Leon Trotsky would be horrified by his latter-day followers

Sowing dragon's teeth

Is Leon Trotsky’s Transitional programme the last word when it comes to the Marxist programme? Or does it represent regression in Marxist terms? Jack Conrad argues against the economism of Trotskyism

Most comrades on the left that I come across - sadly including those whom I hold in high regard: rank-and-file cadre generally, letter-writers to the Weekly Worker often, refugees from this or that confessional sect sometimes, current members of editorial boards and central committees occasionally - take it as axiomatic that they must reject out of hand, almost as a sacred duty, the programme of classical Marxism: ie, the minimum-maximum programmes of the German Social Democratic Party, the French Workers Party and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

But these comrades feel compelled to do more - instinctually; almost as a Pavlovian reflex. They attack the programmes of classical Marxism and thereby, if only by inference, the Draft programme of the CPGB, as if they were historically anointed Van Helsings, tasked with ridding the workers’ movement of the curse of the minimum-maximum programme.

Supposedly the minimum-maximum programme directly led to that fateful vote for war credits by the SDP Reichstag fraction in August 1914; and, though it is dwarfed by that act of treachery, the same minimum-maximum programmatic structure is blamed for the alleged adoption of revolutionary defencism by the Kamenev-Stalin leadership of the Bolsheviks in early 1917 - according to the myth brought to a swift end by Lenin’s return from Swiss exile and his ‘April theses’. (Thanks in no small part to the work of Lars T Lih, we have shown that the differences between Kamenev and Stalin, on the one hand, and Lenin, on the other, were minor and quickly resolved. No less to the point, we have also shown that Lenin’s ‘April theses’ were a concrete application of the programme of the RSDLP and the standing strategy of the Bolshevik Party. Not a break.)

Sadly, too many comrades on the left believe that they have been bequeathed something far more precious, far more valuable than the minimum-maximum programmes of classical Marxism. I refer, of course, to Leon Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional programme - otherwise known as The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International.

Note, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Trotskyism, certainly in Britain, has become something near to the common sense of the revolutionary left - but in a form I doubt Trotsky himself would recognise. Indeed, I expect Lev Davidovich would be mortified. Having sown dragon’s teeth, including in his Transitional programme, the fact of the matter is that we are today plagued with all-manner of right-opportunist groups, fronts, campaigns and coalitions. All justified, albeit only to inquiring minds and the initiated few, by invoking Trotsky’s Transitional programme ... and the transitional method.

To the right

Let us look at some typical examples.

Unsurprisingly, the fragmented Trotskyite groups in the Labour Party are even more overtly Labourite. Their handiwork can be seen in the Labour Representation Committee and in the pages of Labour Briefing, Labour Briefing (Original), The Clarion and other such publications. Our Trotskyites guiltily hide away their ‘Marxism’ and compete with each other in concocting various ways to bring about a reformist Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn.

Hence, their ideological victory - which was not a product of their own strength, but of the virtual collapse of ‘official communist’ Stalinism - ironically resolves into a repetition of the old ‘official communist’ British Road to Socialism programme, only with less coherence and more national narrow-mindedness. Yet another case of ‘First time tragedy, second time farce’.

After all, the various versions of the BRS - produced between 1950 and 1978 - were premised on the claim that the international balance of forces was decisively shifting in favour of ‘socialism’: ie, away from the imperialist countries and in favour of the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, China, the national liberation movements and the non-capitalist road of development. In 1961 Nikita Khrushchev predicted with all the confidence of a technocratic buffoon that the Soviet Union would overtake the United States by 1970 and then build the material and technical basis of communism: “Thus a communist society will in the main be built in the USSR” - by 1980!3 Obviously nothing to do with authentic socialism or communism. Absurd in retrospect … and something we sought to systematically disprove.4 But it did not seem that way to many at the time, however, including wide swathes of the Labour and trade union left.

Hugh Scanlon and Tony Benn, Jack Jones and Michael Foot were not in the ‘official’ CPGB. Nonetheless, they effectively adhered to and followed the ‘official’ CPGB programme. Claims about the tilting balance of class forces served to explain why socialism would, or at least could, come via the Labour Party, state-capitalist nationalisation and defence of the British nation-state.

The programmes of Respect, Tusc and Left Unity might differ from that of the Labour Representation Committee over the nature of the Labour Party - crucially the likelihood of ‘reclaiming’ it for clause four socialism. Nevertheless, when it comes down to it, all are agreed that the main task of ‘Marxists’ is to replace New Labourism with one or another version of old Labourism.

Given the small size of the groups concerned and their shallow roots in the working class, what they actually produce often amounts to less than the sum of their parts: that is, hollow and insubstantial ‘united fronts’, which do not unite the vanguard with the broad masses of the working class - that would be a real united front. Rather what we get is fake fronts - uniting this or that Trotskyite sect with trade union functionaries, soft-left journalists and career politicians, who, formally speaking, are well to their right: Unite Against Racism, People’s Assembly, Labour for a People’s Vote, etc. From nothing to nothing.

