Keeping the International alive: a history of the Fourth International – Part Two

Monday, 23 April 2012
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In Part Two Ted Sprague outlines how the International Left Opposition became the Fourth International, with a special reference to the influence of Trotsky’s ideas in Indonesia and the role of Tan Malaka. [part 1]

Hitler’s victory and the end of the Communist International

Leon Trotsky. Photo: BundesarchivLeon Trotsky. Photo: BundesarchivIt was in Paris, on February 4-8, 1933, that representatives from eleven European and American sections gathered for the first formal meeting of the International Left Opposition. The meeting was called a pre-conference because it was a preparation for a full conference which was planned for July 1933 with more delegations from all sections of the International Left Opposition – one that never took place.

The purpose of this pre-conference was organizational with a limited number of resolutions. However, an important programmatic document “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods,” written by Trotsky a couple of months earlier, was discussed and voted at this conference.

Despite facing unimaginable hardship, the ILO was making gainful progress around the world. Its documents and articles were being published in no less than fifteen languages and it had thirty two newspapers in sixteen countries. It had sections in nine countries and had created seven more in the previous three years.

The pre-conference took place one week after Hitler was appointed as the German Chancellor (30 January 1933). At that time, fascism hadn’t fully triumphed because Hitler hadn’t destroyed the proletarian organisations yet. The pre-conference document read:

“The establishment of fascism can be realized only on the day it has smashed the proletariat, through a victorious civil war or through general abandonment of the battle by the proletariat, betrayed by the Social Democracy or given up by the growing opportunism of the present centrist leadership of the Communist International to fascism in struggle.”1

Sadly, the latter scenario was to come true. The German working class was smashed without putting up a fight due to the German Communist Party’s (KPD) false policy of describing the Social Democracy as “social fascism”, which de facto split the German working class and left the door open to the Nazis. Under this theory of social-fascism, the Stalinists argued that Social Democracy was the chief enemy and that it was no different from fascism. According to this idea, the Social Democrats were Social Fascists; in fact, they were more dangerous than the real fascists of Hitler’s kind. All reformist and social-democratic workers had therefore to be attacked. Their meetings had to be broken up, even if it meant working together with the Nazis. Thaelmann, the then leader of the German Communist Party, even coined the slogans: “Drive the social fascists from their jobs in the factories and the trade unions!”, “Chase them away from the factories, labour exchanges and professional schools.”

However, all was not yet lost. The pre-conference issued an appeal2 to the German working class stating that fascism had not triumphed yet, but could only be defeated by a united front of all working class organizations: the German Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the trade union organizations, the factory councils, etc.

The leaders of both the SPD and the KPD ignored the call, but the bulk of the responsibility for the defeat clearly fell on the German Communist Party. The German Social Democratic Party had long been the agent of the bourgeoisie. It was able to maintain a working class base through socialist demagogy, while in practice it placed a brake on the working class movement. They had already betrayed the working class on different occasions, and their surrender to fascism was inevitable and it did not come as a surprise to genuine revolutionaries. However, the German Communist Party had been formed historically to lead the workers out of the blind alley it had been led down by the Social Democracy. If the leadership of the KPD had applied the Leninist policy of the workers’ united front, it could have forced the Social Democracy to commit itself to battle under the pressure of its working class base. It could have torn away the honest social democratic workers from their leaders who they would see vacillate in the face of fascist dangers. Alas, the German Communist Party continued with its social-fascist policy that basically wiped out any differences between fascism and social democracy, and thus Hitler was able to come to power without any opposition from the German Communist Party. This led to the decision by the International Left Opposition that its German section had to break from the KPD and build a revolutionary party in opposition to it. This position was put forward in March 1933 by Trotsky in a series of writings to the International Secretariat of the International Left Opposition. There is no confusion in his prognosis. The first paragraph of his letter to the International Secretariat lays bare the conclusion that had to be drawn from the betrayal of German Stalinism:

“To the International Secretariat. Dear Comrades: German Stalinism is collapsing now, less from the blows of the fascists than from its internal rottenness. Just as a doctor does not leave a patient who still has a breath of life, we had for our task the reform of the party as long as there was the least hope. But it would be criminal to tie oneself to a corpse. The KPD today represents a corpse.”3

After this major setback in German, the Comintern still proved incapable of learning from this mistake. On April 1, 1933, after Hitler effectively established his dictatorship and began suppressing trade unions, and all workers’ partiers and organisations, including the Communist Party, the Executive Committee of the Communist International passed a resolution stating that:

“...the establishment of an open fascist dictatorship… accelerates the rate of Germany’s development towards proletarian revolution by destroying all democratic illusions of the masses and by freeing them from the influence of the Social-Democracy.”

Such was the blindness of the leadership of the Comintern, unable to understand that what was being destroyed was not illusion in bourgeois democracy but the working class itself. This finally convinced Trotsky that the Comintern was no longer salvageable, and that a new International had to be built. He put forward this position in July 1933 (“It is necessary to build communists parties and an International anew”4). This also led to a name change to the organization. The International Left Opposition was now the International Communist League (ICL). The next five years were spent recruiting cadres and training them for the eventual proclamation of the Fourth International.

The Foundation Congress of the Fourth International

On September 3rd, 1938, a historic meeting took place in a small village in France, Perigny. Gathered in the house of Alfred Rosmer were twenty one delegations from eleven countries for the Founding Congress of the Fourth International. The Congress was held in great secrecy. A communiqué was sent out, stating that the gathering was taking place in Lausanne, Switzerland, in an attempt to trick the Stalinist agents. This was because of the real threat from the GPU, which had started a rabid assassination campaign against Trotskyists outside the Soviet Union. In 1938, Erwin Wolf, Trotsky’s secretary was kidnapped and killed in Spain. Ignace Reiss, a high-ranking GPU official, was assassinated not long after he decided to join Trotsky. Lev Sedov, Trotsky’s son and his right hand man, was killed by the GPU in February 1938. After Sedov, the GPU turned their attention to Rudolph Klement, the secretary of the Bureau of the Fourth International who was responsible for organizing the Founding Congress. He was kidnapped on July 12, 1938 and his decapitated body was found in the Seine River days later. The GPU was clearly targeting the next crop of leaders of the Fourth International.

However, all the secrecy in organizing the Congress was in vain. Two GPU agents were in fact present in the Congress itself: Etienne, who was also responsible for the killing of Lev Sedov, and Jacques Monard, who two years later drove an ice pick into Trotsky’s skull. That time Jacques Monard came with Sylvia Agelof, a Trotskyist from New York, as her lover. He pretended not to be interested in the gathering and was pacing outside the congress room waiting for his girlfriend. Fate sometimes likes to play cruel jokes. The two GPU agents who infiltrated the Founding Congress of the Fourth International were to be killers of both father and son!

Out of the twenty one delegates, two from Poland expressed their disagreement with the proclamation of the Fourth International. They argued that the objective situation – the retreat in the workers’ movement, the period of reactions and defeats – was not conducive for the proclamation of a new International. Even though they agreed that the Second and the Third International were already dead, it was too early to form a new one. A vote was taken, with 19 for and 3 against the proclamation. The Polish section, however, displayed a true Bolshevik attitude. They abided by the majority decision and pledged to loyally carry out to the best of their abilities the decisions of the Congress.

From South East Asia, the only country registered as a section of the Fourth International was Indo-China (Vietnam). Ta Thu Thau, the foremost leader of the Trotskyist group in Vietnam, was elected in absentia as a member of Executive Committee as the Indo-China representative. In September 1945, Ta Thu Thau too was assassinated by the Vietnamese Stalinists at the age of 39.

Trotsky himself was elected as a secret member of the Executive Committee, representing the Russian section of the Fourth International. From the minutes of the Congress, there were 5000 members spread across 18 countries. The biggest section was in the United States, with 2500 members, followed by Belgium (800), France (600), Poland (350), England (170), Germany (200), Czechoslovakia (150-200), Greece (100), Chile (100), Cuba (100), South Africa (100), Canada (75), Australia (50), Brazil (50), Holland (50), Spain (10-30), and Mexico (15). There were a number of other countries listed but there was no information on how many members they had.5

For reasons of security, this historical Congress was wrapped up in one day. They didn’t even have the time to sing the Internationale at the end of the Congress.

The Transitional Programme

It is in this Founding Congress that the “Transitional Programme” was discussed and voted, and it became the most important document for the Trotskyist movement. It opened with a bold statement:

“The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”

There was no lack of objective conditions. Capitalism was so much in crisis that it had to resort to fascism as its final saviour. Everywhere the revolutionary situation was ripening, to a point that it began to get somewhat rotten. With this statement the Fourth International was calling on every conscious revolutionary to prepare themselves, to build for a leadership capable of carrying out the struggle to its final conclusion, to build a Bolshevik party capable of accomplishing what Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks had done in the land of October.

