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Leon Trotsky 19380323 Discussions with Trotsky: IV – A summary of transitional demands

Leon Trotsky: Discussions with Trotsky: IV – A summary of

transitional demands

March 23,1938

[The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, New York ³1977, p. 129-140]

Trotsky: In the preceding discussions some comrades had the impression that some of my propositions or demands were opportunistic, and others that they were too revolutionary, not corresponding to the objective situation. This combination is very compromising, and that's why I'll briefly defend this apparent contradiction.

What is the general situation in the U.S. and in the whole world? The economic crisis is without precedent, the financial crisis of the separate states is the same, and the war danger is approaching. It is a social crisis without precedent. For seven, eight, or nine years we believed that American capitalism would show more resistance, but facts have shown that American capitalism, that is, apoplectic capitalism, is possibly nearer to collapse than some others. The American crisis is a social crisis, not a conjunctural one. This social crisis – now called recession – received features of extreme acuteness. It is not the end of the recession.

Financial difficulties of the statesnaturally the nation is very rich and the state can borrow from the nation, but it signifies that on the basis of the financial crisis we have a crisis of the state. We can say that we have a political crisis of the ruling class. Prosperity is gone; nobody believes it will return. And this fact is reflected in the political crisis of the Democrats and the Republicans. The ruling classes are disorganized, and they look for a new program. Roosevelt's program is experimental, not to say adventuristic in a capitalist sense. That signifies a most fundamental premise for a revolutionary situation. It is true for the world and it is true for the U.S.possibly it's especially true for the U.S.

Now, the question of the proletariat. We have a very great change in the situation of the working class. In some articles in the Socialist Appeal and in the New International I learned with interest and pleasure that now the feeling of the American worker that he is a worker is growing; that it is not the old pioneer spirit that he is a worker only for a time; now he is a permanent worker, and even a permanent unemployed. That is the basis for all the other developments in the working class. Then we had the sit-down strikes. Those I believe were unprecedented in the labor movement of the U.S. As a result of this movement, the creation and growing of the CIO. Also we have the tendency to build the labor party, the LNPL.

I do not know sufficiently well the past or present of the labor movement in America. But generally I can say that in 1924 the movement was more imposing, but the social preconditions are incomparably more mature now. That is why the significance of the labor party is more important now. But I will not say that all the conditions are developed to the same degree or to the same level. We can say, if we take the general world situationthe imperialist contradictions; the position of American capitalism; the crisis and unemployment; the position of the American state as an expression of the American economy, of the American bourgeoisie; the political state of mind of the ruling class, the disorientation; and then the position of the working classwe can say, if we take all these into consideration, that the preconditions are more mature for the revolution.

Insofar as we advance from these fundamental premises to the superstructure, to the policies, we remark that they are not so mature. The inner contradictions of American capitalism – the crisis and unemploymentare incomparably more mature for a revolution than the consciousness of the American workers. These are the two poles of the situation. We can say that the situation is characterized by an over-maturity of all fundamental social preconditions for the revolution, a fact I personally didn't foresee eight or nine years ago.

On the other hand, this rapidity of the decomposition of the material conditions of the U.S., the mass consciousnessin spite of the fact that we can here also establish important progress – remains backward in comparison with the objective conditions. We know that the subjective conditionsthe consciousness of the masses, the growth of the revolutionary party – are not a fundamental factor. It depends upon the objective situation; in the last instance the subjective element itself depends upon the objective conditions, but this dependence is not a simple process.

We observed in France during the last year a very important phenomenon, and very instructive for the comrades in the U.S. We can say the objective situation was almost as mature as in the U.S. The workers' movement had received a tremendous impetus. The trade unions grew from less than a million to five million during several months. The sit-down strikes in France were incomparably more powerful than in the U.S. The workers were ready to do everything, to go to the limit. On the other hand we saw the machinery of the Popular Frontfor the first time we could demonstrate the historical importance of the betrayal of the Comintern. Insofar as for some years the Comintern had become a machine for the social conservation of capitalism, the disproportion between the objective and subjective factors received a terrible acuteness, and the Popular Front became the greatest brake in order to canalize this great revolutionary stream of the masses. And they succeeded to a certain degree. We can't foresee what will be tomorrow, but in France they succeeded in capturing the movement of the masses, and we see now the results: the movement to the right – Blum becomes a leader, the one who forms national governments, the union sacrée for the war – but it is a secondary phenomenon. The most important is that we have in the whole world, as we have in the U.S., this disproportion between the objective and subjective factor, but it was never as acute as now.

We have in the U.S. a movement of the masses to overcome this disproportion; the movement from Green to Lewis; the movement from Walker to La Guardia. This is a move to overcome the fundamental contradiction. The CP plays in the U.S. the same role as in France, but on a more modest scale. Rooseveltism replaces the Popular Frontism of France. Under these conditions our party is called upon to help the workers overcome this contradiction.

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 traditions of the American workers, and of adapting it [their mentality] to the objective situation of the social crisis of the whole system.

In this situationtaking into consideration the little experience and then viewing the creation of the CIO, the sit-down strikes, etc. – we have the full right to be more optimistic, more courageous, more aggressive in our strategy and tactics – not adventuristic, but to advance slogans that are not in the vocabulary of the American working class.

What is the sense of the transitional program? We can call it a program of action, but for us, for our strategic conception, it is a transitional program – it is a help to the masses in overcoming the inherited ideas, methods, and forms and adapting themselves to the exigencies of the objective situation. This transitional program must include the most simple demands. We cannot foresee and prescribe local and trade union demands adapted to the local situation of a factory, the development from this demand to the slogan for the creation of a workers' soviet.

These are both extreme points, from the development of our transitional program to find the connecting links and lead the masses to the idea of the revolutionary conquest of power. That is why some demands appear very opportunistic – because they are adapted to the actual mentality of the workers. That is why other demands appear too revolutionary – because they reflect more the objective situation than the actual mentality of the workers. It is our duty to make this gap between objective and subjective factors as short as possible. That is why I cannot overestimate the importance of the transitional program.

You can raise the objection that we cannot predict the rhythm and tempo of the development, and that possibly the bourgeoisie will find a political respite. That is not excluded – but then we will be obliged to realize a strategic retreat. But in the present situation we must be oriented for a strategic offensive, not a retreat. This strategic offensive must be led by the idea of the creation of workers' soviets to the creation of a workers' and farmers' government. I don't propose that the slogan be launched immediately for sovietsfor many reasons, and especially because the word has not the significance for the American workers that it had for the Russian workers – in order to proceed from this to the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is very possible and probable that in the same manner that we observed the sit-down strikes in the U.S., we will observe in a new form the equivalent of soviets. Probably we will begin by giving them a different name. In a certain period soviets can be replaced by factory committees, then from a local scale to a national scale. We can't foretell, but our strategic orientation for the next period is the orientation toward soviets. The whole transitional program must fill up the gaps between conditions today and the soviets tomorrow.

Shachtman: Would you elaborate the prospects of war internationally and in relation to the U.S. today?

Trotsky: In this strategic perspective the war signifies, as Lenin expressed it, a tremendous accelerator of the movement. If the U.S. were involved in a war it would at first signify isolation for us, but not for years, as in the last war, but only for months. Then a tremendous wave of sympathy for us will transform our party into a national revolutionary center within a short period. In this sense the approaching war is one of the fundamental factors of a prerevolutionary situation and will change the mentality of the American workers in six months more than we could have done in six years or more. [The war] will create for us exceptionally favorable conditions, provided we have a strategic attitude, foreseeing it, preparing our own cadres, and are not absorbed only in small questions. Naturally it's a tremendous acquisition that we are rooted in the trade unions, but it's very important not to lose our world strategic line. Every local, partial, economic demand must be an approach to a general demand in our transitional programespecially on the war question, as we mentioned yesterday: the control of war industry and the arming of the workers and peasants.

Shachtman: Two other questions: What is our relationship to the farmers? And secondly, what is the party's relation to the urban middle class?

Trotsky: I believe it is a question of explaining to the workers the situation of the farmer and how we can ameliorate the situation. We are too weak to devote our forces directly to the farmers, but it is necessary that our workers have a clear comprehension of the situation of the farmer; and there too we must have a transitional program connected to that of the workers. We have to explain that we will not impose collectivization, that we hope to convince them; insofar as they wish to remain independent, we will help them through credit; and we begin with the slogan that the state must intervene in favor of the farmers, not the trusts. Then we say: When we are in power, it is not a question of violence against you – you will choose your own methods.

It is transitory only in the sense that it bridges the present situation of the farmers to the collectivization of agriculture. But we say: If you don't wish to go further, we'll wait.

With the middle class of the cities it is the same. Insofar as it is the commercial elements, the little men of industry: You will remain independent. You are now depending upon the trust. You will be dependent upon the state; it will give you commodities and you will sell them. If you wish to transform your shop into a state shop, we will arrange the matter with you. We will give you a period to choose, but it will be a good period, as it is not a state in the interests of big capital. You will then be in the service of the people. In America you will at least conserve your social privileges for a time.

Naturally we cannot say to the technicians that they will be technocratsno, we cannot permit a new aristocracy; but they will be an important part of society.

Rivera: There is a stratification also among the engineers, who get less money than the plaster men. That means right now they are plain workers and that is better for us.

Trotsky: The stratification in the professions is very important.

Cannon: What would be the effect of the war?

Shachtman: Supposing it is a European war, into which the U.S. does not yet enter?

Trotsky: In that case the U.S. will have a postponement of the economic collapse. What is clear is that in the countries involved in the war the collapse will come in not four to six years but in six to twelve months, because the capitalist countries are not richer but poorer than in 1914, materially; technically they are richer – they will spend four, five, or ten times more for destruction than they did during the world war [World War I], because the war will begin where the last war finished. The psychological factor – that the old generation that participated in the last war is still living and the traditions of the last war are livingnobody will believe that it will signify happiness, full rights, destruction of militarism, and that production will be for humanity. These lessons exist even in the younger generations. That is why their patience will not last long. And the revolution will come not after four years but much earlier, after some months. If we enter into this war tempered and steeled, and if we are capable of surmounting the obstacles of the first period with courage, we will become the decisive force in the U.S. as elsewhere.

Cannon: Can expropriation be considered as nationalization that used to be spoken of by the reformists?

Trotsky: We must emphasize that if the power is in the hands of Roosevelt, it is not in our hands. We must underline the class element every time. We must contrast our formula to that of the reformists: nationalization? Yes; but in whose hands?

Cannon: How long can the U.S. stay out of war, in your opinion?

Trotsky: I believe it will not intervene in the beginning, but it does not depend only on the U.S. – it depends on the activity of Japan and the attitude of Great Britain. It is very difficult to say, but we must count for much shorter intervals than in the last war, when it took them two-and-a-half years to intervene. Now in two-and-a-half years there will be a total collapse.

If they wish to influence the war they must intervene in a much shorter period and on an unprecedented scale, in Europe and everywhere, and concentrate forces ten times more powerful than the forces of Wilson, who didn't have ten or more million unemployed. You can say that all these unemployed will be absorbed in the war industry, but that signifies the creation of a terrible pump for absorbing all the riches of the nation.

Shachtman: It is your opinion that the Soviet Union will be with one state against another, or the imperialists will allow Hitler to attack on the West and Japan on the East?

Trotsky: I don't believe they will have such a reasonable plan. I believe the war will begin with the Soviet Union in one of the camps and during the war they will smash the Soviet Unionby allies or by enemies does not matter – unless a revolution occurs.

Shachtman: Then how explain the change in policy of Great Britain?

Trotsky: It is an attempt – it is as vital for Italy as for Great Britain, if they can come to an agreement, and, if they do, whether the agreement will last for more than three months; whether Italy will stand back as in the last war and join the stronger or those who seem to be stronger. I have taken up the question of possible alliances and line-ups in case of war in an article for the bourgeois press, but it was not published. Perhaps our press will publish it.

Shachtman: Now as to the work of the party in the struggle against war. You say, and I think it is correct, that if and when the war breaks out in the U.S. the first reaction of the workers will be a terrible chauvinistic wave, and then our party will be made illegal. How did the Russian party function illegally, to what extent did it try to function legally, etc.?

Trotsky: The party had at that time a parliamentary fraction, and it had the greatest importance. This fraction was not exactly okay during the beginning of the war, but by and by, under the pressure of Lenin and the growing discontent, they became more revolutionary. Then they were arrested. That was at the beginning of 1915 – it left them only six to eight months for activity. You don't have a parliamentary fraction, but I believe your preparation for illegality is your work in the trade unionsit is the most important school for illegal work. In Minneapolis our comrades now have more or less a favorable position and a bloc with the "honest reformists," but let a war approach and the "honest reformists" will be the most chauvinistic, and our comrades, even if they are cautious, will be attacked by them; they will break with us and form a bloc with the Stalinists and will accuse our comrades of being spies for Germany and Japan. In other unions we do not have such a favorable position as in Minneapolis – pressure will be put on our comrades in order to eliminate them. That is why we must organize our work in the trade unions for legal and for illegal work, even now. In order to have time to organize our cadres to replace the bureaucrats, these elements should be more or less illegal, that is, not known as representatives of the Fourth International. In any case, when the situation becomes more or less sharpened or acute, when our comrades are excluded, a new crew remains to replace them, and I believe this work is the most important preparation for illegal work.

Often comrades ask me if we couldn't create a special school – that's an artificial creation; but our most important work now is the CP, to penetrate even into the [Political] Bureau. We must have in the trade unions representative comrades, openly declaring that they are for the Fourth International, but these comrades will be the first victims of the bureaucracy at the approach or beginning of war, and the official police will leave the work to the trade union bureaucrats to exclude them and deprive them of their means. That is why we must prepare young people, or people who are not so good at speaking but who are good organizers; they can remain incognito. From this point of view you will have a more favorable situation than we had in Russia, because it's absolutely improbable that the government will prohibit the trade unions. They will try to have the cooperation of the trade union bureaucrats, and it will be possible for us to hide – we will have sympathetic elements. And then there will be the big wave of mourning of mothers, and this will be reflected in the sentiment in the trade unions. Then we will say that we warned you what the war is like.

At the beginning we can't be aggressive – it's almost physically impossible. It will be sufficient if our comrades do not capitulate to the chauvinist wave.

Shachtman: What about the central committee?

Trotsky: It is too specific a question to be decided by the general situation; it depends upon the authority of the comrades and the conditions of life. Part of the central committee must immediately go underground, and the other part must remain very cautious and try immediately to establish illegal connections.

Shachtman: I asked this question from a different point of view: Should the members of the central committee make a public declaration?

Trotsky: Yes, some of them must do so, but they must consult an attorney in order to phrase it so as not to give them the ground for court-martial. Yet the declaration should be clear enough for us to be able to say later: We warned you. And this should be supplemented by clearer declarations in the name of the party, illegal leaflets, etc. Some will be arrested and become the symbol for the party's open activity.

Shachtman: What about the paper?

Trotsky: Have a paper even without a name; it becomes a point of concentration for the workers, even when the line is not fully developed, even when it just opposes the war.

Cannon: Is it advisable for the Socialist Appeal to take this line or is it better that we let that be suppressed and have another paper?

Trotsky: Better let the Appeal be suppressed. Even if the Appeal is not prohibited, I think that another paper should be created.

Shachtman: How did the Bolsheviks distribute their propaganda during the war?

Trotsky: Illegally.

Shachtman: Naturally.

Trotsky: Illegal publications; that's why it's important [to have] a press. You'll be lucky to have a mimeograph machine.

Karsner: Aren't cultural organizations very useful in such times?

Trotsky: Yes, and first the trade unions.

[Stenographer's note: Some discussion was also initiated by Shachtman about the slogan for armed workers controlled by the trade unions. He stated that with the present relationship of forces we would be too weak to accomplish our purpose. If the slogan should be adopted by the trade unions it would become an army against us and would be taught the same ideology by the bureaucrats as by the government. Trotsky didn't think the slogan would be accepted by the trade union bureaucracy.]