In opening the 16 July CWI School commission discussion on ‘The Transitional Programme and its Relevance Today’, Niall Mulholland of the International Secretariat of the CWI pointed out that the transitional programme was written in a period of deep economic crisis and impending imperialist war. Many of these striking features are as prevalent today as they were in 1938, when the programme was written as a key document for the founding conference of the Fourth International, following the degeneration of the Stalinist Communist International.
The main function of the transitional programme is to bring the experiences of the working class to the conclusion of the need to struggle for socialism. Reforms can be won through mass workers’ struggles but the transitional programme also crucially outlines how to make reforms long-lasting and to win fundamental change, for a socialist society.
Marx and Engels formulated demands for the developing workers’ movement in Europe in the 1848 Communist Manifesto. This contrasted with the method and programme adopted by the social democratic parties in the later part of the 19th century. The German social democratic Erfurt programme was adopted at a time of general capitalist upswing, which had a huge influence on the outlook of the social democratic leaders. The ‘maximum programme’ put forward the idea of socialism being incrementally brought into being sometime, some time in the indefinite future. At the same time, the Erfurt programme called minimum reforms within the confines of the capitalist system.
However, with the development of imperialism and the outbreak of World War One, the need for workers to have a transitional programme to end deep capitalist crisis became urgent. The Bolsheviks developed demands, including Lenin’s crucial ’April Theses’ in 1917, which called for the working class to fight for power in Russia. The victory of the October socialist revolution led to the building of the Communist International and its programme of demands for the international working class. But the subsequent Stalinist degeneration of the Russian revolution (mainly due to its isolation and the failure of other international revolutions) led to the Communist International abandoning a transitional programme for socialist change.
In the 1930s, Trotsky put forward ‘immediate’ daily demands (e.g. that concern workplace issues and social conditions), ‘democratic demands’ and ‘transitional’ demands’ that touch on the need to change society. These demands are interlinked and at different times various demands take prominence, depending upon circumstances and the struggles and needs of the working class.
While some demands from the 1938 transitional programme are no longer as relevant today or have been updated or replaced, many of Trotsky’s demands retain their validity, and strikingly so in light of the current economic crisis. Some of these demands include the call for an ‘opening the books’ of companies that are shedding jobs and making cuts and the call for the nationalisation of industries under democratic workers’ control and management. The programme must be continually examined and updated when needed, taking into account today’s consciousness and modern conditions and the key issues facing working people. Some issues not addressed in 1938 or only partially due to that different historical period, are now energetically taken up by socialists, such as environmental crisis, the nuclear industry and the rights of various minorities.
Lindsey dispute – programme in action
In the excellent commission discussion, comrades from several countries gave important practical examples of how sections of the CWI use transitional demands to respond to the economic crisis and in the real struggles of the working class. Alistair Tice from Britain spoke about the excellent role played by the Socialist Party in the Lindsey oil refinery strike. The Socialist Party helped to counteract the slogan of “British jobs for British Workers” with demands for trade union jobs for all and democratic trade union control over the hiring of workers. Virginie from France spoke about the recent general strike in Guadeloupe and the demands that were proposed by the CWI to help take this inspiring movement of the working class forward.
Other speakers expanded on the point of how a transitional method is necessary. Nikolaj from Sweden explained the kinds of demands put forward on the issue of the environmental crisis, such as free mass public transport and using the resources of society to invest in renewable energy. Rob Jones from the CIS spoke about how CWI members put forward a socialist alternative in opposition to last year’s Georgia/Russian war.
In summing up the discussion, Alec Thraves from Britain said that the 1938 Transitional Programme was an excellent pamphlet that all socialists should study and which is a general guide to action. The key task for the CWI is to use a transitional method when discussing with working class people. This entails putting forward analysis, ideas and demands that act as a bridge between the consciousness of the working class and the need for a socialist society. Those ultra-left and sectarian lefts who argue for socialism by putting forward abstract demands and ultimatums only blow up this bridge! In contrast, as the excellent commission discussion highlighted, the CWI concretely aims to win the ear of the working class to get socialist ideas and proposals for action across to as many as possible.