The origins of the collapse of the Fourth International – and the attempts of the British Trotskyists to avoid it

After the Second World War the leadership of the then “Fourth International” became completely disorientated. They could not understand what was happening and this marked the beginning of the end of the organization.

However, before entering into a brief analysis of why the Fourth International eventually collapsed, it is worth noting just a few of the most significant quotes from a document produced by the then international leadership. Remember all this was written in 1946, just as capitalism was entering the biggest boom in its history, and when the Soviet Union had emerged enormously strengthened from the Second World War. We believe they speak for themselves.

Despite certain existing weaknesses of the revolutionary workers’ movement, there is no reason whatever to assume that we are facing a new epoch of capitalist stabilization and development.”

“The revival of economic activity in capitalist countries weakened by the war, and in particular continental European countries will be characterized by an especially slow tempo which will keep their economy at levels bordering on stagnation and slump.”

“Under these conditions a prolonged and relatively full and stable development of the forces of political democracy seems more problematical than ever. The few democratic concessions which the bourgeoisie has granted since the end of the war are the result, on the one hand, of the pressure of the masses, and on the other, of the conciliationist and capitulatory policy of the reformist and Stalinist parties.”

What confronts us now is a world-wide crisis transcending anything known in the past and a world-wide revolutionary upsurge developing, to be sure, at unequal tempos in different parts of the world, but unceasingly exercising reciprocal influences from one centre to another, and thus determining a long revolutionary perspective.” (emphasis in the original)

“Current events in all countries prove that the objective possibilities for creating the parties of the Fourth International have never been as great and are increasing all the time.”

“The essential precondition for harnessing ourselves with enthusiasm and faith to the task of building the parties of the Fourth International is that we first acquire the firm conviction that great possibilities now exist in this sphere.”

“Behind the appearance of power never before attained, there lurks the reality that the USSR and the Soviet bureaucracy have entered the critical phase of their existence.”

(from The New Imperialist Peace and the Building of the Parties of the Fourth International – Resolution adopted by the International Pre-Conference, April 1946).

Compare the above quotes to what the leadership of the British RCP, whose main theoretician was Ted Grant, was saying. Although not even they could have predicted the long post-war boom, they could see that the immediate period ahead was one of economic recovery and stabilization of the system.

“In opposition to the reformists and Stalinists, who seek to lull the masses with a perspective of a new renaissance of capitalism and a great future for democracy, the resolution of the International Pre-Conference is one hundred per cent correct in emphasizing the epoch of decline and collapse of world capitalist economy. But in a resolution that seeks to orientate our own cadres on immediate economic perspectives – from which the next stage of the class struggle will largely flow, and thus our immediate propaganda and tactics – the perspective is clearly false.” (emphasis in the original)

“The present crisis and low level of production, is not the economic crisis as understood by Marxists in the classic sense. It is a crisis of “underproduction” arising from imperialist concentration of productive forces for war and from war destruction itself.”

“The theory of spontaneous collapse of capitalism is entirely alien to the conceptions of Bolshevism. Lenin and Trotsky emphasized again and again that capitalism will always find a way out if it is not destroyed by the conscious intervention of the revolutionary party which, at the head of the masses, takes advantage of the difficulties and crises of capitalism to overthrow it. The experience of World War II emphasizes the profound correctness of these conceptions of Lenin and Trotsky.”

”Meanwhile, with the weakness of the parties of the Fourth International, which remain small sects at this stage, the capitalists have been enabled to find a way out of the collapse and decline of economy. This has prepared the way in Western Europe for a steady and fairly rapid recovery.” (emphasis in the original)

“The Fourth International will only discredit itself if it refuses to recognise the inevitable recovery, and it will disorientate its own cadres as well as the broad masses by predicting a permanent slump and slow rhythm of recovery in Western Europe, when events are taking a different shape.”

