The Relevance of Trotsky’s Ideas Today

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Interview with Emilio Albamonte at the online event #Trotsky2020

What is the historical significance of Trotsky, this revolutionary theorist and “man of action,” to whom we are paying homage today?

At the time of his assassination, Trotsky was a feared leader. Not only by Stalinism but also by capitalist governments. Winston Churchill described him, even while he was isolated in exile, as “the ogre of international subversion.” In the 1930s, in the concentration camps of frozen Siberia, hundreds of prisoners could be heard shouting, “Long live Trotsky!” at the moment of their execution. What did this mean, coming from those veteran Bolsheviks who, in many cases, had led the Revolution of 1917 and fought in the Red Army? With their dying breath, they protested the annihilation of soviet democracy — democracy of the workers’ and peasants’ councils — by a bureaucracy that was brutally undoing the workers’ conquests. It was a protest against forced collectivization and the massacre of millions of peasants. Against the establishment of the gulag. Essentially, against the political expropriation of working-class power and the creation of a totalitarian regime.

That bravery and lucidity was shared by many of Trotsky’s comrades in the West. Let’s not forget Rudolf Klement, who was carrying the founding documents of the Fourth International when his body was found floating in the Seine, having been assassinated by the KGB a few days before the founding conference in September 1938. Let’s not forget Martin Monath, a young comrade who, in Nazi-occupied France, organized cells within the German army that were later discovered, leading the Gestapo to kill all those involved. Although these Trotskyists failed in their aims, they set an example of how the Social Democratic and Stalinist parties could have saved millions of human lives if, instead of fostering chauvinist hate between nations, they had promoted large-scale fraternization between the workers in uniform.

Before the outbreak of World War II, workers had led enormous revolutions that were brutally betrayed by Social Democrats and Stalinists, like the Chinese revolutions of 1927-28, the great Spanish Revolution and civil war of the 1930s, or the workers’ uprising in France, which was betrayed by the Popular Front. Only Trotsky and his comrades in the East and West, who were imprisoned, exiled, and assassinated by Nazis, Stalinists, and “democratic” capitalists, opposed the suicidal policy of the workers’ parties in Germany, which culminated in World War II. So the cry of “Long live Trotsky,” raised by hundreds in the face of a firing squad, represented those great struggles and great defeats of the international working class.

How would you define the current situation?

Many things have changed, while others haven’t. Fascism was defeated by the Allies in World War II, as we all know. The Stalinist bureaucracy survived for decades after the Soviet Union’s victory against the Nazis, during a period that seemed to realize the dream of industrialization and “socialism in one country.” But the economy then stagnated under the pressure of global imperialism, and attempted political revolutions in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were defeated, ultimately proving one of the forecasts Trotsky made in his great book, The Revolution Betrayed: that the bureaucracy would eventually restore capitalism.

There have been many changes. But how did we arrive at the current situation?

First of all, I have to say that the Trotskyist movement was decapitated. Isaac Deutscher called it a small boat with an enormous sail. That sail disappeared under the Stalinist pickaxe. As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in his famous novel, The Leopard, everything was changed so that nothing would change. At the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, Stalinism made a pact with the capitalist victors of the war, dividing the world into spheres of influence so that, despite their rivalries, the international revolution would be deviated and defeated. They were unable to prevent great revolutions such as the Chinese one; but they did manage to prevent great independence struggles in the semicolonial world from developing toward socialism.

Capitalism got a new lease on life for a few decades by relaunching production and recovering what was destroyed in the war — the famous Marshall Plan. Capitalism not only continued to plunge the world into recurring crises, such as the oil crisis of the 1970s, but also, shocked by the great workers’ struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, launched the great neoliberal offensive. It inflicted a great defeat on workers. Not only in the West, but also by conquering former workers’ states for capitalism, principally Russia and China. Despite those advances, capitalism could not prevent the great crisis of 2008, which opened up a historic cycle that has now become deeper and more widespread because of the coronavirus; it seems as though we’re not just experiencing a passing crisis of capitalism, but a historic one that resembles that of the 1930s more than it does the crises we’ve seen since the 1970s.

What makes you say that today’s crisis is “historic” and that it resembles the crisis of the 1930s?

First, because it’s part of the cycle that began in 2008. Despite partial recoveries, capitalism never managed to restore the growth it had been experiencing until that year. During these first months of the pandemic, companies have been threatened by massive bankruptcies, resulting in millions of workers becoming unemployed, lower salaries, and generalized poverty. Meanwhile, nation-states are spending billions on bailouts that are increasing their huge deficits and debts without posing any structural solution to their countries’ economies. So-called globalization, which marked the history of recent decades and is now in crisis, paved the way for the America First movement and Trump, for the battle over technologies such as 5G, the resumption of the arms race, the nationalist trends in various countries, and, along with all this, renewed class struggle.

Many analyses are being put forward on the economic and social consequences of the crisis, but there is a lot less discussion of class struggle as a decisive factor.

Right. Since 2008, we’ve seen important struggles: the Yellow Vests in France, the great strikes led by railway and bus workers against the pension reform there, the wave of revolts with economic, democratic, and political motives shaking the world, from Hong Kong in Asia, to Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq in the Middle East, and spanning the globe from Algeria and Sudan all the way to Latin America with the great youth and workers’ revolt in Chile. We saw the revolutionary days of Ecuador and the great struggles waged by Colombian workers; the resistance to the coup in Bolivia, etc. Those are some of the latest events. But we mustn’t forget that after 2008 there was a defeated revolution in Egypt and a process called the Arab Spring, and great mass action in key countries like Turkey, Spain, and Brazil. The class struggle is not spoken about much, but it has been very present since the start of the 2008 crisis. Now, practically at the start of the crisis sharpened by the coronavirus, we saw the greatest mobilization in history of the oppressed and exploited African American population in the racist heart of U.S. imperialism.

So, how would you define the current situation, in general?

Everything seems to indicate that we’re entering a new stage in which the characteristics of the imperialist era are being renewed, a stage referred to by Lenin, Trotsky, and the Third International as one of “crisis, wars, and revolutions.”

You’ve described the objective conditions in which Marxist revolutionaries can advance. What would be the subjective conditions necessary for this period to end in victorious socialist revolutions?

I’ll try to summarize, but the question merits a very long answer. In general, despite the “firefighting” [counter-revolutionary] character of Stalinism and Social Democracy, the 20th century witnessed great revolutionary processes. Many were defeated or deviated from their socialist aims by all kinds of leaderships.

Back in 1906, Trotsky foresaw that German Social Democracy, which had millions of voters and members, and led a large part of the unions, had the potential, due to the centrist character of its leadership, to become an enormously conservative factor in times of intense struggle. This was predicted a decade before Social Democracy voted for war credits in parliament, allowing the massacre of World War I. The war was backed by all of the powerful European parties of the Second International. They defended the bourgeois state and betrayed their promise to oppose the war with coordinated general strikes. These types of betrayals were later repeated and intensified by Stalinists of all stripes. It became a course of common action that even included wars between countries that had defeated capitalism. There is no doubt about the revolutionary character of Trotskyism in Trotsky’s lifetime. He and his movement opposed this, posing revolutionary alternatives in the face of this entire cycle of revolutions and betrayals.

After Trotsky’s death and the end of World War II, the Trotskyist movement itself, now decapitated, began to play an advisory role to these large reformist parties or moved toward sectarian propagandist positions. It was unable to represent an alternative to a trend that resulted in the loss, at the hands of capitalism and imperialism, of many of the working class’s great conquests.

So, do you mean that subjective conditions are insufficient in the face of this great crisis?

Yes and no. We need to see this from a dialectical point of view. The existence of the USSR and victorious revolutions lent great authority to leaderships such as the Maoist or Cuban ones on our continent with their policies of class conciliation, which had a key role in deviating or betraying any emerging revolution. This was often combined with ultra-left policies like the guerilla strategy that Cuba imposed on our continent in the 1960s. The history of the 20th century includes some victorious revolutions with a Stalinist or petty-bourgeois leadership that, instead of fighting to extend their conquests, aimed to build socialism in one country. So, after their initial success, they would regress, stagnate, and ultimately turn the bureaucracies at the helm into the restorers of capitalism, inflicting great setbacks on the international working class. The positive side of this historical tragedy is that, as we face the current crisis, there are no longer huge parties with millions of members and enormous prestige working to block, deviate, and ultimately defeat emerging revolutionary processes.

To give you an example, our young comrades in Chile from the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR) built up a coordinating body in Antofagasta, in the north of the country, the mining region. They were able to form a united front with the Workers’ United Center (CUT), led by the Communist Party, for a joint regional rally in the middle of a process of revolts and strikes, gathering 20,000 workers. Of course, this would have been impossible in the 1970s, when the Communist Party had tens of thousands of members, formed a part of the government, and ended up supporting the monstrosity of putting Pinochet in Allende’s cabinet, granting the coup-mongers control over every position one month before the coup.

Even though this cycle of defeats and resistance has weakened the morale and even the structure of the proletariat, in terms of the obstacles we face, we’re in a much better position. Those parties sold out conquests and revolutions at the expense of degrading themselves and losing most of the hegemony they wielded over the greater part of the working masses.

To conclude my answer to your question, the depth of the crisis will become clear in the coming period, and the weakness of all these reformist or bureaucratic leaderships is an advantage to us as Trotskyists. If we expand and prepare the forces we’ve accumulated in many countries, we could play a decisive role in the workers’ insurgency we’re beginning to witness, perhaps a much greater role than what Trotskyists had in previous crises and uprisings.

Where can the mass movement be seen today?

The reformist Social Democrats of the West have become openly neoliberal. Massive Stalinist parties such as in Italy also became neoliberal; in France, Chile, and Uruguay, they are incomparably weaker than they used to be. Reformist or neo-reformist formations, as we call them, such as Syriza and Podemos, are essentially electoral phenomena, without an active membership, and therefore are also an expression of this weakness.

To answer your question fully, large sectors of the masses, with important differences between different countries, continue to express their demands through unions, which, although powerless and lacking prestige, are a key channel through which workers express themselves. That’s why we need to work inside them. Their bureaucratic leaderships oscillate between making generally powerless demands for reform and serving as direct agents of counterrevolution, such as in Argentina in the 1970s when they created the AAA [anti-communist death squads] and killed 1,500 of the best worker-activists before the military coup.

In the Transitional Program, Trotsky says that unions do not embrace more than 25 percent of the working class in the best of cases, but that, on many occasions, their rank-and-file structures are where the most conscious and organized sectors are to be found. That’s why he said that those who turn their backs on unions turn their backs on the masses. We need to gain political weight in unions in order to force the bureaucratic leaderships to make calls to action so that workers can see in struggles, even in the smallest ones, what this rotten caste is made of, allowing us to win over the unions for an uncompromising class struggle.

Of course, a struggle within that minority of the working class is not enough to lead the broad masses that spring into action in a revolutionary process. We need to create a program that can win workers’ hegemony over the vast masses in the sphere of precarious and informal labor, which grows daily in this capitalist crisis. The struggle to recover our organizations is inseparable from that of uniting the working-class ranks of employed workers, informally employed workers, and the unemployed, while also having a policy for the powerful women’s movement, the Black movement, the immigrants, and the impoverished middle classes so that they’re not won over by the Right. This should be our motivation. If the crisis intensifies and we perform well, we will have the opportunity to forge parties with mass influence and refound the Fourth International. We wish to converge with tendencies in our movement that seek, as we modestly do, to defend a consistent program and strategy. The success of the Left Voice / La Izquierda Diario network, with millions of views at critical moments of the class struggle, and editions in various languages, seems to anticipate this possibility.

You say that there’s a chance for Trotskyists to rebuild revolutionary parties in different countries and rebuild the Fourth International. But what does it mean to be a Trotskyist today, well into the 21st century?

Some comrades say that “Trotskyism” refers only to an “ideological problem,” implying that it isn’t a key part of developing a revolutionary practice in the present. But this isn’t a mere question of names. When we speak of Trotskyism, we’re not referring to just another ideology, like this or that religion, like being a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Buddhist, but to a theory based on science that informs a program and a strategy for the exploited masses to emerge victorious from their struggle against the exploiters. All this is condensed in the theory-program of permanent revolution and the Transitional Program, which provide us with a sort of GPS, showing us the path we need to take to the triumph of the working class and the oppressed masses both at the national and the international level.

For younger generations, what is the theory of Trotskyism?

In the 21st century, it’s clear one can no longer believe that underdeveloped countries, as they’re called, will develop under the leadership of local bourgeoisies in the framework of an imperialist system and liberate hundreds of millions of people who currently live in poverty around the world. In Latin America, we’ve seen a growth cycle of the so-called national bourgeoisies, with Lula, the Kirchners, or Chávez. A look at the disaster in Venezuela after decades of chavismo spares us the need to say any more. Solely blaming the imperialist embargos and coup attempts is an excuse used by the followers of those governments. Only countries like Russia or China, which experienced huge revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was expropriated, despite degenerating later or having been deformed from the outset, have managed to avoid backwardness and dependency. But the power of Stalinist and Maoist bureaucracies, respectively, ended up confining those revolutions to national borders and led to the restoration of capitalism. Once again, the theory of permanent revolution proved its superiority over the pseudo-theories of socialism in one country.

Is this theory only for “underdeveloped” countries?

No. In advanced countries, where the tasks are directly socialist — that is to say, they don’t need to liberate themselves from a caste of landowners or from imperialism, which imposes mechanisms of oppression and plundering — workers may end up seizing power later, because they are fighting a much stronger bourgeoisie. In advanced countries with high labor productivity, however, a workers’ seizure of power would not only liberate underdeveloped countries, but also advance much faster toward reducing the workday; in other words, toward achieving the communist aims in our program. The fact that German workers, under the leadership of Social Democracy and Stalinism, did not emerge victorious in 1921, 1923, or 1929, not only enabled the rise of Hitler but also isolated a backward Russia. This explains in large part why Stalinist bureaucracy took hold. Imagine if the German workers’ scientific and technical expertise had been linked to the Russian workers’ and peasants’ determination to fight. We would have avoided Stalinism, fascism, and the Second World War itself. That was Leon Trotsky’s program and strategy.

And what is the program? That is to say, what is the common understanding of the tasks that need to be carried out by the mobilized masses?

In order to liberate the proletariat from the system of wage slavery in both underdeveloped and advanced countries, I’m going to refer not only to the text of the program but also to the method we can use to bring it to the masses. The millions of people who mobilize at the outset of revolutionary processes don’t develop their consciousness through mere propaganda. Only a minority of advanced workers who compose the vanguard, and more specifically, the members of revolutionary parties, can attain a revolutionary consciousness in this way. Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program in 1938 on the basis of this premise. He continued the tradition of the first years of the Third International, seeking to bridge current workers’ demands and those that may lead to the seizure of power.

To give you a simple example, the current crisis entails the closure of factories and companies. What can workers in those companies do in a context of growing unemployment? Occupy them and begin production under workers’ control, demanding nationalization without compensation, as stated in the Transitional Program. In my country, there has been a great experience of this, in which Trotskyists were at the forefront. If the situation we’re describing lasts for many years and has the revolutionary potential that we predict, this will be a possibility, not just in one or two factories, but in entire branches of industry and services, implying a more general level of planning — a school of socialist planning. But then there’s another question: What financial resources will be available to those companies in the middle of a crisis? Will they be working without resources, on the basis of salaries that can’t even cover basic human subsistence? Only by expropriating private banks and unifying all national savings under a single bank can workers stop these financial resources from being used for speculation or capital flight. This will give them the money they need to run those companies and industries while protecting the small savings of those who are always conned by the bankers.

The issue of supplies is a similar matter. How will workers get the supplies they need for these industries? The foreign currency — in other words, the dollars — necessary to buy what they need to import? How can they avoid the extortion of capitalist corporations that control international trade between countries? For example, in Argentina, a handful of multinational grain companies and landowners control trade. Workers need to impose a state monopoly of foreign trade so that it can serve the interests of the majority.

These are just a few examples of the way workers’ consciousness evolves and grows when they enter a revolutionary phase and face the problems that it entails. It’s not just about spreading propaganda, though there is a great theoretical and ideological struggle to be waged. We need to present the right policies at each juncture so that workers can progressively solve the difficulties they’ll face. All this is true as long as we remember that we not only have external enemies, such as capitalists and their states, but also internal ones, such as bureaucratic leaderships of unions or social movements who will resort to deception or repression to reinforce reformist prejudices among workers, telling them that all they can aspire to is begging for state or capitalist assistance.

What does the program say about how workers should organize?

The Transitional Program states that, in the struggle for its demands, the working class can and should develop self-organization to recover the unions from the bureaucracy that subordinates them to the state and turns them into agents of capitalist plans of poverty. It articulates the need to move forward in building truly democratic organizations capable of gathering all the sectors in struggle and ensuring their self-defense against state repression and their gangs of thugs. Something the Russian workers did, which was later repeated in multiple revolutions, was to create organizations that were far superior to unions. They were originally called soviets, which means “councils,” and united the workers of a city beyond their unions. They had recallable delegates with mandates voted by their coworkers, in order to debate and centralize their response to any kind of problem arising in a context of crisis and intense class struggle.

I’ll give you an example. The working class holds the keys to the economy, but it’s impossible to speak of working-class hegemony today without organizations based on direct democracy that can link the workers’ struggle with the powerful women’s and LGBTQI+ movement, as well as movements against racism and environmental destruction. This is the only kind of organization, far superior to unions, that can unify and centralize all of their demands.

What is the program’s ultimate aim?

I’ll start from the penultimate aim. The aim is for this experience to teach the working class and oppressed sectors that they must seize power for themselves. A workers’ republic, which Marx called the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Just as the bourgeoisie, whether under democratic or dictatorial regimes, always maintains the dictatorship of capital and imposes its own interests, the proletariat has to impose the interests of the vast working-class and popular majorities; a workers’ republic that can function on the basis of workers’ democracy through councils of delegates elected in each production unit (company, factory, school, etc.), so that workers can govern in the broadest sense of the word. They wouldn’t limit themselves to voting every two to four years, but instead define society’s political course on a daily basis, as well as the rational planning of economic resources.

That is to say, workers’ councils go from being organs to centralize the struggle to being the foundation of a new workers’ state.

How can power be taken from the capitalists and their armed and security forces?

I can answer that in general terms. I recall a recent article in the magazine New Left Review, in which the sociologist and left-wing Social Democrat Wolfgang Streeck analyzes Engels’s military thinking and applies the debate to the present day, saying that technological advances, like the development of drones for selective assassinations or sophisticated computer espionage systems, mean that we need to abandon any revolutionary perspective today. This is a vital discussion, since it is about the very possibility of revolution. The basic error in Streeck’s thesis is to reduce force to its technical-material aspect.

Trotsky based himself on the thesis of the Prussian general, Clausewitz, stating that it was not just about physical force, but also its relation to what he called “moral force.” In the case of a workers’ revolution: the number of workers and their allies, which is infinitely greater than that of any professional or conscript army, and their determination to fight to the end. Added to this, of course, is the quality of their leadership, which cannot be improvised in battle. For example, Trotsky analyzed the case of the railways a century ago. They represented an enormous advance back then, because they allowed armies to transport troops to cities in a matter of hours. He said that we should not forget that a true mass insurrection first implies a strike that can paralyze railroads.

Today, we can say the same of the sophisticated police computer systems mentioned by Streeck. What would happen if telecommunications workers were to shut off the system, or electricity workers were to interrupt the supply to certain locations, as workers often do in France? The bourgeoisie may have better weapons and means of repression, but those who make society run are the workers. And a true mass insurrection requires a general strike, which is the basis of an insurrection. Hannah Arendt, beyond suspicion of Trotskyism, argued that the Spanish Civil War had proven that workers, led by the anarchists and armed with pistols and knives, due to their enormous numbers and the divisions among the ruling classes, could triumph in the cities where they were dominant. They defeated the professional army led by Franco against the Republic. She concluded that, in revolutionary situations, you can’t just look at the numbers and technical capacities of the forces of order. You need to look at the determination of the oppressed to fight, and the repressors’ willingness to shoot. The central aim of the worker’s militia is to make that willingness to repress waver and halt.

Why did you say it was the penultimate aim of the program?

Simply put, because the ultimate aim is communism. A concept that has been distorted throughout a large part of the last century by Stalinism and different so-called “real socialisms.” It’s about recovering the struggle for a society without social classes, without a state, without exploitation or oppression. That’s communism. It can never be a national affair. It has to be a product of the unity and coordination of all of the productive forces of humanity, on an international scale and ultimately on a global one. This would boost the productive capacity of our species infinitely, so that human beings can liberate themselves from stupefying mandatory labor. Remember that the word “trabajo” (work) derives from the name of an instrument of torture that the Romans used on their slaves, called a “tripalium.”

A large part of 20th-century philosophy devoted itself to insisting solely on the evils of technology. These negative views range from the far Right, like the Nazi party member and sympathizer Martin Heidegger, to the postmodernists and even Social Democratic left ideas such as those held by Adorno or Horkheimer. In fact, nowadays we can see many series portraying dystopian worlds where technology dominates human beings, such as in “Black Mirror”: machines that enslave shapeless and defenseless masses of people who cannot resist their domination. They’re not making predictions. They’re exacerbating some of the traits of the dictatorship of the large multinational corporations and their states under modern capitalism. 

Only revolutionary Marxists can imagine the potential that scientific and technological advances can have in order to reduce to a minimum the time each individual has to spend on work in a non-capitalist society. We can’t forget that strategic decisions on the design, use, and development of technology are made by people, not machines. We are not slaves to robots, but we do live under the control of multinational corporations and their states. Modern slavery is that of wage labor. Everything, including science and technology is subordinated to that control.

The development of science and technology allows us to reduce the amount of socially necessary time for the production of goods that we need in order to live. But, as Marx said, under capitalism, this doesn’t translate into more free time for the vast majorities. It translates into masses of unemployed, under-employed, or precariously employed workers who live in poverty on one side of society, while on the other side, another part of the working class is forced to spend their lives at work, with 13 or 14-hour workdays. All of this is for the benefit of capitalists and their multinational corporations, so that 25 billionaires can have the same wealth as half of humanity. All this while destroying the planet and nature.

The conquest of power by the working class would make it possible to put an end to this absolute irrationality and distribute working hours equally, guaranteeing a salary in line with social needs. The perspective of socialist revolution would be able to open a path in the 21st century that would place the great advances in science and technology at the service of liberating all wage slaves, including domestic labor. This would mean developing all human capacities in a balanced relationship with nature, not a predatory one. That’s why, when we speak of the struggle for a workers’ state, we’re referring to a transitional state on the path toward a classless society, in which the state would disappear as a repressive tool. As Trotsky pointed out, the aim of communism is to develop technology so that matter can give human beings everything they need and more. But this aim is part of an even more elevated goal: to forever liberate humanity’s creative capacities from all of the obstacles, limitations, and humiliating dependencies, so that personal relationships, science, and art no longer suffer under the shadow of despotic obligation.

To finish the interview, would you like to add a conclusion?

Yes, we’ve briefly gone over the different problems we’re facing. On this day when we commemorate the tragic assassination of Trotsky, I think the best homage we can pay is to understand the opportunities the capitalist crisis is opening up for us as revolutionaries. That’s why I can only end this interview saying: Long live the life and legacy of Trotsky, who devoted himself to liberating the exploited and oppressed masses all over the world! Long live the struggle to rebuild the Fourth International!

First published in Spanish on August 23 in Ideas de Izquierda.

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Left Voice

Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.