National Sections of the L5I:

The Transitional Programme fifty years on

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Half a century has passed since the Transitional Programme (TP)1 of Leon Trotsky was written. In those fifty years much has occurred that Trotsky’s programme neither foresaw nor prepared for. Trotsky’s perspectives were based on the premise that ‘Mankind’s productive forces stagnate’.2 Yet, in the metropolitan countries the second imperialist war was followed by an unprecedented economic boom for almost twenty years. In turn this boom created the conditions for the resurgence of social-democratic reformism, a force Trotsky believed would be decisively destroyed in the war. Stalinism too not merely survived but gained a new lease of life through its expansion into eastern Europe and eventually parts of Asia. The condition for these unforeseen developments was the defeat of the revolutionary upsurge that occurred during the war in Europe. The defeat of that upsurge was achieved by counter-revolutionary force in the areas occupied by the Soviet Armed Forces and Allied imperialism. It fell victim to the no less fatal snares of democratic counter-revolution in much of western Europe.

Clearly, at least at the level of perspectives, the post-war reality did not correspond to the picture of generalised and synchronised crisis that Trotsky had drawn shortly before his death. Such a development is not unique in the history of Marxism. The predictions of Marx and Engels were, on a number of occasions, confounded by a variety of unexpected developments. All this tells us is that Marxism possesses no mystical powers that guarantee the fulfilment of predictions. Marxism’s prediction—its formulation of perspectives—is necessarily a constant process of assessment and re-assessment of trends within the economy, the ruling class, the working class and the class struggle. On the basis of such concrete analyses perspectives need to be formulated and tested. If they fail the test they need to be re-formulated. Trotsky himself, in the 1930s, demonstrated again and again the Marxist method of ‘testing and correcting’ his own programmes.

The method of the Transitional Programme

At the end of the 1920s an economic crisis began that wracked the entire capitalist world. A new period of political and economic crisis succeeded the period of capitalist boom in the 1920s. The rise of fascism in Germany, the popular front in France, the civil war in Spain, the Sino-Japanese war, were all explosive manifestations of world capitalism’s chronic weakness. The enormous depth as well as the world wide extension of this crisis and the repeated failures and defeats of the proletariat between 1921 and 1933 led to a new phenomenon. Just as the years 1917-21 had seen the foundation and establishment through civil war of the world’s first workers’ state, so the succeeding decade or so saw its bureaucratic degeneration. The Russian Communist Party, through its domination of the Comintern, became an instrument of chronic misleadership within the world workers’ movement. Stalin’s ultra-left policies facilitated Hitler’s triumph in 1933. The obstruction of the united front to fight fascism was criminal. Yet, in the aftermath of the defeat, all of the Comintern sections bar none subscribed to Stalin’s view that its policies had been entirely correct. Trotsky recognised the true significance of this and declared the Comintern to be dead for revolution. As the decade progressed the experience of the popular front governments in France and Spain revealed that the Comintern was not simply dead for revolution. It had became an instrument for counter-revolution. Under Stalin it became a counter-revolutionary reformist organisation.

Trotsky’s response to these developments was to dedicate his remaining years to the building of the Fourth International (FI). This struggle underwent many phases. It was conducted against a back-cloth of terrible defeats for the working class. This objective fact meant that it was constantly swimming against the stream. Its adherents numbered only a few thousand on the eve of the world war.

Trotsky resisted, throughout the 1930s, the temptation to short-circuit the process of building a revolutionary international through any compromises on the question of programme. While always making a serious attempt to win left-centrist elements (the Block of Four, the ILP, the PSOP, the Muste group etc), Trotsky always insisted that they subscribe to a clear, revolutionary programme. The centrists of Trotsky’s day accused him of issuing ultimatums about programme. In so doing characters like Fenner Brockway of the ILP poured scorn upon ‘rigid’, ‘dogmatic’ attitudes to programme. What they wanted was to be absolutely free to change their programme at will. Their principles, their strategy and tactics were so chameleon-like, consisting as they did of various adaptations to the dominant forces in the labour movement, that the last thing they wanted was to be obliged to formulate them clearly and precisely. Brockway fulminated against Trotsky’s ‘sectarianism’. He was denounced as a dictator whose method of building the FI was ‘the artificial method of imposing a rigid programme and then inviting parties to associate with it.’3 How centrism abhors a rigid—that is a definite—programme.

Trotsky never strayed from his course. He believed that the FI had to delineate itself from reformism and centrism by virtue of its programme. Only if it was revolutionary in programme would it be able to confront the crisis that was engulfing the world. Only with a firm programme could it steer an even course, despite being small and despite working in profoundly unfavourable objective conditions. During the period of the entry tactic in France when the majority of the French Trotskyists entered the SFIO (Socialist Party) as an organised faction he sharply castigated those, like Raymond Molinier, who sacrificed programme for illusory gains of the moment. He attacked Molinier and Frank’s ‘mass paper’ La Commune and said to them:

‘Programme first! “Mass Paper”? Revolutionary action? Regroupment? Communes everywhere? . . . very well, very well . . . But programme first! Your political passports please, gentleman! And not false ones if you please—real ones! If you don’t have any, then pipe down!’ 4

Trotsky began to develop his ideas of what that programme was through intervening in the class struggle on a Marxist basis. This way alone could ideas be tested in practice and then codified into a programme. The period before 1938, when The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International—the Transitional Programme—was written, saw Trotsky elaborate the key elements of the Marxist programme focused to the period he was living through.

The Left Opposition had learnt from the Bolshevik Party in 1917 and from the healthy Comintern that transitional slogans were essential. In particular, the centrality of workers’ control was recognised by Trotsky. While the Stalinists during the ultra-left Third Period counterposed the struggle for power to the struggle for control, Trotsky conceived of the latter as a bridge to the former. That is, he recognised that if a real struggle for control was launched and was in any way successful, then the workers would be compelled to go further:

‘Under the influence of the crisis, unemployment, and the predatory manipulations of the capitalists, the working class in its majority may turn out to be ready to fight for the abolition of business secrecy and for control over banks, commerce and production before it has come to understand the necessity of the revolutionary conquest of power.

After taking the path of control of production, the proletariat will inevitably press forward in the direction of the seizure of power and of the means of production.’5

In an important sense Trotsky was here getting to the very kernel of transitional demands. Minimum or immediate demands can, under certain conditions, be granted by capitalism as a means of pacifying the working class. Transitional demands, on the other hand, providing they really correspond to the objective situation, cannot be granted in full by capitalism. If they are fought for and even partially won then they raise class warfare to a qualitatively higher level, at once obliging the proletariat to move more and more against the very foundations of class society and at the same time creating the consciousness and organisation capable of a socialist solution. They pose a solution, a way forward from the impasse of normal immediate demands (reforms) and methods of struggle towards more effective ones, which organise working class strength so that it challenges the very logic of capitalist economy, as well as the capitalists’ control and direction of that economy. Against this transitional demands pose the ‘political economy of the working class’; planned production to meet human needs. But it does so, not in the form of sterile Sunday sermonising about socialism, but as a concrete answer to a concrete problem facing workers in struggle.

Trotsky’s Action programme for France

Trotsky’s grasp of the method lodged in transitional demands was revealed by the crisis that developed in France in 1934. The Comintern had, during its ultra-left phase, condemned immediate and transitional demands as opportunist. Everything was reduced to the question of power. As it moved rightwards towards the popular front, it reversed its previous position and counterposed immediate demands in France, to the question of power. In both cases it abandoned the transitional method of relating the needs of the moment to the struggle for power. Trotsky showed how in fact, transitional demands had, by virtue of the scale of the crisis, become of immediate relevance. They corresponded with the burning needs of the masses at the immediate level, and moreover, the question of power itself was becoming an immediate, burning issue:

‘The general Marxist thesis, “Social reforms are only the by-products of revolutionary struggle”, has in the epoch of the decline of capitalism the most immediate and burning importance. The capitalists are able to cede something to the workers only if they are threatened with the danger of losing everything.

