By Lisbeth Latham.

Radical Left movements across the globe face multiple challenges that place human survival at stake. At the same time, our movements are currently not strong enough to effectively challenge capitalism and the determination of the capitalist class and their representatives to prioritise profits over human life and survival of the planet.

This poses the question of how we can start to cohere and build the capacity of the popular classes and oppressed people to unite and struggle for a better world. One possible source of inspiration for strengthening the movement may be the Transitional Programme, which was written by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in 1938 as part of a process to cohere and regroup consistently revolutionary forces.

What is the transitional programme?

The Transitional Programme, or The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, was the key programmatic document of the Fourth International at its founding in 1938. The programme was drafted by Trotsky with the aim of bridging the historic divide between the revolutionary movement’s minimum programmes (demands raised within the movement, and particularly in parliamentary campaigns, regarding the reform of capitalism) and maximum programmes (the actions that would be taken upon the seizure of power by the working class).

The aim was to build into the minimum programme demands that would more sharply challenge the power of capital, and demonstrate to working people the limitations of democracy under capitalism while building their confidence in achieving something more – these were the “transitional demands”.

The context of the transitional programme

The transitional programme was written in late 1930s, a period during which the labour movement was surging in many countries, but had also suffered heavy defeats at the hands of fascism (Germany, Italy) or was involved in revolutionary struggles that would result in defeat at the hands of fascism (Spain). 

It was also expected that the world was heading to a new inter-imperialist war that would be aimed at the overthrow of “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union. 

Within this context, the tiny Trotskyist movement had been going through an extended period of seeking to unite and build a new revolutionary and anti-Stalinist pole within the workers movement, including the the semi-mass centrist parties Workers Party of Marxist University (Spain), the Independent Labour Party (Britain), and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (Netherlands), which involved or were founded by left-oppositionists. This effort ultimately failed with only the Revolutionary Socialist Party participating. 

In this context, the programme was aimed at providing an ideological weapon with which the small Trotskyist forces in the global workers movement could agitate around and build both influence within the movement and support for the programme, either in whole or in part.

The Transitional Programme is made up of three distinct types of demands. These are: immediate demands, primarily around economic issues; democratic demands around expanding and strengthening democratic rights; and transitional demands aimed at fundamentally challenging the power and authority of capital itself.

It is important to remember that the Transitional Programme was not intended as a final and finished document; it was instead intended as a framework for revolutionary organisations to develop their responses to known challenges, but also new challenges to the development and dynamics of the class struggle. So while it is possible to simply deploy an existing demand from the programme in response to the struggle of today, it is also just as viable to develop new responses to any challenges that emerge.  

Immediate demands

Immediate demands are probably the simplest and easiest demands to understand and develop. They are aimed at responding to the immediate struggles of the day and are essentially based on the target of the demand either stopping doing something, or begin doing something.

Examples would be calls for a doubling of unemployment benefits or an increase in funding to higher education. A problem with immediate demands is that, once achieved, they can and will be undermined by capital and the state.

Democratic demands

Democratic demands seek to either defend or expand existing democratic rights or establish new ones. Examples of democratic demands include demands around expanding the franchise or citizenship, expanding rights and protections such the demand for marriage equality or anti-discrimination legislation, or expansion of community control over their own lives such as minority language rights or establishment of the right to recall elected representatives.

Again, these advances are always subject to being rolled back or subverted by capital and the state, such as the weakening and defanging of environmental protections that has transformed many such agencies into bodies that effectively authorise polluting the environment, rather than protecting the environment from pollution.

Transitional demands

Transitional demands go much further than either immediate or democratic demands. They don’t simply seek to address something happening right now but seek to fundamentally undermine the power of both capital and the state and shift power into the hands of working people. While still capable of being subverted (because everything is) they are far more robust than the other two types of demands.

Examples of transitional demands include:

  • Escalator clauses, through which, in addition to any negotiated pay rise, workers receive automatic pay rises in response to inflation. This acts to not only increase wages, but to protect wage gains from inflation, ensuring wage growth not just in absolute but relative terms;
  • Sliding hour and wages scales. This demand seeks to protect both jobs and wages of workers, particularly during periods of technological change, by responding to any attempt to shed jobs by requiring working hours for workers to be reduced instead of jobs being cut, and the hourly pay increased in order to maintain weekly wages. The demand means that the benefit of technology improvement flows onto working people in the form of reduced working hours rather than simply boosting profits and resulting in increased unemployment.

The nature of the transitional demand

A key debate that has existed around the transitional demand is (1) whether it is achievable under capitalism, or (2) whether it is simply a document for a transition period. 

On the second point, this is clearly a misunderstanding of the role of the programme. While it was developed in a period where the Trotskyist movement expected and predicted an expansion of the class struggle in which the question of transition to socialism would be posed, it was not the situation that they immediately faced, and their forces were not such that they would be in a position to be applying their programme.

Moreover, it does not make sense for many of the demands within the programme to be raised in periods of transition – whether this is a situation of dual power (where there are both capitalist and working class organs of power existing side by side) or in a workers’ state (the working class would not need to be making demands in this situation, the organs of workers power would just act). Instead, it was an agitational document aimed at engaging workers in the here and now. 

With regard to the first point, it is not knowable what capital, and its representatives in government, will concede, at least in the short-term, in the hope of maintaining control and power with the aim of subverting any concessions as the movement ebbs and recedes. The bigger and more conscious the movement, the more desperate capital will be to offer concessions in the hope of returning to a period of peace. 

Moreover, individual transitional demands have been achieved and won by the labour movement. For example, cost-of-living allowances, which provide wage increases to workers in response to inflation, have been a feature of a significant number of US union contracts since the 1950s. This is a consequence of US unions, most notably the United Auto Workers, adopting the escalator clause as part of their bargaining demands as a consequence of the influence of Trotskyist-led locals pushing these demands in the late 1940s.

Transitional demands for today

While a modern-day transitional programme would feature a lot of the original demands, it does need updating in order to meet the challenges of today – particularly in relation to the challenges around climate change, indigenous rights and anti-racism struggles, globalisation and the #MeToo movement.

Such transitional demands could include, but should not be limited to:

  • Demands focused on expropriation and bringing major polluters under workers control to fund just transitions to environmentally sustainable zero-carbon economies;
  • Requirements that any company operating in multiple counties must abide by environmental, labour and anti-discrimination legislation not only in its ‘home’ country but in all the countries it operates in, with communities in other countries able to bring suits under these laws;
  • The defunding and disarming of police, with these services brought under control of local communities of colour;
  • Criminalisation of efforts of officials holding power to discourage or undermine prosecution of sexual assault allegations;
  • Free movement of all working people with the right to a liveable income for all working-class people, whether in employment or not;
  • Taxation on speculative financial transactions;
  • A four-day work week with no loss in pay (with commensurate reduction in working hours for workers who do not work full-time);
  • No bailouts or government contracts for companies based in tax havens;
  • Any government-funded bailouts must be tied to commensurate state equity in the firm, with the establishment of mechanisms for industrial democracy in the firms;
  • A ban on redundancies in profitable companies, or firms in receipt of bailout money;
  • Free paid training for workers who are in industries that are affected by the transition to a carbon-free economy.

The transitional programme and its associated demands is not a magical solution. The work of the Left will not be, and is not, completed by raising a particular demand, no matter how brilliant its formulation. The purpose of demands is to create mechanisms in which potential solutions to the problems confronting working people can be posed to them – with the aim of winning people to that solution, but also to the need for political action to achieve it.

By drawing people into action in support of concrete demands we can build the confidence and organisational capacity of the class to take action in their own interest and the social power of all working people. And by doing this, we can build a movement that is sufficiently confident and powerful to meet the existential challenges we are faced with.  

Lisbeth Latham is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow her on Twitter @grumpenprol or view her Revitalising Labour blog here.

Top image from @Becker1999.

Leave a Reply