Chapter 8 - The Fourth International
In 1923 Trotsky first raised the banner of revolt against Stalin. For the next 10 years he fought to rouse the Communist workers of the world in a fight for the complete reform of the Communist International (Comintern): the removal of the Stalin leadership and a return to the path of world revolution.
Wherever groups of communists supported Trotsky, he organised them into factions of the official Communist parties. Wherever they raised their heads, the “Trotskyists” were quickly expelled from their parties, and denounced by the Stalinists as everything from Mensheviks to fascists.
Yet the persecuted sections of the International Left Opposition - founded in 1930 to organise the factions across national boundaries - succeeded in carrying the ideas of revolutionary Marxism to small but significant numbers of communists in many countries.
On the eve of Hitler’s conquest of power in Germany, Trotsky explained the role of the International Left Opposition:
“ . . . the Left Opposition does not regard the organisational regime created by the Stalinist bureaucracy as final. On the contrary, its aim is to tear the banner of Bolshevism out of the hands of the usurping bureaucracy and return the Communist International to the principles of Marx and Lenin.”
Trotsky’s hope was that as the failings of Stalinism were revealed with each new historic event, so divisions would open within the Communist Parties and the International itself and the fight against Stalin would gather strength.
At the same time, Trotsky was well aware that Stalin’s ruinous policies might destroy the International itself:
“The Bolshevik Party remained in the Second International until the end of the year 1914. The lesson of the world war was necessary to pose the question of a new International; the October Revolution was necessary to call the new International into being.
Such a historical catastrophe as the collapse of the Soviet state would, of course, sweep away with it the Third International too. Similarly, the victory of fascism in Germany and the smashing of the German proletariat would hardly allow the Comintern to survive the consequences of its disastrous policies.
But who in the camp of the revolution will today dare to say that the collapse of the Soviet power or the victory of fascism in Germany cannot be avoided or prevented?”
These lines were written in January 1933. Within months the crushing of the German working class had become a reality, as terrible as it was undeniable
The sectarian policies of the Stalinist KPD had led the most powerful working class movement in the world to catastrophe. Quickly Trotsky realised that the KPD could no longer be reformed:
“The KPD today represents a corpse . . . The hour has struck! The question of preparing for a new party must be posed openly.”
The collapse and destruction of the KPD also faced the Comintern with a simple choice. Either begin a full discussion throughout the movement of how and why such a disaster could have happened, or prevent any discussion whatsoever taking place. The Comintern leaders chose the latter course, and they got away with it.
As we have seen, the leadership of the Comintern declared that the line of the KPD had been correct all along, and at every stage. But they knew very well how difficult this would be to defend.
Showing the full extent of their bureaucratic cowardice, the Stalinists prohibited every section of the Comintern from discussing the question. The blood of the German Communists was supposed to stream by without comment. Trotsky was outraged:
“. . . this shameful interdiction was not violated nor overthrown. No national congresses; no international congress; no discussion at party meetings; no discussion in the press!”
And he drew from this one inescapable conclusion:
“An organisation which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of the bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and that nothing can ever revive it.”
The possibility of reforming the Comintern had ended. The absence of any critical response to the German catastrophe - with the partial exception of some Czechoslovak Communists - proved that, whilst honest workers could certainly be won away from the Communist Parties, those parties themselves could not be transformed back into instruments of revolution.
There was only one further conclusion to draw. On July 15 1933, Trotsky wrote an article to sum up these lessons and point the way ahead for the movement. Its title could not have been plainer: “It is necessary to build Communist parties and an International anew.”
A New International?
After the Second International betrayed the workers’ movement by supporting bourgeoisie’s war of slaughter in 1914 Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia, backed by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany and a handful of internationalists from other countries, began the long task of organising a new International.
The success of the October 1917 revolution in Russia gave a mighty impulse to their work.
With the Social Democrats rushing to rescue capitalism in the stormy years following the war, millions of workers were rallied to new Communist parties that openly defended the Russian Revolution.
