Trotsky and the Founding of the American Section of the Fourth International



After his arrival in Mexico in 1937, Leon Trotsky began to press for an international conference to found the Fourth International. He immediately summoned his American co-thinkers, who had only recently been expelled from the Socialist Party and its youth organization, the Young People’s Socialist League, to play a leading role in the effort to launch the Fourth International.

Trotsky had paid close attention to the political developments in the United States for many years, and was particularly devoted to helping to build the American section of what was then the Movement For the Fourth International. This concern did not stem from any special affinity for the United States or for the U.S. partisans of the Fourth International, but rather from his assessment of the pivotal role the powerful and numerically strong U.S. working class would be called upon to play — centered as it was in the belly of the imperialist beast — in the outcome of the world revolution. Another reason Trotsky devoted so much attention to the United States was the existence in this country of a sizeable cadre with deep and longstanding roots in the trade union and workers’ movement that had been won to the banner of the Left Opposition and the Fourth International.

James P. Cannon, the founder of the Trotskyist movement in the United States, had been a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) before joining the Socialist Party and then breaking with the SP to form the Communist Party. Cannon, who was a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, was one of the first leaders to join Trotsky in the fight against Stalinism and for the building of the International Left Opposition. The American Trotskyists, moreover, had been in the forefront of the Minneapolis and Toledo general strikes of 1934. For these many reasons, Trotsky looked to his American comrades to play a central role in the founding and building of the Fourth International.

Trotsky’s particular interest in helping to build the U.S. section of the Fourth International stemmed first and foremost from the objective place of the U.S. working class in the international class struggle. Trotsky’s views were fundamentally opposed to the views espoused by all sorts of petty-bourgeois currents (many of them quite in vogue for some time), according to which the U.S. working class, on account of its “political backwardness” — that is, the absence of a mass workers’ party — could in no way be considered a potential revolutionary force. But Trotsky was equally opposed to the idea that the U.S. working class, on account of the predominant world role of the United States, was anointed with some sort of special status, independent from the international class struggle. Trotsky was radically opposed to any such “national Trotskyist” conception.

This article will not attempt to deal with the evolution of the Socialist Workers Party, the party founded by James P. Cannon, nor will it explore the contradictions within the SWP leadership. An important contribution to that balance sheet was written by Frank Wainwright under the title “Strengths and Weaknesses of Cannonism” and published in La Verite/The Truth No. 6 (new series) in April 1993. It is nonetheless important to point out these problems as they clarify some of the discussions carried out by Leon Trotsky during the last years of his life.

The Transition in the Building of the Revolutionary Party

Trotsky had followed closely the mass upsurge of the U.S. working class beginning in 1933-34. He hailed the “dogged, persistent efforts to organize – often culminating in the most heroic strike struggles — undertaken by the workers in key industries such as steel, auto, rubber, public utilities and shipping, where in the past the trade union movement had never been able to take roots.”(1)

This powerful trade union uprising eventually would lead to a split in the craft-unionist American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the formation of mass industrial unions through the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). At the same time, Trotsky was acutely aware of the delay in the political development of the American working class, noting that “the past of America is filled with strikes and heroic leadership, but without political crystallization.” The new change in the objective situation resulting from the great labor battles of the mid-30s, however, was such that a political change in the minds of the U.S. workers was imminent, according to Trotsky.

He noted the reason for this: “[T]here can be no doubt that a vast movement for organization and strikes in a key industry cannot be considered today in the United States as a purely trade union question. It leads of necessity to a conflict the bourgeois class in general and with the state apparatus, and this implies the deepest socialist consequences.”(2)

Trotsky’s persistent orientation, in relation to the United States and to all other countries, was to try to help the partisans of the Fourth International break out of their isolation and link up with the layers of radicalizing workers. He was keenly preoccupied with helping his co-thinkers around the world develop the appropriate transitional forms in the construction of the revolutionary party and the Fourth International. This preoccupation was perhaps greater still for the United States than for other countries as Trotsky believed that the delay in the political development of the U.S. working class had created additional difficulties for the Trotskyist militants. In the spring of 1936, Trotsky saw the principal danger threatening the revolutionary vanguard as sectarian self-isolation and self-proclamation, cut off from any attempt to link up with the processes of radicalization that were going on, however modest they might be.

Despite strong objections by certain sectors of the U.S. party, Trotsky insisted on the need for the Trotskyist militants to enter the Socialist Party. In response to the claim that the American Socialist Party was small and that its social composition was bad, Trotsky replied:

“The Socialist Party in the United States is not small by chance; the political regroupment of the proletarian vanguard advances in America with terrifying slowness. Already Engels had had to come to grips with this problem, but we must not forget that the fundamental factors which make the crystallization of a revolutionary vanguard difficult in America do not operate exclusively against the Socialist Party, but also against us, and that, despite the change in the economic conditions, the psychological inertia which the trade unions have transformed into a tradition cannot be overcome immediately.”(3)

Trotsky added: “The cohesive force of the larger parties is much more important than that of the small ones; one does not break so easily with a mass party. This explains in part why in France we have been able to keep relatively few new elements when we were excluded. Since the American (Socialist) party is not exactly a real mass party, our influence can show itself to be much more decisive there. We can evaluate the practical possibilities as modestly as one pleases, but no one will dispute that the Workers Party and the Spartacus League can double the number of their members. Even a gain of 50% would not be without importance in the present situation.”(4)

The section’s leadership around Cannon and Max Shachtman supported Trotsky’s position, but a right-wing current led by Muste and Oehler opposed the entry and ended up splitting from the section. Barely a year later, however, Trotsky warned the American Trotskyist militants against what he called “a certain adaptation [and] opportunist line” in their orientation toward the Socialist Party.(5) Again basing himself on the concrete developments in the class struggle, he now argued that it was necessary “to get ready to jump over the remains of the Socialist Party.” He stated: “I am not talking here about our work in the trade unions, especially in the CIO. This in a general way is the most important of the tasks which await us, but it requires that we be independent, as a condition for free, courageous activity in strikes and the unions.”(6)

Trotsky’s orientation was fully vindicated. In the summer of 1937, the Trotskyists were expelled from the Socialist Party, but their numbers had increased significantly and they had won a majority of the YPSL, the youth group, to their banner. The expelled left-wingers then called a national convention to create a new revolutionary party affiliated with the Fourth Internationalist movement. After an extensive political discussion in which Trotsky participated actively, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was founded at a national convention in Chicago on December 31, 1937 – January 3, 1938.

Toward the Founding of the Fourth International

From Mexico, Trotsky took a keen interest in the SWP’s pre-convention discussion, focusing his attention on the resolutions on the Soviet Union and Spain but also on the nature of democratic centralism and organizational principles of a revolutionary organization. And though he understood that organizing a national convention was time-consuming and required a great deal of leadership attention by the U.S. section, Trotsky did not hide his concern that the U.S. comrades were not fully assuming their role on an international level in the building of the Movement For the Fourth International.

In a letter written to Cannon in September 1937, Trotsky stated: “You remember that at the last conference Shachtman was chosen as a member of the Executive Committee [of the movement for the Fourth International]. The American section has never participated in the work of the International Secretariat and you hardly reply to the letters from Europe. This has led in Europe to an atmosphere of doubt, even of suspicion about the American section. … To ensure the success of the Conference [to found the Fourth International], it is absolutely necessary that the American section take part in all the preparatory work starting today. There must be financial support, however modest, on its part.”(7)

For Trotsky, building national sections on a genuinely revolutionary axis required placing the building of the Fourth International as a whole at the center of each section’s political activity. And the building of the Fourth International required the implementation of appropriate tactics in each country corresponding to the national political situation. From this point of view, there is a connection between the weakness of the SWP in participating in the international leadership, which Trotsky pointed out, and the tendency by the SWP — as we well see further on — to reduce the question of the Labor Party to abstract propaganda.

After the new party was launched, it was agreed that a delegation of SWP leaders would travel to Mexico for talks about the international conference to found the Fourth International and related matters. Trotsky had been working feverishly on the major programmatic document to be presented to the founding conference of the Fourth International — a document that later became known as the Transitional Program. He wanted the SWP to sponsor this program in the international discussion that preceded the founding conference, but before he could get their sponsorship, he had to convince the SWP leaders of the correctness of the program — something that did not happen automatically or instantly.

In March 1938, a delegation consisting of Cannon, Max Shachtman, Vince Ray Dunne, and Rose Karsner met with Trotsky for an entire week. Formal sessions were held on six consecutive days on the Transitional Program and the method it implied. Included in the discussion were two important issues of the day where Trotsky thought the SWP was making a political error. The first concerned a movement around an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would prohibit Congress from declaring war unless it first had been approved in a national referendum. Trotsky argued that the SWP should participate in the movement in support of this Ludlow Amendment, rather than stand off on the sidelines criticizing it and exposing its shortcomings.

The other issue involved the SWP’s attitude toward the formation of an independent Labor Party based on the unions in the United States. At the Chicago convention three months earlier, the SWP had reaffirmed the position its predecessors had espoused for several years — that revolutionists could not advocate the formation of a Labor Party even though they should work in it after it was formed. Trotsky and the Labor Party Early on in the discussion with his American comrades, Trotsky reviewed the history of the debate among the American Trotskyists on the Labor Party question.

He said: “When the Communist League of America studied this question for the first time seven or eight years ago, whether we were going to be for a Labor Party or not, whether we were going to be taking an initiative on this point, the general feeling at the time was not to do it, and this was quite correct. The perspective of development was not clear. I think that the majority of us hoped that our organization would develop more quickly, and, from another angle, I do not think that anyone in our ranks during this period foresaw the appearance of the CIO at the speed and with the power which happened.

“In my view, we overestimated the possibility of development of our party at the expense of the Stalinists, on the one hand, and, on the other, we did not see this powerful trade union movement and rapid decline of American capitalism.”(8)

Trotsky went on to point out that this perspective must now be changed in light of the massive workers’ strikes of the mid-1930s and the appearance of the CIO with its 3 million members. “Since then [the early 1930s] the situation has radically changed and we would have no excuse for ignoring the facts. The trade unions which are developing powerfully in the conditions of the deepening of the crisis of capitalism will thrust themselves forward all the more irresistibly on the road of political struggle and therefore on that of the crystallization of a Labor Party. If the official leaders of the unions, despite the imperious call of the situation and of the growing pressure of the masses, preserve a reserved position on the question of a Labor Party, this is just because the depth of the social crisis of bourgeois society now gives the Labor Party question an infinitely greater sharpness than in the preceding periods.

“A revolutionary organization which has a negative position on the Labor Party question, or which stands back from it and waits to see what will happen, will doom itself to isolation and sectarian degeneration.(9)

Though Trotsky was able to convince the SWP leadership of the correctness of the call for a Labor Party, there was still widespread opposition to this new position within the ranks of the SWP, particularly among the youth. At a meeting of the SWP National Committee in April 1938 there was still considerable uneasiness and confusion. For these reasons the SWP leadership decided to submit the Labor Party question and the Transitional Program to a national SWP discussion, concluding in a membership referendum vote on these questions. Again, Trotsky participated actively in this internal discussion, responding to objections and queries of all sorts.

One objection that held considerable sway in the SWP was that the SWP seemed to be advocating the formation of a reformist Labor Party, to which Trotsky responded: “Are we for the creation of a reformist Labor Party? No! Are we for a policy which would give to the trade unions the possibility of throwing their weight into the balance? Yes! It could become a reformist party, that depends on the development. Here the question of program is posed. … We must have a program of transitional demands, the most advanced of which is the demand for the workers and farmers’ government. …

“When and how the Labor Party will be formed, what stages and what splits it will have to go through, history will determine. When the SWP defends the Labor Party against the attacks of the bourgeoisie, it does not wish to take upon itself the responsibility for this party. The SWP maintains a critical attitude toward the Labor Party at every stage of its development. It supports the progressive tendencies against the reactionary tendencies and at the same time pitilessly criticizes the two-faced character of these progressive tendencies.

“It would be absurd for us to say that, because a new party is being born out of the political unification of the trade unions, this will necessarily be opportunist. … Of course, if we had a choice in reality between a reformist party and a revolutionary party, we would immediately show that our place is in the latter. But a party is absolutely necessary. This for us is the only road in this situation. To say that we are going to combat opportunism as we shall of course combat opportunism today and tomorrow, especially if the party of the working class has been organized, by checking a progressive step which can give rise to opportunism, is a completely reactionary policy. Sectarianism often is reactionary because it places itself in opposition to the necessary action of the working class.”(10)

Another widespread objection raised during the SWP national discussion was that there was not a generalized sentiment in the U.S. labor movement for a Labor Party, to which Trotsky responded: “I cannot appreciate whether there exists a desire for a Labor Party, because I have neither personal observation nor personal information, but it does not seem to me that the degree to which the leaders or the rank and file of the unions are disposed or inclined to form such a party is a decisive question. … We cannot measure the state of mind otherwise than in action if the slogan is placed on the agenda.

“But what we can say is that the objective situation is absolutely determinant. The trade unions as trade unions can only have defensive action and lose members as the crisis worsens and unemployment grows. Their funds fall while the tasks which they have to carry out with these ever-diminishing resources grow greater. This is a fact which no one can change. …

“I say, in connection with this what I have already said about the program of transitional demands as a whole. The problem is not the state of mind of the masses, but the objective situation. Our task is to confront the backward material of the masses with the tasks which are determined by the objective facts and not by their psychology. It is the same for the particular question of the Labor Party. If the class struggle is not crushed, if it does not give place to demoralization, then the movement will find a new channel, and this channel will be political; this is the fundamental argument for this slogan.”(11)

Trotsky also feared that the SWP national discussion would result in a formal agreement to call for a Labor Party, but without any practical steps mapped out to help working people forge such a party. In this regard, Trotsky felt it was imperative for the American comrades to relate to the ambiguous regroupments that claimed to stand for independent labor political action – even those closely tied to the Stalinists and having a Popular Front type character – to promote an effective movement toward the Labor Party. It was necessary, Trotsky felt, to play upon the contradictions within these regroupments, particularly in the trade union movement.

One such regroupment was the Labor Non Partisan League (LNPL). While this formation was established clearly by the Stalinists as a means to divert the movement toward a Labor Party back into the Democratic Party, it was presented to, and perceived by, working people as a step toward independent labor politics. Trotsky felt it was wrong to stand on the sidelines denouncing this formation. This didn’t unmask the Stalinists’ role, Trotsky stated, it only played into their hands. It was necessary to combat the illusions that existed in the LNPL in the terrain of those illusions, which meant utilizing the contradiction that existed between the claim of the LNPL that it was paving the way to independent political action and the orientation of the Stalinist leaders, who refused to open such a perspective.

To the question posed by Cannon, “Are we proposing to the trade unions that they should support the LNPL?”, Trotsky replied: “Yes, I think so. Naturally, we shall take our first step so as to accumulate experience in practical work and not get ourselves involved in abstract forumulae. … [W]e should develop a concrete program of action and of demands in the sense that the transitional program emerges in the conditions of capitalism today and that it leads directly beyond the limits of capitalism.”(12)

Trotsky’s concern about the outcome of this debate in the SWP became more acute as the discussion progressed. In a letter to James P. Cannon on this subject, he wrote: “The [SWP internal] referendum does not seem to me to have been a very happy invention. The discussion seems to have given rise to some difficulty in the party. You can only surmount all that by action. It seems to me that it is time to show directly to the party how we must act on this question. … An article [in The Militant] is nothing if the party does not begin serious work in the unions with the slogan that the workers must take the state into their hands and that, for that purpose, they need their own independent Labor Party.

“An energetic step in this direction would certainly dissipate all the misunderstandings and discontent and would drive the party forward. On this question, as on the others, it is absolutely necessary to give to our propaganda and agitation a more concentrated and systematic character. For example, it is necessary to direct all the local committees to present within a month to the national committee a brief report on their links to the unions, the possibility of work in the unions and especially agitation in the unions in favor of an independent Labor Party. The danger is that the question of the Labor Party becomes a purely abstract one.”(13)

Trotsky’s concerns were well-founded. The fact remains that between 1938 and 1940 hardly anything significant was done in the United States in terms of practical steps in the direction of a Labor Party. A formal position in support of a Labor Party had been adopted, but the underlying method espoused by Trotsky had not been sufficiently absorbed.

Programmatic Foundations of the SWP Still Incomplete

Following the national SWP discussion, a majority of SWP members voted in favor of the new Labor Party position, and an overwhelming majority supported the Transitional Program. This represented a step forward.

During the international discussion immediately prior to the founding of the Fourth International, Trotsky cautioned that the Transitional Program as written in 1938 was not complete, and that along with additions it would require modifications that would be suggested by experience in applying the program – always, of course, within the framework of the analysis and strategic orientation outlined in the Transitional Program. Nevertheless Trotsky said at the end of the discussion in August 1938, when the delegates had already assembled in France, that the acceptance of the Transitional Program demonstrated in the preconference discussion represented “our most important conquest.”

