Programmatic masks and transitional fleas

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 Trotskyite economism

Most comrades on the left that I come across - sadly including those whom I hold in some esteem: rank and file cadre always, thinkers often, members of national councils, central committees and political 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 produced, most significantly, first by the German Social Democratic Party, and then by the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (the subject of a future article).

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 inevitably 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 structure is blamed for the creeping revolutionary defencism of the Kamenev-Stalin leadership of the Petrograd-Moscow Bolsheviks in 1917 - swiftly cut short by Lenin's 'modifications' to the programme after his return from exile (once again, a subject to which we shall return).

Ironically, the comrades truly seem to believe that they are equipped with the leftwing equivalent of silver bullets, wooden stakes, cloves of garlic, holy water, the christian cross and sacred Latin mumbo jumbo culled from the Vulgate Bible: in short, I am afraid to say, Leon Trotsky's 1938 Transitional programme - otherwise known as The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International. The comrades certainly display all the gullibility of Bram Stoker's fictional vampire hunters.

Note, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Trotskyism, certainly in Britain, has become the common sense of the left - but in a form I doubt Trotsky would himself recognise. Indeed, I expect Lev Davidovich would be mortified. Having sown dragons' teeth, including in his Transitional programme, the fact of the matter is that we are today plagued with right opportunist fleas, most claiming to be Trotsky's legitimate heirs and successors.

Apart from the tiniest sects - organisations which are in truth closer to Bakunin's anarchism than Marxism, such as Workers Power, the Spartacist League, International Bolshevik Tendency, etc - the vast bulk of Trotskyite comrades typically operate according to, construct or defend programmatic positions far to the right of the Transitional programme ... and yet, when challenged, they indignantly claim justification by invoking the Transitional programme.

Some typical examples.

l In October 2004 John Rees saw to it that the Socialist Workers Party bloc vote was used to defeat a CPGB motion that would have committed Respect to proletarian socialism: "a socialist society where the working class is the ruling class". His comrades tried to do something not dissimilar with Solidarity in Scotland this month. The SWP wanted the Tommy Sheridan fan club to become a Respect copycat: ie, explicitly not socialist "¦ but apart from themselves they found no takers.

l The International Socialist Group is the British affiliate to the so-called Fourth International. And yet the comrades have fully cooperated with the SWP's project of constructing a non-socialist mask behind which to hide their unappealing faces. Alan Thornett, the ISG's leader, was the main architect of Respect's hopelessly eclectic left populist 2005 general election manifesto. Unfulfillable Keynesian promises mixed with vague anti-capitalist statements, all designed to fudge the difference between socialism and political islam. Subsequently, to his eternal shame, comrade Rees was responsible for further watering down this thinnest of thin social gruel at the insistence of George Galloway. Though Thornett's manifesto had been agreed by Respect's national council, missing from the final version, the one that actually circulated to electors, was the elementary commitment to homosexual equality. And, due to the same fear of offending islamic fundamentalist sensibilities, a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, had been sneakily clipped back to a "woman's right to choose" "¦ to choose what? To wear the veil?

l The Socialist Party in England and Wales tries to give itself leftist street credibility nowadays. It talks of socialism. The target is unspoken but clear - Respect. But scratch the surface of SPEW's socialism and what you find revealed is a version of old Labourism: national, reformist and bureaucratic. Indeed, within its Campaign for a New Workers' Party, SPEW does exactly what the SWP does in Respect. At its founding conference on March 19, it used its block vote to reject Marxism. It wants to hide behind the mask of Keir Hardie.

l The Alliance for Workers' Liberty comes from the same political mould. Revealingly, the 1945 Attlee government has been described as a "workers' government". Given its social imperialism, the AWL even refuses to call for the immediate withdrawal of US-UK occupation forces from Iraq. In the 2005 general election the AWL aligned itself with SPEW and the Alliance for Green Socialism - a right-moving, left reformist outfit - elsewhere it loyally voted Labour, including for the pro-Iraq-invasion Oona King in Bethnal Green, against the anti-invasion rebel, George Galloway.

l When combined together into the short-lived Socialist Alliance of England and Wales, it was the four groups mentioned above - SWP, ISG, SPEW and AWL - who were primarily responsible for straitjacketing its 2001 general election manifesto, People before profit. While it contains a few bright spots and moments, the overall framework is Labourite. The majority in the Socialist Alliance were committed to fashioning the organisation into a machine for capturing Labourites as Labourites. Needless to say, it did not work.

Unsurprisingly, the fragmented Trotskyite groups in the Labour Party are even more overtly Labourite. Their handiwork can be seen in the Labour Representation Committee, the John for Leader campaign and in the pages of Labour Left Briefing and other such publications. Our Trotskyites guiltily hide away their 'Marxism' and compete with each other in concocting ways to revive Labourism.

Hence what their victory over Stalinism resolves itself into in the realm of programme is the reproduction of the old 'official communist' British road to socialism programme. But at a far less coherent level. 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, etc. In 1961 Nikita Khrushchev predicted with all the confidence of the 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! Obviously nothing to do with authentic socialism or communism. Absurd in retrospect "¦ and something we sought to systematically disprove. 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, the CNWP, Solidarity and the Scottish Socialist Party might differ with the John for Leader campaign and the Labour Representation Committee over the nature of the Labour Party - crucially the likelihood of 'reclaiming' it, as if at some time in the past it served as a vehicle for working class self-liberation. Nevertheless, when it comes down to it, all are agreed that the main task of 'Marxists' is to exchange tarnished New Labour for one or another version of the old.

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 this or that Trotskyite sect united with loose and largely phantom elements to their right. From nothing to nothing.

With what justification? Not the international balance of class forces. That's for sure. These comrades find justification in 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". 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".

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 material 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 penetrating studies of finance capital and the "last stage of capitalism". 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 influential 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, reversed the chronic malaise: "Mankind's productive forces stagnate". 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". But, whereas the parties of 'official communism' and social democracy each counted their ranks 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. 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".

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 the '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, putting in place safeguards against the corrosive effects of inflation and state-funded job creation 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 with 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 preset 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 10, 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 re-invented 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 union and other such levers.

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. 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 like 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 the CNWP, the LRC, Respect and the rainbow coalition campaigns are not aberrations. The are the logical outcome of the much vaunted transitional method.