In the aftermath of the First World War, and the betrayal of those sections of the socialist movement who supported that war, revolutionaries formulated the idea of a different kind of policies for workers’ struggles.
They rejected the old focus on minimum, “enough for now and maybe forever” reform demands, and began to do something different. Their policy now comprised demands which intersected with the living struggles of the workers but also pointed the way to the revolutionary transformation of society.
The Communist International set up after the Russian Revolution of 1917 never produced a detailed point by point programme, labelled “Transitional Demands” (not until 1928, by which time the movement had been taken over by the followers of Joseph Stalin). But they explicitly formulated the need for “transitional demands”.
Naturally they thought — and debated — about how to formulate their demands. And from what they said about what they were doing, we can learn a lot about how socialists should operate today.
In the Theses on Tactics, written for the Communist International’s meeting of 1921, the writers of the document (which had been amended and argued over) explored the relationship between the demands socialists formulate and the living struggles of a mass workers’ movement. One phrase is a good summary.
“If the demands correspond to the vital needs of broad proletarian masses and if these masses feel that they cannot exist unless these demands are met, then the struggle for these demands will become the starting-point of the struggle for power.” While the “struggle for power” is not on the cards today, socialists today can and should relate to the “vital needs” the labour movement should fight on.
Demands relevant to those needs can be “picked up” by individuals and groups in the movement, and point the way to bigger struggles.
On the back page of this paper we report on the Luton Trades Council meeting to support General Motors workers in the town. Their plant is to be shut down by the bosses for two weeks in the run up to Christmas. What can the unions do here? GM had been paying workers only £20 for shutdown days. The union has negotiated normal pay for those days — but in return the workers must work the same number of days overtime, for free, once production revives. If workers lose their jobs in the meantime, they could end up owing GM money! And GM can let the workforce shrink, knowing that the remaining workers owe them free overtime.
So there is much more about the GM workers’ situation for and them and socialist activists to think about.
The job threat arises from the capitalist crisis. The GM workers (and others facing job cuts) cannot save their jobs by negotiating around a demand which gives some improvement today but does not solve their difficulty. They need a fight which cuts against the logic of the global capitalist system, and the destruction it is now wreaking as it makes workers pay for the crisis.
How can we create that fight, what should we demand? The “vital needs” in this situation for workers facing job cuts are: no redundancies, a shorter working week, no cuts in pay, no evictions — demands to be directed against the capitalists, the banks and the government.
If the GM workers were to adopt these demands, and popularise them, then wider struggles encompassing groups of workers facing the same situation may emerge.
We do not live in revolutionary times and the big workers’ parties the Communist International organised no longer exist. However now, for the first time in decades, all the old assumptions about how the world must be organised — that the capitalist market must rule our lives — have been radically undermined.
Many working-class activists will want political answers to the crisis: “What do we say about the bailout of the bankers? What can we do now? How can I save my job and those of my fellow workers?” Socialists such as ourselves use the method of the revolutionary Marxist tradition to suggest answers, such as our “Workers’ Plan for the Crisis” in the centre pages of this paper. We do that to help ourselves think about the issues, to help others do the same, to set up debate and dialogue, and create better conditions for successful action organised around “vital needs”.