So far in this series we have looked at how Marxist socialists developed their ideas about how a political programme should look. We have also seen, by looking at programmes for the current economic crisis, a little of how the left relates to this task today. But what about the tradition on which the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty bases itself — the politics personified by the activity and writings of Leon Trotsky?
When in 1938 Trotsky wrote the document which became known as “The Transitional Programme”, the founding statement of the international group he helped set up, what was he trying to do? What did that group, the Fourth International, stand for?
First, we need to summarise again the story of the Marxist socialists, bringing it up to 1938.
The First International, the International Working Men’s Association (1864-72), had organised the working-class movements of a handful of European countries. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were active within it and helped established the fundamentals of socialist politics and theory.
The Second International (the Socialist International, 1889-1914) organised the burgeoining labour movements of Europe, and a few countries outside Europe. Formally its leaders were revolutionary, but as they became absorbed in the capitalist parliamentary system and in routine trade unionism they drifted towards “reformism”. Reform became their goal, the full socialist transformation was seen as being a long way off. The Second International collapsed when many of its leaders supported the drive for war in August 1914.
The Third, Communist, International (1919-1933) was set up by those who had led the Russian Revolution of October 1917. It rallied workers all over the world and bound them together in a deep commitment to fighting for revolution.
But further revolutions in the west (such as in Germany) were defeated by the bourgeoisie, aided by the old reformist working-class parties. The Russian workers were left isolated, with immense problems, in conditions where building socialism was impossible.
A new bureaucratic ruling elite grew up, led by Joseph Stalin which seized power in Russia. Still proclaiming themselves communists, they took control of the Communist International. In defiance of the ABCs of Marxism, they declared that it was possible to build socialism in one country, and that country was backward, war-ravaged Russia.
The Stalinists transformed the Communist International from being a movement of revolutionary parties and people into one based on serving Stalinist Russia’s political ambitions abroad.
A whole series of revolutionary possibilities in Europe and Asia were destroyed because of the bunglings of this so-called “Communist” International.
Finally in 1933 the powerful German labour movement — the reformist Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party — surrendered peacefully to Hitler’s Nazis. When the people and parties of Communist International did not rise in revolt against those responsible for what had happened in Germany, Leon Trotsky concluded that the Communist International was dead for the socialist revolution.
By that time Trotsky had already spent ten years fighting the Stalinist bureaucracy, inside Russia and, from 1929, in exile. The people he organised together to make that fight were known as the Left Opposition.
In the USSR, the bureaucracy was strengthened by the defeats of the European labour movement. By 1928-30 it was the sole master of society, exploiting and enslaving the working class. It was against this background of defeat and gross courruption of the communist movement that Trotsky broke definitively with the Communist International and called for a “Fourth International”.
But Trotsky did not declare the existing “Trotskyist movement” to be the new International. The International should come about by left and labour movement groups working together and discussing the politics they needed for the times in which they lived.
So the Trotskyists set about seeking new alliances. They joined bigger socialist groups moving to the left in France, America, and other countries. But the reformist and Stalinist parties survived and grew and brought new defeats on the working class, defeats which weighed down on the whole international working-class movement. The movement for the Fourth International remained essentially the “Trotskyists”, though the latter did make substantial gains in some places.
the fourth international
In 1938, on the very eve of war, the Trotskyists finally decided to proclaim themselves the Fourth International. Trotsky summed it up:
“Sceptics ask: but has the moment for the creation of the Fourth International yet arrived? It is impossible, they say, to create an international ‘artificially’; it can arise only out of great events... The Fourth International has already risen out of great events: the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history. The cause for these defeats is to be found in the degeneration and perfidy of the old leadership. The class struggle does not tolerate an interruption... The Fourth International... has no need of being ‘proclaimed’. It exists and it fights...”
Trotsky’s programme, written for the founding conference, was a profound document, one which had to address all the problems the labour and socialist movement faced, above all the degeneration of the revolutionary international, and point a way out of defeat for the labour movements of the future. It was a programme for a specific moment in history, not something that was in all its specific proposals relevant for all times. Some Trotskyists in the future would make the mistake of seeing it that way, but that is another story.
The new International was organisationally feeble. The 30 delegates representing groups from 11 countries met in a village outside Paris on 3 September and deliberated for that day only. The only groups with significant numbers were the Belgian and US organisations.
Implicit in the declaration of the Fourth International, and reflected in its programme, was a shift from the ideas of the previous period of trying to switch over mass communist working-class parties to revolutionary ideas. The Trotskyists now stressed the element of mass spontaneous working-class upsurge, bringing new layers of militants. They saw a highly volatile political situation .
“Democratic regimes, as well as fascist, stagger on from one bankruptcy to another. The bourgeoisie itself sees no way out. In countries where it has already been forced to stake everything upon the card of fascism, it now toboggans with closed eyes toward an economic and military catastrophe. In the historically privileged countries… all of capital’s traditional parties are in a state of perplexity bordering on paralysis of will. The New Deal, despite its initial pretentious resoluteness, represents but a special form of political perplexity, possible only in a country where the bourgeoisie succeeded in accumulating incalculable wealth…” (The Transitional Programme).
The Trotskyists’ perspective on what was going to happen was fundamentally correct. There was a mass working-class upsurge at the end of World War Two.
What the Trotskyists did not predict, could not predict, and would not predict, was their own defeat in their task of fusing their revolutionary programme and understanding with the organic class struggles of the labour movement.
For this period, one of economic and political instability, taking his cue from the living class struggle, Trotsky in the Transitional Programme codified a number of demands and types of struggle for the labour and socialist movement. The programme discusses the sliding scale of wages and sliding scale of hours; sit down strikes; workers’ control of industry; expropriation of capitalist industry, including the banks; a workers’ and farmers’ government; the struggle against war...
In writing the programme Trotsky took it for granted that the seasoned socialists would understand the basic thinking behind such ideas as a “workers’ government” and that this programme, like those of the Communist International before Stalin, was directed at preparing the working-class movement for revolutionary struggle, for overthrowing the bourgeois regime.
Every new socialist should read the Transitional Programme, not as a reciple or something from which we can copy out a quick fix programme for our own political situation, but as a rich source of ideas — a way to illuminate the how, the method of building a socialist movement.
• The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (The Transitional Proramme)