The Fourth International, 80 Years (Part I)

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879 - 1940) working on his book 'The History of the Russian Revolution' in his study at Principe, Gulf of Guinea. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This year, we are celebrating 80 years since the founding of the Fourth. We are making a special series on the Fourth in our website, which we inaugurate now with the first part of this opening article. 
Eduardo Almeida

I- The Fourth International: the conditions of its founding

Eighty years ago, on September 1938, the Fourth International was founded in Paris. Today, the task to rebuild it is more necessary than ever. Growing polarization in the world political situation and the crisis of Stalinism and other reformist organizations open a room that demands the building of revolutionary parties and the Fourth International in order to advance. If this is not so, new defeats of revolutionary processes shall come.
The conditions surrounding the founding congress of the Fourth evidenced the political moment. The ascent of Nazism and Stalinism imposed a general setback. Fierce political persecution by Stalinism led to extreme security measures. Trotsky was not present and the Congress only lasted one day. Some days earlier, Stalin’s secret police had kidnapped and murdered the General Secretariat of the Fourth and organizer of the Congress – Rudolf Klement –, who was supposed to present the by-laws proposal.
Only some documents were adopted in the Congress: the Transitional Program, an outline of the by-laws (oral report because the written text disappeared with Klement), a manifesto against war, a resolution on youth and some greetings.
The proposal of the Fourth was born in 1933 after the Third International supported the policy applied by the German Communist Party, which rejected a united front with Social Democracy and facilitated Hitler’s victory. What led Trotsky to the break was not Stalinism’s great betrayal, but the fact that before the betrayal there was no reaction within the Third International. This showed the International was bureaucratized and dead for the revolution.
At the time, Trotsky reached the conclusion that it was necessary to found the Fourth International. This was the only way to preserve the Leninist principles and be prepared for the next revolutionary ascent, which would likely take place after the upcoming World War.
The situation was harsh. On one hand, the rapid advance of Nazism. On the other, Stalinism developed a catastrophic policy with the Third helping defeat the revolutionary processes in Spain and France. Besides, he brutally attacked the remains of the old Bolshevik leadership. With the Moscow Processes, under false accusations, he killed most of the Bolshevik leadership that had led the Russian Revolution. Trotsky’s followers died in concentration camps in the USSR or by the action of the Stalinist secret police who persecuted them throughout Europe.
Trotsky had to face the resistance of his own supporters to found the Fourth International. In the Transitional Program, he answers, “Skeptics 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…
The Fourth International has already arisen out of great events: the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history. The cause of 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! …
Is it 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.”
Less than six thousand members composed the Fourth at its birth: USA (2500 members), Belgium (800), France (600), Poland (350), Germany (200, 120 of the imprisoned), England (170), Czechoslovakia (around 150-200),Greece (100), Chile (100) Cuba (100) , South Africa (100), Canada (75), Holland (50), Australia (50), Brazil (50), Spain (between 10 and 30), Mexico (150).
Even in those very hard conditions, the founding of the Fourth was correct. The Third International at the time had completely degenerated in Stalinism’s hands. The objective was to establish a continuity with the Marxist tradition expressed in the Russian Revolution and the Four First Congresses of the Third.
The Transitional Program continues to be today the most important programmatic reference for revolutionary socialists. It summarizes the understanding of the world and the tasks of revolutionaries in a new situation, after the bureaucratization of the USSR.
Trotsky considered the building of the Fourth as the most important task of his life:
“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….
Thus I can not 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 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.”[1]

II- The Destruction of the Fourth

However, Stalin also knew about Trotsky’s historical importance. On August 20, 1940, Ramon Mercader, a Stalinist agent, killed the old revolutionary in Mexico.
The newly founded Fourth International suffered a brutal loss. Along with this came a very complicated development of objective reality.
Trotsky had foreseen World War II coming and with the revolutionary processes that would follow, he foresaw massive growth of the Fourth. In his message to the Conference of the founding of the Fourth, he ended by stating, “Permit me to finish with a prediction: During the next ten years the program of the Fourth International will become the guide of millions and these revolutionary millions will know how to storm earth and heaven.
The end of World War II actually generated a great revolutionary ascent with the defeat of Nazism, the liberation of colonies and the expropriation of capitalism in several countries. However, unlike Trotsky’s previsions, Stalinism led these processes. The Stalinist apparatus gained unprecedented international dimensions by leading the states of over one-third of humanity. This generated expectations of the vanguard of the entire world on the Stalinist leadership and limited the political room for the growth of the Fourth International.
This happened precisely when the Fourth had lost its main leader. These elements will help understand the posterior crisis. However, one may not have a determinist perspective of this crisis. What led to the destruction of the Fourth was that the new leadership, before this hard situation, directly and openly capitulated to Stalinism. The crisis was almost unavoidable, but the destruction was the responsibility of the new leadership of the Fourth.
The Third Congress of the Fourth International in 1952, under the leadership of Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel, adopted Pablo’s document “Where are we going?”. This document foresaw a new world war between imperialism and the USSR. Due to this war, the worker states led by Stalinist bureaucracies would become allies in the revolutionary mass mobilization. Stalinist parties would be the vanguard of the struggles for tenths of years, and the only alternative for revolutionaries was to carry out “sui generis entryism” in these parties. This entry tactic was different from the one proposed by Trotsky in the Social Democrat parties in the 30s because Trotsky proposed it for a short period to fight the standings of the Social Democrat leadership and win over a revolutionary sector for a posterior break. This new “entry” was proposed to remain inside and council the Communist Parties until the struggle for power.
So the Fourth renounced to the struggle against reformist apparatus and for the building of revolutionary parties. This led to their destruction, which took place in 1953 and was actually never overcome.
At that time, there was a possibility to revert the destruction. An international opposition formed by the SWP (the greatest Trotskyist party at the time), the French party led by Lambert, the English one led by Heally and the Argentinian one led by Nahuel Moreno. Based on this, it would be possible to take on a fight to rebuild the Fourth. However, the SWP prioritized its own building, with a national Trotskyist deviation, and aborted this possibility.
In 1963, from the acknowledgment of Cuba as a worker state, most of the Trotskyist currents reunited. There emerged the United Secretariat of the Fourth. However, there was no balance of the previous deviations, and the leadership of the USEC remained in Mandel’s hands, with the same standing of capitulation to the majority leadership of the movement.
As we stated in the Founding Theses of the IWL:
“… each great development of class struggle (mainly each great revolutionary victory of world dimensions) motivated, in some sector of our movement, a tendency to adapt to the bureaucratic or nationalist leadership that led this victory.”
These leaderships capitulated one after the other to all petty bourgeois and reformist leadership of the mass movement, like Maoism, Guerrilla Guevarism, Castroism, Sandinism, or the Portuguese MFA. Thus, the Fourth went from crisis to crisis, without seizing countless opportunities to rebuild our international.
Once again, the decisive element was not the unfavorable objective reality, not even the pressures of the apparatus. The decisive element was the answer given to these pressures, with the policy of the USEC leadership of capitulation to reformist and nationalist bourgeois leadership of the mass movement. This stopped the rebuilding of the Fourth.

III- Bolshevism (and Trotskyism) and Stalinism are opposite

Part of the bourgeois campaign against revolutionaries is to attempt to identify them with Stalinism. As if, the Leninist Bolsheviks who did the revolution, and the Stalinists who destroyed it were the same thing. There are not. Trotskyism, the legitimate heir of Bolshevism, is also the opposite of Stalinism.
Bolsheviks always placed their hopes in the international revolution and in particular, the European. The Russian Revolution managed to break the capitalist chain in its weaker link, backward Russia. However, the socialist strategy implies international planning of economy instead of “socialism in a single country”. Only the development of productive forces in an international level could provide the material basis for the advance towards socialism. Socialism is by nature international and it may only triumph, definitively overcoming capitalism worldwide.
However, the revolution was defeated in Germany in 1919 and in 23, just as in several European countries. In 27, there was a new defeat in China. The Russian Revolution was isolated. On the other hand, the Russian proletariat had to face and defeat the armies of the greatest imperialist countries. It paid a high toll with the death of most of its workers (mainly its vanguard) in the battlefields.
World isolation did not allow this economy to advance beyond a certain point. The proletariat, worn out by the loss of its best fighters, could not sustain the regime created in 1917. The bureaucracy was born from the proletariat, and it seized the reflux of world revolution and the isolation of the Russian Revolution to seize power.
The economic backwardness of Russia generated the bureaucratizing tendencies that developed. The Stalinist counterrevolution completely changed the Soviet regime. Internal democracy was suppressed within the Bolshevik Party first and then in the Soviets. The old Bolshevik guard was imprisoned and most of the murdered. Many were judged in the “Moscow processes” and shot. Trotsky was assassinated in exile in 1939. Any opposition in the Soviets went on to be persecuted and killed.
The artistic environment stopped being free and controversial, to impose a stupid and reactionary censorship. “Socialist Realism” became “Official Art”, an actual propaganda of the regime. Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930, Malevich died abandoned in 1935.
The achievements against women and homosexual oppression were reverted. National oppression lived again, and the USSR became as in Tsarist Russia, a “prison of the peoples”.
The Third International stopped being a lever for world revolution and became an obedient arm of Soviet bureaucracy until Stalin dissolved it in 1943, as a goodwill demonstration for imperialism.
Imperialist propaganda, helped by the Stalinist apparatus, insists on equaling Stalinism and Bolshevism. This is an essential ideological maneuver to erase the first years of the Russian Revolution.
However, Stalinism was the agent and the expression of the defeat of the revolution. It only prevailed through an actual civil war. The Stalinist dictatorship massacred over 700 thousand people, beginning by the majority of the CC that led the 1917 revolution.
Stalinism was the greatest counterrevolutionary apparatus within the workers’ movement in history. It had stolen the authority of the Russian Revolution and an enormous amount of resources through the control of the state apparatus of the USSR (and then the other bureaucratized worker states). It could win over or corrupt the vanguard that emerged around the world.
The official ideology of Stalinism combined with the building of “socialism” in the USSR (“socialism in a single country”) and pacific coexistence with imperialism. This led to great defeats of the revolutionary processes.
The already Stalinist leadership of the Third was responsible for the defeat of the revolution in Germany, 1923 and China, 1927. Afterwards, Stalinism facilitated Hitler’s victory in Germany by rejecting the united front policy, in the so-called extreme-leftist “third period”. They turned to the right in the people’s front policy (a coalition with “progressive” bourgeoisie, a tactic that endured from then on), leading to the defeat of the Spanish revolution.
In the post-war, Stalin determined that the CPs in France and Italy had to turn power over to the bourgeoisie, which was powerless with the defeat of Nazi-fascism. So, Stalinism enabled the survival of imperialism in central Europe.
The impact on the Russian worker state economy came quickly. The failure of the strategy of “socialism in one country” was evident. In a first moment, these limits were relative, even enabling a great growth of the economy. However, they then became absolute.
The USSR and the other bureaucratized worker states economy entered decadence in the 60s of the past century. Progressively, the bureaucracies deepened the relations of economic dependence of these states with imperialism, particularly through the mechanism of foreign debt. Along with this, they slowly introduced economic reforms towards market economies.
Workers were more discontent each time and rebelled against Stalinist dictatorships. The political revolutions in Germany (1953), Hungary (56), Czechoslovakia (68) and Poland (80), placed Stalinism in a strong crisis. But these revolutions were defeated by direct repression of USSR troops or Stalinist bureaucracies.
Finally, the bureaucracy set aside the plans of partial reforms and advanced towards the restoration of capitalism in these countries. Bureaucracies commanded the process of restoration from the states, beginning by Yugoslavia in the 60s, China in the late 70s, and the USSR in 85-87 with Gorbachev.
The uprisings in the USSR and East Europe in the 90s took place against the brutal fall in the living conditions (wage lowering, hyperinflation, shortages, unleashed speculation) determined by the restoration of capitalism. Masses faced the Stalinist dictatorships that led the bourgeois states at the time. The world Stalinist apparatus ended up defeated by mass action. But due to the absence of revolutionary leadership, bourgeois leadership that often originated from these bureaucracies took power.
The capitalist restoration was Stalinism’s last betrayal to world proletariat. Imperialism seized this to launch a great campaign on the “death of socialism”, equaling Stalinism to socialism. This campaign sought to show capitalism as the only alternative for humanity, and bourgeois democracy as the general objective of all peoples.
Today, Stalinism is broadly rejected around the world. Trotskyism, the heir of Bolshevism, directly opposed Stalinism and paid for this with the lives of hundreds of thousands of cadres.

IV- Socialism or Barbarism

Today the disjunctive “socialism or barbarism” is more current than ever, contrary to what the defenders of capitalism say.
The Communist Manifesto, 170 years after its publishing continues valid, “The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.
With 80 years, The Transitional Program states,
Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses.
The world economic crisis of 2007-08 hit neoliberal ideology. Each day that goes by it reveals more and more the true face of capitalist exploitation. There are clear aspects of barbarism in daily reality.
Workers today are faced with a strong decrease in their wages, pauperization of most labor power (just one-fourth with stable jobs), and lousy public health and education. The previous expectation of social ascent is no longer present, not even in imperialist countries.
The world, in mid-XXI century, lives deep economic, cultural, moral and ecologic decadence. The refugees due to wars reach 60 million people; unemployment stopped affecting a minority of the population that capitalism used as “reserve army of labour” to affect entire populations. Half of the world’s inhabitants are poor and miserable. A new recessive crisis is on the horizon.
Violence against women, black and homosexuals are reaching absurd levels. There are clear signs of barbarism in the periphery of the great cities of the world. Global warming threatens the future of the Earth.
Either the proletariat retakes the example of the 1917 Russian Revolution or capitalism will unavoidably lead the world to barbarism.
Nevertheless, the idea of a socialist revolution seems impossible for most workers –and vanguard. For us, this is not so. One must remember Trotsky’s words, “Revolution is impossible until it’s inevitable.
Along with the growing elements of barbarism, the signs of economic or political instability are deepening around the globe. There is growing social, economic and political polarization that may generate new revolutionary processes.
Reformists say a socialist revolution is not possible because “it is not in the masses’ consciousness”. One must remember Lenin’s words on this matter, arguing with the reformists of the time, “… nobody could guarantee, in 1901, that the revolution in Russia (the first revolution against absolutism) would take place four years later… Revolutions are never born ready-made; they do not spring out of Jupiter’s head; they do not kindle at once.
Lenin wrote these words around two years before the October revolution, when he fought in the absolute minority against the Social Democrat parties that capitulated to imperialist bourgeoisie in war.
We are not announcing any socialist revolution in the years to come.
There is evidently a long path for the building of a revolutionary leadership with mass influence over the proletariat like the Bolshevik Party.
We are arguing with reformists, who do everything to setback the consciousness of the workers and then say that a revolution is impossible due to the “backwardness in consciousness”. With the same Leninist method, we promote the workers’ direct struggles, so that they break with this reformist leadership.

