Joseph Hansen

Trotsky’s Prognosis of Our Epoch

Written: 1944 and published in Fourth International Vol.5, No.9, September 1944, pp.270-73.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: David Walters, January 2006.
Edited and proofread: Andrew Pollack & Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive, 2006. You can freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & proofreaders above.

Marx and Engels, the great founders of scientific socialism, died before the unfolding of the modern and final stage of capitalist development. It therefore remained for the continuators of the Marxist movement, on the basis of the method they had inherited, to analyze and formulate the character and laws of this stage, that of imperialism.

At the beginning of our century this work was begun in the Second International, still a genuine revolutionary movement at the time. In 1909 Karl Kautsky, the acknowledged theoretical leader of the Second International, summed up the Marxist position on the new historical epoch in his pamphlet Weg zur Macht. In this pamphlet Kautsky affirmed that the relatively “peaceful” period of capitalist development had terminated with the rise to dominance of monopoly capital. Henceforth the contradictions of the capitalist system could become only more and more aggravated, thus precipitating a revolutionary epoch. He declared that it was no longer possible to speak of proletarian revolutions as “premature.” He directly connected the then impending First World War with the perspectives of the proletarian revolution. Kautsky branded as “outright betrayal of our cause’” the renunciation of all steps leading to the direct revolutionary struggle for power.

This viewpoint was affirmed in the resolutions adopted not only by the German Socialist Party but by the world congresses of the Second International. In particular, on November 24-25, 1912 an Emergency Congress of the Second International was convened at Basle, Switzerland, in connection with the Balkan war which threatened to precipitate the world conflict. The Basle Congress adopted a resolution sharply underscoring the imperialist nature of the impending war, summoned the Socialist movement to a resolute struggle against it, and closed with a warning to the bourgeoisie that the war would inescapably result in the proletarian revolution, which the Second International was presumably pledged to organize and lead to victory.

What happened is a matter of historical record. The First World War broke out. All the contradictions were aggravated to the point of actual explosion. It was precisely at this juncture, however, that the leadership of the Second International, with Kautsky in the forefront, betrayed the world working class. Corroded by opportunism the Second International became transformed into its opposite—from an instrument of the revolution it became the agency of the counterrevolution. Its leaders denied what they had affirmed right up to the actual outbreak of hostilities. Revolution was now declared to be premature. Capitalism was extended unlimited historical credit. “Socialists” undertook the task of salvaging the bankrupt system, and “making it work.” National unity was put in place of internationalism and the class struggle. It was a political debacle no one had foreseen. The world working class was temporarily left leaderless.

The task of reconstituting the revolutionary cadres of the proletariat devolved upon a handful of internationalists, first and foremost, Lenin and his co-thinkers who remained true to the program and banner of Marxism. The Marxist teachings developed within the Second international became the heritage of the new, or more correctly, the reconstituted revolutionary movement. Lenin and his co-thinkers preserved, extended and deepened the analysis of the imperialist epoch.

Lenin’s Analysis

Lenin’s doctrine may be summed up as follows: With the rise of monopoly capitalism, the system as a whole can head only towards decline. The “peaceful” phase of development lies irrevocably in the past; it has been replaced by an epoch characterized by violence, sudden leaps, catastrophic changes and vast conflicts.

In March 1915 Lenin wrote:

“We are unquestionably living on the borderline between two great epochs, and the historical events of the greatest importance which are occurring before our eyes can be understood only through an analysis, first and foremost, of the objective conditions under which the transition from one epoch to the other is occurring. What is here involved are great historical epochs; in every epoch there are and there will be isolated, partial movements, sometimes marking an advance, sometimes marking a retardation; there have been and there will be various deviations from the average type and the average tempo of movements. We cannot tell just how quickly or successfully the various historical movements of the given epoch will unfold. But we can know and we do know which class trends at the center of this or that epoch, determining its main content, the main direction of its development, the main Peculiarities of the historical background of the given epoch, and so on.”

To the question of which class holds the key position in this new epoch, Lenin gave an unequivocal answer—the proletariat. Here we have the touchstone that divides Marxism-Leninism from all varieties of revisionism. The distinguishing trait of the opportunists of the Second International as is the case with their latter-day disciples is their exaggeration of the resources and power of the bourgeoisie; the obverse side of this is of course the underestimation of the role of the working class, and, above all, of its main historical instrument, the proletarian party. The deserters from Marxism invariably crawl out of their skins to paint up the bankrupt ruling class. A classic example of this in the period of the First World War is Kautsky’s invention of a “super-imperialist” capitalism allegedly capable of organizing world peace and of mitigating the contradictions that devour capitalist society. From the Leninist analysis of the imperialist epoch, it followed that the imperialist war could develop in one direction, and one direction only: that of an immediate revolutionary situation which would pose the question of power point-blank. This perspective appeared to be fantastic to the philistines of the Second International.

Events brought their verification. In the very midst of the first imperialist war, the Czarist empire crashed and the first workers’ state was established over one-sixth of the world. As Lenin put it, this world-historic event inaugurated “the epoch of the, dictatorship of the proletariat.”

