Leon Trotsky: spontaneity

Only choice we have

Rex Dunn argues that the left must unite around the Transitional programme if it is going to get anywhere

Leon Trotsky’s Transitional programme, which was written  in 1938, has to be seen within the context of the Marxist theory of decline and transition.

The transition to communism requires a conscious movement on the part of the masses. But the equilibrium that had been achieved in October 1917 between the subjective and objective factors - consciousness, on the one hand, and the need to break the imperialist chain of exploitation by means of a socialist revolution, on the other - was broken. In the first instance, this was achieved by an imperialist counterrevolution organised from without. Secondly, as a result of the betrayal of reformism in the west, an increasingly isolated and bureaucratised Soviet state laid the foundations for the Stalinist counterrevolution from within. That produced a state which was neither socialist nor capitalist.

Of course, this was unsustainable. The revolution had to go one way or the other: transition towards socialism or back to capitalism. Therefore, by 1921-22 Trotsky had to revise his theory of transition (see below).

Trotsky’s TP is criticised by some Marxists as ‘catastrophist’ - in particular his statement, “Without a socialist revolution in the next historical period … a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.” But this has to be set against the betrayal of Stalinism and reformism, which allowed fascism - as an excrescence of capitalism in crisis - to grow, because of capitalism’s need to smash the organised working class. This drove the system towards a second imperialist world war, the death of millions of civilians, the holocaust and the use of nuclear weapons. But the unprecedented devastation that ensued necessitated massive post-war reconstruction across the world. Thus capitalism is in a bind: its “death agony” is prolonged, whilst it continues to degrade the planet.

The above scenario raises two related questions: firstly, apropos Marx, humanity needs to transition from a declining capitalism to a new and higher form of society, or communism; secondly, we also have to consider the dialectical relationship between objective and subjective factors. On the one hand, the forces of production under capitalism have created a worldwide proletariat - which is potentially a revolutionary class. On the other, capitalism is racked by its own internal contradictions - between use-value/exchange-value; overproduction of unnecessary wants (such as many items of mass consumption, along with the military-industrial complex), and underconsumption vis-à-vis real human needs.

This disequilibrium has now reached a point whereby capitalism is unable to raise the level of human culture further. Therefore it becomes a declining system. In the absence of a conscious movement which leads to the transition to communism, we reach a point where we have decline without transition - which could end with the ruination of both contending classes, whilst the spectre of ecological catastrophe looms.


Enter Trotsky’s theory of transition. At this point, I shall defer to David Gorman’s ‘The political economy of defeat: Leon Trotsky and the problems of the transitional epoch’ in The ideas of Leon Trotsky (1996), edited by Hillel Ticktin and Michael Cox. Gorman makes the following five points:

1. He cites Hillel Ticktin’s essay, ‘Trotsky’s political economy of capitalism’.1 The latter argues that, following the downturn in the world revolution, Trotsky evolved his theory of transition as follows: “the old order is objectively declining, but the revolutionary forces of the working class have yet to defeat the old ruling class”.2 According to Ticktin, says Gorman, although Trotsky “never produced a political economy of the transitional epoch, it may be pieced together”. This has three aspects: “capitalism has been overthrown in a part of the world, without the introduction of socialism itself”; but “capitalism continues to decline”; finally:

the subjective aspect plays a crucial role, as the leaders of both social democracy and Stalinism are seen to be saving capitalism in this period ... Trotsky’s crucial perspective is one of declining capitalism desperately seeking a way out of its old age. At certain periods it was able to find a temporary alleviation through imperialism, fascism, war and Stalinism/cold war, but the palliatives [including the latest one: ie, neoliberalism] have become ever more useless over time.

2. Gorman continues: “Ticktin claims that Trotsky was ‘the only Marxist theorist to put the subjective into political economy’, analysing ‘the movement of capital’ as ‘part of the class struggle and not just the unconscious movement of rates of profit’.”3

3. But at this point, says Gorman, Ticktin

draws a clear distinction between Trotsky’s “dialectical work of the 1920s” and the “rigid and mechanical” approach of the later 1930s, and speaks of Trotsky’s “dialectical decline”. This enables him to separate the category of the transitional epoch from the catastrophist perspectives contained in the Transitional programme.

4. Gorman disagrees:

I intend to challenge Ticktin’s distinction between the dialectical Trotsky of the 1920s and the mechanical Trotsky of the Fourth International. In particular I want to show that, while the subjective and objective factors were indeed present in Trotsky’s formulations of the early 1920s, he did not theorise them as two aspects of a unified whole, but tended always to separate them. [He repeats this mistake in the TP.] The result is that the catastrophism of the [latter] is also present in Trotsky’s initial formulation of the category of the transitional epoch ... It is only in the period before 1921 [ie, a period dominated by an upturn in the world revolution, starting in 1917 and ending in 1920-21] that Trotsky put forward the kind of analysis in which subjective and objective factors are unified.4

Gorman concludes his introduction by saying that he disagrees with Ticktin, because the latter argues that we need to go back to the Trotsky circa the 1920s.

5. After the defeat of the revolution, “Trotsky [tried] to elaborate a theory of transition … At the back of his mind lay the fate of the Russian Revolution itself.”5

I would like to add two further points.

First, Trotsky left it too late to try and build a new Fourth International. This is understandable, given his position as the “prophet unarmed” and “prophet outcast”. He found himself as the isolated and impotent witness to the ineptitude and treachery of a Stalinised Third International, which led to the historic defeat of the revolution in Germany (1933), and again in Spain (1936-38), along with the purge of the old Bolshevik leadership - not forgetting the final destruction of the Left Opposition. So by 1938, he had no option but to try and build a new - Fourth - International.

Secondly, the long post-war boom gave reformism a new lease of life. On the one hand, Labourism was able to continue the illusions in a minimalist programme, based on ‘parliamentarism = socialism’. On the other, reformism was able to promote ‘democratic socialism’ in opposition to Stalinist totalitarianism. Meanwhile Stalinism was able to compete for control over the working class. So it is not surprising that after 1945 a marginalised and isolated FI began to split into warring factions - all of which subsequently degenerated.6 Thus we now need to fight for a new fifth international!

To return to Trotsky, as Gorman correctly points out, the theory of transition must include a description or account of movement from one form of society to another. In Trotsky’s account such movement is absent:

Instead … he offers absence of movement, a condition of stalemate, the mutual ruination of the contending classes ... insofar as capital could not defeat the working class, and the working class could not impose its rule, there was no reason why humanity should break out of the existing order. The resistance of the working class prevented the recovery and further development of capitalism, but that is all. Barbarism was in fact the likely outcome. Indeed, the conditions that Trotsky identified [in 1938] as the objective conditions for socialism look more like those of barbarism [today].7


Today, instead of the threat of fascism and another imperialist world war, the breakdown of the system is becoming more frequent; each new breakdown is more serious than the previous one. Despite these crises, the ruling class is reluctant to go back to using elements of socialism in order to sustain itself. Add to this the elephant in the room - the ongoing threat of capitalist ecocide.

I would also add that, as in 1938, instead of a dialectical unity of objective and subjective factors, leading to the dominance of the subjective factor - ie, socialist revolution led by a vanguard party - we have the dominance of objective factors. Apropos point 2 above, the class struggle continues, even though it is at a very low level. This is the driving force of the tendency of capital to rely more and more on new forms of parasitic or fictitious capital, such as short-termism and the rise of hedge funds.

So finance capital itself is decaying: ie, it is beginning to undermine the system, because capital is investing less and less in the productive sector of the economy. Marxists like Ticktin are right to talk about an investment strike, because capitalists are reluctant to go back to long-term investment: eg, to create a Green New Deal, which would provide hundreds of thousands of new skilled jobs, along with the expansion of the education sector. On the other hand, decaying finance capital leads to unemployment or low wages and greater inequality of incomes and wealth. Hence we are seeing more frequent, deeper crises.

As Yanis Varoufakis says, the 2008 financial crisis “never went away”. It deepened and accelerated the public/private debt crisis that erupted in 2008.8 The return to ‘normality’ was a flimsy veneer: central banks reflated the financial markets by printing trillions of dollars and giving this to the private sector (so that the latter could buy back their shares!). But this only boosted finance capital and sent it into the longest bull market of the 21st century. At the same time, adds Varoufakis, the bailout was “depleting investment in quality jobs” - in health, education fixing the environment - lack of jobs and a decline in real incomes led to a rise in populism, both on the left and the right (especially the latter). This was reflected in the victory of the “great disrupter”, Donald Trump, who did nothing other than offer massive tax cuts to boost the markets further, as well as start a tariff war with China. So, when the coronavirus pandemic erupted, “capitalism was sitting on a gigantic bubble of private and public debt”.

The International Monetary Fund says that the great lockdown has caused the worst downturn since the great depression. Unlike 2008, the capitalist class has to bail out the working class as well as the private sector; otherwise the whole system will collapse in chaos. But central banks cannot go on chucking trillions of fictitious capital at the problem, in advance of that which has yet to be produced in the real economy, especially if the lockdown continues for a long period.

But history does not repeat itself in the same old way. What will happen the next time the system crashes? Maybe we will have a breakdown of civilisation itself. In the meantime, we can expect more rightwing populism - ie, a new round of nationalism, plus demands for more border controls to keep the foreign ‘virus’ at bay - but less leftwing nationalism, given that the latter is unable to offer any alternative to bourgeois and democratic prejudices: ie, chauvinism and parliamentarism. The right can do that better.

It seems more like the decline of capitalism without transition; because of the ongoing impasse between the contending classes. The ruling class is behaving like a rabbit in the headlights, because it does not want to go back to Keynesianism long term, whilst the working class is atomised and lacks adequate consciousness. Given the huge disconnect between the objective and subjective factors, the only choice we have is to opt for the “catastrophism” of the Transitional programme and the “mechanical Trotsky” of the Fourth International. Events have made this so.

We have to find a way to outflank reformism, which separates the minimum form the maximum programme: ie, it promises reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, whilst it postpones socialism to the distant future - or quietly drops it altogether. As the TP says, our “strategic task in the next period” is to overcome “the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard”. We need to “find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution”.

On this basis we have to try and win the most advanced layers: eg, those who work for big tech companies. Already some of these workers have formed new unions and refuse to work for the US military. Meanwhile others create algorithms which can be used for capitalist surveillance. We have to convince them, along with the Corbynistas, that their ‘socialist’ demands, such as nationalisation and a Green New Deal, are confined to within capitalist political economy,

Instead of fighting in our own corner, we have to try and create a new international on the basis of a transitional programme that unites revolutionaries in every country. By doing that, we will be in a better position to make a revolutionary intervention around the demand for workers’ control of all institutions within society.



1. H Ticktin and M Cox (eds) The ideas of Leon Trotsky London 1996, p201n.

2. D Gorman, ‘The political economy of defeat: Leon Trotsky and the problems of the transitional epoch’ in H Ticktin and M Cox (eds) The ideas of Leon Trotsky London 1996, p201.

3. Ibid p202.

4. Ibid p202-03.

5. Ibid p217.

6. See my article, ‘Trotskyism and May 1968’ Weekly Worker June 14 2018.

7. D Gorman op cit p217.

8. youtube.com/watch?v=OLfHpvJKNg0.