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In defence of the transitional method

Sue Bolton speaking at a rally for refugee rights in September. Photo by Aneleh Bulle. 

[See also "How socialists work to win mass support" and "'Transitional Program': 'a program of action from today until the beginning of the socialist revolution'".]

By Dave Holmes

[This talk was presented on January 18, 2013 at the Socialist Alliance (Australia) national conference, held in Geelong.]

January 18, 2013 – Links international Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Socialist Alliance is currently engaged in a process of discussion and clarification with Socialist Alternative, with a view to exploring the possibilities of greater cooperation and unity. How this will ultimately develop is an open question. But I think it is fair to say that on both sides today there is a much greater interest in the political positions and approach of the other.

Recently Omar Hassan, a leader of Socialist Alternative, has criticised the very concept of a transitional program and our use of it.[1] Presumably his views more or less reflect the outlook of his organisation as a whole. I’ll consider them later. [Editor's note: Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal has been advised that the views of Omar Hassan on the transitional method are not necessarily the views of Socialist Alternative as an organisation.]

Our general approach

Socialist Alliance members need to understand our politics more clearly and, especially, the transitional approach and how it applies to our work. In this regard, I urge comrades to read the Resistance Books title, The Transitional Program and the Struggle for Socialism.[2] The introduction by Doug Lorimer is particularly useful.

Put simply, the transitional method that underlies all our work seeks to engage people on the basis of their real needs and from there seek to lead them toward an understanding of the need to change the whole system, i.e., to replace capitalism with socialism.

The broad masses of people develop their ideas on the basis of their experience. Socialists have to join them where they are at, engage in struggle with them, help them draw lessons from those experiences and on that basis educate them about the need for a root-and-branch change in our social relations and economy.

Trotsky’s Transitional Program

What is a political program? In general a socialist program outlines how we understand what’s going on in society and what we advocate doing about it, both right now and more generally. It not only nails our colours to the mast, so to speak, but it also serves to orient our work.

Naturally, a program is never a finished thing but develops in response to the unfolding of the political situation and the progress of the struggle. New developments (fascism, war, financial crisis, environmental crisis, etc.) need to be reflected in our program.

Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program in 1938. Its actual name is The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. The central issue it addresses is how to overcome the contradiction between the crisis of capitalism and the political immaturity of the working class. Trotsky explained it this way:

… It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.

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 the 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.

… The present epoch is distinguished not for the fact that it frees the revolutionary party from day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried on indissolubly with the actual tasks of the revolution.

The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old “minimal” demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective. Insofar as the old, partial, “minimal” demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism — and this occurs at each step — the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old “minimal program” is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilisation of the masses for the proletarian revolution.[3]

Putting aside some specific references, I think that some 70 years on these ideas have a great contemporary relevance. We can distinguish three general types of demands in the Transitional Program: immediate, democratic and transitional demands.

Immediate demands concern the day-to-day defence of the interests of the masses. Some examples are demands for better wages and conditions or opposition to neoliberal cutbacks and privatisations.

Democratic demands are particularly important given capitalism’s constant tendency to restrict democratic space on every level. Demands for free speech and against government snooping, the call for women’s right to abortion; opposition to imperialist wars (US and Australian troops out of Afghanistan; let the Afghans determine their own destiny) — all these are examples of democratic demands.

This brings us to transitional demands. As longtime US Socialist Workers Party leader Joseph Hansen explained, “these are of broader scope.”

They are based on the incapacity of capitalism to provide for the needs of the working class as a whole. They stress the feasibility of meeting those demands in a society constructed on a rational basis. On the economic level, transitional demands point toward the planned economy of socialism. On the political level, they centre on the need for the workers to establish their own government.[4]

Examples of transitional demands are: A sliding scale of hours (with no loss of pay) — to combat unemployment; a sliding scale of wages — to combat inflation eroding the living standards of the workers; nationalisation of particular industries or economic sectors (under workers control) — to allow us to grapple with pressing issues; and end to business secrets — to enable us to plan the economy, etc.

It is important to understand that whether the struggle is around immediate, democratic or transitional demands, we advocate playing to the strengths of the working class, its economic position and its numbers, that is, we advocate mass struggle in all its forms rather than relying on parliamentary manoeuvres, lobbying, etc.

It is also important to understand that there is no hierarchy between the three types of demands in terms of their mobilising power. Any one type of demand can be the basis of a very big struggle. The huge struggle against the Vietnam war in the US and Australia in the 1960s and early 1970s was around the democratic demand of self-determination for the Vietnamese people, their right to determine their own destiny without outside interference.

Marx and Engels

Trotsky did not invent the idea of a transitional program, nor did he claim to. He presented in a more systematic way a method that began with Marx and Engels.

We can look at the first communist program, the Communist Manifesto of 1847. It contains 10 demands outlining what a revolutionary workers government would do.[5] This is very much a transitional program, which, if carried out would constitute a huge step in moving towards socialism.

Early the next year, in the context of the developing German Revolution, the 17-point “Demands of the Communist Party in Germany” was widely circulated throughout the country over the names of Marx, Engels and other leaders of the organisation.[6] The demands included measures to achieve a radical democracy and measures to improve the lot of working people. Other points called for the nationalisation of key means of production (banks, transport, mines, feudal estates). Here are the 17 points:

1. The whole of Germany shall be declared a single and indivisible republic.

2. Every German, having reached the age of 21, shall have the right to vote and to be elected, provided he has not been convicted of a criminal offence.

3. Representatives of the people shall receive payment so that workers, too, shall be able to become members of the German parliament.

4. Universal arming of the people. In future the armies shall be simultaneously labour armies, so that the troops shall not, as formerly, merely consume, but shall produce more than is necessary for their upkeep.

This will moreover be conducive to the organisation of labour.

5. Legal services shall be free of charge.

6. All feudal obligations, dues, corvées, tithes etc., which have hitherto weighed upon the rural population, shall be abolished without compensation.

7. Princely and other feudal estates, together with mines, pits, and so forth, shall become the property of the state. The estates shall be cultivated on a large scale and with the most up-to-date scientific devices in the interests of the whole of society.

8. Mortgages on peasant lands shall be declared the property of the state. Interest on such mortgages shall be paid by the peasants to the state.

9. In localities where the tenant system is developed, the land rent or the quit-rent shall be paid to the state as a tax …

10. A state bank, whose paper issues are legal tender, shall replace all private banks …

11. All the means of transport, railways, canals, steamships, roads, the posts etc. shall be taken over by the state. They shall become the property of the state and shall be placed free at the disposal of the impecunious classes.

12. All civil servants shall receive the same salary, the only exception being that civil servants who have a family to support and who therefore have greater requirements, shall receive a higher salary.

13. Complete separation of church and state. The clergy of every denomination shall be paid only by the voluntary contributions of their congregations.

14. The right of inheritance to be curtailed.

15. The introduction of steeply graduated taxes, and the abolition of taxes on articles of consumption.

16. Inauguration of national workshops. The state guarantees a livelihood to all workers and provides for those who are incapacitated for work.

17. Universal and free education of the people.

It is to the interest of the German proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie and the small peasants to support these demands with all possible energy. Only by the realisation of these demands will the millions in Germany, who have hitherto been exploited by a handful of persons and whom the exploiters would like to keep in further subjection, win the rights and attain to that power to which they are entitled as the producers of all wealth.

The Comintern

The early Communist International (Comintern) under Lenin discussed the need for “transition demands” in the programs of the communist parties.[7] The Comintern’s Third Congress in July 1921 adopted a resolution, “On Tactics”. The passages below are vitally important:

[The task of the Comintern] is not to establish small communist sects aiming to influence the working masses purely through agitation and propaganda, but to participate directly in the struggle of the working masses, establish communist leadership of the struggle, and in the course of the struggle create large, revolutionary, mass communist parties …

[The communist parties were to] take advantage of all the opportunities the bourgeois state provided for organising the working class and conducting agitation.[8]

Later on the resolution explained:

In place of the minimum program of the centrists and reformists, the Communist International offers a struggle for the concrete demands of the proletariat which, in their totality, challenge the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat, and mark out the different stages of the struggle for its dictatorship …

It is not a question of appealing to the proletariat to fight for the ultimate goal, but of developing the practical struggle which alone can lead the proletariat to the struggle for the ultimate goal …

The present epoch is revolutionary precisely because the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society, and the struggle for these demands is therefore bound to develop into the struggle for communism.[9]

Such passages have a striking resemblance to parts of the Transitional Program. In fact, Trotsky deliberately incorporated these ideas into his work, sometimes almost word for word.

Moreland election campaign

Let’s see how all this works out in practice. In the Victorian municipal council elections last October, Socialist Alliance stood Sue Bolton in Moreland’s North-East ward. Sue was elected, becoming Victoria’s second socialist councillor (the other being the Socialist Party’s Steve Jolly in Yarra, first elected in 2004.) Our campaign leaflet is appended below.

The platform outlined in our election leaflet is a mixture of immediate and democratic demands. Our main demands concerned curbing rampant over-development and improving public transport. Our platform related to the various small campaigns already in existence in the area well as various public concerns (right down to calling for more public toilets). We also called for a more democratic and open council.

Many demands might appear modest but neoliberalism is going 100% in the opposite direction in every single area. Our overarching slogans of “Community need, not developer greed” and “People before profit” summed it up and our message really appealed to a significant number of people. Sue won more than 2000 first-preference votes and we know from scrutineers that many Greens supporters departed from the party’s how-to-vote ticket and gave Sue their second preference.

Obviously Sue’s position at the top of the ballot in a field of 24(!) candidates (for four council slots) played a part in her win, but there is no doubt that our radical but very reasonable message really hit the mark with a lot of people.

(In the Geelong mayoral race Socialist Alliance had a similar approach. In addition, the pledge of our candidate Sue Bull to take only the wages of a skilled worker rather than the inflated salary on offer -- $250,000 -- really struck a chord with a lot of people. In the end some 10,000 people voted for Sue, which must be some sort of record for a socialist in the recent period. Even subtracting 1000 or so possible “donkey” votes, this is still a tremendous result.)

Overall, in the given situation, our Moreland program was a transitional one. It implied a radically different set of priorities and pointed towards a different sort of society even if we really only touched on this.

Of course, we understand that the election campaign was one thing. Now we have to make a sustained effort to help develop campaigns in the area and really show people what our politics amounts to.

While wishing Sue well, Daniel Lopez of Socialist Alternative blogged that Sue’s election win “will drag things to the right; local council politics is hardly the most radical thing out there”.[10] The clear implication here is that socialists should just forget the whole thing. I think this attitude is seriously mistaken.

Whenever socialists get involved in a serious campaign there are dangers of opportunistic adaptation. But there is another danger which — in the concrete situation we face — looms larger and that is sectarian abstention.

Yes, our resources are limited but within our means it is precisely at this moment — when distress, insecurity, apprehension and concern on so many levels is widespread and growing — that socialists need to get out there and be heard. In this regard, electoral work — of course, conducted on a real socialist basis — has a very great importance.

If the socialist left can take some serious steps toward a much greater cooperation and unity, contesting council elections on a larger scale would surely be an important area of activity.

Defend and extend the public sector

Socialist Alliance has raised the call to nationalise the banks and the mining/resource sector — under community control — and we intend to make this a major feature of our federal election campaign.

The call for nationalisation of specific sectors of the capitalist economy is definitely a transitional demand. Trotsky includes a separate section on this in the Transitional Program as well as on specific one on taking over the private banks.

While nationalisation is not impossible under capitalism, in today’s circumstances it is very unlikely. Under universal neoliberalism all state assets are being sold off. Those that remain are being systematically corporatised and white-anted (e.g., Australia Post, our water supply) with private interests taking over more and more operations.

During the recent “Global Financial Crisis” some banks were effectively taken over by the state but the governments tried to avoid mentioning the dreaded “N” word (nationalisation) and were quick to put them back in private hands when the situation stabilised (often after taking over their debts).

The solution to the problem of climate change is impossible if the resource (and broader energy) sector remains in private hands. It needs to be nationalised (brought under community control, as our poster says). The coalmines need to be rapidly phased out, as do the natural gas wells (fracked or otherwise).

Accommodating to public anger, Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard lectured the mining bosses that the country’s mineral wealth didn’t belong to them. But she has no intention whatsoever of taking it into public hands or even of taxing the mining corporations more heavily. We have a real chance to get some political traction here. The big mining outfits and their plutocrat bosses wouldn’t win any popularity contests among ordinary people.

It is especially important to win support for this call in the environment movement, which has generally not attached any importance to questions of private ownership of the country’s economic infrastructure (especially its energy resources and infrastructure).

The call to nationalise the banks and establish a single state bank with branches everywhere, with staff with secure jobs, to cheaply finance vital public infrastructure (public transport, schools, clinics and hospitals, etc.), to radically ease the pressure on people buying their homes — this too can attract real interest and support.

It would be good if Socialist Alternative and other left groups would support these demands. It would be even better if we could have a strong united left campaign on the issue. We could have a real impact, especially on Greens supporters. In any event, we will give it our best shot.

‘Reformist and relatively vague’?

Now, let’s look at the criticisms raised by Comrade Omar.

  • Omar says that reformism is not the product of an inadequate program; there is an objective pressure to reformism even if you have a transitional program.

OK, but what sort of program do we need? Surely a transitional program and approach — which tries to link our practical work with the socialist goal — is a weapon against opportunist backsliding; a banner around which the genuine left can unite?

  • Omar argues against any idea that correct demands by themselves can transform a situation.

We have never argued this but certainly wrong, confused or inadequate demands can help isolate and weaken a movement. Gillard’s carbon tax, which big sections of the climate movement supported, is a case in point.

  • Omar says that winning “reformist” (immediate) demands “would be a bloody good thing”.

We certainly agree! Within the limits of our resources, therefore, we should be active in all efforts and campaigns to win them.

  • Then he raises the danger of being “sectarian” by advancing demands “to the left” of the movement. The correct demands can’t be plucked “from the heads of individual leaders”.

It’s not clear what his point is here. Sometimes we are isolated and we just have to wear it. In the climate movement Socialist Alliance stood firmly against the Labor-Greens carbon tax that sections of the movement supported and many were confused about. We had to do this and I think our criticisms have been clearly vindicated.

  • Omar criticises our Moreland municipal council campaign: it doesn’t fit into some “transitional framework”.

This comment seems a result of complete confusion. As I have argued above, our election platform was transitional; our two slogans summed up everything. Now, of course, the big challenge is to develop a fight around the points in our platform wherever we can.

  • Omar says it is “better to use the language of partial [immediate] demands over the transitional rhetoric”. We “cannot do away with the schism between minimum and maximum program”.

But how does he classify what we would call transitional demands (e.g., nationalisation, an end to business secrets, etc). Do they have any place in his theory? Does this mean we just make abstract propaganda for socialism?

  • Omar criticises “the [Socialist] Alliance’s reformist and relatively vague ‘transitional program’. It is the worst of both worlds, it is vague and relates to nothing that is real and in motion in society, and it is fuzzy and is no basis for the education of a Marxist cadre. So it lacks the relevance of a true immediate program (through no real fault of the Alliance, this is due to the lack of serious struggle going on), and lacks the clarity of a maximum program.”
I would make the following responses to these claims.

1. Our program/policies are “vague”. Even a casual look at Socialist Alliance’s policies or our Moreland election platform will show that this charge simply cannot be substantiated.

2. Our policies relate “to nothing that is real and in motion in society”. Well, in Geelong some 10,000 people related to what our mayoral campaign had to say. Was this a good thing or not? Did it help the struggle or not? Shouldn’t we conclude that the left should do more of this sort of thing?

3. “Marxist cadre” presumably should be educated around various abstract Marxist propositions. In reality, our Marxism only means anything if we can present and defend a concrete transitional program, that is, to present socialism in a realistic way arising out of present struggles and issues.

4. Our policies are “reformist”. Omar himself says earlier that winning immediate demands would be good for the working class. So we are talking about worthwhile “reforms”. Fighting for reforms does not make you a “reformist”. In fact, today, with neoliberalism determined to obliterate the welfare state and any gains made in the last 150 or more years of struggle, fighting for reforms is aimed squarely against capitalism and has to be seen as an absolutely essential part of the struggle for socialism.

‘The revolutionary action of millions’

In the Transitional Program it is worth reading the section on sectarianism. While Trotsky had in mind the outfits of his day, some of his comments seem very relevant to our work today:

[Sectarianism, he says, is based on] a refusal to struggle for partial and transitional demands, i.e., for the elementary interests and needs of the working masses, as they are today. Preparing for the revolution means to the sectarians, convincing themselves of the superiority of socialism …

These sterile politicians generally have no need of a bridge in the form of transitional demands because they do not intend to cross over to the other shore. They simply dawdle in one place, satisfying themselves with a repetition of the selfsame meagre abstractions. Political events are for them an occasion for comment but not for action …

… A program is formulated not for the editorial board or for the leaders of discussion clubs but for the revolutionary action of millions.[11]

OK, in Australia today we are a long way from the “revolutionary action of millions” but within our resources and possibilities we have to be part of the struggle. We can’t simply “dawdle in one place” making abstract propaganda for socialism. Obviously we have nothing against propaganda as such — it is necessary, we have to do it, and we put a lot of effort into doing it — but it has most impact when it is connected to real struggles in which people are involved and of which socialists are a part.

Conclusion

The transitional approach, with all that implies, is necessarily at the heart of our political work.

Capitalism is in its most acute crisis ever — a combined ecological and economic crisis which threatens humanity with utter catastrophe. While the working masses are increasingly concerned they are generally far from being radicalised and the socialist movement remains small. The transitional method points the way forward to overcoming this contradiction.

Of course, the transitional method is not a cookbook — it is a method, an approach. We have to work out how to develop and formulate our program. More importantly, we have to work out how to apply it in practice.

Electoral work is very important here and we have gained valuable experience in the recent Victorian council elections. And we have already made a decision to highlight the nationalisation of the mining/resources sector and banks in our federal election campaign.

Work in the whole range of concrete struggles is also critical. Within the limits of our resources, that has always been our practice.

And in all cases, we come up against the problem and frustration of the small size of our organisation and, more generally, the divided and fragmented nature of the socialist movement. Doing all we can to overcome this division and achieve a stronger, more united left is absolutely critical to winning mass support for fundamental social change.

Notes

1. https://www.facebook.com/OmarSherrife on Friday, 14 December 2012 at 13:19. https://www.facebook.com/notes/omar-hassan/revolutionary-reformist-or-transitional-program/10151299518247258

2. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program & the Struggle for Socialism (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1999). http://www.resistancebooks.com/catalog/product_info.php?manufacturers_id=11&products_id=94

3. Ibid., pp. 25-26.

4. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1977), pp. 24-25.

5. Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto & Its Relevance for Today (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1998), pp. 62-63; also online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm.

6. Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 7 (Lawrence & Wishart: London, 1977), p. 3; also online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/03/24.htm.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 42 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1969), pp. 427-428 and notes.

8. Alan Adler editor, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (Ink Links: London, 1980), p. 277.

9. Ibid., pp. 286-287.

10. http://www.facebook.com/notes/tad-tietze/some-thoughts-on-the-current-australian-debate-on-left-unity/10151336874180944, December 13, 2012 at 11am.

11. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program & the Struggle for Socialism, pp. 56-57.

[Other talks and articles by Dave Holmes are collected at Arguing for Socialism at http://www.dave-holmes.blogspot.com.au/.]

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Appendix

Download the Socialist Alliance Moreland municipal council election campaign leaflet HERE or read on screen below.

Comments

Response to David Holmes' 'In Defence of the Transitional Method

Posted on behalf of Daniel Lopez

Hey! Ok, so I've got a few thoughts on this article. But first, a clarification. I wouldn't take Omar's position to be Socialist Alternative's. Not that I disagree with him, or even think that many comrades would. It's just that we don't have an organisational view on the Transitional Program or method. This does reflect a scepticism that the International Socialist Tendency has always had towards the orthodox Trotskyist obsession with programs. Not that I'm accusing the the Alliance of this, its just the tradition that Soc. Alt comes from. Similarly, what I write here is my take. We haven't discussed the article as a group and come to a position on it.

Now, personally, I prefer a conception of socialist strategy based on Lukacs, for a range of reasons that I'm going to have to write up in an article one of these days. In short, I feel that Trotsky's brilliance was as a day-to-day political leader following that as a journalistic historian. His political interventions in the late 20s and 30s are as good as Lenin's in his day. They still define the politics of fascism, united fronts, etc. And The History of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of magnificent. Yet, I feel that Trotsky was never a really  thorough-going theorist. Many of his terms - and I think the transitional program is a perfect example of this - tend towards stasis and are open to fetishisation. Permanent revolution is another example. Lukacs, on the other hand, of the classical Marxist tradition, understood the dialectic the best. Also, I am a big supporter of Gramsci. But this is all a digression.

Now, I could pick out a lot of things with the article. For instance, I feel like the distinction between "immediate, democratic and transitional" demands is arbitrary. Each of these types of demand can, given the context, simultaneously be an other type, or all three. So, immediate demands - defined by the article as ones arising from the economic struggle at the point of production - can be democratic. The right to strike, for instance. They can be transitional - the 8 hour day in a deep economic crisis. "Democratic" demands are experienced "immediately" by the people to whom they most apply. The experience of homophobia is an immediate reality for gays and lesbians. Similarly, they almost always have an economic dimension - sexism and wage parity, for example. And in a sufficiently revolutionary situation, almost every demand can be transitional. Yet, things that were previously transitional - for example, almost all of the demands Marx and Engels put forward in 1848 - can be achieved, or at best, become quite moderate.

But, again, back to the main game: I wanted to raise two main points. They are 1) the issue of context and 2) the question of for whom we are formulating demands and a program.

So, firstly, context. Interestingly, the two major influences the article cites - Lenin and Trotsky - are explicit that their political context makes a transitional approach possible. Both strongly imply that it would be impossible outside a revolutionary context.

So, Trotsky writes: "This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from todays conditions and from todays consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion..." (All emphasis my own)

And

"The present epoch is distinguished not for the fact that it frees the revolutionary party from day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried on indissolubly with the actual tasks of the revolution."

And Lenin writes: "The present epoch is revolutionary precisely because the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society, and the struggle for these demands is therefore bound to develop into the struggle for communism."

This talk of epochs is not just window dressing or a rather orthodox stylistic flourish. It is real. As Lukacs points out in his excellent book "Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought", the first thing that differentiated Lenin from his more moderate social-democratic comrades in Germany was that his political practice was always oriented towards a revolutionary situation that was in reality becoming tangible. Lukacs terms this the "actuality of revolution".

For Lenin, revolution wasn't a pious dream or a utopia. It wasn't abstract, it was actually something on the objective horizon. On the other hand, in the late 1800s in Germany, it was only possible to conceive of revolution in the abstract. I.e., the actual, real forces that would create a revolutionary situation were too well buried by the healthy appearance of capitalism. This is what created the dichotomy between minimum and maximum demands became orthodoxy. So, on this point, I agree with Omar. Maybe a genius leader or core to the SPD could have avoided this, but its impossible to say. Indeed, the absence of the actuality of revolution has wrecked more groups than state repression. Remember the 50s? Nowhere in the west was revolution on the agenda. As the Trotskyists cruelly found out, the best transitional demands couldn't overcome the objective situation.

Whereas, if you read one of the earliest drafts of the RSDLP's program by Lenin, available here: [http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1899/dec/draft.htm], he is absolutely explicit. It is a work in progress. And it's validity is not the product of abstract deliberation, but of the real political questions that face real strata in Russian society. In other words, it is written in terms of the actuality of the Russian revolution.

Now, how is this relevant? Simply put, we can't even perceive the dim outlines of what a revolution would look like in this country. So, to pretend that our demands lead towards a revolution, simply because they logically contradict the priorities of capitalism, is equal parts voluntarism and Utopianism. It is also unhelpful rhetoric because it prevents us interrogating the real strengths and weaknesses of different campaigns and demands by insisting on dressing everything up as somehow transitional.

And at any rate, comrades in the Alliance have never argued that their approach grasps the objective key to some revolutionary situation.

Rather, Holmes writes: "Many demands might appear modest but neoliberalism is going 100% in the opposite direction in every single area. Our overarching slogans of Community need, not developer greed and People before profit summed it up and our message really appealed to a significant number of people... Overall, in the given situation, our Moreland program was a transitional one. It implied a radically different set of priorities and pointed towards a different sort of society even if we really only touched on this."

At best, this is an argument (a disputable one, at that), that logically the Moreland program goes beyond capitalism. (And here, I would like to note, there is a difference between contradicting the priorities of capitalism and actually posing measures to overcome it.) It isn't an argument that the program is the key to the revolutionary situation, or even to taking mass struggle forward. Indeed, I have never seen Alliance comrades argue that their strategies and demands are founded on an objective analysis of the tasks of revolution in Australia. And well that it is so! As I have tried to show, in both Lenin and Trotsky's view, this is precisely what transitional demands had to do. And as I have argued, I think it is impossible to do this in Australia today.

This is not the case everywhere in the world. I would argue that in much of Southern Europe the "actuality of revolution" is rapidly becoming visible, as it has been in Venezuela for years. In those countries, it is possible to start formulating a strategy for socialist revolution, including demands and programs.

Yet, so far, this is all an argument about the objective situation. The other side of it is subjective - I.e., what is the working class and other oppressed groups thinking and fighting for? In Australia, there are precious few struggles (this borders on another debate, I know). And those that exist are tiny and usually at a low level of politics and militancy. The few exceptions only serve to highlight this fact.

So, there is no evidence, and nor has any been presented, than any sections of the Australian population regard anything put forward by the Socialist Alliance as key issues to fight around. This is a strong formulation, obviously. And I certainly don't deny that the Alliance comrades have had some success (and I still wish you well!) in winning popular support for aspects of your program. But, there is a difference. There is no evidence whatsoever that any section of the population sees nationalisation as a key political issue for solving the crisis of capitalism, or the problems that face their lives. Most people don't even see that there is a crisis of capitalism. And nationalisation is hardly part of the political vocabulary anymore. Rather, what your election results prove to me is that some thousands think your election rhetoric is more agreeable than the other parties. This is good, but lets not dress it up as more than it is!

Now, I'm not saying Socialist Alternative does anything much differently. We decide on campaigns that are intended to mobilise layers broader than our own. And we try to present those campaigns popularly and to take the struggle seriously. But we are under no illusions that any of it is transitional. Take the fight for same sex marriage or Palestine. Not a jot of it is transitional (notwithstanding the fact that a just solution for the Palestinians is not possible under capitalism.) Why? Simply because the key questions of the Australian revolution are not visible. We could speculate, but that would be abstract and metaphysical. And we do make he argument that oppression will always exist under capitalism, so  thorough going opposition to oppression needs to challenge it. But this is just propaganda. Useful propaganda, sure.

Rather, when the crisis intensifies, and layers of the population start to move and politicise, in a dialogue with them and in struggle, hopefully we will be able to contribute towards an understanding of the key questions of revolution in this country. And, if appropriate, we could codify that into a set of demands or program. But that is a long way off. For the moment, an attempt to outline transitional demands, in my view, is inevitably utopian. This is because the context, at the moment, almost completely overrides our capacity for subjective intervention.

So on to my second major point. This flows to some extent from my above comments. The question has to be asked: who is formulating the transitional program, or demands, and for whom? Trotsky and Lenin both firmly believed - again, as evidenced by their quotes - that the main criterion for correctness in a program or demands was the working class.

In addition to the Trotsky I have already quoted, he says a revolutionary epoch is "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."

And, in addition to that which I have already quoted, Lenin writes this: "It is not a question of appealing to the proletariat to fight for the ultimate goal, but of developing the practical struggle which alone can lead the proletariat to the struggle for the ultimate goal

The present epoch is revolutionary precisely because the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society."

Once more, the talk about the proletariat should not be taken as window dressing. The proletariat is not just a theoretical object to be wheeled out to give justification to whatever program a party leadership is putting forward. To be loyal to the actual meaning of Lenin and Trotsky, we have to understand their words as saying that only demands which actually relate to the working class and oppressed masses can be validly considered transitional.

Once more, there is no evidence that anything much the Alliance (or Socialist Alternative) puts forward fits this criteria! Thousands of votes in Geelong and Moreland is the best Holmes can come up with. But this a hardly constitutes an independent demand, let alone struggle that in any way borders on the revolutionary!

Indeed, based on this understanding, no one in Australia is in a position to put forward genuine transitional demands or a transitional program. Partly because the situation doesn't allow it, as per my first major point. And partly because no one has even one tenth of the connection to the working class that would be required to start working this question out.

So what can we do today? Formulate priorities for ourselves. We aren't talking for the class, or even a section of it. We are just deciding what the socialist groups will put their resources into. We all agree this involves throwing ourselves into struggles. We all agree that this at times means leading struggles. And, the relative importance of an issue to Australian politics is a big factor. And finally, we all (although we perhaps differ about the definition of this) agree this means building a revolutionary Marxist cadre. Where we seem to differ is simple. None of this can or should be understood as transitional.

So, all of this argument about transitional demands and methods aside, I believe that the real issue is a little more prosaic. Basically, in my view, the priorities that Socialist Alliance have set don't help to build a serious, cadre based revolutionary group in Australia today.

I was quoted in the article as questioning the local council election strategy, but my rationale for this wasn't given - the selection of my quote was ambiguous. While I still welcome Sue's win and the high vote in Geelong, I can't for the life of me imagine how you will recruit and train young, serious Marxist revolutionaries in Moreland, while campaigning around local council issues. Even the Labor Students I know couldn't care less about council issues. I have never in my whole political career met a serious radical who even knew about local council issues. Maybe I'm wrong here. Please prove me so! But I seriously doubt it.

But at any rate, I believe that it is a serious mistake to defend the strategy of intervening into local council elections in terms of the transitional program or the transitional method! As I have tried to show, using the same quotes as the original article, it's utopian and substitutionist.

 

More on the transitional method -- reply to Daniel Lopez

Posted on behalf of Dave Holmes

* * *

I welcome Daniel Lopez’s response to my article. Comradely discussion in the socialist movement is necessary and hopefully will make clearer the real points of agreement and disagreement.

That said, I think Daniel completely misunderstands my argument. He puts forward many propositions that I think are dead wrong but here I will try to concentrate on the substantive issue.

The objective situation

What is the objective situation in Australia today? Neoliberal capitalism is pushing on all fronts to roll back the gains made by the working class over the last 150 years or so. Everything is under threat or actual attack: the environment on which we depend for life itself; people’s wages and conditions; the conditions of life in the cities (public transport, education, healthcare, the amenity of life in the suburbs); welfare (for the old, the sick, people with disabilities, the unemployed). By scapegoating refugees and Muslims our rulers are fostering deep divisions in the community. Our civil liberties are being eroded. We are a dependable cog in the US war drive. And so on.

Are we in a revolutionary situation? Obviously not. But “distress, insecurity, apprehension and concern on so many levels is widespread and growing”. The concessions that maintained social peace in the postwar period are inexorably being dismantled (that’s what neoliberalism is about) and we can expect great social and political turbulence in the years ahead. In some countries (e.g., Greece, Spain, Egypt) the situation is explosive, but not yet revolutionary.

How to bridge the gap

Daniel quotes with approval two of the same passages from the Comintern theses and Trotsky’s Transitional Program that I do but completely misunderstands what they mean:

The present epoch is revolutionary precisely because the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society, and the struggle for these demands is therefore bound to develop into the struggle for communism. [Comintern, Theses on Tactics, July 1921]

... The present epoch is distinguished not for the fact that it frees the revolutionary party from day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried on indissolubly with the actual tasks of the revolution. [Trotsky, The Transitional Program, 1938]

Daniel’s conclusion from these passages is that “a transitional approach … would be impossible outside a revolutionary context”. This is clearly not what the passages above are saying. The basic task which both the Comintern theses and Trotsky’s Transitional Program grappled with is how to bridge the gap, how to make the transition, between the current consciousness of the masses and the consciousness of the need to get rid of capitalism. As Trotsky puts it:

... It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution.

People before profit

Obviously the situation we face today is very different to 1921 or 1938. But the crisis of capitalism remains and has actually deepened. We can say that just about any issue or struggle today does indeed raise the question of a different form of social organisation.

That’s why the slogan “People before profit” resonates with many people. They can see that our rulers lavish money on corporate welfare and accommodating the rich but outright refuse to spend on people’s pressing needs — whether it be renewable energy, public housing, disability care or whatever.

Daniel says:

[To] pretend that our demands lead towards a revolution, simply because they logically contradict the priorities of capitalism, is equal parts voluntarism and utopianism. It is also unhelpful rhetoric because it prevents us interrogating the real strengths and weaknesses of different campaigns and demands by insisting on dressing everything up as somehow transitional.

We have never argued that our demands, by themselves, lead toward a revolution. But the transitional method helps us to frame our demands, our program, in a way that it leads people to question the system, to see the links between their situation and the ruthless profit drive that is built into capitalism — and to point towards a rational society (socialism) where meeting basic human needs come first.

Suburban struggle

In my talk I used our Moreland election campaign as an example. Our campaign platform wasn’t sucked out of our collective thumb. It encompassed a number of very real and strongly felt local issues and clearly resonated with a lot of people.

But any program is only part of the equation. The other part is the struggle. We are fully aware that the big challenge now facing us in Moreland is to support and develop campaigns around various points in our platform. Sue’s council position is valuable precisely in this context: She is a real voice for ordinary people within the local government of the area.

Daniel can’t see where involvement in local struggles fits in with the struggle for socialism:

… I can’t for the life of me imagine how you will recruit and train young, serious Marxist revolutionaries in Moreland, while campaigning around local council issues. Even the Labor Students I know couldn’t care less about council issues. I have never in my whole political career met a serious radical who even knew about local council issues. Maybe I’m wrong here ...

Daniel, with all the restraint I can muster, I have to say this is absolutely crazy! Do you know what you are saying here?

A large part of our lives are spent in the suburbs. Residents worry about public transport, traffic congestion, whether high-rise apartment blocks will sprout on our back fence, forever rising council rates, finding a place to rent at rates you can afford, what’s happening to our local parks — and even where one can find a public toilet. Is Daniel saying that socialists — let alone “young, serious Marxist revolutionaries” — should just forget about all this?

Across the city small groups of people are fighting to save their suburbs from this or that aspect of the capitalist neoliberal juggernaut. Consistent with our limited resources, socialists have to stand with them. In the course of just such struggles, over time people will come to see that the problem is capitalism and that our fundamental economic infrastructure has to be in public hands.

Having a socialist on council can be a big help in this fight. Look at what the Socialist Party has been able to accomplish in Yarra with Steve Jolly on the council since 2004. As a result of his consistent struggle to represent his ordinary constituents, in the October council elections he got a whopping 34% of the vote in his ward and across the municipality 20% of those voting chose a Socialist Party candidate. We can discuss other aspects of the Socialist Party’s political practice but there is no getting away from these impressive figures.

In Moreland the council has put forward a plan to give developers open slather in Coburg’s Bell Street-Sydney Road area. With Sue’s assistance and using her council position, concerned residents are organising to fight against this latest overdevelopment horror. Perhaps some Socialist Alternative members live in the area and can get involved. It is a different sort of work to what many of us may be used to but it is a necessary part of the struggle and we should get involved in it. Today this is a part of the struggle for a different sort of society, i.e., socialism.

Cadre are forged in the struggle

Both Daniel and Omar are concerned about training “young, serious Marxist revolutionaries” and “Marxist cadre”. I certainly agree that socialist activists can profit from a broader theoretical understanding. But Marxist cadre can’t be defined simply by abstract theoretical knowledge. We have to be able to apply it in the struggle. As the Christian Bible says, faith without works is dead.

In my talk I made a point of saying that “our Marxism only means anything if we can present and defend a concrete transitional program, that is, to present socialism in a realistic way arising out of present struggles and issues”.

Furthermore, the socialist movement can only win authority with ordinary people if we not only support but participate in their struggles. We can’t have popular struggles here and “Marxist cadre” over there. When big crises hit, people won’t enquire about the address of some small group of radicals. They will turn to people they already know. Socialists have to be there.

That is what the transitional method is all about. As my original talk put it:

Put simply, the transitional method which underlies all our work seeks to engage people on the basis of their real needs and from there seek to lead them toward an understanding of the need to change the whole system, i.e., to replace capitalism with socialism.

The broad masses of people develop their ideas on the basis of their experience. Socialists have to join them where they are at, engage in struggle with them, help them draw lessons from those experiences and on that basis educate them about the need for a root-and-branch change in our social relations and economy.

Get with the programme

Posted on behalf of David Joseph

"This does reflect a scepticism that the International Socialist Tendency has always had towards the orthodox Trotskyist obsession with programs." Daniel Lopez

I think it is a weakness in a Marxist organisation to not have a position on anything far less their "method".

An organisation explaining how they organise themselves how they prioritise their work (ie what is their method?) could actually help those of us who see them as a serious organisation understand their activities more clearly and not to feel a sense of déjà vu as to the mythical IST stick being bent, now this way.

Obviously Socialist Alternative is not the SWP but it may be advantageous for them, just one more time, to actually "bend the stick" and realise that its own fetishism with "orthodox" obsessions, needs to be addressed.

The "orthodoxy' is not some caricature invented after Trotsky’s death it existed with the Left Communists. As there are groups and individuals who have carried forward their bibles (2nd International, Stalinism, Maoism...) so there are others which have carried forward the revolutionary tradition of the Bolsheviks and far from being sceptical about, detest the bible carriers of old and their pale replicas around today.

If they do "bend the stick" they might see that individuals and organisations having understood and worked at defining a program are not "orthodox" and that many even come from the IS tradition itself.

Then some quotes are given: an interesting one from Lukacs "the first thing that differentiated Lenin from his more moderate social-democratic comrades in Germany was that his political practice was always oriented towards a revolutionary situation that was in reality becoming tangible." "Always orientated towards a revolutionary situation" Such a person would obviously become extremely frustrated in present day Australia according to how some see it.

Strange then also to see Lenin's words from 1899, "...written in terms of the actuality of the Russian revolution..." erupting six years later in 1905. How this can be used as a reason not to develop a programme today, a codified set of ideas that the maximum number of people agree on, that organisational cadres can lead with in their local area, unaligned militants can understand, at last why Revolution is needed. No longer need they be made to lose interest through the epitaph "..and the other thing we have to do is end capitalism and build socialism!"

The development of the programme is the educational tool that develops the organisations' cadres, just the current debates Socialist Alternative members are engaged in around the issue of Party and Programme, has benefited them and their organisation has gained from this debate; a debate which I hope continues and strengthens.

Establishing a programme is a tool for Marxists, especially those in a propaganda group, to develop methods of intervening in class activities. It is how it tests those policies, those actions which had a greater impact than just what the group could muster. It would offer the opportunity to more closely involve militants in further developing the revolutionary weapons the class will be need, helping to change trade union militants, community agitators into class conscious fighters.

I read Dave Holmes response first and liked it so much I read Daniel's I'll re-read DH's response again but after reading DL's article Dave's was on the mark.

A reply to Dave Holmes’ ‘transitional method’

Posted on behalf of Allen Myers

* * *

I think that it is Dave Holmes, not Daniel Lopez, who misunderstands what Lenin and Trotsky were talking about in the passages quoted by both of the current writers. Lenin and Trotsky were not talking about bridging the gap between consciousness and the need for socialism in general. They were talking about how to do so in revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations or, at the least, periods of mass radicalisation.

Dave Holmes writes that “we can expect great social and political turbulence in the years ahead”. Indeed we can, but that doesn’t mean that we are now in a period like 1848 or 1918-21 or the late 1930s. Socialists today should be preparing the kind of organisation that will be most effective in such turbulence, not acting as though it has already arrived. When the Comintern resolution stated that “the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society”, it was talking about the situation in Europe in 1921, not expressing an eternal truth for all locations. That phrase does not describe the situation in Australia today, so revolutionaries in Australia today need to relate to a situation in which modest working-class demands do not threaten the existence of capitalism.

Agitation and propaganda

If masses of working people are struggling for something, then a well-thought-out slogan can help to build their struggle. It becomes transitional, not because of any timeless logic, but because it helps to direct a struggle more consciously in the direction of socialism. In Russia in 1917, “All power to the soviets” was transitional because it connected the consciousness of masses in motion with the necessity of overthrowing the Provisional Government. But if the Bolsheviks had raised that slogan in 1913, the working masses would have regarded them as lunatics.

If there is no significant struggle going on, then any particular slogan is useful or not depending mainly on its propaganda value: does it help to raise the consciousness of those who hear it? The problem here is the difference between propaganda and agitation. Short slogans/demands are suited to agitation, to helping masses in motion to decide what to do next. Propaganda, by definition, is concerned with explaining ideas in some detail.

It seems to me that, under the rubric of “transitional demands”, Dave Holmes and the Socialist Alliance more generally have been jumbling agitation and propaganda in a way that is not useful for the socialist cause. Let’s consider the slogan of nationalising the banks, which Socialist Alliance is going to make a major theme of its federal election campaign. Would bank nationalisation be progressive in the current situation? Yes? Would the current government resist the demand? Yes. Would the demand therefore be transitional? No.

In his first article, Comrade Holmes wrote, “The call for nationalisation of specific sectors of the capitalist economy is definitely a transitional demand”. But the idea that a particular demand is transitional in and of itself, regardless of context, is just wrong.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I think it is fine for Socialist Alliance to raise the demand in its election campaign. But there is no significant mass movement trying to deal with the problems caused by private banking. So the slogan “Nationalise the banks” is not agitational; it might be in other circumstances, but it isn’t in Australia today. To put it another way, the slogan doesn’t really relate to current working-class consciousness. Banks are hated, yes. But most people regard them as an unavoidable evil, something they can’t do anything about. There is no mass movement or campaign seeking to stop banks from doing what they do to ordinary people’s lives.

The slogan’s usefulness at present can therefore only be propagandistic. But to be successful as propaganda, the slogan has to be connected to an explanation of the realities of capitalist class society and the need for socialist revolution. If Socialist Alliance election material presents this explanation, great. But if the material doesn’t explain that, then it will risk misleading its audience. If the answer to evil banks is simply “Nationalise the banks”, and this demand is presented only or primarily in the context of an election campaign, then what most of the audience will hear or read is that the scourge of banking can be overcome by electing enough candidates committed to nationalisation. The clear implication would be that there is no need for a powerful and well-organised mass movement; vote for good candidates and parliament will solve the problem for you.

Moreland council campaign

It is to be hoped that Socialist Alliance’s propaganda for the upcoming federal election will be based on an understanding of the differences between agitation and propaganda. If it is, it might avoid some of the problems evident in the Socialist Alliance Moreland council campaign. Comrade Holmes notes: “The platform outlined in our election leaflet is a mixture of immediate and democratic demands”. That is, it contained no transitional demands, even by the loose definition that seems to be accepted in the Socialist Alliance. Despite this, he goes on to declare that it was transitional anyway: “Overall, in the given situation, our Moreland program was a transitional one. It implied a radically different set of priorities and pointed towards a different sort of society even if we really only touched on this.”

This deprives “transitional” of almost any meaning. According to Comrade Holmes, you don’t have to say anything explicit about a workers’ government. You don’t have to present even one transitional demand, let alone a “system of transitional demands … unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat”. Even your immediate and democratic demands need be no more than what most small-l liberals could agree to. Nevertheless, you can still receive the approbation “transitional” because of what your very modest demands “imply” or “point towards” in a very unspecific way.

The justification that the article offers for this position is that “neoliberalism is going 100% in the opposite direction in every single area” of those mild democratic and immediate demands. But the political alternatives being offered to the working class are not limited to neoliberalism or socialist revolution. Keynesian liberals and various streams of social democracy are also opposed to neoliberalism, or at least offer a milder version of it. They don’t get a huge run in capitalist politics at the moment, but that can and will change very quickly if socialists start to attract a larger following. (And there are also right-wing populists who will claim to oppose various aspects of neoliberalism.) So it is tactically unwise, as well as being untrue, to spread the idea that opposing neoliberalism is sufficient to be “transitional” in the meaning that the Comintern and Trotsky attached to the term.

It should also be noted that the reformist idea that elected members of capitalist legislative bodies can solve working people’s problems for them, which I pointed out is implicit in a nationalisation slogan that doesn’t connect to the idea of workers’ power, appears quite blatantly in the Socialist Alliance’s Moreland election leaflet. “Imagine a council that fights for you”, declares one of the leaflet’s subheadings. Not “a council that assists your fights” or “a council that helps you organise to fight”. A council that fights for you, once you’ve voted for it, so you can go back home until the next election. This comes, I suggest, from trying to be agitational rather than propagandistic when the only thing you can reasonably agitate for is people’s votes.

Communist Manifesto

Briefly, it seems also necessary to try to undo some of the confusion created by Comrade Holmes’ effort to attribute his notion of transitional demands or “the transitional method” to Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. He writes: “It contains 10 demands outlining what a revolutionary workers government would do. This is very much a transitional program, which, if carried out would constitute a huge step in moving towards socialism.”

Comrade Holmes is correct when he says that the 10 points in the Communist Manifesto “outlin[e] what a revolutionary workers government would do”. But he is therefore wrong when he calls them “demands” and even more wrong when he says they constitute a transitional program. The 10 points are not slogans that lead workers from their current consciousness to the necessity of the conquest of power. They are measures that “will be pretty generally applicable” “in most advanced countries” only after the proletariat has been raised “to the position of ruling class”. That is, they are guidance for future revolutionary governments, not slogans to mobilise the workers to overthrow existing governments.

Of course, some of the actions that Marx and Engels said would be carried about by a revolutionary workers’ government were capable of being the basis of transitional demands. Abolition of inheritance rights or introduction of a progressive income tax or free public education must have related to the consciousness of many European workers in the 1840s. But it seems unlikely that a large number of workers “in most advanced countries” would have been prepared to go to the barricades for the gradual elimination of differences between town and country by a more equal distribution of the national population (point 9). It is similarly unlikely that many workers would have fought to centralise credit, communications and transport “in the hands of the state” (points 5 and 6) while that state was still the capitalist or semi-feudal state that many of them were organising against. Comrade Holmes has thrown two quite different things into the same bag and then, finding them in the same bag, has declared that they must be the same thing.

A common thread

Reading Comrade Holmes’ first article and his response to Comrade Lopez, it is possible to discern a meaning of “transitional” that is quite different from what was meant by Lenin or Trotsky when they used the term. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would say that Comrade Holmes calls “transitional” any even vaguely progressive demand that is or might be opposed by the relevant government, provided only that the demand is raised by people whose hearts, either covertly or openly, hope for revolution some day.

If that sounds too harsh, think about what other approach could convert the Socialist Alliance’s Moreland election leaflet demands for “extend[ing] and upgrad[ing] bike paths” or “regular ward accountability meetings” into parts of a “transitional program”.

For those not in the know, Comrade Holmes has a much longer history of promoting what he calls “the transitional method”. In October 2006, when it was still in question whether the DSP would liquidate itself into Socialist Alliance (the majority leaders were still insisting that they would never even consider such a thing), Comrade Holmes wrote an “educational” article for DSP members explaining something that he called “the transitional method of party building”. He assured his readers that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky had all been practitioners of this party-building “method”, although he didn’t cite any evidence or even any instance where anyone other than himself had ever used the phrase. The argument was: “A few people will be willing to directly join us [the DSP] but hundreds and thousands will be willing to join a broad left, socialist party if we can reach them. This is the fundamental idea behind the Socialist Alliance project.”

Comrade Holmes here was engaging in the same abstraction from time and space as in his “transitional demands”, already referred to above. If Trotsky in 1938 said that thousands of US workers were ready to join a Labor Party, then of course “hundreds and thousands” of Australian workers would be ready to join a similar party in 2006. In the real world, the Socialist Alliance today has fewer activist members than the DSP did when it launched that unfortunate project.

I am, however, grateful for Comrade Holmes’ current articles. My recollection of the 2005-08 dispute within the DSP is that “It’s transitional” was the most frequent reply of the majority whenever the minority objected to a majority adaptation to reformism. But everyone will have their own, often differing, recollections, and there is no way to settle something like that. Comrade Holmes has now made appeals to past events unnecessary by expressing the merging of “transitional” with “reformist” in the thinking and practice of the Socialist Alliance. Vote for a council that will do your fighting for you!

 

 

Response to Allen Myers' response to Dave Holmes' article

Posted on behalf of Chris Slee

With his usual pedantry, Allen Myers picks out a phrase from Socialist Alliance's Moreland Council election leaflet (“Imagine a council that fights for you”), and gives it an interpretation that is clearly not intended  ("A council that fights for you, once you’ve voted for it, so you can go back home until the next election").

Allen ignores a passage in the leaflet that clearly says the opposite:  "The Socialist Alliance is an anti-capitalist, activist party.  We contest elections for all levels of government, but unlike other parties we don't see parliament as the main vehicle for social change.  Election campaigns for us are part of our year-round work campaigning in workplaces and communities.

"We help build movements capable of bringing about the change we need:  change that benefits ordinary people and the environment, and that can lead to a democratic socialist society, run by and for working people".

Allen also ignores what Socialist Alliance has actually done in Moreland since Sue Bolton's election.  We called a public meeting to discuss a planned new development which could adversely affect residents.  This meeting, which attracted over 60 people, decided to build a protest rally outside the next meeting of Moreland Council.

Thus we are trying to involve people in fighting for their rights, not just telling them to stay home and leave it to members of the council to decide.

Hopefully this example will cause members of Socialist Alternative to view with a degree of scepticism the criticisms of Socialist Alliance made by RSP members.

Response to Chris Slee

Posted on behalf of Allen Myers

“Pedantry”, in Chris Slee’s usage, seems to mean something like, “Taking seriously what we say”. I quoted a subhead not an isolated “phrase” from Socialist Alliance’s Moreland election leaflet. He objects that I “interpret” the words “a council that fights for you” to mean that voters were being told that a council with enough Socialist Alliance members will do the fighting for them. But this obvious (to a pedant) meaning of the words was “clearly not intended”.

How is the rest of the world supposed to know the real intentions of the authors of the leaflet? According to Comrade Slee, another part of the leaflet says “the opposite” of my “interpretation” that a Socialist Alliance-style council will do the fighting for you. Unfortunately, the passages he quotes don’t at all contradict that idea. All they say is that the Socialist Alliance is building the movements needed to bring about change so in fact they reinforce the idea that Socialist Alliance will do it for you.

Maybe I missed something. I hope that Comrade Slee can show me a passage in the leaflet that says something to the effect that you voters are going to have to do more than vote if you want to improve anything. I have read through the leaflet several times, and I can’t find it. Even the idea that the reader should join the Socialist Alliance gets a mention only as a box you can tick on the clip-off, sandwiched between donating money to the Socialist Alliance Moreland campaign and subscribing to Green Left Weekly. (There is no box on the clip-off that can be ticked that doesn’t involve the ticker handing over some money.)

Comrade Slee says that I “ignored” a public meeting that Socialist Alliance called  in Moreland at some time after the election. I was not aware of that meeting, but even if I had been, I wouldn’t have written about it. This is because I was not writing a history of the Socialist Alliance in Victoria, or claiming that Socialist Alliance had never called a public meeting.

I was responding to an article by Dave Holmes on “the transitional method”. That article did not mention the public meeting, but it did cite the Moreland election as an example of “the transitional method”, and it appended the leaflet (the election leaflet, not a leaflet calling the public meeting) as an illustration of that “method”. So Comrade Slee’s criticism is really directed at Comrade Holmes: he should have cited the public meeting as an example of “the transitional method” instead of a leaflet that said things that were not intended.

 

Response to Daniel Lopez

Posted on behalf of Chris Slee

Daniel Lopez quotes Lenin as saying: “The present epoch is revolutionary precisely because the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society, and the struggle for these demands is therefore bound to develop into the struggle for communism”.

Lenin’s description of the “present epoch” as “revolutionary” seems to imply that he thought that the world, taken as a whole, was ready for revolution at that time (the early 1920s?).

Trotsky’s statement (in the Transitional Program, written in 1938) that: “The present epoch is distinguished not for the fact that it frees the revolutionary party from day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried out indissolubly with the actual tasks on the revolution” has a similar implication.

This does not mean that Lenin and Trotsky thought a revolution was possible in every country immediately. Rather (if I understand them correctly) they thought that the world economic and political situation would periodically give rise to potentially revolutionary situations in various countries.

In reaching this conclusion, I believe that both of them took account of not only the economic hardships endured by the working class, but also the question of war. The world had experienced the horror of the first world war, and more wars were expected if capitalism was not overthrown. (In 1938 the Spanish civil war and the Japanese invasion of China were in progress, and the second world war was imminent).

Today once again economic crisis and war are features of the world situation, but we also face the threat of environmental destruction, including climate change.

The need for a socialist world is more urgent than ever. But both the level of socialist consciousness and the level of working class struggle vary markedly between different countries.

In part, this is due to the uneven impact of the world economic crisis on different countries (e.g. Greece versus Australia). But I don’t think economic conditions alone are the sole determinant of either the level of struggle or the level of political consciousness.

Political factors are also important, including the experiences of past victories and defeats, the quality of leadership of the unions and other social movements, and the strength of the socialist movement.

In Australia, both the level of struggle and the level of political consciousness are fairly low. Both need to be rebuilt.

Building a socialist party should go hand in hand with building movements and struggles (trade union, environmental, anti-racist, etc)

Of course, given our limited resources, we can’t do everything we would like to do. In part, decisions by a socialist party on which movements to prioritise are a result of a conscious choice. But such decisions may also be affected by particular events.

For example, the fact that Socialist Alliance won a seat on Moreland Council meant that it was both possible and necessary to get more involved in campaigns around local issues. (This does not mean we will be solely involved in such campaigns, and forget about broader national and international issues.)

The demands that socialists raise can vary widely. Some will be intended to help promote immediate action by groups of people in struggle. Others are intended to sow the seeds for future action.

Daniel says: “There is no evidence whatsoever that any section of the population sees nationalisation as a key political issue for solving the crisis of capitalism, or the problems that face their lives.”

In the short term, the demand for nationalisation is a theme for propaganda. It aims to challenge the idea that there is no alternative to private ownership of the means of production.

But if it gets a good response it could become a theme for mass action at a later stage.

I think it can be called a transitional demand, because I think it helps to advance the consciousness of the working class by encouraging them to question who should own the means of production. But the terminology is not important, if we can agree that it is a useful demand.

Not so simple as it seems?

Posted on behalf of Narendra Mohan Kommalapati

"If you fight you may lose the battle. If you don't, you have already lost" -- Brecht

I have followed with interest the debate over Dave Holmes' article on the Transitional method. In my 15 or so years of decidely un-Trotskyist work in the Maoist movement, the transitional method of working on the felt needs of various sections and classes was accpeted as common sense across all fronts. The alternative was to either ignore the method in favour of individual and small vanguard adventurist actions or an incompatible admixture of mass action and vanguardist terror alongside more abstract theoretical propoganda.

I am surprised at claims that the method relates to only pre-revolutionary (whatever that might mean) or revolutionary situations. If I may quote from history, among the earliest writers who elaborated on the method was Bund socialist Aleksander Kremer "........Thus the task of the Social Democrats consists of constant agitation among the workers on the basis of existing petty needs and demands. The struggle provoked by this agitation will train the workers to defend their own interests,........and in the final analysis ..confront them with more serious questiobns demanding a solution......" This in 1893! Twenty years before the October revolution.

I cannot comment on Allen Myers' differences with Dave Holmes and the latter's alleged leaning towards reformism. But Myers' criticism begs the question why -- after breaking away from the alleged reformism, tilt towards reformism -- ( I gather from Chris Slee's reply that Myers is in the RSP) hasn't the RSP grown into a major organisation? Surely if the reformist trend was the reason for the decline in Socialist Alliance's strength, the lack of it must have seen a significant growth in the RSP. Or, the matter is not so simple as it seems?

Dave Holmes' response to Allen Myers on the transitional method

Comrade Allen Myers of the Revolutionary Socialist Party takes me to task for my presentation and response to Daniel Lopez.

What is the context?

Allen argues that the passages I quoted from the Comintern’s 1921 Theses on Tactics and Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Program are concerned with “revolutionary or prerevolutionary situations or, at the least, periods of mass radicalisation”.

I think this is wrong for both documents.

The context of the 1921 Comintern theses was precisely the fact that the capitalist class in Europe had managed to achieve a certain stability after surviving the deep popular unrest following World War I. And in 1938, were Britain, France, the United States — let alone Italy, Germany or Spain which were in the grip of fascist dictatorships — in a period of mass radicalisation? Clearly not.

The most general context of these documents, which gives them their continuing relevance, is the imperialist epoch and the ongoing crisis of capitalism. On a world scale, this is an explosive period of wars and revolutions but this obviously doesn’t mean that we have revolutionary or prerevolutionary situations in all countries all the time. But the political situation can turn quite quickly — which is what we are seeing in Greece and Spain today.

What we value most in these two documents is the method they advocate, which is of general applicability.

That is the certainly the way the Democratic Socialist Party — to which both Allen and I both belonged for a long time — always understood the matter. Thus the 1994 Program of the DSP says that a key task is:

How to help the masses to cross the bridge from demands and forms of organisation that stem from their day-to-day struggles against capitalist exploitation and oppression to the level of political consciousness and action required to impose revolutionary socialist solutions. [1]

At the time this was written Australia was definitely not in a state of mass radicalisation or anything approaching it, however much there may have been important struggles around particular issues.

 ‘Capitalism will have to die’

Allen argues that:

… revolutionaries in Australia today need to relate to a situation in which modest working-class demands do not threaten the existence of capitalism.

Obviously a fight for more public toilets in Moreland doesn’t in itself threaten the system. But overall I think Allen’s claim is dead wrong. The Comintern Theses have it right:

The present epoch is revolutionary precisely because the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society, and the struggle for these demands is therefore bound to develop into the struggle for communism.

Elsewhere in the Theses it says that as the mass struggle develops “the working class will come to realise that if it wants to live, capitalism will have to die”. [2] In its remorseless, ruthless drive for profit at all costs, neoliberal capitalism is heedlessly stoking climate change which threatens the continuation of life on our planet. At the same time it is trying to roll back the gains won by the masses in over a century and a half of struggle.

Look at Greece! The modest hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary people have been smashed, despair is growing and the suicide rate is soaring. Wages and pensions have been slashed; the bosses are pushing for a six-day working week; medical care is evaporating; the country is being sold off to international corporate carpetbaggers; a fascist movement is being created; and so on.

The transitional method which we use is designed to bridge the gap between people’s present consciousness — which I defined as one in which “distress, insecurity, apprehension and concern on so many levels is widespread and growing” — and the consciousness of the need to get rid of profit-mad capitalism.

Moreland election campaign

Allen doesn’t like our Moreland election platform with its “mild” immediate and democratic demands that “most small-l liberals could agree to”. Again, I prefer the assessment of the Comintern Theses: “the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society.”

Of course, as I stressed in my presentation, a platform is one thing. We now have to do what we can to bring it to life in the struggle.

Allen puts the most contorted negative interpretation on our platform subhead “Imagine a council that fights for you”. He claims it translates as:

Not “a council that assists your fights” or “a council that helps you organise to fight”. A council that fights for you, once you’ve voted for it, so you can go back home until the next election.

Yes, the slogan could mean that but apart from Allen I doubt that anybody would take it that way. But when you are on a mission to prove that the Socialist Alliance is reformist or adapting to reformism I guess you see the world through somewhat foggy glasses.

There has been a great response to Sue Bolton’s election win. Many people feel they have a real fighter on their side inside the council. Of course, Sue is only one voice among 11. But what if a majority of councillors shared Sue’s political outlook? Then Moreland residents would indeed have “a council that fights for you”. It would give them more confidence to press their demands, with a progressive council providing strong leadership and support.

Was our platform as a whole transitional? Clearly it did not explicitly call for a workers government. But if you took the trouble to read the whole leaflet you would find:

The Socialist Alliance is an anti-capitalist, activist party. We contest elections for all levels of government, but unlike other parties we don’t see parliament as the main vehicle for social change. Election campaigns for us are part of our year-round work campaigning in workplaces and communities.

We help to build movements capable of bringing about the change we need: change that benefits ordinary people and the environment, and that can lead to a democratic, socialist society, run by and for working people.

The platform of demands together with the overall slogans (“Community need, not developer greed” and “People before profit”) was a great package in the situation facing residents in Moreland. It was a good example of the transitional approach.

Communist Manifesto

In my original presentation I touched on the Communist Manifesto:

We can look at the first communist program, the Communist Manifesto of 1847. It contains 10 demands outlining what a revolutionary workers government would do. This is very much a transitional program, which, if carried out would constitute a huge step in moving towards socialism.

Allen says I am wrong to call them “demands” and am “even more wrong” when I say “they constitute a transitional program”. If this is the case, I have a number of fellow sinners.

For instance, Doug Lorimer, today a comrade of Allen’s in the RSP, in his introduction to the Resistance Books edition of the Transitional Program, refers to them as a “the first such system of transitional measures”. [3]

These measures are transitional in the sense that even for a newly installed workers' government the elimination of capitalism is a process. It moves forward both as the technical-material conditions come into existence and as popular political support consolidates.

Nationalisation of the mines and banks

As I explained in my original presentation, Socialist Alliance intends to raise the call to nationalise the mining/resource sector and the banks. We think it is very important to make propaganda around this issue.

Many people are angry about the free ride given to these corporate bludgers with their huge profits and low tax rates.

A particular target group for our propaganda about the mining giants is those people concerned about climate change. Meaningful action on global warming is impossible if the resource sector remains in private hands. In my talk I pointed out that:

It is especially important to win support for this call in the environment movement, which has generally not attached any importance to questions of private ownership of the country’s economic infrastructure (especially its energy resources and infrastructure).

Allen, however, is concerned that we will present the wrong message.

But to be successful as propaganda, the slogan [of nationalisation] has to be connected to an explanation of the realities of capitalist class society and the need for socialist revolution. If Socialist Alliance election material presents this explanation, great. But if the material doesn’t explain that, then it will risk misleading its audience.

We have already started explaining our nationalisation call through articles in Green Left Weekly and through Socialist Alliance statements. Obviously a lot more needs to be done. Our candidates will also highlight the issue.

It is worth noting that our draft document Towards a Socialist Australia calls for the main elements of the economy to be owned and controlled by society.

Whether our material will satisfy our critic is doubtful but I would be happy to be surprised here.

Notes

[1] Program of the Democratic Socialist Party (New Course Publications: Chippendale, 1994), p. 67.

[2] Alan Adler editor, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (Ink Links: London, 1980), p. 286.

[3] Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program & the Struggle for Socialism (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1999), p. 6.

Once more on the 'Transitional Method'

Posted on behalf of Daniel Lopez

* * *

I would like to reply once more - I will mainly respond to Dave Holmes' last post, but in so doing, I hope I will touch on some other issues that have been raised.

The Communist Manifesto and after

The Communist Manifesto was issued on the eve of the 1848 revolutions. This determined so much about it, from its tone, to its specific content. And, while Marx and Engels obviously viewed it as a program, they were also using it to proclaim the arrival of a revolutionary new world-view. As such, it is a much more radical document than most "transitional programs" have been.

Yet, following the defeat of the wave of struggle in 1848, Marx and Engels consciously retreated into intellectual work, until they resumed their interventions into politics, with the founding of the I.W.A. They did so in light of explicitly elaborated and articulated arguments analysing the political situation - what Trotskyists tend to refer to as a perspective.

So, here is how Marx explained the period after 1848 in his Inaugural Address to the First International:

"After the failure of the revolutions of 1848, all party organisations and party journals of the working class were, on the continent, crushed by the iron hand of force, the most advanced sons of labor fled in despair to the Transatlantic Republic, and he short-lived dreams of emancipation vanished before an epoch of industrial fever, moral degeneration and political reaction..." (From the Inaugural Address to the I.W.A.)

Yet, following this period of reaction - in which, I note, poverty and bloodshed were the daily norm for a defeated working class - things begun to change. Here is how Engels later explained it.

"When the working class of Europe had again gathered sufficient strength for a new onslaught upon the power of the ruling classes, the I.W.A. came into being. It's aim was to weld together into one huge army the whole militant working class of Europe and America. Therefore it could not set out from the principles laid out in the [Communist] Manifesto. It was bound to have a programme which would not shut the door on the English trade unions, the French, Belgian, Italian and Spanish Proudhonists and the German Lassaleans."

So we see here very clearly that a different situation, and a different state of working class consciousness calls for a very different approach. Although they didn't use the term, Marx and Engels could be said to have viewed this programme as "transitional". Yet, it was not primarily the program that would move consciousness on, but, as Engels explains:

"The events and vicissitudes in the struggle against capital, the defeats even more than the successes, could not but demonstrate to the fighters the inadequacy hitherto of their universal panaceas and make their minds more receptive to a thorough understanding of the true conditions for the emancipation of the workers. And Marx was right. The working class of 1874, at the dissolution of the International, was altogether different than from that of 1864, at its foundation." (This quote, and the above one taken from Engels' 1890 preface to the Communist Manifesto)

Engels goes on to describe how Proudhonism, Lassaleanism, and even apolitical English trade unionism were receding, in favour of socialism, albeit what we would now recognise as increasingly reformist socialism.

Why do I raise this? It seems like we have agreement that the context - an analysis of the concrete totality of capitalist society and the state of class struggle - define the scope for transitional demands.

Well, I raise it because the context in which Marx and Engels made what could be called, broadly speaking, programmatic interventions was completely different to today. Also, it is clearly evidenced that Marx and Engels took their lead from the state of consciousness of the class, and even so, did not expect the programme itself to revolutionise consciousness, but only to articulate changes that were already happening.

The situation in Australia, 2012

Holmes cites the Comintern Thesis which argues that the basic demands of the working class are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society, and argues that it is an accurate description of capitalism in Australia today.

This is, not to put too fine a touch on it, a total misreading of the Australian political situation. The Australian economy - almost uniquely in the western world - has been expanding for years. The mining sector alone is making vast profits, as is the banking sector. The bottom has not fallen out of Australian real-estate, despite something of a slow down. To imagine that in this context that the ruling class is not capable of granting concessions is downright bizarre.

Indeed, they are openly discussing granting concession, without a fight: Labor is thinking (tepidly, I'll grant) of raising the dole, and the Liberals want to introduce a more generous parental leave scheme. And to go further, as Holmes does, and argue that workers will literally start dying if capitalism continues... well, really!

All of this could be illustrated vividly with statistics, but I take the points I raise to be matters of common knowledge.

In the depths of crisis-stricken Spain or Greece, perhaps the situation is approaching something like that which the Comintern thesis described. But not here. It is true that workers are largely on the defensive. But where they fight, the Nurses for example, they can drive liberal state governments to a stalemate, or even score small victories. And so far, the Federal Labor government has only attacked indirectly, via the carbon tax and inaction over interest rates and prices. This is not a situation in which anything even remotely like a transitional struggle is possible. Masses will not be moved into radical struggle by the best programmes.

 

But what of the situation politically? The left is weaker and more moderate than it has been for years! The Greens have shifted clearly to the right, and at any rate, don't represent anything in terms of working class politics. The socialist groups have a tiny following. Abbot is most likely going to be our next PM. Only a minority oppose government policy towards refugees, and it's a demoralised minority. Virtually the only progressive issue with mass traction is same sex marriage! And even that has stalled. That the news is dominated by mind-numbing scandal after scandal is indicative of the extraordinarily low political level. Maybe there is "distress, insecurity, apprehension..." and the rest of it, but it is not expressing itself in progressive ideas or class struggle.

Anyway, even if I am only half right about the political situation, even if it is much better than what I say it is, the only way to argue that the Australian political context in early 2013 in any way resembles those that spurred Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to formulate 'transitional' programmes is via an act of extreme imagination.

And anyway, the other ingredient, a mass party, does not exist. All the Marxists who talked about transitional programmes, or their equivalents, were in a position to lead, at least thousands, if not tens of thousands. (Trotsky was a partial exception to this - he expected to lead tens of thousands, which was in itself a problem.) In Australia, how many people are we actually talking about? In Moreland, does the Alliance have more than 20 members? That's probably about how many Socialist Alternative has in Moreland.

Why do I stress these admittedly slightly depressing points? Because we have got to look reality in the face. The moment we start imagining a reality that we prefer is potentially the moment we start the slippery slide into sectarianism or opportunism. Sectarianism lives in its own imaginary world, where abstract formulas, universally applied, hold the truth. And opportunism lives in a rotten world that is made bearable by nice phrases and sophistry. Both share in common a refusal to look at the world, as it actually is, from the vantage-point of historical materialism. Both describe the world in more comforting terms. And both are a dead end that is all too easy for small groups, frustrated with their limited influence, to end up in.

So, what are we really talking about?

Well, I've tried once more to debunk the idea we can meaningfully use the concept of a transitional programme to orient our strategy today. But lets put that to one side. The more I think about it, the more I think that the historical/theoretical debate about the transitional program is a huge furphy.

I think both Dave Holmes and Chris Slee tellingly concede what is really at stake here. And it is not mass struggle. Chris concedes most clearly, both the point about the political situation and that the slogan for nationalisation has no audience in the working class. But, none-the-less, he argues, it could be a seed for the future:

"In the short term, the demand for nationalisation is a theme for propaganda. It aims to challenge the idea that there is no alternative to private ownership of the means of production. But if it gets a good response it could become a theme for mass action at a later stage."

So, it is propaganda. But wait, it is propaganda with an added bonus: wishful thinking. Maybe one day it could be the basis of mass action. But then again, even the most abstract propaganda hopes one day that it could inspire action.

Dave Holmes concedes something similar when he slips into describing the call for the nationalisation of banks and the resources/mining sector as propaganda.

Of course, the Socialist Alliance's Moreland electoral campaign, programme and all, was more than just propaganda. Obviously a component was electoral, and now, in wake of the victory, a component involves campaigning and agitation against inappropriate development.

And anyway, there is whatsoever wrong with propaganda! No group will ever build without both abstract and concrete propaganda.

But lets call things by their name. What we are talking about is not a transitional program, but a strategy embarked upon by a small socialist group. The primary goal of this strategy cannot be to effect any sort of transition. It would be dangerous to imagine you could even build a mass movement. Rather, the main goal is to build your profile by convincing people through words and deeds. This is what every group in Australia is limited to at this stage.

The only transition that will happen is that you might convince a few people of socialism. Good for you. But then, don't we all do that?

The issue is that by calling this a transitional method, I believe you are trying to give what is quite a moderate orientation a revolutionary veneer. And as I have said before, I can't for the life of me see how you could possibly build a serious Marxist group around local council issues.

Socialism in one council?

Last time I raised this, I was met with righteous incredulity. How could I possibly discount the struggle in the suburbs, where most people spend most of their lives?! (NB, I live in Preston, shop at the market, and I voted for Sue Bolton!)

 

Well, I don't discount the suburbs. But then, I also don't discount the struggle in the docks and mines. But I don't notice the Alliance prioritising work in the docks and mines. I also don't discount the struggle in the armed forces. But I don't notice you doing any work there either.

So, if we are being serious, we have to admit that small groups make choices about where to orient. My group has, for years, oriented, on balance, more towards campus work. For a range of detailed reasons, we have been gradually shifting away from this. I'd say our day to day work is now roughly split three ways: into campaigns, into the campuses and into those workplaces where we have concentrations of members. Overarching all this is a routine of stalls, meetings, educational work, and of course our Marxism conference (which I am delighted has been opened up to Socialist Alliance comrades!).

For us, it all feeds together; we meet a variety of people in a variety of locations, and we convince them, via Marxist education and via our interventions into campaigns, that we are a group worth taking seriously.

I'm not saying we get it all right, and I'm not saying the Alliance gets it all wrong. But when we embark on a new campaign or orientation, we have a clear headed discussion of the merits and drawbacks. As I hope I've made clear, the rhetoric about transitional methods gets in the road of this.

So, back to Moreland. I have my doubts still. Let me take a guess. At the meeting in Coburg over inappropriate development, I think I noticed on Facebook that something like 60 attended. Well done! But, how many people were under 30? Were there more than 5 under 30, who weren't your members? I will buy you a beer if you can honestly say there were. Why do I guess this? It stands to reason that the main people concerned about inappropriate development will be homeowners with a vested interest in the area. All the young people in Coburg rent (I should know, I did for a few years).

And what about the political dynamic? I can imagine that you would encounter and foster some bitterness towards Labor through this campaign, that's true. But do you really think that opposition to inappropriate development pushes people towards an anti-capitalist world view? The obvious answer to inappropriate development is better regulation. OK, I admit, soviets would be better regulators of local development than bourgeois institutions! But I suspect you will have a harder time convincing Morelanders of that than me.

So, do you really think that you will build a Marxist cadre in a politically quite moderate campaign whose main audience are homeowners approaching (or past) middle age? Or any other local council issue, for that matter. Indeed, I am worried that you will burn your existing cadre out by insisting they spend hour upon boring hour learning and agitating about bike paths, etc. At least in Yarra there is the looming issue of public housing to fight about. But nothing even close exists in Moreland.

Now, I would like to anticipate a response. Of course, building a group is not the only reason for orienting to a campaign. Only a sectarian would say that. No socialist group will be built without selflessly supporting campaigns and struggles. But, when we are small as we are, sometimes we have to pick our battles. And it makes sense to pick those battles which the most help to build revolutionary groups. Until such a time as we are big enough to fight on all fronts.

This is straight forward, but understanding this point is the difference between being a Leninist, committed to building a revolutionary Marxist party, and a movementist who tails behind struggle after struggle, only to end exhausted.

Anyway, I hope I haven't been to blunt. So maybe I'll end by reiterating my enthusiasm for the growing culture of debate on the Australian far left... For too long, these conversations have been left unsaid. And short of convincing people, the experience and process is beneficial in itself.

Acknowledgement:

I got most of the quotes I used about the Communist Manifesto and the founding of the First International from Karl Korsch's excellent Marxism and Philosophy, specifically the essay on the Marxism of the First International. Amongst other points, it stresses the same point I make about context. Korsch's work can be read as an attempt to historicise Marxism itself.

What is Mr Lopez on about!

From Narendra Mohan Kommalapati

Jesus Christ! What is Mr Lopez on about! Moreland is a largely working class area and there is a demand for a high school for Coburg. I imagine middle aged house owners need a high school. And why will only activists campaign for bike paths (or confine themselves to bike paths), the residents of the suburb will do it if they feel the need for it and activists provide leadership and organisation. And curiously Mr Lopez doesn't seem to be aware of the campaign being built against plans to create a CBD in Moreland without height restrictions.

There is no guarantee that all those who participate in an agitation will become socialists or activists, but they help transmit the message and keep the struggle going out of which a politically aware section and leadership will grow.
proposals to increase the dole and paid leave etc are bribes held out at elections and usually paid for by robbing with one hand to give with the other - wiz cutting down school, hospital funds, single parent allowance, educational assistance, sacking workers, replacing permanent workers with casual, sessional workers, denying the right to strike and collective bargaining etc etc that are the dominant part of Liberal,Labour programmes.

further response to Daniel Lopez

Daniel Lopez says:

"The Australian economy - almost uniquely in the western world - has been expanding for years. The mining sector alone is making vast profits, as is the banking sector. The bottom has not fallen out of Australian real-estate, despite something of a slow down. To imagine that in this context that the ruling class is not capable of granting concessions is downright bizarre.

"Indeed, they are openly discussing granting concession[s], without a fight: Labor is thinking (tepidly, I'll grant) of raising the dole, and the Liberals want to introduce a more generous parental leave scheme. And to go further, as Holmes does, and argue that workers will literally start dying if capitalism continues... well, really!"

The ALP may be "thinking" of raising the dole, but it has actually CUT the single parent benefit. And cuts to hospital funding are actually killing people. (yes, really!)

I agree that capitalism can grant concessions in some areas, or to some groups of workers. But this is accompanied by attacks in other areas.

The fact that the attacks coincide with vast profits in mining and banking creates a potential audience for demands that this wealth be used to meet people's needs.

I would add that economic issues are not the sole reason for people rebelling and questioning the system. The movement against the Vietnam war occurred at a time when there was no economic crisis. Today the issue of climate change can be a powerful motivating factor.

Daniel says:

"I think both Dave Holmes and Chris Slee tellingly concede what is really at stake here. And it is not mass struggle. Chris concedes most clearly, both the point about the political situation and that the slogan for nationalisation has no audience in the working class."

I don't concede that the slogan of nationalisation has "no audience in the working class". I expect that many workers will think it is a good idea.

Whether they will be willing to participate in some sort of action in support of this demand is another question. We could test it out by proposing protest actions with this demand in response to some particularly outrageous actions of the banks or mining companies.

But in any case it is a useful demand to raise in propaganda. It encourages people to think about who should own the means of production, rather than accepting private ownership as normal and inevitable.

Daniel says: "So, back to Moreland. I have my doubts still. Let me take a guess. At the meeting in Coburg over inappropriate development, I think I noticed on Facebook that something like 60 attended. Well done! But, how many people were under 30?"

I didn't pay close attention to the age profile of people at the meeting, but it may well be true that relatively few were under 30.

Daniel says: "But do you really think that opposition to inappropriate development pushes people towards an anti-capitalist world view? The obvious answer to inappropriate development is better regulation."

Yes, but to get "better regulation" requires challenging powerful capitalist interests, and that requires a mass campaign.

Daniel says: "So, do you really think that you will build a Marxist cadre in a politically quite moderate campaign whose main audience are homeowners approaching (or past) middle age?"

Neither age nor home ownership is an absolute barrier to becoming a Marxist cadre. Whether we can develop any Marxist cadre through this campaign, time will tell.

Chris Slee

Dave Holmes: Response to Daniel Lopez II

Comrade Daniel Lopez’s second response has the merit of making even clearer his view of how a socialist organisation should orient itself politically. Obviously we have a number of disagreements. But I do agree with Daniel’s “enthusiasm for the growing culture of debate on the Australian far left … For too long, these conversations have been left unsaid.” If we can have a real dialogue, that has to be a step forward. It is certainly a precondition for unity, although not in itself a guarantee.

Marx and Engels

In his section on the Communist Manifesto and the First International, Daniel stresses that the context in each case “was completely different to today”. But who is arguing against this? The situation in Russia in 1917 was also different to today but we can still draw some useful lessons from the revolution there.

The important thing is that Marx and Engels also used a method which is applicable today. For instance, in regard to his 1864 Inaugural Address to the First International,[1] Marx later wrote to Engels: “It will take time before the reawakened movement allows the old boldness of speech. It will be necessary to be fortiter in re, suaviter in modo [firm in action, gentle in manner].”[2] Dare I say it, this is an example of a transitional approach: the form of the message is adapted to the state of consciousness of the masses.

Daniel is keen to stress that a program by itself does not revolutionise consciousness.

Also, it is clearly evidenced that Marx and Engels took their lead from the state of consciousness of the class, and even so, did not expect the program itself to revolutionise consciousness, but only to articulate changes that were already happening.

Popular consciousness is shaped, in the first place, by capitalism and its crises. This is not in dispute. But how should we develop our program? Our demands are a tool which we use to relate to people. Their basic content should be formulated according to the objective situation, but the form of presentation must take account of the state of popular consciousness. The more skilfully we can present our ideas, the better will we succeed in catching people’s attention. But nothing will happen without strenuous effort on our part.

What period are we in?

Daniel takes issue with my assessment of where things are at in Australia today.

The Australian economy — almost uniquely in the western world — has been expanding for years. The mining sector alone is making vast profits, as is the banking sector. The bottom has not fallen out of Australian real estate, despite something of a slow down. To imagine that in this context that the ruling class is not capable of granting concessions is downright bizarre.

I think this is a very superficial way of looking at what is going on. The description I gave is much more concrete:

What is the objective situation in Australia today? Neoliberal capitalism is pushing on all fronts to roll back the gains made by the working class over the last 150 years or so. Everything is under threat or actual attack: the environment on which we depend for life itself; people’s wages and conditions; the conditions of life in the cities (public transport, education, healthcare, the amenity of life in the suburbs); welfare (for the old, the sick, people with disabilities, the unemployed). By scapegoating refugees and Muslims our rulers are fostering deep divisions in the community. Our civil liberties are being eroded. We are a dependable cog in the US war drive. And so on.

Are we in a revolutionary situation? Obviously not. But “distress, insecurity, apprehension and concern on so many levels is widespread and growing”. The concessions that maintained social peace in the postwar period are inexorably being dismantled (that’s what neoliberalism is about) and we can expect great social and political turbulence in the years ahead. In some countries (e.g., Greece, Spain, Egypt) the situation is explosive, but not yet revolutionary.

The Australian economy might well be doing better than those of most other advanced capitalist countries. But still the welfare state is being rolled back on all fronts. It was a product of three things: pressure from below by generations scarred by the Great Depression; the postwar boom; and the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. That’s all changed now and the welfare state is not coming back.

Daniel mentions the real estate boom. Are we supposed to feel good about this? It is a disaster for ordinary people. As prices rise the dream of buying your own home recedes for more and more people. And those who do achieve home “ownership” via a mortgage are in an increasingly tenuous position as job security is held hostage to capitalist restructuring and the inexorable growth of casualisation, deregulation and outsourcing.

Of course, the capitalist class may concede something here and there. Daniel mentions the talk of an increase in the dole. Obviously an extra $30 or $50 per week would slightly ease the desperate situation of the unemployed. But it won’t change the basic reality that being out of work in Australia is a grim business with a host of soul-destroying consequences for those affected.

The mining boom has generated vast wealth but is it really lifting the quality of life of a big section of the working class? I don’t think so. A small layer of workers may get a high gross income but the dominant fly-in-fly-out work regime has a terrible effect on relationships and family life. And often these workers are forced to pay huge rents. Moreover, the effect on ordinary people in the mining towns is dire: rents soar out of reach, services collapse, and community breaks down as a rootless itinerant population swamps the locals.

The main beneficiaries of the mining boom are the mining capitalists. In theory the wealth below the surface belongs to all of us but the mining corporations pay minimal royalties and make huge profits. That’s one reason Socialist Alliance has decided to use the election period to raise the call for nationalising the mining-resource sector under community control.

What ordinary person feels confident about the future? Fewer and fewer, I would suggest.

(So far, I have said nothing about climate change. Yet this is fast becoming the major issue — the framework in which all other issues will unfold. I will deal with it below.)

The validity of the transitional method

Daniel says that:

This is not a situation in which anything even remotely like a transitional struggle is possible. Masses will not be moved into radical struggle by the best programs.

He appears to think that unless the struggle has reached a certain stage or an organisation is large enough, a transitional approach is not relevant. But it is clear that even in quiet times, even for a small organisation, this is the method we should use. In fact, unless we retreat to simply making abstract propaganda for socialism, what other method can we use?

In 1940, for example, before the United States had entered World War II, Trotsky had discussions in Mexico with leaders of the Socialist Workers Party on the so-called “Proletarian Military Policy”.[3] In a situation where conscription was overwhelmingly accepted by the working class (because of its fear and hatred of Hitlerism), this was an attempt to draw the class line inside the imperialist military machine. Demands included the right of soldiers to be able to express political opinions, for military training to be carried out under trade union control, and for soldiers to be able to elect their officers.

The Proletarian Military Policy never went beyond a campaign of propaganda and had little impact but it showed Trotsky’s dynamic concept of revolutionary politics, always trying to formulate our basic ideas in a way in which they might achieve some traction in popular consciousness.

We can’t simply enunciate the timeless truths of socialism. We have to get out there and find the ways to insert ourselves into real live politics and have an impact on the consciousness of people.

Municipal work

I think Daniel’s comments on socialist involvement in municipal struggles are dead wrong.

In the case of the Socialist Alliance campaign in Moreland, not surprisingly, we did not expect to win. While we took the development of our platform very seriously, we would be the last to deny that our victory involved a level of accident. But now Sue is a councillor and we are doing all we can to act on our platform demands where that is possible.

Daniel argues:

But do you really think that opposition to inappropriate development pushes people towards an anticapitalist world view?

… do you really think that you will build a Marxist cadre in a politically quite moderate campaign whose main audience are homeowners approaching (or past) middle age? Or any other local council issue, for that matter.

The profit-crazed developer feeding frenzy across Melbourne’s suburbs is one more example of corporate greed versus the needs of the community. That’s why a lot of residents related to our campaign message in Moreland and Geelong. And, yes, for some people involvement in such struggles can be a step in a journey towards “an anticapitalist world view”.

Daniel says that the “obvious answer to inappropriate development is better regulation”. Well, fine, except that most councils are not regulating the developers but are instead accommodating to their ceaseless and remorseless pressure. And when a council actually does oppose a particular development, the state government or VCAT is likely to overrule it. What can be done about this? Only the development of more and more massive and determined campaigns to assert the rights of the community over private greed.

All this is part of the struggle for a different future. Will Daniel’s “Marxist cadre” come out of such campaigns? Perhaps he attaches a different meaning to the term. For us, socialist activists will come out of real struggles. They are not produced on some academic assembly line. Theoretical knowledge is fine but unless it helps us relate to, and become involved in the real fight going on in society it will remain abstract and rather beside the point.

Daniel’s deconstruction of the Coburg residents’ meeting is false. As far as I can see the single biggest age cohort in the campaign is people in their thirties. They are trying to build a life in the area but then the neoliberal juggernaut bears down on them — as it does in so many other realms of the lives of ordinary people. But in any case, socialists support the campaign and are involved in it and we shall see what happens.

What should socialists be doing?

Daniel says:

… if we are being serious, we have to admit that small groups make choices about where to orient.

Socialist Alliance makes choices too. We also try to prioritise our work. But socialist groups still have to justify the choices we make. The possibilities of recruitment is one criterion but it can’t be the only one and certainly not the main one.

For instance, socialists simply must be involved in the refugee movement, irrespective of the immediate recruitment possibilities. It would be unthinkable not to be involved.

I think Socialist Alternative’s activity is heavily skewed towards a propagandistic approach and recruitment based on this. To my mind this is what explains the hostility of Omar and Daniel towards the very idea of a transitional method.

This leads to two very serious gaps in Socialist Alternative’s activity: the organisation does not stand in elections and does not relate in any meaningful way to the issue of climate change.

Socialists should run in elections

Socialist Alternative says it is not opposed to running in elections in principle but the time is not right for them. In fact, it has never stood in elections. The old International Socialist Organisation, from which Socialist Alternative split in 1995, also never stood (except when part of Socialist Alliance). I think this is a serious failing, especially in today’s political situation.

I do not accept the argument that the organisation is too small to do it. Within the limits set by our limited financial and activist resources, Socialist Alliance has always stood in state and federal elections and sometimes in council elections. (The old Democratic Socialist Party, to which I belonged, first stood in the 1975 federal Whitlam dismissal election and regularly thereafter.)

We are not electoralists but elections are an absolutely invaluable means of getting socialist politics out to a wider audience. Socialist participation in elections allows us to reach out to people and to measure our forces. It forces us to refine our message and to couch it in a transitional form. When we stand we can’t simply say socialism will be superior to capitalism. We have to put forward a transitional approach, with a mixture of basic and intermediate demands, linking the problems people face with the need for a workers government and the reorganisation of society.

An obvious step towards great unity on the left would be some sort of united socialist ticket in state or federal elections. Done properly it could arouse real enthusiasm and have an impact, especially on left-leaning Greens supporters. And it could be an important step along the road to an eventual uniting of left forces in a common organisation.

Socialists must help build climate movement

This brings me to the issue of global warming and climate change. As the perspectives document adopted by the Socialist Alliance at its January 2013 conference states:

47. A defining feature of politics today is the refusal of the capitalist class and its political representatives to confront the global climate crisis. Their wilful negligence promises to devastate nature, kill most of humanity and reduce civilisation to scattered remnants. The Socialist Alliance does not believe this refusal is due to ignorance or chance. It stems from the fundamental need of capitalism to prioritise near-term private profit — even when the eventual cost to the system is its own destruction.[4]

This is what the recently adopted Socialist Alternative Declaration of Principles says:

9. Capitalist exploitation of the working class and the natural world has created a situation where the profit system threatens the habitability of the planet. We oppose attempts to halt climate change and environmental destruction through measures that place the burden on working class people and the poor. We instead demand fundamental social and political change that directly challenges the interests of the ruling class. The environmental crisis can only be solved under socialism, where the interests of people and the planet are not counterposed. [5]

As far as it goes, I agree with these individual points but nevertheless for a socialist group this paragraph is absolutely and totally inadequate and completely unconvincing. We need a transitional approach here. We need to be involved in the movement. Readers can check out the Socialist Alliance Perspectives document (points 47 to 55).

55. As a party with no commitment to defending capitalist interests, the Socialist Alliance makes the fight to preserve the climate, along with the rest of the environment, a vital thread running through all its activities. We use our media to tell the truth about the climate emergency, and to publicise the actions of environmental campaigners. We organise our members to support and take the lead in campaigns to halt climate-damaging industries such as coal-seam gas and other fossil fuels. We support campaigns to build clean, zero-carbon-emissions alternatives to current industry and agriculture. We support campaigns that explicitly target the fossil fuel industry as a “rogue” industry, such as the fossil fuel divestment campaign. Struggles such as these help generate alliances between farmers, environmentalists, unionists and urban communities, breaking down divisions between country and city and between communities and individuals. They provide an opportunity for socialist ideas to reach beyond the urban centres, challenging the politics of conservative populism in the suburbs and in the bush.[5]

Also relevant is the Socialist Alliance Climate Change Charter.[6] Obviously this is work in progress but I think it is a very good start.

We are involved in the climate arena and are always looking for openings for activity and dialogue with serious people and forces around issues and campaigns.

To my knowledge Socialist Alternative is not involved in the climate movement and does not even comment on the issue in any serious way. Why is this? We are talking about most of the world’s population perishing and serious problems are already apparent (in Australia: heatwaves, bushfires, floods and hurricanes and the consequences that flow from these).

This seems definitely to be an issue where applying Daniel’s recruitment-is-the-top-priority criterion leads to a big mistake. Actually, I think serious efforts around this issue are not only essential but can win people to the socialist cause. But if we restrict ourselves to simply saying that socialism will solve the issue, then we won’t make much headway.

If Socialist Alternative could join with us in our efforts here that would be a major gain and would be a very big step along the road to socialist unity and a big expansion of the socialist movement.

Notes

1. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/10/27.htm.

2. Marx to Engels in Manchester, November 4, 1864, Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence (Progress Publishers; Moscow, 1975), p. 140.

3. See, for example, James P. Cannon, “The Military Policy of the Proletariat” [October 12, 1940], http://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1940/mpop.htm.

4. See http://www.socialist-alliance.org/page.php?page=1258.

5. See http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=7613:sas-statement-of-principles&Itemid=546.

6. See http://www.socialist-alliance.org/page.php?page=674.

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