Fighting Against the Stream
by Leon Trotsky
[First printed in Fourth International [New York], Vol. 2 No. 4, May 1941. Copied from http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/04/stream.htm ]
NOTE: The following is a rough uncorrected transcript of of a discussion held in April 1939, between Trotsky and an English Fourth Internationalist, who had raised a number of questions concerning the development of the Fourth International in France, Spain, Great Britain and the United States. In his reply, Trotsky sketched the main reasons for the isolation and slow progress of the Fourth International in the first stages of its development and pointed out how a new turn in the world situation, like the present war, would inevitably lead to a radical change in the tempo of development, social composition and mass connections of the Fourth International.
TROTSKY: Yes, the question is why we are not progressing in correspondence with the value of our conceptions which are not so meaningless as some friends believe. We are not progressing politically. Yes, it is a fact which is an expression of a general decay of the workers’ movements in the last fifteen years. It is the more general cause. When the revolutionary movement in general is declining, when one defeat follows another, when Fascism is spreading over the world, when the official “Marxism” is the most powerful organization of deception of the workers, and so on, it is an inevitable situation that the revolutionary elements must work against the general historic current, even if our ideas, our explanations, are as exact and wise as one can demand.
But the masses are not educated by prognostic theoretical conception, but by the general experiences of their lives. It is the most general explanationthe whole situation is against us. There must be a turn in the class realization, in the sentiments, in the feelings of the masses; a turn which will give us the possibility of a large political success.
I remember some discussions in 1927 in Moscow after Chiang Kaishek stilled the Chinese workers. We predicted
this ten days before and Stalin opposed us with the argument that Borodin was vigilant, that Chiang Kaishek would not have the possibility to betray us, etc. I believe that it was eight or ten days later that the tragedy occurred and our comrades expressed optimism because our analysis was so clear that everyone would see it and we would be sure to win the party. I answered that the strangulation of the Chinese revolution is a thousand times more important for the masses than our predictions. Our predictions can win some few intellectuals who take an interest in such things, but not the masses. The military victory of Chiang Kaishek will inevitably provoke a depression and this is not conducive to the growth of a revolutionary fraction.
Since 1927 we have had a long series of defeats. We are similar to a group who attempt to climb a mountain and who must suffer again and again a downfall of stone, snow, etc. In Asia and Europe is created a new desperate mood of the masses. They heard something analogous to what we say ten or fifteen years ago from the Communist Party and they are pessimistic. That is the general mood of the workers. It is the most general reason. We cannot withdraw from the general historic currentfrom the general constellation of the forces. The current is against us, that is clear. I remember the period between 1908 and 1913 in Russia. There was also a reaction. In 1905 we had the workers with usin 1908 and even in 1907 began the great reaction.
Everybody invented slogans and methods to win the masses and nobody won themthey were desperate. In this time the only thing we could do was to educate the cadres and they were melting away. There was a series of splits to the right or to the left or to syndicalism and so on. Lenin remained with a small group, a sect, in Paris, but with confidence that there would be new possibilities of arising. It came in 1913. We had a new tide, but then came the war to interrupt this development. During the war there was a silence as of death among the workers. The Zimmerwald conference was a conference of very confused elements in its majority. In the deep recesses of the masses, in the trenches and so on there was a new mood, but it was so deep and terrorized that we could not reach it and give it an expression. That is why the movement seemed to itself to be very poor and even this element that met in Zimmerwald, in its majority, moved to the right in the next year, in the next month. I will not liberate them from their personal responsibility, but still the general explanation is that the movement had to swim against the current.
Our situation now is incomparably more difficult than that of any other organization in any other time, because we have the terrible betrayal of the Communist International which arose from the betrayal of the Second International. The degeneration of the Third International developed so quickly and so unexpectedly that the same generation which heard its formation now hears us, and they say, “But we have already heard this once!”
Then there is the defeat of the Left Opposition in Russia. The Fourth International is connected genetically to the Left Opposition; the masses call us Trotskyists. “Trotsky wishes to conquer the power, but why did he lose power?” It is an elementary question. We must begin to explain this by the dialectic of history, by the conflict of classes, that even a revolution produces a reaction.
Max Eastman wrote that Trotsky places too much value on doctrine and if he had more common sense he would not have lost power. Nothing in the world is so convincing as success and nothing so repelling as defeat for the large masses.
You have also the degeneration of the Third International on the one side and the terrible defeat of the Left Opposition with the extermination of the whole group. These facts are a thousand times more convincing for the working class than our poor paper with even the tremendous circulation of 5000 like the Socialist Appeal.
Against the Stream
We are in a small boat in a tremendous current. There are five or ten boats and one goes down and we stay it was due to bad helmsmanship. But that was not the reasonit was because the current was too strong. It is the most general explanation and we should never forget this explanation in order not to become pessimisticwe, the vanguard of the vanguard. There are courageous elements who do not like to swim with the currentit is their character. Then there are intelligent elements of bad character who were never disciplined, who always looked for a more radical or more independent tendency and found our tendency, but all of them are more or less outsiders from the general current of the workers’ movement. Their value inevitably has its negative side. He who swims against the current is not connected with the masses. Also, the social composition of every revolutionary movement in the beginning is not of workers. It is the intellectuals, semiintellectuals or workers connected with the intellectuals who are dissatisfied with the existing organizations. You find in every country a lot of foreigners who are not so easily involved in the labor movement of the country. A Czech in America or in Mexico would more easily become a member of the Fourth than in Czechoslovakia. The same for a Frenchman in the U.S. The national atmosphere has a tremendous power over individuals.
The Jews in many countries represent the semiforeigners, not totally assimilated, and they adhere to any new critical, revolutionary or semirevolutionary tendency in politics, in art, literature and so on. A new radical tendency directed against the general current of history in this period crystallizes around the elements more or less separated from the national life of any country and for them it is more difficult to penetrate into the masses. We are all very critical toward the social composition of our organization and we must change, but we must understand that this social composition did not fall from heaven, but was determined by the objective situation and by our historic mission in this period.
It does not signify that we must be satisfied with the situation. Insofar as it concerns France it is a long tradition of the French movement connected with the social composition of the country. Especially in the past the petty bourgeois mentalityindividualism on the one side, and on the other an clan, a tremendous capacity for improvising.
If you compare in the classic time of the Second International you will find that the French Socialist Party and the German Social Democratic Party had the same number of representatives in parliament. But if you compare the organizations, you will find they are incomparable. The French could only collect 25,000 francs with the greatest difficulty but in Germany to send half a million was nothing. The Germans had in the trade unions some millions of workers and the French had some millions who did not pay their dues. Engels once wrote a letter in which he characterized the French organization and finished with “And as always, the dues do not arrive.”
Our organization suffers from the same illness, the traditional French sickness. This incapacity to organization and at the same time lack of conditions for improvisation. Even so far as we now had a tide in France, it was connected with the Popular Front. In this situation the defeat of the People’s Front was the proof of the correctness of our conceptions just as was the extermination of the Chinese workers. But the defeat was a defeat and it is directed against revolutionary tendencies until a new tide on a higher level will appear in the new time. We must wait and preparea new element, a new factor, in this constellation.
We have comrades who came to us, as Naville and others, 15 or 16 or more years ago when they were young boys. Now they are mature people and their whole conscious life they have had only blows, defeats and terrible defeats on an international scale and they are more or less acquainted with this situation. They appreciate very highly the correctness of their conceptions and they can analyze, but they never had the capacity to penetrate, to work with the masses and they have not acquired it. There is a tremendous necessity to look at what the masses are doing. We have such people in France. I know much less about the British situation, but I believe that we have such people there also.
Why have we lost people? After terrible international defeats we had in France a tide on a very primitive and a very low political level under the leadership of the People’s Front. The People’s Front1 think this whole periodis a kind of caricature of our February Revolution. It is shameful that in a country like Prance, which 150 years ago passed through the greatest bourgeois revolution in the world, that the workers’ movement should pass through a caricature of the Russian Revolution.
JOHNSON: You would not throw the whole responsibility on the Communist Party?
TROTSKY: It is a tremendous factor in producing the mentality of the masses.
The active factor was the degeneration of the Communist Party.
From Isolation to Reintegration With the Masses
In 1914 the Bolsheviks were absolutely dominating the workers’ movement. It was on the threshold of the war. The most exact statistics show that the Bolsheviks represented not less than threefourths of the proletarian vanguard. But beginning with the February Revolution, the most backward people, peasants, soldiers, even the former Bolshevik workers, were attracted toward this Popular Front current and the Bolshevik Party became isolated and very weak. The general current was on a very low level, but powerful, and moved toward the October Revolution. It is a question of tempo. In France, after all the defeats, the People’s Front attracted elements that sympathized with us theoretically, but were involved with the movement of the masses and we became for some time more isolated than before. You can combine all these elements. I can even affirm that many (but not all) of our leading comrades, especially in old sections, by a new turn of situation would be rejected by the revolutionary mass movement and new leaders, fresh leadership will arise in the revolutionary current.
In France the regeneration began with the entry into the Socialist Party. The Policy of the Socialist Party was not clear, but it won many new members. These new members were accustomed to a large milieu. After the split they became a little discouraged. They were not so steeled. Then they lost their notsosteeled interest and were regained by the current of the People’s Front. It is regrettable, but it is explainable.
In Spain the same reasons played the same role with the supplementary factor of the deplorable conduct of the Nm group. He was in Spain as representative of the Russian Left Opposition and during the first year we did not try to mobilize, to organize our independent elements. We hoped that we would win Nm for the correct conception and so on. Publicly the Left Opposition gave him its support. In private correspondence we tried to win him and push him forward, but without success. We lost time. Was it correct? It is difficult to say. If in Spain we had an experienced comrade our situation would be incomparably more favorable, but we did not have one. We put all our hopes on Nm and his policy consisted of personal maneuvers in order to avoid responsibility. He played with the revolution. He was sincere, but his whole mentality was that of a Menshevik. It was a tremendous handicap, and to fight against this handicap only with correct formulas falsified by our own representatives in the first period, the Nins, made it very difficult.
Do not forget that we lost the first revolution in 1905. Before our first revolution we had the tradition of high courage, selfsacrifice, etc. Then we were pushed back to a position of a miserable minority of thirty, or forty men. Then came the war.
JOHNSON: How many were there in the Bolshevik Party?
TROTSKY: In 1910 in the whole country there were a few dozen people. Some were in Siberia. But they were not organized. The people whom Lenin could reach by correspondence or by an agent numbered about 30 or 40 at most. However, the tradition and the ideas among the more advanced workers was a tremendous capital which was used later during the revolution, but practically, at this time we were absolutely isolated.
Yes, history has its own laws which are very powerfulmore powerful than our theoretical conceptions of history. Now you have in Europe a catastrophethe decline of Europe, the extermination of countries. It has a tremendous influence on the workers when they observe these movements of the diplomacy, of the armies and so on, and on the other side a small group with a small paper which makes explanations. But it is a question of his being mobilized tomorrow and of his children being killed. There is a terrible disproportion between the task and the means.
If the war begins now, and it seems that it will begin, then in the first month we will lose twothii’ds of what we now have in France. They will be dispersed. They are young and will be mobilized. Subjectively many will remain true to our movement. Those who will not be arrested and who will remainthere may be three or five1 do not know how many, but they will be absolutely isolated.
Only after some months will the criticism and the disgust begin to show on a large scale and everywhere our isolated comrades, in a hospital, in a trench, a woman in a village, will find a changed atmosphere and will say a courageous word. And the same comrade who was unknown in some section of Paris will become a leader of a regiment, of a division, and will feel himself to be a powerful revolutionary leader. This change is in the character of our period.
I do not wish to say that we must reconcile ourselves with the impotence of our French organization. I believe that with the help of the American comrades we can win the PSOP and make a great leap forward. The situation is ripening and it says to us, “You must utilize this opportunity.” And if our comrades turn their backs the situation will change. It is absolutely necessary that your American comrades go to Europe again and that they do not simply give advice, but together with the International Secretariat decide that our section should enter the PSOP. It has some thousands. From the point of view of a revolution it is not a big difference, but from the point of view of working it is a tremendous difference. With fresh elements we can make a tremendous leap forward.
Now in the United States we have a new character of work and I believe we can be very optimistic without illusions and exaggerations. In the United States we have a larger credit of time. The situation is not so immediate, so acute. That is important.
Then I agree with Comrade Stanley who writes that we can now have very important successes in the colonal and semicolonial countries. We have a very important movement in IndoChina. I agree absolutely with Comrade Johnson that we can have a very important Negro movement, because these people have not passed through the history of the last two decades so intimately. As a mass they did not know about the Russian Revolution and the Third International. They can begin the history as from the beginning. It is absolutely necessary for us to have fresh blood. That is why we have more success among the youth in so far as we are capable of approaching them. In so far as we have been capable of approching them, we have had good results. They are very attentive to a clear and honest revolutionary program.