However, even the greatest “concessions” of which contemporary capitalism—itself in a blind alley—is capable are completely insignificant in comparison with the misery of the masses and the depth of the social crisis. This is why the most immediate of all demands must be for the expropriation of the capitalists and the nationalisation (socialisation) of the means of production. But is not this demand unrealisable under the rule of the bourgeoisie? Quite so! That is why we must seize power.’ 6

By the same token the armed mobilisations of the fascist gangs posed as an immediate necessity the arming of the proletariat in order to protect its existing organisations. Of course, an armed working class is incompatible with the existence of capitalism for any length of time. The acuteness of the social crisis made demands which took the masses to the threshold of revolution an immediate necessity. The old order of society was collapsing. The masses were prepared to struggle but a treacherous leadership left them passive and confused and paved the way for defeat. In an important sense this is what Trotsky thought of as a pre-revolutionary situation. The old order crumbles, but the crisis of leadership in the working class prevents the masses from exploiting the cracks in the ruling class, stops them rallying to its side the confused and desperate intermediate strata and classes. Transitional demands are crucial as a whole system of demands aimed at resolving this crisis of leadership by mobilising the working class on a programme that introduces it to socialism, breaks it from the traitors and causes them to look for new leadership in the Trotskyists.

An early example of this method being applied was the Action Programme for France of 1934. This was a transitional programme sharply focused towards the pre-revolutionary situation in France. It sounded the alarm against the fascist danger. It outlined the method by which the French bourgeoisie were attacking the working class—deflation and unemployment. It counterposed to those dangers a programme of workers’ control measures and forms of organisation that challenged the foundations of capitalist society. It sought to mobilise alongside the proletariat the progressive sections of the petit bourgeoisie and did not shirk from demanding the eradication of all traces of Bonapartism from the bourgeois constitution. The Action Programme is a model of its kind. But models exist not to be copied slavishly but to be creatively applied to a concrete situation. If anybody said today that the Action Programme, was ‘valid today’, sensible people would consider them a trifle mad. It was not timeless. In enshrining the transitional method, it applied it to a particular juncture. That method was carried forward to the TP in a different period

The Transitional Programme

The first draft of the TP was completed by Trotsky in the spring of 1938. It was written after extensive discussions with leaders of the Socialist Workers Party of the United States (SWP(US)), including James Cannon. Trotsky very much regarded it as a codification, a summation of the experience and lessons of the preceeding period and a codification of the Left Opposition/FI’s response to the events of that period. As Trotsky himself said ‘It is the summation of the collective work up till today.’7

Such a summation was vital to ensure that past experience and future perspectives were generalised to the whole FI (as opposed to just the French section). It was a new version of Section II of the Communist Manifesto:

‘It is necessary to make a summary of concrete, precise demands, such as workers’ control of industry as opposed to technocracy . . . A series of transitional measures which correspond to the stage of monopolistic capitalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat with a section corresponding to colonial and semi-colonial countries. We have prepared such a document. It corresponds to that part of the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels which they themselves declared outdated. It’s only partially outdated, partially it’s very good, and is to be replaced by our conference.’8

And like the of Manifesto, the TP consisted of interrelated constituent parts. To understand the whole we must understand these parts, and their relationship to each other.

Like the great Manifesto Trotsky’s programme is based on a short-term perspective of acute crisis. Trotsky, recognising that the imperialist epoch meant ever deeper and more violent crises, was catastrophic in his predictions. He fully understood that the result of nearly a decade of capitalist crisis would be an imperialist war. He was absolutely right in these predictions. Those who accuse Trotsky of ‘catastrophism’ would appear not to recognise that the Second World War did plunge humanity into an enormous catastrophe. Conventional weaponry left millions dead and maimed. Whole national economies were devastated. Such was the scale of the catastrophe that Trotsky brilliantly foresaw in his programme.

But Trotsky’s perspective was not simply one of general catastrophe. It was more detailed than that, taking into account the specific problems confronting particular capitalist countries and those confronting Stalinism. Trotsky embodied in the TP the perspective that capitalism was far weaker than it had been at the beginning of the first world war. The very weakness of capitalism meant, in Trotsky’s view, that a revolutionary crisis would bring about the collapse of the whole capitalist system. In early 1939 he argued ‘Yes I do not doubt that the new world war will provoke with absolute inevitability the world revolution and the collapse of the capitalist system.’9 Again in 1940 he stated: ‘The capitalist system is in a blind alley. Without an entire reconstruction of the economic system on a European and a world scale our civilisation is doomed.’10

Nor did he exempt the USA from this perspective. Trotsky again correctly foresaw that Roosevelt would take his country into the war. He believed that US imperialism was as internally weak as European capitalism. Therefore it would be subject to a similar collapse and revolutionary crisis as that facing Europe:

‘The inner contradictions of American capitalism—the crisis and unemployment—are incomparably more mature for a revolution than the consciousness of the American workers . . . We know that subjective conditions—the consciousness of the masses, the growth of the revolutionary party—are not a fundamental factor.’11

The other two elements of Trotsky’s analysis were his recognition that the colonial revolution would be provoked on an ever wider scale by the war, and his belief that the survival of the USSR as a workers’ state was conditional upon a political revolution. Again Trotsky correctly predicted the Nazi onslaught when the smug Kremlin bureaucrats imagined that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had turned the wolf from the door:

‘Only the overthrow of the Moscow totalitarian clique, only the regeneration of Soviet democracy can unleash the forces of the Soviet people for the fight against the inevitable and fast-approaching blow from imperialist Germany.12

Without a political revolution Trotsky foresaw only collapse and the restoration of capitalism. Moreover, he thought that if capitalism did survive the catastrophe then it would only be on the basis of transforming itself into a totalitarian regime, or series of regimes. These perspectives were far from fanciful. But they were not, and could not be, exact prophecies. They were hypotheses. Trotsky himself recognised this: ‘Political prognosis is only a working hypothesis. It must be constantly checked, rendered more precise, brought closer to reality.’13

As such they were designed to guide the FI for the period immediately confronting them. This period was, in Trotsky’s view, likely to be a protracted pre-revolutionary period. Trotsky, unlike his epigones, was precise in his definition of why the period was pre-revolutionary and what was required to make it revolutionary:

‘The economy, the state, the bourgeoisie’s politics and its international relations are completely blighted by a social crisis characteristic of a pre-revolutionary state of society. The chief obstacle in the path of transforming the pre-revolutionary one is the opportunist character of proletarian leadership . . . The multi-millioned masses again and again enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines.’14

This is Trotsky’s understanding of the crisis of proletarian leadership on the eve of the war. In the pre-revolutionary situation the masses—particularly in Europe—had entered the road of revolution. The struggles of the French and Spanish workers were not of of a purely sectional, economic or episodic character. They were generalised struggles pregnant with revolutionary potential. The specific feature of the crisis of proletarian leadership at that time was the ability of the old leaderships to stop this potential being realised. The Stalinists and social-democracy had shown their capacity for treachery in both France and Spain in 1936 and 1937. At the same time the forces of Trotskyism were too weak to challenge for leadership. In Trotsky’s view the potential for resolving this crisis of leadership existed in the short term. The political corollary of his analysis of the crisis was that it would bring about the collapse of Stalinism and social-democracy precisely at the point when the masses would be propelled, once again, to enter the road of revolutionary struggle. For Trotsky, therefore, it was vital to arm the FI with the means of taking advantage of revolutionary struggle and the decay of the old leaderships. A decisive turn to the mass movement was necessary, with the TP itself being the means to take the sections of the FI to the head of the mass movement: ‘Henceforth the Fourth International stands face to face with the tasks of the mass movement. The Transitional Programme is a reflection of this important turn.’15

These perspectives were short to medium term, not epochal—a matter of years not decades or half a century. They applied to the period—the pre-revolutionary period—Trotsky confronted. The beginning and end of such a period is determined by world historic events. The period on which Trotsky based his perspectives can, roughly speaking, be said to have begun with the victory of Hitler and ended with the victory of US imperialism at the end of the Second World War. For that period Trotsky’s perspectives were both realistic—they took stock of the enormity of the crisis facing mankind—and filled with revolutionary optimism. That is they counted, on the subjective side, on the will of the FI—embodied in its programme—to resolve that crisis in a revolutionary fashion. In the context of 1938 to have advanced any other perspective than Trotsky’s for proletarian triumph would have been merely an excuse for either treachery or abstentionism.

These perspectives required extensive modification after the war. The boom in the imperialist countries, the national struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the political revolutionary crisis in those countries where capitalism had been overthrown but where Stalinist bureaucracies ruled, all presented a different picture to that forseen by Trotsky. This development required two things of Marxists. First they needed to elaborate new perspectives in the new conditions as a means of re-focusing their programme. Second they needed to draw up a critical balance sheet of Trotksy’s own perspective in order to isolate and overcome any errors that were contained within them. In the event the post war Trotskyists proved incapable of fulfilling either task.

Its leading section, the SWP(US), effectively withdrew from the international scene as a leading force. The European and Asian cadres were decimated in the war itself. In most of Africa Trotskyism had no influence at all while in Latin America, where it was much stronger, national isolation preyed on all of the Trotskyist groupings leaving them as ill-equipped as their US comrades to play a leading role within the FI. The cadres that confronted the task of developing Trotskyism were relatively inexperienced and, ominously, not leaders of parties with significant numbers rooted in, at least, sections of the working class. Experienced and seasoned militants such as James P Cannon of the SWP(US), were incapable or unwilling to play the central, international leading role that Trotsky had until his death.

The result was that the FI, without a leadership capable of re-elaborating the programme in the light of new developments, was, as a whole, profoundly disoriented by these developments.16 On the question of the TP itself two responses emerged. The first was manifested by Cannon and the European leaders. They clung to the perspectives contained in the TP despite their general inapplicability in much of the world after the war.

Blind to the real impact of the USA’s military victory, enormous economic buoyancy and to the fact that the huge post war strike wave had been bureaucratically contained, Cannon simply pushed the pre-war perspective of crisis back, arguing that it was just about to happen. Moreover, the crisis was understood as being, inevitably, a fully revolutionary one. Cannon characterised any challenge to this view as sceptical and defeatist. It was considered a slur on the American working class to suggest that they were not moving onto a revolutionary offensive. The basis for this view was a one-sided reflection of the USA’s new found world dominance. Instead of admiting the possibility of economic recovery on the basis of this dominance Cannon insisted in 1946:

‘The blind-ally in which world capitalism has arrived, and the US with it, excludes a new organic era of capitalist stabilisation. The dominant world position of American imperialism now accentuates and aggravates the death agony of capitalism as a whole.’17

Cannon forgot Lenin and Trotsky’s insistence that there are no hopeless situations for the bourgeoisie. He admitted the possibility of a short-term boom but said that it would be followed quickly by a depression that would ‘make the 1929-32 conditions look prosperous’.18

In Europe Mandel and Pablo19 were singing a similar tune. Their theses on the world situation in 1948 contained the same fatalistic faith in Trotsky’s prognosis. They paid lip service to the ‘unstable equilibrium’ that prevailed, but argued:

‘The capitalist system, in decline and decay, and the regime established by the Soviet bureaucracy in the USSR, accumulate and sharpen their inherent contradictions. They paralyse the development of productive forces; steadily lower the living standards of millions of people in the world; increase the pressure of the bureaucratic and police state on social and private life, stifling creativity in all fields; reduce highly industrialised countries like Germany and Japan to the level of colonies; and increase national oppression.’20

There is not the slightest hint of a serious balance sheet based on the actual outcome of the war, in this perspective. It is a paraphrasing of Trotsky in 1938.

The false perspectives were close. lt connected to a false understanding of the nature of the TP itself. The ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists—those who fetishised the TP—argued that the programme was geared only towards an actual revolutionary crisis. They concluded, therefore, that such a state of crisis was a permanent feature of post-war society. Cannon typified this approach. After the war he wrote:

‘The Transitional Programme does not have any meaning unless one has in mind a revolutionary perspective. The very fact that you go over from the concept of the maximum and the minimum programme—that is, the minimum programme of daily small change, the maximum programme of ultimate goal that you talk about on Sunday—to a transitional programme, presupposes a development of a revolutionary nature, with the prospects of a showdown in sight.’ 21

Having defined the transitional methods—so painstakingly developed by Marxism for almost a hundred years22—in the narrowest possible sense Cannon was obliged to ignore the reality of the post-war boom. His perspective, for a whole period, was that the economic recovery and maintenance of bourgeois democracy in the US and much of western Europe, was merely a short term interruption of the crisis. The boom and the social peace it led to in the west became an aberration. In its extreme form this ‘orthodoxy’ was manifested by the International Committee’s crisis mongering. Members were kept in a feverish state of expectation for the economic collapse and revolutionary crisis that was just around the corner. While Gerry Healy was a typical exponent of this view, Cannon, in many respects, is its original author. He wrote, after the war, that economic crisis was imminent and that there was an inevitable correlation between such a crisis and revolution:

‘As a consequence [the economic crisis] will open up the most grandiose revolutionary possibilities in the United States. That conception must be at the base of the policy and perspectives of our party from now on.’ 23

The disparity between real life and these grandiose perspectives forced the SWP(US) to abandon the TP as the centre of its propaganda and agitation from 1950 on, while insisting that it be ritually worshipped as a condition for being admitted into the ‘orthodox’ fold.

Against this type of analysis factions of the SWP(US) and British RCP did attempt to advance alternatives based on a recognition of the stability that had emerged in western Europe as a result of the war. Ted Grant, for example, correctly argued that a ‘democratic counter-revolution’ had taken place. However these oppositions were dealt with bureaucratically by the FI leadership and prevented from developing into sizeable and influential forces.

The Cliffites, developing out of the RCP, did register the change in conditions. In so doing, however, they merely proved the truth of the old maxim that a little learning is a dangerous thing. In the 1950s and 60s their empirical recognition of Stalinism’s survival and capitalism’s boom led them to embrace state capitalism as a theory for explaining the class nature of the USSR and their rejection of Lenin’s theory of imperialism and Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. The baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Nowhere was this clearer than in their approach to the TP. In the 1960s Hallas, keen to defend elements of Trotskyism, correctly argued that, at the 1948 FI Congress:

‘A fundamental reappraisal of the situation and of the perspectives of the Transitional Programme was required. The movement, in its majority proved incapable of rising to this task.’24

However, far from making such a reappraisal the Cliffite Socialist Workers Party of Great Britain (SWP(GB) itself has decided that Trotsky’s perspectives in 1938 were wrong and therefore so was his programme. John Molyneux, in his book on Trotsky, puts it clearly:

‘Thus Trotsky’s characterisation of capitalism in 1938 was strictly speaking an empirical impression. As such it was particularly vulnerable as a prediction of the future. In short, the economic analysis was the foundation of the TP and it was a faulty foundation.’25

At first sight the positions of the Cliffites appear to be a million miles away from Cannon’s. Yet in their rationalisation for rejecting the TP they define its essence in exactly the same way as Cannon did. They argue that the programme can only be regarded as relevant if there is an immediate revolutionary crisis. This view, which has always been argued by the Cliff tendency, was expressed recently in an article, ironically enough, on James P Cannon. Its author, Chris Bambery, attacked the SWP(US) for clinging on to the TP since:

‘Transitional demands, acting in Trotsky’s words as a bridge between the struggle for reformist and economic demands and the struggle for power—only have meaning within a particular revolutionary context.’ 26

This supposed critique of Cannon sounds more like an echo of his own words! The Cliffites, therefore, rejected Trotsky’s programme because, seeing it as relevant only for a directly revolutionary crisis, they had, unlike Cannon, Healy, Mandel and Pablo et al, registered the fact that no such crisis was imminent in the US and western Europe. In fact, as we shall see, their own one-sided definition of the TP led them to deepen their revisionism in a manner no less damaging to the cause of revolutionary Marxism than the barren orthodoxy of post-war ‘Trotskyists’.

Against both of these tendencies we would argue that Trotsky’s perspectives were the basis for a specific action programme element of the TP. After the war the re-elaboration of both elements was necessary. On perspectives we have made clear what we think the strength of Trotsky’s ‘catastrophism’ was. It foresaw the war and, emerging from it, a revolutionary upsurge. Both occurred. The revolutionary upsurge was evident most clearly in Italy, Greece, Vietnam, China and Yugoslavia. Much weaker reverberations were felt in Britain and France and the USA.

However, a combination of factors, unforeseen by Trotsky, meant that the war and the revolutionary upsurge did not develop in the direction and to the degree that he expected. The revolutionary upsurge took place in the context of Anglo-American imperialism and its ally, the USSR, marching through Europe under the banner of anti-fascism. Stalinism and social democracy were able in these circumstances to justify the derailing of the revolutionary upsurge. Its goals were limited to the restoration of bourgeois democracy. In France and Italy the communist parties entered coalition governments with the bourgeoisie. Where such betrayals were insufficient to quell the revolutionary struggles the brute force of the Soviet Armed Forces and the troops of Allied imperialism were used in the service of counter-revolution (Poland, Greece, Vietnam). The absence of a mass FI capable of challenging Stalinism and social democracy for leadership in the revolutionary upsurge was a crucial factor in enabling democratic or Stalinist counter-revolution to triumph relatively easily compared with the post-first world war situation.

