Keeping the International alive: a history of the Fourth International

This article was originally written for an Indonesian audience, but we believe it is of value for all our readers. It points out the conditions in which the Fourth International came into being and its subsequent demise, but also points to the future when a new and powerful Marxist international organisation must be formed out of the revolutionary events that impend.


The struggle to uproot capitalism and plant the seeds of socialism has always been an international task. It is not out of sentimentality that Marx and Engels proclaimed “Workers of the world unite!” Capitalism is an international economic system and therefore the struggle against it must be international. While for all practical purposes, the workers must organize themselves at home as a class with their country as their immediate arena of struggle, the real ultimate context of the class struggle is international.

The history of the Fourth International was one of a struggle to keep the genuine international spirit of the working class struggle alive when Stalin and his bureaucratic clique were undermining it. While Stalin was preparing to dismantle the Third International and renouncing the struggle for world socialism, Leon Trotsky was building, under a very difficult situation, the Fourth International not only to defend the first proletarian revolution, the October Revolution, but also to spread it beyond its border.

The building of the Fourth International was also part of Trotsky’s effort to recruit and educate a new generation of genuine Bolsheviks who would be able to finish what the Russian Bolsheviks had started. What is important is not the apparatus but the ideas that the Fourth International sought to protect and pass on to the next generation.

The First to the Third

Marx and Engels, the fathers of scientific socialism, founded the First International in 1864, recognizing the need for an international working class organization. Following the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 that opened a period of reaction, the whole working class movement suffered a great setback and the First International was not immune from this. Demoralization, confusion, squabbles and splits were infecting the First International like a plague [see First International on Marxist.com].

Finally in 1876, the General Council under Marx and Engels declared what had already become a fact in practice: the end of the First International. However, this doesn’t mean that Marx and Engels were giving up on the need for an international organization. It was only the difficult objective situation that forced the First International to fold, but only organizationally. The First International survived as an idea and programme, and in 1889 re-emerged again on a higher level as the Second International.

The Second International was born in a period where the working class was stronger and more numerous than at the time of Marx. Engels, who acted as an important ideological advisor to the Second International, expressed his regrets that the late Marx was not alongside him to witness the inspiring growth of the international labour movement. It is in this period that great Marxists all over the world were born: Plekhanov, Karl Kautsky, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, James Connolly, and many others. This phenomenon simply corresponded to the further crystallization of the proletariat as capitalism became more mature.

However, the Second International was also born during the period of capitalist boom. Reformist tendencies were burrowing away within the Second International behind the Marxist rhetoric. Under the blows of the First World War, the Second International cracked and was reduced to dust when many of its reformist leaders rallied their support behind the imperialist war. In 1914, Lenin and other revolutionary Marxists like Trotsky, Luxembourg, and Connolly declared the demise of the Second International. However, it took a revolution, the Russian Revolution, for the birth of the next International: the Communist International.

The Third International was at a much higher level than the previous two. It was born out of the first successful proletarian revolution. It was born when capitalism was entering a period of crisis and workers around the world were on the offensive, and world socialism was on the order of the day. Lenin and the Bolsheviks formed the Third International as an international party of the working class with one historic mission: world socialist revolution. The need for an international revolution, especially in advanced capitalist countries, was so central to Lenin that he said in 1918:

“Regarded from the world-historical point of view, there would doubtlessly be no hope of the ultimate victory of our revolution if it were to remain alone, if there were no revolutionary movements in other countries... I repeat, our salvation from all these difficulties is an all Europe revolution... At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed.”1

The isolation of the Soviet Union due to the defeats of many revolutions in Europe brought about the rise of bureaucracy and the degeneration of the October Revolution. Stalin, the manifestation of the Soviet bureaucracy, rose to power and eventually disbanded the Communist International in 1943 – without any congress – as his kind gesture to the Allies to prove that his Soviet regime was no longer a threat to world capitalist rule and that he sought peaceful co-existence with world capitalism. In a negative sense, Lenin’s prophecy was fulfilled: the German revolution was not successful and the October Revolution was doomed as a result of it.

The Origin

The Fourth International had its roots in the Left Opposition faction that Trotsky formed in 1923 to battle the rise of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. The delay of world revolution brought about political reaction in the land of October. After suffering two wars – World War I (1914-1918) and Civil War (1919-1921) – that resulted in severe economic dislocation, and witnessing a series of defeats in European revolutions, the Russian proletariat became exhausted, physically and mentally. Soviet meetings were empty as workers became more pre-occupied with day-to-day struggle to put food on the table. It was this situation – the absence of active workers in politics – that strengthened the bureaucratic element that is always present in any movement.

The Soviet Union was in temporary retreat. It had to try to solve its economic problems by itself while waiting – and actively preparing – for another wave of world revolution that would come to its rescue. This is the general political line of the Left Opposition. The bureaucracy, however, right after Lenin’s death, came up with the theory of socialism in one country: we can build socialism right here and right now in Russia. They were gradually abandoning the idea of world revolution as the saviour of the October Revolution. While always ending their speeches and writings with “Workers of the world unite!” the Stalinist bureaucracy in reality didn’t believe any longer in world revolution. All their measures were geared toward peaceful co-existence with the world capitalist powers.

