International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International (1990): 50 years since the assassination of Trotsky

Reply to eight questions from a Soviet journalist

1. Would you tell us a little about the history of the Fourth International?

David North: The Fourth International was founded officially in September 1938 at a clandestine conference held on the outskirts of Paris. The need for secrecy arose from the dangerous political conditions which confronted the Trotskyist movement. Within the Soviet Union, as well as in the fascist countries, the Trotskyist movement was completely illegal. And within the “democratic” imperialist countries, the Trotskyists had to contend not only with the never-ending harassment of the bourgeois authorities, but also with the murderous conspiracies of the Stalinist GPU, whose agents functioned with virtual impunity. In the era of the popular front—the class collaborationist and reactionary political alliance of the Stalinist and bourgeois democratic parties—the capitalist states did not care to offend the Soviet government by objecting too strenuously to the activities of the GPU. Thus, in the year preceding the founding conference of the Fourth International, the GPU carried out the following assassinations of leading Trotskyists: (1) In July

Erwin Wolf, one of Trotsky’s most trusted secretaries, was abducted by the Stalinists in Spain and disappeared; (2) In September 1937, Ignace Reiss (Poretsky), who had defected from the GPU, denounced Stalin and declared his support for the Fourth International, was shot to death in Switzerland; (3) In February 1938, Leon Sedov, the son of Leon Trotsky, was the victim of a medical murder organized by the GPU inside the Clinic Mirabeau in Paris; and (4) In July 1938, Rudolf Klement, the political secretary of the Fourth International, was abducted from an apartment in Paris and murdered. Several weeks later, the torso of Klement—without head, arms or legs—was retrieved from the Seine River.

Politically, the founding of the Fourth International was the outcome of the theoretical and practical struggle that had been waged by Trotsky over the previous 15 years against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International. The destruction of inner party democracy was profoundly related to the abandonment of revolutionary internationalism. The theory of “socialism in one country”—advanced for the first time in 1924 by Stalin and Bukharin—reflected the social outlook of a growing bureaucracy which considered the October Revolution as a national, rather than international, event. For the Soviet bureaucracy, the essential significance of the October Revolution did not reside in the fact that it was the beginning of the world revolution, but rather that it had established the national framework within which the bureaucracy could accumulate its material privileges. Thus, the bureaucracy was not merely indifferent to the fate of the world socialist revolution. It feared the dangers to which a revolutionary internationalist policy might expose the national “Soviet” state upon which its privileges were based. This was the reason for the systematic subordination of the Communist International to the bureaucracy and its transformation into a passive instrument of Soviet foreign policy. This transformation, which resulted in the complete disorientation of the international revolutionary movement and a series of disastrous defeats of the working class, was realized in the course of a relentless campaign against Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution—i.e., against the theoretical and political conceptions which guided Bolshevik strategy between April and October 1917.

Between 1923 and 1933, the Left Opposition and its international cothinkers (the International Left Opposition) had fought for the political reform of the Soviet Communist Party and the Communist International. However, the tragic defeat of the German working class at the hands of Hitler in 1933 led Trotsky to abandon this orientation. Despite the fact that the actions of the German Communist Party—following the instructions of Stalin—paved the way for Hitler’s victory, the Communist International imperturbably endorsed policies which had led to the greatest catastrophe in the history of the international workers’ movement. For Trotsky, the Comintern’s responsibility for the victory of Hitler in January 1933 was of the same historical significance as the Second International’s capitulation to imperialism at the start of World War I in August 1914. He called for the building of a new international.

An additional five years were required for Trotsky to complete the theoretical and political work necessary for the founding of the Fourth International. His monumental political treatise, The Revolution Betrayed, established scientifically the counterrevolutionary character of the Soviet bureaucracy and demonstrated the historical inevitability of a political revolution that would ultimately overthrow the totalitarian regime of the Stalinist parasites. Within two weeks of the completion of this work, the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev began in Moscow; and the subsequent terror vindicated Trotsky’s assessment of Stalinism.

In addition to the fight against the Stalinist bureaucracy, Trotsky conducted a vigorous polemic against centrist tendencies—those which wavered between reformist and revolutionary policies—that argued against the formation of the Fourth International on the grounds that it was impossible to build an international at a time when the international working class was suffering one defeat after another. Trotsky insisted that the building of a Marxist international party was not a matter of tactical convenience, but of historic principle. The crisis of mankind, he wrote, is the crisis of revolutionary leadership. Civilization would either achieve socialism or relapse into barbarism. The victory of fascism in much of Europe and the inevitability of a new imperialist war was, Trotsky insisted, the terrible price mankind had paid for the failure of the working class, betrayed by the social democratic and Stalinist parties, to overthrow capitalism. The bitter historical experiences of the 1930s had demonstrated the necessity for a new revolutionary party of the international working class. That party was the Fourth International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution.

2. As a political tendency, what is contemporary Trotskyism? Do you consider yourselves to be Marxists?

DN: Trotskyism is contemporary Marxism. To be more precise, it is the form taken by Marxism in the course of the very protracted struggle against its theoretical and political antithesis, Stalinism. Despite his expulsion from the Communist Party, his exile from the USSR and his assassination at the hands of a GPU agent, history will record that in the final analysis it was Trotsky who defeated Stalin—for Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism represented the greatest victory of the Marxist method. The increasingly desperate crisis of the Soviet bureaucracy and the upheavals that have staggered the Stalinist bureaucracies in Eastern Europe are the living verification of the astonishing historical foresight of the program upon which the Fourth International was founded. “The laws of history,” Trotsky wrote in 1938, “are more powerful than the bureaucratic apparatus.” And now we are seeing how the operation of these laws, analyzed by Trotsky more than 50 years ago, are grinding the totalitarian regimes to dust.

It is necessary to stress that the theoretical life of the Fourth International did not come to an end with the death of Trotsky in 1940. The further development of Marxism within the Fourth International is recorded in a massive body of revolutionary literature in which virtually every issue that has confronted the international working class and oppressed masses over more than a half-century has been subjected to the most penetrating analysis. However, the central issue that has dominated the entire history of the Fourth International has been the nature of Stalinism itself. In the aftermath of World War II, a tendency emerged inside the Fourth International which—on the basis of the expansion of Stalinist influence into Eastern Europe—called into question Trotsky’s insistence upon the essentially counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism. This tendency argued that the Stalinist bureaucracy, under the pressure of the masses, could be compelled to conduct an international revolutionary struggle against imperialism. Moreover, it argued that the bureaucratic dictatorships in Eastern Europe were the necessary form that socialism would take for the next several centuries! The political conclusion implicit in these arguments was that the founding of the Fourth International had been a mistake, for Trotsky had failed to recognize the residual revolutionary potential within Stalinism and the Soviet bureaucracy. A corollary to this position was that the political revolution called for by Trotsky was unnecessary; for the bureaucracy was capable of reforming itself in the interests of the working class.

These clearly revisionist positions, which amounted to a historical apology and justification for Stalinism, were vehemently denounced and opposed by the orthodox Trotskyists inside the Fourth International. The fight against this revisionist tendency, whose chief representatives were Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel, led to a split in the Fourth International in 1953. The International Committee of the Fourth International, with which the Workers League is politically affiliated, was formed by the orthodox Trotskyists to fight against this revisionist tendency. In the years that followed, the revisionists evolved into crass political apologists for the bureaucracy and opponents of the political revolution. Today, their chief spokesman, Ernest Mandel, effusively supports the policies of the Gorbachev regime.

3. Could you tell us about your political organization in the West?

DN: First of all, our organization is active throughout the world, not only in the Western centers of imperialism. Sections of the International Committee of the Fourth International exist in Asia, and there are supporters of our movement in Latin America and Africa. At the present time, our section in Sri Lanka, the Revolutionary Communist League, has been in the forefront of the struggle to build a united front of working class organizations to resist the growing menace of a fascist military-police dictatorship. In the course of the past year, three of our Sri Lankan comrades have been assassinated by fascist thugs. Nevertheless, the influence of the Revolutionary Communist League continues to grow in the working class. In neighboring India, our comrades are steadily gaining influence among the workers in the industrial city of Madras. I might point out that superexploited Asian workers feel absolutely no sympathy for the procapitalist policies of perestroika and react to Gorbachev’s anti-Marxist sermons against the class struggle with a combination of contempt and disgust. Thus, the revolutionary program of Trotskyism is winning ever greater influence among the workers of India and Sri Lanka, at the expense of the Stalinist parties, which are discredited.

Of course, the International Committee is very active in Europe and North America. As you might imagine, the death agony of the East European Stalinists has led to a vast expansion in the work of the European sections of the International Committee. Workers throughout East Germany have written to our German section, the Bund Sozialistischer Arbeiter (BSA). Many workers have already traveled to West Germany to establish direct contact with the BSA. Leaflets, pamphlets and books published by the International Committee are now, after more than 40 years of illegality, circulating throughout Eastern Europe. By the way, I might mention that following the intervention of the BSA in the mass demonstration of November 4 in East Berlin, the Stalinist regime invited the aforementioned revisionist, Ernest Mandel, to East Germany. He was interviewed in the newspaper of the Stalinist party and publicly denounced the leaflet distributed by the BSA to the demonstrating workers as impermissible “outside interference” in the affairs of East Germany!

In the United States, the Workers League is in the forefront of the fight to end the subordination of the labor movement to the two capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans. We conduct this fight on the basis of revolutionary internationalism, which places us in direct conflict with a trade union bureaucracy whose corruption is exceeded only by its frenzied chauvinism. The Workers League’s principal weapon in the struggle for socialist policies is its weekly newspaper, the Bulletin.

4. What is your characterization of Stalinism? Is it fascism?

DN: Stalinism is the political dictatorship of a totalitarian and parasitic bureaucratic caste which has usurped power from the working class. As its privileges depend upon its complete monopolization of political power, the bureaucracy has sought over more than six decades to destroy every form of social opposition to its rule. If we were to confine ourselves to a descriptive enumeration of the crimes of the bureaucracy, it would be impossible to find any significant difference between the methods of Stalin and those of Hitler. However, it would still be false and unscientific to formally equate Stalinism and fascism; for the historical and social origins of the two regimes are fundamentally different. Fascism represents the most virulent form of the dictatorship of monopoly capitalism, in which the mass of petty bourgeoisie is mobilized against the labor movement for the purpose of destroying all working class organizations and forms of workers’ democracy. It carries out its bloody work for the purpose of defending bourgeois property against the imminent threat of proletarian revolution.

It is impossible to correctly define Stalinism apart from an analysis of the class nature of the Soviet state itself. We consider the Soviet Union, which was created by a successful proletarian revolution, to be a workers’ state, albeit one that has undergone a drastic degeneration. The Stalinist regime is itself the supreme embodiment of that degeneration. But to equate Stalinism with fascism raises the danger of failing to distinguish the very different social origins of both regimes and the property forms upon which they are based. While the growth of Stalinism represented a bureaucratic reaction against the October Revolution, the regime has thus far failed to liquidate the property forms which remain, however disfigured by the bureaucracy, an enduring social conquest of 1917.

The distinction which the Trotskyist movement insists on drawing between Stalinism and fascism is not as abstract as our petty-bourgeois liberal opponents would have one believe. In June 1941, following the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the Fourth International called for the unconditional defense of the Soviet Union—not because Stalin was, from a moral standpoint, superior to Hitler, but because the victory of the fascists would have meant the restoration of capitalist property, the dismemberment of the USSR and its reduction to the status of colonial slavery, and a horrific decline in the social and cultural level of the Soviet masses.

By drawing attention away from the historical origins and social forms of property, the simple identification of Stalinism and fascism inevitably leads to the conclusion that the alternative to the existing bureaucratic regime is some form of bourgeois democracy. We consider such a position to be essentially reactionary. The only historically progressive alternative to Stalinism is the revival of workers’ democracy on the basis of a political revolution that overthrows the bureaucracy and restores the power of genuine workers’ soviets.

There is no reason to believe that bourgeois democracy could be erected in the USSR. First of all, the growth of a new possessing class—arising from the most privileged layers of the bureaucracy, sections of the petty bourgeoisie, and the flourishing criminal elements active in the black market and cooperative movement—could only take place at the expense of the Soviet proletariat. The restoration of capitalism would entail a social reorganization far too harmful to the masses—growth of mass unemployment, the destruction of social subsidies, the deliberate impoverishment of millions now dependent on state industries—to permit the use of democratic methods. The methods of violent counterrevolution would be required. Thus, the restoration of capitalism would produce not a bourgeois democratic regime, but rather a Bonapartist military-police or openly fascist dictatorship.

5. How do you analyze the situation in the USSR?

DN: This question has already been partially answered. The regime of Gorbachev is one of senile bureaucratic Bonapartism. The policies of Gorbachev are the response of the most astute sections of the bureaucracy to the growing danger of a revolutionary movement of the Soviet working class, similar to that which occurred in Poland in 1980-81. The bureaucracy’s longstanding claim that it has been building “socialism in one country” has been totally discredited. Far from overtaking the capitalist world, the Soviet Union has, especially in the course of the last 15 years, fallen further behind. It has become obvious that the Soviet economy cannot advance without obtaining access to the resources of the world market and the international division of labor. However, there are only two ways such access can be obtained: either through a policy of revolutionary internationalism or through the integration of the USSR into the economic structure of world imperialism. Inasmuch as the bureaucracy fears nothing more than revolution, the Gorbachev regime is pursuing the second course. This second course, moreover, corresponds organically to the social interests of powerful sections of the bureaucracy, which see in the possibility of capitalist restoration a means of establishing firmer foundations for their own rule. But this places the bureaucracy on a collision course with the working class and sets the stage for revolutionary upheavals, of which the various miners strikes are only the first harbingers.

All the elements of a revolutionary situation enumerated by Lenin are now present in the USSR: there is a nationwide crisis affecting all classes and social strata; the ruling elite cannot rule in the old way; and the oppressed find the existing situation unbearable. Moreover, one of the chief characteristics of a revolutionary situation—a sudden and dramatic increase in the political activity of the masses—has been apparent since the miners strike.

However, what is still lacking in the Soviet Union is a Marxist party capable of mobilizing the masses in a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the bureaucracy and restore Soviet democracy. That is what must be built, and I am sure that it will not be long before the program of the Fourth International wins an audience among the most farsighted and selfsacrificing sections of workers, youth and intellectuals.

6. What is your prognosis for the further development of Eastern Europe and the USSR? Do we have a chance for success?

DN: Let us first define what we mean by success. For the working class of the USSR and Eastern Europe, “success” means the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracies, the defeat of the tendencies toward capitalist restoration, the creation of genuine workers’ democracy and the renewed development of socialism based on a program of revolutionary internationalism. In the opinion of the International Committee of the Fourth International, it is possible to realize this program. At any rate, it is far more realistic than the program of Gorbachev, who seeks to delude the Soviet masses, if not himself, with the prospect of overcoming the economic crisis through the restoration of the capitalist market.

7. What are the perspectives of the international workers’ movement and the Fourth International?

DN: In every part of the world, the working class movement is undergoing a profound crisis. It is ironic that at the very time when the bourgeoisie and its apologists are proclaiming the historic triumph of capitalism, the conditions of the working class are steadily worsening. There is not a bourgeois government in the entire world that is offering a serious program of social reform. Even in the archetypical welfare states of Scandinavia, the bourgeoisie is stressing the need for economic retrenchment and social cutbacks. In the United States, where millions are homeless, illiterate and without even rudimentary medical care, the government is not proposing a single piece of legislation to deal with even the most obvious manifestations of capitalist decay.

