Trotskyism confronts World War II: The origins of the International Socialists

by Joel Geier • Published 15 February 2022

The International Socialist tendency came into existence in opposition to imperialist war, which is the acid test for revolutionary socialists. Imperialism and its wars defined twentieth century capitalism; they were the nemesis of the socialist movement, periodically shipwrecking it and forcing it to be rebuilt on stronger foundations.

The Socialist International collapsed in 1914 when its national parties betrayed working class internationalism and supported the imperialist aims of their national ruling classes in World War I. As Karl Kautsky justified it, “the International is for peace time”.[1] Social democracy never looked back: from then on it always supported its ruling classes’ wars. In the process, it was converted into a counter-revolutionary force that actively opposed every attempt at working-class power.

Anti-war socialists who paid the price in blood for this catastrophe drew the necessary conclusion that opposition to class collaboration and imperialism required the formation of independent revolutionary parties. The Communist International arose from the wreckage of pre-war socialism, grouping together anti-war and anti-imperialist socialists and syndicalists.

In October of 1917, the Russian proletariat led by the Bolshevik party carried out the first successful socialist revolution in history. The establishment of the Russian workers’ state touched off a world-wide revolutionary upsurge. Workers’ councils appeared throughout Europe but eventually capitalist reaction succeeded in drowning socialist revolutions in Germany, Hungary and other countries.

A multinational coalition of imperialist powers invaded Russia to overthrow the workers’ state, and to aid the White Russian counter-revolutionaries. They were defeated by the Red Army organised by Trotsky, but in the course of the civil war Russia was devastated; the socialist working class that made the revolution decimated and dispersed. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, using desperate, sometimes substitutionist means, struggled to preserve the integrity of the revolution, hoping that a German revolution would come to their aid. But after Lenin’s death, a new ruling class emerged from the structure of the state bureaucracy itself, led by Joseph Stalin.

The rise of Stalinism in Russia transformed the new, revolutionary Communist parties into camp-followers of the Russian bureaucracy. During World War II, social democrats and Communists once again united, supporting the Allied camp and its imperialist aims.

The major opponent of social-patriotic support for imperialist war was an international movement founded by Trotsky. Known as the Fourth International, its goals were to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy and restore the Russian revolution, redeem or replace the Stalinist Third International, and lead a new world revolution to prevent or end World War II. But just as the outbreak of World War I triggered a profound crisis in the Second International, the outbreak of World War II touched off a crisis in Trotsky’s newly formed network.

The Trotskyist movement was forced to confront unexpected political questions posed by a series of shocking, unforeseen events: the Hitler-Stalin Pact as the trigger for the outbreak of the war; the eruption of Stalinist imperialism in Eastern Europe; bureaucratic revolution in the newly conquered Eastern European countries, which destroyed the capitalist class, its private property and capitalist social relations of production, and in their place replicated the production forms and relations of Stalinist Russia, where the working class was exploited by the state bureaucracy.

A dissident section of the Trotskyist movement, responding to these developments, made a radical political re-evaluation that overcame Trotskyism’s most profound political crisis with new theoretical breakthroughs. These wartime debates, which culminated in a split in the Fourth International and the formation of the Workers Party (later renamed the Independent Socialist League), laid the basis for the political ideas of the International Socialists (IS) of the United States of the 1960s and 1970s, and eventually to wider layers of the international left. From the Workers Party, the IS inherited the best of the Trotskyist revolutionary tradition, and programmatic continuity with the heritage of classical Marxism, Bolshevism, the Russian Revolution, the early Communist International, the 1920s American Communist Party and the Left Opposition.

With the outbreak of the Cold War – the third imperialist world conflict of the twentieth century – socialist and labour movements around the world were torn apart, weakened, debilitated, declined as independent forces, politically gutted by support for so-called “democratic” Washington or “workers’” Moscow. The most courageous rejectors of this capitulation were Third Camp socialists, who opposed all imperialism and both war camps – the only basis for an emancipatory, revolutionary policy in the imperialist epoch. Their political clarity arose from the fierce ideological struggle within the Trotskyist movement at the start of World War II. That history, largely unexplored, misrepresented or forgotten, continues as a guide to revolutionary resolve against imperialist war – and to socialist policy in general.

The fork in the road

World War II shattered fundamental aspects of Trotskyism’s assumptions by events whose possibility the theory had previously denied. Revolutionary Marxism faced a fork in the road. To remain true to its reason for being as the conscious expression of the unconscious striving of the working class for emancipation, it would have to overcome any weaknesses or errors that contradicted that aim. The new dynamics of class and world politics demanded changes to established but now outworn analysis. Unless Marxists corrected key programmatic and theoretical mistakes, made evident by the rapidly changing international situation, they would be hurled into confusion and error. Worse, traditional theories were now in conflict with Marxism’s basic principles and program: the self-emancipation of the working class as the road to revolution, and working-class rule as the essential foundation of socialism.

It was not an accident that the Trotskyist movement was where politics that centred on workers’ self-emancipation would reappear. Trotskyism was the living continuation of revolutionary Marxism in the 1920s and 1930s. While the movement was often small, isolated, marginalised, even at times sectarian, it had relentlessly fought for the defence of workers’ democracy against the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, for world revolution against the nationalist theory of “socialism in one country”, and against the destruction of the revolutionary communist parties by their subordination to the foreign policy needs of the Russian bureaucracy.

The Communist International of the 1920s had made important Marxist theoretical breakthroughs and innovations in analysis of world conditions and politics. The conformist authoritarianism of Stalinism wrecked theoretical thought with orders from above. It was in the Trotskyist movement that Marxist theory continued to develop. Trotsky’s contributions represented the major Marxist advances of those years: the theory of permanent revolution and independent working-class organisation, applied to the Chinese revolution of 1925-27; the united front against fascism in Germany, counterposed to both social democratic lesser evilism and Stalinist Third Period “social fascism”, which together greased the wheels for the Nazi rise to power; opposition to the Popular Front support for liberal capitalists, which reformists and Stalinists used to destroy the workers’ revolution in Spain. These theoretical conquests, among others, continued to apply the programmatic ideas and methods of the pre-Stalinist Comintern.

In the United States Trotskyism’s greatest accomplishments were not limited to theory: Trotskyists led two of the three great strikes of 1934 that initiated the upheaval that organised industrial unionism. The merger of the Trotskyists and Musteites[2] – the leaders of the teamsters’ and auto-lite general strikes respectively – into one revolutionary organisation was, as The Militant proudly headlined, “Minneapolis and Toledo Unite”. This capable fusion of theory and practice allowed the Americans to become the largest, most important Trotskyist organisation in the 1930s. Its theoretical journal, The New International, became the organising centre for the Fourth International.

But these great achievements were not sufficient to prevent a crisis with the actual outbreak of war. To understand Trotskyism’s most important theoretical upheaval, it is necessary to free the narrative from latter-day distortions and self-serving historical myths, by allies as well as opponents, and locate it in its contemporary context, examining the actual events and ideas in a world whose assumptions have long since disappeared, and their impact on the Communist and Trotskyist movements of that time.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact launches World War II

World War II began on 1 September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France – Germany’s rivals and Poland’s allies – declared war, challenging Germany’s growing domination over Europe. Germany’s imperial goals made the Second World War inevitable. Like World War I before it, World War II was a struggle for the redivision of the world; Germany’s expansionary aims – for “Lebensraum”, the conquest of territory of previously independent European countries – were held back by the dominant imperialist powers, Britain in particular.

For months prior to the invasion, Hitler had been manoeuvring to gain Polish territory through diplomatic measures. He hoped to force through a repeat of the Munich appeasement policy, when the Western powers had sold out Czechoslovakia – thus postponing war for a few more years. But after Poland refused to agree to a German takeover of Danzig, Hitler unilaterally revoked the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact in April 1939. If diplomacy would not gain Polish territory, Hitler was prepared to gamble on immediate war. (Russia also had a Soviet-Polish Non-Aggression Pact, reaffirmed in 1938 to last through 1945.)

