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The SWP and Trotskyism: Would Trotsky have joined the SWP?

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The Socialist Workers Party has always made a point of distancing itself from "orthodox Trotskyism". Rather than describe itself as a Trotskyist organisation it claims merely to stand in the tradition of Trotsky or to "stem from" Trotskyism . Arthur Merton examines this claim.

The reasons for the SWP’s attitude to Trotsky are not hard to find. When, in the late 1940s, Tony Cliff’s grouping embraced a state capitalist analysis of the USSR, it began a process of rejecting all the essentials of Trotskyism. Permanent revolution was revised by Cliff in a manner that afforded the petit bourgeoisie of certain semi-colonies (India was his favourite example) a historic role in the struggle for “democracy”.

The Transitional Programme (TP), and its entire method were rejected in favour of a strictly militant trade-unionist practice in the class struggle. Trotsky’s struggle for a new international party was dismissed as a futile adventure which itself disoriented post-war Trotskyism.

The Cliffites justified their rejection of Trotskyism by pointing to the gross opportunism of the post-war Trotskyists. The International Secretariat of the Fourth International, led by Pablo and Mandel, and its rival, the International Committee (of Gerry Healy fame), committed a whole series of political errors. These errors, though, stemmed not from the Trotskyism of these groupings, but from their definitive break from it. Unwilling to recognise this, the Cliffites threw out the baby with the bathwater; the writings of the revolutionary leader with the writings of his confused imitators.

Of course the Cliffite groupings (Socialist Review Group/International Socialists/SWP) have always paid tribute to selected aspects of Trotsky’s politics, his grasp of tactics such as the united front, his understanding of fascism, his analysis of the popular front etc. These elements of Trotsky’s heritage will, rightly, be praised during the SWP’s lectures on the fiftieth anniversary of the FI’s foundation. However, the question SWP members must face up to is whether the party’s break from the essentials of Trotskyism--in particular the TP and its method--has been compensated for by a superior revolutionary practice.

Workers Power, having once been a faction inside the IS, is convinced that the SWP are as guilty of trampling on the revolutionary programme as are the degenerate centrist fragments of the Fourth International.

We base this on our experience of the SWP’s practice in a whole range of major struggles--steel 1980, health 1982, Warrington 1983, miners 1984-5, printers 1986 and health 1988. In each case the SWP has steadfastly refused to raise demands that the workers themselves were not already raising. The SWP refused to give a lead to those workers when they came up against the limitations of both their spontaneous demands (their existing consciousness in other words) and their limited and sectional forms of organisation. In particular in the 1988 health dispute the SWP opposed steps towards a solidly based, national rank and file steward’s organisation.

The reasons the SWP give for their refusal to fight for the class to take up transitional demands vary. Recently it was because of the “downturn”. In the early 1970s it was because the “upturn” was automatically transforming workers' consciousness. At root, however, the reason lies in their rejection of Trotsky’s programmatic method.

This shows through clearly in the major books that SWP leaders have written on Trotsky. John Molyneux has written the most serious and extended critique of Trotsky from the point of view of the SWP. He argues that while Trotsky, especially through the experience of 1917, transcended many of the weaknesses of the Second International tradition (as well as incorporating its strengths), there were important residues of this method which left key aspects of Trotsky’s politics fatally flawed.

Trotsky’s failure to understand the need for a combat party of revolution before 1917, his "brilliant failure" to grasp the social nature of the USSR under Stalin, his over mechanical attempt to map out all the stages of revolutionary strategy in the TP and his inflated view of the prospects for the Fourth International in the 1930s, are all "rooted in the deterministic interpretation that Trotsky inherited from the leading authorities of the Second International".

While he was evidently "permanently inocculated" from fatalism with regard to revolutionary policy after 1917, this "did not lead to a reassessment of his basic philosophical position which remained determinist and positivist".

Molyneux, not surprisingly, singles out the TP for attack. It is, he writes, "to a far greater extent than many of Trotsky’s other works . . . both profoundly flawed and historically limited". The criticisms he raises are themselves "profoundly flawed". In the first place he criticises Trotsky’s conception of productive forces in which he states that the economic prerequisites for revolution had already "achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate". The SWP argue that this was only ever at best half true for the 1930s, that the whole edifice of transitional demands are tied to this view and thus only applicable in a period like the 1930s which was one "of revolutionary or near revolutionary situations".

Whilst Trotsky’s perspectives were based on the idea that capitalism had now placed absolute limits on the productive forces, there was nothing fatalistic about his conclusions. He correctly identified the national limitations on the international economy as the source of World War I and its ensuing revolutionary possibilities, and pinpointed the very same contradiction as the source of two decades of stagnation and the drive to the Second World War. He wrote:

"Each nation tried to repulse all the others and to seize the world market for its own purposes. They could not succeed and now we see that capitalist society enters a new stage."

On the basis of this he postulated only "socialism or barbarism" as immediate perspectives. Given that one nation, the USA, actually succeeded in "seizing the world market" there is clearly an error. But it is an error of analysis--the underestimation of the untapped economic potential of the USA--entirely similar to the one committed by Marx and Engels who saw capitalism as exhausted in 1848.

Only once did Trotsky refer to a third possibility of a potential respite for the bourgeoisie. In March, 1938 he argued, "'that is not excluded, but then we will be obliged to realise a strategic retreat".

The implication of Molyneux’s argument is that this "strategic retreat" would have to involve abandoning the transitional method for the old maximum/minimum programme, tailored for a period of extended social peace.

This ignores the whole history of the development of transitional demands and action programmes. It was precisely in a period of strategic retreat--after the First World War and the ebb of the revolutionary tide--that the Comintern elaborated transitional demands. After the Second World War and its thwarted revolutionary aftermath it was necessary to outline a new perspective, and refocus the TP to that perspective.

The new situation did not destroy the validity of the TP as a whole. This was because despite the "long boom", imperialism could not escape and throw into reverse all the features of the imperialist epoch. It remained one of wars and revolutions, in which the uneven and combined development of world capitalism produced a whole series of crises in a whole series of countries--China, Korea, Algeria, Hungary, Indo-China, Indonesia, etc.

In each case transitional action programmes focused on the immediate crisis facing the workers and peasants of those countries, and directing their struggles towards the establishment of working class power, was essential.

Even in the imperialist west during that period of long boom, transitional demands and method did not lose their validity. The SWP claim that transitional demands do not strike "at the foundations of the bourgeois regime", as Trotsky’s programme envisaged, if the situation is stable. For the SWP the alternative, as expressed by Molyneux, is:

"In struggles in non-revolutionary situations (for example, a strike) it is more important for revolutionaries to find demands that fit the situation, and therefore actually carry the struggle forward, than it is to search for demands which, in words, lead to the conquest of power, and in reality lead to irrelevance."

It is true that the TP was written for a period in which the convulsive crises of the 1930s and the imminence of world war raised the possibility that partial struggles would rapidly lead to a situation of generalised working class action and to the question of poltical power being posed repeatedly in a number of countries. In these situations the whole range of demands from the factory committee right up to the workers' militia and workers' government could be expected to become a key question of agitation by the revolutionaries.

But outside of these situations the demands that need to be advanced agitationally still need to include ones that are imbued with the central method of the TP, namely, workers' control. This is what Trotsky meant in the TP when he says:

"The present epoch is distinguished not for the fact that it frees the revolutionary party from day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried on indissolubly with the actual tasks of the revolution."

The SWP caricature this statement from Trotsky. Not infrequently they accuse us of raising the dictatorship of the proletariat at a time when an all out strike is necessary. This caricature betrays a very dangerous short-sightedness on the part of the SWP. It fails to grasp that the fight, even for partial elements of workers' control in a particular struggle, serves as a bridge between the struggle for reforms and a revolutionary struggle against capital.

Nor does Trotsky, as the SWP imply, counterpose partial demands and transitional demands. For Trotsky immediate demands fought for by revolutionary tactics could become the starting point for winning the masses to broader transitional demands:

"Every local, partial, economic demand must be an approach to a general demand in our transitional programme."

And the fight for that demand can take forward the political and organisational struggle of the working class, even if it does not lead to mass revolutionary consciousness at once.

Take the example of nationalisation in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. We know it was not socialism, we know it was undertaken to rescue ailing capitalist industries. Revolutionaries would have emphasised agitationally the question of workers' control over all aspects of the job (hiring and firing, safety, speed of work etc) and no compensation to the bosses. In other words it was possible, through encroaching on the rule of capital, to use workers' control and the demand to make the bosses pay (by refusing them handouts) to prepare for future battles when renewed crisis made concessions and compromises less and less tenable for the bosses.

The SWP’s refusal to adopt such a measure actually leads them, not Trotsky or ourselves, to counterpose partial and transitional demands. Trotsky wrote:

"The Fourth International does not discard the programme of the old 'minimal' demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct, actual, that is, revolutionary perspective."

This is what the SWP will not do. They never connect the struggle for partial demands with a revolutionary perspective based on the fight for workers' control. Rather they limit their demands to ones aimed at generalising working class support for the existing level of struggle and the spontaneously arising demands. It is implied in the SWP’s critique of the TP that they see some use for transitional demands in revolutionary or near revolutionary situations. But in fact they do not. Why? Because as Molyneux indicates, in quoting Gramsci favourably, it is possible "to foresee only the struggle, but not the concrete moments of the struggle".

This is nothing less than a rejection of the scientific nature of the Marxist programme and the leading role of the party in drawing it up. If the party is the memory of the class then the programme codifies the general experience of the class internationally and applies it in any situation.

The TP’s historic merit was that it outlined the major tactics that the working class will have to deploy on the road to power. It did not and could not detail every minor conjunctural demand or concrete expression of these general tactics.

In rejecting the whole programmatic method of Trotskyism it is the SWP who lapse back into a form of "Second Internationalism". They fall back into the rigid separation of minimum and maximum demands. At the moment this takes the form of combining a purely trade unionist practice with general propaganda for socialist ideas. The SWP are well known for devoting time and energy to providing organisational solidarity for workers who are in struggle.

The SWP see it as the key task of the revolutionary party to generalise support for that struggle on the basis of the existing level of demands. In the Great Strike of 1984-85 they argued that the way forward was primarily to build bigger and better pickets to fight for the demands of the strike. The limited nature of these demands--limited by the NUM leadership--was never questioned. Only the leadership’s failure to build bigger pickets was attacked.

The SWP justify such an approach by arguing that there is an inherent logic in the class struggle which turns economic struggles into political ones through the intervention of the state into economic battles (use of police, courts, laws etc). Duncan Hallas, another SWP leader who has written a book on Trotsky, has said:

"This political struggle can be carried through only on the basis, in the first place, of economic struggles, of sectional struggles. No magic general slogans can replace clear, realisitic and concrete leadership in these sectional struggles."

The SWP are right to suggest that workers' struggles can and do give rise to “spontaneous” political consciousness and are a key point of departure for revolutionaries seeking to win worker militants to a revolutionary party.

They are dead wrong to suggest that the political struggle emanating from this will be automatically revolutionary. As the miners' strike showed only too well, the spontaneous political class consciousness of the majority never raised itself above that of the miltiant sectional trade unionism of Scargill. The strike was defeated for that reason.

The SWP did nothing to raise demands which were politically in advance of that consciousness. Even on the question of pickets they refused to call for their organised defence--despite the obvious need for such defence in the face of a militarised police force--on the grounds that such a demand was too advanced. In fact miners, who organised, albeit in a haphazard way, their own defence groups, were in advance of the SWP.

Inevitably the SWP’s attitude to programme has implications for their attitude towards the building of an international revolutionary tendency. In a nutshell the SWP reject the idea that an International can be built at present and go on to say that the Fourth International (FI) itself was a tragic mistake, that it should never have been built.

The whole evolution of the Cliffites since their split with the FI in the late 1940s has been more and more towards a national-centred view of how to build an International. Their starting point is to question whether or not Trotsky should have founded the FI given the weakness of the groupings that constituted it in 1938.

In explaining Trosky’s insistence after 1936 that his followers found an International as soon as possible Molyneux declares that it was because "he needed an apocalyptic view of the future to sustain his revolutionary will" (p185).

A "now-or-never" outlook took hold of him and impaired his judgement. This is a rejection of Trotsky’s own justification; namely, that the struggle of the Left Opposition since the late 1920s had produced a wealth of analyses and documents that codified and welded together a coherent revolutionary pole of attraction.

In addition the imminence of world war required the creation of a democratic-centralist organisation and leadership capable of guiding the sections of the FI in immensely difficult situations. And an International was vital if sections were to take advantage of the revolutionary crises as well as survive the repression that was expected to come with the war.

Duncan Hallas does concede some of these points but argues that Trotsky’s supposed “messianism” was a "necessary deviation from his mature view"--necessary to hold his followers together, but ultimately doomed to failure.

This ignores completely the gain--in terms of maintenance of a revolutionary banner in the midst of the carnage and reaction of the war--that the foundation of the FI represented.

The SWP insist that an International can only be founded when it is rooted in strong national parties. The defeats of the 1930s had isolated the Trotskyists and according to Hallas the events of 1936 in Spain "had demonstrated the indispensability of parties rooted in their national working classes through a long period of struggle for partial demands" before launching an International.

Hallas turns cause and effect on its head. The events in Spain and particularly the regionalist and nationalist deviations that underlay the opportunism of the POUM testified to the need for an international party. As Trotsky said in the TP:

"A revolutionary proletarian tendency . . . cannot thrive and develop in one isolated country; on the very next day after its formation it must seek or create international ties, an international platform, because a guarantee of the correctness of the national road can only be found along this road. A tendency which remains shut in nationally over a stretch of years condemns itself irrevocably to degeneration."

The SWP itself is evidence of this. Real internationalism begins with the "international platform" (i.e. programme) and a leadership which can intervene to correct the tendencies towards an adaptation to the prejudices and preoccupations of the national working class.

The SWP, with its persistent adaptation to the spontaneous trade union consciousness of the powerful British trade union movement, has degenerated along national lines. It is a degeneration that has led it on a variety of occasions (from Korea, through Cuba to the Malvinas) into abstentionism or neutralism in relation to struggles between the USSR and imperialism and between the imperialists and semi-colonies.

The project of building big national parties first is a guarantee that a genuine international programme cannot be constructed at all.

The cost of such a project will inevitably be a view of international class struggles from the distorted lenses of the national terrain leading to an over or under-estimation of the weight and centrality of certain questions.

At best what is arrived at is a mutual admiration society in which a polite agreement is reached that the national groups know best about their own national class struggles and should be left to get on with them.

This bore fruit for the SWP in its disastrous mid-1970s attempt to unite "nationally rooted" groups as diverse as the Maoist Avanguardia Operaia (Italy), the guerillarist PRB-BR (Portugal) and the abstract propagandist Lutte Ouvriere (France).

From the point of view of this fiasco the SWP have nothing to teach Trotskyists or those struggling to refound a revolutionary International.

The SWP is not a Trotskyist group. In effect they want to have their cake and eat it. Duncan Hallas concludes that Trotsky’s lifelong struggle was "an indispensable contribution" to the synthesis of theory and practice.

Yet of the four main areas of Trotsky’s thought he identifies--permanent revolution, Stalinism, strategy and tactics, party and class--the SWP’s theory and practice is seriously at odds with all of them.

We only have to consider the contradiction between Trotsky’s support for the USSR against Germany in the Second World War and the SWP’s understanding of it as an inter-imperialist war to see the fragility of their veneration for the FI’s founder.

Given their position on the USSR should they not brand Trotsky as a social chauvinist defending Russian imperialism--despite his previous contribution to Marxism?

By attacking Trotsky’s programmatic method, and hence his international strategy for working class power, the SWP’s defence of certain of his conjunctural analyses and tactics is rendered shallow and inconsistent.

It is possible and necessary to be sharply critical of Trotsky’s weaknesses as long as we know how to correct them on the basis of his method. But it is the method of Trotsky that the SWP critics find most objectionable.

Trotskyism needs to be re-elaborated certainly, but that can only be done by understanding the full importance of Trotsky’s contribution.

The crowning point of that contribution was the completion of the TP and the founding of the FI, which Trotsky himself judged to be "the most important work of my life".