Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 10 – crises and contradictions iV

aaeb3f49f0044521a0b0904c2599b84b_18In 1921 Leon Trotsky argued that “If the further development of productive forces was conceivable within the framework of bourgeois society, then revolution would generally be impossible. But since the further development of the productive forces within the framework of bourgeois society is inconceivable, the basic premise for the revolution is given.”

I will argue against this view but it should not be taken that by this Trotsky believed that any particular country had to have fully developed capitalism before socialist revolution could succeed because obviously his theory of permanent revolution argued precisely that this was not the case. The argument just presented is a view of the world taken as a whole and not any particular country.

In his view capitalism could break at its weakest link but this is not Marx’s theory of the transition to socialism.  For capitalism not only to break but be replaced by socialism it is necessary that capitalism be broken not where it is weakest but where the working class is strongest, and the two are not the same.

The view that the productive forces have to have exhausted themselves has been a default view of much of the Marxist movement since 1938 and the writing of the Transitional Programme, which was called ‘The Death Agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth international’.  Adherence to this view means accepting that we have been living during a period of capitalism’s death agony for the past nearly 80 years.

It is this that justifies the view that objective conditions make the world ripe for socialism and that what faces socialists is a crisis of working class leadership. The task is simply to fight for leadership of the working class as it presents itself; its objective position and situation within society is relevant only in so far as it lends itself to gaining such leadership.  Since capitalist crises cannot be definitively solved by capitalism then such crises provide the opportunity for Marxists to win this leadership.

Those who have read earlier posts in this series will know that I reject the view that the productive forces of capitalism have stagnated.  This view was certainly challenged by the post Second World War economic upturn.  Crisis conditions in the 1970s and 1980s might have revived the view that capitalism was in long term crisis but the period since has seen huge economic growth.

Again the view that capitalism is in crisis might be bolstered by the financial crash in 2008 and the secular stagnation following it that has been posited by some writers but such crises do not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism suggested by Trotsky and secular stagnation has yet to be demonstrated.  If it were, it would still not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism that has been claimed, except that stagnation is not compatible with capitalism and if it existed it would create conditions of crisis.  

In previous posts I noted that capitalism had continued to develop the productive forces over the last century, including the expansion of the working class, its health and education and also its living standards.  Of course this does not mean that the next century will follow the pattern of the last.  This is as unlikely as the twentieth century following the pattern of the 19th, but it is at least necessary to appreciate what has already happened before thinking we are qualified for the much more hazardous task of speculating on what will happen in the future.


A recent article in ‘New Left Review’ notes that:

“Our available economic resources are greater than ever before. Between 1980 and 2011 world GDP per capita (in constant prices and purchasing power parities) increased 1.8 times, the IMF reports. As a comparison, we may remember that between year 1 and 1820 global product per capita is estimated to have increased 1.4 times, and from 1870 to 1913 1.7 times. More reliable are figures for 1950–73, 1.9, and for 1973–2003, 1.6.”

In his book ‘Postcapitalism a Guide to Our Future’ Paul Mason quotes figures that show global GDP per person rising by 162 per cent between 1989 and 2012 and in the developing world by 404 per cent.  It rose by ‘only’ 33 per cent in the 100 years after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and by 60 per cent in the fifty years after 1820.

Of course, this is not to deny the growth of inequality and ecological threat arising from the capitalist nature of such growth, how could it be otherwise?  Paul Mason notes that while the real incomes of two thirds of the world’s people rose significantly, as did that of the top 1%, the majority of people in America, Japan and Europe had no real increase and some a decline.  As the article in New Left Review notes:

“Furthermore, the conventional norm of progress obscures the unequal distribution of its opportunities. Almost half, 46 per cent, of the world’s income growth between 1988 and 2011 was appropriated by the richest tenth of humanity.  In the US, since the late 1990s, there has been a progressive decoupling of GDP per capita—advancing with short-lived fallbacks—and the family income of four-fifths of the population, which has been stagnating and recently declining, above all from the median and below. The spread of the Anglo-American financial crisis of 2008 has meant a substantial decline in the income share of the bottom 40 per cent in the recession-hit European countries, from Greece and Ireland to the UK and Spain.”

One Marxist[i] makes a persuasive case that the official figures underestimate the growth of specifically capitalist production because they ignore the conversion of the Stalinist states to a new economic system.  These figures treat the production in these states prior to the introduction of capitalism as if it were already capitalist but this ignores the boost to specifically capitalist production of the acquisition of productive forces on the cheap and the availability of huge pools of labour power that can now be exploited to further the accumulation of capital:

“In 1991 the centrally planned economies had a population that was 35 percent of that in the market capitalist economies. The restoration of capitalism in them massively increased the world’s working class that could be exploited by capital, while at the same time the world’s capitalists paid almost nothing to privatize the assets of entire economies. . . .By 2006 China, now the second largest capitalist economy in the world, employed 112 million industrial workers (Bannister 2009), not including millions more in the former USSR and CEE.”

“During the 1990s capitalist production of electricity rose 44 percent, aluminium 45 percent, hydraulic cement 60 percent, steel 39 percent, automobiles 21 percent, and GDP 42 percent, with the rate of increase accelerating the decade after. This is particularly significant as this period extends to 2010 and so includes the period of the credit crunch recession after 2008. The growth of output in the emerging markets has been combined with the accelerated decline of industrial output in the West, but this is a transfer of production, not its disappearance. By 2010 the transition economies as a proportion of total capitalist production produced 29 percent electricity, 52 percent aluminium, 65 percent hydraulic cement, 53 percent steel, 30 percent automobiles, and 26 percent of GDP.”

It is hardly credible that the objective and subjective conditions for socialism could be bifurcated for so long – that the problem is simply one of mis-leadership – while the social and political power of the capitalist class over the working class, effected by the enormous development of capitalism, reflected also in the ideological hold of the former over the latter, can be considered a secondary matter.

That this continuing subordination of workers by capitalism for decades, without challenge in any fundamental respect, could be considered not to have affected the consciousness of new generations of workers, were it true, would prove Marxism false.  The idea that the fundamental problem is simply one of working class leadership is not credible.

Marxists are always keen to assert that they do not seek crises and do not welcome the attacks on workers which large crises inevitably result in, including unemployment, wage cuts and attacks on workers’ democratic rights to organise.  But if crises do provide the opportunity to replace capitalism, and the grounds for socialism already exist, then this would be something of a puzzle.

In part we have already noted the answer – that crises openly express capitalism’s contradictions and posit the need for an alternative.  However, it matters not whether socialists wish or do not wish for crises, capitalism will see to it that they erupt anyway.  It is not workers who create economic crises but the contradictions of the system itself.

Socialists do not welcome crises in themselves because they become opportunities to overthrow capitalism only under certain conditions.  Since capitalism has had many crises and we do not have socialism we can infer that these conditions are rather restrictive, or have been so far.  Is there anything in Marx’s alternative that explains why this has been the case and therefore what might we change to address our failures so far?

An answer to this means going beyond seeing capitalist crises as simply the opportunity to overthrow capitalism without understanding what makes them such an opportunity, as opposed to an opportunity for capitalism to resolve its contradictions at workers’ expense.  The answer does not lie in the illusion that capitalism is a system in permanent crisis or is in an epoch of revolution. Crises there have been and even revolutions but clearly this hasn’t been enough for Marx’s alternative to have flowered.

The last 100 years has witnessed many revolutions.  The most important at the beginning of the last century were carried out under the banner of socialist revolution but they nearly all failed very quickly.  Later revolutions that destroyed capitalism did not usher in socialism or even societies controlled by workers taking decisive steps towards socialism.   The belief was widespread that socialist revolutions would be complemented by national liberation struggles which would lead to democratic revolutions, but again there were numerous democratic revolutions, few overthrew capitalism and none of them brought about socialism.

Since the decline of such struggles the most important revolutions have involved the overthrow of Stalinism and the concomitant reintroduction of capitalism while the Arab Spring has not resulted in any fundamental reordering of society, except in the sense that in some societies it has led to their disordering and collapse.

There have been plenty of revolutions but the changes have been mainly one of political regimes without fundamental changes to class rule, at least in the sense of the working class ruling society.  Such glimpses of a new worker-controlled society have been brief and fleeting.

Marx’s prognostication was that “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” 

The history of modern revolutions is testimony to this.  The absence of working class revolution is not.  Ironically, if you seek to reduce Marxism to a task of resolving a crisis of leadership you weaken its explanatory power, its guide to political intervention and its appeal.

