Trotsky and Gramsci: A posthumous dialogue
June 08, 2009
Antonio Gramsci, as much as Trotsky, was an heir of the thought of the Comintern before its Stalinist degeneration. This was the greatest revolutionary working-class organization ever, at a time when Marxism was having its heyday. Whereas present-day Trotskyism represents some kind of feeble continuity with that revolutionary movement of the pre-World World II period, Gramsci’s thought endured a more disgraceful fate. In the postwar years, the Italian CP led by Palmiro Togliatti -and Euro-Communism later on- seized upon it in order to articulate a strategy that involved brazen support for the bourgeois regime (a theoretical operation that Stalinism could have never done with Trotsky’s legacy). Since then, Gramsci has become the subject of a scholar readership in the academic milieu, resorted to by all kinds of self-seekers and governmental officials. In this article, we dwell on what we believe are the shortcomings in Gramsci’s views, but we are nevertheless aware that as much as Stalinism does not represent in the least a continuity with Bolshevism, but its counter-revolutionary degeneration, so current followers of Gramsci cannot claim to be his legitimate heirs. In fact, many of them have become ’organic intellectuals’ for the bourgeoisie or else are advisors of the union bureaucracy.
We are in no way the first ones to try and draw a critical parallel between TrotskyÂ´s thought and Gramsci’s. Perry Anderson, from the standpoint of academic Marxism, opened up a debate around the ambiguities enshrined in Gramsci’s key concept of hegemony. That was a pioneer work, in which Trotsky’s views are dealt with, but the Trotskyists, alas, failed to build on it . The main thrust of our approach is two confront both theoretical systems taken as a whole, contrasting their particular concepts in the process, i.e., the concept of capitalist equilibrium and the theory of permanent revolution in TrotskyÂ´s case; the relationship between Gramsci’s war of maneuver-war of position, and also the uses of his notion of passive revolution. The latter, we believe, has been rather underestimated by revolutionary Marxists. The first result of contrasting both theoretical perspectives is the emergence of new concepts, while others gain in dialectical richness, allowing a better understanding of the complex world scenario that took shape in the aftermath of World War II -the period of the so-called ’Yalta Order’. This saw consolidation of the hegemony of US imperialism on the world, and the abhorrent grip of Stalinism over most of the world working class movement in the wake of the defeat of Nazi-fascism. We are trying to elucidate new theoretical weapons that should enable us to a deeper understanding of ’how the ruling class ruled’ in the past, and also look into the basis that nourished a new mass reformism in the aftermath of the World War II. We do so to try and work out, from a militant standpoint, those mechanisms hampering revolution, and thus fight against reformism. Above all, contrasting the views of Trotsky and Gramsci -both set against the period of heightened class struggle that elapsed between the two world wars- should enable us to chart the relationships between the three cataclysmic events of our imperialist epoch, i.e., capitalist crises, wars and revolutions -especially their future dynamics.
The period between the two wars
No matter how unstable or solid the US position in the world today might look, the hegemony of US imperialism appears to us as some sort of ’natural phenomenon’. But this was not the case at the beginning of the twentieth century, nor did the conquest of its preponderant role come about as a ’natural’ evolution. Far from it, it was settled in an interregnum that proved Lenin’s dictum (the period ushered in by the World War I is an ’epoch of crises, war and revolution’) was right through and through. Right from the beginning of that phase, revolutionary Marxism was confronted with a big challenge, i.e. trace a fundamental shift in world politics -the advent of US imperialism’s hegemony in place of Britain’s old rule. How did that change come about? What were the reasons at work behind it?
A Marxist economist, Isaac Joshua, summed up the period between the two world wars and the Great Depression along these lines: ’The bankruptcy of the gold standard showed the sterling crisis was a milestone in the depression of the ’30s. A sterling crisis that has appeared to us as a crisis of hegemony, or for the sake of precision, a crisis of ’between two’: Britain can no longer play its old role, whereas the US is not able to take over yet. The US prevents Britain from continuing with ’business as usual’; the US, in turn, was being blocked by Britain in its attempt to gain the upper hand. Once again, the First World War played its part in all this: it accelerated a development which would have unfolded nonetheless, turning what were then gaps in the building into massive cracks. It put the question on top of the agenda, but it failed to work it out properly. History opened up a period of latency, and the boat was left without command, drifting afloat at the mercy of the winds. ’
Joshua also remarks: ’In 1918 (â€¦) the strong contenders were not strong enough yet, whereas the weak players were not weak enough, either. In its international dimension, the great crisis is clearly one of ’between two’, between a First World War that contented itself to put the big issues on the order of the day, and a Second World War that worked them out’ in the direction of American hegemony.
Such was the nature of the period in which both Trotsky and Gramsci’s revolutionary activity took place -a period that will thus provide the setting for the parallel between their views.
Let us say, firstly, that the first common ground we find between Leon Trotsky and Antonio Gramsci is that both highlighted the new role of the US as a major world player superseding a declining Britain. They both grappled with this issue using the same approach: the law of productivity of labor.
Speaking on the superiority of American capitalism, Trotsky stated that ’The law of productivity of labor is of fundamental importance for the relationships between America and Europe, and to ascertain the future position of the US in the world. That superior application of the law of productivity of labor by the Yankees has come to be known as chain, standardized or mass production. They seem to have found the point of leverage sought by Archimedes to turn the world upside-down’.
Gramsci reflected along the same lines. ’What is the fulcrum for the new world that is coming into life?’ And he replies that the answer lies in ’The world of production, labor’.
That is why he focused on studying Fordism, to which he described as the industrial policy pursued by the most dynamic quarters of the American bourgeoisie in order to ’reach an organization of a programmed economy’ in which ’the new methods of labor are inextricably linked to a peculiar way of living, of thinking and of feeling life.’ All these heralded a new culture: ’Americanism’ . ’Both Americanism and Fordism -claims Gramsci- flow from an inherent drive to achieve the organization of a planned economy (â€¦) the transition from the old economic individualism to a planned economy’.
And he goes on to say that the US ’shrewdly combined the force (smashing the labor unionism on a territorial basis [trade unions]) with persuasion (high wages, substantial social benefits, a very clever ideological and political propaganda) in order to rationalize both the production and labor; it therefore was able to make the whole life of the country revolve around production itself. The hegemony flows from the factory itself and is exerted through a few professional intermediaries coming from the political and ideological spheres.’
Besides this common awareness of America’s superiority relying on the productivity of labor, they start from a similar definition of the aftermath of World War I. Both brand it as an ’unstable equilibrium’ or else a ’relative stabilization’ of capitalism. This concept appears in the report delivered by Trotsky to the III Congress of the Comintern in 1921. Such view, later on adopted by the Comintern, was common to both revolutionaries.
Its definition reads as follows: ’Capitalist equilibrium is a complex phenomenon; the capitalist regime brings about such equilibrium, then breaks it up, only to restore it and undo it again, enhancing, in the process, the foundations of its domination. In the economic sphere, the slumps and upsurges of activity are disruptions and restorations of equilibrium itself. In the sphere of class relationships, a break-up of equilibrium results in strikes, lock-outs, in revolutionary fights. In the sphere of the relationships between the states, the disruption of equilibrium leads to war as a rule; or it might also lead to a concealed tariff war, economic warfare or a blockade. Capitalism, therefore, relies on an unstable equilibrium that comes apart every now and then, only to be restored later on. At the same time, such equilibrium is highly endurable: the best proof bearing testimony to this is the continued existence of the capitalist world.’
Far from any kind of economic determinism, Trotsky holds that ’the analysis of the economic conditions and tendencies and the political state of affairs worldwide as a whole should be the starting point, considering it as a totality with its own relationships and contradictions, i.e., with a mutual dependence opposing its components between themselves.’
Trotsky’s thought stood accused of sharing the same economically deterministic view than the II International . However, the originality of his approach lies in the fact that he incorporates the role of subjective factors as decisive elements shaping the evolution of the capitalist economy. Let us cast all the doubts aside: ’If we are asked, "What guarantee is there that capitalism will not restore its equilibrium through cyclical upswings?" then we would answer: ’There are none and there cannot be any’. If we do away with the revolutionary nature of the working class and its struggle, and dismiss the work of the Communist Party within the unionsâ€¦and take into account only the objective mechanisms of capitalism, we might then say: "Naturally, should a working class intervention fail, should its struggle, its resistance, its self-defense and its offensives all fail, capitalism will succeed in restoring its own equilibrium, not the old one but a new kind of equilibrium.’
Gramsci, on his part, hammers out the concept of ’organic crisis’, which he applies to the nation-state in the main. However, such concept has some similarities with Trotsky’s ’disruption of capitalist equilibrium’, which he resorts to for dealing with the analysis of the international scenario.
Gramsci, when trying to appraise the balance of forces, points out that, ’Another question is to determine whether the economic crises directly cause those deep-going crisis of historical magnitude. (...) The economic crises can be considered not to provoke, by themselves, fundamental developments; they just might bring in a fertile soil for new ways of thinking, of posing and working out those issues related to the further evolution of state life. (...) At any rate, a disruption in the balance of forces does not occur due to immediate causes, such as the impoverishment of the social group with an interest to break up the equilibrium, and does so indeed; quite otherwise, this disruption occurs in the arena of conflicts standing right above the economic field and are related to a class ’prestige’ (future economic interest), to an intensified wish for independence, autonomy and power altogether.’9
Starting from this theoretical ground -which we can brand as economic anticatastrophism- common to both Trotsky and Gramsci in the 1920s10, let us examine now the perspectives they envisaged for the international situation in the period ahead.
A ’passive revolution’
In a survey of Gramsci’s thought, we come across the following statement: ’It is important to bear in mind Gramsci’s remark that the contemporary historical period, that which followed World War I, can be studied and appraised starting from the concept of ’passive revolution’. In the wake of the cataclysm created by the imperialist war, and the deep-going crisis that followed, which was brought to a close with the defeat of the proletarian revolution in the Western world, a whole epoch seemed to be drawing to a close. In fact, the bourgeoisie had managed to hold the reins of the situation and to neutralize the revolutionary forces, in spite of the fierce resistance put up by them. That is why the period of a ’relative stabilization’ of capitalism seemed to be more than a mere short-lived parentheses.11
As a matter of fact, Gramsci was at the time wondering ’whether Americanism might grow into a whole historical epoch, i.e., whether it might bring about a piecemeal development in line with (...) those ’passive revolutions’ of the last century (...) or quite otherwise, whether French-styled uprisings like Russia’s will burst out.’12 He opposed that likely development to those ’revolutions from above’ that Marx and Engels had already described in the past.
Gramsci’s concept of a ’passive revolution’13 stemmed from three different sources. The idea of a shift within the ruling classes through a ’revolution from above’ as a result of a mass movement can be traced back to Marx himself, as much as we can pinpoint Trotsky’s ’permanent revolution’ in Marx’s own works -although none of them come to mean exactly the same in the imperialist epoch and in the nineteenth century. Marx and Engels stated that in the wake of Louis Bonaparte’s coup in France in 1851, ’The period of revolutions from below had come to an end, at least for the time being; this was followed by a period of revolutions from above’. The restoration of the Empire in France at the behest of Bonaparte, and ’his follower, Bismarck’ who ’staged a coup d’Ã©tat and started his own revolution from above in 1866’ in Prussia, bore testimony to that.14
Proceeding along the same lines, Gramsci was to conclude that, as much as the period of bourgeois revolutions stretching from the 1789 Great French Revolution to 1848 was followed by a period of ’revolutions from above’, the 1917 Bolshevik revolution -the ’France’ of the time- might be followed by a phase of passive revolutions. This appraisal by Gramsci of the relationship between the upswing of revolution and the backlash unleashed by counter-revolution, along with the changes operated in the modern democratic states of the Western world is at the root of a notorious dictum. He held that ’the 1848 formula of ’permanent revolution’ is developed and overcome in the realm of political science by that of a ’civil hegemony’15, due to the fact that ’the organizational relationships of the state, both at home and abroad, have become more complex and solid’. In the same way, both Fordism and Americanism, with the transformations within the state that they brought in, will then mean an attempt at developing the productive forces relying on the relative stabilization achieved by capitalism in the 1920s. This will be done by means of halting the revolutionary tide sweeping the world, especially Europe, in the aftermath of the October Revolution -that is why Gramsci calls the passive revolution a ’revolution-restoration’ as well.
Secondly, Gramsci drew the concept from Italian history itself. ’The concept of passive revolution in the sense that Vicenzo Cuoco branded the first period of the Risorgimento’.16 Gramsci stretched the concept, to make it encompass the whole period of national unification starting in 1848-49 and culminating in 1871 with the annexation of Rome as the capital city of Italy. The unification of Italy as a bourgeois nation was achieved within the limits dictated by the alliance between the Northern bourgeoisie with the landowners in the South, which prevented the distribution of land -or concessions- among the peasantry, in stark contrast with the deep-going agrarian reform carried out by the French revolution. Thus, the party of the so-called Moderates accomplished a historically progressive task, such as the unification of Italy, in a reactionary manner, whereas the Piedmont army and its state were the forces standing behind it. This brought about a ’diplomatization of the revolution’, in stark opposition to the French model. The bourgeoisie had resorted to ’transformism’, a ruse designed to assimilate, co-opt and transform the more radical-minded leaders of the people active in the Action Party, by subordinating them to the program of the Moderate wing. In this way, they were prevented from playing an active, Jacobin role, and caved in to the right wing of the movement. A ’passive revolution’, negotiated from above -such was the perspective Gramsci was warning against now, in the epoch of proletarian revolution, one that might turn out to be a bourgeois brake on the socialist revolution.17
Finally, Gramsci resorts to this concept in the face of a burning political necessity: articulate a response vis-Ã -vis the rise of Fascism. Gramsci totally disagrees with the evaluation made by the PCI as to Mussolini’s chances of succeeding. Trotsky will state in this regard: ’According to reports delivered by the Italian comrades, the Communist Party, apart from Gramsci, did not envisage in the least the likelihood of Fascism taking power’.18
Although he was more far-sighted in the analysis of this development -the big scale mobilization of the middle classes against the proletariat- Gramsci shared Bordiga’s ultra-leftist view in the first years. It was only in 1924 that he agreed to the workers’ united front tactic advocated by Trotsky and the Comintern to fight back Fascism in Italy.19 Some years later, he will reject -like Trotsky- the orientation of the Stalin-led Comintern that came to be known as the ’third period’, i.e., the outright rejection of any kind of cooperation or united front with the Socialist Party and the reformist labor organizations, considered then to be a strand of ’social-Fascism.’
Hence, his emphasis on the concept of ’passive revolution’, in order to appraise what was going on along different lines and deliver an according response, more in line with the needs of the mass movement. The unheard-of phenomenon of Italian Fascism did not boil down to a violent suppression of labor, but it also tried to gain a new consensus from the Italian masses. Even after the 1929 crash, a strand of Fascism takes issue with liberal economics, and develops the hypothesis of a ’rationalization-reorganization’ of the forces of production, an Italian version of ’Americanism’ via ’corporativism’ that sets up a kind of ’union between the government of the masses and the management of production’. Gramsci regards it as an attempt at overcoming the ’organic crisis’ weighing down on the state.
Having said all this, we are led to conclude that a passive revolution in the imperialist epoch would result in a ’transformation of the economic structure along reformist lines, going from an individualistic to a planned economy (managed economy), and the coming to life of a ’in-between economy’ halfway from the purely individualistic type and a wholesome planned economy’ -the latter meaning socialist planning. The bourgeoisie accomplished this ’in-between’ economy by means of state leverage, i.e. ’corporativism’, which allowed capitalism to move towards more modern political and cultural forms, skipping or else telescoping the catastrophic phase.
So, two possible ways for a capitalist recovery arise: ’Americanism’, in the style of Roosevelt’s new deal, on one hand, and Fascism, on the other. Gramsci, by abstracting the civil war methods used by Fascism against labor, its organization and its vanguard, finds a common ground as to the aims pursued by both. These are not only to ’disperse the antagonistic forces’, i.e. the proletariat, and separate it from the peasantry, but also rejuvenate capitalism on a new basis. So both Americanism and Fascism are, in Gramsci’s view, attempts at ’modernizing’ capitalism ’from above’, and both are accounted for by the concept of passive revolution, which is above all a socio-economical category, but one that encompasses thorough-going transformations in the sphere of the state.
On top of the change in socio-economic conditions and the social customs entailed by Americanism, there also emerged a new type of state to nurture them: ’The state is of a liberal kind, not in the sense of the old customs liberalism or that meaning practical political freedom, but in a deeper sense, that of free initiative; an economic liberalism that grows into a regime of industrial concentration and monopoly altogether, as a civil society and due to its own historical development.’ This new kind of state manages the economy ’endowed with key functions within the capitalist system as an enterprise (state-run holding) that concentrates the savings in its hands, putting them at the service of industry and the private sector, and also acting as a medium and long term investor.’
At the same time, this state establishes a new kind of relationship with the oppressed classes: ’Most of the depositors want to break all the bounds tying them to the private capitalist system as a whole, but they do not mistrust the state: they want to take part in the economic activity, but through the state, which guarantees them a low but secure revenue.’ Hence, ’it follows that the state, in theory at least, seems to rely upon ’ordinary people’ and the intellectuals, whereas it structure remains a plutocracy through and through.’
In this respect, J.C. Portantiero holds that Americanism is, for Gramsci, the most assertive stake to stave off the tendency of the rate of profit to fall within imperialist capitalism, by means of new production techniques that yield an increased relative surplus value: ’It is an expression of the crisis itself, its ’overcoming’ in terms of the growth of a system that has always experienced a ’crisis-ridden’ development, amid ’factors that balanced and neutralized one another’. Of course, ’Americanism’ in itself has changed little ’the nature of the fundamental social groups’, but it remains a capitalist backlash standing at the highest level of the insurmountable contradictions flowing from the structure, which ’the ruling classes try and work out and overcome within given limits’â€¦’20 And all this much is true, but there is more to it than that. The Americanism, for Gramsci -a socio-economic category- is inextricably linked to the political category of passive revolution, in terms of a revolution-restoration, a reformist shift within capitalism itself -and this is what the reformists or else Gramsci’s bachelors gloss over all the time. The political thrust of his view is at odds with that of those who now build upon his insights, while longing for the ’welfare state’ -by and large dismantled by the neoliberal onslaught in the ’90s. In fact, they stand for a program of passive revolution -in the style of the old Italian ’Moderates’- aimed at restoring the latter. In stark contrast to his epigones of today, Gramsci himself warned about such attempts at rejuvenation within the state apparatus and the state-managed economic agenda, which he understood to be a medium to long-term reactionary backlash aimed at laying the basis for ’a new conformism’. It was a devise designed to hamper the hegemony of the proletariat, block a communist revolution and weather the organic crisis ridding the bourgeoisie -all issues a Marxist leadership should be able to grapple with and fight against.
Americanism and the war
Let us now take a look at Trotsky’s views.
In 1926, when faced with the same issue of America’s emergence, he held that: ’In the article drafted by comrade Feldman, the considerations on the path of development of the United States have taken on a rather algorithmic shape. He reached the conclusion that the development of America was reliant, at best, on a blind alley, and that its present-day rise amounts to nothing when compared to that of past decades. If this should be true, we are not allowed to build a perspective leading to a peaceful world development. The rise of the United States to the top, insofar as it proceeds smoothly, will lead Europe to a blind alley from the economic standpoint, and Europe will either decline as the Roman Empire did, or else will go through a revolutionary revival. But right now, we cannot talk about a European decline. If the development of the United States should be halted, the powerful forces at work within it will seek a way out through war. That will be its only chance of overcoming the shortcomings flowing from the circumstances underpinning its economic development. Such shortcomings move along like the vortex of a hurricane. Such vortex, full of a colossal force and delayed, might wreak havoc within the country.’
’Let us examine now the position of the proletariat. With regards to Britain, nothing is left of the old aristocratic position of the British proletariat. Our fraternal deal with the British unions [the Anglo-Russian Committee] relies on the economic decline of Britain. Now, it is the working class in the United States the one that has conquered a privileged position. A delay in the economic development of the United States would provoke a huge shift in the balance of forces at home, thus spurting into life a revolutionary movement that would emerge with that typical American speed. In this way, the two likely scenarios in the United States lead us to envisage massive cataclysms in the decades ahead, rather than peaceful developments. Quite recently, an American edition of The Economist carried an article stating that, as the experience of the latest war showed, the United States needs an all-out war. The American imperialists have made their choice, but that is not one of a peaceful development.’21
We should note that those definitions were devised before the 1929 crash in the US that brought about a turning point in the world arena. Even before it, Trotsky was able to envisage the deep tendencies and the inter-imperialist contradictions at work that should nourish new revolutionary developments, on one hand, and war, on the other. Some years later, in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash, he furnishes -taking issue with the program adopted by the Comintern- a dialectical train of thought as the American crisis was unfolding in September 1930: ’Molotov meant to say, ’Trotsky extolled the prowess of America and look now, the United States is going through a deep slump. But shall we conclude that the capitalist prowess is devoid of crisis? Did Britain, in the climax of worldwide rule, not know of crises? Can we think of a crisis-free development of capitalism at all? This is what we have said in this regard in the drat program of the Comintern:
’We shall not dwell here in pondering the key issue of the duration of the American crisis and its likely scope. It is a conjuncture problem, not a programmatic one. It goes without a saying that we hold no doubts with regards to the inevitability of a crisis, neither do we rule out that, given the world scope of American capitalism, the next crisis could be extremely deep and sharp. But there is absolutely nothing leading us to believe that that should hamper or weaken the hegemony of American in any possible way. Such conclusion would nourish gross strategic blunders. It is just contrariwise. In a period of crisis, the United States will exert its hegemony to the full in the most brazen and brutal manner, even more so than in the period of its climax. The United States will try and overcome its problems and woes at the expense of Europe in the main.’22
From now onwards, we can notice a shift in Trotsky’s insights in the 1930s with respect to those of the 1920s. This change was due to the 1929 crash, which disrupted the ’unstable equilibrium’ of capitalism, as the Comintern had put it, and ushered in a new period. A new ’catastrophic phase’ was in the making, and new revolutionary opportunities would arise in its trail. This will indeed happen with the opening salvos of the Spanish revolution in 1931, and also the revolution in France unleashed with the factory occupations of 1936. Both revolutions, Trotsky would point out later, offered the chance of ’stopping the imperialist war through revolutions from below’. But these ended up in defeat, not because of any sort of inescapable fate, but rather as a result of the CPs’ policy of ’Popular Fronts’. In 1935, the VII Congress of the Stalin-led Comintern adopted that tactic, which turned the CPs in willing aides of a moribund capitalism.
Now then, even in the period of a catastrophic crisis, Trotsky did not fail to appraise the potential of American capitalism, only to emphasize that such superiority would not prevail over Europe along peaceful lines. In 1933, he held that, in spite of an American superiority reliant on the law of labor productivity, and his technical superiority incarnated in Fordism, ’â€¦the old planet Earth is reluctant to be turned over. Everyone is protecting from the rest by building a wall of goods and weapons. Europe does not purchase goods, does not pay its debts and arms itself besides. A greedy Japan has seized a whole country just with five squalid divisions. The most advanced technique in the world, suddenly, seems helpless before the obstacles flowing from an utterly inferior technique. The law of the productivity of labor seems to be going down. But it just seems to doing so. The basic law running though the whole history of mankind is inevitably poised to take revenge on those secondary and accidental phenomena. Sooner or later, American capitalism will open its way all throughout our planet. What methods will it resort to? All of them. A high rate of productivity denotes a high rate of destructive forces. Am I preaching war? I am not preaching anything. I am just trying to analyze the laws presiding over the dynamics of the economy.’23
Trotsky understands better than Gramsci the drift of this epoch of crisis, wars and revolutions: Americanism would only prevail at the expense of Europe, plunging the world in a new war in the process. Even when we take into account Gramsci’s contributions to Marxist political science vis-Ã -vis the question of the modern state, we see that Trotsky grappled best with one the main characteristics of those ’advanced’ states in the imperialist epoch. As Lenin had remarked, not only were they an organ of force and repression at home (to which Gramsci added those aspects of consensus), but a tool of war abroad as well -a state ’for looting’.24 That was his structural analysis, a continuation of the Comintern’s, although that tendency underwent two different phases -that of the unstable equilibrium in the 1920s and its disruption in the 1930s.
Meanwhile, in Gramsci’s view, the likelihood of a whole cycle of passive revolutions was predicated upon ’the cessation of the fundamental organic struggle and the overcoming of the catastrophic phase’25, within the limits imposed by the imperialist epoch. It is true that Gramsci pointed out that the ’passive revolutions’ were a ’revolution-restoration, in which the second moment alone prevails’. And he also added, ’the restorations, whatever the name attached to them, the ones of today above all [Gramsci’s own emphasis] are universally repressive’. But the key aspect of a passive revolution is that it pursues ’the reduction of the dialectics to a mere evolutionary, reformist process’.
Trotsky, instead, approaches the period from the standpoint that capitalism leads to renewed catastrophes. ’The life of monopoly capitalism in our times is a chain of crises. Every single crisis brings about a catastrophe. The need to escape from such token catastrophes by means of tariff walls, inflation, the rise of government expenditure, the hike of debt levels; all these lay the basis for further crises, deeper and more widespread. The struggle to access more markets, raw materials and colonies makes a military catastrophe inevitable. And these in turn nourish revolutionary catastrophes. It is indeed hard to agree to Mr. Sombart’s statement that present-day capitalism becomes every day more and more ’tranquil, reasonable and peaceful’. It would be more correct to say that it is losing the last vestiges of reason. At any rate, there is no doubt that the ’theory of collapse’ has triumphed over the theory of a peaceful development.’26
Of course, Trotsky’s concept of a ’catastrophic phase’ does not apply to the economic sphere alone. His ’theory of collapse’ is understood not just in terms of a merely economic cataclysm, but also rather as a linking of catastrophes in the economic, military and revolutionary realms -i.e. the articulation of a crisis, the policies of the states (hegemony) and the class struggle. These very three factors that -according to Trotsky- had accounted for the previous ’unstable equilibrium’, were now breaking it down. Once again, we see the same criteria at work, both in the 1920s and the 1930s, although the nature of the situation has radically changed.
What about Gramsci? In the words of one his followers: ’In conclusion, two elements emerge very clearly: a) By the end of the century that Eric Hobsbawn branded ’the age of extremes’, we must emphasize the importance of the fact that Gramsci stayed away from the radicalization and the simplification cutting across the intellectual dualities of the 1930s (and beyond) along the lines of the pairs Communism-Fascism or Fascism-antifascism; b) he anticipated a picture of the future of capitalism that was to unfold in the post World War II period with the new American hegemony. He failed to foresee the tragic ethos of Nazism, the Second World War, Auschwitz or the aberration of Stalinism; quite paradoxically, from inside the walls of the Turi prison he sees those ’structural’ features of our century without blinding himself, as so many other commentators.’27
In that convulsive interregnum of the crisis of world hegemony, Gramsci did not reach the stature of Trotsky’s strategic prognoses, who clearly anticipated that the way out for the crisis of hegemony would come hand in hand with a new world war, and also the outcome of the class struggle unleashed by that war as a ’midwife of revolution’. He developed, basing himself on such strategic prognosis, both the program and an embryonic international organization. He built upon a comprehensive theory, as well as the lessons drawn from the main tests of the class struggle, contrasting them with the international policy of the Stalin-led Comintern. Building upon those lessons, such as the experience of the Anglo-Russian Committee; the fate of the Chinese revolution; the turning point of the capitulation of the German CP before Hitler; the program and the tactics for the Spanish Revolution; the reckless denunciation of those who betrayed it and the strict demarcation from the capitulators; its rejection of the ’Popular Front’ policy and the characterization of the Stalinist phenomenon and the degeneration of the USSR; he will proceed to build the International Left Opposition, and later on he will found the Fourth International. His bet was that the latter would play a leading role in the future developments.
Understanding the aftermath of WWII
Now then, we believe that if we take out the out-of-time gradualist views as to a rejuvenation of capitalism enshrined in Gramsci’s thought, the concept of ’passive revolution’ proves to be very fruitful to deal with the aftermath of World War II. We brand them ’out-of-time gradualist views’ because it was the war alone that paved the way for the United States to impose its hegemony over the world and spread Fordism to Europe all along the way. It came to prevail after massive destruction of productive forces in Europe; after the main contenders of the United States -Germany and Japan- were defeated and out of the game; and after a contradictory outcome of the class struggle in the wake of the mass upsurge that followed the war. Ultimately, Gramsci failed to see that, starting from his own definitions, the United States would only impose its hegemony over the world after a tour de force that should then usher in a new ’consensus’. We should, however, bear in mind that American imperialism resorted to an invaluable aid to get away with this: Stalinism. The latter hindered the upswing sweeping through Europe, laying the foundations for the stabilization of the main capitalist countries.28
Only when this worldwide catastrophic phase was left behind, with the advent of the agreements at Yalta and Potsdam between the victorious imperialism and a rejuvenated Soviet bureaucracy, only then is when the concept of passive revolution comes in to chart best the evolution of the new world scenario.
We believe that at least two key elements of that passive revolution hold out. First the advent of a ’Keynesian’ economics in the capitalist countries, i.e., the new deal transformed now in raison d’Ã©tat, whose essential features vis-Ã -vis the masses and the state relationships with the economy were foreseen by Gramsci. Second, the controversial 1943-48 revolutions in Eastern Europe engineered by the Red Army in those occupied territories such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and even half of Germany, which could also be branded proletarian passive revolutions.29
Gramsci highlighted that at the time of the Risorgimento, ’the barricades in the style of Paris 1848 were nowhere to be seen in Italy’ because they were replaced by the draft to the standing army of Piedmont. Likewise, that was the role played by Stalinism in the era of proletarian revolution, i.e., stifle the emergence of 1917-styled soviets and replace them with the advance of the Red Army in the East. Stalin’s own role in the Yalta-Potsdam accords, which codified the control of Eastern Europe by the USSR, can be also explained in terms of the ’diplomatization of the revolution’ -in line with Gramsci’s account of the Italian national unification. Likewise, the use by Stalinism of most of the old pre-war bourgeois state personnel in the newly created deformed workers states partially partakes a ’restoration’. The capitalist relationships of production were changed there into planned economies, but this progressive task went hand in hand with a reactionary hampering of the soviets as organs for the self-government of the masses. The new role of the Communist Parties and the unions led by the Stalinists and Social democrats amounted to a big scale ’transformism’, in which they used all their ascendancy to rebuild Europe along capitalist lines. Last but not least, the features of the ’welfare state’ foreseen by Gramsci as a new type of capitalist state prevailed, and became the norm in the imperialist heartlands -and even in some semi-colonies.
We believe that in its general features, the new and contradictory post-war developments can be understood as part and parcel of a great passive revolution, which should be regarded also as a response to the mass and working class upsurge, handing over ’reformist concessions to neutralize the subjugated classes’ in that most exceptional period ranging from 1943 to 1949.
A third attempt at a passive revolution was to engineer a ’de-colonization’ from above, devised by the imperialists to hold down the anti-colonial revolution. They changed the status of their old colonies, recognizing them as ’modern’ semi-colonial nations, but that move proved fruitless. It was precisely there, in the periphery of the capitalist world where the revolution erupted with all its force, in a true outburst of the oppressed peoples living in the colonies and the semi-colonies. And it is to the credit of the Fourth International and its prognoses the fact that they urged the proletariat and the masses in the semi-colonial countries not to wait for the revolution in the imperialist metropolises, but start their own revolution right away. In this way, they might be able to achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat before their metropolitan counterparts. This development also proved the theory of permanent revolution was right to emphasize the key role that the backward countries were poised to play in the process.
Despite of the fact that major concessions were handed over to the working class in the advanced countries, the upsurge of the colonial revolution in the postwar (and the inability to steer a passive revolution to stop them) confirmed that the epoch was an imperialist one, just as Trotsky had emphasized. ’The imperialist classes were in a position to hand over some concessions to the colonial peoples and their own workers when capitalism was on the upswing, and the exploiters felt they could firmly rely on a steady rise of the profits. But today, we cannot even dream of that. World imperialism is in decline. The position of the imperialist nations becomes more difficult every day, whereas the contradictions between them get worse all the time. The monstrous arms race under way devours an ever-increasing share of the national income. The imperialists can no longer deliver any significant concession to the toiling masses at home, nor can they give them to the colonies. Quite on the contrary, they are forced to resort to an ever-worsening exploitation. It is precisely this that speaks of the agony of capitalism.’30
Although, as we said above, concessions were given to the working class in the advanced countries as a byproduct of their revolutionary action, which forced the elite to ’give away something so as not to lose everything’, the dictum of the Fourth International was proved right all along the way in those countries in the grip of imperialism. The massive outburst of the masses in the semi-colonies confirmed the validity of the strategic perspective charted by Trotsky. Those movements will remain active beyond the exceptional period of 1943-49, for all the duration of the Yalta Order, a period during which they will remain the most revolutionary factor of the class struggle worldwide. As we pointed out above, the strengthening of the Stalinist apparatus worldwide will prevent them from impinging upon the imperialist heartlands and boosting a revolution there. The latter will even resort to all the means available to congeal all the ’national liberation’ developments in the colonies, keeping them in the realm of the bourgeois regime.
That was the case to an unforeseen development, one that Trotsky’s -let alone Gramsci’s- prognoses failed to anticipate, i.e., the most extraordinary political feature of the postwar superstructure -the new role of Stalinism as a bulwark against the revolution on a planetary scale.
Trotsky betted that the world revolutionary developments unleashed by the war -which took place widely in the period 1943-49- would provoke, in turn, the overthrow of the Soviet bureaucracy, paving the way for the revolutionary rejuvenation of the USSR. But this perspective did not materialize. Far from it, the outcome of the war was a new lease of life for the bureaucratic caste, not only in the USSR but also in a new system of deformed workers states that sprung up in Eastern Europe. The working class and the masses managed to regain forces after the massacres of the imperialist war, as much as they had done after 1914-1918. Then, they went on to stage a colossal upsurge, of major relevance since it swept across key capitalist countries, such as Italy, France, and Greece, at the time of the armed resistance against Nazism. Stalinism nonetheless managed to weather that upsurge, and earned itself a renewed prestige in the eyes of the masses for having defeated the German Army at Stalingrad. Besides, it was able to derail such developments, holding back the working class and putting all its organizations at the service of a capitalist rebuilding of Europe -along the lines of ’Americanism’.
But, regardless of the fact that Trotsky’s political prognoses were proved wrong, he stood well above Gramsci, since he laid the basis for understanding Stalinism and the degeneration of the Russian revolution altogether31, and also waged a stubborn battle against it before the war, giving precious guidelines on how to fight against it as well. He was the only Marxist that raised a program for a new kind of revolution, the ’political revolution’, that should be carried through in the degenerate workers’ state. He also set forth a whole system of specific transitional demands aimed at overthrowing the parasitic caste in charge there, while preserving the conquests of the nationalized economy, restoring the actual power of the soviets and re-launching the transition to socialism by endowing the workers state with a revolutionary policy, both at home and abroad.
Secondly, although he was not in a position to predict the increased class collaboration practiced by the Soviet bureaucracy with imperialism on a world scale -as it was codified in the Yalta Accords-, he nevertheless anticipated, in the fight waged against the ’popular fronts’ in the 1930s in France and Spain, that Stalinism had become an ’additional stumbling block’ in the path leading the proletariat to class independence. Gramsci, in turn, who used the term ’transformism’ abundantly in his analysis of a bourgeois revolution, failed to see the biggest process of transformism ever in the realm of proletarian revolution, i.e., the advent of the Soviet bureaucracy.
The permanent revolution blocked
’The economic prerequisite for proletarian revolution has by and large reached its peak under capitalism. The productive forces of mankind have stagnatedâ€¦ The objective conditions for revolution have not only ripened, but they are starting to rot. If there is no socialist revolution in the period ahead of us, humanity is threatened with undergoing a catastrophe. The time has come for the proletariat to come to the fore, led by its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind boils down to that of its revolutionary leadership.’32
This correct statement, in historical terms, that opens the Transitional Program adopted by the Fourth International in 1938, was partially disavowed in the wake of 1948, with its notorious consequences. We believe that a whole series of objective and subjective conditions resulted in a blockade of the dynamics of permanent revolution. The task was then to enhance the concept of ’crisis of revolutionary leadership’ -some Trotskyist currents have made a fetish out of it. Posing the question in a concrete fashion, we can say that the crisis of revolutionary leadership, especially the paths to overcome it, were not exactly the same ones in the 1930s, at a time when revolution and counter-revolution clashed openly, than in the postwar period. The outcome of the war and the ensuing upswing brought about new material conquests for the proletariat that became institutionalized, ranging from reformist concessions in the advanced capitalist countries up to the creation of new states where capital had been expropriated, although this resulted in a strengthening of a counter-revolutionary leadership. This meant that the followers of the Fourth International had to ponder this issue in the light of ’the world of Yalta’, and reinstate a new strategic framework, and also adjust their program accordingly.
a) The extent of the partial development of the productive forces had to be pondered right away. In this field, Trotskyism split in two tendencies, both of which were wrong. On one side stood those who, like the International Committee sponsored by Pierre Lambert (including the Argentina-based group led by Nahuel Moreno and the Bolivian POR of Guillermo Lora33), held on to a ’stagnation view’. ’The productive forces of mankind have stagnated’, they claimed, ruminating the words of the Transitional Program over and over again. They thus remained oblivious to the fact that the colossal destruction of productive forces wreaked by the war, and the ensuing capitalist rebuilding of Europe allowed for the implementation of the most advanced American techniques, in a sudden and concentrated fashion, and therefore created a quick demand of consumer goods, all at one and the same time. This was a token countertendency, a limited and temporary one, but one that reversed what was a fact before the war. The continued existence of the imperialist epoch, i.e., the phase of capitalist decline, was in no way tantamount to the stagnation of the productive forces, which underwent a partial development during the period 1948-68. Those who opposed this ’stagnation view’ were the followers of Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat. They held the view that that partial development during the boom had brought to life a ’neocapitalism’ or else a ’late capitalism’, thus adopting an adapted version of the bourgeois view on capitalist crises. These could be traced in the so-called ’waves’ or automatic cycles of growth and slump, the class struggle being a totally subordinated factor in them.
b) That partial development of the productive forces in the advanced countries, along with the Keynesian ’welfare state’ that was instrumental in the bargaining between capital and labor, laid the basis for a rebirth of reformism, this time relying on a more widespread and enhanced layer of the labor aristocracy in the imperialist countries. Back in the 1930s, the European social democracy had been caught in the crossfire of Fascism, which thwarted its parliamentary game, on one hand, and the proletarian grassroots on the other, which carried into its ranks the radicalized atmosphere prevailing in various countries.34 The postwar period and the regained capitalist stability found it at the head of mass unions that profited from the new conquests handed over by the ’welfare state’. Stalinism, in turn, would rely on the widest mass support ever, thus tightening its grip on the working class movement, not only in the capitalist countries, but in the new deformed workers’ states in Eastern Europe as well. The capitalist boom enabled these to gain some economic autarchy. On top of this, the nationalization of the economy in a series of countries boosted, in itself, the thrust towards the industrial development of hitherto overwhelmingly peasant nations, raising the standard of living of the masses significantly as well. As a whole, a new working class movement is brought to life, with new economic conquests, themselves the by-product of the outcome of the war, which will lay the basis for a new mass reformism, a ’renewed conformism’ as Gramsci would have put it. Both Stalinism and social democracy thus came out of the war strengthened.
c) Stalinism became the ’official Marxism’, thus opening up an abysmal gap in the continuity of revolutionary Marxism. Through the creation of different tendencies and various internecine fights, continuity had been maintained, through the first three Internationals and up to the Fourth International -from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto in 1848, right up to the Manifesto against the War drafted by Trotsky in 1940. Although Trotsky had warned that Stalinism was already ’an additional stumbling block’ for the proletariat, he never could have imagined the extent it would reach in the wake of the war. The Trotskyists should have pondered the dangers this entailed. The own ranks of the Fourth International had to be looked at from the perspective anticipated by Trotsky before the war: should the proletariat fail to deliver a revolutionary response (and it had indeed failed to do so, or had only done it partially), the workers’ parties, even the most revolutionary ones amongst them, ran the risk of degenerating. ’All those skeptical people of the superficial type are delighted to point their fingers at the degeneration of Bolshevik centralism into stifling bureaucratism. As if the whole course of history was hinged upon the structure of a given party! In fact, it is the fate of the party that is hinged upon the course of the class struggle. At any rate, the Bolshevik Party was the only one that displayed, in action, the ability to accomplish a proletarian revolution. It is precisely such a party what the international proletariat badly needs right now. If the bourgeois regime survives the war, all the revolutionary parties will degenerate. If the proletarian revolution ends up victorious and seizes power, all those conditions nourishing degeneration will fade away.’35 Against this alternative prognosis, there were many countries, China, the Eastern half of Germany, etc, were the bourgeois regime went down after the war, but it ’got away with it’ in the main centers of capitalist-imperialist power. This was a most paradoxical outcome that found Stalinism at the head of a process of widespread ’transformism’. The CPs became the agents of passive revolutions that enabled them to hold on to power and safeguard the new status quo reached with American imperialism. In those circumstances, subjectively adverse ones indeed, the forces of the Fourth International were, as a whole, cast aside and survived as isolated propaganda groups.
d) The dynamics of the permanent revolution is blocked. The mutual relationships between the metropolises, the semi-colonies and the Soviet Union of the pre-war era, which were dealt with in the Theory of Permanent RevolutionÂ¸ and also The Transitional Program inherited from the times of Trotsky, were a most valuable algebra of Marxism, but one that should be made operational by giving it new concrete values in order to guide the revolutionary action. Now, the ’weak links in the chain’ of the international state system shaped by the Order of Yalta were to be found, by and large, in the colonies and semi-colonies. Their former imperial masters, such as France and Britain in Asia and Africa, had been weakened in the face of the new American domination of the world. Capitalism was thus reinforced in the advanced capitalist countries, and revolution was displaced to the periphery of semi-colonial countries.
In turn, the Moscow bureaucracy used its prestige and the material resources of its new states, above all, with the aim of derailing, congealing, blackmailing and corrupting the mass uprisings in the colonies, co-opting the leaderships of the ’national liberation’ movements. Each time the colonial masses achieved political independence as a nation, that victory was not used as a platform to advance towards a workers’ state, but it was used as a brake on the revolution, keeping it within the limits of bourgeois democracy. And when a revolution went beyond this straightjacket, such as Cuba, Stalinism would sooner or later use the conquest of a new state where capital had been expropriated as a pawn to wrestle a pact from imperialism. Far from spreading the revolution to the international arena, it was frozen within national boundaries.36
The revolutionary forces needed to make a reinstatement and an update of the links between the metropolises and the semi-colonies, incorporating the recently created deformed workers’ states to the characterization of the whole picture of the world state system (hegemony). Such appraisal was needed, to prevent the Trotskyist currents that played an outstanding role in some revolutionary developments in the semi-colonies, such as Algeria, Ceylon, Vietnam, Bolivia or Argentina, did not fall into a ’third world orientation’. This is what some sections of the Trotskyist International did, whereas other sections adapted themselves to the conditions imposed by the Socialdemocratic and Stalinist apparatuses, or else both at the same time. The task was to link up the political work in the semicolonial countries with that in the advanced countries, building factions for a concrete proletarian internationalism among the unions and the mass parties in the imperialist heartlands.
e) A new definition of a Marxist strategy should have emphasized the program of political revolution for both the deformed workers’ states and the USSR, as a key lever to intervene in the other ’weak links’ of world hegemony. The 1953 strike in Eastern Germany, the 1956 Hungarian revolution and the 1968 Czech uprising when the boom went down, all of them bore testimony to this. The ’world order’ broke down in those workers’ states that had originated in passive revolutions, engineered from above after the occupation of the Red Army. It was there that the first symptoms of discontent against the Great Russian oppression emerged, which were later to burst out in 1989-91 in a generalized fashion as ’national conflicts’. That labyrinthine shape of the class struggle that swept through the nationalities of the former USSR and Yugoslavia, led by nationalist and anti-proletarian leaderships. With regards to this, the majority of the strands of Trotskyism abandoned the programmatic guidelines bequeathed by Trotsky -the 1930s slogan for ’an Independent Soviet Ukraine’ aimed against the Great Russian oppression as well as Hitler’s imperialist ambitions-, after decades of having considered that Stalinism had furnished a solution for ’national question’ in the workers’ states.
Little or nothing did the ’really existing Trotskyism’ to grapple with the issues being examined here. We have branded it ’the Trotskyism of Yalta’ to characterize the degeneration of the Fourth International in the postwar period. That brand of Trotskyism consistently failed to re-elaborate a new strategic perspective, and thus ended up capitulating to the milieu of imperialism and the soviet bureaucracy. In this article, we highlight some elements we had already pinpointed in previous works, with a view to opening a discussion that should result in more accurate definitions, analyzing the convulsive last century, and also drawing lessons for the future. We have taken on board Gramsci’s concepts of ’passive revolution’ and ’transformism’ (although we have appraised them in the light of Trotsky’s insights vis-Ã -vis World War II and Stalinism), and applied them to enhance our postulates on the mechanisms used for blocking the revolution in the postwar period. We believe that those who just ruminated the old truism, ’the crisis of mankind boils down to the crisis of revolutionary leadership’ during the reign of Yalta, so that no ’orthodox’ Trotskyist would dare disagree, were the very same ’orthodox’ Trotskyists that regarded the emergence of Marshal ’Tito’, Fidel Castro or else guerrilla and nationalist bourgeois movements as a very ’practical’ solution to that crisis. They alternatively called them ’revolutionary leaderships’, or if need be, encouraged support for them in terms of supporting ’the lesser evil’.
We are not going to scrutinize here the whole record of capitulation of postwar Trotskyism.37 And we do not do so because we consider that their wrongdoing were justified in any way by the objective conditions. On the other hand, we do not adhere to a subjectivist and voluntaristic view, as it clearly follows from this work, one stating that the fragmented and weakened forces of the Fourth International after Trotsky would have been able to substantially change the world map during the Order of Yalta. But we also reject any sort of fatalistic view of the chances for revolutionary Marxists, even in the darkest years, when both imperialism and Stalinism reigned supreme. Let us take the 1952 Bolivian revolution as an example. There, the POR led by Guillermo Lora caved in to a bourgeois nationalist movement -the MNR, by sowing illusions in its left wing, and this historical chance for Trotskyism was squandered. Of course, there were tight limits weighing upon a revolution in a small semi-colonial country dominated by the aforementioned objective conditions. But it would have been nevertheless a subjective boost for the Fourth International, since the latter would have earned a clear prestige in the eyes of vanguard workers around the world. At that time, both Maoism and Titoism held a tight grip on it, because they had led victorious revolutions, and it was also the heyday for bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalism, which was heading the movement for ’national liberation’.
When the first cracks appeared in the facade of the Order of Yalta in 1968, the year that saw the onset of a world upsurge and a capitalist crisis that drags up to the present, most of the various tendencies claiming allegiance to the Fourth International kept doing business as usual in the shadow of non-revolutionary leaderships.
Perry Anderson pointed out: ’We have to say that in spite of their political tact and their emphasis on the strategy (...) the alternative tradition of revolutionary Marxism (...) did not prove to be more fruitful than its historical rivals. When I wrote ’Considerations on Western Marxism’, the Marxist line coming from Trotsky seemed quite willing, after decades of a marginal existence, to reintroduce a mass post-Stalinist left politics in the advanced capitalist countries. Always much closer to the issues surrounding a socialist practice, both politically and economically, than the philosophical line of Western Marxism, the remarkable theoretical heritage of the Trotskyist tradition gave it an advantageous point of departure in the new conjuncture marked by a popular upsurge and a world depression in the early 1970s (...) History put this movement to a decisive test in those years, but it failed. The downfall of Fascism in Portugal nourished the most favorable conditions for a socialist revolution in an European country ever since the capitulation of the Winter Palace (...) The Fourth International lost its way at the crossroads of the Portuguese revolution...’38
The 1974-75 Portuguese revolution was a ’classical’ one, combining anti-colonial uprisings in Angola and Mozambique under the impact of the Vietnamese struggle, with a popular and working class upsurge against the dictatorship of Salazar at home, in a weak link of the chain of imperialist countries. Was it then, as Anderson points out, the last great chance that Trotskyism had to rejuvenate its strategic foundations? Did history not furnish a second great chance in the 1980s, in what was the last great ’rehearsal of political revolution’, namely Poland 1980? That development might have also boosted the forces of the Fourth International as well, in anticipation of the 1989-91 upswing in Eastern Europe, the USSR and China. Whatever it was, the whole record of Trotskyism in previous years -which only had weak links of continuity with the foundational postulates of the Fourth International- led it to squander the chances offered by the 1968-80 upsurge, in which both Stalinism and social democracy last acted as a major bulwark against proletarian revolution. The ensuing capitalist backlash came with a high price attached to it: the Reagan-Thatcher onslaught of the 1980s and 1990s, with all its consequences -a massive loss of all kinds of conquests for the working class worldwide, in which we should obviously include the capitalist restoration in the degenerate and deformed workers’ states.
Some people regard those events as a ’historical defeat’ that put the working class in retreat indefinitely. We do not agree with that view. We think the new international perspective will offer new revolutionary opportunities.
Rosa Luxemburg once said that the fight of the proletariat for its emancipation was a winding road full of defeats, but one that would eventually lead to victory nonetheless. During the years of the Yalta Order, such dictum appeared to have been put upside-down: victorious revolutions and new working class conquests that strengthened the position of reformist leaderships that would lead them to defeat later on -such as the defeat inflicted to the working class worldwide by the neoliberal offensive, with the loss of conquests that those leaderships claimed to defend.
We claim that the turn-about in the situation has fuelled a most contradictory outcome.
The massive loss of conquests and the atomization of the proletariat that the imperialist offensive in the 1990s brought about in its trail is fuelling a crisis of labor subjectivity, in which the latter has to start from a very low level in order to win the unity of its ranks again. But in this phase of decline of the US hegemony (that we charted in this issue of Estrategia Internacional), the demise of world Stalinism will offer new chances for overcoming the crisis in favor of the mass movement. This is now potentially free from the straitjacket that held them down for decades, preventing the emergence and growth of soviet-type organs. It is precisely in the appraisal of the strategic relevance of such organs of mass direct democracy that Trotsky and Gramsci agree to the utmost -this mutual agreement between one another is even stronger than each of them separately considered in relation with their respective ’followers’. But if Trotsky’s thought keeps weak threads of continuity with the present, Gramsci’s legacy has undergone a direr fate. The break of today’s epigones of Gramsci, genuine Moderates of today, all of them promoters of passive revolutions, with Gramsci the revolutionary thinker is clearly more abysmal than that separating Trotsky and his epigones.
As a way of conclusion, we can say that, when it comes to continuity with the ’rampant Marxism’ of the revolutionary Comintern, the superiority of Trotskyism, even with all its degenerate strands, is the result of a historical achievement: the foundation of the Fourth International in 1938. Its re-foundation is a pending task that entails understanding the lessons that we can draw from its degeneration. We wrote this article as a contribution to that task, in this new phase of the class struggle, trying to respond to the challenges ahead.
1 Cf. The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, Perry Anderson. Another comparative study is Roberto Mazzari’s Trotsky and Gramsci, from which we quote in this article.
2 Isaac Joshua, The 1929 Crash and the Emergence of the US
3 ’The Russian Ã©migrÃ© said that since 1917, he had frequently claimed that word capital would unfurl ’under the increasing hegemony of the US, first and foremost the hegemony of the dollar over the British sterling pound’, held an article of March 1933 published in The New York Times, based on an interview by Associated Press to Trotsky in Prinkipo.
4 Leon Trotsky, Nationalism and the Economy, November 1933
5 Antonio Gramsci, Americanism and Fordism
6 Critique of the International Left Opposition to the Comintern program, 1927
7 Such relatively economistic determinism can be clearly observed in this excerpt taken from the Erfurt Program of the II International led by Engels: ’the private property of the means of production has changedâ€¦from a driving force for progress, it has become a cause for social decline and bankruptcy. Its demise is inevitable. The only question left unanswered is: will the system of private ownership of the means of production be allowed to plunge the entire social system into an abyss? Or else, will society get rid of this burden, and then, strong and free, it will take back the path leading to progress, in line with the ways prescribed by evolution? (â€¦) The productive forces that have been created within the capitalist society are at odds with the property system underpinning them. The strive to maintain such system makes any future social development impossible, condemning the society to stagnation and decay (â€¦) The capitalist social system has gone a long way; its demise is now just a matter of time. The irresistible forces at work in the economy are inexorably bound to provoke the collapse of capitalist production altogether. The ascent of a new social order superseding the existing one is no longer a desirable purpose; it has rather become inevitable (â€¦) As things stand today, the capitalist civilization cannot go on like this any longer; we should either advance towards socialism; or else fall back into barbarism (â€¦) The history of mankind is determined not by the ideas, but by an economic development that advances untrammeled, abiding certain underlying laws, not our wishes or whims (â€¦)’
8 There is a clear continuity between Lenin and Trotsky in the approach to analyze the balance of forces within any given nation. He builds upon Lenin’s views on the ’situations’. As he points out in a methodological section in Wither France?, they never appear to us as ’pure entities’: ’All throughout history we come across stable situations, completely non-revolutionary ones. We also find notoriously revolutionary situations. There are also counter-revolutionary situations (we should never forget this!). But what we come across by and large in our epoch of a decaying capitalism are intermediate situations, transitional ones -between a non-revolutionary and a pre-revolutionary situation, between a pre-revolutionary and a revolutionary situationâ€¦or else a counter-revolutionary one. It is precisely those transitional states the ones that are fundamentally important from the standpoint of our political strategy.’
9 Notes on Machiavelli, on Politics and the Modern State
10 We will see below that Trotsky, after the 1929 crash, used the same methodological criteria to connect the economic crisis, the class struggle and inter-state contradictions, to define that a new ’catastrophic phase’ (in Gramsci’s words) was opening up in the 1930s, combining revolutionary undertakings with the drift of the imperialist countries towards WWII.
11 Cr Aguilera Prat, Gramsci and the National Way to Socialism
12 Antonio Gramsci, Notebooks from Prison
13 ’The concept of "passive revolution" must be deducted in a rigorous manner from the two fundamental principles of political science [taken from Marx’s Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy] : a) no social formation disappears insofar as the productive forces that have grown within it still find a fertile soil for its further evolution; b) a society only undertakes those tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have already aroused, etc. Obviously, those principles have to unfold to the full up to its critical point, and should be ridden from the slightest shred of fatalism and mechanicism’. This quotation, taken from Gramsci’s Notes on Machiavelli, on Politics and on the Modern State is very abstract and general. It might lead to misinterpretations, such as the reformists’ claim that the defeat of any given revolution could be attributed to the ’objective conditions’ (they would even call it ’premature’), thus underplaying the concrete actions of the leaderships of the working class movement and the masses, and their results therein.
14 Engels’ introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggle in France.
15 On the concept of revolution in both Gramsci and Trotsky, see next article
16 A. Gramsci, ibidem
17 As Aguilera de Prat correctly points out in this key regard (and to dissipate in passing some prejudices), for Gramsci, ’At any rate, it is all about having a dialectical approach to that notion that should not be turned into a program for political intervention [he refers to the program of passive revolution] as it was the case with the Moderates in the Risorgimento. It is only a methodological criterion for interpretation.
18 In relation with the Italian CP in the face of Mussolini’s rise to power, Trotsky stated: ’The Italian Communist Party came to life almost at the same time as Fascism. But the very same revolutionary ebbing conditions that led Fascism into power are the obstacles hindering the Communist Party. The Party did not realize the proportions of the Fascist danger; it got held in revolutionary illusions; it was recklessly hostile to the united front tactic; in a word, it was infected by all the infantile disorders. Small wonder: it was only two years old. For it, Fascism represented just a ’capitalist reaction’. The Italian Communist Party failed to notice the real physiognomy of Fascism, derived from the mobilization of the petty bourgeoisie against the proletariat. According to the reports I received from our Italian comrades, The Italian Communist Party, with the sole exception of Gramsci, did not admit in the least that Fascism might seize power. Besides, we should not forget that the Italian Fascism was, at that time, a new phenomenon, which was barely coming to life. To fathom out its specific features would have been no easy task, not even for an experienced party.’
19 Roberto Massari, in his work Trotsky and Gramsci, reminds us that: ’On November 22, 1922, Lenin dictated Trotsky the following message (on the phone): ’As far as Bordiga is concerned, Y enthusiastically support the proposal (Trotsky’s) of sending a letter drafted by our Central Committee to the Italian delegates, and recommend persistently the tactic you are recommending. Contrariwise, his actions will be extremely harmful, in the future, for the Italian communists’ (...) ’The tactic indicated by Trotsky and by most Comintern leaders to the Italian delegation in November 1922, was to set up a united front with the rest of the working class organizations, starting with the reformist ones, that bore the main responsibility for the rise of Mussolini to power. They also had illusions in reaching a status quo between Fascism and the legal labor organizations, a conciliation between big business and the minimum program of demands of the working class. The Bordiga-led delegation, which wrongly put an equal sign between bourgeois democracy and Fascism in terms of dictatorships, met with the reply of the International in 1922. It refrained from dealing with the details of the situation, but it intervened heavily on organizational matters, a concern that showed an instinctive cry of alarm had echoed in the walls of the Fourth Congress. The recommendation by Lenin and Trotsky already reproduced also shows that the two main Bolshevik leaders were afraid of far more harmful consequences if the orientation of the Italian leadership was not changed in due time -although the main and contingent reason for their concern was that of the fusion between the young party and the Maximalist PSI (...) ’As everybody knows, Trotsky’s proposal was carried on. Two days after Lenin’s telephone message, the Italian delegation received a letter drafted by the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party, signed by Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin, imposing matter-of-fact the fusion with the PSI. Bordiga accepted such imposition, but he maintained his position.’
20 Juan Carlos Portantiero, Uses of Gramsci. The emphasis in the quotation is verbatim from Gramsci
21 Leon Trotsky. On the Question of the Tendencies in the Development of the World Economy, January 1926.
22 Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin
23 Leon Trotsky, Nationalism and the Economy, November 1933
24 Lenin, The State and the Revolution
25 Notebooks from Prison (QC III)
26 Leon Trotsky, Marxism and our Epoch, February 1939
27 Mario TelÃ³, ’Gramsci and the Future of the Western World’, in Gramscian Studies Today
28 ’The ’normal’ exertion of hegemony ’is characterized by a combination of force and consensus, to a variable degree, without force prevailing over consensus’. But in some given situations, where the use of force was too risky, ’the corruption-fraud comes in between force and consensus, i.e., the weakening and paralyzing of the antagonist or antagonists’ (Gramsci, Notebooks from Prison) On this question, in a recent editorial appeared in New Left Review, Perry Anderson confirms what we have been writing on this key factor to understand the widespread influence of American hegemony in the post-war period. ’.,.the consensus enhanced in this way was of a special kind. The elites in Russia and in China -were they begun earlier- were certainly susceptible to the magnetism irradiated by America’s cultural and material success, in which they saw patterns to imitate. In this respect, the internalization by the subjugated powers of those selected values and attributes of the supreme state, which Gramsci would have considered essential to any international hegemony, began to break new grounds. But the objective nature of those regimes was still a far cry from the American prototype for such subjective disposition, so as to become a trustworthy partner for every act of complacency in the Security Council. For this, a third weapon had to come into play, one that Gramsci considered to be in-between force and consensus, but closer to the latter, i.e., corruption.’ New Left Review NÂ° 17, September-October 2002.
29 Of course, we do not include the Chinese or the Yugoslavian revolutions in this category of proletarian passive revolutions. Both were led by guerrilla armies and local Stalinist parties at odds with Moscow, which also stifled the emergence of soviets of workers and peasants, and congealed the revolution within national boundaries, hence they gave birth to deformed workers’ states. Nevertheless, the masses and its vanguard elements played an active role, joining the ’party-armies’ of Tito and Mao. For a deeper reflection on this topic, see Estrategia Internacional NÂ° 3, February 1993, on what we called an ’exceptional period’ between the years 1943-49. In those years, we believe, the marginal hypothesis contained in the Transitional Program came to prevail due to an extraordinary situation. It stated that, in theory, the likelihood existed that the reformist parties ’in some given circumstances -a crash, war, mass revolutionary pressure (...) go farther than they wish down the road of breaking away with the bourgeoisie.’
30 This quotation is included in the Manifesto entitled ’India before the Imperialist War’, July 1939. In it, there are also the following statements, common to many public statements issued by the Fourth International at the time: ’...the war might mean, both in India and also the rest of the colonies, not a reinforced enslavement but total freedom; the premises for achieving it is a correct revolutionary policy. The Indian people must part ways, right from now, with British Imperialism. The oppressors and the oppressed stand in different sides of the trenches. No collaboration with the enslavers at all! Contrariwise, we have to use the enormous difficulties that the outbreak of the war will create to deal a heavy blow to the ruling classes. That is how the oppressed classes and peoples should act in all the countries, without regardless of whether their imperialist masters conceal their faces behind democratic or Fascist masks’.
31 Apart from dozens of essays and articles, we should include here works like The Betrayed Revolution and In Defense of Marxism.
32 The Transitional Program of the Fourth International, 1938
33 Jorge Altamira, leader of the Argentine Partido Obrero, belongs to this strand of thought. Although they never built any international organization, he used to have links with Lambert and Lora, and clings to a catastrophist pseudo-economic theory, which has resulted in very interesting insights indeed
34 Such combination of elements in the 1930s led the French Socialdemocracy further to the left, beyond what its reformist leaders wished, being momentarily thrown into disarray. Trotsky then suggested to the small revolutionary nuclei to enter the Socialist Party, a tactic that came to be known as ’the French turn’. The purpose was to recruit its more radicalized members from the inside, and address, from within that mass party, to the Communist workers inside the Stalinized CPs.
35 This postulate is developed by Trotsky in the ’Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the World Proletarian Revolution’, May 1940.
36 The Trotskyist leader, Nahuel Moreno, the founder of the current we come from, tried to deal with this contradictory situation by asserting that ’reality has become even more Trotskyist than Trotsky himself’. He meant to say that the permanent dynamics of the revolution was manifest in the fact that even Stalinist parties, or guerrilla movements, had been forced to seize power and expropriate the bourgeoisie in a whole number of countries due to the pressure of objective factors themselves. The revolution had thus become ’objectively socialist’. We already took issue with this statement in Estrategia Internacional NÂ°3. In it, we said that Moreno extended the exceptional period of 1943-49 to the whole postwar period, transforming it into a norm. In this way, not only did he distort the fundamentals of the theory of permanent revolution, but worse still, reality itself as well. This new view broke the links between the tasks to be accomplished by the revolution, on one hand, and the subjects -the class and the party- that should carry them to their conclusion. These are just aspects of the theory of permanent revolution, which cannot be considered in isolation from one another. If that was not the case, what good was the International Left Opposition’s rejection of Stalin’s forceful drive to a collective agriculture? The ’socialist task’ of abolishing ownership in the countryside cannot be taken in isolation from the methods of the proletarian revolution; neither can they be regarded as separate from the class that should accomplish such task. Trotsky replied to those kinds of arguments in his time: ’it is not only ’what’ that matters, it also counts the ’how’ and ’who’ does it: whether it is the bureaucracy or the soviets.’ This must have been the reasoning of postwar Trotskyists.
37 Let us point out that the current led by Nahuel Moreno in Argentina, from which we come from, went from outright dissolution within the Peronist movement back in the 1950s to extol the Cuban leadership around Fidel Castro in the 1960s
38 Perry Anderson, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism