Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Programme is more than just a political programme.
Trotsky’s transitional programme.
Winning support for socialism
It is in essence a whole method for socialists to use in the struggle to abolish capitalism and replace it with socialism.
The working class is the only force that can perform this task. But how do we convince the majority of working-class people of the need for socialist ideas and of the correct methods to change society?
In the Transitional Programme Trotsky shows how the problems of working-class people should be approached in a socialist way.
Socialists fight for immediate reforms (minimal demands) but the day-to-day problems, unemployment, low pay etc. are linked to the socialist transformation of society by a series of intermediate demands (transitional demands).
The world that Trotsky was addressing when he wrote this pamphlet in 1938 was a very different one to today. In 1938 the world was just one year away from being engulfed in World War Two. Fascism had crushed the workers’ movements in Germany and Italy and was triumphant in Spain.
In the Soviet Union, where capitalism had been overthrown, a vicious dictatorship led by Stalin was wiping out the last remnants of workers’ influence in a mass purge of millions of people.
However it was not only a period of brutal counter-revolution. Time and again in the 1930s the working class in most countries in Europe had conducted mass struggles against capitalism and fascism only to be thwarted by timorous or treacherous leadership. As Trotsky explained: "The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership".
Trotsky proposed The Transitional Programme as the programme for the new world party of the working class, the Fourth International to replace the Stalinised third International.
It is a document of its time dealing with the main issues that faced the working class of the day. Many of the programme’s points are no longer completely applicable today, but the method that Trotsky outlines is timeless.
The Transitional Programme demonstrates the method that Marxists have used to point the way to socialism from Marx himself to the Socialist Party and its sister parties organised around the Committee for a Workers’ International today.
A bridge to change
WHILE THERE is a different world situation today from the 1930s there are still similar features. Today working-class people around the world are also throwing themselves into struggle to defend their conditions.
In recent months in Argentina, in Italy and in Venezuela the working class has used revolutionary methods to confront the forces of capitalism. In all these countries the ruling class has been shaken by the power of the masses as they stirred into action, but capitalism has escaped due to the inaction of the leaders of the working class.
Virtually all the political, economic and social problems that we face are caused by capitalism: low pay, unemployment, expensive and inadequate housing, bad health, racism and war all flow from this system.
This basic truth is obscured by the media, the politicians and the capitalist system itself. It is not enough, therefore, for socialist organisations to simply proclaim socialism and wait for the workers to support it.
Marxists must link the struggles of the working class on "bread and butter issues" to the wider struggle to change society.
We propose demands that help to alleviate the basic problems that the working class face but also point in the direction of fundamentally changing society through the working class taking over, replacing capitalism with a democratically planned economy.
These demands, transitional demands as Trotsky refers to them, act as a bridge between answering the immediate problems of working people and the socialist transformation of society, the ultimate solution to all the separate issues.
Transitional demands advocated by Marxists are always met with howls of opposition from the right wing of the labour movement and much of the left.
Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party’s leader in the 1980s denounced the Socialist Party (or the Militant Tendency as we were called at the time) as ’impossibilists’ putting forward impossible demands that could never be realised.
The Militant, The Socialist’s predecessor, had the temerity to demand the reversal of all the public spending cuts implemented by the Tory government.
But Kinnock was wrong. The Militant supporters who led Liverpool city council did succeed in leading a mass struggle of working-class people in the city to temporarily reverse the Tory cutbacks, implement huge reforms and raise the possibility of going much further in transforming society.
It was only the treacherous role of Kinnock himself and the isolation of Liverpool that allowed the Tories to strike back, undemocratically remove the Militant-led council and reverse many of the advances that Liverpool’s working class had made.
The Liverpool council struggle showed that transitional demands are not ’impossible’, they can be fought for here and now by the working class, through mass struggle. But if gains made by struggle are to be held onto, society must be changed to put them beyond the grasp of capitalist counter-reforms.
ONE OF the British working class’s great achievements was the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948 when for the first time anyone, regardless of their income or wealth, could receive free healthcare when they needed it. But from the very beginnings of the NHS British capitalism has sought to undermine it, chipping away at its foundations so that it has nearly reached a point of collapse.
The Socialist Party calls for an immediate injection of funds to save the health service. But we also call for the removal of the privatised elements of the NHS, the abolition of private health that feeds off the service and the nationalisation of the pharmaceutical and other supplying companies that bleed the health service of funds. These transitional demands lead on to the idea of removing capitalism in society as a whole.
The Transitional Programme is a programme for socialist change which is rooted in the current consciousness of the working class. That is why the method that Trotsky describes is more important than the actual demands he put forward in 1938.
Many small groups have rigidly tried to apply The Transitional Programme today by merely repeating demands from it which do not apply today. Workers on strike have been amused by strange people appearing on their picket lines demanding "workers’ defence guards" ripped out of the context of The Transitional Programme of 1938.
If the transitional programme is a bridge from today’s level of consciousness to the prospect of changing society the most important step on that bridge is the first one. The first demands have to reach the actual experience of working-class people to make the rest of the demands relevant.
It is no good having the purest programme for socialist revolution if the mass of working people do not bother to read it because it is out of touch with the reality of their lives.
As The Transitional Programme points out, leaders of the labour movement (and some left groups today) focus on immediate issues, separating them from the need for socialist change whilst talking about socialism maybe in the dim and distant future.
Transitional demands link the two together, starting from today’s solutions and pointing to a future where society is run by working-class people to meet the needs of all.
This article first appeared in The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, England and Wales section of the CWI.