The central strategic military objective of Germany’s war preparation was avoidance of a two-front war, in both Western and Eastern Europe, a major cause of Germany’s World War I defeat. Lesson learned, the German foreign office and military high command pressed Hitler for a one-front war, as the plan with the most reasonable chance of success. Stalin came to their aid. The initial fulfilment of the one-front war strategy was made possible by the Stalinist bureaucracy’s newly acquired imperialist ambitions. Only after he had the go-ahead from Stalin did Hitler launch the attack on Poland initiating World War II.

Just ten days before the war began, on 22-3 August 1939, Germany and Russia signed what for propaganda purposes was called a “non-aggression pact”. In reality, this was a mutual aggression pact, which set the stage for the Second World War. The German war machine depended on Russia for critical logistical and material support. Russia supplied the crucial raw materials – oil, strategic minerals, and food – necessary for Germany’s battle on the western front. The quid pro quo was Nazi support for Russia’s invasion of Poland, followed by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, a part of Finland, and later Bessarabia and Bukovina from Romania. These Russian takeovers had the logistical advantage for Germany of safeguarding its rear, securing its borders in the east, north and north-east, which would be protected by its Russian ally. Germany was free to fight a one-front war in the west, winning the invasion and occupation of France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Norway.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact was indispensable to the initial German conquest of Western Europe. Russian support was a key to the early success of the Nazi war camp, which in return guaranteed the first stage of a new Russian imperialism, the seizure of eastern Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. The same day that the Russians took Latvia, the Germans conquered Paris, and Molotov extended to the German ambassador “warmest congratulations…on the splendid success of the German armed forces”.[3]

Stalinist counter-revolution

The shocking eruption of Stalinist imperialism in collaboration with the Nazis caught the international left unprepared. There existed no such thing in the Marxist vocabulary as an imperialist workers’ state. Russian imperialism developed rapidly following the bureaucratic consolidation that culminated with the Moscow purge trials of the 1930s. But when the war began, Marxist theory had not yet come to grips with the full implications of the Stalinist counter-revolution.

The Moscow Trials were the final act of the bureaucratic counter-revolution, a process that had been going on for more than a decade. The purges wiped out the entire generation of surviving Bolsheviks, including almost all of the original Stalinist faction. Bourgeois historians argue that it was the Bolshevik Party that created Stalinism, when in reality Stalinism could only triumph by destroying the remains of the Bolshevik Party, already distorted and crippled during the degeneration of the Revolution. The Party, despite its corrosion, was the last vestige of the Russian Revolution, the final remaining political structure of the Russian worker’s state. It was the last surviving link to workers’ rule.

The destruction of the Bolshevik Party removed the last obstacle to the bureaucracy’s consolidation of its class rule, and was the necessary prelude to the bureaucracy’s imperialist drive. As usual, consciousness and theory lagged behind these changing conditions. But events would soon fatally undermine the beliefs of millions of Communists, and highlight a basic flaw of Trotsky’s analysis of the Stalinist state – in particular, the proposition that nationalised property was enough to determine that the working class continued to be the ruling class.

“Fascism is a matter of taste”

The Moscow Trials’ main allegation was that Lenin’s revolutionary associates were agents and spies for Hitler. Communist Party members defended the indefensible: the hallucinatory accusation that those who had made the revolution, including Trotsky, were fascist agents who should be sentenced to death. Communists were forced to parrot a party line that would soon require a total somersault.

Just one year after the last trial of “fascist fifth columnists”, it was the Stalinists who were now allies of the Nazis. This collaboration was grotesquely conveyed when swastika flags graced Moscow streets to welcome the Nazi negotiators for the Hitler-Stalin Pact – and Russian foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov proclaimed at the Pact’s signing: “Fascism is a matter of taste”,[4] while Stalin toasted Hitler: “I know how much the German nation loves its Fuehrer”.[5]

The two years of the Pact witnessed unimaginable crimes of Stalinist treachery and collaboration with fascism. One of its low points was Stalin’s turning over to the Gestapo of 800 German Communists, including Jews, who had sought refuge in Russia. In occupied France, the CP originally tried to collaborate with the Vichy puppet government as a loyal opposition. In Germany, the Pact led to the demoralised collapse of the underground Communist resistance.

Popular Front and collective security

The Hitler-Stalin Pact created unprecedented upheaval in the world Communist movement. In the late 1930s, Communist activity focused on domestic anti-fascist struggle – the Peoples’ Front – and the foreign policy of collective security, to protect Russia from the war threat of a rising Germany and its fascist allies. Because of the international prestige of the Communist parties as the heirs of the Russian Revolution these policies dominated the left of the 1930s. The Nazi-Soviet Pact overturned these two pillars of Communist policy.

“Collective security” was Russia’s foreign policy strategy of forming military agreements with any capitalist country opposed to Nazi Germany. Local Communist parties were used as one of the bargaining chips for collaboration with domestic ruling classes. Capitalist governments that formed an alliance with Russia could count on domestic support from Moscow’s agents, the local Communist Party, as part of a “Popular Front” policy. This collaboration could provide significant protection for bourgeois governments during the 1930s depression years of working-class ferment and revolutionary upheavals. In America, the CP helped channel the radical working-class upsurge into an alliance with the “progressive” section of the capitalist class, represented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic Party. This policy of subordination to liberal capitalist politics continues to corrupt and weaken the American left today.

The worst crimes of the misnamed “popular front against fascism” were those carried out in revolutionary Spain. In the battle that raged behind Republican lines during the Civil War, the Spanish CP provided the political muscle to destroy the ongoing working-class revolution. This betrayal proved Moscow’s usefulness to its capitalist allies; in the name of anti-fascism and Western unity, Moscow proved that it could deliver its native agents to put down any attempt at working-class socialist revolution.

The missed opportunity

The policy eroded the Communist Party’s standing among its many left sympathisers, on whom they previously relied to staff their social, cultural and political mass organisations. The CP had previously been successful in convincing these fellow travellers – trade unionists, social democrats and liberals – that progressives had to justify, apologise for, and rationalise away all the crimes of the Russia camp. But an alliance with Hitler was a bridge too far. Never again did the American CP create mass organisations with the same substantial non-Communist popular support.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact also crushed the faith of many Communist militants whose political lives were dedicated to the struggle against fascism. Communist Party membership (including members of the Young Communist League) peaked in 1939, at between 80-100,000. Membership loss after the Pact was greatest among immigrant workers from the countries Russia invaded. Steep losses occurred among Finnish and Latvian workers, two of the most important ethnic groups of the 1920s Communist Party. Among Polish workers, the backbone of the Detroit auto sit-down strikes and factory occupations, losses prevented the CP from ever regaining its pre-Pact strength in the United Auto Workers, the most important CIO union. Large numbers of Jewish workers, for generations the stronghold of the left and the CP, quit as “Jewish Communists in New York City’s garment districts were met with derisive greetings of ‘Heil Hitler’”.[6] But the CP leadership dismissed it all, and continued to demand loyalty to the Moscow leadership.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact presented American Trotskyism with its greatest opportunity to break out of its isolation and to reach these confused radicals. The Communist Party had overwhelming hegemony over the left, through its heroic accomplishments in the industrial union upsurge of the CIO, and in the fight against Jim Crow racism. The CP used this power to impose upon most of the left the political perspective that Trotskyists were “fascists, mad dogs” who had to be isolated; they could not be allowed to participate or collaborate in any left activity, a practice the CP would try to maintain until 1956.

But with the Party’s ideological and organisational disarray following the Hitler-Stalin Pact, its membership and periphery were open as never before to the critical arguments of Trotskyism. The Pact confirmed every charge Trotskyists had made about Stalinism: unprincipled, opportunistic, anti-socialist, counter-revolutionary, totalitarian; popular front and collective security policies were incapable of preventing another world war. The Pact verified Trotsky’s contention that the world Communist parties – all of whom supported the Pact – were not independent revolutionary workers’ parties, but had been transformed from revolutionary working-class vanguards into border guards of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Tragically, this once-in-a-generation opportunity to overcome Stalinist hegemony, to win over CP militants or sympathisers was absolutely lost. The Trotskyist movement was paralysed, politically incoherent, incapable of action, “asleep at the wheel”, as one of its leaders said. It could play no role, and gain no advantage, in the greatest political crisis the CP had until then experienced. The Pact, the invasion of Poland and subsequent events tossed the Trotskyist movement into convulsive shock, its internal disorientation and ideological disarray as deep as that of the Communist Party. Its political positions were as unprepared for these events as those of the CP. Without an effective alternative the momentarily diminished CP was able to maintain its dominance. The greatest opening in radical politics was missed due to internal confusion, incompetence, paralysis. It wasn’t until 1956, when the Hungarian Revolution led to the collapse of the CP, that another opening emerged for the emergence of a new revolutionary left.

The crisis of Trotskyism

The Pact itself had not come as a complete surprise to the Trotskyist movement. A Russian-German alliance had been predicted by perceptive observers, foreign diplomatic services, newspaper correspondents, and most notably Trotsky, as a logical outcome of Munich. It was clear that after the Western powers abandoned Czechoslovakia that “collective security” was not a believable guarantee, if it ever had been, that the Allies would come to Russia’s defence in the event of German attack. Russia could therefore be expected to move to defend itself from attack through some sort of accommodation with Germany.

Such an accommodation had been foreseen and accepted in the movement; revolutionaries did not view a defensive agreement with German imperialism, however repulsive, as being qualitatively different from similar pacts with the bourgeois democratic imperialist powers. Russia had signed a conventional non-aggression pact with Germany in 1926, which Hitler had endorsed after the Nazis took power; strengthening of that pact of 1926 would have been acceptable to the revolutionary left.

What was not foreseen or allowed for in the past, as Trotsky himself acknowledged, was the unprecedented content of, and actions flowing from, the new Pact of 1939, which fatally undermined traditional perspectives on Russia’s relationship to the war, imperialism and proletarian revolution. For the Hitler-Stalin agreement, as delineated in its secret protocols, was not a defensive accommodation with Germany to prevent war, but an imperialist aggression pact, for the carve-up of Poland, for division of Europe, for conquest, for spheres of influence, for mutual material support and collaboration in World War II.

After the German armies marched into western Poland, the Germans pressed Stalin to move. Sixteen days later, Russia declared war against Poland, and its armies advanced into eastern Poland. The two armies met, celebrated together and divided the country. German generals actually complained bitterly as they were ordered to retreat from areas they had already conquered with casualties, in order to give Stalin his share of the loot.

Poland was conquered and divided by Hitler and Stalin – by the Nazis and by what Trotskyist theory still misguidedly labelled a “workers’ state”. All class-conscious workers, they declared, had to defend this “workers’ state” in its war. This meant they had to defend Russia’s imperialist military invasion and conquest of the Polish people, in collaboration with the Nazis. Polish workers were called upon to greet and provide support to the Russian invaders. Those who refused to fight for the invasion while it was going on, charged Trotsky, were “petty bourgeois” – an alien class element, capitulating to the pressure of bourgeois public opinion.

Trotskyism’s crisis was that the actual events resulting from the Pact wreaked havoc with its pre-war assumptions. In responding, and in failing to respond, to changing events, official Trotskyism ended up refuting its own fundamental programmatic views on World War II, imperialism, national self-determination, the meaning of proletarian revolution, and ultimately, the question of whether the working class was even necessary for socialist revolution or for working-class rule. Changing objective conditions overwhelmed outworn theory with its unresolvable contradictions. Weak theoretical ideas proved incapable of providing revolutionary guidance for the new questions posed by the war. The traditional theories had been accepted for years because, until then, they had provided the strongest, clearest analysis and revolutionary understanding of the Stalinist bureaucracy, its rise, and the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Now the altered world situation required overcoming their limitations and contradictions.

Trotskyists split

The immediate question posed by the Russian invasion of Poland was what position revolutionary internationalists should take on this actual, existing war – and not some hypothetical, future war in which Trotsky and his followers expected all of the capitalist powers, Britain as well as Germany, to unite against the Russian workers’ state – a reprise of the invasion of Russia following the 1917 Revolution by a coalition of 14 nations, including the United States. The traditional Trotskyist position called for the unconditional defence of the Soviet Union against an imperialist attack. But in this war, there was no imperialist attack on Russia. Instead, the Soviet Union, as an ally of one of the imperialist camps, initiated the attack, conquest and occupation of other countries, and gave Hitler the ability to start World War II. Russia was collaborating with Nazi Germany for mutual imperialist gain.

As we have seen, Russia’s invasion of Poland was quickly followed by attacks on Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia and Bukovina. It was opposition to support for Russia in these ongoing imperialist wars – opposition to calling upon workers of these countries to support and give material aid to the Russian invasion – that unleashed the fight inside the Trotskyist movement and gave birth to the origins of the International Socialist viewpoint.

The ideological struggle surrounding that birth was prolonged. It took up all of the immediate theoretical and practical questions, as well as – like most faction fights, unfortunately – extraneous political and personal issues of little lasting substance. Trotsky, with his immense authority, political brilliance, Marxist erudition and outstanding revolutionary practice, dominated the debate. He wrote all the political documents for the majority, while the confused, theoretically inadequate Cannon leadership of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was reduced in practice to being “a mimeographing machine for Trotsky’s articles and letters”.[7]

But Trotsky’s old positions, however brilliantly they had served an earlier period, were now woefully inadequate. Objective events revealed their errors and weaknesses, and demanded that these be corrected. Unfortunately, as Trotsky tried vigorously to defend old orthodoxy, he proved for the most part unable, or unwilling, to immediately rise to the new occasion, and instead became entangled in the contradictions of old tenets. Great people when they make mistakes make great mistakes; smaller minded critics will often use this to try to discredit their much more important great work. Trotsky was murdered by a Stalinist agent a year later, and one only can speculate and hope that Trotsky would have eventually overcome his initial mistakes – particularly since, under the pressure of the opposition, some of the new theoretical ideas he suggested during the fight might have led him to better future outcomes. The experience of his widow, Natalia Sedova,[8] and others who initially supported him changing their views following the experience of World War II, suggests such a break was at least possible.

But the struggle against wartime support for imperialist Russia was led by the American SWP opposition, which after its eventual expulsion, constituted itself as the Workers Party. Its most well-known founding personalities were Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, CLR James, Martin Abern, Ernest Rice McKinney, Al Glotzer, Joseph Carter, Raya Dunayevskaya, TN Vance, Anne Draper, Ernest Erber, Mary Bell, Carlo, Dwight MacDonald, Nathan Gould, Saul Mendelson, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Susan Green, Grace Lee Boggs, Julius Jacobson, Phyllis Jacobson, BJ Widick, Art Fox and more. In a few short years they produced an enormous quantity of remarkable intellectual achievements, creative Marxism, theoretical leaps – an explosion of theoretical advances and innovations that would present a world view that remained intact and relevant for decades. The core political principles and world view of the endeavour would congeal as International Socialism: “Neither Washington nor Moscow”; socialism from below; self-emancipation of the working class as the only road to socialist revolution; workers’ economic and political control as the defining core of what constitutes a workers’ state; the difference between property forms and property relations; the bureaucratic class nature of Stalinism; its imperialist dynamic; and the contradictions that would eventually lead to social and national revolutions against it.

To develop these views, the Workers Party had to reaffirm revolutionary Marxist theory to a world situation that now included Stalinist imperialism and bureaucratic revolution, and its relationship to previous Marxist theory on questions of war, imperialism and national self-determination.

Many subsequent accounts of the Workers Party’s ideological fight inaccurately present the central issue as the class nature of Russia – rather than the true core question, the war and Russia’s role in the war. This approach is particularly common in those “orthodox Trotskyist” accounts that are retrospectively reluctant or embarrassed to admit to continued defence of Russia’s invasion and occupation of Poland and Eastern Europe. They try to airbrush away these politics with the assertion, through ignorance or malice or both, that Trotsky led a heroic fight against deserters who refused to defend the “workers’ state” from imperialist attack. Unfortunately, the British Socialist Workers Party has also presented historically inaccurate accounts of this split, distorting the real history to present these questions as only having emerged after World War II – when every literate Trotskyist knows the history of this fight of 1939-40. The British SWP tried to create a cordon sanitaire between their international tendency and the innovations of the Workers Party in which so much of their own political views originated; it was a sectarian approach that allowed them to present themselves as the sole source of IS theory.

At the same time, while the debate raged over the central issue of war policy, it could not avoid the new light that Stalinist imperialism shed on the class nature of the Russian state. The opposition was unified on the question of the war and the political conclusions to be drawn from that, but did not start with a unified or fully worked-out position on the class character of Stalinism. It explicitly chose to postpone internal discussions on that question in order to concentrate its fight on the more immediate issue of the war. Nonetheless the war raised questions revealing the inadequacies of the old theory. How could a workers’ state play such a reactionary role? Either the new states identical to Russia were workers’ states, or Russia was not a workers’ state. Could workers’ states emerge from invasion, conquest, occupation and bureaucratic social transformation? Was the Russian army the vehicle for working-class liberation? If so, what of basic theories like self-emancipation? What about the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism? In the next few years, these questions would lead to two analyses of the nature of Stalinism. The majority, headed up by Shachtman, Carter, Draper and others, argued it was bureaucratic collectivism, neither capitalist nor socialist, but a new form of class society. A minority led by CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs, argued instead that it was state capitalism.

Trotsky was the greatest fighter against the rise of Stalinism. Many of the contradictions and errors in his positions were political baggage he carried over from the prolonged process of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution – the mindsets, ideas, struggles, frames of reference and tempo developed during the process of the loss of workers’ power in the first workers’ state. Trotsky had been the main organiser of the fight for workers’ democracy against the rising bureaucracy. In doing so, he had always placed events in their moment, in the context of what stage of degeneration had been reached, as the bureaucracy advanced and workers’ democracy atrophied, and what remained of the revolution’s gains – which eventually were reduced to state nationalisation of the land, the means of production and the monopoly of foreign trade.

But recent events had shown that it was necessary to bring revolutionary Marxist theory up to date, to adapt it to qualitatively different conditions. That Trotsky failed to do so is tragic, but not all of those he educated and trained failed this test.

In regenerating its theory for an entirely new, changed world situation, the Workers Party attempted to draw upon the theoretical heritage of the Bolshevik Party and of the Comintern prior to the rise of Stalinism. One of Lenin’s greatest contributions had been to revise Marxism for the era of imperialism, and to cleanse it of the reformist overlay developed in the period of the Second International. Now, the Workers Party saw that its task was to revise Marxism for a period in which imperialist conflict included the new phenomena of Stalinism and bureaucratic revolution, and to cleanse revolutionary theory not only from reformism but also from the overlay distorted by the years of degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the Comintern.

Russian imperialism

In the real, existing imperialist war confronting the left, Stalinist imperialism, like all imperialism, denied self-determination to the weaker countries it conquered. As Russia occupied the newly conquered countries, the Stalinist bureaucracy nationalised the land, the means of production and the means of exchange. It eliminated the private ownership of capital, destroyed the entire capitalist class and transformed capitalist social relations into those identical to Russia’s. It carried out a bureaucratic social revolution in the occupied countries – without the working class, against the working class, and in the face of working-class opposition. Trotsky, in an uncharacteristic mixture of fantasy, ignorance and confusion, proclaimed that workers and peasants in Poland and Finland were welcoming the Russian army, rising up and taking over the land, and with Russian support establishing workers’ control in the factories.

These events, and the response of orthodox Trotskyists to them, altered and destroyed many of the theoretical foundations of 1930s Trotskyism. Without fundamental revision of their view of the Soviet state, orthodox Trotskyists were led from blunder to blind error and finally to theoretical shipwreck.

The first casualty was the movement’s traditional policy of the unconditional defence of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack. Orthodox Trotskyists of a later period were taught that Russian defence was a fundamental component of the revolutionary program that separated Trotskyists from reformists. Worse, any opposition objecting to defence of Russia constituted an alien class element – with sometimes the added slander that those who didn’t defend Russia were traitors, and really supporters of capitalist imperialism: if you didn’t support Moscow you must be “objectively” supporting its rival camp, American capitalist imperialism. In actuality, in the 1920s and 1930s, Trotskyism shared Russian defencism with almost the entire left – the official Communist parties, communist dissident groups (Lovestoneites, Brandlerites, etc), and many social democratic and labour parties. Even Norman Thomas’ reformist Socialist Party called for the unconditional defence of the Soviet Union. What differentiated social democrats, Communists and Trotskyists prior to World War II were questions of proletarian revolution, internationalism and workers’ democracy – not Russian defencism.

The motivation given for the Russian defence slogan was that all workers had an obligation to defend the only surviving victory of the European proletarian revolution of 1917-23, which continued to maintain the gains of the October Revolution. Any war which Russia took part in was therefore, ipso facto, a progressive war. Further, in the last analysis, it was argued, the real struggle in the world was between capitalism and “socialist Russia”. Whatever temporary divisions existed between the capitalist powers, Trotskyism held, would eventually be overcome by capitalist class unity. At that point, the capitalist powers would all unite to carry out a joint imperialist attack on Russia – just as the US and 13 other nations had done in 1918, when together they had launched an invasion in a failed attempt to overthrow the Bolshevik Revolution.

Bonapartism and workers’ democracy

Theory was further confused by Trotsky’s lack of clarity on the relationship of workers’ democracy to workers’ rule. This weakness was ironic, since Trotskyism had organised the fight for workers’ democracy against the rising bureaucracy in Russia. But the Trotskyists’ Achilles heel was their belief that Russia remained a workers’ state, despite its degeneration, because the bureaucracy was “forced by working class pressure” to defend the remaining gains of the revolution: nationalisation of the means of production, exchange and the land, and the monopoly on foreign trade. Trotsky argued that preservation of nationalised property created by the revolution meant that the working class remained the ruling class.

According to Trotsky, the Stalinist bureaucracy had usurped all of the political power and control of the working class; politically the Russian government was totalitarian, with similarities to fascism. But he continued to hold to the idea that it retained the economic foundations and property relations resulting from the revolution. The economy, however bureaucratically distorted, remained socialistic in character. The bureaucracy, he believed, was a policeman in the process of goods distribution, not locating its primary role in the process of production. Trotsky accepted Stalinist claims that a command economy was a planned economy, and that it escaped the crises of anarchic capitalism; the contradiction between bureaucratic command and real planning took decades to become fully apparent, with the economic stagnation and collapse of the USSR. In the 1930s, its rapid growth seemed to proved that state nationalisation was more efficient and more progressive, and historically superior to, crisis-ridden, stagnant, and decaying capitalism. As such, it had to be protected against possible capitalist restoration.

Trotsky thought that the Stalinist bureaucracy’s rule was a form of Bonapartism, analogous to the regime first set up by Napoleon in the conservative reaction that followed the French Revolution. In form, Bonapartist regimes appear to stand above and restrain potentially destructive class struggle, by imposing a dictatorship that dispossesses all classes of political power. Yet in content, the Bonapartist state serves ultimately as an instrument of the dominant, ruling class, because it preserves the latter’s property relations, and consequently, its economic and social power. Similarly, Trotsky believed, the Stalinist bureaucracy was not an independent class. Like all other state bureaucracies, it served a ruling class – in his theory, the working class. Since under Stalinism the bureaucracy defends the property form of nationalised property, which proletarian socialism does as well, Trotsky argued that the working class remains the ruling class despite being dispossessed of all political control and power.

The confused Bonapartist analogy had arisen during the prolonged process of degeneration of the Russian Revolution, as Bolsheviks made analogies between the process they were going through and the stages of decline of the French Revolution. As the bureaucracy advanced, and workers’ democracy atrophied, it was believed that the gains of the revolution still remained because of the maintenance of nationalised property. But the events of World War II clarified the implications of this historical analogy, revealing it to be an obstacle to understanding the difference between capitalist and working-class rule. Extending it to the bureaucratic revolution in the newly conquered countries could only lead to reactionary conclusions. Bonapartism can exist under capitalism, but not under socialism.

Capitalism can flourish with or without political democracy. Capitalists can be the dominant class despite having no direct political control, so long as capitalist private ownership of the means of production and exchange – capitalist property relations – are defended and can develop as the dominant mode of production. Capital’s rule is exercised through its economic power, not political control – desirable as the latter may be from a capitalist point of view. No other class system has had such a sharp separation between politics and economics. Capitalists can and have existed as the ruling class under diverse political systems – absolute monarchy, republic, democracy, military dictatorship, fascism, welfare state – few of which include its direct political power.

The working class, and a workers’ state, as the Workers Party came to understand, is entirely different. Because it is not a property-owning class, the working class can come to economic power, and maintain it, only by wielding political power. Workers’ only method of rule is through collective political control of the economy and a state, which is the repository of nationalised property, through some form of workers’ democracy. Democracy is not a desirable addition or optional feature under socialism, as it is under capitalism. Socialism, the class rule of the working class, cannot exist without workers’ democracy. Workers’ democracy – workers’ political rule – is indispensable to workers’ power and workers’ economic rule. As the Communist Manifesto proclaimed, “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy…to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class”.[9]

The working class ruled Russia during the revolution, the civil war and the degeneration of the revolution – through the political institutions of the workers’ state, soviets, unions, factory committees, workers’ control of production, the armed militia, and the Bolshevik Party – however attenuated its rule became. The loss of all working-class political power and control marked the qualitative class difference between the degenerating revolution of the 1920s and the consolidated class rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1930s. The loss of working-class political power meant the loss of its economic power, and so the loss of its position as ruling class. Politics and economics are fused in a workers’ state, an idea which became confused in the long drawn out process of degeneration and bureaucratic counter-revolution in Russia.

The faulty logic of Trotsky’s opposite theory, of working class as ruling-class with no economic or political control, identified the dictatorship of the Russian proletariat with the dictatorship of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Dictatorship, in this Marxist use of the term, means class domination, with the interests of all other classes subordinated to the interests of the dominant class. Bourgeois democracy by this definition is one of the forms of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Similarly, the dictatorship of the proletariat simply means workers’ democracy, workers’ power, a workers’ state, the rule of the working class. The fetish of nationalised property separated from who controlled it, the confusion of property forms and property relations, led Trotsky to the dead-end conclusion that “the social content of the dictatorship of the bureaucracy” was determined by

those productive relations that were created by the proletarian revolution. In that sense we may say with complete justification that the dictatorship of the proletariat found its distorted but indubitable expression in the dictatorship of the bureaucracy.[10]

This incredible theoretical muddle led those who maintained it to destructive conclusions for Marxism – from the repudiation of its fundamental programmatic foundations, the idea that socialism is the self-emancipation of the proletariat, to the conclusion that socialist revolution could be achieved without the working class, through in Trotsky’s words, “bureaucratic, military means”.

Stalinist counter-revolution and socialism from below

The Hitler-Stalin Pact fatally undermined yet another fundamental tenet of pre-war Trotskyism: that Stalinism was defined by the policy of “socialism in one country”. The original two pillars of the platform of the Left Opposition were world revolution vs. socialism in one country and workers’ democracy vs. the bureaucracy. Russian conquest of much of Eastern Europe, followed by the imposition of what Trotskyists concluded were several “workers’ states” within it, destroyed the pre-war view of Stalinism as characterised by “socialism in one country”.

“Socialism in one country” was a policy derived from the 1920s, when Stalin had overturned the perspective on which the October Revolution had been carried out: where Bolshevik leaders insisted that the seizure of state power by the working class in economically backward Russia could only start the process of socialist transition. The future of the Russian Revolution would depend upon the success of a European-wide proletarian socialist revolution. Without revolutionary socialist aid from the industrialised countries, Russia could not survive.

But after the defeat of the German Revolution in 1923, the rising apparatus, the conservative Russian bureaucracy and its leader, Stalin, changed course. Backtracking from the policy of world revolution, they proclaimed that socialism could be built in one country – Russia – in the midst of a capitalist world. To justify this new doctrine, Stalin proclaimed that “We desire no foreign land, but we shall not surrender a single inch of our own land to any one.”.[11]

In the 1930s, Stalin’s betrayal of the Spanish Revolution would convince Trotsky that socialism in one country meant socialism nowhere else, that working class power anywhere was a threat to the Stalinist bureaucracy’s continued rule. Trotsky’s conclusion then became that the bureaucracy was counter-revolutionary, incapable of carrying out a social revolution. But at the start of World War II, like it or not, the Stalinist bureaucracy carried through in the conquered countries what Marxism had always classified as a social revolution – destruction of the capitalist class by expropriation of its private ownership of the means of production – and established identical social, political and economic relations to those existing in Russia. In class terms, therefore, Trotsky reluctantly concluded that a proletarian socialist revolution had taken place, through “ in a military bureaucratic fashion”.[12]

The conclusion that there existed a proletarian socialist revolution in Eastern Europe forever destroyed two of Trotsky’s fundamental assumptions: that “socialism in one country”, touted by the bureaucracy, could not succeed; and that the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy was incapable of carrying through a social revolution. Instead, Trotsky’s theory now became mystified into a concept he described as a “counter-revolutionary workers’ state”,[13] created by a proletarian social revolution carried out from above.

The primary justification Trotsky had given for the creation of a new revolutionary Fourth International – despite its participation by only tiny groups without mass working-class support – was that the mass Communist parties were no longer revolutionary forces but had instead become reformist and counter-revolutionary parties that would always capitulate to capitalism and would never carry through a socialist revolution. Now, the Stalinist occupations and conquests, followed by bureaucratic revolutions establishing property and social relations identical to those of the Russian “workers’ state”, posed an inescapable contradiction: either these newly conquered countries were also workers’ states, or Russia was no longer a workers’ state.

If the answer was that the nationalisation of property made Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, etc, workers’ states, then the inevitable conclusion was that workers’ states could arise without a working-class revolution, without the self-emancipation of the working class. To hold to the old theory of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state meant that the working class was not necessary for socialist revolution – that the bureaucracy could, however poorly, do the job. Working-class revolution, the raising of the working class to the position of ruling class, could be accomplished without the working class – indeed, even against it – and likewise, of course, without a revolutionary party or International.

Holding to the concept that nationalised property alone was sufficient to constitute a workers’ state, Trotsky concluded that in Poland, the bureaucracy gave “an impulse to the socialist revolution through bureaucratic methods”.[14] Shachtman, speaking for the opposition, counterposed what Hal Draper was later to define and develop as “socialism from below”:

Here again, I find myself compelled to disagree with you. The bureaucratic bourgeois revolution – that I know of. I know of Napoleon’s “revolution from above” in Poland over a hundred years ago. I know of Alexander’s emancipation of the serfs “from above” – out of fear of peasant uprisings. I know of Bismarck’s “revolution from above”… But the bureaucratic proletarian revolution – that I do not know and I do not believe in it. I do not believe that it took place in Poland even for a day – or that it is taking place or is about to take place in Finland…

I find even less for your…astonishing remarks about Finland…that “the Red Army in Finland…introduces workers’ control”…

There is no trace of workers’ control in the Soviet Union itself, there is even less than that in Finland…

I repeat, I do not believe in the bureaucratic proletarian (socialist) revolution… I do not consider it possible. I reject the concept not out of “sentimental” reasons or a Tolstoyan “faith in the people” but because I believe it is to be scientifically correct to repeat with Marx that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. The bourgeois revolution, for a series of historical and social reasons, can be made and was made by other social classes and social strata; the bourgeoisie could be liberated from feudal rule and establish its social dictatorship under the aegis of other social groups. But the proletarian revolution cannot be made by other than the proletariat acting as a mass; therein, among other things, it is distinguished from all preceding revolutions. No one else can free it – not even for a day.[15]

It was this reframing of the self-emancipation of the working class as the key to socialism that is the core of International Socialist politics.

Marxism and war

In rigorously confronting the nature of the war, and the questions which arose as the war developed, the Workers Party produced a rich body of Marxist theory on war, imperialism, resistance movements and self-determination. It revived and built upon its point of departure – the body of revolutionary theory developed in World War I by Lenin, Zinoviev, Luxemburg, Trotsky and other revolutionary internationalists. Marxism argues that no single abstract, ahistorical position can encompass all wars – some wars are reactionary, others are progressive. Each has to be analysed separately and concretely, on its political dynamics – which include its economic, social and class attributes.

The starting point for Marxist approach to war is Clausewitz’s famous proposition: “War is the continuation of politics by other, forcible means”. A revolutionary socialist’s attitude to any war is determined by our assessment of the politics of that war, particularly the policies of the ruling classes carrying out those wars, who attempt to identify their class interests as national interests. Revolutionary Marxists determine our position based upon the politics, as Lenin repeatedly emphasised, of all the belligerents, not just the politics of one of them. If, before the outbreak of war, we support the politics of any of the belligerents as just and progressive, and those politics subsequently lead to the use of forcible means, then – not being pacifists – we continue our support when the question becomes armed conflict, a war for those politics. If, by contrast, we are opposed to those politics, then – not being social patriots – we do not change our views when those politics lead to war. This is the key to developing a Marxist position on each concrete war, particularly in the era of imperialism.

World War II began not with an imperialist attack against Russia, but with Russia collaborating with Nazi Germany in an imperialist attack on Poland, followed by Russia’s further imperialist conquest of Eastern Europe. At a minimum, this Russian expansionism required an examination by the left of how these new conditions fit, and what changes were needed in, the traditional socialist slogan of unconditional defence of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack. The untenable contradiction between defence against imperialism, and the defence of Russia as it engaged in imperialism, led Trotsky to shift the grounds for support – from defence against imperialist attack to support based, quite simply, on the nature of the Russian state.

Trotsky was opposed to the Russian invasions. But since he clung to the view that Russia was a workers’ state, he concluded that the nature of the state required support for Russia in the war, whether or not Russia was being attacked. This retreat from Marxist war methodology rendered irrelevant any political analysis of any particular war in which Russia engaged; it dispensed with the traditional concrete Marxist determination of whether any given war is just or unjust, progressive or reactionary – and therefore worthy of support or opposition. If the nature of the state, as Trotsky maintained, is the sole criterion for determining support or opposition, then it is not necessary to examine the politics of the actual war, because the nature of the state usually stays the same for whole historic epochs. (The nature of the state, of course, reveals some of the politics – in particular, who is the ruling class and what are their class interests and policy.)

Marxist analysis should have led to the conclusion that Soviet workers had no class interest in attacking Poland, or in taking over Lithuania and the other Eastern European countries. The war had been organised by the Stalinist bureaucracy for its own interests, its own power and privileges – not for the interests of the working class. Instead, argued the opposition, by clinging to Russian defencism, Trotsky’s position was a retreat from a materialist, Marxist attitude to war. “The conception that since nationalized property is ‘progressive by its very nature’ a regime based upon it must automatically be fighting a progressive war…is nothing but a variety of immanent idealism.”[16]

The confusion of the Trotskyist movement extended to other war questions. For example, the American SWP correctly opposed America’s entry into World War II, but on grounds that “[n]o imperialist regime can conduct a just war”. That assertion is generally, but not always, true. The Spanish Republic in the 1930s was an imperialist state. It had colonies in Morocco and Northern Africa. One reason it lost the war to Franco’s fascists was that it refused to grant self-determination to Morocco, from where many of Franco’s troops were recruited; had the Republic granted Moroccan independence, Franco’s army could have disintegrated. Nonetheless, revolutionaries critically supported the imperialist Republic in the Spanish Civil War, because the decisive politics of that war was democracy vs. fascism. Trotsky strongly rejected ultra-leftists who raised the capitalist, imperialist nature of the Spanish state as the decisive criterion. It was the education of the movement that Trotsky provided during the then recent conflict of the Spanish Civil War that set the stage for the rejection of the nature of the Stalinist state as the decisive determinant in the debate that erupted over World War II. In our own time, there are echoes of this approach in the “tankist campism” of parts of the left, who find progressive features in any state, no matter how reactionary, authoritarian and anti-working class, so long as that state is opposed by American imperialism.

The first question raised by the opposition that would become the Workers Party was: What exactly is your position on this war? The position of the Socialist Workers Party, and much of the Fourth International, was: We’re against the invasion, however, we’re for the Red Army and we think that the people of Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, etc should support the Russian army as it invades. As Max Shachtman stated for the opposition during the debate:

They condemn the invasion but support the invaders. They’re against seizures of new territories by the Kremlin…but support those who are seizing them. They are against the invasion before it takes place, they are against them after it has succeeded, but they are for the invasion for the victory of the Red Army while it is taking place. This is what their war position had become.[17]

Russian imperialism

Traditional Marxist principles and theory demanded support for the right of national self-determination against imperialist attack from whatever quarter. But support for Russia in the war meant opposing the national right of self-determination for Poland, the Baltic States, Finland, etc. Trotsky’s followers tried desperately to invent some other category or terminology – “seizure”, “expansionism”, or some other formulation – to deny imperialist reality and to cover up national imprisonment through forcible conquest. As it became impossible to deny that this was a war for conquest, Trotskyists did mental gymnastics, trying somehow to separate conquest from imperialism. Both the official Communist parties and the orthodox Trotskyists rejected the very idea that Russia could be imperialist.

The attempt to deny reality by verbal gymnastics, maintaining that only advanced monopoly, finance capitalism is imperialist – and therefore that no other society, no matter what its actual actions are, is imperialist – had nothing in common with Marxism or Lenin’s position on imperialism and imperialist wars. The opposition countered by attempting to re-establish the Leninist norms of imperialism, by going back to Lenin’s writings on the question. Here is one of many similar programmatic policies formulated by Lenin, this one from his revision of the party program in October 1917 on the eve of the revolution: “Imperialist wars also occurred in the period of slavery (the war between Rome and Carthage was on both sides an imperialist war), as well as in the Middle Ages and in the epoch of mercantile capitalism…”.[18] According to Lenin, the Spanish conquest of the Americas at the dawn of capitalism – not at its highest, final stage – was imperialist. One of the reasons why this was so clear to Lenin, if not to future generations of confused revolutionists, was that the tsarist empire – which was a backward, semi-feudal state, the prison house of nations – was imperialist. It hardly represented the highest stage of monopoly finance capitalism. Its imperialism was of a semi-feudal, dynastic character. During World War I, Lenin wrote that even in peacetime, tsarist “Russia set a world record for the oppression of nations with an imperialism that is more crude, medieval, economically backward and militarily bureaucratic”.[19]

Lenin summed up what determines whether a war is an inter-imperialist one:

A war is certainly imperialist if both warring sides oppress foreign countries or nationalities, and are fighting for their share of the loot and for the right to “oppress and rob” more than the others.[20]

His words provide an apt description of the decisive crux of World War II, from its inception with the invasion of Poland, through its conclusion with the imperialist victors carving up Europe and Asia at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. It was this basic Leninist principle that Trotskyism moved away from – disastrously, to accommodate support for a Russia engaged in an imperialist attack – and that the Workers Party reasserted.

In his depiction of “both warring sides…fighting for their share of the loot and for the right to ‘oppress and rob’”, Lenin boiled down the essence of imperialism. His description in no way undermines our understanding of the dynamics of modern, advanced capitalism and its drives to imperialism; neither does it deny the imperialism of other social systems, no matter what their stage of economic development, no matter what the dynamics of their imperialism are. Marxists have to oppose all imperialist wars, all foreign conquests – no matter with whatever rationale the conquerors cloak their actions, no matter what precise dynamic drives those countries to foreign conquest.

Every nation has the democratic right to self-determination, to run itself without the “guidance” of the foreign conqueror, the forcible occupier, who denies these rights to the peoples it defeats. The Workers Party reasserted the theoretical basis for what in today’s parlance is called “knee-jerk anti-imperialism”. The WP opposed all imperialism and championed the right of every nation to resist foreign invasion. Foreign conquest, no matter who is carrying it out, no matter what reasons and justifications are given, is always in the interests of one group only – the ruling classes who decide upon and carry out the wars, in which the masses of working people who do the fighting never have any say. Oppressed nations are oppressed precisely because they are conquered, annexed and denied the right to determine their own fate.

Neither Washington nor Moscow

The Workers Party was the only revolutionary organisation in the United States to oppose all sides in World War II. Upon their expulsion from the Socialist Workers Party, in the first issues of their newspaper Labor Action and their theoretical magazine the New International, they raised as their defining political banner the slogan “Neither Berlin/Moscow, nor London/Paris, but for the Third Camp of international socialism!” Later, when Russia switched sides and the US entered the war, the slogan was updated to: “Neither Berlin/Rome/Tokyo, nor London/Washington/Moscow”. When the war ended with the two major victors unleashing a new stage of imperialist struggle for world domination in 1946, the slogan was revised to “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but for the Third Camp of international socialism”. The evolving slogan channelled the changes in imperialist struggle, while the basic idea originating it at the start of World War II remained the core of international socialist politics.

The only party in the country committed to a program of consistent struggle against imperialist war found itself tongue-tied, because when the war finally broke out it did not take precisely the form that had been envisaged. The imperialist world did not launch an attack on Russia; Russia and Germany joined, instead, in an imperialist assault for the division of the booty named Poland, and later on of other countries of Eastern Europe… [T]he Minority rejected the slogan of “unconditional defense” of Stalinist Russia in this war and raised instead the slogan of victory of the Third Camp – not the camp of the imperialist Axis or the camp of the imperialist democracies (plus their more than one totalitarian ally!), but the independent camp of the working class of the world and the oppressed colonial peoples. We pointed out, and it has yet to be refuted, that it was impossible to do anything in the “defense of the Soviet Union” that did not mean aid and support of the imperialist camp of which it was an integral and subordinate part.[21]

The Workers Party shared with the orthodox Trotskyists the belief that the war would end with revolution. It held that World War II would end the way that World War I did – with an international revolution in many countries, in which those who had opposed the war with a correct program would be able to play an outsized role, similar to what the Bolsheviks did in Russia in 1917, or to what the Spartacist League with only a few thousand members did in Germany in 1919. However wrong this turned out to be, this perspective gave central importance to attitudes to war, which increased the heat of the internal Trotskyist struggle.

China in World War II

The rigorous fight in which the Workers Party freed itself from outworn doctrine, forced its members to devote serious effort to developing Marxist theory – more so than any previous American revolutionary organisation. As the war unfolded, the Workers Party made further significant contributions to the Marxist understanding of war politics. Among its most important was its analysis of China’s role in World War II, and of the national resistance movements more broadly.

Allied camp war propaganda defined its side as the “four great democracies” (or what President Roosevelt named the “Four Policemen”), led by the “four great democrats”. The great democratic policemen were the US, Britain, Russia and China; the four great democrats were Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and Chiang Kai-Shek. Two of these, Roosevelt and Churchill, were the world’s greatest imperialists; the other two were ruthless dictators. China had become one of the four major powers in the Allied war camp.

War in China began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, followed by full invasion of China in 1937. Revolutionary socialists opposed the Japanese attack to conquer colonial China. So for China, this was a just war of national liberation – even though the country and its war effort was led by Chiang Kai-Shek, a corrupt warlord, dictator, and the butcher of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, a man who spent much of the war fighting the Chinese Communists rather than the Japanese invaders. Nonetheless, the decisive characteristic of the war was Japanese imperialism against national independence of the Chinese. The entire radical movement supported China in that war.

After Pearl Harbor and the US entrance into the war, China joined the Allied war camp in the Pacific theatre of World War II. But this was a war fought for the imperialist division of the world – not for the independence of China. War is the continuation of politics by forcible means, but as the Workers Party maintained, politics also continues during war. Shifts in the politics of the actors can and have altered the character of wars during their course, as Marx and Engels analysed for the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. So it was in the case of China’s involvement in the broader conflict. China evolved from a country fighting a progressive war for its national liberation, to a constituent part of an imperialist camp in an inter-imperialist war.

Despite this, China continued to receive political support from the SWP and much of the Fourth International. By contrast, the Workers Party dropped its previous support for China, as it came to the conclusion that Chinese integration into the Allied war bloc made its position analogous to that of Serbia in World War I. In that conflict, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky had all argued that socialists would have been obliged to support Serbian national independence against Austrian imperialism, had the conflict been an isolated one. But the conflict was not an isolated one: World War I was not a war for Serbian independence. The decisive dynamic of a war must determine the attitude of revolutionary Marxists, not its subsidiary dynamics. So despite the national element of Serbian independence, revolutionaries did not support Serbia in a war whose overwhelming, decisive politics were imperialist division of global spoils.

Similarly, when China became a part of the Allied camp in World War II, its war was no longer simply the war of China against Japanese imperialism, but a part of the global conflict of the imperialist powers. The latter determined the decisive, overriding character of the war. Most Chinese Trotskyists, and almost all Asian Trotskyists, supported this Workers Party position or took similar stances. (The Workers Party considered itself a part of the Fourth International until 1948, and significant groups of Trotskyists from other countries supported its views first on the invasion of Poland and Finland, and then on the role of China in the war.)

With the majority Trotskyists supporting the war waged by Russia and China – two of the four members of the Allied war camp – there was a drift by some of them to adapt politically to the other two allied powers, America and Britain. The Socialist Workers Party, influencing others, blurred some distinction of opposition to the Allied camp, through a policy they called the “proletarian military policy”. Its central idea was a muddled, utopian call affirming a desire to fight Germany with the existing imperialist army, as long as it was under “trade union control”. In a further adaptation, as the Roosevelt government prepared and mobilised for war, the American SWP came out for conscription, denouncing opposition to the draft as pacifist. They supported the draft for the existing imperialist army as it prepared for imperialist war, even if not controlled by the unions. In similar fashion, they dropped their support for what had probably been their most popular slogan in the late 1930s – “Let the people vote on war” – which called for a referendum on the war prior to its declaration. These decisions explain why the Workers Party insisted that it was their opponents who were adapting to “petty-bourgeois pressures” and patriotism.

