Leon Trotsky

The Political Backwardness of American Workers

Recorded stenographically: May 19, 1938¯œ.
Source: New Park publications
Translated: Unknown
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2014. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License.

This is part of a longer and detailed discussion on the broad implications and meaning of the Transitional Program as well as the specifics on the class struggle in the United States. These discussions are available here and here on the Leon Trotsky Internet Archive.—Transcriber

Trotsky: It is very important to make precise some points of view concerning the program in general. How can a program be built consistently? Some comrades say that this program draft in some parts is not sufficiently adequate to the state of mentality, the mood of the American workers. Here we must ask ourselves if the program should be adapted to the mentality of the workers or to the present objective economic and social conditions of the country. This is the most important question.

We know that the mentality of every class of society is determined by the objective conditions, by the productive forces, by the economic state of the country, but this determination is not immediately reflected. The mentality is in general backward, delayed, in relation to the economic development. This delay can be short or long. In normal times when the development is slow, in a long line, this delay cannot produce catastrophic results. To a great extent this delay signifies that the workers are not equal to the tasks put before them by objective conditions; but in times of crisis this delay may be catastrophic. In Europe, for example, it took the form of fascism. Fascism is the punishment for the workers when they fail to take power.

Now the United States enters into an analogous situation with analogous dangers of catastrophe. The objective situation of the country is in every respect and even more than in Europe ripe for socialist revolution and socialism, more ripe than any other country in the world. The political backwardness of the American working class is very great. This signifies that the danger of a fascist catastrophe is very great. This is the point of departure for all our activity. The program must express the objective tasks of the working class rather than the backwardness of the workers. It must reflect society as it is and not the backwardness of the working class. It is an instrument to overcome and vanquish the backwardness. That is why we must express in our program the whole acuteness of the social crises of the capitalist society, including in the first line the United States. We cannot postpone, modify objective conditions which don’t depend upon us. We cannot guarantee that the masses will solve the crisis, but we must express the situation as it is, and that is the task of the program.

Another question is how to present this program to the workers. It is more a pedagogical task and question of terminology in presenting the actual situation to the workers. Politics must be adapted to the productive forces, that is, the high development of the productive forces, the paralyzing of these productive forces by capitalist forms of property, the increasing unemployment which is becoming deeper and deeper —the greatest social plague. The productive forces cannot develop any longer. Scientific technology develops, but the material forces are declining. It signifies that society becomes poorer and poorer, the number of unemployed greater and greater. The misery of the masses deepens, the difficulties become greater and greater for the bourgeoisie and the workers; the bourgeoisie has no other solution except fascism, and the deepening of the crisis will force the bourgeoisie to abolish the remnants of democracy and replace them with fascism. The American proletariat will be punished for their lack of cohesion, willpower, courage, by a fascist school for twenty or thirty years. With an iron whip the bourgeoisie will teach the American workers their tasks. America is only a tremendous repetition of European experience. We must understand this.

This is serious, comrades. It is the perspective for the American workers. After the victory of Hitler when Trotsky wrote a pamphlet, Whither France? the French Social-Democrats laughed. “France is not Germany.” But before the victory of Hitler he wrote pamphlets warning the German workers and the Social-Democrats laughed, “Germany is different from Italy.” They paid no attention. Now France comes nearer each day to a fascist regime. The same is absolutely true for the United States. America is fat. This fat from the past permits Roosevelt his experiments, but this is only for a time. The general situation is totally analogous; the danger is the same. It is a fact that the American working class has a petty bourgeois spirit, lacks revolutionary solidarity, is used to a high standard of life, and the mentality of the American working class corresponds not to the realities of today but to the memories of yesterday.

Now the situation is radically changed. What can a revolutionary party do in this situation? In the first line give a clear honest picture of the objective situation, of the historic tasks which flow from this situation irrespective as to whether or not the workers are today ripe for this. Our tasks don’t depend on the mentality of the workers. The task is to develop the mentality of the workers. That is what the program should formulate and present before the advanced workers. Some will say: good, the program is a scientific program; it corresponds to the objective situation — but if the workers won’t accept this program, it will be sterile. Possibly. But this signifies only that the workers will be crushed since the crisis can’t be solved any other way but by the socialist revolution. If the American worker will not accept the program in time he will be forced to accept the program of fascism. And when we appear with our program before the working class we cannot give any guarantees that they will accept our program. We cannot take responsibility for this ... we can only take the responsibility for ourselves.

We must tell the workers the truth, then we will win the best elements. Whether these best elements will be capable of guiding the working class, leading it to power, I don’t know. I hope that they will be able, but I cannot give the guarantee. But even in the worst case, if the working class doesn’t sufficiently mobilize its mind and its strength at present for the socialist revolution — even in the worst case, if this working class falls as a victim to fascism, the best elements will say, “We were warned by this party; it was a good party.” And a great tradition will remain in the working class.

This is the worst variant. That is why all the arguments that we cannot present such a program because the program doesn’t correspond to the mentality of the workers are false. They express only fear before the situation. Naturally if I close my eyes I can write a good rosy program that everybody will accept. But it will not correspond to the situation; and the program must correspond to the situation. I believe that this elementary argument is of the utmost importance. The mentality of the class of the proletariat is backward but the mentality is not such a substance as the factories, the mines, the railroads, but is more mobile and under the blows of the objective crisis, the millions of unemployed, it can change rapidly.

At present the American proletariat also enjoys some advantages because of their political backwardness. It seems a bit paradoxical but nevertheless it is absolutely correct. The European workers have had a long past of Social-Democratic and Comintern tradition and these traditions are a conservative force. Even after different party betrayals the worker remains loyal because he has a feeling of gratitude to that party which awakened him for the first time and gave him a political education. This is a handicap for a new orientation. The American workers have the advantage that in their great majority they were not politically organized, and are only beginning now to be organized into trade unions. This gives to the revolutionary party the possibility of mobilizing them under the blows of the crisis.

What will the speed be? Nobody can foresee. We can only see the direction. Nobody denies that the direction is a correct one. Then we have the question, how to present the program to the workers? It is naturally very important. We must combine politics with mass psychology and pedagogy, build the bridge to their minds. Only experience can show us how to advance in this or that part of the country. For some time we must try to concentrate the attention of the workers on one slogan: sliding scale of wages and hours.

The empiricism of the American workers has given political parties great success with one or two slogans, single tax, bimetallism, they spread like wild fire in the masses.55 When they see the panacea fail then they wait for a new one. Now we can present one which is honest, part of our entire program, not demagogic, but which corresponds totally to the situation. Officially we now have thirteen, maybe fourteen million of unemployed, in reality about sixteen to twenty million, and the youth are totally abandoned to misery. Mr. Roosevelt insists on public works. But we insist that this, together with mines, railroads, etc., absorb all the people. And that every person should have the possibility to live in a decent manner not lower than now, and we ask that Mr. Roosevelt with his brain trust propose such a program of public works that everyone capable of working can work at decent wages. This is possible with a sliding scale of wages and hours. Everywhere we must discuss how to present this idea, in all localities. Then we must begin a concentrated campaign of agitation so that everybody knows that this is the program of the Socialist Workers Party.

I believe that we can concentrate the attention of the workers on this point. Naturally this is only one point. In the beginning this slogan is totally adequate for the situation. But the others can be added as the development proceeds. The bureaucrats will oppose it. Then if this slogan becomes popular with the masses, fascist tendencies will develop in opposition. We will say that we need to develop defense squads. I think in the beginning this slogan (Sliding Scale of Wages and Hours) will be adopted. What is this slogan? In reality it is the system of work in socialist society. The total number of workers divided into the total number of hours. But if we present the whole socialist system it will appear to the average American as Utopian, as something from Europe. We present it as a solution to this crisis which must assure their right to eat, drink, and live in decent apartments. It is the program of socialism, but in very popular and simple form.

Question: How will the campaign be conducted?

Trotsky: The campaign will go somewhat in this fashion: You begin agitation, say, in Minneapolis. You win one or two unions to the program. You send delegates to other towns to the respective unions. When you have come out with this idea from the party to the unions you have won half of the fight. You send it to New York, to Chicago, etc., to the corresponding unions. When you have some success you convoke a special congress. Then you agitate that they force the bureaucrats of the trade union to take a position for or against. A wonderful opportunity for propaganda opens up.

Question: Can we actually realize the slogan?

Trotsky: It is easier to overthrow capitalism than to realize this demand under capitalism. Not one of our demands will be realized under capitalism. That is why we are calling them transitional demands. It creates a bridge to the mentality of the workers and then a material bridge to the socialist revolution. The whole question is how to mobilize the masses for struggle. The question of the division between the employed and the unemployed comes up. We must find ways to overcome this division. The idea of a fixed class of unemployed, a class of pariahs —such an idea is absolutely the psychological preparation for fascism. Unless this division is overcome in the trade unions the working class is doomed.

Question: Many of our comrades fail to understand that the slogans cannot be realized.

Trotsky: It is a very important question. This program is not a new invention of one man. It is derived from the long experience of the Bolsheviks. I want to emphasize that it is not one man’s invention, that it comes from long collective experience of the revolutionaries. It is the application of old principles to this situation. It should not be considered as fixed like iron but flexible to the situation.

The revolutionaries always consider that the reforms and acquisitions are only a by-product of the revolutionary struggle. If we say that we will only demand what they can give, the ruling class will give only one-tenth or none of what we demand. When we demand more and can impose our demands, the capitalists are compelled to give the maximum. The more extended and militant the spirit of the workers, the more is demanded and won. They are not sterile slogans; they are means of pressure on the bourgeoisie, and will give the greatest possible material results immediately. In the past during an ascending period of American capital the American workers won on no more than the basis of empirical struggle, strikes, etc. They were very militant. Given the fact that capital was ascending, capitalism was interested in satisfying the American workers. Now the situation is totally different. Now the capitalists have no prospect of prosperity. They are not afraid of strikes due to the large number of unemployed. That is why the program must embrace and unite both parts of the working class. The sliding scale of wages and hours does just that.

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Last updated on: 4 February 2014