Trotskyite economism?

Leon Trotsky's Transitional programme is based on the communist method of Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks, writes Gerry Downing

If we are to accept Jack Conrad's arguments on 'Trotskyite economism', then we are left with the conclusion that there is little to be learned from the Russian Revolution; nothing to be learned from the struggle against the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution and certainly the relationship of  Stalin to Hitler; the manner in which Stalin conducted World War II; and the role of Stalinism in betraying the revolutionary crises that arose at the close of and in the aftermath of WWII. The immediate crisis of capitalism to which Trotsky directed his 1938 programme is of such marginal importance as not to merit a mention.

Of course, the actual Transitional programme itself has been superseded by the post-war stabilisation of capitalism following the defeat of those revolutionary crises, but the method is still valid because it is the communist method in the epoch of imperialism - of the Bolsheviks, of Lenin and Trotsky. This rejected the maximum-minimum dichotomy of the old German social democracy with its illusions in capitalist democracy and its mechanical determinism which saw the march of socialism as an unstoppable force, and placed the subjective factor of revolutionary leadership at the centre.

Revolutionary socialists must, after all, believe that this will be the decisive factor in the final analysis in rejecting the mechanical materialism of Plekhanov's The role of the individual in history. It also discarded (in 1919) the name 'Social Democracy' because it rejected the last vestiges of illusions in the progressive role of 'red republicanism', which radicals saw as the main threat to 19th century bourgeois society, because even in England the political domination of the landed, albeit bourgeoisified, aristocracy reflected the fact that radical capitalism had not yet outlived its historically progressive role. But by 1917 the world had moved on from the pre-(modern) imperialist 1891 Erfurt programme, the great depression had intensified inter-imperialist rivalries, the domination of finance capital and the emergence of vast syndicates and trusts in Germany in particular and the robber barons in the US signified a different world order and with it different programmatic imperatives.

Now on the agenda was the mass insurrection for the seizure of power via a new and far more direct democracy signalled by the emergence of the 1905 soviets. By 1917 these were directly and immediately counterposed to the Constituent Assembly of 1917 - the best example of the CPGB's "extreme [bourgeois] democracy". These elements of the Erfurt programme - illusions in parliamentary democracy combined with mechanical determinism and a lack of orientation to a new imperialism which had not yet fully matured - were products of their time.

It was not possible then to forecast the rise of the soviets as the necessary and indispensable form of rule of the new socialist society, containing the indispensable notion of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' or the novel character of the world consequent on the rise of the new imperialism. However, it is true that, although Erfurt's preamble made internationalist demands which did imply the new world order, 'A critique of the draft Social Democratic programme of 1891' by Fredrick Engels immediately took issue with it because of its political inadequacies:

"To touch on that [the imperial German constitution] is dangerous, however. Nevertheless, somehow or other, the thing has to be attacked. How necessary this is is shown precisely at the present time by opportunism, which is gaining ground in a large section of the Social Democratic press. Fearing a renewal of the Anti-Socialist Law, or recalling all manner of over-hasty pronouncements made during the reign of that law, they now want the party to find the present legal order in Germany adequate for putting through all party demands by peaceful means. These are attempts to convince oneself and the party that 'present-day society is developing towards socialism' without asking oneself whether it does not thereby just as necessarily outgrow the old social order and whether it will not have to burst this old shell by force, as a crab breaks its shell, and also whether in Germany, in addition, it will not have to smash the fetters of the still semi-absolutist, and moreover indescribably confused political order."

Engels then went on to endorse the notion of a peaceful transition to capitalism in 'democratic' imperialist countries (no serious Marxist would seek to defend that today). Nevertheless he correctly attacks Erfurt for its compromises with the imperial German state. If we take, for example, point 5 - "Taking over by the imperial government of the whole system of working people's insurance, though giving the working people a controlling share in the administration" - how could we possibly pose such a demand in a modern form today without sowing illusions in parliamentary democracy?

In other words the Erfurt programme cannot be the model for the revolutionary programme for the modern, imperialist world because that world had not yet emerged in 1891. It is true that the 1938 Transitional programme is also outdated but it does address the tasks of a whole historical period of the modern imperialist world, whereas Erfurt addressed the pre-imperialist world.

Moreover Erfurt addressed a world where Marxist philosophy had degenerated at the hands of the German and Austrian Marxists to marginalise the dialectic. Not in vain did Lenin sweat over his Philosophical notebooks in Switzerland from 1914 to recapture the dynamic and profound influence of Hegel on Marx. Read Plekhanov, Franz Mehring, Paul Lafargue or Abram Leon's On the Jewish question to appreciate that, whilst the Second International's non-dialectical and mechanical understanding of Marxism could produce some profound insights into the workings of capitalist societies, nevertheless it inevitably produced profound errors as well. And, yes, this relative but historically profound backwardness did facilitate both the vote of the German Social Democracy on August 4 1914 for the kaiser's war credits and the capitulation by "the creeping revolutionary defencism of Kamenev-Stalin" pre-October 1917 to the Provisional Government's bourgeois democratic programme, as well as to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.

That all these lessons should now be rejected so forcefully by Jack Conrad under the mantra 'Back to classical Marxism' demonstrated that this rejection is necessary for those who seek a third camp in communism between Stalinism and Trotskyism.

What the Transitional programme is not

Let us first say what the Transitional programme is not and then what it is. It was not a soothsayer's guide to the future to enable revolutionaries to correctly place themselves in order to take advantage of the new situations, which only their leader could foretell. It was a programme designed to make the future: that is, to orientate those serious Marxists who understood the world situation to the revolutionary potential lodged in that situation and to educate them on how they might actualise that potential.

But Trotsky was not the only one with the historical perspectives to understand that situation. Churchill and Stalin understood it, Roosevelt and Hitler understood it, but each understood it in a way that was coloured by their own interests: that is, they were all counterrevolutionary, but in their own way and in defence of their own interests. The Allied powers came together successively at Casablanca in 1943, at Yalta in 1945 and at Potsdam to elaborate tactics and a strategy to prevent the revolutions that they knew were potentially lodged in the world situation so sneeringly described by Jack Conrad as if Trotsky's naivety led him to predict the final crisis of capitalism because he did not know what we all supposedly know now: that the revolutionary potential to which he addressed his programme never existed in the first place.

Hitler's last political act before he shot himself was to order the Gestapo to massacre the Berlin food rioters, lest that lead to revolution; arguably he hung on for so long because he wanted to be able to make a compromise with Allied imperialism on the basis that he was the only one who could crush the German revolution, which he believed had almost destroyed the German nation at the end of World War I and now threatened worldwide conflagration. But Hitler never really understood the nature of Stalinism despite their counterrevolutionary pact of 1939. Churchill and Roosevelt no longer needed him to crush the German, European and world revolutions they saw as now on top of them because they had Stalin.

Churchill at Casablanca

Let us describe how those tactics and strategy developed. The Tory, Neville Chamberlain, had distinguished between the Nazi regime and the German people before the war, rejecting one and appealing to the other, but at Casablanca Churchill insisted, and Roosevelt agreed, that unconditional surrender by Germany was the only acceptable policy from then on. Dressed up as uncompromising opposition to fascism, in reality this was the first phase of the strategy to defeat the German revolution, which they knew was now posed. Henceforth there was no longer any talk of good or bad Germans - racist anti-German propaganda allowed Bomber Harris to bomb Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin on the basis that all Germans were guilty of Nazism and deserved what they got - how useful is that to Zionism today?

And why were Milan and Turin bombed by the Allies after they were liberated by the partisans? What was the purpose of the mass bombing of cities? To demoralise the citizens and to turn them against the regime? But it always had the opposite effect. If they are to turn against the regime they must have the opportunity to do so: they must have organisation and arms, space and time to form committees and means of communication to organise the uprising. A mass-bombed city can do none of these things. The first thing the people must do is try to survive, the second is to try to save their families and friends, the third is to find food, the fourth is to find shelter, the fifth is to bury or burn their dead.

Where and when is revolution possible? Only in Warsaw was this briefly possible and we will see below why Hitler performed his last favour for Stalin there. This counterrevolutionary consensus is the reason for the destruction of Guernica in 1937 (Hitler's Fokker 52s), Dresden, Hamburg, Milan, Turin and Berlin in 1944 (Churchill and Roosevelt), Warsaw and Berlin again in 1945 (Stalin), Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (USA) and all the rest. How had this situation arisen?

Stalin had murdered all the old Bolshevik leaders and middle-ranking party cadres who had fought the revolution and civil war by the middle to late 1930s. He capriciously slaughtered former prosecutors and the manifestly innocent alike to spread a reign of terror in the great purges of 1936-38 following the adoption of popular frontism. Old tsarist patriotic themes were resuscitated which glorified Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, etc and marginalised what was left of socialist ideology.

During the war itself little was heard of the party, of communism or of the class struggle, but a great deal was heard of Russia, the motherland and patriotism. There was no call on the German working class to rise up, as help was at hand to overthrow Hitler in revolution. But very powerful anti-German racism sought to match the racism of the Nazis. All serious students of the period know the appalling anti-German racism of the likes of France's Stalinist leader, Maurice Thorez, at the time, but the most lasting impression is surely the Australian CP's celebration of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: "Jappy landing," proclaimed the cartoon showing a tortured Japanese face looking up, as the nuclear bombs dropped from the skies. The opposition to that then and now was never strong enough to prevent it and in the main it never understood why this was so necessary to the 'war effort'.

There were no revolutionary tactics like re-educating prisoners of war and using them to conduct agitation behind German lines or infiltrating them into Germany itself to foster revolution and hasten the end of the war, as Trotsky and the Bolsheviks had done in Austria-Hungary and elsewhere in eastern Europe after 1917. We know how close that tactic came to success. Antony Beevor recounts in Stalingrad of German prisoners of war there: "95% of soldiers and NCOs died, 55% of junior officers and just 5% of senior officers "¦ The privileged treatment which the Generals received, however, was a revealing testimony to the Soviet Union's sense of hierarchy."

Unthinkable was the 'fraternise with the enemy' propaganda that Lenin had propounded in response to the famous 1914 Christmas fraternisation of WWI: both sides equally feared revolution, not least from their own soldiers. The holocaust itself is partially explained by Hitler's determination to brutalise his troops and prevent fraternisation with captured populations, to the extent that he did not dare exploit the animosity between Moscow and subjugated peoples on the western borders of the USSR. This was the real ideological conflict on the eastern front.

A degenerate workers' state

And yet both sides were not the same. Despite Stalin the USSR was still the land of October and the revolution lived on in the planned economy and the consciousness of the masses. The oppressed everywhere knew that world imperialism had suffered its most serious defeat in 1917. Beevor says of the fall of Stalingrad in February 1943 that "its effect on resistance movements everywhere and thus its influence on the politics of post-war Europe was considerable "¦ it boosted the status of the party member and attracted fellow-travellers in droves".

Many saw the advance of the Red Army as the advance of the revolution and social revolutions broke out in east-central Europe, while land seizures took place as the Axis forces withdrew and workers attempted to take over factories. At the same time communist partisans in western Europe began to exert increasing influence. Surely this alone confirms Trotsky's defence of the Soviet Union as a degenerate workers' state: 'a plague on both your houses' of the state-capitalist variety would have orientated his followers in the wrong direction by 180 degrees.

At Yalta in February 1945 Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin agreed that article 12 (a) of the surrender terms for Germany should be amended to read as follows: "The United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics shall possess supreme authority with respect to Germany. In the exercise of such authority they will take such steps, including the complete dismemberment of Germany, as they deem requisite for future peace and security."

The significant term here is "future peace and security". The hidden agenda was that Stalin agreed that there would be no German revolution or any really independent socialist revolution anywhere. Stalin abolished the Comintern in 1943 as a sop to Roosevelt and Churchill. The knowledge that this vital assistance to a discredited capitalist class would be forthcoming from Stalin explains why Roosevelt and Churchill had to form their alliance with the USSR - that and the fact the Roosevelt's vision of a future world dominated by a free-market USA was in direct conflict with Nazism's autarkic dreams, and also to a lesser extent with the 'empire privilege' orientation of British empire. The anti-fascist alliances had now become a cover for the Soviet bureaucracy's extreme opposition to any revolutionary movement that they could not control bureaucratically lest it rekindle the spirit of 1917 in Russia itself. Warsaw had shown the future.

The Warsaw uprising

Exactly what happened to the Warsaw uprising of August-September 1944 and why is very controversial. AJP Taylor is sure that the accusation that Stalin had "cynically abandoned the citizens of Warsaw and allowed them to be slaughtered" was untrue; the Red Army had outrun their supplies and "on July 29 three fresh German divisions checked their advance", although Stalin did not regret what happened, as "The rising was more anti-Russian than anti-German" and Polish independence was an illusion - the only thing left to be decided by the Poles was "a choice of masters".

The Open University's course material is in two minds about the affair: Mark Pittaway basically accepts Taylor's line, but Bill Purdue believes that the "USSR had already ensured that "¦ "anti-communist forces in Poland would be much weakened "¦ by the murder of so many Polish officer corps [in the Katyn Forest in 1940] and by allowing the Germans to crush the Warsaw uprising in 1944, while the Russians armies paused a few miles away". Roberts has no doubts: "While the Germans crushed the Poles, Stalin refused to help Warsaw, even by cooperating with the RAF in dropping supplies".

In his 1947 book, Zygmunt Zaremba, a PPS (Polish Socialist Party) leader, the editor of its paper, Robotnik, and a participant in these events, gives a different account. Taylor was disingenuous. The July 29 counter-attack by the Wehrmacht had petered out and "on August 8 the commanders in the field sent plans for an assault upon Warsaw on August 25 "¦ Permission was not forthcoming. Stalin refused to allow western Allied aeroplanes to land on Soviet territory".

Zaremba makes it clear that the London government in exile did not control these events, that the uprising was revolutionary and went far beyond aspirations for Polish independence because the Polish bourgeoisie had decamped en masse and only workers' organisations were left on the ground to attack the Nazis. In these urban conditions a successful uprising could have sparked a socialist revolution (hence the use of the term 'commune' by Zaremba to make comparison with Paris in 1871 - the PPS supported workers' control of industry and Red Army soldiers might have been infected). Warsaw held out until October 1, lost 200,000 dead and was a major city enthused by the same radicalism as every city in Europe then: it could not be allowed to liberate itself in the interests of "future peace and security".

Italian resistance

No less controversial than the Warsaw uprising is the Italian resistance and the revolutionary potential of that movement. Its growth was spectacular and uncontrolled. It was only 4,000 strong in November 1943 when Mussolini fell, but it had grown to 250,000 when the Nazi-backed SalಠRepublic was overthrown in April 1945. Most of northern Italy was then in the hands of the partisans, dominated by the Communist Party (PCI). But Churchill was determined that Italy would not 'go communist' and he found powerful allies - the 'communists'!

In September 1943 the king and Badoglio (one of Mussolini's generals) fled to the south, proclaiming themselves the royal government, with Allied support. The CCLN, the council of the left parties in Rome (PCI, PSI and Pd'A), "sought to deflect their 'groups of armed men' away from any notions of a class war against the backers of Mussolini and towards participation in a national union sacrée". However, the CCLN refused to deal with the royal government and when Palmiro Togliatti broadcast from Moscow the instruction that they must collaborate with an expanded Badoglio government the central committee seriously considered replacing him as leader of the PCI.

But when he returned to Italy on April 1 the deal was consummated: "It is the Communist Party, it is working class, which must carry the defence of the interests of the nation," he explained.10  In other words, we will hear no more talk of revolution. The expulsions and murders of opposition revolutionaries, mainly Bordegist, from the ranks of the PCI was a grisly business. In France the Communist Party, although it controlled the majority and most active part of the resistance, meekly accepted general de Gaulle's instructions to disarm when much of the country, including self-liberated Paris, was controlled by armed militias. Communists joined governments in France, Italy, Austria, Finland, Belgium and Norway to defuse the anger of the working class at the collaborationist capitalists and to dissipate aspirations for revolutionary socialism.11 

Pierre Broué and Greece

In Greece there were professed revolutionaries, Trotskyists, on the ground. Pierre Broué, in his 1985 article 'How Trotsky and the Trotskyists confronted the Second World War', informs us that the KKE (Greek CP) could boast in 1947 that, "We killed more than 800 Trotskyists" (as they had done in pre-war Spain)12 . "Trotskyists" was a generic term for anyone who had revolutionary aspirations at the time. In a highly illuminating note about the real orientation of the Allies during this period Broué supplies us with a reference to explain:

"Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons on December 19 1944, defended his use of the term 'Trotskyism', saying: 'I think that "Trotskyism" is a better definition of Greek communism and certain other sects than the usual term. It has the advantage of being equally hated in Russia.' This was followed by 'prolonged laughter'. On December 13 Churchill had invited communist MP William Gallacher not to get too excited over the subject of the situation in Greece, if he didn't want to be accused of 'Trotskyism'. Interestingly, Churchill noted that archbishop Damaskinos, who was more or less imposed by the British authorities as regent, 'greatly feared the communist - or Trotskyite, as he put it - combination in Greek affairs."13  Churchill added: "Stalin, however, adhered strictly and faithfully to our agreement of October, and during all the long weeks of fighting the communists in the streets of Athens, not one word of reproach came from Pravda or Izvestia."14 

Once the immediate threat of revolution from the mass movements had ebbed, then Stalin's usefulness had ended and Marshall aid replaced communists in governments as a method of control. The cold war was a policy of containment by the west and a retrenchment by Stalin to protect his domestic power base against the threat of a new war. War-weariness and anti-politics did characterise the post-war epoch; there was a determination to get back to 'normalcy' after the political furore of fascism v communism, but this in itself created the basis of future conflicts.

The expectations of returning black soldiers had been raised and these were unfulfilled in the southern states of the US in particular, which led to the civil rights explosion. European ex-soldiers may only have wanted "the happy obscurity of a hum-drum job and a little wife and a household of kids" or to "return to the mountains of the Caucuses, the exciting blue smoke of the foothills "¦, the sweet faces of loved ones",15  but it was not the end of history, however much Doris Day might croon her enormously popular paean against the political aspirations of the oppressed in a Hitchcock film in 1956: Que sera was not going to be sera - the future was still to be fought for.

A new orientation was clearly required from Trotskyists and a reworking of the Transitional programme for those times, but they had lost their best leaders, including Trotsky himself, and the new generation was not of the calibre to make that turn.

Significance of transitional demands

But it is to the current political significance of transitional demands to which we must now turn and the method of Jack Conrad. In attacking Trotsky's thesis that mankind's productive forces had stagnated (surely that was true in 1938?), he reveals his own philosophical idealist outlook.  He is surprised that Marx's Preface (flawed in some important respects - vital to know which ones surely) "can, after all, be read to mean that the material productive forces, not the class struggle, are the locomotive of history" and Trotsky can therefore be excused for making the same mistake. What mistake? The class struggle cannot be the "locomotive of history" (surely 'motive force' would be better), because that immediately posed the question, what is the motive force of the class struggle?

Marx explained, Trotsky understood, but Jack Conrad apparently does not. It is the conflict between the social relations of production and the productive forces, that is the motive force of history and thereby the class struggle. Trotsky never regarded the 'existing consciousness' of workers as unproblematic - that was the whole point of transitional demands: we must approach the working class at its existing level of consciousness or accept that we cannot approach them at all, and thereby give up the struggle and reduce ourselves either to a propaganda sect or a reformist group.

Jack Conrad's analysis of the opportunism of the right Trotskyist groups (in fact neither the Socialist Workers Party nor the Alliance for Workers' Liberty claims to be Trotskyist) is in the main correct and sharp. However, no analysis is 'wasted' on what can be regarded as the propaganda sects, although in truth Workers Power could be charged with opportunism for its relationship with the Socialist Party and the Spartacist League split when it briefly abandoned propagandism and attempted to influence the real course of events in east Germany by mawkishly defending Stalinism and Eric Honecker in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, Workers Power has always had a serious orientation to programme, even if it has become more and more like a propaganda sect and Healyite in some of its increasingly bizarre insistence on the proximity of the international revolutionary crisis.

The idea behind transitional demands is simple, and should be non-controversial amongst serious Marxists: we must find a method to develop the current struggles of the working class and the reformist consciousness that goes with them towards revolutionary consciousness and the overthrow of capitalism itself. Simply posing the stark alternatives of reformist demands and a revolutionary overthrow is a recipe for rejection; we must seek to escalate the struggle in a way that poses the revolution, initially to a vanguard and thence to the broader masses.

In this regard serious Marxists distinguish between agitation and propaganda. We seek to advance the struggle by agitational demands for the broad masses: 'land, bread and peace' is a very famous example. But such a demand on its own can never make the revolution. Simultaneous propaganda demands are necessary to win the political vanguard. The most famous example is the April theses. Neither of these was adequate on its own - in fact each individually was useless if not taken as part of the revolutionary process. If they are taken in conjunction, the vanguard can be won and that then becomes the key to the masses, gains their trust and by that can hold back the fight when only a section is ready or unleash it in the most favourable circumstances for victory - the restraint of the July days and the organisation of the insurrection in October were the result of that approach.

Of course, we do not have revolutionary situations every day (or decade), but the method should be clear even in the dispiriting periods of capitalist booms. We would argue that it was this method of approach that distinguished the Bolsheviks from the German Social Democrats, even in the period between 1905 and 1914, although these differences were then untheorised. Lenin clearly had big illusions in Kautsky, as demonstrated by What is to be done? He had 'bent the stick' in that polemic, he admitted in 1908.

Trotsky's programme was directed at the organised working class in the factories and other workplaces. To call this 'economism' is to reject the traditional orientation of communism to the working class as the depository of the revolution itself. The revolution needs the cadres to lead the masses, but Trotsky certainly was not hung up on factory committees: his military proletarian policy was designed to turn his followers towards military training and war, because he knew that resistance armies would inevitably feature in the outcome of that war.

Risibly Jack Conrad seeks to prove that Trotsky saw no further need for education and organisation, because "fighting to maintain existing conditions was all that was needed to 'win the prize'" and Trotsky was suffering from "a classic case of elevating trade union struggles to the level of socialist politics".

What a waste of space that Lee Rock is - I did not read anything about overthrowing capitalism in his article on the split in the Public and Commercial Services Union left, carried in the same issue of the Weekly Worker! His article was "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". But then Lee probably is not following the party line in the Socialist Caucus: he clearly regards "socialism as [a] conspiracy" and is in all probability a secret Blanquist putschist - as are all of us who waste our time fighting within the trade unions, seeking by means of transitional demands to overthrow capitalism "using trade union and other such [useless, he might as well have said] levers".

Seriously, in most of this section comrade Conrad resorts to mere unreasoned abuse to cover his inability to strike serious blows against the Programme.


What were the real prospects of revolutions in western Europe post-World War II and was Trotsky's Programme just a fool's illusion? Trotsky points out that, had the insurrection of October 1917 not been carried through, official historians would have explained that it would have been "sheer madness" - "they would have furnished the reader with awe-inspiring statistical charts of the Junkers and Cossacks and shock troops and artillery, deployed fan-wise, and army corps arriving from the front."16 

We will never know, but we can say that with an established leadership so opposed and the murder of the best revolutionary fighters by Stalin and Hitler, often in collaboration, it could not really develop.

It is true that Trotsky's programmatic methods were not understood by his post-war followers. It is true also, however, that none but the Trotskyists attempted to do so. There are those who consider themselves Trotskyists in every corner of the planet. The best and most self-sacrificing revolutionaries are always attracted to its banner in times of acute crisis, no matter what the betrayals of cynical careerists in Brazil, France, Britain or anywhere else.

Jack Conrad's 'Neither Trotsky nor Stalin, but myself' has no such historical echoes.