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The Transitional Programme in perspective

From Workers’ Action #2, April 1998. Used by permission.


Sixty years ago this year, the Fourth International adopted the Transitional Programme at its founding congress. Today its heritage is claimed by an array of politically disparate and mutually hostile far left groups. Richard Price examines its place in revolutionary history and its relevance today.

The Transitional Programme (TP) was adopted by the fledgling Fourth International at its founding congress in September 1938. It was drawn up against a background of major defeats for the working class internationally at the hands of fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain and Stalinism in the Soviet Union. But it was a programme which was framed with the prognosis that revolution would arise out of the impending imperialist war. It is in this sense, as a relatively short-term perspective extending over years rather than decades, that the TP assumed that the working class stood on the eve of a ‘pre-revolutionary period’ – rather than as some permanent description of capitalist society in the imperialist epoch.

As against those who have turned the TP into some quasi-religious object of veneration, it is clear that its chief author, Leon Trotsky, did not consider it to be the last word on the question of programme. Some of its sections were inadequate, especially its economic aspect, and it did not deal with how the working class would hold power after a revolution at all. Although the Trotskyists had honed their understanding of programme in the 1930s, the writing of the TP itself was hurried, with the bulk of the work being carried out by Trotsky himself, although he had taken part in numerous discussions over its contents in Mexico with his co-thinkers in the Socialist Workers Party (US).

Nor did Trotsky consider that the TP stood on its own as a programmatic statement. He thought that it had to be read in conjunction with other major programmatic documents of the International Left Opposition and the Movement for the Fourth International, including the Programme of Action for France of 1934, and the positions developed on the Soviet Union and imperialist war.

In some respects, the TP was novel in the manner in which it concisely summarised a broad range of revolutionary tasks, and in the way it intimately connected tactics and strategy. However, this approach had its roots in the best aspects of the second, third and fourth congresses of the Comintern. Those wishing to look further back for antecedents could refer to the transitional slogans put forward by the Bolsheviks in 1917, which included not only the famous call for ‘Peace, Bread and Land’, but demands for nationalisation and the abolition of business secrets. [1] In their agitation among the St Petersburg unemployed in 1906, the Bolsheviks raised the slogans of workers’ control and a programme of public works. [2] In looking back, one could also include the tactics applied by the young Marx and Engels in 1848, when they sought to push the bourgeois revolutions to their limit, in preparation for the proletarian revolution they believed was imminent.

The role of a programme

A party without a revolutionary programme which connects the immediate tasks of the day with the strategic tasks of the epoch, is like a knife without a blade. A programme without a real revolutionary party to implement it will remain primarily an educational tool in approaching the vanguard of the working class. That, however, does not mean, even in a non-revolutionary situation, a passive, purely propaganda approach. The TP, although born out of defeat, was nonetheless the product of real experiences made in the class struggle such as the Minneapolis teamsters’ rebellion, in which the Trotskyists had played a leading role.

Trotsky explained the relationship between party and programme as follows:

Now, what is the party? In what does the cohesion consist? This cohesion is a common understanding of the events, of the tasks; and this common understanding – that is the programme of the party. Just as modern workers cannot work without tools any more than the barbarians could, so in the party the programme is the instrument. Without the programme every worker must improvise his tool, find improvised tools, and one contradicts another. Only when we have the vanguard organised upon the basis of common conceptions can we act. [3]

The dual emphasis on a common understanding of events as well as of tasks is well made since a programme, however well thought out, cannot stand higher than the perspective which informs it. An action programme which assumes that a revolutionary situation is in existence, when in reality counter-revolution is on the rise, will surely come to grief. If the extent to which we understand the world acts as a theoretical constraint in developing the programme, then the main practical constraint is the practice required to implement it. A programme which does not genuinely serve as a bridge from the consciousness of workers today to the maximum programme of the socialist revolution, and which instead seeks to batter workers into submission with an endless list of demands outside of space and time, ceases to have any agitational character. Perspective, programme and practice are not the same thing; but there should not be artificial barriers between them.

