The ‘transitional programme’ was a discussion document written by Leon Trotsky as a founding statement for the Fourth International in 1938. It was published and re-published by different Trotskyist groups under the optimistic and unwieldy title ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’. It links in a radical way the ‘minimum’ hopes of reformist politics that usually make no difference and ‘maximum’ ultra-left attempts to take short cuts to revolution that can be too-easily dismissed.
We encounter the gap between two main traditions in left politics today time and again. On the one hand are the social democrats of different kinds who are so desperate to be accepted and elected that they tailor their demands to what will be accepted by the mainstream commentators and press. Only the most minimal changes will be acceptable, of course, and so a radical transformation is put off to the far distant future, replaced with ‘pragmatic’ policies. There are lots of promises, but no steps to take us forward. The transitional programme is a method to enable us to take those steps.
On the other hand are the self-proclaimed revolutionaries who spend all their time denouncing the leaders of larger left groups, predicting that they will betray us, which is quite possible if we leave them to it, and railing against anyone who puts their hopes in small changes as being hopelessly reformist. There are lots of accusations, but no attempt to really engage with people where they are now and work with them. The transitional programme is a way of connecting small steps with the bigger ones that will be necessary to really make a difference.
Many people know that there is plenty wrong with capitalist society, and sense that there must be a better way of doing things, but their consciousness of their exploitation and oppression is caught in that gap, between looking for immediate changes that are achievable and hopes for a future that is dramatically different.
Telling people to restrict their hopes and settle for life as usual, business as usual, is a recipe for demoralisation, and that kind of minimal politics relies on demobilising people and hoping that their leaders will do things for them. Telling people that they should simply wake up and overthrow the state is equally demobilising, for it leads them to re-experience politics as failure, useless, hopeless.
The method of the transitional programme is precisely concerned with keying into everyday consciousness, and enabling people to push at the edge of what is possible. It is a way of, as it were, taking people up to the bars of the cage – of capitalist logic, patriarchal power, racist institutions – and pushing beyond what we are usually told we should ask for.
When it comes down to it, however, we know that it is political struggle that leads to shifts and transformations in consciousness, shifts and transformations that are collective and that have political consequences. So, the transitional method is something that is not learnt and then applied as if it were an abstract set of principles that people will learn about so that their ideas then change and they are then ready for action. It is the action itself that we are leading people into with transitional demands so that they have the confidence and power to go beyond what they have been told they are, so they have the confidence and power to develop more transitional demands for themselves.
The document crystallises its approach in ‘transitional demands’ which are reasonable and achievable. The defining element which makes them ‘transitional’ is that they should be reasonable and achievable under capitalism, but they are not. The demands latch onto expressions of equality and fairness of leaders of corporations, the capitalist state and trade unions, and it takes these leaders at their word. Not everyone in mainstream politics is a hypocrite, but there is something systemic and necessary about the mainstream political game that makes politicians pay lip service to ideas they cannot put into practice. Transitional demands put radical ideas into practice.
The call for a ‘sliding scale of wages’, for example, cuts against the assumption that workers should be the ones who will pay in times of austerity and inflation. At times of crisis, capitalism must respond by reducing wages to protect and, if at all possible, increase profits. Different kinds of index of inflation are used to cover over the real damage to workers, but this particular demand insists that we will not pay, and raises the question about what the scale is indexed to, and who is in control.
The call to ‘open the books’ of the capitalist enterprises, and state enterprises, for that matter, cuts against assumptions about business secrets, and again raises the question about who should have a say and how that should happen. There is an anti-capitalist logic to the transitional demands that mobilise people to begin to take their lives into their own hands.
These demands, and any other specific demands we would make in different circumstances where we are engaged in mobilising women against male violence, for example, or working with those who are systematically disabled by capitalist working practices, are not set in stone. The apparently simple claim that it is not the church or the state that should say what choices women make about their bodies, for example, is often effectively a transitional demand. So is the push for inclusion of everyone for the right to work or the right to full welfare support if they cannot work.
At the root of this is a method that is geared to collective action, to mobilising people to think for themselves while recognising that they need to work with others who are exploited and oppressed to do that. That deep collective aspect of this radical method is something we see in the transitional demand that there be ‘no secret diplomacy’, that there should be no secret deals or stitch-ups in gentleman’s agreements that reduce the collective agency of people.
This is why, since the transitional programme was written there have been countless discussions in different circumstances, in different parts of the world, about what demands are relevant, which ones will take, which ones will lead us to shake the bars of the cage. That has meant learning from the struggles of the oppressed that seem to be outside of the traditional working class, but are, in different ways, with us, of and alongside the proletariat. And it has meant grounding the method in an argument for socialist democracy, so that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a real alternative to the dictatorship of capital.
The style of the document is sharp, and reads today as sometimes shrill, as at times as if it is falling into the very trap of ultra-left sloganeering that the social democrats accuse Marxists of. So that is one criticism that is often made. It was written at a different time, and phrases like ‘dictatorship’ of the proletariat, for instance, set off alarm bells for those of us who have seen dictatorships at work that speak in the name of socialism. This is even while the transitional programme is clearly also pitching itself against the rule of the bureaucracy as a false alternative, another set of cage bars.
Another criticism that is sometimes made is that transitional demands are sometimes raised in a cynical and manipulative way. Because we know that they cannot be met under capitalism, the complaint goes, we must be playing some kind of trick on workers, leading them somewhere they know not where exactly. We are the only ones who know where this is all leading. Of course, as with any kind of political intervention, there can be that kind of bad faith at work, but it is the secretive top-down decision-making of left groups that gives it that aspect, not the demands themselves.
As a method that is concerned with raising consciousness in the context of practical struggle, the transitional programme is actually profoundly ethical. It explicitly rejects the mainstream capitalist and Stalinist separation of means and ends, the split between the bad things that it is necessary to do now in order to bring about the good things in the future. We know that there is an intimate link between the means we employ and the ends we will bring about.
Here we connect with the arguments of socialist feminists who reminded us that our politics must, if it is to be worth anything and have any progressive consequences, be ‘prefigurative’. The phrase ‘prefigurative politics’ – that we aim to build and live now forms of organisation we want as a future alternative to capitalism – is a very good way of naming the logic of the transitional programme. That is also the logic of the different democratic movements for independence, whether of a people resisting colonialism or of groups struggling for their own autonomous self-organisation.
So how should we put the transitional programme to work here and now? What specific demands will operate in such a way as to inspire people to act and, in the course of acting collectively, to have a better consciousness of what their democratic rights are and how they could be exercised, made real. At the very least we need an analysis of the capacity of capitalism to absorb and neutralise radical ideas, that is to ‘recuperate’ what we are demanding so they become part of the spectacle, the system that then blocks us rather than takes us forward.
The classic demands for a sliding scale of wages and for the opening of the books are excellent still for trades union activists involved in industrial factory organisation, and we need to imagine how they may be implemented in other spheres of work. Because the logic of the transitional method is for self-governance, we should be thinking of how other movements in different kinds of work, and outside the traditional workplace, can become self-organising while linking with workers in struggle and supporting them.
How might calls for cancelling the debt of dependent economies be embedded in open transparent debate that really opens the books?
In what way are the climate strikes transitional, and what aspects of them are trapped in a media spectacle so they appear to most people to be empty gestures, a version of the most maximum programme, unattainable?
Is the call for a shift of production to electric cars in any sense transitional, leading to a more collective mobilisation of people or is it an individual consumer decision that is tied into an equally ecologically-disastrous system of production?
How do we develop demands relevant to social reproduction, to the mostly invisible labour of women as care givers?
What is the transitional logic of movements for solidarity with asylum-seekers and refugees, and how do we bring that aspect to the fore in our activity?
How do we respond when key slogans of movements, like that for ‘zero Covid’, for example, are co-opted, mouthed by people who have absolutely no interest in really taking it seriously?
There are profound theoretical and practical run-on effects of the transitional method for how we build ‘united front’ campaigns that function as places for strategic debate as opposed to class-collaborationist ‘popular fronts’ that tie us into the tightly-defined limits of capitalist politics. There are links with the dynamic of ‘permanent revolution’ that relies on the self-conscious collective mobilisation of people across national boundaries. And there are consequences for how we go beyond forms of ‘stalinist realism’ that tell us what we cannot do, to open communism that values what our potential for change is.
These are questions of organisation and strategy that were addressed in the transitional programme as the founding document of an ‘international’ that was once intended to be a ‘world party of socialist revolution’. The limits of a centralised model of politics is something that many ‘Trotskyists’ have been grappling with, and the logic of the transitional programme is at the heart of our rethinking of organisation and strategy.
Today, in very different circumstances, and after the experience of Stalinism and its consequences in different left organisations, and still with capital accumulation and the drive for profit dominant, what is to be done? One thing is for sure; It will be done in practice and in the development of consciousness and anti-capitalist collective mobilisation, or it will not be done at all. The transitional programme helps us in that task.
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