Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 4, 2008

UAW Concessions and the Transitional Program

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,socialism,workers — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Back in 1967, when I joined the Trotskyist movement, one of the first classics I read was Leon Trotsky’s (who else) Transitional Program.  It was explained to me as a kind of innovation from our movement that bridged the gap between the minimal and maximal programs of the socialist movement. As Trotsky put it:

Classical Social Democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed. And indeed Social Democracy has no need of such a bridge, since the word socialism is used only for holiday speechifying. The Comintern has set out to follow the path of Social Democracy in an epoch of decaying capitalism: when, in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of he masses’ living standards; when every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state.

Trotsky’s transitional demands largely revolved around struggles between the workers and the bosses in an economy that was dominated by industrial firms, as opposed to today’s service-oriented sector. As such, much of the focus was on struggles arising at the point of production:

During a transitional epoch, the workers’ movement does not have a systematic and well-balanced, but a feverish and explosive character. Slogans as well as organizational forms should be subordinated to the indices of the movement. On guard against routine handling of a situation as against a plague, the leadership should respond sensitively to the initiative of the masses.

Sit-down strikes, the latest expression of this kind of initiative, go beyond the limits of “normal” capitalist procedure. Independently of the demands of the strikers, the temporary seizure of factories deals a blow to the idol, capitalist property. Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is boss of the factory: the capitalist or the workers?

If the sit-down strike raises this question episodically, the factory committee gives it organized expression. Elected by all the factory employees, the factory committee immediately creates a counterweight to the will of the administration.

It was just such a section of the Transitional Program that came to mind this morning when I read about the latest assault on the UAW prompted by the financial crisis in the N.Y. Times:

The United Automobile Workers union said Wednesday that it would make major concessions in its contracts with the three Detroit auto companies to help them lobby Congress for $34 billion in federal aid.

The surprising move by the U.A.W. could be a critical factor in the automakers’ bid not only to get government assistance, but also to become competitive with the cost structure of nonunion plants operated by foreign automakers in the United States.

At a news conference in Detroit, the U.A.W.’s president, Ron Gettelfinger, said that his members were willing to sacrifice job security provisions and financing for retiree health care to keep the two most troubled car companies of the Big Three, General Motors and Chrysler, out of bankruptcy.

“Concessions, I used to cringe at that word,” Mr. Gettelfinger said. “But now, why hide it? That’s what we did.”

While I certainly understand why somebody like Gettlefinger, who has been a long-time practitioner of class collaborationism, would buckle under ruling class pressure, there is another aspect to UAW weakness that can’t be totally attributed to misleadership. In distinction to the period of the sit-down strikes that rocked Detroit, Flint and other auto manufacturing centers, today’s domestic automobile industry is basically moribund. Smokestack industries, from steel to rubber and auto, were at the core of the American economy in the 1930s but that is no longer the case. When workers sat in at GM in Flint in 1938, the bosses organized armed attacks since automobile manufacturing was still a core component of the capitalist economy. Despite the interest that the auto executives have today in keeping their operations afloat, there are signs that many capitalist politicians would be happy to see them go down drain-most surprisingly from the ranks of the Republican Party, a party that supposedly stands for unbridled free enterprise.

There is a tendency for the left to look at today’s economic crisis through the prism of past experiences, particularly the 1930s. While the reformist left tends to harp on the possibility that Obama might be struck by lightning and decide to embark on a new New Deal, revolutionaries hold out for the possibility of blue collar resistance. Unfortunately, the objective circumstances militate against the kind of struggles mounted by the CIO and the Marxist left 70 years ago or so.

Ironically, despite the fact that the current economic crisis will probably not generate the kind of mass suffering experienced in the 1930s when unemployment reached 25 percent, it is actually more intractable than that of FDR’s epoch in some ways. To start with, there are few prospects on the horizon that will deliver the kind of dynamism that smokestack industries provided during earlier stages of capitalist development. The last such jolt of energy occurred with the computer revolution which began in the 1950s and has already reached maturity. With Dell Computers selling for around $300, you are clearly dealing with an economic wave in its final stages.

It is also important to keep in mind that it was only war production that finally broke the back of the Great Depression. With nuclear weapons virtually assuring the end of this type of conflict (thank god), the bourgeoisie can no longer rely on what Randolph Bourne once summed up as “War Is the Health of the State“.

So instead the system just limps along, looking for the next speculative bubble to keep the patient alive. Meanwhile, the dubious benefits of Thomas Friedman’s flat world seem to escape most people living in Africa, Asia and Latin America who exist in what amounts to a permanent Great Depression.

I still think that the idea of a Transitional Program is a good one. Like many of Trotsky’s other theoretical breakthroughs including Permanent Revolution, it has been reduced to a dogma. Right now all I can say is that a new transitional program has to grow out of the experiences of the mass movement, just as the original one did with its emphasis on sit-down strikes, etc. As gloomy as the political prospects seem today, there is no doubt that capitalism itself will create conditions for the growth of the revolutionary movement. Ironically, it is capitalist stagnation that will finally bring an end to the stagnation that has gripped the revolutionary movement for the past 30 years or so.


  1. Excellent post, but I would point out that although Keynes’ economics are pretty dead in the era of capital hypermobility, the idea that the New Deal didn’t help rise the US out of depression has been spread among the Right. War ultimately ended depression, but a New Deal on a grander scale would probably have as well.

    I wish I shared your optimism about the prospects for a revolutionary movement resurrecting itself.

    Comment by Bhaskar — December 5, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

  2. Greens and left-liberals believe that there can be another period of economic growth, fueled (figure of speech intentional) by the substitution of renewable energy sources for oil. I don’t have a position on whether this is really plausible. But there is a candidate for the role once played by auto and steel industries and then by computers and telecomm.

    Comment by Bob Richard — December 14, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

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