Our Programme and Transitional Demands

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Three sectors of the world

In 1938, Trotsky outlined a programme for the three different sectors of the world revolution, the advanced industrial countries, the colonial and semi-colonial countries, and the one Stalinist regime at that stage, the USSR.

Although the situation has now changed with the collapse of Stalinism, it is still necessary to divide our programme in this fashion in order to take account of the differences which still exist in the three different areas of the world.

It is true that the ex-Stalinist countries are all now bourgeois states (perhaps with the exclusion of Cuba; the question of China needs to be clarified further).

The social counter-revolution has been or is in the process of being carried through, but as yet they do not have stable economic forms. The process of introducing private property in place of state property has not yet been completed. Our programme would obviously have to take account of this. There is a large 'state capitalist' element, big sections of the economy remain formally 'nationalised', and a growing private sector. We would have to formulate demands which take into account the privatisations which have taken place: we propose that they be taken back into state ownership, into 'public ownership', under workers' control and management.

Trotsky also elaborated three broad types of demand, which he included in the Transitional Programme. There are of course the immediate, 'reformist', day-to-day demands of the workers. Under this heading comes the demand for wage increases, shorter hours, defence of conditions etc.

Underdeveloped world

At the same time there are the 'democratic' demands which assume exceptional importance in the former colonial and semi-colonial world. Here, in general, the bourgeois, national, democratic revolution has not been carried through to a conclusion.

Take the example of Nigeria, which has an important section of the CWI. Faced with a military dictatorship our comrades have been compelled to draw on Trotsky's idea of a "revolutionary constituent assembly".

However, in approaching this question our comrades have shown that they don't have a fetish about terms. The idea of a "revolutionary constituent assembly", or the germ of such an idea, can assume many forms in the colonial and semi-colonial world.

In the early 1990s the movements for democracy throughout Africa were often mobilised around the call for a 'National Conference'. Although the bourgeoisie used the idea of a Conference to control the movement among the masses, this demand was seen as the democratic way to decide their country's future.

After discussion, the Nigerian comrades decided to replace the call for a constituent assembly with one for a National Conference while maintaining all their demands for the working class and poor peasantry to have a majority in the Conference and for the socialist transformation of Nigeria.

In Nigeria the bourgeois democrats took the initiative in forming a broad "Campaign for Democracy" alliance which our comrades correctly orientated towards and joined. In mid-1993 it was our comrades’ work which led to the Campaign for Democracy calling a general strike against the military regime.

In October 1994 there was the formation of the "National Conscience Party", around demands for democratic rights and the 'abolishment of poverty'. Although the NCP is, at present, a bourgeois radical, and not a workers' party, our comrades are active within it. In both the earlier movement there was an element at least of an alternative 'democratic body' or 'assembly' around which the mass movement could coalesce.

By participating in such movements the basis could develop at a certain stage, particularly if the military refused to give way to civilian rule, for a full blown "revolutionary constituent assembly".

Democratic demands

It is absolutely correct for Marxists and revolutionaries in a situation like this to put forward democratic demands, even though sections of the liberal bourgeois would formally support them. The right to strike, a free press, freedom of assembly as well as an alternative 'democratic' parliament or congress would form a necessary part of the Marxist organisation's programme when faced with various kinds of dictatorship.

How then to differentiate from the liberal and even on occasion a section of the big bourgeoisie who can switch from supporting 'dictatorship' to the idea of ‘democracy'?

The Bolsheviks demonstrated that it is only the working class which is 'consistently democratic', will fight to the end for the full implementation of democracy. Moreover, such rights can be achieved not through 'negotiations' alone, but only by a mass movement. Invariably, however, a mass movement for 'democratic rights' will spill over into the social field. The masses want democratic rights not for the sake of it but in order to change and improve their conditions.

This inevitably brings the mass movement into collision with the 'democratic' bourgeoisie. There is therefore a tendency for even the most liberal bourgeois democrats to seek to reign in the mass movement, and when this is not possible to peel away into opposition. The masses, however, will remain with the revolutionary organisation if the correct tactics are used. This dynamic approach towards the struggle for democratic rights forms an important thread in the writings of Lenin and Trotsky and was demonstrated in action by the Bolsheviks in the period leading up to the 1917 October Revolution.

The CJA [Criminal Justice Act]

But the struggle for democratic rights is not restricted just to the colonial and semi-colonial world.

In this period of economic stagnation and long-term decay of capitalism on a world scale the tendency of the bourgeoisie, even in the advanced industrial countries, is to strengthen the repressive powers of the bourgeois state. The Criminal Justice Act in Britain is one example of a growing trend in Europe and on a world scale.

Of course it would be wrong to give the impression that the capitalists could establish, with little opposition, a 'strong state' in Europe at this stage. The relationship of forces still remains more in favour of the working class than the capitalists.

The CJA and many other anti-democratic actions by the Tories in Britain are largely for propaganda reasons, to create the climate to carry through repressive measures at a later stage.

However, we have shown that it is possible to successfully intervene and in some areas to win the leadership of such movements.

In general there would be no fundamental difference in programme between what we would demand on the CJA and what other groups argue. But differences arose, particularly with the SWP, on the slogans and the methods of struggle to be deployed in fighting against the CJA. In some senses this was the poll tax revisited. The superiority of the Marxists was demonstrated in the course of action, rather than just on the plane of general demands.

Some of those who were prepared in words to oppose the poll tax, peeled away once it became clear that the poll tax would be defeated through a programme of mass civil disobedience.

Independent working-class action

Given the decay of the 'traditional organisations' of the proletariat, one of the key questions which now faces the Marxist movement is the demand for independent political workers' action and organisations. In the colonial and semi-colonial world it is a question of advocating the class, political separation of the proletariat.

With the triumph of the "market" the colonial bourgeoisie and with them the radical petit-bourgeois parties have moved decisively to the right. Parties which once demagogically reflected the demand for 'socialism' such as the Pakistani People Party (PPP), the ANC in South Africa, the PRD in Mexico etc, have all enthusiastically embraced the market.

Even the Peronists in Argentina, which in the past, while never embracing 'socialism', nevertheless took up a radical, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist stand. However, under President Menem it has moved to embrace capitalism and opened the doors to imperialist intervention with the plundering and the robbing of the resources of Argentina. This raises sharply the need to advance the idea of 'workers' parties' in this sphere of the world.

Labour or Socialist?

Even the term 'Labour' is increasingly discredited in most countries, because of the role of the corrupted trade union leadership. Nor is this restricted to Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In the USA the demand for a Labor Party may have to be amended by our comrades there. The term 'Labor' is now identified in the minds of many workers with the corrupted trade union leadership of the AFL/CIO.

It would perhaps be more appropriate to demand a Socialist Party in the conditions which obtain in the USA.

It is clear that the raising of such demands in good season will prepare the ground for the formation of independent political organisations of the proletariat, and consequently the raising of the authority of our organisation.

The 'Morenoites' - the LIT - in Brazil first advanced the idea of a workers' party which materialised in the formation of the PT (Workers' Party) in 1979-80.

They were in on the ground floor and when the situation opened up with the ending of the military dictatorship they gained considerable prestige as well as members from correctly raising this slogan.

We also gained in the case of Greece where we anticipated the formation of the Socialist Party (PASOK), and in Spain where we also predicted the rebirth of the PSOE (Socialist Workers' Party). This gave us a head start over our rivals in influencing the advanced sections of the working class.

In South Africa we supported the idea of a workers' party. However, before the election we did not advance this as 'slogan'. Now in the aftermath the election, and with the increasing opposition to the bourgeois leaders of the ANC, particularly from the trade unions gathered under the banner of COSATU, it is necessary to raise more openly and energetically the idea of a workers' party.

Transitional Demands

The third category of demands were transitional demands. In the post-war boom (1950-74) the bourgeois could give concessions, sometimes big concessions, to the working class. In Italy a sliding scale in wages (the scala mobile - automatic pay increases tied to the rate of inflation) was conceded and remained an important conquest of Italian working class people right up until recently.

In this situation some of the sects, opportunistically bending to the prevailing mood, considered that the transitional programme was 'outdated'. They did not criticise this or that aspect of the programme or demand. Trotsky fully recognised the need to adapt the programme to changed circumstances. But the very concept of the transitional method and programme was rejected.

In the case of the SWP, they refuse to adopt a programme. SWP members who argue for this are met with expulsions.

While we recognised that some of the demands were not entirely applicable, we nevertheless argued that "every vegetable has its season".

Once capitalism moved into crisis, as it inevitably would, the transitional programme would come into its own again. On the other hand the ultra-left sectarians mechanically repeated the phrases of the Transitional Programme without understanding Trotsky's method.

To merely repeat statements and formulas, drawn up at one period, but which events have overtaken, is clearly wrong. Thus Lenin in Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder argued that even in the best conditions allowed by capitalism, the trade unions could never really encompass more than about one-third of the working class. Trotsky repeats this idea in the Transitional Programme. However, in the post-second world war period, with big concessions given to the working class, the trade unions developed powerfully. In Sweden 83% of the population are still involved in trade unions (with a colossal 87% of women organised). In Belgium 70-80% were organised in unions. At their height, in the 1970s in Britain the unions encompassed 55% of workers.

Factory committees

Trotsky, because it was given for him that only a minority could actually be organised in the trade unions, advances the slogan of 'factory committees'. The purpose of such bodies, which in general are only possible on a big scale during periods of mass upsurge or of a pre-revolutionary period, would embrace much wider layers of workers than those just involved in the trade unions. However, given the growth of trade unions in Britain and the development of the semi-official 'shop stewards committees', this demand was outmoded. The shop stewards committees embody the very idea of 'factory committees' advocated by Trotsky.

The situation was somewhat different in the case of southern Europe, in Italy, Greece and France in particular. Here the traditions of the working class is to throw up organisations spontaneously in the course of struggle. This meant that a variant of the idea of 'factory committees' had a certain validity for these countries.

Even now in France the trade unions membership has been reduced to 8% of the labour force. The idea of broader organisations, of action committees, is necessary to complement the demands for the trade unions to take action in defence of workers' rights.

During the period of capitalist economic upswing we still took up elements of the transitional programme, particularly the demand for partial nationalisation, for instance of failing industries. We also advanced the idea of the state takeover of major firms. Incidentally, while we implacably opposed the sects for demanding Soviets on every occasion, we nevertheless advanced the idea of Soviets in a popularised form when we demanded a socialist plan of production.

We proposed that such a plan would be drawn up by committees of representatives of different sections of the working class (especially organised labour) and small business people.

Both Lenin and Trotsky stressed the need to speak in the language of the working class of each country and, wherever possible, to avoid the use of 'foreign' terms which the ruling class could use to frighten the proletariat.

This was one of the reasons why during the revolutionary events in Germany in 1923 he opposed the slogan of Soviets, which would have allowed the German bourgeoisie to create the impression of 'outside', that is Russian, intervention in Germany. Moreover, the elements of Soviets existed in the powerful shop stewards' organisations, which broadened and filled out with representatives from workers other than the employed workers themselves, would, in effect, have become Soviets.

But, the essence of the present situation is that the transitional programme, the transitional method and many of the transitional demands formulated by Trotsky almost 60 years ago, will come back on the agenda in the next period.


In drawing up a new programme, and more importantly in deciding what particular demands should be brought forward at each stage, it is necessary to correctly gauge the level of consciousness of the proletariat and how it will develop. The objective prerequisites sketched out by Trotsky in the 1930s are today beginning to mature on a world scale. We are not yet in a pre-revolutionary period but such a situation could rapidly develop, perhaps much more rapidly than even the revolutionary tendency itself anticipates. Tasks which loom for decades can develop in years, those for years can develop in months, for months can develop in weeks, and tasks of weeks sometimes can be concentrated into a day or so.

Trotsky, in the discussions on the Transitional Programme, emphasises that he did not foresee ten years previously that a pre-revolutionary situation would mature so quickly.

The question of the consciousness of the proletariat is more complicated than it was in 1938. On the one side the objective situation economically, and increasingly socially, bears parallel with that period.

Economically we face as we have explained in documents and articles in the journal and paper a drawn out 'depressionary' period, with the existence of mass, and virtually permanent, unemployment. From a world point of view the bourgeois are incapable of solving the problem of the stagnation, and in some areas the decline, of the productive forces. But, the objective reality is not yet fully reflected in the consciousness of the proletariat.

The masses increasingly know what they don't want but don't, as yet, know what they want, because of the absence of an authoritative Marxist leadership.

Market illusions

In Sweden the labour movement and particularly our organisation has been able to explain the situation by taking up the phrase - "the dictatorship of the market" - coined by a bourgeois sociologist. The lingering illusions of the mass of the proletariat in resurgent capitalism is beginning to be broken. This will be completed by a combination of experience and also of agitation and propaganda.

Even in the ex-Stalinist states the pendulum has begun to swing against the market. In East Germany the process is most marked. An absolute majority now believe that "socialism" was a good system "badly put into practice". To a lesser or greater extent in such countries the effects of a return to the market is reflected in votes against the openly pro-capitalist parties. Social democratic or quasi-social democratic ideas and parties, reflecting the confused state of consciousness of the masses, holds sway in most of the countries once under Stalinist control.

It is inevitable that given the state of consciousness of the masses that a stage of reformism, of left-reformism and even centrism (revolutionary in words and reformist in deeds), in other words of Menshevism, is not just possible but probable in all countries. The masses always take the line of least resistance.

Despite the Bolshevik's authority in 1917 (with two revolutions and the authority of Lenin and Trotsky behind them), in the first period of the revolution the masses flooded to the compromisers, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries. In April 1917 the Bolsheviks got no more than 6% of the vote in the Soviets. It took a combination of experience and the tactics of the Bolsheviks for the mass of the proletariat to place themselves behind their banner.

At the same time we must be clear that the programme of the revolutionary tendency is not determined by the existing outlook, the 'mentality', of the working class. Yes, we have to skilfully adapt our ideas to the prevailing level of understanding, to explain our programme in the simplest possible form, to re-examine the terminology in the way this programme is expressed. But our programme is determined by the objective needs of the working class under capitalism.