Taxing the Rich and Its “Left” Critics
In a recent article published on the website of Socialist Viewpoint, Chris Kinder criticized those on the left who call for raising taxes on the rich. Identifying himself as a Trotskyist, Mr. Kinder displayed particular displeasure with Trotskyists who embrace this demand. Yet, as we will argue, his arguments fundamentally deviate from the political-strategic framework established by Marx and Engels and developed by Lenin and Trotsky.
“‘Tax the rich’ is far from a transitional demand,” Mr. Kinder argued and added: “Demanding taxation of the rich presumes the continued existence of the rich! But revolutionists seek to expropriate the rich capitalists as a precursor to creating an egalitarian, socialist society.”
This argument was further developed when he added: “Furthermore, ‘tax the rich,’ by presuming the continued existence of the exploiter class, cuts off any avenue to being a ‘bridge’ to a revolutionary program. As Trotsky explained in The Death Agony of Capitalism..., a transitional demand should help the masses to ‘find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution.’”
Mr. Kinder continues his critique by noting that taxing the rich has been promoted by liberals, and, unlike transitional demands, can be won within the framework of capitalism. By improving the lot of the working class it can then defuse their revolutionary impulses.
He also argues that “it’s not a particularly internationalist demand,” since it would only benefit the workers of a particular country.
In place of calling for increasing taxes on the rich, Mr. Kinder offers this substitute: “…the immediate, and transitional, demand must be to expropriate the big banks and financial houses, with no compensation of course, and including no disruption of private individual and small business deposits. Immediately seize all assets, and return them to their proper owners. That means abolition of the mortgage debt owned by the expropriated banks and investors.”
If creating a revolutionary movement simply amounted to broadcasting transitional slogans to workers regardless of the level of consciousness of these workers, then Mr. Kinder’s approach might have some merit. But as Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky all emphasized, revolutionary politics rejects this approach and instead insist that revolutionaries raise demands that resonate with the working class or organize around demands that the workers themselves have raised. In this way workers become engaged, active, and in a position to learn from the dynamics of class struggle.
Let us begin by pointing out that taxing the rich does indeed have a long history, but in reviewing that history Mr. Kinder failed to mention that it was one of Marx’s and Engels’ ten transitional demands in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. They called for “a heavy progressive or graduated income tax,” which means exactly the same as “taxing the rich.”
In 1937, in an introduction to the Communist Manifesto, Trotsky commented on these transitional demands: “Calculated for a revolutionary epoch, the Manifesto contains…ten demands, corresponding to the period of direct transition from capitalism to socialism. In their Preface of 1872, Marx and Engels declared these demands to be in part antiquated, and, in any case, only of secondary importance. The reformists seized upon this evaluation to interpret it in the sense that transitional revolutionary demands had forever ceded their place to the social-democratic ‘minimum program,’ which, as is well known, does not transcend the limits of bourgeois democracy. As a matter of fact, the authors of the Manifesto indicated quite precisely the main correction of their transitional program, namely, ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ In other words, the correction was directed against the fetishism of bourgeois democracy. Marx later counterposed to the capitalist state, the state of the type of the (Paris) Commune (1871). This ‘type’ subsequently assumed the much more graphic shape of Soviets. There cannot be a revolutionary program today without Soviets and without workers’ control. As for the rest, the ten demands of the Manifesto, which appeared ‘archaic’ in an epoch of peaceful parliamentary activity, have today regained completely their true significance. The social-democratic ‘minimum program,’ on the other hand, has become hopelessly antiquated.”
In other words, Trotsky endorsed taxing the rich as a transitional demand, and thus Mr. Kinder has unwittingly deviated from those he claims to follow.
Mr. Kinder has committed the kind of error that is frequently committed by beginners in Marxist revolutionary politics. They engage in an abstract, undialectical approach by reducing Marxism to a few doctrinaire slogans that they apply to every situation. Mr. Kinder, for example, takes slogans from Trotsky that were aimed at a class conscious and frequently revolutionary-minded working class in the 1930s. He then applies these same slogans to the current U.S. working class that is fragmented, lacks class consciousness, and is far from revolutionary. This beginners’ approach is both a reflection of their isolation from the working class with its day-to-day struggles as well as a barrier that separates them from the working class.
If one applied Mr. Kinder’s logic to cases where workers were fighting for a wage increase at work, one would be forced to condemn the struggle because wage increases can be won while capitalism remains intact, it is not a transitional demand, and it certainly benefits only a limited section of the working class while leaving the international working class no better off than before. Those who adopt Mr. Kinder’s logic typically are uninvolved with the day-to-day struggles of the working class and hence are not in a position to lead these struggles in a revolutionary direction.
Marxists have always wrestled with the problem of how to imbue the working class with a revolutionary consciousness, given that workers can fall into reformism, apathy, or demoralization. In his strategic essay, “What Next?” (1932), Trotsky confronted this problem by outlining the indispensable role of the united front in developing a revolutionary outlook among workers. In the course of his discussion he made many points that indicate a far more complicated framework than Mr. Kinder’s, a framework forged by Trotsky in the course of constant engagement in working class battles, both large and small. Here are some key passages that Mr. Kinder would have difficulty incorporating into his own two-dimensional framework.
“And so, ten years ago, the Comintern explained that the gist of the united-front policy was in the following: the Communist Party proves to the masses and their organizations its readiness in action to wage battle in common with them for aims, no matter how modest [emphasis added], so long as they lie on the road of the historical development of the proletariat; the Communist Party in this struggle takes into account the actual condition of the class at each given moment [emphasis added]; it turns not only to the masses, but also to those organizations whose leadership is recognized by the masses; it confronts the reformist organizations before the eyes of the masses with the real problems of the class struggle.”
Slightly later he adds, and this is particularly relevant to Mr. Kinder: “The mistakes made in the policy of the united front fall into two categories. In most cases the leading organs of the Communist Party approached the reformists with an offer to join in a common struggle for radical slogans which were alien to the situation and which found no response in the masses.”
Earlier Trotsky quoted from one of his earlier documents: “In these clashes — insofar as they involve the vital interests of the entire working class, or its majority, or this or that section — the working masses sense the need of unity in action…. Any party which mechanically counterposes itself to this need … will unfailingly be condemned in the minds of the workers…. For those who do not understand this task, the party is only a propaganda society and not an organization for mass action.”
And even still earlier Trotsky noted: “To fight, the proletariat must have unity in its ranks. This holds true for partial economic conflicts, within the walls of a single factory, as well as for such ‘national’ political battles as the one to repel fascism. Consequently the tactic of the united front is not something accidental and artificial — a cunning maneuver — not at all; it originates, entirely and wholly, in the objective conditions governing the development of the proletariat. The words in the Communist Manifesto which state that the Communists are not to be opposed to the proletariat, that they have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole, carry with them the meaning that the struggle of the party to win over the majority of the class must in no instance come into opposition with the need of the workers to keep unity within their fighting ranks.”
From the same essay Trotsky cites Lenin’s approach: “Shortly after that Lenin arrived from abroad, and he raked the ultimatists over the coals mercilessly. ‘You can’t,’ he lectured them, ‘nor can anyone else by means of ultimatums force the masses to skip the necessary phases of their own political development.’”
“Instead of monotonously repeating the same ready-made formulas before one and the same audience, it [a revolutionary party] would be enabled to set new strata into motion, to teach them through actual experience, to steel them, and to strengthen its hegemony among the working class.”
The comments above are crucial on several grounds. First, they indicate that Trotsky’s highest priority was to engage massive numbers of workers in class struggle where they learn from the own experiences the nature of capitalist society, its antagonistic class relations, and the role of the state in supporting the ruling class. “Mass actions,” he insisted “[were] the highest form of class struggle….” Even though workers initially might only be willing to fight for “modest” reforms, the education they derive from their battle experience often far exceeds theoretical study. Under conditions of battle, workers begin to develop a strong sense of camaraderie with one another, which is an incipient form of class consciousness. They see more clearly that the boss is their direct enemy, they watch the local or federal government and the media rush to provide support to the bosses and are consequently far from neutral or objective. Most importantly, if the workers win, they begin to sense the tremendous power they can wield when they act in solidarity and unity with one another. This sense of power can then quickly lead to workers eager to return to the battlefield to rack up even bigger victories. Eventually this logic can lead the working class to the realization that reforms are insufficient and only the replacement of capitalism by socialism will satisfactorily address their grievances. Consequently, the struggle for reforms can harbor all sorts of dialectical implications that lead the working class to a more revolutionary outlook.
In “The Belgian Dispute and the De Man Plan” (1935) Trotsky returned to the importance of engaging workers in struggle, this time leaning on Engels for support. “Engels never tired of repeating that Marxism is not an academic doctrine or a sectarian profession of faith but an instrument for systematic work among the masses.” And in the same essay Trotsky quoted Engels as saying: “It demonstrates how very useless a platform that is largely theoretically correct can be, if it does not know how to link itself with the real needs of the masses.”
But this emphasis on engaging the masses in struggle means, secondly, the set of demands appropriate for one set of workers might not coincide with the demands that could activate another set of workers.
For example, when “The Death Agony of Capitalism” in the Transitional Program is read carefully, it becomes apparent that it was aimed at a particular historical juncture, what Trotsky called “a prerevolutionary period.” As Trotsky observed about this particular historical period: “In all countries the proletariat is wracked by a deep disquiet. The multimillioned masses again and again enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines.” It was a “catastrophic period,” “a transitional epoch,” where the Spanish proletariat had tried to take power, where France and the U.S. experienced a wave of sit-down strikes and massive general strikes. Accordingly, the “time [was] ripe” to advance transitional demands.
But in other less revolutionary periods, transitional demands might not engage workers, which raises the need of less ambitious demands, or as Trotsky is quoted above as saying, demands “no matter how modest,” meaning that Trotsky would have fully endorsed struggles over wages and benefits.
Mr. Kinder takes no notice of the specific historical context that the transitional demands targeted. Instead he rips the transitional demands out of this prerevolutionary historic context and mindlessly applies them to every situation. Therefore, when Trotsky writes in “What Next?” about waging battle around demands “no matter how modest” and criticizes radical slogans that do not resonate with the masses, Mr. Kinder is forced to ignore such observations because they are incompatible with his simple, formulaic approach.
There are several distinctions that would benefit Mr. Kinder’s analysis. As Lenin once explained, propaganda must be distinguished from agitation. Propaganda can involve complex theoretical ideas in which, for example, the full program of revolutionaries is developed and explained. It could include, for example, lengthy expositions explaining why capitalism cannot meet the needs of the working class, why banks should be expropriated, why the workweek should be reduced with no reduction in pay, etc. Propaganda can be properly tackled, for example, in a study group or a lecture situation or perhaps a magazine article.
But agitation is altogether different. Here the revolutionary focuses on a few key slogans that has the potential to inspire workers to act. These slogans might involve a demand for a higher wage, or higher taxes on the rich in order to generate revenue for a massive government jobs program, public education and social services, or immediately terminating the current war, etc. Or, under heightened periods of struggle, they might include the demand that workers’ organizations take power, that all major capitalist businesses be expropriated, etc. Here, in order to get workers to act, the slogans must resonate; they must find a “response in the masses,” as Trotsky put it.
For Trotsky, the creation of united fronts, where workers fight for a few specific demands as opposed to an elaborate political program, is the indispensable road to achieving class consciousness. The united front is the primary vehicle in which workers unite as a class and begin to develop an understanding of society and their role in it. Class struggle is consequently waged by means of the united front. In the final analysis the united front aims at winning the majority of the working class to a revolutionary program.
Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky all emphasized that workers learn above all through their own experiences; going to battle is consequently an indispensable part of their education.
While most workers in the U.S. today might not be prepared to act on the demand to expropriate the banks without compensation, the call to raise taxes on the rich, which many unions have adopted, including the AFL-CIO, has resonated with most working people, as poll after poll has indicated. Moreover, this demand has the potential to unite what is now a fragmented working class. By generating additional revenue from these taxes that would be ear-marked for public education, vital social services, and job creation programs, all highly important to the working class according to polls, these demands have the potential to draw large segments of the working class into common action. And when this demand is won and taxes on the rich are raised, the unemployed, teachers, and other public workers are no longer reduced to fighting among themselves for the crumbs.
The current situation in the U.S. confronting revolutionaries diverges dramatically from the world that Trotsky was addressing when he wrote the “The Death Agony of Capitalism” in the Transitional Program in the late 1930s. Rather than the thousands of strikes taking place yearly, as in the 1930s in the U.S., the number has recently fallen to as low as a half-dozen. Thanks to the failure of the union officials to rally their members to put up a real fight while passively accepting concession after concession, workers often lack any confidence that there is anything they could effectively do that would improve their working conditions. Apathy and demoralization are rampant. Workers have not tried to take power. We are far from a pre-revolutionary situation that Trotsky described as “ripe” for transitional demands. And when those on the far left call for a general strike, few respond.
Given this context, if workers at a particular site without a lot of economic leverage decided to resist further demands for concessions but try instead to hold on to what they have, if the “revolutionary” were to insist that they fight for “30 for 40,” meaning doing 30 hours work for 40 hours of pay, which is one of Trotsky’s transitional demands, then instead of illuminating the correct path forward for the workers, the “revolutionary” would discredit him or herself in their eyes. Workers would believe such radicals are out of touch with reality. (This is not to say that union members might not pass a resolution in favor of “30 for 40;” but in this period such a resolution would only signify what workers would ideally want, not what they are prepared to fight for at this time. In other words, the resolution would take on the character of propaganda, not agitation.)
But revolutionaries who are not engaged in leading struggles, who are content to sit on the sidelines with their moralizing opposition to anything that falls short of a revolutionary leap, are hardly bothered by these critical responses to their proposals. They comfort themselves with the assurance that no reforms within the capitalist system will solve the problems of the working class. And, of course, they are entirely correct. But they simply lack the understanding of how to work with today’s working class — with its significant lack of class consciousness, let alone revolutionary consciousness — in order to make progress towards a socialist future. This is the dilemma that Trotsky’s discussion of the united front in his article “What Next?” was intended to resolve: the united front approach — where workers join together to put up a fight over whatever demands they find compelling — was the crucial link (the “middle term”) that starts with workers’ current level of consciousness in order to raise it through a dialectical, organic process to a higher revolutionary outlook.
About the Authors
Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.