Trotsky’s transitional method: How to win workers and youth for socialism?

Leon Trotsky (centre) in exile in Mexico, 1937 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The last two years in Britain and internationally have seen a big increase in struggle, and 2024 will be no different. There has been the historic strike wave in response to the cost-of-living crisis and the huge protests against the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, with none of the issues driving these movements having been resolved.

A common feature has been people not just responding to immediate attacks on their living conditions or oppression as single issues, but more and more linking these problems together, starting to develop an understanding that capitalism is the root cause of them.

That is why an increasingly large number of young people (and many older workers, as well) identify themselves as socialists, according to a recent study by the Institute of Economic Affairs. This represents part of the process of the development of what Marxists call ‘class consciousness’ – the conscious understanding that capitalist society is run on the basis of the exploitation of one class by another (the workers by the bosses) and that the organised working class will play the decisive role in the struggle for a socialist alternative.

At this stage, while many people see the problems with capitalism, a minority agree explicitly that socialism is the solution. Even for those who do, there is still a lower level of understanding around exactly what socialism means in practice and how it can be achieved.


Fortunately, consciousness is not fixed. It can develop very rapidly in the face of great events and struggles. The key question for socialists in this period is: how can we accelerate the processes by which the mass of workers and youth draw the necessary conclusions about the steps needed to transform society?

This same question was taken up by co-leader of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky and his international collaborators when they published the ‘The Transitional Programme’ in 1938 as the founding document of the Fourth International.

The text opens “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat [the working class]”, highlighting that, despite the countless mass movements and revolutionary situations that had spread across the world in the first part of the 20th century (and since), these movements had ultimately not been able to do away with capitalism due to the lack of mass, revolutionary parties with far-sighted leaderships and socialist programmes to establish a new socialist society. The one exception to this was the Russian Revolution of 1917 that brought the working class to power for the first time in history under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party and key figures within it like Lenin and Trotsky. (See ‘100 years after his death: Lenin’s revolutionary legacy’)

By the 1930s, the workers’ state in Russia had degenerated into a bureaucratic dictatorship under the leadership of Stalin. The communist third international (Comintern) acted not to push forward revolutionary movements internationally, but to preserve the narrow interests of the privileged Soviet bureaucracy.

Trotsky and his supporters drafted the transitional programme as a conscious break from the Stalinist Comintern, and in anticipation of a revolutionary wave that would follow a new world war.

The task of the Fourth International was to prepare for such events, to build new mass revolutionary parties of the working class, and overcome the fact that consciousness among most working-class people was not yet at the stage where they had drawn the conclusion that it was necessary to join and build such parties.

Transitional demands

‘The Transitional Programme’ set out a number of ‘transitional’ demands that aimed to deal with the current level of consciousness by taking up the immediate issues facing the working class at that time, while drawing a bridge from those immediate struggles to the need for the socialist transformation of society as the only way to permanently secure the interests of ordinary people.

Some of the demands included were: a sliding scale of wages that would increase automatically in line with inflation, the abolition of commercial secrecy or ‘opening the books’ to inspect the finances of companies that claimed they could not give pay rises to their workers, and the need for workers’ control of production in failing industries.

Taken individually, these demands only constituted reforms rather than being ‘revolutionary’ in themselves. Their power being that, taken as a whole, in a period of economic crisis, capitalism would be unwilling and unable to grant them all. The ensuing struggle over them would show the working class that its material needs cannot be satisfied within the bounds of capitalism. In the process of struggling for them, workers would draw conclusions about the need for the socialist reconstruction of society.

As Trotsky explained, the aim was “not to engage in abstract formulas, but to develop a concrete programme of action and demands in the sense that this transitional programme issues from the conditions of capitalist society today, but immediately leads over the limits of capitalism”.

A blueprint?

The programme outlined was not intended as a blueprint for every situation however, but was tailored specifically to the world situation in the 1930s. Not every demand raised would necessarily be relevant for us today, although those around wages that rise with inflation and for opening the books of private companies will become increasingly popular in this period of economic downturn.

But the key idea outlined in the text was the method needed to energetically take up the fight for every immediate reform in the interests of the working class, while also skilfully explaining that only a socialist society could guarantee these reforms permanently. This was not a specific innovation of Trotsky and his collaborators, but was built upon the same methods used by Lenin and other Bolsheviks in the previous period, and those raised by Marx and Engels even earlier. As far back as 1848, Marx and Engels explained in ‘The Communist Manifesto’: “The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”

This transitional method is just as useful for socialists today to connect with those workers who are not yet conscious of the need to change society but are forced to engage in day-to-day struggles to protect their wages and living conditions in the face of attacks by the bosses. For any serious socialist to separate themselves and their politics from these immediate issues and to only raise the ideas of ‘socialism’ and ‘revolution’ in an abstract way would be equivalent to separating themselves from the working class, and would fatally compromise any attempts to build a serious, fighting, socialist party.

The transitional method guides the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) in its orientation towards movements today. For example, throughout the strike wave, we put forward demands for coordinated strike action between unions where possible, including calling for a 24-hour general strike at one point. In battles for better pay we have raised the need for a £15-an-hour minimum wage – this demand on its own is not transitional, but it becomes so when taken with the rest of our programme calling for the need to open the books of companies that refuse to pay and for the nationalisation under democratic workers’ control of companies. In the anti-war movement we have raised the need for a ‘socialist intifada’ in Palestine, and here in Britain called for workers’ candidates to take on the warmongering Sunak and Starmer at the general election.

In each of these cases we have aimed to point out the next concrete step in the struggle while always highlighting the need for it to be part of the broader fight for socialism. This way we point out what can win the immediate demands of the movement while also increasing the political cohesion and confidence of the working class in preparation for future battles.

Connecting with workers

But how do we decide which demands are correct to put forward? How can we make sure that our programme connects with the immediate struggles of the working class and appears relevant to their situation without having to hide the socialist content of our programme?

Part of what influences our demands is the current consciousness among the working class, with all its diversity and complications. But also important is our perspective – what we think will develop politically and economically in the next period. Marxists do not have a crystal ball that we can use to predict the future, but we can analyse the trends in society and determine which issues and demands we think will become central in the future. By understanding the trajectory of current struggles we can then best position ourselves to engage with the working class when it moves into action.

A good example of this is our demand for a new mass workers’ party. This demand is not a matter of principle for us but a tactic chosen to suit the situation. In the past, when the Labour Party still maintained its working-class base (albeit with a pro-capitalist leadership), it would have been incorrect to call for a new party, as the working class already felt it had an organised political expression at that time. Members of the Militant (the Socialist Party’s predecessor) were able to fight to win support for Marxist ideas among this working-class base.

But with the shift to the right of the Labour Party during the 1980s-90s, culminating with the election of Blair and the scrapping of Clause IV, which had at least nominally committed the party to the ideas of socialism, the working class in Britain found itself without a political voice.

During the 1990s, we raised the idea that in the next period the working class would have to pose the question of the need for a new party – because the industrial and political battles to come would require this as a concrete step in taking the struggle to the next level.

The experience of Blair’s New Labour government did pose the question of working-class political representation. After a bitter pay dispute with Blair’s government through 2002-03, the Fire Brigades Union voted to disaffiliate from Labour in 2004. Months before, transport union RMT had been expelled after its decision to allow its branches to support other parties. Then RMT general secretary, Bob Crow, played an important role in the campaign for a new mass workers’ party, and helped to establish the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition with that objective in 2010.

Can we be sure that the call for a trade union-backed new mass workers’ party is correct though? Is there not a danger that if Marxists call for a new mass party that may have a reformist program initially, that this will foster illusions in reformism among the working class and hold back a layer that may be starting to look more towards revolutionary politics?

A similar debate was held between Trotsky and some of his American collaborators in the 1930s as they formulated ‘The Transitional Programme’. To the question of whether or not the call to form a new party would risk being a negative step, Trotsky replied “Are we in favour of the creation of a reformist labor party? No. Are we in favour of a policy which can give to the trade unions the possibility to put its weight upon the balance of the forces? Yes.”

Similarly today we make clear that we do not call for the formation of a new reformist party, but for an independent working-class party that would allow workers in Britain to have a significant impact on events – not as a distraction from trade union and other forms of struggle, but as a complement to them.

A new party that was genuinely democratic could act almost as a ‘parliament’ of the working class, allowing the most conscious and combative layers to debate the tactics and ideas needed to go forwards – in such an arena, the Socialist Party would be able to effectively put forward our programme and reach a wider layer of workers. Whether this new party had a reformist or a revolutionary programme would not be fixed from its inception but would be decided in the course of struggle and under the pressure of events.

The question of the need for a new party will be posed by the working class – as has been seen especially during the current anti-war movement – regardless of whether or not we raise it. Therefore, to attempt to oppose such a demand or to refuse to engage with it would mean trying to hold back the working class just as it begins to take steps in the direction of a political struggle for power.

Many young people and workers can be convinced quickly of the need for revolutionary politics and to join our revolutionary party, we fight hard to build the forces of the Socialist Party. But as a transitional demand, addressing the majority of working-class people and youth, we put forward concrete steps forward to increase the level of organisation and combativeness of the working class – including the need for a new mass workers’ party.


The relevance and correctness of these demands and our method will be sharply tested in the next period as capitalism lurches from one crisis to the next with no way out of the blind alley into which it is taking society.

For socialists who seek to build upon the legacy of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, our key task is to fight for the leadership of future mass struggles of the working class and to build a party that is capable of pointing the way forward to transform society.

The original ‘Transitional Programme’ was formulated in an extremely difficult time for the ideas of socialism against a backdrop of world war, economic catastrophe, and numerous defeats for the international workers’ movement. But the genuine Marxists at that time were confident that, armed with the right ideas and approach, they would be able to build the forces necessary to end the rotten system of capitalism.

That same task is posed just as sharply today and the transitional method is a crucial tool to be studied and taken up by all those who want to fight back against the war, poverty and oppression meted out by capitalism. It is through these ideas put into practice that the working class will be able to carry out its historic task of building a democratic, socialist world.

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February 2024