The transitional programme and political consciousness Part II


In my first post on Trotsky’s transitional programme I argued that the political consciousness of the working class is critical to the success of the socialist project and crucial to take into account in the development of a political programme. I also noted that the transitional programme was one way of approaching this problem but did not in itself provide a simple solution. It did however provide ways of thinking about one by, for example, raising demands for workers’ control as an illustration of a programme based on workers self-emancipation.

The problem arises most clearly, as I said, when the political consciousness of workers is too low for them to effectively rise to the challenges posed by objective conditions. This could be the fight for an alternative to austerity in the south of Ireland or against sectarianism and the state that supports it in the north. How then should a programme be conceived and presented in such circumstances?

Trotsky presents guidance but it is not immediately apparent that the various elements of it are all consistent and provide clear answers. Trotsky argued that Marxists must tell workers the truth –

“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives — these are the rules of the Fourth International.”

Socialists must avoid abstractions, which in words such as ‘peace’ or the ‘national interest’ are weapons of the capitalist class. Socialists on the other hand must be concrete in what they propose because a programme is a call to action not, as it often appears, purely propaganda for education purposes. Where it is the latter there is no reason not to speak Marxism clearly instead of debased social democracy.

Unfortunately too often the small groups of the left are known for their dishonesty, most obvious when they inflate their own numbers and achievements. This in itself is unimportant except that it is held up as evidence for particular perspectives that are often divorced from reality.

Trotsky understands that, in a programme predicated on what it is the working class itself does, the demands of the programme must be based on the truth, on reality and be practical or the working class will have no means to put them into action.

“Using these considerations as its point of departure, the Fourth International supports every, even if insufficient, demand, if it can draw the masses to a certain extent into active politics, awaken their criticism and strengthen their control over the machinations of the bourgeoisie.”

So we are to support limited demands if these are able to bring workers into active political activity while it is still necessary to state the truth that much more radical action may be required to achieve given objectives.

Trotsky however has been criticised because he didn’t actually understand the role of workers’ consciousness in framing a political programme. Trotsky is quoted:

“We know that the subjective conditions – the consciousness of the masses, the growth of the revolutionary party – are not a fundamental factor. It depends on the objective situation; in the last instance the subjective element itself depends on the objective conditions, but this dependence is not a simple process.”

And further:

“What are the tasks? The strategic tasks consist of helping the masses, of adapting their mentality politically and psychologically to the objective situation, of overcoming the prejudicial tradition of the American workers, and of adapting it (their mentality) to the objective situation of the social crisis of the whole system.”

“I say here what I said about the whole programme of transitional demands – the problem is not the mood of the masses but the objective situation, and our job is to confront the backward material of the masses with the tasks which are determined by objective facts and not by psychology.”

The question is then posed to Trotsky:

‘Question: Isn’t the ideology of the workers a part of the objective factors? Trotsky: For us as a small minority this whole thing is objective, including the mood of the workers. But we must analyse and classify those elements of the objective situation which can be changed by our paper and those which cannot be changed. That is why we say that the programme is adapted to the fundamental, stable elements of the objective situation, and the task is to adapt the mentality of the masses to those objective factors.’

We should remember that for Trotsky the transitional programme was itself said to incorporate the requirements of a transitional epoch – “During a transitional epoch, the workers’ movement does not have a systematic and well-balanced, but a feverish and explosive character. Slogans as well as organisational forms should be subordinated to this feature of the movement,”

The organisations on the left repeatedly argue that workers’ consciousness can change quickly, and so it can, but this is mostly simply a way of avoiding the reality of the distance that workers must travel, the time required to do so and the experiences that must be gone through. This also plays a role in the debasement of the socialist programme, prompting attempts to make it look more ‘realistic’ and even ‘common sense’ by constructing a socialism based on widespread illusions in the capitalist state. How much more realistic, upon such illusions, do calls for nationalisation appear than the call for workers’ cooperatives or other measures of control?

So if we can try to summarise Trotsky’s approach, it is one that starts from trying to change the consciousness of the working class, through its more militant elements, in order to change objective conditions which alone set the tasks of the working class.

In the ‘transitional epoch’ that Trotsky described “the workers’ movement does not have a systematic and well-balanced, but a feverish and explosive character” and might therefore have been expected to be more open to the changes in organisation, action and consciousness that were required.

As I said in the first post the workers movement today in European countries cannot be said to have this character. The organisation and consciousness of workers today must therefore be considered much more an objective factor than when the transitional programme was written. This reflects the long history of capitalist boom conditions after the Second World War and the defeats inflicted on the workers movement in the most advanced countries plus the general discrediting of socialism consequent on Stalinism and its collapse.

To a much greater extent therefore the tasks of the programme is to confront workers with the objective circumstances which include the limitations of their own consciousness. Since for Marxists consciousness must reflect reality, changing consciousness means changing the conditions of workers themselves, including their own organisations and their workplace experiences. This is the task of workers themselves.

The Marxist programme must therefore place to the fore the working class changing its own circumstances so that objectively it increases its political and social activity. That this does not immediately raise the question of revolution does not matter since this cannot be raised concretely and practically any other way and certainly not by programmatic demands issued by small groups.

It must be realised that a revolutionary programme is not defined by adherence or commitment to the call for revolution now or in the future (in the sense of smashing the capitalist state and creating a new workers’ state). In the first case this is revolutionary phraseology only and in the second is merely a promise, and promises are regularly broken. Revolutionary politics exist in today’s period of retreat as they also more clearly do in periods of offensive and they do so whether an actual revolutions is more or less probable.

Revolutionary politics means the self-activity and independence of the working class themselves and an acceptance that just as workers must achieve their own emancipation they must also learn their own lessons and do so through their own mistakes. Marxists can lessen and shorten this process but not abolish it. To counterpose real expressions of working class action that may be politically weak and to abstain from it in favour of hypothetically more advanced courses of development is a sectarian mistake. This is not such a common mistake on the left today since it usually makes the opposite one but it is sometimes reflected in demands for acceptance of programmatic positions that in themselves do not answer any real tasks more or less immediately posed.

The more common mistake is to substitute action by others for action by the working class and in a whole series of posts I have given examples of this being done. To return to the beginning of the first post – Trotsky’s transitional programme gives no support to those who believe state ownership is part of the working class programme. It is rather the predominant means by which the left supports actions by others for what can only be achieved by the working class.

In the next post I will look at what Trotsky had to say on this.

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