The Transitional Program and its use today

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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.

 

Intro

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:

  1. I’ll offer a brief historical background to contextualize the 4th international and the Transitional Program.
  2. I’ll talk about the program itself, the types of demands it raises and what we can learn from the document directly.
  3. 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.

Historic Background

Written in 1938 and adopted by the newly formed Fourth International, it’s important for us as marxists to have a sense of the historic context of the drafting of this document, from there we can understand why it contains what it does.

The previous third of a century saw a series of new challenges, wars, working class victories and defeats. Here is a list of some of the more important events:

  • 33 years after the 1905 Russian revolution, which won the Duma, obsensibly a representative democracy
  • 24 years after the betrayal by the majority of the sections of the second international in their support of their “defense of their father land” in the outbreak of World War I
  • 21 years after the revolutions of 1917, which was the first permanent victory by the working class over the bourgeoisie.
  • 20 years since the strike by the German proletariat ended the first world war and the German SPD took power.
  • 19 years after the German Sparticist uprising of 1919, and its suppression by the SPD, resulting in the deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknect.
  • Also 19 years since the founding of the third international–the Communist International or the “Comintern”.
  • 17 years since the fascists came to power in Italy in 1921 under Mussolini.
  • 15 years after the German Revolution of 1923, and the Comintern’s betrayal of the German people by the withdrawal of support at the last minute.
  • 14 years since Stalin turned his back on the world revolution, “permanent revolution,” and declared that he would build “socialism in one country”
  • 12 years after the 1926 General Strike in Britain and the Stalinist controlled Comintern’s policy that allowed reformist elements in the Trade Union Council to assert total control of the movement.
  • 11 years since they did the same in the initial battles of the Chinese Civil war in relation to the bourgeois Kuomintang party
  • 10 years since the 1928 adoption of the disastrous ultra leftist “third-period” ideology in the Comintern, which severely limited the ability to form a “united front” against rising European fascism.
  • 9 years since Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union after a protracted fight with Stalin over the direction of the world communist movement.
  • 5 years since hitler came to power and the Comintern declaring within the party “after Hitler, our turn”
  • 4 years since the attempted fascist coup in France which saw the rise of the popular front strategy and the de-escalation of militant proletariat forces.
  • This was followed a year later with the reversal from the third period policy in 1935 and the establishment of the “popular front,” which explicitly again subordinated national sections of the comintern beneath their country’s moribund bourgeoisie.
  • 2 years since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war and the almost immediate inability of the working class to be effectively led by any of the bourgeois or radical parties.

In summary, the Transitional Program comes a generation after the victory of the last worker’s revolution, after the rise of fascism in 3 countries in Europe, and after the leadership of the Stalinist led Communist International had proven itself unable to offer sufficient Marxist guidance to its national sections.

Three overarching and interconnected crises loomed in the 1930s:

  1. The economic crisis which began in 1929
  2. The turn towards armaments by Germany since the middle of the 30’s and the looming threat of war, and perhaps most importantly,
  3. The crisis of revolutionary leadership especially under the de-facto command of the comintern.

In his introduction, George Novack highlights that the idea of forming a the new international had been on the table for some time. He writes, “this particular document came out of the conditions of the 1930s. The first sketches for such a program were written by Trotsky in 1931 when the spanish monarchy was about to be replaced by a republic, by the Belgian Trotskyists in 1933 after Hitler came to power in Germany, and by the French Trotskyists, with Trotsky’s help in 1934 in after an attempted coup d’etat by the fascists.”

In this context, Trotsky and his followers were the sole group to retain the authentic Marxist orientation toward internationalism and independent working class struggle. They saw fit to organize a new worldwide grouping which could give voice and link up the various parties who had held true in the face of the Comintern’s betrayal.

The formation of the new international was such a threat to Stalin that he saw to it that Trotsky’s sons were assassinated, in addition to many of his followers inside and outside of the soviet union. Trotsky was removed from the official state history in Russia and Trotsky himself would be assassinated in Mexico by a Stalinist agent 2 years after the founding of the international.

The founding congress of the 4th International, which saw the adoption of the Transitional Program, took place in France in September 1938.

The program

The Transitional Program itself is divided into 21 sections about various topics like war, orientation toward farms, the role of the youth, factory committees, worker control, expropriation, picket lines and orientation toward specific political system. There are dozens of explicitly raise demands, some of which are still relevant today, for instance “demand[ing] employment and decent living conditions for all,” (115) quite a general demand but certainly something that resonates. More specific demands hold water as well, for example the critical support for the “Ludlow amendment” calling for a national vote on entry into war.

There are three main types of demands in the document.

  1. Immediate demands, which are those that improve the daily lives of works and the oppressed. Joseph Hanson puts is plainly: “this is the ground level for revolutionists. Participation at this level is the prerequisite for everything else” (24). This could mean struggles around housing, clean water, or police brutality. Struggle and victory at this level don’t just provide the spoils that were demanded, but also teach the masses that it can win, inviting them to strive for more.
  2. Democratic demands are struggles around basic rights and freedoms to organize both at workplaces and in politics. In especially backward or fascist countries these are of special importance and could include basic rights to vote or form unions. For our comrades in China, these slogans are raised in calling for basic democratic rights. In democratic countries they are of “special importance to the struggle against retrograde tendency in modern capitalism to suppress democracy.” We see this tendency in the rollback of the voting rights act and other measures like right to work.
  3. Transitional demands point towards dual power and workers government and are generally of a nature such that they can never be provided for under a capitalist system, thus they are revolutionary demands. Like the call for factory committees or local neighborhood councils. In pre-revolutionary periods these kinds of demands especially might not be raised initially, or might be of a purely propagandistic nature.

Extending our metaphor, if the whole program itself is a bridge between pre-revolutionary consciousness and the revolution, these demands are spans along that bridge which point toward a logical order of escalation.

For example, calls for better working conditions in a particular workplace are of an immediate quality, and movements of workers that form around those demands would, in their struggle, inspire other demands. Intervention of skilled socialists organizers, who may be employees themselves, could allow for democratic demands to be raised: forming a union and writing this or that concession or protection into the contract. As these movements escalate and the situation begins to cut into the bottom line of the business owner, strike action would illuminate the power of workers to shut down production and by extension run the business and further point toward transitional demands like a committee to run the factory in the interests of the workers and not the bosses.

I spoke above about the nature of transitional demands to have a propagandistic nature in embryonic movements. In the previous example, a slogan around forming a factory committee would have no weight in an initial struggle around the immediate demand, though it is not to say it couldn’t quickly escalate.

As Novack writes, “a demand can move from the point of pure propaganda in our press and other media, to agitation, which reached and influences a growing segment of the population, to action upon it, first in a sporadic and localized way, and thereafter on a border basis” (47).

This escalation of individual demands and the way that immediate, democratic and transitional demands are interrelated shows the dialectical nature of the transition program in relation to the separate old minimal and maximal programs of the social democratic parties.

“Classical social democracy,” the Transitional Program States, “ functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed.”

This excerpt highlights the degree to which the parties of the Second International had abandoned Marxism, which lead to their capitulation to the bourgeoisie, especially in the war, and their losses to fascism after, especially in Germany and Italy.

The Transitional Program replaces the minimal program with its immediate demands, and ties these demands organically to the maximum via a revolutionary outlook. In this way, the Transitional Program advances neither an opportunistic platform that solely focuses on the immediate needs and tasks of the working class movement, nor an ultra leftist one that is far too advanced for the masses in pre-revolutionary times.

We could start nowhere else in our demands. In a conversation prior to the convention, Trotsky spoke of this dialectical relationship: “some demands appear very opportunistic–that is because they are adapted to the actual mentality of the workers… other demands appear too revolutionary–because they reflect more the objective situation than the actual mentality of the workers” (101).

There are also suggestions about working in larger formations that extend the “united front” approach that we take in relation to mass movements, and against the popular front tactic that the parties of the Comintern had been instructed to take at the time. The Popular front encourages direct collaboration with the bourgeoisie in times of crisis, this expressly limits the horizon of movements and breaks the promise that principled working class movements and organization offer.

Two demands are of particular importance, even though they are of the “revolutionary type”: those caring for the establishment of factory committees and soviets.

As I’ve already highlighted, the 1930’s saw an upsurge in labor activism the world over. This included very militant action by the working class fighters including sit down strikes, which are a type of labor action where workers refuse to work but instead of picketing, occupy their workplace. These were widely used in the 1930’s, and the most famous was a 40 day sit down strike by autoworkers in Flint, as the Transitional Program highlights, and they represent something quite unique in what they point toward, as the program states “every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is the boss of the factory: the capitalist or the worker” (118).

When the question of who runs the workplace raises from the level of propaganda to agitation and then action, the question of factory committees arise. These committees are not unions, they aren’t defensive bodies formed by workers to collectivize their bargaining power against the bosses, but rather offensive bodies which seek to directly challenge the power of the bosses in a particular workplace. As such, factory committees are among the highest level of transitional demands that can be achieved in a workplace. Two poles of attraction are established where only one can win out, two authorities vie for control of one body. Committees establish a dual power, and represent a situation that in irreconcilable and they give a concrete choice to the workers in a factory: the choice between the regime of “the capitalist and the proletarian” (119).

Soviets are these committees generalized across a city or entire region. As the program states, “If the factory committee creates a dual power in the factory, then the soviets initiate a period of dual power in the country” (136). Furthermore, as we learn from Lenin in The State and Revolution, from the very beginning, revolutionary because they are both the organ of workers power that usher in the transition to socialism, and the organ of authority under a socialism state.

Usefulness Today

The Transitional Program represents a concrete step ahead in the Marxist tradition that analyzes specific historical events, especially working class movements and revolutions, and seeks to generalize the conclusions. In the work Trotsky does exactly what Lenin was doing in State and Revolution, which was pointing out the way that the bourgeois state tends to develop by drawing from the examples of history.

Far from offering a stagnant view of history or the proletarian movement, this piece is among the most dynamic in its flexibility of application.

I highlighted some of the specific demands above that are relevant to our time today. But focusing on this or that particular demands is to treat the document as wooden and unchanging. The introduction you read in preparation for this talk speaks of the SWP’s use of the Transitional Program and is critical of sections of the left which refuse to update it for the contemporary time. In George Novack’s Introduction, he writes “We dont hug it to our bosom and raise it as a shibboleth around which we gather as a sect” (59).

In this way the SWP in the 1970’s developed its own Transitional Programs for movements that were rising in their time, particularly the black struggle, women’s’ movement, and student struggle. None of which are directly addressed in the Transitional Program, not because it has nothing to say about them, but because their historical moment had not yet come.

So while the program doesn’t offer particular slogans or demands for these movements, it does offer a framework for which to approach them. We should look at it through the lens of having a program and a method. In our approach to the library campaign we brought with us both a method and a program.

It is also worth noting, however, that less than a year after the initial adoption of the program, the SWP devoted an entire internal bulletin to the question of the “American negro” which highlights the challenges of an integrated working class political organization (noting, for example, even the CP’s colossal drop off of black membership at the end of the 30’s). And in calling for the creation of a separate organization for blacks (in response to the above challenge and the legitimate distrust by black workers had of white organizations, however, the separatist call is incorrect), it proposes as a starting point a “a careful adaptation of the program of transitional demands with emphasis on the demand for equality” (24). I highly recommend reading the entire plan for the program and organization as an early example of a transitional approach.

We develop our own slogans by analyzing movements as they arise and becoming active in them, learning where the consciousness is at, and figuring out the best way to intervene such that they can be effective in a more general sense. Though we may raise demands which are ahead of the movement in a particular time, they can be of lower importance until a time when they can be foregrounded later–as we have already talked about in the transformation from propaganda to agitation to action.

Regardless of what we do we do not sit mass movements out. We have seen people on the obsensible left slander the entire gun control movement because of perceived or real drawbacks among the leadership, and use this to sit them out. But this is not the Transitional approach or the bolshevik approach, Lenin write in 1918 “politics begin where millions of men and women are; where there are not thousands, but millions, that is where serious politics begin.” (Extraordinary Seventh Congress of the R.C.P.(B.))

The history of Marxist struggle over the first third of the 20th century teaches us that non-revolutionary or non-economic demands can, with socialist intervention, lead to anti-capitalist and revolutionary conclusions. Furthermore, some demands, such as the right to vote could have revolutionary weight in a particular movement, but be backward in others. As Hansen writes in his introduction, “The audacity of the transition approach consists in attempting to wrest these slogans out of the hands of the bourgeois politicians, who seek to use them to divert the masses into safe, parliamentary channels” (32).

Furthermore, sitting them out can be dangerous, especially in times of increasing untenable crisis like we see today, we also tend to see the rise of Fascist ideas. This was the case in Italy, where “the Italian workers seized factories on their own initiative,” the program states, “thus signaling their ‘leaders’ of the news of the coming social revolution. Their ‘leaders’ paid no heed to the signal. The victory of fascism was the result” (124). Speaking later of the soviet demand, the program states plainly: “Should the revolution be defeated, the fascist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie will follow” (137).

Conclusion

The transitional program shouldn’t be read as a closed-ended guide to revolution, as the absolute program for achieving our aims, or simple as literature without any relevance in our time. Its importance historically in generalizing the lessons of the 20th century communist movement can not be understated and its practical importance is born out in the struggles we wage day-to-day.

We start where the masses are. But we don’t limit ourselves as that point. Our approach isn’t transitional if we simply just use the demands of the time. It becomes transitional when we link it to ending capitalism and the need for a new society. Members may think we are saying “just support the workers where they are” which is not what we mean.

The use of the immediate, democratic and transitional demands, grounded in a concrete analysis of a situation, allow us the ability to intervene in a way that moves individual movements forward and links them up with broader struggles.

It is only by using the transitional approach that we can bridge the gap between the pre revolutionary consciousness of our time, and the revolutionary movement we need in the future.

 

Discussion:

  • How have we used it in our approaches to different campaigns
  • How can we use it to relate to the student walkouts over gun control
  • How does this differ from approaches taken by democrats? Anarchists?
  • What is the difference between democratic, immediate and transitional demands?
  • How would you explain the transitional program/method to a new member?
  • What is the relationship with the transitional program and the united front? Permanent revolution?
  • How did the bolsheviks use the transitional method?
  • Explain how the transitional program changes with class conscious, material conditions and pre-revolutionary/revolutionary situations.