Trotsky and the struggle for a Revolutionary international (1933-1946) - Part three

In the third part of our article on the method of Trotsky in his struggle for a Revolutionary international, we will analyze the significance of the Proletarian Military Policy and also the death of Lev Davidovich and its repercussions in the movement. Furthermore, we will make a short and precise balance sheet of the work of the Fourth International during the Second World War and the political mistakes of its leaders which later gave rise to its collapse. [part 1]

Trotsky and the Second World War: The Proletarian Military Policy

In order to understand the line that Trotsky developed in his last writings, it is necessary to have a general idea of the historical situation that the revolutionaries faced at that time. After Hitler's victory in Germany, the eyes of all workers of Europe were fixed on the rising triumph of fascism in one country after the other. The installation of fascist regimes in Austria, Spain, part of Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc were an alarm signal for the world working class. Subsequently the German army also occupied Holland, France and Denmark.

The imperialist powers of Great Britain and the United States were of course not opposed to Hitler for moral reasons, although they later sold the idea of a “war against fascism”. As a matter of fact, the British Prime Minister Churchill had been a great admirer of fascism in its early phase, applauding racism and the “domination of the white man”.

What really concerned the allied powers was not “democracy”, nor “human rights”. During the war they showed their own cynical brutality with the completely unnecessary massacres in Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. No, what really mattered were their own imperialist interests, that is to say the markets, raw materials and zones of influence.

Trotsky did not have any illusions whatsoever in the propaganda of the western countries and defined from the very beginning WW2 as an imperialist war, a continuation of the First World War. However, he understood the completely healthy, instinctive rejection of fascism on part of the workers and their natural desire to fight it. In his opinion it was not sufficient to simply oppose the war. The workers had to develop their own policy in this terrain. In his last article he stressed the following:

“The present war, as we have stated on more than one occasion, is a continuation of the last war. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. As a general rule, a continuation signifies a development, a deepening, a sharpening. Our policy, the policy of the revolutionary proletariat toward the second imperialist war is a continuation of the policy elaborated during the last imperialist war, primarily under Lenin’s leadership. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. In this case too, continuation signifies a development, a deepening and a sharpening.

“During the last war not only the proletariat as a whole but also its vanguard and, in a certain sense, the vanguard of this vanguard was caught unaware. The elaboration of the principles of revolutionary policy toward the war began at a time when the war was already in full blaze and the military machine exercised unlimited rule. One year after the outbreak of the war, the small revolutionary minority was still compelled to accommodate itself to a centrist majority at the Zimmerwald Conference. Prior to the February revolution and even afterwards, the revolutionary elements felt themselves to be not contenders for power but the extreme left opposition.

“Even Lenin relegated the socialist revolution to a more or less distant future.... If that is how Lenin viewed the situation, then there is hardly any need of talking about the others.

“This political position of the extreme left wing expressed itself most graphically on the question of the defence of the fatherland.

“In 1915 Lenin referred in his writings to revolutionary wars which the victorious proletariat would have to wage. But it was a question of an indefinite historical perspective and not of tomorrow’s task. The attention of the revolutionary wing was centred on the question of the defence of the capitalist fatherland. The revolutionists naturally replied to this question in the negative. This was entirely correct. But this purely negative answer served as the basis for propaganda and for training the cadres but it could not win the masses who did not want a foreign conqueror. In Russia prior to the war the Bolsheviks constituted four-fifths of the proletarian vanguard, that is, of the workers participating in political life (newspapers, elections, etc.). Following the February revolution the unlimited rule passed into the hands of defencists, the Mensheviks and the SR’s. True enough, the Bolsheviks in the space of eight months conquered the overwhelming majority of the workers. But the decisive role in this conquest was played not by the refusal to defend the bourgeois fatherland but by the slogan: “All Power to the Soviets!” And only by this revolutionary slogan! The criticism of imperialism, its militarism, the renunciation of the defence of bourgeois democracy and so on could have never conquered the overwhelming majority of the people to the side of the Bolsheviks.”[i]

His instructions to the revolutionaries were very clear:

“The militarization of the masses is further intensified every day. We reject the grotesque pretension of doing away with this militarization through empty pacifist protests. All the great questions will be decided in the next epoch arms in hand. The workers should not fear arms; on the contrary they should learn to use them. Revolutionists no more separate themselves from the people during war than in peace. A Bolshevik strives to become not only the best trade unionist but also the best soldier.

“We do not wish to permit the bourgeoisie to drive untrained or half trained soldiers at the last hour onto the battlefield. We demand that the state immediately provide the workers and the unemployed with the possibility of learning how to handle the rifle, the hand grenade, the machine gun, the cannon, the airplane, the submarine, and the other tools of war. Special military schools are necessary in close connection with the trade unions so that the workers can become skilled specialists of the military art, able to hold posts as commanders.”[ii]

In June 1940, the French bourgeoisie capitulated to Hitler and surrendered Paris without putting up any resistance. Trotsky thought that this event confirmed that the national bourgeoisies of the allied block were not genuinely interested in defending the workers against fascism. For this reason he declared that the revolutionaries ought to agitate amongst the masses for the passing over of the military high command to the hands of the working class, the only class really capable of eradicating fascism:

“The Institute of Public Opinion established that over 70% of the workers are in favour of conscription. It is a fact of tremendous importance! Workers take every question seriously. If the Fatherland should be defended, then the defence cannot be abandoned to the arbitrary will of individuals. It should be a common attitude. This realistic conception shows how right we were in rejecting beforehand purely negative pacifist or semi-pacifist attitudes. We place ourselves on the same ground as the 70% of the workers; against Green and Lewis, and on this premise we begin to develop a campaign in order to oppose the workers to their exploiters in the military field. You, workers, wish to defend and improve democracy. We, of the Fourth International, wish to go further. However, we are ready to defend democracy with you, only on condition that it should be a real defence, and not a betrayal in the Petain manner. ”[iii]

In a discussion on “American problems”[iv], he repeated the same ideas in an even sharper way. In his opinion the revolutionaries ought to say the following:

“We will defend the United States with a workers’ army, with workers’ officers, with a workers’ government, etc. If we are not pacifists, who wait for a better future, and if we are active revolutionists, our job is to penetrate into the whole military machine.


“We must use the example of France to the very end. We must say, “I warn you, workers, that they (the bourgeoisie) will betray you! Look at Petain, who is a friend of Hitler. Shall we have the same thing happen in this country? We must create our own machine, under workers’ control.” We must be careful not to identify ourselves with the chauvinists, nor with the confused sentiments of self-preservation, but we must understand their feelings and adapt ourselves to these feelings critically, and prepare the masses for a better understanding of the situation, otherwise we will remain a sect, of which the pacifist variety is the most miserable. ”

The key point was to reveal the organic incapacity of the bourgeoisie to really put up a defence against Fascism and in that way adjust the revolutionary agitation to the thought and concerns of the masses. On the other hand, the emphasis on the militarization of the revolutionary organization signified that Trotsky advised his followers to search for all means to come closer to the working class and penetrate it in order to provide the revolutionary programme necessary for victory.

In this situation all the attention of the workers was principally on the war, in some armament factories they worked for 14 to 16 hours a day. Trotsky understood that every abstract slogan of opposition to the war would only reinforce the isolation of the forces of Bolshevik-Leninism from the masses. Without ceasing to explain the real character of the imperialist war, Lev Davidovich instructed the national sections to adapt the transitional slogans to the concrete stage in the development of the consciousness of the masses. It is no coincidence that the Old Man explained how Bolshevism essentially was the history of “sharp and sudden turns” in tactics and slogans in each given moment.

The Fourth International during WW2

Trotsky's death at the hands of the GPU agent Ramón Mercader del Río on the 20th of August of 1940 was a tremendous blow to the forces of the Fourth International. We have seen in the previous parts of this article how even the leaders of the American SWP lacked a sound theoretical capacity and the fundamental dialectical method with which Trotsky was able to understand the changing objective situation. To be honest, we would have to admit that the Fourth International was founded on very unstable organisational bases in most countries.

One of the worst examples was probably France, where the members of the official section, the POI (Workers' International Party), had split at the beginning of 1939 over the question of entry into the PSOP, a centrist split from the Socialist Party. The section was in a state of complete chaos when France was overrun by the Nazis in June 1940. Rapidly the main leaders (Jean Rous, Pierre Naville, Joannès Bardin [Boitel]), adapted to bourgeois nationalism and/or left the Trotskyist movement altogether. New forces, most of them very young people, had to rebuild the organization under very difficult conditions.

Of course, we do not want to discard the heroic work that hundreds of Trotsky's co-thinkers conducted in a Europe under the iron heel of fascism. Nor do we intend to forget the many martyrs of the Bolshevik-Leninist movement. It is appropriate to mention just a couple of the most important examples:

In spite of various waves of repression against its main cadres, the Trotskyist organization of France managed to publish 73 editions of its paper, La Verité, which circulated in 15,000 copies per issue. The Gestapo managed to find and assassinate dozens of Trotskyists, including the section's general secretary, Marcel Hic, who was deported to the concentration camp of Buchenwald and subsequently Dora where he was killed.[v]

The French Trotskyists even managed to publish a paper in German, called Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), which was specifically directed towards winning over the German troops to revolutionary positions. Its editor, Paul Widelin, was arrested in 1944 and murdered by the Gestapo.

In Belgium, one of the countries where the International had had a sizeable force, the repression also put its stamp: Well-known leaders such as León Lesoil and Abraham, among dozens of other Trotskyists, were arrested and executed. In spite of all this, they managed to publish a paper in French (Lenin's Voice) and another in Flemish (The Class Struggle) in 10,000 and 7,000 copies respectively.

In Greece, Pantelis Pouliopoulis, was murdered along with a group of seventeen Trotskyist at the hands of the Italian occupying force in June 1943. But before he died, he had the courage to give a revolutionary speech to the Italian soldiers in their own language, an act which provoked mutiny among the soldiers who afterwards refused to kill him. It was the officers who had to do the bloody work and execute them.

One of the most tragic losses for the movement was probably that of Pietro Tresso [Blasco], one of the first members of the Left Opposition of the Italian CP. Although he managed to escape from the prison in Marseilles in France, he was kidnapped by the Stalinists and murdered.

In this short summary, we cannot go into all the details, but it would be incorrect to forget mentioning the heroic work of the Trotskyists in Sri Lanka and Indochina (Vietnam). During the war, the followers of Trotsky in both countries opposed the bloody oppression of British Imperialism, while the Stalinists sacrificed any pretension of anti-imperialist struggle in the name of their “sacred alliance” with the allied powers.

Later on, this line made the CP of India accept the criminal 1947 division of the country on religious lines, which led to the creation of a Muslim state (Pakistan) and the abortion, through violence, of the revolution. In contrast the Trotskyists build a strong party in Vietnam which even won the local elections of Saigon in 1939. Tragically, the main figure in this group, the legendary Ta Thu Thau, was executed by the Stalinists in September 1945, probably on direct orders of Ho Chi Minh.[vi] In Sri Lanka the first nucleus of the LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party), affiliated to the Fourth International, was formed and led huge general strike movements against the colonial powers. It quickly rose to be the second political party on the island.

The Trotskyists and the Proletarian Military Policy

Although these are all signs of great sacrifice and consistent work, we cannot avoid making a critical balance-sheet of the politics of the Bolshevik-Leninists during the war. Let us remember the central conception of Trotsky's Proletarian Military Policy: Connect with the anti-fascist sentiment of the masses and above all prove the organic inability of the bourgeoisie to organize the fight against fascism, showing that only the proletariat could destroy the roots of Hitler's and Mussolini's regimes.

But, with some important exceptions that we shall investigate later (especially the WIL/RCP of Great Britain), it can be said that the great majority of the Trotskyist groups and parties opposed the Military Policy, or at least did not understand it. Several national sections, including the Greek, the official British one (RSL) and the Spanish group led by Grandizo Munis, rejected the new policy because they regarded it as a concession to social-chauvinism. They therefore maintained the position of “revolutionary defeatism” which Lenin had held during WW1, but which the new situation rendered impractical and which condemned them to total isolation. The Belgian section even went to the extreme of censoring some parts of the May 1940 Emergency Conference Manifesto which Trotsky had written.

The other big problem was the incomprehension of the concept of “militarization”. The Proletarian Military Policy was not simply a propagandistic idea but above all a practical orientation of Trotsky to his followers. As he had explained in his History of the Russian Revolution “The majority is not to be counted, it is to be conquered”: The Trotskyists had to conquer the masses, beginning in the armed forces. We find very few examples of systematic work in this respect. Although the French Trotskyists had a few phrases in their document on the importance of the Partisan movement, there was no organic participation in it.

The French historian Pierre Broué made some valuable reflections on this question. In a critical article, published in his León Trotsky, he said the following:

“All the evidence shows that Trotsky’s appeal for the line of armed struggle and his proposal that revolutionary Socialists should become ‘militarists’ in order to play their rôle in a militarised world, are missing in this conception, or rather reduced to a secondary, ‘partisan’ level, entirely subordinated to ‘the struggle in the factories’. The discovery that ‘the armed struggle’ exerted an attractive force upon the masses must have presented many problems in the absence of the dimension which Trotsky contributed on ‘militarization’.


“In the same order of ideas, the hesitancy with which Trotskyists looked at armed resistance suggests that it would be interesting to study how the revolution was conceived within the Fourth International during the war. It seems sometimes to have been conceived as something apocalyptic, which would occur independently of what was going on, and not as a result of being worked for. Had their almost exclusively ‘propagandist’ education, involving the use of the weapons of denunciation and ‘explanation’ – which clearly were the essential activities of an organisation the leaders of which felt themselves to be “swimming against the stream” – prepared the cadres for such a belief? ”[vii]

A qualitatively different example: The WIL and the RCP

There were of course exceptions to this. Some groups and individuals tried to apply the Proletarian Military Policy to the day-to-day political work. The American SWP, pressurized by Trotsky until his death, had formally approved the policy and carried it out partially, defending it publicly and also in the court rooms when they were prosecuted by the state for “subversive activity” in the Minneapolis Trials of 1941[viii]. As a result, the SWP did experience a notable growth throughout that period, although it should be said that Cannon and the other American leaders put all the emphasis in the purely propaganda aspect of the work and not in the political work in the armed forces.

A group which did in fact carry out the Proletarian Militant Policy in an energetic fashion was the Workers International League of Great Britain – from 1944 known as the Revolutionary Communist Party. The first nucleus of this group was formed in 1937 with immigrants from South Africa such as Ralph Lee and Ted Grant.

The state of the different Trotskyist groups was particularly discomforting in Britain, where the majority had refused the advice of Trotsky to enter the Independent Labour Party in 1934 and afterwards his proposal to turn towards the Labour Party. The composition of the existing groups was very bad, most of the members came from petit-bourgeois circles and the internal environment was very closed. The militants spent more time on internal quarrels than on the real political work.

After an attempt at reforming the existing grouplets, Ralph Lee, Ted Grant, Jock Haston and a few others decided to leave them and form a new group on a healthy basis, orientated one hundred per cent towards the working class. They founded the WIL with only seven comrades in 1938.

In September of that year they rejected an attempt on the part of Cannon and other SWP representatives to make a unification of all groups on an unprincipled basis. The WIL comrades explained that they were in favour of unity but only on a firm political basis. They stressed the importance of Labour Party and youth work and also on the Proletarian Military Policy. When it was evident that the other groups were not in agreement, the WIL discarded the fusion and foresaw that the unity of three groups on a politically heterogeneous platform would lead to five or six divisions and splits in the near future.

