Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” or Robertson’s “Political Compass”?
May 6, 2009
The following intervention (reconstructed from notes) was made by Samuel Trachtenberg at an Internationalist Group class on Leon Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” at Hunter College in New York on 6/28/06. Jan Norden, who gave the class, spent a significant portion of it discussing the Spartacist League’s (out of which the IG was expelled) explicit renunciation of the Transitional Program’s assertion that “the crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership” in their intepretation of the “Post-Soviet World.” (1) S.T. directed his remarks to that criticism. Also included is an addendum and lengthy footnotes for further elaboration and archival citations of the points made.
I agree with much of the IG’s current criticisms of the SL’s open abandonment of the Transitional Program. I also agree that this is related to the SL’s extreme demoralization over the collapse of the USSR. This was expressed in their recent position on the anti-CPU struggle in France (2) where they proclaimed that in the “Post-Soviet World” a successful general strike is not likely to succeed. A few years ago when Afghanistan was attacked, SLers similarly argued that in the post-Soviet world military victories by neo-colonies against the imperialists were not on the agenda. While the collapse of the USSR was a huge defeat, by itself it is not adequate as an explanation. One must also look at the SL’s own history prior to that collapse and it’s various zig-zags over the Russian Question, positions that the the IG leadership share responsibility for developing and still stand on today, and on which I’ll only touch on one aspect of.
Throughout the 1980’s the SL developed a strong tendency to reduce Trotskyism to the issue of Soviet Defensism. That drift was partially acknowledged at the time I was an SYCer in which members were criticized for somehow abandoning the view that they were the party of world revolution. (3) From seeing defense of the USSR as the central question at all times and places from Nicaragua to Alice Springs, Australia (4) there developed a tendency to look at world events from the narrow prism of, to paraphrase an old Jewish joke, “Is it good for Russia?”.
It was frequently written and stated internally that defense of the USSR was the SL’s “political compass” (5) which would prevent their degeneration, a sort of talisman to ward off anti-Trotskyist spirits if you will. In contrast, the Transitional Program states that the Fourth International must “base ones program on the logic of the class struggle”, which is quite different than using defense of the USSR as ones political compass. But what happens when you continue using such a compass after it no longer exists (we found out 2 years ago that trading accusations internally of wanting to abandon defense of the USSR is still the norm for them) (6)? The further development into a passive propagandist or De Leonist grouping the IG has described and the SL’s recent position on France again confirms. But the IG’s leadership are incapable of making such an analysis. They are determined to defend those positions since they themselves are fully responsible for helping develop them while SL leaders.
IGers at the class responded to this criticism with accusations of anti-Sovietism and “Third-Campism”. Actually a similar revisionist view to the one described was developed by Michel Pablo in the 1950’s.
Developing his revisionist politics in reaction to the height of the cold war, Pablo also equated such criticisms as “Third Campist” capitulations to anti-communism. Sam Marcy developed a similar outlook in his “Global Class War” theory.
As the French Trotskyist responded at the time
“‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles, one reads in that dustbin known as the Communist Manifesto.
“But it’s necessary to keep abreast of the times and to admit without hesitation along with Pablo that ‘For our movement objective social reality consists essentially of the capitalist regime and the Stalinist world.’ [International Information Bulletin, March 1951, ‘Where Are We Going?’ p.2. Emphasis added.]
“Dry your tears and listen: the very essence of social reality is composed of the capitalist regime (!) and the Stalinist (!) world (?).
“We thought that social reality consisted in the contradiction between the fundamental classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Clearly an error, for from now on the capitalist regime, which encompasses precisely these two classes, becomes a totality that is counterposed …to the Stalinist world…
“Where is Pablo Going?” (1951)
Showing that he abstractly understood the issues involved in such a view, at least when it did not intrude into his ownpolitical activity, Jan Norden approvingly cited historical this criticism in “Yugoslavia, East Europe and The Fourth International: The Evolution of Pabloist Liquidationism” which the SL published in 1993, adding
“Pabloism also incorporates themes raised by the Zhdanov line … The struggle between “camps” instead of classes, the international balance of forces unfavorable to capitalism: these premises were shared by Pablo and Zhdanov.”
The author of this article pointed to this issue in a December 9, 1994 document, 2 years before Norden was expelled from the SL
“In the above-cited pamphlet on Yugoslavia and the Fourth International, Jan Norden makes the correct point that, while it was a strategic task for the Trotskyist movement to defend the USSR, its strategic line was world socialist revolution. The idea that the strategic line of the workers’ movement should be the defense of the USSR is a Pabloist or Stalinist conception. Yet this implicit two-worldist conception tended to color the SL’s view for much of the 1980s. From this they drew the conclusion, as was written in a recent issue of Spartacist Canada (No. 100) that what you had was a ‘‘bipolar world—-polarized between the imperialist powers and the Soviet bloc.’’ That polarization, though, was only a reflection of the general class struggle between workers and capitalists, and did not replace it. The SL, though, started seeking revolutionary virtue in the Stalinist bureaucracy. This was shown when, for example, they proclaimed themselves the ‘‘Yuri Andropov Brigade’’ and then later wrote a eulogy for Yuri Andropov, butcher of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, claiming, among other flattering things, that he made ‘‘no overt betrayals on behalf of imperialism’’ (WV No. 348,17 February 1984).
In 2008 he revisited the question at a public meeting
“I think that the political perspective put forward by the comrades of the Trotskyist League [Canadian co-thinkers of the SL/US centered ‘International Communist League’] today is one that you will find they have been putting forward in their newspapers for the last several years. And I would argue that it is an extremely demoralizing and pessimistic perspective. It boils down to arguing that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the so-called post-Soviet era that they are talking about, what we have seen is not just a huge defeat for the working class, which it certainly was, but a defeat of the working class so monumental that no class struggle, no real progress of any sort—whether a call for a general strike in France last year, whether we see uprisings by workers in Bolivia (7) or Mexico, or fighting to build a revolutionary party through revolutionary regroupment— is possible. Nothing is possible in the -called post-Soviet era, according to them, but [to] uphold the Trotskyist tradition in their own bunker (8). As they put it, they themselves have developed a ‘bunker mentality’ in reaction to the so-called post-Soviet era.
“So what do you do? Well, it seems that the argument that is being made today [is] that revolutionary regroupment was possible because of the victory of the Russian Revolution. Well, we don’t have the Russian Revolution around at this moment, so what do you do? Well, you wait for another Russian Revolution to occur. But guess what? We cannot have another revolution in the United States, Canada or anywhere else without a revolutionary party. And you cannot have a revolutionary party hiding out in their bunker abstractly upholding the tradition in isolation from the class struggle and from the rest of the left.
Whether the IG wants to recognize it or not, by crudely equating class struggle with Soviet Defensism, and with the USSR no longer existing, it logically follows that the class struggle ended up seeming as bleak to the SL as the pro-Moscow CPs.
In the Transitional Program, Trotsky argued that “When a program or an organization wears out the generation which carried it on its shoulders wears out with it. The movement is revitalized by the youth who are free of responsibility for the past.” Lenin was known for joking that all revolutionaries over 50 should be shot. Groups (such as the IG’s, SL’s, IBT’s and most others today) which are dominated by, when not completely consisting of, worn our geriatric bureaucrats now well into their 60’s (sometimes with a small group of obedient handpicked assistants), are almost by definition not revolutionary. Their incapacities to own up to their “responsibility for the past” means they deserve no confidence in not repeating that past. The Spartacist League in it’s earlier revolutionary days was capable of producing critical pieces on the history of the Fourth International and it’s errors such as “Genesis of Pabloism” because at that time their leadership was mostly of younger comrades who were “free from the responsibility for the past.”
This is something the IG ranks should consider when seeking to understand why from the Russian Question, to the social patriotic line on Lebanon, to the liquidation of the trade union caucuses, the IG leadership (and other similar leaderships) are organically incapable of acknowledging wrongdoing in confronting it’s SL past.
1) “Trotsky’s assertion in the 1938 Transitional Program that ‘The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat’ predates the present [“Post-Soviet”] deep regression of proletarian consciousness.
“ICL Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program” February 1988
Spartacist #54, Spring 1998
2)“In May ’68, the students’ actions sparked a three-week workers general strike, mobilizing millions of workers in the streets, but also importantly at first, in factory occupations. It was those strikes and factory occupations which shook up the ruling class not only here in France but across the world. But in the absence of a revolutionary party, the strikes were demobilized and betrayed, chiefly by the Stalinist Communist Party which, thanks to its influence within the working class, was ultimately able to save the skin of the French bourgeoisie.
Worker Vanguard, March 31, 2006
3) “The document for the 12th Conference of the Ligue Trotskyste de France noted a ‘creeping deviation’ did called “we are the party of the family of defenders of the Soviet Union” instead of “we are the party of the Russian Revolution”’Such a view–seeing us as the consistent wing of the ‘family of defenders of the Soviet Union” and the Stalinists as the inconsistent wing–implicitly capsizes the contradictory nature of Stalinism in the other direction…..”
“In the course of these fights it was repeatedly noted that this would and did lead to defeatism about the working class at home…”
“Document of the Second International Conference of the International Communist League”
Spartacist #47-48, Winter 1992-93
This reflected a desire on the SL leaderships part to move away from it’s Stalinophilic orientation in the aftermath of the Stalinists collapse. In the aftermath there was an attempt to scapegoat Norden for this orientation, while whitewashing the history of it’s full dimensions, subsequently followed by a lurch in a Stalinophobic direction.
4) The following citations are from just a cursory examination of a selection of SL’s political literature from the 1980’s, expressing how nearly every question around the world was reduced to the issue of defence of the USSR.
During the 1985 mayoral election in New York, SL candidate and current IG leader Marjorie Stamberg put the issue this way at an election rally.
“We’ve been saying that the anti-Soviet war drive is at the heart of it all. That Reagan’s war on what he calls the ‘evil empire’ was behind his war on labor, behind his smashing of PATCO, behind his war on blacks at home, behind the firebombing of MOVE.”
“Spartacist Election Rally: We Are the Party of the Russian Revolution”
Workers Vanguard #391, November 1985, and reprinted in
“Massacre of Philly MOVE”
Black History #3, February 1986
At the same rally Ed Kartsen, running for Manhattan borough president explained that “the primary threat to capitalist domination of the earth remains the Soviet Union” rather than the international proletariat. Just like the trade unions, the USSR could only be a threat to the capitalist domination of the earth under revolutionary leadership. The Stalinists history was one of actively betraying class struggle around the world in the name of peaceful co-existence and “socialism in one country,”
On the international field, attacked neo-colonial countries were similarly viewed as mainly Soviet “proxies” and “surrogates.” This lead the IBT, in a 1992 statement devoted to noting the SL’s failure to defend the USSR during it’s last days in August 1991, to point that
“Over the years, the Spartacist League has developed a unique concept of ‘defending’ the USSR. They have repeatedly invoked it in situations in which defense of the USSR was not the central issue. Remember ‘defense of the Soviet Union begins in El Salvador’?
“Defense of the USSR Does Not Begin On Warren Street”
January 31, 1992
Four years earlier an exchange between the two groups occurred where the IBT was denounced for failure to see that the key issue in opposing the imperialist backed contras in Nicaragua was really the USSR’s defence
“The TL’s confusion over Gorbachev is paralleled by some peculiar notions about Soviet defensism. This is apparent in regard to Nicaragua. While much of the reformist solidarity milieu stupidly denies any connection between the events taking place in Central America and the social revolution that took place in Russia in 1917, the TL shrilly insists that the main issue posed in Nicaragua today is defense of the Soviet Union! The crudest expression of this uniquely idiotic position can be found in the Summer 1988 issue of Spartacist Canada, edited by the same cde. Masters.
“To ‘expose’ the Bolshevik Tendency (BT), the TL quotes our intervention at last April’s TL forum on Nicaragua as saying ‘the key question in Nicaragua today in our view is not defense of the Soviet Union, that’s not the central question that’s posed there today, but rather defense of the Nicaraguan Revolution.’ It’s hard to understand how any ostensible Trotskyists could disagree with this statement two weeks after the signing of the Sapoa accords, where the Sandinistas promised to ‘democratize’ in accordance to the dictates of the Central American neo-colonial rulers and Washington’s mercenary contras. But for the TL this simple observation is evidence of…Shachtmanism! Recalling how Max Shachtman refused to defend the Soviet Union in its war with Finland in 1939, the TL concludes: ‘For him then, as for the BT now, defense of the USSR was never ‘the central question’ and thus never to be fought where it counts.’
“ to atone for the sins of founder/leader James Robertson, who left the Stalinists for the Shachtmanites just as the cold war was gathering steam in the late 1940s, the Spartacists have decided that Soviet defensism is the ‘central question’ at all times and in all places. Those who don’t agree are automatically denounced as State Department socialists. This travesty of the Trotskyist position of defense of the Soviet Union has one advantage. It is easy to teach to new recruits. But if revolutionary politics were so simple a moderately intelligent myna bird could learn the formula in a matter of weeks.
“TL On the Russian Question: Dazed and Confused”
Sept 17, 1988
In France, the Lutte Ouvriere group was denounced for the slogans it raised over the US attack on Libya in these terms
“For the first time any militant can recall, LO marched at the head of a demonstration, with one banner saying ‘Great power terrorism is no less criminal just because it’s done on a big scale’ and another which read: ‘Against terrorism wherever it comes from, counterpose the unity of all the worlds oppressed.’ By doing this, LO accepted and made it’s own the imperialist propaganda designed to whip up warmongering hysteria against the USSR through one of it’s military clients, Libya. Another banner explained that LO opposes Reagan’s murderous raid on Tripoli and Benghazi because “Reagan is not trying to overthrow dictators, he wants to terrorize the people.” For the White House, ‘dictators’ are all those who are friendly with the USSR…”
“LO and Libya: The Stench of Fear”
reprinted in Lutte Ouvriere and Spark: Workerism and National Narrowness
In another part of the Middle East, the SL tried to cover their abandonment of military support for those struggling against the US Marines occupying their country by cynically asking “Where is the just, anti-imperialist side in Lebanon today?” and then explaining the conditions where they would take a side
“Should the U.S. go to war against Syria, a complete reevaluation would be indicated, not least because such a war could become a de facto U.S./USSR conflict in which Marxists would defend the Soviet side.”
“Marxism and Bloodthirstiness”
WV #345, 6 January 1984
In Australia a crisis ensued over confusion and lack of enthusiasm in the group over the slogan “Defence of the USSR Begins in Alice Springs” which ended with six out of seven Australian Central Committee members being driven out of the group on the Zinovievite initiative of the New York center. This was in relation to raising this as the central slogan at a protests against South African Apartheid.
Perhaps most ludicrous was Jim Robertson’s British branch’s campaign in Scotland around “evocative” slogans such as “For a Scottish workers republic as part of the USSR!” and “Turn Holy Loch into a Soviet U-boat pen!” (Worker Hammer #196, Autumn 2006). This expressed the specifically Russian centered character of their Stalinophilia since no similar slogans were raised calling for Scotland’s incorporation into the Peoples Republic of China, East Germany etc.
5) A special issue of Spartacist devoted to analyzing the implosion of Gerry Healy’s organizion, retroactively attributes failure to put defence of the USSR at the center of every (from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, to the 1979 Iranian Revolution to the Iran/Iraq War) question as the cause of his groups degeneration. In an interview with Jim Robertson on the Spartacist split from the IC, he thus explains
“It turns out that we have a profound difference with the WRP, over politics. Their nominal defense of the Soviet Union is at such a level of abstraction that any concrete expression for several decades has been against the Soviet Union, on most anything you can name. Including, interestingly, going way back, support for the Cultural Revolution, which was virulently anti-Soviet. And they applauded the execution of Communists in Iraq. Then they had to dump the Ba’athist connection in Iraq in order to back the Ayatollah, because Iran and Iraq were at war. And may I point out that to back the Ayatollah is also to be anti-Russian. And they back Solidarnoność, which wants a bloody counterrevolution to make Poland safe for NATO. Iran, Poland, China. Afghanistan—back all the enemies of the Soviet Union on the perimeter of the Soviet Union. And this is called “defense of the Soviet Union”!
“So we have some stuff to say now, because we were the principled people the whole way. And I would suggest that the main reason is not some morality associated with Americans versus English persons, but that over a long period of time, through many fights, through one tendency after another, we stood concretely for the defense of the Soviet Union, against imperialism, and against the damn Russian bureaucracy. That has in fact been our political compass, and it also generates a certain cultural superstructure and a certain morality.
“On the 1966 Split”
Spartacist #36-37, Winter 1985-86
This was reiterated in the closing paragraph of the main article
“Morality” for Marxists is inextricably tied to program. The Spartacists’ unwavering adherence to revolutionary Trotskyism—our genuine, concrete defense of the Soviet Union against imperialism and against the treacherous Stalinist bureaucracy, our commitment to building an international party of proletarian revolution—this has been our political compass. From that also comes a certain superstructure, a certain morality.
6) “However, it became clear that the frustrations and antagonisms which had developed toward those responsible for such organizational breaches and for the broader political drift that had led to the excision of the P.S. had been deflected into a false fight: an attempt to find a fundamental deviation in the party on the nature of Stalinism. It took considerable effort to establish that there were no fundamental programmatic differences on this score, and to put the conference back on track to deal with the real problems the ICL faces.”
“Fourth ICL International Conference, Autumn 2003: The Fight for Revolutionary Continuity in the Post-Soviet World”
Spartacist #58, Spring 2004
7) “Reading the IG’s breathless accounts of Bolivian events (gathered on its Web site under the grandiloquent title of “Bolivia: Class Battles in the Andes”), one would never know that anything had changed in the world over the past 20 years, whether in Bolivia or elsewhere. The IG denies the magnitude of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union and the retrogression of proletarian consciousness worldwide accompanying this defeat. “
“Bolivia: Trotskyism vs. Bourgois Nationalism”
WV 14, April 2006
8) “Speaking of a number of such instances of sectarian withdrawal in the years following the destruction of the Soviet Union, a comrade noted some time ago that the party had been ‘retreating from a newly alien world, into our castle, hauling up our drawbridge and hiding out.’
“Fifth International Conference of the ICLMaintaining a Revolutionary Program in the Post-Soviet Period”
Spartacist #60, Autumn 2007