The Transitional Program: A Manifesto for Urgent Struggle

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The Transitional Program was drafted in 1938 by Trotsky and includes democratic demands (such as for the struggle for the agrarian revolution and national independence of colonized nations), minimal demands (such as for the eight-hour workday and wage increases), transitional demands (like those for the abolition of trade secrets, workers’ control of industry and nationalization of the banking system, and for workers’ and peasants’ governments), and organizational demands (such as self-defense pickets, the creation of a workers’ militia, and for workers councils or soviets).

When crises erupt such as the one in which Argentina finds itself today, the far left—especially the left that identifies itself as part of the Trotskyist tradition—raise their demands. They call, for example, for the seizure of factories that have closed or that are laying off workers, with production resumed under workers’ control. They demand that work hours be redistributed among all the workers. They call for the nationalization of the banks and for a monopoly of foreign trade. Such measures are aimed at fitting “hand in glove” with the given crisis. These sorts of measures are a part of the tradition of the Marxist left. In particular, they flow from the Transitional Program developed in the 1930s by Leon Trotsky and his supporters.

The Transitional Program was drafted in 1938 by Trotsky and includes democratic demands (such as for the struggle for the agrarian revolution and national independence of colonized nations), minimal demands (such as for the eight-hour workday and wage increases), transitional demands (like those for the abolition of trade secrets, workers’ control of industry and nationalization of the banking system, and for workers’ and peasants’ governments), and organizational demands (such as self-defense pickets, the creation of a workers’ militia, and for workers councils or soviets).

This article reviews some of the elements of the Transitional Program and its relevance for today.

Years of Revolution and Counterrevolution

There were significant changes in the workers’ movement during the 1920s and 1930s. Two of them continue to influence things today: the bureaucratization under Stalin of the Soviet Union and the communist movement, and the transformation of trade unions into semi-state institutions as a response by national ruling classes to the rise of mass struggles after the Russian Revolution. It was in this context that important revolutionary processes in the 1920s were defeated (Italy, Germany, China, the general strike in England). The next decade would be marked by a global crisis unleashed with the 1929 Wall Street crash, along with the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War. In the United States, a new labor movement grouped within the CIO trade union confederation emerged with force. The struggle against the world’s great powers strengthened in the colonial and semicolonial countries.

The communist movement in particular underwent a decisive strategic change, abandoning the class struggle as the way to fight fascism and instead adopting the policy of a “Popular Front” with the “democratic bourgeoisie.” Embraced in September 1935 by the entire Communist International, the Popular Front policy established the Communist parties as part of the “democratic camp,” reinforcing their role within the trade union bureaucracies (as the French Stalinist leader Maurice Thorez said, “One must know how to end a strike”) and, more generally, their ties to the “democratic” state as an instrument of “progressive” change.

During these years, trade union confederations in Europe, particularly in France and Belgium, adopted economic plans that combined the reform of capitalism with certain “socialist” measures. It was an extremely complex picture: In the best cases, the labor movement—through great struggles—made elementary gains, and in the worst cases was directly repressed.

For years, Trotsky and the International Communist League tried to work as a public faction of the Communist International, striving to reorient its policy. But after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the lack of self-criticism on the part of the German Communist Party and, indeed, the Communist International as a whole, he issued a call to build a new international working-class organization, the founding of which would take place in 1938.

The Myth and Reality of the “Finished Program”

Trotskyist organizations are often criticized for taking the Transitional Program to be a kind of bible. Of course, there may be dogmatic interpretations (as is the case with almost all theories and programs), but this criticism is not really about a problem of interpretation; rather, it is really based on a fundamental prejudice against Trotsky himself, who was trying to develop a universally applicable program.

But that is not how things actually happened.

The founding conference of the Fourth International was held in Paris on September 3, 1938. At that moment, the great imperialist powers were in full preparation for what would become World War II, the Popular Front in Spain and France were heading towards catastrophe, and the repressive regime in the USSR was becoming more and more harsh.