On the basis of these defeats Stalinism and US imperialism, the real victors in the war, consolidated their positions and fashioned a new post war reality. The FI however, failed to register the enormous significance of the stifling of the revolutionary upsurge or the victories of US imperialism and Stalinism. Worse, their perspectives underestimated both. A new perspective, based on these developments would have had to prepare for the impact of an economic upturn (even if a long boom could not have been predicted) in the imperialist countries, for the development of national liberation struggles as the US imposed its will and the British Empire disintegrated, and for revolts against Stalinist rule in the east. In point of fact no section of the FI elaborated such perspectives.

To what extent was Trotsky himself guilty of disorienting his followers? Trotsky recognised that, in the sphere of political economy, both he and the FI as a whole had an inadequate understanding. He said of the first section of the TP, which deals with the world economy ‘The beginning of the Programme is not complete. The first chapter is only a hint and not a complete expression’.27

The problem is that, despite recognising the admitedly provisional nature of the perspective, the Transitional Programme is categorical in its economic prognosis. Trotsky wrote:

‘The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate.’28

This phrase has been at the centre of inumerable disputes in the Trotskyist movement. After the war, when Felix Morrow in the SWP(US) pointed out that Trotsky’s assertion was proving to be false, he was roundly denounced as a sceptic and a defeatist. Now, with the reality of the post-war boom behind us, only an idiot, or perhaps a charlatan like Gerry Healy, would describe Trotsky’s categorical declaration as correct. However, we reject the idea that Trotsky’s error stems from an objectivist and fatalist methodology on his part. This charge—leveled at him by theoretical cheapskates like John Molyneux—does not stand up for one minute. Molyneux argues that Trotsky’s isolation led him to place more and more emphasis on the role of history as an objective, forward moving force, solving the crisis facing mankind. This, in turn, stemmed from and was an echo of his essentially fatalist Second International method:

‘But if it is not hard to see why apocalyptic prediction became predominant at this time, it is also not hard to see that its theoretical roots lay in the mechanical materialism and determinism of the Second International.’29

To make such a statement implies that Molyneux neither understands the significance of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism from the mid-1920s to the end of his life, nor that of his struggle to build the FI. Trotsky never said that history would solve the crisis in a socialist fashion. He insisted time and again that the crisis merely furnished conditions under which the revolutionary party and the international could triumph. That is the whole point of his emphasis on the crisis of leadership. Indeed Trotsky’s polemics against centrism throughout the 1930s again and again attack the idea that history is a force independent of the actions of people. Indeed in December 1938, some months after the TP was written, he warned his followers:

‘Recent history has furnished a series of tragic confirmations of the fact that it is not from every revolutionary situation that a revolution arises, but that a revolutionary situation becomes counter-revolutionary if the subjective factor, that is, the revolutionary offensive of the revolutionary class does not come in time to aid the objective factor.’30

Trotsky’s error was not determinism. His prediction was wrong because it seriously under-estimated the strength of US imperialism. This was an important error. It led Trotsky to believe that the possibility of a way-out of the economic crisis short of fascism in the US was highly unlikely. Thus when he conceded the possibility of an alternative to a revolutionary outcome, it was always presented as a totalitarian one. This, he reasoned, would mean that any respite for capitalism would be temporary. In fact the economic strength of US imperialism enabled it to fund a democratic counter-revolution on a massive scale in much of Europe after the war. Moreover, the same strength enabled it to act as the motor of the world economy paving the way for an expansion of the productive forces after the war. In this error both Trotsky and the SWP(US) were culpable. Their premise was that the very rapidity of the US economy’s growth was the guarantee of its equally rapid downfall. Trotsky reasoned that the war would be such a tremendous drain on resources that any country involved would encounter economic collapse. This exchange between himself and one of the SWP(US) leaders makes this quite clear:

‘Shachtman: Supposing its is a European war, into which the USA does not yet enter?

Trotsky: In that case the USA will have a postponement of the economic collapse. What is clear is that in the countries involved in the war the collapse will come in not four or six years, but in six to twelve months, because the capitalist countries are not richer but poorer than in 1914, materially . . . You can say that all these unemployed [in the US] will be absorbed in the war industry, but that signifies the creation of a terrible pump for absorbing all the riches of the nation.’31

This is a dangerously one-sided view of the US and other capitalist economies. It fails to recognise that, in certain cases, war can regenerate the profitability of the capitalist economy and not simply act as a drain on it. This was particularly true for the USA, which, as everybody recognised from very early on, would not have to fight the war on its own soil, nor risk the destruction of its industries by bombing raids. Supplying the hard pressed British war machine as well as its own, did not merely absorb riches in the USA, it helped generate them as well. In arguing against the ‘final crisis’ theory of the Stalinists during their ‘third period’, Trotsky warned that such a view would lead to fatalism at the level of politics—our turn next’. In presenting a one-sided characterisation of the world economic crisis he tied his followers to a perspective that was in important respects proved wrong. Its errors, stemming from the failure of the revolutionary communist movement (the healthy Comintern and later the Trotskyists) to develop Lenin’s theory of imperialism, disorientated Trotsky’s followers after the war. They were certainly guilty of fatalism, episodically at first and later systematically. But this was a product of their slide into centrism, and away from Trotskyism. They clung onto his perspective at first because of a sincere confusion between perspectives and principles. Later they used it as a fig-leaf to cover their accumulated centrist errors.

A clear example of this was Pablo’s use of a single phrase in the TP itself. Following Tito’s break with the Kremlin in 1948 Pablo wrote:

‘At the very moment when the power and internal stability of the Stalinist apparatus, directing the USSR and the Communist parties from the Kremlin, seemed to many people more impressive than ever, the Yugoslav affair came to remind them of a factor on which revolutionary optimism rests, namely: the laws of history which will in the final analysis prove stronger than any type of bureaucratic apparatus.’32

Since Pablo uttered this half-quote from the TP, this line of fatalist thinking has dominated the centrist fragments of the FI. It became the basis for Healy’s permanent ‘revolutionary crisis’, for Mandel’s unstoppable (and undifferentiated) ‘revolutionary process’, and for Lambert’s definition of a never-ending pre-revolutionary situation. In short it became the excuse for offloading onto the historical process the work of revolutionaries. The objective factor became all powerful. Pablo makes clear that the historic law at work in Yugoslavia was the pressure of the masses. This pressure is so strong it can turn Stalinist butchers like Tito into rough and ready revolutionaries. Today the same law has led the Sandinistas, according to the USFI, to turn Nicaragua into a proletarian dictatorship! We assert that this fatalism is based on a wilful distortion of the TP which was far more dialectical in its understanding of the relationship of the historic process and the treacherous leaders:

‘. . . the laws of history are stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus. No matter how the methods of the social betrayers may differ . . . they will never succeed in breaking the revolutionary will of the proletariat. As time goes on, their desperate efforts to hold back the wheel of history will demonstrate more clearly to the masses that the crisis of proletarian leadership, having become the crisis in mankind’s culture, can be resolved only by the Fourth International.’33

For Trotsky the laws of history—the fact that the proletariat is objectively the revolutionary class—will ensure that the class struggle will continue and create the conditions for the eventual triumph of the subjective factor in the shape of the revolutionary party. No ‘blunt instruments’ or unconscious agents would or could fulfill this role for Trotsky.
Action programme

Trotsky repeatedly argued that a revolutionary programme had to be a guide to action. That meant that the action orienting element—transitional slogans—stood in the foreground reducing to some degree the more general aspects of the programme. Of course, the action programme component proceeded from general revolutionary principles, but it was a sharply focused application of them. The key transitional demands in the programme had as their premise the perspectives outlined previously. That is, the full potential of the TP as an action programme, would be realised in the context of a revolutionary struggle for power:

‘On the other hand the Fourth International’s programme of transitional demands, which seemed so “unreal” to nearsighted politicians, will reveal its full significance in the process of the mobilisation of the masses for the conquest of state power.’34

It was a programme of action for transforming the pre-revolutionary situation into a revolutionary situation. It based itself primarily on the objective conditions of its own period. It proceeded from the actual experience of the class struggle during the preceding years. The lessons of the German defeat, the popular front in Spain and France, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the explosive trade union struggles in the USA, and the anti-imperialist struggle in China, were all encompassed in the programme. Its slogans flowed from the experience—both positive and negative—of these momentous events. It was these events that invested Trotsky’s understanding of the crisis of leadership with a precision that his epigones never matched. The crisis of leadership had as its context an immediate contradiction between objective conditions (crisis torn capitalism driven to its second world war in just over twenty years) and the proletariat’s subjective weaknesses. That is war and revolution were looming in the immediate future and yet the proletariat lacked a revolutionary leadership. Of course within the imperialist epoch the conditions for revolution repeatedly come into existence objectively, in a number of isolated countries. But an international action programme cannot and should not base itself on generalities such as this. The reason for this is clear from the existence of periods in the imperialist epoch when the explosive character of this contradiction is, for whole sections of the world, subdued. The crisis of leadership that manifests itself in a trade union struggle that is sold out is an underdeveloped anticipation of the crisis Trotsky talked of. But to confuse the two would be to mistake every strike for the opening shot of a revolution within the context of a permanent pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situation. Trotsky himself was quite clear about the nature of the period his action programme focused towards. It was not focused to the imperialist epoch in general but to a feverish crisis typical of that epoch:

