The struggle against centrism and the founding of the Fourth International

Part three

By Bill Van Auken
17 April 2009

Below is the third and concluding part of a lecture delivered at a summer school of the Socialist Equality Party held  in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in August 2007. The first part was posted April 15. The second part was posted April 16. For other lectures from the 2007 school, click here.

The Transitional Program

Such was the case with the founding of the Fourth International in September 1938. In evaluating the decision to hold this conference and reject the objections of all manner of centrists that the time was not ripe, the question should be posed: What would have been the consequences for the revolutionary Marxist movement if the Fourth International had not been founded before the outbreak of World War II less than a year later and Trotsky’s assassination barely one year after that?

Obviously, the Trotskyist movement would have been deprived of the political and programmatic clarity that proved decisive in allowing it to survive the immense pressures and tragic losses of the war years, under conditions in which all of the centrist organizations that opposed the founding were wiped off the political map.

The founding conference approved a series of resolutions and adopted the Transitional Program, whose full title was “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.”

Taking as its starting point the objective crisis of world capitalism and the class struggle, this document drew upon the strategic experiences of the working class in order to advance a program of transitional demands aimed at uniting the masses in every country in the revolutionary struggle for power.

“It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution,” Trotsky wrote. “This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today's conditions and from today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.” [9]

There is perhaps no part of the political and theoretical heritage left by Trotsky that has been the object of more sustained and diverse attacks and revisions on the part of the centrists than the conception of transitional demands. While Trotsky viewed this system of demands as an instrument for overcoming the contradiction between the advanced state of the objective crisis of capitalism and the immaturity and confusion prevailing within the consciousness of the working class, these latter-day centrists and revisionists have invariably sought to transform it into a means of adapting to spontaneous consciousness, and thereby subordinating the working class to the existing bureaucracies.

As we explained in our 1988 perspectives resolution: “Not least among the betrayals of the Pabloites has been their persistent effort to transform the Transitional Program into a recipe book for opportunist adaptation and centrist evasion; that is, by tearing isolated demands out of their genuine revolutionary context and suggesting that they be presented to the working class as a substitute for a genuinely revolutionary program. According to the proponents of this revisionist method, transitional demands are a means of adapting to, rather than combating, the backward consciousness of the masses. In essence, the proponents of this position deny the necessity of any open struggle for socialist consciousness in the working class. It is not necessary, they claim, to patiently nourish the workers movement with the rich fruit of Marxist culture. Rather, it is enough to dish out a few simple demands which will supposedly entice the masses and lead them to socialist revolution without even being conscious of their ultimate destination.” [10]

From a bridge between the objective crisis and the undeveloped political consciousness of the masses, various revisionist movements have sought to transform the Transitional Program into a bridge between themselves and all manner of petty-bourgeois and bourgeois nationalist movements.

Notorious in this regard was the American Socialist Workers Party. Its degeneration three decades after it had played the principal role together with Trotsky in formulating and fighting for this program for proletarian revolution was seen in its efforts to craft new “transitional” programs and demands for the black nationalist, student power and feminist movements that were thrown up by the middle-class radicalization of the 1960s. Elements of the program that were addressed to the working class upsurge of the 1930s—the sliding scale of wages and hours, in particular—became a bridge to the anti-communist trade union bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO.

In an article drafted in 1971, the late George Novack described the program as a “tool kit” in which one could rummage around for the right implement to suit any given occasion. He noted proudly that the sliding scale of wages had broken out of its “propaganda form” when the United Auto Workers won an escalator clause in its contract with General Motors. [11]

A particularly grotesque form of this tendency can be found in the positions put forward by Alex Callinicos of the British Socialist Workers Party. This self-styled Marxist intellectual advanced a supposedly modernized “Transitional Program” in his book, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto.

Of course, this modernization consisted of turning the program inside out. The document drafted by Trotsky and the nascent Fourth International began from the insoluble world crisis of capitalism and the overcoming of the obstacle posed by opportunist leaderships seeking to subordinate the working class to the bourgeoisie. Callinicos, on the contrary, begins from the standpoint of ameliorating the conditions created by capitalism and providing “left” advice to the modern-day versions of the tendencies upon which Trotsky had declared unending war.

Thus, his “Transitional Program” is advanced not as the weapon of a revolutionary party seeking to resolve the crisis of revolutionary leadership and bridge the gap between the advanced state of the objective crisis and the relative immaturity of the consciousness of the working class. Rather, it is put forward as a set of suggestions for “diverse anti-capitalist tendencies,” by which he means primarily the reformists, centrists and professional non-governmentalists who inhabit the World Social Forum.

He readily acknowledges that his laundry list of demands represents “responses to contemporary realities, and have all been raised by existing movements.”

