In the first two articles of this series, we looked at how, after the Russian revolution, the Communist International developed the concept of “transitional demands”. Many socialists in the international movement before the First World War had instead operated with a combination of “minimum programme” (minimal demands, enough for now and for the foreseeable future) and “maximum programme” (the goal of socialism, put off indefinitely). Transitional demands meant, as the Third Congress of the Communist International put it in 1921:
“...the struggle for the concrete needs of the proletariat, for demands which in their application undermine the power of the bourgeoisie, which organise the proletariat, and which form the transition to the proletarian dictatorship, even if certain groups of the masses have not yet grasped the meaning of such proletarian dictatorship.”
How does the British left relate to this question today?
The AWL has produced a “Workers’ Plan for the Crisis”, which we think is in the spirit of the “transitional” programmes produced by the Communist movement before the political degeneration brought about by Joseph Stalin and his followers, and by the oppostion to that led by Leon Trotsky. Below we look at the “workers’ plans” produced by two other British socialist groups: the Socialist Workers’ Party and Socialist Appeal.
First, however, a few more words on the meaning of transitional demands — which the analysis of the SWP and SA’s programs will hopefully serve to illustrate.
There is no such thing as “the transitional program”, which exists independently of concrete struggles and can be dusted off and used (perhaps with a bit of updating) across the decades. The socialist programmes written in the early 1920s, for instance, were an attempt to respond to the situation which existed in a number of European countries, where Communism had a mass following but the post-war revolutionary wave had passed and reformist parties represented the majority of the politically organised working-class.
The Trotskyist programmes of the 1930s were attempts to grapple with a huge economic crisis, but in a situation where the workers had previously been defeated and the mass revolutionary workers’ parties of the 20s no longer existed.
Our situation, though it has more in common with the 1930s, is different again. We have to mobilise a working-class response to the crisis in a situation where, despite the crisis, working-class struggle is at a relatively low ebb and a majority of the class is to at least some degree turned off by mainstream politics and has little experience of left wing politics.
What we need is not a “faithful” updating of what Trotsky wrote in the 30s, but use of the same kind of political method, the same kind of approach, to help organise the working class in the situation that exists today.
It follows from this that there is also no such thing as “a transitional demand”, in the sense of a demand with an inner essence that is in some mysterious sense inherently “transitional”. The whole thing depends on which issues are immediately facing the working class (in Britain today, for instance job losses, real wage cuts and house repossessions; in Bolivia in 2005 the ownership of natural gas resources was centre-stage), on the strength and organisation of the labour movement and on the extent to which the bosses politically and dominate or the workers’ movement (the trade unions and workers’ political parties) dominate.
The point is to create and test out a programme, an interlinked set of ideas and demands, which can help working class activists rebuild their movement and get more combative towards the bosses and their system of exploitation.
the swp’s “people before profit charter”
The SWP tends to scorn the concept of “transitional demands”. Sometimes they argue that the period we are in is insufficiently revolutionary for the use of such a programme, which as explained above is a misunderstanding of the whole idea. Whatever the theory behind it, the “People Before Profit Charter” launched by them is most definitely not an application of the “transitional method”.
The document contains barely any mention of the working class, capitalism or class struggle; the best we get is a vague reference to “working people” and mention of the possibility of public sector strikes.
Meanwhile, the actual demands are minimal and/or vague in the extreme: “introduce a windfall tax on corporate superprofits”; “stop privatisation... free and equal health and education services available to all”; “no to racism; no to the BNP”. They do not assert, or only very minimally assert the principle of what Marx called “the political economy of the working class”, i.e. human need, solidarity and democracy should be the principles by which the economy and society are run, against the “political economy” of capital.
The SWP are tinkering, not in the sense that they are not immediately or directly revolutionary (neither are most transitional demands in a non-revolutionary situation), but in that they do not cut sharply against the logic of the profit system. And there is nothing in the document about social ownership, not even of the banks, nor about defending and extending democracy.
There is no concept here of inter-linked chain of struggle around which the workers’ movement can rally, go onto the offensive and prepare itself to take power. Nor is there any concept of a “workers’ government” (see page three of this paper), a vision of how the labour movement can impose its demands, at a governmental level, when it reaches a great enough level of strength and mobilisation. We are left with the sense of lobbying the bosses’ government for a few more crumbs from the tables of the rich.
The “charter” ends by citing a number of campaigns which “sound good”. It is worth noting that the two most directly run by the SWP (Stop the War and Unite Against Fascism) make no attempt to even present themselves as working-class campaigns but are “single issue” liberal campaigns.
socialist appeal: “make the bosses pay”
Unlike the People Before Profit Charter, Socialist Appeal’s programme is an attempt to produce a “transitional programme” for the current crisis. It is far more comprehensive and radical than the SWP text. However, it is all over the place.
The title tries to tap into the widespread, but very vague, left sentiment about “making the bosses pay for their crisis”. The problem with this idea is the issue is one of control, of who rules in society, and the need to replace the rule of profit with democratic working-class rule. Saying “we will not pay for your crisis” is one thing; posing the solution in terms of “making the bosses pay” — redistribution within the given system — is another.
Socialist Appeal have thrown everything but the kitchen sink into their programme in an attempt to produce an update of the transitional programmes of the 1920s and 30s. This is not a honed down action plan for socialists to fight for in the labour movement, but a worthy presentation of selected clippings from the Trotskyist archive. Even the language is archaic — “work or full maintenance for all”; “society will inscribe on its banner: the universal right to work”; “for proletarian internationalism”.
Alongside this is a fair amount of blue-print-mongering. For instance in the idea, spelt out in detail, that the boards of banks should be made up as follows: one third of bank workers’ representatives, one third from the unions, and one third from the government. This scheme, cut-and-pasted from “war communism” in Russia 1918-21, is an more of an architectural sketch as if the workers’ movement was bricks and mortor not a living movement, involved in struggles which emerge and take shape and have to be fleshed out and concretised as the labour movement reorganises itself.
If the SWP's charter is an open departure from the method of transitional demands, Socialist Appeal's manifesto is a good example of how to garble it and make it irrelevant by filling your head with “orthodox Trotskyism”, demands which have been ossified and applied without thought to their actual relevance today.
• Previous articles in this series at http://www.workersliberty.org/tp