National resistance

Another important question of the war was posed by the national liberation struggles that developed in Europe, when the conquest and occupation of the Balkans, Poland, and Eastern and Western Europe by the Axis led to the rise of mass resistance movements in France, Greece, Poland, Yugoslavia, Norway, Holland, Belgium and elsewhere.

The German occupation of Europe was different from past imperialist conquest. The Nazis were colonising previously independent countries of the advanced industrial world, not economically underdeveloped states. Some of these countries were themselves imperialist countries. Now they were conquered, occupied, colonised – reviving again in Europe the national question: the right to self-determination, national independence and national liberation.

To fight against foreign occupation, national resistance movements were organised throughout Europe. Yet many were not supported by the SWP and by some European Trotskyist organisations. The so-called “orthodox Trotskyist” arguments for not supporting the resistance movements were static and abstract: the right of self-determination, they said, was a democratic demand for oppressed colonial countries, not applicable to advanced capitalist, previously imperialist countries. In these countries, they argued, the agenda should be socialist revolution, not national independence; the resistance movements were bourgeois, raising bourgeois democratic demands relevant to a past era, not applicable to contemporary Europe.

The Workers Party refuted these sectarian traps. Now that various countries had been conquered and occupied or incorporated into Germany, Italy, Hungary, a version of the colonial question existed in Europe. To maintain otherwise was to hide from reality behind a conservative sectarian screen. National oppression exists wherever any nation is conquered and occupied by force against its will. Any conquered country – no matter what its political or economic system – has the right to resist foreign occupation, the democratic right to national self-determination, and the right to fight for its national liberation, including the right to separate from its occupiers. “Orthodox politics” were leading to opposite, reactionary conclusions. Likewise, some Trotskyists told their members not to join the Resistance because the movement was fighting for national independence and not socialist revolution.

The contrasting Workers Party analysis championed the resistance movement as the only mass movement in Europe at that time. Although it drew from all classes under the Nazi oppression, it consisted overwhelmingly of workers who had been trained in the social democratic, communist and trade union movements. The Workers Party maintained support for the national resistance movements so long as they were not controlled and dominated by, or subordinated to, the Allies with their imperialist goals. Under traditional Marxist principles, the independence of movements such as these is the decisive determinant. They can take aid, they can even collaborate – the way Irish revolutionaries received arms from Germany during World War I; the way Palestinians and other national liberation movements in our own day did from Russia; the way Hamas may take aid from Iran. The decisive question is not whether resistance movements take aid from whatever source they can. So long as they are under their own control, their war remains a just one for national liberation.

Moreover, the WP argued, it was in the resistance movements that the socialist movement would be able to reorganise itself, by fighting for working-class politics, interests and demands, and for working-class leadership – by linking the struggle for democratic demands with socialist demands. While many Fourth Internationalist groups counterposed socialist revolution to democratic demands in the advanced countries, it was the Communist parties who led and who played an enormous role in the resistance movement, overcoming the legacy of popular hostility toward the Communist collaboration with the Nazis at the beginning of the occupation. In France, Greece, Italy, Vietnam, the Philippines and elsewhere, the Communist parties emerged as a dominant force within the working class as a result of the role they played in the wartime resistance movements. This dominance was to shape the politics of the left for the next generation.

War policy then and now

On the critical wartime questions that confronted Trotskyism – Russia, China, national resistance movements, accommodation to social patriotism – the Workers Party approach to war and imperialism was proven to be right. To move forward it was necessary to break with frozen, outmoded theories, and to use Marxism as a guide to develop a new revolutionary program for revolutionary action. The positions of the Trotskyist majority and the Workers Party minority were tested in practice again at the end of the war, when the two main victors, the United States and Russia, divided the world between themselves at Yalta and then went on to a new struggle for imperialist domination in the Cold War. The Fourth International was to claim that the Cold War struggle was an international class struggle; it would demand support for the Russian camp in that period, including for the “workers’ [nuclear] bomb”. The Workers Party position of “Neither Washington nor Moscow” would find support during the Cold War among other Trotskyists, particularly in Britain where the Socialist Review group (predecessor of the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party) opposed both camps in the Korean War and adopted the Workers Party’s position. “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism” became the central slogan of the International Socialist tendency.

Today these ideas have a much broader acceptance throughout the international left, including in today’s Fourth International, than they did in the 1940s. The collapse of Russian and Eastern European Stalinism opened sections of the left to rethink many questions. Yet the political heritage of the Workers Party remains underappreciated and underexplored. Those who today insist on the centrality of working-class struggle for a classless society as the basis for the ending of all oppression, war and exploitation, can learn much from this era of creative application of Marxist principles to a complex and changing world.


Isserman, Maurice 1982, Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War, Wesleyan University Press.

Lenin, VI 1972 [1917], “Revision of the Party Programme”, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Vol. 26.

Lenin, VI 1974 [1916], “The Discussion of Self Determination Summed Up”, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Vol. 22.

Litvinov, Maksim 1933, “Address before the Central Executive Committee of the USSR”, 29 December.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 1969 [1848], Manifesto of the Communist Party, Selected Works, Vol. 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969.

The Militant 1948, “Nazi Documents Disclose Details of Stalin-Hitler Secret Deals”, Vol. 12, No. 5, 2 February.

Riddell, John 1984, Lenin’s struggle for a revolutionary international, Pathfinder.

Sedova Trotsky, Natalia 1951, “Resignation from the Fourth International”, The Militant, Vol. 15, No. 23, 4 June.

Shachtman, Max 1940a, “The Crisis in the American Party”, New International, Vol. 6, No. 2, March.

Shachtman, Max 1940b, “The Soviet Union and The World War”, New International, Vol. 6, No. 3, April.

Shachtman, Max 1943, “Three Years of the Workers Party”, Labor Action, Vol. 7, No. 17, April 26.

Shachtman, Max 1954, “Twenty Five Years of American Trotskyism”, New International, Vol. 20, No. 1, January-February.

Schulenburg, Friedrich-Werner (German Ambassador to the Soviet Union) 1940, Telegram to the German Foreign Office, June 18.

Sheen, Fulton John 1948, Communism and the Conscience of the West, Bobbs-Merrill.

Trotsky, Leon 1935, “The Soviet Union Today”, New International, Vol. 2, No. 4, July.

Trotsky, Leon 1939, “The USSR in War”, New International, Vol. 5, No. 11, November.

Trotsky, Leon 1973 [1939-40], In Defense of Marxism, Pathfinder.

[1] Riddell 1984, p.236.

[2] The Communist League of America and the American Workers Party respectively; AJ Muste was the main leader of the latter.

[3] Schulenburg 1940.

[4] Sheen 1948, p.115.

[5] The Militant 1948, p.3.

[6] Isserman 1982, p.35.

[7] Shachtman 1954.

[8] See Sedova Trotsky 1951, p.3.

[9] Marx and Engels 1969, p.26.

[10] Trotsky 1935.

[11] Litvinov 1933.

[12] Trotsky 1939.

[13] Trotsky 1973, p.25.

[14] Trotsky 1973, p.56.

[15] Shachtman 1940a.

[16] Shachtman 1940b.

[17] Shachtman 1940b.

[18] Lenin 1972, p.162.

[19] Lenin 1974, p.359.

[20] Lenin 1972, p.162.

[21] Shachtman 1943.

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