‘The strategic task of the next period—a pre-revolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organisation—consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation).’35

The very fact that Trotsky talks of the specific features of specific generations of workers should indicate the focused nature of his programme. Indeed in its review of its conference the FI came to the same conclusion as Trotsky that the programme was meant as a guide to action:

‘What a contrast it offers to the vague generalisations and deceptive abstractions which the official leaderships of the working class offer as guides to action in the present tumultuous world situation! It is not, or rather it is not so much, the basic programme of the Fourth International, as it is its programme of action for the immediate period in which we live.’36

As an action programme it had to be understood as a specific expression of the general programme of Marxism (embodying the key principles, strategy and tactics) but as such not, in itself, immutable. It had a definite connection with a perspective of immediate war, crisis and revolution. A dramatic shift in perspective would, Trotsky believed, require a re-focusing of the programme:

‘You can raise the objection that we cannot predict the rhythm and tempo of the development, and that possibly the bourgeoisie will find a political respite. That is not excluded—but then we will be obliged to realise a strategic retreat. But in the present situation we must be oriented for a strategic offensive, not a retreat.’37

Trotsky anchored his action programme in his perspectives, but never forgot that perspectives are not Delphic oracles. Unfortunately, his epigones forgot precisely that.

However, having stressed this we must go on to assert that the TP was not simply an action programme. Lodged within it is the explanation of the whole method of transitional demands. Such demands form a system which seeks to take each partial struggle of the proletariat a decisive step further towards the goal of socialist revolution and towards the transition to socialism itself. An action programme must be focused towards a particular international crisis, like that of 1938, or towards a national crisis, like that of France in 1934, or indeed towards the struggles of a section of workers outside of the context of a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary crisis, like our own action programme for the British miners.38 But whatever the focus of a particular action programme, it must encompass within it the overall strategy of the TP. It must apply that method if it is to transcend the divide between the minimum and partial demands generated in every struggle and the goal of socialist revolution. The bridging of that divide is crucial if the dangers of tailism—of simply echoing the demands spontaneously raised by workers—and of pragmatism are to be avoided. For even within periods that are not in their general character revolutionary, the character of the imperialist epoch poses the possibility of taking steps, sometimes quite limited, towards the revolution. Moreover, transitional demands can, when carried into life, train workers for the tasks of the socialist transition, as well as mobilise them around a fight for their immediate interests. Transitional demands are therefore essential in any action programme. Trotsky explained why:

‘However, the achievement of this strategic task [socialist revolution] is unthinkable without the most considered attention to all, even small and partial questions of tactics. All sections of the proletariat—all its layers, occupations and groups—should be drawn into the revolutionary movement. The present epoch is distinguished not because 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 revolution.’39

The theoreticians of the SWP(GB) are ever ready to argue that the day to day tasks cannot be linked to socialism with transitional demands. Their pragmatism leads them to argue that such demands do not really exist. The key thing, they argue, is purely and simply to get the masses to act. Duncan Hallas expresses this most clearly:

‘The problem at each stage is to find and advance those slogans which not only strike a chord in at least some sections of the class (ideally of course the whole of it) but which are also capable of leading to working class actions. Often they will not be transitional in Trotsky’s very restricted definition.’40

The point is the class struggle itself compels workers to take action, to strike, to mobilise. And it is ABC to raise demands that workers undertake strikes. But our job as revolutionaries is not only to get workers to act, it is to win them, in the course of such action to socialism. It is precisely this job of leading workers beyond their everyday demands by fighting for a transitional action programme—a job the SWP(GB) refuse ever to undertake—that we can win them to revolutionary socialism. We can make the task of socialist revolution relevant to their everyday concerns. In fact the SWP(GB), like the Second International in its centrist days, ends up supporting the existing demands of workers and preaching socialism to them.

The claims that transitional demands are a product of Trotsky’s isolation in 1938 ignores the fact that he was developing the Comintern’s conceptions of them from a much earlier period. In 1931 in Spain, when the crisis that led to civil war war was still only maturing, Trotsky recognised the need to go beyond the partial demands of the moment:

‘Alongside these [minimum demands] however, demands of a transitional character must be advanced even now; nationalisation of mineral resources; nationalisation of the banks; workers’ control of industry; and finally state regulation of the economy. All of these demands are bound up with the transition from a bourgeois to a proletarian regime; they prepare for this transition so that, after nationalisation of the banks and industry, they can become part of a system of measures for a planned economy, preparing the way for the socialist economy, preparing the way for the socialist society.’41

The nature of transitional demands

In codifying a set of transitional demands into a programme Trotsky finally resolved the ‘programme question’ at the level of method. The TP marked the successful resolution of the programmatic problems that originated with the Erfurt Programme of 1891. It overcame the problem of the disjuncture between the struggle over immediate and partial demands and the struggle for power. It completed the work of the Comintern in this regard. Lenin and the Comintern had an understanding of transitional demands as primarily a bridge to the transitional society during a revolutionary situation. The degenerate Comintern seized on this position—which was only partially correct—in order to condemn the use of transitional demands as opportunist except in a revolutionary situation (prior to dumping them altogether). The reason Lenin’s view of transitional demands was only partially correct was because he had not then worked out the relationship of the general programme to the minimum programme. Trotsky precisely worked out this relationship. He viewed the imperialist epoch as one within which it was possible to tear down the brick wall between minimum and transitional demands. Immediate demands fought for by revolutionary tactics could become the starting point for winning the masses to broader transitional demands: ‘Every local, partial, economic demand must be an approach to a general demand in our transitional programme’.42

Struggles over wage demands could, in circumstances of high inflation, pose questions (the way the cost of living is calculated under capitalism, for example) that workers would seek general answers to. This logic would facilitate the transition from partial demands to transitional, demands provided those transitional demands could be rendered concrete and used as the basis for a mobilisation of workers for struggle:

‘It is necessary to interpret these fundamental ideas by breaking them up into more concrete and partial ones, dependent upon the course of events and the orientation of thought of the masses.’43

Trotsky’s method of firmness and flexibility combined within the framework of a clearly defned strategy is so refreshing compared with the lifeless schematism of that wing of his epigones who think that revolutionary credentials depend on the ability to repeat in all circumstances slogans ripped from the programme and learnt by heart. The ability to take partial struggles as a starting point, generalise them, and then express this generalisation through a concrete demand, is at the heart of the transitional method.

The other addition Trotsky made to Lenin and the Comintern’s position was the use of transitional demands as a bridge not simply to socialism, but to the socialist revolution. The fulfilment of this task, winning the vanguard of the proletariat to the programme of socialist revolution, could only—and can only—be achieved by means of a transitional programme. The programme would, by freeing the proletariat from its bankrupt leaders, clear a path to the revolution. At that point a programme of transition in Lenin’s sense—to socialism—would become necessary:

‘Only a general revolutionary upsurge of the proletariat can place the complete expropriation of the bourgeoisie on the order of the day. The tasks of transitional demands is to prepare the proletariat to solve this problem.’44

Transitional demands, providing they really become a focus for mass struggle could introduce a reformist led proletariat to the very need for revolution:

‘It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands stemming from the day’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.’45

Lodged within every transitional demand is the struggle for vital working class needs over capitalism’s pursuit of profit via the establishment of workers’ control over capitalist production and distribution. At the same time each transitional demand contains a call for the organisation of the working class in bodies capable of exercising this control. By fighting for workers’ control and by building organisations that correspond to this fight the working class can block their bosses exercise of his or her ‘right to manage’ against the interests of workers. This denial of managements’ ability to be master in ‘their own’ house is a sort of dual power. Dual power in a single factory must lead to dual power in an industry and indeed in all industries if it is to effectively check the bosses. This in turn will create the beginnings of dual power in society as a whole. In order to defend each and every gain from the inevitable attacks of the capitalists the working class can, through transitional demands, be won to taking this road.

