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”. 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”.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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”.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.