Trotsky and the struggle for a revolutionary international (1933-1946) – Part Two

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: