In Defense of the Transitional Program

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Why Trotsky’s method is crucial for creating a socialist program today.

Socialism is on the rise in the United States. Millions of people have declared themselves socialists. Tens of thousands have joined socialist organizations. But what do socialists stand for? Answering this question is the point of a program. A program is a document for a political movement to state its goals and explain how it plans to attain them.

With so many new socialists, we are going to see lots of programs in the coming years. The Democratic Socialists of America, for example, has just published a draft platform that is to be discussed at its 2021 convention. We from Left Voice have also produced a few short action programs over the last year, and they will not be the last.

But how is a socialist program assembled? Socialists have been arguing about this for as long as there have been socialists. This article explains the often misunderstood transitional method, which aims to bridge the gap between the immediate demands of the workers’ movement and the goal of socialism.

Minimum-Maximum

The first mass socialist parties emerged from the 1860s to the 1880s. Their programs were divided into two parts: a “minimum program” (a list of demands to be implanted within the capitalist system) and a “maximum program” (the party’s long-term goals, a description of socialism). This structure was included in the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier drafted by Jules Guesde and Karl Marx in 1880, and it reached its full form with the Erfurt Program of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1891.

This division was proper to an epoch when capitalism was growing and workers’ revolution was not on the immediate agenda, as Europe entered a period of reaction after the defeat of the Paris Commune. A socialist party needed to fight for improvements to workers’ lives without losing sight of the eventual struggle for workers’ power. But as social democracy grew into a mass force, this programmatic bifurcation became part of the parties’ day-to-day practice: from Monday to Saturday, they would fight for economic and political reforms to improve the lives of working people. On Sunday, they would give speeches about the glorious socialist future.

By the end of the 19th century, though, capitalism had accumulated more and more contradictions. With growing tensions between the Great Powers, major crises started to become visible on the horizon — including possibilities for new proletarian upheavals.

As socialist parties entered this new era, they stuck to their old programs, dividing between the “proven tactics” of fighting for small reforms and publishing general propaganda about what life would be like under socialism. Increasingly, this division had a material basis. By the beginning of the 20th century, the social democratic parties and trade unions built up large bureaucracies.1 This was particularly the case in Germany, where the SPD and associated unions had many thousands of employees. These bureaucrats enjoyed enormous privileges compared to the class from which they had emerged. They had no interest in toppling bourgeois society — their social position was based on mediating the contradictions between capitalists and workers.

The theorists of social democracy, the most brilliant of whom was Karl Kautsky, tried to maintain this uneasy balance between the party’s revolutionary theory and the bureaucracy’s reformist practice. Kautsky defended revolution in the abstract but saw revolution as something that would fall from the sky and place political power in the party’s lap. As he wrote in 1909,

The socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is no part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it.

Kautsky’s critics, the foremost of whom was Rosa Luxemburg, described this policy as “attentisme” — derived from the French word for patient waiting. Luxemburg, in contrast, called for activism: a socialist party should systematically prepare the working class for revolution, by both providing education and by connecting and radicalizing struggles.

The minimum-maximum program thus became nothing more than an excuse for passivity and fatalism. When the revolutionary crisis arrived with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Kautsky and most of the SPD revealed that they had indeed made no preparations of any kind for such a “big day.” They thus failed to mobilize against the war. And in 1918, when workers took to the streets and toppled the government, Kautsky saw no alternative but to align himself with the counterrevolution.

A New Era

The outbreak of World War I showed beyond doubt that a new era had begun: an era of “crises, wars, and revolutions.” There could no longer be any question of slowly accumulating reforms while occasionally talking about a revolution that might come in decades, if at all. The Russian Revolution of 1917 began the cycle of proletarian revolutions.

The Russian Revolution was carried out by the Bolshevik Party, which still formally had a program from 1903 — a document based on the minimum-maximum schema. But the fact that both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, on opposite sides of the barricades in the workers’ revolution in 1917, were both using the same document shows that a written platform necessarily lags behind events.

In reality, the Bolshevik Party had advanced far beyond its 1903 program. It was fighting not for a bourgeois republic in Russia but for a workers’ republic based on soviets or councils, as part of an international socialist revolution — and not in the distant future, but right then.

This new program was reflected in the discussions in the new Communist International, founded by the Bolsheviks in 1919. Instead of fighting for reforms within capitalism while talking about socialism, the Comintern began looking for methods to connect workers’ day-to-day struggles with revolutionary goals.

There were leftists in the Comintern — many of them recent converts to the revolutionary cause — who declared that proletarian revolution made any struggle for reforms obsolete. They wanted a program containing nothing but the struggle for power — they termed this the “theory of the offensive.” But more farsighted leaders, including Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg, realized that in order for communists to win the majority of the working class to a program of socialist revolution, they first needed to gather forces in all kinds of partial struggles. The united front was a tactic designed to gather as many workers as possible around a series of urgent demands.

So how to connect the struggles for reforms to the no longer very distant goal of conquering political power for the working class? In the days of social democracy, these had been relegated to two essentially separate programs. The Comintern began to develop the concept of transitional demands attempting to bridge the gap. When the Stalinist bureaucracy gained control of the Comintern in the second half of the 1920s, such discussions about revolutionary politics were violently interrupted. It was only the Fourth International, founded in 1938, that could develop the new transitional method to its conclusion, as reflected in its program: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.2 This program explained,

It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.

Different Kinds of Demands

Trotsky’s document contains different kinds of demands. These are not presented as five separate programs. Rather, minimum demands are connected to questions of democracy, which are in turn connected to socialist revolution.3

  • Minimum demands. These are immediate demands that “have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness.” Broad sectors of the working class in the United States today raise demands like a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All. Such demands could be won without toppling the bourgeoisie. As revolutionaries, we raise them as well — but we combine them with a perspective that goes beyond the reforms themselves.
  • Democratic demands. Communists, so often defamed as being anti-democratic, are in fact the strongest defenders of democratic rights. The U.S. bourgeois-democratic regime is in decay, trapped by a constitution written by slavers that prevents majority rule. Yet the so-called Democratic Party does not promise any serious democratic reforms. It is only socialists who call for the abolition of the aristocratic Senate and the unelected Supreme Court, for example.
    Other urgent democratic demands for today — demands that should have been resolved by the bourgeoisie when they came to power, but generally were not — include the abolition of monarchies, the separation of church and state, and the right of self-determination for all oppressed nations. Modern Europe is still packed with aristocrats, state-funded churches, and national oppression.
    We further call for radical democratic measures — measures that would expand democracy beyond what the bourgeoisie can permit for any length of time. Based on the experience of the Paris Commune, we call for all public officials to be directly elected and to earn no more than an average worker. No capitalist state could function without a privileged layer of bureaucrats. But we do not believe that such radical democratic demands in isolation would somehow automatically lead to socialist revolution — rather, they serve to mobilize the masses who still have illusions in bourgeois democracy. Communists fight alongside them for these basic reforms, yet simultaneously present further-reaching demands and explain the need for radical transformation.
  • Organizational demands. These demands seek to promote the independent organization of the working class, breaking the hold of reformist bureaucracies from unions and NGOs. In every struggle, communists need to fight for self-organization: decisions should be made in democratic assemblies and meetings of elected delegates. This is a step toward soviets and workers’ councils. To protect the working class, we also call for organized self-defense, starting with basic self-defense in the form of picket lines and ending with a workers’ militia.
  • Transitional demands. The transitional demands in a proper sense are those that the working class would implement if it came to power, and they are completely incompatible with capitalist ownership of the means of production. These include a sliding scale of wages or a sliding scale of hours — adjusting wages automatically to account for inflation, or distributing all available working hours to all workers, thus reducing the working week for everyone.
  • Revolutionary socialist demands. A transitional program ends with the steps the working class would need to take to abolish capitalism: establishing a workers’ government based on councils, smashing the bourgeois state, expropriating the means of production, and globally expanding the revolution. This is all in order to advance toward a classless society without borders, states, or exploitation or oppression of any kind — what we call communism.

It is precisely the systematic connection of these demands that gives a program its transitional character. No isolated demand can, by itself, lead inexorably to revolution — capitalism is far too effective at integrating partial demands. Instead, we seek to raise as many of these demands as possible in concrete struggles, and thus to win workers and oppressed people to a full program for world revolution and communism.

Some Examples

So how do we use the transitional program to relate to urgent demands in the United States, like a $15 minimum wage or Medicare for All? This article is not an attempt to formulate a program — these are just some examples of how the method can be applied.

We support these two reformist demands, which are also raised by union bureaucracies and the left wing of the Democratic Party. We criticize the Democrats for failing to deliver even such minimal concessions. But these are not our demands as communists.

We point out that $15 is insufficient to raise a family with dignity, and that it will be continually eaten away by inflation, as has been the case with all other minimum wage increases. Therefore, we call for a minimum wage that is adjusted to inflation and the cost of living. Further, we know that bureaucrats of the capitalist state will calculate the cost of living in a way that is disadvantageous to the working class. So we call on these calculations to be made by representatives of workers’ organizations.

Similarly, we fight for Medicare for All while simultaneously pointing out that a labyrinthine patchwork of state insurance programs paying private health care providers will always be woefully inadequate. We fight for a national healthcare system, in which all health care is put under public control and financed by progressive taxation, with no profit of any kind. Since we also don’t trust state officials to run such a system in the public’s interest, we call for control by doctors, nurses, and the working class as a whole.

In both of these examples, we are raising demands that go past the most urgently needed reforms. Instead of a temporary relief of suffering, we want real improvements to be combined with measures that strengthen the consciousness and organization of the working class, preparing the ground for further-reaching struggles.

This also means applying the method of the united front: calling on reformist leaders of existing workers’ organizations to struggle for concrete demands. If they mobilize, then the working class benefits from united action; if they refuse, then at least workers can see from experience what these leaders are made of. We combine calls for a united front with struggles for bodies of self-organization, because that is the only way to create a material basis of opposition to the bureaucracies.

The old minimum-maximum program fails to give answers like this. To take a concrete example: in a time when tens of millions of workers have lost their jobs, and depend on crumbs from the Trump or Biden administrations, the demand to preserve employment is vital for our class. What would a minimum-maximum program offer in response to a wave of firings? A minimum demand would be to prohibit layoffs — but who is supposed to implement such a demand, if not a Democrat? And which bourgeois government, even a progressive one, could implement such a measure for tens of millions of workers while capitalism is in crisis? A maximum demand would be to nationalize the company, and thus guarantee employment for all, once socialism has been established. But how is this any answer to layoffs that are happening now?

A transitional answer, which Trotsky proposed in the Transitional Program, is to call for any factory or workplace that fires workers or shuts down to be occupied. Workers can begin producing under workers’ control and fight for the nationalization of the factory. This might sound “utopian” — but it is exactly what workers in factories like Zanon and Madygraf have done, thus not only guaranteeing their own employment but also showing a path to a world in which workers control their own workplaces — and everything else. A single occupied or nationalized factory is, by itself, not socialism. But it can represent a trench in the working-class battle for liberation.

Looking Backward

The last few years have seen attempts to revive the old minimum-maximum program. The researcher Lars Lih has attempted for many years to prove that the centrist Kautsky was basically in agreement with the revolutionary Lenin. This neo-Kautskyan idea has been taken up by publications such as the Weekly Worker in the UK, Cosmonaut in the U.S., and the Communist Platform in the Socialist Party of the Netherlands. The Weekly Worker has spent many years trying to present Kautsky as a model for Marxists today — but it is no coincidence that Kautsky was then taken up much more successfully by the subreformists of Jacobin, whose strategy is for socialists to pressure the Democratic Party.

Now Cosmonaut has launched a Marxist Unity slate inside the DSA centered around the call for a minimum-maximum program. This tendency is not particularly large, but they offer a determined and sophisticated defense of an anachronistic type of program — and they can thus help us explain the particular relevance of the transitional program.

Will the minimum-maximum program gain any traction within the DSA? Probably not — but the concept might very well be appealing to the DSA leadership: today they canvass for a “progressive” district attorney (their “minimum program”), but they can also claim that they favor a classless society some day (their “maximum program”).

The draft platform that has been prepared for the DSA’s 2021 convention follows a surprisingly similar scheme, dividing demands into three tiers (short term, medium term, and long term) instead of two. But this serves only to accentuate the problem: How are demands divided up into different time frames, and what is the connection between them? Why, for example, is free abortion a “medium-term” goal, but an end to deportations is only to be sought “long-term”? One fears that the division corresponds to what the DSA leadership does in practice: “short-term” goals are whatever they think they can get progressive Democrats to support. “Medium” and “long-term” goals are demands that they do not plan to fight for, so as not to alienate the Dems — but the DSA’s leaders can still claim to support them.

