Trotsky and the struggle for a Revolutionary International (1933-1946) – Part One

The figure of Leon Trotsky has created a new wave of interest among historians and writers of all types. Recently two new books about the Russian revolutionary have appeared; the first being the work of U.S. Professor Robert Service and the second of Bertrand M. Patenaude, a historian at California University. Both of them belong to that class of commercial literature typical of the bourgeoisie, full of factual errors, which tries to present Trotsky as an authoritarian politician who only lost to Stalin because he lacked tactical skills.


Leon TrotskyAnother work, much more sympathetic in its style and its content, is the new novel by Leonardo Padura, “The man who loved dogs”. It tells the stories of Trotsky and his assassin, Ramón Mercader, both stories projected on the life of Iván, a Cuban who represents the post-revolutionary generation on the island.

We have dealt with this important contribution elsewhere. But although it has great value in reclaiming the general legacy of Trotsky, it does indeed contain some mistakes in the appreciation that the author has of aspects of Trotsky's political activity.

The main reason is that the majority of facts about his life which are presented in the book have been taken by Padura from Isaac Deutscher's trilogy – The Prophet Unarmed, The Prophet Armed and The Prophet Outcast. This biography, although it contains some interesting facts, has the major disadvantage of having been written by a person who lacked a firm comprehension of the method of Trotsky. He therefore fell into a whole number of misinterpretations of key elements of his life, especially concerning the last phase of it.

What all these books have in common is the absence of a serious analysis of Trotsky's attempt to found a new revolutionary international, the Fourth International. All of them regard it with a certain suspicion, emphasizing its reduced numbers, its isolation from the working masses and the splits which took place in the movement.

While most of Trotsky's biographers were full of praise for his great literary works such as My life or the History of the Russian Revolution they never understood why the creator of the Red Army spent countless hours of his last years writing letters, critiques, manifestos and programmes which only reached a handful of people and in many cases dealt with practical questions in the day-to-day work.

In our opinion this great flaw was mainly due to the fact that all of these writers were intellectuals on the margins of the workers' movement. They did not have the knowledge or the experience of a participant and consequently their books were not written with the methodology of a revolutionary militant.

However, when one reads the hundreds of letters that Trotsky wrote to create and train a new Marxist leadership, and when one studies the activity of his followers during the Second World War, it is impossible not to be impressed, faced with the magnitude of the lessons that this epoch contains for the future.

The objective of this article is, on the one hand, to serve as an introduction to the reading of Trotsky's last writings, and on the other hand also to extract the principal lessons of the attempt to create a Fourth International. For reasons of space, we cannot go into a detailed analysis of the subsequent history of Trotskyism and we will therefore limit ourselves to give an overview of the main reasons for the decline of the Fourth International after the end of WW2. For a more complete history, we recommend the work of Ted Grant: History of British Trotskyism, The origins of the collapse of the Fourth International by Fred Weston and The theoretical origins of the degeneration of the Fourth - Interview with Ted Grant.

In the work of researching the material for this article, it has been necessary to reclaim the real Trotsky, buried under a mountain of distortions and manipulations. By saying this we are not only referring to the monstrous lies of Stalinism nor only to the caricature presented by the bourgeois historians. We also refer to the “theoreticians” of the small self-styled Trotskyist sects, who have hijacked the name of the great revolutionary.

Always fond of internal rows and personal antagonisms, these gentlemen always had a modus operandi, a style and a life completely separated from the real mass movement. Their hysterical denunciations and their schematic views never allowed them to enter into contact with the living workers' movement and consequently they gave a very bad name to Trotskyism; something which has alienated many workers and made them refuse to collaborate with the 4th International and its subsequent fractions.

Trotsky himself, who had a profound knowledge of the psychology of the masses, did everything to throw out sectarianism and educate the cadres in the Bolshevik method of winning the majority. In this article we will show how he made several attempts to push his followers towards the mass organizations, not only to influence them, but also to constantly renovate his own movement, give it new life blood and break with the vicious circle of the small-group environment.

“The most important work of my life”

It was in the year of 1933 that Trotsky came to the conclusion that a new revolutionary international was necessary. Before this, he had maintained the position of building an opposition within the official Communist Parties in order to fight for a genuine Marxist programme. But it was a huge political event which made Trotsky change his mind: the catastrophe in Germany, where the crazy “theory” of the Third Period and the consequent refusal to form a united front with the Social Democrats, whom they called “social-fascists”, which opened the gates for Hitler to come to power.

From that moment on, Trotsky came to the conclusion that the Party and the International not only had been incapable of taking a correct stance in the decisive moments. They had also been organically incapable of learning from their mistakes and they had proclaimed the big defeat of the German working class as if it was a victory (“After Hitler, our turn!”). He therefore thought that such an organization was doomed and could not be reconquered as an instrument for the proletarian revolution.

Contrary to his biographers, Lev Davidovich considered that the task of forging this new International was the “greatest work of his life”. In 1935, in one of his lesser-known works, Diary in Exile, he wrote the following:

"And still I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life—more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.

“For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place—on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring—of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with ‘Trotskyism’ (i.e., with the proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May, 1917, and the outcome of the revolution would have been in question. But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway. The same could by and large be said of the Civil War, although in its first period, especially at the time of the fall of Simbirsk and Kazan, Lenin wavered and was beset by doubts. But this was undoubtedly a passing mood which he probably never even admitted to anyone but me.”

“Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word. There is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve. The vicissitudes of my personal fate have confronted me with this problem and armed me with important experience in dealing with it. There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International. And I am in a complete agreement with Lenin (or rather Turgenev) that the worst vice is to be more than 55 years old! I need at least about five more years of uninterrupted work to ensure the succession."[i]

The first steps: The bloc of the four

According to Trotsky, the new international would of course not fall from the sky from one day to another, but would be the result of a process of formation. It would include different sectors of the workers' movement who had arrived at the same conclusion or were drawing close to it. The degeneration of the Third (Communist) International and the bankruptcy of the Second International, in the context of the rise of fascism and the worst crisis in the history of capitalism created a vacuum on the political scene.

It was in such a situation that Trotsky received with great enthusiasm the news of the formation and the rapid turn to the left of the ILP, the Independent Labour Party of Great Britain. The leaders of the ILP were even for a short time flirting with the idea of setting up a new revolutionary international, although they subsequently abandoned that position. Other organizations, especially left-wing splits from the Socialist parties in Europe, were coming closer to the very same conclusion.

The followers of Trotsky, the Bolshevik-Leninists, participated in that debate and in the conference which was held by fourteen labour organizations and parties in Paris in August of 1933. This meeting had certain similarities with the conference of Zimmerwald in 1915, which, in spite of the enormous theoretical confusion, organized those who opposed the First World War. Just as in Zimmerwald, in the Paris conference a left and a rightwing appeared. The adherents of the left were four organizations who came out signing a declaration for a new International. These included, apart from the International Left Opposition, the SAP of Germany and two Dutch organizations, the RSP and the OSP.

This initiative, in spite of the programmatical limitations and the subsequent disagreements, showed how Trotsky was absolutely willing to collaborate with other groups, even with people who came from other traditions within the workers' movement. He was never afraid of an open and honest discussion with groups or individuals who were moving in the direction of Bolshevism. However, at the same time he insisted on transparency and honesty on the part of his allies and reserved the right to always put forward his own position:

“Revolutionary irreconcilability consists not in demanding our “leadership” be recognized a priori, not in presenting our allies at every occasion with ultimatums and threatening with a break, with the removal of signatures, etc. We leave such methods on one hand, to the Stalinist bureaucrats, on the other to some impatient allies. We realize full well that disagreements between us and our allies will arise more than once. But we hope, more than that, we are convinced, that the march of events will reveal in deeds the impossibility of participating simultaneously in the principled bloc of four and in the unprincipled bloc of the majority. Without resorting to any unbecoming “ultimatums”, we claim however our full right not only to raise our banners but also to state openly to our allies our opinions regarding what we consider to be their mistakes. We expect from them the same frankness. Our alliance will thus be strengthened."

The French Turn

Trotsky was completely conscious of the weakness of his forces, not only from a numerical point of view, but also from the point of view of the lack of political experience of his followers. In one of the discussions he had with a visitor in his house in April of 1939 he explained it in these terms:

“We have comrades who came to us, as Naville and others, 15 or 16 or more years ago when they were young boys. Now they are mature people and their whole conscious life they have had only blows, defeats and terrible defeats on an international scale and they are more or less acquainted with this situation. They appreciate very highly the correctness of their conceptions and they can analyze, but they never had the capacity to penetrate, to work with the masses and they have not acquired it.”[ii]

This was one of the main reasons why he began to recommend a sharp turn towards the Socialist parties, and especially their youth organizations, beginning in France. In his opinion, the Trotskyists should enter these organizations to win the best proletarian elements. This tactic, which was later referred to as “entryism”, was not only about getting a numerical growth in terms of militants, but also about giving new life to the internal regimes of the Trotskyist groups.

This was a vital point for the educating of Marxist cadres in the harsh school of the class struggle. From the Old Man's point of view, it was not sufficient merely to comment on the life of a party from the perspective of an external observer. On the contrary, it was crucial to converge with the masses in revolutionary action, fighting shoulder to shoulder with the left against the right:

“It is not enough for a revolutionist to have correct ideas. Let us not forget that correct ideas have already been set down in Capital and The Communist Manifesto. But that has not prevented false ideas from being broadcast. It is the task of the revolutionary party to weld together the ideas with the mass labour movement. Only in this manner can an idea become a driving force.

“A revolutionary organization does not mean a paper and its readers. One can write and read revolutionary articles day in and day out and still remain in reality outside of the revolutionary movement. One can give the labour organizations good advice from the sidelines. That is something. But that still does not make a revolutionary organization.(...)

“In relation to the Socialist Party, the League has shown not only insufficient initiative but also a hidebound sectarianism. Instead of taking for its task the creation of a faction inside the SFIO just as soon as the crisis in the latter became obvious, the League demanded that every Socialist become convinced of the correctness of our ideas and leave his mass organization to join the group of La Verite readers. In order to create an internal faction, it was necessary to pursue the mass movement, to adapt oneself to the environment, to carry on a menial daily work. Precisely in this very decisive field the League has not been able to make any progress up to the present – with very few exceptions. A great deal of valuable time was allowed to be lost. (...)

“The criticism, the ideas, the slogans of the League are in general correct, but in this present period particularly inadequate. The revolutionary ideas must be transformed into life itself every day through the experiences of the masses themselves. But how can the League explain this to them when it is itself cut off from the experience of the masses? It is necessary to add: several comrades do not even see the need of this experience. It seems to them to be sufficient to form an opinion on the basis of newspaper accounts they read and then give it expression in an article or in a talk. Yet if the most correct ideas do not reflect directly the ideas and actions of the mass, they will escape the attention of the masses altogether” (Trotsky, The League Faced with a Turn, June 1934[iii])

 Afterwards, Trotsky made the same recommendations for his followers in England concerning the ILP and in the United States concerning the Socialist Party. In many cases his followers received the advice with a lot of conservatism and opposed entering the organizations in question, or in some cases only a handful entered and did so too late to influence the left-wing tendencies that were developing in the rank and file of the Socialist parties.

Trotsky and the Spanish Revolution

The country where this refusal on the part of Trotsky's comrades to accept his advice generated most controversy was Spain. The study of Trotsky's position in regard to the Spanish Revolution could merit a whole article or a book apart[iv], but in this occasion we will limit ourselves to the most important lessons.

Since the proclamation of the Second Republic in April of 1931, Spain had lived through a revolution of enormous dimensions in all spheres of social and political life. The subsequent incapacity of the republican-socialist government to keep its promises, especially the agrarian reform which would have benefitted the poor and exploited peasants, led to the electoral defeat of the left in the elections of November 1933. What followed afterwards is known as the “bienio negro” (the two black years).

The heroic resistance on the part of the workers, when faced with the entry of the ultra-right-wing CEDA party in 1934, represented the beginning of the armed insurrection and the proletarian commune in Asturias. This experiment was only cut across by the ferocious repression on the part of the army, led by general Franco. This was the very same officer who led a new coup d'etat in July of 1936 with the aim of destroying the revolution once and for all. But the brave workers of Catalonia and in other parts of Spain rose up and prevented a Fascist victory. In effect they made themselves the masters of Barcelona and other parts of Spain. Thus the Spanish civil war commenced in July 1936 and lasted for three years, up until Franco's final victory in April of 1939.

This was the context in which Trotsky tried to build a revolutionary party which could play the same role as the Bolshevik Party had played in Russia in 1917. A victory for the revolution in Spain would have acted as a real earthquake, which in turn would have changed the whole balance of forces internationally. That is why the amount of attention which Trotsky paid in dealing with the Spanish revolution, (something that the majority of his biographers ignore), is completely justified.

From 1930 onwards, one of his old friends, his former secretary, Andreu Nin, had been living in Spain. Nin was a relatively experienced cadre who had been many years in the Soviet Union, working as the President of the Profintern, the Federation of red trade-unions. From his arrival in Spain, he began to correspond with Trotsky about the problems of the revolution and the tasks of the Spanish communists. Nin began to develop more and more differences with the Old Man. While the former wanted a fusion with the right-wing-Communist group of Joaquín Maurin on an eclectic programme, Trotsky insisted on maintaining ideological clarity and discipline.

In the course of the year 1934, the same phenomenon of radicalization of the Socialist Youth which had been seen in France was repeated in Spain. The Spanish Socialist Youth even reached a point where they invited the Trotskyists to enter the Socialist Party in order to “bolshevize” it[v]. The main leader of the Socialist Party left, Largo Caballero, who organized his followers around the paper Claridad, spoke in favour of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and quoted the writings of Lenin on more than one occasion. But instead of grasping this historic opportunity, Nin and his friends opposed Trotsky's call to enter the PSOE and the FJS (Socialist Youth Federation). The Stalinists were more intelligent and they managed to make a fusion between their own miniscule youth organization and the Socialist Youth, thus conquering a solid base in the working class youth.

The fusion of Nin's group (Izquierda Comunista) with Maurin's Catalan group (The BOC), led to the formation of the POUM (The Workers' Party for Marxist Unification). Although it was very much accused of being Trotskyist by the Stalinists and although its members showed a lot of courage during the civil war (including Nin himself who was brutally tortured and murdered by the Stalinists), the POUM was never a Trotskyist party. Instead of carrying out the revolution from below, building the power of the workers' and peasant committees, it vacillated between reformism and revolution.

It recognized the legitimacy of the Catalan bourgeois government, the Generalitat, and even entered it with Nin as Minister of Justice. They accepted the dissolution of the militias and the disarmament, something which the government was promoting with the excuse of creating a single professional army. The leaders of the POUM also decided to call upon its militants to abandon the barricades during the famous May Days in Barcelona in 1937, when the Stalinists attempted to destroy workers’ control in the Telephone Exchange.

All these actions were severely condemned by Trotsky who in the last instance explained the defeat of the Spanish Revolution by the lack of a genuine revolutionary party. In his brilliant, unfinished article Class, Party and Leadership, he pointed out that the destruction of the Spanish Revolution was in no way due to a “low level of consciousness” on the part of the working class, but rather due to the betrayal of the leaders:

“The workers’ line of march at all times cut a certain angle to the line of the leadership. And at the most critical moments this angle became 180 degrees. The leadership then helped directly or indirectly to subdue the workers by armed force. In May 1937 the workers of Catalonia rose not only without their own leadership but against it(...)

“The proletariat may “tolerate” for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class. The mightiest historical shocks are wars and revolutions. Precisely for this reason the working class is often caught unawares by war and revolution. But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilizing the collapse of the old leading party.(...)

“Victory is not at all the ripe fruit of the proletariat’s “maturity.” Victory is a strategical task. It is necessary to utilize the favourable conditions of a revolutionary crisis in order to mobilize the masses; taking as a starting point the given level of their ‘maturity’ it is necessary to propel them forward, teach them to understand that the enemy is by no means omnipotent, that it is torn asunder with contradictions, that behind the imposing facade panic prevails. Had the Bolshevik party failed to carry out this work, there couldn’t even be talk of the victory of the proletarian revolution. The Soviets would have been crushed by the counter-revolution and the little sages of all countries would have written articles and books on the keynote that only uprooted visionaries could dream in Russia of the dictatorship of the proletariat, so small numerically and so immature. [vi]

Incredibly, these very same arguments about a so-called “immaturity” and “low level of consciousness of the masses” are used by reformists in relation to the Venezuelan revolution today. Their aim is to hide their own incapability of completing the revolution by expropriating the capitalists, the bankers and the landlords.

Just as in Spain, in Venezuela the central problem is the lack of a real Marxist leadership which can guide the revolution. And as in Spain, the activity of the Venezuelan masses was also 180 degrees in contradiction with the activities of the reformist ministers during the 11, 12th and 13th of April 2002. While the latter were in hiding or fleeing from the coup d'etát, the masses courageously opposed the coup, taking the control of the streets and fraternizing with the revolutionary elements in the army.

But precisely as with the Spanish revolution, in Venezuela the revolution is running the risk of a defeat, because there is no mass Marxist leadership to drive all the energy of the masses towards the taking of power.

The debates with the leaders of the American SWP:The method of transitional demands

The largest party of Trotsky's movement was without doubt the American Socialist Workers' Party. Its leaders had followed his advice and in a short space of time they had managed to make a successful fusion with the centrist party of A.J. Muste (The American Workers' Party), in reality with the purpose of winning the followers of the AWP over to Trotskyism, without allowing any political concessions. Afterwards they had entered the Socialist Party and effectively won over its youth organization, the Young Peoples' Socialist League. They had also managed to conquer important positions, as the one in Minneapolis, where they led the famous Teamsters Strike in 1934. The SWP had a membership of around 2,000 towards the end of the 30s.

However, Trotsky was completely aware of the theoretical shortcomings of the SWP leaders. He tried to prepare them for the great events that lay ahead by providing them with an insight to the dialectical method of analysis and a militant attitude towards the intervention in the mass movement. During 1938 and 1939 he held various discussions, with Cannon, Shactmann, Vincent Dunne, Joseph Hansen and other leaders of the American party.

The debates lasted for whole days at a time and had a widespread character, not just dealing with the particular problems of the practical work in the United States, but also about general problems of revolutionary tactics and strategy. The notes taken from the discussions were subsequently published and they constitute a real goldmine of lessons for revolutionary work.

The main point which ran through all the discussions was the method with which one could connect with the most active layers of the masses and consequently, the transitional demands to win them over. At that time, there was an increasing mood in favour of united proletarian action, but the class lacked a party on a national level.

Reflecting this mood, the LNPL (Labour's Non-Partisan League) was launched as a political instrument of the workers. However, the LNPL was launched by trade union leaders who merely wanted it to restrict it as being an office under their bureaucratic control which would recommend the vote for the bourgeois candidate Roosevelt. The SWP leaders were doubtful as to whether they should participate in the LNPL but Trotsky insisted on the struggle for “a policy which enables the trade unions to put their weight on the balance”.

He explained that it was necessary to counter-pose revolutionary demands to those of the reformists within the LNPL, in a concrete and audacious manner which could be understood by the workers:

“We are for a party, for an independent party of the toiling masses who will take power in the state. We must concretize it—we are for the creation of factory committees, for workers’ control of industry through the factory committees. All these questions are now pending in the air. They speak of technocracy, and put forward the slogan of ‘production for use.’ We oppose this charlatan formula and advance the workers’ control of production through the factory committees. (...)

“We say, the factory committees should see the books. This program we must develop parallel with the idea of a labour party in the unions, and workers’ militia. Otherwise it is an abstraction and an abstraction is a weapon in the hands of the opposing class. (...)

“Naturally we must make our first step in such a way as to accumulate experience for practical work, not to engage in abstract formulas, but develop a concrete program of action and demands in the sense that this transitional program issues from the conditions of capitalist society today, but immediately leads over the limits of capitalism (...)

“Then we also have the possibility of spreading the slogans of our transitional program and see the reaction of the masses. We will see what slogans should be selected, what slogans abandoned, but if we give up our slogans before the experience, before seeing the reaction of the masses, then we can never advance. .”[vii]

Faced with the scepticism, especially on the part of Shactmann, Trotsky pointed out that the slogan for a workers' militia was a necessity inherent in the concrete situation of the United States, even though this country was very far away and the threat of fascism seemed quite distant. He underlined that on the one hand the events of Europe would have a huge impact on the consciousness of the North American workers and on the other hand that the workers' militia could be proposed in a concrete way to protect shop stewards and picket lines from scabs and the bosses’ armed gangs.

Another controversial point was about the Ludlow amendment, by a bourgeois member of congress proposing a referendum on the participation of the United States in the Second World War. The schematic and abstract way of thinking of the SWP leaders had led the party to reject every attempt of using this slogan in favour of the referendum.

Trotsky opposed himself directly to Cannon and his colleagues and gave them an important lesson on how to tackle the question of democratic demands and connect them with the struggle for socialism. In the first place he explained that, until you can overthrow the bourgeois democracy, you have to take advantage of the means that it gives to you (regardless of how limited these are), in order to mobilize the masses in favour of your programme.

Of course he did not for one instance believe that a referendum could stop the outbreak of the war, nor decide whether the United States would take part in it or not. But Trotsky maintained that “We cannot dissipate the illusions [of the masses] a priori, only in the course of the struggle”. He added that it was crucial to say openly to the masses that the revolutionaries would fight side by side with their class brothers and sisters in favour of this referendum proposed by Ludlow, showing in practice that he wasn't really interested in realizing it, and that the working class could only trust its own forces in order to achieve such a referendum.

The words of Trotsky about the Ludlow amendment could perfectly have been written yesterday about the democratic demands in Tunisia and Egypt, where millions are struggling against the remnants of the dictatorships of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. It is a good answer to all those sectarian elements who reject the necessity of giving support to democratic demands, among them for a Constituent Assembly.

In all these discussions we can observe the dialectical method of Trotsky in contrast with the mechanical ideas of sectarianism.

Part 2 ⇒

[i] Trotsky, Diary In Exile, pp. 53-4

[ii] Writings of Leon Trotsky, : Fighting against the stream. 1939.

[iii] Writings of Leon Trotsky: The league faced with a turn, June 1934

[iv] Among the writings that analyze Trotsky's position on the Spanish Revolution, I would like to highlight the introduction written by Pierre Broué to the Spanish edition of his works on Spain and also the article by Juan Manuel Municio, “Trotsky, La izquierda comunista y el POUM” published in Marxismo Hoy No. 2, 1995.

[v] For a more detailed historical analysis of the development of the Spanish Socialist Youth, I recommend the following work: Pierre Broué: The Spanish Socialist Youth (When Carillo was a leftist), published in Revolutionary History, 2007.

[vi] Writings of Leon Trotsky: The class, the party and the leadership. 1940.

[vii] Writings of Leon Trotsky: On the Labor Party Question in the United States, 1938.