Posted on behalf of Daniel Lopez
Hey! Ok, so I've got a few thoughts on this article. But first, a clarification. I wouldn't take Omar's position to be Socialist Alternative's. Not that I disagree with him, or even think that many comrades would. It's just that we don't have an organisational view on the Transitional Program or method. This does reflect a scepticism that the International Socialist Tendency has always had towards the orthodox Trotskyist obsession with programs. Not that I'm accusing the the Alliance of this, its just the tradition that Soc. Alt comes from. Similarly, what I write here is my take. We haven't discussed the article as a group and come to a position on it.
Now, personally, I prefer a conception of socialist strategy based on Lukacs, for a range of reasons that I'm going to have to write up in an article one of these days. In short, I feel that Trotsky's brilliance was as a day-to-day political leader following that as a journalistic historian. His political interventions in the late 20s and 30s are as good as Lenin's in his day. They still define the politics of fascism, united fronts, etc. And The History of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of magnificent. Yet, I feel that Trotsky was never a really thorough-going theorist. Many of his terms - and I think the transitional program is a perfect example of this - tend towards stasis and are open to fetishisation. Permanent revolution is another example. Lukacs, on the other hand, of the classical Marxist tradition, understood the dialectic the best. Also, I am a big supporter of Gramsci. But this is all a digression.
Now, I could pick out a lot of things with the article. For instance, I feel like the distinction between "immediate, democratic and transitional" demands is arbitrary. Each of these types of demand can, given the context, simultaneously be an other type, or all three. So, immediate demands - defined by the article as ones arising from the economic struggle at the point of production - can be democratic. The right to strike, for instance. They can be transitional - the 8 hour day in a deep economic crisis. "Democratic" demands are experienced "immediately" by the people to whom they most apply. The experience of homophobia is an immediate reality for gays and lesbians. Similarly, they almost always have an economic dimension - sexism and wage parity, for example. And in a sufficiently revolutionary situation, almost every demand can be transitional. Yet, things that were previously transitional - for example, almost all of the demands Marx and Engels put forward in 1848 - can be achieved, or at best, become quite moderate.
But, again, back to the main game: I wanted to raise two main points. They are 1) the issue of context and 2) the question of for whom we are formulating demands and a program.
So, firstly, context. Interestingly, the two major influences the article cites - Lenin and Trotsky - are explicit that their political context makes a transitional approach possible. Both strongly imply that it would be impossible outside a revolutionary context.
So, Trotsky writes: "This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion..." (All emphasis my own)
"The present epoch is distinguished not for the fact that it frees the revolutionary party from day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried on indissolubly with the actual tasks of the revolution."
And Lenin writes: "The present epoch is revolutionary precisely because the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society, and the struggle for these demands is therefore bound to develop into the struggle for communism."
This talk of epochs is not just window dressing or a rather orthodox stylistic flourish. It is real. As Lukacs points out in his excellent book "Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought", the first thing that differentiated Lenin from his more moderate social-democratic comrades in Germany was that his political practice was always oriented towards a revolutionary situation that was in reality becoming tangible. Lukacs terms this the "actuality of revolution".
For Lenin, revolution wasn't a pious dream or a utopia. It wasn't abstract, it was actually something on the objective horizon. On the other hand, in the late 1800s in Germany, it was only possible to conceive of revolution in the abstract. I.e., the actual, real forces that would create a revolutionary situation were too well buried by the healthy appearance of capitalism. This is what created the dichotomy between minimum and maximum demands became orthodoxy. So, on this point, I agree with Omar. Maybe a genius leader or core to the SPD could have avoided this, but its impossible to say. Indeed, the absence of the actuality of revolution has wrecked more groups than state repression. Remember the 50s? Nowhere in the west was revolution on the agenda. As the Trotskyists cruelly found out, the best transitional demands couldn't overcome the objective situation.
Whereas, if you read one of the earliest drafts of the RSDLP's program by Lenin, available here: [http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1899/dec/draft.htm], he is absolutely explicit. It is a work in progress. And it's validity is not the product of abstract deliberation, but of the real political questions that face real strata in Russian society. In other words, it is written in terms of the actuality of the Russian revolution.
Now, how is this relevant? Simply put, we can't even perceive the dim outlines of what a revolution would look like in this country. So, to pretend that our demands lead towards a revolution, simply because they logically contradict the priorities of capitalism, is equal parts voluntarism and Utopianism. It is also unhelpful rhetoric because it prevents us interrogating the real strengths and weaknesses of different campaigns and demands by insisting on dressing everything up as somehow transitional.
And at any rate, comrades in the Alliance have never argued that their approach grasps the objective key to some revolutionary situation.
Rather, Holmes writes: "Many demands might appear modest but neoliberalism is going 100% in the opposite direction in every single area. Our overarching slogans of “Community need, not developer greed” and “People before profit” summed it up and our message really appealed to a significant number of people... Overall, in the given situation, our Moreland program was a transitional one. It implied a radically different set of priorities and pointed towards a different sort of society even if we really only touched on this."
At best, this is an argument (a disputable one, at that), that logically the Moreland program goes beyond capitalism. (And here, I would like to note, there is a difference between contradicting the priorities of capitalism and actually posing measures to overcome it.) It isn't an argument that the program is the key to the revolutionary situation, or even to taking mass struggle forward. Indeed, I have never seen Alliance comrades argue that their strategies and demands are founded on an objective analysis of the tasks of revolution in Australia. And well that it is so! As I have tried to show, in both Lenin and Trotsky's view, this is precisely what transitional demands had to do. And as I have argued, I think it is impossible to do this in Australia today.
This is not the case everywhere in the world. I would argue that in much of Southern Europe the "actuality of revolution" is rapidly becoming visible, as it has been in Venezuela for years. In those countries, it is possible to start formulating a strategy for socialist revolution, including demands and programs.
Yet, so far, this is all an argument about the objective situation. The other side of it is subjective - I.e., what is the working class and other oppressed groups thinking and fighting for? In Australia, there are precious few struggles (this borders on another debate, I know). And those that exist are tiny and usually at a low level of politics and militancy. The few exceptions only serve to highlight this fact.
So, there is no evidence, and nor has any been presented, than any sections of the Australian population regard anything put forward by the Socialist Alliance as key issues to fight around. This is a strong formulation, obviously. And I certainly don't deny that the Alliance comrades have had some success (and I still wish you well!) in winning popular support for aspects of your program. But, there is a difference. There is no evidence whatsoever that any section of the population sees nationalisation as a key political issue for solving the crisis of capitalism, or the problems that face their lives. Most people don't even see that there is a crisis of capitalism. And nationalisation is hardly part of the political vocabulary anymore. Rather, what your election results prove to me is that some thousands think your election rhetoric is more agreeable than the other parties. This is good, but lets not dress it up as more than it is!
Now, I'm not saying Socialist Alternative does anything much differently. We decide on campaigns that are intended to mobilise layers broader than our own. And we try to present those campaigns popularly and to take the struggle seriously. But we are under no illusions that any of it is transitional. Take the fight for same sex marriage or Palestine. Not a jot of it is transitional (notwithstanding the fact that a just solution for the Palestinians is not possible under capitalism.) Why? Simply because the key questions of the Australian revolution are not visible. We could speculate, but that would be abstract and metaphysical. And we do make he argument that oppression will always exist under capitalism, so thorough going opposition to oppression needs to challenge it. But this is just propaganda. Useful propaganda, sure.
Rather, when the crisis intensifies, and layers of the population start to move and politicise, in a dialogue with them and in struggle, hopefully we will be able to contribute towards an understanding of the key questions of revolution in this country. And, if appropriate, we could codify that into a set of demands or program. But that is a long way off. For the moment, an attempt to outline transitional demands, in my view, is inevitably utopian. This is because the context, at the moment, almost completely overrides our capacity for subjective intervention.
So on to my second major point. This flows to some extent from my above comments. The question has to be asked: who is formulating the transitional program, or demands, and for whom? Trotsky and Lenin both firmly believed - again, as evidenced by their quotes - that the main criterion for correctness in a program or demands was the working class.
In addition to the Trotsky I have already quoted, he says a revolutionary epoch is "when every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state."
And, in addition to that which I have already quoted, Lenin writes this: "It is not a question of appealing to the proletariat to fight for the ultimate goal, but of developing the practical struggle which alone can lead the proletariat to the struggle for the ultimate goal …
The present epoch is revolutionary precisely because the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society."
Once more, the talk about the proletariat should not be taken as window dressing. The proletariat is not just a theoretical object to be wheeled out to give justification to whatever program a party leadership is putting forward. To be loyal to the actual meaning of Lenin and Trotsky, we have to understand their words as saying that only demands which actually relate to the working class and oppressed masses can be validly considered transitional.
Once more, there is no evidence that anything much the Alliance (or Socialist Alternative) puts forward fits this criteria! Thousands of votes in Geelong and Moreland is the best Holmes can come up with. But this a hardly constitutes an independent demand, let alone struggle that in any way borders on the revolutionary!
Indeed, based on this understanding, no one in Australia is in a position to put forward genuine transitional demands or a transitional program. Partly because the situation doesn't allow it, as per my first major point. And partly because no one has even one tenth of the connection to the working class that would be required to start working this question out.
So what can we do today? Formulate priorities for ourselves. We aren't talking for the class, or even a section of it. We are just deciding what the socialist groups will put their resources into. We all agree this involves throwing ourselves into struggles. We all agree that this at times means leading struggles. And, the relative importance of an issue to Australian politics is a big factor. And finally, we all (although we perhaps differ about the definition of this) agree this means building a revolutionary Marxist cadre. Where we seem to differ is simple. None of this can or should be understood as transitional.
So, all of this argument about transitional demands and methods aside, I believe that the real issue is a little more prosaic. Basically, in my view, the priorities that Socialist Alliance have set don't help to build a serious, cadre based revolutionary group in Australia today.
I was quoted in the article as questioning the local council election strategy, but my rationale for this wasn't given - the selection of my quote was ambiguous. While I still welcome Sue's win and the high vote in Geelong, I can't for the life of me imagine how you will recruit and train young, serious Marxist revolutionaries in Moreland, while campaigning around local council issues. Even the Labor Students I know couldn't care less about council issues. I have never in my whole political career met a serious radical who even knew about local council issues. Maybe I'm wrong here. Please prove me so! But I seriously doubt it.
But at any rate, I believe that it is a serious mistake to defend the strategy of intervening into local council elections in terms of the transitional program or the transitional method! As I have tried to show, using the same quotes as the original article, it's utopian and substitutionist.