In the face of these deteriorating social conditions, the existing mass organizations of the working class are paralyzed. Far from resisting the assaults of the bourgeoisie upon the working class, the reformist labor bureaucracies offer their services in lowering living standards. An explanation for the apparent impotence of the reformist organizations must be found not only in the personal corruption and treachery of the bureaucrats, but in the objective changes in the nature of the world economy and their impact on the international workers’ movement.

The technological revolution of the postwar period has resulted in an unprecedented integration of the world economy. Production has become truly globalized. Transnational corporations do not merely sell their products or own factories in different countries. Individual commodities are themselves the outcome of the coordinated labor of workers operating in different countries and, indeed, on different continents. Moreover, the advances in communications technology have endowed capital with astonishing mobility; billions of dollars, yens and marks circle the globe each day in the form of electronic computerized transactions.

This international organization of capital has rendered the existing nationally-organized labor movements obsolete. To the extent that the organizations of the working class remain rooted in their national environments—that is, the labor movement remains essentially national—they are completely incapable of conducting a serious struggle against internationally organized capital. Confronting the resistance of the working class in his own country, the modem capitalist shifts production to “assembly platforms” located beyond the national borders.

The reformist bureaucracies respond to this situation with a combination of frenzied chauvinism and utter servility. They appeal to the bourgeois governments for intensified trade war against foreign competitors, while at the same time accepting the lowering of workers’ living standards to make domestic investment more attractive.

The only alternative to this bankrupt policy is one which, proceeding from a scientific analysis of the present highly integrated character of the world economy, fights for the worldwide organization of the international proletariat in a single world party. The working class is being brought face-to-face with the necessity of world socialist revolution. Marx’s old rallying cry “Workers of the world, unite!” is the only realistic basis for an effective struggle by the working class.

To give a concrete example, let us consider the international implications of present developments in Eastern Europe and the USSR. The bourgeoisie in Europe, the United States and Japan are now speculating that the restoration of capitalism in this area will open up a vast reservoir of exploitable cheap labor. By shifting production from France and West Germany to East Germany, Hungary and Poland, the capitalists can drastically cut their expenditures on wages and significantly increase their rate of profit. This danger can only be countered through the unified struggle of workers in Western and Eastern Europe against Stalinism and imperialism.

There is one other crucial aspect of the globalization of production that must be stressed. Despite the integration of the world economy, capitalism itself remains rooted in the nation-state system. In fact, the more highly integrated and mobile international capital becomes, the more dangerous are the residual conflicts between the existing bourgeois nation-states. This contradiction between the world market and the nation-state system is more explosive than at any time in history and sets the stage for conflicts even more terrible than those which erupted in 1914 and 1939.

Only through the world socialist revolution can a third and, given the existence of nuclear weapons, final world war be prevented.

The words written by Leon Trotsky in 1938 in the founding program of the Fourth International, on the eve of World War II, are as true, if not truer, today: “Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.”

8. How does the US government view your movement?

DN: That is simple to answer: with malignant hostility. There is no bourgeoisie in the world more terrified of socialism and Marxism than the American ruling class. It might seem strange that in a country where the socialist movement appears to be so small, the bourgeoisie is so fanatically obsessed with the threat of communism. Indeed, anticommunism is the semi-official ideology of the American bourgeoisie; and it is developed in the most nauseating forms by all the organs of propaganda at the disposal of the American bourgeoisie.

This obsession is not, however, irrational. It reflects the bourgeoisie’s own recognition of the explosive social tensions that lie just beneath the surface of capitalist society in the United States. Thus, the ruling class strives desperately to convince workers that however great their dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs, there is no possible alternative to capitalism.

But there are objective forces more powerful than the propaganda of the ruling class. The United States is a declining capitalist power. Its position in the world market has fallen drastically. From being the world’s principal creditor in 1945, it is now the world’s largest debtor. The terrible deterioration in the position of the American working class is the expression of the historic crisis of American capitalism. A revolutionary crisis is on the agenda in the United States. And this will have no small impact on the future course of events in the Soviet Union.