The Transitional Programme its relevance and application today

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22/01/2015 by socialistfight

By John Barry 20/1/2015

Leon Trotsky at work.


The transitional programme is the method which was employed by the pioneers of scientific socialism Marx and Engels in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ and was used successfully by the Bolsheviks to become the method of the first four congresses of the Third International (AKA the Communist International). After the Third International suffered bureaucratic degeneration it abandoned the transitional program and regressed to the old minimum (day to day achievable reforms) and maximum (some vision of organization in an unspecified socialist future) demands of the Second International (AKA the Socialist International) expressed in reformism and sectarianism, just as social democracy had done decades previously.

The responsibility of building the revolutionary socialist consciousness rested upon the shoulders of the Left Opposition of the communist movement after this degeneration, and then later the Fourth International founded in 1938 when it was clear the Third was beyond salvation.
The transitional programme is the only method which can build a socialist consciousness in the working class and create a bridge, as Trotsky described it between the current consciousness of the majority of workers and the final conclusion of the class struggle, that a socialist revolution is necessary to save humanity from capitalism. It is of paramount importance for a revolutionary party to have a correct method to build a revolutionary socialist consciousness in the working class, otherwise there will be no overthrow of capitalism and the transformation to socialism.
Crisis does not result automatically to revolution. Imperialism (highest form of monopolistic capital) reached a most destructive phase in the 1930s and developed into the most murderous and bloody world slaughter which ended in the industrial extermination of an entire people and mass murder through the use of atomic weapons. Yet despite the huge desire among the masses in Europe and Asia for socialism, their misleaders helped prop up imperialism and throw consciousness backwards with a massive anti-communist propaganda onslaught.
Trotsky was clear that if capitalism survived the Second World War it would see a new lease of life for world imperialism and would eventually lead to the Third World War.[1] Today US imperialism dominates the planet, it has no equal and is entering its most predatory and destructive phase, as happened with German imperialism in the 1930s. The US has in its sights the semi-oppressed nations of Russia, China, Iran, Syria and North Korea.
The next world war could quickly escalate into a thermo-nuclear conflict and destroy humanity. Therefore the need for socialist revolution is paramount. The importance of developing transitional demands is precisely because the working class as a product of bourgeois society has a false consciousness when compared with the objective situation. Kautsky when he was the main theoretician of Marxism in the second international and Lenin following him explained that a socialist consciousness comes to workers from without, that is to say it is introduced and taught to workers from the intelligentsia, bourgeois intellectuals from outside the working class. [2]
These intellectuals such as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky develop theory. The vanguard workers then learn, and develop as worker intellectuals and train other vanguard workers. Trotsky explained how revolutionaries are distinct to others in the workers movement In the final analysis, revolutionaries are made of the same social stuff as other people. But they must have had certain very different personal qualities to enable the historical process to separate them from the rest into a distinct group. Association with one another, theoretical work, the struggle under a definite banner, collective discipline, the hardening under the fire of danger, these things gradually shape the revolutionary type. [3]
Whole sections of the class however lag in consciousness in comparison to the objective conditions and hence the necessity for a transitional programme. We must however be patient explaining and helping to develop the consciousness of the workers to connect with the objective conditions. In no way should this mean however that we should appeal to the lowest common denominator of workers consciousness, tail ending populist petty bourgeois public opinion and jumping on the latest political bandwagon. Trotsky explained:

“The mentality in general is backward or delayed, in relation to the economic development….This delay can be short or long. In normal times when the development is slow, in a long line, this delay cannot produce catastrophic results. To a great extent this delay signifies that the workers are not equal to the tasks put before them by objective conditions; but in times of crisis this delay may be catastrophic.”[4]

There is common misconception of the transitional programme by left sects which operate in an opportunist fashion. Typically left organisations with no link to the labour movement move toward opportunism to increase their membership and influence, such as the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW). In their hands the Transitional Programme is presented as a list of left reformist policies (relatively unchanged for the past 50 years originating when they were the Militant Tendency) which is also the program of the latest electoral reformist vehicle they are using to gain influence, such as No2EU or TUSC, creating illusions in new reformist fronts rather than challenging and breaking workers from the reformists they look toward for leadership. Then after the reformist demands they present description of how the world should be run under socialism, in other words a maximum programme. So the SPEW is back to the Second Internationals Minimum-Maximum programme! Let us look for example at their statement of ‘What we stand for’. The introductory paragraph is very vague for a self-professed revolutionary organization:

The Socialist 840
The Socialist Party fights for socialism – a democratic society run for the needs of all and not the profits of a few. We also oppose every cut, fighting in our day-to-day campaigning for every possible improvement for working class people.[5]

The brief description does not say who the democracy in this ‘democratic society’ is in the interests of, a workers democracy or bourgeois democracy? The statement goes on to say:

The organised working class has the potential power to stop the cuts and transform society.[6]

This gives no indication of what sort of organization the working class requires (a revolutionary Leninist party, directed by Marxism of which Trotskyism is the continuation) or what type of organisations already exist and the working class are led by (trade unions, social democratic parties, Stalinist parties) or rather misled by. The cuts, and apparently this is all the working class has to fight under capitalism, have only the potential to be stopped! Then transform society (to what? How?). The working class if it is led by a revolutionary party can overthrow capitalism, never mind just stopping the current public sector cuts. We then come to what the SPEW would call transitional demands, a list composed by their leadership in advance we assume, aimed at no one it appears and not giving any direction or inspiration for the working class to organize to take over society and begin the transformation to socialism. Here is one of their demands:

“No to privatisation and the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). Renationalise all privatised utilities and services, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need. [7]”

They are a bit late off the mark as privatization has taken place on a large scale for 30 years, and besides it transferred capitalist state direction over to stock ownership and direction, most of the economy was and banking was private capitalist ownership, they should not try to confuse state ownership in the past with socialism. Then the reformist call for renationalization, back to the ownership of the capitalist state? Just so as not to upset the bosses and big stock portfolio holders they are even going to compensate you by some means test! There are some demands which could be useful in campaigns but due to the poor reformist start of their ‘What we stand for’ would be taken for improvements of the current society and nothing more. It goes on:

● Tax the super-rich! For a socialist government to take into public ownership the top 150 companies and banks that dominate the British economy, and run them under democratic working-class control and management. Compensation to be paid only on the basis of proven need.
● A democratic socialist plan of production based on the interests of the overwhelming majority of people, and in a way that safeguards the environment [8]

So the same old call from Militant 50 years ago for taking over the top companies (only now its 150 not 200), running them under workers’ control and management, but they don’t indicate how, as if the ruling class will nationalise these companies anyway and grant workers the management of them. Even then it will be under capitalist state direction if it is just ‘renationalised’. The actual class nature of the state is never challenged in the statement. There will apparently be a ‘socialist government’ to do this.
Then thrown in at the end the ‘democratic socialist plan of production’ and all the other examples of a socialist system which is again vague, and an example of a finished maximum program without any bridge to it. They do not formulate demands to raise workers consciousness in stages of struggle. As the SPEW have abandoned work in the Labour Party and thus distanced itself from the working class with the exception of those in public sector unions, its demands are aimed at no one in particular. This obviously bore no results so now they aim their demands or rather tailor them to the demands of trade union bureaucrats, particularly in the public sector and even the repressive bodies of the state (Prison Officers Association, POA), but if, as in SPEW’s case, you’re not fighting to overthrow the capitalist state then why not support the employees who staff its repressive apparatus against the working class?

The Socialist Appeal group fares much better and does proclaim revolutionary intentions, they are also light years ahead in theory compared to SPEW. While this group professes to carry out entry work in the Labour Party they are actually standing on the side lines and refusing to get involved, their fingers still sore after being burnt in Kinnock’s witch hunt against the left in the 80s. They present a clear challenge to capitalism and for its replacement with socialism through class struggle, they also present demands which to start with are useful for raising class consciousness and explaining the action which workers should take to destroy the foundations of capitalist society. Unfortunately they then let themselves down by jumping straight into a Maximum style program of:

“A Socialist government to take over the “commanding heights” of the economy, the top 150 monopolies, banks and finance houses, which dominate our lives, without compensation and placed under democratic workers’ control and management. Establish broad committees of workers, students, pensioners, technicians and others to oversee the drawing up of a democratic socialist plan of production to answer the needs of society and protect our environment. We shall harness the wonders of modern science and technique, not to act as a burden as under capitalism, but instead to raise our living standards and oversee the abolition of class divisions.” [9]

Like the SPEW demands it places the emphasis on a ‘Socialist government’; does not France have a ‘Socialist government’? We assume, given Socialist Appeal’s focus on the Labour Party, that the Parliament with a Labour majority can form a Socialist government, not the working class. Similarly to the SPEW they say this government should ‘take over’ the top 150 monopolies and nothing else apparently. Then they usher in everything else which is included in a socialist society. Socialist Appeal have still not managed to throw off their reformist right centrist heritage, although they have done more so then SPEW. [10]

How should transitional demands be formulated?

The Transitional Programme is not therefore a list of reforms all at once aimed at nothing thought up by a small group running a sect, and is not policies handed down from an enlightened ‘Socialist’ government in response to left demands. It must be a fighting program, hitting the base and structure of capitalist society, directing workers to take control of the material world and destroy the capitalist state, they would then need a new program to guide them using the material they control and can then build socialism through the workers’ state, the transitional program ‘brings the reader only to the doorstep’ of socialism. [11] Hence the original ‘Transitional Programme’ was a draft for the period it was written in and not to be used as a Gospel as some sects do.
Class consciousness is not static and is not homogeneous in all sections of the working class at the same time. Only a minority will of course have a developed class consciousness of the Marxist understanding of human social relations. The majority of the working class will develop a common set of interests to fight for and overcome, they will not develop a socialist consciousness or a higher class consciousness as the vanguard of the class does which is expressed in the revolutionary party. It is therefore necessary to develop a set of demands they can fight around and which present to them a resolution of the problems faced under capitalism. So despite the diversity in consciousness and the many other differences between workers which are fostered by capitalist ideologues, the demands if they resonate with a desire and confidence of the class to fight for them can help to unite the working class. Trotsky in a polemic against a French leftist intellectual illustrated how the moods of the masses are varied and can change and only revolutionary strategy can develop their struggle:

“Victory is not at all the ripe fruit of the proletariat’s “maturity”. Victory is a strategical task. It is necessary to utilize in order to mobilise the masses; taking as a starting point the given level of their “maturity” it is necessary to propel them forward, teach them to understand that the enemy is by no means omnipotent, that it is torn asunder with contradictions,”[12]

The demands tackle the solutions to the objective circumstances with an embryo of socialist organization of society. The demands themselves while addressed as the solutions to the crisis of capitalism cannot be fully implemented through the capitalist state and therefore even if attempted partially can only finally be achieved through conquest of power by the working class. It encourages the working class to go further, even if the capitalists and the state are forced to give partial reform then further demands must be made especially as it becomes apparent that the capitalist state and the trade union and reformist labour leaders will not go further attacking the base of capitalism, a wall will be met.
That is how the bridge from today’s understanding by the working class and the revolutionary consciousness of tomorrow is built. As Trotsky described the program as ‘an instrument to vanquish and overcome the backwardness’ .[13] Knowing when and which demands to use at a particular time is important for revolutionaries. We do not present a whole list of demands all at once and always the same for years on end (as the SPEW does), the demands can change depending on circumstance, the symptoms of capitalist crisis at a given time and level of struggle by the working class. However the demands must always be addressed as a solution to the objective conditions under capitalism, after all the understanding of the working class can alter quickly ‘under the blows of objective crisis’.[14]
One way is to put the demands into easily memorable and understood slogans, which Trotsky described as ‘the program of socialism but in a very popular and simple form’.[15] As we have said we must build on the demands the more success and penetration of the demands among the masses is achieved and their implementation until the point is reached where the working class understands and follows the revolutionary leadership to overthrow the capitalist state.


Slogans and Demands

When the original draft program was written in 1938 the situation in terms of symptomatic expressions of the capitalist crisis differ to that of today, some of course remain the same such as the threat of world war. We cannot therefore use the same slogans as were used then. Trotsky drew up a ‘Program of Action for France’ when he resided there. This is one of the best examples of transitional demands and included the following:

Forty-hour week, wage increases. Workers’ control will demonstrate that the level of productive forces permits the reduction of the working day. Wage increases at the expense of the magnates of the Comite des Forges, of the Comite des Houilleres, of the Finalys, the Schneiders and the Staviskys, and to the material and moral advantage of the labouring people.
Real social security and, first of all, unemployment insurance. Annual vacation of at least one month. Retirement pensions permitting one to live after fifty years of age.
Equal wages for equal work. Abolition of the super exploitation imposed on women, young people, aliens and colonials.
For working women, the same wages and same rights as for working men. Maternity protection with supplementary leaves of absence.
For young people, wages equal to adults. Extension of study and apprenticeship at the collective expense. Special hygienic measures.
Repeal of all special legislation applying to foreign and colonial workers.[ 16]

France was in the grips of the capitalist crisis at this time and sections of the capitalist ruling class had attempted a fascist coup, only social revolution could have bought these demands then. Instead there was world war and then the capitalist upturn as there had been in the late 19th century which meant social reforms could be introduced, but today we are in crisis once again and the gains are gone or being eroded in the imperialist countries.
Some of the basic demands are the same though. Observing current struggles is important to develop demands and slogans, as they must resonate with the masses. For example there are currently various movements based on occupations including among poorer sections of the working class such as the E15 Mothers which have taken on the problems created by capitalism which have impoverished them. Occupations have always been an important part of class struggle for workers under capitalism and is also in the original Transitional Programme concerning factory occupations.
Today we could raise the demand for the occupation of empty properties to be given to families who need them and become cooperatives with public funding, or something similar, the final demands must be reached through discussion. In the labour movement demands could find wide appeal on the left and be aimed at Labour leaders and especially Labour governments. This was the tactic of support for a Labour government which the Communist Party of Great Britain adopted during the early years of the third International before its degeneration. The CPGB placed the following demands on the Labour government:

  • Full maintenance for unemployed workers at trade union rates.
  • Nationalization of mines and railways with workers’ control over production
  • .Full freedom for Ireland, India and Egypt. Revocation of the policy of armaments. Credit for Soviet Russia. Scrapping of the shameful treaty of Versailles.
  • Workers of Great Britain, no government, even with the best intentions, will be able to better your positions, to break your chains, if you yourselves do not bring pressure to bear on the bourgeoisie and compel it to realize your growing power. [17]

In the present time demands for a return to union rights which have been eroded by Tory employment acts and taxing the rich to pay for public services would find wide support, and if the rich threaten to move their wealth abroad we should demand trade exchange controls and leading from that the demand for open and transparent accounting of all finance in the country and global trade and their wealth prevented from moving. The Labour leaders can no longer even promise to nationalize utilities, so even demanding this would run up against the capitalist state, however capitalist nationalization is not the answer, the demand should be the nationalization under committees of workers and consumers control and management without capitalists.
If a demand such as this were to take on mass support in the labour movement and it became clear the leaders would betray it, which even under a left wing leadership would be the case for the reformists, and then the call for occupation of the utilities could be made. The same would be made for the banks, the demand could be made for the total appropriation of the banks and finance institutions by the state under workers’ control, in contrast to Brown’s buying of the banks with tax payers money like he did with RBS and Northern Rock to bailout the capitalists in 2008.
There is a wide desire for decent public services even among more backward workers, but also distrust of government and big business of which public services are also seen as part of or under the influence of. Therefore demands for public services without unrepresentative governments and big capitalists, would find a hearing among workers and this could develop into the understanding that we could run public services if we occupy them and make them ours. This is transcending the capitalist state and property relations.
When a revolutionary situation does develop and dual power becomes a prospect we must call on the working class and their organisations to take power from the capitalist state, as the Bolsheviks did in 1917, which exposed the political cowardice and impotence of the other parties who claimed to lead the working class such a the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. We would also expose the cowardice of the official labour and trade union leaders.
We must challenge the illusions in the capitalist state and the faith in bourgeois democracy especially by reformist workers, we must explain and expose how undemocratic it has become, which most workers know to a degree already. We could appeal to the memory of the Chartists and call for reforms that capitalism could never concede. Trotsky did this in the ‘Programme of Action for France’, in which he appealed to reformist socialists to be faithful to ‘the ideas and methods not of the Third Republic but of the Convention of 1793’[18] and called for ‘A single assembly’ to ‘combine the legislative and executive powers.’ [19]
A similar demand could be made for Britain today, with abolition of the Lords and the Monarchy and election of Prime Minister and cabinet by the chamber. We could add that MPs earn the average of their constituents, how many right wing Labour MPs would there be then? Also the defence of Human Rights which are currently being eroded will find wide understanding. The improvement and protection of unemployment, housing and disability benefits is also an important demand and links to the question of who controls the wealth, and how it should be spent to pick up the devastating effects of capitalism.