(From Economic Perspectives – Proposed line of amendment to International Conference Resolution ‘New Imperialist Peace and the Building of the Parties of the Fourth International.’ December 1946)

What we can see from the above quotes is that the leaders of the Fourth International in 1946 had not absorbed the ‘method’ of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. For them Marxism was not a scientific method, but a dogma to be applied rigidly. All they had to do was repeat the perspective of 1938. They ignored the fact that a perspective cannot be a blueprint. It can only map out the general process – and sometimes it has to be radically changed as events unfold. For these “leaders” all this was a closed book.

They ignored the real processes taking place and merely tried to impose on reality their own subjective desires. Presumably they must have thought that to admit any possibility of capitalist recovery would demoralize their forces. In the end they succeeded in achieving exactly this! Their mistakes were to lead to the destruction of the Fourth International which Trotsky had so painstakingly striven to build.

Trotsky had expected a revolutionary wave at the end of the Second World War, similar to the one that followed the First World War, and he had expected the Fourth International to become the dominant force within the Labour movement. There was indeed such a revolutionary wave. In this the perspective was confirmed. The Civil War in Greece, the resistance movement and the strikes in both Italy and France towards the end of the war and immediately after it, the Chinese revolution in 1949, the struggle for independence throughout the Colonial world, in Britain the landslide victory of the Labour Party in the 1945 elections, etc., all show that Trotsky’s prognosis was correct.

The problem was that the forces of the Fourth International were too weak to be able to play a fundamental role in these unfolding events. If the revolutionary party is too small, if it is not at the right place at the right time, the revolutionary moment can pass and the opportunity is lost. The result was a major historical defeat of many of the revolutionary movements that emerged at the end of the War. Where there were victories, such as in China, these took the form of Stalinism, i.e. deformed workers’ states modelled on the Soviet regime. They were not revolutions led by the working class. These did however add to the strength of Stalinism. Far from facing immediate crisis, as the leaders of the Fourth were predicting, the Stalinist regime in Russia was more powerful than it had ever been. Stalinism was also strengthened in the West, as in the eyes of many workers Russia seemed to be “spreading the revolution”.

The break-up and splintering of the Trotskyist movement is rooted in that period. The then leadership of the Fourth International was totally incapable of understanding what was happening. If you read the writings of leaders like James Cannon (leader of the American SWP at the time) in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s you will find a totally wrong perspective. His perspective was one of the immediate crisis of capitalism and thus revolutionary developments in the short-term. At one point he even denied that the Second World War was over!

In 1946 the Fourth International held its “International Pre-Conference”. Ernest Mandel and others contributed to the drafting of that manifesto. But it clashed totally with reality. The leadership of the Fourth International had developed a theory that any boom was out of the question. This proved to be totally false. The working class was defeated because of the theories of the Stalinist and Reformist leaders. The Fourth International was too weak to stop this.

The defeat of the working class after the War was the main political pre-condition for an upturn in the economy. The United States had emerged enormously strengthened from the War. It was the main capitalist Superpower that had accumulated huge profits from war production. For fear of revolution in Europe the USA pumped in huge amounts of money into countries like Germany, Italy, France, etc., to revive their economies – the famous Marshall plan. The destruction caused by the war meant a huge reconstruction programme was necessary. All this laid the basis for the biggest economic boom in the history of capitalism.

The leadership of the Fourth International couldn’t come to terms with these new developments. They did not understand that a reappraisal of the situation was necessary. The fact is that they thought they could hold their forces together by promising revolution “round the corner”. Such a policy could only lead to the break-up of the International, and this is precisely what happened.

As Lenin explained, if you do not correct your mistakes then you will stumble from one mistake to another. The end result is sectarianism. Not having understood their mistakes of the 1940s the so-called “leaders” of the Fourth International went further along the road of degeneration coming up with all kinds of strange theories. From one of immediate revolution they swung over to the theory of the ‘bourgeoisification’ of the working class in Europe – a complete 180 degree turn! For instance in April 1968 Ernest Mandel in a meeting in London declared that there would not be a movement of the European working class for at least twenty years. This was on the eve of the momentous May 1968 movement of the French workers! They could not see reality in 1946, and they could not see it in 1968.

The leadership of the British section of the Fourth International, the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party) understood the changes that were taking place and developed different perspectives. The main theoretician of the RCP was Ted Grant. He is still active today, and is a member of the Socialist Appeal editorial staff. If you access our web site you will find a book called The Unbroken Thread. It is a selection of Ted’s writings from 1938-83. You can also find a much larger selection of his writings in In the section on Economic Perspectives 1946 you will find an analysis of the unfolding economic upswing, a much more sober appraisal of how things were developing. This document reflected the same analysis that was developed in the amendment that the RCP presented to the Fourth International’s 1946 perspectives.

We have already mentioned that on Russia also, the leaders of the Fourth International got it wrong, as the quote provided above shows. Instead of crisis, Stalinist Russia was consolidating and expanding its power base. On China also the leadership of the Fourth International were to get it wrong. They were saying that Mao would have compromised with Chang Kai Shek and betrayed the revolution. Ted’s writings on China (see The Chinese Revolution, January 1949) reveal a much more precise understanding of what was going on.

The leadership of the Fourth International was to go on and make a series of errors also on what was unfolding in Eastern Europe. They first started off by refusing to accept that what we had in Eastern Europe were regimes modelled on Soviet Russia. Then they swung the other way (without explaining why) and even declared some of these countries (China, Yugoslavia, etc.) ‘healthy workers’ states’, abandoning that definition as soon as it became untenable.

All this suffices to show that Mandel, Cannon and co., lost their bearings after the war and this led to a zigzagging away from a genuine Marxist analysis. This later led to split after split and the total destruction of the organisation. The British Trotskyists tried to salvage what they could from the wreckage, but were left with very small forces. It would take decades before we could speak of a genuine revival of the movement. But that is another story, which we deal with elsewhere.

The two documents, The New Imperialist Peace and the Building of the Parties of the Fourth International and Economic Perspectives – Proposed line of amendment to International Conference Resolution should be read together as they are full of lessons for the workers and youth of today who are looking for a revolutionary way out of the present impasse facing capitalist society. Compare the two different methods adopted and judge for yourselves.

If the revolutionary aspirations of the masses – when the conditions for revolution are ripe – are betrayed and the working class goes down to defeat we see throughout history a similar process. Only a rump of the advanced layer of the working class remains active, and these quite often tend to be the elements more loyal to the party and trade union bureaucracies. They draw the wrong conclusions from the defeats and serve as a further brake on the workers and youth as a whole. In such a situation it becomes more difficult to defend revolutionary ideas and the Marxists find themselves more isolated.

It is precisely in such a situation that ultra-left sectarian tendencies (as well as reformist ones) can develop. The anarchists emerged as a force within the First International after the defeat of the Paris Commune. The ultra-leftism of the leaders of the Fourth International can also be explained in the same way – by the defeat of the revolutionary movement that followed the Second World War.

If we do not understand how the class moves then we can draw the wrong conclusions in such situations, as does a layer of more advanced workers. When there is an ebb in the movement this strengthens the bureaucracy of the trade unions and mass workers’ parties. Some of the more advanced workers continue their struggle against this bureaucracy but do not find an echo among the ranks. From this they conclude that these organisations are too bureaucratic to work in and end up leaving them to set up new unions or parties with the idea of offering the working class an alternative. Unfortunately they find that outside the official organisations things are not so easy. That is because there is no short cut, no magic formula to resolving the problem. If there is an ebb in the movement due to past defeats you cannot simply resolve it by declaring an “independent” revolutionary party or ignoring reality and pointing to revolution around the corner. The movement of the working class has its own tempo, its own timing. You cannot prematurely force it to move more quickly.

We must learn from this historical experience and develop a perspective for the future. The collapse of the Fourth International was partly a product of the objective situation. But we also have to remember that the leaders of the British RCP did not succumb to the same process. Why was that? The answer is to be found in the fact that they understood the essence of Marxism, the method of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. For them Marxism was not a crystal ball, but a scientific method, a guide to action.

The workers and youth of today are already being forced by the crisis of world capitalism to go once more onto the offensive. We have before us a historical opportunity to continue – and finally complete – the tasks that the great Marxists of the past had posed themselves.

October 26, 2004