From the beginning Lenin envisaged the transition from capitalism to socialism ushered in by the October revolution as one of “incredible complexity.” A few months after the seizure of power in Russia, in March 1918, in a speech delivered before the Seventh Party Congress Lenin characterized this epoch as:

“... A whole epoch of the most diversified types of war—imperialist wars, civil wars within the respective countries, the intermeshing of the latter with the former, national wars, liberation struggles of nationalities oppressed by the imperialists, wars between the various combinations of imperialist powers... This epoch is the epoch of gigantic catastrophes, of violent mass military decisions, of crises. It has begun, we see it clearly. This is only the beginning.”

Post-War Developments

Such was the background, as Lenin envisaged it, against which the proletarian struggle for power was destined to occur. All if Lenin’s basic ideas were subsequently incorporated in the program of the Communist International, organized as the instrument for the conquest of power by the world working class.

Reality proved even more complex than correct theoretical forecasts. Capitalism was able to emerge from the revolutionary crisis in Western Europe only thanks to the treachery of the social chauvinists. The lag in revolutionary developments resulting directly from the absence of a revolutionary party enabled the German bourgeoisie to stabilize itself in 1918. The mobilization of the proletarian vanguard which was initiated only in 1919 by the founding of the Communist International could not keep pace with the swift revolutionary developments during the initial post-war years. As a consequence, open capitalist reaction was able to triumph under Mussolini in Italy in 1922. Then followed the most decisive event of the previous phase of development: in 1923 an exceptional revolutionary situation in Germany was missed. This led to the isolation of the workers’ revolution within the borders of the Soviet Union, and brought about a situation that no one could have predicted: a temporary equilibrium between the dictatorship of the proletariat in one country and the rest of the capitalist world. Within the Soviet Union this temporary and extremely unstable condition permitted processes of degeneration to set in which in the end completely destroyed the Third International as a revolutionary organization.

The revolutionary situation kept unfolding, but the false policies of the leadership turned the most favorable situations into a series of catastrophic defeats. In 1926 the British general strike was smashed. In 1927 the Stalinists policies permitted Chiang Kai-shek to drown the Chinese revolution in blood. In 1928 the vanguard of the world working class headed by Trotsky was deprived of all positions of power and influence, slandered, hounded, exiled, thrown into prison, and the state power in the USSR under Stalin began to swing more and more directly into the orbit of one imperialist power or another. The road was cleared for the triumph of the counter-revolution.

1n 1933 Hitler succeeded in taking power without even a defensive struggle on the part of the working class because of the uninterrupted betrayals of the Social Democrats and the Stalinists. Trotsky before the event predicted that such a defeat would set back the proletarian revolution by years, if not decades. To this series of staggering defeats, the traitors of the Second and Third Internationals now added the sidetracking of the French revolutionary movement in 1936-1938. And as the culminating convulsion of this entire period, the Spanish revolution went down, stabbed in the back by Stalin. Thus the events unfolded not along the rising curve of the victorious revolution but along the down: ward sweep of reaction.

This profound wave of reaction made possible the outbreak of the second world war and extended into the first years of the war up to the downfall of Mussolini. This event may be said to mark the beginning of a new proletarian upswing just as Mussolini’s rise twenty-two years previously marked the beginning of worldwide reaction following the First World War.

It was not difficult for superficial thinkers and sophists to draw from the treachery and bankruptcy of the working class leadership the conclusion that the working class itself was incapable of fulfilling its historic mission. This conclusion was invested with a semblance of truth by the way in which the defeats affected the great masses of the proletariat who naturally gave way to profound moods of discouragement, hopelessness, apathy. The masses needed time to recover from the defeats which set back mankind but which have not in the least altered the basic features and the basic forces of our epoch.

We witnessed once again solemn “burials” of Marxism. New classes (”bureaucratic collectivism”) were manufactured as coming to the fore to solve the contradictions of capitalism, etc., etc.

The Leninist analysis of the character of our epoch, the decisive class force in it, and the tasks ahead has been preserved, extended and deepened by only on tendency within the working class movement, the Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky. In its basic aspects the position of the Fourth International remains that of Lenin during the last war and of the Third International in Lenin’s lifetime. Abrupt and even cataclysmic changes continue to mark our entire epoch. Far from mitigating, the contradictions of capitalism grow more and more acute. Capitalism is in its death agony. There is only one way out of this condition of uninterrupted social crisis and that is through the socialist revolution.

In an article written at the outbreak of the Second World War, On Workers’ Self-Defense, Trotsky formulated the basic conception of our movement in a few words:

“Today, at the beginning of the world war, we take as our point of departure, more than ever before, the inevitability and proximity of the proletarian world revolution. This fundamental idea which differentiates the Fourth International from all other labor organizations determines our entire activity ...”

The fundamental strategic conception upon which is based all the politics of the Fourth International was summed up by Trotsky in the Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution. In this Manifesto it is once again established that the material Ease of our epoch remains that of imperialism; the only progressive force remains the working class. All the historic conditions for the revolution are rapidly being fulfilled except that of leadership, i.e., the organization of a political party possessing the will and the ability to take power. Trotsky lists as rapidly maturing these key conditions:

“1) The bourgeois impasse and the resulting confusion of the ruling class; 2) the sharp dissatisfaction and the striving towards decisive changes in the ranks of the petty-bourgeoisie without whose support the big bourgeoisie cannot maintain itself; 3) the consciousness of the intolerable situation and the readiness for revolutionary actions in the ranks of the proletariat.”

In answer to the arguments of petty bourgeois cynics that the masses are not ready or willing to move toward revolution, Trotsky had this to say:

“Today almost nothing remains of the democratic and pacifist illusions. The peoples are suffering the present war without any longer believing in it, without expecting anything more from it than new chains. This applies also to the totalitarian states. The older generation of the workers who bore on their backs the burden of the first imperialist war and who have not forgotten its lessons are still far from eliminated from the arena. In the ears of the next to the oldest generation, which went to school during war time, the false slogans of patriotism and pacifism are still ringing. The inestimable experience of these strata who are now crashed by the weight of the war machine will reveal itself in full force when the war compels the toiling masses to come out openly against their governments.”

It is in the light of these facts that Trotsky reached his conclusion that the masses are far more ready for decisive action in the course of this war than they were in 1914-1918. Indeed, he declared specifically in the same Manifesto:

“These great tasks which only yesterday seemed long years, if not decades away, can loom up directly before us in the next two or three years, and even sooner.”

One might expect that Trotsky would accordingly have outlined for his followers a program based on expectations of early or easy rise to power. He does precisely the opposite. He warns:

“It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective.”

In Trotsky’s eyes the grave danger in the period which we have already entered was not that the proletariat would fail to take the path of revolution, but that the initial battles for power would occur before a leadership had been consolidated capable of holding power. “This or that uprising may end and surely will end in defeat owing to the immaturity of the revolutionary leadership.” Despite such possible and even probable initial set-backs, Trotsky expected the unfolding events to provide the young revolutionary party “with enough opportunities and possibilities to test itself, to accumulate experience and to mature.” He emphasizes: ”It is not a question of a single uprising. It is a question of an entire revolutionary epoch.”

In connection with the inevitability and proximity of the proletarian revolution Trotsky thus underscores that the central problem facing the working class is the organization of the revolutionary political party:

“The conclusion is a simple one! It is necessary to carry on the work of educating and organizing the proletarian vanguard with tenfold energy.”

The Central Task

The outbreak of the proletarian revolution or more correctly, its extension beyond the boundaries of the Soviet Union has been delayed by more than two decades of reaction, the final link of which is the second world slaughter which has already lasted more than five years. It took slightly longer than Trotsky had originally calculated (two or three years) for the masses to overcome the effects of the previous defeats.

Still another cause for the delay of the revolution is the role of Stalinism. During the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact, which gave Hitler an opportunity to secure his western front while preparing for the colossal invasion eastward Stalin provided political support to the Axis. After the invasion he provided political support to the Allied imperialists. The prestige of the Soviet Union was thus utilized to divert the workers from espousing the historic interests of their own class and to betray them into supporting the cause of their mortal enemy, the bourgeoisie. Under different conditions, the Stalinists have repeated the role played by the Social Democrats in the last war. Today, instead of calling for the socialist revolution Stalinism is doing its utmost to prevent it and is organizing its murder squads to try to crush and stifle it wherever it might flare up. Rather than call upon the German workers to revolt—workers who have been dragooned into Hitler’s armies—rather than offer them a program of uniting to organize the Socialist United States of Europe, Stalinism simply labels them along with the rest of the German people “beasts” and utilizes its entire state power and the prestige of all the military victories of the Red Army to prevent them from finding the path to socialism.

But the final effect of the delay in the proletarian revolution will be to make its outbreak far more profound and sweeping from the very outset.

The entire continent of Europe is now seething. Events in Italy, France and in the Balkans have demonstrated already that the masses, first and foremost, the workers are evincing a growing capacity for self-action.

More than 20 million people in Europe have been torn from their homes, driven over the face of the continent. Nationalities have been thoroughly mixed. Millions have been herded into armies; other millions have been forced into factories. Europe today is a vast melting pot. Into this melting pot the Allies are pouring a steady stream of high explosives. The iron hoops of Nazism are beginning to crack. The pressures generating are enormous. When the explosion finally occurs its violence will be unprecedented in history. Under these conditions the task of creating the revolutionary party can be greatly facilitated and expedited.

We have already entered the first stages of the second revolutionary wave in the epoch of imperialism. This time it will sweep across Europe, shattering everything in its path, state barriers, the monopolistic cliques, the assassin regime of Stalin, the social democratic and liberal fossils—all these will be swept aside. The revolution will reach the Far East with incredible speed, raising to their feet the overwhelming majority of oppressed mankind. Led by the workers of the world they will end forever the monstrous barbarism of capitalism in its death agony.

History will then demonstrate the profundity of Trotsky’s insight and the correctness of his program.


Last updated on: 20.2.2006