In this document, Trotsky formulated a system of transitional demands. The social democrats had destroyed the bridge between the minimum programme (reforms) and the maximum programme (socialism). In fact, they no longer had the will to cross that bridge. They were content with reforms under capitalism – and counter-reforms during capitalist crisis – and to leave socialism to a distant unknown future. Meanwhile, the Stalinists were engaging in all sorts of zigzag moves, from opportunism to ultra-left madness. Transitional demands seek to provide a bridge for workers to their historical task. They start out from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class, leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat. It is an art of utilizing day-to-day demands as a stepping stone toward a higher consciousness, as a means to mobilize the masses and train them in class struggle. Transitional demands are therefore constantly evolving. They are not set in stone. What is a transitional demand one day, in a different moment, could hold the masses back or conversely could be too far ahead of the masses.

Trotskyism in Indonesia

Tan MalakaTan MalakaTan Malaka, who was often branded as a Trotskyist by the Indonesia Stalinists, was never in contact with Trotsky and the Fourth International. However, it must be said that in many fundamental questions Tan Malaka reached the same conclusions as Leon Trotsky. It was this fact that earned him the Trotskyist brand.

In many of his writings, he never decisively took sides between Stalin and Trotsky. The only significant writing where he talked about Trotskyism was the “Thesis”. There he was merely trying to prove that according to the Stalinist definition of Trotskyism his political line had nothing in common at all with Trotskyism.

“In the official book ‘History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks)’, which was approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) in 1938, one of the most important characteristics of ‘Trotskyism’ was written in page 288-289: ‘… there were the downright capitulators, like Trotsky, Radek, Zinoviev, Sokolnikov, Kamenev, Shylapnikov, Bhukarin, Rykov, and others who did not believe that Socialist development of our country was possible, bowed before the ‘omnipotence’ of capitalism and in their endeavour to strengthen the position of capitalism in the Soviet country demanded far-reaching concessions to private capital, both home and foreign, and the surrender of a number of key positions of the Soviet power in the economic field to private capitalists, the latter to act either as concessionaries or as partners of the State in mixed joint stock companies. Both groups were alien to Marxism and Leninism.’

“On page 262 of that book: ‘They (Trotsky and others) proposed that we should throw ourselves on the tender mercies of the foreign capitalists, surrender to them in the form of concessions branches of industry that of vital necessity to the Soviet State. They proposed that we pay the Tsarist government’s debts annulled by the October Revolution. The Party stigmatized these capitulatory proposals as treachery.’

“It was clear that the two important things that differentiate Stalinism and Trotskyism, according to the book that we just obtained, were about the attitude of the Soviet Union and the CPSU in regards to: 1) the Tsarist government’s debt, 2) Foreign capitalism in Russia. Those two things were rejected by Stalin, and were admitted by Trotsky.

“Wasn’t point 6 and point 7 of the minimum programme [of PARI, Tan Malaka’s party] the demand for the expropriation and rejection of foreign capitalism [Dutch assets in Indonesia]?

“About the Dutch Indies’ debt, according to PARI this has to be paid by the Dutch themselves. The Republic of Indonesia has the right and the obligation to reject paying Dutch Indies’ debt …

“… It is clear that PARI is in line with the ‘official line’ of the CPSU under Joseph Stalin. Those who accuse PARI or whoever as ‘Trotskyist’ ought to inspect the truth of those allegations according to the above note.”6 [Emphasis added]

It was clear in this writing that Tan Malaka had never read a single work by Trotsky or the International Left Opposition. In fact, it seems that he was trying to make a point that there was an inconsistency on the Stalinists’ part. Their definition of Trotskyism did not fit their accusation.

Furthermore, true to his Bolshevik attitude, Tan Malaka didn’t take sides at all until he could study both sides, unlike many Stalinist PKI members who blindly adopt an anti-Trotsky attitude without reading anything by Trotsky. The words of D.N. Aidit’s brother, Sobron, illustrated how many PKI members were taught to be against Trotsky without really understanding him:

“He [Asahan, another sibling of D.N. Aidit] just finished a text by Trotsky about the biography of Stalin. This 900-page book, according to him, was very interesting. I myself don’t know and understand why in the past we were taught to be so anti-Trotsky… In fact I really didn’t know and didn’t understand the ideas and ideology of Trotskyism.”7

As an “Old Bolshevik” in Indonesia, Tan Malaka knew very well the leading role that Trotsky played in the October Revolution. Trotsky was the co-leader of the October Revolution with Lenin. During the first period of the Indonesian Communist Party in the early 1920s, the names Lenin and Trotsky were synonymous for the Russian Revolution. At the Congress of the PKI in December 1921, above the stage were the pictures of Lenin and Trotsky, not Lenin and Stalin8. Tan Malaka also lived in the Soviet Union between 1922-23, when the Soviet regime was still fairly healthy and could see with his own eyes how Trotsky was highly revered amongst the workers. Although he never personally met Trotsky, he had seen him speak at demonstrations9. This definitely played a role in Tan Malaka’s neutral stance toward the Stalin-Trotsky struggle. He couldn’t just swallow the allegations that Trotsky – a well respected co-leader of the October Revolution – was a counter revolutionary who conspired with the fascists and the imperialists and was striving to bring capitalism back to Russia; not without reading Trotsky’s writings, something that he never had a chance to.