The dissolution of Comintern in 1943 – although effectively it had been defunct for years as a force for world socialism – was one of many glaring examples of the logical conclusion of the theory of “socialism in one country”. The exhausted masses – especially the peasants and the petty bourgeois – that had been through wars and witnessed the many defeats of international revolutions, naturally gravitated to such ideology that presented to them what seemed to involve the least expenditure of energy. What the bureaucracy was basically saying was:“Let’s just build socialism now in Russia. Why bother waging world revolution?” The Russian masses embraced – although passively and reluctantly – this ideology because they were exhausted, while the bureaucracy embraced it – with much gusto – because it protected their privileges from the uncertainty of waging world revolution.

Leon Trotsky, with his Left Opposition faction within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, organized a fight against the bureaucracy with political ideas. True to Bolshevik tradition under Lenin, the Left Opposition never used personal intrigues and petty manoeuvres – the weapons of the reformists and petty bourgeois – in ideological struggles and polemics. Through political polemics, genuine Bolsheviks always strive to educate the party and thus polemics have to be fought with clear political ideas. However, the bureaucracy was not interested in fighting the Left Opposition with ideas, on which ground it was weak. Kamenev, after breaking from Stalin, warned Trotsky: “Do you think that Stalin is now considering how to reply to your arguments? You are mistaken. He is thinking of how to destroy you.”2 This is the mentality of all bureaucracy which can be found in social democratic parties, labour parties, trade unions and even workers’ state. The latter has at its disposal the resource of a state and thus it is capable of resorting to physical repression.

Up until now, we have been talking about the struggle between the person Trotsky against the person Stalin. However, it would be wrong to see this historical episode as a struggle between two individuals. We have to understand that both Stalin and Trotsky were merely manifestation of social interests. Stalin was the manifestation of the interests of the millions of officials. These officials, the majority of them not Bolsheviks of the earlier period, came from various backgrounds: former government employees under the Tsar, former Mensheviks, etc. The lack of educated people in Russia put these people in the government to run administrative functions. In the early period of the October Revolution, their power was checked by the power of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They merely functioned as administrators under the control of the workers. However, as the proletariat retreated, these bureaucrats asserted themselves, and they found in Stalin their natural leader with qualities they needed: an Old Bolshevik to assert some sort of moral authority, a strong character, a shrewd party organizer but not a theoretician. Yet, it can be said that if Stalin had not existed, or if he refused to act in the interests of the bureaucracy for whatever reason, there would have been someone else that the bureaucracy would have found.

Leon Trotsky, on the other hand, represented the objective interests of the proletariat. As the president of the first Soviet in 1905, the co-leader of the October Revolution with Lenin, and the creator of the first Red Army – a proletarian army whose task was not only to defend the workers’ state but also to wage world revolution – Trotsky’s fate was intimately tied to that of the working class. In a sense, this was also a curse that he had to carry. Despite his great intellect and the correctness of his many perspectives, the defeat of the world revolution and the resulting isolation of the Russian working class meant that Stalin – a man of lesser intellect – came out as the victor over him. Not being able to understand the social forces involved in the Trotsky-Stalin struggle has led many people into naïve questions and even more naïve conclusions: “How and why did you lose power?”, “Why didn’t you usurp power through a military coup?” and so on.

Historians have lamented that Trotsky was not a shrewd politician. Given his position as the de facto supreme leader of the Red Army surely he could have easily wrested power out of Stalin’s hands and prevented the rise of Stalinism and the monstrosity that ensued. The so-called “Marxist” historian, E.H. Carr claims that Trotsky “"failed to the last to understand that the issue of the struggle was determined not by the availability of arguments but by the control and manipulation of the levers of power.”3 To such a view, Trotsky answered:

“The question – it is very current (and very naive) – ‘Why did Trotsky at the time not use the military apparatus against Stalin?’… There is no doubt that it would have been possible to carry out a military coup d’état against the faction of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, etc., without any difficulty and without even the shedding of any blood; but the result of such a coup d’état would have been to accelerate the rhythm of this very bureaucratization and Bonapartism against which the Left Opposition had engaged in struggle. The task of the Bolshevik-Leninists was by its very essence not to rely on the military bureaucracy against that of the party but to rely on the proletarian vanguard and through it on the popular masses, and to master the bureaucracy in its entirety, to purge it of its alien elements, to ensure the vigilant control of the workers over it, and to set its policy back on the rails of revolutionary internationalism.”4

As the founder of the first Red Army in the world that defended the young Soviet Union from the assault of twenty one imperialist armies and the White Army, there is no question that Trotsky was a brilliant commander capable of executing complex military strategies. People often forget this simple fact. It is precisely because he was a brilliant strategist that he understood very well that one cannot take a shortcut if the final goal is genuine socialism. Any other person with similar stature in the Red Army would have resorted to military coup or manoeuvre, with a mechanical view that as long as Stalin is removed with whatever means then all would be well. Yet, Trotsky explained that “power is not a prize which the most ‘skilful’ win. Power is a relationship between individuals, in the last analysis between classes.”5

The International Left Opposition

Defeat after defeat befell the Left Opposition in Russia, but Trotsky never lost hope. Up until his eventual expulsion and exile in 1927, he was still trying to win the hearts of the ones and twos. Victor Serge, his compatriot during that time, described his tenacity:

“I have never known him greater, and I have never held him dearer than I did in the shabby Leningrad and Moscow tenements where, on several occasions, I heard him speak for hours to win over a handful of factory workers, and this well after he had become one of the two unchallenged leaders of the victorious Revolution. He was still a member of the Politburo but he knew he was about to fall from power and also, very likely, to lose his life. He thought the time had come to win hearts and consciences one by one – as had been done before, during the Tsar’s rule. Thirty or forty poor people’s faces would turn towards him, listening, and I remember a woman sitting on the floor asking him questions and weighing up his answers. This was in 1927. We knew we stood a greater chance of losing than of winning. But, still, our struggle was worth-while: if we had not fought and gone under bravely, the defeat of the Revolution would have been a hundred times more disastrous.”6

While Trotsky was fighting the bureaucracy in Russia, nuclei of Left Opposition were born outside the land of October. It couldn’t be otherwise as the ideological pillar of the Left Opposition was internationalism. They too suffered the same fate as the Russian Left Opposition: hounded, persecuted, and expelled from the party. These different national groups of the Left Opposition formally met for the first time in April 1930. Representatives from France, the US, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Czechoslovakia and Hungary met in Paris and formed the International Left Opposition (ILO) as a faction of the Communist International. Trotsky was absent as he was still confined to Turkey. A provisional International Secretariat was formed and a new publication, the International Bulletin, was started.

Exiled in Turkey, denied visa from all countries, Trotsky finally got an opportunity to leave Turkey for the first time in almost four years when he was invited by Danish Social Democratic students in Copenhagen to deliver a lecture on the Russian Revolution in November 19327.  About two dozen Left Oppositionists in Europe took the opportunity to hasten to Denmark, partly to provide security to Trotsky, and partly to meet with the “Old Man” for a direct discussion with him about the problems facing the ILO as it readied itself for an international pre-conference in November 1932. From the consultation he had with them, he wrote a report to all the sections, entitled “On the State of the Left Opposition” (16 December, 1932)8, followed by a programmatic document “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods”9 which was later voted at the February 1933 International Pre-conference10.  

In this programmatic document, Trotsky reiterates again the question of the defence of the Soviet Union as the main principle of the Left Opposition:

“Unconditional defence of the Soviet Union against world imperialism is such an elementary task of every revolutionary worker that the Left Opposition tolerates no vacillations or doubts on this question in its ranks. As before, it will break ruthlessly with all groups and elements which attempt to occupy a ‘neutral’ stance between the Soviet Union and the capitalist world.”11

Basing himself on this fundamental principle, he broke relations with so many groups and individuals, and most of them, as Trotsky had predicted, capitulated to the bourgeoisie and not a few turned their backs on communism altogether. Thus the accusation made by the Stalinists that Trotsky and his Left Opposition were the paid agents of imperialism and Fascism bent on destroying the Soviet Union was false to the core. Many honest rank-and-file members of the Communist Parties were never allowed to read even a single document from the Left Opposition, and were fed this lie by their leaders.

A common understanding of ideology and tasks is paramount to Trotsky, as he was preparing an organ of revolutionary struggle, following the tradition of Bolshevism. In the discussion about the Italian section, Trotsky on the Bordigist group, whom they had been working with for three years without any result and prospect of real unity, had this to say:

“Under certain circumstances an open and honest split, i.e. one carried through on a principled basis, proves to be necessary not only to free the hands of both sides, but also to prepare the possibility for real, and not fictitious, unification in the future… In spite of constant contact between two factions [Italian New Opposition and The Bordigists] there is no kind of fusion of ideas, i.e. no reciprocal interpenetration and influence, then there remains only the conclusion that we have before us two different and sharply distinguished groupings. In common work they can only paralyze each other… Where criticism of ideas does not help, the test of events is needed. Instead of obstructing each other, paralyzing each other, and complicating profound differences of opinion with daily friction and organizational quarrelling, it is incomparably better to separate in time, peacefully and without enmity, and thus leave the examination of the two lines to the further course of revolutionary struggle.”12

Trotsky was not concerned about building an organization which was large in number but not cohesive in ideas. There is no shortcut to building an organization. The cadres of a revolutionary organization have to share a common understanding of ideas and tasks.

What was the relationship between the International Left Opposition and the Comintern? Trotsky was adamant in stressing that:

“The International Left Opposition regards itself as a faction of the Comintern and its separate national sections as factions of the national Communist parties. This means that the Left Opposition does not regard the organizational regime created by the Stalinist bureaucracy as final. On the contrary, its aim is to tear the banner of Bolshevism out of the hands of the usurping bureaucracy and return the Communist International to the principles of Marx and Lenin. … Standing on the foundation of the October Revolution and of the Third International, the Left Opposition rejects the idea of parallel Communist parties. The entire responsibility for the splitting of communism lies on the Stalinist bureaucracy.”13

But what did it mean to be a faction, especially an unrecognized faction outside the party? This peculiar situation was truly one of a kind, and could only be born out of the Marxist perspective of the need to work in mass workers’ organizations, no matter how corrupt the leaders might be. Trotsky reminded his comrades again about what it really meant to be a faction of the Communist International:

“In the British section the question under discussion is whether one ought to limit oneself to internal work within the Communist Party or create independent ties with workers outside of the party. This question, which at various times has arisen before all the sections, is not one principle. The attempt to derive the scope and character of our activity from the concept of ‘faction’ would be purely doctrinaire. …”

