This was prepared as a discussion lead-off for a day school of the Ohio chapters of Socialist Alternative. Page numbers refer to the American SWP’s edition of the program, which I highly recommend.
The Transitional Program is the founding document of the 4th International, also called the Trotskyist international, and though it was written and adopted 80 years ago this year, still serves as a beacon for our movement today. Though much has changed since that time, the basic premise of the problem that the program seeks to solve still exists, in a discussion before the first congress of the 4th international, the most prominent member Leon Trotsky said “The whole Transitional Program must fill the gaps between consciousness today and soviets tomorrow” (101).
We face the same dilemma of being in a decidedly pre-revolutionary period. The objective factors–the economic conditions–for socialist revolution are present: there is both a high level of development, but a failing return on new measures and innovations meant to solve the problems of the stagnating system. Thus, like in the 1930’s we find ourselves in a time of crisis that ought to be ripe for a revolutionary movement.
But we also know that the subjective factors for revolution are not there. The working class, the agent of revolution, knows neither the root cause of the problems they face, nor the way to solve those problems. Mass movements like Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the West Virginia teachers strike, and the Gun Control student march spring up in response to oppression symptomatic of capitalist exploitation. But the root cause is deliberately obscured and are rarely taken up in a serious manner by these movements, so they get suppressed, co-opted or ignored and die out.
The Transitional Program seeks to bridge the gap between the pre-revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary conditions through an escalating series of demands that begin at the level of mass consciousness as we encounter it and points toward revolutionary conclusions.
In this way, the program seeks to solve the second issue that is really the root of the gap: the historic crisis of revolutionary leadership. Betrayals by Stalinists, petty bourgeois opportunists, naive ultra leftists and retrograde fascists have lead to the brakes being pumped on various revolutionary movements. It is our job to be more effective leaders in those movements when they arise, and the Transitional Program offers a framework for intervention that continually pushes those movements forward, neither halting them nor moving them backwards.
I’ll cover three parts today:
- I’ll offer a brief historical background to contextualize the 4th international and the Transitional Program.
- I’ll talk about the program itself, the types of demands it raises and what we can learn from the document directly.
- I’ll talk about the usefulness of the program in our time and what parts we can keep and what parts we need to change for the 21st century.
I hope to clarify the program’s purpose and usefulness to underline the necessity for us to utilize the methods laid out in it as the starting point in our approach to revolutionary politics.