In 1919 the Third, Communist International (Comintern) was founded to take advantage of the deep crisis of capitalism that had opened in 1914, and to lead the world revolution to victory.
Did Hitler’s successful ascent to power and the KPD’s collapse mean that the Third International had now reached its 4 August (the date of the Second International’s betrayal of international socialism)? Trotsky argued that this was the case.
There was a difference between 1914 and 1933. In the former case the Second International had deliberately betrayed the working class. But the effect of the two events was similar.
Trotsky insisted that the German events proved conclusively that the Communist International itself could never be recaptured by revolutionaries. It was dead for the very purpose it had originally been set up for - world revolution. A new International was needed.
After a lengthy and democratic discussion inside the International Left Opposition building such a new International was the course that was agreed upon.
Such an International would need a name that expressed its past, present and future. Based on the politics of each of the first three internationals in their revolutionary periods, it would need to declare openly to the workers that the Second and Third Internationals had abandoned the path of revolution.
After a short period considering the options, Trotsky and the Left Opposition decided upon the one name that summed up this historical experience and looked forwards rather than backwards. For the remaining years of his life, Trotsky struggled to build the Fourth International.
The Bloc of Four
The forces of the International Left Opposition (ILO) were small. One estimate suggests that at this time it had fewer than 6000 members world-wide.
There was therefore no possibility of simply “declaring” the Fourth International, and setting it up based on the ILO groupings alone. New forces would have to be won to the project.
At a series of international meetings in 1933 the ILO changed its name to the International Communist League (ICL), and committed itself to “the regrouping of the revolutionary forces of the world working class” under the banner of a new international.
The first step was to address those workers who were not tied to the Social Democracy, Stalinism or the Right Opposition.
In particular, Trotsky and the ICL focused on three important parties: the SAP (Socialist Workers Party) of Germany, and the RSP and OSP of Holland.
Some of these parties had emerged from the Comintern, others from the Social Democracy. Their importance was that they were independent of the Second and Third Internationals, and were in the process of discussing and defining their politics after their departure from the mass internationals.
After much discussion the three parties signed a joint declaration with the ICL on 26 August 1933. The main elements of the ICL’s politics were included. The Declaration of Four stated that capitalism was in a deep crisis that could only be solved by revolution and working class power.
It rejected the main errors of Stalinism - the theory of socialism in one country and the bureaucratic regime in the Comintern and the USSR.
What is more, it rejected the parliamentary reformism of the Second International, and insisted on the need to defend the gains of the Russian revolution, despite the crimes of Stalin.
It called for a new, Fourth International, and committed the four groups to working out and discussing a programme for the new international, a critique of the other trends in the working class movement, and to give clear answers to all important questions facing the working class in the fight for revolution.
This was a tremendous step forward in the ICL’s campaign to win these parties from Social Democracy and Stalinism to consistent revolutionary Marxism. But the question that still lay ahead was whether the SAP, RSP and OSP would carry out the commitments set out in the Declaration, or whether it would remain a dead letter.
The three parties were all members of the London Bureau, a loose collection of parties that had little common political agreement. On the left of the London Bureau stood the RSP of Holland, which was close to the ICL on all main issues.
In the centre was the Swedish Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party of Great Britain, some of whose members Trotsky hoped to influence and win over. On the right was the Norwegian Labour Party.
This was the only party in the London Bureau that had any mass influence. But its politics were completely reformist. Such a party was bound to lead the Norwegian working class to disaster.
And indeed, in March 1935 this Labour Party took over the government of Norway, and proceeded to attack the working class on behalf of the capitalists.
Trotsky wanted the SAP to present the Declaration of Four to the conference of the London Bureau in August 1933. But already the SAP began to backtrack. They did not submit it to the conference for voting, for fear of alienating the Norwegian Labour Party.
The SAP had faltered at the first hurdle - they had refused to choose between their reformist allies and the revolutionaries of the ICL.
Increasingly the SAP leader Walcher began to resist Trotsky’s insistence that the SAP should break with the Norwegian party and criticise the politics of its reformist leadership.
By early 1934 it was clear to Trotsky that the SAP had become an obstacle to building the Fourth International. He explained how forces such as the SAP were, in Marxist terms, centrist: they were unstable parties, standing somewhere between reformism and revolutionary communism. Centrists sometimes move far to the left and at other times would swing to the right.
Typical of centrism was the refusal to state the truth openly to the working class, a tendency to avoid clear lines of demarcation within the workers’ movement and to try to gloss over real differences.
Centrism refuses to put forward a clear programme for the working class, instead waiting for “history” to solve problems that can only be solved by revolutionaries themselves.
The whole tactic of the Bloc of Four was a necessary step towards the Fourth International. It succeeded in winning the RSP and an important part of the OSP to the ICL.
But when the SAP finally reversed its leftward development, accusing the ICL of “sectarianism”, the ICL itself recognised what had happened, and broke with the SAP. The reason for this was explained by Trotsky in an article entitled “Centrism and the Fourth International”:
“The chase of the extreme left centrists after the ordinary lefts, of the lefts after the moderates, of the moderates after the rights, like the chase of a man after his own shadow, cannot create any stable mass organisation.”
While it was vitally important to listen carefully to those centrists who were moving towards revolutionary ideas and to help them overcome their objections patiently, it would be wrong to bargain with principles and sign away the revolutionary programme as if it were so much small change. The guideline given by Trotsky was faithful above all to the interests of the working class:
“Not to outsmart the historic process, not to play hide and seek, but to state what is.”
The tactic of the Bloc of Four was now exhausted - there was nothing more to be gained from the SAP and its supporters. From 1934 onwards, Trotsky turned his attention to the events that were shaking France to its foundations, and developed new tactics to take forward the fight for the Fourth International.
The French Turn
A revolutionary programme was essential. Without it no party could claim to be revolutionary. But a programme alone was not enough. Academics and do-nothings might content themselves with having the right answers. Revolutionaries want to put them into practice. The Communist League faced another vital task: “to weld together the correct ideas with the mass labour movement.”
The hundred or so members of the Communist League were isolated. The Stalinists subjected them to such persecution that it was difficult to get their message heard.
Whereas the problem had previously been the refusal of the main workers’ parties to form a united front, today the problem lay in the illusions held by millions of workers in the opportunist “united front” of Thorez, the Socialists and the Radicals. The voice of the Trotskyists may have been clear - but it was being drowned out.
One of the distinguishing features of the truly great revolutionaries of history is their refusal to be daunted by obstacles, and their ability to think afresh.
Without at all diluting the principles or programme of genuine communism, Trotsky now proposed a bold new tactic for the French revolutionaries: to join the Socialist Party and fight within it for revolutionary ideas.
Join the Socialist Party? But this is treason, reformism, Menshevism! This was how many militants, including supporters of Trotsky, reasoned at the time. After all, the Social Democrats had betrayed the working class in 1914. Rosa Luxemburg had called the Second International “a stinking corpse”, and had been murdered by the German “socialists” for her efforts.
All these years the Opposition had been fighting to equip the Communist parties with the means to break the hold of reformism . . . and now Trotsky, of all people, wanted his supporters to join the reformist party! No sooner had Trotsky called for a Fourth International, than he advised his followers to join the Second!
Every one of these criticisms was wide of the mark. As a faction within the Comintern, the Opposition would have developed and grown in contact with the mass working class movement.
The Stalinist apparatus, with its bureaucratic bans on factional activity and all dissenting ideas, had made this a practical impossibility. The Communist League had developed as an isolated group, limited to issuing propaganda.
This gave them a strong side - an attachment to revolutionary theory and principles, and a membership well educated in the history of the movement and the tasks of the revolution.
But it had a weak side as well: it observed the working class movement from the sidelines. This weakness had to be overcome if a revolutionary party of the working class was to be built.
The joint meeting of the Communist and Socialist parties of July 1934 had been greeted by the mass of the workers with tremendous enthusiasm. But at this meeting the Trotskyists had not had the chance to put their point of view.
The danger was that the masses would be hypnotised by the united front, and that the policies of the Socialist and Communist Party leaders would go unchallenged.