“The inclination of certain comrades (as in France) to interpret the role of the faction in such a sense that the Opposition must not take a single step outside party limits is completely false. Our actual relation to the Comintern finds its expression not in abstaining from independent action, but in the context and the direction of such action. It would be ridiculous to behave as if we belonged, in fact, to the official organizations of the Comintern. We must carry out such policies as will open the gates of the Comintern to us. For this, we must become stronger, which cannot be achieved if we tie our hands against the Stalinist bureaucracy by artificial and false discipline. We must turn to the workers where they are, we must go to the youth, teach them the ABC of communism, build cells in factories and trade unions. But this work must be carried on in such a manner that ordinary Communists can see that for us it is a question not of building a new party, but of reviving the Communist International.”14

That is the Bolshevik method that Trotsky was trying to teach his followers: flexibility in tactics but firmness in principles. The ILO, even though expelled from the Communist International, still considered itself as a faction of the Communist International, and it sought to return this organization to the path of Bolshevism. As we shall see, the turn of events soon after he wrote the above sentences forced him to proclaim the death of the Communist International and the need for a new International.

In the same writing, Trotsky described how the Belgian comrades had correctly called the workers to cast their votes for the official candidates of the Belgian Communist Party, even though the Belgian comrades themselves had been expelled from this party by the Stalinists. However, Trotsky never ruled out other tactics:

“Under certain circumstances, the Left Opposition can and must put up its own candidates. But this must not come as a result of a false hunt for ‘independence,’ but out of the real relation of forces and must be correspondingly made clear in the course of the agitational work; it is not a question of snatching elective offices away from the official party [the Communist Parties of the Third International] but of raising the banner of communism where the party is not in the position to do so.”15

Another Bolshevik tradition that Trotsky tried to instil in this young organization was on the question of press. He reprimanded the German section who had hastily brought their internal polemics into the pages of their press, Die Permanente Revolution:

“Naturally in the presence of serious and lasting differences of opinion an open discussion is inevitable and indispensable. Although it weakens the organization temporarily, it is measurably more fruitful that an organizational struggle behind the scenes or half-concealed “allusions” in the press, which bring no results to anybody and only poison the atmosphere. But we must still regard it as completely impermissible to enter the path of public discussion without actual political necessity. Die Permanente Revolution is an organ intended first of all to influence the circles outside an organization. The discussion can and must be opened in an organ destined exclusively for internal distribution (a bulletin, discussion paper, etc.) The interests of internal democracy are not in the least hurt by this; at the same time unnecessary weapons are not placed in the hands of opponents and enemies.”16

The paper of a Bolshevik organization is not a place for internal debates. It is built for agitation and propaganda, to present to the masses clear ideas and political lines that have been agreed upon through the party’s democratic channels. Unlike petty bourgeois publications that like to put a mish mash of ideas into their publication, a Bolshevik paper comes out with coherent Marxist ideas. A Bolshevik party is not a reflection or a template of the socialist society that we strive to build. A Bolshevik party is a tool with which to build socialism, just like a hammer is a tool to build a table. Ask any worker and they will tell you that a hammer is not a template for a table. The same thing applies to the party’s organ. While Bolshevism fights for genuine freedom of the press in society, and its paper is a tool to achieve that goal, it doesn’t mean that the party’s paper is a place where anyone and everyone can demand that their ideas be published. As a general rule, the party’s internal discussions should be carried out through internal publication and documents.

Fellow Travellers in the Left Opposition

Trotsky never sugar-coated the myriad of problems that the ILO was facing. Unlike the Russian section of the ILO, the ILO outside Russia was made up of many “individuals and little grouplets, predominantly of intellectual and semi-intellectual character, without clear political views and without roots in the working class. Accustomed neither to serious work nor to responsibility, closely tied up to nothing and nobody, political nomads without baggage, who carried some cheap formulas, smart critical phrases, and practice in intrigue from town to town and from country to country.”17

After the glorious victory of the October Revolution, petty-bourgeois elements flocked under the banner of communism. One part of these many-hued elements entered the Stalinist apparatus and became the staunchest bureaucrats within the communist parties. As Trotsky said many times, the Stalinist bureaucracy is the manifestation of petty bourgeois reaction from within the October Revolution. The other part, the dissatisfied one, either abandoned politics or found refuge, albeit a temporary one, under the banner of the Left Opposition.

Thus, Trotsky declared:

“The Left Opposition can grow and strengthen itself only by cleansing its ranks of accidental and alien elements … of alien, sectarian, and adventurist bohemian elements, without a principled position, without serious devotion to the cause, without connection to the masses, without a sense of responsibility and disciplines, and for that, all the more inclined to listen to the voice of careerism.”18 

Trotsky spent years cleansing the ILO of such elements, through his unceasing demand that the cadres of the Left Opposition should pay very close attention to Marxist theory. It is not a coincidence that many found Trotsky a very demanding and difficult person to work with.

On the road that Lenin and Trotsky took to build the revolutionary party, a few fellow travellers, intellectuals and semi-intellectuals, artisans and academics, made their way into the Bolshevik party, and a few of them stood fast in the face of ideological assault. With capitalism facing crisis in the 1930s and Stalinism increasingly discredited, many intellectuals, writers and artisans found their way to Trotsky, from the famous French surrealist Andre Breton, the famous painter Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Khalo, Max Eastman, Edmund Wilson, Sidney Hook, James T. Farrel, and many more.

