Trotsky’s key 1938 work shows rich application of the method of Marxism
On the 70th anniversary of the death of Leon Trotsky, on 21 August 1940, Peter Taaffe examines one of the great revolutionary key texts, ’The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth Intenational’, also known as the Transitional Programme, and its relevance today.
Here unfolds before us in all its richness the application of the method of Marxism to the historical tasks of the workers’ movement. It was written in 1938 in preparation for the Second World War and its revolutionary consequences for the working class worldwide. But the approach adopted – despite some of the demands not yet being fully applicable today in all situations – is very ‘modern’ and relevant to the struggles of the workers’ movements today.
While it is described as a ‘programme’, it is not strictly this. It does, in fact, combine programmatic demands of the most important kind with necessary comment, points on perspectives for capitalism and the labour movement which could have been written today. Take Trotsky’s characterisation of the capitalists in 1938 who were “tobogganing towards disaster with their eyes closed”. Is this not an apt description of the capitalists and their spokespersons and commentators who virtually, to a man and woman, hurtled towards the current economic crisis “with their eyes closed”?
Capitalists fall out over crisis
A few capitalist commentators, such as Nouriel Roubini, arrived empirically at the same conclusions as the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) that a serious crisis loomed. But they, alongside Marxists, were considered to be ‘anachronisms’ in the era of the neo-liberal paradigm. Capitalism – based on production for profit and not need – was the best system possible, described by Francis Fukuyama as the “End of History”. Now, faced with the greatest economic crisis for 70 years – the president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, says it is the worst since the First World War – the capitalists swing violently from one ineffective short-term expedient to another.
Fearful of a repetition of the 1930s ‘Great Depression’, capitalist governments bailed out the banks and the financial system in a colossal exercise in ‘state capitalism’. This represented in the US, Britain and elsewhere de facto nationalisation of big sections of the banking sector. It was a state rescue of the debts of failed private financial moguls. This then became a burden on the state and, indirectly, on the masses, which is now being paid for with massive cuts, wage freezes and a rise in unemployment, with a tendency for this to become permanent. Already, the US has 30 million unemployed. Officially 10% of the labour force is out of work but taking into account those who have dropped out of work, forced into part-time from full-time jobs, it is twice that level. Europe exhibits the same tendency with an average of 9-10% unemployment across the continent. It is double that figure in Spain with 35% of the youth also unemployed and the situation is destined to become worse.
Frightened by the suddenness and depth of the crisis, the capitalists came together with emergency state measures. But again, as Trotsky explained: “Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems.” Is this an almost perfect description of the crisis now unfolding over the so-called ‘sovereign debt’? The bloated state deficits of European, Japanese and American capitalism are, in the main, consequences of two factors: the rise of unemployment and the state taking over the private debts of the capitalists. Yet it is the working class that is called upon to pay the price for this.
Explosive events unfolding against cuts
But the masses, particularly the most advanced combative layer, are refusing to accept the diktats, in effect the dictatorship, of the capitalist ‘markets’. In Greece, six general strikes have taken place this year. The situation is compared, both by the representatives of the capitalists and of the more far-sighted sections of the workers’ organisations, particularly in the ranks of the Marxists, with the explosive, almost revolutionary situation that opened up in Argentina between 1999 and 2002. Greece is not an exception; Spain threatens to follow suit as does Portugal. France is not far behind as the parliamentary Bonapartist Sarkozy tries once more to savage the social gains of the French working class. The three governments in Spain, Greece and Portugal share one similar characteristic – they are ‘social democratic’. In reality, they are now capitalist parties but seek to distinguish themselves from the open right-wing parties as more ‘radical’ capitalist formations.
