The Transitional Program: A Tool Kit for Radical 21st Century Organisers

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Leon Trotsky wrote The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International 62 years ago while living in exile in Mexico. Trotsky was a leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution and, as Commander in Chief of the Red Army, was pivotal in the defeat of the counter-revolutionary forces, backed by foreign invaders. The document, now simply referred to as The Transitional Program, has as much to teach contemporary advocates of radical change as it did socialists on the eve of World War Two. Trotsky, who was assassinated in 1940 by an agent of the dictator, Joseph Stalin, spent his last years bringing together the scattered supporters of his ideas in a new international vanguard party — the Fourth International. The Transitional Program was adopted by its founding convention in 1938.

Revolution Betrayed. In 1927, Trotsky and his co-thinkers in the Left Opposition had been expelled from the Communist Party. Isolation and scarcity in Russia created conditions conducive to the rise of Stalin’s dangerous and self-serving bureaucracy.

Stalin and his clique found it convenient to declare that socialism could be developed within the boundaries of a single country. Trotsky rejected this notion, having argued as early as 1920 that a revolution in backward Russia could be neither contained nor indefinitely sustained inside national borders. Trotsky campaigned relentlessly against Stalin. He patiently explained to all who listened the need to defend the economic gains of the revolution, such as communal ownership, while advocating a massive political revolt to wrest power from Stalin. The decision to found a new International was not taken lightly. Only after concluding that the degenerated Third International — formed by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution — could not be reformed, did Trotsky act.

But it was the rise of Hitler in 1933 which convinced Trotsky the International born from the Russian Revolution had become a complete obstacle which must be replaced. The Third International played a tragic role in the rise of fascism. It instructed the German Communist Party not to unite with the social democrats, wrongly characterising social democracy as simply another variant of fascism. This mistaken policy left the German working class unable to stop fascism.

New leaders needed. The Transitional Program addressed the burning issues facing the international working class. Perhaps the most crucial, exemplified by the response in the German workers’ movement to Nazism, was the crisis of proletarian leadership. The international working class lacked a leadership which was politically independent from the bourgeoisie. Trotsky does not mince words — “The chief obstacle in the path of transforming the pre-revolutionary condition into a revolutionary one is the opportunist character of proletarian leadership: its petty-bourgeois cowardice before the big bourgeoisie and its perfidious connections with it, even its death agony.” Essentially, Trotsky concludes that the conditions for a revolutionary transformation were mature in 1938, but not able to be immediately realised because of the political immaturity of the working class and its leadership.

Leadership was also a key theme of the September 1999 Freedom Socialist Party Convention. The gathering concluded that the working class today faces similar challenges to those described by Trotsky in The Transitional Program: “The top misguiders of the working class in each country — union bureaucrats, social democratic politicians, movement careerists — are tied by chains of privilege and fear to ‘their own’ ruling classes. They will do everything they can to keep workers from learning the lesson of revolution” (Convention resolution, “From the Ashes of the Old Century, A Better World’s in Birth”).

In The Transitional Program Trotsky points to a key source of new and revitalised revolutionary leadership. He called on the new International to orient to the most oppressed workers, particularly women and youth. “Opportunist organisations by their very nature concentrate their chief attention on the top layers of the working class and therefore ignore both the youth and the woman workers. The decay of capitalism, however, deals its heaviest blows to the woman as a wage earner and as a housewife. The sections of the Fourth International should seek bases of support among the most exploited layer of the working class, consequently among the women workers. Here they will find inexhaustible stores of devotion, selflessness and readiness to sacrifice.”

Unfortunately, sections of the contemporary Left which identify as part of the Trotskyist tradition have missed this point entirely and orient exclusively toward the aristocracy of labour.

A method for the new century. The Transitional Program has a very contemporary resonance. Many of the demands hit the spot in 2000. Trotsky has a plan for the banks — expropriate them! He has the perfect demand for capitalists who cry poor — open your books! By putting industry under the magnifying glass, Trotsky explains, private owners of the social means of production will no longer be able to “hide from producers and consumers the machinations of exploitation, robbery and fraud.”

The sliding scale of hours and wages — shorter hours with no loss of pay — is the demand Trotsky advocates in response to unemployment. It is obscene that workers are being forced to labour longer hours and perform unpaid overtime while other workers are unemployed. With the introduction of an inflationary Goods and Services Tax looming, automatic wage increases to keep pace with price rises are required. Trotsky advocates that “collective agreements should assure an automatic rise in wages in relation to an increase in price of consumer goods.”

But the most valuable legacy of The Transitional Program is not the concrete policies themselves, but the methodology used by Trotsky to develop them. In a political platform, a demand is a statement of what is needed to fulfil a need or redress an injustice. The Transitional Program contains three types of demands — immediate, democratic and transitional. Immediate demands relate to the everyday struggle and include things such as an increase in the pension, the provision of a new service or the prevention of a speed-up on the job. Democratic demands relate to human rights and civil liberties. They can be quite explosive as their effect is to change the power relations between the classes in favour of the oppressed and exploited.

Transitional demands target the foundations of capitalist power. They connect with working class people at their existing level of consciousness by pointing out a social requirement that is unfulfilled — for example, free quality health care. Capitalism cannot, and will not, provide this necessity, and so working people begin to be transformed to a higher level of consciousness — that only a fundamental overturn of the present system will ensure that people’s needs are met. Trotsky uses the metaphor of a bridge. He explains: “It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find a bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and today’s consciousness of a wide layer of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of the power by the proletariat.”

A method for tomorrow. Critics of The Transitional Program argue that conditions have changed since 1938. Of course! Trotsky would be horrified by the suggestion that every slogan considered appropriate in 1938 be mechanically applied in 2000. Trotsky explicitly acknowledges that different circumstances require different strategies and tactics. The Transitional Program has sections addressing the methods for organising under fascism, in colonial and semi-colonial countries, in the former Soviet Union and in advanced capitalist countries. But, as Trotsky would say, “…the point, comrades, is not whether this or that specific issue has passed into history, but that capitalism is still with us. What has fundamentally changed in class relationships in six decades? Nothing!”

The reason for studying The Transitional Program now is to understand the method and learn how to use it. Understanding the popular mood and having a sense of timing is crucial. Look around you! What do you see? Do you meet people who think the system is fair? Do you know people who think the system is working well? Do you talk with people who genuinely believe more cost-cutting, privatisation, increased competitiveness and globalisation will bring peace and prosperity to humanity? I certainly don’t. This is the working class majority to whom we must speak. By studying and applying Trotsky’s Transitional Program, you can improve your ability to contribute to the collective formulation of demands for campaigns, demonstrations or socialist electoral platforms, and so begin to make the break with the misleaders of the working class who are rusted onto a decaying capitalist machine.

Heed Trotsky’s warning: a member “who does not seek the road to the masses is not a fighter but a dead weight to the party. A program is formulated not for the editorial board or for the leaders of discussion clubs but for the revolutionary action of millions!”

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