Here was a man who was fighting against capitalism with equal tenacity as he was fighting Stalinism. For intellectuals, whose conscience was wrought by the brutality of capitalism, but was equally disturbed to see the state of Marxism in Russia under Stalin, Trotsky was their refuge – albeit a temporary one as we shall see. In short period of time, these petty intellectuals found that Trotsky was the hardest of the hardest revolutionaries. Despite his isolation, Trotsky didn’t seek companions for the sake of it. He had set himself against every power in the world: fascism, bourgeois democracy, and Stalinism, against imperialism and pacifism, who he aptly denounced as “the servant of imperialism”19, against religion, mysticism, and even bourgeois secularism. He demanded all of his followers to be like himself, the hardest of revolutionaries, to emulate the generation of the Old Russian Bolsheviks, disciplined and principled in ideas and actions. Naturally, these intellectuals balked, first timidly and later ferociously, and many of them later turned into propagandist crusaders against Trotskyism and Communism.

The intellectuals felt that by adhering to Trotsky’s movement they could be part of the grand history of working class revolution. However, this immediately came into conflict with their way of life, as Trotsky’s idea is not a mere academic exercise but a revolutionary demand to destroy the old and build the new. With forty years of experience in the communist movement, Trotsky did not find this episode new or original. Many people had left the ranks of Bolshevism since the beginning and joined the other side. Every period of retreat, defeats, and reaction always brings a lorry load of deserters, and the more reactionary a period is the more unbearable the sight of such retreat and desertion will be.

Hitler’s victory and the end of the Communist International

It was in Paris, on February 4-8, 1933, that representatives from eleven European and American sections gathered for the first formal meeting of the International Left Opposition. The meeting was called a pre-conference because it was a preparation for a full conference which was planned for July 1933 with more delegations from all sections of the International Left Opposition – one that never took place.

The purpose of this pre-conference was organizational with a limited number of resolutions. However, an important programmatic document “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods,” written by Trotsky a couple of months earlier, was discussed and voted at this conference.

Despite facing unimaginable hardship, the ILO was making gainful progress around the world. Its documents and articles were being published in no less than fifteen languages and it had thirty two newspapers in sixteen countries. It had sections in nine countries and had created seven more in the previous three years.

The pre-conference took place one week after Hitler was appointed as the German Chancellor (30 January 1933). At that time, fascism hadn’t fully triumphed because Hitler hadn’t destroyed the proletarian organisations yet. The pre-conference document read:

“The establishment of fascism can be realized only on the day it has smashed the proletariat, through a victorious civil war or through general abandonment of the battle by the proletariat, betrayed by the Social Democracy or given up by the growing opportunism of the present centrist leadership of the Communist International to fascism in struggle.”20

Sadly, the latter scenario was to come true. The German working class was smashed without putting up a fight due to the German Communist Party’s (KPD) false policy of describing the Social Democracy as “social fascism”, which de facto split the German working class and left the door open to the Nazis. Under this theory of social-fascism, the Stalinists argued that Social Democracy was the chief enemy and that it was no different from fascism. According to this idea, the Social Democrats were Social Fascists; in fact, they were more dangerous than the real fascists of Hitler’s kind. All reformist and social-democratic workers had therefore to be attacked. Their meetings had to be broken up, even if it meant working together with the Nazis. Thaelmann, the then leader of the German Communist Party, even coined the slogans: “Drive the social fascists from their jobs in the factories and the trade unions!”, “Chase them away from the factories, labour exchanges and professional schools.”

However, all was not yet lost. The pre-conference issued an appeal21 to the German working class stating that fascism had not triumphed yet, but could only be defeated by a united front of all working class organizations: the German Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the trade union organizations, the factory councils, etc.

The leaders of both the SPD and the KPD ignored the call, but the bulk of the responsibility for the defeat clearly fell on the German Communist Party. The German Social Democratic Party had long been the agent of the bourgeoisie. It was able to maintain a working class base through socialist demagogy, while in practice it placed a brake on the working class movement. They had already betrayed the working class on different occasions, and their surrender to fascism was inevitable and it did not come as a surprise to genuine revolutionaries. However, the German Communist Party had been formed historically to lead the workers out of the blind alley it had been led down by the Social Democracy. If the leadership of the KPD had applied the Leninist policy of the workers’ united front, it could have forced the Social Democracy to commit itself to battle under the pressure of its working class base. It could have torn away the honest social democratic workers from their leaders who they would see vacillate in the face of fascist dangers. Alas, the German Communist Party continued with its social-fascist policy that basically wiped out any differences between fascism and social democracy, and thus Hitler was able to come to power without any opposition from the German Communist Party. This led to the decision by the International Left Opposition that its German section had to break from the KPD and build a revolutionary party in opposition to it. This position was put forward in March 1933 by Trotsky in a series of writings to the International Secretariat of the International Left Opposition. There is no confusion in his prognosis. The first paragraph of his letter to the International Secretariat lays bare the conclusion that had to be drawn from the betrayal of German Stalinism:

“To the International Secretariat. Dear Comrades: German Stalinism is collapsing now, less from the blows of the fascists than from its internal rottenness. Just as a doctor does not leave a patient who still has a breath of life, we had for our task the reform of the party as long as there was the least hope. But it would be criminal to tie oneself to a corpse. The KPD today represents a corpse.”22

After this major setback in German, the Comintern still proved incapable of learning from this mistake. On April 1, 1933, after Hitler effectively established his dictatorship and began suppressing trade unions, and all workers’ partiers and organisations, including the Communist Party, the Executive Committee of the Communist International passed a resolution stating that:

“...the establishment of an open fascist dictatorship… accelerates the rate of Germany’s development towards proletarian revolution by destroying all democratic illusions of the masses and by freeing them from the influence of the Social-Democracy.”

Such was the blindness of the leadership of the Comintern, unable to understand that what was being destroyed was not illusion in bourgeois democracy but the working class itself. This finally convinced Trotsky that the Comintern was no longer salvageable, and that a new International had to be built. He put forward this position in July 1933 (“It is necessary to build communists parties and an International anew”23). This also led to a name change to the organization. The International Left Opposition was now the International Communist League (ICL). The next five years were spent recruiting cadres and training them for the eventual proclamation of the Fourth International.

The Foundation Congress of the Fourth International

On September 3rd, 1938, a historic meeting took place in a small village in France, Perigny. Gathered in the house of Alfred Rosmer were twenty one delegations from eleven countries for the Founding Congress of the Fourth International. The Congress was held in great secrecy. A communiqué was sent out, stating that the gathering was taking place in Lausanne, Switzerland, in an attempt to trick the Stalinist agents. This was because of the real threat from the GPU, which had started a rabid assassination campaign against Trotskyists outside the Soviet Union. In 1938, Erwin Wolf, Trotsky’s secretary was kidnapped and killed in Spain. Ignace Reiss, a high-ranking GPU official, was assassinated not long after he decided to join Trotsky. Lev Sedov, Trotsky’s son and his right hand man, was killed by the GPU in February 1938. After Sedov, the GPU turned their attention to Rudolph Klement, the secretary of the Bureau of the Fourth International who was responsible for organizing the Founding Congress. He was kidnapped on July 12, 1938 and his decapitated body was found in the Seine River days later. The GPU was clearly targeting the next crop of leaders of the Fourth International.

However, all the secrecy in organizing the Congress was in vain. Two GPU agents were in fact present in the Congress itself: Etienne, who was also responsible for the killing of Lev Sedov, and Jacques Monard, who two years later drove an ice pick into Trotsky’s skull. That time Jacques Monard came with Sylvia Agelof, a Trotskyist from New York, as her lover. He pretended not to be interested in the gathering and was pacing outside the congress room waiting for his girlfriend. Fate sometimes likes to play cruel jokes. The two GPU agents who infiltrated the Founding Congress of the Fourth International were to be killers of both father and son!

Out of the twenty one delegates, two from Poland expressed their disagreement with the proclamation of the Fourth International. They argued that the objective situation – the retreat in the workers’ movement, the period of reactions and defeats – was not conducive for the proclamation of a new International. Even though they agreed that the Second and the Third International were already dead, it was too early to form a new one. A vote was taken, with 19 for and 3 against the proclamation. The Polish section, however, displayed a true Bolshevik attitude. They abided by the majority decision and pledged to loyally carry out to the best of their abilities the decisions of the Congress.

From South East Asia, the only country registered as a section of the Fourth International was Indo-China (Vietnam). Ta Thu Thau, the foremost leader of the Trotskyist group in Vietnam, was elected in absentia as a member of Executive Committee as the Indo-China representative. In September 1945, Ta Thu Thau too was assassinated by the Vietnamese Stalinists at the age of 39.

Trotsky himself was elected as a secret member of the Executive Committee, representing the Russian section of the Fourth International. From the minutes of the Congress, there were 5000 members spread across 18 countries. The biggest section was in the United States, with 2500 members, followed by Belgium (800), France (600), Poland (350), England (170), Germany (200), Czechoslovakia (150-200), Greece (100), Chile (100), Cuba (100), South Africa (100), Canada (75), Australia (50), Brazil (50), Holland (50), Spain (10-30), and Mexico (15). There were a number of other countries listed but there was no information on how many members they had.24

For reasons of security, this historical Congress was wrapped up in one day. They didn’t even have the time to sing the Internationale at the end of the Congress.

The Transitional Programme

It is in this Founding Congress that the “Transitional Programme” was discussed and voted, and it became the most important document for the Trotskyist movement. It opened with a bold statement:

“The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”

There was no lack of objective conditions. Capitalism was so much in crisis that it had to resort to fascism as its final saviour. Everywhere the revolutionary situation was ripening, to a point that it began to get somewhat rotten. With this statement the Fourth International was calling on every conscious revolutionary to prepare themselves, to build for a leadership capable of carrying out the struggle to its final conclusion, to build a Bolshevik party capable of accomplishing what Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks had done in the land of October.

In this document, Trotsky formulated a system of transitional demands. The social democrats had destroyed the bridge between the minimum programme (reforms) and the maximum programme (socialism). In fact, they no longer had the will to cross that bridge. They were content with reforms under capitalism – and counter-reforms during capitalist crisis – and to leave socialism to a distant unknown future. Meanwhile, the Stalinists were engaging in all sorts of zigzag moves, from opportunism to ultra-left madness. Transitional demands seek to provide a bridge for workers to their historical task. They start out from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class, leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat. It is an art of utilizing day-to-day demands as a stepping stone toward a higher consciousness, as a means to mobilize the masses and train them in class struggle. Transitional demands are therefore constantly evolving. They are not set in stone. What is a transitional demand one day, in a different moment, could hold the masses back or conversely could be too far ahead of the masses.

