Monday, 9 January 2012

The rellevance of Trotsky's transitional programme today

In 1938 one of the greatest revolutionary pieces was written by Leon Trotsky. His idea of a programme that can bridge the gap between the current stand point and socialism which is the end goal a class less society based on the needs of the mass's over the profits of a select few.

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.

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.

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 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.

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