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July/August 2001 • Vol 1, No. 3 •

From the Arsenal of Marxism:

Background to
The Transitional Program

by Rod Holt

The 1930’s were among the darkest years of the twentieth century.

No years of the twentieth century were more tense nor carried more forebodings . A worldwide economic depression had followed on the heels of the Versailles Treaty—which was to end World War I, “The war to end all wars.” Germany went bankrupt in 1923 with hyperinflation. Wall Street crashed in October of 1929, and in 1938, the worldwide depression showed no signs of letting up. The United States, the most prosperous nation in the world, still had one out of every four workers unemployed.

All the capitalist governments were threatened by mass discontent, unemployment, poverty and hunger. The small business people were demoralized, finding no leadership from the masses and incapable of providing their own.

The bright hope of the Russian Revolution of October, 1917 had been dimmed by the exhaustion of its material and human resources begun by Tsarist Russia’s entry into World War I, and which continued with a calamitous civil war promoted by the imperialist powers. Although the October revolution inspired communists to form revolutionary parties on a world scale, the USSR found itself isolated by the failure of any similar revolution in a developed country. With no aid from the outside to boost hopes for a quick economic recovery, a bureaucratic reaction was precipitated and led by Joseph Stalin.

Of the two leaders of the Bolsheviks with the authority to possibly stave off the conservative reaction, Lenin died in 1924 and Trotsky was exiled in 1928. Stalin played off one leadership faction against another and used arrests and imprisonment, “confessions” and frame-up trials to eliminate every dissenting voice but Trotsky’s.

In his struggle against the Stalinists, Trotsky organized The Left Opposition inside the Communist Party of the USSR. After his exile, the Left Opposition became an international grouping of revolutionaries intent on reinstating Marxist and Bolshevik policies. They published a bulletin for internal discussion and to educate revolutionaries.

Immediately after the victory of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks established the Third International, a world party of revolutionary communists. Composed of representatives of national communist parties, its aim was to offer mutual aid, to share experience and to work together to strengthen the world working class, and so promote the socialist transformation of society on the global scale necessary. Socialism could not be built in one country.

The Third International was a strictly democratic organization until 1924 when Stalin had seized the central authority of the USSR. From that date on the political decisions of the Comintern (as it came to be called) were subordinate to the internal and foreign policy needs of the Soviet bureaucracy. Trotsky’s criticisms and programmatic statements were no longer considered by the delegates to the World Congresses.

The instinctive response of the European working class to the privations of the economic collapse was to rebel and throw out capitalism and the capitalists. European workers had long been influenced by varieties of socialist ideas. Anarchists, syndicalists, social-democrats, and a spectrum of utopian socialists vied for leadership with the established Social Democratic parties that used Marxist-sounding rhetoric.

There were huge demonstrations against plant closings. Some plants were taken over and run by workers committees. The capitalists were truly frightened by the social unrest. By and large, the capitalists themselves were in no danger of poverty; yacht sales were brisk and luxurious villas were popular. But communists in the unions attacked the capitalist system as a whole. They were the ones to be destroyed.

To fight the communists and left social-democrats, the capitalists used hoodlums organized as fascists under such demagogues as Mussolini and Hitler. Their plan was to capture the unions, bend them mercilessly to the government’s will while the government itself served as the agent of big business. Fascism is a form of capitalism with no democratic rights.

When the communist parties which were allied with the Third International failed to give leadership—failed to fight resolutely in the streets, and so let Mussolini and Hitler rise to power, Trotsky judged the degeneration under Stalin to have gone too far to be reconstructed. A new International was needed, a Fourth International.

There was no doubt the workers had the power to nip the fascists in the bud, overwhelm their capitalist class and establish a new state in their own name. They did not do so because of the failure of their leaders. That fact lies behind the opening theme of this document. The crisis was one of leadership.

This was the world picture in the last half of 1938 as Trotsky was writing.

In Spain, Franco was well on the road to victory over the Republican forces. He had been supported by both Hitler and Mussolini. Italy was carving up the Balkans since King Alexander of Yugoslavia had been assassinated; and the Italian army invaded and occupied Albania.

Hitler advanced into the Rhineland and re-militarized it. Austria succumbed to a coup and invited in the German army just prior to being annexed. Czechoslovakia was next on Hitler’s list well before the Munich conference. Poland was living on borrowed time since it was clear that it would follow Czechoslovakia.

In Asia, Japan was at war with China having already taken Shanghai, and was moving on Canton. Japan openly declared that it would build “a new East Asian Order” which would include French Indochina and the Netherlands Indies. With Japanese armies moving up the Yangtze River valley, Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the U. S. backing for Chiang Kai-Shek and condemned Japan’s aggression. War between Japan and the U. S. was inevitable.

In summary, every corner of the world was either at war or preparing for war. The European proletariat had been betrayed by a combination of the Stalinists and Socialists. In America, the capitalists had not defeated the workers and welcomed the war with its patriotism as a social diversion—and because they could taste the profits of the war industries.

The Transitional Program recognized the contradictions of the period while seeing clearly that the war was no solution for the capitalists; that the social crisis would be obscured only for the duration of the war. In the post-war period, the world working class would have all the opportunities it needed to overthrow an exhausted capitalism—provided its leaders had absorbed the lessons of history.





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