Trotskyism in Indonesia

Tan MalakaTan MalakaTan Malaka, who was often branded as a Trotskyist by the Indonesia Stalinists, was never in contact with Trotsky and the Fourth International. However, it must be said that in many fundamental questions Tan Malaka reached the same conclusions as Leon Trotsky. It was this fact that earned him the Trotskyist brand.

In many of his writings, he never decisively took sides between Stalin and Trotsky. The only significant writing where he talked about Trotskyism was the “Thesis”. There he was merely trying to prove that according to the Stalinist definition of Trotskyism his political line had nothing in common at all with Trotskyism.

“In the official book ‘History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks)’, which was approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) in 1938, one of the most important characteristics of ‘Trotskyism’ was written in page 288-289: ‘… there were the downright capitulators, like Trotsky, Radek, Zinoviev, Sokolnikov, Kamenev, Shylapnikov, Bhukarin, Rykov, and others who did not believe that Socialist development of our country was possible, bowed before the ‘omnipotence’ of capitalism and in their endeavour to strengthen the position of capitalism in the Soviet country demanded far-reaching concessions to private capital, both home and foreign, and the surrender of a number of key positions of the Soviet power in the economic field to private capitalists, the latter to act either as concessionaries or as partners of the State in mixed joint stock companies. Both groups were alien to Marxism and Leninism.’

“On page 262 of that book: ‘They (Trotsky and others) proposed that we should throw ourselves on the tender mercies of the foreign capitalists, surrender to them in the form of concessions branches of industry that of vital necessity to the Soviet State. They proposed that we pay the Tsarist government’s debts annulled by the October Revolution. The Party stigmatized these capitulatory proposals as treachery.’

“It was clear that the two important things that differentiate Stalinism and Trotskyism, according to the book that we just obtained, were about the attitude of the Soviet Union and the CPSU in regards to: 1) the Tsarist government’s debt, 2) Foreign capitalism in Russia. Those two things were rejected by Stalin, and were admitted by Trotsky.

“Wasn’t point 6 and point 7 of the minimum programme [of PARI, Tan Malaka’s party] the demand for the expropriation and rejection of foreign capitalism [Dutch assets in Indonesia]?

“About the Dutch Indies’ debt, according to PARI this has to be paid by the Dutch themselves. The Republic of Indonesia has the right and the obligation to reject paying Dutch Indies’ debt …

“… It is clear that PARI is in line with the ‘official line’ of the CPSU under Joseph Stalin. Those who accuse PARI or whoever as ‘Trotskyist’ ought to inspect the truth of those allegations according to the above note.”25 [Emphasis added]

It was clear in this writing that Tan Malaka had never read a single work by Trotsky or the International Left Opposition. In fact, it seems that he was trying to make a point that there was an inconsistency on the Stalinists’ part. Their definition of Trotskyism did not fit their accusation.

Furthermore, true to his Bolshevik attitude, Tan Malaka didn’t take sides at all until he could study both sides, unlike many Stalinist PKI members who blindly adopt an anti-Trotsky attitude without reading anything by Trotsky. The words of D.N. Aidit’s brother, Sobron, illustrated how many PKI members were taught to be against Trotsky without really understanding him:

“He [Asahan, another sibling of D.N. Aidit] just finished a text by Trotsky about the biography of Stalin. This 900-page book, according to him, was very interesting. I myself don’t know and understand why in the past we were taught to be so anti-Trotsky… In fact I really didn’t know and didn’t understand the ideas and ideology of Trotskyism.”26

As an “Old Bolshevik” in Indonesia, Tan Malaka knew very well the leading role that Trotsky played in the October Revolution. Trotsky was the co-leader of the October Revolution with Lenin. During the first period of the Indonesian Communist Party in the early 1920s, the names Lenin and Trotsky were synonymous for the Russian Revolution. At the Congress of the PKI in December 1921, above the stage were the pictures of Lenin and Trotsky, not Lenin and Stalin27. Tan Malaka also lived in the Soviet Union between 1922-23, when the Soviet regime was still fairly healthy and could see with his own eyes how Trotsky was highly revered amongst the workers. Although he never personally met Trotsky, he had seen him speak at demonstrations28. This definitely played a role in Tan Malaka’s neutral stance toward the Stalin-Trotsky struggle. He couldn’t just swallow the allegations that Trotsky – a well respected co-leader of the October Revolution – was a counter revolutionary who conspired with the fascists and the imperialists and was striving to bring capitalism back to Russia; not without reading Trotsky’s writings, something that he never had a chance to.

The only group that formally joined the Fourth International was Ibnu Parna’s Acoma (Angkatan Comunis Muda, Young Communist Force). Acoma was founded in 1946 from a group of communist youth. In the 1955 election, they gained enough votes to have Ibnu Parna elected as a member of parliament. In the early 1950s they began developing contacts with the International Secretariat of the Fourth International and in 1959 they affiliated with the Fourth International. There is very little record of Acoma’s relationship with the Fourth International, or of what their political programme and activities were as a section of the Fourth International. The Fourth International lost contact with the Acoma after the 1965 anti-communist counter-revolution in which Ibnu Parna was killed.

[Note: We refer here to “Fourth International” for simplicity’s sake, but in reality it was no longer the organisation that Trotsky had founded. It had degenerated irrecognisably during the post-war years and had de facto become just another sect. For more on this see: The origins of the collapse of the Fourth International by Fred Weston, and The theoretical origins of the degeneration of the Fourth - Interview with Ted Grant]

The Aftermath

For Leon Trotsky, his struggle to save the October Revolution was more important than any of his roles in 1917 and the subsequent Civil War. With Lenin, he was the midwife of the October Revolution, leading the Military Revolutionary Council that was responsible for the storming of the Winter Palace. Taking the leadership of the first Red Army in the history of humankind, he then proceeded to save the young Soviet Union from the onslaught of the White Army and their imperialist masters. He was then tasked again with saving the October Revolution, but now from the enemy within, the bureaucracy. Trotsky wrote in his diary how he personally appraised his roles throughout these periods:

“Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place – on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring – of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders ... But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway ....

“Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my own work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word. There is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve. The vicissitudes of my personal fate have confronted me with this problem and armed me with important experience in dealing with it. There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International. … the worst vice is to be more than fifty-five years old! I need at least about five more years of uninterrupted work to ensure the succession.”29

He was given his five years before Stalin’s agent managed to catch up with him. However, he was mistaken in thinking that he could ensure Bolshevik succession in five years. The breakout of the Second World War created a far more complex situation that still required his leadership. In his absence – and not to mention the assassination campaign that robbed the Left Opposition of many of its young promising cadres, including Trotsky’s only remaining son Lev Sedov – many cadres of the Fourth International simply weren’t up to the task of building the organization during the war.

After the death of Trotsky, the Fourth International suffered split after split. On the one hand, there was the difficult objective situation after World War Two. The post-war capitalist boom in Europe meant the strengthening of reformism in Western Europe. At the same time, Stalinism was strengthened as well due to its victory over the German Nazis. Stalinism and reformism sold out waves of revolution that were sweeping Europe and many colonial countries. On the other hand, there was the subjective factor. The leaders of the Fourth International, James Cannon, Joseph Hansen, Ernest Mandel, and figure such as Tony Cliff and many others, were unable to understand the new situation. Many sought short cuts, moving from opportunism to ultra-leftism. However, this situation was not peculiar to the Fourth International alone. Many left groupings entered into a prolonged ideological and organizational crisis after the end of the Second World War.

Although the Fourth International, as an organization, did not become what Trotsky had hoped for, through his writings he was – and still is – arming the next generation of fighters. The historical task of Trotskyism was first to keep the flame of Marxism, of Bolshevism, alive amidst the reactionary storm. The next International will arise again to stoke the flame of world socialist revolution, and when it does it will be on a higher level because it will have the experience – the lessons of struggle and defeats – of the four Internationals before it.

Source: Militan (Indonesia)


1. V.I. Lenin, “Political Report of the Central Committee,” Extraordinary Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), March 6-8, 1910, Marxists Internet Archive.

2. Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, 1935

3. E.H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan, 1959) 34.

4. Leon Trotsky, “How did Stalin Defeat the Opposition?” November 12, 1935, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1935-36] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977) 175-176.

5. Trotsky, “How did Stalin Defeat the Opposition?” [1935-1936] 177.

6. Victor Serge, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (New York: Basic Books, 1975).

7. Leon Trotsky, “In Defence of October,” A speech delivered in Copenhagen, Denmark, in November 1932. Leon Marxists Internet Archive. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1932/11/oct.htm>

[8] Leon Trotsky, “On the State of the Left Opposition,” December 16, 1932, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1932-33] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972) 24.

9. Leon Trotsky, “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods,” December 1932, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1932-33] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972) 48.

10. “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods,” Documents of the Fourth International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973) 19.

11. Trotsky, “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods,” [1932-33] 50.

12. Trotsky, “On the State of the Left Opposition,” [1932-1933] 27-28.

13. Trotsky, “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods,” [1932-33] 54.

14. Trotsky, “On the State of the Left Opposition,” [1932-1933] 30.

15. Trotsky, “On the State of the Left Opposition,” [1932-1933] 31.

16. Trotsky, “On the State of the Left Opposition,” [1932-1933] 32.

17. Trotsky, “On the State of the Left Opposition,” [1932-1933] 33.

18. Trotsky, “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods,” [1932-33] 55-56.

19. Leon Trotsky, “Pacifism as the Servant of Imperialism,” 1917, Marxists Internet Archive

20. Trotsky, “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods,” Documents 36.

21. “Appeal of the Preconference of the ILO to all Members of the Communist Party of Germany, to all Social Democratic Workers, to the entire proletariat of Germany,” Documents of the Fourth International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973) 44.

22. Leon Trotsky, “KPD or New Party? (I),” March 12, 1933, The Writings of Leon Trotsky [1932-33] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972) 137.

23. Leon Trotsky, “It is necessary to build communist parties and an International anew,” July 15, 1933, Writings of Leon Trotsky [1932-33] (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972) 304.

24. “Minutes of the Founding Conference of the Fourth International,” Documents of the Fourth International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973) 289.

25. Tan Malaka, Thesis, 1946, Marxists Internet Archive.

26. Sobron Aidit, Kisah Serba-Serbi (Omong-omong dengan Asahan Alham) 11 September, 2006.

27. Harry A. Poeze, Tan Malaka: Pergulatan Menuju Republik 1897-1925 (Jakarta: Pustaka Utama Grafiti, 1988) 207.

28. Poeze 311.

29. Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, 1935 (London: Faber and Faber, 1958) 53-54.

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