85 years of the Fourth International

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At least half a century ago, a debate began, in organizations of the Trotskyist tradition, on the validity of the transition program. Should we defend the letter of the text or the method with which it was elaborated?

“Let's start by understanding what it means to be truly Marxist. We cannot create a cult like Mao or Stalin. Being a Trotskyist today does not mean agreeing with everything Trotsky wrote or said, but knowing how to criticize him or overcome him, like Marx, Engels or Lenin, because Marxism intends to be scientific and science teaches that there are no absolute truths. In the first place, to be a Trotskyist is to be critical, including of Trotskyism itself” (Nahuel Moreno).

On September 3, 1938, eighty-five years ago, the Fourth International was founded on the outskirts of Paris. Brazilian Mario Pedrosa was present when the Transition Program was approved. A program is not just an analysis of the economic and social situation, although it must be based on a synthesis of what its trends are. It is not a work of historical investigation, although it must be based on a characterization of the historical period. It is not a list of watchwords, although it should be summarized in the form of slogans. A program is a guide to action, The world turns and the program must be updated.

But at least half a century ago, a debate began, in organizations of the Trotskyist tradition, about the validity of the transition program. Should we defend the letter of the text or the method with which it was elaborated? These are two different and, strictly speaking, incompatible answers. The insistence on defending dogmas condemns Trotskyism to an unavoidable political and social marginality.

The first challenge of updating the program is about what we must understand when we read today, in the 1938 text, the characterization that, under contemporary capitalism, the productive forces would have stopped growing, at least, since the First World War and the triumph of the Russian Revolution.[I] The rigid defense that the productive forces have not grown over the last eighty years is dogmatism. Labor productivity over the past hundred years has multiplied several times.

They grew, even if driving colossal and uncontrollable destructive forces. The thesis of absolute blockade results in a view of decadence as a long and uninterrupted stagnation that would already be a hundred years old, which is not just theoretical rigidity, it is nonsense. If we compare the world today with that of a hundred years ago, the thesis is absurd.

The second challenge is what we should understand about the characterization that the crisis of humanity can be reduced, essentially, to the crisis of leadership of the proletariat.[ii] The perception of unvarying confidence and fighting spirit among the workers is self-deception, an imaginary fantasy, a form of wishful thinking. This interpretation reduces the analysis of the stalemates of the struggle for socialism to the vulgarity of a theory of betrayal, therefore, a conspiracy mentality. Not because reformers are innocent. Not because there are no traitors. They were, evidently, responsible for the demoralization of the most combative proletarian battalions in decisive processes of the class struggle, in different countries, in the last hundred years. But there is a complicated dialectic in the relationship between the exploited and oppressed and their organizations.

The idea of ​​a leadership crisis underlines the immaturity of workers as subjects of the anti-capitalist struggle. This immaturity has two dimensions: objective and subjective. It is they who explain why, despite so many revolutions having taken place, there is no country in transition to socialism, and the imperialist order is still intact. That is, it illuminates the centrality of the struggle for class consciousness.

The rigid and dogmatic reading of the revolutionary character of the time, ignoring the variables of time and space, the inequalities determined by history and geography, disregarding the concrete reality of the class struggle and, above all, the variations in the power relations between the classes on the scale of situations, was one of the keys to the theory of the “imminence” of revolution.

The theory of the “imminence” of revolution is one of the variations of the objectivist theory of the collapse of capitalism. Objectivism is an optical illusion. Objectivism is a one-sided analysis of reality that diminishes the centrality of subjective factors in the class struggle. The subjective dimension of the class struggle is the one that refers to the level of consciousness and disposition of the workers and their social allies.

The third challenge is about what we should understand about the premise that, in our time, capitalism is incapable of granting reforms, except in an ephemeral way and, therefore, it is necessary to overcome the opposition between possibilist and maximalist programs. The transition program argues that the struggle for minimal and democratic claims can potentially open up a dynamic of anti-capitalist mobilizations.[iii]

Are these powerful ideas still current? In what sense? The answer to the first question is simpler. Yes, these ideas have been confirmed by the laboratory of history. We still live in a historic era of wars and revolutions. The permanence of the imperialist world order is a threat to the survival of humanity. The Marxist program is the socialist world revolution. But there is an unavoidable paradox. Since Vietnam, fifty years ago, no anti-capitalist revolution has triumphed.

These ideas cannot, therefore, be understood as absolutes. Reaffirming that the historical task of the time is the struggle for socialism is not the same as saying that we would be in a world revolutionary situation. They are completely different levels of abstraction in the analysis of reality. The perception of a chronic world revolutionary situation is an objectivist, deterministic, fatalistic illusion. The crisis of capitalism is structural, but that is not enough. The assessment of the social relationship of forces is an inescapable dimension of analysis.

Social democracy and Stalinism are apparatuses adapted to order. But reaffirming that there is a crisis of proletariat leadership is not the same as saying that, were it not for the role of reformist organizations, a revolutionary willingness to struggle for power would already be mature among workers. This is a dangerous idealization of middle levels of working-class consciousness, a workerist excess.

Physical and mental suffering is a school of learning, but it does not guarantee that millions will draw sympathetic conclusions from the material experience of life. Socialism is no longer the political vocabulary of most workers. It's terrible, but that's how it is.

The historical drama of the stage opened by capitalist restoration is very profound. In the last ten years it has become clear, in countless countries and in a devastating way, that the avalanche of economic and social crises can drag portions of the popular layers that break with reformisms towards neo-fascism, not towards the anti-capitalist left.

Capitalism no longer plays any progressive role. On the contrary, its fate is a destructive trend: increasing social inequality, climate catastrophe, danger of world war and the rise of neo-fascist currents. But reaffirming the rigidity of the historical limits of capitalism in its epoch of decline is not the same as saying that the conditions for socialist struggle are more favorable than in the past.

They are not. Historical defeats have been accumulated since the capitalist restoration. Unrealistic assessments are not helpful in keeping revolutionary passion alive. Militant enthusiasm must feed on the lucidity that struggle is necessary, no matter how difficult the circumstances, because there is always hope.

Nor does it authorize the conclusion that, in exceptional circumstances, faced with the danger that revolutionary situations will open up, the bourgeoisie cannot accept emergency and temporary concessions, sacrificing rings to save its fingers, as in the past.

Turns out the world has changed. Capitalism has been restored on an international scale and the USSR no longer exists. There was a historic defeat and it had consequences. The willingness to update the Transition Program does not diminish our commitment to the struggle for the revolution, it only reaffirms our commitment to Marxism. This task was already tackled forty years ago by the previous generation of Trotskyists, only under favorable conditions, after the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam.[iv]. Our task is more bitter, because the evolution of the world situation since 1989/91 has been unfavorable. Not victories of the world revolution prevailed, but the opposite.

The main characterization of the transitional program is that, under the imperialist world order, we have entered an epoch of historical decay of the system. That is, the conclusion that capitalist social relations have become a threat to civilization. If considered at the very high level of abstraction of an era, that is, in an indefinite secular dimension, and on an international scale, this characterization remains fundamental, and is one of the pillars of revolutionary Marxism.

But an epoch is a long historical interval, therefore, in the secular dimension. Over the same epoch we must consider the alternation of several stages. The stages are determined by the balance of forces between revolution and counterrevolution, on a world scale. At each stage of the class struggle there is a directionality, a sign, a dynamic. Victories favor new victories. Defeats facilitate defeats. The world revolution has the morphology of shock waves, the domino effect. However, during a stage, in each country, although the tendency is the pressure of the international context, peculiar conditions of the class struggle in each nation may prevail. There is no direct synchronicity.

We are facing historical trends, not catastrophic predictions. Any other conclusion is apocalyptic fatalism, or a form of socialist millenarianism. Lenin had warned against this danger when he wrote the Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.[v]

When Leon Trotsky revived this concept of the Third International at the foundation of the Fourth International, he was only recovering a strategic location from oblivion. Which means to conclude that, when the world revolution advances, the historical limits of capitalism narrow, but also the opposite. When the counterrevolution advances, capitalism lengthens its survival periods. The characterization that we are in an epoch of historical decline of capitalism does not rule out the possibility that countertrends operate on shorter time scales. And it does not invalidate that in the scale of stages, situations and conjunctures, transitory inversions occur.

Updating the program does not question the revolutionary strategy. On the contrary, it elevates our determination to walk with our eyes wide open. Anxiety is indivisible from lucidity. Programmatic updating protects us from ourselves.

*Valério Arcary is a retired professor of history at the IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo) (https://amzn.to/3OWSRAc).


[I] TROTSKY. Leon. The Transition Program. “The economic premise of the proletarian revolution has long since reached the highest point that can be reached under capitalism. The productive forces of mankind ceased to grow. New inventions and new technical advances no longer lead to an increase in material wealth. Conjunctural crises, under the conditions of the social crisis of the entire capitalist system, burden the masses with ever-increasing privations and sufferings (…) The objective premises of the proletarian revolution are not only mature: they are beginning to rot. Without the victory of the socialist revolution in the next historical period, the whole of human civilization is threatened with being led into catastrophe.” https://www.marxists.org/portugues/trotsky/1938/programa/cap01.htm#1.

[ii] TROTSKY. Leon. The Transition Program. “Everything depends on the proletariat, that is, first of all, on its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership. The economy, the State, the politics of the bourgeoisie and its international relations are deeply affected by the social crisis that characterized the pre-revolutionary situation of society. The main obstacle in transforming the pre-revolutionary situation into a revolutionary situation is the opportunistic character of the leadership of the proletariat.”

[iii] TROTSKY. Leon. The Transition Program. “Classical social democracy, which developed its action at a time when capitalism was progressive, divided its program into two independent parts: the minimum program, which was limited to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program , which promised the replacement of capitalism by socialism for an indeterminate future. Between the Minimum Program and the Maximum Program there was no mediation whatsoever (…) The IV International does not reject the claims of the old Minimum Program”, insofar as they have retained some vital force. It tirelessly defends the democratic rights of workers and their social achievements. As the old "minimum partial demands" of the masses collide with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism - and this happens at every step -, the Fourth International advances a system of transitory demands, whose meaning is to address itself, each time more openly and resolutely, against the very foundations of the bourgeois regime. The old minimum program is superseded by the Transitional Program, whose task consists in a systematic mobilization of the masses towards the proletarian revolution”. https://www.marxists.org/portugues/trotsky/1938/programa/cap01.htm#1.

[iv] MORENO, Nahuel. Theses for Updating the Transition Program. Available https://www.marxists.org/espanol/moreno/actual/index.htm.

[v] LENIN, Vladimir Ilich. Imperialism, Higher Stage of Capitalism. “Imperialism reinforces and increases the differences and inequalities of economic development between countries, but «it would be a mistake to believe that this tendency to decay excludes the rapid growth of capitalism», which aggravates the inequalities between countries”.

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