Internationalism: Challenging the social chauvinists

Socialism cannot be created in one country, it must be international; the struggle of workers against capitalism is worldwide. The defeat of world imperialism of the USA and the NATO block is of major importance. Therefore we must always agitate for solidarity with workers in struggle in other nations and national liberation struggles.
As we are close again to world war we must warn the masses of the danger and demand the dismantling of NATO and the other military alliances protecting the interests of the US dollar. In Britain the call for nuclear disarmament can also be linked to how public money is spent and how it can be put to socially useful projects if workers could have control of public finance. As can a call to withdraw all troops from foreign occupation, including Ireland and linked to this the freeing of all Irish political prisoners and prisoners. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq met with mass opposition. If such a situation were to develop ‘”””into a revolutionary crisis then we would begin calling for trade union rights for the ranks of the army we could raise the demand for the election of officers but only when the soldiers are mutinous during a revolutionary crisis, not in peacetime.


The transitional programme is not and cannot be set in stone and used as a Gospel of some kind. It must be developed through as wide a discussion as possible, taking into account the struggles of the day and consider and the objective situation and how it develops. Demands stemming from these struggles can gain an immediate understanding among workers. They must be developed in the course of struggle, building from one to another. The demands must however be a solution to capitalist crisis which must in the final analysis pose to the working class that it can only be solved by the action of the class taking power and transcending capitalist property relations. The programme can then be a bridge from the struggle today to the socialist revolution of tomorrow.


[1] Leon Trotsky, “The World situation and Perspectives”, Writing of Leon Trotsky (1939-40) (Merit Publishers, 1969), pp 23-24
[2] V.I. Lenin, “Dogmatism and ‘Freedom of Criticism’”, What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement (New York, International Publishers, 1986), pp 39-41
[3] Leon Trotsky, “Lenin’s death and the shift of power”, My Life: An attempt at an autobiography , 1930,
[4] Leon Trotsky, “Discussion on the Transitional Program”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-1940), (Merit Publishers, 1969), p 43
[5] This introduction to ‘What we stand for’ appears on the back of every edition of ‘The Socialist’, newspaper of the SPEW.
[6] ibid
[7] ibid
[8] ibid
[10] For more about the history of SPEW and Socialist Appeal see In Defence of Trotskyism No. 8, The CWI and IMT: Right Centrist Heirs of Ted Grant, published by Socialist Fight Group 2014
[11] Leon Trotsky, “More Discussion on the Transitional Program”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-1940) (Merit Publishers, 1969), p49
[12] Leon Trotsky, The Class, the Party and the Leadership, (Cambridge Heath Press, 1982) p6
[13] Leon Trotsky, “Discussion on the Transitional Program”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-1940) (Merit Publishers, 1969), p43
[14] Ibid, p44
[15] Ibid
[16] Leon Trotsky, “A Program of Action for France”,(1934), /Trotsky/1934/06/paf.htm#n22
[17] Ian Angus, “Communists and the British Labour Party”, Appendix: 1924 Statement on the Labour Government, Socialist History Project, Documenting the revolutionary socialist tradition in Canada,
[18] Leon Trotsky, “A Program of Action for France”,(1934), /Trotsky/1934/06/paf.htm#n22
[19] ibid

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