Introduction to the IBT's 1998 edition of The Transitional Program by Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the October Revolution and founder of the Red Army, wrote the Transitional Program in March and April 1938 while living in exile in Mexico. It was adopted as the program of the Fourth International at its founding conference in September 1938.

Prior to finishing the draft, Trotsky participated in a series of discussions in late March 1938 with four leaders of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP): James P. Cannon, Vincent Dunne, Rose Karsner and Max Shachtman. The SWP was the most substantial section of the fledgling Fourth International in terms of size, political capacity and mass influence. Trotsky’s discussions with the SWPers helped to clarify certain aspects of the program and to refine his ideas about how it should be presented. In a 15 April 1938 letter to Cannon, Trotsky wrote:

“Without your visit to Mexico, I could never have written the program draft because I learned during the discussions many important things which permitted me to be more explicit and concrete.”1

The Transitional Program remains relevant today because it addresses the central task of our epoch: the mobilization of the working class for power. To be sure, the world has changed a great deal since 1938. Accordingly, in applying the program, revolutionaries must distinguish between those passages containing its core programmatic conceptions and the more descriptive passages that reflect the specific historical period in which it was written.

By 1938 the world order established at Versailles in 1919 was in shreds. The enormous social devastation of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and other events preparing the way for a cataclysmic inter-imperialist bloodbath provided the context for the rather categorical (and even apocalyptic) tone of some passages in the Transitional Program. Trotsky wrote:

“The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already, new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth.

“International relations present no better picture. Under the increasing tension of capitalist disintegration, imperialist antagonisms...must inevitably coalesce into a conflagration of world dimensions. The bourgeoisie, of course, is aware of the mortal danger to its domination represented by a new war. But that class is now immeasurably less capable of averting war than on the eve of 1914.”

Trotsky expected that World War II would end in a wave of revolutionary explosions just as World War I had. Moreover, he was by no means alone in anticipating this. On 25 August 1939, a few days before the outbreak of hostilities, the French ambassador told Hitler: “as a result of the war, there would be only one real victor—Mr. Trotsky.”2

World War II was a catastrophe that cost tens of millions of lives and wreaked unprecedented destruction. In its aftermath, potentially revolutionary situations arose in a number of European countries. In France and Italy these were defused, largely as a result of the treachery of the Moscow-loyal Communist Parties, whose cadres disarmed the partisans and propped up the post-war “anti-fascist” bourgeois regimes. Maurice Thorez, leader of the French Communist Party, advanced the slogan: “One police, one army, one state!” In Greece, the Kremlin tacitly supported the British Army, monarchists and Nazi collaborators in brutally crushing the leftist National Liberation Front (EAM).

The Nazi occupation of Western Europe generated intense hostility toward the indigenous bourgeoisie (who overwhelmingly collaborated with the fascists), but it also revived illusions in the “anti-fascist” imperialists. The Stalinists used the authority they accrued through their central role in the anti-Nazi resistance and their association with the victorious Red Army in pursuit of global reconciliation with imperialism. In 1943 Stalin went so far as to dissolve the Comintern in a demonstration of goodwill toward British and American imperialism. The New York Herald Tribune observed:

“So far as the present Russian government is concerned, there is no reason to suspect that the dissolution of the Comintern is merely a gesture. Instead, it appears far more probable that it is the climax of the process that began when Stalin won his duel with Trotsky for leadership in Russia—the organization of that country into a national state run on Communist lines, rather than a center of world revolution.”3

By the end of the war, only the Fourth International laid claim to the heritage of the Leninist Comintern. Yet so many key Trotskyist cadres had been murdered during the war (by both Stalinists and Nazis) that the Fourth International had ceased to function as a coherent organization. Individuals and small groups of militants remained active and carried out some exemplary interventions, but the International was far too weak to take advantage of the post-war revolutionary opportunities.

The social-democratic organizations, which had ceased to operate during the Nazi occupation, were revived by the British and Americans as pro-capitalist counterweights to the influence of the Communists in the European labor movement. Having successfully contained the upheavals of 1945–46, Western European capitalism, with the support of the American colossus, went on to enjoy over 20 years of relative stability and prosperity. During this period, in stark contrast to the 1930s, the reformist leaders of the working class were able to win some limited but real material concessions from the bourgeoisie—concessions which had a conservatizing effect upon their base.

Post-War Expansion and the Transitional Program

The rather categorical nature of some of Trotsky’s formulations in his 1938 draft and their apparent refutation by subsequent developments have led some ostensible Marxists to draw the conclusion that the Transitional Program lost its relevance and applicability in the post-war period. Yet the system of revolutionary transitional demands that constitutes the core of the program did not flow from Trotsky’s conjunctural prognoses of 1938. The performance of the capitalist economy at a given historical moment conditions the framework within which the class struggle takes place, and thus the immediate political possibilities, but such conjunctural factors do not affect the revolutionary Marxist assessment of the objective historic necessity for human society to make the leap to socialism.

This necessity flows from the qualitative intensification of the global contradictions of capitalism in what Lenin and Trotsky called the “imperialist” stage of its development. Imperialism is characterized by attempts on the part of the most advanced countries to resolve the crisis tendencies inherent in the capitalist accumulation process through mechanisms which transfer wealth from weaker to stronger regions of the global economy and produce extremely uneven patterns of development. In addition to endless military adventures in the neo-colonies, inter-imperialist competition leads inexorably to world war.

There is clearly a sense in which the advent of the imperialist epoch marked the end of capitalism’s historically progressive role in developing the forces of production, defined broadly as “global human capacities.” The intensified contradictions of the capitalist mode of production in the metropolitan imperialist regions set the stage for periodic military conflicts that destroy productive forces on a massive scale. Moreover, imperialism blocks the diffusion of advanced technologies to more backward regions, thereby retarding the development of labor productivity on a world scale. On the eve of the 21st century, capitalism has failed to completely uproot pre-capitalist economic forms in much of the “Third World.” It has “succeeded” in creating a reserve army of the unemployed and under-employed that comprises more than 30 percent of the global workforce. The inability of the market to promote qualitative growth in “macro-economic productivity” (even as it retains a remarkable capacity to stimulate the “micro-productivity” of individual enterprises) confirms the continuing validity of the long-standing Leninist-Trotskyist proposition that capitalism constitutes an obstacle to human progress.

It is with these considerations in mind that we should evaluate Trotsky’s comment in the Transitional Program regarding the “stagnation” of the productive forces in the inter-war period. This characterization was one-sided and therefore inaccurate to the extent that it failed to register the continuing potential for advances in technology and labor productivity at the level of the capitalist enterprise—although if there was ever a time in the 20th century that this appeared to be in doubt, it was certainly during the 1930s. Over the past 50 years, we have witnessed enormous growth in the productivity of that segment of the global workforce that remains involved in directly productive activity within capitalist industry, and a massive expansion of material wealth. In this sense the “economic prerequisites” for the creation of a planned economy stand at a far higher level today than in the 1930s.

In spite of the one-sided character of the formulation of the question in the Transitional Program, it would be unfair to impute to Trotsky the notion that capitalism, even in the epoch of its “death agony,” posed an absolute barrier to further advances in productive technique. In his last major programmatic document, the May 1940 “Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution,” he remarked (albeit off-handedly) that, “technology is infinitely more powerful now than at the end of the war of 1914–18....”4

Despite the new material basis for renewed capital accumulation created by World War II, post-war capitalist expansion eliminated neither political and social crises nor real opportunities for the working class to struggle for power. The colonial and semi-colonial world witnessed a series of major upheavals, from mass struggles for national independence in Africa and Asia, to successful anti-capitalist social revolutions in China, Vietnam and Cuba. While potentially revolutionary situations were less common in the advanced capitalist countries in the post-war than the inter-war period, sharp class struggles continued to erupt in several European countries long after the working-class upsurges of the mid-1940s. The May–June 1968 events in France, Italy’s “hot autumn” in 1969, and the Portuguese crisis of 1974–75 were clearly all pre-revolutionary situations. A number of other major class battles of the 1960s and 1970s also demonstrated the potential vulnerability of the capitalist order even during a period which was generally characterized by rising working-class living standards and relatively dynamic economic growth. These included the Belgian general strike of 1961, the Chilean cordones industriales (workers’ councils) of 1972–73, Quebec’s 1972 general strike and the 1974 showdown between the British miners and the Tory government. Many of the demands included in the Transitional Program were every bit as relevant in these struggles as they had been in comparable situations in the 1920s and 1930s.

The past two decades have seen falling real wages, declining living standards and growing social inequality and insecurity throughout the “developed” (i.e., imperialist) world. Working people are told to get used to the idea that life for their children will be harder than their own lives are today. In the “Third World,” hundreds of millions of human beings are consigned to short and brutal lives of hopeless and desperate poverty. Those lucky enough to get employment in low-wage “newly industrializing” neo-colonies are subject to conditions reminiscent of the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. Today’s brave new world of instantaneous communication, “flexible” production and global financial markets is also one in which tens of thousands of children starve to death daily, and in which the destruction of the biosphere proceeds inexorably.

‘Can Capitalism Survive?’

The tendency for capitalist economic rivalry to escalate into military conflict produced two world wars in the 20th century. These were not random events or natural disasters. They derive from an inner logic of capitalist competition, a logic that compels each bourgeoisie to continually attempt to improve its position at the expense of its rivals. In the Fourth International’s 1940 manifesto, Trotsky posed the following alternatives for humanity:

“The question is whether, as a result of the present war, the entire world economy will be reconstructed on a planned scale, or whether the first attempt of this reconstruction will be crushed in a sanguinary convulsion, and imperialism will receive a new lease on life until the third world war, which can become the tomb of civilization.”5

Imperialism did indeed receive a new lease on life after World War II. But today’s sharpening economic competition between the major capitalist trading blocs reminds us that, sooner or later, a third inter-imperialist conflict is inevitable. Today, as in 1938, “nothing short of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie can open a road out.”

Contrary to the insistence of capitalist ideologues that “communism is dead,” and that Marx’s analysis of capitalism is no longer “relevant,” a growing number of studies by leftist scholars in recent years have demonstrated a remarkable conformity between the real dynamics of capital accumulation since World War II and Marx’s description of the “laws of motion” of the capitalist mode of production.6 A long-term fall in the average rate of profit, associated with a rise in the “organic composition of capital” (the ratio of “dead” to living labor in production), was evident in a number of advanced capitalist countries up to at least the late 1970s. Just as Marx anticipated, the bourgeoisie responded to this profitability crisis with aggressive efforts to jack up the rate of exploitation of the labor force, and with attempts to resolve the “internal contradiction” by “extending the external field of production”7—that is, through heightened inter-imperialist competition for markets and arenas of profitable investment.

The economic malaise of the past two decades is the direct result of a classical profitability crisis resulting from the contradiction between the labor-displacing imperatives of capitalist accumulation/competition and the structural necessity of capitalism to continuously measure material wealth in terms of abstract labor time (i.e., the contradictions of the law of value). The only “medicine” that the capitalist class can dispense to alleviate such a crisis, short of a new world war and the massive destruction of the “dead labor” embodied in capitalist means of production, is a relentless assault on working-class living standards and trade-union rights. The “real history” of the capitalist mode of production in recent decades strikingly confirms Marx’s fundamental insights that the accumulation of capital must give rise over time to ever greater class antagonisms, and that these heightened antagonisms present the working class with the opportunity and the challenge to end the rule of capital and inaugurate a new social order.

Marxists are not alone in viewing capitalism as an unstable and transitory moment in human history. The few bourgeois theorists who have thought seriously about the future of capitalism have tended to conclude that a profit-driven system cannot survive over the long term. In his 1942 opus, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter asked “Can capitalism survive?” and answered: “No, I do not think it can.” In an interview promoting his influential 1993 tome, Twenty-First Century Capitalism, Robert Heilbroner, a leading American bourgeois economist, asked:

“Why do none of our philosophers, not even [Adam] Smith or Schumpeter who are surely partisans of the order, foresee a long untroubled future for capitalism?

“The obvious answer is the sheer difficulty of successfully maintaining capitalist order....

“The crucial difficulty for maintaining economic order takes on many forms—the indeterminacy of the outlook for investment and for technology; the unequal distribution of incomes[;]...the technological displacement of labour and the technological impetus toward cartelization; the inflationary tendencies of a successful economy and the depressive tendencies of an unsuccessful one. Capitalism’s uniqueness in history lies in its continuously self-generated change, but it is this very dynamism that is the system’s chief enemy. The system will sooner or later give rise to unmanageable problems and will have to make way for a successor.”8

The fundamental problem with capitalism is that everything is subordinated to the predatory struggle to maximize private profit—to measure human wealth in terms of “surplus labor appropriated” even as capitalist production requires less and less living labor as a technical input to production. The full promise of labor-saving technology cannot be realized by a system governed by the logic of the class exploitation of living labor. To resolve these problems in a historically progressive manner, a “successor” system must provide humanity with the ability to consciously control its social environment and gear production to the satisfaction of human needs rather than to the perpetuation of class inequality.

The Role of the Conscious Factor

The capitalist class conquered political power after first establishing its economic domination. For the working class this process is reversed. A planned economy will not emerge semi-spontaneously from capitalist anarchy, as capitalism did from feudalism; it must be created through extending conscious human control over the production and distribution of the goods and services necessary for society to develop and reproduce itself. The revolutionary transformation of all existing social relations can only be initiated on the basis of a high level of political consciousness within the proletariat.

The centrality of the “subjective factor” in the struggle for socialism (i.e., a disciplined political vanguard of the proletariat) lies at the heart of Trotskyism:

“The new parties and the new International must be built upon a new foundation: that is the key with which to solve all other tasks. The tempo and the time of the new revolutionary construction and its consummation depend, obviously, upon the general course of the class struggle, the future victories and defeats of the proletariat. Marxists, however, are not fatalists. They do not unload upon the ‘historical process’ those very tasks which the historical process has posed before them. The initiative of a conscious minority, a scientific program, bold and ceaseless agitation in the name of clearly formulated aims, merciless criticism of all ambiguity—those are some of the most important factors for the victory of the proletariat. Without a fused and steeled revolutionary party a socialist revolution is inconceivable.”9

Trotsky, like Lenin, rejected as objectivist nonsense the notion that capitalism must inevitably or automatically collapse:

“There is no crisis that can be, by itself, fatal to capitalism. The oscillations of the business cycle only create a situation in which it will be easier, or more difficult, for the proletariat to overthrow capitalism. The transition from a bourgeois society to a socialist society presupposes the activity of living people who are the makers of their own history. They do not make history by accident, or according to their caprice, but under the influence of objectively determined causes. However, their own actions—their initiative, audacity, devotion, and likewise their stupidity and cowardice—are necessary links in the chain of historical development.

“The crises of capitalism are not numbered, nor is it indicated in advance which one of these will be the ‘last.’ But our entire epoch and, above all, the present crisis imperiously command the proletariat: ‘Seize power!’ If, however, the party of the working class, in spite of favorable conditions, reveals itself incapable of leading the proletariat to the seizure of power, the life of society will continue necessarily upon capitalist foundations—until a new crisis, a new war, perhaps until the complete disintegration of European civilization.”10

While the Fourth International was established to struggle to resolve the “crisis of revolutionary leadership,” Trotsky was acutely aware of the enormous difficulties it faced:

“...shall we succeed in preparing in time a party capable of leading the proletarian revolution? In order to answer this question correctly it is necessary to pose it correctly. Naturally, this or that uprising may end and surely will end in defeat owing to the immaturity of the revolutionary leadership. But it is not a question of a single uprising. It is a question of an entire revolutionary epoch.

“The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of war, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars, and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective. History will provide it with enough opportunities and possibilities to test itself, to accumulate experience and to mature....[T]he great historical problem will not be solved in any case until a revolutionary party stands at the head of the proletariat. The question of tempos and time intervals is of enormous importance; but it alters neither the general historical perspective nor the direction of our policy.”11

A rise in working-class militancy will often be met by court injunctions prohibiting mass pickets, plant seizures, “hot-cargoing,” sympathy strikes and any other effective tactics. If this proves insufficient, police pressure is stepped up: pickets and demonstrators are attacked, union assets seized and workers’ leaders detained. The mass media, which normally operates as the ideological police of the ruling class, works overtime to confuse, divide and demoralize the workers and their potential allies.