That was exactly what happened. While the “unified” RSL distinguished itself with its constant fragmentations and passivity during almost all of the war, the WIL – which had only seven members in early 1938 – grew rapidly, transforming itself into an important political force with around five hundred members at the end of the war. If we analyze this carefully, we will notice that it was the successful application of Trotsky's policy which made the difference.

By accepting the Proletarian Military Policy, the WIL also adapted it to the concrete situation in Britain, formulating a programme which included demanding a Labour Party government to fight against fascism, the formation of a unified workers' army of trained battalions of the trade unions and with the election of the officers. Cutting across the monstrous lies of the British bourgeoisie, the WIL also agitated for the complete liberation of the Colonies, thus enabling a real fight against fascism on a world scale.

Rejecting every pretension of pacifism, the WIL ordered all its members to enter the armed forces if they were called up. Inside the army, they were instructed to carry out real revolutionary work together with their class brothers and sisters, gaining the respect as the best soldiers in the army. WIL members who were at the North African front of the British Army made use of the legal forums, the assemblies known as the “Army Bureau of Current Affairs – ABCA”, in order to patiently explain the real significance of the war. In several instances, they won the majority of the ABCAs, as in Benghazi in Libya and in Cairo in Egypt.

Even in the British air force, the RAF, the WIL managed to do important political work, through the pilot Frank Ward who gave classes to other pilots in the programme of the Fourth International. The mood among various sectors of the army was explosive, especially in the Eighth Army in the North African desert. Many soldiers confessed that they wanted to take the arms back to Britain, once the war was over, in order to ensure that things would change!

As the initial wave of war euphoria began to dissipate among the working masses, several struggles took place in industry, where the workers were working up to fourteen hours daily to produce the war supplies. At the same time, the Communist Party made a 180-degree summersault, from a position of opposition to the war, to blind support for the Churchill government. The reason was, evidently, Hitler's attack on Russia in 1941 which obliged Stalin to change policy in order to approach his “democratic allies”. This was why the British CP began to play a directly strike-breaking role after 1941, denouncing every labour conflict as a “sabotage against the anti-fascist war”.

This situation gave the WIL huge opportunities for intervening among the working masses and participating in the strikes that took place during the war. The year 1942 saw a big upturn in the number of strikes and WIL members intervened successfully in some of the most important ones, such as the apprentice strikes at Tyneside, Rolls Royce Aircraft Works, and Glasgow, in August of 1941 and again in July 1943, in the Barnbow Royal Ordnance Factory in June 1943, and in the transport strike in Yorkshire in May of 1943.

We have stressed the example of the WIL here because it shows that the Trotskyists were not automatically condemned to isolation because of the objective situation. On the contrary, we have seen how a small group armed with a correct programme, orientation and tactics can conduct very important work, while a larger organization which does not know how to adapt itself to a new situation is doomed to impotence.

If the Fourth International, as a world organization, had followed the policy of Trotsky with the same ability as the WIL, its subsequent development would probably have been very different. In the next part of this article, we shall see what possibilities and challenges the end of the Second World War put in front of the revolutionaries....

Part 4 ⇒


[i] LDT: Bonapartism, Fascism and War. Published in October 1940.

[ii] LDT: Manifesto of the Fourth International on Imperialist War.

[iii] LDT: How to really defend democracy. 1940. My emphasis, PL

[iv] LDT: Some Questions on American Problems. August 1940

[v] See Rodolf Prager, “The Fourth International during the Second World War” in Revolutionary History: Vol.1 No.3, Autumn 1988. War and Revolution in Europe: 1939-1945

[vi] See Revolutionary History: Vol.3 No.2, Autumn 1990: Vietnam. Workers’ Revolution and National Independence

[vii] Pierre Broué: How Trotsky and the Trotskyists faced WWII.

[viii] Cannon's speech in the Minneapolis Trials was later published under the title “Socialism on Trial”.