Michel Pablo

Twenty Years of the Fourth International

(A History of Its Ideas and Its Struggles)


From Fourth International (Paris), No. 2, Spring 1958, pp. 22–30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

From the Founding Conference (September 1938)
to the Outbreak of the Second World War (September 1939)

The Fourth International was founded in 1938, about five years after the coming to power of fascism in Germany and the historic bankruptcy of the Third International and the Communist Parties in this decisive test.

The year 1938 was indeed not propitious to rapid revolutionary developments that might swell the ranks of the new International. It was on the contrary one of the most sombre pre-war years, a culminating point in the period of defeats for the international proletariat, of fascist reaction, of Stalinist crimes and terror. The experiment of the Popular Front in France was ending up with the coming to power in April 1938 of the reactionary government of Daladier, which was beginning to liquidate one by one the gains of 1936, signing the Munich Pact, and hurling the confused and demoralized country on to the path to imperialist war.

In Spain, after Franco’s capture of Teruel, there was rapidly looming up the defeat of the Spanish Revolution, betrayed by its “Popular Front” leadership.

In the USSR, Stalin’s Thermidorian reaction was at high tide with the third big Moscow Trial, the “Trial of the 21,” which condemned to death and executed Bukharin and 18 of his companions, all Old Bolsheviks, leaders of the October Revolution and of the Third International.

The shadow of the imperialist war was spreading darkly, dominating the international scene.

In Europe Hitler’s coups d’état followed one on another, bringing closer the fateful date of the new world massacre: the occupation of Austria; a similar fate in preparation for Czechoslovakia.

In the Far East, Japan was settling into the difficult war against China and sounding out by cannon-shots the USSR’s ability to resist on its eastern frontier.

The arms race in all capitalist countries was at its height. That was, furthermore, a means of combating the persistent and still not yet overcome economic crisis that had fallen upon the capitalist world from 1929 on.

War itself was more and more silhouetted on the horizon as the only outcome to this situation.

Stalin, conscious of this danger and fearing to be lost in case of a conflict with an imperialist coalition, had staked everything on the “Democratic Front for Peace” in collaboration with the “democratic” imperialists of the United States, France, and England. This class-collaboration policy, combined with the sanguinary terror of the GPU toward revolutionary tendencies in the USSR and in the international workers’ movement as a whole, had ended by bringing that movement’s decomposition and demoralization to its peak.

From then on, therefore, the road was wide open to the outbreak of the imperialist massacre.

Only the handful of Trotskyists who had survived Stalinist terror in the USSR and in the capitalist and dependent countries were fighting unflinchingly on a programme of revolutionary Marxism, denouncing the war preparations of imperialism – both “fascist” and “democratic” – and calling for a class front to fight effectively against fascism and the danger of war.

In order to guarantee the masses peace, Leon Trotsky wrote just after Munich in September 1938, we must overthrow imperialism under all its masks. Only the proletarian revolution can accomplish this task. To prepare this goal, the proletariat and the oppressed peoples must be set in irreconcilable opposition to the imperialist bourgeoisie and rallied in a single international revolutionary army. This great liberating task is now being carried out exclusively by the Fourth International.

For this reason, the international tendency of the Trotskyists, known at that time (and more especially after 1936) under the name of “Movement for the Fourth International,” became the target for the repression and the hatred of “fascist” and “democratic” imperialism, of the social-patriots, and of the Kremlin lackeys.

In Germany, many Trotskyists lay in Nazi jails and concentration camps; in Greece, the prisons and the places of exile of Metaxas, ally of the “democratic” imperialists, held the same fate for Trotskyists.

But the blows of imperialism counted for little compared to those rained on the revolutionary Marxists by the enraged Thermidorians of the first workers’ state.

Proletarians will learn one day, which we think will be soon now, the incredible epic of the Bolshevik-Leninists in the USSR, fighting fearlessly against their Stalinist exterminators, in the prisons, the concentration camps, and the Arctic isolators.

The year 1938 witnessed the death in Paris, after an abrupt and brief illness, in most suspicious circumstances, of Leon Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov. A few months later, in July 1938, there disappeared, kidnapped by the GPU, the international secretary Rudolf Klement (Camille), a student of German origin.

In Mexico itself, the Stalinists’ preparations for the assassination of Trotsky were multiplied: their agents, with Lombardo Toledano at their head, were trying to create in advance an ambiance favorable to this crime.

In Spain, Trotskyists and POUMists were also being persecuted and imprisoned by the Stalinist police of the “Popular Front” government.