V- The need to rebuild the Fourth

Today, the need to rebuild the Fourth prevails. Capitalist restoration in the ex-bureaucratized worker states, the overthrow of Stalinist dictatorships and the world Stalinist apparatus verify Trotsky’s previsions on the bureaucracy. The great world capitalist crisis of 2007-08 generated an enormous discredit on the “victory of capitalism” defended by the bourgeois propagandist. The harsh attack of the neoliberal plans forced workers to fight, generating a growing process of polarization in class struggle and political instability, greatly unequal from country to country. The crisis of Stalinism and the reformist apparatus freed the reorganization forces in the mass movement. Often, extreme right and extreme left alternatives are strengthened.
There is an enormous contradiction: as the program of the Fourth is verified in reality, the Fourth does not exist yet as a world organization. Thus, the task to rebuild it is a need.
The Transitional Program remains the main programmatic reference. In August 1933, Trotsky said that his bases were in the Communist Manifesto and the first four congresses of the Third International (developed still under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership). “Revolutionary policy is unthinkable without revolutionary theory. Here we need, least of all, to start from the beginning. We stand on the basis of Marx and Engels. The first congresses of the Communist International left us an invaluable programmatic heritage… One of the first, most urgent tasks of those organizations that have inscribed on their banners the regeneration of the revolutionary movement consists in separating out the principled decisions of the first four congresses, in bringing them in order and in subjecting them to a serious discussion “in the light of the future tasks of the proletariat.”
The Transitional Program is based in the first place, on the Communist Manifesto, the theory of class struggle, the defense of class independence, worker internationalism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. It also incorporates all of Lenin’s main works, which include the understanding of the imperialist epoch and the consequent wars and revolutions.
The Transitional Program thus overcomes the separation between the minimum program (immediate demands, like wage increase or against unemployment) and maximum program (fight for power) typical of Social Democracy in the time of ascending capitalism, used even today by reformists. The transitional program seeks to mobilize workers from their daily struggles and propose through a slogan system in political agitation and propaganda, the need to fight against the government, the regime and the capitalist system: the need to fight for power.
One must help the masses in the daily struggle to find the bridge between their current vindications and the revolutionary socialist program. This bridge must contain a system of transitory vindications that part from current conditions and current consciousness of broad layer of the working class and lead invariably to one result: the conquest of power by the proletariat.” (Alicia Sagra)
This contribution overcomes previous elaborations, including the understanding of the world from a new historical development: the bureaucratization of the USSR. It poses an extremely valid definition,
If one defines the crisis of humankind as the crisis of its revolutionary leadership, then the great task to advance is to overcome this crisis.”
This understanding of the world and the tasks of revolutionaries allow us to say that current Marxism is Trotskyism. No variant substituted it in the evolution of reality in the passing from the XX to the XXI century. Evidently, the Transitional Program must be updated, as we will discuss further on. However, it is undeniably the basis for any revolutionary program today.
The program of the Fourth passed the test of history, but one could not say the same about the Trotskyist movement. Most organizations with a Trotskyist origin abandoned the Transitional Program and set aside the task of rebuilding the Fourth. The result is that the Fourth, as a world organization was never built nor rebuilt and still today is inexistent.
Actually, the Fourth projected by Trotsky was simply the continuation of the Third International from its first four Congresses, before its bureaucratization. The project was similar to the Third, now based on the Transitional Program. This project never existed, neither during Trotsky’s life nor afterwards.
This is the necessary task today. Happily, the struggle for the rebuilding of the Fourth is alive and has bases in reality. The IWL, founded by Nahuel Moreno, is its most important one. It was forged in a long battle of over 40 years, which allowed preserving a significant amount of organizations and militants in the framework of Trotskyism. However, it did not stop the dispersion of most Trotskyism and the destruction of the Fourth International. The IWL is an embryo of an international, in service of rebuilding the Fourth.
Translation: Alejandra Ramírez.
[1] The Transitional Program – Preface. Leon Trotsky.


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