It is easy for people to fall into this trap: focusing on immediate and supposedly realistic demands such as Medicare for All, while the idea of a completely different society appears so far off that it would be a waste of time to seriously consider it. But like socialists in the years leading up to 1914, we are entering a new period when capitalism’s contradictions will inevitably lead to explosions.

The situation in the United States offers examples of how our immediate and our long-term goals can be connected. With tens of millions of people at risk of eviction, we have seen an explosion of housing activism, including many successful actions to prevent landlords and police from evicting people. Socialists can be part of this defense — but what is the next step? Calling on the Democratic Party to increase funding for public housing? As an alternative, we can also encourage the occupation of luxury condos and office buildings to house all working-class and poor families. Such occupations can be integrated into a plan to make all housing public, administered by renters and their representatives via direct democracy.

This is an example of how socialists can, in practice, connect our short- and long-term goals.

Kautsky’s methods cannot be mechanically transplanted into a totally different era. Are we really expecting to have several decades in which the socialist movement can win political and economic concessions from the bourgeoisie, and leave the question of socialism to the distant future? It would seem quite the opposite: crisis-ridden capitalism offers little space for even small improvements. Even the authors of the Marxist Unity slate concede this:

The implementation of our minimum program would spark a qualitative rupture with the current order and require the convening of a constituent assembly to replace the U.S. Constitution, as well as the dissolution of the standing army and national security state. It would institute the democratic republic of the working class, or what Marx called the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In other words, they believe their minimum program would lead inexorably to their maximum program. But what would this “transition” look like? And how is this process arbitrarily divided into two separate stages?

This is precisely what the transitional method seeks to address. Unfortunately, the anachronistic method of Marxist Unity prevents them from saying anything about this.

It is noticeable that in their extensive proposals for DSA, they make no mention of the Democratic Party. They call for DSA members in elected office to be subject to the organization’s discipline — but no mention that virtually all DSA candidates are part of a party of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Writing on the question of program in Cosmonaut, Parker McQueeny says that socialists could “perhaps” run as part of the Democratic Party, “though this is a debate for another time.”

It would seem that class independence is here part of these comrades’ “maximum program,” to be implemented in the hazy future. Their “minimum program” calls only for a more left-wing version of the DSA’s work in the Democratic Party.

Critiques of the Transitional Program

Some critics say the Transitional Program is economistic. For example, a polemic against Trotsky by Cornelis van Vliet 4 claims that Trotsky’s idea was that “a mere winning of partial, economic demands … somehow will automatically translate into socialism.”  Vliet continues,

The problem with the Transitional Programme therefore is that it presents an illusory shortcut to revolution. Instead of building a Communist Party, rooted in the working class, the masses are supposed to be tricked into constructing socialism.

There is, however, not a word in the Transitional Program that expresses such a logic. Trotsky, in contrast, refers to a

system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.

Trotsky’s manifesto could not be more explicit about the goal of seizing power and the necessary conditions for this: organs of workers’ self-organization, such as workers’ councils or the soviets of the Russian Revolution, are every bit as important as a revolutionary party to provide leadership in the councils. This preparation for the working-class seizure of power is lacking in all minimum-maximum programs — both the classic and the revivalist variants.

The neo-Kautskyans accuse Trotsky of “fetishism of council or soviet democracy” — because they believe that socialism can be built via the “democratic republic.” As Matías Maiello writes in depth in this issue of Left Voice Magazine, this is a fundamental misreading of Marx’s thinking about the Paris Commune. The first workers’ government was not some quantitative development of “pure democracy” — it represented the violent rupture between bourgeois and proletarian society. Kautsky’s conviction that socialism could be implemented via a bourgeois parliament led him into the arms of a counterrevolutionary government. The only alternative, based on the experiences of both 1871 and 1917, is for the working class to build up its own organs of struggle and transform them into organs of political power.

The weakness of a minimum-maximum program is also evident in the most famous American example, the 1912 platform of the Socialist Party of America. That party declared itself in favor of “revolution” to attain “free co-operation” and “industrial democracy.” But its lengthy list of demands contain not a hint of how such a society is to be attained, beyond “a convention for the revision of the constitution of the U.S.” And while in certain historical circumstances the demand for a constitutional convention can be used by socialists to help the masses overcome their illusions in bourgeois democracy, it would be quite naive to assume that such an assembly could establish the power of the working class. The program, envisioning many years of peaceful reforms, was published just two years before the First World War, and seven years before the first successful workers’ revolution. It offered no orientation for such a stormy period.

A program that aims to implement socialism via a bourgeois parliament makes it impossible to fight for the working class’s independence from the bourgeoisie’s parties or its state. That is why it cannot be a coincidence that the neo-Kautskyans are at best lukewarm about the struggle to break from the Democratic Party. But if the working class aligns itself with the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, it is simultaneously renouncing the struggle to win hegemony over other oppressed sectors for a workers’ government.

In contrast to this, we are republishing a 1945 pamphlet by the Socialist Workers Party, which outlines a transitional program for workers returning from World War II. Faced with demobilization, the dismantling of war industries, and mass unemployment, the Trotskyists combined demands for factory occupations with the demand for economic planning, and demands against racism with the demand for a workers’ government.

Post-Trotskyist Adaptations

Yet the critique of the Transitional Program is not entirely invented. While Trotsky himself clearly rejected the idea that radical economic demands would spontaneously lead to a working-class struggle for power, this concept has been defended by different Trotskyists since after World War II.

Ernst Mandel, for example, who was the leading theoretician of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, spent the 1960s working in Belgium’s social democratic party and trade union bureaucracy, and publishing newspapers with a left reformist profile. Mandel developed the idea of “structural reforms”: revolutionaries could get reformist leaders to adapt radical demands that would undermine the foundations of capitalist rule. Mandel, for example, campaigned for workers’ control independent of a program of workers’ revolution. So even if Trotsky never defended the idea of “transitional demands” divorced from any perspective of workers’ power, some postwar Trotskyists did.

Ted Grant, who broke with the United Secretariat in 1964 and eventually founded the Committee for a Workers’ International, took this method even further. For the CWI and different tendencies that emerged from it, a “transitional program” is nothing more than a list of minimum demands — their radicalism can be provided by taking the amount demanded by a reformist bureaucracy and multiplying it by 50 or 100 percent. Such a list is then closed with a vague call for “socialism” — and thus we have a “transitional program” that avoids all talk of the working class smashing the bourgeois state and creating a workers’ government. In this sense, organizations from Grant’s tradition, such as Socialist Alternative in the United States, will refer to just about any demand as a “transitional demand.”

This distorted version of the term “transitional demand” was taken up by reformists such Michael Harrington. As explained in this critique by Doug Greene, the founder of the DSA used the term “transition” to talk about how a capitalist state could be converted into a socialist one without a revolution. Thus a “transitional demand,” in Harrington’s sense, means nothing more than calls for public ownership by the bourgeois state. It is absolutely correct to criticize this kind of “transitional demand” — but it is slanderous to attribute such ideas to Trotsky. Trotsky’s program had the exact opposite approach to the question of public ownership: “We link up the question of expropriation with that of seizure of power by the workers and farmers.”

A Summary of Experience

The task of a revolutionary organization is to creatively apply this logic to each new situation in the class struggle. The Marxist program represents a summary of the experience of the last 150 or 200 years of workers’ struggles against capitalism, translated into a series of concrete demands that orient each new conflict toward the goal of revolution.

As the new socialist movement in the U.S. advances, we will continue to argue against the idea that socialism is just “new Deal liberalism” or the welfare capitalism once enjoyed in Scandinavian countries. Socialism, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, means nothing less than “full power in the hands of the working masses, as a weapon for smashing capitalism to pieces.” Getting there requires building up a party that will fight all the capitalist, their two parties, their state, and the bureaucracies that support them.

A transitional program is a tool for organizing socialists in this spirit: to connect every partial struggle with an anticapitalist perspective. This is the best that the socialist movement has come up with so far.

Notes

1 Writing in 1916, for example, the Bolsheviks estimated that there were 4,000 functionaries working for the SPD. Gregory Zinoviev, “The Social Roots of Opportunism” (1916), marxists.org. Today, of course, the bureaucracies are incomparably larger.
2 For a discussion of the Transitional Program in today’s context, see Juan Dal Maso, “The Transitional Program: A Manifesto for Urgent Struggle,” Left Voice, September 28, 2019.
3 This list is based on Diego Lotito, “Nuestro programa es para terminar con la esclavitud del trabajo asalariado,” Izquierda Diario, May 9, 2017.
4 Cornelis van Vliet, “A Transition to Nowhere,” communisme.nu. This is from the Communist Platform within the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, which is linked to the Weekly Worker.

About author

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which appeared last year in German and this year in English. He is on the autism spectrum.