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Trotsky and the Fourth International: Turn to the masses

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The final split with the Communist International (Comintern) brought home a brutal fact: the International Left Opposition (ILO) was tiny.

In no country did the Trotskyists number more than a few hundred members - with the exception of the Soviet Union. And there, whilst the ILO had several thousands courageous adherents, they were already in prison camps or could work only in the deepest illegality.

Even in western Europe and North America the Trotskyists were the target of ferocious slander, and sometimes physical attacks, from the Communist Parties of which they regarded themselves as expelled left factions. The ILO consisted not of vanguard parties but of isolated and persecuted propaganda groups.

The previous live years had given them little opportunity to involve themselves in mass struggle. The young cadres witnessed a series of defeats for the working class and the seemingly relentless decline of the Communist Parties of which they were working as “expelled factions".

But times were changing. The workers’ defeats in Germany, Austria and Spain in 1933-34 finally produced a massive working class response to fascism.

The spontaneous determination of millions of workers to defend their unions, parties. and cultural organisations produced substantial upheavals in the Stalinist and Social Democratic parties and in the unions.

Many parties of the Second International moved left, ousting right-wing factions and developing left-centrist ones. The Comintern was forced to abandon its sectarian opposition to the united front. But it now swung rightwards, first proposing “organic unity” with the socialist parties and then developing the alliance, the popular front, with open bourgeois parties.

For two years, 1934-36, the mass labour movement was in political ferment. The social democratic parties took on a centrist colouration while the “communists” evolved rightwards from bureaucratic centrism to social patriotism.

This presented a window of opportunity for the ILO, now renamed the International Communist League (ICL). To take advantage of this situation it had to transform itself.

It was confronted with the question that confronts the left today: how to grow from small nuclei to vanguard parties capable of playing a decisive part in events.

Trotsky and his closest co-thinkers made it clear that a major reorientation was necessary and, as with all turns, this inevitably led to internal struggles, polemics, and even splits.

The ICL faced the problem of how to break out of isolation without politically adapting to the powerful currents of left reformism and centrism: of how to combine tactical flexibility towards the masses seeking the road to revolution whilst avoiding a centrist corruption of the programme. The lessons of this period remain rich ones for revolutionaries today.

On what basis can small groups of revolutionaries unite into a common organisation? What should be the attitude of revolutionaries to centrist organisations moving leftwards?

How could small revolutionary organisations use united front tactics with mass reformist parties? Faced with reformist governments and reformist participation in cross class governments, how can revolutionaries aid the workers to learn from this experience to break with reformism?

How can a collection of small propaganda groups build an International of workers parties?

The Trotskyists of the 1930s often failed the test - sometimes heroically, sometimes disgracefully. But their failures and, in particular, Trotsky’s responses to them can help us to avoid similar mistakes.

Centrism and the FI

The early 1930s had seen the growth of small centrist groupings - the result of splits and expulsions from the CPs, and from the Social Democratic and Labour parties.

Trotsky turned to parties such as the Sozialistische Arbeiter Partei (SAP) and the Independent Labour Party (1LP). The ICL called on them to work together to draft a programme and build an international organisation to fight for a new International.

The German SAP and two Dutch parties, the OSP and RSP, responded to this appeal.

Forming the so-called Bloc of Four with the ICL, they issued a common declaration calling for a Fourth International.

However one of the signatories abandoned this struggle almost before the ink on the declaration was dry. Instead of joining with the ICL to build a revolutionary international, the SAP clung to the collection of left reformist and right centrist parties assembled in the IAG (the London Bureau).

What was the cause of this backsliding? The catastrophe of 1933, caused by the chronic right wing legalism of the German Social Democracy (SPD) and ultra left sectarianism of the German Communist Party (KPD) had galvanised the left centrists into pledging themselves to build new parties and a new international.

But by 1934 the Comintern was moving rightwards and the Socialist Parties moving left. This, when added to the powerful desire for unity amongst the masses, had a profoundly sobering effect on the centrist leaders.

Surely, the centrists reasoned, the Comintern and the Second International were, after all, capable of self-reform? Surely now was not the right time for “new parties and a new international". This could only mean “more splits” and the working class wanted unity.

Eventually they would be needed but one had to wait until the masses would respond to the call. To do so now would be sectarian and self-proclamatory.

Surely, one had to await a more favourable moment in the historic process or the signal of some great mass action? Surely, it was necessary to build up strong national sections first?

Trotsky rejected this whole approach. Of course he had not proposed that a few propaganda groups should “proclaim” that they were already the Fourth International.

Founding and proclaiming were secondary questions. They were questions of concrete organisation. But what was necessary was to tell the working class honestly and openly what was necessary.

If the working class could not defeat fascism and seize power using the Socialist and Communist parties then it was necessary to set out to build new ones.

Trotsky insisted that revolutionaries could not and should not hide their goals from the masses because of the latter’s current consciousness or moods.

"It would be an unlawful pretence, to say nothing of adventurism, to proclaim that the new International has already been established today...We are erecting only the foundation and preparing the timber. But over this timber, we, at this very moment, unfurl the banner of the Fourth International so that all shall know what sort of structure is being erected.” wrote Trotsky.

For Trotsky, the ICL had to play a vanguard role and win leftward moving centrist forces to this project. These forces were to be found both in the small centrist parties and within the much larger Socialist and Communist parties.

In addition the ICL had to win to its ranks an upcoming generation of young fighters who were not yet dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists or Social Democrats.

For Trotsky the idea of the Fourth International was not an empty “name” or “number” but a programme - the only programme which could meet the needs of the present crisis. All other questions were subordinate to winning serious forces to this programme - not least the question of splits or fusions in the mass organisations.

Trotsky distinguished between unity in action, the united front, for which he and the ILO had been the best fighters during the whole “Third Period” and the false idea that new parties or a new international could be formed on the basis of the lowest common denominator. In short he rejected the current mania for unity at any price.

"Unity and split are two methods subordinated to program and political tasks... Our thesis is that the unity of the working class can be realised only on a revolutionary basis. This basis is our own programme."

Likewise Trotsky excoriated the idea - popular then as now - that strong national parties could be built at once but that an international had to wait till these “roots in the working class” had been won in a number of countries. This was to treat the International as a roof that could only be put on after the national “walls” had been built.

In fact the International should be the planning and guiding agency that ensured the entire construction process from the foundations upward. In his view the same principles applied to building national as to international organisations:

"Some wise men who understand nothing of the character of our epoch, and learned nothing from the victories and defeats of the proletariat, try to reason as follows: first we will build a national party and then, on a solid and safe foundation, we shall erect the International. This argument sounds very serious, circumspect, solid but in reality it demonstrates philistine short-sightedness...It is clear that under the influence of the very same common causes, advanced proletarian elements in all countries must seek a way out in the same direction. Can they, in this case refuse the establishment of international connections, elaboration of programmatic and strategical questions, exchange of political experience and, finally, mutual practical support, already at the first steps of their work?"

Trotsky emphasised the indissoluble linkage of international organisation to involvement in the ‘national’ class struggle.

"When deep-thinking people say: ‘Do not hurry: now is not the time for the Fourth International’, they could with equal success say: ‘Do not hum’: now is not the time for the class struggle’. It is a question not of the formal ‘proclamation’ of the new International but of the building of a new party, not as an isolated national entity but as a part of the International."

It soon became clear that the struggle for the new International would involve from the outset a serious struggle with centrist backsliding and obstruction as well as against Stalinism and Social Democracy.

Moreover, this struggle would involve not only polemics with centrist organisations but a struggle within the 1CL. It required a fight against both a capitulation to the powerful centrist moods of the masses in this period and the obverse side of this, a passive propagandist, sectarian veering away from the test of mass action.

From 1954 onwards the trend to the development of independent centrist organisations that had prompted the Bloc of Four tactic was increasingly overshadowed by another: the growth of powerful left centrist wings within the Social Democratic parties and the transformation of some of these into centrist organisations - in particular the SFIO in France and the PSOE in Spain.

In these years the struggle against centrism focused on what tactics to apply to the radicalised socialist parties. Within the 1CL both passive abstentionist currents and ones with an appetite for unprincipled fusions or blocs manifested themselves.

Another Turning Point

As a result of the German workers crushing defeat, Trotsky thought that “the revolutionary key to the situation in Europe and in the entire world is now, above all, in France". In January 1954 a wave of mass action broke out.

The world economic crisis was generating the same social forces that propelled Hitler to power in Germany. There was as yet no united French fascist organisation, but several “Leagues” existed which had a mass base and were growing very rapidly.

On 6 February 1954 the fascist Leagues called a demonstration on the Place de la Concorde, across the bridge from the French Parliament, to protest against the sacking of the right-wing Paris police chief by the newly formed Radical government of Eduard Daladier.

So too did the French Communist Party, which was still characterising the French Socialist Party, the SFIO, as social fascists and also downplaying the danger of fascism.

A left-wing had developed in the SFIO around the paper Bataille Socialise, calling for a united front with the communists. Its leaders Jean Zyromski and Marceau Pivert proposed a united counter-demonstration.

The CP central committee rejected this call outright.

L’Humanite headlined its 5 February issue “No Panic!” observing that to choose between the SFIO and the fascist Leagues was like “choosing between plague and cholera".

Instead of a united workers’ demonstration against the fascists, the CP chose to demonstrate against Daladier alongside the fascists, who were trying to bring down the Radical government in order to install a right-wing regime.

One hundred thousand demonstrators, many carrying small arms and razors, tried to storm the bridge leading to the parliament. The police were fired on, and returned fire. One policeman and 14 demonstrators were killed.

Some 2-5,000 communists joined in the fighting against the police, with only minor skirmishes against the fascists. It seemed that the fascist plague was less dangerous than the social democratic cholera.

The next day, despite commanding a strong majority in parliament Daladier resigned, “to avoid further bloodshed".

A conservative dominated government of national unity was formed under a retired former president Gaston Doumergue, with only the socialists and communists excluded: the Radicals joined this cabinet too. The fascists had won their first battle.

Trotsky characterised this regime as a “the first step of the passage from parliamentarism to Bonapartism", one similar to the governments of Brunning, Von Papen and Schleicher, which had preceded the rise to power of Hitler.

Its task was to appear to “rise above” the evenly balanced classes of society, to arbitrate between them and impose order through the state bureaucracy, the police and the army.

But Trotsky did not expect that events would mechanically follow the German pattern, ending the seizure of power by the fascists. Everything depended on the French workers and what they did.

Precisely because of the German example, these events dramatically increased the alarm of rank and file workers and the calls for unity between the workers’ parties and their two union confederations, the CGT and the CGTU.

The CP, deeply embarrassed by its embroilment in what most workers saw correctly as an attempted fascist coup, called a demonstration against both the fascists and “the killer Daladier".

It was banned by the police, but the CP went ahead and this led to violent street and barricade fighting. The costs for the communist workers were heavy: six dead and hundreds wounded.

The reformist union federation, the CGT, called a general strike for 12 February 1954 and the SFIO called for a massive anti-fascist demonstration on the same day.

Socialist demonstrations on the intervening days were joined by communist workers and local party organisations began to break discipline and co-operate with plans for 12 February. Anti-fascist committees began to spring up across France.

CP leaders were forced, unwillingly and fearfully, to participate. The united general strike paralysed Paris and severely affected the provinces. 150,000 demonstrators filled the streets of Paris.

The CP and SFIO leaders tried to keep their demonstrations as distinct as possible. However, they met at the Place de la Nation: the leaders and the marshals tried to “maintain order” but it was useless. The rank and file swept them aside, fusing in a tumultuous mass.

Daniel Guerin recalls the scene: “The communist column turned round the central island in one direction, the socialist column in the opposite direction.

Then when they met, their waves coined, melted into one another, to the cry ‘Unity! Unity!’ Their mass now advanced, in serried ranks across the whole width of the Cours de Vincennes, singing the Internationale".

Immediately after this turning point in France, however, catastrophe struck the Austrian workers’ movement.

The troops of the bonapartist regime of Engelbert Dollfuss moved to seize the hidden arms caches of the already banned militia of the Austrian Social Democracy, the Schutzbund.

Deserted by their party leadership, the local units of the Schutzbund fought for five days before succumbing to the heavy artillery of the army and police. 118 workers were killed and 279 injured. An attempted general strike failed.

The Austrian Social Democratic Party, a party of 660.000 members - which had in its own words created an “anticipatory socialism” in Vienna, building huge apartment blocks, nurseries and kindergartens, clinics, libraries, parks, swimming pools -was smashed to pieces, just as the SPD and the KPD had been in Germany.

This time the blame could not be placed on the division of the Austrian proletariat: the Austrian CP was insignificant. And Dollfuss was nowhere near as strong, militarily, as Hitler’s Nazis had been in 1933.

The Austrian experience showed that to defeat fascism needed more than simply the passive unity of organisation between the workers’ parties. It showed that more than an armed militia was needed.

Many Labourite historians have praised Trotsky’s warnings about the danger of Hitler, distorting them into a criticism solely of the Stalinists’ sectarian obstruction of the united front and presenting his advocacy of the latter as based on a self-limiting “defence of democracy". In the Austrian case Social Democracy could not shift the responsibility onto the Stalinist splitters.

The Austrian workers had all the unity they needed. The question was what to do with it?

Trotsky drew the political conclusions from this great defeat as he had after that of the German workers a year previously. Decades of electoral and municipal cretinism, of pandering to democratic illusions and legalism are not the way to prepare the workers’ movement for decisive action.

"What is necessary ... is a systematic revolutionary education of the vanguard and winning the trust of the majority of the proletariat in the practical intelligence and daring of the proletarian general staff. Without this precondition, victory is completely impossible. For years the Austrian Social Democracy threatened to answer force with force, when their democratic rights were impinged upon.

It turned revolutionary action into a legalistic-literary threat that it did not take seriously itself. Only a leadership that recognises in advance that the revolution is unavoidable, that makes this the fundamental principle guiding its actions, and draws all the practical conclusions (lowing from this, measures up to the situation at the critical hour."

The road to the Popular Front

The French workers, at least for one day, were able to force their unwilling leaders into a united front.

However, this spontaneous militancy was not sufficient to overcome the resistance of the two bureaucracies which, once the masses were demobilised, returned to their old tricks.

Nevertheless in spring 1934 a major change of line took place in the Comintern.

On 23 May in Moscow, Pravda carried two articles: one was anonymous and entitled “For the United Front Against Discord": the other was signed by Maurice Thorez and called “The French Communist Party in the Struggle for the United Front". Both said that Communists had the duty to offer the united front of struggle against fascism to the socialist leaders.

What had forced Stalin’s hand? Certainly the pressure of the French CP workers threatened the CP with disintegration if it continued its refusal to unite, but the self-same criminal policy had destroyed the KPD a year before without turning a hair of Stalin’s head.

During this year, while Hitler crushed the German labour movement, Stalin wined and dined with the fascist diplomats - seeking a continuation of the German-Russian accords.

On 14 April 1934, however, the German ambassador finally notified Russian foreign minister Litvinov that no deal was possible. Stalin turned abruptly from an alliance with German imperialism to one with the French.

Meetings with French diplomats began and, by 2 May, a Franco-Soviet pact was announced by the French foreign minister Pierre Laval.

The turn to the “united front” now became a necessity for Stalin. The French communists had a new role to play: they had to allay the French capitalists’ fears of revolution: it would not happen as long as France was in alliance with Russia! The turn came just in time to save the French CP.

The sectarian “Third Period” had taken a disastrous toll on its membership, while at the same time it mightily strengthened the SFIO. By 1932 the CP had (officially) 30,000 members; many sources say the real figure was nearer 12,000. The SFIO at the same time had 137,000 members.

On 27 July the CP and the SFIO signed a unity pact.

The SFIO leaders demanded the cessation of all communist criticism of themselves as its price. Thorez who in April was still calling for a “constant and pitiless attack on the Socialist Party” was, by June, writing that “neither from the mouth of any of our propagandists, nor from the pen of any of our writers, in L’Humanite or even in the Cahiers du Bolshevisme [theoretical journal of the PCF], as in our entire press, will there be the slightest attack against the organisations or against the leaders of the Socialist Party."

Not only was the united front to exclude all freedom of criticism, but Thorez was soon to go further. On 12 October 1954 L’Humanite carried an article by Thorez called “At all costs, Defeat Fascism: For a Wide Anti-Fascist Popular Front".

This was the first use of the slogan.

The middle-classes, Thorez claimed, were open to a “common front” and he argued for local sections of the Radical Party to be admitted into Popular Front committees.

He called for these committees to be elected across France.

Meanwhile secret overtures were opened between the CP and the Radical leaders Herriot and Daladier. The Radical Party was at this time part of a Doumergue’s government, engaged in imposing vicious deflationary measures.

These alienated and radicalised the white collar state employees who formed an important part of the Radical Party’s base.

Yet the formal proposal of a bloc with the largest party of the imperialist bourgeoisie had to await events in Moscow.

The full import of what the Franco Soviet pact meant for working class strategy was soon revealed to the French workers.

Stalin, on the prompting of Laval, made the observation in the official communiqu? that he had “complete understanding and approval of the national defence policy pursued by France with the object of maintaining its armed forces at a level consistent with its security requirements". Even the editor of L’Humanite described Stalin’s statement as a “clap of thunder".

Yet L’Humanite loyally jumped to attention with the headline “Stalin is right!” With scarcely a blink out went the Leninist policy of revolutionary defeatism in an imperialist country - a policy on which the party had been founded.

Within a week the CP unceremoniously dropped its campaign against the two year conscription. Likewise its calls for independence for the colonies were replaced by calls for “colonial reform". The oppressed masses were told that “while they had the right to secede they should not do so".

