By Dan Swain
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2190

The Fourth International: Keeping the flame alive

This article is over 14 years, 3 months old
Our series concludes by looking at Trotsky and the Fourth International
Issue 2190

Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian revolution, opposed Joseph Stalin’s increasing stranglehold on the Soviet Union and the Third International.

As a result he was exiled from Russia. In 1938 he gathered together a small number of his supporters to form the Fourth International.

The contrast between the founding congresses of the other internationals and the fourth was stark.

There were only 21 delegates representing 11 organisations.

The largest was the US section, with only 2,500 members.

This was not the mass organisation that the previous internationals had been.

Nonetheless Trotsky believed that the extraordinary world situation demanded a new formation.

The Great Depression was feeding the rise of fascism, while Stalinism prevented workers fighting back successfully.

The Fourth International argued that capitalism was entering a terminal crisis. It was no longer possible to fight for reforms within capitalism.

The choice was either revolution or fascist dictatorship.

The old Communist parties had been turned into tools of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia, and were now opposed to revolution.

It was necessary to form new revolutionary organisations, however weak they might start out.

Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent two years later.

Unfortunately, the remaining leadership of the Fourth International stuck to this perspective even when circumstances changed.

Far from collapsing following the war, capitalism went through a period of sustained growth and prosperity.

Under these conditions reformist and Communist parties grew rapidly.

They were able to win many reforms.

Trotsky had also predicted that the war would lead to the overthrow of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.

Instead, the Soviet Union’s influence expanded and Stalin consolidated his position.

Yet in 1946 James Cannon, a leading figure in the Fourth International, announced that Trotsky was still right, “only we disagree with some people who carelessly think the war is over”.

This was an extraordinary denial of reality in an attempt to stick to all of Trotsky’s words!


The Fourth International debated the nature of the Soviet Union and the replica regimes it established across Eastern Europe in the late 1940s.

Its position became that the Soviet Union was a “degenerated workers’ state”. The theory was of a genuine socialist revolution that had developed defects.

The East European satellites were however “deformed workers’ states”, defective from birth.

This created a huge problem. Karl Marx had argued that socialism must be brought about by the working class themselves.

But the regimes in Eastern Europe had been instituted by Stalin’s armies, not by the workers of those countries.

To argue that they were in any sense workers’ states abandoned a key principle of Marxism.

These were “workers’ states” that the workers had never had any say in.

Against this, the Palestinian Marxist Tony Cliff, a founder of the SWP, argued that the Soviet Union and its mirror images in Eastern Europe were state capitalist regimes, in which the workers had no control.

The revolutionary upheavals that began in May 1968 created an opportunity for Trotsky’s ideas to gain influence and for organisations that looked to his legacy to grow.

But by this time the “official” Fourth International was split into warring factions, and Cliff had left to form the International Socialists, the predecessor of the SWP.

Unfortunately, dogmatic adherence to Trotsky’s 30-year old ideas helped many squander these opportunities.

The logic of the “deformed workers’ state” argument was that socialism could be brought about by forces other than the working class, for example students, peasants or guerrilla armies.

Some parts of the Fourth International did stay closer to the real Marxist tradition.

Whatever the later difficulties of some his followers, Trotsky’s break from the rotten politics of Stalin’s Third International kept the flame of revolutionary internationalism alive.

It is this tradition that we should gain inspiration from today.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance