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Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency

Shaun May

The entry of the capital relation into its epoch of structural crisis forms the basis for the development of the author’s conception of revolutionary agency. Drawing on the work and achievements of both Marx and Hungarian socialist thinker István Mészáros, May relates the emergence and deepening of the structural crisis to the decline of trade unionism as the traditional and universal form of organization deployed economistically by workers against capital. In the relationship between the «defensively-structured», universal, trade union form and the growing contradictions of the global capitalist system, May seeks to unearth the possibility of a higher form of agency which is more adequately adapted to address the immediate and long-term objectives facing millions of people today worldwide in the age of capital’s «destructive self-reproduction». Looking back in order to look forward, he also subjects the form of agency within the Russian Revolution to a critique which relates it directly to the conditions prevailing in Russia at the time. In so doing, he questions its supposed validity as a form of revolutionary agency for the struggle to put an end to the global capitalist system today.

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Chapter 14. Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, the ‘Bolshevist-Leninist’ Approach to Trade Unionism and the Demise of the Sectarian Politics of the ‘Revolutionary Left’


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Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, the ‘Bolshevist-Leninist’ Approach to Trade Unionism and the Demise of the Sectarian Politics of the ‘Revolutionary Left’

The immature, ‘non-structural’ crisis-conditions before 1940 – within which international capital was able to attenuate the intensity of its contradictions by means of Stalin’s counter-revolution, the defeat of various struggles against it in Europe and across the world, ‘New Deal’ measures and the preparation for world war – informed Trotsky’s conception of the relationship between the ‘revolutionary Bolshevist-Leninist vanguard’ and trade unionism.

His conception of the future of trade unionism was directly related to his vanguardist outlook which viewed the ‘banner of the Fourth International’ as that of the ‘approaching victory’ of the proletariat. This outlook was bereft of any possibility that trade unionism could itself enter a period of decline and move towards outmode as the contradictions of the capital order matured and sharpened into a qualitatively new type of crisis differing from all previous crises. That is, that the traditional, universal historic form of proletarian organization itself could reach an historic impasse as the conditions of capital’s rule changed into structural crisis, regardless of ‘vanguards’ in its leadership or not.

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