The Founding Conference

It was in this ambiance of imperialist and Stalinist terror, and of the approach of the war, that the Founding Conference of the Fourth International was held on September 3rd 1938. It lasted in fact only one day, somewhere in the inner Paris suburbs [1], with 30 delegates present, representing the ten following countries, plus a Latin-American representative: USA, USSR, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Belgium, Holland, Greece. Several other sections were prevented by circumstances from sending their representatives.

Despite the difficult conditions of this meeting and the still fresh memory of the kidnapping of Rudolf Klement, the conference was inspired by the great afflatus of its historic significance and the importance of its labors. Confronting the rumblings of the war approaching with giant strides, recording the incredible bankruptcy of the traditional Social-Democratic and Stalinist leaderships in Germany, in Austria, in France, and in Spain, the international tendency of revolutionary Marxists affirmed its unshakable confidence in the future of the proletarian revolution and of world socialism.

The threatened storm was the inevitable penalty for the failure of the traditional leaderships of the workers’ movement to replace war by its revolutionary solution. But the war in its passage would not fail to sweep away all the old equilibrium and to bring about the upsurge of a new revolutionary period with unimaginable possibilities, in which the opportunities for authentic revolutionary Marxism and, consequently, for the Fourth International, would become clear.

To give the revolutionary Marxist tendency the structure of a single international organization, to endow it with a precise programme, would be already a guarantee of its survival as such and of its inevitable future successes. That is exactly what the Founding Conference of the Fourth International accomplished.

Why the Fourth International

Between 1933 and 1938, and at the very Founding Congress of the Fourth International, the question of a new International was often debated. [2]

Patiently but firmly, our tendency, with Leon Trotsky at its head, fought during this period against the centrists outside and the skeptics inside our own ranks as to whether it was opportune to create a new International. These arguments were in reality summarized in this one: The revolutionary Marxist tendency is too isolated from the masses, who have not yet become conscious of the betrayal of the traditional leaderships and especially of Stalinism. Consequently it is necessary to wait for more favorable conditions and avoid creating an International “artificially.”

How did we answer these arguments, out of the mouth of the very Founding Conference of the Fourth International? By noting simultaneously three things: the bankruptcy of the traditional leaderships, proved by the historic defeats of the proletariat in Germany in 1933, in France and Spain in the years 1936 to 1938, defeats that produced no reaction of possible correction of the organizations led by the Social-Democrats and the Stalinists; the incompatibility of our programme and doctrine with those of these leaderships; our factual existence as an international tendency fighting on the same programme. That is to say, our existence as an international organization was both an objective result, and a fact, an objective cause, which from then on was influencing developments. That the masses were not yet with us was a secondary aspect compared to our objective existence as an effectively international organization, created, consolidated, and inspired by a common programme, fundamentally distinct from any other tendency.

The Fourth International emerged as an international tendency opposed to the traditional leaderships, through the very development of the class struggle in the pre-war world, and of the inevitable differentiations which this caused within the international communist vanguard.

From the point of view both of ideas, programme, and doctrine, and of cadres, the Fourth International was the result of the objective development, of the very evolution of the workers’ movement, and nowise an ‘artificial” creation. The fact of its conjunctural isolation from the broad masses could not be evoked as an argument against its founding. Revolutionary Marxists have long since understood the concrete dialectic that exists among the class, the parties, and the leaderships. There is a fusion among these elements only at rare moments in history, only at culminating points of the revolutionary upsurge. The changing dynamics of the class struggle constantly disassociate these elements and bring them together again, without identifying them.

The party, furthermore, while being a fraction of the class, is distinguished from it by its ideological quality, by the fact that it constitutes a more homogeneous fraction, more enlightened than the class as a whole about the conditions and the goals of the class struggle. The programme and the doctrine, while being constantly worked up out of the elements of the class struggle, its actions and its experiences, are the party’s own work, and not that of the class as a whole.

Similar relationships exist between the party as a mass organization and its leadership group. A party, a revolutionary leadership, can be very far in advance of the mentality and consciousness of the masses, just as they can sometimes fall no less colossally behind them. The history of the international workers’ movement is full of examples.

What definitively counts for the quality of a revolutionary leadership is not the degree of its liaison with the class at any given moment, but its programme and its doctrine, as well as the continuity and consistency with which they are advocated by the revolutionary cadres. If the programme and doctrine effectively correspond, not to the conjunctural consciousness and mentality of the class, but to the objective situation; and if the organization advocates these ideas with consistency and perseverance, sooner or later it will bring about its junction with the masses set in movement toward it by the objective conditions that finally determine the struggle of the masses.

That is the basic reasoning that we find both in the act of founding the Fourth International and in its programme.

It was already known in 1938 that the new International was and would remain for a whole period isolated from the broad masses; even an aggravated isolation was foreseen at the time of the beginning of the war; nor was much confidence felt in the adults of that period, tired out and demoralized by the defeats and betrayals of the traditional leaderships. We staked especially on the new revolutionary period to which the upsets of the war would not fail to give rise.