The League had to find its way into the united front. And it could only do this through one of the two participating parties. The way into the Communist party was blocked. But what of the Socialists?
Here was a party of 120,000 members. The rise of fascism in Germany had pushed many of its worker members to the left. In response its pro-capitalist right wing had split away in 1933. Its left wing had invited militant socialists back into the party.
Certainly, a revolutionary party should be independent. But, Trotsky reminded his supporters, “the League is not yet a party. It is an embryo, and an embryo needs covering and nourishment if it is to develop.” The League could not just wait for people to come to it - it had to take its message to them.
Above all, Trotsky stressed that the League should enter the Socialist Party to fight inside it for revolutionary ideas. The Trotskyists would form a faction from the outset to fight the reformist leaders - there would be no watering down of its ideas:
“A fighting organisation is necessary; steel battalions are necessary; instructors and officers are necessary. It is necessary to disarm the enemy, to sweep him off the streets, to terrorise him. The task of the League - whether it remains independent or joins one of the parties of the united front - demands imperiously an explanation to the workers as frank, as clear and as honest as the seriousness of the situation and the tasks flowing from it require.”
This was no collapse into reformism. The entry of the Communist League into the Socialist Party was to be a revolutionary act.
Entrism in practice
After much debate, the French Trotskyists adopted the new tactic of entrism. On 29 August 1934, the Communist League was dissolved and its members began to join the Socialist Party ( or “SFIO”). Right away they established themselves as a legitimate faction within the party, the Bolshevik-Leninist Group (GBL).
One grouping within the Communist League, led by Pierre Naville, rejected the French Turn, declaring that it was unnecessary and an adaptation to Social Democracy.
They refused to join the SFIO at first, though they soon changed their minds and reunited with the GBL. Trotsky believed that the real reason for their reluctance to join had been a “literary-conservative” preference for staying on the sidelines.
This tendency was also to reveal itself in a related but opposite form: some of the same people who refused to join the SFIO were later to try to water down the GBL’s politics in order to remain inside the party indefinitely.
Both of these errors had the same effect: they avoided a hard fight against the Socialist Party leaders. This is what Trotsky meant when he wrote that sectarianism and opportunism were “two sides of the same coin.”
The GBL quickly made progress inside the SFIO, proving the value of Trotsky’s tactic. Armed with a programme far clearer than the rest of the left, the GBL’s membership rose to 300 by the summer of 1935.
The campaign for a workers’ militia had a real effect on the left wing of the party, which set up the TPPS (Always Ready To Serve), an SFIO defence guard.
The TPPS defended working class meetings from fascist attacks, and engaged in actions to drive the fascists from the streets. Membership of a mass party gave the GBL more contacts in the trade union movement and brought more workers towards Trotskyism. By June 1935 the GBL got substantial numbers of votes for their proposals at the national conference of the party.
In the youth movement of the SFIO the GBL were most successful. Their paper, “Revolution”, sold 80,000 copies per issue, far more than that of the official leadership. One SFIO youth leader, Fred Zeller, was visited by a Moscow official who failed to win him to Stalinism: he was soon to join the Trotskyists instead.
But the entry into the SFIO could not go on forever. The Socialist Party leadership under Leon Blum had joined the Popular Front with the Stalinists and the Radical party.
As Europe slid ever closer towards war, these parties were preparing to form a government that could build up the army and hold back the struggles of the workers. The presence in the SFIO of a strong Trotskyist wing was intolerable.
For the GBL was campaigning against the mass murder of the youth that such a war would involve, and would side with the workers against the Popular Front regime.
In particular, the Stalinists were demanding the expulsion of the Bolshevik-Leninists from the SFIO as a condition for further unity.
At the end of July 1935 the bureaucracy made their move expelling 13 leading members of the SFIO youth, many of them Trotskyists. The reformists could no longer afford democracy in their party, and struck out against the revolutionary youth.
And just a few days later the workers in the port towns of Brest and Toulon launched mass strikes and rose up against the police.
Trotsky realised that these events meant that the work of the GBL inside the SFIO must come to a quick end. Some argued that there was still more to be gained in the party, but it was already clear that the leaders were determined to expel the Trotskyists.
The only way to remain in the party would be to water down or abandon the message of revolution. And that was unacceptable:
“When you continue to hang on to an organisation that can no longer tolerate proletarian revolutionaries in its midst, you become of necessity the wretched tool of reformism, patriotism and capitalism.”
For this reason, “the . . . notion that it is necessary to remain inside the SFIO at any cost is treachery . . . Those who say ‘we will forego telling the masses the truth about the latest social-patriotic treachery so as not to be expelled from the party led by the social-patriots’ become the witting accomplices of these traitors.”
Trotsky advocated a bold offensive by the GBL, attacking the party leaders and preparing to launch an independent party to address the revolutionary workers directly.
An important section of the GBL, however, hesitated. Led by Raymond Molinier and Pierre Frank, they began to drop whole elements of the Trotskyist programme and began to build a joint group with centrists who would not consider leaving the SFIO. But for real revolutionaries this capitulation was not an option.
Trotsky summed up the lessons of the French Turn in his article “Lessons of the SFIO Entry”:
“ . . . Entry into a reformist centrist party in itself does not include a long perspective. It is only a stage which, under certain conditions, can be limited to an episode . . . what is necessary, especially in the light of the French experience, is to free ourselves of illusions in time; to recognise the bureaucracy’s decisive attack against the left wing, and defend ourselves from it, not by making concessions, adapting, or playing hide-and-seek, but by a revolutionary offensive.”
Trotskyism and Centrism in Spain
The leading figure in the Spanish Left Opposition had been Andrés Nin. One of the founders of the Communist party, Nin had backed Trotsky in his struggle with Stalin and had served as one of Trotsky’s secretaries. With authority in the working class movement and a name known to millions, Nin was destined to play a crucial role in the Spanish revolution.
Yet before the outbreak of the civil war, Trotsky had already broken with Nin. This is something that many writers to this day see as an example of Trotsky’s “sectarianism”. Yet this dispute centred on issues that were to prove a matter of life and death for the Spanish revolution.
Nin led the small forces of Spanish Trotskyism into a fusion with a party called the Workers’ and Peasants’ Bloc, led by Maurin. This was a centrist party, which had supported the pro-Bukharin Right Opposition.
The fusion created. a new party, the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). The POUM was hostile to Stalinism, and declared that the war and the revolution were inseparable.
Yet it did not have a clear revolutionary programme for the Spanish working class. This was no academic matter. It led to the downfall of the POUM and disaster for the Spanish working class.
The POUM were the most persecuted party of the Spanish revolution. The Stalinists denounced them as “Trotskyites” and “fascists”, though in reality they were neither.
In the first weeks of the civil war the POUM showed great bravery, taking a lead in the land and factory seizures, and playing an important role in the arming of the working class.
Their membership rose from 8000 to over 35,000 in the first months of the civil war, and the party recruited over 10,000 members of the workers’ militias.
With a correct policy, the POUM could have used this mass influence to argue for the revolutionary committees and workers’ parties and unions to build councils of workers’ delegates.
These, like the soviets in Russia in 1917, could have become an alternative centre of power to that of the Popular Front government in Madrid. In this way, the war could have grown over into a socialist revolution.
But the POUM’s confused politics - so typical of centrism - left them unable to take advantage of this exceptional situation.
On 7 September 1936 Nin made a speech to thousands of workers in Barcelona. When he correctly called for the capitalist ministers to resign from the Popular Front the crowd went wild with enthusiasm.
But when Nin himself joined the government of Catalonia, the POUM changed their tune, and declared that they would “leave the question open” as to capitalists participating in the government.
Worse still, instead of using the POUM’s influence in the revolutionary committee in the district of Lerida to build workers’ councils, the POUM called for “an authentic government of the Popular Front”, and actually helped the government to demobilise the committee.
This confusion on the real nature of the Popular Front was built in to the POUM’s ideas at the time of the fusion with Maurin.