In that sense workers’ control at both a primitive level (over hiring and firing, for example, in a single factory) and an advanced level, (by forcing throughout society the abolition of business secrecy, and the right to veto all plans of the bosses) has the capacity to transform the most basic defensive struggles (against unemployment, for better pay) into offensive struggles leading inexorably towards the creation of a dual power situation. But for this to happen the demands must have an internal logic and interconnection. They are a system of demands, which can only achieve the goal of taking the working class to the threshold of revolution on the condition that they are actually fought for by significant sections of the class and that in the course of that struggle, the demands are extended up to and including the fight for a workers’ government. At the point where the working class, or its vanguard, are fighting in this manner, the transitional programme will be transformed into the programme of soviet power and the dictatorship of the proletariat:

‘Dual power in its turn is the culminating point of the transitional period. Two regimes, the bourgeois and the proletariat, are irreconcilably opposed to each other. Conflict between them is inevitable. The fate of society depends on the outcome.’46

The struggle for transitional demands, therefore, has an integral logic. Each demand has as its essence this logic of propelling the working class further along the road towards revolution. If they are fought for then ‘ever more openly and decisively they will by directed against the very foundations of the bourgeois regime’.47 for this reason it would be profoundly wrong to fetishise the fight for one particular transitional slogan, and conduct that fight irrespective of objective conditions. Transitional slogans, if they are to fulfil their purpose of compelling the proletariat to make ever deeper inroads on capitalism, cannot be used in a timeless fashion. They are rooted first and foremost in actual conditions. The demand for a sliding scale of wages is a case in point. This is nowhere to be found in the Action Programme for France. To those who reverence the TP without either understanding it or being able to creatively develop it, this appears simply to be an oversight. Thus, an article in the old Workers Socialist League’s journal, Trotskyism Today, argued:

‘The Programme of Action in many respects exactly anticipates demands of the Transitional Programme four years later—though the sliding scale of wages and sliding scale of hours were not included and appear not to have been thought of in 1934.’ 48

This is a light minded comment. The sliding scale of hours, while not expressed via that phrase, can be found in the demands of the healthy Comintern and RILU. Workers’ control of hours worked was how it was expressed. As for the sliding scale of wages, it was a demand pioneered in the German communist movement as early as 1923. However—undoubtedly Trotsky did not include it for the simple reason that it was not of central relevance in the given concrete circumstances. Whether or not it had been ‘thought of’ is totally beside the point. It was not relevant. As such it would not have generalised the working class struggle on the wages front. Inflation was not the common grievance of the working class. It could not have been mobilised in a struggle against capitalism around such a demand at that time. Trotsky gives us a fairly obvious reason why not: ‘Brutal deflation is the first step in the plan of the French capitalists.’ 49

In addition if this demand is dislocated from its workers’ control element (the workers’ cost of living index and workers’ and housewives’ committee) it loses its transitional element. It becomes merely partial demand, an immediate reform. And if a situation of monetary stability and low inflation obtains, it will do very little to either mobilise the working class at all let alone generalise a mobilisation of the class. Capitalism could (and has in Italy and Belgium) granted forms of sliding scale which in periods of low inflation do not advance the class towards the socialist revolution. Of course, defence of these sliding scales in a period of crisis and high inflation can become the starting point for transforming the struggle into one for workers’ control. For this reason to have advanced this slogan in the major capitalist powers of Europe or the USA in the period of the long boom, when inflation was relatively insignificant, would have been a departure from Trotsky’s transitional method. He advanced the slogan in the TP not as a universal panacea but as an action slogan for a period characterised by the threat of an enormous leap in prices:

‘Against a bounding rise in prices which with the approach of war will assume an ever more unbridled character, one can fight only under the slogan of a sliding scale of wages.’50

The SWP(GB), on the other hand, will counter that in periods where insignificant inflation exists the demand is wrong. This is only half-true. It is inappropriate for such periods, but it should not be junked altogether and forever driven out of the party’s programme. In fact the SWP(GB) hate it at all times because it is a transitional demand, because it challenges trade union reformism. The SWP(GB) opposed the demand in Britain in the 1970s when inflation made it once again timely. Their hostility was rooted in their economism. They wrongly believed that the sliding scale would dampen wage militancy which was, for them, the one and only road to socialist consciousness. The idea that wage militancy could be transformed through a fight to give workers protection against inflation, without at all limiting their demands for additional rises, was anathema to the SWP(GB). Indeed their opposition to the demand became quite infantile. One of their ‘big’ theoreticians, John Molyneux, warned against the demand ‘. . . because it precludes wage claims that exceed price rises.’51

How? Nowhere in the TP does Trotsky say to workers thou shalt not strike for increases in excess of the current retail price index! It merely seeks to direct militancy from the plane of piecemeal demands on the boss for lump sum rises to a higher plane in which workers are challenging the right of the capitalists to use inflation to encroach upon their living standards. Trotsky says that the workers ‘must defend their mouthful of bread, if they cannot increase or better it’.52 In no sense should this be read as a warning against high wage demands. Indeed Trotsky adds:

‘There is neither the need nor the opportunity to enumerate here those separate, partial demands which time and again arise on the basis of concrete circumstances—national, local, trade union.’ 53

Clearly the objective conditions determined the use and revolutionary significance of the slogan. The same rule applies to all of the principal transitional slogans.

Pedagogic tasks

Taking objective conditions as his starting point was vital for Trotsky to combat another danger. As well as a wooden counterposing of transitional to immediate demands, Trotsky had to combat tendencies to limit programme to the existing consciousness of the masses. He tirelessly stressed the need to take into account the consciousness (backward or otherwise) of the working class in explaining transitional demands, in adapting them to specific situations. However, he argued that these fundamentally pedagogic considerations could not form the starting point in formulating the central tasks that the party had to arm the proletariat to fulfil. That is, the actual demands in the programme had to correspond to the acute social and political crisis of the world at the end of the 1930s. This objective criterion requires of revolutionaries that they advance demands that are necessary rather than ones which revolutionaries gauge as being possible because of the backward consciousness of a particular working class:

‘Our tasks don’t depend on the mentality of the workers. The task is to develop the mentality of the workers. That is what the programme should formulate and present before the advanced workers. Some will say: good, the programme is a scientific programme; it corresponds to the objective situation—but if the workers won’t accept this programme, it will be sterile. Possibly. But this signifies only that the workers will be crushed, since the crisis can’t be solved in any other way but by the socialist revolution.’54

This spells out clearly that the job of revolutionaries is to lead the workers not to politically adapt to their state of consciousness which in any case is not a fixed or stable thing but undergoes leaps and transformations brought on by crisis and struggle. Transitional demands have to be fought for if they are objectively necessary even though they may appear too advanced in relation to the consciousness of workers at the time:

‘But we cannot adapt the programme to the backward mentality of the workers; the mentality, the mood is a secondary factor—the prime factor is the objective situation.’55

A vexed question that always arises with young revolutionaries and which inveterate centrists can never answer is whether transitional demands can be realised under capitalism. The short answer is no. Because of their inbuilt challenge to the profit logic and mastery of the capitalists over production they are unrealisable as a stable and permanent gain under capitalism. But neither are they simply ‘impossible’ or utopian demands. If they were then they would be unable to address current problems and would be unable to win the allegiance of workers who did not already fully realise the necessity of abolishing capitalism.

Like other serious immediate demands, capitalists can be forced to concede one or another of them temporarily or partially if the working class is strong enough and is threatening the whole system with its actions. Concessions stemming from the struggle for transitional demands can increase workers’ confidence and lead to an offensive struggle. Their successful realisation depends precisely on broadening the struggle to ever wider layers of the working class and interlinking the transitional, immediate and democratic demands until the question of the necessity of a workers’ government to realise them is grasped by the ‘multi-millioned masses’. Organisationally this must be expressed in the massive growth of the influence of the revolutionary party and the creation of soviet-type organs of struggle.

The question of any one demand being realisable or unrealisable, practical or unpractical does not arise in the abstract metaphysical way that this question is usually put. The fate of each separate demand will be settled in the course of struggle. The system of demands will however only be realised by the destruction of bourgeois political and economic power. Lenin, in dealing with the same problem in relation to certain minimum demands, outlined the correct method of dealing with this question. In a letter to Radek in 1910 he argued:

‘The criteria of what is “impractical” within the framework of capitalism should not be taken in the sense that the bourgeoisie will not allow it, that it cannot be achieved etc. In that sense very many demands in our minimum programme are “impractical”, but are none the less obligatory.’56

In dealing with transitional demands Trotsky echoed this point, making clear that these demands were not meant to be a means of ‘tricking’ the workers into socialist struggle, but a means of mobilising them for their vital needs:

‘Not one of our demands will be realised 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 mobilise the masses for struggle . . . The revolutionaries always consider that the reforms and acquisitions are only a by-product of revolutionary struggle. If we say that we will only demand what they can give, the ruling class will only give one tenth or more of what we demand. When we demand more and can improve our demands, the capitalists are compelled to give the maximum. The more extended and militant the spirit of the workers, the more is demanded and won. They are not sterile slogans; they are a means of pressure on the bourgeoisie, and will give the greatest possible material results immediately.’57

A world programme

The Transitional Programme was a programme for the Fourth International. It was based on the contradictions of world capitalism, the crisis of the Stalinist regime and the experiences of the international proletariat. The opening lines indicate the basis from which the programme starts: ‘The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of leadership’.58

The opening sections are heavily oriented to the problems of revolutionary strategy within the trade unions. Their focus is towards mobilising the workers for a break with established trade union and reformist leaders. Clearly the most immediate (thought not exclusive) field of application for such policies was in the countries where trade union bureaucracies and reformist apparatuses were the decisive obstacles to revolution—the imperialist heartlands. In the discussions of the programme that Trotsky held with SWP(US) members this emphasis is apparent. However, Trotsky goes on to examine the relationship of the trade union oriented transitional demands to democratic demands that have a burning significance for the semi-colonial world. The depth of Trotsky’s grasp of the internationalist nature of the communist programme is revealed in the manner in which he develops the link between democratic and transitional demands. His theory of Permanent Revolution, based as it was on an understanding of the uneven but combined character of development in the imperialist epoch, enabled him to combine the democratic programme and the transitional programme, where the Stalinists and nationalists alike counterposed democracy to socialism:

‘Democratic slogans, transitional demands and the problems of the socialist revolution are not divided into separate historical epochs in this struggle, but stem directly from one another.’59

In particular, it was the experience of the revolutions in Russia, Spain and China that enabled Trotsky to concretely demonstrate how the tasks of the democratic revolution are indissolubly linked with those of the socialist revolution. Trotsky argued that the weight given to democratic demands depended on the degree of backwardness in a particular country, and on the extent of the strength of democratic aspirations. His starting point in raising democratic demands was to solidarise not with the illusions that the masses harboured in bourgeois democracy but with what was progressive about the aspiration (the yearning for freedom of speech and assembly, the right to organise trade unions and political parties). By taking up these demands in conditions where the bourgeoisie refused them or at best used them in a deceitful manner a bridge to transitional and socialist demands could be opened. This is what Trotsky meant when he called for a transitional democratic programme in China, for example. The method of utilising democratic demands in this transitional fashion—enshrined in the programme—was anticipated by Trotsky’s use of the call for a constituent assembly (Cortes) in Spain:

‘The masses of the city and countryside can be united at the present time only under democratic slogans. These include the election of a constituent Cortes on the basis of universal, equal, direct and secret suffrage. I do not think that in the present situation you can avoid this slogan. Soviets are as yet non-existent. The Spanish workers—not to speak of the peasants—do not know what soviets are; at any rate not from their own experiences. Nevertheless, the struggle around the Cortes in the coming period will constitute the whole political life of the country. To counterpose the slogan of soviets, under these circumstances to the slogan of the Cortes, would be incorrect.

On the other hand, it will obviously be possible to build soviets in the near future only by mobilising the masses on the basis of democratic slogans. This means: to prevent the monarchy from convening a false, deceptive, conservative Cortes; and so that this Cortes can give land to the peasants, and do many other things, workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets must be created to fortify the positions of the toiling masses.’60

This method of combining democratic demands with transitional ones, stands in stark contrast to the positions of degenerate Trotskyism today in Latin America, Africa and Asia. They interpret Trotsky’s reference to arming workers with a democratic programme as a ‘primary step’61 to mean the fight for democracy as a distinct stage. Thus they mimic the Stalinist stages theory. The sense of Trotsky’s talk of a ‘primary step’ is clear from the reference above to Spain. A revolutionary fight for the democratic programme can, in certain circumstances, be the first step towards the programme of Soviets. But this step can only be made if the fight for soviets is linked to the struggle for democracy. Neither Trotsky nor Lenin in 1917 before October abandoned the call for the constituent assembly, even while at the same time calling for all power to be placed in the hands of the Soviets. This position reflected the combined tasks of the Russian Revolution, not counterposed stages of that revolution.

The international scope of the TP is equally evident in the section on the USSR. Trotsky elaborates a clear programme aimed at overthrowing the bureaucracy. This section was of vital importance in countering those in the FI who saw political revolution as a mere self-reform process by sections of the bureaucracy. Trotsky made clear that ‘. . . the chief political task in the USSR still remains the overthrow of this same Thermidorian bureaucracy’.62

Trotsky’s programme was prescient in identifying the struggle against social inequality and political oppression as the starting point of political revolution. Hungary and Poland both demonstrate the correctness of his prediction. However, the lack of experience of actual political revolutionary crises necessarily limited Trotsky’s ability to elaborate detailed tactics and demands. He could only begin to elaborate a programme. Once again the actual experiences of the post-war period, in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and, most recently Poland, oblige us to go further. It is proof of the bankruptcy of the FI’s fragments that they emptied Trotsky’s programme of its revolutionary kernel and went backwards to a reform perspective. For their part the Cliffites, with the theory of State Capitalism, abandoned the programme of political revolution altogether. For them there is only the perspective of a new February 1917, a spontaneous democratic revolution. As Cliff puts it:

‘The spontaneous revolution, in smashing the iron heel of the Stalinist bureaucracy, will open the field for the free activity of all the parties, tendencies and groups in the working class. It will be the first chapter in the victorious proletarian revolution.’63

The land of the first successful workers’ revolution must return to chapter one—bourgeois democracy—before the transition to socialism can be effected. The transitional method is abandoned and its place is taken by spontaneism—a position every bit as fatalist and prostrate before the objective process as that taken by the principal fragments of the FI that the Cliffites claimed to be opposing.

Re-elaborating the Transitional Programme

In our book, The Death Agony of the Fourth International and the Tasks of Trotskyists Today, we stated that our objective was the re-foundation of a revolutionary international on the basis of a re-elaborated programme. As we have seen regular re-elaborations of the programme have taken place in the Marxist tradition. The method lodged in the Communist Manifesto was retained in the TP. But Trotsky did not simply reprint the Manifesto because it was, at a methodological level, still valid. He re-elaborated it. He encompassed new developments, new perspectives and a new balance sheet of the class struggle in his programme. This is entirely Marxist. Yet our call to do just the same fifty years on from when the TP was written, has been greeted with horror and dismay by a miscellany of centrist groups that originated from the FI. How dare we propose to tamper with a text, which for them, has become a holy icon! For us the programme must be a guide to action. For them it is something to look at, admire and perhaps even worship. We say clearly that just as Trotsky declared the Communist Manifesto to be his programme, and just as he re-elaborated it to fit new circumstances, so we say the TP is our programme and we simply intend to re-elaborate it for the period we face.

For us the need for re-elaboration stems from several factors. The first and most straightforward, is that it was not complete. Anyone who thinks it was should consider Trotsky’s own remarks about the programme. When the SWP(US) National Committee hesitated in adopting the programme Trotsky re-assured them that it was a general ‘working hypothesis’ that ‘can and surely will be modified in the fire of experience’64. He even offered it as a basis for discussion with the French PSOP led by the centrist Marceau Pivert, inviting the latter to submit amendments. And in his discussions of the programme with the SWP(US) leaders he insisted:

‘The draft programme is not a complete programme . . . The programme is only the first approximation. It is too general in the sense in which it is presented to the international conference in the next period.’65

He believed it lacked a precise enough analysis of the contemporary stage of imperialism and its contradictions and developments. He knew full well it lacked precise slogans for establishing and consolidating of the proletarian dictatorship. He recognised that ‘peculiar conditions in each country and even in each part of the country’,66 would affect the particular focus of the programme when applied in a given nation. In short, Trotsky signalled the areas where he felt further development was necessary.

The first point, concerning the imperialist epoch, is decisive for any re-elaboration of the programme. This is because the lack of this analysis disarmed Trotsky’s followers after the war when his prognoses for acute and prolonged economic crisis failed to materialise, at least in the imperialist heartlands. Trotsky’s perspective as we have seen under-estimated the economic strength of US imperialism.

