P. Frank  |  Trotskyist Writers  |  ETOL Home Page


Pierre Frank

The Transitional Program


From International Socialist Review, Vol.28 No.3, May-June 1967, pp.1-12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

This article is an introduction to the forthcoming French edition of the Transitional Program. It includes a discussion of Rosa Luxemburg’s speech printed below (Programme for Revolution, by Rosa Luxemburg). Pierre Frank is a member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International.

The first Marxist transitional program appeared in the Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848, at the end of the chapter Proletarians and Communists. Formulated in ten points, it presents both a program for mobilizing the workers in the struggle for the conquest of power, and a program to be instituted in the period following the seizure of power by the workers. The programs of the big working-class parties that arose during the second half of the nineteenth century, the most famous of which was the Erfurt program of 1891, consisted of two parts having no dialectical relationship to each other whatever: There was a maximum program calling for a socialist society in the indefinite future, and a minimum program which the working-class party defended in the immediate period within the framework of capitalist society; for this was the era of the development and worldwide expansion of capitalism and the problem of the seizure of power by the proletariat could not be posed as an immediate objective.

With the advent of the imperialist phase of capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, the struggle for power was again on the agenda; the Russian Revolution of 1905 was its first and most striking manifestation. In 1917, the Bolshevik Party advanced what was a transitional program in fact even though it did not use the name (it is to be found in the April Theses as well as in Lenin’s pamphlet The Threatening Catastrophe and How to Fight It). In 1918, Rosa Luxemburg, who was first in sensing the danger of dividing the program into two parts (see footnote two below), called attention in her programmatic speech at the founding congress of the German Communist Party to precisely those passages in the Communist Manifesto which we mentioned above, as well as to the Erfurt program. Declaring that it was necessary to return to the ideas of the Manifesto, she went on to assert:

“[Our program] is in conscious opposition to the point of view on which the Erfurt program was based, in conscious opposition to the separation of immediate demands, called minimum, in the economic and political struggle from the final socialist goal as the maximum program. In our conscious opposition to this, we draw a balance on the results of the past seventy years of development and especially their direct consequence, the world war, by stating: For us there is no such thing as a minimum program and a maximum program; socialism is one; socialism is the minimum which we must achieve today.”

Having established itself organizationally and taken measures to shut its doors to reformist and centrist currents at its first two world congresses, the Communist International, at its third and fourth world congresses (1921 and 1922) advanced the idea of a transitional program in these terms:

“In place of the minimum program of the reformists and centrists, the Communist International mounts a struggle for the concrete needs of the proletariat, for a system of demands which taken together will disintegrate the power of the bourgeoisie, organize the proletariat and constitute stages in the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship, and in which each particular demand will express a need of the great masses, even if these masses are not yet consciously in favor of a dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Third Congress, 1921, Thesis on Tactics).

“3. The programs of the national sections must clearly and decisively establish the necessity of the struggle for transitional demands, making the necessary reservations about the dependence of these demands on the concrete circumstances of time and place.

“4. The theoretical basis for all transitional and partial demands must be clearly stated in the general program, and the fourth congress likewise decisively condemns the attempt to depict the inclusion of transitional demands in the program as opportunism, as well as all attempts to gloss over or replace the fundamental revolutionary tasks by partial demands.

“5. The general program must clearly explain the basic historical types of the transitional demands of the national section, in accordance with the basic differences in the economic and political structure of the different countries, for example England on the one hand, and India on the other.” (Fourth Congress, 1922, Resolution on the Program of the Communist International)

As the gangrene of Stalinism set in, the Communist International abandoned the idea of a transitional program. After some ultraleft convulsions, its main orientation became opportunist (Popular Front, National Fronts, etc.), and collaboration followed with various wings of the bourgeoisie or was sought after within the framework of the capitalist system. The Communist parties returned de facto to the concept of a minimum program. For them the question no longer existed of a system of demands so interrelated as to develop and raise the class struggle from the level of a struggle for partial and transitional goals to that of the struggle for a workers’ government.

Trotskyist Contribution

It was the Fourth International which, in the transitional program as well as all other fields, continued and enriched the work of the first four congresses of the Communist International. After a number of initial efforts by national sections (Action Program of 1934 of the Communist League of France, Action Program of the Belgian section, etc.), the Founding Congress of the Fourth International adopted, in 1938, the document which has entered the history of the Trotskyist movement under the name of the Transitional Program. It is this document which we are reprinting here, along with the preface to the French edition of 1946.

The work should not be thought of as the fundamental program of the Fourth International, for the latter consists of the totality of lessons drawn from the struggle for socialism since the beginning of the working-class movement. A program of that kind cannot be drafted in the form of a single document. It is based on the teachings of the Marxist classics, the first four congresses of the Communist International, the fundamental documents of the Russian and International Left Opposition and the documents of the congresses of the Fourth International. Within this historical context, the Transitional Program of 1938 constitutes a part of the fundamental program of the Fourth International. It is its most important part politically in the sense that on the basis of the totality of teachings contained in the fundamental program, it formulates a political program aimed at mobilizing the masses into actions which correspond to their level of consciousness at a given moment, in order to lead them, through the education they receive in the course of these actions, to the highest level of consciousness, which will carry them to the conquest of power.

Key Elements of Program

The Transitional Program is therefore based upon two essential elements:

  1. the condition of a capitalist society that has lost its stability on the historical scale (not necessarily at every moment and in any and all countries) and where the struggle for the conquest of power has become the major task for this historical period;
  2. a series of slogans linked to national and international conjunctural conditions which in combination have the objective of raising the masses to the highest political level during the process of their struggles.

With the validity of each slogan being determined by its correspondence with the internal logic of the mass movement, the key piece in the program is precisely the culminating slogan of the whole chain – the slogan for a workers’ and farmers’ government or for a workers’ government. Here again the Fourth International has both revived and enriched the teachings of the third and fourth congresses of the Communist International by using the slogan as a transitional governmental formula corresponding to the organizational conditions and consciousness of the masses at a given moment, and not as a synonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat. A program without the perspective of a government of the working masses to carry out anti-capitalist measures, is not a transitional program.

Another enrichment contained in the 1938 program, in comparison with the teachings of the Communist International: Stalinist degeneration in the Soviet Union posed the question of a political revolution against the bureaucratic power, and the Transitional Program of 1938 contains a section dealing with this struggle, with slogans having a conjunctural character which Trotsky explained in this way in The Revolution Betrayed:

“The program of the new revolution depends to a great extent upon the moment when it breaks out, upon the level which the country has then attained, and to a great degree upon the international situation.”

Written on the eve of the second world war, the Transitional Program received its most striking verification a few years later, right after the war. All the great struggles in Europe in the immediate postwar period developed along lines corresponding with the internal logic and slogans of the Transitional Program, but the struggles were most frequently under Stalinist leadership, operating under directives from the Kremlin, which in turn was committed to the imperialists under its Yalta, Teheran and Potsdam agreements. Since these leaders had no desire to overthrow the capitalist regime, they never conducted the struggles toward the objective of installing a government of the laboring masses, and the struggles ended up in failure. The colonial revolution subsequently verified that part of the Program relating to colonial uprisings against their imperialist mother countries. The uprisings of the Polish and Hungarian masses in 1956 brought their verification of the document’s guidelines for the Soviet state, which was the only workers’ state in existence at the time the Transitional Program was written. [1]

This threefold verification should be enough to emphasize the importance and value of this document. It remains just as valid today, provided, of course, we make certain necessary changes corresponding to developments which have taken place during the years since it was drafted.

But before we turn to that, it is necessary to deal with another question which does not have a purely conjunctural character. There are people who have brought the fundamental meaning of a transitional program into question by their very use of the term. In fact, the expression “transitional program” has now been used for several years in a completely opposite sense from that which it had in the Communist International originally and then in the Fourth International. The leadership of the Italian Communist Party has been its most eminent exponent. It advances the following point of view: The Italian constitution contains articles which make it possible to shift over from capitalist society to a society that could presumably construct socialism; the world is now in the period of the transition from capitalism to socialism; all that is necessary, therefore, according to Togliatti and his disciples, is to advance a program, utilizing the provisions in the present Italian constitution, the realization of which would signify a transition from one mode of production to the other.

A Peaceful Transition?

This point of view, as is immediately apparent, raises a fundamental question with regard to the Marxist conception of the state, which Lenin reaffirms so strongly in The State and Revolution (the leaders of the Italian Communist Party do not deny this moreover). In the transition from capitalist to socialist society, this viewpoint disregards – one could say conjures away – what Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky considered to be the essential turning point, the moment when the working class conquers power and destroys the bourgeois state. The “transitional program” advanced by the leaders of the Italian Communist Party does nothing more than bring back the type of program envisaged by Eduard Bernstein at the beginning of the century, predicated on a gradual evolution of society through a series of reforms, with the question of power being posed only on the parliamentary road, and, as an inescapable extension, socialist participation in bourgeois governments. This sort of “transitional program” is therefore no novelty; it takes us right back to the debates on revisionism which took place in the Second International in the early years of the twentieth century. [2]

The ultraconservative leadership of the French Communist Party has long opposed this “Italian” notion of a “transitional program,” but not from the revolutionary direction. Its opposition is more in the Kautsky style, “theory” being preserved as a dogma having no relevance to daily practice, which is just as parliamentary and opportunist in France as it is in Italy with the Italian Communist party. In France, it is inside the Parti Socialiste Unifié that partisans of the Italian-style “transitional program” are to be found. They hold the following point of view: Present-day capitalism, or “neo-capitalism,” to use that rather vague expression for it [3], is a phase in the transition from capitalism to socialism; this transition is not taking place along the lines of the old schemes of political struggle; the question of governmental power has become of secondary importance; social power is now lodged in the great economic organizations, and socialism can advance precisely by means of men, animated by socialist convictions, attaining leadership in these economic organizations, in these “centers of decision” (in the plural).

As in the case of the Italian Communist Party, the question of power has been eliminated from their concerns and struggles. That decisive center of decision represented by governmental power within the state is conjured away and replaced with multiple centers of decision. Instead of making mass struggles converge toward the question of power, their tendency is to disperse these struggles in space and in time over multiple objectives. Ideas like these become associated with others which are already widely diffused, reaching even into certain bourgeois circles, ideas which are derived from a superficial evaluation of the Liberman reforms in the workers states on the one hand and of planning in the capitalist states on the other. On the basis of this, it is concluded that the question of the differences between capitalism and socialism has become outmoded and the problem of the conquest of power is now passe. Of course the capitalists themselves do not share these ideas when it comes to their daily practice. The most authoritative voice in the City of London, where the wealth of yesteryear has been lost but not the solid notion of capitalist interests, puts the matter in a way which, while not being put in Marxist terms, reveals a most lively capitalist class consciousness on these questions:

Capitalism Speaks

“Indeed the more one looks at the effort of the eastern and western economies to move closer to each other – the communists by turning towards ‘market relations,’ the capitalists by experimenting with planning – the more they seem to resemble two tethered goats trying to get together but checked by the length of the leash that ties them to its own particular stake. The stake is where the basic power of economic decision rests, with the state or with private men.” (The Economist, November 28, 1964, p.955; our emphasis.)

In capitalist society, despite all the changes which may have occurred, the state remains the center of decision serving the capitalists. Only by attacking it, by attacking governmental power, is it possible to go over to the building of socialism. Ignoring it and working surreptitiously for the accession of well-intentioned men to the leadership of multiple centers of decision will not achieve this. The theory of “centers of decision” no doubt offers some advantages ... particularly to those who get the jobs. Here, too, the matter is not altogether new. When Jouhaux became a regent of the Bank of France (one of these centers of decision, and hardly the least important), his reply to revolutionary critics was that he was doing it for the cause of workers’ emancipation, and he made out that he was making more sacrifices for the cause than anyone else.

For our part we absolutely reject such a conception of the “transitional program”; we unreservedly support the conception that governed the elaboration of the program of 1938, not out of any simple attachment to the past and feelings of respect for it, but because this conception continues to be more valid than ever for every portion of the globe.

In the countries which previously had a colonial or semi-colonial status, the conquest of formal political independence has yielded no solution whatever to the major problems of underdevelopment. On all the continents which experienced colonialization, the necessity imposes itself with ever increasing force for the colonial revolution to pass over into the socialist revolution. Parallel with this the need for a transitional program becomes more imperative.

In the workers states, “de-Stalinization” did not challenge the political power of the bureaucracy, and because of the continuation of this bureaucratic power, none of the demands formulated in the 1938 program or in The Revolution Betrayed has been completely satisfied. The events in Poland and Hungary in 1956, among others, have demonstrated the need for a political revolution, in the sense which Trotsky gave to this term, and consequently, the need for a transitional program for that part of the world as well.

In the economically developed capitalist countries, years of economic prosperity which no one expected, not even the most optimistic capitalists, have engendered a reformist euphoria and a setback for revolutionary currents. The opportunists and reformists find no need to be vindicated by theory: For them, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and besides, aren’t the conditions pre-eminently favorable for a minimum program? [4]

Imperialist Decline

But economic prosperity has not eliminated the essential characteristics of capitalism in its imperialist phase; it has not brought capitalism back to its period of full bloom, such as existed in the last third of the nineteenth century, which was likewise the period of the minimum program. Behind the facade of extraordinary economic prosperity, we find a capitalism which has lost control over a third of the land surface and a third of the population of the globe, a capitalism which is under continuous attack from the majority of mankind, a capitalism which sees that the material might of the United States is unable to break the will of the Vietnamese people, a capitalism whose economic system is visibly inferior to that of the workers states despite the fact that the latter is not yet beyond the preliminary stage, started from an extremely low level and is operating under a bureaucratic leadership characterized by its wastefulness.

The boasts about capitalism’s capacity for adaptation, about its superiority over socialism, certainly do not deceive the capitalists themselves or their most responsible and clear-sighted servants in maintaining the system. Despite all the accumulated economic wealth and an unquestionable improvement in the living conditions of the working class within the economically developed countries, we are not witnessing any parallel flowering of bourgeois democracy as was the case during the expansion of capitalism in the last century. On the contrary, the tendency in all these countries is toward installation of a “strong state” at the expense of democratic forms, a strengthening of the “executive” at the expense of national parliaments and local institutions, and this is happening even in that model country of bourgeois democracy, Great Britain, and even under a Labour government. This tendency is not the result of some mental aberration but of capitalist necessity. It requires only some relatively limited event, whether it be the Belgian general strike of 1960-1961, the Greek crisis of the summer of 1965, or some similar episode, to demonstrate the social fragility of the European countries. Even in the United States, society has been shaken to its depths by the aspirations of the Negroes. In the most economically developed countries, the need for a transitional program has no more vanished than in the other parts of the world.

The present dialectics of the world revolution [5] will only sharpen the need for a transitional program to mobilize the greatest masses around slogans engaging them in struggle with the existing order and with the aim of establishing a government that will begin to implement the demands of the program, and by so doing begin the process of putting society on the road toward construction of socialism.

A few words remain to be said to complete our earlier remarks regarding the necessity for working out the slogans of the transitional program and linking them up on the basis of conditions existing in a given place at a given time. Compared with 1938, certain slogans have become, if not outdated, at least of secondary importance relative to others. Their justification, in particular, becomes quite different in the context of a different reality. The need for changes is greatest in the case of the economically developed countries, since the 1938 program was formulated in a period when they were in the throes of a prolonged chronic crisis, with massive unemployment which was altogether different from the limited kind now appearing after a long period of full employment. The transitional slogans such as workers’ control, opening the books, reducing the work week, etc., no longer coincide with the conditions of a chronic crisis and massive unemployment but are now juxtaposed even to conditions of temporary prosperity and the need for maintaining or defending full employment. Defense of the organized working-class movement is not being posed in the face of a direct threat from fascism, but against the far more complicated and insidious threat or establishment of the strong state. The struggle against the danger of nuclear war poses problems and consequently slogans (unilateral nuclear disarmament, for instance) which would make no sense whatever for so-called conventional weapons, in view of the fact that it is generally easy to set up a conventional armament industry starting with normal industrial tooling, whereas the same cannot be done for nuclear weapons. The increase in leisure time poses new problems which must find a place in a program of action, etc., etc. But on all these points and in all these cases, it is merely a matter of adjustment to present conditions and in no case one of repudiating the principles which lie at the foundation of the Transitional Program.

This new edition of the Transitional Program of 1938 will become, we are sure, a multi-purpose tool for youth who are now turning toward Trotskyism. In it they will find a document showing how the Fourth International after years of struggle by the Trotskyist movement in defense of the theoretical and political teachings of revolutionary Marxism, established itself and translated its will to fight for the leadership of the working class movement into a programmatic application of these lessons to the conditions of our era; a document whose spirit can only continue to inspire the activities of revolutionary Marxists inside the mass movement; a document whose content still remains very largely valid almost thirty years after it was written, despite the substantial upheavals which have taken place in that span of time.


1. See in particular the resolution adopted on November 12, 1956, by the Workers Councils in the eleventh district of Budapest, reproduced in our introduction to The Revolution Betrayed, (1961 edition), and the program advanced by K. Modzelewsky and J. Kuron in their Open Letter to the Polish Workers Party, in which the lessons of the Polish October in 1956 are drawn.

2. In Reform or Revolution Rosa Luxemburg insistently emphasizes the dialectic of the two terms, minimum program and maximum program, in her arguments against the opportunists who were abandoning revolution. “The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers ... the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal,” she writes on the first page of this book. She cogently points out where separation of these two terms must lead:

“As soon as ‘immediate results’ become the principal aim of our activity, the clear-cut, irreconcilable point of view, which has meaning only in so far as it proposes to win power, will be found more and more inconvenient. The direct consequence of this will be the adoption by the party of a ‘policy of compensation,’ a policy of political trading, and an attitude of diffident, diplomatic conciliation.”

3. The term “neo-capitalism” was introduced by various bourgeois and petty-bourgeois reformists, without any real attempt at a definition, in order to spread the notion of a capitalism which had presumably found the way to overcome its objective laws, its crises, its contradictions. What they were really doing was idealizing the unexpected period of capitalist prosperity which followed the second world war. Since the term has spread widely and found acceptance, provisionally at any rate, we must understand its real meaning, which is not one of a miraculously transformed capitalism, but only a period in the imperialist stage of capitalism characterized by a prolonged boom, the causes of which can be grasped without having to question the Marxist analysis of capitalism.

4. The bad luck of the socialist leaders lies in the fact that the bourgeois parties are the only ones to profit from good times whereas the socialist leaders are only called on to enter governments (Wilson in Great Britain, Brandt in Germany) when things get bad. The job given to them is to plead poverty in order to impose restraints on the working class and in that way restore capitalism to health.

5. See the document Dynamics of World Revolution Today adopted by the Reunification Congress of the Fourth International in June 1963.

P. Frank Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 10.12.2005