Trotsky’s handful of supporters in Spain warned that taking part in the government and failing to fight for workers’ councils would mean that the POUM would miss the opportunities that existed for leading the revolution to victory.
While attacking the policy of the POUM, Trotsky nevertheless realised the party’s importance, and never missed an opportunity to try to influence it.
A representative of the Movement for the Fourth International visited the POUM in April 1937 for urgent discussions, hoping to effect a change in the party’s policy towards the Popular Front.
Urged on by supporters of Trotsky who had joined the POUM in order to influence its development, the Madrid section of the party voted, in April 1937, to support a programme of building workers’ councils. To his shame, Nin responded in a bureaucratic way, calling oppositionists back from the front line fighting and expelling many from the party. Factions were banned in the POUM.
From these expulsions an organisation emerged that was committed to a revolutionary programme: the Bolshevik-Leninists of Spain. But they were to have little time to put the programme of Lenin and Trotsky into practice. For events were moving to a decisive showdown between the working class and the Popular Front government.
In Barcelona the anarchist trade union CNT, together with the POUM and many rank and file supporters of the Socialists, occupied and ran many key industries and buildings. Among the most important was the telephone exchange.
In May 1937 the Popular Front government, egged on by the Communist party, ordered a police attack on the exchange, to take control of the building back from the workers.
The workers built barricades and rank and file anarchists fought off the police and sent messages for support to other workers across Spain. For a short time the possibility of a general strike and a rising against the Capitalist-Stalinist coalition was real.
But the absence of a Bolshevik leadership in the working class made itself felt. The Socialists called on their union members to stop fighting and to take down their barricades. Then the anarchist CNT leaders did the same.
Anarchist workers, outraged, tore up their CNT cards and newspapers in disgust. But the POUM leaders, still clinging to the popular front, refused to criticise the CNT leaders and appeal to them to form a common front against the government.
Then the POUM itself abandoned the barricades under instruction from its leaders, while the fighting was still going on.
There was an organisation that fought for a revolutionary response to the government’s attack on the workers of Barcelona.
The Bolshevik-Leninists, aware that in Lerida, Taragona and Gerona, the Stalinists and the police had surrendered their arms to the workers, pointed out that with the mass of Barcelona workers backing the CNT, the city could have been seized and a soviet government established. A Bolshevik-Leninist leaflet was distributed on the barricades:
“LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTIONARY OFFENSIVE!
No compromise. Disarmament of the National republican Guard and the reactionary Assault Guards. This is the decisive moment. Next time it will be too late. General strike in all industries except those connected with the prosecution of the war, until the resignation of the reactionary government. Only proletarian power can assure military victory . . .”
Though a small grouping of anarchists - the Friends of Durutti - agreed with this perspective, the revolutionary forces were too small and isolated to turn the tide.
The leaders of every main organisation of the Spanish working class, including the POUM, had failed to provide leadership at the decisive moment. The opportunity had been frittered away.
The price was the crushing of the left. Stalinist police, trained and led by agents of the Soviet secret police, hunted down, tortured and killed hundreds of revolutionary fighters. The CNT and the POUM were banned. Nin himself was arrested and taken away to a Stalinist prison.
Despite relentless torture, he refused to sign a forced confession that would have led hundreds more to the cells and an early grave. Instead he died a hero’s death.
But his end could have been different. With a correct strategy he could have led the POUM and the Spanish working class to power.
The programme and perspectives of Trotsky and his supporters had been proven not to be “sectarian”, but rather the distillation of the lessons of the Russian revolution. Trotsky had been right to insist on building the Fourth International only on the basis of real agreement on programme.
Once again, as in China and Germany, the Trotskyists had been proved right, but only at the price of a terrible defeat for the working class. In Trotsky’s words, the three things were missing that had guaranteed success in Russia: “a party, a party, and a party.”
The founding of the Fourth International
In the ten years from 1928 to 1938 Trotsky and his followers stood alone defending and developing the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Lenin.
In a whole series of reverses and bloody defeats for the working class, Trotsky had been proven right. The Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 had proved that without the strategy of permanent revolution, struggles for democracy in the colonial world would go down to bloody defeat.
In 1933 the tactic of the workers’ united front had been proven a necessity by the tragedy of Hitler’s rise to power.
Events in France and Spain had shown beyond doubt the counter-revolutionary consequences of the theory of the Popular Front.
And throughout the entire period, Stalin’s theory of Socialism in One Country had not only disarmed revolutionaries across the world, but had isolated the USSR, giving rise to a bureaucratic regime that crushed all working class initiative. Stalin’s uncontrolled purges were slaughtering the flower of the old Bolshevik Party and the Russian Revolution.
Above all, in each successive crisis the completely reactionary role of Social Democracy and Stalinism had been revealed. The bankruptcy of the Second and Third Internationals was an established fact. It was time to found a Fourth International.
At first, Trotsky had attempted to rally many of the independent left socialist organisations to the fight for a new international, hoping that experience and the class struggle would help to impel them to revolutionary communist conclusions.
But the Spanish events now proved that the parties of the London Bureau, and in particular the POUM and its supporters, would never complete that evolution.
In discussions with Trotsky, James Cannon of the US section of the ICL, which throughout these years had built itself up into a significant and influential working class organisation leading mass strikes in Minneapolis and New York, advanced the view that the forthcoming world conference of the Bolshevik Leninists in 1938 should actually set up the Fourth International. In his view “the main elements of the Fourth International are by now crystallised.”
“This International will become strong by our own action, not by manoeuvres with other groups. Naturally we can attract other intermediary groups, but that would be incidental. The general line is our own development. We had a test in Spain for all these intermediary organisations -the POUM was the most important part of the London Bureau and the same POUM proved to be most disastrous for the Spanish revolution.”
These intermediate groups were, in Trotsky’s words, “ only an obstacle - a petrified centrism without masses.”
Another important reason for the move towards setting up the Fourth International was the approaching crisis and war. The revolutionaries needed to be bound together by the firmest possible discipline the better to proclaim their message to the whole world.
Some critics of Trotsky have argued that the founding of the Fourth International was a mistake. They point to the Second and Third Internationals, which were mass organisations, and claim that the small forces of Trotskyism were too weak to set up a real world party. Instead, they argue, strong national parties should first be built: only then can an international be founded.
This dangerous argument ignores some of the most important lessons of the 1930s. A party that grows up only on a national terrain will always adapt to the pressures and prejudices that are widespread in that country.
The POUM, for example, thought that there was something special about Spain that made the fight for workers’ councils unnecessary.
The best possible way to avoid these problems is for each party to conduct its work not in isolation, but as an integral part of a democratic centralist international movement, in which every national section is bound by the same discipline as a local branch would be within a national organisation. The capitalists are organised across boundaries and borders.
Without an equivalent, indeed an even higher level of unity, the working class will never be able to fight the system to the end. Democratic centralism - full freedom of internal discussion, maximum unity in action - must apply not just in each party, but also in the world party.
This was another vital lesson that Trotsky had learnt from the nationalist collapse of the Second International, the bureaucratic degeneration of the Third, and the total ineffectiveness of the London Bureau.
And so, in September 1938, thirty delegates from eleven countries adopted a new international programme, and formally founded the Fourth International.
At the same time, delegates from nine different countries founded a Youth International in sympathy with the Fourth International. At a mass celebratory rally in New York on 28 October, the following message from Trotsky was delivered to the audience by electrical transcription:
“Only the Fourth International looks with confidence to the future. It is the World Party of Socialist Revolution! There never was a greater task on the earth. Upon every one of us rests a tremendous historical responsibility.
“Our party demands each of us, totally and completely. Let the philistines hunt their own individuality in empty space. For a revolutionary to give himself entirely to the party signifies finding himself.
“Yes, our party takes each one of us wholly. But in return it gives to each one of us the highest happiness: the consciousness that one participates in the building of a better future, that one carries on his shoulders a particle of the fate of mankind, and that one’s life will not have been lived in vain.”