Such measures are often sufficient for the capitalists to reassert control, but sometimes repression can backfire and result in new layers of the population being drawn into struggle. A deep-going crisis in the bourgeois social order inevitably manifests itself in division and a loss of self-confidence in the ruling class, and in uncertainty, confusion and hesitation within the repressive apparatus itself. In such circumstances the capitalists often come to rely more heavily on fascists and gangs of strikebreakers and thugs recruited from the “patriotic” petty bourgeoisie, the lumpenproletariat and backward elements of the working class.

An effective leadership of the workers’ movement must anticipate such developments and be prepared to act swiftly and decisively to neutralize reactionary formations before they grow. While proper technical preparations for this sort of intervention are essential, the most important task is the continuing political mass mobilization of the working class as it awakens to its historic interests through the course of the struggle. The Transitional Program is an algebraic codification of the essential measures with which the proletarian vanguard can broaden the scope of struggle and counter the attacks of the class enemy in a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situation:

“The basic conditions for the victory of the proletarian revolution have been established by historical experience and clarified theoretically: (1) the bourgeois impasse and resulting confusion of the ruling class; (2) the sharp dissatisfaction and striving towards decisive changes in the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie without whose support the big bourgeoisie cannot maintain itself; (3) the consciousness of the intolerable situation and readiness for revolutionary actions in the ranks of the proletariat; (4) a clear program and a firm leadership of the proletarian vanguard—these are the four conditions for the victory of the proletarian revolution.”12

Program and Party ‘Of a New Type’

In the late 19th century, the leaders of the Second International anticipated that as the working class grew in social weight, internal cohesion and political maturity, it would gradually lose its connections to the peasantry and urban petty bourgeoisie and embrace the socialist project (the “maximum” component of the classical social-democratic program). In the meantime, they sought to draw the working class into a unitary party of “the whole class” by focusing on the “minimum” needs of working people within the framework of capitalism.

The social-patriotic capitulation of the Second International during World War I forced Lenin to conclude that a bribed layer of pro-capitalist “labor aristocrats” were actively promoting false consciousness within the proletariat. This dictated a decisive break from the conception of a “party of the whole class” in favor of a “party of a new type”—a revolutionary combat party capable of leading the working class in a fight for power. Lenin’s recognition of the necessity of organizing a party of the most advanced workers separately from the more backward layers was his single most important contribution to Marxism.

The Leninist “party of a new type” naturally required a new sort of program. The parties of the Second International claimed to be Marxist, and even “revolutionary,” but they considered the “maximum” program as something for the indefinite future. The Communist International (Comintern), by contrast, actively sought to address the immediate struggles of the class in ways that led to revolutionary modes of consciousness and action. The Comintern under Lenin explicitly advocated the use of “transitional demands” that would unite the proletariat across its sectional divisions while also prefiguring the economic, social and political content of the future workers’ state, thereby posing, at least implicitly, the necessity of socialist revolution.

The use of transitional demands does not imply an abandonment of struggles for more limited objectives. The Fourth International would not:

“...discard the program of the old ‘minimal’ demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the frame-work of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective....The old ‘minimal program’ is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution.”13

Reformists have no use for transitional demands because their activity does not go beyond the “practical” task of reforming bourgeois society; indeed, reformism seeks only to win reforms that are compatible with maintaining the conditions of bourgeois rule, in particular, rates of profit deemed to be “reasonable” by the capitalist class. By contrast, revolutionaries are not constrained to operate within the bounds established by the imperatives of capitalist profitability:

“If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands, inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. ‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’ are in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces....”14

Marxists have long observed that the greatest gains for working people tend to come as by-products of revolutionary struggle:

“If we say that we will only demand what they can give, the ruling class will give only one-tenth or none of what we demand. When we demand more and can impose our demands, the capitalists are compelled to give the maximum. The more extended and militant the spirit of the workers, the more is demanded and won. They are not sterile slogans; they are means of pressure on the bourgeoisie, and will give the greatest possible material results immediately.”15

Reformists are not alone in their rejection of transitional demands. Sectarian ultra-lefts also have no use for them. Having already rhetorically embraced the most extreme formulas, they reject all tactical maneuvers, compromises or partial struggles, and content themselves with striking poses and issuing fearsomely radical-sounding declamations, while patiently waiting for the great day when the masses will seek them out.

Bourgeois ‘Recess’ and Proletarian ‘Strategic Retreat’

In discussing the Transitional Program with the SWP/U.S. leaders, Trotsky noted that some of his followers seemed to have, “the impression that some of my propositions or demands [in the draft program] were opportunistic, and others...were too revolutionary, not corresponding to the objective situation.”16 Pointing to the fact that the U.S. was in the grip of “a social crisis without precedent,” Trotsky proposed that the SWP should be “more optimistic, more courageous, more aggressive in our strategy and tactics”:

“What is the sense of the transitional program? We can call it a program of action, but for us, for our strategic conception, it is a transitional program—it is a help to the masses in overcoming the inherited ideas, methods, and forms and of adapting themselves to the exigencies of the objective situation. This transitional program must include the most simple demands. We cannot foresee and prescribe local and trade union demands adapted to the local situation of a factory, the development from this demand to the slogan for the creation of a workers’ soviet.

“These are both extreme points, from the development of our transitional program to find the connecting links and lead the masses to the idea of revolutionary conquest of power. That is why some demands appear to be very opportunistic—because they are adapted to the actual mentality of the workers. That is why other demands appear too revolutionary—because they reflect more the objective situation than the actual mentality of the workers. It is our duty to make this gap between objective and subjective factors as short as possible. That is why I cannot overestimate the importance of the transitional program.”17

Trotsky was well aware that there are downturns, as well as upturns, in the class struggle. He even raised the possibility that capitalism might emerge intact from the impending world war:

“You can raise the objection that we cannot predict the rhythm and tempo of the development and that possibly the bourgeoisie will find a political recess—that is not excluded—but then we will be obliged to realize a strategic retreat. But in the present situation we must be oriented for a strategic offensive, not a retreat.”18

This is an interesting passage because, of course, the bourgeoisie did indeed “find a political recess” after World War II. Consequently, revolutionaries in the imperialist heartlands had little choice but to “retreat” from a perspective of imminent mass revolutionary struggle in order to prepare for the future through propagandistic activities: patiently recruiting and training a new generation of cadres, while sinking roots in the organizations of the working class. But, for Trotsky, such a reorientation would not involve abandoning the transitional program in favor of a reformist minimal/democratic program:

“...we proceed from the inevitability and imminence of the international proletarian revolution. This fundamental idea, which distinguishes the Fourth International from all other workers’ organizations, determines all our activities....This does not mean, however, that we do not take into account the conjunctural fluctuations in the economy as well as in politics, with the temporary ebbs and flows. If one proceeds only on the basis of the overall characterization of the epoch, and nothing more, ignoring its concrete stages, one can easily lapse into schematism, sectarianism, or quixotic fantasy. With every serious turn of events we adjust our basic tasks to the changed concrete circumstances of the given stage. Herein lies the art of tactics.”19

Transitional Demands and the Communist Manifesto

It is often taken for granted by both Trotsky’s supporters and his detractors that the idea of “transitional demands” was first introduced in the 1938 draft. For example, in a footnote explaining Trotsky’s use of the term “transitional demands” during the first of the series of discussions he held with the SWP leaders in March 1938, the Pathfinder Press editors assert:

“One of Trotsky’s most important contributions to Marxist theory and practice was his development in 1938 of the concept of transitional demands and slogans, which became the central feature of the programmatic document he wrote in April for the [Fourth International’s] founding conference.”20

In fact, Trotsky specifically addressed this very misconception during these same discussions:

“This program is not a new invention of one man. It is derived from the long experience of the Bolsheviks. I want to emphasize that it is not one man’s invention, that it comes from long collective experience of the revolutionaries. It is the application of old principles to this situation. It should not be considered as fixed like iron, but flexible to the situation.”21

At its Fourth Congress in 1922, the Communist International passed a motion explicitly endorsing the concept of transitional demands. Most of the transitional demands included in the 1938 program had previously been adopted, in one form or another, in various resolutions of the first four congresses of the Communist International (see “Transitional Demands: From the Comintern to the Fourth International,” p 203).

The advocacy of transitional measures can be traced right back to the Communist Manifesto of 1848. The ten “pretty generally applicable” demands advanced in that document included the abolition of landed property and inheritance; a heavily progressive taxation system; confiscation of property of “rebel” capitalists; nationalization of transport and communication; “Extension of factories...owned by the state;” and “Equal liability of all to labor.” Marx and Engels raised these demands as a means to make “despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production.” They were not advanced as a means of reforming capitalism, but rather as measures:

“...which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.”22

In his 1938 essay commemorating “Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto,” Trotsky commented:

“Calculated for a revolutionary epoch the Manifesto contains...ten demands, corresponding to the period of direct transition from capitalism to socialism. In their Preface of 1872, Marx and Engels declared these demands to be in part antiquated....The reformists seized upon this evaluation to interpret it in the sense that transitional revolutionary demands had forever ceded their place to the Social Democratic ‘minimum program,’ which, as is well known, does not transcend the limits of bourgeois democracy. As a matter of fact, the authors of the Manifesto indicated quite precisely the main correction of their transitional program, namely, ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ In other words the correction was directed against the fetishism of bourgeois democracy. Marx later counterposed to the capitalist state, the state of the Commune. This ‘type’ subsequently assumed the much more graphic shape of soviets. There cannot be a revolutionary program today without soviets and without workers’ control. As for the rest, the ten demands of the Manifesto, which appeared ‘archaic’ in an epoch of peaceful parliamentary activity, have today regained completely their true significance. The Social Democratic ‘minimum program,’ on the other hand, has become hopelessly antiquated.”23

Rosa Luxemburg made remarkably similar observations in December 1918, at the founding of the German Communist Party:

“We are faced with a position similar to that which was faced by Marx and Engels when they wrote the Communist Manifesto seventy years ago. As you all know, the Communist Manifesto dealt with socialism, with the realization of the aims of socialism, as the immediate task of the proletarian revolution. This was the idea represented by Marx and Engels in the revolution of 1848; it was thus, likewise, that they conceived the basis for proletarian action in the international field.”24

The defeat of the 1848 revolutions compelled Marx and Engels to reassess their earlier projection of an imminent European socialist revolution. The adoption of the Erfurt Program in 1891 by the German Social Democratic Party made explicit the division between the minimum and maximum programs:

“The socialist program was thereby established upon an utterly different foundation, and in Germany the change took a peculiarly typical form. Down to the collapse of August 4, 1914, the German social democracy took its stand upon the Erfurt program, and by this program the so-called immediate minimal aims were placed in the foreground, while socialism was no more than a distant guiding star.”25

In rejecting the minimum/maximum programmatic dichotomy, Luxemburg called for a return to the original conception of the Manifesto: “It has become our urgent duty today to replace our program upon the foundations laid by Marx and Engels in 1848.”26 She forthrightly asserted:

“Our program is deliberately opposed to the leading principle of the Erfurt program; it is deliberately opposed to the separation of the immediate and so-called minimal demands formulated for the political and economic struggle, from the socialist goal regarded as the maximal program.”27

Workers’ Control and Factory Committees

Many critical developments in Marxism have come as a direct result of the experience of mass working-class struggle. Prior to the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx and Engels had assumed that the conquest of political power by the working class was a matter of gaining control of the existing (capitalist) state apparatus. But the experience of the Commune demonstrated that, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”28 The Commune was, in Marx’s words, “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.”29

Workers’ councils or “soviets” (which Trotsky saw as “crowning” the program of transitional demands) first appeared in the course of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Two other key transitional demands—“workers’ control” and “factory committees”—derived from the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Like the soviets in 1905, they had not been advocated by any leftist party or theoretician, but arose from the logic of the class struggle itself.

After the Tsar was toppled in February 1917, factory committees sprouted up in many enterprises. They were organized as delegated bodies embracing workers from every department, from every union and also unorganized workers. Trotsky described these bodies as an example of “the realization of the united front of the working class.”30 Initially concerned with issues of wages, conditions of employment and the length of the workday, as the factory committees gained authority and influence, they began to take up broader social questions. The more militant of them gradually established a veto over management decisions, and began to probe company accounts and check financial records. These are the main elements of a regime of “workers control”:

“Workers’ control through factory councils is conceivable only on the basis of sharp class struggle, not collaboration. But this really means dual power in the enterprises, in the trusts, in all the branches of industry, in the whole economy.

“What state regime corresponds to workers’ control of production? It is obvious that the power is not yet in the hands of the proletariat....What we are talking about is workers’ control under the capitalist regime, under the power of the bourgeoisie. However, a bourgeoisie that feels it is firmly in the saddle will never tolerate dual power in its enterprises. Workers’ control, consequently, can be carried out only under the condition of an abrupt change in the relationship of forces unfavorable to the bourgeoisie and its state. Control can be imposed only by force upon the bourgeoisie, by a proletariat on the road to the moment of taking power from them....”31

Factory committees and workers’ control arise at moments of sharp social crisis, as the workers come to realize that to defend their interests they must go beyond simple trade unionism, and begin to challenge bourgeois property rights and management prerogatives.

Workers’ control is not a necessary stage in the development of revolutionary consciousness, but it can play an important role in certain circumstances:

“Under the influence of crisis, unemployment, and the predatory manipulations of the capitalists, the working class in its majority may turn out to be ready to fight for the abolition of business secrecy and for control over banks, commerce, and production before it has come to understand the necessity of the revolutionary conquest for power.

“After taking the path of control of production, the proletariat will inevitably press forward in the direction of the seizure of power and of the means of production. Questions of credits, of raw materials, of markets, will immediately extend control beyond the confines of individual enterprises.”32

Factory committees arose in both Germany and Italy following World War I, but in the absence of effective revolutionary leadership, the capitalists were able to regroup and reassert their authority:

“The contradictions, irreconcilable in their essence, of the regime of workers’ control will inevitably be sharpened to the degree that its sphere and its tasks are extended, and soon will become intolerable. A way out of these contradictions can be found either in the capture of power by the proletariat (Russia) or in the fascist counterrevolution, which establishes the naked dictatorship of capital (Italy).”33

In “What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat,” written in January 1932, Trotsky posed the question of workers’ control from a somewhat different angle:

“The campaign for workers’ control can develop, depending on the circumstances, not from the angle of production but from that of consumption. The promise of the Bruening government to lower the price of commodities simultaneously with the decrease in wages has not materialized. This question cannot but absorb the most backward strata of the proletariat, who are today very far from the thought of seizing power. Workers’ control over the outlays of industry and the profits of trade is the only real form of the struggle for lower prices. Under the conditions of general dissatisfaction, workers’ commissions with the participation of worker-housewives for the purpose of checking up on the increased cost of margarine can become very palpable beginnings of workers’ control over industry.”34

The Transitional Program carefully distinguishes between workers’ control (a form of “dual power”) and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. The former represents a school for the latter: “On the basis of the experience of control, the proletariat will prepare itself for direct management of nationalized industry when the hour for that eventuality will strike.” With the expropriation of the means of production, the essential economic content of the dictatorship of the proletariat is established.

Lenin’s Transitional Program of 1917

During the middle of 1917, under the rule of Kerensky’s bourgeois Provisional Government, the economic situation in war-weary Russia deteriorated at an alarming rate. Lenin placed the blame for the “impending catastrophe” squarely on the bourgeoisie:

“The capitalists are deliberately and unremittingly sabotaging (damaging, stopping, disrupting, hampering) production, hoping that an unparalleled catastrophe may mean the collapse of the republic and democracy, and of the Soviets and proletarian and peasant associations generally, thus facilitating the return to a monarchy and the restoration of the unlimited power of the bourgeoisie and the landowners.

“The danger of a great catastrophe and of famine is imminent. All the newspapers have written about this time and again....

“Yet the slightest attention and thought will suffice to satisfy anyone that the ways of [combating] catastrophe and famine are available, that the measures required to combat them are clear, simple, perfectly feasible, and fully within reach of the people’s forces, and that these measures are not being adopted only because, exclusively because, their realization would affect the fabulous profits of a handful of landowners and capitalists.”35

Lenin did not call on Kerensky to pass a law against capitalist sabotage. Nor did he content himself with abstract reflections about how all problems would one day be solved by a future socialist revolution. Instead he addressed the burning issues of the moment with a series of concrete proposals to revive economic activity, counteract bourgeois sabotage and broaden the intervention of the masses in economic decision-making. The “principal measures” he advocated were:

“1. Amalgamation of all banks into a single bank and state control over its operations, or nationalization of the banks.

“2. Nationalization of the syndicates, i.e., the largest, monopolistic capitalist associations (sugar, oil, coal, iron and steel, and other syndicates).

“3. Abolition of commercial secrecy.

“4. Compulsory syndication (i.e., compulsory amalgamation into associations) of industrialists, merchants and employers generally.

“5. Compulsory organization of the population into consumers’ societies, or encouragement of such organization, and the exercise of control over it.”36

Taken together these measures represented the same kind of “despotic inroads on the rights of property” advocated in the Communist Manifesto. Lenin was quite clear about the revolutionary implications of his proposals:

“There is no way of effectively [combating] financial disorganization and inevitable financial collapse except that of revolutionary rupture with the interests of capital and that of the organization of really democratic control, i.e., control from ‘below,’ control by the workers and poorest peasants over the capitalists....”37

Lenin’s program was a “transitional” one (although it does not seem that the term had yet been coined) because it connected the immediate problems faced by the workers’ movement to the question of proletarian state power.

Transitional Demands and the Left Opposition

In the statement of “fundamental principles” adopted at its first international gathering, in February 1933, the International Left Opposition (ILO) declared that it stood “on the ground of the first four congresses of the Comintern.”38 Denouncing the sterile ultimatism of Third Period Stalinism, the ILO reiterated the importance of both the united-front tactic and of transitional demands. It called for:

“Recognition of the necessity to mobilize the masses under transitional slogans corresponding to the concrete situation in each country, and particularly under democratic slogans insofar as it is a question of struggle against feudal relations, national oppression, or different varieties of openly imperialist dictatorship....”39

The next year, in the aftermath of an armed fascist attack on the French parliament, the French section of the ILO published a “Program of Action for France” drafted by Trotsky. It called for “Abolition of ‘Business Secrets’,” “Workers’ and Peasants’ Control over Banks, Industry and Commerce,” a shorter workweek with a pay raise “at the expense of the magnates,” “Nationalization of Banks, Key Industries, Insurance Companies and Transportation” and the institution of a “Monopoly of Foreign Trade.” It also advocated the “Defense of the Soviet Union,” the “Disbanding of the police,” “Arming of the proletariat, arming of the poor peasants!” and the preservation of public order by workers’ militias directed by a “Workers’ and Peasants’ Commune.”40

In March 1935, at a meeting of the CGT (the General Federation of Labor—the largest union federation in France) Alexis Bardin41 delivered a speech written for him by Trotsky that criticized the union leadership’s utopian/reformist schemes for combating the ravages of the capitalist economic crisis. To the officials’ vague talk of using credit as an economic “lever,” the young militant counterposed ripping the banking system “out of the hands of the capitalist exploiters in order to make it a lever of social transformation, that is of socialist construction.” Starting from the CGT leadership’s own pronouncement that 90 plutocrats “own and control the economy of our country,” Bardin proposed: “The response should be clear: we must expropriate them, unseat them, to return to the plundered people what belongs to them.”42 At each point where the bureaucrats’ plan blurred the line between class struggle and class collaboration, Trotsky’s text sharpened the distinctions.

How to Utilize Transitional Demands

Bardin’s speech provides an example of how transitional demands should be used to connect the necessity of social revolution with the immediate practical concerns of an assembly of trade-union delegates. In a similar vein, during his discussion with the SWP leaders, Trotsky explained how to relate the demand for the opening of the capitalists’ books to other political issues:

“ have millions of unemployed and the government claims it cannot pay more and the capitalists say that they cannot make more contributions—we want to have access to the bookkeeping of this society. The control of income should be organized through factory committees. Workers will say: We want our own statisticians who are devoted to the working class. If a branch of industry shows that it is really ruined, then we answer: We propose to expropriate you. We will direct better than you....This transitional demand is also a step for the workers’ control of production as the preparatory plan for the direction of industry. Everything must be controlled by the workers who will be the masters of society tomorrow. But to call for conquest of power—that seems to the American workers illegal, fantastic. But if you say: The capitalists refuse to pay for the unemployed and hide their real profits from the state and from the workers by dishonest bookkeeping, the workers will understand that formula. If we say to the farmer: The bank fools you. They have very big profits. And we propose to you that you create farmers’ committees to look into the bookkeeping of the bank, every farmer will understand that. We will say: The farmer can trust only himself; let him create committees to control agricultural credits—they will understand that. It presupposes a turbulent mood among the farmers; it cannot be accomplished every day. But to introduce this idea into the masses and into our own comrades, that’s absolutely necessary immediately.”43

The masses cannot be mobilized for struggle around transitional demands “every day,” but the job of revolutionaries is to seek to introduce these ideas into the working class, even in periods of relative quiescence. The proletarian vanguard must seek to lead, not follow, popular opinion.

Trotsky sought to train the cadres of the Fourth International to address the particular manifestations of capitalist crisis and economic dislocation—factory closures, wage cuts, layoffs, inflation, bank foreclosures, etc.—in ways that pointed toward the necessity of proletarian revolution:

“Workers’ militia and workers’ control of production are only two sides of the same question. The worker is not a bookkeeper. When he asks for the books, he wants to change the situation, by control and then by direction. Naturally, our advancing slogans depends on the reaction we meet in the masses. When we see the reaction of the masses we [will] know what side of the question to emphasize. We will say, Roosevelt will help the unemployed by the war industry; but if we workers ran production, we would find another industry, not one for the dead but for the living. The question can become understandable even for an average worker who never participates in a political movement.”44

Trotsky also proposed that the SWP seek to popularize the call for a sliding scale of wages and hours:

“Then we have the question, how to present the program to the workers? It is naturally very important. We must combine politics with mass psychology and pedagogy, build the bridge to their minds. Only experience can show us how to advance in this or that part of the country. For some time we must try to concentrate the attention of the workers on one slogan: sliding scale of wages and hours.

“Naturally this is only one point. In the beginning this slogan is totally adequate for the situation. But the others can be added as the development proceeds....What is this slogan? In reality...[a sliding scale of wages and hours] is the system of work in socialist society. The total number of workers divided into the total number of hours. But if we present the whole socialist system it will appear to the average American as utopian, as something from Europe. We present it as a solution to this crisis which must assure their right to eat, drink, and live in decent apartments. It is the program of socialism, but in very popular and simple form.”45

When asked, “Can we actually realize this slogan?,” Trotsky replied:

“It is easier to overthrow capitalism than to realize this demand under capitalism. Not one of our demands will be realized under capitalism. That is why we are calling them transitional demands. It creates a bridge to the mentality of the workers and then a material bridge to the socialist revolution. The whole question is how to mobilize the masses for struggle. The question of the division between the employed and unemployed comes up. We must find ways to overcome this division.”46

‘Not a Complete Program’

In his conversations with the SWP leadership, Trotsky noted that the Transitional Program was not comprehensive:

“The draft program is not a complete program. We can say that in this draft program there are things which are lacking and there are things which by their nature don’t belong to the program. Things which don’t belong to the program are the comments.... A complete program should have a theoretical expression of the modern capitalist society at its imperialist stage.... The beginning of the program is not complete. The first chapter is only a hint and not a complete expression. Also the end of the program is not complete because we don’t speak here about the social revolution, about the seizure of power by insurrection, the transformation of capitalist society into the dictatorship, the dictatorship into socialist society. This brings the reader only to the doorstep. It is a program for action from today until the beginning of the socialist revolution. And from the practical point of view what is now the most important is how can we guide the different strata of the proletariat in the direction of the social revolution.”47

The program was “incomplete” in another sense as well—it did not address the specific social and historical circumstances that play an important role in the political life of each country. Trotsky expected each section of the Fourth International to use the international program as the basis for elaborating one tailored to the specific requirements of the local political terrain:

“The program is only the first approximation. It is too general in the sense in which it is presented to the international conference in the next period. It expresses the general tendency of development in the whole world....It is clear that the general characteristics of the world situation are common because they are all under the pressure of the imperialist economy, but every country has its peculiar conditions and real live politics must begin with these peculiar conditions in each country and even in each part of the country.”48

Not only would the program have to be elaborated somewhat differently for each national section, but the demands advanced in each union would vary according to the specific situation confronting the workers it represented. The text of the Transitional Program notes that it would be impossible “to enumerate here those separate, partial demands which time and again arise on the basis of concrete circumstances—national, local, professional.”49 This is not because revolutionaries are indifferent to such issues: “The Bolshevik-Leninist stands in the front-line trenches of all kinds of struggles, even when they involve only the most modest material interests or democratic rights of the working class.”50

To gain a hearing for their ideas, revolutionaries must do more than simply stand up and recite passages from the program. As Trotsky explained:

“It is necessary to interpret these fundamental ideas by breaking them up into more concrete and partial ones, dependent upon the course of events and the orientation of the thought of the masses.”51

The program must be applied flexibly and adapted in accordance with concrete circumstances:

“The relative weight of the individual democratic and transitional demands in the proletariat’s struggle [in the colonial and neo-colonial countries], their mutual ties and their order of presentation, is determined by the peculiarities and specific conditions of each backward country and to a considerable extent—by the degree of its backwardness.”52

Moreover, in the course of any serious struggle, the key demands and their relative emphasis can vary from one place to another and from one day (or even hour) to the next:

“During a transitional epoch, the workers’ movement does not have a systematic and well-balanced but a feverish and explosive character. Slogans as well as organizational forms should be subordinated to the indices of the movement.”53

Programmatic Extensions Since 1938

The Transitional Program is essentially a distillation of the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution—a program for the mobilization of the proletariat for power. As such it remains a document of profound relevance today. Yet it does not, and could not, provide permanent, engraved-in-stone answers to all questions for all time. The world has changed a great deal since 1938. The section on “The Program of Transitional Demands in Fascist Countries” is obviously less crucial than it was when Germany and Italy were under fascist rule. Similarly, the nominal “decolonization,” as well as the uneven industrialization and urbanization of much of the “Third World” has considerably changed the global framework within which the program of permanent revolution is advanced today as compared to 1938.

The post-war expansion of Soviet power into Eastern Europe was not anticipated by the founders of the Fourth International. Nor had they foreseen the creation of deformed workers’ states in Vietnam, Yugoslavia and China through the agency of peasant-based guerrilla armies led by insurrectionary Stalinists.

Undoubtably the most important change in world politics since 1938 has been the counter-revolutionary destruction of the degenerated Soviet workers’ state, an event that was anticipated in the Transitional Program:

“The political prognosis [for the USSR] has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”54

In the former Soviet bloc Marxists today call for a social revolution to expropriate the emergent bourgeoisies and their imperialist patrons. In the remaining deformed workers’ states (Cuba, China, Vietnam and North Korea) revolutionaries must combine their defense of collectivized property with a perspective of proletarian political revolution to shatter the ruling bureaucracies and establish the direct political rule of the working class.

A variety of important political issues are not addressed in the Transitional Program. For example, while struggles for national liberation and the right of nations to self-determination are upheld, the program does not address the difficult problems posed when “interpenetrated” peoples claim a single piece of territory, as for example in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Bosnia or Israel/ Palestine.

The dynamics and social function of racial, sexual and other forms of special oppression under capitalism are also barely touched on in the program. There is a call for the organization of working-class women, but no demands for free contraception, free and unrestricted access to abortion, free 24-hour childcare or equal access to all jobs. The defense of democratic rights for lesbians and gays is not mentioned, and neither is the necessity to oppose state interference in consensual sexual activities and other forms of victimless “crimes.” Other important social issues not specifically addressed in the 1938 text include healthcare, housing and education, and the rights of immigrants and political refugees.

‘Trotskyist’ Critics of the Transitional Program

One section of the 1938 program that is clearly in need of updating is the one dealing with “opportunism and unprincipled revisionism.” All the organizations mentioned have long-since disappeared, and in most cases their ecological niches have been occupied by various groupings misleadingly claiming some political affinity with Trotskyism. Naturally one of the common characteristics of these “opportunist and unprincipled revisionists” is their tendency to view the Transitional Program as an irrelevant relic from a bygone era.

An early, and influential, critic of the Fourth International and its program was Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s biographer. A former leader of the Polish section of the Left Opposition, Deutscher had opposed launching the new international in 1938. In The Prophet Outcast, the third volume of his monumental biography of Trotsky, Deutscher dismissed the Transitional Program with a single sentence:

“...the Draft Programme, which [Trotsky] wrote for the International, was not so much a statement of principles as an instruction on tactics, designed for a party up to its ears in trade union struggles and day-to-day politics and striving to gain practical leadership immediately.”55

Deutscher’s differences with Trotsky involved fundamental questions of Marxist principle and revolutionary strategy. Rejecting the struggle to forge a “world party of socialist revolution,” Deutscher projected that, under the pressure of “the broad scheme of revolutionary development,” the Stalinist bureaucracy would eventually be compelled not only to acknowledge Trotsky’s greatness, but also to implement essential elements of his program.

Deutscher’s projection has been definitively refuted by history. But his attitude toward the Fourth International and its founding program is echoed by a good many contemporary “Trotskyists,” including the International Socialist current (IS) headed by Tony Cliff centered around the British Socialist Workers Party. In his book entitled Trotsky’s Marxism, Duncan Hallas, a long-time IS leader, takes the opposite approach to Deutscher, suggesting that the Transitional Program was a product of Trotsky’s detachment from the class struggle:

“Inevitably, his enforced isolation from effective participation in the workers’ movement, in which he had once played so big a part, affected to some extent his understanding of the ever-changing course of the class struggle. Not even his vast experience and superb tactical reflexes could substitute entirely for the lack of feedback from the militants engaged in the day to day struggle that is possible only in a real communist party. As the period of isolation lengthened, this became more apparent. Compare his ‘Transitional Programme’ of 1938 with its prototype, the ‘Programme of Action’ for France (1934). In freshness, relevance, specificity and concreteness in relation to an actual struggle, the latter is clearly superior.”56

It perhaps did not occur to comrade Hallas that the “prototype” could be more “specific and concrete” precisely because it addressed a particular concrete situation faced by French workers in 1934. The program of the Fourth International, on the other hand, had to deal with the general situation of the international working class for an entire historical period. It therefore had to be presented in a more abstract manner. But Hallas has a more fundamental objection:

“Whether or not it is possible to find slogans or ‘demands’ that meet these exacting specifications [a bridge from present consciousness to recognition of the necessity for socialism] depends, very obviously, on circumstances. If at a given time ‘today’s consciousness of wide layers’ is decidedly non-revolutionary, then it will not be transformed by slogans. Changes in actual conditions are needed. The problem at each stage is to find and advance those slogans which not only strike a chord in at least some sections of the working class...but which are also capable of leading to working class actions. Often they will not be transitional in terms of Trotsky’s very restricted definition.

“Of course Trotsky cannot be held responsible for the tendency of most of his followers to fetishise the notion of transitional demands, and even the specific demands of the 1938 Programme—most obviously the ‘sliding scale of wages.’ The emphasis he gave to this matter was, however, excessive and encouraged the belief that ‘demands’ have some value independent of revolutionary organisation in the working class.”57

Here we have an attempt to obscure the fact that revolutionary organizations are distinguished from centrist and left-reformist ones by their program—i.e., what “demands” they fight for. The question of a group’s size and influence in the working class will largely determine its ability to influence events, but has no bearing on the question of its fundamental political character. Trotsky had only a handful of supporters in Spain during that country’s civil war, while Andres Nin’s centrist Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), which had broken with Trotsky precisely over his “sectarian” opposition to class-collaborationism, had thousands of members. To avoid “isolation” from the masses, the POUM leaders first blunted their criticisms of the popular front, and then ended up joining it—an act that Trotsky aptly described as a “crime” against the working class.

In an earlier series of articles on the history of the Fourth International, published in International Socialism between 1969 and 1973, Hallas, then Political Secretary of the British IS, argued that the Transitional Program was responsible for many of the problems of the Fourth International after World War II:

“Unfavorable circumstances played a part in the decline in the Fourth Internationalist movement. More important were the fundamental weaknesses of the 1938 programme, especially its quite wrong analysis of Stalinism.”58

This refers to Trotsky’s rejection of the absurd notion, promoted by the Cliffites, that the economic system of the USSR was “state capitalist,” i.e., qualitatively the same as Britain, the U.S. and other imperialist countries. Another “weakness,” according to Hallas, was the assertion that capitalism remains subject to periodic economic crises stemming from the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. During the 1960s, the Cliffites decided that the capitalists had successfully overcome this problem by creating a “permanent arms economy.” Hallas cited Michael Kidron (a leading IS intellectual at the time) who explained how “a leak” of capital intensive goods would mean that the rate of growth of the organic composition of capital:

“...‘would be slower...[and] could even stop or be reversed. In such a case there would be no decline in the average rate of profit, no reason to expect increasingly severe slumps, and so on’. Such a leak had been found in the permanent arms economy.

“The consequences of this fact, the contradictions of neo-capitalism, its prospects and limits; those are the basic problems to be faced by Western revolutionaries today. The difficulty for orthodox Trotskyists is to accept that these are the problems. For if they are, Trotsky’s economic catastrophism must be rejected. And with it goes one of the two pillars upon which the FI was founded. The tiny grouplets of the FI expected to be swept forward in the tide of economic catastrophe, instead they found themselves stranded on the ebb tide produced by the 20 years of boom. Hence the irrelevance of the whole pretentious apparatus of ‘World Leadership’, ‘World Congresses’, ‘International Executive Plenums’, and all the rest of the paraphernalia borrowed from the Comintern.”59

The impressionistic notion that capitalism was no longer subject to significant economic crises was widespread among petty-bourgeois New Leftists in the 1960s. But today the IS criticisms of those “orthodox Trotskyists” who argued that capitalism remained subject to periodic slumps can only be an embarrassment for those Cliffites who take Marxist theory at all seriously.

The “permanent arms economy” theory may now be out of fashion, but Cliff’s attitude toward the Transitional Program has not changed. In 1993 he wrote:

“These transitional demands fitted a situation of general crisis, of capitalism in deep slump. But under conditions of a massive expansion of capitalism, as took place after the Second World War, these demands were at best meaningless, and at worst reactionary. To limit wage rises to the rise in the cost of living was a demand of the capitalists and against the aspirations of the workers who wanted to improve their living standards. And in conditions of more or less full employment, a ‘sliding scale of hours’ is really meaningless.”60

In fact it is Cliff’s critique which is “meaningless.” Trotsky explicitly indicated that transitional demands are not put forward as structural reforms to the operations of capitalism. They are demands which, if raised skillfully at appropriate junctures and taken up by the mass of workers, challenge the whole logic of the profit system. A “sliding scale of hours” is not something that revolutionaries would make a focus of popular agitation year in and year out—it is a demand appropriate in situations of mass unemployment. The call for a “sliding scale of wages,” outside the context of a reduction in the workday, is only appropriate when inflation poses a threat to working-class living standards. It would make no sense in periods of deflation. Nor does the demand to index wages to inflation in any way preclude fighting for improvements in the wage scale.

Cliff’s criticisms presume that any program advocated by socialists must be a minimal (i.e., reformist) one. He appears unable to comprehend the idea of raising demands that are directed not at reforming capitalism, but at transforming the consciousness of the exploited and oppressed. Accordingly, his critique proceeds from the erroneous view that the Transitional Program is simply a “minimum program” composed of impractical or “at worst reactionary” reforms.

“Similarly, other demands in Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, such as the establishment of ‘workers’ defence guards’, ‘workers’ militia’, and ‘the arming of the proletariat’, certainly did not fit a non-revolutionary situation. Sadly many Trotskyists dogmatically repeated these slogans.

“The basic assumption behind Trotsky’s Transitional Demands was that the economic crisis was so deep that the struggle for even the smallest improvement in workers’ conditions would bring conflict with the capitalist system itself. When life disproved the assumption the ground fell from beneath the programme.”61

Cliff’s “basic assumption” seems to be that capitalism is here to stay and that the job of socialists is to celebrate the struggle for small improvements. Cliff breezily dismisses the “arming of the proletariat” and “workers’ defense guards” as slogans that do not “fit a non-revolutionary situation.” In place of such “dogmatic” revolutionary slogans the Cliffites limit themselves to advancing demands that reflect the existing (bourgeois) consciousness of the masses. The only inconsistency in the IS approach is their persistence in continuing to identify themselves as “revolutionaries.” After all, if the “arming of the proletariat” and the creation of a “workers’ militia” are no longer on the historical agenda, then neither is “socialist revolution.”

Alex Callinicos, currently the leading political theorist of the International Socialist tendency, is somewhat more guarded in his formulations, but he too rejects the Transitional Program. In a recent book he asserted that, after World War II, the attempt:

“ immunize Trotsky’s theories from refutation carried with it the danger of transforming them into a set of dogmas. All too frequently this danger was realized. The Transitional Programme drafted by Trotsky and adopted at the First Congress of the FI in 1938 became an especial object of veneration. This document was thus named because it contained a set of ‘transitional demands’—for example, the indexation of wages to prices (‘the sliding scale of wages’). These were intended to bridge the old division in the Second International before 1914 between the minimum programme of limited reforms attainable within a capitalist context and the maximum programme whose implementation would require the establishment of worker’s power. Trotsky argued that the economic crisis was so acute that the struggle for even the most modest improvement in working-class conditions would come into conflict with the capitalist system itself.”62

Callinicos is not particularly concerned about finding a bridge between the minimal and maximal programs. Like Cliff, he dismisses transitional demands as useless, unless, at some hypothetical point in the future, capitalism were to completely exhaust all possibility of further growth. In the meantime, according to Callinicos, the job of socialists is to leaven the workers’ immediate demands with occasional references to the ultimate desirability of socialism.

In the final analysis all the criticisms of the Transitional Program’s “fetishism,” “dogmatism” and “catastrophism” boil down to advocacy of a return to the minimum-maximum program of the Second International—that is to say, reformism now and socialism “later” (i.e., never). Trotsky was very familiar with this brand of “socialism”:

“The reformists have a good smell for what the audience wants....But that is not serious revolutionary activity. We must have the courage to be unpopular, to say ‘you are fools,’ ‘you are stupid,’ ‘they betray you,’ and every once in a while with a scandal launch our ideas with a passion.”63

Callinicos and Cliff regard this as just so much “sectarianism,” a charge that no one could level at the International Socialists, at least in terms of program. Their history is one of an endless series of political zig-zags driven by adaptations to the existing prejudices of the strata from which they hope to recruit. Often what seems “smart” (i.e., popular) today turns out to be an embarrassment tomorrow. A classic example of this was their initial support for British troops in Northern Ireland:

“The breathing space provided by the presence of British troops is short but vital. Those who call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops...are inviting a pogrom which will hit first and hardest at socialists.”64

While the IS stock-in-trade is “rank and file” trade-union economism, their opportunist appetites sometimes find expression in political adaptation to non-proletarian elements as well. In recent years the “revolutionary” IS offered electoral support to several openly bourgeois candidates (e.g., South Korea’s president Kim Dae Jung in the 1992 election, and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in 1994).

The Cliffites have also long exhibited an unhealthy enthusiasm for the 1979 “Islamic Revolution” led by Iran’s arch-reactionary Ayatollah Khomeini. Reflecting on the significance of Khomeini’s triumph almost a decade later, Callinicos argued that the Iranian left should have been:

“...demanding that the mullahs wage a revolutionary war against the US and its allies, that, as I wrote at the beginning of the war [with Iraq], they ‘make Teheran the beacon of genuine revolution throughout the region—granting the right of self-determination to the Kurds, Arabs and other national minorities, establishing organs of popular power, fighting for the liberation of women from the Islamic yoke’ (Socialist Worker, 4 October 1980).”65

The rather stark contrast between the Cliffites’ rejection of Trotsky’s transitional demands as meaningless and unrealizable and their willingness to call on the Iranian theocracy to carry out a “genuine revolution” reveals that the flip-side of their craven opportunism is a breath-taking capacity for self-delusion.

‘We Must Tell the Workers the Truth’

Although some critics of the Transitional Program characterize it as “opportunist” because it contains demands aimed at intersecting the immediate concerns of the working class, most criticisms boil down to the complaint that it is too far ahead of the present consciousness of the class. In discussion with his American supporters in 1938, Trotsky addressed this objection:

“The program must express the objective tasks of the working class rather than the backwardness of the workers. It must reflect society as it is and not the backwardness of the working class. It is an instrument to overcome and vanquish the backwardness.”

He expanded on this later in the discussion:

“We must tell the workers the truth, then we will win the best elements. Whether these best elements will be capable of guiding the working class, leading it to power, I don’t know. I hope that they will be able, but I cannot give the guarantee. But even in the worst case, if the working class doesn’t sufficiently mobilize its mind and its strength at present for the socialist revolution—even in the worst case, if this working class falls victim to fascism, the best elements will say, ‘We were warned by this party; it was a good party.’ And a great tradition will remain in the working class.

“This is the worst variant. That is why all the arguments that we cannot present such a program because the program doesn’t correspond to the mentality of the workers are false. They express only fear before the situation. Naturally if I close my eyes I can write a good rosy program that everybody will accept. But it will not correspond to the situation; and the program must correspond to the situation. I believe that this elementary argument is of the utmost importance. The mentality of the class of the proletariat is backward but the mentality is not such a substance as the factories, the mines, the railroads, but is more mobile and under the blows of the objective crisis, the millions of unemployed, it can change rapidly.”66

Today, 60 years after the Transitional Program was written, the Bolshevik tradition which the Left Opposition carried forward remains just as relevant as ever. And that political tradition, codified in the founding programmatic document of the Fourth International, remains central to a historically progressive resolution of the “crisis of proletarian leadership.”


1. Leon Trotsky, “Letter to James P. Cannon,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937–38) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976), p 317 

2. Leon Trotsky, “The Twin Stars: Hitler-Stalin,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p 122 

3. Herald Tribune (New York), 23 May 1943 

4. Leon Trotsky, “Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939–40) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p 184 

5. Leon Trotsky, “The World Situation and Perspectives,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939–40) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p 147 

6. See: Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy, The Economics of the Profit Rate: Competition, Crises and Historical Tendencies in Capitalism (Brookfield, Vermont: Elgar Publishing Co., 1993); Fred Moseley, The Falling Rate of Profit in the Postwar United States Economy (London: Macmillan, 1991); Anwar Shaikh and Ahmet Tonak, Measuring the Wealth of Nations: The Political Economy of National Accounts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Murray E.G. Smith, Invisible Leviathan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994); Union for Radical Political Economics, Empirical Work in Marxian Crisis Theory, special double issue of Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 18 Nos. 1–2, 1986; Michael J. Webber and David L. Rigby, The Golden Age Illusion: Rethinking Postwar Capitalism (New York: Guildford Press, 1996) 

7. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 3 (London: Penguin Books, 1981), p 353 

8. Globe and Mail Magazine (Toronto), May 1993 

9. Leon Trotsky, “Open Letter for the Fourth International,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935–36) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), p 27 

10. Leon Trotsky, “Once Again, Whither France?” Leon Trotsky On France (New York: Monad Press, 1979), p 79 

11. Leon Trotsky, “Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939–40) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), pp 217–18 

12. Ibid., pp 216–17 

13. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program, Bolshevik Publications, 1998, p 37 

14. Ibid., p 38–9 

15. Leon Trotsky, “The Political Backwardness of the American Workers,” The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), p 129 

16. Leon Trotsky, “A Summary of Transitional Demands,” The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), p 232 

17. Ibid., p 235 

18. Ibid., pp 235–36 

19. Leon Trotsky, “On the Question of Workers’ Self-Defense,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939–40) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p 103 

20. Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937–38) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976), note 290, p 488 

21. Leon Trotsky, “The Political Backwardness of the American Workers,” The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), p 129 

22. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Selected Works in One Volume (New York: International Publishers, 1969), p 52 

23. Leon Trotsky, “Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937–38) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976), pp 23–24 

24. Rosa Luxemburg, “Speech to the Founding Convention of the German Communist Party,” Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), p 405 

25. Ibid., pp 407–8 

26. Ibid., p 408 

27. Ibid., p 413 

28. Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France,” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Selected Works in One Volume (New York: International Publishers, 1969), p 288 

29. Ibid., p 294 

30. Leon Trotsky, “Workers Control of Production,” The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), p 80 

31. Ibid., p 78 

32. Ibid., p 81 

33. Ibid., p 82 

34. Leon Trotsky, “What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat,” The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), pp 241–42 

35. Vladimir I. Lenin, “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It,” V.I. Lenin Selected Works in Three Volumes (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), Vol. 2, pp 241–42 

36. Ibid., p 246 

37. Ibid., p 266 

38. “The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods,” Documents of the Fourth International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), p 23 

39. Ibid., p 24 

40. Leon Trotsky, “A Program of Action for France,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1934–35) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), pp 21–32 

41. Alexis Bardin is mentioned by Jean van Heijenoort in his book With Trotsky in Exile (Harvard University Press, 1978), p 74: 

“In Grenoble there was a young teacher, Alexis Bardin, who had strong Trotskyite sympathies; he even had two brothers in the Trotskyite group in Paris, one of whom, Boitel, played a leading role there. Alexis Bardin and his wife, Violette, were soon authorized by the Isère prefect to visit Trotsky and Natalia. Bardin, who was a member of the Socialist party, was involved in Grenoble’s political and trade union life. The conversations between Trotsky and him revolved around local politics. Trotsky was interested in the smallest details, enjoying the chance to immerse himself in practical day-to-day activities. Bardin was becoming more and more active in local affairs, and some of his speeches at trade union meetings were written by Trotsky.” 

42. Leon Trotsky, “From the CGT’s Plan to the Conquest of Power,” Writings of Leon Trotsky (1934–35) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), p 223 

43. Leon Trotsky, “How to Fight for a Labor Party in the U.S.,” The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), pp 120–21 

44. Ibid., pp 121–22 

45. Leon Trotsky, “The Political Backwardness of the American Workers,” The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), pp 127–28 

46. Ibid., pp 128–29 

47. Leon Trotsky, “Completing the Program and Putting It to Work,” The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), p 138 

48. Ibid., p 138 

49. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program, Bolshevik Publications, 1998, p 38 

50. Ibid., p 39 

51. Ibid., p 50 

52. Ibid., p 58 

53. Ibid., p 40 

54. Ibid., p 62 

55. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), pp 425–26 

56. Duncan Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism (London: Bookmarks, 1979), pp 96–97 

57. Ibid., p 104 

58. International Socialism No. 60, July 1973 

59. International Socialism No. 40, October/November 1969 

60. Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star (London: Bookmarks, 1993),
p 300 

61. Ibid., p 300 

62. Alex Callinicos, Trotskyism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), p 40

63. Leon Trotsky, “Completing the Program and Putting It to Work,” The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), p 145

64. Socialist Worker, 11 September 1969

65. Socialist Worker Review, September 1988

66. Leon Trotsky, “The Political Backwardness of the American Workers,” The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1974), pp 126–27

Posted: 05 February 2010