But all the governments of Europe, as well as Japan and the US, are under the same siege, the unbending pressure to cut the living standards of the working class as a precondition for restoring the economic health of the capitalists. In fact, the ‘cure’ threatens to aggravate the disease. Cuts are necessary in order to mollify the ‘markets’, a handful of bond traders who hold governments and whole peoples to ransom. Even the mighty economic powerhouse of Europe, Germany, has seen its government – led by Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats in coalition with the right-wing Free Democrats – compelled to accede to this pressure with €80 billion cut. From being hailed only a matter of months ago as the Thatcher of Germany and Europe, she is now characterised by German magazine Spiegel as a “Trummerfrau, a reference to German women who cleared away the rubble after Second World War bombings. It painted a picture of a woman presiding over a government in ruins and used its title page to request the government in one word to ‘Aufhören!’, or stop.” [Guardian, 15 June 2010]
But no sooner has the savage policy of deflation and cutting state deficits been adopted than other voices from within the capitalist camp point to the deleterious consequences which would flow from that policy. For instance, David Blanchflower, ex-member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, says that the measures adopted by the new coalition government in Britain threaten an additional three quarters of a million unemployed. Obama, on behalf of US capitalism, took the unprecedented step of publicly differing from the European capitalists’ ‘cut, cut, cut’ policy. ‘Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad’. In Britain and in the world in which there is a deficiency of ‘demand’, the ‘solution’ preferred by the capitalists and their governments is to cut the incomes of the working class. The ‘ConDem’ coalition in Britain has introduced tax increases – an increase in Value Added Tax and direct taxes – a public-sector wage freeze, the savaging of the welfare state, etc. This will undoubtedly deepen the crisis.
Keynesians at odds with financial speculators
But the other path, urged by the pro-Keynesian camp of ‘benign neglect’ of the deficit, threatens a strike of capital, a refusal by the ‘bond wolf pack’ to buy state debt, a road already trodden by Greece. That country’s state debt has been reduced to the ratings level of junk bonds; flowing from this is national bankruptcy, defection or eviction from the euro area and an ever-greater spiral into poverty for Greece and its people. There is no easy road for capitalism from the blind alley that it faces.
Trotsky again described features present today when he declared: “Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses.” A perfect description of the situation beginning to take shape in Britain and worldwide! But the understanding of this process on the part of the working masses, what Marxists call the ‘political consciousness’, the understanding of the working class, lags behind the real objective situation that exists. The tasks of Trotsky’s work were, through the programme sketched out and through the experiences of the masses, to help them to understand capitalism and therefore their real situation. The aim was to reach first of all the most politically-developed sections of the working class and then the mass of working people. It was no accident that this programme was advanced at the time it was.
History of the Transitional Programme
The Transitional Programme was written by Trotsky in 1938, in preparation for the coming world war and the social upheavals which would result from this. In the whole preceding period, and particularly after the victory of Hitlerite fascism in Germany, Trotsky had predicted the inevitability of the Second World War. Out of the ashes of this world conflagration would come an irresistible revolutionary uprising of the working class in the capitalist states against imperialist barbarism which would be paralleled by the revolt of the Russian workers against the monstrous regime of Stalinism. Trotsky anticipated that the revolutionary wave which would issue from the war would even put in the shade the revolutionary convulsions which followed the First World War and the victory of the working class in Russia in 1917. This in turn would shatter the old organisations of the working class – “not one stone upon another of the old Internationals would be left standing” – out of which would crystallise new mass revolutionary organisations and a new mass Fourth International. The Transitional Programme was conceived as the means of creating and arming mass organisations.
There were not a few, then and today, who dismissed this prognosis, together with the transitional programme, as an example of Trotsky’s ‘revolutionary exaggeration’. And yet Trotsky’s perspective was in one respect borne out to an even greater extent than even he could have foreseen. From 1943 to 1947 a revolutionary wave swept over Europe which threatened the rule of capital. The mere announcement that Mussolini had been replaced by Badoglio – Lucifer for Satan – by the Fascist Grand Council in 1943 was enough to bring millions of Italian workers out onto the streets. This opened the floodgates of revolution in Italy. Similarly, the French workers rose in Paris in 1944 to smash the Nazi occupation forces while the troops of American imperialism and de Gaulle’s ‘Free French’ were 50 miles from Paris. Fearing a new version of the Paris Commune, de Gaulle was rushed to Paris to be filmed by the news cameras, thus fostering the legend that he was the ‘liberator’ of the city. In Britain also, the conviction of workers, particularly the troops, to never again return to the mass unemployment and misery of the 1930s swept the Labour government to power in 1945.
In Africa, Asia and Latin America the colonial peoples set in motion a movement which resulted in the retreat of imperialism from at least direct domination of these areas. In Eastern Europe also, revolutionary uprisings followed the flight of the quisling capitalists – who had collaborated with the Nazi invaders – and the advance of the Red Army. But even the most revolutionary theory cannot anticipate all developments. Trotsky did not foresee, and indeed, could not foresee, that the social democratic and Stalinist leaders would be able, in the immediate aftermath of the war, to provide the necessary breathing space for capitalism to recover from the devastation.
Capitalism was saved in Western Europe by the social democratic and Stalinist leaders who entered capitalist governments and undertook to rescue the system from collapse. In Italy the Stalinists and socialists entered a series of popular front governments, even attempting to screen King Victor Emmanuel, Mussolini’s benefactor, from the anger of the masses. Their French cousins did the same, with ‘Communist’ ministers like Maurice Thorez sitting in the government that bombed Madagascar and re-occupied Indochina (later Vietnam), which in turn set in train the 30-year horror of the Vietnam war.
The social-democratic and Stalinist leaders laid the political preconditions for the recovery of capitalism from the devastation of the war. From 1947 onwards the conditions sketched out by Trotsky were thus not present, in the advanced capitalist world at least. Trotsky had spoken and written about the incapacity of capitalism to give large-scale or lasting reforms. The struggle for reforms, and even to defend the gains of the past, was bound up with the idea of socialist revolution, he maintained.
But the beginnings of the world upswing – the causes of which have been sketched out many times by the Marxists in Britain – allowed significant concessions to be granted to the working class. Twenty per cent of industry was nationalised in Britain; true, only those industries which had been ruined by the capitalists, who received lavish compensation into the bargain. The National Health Service, one of the most important reforms, was introduced, which put hospital and health care in reach of millions for the first time. Similar reforms were introduced in education, social services, housing, etc. Undoubtedly, the absolute living standards of the working class began to rise (one of the factors being a big increase in overtime working and women going out to work). Rather than undermining the reformist leadership of the mass workers’ organisations this led to a temporary consolidation of their position.
Today’s crisis and consciousness
Leon Trotsky also wrote during the 1930s’ crisis: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” However, the difference today and then is that it is not just a crisis of leadership that we face but also of organisation, or a lack of it of the working class, as well as a clear programme. This is a consequence of the move towards the right in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism in the early 1990s by the leadership of the workers’ parties – such as the Labour Party in Britain – and the trade union leadership. Socialism was relegated to the margins and even the class struggle was conjured away by the ‘miracle’ of the 1990s’ boom until its exhaustion in 2007. The present economic, social and political situation is unprecedented in its scope.
Never in history has the gap – the ‘scissors’ – between the objective situation of capitalism in crisis and the outlook of the working class, its absence of organisation, particularly political mass parties, been so evident. Given the relentless propaganda barrage, the reality of neo-liberal policies over 30 years and the absence of a political and economic alternative, it is inevitable that there is still, despite the severity of the crash, a residual acquiescence to the ‘market’, even amongst the working class. Many are stunned by the economic collapse. There is even a lingering view amongst many workers that the present crisis is temporary, that it will all be over soon and we can then return to the sunny, economic uplands. This is reinforced by right-wing, timid trade union leaders who seek to hold back the legitimate class anger of workers. Therefore, while demanding a democratic, socialist planned economy, as a crowning idea in the programme of socialists and Marxists, it is necessary to put forward fighting transitional demands in the current situation. This is vital if the confidence of the working class is to be built for the trials ahead.
In pre-1914 social democracy, such an approach – the transitional method – was considered unnecessary. Its programme was divided between a maximum programme, the idea of socialism, and a minimum day-to-day programme. That decisively changed with the onset of the First World War which led to the revolutionary explosions in Russia and the mass struggles and revolutionary waves which detonated in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution throughout Europe and the world. In this changed situation, the struggle for basic reforms and even the defence of past gains came up directly against the limits of the system of capitalism itself. The Bolsheviks therefore formulated a transitional programme as a bridge – taking into account the day-to-day demands of the working class – proceeding from the existing level of consciousness to the idea of the socialist revolution. This was necessary even during the Russian revolution because of the differing and changing outlooks of the different sections of the working class. This was summed up in Lenin’s wonderful pamphlet, ‘The Threatening Catastrophe and How to Avoid It’. Following in Lenin’s footsteps, Trotsky formulated for the revolutionary Fourth International the Transitional Programme: ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’.
But today, even in France, which with Greece is still politically in the vanguard of the workers’ movement in Europe, there are important differences in the outlook of the French working class between 1968 and now. Paradoxically, the economic situation is far worse for capitalism today than it was in 1968 when the greatest general strike in history took place against the background of a continuing boom. Then, there was a broad socialist and even a revolutionary consciousness amongst workers and students. Given what has transpired in the last three decades combined with the capitulation of the leaders of the workers’ organisations to capitalism, the mood is initially bound to lag behind that of 1968. There is a mixed outlook and political confusion.
There is, undoubtedly, generalised bitter class hatred throughout the advanced capitalist countries for those who are seen as the main authors of the present economic catastrophe, namely the financiers and bankers. Semi-public trials have unfolded in the British parliament and US Congress. But this has not as yet developed into a broad, pronounced anti-capitalist consciousness. It is therefore necessary to take up the partial demands of the working class both at the level of wages and conditions but also involving governmental action or inaction. The capitalists have allowed the state to step in to rescue them through massive bailouts. They can accept state rescue, so long as it is then run completely along capitalist lines and with the prospect of returning the ‘nationalised’ industries in the future to the very same private interests which ruined them in the first place.
Consequently, even the demand for nationalisation is not as popular as in previous periods. However, through experience, this idea has gained support in Greece as the banks, financiers and bond markets are seen as having brought the country to its knees. But experience of partial nationalisation in Britain and de facto in the US has perhaps temporarily alienated mass public opinion. The boards of these partially nationalised companies remain unreconstructedly capitalist in character, for example the payment of large bonuses to the top bankers who still continue to run them. There were no celebrations when the state stepped in similar to those which greeted the taking over of the mines in 1948 by the Labour government of the time, with the flying of red flags and big hopes of a better future for the working class. Northern Rock’s state takeover was ‘celebrated’ with increased repossessions of homes, the sacking of thousands of workers and lavish bonuses for the capitalist crew who remain in charge of this and other banks. This is a form of state capitalism, not a step in the direction of socialism, as advocated by even reformist socialists in the Labour Party in the past.
The need for democratic planning
Yet the ‘market’ offers no real alternative to the state sector as the current ConDem coalition in its vicious 2010 ‘emergency’ Budget seems to think. In Britain in 1999, for instance, two thirds of jobs created were not in the much-vaunted ‘entrepreneurial’ private sphere but in the state sector. That remains the case today. This itself is an expression of the bankruptcy of capitalism. Moreover, the structures in private industry are not at all an example of the ‘meritocracy’ beloved of the upholders of the market. So convulsive have been the effects of the crisis that more and more capitalist writers have revealed the real character of the ‘private sector’, of the conditions and management which are such an intrinsic part of neo-liberalism. One writer in the Observer compared the structure of big business – including British Telecom, which the previous New Labour government, it has been leaked, had contingency plans to renationalise in the event of its collapse – to more of a mirror image of Stalinism than a prettified picture of an ideal capitalist firm. They are “zombie-like…and [had a] strategic similarity” with Stalinism. [‘Inside every chief exec, there’s a Soviet planner’, Simon Caulkin, The Observer, 15 February 2009.]
Rather rudely, he also declared of management: “With their faces towards the [chief executive officer] and their arses towards the customer” most managers are more concerned with earnings targets than producing a worthwhile product. The world’s most efficient, conventionally managed corporation, General Electric, “spends 40% – that is, $60 billion – of its revenues on administration and overheads… The managers of large western corporations have much more in common with the apparatchiks of the command economies than is recognised”. How much cheaper and efficient it would be to take over these firms, establish a system of workers’ control and management, and install a socialist planned economy!
Bridging the gap
The need for a transitional programme in this era arises from the mixed consciousness of working-class people. This consciousness will be shaken and changed by the march of events. But the development of a rounded-out socialist consciousness, firstly of the most politically developed layers and then of the mass of the working class, can also be enormously facilitated by a transitional approach and programme. This provides a bridge from the consciousness of working people today to the idea of socialist change. Sectarians have no need for such a bridge because they have no intention of passing over from the study, armchair or sideline to engage with the working class and, together with it, helping to change consciousness and increasing identification with socialism.
We have entered an entirely new period for the working class of Britain, Europe and the world. Obama in the US and Brown’s New Labour government managed to put a partial cushion under capitalism through the stimulus programmes. But this in turn, as we have now seen, has created a new problem: ‘sovereign debt’. The world economy will consequently experience anaemic growth with the stubborn maintenance of mass unemployment. This, like fatty tissue in the body, is a symptom of a declining organism. Capitalism, however, will not disappear from the scene of history automatically. It is necessary to forge a powerful mass weapon which can provide the helping hand for this failed system to make way for socialism.
Without such an approach, there is the danger that it will not be immediately evident to working people, even faced with economic catastrophe, that socialism is the alternative. Indeed, because a mass socialist alternative and party has not yet been established, the far right has been able to occupy the political vacuum in a number of countries in Europe. It is necessary to combat the far right but also to skilfully use events to make the case for socialism to working-class people.
In the car industry, for instance, where wages were slashed at the beginning of the crisis due to mass layoffs and short-time working, there was an instinctive understanding by workers that there was ‘no market’ for their present products. But, given the high technique and skill that exists, it would take very little to convert the car industry, faced with massive overproduction and a glut, to the production of useful goods, including green, environmentally-friendly vehicles. These are urgently needed for the world’s population, in the context of a sustainable, environmentally-friendly transport system. Such a switch in production was achieved at the outbreak of the Second World War – in this case from peaceful production to products for war. It would be much easier today to switch production to environmentally friendly and useful goods.
The gap between the increasingly worsening objective situation and the consciousness of the working class will close in the next period. Events – and explosive events at that – will help to ensure this. On the edge of an abyss, the mass of workers will confront the capitalist system – sometimes without a clear idea of what can be put in its place. The journey to a socialist and revolutionary consciousness can, however, be shortened considerably if the working class embraces the transitional method and a transitional programme linking day-to-day struggles with the idea of socialism.
Demands flow from the ‘collective experience’ of the working class
The opponents of Marxism picture transitional demands as ‘impossible’, as ‘utopian’, ‘lacking in realism as to what can be achieved’ etc. The first thing to note is that the transitional demands elaborated by Trotsky have been raised by the working class at one time or another in the course of their struggles. He pointed out in discussions with his American followers: “I want to emphasise that it is not one man’s invention, that it comes from long collective experience.”
Trotsky anticipated the argument that the demands he outlined were ‘utopian’ when he wrote: “‘Realisability’ or ‘unrealisability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle”. He elaborated further: “Revolutionaries always consider that the reforms and acquisitions are only a by-product of the revolutionary struggle. If we say that we will only demand what they can give… the ruling class will only give one-tenth or none of what we demand. The more extended and militant the spirit of the workers, the more is demanded and won.”
This is the approach which Militant (now the Socialist Party) used in the successful mass battle in Liverpool between 1983 and 1987, and also in the epic poll tax battle. In both instances, the Thatcher government was defeated. In the poll tax struggle, 18 million people refused to pay the tax which defeated it and consigned Thatcher herself to the scrapheap.
It is not excluded that under certain conditions some transitional demands can be achieved by the working class. Thus in Germany in 1918 and in Spain in 1936 the proletariat won, for a time, the eight-hour day. Today it is possible that the 35-hour week without loss of pay can be won by the working class in Britain and Europe if it throws its full weight into the struggle. In these conditions the bourgeoisie can retreat under the onslaught of the masses and grant concessions. But these gains would invariably be of a temporary character unless the working class uses its power to effect socialist change. The French workers won the 35-hour week and yet the Sarkozy government has, in effect, taken it back. We do not counterpose transitional demands to the day-to-day struggles of the working class. On the contrary, we are the best fighters for these demands. But unlike the reformists, we point out the limitations of these gains on the basis of capitalism: “By means of the struggle, no matter what the immediate practical successes may be, the workers will come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.”
Take the demand for massively increased state expenditure to soak up unemployment. In the past, this was a cornerstone of the programme of the main left-reformist current within the labour movement in Britain. The Marxists also inscribe on their banner the demand for a useful programme of public works on hospitals, housing, schools, etc. Capitalist governments are moving in the opposite direction today. All the past gains of the ‘welfare state’ itself face their greatest threat for 60-70 years. But the reformists created the illusion that such a programme was entirely possible within the framework of capitalism. The Marxists, on the other hand, while energetically fighting for this demand, stress to the working class that this cannot be fully met and sustained by a system racked by crisis. Increased state expenditure can be financed either through taxes on the capitalists or on workers and the middle class. If it is through the former method then the capitalists will not have the necessary wherewithal to invest and will go on a “strike of capital” which will result in factory closures and a consequent rise in unemployment. What is gained on the swings will be lost on the roundabout. If it is by the second method then it will mean a cut in the market with the same result. If on the other hand, it is covered by the government resorting to the printing press by printing pound notes – which they did at the onset of this crisis – without the backing of increased production of goods, then it will eventually lead to a rise in inflation which will also have the same effect as the other methods. Thus what is given with one hand will be taken back by the other: “Every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petit-bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and the bourgeois state.”
Marxists fight for even the most partial, reformist demands of the working class as well as those of a democratic character. One example of this arose over the mass revulsion of the fraudulent use of parliamentary expenses in Britain in 2009. The Socialist Party intervened in the ferocious debate which arose with clear demands for greater democracy, including for parliament, for the British people. We wrote:
“The Socialist Party stands for the establishment of a democratic socialist society and a democratic workers’ state managed and controlled at all levels by working-class people.” But we recognised that the mass of the British people accept and support the concept of democracy, including parliament, in a general sense. We have in Britain a capitalist democracy, in which the working class can say what they like – and even this is attacked by the ’surveillance society’ – so long as the big capitalists and their political representatives make the real decisions.”
We argued: “The answer to the present undemocratic situation is not to do away with representative institutions like parliament but to introduce a more generous democracy, an expansion of the means of involving the mass of the people in the formulation and implementation of decisions with direct control over their representatives. This would mean in the first instance in Britain the abolition of the House of Lords (read ’frauds’) and the monarchy. These institutions have been kept in reserve not for decorative or historical reasons but as possible weapons to use against a radical parliament and government in the future that threatened the power of big business.”
We called for “a single assembly… which would combine legislative and executive powers. This should be elected by a widening of the electoral franchise, particularly by drawing in young people by giving them the vote at 16. Electing MPs for four or five years on bloated salaries inevitably leads to the situation that has presently scandalised the British people… Elections conducted every two years would be an advantage over the present five-year period. Yet even a shorter term for parliament, even for a year – like the Chartists’ demand in the nineteenth century – would not overcome the glaring absence of day-to-day control over parliamentary representatives which this crisis has revealed. A big step forward would be MPs elected through democratically convened and elected local assemblies, constantly subject to the scrutiny and, if necessary, the immediate recall by their constituents who elect them…
“MPs should also receive no more than the average wage of a skilled worker. It is significant that this demand, which has formed a central plank in the programme of the Socialist Party (up to now, for the labour movement but now relevant for MPs as a whole), is now finding an echo in sections of the capitalist press.”
The demand for a ‘general strike’
A current problem for the labour movement today is ultra-leftism, a scourge of the workers’ movements in many countries in Europe and internationally. In Greece there are 40 ‘left organisations’, 15 of them ‘quite large’, and which have had a bad effect on mass demonstrations on the urge for unity amongst workers, etc. There are also anarchist and semi-anarchist moods. Lenin himself pointed out that ultra-leftism, sectarianism, is a product in the main of the opportunism of the leaders of the mass workers’ parties. The complete desertion of these leaders to the side of the capitalists has reinforced the impatience of a layer of young people – largely middle class but even including some sections of working-class youth – who have swung over to the ideas of anarchism or semi-anarchism. The legacy of Stalinism and bureaucratic ex-social democracy repelled these layers from seeking an organised expression for their discontent in political parties. But ultra-left methods remain an impediment to reaching the working class and mobilising it in action.
Linked to this is the issue of the general strike. Because of the scale of the attacks on a continent-wide level, a general strike is now implicit in practically every country in Europe. But ultra-left groups can pose the question of an immediate unlimited general strike. When in Britain between 1970 and 1974 an unlimited general strike was raised within the labour movement, we pointed out, however, that a general strike posed the issue of power before the working class. A painstaking accounting of all the conditions for the success of such a strike needs to be undertaken before putting forward such a slogan. A small section of workers was demanding an unlimited general strike – without understanding all the consequences – but the mass of the working class was clearly not ready for such a slogan. The demand that best corresponded to the feelings of workers for action against the Tory government at that stage was a one-day general strike. Following the jailing of the ‘Pentonville Five’ dockers’ leaders in 1972, the threat of such action was even raised by the TUC. A 24-hour stoppage of work accompanied by demonstrations, meetings and explanation would have marked an enormous step forward for the working class. It would have allowed it to feel its power as a class and prepared it for the next stage of the struggle. It would also have had tremendous consequences for class relations and resonated powerfully within the labour movement. The General Council made the call only when there was no possibility of it being carried out (due to the assurances from the government that the dockers would be released).
Factory committees and the shop stewards movement
In formulating this programme, Trotsky gave particular attention to the crucial issue of the trade unions and their connection with ‘factory committees’. Trotsky did point to the possible development of factory committees as organs of struggle which could embrace those workers, particularly the most oppressed strata, whom the trade unions were normally unable to attract. But it is wrong to just repeat Trotsky’s phrases by rote without understanding his method and without moreover recognising at each stage the changes which have taken place since the transitional programme was first written. Trotsky wrote: “Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25% of the working class, and that predominantly the most skilled and better paid layers.” Yet the membership of the trade unions in Britain in the post-war boom reached more than 12 million, which was over 50% of the labour force.
Alongside strengthening of the official apparatus of the trade unions developed the shop stewards, numbering about 250,000 in Britain, and the stewards’ combine committees. What were these if not the ‘factory committees’ mentioned by Trotsky in the transitional programme? Trotsky wrote: “From the moment that the committee makes it appearance, a factual dual power is established in the factory”. The development of the shop stewards’ movement in Britain and in other advanced capitalist countries undoubtedly led, if not to the “factual dual power” which Trotsky speaks of, then to the elements of dual power in the factories. The workers through these organisations exercised the right to veto management decisions sometimes controlling the right of hiring and firing, the amount of overtime worked, canteen facilities, etc. And yet hidebound sectarian grouplets counterposed their mythical ‘factory committees’ to the already existing shop steward committees. With the weakening of the trade unions in the last 20 years – membership stands at only 27% at the moment in Britain – ‘factory committees’ could be thrown up, particularly when sudden explosive events take place. In the Vestas occupation in the Isle of Wight, most workers were initially not in a union. Therefore, they improvised their own ‘factory committee’. If the struggle had succeeded in keeping the factory open, then this would have probably been an episode towards strengthening unions inside the factory.
Workers’ control and management
Another issue which led to a one-sided approach was the demands for workers’ control and workers’ management. In the past, these issues were widely discussed in the British labour movement and will be in the future. The slogan of workers’ control over production relates particularly and in general to the same period as the creation of ‘soviets’. Special conditions therefore have to exist in a pre-revolutionary period for such slogans to take on flesh under capitalism. Workers’ control is a transitional measure under the conditions of intense class war and is conceivable, on a big scale, only as a bridge to the revolutionary nationalisation of industry. Workers’ management, on the other hand, in general proceeds from above after the working class has taken power. How to use these slogans is a question of understanding the situation, the rhythm of events and, especially, the mood and consciousness of the working class at each stage.
Unfortunately, some approached this question in an extremely one-sided manner in the past. Served up were one or two transitional demands – on workers’ control for instance – and it was argued that this was all that was necessary at that stage in the workers’ movement. Any attempt to put forward general demands for society and the economy as a whole – such as nationalisation – were denounced as ‘abstract’. Forgotten was the simple truth propounded by Trotsky in the Transitional Programme that the demands are a ‘bridge’ to the general programme of socialism. This programme ultimately leads to the idea of the working class taking over the big monopolies, expropriating the capitalists, with compensation on the basis of proven need.
Involved here is the need to have an ear and an understanding of the mood of the working class at each stage and coming forward with appropriate slogans at the right time. Take, for instance, the example of Germany in the period before Hitler came to power. A left group, the ‘Brandlerites’, accused the Left Opposition, the adherents of Trotsky, of ‘pinching’ the slogan of control over production. This was after the Marxists had criticised the Brandlerites for putting forward this demand earlier when the situation did not warrant it. The slogan of control over industry was first issued on a wide scale by the Bolshevik party in 1917. In Petrograd, responsibility over the entire campaign in this sphere, as well as in others, was placed in the hands of the soviets. Later, in a period of heightened class tension, when Trotsky and his followers put this forward, he was accused of taking over the Brandlerites’ slogan! He countered by giving the example of a woodpecker who would peck away at the bark of an oak tree year in, year out. Then a woodman came along and chopped down the tree with his axe. The woodpecker then accuses the woodman of criminally plagiarising the methods of the woodpecker! Linked to the idea of workers’ control is the demand for the ‘opening of the books’ of capitalist forms for inspection by committees of workers involving consumers as well. In effect, workers’ control is linked to the period of dual power in industry which is also usually linked to the transitional period from the capitalist regime to the working class taking power. It is undoubtedly a key stage in the development of the workers’ movement and is a period through which the mass of the working class will pass at a certain stage.
A central demand of the Socialist Party is nationalisation of the monopolies (about 150 which control the vast majority of the economy) under workers’ management and control and with compensation to those in proven need. There is no contradiction in putting forward a general programme of this character alongside of the other transitional demands e.g. the demand for the 35-hour week, a useful programme of public works to end unemployment and the nationalisation of individual firms and industries which declare redundancies. The programme has to take account of the fact that there are different layers of the working class at different stages of development.
A vital task of the Marxists is to generalise the experience of the working class. This now becomes more possible because of the enormous concentration and centralisation of capital into huge monopolies and their growing together with the state machine which have been taken to enormous lengths. This invests almost every particular and sectional struggle of the workers with a general character. The struggle for wage increases comes up against the resistance of the government itself as the actions of the ‘ConDem’ coalition in freezing public-sector wages for two years show. This in turn raises the need for a general solution to the problems of the working class and this then poses the need for a socialist re-organisation of society.
It is over seventy years since the transitional programme was first written by Trotsky. Throughout this period the main task of the Marxists has been to defend its central ideas and method of approach against both opportunist reformist ideas and their mirror image in the shape of the ultra-lefts. That does not mean to say that the demands outlined in the transitional programme would be formulated in exactly the same way today, as when it was first written. The call for the 35-hour week expresses the same sentiment as the slogan “the sliding scale of hours”. The latter would seem abstract to most workers in Britain today while the struggle for 35 hours (and an even shorter working week) can be enthusiastically taken up by the working class in answer to growing unemployment. Trotsky always stressed the need to express Marxist ideas and slogans in the language of the working class itself.
His sensitive approach to different sections of the working class, sometimes in different countries, was shown in his discussion with his American followers. He pointed out that – even in the 1930s – given the political backwardness of most American workers, to baldly proclaim the need for ‘socialism’ would be considered by most as an ‘alien’ idea imported from Europe! The idea however of a sliding scale of wages – to take account of inflation – and a sliding scale of hours – to mop up unemployment – were seen as reasonable, even ‘American’! It could be more easily embraced by American workers even though it proposes ‘socialist’ methods of organising work and society! Doctrinaire sectarianism in ideas and language is entirely alien to Marxism. It is therefore necessary to express transitional demands in such a way that can be understood and fought for by the working class.
It will also be necessary to incorporate into the programme many demands which the working class itself throws up in the course of the struggle. It is also vital to give a more concrete expression to some of the demands raised by Trotsky. He raised at one stage the demand for workers’ participation in the management in the nationalised industries. At present, privatisation is the norm. But under the whip of the crisis, capitalist governments will be compelled to renationalise industries. We must have a democratic programme for this. In the conditions which obtain in Britain now this is best expressed by the call for a majority of workers’ representatives on the boards of the nationalised industries with all representatives elected and subject to recall. These representatives should have the task of tearing away the veil and showing to the mass of workers the way nationalised industry has been used as a milch-cow by the monopolies. This in turn will in turn lay the basis for the taking into state ownership of these ‘private’ industries.
Demands to defend the environment
A vital issue confronting the working class, indeed humankind as a whole, is the environment. Trotsky did not deal directly with the issue in the Transitional Programme but did so elsewhere. Some environmentalists argue that Marx did not deal with it either. This is not true; in Marxism in Today’s World, we commented:
“First of all, it is a very important issue and is crucial, especially for the new generation and for the whole of humankind. But it is not true that Marx, Engels Lenin and Trotsky never spoke about the environment; they did. In the third volume of Capital, Marx makes the point: ‘From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the globe. They are only its possessors… and, like [good heads of families] they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.’ We must pass the world on to the next generation in a better state than we found it. Trotsky spoke in a similar vein in works like Radio, Science and Technique. The Bolsheviks were very interested in the harmonisation between the productive forces and the environment.
We face an unprecedented situation today. The kind of development of the productive forces under capitalism in an unplanned way means that the majority of humankind will have to challenge this system on the question of the environment alone in order to prevent an unstoppable decline. A leading Chinese environmentalist has said that for China to reach the living standards of the US will need the resources of four worlds! Do we conclude from this that the Chinese people will never reach the living standards of the American people today and that they are condemned forever to backwardness? It would be wrong to say this. We can, however, have sustainable growth and we can avoid the crimes that have been committed against the environment by capitalism and Stalinism.
The present crisis – to be more accurate, a series of crises – can only be resolved by the re-arming of the working class with new mass, socialist organisations, a Marxist programme and leadership. The mighty events which are opening up in all parts of the globe will provide many opportunities for realising this. It will not be achieved in one day or by one act. But through defeats as well as victories the proletariat will increasingly look to those who can provide the programmatic means of banishing capitalist barbarism from the planet. Trotsky’s transitional programme and method will play a vital role in the accomplishment of this task.