On 25 March 1935, in an entry to his private diary, the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky observed:
“…I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life — more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.
“For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place….
“Thus I can not speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word …. There is now no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International[s] …. I need at least about five more years of uninterrupted work to en sure the succession.” Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile—1935 (New York: Atheneum, 1963), p 46–7
Trotsky, who was assassinated a little more than five years later, considered the adoption of the Transitional Program (officially entitled The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International) by the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938 to be a critical step in “ensuring the succession” of Bolshevism. In his salute to the new international he wrote:
“The acceptance of this program, prepared and assured by a lengthy previous discussion — or rather, a whole series of discussions — represents our most important conquest. The Fourth International is now the only international organization which not only takes clearly into account the driving forces of the imperialist epoch, but is armed with a system of transitional demands capable of uniting the masses for a revolutionary struggle for power.” Leon Trotsky, “A Great Achievement,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937–38) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976), p 439
Sixty years after its original publication, the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) is pleased to reissue the text that Trotsky considered the Fourth International’s “most important conquest.” To provide historical context, as well as demonstrate the continuing relevance of this document, we have included an extensive new introduction. In the concluding chapter we trace the connection between the demands contained in the Transitional Program and those advocated by the revolutionary Communist International in Lenin’s time.
We have also reprinted a number of related items. These include a 1987 interview with Howard Keylor, a well-known supporter of the International Bolshevik Tendency, in which he describes his experience over three decades in the American dockers’ union and, in particular, his participation in an attempt to forge a class-struggle opposition to the labor bureaucracy. Keylor, a former Communist Party cadre, was won to Trotskyism in the mid-1970s by the then-revolutionary Spartacist League/U.S. (SL).
During the 1960s and 1970s the Spartacist League represented the living continuity of Trotsky’s Fourth International. Among its most important political contributions was its exemplary work in building class-struggle caucuses in a variety of unions on the basis of a full transitional program. Trotsky had written the 1938 program as a tool for intervention in the unions, but to the best of our knowledge the SL was the only ostensibly Trotskyist organization to have ever fully grounded its trade-union work on the Transitional Program.
In the early 1970s, as part of the SL’s turn to the unions, Chris Knox, then the group’s trade-union director, wrote a series of important articles in the SL’s newspaper, Workers Vanguard (WV), that traced the history of communist, and particularly Trotskyist, work in the mass organizations of the American working class. We have reprinted these articles, two of which were co-signed by Len Meyers.
The SL’s trade-union work in the 1970s was not only principled, but also flexible and effective. To demonstrate this we have included a selection of contemporary articles from the SL’s press that give some indication of how the various class-struggle caucuses intervened among phoneworkers, autoworkers, dockers and sailors on the basis of a full transitional program. (A more complete picture of this work can be obtained by consulting other articles in the SL’s public press and internal bulletins, as well as the various newsletters, leaflets, minutes and other materials produced by the caucuses themselves.)
During the later 1970s and early 1980s, the rightward drift of American society, and the downturn in the level of class struggle, was paralleled by a qualitative political degeneration of the Spartacist League and its affiliates in the international Spartacist tendency (iSt). (We described this process in “The Road to Jimstown,” Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt, May 1985.) After a series of debilitating internal purges, the SL leadership liquidated what remained of its trade-union work, thereby throwing away the precious toeholds in the labor movement that had been established through years of self-sacrifice and hard work by dozens of dedicated cadres. The External Tendency of the iSt (the progenitor of the IBT) fought this betrayal at the time (see “Stop the Liquidation of the Trade Union Work!,” 25 June 1983).
The Spartacist League is widely regarded to day as an irrelevant and introverted organization, best known for its sectarian semi-hysterics. Yet despite its political degeneration, the sustained and serious attempt of the SL of the 1970s to intervene in the organizations of the American proletariat on the basis of the Transitional Program is an important chapter in the history of Trotskyism. It is an experience containing many valuable lessons that revolutionaries to day must assimilate in order to prepare for the struggles of tomorrow.
1 Leon Trotsky, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile—1935 (New York: Atheneum, 1963), p 46–7
2 Leon Trotsky, “A Great Achievement,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937–38) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976), p 439