Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879 - 1940) working on his book 'The History of the Russian Revolution' in his study at Principe, Gulf of Guinea. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

From 1933, with the victory of Hitler in Germany (largely by the responsibility of the III Stalinist International), Trotsky called to build a new International. This 1938th text is one, among several others, which arises as a result of Trotsky’s discussions with the American SWP leaders in regards to the program of the new International (the Fourth International).


The political backwardness of American workers

19th May, 1938

Trotsky: It is extremely important to specify some views related to the overall program.
How can you coherently develop a program? Some comrades say that, in some of its parts, the draft program is neither adapted to the level of consciousness nor the mood of the American workers. In this regard, we must ask whether the program should be adapted to the American workers’ mentality or to the country’s current economic and social conditions.
That is the most important problem to elucidate. We know that the level of consciousness of any social class is determined by objective conditions, by the productive forces, and by the country’s economic situation; however, this determination is not immediately reflected.
Overall, the level of consciousness is delayed in relation to the economic development.
This delay may be little or large. Under normal circumstances, when the long-term development is slow, this delay does not necessarily have catastrophic results. It means, largely, that workers are not up to those tasks that make their objective conditions. However, in periods of crisis, this delay can be catastrophic. In Europe, for example, it allowed the emergence of fascism. This is the punishment suffered by workers when they fail to take the power.

The United States is now entering a similar situation, with similar risks of catastrophe.
The objective situation of the country is ready in all respects, even more than the European one, for a socialist revolution; and socialism is here closer than in any other country in the world. The political backwardness of the American working class is very large. This is the starting point for all our activities.
Our program should pay better attention to the objective tasks of the working class rather than to the workers’ backwardness. It must reflect society as it is and not the backwardness of the working class. It is precisely an instrument to overcome and eradicate that backwardness.
This is the reason why we must express in our program all the gravity of the social crisis of the capitalist society, including first the USA.
We cannot postpone or modify objective conditions which do not depend on us. We cannot guarantee the masses will resolve the crisis, but we must express the situation as it is, and so is the mission of the program.
Another problem is how to present the program to the workers. The explanation of the current situation, to the workers, is rather a pedagogical and a terminological task. The policy has to be adapted to the productive forces, to their paralysation by the forms of capitalist property, and to the rising and worsening of unemployment, which is the biggest social plague. The productive forces can no longer develop. Scientific technology evolves, but the productive forces are in decline. This means that society will become increasingly poorer, and the number of unemployed will raise. The misery of the masses increases; difficulties are increasing for the bourgeoisie and the workers. The bourgeoisie has no other way out rather than fascism. The American proletariat will have to go through twenty or thirty years by the school of fascism for its lack of cohesion, willpower and courage. The bourgeoisie will teach the American workers what their tasks are with an iron whip. USA will not be but an abominable repetition of the European experience. We must understand this.

This is serious, comrades. It is the outlook for the American workers. After Hitler’s victory, when Trotsky wrote the pamphlet Where’s France going? [22], French Social Democrats boasted that “France is not Germany.” Nevertheless, before the victory of Hitler, he wrote articles warning the German workers; and the Social Democrats derided by saying “Germany is not Italy.” They did not pay any attention to him. Now France is moving closer to a fascist regime. The same is absolutely true for the US. It is a wealthy country. This opulence of the past allows Roosevelt’s experiments, but only for a while. The overall situation is completely analogous, the danger is the same. It is a fact that the American working class has a petty bourgeois mentality, that it lacks revolutionary solidarity, that it is use to a high standard of living, and that its mind does not respond to today’s reality but yesterday’s memories.

However, the situation has radically changed. What can a revolutionary party do right now? First, provide a clear and honest analysis of the objective situation and the historical tasks arising from this situation regardless of whether or not workers are ready to perform them.
The aim is to raise the workers’ level of awareness. That is what the program should formulate and present to the advanced workers.
Some will say, “Well, the program is a scientific program; it responds to the objective situation, but if the workers do not accept this program, it will be sterile”. It’s possible.
But this only means that the workers will be crushed because the crisis will be resolved only through the socialist revolution. If the American worker does not accept this program on time, he will be forced to accept the program of fascism; and when we show our program to the working class, we cannot guarantee that they will accept it. We are not responsible for it… we can only take responsibility for ourselves.
We must tell the workers the truth, and with this, we will win the best elements. I cannot tell if these best elements will later be able to lead the working class, and to lead it to the power.
I hope they will be able, but I cannot guarantee it. In the worst-case scenario, even if the working class falls prey to fascism, the best elements will say: “this Party warned us; it was a good party”. A great tradition will remain within the working class. This is the worst variant.

Therefore, all arguments that state we cannot present such a program, because it is not at the level of the workers’ consciousness, are false. They only express fear of the situation. Evidently, if I placed a blindfold, I could write a bed of roses program that everybody will accept. But it would not respond to the situation.

I think this basic argument is of great importance. The consciousness’ level of the working class is delayed, but the level of consciousness is not an inert object such as factories, mines, railways; it is a changing element, and it can quickly change under the onslaught of the objective crisis, with millions of unemployed.

Currently, the American proletariat also enjoys certain advantages because of its political backwardness. It seems somewhat paradoxical, but, nevertheless, it is absolutely true. The European workers have both a long social democratic tradition and of the Comintern, and this tradition is a conservative force. The worker, even after many betrayals of their party, remains true to it because they have a sense of gratitude to the Party that awoke their political life and provided them political formation. This is a disadvantage for the development of a new political stream. The American workers, in the great majority, possess they advantage of haven’t been politically organized, and they have only now begun to organize in unions. This gives the revolutionary party the possibility to mobilize them in the heat of the crisis’ onslaught.

What will be the pace? No one can foresee. We can only know the tendency. No one denies that this tendency exists. Then, the question arises: How to present the program to the workers? Naturally, this is very important. We must know how to combine politics with psychology and pedagogy of masses and build a bridge to their level of consciousness.
Only experience can teach us how to move forward in this or that part of the country.
For a while, we have to try to focus the workers’ attention in a slogan: sliding scale of hours and wages.

The empiricism of the American workers has provided great success to political parties with one or two slogans: single tax and bimetallism [23], which spread like wildfire among the masses [24]. When the workers find that a panacea fails, they await the arrival of another one. We can now present one that is honest, part of our global program, and which is not demagogic, but that fully responds to the situation. Officially, there are now thirteen, maybe fourteen, million unemployed, and the youth is totally helpless in the misery. Mr. Roosevelt speaks of the public works, but we insist that they, together with the mines, railways, etc., absorb all the unemployed. That everyone has the opportunity to live decently, without entailing a reduction of the current level. We will demand that Mr. Roosevelt and his brain “trust” propose a program of public works capable of making anyone, who can work, to have a job with a decent wage. This is possible with a sliding scale or hours and wages.
We must discuss how to present this concept in all locations, everywhere. Then we have to start a strong campaign of agitation so that everyone knows that this is the program of the Socialist Workers Party. I think we can focus workers’ attention on this point.
This, naturally, constitutes only one point. At first this slogan fully fits the situation, and the others can be added with the passing of events. The bureaucrats will oppose it, we know it.
Then, if the slogan becomes popular among the masses, as a counterpart, fascist tendencies will develop. Then, we will say that we need to develop self-defence committees.
I think this slogan (sliding scale of hours and wages) will be adopted at first. What does this slogan really mean? Actually, it is the organization of work in a socialist society: to divide the total number of working hours by the total number of workers. However, if we present the socialist system as a whole, it would seem, to the average American, a utopia, something foreign, European. Therefore, we present it as a solution to the current crisis ensuring their right to eat, to drink and to live in decent housing. It is the program of socialism, but expressed in a very popular and simple way.
Question: How the campaign will be oriented?

Trotsky: The campaign will be undertaken more or less as follows: an agitation work starts, let’s say in Minneapolis. We win the support of the unions to our program. Delegates are sent to the respective unions in other cities. When we have managed to convince the unions, half of the battle is won. The idea extends to the corresponding unions in New York, Chicago, and so on. When some success has been achieved, an extraordinary congress is convened.
Then, agitation is done so that the union bureaucrats are forced to define themselves in favour or against. This opens an extraordinary opportunity to make propaganda.


Question: Can we actually conduct the slogan?

Trotsky: It is easier to overthrow capitalism to materialize this slogan under capitalism.
None of our demands can be satisfied under capitalism. This is why we say they are transitional slogans. They put up a bridge to the workers’ level of consciousness and then to the socialist revolution. The whole problem is how to mobilize the masses to the struggle.
At this point the problem of the division between the employed and the unemployed appears.
We must find ways to overcome this division. To accept the idea that there is a fixed fee of unemployed, in other words, a new kind of outcasts, undoubtedly involves the psychological preparation for fascism. The working class is doomed, unless it exceeds the division between workers.


Question: Many of our comrades are unable to understand that the slogans cannot be materialized immediately.

Trotsky: It is a very important matter. This program is not the discovery of one man.
It is the result of the long experience of the Bolsheviks. I want to highlight this: is not the invention of a man, but it comes from a long collective experience of revolutionaries.
It is the application of the old principles to the current situation. It should not be considered immutable as iron, but as something flexible according to the situation. Revolutionaries always consider that reforms and conquests are nothing more than a by-product of the revolutionary struggle. If we say that we only ask for what they can give us,
the ruling class would give us only a tenth or none of our demands. When we asked for more and we can impose our demands, capitalists are forced to give the maximum.
The more widespread and combative the mood of workers is, the more is demanded and achieved. They are not sterile slogans; they are means of pressuring the bourgeoisie and are the means that provide the greatest immediate material results that can be achieved.
In the past, in the rising time of the American capital, the American workers obtained victories with mere spontaneous struggles, strikes, etc. They were very combative. Due to the fact that the capital was rising, capitalism was interested in satisfying the American workers. Now the situation is totally different. Now the capitalists have no prospect of prosperity. They do not fear strikes given the large number of unemployed. That is why the program should encompass and unite all members (unemployed or not) of the working class. The sliding scale of wages and hours of work is aimed precisely at that purpose.



[22] Where’s France going? Trotsky’s work on the events that occurred in France between1934-1936. In the articles that appear in the book he describes the French social crisis of the thirties, the Bonapartist government of Doumergue in 1934, and the Popular Front Government in 1936. Trotsky opposed popular frontism, and he called for the creation of soviets as part of a program of action that enables the victory of the socialist revolution.

[23] Bimetallism is a monetary system based on a pattern of two metals, as a general rule, gold and silver. Bimetallism was formally adopted by the USA in 1972, although the monetary system was monometallic. The populist movement agitated, at the end of last century, for the silver-pattern, but in 1900 the law on the gold-pattern was approved.

[24] Single tax is a concept associated with the name of Henry George (1839-1897), a journalist, economist and American political reformer. He proposed that the national state collect funds based on the single tax on land rent.

Source:, pp. 39-42

This text was published in Marxismo Vivo n.°7, December 2015, pp.118-123.

Translation: Camila Polgar.