Today the main danger was fascism, not “democratic” colonialism, the CP said. In response to this, Leon Blum, the leader of the SFIO, triumphantly announced that revolutionary defeatism was dead.

At the end of May 1935 the Popular Front which until then had been posed primarily as an alliance with the petty bourgeois base of the Radical Party and prominent anti-fascist individuals was now given the content of a cross-class government to be supported in parliament by the votes of the Communist, Socialist and Radical parties.

The CP plunged into a wild orgy of patriotism, giving it a “revolutionary” colouration by constant references to the Great Revolution of 1789 and Jacobinism.

There was a huge joint demonstration on 14 July 1935, Bastille Day, in which Thorez, wearing a tricolor sash stood beaming with joy, alongside Daladier and Blum.

The communists joined in singing the Marseillaise, “with exaltation” in Blum’s words.

The communist municipalities were instructed on no account to fly the red flag. For the next three years Thorez was hardly to be seen in public without his tricolor sash.

Trotsky characterised Stalin’s and the French CP’s support of Laval’s rearmament programme as a critical moment in post war working class history: “Stalin has signed the death certificate of the Third International. For the first time Stalin has openly said what is: i.e. in full view of the entire world, he has repudiated revolutionary internationalism and passed over to the platform of social patriotism."

Trotsky showed how this not only meant the abandonment of the class independence of the workers in the face of an approaching imperialist war but the abandonment of revolution in the place of an approaching revolutionary situation.

This marked the passage of Stalinism into the camp of counter-revolution, Trotsky said - a prediction to be brutally confirmed in France and Spain in the years 1956-39.

"Today Stalin and co. have lost all faith in the revolutionary forces. They resort to pure diplomacy, that is to say to the filthiest sort. They refuse to see anything except combinations with this or that imperialism against some other. They are above all, afraid lest the French workers compromise their combinations. Thorez and co. subscribe to this disgraceful attitude. They also deem the revolutionary movement to be an obstacle to the safety of the USSR. They accept the offer to hamstring and penalise the revolution."

In August 1955 the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern endorsed and generalised the “broad anti-fascist Popular Front".

Few of the delegates suspected it, but this was to be the last Congress.

Dimitrov delivered the main report and lavished praise on Thorez and the French communists. He urged the party to develop the Popular Front into a mass movement through the creation of local committees.

A year was yet to pass before the government of the Popular Front under Blum was installed, but in essence the period from spring 1934 to summer 1935 saw the transition from the sectarianism of the Third Period to the cross class strategy of the Popular Front: from bureaucratic ultra-left adventurism to bureaucratic social-patriotism, In this momentous and difficult period the tiny forces of French Trotskyism had to orient themselves.

Trotsky and the French Section

By June 1934 the 100 members of the Communist League (CL), the French section of the ICL, had begun to play a recognised role in working class politics.

Their weekly paper La Verite and their review La Lutte de Classes had enabled them to be the clearest and most consistent protagonists of the united front, with a unparalleled record of having warned for years of the fascist danger in Germany.

During the 6-12 February period they had managed to bring out three issues of their paper, each with a circulation of 3,000.

They had built a small youth group around a paper Octobre Rouge. They had become widely known, though as yet they had extremely weak roots in the working class.

Given the central role that the ICL’s perspective accorded to France it was fortunate that Trotsky was actually resident in France from July 1933 to June 1935.

In the first six months, he was able to meet the leaders of the French, other European and North American sections of the ICL - and of other left parties.

He was able to attend leadership meetings of the CL in Paris. He was able to contribute, albeit anonymously, to the press of the French section.

But in 1934, after the 6 February riots, the Doumergue government took fright and sought to expel Trotsky from the country.

In mid-April he was deprived of his right to residence though, since no other state was willing to receive him, it proved impossible to enforce the expulsion for over a year.

One serious problem was that the leadership of the Communist League was divided into two near permanent groups: the first was led by Pierre Naville and Gerard Rosenthal and the second by Raymond Molinier and Pierre Frank.

The former tended to a literary propagandist approach, seeing little need or possibility to undertake the tactical and organisational methods needed to transcend the propaganda circle stage of party building. Molinier on the other hand was willing enough to take bold measures to get the League involved with mass struggle.

For these reasons Trotsky supported Molinier and was sharply critical of Naville.

But Molinier had a tendency to adventurism: the pursuit of short cuts to success which trampled on principles. This manifested itself first in organisational and financial matters and later in a wholesale accommodation to centrism in order to achieve mass influence.

Nevertheless, Trotsky was very critical of the section, particularly of its clique - and faction-ridden internal life.

In a very sharp letter, aptly entitled “It is time to stop", he stigmatised the fact that:

"... almost from the very beginning of the existence of the French League its inner life represented a series of crises that never reached the level of principles, but distinguished themselves by extreme bitterness and poisoned the atmosphere of the organisation, repelling serious workers despite their sympathy for the ideas of the opposition."

He thought its leadership was out of touch with the membership, tolerated the disruption of anti-Leninist elements and organised the work very badly.

He saw that there were in the French section “lifeless sectarian elements ... whose whole psychology is adapted to the atmosphere of closed circles."

Trotsky thought this had to stop. But this could not be accomplished solely by discipline or purges. A new sort of activity was needed.

He saw the new orientation to the Fourth International and towards mass struggles as posing the question: “forward to a wide arena of the Fourth International or backward to small circles stewing in their own juice."

As soon as the new line of the Comintern on the united front became clear Trotsky rapidly came to the view that the Communist League must find its place within the united front - and that meant within one of the mass parties that formed it.

The Stalinists could be expected to work in every way to exclude the Trotskyists: the very size of a propaganda group would exclude it from party-to-party negotiations and - if the CL was not careful - actions.

It was no longer a matter of making propaganda and agitation for the united front but of what in practical terms the united front should do.

Writing at a time of a temporary breakdown in negotiations between the SFIO and CP, Trotsky strongly urged the French Trotskyists to enter the SFIO:

"The rhythm of events is now extraordinarily accelerated in comparison with the preceding period. We must not forget that in any case. How to make use of this respite? Concentrate our main forces inside the Socialist Party, and establish therein a firm nucleus and a fraction of sympathisers. In the event of a new favourable opportunity this fraction can address itself to the League with an open appeal to enter the Socialist Party for a common struggle on behalf of a revolutionary Marxist policy".

Trotsky realised that to make an effective impact in a mass organisation, practical slogans were required, ones which would link the immediate needs of the masses to the strategic objectives which alone would secure them. Thus he set out to arm the League for this new tactical turn.

This he did in a series of pamphlets, most of which were published in the name of the Communist League: An Action Programme for France June 1934); Whither France? (October 1934) and Once Again, Whither France? (March 1935).

Action Programme for France

Trotsky produced a detailed draft of an action programme. The final version was published in June 1934 in La Verite.

The programme addressed the immediate struggles facing the proletariat of France - especially the defence of its democratic rights - and put these in the context of the need for the masses to find the road to power.

It therefore dealt with both immediate economic issues and democratic and anti-fascist slogans.

Faced with mass unemployment and the deflationary austerity programmes of the government, public sector wage reductions and demands for sacrifice, it counterposed a whole series of demands to completely “deflate the privileges and profits” of the exploiters: a forty hour week and substantial wage increases, unemployment insurance; a paid one month vacation: a living retirement pension for all those over 50: equal pay and rights for women and young people; grants for study and apprenticeships; paid maternity leave; abolition of all legislation aimed at foreign and colonial workers.

Trotsky raised the slogan of the abolition of business secrecy, the opening of the books, of workers’ and peasants’ control; of control of the banks, finance and industry.

The programme showed how all these essential measures posed the need to totally reorganise the economy, to create a “workers’ and peasants’ government” based on “real revolutionary efforts".

The only government worthy of being called a workers’ government would be one “issuing directly from the working people", one which would liberate the small peasants from their crushing debts, expropriate the wealth of the exploiters not compensate them, nationalise the banks, large landed property, the key industries and the railways.

In the sphere of agriculture, the small farms would be socialised “only with the consent of the peasants themselves".

All these measures required the installation and protection of a workers’ government by an armed workers’ militia.

The militia was made doubly necessary by the threat of fascism.

The programme poured scorn on the calls then being advanced by the Communist Party, for the state to disarm and dissolve the fascist Leagues.

"Our slogan is not the disarming of finance capital’s gangs by finance capital’s police.

We refuse to spread the criminal illusion that a capitalist government can actually proceed to the disarming of the capitalist bands.

The exploited must defend themselves against the capitalists.

Arming of the proletariat! Arming of the poor peasants! People’s antifascist militia!"

The action programme unambiguously stated the need for a revolution to smash the capitalist state:

"The task is to replace the capitalist state which functions for the profit of the big exploiters, by the workers’ and peasants’ proletarian state."

The programme called for committees of the workers’ parties and unions, and in the countryside for peasant committees, recognising that these will be embryonic Soviets."

The programme seriously addressed the problem of how to overcome the democratic illusions and reformist prejudices of great majority of the working class.

