recognized the legitimacy of the Catalan bourgeois government, the Generalitat, and even entered it with Nin as Minister of Justice. They accepted the dissolution of the militias and the disarmament, something which the government was promoting with the excuse of creating a single professional army. The leaders of the POUM also decided to call upon its militants to abandon the barricades during the famous May Days in Barcelona in 1937, when the Stalinists attempted to destroy workers’ control in the Telephone Exchange.
All these actions were severely condemned by Trotsky who in the last instance explained the defeat of the Spanish Revolution by the lack of a genuine revolutionary party. In his brilliant, unfinished article Class, Party and Leadership, he pointed out that the destruction of the Spanish Revolution was in no way due to a “low level of consciousness” on the part of the working class, but rather due to the betrayal of the leaders:
“The workers’ line of march at all times cut a certain angle to the line of the leadership. And at the most critical moments this angle became 180 degrees. The leadership then helped directly or indirectly to subdue the workers by armed force. In May 1937 the workers of Catalonia rose not only without their own leadership but against it(...)
“The proletariat may “tolerate” for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class. The mightiest historical shocks are wars and revolutions. Precisely for this reason the working class is often caught unawares by war and revolution. But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilizing the collapse of the old leading party.(...)
“Victory is not at all the ripe fruit of the proletariat’s “maturity.” Victory is a strategical task. It is necessary to utilize the favourable conditions of a revolutionary crisis in order to mobilize the masses; taking as a starting point the given level of their ‘maturity’ it is necessary to propel them forward, teach them to understand that the enemy is by no means omnipotent, that it is torn asunder with contradictions, that behind the imposing facade panic prevails. Had the Bolshevik party failed to carry out this work, there couldn’t even be talk of the victory of the proletarian revolution. The Soviets would have been crushed by the counter-revolution and the little sages of all countries would have written articles and books on the keynote that only uprooted visionaries could dream in Russia of the dictatorship of the proletariat, so small numerically and so immature. [vi]
Incredibly, these very same arguments about a so-called “immaturity” and “low level of consciousness of the masses” are used by reformists in relation to the Venezuelan revolution today. Their aim is to hide their own incapability of completing the revolution by expropriating the capitalists, the bankers and the landlords.
Just as in Spain, in Venezuela the central problem is the lack of a real Marxist leadership which can guide the revolution. And as in Spain, the activity of the Venezuelan masses was also 180 degrees in contradiction with the activities of the reformist ministers during the 11, 12th and 13th of April 2002. While the latter were in hiding or fleeing from the coup d'etát, the masses courageously opposed the coup, taking the control of the streets and fraternizing with the revolutionary elements in the army.
But precisely as with the Spanish revolution, in Venezuela the revolution is running the risk of a defeat, because there is no mass Marxist leadership to drive all the energy of the masses towards the taking of power.
The debates with the leaders of the American SWP:The method of transitional demands
The largest party of Trotsky's movement was without doubt the American Socialist Workers' Party. Its leaders had followed his advice and in a short space of time they had managed to make a successful fusion with the centrist party of A.J. Muste (The American Workers' Party), in reality with the purpose of winning the followers of the AWP over to Trotskyism, without allowing any political concessions. Afterwards they had entered the Socialist Party and effectively won over its youth organization, the Young Peoples' Socialist League. They had also managed to conquer important positions, as the one in Minneapolis, where they led the famous Teamsters Strike in 1934. The SWP had a membership of around 2,000 towards the end of the 30s.
However, Trotsky was completely aware of the theoretical shortcomings of the SWP leaders. He tried to prepare them for the great events that lay ahead by providing them with an insight to the dialectical method of analysis and a militant attitude towards the intervention in the mass movement. During 1938 and 1939 he held various discussions, with Cannon, Shactmann, Vincent Dunne, Joseph Hansen and other leaders of the American party.
The debates lasted for whole days at a time and had a widespread character, not just dealing with the particular problems of the practical work in the United States, but also about general problems of revolutionary tactics and strategy. The notes taken from the discussions were subsequently published and they constitute a real goldmine of lessons for revolutionary work.
The main point which ran through all the discussions was the method with which one could connect with the most active layers of the masses and consequently, the transitional demands to win them over. At that time, there was an increasing mood in favour of united proletarian action, but the class lacked a party on a national level.
Reflecting this mood, the LNPL (Labour's Non-Partisan League) was launched as a political instrument of the workers. However, the LNPL was launched by trade union leaders who merely wanted it to restrict it as being an office under their bureaucratic control which would recommend the vote for the bourgeois candidate Roosevelt. The SWP leaders were doubtful as to whether they should participate in the LNPL but Trotsky insisted on the struggle for “a policy which enables the trade unions to put their weight on the balance”.
He explained that it was necessary to counter-pose revolutionary demands to those of the reformists within the LNPL, in a concrete and audacious manner which could be understood by the workers:
“We are for a party, for an independent party of the toiling masses who will take power in the state. We must concretize it—we are for the creation of factory committees, for workers’ control of industry through the factory committees. All these questions are now pending in the air. They speak of technocracy, and put forward the slogan of ‘production for use.’ We oppose this charlatan formula and advance the workers’ control of production through the factory committees. (...)
“We say, the factory committees should see the books. This program we must develop parallel with the idea of a labour party in the unions, and workers’ militia. Otherwise it is an abstraction and an abstraction is a weapon in the hands of the opposing class. (...)
“Naturally we must make our first step in such a way as to accumulate experience for practical work, not to engage in abstract formulas, but develop a concrete program of action and demands in the sense that this transitional program issues from the conditions of capitalist society today, but immediately leads over the limits of capitalism (...)
“Then we also have the possibility of spreading the slogans of our transitional program and see the reaction of the masses. We will see what slogans should be selected, what slogans abandoned, but if we give up our slogans before the experience, before seeing the reaction of the masses, then we can never advance. .”[vii]
Faced with the scepticism, especially on the part of Shactmann, Trotsky pointed out that the slogan for a workers' militia was a necessity inherent in the concrete situation of the United States, even though this country was very far away and the threat of fascism seemed quite distant. He underlined that on the one hand the events of Europe would have a huge impact on the consciousness of the North American workers and on the other hand that the workers' militia could be proposed in a concrete way to protect shop stewards and picket lines from scabs and the bosses’ armed gangs.
Another controversial point was about the Ludlow amendment, by a bourgeois member of congress proposing a referendum on the participation of the United States in the Second World War. The schematic and abstract way of thinking of the SWP leaders had led the party to reject every attempt of using this slogan in favour of the referendum.
Trotsky opposed himself directly to Cannon and his colleagues and gave them an important lesson on how to tackle the question of democratic demands and connect them with the struggle for socialism. In the first place he explained that, until you can overthrow the bourgeois democracy, you have to take advantage of the means that it gives to you (regardless of how limited these are), in order to mobilize the masses in favour of your programme.
Of course he did not for one instance believe that a referendum could stop the outbreak of the war, nor decide whether the United States would take part in it or not. But Trotsky maintained that “We cannot dissipate the illusions [of the masses] a priori, only in the course of the struggle”. He added that it was crucial to say openly to the masses that the revolutionaries would fight side by side with their class brothers and sisters in favour of this referendum proposed by Ludlow, showing in practice that he wasn't really interested in realizing it, and that the working class could only trust its own forces in order to achieve such a referendum.
The words of Trotsky about the Ludlow amendment could perfectly have been written yesterday about the democratic demands in Tunisia and Egypt, where millions are struggling against the remnants of the dictatorships of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. It is a good answer to all those sectarian elements who reject the necessity of giving support to democratic demands, among them for a Constituent Assembly.
In all these discussions we can observe the dialectical method of Trotsky in contrast with the mechanical ideas of sectarianism.
Part 2 ⇒
[i] Trotsky, Diary In Exile, pp. 53-4
[ii] Writings of Leon Trotsky, : Fighting against the stream. 1939.
[iii] Writings of Leon Trotsky: The league faced with a turn, June 1934
[iv] Among the writings that analyze Trotsky's position on the Spanish Revolution, I would like to highlight the introduction written by Pierre Broué to the Spanish edition of his works on Spain and also the article by Juan Manuel Municio, “Trotsky, La izquierda comunista y el POUM” published in Marxismo Hoy No. 2, 1995.
[v] For a more detailed historical analysis of the development of the Spanish Socialist Youth, I recommend the following work: Pierre Broué: The Spanish Socialist Youth (When Carillo was a leftist), published in Revolutionary History, 2007.
[vi] Writings of Leon Trotsky: The class, the party and the leadership. 1940.
[vii] Writings of Leon Trotsky: On the Labor Party Question in the United States, 1938.
Trotsky and the struggle for a revolutionary international (1933-1946) – Part Two
Written by Patrick Larsen Thursday, 15 December 2011
In the 1930s Trotsky had to put up an energetic struggle to convince the various national sections of his movement of the necessity of an International, in the real sense of the word.[part 1]
The persecution of the revolutionaries
In the history of the destiny of revolutionaries throughout the world, it is impossible to find a life with more pain and suffering than Trotsky's. He had already suffered several losses in his family, among them his daughter Zina, who committed suicide in Berlin in 1933 after having had her Soviet citizenship removed and thus being unable to see her husband and child again.
However, the most painful loss for Trotsky was that of his son León Sedov, who was assassinated by the Stalinists in a Paris hospital in February of 1938. Sedov was not just Trotsky's son but had also worked as his secretary, giving indispensable assistance in the collection of facts and sources for the books of the Old Man. Sedov had stayed in Berlin and subsequently in Paris, where he had organized the International Secretariat of the movement and also maintained the publication of the Bulletin of the Russian Left Opposition, which he managed to smuggle into the USSR through a clandestine network of supporters.
Sedov was a brilliant organizer and his death left an enormous vacuum in the movement[i]. The young Rudolf Klement took over his responsibility in the work at the International Secretariat, but the GPU – Stalin's secret police – was following his footsteps. In the end he was kidnapped by that intelligence service in July of the same year, 1938, and his body was found, headless, in the river a couple of weeks later.
The French historian Jean-Jacques Marie, in his recent Trotsky biography (Revolutionary without borders), quotes a secret document from the now opened GPU archives, which revealed that they estimated that the assassination of Klement would be a “severe blow” for Trotsky and his closest collaborators, because they had not only been able to kill the young secretary but also steal the archives of the Fourth International, including all the contacts and addresses of its international network.
Many other collaborators of Trotsky were assassinated by the GPU between 1936 and 1938: Hans Martin Freund (known as Moulin) and Ernest Wolf were both kidnapped and killed during the Spanish civil war. Ignace Reiss, an agent of the GPU who had deserted and embraced the Fourth International, was found shot in a car in a rural area of Switzerland in 1937.
Even the other of son of Trotsky, Sergei, who held no interest in politics and had stayed in the USSR, was deported and executed on Stalin's orders in 1937. Walter Held, a German Trotskyist who had for a time functioned as the Old Man's secretary in Norway, tried to travel to the U.S. through the Soviet Union by train, but was arrested and shot, apparently in 1941.
However, the greatest massacre against Trotsky's followers took place in the Gulag camps in Siberia, in Vorkuta and Kolomya, where thousands of Trotskyists were killed by Stalin’s henchmen. Even until the last moments they maintained their revolutionary spirit, organizing a hunger strike to protest against the terrible conditions of the political prisoners. Witnesses saw them singing the Internationale when they were taken out to the execution squads[ii].
Internationalism as a principle
In the 1930s Lev Davidovich had to put up an energetic struggle to convince the various national sections of his movement of the necessity of an International, in the real sense of the word. All the conflicts with the groups of Andreu Nin in Spain – and later Molinier in France, Sneevliet in Holland and Vereecken in Belgium – had their origins in the narrow-minded national outlook and the provincial and opportunist mentality of the main leaders of those groups.
Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders had the great advantage of having got to know the international labour movement in person during their exiles in several countries. Trotsky spoke German and French fluently and also gained a certain level of English in the last period of his life. But even more decisive than that was his profound knowledge of the general characteristics of the class struggle on an international level, of the question of oppressed nationalities and of the effects of imperialist domination.
It is no coincidence that Trotsky also criticized the American SWP leaders for not giving sufficient attention to the international questions. In various letters and in the discussions he had with them during 1939-40, he underlined three aspects:
In the first place he considered it the fundamental duty of any Bolshevik-Leninist group in an imperialist country to condemn in an energetic way the foreign policy of the country and help the working class in the colonial countries. In the case of the SWP, Trotsky believed that the party had not done what was necessary in relation to Latin America and that it should write more frequently about this theme in its press and translate the articles into Spanish and distribute them south of the border.
Secondly, Trotsky complained about the lack of serious work among the racial minorities in the United States, particularly among the black workers. He proposed that the American party should make a special effort to reach the most oppressed layers of the proletariat and that its struggles should be reflected in the Socialist Appeal. Furthermore, he underlined that the transitional programme should adapt itself to the black minority in the United States, including demands for civil and democratic rights.[iii]
Trotsky’s third criticism was that the leaders of the SWP did not have a real internationalist approach. In one letter after the other, the Old Man tried to pressurize Cannon and Shactmann to take on the responsibility of building the Fourth International in a serious manner. He demanded that they make political trips to give advice and exchange experience with the other sections of the international, particularly in France, where the political situation was very tense and explosive in the years leading up to the outbreak of WW2.
It is interesting to note how Trotsky's opponents always complained of his supposedly “authoritarian style” and his “interventions into the national issues” of the groups in question. They always hid their own lack of arguments under the accusations of “bad proceedings” or the “arrogant attitude” of the old Bolshevik leader. On other occasions they denounced a supposed “personality cult” around Trotsky, yet another trick to avoid discussing the real issues at stake.
The attitude towards the anti-imperialist struggle in Latin America
The writings of Lev Davidovich on Latin America are particularly interesting. In another detailed analysis we have dealt with the main lessons in those texts. The attitude of Trotsky towards the most advanced representatives of the revolutionary-democratic movement, and specifically towards Lázaro Cárdenas (the then president of Mexico), is very significant. The latter was of course not a Marxist, but there cannot be any doubt about his honesty and political stance in the anti-imperialist struggle.
It was not a coincidence that Mexico was the only country prepared to put an end to what Trotsky had called “The planet without a visa”. President Cárdenas was the leader of a Nationalist project which tried to liberate Mexico from Imperialist stranglehold. It was exactly for this reason that it had the sufficient independence which allowed them to receive the world's most persecuted man. Even Norway, supposedly free and ruled by the social-democrats, had bent down after the Stalinist pressure and had recalled the right to asylum.
While some of his Mexican supporters, led by a man named Fernando Galicia, constantly denounced the Mexican government, Trotsky himself advocated the maintenance of friendly relations and defended unconditionally the actions of the Mexican government which were directed against the imperialist dominance of Great Britain and the United States.
In order to prevent confusion about the position of the Fourth International, Trotsky and the Panamerican Bureau were forced to expel Galicia and his followers who were compromising the work heavily with their sectarian approach towards Cárdena's movement.
When president Cárdenas announced the nationalization of the oil, British Imperialism naturally organized a violent campaign against this measure, basing itself on groups of intellectuals and the so-called “defence of international law”. Trotsky replied with firmness and demanded that the British Labour Party take a stand in favour of the working class in the colonial world. In an article called México and Imperialism, written just after the nationalization, he expounded his position:
“Without succumbing to illusions and without fear of slander, the advanced workers will completely support the Mexican people in their struggle against the imperialists. The expropriation of oil is neither socialism nor communism. But it is a highly progressive measure of national self-defense. Marx did not, of course, consider Abraham Lincoln a communist; this did not, however, prevent Marx from entertaining the deepest sympathy for the struggle that Lincoln headed. The First International sent the Civil War president a message of greeting, and Lincoln in his answer greatly appreciated this moral support.
“The international proletariat has no reason to identify its program with the program of the Mexican government. Revolutionists have no need of changing colour, adapting themselves, and rendering flattery in the manner of the GPU school of courtiers, who in a moment of danger will sell out and betray the weaker side. Without giving up its own identity, every honest working class organization of the entire world, and first of all in Great Britain, is duty-bound – to take an irreconcilable position against the imperialist robbers, their diplomacy, their press, and their fascist hirelings. The cause of Mexico, like the cause of Spain, like the cause of China, is the cause of the international working class. The struggle over Mexican oil is only one of the advance-line skirmishes of future battles between the oppressors and the oppressed. ”[iv]
How relevant are these words for Venezuela today! When the International Marxist Tendency defended the Bolivarian revolution unconditionally, faced with the failed coup d'état of April 2002 and the bosses’ lockout which occurred in December of the same year, many so-called “Trotskyists” attacked us and denounced us as “traitors” of the working class. When Alan Woods, leader of the IMT, met with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on several occasions, all the sectarian groups called him an opportunist. But they forget this attitude of Trotsky who was never afraid of a discussion and a dialogue with the best representatives of the revolutionary-democratic movement.
There are even some historians who say that Trotsky met personally with Cárdenas to discuss politics. This has not been proved decisively. Others argue that the political collaboration between the two took place through the general of the Mexican Army, Francisco J. Mújica.[v] However, the most important thing to underline is that Lev Davidovich held a position of critical support faced with the anti-imperialist actions of the Mexican government. In this moment, when the state-owned Venezuelan oil-company PDVSA is being sanctioned by the North American Imperialists, it is clear that we as revolutionaries should adopt the same position as in 1938: “Irreconcilable opposition to against the imperialist robbers, their diplomacy, their press, and their fascist hirelings”.
The founding congress of the Fourth International
Apart from replying to the outrageous lies in the Second Moscow Trial, Trotsky used most of his time in the first half of 1938 for the political preparation of the Founding Congress of the Fourth International. It was finally held in the house of Alfred Rosmer, in Périgny, close to Paris.
Twenty-three delegates of national sections met under severely adverse circumstances. Because of security measures, the congress could only last for one day. However that did not prevent Stalin from being directly represented among the delegates; the “representative of the Russian section” was Etienne (Zobowski), who in reality was a GPU agent infiltrated into the ranks of the Fourth International. Fortunately, they did not give him indications about the meeting place until the last moment, a measure which prevented a violent persecution of the congress on the part of the Stalinists.
The main document at the congress was the Transitional Programme, which is still an invaluable guide for revolutionaries to this day. But the document, drafted by Trotsky, contained several elements which created controversy with some of the congress delegates. For example Trotsky's position on the Second World War, in which he tried to connect with the anti-fascist sentiment of the masses, even recognizing the “fatherland”-sentiment among workers.
