4. The Comintern and the Fourth International

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The nascent Russian workers’ state survived beleaguered the civil war and resulting economic collapse, but saw capitalism stabilise and the immediate possibilities of workers’ revolution recede across Europe. Lenin and Trotsky sought to reorient the Communist Parties through their joint work in the Communist International, particularly at the Third (July 1921) and Fourth (November 1922) Congresses. It was here that conceptions such as the united front, transitional demands and the workers’ government were debated and codified, so that Communists could renew themselves whilst transforming the labour movements they aspired to lead.

It was within this context, of an isolated and backward workers’ state fighting to survive while capitalist states stabilised themselves, that Trotsky revived the slogan of a United States of Europe. The added twist of a “Socialist” or “Soviet” United States of Europe (raised implicitly in 1915-16) dates from this period. The republication of his ‘Programme of Peace’ in 1922 prompted Trotsky to add a short postscript. He wrote:

“Today the European labour movement is in a period of defensive actions, of gathering forces and making preparations. A new period of open revolutionary battles for power will inexorably push to the fore the question of the state interrelationships among the peoples of revolutionary Europe. To the extent that the experience in Russia has projected the Soviet State as the most natural form of the proletarian dictatorship, and to the extent that the proletarian vanguard of other countries has adopted in principle this state form, we may assume that with the resurgence of the direct struggle for power, the European proletariat will advance the program of the Federated European Soviet Republic. The experience of Russia in this connection is very instructive. It testifies to the complete compatibility under the proletarian regime of the broadest national and cultural autonomy and economic centralism. In this sense, the slogan of the United States of Europe, translated into the language of the Soviet State, not only preserves all its meaning but still promises to reveal its colossal significance during the impending epoch of the social revolution” (‘The Programme for Peace’, 1944: 286).

Trotsky raised the slogan again in a report on the fourth Comintern congress in December 1922, when he urged young workers to fight to preserve the workers’ republic “inviolate and impregnable until that day when the European revolution arrives, and over the whole of Europe there shall wave the banner of the soviet republic of the United States of Europe, the threshold to the World Socialist Republic” (The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume 2, 1972: 333).

Six months later he would try and succeed in convincing the Comintern itself to adopt the slogan of a United States of Europe. In a deliberately provocative article, ‘Is the Slogan “The United States of Europe” a Timely One? (A Discussion Article)’, first published in Pravda on 30 June 1923, he argued that the time was right for issuing the slogan, linked to the demand for a “a workers’ and peasants’ government”. He asserted that “only by coupling these two slogans shall we get a definite systematic and progressive response to the most burning problems of European development” (First Five Years… 1972: 341).

Trotsky reiterated his earlier arguments that the forces driving to war arose because capitalist forces of production had outgrown the framework of European national states. He argued that Europe could not develop economically within the state and customs frontiers imposed at the Versailles conference, or it would face the threat of economic decay. He chastised the methods adopted by the ruling bourgeoisie to overcome these frontiers, before summing up the working class response:

“To the toiling masses of Europe it is becoming ever clearer that the bourgeoisie is incapable of solving the basic problems of restoring Europe’s economic life. The slogan: ‘a workers’ and peasants’ government’ is designed to meet the growing attempts of the workers to find a way out by their own efforts. It has now become necessary to point out this avenue of salvation more concretely, namely, to assert that only in the closest economic co-operation of the peoples of Europe lies the avenue of salvation for our continent from economic decay and from enslavement to mighty American capitalism.” (First Five Years… 1972: 342).

Trotsky believed that the “United States of Europe” slogan was on the same historical plane with the slogan “a workers’ and peasants’ government”. It was “a transitional slogan, indicating a way out, a prospect of salvation, and furnishing at the same time a revolutionary impulse for the toiling masses”. He argued that Europe was not merely a geographical term but an economic reality and that the peoples of Europe “must regard Europe as a field for a unified and increasingly planned economic life”. Brushing aside the revival of Kautskyian pacifist interpretations of the demand, he asserted that the United States of Europe was “the next stage in our general revolutionary perspective” (First Five Years… 1973: 342-2, 346).

Over the next five years, and despite Stalin gradual strangulation of the international organisation, the slogan of the United States of Europe was prominent in the Comintern’s literature. Trotsky authored the ‘Manifesto of the Fifth Comintern Congress’ (June 1924), which finished with a rousing crescendo for the demand:

“If Soviet Russia was able over a number of years to stand out against capitalist Europe and America together, the victory of the European proletariat will be the more certain when, after capturing power, the States of Europe come together in a Soviet Federation, the United Workers' and Peasants' States of Europe… The revolutionary movement in America would then receive a tremendous impulse. The European Socialist Federation will in this way become the cornerstone of the Socialist World Republic” (Degras, The Communist International, Volume II, 1959: 113).

The demand was propagated by Trotsky in his pamphlet, ‘Europe and America’ (25 February 1926). It was included in the ‘Theses on Current Questions’, drafted by Zinoviev and approved by the Russian Politburo for the Sixth Comintern Executive Plenum on 5 May 1926 (Degras 1959: 250). The Comintern’s ‘May Day Manifesto’ (April 1926) stated: “The demands of the proletariat can be met only by means of the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois dictatorship, only by the formation of a workers' and peasants' government in every country, and by the union of these governments in the United States of Socialist Europe, which will stretch out brotherly hands to the Soviet Union, the colonial peoples, and the American proletariat” (Degras, The Communist International, Volume II 1959: 298). Bukharin wrote in his theses for the Seventh Comintern Executive Plenum (13 December 1926): “as against Pan-Europa, the Socialist United States of Europe; as against the League of Nations, a Union of Socialist Soviet Republics” (Degras II 1959: 325).

The demand was widely promulgated by various Communist Parties across Europe at the time.
As late as 1926, the Comintern publishing house issued an official pamphlet by hatchet man John Pepper, Die Vereinigten Staaten des Sozialistischen Europa [The United States of Socialist Europe], which stated: “It is very important that we not only have a critical position towards this bourgeois-social democratic slogan (‘Pan-Europe’), by demolishing its fraudulent pacifist contents, but that at the same time we set up against it a positive slogan which can actually be the comprehensive political slogan for our transitional demands. For the next period the slogan of the United States of Socialist Europe must serve as the comprehensive political slogan for the European communist parties” (Trotsky, Third International after Lenin, 1970: 309 N.4).

In current debates, the CPB, publishers of the Morning Star newspaper and bastions of Stalinism in the British labour movement, like to champion their anti-European credentials. But the real Communist Party of Great Britain, in its revolutionary period was one of the first to propagate the slogan. Tom Bell, in the manifesto of the CPGB, ‘Stop the March to Ruin’, wrote: “the Communist Party of Great Britain calls for a United States of Europe, composed of the governments of the toilers—the Workers, and Peasants of Europe” (The Communist, 3 February 1923).

In Italy, Antonio Gramsci, at the time general secretary of the Italian Communist Party and elected to the fascist-controlled parliament, who would a short time later be arrested and incarcerated for the remainder of his life, also embraced the slogan. As a young socialist in 1916, Gramsci had argued in ‘Socialism and Culture’ (29 January 1916) that the Enlightenment “was a magnificent revolution in itself, and… it created a kind of pan-European unified consciousness, a bourgeois International of the spirit. In Italy, in France, in Germany, the same things were being discussed, the same institutions, the same principles”. A decade further on and trying to make sense of the fascist takeover of Italy, he wrote in ‘A Study of the Italian Situation’ (2-3 August 1926): “One thing our party must do is to put special emphasis on the slogan of the United Soviet States of Europe, as an instrument of political initiative among the Fascist rank and file” (Bellamy, Gramsci: Pre-Prison Writings, 1994: 10-11, 293).

Opposition to the United States of Europe slogan arose principally from Stalin, as a factional baton against Trotsky in the aftermath of Lenin’s death. In the midst of propagating his perverse notion of socialism in one country, Stalin drew on arguments from Lenin’s article on the United States of Europe during the war. In the preface to his book On the Road to October (December 1924), known as ‘The October Revolution and the Tactics of the Russian Communists’, Stalin railed against Trotsky’s wartime arguments and used uneven development as a justification for why socialism in a backward country was possible. He entirely avoided what Trotsky what later call the “combined” element, of levelling, which meant no workers’ states, and particularly one at Russia’s stage of development, could build socialism in isolation from the advanced productive forces of the capitalist world and from the organised labour movements across the globe. Later Stalin ruled out the United States of Europe slogan and instead proposed “a federation of Soviet Republics… dropping out of the imperialist system” (‘Results of the July Plenum of the C.C.’, 13 July 1928).

Other opposition to the united Europe came from the ultra-leftists within the Comintern, whose impatience with objective conditions and overestimate of their own forces relative to the rest of the workers movement meant they abandoned notions such as the united front, transitional demands and the workers’ government. Karl Korsch railed against the “opportunism” of the Russian party in the Platform of the KPD Left, pointing specifically to its acceptance of the United States of Europe slogan. He dubbed the United States of Europe demand a “Trotskyist phrase” claiming it boiled down to “an economic and political working community of European capitalists and their workers… against the advancing American imperialists” (Gruber, Soviet Russia Masters the Comintern, 1974: 57-59).

This combination of Stalinist, textual and tactical objections combined by the sixth Comintern congress in 1928, when Bukharin’s draft programme omitted the demand for a united Europe. Trotsky criticised this mistake in his ‘Draft Programme of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals’ (1928). He tackled the differences with Lenin in 1915, claiming they were “of a restricted, tactical, and, by its very essence, temporary character”. In the heat of the polemic, Trotsky also claimed that he like Lenin had rejected the possibility that a capitalist United States of Europe could be realised and that he had “advanced the slogan of the United States of Europe exclusively as a prospective state form of the proletarian dictatorship in Europe” (The Third International after Lenin, 1970: 15, 11). In fact his use of the term during the First World War had been more extensive and all the more powerful as a result.

Nevertheless, the demand for the United States of Europe was cast out of official Marxism on the factional orders of Stalin, who simultaneously seized control both of the Russian state of the Communist International. Henceforth the bureaucratic ruling class in Russia and its acolytes in the Stalinised Communist Parties elsewhere dutifully dropped the demand for a united Europe and rubbished anyone who dared to propose it. It was left to the Left Opposition and later the Fourth International to preserve and nurture the perspective in the dark days of the 1930s.


The Fourth International and After

Trotsky did not abandon the demand for a united Europe, In fact he made it a cornerstone of the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism and one of the demands for reviving the European labour movement. In ‘Disarmament and the United States of Europe’ (4 October 1929), Trotsky was quick to denounce efforts by French prime minister Briand and German chancellor Stresemann’s advocacy of greater European integration. He also lampooned the English nationalism of Labour leader Ramsey McDonald, who characterised the idea of the United States of Europe as “grotesque” and “a provocation”. McDonald feared that if European unity were realised, tariff walls would go up between Europe and the United States, with Britain “caught between two continents as in a vice”.

Trotsky’s assessment brilliantly prefigured the way the European Community developed after World War Two. He wrote: “The basic task of unification must be economic in character, not only in the commercial but also productive sense. It is necessary to have a regime that would eliminate the artificial barriers between European coal and European iron. It is necessary to enable the system of electrification to expand in consonance with natural and economic conditions, and not in accordance with the frontiers of Versailles. It is necessary to unite Europe’s railways into a single system, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. All this, in its turn, is inconceivable without the destruction of the ancient Chinese system of custom borders within Europe. This would, in its turn, mean a single, All-European customs union – against America” (Writings of Leon Trotsky [1929], 1975: 346-48).

Trotsky located a tendency towards increased American power which would pressure European states towards integration, without doing away with economic crises and political conflicts. He wrote:

“We are discussing a historical tendency which, in actuality, will be criss-crossed and modified by other historical tendencies. If the capitalist world were able to endure several more decades without revolutionary paroxysms, then these decades would unquestionably witness the uninterrupted growth of American world dictatorship. But the whole point is that this process will inevitably develop its own contradictions which will become coupled with all the other contradictions of the capitalist system. America will force Europe to strive for an ever increasing rationalisation and at the same time will leave Europe an ever decreasing share of the world market. This will entail a steady aggravation of the difficulties in Europe. The competition among European states for a share of the world market will inevitably become aggravated. At the same time under the pressure of America, the European states will endeavour to coordinate their forces. This is the main source of Briand’s program of the United States of Europe. But whatever the various stages of the development may he, one thing is clear: The constant disruption of the world equilibrium in America’s favour will become the main source of crises and revolutionary convulsions in Europe throughout the entire coming period. Those who hold that European stabilisation is assured for decades understand nothing at all of the world situation and will inevitably sink head first in the swamp of reformism” (Writings of Leon Trotsky [1929], 1975: 354).

Trotsky argued that the inter-connectedness of Europe’s problems on the economic front and, therefore, the grounds for the United States of Europe slogan contradicted the idea that socialism could be built in one country. Hence the Stalinist opposition to it. He wrote: “The formula Soviet United States of Europe is precisely the political expression of the idea that socialism is impossible in one country. Socialism cannot of course attain its full development even in the limits of a single continent. The Socialist United States of Europe represents the historical slogan which is a stage on the road to the world socialist federation” (Writings of Leon Trotsky [1929], 1975: 356).

The slogan appeared regularly in Trotsky’s programmatic writings in the 1930s as the world approached the plunge into war. It flowed from Trotsky’s consistent analysis of the whole post-1914 epoch. In ‘War and the Fourth International’ (10 June 1934) Trotsky wrote:

“The idea of recarving capitalist Europe to make state boundaries coincide with national boundaries is the sheerest kind of utopia. No government will cede an inch of its ground by peaceful means. A new war would carve Europe anew in accordance with the war map and not in correspondence to the boundaries of nations. The task of complete national determination and peaceful co-operation of all peoples of Europe can be solved only on the basis of the economic unification of Europe, purged of bourgeois rule. The slogan of the United States of Europe is a slogan not only for the salvation of the Balkan and Danubian peoples but for the salvation of the peoples of Germany and France as well” (Writings of Leon Trotsky [1933-34], 1975: 305).

In ‘A Programme of Action for France’ (June 1934) he stated forcefully that: “Throughout the aged European continent, divided, militarised, bloodstained, threatened with total destruction by a new war, we raise the only banner of liberation, that of the Workers’ and Peasants’ United States of Europe, the fraternal Federation of Soviet States!” (Writings of Leon Trotsky [1934-35], 1974: 27-28). In his ‘Open Letter for the Fourth International’ (Spring 1935), aimed at regrouping revolutionary forces for a new international, Trotsky argued: “As against the reactionary heat of ‘national defence’ it is necessary to advance the slogan of the revolutionary destruction of the national state. To the madhouse of capitalist Europe it is necessary to counterpose the programme of the Socialist United States of Europe, as a step toward the United States of the World” (Writings of Leon Trotsky [1935-36], 1977: 26).

In the final months of his life, Trotsky authored ‘Manifesto of the Fourth International on Imperialist War and the Imperialist War’ (May 1940) for an emergency conference of the Fourth International. He repeated the same formulation from the ‘Open Letter’, juxtaposing the madhouse of capitalist war to the Socialist United States of Europe. He added:

“The promise of the Allies to create a democratic European federation this time is the crudest of all pacifist lies. The state is not an abstraction but the instrument of monopoly capitalism. So long as trusts and banks are not expropriated for the benefit of the people, the’ struggle between states is just as inevitable as the struggle between the trusts themselves. Voluntary renunciation by the most powerful state of the advantage given by its strength is as ridiculous a utopia as voluntary division of capital funds among the trusts. So long as capitalist property is preserved, a democratic ‘federation’ would be nothing but a worse repetition of the League of Nations, containing all its vices minus only its illusions” (Writings of Leon Trotsky [1939-40], 1973: 191, 196-97).

Trotsky’s supporters would publish and republish many of his articles on the United States of Europe, in many European languages. This continued after his death and were particularly prescient in the period after the Second World War. It was a precious heritage, upheld with great tenacity as the Stalinist behemoth emerged from the war stronger than before and the bureaucratic ruling class under Stalin still emphatically opposed to even tentative steps toward bourgeois integration of Europe as well as to cross-European working class solidarity.

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