It made a pledge to the reformist workers similar to that made by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the Soviets in mid-1917.

The programme recognised that “as long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie."

But it linked this pledge to an appeal to the reformist workers and a challenge to their parties.

Will you defend these bourgeois-democratic rights in a revolutionary manner? Will you fight against all the undemocratic institutions in the present state machinery which threaten the working class? It calls for the abolition of the Senate.

the Presidency, a “hidden point of concentration for the forces of militarism and reaction", and consequently for a single assembly combining all legislative and executive power, elected on a two-yearly basis by universal suffrage.

Its deputies should be elected on the basis of local assemblies and their mandates be revocable by their constituents. They should receive the salary of a skilled worker.

These demands could not, and should not, for one moment be confused with socialism, but the fight for them would “facilitate the struggle for workers’ power” by exposing both the real extra-parliamentary concentrations of the bourgeoisie’s strength and the reformist leaders cowardice and incapacity even to defend democracy.

In addition Trotsky made it clear that.

in this struggle, revolutionaries must be willing to defend a reformist government against an assault by reactionary forces.

"If, during the course of the implacable struggle against the enemy, the party of ‘democratic’ socialism (SFIO), from which we arc separated by irreconcilable differences in doctrine and method, were to gain the confidence of the majority, we arc and always will be ready to defend an SFIO government against the bourgeoisie".

Thus Trotsky armed the League with a transitional action programme.

His method was to relate strategic goals to current tasks in order to open up a bridge to working class power. It was in no sense a “halfway house” between reform and revolution.

None of the essentials of the revolutionary programme were hidden from view.

But in the forefront stood demands which could be fought for by both reformist and revolutionary workers.

Moreover in their presentation and language they were meant to be as comprehensible as possible to workers who were not yet revolutionaries.

The revolutionary dynamic of this programme lay in the fact that its demands were linked to one another by the iron necessity of the class struggle, and that their consistent and militant pursuit led inescapably to revolutionary conclusions.

Thus whilst the Action Programme for France starts from the context of the united front needed to defend French workers against fascism and from the key battles - economic.

social and political - facing the working class, it focuses on the need to take power and property away from the bourgeoisie and to create a new state power based on workers’ councils.

Thus we can see that when Trotsky advised the League to enter the SFIO there was no tailoring of the revolutionary content of its programme.

From the experience of this entry we will likewise see that, for Trotsky, it was neither a question of fusion with existing centrist currents, acting as a midwife to them, or mimicking their politics.

In sharp contrast with the entrism for which post-war “Trotskyism” became famous and to which the names of Michel Pablo, Gerry Healy and Ted Grant are attached, there was no question of such methods.

However, the temptation to do all of these things did arise in the 1950s and indeed a whole current in the French section developed just such a practice.

Trotsky’s merciless fight against them is thus a critique, in advance, of the theory and practice of his epigones.

The “French Turn"

Trotsky drew up a perspectives document which outlined the internal and external conditions which necessitated a sharp turn - “The State of the League and its Tasks” (29 June 1934).

In it Trotsky pointed to the fact that because of the length and severity of the economic crisis the workers have “not been able to resist effectively on the economic field because of the state of their organisations. But on the political plane their ferment is clear".

In particular unity had become a mass sentiment so strong that the bureaucratic leaderships had been forced to take it into account.

Both sets of trade union and party bureaucrats and MPs feared having to lace a dual challenge: a break to the left by the masses or a fascist coup that would destroy the bureaucratic apparatus altogether.

Consequently as Trotsky stressed: “The lessons of Germany have struck home.

The bureaucracies are seeking a foothold among the masses, the masses are seeking a solution in action. This convergence of the manoeuvres made by the apparatus will have the effect of pushing forward the masses who are already seething. The political consciousness of important sections of militants will rapidly become transformed in the course of action, the conservative resistance of the bureaucracies will be weakened by action and so will their defensive arsenal."

Trotsky showed here the importance of taking into account the leftward manoeuvres of the bureaucracy as well as their rightward ones.

It is false radicalism to see the bureaucracy as always carrying out the same right-wing tactics: equally false as the idea that the bureaucracy can be pressured into pursuing a roughly revolutionary policy.

A leftward turn by the bureaucracy represents an opportunity for revolutionaries to use the united front to break the reformist leaders’ stranglehold over the mass organisations.

Trotsky’s balance sheet of the Communist League went on to look at its strengths and weaknesses.

In the positive column was the fact of “our existence on an international scale, our political homogeneity, the training of our cadre, such as they are". Crucially important was the fact that “our ideas are victorious at the present moment". As a result “there arc no workers’ districts where we do not have a receptive audience".

But the negative column also had to be accounted for with an unsparing objectivity:

"The League has been marking time for more than a year...our permanent tics with the working class are almost nil... [there is] no nationally coordinated fraction in the fraction in CGT"

Trotsky observed that “our organic weakness arose as an obstacle at every stage as did our social composition".

Finally looking at the turn by the Stalinists he asked: “What chance will the League have now that the lever of the united front has been wrested from our hands?"

He pointed to the fact that the SFIO had “preserved throughout this whole period an actively intense life” and observed that an analogous situation preceded the Tours Congress in 1921 when the CP was born from a majority “split” in the SFIO.

He continued: “Its internal situation permits the possibility of our entering [the SFIO] with our banner. The environment suits the aims we have for ourselves. What is necessary now is to act in such a manner that our declaration will not in any way strengthen the leading bourgeois wing but rather will support the progressive proletarian wing, that its text and distribution will allow us to hold our heads high in case of acceptance as well as in case of dilatory manoeuvres or rejection. There is no question of dissolving ourselves. We enter as the Bolshevik-Leninist faction, our organisational ties remain the same, our press continues to exist just as the Bataille Socialiste and others".

Trotsky’s perspective and tactic would, he said, require two things for its success: “organisational cohesion (through the steadfastness of each member) and promptness of implementation". Without that the opportunity for maximum success would be lost.

However, this tactic came up against fierce resistance within the League: instead of the few weeks Trotsky had hoped for.

Two months’ internal discussion and a special conference were required to implement the entry tactic - and even then it led to a serious split.

Trotsky entered the fray with a series of polemics. He saw the objections as indicative of an overall trend - indeed an historically inevitable one in view of the League’s isolation - to resist the tasks of the new period in favour of remaining at the stage of a propaganda circle. From this he drew lessons of general application to any organisation, forced to maintain a circle existence for long years but which is finally confronted with a sharp change of period and urgent new tasks.

Thus in “The League Faced with a Turn” duly 1934) he wrote:

"It is the task of the revolutionary party to weld together the correct ideas with the mass labour movement. Only in this manner can an idea become a driving force.

A revolutionary organisation does not mean a paper and its readers ... One can give the labour organisations good advice from the sidelines. That is something. But that still does not make a revolutionary organisation ... The League like other sections was forced to develop as an isolated propaganda group. This determined both its positive sides (an honest and serious attitude to the principles) and its negative sides observing the labour movement from the outside). In the course of the elaboration of the principles and methods of the Left Opposition, the positive sides of the League carried the day. At present, when it becomes necessary to circulate the accumulated capital, the negative sides are threatening to get the upper hand."

Trotsky thus insisted on the radical change needed in the League’s whole outlook.

Drawing on the lessons of the attempt by the British Trotskyists to enter the Independent Labour Party in 1935 - which had also led to delays and splits - Trotsky concluded:

"Irreconcilableness of principle has nothing in common with sectarian ossification, which heedlessly passes over the changes in the situation and the mood of the masses.

From the thesis that the proletarian party must be independent at all costs our English comrades concluded that it would be impermissible to go into the 1LP. Alas! They only forgot that they were far from being a party, but were only a propaganda circle, that a party does not fall from heaven, that the propaganda circle must pass through a period of embryonic existence before it can become a party"

In France Trotsky had to face serious opposition to the new turn. It was led by Pierre Naville, at 30 years old one of the CL’s principal leaders and a member of the International Secretariat of the 1CL.

Trotsky polemicised fiercely against his whole approach: “It is particularly now that we must put up a pitiless fight against abstract, passive propagandism, against a policy of waiting."

At a conference on 29 August the majority of the Communist League decided to enter.

Inside the SFIO, the majority of the French section formed the Bolshevik-Leninist Fraction. The minority, led by Naville, refused and split away, taking the journal Lutte de Classe. Nevertheless by the end of September they too had entered the SFIO.

Trotsky and the international leadership, in the person of James P Cannon who was in France for a plenum of the ICL, tried to bring about a fusion between the Naville group and the Bolshevik-Leninists, to the fury of Molinier. But Naville refused to accept a common discipline and maintained the independence of Lutte de Classes. In practice however the two groups worked quite closely together.

Opposition to the turn erupted in a number of the ICL’s sections or sympathising groups.

In Paris an enlarged international plenum was held to debate the problems connected with the French turn and the possibility of applying it in other countries.

For this meeting (14-16 October) Trotsky drafted a further perspective -"The Present Situation in the Labour Movement and the Tasks of the Bolshevik-Leninists: from a Propagandist Group to Mass Work.” This emphasised that the ICL “does not...possess sufficiently important forces to become a centre of attraction for the masses, who under the Damocles sword of fascism and war, fear to cut themselves off from the big organisations. The ICL cannot act as an independent party of the proletariat, it is only the instrument for the creation of independent parties. This instrument must be employed in accordance with the situation in each country."

"By means of propagandistic literature, if it is good, one can educate the first cadres, but one cannot rally the proletarian vanguard which lives neither in a circle nor in a schoolroom but in class society, in a factory, in the organisation of the masses, a vanguard to whom one must know how to speak in the language of its experiences.” The best prepared propagandist cadres must disintegrate if they do not find contact with the daily struggle of the masses.

Significant leaders of the ICL, such as Eugene Bauer of the German section, Henk Sneevliet (Netherlands), Georges Vereecken (Belgium) and Pietro Tresso (Italy), were strongly opposed to the “French Turn". Hugo Oehler in the US section also violently attacked the turn, accusing the Bolshevik-Leninists of capitulation.

Shortly after the plenum Bauer quit the ICL and quickly gravitated towards the SAP.

Trotsky pointed out the link between an aloof, haughty attitude to the millions of reformist workers and a programmatic softness on the tiny centrist sects.

He also clarified the difference between fusion on the basis of a full programme and entry into a centrist or reformist party which is a particular application of the policy of the united front - i.e. limited unity in action:

"The SFIO is a mass organisation not a homogenous propaganda group. The state of this organisation is such that the possibility is open to us to enter it as a homogeneous propaganda group The SAP is not a mass organisation. It is itself a propaganda group.

This being the case, fusion is impermissible in the absence of a common program and method. Our attempt a year ago to find this common ground failed; the leaders of the SAP did not want to accept our principles...To condemn the entry of our French section into a small propaganda group which Bauer himself characterised as centrist just a short time ago - isn’t this an abominable mockery of the ABC of Marxism?"

Trotsky again stresses the dialectical link (unity of opposites) between sectarians and opportunists: “Members who insist upon formal independence are always inclined to capitulate before reality when it treads upon their toes."

Perhaps the most tragic example of such capitulation was that of Andres Nin and Juan Andrade, leaders of the Spanish section of the ICL. The Spanish section , with 800 or so members, was one of the largest sections of the ICL.

Nin resisted stubbornly any attempt to orient to the PSOE and its youth section despite receiving overtures from the party itself in 1934. Instead, on 29 September 1935 he fused with the 4,000 strong “right-oppositionist” Workers and Peasants Bloc of Joaquin Maurin to found the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).

The POUM rapidly showed its centrist character by signing the programme of the Spanish Popular Front in January 1936. This led to a split with the ICL.

It also left the Spanish working class bereft of a consistent revolutionary leadership during the most protracted and bitter class battle of the 1930s.

Many of those who opposed the “French Turn” were to develop in the next years into apologists for the POUM and opposed any move towards the foundation of the Fourth International.

Other sections, including the Belgians, the British and the Americans, went on to apply the “French Turn” to their own particular circumstances during the next two years.

The entry tactic in practice

At the time of the Bolshevik-Leninist entry the SFIO was a party in turmoil, Its membership was some 120,000 and the CGT, which it influenced, had over a million members.

After a right-wing split by the “Neo-Socialists” in late 1933, the left forces had gained in strength. At the SFIO’s Toulouse Congress in 1934 left groups that had split or been expelled were invited to return. Even Leon Blum, the party’s leader, came out with radical phrases.

As Trotsky pointed out, reformism was disguising itself as centrism, both to keep abreast of its radicalised base and verbally to threaten a bourgeoisie that was not only denying it reforms but asking for them back in threatening terms.

The Bolshevik Leninist Group (GBL) - as the French Trotskyists now called themselves - while jealously guarding its political independence, closely cooperated in practical activity with the Bataille Socialiste tendency and in particular with Marceau Pivert.

He was in friendly contact with the Trotskyists, enthusiastically welcomed them into the party and took up many of their most telling criticisms of the Stalinist and Social Democratic leaders.

When the party leadership began to threaten the Bolshevik-Leninists with expulsion, he stated: “the struggle against Trotskyism, at present, is the sign of a reactionary state of mind inside the workers’ movement".

The first nine months of the entry into the SFIO were carried out on a clear revolutionary basis.

The GBL, through its newspaper La Verite, fought for the key elements of the Action Programme for France. They advocated an active, democratic mass base for the united front. They mercilessly exposed the social-patriotic Blum leadership and the class collaborationist policies of the Stalinists.

Pivert adopted many of the slogans and arguments of the Trotskyists, arguing for arming the workers’ defence squads, for example, but he cast his proposals in the future and not the present tense: “If this situation does not change soon, we will have to launch a massive subscription with a view to arming the proletariat."

The GBL sharply criticised Pivert in La Verite, declaring: “If... if ... if the bourgeoisie does not change its nature then we will start getting angry!"

The Bolshevik-Leninists did for a period have remarkable successes.

They were particularly successful in the Paris youth organisation of the SFIO, the Jeunesses Socialistes, winning a majority to support for the positions of the Bolshevik-Leninists. Membership of the GBL went up to 300 by the summer of 1935. They also began making gains in the industrial north of the country and in the southeast. Along with the Pivertists, they set up an SFIO physical defence guard - the TPPS or “Always Ready to Serve".

In June 1935 at the congress of the SFIO’s Seine region they received 1,037 votes for their resolution compared with 1,570 for the supporters of Blum and 2,370 for those of Bataille Socialiste. They were able to do more work in the unions than ever before.

As SFIO members they were even able to establish greater contact with the CP workers. They also pushed Pivert to the left.

They did this not by exaggerating his revolutionary credentials or covering up his weaknesses.

Daniel Guerin - at the time a Pivert supporter - wrote that the Trotskyists permanently blew hot and cold, applauding the steps he made towards Trotskyism only to call him to order when he fell back into centrism."

The “exit tactic"

The SFIO’s 32nd national conference took place at Mulhouse on 9-12 June 1935. The leadership was already committed to the Popular Front with the CP and the Radicals and had two thirds of the conference behind them. But the Bolshevik-Leninists attacked the new social patriotic project.

Molinier vehemently denounced Stalinism from the tribune too. Blum, who was chairing the session, interrupted him:

"’Comrade Molinier, I will tell you, without any kind of evasion or oratorical threat, that if organic unity could be established between the Communists and ourselves, and if that unity excluded the small group you figure in, I would play my part in it with ease.’ ‘Out! Out Out!!’ shouted a number of delegates."

The Bolshevik-Leninists and the Naville Group raised the question of the Fourth International.

This frightened off the Pivertists, as Guerin again remembered:

"To patiently and tactfully prepare minds for this future regroupment was one thing.

It was quite another to openly make publicity from the tribune of the congress in favour of a Fourth International, to bluffingly proclaim it already in existence; this had a knack of exasperating the social democratic bigwigs."

The Bolshevik-Leninists succeeded in winning a small but significant backing for such outspoken revolutionary positions.

On the main political resolution the voting was: for Blum’s 2,025, for Zyromski-Pivert’s 777, for the Bolshevik-Leninists 105.

At Mulhouse the Bolshevik-Leninists’ secretary, Jean Rous, was elected to the SFIO’s National Administrative Committee. Justifiably proud of their showing at Mulhouse, the GBL saw nothing ahead but making more and more gains in the SFIO.

However, events beyond the control of the Bolshevik-Leninists would determine otherwise.

The SFIO and the CP leaders were already deep in negotiations, even discussing the possibility of fusing the two parties. In these negotiations the Stalinists repeatedly raised the issue of the Trotskyists and the need for the SFIO to expel them.

At the same time Trotsky was assessing the new phase opened by the formation of the Popular Front. He came to the conclusion that the entry tactic had served its purpose.

Visiting Paris on 10 June, en route to a new place of exile in Norway, Trotsky wrote another letter on tactics: “A New Turn is Necessary".

Exaggerating somewhat, he wrote that, “Our section, thanks to the entry, has changed from a propaganda group into a revolutionary factor of the first order". In reality it had increased in size from about one hundred to three hundred - plus it had won the adherence of the youth around the paper Revolution.

This was, in itself, no mean achievement.

Stressing the importance of the greatest clarity and vigour in denouncing the Popular Front and the Stalinists, and the need to raise the call for the Fourth International as clearly as possible, Trotsky argued for a new course:

"The Bolshevik-Leninist Group must know how to effect a new turn, which is the logical development of the previous stage. Without of course making the slightest concessions, it is necessary to concentrate nine tenths of the efforts upon the denunciation of the Stalinist betrayal... The condition for success is a ruthless struggle against the slightest concession to the theory of national defence. The inevitable regroupment in the different working class organisations (Communist Party.

Trade Unions, etc.) must open for us an outlet to the working class masses.

It is necessary to orient ourselves in this direction with all the required independence.

This regroupment can result in the creation of a revolutionary party within a set and quite close period of time."

A month later on 14 July, Bastille Day, not only the mass following of the Popular Front became plain but also the grossness of its social patriotism.

The CP called on all who “defended peace and liberty” to rally “under the tricolor".

The communist leaders heaped fulsome praise on the Radical Party as “the worthiest Party of France". Some 250,000 to 300,000 demonstrators rallied at the Place de la Bastille to observe Thorez, sporting his tricolor sash, bawling the national anthem with Blum and Daladier.

The bitter fruits of this craven class collaboration were soon manifest in the class struggle.

The Laval government, still kept in office by “the worthiest party in France", passed savage new measures reducing the wages of public sector workers.

In Brest, a strike in the naval shipyards broke out. On 8 August there was a solidarity strike by workers in the arsenals in Toulon.

The repression of the pickets turned it into a near uprising in the city, with communist workers playing a prominent role. That evening, there were five dead and hundreds wounded.

In the fighting the workers had torn down the tricolor from the Brest police headquarters and burned it.

On 10 August L’Humanite published a solemn central committee statement denouncing those who had “insulted the tricolor” and blaming not the police but “provocateurs” amongst the strikers for the fighting.

Trotsky characterised the situation in France as “objectively revolutionary” and considered it was of burning importance to address revolutionary politics directly to workers such as those of Brest and Toulon, including the CP militants disavowed by their own party when they took militant action.

It was vital to denounce openly not only the new class collaboration but its ultimate aim: a new ‘Sacred Union’ (class peace) in the world war which Trotsky predicted could only be a few years away.

He also now emphasised the social composition of the SFIO - whose active membership was composed of teachers, employees and professionals rather than industrial workers.

If, as Trotsky predicted, major class confrontation was approaching, then the Bolshevik-Leninists had to reach out to the workers in the factories. They had to influence the still revolutionary elements amongst the CP and CGTU rank and file - many of whom only saw the Popular Front as a manoeuvre, rather than a strategic betrayal.

Experience would prove the Trotskyists right, but they had to be visible and accessible to these workers, many of whom still retained remnants of Third Period attitudes.

This confirmed that to prolong the entry into the SFIO artificially would be a mistake.

In the aftermath of the Mulhouse Congress, and then the Lille congress of the Jeunesses Socialistes, the expulsions of the GBL began; first with eleven leaders of Revolution led by Fred Zeiler and then with the leaders of the Bolshevik-Leninist Group.

Faced with Blum’s purge of the Trotskyists, Pivert revealed his ingrained centrism.

He wrote to Molinier: “At any price, therefore it is necessary to remain in the party, to abandon this impossible attitude of an affiliation to two internationals at the same time...l think that it is necessary to abandon La Verite.” He was willing to defend the Trotskyists against the Stalinists but would not pass from words to deeds if this risked a split with Blum.

Pierre Frank responded, in the June internal bulletin of the GBL: “It would in my opinion be criminal to think of leaving the SP ... We will not allow ourselves to be isolated".

Such a stance is self-defeating when you are being expelled by the reformist bureaucracy - as a generation of centrists inside the British Labour Party proved in the 1980s.

Frank and Raymond Molinier emphasised exclusively the illegality of the SFIO leadership’s measures and resorted to pathetic appeals for unity. Trotsky was extremely critical of this sudden loss of nerve by the people who had so recently stood up to Blum at Mulhouse.

He urged: “attack the expellers not as ‘splitters’ (that’s the small talk of Pivert) but primarily as the valets of French imperialism."

But the wavering continued. The leadership, both the Molinier and Naville factions which had fused, refused for over a month to print Trotsky’s “Open Letter for the Fourth International” and then published only an abridged version. Criticism of Pivert ceased.

Instead, he was fulsomely praised for his purely verbal protest at the witch-hunt of the Trotskyists.

In La Verite (no.24: 22 August 1935) we find an article entitled “Marceau Pivert solidarises with the expelled.” This was in the form of two letters, written by Pivert, opposing the Lille expulsions.

Here he stated that “to be anti-Trotskyist at this time is the sign of a reactionary state of mind in the workers’ movement.” However, he also argued that the GBL had helped the expellers by talking about a Fourth International, by using the name Bolshevik-Leninists etc.

Their problem was that they had not been tactful and sensitive enough to the traditions of the SFIO, they had suffered because of the undemocratic record of Leninism etc.

Not one member of the GBL leadership wanted to write a reply.

Eventually Trotsky himself had to take on the job in an article entitled “Labels and Numbers":

"The task of the revolutionist - even if the march of events obliges him to work in the same organisation with the reformists, those political exploiters of the proletariat - consists not in taking the attitude of a disciple and pretending to maintain friendship with the agents of the bourgeoisie, but of opposing as clearly, as harshly, as unremittingly as possible the opportunists, the patriots, the absolutely bourgeois ‘Socialists’ before the reformist masses ... The misfortune of Pivert is that until now he has not cut the umbilical cord which binds him to the small world of the Blums and the Zyromskys. On every occasion he looks at his ‘friends’ and feels their pulse with anxiety It is this policy, false, illusory, unrealistic - which he offers to the Bolshevik Leninists"

Trotsky also dealt with Pivert’s attack on the use of provocative names ("communist") and numbers ("the Fourth International"). Trotsky insisted that: “in politics the ‘name’ is the ‘banner’.

Those who renounce today a revolutionary name for the benefit of Blum and co.

will tomorrow just as easily renounce the red flag for the tricolor".

The name “Fourth International” signifies, Trotsky wrote, that it is neither possible to raise the two old International from the dead nor to create a new one by mechanically combining them (organic unity).

"’With or without changing the number"? This phrase is devoid of meaning. It is not by accident that the three old Internationals were thus numbered. Every ‘number’ signified a distinct epoch, programme and method of action. The new International must not be the sum of the two corpses, as the old social patriot Zyromsky dreams...but the living ‘negation’ of these corpses and at the same time the ‘continuation’ of the historic work accomplished by the preceding Internationals.

In other words it is a question of the Fourth International. The number here signifies a perspective and a distinct programme, that is, a banner. Let the philistines wax ironic on the above. We will not imitate them."

The National Committee of the SFIO did not bother to thank the GBL for its restraint. On 28 August it outlawed La Verite, threatening to expel any member who sold it.

The reaction by the GBL was not to publish their paper for a month. When it did appear, it was devoted primarily to the agrarian question!

The GBL leaders were now clearly adapting to Pivert’s centrism. They were tempted to do so by the fact that many of the followers of Pivert, especially the youth in the Paris region, were sincerely and enthusiastically seeking the road to revolutionary communism. Pivert as their leader was obliged to adopt (and adapt) many political positions and slogans from the Trotskyists.

This development convinced Molinier, Frank and Naville that the process of evolution could only be accelerated and brought to a successful conclusion by avoiding a conflict with Pivert, by staying in the SFIO and melding as far as possible into the Gauche Revolutionnaire thus helping its evolution from within.

In adopting this position they ignored the fact that left centrism derives the direction of its evolution from the major class forces which operate on it, not from the clever tactics or diplomacy of “revolutionaries".

Its leftward evolution is not guaranteed by any law of history but by the strength of pressure from the reformist or revolutionary poles.

The criticism of centrism from the fundamental class standpoint of the working class is the conscious expression of proletarian pressure.

Thus for the revolutionaries to decrease it will only mean that the centrists give in to the pressure coming from the opposite pole, from the bourgeois agents in the workers movement. To suddenly stop all criticism of Pivert was to disorient the most revolutionary elements among his supporters.

Instead of receiving a practical demonstration of the difference between left centrism and Bolshevism, they saw the GBL minimising or ignoring Pivert’s capitulation to Blum. Naturally it made them more likely to accept Pivert’s argument that the Trotskyists were partly to blame for their own expulsion.

On 9 September at the Central Committee (CC) of the GBL Molinier, under threat of expulsion for selling La Verite, proposed the abandonment of the paper. The CC advised him to sign a declaration of loyalty to the SFIO. Moreover the paper then failed to appear for three weeks. This did not placate the bureaucracy who proceeded to expel 13 militants of the GBL, amongst them Molinier.

Trotsky was incredulous at the proposal to suspend publication of La Verite: “Marceau Pivert asks us to abandon La Verite, as if this measure would satisfy the gods who are thirsty. And Lutte de Classe? And Revolution? And the leaflets? · Before strangling you they are trying to rob you of your means of self-defence. To consent to this would be political suicide."

Pivert dealt the GBL another disorienting blow when, at the end of September, he split from Zyromsky because of the latter’s more and more open Stalinism.

setting up his own faction around the paper Gauche Revolutionnaire (GR).

This action considerably limited the number likely to leave the SFIO alongside the Trotskyists. Molinier immediately suggested that the GBL militants should stay in the SFIO and join Pivert’s faction and contribute to its paper, Revolution.

the youth paper even carried the headline “Vive La Gauche Revolutionnaire!"

In October, though Naville proposed a resolution at the CC characterising the GR as centrist and calling on militants to join the GBL, nothing was said publicly about this in the papers. A debate was initiated for “fusion with the GR".

Worse, during the congress of the Seine federation at the beginning of November the resolution proposed by GBL members and written by Naville avoided all mention of a new International, or a new party, talked of the need to “replace the bourgeois power", called for a “Popular Front of struggle” and for “organic unity".

Trotsky had to intervene once more: “Your attitude to the Revolutionary Left to me seems incomprehensible and absolutely opposed to our principles and traditions. What is the Revolutionary Left? It is a French SAP . If you flirt with these people you are going to push them to the right and lose ground to them. You must denounce them without mercy. La Verite is silent about the Revolutionary Left. This is unbelievable.

Permit me to use the right word: this is scandalous!"

Trotsky continued: “There may exist cases where you act together -against the expulsions, against the fascists, etc. But even then you must spell out your point of view. Do not confuse principles, organisations, and banners. March separately. strike together - please, do both!"

The youth of the GBL and the ex-SFIO youth around Revolution had been clearly working towards the formation of an independent revolutionary party, whereas a majority of the GBL’s adult members, led by Molinier and Frank, were desperately manoeuvring to stay in the SFIO by forming an unprincipled bloc with Pivert’s supporters.

Trotsky observed that “what is most important is the youth. While the adults have been marking time since July and have been wasting their energy and time in order to court a few miserable Pivertists, the youth were carrying out effective and promising work."

Remembering the way that thousands of young Komsomol members rallied to the Russian Left Opposition, he stressed: “Opportunists are always in conflict with the youth."

In December Trotsky summed up critically the entire lessons of the French Turn:

"... it is necessary to know not only how to enter but also how to leave. When you continue to hang onto an organisation that can no longer tolerate proletarian revolutionaries in its midst, you become of necessity the wretched tool of reformism, patriotism, and capitalism."

He summed up the lessons of the work associated with the “French Turn” in the article Lessons of the SFIO Entry:

"1. Entry into a reformist or centrist party in itself does not include a long perspective.

It is only a stage which, under certain conditions, can be limited to an episode.

2. The crisis and the threat of war have a double effect.

First they create the conditions in which the entry itself becomes possible in a general way. But on the other hand, they force the ruling apparatus to resort to expelling the revolutionary elements.

3. To recognise in time the bureaucracy’s decisive attack against the left wing.

and defend ourselves from it, not by making concessions, adapting or playing hide and seek, but by a revolutionary offensive.

4, What has been said above does not at all exclude the task of “adapting” to workers who are in the reformist parties by teaching them new ideas in the language they understand. On the contrary this art must be learned as quickly as possible. But one must not, under the pretext of leading the ranks, make principled concessions to the top centrists and left centrists.

5. Devote the most attention to the youth.

6. Firm ideological cohesion and perspicacity towards our entire international experience."

The Mass Paper

The French section had been discussing the project of turning La Verite into a mass paper for some months. The idea had been put forward by Raymond Molinier as early as April 1935.

His motivation, laudable in itself, was for a breakthrough, for “rapid success” in turning revolutionary ideas into “active nuclei” in the working class. However, there was a fundamental political flaw in his whole approach.

Pierre Frank theorised this for Molinier: “A mass newspaper, a weekly of popular struggle, ought to be launched within a few weeks. This should not be a Bolshevik-Leninist paper, but a paper bringing together, for example, those who are (1) against national defence (2) for the militia against fascism."

Frank went on to develop a view of mass work which was, whether he realised it or not, a repetition of the mistakes of the Russian Economists whom Lenin had polemicised against in What is to be Done? He insisted that the masses’ political consciousness was low but nevertheless they were spontaneously militant.

Therefore the GBL’s “whole programme” would be much too difficult for them at the moment. Moreover to call on these masses to join a tiny and insignificant organisation like the GBL was hopeless.

The answer to these linked problems was to launch “agitation” around a few limited slogans via a “mass paper". This would attract the masses who should then be organised into special “action groups". To do all this financial resources had to be found, inventive means of promotion used and so on.

Trotsky was not opposed to the GBL making a real and dramatic turn to the masses.

Nor was he opposed to the paper of the GBL becoming much less literary and more oriented to workers in struggle. This was indeed the whole basis of advocating a turn away from the SFIO and the centrist milieu.

But his response, when he heard of the serious discussion of these ideas, was straightforward and indeed prophetic:

"To create a mass paper apart from La Verite would be a criminal adventure; you will quickly compromise both papers and end up at the same time with two factions. You must try to turn La Verite into a mass paper without depriving it of its character as the paper of a tendency. That is the only solution."

Within the GBL three tendencies developed on this question: the two traditional ones (Molinier-Frank and Naville) and another around Jean Rous.

Rous, 24 years old, had joined the Communist League in 1932. He was national secretary of the GBL, until his expulsion as a member of the leading body of the SFIO, and a member of the International Secretariat of the ICL. In the latter capacity he was in regular correspondence with Trotsky

Initially all three tendencies were for the creation of a mass paper on a limited (i.e. centrist) basis.

The dispute was whether to transform La Verite or Revolution (the paper of the Seine Youth, under GBL control) into such a paper or to create a new one altogether.

None of the tendencies argued that this paper should defend the whole revolutionary programme.

Pierre Naville, for example, argued that La Verite “should have its polemical content reduced considerably and its theoretical content cut.” Naville demonstrated what he meant by this when he later became editor of Revolution.

No articles appeared in defence of the persecuted Bolshevik-Leninists in Russia and there was nothing on the ICL’s general programme.

On 1 August the CC finally agreed to launch a mass paper as an organ of regroupment.

It stated: “Whatever the conceptions of revolutionary tendencies are, or their differences over the modus operandi for re-organising the proletarian movement, they must regroup!"

The whole upshot of this approach was to minimise the differences between revolutionaries and centrists. This resolution was debated at the GBL’s conference in September, but this was appallingly organised, the debate centring not on the programme of the mass paper but... its name.

Trotsky was to clarify the issue at the end of November:

"What is a mass newspaper?... It is the elementary duty of a revolutionary organisation to make its political newspaper as accessible as possible to the masses.

This task cannot be effectively accomplished except as a function of the growth of the organisation and its cadres, who must pave the way to the masses for the newspaper -since it is not enough, of course, to call a publication a “mass paper” for the masses to really accept it. But quite often revolutionary impatience -which becomes transformed easily into opportunist impatience - leads to this conclusion: the masses are not coming to us because our ideas are too complicated and our slogans too advanced.

It is therefore necessary to simplify our programme, water down our slogans - in short to throw out some ballast. Basically this means: our slogans must correspond not to the objective situation, not to the relation of classes, analysed by the Marxist method, but to subjective assessments (extremely superficial and inadequate ones) of what the ‘masses’ can or cannot accept..."

A majority of the GBL leadership (Naville, Rous - albeit in a rather weak and indecisive manner) opposed the project. But Molinier and Frank decided to present the organisation with a fait accompli.

On 23 November, at a Central Committee meeting, they announced that the first issue of La Commune would come out the next Monday. They proudly showed the astonished CC members a poster, brochures and a list of supporters. Molinier had even hired the services of a private advertising agency to do the flyposting.

The Naville and Rous factions opposed the La Commune project but were unable to pass a resolution taking any action on it. A conciliation committee was set up but Molinier proceeded with the launch of his paper. Trotsky and the International Secretariat had to intervene.

The split in the French section

On 4 December the IS gave Molinier 24 hours to submit to discipline and renounce publication of La Commune. On 6 December La Commune went on sale. But now the Naville - Rous leadership made a serious mistake.

They expelled Molinier and his supporters, thus allowing them to criticise the GBL leaders as bureaucrats who could not answer Molinier politically. Once more Trotsky had to step into the fray.

He exposed the attempts to draw the Gauche Revolutionnaire into the new “mass newspaper” as an attempt to make a bloc for common propaganda with centrists on the centrists’ own terms.

Likewise he opposed the setting up of “Revolutionary Action Groups", the supposed base units of La Commune supporters which Molinier had already started to set up.

"’But it is only a united front’ they will reply. But the united front is an alliance of the forces of the mass organisations with a view to concrete action. In the case of La Commune there are neither forces nor action. It is a “united front” for the publication of a newspaper. Now that is the exact opposite of a united front as it is conceived and interpreted by Marxism. The fundamental rule of the united front, in the meaning of the Bolshevik-Leninists, was and remains: march separately, strike together. Now the Revolutionary Action Group is a deliberately ambiguous institution for marching together and for striking ... the Bolshevik-Leninists."

Despite all Molinier and Frank’s efforts Pivert, the principal object of their adventurist manoeuvres, would have nothing to do with La Commune. He snubbed the whole project from the start and saw it as unwelcome competition in his own centrist market.

Did not Gauche Revolutionnaire already cater for those who wanted abstract propaganda for a four point programme of workers’ militia, opposition to national defence, the general strike and the dictatorship of the proletariat? Moreover Pivert already had several thousand supporters within the SFIO and maintained good relations with his “friend” Blum.

Aside from the Pivertists there were only tiny groups (the Social Front, a petit bourgeois group, and the Spartacists - a group close to the SAP).

Where was the mass support it aimed at? Clearly Molinier hoped that a “popularly written” paper, plus the publicity and razzmatazz could magic it out of nowhere.

Pierre Frank revealed his desperation for a short cut to the creation of a mass party by saying of La Commune: “We can at last get out of the world of small groups we have been debating in for years. Not to do what we are doing would be to condemn ourselves like our German section three years ago, it would be to let events pass us by like our Spanish comrades. We do not have the choice."

Fear of isolation and opportunist impatience led Molinier and Frank to throw out the Marxist programme and replace it with a few slogans and a “mass paper". Needless to say, the masses did not come.

Trotsky attacked the programmatic poverty of La Commune, revealed in its changing programme. Programmatically, La Commune never went further than Pivert.

Even the call for the revolutionary party - posed in an abstract manner - was acceptable in principle by Pivert.

The only difference was that Pivert thought such a party could arise only out of the SFIO whereas La Commune saw the Revolutionary Action Groups (RAGS) as the basis for the new party

This first “Trotskyist” attempt at a pseudo “mass paper” was a miserable failure.

It succeeded only in misguiding the left centrist elements who could have been won to a revolutionary party.

Confronted with disaster, Molinier and Frank performed another somersault. Deserted by their allies, even by the Social Frontists, they represented the split as a deliberate turn towards the Fourth International.

After the split in the GBL, it rapidly became all too plain that the RAGs were not organs representing the mass organisations, parties and trade unions, i.e. that they were incapable of action.

Molinier claimed that they were the basis of a new revolutionary party! In La Commune No. 8 (24 January 1936), Frank, Molinier and friends announced the establishment of the “Committee for the Fourth International (Bolshevik-Leninists)” (CFI). This also carried an advert for a “theoretical magazine” to be called “Fourth International". It never appeared.

One week later it was announced that La Commune was no longer the organ of “various groups” but of the CFI.

Thus the first “Trotskyist” experiment of conducting joint propaganda with centrists on a specially tailored “minimum programmatic basis” came to an inglorious end.

In reality La Commune was, like many of its post war imitations, not so much a bloc with real centrists or reformists but an aping of centrism by people who thought that they were revolutionaries but that revolutionary politics was “too much” for the masses as yet, that a preparatory stage of centrist propaganda and agitation was necessary.

The result of this political adventurism was, in the end, the splitting and eventually near destruction of the revolutionary forces. It squandered nearly all the gains so courageously won during the entry into the SFIO.

This did not, of course, invalidate the entry tactic itself because to sit and “stew in their own juice” was simply not an option for real revolutionaries as opposed to armchair sectarians.

Reunification and split

Meanwhile the GBL and the Jeunesses Socialistes Revolutionnaire (JSR), the organisation formed after the expulsion of Fred Zeiler and his supporters in the Seine SFIO youth, announced that they would shortly be holding a joint conference to launch a new party on 12 April. Molinier jumped in ahead of them and founded the Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI) on 7 March. The GBL and the JSR did not found their party but waited.

Given the PCI and La Commune’s re-orientation, and the numbers of members involved, Trotsky and the IS suggested an attempt at reunification.

Both organisations ran rival candidates in the parliamentary election which brought Blum and the Popular Front to power. Then on 31 May they fused to form the Parti Ouvrier Internationalist. Molinier, who had been expelled from the ICL, was only admitted as a provisional member.

Trotsky, while he favoured the reunification, was not at all in favour of letting bygones be bygones.

Together with his secretary, Erwin Wolf (Nicolle Braun), he worked on a pamphlet The Mass Paper which drew heavily on his correspondence with the section and mercilessly lashed the adventurism and opportunism of Molinier and Frank.

In fact the fusion did not work. Molinier rapidly proved that he was totally incapable of disciplined work and again, with Trotsky’s prompting, he was expelled.

By October 1936 there were two “Trotskyist” parties, the POI (the official section of the ICL, which itself had been renamed the Movement for the Fourth International) and the PCI, which rapidly drifted towards the constellation of Trotsky’s sectarian and opportunist critics.

Thus during the greatest upheaval in the history of the French working class since 1871 the forces of Trotsky-ism found themselves bitterly split.

The police, who in June warned Blum that the POI had the potential to become a formidable force, in September reported that “because of internal struggles and the sectarianism of its can be affirmed today that this group for the moment is incapable of provoking or leading any kind of social movement".


The experiences of Trotskyists in the years 1934-36 were important for all revolutionaries.

If the final balance sheet of the work of the French Bolshevik-Leninists was negative, or rather if their achievements fell far short of what was both possible and necessary, then Trotsky’s advice to them is invaluable - a remarkable gain.

Recognising that his co-thinkers in France constituted a propaganda group and not a party he set out to help them develop both a programmatic basis and concrete tactics to transform them into one.

There was no choice in the matter as far as Trotsky was concerned. A revolutionary crisis was approaching and the solution to it would either be revolution or counterrevolution.

The race against time was to create a revolutionary vanguard party which would defeat the two bureaucratic parties and internationals which would surely lead the working class to defeat as they had in Germany.

The tiny size of the Trotskyist nucleus did not make this a hopeless task from the outset.

If the Third Period isolated the Trotskyists from the subjective revolutionary vanguard in the Communist International, the situation was changed radically by the triumph of Hitler, the militant response of the French and Spanish workers and the US workers’ recovery from the slump.

The crisis within the parties of the Second and Third International, which lasted from early 1933 until the establishment of the Spanish and French Popular Fronts, opened up the real possibility of building vanguard parties.

The question was, would they and could they seize the opportunities presented to them? The beginning of wisdom was to hold fast to the programmatic conquests which they inherited from the days of Lenin and had added to as the Left Opposition.

But it was not sufficient to treat this heritage as holy scripture to which nothing could be added and from which nothing could be taken away.

If they had done this they would have fallen to the level of sectarian pedants who haughtily but passively wait for the working class to raise themselves to a revolutionary consciousness.

The combination of an economic slump and new forms of struggle against mass unemployment required the extension and development of the programme.

So too did the discrediting of bourgeois democracy, and the rise of a new and deadly form of the counterrevolution (fascism).

But this shaking of the whole foundations of the capitalist order saw at the same time a crisis of working class leadership.

The rapid bureaucratic degeneration of the Comintern gave new life to the Second International. Now they were clutching at each other in desperation.

Stalinism was providing new alibis for social patriotism on the eve of another great war - anti-fascism and the defence of the Soviet Union.

By 1936-7 the Popular Fronts and the frenzied show trials in Moscow had returned the Trotskyists in Europe to an isolation as bad or worse than that of the Third Period.

The leading nucleus of cadres at the centre of the Movement for the Fourth International was subjected to the murderous attentions of the Stalinist secret police.

The period from the French Turn to the great strike wave which inaugurated the Popular Front government was one of great opportunities.

Largely thanks to Trotsky a series of tactics, a method, was developed to break out of a sect-like existence.

This started from the creation and preservation under all conditions of a disciplined nucleus of cadres armed with a programme and tactical principles - on an international as well as a national level.

This could never be dissolved or hybridised with centrist or reformist currents or succumb to national conditions.

It was impermissible to conduct common propaganda with centrists because this could only be centrist and not revolutionary propaganda.

However, given the recognition that a propaganda group was only an embryo of a new party it had to find its way into the heart of the masses and their organisations in order to win the vanguard militants to its programme.

This required various methods of the united front under conditions of great numerical disadvantage for the revolutionary forces.

One of these forms was total entry into one specific reformist or centrist party, as a revolutionary faction (officially recognised or secret).

Another was the conduction of fraction work by an independent organisation in one or several such parties as well as in the trade unions.

Yet another was for an independent organisation to build a united front with its rank and file to put demands on the leaders of a mass reformist party.

Trotsky, unlike some of his contemporary followers and all of post-war centrism, did not fetish any one of these forms.

Certainly he advocated neither organisational independence as a principle nor strategic entryism in reformist or centrist parties.

What was essential through all these tactics was the defence of a revolutionary programme and international discipline.

Only on this basis was it possible to develop combinations of vital immediate and transitional demands and win the still reformist workers to them.

Wherever possible this could be done by taking up the schemes and promises of the reformist leaders and their programmes. By this method the tiny revolutionary nuclei could break out of isolation from the masses.

In short Trotsky developed, out of the rich heritage of Bolshevism and the Comintern - but also out of new analyses of the new conditions of the 1930s - the method that was to find its highest expression in the Transitional Programme. In France the cadres of the Communist League were unable to make the decisive breakthrough in time.

They were condemned to disintegration.