We see in this the seed to the famous Proletarian Military Policy, which the Old Man developed the following year; a theme we will touch upon in the next part. However, according to the reports available from the congress[vi], many delegates, including David Rousset, Joánnes Bardin [Boitel], George Vitsoris [Busson] and Michel Raptis Pablo [Speros], were completely opposed to Trotsky's position and accused it of being an adaptation to social-chauvinism. The majority did approve the original formulations and thus the international, at least officially, defended Trotsky's policy on the war.
There were people at the congress – the Polish delegates – and later on also many historians and intellectual commentators who rejected the founding of the Fourth International, arguing that it “had no mass base” and that the whole enterprise was doomed to failure from the outset. Trotsky responded in the following way, emphasizing the necessity of preserving the Marxist doctrine in spite of all obstacles:
“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. All of these objections merely show that sceptics are no good for the building of a new International. They are good for scarcely anything at all.
“The Fourth International has already arisen out of great events: the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history. The cause for these defeats is to be found in the degeneration and perfidy of the old leadership. The class struggle does not tolerate an interruption. The Third International, following the Second, is dead for purposes of revolution. Long live the Fourth International!
“But has the time yet arrived to proclaim its creation? ... the sceptics are not quieted down. The Fourth International, we answer, has no need of being “proclaimed.” It exists and it fights. It is weak? Yes, its ranks are not numerous because it is still young. They are as yet chiefly cadres. But these cadres are pledges for the future. Outside these cadres there does not exist a single revolutionary current on this planet really meriting the name. If our international be still weak in numbers, it is strong in doctrine, program, tradition, in the incomparable tempering of its cadres. Who does not perceive this today, let him in the meantime stand aside. Tomorrow it will become more evident.”[vii]
And he underlined the significance of the founding congress:
“WHEN THESE LINES APPEAR in the press, the Conference of the Fourth International will probably have concluded its labours. The calling of this Conference is a major achievement. The irreconcilable revolutionary tendency, subjected to such persecutions as no other political tendency in world history has in all likelihood suffered, has again given proof of its power. Surmounting all obstacles, it has under the blows of its almighty enemies convened its International Conference. This fact constitutes unimpeachable evidence of the profound viability and unwavering perseverance of the international Bolshevik-Leninists. The very possibility of a successful Conference was first of all assured by the spirit of revolutionary internationalism which imbues all our sections. As a matter of fact, it is necessary to place extremely great value upon the international ties of the proletarian vanguard in order to gather together the international revolutionary staff at the present time when Europe and the entire world live in the expectation of the approaching war. The fumes of national hatreds and racial persecutions compose today the political atmosphere of our planet.”[viii]
Crisis in the SWP: Trotsky and the split of 1940
Another point which had created a big polemic in the Founding Congress and also in the period leading up to it was the Russian question. In his brilliant book, The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky had explained the character of the Soviet Union, defining it as a degenerated workers' state – led by a bureaucratic caste which had taken over the workers' state and the planned economy. He had rejected every pretension of defining the Stalinist bureaucracy as a new class, as he pointed out that the power and privileges of the bureaucracy were upheld by the state-ownership of the means of production and not a capitalist economy based on private property.
From the beginning there were militants in the Trotskyist movement who did not share this view. In the United States, Burnham – an intellectual who had joined the movement through the fusion with the party of Muste, the AWP – tried to develop another theory, first defining the Soviet state as “bureaucratic collectivism”. The key point in his analysis was that the Stalinist bureaucracy had transformed itself into a new social class and that a political revolution was not sufficient in Russia; a social one was needed as well.
Craipeau, one of the leaders of the French section, defended similar ideas in the Founding Congress. The arguments of these militants were very much influenced by moral indignation, faced with the crimes of Stalinism. But Trotsky, who suffered the consequences of the terror more than anybody else, insisted on maintaining a sober and materialist analysis of the phenomenon of Stalinism.
In September 1939 – partially as a result of the pact between Stalin and Hitler and of the Soviet occupation of Finland – a minority in the SWP, led by Shactmann, Burnham and Abern, began to change their opinion on the Russian question. The majority led by James Cannon took the same position as Trotsky. The question in debate had a political and a practical significance in the world situation, as the members of the minority were drawing the conclusion that it was not a duty to defend the Soviet Union unconditionally in the war against the imperialist powers.
The contributions of Trotsky in this debate have a great value, not only because they shed light on the Russian question, but also because they explain the method of dialectical materialism. The collection of letters and articles in the discussion were subsequently published under the title “In defense of Marxism”. However, it is necessary to analyse this book cautiously, as there have been many misinterpretations of it over the years.
A careful reading of the book shows that Trotsky was not at all interested in a split with the whole minority faction of the SWP. He tried to separate the best elements in that group from the openly anti-Marxist elements like Burnham. Trotsky knew that the opposition represented around forty per cent of the American party, including the majority among the youth.
In one letter after the other he invited a comradely discussion and he even proposed that Shachtman travel to Mexico to discuss with him.[ix] What many biographers do not understand about Trotsky, just as they don't understand Lenin's approach to Martov, is how he always tried to work with collaborators and did everything possible to save them from political degeneration. In another letter which Trotsky wrote to Wright (another leader of the majority), he pointed out that a split was not at all desirable:
“You have not the slightest interest in a split, even if the opposition should become, accidentally, a majority at the next convention. You have not the slightest reason to give the heterogeneous and unbalanced army of the opposition a pretext for a split. Even as an eventual minority, you should in my opinion remain disciplined and loyal towards the party as a whole. It is extremely important for the education in genuine party patriotism, about the necessity of which Cannon wrote me one time very correctly.
“A majority composed of this opposition would not last more than a few months. Then the proletarian tendency of the party will again become the majority with tremendously increased authority. Be extremely firm but don’t lose your nerve – this applies now more than ever to the strategy of the proletarian wing of the party.”[x]
In another letter to Joseph Hansen (also from the majority) he explained the necessity of proposing common guarantees for the minority in the future:
“I believe we must answer them approximately as follows:
“‘You are already afraid of our future repressions? We propose to you mutual guarantees for the future minority, independently of who might be this minority, you or we. These guarantees could be formulated in four points: (1) No prohibition of factions; (2) No other restrictions on factional activity than those dictated by the necessity for common action; (3) The official publications must represent, of course, the line established by the new convention; (4) The future minority can have, if it wishes, an internal bulletin destined for party members, or a common discussion bulletin with the majority.’
“The continuation of discussion bulletins immediately after a long discussion and a convention is, of course, not a rule but an exception, a rather deplorable one. But we are not bureaucrats at all. We don’t have immutable rules. We are dialecticians also in the organizational field. If we have in the party an important minority which is dissatisfied with the decisions of the convention, it is incomparably more preferable to legalize the discussion after the convention than to have a split.
“We can go, if necessary, even further and propose to them to publish, under the supervision of the new National Committee, special discussion symposiums, not only for party members, but for the public in general. We should go as far as possible in this respect in order to disarm their at least premature complaints and handicap them in provoking a split.
“For my part I believe that the prolongation of the discussion, if it is channelized by the good will of both sides, can only serve in the present conditions the education of the party. I believe that the majority should make these propositions officially in the National Committee in a written form. Whatever might be their answer, the party could only win.”[xi]
Even one of his last articles, dated February 21st of 1940 - when the leaders of the opposition had announced the possibility of a split - was entitled “Back to the Party!”, calling upon the minority to stop the breakaway.
Unfortunately, Cannon did not possess the same method as Trotsky and it is an undeniable fact that his behaviour pushed many valuable militants, especially in the youth, towards a split. The final departure of Shactmann's group in April 1940 cost nearly 40 per cent of the total membership.
Incredibly, this particular book – In Defense of Marxism – has been misinterpreted in one extreme or the other. Some tendencies have been obsessed with the parts where Trotsky, correctly, argue against the petit-bourgeois concept that the minority had of democracy in a revolutionary party. These people take quotations completely out of context, in an attempt to silence all debate inside a revolutionary organization. On the other extreme we find people with certain anarchist and opportunist tendencies who put all emphasis in the complete freedom of discussion.
What both groups forget is the dialectical method. Trotsky stressed, in a previous letter, how centralism and democracy always find themselves in different positions and degrees, adjusting themselves to the moment and the concrete necessity of the revolutionary organization:
“Democracy and centralism do not at all find themselves in an invariable ratio to one another. Everything depends on the concrete circumstances, on the political situation in the country, on the strength of the party and its experience, on the general level of its members, on the authority the leadership has succeeded in winning. Before a conference, when the problem is one of formulating a political line for the next period, democracy triumphs over centralism.
“When the problem is political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy again asserts its rights when the party feels the need to examine critically its own actions. The equilibrium between democracy and centralism establishes itself in the actual struggle, at moments it is violated and then again re-established. The maturity of each member of the party expresses itself particularly in the fact that he does not demand from the party regime more than it can give. The person who defines his attitude to the party by the individual fillips that he gets on the nose is a poor revolutionist.
“It is necessary, of course, to fight against every individual mistake of the leadership, every injustice, and the like. But it is necessary to assess these “injustices” and “mistakes” not in themselves but in connection with the general development of the party both on a national and international scale.
“A correct judgement and a feeling for proportion in politics is an extremely important thing.”[xii]
Part 3 ⇒
[i] For a comprehensive biography of Leon Sedov, see: Pierre Broué: Fils de Trotsky, Victime de Staline, Atelier, 1993. Some of the chapters are also available in Revolutionary History, 2007
[ii] A detailed explanation of this is given in Pierre Broué: Comunistas contra Stalin, Editorial SEPHA, 2008. English readers may also consult an eyewitness report:
[iii] The main writings and discussions with Trotsky on the black question have been published in English: Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1978.
[iv] LDT: Mexico and British Imperialism. 1938:
[v] For an explanation of this theory, see an article in the Mexican paper La Jornada:
[vi] Reports from the Founding Congress of the Fourth International are available in Spanish as appendix to León Trotsky: El programa de transición y la fundación de la Cuarta Internacional, CEIP, Buenos Aires, 2008, pages 311-332 and in the CD-ROM appendix.
[vii] LDT: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International - The Transitional Program:
[viii] LDT: A Great Achievement. 1938:
[ix] LDT: A Letter to Max Shachtman, December 20, 1939:
[x] LDT: A Letter to John G. Wright, December 19, 1939:
[xi] LDT: A Letter to Joseph Hansen. January 18, 1940:
[xii] LDT: On Democratic Centralism and the Regime. December 1937:
Trotsky and the struggle for a Revolutionary international (1933-1946) - Part three
Written by Patrick Larsen Monday, 19 December 2011
In the third part of our article on the method of Trotsky in his struggle for a Revolutionary international, we will analyze the significance of the Proletarian Military Policy and also the death of Lev Davidovich and its repercussions in the movement. Furthermore, we will make a short and precise balance sheet of the work of the Fourth International during the Second World War and the political mistakes of its leaders which later gave rise to its collapse. [part 1]
Trotsky and the Second World War: The Proletarian Military Policy
Leon Trotsky. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R15068 / CC-BY-SAIn order to understand the line that Trotsky developed in his last writings, it is necessary to have a general idea of the historical situation that the revolutionaries faced at that time. After Hitler's victory in Germany, the eyes of all workers of Europe were fixed on the rising triumph of fascism in one country after the other. The installation of fascist regimes in Austria, Spain, part of Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc were an alarm signal for the world working class. Subsequently the German army also occupied Holland, France and Denmark.
The imperialist powers of Great Britain and the United States were of course not opposed to Hitler for moral reasons, although they later sold the idea of a “war against fascism”. As a matter of fact, the British Prime Minister Churchill had been a great admirer of fascism in its early phase, applauding racism and the “domination of the white man”.
What really concerned the allied powers was not “democracy”, nor “human rights”. During the war they showed their own cynical brutality with the completely unnecessary massacres in Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. No, what really mattered were their own imperialist interests, that is to say the markets, raw materials and zones of influence.
Trotsky did not have any illusions whatsoever in the propaganda of the western countries and defined from the very beginning WW2 as an imperialist war, a continuation of the First World War. However, he understood the completely healthy, instinctive rejection of fascism on part of the workers and their natural desire to fight it. In his opinion it was not sufficient to simply oppose the war. The workers had to develop their own policy in this terrain. In his last article he stressed the following:
“The present war, as we have stated on more than one occasion, is a continuation of the last war. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. As a general rule, a continuation signifies a development, a deepening, a sharpening. Our policy, the policy of the revolutionary proletariat toward the second imperialist war is a continuation of the policy elaborated during the last imperialist war, primarily under Lenin’s leadership. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. In this case too, continuation signifies a development, a deepening and a sharpening.
“During the last war not only the proletariat as a whole but also its vanguard and, in a certain sense, the vanguard of this vanguard was caught unaware. The elaboration of the principles of revolutionary policy toward the war began at a time when the war was already in full blaze and the military machine exercised unlimited rule. One year after the outbreak of the war, the small revolutionary minority was still compelled to accommodate itself to a centrist majority at the Zimmerwald Conference. Prior to the February revolution and even afterwards, the revolutionary elements felt themselves to be not contenders for power but the extreme left opposition.
“Even Lenin relegated the socialist revolution to a more or less distant future.... If that is how Lenin viewed the situation, then there is hardly any need of talking about the others.
“This political position of the extreme left wing expressed itself most graphically on the question of the defence of the fatherland.
“In 1915 Lenin referred in his writings to revolutionary wars which the victorious proletariat would have to wage. But it was a question of an indefinite historical perspective and not of tomorrow’s task. The attention of the revolutionary wing was centred on the question of the defence of the capitalist fatherland. The revolutionists naturally replied to this question in the negative. This was entirely correct. But this purely negative answer served as the basis for propaganda and for training the cadres but it could not win the masses who did not want a foreign conqueror. In Russia prior to the war the Bolsheviks constituted four-fifths of the proletarian vanguard, that is, of the workers participating in political life (newspapers, elections, etc.). Following the February revolution the unlimited rule passed into the hands of defencists, the Mensheviks and the SR’s. True enough, the Bolsheviks in the space of eight months conquered the overwhelming majority of the workers. But the decisive role in this conquest was played not by the refusal to defend the bourgeois fatherland but by the slogan: “All Power to the Soviets!” And only by this revolutionary slogan! The criticism of imperialism, its militarism, the renunciation of the defence of bourgeois democracy and so on could have never conquered the overwhelming majority of the people to the side of the Bolsheviks.”[i]
His instructions to the revolutionaries were very clear:
“The militarization of the masses is further intensified every day. We reject the grotesque pretension of doing away with this militarization through empty pacifist protests. All the great questions will be decided in the next epoch arms in hand. The workers should not fear arms; on the contrary they should learn to use them. Revolutionists no more separate themselves from the people during war than in peace. A Bolshevik strives to become not only the best trade unionist but also the best soldier.
“We do not wish to permit the bourgeoisie to drive untrained or half trained soldiers at the last hour onto the battlefield. We demand that the state immediately provide the workers and the unemployed with the possibility of learning how to handle the rifle, the hand grenade, the machine gun, the cannon, the airplane, the submarine, and the other tools of war. Special military schools are necessary in close connection with the trade unions so that the workers can become skilled specialists of the military art, able to hold posts as commanders.”[ii]
In June 1940, the French bourgeoisie capitulated to Hitler and surrendered Paris without putting up any resistance. Trotsky thought that this event confirmed that the national bourgeoisies of the allied block were not genuinely interested in defending the workers against fascism. For this reason he declared that the revolutionaries ought to agitate amongst the masses for the passing over of the military high command to the hands of the working class, the only class really capable of eradicating fascism:
“The Institute of Public Opinion established that over 70% of the workers are in favour of conscription. It is a fact of tremendous importance! Workers take every question seriously. If the Fatherland should be defended, then the defence cannot be abandoned to the arbitrary will of individuals. It should be a common attitude. This realistic conception shows how right we were in rejecting beforehand purely negative pacifist or semi-pacifist attitudes. We place ourselves on the same ground as the 70% of the workers; against Green and Lewis, and on this premise we begin to develop a campaign in order to oppose the workers to their exploiters in the military field. You, workers, wish to defend and improve democracy. We, of the Fourth International, wish to go further. However, we are ready to defend democracy with you, only on condition that it should be a real defence, and not a betrayal in the Petain manner. ”[iii]
In a discussion on “American problems”[iv], he repeated the same ideas in an even sharper way. In his opinion the revolutionaries ought to say the following:
“We will defend the United States with a workers’ army, with workers’ officers, with a workers’ government, etc. If we are not pacifists, who wait for a better future, and if we are active revolutionists, our job is to penetrate into the whole military machine.
“We must use the example of France to the very end. We must say, “I warn you, workers, that they (the bourgeoisie) will betray you! Look at Petain, who is a friend of Hitler. Shall we have the same thing happen in this country? We must create our own machine, under workers’ control.” We must be careful not to identify ourselves with the chauvinists, nor with the confused sentiments of self-preservation, but we must understand their feelings and adapt ourselves to these feelings critically, and prepare the masses for a better understanding of the situation, otherwise we will remain a sect, of which the pacifist variety is the most miserable. ”
The key point was to reveal the organic incapacity of the bourgeoisie to really put up a defence against Fascism and in that way adjust the revolutionary agitation to the thought and concerns of the masses. On the other hand, the emphasis on the militarization of the revolutionary organization signified that Trotsky advised his followers to search for all means to come closer to the working class and penetrate it in order to provide the revolutionary programme necessary for victory.
In this situation all the attention of the workers was principally on the war, in some armament factories they worked for 14 to 16 hours a day. Trotsky understood that every abstract slogan of opposition to the war would only reinforce the isolation of the forces of Bolshevik-Leninism from the masses. Without ceasing to explain the real character of the imperialist war, Lev Davidovich instructed the national sections to adapt the transitional slogans to the concrete stage in the development of the consciousness of the masses. It is no coincidence that the Old Man explained how Bolshevism essentially was the history of “sharp and sudden turns” in tactics and slogans in each given moment.
The Fourth International during WW2
Trotsky's death at the hands of the GPU agent Ramón Mercader del Río on the 20th of August of 1940 was a tremendous blow to the forces of the Fourth International. We have seen in the previous parts of this article how even the leaders of the American SWP lacked a sound theoretical capacity and the fundamental dialectical method with which Trotsky was able to understand the changing objective situation. To be honest, we would have to admit that the Fourth International was founded on very unstable organisational bases in most countries.
One of the worst examples was probably France, where the members of the official section, the POI (Workers' International Party), had split at the beginning of 1939 over the question of entry into the PSOP, a centrist split from the Socialist Party. The section was in a state of complete chaos when France was overrun by the Nazis in June 1940. Rapidly the main leaders (Jean Rous, Pierre Naville, Joannès Bardin [Boitel]), adapted to bourgeois nationalism and/or left the Trotskyist movement altogether. New forces, most of them very young people, had to rebuild the organization under very difficult conditions.
Of course, we do not want to discard the heroic work that hundreds of Trotsky's co-thinkers conducted in a Europe under the iron heel of fascism. Nor do we intend to forget the many martyrs of the Bolshevik-Leninist movement. It is appropriate to mention just a couple of the most important examples:
In spite of various waves of repression against its main cadres, the Trotskyist organization of France managed to publish 73 editions of its paper, La Verité, which circulated in 15,000 copies per issue. The Gestapo managed to find and assassinate dozens of Trotskyists, including the section's general secretary, Marcel Hic, who was deported to the concentration camp of Buchenwald and subsequently Dora where he was killed.[v]
The French Trotskyists even managed to publish a paper in German, called Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), which was specifically directed towards winning over the German troops to revolutionary positions. Its editor, Paul Widelin, was arrested in 1944 and murdered by the Gestapo.
In Belgium, one of the countries where the International had had a sizeable force, the repression also put its stamp: Well-known leaders such as León Lesoil and Abraham, among dozens of other Trotskyists, were arrested and executed. In spite of all this, they managed to publish a paper in French (Lenin's Voice) and another in Flemish (The Class Struggle) in 10,000 and 7,000 copies respectively.
In Greece, Pantelis Pouliopoulis, was murdered along with a group of seventeen Trotskyist at the hands of the Italian occupying force in June 1943. But before he died, he had the courage to give a revolutionary speech to the Italian soldiers in their own language, an act which provoked mutiny among the soldiers who afterwards refused to kill him. It was the officers who had to do the bloody work and execute them.
One of the most tragic losses for the movement was probably that of Pietro Tresso [Blasco], one of the first members of the Left Opposition of the Italian CP. Although he managed to escape from the prison in Marseilles in France, he was kidnapped by the Stalinists and murdered.
In this short summary, we cannot go into all the details, but it would be incorrect to forget mentioning the heroic work of the Trotskyists in Sri Lanka and Indochina (Vietnam). During the war, the followers of Trotsky in both countries opposed the bloody oppression of British Imperialism, while the Stalinists sacrificed any pretension of anti-imperialist struggle in the name of their “sacred alliance” with the allied powers.
Later on, this line made the CP of India accept the criminal 1947 division of the country on religious lines, which led to the creation of a Muslim state (Pakistan) and the abortion, through violence, of the revolution. In contrast the Trotskyists build a strong party in Vietnam which even won the local elections of Saigon in 1939. Tragically, the main figure in this group, the legendary Ta Thu Thau, was executed by the Stalinists in September 1945, probably on direct orders of Ho Chi Minh.[vi] In Sri Lanka the first nucleus of the LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party), affiliated to the Fourth International, was formed and led huge general strike movements against the colonial powers. It quickly rose to be the second political party on the island.
The Trotskyists and the Proletarian Military Policy
Although these are all signs of great sacrifice and consistent work, we cannot avoid making a critical balance-sheet of the politics of the Bolshevik-Leninists during the war. Let us remember the central conception of Trotsky's Proletarian Military Policy: Connect with the anti-fascist sentiment of the masses and above all prove the organic inability of the bourgeoisie to organize the fight against fascism, showing that only the proletariat could destroy the roots of Hitler's and Mussolini's regimes.
But, with some important exceptions that we shall investigate later (especially the WIL/RCP of Great Britain), it can be said that the great majority of the Trotskyist groups and parties opposed the Military Policy, or at least did not understand it. Several national sections, including the Greek, the official British one (RSL) and the Spanish group led by Grandizo Munis, rejected the new policy because they regarded it as a concession to social-chauvinism. They therefore maintained the position of “revolutionary defeatism” which Lenin had held during WW1, but which the new situation rendered impractical and which condemned them to total isolation. The Belgian section even went to the extreme of censoring some parts of the May 1940 Emergency Conference Manifesto which Trotsky had written.
The other big problem was the incomprehension of the concept of “militarization”. The Proletarian Military Policy was not simply a propagandistic idea but above all a practical orientation of Trotsky to his followers. As he had explained in his History of the Russian Revolution “The majority is not to be counted, it is to be conquered”: The Trotskyists had to conquer the masses, beginning in the armed forces. We find very few examples of systematic work in this respect. Although the French Trotskyists had a few phrases in their document on the importance of the Partisan movement, there was no organic participation in it.
The French historian Pierre Broué made some valuable reflections on this question. In a critical article, published in his León Trotsky, he said the following:
“All the evidence shows that Trotsky’s appeal for the line of armed struggle and his proposal that revolutionary Socialists should become ‘militarists’ in order to play their rôle in a militarised world, are missing in this conception, or rather reduced to a secondary, ‘partisan’ level, entirely subordinated to ‘the struggle in the factories’. The discovery that ‘the armed struggle’ exerted an attractive force upon the masses must have presented many problems in the absence of the dimension which Trotsky contributed on ‘militarization’.
“In the same order of ideas, the hesitancy with which Trotskyists looked at armed resistance suggests that it would be interesting to study how the revolution was conceived within the Fourth International during the war. It seems sometimes to have been conceived as something apocalyptic, which would occur independently of what was going on, and not as a result of being worked for. Had their almost exclusively ‘propagandist’ education, involving the use of the weapons of denunciation and ‘explanation’ – which clearly were the essential activities of an organisation the leaders of which felt themselves to be “swimming against the stream” – prepared the cadres for such a belief? ”[vii]
A qualitatively different example: The WIL and the RCP
There were of course exceptions to this. Some groups and individuals tried to apply the Proletarian Military Policy to the day-to-day political work. The American SWP, pressurized by Trotsky until his death, had formally approved the policy and carried it out partially, defending it publicly and also in the court rooms when they were prosecuted by the state for “subversive activity” in the Minneapolis Trials of 1941[viii]. As a result, the SWP did experience a notable growth throughout that period, although it should be said that Cannon and the other American leaders put all the emphasis in the purely propaganda aspect of the work and not in the political work in the armed forces.
A group which did in fact carry out the Proletarian Militant Policy in an energetic fashion was the Workers International League of Great Britain – from 1944 known as the Revolutionary Communist Party. The first nucleus of this group was formed in 1937 with immigrants from South Africa such as Ralph Lee and Ted Grant.
The state of the different Trotskyist groups was particularly discomforting in Britain, where the majority had refused the advice of Trotsky to enter the Independent Labour Party in 1934 and afterwards his proposal to turn towards the Labour Party. The composition of the existing groups was very bad, most of the members came from petit-bourgeois circles and the internal environment was very closed. The militants spent more time on internal quarrels than on the real political work.
After an attempt at reforming the existing grouplets, Ralph Lee, Ted Grant, Jock Haston and a few others decided to leave them and form a new group on a healthy basis, orientated one hundred per cent towards the working class. They founded the WIL with only seven comrades in 1938.
In September of that year they rejected an attempt on the part of Cannon and other SWP representatives to make a unification of all groups on an unprincipled basis. The WIL comrades explained that they were in favour of unity but only on a firm political basis. They stressed the importance of Labour Party and youth work and also on the Proletarian Military Policy. When it was evident that the other groups were not in agreement, the WIL discarded the fusion and foresaw that the unity of three groups on a politically heterogeneous platform would lead to five or six divisions and splits in the near future.
That was exactly what happened. While the “unified” RSL distinguished itself with its constant fragmentations and passivity during almost all of the war, the WIL – which had only seven members in early 1938 – grew rapidly, transforming itself into an important political force with around five hundred members at the end of the war. If we analyze this carefully, we will notice that it was the successful application of Trotsky's policy which made the difference.
By accepting the Proletarian Military Policy, the WIL also adapted it to the concrete situation in Britain, formulating a programme which included demanding a Labour Party government to fight against fascism, the formation of a unified workers' army of trained battalions of the trade unions and with the election of the officers. Cutting across the monstrous lies of the British bourgeoisie, the WIL also agitated for the complete liberation of the Colonies, thus enabling a real fight against fascism on a world scale.
Rejecting every pretension of pacifism, the WIL ordered all its members to enter the armed forces if they were called up. Inside the army, they were instructed to carry out real revolutionary work together with their class brothers and sisters, gaining the respect as the best soldiers in the army. WIL members who were at the North African front of the British Army made use of the legal forums, the assemblies known as the “Army Bureau of Current Affairs – ABCA”, in order to patiently explain the real significance of the war. In several instances, they won the majority of the ABCAs, as in Benghazi in Libya and in Cairo in Egypt.
Even in the British air force, the RAF, the WIL managed to do important political work, through the pilot Frank Ward who gave classes to other pilots in the programme of the Fourth International. The mood among various sectors of the army was explosive, especially in the Eighth Army in the North African desert. Many soldiers confessed that they wanted to take the arms back to Britain, once the war was over, in order to ensure that things would change!
As the initial wave of war euphoria began to dissipate among the working masses, several struggles took place in industry, where the workers were working up to fourteen hours daily to produce the war supplies. At the same time, the Communist Party made a 180-degree summersault, from a position of opposition to the war, to blind support for the Churchill government. The reason was, evidently, Hitler's attack on Russia in 1941 which obliged Stalin to change policy in order to approach his “democratic allies”. This was why the British CP began to play a directly strike-breaking role after 1941, denouncing every labour conflict as a “sabotage against the anti-fascist war”.
This situation gave the WIL huge opportunities for intervening among the working masses and participating in the strikes that took place during the war. The year 1942 saw a big upturn in the number of strikes and WIL members intervened successfully in some of the most important ones, such as the apprentice strikes at Tyneside, Rolls Royce Aircraft Works, and Glasgow, in August of 1941 and again in July 1943, in the Barnbow Royal Ordnance Factory in June 1943, and in the transport strike in Yorkshire in May of 1943.
We have stressed the example of the WIL here because it shows that the Trotskyists were not automatically condemned to isolation because of the objective situation. On the contrary, we have seen how a small group armed with a correct programme, orientation and tactics can conduct very important work, while a larger organization which does not know how to adapt itself to a new situation is doomed to impotence.
If the Fourth International, as a world organization, had followed the policy of Trotsky with the same ability as the WIL, its subsequent development would probably have been very different. In the next part of this article, we shall see what possibilities and challenges the end of the Second World War put in front of the revolutionaries....
Part 4 ⇒
[i] LDT: Bonapartism, Fascism and War. Published in October 1940.
[ii] LDT: Manifesto of the Fourth International on Imperialist War.
[iii] LDT: How to really defend democracy. 1940. My emphasis, PL
[iv] LDT: Some Questions on American Problems. August 1940
[v] See Rodolf Prager, “The Fourth International during the Second World War” in Revolutionary History: Vol.1 No.3, Autumn 1988. War and Revolution in Europe: 1939-1945
[vi] See Revolutionary History: Vol.3 No.2, Autumn 1990: Vietnam. Workers’ Revolution and National Independence
[vii] Pierre Broué: How Trotsky and the Trotskyists faced WWII.
[viii] Cannon's speech in the Minneapolis Trials was later published under the title “Socialism on Trial”.
Trotsky and the struggle for a Revolutionary International (1933-1946) - Part four
Written by Patrick Larsen Thursday, 01 March 2012
In this fourth and final part of Patrick Larsen’s account of the struggle of Trotsky and his followers for a genuine revolutionary international, he looks at the revolutionary situations that opened up in Europe between 1943 and 1945. He demonstrates how these were hijacked and diverted by the dominant forces within the labour movement, i.e. the Stalinists and the reformists. This historic betrayal in turn opened up a new situation on a world scale which the majority of Trotsky's followers were unable to understand. [part 1]
The central perspective of Trotsky was that the Second World War, just as the First, would end with a revolutionary wave in the main capitalist countries. Remembering that the Third International had been founded in practice on the basis of the revolutionary post-war movement in countries like Germany, France, Italy and so on, the Old Man anticipated that in the space of a decade, not one stone would be left upon another of the old Internationals (the Second, reformist, International and the Third, Stalinist, International), and that the Fourth International would be transformed into the dominant revolutionary force on the entire planet.
The events in Europe, and also in the colonial world, confirmed in part this perspective, although we also saw contradictory elements, rooted in the very outcome of the war, which rendered the work of the Bolshevik-Leninists extremely difficult.
Greece – the strangled revolution
The Greek Civil War was an event which totally unmasked the misleading propaganda of the imperialists about a so-called “war for democracy”. For years the Greek workers' movement had been severely oppressed by the Metaxas dictatorship. This repression was reinforced by the Italian-German occupation of Greece from 1940. But towards the end of 1941, several strikes and even workers' demonstrations began in the streets.
In the underground, the Greek resistance movement, the EAM, was founded, with ELAS (National Liberation Army) as its armed wing. The Greek Communist Party, the KKE, without regular contact with Moscow, played an enormous role in this movement and correctly raised the slogan of a Constituent Assembly to decide the future of the country without foreign intervention, be it German-Italian or British Imperialism. Nevertheless, the EAM was founded on a Popular-Front basis of “national unity”, rejecting any differentiation between the classes and any firm connection of democratic demands with the emancipation of the Greek working class.
Despite all this, the heroic resistance of the Greek workers and peasants began to make its voice heard throughout the country. The partisans of ELAS took over one city after another and when the British arrived in Greece the country had effectively been taken over by the resistance movement. The working class also played a decisive role in defeating the occupation; on July 25 of 1943 a huge general strike erupted in Athens which prevented the executions of the workers' leaders of the tram-system who had been jailed and condemned to death for organizing a previous strike.
In Moscow, Stalin was extremely worried about the situation. He wanted to avoid revolution in Greece at all costs, as it would not only put into danger his alliance with the British and American imperialists, but also because just one single successful revolution in a European country could trigger a powerful movement in the whole continent, destabilizing the entire situation. That was why he chose to send a special emissary, Popov, who arrived in Greece just before the end of the occupying regime in October 1944. His first act was to demand that the Communists abandon every pretension of class struggle and that they obey the new coalition government of Georgios Papandreou.
But on December 3, 1944, it came to direct confrontation between the British “liberators” and the followers of EAM, when the former attacked an unarmed demonstration of the latter in Athens, killing 28 protesters and wounding another 148. This represented the beginning of the events known as Dekemvriana. The key question in dispute was over the possession of arms. The members of ELAS refused to surrender their guns to the British forces and consequently the EAM ministers abandoned the coalition government.
Curiously, Churchill defined the EAM-ELAS rebels in Greece – who in their majority were members of the Greek CP – as “Trotskyists”. In a speech given to the House of Commons, he said the following:
“I think ‘Trotskyists' is a better definition of the Greek Communists and of certain other sects than the normal word, and it has the advantage of being equally hated in Russia. (Laughter and cheers).”[i]
The same Churchill, with the explicit acceptance of Stalin, travelled to Greece during Christmas of 1944, in order to lead the repression against the Greek revolution. In his memoirs, the British Prime Minister explained how he and Stalin cynically decided the division of Europe on a sheet of paper in the course of a few minutes[ii]. He also tells how the USSR maintained complete silence about the violent smashing of the Greek Revolution:
“Stalin, however, adhered strictly and faithfully to our agreement of October, and during all the long weeks of fighting the Communists in the streets of Athens, not one word of reproach came from Pravda or Izvestia”[iii]
The agreements of reconciliation that were signed in Varkiza on February the 15, 1945, with the support of the KKE, included the disarming of the ELAS. Although some sections refused, the bulk of the forces of ELAS disarmed. The counter-revolution, thus emboldened, went on the offensive, provoking another guerrilla war that ended with the victory of the counter-revolution in 1949.
Italy: The partisan movement and Stalinism
The fall of Fascist dictator Mussolini in 1943, when Marshall Badoglio ousted him in a coup following on from the mass strikes,opened a new phase in the Italian revolution. The partisan movement, in its majority led by the Italian Communist Party, consisted of more than 100,000 armed men and managed to take big parts of the country without the help of the Allied forces. Even CP leaders such as Luigi Longo admitted that a situation of dual power existed with entire cities controlled by the forces of the resistance movement.
Mass strikes took place in Milan, Genoa, Bologna, Turin and other big cities. The train system in the North was paralyzed for days because of the workers' strike action. The masses assaulted the fascist prisons and liberated the political prisoners by their own strength. The old fascist headquarters were looted and the big printing press was taken over by the workers in Milan and elsewhere. Every person who was seen with a fascist uniform or wearing such symbols was attacked in the streets.[iv]
The landing of Allied troops in Sicily was in reality another desperate measure to control the situation. The Allies tried to impose a coalition government, but at first they tried to do it under the Fascist Marshall Badoglio, and with the simultaneous reestablishment of the monarchy. This clearly exposes the lying propaganda about a “war for democracy”! But pressurized by the masses,within a year,they had to take a step back and propose a new government led by Bonomi with the direct participation of the Italian CP.
Although the fascist regime at that moment was clearly collapsing, the Allies began to bomb Milan between August 12 and 15. Why? Milan had been the centre of strikes and mass demonstrations and the working class was clearly striving for power. In this situation, the Allies wanted to weaken the militant mood of the proletariat with the destruction of the Milanese workers' neighbourhoods.
The situation had become serious for the Italian bourgeoisie, and it was only with the arrival of Togliatti, the CP General Secretary, that a more or less stable coalition government could be formed. The “Rome Protocol” was signed and the partisan movement agreed to obey the orders of the Anglo-American troops. In the British Stalinist paper Daily Worker, its North Italian correspondent, James S. Allen, called the armies of British and American Imperialism “friends of the Italian people”[v].
Years later, the same Togliatti explained the line of the Italian CP during the failed Italian Revolution:
“If anyone reproaches us for not having taken power or having let ourselves be excluded from government, I would say to them that we could not transform Italy into a new Greece; not only because of our own interest, but also because of the interest of the Soviets”[vi]
Denmark – The revolutionary general strike and the insurrection in Copenhagen
Largely unknown, but in reality very symptomatic of the situation which prevailed throughout Europe at that time, were the events in Denmark between 1943 and 1945. Located to the north of Germany, and with the effective control of the traffic between the Baltic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the occupation of this small country became a necessity for Hitler.
From the beginning of the occupation, on April 9th 1940, the Social-Democrats made a pact with the German army, destroying its own defence and surrendering the country to the Nazis without firing a single shot. It was a repetition of Petain's cowardice in France, a development that Trotsky had brilliantly predicted. Just as in other occupied zones, the exploitation of the working class increased as the country functioned as the German rearguard, forced to provide food, arms and logistics to the army of the Wehrmacht.
In clandestine conditions, hundreds of resistance circles were formed, many of them organized by the Danish Communist Party, which had been illegalized and whose main leaders had been jailed from June 1941, except for a few who had been able to escape and go into hiding. During the four years of German occupation, 2,674 acts of industrial sabotage were committed (bombs against railroads and armament transport, etc). But much more important than that was the marvellous movement of the working class which began with the regional general strikes of July-August 1943 against the presence of a German war boat in the harbour of Odense. The movement was quickly extended to important cities such as Esbjerg, Kolding and Vejle and later on there were also demonstrations in the capital, Copenhagen.
Although the German Army, helped by the Social-Democrats, managed to put an end to this movement through repression, the anger of the working class did not cease. One year later, towards the end of July 1944, the famous “popular strikes” erupted, beginning as a protest of the workers at B&W in the port of Copenhagen, against the curfew imposed by the German invaders. Very rapidly this movement was transformed into a real insurrection in the workers' neighbourhoods, barricades were set up all over the city and bloody clashes took place for days. Only after having given concessions to all the demands of the protests, could a temporary cease-fire be established.
When the end of Hitler's occupation was imminent, towards March of 1945, a power vacuum emerged in Denmark. The resistance committees, most of them led by the Communist Party, were armed; it was only through their collaboration that it was possible for the British to control the situation. The most militant sectors of the Danish working class were breaking with the Social-Democratic Party and passing over en masse to the Communist Party, which before the occupation had been a miniscule group with just one Member of Parliament.
The slogans of the workers were not only of a democratic character, but had above all a social character: they demanded that all the purchasing-power of the workers lost during the occupation should be restored and also called for the expropriation of those capitalists who had collaborated with the invaders (including Mærsk, a huge Danish capital owner). These demands were present in the historic march of 4th of July 1945, with 100,000 workers in Christiansborg Square in front of the National Parliament. It was only after the appearance of the Communist Members of Parliament, who managed to convince the masses, that the workers abandoned the square. Stalinism had betrayed another revolution[vii].
Repercussions in the Colonial World
The same phenomena which we described in the cases of Italy, Greece and Denmark were reflected in countries like Finland, Belgium and also by the defeat of the conservative government of Great Britain in the polls and the huge electoral victory of the Labour Party. But the revolutionary wave that followed the end of the war was not limited to Europe. In the countries under the domination of imperialism a truly unprecedented movement took place.
As we mentioned in the previous part of this article, this was the case in India, where British Imperialism was confronted with the biggest mutiny in the history of its navy. On February 18th of 1946, the sailors of the huge warship HMS Talwaar, located in the harbour of Bombay, went on strike to protest the bad food conditions.
The strike quickly spread to the territorial patrols in Bombay and the soldiers took over various garrisons and raised red flags. Within 48 hours, this episode was repeated in one division after another in 74 warships, 20 fleets and 22 marine units, including the troops at Calcutta, Karachi, Madras, Cochin and Vishakapatam [viii].
However, the political collaboration with imperialism on the part of the Stalinists of the CP of India – and also on the part of Ghandi and the bourgeois nationalists – meant the isolation of the sailors' rebellion. The rebellion was therefore unable to connect with the great strikes that took place in the textile sector. Once the British imperialists began to repress the movement in cold blood, killing 228 sailors and leaving 1,046 wounded, the movement had no other alternative but to surrender.
In spite of all this, there were huge movements of India's workers, among those the strike of 60,000 railroad workers and later on 100,000 postal workers. There was also a big regional strike in Bombay, organized by the CPI.
British Imperialism was very worried and decided to send a special commission to try and exploit religious antagonisms with the purpose of avoiding a socialist revolution at all costs. This was the background to the criminal division of India, with the creation of a Muslim state (Pakistan) in August 1947 and the subsequent massacre which took place. In this way, the revolution was annihilated on the Indian sub-continent with the explicit acceptance of Stalinism.
In other parts of the Colonial World, the same ferment caused revolutionary upheavals. In Argentina, the workers of Buenos Aires defeated an attempted coup d'état against the Nationalist government of Juan Domingo Perón, thus radicalizing the class struggle in that country and seriously weakening British imperialism.
In China we saw the peasant war of the forces of Mao Zedong which put an end to the rule of Chang-Kai-Shek in 1949. The emancipation of China from the chains of imperialism, in spite of the Stalinist regime that Mao implemented, was an absolutely progressive event and must be considered part of the same revolutionary wave.
Africa was also affected by the revolutionary mood with a remarkable growth of the independence movement, among others in Algeria against the French and in Egypt where a nationalist-revolutionary wing within the army was organized around Nasser, preparing his way to power in 1952.
Stalinism and reformism – weakened or strengthened?
To sum up, we can say that the perspective of Trotsky of an enormous revolutionary wave after the war was confirmed by the development of events. But this did not result, except in very special cases, in an explosive growth of Trotskyism. The Fourth International did not become the “dominant force on the planet” and neither Stalinism nor social-democratic reformism collapsed as tendencies within the labour movement. Evidently, this requires some explanation.
It is important to remember that every perspective is conditional and that its prognosis depends on a whole series of factors. If these factors change, then the end result must inevitably also change. To understand this, it is necessary to analyze the military results of the war, which surprised everyone; even the most advanced military strategists and the president of the United States and rulers of Great Britain.
In reality, almost the entire war against Hitler took place on the Eastern front, on Russian soil. The British imperialists were struggling for their own interests in the North of Africa and the Americans for the control of the Pacific in their war against Japan. All the decisive battles took place in Russia and Germany, the most important ones being those of Stalingrad and Kursk in 1942-43. After that, the Red Army advanced and forced the Germans to retreat rapidly.
The imperialists had been waiting for Russia and Germany to mutually destroy each other and thus secure the conditions for a total domination of Europe on the part of the Allies. But the war developed differently, first and foremost because of the two great Soviet advantages: the planned economy and the heroic resistance of the masses. This enabled the Russians to regroup their forces and defeat the German invaders.
The so-called “D-Day” with the landing of Allied troops in Northern France in July 1944, was not an act to “liberate the people of Europe from fascism” but rather a desperate measure by the imperialists to avoid the whole of Europe falling into Soviet hands. Nevertheless, it was the Russians who entered Berlin first and gave the order to raise the red flag above the Reichstag.
Far from weakening Stalinism, the historic advance of the Red Army, liberating the whole of Eastern Europe from German occupation, reinforced it as a political tendency within the workers' movement. Many rank and file workers thought that the Red Army was sowing the seeds of socialism in each liberated country. The situation caused tremendous confusion, even in the ranks of Trotskyism, and gave many activists illusions in Stalinism.
On the other hand, the economic help of American imperialism, the so-called Marshall Plan, played a big role in reinforcing the authority of social-democratic reformism. The leaders of the Social-democracy promised huge reforms in Western Europe and in some countries, like Great Britain, the working masses swung towards them, hoping for a radical change in society.
It was in this way, on the basis of the strengthening of Stalinism and reformism and their capacity to betray the revolutions that Capitalism was able to consolidate itself for the time being. This was the political precondition for the great economic boom which followed the Second World War.
The catastrophist thesis of Cannon and co.
How did Trotsky's supporters, now without the presence of the Old Man, face up this new reality? Far from recognizing the changed situation and changing tactics accordingly, the main leaders of the Fourth International maintained their old perspective and repeated the old phrases.
In the first place, James Cannon, the main SWP leader, even denied that the war was over. In the second place, he insisted, together with Belgian leader Ernest Mandel, on the impossibility of a new boom of capitalism on a world scale. In his document “Perspectives for the American Revolution”, written in 1946, Cannon was predicting an immediate recession in the North American economy:
“US imperialism which proved incapable of recovering from its crisis and stabilising itself in the 10-year period preceding the outbreak of the Second World War is heading for an even more catastrophic explosion in the current postwar era. ”[ix].
The same ideas were repeated in the writings of the main leaders of the Fourth International, with very few exceptions. In the main resolution of the World Conference of the Fourth International, held in Paris in 1946, the same erroneous perspective was present.
Furthermore, that document contained other fundamental mistakes. In the original draft it said that the USSR had emerged weakened by the war and that it could be overthrown"in the near future, even without military intervention, through the sole fact of economic, political and diplomatic pressure of American and British imperialism, and its military threats"[x]
We believe that these lines speak for themselves! In a moment where the armed forces of the USSR had won what could be argued to be the biggest military victory in the history of war, these gentlemen thought that the Stalinist regime could fall by diplomatic pressure and military threats!
As if these errors were not enough, Cannon, Frank, Pablo, Mandel and the other main leaders also declared that the bourgeoisie was only capable of ruling in Europe through Bonapartist military dictatorships![xi] The only base for such an argument was that the Allied powers had tried to reach a deal to install a dictatorship headed by Badoglio in Italy in 1943-44 after the fall of Mussolini.
This conception clashed again with the reality that existed in Europe. Far from being able to install dictatorships, the bourgeoisie was in fact in a position where it had to govern through bourgeois democracy, for the simple reason that it did not have the strength to destroy the powerful organizations of the working class. In this situation it decided to use another tactic, the old method of class collaboration in the form of Popular Front governments.
Counter-revolution in a democratic form
All those questions did not have a mere academic meaning but were of great importance at the time, for elaborating the correct revolutionary slogans and tactics. As Ted Grant explained on numerous occasions, in times of advance the quality of the generals is essential in a war. But in times of difficulty and retreat, the role of the leadership becomes even more decisive. With good generals it is possible to make a successful retreat in order to reorganize the soldiers and prepare the next battle. But with bad soldiers, a temporary retreat is transformed into a defeat.
There were of course some people in the Fourth International who drew a much more sober-minded balance-sheet of the correlation of forces and who opposed the ultra-left tendencies of the majority. In the United States, a minority of the SWP, led by Albert Goldman (Trotsky's lawyer), Felix Morrow (the author of the famous book on the Spanish Revolution) and Jean Van Heijenoort (Trotsky's personal secretary for seven years), began in 1943 to analyze the changes taking place, starting with Italy[xii]. They drew a whole number of correct conclusions, especially on the need to connect the democratic struggles with the social struggle, on the need to participate actively in the armed resistance movements, the impossibility of military dictatorships in Europe in the near future, etc. However, they also made a number of mistakes, including a failed attempt at unity with Max Shactmann's Workers' Party. Subsequently, almost all of the members of the Morrow-Goldman group became disillusioned and abandoned politics.
The most consistent opposition, and politically the most far-sighted, came from the RCP, the British section led by Jock Haston and Ted Grant. In their documents we see a careful defence of Trotsky's method applied to the new reality in post-war Europe. In a March 1945 document, they explained that Europe was passing through a period of counter-revolution in a democratic form[xiii]. They emphasized that historically, the bourgeoisie had not only been able to liquidate revolutions with the installation of dictatorial regimes but also through bourgeois democracy. With crushing clarity they made an analogy with the abortion of the first German revolution of 1918-19 and the regime of Noske-Sheidemann.
Another great sign of political wisdom contained in the document was how the RCP understood the “dual and contradictory nature” of the advance of the USSR. They stressed that, on the one hand the victory of the Red Army made the masses remember the Russian October Revolution, but at the same time, the military triumph allowed the Soviet bureaucracy to strangle the proletarian revolution in Europe. They concluded that it was perfectly possible that Stalinism could survive for a substantial period of time. They even managed to anticipate how Stalin, three years afterwards, in 1948, would implement planned economies in Eastern Europe, controlled from above, Bonapartist-style.[xiv]
Although Ted Grant and the RCP could not foresee the magnitude of the post-war boom (a phenomenon that would influence all of politics in Europe until 1973), they did understand that there would not be an immediate recession but rather an economic upturn of capitalism. In the pre-conference of the Fourth International in April of 1946, they presented a whole number of amendments to the majority document. They speak for themselves:
“In opposition to the reformists and Stalinists, who seek to lull the masses with a perspective of a new renaissance of capitalism and a great future for democracy, the resolution of the International Pre-Conference is one hundred per cent correct in emphasizing the epoch of decline and collapse of world capitalist economy. But in a resolution that seeks to orientate our own cadres on immediate economic perspectives – from which the next stage of the class struggle will largely flow, and thus our immediate propaganda and tactics – the perspective is clearly false.(...)
“The theory of spontaneous collapse of capitalism is entirely alien to the conceptions of Bolshevism. Lenin and Trotsky emphasized again and again that capitalism will always find a way out if it is not destroyed by the conscious intervention of the revolutionary party which, at the head of the masses, takes advantage of the difficulties and crises of capitalism to overthrow it. The experience of World War II emphasizes the profound correctness of these conceptions of Lenin and Trotsky.
“Given the prostration of the proletariat through the betrayal of its mass organisations, the cyclical upswing of the productive forces, the wearing out of machinery, the slashing of wages, leads to an absorption of surplus stocks and the restoration, or partial restoration of the rate of profit. Thus, the way is prepared for a new cyclical upswing which in its turn lays the basis for an even greater slump. (...)
“No matter how devastating the slump, if the workers fail, capitalism will always find a way out of its economic impasse at the cost of the toilers and the preparation of new contradictions. The world crisis of the capitalist system does not end the economic cycle but gives it a different character. The theory of the Stalinists put forward in the last world crisis that this was the last crisis of capitalism from which it would never recover, has been revealed to have been entirely unMarxian. There is a grave danger that this theory will be revived in our own ranks today. .”[xv]
The majority of the leaders of the Fourth International did not listen to the arguments of the RCP. Their lack of understanding caused an incredible amount of confusion in the Trotskyist movement and the whole subsequent history and evolution of the Fourth International was marked by this fact. The destructive line of subordination to petit-bourgeois movements – the adaptation to guerillaism and its tragic consequences in Argentina and Peru, its flirting with Stalinism in Yugoslavia and China, the “invention” of the students as “a new revolutionary factor”, the fatal approving of the POR's adaptation to nationalism during the Bolivian revolution of 1952 – all this was the result of an inability to understand the period that opened up after WW2 and as a consequence, they began the “search” for magic solutions to the real problems in the building of the revolutionary party.
The legacy of Trotsky
The Old Man could not have anticipated in a detailed manner all the events or the way in which the Second World War would end. However, his writings do provide the key, the dialectical method, to understanding, not only the new situation, but also the tasks of the revolutionaries. Despite the historical failure of the leaders of the Fourth International, which effectively destroyed the organization founded by Trotsky, his struggle for a revolutionary International was not in vain.
Although the Marxist movement went through a major setback after the war, especially after the dissolution of the RCP in 1949, the unbroken thread was maintained through the tireless work of Ted Grant. The writings of Ted are the direct continuation of Trotsky and his continued analysis of the world situation helped a new generation understand a complex reality and keep up the struggle against all odds. The unbroken thread between Ted (who died only five years ago, 2006) and Trotsky is what unites the cadres of the International Marxist Tendency with the best traditions of Trotsky.
Seventy-one years after his death, many of Lev Davidovich's perspectives are being vindicated by events. The fall of the USSR, the possibility of which was denied for decades by the Stalinists, revealed the impossibility of building Socialism in one country. Today, many communists, among them Cubans, are reading the writings of Trotsky for the first time, discovering how he anticipated the collapse of “real socialism” almost sixty years ago.
The ideas of Trotsky are also being debated in Venezuela, where president Chávez has quoted him on several occasions and has recommended the reading of the Transitional Programme. The Venezuelan Revolution, which has not been completed, is in itself a brilliant confirmation of his Theory of the Permanent Revolution, i.e. the impossibility of the national bourgeoisie carrying through an agrarian reform and an industrialization of the country. This task falls upon the shoulders of the Venezuelan proletariat, which is currently organizing a big movement for workers' control in the basic industries and the state oil company.
In this article we have tried to show Trotsky's method in the building of the revolutionary party. We think that the struggle for a revolutionary international was neither a waste of time nor a utopian project, but an audacious and courageous attempt to arm a new generation with the theoretical tools that can provide the final victory. The present crisis of capitalism, described even by the bourgeois commentators as the worst recession since the Great Depression of 1929, compels us to re-study the method of Trotsky. If this article has served to assist in this respect, it has been worthwhile.
[i] Quoted in “Guerra y revolución. Una interpretación alternativa de la Segunda Guerra Mundial”, CEIP, Buenos Aires, 2004. page 24.
[ii] Winston S. Churchill: “Triumph and Tragedy”, page.228-29
[iii] Ibid. page. 262
[iv] Information taken from: Ted Grant: The Italian revolution and the tasks of the British workers, Workers’ International News, Vol.5 No.12, August 1943:
[v] Quoted in Felix Morrow: The Italian Revolution, Fourth International, New York, September 1943, Vol.4 No.9, pp.263-73.
[vi] Quoted in “Guerra y revolución. Una interpretación alternativa de la Segunda Guerra Mundial”, CEIP, Buenos Aires, 2004. Page 28.
[vii] In spite of the treacherous policy of its leaders, the Danish CP grew from 4,000 to 60,000 members just after the end of the war. On the electoral plane it went from 2.4% to 12.5% of the vote in October 1945. But once the party had revealed its reformist intentions it was abandoned and lost nine MPs in the October 1947 elections.
[viii] For a detailed analysis: Lal Khan: Pakistan's Other Story, Aakar Books, Delhi, 2009. page. 72-83
[ix] James P. Cannon: Theses on the American Revolution
[x] Quoted in Ted Grant: History of British Trotskyism, Wellred, London, 2002, page. 130
[xi] The position of the Majority on the inevitability of a period of Bonapartism in Europe is reflected in many of their, writings, among others the articles of Pierre Frank: Democracy or Bonapartism in Europe? and Bonapartism in Europe
[xii] The documents oft the Morrow-Goldman fraction can be found in the following archives: Félix Morrow, Albert Goldman, Jean Van Heijenoort:
[xiii] “The changed relation of forces in Europe and the role of the Fourth International”, published in: Ted Grant: The Unbroken Thread, Fortress Books, London, 1989, page.83-110.
[xiv] Ibid. page, 92-93
[xv] Proposed line of amendment to International Conference Resolution “New Imperialist Peace and the Building of the Parties of the Fourth International”. Workers’ International News, November-December 1946: