by Joseph Green
(CV #33, Dec. 15, 2002,
with secondary subheads added in Feb. 2009)
--Denigration of the democratic revolution
--Trotsky versus "the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry"
--Overlooking the non-socialist revolutionary trends
--The issue of the provisional revolutionary government
--"Left" rhetoric leading to subordination to the bourgeoisie
The transitional program
--Trotskyist repudiation of the minimum program
--Claiming reforms go beyond the bounds of capitalism
--An inconsistent and muddled stand towards various demands and struggles
--A strong element of manipulation
--The problem isn't the term "transitional demand"
The colonial and semi-colonial world
--Nothing to say about class relation in undeveloped countries-
--Ludicrous suggestions about China-
--In judging wars, a mechanical rule rather than class and political criteria
The hypocrisy of "military but not political support": backing reactionary regimes at war
Betraying the right to self-determination
--Implying the right to self-determination is outdated
--Holding that independence would lead directly to socialism
--Ignoring the national oppression of a number of nationalities, including the Moroccan people during the Spanish Civil War-
--Seeing nothing but the struggle for independence-
--Trotskyist justifications for oppressing certain nationalities
Democratic struggles and the fight against fascism
--Worried about taking anti-fascist struggle too seriously
--Unable to fight fascism except with immediate socialist revolution-
--Embracing social-democracy in the name of opposing fascism
--The "French turn": embracing social-democracy
TOC for all four parts
Links to Part 1, 2, 3, & 4.
. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decay of the former pro-Soviet parties, the
Trotskyist groups have been left as some of the largest organizations presenting themselves as
Leninists and anti-imperialists. Yet, just as the Stalinists do, the Trotskyists negate the basic
principles of Marx and Lenin. Communist Voice has criticized this or that aspect of Trotskyism in
various articles. In this article, we begin work on an overall outline of Trotskyism, which we
hope to improve over time. We ask our readers to point out aspects of Trotskyism we may have
overlooked, so that we can develop our analysis further. We intend that several important
theoretical points from this outline will be developed in detail later as separate articles.
. Trotskyism is a broad political current, with many squabbling groups. It is split into two great camps. There are "left-wing" Trotskyists such as the Spartacists, who are infamous for their sectarian attitude towards activists and mass movements, and "right-wing" Trotskyists, such as the SWP and WWP, who seek to merge with the liberal and reformist trends. The "left" Trotskyists preach their Trotskyism in the open and argue about who is more loyal to Trotsky's teachings, while the "right" Trotskyists like to pretend that they regard Trotsky as only one of many revolutionaries, and they are more likely to criticize some individual views of Trotsky. But while differing in their approach to the masses and in some of their views, both wings of Trotskyism share a common theoretical standpoint.
. Marxism is not a mere jumble of disconnected views about tactics and goals, but is an integral system, whose ideas about how the mass struggle should be waged are based on its views of the underlying forces of historical development. Marxism shows how the economic prerequisites are being formed to replace all class systems of exploitation with socialism; it shows how class struggle evolves on the basis of an economic foundation; it shows the relationship of politics to this class struggle; and it guides the development of the economic and political organizations of the proletariat that will prepare it for the socialist revolution. Trotskyism replaces this overall standpoint of Marxism with a series of eclectic and mechanical formulas.
. Trotskyism is similar to "left" communism (which is criticized by Lenin in his famous pamphlet 'Left-Wing' Communism, an Infantile Disorder) in that it is skeptical of partial demands, reform struggles, and the distinction between the minimum and maximum program, and has an equivocal attitude to the right to national self-determination. Trotskyism sees these things as becoming obsolete in the epoch of imperialism, on the grounds that capitalism in its "death agony" supposedly no longer has any room for reforms. In effect, Trotskyism, like "left" communism, relegates much of Marxism to a museum of 19th century antiques. Trotsky sought what he called the "bridge" between the struggle for reforms and revolution, not as Marxism does in the increasing development of proletarian organization and the development of objective conditions for revolution, but in special "transitional demands" that supposedly are inherently revolutionary although they do not directly call for revolution. (1)
. Trotskyism differs from "left" communism in accepting the idea of the rule of a proletarian party, the use of a revolutionary state, and the importance of the nationalization of industry, and in claiming to uphold Leninism. But many of its ideas about these things are close to those of Stalinism, not Leninism. For example, Trotskyism is closely allied to Stalinism in regarding nationalization, if the government is free of the traditional bourgeoisie, as basically socialist. Trotskyism regards any government with a predominant state sector, if the former big bourgeoisie has been pushed aside or dispossessed, as some type of workers state, even if there is no workers control and the government is repressive. Hence, most Trotskyist groups--whether from the left or right wings of Trotskyism--describe Stalinist and other state-capitalist regimes as workers' states, albeit "deformed" and "degenerated" ones. These state-capitalist "workers' states" are supposedly socialistic or collectivist economically, although they repress the working class politically.
. Indeed, Trotskyism shares the tendency to regard state ownership as socialistic, not just with Stalinism, but with reformism. While resembling "left" communism in some ways, Trotskyism faces right as well as left. Trotskyism has historically looked longingly towards various large reformist and social-democratic parties. It doesn't see how far the ingrained methods and structure of these parties accord with their politics, but thinks that they would be revolutionary if only they had a Trotskyist leadership. This gravitation towards the reformists first appeared in Trotsky's sympathy for the Menshevik or reformist wing of the Russian communist movement, despite his disagreement with it on the character of the coming revolution. Later, it was manifested by Trotsky's "French turn" of 1934-5, when he advised his followers to join the party of the French social-democrats, the S.F.I.O. The "French turn" was the origin of the "entrist" tactic of many later Trotskyist groupings, where they submerged or liquidated their own organizations or parties in favor of entering into the reformist groupings. Even when Trotskyist groups maintain their own parties, some still merge with the rightist trends for much of their practical political work. This is seen in the habit of the larger "rightist" Trotskyist parties, when they build broad coalitions for this or that struggle, of hiding their politics, with the aim of finding and joining with some wing of the liberals and reformists. Indeed, even the "left" Trotskyists, despite their thunderous denunciations of other activists for "reformism", hold the most astonishing expectations concerning this or that reformist trend. This can be seen, for example, in the tendency of the Spartacists, despite all their criticisms of the trade union bureaucrats, to regard them as the natural leaders of the workers. The most left Trotskyist rhetoric can, and generally is, combined with abject reformist illusions.
. Thus Trotskyism challenges Marxism-Leninism on many different issues, sometimes from the right, sometimes from the left. Both "right" and "left" Trotskyists find support in Trotsky's writings, and it would be a mistake to think that the "right" Trotskyists just take the rightist aspects of Trotskyism and forget about the left phrasemongering, or that the "left" Trotskyists have managed to escape various of the deeply rightist orientations of Trotskyism. Moreover, while Marxism emphasizes the need to take account of the complexities and specific class relations of every situation, Trotskyism is particularly fond of one-size-fits-all patterns and mechanical rules, which are supposed to apply universally. Thus Trotskyism sees only one stage of revolution throughout the world, regarding the idea of two (or more) stages as reformism everywhere and always; it sees transitional demands as applicable to all situations; and it sees all subordinate countries in a conflict with larger powers as waging an anti-imperialist struggle.
. These rigid patterns have been tested and found wanting by the experience of the 20th century. Trotskyism has fallen on its face in trying to analyze the new phenomena of this period, such as the emergence of state-capitalist ruling classes, and in dealing with the persistence of old issues, such as the national question. Trotskyism throws aside a number of key principles of Marxism as supposedly outdated by the emergence of monopoly capitalism, and yet it is Trotskyism that has proved incapable of dealing with the experience of a century of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. Leninism, on the contrary, built on and extended the basic principles of Marxism, rather than discarding them.
. Except insofar as it bears on questions of theory, this outline is not concerned with the mass of judgments by Trotsky on this or that individual or event. Our concern is only incidentally with Trotsky as an individual, but mainly with Trotskyism as a theory and a political trend. We focus, not on whether various individuals are worthy, talented or good people, but on the strategy and tactics of building the revolutionary movement.
. Now let's proceed to a listing of the key theses of Trotskyism.
. "Permanent revolution" was Trotsky's first major distinctive theory of his own, and it would become the banner of the Trotskyist movement. Indeed, this term is sometimes used in a general sense as a synonym for Trotskyism in general. But strictly speaking, it refers to Trotsky's view that the former Marxist distinction between bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolution is outdated and obsolete. Instead, Trotsky held that revolution in any country--no matter on what issues it breaks out, what the local alignment of classes was, and what the economic level of development is--would either be utterly defeated, or directly go on to a proletarian dictatorship and socialist measures. The only type of revolution possible in the current era was supposed to be the socialist revolution (although Trotsky held that the revolution should generally, for the sake of gaining mass support, drape itself at the outset in some other colors). Trotsky held that any socialist who regarded a revolution as bourgeois-democratic was allegedly selling out the working class to the bourgeoisie.
. Naturally all this doesn't simply follow from the term "permanent revolution". By itself, that term has occasionally been used in various contexts, such as to refer to the idea of continuing the revolution from one stage to another, or the idea that the proletariat's goal will not be reached until the achievement of communist society, or even to stress the idea that the proletariat must organize itself as an independent party as opposed to that of other revolutionary trends. There have been different ideas in the left about when a revolution can be continued, and how to do so, and they have differed very much from each other despite sharing the general feature of being about "continuing the revolution". For that matter, Trotsky used the term "permanent revolution" to refer to a set of theories about the revolution which, in fact, negate the very idea of a revolution having different stages, thus negating some other uses that have been made of the term. So we are concerned here with the Trotskyist version of "permanent revolution", not with the term in and of itself.
. Trotsky's version of "permanent revolution" appears leftist as it means that the Trotskyists never need take part in any revolution but a socialist one. But whether a revolution is socialist depends not on what one calls it, but on what it actually is. In order to present every revolutionary movement as socialist, Trotskyism is led to give a socialist gloss to movements and demands that leave capitalism in place, just as many reformists do. This socialistic gloss results in Trotskyism failing to see what independent socialist tasks a revolutionary working class trend should carry out in the midst of bourgeois-democratic revolutions and movements, since Trotskyism sees the overall movement itself as inherently socialist.
. Marxism holds that revolutions spring from definite class contradictions, and their outcomes are dependent on these conditions. It holds that, with regard to their social content, revolutions are divided into bourgeois-democratic and socialist ones. Whether a revolution would be bourgeois-democratic or socialist does not depend on the declaration of revolutionaries, but on the material conditions and class relations of a country. A national liberation struggle, an agrarian revolution that provides "land to the tiller", or the overthrow of various vicious dictatorships do not thereby go beyond the bounds of capitalism. Marxism showed that democratic revolutions that issued radical promises, made great inroads on the property of the former ruling circles, and, at the height of mass activity, appeared to be providing freedom for all, were actually paving the way for a wider and deeper spread of capitalism, and hence a wider and deeper class struggle. The conditions that provide for a revolution against various forms of oppression are not necessarily the same conditions as those that provide for a revolution against capitalist exploitation.
. However, Marxism holds that democratic revolutions and movements are not thereby irrelevant to the working class. It is precisely the most radical outcome of the democratic revolution and the most intense development of the class struggle that creates conditions for the socialist revolution. And the more that the class-conscious workers recognize the bourgeois-democratic nature of various movements and revolutions, the more likely they are to organize a truly independent proletarian trend within the general liberation movement, and the more they will facilitate the develop of the class alliances that will lead to the socialist revolution.
. Lenin elaborated on the Marxist principle that a democratic revolution might, under favorable conditions, directly pass over into a socialist revolution. But he showed that, even then, the class alliances in the two revolutions would be different. In a country with a large peasantry, the workers might be allied with the peasantry as a whole in a struggle against large landlords, foreign colonialists or other oppressors who weighed down on all the peasants. But the richer peasants would not back socialism. It was only the poor peasants and agricultural laborers that could provide a firm agrarian class support for socialism, and only when they no longer saw obtaining or clinging to their own small plot of land as their salvation. Class attitudes would shift as the revolution proceeded to socialism. Lenin showed that, while in some cases the democratic and socialist revolutions might be intertwined, even then they remained, in principle, different stages of the revolutionary process, with different class alliances.
. Thus Lenin upheld the Marxist theory of different social types of revolution,
bourgeois-democratic and socialist, and developed it further in the light of the changes in world
capitalism and class relations. Trotsky discarded this theory, and held that the proletariat should
only be interested in socialist revolutions. In the course of doing so, he set forward a series of
Denigration of the democratic revolution
. * Trotsky did sometimes talk about the "democratic" or "bourgeois" revolution". But he regarded such a phrase as referring simply to the first days of a "proletarian dictatorship" or socialist revolution. In his view, one talked about the democratic revolution simply to gain support, while all revolutions actually had a socialist character. (2) He opposed the view that the democratic revolution could ever be something separate from socialist revolution.
. Indeed, to this day, Trotskyists repeatedly denounce the very thought of "two-stage revolution"
as the worst reformism. This shows that they don't regard the democratic and socialist revolutions
as separate stages of the revolutionary process. They hold instead that, ever since world
capitalism reached the stage of monopoly capitalism a century ago, there can only be revolutions
of a socialist character. Any other type of revolution is, in their eyes, a betrayal of the proletariat.
Trotsky versus "the revolutionary democratic dictatorship
of the proletariat and peasantry"
. * Trotsky opposed the Leninist formula of the most radical outcome of the bourgeois-democratic revolution being the "revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry". First he denounced this formula. Later, when he sought to portray himself as a follower of Lenin, he hedged a bit. He said that the Leninist formula had been of some value in the past as a "provisional hypothesis", but it had supposedly been "disproved" by events, although it might still be OK if it were taken simply to be another way of referring to the proletarian dictatorship. But of course the whole point of the formula was that it indicated a stage of revolution different from that of the proletarian dictatorship that occurs in the socialist revolution. In practice, Trotsky continued to oppose anyone who still used the formula, and claimed that it was vague and obsolete. (3)
. Trotsky's opposition to this formula was another way in which he denied that the distinction between the democratic and socialist stages of the revolution. Lenin used this formula to, among other things, contrast the class alliances in the democratic revolution to those in the socialist revolution. In the democratic revolution, the socialist proletariat might be supported by the entire peasantry, but in the socialist revolution, the attitude of the peasantry would be more complex. When it came to the actual socialist transformation of the countryside, a section of the peasantry would be at best neutral.
. Trotsky also had another reason for wanting to bury Lenin's formula. Trotsky claimed that
recognition of the bourgeois-democratic nature of a revolution meant betraying the proletariat
and trailing tamely behind the bourgeoisie. But Lenin's formula, by pointing to the need for an
alliance of the working masses as the core of this revolution, showed that this wasn't true.
Overlooking the non-socialist revolutionary trends
. * Trotsky, in regarding the democratic revolution simply as the first days of a socialist revolution, essentially denied the difference in the class alliances in the democratic and socialist revolutions. In particular, he denigrated the need, in determining the social content of a revolution, to take serious account of the class stand of the peasantry and of its different sections (well-off peasant exploiters, middle peasants, and poor peasant semi-proletarians). He glossed over the economic factors that are the material base for the stands of the peasantry and its various sections.
. Trotsky didn't see the need for this, because he held that the peasantry could not carry out its own "independent" action. Thus he didn't seriously examine the role the peasantry would play in different revolutions. He held instead that the peasantry would simply follow the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. On this basis, he held that the proletariat, once it led the peasantry at one stage of the revolution, could continue leading it right into socialism. At times, he might refer to the necessity to rely on the class division between rich and poor peasants. But he then held that the proletariat could simply create this class division as it wished, by using the state power it had gained at the beginning of the revolution to take the class struggle into the village. Trotsky saw this as always possible, rather than seeing that the class struggle in the village depended on definite social conditions and not just on the will of a revolutionary government. Thus he did not take serious account of the fact that the peasant may ally with the proletarian for agrarian revolution, or in other struggles which do not go beyond capitalism, and yet the same peasant may then balk at the socialist revolution.
. Indeed, Trotsky didn't take any account of the role played by any non-socialist revolutionary democratic trends at all. The theory of "permanent revolution" denigrates the possibility that there might be any revolutionary bourgeois-democratic trends, whether peasant or otherwise, on the grounds that they would not be "genuinely revolutionary". On these grounds, he imagined that any revolutionary trend among the petty-bourgeoisie would simply back the revolutionary proletarians. He closed his eyes to the complex political nature of the trends that arise in the midst of the revolutionary ferment.
. For example, in his first major work about the permanent revolution, Trotsky wrote there was
no sign of any revolutionary bourgeois-democratic (or revolutionary petty-bourgeois democratic)
trends in Russia. (4) This was in 1906, a year after the outbreak of the 1905 revolution, in which
peasant revolts supplemented the workers' uprising in the cities. The peasant revolutionary trend
burned down a substantial number of landlord estates, as well as helping undermine the loyalty of
the largely-peasant army. But Trotsky brushed aside the social nature of the peasant revolts as
unimportant. He simply couldn't see in these revolts a petty-bourgeois revolutionary trend. Here,
as elsewhere, he overlooked the specific features of petty-bourgeois politics, under the pretext
that the petty-bourgeois masses couldn't form their own "independent" trend and never could
manifest "genuine" revolutionism.
The issue of the provisional revolutionary government-
. * Trotsky denounced Lenin's view that socialists could participate in a provisional revolutionary government during a democratic revolution. He held that socialists could only enter a government of proletarian dictatorship. In part this was because he erroneously imagined that various radical measures were already socialist. Thus he sought to prove that a revolutionary government would have to be directly socialist by showing that it would have to nationalize part of the economy. (5) Yet even relatively extensive nationalization by itself doesn't go beyond capitalist relations, as has been shown by the history of many governments in the last hundred years.
. Still, Trotsky argued that if the socialists were a minority in a democratic provisional revolutionary government, then they would inevitably betray the proletariat by their participation in this government because they wouldn't be able to implement measures such as nationalization. He also implied that the governmental majority would, in that case, be the traditional bourgeoisie, as he didn't believe that there were revolutionary democratic trends.
. But what if the socialists were a majority in a provisional revolutionary government that came to power on the basis of the democratic revolution? In this case, Trotsky argued, the government would actually be a proletarian dictatorship, a socialist government. The nature of the revolutionary movement that had given rise to this government didn't matter, just the fact that the socialists had the majority in the government. He ridiculed the idea that socialists could take power in a provisional revolutionary government that led a democratic revolution, and then abandon power later rather than go on directly to socialism. He held that it didn't matter whether the majority of the working masses supported socialism yet or what the objective conditions in the country were, the supposed socialist government should stay in power and carry forward a socialist revolution, until and unless the socialists were driven from power by armed force.
. This was not a conception of the proletarian dictatorship depending on the consciousness and
mass initiative of the working masses, but only on obtaining a government majority, no matter on
what slogans or mass basis this majority was obtained. He did not consider the issue of whether
the socialists might be the leader of the majority of the masses in pushing the democratic
revolution to its most radical limits, but not yet have the backing of the masses for socialism.
Indeed, he mocked the idea that the government should be constrained by the will of the masses
as making the revolution "depend upon the passing moods of the least conscious, not yet
awakened masses". (6)
"Left" rhetoric leading to subordination to the bourgeoisie
. * Trotskyists claim that the theory of "permanent revolution" shows how the proletariat can avoid being subordinated to the bourgeoisie. But it's just the opposite. The Trotskyist denial of the existence of movements and revolutions of a bourgeois-democratic character doesn't make them go away in reality. It instead leaves the socialist movement with the choice of taking a sectarian attitude towards these struggles, or pretending that they have a socialist character. If the revolutionary activists take a sectarian attitude, it leaves the bourgeoisie free to dominate the democratic movements and to parade before the masses as their liberator, while simultaneously restricting the rights of the workers as much as possible. But if the activists paint these movements as socialist, it means turning the workers into simply the left-wing of bourgeois-democracy. Thus, either way, the theory of "permanent revolution" facilitates the subordination of the proletariat to bourgeois-democracy.
. By way of contrast, the Marxist theory of the bourgeois-democratic nature of various revolutionary movements shows how the militant proletariat can achieve its own goals. The class-conscious workers should seek the most radical outcome of the democratic struggle. This includes fighting against the attempts of the bourgeoisie to ensure a moderate outcome that preserves as many anti-democratic barriers as possible to the independent action of the working masses. But the militant workers should not restrict themselves to being the extreme wing of the democratic movement. They should also carry out their own class tasks, and ensure the development of an independent proletarian trend. They should neither boycott the democratic struggle nor subordinate themselves to it, but always seek to develop a broader and wider class struggle.
. For example, at the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin discussed the
tactics communists should adopt to the anti-colonial movement. It was precisely on the basis of
his recognition of the bourgeois-democratic nature of the national liberation movement that
Lenin could bring out the special tasks of communists in the oppressed nations. He showed that,
while pushing forward the anti-colonial movement, they should work in these countries towards
developing and strengthening independent proletarian trends. (7)
THE TRANSITIONAL PROGRAM
THE TRANSITIONAL PROGRAM
. While "permanent revolution" was the first of Trotsky's distinctive theories, the detailed elaboration of his "transitional program" was the last of his major theories. Trotsky put it forward in 1938 as the program for the Trotskyist "Fourth International" that was being founded. It was based on the idea that the Marxist division of the demands of the socialists between the "minimum" and "maximum" programs was obsolete. This division supposedly had been good only for the epoch of "progressive capitalism".
. Marxism holds that the class forces for the socialist revolution can not be mobilized and
organized simply by preaching how desirable socialism will be in the future, but by participating
in the on-going class struggle between the working masses and their exploiters. In the midst of
this struggle, the working class has to build up its consciousness, organization, and traditions of
struggle. At the same time, the immediate struggles over partial demands or the "minimum
program", however important, don't take one beyond capitalism. Thus the achievement of
political freedom, national independence, the end to racial discrimination, higher wages and
better working conditions, national health systems, universal education, the nationalization of
key industries, and so forth, would not take one beyond capitalism. For that, one needs the
"maximum program" of the socialist revolution. But the struggle over various of the demands of
the "minimum program" fuels the class struggle that leads to the socialist revolution.
Trotskyist repudiation of the minimum program
. * Trotsky, however, believed that it was reformism to fight for anything whose achievement
didn't go beyond the bounds of capitalism. He therefore repudiated the minimum program and
declared that the Trotskyist movement "advances a system of transitional demands, the essence
of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed
against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old 'minimal program' is superseded by the
transitional program, . . . " (8)
Claiming reforms go beyond the bounds of capitalism
. * There was a good deal of hypocrisy in this renunciation of the minimum program since Trotsky simultaneously declared that "The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old 'minimal' demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. "(9)
. Indeed, Trotsky declared that "in an epoch of decaying capitalism . . . there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses' living standards". Since real reforms were now allegedly impossible, "every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois states. "(10) So Trotsky, having recoiled in horror at the thought of that horrible "minimum program, which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society", had fortunately discovered that every serious reform now "inevitably reaches beyond the limits" of bourgeois society. Thus many of the same proletarian demands that were kicked out the back door as trash, as the obsolete "minimum program", were welcomed back in the front door as "transitional demands" that go beyond the bounds of capitalism. The difference between the Marxist "minimum program" and Trotsky is that the Marxists tell the workers that reforms alone, however important, won't bring socialism, while Trotsky pretended that any "serious" reform breaches the limits of capitalism.
. Thus Trotsky dressed up various demands in revolutionary language, thinking that rephrasing
these demands changed their essence. For example, Trotsky says that the reformists are
demanding "a tax on military profit" so that the Fourth International should demand "confiscation
of military profit". (11) Two more examples of demands that are now declared to go beyond the
bounds of capitalism are "decent living conditions for all" and "a sliding scale of wages", i.e.
COLA, or cost-of-living adjustments ("collective agreements should assure an automatic rise in
wages in relation to the increase in price of consumer goods"). (12) No doubt COLA is a fine
demand, but Trotsky dresses it up as a revolutionary demand. No doubt there are many important
demands for "decent living conditions", but is this equivalent to a fight against capitalism itself?
One might as well describe any struggle for higher wages as a fight to undermine capitalism
itself, on the grounds that capitalism cannot provide a universal system of high wages for all
An inconsistent and muddled stand towards various demands and struggles
. * Thus, underneath its verbiage, Trotsky's "transitional program" largely dressed up the minimum program in revolutionary language, rather then abandoning it. The struggle for reforms, rejected in theory as allegedly being a betrayal of revolution, is largely accepted in practice, albeit in a somewhat hidden form. But this theoretical double-talk can wreak havoc with any attempt to give consistent guidance to the class struggle.
. When reforms are dressed up as inherently revolutionary, as "transitional demands", it harms the struggle against reformism. What is wrong with the reformists is not that they fight for this or that reform, but that they conciliate the bourgeoisie and they present the achievement of some reform as essentially socialism. Yet the Trotskyists also set forward the idea that the fight for immediate demands can undermine capitalism itself, if only this demand is formulated as a "transitional demand". This can help create the very illusions that the reformists do.
. As well, the theoretical rejection of the minimum program inherent in the Trotskyist "transitional program" resulted in an inconsistent attitude towards various demands and struggles, such as the struggle against fascism and the struggle against national oppression (see the sections below on the national question and the democratic struggles). Trotsky had a particularly hard time dealing with various struggles that occur in a nonrevolutionary period. While grudgingly accepting the need for some of the old partial demands, the "transitional program" aimed to give, for every situation, a set of demands that would be appropriate for a movement that was on the verge of insurrection.
. But then as now, the working class was faced with backward and stagnant situations, as well as immediately revolutionary ones. Moreover, even situations where the mass movement is advancing vigorously are not necessarily revolutionary situations. To make it worse, Trotsky could only conceive of a few of the ways in which revolutionary situations themselves could occur. This gave the "transitional program" a stereotyped and arbitrary character.
. As a result, Trotsky's "transitional program" jumbled together the demand for militant methods
used by revolutionary workers at various times, such as factory committees and workers' militias,
with various demands that Trotsky concocted. It mixed together demands that would only make
sense during an actual period of revolution and demands that only make sense in
nonrevolutionary situations. It lacked internal consistency. And it prescribed these demands for
all countries, with little attention to the tremendous variations in the class struggle in different
times and places. It oriented the Trotskyists away from a close study of the concrete conditions
facing the workers movement at various times and places, and only made a few broad
distinctions, such as between fascist and non-fascist regimes, "backward countries" versus more
developed countries, and the Soviet Union versus all other countries.
A strong element of manipulation
. * Trotsky's idea of the transitional program includes a strong element of manipulation. This was a plan to get the masses to fight for socialism without knowing it. Trotsky wanted what he called a "bridge" between the maximum and minimum program, between "present demands and the socialist program of the revolution". Trotsky didn't see this bridge in the overall development of the class struggle, socialist agitation, and party organization. Instead he wanted an automatic preparation for revolution, something that would operate independently of the growth of socialist consciousness.
. Trotsky thought he had found this bridge in special demands that objectively went beyond the bounds of capitalism, but that workers would take up simply as immediate reforms. He claimed that various demands in and of themselves strike a blow at capitalist property and the capitalist system. It's no accident that Trotsky's elaboration of the transitional program in The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International said little, if anything, about the problems of building of a proletarian party, other than denouncing the Stalinists and the reformists. It said little about the specific tasks of developing socialist consciousness among the masses. The automatic process initiated by proper "transitional demands" was supposed to take care of the question of socialist consciousness.
. No doubt it is true that the working masses come to class-consciousness and socialist
conclusions through the experience of the struggle. Only a section of the working class is clear at
the beginning of a major historical struggle. In a rising revolutionary movement, the experience
of each step impels larger and larger numbers of the masses to take another step towards the
revolutionary goal. But among these steps and, so to speak, alongside all of them, is the building
up of a revolutionary party and of revolutionary consciousness. The socialist revolution cannot
take place except as the conscious act of the broad masses, who are learning the necessity of
building their own independent political trend, and the ways to do this. This process of increasing
consciousness and organization of the masses is the actual "bridge" between the minimum and
maximum program, between the pre-revolutionary struggles and the revolution itself. The idea of
the "transitional program" replaced this with the idea of a working class manipulated to fight for
demands that are cleverly formulated to mean the revolution without the masses realizing this.
The problem isn't the term "transitional demand"
. * The problem with Trotsky's "transitional program" isn't the term "transitional demand", any
more than the problem with his theory of "permanent revolution" was the term "permanent
revolution". There are many types of situations facing the socialist movement, including the
situation at the very beginning of a revolution, which is apparently what Trotsky had in mind as
the transitional situation. All these situations call for tactics and demands suitable to their
circumstances: the Marxist idea of tactics isn't limited to the division between the maximum and
minimum programs. But it is revolutionary play-acting to pretend that the situation is always
transitional, and it is economic ignorance to pretend that any demand that might help advance the
revolutionary movement thereby goes beyond the economic bounds of capitalism.
THE COLONIAL AND SEMI-COLONIAL WORLD
. During Trotsky's lifetime, a deep ferment was spreading in the colonial and semi-colonial
world. But Trotsky didn't have too much to say about it. This wasn't because the communist
movement was isolated from the anti-colonial revolt. Communist movements were developing in
a number of these countries, and they threw themselves into the struggle. Nor was it due solely to
his lack of specific knowledge about many countries. It was also due to the fact that Trotsky's
theory of "permanent revolution" couldn't deal with the spread of the democratic revolutionary
Nothing to say about class relation in undeveloped countries
. * At one point Trotsky admitted that "permanent revolution" had nothing to say about what to do in very undeveloped countries, and seemed to suggest that, in those places, the working masses had little stake in the anti-colonial struggle. He wrote in 1930: "Does this [permanent revolution] at least mean that every country, including the most backward colonial country, is ripe, if not for socialism, then for the dictatorship of the proletariat? No, this is not what it means. Then what is to happen with the democratic revolution in general--and in the colonies in particular? . . . Then the struggle for national liberation will produce only very partial results, results directed entirely against the working masses. "(13) He had no suggestion whatsoever as to what the working masses in these countries could do.
. Ethiopia was presumably one of these countries. So, during the Italian fascist invasion of
Ethiopia in the mid-30s, the most that Trotsky could do was call for support for Emperor Haile
Selassie. The theory of "permanent revolution" had nothing to say about the class relations in
Ethiopia, so Trotsky compared Haile Selassie to Cromwell and Robespierre, who he described as
"dictators" who have played a "very progressive role in history". He put forward the perspective
of Selassie striking "a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole".
Just over a week later, Selassie fled Ethiopia, leaving the Ethiopian people to resist Italy by
themselves. Far from Selassie striking a blow at imperialism as a whole, discontent with his
absolute monarchy simmered among the Ethiopian fighters, called "patriots", who continued the
fight against Italian occupation from inside Ethiopia. (14)
Ludicrous suggestions about China
. * The one country from the colonial and semicolonial world that Trotsky wrote about extensively was China. He didn't make any substantial criticism of Soviet policy towards China until March 1927, and in his later writings, he concentrated on the situation of 1926-27. He attacked such absurdities as the admission in early 1926 of the Kuomintang to the Communist International as an associate party, and giving Chiang Kai-shek an honorary seat in the CI leadership, and he pointed to blunders by Stalin and others that helped pave the way for Chiang Kai-shek's anti-communist massacre of 1927, which brought the Chinese Communist Party to the brink of destruction. But he attributed every error, and every setback, whether caused by errors or not, to the theory that there could ever be a "democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants". He was, in actuality, opposed to the view set forward by Lenin at the Second Congress of the CI concerning the need for temporary alliances with the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in the colonial and semicolonial world; the theory of "permanent revolution" taught that this would mean subordinating oneself to the bourgeoisie.
. Meanwhile, Trotsky's own suggestions for revolutionary policy in China verged on the ludicrous. Closing his eyes to the predominance of the countryside, the vast weight of landlordism, and the struggle of the peasantry, he denigrated the peasant movement and the agrarian revolution. He insisted that the "agrarian question" in China was not more, but much less important than it had been in the Russian revolution. Indeed, to prove that there was no need to take much account of the specific character of the peasant movement, he argued that there wasn't even a separate landlord class in China. He claimed that the Chinese landlords were completely merged with the bourgeoisie, and not an independent class, implying that the peasants were simply exploited in the same way as workers were. Thus he denied the need to take serious account of the specific class nature of the peasantry, as well as apparently implying that the peasant movement was simply a minor adjunct of the workers' struggle. (15)
. Ironically, given his usual denigration of democratic slogans, Trotsky was obsessed with the issue of parliamentary democracy for China. To prove that his denigration of the peasant movement and advocacy of immediate socialist revolution in China didn't mean that he was skipping stages, he stressed the slogan of a "Constituent Assembly" or "National Assembly" for China. It didn't matter whether China was in the throes of an agrarian revolution, or there was a civil war with Chiang Kai-shek, or a war of resistance against invasion by Japanese fascism, he denigrated--without completely denouncing--the ongoing struggles and persisted in this slogan. This was utterly surreal. He ignored the main issues and persisted in a slogan picked at random. Indeed this slogan, useful in the Russian revolution in the fight against the tsarist monarchy, made little sense at all in China where, among other things, the monarchy had been overthrown years earlier. (16)
. Meanwhile Trotsky denounced all the developments in the Chinese communist movement after
1927, including both the formation of rural Soviets and their later dissolution in the course of the
war against Japanese occupation. He had hailed the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia as a
dictator who supposedly might strike a great blow against "imperialism as whole", ignoring
Selassie's real relation to the struggle against Italian fascist invasion, but he couldn't see the
major significance of the struggle of the Chinese Red Army against the Japanese fascist invasion.
Some later Trotskyists claimed that the Maoist victory in 1949 verified "permanent revolution".
But Trotsky's view was that there was only a "so-called 'Communist Party'" in China, and he
claimed that the Chinese Red Army, had been subordinated to the "Kuomintang, i.e. , the
In judging wars, a mechanical rule rather than class and political criteria
. * Aside from "permanent revolution", Trotsky had another theory to deal with the question of imperialist war. This was simply a mechanical rule: whenever an imperialist country was at war with a subordinate country, he was always on the side of the subordinate country against the imperialist country. He didn't regard it as necessary to look into the causes of the war, the conditions that led up to it in prior years, and how this war affected the working masses. It sufficed to note that one country was imperialist, and the other was not. Trotsky illustrated this rule by giving the example of a hypothetical war between Britain and Brazil, where he didn't bother saying what the war was over or how it had come about. He emphasized that he was on the side of Brazil even if it had a fascist government. (18)
. Marxism holds that war is a continuation of the politics and class relations that preceded it,
often for decades. There are many possible situations that can arise, and some of them are much
more complex than envisioned by Trotsky's mechanical rule. Even for those wars where
Trotsky's rule was roughly correct, it could be a dangerous oversimplification. Thus in the case of
the war between Ethiopia and Italy, the Ethiopian side deserved the support of the working
masses around the world, just as the rule predicted. But, as we have seen, even here ignoring
politics and class relations had bad consequences. It led Trotsky to believe that the
anti-imperialist stand was to glorify the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, and it led Trotsky to
ignore the friction between Selassie and the Ethiopian masses who continued resistance to Italy
after Selassie fled.
THE HYPOCRISY OF "MILITARY BUT NOT POLITICAL SUPPORT":
BACKING REACTIONARY REGIMES AT WAR
. And the rule could have even worse consequences. It later led most Trotskyists to back a number of reactionary wars, because they couldn't understand that a lesser power and an imperialist power might get into a war which was thoroughly reactionary on both sides. For example, in the Malvinas/Falklands war of 1982, many Trotskyists backed the bloodstained Argentina military junta of those days in the belief that this was necessary in order to oppose British imperialism. The rule also led many Trotskyists to side with Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1. It led many Trotskyists, such as the WWP of the US and the SWP in Britain, to believe that there was something anti-imperialist in the Taliban's side of the recent Afghan war. And today again a number of Trotskyists believe, perhaps with somewhat less fervor than at the time of the war of 1990-1, that Saddam Hussein is waging an anti-imperialist struggle. (19)
. This support for reactionaries has happened so often that the Trotskyists have developed a new special principle to justify it. They claim that it is possible to give "military but not political support" to various regimes. They hold that all-out and even "unconditional" military support for the military victory of a reactionary regime doesn't mean support for such a regime at all. They claim that they are actually mobilizing to overthrow the regimes politically, at the same time as they are propping up the military efforts of these regimes. This is outright nonsense. And from the ideological point of view, there is no difference between this and the fairytales told by the capitalist governments, which all tell the workers to forget about the class struggle which it comes to patriotically rallying about the war effort. The capitalist governments tell the workers that politics is one thing, but war is another, and the Trotskyists do the same with their slogan of "military but not political support".
. All "military support" is a political act. There can be temporary military alliances (although there shouldn't be with various of the tyrants that the Trotskyists have given "military support" to); there can be conditional and partial support; but there cannot be "military support" which has no political consequences. "Military but no political support" is actually "military support combined with political hypocrisy". It is one of the worst expressions of Trotskyist politics -- revolution in words, and betrayal in deed.
. Thus Trotsky's rule has reached out from the past to blind the Trotskyists of today to the possibility that, in these wars, both sides could be wrong. They don't see that the task isn't to back one reactionary side against the other, but to strengthen the world movement of the working masses against both reactionary sides. Their military support of various reactionaries has been one of the most blatant examples of the bankruptcy of Trotskyist theory. It has done tremendous harm to the left-wing movements around the world, and made a mockery of proletarian internationalism. While in theory supporting nothing but socialist revolution everywhere, in practice most Trotskyists groups have ended up as apologists for the armies of some of the most bloodstained tyrants around the world.
. In an accompanying article, "Opposing both sides in the war crisis", the issues of the Trotskyist
stand towards the Saddam Hussein regime in the current war crisis, and of "military but not
political support", are discussed further.
BETRAYING THE RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION
. The right of national self-determination is a democratic demand which does not, in itself, affect
the existence of capitalist exploitation. For example, when an oppressed nation becomes
independent, it does not, thereby, abolish capitalism. As the right to self-determination is thus
part of the so-called minimum program of Marxism, Trotskyism has an equivocal attitude to it.
Trotsky saw the usefulness of certain independence movements in breaking up colonialism and
reactionary regimes, especially if he could imagine that independence would lead directly to a
socialist government. But he couldn't otherwise see the positive significance of the fight for the
right to self-determination. As a result, in many cases, Trotskyism denies the right to
Implying the right to self-determination is outdated
. * Trotsky's theorizing implied that the right to self-determination is an outdated demand, appropriate perhaps in the old days, but outdated by the obsolescence of the bourgeois state in the epoch of imperialism. Thus, from the premise of the obsolescence of the bourgeois state, Trotsky cast doubt on the struggle against one of the bitterly oppressive features of the current bourgeois states, namely, their annexationism, for fear of creating additional bourgeois states. But Trotsky didn't want to directly repudiate the term "self-determination", both because he supported certain struggles for independence and to avoid appearing as a supporter of national oppression.
. Trotsky was particularly hostile to the idea of the right to self-determination in Europe. It wasn't that all the national issues in Europe had been solved. There remained a number of smaller nationalities facing national oppression. But Trotsky put forward the idea of a "United States of Europe" not simply as a future goal, but as the alternative to the right to self-determination. For example, in one article in 1934, to avoid directly denouncing the right to self-determination of various oppressed nationalities, he denounced the idea of the national state in general. He wrote that "The defense of the national state, first of all in Balkanized Europe--the cradle of the national state--is in the full sense of the word a reactionary task. " He apparently denied that one could distinguish between the demands of oppressed nationalities and that of the Hitlerites by saying "Were the present national state to represent a progressive factor, it would have to be defended irrespective of its political factor". He seemed to denounce any change in state borders, saying "the idea of recarving capitalist Europe to make state boundaries coincide with national boundaries is the sheerest kind of utopia", and he contrasted to this "the slogan of the United States of Europe". (20)
. But in fact, what was utopian was to believe that the looming anti-fascist struggle in Europe could be carried out without dealing with the national aspirations of various oppressed nationalities. For example, Tito's anti-fascist partisans in Yugoslavia were only able to develop vigorously because they promised the right to self-determination to most of the nationalities of Yugoslavia. But the partisans were weak in Kosovo--despite the powerful development of the anti-fascist war in neighboring Albania--because the Titoist leadership refused to grant Kosovo the right to decide for itself whether it would stay within Serbia or unite with Albania. (21)
. No doubt, the struggle for socialism will eventually bring more and more unity among the nationalities of the world. Nor does the right to self-determination rule out federations and the formation of large multinational states, provided they are voluntary unions of the nations involved. But Trotsky didn't see the right to self-determination as a road towards greater unity among the working people of different nationalities, but as "the defense of the national state". In essence, he put forward federation as the answer to the demand for self-determination.
. In general, Trotsky's idea was that federation in a future soviet or socialist regime was the
solution to all national issues. And while Marx, Engels and Lenin believed that a socialist regime
would itself have to recognize the right to self-determination, Trotsky's theorizing tended in the
other direction. As he regarded the right to self-determination was mainly important to help
disintegrate certain reactionary regimes or empire, he could hardly see the right to
self-determination as important for a revolutionary regime, or regard any actual separation from
such a regime as anything but a counter-revolutionary plot.
Holding that independence would lead directly to socialism
. * Trotsky did support the struggle for independence in certain colonies or semi-colonies. He wrote, for example, that "A special and important place" in the national question "is occupied by the question of colonial and semicolonial countries of the East, which are even now fighting for the independent national state." He regarded this as progressive, but because he believed that any national struggle in these countries would immediately pass over to socialist revolution. He thus wrote that "it must be clearly understood beforehand that the belated revolutions in Asia and Africa are incapable of opening up a new epoch of renaissance for the national state. The liberation of the colonies will be merely a gigantic episode in the world socialist revolution, just as the belated democratic overturn in Russia, which was also a semicolonial country, was only the introduction to the socialist revolution. "(22)
. But he also had to recognize that a number of the anti-colonial struggles were not part of any immediate movement to establish a proletarian dictatorship. He might try to pretend that the situation in China and India, countries with a significant proletariat despite their overwhelming peasant majority, could be forced to fit the pattern of permanent revolution. But this was hard to do in many of the other colonies. In order to support various of these struggles, he had to ignore the criterion of whether they could be regarded as part of an ongoing socialist revolution.
. So Trotsky instead used the mechanical rule which was referred to above -- that whenever an imperialist country was at war with a subordinate country, he was always on the side of the subordinate country against the imperialist country. He didn't look into the class relations in the subordinate country, the relationship of the government to the masses, the politics of the war, etc. This would have required him to jettison the formulas of permanent revolution and admit that the Marxist principles about the relationship of democratic and socialist movements were still relevant in the epoch of imperialism, and indeed perhaps more relevant than ever. But by ignoring the internal class situation, he detached the anti-colonial struggle and the right to self-determination from the class struggle. This was what led him to his fulsome praise of Haile Selassie, to his hypothetical example of the need to give support to a war waged by a fascist regime in Brazil, and to the support by most current Trotskyists to this or that reactionary regime or movement in the Third World.
. With regard to other situations, despite his general theorizing against the right to
self-determination, Trotsky could support the right to self-determination if he thought it would
help disintegrate a reactionary regime. But as soon as the old regime had fallen, Trotsky didn't
have much regard for the need for the new, revolutionary regime to accept this right. In his eyes,
power being the key issue of the revolution, the fact of the establishment of the new regime
essentially meant the self-determination had been achieved for all the nationalities.
Ignoring the national oppression of a number of nationalities,
including the Moroccan people during the Spanish Civil War
. * Trotsky's equivocal attitude to the right to self-determination resulted in his brushing aside the right to self-determination in a number of situations. For example, while he wrote a few words in support of the struggle of Ethiopia against Italian fascist invasion, he ignored the issue of the oppression of various subject nationalities by the Ethiopian empire. Yet this oppression was not only a burning issue in Ethiopia, an issue that hasn't to this day been finally resolved, but it was an obstacle to the struggle of Trotsky's day against the Italian fascists. But the national issue within Ethiopia could not be presented as a struggle against imperialism, and so it didn't fall into Trotsky's rigid patterns. To this day, most Trotskyists tend to brush aside the national question inside former colonies and dependent countries, and yet the accelerated growth of capitalism brought by the breakup of the old colonial empires makes these internal national questions all the more pressing.
. Trotsky supported some of the anti-colonial struggles against the European powers, but he was
indifferent to others. For example, although he devoted a certain attention to the Spanish Civil
War of the mid-1930, he said next to nothing about the right to self-determination of Spanish
Morocco. Yet this was an important colonial issue. The Rif tribespeople of Morocco had risen
against Spanish and French colonialism in the 1920s, but had been defeated. The most
reactionary officers of the Spanish army had earned their spurs in suppressing the Moroccans,
and thus became known as "Africanists" (Spanish Morocco being in northern Africa). The fascist
general Franco used Morocco as his base for revolting against the Spanish Republic, and large
numbers of Moroccans were used as cannonfodder in the fascist army. Had the Republic
recognized the right to self-determination of Morocco, this might have helped undermine the
loyalty of Franco's army. But the Republic never did. And the Stalinist-dominated Communist
Party of Spain, which had earlier supported the right to self-determination of Morocco, itself
abandoned this in the mid-30s in order to avoid upsetting the imperialist-minded liberal
bourgeoisie. And Trotsky, who denounced the Stalinists for everything he could think of, seemed
to have been silent on this issue. (23)
Seeing nothing but the struggle for independence
. * Trotsky looked at the right to self-determination only from the point of view of whether the struggle for independence would be advisable or not. If not, he opposed the right to self-determination. He didn't see the aspect of the right to self-determination which consists of facilitating unity between the workers of different nationalities by letting the subordinate nations have the freedom to make their own decision on separation.
. Yet the right to self-determination isn't restricted simply to certain anti-colonial and independence struggles. It doesn't always mean that socialists should recommend that the oppressed nationality should take the path of independence. It was crucial for the communist movement to support the wave of anti-colonial revolt that brought down the great empires of the 20th century, and this meant supporting the national liberation movements that fought for independence. But sometimes it is of far more interest to the class-conscious workers that the issue of independence be resolved democratically, than whether the result is independence or not. The socialist movement must uphold the right of the region with an oppressed nation to decide itself on independence, even in cases where the socialists themselves are either indifferent to independence, or even recommend strongly against it. This is the only way in which the workers of the dominant nationality can demonstrate to the working masses of the oppressed nations that they are opposed to the forcible retention of the subjection nations by the bourgeoisie of the dominant nationality.
. This issue comes up in many of the recent national struggles. For example, it would have been far more important for the development of unity among the workers of the former Yugoslavia that the issue of the independence of the various Yugoslav republics (such as Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, etc. ) and of Kosovo be settled democratically, than whether these countries remained united or separated. The denial of the right to self-determination tore the region apart, while peaceful separation would have preserved many ties between the working masses of the different countries. Indeed, allowing various republics and Kosovo to decide for themselves on separation would have paved the way for closer unity in the future.
. But Trotsky didn't recognize this aspect of the right to self-determination. When he doesn't see
separation as advisable, he doesn't see why it was important to champion the right for the people
to decide the issue for themselves. This is one of the reasons that many Trotskyists have ended up
supporting national oppression in many situations around the world.
Trotskyist justifications for oppressing certain nationalities
. * Whatever his view of the national question in any particular country, Trotsky tried to avoid directly denouncing the right to self-determination. Most Trotskyists still follow this rule. But his theories have led many contemporary Trotskyists to apologize for or support national oppression in a number of cases. This happened, for example, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
. Most Trotskyist groups are especially loathe to recognize the right to self-determination of nationalities oppressed by regimes they regard as "deformed or degenerated" workers' states. They often claim that the national question is then simply a result of outside imperialist manipulation.
. Some Trotskyists oppose the right to self-determination of nations, in the name of defending
instead the right to self-determination of the working people. In theory, this means that they only
allow national rights to movements which they regard as revolutionary or socialist. Thus, during
the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Spartacist League circulated a leaflet in Russia which talked
about "the right of every nation with an anti-counterrevolutionary leadership to whatever
self-determination it considers necessary. "(24) This meant that they denied the right of
self-determination to everyone in the Soviet Union except those who agreed with them about the
political situation in Russia.
AND THE FIGHT AGAINST FASCISM
. No more than the right to self-determination, do other democratic demands eliminate capitalist
exploitation. This being the case, Trotsky was equivocal and vacillating in his theorizing on the
anti-fascist and democratic struggles, just as he was on other sections of the "minimum program".
He naturally saw the need for the workers to oppose fascism, but the theory of "permanent
revolution" implied the democratic struggle was a bourgeois noose around the neck of the
proletariat unless it was merely something incidental to the overall revolutionary movement.
Worried about taking anti-fascist struggle too seriously
. * Trotsky denounced the idea that the anti-fascist struggle could mark an important stage of the workers' movement. He stressed that democratic demands were simply useful slogans that might be employed, but didn't have a major significance. He saw them simply as an agitational device, and grudgingly accepted them on that basis. In elaborating his "transitional program", he wrote that "the formulas of democracy . . . mean for us only incidental or episodic slogans", and otherwise they would be a "democratic noose fastened to the neck of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie's agents . . . " He didn't see the importance of the democratic struggle in organizing the working masses to take political initiative. He didn't see that major democratic issues, such as the fight against fascist tyranny, could affect the class alliances in society and affect the character of any revolutionary movement that arose.
. Trotsky thus denigrated the democratic issues theoretically, while recognizing in practice that any force in the working class movement would have to include anti-fascist slogans among its demands. He wrote that the minor significance he gave to these slogans "does not mean that the Fourth International rejects democratic slogans as a means of mobilizing the masses against fascism". But he also denounced anyone who took these issues too seriously as a "terrified bankrupt". (25)
. At times Trotsky, unable to provide a serious criticism of Stalinist revisionism, regarded the
difference between him and the Stalinists as that they talked too much about the fight against
fascism. Thus Trotsky at times insisted that the issue of fascism was irrelevant to the
anti-imperialist struggle. In one of his few comments on the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia,
he wrote that he supported the Ethiopians but "we want to stress the point that this fight is
directed not against fascism, but against imperialism. " This was supposed to be a slap at
Unable to fight fascism except with immediate socialist revolution
. * Trotsky couldn't deal with the issue of how to conduct the anti-fascist struggle when proletarian revolution was not imminent. His writings on the situation in France in 1934-36 are a model for the Trotskyist view of the fight against fascism, and have been collected in a pamphlet entitled Whither France?. In them, he insisted repeatedly that "If the revolutionary proletariat does not take power, Fascism will inevitably take it!" He insisted that the call for revolution, both directly, and indirectly through giving demands that amounted to revolution without saying so, was the key issue of the moment. Finally, in the midst of the big strike movement after the electoral victory of Popular Front, he claimed in June 1936 that "The French Revolution Has Begun". But there was neither revolution nor fascism in France at that time. (27)
. By July, Trotsky had quietly abandoned his claim about the imminence of revolution or fascism
in France. But he never went back and tried to correct the assessments he had given in his earlier
articles. Instead, he continued to put forward the slogan of revolution or reaction in a variety of
other situations. He had learned nothing from what happened in France. Nor can Trotsky's
mistake be explained away by saying that his predictions would have come true if only it hadn't
been for treachery by the Stalinist Communist Party of France or the reformist social-democratic
party, the SFIO. Trotsky's view had been, not that revolution would break out, if only some party
led it, but that revolution had already broken out. Moreover, he had stressed in the strongest
possible language that, if this revolution wasn't taken to victory, it would lead to the "most
ghastly of defeats", i. e. a massive bloodletting and a fascist dictatorship. This was not what
The "French turn": embracing social-democracy
. * Underneath the left-sounding declarations that revolution was imminent, Trotsky's main tactic for fighting fascism was to rely on the social-democrats. He eventually called on most of the Trotskyist groups to actually join the social-democratic parties in their country. This was called the "French turn", because he first advised his followers in France to join the SFIO, and this then was the model for joining the social-democrats elsewhere.
. This embrace of the social-democrats had a good deal of similarity to the tactics put forward by the Stalinists at the 7th Congress of the CI in 1935. Trotsky believed that, in a great crisis, the social-democrats would be impelled to become revolutionary, while the CI looked towards a possible merger between the communist and social-democratic parties. Both Trotskyists and the Stalinists courted the social-democrats, each in their own way. It's not that all alliances with the social-democrats are wrong, but the social-democrats were not going to give up their reformist subservience to the bourgeoisie because either Trotsky or the CI believed this would facilitate the struggle against fascism.
. The French CP wasn't wrong to put anti-fascism in the center of its attention in the mid-30s, nor
to seek out common action with the working masses under the influence of other parties,
reformist or even liberal. The crisis of the mid-30s in France didn't lead to revolution, but it did
lead to tremendous ferment among the working masses, and it had the potential to shake up the
political allegiances among the masses. What was wrong was that the French CP tailored their
policy to what the social-democratic and liberal leaders would accept, rather than to finding ways
to draw the masses into the struggle. They put maintaining their relationship with the reformists
and liberals in the fore. They either toned down or shelved demands unacceptable to the
reformists and liberals. And they reined in the masses from fighting for popular demands that
would advance the class struggle and, in the course of this, help bring more and more of the
masses to revolutionary conclusions. This meant abandoning the struggle to strengthen the
independence of the working class movement, and essentially subordinating the movement to the
liberal bourgeoisie. Trotsky had no serious idea of how to oppose this policy because, among
other things, despite all his left bluster, he too looked to the social-democrats as the bulwark
Notes to part one:
(1) See Leon Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, subsection "The minimum program and the transitional program" in the Pathfinder Press pamphlet The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p. 75. (Return to text)
(2) In the second to last paragraph of his treatise Results and Prospects, after he referred to the need for a "revolutionary workers' government", Trotsky wrote that democratic demands "will play a tremendous part in the agitational role of the Social Democrats. But revolution is first and foremost a question of power--not of the state form (constituent assembly, republic, united states) but of the social content of the government. The demands for a constituent assembly and the confiscation of land under present conditions lose all revolutionary significance without the readiness of the proletariat to fight for the conquest of power . . . " (emphasis added) Thus Trotsky distinguished between things he thought had a mere agitational significance, and things that determine the basic content of the revolution. Trotsky didn't say that the democratic demands should be ignored, but he stressed that they only had an agitational significance and didn't affect the "social content" of the revolution. That content was the establishment of a revolutionary workers government, which he also called a "socialist government". He thus held that the socialists should talk about democratic demands in order to attract support, but that these demands had little to do with the character of the revolution. (Text)
(3) Thus, after a passage discussing "Lenin's formula of 1905", Trotsky said "Does the foregoing mean that the slogan of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry should be understood simply as a 'mistake'?" He concluded that it was a "provisional hypothesis", that had a "great historical significance" in the past, but had been disproved by "the Bolshevik experience of 1905-17", which had supposedly "firmly bolted the door against the 'democratic dictatorship'". He ended by denouncing those who would ignore this disproof and instead "canonise a provisional hypothesis by inserting it into the (communist) programme. " (The Permanent Revolution, 1930, at the end of Ch. 5 "Was the 'Democratic Dictatorship' Realized in Our Country? If So, When?" in the book The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, Pathfinder Press, pp. 237-8. )
. Chapter 10 of the same work is entitled "What is the Permanent Revolution: Basic Postulates". Here he says that "the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' is only conceivable as a dictatorship of the proletariat that leads the peasant masses behind it. " (Trotsky's emphasis). Otherwise, he insists, it refers to something that is "unrealizable". (Ibid. , Ch. 10, Pts. 5, 13, pp. 277, 278. ) But to identify the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry with the proletarian dictatorship means to drain the specific content out of the term.
. When Lenin dealt with these questions, he contrasted--and rightly so--the possible proletarian alliance with the entire peasantry in the democratic revolution, with the need for a proletarian alliance with the agricultural semi-proletariat (the poor peasantry and rural laborers) in the socialist revolution. In his view, the entire peasantry could not be regarded as a firm support for socialism. Trotsky, however, in his basic postulates for permanent revolution, said nothing about the difference in the class alliances for the democratic and socialist revolution. This was not part of the basic framework of the theory of permanent revolution. Whatever notice Trotsky might take in various individual circumstances of the different stands of different sections of the peasantry, permanent revolution as a theory, even as summed up by Trotsky at the end of his major polemical work on the subject in 1930, was based on slurring over or ignoring the basic change in class alliances between the democratic and socialist revolutions. (Text)
(4) He wrote "there is no genuinely revolutionary bourgeois democracy" in Russia (Trotsky's emphasis). Instead, the revolutionary ferment among the petty-bourgeoisie would supposedly manifest itself simply in support for the proletariat. He elaborated that "The lower classes of the towns and villages will become more and more exhausted, deceived, dissatisfied and enraged. This does not mean than an independent force of revolutionary democracy will operate side by side with the proletariat. For such a force there is neither social material nor leading personnel; but it undoubtedly does mean that the deep dissatisfaction of the lower classes will assist the revolutionary pressure of the working class. " (Results and Prospects (1906), Chapter 10. "The Struggle for Power" in the composite book The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, pp. 119, 120-1. ) So there was supposedly not the "social material nor leading personnel" to allow petty-bourgeois democratic trends to emerge, yet there was the "social material" and "leading personnel" for the discontent and rage of the petty-bourgeoisie to manifest itself.
. Thus he argued that the petty-bourgeois discontent and rage would inevitably serve to assist the struggle for a socialist workers government, a proletarian dictatorship. He brushed aside the significance of the mass trends of petty-bourgeois revolutionism and revolutionary democracy, on the plea that these trends are not genuinely revolutionary. He defined the various bourgeois-democratic trends out of existence, rather than vanquishing them in the real world. (Text)
(5) Trotsky, Results and Prospects, Ch. 5. "The Proletariat in Power and the Peasantry", Ibid. , p. 78. Here Trotsky argued that the implementation of the 8-hour day during a revolution would always lead to such resistance from the capitalists that the nationalization of industry was the only way out. This might well happen, but it is difficult to see that this will happen in every situation. But the main point is, Trotsky contrasted the 8-hour day, which he correctly held "by no means contradicts capitalist relations", with the nationalization of industry, which he mistakenly believed went beyond capitalism, because it involved "production . . . on a socialized basis". Trotsky didn't realize that he was simply giving an example of a government having to take radical measures, not of it going beyond capitalism. (Text)
(6) He wrote that "To imagine that it is the business of Social Democrats to enter a provisional government and lead it during the period of revolutionary-democratic reforms, fighting for them to have a most radical character, and relying for this purpose upon the organized proletariat--and then, after the democratic programme has been carried out, to leave the edifice they have constructed . . . is to imagine the thing in a way that would compromise the very idea of a workers' government. . . . it is absolutely unreal, it is utopianism of the worst sort. . . " So he stressed that the "question, therefore, is not simply one of a 'revolutionary provisional government'--an empty phrase. . . , but of a revolutionary workers' government, the conquest of power by the Russian proletariat. " I. e. he wrote that such a government would be a proletarian dictatorship.
. What if the masses who, arms in hand, had risen in a democratic revolution to place this provisional government in power did not support this redefinition of the revolution as socialist? Trotsky wrote that "once the proletariat [i. e. the supposed revolutionary workers' government--JG] has taken power in its hands it will not give it up without a desperate resistance, until it is torn from its hands by armed force. " He repeated this idea in a passage where he was relating views about the Russian revolution of 1905 that he attributes to Kautsky's articles of 1905-6 but that are actually his own. Trotsky referred to what should be done when a proletarian dictatorship is formed in the course of the democratic struggle, although the "broad peasant masses" were "still . . . at a very primitive level of political development" and giving their votes to parties that reflected "only the backwardness and the prejudices of the peasant class. " Trotsky held that, if "a workers' government with a social-democratic majority" had managed to take power anyway, it should carry forward a proletarian dictatorship and not restrict itself to the democratic revolution.
. Trotsky justified this disregard for the will of the masses, and for the level of class organization, on the plea that "the real course of the class struggle" should not "depend on the changing and superficial combinations of political democracy", and he stated definitively that "the proletariat would not make the fate of the revolution depend upon the passing moods of the least conscious, not yet awakened masses at any given moment". However, he was not counterposing temporarily vacillations in the mood of the masses to their overall stand, nor contrasting parliamentarianism to soviet power, but denigrating the idea that a socialist government had to be an expression of the will of the working masses. (The quotes in this footnote are from Results and Prospects (1906), Ch. VI, p. 77; Ch. IV. p. 67; Ch. X, pp. 121-2; 1919 Preface, pp. 33-4. ) Thus the supposed proletarian dictatorship would maintain itself in power, not on the basis of the organization of the working masses, but despite the views of the working masses. This no doubt helps explain why Trotsky saw the ultimate victory of such a government in Russia as dependent on support from friendly governments abroad. (Text)
(7) See "An outline of Leninist anti-imperialism" in Communist Voice, vol. 8, #2, June 20, 2002 for Lenin's views on the anti-colonial struggle. For an example of how these questions arise in, not an anti-colonial struggle, but a movement for democratization, see "Two perspectives on Mexico: Taking democracy to the limit, or organizing a socialist movement?" in Communist Voice, vol. 3, #2, May 8, 1997. Both articles are also posted on the CV website at www.communistvoice.org. (Text)
(8) The Transitional Program: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, subsection "The minimum program and the transitional program", in the composite book The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, p. 76. Text)
(9) Transitional Program, p. 75. (Text)
(10) Transitional Program, p. 75. The inability of capitalism to grant reforms was a repeated theme of his writing. Thus in November 1934 he wrote "Capitalism not only cannot give the toilers new social reforms, nor even petty alms. It is forced to take back what it once gave. " (Sec. 4 of Whither France, in the pamphlet Wither Whither France, p. 13) Trotsky confused the question of whether the bourgeoisie was currently forcing cutbacks on the workers with whether it was possible that the workers could force reforms from capitalism. (Text)
(11) Transitional Program, p. 91. (Text)
(12) Transitional Program, p. 76. (Text)
(13) The Permanent Revolution, Ch. 7 "What does the Slogan of the Democratic Dictatorship Mean Today For the East?", pp. 255-6, emphasis added. He did discuss two countries from the colonial and semi-colonial world, namely, China and India, which he said would follow the path of permanent revolution. Eight years later, in The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, he claimed that "the formula of the permanent revolution" was applicable to all "backward countries", but again he discussed only China, with a passing reference to India. (Text)
(14) See "On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo: A Letter to an English comrade, April 22, 1936", Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36), Pathfinder Press, Inc. , New York, pp. 317-8. This is discussed more fully in the article "Anti-imperialism and the class struggle" in Communist Voice, vol. 8, #2, 20 June 2002. See the subsection "Trotsky and the Emperor of Ethiopia", pp. 33-36. This article is also available at the CV web site. (Text)
(15) He wrote that "the specific weight of the agrarian question in China is therefore much lighter than in Tsarist Russia". He went on to argue that it was immeasurably less significant, with respect to the character of the revolution, than it had been in the 1848 revolution in Germany. And he claimed that, in China, ". . . there is no independent landlord class, . . . ,and the relationships of serfdom are, so to speak, chemically fused with bourgeois exploitation. " (Permanent Revolution, Ch. 7, pp. 246-7). A decade later, in his transitional program, he grudging admitted that the "agrarian revolution", defined as the "liquidation of feudal heritages", was part of the central task in "backward countries". But he still had nothing concrete to say about the peasant movement or the content of this agrarian revolution. ("Backward countries and the program of transitional demands" in The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, pp. 99-101) (Text)
(16) He knew, of course, that the Chinese monarchy had been overthrown in 1911, but he persisted in the slogan of "constituent assembly". (Ibid. , Epilogue, p. 273 in 1929 and The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, subsection, "Backward countries and the program of transitional demands", pp. 97-8 in 1938. ) (Text)
(17) The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, subsection "Backward countries and the program of transitional demands", p. 98. (Text)
(18) See "Anti-imperialist struggle is key to liberation: An interview with Mateo Fossa, September 23, 1938", Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39), Pathfinder Press, Inc. , New York, p. 34. (Text)
(19) See the "The socialist debate on the Taliban", parts 1 and 2, in Communist Voice, Jan. 9, 2002 and June 20, 2002. (Text)
(20) "War and the Fourth International" (June 10, 1934), pts. 11, 12 and 14, in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1933-34), pp. 304-5. (Text)
(21) After World War II, Yugoslavia was reorganized into a federation of republics, which were all supposed to have the right to self-determination, thus satisfying the promises of the Yugoslav partisans. (But Kosovo was denied the right to be a republic, and was included inside the Serbian republic, and the Albanian majority in Kosovo faced a difficult situation. Had Kosovo actually had the right to self-determination after World War II, it probably would have joined Albania. ) Nevertheless, the Titoist regime, while far superior to the previous royalist government with respect to national freedoms, didn't fully live up to its promises. This, and the nature of the state-capitalist bourgeoisies that replaced the former ruling classes throughout Yugoslavia, resulted in the buildup of centrifugal pressures and of various competing nationalisms. Then, during the collapse of the Titoist regime, the Serbian government, led by the chauvinist Milosevic, denied the right to self-determination to the other republics. As a result, instead of a peaceful dissolution, Yugoslavia was drenched in blood. A peaceful separation would have paved the way for a gradual reestablishment of close ties among the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, whereas the wars of the 1990s has done a lot to drive these peoples apart. (Text)
(22) "War and the Fourth International" (June 10, 1934), subsection "The National Question and Imperialist War", pt. 16, in Selected Works of Leon Trotsky (1933-34), Pathfinder Press, p. 306. (Text)
(23) Thus Trotsky said nothing about the Moroccans in his extensive article The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning, which appeared in the Socialist Appeal on January 8 and 15, 1938. Transcribed for the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive by Matt Siegried. Available at <www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/spain/1938-sp01.htm >. (Text)
(24) Workers Vanguard, Nov. 30, 1990, emphasis added. This quote and related material can be found in Communist Voice, vol. 2, #5, Oct. 1, 1996, p. 40. (Text)
(25) "The problem of transitional demands in fascist countries" in The Transitional Program, p. 101. (Text)
(26) "The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict (Published July 17, 1935)", Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36), p. 41, emphasis as in the original. Trotsky was not consistent on whether the issue of fascism was relevant. In another article, he gives, as one of the reasons for supporting Ethiopia, that "If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism . . . ". ("On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo (April 22, 1936)", Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36), p. 317. ) But, in an example we cited earlier, he insisted that whether Brazil had a fascist government was irrelevant to the nature of any war it might happen to fight with Britain. (Text)
(27) The pamphlet Whither France? (1968, Merit Publishers) reproduces a pamphlet of 1936
which collects a number of Trotsky's articles on France from Nov. 1934 to June 1936, including
the article of the same title. The quote on the revolutionary proletariat taking power, or fascism
will, comes from p. 46, in sec. 14 of the article Whither France (Nov. 9, 1934). Many more
quotes to the same effect can be found all through the pamphlet. The pamphlet ends with the
article "The French Revolution Has Begun" (June 9, 1936), which concludes with the call for
establishing Soviets throughout France, because "The choice lies between the greatest of all
historical victories and the most ghastly of defeats". (Text)
Last modified: March 31, 2009.