The only group that formally joined the Fourth International was Ibnu Parna’s Acoma (Angkatan Comunis Muda, Young Communist Force). Acoma was founded in 1946 from a group of communist youth. In the 1955 election, they gained enough votes to have Ibnu Parna elected as a member of parliament. In the early 1950s they began developing contacts with the International Secretariat of the Fourth International and in 1959 they affiliated with the Fourth International. There is very little record of Acoma’s relationship with the Fourth International, or of what their political programme and activities were as a section of the Fourth International. The Fourth International lost contact with the Acoma after the 1965 anti-communist counter-revolution in which Ibnu Parna was killed.

[Note: We refer here to “Fourth International” for simplicity’s sake, but in reality it was no longer the organisation that Trotsky had founded. It had degenerated irrecognisably during the post-war years and had de facto become just another sect. For more on this see: 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]

The Aftermath

For Leon Trotsky, his struggle to save the October Revolution was more important than any of his roles in 1917 and the subsequent Civil War. With Lenin, he was the midwife of the October Revolution, leading the Military Revolutionary Council that was responsible for the storming of the Winter Palace. Taking the leadership of the first Red Army in the history of humankind, he then proceeded to save the young Soviet Union from the onslaught of the White Army and their imperialist masters. He was then tasked again with saving the October Revolution, but now from the enemy within, the bureaucracy. Trotsky wrote in his diary how he personally appraised his roles throughout these periods:

“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 ... But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway ....

“Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my own 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. … the worst vice is to be more than fifty-five years old! I need at least about five more years of uninterrupted work to ensure the succession.”10

He was given his five years before Stalin’s agent managed to catch up with him. However, he was mistaken in thinking that he could ensure Bolshevik succession in five years. The breakout of the Second World War created a far more complex situation that still required his leadership. In his absence – and not to mention the assassination campaign that robbed the Left Opposition of many of its young promising cadres, including Trotsky’s only remaining son Lev Sedov – many cadres of the Fourth International simply weren’t up to the task of building the organization during the war.

After the death of Trotsky, the Fourth International suffered split after split. On the one hand, there was the difficult objective situation after World War Two. The post-war capitalist boom in Europe meant the strengthening of reformism in Western Europe. At the same time, Stalinism was strengthened as well due to its victory over the German Nazis. Stalinism and reformism sold out waves of revolution that were sweeping Europe and many colonial countries. On the other hand, there was the subjective factor. The leaders of the Fourth International, James Cannon, Joseph Hansen, Ernest Mandel, and figure such as Tony Cliff and many others, were unable to understand the new situation. Many sought short cuts, moving from opportunism to ultra-leftism. However, this situation was not peculiar to the Fourth International alone. Many left groupings entered into a prolonged ideological and organizational crisis after the end of the Second World War.

Although the Fourth International, as an organization, did not become what Trotsky had hoped for, through his writings he was – and still is – arming the next generation of fighters. The historical task of Trotskyism was first to keep the flame of Marxism, of Bolshevism, alive amidst the reactionary storm. The next International will arise again to stoke the flame of world socialist revolution, and when it does it will be on a higher level because it will have the experience – the lessons of struggle and defeats – of the four Internationals before it.

Source: Militan (Indonesia)


1. Trotsky, “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods,” Documents 36.

2. “Appeal of the Preconference of the ILO to all Members of the Communist Party of Germany, to all Social Democratic Workers, to the entire proletariat of Germany,” Documents of the Fourth International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973) 44.

3. Leon Trotsky, “KPD or New Party? (I),” March 12, 1933, The Writings of Leon Trotsky [1932-33] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972) 137.

4. Leon Trotsky, “It is necessary to build communist parties and an International anew,” July 15, 1933, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1932-33] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972) 304.

5. “Minutes of the Founding Conference of the Fourth International,” Documents of the Fourth International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973) 289.

6. Tan Malaka, Thesis, 1946, Marxists Internet Archive.

7. Sobron Aidit, Kisah Serba-Serbi (Omong-omong dengan Asahan Alham) 11 September, 2006.

8. Harry A. Poeze, Tan Malaka: Pergulatan Menuju Republik 1897-1925 (Jakarta: Pustaka Utama Grafiti, 1988) 207.

9. Poeze 311.

10. Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, 1935 (London: Faber and Faber, 1958) 53-54.