The Fourth International was made up of activists with some experience, and its influence extended to a combative minority within the working class. The report presented to the conference listed a total of about 5,500 members around the world: some 2,500 in the United States; 800 in Belgium; 600 in France; 350 in Poland; 170 in England; 200 in Germany; 150 to 200 in Czechoslovakia; 100 each in Greece, Chile, Cuba and South Africa; 75 in Canada; 50 each in Australia, Brazil and the Netherlands; 10 to 30 in Spain; 25 in Mexico; a group in Indochina for which no number was stated, but was identified as having “significant influence”; and members (numbers unstated) in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Romania, Austria, Russia, Bolivia, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, Venezuela, China and Italy. Not mentioned in the conference report, but according to Rudolf Klement, who had been in charge of organizing the conference (and who was assassinated by the Stalinist secret services before it was even convened), there were also supporters of the Fourth International in Morocco, Palestine, Yugoslavia and Latvia.

Trotsky saw the Transitional Program as the tool with which these 5,500 activists could open a path to the working-class masses. He saw it not as a finished program but as a programmatic manifesto—as he explained in a letter to Klement dated April 12, 1938:

I wish to emphasize that this is not yet the program of the Fourth International. The text contains neither the theoretical part—that is, the analysis of capitalist society and its imperialist phase—nor the program of the socialist revolution itself. It is an action program for the intermediate period. It seems to me that our sections need this document.

With “intermediate period,” Trotsky was referring to the struggle for power by the working class. That is why he clarified that “the program of the socialist revolution” itself was not included.

But let us stop and consider the definition of a “manifesto” (which Trotsky only implies in his letter). In the history of the workers’ movement and in earlier revolutionary traditions as well, manifestos are writings of urgency. They are calls to action that include analyses and programmatic proposals but do not claim to provide solutions for every problem. A manifesto aims, first of all, to define certain fundamental objectives for action.

Whether it is Gracchus Babeuf’s “Manifesto of the Equals,” the “Communist Manifesto” of Marx and Engels, or the Transitional Program, the main claim of these texts is not universal applicability or super-precision of the slogans (which are, nevertheless, quite precise), but rather that they are a call to action, according to certain principles and providing defined proposals, but in the context of the urgencies of the class struggle. This means, in turn, that the slogans that make up such a programmatic manifesto are not the only ones possible: New historical situations may require us to raise others. For example, environmental problems, national self-determination and the challenges of urban planning all require responses from the perspective of a Transitional Program.

But what exactly is meant by “transitional”? Let’s take a look.

Why “Transitional”?

In the second half of the 19th century, the social-democratic workers’ movement had established what was called the “minimum program”: The eight-hour workday, better working conditions, freedom of assembly and basic democratic political rights. By contrast, the “maximum program” set revolution and socialism—conceived as far off in the future—as a fundamental goal.

The outbreak of World War I consolidated the irreversible division between Social Democracy, which pursued the reform of capitalism, and communism, which fought for revolution—led by the example of the Bolshevik Party and the Russian Revolution. Then the processes mentioned above unfolded. Revolutions, counterrevolutions and the economic crisis all began to put on the agenda the need to modify the program, especially with respect to the partition between “minimum” and “maximum.” The ruling class saw the need for similar adjustments, “state-izing” unions, and encouraging government intervention to counter the economic crisis, all an attempt to contend with the alternative—a revolutionary solution.

It was in this context that “transitional,” for Trotsky, included the following:

  • the relationship between the needs of the working class and the popular sectors and their degree of organization and political awareness;
  • the relationship between immediate demands and challenging capitalism itself; and
  • the relationship between the systematic mobilization of the masses for their demands and the struggle for a government of the working class and the people.

The term “transitional” also refers to that “intermediate period” of which Trotsky wrote in his letter to Rudolf Klement: It is not yet the time of revolution, but a period when the class struggle cannot be channeled with the so-called “minimum program” alone. The conditions of the capitalist crisis and the attacks of the bosses pose a dilemma: Either the most basic needs of the working class and the people are resolved on the basis of a direct attack on the interests of the capitalists, or capitalism itself will decide the outcome, reconstituting its domination and worsening the conditions of our lives.

Consider this example. Faced with layoffs or plant closures, union leaders often accept wage cuts in exchange for maintaining jobs. A Transitional Program instead distributes working hours without reducing working hours, thus not only halting the layoffs but also providing jobs for more people. In the first approach, the layoffs are avoided, but only on the basis of a guarantee that the capitalists will continue to make their profits. In the second approach, the fight against unemployment is waged by giving priority to the working class, not to the corporations.

In this sense, the Transitional Program aims to link the struggle for the most basic and immediate demands of the working class and the people with an anti-capitalist and socialist solution.

The “Crisis of Leadership”

Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Program, “The historical crisis of [hu]mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.” He was referring to the defeats suffered by the workers’ movement under the leadership of Social Democracy and Stalinism, and to the difficulties of achieving an alternative direction (the very objective of the programmatic manifesto, as outlined above). Some Trotskyist groups have taken Trotsky’s sentence as eternal and immutable, but it is mostly challenged as proof of Trotsky’s supposed “subjectivism” by those with a certain tendency to defend the different bureaucratic variants in the trade unions and social movements.

The relationship between the rank and file and the leaderships (particularly in the labor movement, but also in other movements) is a complex issue. For reasons of space, I will try to synthesize the issue. We cannot state that the rank and file has the “leadership it deserves,” nor can we say that the rank and file is always in open contradiction with the leaders. As is so often the case, here we must have a “concrete analysis of the concrete situation.” But analyzing the difficulties of building a “revolutionary leadership” as an abstract problem, from the outside, is not the same as examining this question from the perspective of militants seeking to put the class struggle on a revolutionary path. Beyond that question, it would be one-sided to take Trotsky’s statement, posed at a specific moment and in the context of a particular argument, as a general historical definition.

Today, the crisis of humanity traverses multiple problems, many of which are related to—but go beyond—the revolutionary leadership of the working class. The working class is larger in numerical terms, but there is little identification with socialism (thanks, in large part, to the debacle of Stalinism). This does not mean that leaderships are not a problem: Just consider the current reality of the working class and the role played by union leaders, or leaders within the student movement, women’s movement, organizations of the unemployed and most of the political currents that guide them, often associated with so-called “national and popular” tendencies and the “broad left.”

After decades of “neoliberalism,” the working class is suffering from a process of fragmentation: Between native and immigrant (spurred by the bourgeoisie, which seeks to prevent them from uniting into a power force); between stable and precarious jobs (the same work, but one for lower pay and in worse conditions); between men and women (the latter paid less for the same work); among other divisions. In the face of this situation, the trade union leaderships demand some minimal gains for the particular sector they “represent,” without pursuing a policy of uniting the different sectors of the working class. Likewise, the leaderships of other movements tackle their specific demands separately. In the end, this all takes place within the parameters of capitalism, propagating the idea that it is more effective to make demands in this diffuse way than to unite to fight against capitalism. Such corporatist unionism is not at all contradictory with support for “progressive” employers or any of their variants. Therefore, from Trotsky’s point of view, the systematic mobilization of the working class—beyond the limits imposed by the state and the bureaucracies—must, if it is to impose a revolutionary and anti-capitalist solution, be in unity with the other oppressed sectors.

That is one more reason to restore Trotsky’s ideas in the Transitional Program, understanding it as a programmatic manifesto that we can and must update according to our own circumstances. To oppose the attempt of the ruling class to make us pay for the crisis, we must find ways to unite the workers’ and popular demands with a challenge to private ownership and capitalism. It is the urgent and current legacy of Trotsky, on the anniversary of his assassination by Stalinism.

This article was originally published in Spanish on August 18 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation: Scott Cooper

About author

Juan Dal Maso

Juan Dal Maso

Juan is a Marxist from Neuquén in Argentina and an author of two books about the thought of Antonio Gramsci. He is a member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS).