An outline of Trotskyism's
anti-Marxist theories (part one)
by Joseph Green
. 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
. 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
. 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 erroneous views.
. * 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
. 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 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.
. 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.
. * 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
. 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
. 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.
. * 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
. 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
. 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
. 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)
. * 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
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
. 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.
. * 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)
. * 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.
. 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
. 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 workers everywhere.
. * 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
. * 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
. 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
. * 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 movement.
. * 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)
. * 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.
. 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 bourgeoisie".
. * 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.
. 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
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.
. 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 self-determination.
. * 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
. 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.
. 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.
. * 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.
. 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.
. * 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)
. * 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.
. * 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
. 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.
Democratic struggles 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.
. * 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
. 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".
. 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 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 Stalinism. (26)
. * 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.
. 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
. * 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 against fascism.
(End of part one -- to be continued in the next issue
of Communist Voice)
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.
(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.
(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.
(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
(11) Transitional Program, p.
(12) Transitional Program, p.
(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.
(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.
(17) The Death Agony of Capitalism
and the Tasks of the Fourth International, subsection "Backward countries
and the program of transitional demands", p. 98.
(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.
(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
(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.
(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".