But not only do we have Trotsky’s own admitted shortcomings that require work from us in the development of the programme, we also have to overcome the distortions of the programme by the centrists. The final factor that renders re-elaboration necessary is the profound changes and their effects on the class struggle and its major protagonists (reformists, nationalists, centrists and revolutionists) that have occured in the last fifty years. The problems of imperialism in the aftermath of its long boom, the complexities of the struggles in the imperialised world, the effects of its own expansion on Stalinism, the flowering of movements of the oppressed and so on, all have to be encompassed in a re-elaborated programme.

This task would have been considerably easier had not revolutionary continuity been shattered. Had Trotsky‘s epigones re-elaborated his programme in the 1950s many of the difficulties we face today would not exist. And such re-elaboration was possible. In the imperialist countries, where the boom engendered relative social peace, Trotsky’s warning that a strategic retreat might prove necessary should have warned and encouraged the next generation of Trotskyists. It would have encouraged them that, even in the conditions of boom and the isolation of revolutionaries, they could retreat to dealing with a lower level of class struggle, but in a revolutionary manner. Retreat need not mean revision. That retreat, in the face of a capitalist boom, should not have been a retreat back to the minimum programme. It should have looked at the tasks of building opposition inside the trade unions to the reformist bureaucracies. It should have meant developing the tactic of the rank and file movement—the revolutionary use of the united front in the unions—so as to be able to seize every opportunity to exact new gains from the capitalists, encroaching upon their control in the workplace and weakening the ability of the bureaucrats to play their role as lieutenants of capital inside the labour movement. Yet the TP’s call for ‘independent militant organisations’ was left as a dead letter.

The failure to carry out a ‘strategic retreat’ for the imperialist countries by formulating a policy for the unions was mirrored by the failure to re-elaborate the programme to deal with the resurgence of reformism. The TP deals with reformism—in both its social democratic and Stalinist garb—at a very general level. Trotsky firmly believed its death knell had been sounded. He did not feel the need to repeat the tactics towards it any detail. Yet after the war in Britain, Italy, France and West Germany reformism played a vital role in facilitating the stabilisation of capitalism. It saved capitalism and itself. In place of the Transitional Programme’s general denunciation of reformism a programme of action utilising the tactics of the united front was required. Instead, the FI’s fragments in imperialist Europe simply saw every current of left reformism is evidence of Trotsky’s prediction that reformism as a whole was disintegrating. At the level of tactics all the fragments, to one degree or another, capitulated to left reformism, hailing it as centrist or assimilating themselves to it as its left wing.

These failures to develop the programme inevitably disarmed the centrist groupings which originated from the FI. In Belgium 1961 and France 1968 the cost of either abandoning or distorting the transitional method proved to be a tendency to accommodate to the labour and trade union bureaucracy or a tendency to simply tail the workers’ struggles in the hope that they would spontaneously overcome their illusions in that bureaucracy. The same tendencies manifested themselves when the developments of movements of the oppressed (women, blacks, lesbians and gays) developed. With no real point of reference in the Transitional Programme and blind to its methods, the centrists practiced liquidationism or economism.

In the semi-colonies the development of the programme to relate to the rise of petit bourgeois nationalist movements was required. Bolivia in 1952 provided a test case.67 The problem of soviets, of the workers’ and peasants’ government, of workers’ control and the relationship of democratic and transitional demands, could have been rendered precise. The tactics and strategy of Trotskyism, however, were unceremoniously dumped by the epigones. The programme was ignored, not enriched.

And, in the degenerate workers’ states, the need to develop the programme of political revolution was demonstrated by the regular explosions of rebellion against the Stalinist rulers. But here too the foundation stones laid by Trotsky were dynamited, not built upon. Instead fractions of the bureaucracy were tailed.

The crisis of leadership has, in the latter part of the twentieth century, seen a further development. The collapse of the FI means that centrism stands as the major alternative for workers breaking with reformism. The forces of revolutionary communism are a tiny minority. They lack numbers, resources, theoreticians of the stature of Trotsky and many things beside. But these forces exist. Under the banner of the MRCI they are fighting. True, today we must largely fight with the weapons of criticism. In transcending this stage and in overcoming the obstacles we do possess one vital weapon—Trotsky’s revolutionary method. Enshrined in the Transitional Programme are all the answers for us in re-elaborating that programme to meet the new period of social and economic crisis that imperialism has plunged into. By tearing away the shrouds that centrism wrapped Trotskyism’s real method and programme in, we can compensate for all weaknesses. We can prepare our cadre, root ourselves in the class struggle and accumulate experience. We can march forward confidently and produce the new programme, on the shoulders of each previous Marxist programme, especially the TP. And in so doing we will build the new International and new parties that are so desperately needed. In doing so we heed Trotsky’s words:

‘The significance of the programme is the significance of the party . . . Now what is the party? In what does the cohesion exist? This cohesion is a common understanding of the events, of the tasks; and this common understanding—that is the programme of the party. Just as modern workers cannot work without tools any more than the barbarians could, so in the party the programme is the instrument.’68

With such a programme we can arm the working class with a strategy to despatch capitalism into the rubbish bin of history.


1 Leon Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (TP), (New York 1977)—all future references to the Transitional Programme and discussions on it are to this edition.
2 Ibid, p111
3 Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, Against the Stream, (London 1986) p183
4 Leon Trotsky, The Crisis in the French Section, (New York 1977) p119
5 Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, (Harmondsworth 1975) p40
6 Leon Trotsky, Whither France?, (London 1974) p50
7 Leon Trotsky, TP, p172
8 Leon Trotsky, Writings 1937-38 (W 37-38), (New York 1976) p284
9 Leon Trotsky, W 38-39, (New York 1974) p232
10 Leon Trotsky, W 39-40, (New York 1973) p159
11 Leon Trotsky, TP, p99
12 Leon Trotsky, W 39-40, p291
13 Leon Trotsky, W 38-39, p341
14 Leon Trotsky, TP, p112
15 Leon Trotsky, W 37-38, pp438-39
16 For a full account of the effects of this disorientation see: Workers Power/Irish Workers Group, The Death Agony of the Fourth International and the Tasks of Trotskyists Today, (London 1983)
17 James P Cannon, The Struggle for Socialism in the American Century, (New York 1977) p256
18 Ibid, p263
19 Mandel and Pablo were, with Pierre Frank, the International Secretariat which was based in Paris at that time
20 ‘The World Situation and Tasks of the Fourth International’, Fourth International , June 1948 (New York)
21 James P Cannon, op cit, pp276-77
22 See Mark Hoskisson, ‘Programme in the Imperialist Epoch’, Permanent Revolution No 6 (London 1987)
23 James P Cannon, op cit, p298
24 Duncan Hallas, ‘Against the Stream’, International Socialism 1:53, (London 1972) p39
25 John Molyneux, Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution, (Brighton 1981) p179
26 Chris Bambery, ‘The Politics of James P Cannon’, International Socialism 2:36 (London 1987) p77
27 Leon Trotsky, TP, p173
28 Ibid, p111
29 John Molyneux, op cit, p185
30 Leon Trotsky, On France, (New York 1979) p200
31 Leon Trotsky, TP, pp103-04
32 ‘The Yugoslav Affair’, Fourth International December 1948, (New York) p238
33 Leon Trotsky, TP, p113
34 Documents of the Fourth International, (New York 1973) p348
35 Leon Trotsky, TP, pp113-14 (our emphasis)
36 Documents of the Fourth International, p161 (our emphasis)
37 Leon Trotsky, TP, p101
38 Workers Power, Where Next for the NUM?, (London 1985)
39 Leon Trotsky, TP, p114
40 Duncan Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism, (London 1979) p104
41 Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, (New York 1973) p80
42 Leon Trotsky, TP, p135
43 Ibid, p102
44 Ibid, p129
45 Ibid, p122
46 Ibid, pp136-37
47 Ibid, p137
48 Workers Socialist League, Trotskyism Today No4, p5 (London 1979)
49 Leon Trotsky, Whither France?, p146
50 Ibid, p115 (our emphasis)
51 John Molyneux, op cit, p152
52 Leon Trotsky, TP, p115
53 Ibid, p115
54 Ibid, p157
55 Ibid, p176
56 V I Lenin, Collected Works Volume 36, p172 (Moscow 1966)
57 Leon Trotsky, TP, pp159-60
58 Ibid, p111
59 Ibid, p137
60 Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, p137
61 Leon Trotsky, TP, p137
62 Ibid, p145
63 Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, p264 (London 1974)
64 Leon Trotsky, W 37-38, p343
65 Leon Trotsky, TP, p173
66 Ibid, p173
67 See Workers Power, Permanent Revolution No2, (London 1984)
68 Leon Trotsky, TP, p171