Part of Diego Rivera’s mural, ‘El hombre en el cruce de caminos’, in the Bellas Artes building, Mexico City

Heroes and sinners

Mike Macnair argues that Neil Faulkner’s ‘great men’ approach to the party question is utterly useless

With this, the third part of my critique of the debate between Neil Faulkner of Mutiny and Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty on the party question, we enter into a different ‘mood’.1 For Faulkner, Marx and Lenin were heroes, to whom he falsely attached his own conceptions about the “revolutionary party”, while - in contrast - Trotsky, alongside Zinoviev, is the author of one of the ‘original sins’ which has poisoned the modern far left. These sins are two: the idea of a small group adopting a party programme, which he attributes to Trotsky, and ‘democratic centralism’, which he attributes to ‘Zinovievism’, but which Trotsky is also blamed for accepting.

The third part of his article consists of a 1935 quotation from Trotsky on sectarianism - extracted from a polemic against opponents of Fourth-Internationalist entry in the socialist parties, particularly the Belgian, Georges Vereecken2 - followed by a psycho-babble explanation of sectarianism, which has no purchase at all on the real, unprincipled divisions of the modern far left. The psycho-babble has no purchase because no part of the modern far left abstains from the concrete trade union struggle, etc, in order to preserve its purity and the pleasures of isolation. The exception is that comrade Faulkner, and the Cliffite tradition in general, urge abstention from the mass class struggle, in order to preserve the purity of the “revolutionaries”, when the mass class struggle happens to take the form of a battle between capital and the working class over control of the Labour Party. Comrade Faulkner’s own line of organisational separation of the “revolutionaries” is, in other words, Vereecken’s line, against which Trotsky polemicised in the passage quoted. These arguments can thus simply be disregarded.

The larger parts - against programmes, and against ‘Zinovievism’ - raise large as well as important issues. Faulkner’s case against programmes involved falsifying the politics of Marx and Engels, the German SPD, and Lenin and the RSDLP. But it centres, in reality, on the 1938 Transitional programme and the failure of the Trotskyists to achieve their hoped-for breakthrough during and after World War II. Faulkner’s Trotsky still displays the ‘great men’ approach, the leaps and misrepresentations, of his stories about Marx and Lenin. This single issue then demands another rather long article on its own.


Faulkner’s Trotsky leaps into existence as a theorist of the party with a muddled Faulkner version of the 1930s. 1938 is a point from which Faulkner takes a retrospective view:

By 1938, the great working class movement forged in the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 was shattered. Stalinism and fascism dominated the continent of Europe.

The revolutionaries were vilified, hounded and isolated; reduced to scattered individuals and tiny discussion groups often forced to meet in secret.

We are still not told what is meant by “revolutionaries”, any more than comrade Faulkner told us what was meant by that word in the account of the Russian division between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks or the split between the Second International and Comintern.

The narrative is marked by leaps - this time small ones chronologically, but large ones in terms of the course of events. Trotsky had called for new parties and a new international after the Hitler coup in Germany in March 1933. What had he been doing before this event, since his expulsion from the USSR in January 1929? According to comrade Faulkner, he had “penned article and article calling for a united anti-fascist front: in vain”. True; but missing is the activity promoting an International Left Opposition; the correspondence can already be found in the Writings of Leon Trotsky for 1929 and 1930, accelerating in 1931-32.

Then, according to comrade Faulkner,

He worked through the mid-1930s for a broad international anti-Stalinist regroupment. He made overtures to the Independent Labour Party in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party in Germany, the Workers Party of Marxist Unity (POUM) in Spain, and others. But these efforts came to nothing, and in 1938, the international situation having deteriorated further, Trotsky made the decision to launch the Fourth International despite his minimal forces.

“He” is here Trotsky, apparently, for comrade Faulkner, on his own. “Through the mid-1930s” means at most (in fact) “in 1933-34”. “He made overtures” is a reference to the August 1933 Paris conference organised by the ‘Committee of Independent Revolutionary Socialist Parties’ (better known as the ‘London Bureau’, because it was mainly organised by the British Independent Labour Party); and the Declaration of four, calling for a fourth international, issued at this conference in the name of the International Left Opposition, the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SAP), and two Netherlands organisations, the Independent Socialist Party (OSP) and Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP).3

History did not stop between 1933 and 1938. In particular, the Stalin leadership made a sharp turn, and Comintern abandoned the claim that the social democrats were “social fascists” in favour of the “united front” in the form of agreement for common action, while suppressing criticism (except of those who disrupt unity), and the “people’s front”, adding some trivial liberal or nationalist party or celebrity or religious figure to provide a guarantee to the social democrat or ‘pure trade union’ bureaucrats of communist loyalism.

The turn to the popular front destroyed the basis of the International Left Opposition’s collaboration with the London Bureau and the Declaration of four, since in the view of the London Bureau - and the SAP - Comintern had now corrected its ‘sectarian’ error in refusing the united front against fascism. Hence the POUM, which was a 1935 fusion between the Spanish Left Opposition and the Spanish ex-CP Right Opposition on a ‘broad front’ basis, though critical of the Spanish Popular Front, participated in it. The ILO - in 1936 renamed the ‘Movement for the Fourth International’ - was now ‘sectarian’ in the eyes of the POUM and its co-thinkers; even the Netherlands RSAP, created by fusion of the OSP and RSP, kept one foot in the London Bureau camp, as well as one in that of the MFI, until 1938, when it jumped to the London Bureau.

The Dimitrov version of the united front, and popular front, amounted to collapsing the only really defensible ground for the Comintern’s split with the Second International: that is, to free the communists from the practical control of the loyalist bureaucrats. As Lenin and Zinoviev had put it in Socialism and war (1915),

On all important occasions (for example, the voting on August 4), the opportunists come forward with an ultimatum, which they carry out with the aid of their numerous connections with the bourgeoisie, of their majority on the executives of the trade unions, etc.4

This goes to the heart of the matter, and the practice has been repeated over and over again ever since - a very recent iteration being the collaboration between the Labour right, the British state security apparat, and the advertising-funded media, in the ‘big lie’ campaign of defamation around ‘anti-Semitism’ in the Labour Party. Dimitrov’s version of the united front, given at the August 1935 7th Comintern congress, but ‘theorising’ a policy already adopted, said:

‘The communists attack us,’ say others. But listen, we have repeatedly declared: we shall not attack anyone, whether persons, organisations or parties, standing for the united front of the working class against the class enemy. But at the same time it is our duty, in the interests of the proletariat and its cause, to criticise those persons, organisations and parties that hinder unity of action by the workers.

This was to give back to the “opportunists” - the state-loyalist labour bureaucrats - their control-by-ultimatums of the political lines and conduct of the workers’ organisations, even while the communists were organisationally separate. It thus destroyed the major value of the split between Second International and Comintern.

In addition, the popular front amounted in substance to the abandonment of the whole Marxist argument for independent political action of the working class: since it was to make the workers’ movement a political tail for the small liberal, nationalist, or whatever, element in the popular front coalition. This objection was not cranky ‘Trotskyism’, but a common understanding which went all the way back to Marx’s and Engels’ criticisms of French socialist Louis Blanc for falling into a trap by entering a coalition government in 1848, and to the sharp debate in the Second International over socialist Alexandre Millerand entering a “government of republican defence” in 1899.

One consequence of this was, beginning in France, the emergence of left opponents of the popular front project within the socialist parties. Hence, the ILO-MFI from autumn 1934 took or attempted the ‘French turn’ to (short-term) entry in the socialist parties, to work with these new left developments. The success and duration of this entry policy was variable; but, in any case, it ended the short-lived collaboration with the ‘London Bureau’.