Marx was aware that sometimes decades of political development are necessary for a working class to make itself capable of ruling society.  This is true now for reasons that Marx could not be fully aware of.  What he did do however was provide analyses of capitalism that may help socialists appreciate why we have failed so far.

[i] On the Alleged Stagnation of Capitalism, William Jefferies, available on the net.

Back to part 9

Forward to part 11

What is Anti-capitalism?

electronblueOver the last two decades the left has attempted to respond to the heavy defeats of the working class by breaking out of its isolation and creating, or rather supporting the creation of, broad left parties.  Similarly sections of society, especially youth, have responded to the obvious unfairness of global capitalism by involving themselves in protests and movements against globalisation.  Both of these moves have to one degree or other come under the label of anti-capitalism.  It has never been very clear what this anti-capitalism consists of.

The left groups have more often than not attempted to create these broad, anti-capitalist parties themselves rather than insert themselves into genuine broad movements.  The anti-globalisation movement has also by and large been separated from working class struggle due to the latter’s decline.  In the absence of such struggle speculative attempts to create broad parties can have only limited success but this does not account for complete failure.

In Ireland we have just witnessed the failure of the United Left Alliance, which follows on the failure of previous initiatives such as the Socialist Alliance.  This comes as similar initiatives in Britain such as its Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party and RESPECT have also ended in failure.

To a greater or lesser extent these projects have been based on the idea that there exists a vacuum on the left through the rightward trajectory of social democratic parties which the left organisations can fill.  There has been no pause for thought that this movement to the right is a result not of some pathology to betray traditional social democratic politics but results from the assault of right wing forces, consequent defeat of workers and an undermining of the basis for social democratic answers.

Much weaker forces from the left trying to occupy this ‘space’ with not dissimilar policies, in the absence of any change to any of these larger factors, could only expect to face a similar evacuation of this ‘space’ – usually through collapse.

The invention of the term anti-capitalism that is supposed to sit outside the traditional reformist/revolutionary dichotomy has been the programmatic basis for these initiatives although these take various guises.  In this blog I have critiqued the anti-capitalist programme of the left organisations in Ireland as they have grouped themselves around the United Left Alliance.  This criticism has examined their programme of debt default, their budget proposals, taxing the rich, state investment and nationalisation.

This programme can nevertheless be called anti-capitalist because no pro-capitalist force currently comes anywhere near supporting it.  No party supports high taxation of the rich, defaulting on debt or much increased state spending to lower unemployment.  The capitalist class would bitterly oppose implementation of these measures, which would be better for the working class than current austerity policies.

None of these considerations however make this a working class programme.  Capitalist states have defaulted on their debt before – many times; taxation of high incomes was well over 90 per cent in the post-war United States during the cold war; deficit spending by the state has been an automatic result of the current crisis and nationalisation has been a response across the world to the current crisis.  In Britain and the US parts of the financial system were effectively nationalised and in Ireland almost all the banks were nationalised.

The anti-capitalist policies proposed differ only in degree to those imposed by capitalism many times before.  Above all this programme is not a working class one because it does not provide an alternative to capitalism in the sense that working class power is built and strengthened and the germs of alternative relations of production are created.

The social democratic programme was evacuated because it was not seen as the best option for capitalism.  If the capitalist class or its representatives change their minds about this they will get their own parties, including social democratic ones, to implement it.

The anti-capitalist content of this programme is twofold.  First it may target particular sections of the capitalist class or its representatives but only to benefit others.  Thus debt default will impose losses on sectors of financial capitalism that may benefit industrial/producer sectors.  High taxation will hit the highest paid mangers of capitalist enterprises such as bank CEOs, so depressing their salaries, which may be to the benefit of capitalist owners as shareholders.  Deficit spending on infrastructure will obviously directly benefit capitalist construction companies while putting pressure on lending to other capitalists.  Nationalisation of banks has been a means of protecting capitalist investors, not of expropriating them, but it also maintains the integrity of other capitalist’s liabilities.

The second way this programme is anti-capitalist we have explained – the capitalists oppose it.  The anti-capitalism of the programme is very like the anti-imperialism of Irish republicanism in the 1970s and 1980s.  It was heartfelt and genuine in a subjective sense and involved enormous sacrifice.  In an objective sense it was unrealisable by the methods adopted – armed struggle by republicans and electoralism by the left, which means that eventually the means change or the objective is abandoned.  In the case of republicans it was both.

In both cases neither programme opposed or presented an alternative to the class interests that they fought against.  In the case of republicans they never had a programme that opposed and had an alternative to the British and Irish capitalist classes who defended partition.  In the case of the left even implementation of their programme would not end the capitalist system or threaten the power of the capitalist state.  In fact most of its programme involves strengthening the capitalist state.

As I posted before: in one aspect of their programme these weaknesses might be seen to have been mitigated if not overcome.  The demand for workers’ control of enterprises taken over by the state might seem to present a means to increase working class power while encapsulating the potential of an alternative, new society.

Unfortunately the demand for workers control is proposed as part of the demand for nationalisation as if the capitalist state is in some way a facilitator for the creation of working class power.  The Marxist analysis of the state is that when the capitalist class is threatened by working class action it is the state which is strong enough to defend capitalist interests.  State ownership is not therefore a route to workers’ control.  No aspects of the many forms of state organisation involve workers’ control of any aspect of its bureaucracy.

In capitalist society ownership entitles control and capitalist ownership entails capitalist control.  State ownership entails state control.  Only in times of extreme crisis is the possibility of workers’ control raised and it is raised only when it is imposed by the workers themselves.  If they are in a position to do so, and to make it work, the demand should also be for workers ownership.

Above all the demand for workers’ control must be posed as a practical demand because it is necessary in order to achieve certain objectives.  In the past this has often involved keeping a workplace open when it is threatened by closure.  It does not normally arise in workers minds as an objective in itself.  Unfortunately this is how it is posed by the left – not as a burning necessity to achieve certain things which only the workers have an interest in accomplishing.  It is rarely posed as a practical measure needed to achieve particular objectives.

As I posted before in relation to the Transitional Programme, demands must be concrete and practical or they are simply tools of education (when not means of spreading confusion). Nothing wrong with this in itself, if that is where the struggle is at, but for the left the education given creates illusions in the state by demanding nationalisation as the key. The demand for nationalisation under workers’ control fits comfortably within a general programme that is reliant on state action for implementation.

More often lately the primary role assigned to state action is reflected by the left’s dropping of the rider to nationalisation since it plays no vital role.  Workers’ control in itself is not necessary to achieve any particular goal.  It is what Trotsky referred to as workers’ control “for platonic purposes.”

So we have the ULA before the last election demanding that “key wealth and resources must be taken into democratic public ownership.”  Another Left organisation demands taking “Ireland’s natural Resources into public ownership”.  Another states that “AIB, Bank of Ireland and other banks should be nationalised.  The banks should be amalgamated into one state bank.  The boards should be sacked.  A new board under the democratic control of working people should be established including elected representatives from the workplace and representatives elected from society as a whole.”

Another demands that “a publicly controlled banking system should be administered by elected representatives of the Irish people, representatives of employees of the banking industry, and trained financial experts employed on public sector pay scales.”

These proposals become blueprints, not demands that workers are to impose through their struggle to achieve certain practical needs.  Demands that workers exercise control coexist with formulations that are perfectly consistent with bog standard capitalist state nationalisation.  Demands for ‘public’ or ‘democratic’ control can be perfectly understood to mean the existing forms of state ownership.

On the other hand claims that workers’ control, when it is part of the Left’s propaganda, really means what Marxists have traditionally meant by it would be hard to accept.  Calls for widespread workers’ control were characterised thus by Trotsky in 1931:

“Thus the regime of workers’ control, a provisional transitional regime by its very essence, can correspond only to the period of the convulsing of the bourgeois state, the proletarian offensive, and the failing back of the bourgeoisie, that is, to the period of the proletarian revolution in the fullest sense of the word.” It hardly needs saying that we are nowhere near such a situation today, not in Ireland or anywhere else.

Instead today’s routine demands for workers’ control, when they are made – instead of mealy-mouthed formulations about ‘democratic public ownership’- are closer to this description of it, again by Trotsky, in the same article:

“If the participation of the workers in the management of production is to be lasting, stable, “normal,” it must rest upon class collaboration, and not upon class struggle. Such a class collaboration can be realised only through the upper strata of the trade unions and the capitalist associations. There have been not a few such experiments: in Germany (“economic democracy”), in Britain (“Mondism”), etc. Yet, in all these instances, it was not a case of workers’ control over capital, but of the subserviency of the labour bureaucracy to capital. Such subserviency, as experience shows, can last for a long time: depending on the patience of the proletariat.”

We shall examine further the historical experience of workers’ control in a further post.

Trotsky and nationalisation

trotskyIn two previous posts I have looked at Leon Trotsky’s transitional programme and the general approach to a working class programme which it encapsulated at a particular point in time. In this final post on the question I want to look directly at what Trotsky’s views were on nationalisation. As I said at the start of these posts, many organisations claiming inspiration from his politics place calls for state ownership high up in their political programme. This conflicts directly with Marx’s views but we need to look at Trotsky to see if this is also true of him.

First we should note that in the transitional programme Trotsky explicitly counterposes ‘expropriation’ to “the muddleheaded reformist slogan of ‘nationalisation’”. He gives four reasons for doing so. The first is that he rejects ‘indemnification’, i.e. compensation to the capitalists. Secondly he does so as a warning against reformist socialists who, while also advancing this demand, nevertheless remain the agents of capitalism. Thirdly he says workers must rely on their own strength. As we have stressed, nationalisation relies on the state. Lastly he does so because he links the question of expropriation with the seizure of power by the workers. This latter point is crucial in his presentation while, because we live in less revolutionary conditions, I have laid greater emphasis on his third reason.

Thus in the very next section of the programme from that above, in which he argues the importance and the benefits of expropriation of the banks and statization of the credit system, he says that the latter will “produce these favourable results only if the state power itself passes completely from the hands of the exploiters into the hands of the toilers.”

When pushed, Trotsky accepts that ‘nationalisation’ may be accepted as a slogan but only in so far as it actually means expropriation and involves a workers’ government to achieve it. In other words reason four must apply.

It is possible to argue that the socialist programme must be taken as a whole and that therefore calls for nationalisation are perfectly valid when part of a comprehensive programme. There are several problems with such an argument but we will point out only two.

First – try finding the call for destroying the capitalist state or creation of a workers’ state in the programme of the left that might act as an alibi for demanding capitalist state ownership in the here and now.

Allied to this is the second reason. In every advanced capitalist country the working class is separated from conquest of state power by a huge gulf in social and political development and experience. The left might often be opportunistic but it is not immune to registering this fact, if only through avoidance of demanding overthrow of the state. In effect a link between nationalisation and a change in the character of the state is non-existent and the former becomes a simple call for the capitalist state to take ownership from private capitalists.

In other words the organ of the capitalist class as a collective, and its principal organ of defence of its system, is called upon to play a role in the destruction of this class and system.

For some on the left their understanding of Marxism and the working class political programme has degenerated so much that nationalisation of the economy is itself seen as the transformation of capitalism into socialism. In such circumstances however the relations of production remain unchanged; capitalism continues and the working class remains exploited, oppressed and separated from the means of production. It is precisely the establishment of this last condition that made for the creation of capitalism, and its ending that will signal capitalism’s overthrow, when the working class as the associated producers become owners of the means of production.

Trotsky was scathing about just such a belief in the socialist character of nationalisation. When talking about expropriating the banks he says that “of course this question must be indissolubly linked to the question of the conquest of power by the working class.” In the same article (Trotsky, Nationalised Industry and Workers Control, Writings , 1939) he writes that “It would, of course, be a disastrous error, an outright deception, to assert that the road to Socialism passes, not through the proletarian revolution, but through nationalisation by the bourgeois state of various branches of industry and their transfer, into the hands of the workers’ organisations.”

In many formulations of the call for nationalisation there is not even a call for nationalised property to be transferred to workers’ organisations, although the sometimes call for nationalisation under workers control is a nod in this direction.

We are thus left in the following position having reviewed Trotsky’s programme:
The socialist programme must be understood as a whole and it involves the destruction of the capitalist state and creation out of the working class itself of the new state.

In no country does the working class accept such a task or seek a way to achieve it. In no county is it subjectively revolutionary.

Trotsky seeks to adapt the working class and its political consciousness to its historical task but if it is not seeking revolution and has a very low level of political consciousness how do we proceed in a revolutionary way that does not address workers with politics that undermines the revolutionary goal?

Trotsky said that “comrades are absolutely right when they say we should tell the workers the truth, but that doesn’t signify that every moment, every place, we state the whole truth, starting with Euclid’s geometry and ending with socialist society. We do not have the right to lie to them, but we must present to them the truth in such form, at such time, in such place, that they can accept it.”

It would therefore be wrong to believe that because the complete programme of revolution cannot right now profitably be canvassed among the working class that the programme that must be fought for is less revolutionary. This is so only in degree but not in any qualitative sense. The revolutionary programme does not lose traction, does not cease to truly encapsulate the interests and immediate tasks of the workers because we cannot yet concretely and practically today propose the arming of the working class and destruction and replacement of the capitalist state.

What is also not involved is shying away from arguing outright for a socialist society, a society run by workers, and nor is it necessary or desirable to run away from this vision to the refuge of an improved capitalism. The vision of a systemic alternative to capitalism must capture the working class for it to put it into practice. It cannot be the result of stumbling blindly into it through some disembodied ‘logic’ of class struggle. Not speaking the whole truth every time and everywhere does not mean renouncing the goal of socialism at any time.

The revolutionary programme in non-revolutionary conditions means first rejecting illusions in capitalism and in its state – encapsulated in the demand for nationalisation.

It involves rejecting the substitution of the state for tasks that must be accomplished by workers themselves and it means identifying the steps forward that workers must take to develop their political consciousness, through increasing their economic, social and political weight in existing capitalist society.

There is no shortage of demands which can do so. It involves the demand for workers’ cooperatives – production without capitalists, not just as an answer to failing enterprises but as the model for new ones, through employment of workers’ pension funds and sponsorship by existing workers organisations such as trade unions. This is a question to which we shall return.

It involves workers reclaiming their organisations from the bureaucracies which currently control them through challenging and defeating these bureaucracies. In Ireland one form this takes is opposition to the policy and practice of social partnership. This in turn may involve creation of new trade unions; whether this is so is a practical and tactical question involving judgments that must ensure socialists and other militants do not become isolated.

It means creation of a workers political party that does not become the creature of electoralist stratagems and of TDs, as in the dying ULA. Similarly it does not mean the erroneous view that declarations of revolutionary virtue can in themselves guarantee anything in the wider working class, within which lies the only promise of revolution. The working class will of necessity learn from its own mistakes just as in will be its own liberator.

A programme which proclaims that the emancipation of the working class will be the achievement of the working class itself would go a long way to providing such a programme, were awareness of the dangers of reliance on the capitalist state for solutions as strong as it should be. It is arguing against such illusions, at what might seem excessive length, that many of the posts on this blog have been directed.

It is therefore time to turn to alternatives.

Does the demand for workers control represent such an alternative and does its joining together with a call for nationalisation represent a positive overcoming of the reactionary character of the latter – nationalisation under workers control? (Hint – the answer is no).

Does the call for workers cooperatives represent a real working class alternative to capitalism? Not, it would appear, to the organisations in Ireland’s left. But are they right?

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.

The transitional programme and political consciousness

Trotsky-1931In a series of posts I have shown that capitalist state ownership and its identification with socialism has no support in the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. It nevertheless recurs again and again and has done so for years in the political programmes of organisations claiming to derive their politics from these figures. Most of these organisations also claim to be inheritors of the ideas of Leon Trotsky and consider their political programme to embody the approach of the transitional programme formulated by Trotsky in 1938. It remains therefore to look at the transitional programme to see what support it gives to today’s organisations which consider themselves to be continuing the fight for this programme.

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.” (Trotsky) It cannot be said today that the workers movements of Ireland, Europe or the historically advanced capitalist countries have a feverish or explosive character. The point is therefore not to quote Trotsky in order to impose a specific formula on today but to demonstrate a general approach to Marxist politics and in so doing dismiss what are mistakes in formulating a working class programme.

The purpose of the transitional programme is to bridge the gap between workers and socialism through approaching workers at whatever level of political consciousness they are at and through progressive struggle and education direct them towards the goal of socialist revolution. It starts with existing objective conditions and through step by step struggle projects forward to the conquest of political power by the working class. It is designed to overcome the division of political programme into support for socialism as the maximum objective and the fight for a minimum programme made up of immediate demands that involve only reform of the capitalist system.

For Marxists the truth is concrete, not a formula, a schema, theory or principle and the truth lies in the whole, not any individual part or series of parts. The Marxist programme is therefore one that is true to the interests of the working class when taken in its entirety and when it becomes a guide to action. The role and purpose of the transitional programme is not therefore without its own problems; it does not of itself provide solutions to the difficulties in fighting for the interests of the working class or achieving the working class conquest of political power and it does not guarantee falling into failure to really fight for revolutionary change, on the one hand, or declarations of revolutionary virtue with limited purchase on reality on the other.

It provides no ready-made answer when objective conditions clash with working class political consciousness, when the threat to the working class is either not understood by it or it does not have the means to respond. When the Irish working class faces years of austerity, but has no conception of an alternative and so votes or accepts this austerity, the transitional programme waves no magic wand. When relatively large numbers of working class people are prepared to support or engage in very militant forms of struggle but have no or very little conception of socialism, as many republican workers did in the north of Ireland during the late 1960s and 1970s for example, the method of the transitional programme offers no off-the-shelf remedy.

What it does do is demonstrate through very practical examples how these problems may be faced and the method used to conceive the way forward – practical political demands which socialists and militant workers can fight for that can achieve their objectives. The class struggle itself will decide whether success is achieved.

This can be illustrated by a criticism I have seen made of the Irish United Left Alliance programme. This Alliance has now fallen apart but there is no reason to believe that the errors of its political programme so criticised in this blog have been understood. The electoral platform of the ULA has been criticised for not using the word socialism but this would not be a problem if it was only the word that was missing and the content it is shorthand for, working class power, was maintained.

The method of the transitional programme is based solidly on the Marxist view that the emancipation of the working class must be the task of the working class itself. The demands of the programme are all ones that the working class must fight for, impose and achieve. To bring us back to the point: nationalisation is something the working class hands to the capitalist state, the defender of capitalism, to carry out.

In terms of the examples above; the fight against austerity must place the tasks of the workers themselves to the fore, fighting the mechanisms of austerity in cuts and tax rises and putting forward alternatives that are creations of the working class itself such as democratic trade unions and workers cooperatives etc. In the North the need for defence of sections of workers attacked because of their religion must be a political task first, not a military one, and must be carried out democratically by workers themselves, not by a secret military group. It must be done under a political banner committed to democratic and class identification not sectarian and communal affiliation. Of course, as we have said, to fight is not necessarily to win but to fight under the wrong political banner and demands is already to fail.

The principle that it is working class activity and action which is key through the mechanism of workers control is also revealed in the approach to demands which on the face of it are not specifically socialist and are limited to reforms or purely democratic changes within the existing capitalist framework. In these cases such demands must be fought for through working class methods of struggle in order that the workers themselves go through the experience of fighting and learn from the experience.

Inevitably when this occurs workers quickly teach the socialists but no lesson is learnt automatically or spontaneously. The struggle in the North of Ireland is proof that even the most militant struggle does not generate socialist consciousness and that this must be fought for just as much as the particular object of struggle itself and if they cannot be linked the struggle for socialism is not on the agenda anyway.

On the other hand the fixation with electoralism evidenced by the ULA is not a lapse but sits comfortably within a political programme which calls on the capitalist state to create equality and democratic ownership. Since the illusion exists that election to governmental office allows one to utilise the state to direct capitalist society, instead of the other way round, what makes more sense that seeking election? In this scenario working class action supports the actions of the elected instead of the elected acting merely as the megaphone of the working class movement.

When I first became involved in Marxist politics in Glasgow in the middle of the 1970s the organisation I joined, the International Marxist Group, was critical of what it saw as the syndicalism of the (British) Socialist Workers Party because the SWP refused to stand in elections. Electoral intervention led to revolutionary politics being diluted and betrayed in the pursuit of votes said the SWP. Less than five years later the same argument was being advanced by Peoples Democracy against Provisional republicans who claimed that standing in elections was to play the British game, legitimising its rule and distracting from the cutting edge of the armed struggle. For both the IMG and PD the Russian Marxists at the beginning of the century were proof that entering electoral contests did not necessitate abandoning revolutionary politics.

While this might be true in principle the subsequent course of both the SWP and republicans has conclusively demonstrated that the IMG and PD (and myself) were wrong in practice. Over on the Irish Left Review a statement is quoted from Ann Foley, the ULA candidate for Cork North West and the SWP’s People before Profit electoral organisation that starkly exhibits this: “I feel the ULA has very common sense policies. When people think of socialists, they think of communism, which is not the case. There is nothing dramatic or revolutionary about our policies.”

This is not the place to explain how this collapse of these organisations’ programmes came about but it is obvious that this has happened. As explained above, even the most militant struggle may not of itself generate socialist consciousness but electoralism has its own ways of causing political degeneration.

In any case the struggle for capitalist state ownership does not challenge capitalist ideology, does not challenge the natural order of capitalist society, does not challenge the widespread illusion that the state (at least potentially) is a neutral arbiter of interests or is the embodiment and representative of a common, national interest. When the actions of the state feature so heavily in even the programme of self-declared Marxists, and for decade upon decade, can there be any wonder there is so little evidence of socialist political consciousness among the Irish working class?

For Marxists this is key because if emancipation can only follow the actions of workers themselves then the ideas these workers act upon are obviously critical. In so far as socialists can affect this consciousness then the manifestos, budget statements, press statements, speeches on the floor of the Dail carried by TV and radio, door canvassing, interventions in workers’ meetings and leaflets at demonstrations are the means by which socialist education can be achieved. How many of these stray beyond Keynesian, that is capitalist, ideas? By comparison the theoretical articles in the left press are simply salves to a guilty conscience that is not even conscious of its guilt.

Consciousness is key because socialism is another name for working class rule and no ruling class rules without being aware of it, which explains the much higher level of class consciousness among capitalists than workers. Workers cannot rule unless they purposefully chose to do so because power will not simply be handed to them. They will have to fight for it which means they will have to want it. Perhaps this is obvious but it has consequences for how socialists must see socialism coming about.

The task of ruling society by the class that makes up the vast majority of society is an enormous and unprecedented undertaking. The scope and depth of political and social awareness to make such a prospect a real possibility does not at the moment exist anywhere. It must come through struggle involving greater and greater parts of the working class, through a process of political and social education that prepares the working class both ideologically and practically for accomplishing it. The transitional programme is meant to encapsulate how this momentous task is achieved.

Unfortunately the transitional programme is looked upon in relatively restricted terms, as a result of the particular historical period in which, and for which, it was written. It is most obviously relevant to a revolutionary situation where the capitalist system is in crisis and the rule of the capitalist class is similarly struck. By their nature such situations are temporary and often fleeting.

To believe today that such crises can move the working class from its current position of subservience, where it does not even control and mostly does not even participate in the organisations which are supposedly its own, such as trade unions, to being politically conscious and organised enough to take political and economic power, is to believe in revolutionary crisis as a sort of magic wand out of which the organisation and education of decades can be squeezed into a few years, at most, of crisis.

The creation of socialist political consciousness among the vast majority of the working class is not the task of a few months or years but of decades. This is also true of the maturation of the objective conditions upon which such consciousness can only be created. This involves a qualitative increase in the social and political participation of the working class as a class in political and economic life, through real participation in trade unions, political parties, community organisations, workers’ cooperatives and other aspects of economic life.

It sometimes appears as if supporters of the transitional programme believe that a series of smart demands allied to struggle can somehow lead workers from rather backward political consciousness, almost by the nose, to one day deciding they would like to rule society. Or worse, finding by sudden surprise that they must smash the capitalist state to get what they want or that having done so waking up one morning to find themselves in charge of society almost by default. It is almost as if the working class will take conscious control of society by a process of mostly unconscious action, at least until the last minute.

While it cannot be expected that even the greatest struggle must start with full consciousness of the socialist objective it cannot be expected that the beginnings of a revolutionary struggle will start without widespread allegiance by major sections of the working class to the ideas of socialism as an objective and deep and widespread experience of self-organisation as a result of commitment to such ideals. In other words there exists a more or less long struggle to win the working class to the ideas of socialism and the need for practical experiences of organisation that comes from militant workplace organisation and inroads into capitalist property.

For those who believe only a Marxist Party needs to be conscious of such tasks and long term objective there might not appear any problem.  But if socialism is working class rule then the vast majority of workers must believe in their capacity to rule society and seek it as the solution to the critical problems which capitalist society has presented to them in periods of revolutionary crisis.

In the next post I will look at claims that Trotsky did not understand this objective requirement.