The break with the Communist International

Submitted by cathy n on 15 August, 2007 - 10:16

Jean van Heijenoort was for seven years (1932-9) Trotsky’s secretary. Here he outlines the story of Trotsky’s break with the Communist International and turn towards building a new international. His account of Trotsky’s reasoning on the class nature of the USSR is an important element in the history of post-Lenin revolutionary Marxism.

Our movement has the right to consider itself the representative and the historical standard-bearer of revolutionary socialism. It is at the end of a chain whose links were the Communist League of Marx and Engels, the International Workingmen’s Association (First International), the Second International, the Bolshevik party of Lenin, and the Communist International. But in order to establish the specific beginnings of our movement it is necessary to begin with the year 1923 in the USSR

The Left Opposition
The October Revolution established the first workers’ state, but remained isolated. “Without revolution in Europe,” said Lenin repeatedly, “we shall perish.” History verified the truth of his words, but in its own manner. Degeneration appeared in the apparatus itself of the new regime — the party that led the revolution to victory.

The resistance to corruption of the party came from Trotsky. The struggle began in the fall of 1923. On 8 October he sent a letter to the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission denouncing the stifling of the right of criticism on the part of party members. This is the first document of our movement.

Beginning with the question of the internal regime of the party, the struggle grew progressively to include all problems of revolutionary tactics and strategy. Outside of the USSR, opposition groups apeared in most of the sections of the Communist International. The connections of these groups among themselves, and with the Russian Opposition, remained precarious. Many of the groups arose in opposition to one of the aspects of Stalinist policy. Their political solidarity was far from complete. One group that proved of great importance for the future of our movement, the Left Opposition in the American communist party, appeared belatedly on the scene, in 1928.

The organisational cohesion of the International Left Opposition was not seriously undertaken until the time of Trotsky’s expulsion from the USSR and his arrival in Turkey, in February 1929. The first international conference of the Left Opposition took place in Paris in 1930.

The policy of the Opposition in relation to the Communist International, both in its entirety as well as its various sections, had remained the same since 1923. In one word it was, reform. Although expelled by the faction in power, the Trotskyist groups considered themselves part of the International, its left faction, exactly as in each country each group considered itself a faction of the national Communist Party. Their objective was to convince the party membership of the correctness of their views, to win over the majority, and to set the organisation on the correct course. Toward the Bolshevik Party in the USSR the policy was essentially the same as toward any other section of the International. The name of the movement, Opposition, expressed and symbolised this policy.

A political document of a programmtic character, entitled The International Lelt Opposition — Its Tasks and Methods, was written by Trotsky in December 1932, immediately after his return to Prinkipo from Copenhagen, where he had had the opportunity of meeting about thirty of the most important leaders of the International Opposition. One chapter of this document was entitled “Faction — Not a Party.” The perspective outlined there was the same as in the preceding year namely, the reform of the Communist International and of each of its sections. Nevertheless, a warning was sounded:

“Such an historical catastrophe as the fall of the Soviet State would surely drag along the Third International. Similarly, a victory of fascism in Germany and the crushing of the German proletariat would hardly allow the Comintern to survive the consequences of its ruinous policy.”

One of these two warnings was soon to become a terrible reality. On January 30, 1933, Hindenburg, the constitutional head of the Weimar Republic, elected with the votes of the Social Democracy, called on Hitler to form a new cabinet.

For three years the Left Opposition had sounded the alarm at the rise of German fascism. In a series of articles and pamphlets, which in their clarity and revolutionary passion rank among the best products of his pen, Trotsky revealed the nature of fascism and showed the consequences of a fascist victory to the German workers, to the international labour movement, to the USSR, to Europe, and to the whole world. He also pointed to the means of combating this danger: the united front of the workers’ parties, Communist and Social Democratic, for the active defense of workers’ organisations against the Nazi vermin, a defensive struggle which, when successful, would become an offensive.

The Collapse of the German Communist Party

The leaders of the two official workers’ parties vied with each other in their impotence in the face of the fascist menace. The Social Democratic leadership desperately grasped at a democracy which, in the midst of economic chaos and the sharpened social and political conflicts, was disowning itself. The Stalinists acted in line with the “genial” theory of their leader, that it was first necessary to crush the Social Democrats before fighting fascism. They had made common cause with the Nazis in the famous plebiscite in Prussia in August 1931. When the fascist menace became imminent, they clamored with braggadocio “After them will be our turn!”

When Hitler formed his government on January 30, 1933, not all was lost. The workers’ organisations were still intact. In the following weeks the Nazis acted very cautiously. In February, Trotsky stated in a conversation: “The situation in Germany is similar to that of a man at the bottom of an abyss facing a stone wall. To get out it is necessary to clutch at the rocks with bare and bloody hands. It is necessary to have courage and will, but it is possible. Not all is lost.”

The official leadership of the workers’ parties allowed the last chance to slip by. In the face of their passivity, Hitler became more brazen. He had never hoped to win such an easy victory. At the beginning of March, the crude provocation of the Reichstag fire allowed him to definitely entrench his regime. The workers’ organisations were swept away.
Trotsky’s reaction was not long in coming. He wrote an article entitled The Tragedy of the German Proletariat. It was dated March 14, 1933 and had as a subtitle, “The German Workers Will Rise, Stalinism — Never!” The gist of the article ,as that, in Germany, the Communist Party failed in its historic mission, that it was doomed as a revolutionary organisation. Thus, there was no choice but to give up the policy of its reform and to proceed to build a new German Communist Party. When Trotsky wrote that Stalinism would not rise again, he meant Stalinism in Germany. As to the Communist parties in other lands, especially the Russian Bolshevik Party, and the Communist International viewed in its entirety, the line remained as before, that of reform.

In the weeks that followed other articles elaborated this position and answered the objections raised against it. In the ranks of the left Opposition, these objections were minimal. They came mostly from certain comrades in the German section, the one most directly concerned. These objections remained secondary or sentimental in character: maybe it would be better to wait before speaking about a new party while the official one is under the blows of bloody repressions, etc. But the lesson of the events was so clear that the need of a change in the old policy was not questioned seriously.

Yet when ones memory turns to that month of March 1933, it cannot be denied that the new policy was a surprise to the members of the Left Opposition. The daily activity of each of the sections was centered exclusively around the Communist Party; and to develop a new line, even if it were for only one of our sections, was to break with a tradition of ten years standing. The great authority of Trotsky made it possible to bring about the change in line rapidly and with cohesion. Without him, the lessons of the events in Germany would have surely been learned in our ranks, but after how many months of discussion?

The problem of the Third International in its totality could not fail to be posed. After the collapse of the German Communist Party, the executive committee of the International passed in April a resolution which declared that the policy followed by the German Communist Party “up to and at the time of Hitler’s coup d’etat was fully correct.”
This is not astonishing: the executive committee under the orders of Stalin merely covered Stalin, who imposed his fatal political line on the German Communist Party. But the decisive fact was that all the sections of the International accepted the Moscow resolution and thus became equally responsible for the historical catastrophe in Germany. The members who denounced the line that had been followed, or merely questioned it, were expelled. The policy of reform was losing all reality.

On July 15, 1933, Trotsky addressed to the sections of the Opposition an article entitled It is necessary to build new Communist parties and an International. Here the perspective of reform was definitely abandoned. After the lessons of the events, the turn was decisive: “talk of ‘reform’ and the demand of readmission of the oppositionists into the official parties must be definitely given up, as utopian and reactionary,” he wrote. And he took this opportunity to give general and valuable advice: “The most dangerous thing in politics is to become a prisoner of your own formula, which was appropriate yesterday, but is deprived of any content today.”

On July 20th a second article entitled, “It is no longer possible to stay in the same ‘International’ with Stalin, Manuilsky, Lozovsky and Co”, answered possible arguments against the new position.

The change in policy coincided with the change in Trotsky’s residence. On July 17th, he left Istanbul, and on the 24th he landed in Marseilles. Next day he settled himself near Saint. Palais, on the Atlantic seaboard. It was a big change in his personal life. While on the island of Prinkipo, the arrival of a visitor was a little event every four or six months; in France Trotsky was able in the following few weeks to meet with practically all leading members of the European opposition groups, and with quite a few from overseas.

When Trotsky landed in Marseilles, the translation of his first article on the need of a new International had hardly reached the leadership of the various sections. The leading Trotskyists of France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, etc., soon took the road to Saint-Palais, and there in Trotsky’s study, or under the trees of the garden, participated in lengthy discussions. Opposition to the new orientation was practically non-existent. The turn to a new party in Germany three months before, had broken with a long tradition and opened new perspectives. The discussions did not deal so much with the need of a new International, but rather with the ways and means of bringing it about: how to build it, how to build new parties?

The New International

A few voices raised the question: havn’t we waited too long? Shouldn’t we have recognised the need of a new International much sooner? To this Trotsky answered: “This is a question we may well leave to the historians.” He was undoubtedly profoundly convinced that the change in the policy would have been incorrect several years sooner, but he refused to discuss this question because it was no longer of practical and immediate interest.

One question that took up a large share of the discussion was that of the USSR. It is worth while examining how it was posed then. The document of December 1932 that we have already mentioned, and which still followed the line of reform, had stated:

“Sharper and brighter is this question [of reform]. In the USSR The policy of the second party there would imply the policy of armed insurrection and a now revolution. The policy of the faction implies the line of inner reform of the party and the workers’ state.”

In the article of April 1933 which pointed out the need of a new party in Germany, but at the same time retained the policy of reform of the Communist International, Trotsky wrote:

“If the Stalinist bureaucracy will bring the USSR to collapse, then... It will be necessary to build a Fourth International.”

The problem was: how to discard the policy of reform of the Bolshevik Party and at the same time retain the perspective of reforming the workers’ state? How to proclaim the Fourth International before the Stalinist bureaucracy has led the USSR to its collapse?

The problem of the USSR was the greatest obstacle in Trotsky’s mind before reaching the conclusion that there remained no other alternative than to form a Fourth International. Shortly before his article of July 15, he said in a conversation at Prinkipo: “Since April, we have been for reform in all countries except Germany, where we are for a new party. Now we can take a symmetrical position, i.e., in favor of a new party in every country except the USSR, where we will be for reform of the Bolshevik Party.” (This position, as far as I know, was never put into writing.) But it was clear to his listeners that his ideas on this matter were only in the process of formation and that they had not yet reached their conclusion.

The solution of this problem is, as is well known now, the distinction between a social revolution and a political revolution. This solution was already outlined in the first documents, in July, which speak about the need of a new International.

On the other hand, in the summer of 1933, the discussions around the nature of the USSR were numerous: not only was Stalinism bankrupt in Germany, but the first economic experiences of Hitler, Roosevelt, as well as the Italian corporate state, gave rise on all aides to theories of “State capitalism.”

Trotsky then clarified his position toward the USSR in a long article entitled, The Class Nature of the Soviet State, dated October 1, 1933. This article definitely eliminates the perspective of a peaceful removal of the bureaucracy, and clarifies the formulas used in the July documents on the new International. In the main this is the position we have maintained to the present. (On the question of an historical analogy with Thermidor, a correction was made in February 1935.)

Another question required a good deal of attention in the discussions at Saint-Palais: that of our relation toward other organizations. The Left Opposition had its attention focused exclusively on the various Communist parties. Our organisation was made up, with a few rare exceptions, only of expelled members of Communist parties or Young Communist leagues. All our activity was subordinated to the perspective of reform.

All the perspectives [of regroupment with non-Comintern organisation] gradually revealed themselves to be empty, unrealistic, with the exception of one: to create a new International. The formal founding of the Fourth International took place five years later, in 1938.

The Fourth International’s progress has been slow, always too slow for our hopes. It was born amidst the defeats provoked by the old official organizations of the working class. While a defeat will stir the best elements of the van. guard to examine its causes and to build a better organization, its effect on the clan as a whole is one of disorientation, discouragement and passivity. It takes years and years to eradicate its marks; a new generation which has not known cynicism must raise its head.

We have found in our path the putrid corpse of the Comintern, an organisation which has utilized the immense prestige of the victorious Russian Revolution precisely to disorientate, disorganize and crush, where necessary, the revolutionary emancipation of the working class.

Tomorrow tens and hundreds of millions will rise to demand an accounting from the old order, which generated oppression, misery and wars. Gaining consciousness of their strength, they will cast aside their false leaders, the perfidious agents of the enemy. They will need a stainless banner. There is only one: ours, the banner of the Fourth International, of the World Party of the Socialist Revolution.

Fourth International, August 1944

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