Twenty years ago the powerful repressive Stalinist police states fell one after another under the pressure of mass upsurges. The collapse of Stalinism was a dramatic event and a turning point in world history. But in retrospect it will be seen as only the prelude to something even more dramatic: the death agony of world capitalism.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the bureaucratic Stalinist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe provoked a wave of euphoria in the West. The demise of Stalinism was heralded as the "end of Socialism." The final victory of the "free market" was trumpeted from the pages of learned journals from Tokyo to New York. The strategists of capital were exultant. Everything would be for the best in the best of all capitalist worlds. But only a few years later all these dreams of the bourgeoisie and the reformists lie in ashes.
Francis Fukuyama even went so far as to proclaim the "end of history." By this he meant that capitalism was now the only possible system for humanity, and that revolution was henceforth off the agenda. But the since then the wheel of history has turned 180 degrees. All the optimistic predictions of the bourgeoisie have been reduced to rubble.
The collapse of Stalinism was not the end of history, but only the first act in a drama, which has ended in the most serious crisis in the history of world capitalism. The unprecedented ideological offensive against the ideas of Marxism has now reached its limits. In society as in classical mechanics it is true that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And a general reaction against capitalist barbarism has begun.
Written in 1938, Trotsky’s remarkable work The Transitional Programme seems even more relevant today than when it was written. For a long time it appeared that Trotsky’s prognosis referred to a distant historical period, as remote from present day reality as some far-flung galaxy is from the earth. On the surface capitalism appeared to have successfully solved its problems and the Marxian theory of crisis seemed to be out of date.
Now all this has been stood on its head. The bourgeois economists are unable to explain the present crisis, which they said would never occur. Official economics presents a picture of confusion, incompetence and disarray. Not long ago Paul Krugman, a prominent economist, confessed that for the past 30 years macroeconomic theory has been “at best spectacularly useless, at worst, positively harmful”.
By contrast, The Transitional Programme now seems to have been written, not 73 years ago, but yesterday. Its description of the state of the world economy can be applied to the present crisis without changing a single dot or comma. Here we see the colossal superiority of the Marxist method.
Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Programme: “The capitalists are tobogganing towards disaster with their eyes closed.” Today, however, it is necessary to make just one change to that affirmation. Nowadays the capitalists are tobogganing towards disaster with their eyes wide open. They can see what’s happening. They can see what’s coming. But they can do absolutely nothing to prevent it.
The bourgeoisie is not capable of understanding the real causes of crises. Their main theory is really a throwback to Say’s Law, which says that supply and demand will eventually balance, and if left to themselves, the markets will find the correct level. This theory leaves out of account the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist economy, in which there is no automatic correlation between supply and demand and always tends towards overproduction.
The problem for the bourgeoisie is that it used up the instruments that should be used to get out of a slump in order to delay the onset of recession. Now they cannot have recourse to these methods precisely when they need them. How can they reduce the rate if interest, when it is already close to zero? And how can they increase state expenditure, when the state is already bankrupt? And how can they expand credit, when people are struggling to pay off the colossal burden of debt left over from the boom period?
To these questions the bourgeois have no answer. The continuation of this decrepit and degenerate system threatens to drag the entire world down into an abyss of crises, unemployment, suffering and degradation. It threatens to undermine all the gains of the past, and even to threaten the existence of human culture and civilization. What is required is a fundamental transformation of society from top to bottom. The words of Karl Marx retain all their power today: the alternative before humankind is: socialism or barbarism.
But how is this great transformation to be achieved? The socialist revolution cannot be achieved by the actions of a small minority. It can only be carried out by the masses themselves. But how can the small forces of revolutionary Marxism conquer the masses? How can we advance from “A” to “B”? This central question is answered by Trotsky in the Transitional Programme.
The Transitional Programme is an attempt to link the struggle for slogans for bettering the condition of the masses to the idea of the Socialist Revolution through transitional slogans. As distinct from the old minimum and maximum programme of the Social Democracy, the Transitional Programme represents the transition from capitalism to the socialist revolution.
The socialist revolution would be unthinkable without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism. Only in and through the struggle can the working class acquire the necessary experience and organization to challenge the capitalist system. Sectarians and ultra lefts cannot understand this. They stand aloof from the day-to-day struggles of the workers, and therefore doom themselves to impotence.
The task of the advanced guard of the proletariat is not to lecture the masses from the sidelines. In order to find a road to the masses, it is necessary to fight alongside them, to participate in each and every struggle, for even the most modest gains, while at each stage linking the struggle to the perspective of socialist revolution. Herein is the essence of transitional demands.
Trotsky versus Stalin
The power of Trotsky’s ideas is clear today to any unbiased person. But when he wrote this document, the man who was, together with Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, the founder of the Red Army, was living the life of a lonely exile, persecuted and driven from one country to another: one man against the whole world.
In all the annals of history we will scarcely find a similar case when all the resources of a vast state apparatus were mobilized to destroy one man. In vain Trotsky strove to find a place of exile. All the doors of the so-called western democracies were firmly shut against him, in what the French surrealist poet Andre Breton described as “the planet without a visa”.
Expelled from the Communist Party of Russia in 1927 as the result of the machinations of Stalin and his bureaucratic apparat, Trotsky was later sent into exile (1929) in far-off Turkey. By such bureaucratic means Stalin and his henchmen thought they would silence the leader of the Bolshevik-Leninists (the Left Opposition). But they were mistaken. Trotsky would not be silenced.
From his exile on the island of Prinkipo, he organized the counter attack of the genuine forces of Bolshevism-Leninism. Trotsky set up the International Left Opposition, which began to regroup all those who remained loyal to the ideas of Lenin, the Bolshevik Party and October.
Incapable of answering Trotsky’s political arguments, Stalin and the bureaucracy answered with acts of repression. The Left Opposition in Russia was suppressed by force and its members sacked from their jobs, harassed, and later arrested, imprisoned and murdered. This was the start of a systematic persecution that involved the murder of all Trotsky’s comrades, collaborators, friends and even his children. Finally in Mexico in August 1940 Stalin succeeded in his main aim: the assassination of Trotsky.
The Fourth International
Trotsky founded the International Left opposition in order to regroup all those who remained true to the ideas of Bolshevik-Leninism. Though formally expelled from the ranks of the Communist Parties and the Communist International (Comintern), Trotsky and his followers still considered themselves to be part of the Communist movement, fighting for readmission and for the reform of the Communist Parties, the Communist International and the USSR.
The betrayal of the German working class in 1933, arising from the failure of the Communist International to offer a united front to the Social Democratic workers against Hitler, was a turning-point. When even this terrible defeat did not create a ripple in their ranks, Trotsky was forced to conclude that the Communist International was dead as a force for world socialism. It was now necessary to prepare the way for the organisation of a Fourth International, untarnished with the crimes and betrayals which besmirched the Reformist and Stalinist Internationals.
In the main, the pre-war period was one of preparation and orientation and selection of cadres or leading elements to be trained and steeled theoretically and practically. In contrast to the sectarian groups, Trotsky always addressed himself to the mass organizations of the working class. He did not adopt a tone of shrill denunciation when dealing with the reformist workers, but followed Lenin's slogan: Patiently explain.
Trotsky's method, like that of Marx and Lenin, was a combination of two things: an implacable defence of ideas and principles, and an extremely flexible approach to tactics and organizational questions. We can see this method in the Transitional Programme and in all Trotsky’s discussions with his collaborators at this time.
But Trotsky faced many difficulties. As in the days after the collapse of the Second International, the revolutionary internationalists were small and isolated. The forces of the new international were weak and immature. Even more serious was the total isolation from the proletarian mass organizations. This worried Trotsky greatly.
As a means for overcoming the isolation of the movement from the mass organizations of the Social Democracy and Communist party, Trotsky advocated entry into the Social Democratic parties in France, Britain and other countries in the 1930s. In order to win the best workers, it was necessary to find a way of influencing them. This could only be done by working together with them in the mass organizations. This flexible approach was a means of preparing the cadres for the great events which impended.
The defeats of the working class in Germany, France and in the civil war in Spain, the result of the policies of the Second and Third Internationals, prepared the way for the Second World War, confronting the new International with new challenges. It was in this atmosphere that the 1938 founding conference of the Fourth International took place.
But there were problems from the very start. Many of the cadres were disoriented by the collapse of the Third International and demoralized by the rise of Stalinism. Most were inclined towards sectarianism and ultra leftism. Fortunately they had the guidance and assistance of Trotsky, and the perspectives of great historical events.
But the leading cadres lacked the necessary theoretical depth to think independently. The assassination of Trotsky in August 1940 dealt a devastating blow to the young and untested forces of the International. They never understood Trotsky’s method and were incapable of adjusting to the new situation that developed during and after the Second World War.
Trotsky’s prognosis falsified
Unfortunately, the leaders of the Fourth International were not up to the level of the tasks posed by history. In 1938 Trotsky predicted that within ten years nothing would be left of the old traitor organizations, and the Fourth International would have become the decisive revolutionary force on the planet. The basic analysis was correct, but every prognosis is conditional; the multiplicity of factors, economically, politically, socially, can always result in a different development than that foreseen.
The perspective of Trotsky was that of war, which in its turn would provoke revolution. This is not the place to deal with the extremely complex unfolding of the Second World War. War is the most complicated of all equations. The result of the Second World War was foreseen by nobody. Neither Trotsky nor Roosevelt, neither Hitler nor Stalin foresaw it.
As predicted by Trotsky, the War gave a tremendous impetus to revolution in Italy, Greece, France, Britain, Eastern Europe and the Colonial countries. But, for reasons not anticipated by Trotsky, the revolutionary wave was headed off by the betrayals of Stalinism and reformism. In place of revolution in Western Europe, we had counter-revolution in a democratic form.
The betrayal of the Stalinists and reformists provided the political precondition for a new period of capitalist upswing from 1948-73. The perspectives worked out by Trotsky in 1938 were falsified by history. In Eastern Europe, the Stalinists took over and set up new deformed workers states, in the image of Stalin's Moscow. The victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949 further strengthened Stalinism for a whole period.
The degeneration and collapse of the Fourth International after Trotsky's death was mainly due to objective factors - mighty economic upswings of world capitalism, the renewed illusion in reformism and Stalinism, meant that, for a whole period, the forces of genuine Marxism could not expect big gains. However, the leaders of the IV International made serious mistakes that in the end wrecked the new International.
In war, in periods of advance, good generals are important. But in a period of retreat, they are more important still. With good generals, you can retreat in good order, with a minimum of losses, keeping your forces intact, to prepare for a more favourable situation. With bad generals, you turn a defeat into a rout.
These new historical phenomena, although foreshadowed in Trotsky's writings, were a closed book to the so-called leaders of the International. Deprived of Trotsky's leadership the leaders of the Fourth made a series of fundamental mistakes. We cannot go here into the details of the disastrous policies pursued by the leaders of the so-called Fourth International. These are dealt with elsewhere (see Ted Grant’s The Programme of the International). Suffice it to say that not one of these people was capable of analysing the new situation, or adjusting to it. That spelled disaster for the International, which was still-born.
Only the leadership of the RCP in Britain was able to readjust to the new situation on a world scale after 1945. For this we have to thank one man - Ted Grant. His writings on economics, war, the colonial revolution, and particularly Stalinism, were, and still remain, classics of modern Marxism. It was on this basis that the forces of genuine Marxism were able to regroup and build under difficult conditions.
Basing himself on the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, comrade Ted was able to keep together a small group of loyal comrades in the dark and difficult years of capitalist upswing that followed the Second World War, when the forces of genuine Marxism were reduced to a tiny handful internationally. Today the International Marxist Tendency – the organization that was founded by Ted Grant, has kept alive the programme, the theory, the methods and the ideas of Marxism and holds high the banner of Leon Trotsky – the banner that alone can bring victory.
[To be continued...]