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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.

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