With what justification? Not the international balance of class forces. That is for sure. These comrades find justification in the method of Trotsky’s Transitional programme … sadly a claim not without foundation.

Productive forces

In the late 1930s Trotsky became firmly convinced that capitalism was more than just decadent and moribund. Capitalism faced immediate extinction, was experiencing its writhing “death agony”.5 As a system it could no longer develop the productive forces - an idea he took, of course, from Marx’s well known ‘Preface’ to A contribution to the critique of political economy (1859):

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or - this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms - with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins the period of social revolution.6

Though Marx’s ‘Preface’ is flawed in some important respects and goes against the grain of what he wrote elsewhere (it can, after all, be read to mean that the productive forces, not the class struggle, are the locomotive of history) such an assessment coming from Trotsky - that capitalism had turned into an absolute fetter - was perfectly understandable, given the circumstances of the time.

Before him Vladimir Lenin and Rudolf Hilferding had already laid the foundations by writing influential studies of finance capital and the “last stage of capitalism”. And it was not only the left that saw capitalism as being in decline. Bourgeois intellectuals often despaired of further progress under their own system. Pessimism was rife. Eg, the German historian, Oswald Spengler - conservative, Nietzschean and anti-democratic - authored the widely read The decline of the west (1918-22). By way of analogy he argued that capitalism had entered its last winter. The soul of western civilisation was dead. The age of caesarism had begun. A theme taken up in Britain by Arnold Toynbee (A study of history 1934-61).

The 1929 Wall Street crash, the global slump, the forced abandonment of the gold standard, soaring unemployment, the coming to power of Nazi gangsters in 1933 and the fragmentation of the world economy into rival, antagonistic zones conveyed an ever mounting sense of pending doom. Humanity was living at the end of times. For Trotsky, capitalism was disintegrating. Spain, Abyssinia, China were for him but heralds of a general conflagration. Not even the large-scale introduction of new consumer goods, means of transport and technologies, such as vacuum cleaners, telephones, cars, aeroplanes and electronics, could overcome the chronic malaise: “Mankind’s productive forces stagnate”.7 All that got Germany, USA, Japan, Britain, Italy and France - the main capitalist powers - moving economically in the late 1930s, putting the unemployed back to work, was preparation for the slaughter of another world war. Fifty million were to die.

Conditions for socialism, said Trotsky, were not only ripe, but overripe. Without a global socialist revolution all the gains of civilisation were in danger. The main problem being not so much the consciousness of the masses - rather the opportunism and cowardice of the ‘official’ communists and social democrats: “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”8 But, whereas the parties of ‘official communism’ and social democracy each counted their members in the tens and hundreds of thousands, even the millions, Trotsky’s forces were in comparative terms isolated, untrained and miniscule. Perhaps a couple of thousand worldwide. This was a problem Trotsky solved, at least in his mind, by falling back on what Marxists call ‘spontaneity’.

What he lacked in terms of organised forces in the real world he made up for with a programmatic reliance on the unconscious - the untheorised movement of the working class around everyday issues, such as pay and conditions. Desperate hope substitutes for harsh reality. The nature of the epoch “permits” revolutionaries to carry out economic struggles in a way that is “indissolubly” linked with the “actual tasks of the revolution”.9 The “existing consciousness” of workers is not only the point of departure: it is now to all intents and purposes regarded as unproblematic. In the mind, subject and object are blurred one into the other. Though in ‘normal times’ most are not subjectively revolutionary - ie, educated in Marxism - workers are objectively revolutionary because of the reality of capitalism. But in these ‘new times’ no longer was it necessary through education and organisation to win the masses to consciously grasp the need to “change forthwith the old conditions”. Fighting to maintain existing conditions was all that was needed to “win the prize”. The constant tussle over wages and hours, demands for safeguards against the corrosive effects of inflation and the introduction of state-funded job creation - these were painted in revolutionary colours. A classic case of elevating trade union struggles to the level of socialist politics.

Trotsky reasoned that in general there can, in the epoch of “decaying capitalism”, be no systematic social reforms or raising of the masses’ living standards. Objective circumstances therefore propelled the masses - or so Trotsky believed - to overthrow capitalism, simply because every time the system conceded one spoonful it was forced to take back two. It was in an advanced state of decay. Therefore, he concluded, simple defence of existing economic gains through demanding a “sliding scale” of wages and hours, etc, would provide the initial trigger needed to launch the final, apocalyptic collision with capitalism.

Frankly, it does not surprise me in the least to read Trotsky’s sympathetic biographer, Isaac Deutscher, characterising the Transitional programme as “not so much a statement of principles as an instruction on tactics, designed for a party up to its ears in trade union struggles and day-to-day politics and striving to gain practical leadership immediately”.10

The Transitional programme is certainly marred by all manner of ephemeral facts, figures and personalities. It reads more like an antiquated manual for American SWP trade union activists than a programme for Marxist tribunes of the people.

Trotsky insisted that - if the defensive movement of the working class was energetically promoted, freed from bureaucratic constraints, and after that nudged in the direction of forming picket-line defence guards, then pushed towards demanding nationalisation of key industries - it would, little leap following little leap, take at least a minority of the class towards forming soviets and then, to cap it all, the conquest of state power. Or, as Trotsky put it almost religiously, they would “storm not only heaven, but earth”.

Winning over the majority intellectually and organising the workers into a political party was dismissed as the gradualism that belonged to a previous, long dead, era: the era of competitive capitalism. Now, in the era of final collapse, the meagre, squat but semi-militarised forces of Trotskyism will lead the masses as if by stealth, steer them in their elemental movement towards a series of pre-set transitional demands - which, taken together, are meant to serve as a system of directional arrows or a kind of ascending stairway.

After five years, or maybe ten, they might flock to join the Fourth International in their millions. Winning state power and ending capitalism internationally will, though, be revealed to them as the real aim only during the course of the rising spiral of struggle. Not quite, but almost, socialism as conspiracy. In essence, Trotsky, from a position of extreme organisational weakness, had reinvented the Blanquist putsch or the anarchist general strike ‘road to socialism’. This time the Trotskyites would be the educative elite - the tightly knit, highly disciplined minority, operating as the command centre. They would drive the entire juggernaut of world revolution through their cogs and wheels of transitional demands, using trade unions and other such levers they had managed to get their hands on.

In explaining his programme of transitional demands, Trotsky takes to task the minimum-maximum programmes of “classical” social democracy. But Trotsky warned his band of followers that it would be a terrible mistake to “discard” the programme of old “minimal” demands, “to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness”.11 Trotsky was therefore prepared to defend existing democratic “rights and social conquests”. He did not, however, view them as having any particular purchase in and of themselves. No place, then, for high politics, demands for a democratic republic and extreme democracy in the Transitional programme.

True, in fascist countries, such as Germany and Italy, Trotsky conceded that his Fourth International would uphold “democratic slogans” in order to mobilise the masses. However, once the movement assumes something resembling a mass character, then democratic demands (press freedom, the right to form independent trade unions) will be “intertwined” with “transitional ones”.12 In effect Trotsky combined ‘Bolshevik-Leninist’ elitism with an apocalyptic version of economism: ie, the workers would, through strikes and other such elementary struggles, discover the “bridge” to the seizure of power.


No matter how we excuse Trotsky in terms of how things appeared on the eve of World War II, there is no escaping from the fact that he was wrong in method and periodisation. In an of themselves trade union struggles are not hegemonic: they tend towards sectionalism; they do not lead to socialist consciousness. Nor was the 1930s capitalist slump permanent.

Suffice to say, after World War II capitalism experienced its highest and longest boom. By organising a further deformation of, or retreat from, the law of value with Keynesian welfarism, nationalisation and the cold war arms economy, conditions were laid for the American century and a sustained and unprecedented spasm of capital accumulation. More than that, especially in western Europe, reformism - both of the Labourite and ‘official communist’ variety - was given a new lease of life. Hence, instead of the tactics of insurrection and frontal assault being the order of the day, patient propaganda, deep organisation and the long war of manoeuvre surely fitted the bill.

The problem was, however, that Trotsky’s epigones either refused to acknowledge the capitalist boom of the 1950s and 60s or, when they finally admitted the truth that Trotsky’s 1938 prognosis no longer applied, they dogmatically stuck to what they Talmudically liked to call the transitional method. In practice that amounts to sprinkling routine trade union struggles, left Labourism, black civil rights, the feminist movement and pacifistic anti-war protests with socialistic fairy dust. The magic never works. Trade unionism doggedly remains trade unionism, etc. However, the magician manages to change something.

The transitional method amounts to recruiting subjective revolutionaries and turning them into routine trade unionists, left Labourites, black separatists, feminists and pacifists. Thus Respect, Tusc, Left Unity and the rainbow coalition campaigns are not aberrations. They are the logical outcome of the much vaunted transitional method.


1. See Weekly Worker October 28 2004.

2. See Weekly Worker November 24 2005.

3. CPSU The road to communism Moscow 1961, p512.

4. See J Conrad Which road? London 1991.

5. L Trotsky The transitional programme New York 1997, p111.

6. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 29, London 1987, p262.

7. L Trotsky The transitional programme New York 1997, p111.

8. Ibid p112.

9. Ibid p114.

10. I Deutscher The prophet outcast Oxford 1979, pp425-26.

11. L Trotsky The transitional programme New York 1997, pp114-15.

12. Ibid p141.