In September 1938 the founding conference of the Fourth International was held outside Paris, and Trotsky’s major programmatic document – the Transitional Program – was adopted as the founding program of the Fourth International. Not all the delegates were in complete agreement with the Transitional Program, and they debated a number of amendments, both major and minor. After that, they voted by a similar margin to establish the Fourth International then and there, rather that postpone it as a minority proposed.

In the United States, the SWP, with Trotsky’s direct involvement, had accomplished a great deal of work in laying the programmatic foundations of the new party. But the task was still incomplete in the minds of Trotsky and the SWP leadership. An example of unfinished work was the Black struggle in the United States. The Chicago convention resolutions barely mentioned the issue, and the party’s Declaration of Principles contained only a routine section on the subject. It was not until the second SWP convention – held a year and a half later, in July 1939, in New York – that this deficiency was corrected.

This followed an important preconvention discussion that involved both Trotsky and C.L.R. James. This was the same convention that also served as the arena for a preliminary alignment into two tendencies that developed, only a few weeks after the convention, into a fateful factional fight that convulsed the SWP for many months and turned out to be, at bottom, a struggle over the programmatic foundations of the Fourth International. This was the discussion over the class nature of the Soviet Union, to which the last section of this article is devoted.

Trotsky and the Question of the Black Party

The Black question, like the Labor Party question, was also the subject of many discussions between Trotsky and the American Trotskyists in the 1930s. Early in the decade, Trotsky had polemicized against many leading members of the U.S. organization who opposed the slogan of “self-determination” for Black Americans.

Trotsky answered them in these terms: “An abstract criterion is not decisive in this question; far more decisive is the historical consciousness of a group, their feelings, their impulses. … The Negroes [the term used widely at the time to refer to African Americans-ed.] have not yet awakened, and they are not yet united with the white workers. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the American workers are chauvinists; in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen as they are also toward the Chinese, etc. It is necessary to make them understand that the American state is not their state and that they do not have to be the guardians of this state. Those American workers who say: `The Negroes should separate if they so desire, and we will defend them against our American police’ – those are revolutionists, I have confidence in them. The argument that the slogan for self-determination leads away from the class point of view is an adaptation to the ideology of the white workers.”(14)

At the time of the internal discussion in the SWP leading up to the party’s second national convention, slated for July 1939, Trotsky opened a discussion with his American co-thinkers about the possibility of building a specific Black political organization in the United States. Trotsky reached the conclusion that such an organization was necessary following many discussion with C.L.R. James, a Black member of the SWP who had immigrated from the Caribbean.

Trotsky himself acknowledged that this proposal was something altogether new and unprecedented: “Our movement is familiar with such forms as the party, the trade union, the educational organization, the cooperative; but this is a new type of organization which does not coincide with the traditional forms. We must consider the question from all sides as to whether it is advisable or not and what the form of our participation in this organization should be.”(15)

What were the factors that justified the existence of a specific Black political organization? Trotsky explained: “There is a certain analogy with the Negroes. They were enslaved by the whites. They were liberated by the whites (so-called liberation). They were led and misled by the whites, and they did not have their own political independence. They were in need of a pre-political activity as Negroes. Theoretically it seems to me absolutely clear that a special organization should be created for a special situation.”(16)

And Trotsky pursued the discussion: “What determines the necessity? Two fundamental facts: that the large masses of the Negroes are backward and oppressed and this oppression is so strong that they must feel it every moment; that they feel it as Negroes. We must find the possibility of giving this feeling a political organizational expression. You may say that in Germany or in England we do not organize such semipolitical, semi-trade union, or semicultural organizations: we reply that we must adapt ourselves to the genuine Negro masses in the United States.”(17)

For Trotsky, the discussion on the political organization of Black Americans was not a discussion limited to Blacks. He went so far as to denounce as a “very disquieting symptom” the weakness in the political discussions and thinking of the American Trotskyists on this question. He stated: “The characteristic thing about the American workers’ parties, trade union organizations, and so on, was their aristocratic character. It is the basis of opportunism. The skilled workers who feel set in the capitalist society help the bourgeois class to hold the Negroes and the unskilled workers down to a very low scale. … Under these conditions our party cannot develop; it will degenerate.

“The old organizations, beginning with the AFL, are the organizations of the workers’ aristocracy. Our party is a part of the same milieu, not of the basic exploited masses of whom the Negroes are the most exploited. The fact that our party until now has not turned to the Negro question is a very disquieting symptom. If the workers’ aristocracy is the basis of opportunism, one of the sources of adaptation to capitalist society, then the most oppressed and discriminated are the most dynamic milieu of the working class.

“We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class. What serves as the brake on the higher strata? It is the privileges, the comforts that hinder them from becoming revolutionists. It does not exist for the Negroes. What can transform a certain stratum, make it more capable of courage and sacrifice? It is concentrated in the Negroes. If it happens that we in the SWP are not able to find the road to this stratum, then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and all the rest would be only a lie.”(18)

Trotsky’s persistence paid off. The second national convention of the SWP in July 1939 adopted two resolutions on the Black question, both authored by C.L.R. James (known in the party as J.R. Johnson). The first resolution, titled “The Right of Self-Determination and the Negro in the United States of North America,” stated categorically that only the most energetic defense of the right to self-determination of the Negro masses can lead their movement into revolutionary channels.”

The second resolution on the “SWP and Negro Work” went a step further, posing the need to build a specific Black political organization linked to the overall struggles of the entire working class. It began as follows: “The American Negroes, for centuries the most oppressed section of American society and the most discriminated against, are potentially the most revolutionary elements of the population. They are designated by their whole historical past to be, under adequate leadership, the very vanguard of the proletarian revolution. The neglect of Negro work and of the Negro question by the party is therefore a very disquieting sign. … Unless the party can find its way to the great masses of the underprivileged, of whom the Negroes constitute so important a section, the broad perspectives of the permanent revolution will remain only a fiction and the party is bound to degenerate. …

“The SWP therefore proposes that its Negro members, aided and supported by the party, take the initiative and collaborate with other militant Negroes in the formation of a Negro mass organization devoted to the struggle for Negro rights. This organization will NOT [capitalized in the original- ed.] be either openly or secretly a periphery organization of the Fourth International. It will be an organization in which the masses of Negro workers and farmers will be invited to participate on a working-class program corresponding to the day-to-day struggles of the masses of Negro workers and farmers. Its program will be elaborated by the Negro organization, in which Negro members of the Fourth International will participate with neither greater nor lesser rights than other members.”

With this additional plank in its program, the SWP was able to play an active and prominent role fighting racism in World War II. As George Breitman, editor of the SWP book titled, “The Founding of the SWP: Minutes and Resolutions, 1938-1939,” put it: “Without the addition on the Black struggle, the SWP certainly would not have been completely armed programmatically for the new war that began a few weeks after the second convention.”(19)

Trotsky and the Defense of Marxism

At the second national convention of the SWP in July 1939, the majority resolution reaffirmed the SWP’s previous analysis of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state which must be defended against imperialist attack and which can only be regenerated through a political revolution against the Soviet bureaucracy.

An amendment was introduced by James Burnham denying that the Soviet Union could any longer be considered as a workers’ state but pledging to defend it against imperialist attack as long as its economy remained nationalized. The development of the discussion quickly revealed that all the fundamental issues of revolutionary Marxism were involved.

Two weeks after the conclusion of the SWP convention, World War II began, and a minority tendency led by Shachtman and Burnham broke out of bonds, eventually jettisoning altogether the Fourth International’s analysis of the class nature of the Soviet Union and the need to defend it against imperialist attack. Again, Trotsky threw himself into this discussion in the American section, having been called upon by the Cannon leadership to give battle in defense of Marxism. (All of Trotsky’s writings on this subject were compiled in a book published in 1942 by the SWP under the title “In Defense of Marxism.”)

Indeed, the last struggle waged by Trotsky prior to his assassination was in defense of Marxism – as Trotsky was compelled, in his polemical articles against Schachtman and Burnham to revisit the fundamental positions of the Fourth International – that is, of Marxism.

In order to respond effectively to the detractors of Marxism, Trotsky had to review the question of the social revolution, the capacity of the proletariat to champion its historic interests, and the question of the revolutionary party and International. In fact, to get at the political roots of the positions espoused by Schachtman and Burnham, Trotsky was led to develop a compelling treatise on dialectical materialism – a treatise in which he demonstrated, among other points, how the questions of party-building and party organization are intimately bound up with the more general tenets of Marxism. The Schachtman-Burnham faction in the SWP pointed to the counterrevolutionary pact between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Nazi regime to justify its new characterization of the nature of the Soviet Union.

In a letter to James P. Cannon dated September 12, 1939, Trotsky replied to this argument and defined what the discussion was all about. “1. Our definition of the USSR can be right or wrong, but I do not see any reason to make this definition dependent on the German-Soviet Pact.

“2. The socialist character of the USSR is not determined by her friendship with democracy or fascism. Who adopts such a point of view becomes a prisoner of the Stalinist conception of the People’s Front epoch.

“3. Who says that the USSR is no more a degenerate workers’ state, but adds a new social formation, should clearly say what he adds to our political conclusions.

“4. The USSR question cannot be isolated as unique from the whole historic process of our times. Either the Stalin state is a transitory formation, it is a deformation of a worker state in a backward and isolated country, or ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ is a new social formation which is replacing capitalism throughout the world (Stalinism, Fascism, New Deal, etc.) …

“Who chooses the second alternative admits, openly or silently, that all the revolutionary potentialities of the world proletariat are exhausted, that the socialist movement is bankrupt, and that the old capitalism is transforming itself into ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ with a new exploiting class.

“The tremendous importance of such a conclusion is self-explanatory. It concerns the whole fate of the world proletariat and mankind.” (20)

The factional struggle concluded with a split at the April 5, 1940, convention of the SWP, where the majority of the party affirmed its support for the Fourth International’s program. Trotsky and the SWP leadership had done everything possible to prevent a split, but the minority refused to abide by the decisions of the convention, preferring instead to set up a separate organization – an organization that would soon degenerate under further pressures from the imperialist war.

The SWP, guided at every step by Trotsky, had managed to preserve the party as a section of the Fourth International and to safeguard one of the most fundamental theoretical underpinnings of the program of the Fourth International. This fight did not concern only the SWP; the entire Fourth International was threatened. Despite the immense difficulties resulting from the war – with many countries under Nazi occupation – aspects of this discussion reached the militants of the Fourth International around the world. Trotsky at every moment had stressed the international character of this debate within the U.S. section.

Indeed, Trotsky’s fight in defense of Marxism was essential to the political education of Fourth International militants the world over and to the task of building sections of the Fourth International under the most difficult conditions. In November-December 1941, the political and trade union leaders of the SWP stood up in the capitalist court in Minneapolis, where they were on trial for “sedition” because of their steadfast defense of working class interests before and during the war and because they refused to identify the struggle for democracy with the government of the exploiters.

As Cannon explained, socialism itself was on trial. There – in one of the proudest moments in the history of the Fourth International – they defended against the government of the American bourgeoisie the same program which they and Trotsky had defended against the petty-bourgeois opposition inside the SWP. This is the political heritage that guides the political activity of the U.S. militants of the Fourth International today.



(1) “On the United States of America,” July 1936, Oeuvres, Volume 10)

(2) Ibid.

(3) “Defense of the Position Adopted on the United States,” Oeuvres, Vol. 8, February 1936

(4) Ibid.

(5) “The Danger of Adaptation,” May 25, 1937, Oeuvres, Volume 14

(6) “The Situation in the Socialist Party and Our Next Tasks,” June 1937, Oeuvres, Volume 14

(7) “Some Suggestions,” September 11, 1937, Oeuvres, Vol. 14

(8) “Discussions on the Labor Party,” March 21-26,1938, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, 1973

(9) Ibid.

(10) “The Problem of the Labor Party,.” April 1938, Oeuvres, Volume 17

(11) “Discussion on the Labor Party”, May 31, 1938, Oeuvres, volume 17

(12) “Discussions on the Labor Party,” March 21-26, 1938, Oeuvres, Volume 17

(13) “Problems of the SWP,” October 5, 1938, Oeuvres, Volume 19

(14) “On Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, Feb. 28, 1933, reprinted in “Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination,” Pathfinder Press, 1971

(15) “A Negro Organization,” April 5, 1939, Ibid.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Ibid.

(19) “The Founding of the SWP,” Pathfinder Press, 1982

(20) “A Letter to James P. Cannon,” September 12, 1939. In Defense of Marxism, Pioneer Publishers, 1942, page 1.


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