Transitional demands

Although the TP contains partial and democratic demands, its core sections are aimed at developing the struggle in such a way as to strike directly at the heart of capitalism by building up the independent power and organisation of the working class. Running through the TP is the thread of dual power at the level of the factory (factory committees, workers’ control), the picket line (workers’ defence), the economy (the sliding scale, public works) and the state (soviets, the workers’ and farmers’ government).

In this context, a quotation from the TP is useful:

It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme 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.
... Insofar as the old, partial, ‘minimal’ demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism - and this occurs at each step - the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very foundations of the bourgeois regime. [4]

This places the TP clearly in continuity with the direction the Comintern was taking at its second, and particularly its third and fourth congresses, in such documents as the second congress’s theses on the trade union movement [5], the third congress’s resolution on trade union work [6], and the debates on the united front and the workers’ government at the fourth congress. [7] In such work the Comintern began to systematise its tactics and in contrast to the ultra-lefts, who counterposed maximalist propaganda to the tasks of the day, a serious attempt was made to connect partial and democratic slogans with the overall struggle for power through transitional demands. Where the founding congress, largely composed of delegates from the former Tsarist empire, confined itself largely to stirring calls to revolution, subsequent congresses, reflecting the problems of the workers’ movement in the West, grappled with the problem of how to undermine the existing leaderships of the working class by calls for united action and through demands on the reformists.

There are numerous examples of how this approach was put to practical use. In Germany, the KPD’s Open Letter of January 1921 - which served as a model for the united front - included demands for:

higher pensions for disabled war veterans; elimination of unemployment; the improvement of the country’s finances at the expense of the monopolies; the introduction of workers’ control over food supplies, raw materials, and fuel; reopening of all closed enterprises; control over sowing, harvesting and marketing of farm produce by peasants’ councils and farm labourers’ organisations; the immediate disarming of all bourgeois militarised organisations; the establishment of workers’ self-defence; amnesty for political prisoners; and the immediate re-establishment of trade and diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia. [8]

A resolution of the executive committee of the Comintern from February 1924 urged the Communist Party of Great Britain to call upon the first Labour government:

  1. to deal with unemployment by effective taxation of the capitalists, and by taking over, under state and workers’ control, enterprises shut down by the capitalists.
  2. to take the initiative in nationalising the railways and mines; these to be administered in conjunction with the workers’ organisations.
  3. the Government must take energetic steps to liberate the peasants and workers of Ireland, India and Egypt from the yoke of English imperialism.
  4. it must be active in fighting the war danger in Europe and conclude an alliance with the Union of Soviet Republics ...

The resolution went on to state that ‘the Communist Party must preserve its ideological, tactical and organisational independence ... It must appeal to all groups and organisations of the working class who demand of the Labour Government a resolute struggle against the bourgeoisie ...’ [9]

This transitional approach was a radical departure from the politics of the Second International, which took as its model the programme drafted by Karl Kautsky and adopted by the SPD at its Erfurt congress in 1891. The Erfurt Programme consisted of two sections - a theoretical section putting the general case for socialism and a ‘practical’ section setting out the party’s minimum programme of demands realisable under capitalism. Although Kautsky’s extended version of the theoretical section spoke of ‘the irresistible and inevitable nature of the social revolution’ [10], the prospect of a peaceful parliamentary overturn of capitalism was implied. In the Indian summer of late nineteenth-century capitalism, the SPD, while pursuing its minimum programme, increasingly postponed the socialist revolution to the indefinite future. The clear implication, made explicit by the bolder revisionists, was that the bourgeois state would be rolled over by the sheer weight of the SPD’s electoral support, its dozens of daily papers and its growing trade union strength. This division of the programme into ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ demands persisted with Menshevism and was criminally revived by Stalinism as early as the mid-1920s.

This development was mirrored at the opposite end of the spectrum by a range of ultra-left sectarians in the early Comintern, among them the KAPD, Gorter, Pannekoek and Bordiga. Some opposed all compromises, including participation in bourgeois elections, on principle. Others were prepared on occasion to support demands which emanated directly from the class struggle, but placed a premium on keeping the revolutionary banner pure. Such an approach leads to a conception of the party as a conspiratorial, self-selected elite, operating behind the back of the working class, which cannot afford too much contact with workers or their organisations as they are for fear of contamination. The theoretical underpinning of much of today’s ultra-leftism comes from a selective, overly literal reading of Lenin’s What is to be done?

Equally dangerous is the liquidation of programme into militant trade union demands, in the style beloved of the British SWP. This only serves to reinforce the syndicalist error that a good dose of industrial action will rid workers of their reformist illusions - something that the left learned to its cost was not the case under the Wilson-Callaghan governments of 1974-79. In fact, the fight for any given immediate demand carries no guarantee of political advance. Indeed, following intense trade union struggles, the tendency is for the political consciousness of workers to relapse in the direction of reformism - underlining the need to link immediate demands to the wider goal of socialist transition.

The transitional method

The method which underpinned the TP involved a larger conception of the epoch we live in – one in which there are no national roads to socialism; in which revolution is an inter-connected world process, the objective basis of which is the existence of an imperialist world market. The transitional method does not ignore the existing consciousness of the working class in any given country, but nor does it on the other hand separate national from international tasks. It aims, by acting as a bridge, to carry the consciousness of the class to a higher stage through struggle, ascending the ladder of tasks the working class faces in preparing itself for the conquest of power.

One key element in this is getting the class to confront its own mis-leaders – hence the emphasis in the TP on putting demands on the existing leaderships within the workers’ movement. This had a powerful precedent in the Bolsheviks’ agitation in the period immediately prior to the October revolution in 1917 for the Mensheviks and SRs to take power basing themselves on the soviets.

We have argued elsewhere [11] that there are limitations to this approach today. To demand, for instance, that Blair ‘takes power’ out of the hands of the capitalist class makes no sense in a situation in which nobody remotely expects such a thing to happen. Better to take on the illusions workers do have that a Labour government can lead to a better life by proposing a series of struggles involving those issues that Labour was previously closely identified with, notably the welfare state and the trade unions.

Those sectarians opposed to the transitional method usually claim that demands placed upon treacherous social democratic leaders are clear signs of a semi-reformist programme. In the split personality world of sectarianism this usually co-exists with the view that demands on treacherous trade union leaders are entirely in order, because the trade unions are basic defensive organisations of the class – as if workers regarded their political leadership as some optional extra which can be ditched at a moment’s notice.

Slightly more serious is another familiar line of attack: that some of the demands of the TP are realisable for a certain period under capitalism. Consequently some ultra-lefts are attempting to renovate the idea of minimum and maximum programmes, blissfully unaware that this leads directly to various forms of opportunism. According to such reasoning, the maximum side of the programme inoculates its bearer against the virus of reformism, while the minimum programme is ‘realistic’ and will be understood by workers. But this is only to say that the maximum programme is irrelevant for practical purposes, while the minimum programme avoids confronting workers’ reformist consciousness. Trotsky in fact never denied that certain transitional demands were ‘achievable’; it was in their totality that transitional demands irrevocably clashed with the foundations of the bourgeois order.

Dangers certainly can arise from a reformist interpretation of some demands in the TP. In some respects, the programme of the Wilson government in 1974 was a reformist parody of the TP, complete with a short-lived sliding scale of wages (threshold payments), toothless legislation on business secrets and trade union consultation, and the Bullock report on workers’ participation. On the left flank of Labourism at the time stood Militant. From a dogma to be learnt by rote at educationals, Militant transformed the TP over time into a programme to be implemented by a Labour government armed with an enabling act, which in turn would open the road to a peaceful transition to a Militant-led socialist Britain.

The relevance today

The idea many Trotskyists laboured with for decades was that since the TP was drawn up for the period of decay of the imperialist epoch, it was good for as long as it took the working class to take power. Six decades on, such reasoning looks like laziness combined in equal measure with messianism. Among other things, it has condemned various Trotskyoid sects to repeating like a catechism that ‘mankind’s productive forces stagnate’ [12], in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and to believing that the TP’s judgement that ‘the historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership’ [13] somehow justified their existence.

For the Lambertists, the TP was less a tool in the class struggle than a relic with miraculous powers. It was, they claimed, ‘the highest expression of Marxism, that is, the theoretical generalisation, on the basis of the Marxist method, of the experiences, struggles and gains of the world proletariat, of the whole movement ... the most complete expression of dialectical materialism in our epoch’. [14] Of course, this was somewhat less cranky than the Socialist Labour League, against whom they were polemicising, for whom the highest development of Marxism was located between the ears of Gerry Healy.

The idea of a programme being good for over half a century, as applicable in periods of class peace as in periods of mass class struggle, is frankly bizarre. There is a range of questions on which the TP has little or nothing to say, among them special oppression and racism. The issue of what kind of united fronts are permissible in non-imperialist countries is not developed. The sections dealing with political revolution in the Soviet Union and transitional demands in fascist countries have become largely redundant.

While the demands for a sliding scale of wages and the right to work are readily understood, the demand for a sliding scale of hours with no loss of pay has often had much less resonance in periods of recession, because workers see no way of imposing such a measure on employers except where a high degree of workers’ control has already been established. Consequently, it can appear to cut across other anti-redundancy demands such as strike action and/or occupations.

Agitation necessarily brings to the fore certain key elements of a programme. In doing so, revolutionaries must take account of prevailing conditions. Is the working class on the offensive or on the retreat? What is its level of consciousness? If they fail to do so, and instead throw in every demand in the book at any given situation, the programme will fail to act as a bridge of any sort, and will be unable to alter the balance of forces. It makes no sense to call for soviets in periods of relative class peace or to call for picket line defence guards when there are no strikes. Those Trotskyists who raise the same transitional demands in snowstorms as they do in heat waves are violating the very same transitional method they claim to uphold.

If the working class has been forced on to the defensive, it makes no sense to demand it seize power tomorrow. What is required is an action programme which, by enabling workers to relearn how to defend and extend old gains, enables them to move on to the offensive. Trotsky, for instance, raised the demand for a constituent assembly in China in 1928, after the catastrophic defeats suffered by the working class in 1926-27, arguing that China was passing through a ‘year of ’49’. [15] (The analogy was to the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848.)

Does the TP remain relevant today? This article has attempted to demonstrate that the answer is not a simple yes or no. Some of its sections remain fully relevant, others require considerable up-dating, some sections deal with historical conditions which have passed and are unlikely to recur in the same form, while there are many questions on which the TP is silent or inadequate. To redevelop a transitional programme for today is an international task, and one not easily accomplished by thinly spread groups of revolutionaries with little experience of leading masses in struggle, and in a non-revolutionary period. Nevertheless, to work towards such a goal is an essential part of rebuilding an international revolutionary movement. What must be defended is not the letter of the TP, but its underlying method.

Richard Price
Workers’ Action (Britain)



1. L. Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder, 1973, p.15.

2. S. Malyshev, How the Bolsheviks Organised the Unemployed, Prinkipo Press, 1992.

3. Trotsky, op. cit., p.171.

4. Ibid., pp.114-15.

5. See A. Adler (ed.), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Pluto, 1983, pp.106-13.

6. Ibid., pp.269-74 and pp.284-88.

7. Ibid., pp.395-99.

8. M. Jones, The Decline, Disorientation and Decomposition of a Leadership, Revolutionary History, Vol.2, No.3, Autumn 1989, p.4.

9. J. Degras (ed.), The Communist International 1919-43, Vol.2, Oxford, 1960, p.84.

10. K. Kautsky, The Class Struggle, Norton, 1971, p.90.

11. Revolutionaries and the Labour Party, Prinkipo Press, 1994.

12. Trotsky, op. cit., p.111.

13. Ibid., p.112.

14. C. Slaughter (ed.), Trotskyism versus Revisionism, Vol.6, New Park, 1975, pp.54-56.

15. L. Trotsky, On China, Monad, 1976, p.342.


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