What is the Fourth International?



Marx and Engels were the first socialists to establish an international working class party, or "International" as it is known, in the middle of the last century. It was known as the First International and among other things played an important role in trying to aid the Paris Commune in 1871. It eventually collapsed and since then a number of subsequent attempts have been made to establish successor "Internationals". The Second International became the first mass workers’ International in the latter part of the last century and in the early part of the twentieth century. It ended by betraying the international workers movement when each national section of the International supported its own national war effort in 1914 at the start of the First World War. The only section that did not was the Russian section, led by Lenin, which maintained an internationalist position on the war. Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks established the Third International (also known as the Communist International) in 1919. It attempted to spread revolution from Russia to the rest of Europe, but was unsuccessful. The Third International degenerated under Stalinism and was scrapped as a favour to Churchill during the Second World War. Trotsky, exiled and marginalised from the mass workers movement, attempted to bring together left workers parties during the 1930s to create the basis for a new Fourth International. He was largely unsuccessful as a result of the difficult conditions which existed during that period. But on the eve of the Second War in 1938 Trotsky decided it was now or never and the Fourth International was established with small propaganda parties in several countries.

The Fourth International subsequently gained a mass base in several Third World countries (Vietnam, Bolivia and Sri Lanka), but elsewhere was unsuccessful. It survives today as a fragmented movement of international Trotskyist tendencies. Many Trotskyists recognise the need to reconstruct the Fourth International as a mass World Party of Socialist Revolution. The International Trotskyist Opposition, for example, sees this as its main task today. Trotskyism, therefore, may be seen as a movement which has attempted to continue the revolutionary socialist tradition of Marxism and Leninism by utilising the methodology of Marxism in a creative way to elaborate a political programme that meets the needs of today’s international workers’ movement. It may also be seen as the most consistently internationalist wing of the workers movement, attempting to organise the working class on an international basis. "The working class has no nation", wrote Karl Marx. On that basis, Trotskyism attempts to facilitate the international organisation of the workers movement around an international political programme. Each International had its own political programme.


What exactly do we mean by political programme? Just as a play has a programme guide listing, in order of occurrence, the acts and scenes of the play, or just as a TV channel programme guide shows the individual TV shows being presented during the day or week, so a political programme outlines the order of events in a revolutionary drama. It outlines, in a practical step by step way, how we anticipate that the class struggle will unfold, drawing on the lessons of similar struggles of the working class in the past. And it also outlines the tasks of the class conscious vanguard within this process, drawing on the successes of past victorious working class insurrections, and highlighting the mistakes made by the vanguard in past defeats, so that they are not tragically repeated. So, a very important part of a revolutionary political programme is basing present conclusions on what Trotsky called the “living history” of past workers’ struggles.

Behind every sentence of a truly revolutionary programme is the memory of all that has gone before applied, not in a mechanical, but in a creative way to the tasks of the present.

There have of course been previous attempts to draw up such programmes for other parties and workers’ international organisations: Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto (1848), the programme of the early Communist International (early 1920s) and the Transitional Programme (1938). Any programme for the present may be seen as a development of these earlier efforts.

From the Communist Manifesto we receive the idea of the need for the working class to organise itself as a new ruling class. "When in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production is concentrated in the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so-called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class." Communist Manifesto Pelican edn. p 105.

From the same Manifesto, the objectives of socialism are summarised as follows:

"1) abolition of property in land and application of all rents to public purposes.

2) A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3) Abolition of all right of inheritance

4) Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5) Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank.

6) Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

7) Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

8) Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

9) Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country.

10) Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c." Communist Manifesto p 105. The International Working Men’s Association (also known as the First International) was established by Marx and Engels in the mid-nineteenth century. It organised solidarity with the Paris Commune which was the first manifestation of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The workers took over Paris and ran it as an embryonic workers city-state until it was crushed by reaction.

The 1905 Russian Revolution again showed the capacity of the working class to organise itself as a new embryonic ruling class. The Petrograd Soviet was a kind of workers parliament. These were formed all over Russia in 1917 and became the basis of the workers government formed during the revolution. What the 1905 revolution also demonstrated was the unwillingness of the Russian capitalists to free themselves from the constraints of the feudal Czarist system. The experience of 1905 brought home to Trotsky, Chair of the Petrograd Soviet, the fact that the capitalists were mortally afraid of the revolutionary forces within the working class, which a real revolution would unleash against themselves. They feared the working class in a revolution against feudalism more than they hated the feudal system itself. Trotsky expressed this insight in his famous theory of permanent revolution. The bourgeoisie, which had played a revolutionary role against feudalism in the English Civil War and the French Revolution, became less revolutionary in subsequent revolutions as the working class became more developed during the industrial revolution. In 1917, the Russian bourgeois governments, which replaced Czarism immediately after the February Revolution, would not even carry out the agrarian reform necessary for the success of capitalism in Russia. And it became clear in the 1927 Chinese Revolution that the Chinese capitalist class, represented by the Guomindang party, would massacre the Chinese Communists and the working class vanguard in their efforts to oppose those who would carry out agrarian reform and other aspects of the bourgeois democratic programme. The repression of the working class by the Third World bourgeoisie which is now so familiar to us all (Chile, Indonesia etc) today, was less obvious in the early nineteenth century and the tendency of the bourgeoisie to side with feudalism and imperialism against the working class was first understood by Trotsky.

The October Revolution was quickly followed by the establishment of Communist Parties in many countries and the Communist International (also known as the Third International or Comintern) was established to co-ordinate the work of the CPs on an international basis. The programme of the Comintern drew out the lessons of the victorious October Revolution for the benefit of other Communist Parties. The first period after the October Revolution was one of revolutionary struggles in eastern and central Europe. With the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923, however, the situation changed and a period of defensive struggles developed in which the bourgeoisie took the offensive throughout Europe. It was in this period that the Communist International developed the united front tactic as a means of winning the ranks of the European socialist and labour parties which became consolidated during this period of retreat. The revolutionary communist parties were to call upon the leaders of the socialist parties to enter into joint action with the communist parties in defence of workers’ interests, knowing that the right-wing leaders of these parties would be unwilling to do so. This would then have the effect of discrediting the socialist leaders in the eyes of their members, leading to defections to the communist parties. This approach is very relevant today because we are also in a period of retreat and defensive struggles.

The Comintern also developed a transitional approach to agitation and propaganda. These demands were neither restricted to piece-meal concessions within capitalism (i.e. reformist, trades union, minimum demands) nor were they calling for revolution tomorrow and to man the barricades (i.e. maximum demands) when it was obviously not a possibility.

Transitional demands articulated the daily needs of workers who were not yet convinced of the need for revolution; but they also presented the solution to the needs of the working class in a form which had been adopted by the workers’ government in the period after the October Revolution. So, for example, under capitalism, workers needed their pay protected from rampant inflation. Instead of presenting the answer to this in the form of a temporary, piece-meal concession from the bosses, i.e a one-off pay rise, the Comintern programme presented it in a way that would enable workers to envisage a more lasting solution to their problems. Instead of a one-off pay rise, which would be quickly swallowed up by a new round of inflation, would it not make sense to demand a sliding-scale of wages which would rise automatically as inflation rose? Was this not the system in operation implemented by the Russian Revolution? Likewise the solution to unemployment was presented not as a temporary concession from the bosses (e.g. a few more jobs), but in away that would enable workers to visualise a system without unemployment: everybody should have the right to employment; it is necessary to share the available work between all who need to work without loss of pay; we demand a sliding scale of working hours in line with this policy. Was this also not the system in operation in the Soviet Union?

This transitional methodology maximised the impact of the Communist Parties in a period of relative retreat during the mid-1920s when it was applied to the international workers movement. From the late 1920s however, this method was discarded by the then Stalinist dominated Comintern. A new "Third Period" of imaginary revolutionary advance was announced. The united front and the transitional approach were junked overnight as the Communist parties were urged into ridiculous ultra-left adventures. The united front tactic was replaced with a policy in Germany characterised the SPD as "social fascist". Flowing from this absurd line went the policy of not allying with the socialists in the SPD against the then rapidly growing threat from Hitler’s Nazi party. The SPD was worse than the Nazis according to the new line of the Comintern.

The transitional method was rejected also in favour of crazy adventurist revolutionary demands and an equally lunatic policy of self-isolation of the vanguard through splitting the reformist unions and setting up tiny "red unions". Trotsky and his co-thinkers had consistently opposed this disastrous line within the Comintern. The result of the refusal to form a united front against Hitler, and the division and isolation of the vanguard, was the victory of Hitler and the smashing of the most powerful workers’ movement in Europe. The Third International’s largest national section, the German Communist Party, was crushed without a struggle being carried out to resist it. After a period of waiting (in vain) to see if an opposition would develop in response to this disaster within the ranks of the Comintern, Trotsky and his followers, decided that the Third International was "dead for the purposes of revolution". It was necessary to build a new International. Over the next period Trotsky and his co-thinkers tried to create the basis for a new Fourth International by intervening in the newly formed left splits from the socialist and labour parties throughout Europe (e.g. in Britain the Trotskyists formed an opposition within the Independent Labour Party). But it was a difficult period for the workers movement and the left and this attempt did not bring significant forces over to the project of building the new International. The Fourth International therefore had to be formed with very few forces in 1938 as World War II loomed.

The Comintern’s transitional approach was later presented again in a more developed form in the programme of the Fourth International The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. The demands in this programme are still very relevant to socialists today and, despite the fact that much water has flowed under the bridge since it was written, it is a document which is essential reading for socialists today.