I have stressed the silence about the popular front turn in Faulkner’s account at some length for three reasons. The first is that Faulkner’s account is about Trotsky, the individual - the ‘great man’ (if here, for Faulkner, the fatally flawed great man). Trotsky’s collaborators and the targets of his polemics go missing altogether. And again, as history, the story leaps over critical moments.

The second is that the issues in question are live, present-day political issues. In this they are unlike ‘permanent revolution’, which is about the policy of the workers’ movement in peasant-majority countries ruled by pre-capitalist states - of which there are almost none today. And they are unlike the debates over ‘degenerated workers’ state’ versus ‘state capitalism’, relating to political issues which mostly, though not completely, became moot in 1989-91.

The modern idea of sections of the far left that the social democratic parties have become purely capitalist parties is a dilute version of the theory of ‘social fascism’ of 1929-33.5 The idea has led to a variety of doomed initiatives to create substitute broad-front parties, some radically wrong-footed by left turns by sections of the social democracy - as the Front de Gauche derailed the project of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in 2009-11 in France, and as the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party were both wrong-footed by the ‘Corbyn movement’ in Britain in 2015.

The popular front, on the other hand, was the banner under which World War II was fought from the moment of the German invasion of the USSR onwards; and ‘sovietisation’ in eastern Europe and elsewhere after the war took place under ‘popular front’ governments. Hence the popular front has been the ‘common sense’ of the broad left ever since.

Right now, socialists are debating whether to back Joe Biden in the US presidential election - an aspect of the popular front line which has been the consistent policy of the Communist Party USA for many years, and which led the CPUSA to back Hilary Clinton against Bernie Sanders in 2016. Syriza in Greece went into coalition government with the right-nationalist party, ANEL, in 2015, with results which are familiar. Rifondazione Comunista in Italy went into the Olive Tree left-liberal coalition in 2005, leading to the collapse of Rifondazione itself in 2008.

These are merely examples of a persistent dynamic in the electoral politics of capitalist countries, in which socialist participation in capitalist government coalitions discredits the socialists and leads to the return of the right on a more rightwing basis. In fact, this was already true of the original Front Populaire in France in 1936-38. Trotskyists usually pay more attention to the Spanish 1936 Frente Popular, whose defeat was more immediately catastrophic - and, since 1973, to the Chilean Unidad Popular, also overthrown by a coup. This focus on coups misses the routine character of the demoralising effects of government participation and cross-class coalitions.

Those on the far left are often accused of being ‘hobbyists’ or 1917-reenactors, obsessed with ‘dead Russians’ (thus, for example, George Galloway). The debates of the MFI and London Bureau in the 1930s addressed in reality, in spite of the looming threats of fascism and war, questions of normal political dynamics in capitalist parliamentary regimes, which were already present in western capitalist countries well before 1917, and are still painfully relevant today.

1932 … 1938

There is a third reason why it is important that Faulkner’s narrative missed out the popular front turn and three other events - the new Soviet constitution of 1936, the Moscow trials, the publication of The revolution betrayed. This is that the characterisation of the situation of 1938 as one in which the “revolutionaries were … reduced to scattered individuals and tiny discussion groups often forced to meet in secret” overstates the severity of the situation.

The 1938 founding congress of the Fourth International claimed to organise a little over 5,000 members, about half of them in the USA, not including the fictitious ‘Russian opposition’ mentioned by Faulkner.6 These numbers miss out altogether significant organisations which regarded themselves as in sympathy with the project: for example, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in Sri Lanka (which had not yet split between the communists and Trotskyists), some thousands organised in what is now Vietnam, and some hundreds in China. Individual histories and memoirs, and the summary accounts in Robert J Alexander’s International Trotskyism,7 make clear that the ideological reach of the ‘Fourth International project’ in the late 1930s was a lot bigger than the 1938 minutes indicate.

More fundamental is to set this information against where the ILO was in 1932, which really was scattered militants and discussion circles. This can be seen in the discussions in the text of that year - The International Left Opposition, its tasks and methods - which covered only France, Italy, Austria, Spain, the US, ‘the Balkans’ and Czechoslovakia.8

In that context, between 1932 and 1938 the Movement for the Fourth International had experienced explosive growth, comparable to the rapid growth of the far left in the late 1960s to early 1970s, if not quite at the same absolute scale. The questions posed are: first, why the explosive growth; and, second, whether the people who launched the Fourth International in 1938 had reasons to expect this sort of explosive growth in the next period (and why they were wrong).

The first point Faulkner does not address at all. The structure of his argument is entirely dependent on the assumption that the Fourth Internationalists were just as weak in 1938 as the ILO had been in 1932, and that the launch of the Fourth International and adoption of the Transitional programme resulted from the individual, Trotsky, and some micro-group of collaborators ‘shouting into the wind’. Hence the absence of that discussion.

But the growth of the Fourth Internationalist trend between 1935 and 1938 is an important issue. It is common for people who are moving from Trotskyism to ‘official communism’ to claim that Trotsky’s 1933 call to abandon Comintern and its parties and build a new International was a sectarian error, so that 1938 is merely a continuation of this sectarian error. This is, in fact, a half-truth.

On the one hand, 1929-33 and the line of ‘social fascism’ was, almost certainly, a cynical betrayal rather than a mistake. The Kremlin took revenge on the German workers’ movement for the SPD’s denunciation of the secret military collaboration between Germany and the USSR under the 1922 Rapallo treaty, and hoped that the German radical-nationalist right would restore this policy (in order to escape from the strictures of the Treaty of Versailles).

On the other hand, for this character as a betrayal rather than a mistake to be clear, it was necessary to place the issue within the context of the evolution of Soviet foreign policy. Trotsky could see this clearly enough, since he was an ‘insider’ in relation to Rapallo. But the broad workers’ vanguard - let alone the masses - could not see it.

Back to my point made in both the first and the second articles. Because the working class has a fundamental interest in unity in spite of political differences, splits demand not merely an issue of principle, but an issue of principle which can easily be explained to broad layers.

In 1914-18, the difference between pro-war and anti-war socialists was such an issue. After 1918 ended the war, the split divided communists who promoted a Russian model of the road to socialism, and social democrats who continued to promote a ‘German model’ in spite of 1914-18 - and, indeed, a ‘revisionist’ version of this model, in which the socialist parties became players in the parliamentary and electoral game of governmental coalitions among parties of the ‘right’ and ‘left’. This, too, was clear enough grounds for a split - though red terror, Kronstadt and so on were useful weapons in the hands of the social democrats.

1933 was not such an issue, but appeared as only a very severe defeat; and one of a sort which had happened several times in 1920s Europe, starting with Mussolini’s fascist coup in Italy in 1922.

1935-36, on the other hand, did present such a readily comprehensible split issue. The new constitution of the USSR and the popular front represented plain moves towards the ideas of social democracy by the USSR and Comintern. The Moscow trials, for those who were not dumb enough to believe the charges, could readily be understood as a counterrevolutionary attack on the old revolutionary leadership. The revolution betrayed offered an explanation of the changes. It was against this background that the Fourth Internationalists experienced the explosive growth which made ‘proclaiming’ the international in 1938 a plausible policy - though, as it turned out, a wrong one.


The Fourth International after 1938 did not continue the explosive growth of the later 1930s. The 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact and the Russo-Finnish war split the movement; the split in the US Socialist Workers Party is famous because of Trotsky’s personal involvement in the polemics, but the split reached out much more widely. The fall of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway in 1940 led Trotsky to depart from the ‘dual-defeatist’ line of 1938 (and before) and adumbrate a ‘proletarian military policy’, in which it was argued that the working class had to take over from the local capitalist regimes in order to mount an effective defence against fascism. This issue also gave rise to splits - including in China and Vietnam. In continental Europe, the level of repression was such that the Fourth Internationalists really were reduced to isolated individuals and local circles. So far, comrade Faulkner is right.

And, so far, we have been discussing comrade Faulkner’s omissions: the fact that he links this end result immediately to the absolute weakness of the ILO in 1932. His positive explanation is, unfortunately, linked directly to this error. He writes:

This was a grave mistake. It is one thing to declare that a new international is needed; it is quite another to proclaim one. The ‘Fourth International’ was a fiction. The First International had been an organisation of trade unions and socialist, revolutionary-nationalist and anarcho-syndicalist groups. The Second International had organised all the major social democratic parties of Europe. The Third International had emerged from the Russian Revolution and been formed of revolutionary parties with tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of members.

The declaration of the Fourth International was an attempt to break out of the crippling weakness, isolation and demoralisation that afflicted Trotsky’s supporters. The founding conference - held secretly in France - was attended by just 21 delegates. They purported to represent 11 organisations, but most of these were the tiniest of groups, and one, the ‘Russian section’, was a complete fiction - a non-existent group ‘represented’ by an undercover police agent ...

Trotsky ‘solved’ this problem - and, in a sense, attempted to inspire his followers with hope - by making a series of extraordinary predictions: that the Stalinist regime in Russia was highly unstable and would collapse under the impact of war; that world capitalism was in terminal crisis and was incapable of raising living standards or delivering social reform; that the colonial world would soon see a wave of revolutions led by the working class; that the outbreak of war would bring this incipient world crisis to a rapid climax; and that, in consequence, millions of revolutionary workers across the world would soon rally to the banner of the Fourth International.

None of this turned out to be true …

From what I have already written, it should be clear that the declaration of the International was not a response to crippling weakness and demoralisation.

Rather, it was the same mistake committed by the Workers’ International League when they launched the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1944, and by the WIL-RCP’s political descendants, the Healyites (Socialist Labour League) when they declared the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1973, and the Cliffites (International Socialists) when they declared the Socialist Workers Party in 1977. That is, it was a response to rapid growth, which seemed to show the possibility of breaking into the big time in the immediate future. A few thousand - or even a few hundred, as in 1944 - looks enormous to militants who have previously been working in tens - even if it looks pretty microscopic set against, say, the 325,000 who joined the Labour Party in 2015.

Faulkner is also wrong to make quite such a radical counterposition of the trivial Fourth International and the mass First, Second and Third Internationals. The First International included several British trade union leaders; they represented probably around 50,000 trade union members.9 The affiliates elsewhere were mainly local circles and federations of such circles. It is not that clear how much engagement the rank-and-file activists in any of the affiliated organisations had with the initiatives of the general council; the International was, rather, a symbol of solidarity and possibility. The Second International was launched in 1889, driven by the need to combat the rival international initiative of the French ‘possibilists’.10 The German Social Democrats, the core of the new International, were still in illegality, though they were winning large votes in Reichstag elections. The French left was still splintered between possibilists, Guesdists and Blanquists, and electorally marginal.11 Similar comments could be made about various other components. The Third International when it was launched had, of course, the Russian party at its core; but it had the Spartakist splinter group, not the mass USPD, for its German section; it was yet to win the majority in the French SFIO (achieved at the Tours congress in 1920); and again, similar comments could be made about various other countries.

It is true that the Fourth International was an order of magnitude smaller and had no ‘core’ like the British trade unions in the First, the SPD in the Second, or the Russians in the Third. But Trotsky had personally seen small groups breaking through into mass parties in Russia in 1905, and again in the case of the Chinese Communist Party, which started with 50-60 members in 1920-21.12 His judgments about World War II were mistakes; but they were not wild fantasies born of isolation and demoralisation.

Last war

Where Trotsky in fact went wrong in his judgments in 1938 was that he was a general fighting the last war. He had argued in his military writings that the fluidity of military operations in the Russian civil war reflected the low development of the forces of production in Russia rather than new military techniques,13 and he therefore anticipated for World War II rapid development of ‘stalemated’ fronts like the 1914-18 western front.

And, secondly, Trotsky had been deported from France in October 1916, and had therefore not seen personally the moves towards extensive industrial planning and food rationing which occurred under Clémenceau in France from November 1916, in Britain under Lloyd George from December that year. He returned in 1917 into the chaos of the failed Russian attempts to manage food and other supplies both to the cities and to the armies. Meanwhile in Germany, the Hindenburg-Ludendorff dictatorship’s radical preference for army supply and munitions production dislocated (from late 1916) the limited planning and rationing arrangements which Germany had achieved in 1914-16. The design of the 1938 Transitional programme starts with the inflation and economic dislocation of 1914-16, and of Germany at the end of the war; hence the centrality of the sliding-scale demands.

But, in fact, in 1939 the belligerents went straight to directive planning, conscription and industrial mobilisation which wiped out unemployment, and rationing; and the western front operations in 1918 had shown how to break the stalemated lines - methods exploited in the Blitzkrieg, which made the dual-defeatist policy severely politically problematic.

Indeed, this error of military judgment (shared, it must be said, by the British and French high commands in 1939-40) also explains the failure of Trotsky’s policy towards the USSR. The Nazi conquest of western Europe set up not only the German invasion of the USSR, but also the response to it: a global popular front between the USSR, USA and UK, and mass mobilisation in the USSR under Stalinist leadership. Stalemated fronts east and west, with government attempts to hang onto ‘free markets’ as long as possible, as in 1914-16, would have produced very different politics and ones to which the Transitional programme would have been fairly well-adapted.

Trotsky was also fighting the last war in another sense, and in this sense was already doing so in 1933. Trotsky after 1917 never ceased to repeat that he had been wrong on the party question and Lenin had been right. He was all too aware that his own ‘conciliationist’ approach in 1903-15 had not yielded returns in building the RSDLP as a party capable of leading a revolution, where the ‘sectarian’ Lenin had succeeded. The Mezhrayonka ‘inter-district non-faction social-democrat unifiers’ group, to which Trotsky adhered when he returned to Russia, had around 500 members in January 1917, and around 4,000 in August when it fused with the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks had around 24,000 members in January, around 240,000 in August.

Trotsky thus rejected his own accusations of sectarianism against Lenin in 1903-04 (over the 1903 split), 1912 (Prague Conference versus ‘August bloc’), and 1915 (Lenin’s sharp lines drawn against the pacifists/centrists at the Zimmerwald socialist anti-war conference). He drew precisely the conclusion that he himself had been too conciliatory, too enthusiastic for unity, too unwilling to make a sharp fight. These judgments must form the background for his decisions in 1933 to denounce the Comintern and CPs, and in 1938 to support launching the Fourth International. He was determined not to repeat his mistakes of seeking over-broad, unprincipled unity.

That said, this is Trotsky engaged in the cult of the personality of Lenin and the myths of 1903. That Trotsky was wrong in 1903, 1912 and 1915 does not imply that Lenin was invariably right. In the particular parallel case, Lenin urged the Bolsheviks to change their name to ‘communists’, and to appeal for a Third International, in April 1917.14 The party majority rejected this suggestion - rightly - until 1918. A new international needed not only an objective need for a split, but also a beacon of hope. In 1864 that beacon of hope was the successful workers’ solidarity campaign around the American civil war. In 1889, it was the German social democrats’ survival of illegality and subsequent electoral successes. In 1918, it was the Russian Revolution.

The result of the failure to take off was that the Fourth Internationalists remained, in reality, a dissident faction of communism - except insofar as, like some ‘third camp’ groups, they turned themselves into a dissident faction of right social democracy.

No predictions?

Comrade Faulkner wants to make a larger judgment of Trotsky’s errors in 1938; one which will support Faulkner’s project of a platformless organisation. He says that Trotsky

held the banner aloft so that it could be taken up by a new generation and carried forwards. But he also handed his followers a poisoned chalice: a degenerated theory of the revolutionary party.

A proclamation is not a party. A programme is not a party. This is the mistake of ‘voluntarism’, a form of ‘idealism’ (using the term in its philosophical sense) - the belief that one can leap over material barriers by an act of faith or willpower. This was the mistake inherent in the declaration of the Fourth International in 1938.

This mistake was compounded by false prognoses. Marxism is not a crystal-ball. The future is not predetermined: it is contingent on collective human action. Nor is it predictable: it is the result of complex processes and interactions that give rise to new social developments which cannot be foreseen. This was the mistake inherent in the publication of The transitional programme in 1938.

Trotsky in fact said himself in 1940 that all predictions are conditional:

Every historical prognosis is always conditional and, the more concrete the prognosis, the more conditional it is. A prognosis is not a promissory note, which can be cashed on a given date. Prognosis outlines only the definite trends of the development. But, along with these trends, a different order of forces and tendencies operate, which at a certain moment begin to predominate. All those who seek exact predictions of concrete events should consult the astrologists. Marxist prognosis aids only in orientation.15

But this point does not license the refusal of all attempts to predict - Faulkner’s “The future is not ... predictable”. I would guess, for example, that comrade Faulkner would assume that - other things apart - Britain will leave the European Union, with or without a deal, at the end of this year; and that - other things apart - there will be a US presidential election next month. Given the instability of the present situation, these are relatively weak predictions. In more stable times we could without difficulty predict a general election within five years of the last, and that the main parties would be the Tories and Labour. Now the situation is uncertain. But we certainly cannot do without predictions at all.

If you really refuse all prediction, on the ground of the dominance of human agency, you must reject Marxism altogether: Marx’s critique of political economy is a system of (conditional) predictions. Indeed, the only politics which is defensible on the basis of the categorical rejection of prediction in human affairs is ... Burkean Conservatism. Comrade Faulkner almost certainly does not really think what he actually says here; he is just engaged in theoretical overkill.

No platform

Bad history and theoretical overkill take comrade Faulkner into deeply misleading politics. The poisoned chalice delivered to the far left by 1938 is not that the Transitional programme was a party programme. It is that it was not a party programme. If we compare it with the Gotha, Parti Ouvrier, Hainfeld, Erfurt or 1903 RSDLP programmes, or, for that matter, to the 1919 programme of the Russian Communist Party, it is perfectly plain that it is not a document of the same type. It does not lay out a long-term strategic project or state the full range of the organisation’s objectives - in spite of being 50% longer than the 1919 programme. It is, rather, largely a polemical document - like the larger part of the Communist manifesto. So far as it goes beyond analysis and polemic, it is to a considerable extent about points of tactics.

Indeed, the core claim that “It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution” has the effect that it cannot be a party programme: the ‘party programme’ is then either “the socialist programme of the revolution”, which is a pig in a poke, or something more than what is in the Transitional programme itself: ie, the actual programme of ‘Trotskyism’: the texts of the first four congresses of Comintern, plus those of the ILO and MFI, plus the texts of 1938. But this, again, is to attempt to build a party on the basis of a combination of theoretical and tactical judgments. Thus in the Statutes of the Fourth International we read:

In its platform the Fourth International concentrates the international experience of the revolutionary Marxist movement, and especially that which arises out of the socialist conquests of the October 1917 revolution in Russia. It assimilates and bases itself upon all of humanity’s progressive social experiences …16

What is the point of a workers’ party? It is not, contrary to much of the far left, and to the Transitional programme, to direct the day-to-day class struggle; to be better trade unionists, cooperators, and so on. It is, as Marx and Engels learnt from the Chartist left and repeated for the rest of their lives, to put forward workers’ class interests in high politics and constitutional issues - to try to give workers’ interests the general force of coercion which is obtained through laws, and in the end through the overthrow of the constitution and the transfer of political power to the proletariat.

The great breakthrough of Chartism, and after it of the German-model parties of the late 19th and early 20th century, was the recognition that adopting a short, summary party programme, which was the basis of membership and organisation, allowed you to organise in a way which did not depend on the worship of the great man, the founder - as the Spenceans, Owenites, Fourieristes, Lassalleans - and as, very regrettably, the Trotskyists, and after and within them the Cannonites, Healyites, Cliffites, Grantites, Mandelites …

The problem then is that by dissolving the short, summary party programme, either into a tactical device to win the masses (the Transitional programme) or into a large body of theory and the whole record of a party and its documents, the indeterminacy of what the party stands for means that membership does, in reality, depend on trusting individual leaders.

The upshot is the exact opposite of Faulkner’s aim: an organisation which is seriously engaged with the practical movement. Without a short, summary platform, the organisation inevitably becomes a confessional sect, in which membership is based on an indistinct body of dogma and personal loyalties. It has to become fearful of practical engagement with people with whom its leaders disagree, a fear of contamination which affects Faulkner’s insistence on the organisational separation of “revolutionaries” and “reformists”, without a clear sense of what these terms might mean. And hence, too, both the splintering effect, the ‘57 varieties’, and the inability to explain one’s splits - as Counterfire has not publicly explained its split from the SWP, and Mutiny has not publicly explained its split from Counterfire.


  1. For part 1, see ‘High politics and the working class’ Weekly Worker October 1; and part 2, ‘Programmeless liquidationism’, October 8.↩︎

  2. marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1935/10/sect.htm.↩︎

  3. Writings of Leon Trotsky (1933-34) London 1975, pp56-61 (and related texts in the same volume).↩︎

  4. marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/s-w/ch01.htm#v21fl70h-299.↩︎

  5. From a different direction, the AWL’s theory that the ‘official’ communist parties are not part of the workers’ movement at all is also a ‘social fascism’ variant. But this does not seem to have operative consequences beyond the AWL’s support for ‘western’ policy in world affairs.↩︎

  6. Naville’s report is available in W Reisner (ed) Documents of the Fourth International: the formative years (1933-1940) London 1973, p289.↩︎

  7. Duke UP 1991. Since the initial general narrative is very brief and the main body of Alexander’s treatment is country by country, there is no single place where a clear picture of the reach of the movement in the late 1930s can be found and it would be too tedious to go through, extracting no more than an impressionistic assessment. There is also material, not considered by Alexander, in the volumes of the journal Revolutionary History (marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backissu.htm).↩︎

  8. W Reisner op cit pp28-41.↩︎

  9. VG Devinatz, ‘The First International, the US left and British Trotskyism: their relevance to trade unions and workers’ American Communist History Vol 19 (2020), pp132-42.↩︎

  10. J Braunthal The history of the International 1864-1914 Nashville 1966, pp196-200. It is notable that the second largest delegation (after the Germans) was that of the British ILP - not a mass party.↩︎

  11. T Moodie, ‘The re-orientation of the French left, 1888-90’ International Review of Social History (1975) Vol 20, pp347-69.↩︎

  12. Wikipedia, ‘History of the Chinese Communist Party’ conveniently collects references.↩︎

  13. B Pearce (translator), ‘Questions of military theory’ How the revolution armed Vol 5 (1921-23), New Park 1981, pp299-429.↩︎

  14. Lenin’s proposals are in the April theses/(marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/04.htm#fwV24P024F02), points 9 and 10.↩︎

  15. ‘Balance sheet of the Finnish events’ (April 1940) marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1940/04/finnish.htm.↩︎

  16. W Reisner op cit p177.↩︎