Enemies of or renegades from our movement rarely miss the opportunity to remind us of the “prophecy” that has not been “fulfilled” contained in Trotsky’s 19 October 1938 speech to the meeting held in New York to celebrate the founding of the Fourth International:

During the next ten years the programme of the Fourth International will become the guide for millions, and these millions of revolutionaries will be able to move heaven and earth.

It is true that the evolution of the Second World War, by dividing the imperialist camp, presented a variant which aided the survival of the traditional leaderships. This in its turn complicated revolutionary developments and lengthened the respite. The fact remains, however, that millions, in spite of everything, have taken the revolutionary road in China and elsewhere, overthrowing capitalism and imperialism on a great part of the globe, and above all that a new revolutionary period has arisen from the war, the most extraordinary in upsets and dynamism. It is in fact the period of the triumph of the revolutionary programme of the Fourth International, as concerns both capitalism and Stalinism.

What is this programme?

The Transitional Programme

From the viewpoint of political documents, the main contribution of the Founding Conference of the Fourth International was unquestionably its adoption of The Transitional Programme. [3]

Worked up principally by Leon Trotsky, this programme was subjected to full discussion before and during the Conference, in which the then principal cadres of our movement took part. This programme is naturally not the programme of the Fourth International, i.e. its total programme, but only a part thereof, which covers “action from today until the beginning of the Revolution” (Leon Trotsky). In order for it to be complete, as Trotsky himself specified [4], it would have to have at the beginning a part that was more analytical from a theoretical viewpoint concerning “modern capitalist society in its imperialist stage.”

We find this analysis in other writings by Leon Trotsky, such for example as the criticism of the programme of the Third International worked up by Bukharin on the occasion of its Sixth World Congress, and The Permanent Revolution. It is in these writings that there must be sought the fundamental characteristics of the imperialist period which determine the strategy and tactics of the revolutionary proletariat.

There would also have to be a final part concerning itself with “the social revolution, the seizure of power through insurrection, the transformation of capitalist society into the dictatorship of the proletariat, and of the latter into socialist society.”

The programmatic ideas of our International in this more and more important and timely field must be sought in the writings of Leon Trotsky on the USSR and Stalinism, particularly in The Revolution Betrayed, as well as in the later documents of the Fourth International.

The goal of the Transitional Programme was and remains specific:

... to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution; to aid in thus surmounting “the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary situation” which characterizes our period, “and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard,” due essentially to the policy of betrayal of the traditional leaderships. This bridge, the Transitional Programme specifies, should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.

This is what distinguishes this programme, dialectical in structure, from the programmes of the Social-Democrats and Stalinists, which set up an organic separation between their minimum programmes, limited to reforms within the framework of capitalist society, and their maximum programmes, promising for an indeterminate future the replacement of capitalism by socialism.

The Transitional Programme, modeling itself on the way the first Congresses of the Communist International [5] posed revolutionary tactics, wipes out this distinction and tries on the contrary to connect up organically the struggle for the immediate demands of the masses with the struggle for power.

The programme’s transitional, that is, dynamic and revolutionary, and not static and reformist, structure is not, however, a mental trick, an intellectual abstraction. It is based, on the contrary, on the conviction that the orientation of the masses is in the last analysis determined by the objective conditions that characterize society.

If consequently the programme is worked out in. adaptation, not to the conjunctural mentality of the masses, but to objective conditions, we can be certain that sooner or later the masses will adopt the leading lines and the slogans of such a programme. That is the meaning and the strength of revolutionary Marxism.

Naturally, objective conditions determine only the content of the programme. In order to decide on its form, the form of its slogans for action, the form of agitation or propaganda, a genuine revolutionary leadership in touch with the realities of the workers’ movement will always take into consideration the exact mentality and consciousness of the masses. Sectarianism in such a case would consist in concerning oneself only with the content while neglecting the form capable of conveying it best, fastest, and in time, to the masses. On the contrary, opportunism would consist in sacrificing the content to the form so as supposedly to shorten the paths over which the ripening and revolutionary organization of the class pass.

The Transitional Programme, developed on the basis of such considerations, has successfully undergone the test of events and of time. Several of its fundamental slogans have been taken up throughout the world by immense masses, taught by their own experience. Such for example are the slogans: sliding scale of wages and sliding scale of working hours, workers’ control of industry, expropriation of certain groups of capitalists, strike pickets and workers’ militias, factory committees and Soviets.

Indeed, certain among them are now part of the official programme of various trade-union organisms, from the unified AFL-CIO in the USA to the Bolivian COB and the Chilean CUT. Naturally, these organizations always have an eclectic and minimalist tendency which consists of taking certain slogans out of the programme and filling them with a reformist meaning. But the fact that at a given moment such-and-such a slogan of the Transitional Programme has been taken up – necessarily, as it were – by the masses, shows the scientific soundness of this programme, based on a correct evaluation of objective conditions and of the movement of the masses determined by these conditions.

What can we say at the present moment about the validity of the Transitional Programme twenty years after it was worked out? That it remains in general timely, save for a few adaptations rendered necessary by new elements in the situation. For example the section on the “trade unions in the transitional epoch” could with advantage be improved by including some paragraphs on the possible role of the trade unions, in semi-colonial and dependent countries, going outside specifically economic limits. The broad-scale introduction of automation and atomic energy will unquestionably give rise to the formulation of new economic slogans, as well as new forms of organization.

The section on “transitional demands in fascist countries” is now – at least temporarily – rather out-of-date, even though it contains highly instructive appraisals about the revolutionary way of using democratic slogans and of conceiving their organic liaison with transitional slogans.

On the contrary, the section on the “problems of the transitional period” in the workers’ states takes on an importance quite other than in 1938, because of both the evolution of the USSR since then, and the appearance of new workers’ states.

The indispensable changes and additions to this chapter we shall find in the later documents of the Fourth International, and more especially in those of its Fourth and Fifth World Congresses.

Leon Trotsky described the adoption of the Transitional Programme as “our capital conquest.” And it was in fact the fundamental contribution of the Founding Conference of the Fourth International. But the work of this conference was not limited to that document. Besides that, the Founding Conference also accomplished the following tasks: it adopted a manifesto on the danger of the war that was silhouetted on the horizon; a resolution on the war in the Far East, and another on the world role of American imperialism. It also adopted the first statutes of the Fourth International containing the declaration of principles of its policy and its organizational structure as the world party of socialist revolution, based on a regime of democratic centralism on the international scale.

Various other resolutions concerned particular questions of an internal nature: the unification of the Trotskyist movement in England and Greece, and its situation in France, in Poland, and in Mexico. Another resolution concerned the question of the policy to be followed in the youth conference which was held soon after the Founding Congress of the Fourth International. Greetings were addressed to the fighters in Spain, to the dead, imprisoned and exiled militants of the Fourth International, and to Leon Trotsky.

In short, a very considerable labor was accomplished by the First World Congress of the new International, a striking proof of the intense political life of the movement it represented, and of its vitality.

The Period until the Outbreak Of The War

The months that followed the foundation of the International were marked by the worsening of the international situation, evolving rapidly toward war, the debacle of the Kremlin’s policy of the “Democratic Front for Peace” by means of Popular Fronts and class collaboration with the “democratic” bourgeoisie, and new defeats of the international proletariat.

Analyzing the international situation after Munich, Leon Trotsky easily brought out the real meaning of the compromise there reached, which, far from preventing the war, was in reality precipitating it. He furthermore demonstrated the bankruptcy of the Kremlin’s “Popular Front” policy, and called for a class policy.

After the Czechoslovak events, the key to the European situation lay once more in France, where the Socialists and Communists had by their April 1938 vote brought into power the government of Daladier, the gravedigger of the Popular Front. France was now evolving rapidly toward a reactionary regime whose outlook was the perspective of war.

Nevertheless, the French masses still wanted to resist this trend. Despite the betrayal of Jouhaux and Thorez, and the discouragement and confusion of the most advanced sectors of the proletariat of that country, about two million workers went on strike between mid-November and the beginning of December against Daladier’s extra-constitutional measures. This was, however, a rear-guard action, for the reformist and Stalinist leaderships had no intention of seriously combating Daladier and replacing him this time by a genuinely worker’s government.

On December 14th, 1938, Leon Trotsky, commenting on these struggles, wrote his article, The Decisive Hour is Approaching in France, in which, having drawn the balance sheet of the bankruptcy of the Popular Front, supposedly “betrayed” by its partner, the Radicals, “the most corrupt party” of business and careerist circles of the French bourgeoisie, he urged the vanguard elements to resolute revolutionary action, the only thing able to try to stop the trend to totalitarian reaction and war.

Side-by-side with this, the Spanish Revolution was living out its last tragic hours. The new year 1939 began with the onrush of the Franco hordes toward Barcelona, which the “Popular Front” government of Negrín was soon to abandon. The Stalinists tried to cover up the debacle by holding out bright prospects of “resistance,” and above all by unloading the blame on their “democratic” bourgeois allies and on the Socialists, while carrying on, right up to the last minute of the fall of Barcelona, the persecutions, the trials, and the imprisonments of the POUMists and the Trotskyists.

In February 1939 Leon Trotsky drew the balance sheet of the “Spanish tragedy,” and brought out how there also the Popular Front had proved itself to be “a system organized so as to fool and betray the exploited masses.”

As a policy of class collaboration, subordinated, as everywhere else, to the political leadership of the “democratic” bourgeois ally, the Spanish Popular Front systematically sabotaged the social deepening of the revolution so as supposedly to devote itself the better to the “military” pursuit of the struggle. It did not dare to proceed either to agrarian reform or to the liberation of Morocco, and it did everything to crush the soviet organisms of the masses. Thus it both disappointed the masses and consolidated Franco’s positions.

Negrin and Azaña begging Franco for peace after the fall of Barcelona, and soon the lamentable exodus toward the Pyrenees – with these pictures of humiliation was sealed the extraordinary epic written during three years by the Spanish masses.

On the plane of the Fourth International movement itself during these first months after its founding, we must mention: activity and some successes by the French, Belgian, and American sections; news from the sections in Argentina, Peru, and Greece; the arrests of a large number of the leaders of the unified section of the last-named country, among them Comrade P. Pouliopoulos (October 1938); the news, arriving in January 1939, of the trial and sentencing to long prison terms of our German comrades of Magdeburg and Berlin by the Nazis; the persecution of the leading comrades in Spain, Grandizo Munis and Carlini, by the Stalinists; the joint campaign against Leon Trotsky, accused by the Stalinists of Mexico of being an “agent of imperialism,” and by the imperialist press of the USA of having “inspired” President Cárdenas of Mexico in his policy of “nationalization” of petroleum; the campaigns of the SWP for the right of asylum in the United States for political refugees from Europe, for the freeing of the leaders of the POUM arrested by the Stalinists in Spain, and against the war plans of Yankee imperialism which were becoming ever clearer.

In a general way the essential policy of the sections of the Fourth International at that period was concentrated around the struggle against the danger of war. Taking their inspiration from the Manifesto issued by the Founding Congress, the different sections of the Fourth International were insisting on the following ideas: The “democratic” imperialists and the “fascist” imperialists were actively preparing for a new war. The reason for it would not be the defense of “democracy” against “fascism,” or of some new “poor Belgium” (in this case, Czechoslovakia) against “aggression,” but the internal contradictions of imperialism as a whole. Only the class action of the proletariat and of the oppressed peoples would be able to stop the fascism and war engendered by capitalism.

Just as during the First World War, it was necessary to stand resolutely up against “social-patriotism,” against class collaboration, while distinguishing the eventuality of the USSR, a workers’ state, being involved in an inter-imperialist war, as well as the case of colonial countries standing up against imperialism.

The correctness of such a line did not have to wait long to be strikingly verified, on the one hand by the compromise concluded by the “democratic” bourgeoisies with the “fascist” bourgeoisies at the time of the Munich Agreement, and on the other hand by the spectacular reversal operated by Stalin with the German-Soviet rapprochement. It was Leon Trotsky who first expressed the hypothesis of such a possible rapprochement between Stalin and Hitler, in October 1938.

Soon after, the international press began also to glimpse this possibility. On March 6th 1939, Trotsky again discussed the possibility of a Stalin-Hitler agreement, and endeavored to clarify its significance. Just a few days later (March 10th) there was held the XVIIIth Congress of the CP of the USSR, in which Stalin presented a report. Manuilsky, suddenly baptized “secretary” of the Communist International in place of Dimitrov, who suffered an unexplained eclipse, also spoke in the name of the International. The two speeches were most extraordinary, characteristic of the cynical opportunism of the Stalinist leadership.

The two orators, who were speaking almost at the very moment when the Spanish revolution was undergoing a last humiliation at Madrid, turned over to the Franquists by the military junta presided over by “Comrade Miaja” [6], the military hero of the Popular Front and a member of the Spanish Communist Party, did not even mention the Spanish defeat. It was as if the Spanish revolution and its tragic end had never existed! Stalin in particular did not even deign to breathe a word about the policy of the “Popular Front,” reserving all his eloquence for an unexpected indictment of the democratic states and bourgeoisies, his allies of the day before, and for undissimulated advances, this time toward the fascist states!

Discovering inter-imperialist antagonisms,” he explained that the roots of inter-imperialist rivalries between the Axis powers on the one hand and the “democracies” on the other must be sought in the unjust Treaty of Versailles imposed by the imperialist victors of the First World War! Getting into step with him, Manuilsky criticized the policy of Popular Fronts for having aided “certain tendencies of rightist opportunism” which idealized the role of the so-called democratic states and blurred their imperialist character”!

In his usual way, Stalin, observing the obvious failure of his Popular Front policy, and being engaged in bringing about a rapprochement with Hitler, unloaded all errors and defeats on his subordinates, and, without any self-criticism, moved on to the directly opposite policy!

Meanwhile the trend toward war was speeding up extremely. In March 1939 Hitler entered Prague and practically annexed Czechoslovakia; in April, Mussolini annexed Albania, and London mobilized.

In the United States, Roosevelt was putting the last touches to war mobilization plans and openly took a position for the use of “force against force.” He thus encouraged England and France in their feverish preparations for war against the Axis powers. The news coming from the International during these months concerned the activity of the Trotskyist organizations in the United States, in France, in Canada, in China, and in Indochina. In this last-mentioned country the Trotskyist leader Ta-Tu-Thau was freed from his jail sentence and soon after (April 1938) triumphantly elected, with his whole slate, in the Cochinchina elections

The flirtation between Hitler and Stalin was continuing. After Dimitrov, theoretician of the Popular Front (replaced by Manuilsky who was discovering the virtues of Nazi Germany), Litvinov, who for years had directed the diplomacy of the “Democratic Front for Peace,” was eliminated and replaced by Molotov (May 1939). The summer began under the auspices of the Danzig crisis and Hitler’s threats to Poland.

On August 21st 1939, Hitler announced the “non-aggression” pact concluded with Stalin!

Far from preventing the war, this pact, deeply disorienting the world proletariat (which had not expected in spite of everything such a spectacular reversal by the Kremlin), and encouraging the Nazis, in reality only rendered the unleashing of the conflict an immediate question from then on.

In order to attack Poland and carry on the war against France and England, Hitler needed the benevolent “neutrality” of the USSR, and its raw materials, Trotsky declared to the press on September 4th, 1939. The political and commercial pact now concluded assures Hitler of both. The next day, Friday, September 5th, the Second World War had begun.

What was, then, the policy urged by the Fourth International in the face of this war?

The question has its importance both with reference to the attitude of the International during the development of the second world-wide conflict, in which after 1941 the USSR itself was involved, and with reference to the divergences that arose within the International itself.

From the Outbreak of the War (September 1939)
to the Assassination of Leon Trotsky (August 1940)

The war question had been a very early concern of the Fourth International. Indeed, from the time that Hitler sprang to power in Germany, Trotsky had concluded that the Second World War had become thenceforth almost inevitable. He did not, for all that, stop calling the proletariat to the revolutionary struggle in both the fascist capitalist states and in the ‘democratic’ countries, since only such a struggle had any chance of turning back the trend toward war by the victory of the revolution.

In June 1934, a fundamental document of our movement, entitled The War and the Fourth International, defined its essential positions on the war in preparation. [7] The document correctly foresaw that the new war would begin as an inter-imperialist war between two blocs of imperialist countries, the “rich ones”, the Treaty of Versailles victors on the one side, and the “poor ones,” those vanquished by this treaty or those in an inferior position in the dividing up of the world, on the other. The goal of such a war would be, as during the first world-wide conflict, the “redivision of the world” among the great imperialist powers.

Nevertheless, the document specified, any great war, independently of its initial motives, must inevitably raise the question of a military intervention against the USSR for the purpose of transfusing fresh blood into the sclerotic veins of capitalism.

The document then took up again the classic arguments that Lenin had developed at the time of the First World War [8] against the social-patriotic slogans of “national defense,” “defense of democracy,” and “defense of small or neutral nations,” and polemicized against their being served up again, warmed over in the sauce of the new circumstances, by Social-Democratic advocates, centrists of every kidney, and those of the Stalinist Third International.

That International, already the completely docile servant of the diplomacy of the Soviet bureaucracy, was attempting to solve questions as important as those of war and peace by opportunist key-formulae like “general disarmament” and “rejection of aggression”!

The document concretely foresaw the eventuality of the USSR getting involved in an inter-imperialist war as the ally of one of the two blocs of states in the fight. It admitted that the USSR, as a state that was isolated and weakened as a result of the repeated defeats of the proletariat caused by the Stalinist leadership, had the right to conclude an alliance with this or that imperialist state, and even with this or that camp of imperialist states. But the proletariat and its parties must preserve their independence in relation to these imperialist allies of the USSR. Far from idealizing them in any manner whatsoever, the proletariat must fight them in case of war by a Leninist attitude, one of revolutionary defeatism, advocated equally in both camps.

By revolutionary defeatism, the document, taking as its models Lenin and the Third International in his time, understood: “the carrying out by the proletariat, in case of war, of a revolutionary policy against its own bourgeoisie, independently of possible consequences of this policy on the military front, its weakening and even collapse. Military defeats of its bourgeoisie, resulting from the development of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, would be preferable and more favorable to the final goal of the Revolution than the knuckling-under of the proletariat in a sacred union.”

The alliance of any given imperialist country with the USSR must nowise alter this conduct of the proletariat; it would, however, call for a certain difference in practical tasks in the case of a proletariat of a country at war with the USSR. In the case of an allied country, the proletariat must not, for example, sabotage the transport of arms destined for the USSR, whereas in the case of a country fighting against the USSR, all forms of action, including sabotages, are permitted and even necessary.

The document concluded with an analysis of the idea that the struggle against the war in preparation was in reality synonymous with the struggle for the formation and strengthening of a new revolutionary International: the Fourth International.

On August 9th 1937 in his article Before the New World War, Trotsky became more affirmative as to the eventuality of a new inter-imperialist conflict. He even set the date with considerable exactness: in one or two years. The war, Trotsky said in this article, would begin between the states who were defenders and those who were adversaries of the status quo, but, once begun, it would rapidly degenerate into a fight for a new division of the world, including of the USSR.

As for the USSR’s chances of survival, despite its international isolation and the terrible errors and crimes committed by the Stalinist regime in the USSR itself, Trotsky wrote:

Everything leads us to believe that if all of humanity is not thrown back into barbarism, the social bases of the soviet regime (the new forms of property and planned economy) will resist the ordeal of the war and even come out of it strengthened.

He reaffirmed this same position in the article he wrote just on the eve of the war’s outbreak, 2 September 1939, on The War and the Soviet-Nazi Pact.

The last official stand of the International on the Second World War before the USSR entered the conflict, and just before Trotsky’s assassination, was that contained in the Manifesto of the “Emergency” Conference held the 19th and 20th May 1940 in the United States.

This international conference was called on the initiative of the Trotskyist organizations of the United States, Mexico, and Canada, with the participation also of representatives of the Trotskyist organizations of Germany, Belgium, Spain, Cuba, Argentina, Chile, and Puerto Rico. Its principal document was its manifesto, titled The Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution, in which the Fourth International restated its previous positions on the war and its will “not to change course,” as Trotsky wrote soon after in an article under that title.

Indeed, the pressure caused by Hitler’s spectacular victories was at that moment enormous and weighed heavily, including even on our own ranks. Let us briefly recall the evolution of events following on the declaration of war.

After the invasion of Poland in September 1939, there followed in December of the same year the invasion of Finland by Stalin. The League of Nations, dominated by Stalin’s “democratic” ex-allies, took a position against the USSR. In March 1940 Finland, after an unexpected resistance, was led to ask peace from the Kremlin. In April 1940 Norway was jointly invaded by the “allies” and by Germany.

In May 1940 there began the French defeat and the occupation of France. The battle of continental Europe was practically won by Hitler, and his shadow was already spreading over England.

Hitler promised Europe’s subject peoples centuries of “German peace,” and the effect of his lightning-like victories was so great that people wondered how far and how long the Nazi steam-roller would roll.

The atmosphere of demoralization in the ranks of the workers’ movement was lowering, aggravated by the terrible ambiguity maintained by the attitude of the USSR as ally of the Nazis.

For, in fact, the good entente between Hitler and Stalin continued. In November 1939 the Third International, by an article of Dimitrov, resurrected for this purpose, and by a manifesto, ratified the policy of rapprochement with Hitler. Dimitrov in his article picked up some arguments put forward a few days previously by Molotov (Declarations of 31 October 1939). Molotov had said that Germany was fighting for the earliest possible end of the war and for peace, whereas England and France were for the continuation of the war and opposed to making peace. Dimitrov “theorized” these arguments, by establishing “two stages”: in the first, Hitler was “the aggressor”; in the second, it was England and France who had gone over to the offensive against Germany, whereas the latter was now calling for “peace”!

The Manifesto of the Third International was, for its part, entirely aimed against the “democracies,” ex-allies of the USSR, and did not breathe a word against Hitler!

In December 1939 Stalin, replying to Hitler’s greetings on his birthday, declared that “the friendship of the peoples of Germany and of the USSR, cemented by blood [sic!], had all the preconditions for being prolonged and stabilized”!

It is true that, despite this scandalous policy toward Hitler, the Kremlin was not at all reassured about Hitler’s final secret intentions, and tried to find guarantees against a possible sudden reversal by its new ally. The invasion of Finland, like the later invasion of the Baltic countries in July 1940, was to a large extent determined by this fear.

After the defeat of France in June 1940, there could be discerned even a sort of slow withdrawal of the Stalinist policy toward Hitler, more perceptible at the beginning in the attitude of the Communist Parties of the United States and of England, which announced a new turn in the Kremlin’s policy toward Hitler, who had become too powerful and, from this point of view, more to be feared than ever.

It remains none the less true that a terrible uneasiness was weighing on the international workers’ movement, cast down by the defeats and betrayals of its traditional leaderships. This uneasiness had its repercussions, including within the ranks of the Fourth International, as we shall soon see.

For the moment let us concentrate on the stand of the Emergency Conference on the war question, at the moment when Hitler’s victory became overwhelming. Was that a reason for the Fourth International to “change its course,” to abandon its policy of “revolutionary defeatism” applicable in both camps, and to line up for example on the side of the “democracies” against fascism?

The Conference resolutely answered No. Despite the fact that the Manifesto was written “at a moment when, after overwhelming Holland and Belgium, the German armies are rolling like a tide of fire toward Paris and the Channel,” the task posed by History remained always “not to support one part of the imperialist system against the other, but to put an end to the system as a whole.”

The Manifesto foresaw the involvement of the USSR in the war as inevitable. In this case the war on the part of the USSR would be a just war (as in the case also of a colony fighting against its imperialism), and it was necessary to defend the USSR unconditionally against imperialism. But that would not give the right to extend this characterization of “just war” to include the USSR’s possible imperialist allies.

Among the most important parts of the Manifesto are those which defined the meaning of the defense of the USSR, despite the crimes of Stalin committed in his operations in Poland and in Finland, by his alliance in general with the Nazis and against the international proletariat, and his tyrannical reign in the USSR itself.

The class-conscious worker, the Manifesto declared, knows that a successful struggle for complete emancipation is unthinkable without the defense of conquests already gained, however modest these may be.

In the case of the USSR, these conquests were called the statified and planned economy that it was necessary to defend independently of this or that policy of Stalin (”unconditionally”) against imperialism.

The defense of the USSR, in this sense, was tied up with the defense also of all colonies against imperialism.

In the colonial and semi-colonial countries the struggle for an independent national state, the Manifesto proclaimed, and consequently the “defense of the fatherland,” is different in principle from that of the imperialist countries. The revolutionary proletariat of the whole world gives unconditional support to the struggle of China and India for national independence, for this struggle, “by tearing the backward people out of the Asiatic system, particularism and foreign bondage, strikes powerful blows at imperialism.” (Quoted from War and the Fourth International) The struggle for the national independence of the colonies, the Manifesto of the Emergency Conference further added, is, from the point of view of the revolutionary proletariat, only a transitional stage on the road to drawing the backward countries into the international socialist revolution.

The Manifesto accorded much importance to the revolutionary developments which the imperialist war, already begun, would not fail to produce in the colonies, especially in China, India, and Latin America. It concluded with the need of profiting by the war to bring about the victory of the world socialist revolution.

In contradistinction to the policy of the Second or the Third International, the Fourth International, the Manifesto declared, built its policy, not on the military ups-and-downs of the capitalist states, but on the transformation of the imperialist war into a war of the workers against the capitalists, on the overthrow of the owning classes of all countries, on the world socialist revolution.

Independently of the course of the war, we fulfill our basic task: we explain to the workers the irreconcilability between their interests and the interests of bloodthirsty capitalism; we mobilize the toilers against imperialism; we propagate the unity of the workers in all warring and neutral countries; we call for the fraternization of workers and soldiers within each country, and of soldiers with soldiers on the opposite side of the battle front; we mobilize the women and youth against the war; we carry on constant, persistent, tireless preparation of the revolution – in the factories, in the mills, in the villages, in the barracks, at the front, and in the fleet.

This is our programme. Proletarians of the world, there is no other way out except to unite under the banner of the Fourth International!

And it is fundamentally this line of the Manifesto of the Emergency Conference that has in general lighted the path that the Fourth International has followed since the Second World War.

[To be continued]


1. The official communiqué of the conference, for security reasons obvious for that period, gave Switzerland as the place of the meeting.

2. More particularly by the Polish delegates.

3. Its real title is The Death-Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.

4. Discussion on The Transitional Programme.

5. Particularly the Third Congress (1921) in its Theses on Tactics.

6. Who was General Jose Miaja, President of the “Madrid Defense Council,” who turned over the capital to Franco, and whom the Stalinists continued to cover up? “The President of the famous Madrid Defense Commission, Comrade Miaja, is a member of the Communist Party. His work, with that of his colleagues, will enter into history!” wrote the official organ of the Communist International, Imprekor, dated 6 February 1937.

7. Theses issued by the International Secretariat, dated 10 June 1934, at Geneva.

8. In this connection, vide Zinoviev’s collection, Against the Stream.

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Michel Pablo
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Updated on: 10 October 2015