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Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis

The Revolution Unfinished?

5. Modern Trotskyism

b) (ii) Demands and Struggle

The failure of Trotskyism to see that certain aspects of Leninism were historically specific has meant that the ship between the vanguard organisation and the working class is seen in static terms. The relationship continues to be seen as determined by an analysis of consciousness.

The Leninist concept of the Party cannot be separated from a specific analysis of proletarian class consciousness. (Mandel – The Leninist Theory of Organisation)

For Mandel, Leninism is the Marxist science of the “subjective factor”. So the party becomes based on a view of class consciousness as inherently limited. As we said earlier, the potential of consciousness, while not automatic or spontaneous, arises primarily from the conditions of struggle. Modern Trotskyism is notable for seldom analysing the changing conditions and arising content. in fact it is precluded from doing so seriously by its view of an unchanging epoch and an inherently limited consciousness. The above pamphlet by Mandel is abstract from start to finish. It never situates relations between party and class in changing conditions of struggle, but rather in absolutes of consciousness, spontaneity, the party and the like.

We have indicated through the pamphlet some of the changing conditions. But to briefly State some of them, brought about by different relations between working class, capital and state.

  1. With the interventionist role of the state, wage struggles, in particular fights to separate wages from productivity (e.g. via guaranteed lay-off pay demands) are directly political. This is not because they involve the state, but because they are more immediately anti-capitalist and less defensive.
  2. The tendency towards a de-skilled and proletarianised composition of the working class makes unification of the proletariat both a different and potentially more possible process: particularly through struggles against gradings, work hierarchy and for parity etc.
  3. Community, health, education and welfare services being drawn into a more direct relationship with capitalist production (via the state) has increased the anti-capitalist potential of struggles outside the factory and the strategic importance of organising with housewives, health workers students etc.

In general, we think that the daily (sometimes called “immediate” or “spontaneous”) struggles of the class have a greater political potential (that is for being directly anti-capitalist) than in the period when the Leninist theory of the party was formulated. This is the product of the changing composition of the working class, the changed role of the state and the new structures of capitalism.

The rigid distinction between “politics” and “economics”, or “defensive” and “offensive” struggle makes less sense now. This is not to collapse every sort of struggle into one another, nor to pose a spontaneously socialist consciousness. Merely to indicate that politics is less of an “outside” factor that organisations have to bring into the struggle. Rather they have to discover, direct and generalise it from within the struggle, to overcome the continuing hold of sectionalism, reformism and bourgeois ideology in general. It should be noted that there are some exceptions to the above model. Some politics remains explicitly external and is raised as a principle by the vanguard organisation. An example being support for the liberation struggle in Ireland and similar situations.

Nevertheless, these attempts to re-analyse class struggle determine for us the nature of party-class relations. Because of the largely static nature of their analyses, Trotskyists still pose the problem as one of the “injection” of a political programme.

The building of the revolutionary party is the process whereby the programme of the socialist revolution is fused with the experience of the majority of advanced workers’ struggle. (Mandel – Leninist Theory of Organisation, p.5)

Unfortunately, Trotskyists see this programme as being worked out above the changing process of struggle, in a supposed scientific process that Mandel calls theoretical production.

The gradual injection of these demands into mass struggles can only come about through the efforts of a broad-based layer of advanced workers, who are closely linked to the masses and who disseminate and publicise these demands which do not normally grow out of the day-to-day experience of the class. (Mandel, p.17 as above)

In other words, these advanced workers’ are the passive carriers of a politics from the “outside”. Perhaps this helps to explain why party leaderships (responsible for this “theoretical production”) can so often have bureaucratic and manipulative relationships with the rank and file members.

These positions affect the application of such programmes. From the position that the correct programmes can be worked out above the struggle there is a tendency for Trotskyist groups to believe that if they are big enough in a crisis situation, then the transplantation of such a set of demands can lead the working class to power. Talking of how there could have been a revolution in May ’68 in France, Mandel says:

At that precise moment small nuclei of workers armed with the correct political programme ... would have been enough of prevent the dispersal of the strikers, to inspire mass occupations and the democratic creation of strike committees in the principal factories of the country . (Mandel – Lessons of May ’68)

Or a variation:

Events such as the French strike of May ’68, to which the transitional programme provided a key set of demands, that had those who used them been strong enough, could have led the workers movement step by step to the conquest of power. (Workers Fight)

This political approach in fact only creates self-appointed r vanguards, who can teach but cannot learn. The ironic thing is that there have been hordes of Trotskyist sects or organisations with such programmes for decades, yet they have seldom played a key leadership role. They don’t seem to question that the limited impact is not due to any lack of size (or to Stalinist or reformist betrayals) but to the lack of relevance. The Italian organisation Lotta Continua once correctly noted that the problem was not to put yourself at the head of the masses, but to be the head of the masses.

To be in this situation the vanguard organisation must be prepared to learn, particularly from the qualitatively higher periods of mass struggle. The Trotskyist approach precludes this as another quote from Mandel shows:

The proletarian army will never reach its historical objectives if the necessary education, schooling and testing of a proletarian vanguard in the working out and agitational application of the revolutionary programme in struggle, has not taken place before (our emphasis) the outbreak of the broadest mass struggles. (from The Leninist Theory of Organisation)

For us the vanguard organisation must sink itself into the changing process of struggle, to learn the effects of changes on consciousness so we can articulate working class needs and generalise them. Also to form organisations adequate to the tasks of the situation. The Trostskyist approach leads to programmes from without and organisations from above. Finally, a theory which recognises that class consciousness is multi-layered and is flexibly conditioned by changing conditions, enables a more balanced understanding of how the working class can become a revolutionary class. The Trotskyist theory lays such stress Oft working class domination by capitalism and bourgeois ideology that it is forced to reduce the transition from class-in-itself to class-for-itself as a sudden ignition of consciousness in crisis/dual power situations. The effect is to create a too strong discontinuity between periods of “normal” class struggle and a revolutionary crisis. We return to this theme later.

Transitional demands

We have dealt so far with the limitations of the Trotskyist concept of the form of relationship between party and class. We now turn to an examination of the content of those relations through a critical examination of transitional demands. In an earlier section we dealt with how the Transitional Programme had arisen in the 1930s. Its great strength was that by overcoming the traditional split between minimum and maximum demands it dually posed ways of taking the struggle forward to questions of seizing power. However, its actual context created its functional usefulness. In the late 1930s “socialism or barbarism?” did appear to be a concrete choice, and the collapse of capitalism and a period of dual power were possibilities. Its weakness is twofold. Firstly, it underestimated the possibility of regeneration of the system, even in 1930s conditions. Secondly, it did not see the Transitional Programme as historically specific. This is shown by the fact that its outlines were formulated in the 1920s and early 1930s and yet it is still put forward as useful in whole or modified form by Trotskyists today.

The albatross of the Transitional Programme leaves Trotskyism to put forward (albeit half-heartedly) that capitalism is always in danger of imminent collapse. Statements that were half-true in the 1930s are universalised. Hence the IMG says:

The essential nature and necessity of such a programme is determined, at the most fundamental level, by the fact that capitalism cannot even solve the immediate problems of the masses. (Building the Fourth International in Britain – 1972)

As we have said before, once the stability and possibility of recuperation of working class needs are ignored, then the continued existence of the system can only be blamed on weak leadership or some other idealist formulation. To be fair, precisely because of the problems its use creates, few Trotskyist organisations actually use the full Transitional Programme. For those that try to (like the WRP) it is easy to criticise some of the ludicrous demands about workers’ militias etc. In these situations it is simply a case of groups putting forward what they would like to happen (or what could happen in a dual power situation) with no link to the reality of the situation. The Militant group’s call for a workers’ militia organised by the trade unions in Northern Ireland is a classic case, especially as those unions are pillars of the sectarian Orange Order. Most Trotskyist groups are selective in their use of transitional demands, so we will examine a couple of the more widely used ones – “workers’ control” and “open the books”. We will try to show that transitional demands cannot effectively be used outside dual power situations and that if they are their uses degenerate into “exposures” or abstract “educating” perspectives.

Workers’ control

Trotskyist groups do not, as certain ultra-leftists suggest, put forward workers’ control capitalist industries as a substitute for full workers power under socialism. On the contrary, it is seen as a transitional stage to workers’ self-management. In the Transitional Programme, Trotsky wrote:

The working out of even the most elementary economic plan – from the point of view of the exploited and not the exploiters – is impossible without workers’ control, that is without penetration of the workers’ eyes into all open and concealed springs of the capitalist economy. Committees representing individual business enterprises should meet at conference and choose corresponding committees of trusts, whole branches of industry, economic regions and finalFy of national industry as a whole. Thus workers’ control becomes a school for planned economy. (Trotsky’s emphasis) On the basis of the experience of control, the proletariat will prepare itself for direct management of nationalised industry, when the hour for that eventuality strikes

Trotsky wrote that when he believed that the collapse of the system was at hand. Lenin, writing in 1918, a situation of real elements of dual power, was even more explicit:

We have to expropriate them. That is not where the hitch lies ... I told every workers’ delegation ... You would like to be confiscated? Very well, we have blank forms for a decree ready. They can be signed in a minute. But tell us, have you learned to take over production and have you calculated what you will produce? Do you know the connection between what you are producing and the international market? Whereupon it turns out they have not learned this yet.

Workers’ control, then, is a school for a planned economy. Therefore, as one Trotskyist group says:

Full workers’ control, of course, can only be achieved in a pre-revolutionary situation and constitutes, under these conditions, dual power at factory, then at national level. (The Battle for Trotskyism – Workers Socialist League, p.15)

The problem arises when the demand is used outside of that context. It is our contention that it cannot be a “school for a planned economy” in conditions of normalised capitalist production. Yet this is precisely how it is used by Trotskyists In the last named document the WSL continue:

... prior to this (dual power) the demand for workers’ control, carefully used, educates the advanced layers and tests out the class itself . (p.15)

Modern Trotskyism is caught in an ambiguous position. While acknowledging that workers’ control cannot exist outside of a pre-revolutionary situation, they continue to use it, largely propagandistically, because it is the centrepiece of the Transitional Programme. Why can’t it be used in normalised capitalist production, even in a crisis situation? Firstly, because in the concrete material circumstances it arises in, the demand functions to impel workers to take responsibility for the running of the factory. This is not the aim of Trotskyists, but to talk of its use to “educate the advanced layers” is an abstraction. In the real circumstances (workers’ co-operatives etc.) the “education” is imposed by capitalist competition. That is, the workers controlling, not simply their own exploitation, but speed-up, redundancies etc. The workers are not learning to plan the economy but to adapt to the capitalist system.

The more sophisticated Trotskyist groups (e.g. IMG) recognise this problem. They say that while propagandising for workers’ control a position of “no workers’ responsibility for the running of firms under capitalism” would accompany it. Hence, they concretise that around demands for vetoes, over mobility of labour, line-speeds etc.

While demands for particular vetoes are fine, the problem arises when they are linked with generalised demands for workers’ control – i.e. the many demands for “nationalisation under workers’ control” that appear in Trotskyist programmes. A concrete demand for an extension of workers’ power in particular and often temporary situations is confused with a propaganda slogan. As the IMG say in their recent 4th International Theses on Britain – “generalised workers’ control of the whole economy is now a ‘propaganda task’ ”, relating to current and past revolutionary experiences. And as they say in What Is Workers Control?:

The struggle for workers’ control is only possible, therefore, if it is seen as part of a struggle for a workers’ government which can challenge the power of the state on a nationwide basis. (J. Marshall – Red Mole, 13.3.72)

Unfortunately, in Britain we are nowhere near that situation. In present circumstances the state and some employers are actually employing what they call workers’ participation and control to help resolve the crisis, through incorporation of workers’ representatives. To use the demand for workers’ con control in such circumstances where its meaning will inevitably be dictated by the existing power relations, destroys and indeed makes dangerous the educative value of the concept. The problem only arises because of the impossibility of using transitional demands properly outside the situation of dual power. The concept of workers’ control should be used in a purely educational sense to explain a distinct future situation, while developing concrete forms of workers’ power in the real conditions we operate in.

Similar problems arise in relation to one particular aspect of workers’ control – the demand for employers to “open the books”. While there are circumstances in which a demand for the release of commercial information can be very useful, as a generalised demand it is dangerous. Trotskyists advocate it to expose to workers that employers are lying about profits, bankruptcy etc. The problem: Maybe they aren’t lying, especially in today’s crisis situation. If that situation arises and they really are bankrupt then Trotskyists say that workers should refuse to take responsibility. Fine, but an undifferentiated use of the slogan “open the books” can have undermined such attitudes. If workers have demanded to know the “real” position, then find out it is adverse, then it defuses the situation more than if they’d taken a “no responsibility” position in the first place. This is especially important where multi-national firms can manipulate the books and effectively disguise the fact.

The consequences of a transitional approach

The difficulties of implementing a Transitional Programme has led some Trotskyists to be increasingly selective and to recognise the propagandistic basis of such demands. A particular focus of this has been the questioning of “calls to action” linked to transitional use of demands like that of a general strike. IMG have written:

Once the role of the party is defined as presenting ideas (our emphasis) to the working class then it is clear that it is perfectly possible to present a programme for the destruction of capitalism at any time. The task of the party must there- fore not be defined as calling the masses to action, but rather as explaining a rounded conception of the situation. (Building the 4th International in Britain)

The problem of dealing with the limitations of transitional demands in this way is that they “solve” the lack of realism by expansion of their “exposure” function. The traditional demand located in this perspective is “For a Labour Government with socialist policies”, used particularly by the WRP. This is used in a cynical way, as its advocates know that it is impossible. The aim becomes that of involving the workers in the struggle for the impossible, so that the lack of success will “expose” the limitations of reformism. Unfortunately, it is far more likely that the inadequacies of the demand will be exposed and workers will realise the futility of any effort expended, thus exposing the revolutionaries instead.

This demand has been rejected by the more realistic Trotskyist organisations. The IMG has replaced it with calls for a “workers’ government”. While slightly more related to existing struggles of some sort (e.g. for more democracy and accountability in the Labour Movement) it is still unrealistic and feeds illusions in reformism. In their election manifesto of 1974 IMG called for “a government based on the organisations of the working class! For a Republic of Workers’ Councils!” There are no concrete manifestations of trends inside the Labour Party or the working class that would make either of these demands remotely realisable within the foreseeable future. As this is the case and most militants know it, they appear as absurd.

The real educational value of raising issues of the tasks of a workers’ government or the necessity and problems of building workers’ councils (e.g. via discussion of Chile or Portugal) are lost by their use in programmatic form, which mystifies the real task of the situation today. Given their use outside a realistic context, transitional demands can only be abstract. This includes the endless calls for general strikes and Councils of Action etc. that have littered the history of Trotskyism. They seldom show any realistic progress towards the intended goal.

It is worth noting that the concept of “raising consciousness” implied in the transitional model is weak. It is built on a rationalist model where people’s consciousness can be raised in a “battle of ideas”. Trotskyists often explain that it is their aim to debate with the reformists and expose them in front of the masses by superior argument. Unfortunately there is more then ideology that binds reformism and the masses together. There is also the question of power. How many times have revolutionaries “smashed” reformists in argument, yet still lost in real terms?

The Trotskyist approach to demands and struggling for them can seldom break these power relations because they so often confirm the “powerlessness” of the working class and militants by setting unwinnable targets plus abstract principles masquerading as political strategy. The weaknesses of their approach are reinforced by their attitude to working class consciousness. This is usually talked of in terms of backwardness as if the ideas were somehow illusory or false, creating the illusion that they can be swept away by the correct ideas of the programme of the party. When this doesn’t happen it is usually explained by the get-out clause of a “time-lag” in consciousness.

A classic example is this statement from Tony Polan:

The accumulated momentum and authority of illusions enable them to maintain their power over the essentially conservative mind of man long after the objective conditions – the economic base- for them have disappeared. In the May days in France, the reliable material forces of the capitalist state were little more than a few thousand CRS thugs. The fact that the working class remained subject to the ideology of Stalinist reformism alone ensured the survival of the French bourgeoisie. (Why the SLL is not Marching)

As we have said before, the mistake lies in not recognising that ideology is part of the objective conditions. Ideology is lived relationships, reflecting the reproduction of everyday relationships in capitalist society and this includes the power of both the state and the French Communist Party in the above instance. Unless the depth arid complexity of people’s consciousness is given full credence, then failures can always be written of by “betrayals” and “bad leadership”.

Having made these criticisms, we are by no means suggesting that all or even most of the demands used by the better Trotskyist groups are bad. They do recognise the need for wide-ranging demands related to the actual dynamic of different situations.

But the left needs to work on demands that are part of strategies to actually advance working class power by relating to a realisable target connected to revolutionary ways of fighting everyday struggles Big Flame has been weak in developing from the limitations of short-term demands, that do little more than articulate militancy, but do Rot significantly generate a higher level of struggle.

The Trotskyist use of transitional demands has always had the advantage of being able to bridge short and long term situations, albeit in a distorted way. To avoid these weaknesses we have been trying to develop the concept of “medium-term” demands, that would act as a b ridge between immediate agitation and wider propaganda for socialism. These are “demands” which are general goals indicating autonomous working class needs. Their realism flows not so much from whether they can be achieved tinder capitalism but because concrete processes and immediate demands can be linked to them. In this way the masses can recognise their needs in them and how they are related to both a critique of capitalism and the socialist alternative. Each general demand or perspective would therefore be linked to immediate demands and also to ways of organising. Some examples would be:

  1. Guaranteed income for employed and unemployed (40 hours pay – work or no work; automatic cost of living indexes, minimum living income for unemployed and claimants)
  2. Independent income for housewives (Full unemployment rights and benefits for women, increased family allowances paid directly to women, payment to housewives for care of sick and elderly due to cut-backs etc.)
  3. The right to control our own bodies. (Abortion on demand, no discrimination against gays, full contraception and sex education facilities in schools etc.)

This approach also avoids the weakenesses of the other alternative to transitional demands – the minimum-maximum split. The SWP has made it one of the bases of their politics, wisely avoiding the mistakes of traditional Trotskyism. But as they have no bridging alternative their politics tends to be split into moralising about capitalist corruption versus the socialist utopia, or narrow economism. The latter manifests itself in the reduction of daily struggles to their lowest common denominator and not allowing “political” demands to be raised in their rank and file movements.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002