Editorial note:

The following text has been written as a letter of Leninist Trotskyist Tendency to the Italian group Voce Operaia, aiming at a discussion on the thesis written by that group on the world political situation. Very soon Voce Operaia stopped all relations. The LTT consisted at that time of some German, Belgian and British comrades and later South African comrades. The LTT was dissolved in the mid-nineties.

We publish the text, because the debate about the chracter of the present era ist still of actual interest. In addition the part on the collapse of the workers states of the COMECON passed through the test of events.

Dieter Wilhelmi:


Although the last congress of VO in January 1991 abridged and revised the thesis, we think it might be in the interest of clarity that we present our criticism of the original draft, which in most political aspects has been maintained by VO.

1. On the objective character of the imperialist era

The point of departure of the VO document is the statement that the most important forecasts of the Third and Fourth International have proved to be wrong. It is stressed that after the October revolution had occurred, the Bolsheviks and the communists had expected to see the capitalist system finally collapsing within the next two decades.

If this has not been a mistaken translation we do not agree with this presentation. It is hardly in accordance with historical facts, to say that the Comintern and the Fourth International were all in agreement with and recognised in general a theory of an inevitable collapse. It is true, the VO document itself points to the fact that the Bolsheviks had hoped for a solution of the crisis of proletarian leadership at short term, but the understanding of the relationship between the objective situation and revolutionary leadership to a considerable extent remains unclarified.

1.1. The maturity of the objective conditions for revolution

Marx was of the opinion that capitalism would have exhausted its historical progressive potential as soon as the world market would have come into being, with a worldwide division of labour as its basis. He then expected a revolutionary era to be opened. He expected a chain of struggles, which would finally result in a victory of the working class within the most advanced capitalist countries - with the precondition that this working class or at least its revolutionary part - would be organised as a revolutionary party. As had already been underlined and proven by Kautsky during the debate against the revisionism of Bernstein there has never been a Marxist theory of an automatic, ”purely economic” collapse.

When the Second International had crossed class lines and had gone over on the side of the bourgeois order, the Bolsheviks strived for the formation of the Comintern to solve the crisis of revolutionary leadership. But we do not know a single official resolution which set up a timetable for the victory of world revolution. Only one thing is sure: The Bolsheviks and the Comintern had hoped for the extension of the revolution very soon, especially to Germany. But it is also an undeniable fact, that the Comintern at its Third congress had to take its leave from its hopes that it could win a final victory for world revolution at short notice.

Lenin, Trotsky, Sinovjew and Radek in the contrary stressed that the main task of the communist parties first consisted in influencing the majority of the proletariat decisively (to conquer the masses and lead them). To this end the Comintern theoretized the united front policy and demanded from its sections to mobilise the masses with a programme of partial and transitional demands. Nevertheless, the concept of the death agony of capitalism had not been thrown overboard. It was Trotsky, who, in

his capacity as an official at the Third Congress expressed at length the position that the point in question is to differentiate between the fundamental, historical crisis of the capitalist system and conjunctural crisis. For Trotsky this position, which for him was in connection with the theory of long cycles, was still valid in 1938. It is well-known to all of us, that the title of the founding programme of the Fourth International is ”The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”.

Basically this position on the death agony of capitalism was the only one in agreement with the Leninist analysis of imperialism as the final stage of capitalism, as the era of rotten capitalism.

1.2. The role of the subjective factor

Under the conditions of the maturity of the objective preconditions for socialist revolution, the question of the subjective factor of the revolution, in the last analysis the revolutionary party, is the key for the situation. To the extent to which the mass of the proletariat makes its experiences with the crisis ridden character of capitalism and to which old ideological convictions become shattered by sudden and abrupt turns, the intervention of revolutionaries into the class struggle becomes decisive. Then all depends of their capacity to analyse the objective situation in time, that they have the necessary programme, the energy and the determination to win the majority of the proletariat for revolutionary perspectives - a task which cannot be fulfilled without united front policy and without transitional demands. But even during those stages of the class struggle which are more peaceful the task consists in laying the foundations for party building -by the unfolding of revolutionary propaganda, the creation of a revolutionary nucleus of cadres, by the maximum unfolding of revolutionary perspectives in partial movements, by systematic work in mass organisations of the working class and within social movements.

Without a revolutionary party, without a systematic work of the revolutionaries and when revolutionaries do not rise to the situation, defeats are inevitable. Such defeats can finally result in historical defeats, which have strategical consequences. Capitalism survived the revolutionary conjuncture at the end of the First World War because of the role of the social democracy and the lack of experiences of the Comintern. The failure and the betrayal of KPD and SPD paved the way for the Nazis and thus finally for the Second World War. And then, after 1945, it was Stalinism, which played the decisive role to help the weakened capitalist system to survive and lay the social foundations for the boom of the imperialist economy.

No doubt, it is wrong and, as can be seen in the case of some currents of the Trotskyite movement, even desastrous, to turn this analysis into a purely subjectivist version of the bad mans history-theory - combined with the context of the extremely unfavourable political consequences of the boom of the post war economy from the point of view of the revolutionaries.

But we still have to note, that the international political and general social issues are much more impressed into the consciousness of the proletariat than ”purely economic” questions, which of course guard their relevance. But even there we have to pay attention to the fact, that the general economical situation is more important than the situation in a given plant insofar as we are talking about the proletariats consciousness. We therefore defend Lenins refusal of all sorts of economism.

To return to the VO-thesis: We surely agree in regard to the criticism which has to be made against those who talk about an ”imminent” revolution since 70 years. But in this regard we miss precision in regard to our common political history which is a heritage which we should not dismiss light-minded.

1.3. On the question of the Marxist theory of crisis/revolution

In the beginning we underlined that the Bolsheviks, especially Lenin and Trotsky, did not base their policy on a mechanist and objectivist theory of stagnation. And neither did the Comintern.

If the VO-thesis in contrast to historical facts maintains the position that the revolutionary movement for decades remained imprisoned into this schema, we cannot agree. In fact the mechanist version of this theory, which had been defended by parts of the Trotskyite movement during the post second world war period, had more in common with Kautsky than with Trotsky’- even if we have to apologise Kautsky, who, in 1901, was less schematic than people like for example Michel Varga:

"According to our theory this development is a necessity, and in this manner alone it is already proven that the capitalist mode of production has its limits which it cannot overcome. Times have to come, and these times may perhaps come very soon, where it will be impossible that the world market even for limited periods could be extended faster than the social productive forces, where overproduction will be a chronic feature of all industrial nations. Even during those times economic cycles will be possible and probable; series of technical revolutions which devaluate existent means of production and lead to big investments into means of production, the discovery of new rich goldfields and the like, for a certain time could even then revive economic activities. Out the capitalist mode of production is in need of an uninterrupted and quick extension, if unemployment, poverty for workers and insecurity for small capitalists shall not reach a climax. Even during that stage of chronic depression capitalist production still remains possible, of course. But it will become more and more intolerable for the mass of the population. That one will have to look for an escape from this generalised poverty and will find it only in socialism. I think this position of constraint will be unavoidable if the economic development continues as it did until now, but I expect that the proletariats victory will be won timely enough to give the development another direction, so that it will become possible to escape that position of constraint in question here." (Karl Kautsky, Krisentheorien, in: Die Neue Zeit, Jhg. XX, Bd.2 (1901-1902), S. 140f - quoted by Paul M. Sweezy, Theorie der kapitalistischen Entwicklung (1942), deutsche Ausgabe 1958, Raubdruck o.Jhg., S. 156).

Between the two world wars Trotsky repeatedly pointed to the then existing stagnation on an international level. But at the same time he stressed that a new flowering period of capitalism could not be excluded theoretically if big defeats of the working class, wars and other catastrophies should occur:

"Theoretically, to be sure, even a new chapter of a general capitalist progress in the most powerful, ruling, and leading countries is not excluded. But for this, capitalism would first have to overcome enormous barriers of a class as well as of an inter-state character. It would have to strangle the proletarian revolution for a long time... .In the first analysis, this question will be settled in the struggle of international forces. Still, in the present epoch for which the program was created, capitalist development as a whole is faced with unsurmountable obstacles and contradictions and beats in frenzy against them."(L.Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, New York 1970, p.81).

And, also unambiguous:

"If we grant - and let us grant it for the moment - that the working class fails to rise in revolutionary struggle, but allows the bourgeoisie the opportunity to rule the worlds destiny for a long number of years, say two or three decades, then assuredly some sort of new equilibrium will be established. Europe will be thrown violently in a reverse gear. Millions of Europeans will die from unemployment and malnutrition. The United States will be compelled to reorient itself on the world market, reconvert its industry and suffer curtailment for a considerable period. Afterwards, after a new world division of labor is thus established in agony for 15, 20 or 25 years, a new epoch of capitalist upswing might perhaps ensue." (L.Trotsky, Report on the World Economic Crisis and the new tasks of the Communist International” to its Third Congress, in: The first 5 years of the Communist International, New York 1972, p. 211).

This attitude was even expressed more clearly when Trotsky criticised Kondratieff’s version of the theory of ”long cycles”, a theory which he basically shared:

"The periodical occurrence of minor cycles is conditional by the internal dynamics of capitalist forces, and manifests itself always and everywhere, once the market comes into existence. As regards the large segments of the capitalist curve of development (50 years), which Professor Kondratieff incautiously proposes to designate also as cycles, their character and duration is determined not by the internal interplay of capitalist forces but by those external conditions through whose channel capitalist development flows. The acquisition by capitalism of new countries, the discovery of new natural resources, and, in the wake of these, such major facts of 'superstructural' order as wars and revolutions, determine the character and the replacement of ascending, stagnating or declining epochs of capitalist development."(L.Trotsky, The Curve of Capitalist Development (21.4.1923)- English translation published in: Fourth International, May 1941, p.112).

Trotsky rejected the idea of an automatic, purely economical dynamic of the capitalist mode of production which could explain the longer curves of capitalist development end instead demanded "a more concrete study of the capitalist curve and the interrelationship between the latter and all aspects of social life." (ibidem, p.ll4).

In regard to Trotsky and the Trotskyist movement we therefore reject the position that during the twenties end thirties they were guilty of ”mechanistic simplifications”. We do have the impression, that this unjustified criticism of Trotsky is based on another misinterpretation of position of Trotsky, that on the question of the development of the productive forces. The VO-thesis attempts to counter the thesis contained in the Transitional Programme, that the productive forces do not grow any longer, with the argument that capital has always to revolutionise the working process end thus the productivity of work. But the theory of the Communist International that a long period of stagnation had begun did never exclude this fact:

"... The international capitalist system has al ready spent itself end is no longer capable of progress as a whole. This does not mean to imply that individual branches of industry and individual countries are incapable of growing and will not grow any more, and even at an unprecedented tempo. Nevertheless, this development proceeds and will have to proceed to the detriment of the growth of other branches of industry and of other countries." (L.T., The Third Int. After Lenin, ibidem, p.80f).

We agree that the capitalist productive forces in fact have experienced a new period of generalised growth during the boom of the post war economy. To oppose that reality with quotations from Trotsky, which related to a specific historical analysis is and was always absurd. Nevertheless, this has been done by parts of the Trotskyite movement. This is an argument against them, not against Trotsky, who always rejected such kinds of schemas:

"It is necessary to learn how to differentiate. Anyone who merely repeats from year to year that 'the masses are becoming radicalised, the situation is revolutionary', is not a leader, but a tub-thumping agitator; it is certain that he will not recognize the revolution when it really approaches... It is necessary to learn how to differentiate. How should the present situation be qualified then? It is a transitional situation, containing contradictions, not yet differentiated, still disclosing various possibilities. The subsequent development of this process must be vigilantly watched, without one’s getting drunk on cut and dried phrases, and holding oneself always ready for sharp turns in the situation." (L.T., The Third Int. After Lenin, ibidem, p. 261).

Finally we have to stress that the Communist International as well as the Marxist movement in general never clarified these questions completely. The Marxist theory of crisis/revolution has never been undisputed. Not only Bernstein, but also Rosa Luxemburg as well as her followers in the KPD, and later H. Groszmann defended the position that capitalism in the end had to collapse for purely economic reasons. Bucharin first defended the position that capitalist stagnation would end in a collapse very soon and then abandoned it in favour of the hypothesis of a longer and more organic development of capitalism. In fact Bucharin after Bernstein became the hero of all theoreticians who thought that capitalism could control the capitalist contradictions. And it is no wonder that Bucharin has become the hero of the restorationist bureaucracy in Eastern Europe. In regard to the theory of the crisis there remains much to be done. But we should have a common point of departure.

Some aspects of the VO-thesis for us seem to be questionable:

We think for example, that in spite of the post war boom of the imperialist economy capitalism had not reconquered its progressive character from the point of view of the proletariat. The flowering of capitalist productive forces has been destructive for the world working class, has put tremendous burdens on it and has created new and until then unknown dangers for humanity. Socialist revolution therefore remained an objective necessity, although this fight had to be fought under extremely difficult conditions (which differed, of course, internationally). But even during that boom-period imperialism remained imperialism. The epoch remained one of abrupt end sudden turns, although in most countries on a much lower level.

In the meantime we think that the causes of the post war boom have exhausted around 1971 (Dollar-crisis). But new opportunities have been missed by the world working class - with the result that we had to face the partial boom of the eighties and now are confronted with a transitional situation, which has to be followed very concretely. For the moment there seems to be more agreement in regard to this present task than in regard to the pest. But a correct understanding of the past is important if we want to draw the same lessons from it and thus develop a common approach for the future.

In the chapter ”Workers and Capital” we can hardly share the thesis that semi-automation has reached the highest level which it can attain under capitalism. We do not see a technological frontier for capitalism which capitalism could not cross. We also have same doubts into the thesis that semi-automation is nourishing "a clear class hostility, a clear revolutionary subjectivity." We think there is neither an economic material limit for capitalism nor is it possible to deduce the concrete consciousness of the proletariat from the material side of production.

2. On the collapse of Stalinism

2.1. An insufficient analysis of Stalinism

It seems that the VO-thesis identifies Stalinism not only with the mass movement directed by it (among others trade unions) but also with the bureaucratically ruled workers states and their collectivist system. Even as a mere description this is insufficient.

The historical coming into being of Stalinism, that is bureaucratism rendered independent and the political regime as well as its policy which followed, is pointing clearly to the necessity of differentiating between Stalinism, state and system. Only this differentiation enables us to demarcate clearly the nucleus of the program of the political revolution - maintenance of the collectivist state, of planification and of the monopoly of foreign trade - from the nucleus of the program of capitalist restoration - restoration of private property of the means of production, demolition of the planification and the monopoly of foreign trade, convertible money to make the integration into the world market possible.

For political and programmatic reasons this differentiation between workers state and Stalinism is also imperative in the case of those states which from the beginning have been bureaucratical deformed workers states. This is also why we think the term "Stalinist states" is at least equivocal and should be avoided.

The insufficient and extremely vague description of Stalinism corresponds with the non-existence of a political analysis of the social role of the bureaucracy as a social caste in the framework of the process of the "collapse" of Stalinism. For us the Stalinist bureaucracy in all workers states during the decisive stages of the restoration has been the main agency of that social counterrevolution.

2.2. On the analysis of the social character of movements

To equate movements with their political leaderships is wrong and can even be desastrous. This generalised thesis which is applied by VO to unions led by the social democracy as well as to Eastern European mass movements in an indiscriminate way does not stand a critical test. The necessity of making a distinction between leadership and rank and file should not be a matter of dispute among Trotskyites, but it is only a rule of thumb. In fact we have to analyse every social movement in a very differentiated and exact way. We have to see which elementary needs and (class) interests motivate and move the participants and how these moving forces are expressed or misused by the leadership. Only then we have an overall picture. But the concrete character and the dynamic of a given movement is also determined by the class forces which influence the movement as well as by their intensity.

Nothing of this sort has been presented by the VO-thesis. In the place of such an analysis we find the summary of a political assessment of the leadership of all Eastern Europe’s mass movements as ”democratic-reactionary”. Moreover the thesis maintain that the take-over of governmental power by these leaderships is the main danger for the workers states:

"The risk of a contemporary collapse of the Stalinist regimes and the collectivist basis which they rest on, is real since Stalinism is not overthrown by communist revolutions but through democratic-reactionary mass movements led by petty bourgeois forces enjoying the open support of imperialism as well as of some sectors of the ruling nomenclatura."

2.3. Stalinism and counterrevolution

In fact the decisive sectors of the Eastern European bureaucracies have decided (and, in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, they have taken the official obligation), to restore capitalism everywhere. They have purged resisting parts of the bureaucracy or they attempt to do so (in the USSR). Everywhere they are busy to conclude alliances with oppositional pro-capitalist forces, to escape a political revolution from these forces - this is why these forces do not have to make a social revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracies. During the stage of the restorationist transformation of political power imperialism everywhere supported such a compromise. It is only during the second stage of restoration when imperialism stakes on the new, "democratic-reactionary" leaderships - when the basic decision in favour of capitalism has already been taken and when they have to prove to the masses that they have broken with the old Stalinist leadership. These forces then have to continue, what the Stalinists everywhere began and first continued together with them, the restoration of capitalism, i.e. the destruction of the workers state and the complete transformation of the state apparatus.

It is thus basically wrong and hardly in accordance with the process of restoration until now, to make the attempt to form an alliance with Stalinism in its stage of advanced decadence. It is in the contrary imperative to denounce the restorationist role of Stalinism as well as the collaboration between international capital and Stalinist bureaucracies.

The political deprivation of power of the Stalinists in some of the workers states only in the surface contradicts this: International capital can tolerate their ongoing existence as long as these forces still have some real political influence. The capitalists know however, that Stalinism in general is completely discredited and that its continued participation in the restorationist process is a political burden. In addition imperialism does not place much confidence in the Stalinist’s ability to transform the state apparatus with sufficient brutality and tempo - an injustice done to the Stalinists, by the way. It is therefore a big mistake, if Trotskyites attempt to form "alliances" with the buraucracy if there are conflicts between the bureaucracies and "democratic-reactionary" mass movements like that in Romania during the last summer. There we had only a rivalry in regard to the question who should lead the restoration.

In Romania, where only some thousands of "democratic reactionaries" had run into conflict with the Stalinists who were leading the restoration, this has been a minor mistake, because these oppositional forces at that time lacked a mass base in the working class. But there was never any "danger for the workers state" coming from this side and the government of national reconstruction did not defend the workers state but only its own position. And its "victory" was no victory for the working class.

The International Spartacist Tendency (iSt) in 1981 committed a similar mistake, but on a much greater scale. They did not understand, that the Jaruzelski-coup was not so much directed against the Solidarnosc-leadership but against the mobilised working class. Solidarnosc had to be out-lawed because its leadership had not been able to control its mobilised rank end file. Later, in 1987/88 when the Walesa leadership succeeded to contain end stop the spontaneous strike movement, the alliance was formed between the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Walesa-leadership, the clergy and imperialism, which these latter forces had already strived for in 1980/81 (the bureaucracy at that time had no fundamental polical differences with the Walesa-leadership or with imperialism). The restoration of capitalism is the result. A restoration which is still not completed, but only for one reason, namely the lack of private capital, i.e. the difficulty of promoting the primitive accumulation of capital.

2.4. On the character of the Eastern European states

For us the social character of a given state is dependent on the character of the mode of production, defended by that state and not by answering the question who has governmental power or who controls the army. Because of this we think that capitalism in Eastern Europe had not been overcome in 1944/45 when the Soviet armed forces conquered that region militarily, but only in 1947/48. That the military control of a region cannot be equated with a worker state, was proven by the examples of Finland and by the Soviet occupation zone of Austria.

The Warshaw Pact in Eastern Europe today is more an armed guarantee for the restorationist forces than a protection for the very few socialist conquests still existing. In fact that alliance does not really exist anymore and has only formally to be dissolved. In addition we should add, that the armies of the buffer zone of the USSR to a much greater extent than the Red Army have been armies of the national bureaucracies than armies of the workers states. And with the possible exception of Yougoslavia they seem to follow the counterrevolutionary line of the Stalinist political leadership without important frictions.

Despite all this we still think that it is correct to speak of workers states in the process of transformation into bourgeois-ones. And we have to add, that this process has been completed in the former GDR, is nearly completed in Poland, Yougoslavia, Hungary and in the CSFR. This reactionary transformation for the moment meets difficulties because there is no developed national bourgeoisie, not because of proletarian resistance. We will see when the working class of Eastern Europe will start to defend itself against the effects of restoration - unemployment, poverty etc. As long as workers give credit to the pro-capitalist demagogues and as long as they do not learn to differentiate between Stalinism and Socialism capital will in general remain in the offensive. But the weakness of capital in Eastern Europe will force it to sharpen this offensive to an extreme degree. This might exclude a period of counterrevolutionary stability.

We agree with the position that under such objective and subjective conditions it is very probable that political dictatorships (not necessarily stable-ones) might be established. But the VO-thesis that "in all these countries authoritative, bonapartist democracies are coming to light and the elected parliaments are wrested from their birth deprived of the executive powers,entrusted to a ...president", is nevertheless incorrect. In Hungary there is no presidential system if our informations are correct. The forms and stages of capitalist restoration everywhere have to be analysed concretely.

2.5. Political revolution or "counterrevolutionary events"?

To call everything, which happened in Eastern Europe a "political revolution" is as wrong as to characterise all oppositional movements as "democratic-reactionary" or to summarise everything under the headline "counterrevolutionary events". Both kind of mistakes can have dangerous consequences. The development of Eastern Europe since 1980 showed that everywhere we had first signs of a starting political revolution, but we also had counterrevolutionary forces. It was and is still necessary to analyse very concretely who are the social forces which promote and support each of these tendencies. This is all the more important because the working class as the social champion of the political revolution will make the first steps towards political revolution spontaneously, without having a clear consciousness of its political tasks and even without a revolutionary leadership, sometimes even with a pro-capitalist leadership. In this regard there is no qualitative difference with the development of a social revolution. The Russian example is instructive.

Schematism can only lead to political desasters if we want to determine political tactics, as had been shown by the iSt in regard to Poland. In Rimini in 1989 we have had the impression that there was a convergence among us on all these questions. In the meantime we have the impression that this was a wrong judgement. Anyway: These issues have to be clarified.

3. Imperialism and colonial revolution

Until now the LTT has not discussed whether the analogy with jacobinism should be taken over or not. We also have not discussed the question of the anti-imperialist united front in general. The same is true of the VO-thesis that the Sandinist revolution had been the watershed for the stage of "deformed revolutions". These questions have to be discussed later.

January 1991