Duncan Hallas

The flame of internationalism

(July 1990)

From The sword of revolution, Socialist Worker Review, July/August 1990, pp.17-18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘RIGHT NEAR the corner of Rue Grange-aux-Belles and the Quai Jemappes, in Paris, a little grey shop still stood open in 1914, a workers’ bookshop. It closed on August 2nd. And yet, on certain evenings ... about nine o’clock, police might have noticed that a furtive life sparkled there, that conspirators slipped in one after the other ...

‘Rosmer, the poet Martinet, Trotsky, Guilbeaux, Marrheim and two or three whose names I do not know – we were able, right in Paris, to be at once among the last Europeans of that fine intelligent Europe that the world had just lost forever and the first men of a future International about which we remained certain.’

The author of these lines, Raymond Lefebvre, was killed at the battle of Verdun in 1916, obedient to the doctrine that you go, physically, with your class, that you do not seek refuge in ‘conscientious objection’ or any other individualistic evasion.

The importance of his description of these meetings of socialists was that it showed the extreme isolation of the genuine internationalists at the start of the First World War in 1914-15.

The big parties of the Second International had made grand declarations against imperialist war at Stuttgart in 1907, Copenhagen in 1910 and Basle in 1912. Yet when war came the vast majority of their leaders and most of their followers rallied to support ‘their own’ ruling classes in the great slaughter of 1914-18.

Trotsky was to write later, of the first attempt at an internationalist conference at Zimmerwald 1915, ‘The delegates joked about the fact that half a century after the founding of the First International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists in four stage coaches.’

Twenty five years later, with the genuine internationalists even more isolated than in 1914-15, Trotsky was murdered by the Stalinist agent ‘Frank Jacson’ (real name Mercader) who may still be alive (he was reported in Prague some years ago).

At the time of his death he had, he believed, already established the nucleus of ‘a future international’ this time. His last recorded words were: ‘I am sure of the victory of the Fourth International.’

The future was to prove vastly more complicated than he supposed. And yet, not more so than the course of events in Trotsky’s lifetime.

He had, as a young man of 26, presided over the St Petersburg Soviet, spearhead of the 1905 revolution in Russia that was applauded by the whole international working class movement, including even the ever so respectable leaders of the British Labour Party and the American Federation of Labour.

That revolution was defeated and followed by vicious reaction. Trotsky was forced into his second exile.

But the workers’ movement continued to grow in Europe and beyond. There were bitter conflicts, defeats as well as victories and the emergence, too, of those national-opportunist tendencies which were to wreck the International in 1914. And yet the movement continued to grow. It was a time of hope, naive as it seems with the easy wisdom of hindsight, of confidence, of opportunity.

Trotsky, like Lenin, like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, James Connolly and John Maclean, matured in this time and never subsequently wavered in uncompromising internationalist belief.

1914, the great betrayal, shattered the hopes of millions. Hysterical chauvinism, police repression, the wholesale treachery of leaders; the spirit of revolt seemed dead, yet it was not.

1916, that year of unprecedented slaughter – of Verdun, of the Somme, of the Brussilov offensive – was also the year of the Dublin rising against British imperialism in Ireland.

Less than 12 months later the Tsar was overthrown and St Petersburg was again ruled by a soviet, a council of elected workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. Then the October revolution and the year after, 1918, revolution in Berlin, in Vienna and Budapest and all over central Europe.

Trotsky, as his biographer Isaac Deutscher said, ‘rose to his full height’. Foreign minister, the war minister of the Soviet Republic and, most importantly, a leader of the new International, the Communist International, formed in 1919. ‘Sweeping aside the half-heartedness, lies and corruptions of the outlived official Socialist Parties, we Communists, united in the Third International, consider ourselves the direct continuation of the heroic endeavours and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations from Babeuf to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg,’ declared the manifesto of its first congress, written by Trotsky.

The fate of the Soviet Republic, of Europe and so of the world wavered in the balance for some years. In the outcome the old order survived – just. It was another decisive turning point in world history and led to the victory of the Stalinist counter revolution in the USSR and all the monstrous horrors it brought in its train.

As a direct consequence, the great depression followed, as did the victory of fascism in Germany and ultimately in much of Europe, and renewed imperialist conflicts – eventually, the cataclysmic world war of 1939-45.

Trotsky continued to fight for the cause of international socialism. Defeated in the USSR (from which he was expelled in 1929) and reduced to small groups and circle politics in practice, he produced in the years of reaction from 1924 a magnificent and indispensable body of Marxist analysis, history and theory, a work which was not halted until Frank Jacson’s icepick sank into his brains.

Trotsky was not infallible. Some of his errors had serious consequences – most notably his failure to carry through his analysis of Stalinism in the USSR to its proper conclusion – but he was a giant, in talents, in knowledge and in unbending will.

Today we live in a world very different from that of 1940, a world that has gone through many transformations in the last 50 years.

One thing has remained constant. It is that there is no way forward for the vast majority of the people of the world without breaking the power of capital and no way of breaking it except through the class struggle and the triumph of socialism internationally.

That is what Trotsky fought for throughout his entire adult life.


Last updated on 31.12.2004