This reformist hodge-podge includes such demands as the introduction of the Tobin tax, the premier goal of the ATTAC movement, which proposes the implementation of a small tax on international currency transactions in order to discourage speculation. The anti-globalization advocates of this measure claim that its proceeds could be used to ameliorate global poverty while strengthening national economies. Its principal aim, however, is to stabilize world capitalism by warding off crises caused by speculative attacks on national currencies. For that reason, governments, not only in Latin America, but in such “respectable” countries as Canada and Belgium, have had no difficulty embracing it. [12]

Other organizations claiming to be Trotskyist, of a seemingly more orthodox cast, have developed the retrograde position that the transitional demands, particularly the sliding scale of wages and hours, can somehow magically and automatically lead the working class to carry out a socialist revolution without it ever being conscious that they are doing so. Generally, emphasis is placed on these demands, which are compatible with an adaptation to the existing trade union consciousness of the working class, while the key demand advanced in the Transitional Program, the political independence of the working class and the struggle for a workers’—or, as it was formulated in the 1938 program, a workers’ and farmers’—government, is relegated to the sidelines.

This is generally combined with the contention that somehow the 1938 document not only represents the program of the Fourth International—essentially subsuming all other fundamental programmatic documents from Permanent Revolution to Revolution Betrayed—but is also essentially the last word on the subject, unchanged by the subsequent seven decades of historical development and all of the rich and consciously assimilated experiences through which the Fourth International has passed.

Such schemes are entirely opposed to the perspective elaborated by Trotsky and go to the heart of the centrist attack on Marxism. For Trotsky, the most important question was that of class-conscious revolutionary activity in history—that is, the role of the revolutionary leadership. He fought intransigently against all those who sought to present the historical process and revolution itself as something that developed independent of human consciousness, some kind of mechanically predetermined result of objective conditions.

The role of Pabloism

A comprehensive review of the role played by centrism in the period following the Second World War and in the present situation would require far more time than is allotted for this lecture. Suffice it to say that throughout this period, centrist movements, to a large degree the product of the Pabloite revisionist attack on the Fourth International, have played critical roles in organizing defeats and betrayals of revolutionary struggles.

The Pabloite organizations fully repudiated the essential conceptions advanced by Trotsky in the concluding section of the Transitional Program.

Outside of the cadres of the Fourth International, Trotsky wrote “there does not exist a single revolutionary current on this planet really meriting the name. If our international be still weak in numbers, it is strong in doctrine, program, tradition, in the incomparable tempering of its cadres. Who does not perceive this today, let him in the meantime stand aside. Tomorrow it will become more evident....

“The present crisis in human culture is the crisis in the proletarian leadership. The advanced workers, united in the Fourth International, show their class the way out of the crisis. They offer a program based on international experience in the struggle of the proletariat and of all the oppressed of the world for liberation. They offer a spotless banner.” [13]

As Trotsky affirmed in 1938 that, outside of the Fourth International, there existed not a single revolutionary tendency on the face of the earth, so today we can state clearly that outside of the cadres assembled under the banner of the International Committee there exists no tendency that has defended and upheld this conception of the decisive role of a conscious revolutionary leadership organized in a world party.

All the revisionist and centrist organizations that claim or once claimed to be Trotskyist have long ago renounced this heritage, either explicitly or in practice, adapting themselves to reformist, Stalinist or bourgeois nationalist leaderships and seeing their role—at best—as groups exerting left pressure on these organizations.

In this sense, one can say that while many of these tendencies exhibit the same traits described by Trotsky 70 years ago, there has been a serious degeneration of centrism, which, in the form of Pabloite revisionism, is based on the explicit and longstanding renunciation of revolutionary Marxism. Thus, when one looks today at the LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire), the Lutte Ouvriere or the Lambert group in France, one sees organizations that are far to the right of Pivert’s PSOP of the 1930s and which have far less to do with the working class.

One of the latest and most revealing examples of this tendency has come in the form of an utterly degraded public discussion that the Pabloite international grouping—which, it should be noted, now refers to itself as the IC, in an attempt to obscure and deny the historical struggle of Trotskyism against revisionism—and its erstwhile Brazilian section, the Democracia Socialista.

The Brazilian group has maintained itself as a prominent tendency in the ruling Workers Party, even as many other leftists—including some of its own prominent members—have been expelled for daring to question the right-wing IMF-inspired policies of the Lula government.

Indeed, its members have taken prominent posts within the government—most notably Miguel Rosseto, who became minister of agrarian reform, where his defense of the capitalist program of the Lula government and his attacks on land occupations resulted in landless peasants burning him in effigy. Another leading member took the post of general secretary of the PT, even as this ruling party sunk into ever more filthy corruption scandals.

For over four years, the Pabloite international gave this operation its political sanction, declaring that while it had concerns about the “controversial” policy of a supposedly revolutionary party entering a bourgeois government, it didn’t want to pose this question in “dogmatic terms,” and instead wanted to accompany the Brazilian group in this experience.

As compensation for this servile opportunism, Democracia Socialista has broken with the Pabloites in all but name only, issuing a public statement at the end of 2005 accusing them of practicing “bad internationalism, infested with the vices of the 20th century.”

Now, as you all are no doubt aware, we have entered the 21st century and all those 20th century vices—the struggle for program and principles, assimilating and taking seriously the historical lessons of the struggles of the international working class (none of which, it should be pointed out, are indulged in by the Pabloites)—are to be jettisoned. It is no accident that Hugo Chavez has proclaimed his aim to be that of “21st Century Socialism,” and that this slogan has been embraced by all manner of revisionists and centrists.

The Democracia Socialista document claims that the Brazilian group had affiliated with the Pabloites on the basis of their 1979 congress document. In this document, the Brazilian revisionists asserted, “The FI ceased to consider itself the world party of socialist revolution or to try to have an international leadership that centralized its national sections.” Democracia Socialista cites the document’s insistence that “it was no longer possible to work with the idea that a mass revolutionary party would form ‘around’ or ‘under the leadership’ of the FI, but that the FI would be one of its components, with the perspective of a shared vanguard....” This “shared vanguard” was supposedly to include such movements as the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the Salvadoran Farabundo Marti front, groups that have long since transformed themselves into thoroughly bourgeois parties. [14]

The Pabloite leadership has now at last responded to this challenge, publishing its own statements last May. It explained its delay by referring to the 2006 national election in Brazil, declaring that it “did not constitute a favorable moment for a relaxed discussion on internationalism...since other more important tasks took up our forces.”

These “more important tasks,” it should be pointed out, consisted of the electoral work of two rival factions of the DS, one of which campaigned for the reelection of Lula, the other supporting a challenge by their expelled member and legislator, Heloisa Helena, who joined in forming the PSOL on the dubious program of upholding the original values of Lula’s PT. During this campaign, the Pabloite international limited itself to urging dialogue between the rival election campaign teams.

The Pabloite response is revealing. It begins by affirming that “most of what is written in the DS document are reflections that would be shared by most of the militants of the Fourth International in their respective countries.”

It raises concerns only about which bourgeois governments in Latin America should be adapted to and promoted—Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia are fine, but there are reservations about Lula in Brazil and Kirchner in Argentina or Tabaré Vásquez in Uruguay.

The dividing line is drawn not according to the class nature of these governments—they are all bourgeois—or their attitude towards the working class movement, but rather largely over their respective positions on free trade agreements. This criterion speaks volumes about the class nature and orientation of modern-day Pabloism.

The Pabloite international leadership goes on to defend itself against the accusations of the DS by citing the liquidation of its forces in Italy into Communist Refoundation, its Colombian group into a bourgeois electoral front, and so on.

Finally comes the plaintive appeal: “It is necessary to know that the very existence of the Fourth International...has not now become, for the [Brazilian] comrades, another one of the ‘errors of the past.’” [15]

Well, of course, it has, and this is merely the logical conclusion of the entire Pabloite perspective. If Democracia Socialista’s erstwhile international co-thinkers still misappropriate  the name Fourth International, and even that of the International Committee, it is only in an attempt to better serve their essential function as a secondary prop of capitalist rule and a barrier to the penetration of Marxism into the working class.

Marxism is materialist. It accepts these objective conditions—the conflict between the productive forces and social relations, between the nation-state system and global economy—as primary. But this has nothing to do with fatalism. It recognizes the constant dialectical interaction between the objective and the subjective in the development of the class struggle.

Above all, it recognizes that the explosion of class struggle generated by these objective conflicts can be transformed into the socialist revolution only by means of a conscious intervention by a revolutionary party based on a socialist and internationalist perspective.

There is no linear relationship between the development of the objective crisis and the emergence of this conscious revolutionary leadership capable of organizing the struggle for power. On the contrary, the deepening of capitalist crisis is inevitably accompanied by the growing ideological pressure of the bourgeoisie on the workers’ movement, which gives rise to centrist tendencies that seek to isolate revolutionary socialism from the working class.

The revolutionary party must be prepared in advance and must seek to educate the most advanced sections of workers and youth, while winning authority within the working class as a whole. That was the task set by the founding of the Fourth International and prosecuted in the struggle against centrism. And that is the task that the International Committee of the Fourth International and its sections carry forward today.


[9] The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, The Transitional Program (New York: Labor Publications, 1981), pp. 3-4.

[10] The World Capitalist Crisis and the Task of the Fourth International, Perspectives Resolution of the International Committee of the Fourth International, August 1988. (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1988), p. 73.

[11] The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2005), George Novack, “The Role of the Transitional Program in the Revolutionary Process,” p.59.

[12] Alex Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (London: Polity Press, 2003).

[13] The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, pp. 42-3.

[14] International Viewpoint Online: IV389, May 2007, Brazil debate “An internationalist policy for the 21st century,” Democracia Socialista:

[15] Ibid, “The new internationalism and the Fourth International: A first response to the document of DS”: