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How we can use the Transitional Program today: a response to Socialist Alternative

 "Allen Myers denies the possibility of using the Transitional Program as a tool to advance the class struggle in Australia today. He devotes a lot of effort in arguing that nationalisation is not a transitional demand in current circumstances."

For more on the transitional method, click HERE

By Chris Slee

February 2, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Allen Myers, a member of the Australian party Socialist Alternative, has written an article in that organisation’s magazine Marxist Left Review entitled “Trotsky’s Transitional Program: its uses and abuses”.[1] Myers is also a former leading member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, some of whose members have joined Socialist Alternative.

Myers begins by referring to the “disappearance” of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), which he attributes in part to “a serious misunderstanding of the concept of ‘transitional demands’ and their application to revolutionary activity in Australia today”.[2]

In my view the “disappearance” of the DSP is not a problem. The DSP has merged into the Socialist Alliance. Although the DSP as a particular organisation has disappeared, the political work it was carrying out is being continued through Socialist Alliance. For example, Socialist Alliance continues to campaign for refugee rights, Aboriginal rights, trade union rights and in defence of the environment, just as the DSP did.

Is the Transitional Program relevant today?

Myers refers to Trotsky’s 1938 document The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (commonly referred to as the Transitional Program), and claims that it is not applicable today. He says:

Thus the document was a very immediate, short term program that Trotsky hoped would help the small parties of the Fourth International grow rapidly and win the leadership of the proletariat in a situation of extreme crisis. It was not intended for revolutionaries of the 1970s or 1990s or 2010s….[3]

It is true that Trotsky’s 1938 document was intended for use in a particular context. But the DSP often used the term “Transitional Program” with a broader meaning. We agreed with US socialist George Novack when he said:

…the Transitional Program is not a uniform and static set of demands, fixed once and for all, which is to be swallowed whole and mechanically imposed in a stereotyped manner on any and all situations regardless of time, place and circumstance. Marxist logic teaches that “the truth is concrete”. This rule has to be applied to the use of the Transitional Program as well as to every other item of our arsenal of ideas. The relevant parts of the program have to be brought forward in accord with an intelligent and informed appraisal of the actual conditions and adapted to the specific state of the ongoing class struggle.[4]

Novack added:

Marxism keeps constantly on the alert for openings in which the elements of the Transitional Program can be inserted to help convert the less radicalized state into a more radicalized one.[5]

This is what the DSP used to do, and what Socialist Alliance continues to do today – for example, when we raise demands for nationalisation of certain industries in response to environmental and economic crises.

Nationalisation

Myers however denies the possibility of using the Transitional Program as a tool to advance the class struggle in Australia today. He devotes a lot of effort in arguing that nationalisation is not a transitional demand in current circumstances.

He criticises Socialist Alliance’s Dave Holmes’ statement:

Socialist Alliance has raised the call to nationalise the banks and mining/resource sector – under community control – and we intend to make this a major feature of our 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 [a] specific one on taking over the private banks.[6]

In response, Myers writes:

This treats a call for nationalisation as inherently transitional, regardless of circumstances. Does such a demand relate to the current consciousness of wide layers of workers in Australia? At the very least, that needs to be shown, not assumed. Does it form part of a system of demands that would lead workers to the conclusion that they need to take power into their own hands?[7]

It is true that the demand for nationalisation has not yet been taken up by “wide layers of workers”. This is because no section of the trade union leadership is pushing it. However, many workers like the idea of nationalisation when Socialist Alliance members suggest it to them. There needs to be a lot more work to popularise this demand.

If a group of workers in struggle (e.g. those facing the loss of their jobs through factory closure) were to take up the demand for nationalisation, and campaign for it using strikes, demonstrations, factory occupations, that would be a big step forward in the class struggle. The campaign for nationalisation would lead many workers to an understanding of the need for a workers government. Both Liberal and Labor parties are likely to reject the idea of nationalisation. Socialists could then point to the example of Venezuela, where nationalisations have occurred, and point to the need for a similar government in Australia.

If, contrary to our expectation, a Labor or Liberal government did nationalise a factory in response to workers’ demands, this would give workers confidence that they can win victories through struggle. (There would need to an ongoing struggle in defence of jobs, pay and working conditions, as is always the case in government business enterprises under capitalism).

Should we put demands on governments?

Myers seems to disapprove of the very idea of putting demands on bourgeois governments that they take action to save jobs. He quotes approvingly some extracts from a report given by the late Doug Lorimer to the Revolutionary Socialist Party national committee in March 2009, in which Lorimer appears to take this view.

According to Myers:

Lorimer’s original presentation … cited the example of an article in Green Left Weekly which claimed that “demanding that Australia’s capitalist government guarantee full employment” is “an important transitional demand that can open the road to even more radical developments”.[8]

Myers does not give a reference to the enable the reader to find the original Green Left Weekly article and check what it actually said. It is not clear whether the phrase “demanding that Australia’s capitalist government guarantee full employment” is a direct quote from the article, or whether it is just Lorimer’s interpretation of what he thinks the article is implying.

Myers continues:

Lorimer pointed out that this argument was “based on the correct idea that it is impossible for a capitalist government to ‘guarantee full employment’ as this would mean it would have to eliminate the reserve army of labour, the existence of which is a necessary condition for the existence of capitalism’. However, getting a mass campaign going for this demand ‘would require revolutionary socialists to conduct propaganda to convince large numbers of workers that they should undertake such a mass campaign. You’re not going to do that if you tell them the truth, i.e., that no capitalist government can ‘guarantee full employment’ … So such propaganda has to lie to them, i.e., peddle the bourgeois-reformist deception that ‘full employment’ can be ‘guaranteed’ by a capitalist government.”[9]

However, putting a demand on a government is not the same thing as asserting that the government can implement the demand. If a government can’t or won’t implement the demands of workers and the oppressed, that gives an opportunity for socialists to explain the need to replace it with a different kind of government.

Instead of putting demands on the government, Myers advocates that workers confine themselves to putting demands on individual employers. He says:

Note the different dynamics depending on whether the aim of full employment is presented as a demand on the government or a slogan addressed to the workers and their organisations, especially the unions. In the latter case, socialists urge workers to fight to impose particular measures on the bosses: stop lay-offs by forcing the company to reduce hours of work with no loss of pay; fight youth unemployment by demanding that the boss provide positions for a certain number of apprentices.[10]

However, Myers admits that workers are unlikely to follow his advice. He says:

In the present state of the class struggle in Australia, such slogans are not likely to be taken up in a major way by the union movement. That means that they are primarily propagandistic rather than agitational at present, and to that extent not transitional, because there is not a real movement of workers that might be persuaded to fight for them, or a sufficiently large revolutionary party that can give them wider currency. Nevertheless, they can be useful as propaganda -- because they are accurate propaganda: they indicate that the fight against unemployment is a fight against the bosses, not something that the government has to be pressured or convinced to guarantee.[11]

Myers fails to ask himself why the demands he suggests are “not likely to be taken up in a major way by the union movement”. One reason is that many workers feel weak and powerless in their dealings with their employer. This is not merely a matter of subjective lack of confidence. It is a product of the objective situation many workers face. For many workers, it is not possible to win these demands through struggles conducted solely at the level of the individual workplace.

Part of the reason is that these demands are likely to be met by the threat to close factories and shift production overseas. This is much easier today than it was in the past for a number of reasons, including technological developments (better communications, more efficient shipping, etc.) and the adoption of neoliberal policies, including tariff cuts.

During the post-war boom, when unemployment was relatively low, unions in the advanced capitalist countries were able to make gains in pay and working conditions. Some capitalists responded by shutting factories in the advanced capitalist countries and shifting production to Third World countries, where wages were lower. Tariff cuts make it easier for them to bring the products made in Third World factories back to the rich countries to sell.

This does not mean we should advocate the restoration of tariffs to their previous levels. Instead we should strengthen international links among workers, and support workers in Third World countries who are fighting for better pay and conditions. A recent example is the struggle of Cambodian garment workers for a pay rise.

But we should also support workers in Australia who are fighting against factory closures. In my view, the demand for nationalisation will often be necessary in such struggles.

It is much harder today than in the past to deal with the threat of job cuts solely through action against the individual employer. It is necessary to put demands on the government -- including the demand for nationalisation. This in turn can lead to an understanding of the need for a different kind of government.

Myers refers to the use of the slogan “Bread, peace and land!” by the Bolsheviks in 1917. He says that the Bolsheviks

…had no illusions that the bourgeois provisional government would implement it. But for the workers and peasants who heard it, it must have meant, “This is something that should be done.” That raises the question of who should do it, but by itself doesn’t supply the answer. For at least some of the workers and peasants, it would have seemed obvious that the provisional government should be doing it. But the provisional government wasn’t doing it so the implication is: we need a different government.[12]

The same applies to the slogan of nationalisation today. If the demand for nationalisation is taken up by groups of workers, most will think that the existing government (Labor or Liberal) should do it. If, as is likely, both major parties reject the idea, workers will be more open to the need for a different kind of government.

Myers continues:

As Lorimer noted, the Bolsheviks combined “Bread, peace and land!” with “All power to the soviets!” That was needed to make “Bread, peace and land!” transitional.[13]

At this stage, there are no soviets in Australia, so we can’t demand that they seize power. The best we can do in propaganda aimed at a broad audience (e.g. election leaflets) is talk in general terms about the need for a socialist government, and point to the example of Venezuela.

In political education for party members we can go into more detail about the Marxist theory of the state and revolution. But this should not stop us from producing popular leaflets which just talk about a “socialist government” or a “workers and farmers government” without such a detailed explanation.

Propaganda and agitation

Myers says that we should not try to raise transitional demands today because there is not a situation of “widespread radicalisation”. He argues as follows:

The attempt to formulate and implement a transitional program when there is not a widespread radicalisation, when mass movements are not fighting against aspects of capitalism, runs up against the problem that there is little audience for agitation. People aren’t very susceptible to slogans about how to take struggle forward when they aren’t involved in one.[14]

In many cases, the masses are not struggling because they see no way out. There appears to be no solution to problems such as factory closures through the usual methods of trade union struggle. Transitional demands such as nationalisation can give people a perspective for struggle.

Myers acknowledges that propaganda for nationalisation can be useful, but only if accompanied by an explanation of the need for revolution. He says:

Propaganda around nationalisation of mining, banks and/or other industries is certainly worthwhile. But the propaganda has to be accurate, not distorted by the illusion that it is agitation, something that can set a course for masses who are already in motion. Propaganda requires detailed content and explanation, including about the need for a revolution to replace the bourgeois state.[15]

Here Myers is presenting an over-simplified dichotomy: either the masses are already in motion, in which case we can carry on agitation; or the masses are not in motion, in which case we can only propagandise for revolution.

But in reality, things are not always so black and white. There can be intermediate cases, where our propaganda can convince some people – perhaps only a small minority at first – of the need for action, without necessarily convincing them of the need for revolution.

For example, in the early stages of the movement against the Vietnam war, demonstrations were small. Socialists nevertheless thought it was important to build them, even though most participants did not yet understand “the need for a revolution to replace the bourgeois state”.

Elections

Myers warns about the dangers of participating in bourgeois elections. He says:

In fact, participating in bourgeois elections has an inherently class-collaborationist or reformist tendency to it, because it implies that the changes sought in the platform can be achieved through the capitalist electoral system. This is not an argument against participating in elections, but an argument that such participation should always include a clear popular explanation of why electing socialists to this particular legislative body will not solve voters’ problems.[16]

Socialist Alliance election leaflets normally include a section emphasising the importance of extra-parliamentary struggle. For example, the election leaflet for Margarita Windisch in the 2013 federal parliamentary election included the following:

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 out 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.

If our candidates are elected they use their position to help build campaigns. For example Sue Bolton, a Socialist Alliance member who was elected as a member of Moreland City Council, has persuaded the council to put resources into supporting the campaign against the proposed East-West road tunnel, which will destroy houses and parkland and waste money that could be used for improved public transport. Bolton and other Socialist Alliance members have participated in pickets against preparatory work for the tunnel.

Elections give us a chance to take socialist ideas to a relatively broad audience. We can help spread the demands of campaigns we are involved in (e.g. the refugees’ rights movement), as well as demands which we are trying to popularise (e.g. nationalisation). Election campaigns can also help us to recruit new members to our party.

While Myers emphasises the dangers of participating in bourgeois elections, he fails to see the dangers of not participating. If there is no socialist presence in the election campaign, people are more easily misled by the various bourgeois forces offering false remedies to society’s problems. Of course with our limited resources we can only do a small amount to counter bourgeois ideas, but this small amount is still worthwhile.

Notes

1. Marxist Left Review, no. 7, summer 2014. MLR is published by Socialist Alternative.

2. MLR, p. 147.

3. MLR, p. 149.

4. George Novack, The Role of the Transitional Program in the Revolutionary Process, p. 40. This is an introductory essay to The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Leon Trotsky, Pathfinder Press, 1977 edition.

5. As above, p. 50.

6. Dave Holmes, In Defence of the Transitional Method, http://links.org.au/node/3202.

7. MLR, p. 151.

8. MLR, p. 154.

9. MLR, p. 154.

10. MLR, p. 154.

11. MLR, pp.154-155.

12. MLR, p. 161.

13. MLR, pp. 161-162.

14. MLR, p. 162.

15. MLR, p. 163.

16. MLR, p. 156.

 

Comments

Allen Myers' less than honest dogmatism

I've done a few Google searches which reveal a bit more about the little "full employment" molehill that Allen Myers makes such a polemical mountain out of.

The Green Left "article" Allen quotes via Doug Lorimer is in fact a 2009 letter by Simon Butler, see https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/41270, replying to a critical letter by Allen. Allen had been complaining about the views of economics lecturer Bill Mitchell (not a Socialist Alliance member and not at all a Green Left regular) interviewed for an article at https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/41184. The problem as Simon points out isn't
Allen complaining about Mitchell's views, but Allen's strong implication that such views were typical of or even comprised the entirety of the views expressed in Green Left about the economic crisis. In Allen's letter, that Simon is responding to, Allen states, "It would be nice to see a socialist analysis of the economic crisis in GLW. The Keynesian one can be read everywhere these days" see https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/41222.

I don't agree with Simon's brief suggestion, in a letter, that "full employment" is much of an effective demand. It's too vague and doest really point to what mass struggle might force a capitalist government to do, or what a socialist government might do, to address unemployment and the capitalist crisis. But for Allen or Doug to make make a big deal about this quote of a brief suggestion in a letter, without proper attribution, is rather dishonest. Clearer demands for nationalisation, massive programs of public works, taxing the rich, reduction of working hours without loss of pay etc, have been much more common in Green Left (including under the editorship of both Allen and Doug), and since the 2008 crisis (and well before) there have been numerous articles with clearer socialist perspectives than that put forward in a single interview with Bill Mitchell.

I haven't read Allen's article critiqued here, but Allen's polemics of recent years generally seem, sad to say, intent on proving Socialist Alliance is reformist rather than charting a way forward for the socialist left. His rather tortured argumentation about the nationalisation demand, from what Chris quotes and from his previous polemics, is a case in point. I don't know how consistently he applies his new-found antipathy to raising such a demand without a massive movement in favour, and/or an immediate explanation of the need for revolution. I suspect he doesn't criticise such a use of this demand in recent years by leading Socialist Alternative members, made without a mass movement or an immediate explanation of the need for revolution, which by a quick Google search includes:

'Global warming: how should the left respond?'
http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=5231:global-wa... ('The debate needs to be about challenging the market, making demands on governments such as the nationalisation of utilities like power and transport').

'Make mining parasites pay more tax!'
http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=4743:make-mini...
'The mining companies should be taxed to the hilt. Better, they should be nationalised. It wouldn’t be socialism, but it would be a darn sight fairer than what we have now'.

Childcare and the market: profits vs need
http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=6109:childcare...
'The collapse of ABC Learning graphically demonstrates - as childcare workers and experts in the field have always argued - that providing decent, affordable childcare and making profits are incompatible. You couldn't get a clearer argument for the nationalisation of the industry'.

Obama's billions for criminal bankers
http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=6008:obamas-bi...
'Instead of bailing out the banks, the US government should nationalise them and put them under public control, throw out the overpaid executives and convert the financial system into a public utility charged with investing in the very things that Obama has promised - rebuilding run-down schools, replacing old infrastructure and investing in solar power'.

Toyota jobs need to be fought for
http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=7199:toyota-jo...
'If the jobs are to be saved, the government needs to intervene in a much more dramatic way: nationalise the industry and run it in a way that benefits the workers and the bulk of the population'.

Socialist Alliance and, at least formerly, Socialist Alternative members have been right to raise nationalisation as a demand that points to socialist solutions to the crisis, in an educative, "propaganda", way, in articles and election campaigns, because it's really not that obscure to a lot of people interested or potentially interested in radical ideas. A lot of people remember that Telstra, Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank were not so long ago public firms, know that bank nationalisation was a big issue in the late 1940s, may remember or have read about militant unions taking up nationalisations demands up to the 1970s, may have seen something about nationalisation in Venezuela or Bolivia, and so on. Explaining the need for revolution is a fine thing but having an obligatory paragraph on that in every analysis or educative article would make for repetitive, dreary, Spartacist-type media and be counter-productive, especially when even the radicalising minority we need to relate to includes people with wide varying levels of consciousness. And while there's no "mass resonance" for this demands, it's interesting that the engineering union leader Paul Cousins called for the "re-nationalisation" of Qantas in December, and who knows how things might develop as the crisis deepens here.

The fact that Allen has to reject such straightforward considerations in order to attack Socialist Alliance is an unfortunate development for Socialist Alternative, in that sectarian factionalism might be encouraging a retreat to abstract propagandism. Perhaps this view explains why an article by Jerome Small released today on alternative "solutions" to economic left nationalism doesn't contain any demands, or solutions really, beyond "struggling to save jobs" http://redflag.org.au/article/international-problems-require-internation.... It is very important to point out that unions should struggle, but I fail to see why having *no* content to such struggles, is more radical and revolutionary than putting forward indicative, partial solutions. Left nationalist union leaders could well answer Jerome's call by launching a struggle for more tariffs or more subsidies for the bosses.

It is clear now just who abandoned the DSP program

When I joined the socialist movement in the early 1970s I did so with a strong sense of how deeply conservative Australian society was. All around me I saw once-were-sixties-seventies “radicals” swiftly trading in their red t-shirts for suits. Big and fiery student protests faded to shadows of their former selves almost overnight in 1972. This was in Perth (well described by Tim Winton as only a “slightly exaggerated version of the rest of Australia”). I found those of my new "Eastern states" comrades in the current that became the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) who thought the revolution was around the corner over optimistic, to put it politely. But I didn't join them because of their guess/hopes about how near the revolution might be. I joined them because of their practical political approach, which I think has been validated over and over again in the decades since.

This approach involved raising of demands on the capitalist state that expressed the objective needs of the working class and all of the oppressed - and are understandable to working people at their existing level of consciousness and present readiness for action - is an essential part of socialist propaganda. These demands often called upon the capitalist state to do things that it would never do (not of its own free will anyway). And we do this not to encourage illusions in the capitalist state but to break down those illusion.

This method, call it bridging/transitional/ whatever you want, is part of winning socialists a broader hearing and as such is part of the mainly propagandistic struggle we are engaged in in the situation today (and I would argue over the last four decades).

Such demands also form political the basis of campaigns or movements. In fact, movements or campaigns that avoided putting such demands on the capitalist state were the weaker for it. The more opportunist wing of the left fought (and often won) attempts to blunt or all together avoid placing such demands to Australian governments. They preferred not to have too much heat on a Labor government or Labor opposition.

When I moved to Sydney from Perth in 1978, I first came across – in a copy of the Australasian Spartacist – the hysterical charge that the DSP (then SWP or SWL) was fostering illusions in capitalism because it made demands on bourgeois governments. It was an outrageous and politically infantile charge.

Making demands on capitalist governments is an essential part of practical socialist politics in the political conditions the small and relatively isolated socialist confronts in Australia one of the richest, most comfortable and stable capitalist democracies in the whole world. This was part of the political ABC in the DSP tradition which Allen Myers has clearly abandoned.

The DSP made demands on Liberal and Labor capitalist governments. We formulated those demands on the basis of the objective needs of the working class and all of the oppressed, and in terms that were, as much as possible, understandable to working people at their existing level of consciousness and readiness for action. We proposed actions aimed at shifting the burden of the inequities and breakdowns of the capitalist system from the working people onto the capitalists and their state, where it properly belongs. That was an essential part of the DSP's effective program and the DSP's written program.

The DSP raised all sorts on demands on capitalist governments (including the nationalisation demand particularly in relation to the car industry) as part of the struggle. It was right for socialists to do so in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and it is right to do so know. I cannot see any reasonable argument why it should not. The charge that by calling upon a capitalist government to do something that is not in its interest to do somehow encourages/fosters illusions in the capitalist state is ridiculous. It should be left to to the Sparts.

"Community support for

"Community support for nationalisation can be won. Public opposition to the privatisation of Telstra and the privatisation of NSW electricity is a good starting point.

Many workers were won to the call for nationalisation of BHP during the 1982 elections for the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA), then the major steel union.

Rank and file ironworkers, organised in the [DSP instigated] Militant Action Campaign (MAC), advocated the nationalisation of BHP in response to the massive retrenchments and forced retirements of 1982-1983. For union sub-branch positions in the Newcastle steelworks, the vote from working steelworkers was up to 30% for the MAC candidates. In the 1986 and '87 elections this vote increased.

In 1982, a mass meeting of steelworkers in Port Kembla passed a motion calling for the nationalisation of BHP. During the great takeover battles between Robert Holmes a'Court and the BHP directors in 1984, the Port Kembla branch called for BHP, as a key national resource, to be brought under public ownership.

In 1983, the front cover of the Metalworker, the journal of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, called for the nationalisation of BHP.

Support for nationalisation under worker's control can and must be won. Workers can, and should run industries. They do it every day."
Why BHP should be nationalised
https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/16703

Propaganda and agitation

I apologise to Chris Slee for not giving him a pointer to the source of Doug Lorimer’s quotation from Green Left Weekly. If he cares to put the phrase “demanding that Australia’s capitalist government guarantee full employment” into a Google search, he will find it comes from Simon Butler in GLW issue 787, in March 2009.

The same phrase in Google will also lead to Lorimer’s fuller discussion of the differences between transitional slogans and transitional demands, which I strongly recommend to Slee and to anyone who is seriously interested in considering the applicability or otherwise of “transitional demands” in specific political situations, rather than assuming that this is a formula for all occasions.

I assume that such readers will read my article, so they can decide for themselves how accurately Slee presents the ideas he polemicises against. I will provide only one suggestion for consideration: What would be left of Slee’s argument if he were to consider seriously the differences between propaganda and agitation?

response to Doug Lorimer on transitional demands

Through a google search I discovered the following article by the late Doug Lorimer:
https://douglorimer.wordpress.com/tag/transitional-demands/

In this article, Lorimer criticizes Trotsky’s writings on transitional demands.

Lorimer says that Trotsky sometimes uses the word “demand” when “slogan” would be more appropriate. It is true that there are some examples of this, perhaps due to Trotsky’s imperfect grasp of English.

But Lorimer gives this more significance than it deserves. It is obvious that some of the slogans in the Transitional Program are demands, while others are not. Lorimer has not shown that either Trotsky or anyone else was confused about this.

More importantly, however, Lorimer seems to reject the very concept of transitional demands. He seems to imply that all the demands which the Trotskyist movement has considered to be “transitional” can be attained under capitalism, and are therefore not transitional.

He cites only one actual example of a demand which has been considered “transitional” but has at times been granted under capitalism. That is the sliding scale of wages. No doubt other examples could be given, but Lorimer does not do so.

Lorimer begins his critique of Trotsky with two quotations:

In the Transitional Program, Trotsky wrote: “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”.

In a May 19, 1938 discussion of the Transitional Program with some leaders of the US Socialist Workers Party [1], Trotsky stated: “Not one of our demands will be realized under capitalism. That is why we are calling them transitional demands. It creates a bridge to the mentality of the workers and then a material bridge to the socialist revolution. The whole question is how to mobilize the masses for struggle”.

Lorimer comments:

‘As noted above, Trotsky claimed that “Not one of our demands will be realised under capitalism. That is why we are calling them transitional demands.” But is this true? In his May 19, 1938 discussion, he argued that “For some time we [i.e. the US SWP] must try to concentrate the attention of the workers on one slogan: sliding scale of wages and hours”, adding that this slogan encapsulated “the system of work in socialist society. The total number of workers divided into the total number of hours….It is the program of socialism, but in a very popular and simple form”.

‘In the Transitional Program itself, the “sliding scale of wages and the sliding scale of hours” are presented as the first examples of “transitional demands”.’

However Lorimer notes that the sliding scale of wages has sometimes been implemented under capitalism:

“The Pathfinder Press book The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution contains an introductory article by long-time US SWP leader George Novack….in which he notes that the slogan of a sliding scale of wages “remained in propaganda form in this country until the labor movement went through the experience of inflation during the Second World War and after. The auto workers’ union was one of the first to take up this demand in its negotiations. It won the ‘escalator clause’ from General Motors in 1948. Ever since, this provision has been one of the principal bones of contention between the bosses and the workers. The bosses try to deny, restrict or withdraw the ‘escalator clause’; the workers tried to obtain, keep or extend its application”’.

Lorimer comments:

‘Novack thus cited the “sliding scale of wages” as an example of a “transitional demand” that could be realised under capitalism’.

Lorimer fails to point out that the sliding scale of wages was implemented only for some US workers, not for all. Thus the demand was implemented only partially, not fully. He does not comment on the fact that the sliding scale of hours was not implemented at all.

Nevertheless it is true that some of what have been considered as transitional demands have been at least partially implemented under capitalism. Trotsky’s statement that “not one of our demands will be realised under capitalism” was too sweeping. He may have meant “fully realised”. In the Transitional Program he says: “Not one of the transitional demands can be fully met under the conditions of preserving the bourgeois regime”. (emphasis added)

Lorimer quotes Trotsky saying that “By means of this struggle, no matter what its immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery”. Lorimer comments: “But in the 1948 struggle by the US auto workers for a sliding scale of wages (cost-of-living-adjustment) clause in their collective agreement with GM and in all their previous [Lorimer presumably means “subsequent”] years’ struggles since to preserve it, very few if any US auto workers came to “understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist [wage] slavery”.

Lorimer rightly points out that: “The sphere of economic struggle between workers and employers cannot alone provide the basis for the full development of working-class political consciousness”. But Trotsky did not claim that struggle around the sliding scale of wages and the sliding scale of hours would lead to the “full” development of political consciousness. It was only a first step.

Between 1938 and 1948 a lot of things had changed. The post-war boom had begun. The US ruling class was prepared to grant some concessions to the working class, including cost of living adjustments in some collective agreements. At the same time, unemployment had declined. In this situation, the slogans of a sliding scale of wages and a sliding scale of hours lost some of their importance.

This illustrates a point that I made when I quoted George Novack in my original article. Novack said:

“ the Transitional Program is not a uniform and static set of demands, fixed once and for all, which is to be swallowed whole and mechanically imposed in a stereotyped manner on any and all situations regardless of time, place and circumstance….The relevant parts of the program have to be brought forward in accord with an intelligent and informed appraisal of the actual conditions and adapted to the specific state of the ongoing class struggle”.

Lorimer criticizes Trotsky for saying that the sliding scale of wages and hours was “the program of socialism, but in very popular and simple form”.

Obviously “the program of socialism” includes a lot more than these two demands. What Trotsky meant was that these two demands could help US workers to take their first steps towards an understanding of the socialist program, and that they were the key points to emphasise in propaganda aimed at a mass audience in 1938.

Lorimer seems to disapprove of the very idea of selecting a couple of key demands for presentation to mass audience. He seems to think this is dishonest because it fails to tell workers the whole truth.

Lorimer says that Trotsky “…appeared to have confined the maxim about telling the workers the truth to the advanced workers, those workers who already accepted the need to replace capitalism with socialism, rather than the broad masses. Thus he argued: ‘We must tell the workers the truth. Then we will win the best elements’. But when it came to presenting this program to the broad masses, it was permissible to engage in deception, i.e. to present ‘a part of our entire program’ (a sliding scale of wages, for example) as ‘the program of socialism’”.

This is a silly accusation. There is nothing wrong with a socialist party emphasizing a few key ideas when speaking to a mass audience, and providing a more detailed explanation for advanced workers.

Lenin used the terms “propaganda” and “agitation” to refer to this distinction, quoting with approval Plekhanov’s words: “A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator presents only one or a few ideas, but he presents them to a mass of people”. [2]

In the quotation which Lorimer complains of, Trotsky is talking about the US SWP’s agitation (in the Plekhanov/Lenin sense of the word). Trotsky was of course in favour of propaganda aimed at giving advanced workers a thorough understanding of national and international politics, including the need for revolution.

It is worth quoting at length some of Trotsky’s comments on the slogan of the sliding scale of wages and hours. He said:

“For some time we must try to concentrate the attention of the workers on one slogan: sliding scale of wages and hours….

Officially, we now have thirteen, maybe fourteen million of unemployed; in reality about sixteen to twenty million, and the youth are totally abandoned to misery. Mr Roosevelt [the US president] insists on public works. But we must insist that this, together with mines, railroads, etc, absorb all the people. And that every person should have the possibility to live in a decent manner not lower than now, and we ask that Mr Roosevelt with his brain trust [i.e. advisers] propose such a program of public works that everyone capable of working can work at decent wages. This is possible with a sliding scale of wages and hours. Everywhere we must discuss how to present this idea, in all localities. Then we must begin a concentrated campaign of agitation so that everybody knows that this is the program of the Socialist Workers Party.

“I believe that we can concentrate the attention of the workers on this point. Naturally this is only one point. In the beginning this slogan is totally adequate for the situation. But the others can be added as the development proceeds. The bureaucrats will oppose it. Then if this slogan becomes popular with the masses, fascist tendencies will develop in opposition. We will say that we need to develop defense squads.

“I think in the beginning this slogan (Sliding Scale of Wages and Hours) will be adopted. What is this slogan? In reality it is the system of work in socialist society. The total number of workers divided into the total number of hours. But if we present the whole socialist system it will appear to the average American as utopian, as something from Europe. We present it as a solution to this crisis which must assure their right to eat, drink, and live in decent apartments. It is the program of socialism, but in very popular and simple form”.

Thus Trotsky was proposing to put demands on the US government, as well as on individual capitalists. He was proposing that the SWP demand that the US government’s existing program of public works be expanded to include all the unemployed, with a sliding scale of hours to share the work around.

This seems a reasonable approach in the context of mass unemployment in the 1930s.

Today in Australia I think that nationalisation is one of the key demands we should take to a mass audience – both as a way of dealing with the environmental crisis and as a response to factory closures.

Notes

1. The transcript of the May 19, 1938 discussion with Trotsky is attached to Lorimer’s article. It was published in the Pathfinder Press collection The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution. In the preface to the 1977 edition, the editors say: “In reading these transcripts, it should be kept in mind that they were not edited or corrected by Trotsky or the other participants in the discussions, and that Trotsky was speaking in English, a language that gave him some difficulty, and not in his native Russian”.

2. Lenin Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1961, vol. 5, p. 409

Transitional demands, method, and semantics

A lot of contemporary debate about transitional demands seems to end up in semantics and language. It is seen as a bit of a contest for who can formulate the most clever Transitional Demand(TM), guaranteed to bridge the masses' consciousness to the next stage (read fine print for conditions and exceptions).

Then that demand is turned into a propaganda point, or a slogan, and used to recruit not the masses, but those narrower circles who may be interested in joining a socialist group.

One could argue that it's just more propaganda unless it's actually intersecting with large sections of the working classes moving into political action. That approach would be a good dose of humility. But it highlights the core problem: that socialists see themselves as a leadership-in-waiting, not as having a responsibility to lead now.

Socialist groups are small in Australia and the somewhat abstract debate around what is transitional or not detracts from a deeper question.

To understand what is transitional, in the sense of a demand that strikes against the interests of capital, short of calling for socialism -- we need to understand what are the current interests of capital.

More importantly, to strike against the interests of capital at all, there need to be enough of "the masses" willing to go and push for that in good numbers.

It is possible to identify an issue, find a mass constituency, and build a campaign that strikes a chord with, and perhaps mobilises, that constituency in support of it. Nothing is guaranteed. But identifying the strategic significance of an issue is a good first step.

That means to ask: what are the current interests, and particularly, weak points of capital that we are up against? What constituency (sections of the working class) will this campaign mobilise, and what strengths and weaknesses do they bring? What rival forces are in competition for (mis)leadership? What achievements will tell us we are winning, or have won? What first steps lead in that direction?

Fighting for a reform -- whether or not it is a "transitional" reform -- is what gets people into motion. Socialists have a lot to contribute: a class analysis that helps to identify exactly who is the enemy we need to defeat (which sectors of capital) and who are the allies we need to mobilise.

There are many issues that can bring people into action. If socialists want to show leadership, it's possible to find, test, and lead on such struggles. Too often, socialists simply appear on the sidelines of such struggles -- perhaps doing something useful, but mainly there to sell papers and network, and provide (not always useful) advice like a back-seat driver; too often, not to take responsibility for finding the ways to win and doing all it takes to get there.

Too much of the focus of left groups gets caught up in the treadmill of recruitment/propaganda. Recruitment, training new members are important -- but one reason that Socialist Alternative are so unattractive as a group to join with is that they really don't believe in breaking out of the propaganda/recruitment/propaganda treadmill to initiate, lead and take responsibility for campaigns to win reforms.

The discussion around "transitional reforms" and "transitional demands" makes much more sense in the concrete. If you are actually fighting for a specific reform. It is far more attractive when it's a tool that can help a campaign to build it's strength, something that socialists can contribute to help, not a point of propaganda with which we propose to educate the masses from on high.

The weakness of Socialist Alliance and much of the non-sectarian far left is that while there is plenty of good work done to support campaigns, not enough is done on the first stage of identifying strategy, strategic campaigns, and ways to win. Too much fighting the good fight, not enough trying to win it.

‘Transitional demands’ By Doug Lorimer

I've managed to dig up Doug's original piece on this issue, for comrades' information. Please note that it was part of a larger article in an internal RSP discussion bulletin. - O.R.

‘Transitional demands’

We have seen how the DSP leadership uses the phrases “transitional method” and “transitional demands” to justify the public presentation of left reformist politics as something that is consistent with its formally revolutionary socialist politics. The latest example is DSP NE member Simon Butler’s claim in the current edition of Green Left Weekly that “demanding that Australia’s capitalist government guarantee full employment” is “an important transitional demand that can open the road to even more radical developments”.2* In my opinion, such pseudo-Marxist centrism is given a certain “Marxist” authority by the notion, expressed in the 1994 DSP program, that there can actually be such a thing as a “transitional demand”.*

What is a “transitional demand”? According to the DSP program (and therefore our provisional program), “While supporting, and helping to lead, struggles for immediate reforms, the party rejects the reformist illusion that the fundamental problems facing the masses can be resolved by partial solutions, including those raised in transitional demands. The fundamental problems facing working people can be resolved only through the revolutionary seizure of power and reorganisation of the economy and society along socialist lines. The party places great importance on transitional demands because they relate to the immediate problems facing the masses while being objectively linked, in the conditions for their fulfillment, to these socialist goals.”

Furthermore, the program states: “In the course of mass struggles, the party advances demands that relate to the immediate problems facing working people but which challenge the power of the capitalists to control the lives of working people and the wealth they create, and which point to the need for working people to take political power into their own hands. Through the struggle for such transitional demands, the working class can develop its understanding of the need to overthrow capitalist rule and the means of doing so.”

Now a demand is a strong request for someone else to do something for you, for example, “We, the workers employed by General Motors-Holden, demand that you, the management of GMH, give us an immediate 5% wage rise.” A “transitional demand” would therefore be a strong request that the capitalist rulers introduce measures that “challenge the power of the capitalists to control the lives of working people and the wealth they create, and which point to the need for working people to take political power into their own hands”.

But why do demands for such measures “point to the need for working people to take political power into their own hands”? The program never clearly explains why, but it implies that “transitional demands” cannot be realised without the working people taking political power into their own hands, i.e., the basic condition for their realisation is the coming into being of a working people’s government. Thus the program states: “Workers' control [of capitalist-owned industry] thus constitutes a school for planned economy and a preparation for workers' self-management, which is possible only after the conquest of political power by the working class has opened the way for the expropriation of the key branches of capitalist production. Defence of working-class living and working conditions is thus inseparably connected with the struggle for a working people's government.”

Now, that is certainly true. But would getting masses of workers to campaign to demand that a capitalist government introduce measures that would be transitional to socialism if implemented by a working people’s government “point to the need for working people to take political power into their own hands”? Wouldn’t it simply foster in their minds the reformist delusion that their fundamental problems can be solved without them having to take political power into their own hands; i.e., that these problems can be solved by a capitalist government?

Let’s take the supposed “transitional demand” for workers’ control of production. Under the right conditions, revolutionary socialists agitate for workers to impose workers’ control of production under capitalist rule. Implementation by workers of such a measure would certainly pose a challenge to “the power of the capitalists to control the lives of working people and the wealth they create”. But workers control of production is a task we pose for the workers themselves to carry out, not something we demand individual capitalist employers or their government implement.

How would you formulate it as a demand to be implemented by a capitalist government? “We (workers) demand that the Rudd government pass a law through parliament that the Australian Electoral Commission organise the election of workers control committees in our workplaces”? Doesn’t this inescapably convey the idea that the Rudd government could, under the pressure of a mass campaign for this demand, attack “the power of the capitalists to control the lives of working people and the wealth they create”? Such an idea is a pseudo-socialist reformist delusion, betraying a complete lack of understanding of the bourgeois character of the ALP, the Rudd government, parliament and the Australian state bureaucracy. For “revolutionary socialists” to pretend that the Rudd government is capable of being pressured into attacking “the power of the capitalists to control the lives of working people and the wealth they create” is to shamelessly dupe working people.

Indeed, if consciously pursued as a method of attempting to mobilise the masses the very idea of “transitional demands”, i.e., requests for a capitalist government to implement measures transitional to socialism, involves propagating reformist delusions.

Transitional measures

This was not Lenin’s method in uniting and mobilising the working people to struggle to take political power into their own hands in Russia in 1917. During the acute revolutionary situation in Russia in 1917, Lenin carried out propaganda for a program of measures to combat the impending famine in Russia, measures such as the nationalisation of the banks, abolition of commercial secrecy, the nationalisation of the capitalist marketing syndicates, and workers’ control of production, i.e., workers’ control over their capitalist employers. But he did not put these measures forward as “transitional demands”, i.e., as measures that working people should demand that individual capitalists or their Provisional Government implement. Rather he stressed over and over again that their realisation was only possible “if the state power were revolutionary not only in word (i.e., if it did not fear to do away with inertia and routine), if it were democratic not only in word (i.e., if it acted in the interests of the majority of the people and not of a handful of rich men)”.3 Furthermore, he argued that the implementation of such measures by a “revolutionary-democratic government”, by a working people’s government, would constitute “steps toward socialism”.

“These steps”, he wrote even before his return to Russia in April 1917, “are dictated, with absolute inevitability, by the conditions created by the war, which in many respects will become still more acute in the post-war period. In their entirety and in their development these steps will mark the transition to socialism, which cannot be achieved in Russia directly, at one stroke, without transitional measures, but is quite achievable and urgently necessary as a result of such transitional measures.” But the precondition for these measures to have such a transitional character was that political power be transferred from “the government of the landlords and capitalists” to a “government of the workers and poorest peasants” through the soviets taking all state power into their hands.4

The idea of “transitional measures” of course is contained in the Communist Manifesto. It argued that “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

It then noted that “Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.”

It then presented a list of 10 such measures which it argued were generally applicable in the most advanced countries, including nationalisation of the land, a “heavy progressive or graduated income tax”, nationalisation of the banks, “centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state”, “extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state” and “free education for all children in public schools”.

These were only conceived of as transitional measures, as “despotic inroads on the rights of [bourgeois] property and on the conditions of bourgeois production”, and “means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production” only because of the class character of the state power that would be implementing them, i.e., “the proletariat organised as the ruling class”. Implemented by a bourgeois state power, as nearly all of them were by the French bourgeois republic under the petty-bourgeois Jacobin revolutionary-democratic government of 1793-94, they did not have such a transitional character. In the latter case, these measures were means of temporarily mobilising the working masses of France to carry out a ruthless war of defence of the French bourgeois republic against feudal-monarchist ruled Europe.

In 1917 Lenin pointed out that the economic measures he advocated be implemented in Russia, such as state control over the banks, were being implemented in wartime Germany by the government of the capitalists and the big semi-feudal landowners. As a result they were simply “war-time state-monopoly capitalism, or, to put it more simply and clearly, war-time penal servitude for the workers and war-time protection for capitalist profits”. But when implemented by a “a revolutionary-democratic state, i.e., a state which in a revolutionary way abolishes all privileges and does not fear to introduce the fullest democracy in a revolutionary way” such state-monopoly capitalism, Lenin pointed out, “inevitably and unavoidably implies a step, and more than one step, towards socialism” because “socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly”.5 Whether such measures were transitional to socialism or a reactionary-bureaucratic means of protecting capitalist profits depended on the class character of the government that implemented them.

In 1917 Lenin also put forward two central slogans to summarise the list of measures the Bolsheviks advocated be fought for by the workers and peasants: “Bread, peace and land!” and “All power to the soviets!” These were agitational (i.e., mobilising) slogans, not demands addressed to the capitalist Provisional Government. A slogan is a short, easily remembered phrase encapsulating an idea.
Transitional slogans and
‘transitional demands’

The confusion of “transitional demands” with such mobilising slogans seems to have been partly introduced into the Marxist movement at the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921 and then generalised by Trotsky in his 1938 Transitional Program.

In his report on the resolution “On Tactics” to the Comintern’s Third Congress, Karl Radek, speaking for the Bolshevik-led Comintern executive committee, singled out two slogans that the Communist parties should conduct propaganda and mass agitation for. The first was “workers’ control of production”. He pointed out that “one must try to lead all struggles over wage rises, over working hours, against unemployment towards the intermediate aim of control over production, not towards the system of production, control effected by the government, by passing a law, which the proletariat has then to respect, that the worker does not steal, and the capitalist has to watch that the worker works. Control over production means education in proletarian struggle, all factory organisations to be subject to elections, their local and district-wide connection on the basis of industrial groups in the proletarian struggle.”

Radek named “the arming of the proletariat, the disarming of the bourgeoisie” as the second slogan, drawing the following general conclusion: “One could mention even more slogans of that type. I will not do so. They grow out of the practical struggle. What we say to you, give to you as a general slogan, as a general orientation is, not to counterpose yourselves to the proletariat in all the struggles, which the masses undertake, but to sharpen, to extend the struggles of the masses for their practical necessities, and to teach them to have greater necessities: the necessity to conquer power.”5

These two slogans, by their nature, were conceived of as conveying tasks to be accomplished by the working class in a revolutionary situation, not demands to be addressed to capitalist governments. If fought for by a mass revolutionary movement and partially realised, even before the working class had conquered political power, they would weaken capitalist rule in the workplaces and the bourgeois state power, and provide the workers with organisations capable of carrying out a revolutionary struggle for power – factory committees and a workers’ militia. The partial realisation of these measures against the resistance of the bourgeoisie, and the attempt to extend them, would pose the question of power in its full extent. They were thus “transitional slogans”, conveying the key tasks to be accomplished by the workers in making a transition from “struggles of the masses for their practical necessities” to the struggle for power.

However, in the resolution “On Tactics” adopted by the Third Congress7 the idea of such “transitional slogans” appears to be mixed up with the concept of “demands” to be addressed to the capitalists and their governments. The resolution stated: “All the agitation, propaganda and political work of the Communist Parties must start from the understanding that no long-term improvement in the position of the proletariat is possible under capitalism and that only the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the destruction of capitalist states will make possible the transformation of working-class living conditions and the reconstruction of the economy ruined by capitalism. This does not mean, however, that the proletariat has to renounce the fight for its immediate practical demands until after it has established its dictatorship.

“Even though capitalism is in progressive decline and is unable to guarantee the workers even a life of well-fed slavery, social democracy continues to put forward its old programme of peaceful reforms to be carried out on the basis and within the framework of the bankrupt capitalist system. This is a deliberate deception of the working masses. Although it is evident that capitalism in its present stage of decline is incapable of guaranteeing workers a decent human existence, the social democrats and reformists everywhere are daily demonstrating their unwillingness and inability to fight even for the most modest demands in their programme. The demand advanced by the centrist parties for the socialisation or nationalisation of the most important branches of industry is equally a deception because it is not linked to a demand for victory over the bourgeoisie. The centrists want to divert the workers from the real, vital struggle for their immediate goals by holding out the hope that industrial forms can be taken over gradually, one by one, and that ‘systematic’ economic construction can then begin. The social democrats are thus retreating to their minimum programme, which now stands clearly revealed as a counter-revolutionary fraud.”

While this makes a generally correct criticism of the approach of the reformists and centrists, it is marred by a confusing formulation. What is “a demand for victory over the bourgeoisie”?

The resolution continues: “Some centrists think that their programme of nationalisation (e.g., of the mining industry) is in line with the Lassallean idea of concentrating all the energies of the proletariat on a single demand, using it as a lever of revolutionary action that then develops into the struggle for power. However, this theory is false. In the capitalist countries the working class suffers too much; the gnawing hardships and the blows that rain down thick and fast on the workers cannot be fought by fixing all attention on a single demand chosen in a doctrinaire fashion. On the contrary, revolutionary action should be organised around all the demands raised by the masses, and these separate actions will gradually merge into a powerful movement for social revolution.”

Then the resolution states: “The Communist Parties do not put forward minimum programmes which could serve to strengthen and improve the tottering foundations of capitalism. The Communists’ main aim is to destroy the capitalist system. But in order to achieve their aim the Communist Parties must put forward demands expressing the immediate needs of the working class. The Communists must organise mass campaigns to fight for these demands regardless of whether they are compatible with the continuation of the capitalist system. The Communist Parties should be concerned not with the viability and competitive capacity of capitalist industry or the stability of the capitalist economy, but with proletarian poverty, which cannot and must not be endured any longer. If the demands put forward by the Communists correspond to the immediate needs of the broad proletarian masses, and if the masses are convinced that they cannot go on living unless their demands are met, then the struggle around these issues becomes the starting-point of the struggle for power. In place of the minimum programme 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.”

This implies that the Communist should organise mass campaigns for demands (addressed to the capitalists and their government) for measures 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”. But, as the resolution has earlier explained, demanding that a capitalist government “challenge the power of the bourgeoisie” and “organise the proletariat” is a reformist or centrist deception.

A little further on, the resolution states: “The Communist Parties should make certain that the demands they put forward not only correspond to the demands of the broad masses, but also draw the masses into battle and lay the basis for organising them. Concrete slogans that express the economic need of the working masses must lead to the struggle for control of industry – control based not on a plan to organise the economy bureaucratically and under the capitalist system, but on the factory committees and revolutionary trade unions.” Here the resolution switches from urging Communists to build mass campaigns for demands on the capitalists spontaneously raised “by the broad masses” to urging Communists to conduct agitation around “concrete slogans” aimed at mobilising the workers to struggle “for control of industry” by “factory committees and revolutionary trade unions”. Nowhere in the resolution are any examples provided of the “demands” or “concrete slogans” it proposed the Communists campaign for.

At the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in November 1922, the Russian delegation (consisting of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin) issued a statement that seemed to equate “transitional demands” and “transitional slogans”. It declared: “The dispute over how the transitional demands should be formulated and in which section of the program they should be included has awakened a completely erroneous impression that there exists a principled difference. In light of this, the Russian delegation unanimously confirms that the drawing up of transitional slogans in the programs of the national sections and their general formulation and theoretical motivation in the general section of the program cannot be interpreted as opportunism.”8

This blurring of the distinction between demands and slogans is evident in Trotsky’s approach to drawing up a “transitional program”. In his 1934 article “Whither France?”, Trotsky wrote: “The struggle for power must begin with the fundamental idea that if opposition to further aggravation of the situation of the masses under capitalism is still possible, no real improvement of their situation is conceivable without a revolutionary invasion of the right of capitalist property. The political campaign of the united front must base itself upon a well-elaborated transition program, i.e., on a system of measures which with a workers’ and peasants’ government can assure the transition from capitalism to socialism.” But a few sentences later he refers to this as a “program of transitional demands”.9

In Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Program, he states that “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.” But when he came to present what might be thought of as concrete examples of these “demands” he referred to them as both “demands” (presumably to be addressed to the capitalists or their government) and as “slogans” aimed at uniting and mobilising the workers to “challenge the power of the bourgeoisie” as though they were the same thing. Thus he wrote: “The slogan of soviets … crowns the program of transitional demands.”10 Only a complete centrist cretin however would think that the creation of soviets is a demand to be addressed by workers to the capitalist rulers. Of course, Trotsky was not a centrist (after he was won over to Bolshevism in 1917), but his description of “transitional slogans” (addressed to the masses and aimed at mobilising them for a struggle for power) as “transitional demands” has opened the way for opportunists moving away from revolutionary socialism to give their left reformism a pseudo-revolutionary cover.

Revolutionary socialists can formulate a set of transitional measures to be implemented by a working people’s government (as Marx and Engels did in the Communist Manifesto, and as Lenin did in 1917), but this is not a program of demands to be addressed to the capitalists. Similarly, we can formulate “transitional slogans” to be used in an acute revolutionary crisis as the basis for agitation to mobilise the working masses to “challenge the power of the bourgeoisie”, but these will not be demands to be addressed to the capitalist rulers. The demands that we advocate working people address to the capitalist rulers are demands for concessions (reforms) from them that if realised will improve the working people’s living standards and working conditions. They do not in and of themselves “challenge the power of the capitalists to control the lives of working people and the wealth they create”. Only mass struggles by the working people themselves consciously aimed at the conquest of power and the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist political and economic system can do that.

Clarification of a correct revolutionary approach to transitional measures, transitional slogans and socalled transitional demands, in my opinion, is an important task for our party in reviewing the provisional program for possible amendments. As I said at the beginning of this report, the concrete motion arising out this report is that the NC commission’s the NE secretariat to review the provisional constitution and provisional program for possible amendments (with political motivation) to be presented for the PCD and for vote at the congress.

[*Butler doesn’t provide any explanation as to how “demanding that Australia’s capitalist government guarantee full employment” can “open the road to even more radical developments”. But I presume that the thinking that runs behind this claim is based on the correct idea that it impossible for a capitalist government to “guarantee full employment” as this would mean it would have to eliminate the reserve army of labour, the existence of which is a necessary condition for the existence of capitalism. So, if “revolutionary socialists” can get masses of workers to campaign to demand that the capitalist government “guarantee full employment” this will “open the road to even more radical developments”. Getting such a mass campaign going would require revolutionary socialists to conduct propaganda to convince large numbers of workers that they should undertake such a mass campaign. You’re not going to do that if you tell them the truth, i.e., that no capitalist government can “guarantee full employment” (in Butler’s view that’s simply “criticism of capitalist economic theories in the abstract”). So such propaganda has to lie to them, i.e., peddle the bourgeois-reformist deception that “full employment” can be “guaranteed” by a capitalist government. Hence the full page of Keynesian (bourgeois-reformist) propaganda in GLW #785 (“Could government provide full employment”).]

Notes
1. Available at
.
2. See “Write On: Letters to the Editor”, GLW #787.
3. Lenin, (“Nationalisation of the Banks” in) “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It”, Collected Works Vol. 25 (available at
).
4. Lenin, “Letters From Afar; Fifth Letter: The Tasks Involved in Building the Revolutionary Proletarian State”, CW Vol. 23 (available at

5. Lenin, (“Can We Go Forward If We Fear to Advance Towards Socialism” in) “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It”.
6. Quoted in August Thalheimer, “Strategy and Tactics of the Communist International: What are Transitional Slogans?” (available at
.
7. Available at
.
8. Quoted from Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale (1923), p. 542, in Ernest Mandel, The Leninist Theory of Organisation (available at .
10. Trotsky, The Transitional Program (available at ).

Appendix: A ‘transitional program’ without ‘transitional demands’

Below is the final section of the resolution on “The Communist International and the Red International of Labour Unions” adopted by the Third Congress of the Comintern in July 1921. It provided a concrete “Program of Action” to guide the work of the Communist-led trade unions in the capitalist countries, grouped together in the RILU (Profintern). It gives an example of a “transitional program” (a program that aims to take the mass of workers from their daily struggles to defend their jobs, wages and working conditions to the level of class-consciousness and organisation needed to achieve the proletarian revolution) without advocating any “transitional demands”. All of the points contained in the Comintern resolution’s “Program of Action” were further elaborated in a pamphlet written in August-October 1921 by Russian Communist Party central committee member Abram Lozovsky, who was also general secretary of the RILU. This pamphlet is available at
– Doug Lorimer

Program of Action

1 The acute world economic crisis, the catastrophic fall of wholesale prices, the overproduction of goods coupled with their actual scarcity, the aggressive anti-working-class policy pursued by the bourgeoisie, which aims at lowering wages and throwing the workers back decades – all this has led to discontent among the masses on the one hand and to the bankruptcy of the old trade unions and their methods of struggle on the other. The revolutionary, class-conscious trade unions the world over are confronted with new tasks. In this period of capitalist disintegration new forms of economic struggle have to be adopted and the trade unions have to pursue an aggressive economic policy in order to counter the capitalist attack and go over to the offensive.

2 The main tactic of the trade unions has to be the direct action of the revolutionary masses and their organisations against the capitalist system. The gains the workers make are in direct proportion to the degree of direct action taken and of revolutionary pressure exerted by the masses. By direct action is meant all forms of direct pressure on the employers and the state – boycotts, strikes, street demonstrations, the seizure of factories, armed insurrection and other revolutionary activities which unite the working class in the struggle for socialism. The aim of the revolutionary class trade unions is therefore to make direct action an instrument in the education and military training of the working masses for the social revolution and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

3 The most recent years of struggle have shown especially clearly the weakness of the trade-union organisations. The fact that workers in the same enterprise belong to several different unions reduces their ability to struggle. An unremitting fight therefore has to be fought to restructure the unions so that each union represents a whole branch of industry instead of a single trade. “Only one union in a factory” – this is the organisational slogan. The fusion of unions should be carried out in a revolutionary way – the question should be discussed directly by the members of the unions at the factories and subsequently by district and regional conferences and national congresses.

4 Each factory must become a stronghold of the revolution. The traditional forms of contact between rank-and-file members of the unions (through dues collectors, representatives, delegates) must be superseded by the formation of factory committees. All workers, whatever their political convictions, should participate in the election of the factory committees. RILU supporters should strive to involve all the workers of the factory in the elections of their representative body. Any attempt to elect exclusively like-minded comrades to the factory committees, thus excluding the broad masses who remain outside the Party, should be sharply condemned. This would be a Party cell rather than a factory committee. The revolutionary workers must influence the general meeting and the factory committee through the Party cells, the committees of action and the work of their rank-and-file members.

5 The first question which needs to be put before the workers and the factory committees is the issue of maintenance money that employers should pay workers made redundant. In no circumstance should factory owners be allowed to throw workers out onto the streets without bearing any of the consequences. They ought to pay full redundancy pay. The unemployed and, to an even greater extent, the employed workers should be organised around this question. They should be shown that the problem of unemployment cannot be solved as long as capitalist relations exist and that the best method of beating unemployment is to fight for social revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

6 At the present time the closure of factories and the reduction of the working day are two of the most important weapons used by the bourgeoisie to force the workers to accept lower wages, longer hours and the ending of factory agreements. The lock-out is increasingly becoming the form of ‘direct action’ used by the organised employers against the organised working masses. The unions must fight the closure of factories and demand that the workers have the right to investigate the reasons behind the closure. Special control commissions to deal with raw materials, fuel and orders must be established to carry out on-the-spot checks of the raw materials in stock, the materials essential to production and the bank balance of the factory or institution.
Specially elected control committees must undertake a thorough investigation of financial relations between the concern in question and other concerns – this raises in a practical way the need to open the books.

7 Factory occupations and work-ins are also forms of struggle against the mass closure of factories and wage cuts. In view of the prevailing lack of consumer goods, it is particularly important that production be maintained and unions should not permit the deliberate closure of factories. Other methods of putting pressure on capital can and must be used, in accordance with local conditions, the industrial and political situation, and the intensity of the social struggle. The administration of factories occupied by workers should be placed in the hands of factory committees and union representatives specially picked for the purpose.

8 The economic struggle should be fought around the slogan of raising wages and working conditions far above pre-war levels. Attempts to reintroduce pre-war working conditions must be resisted in a determined and revolutionary manner. The working class must be compensated for the privations of war-time by an increase in wages and an improvement in labour conditions. Capitalist arguments about foreign competition should always be disregarded: the revolutionary trade unions must approach the question of wages and labour conditions from the standpoint of the protection and the welfare of the labour force and not from the standpoint of competition between the exploiters of different nations.

9 If capitalist policy, as a result of the economic crisis, is leading to wage cuts, the revolutionary trade unions should make sure that their forces are not divided by wages being lowered first in one factory then in another. The workers in the socially useful branches of the economy (miners, railway workers, electricity and gas workers) must struggle from the start so that the resistance to the capitalist attack affects the key centres of the country’s economic life. All types of resistance, from guerrilla actions to general national strikes of individual basic industries, can be used.

10 The trade unions must consider in practical terms the question of preparing and organising industrial strike action in particular industries on an international scale. The temporary standstill on an international scale of transport or coal-mining is a powerful weapon against the reactionary intentions of the bourgeoisie. The trade unions must follow world events closely in order to choose the most appropriate moment for economic struggle. They must not for a moment forget that international action of any kind is only possible with the formation of international trade unions that are genuinely revolutionary and have nothing in common with the scab Amsterdam International.

11 The revolutionary movement must strongly criticise the absolute faith in the value of collective agreements preached by opportunists everywhere. The collective agreement is nothing more than an armistice. The owners always violate these agreements at the earliest opportunity. This religious attitude towards collective agreements is evidence that bourgeois ideology is firmly rooted in the minds of the leaders of the working class. Revolutionary trade unions must not reject collective agreements, but they must understand that their value is limited, and must be prepared to break the agreements when this benefits the working class.

12 The struggle of the workers’ organisations against the individual employer or groups of employers should, while adapting itself to national and local conditions, also draw on all the experience acquired in previous struggles for working-class emancipation. Every important strike, for example, needs to be thoroughly prepared. Furthermore, from the outset the workers must form special groups to fight the strike-breakers and combat the provocative action of the various kinds of right-wing organisation which are encouraged by the bourgeois governments. The Fascists in Italy, the German technical emergency relief, the civilian organisations in France and Britain whose membership is composed of former officers and N.C.O.s – all these organisations have as their object the destruction and suppression of all working-class activity, not only by providing scab labour, but by smashing the working-class organisations and getting rid of their leaders. In such situations the organisation of special strike militias and special self-defence groups is a matter of life and death.

13 These defence organisations should not only resist the factory owners and the strike-breaking organisations – they should take the initiative in stopping the dispatch of goods to and from the factory where the strike is in progress. The transport workers’ union should play a particularly prominent role in such activity: it is its responsibility to hold up goods in transit, which can only be done, however, with the full support of all the workers in the area.

14 In the coming period the entire economic struggle of the working class must be conducted around the slogan of workers’ control over production. The workers should fight for the immediate introduction of workers’ control and not wait for the government and the ruling classes to think up some alternative. An uncompromising struggle has to be waged against all attempts by the ruling classes and the reformists to create intermediary labour associations and control commissions. Only when strict control over production is introduced can results be achieved. The revolutionary trade unions must resolutely fight against the way the leaders of the traditional unions, aided and abetted by the ruling class, use the idea of ‘nationalisation’ to blackmail and swindle the workers. These gentlemen talk about peaceful socialisation only to divert the workers from revolutionary activity and social revolution.

15 Ideas of profit-sharing are put forward in order to play on the petty-bourgeois aspirations of the workers, diverting their attention from their long-term goals. Profit-sharing means that workers receive an insignificant part of the surplus value they produce, and the idea should therefore be subjected to harsh and rigorous criticism. “Not profit-sharing, but an end to capitalist profit” should be the slogan of the revolutionary unions.

16 In order to reduce or break the fighting power of the working class, the bourgeois states have resorted, under the pretence of protecting vital industries, to the temporary militarisation of industrial factories and whole branches of industry. Compulsory arbitration and conciliation commissions have been introduced, allegedly to prevent economic crises, but in actual fact to defend capital. In the interests of capital, direct taxation has been introduced, which places the burden of the war expenditure entirely on the shoulders of the workers and turns the employer into a tax-collector. The trade unions must put up a fierce fight against these state measures that serve only the interests of the capitalist class.

17 When they struggle for better labour conditions and living standards for the masses and the introduction of workers’ control, the Red unions should remember that these problems cannot be lastingly settled within the framework of capitalist relations. As the revolutionary trade unions win concessions from the ruling classes, step by step, forcing them to pass social legislation, they must make it clear to the working masses that only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat can solve the social question. They must use every action, every local strike, every conflict, however minor, to argue their point. They must draw the lessons from the experience of struggle, raising the consciousness of the rank and file and preparing the workers for the time when it will be necessary and possible to achieve the social revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

18 Every economic struggle is a political struggle, i.e., a struggle that concerns the class as a whole. However great working-class participation, the struggle can only be revolutionary and bring the proletariat maximum benefit if the revolutionary trade unions work in a close and unified fashion with the Communist Party of the country in question. The theory and practice of dividing the working-class struggle into two independent halves is extremely harmful, particularly in the present revolutionary situation. Every action requires the greatest possible concentration of forces, which can only be achieved if the working class, and all its Communist and revolutionary elements, give their utmost to the revolutionary struggle. If the Communist Parties and the revolutionary class-conscious trade unions work separately, their action is doomed to failure and defeat. It is for this reason that unity of action and close contact between the Communist Parties and the trade unions are prerequisites for success in the struggle against capitalism. l

Transitional demands - further reply to Doug Lorimer

Thanks to Owen for sending this document, which I assume is part of a report by Doug Lorimer to the former RSP national committee.

In the report, Lorimer says: “We have seen how the DSP leadership uses the phrases ‘transitional method’ and ‘transitional demands’ to justify the public presentation of left reformist politics as something that is consistent with its formally revolutionary socialist politics….In my opinion, such pseudo-Marxist centrism is given a certain ‘Marxist’ authority by the notion, expressed in the 1994 DSP program, that there can actually be such a thing as a ‘transitional demand’”.

This implies that Lorimer sees the DSP as having been flawed from its inception, since we always regarded Trotsky’s Transitional Program as a guide to action, and thought that “there can actually be such a thing as a ‘transitional demand’”.

Lorimer quotes from the DSP program: “In the course of mass struggles, the party advances demands that relate to the immediate problems facing working people but which challenge the power of the capitalists to control the lives of working people and the wealth they create, and which point to the need for working people to take political power into their own hands. Through the struggle for such transitional demands, the working class can develop its understanding of the need to overthrow capitalist rule and the means of doing so”.

In response, Lorimer asks: “But would getting masses of workers to campaign to demand that a capitalist government introduce measures that would be transitional to socialism if implemented be a working people’s government ‘point to the need for working people to take political power into their own hands’? Wouldn’t it simply foster in their minds the reformist delusion that their fundamental problems can be solved without them having to take political power into their own hands, i.e. that these problems can be solved by a capitalist government?”

This is formalistic thinking. We expect that, in the process of fighting for demands placed on the capitalist government, workers will strengthen their unions and perhaps create new organizational forms, and will, to varying degrees, develop their political consciousness. If the government grants the demands, at least partially, workers will gain confidence. If the government rejects the demands, some workers will see the need for a socialist government. If socialists play a role in leading the movement, our critique of capitalism and our call for a socialist government have a much better chance of being taken seriously by the workers.

Lorimer says: “During the acute revolutionary situation in Russia in 1917, Lenin carried out propaganda for a program of measures to combat the impending famine in Russia, measures such as the nationalisation of the banks, abolition of commercial secrecy, the nationalisation of the capitalist marketing syndicates, and workers’ control of production, i.e. workers’ control over their capitalist employers. But he did not put these measures forward as ‘transitional demands’, i.e. as measures that working people should demand that individual capitalists or their Provisional Government implement. Rather he stressed over and over again that their realisation was only possible ‘if the state power were revolutionary not only in word (i.e. if it did not fear to do away with inertia and routine), if it were democratic not only in word (i.e. if it acted in the interest of the majority of the people and not of a handful of rich men)’. Furthermore, he argued that the implementation of such measures by a ‘revolutionary-democratic government’, by a working people’s government, would constitute ‘steps toward socialism’”.

Lenin was writing in a situation where soviets already existed. In Australia today soviets do not exist. Demands for nationalisation of the banks, mines, car industry, etc can only be put on the existing capitalist government. Struggling for these demands will boost workers’ strength and political consciousness, and help create the conditions for the eventual creation of organs of popular power.

Lorimer says: “In Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Program, he states that ‘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’. But when he came to present what might be thought of as concrete examples of these ‘demands’, he referred to them as both ‘demands’ (presumably to be addressed to the capitalists or their government) and as ‘slogans’ aimed at uniting and mobilizing the workers to ‘challenge the power of the bourgeoisie’ as though they were the same thing”.

However, it is Lorimer who is confused, not Trotsky.

The Transitional Program includes some slogans which are demands on the ruling class or the government (e.g. sliding scale of wages, sliding scale of hours, public works, abolition of business secrets, expropriation of specific groups of capitalists, expropriation of private banks).

The Transitional Program also includes other slogans which are “tasks to be carried out by the working class” (to quote a phrase used by Lorimer in his reply to James Crafti – see my previous response to Lorimer). These “tasks” include the formation of factory committees, workers militia, soviets, etc.

The TP also includes demands on the leadership of various organisations. For example: “Of all the parties and organisations which base themselves on the workers and peasants and speak in their name, we demand that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers and farmers government”.

The slogans representing “demands” and the slogans representing “tasks” are intermingled throughout the Transitional Program. This is because Trotsky saw a close relationship between the demands and the organisations set up by the working class to fight for them.

Lorimer continues: “Thus he [Trotsky] wrote: ‘The slogan of soviets….crowns the program of transitional demands’. Only a complete centrist cretin however would think that the creation of soviets is a demand to be addressed by workers to the capitalist rulers”.

Trotsky was not saying that the creation of soviets is a demand on the capitalist rulers (which would be absurd). I think he probably meant that the creation of soviets is the culmination of a process that begins with the struggle for transitional demands.

Lorimer continues: “Of course, Trotsky was not a centrist (after he was won over to Bolshevism in 1917), but his description of ‘transitional slogans’ (addressed to the masses and aimed at mobilizing them for a struggle for power) as ‘transitional demands’ has opened the way for opportunists moving away from revolutionary socialism to give their left reformism a pseudo-revolutionary cover”.

I am glad to know that Lorimer didn’t think that Trotsky was a centrist, but it is a pity he didn’t think more carefully about what Trotsky was trying to say.

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