Once recognition of the need to go beyond capital is accepted, it may seem sensible to have a programme of action which acts as a guide toward the fulfilment of such an ambitious project. Many areas of life, for example, are rendered more feasible by breaking down into separate stages the tasks necessary for any planned undertaking. Building a house, designing or re-designing a town centre, growing crops, etc., etc. A list of the applicable areas for such programmatic planning could be almost limitless and for this reason such ideas have entered the realm of common sense even among more simple areas of life – shopping lists for example.  This is probably why it is common among some on the revolutionary left to formulate a programme of action, not simply for limited campaigns, or the year ahead, but for all the supposed stages leading up to a revolutionary transformation of the mode of production.

One such bold programme – The Transitional Programme – has been handed down within the Trotskyist sector of anti-capitalism for decades. It was formulated by its authors, in the ‘belief’ that it could be implemented during the post-Second World War period. It was  clung onto in subsequent years in the hope it could still be made a relevant tool in the periods which were to follow. In both instances this did not happen.  I suggest the Transitional Programme was uncritically accepted by these Trotskyist groups, because it was predominantly a product of their intellectual founder, and perhaps also because common-sense suggested the need for one. But is everyday commonsense, along with a pre-determined programme, sufficient with regard to revolutionary transformations? Later I shall argue it is not. Meanwhile for those unfamiliar with it, a bit of the history of the Transitional Programme follows.

Its origins and purpose.

The Transitional Programme (adopted in 1938), was the result of collaboration between Leon Trotsky and some members of the Socialist Workers Party of North America. It was part of a document entitled ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’. This document was intended to provide guidelines for a small group of left-wing activists and intellectuals who had broken with the Stalin dominated Communist International along with the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and elsewhere. It was this small group which founded the Fourth International in the belief that by using their knowledge and these programmed guidelines they would become the international leadership of a future world-wide transition from a capitalist society to a post-capitalist one.

The intended purpose of the Transitional Programme was made clear within the  ‘Death Agony’ document itself.

“It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.” (Death Agony etc., page 114)

The patronising conceptual framework of the main originators of this document is clearly revealed in this passage. It is something Trotsky, among others, shared with the general Leninist concept of a Bolshevik type party vanguard.  Put simply it is a concept which essentially sees workers as little better than sheep in need of good and reliable shepherds. Note in this context, that the author assumes the ‘masses’ need ‘help’ in their daily struggles and the type of help they need has already been assumed and anticipated by the author. It is ‘find a bridge’ between their present circumstances and the ‘conquest of power’.  Part of this supposedly helpful bridge is provided by the authors,  in the form of a ‘system of transitional demands’.

Leaving aside the more obvious condescending assumptions within this view we can see that the question of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the construction of an alternative is dependent upon a vanguard of leaders who have carefully thought about it beforehand and reduced its early stages to a system of transitional demands and programmes of development. In other words it is a systems approach to revolution.  That is to say in the same manner as adopted by the Bolsheviks in 1917 Russia, with its five-year plans etc. The decay and collapse of one socio-economic system and its replacement by another, is condensed by the middle-class intellect of Trotsky and his Bolshevised collaborators into a question of presenting a programmatic system for everyone – including themselves – to follow and implement.

These allegedly revolutionary or pre-revolutionary demands included the following; a ‘sliding scale of wages’; a ‘minimum wage’; a ‘sliding scale of working hours’; the ‘right to work’; ‘decent living standards’; ‘abolition of business secrets’; ‘expropriation (nationalisation) of key industries and banks’; ‘nationalisation of land’; ‘a system of state credit’; ‘a scheme of public works’; and ‘workers control of industry’.   The peculiar logic inherent in this ‘programme’ envisioned that in the day to day class struggle to achieve these demands workers would become revolutionary-minded, join revolutionary parties as foot soldiers and eventually seize control of state power. Led of course by the Fourth International members as the workers political, military and economic vanguard. Informing the production of the Transitional Programme was a type of logic inspired more by hope or fantasy than 20th century reality.

However, there was (and is) another pattern of logic flowing from such a programme of demands. Addressing demands to the representatives of capital in control of state power is to accept the status quo of an elevated ‘authority’ who need to be persuaded (or forced) to grant those demands. Such demands do not point beyond the system of capital, but logically engender reformist perspectives. Such demands by and for working people, de-facto require an ‘authority’ over society which is capable of granting them. Who would this be? For example, the demand for a sliding scale of wages and a minimum wage also assumes the naturalness of the wages system which only lacks a bourgeois sense of fair play in the existing capitalist mode of production.  It amounts to a demand (addressed to whom?) to be exploited at a steady rate, rather than a variable one. Such demands are petite bourgeois policy demands, not ones transitional to a post-capitalist mode of production. In fact they are policies, if granted, ‘transitional’ to a more ‘liberal‘ form of capitalism.

And this is exactly what occurred after the 2nd World War, without any particular effort by the 4th International or the working class. The fact that the many of these programmatic policy ‘achievement’s’ could be introduced (and were) by the victorious capitalists – without challenging the basis of the capitalist mode of production – seemed to have escaped the reasoning of the originators of this transitional programme. In fact the easy granting of these ‘benefits’ for workers (and a few more in addition) did allow the transition to a new phase of stabilised welfare-state capitalism, which is now in a neo-liberal phase of crisis. This mid-20th century period provided the necessary foundation to further rapid capital accumulation, a strengthening of the capitalist state and an increased bourgeois ideological hold over working peoples understanding.

This ideological hold exists to such an extent that, despite the current systemic crisis of capital, 20th century welfare-state capitalism is seen by the majority of workers and left intellectuals, as something to aspire to and return to. Such programmatic demands upon the capitalist mode of production and their realisation, were in fact the means of saving capitalism from itself. This was achieved by harnessing working people’s energies and commitments to working hard and reforming aspects of it without superseding it. The same phenomena is repeating itself everywhere in the current ‘five-fold’ crisis of the 21st century. ‘People’s Parties’ and ‘Parties of the People’ with their own versions of transitional programmes are the current obsession by most of the left orientated intellectuals and workers who, motivated by a common-sense logic of progress, urge renewed ‘political engagement’ in the bourgeois Parliamentary charade.

I have argued elsewhere on this blog, that there is no progressive way back (or forward) to a new stage of welfare-state capitalism. At its most basic, the current level of automated production requires fewer workers and already under this system, these fewer workers are over-producing commodities, services and global pollution. Fewer employed workers also mean less tax revenue; less taxes pay for fewer ‘benefits’ for those in work and out of work. For decades all capitalist governments have been fiscally bankrupt if not yet legally so. The elite will continue to cast off certain categories of workers, particularly in this public sector.  Short of another mass elimination of human and non-human material, as occurred during the two capitalist inspired world wars of the 20th century, there is no way back and no way forward under the existing mode of production.  The bulk of humanity, may not have yet awakened to the fact that we are faced with the task of revolutionising the mode of production or risk further catastrophic social or ecological events, but these stark alternatives are precisely what face us.

Can revolutions proceed according to a programme?

Any serious study of revolutionary changes in political, social or military affairs, let alone with regard to changes of modes of production, reveals that these processes do not follow pre-planned logical steps or stages. Contradictions, advances, reversals and unintended consequences are just a few of the multifarious factors at work. So too are the ultimate results of dynamic conflicts between participants who are struggling for different outcomes. These are just a few of the many chaotic phenomena which attend such ‘revolutionary’ developments. No amount of planning can predict the course all such unfolding events or be a reliable guide during the events themselves. Indeed, those who operate according to a pre-conceived programme or plan can potentially (and actually) hinder the spontaneous and creative progress involved in any revolutionary transformation.

Of course, this is not to say, that after a revolution it is not possible to look back upon it and draw some generally useful conclusions concerning the stages and processes it went through. However, this intellectual pursuit involves abstracting from the complex details those features which correspond to the conceptual frameworks and preferences of those who study them and describe their findings.  Depending upon the quality of the insights and materials studied, this may or may not offer some important conclusions which may be useful for evaluating future stages of revolutionary transformations. However, such conceptual abstractions and suppositions are certainly not the basis for any detailed programme, transitional or not.  And, significantly in this regard, it is this type of conceptual activity which distinguishes between how workers and intellectuals ‘learn‘, ’know’ and ‘own’ the results

The intellectual, as with the philosopher, works primarily with ideas, his or her own and the ideas of others. The material he or she works upon is primarily drawn from other intellects; academic historians, economists, commentators etc. This material the intellectual works up and formulates a considered opinion on the subject at hand. Yet no matter how detailed and profound such efforts are, they cannot solve the practical problems facing humanity, let alone those emerging in the pressure cooker of revolutionary events. The revolutionary intellectual, as with other intellectuals is  always, to a greater or lesser degree, standing apart from the actual struggles of everyday life. This is the essence of Marx’s observation that ’hitherto philosophers have interpreted the world, the task is to change it‘. And the human agents for this creative change Marx identified were not the intellectuals – of whom he was an outstanding one himself – but the working classes.

This ‘self-activity’ of the working classes, with regard to both their reformist and revolutionary actions Marx not only championed, but repeatedly emphasised throughout his life.  Marx clearly realised that working people ‘learn‘, ‘know’ and ‘own’ the results of their efforts not by the means of intellectual study and conceptual refinement, but by their own practical and collective activity. Learning by experience, including the experience of failure is the practical way the working classes accumulate knowledge and just as importantly it is the way they ‘own’ or ‘disown’ the results. Given the fact that there is no previously accepted ‘experience’ of a successful post-capitalist society, to base themselves upon, much of the future revolutionary activity of workers will be – by necessity – creative and ’developmental’.

As such the process will require approximations, spontaneous inclinations, changes of tack, creative thinking, re-appraisal, modification and above all persistence.  This is a pattern much like exists in every field of practical endeavour, where many experiments are necessary to establish the best approximations and where the failures are seen positively as eliminating ineffectual or impractical directions.  Perhaps it goes without saying, but I will say it nonetheless: The workers and others involved in this process will also need to avoid like the plague, the elevation of an intellectual vanguard, or any other vanguard, to positions of power over and above, their own communities. This much has been made clear by every  revolution hitherto undertaken. Once in power, no matter what good intentions may have been previously declared, elites cling onto power and privilege by every means possible.

And in a truly revolutionary transition leading to a change in the mode of production, workers and others would not make policy demands upon a central power standing over them. They would in fact implement these policies themselves directly in negotiation with other workers. They would not demand of ‘authority’ the opening of the books, but seize the books and open them themselves. They would not demand of a ‘higher power’ the expropriation of factories and industries under workers control, they would take over the factories and industries themselves. They would not demand the creation of public works, but begin implementing them. They would not demand decent living standards and housing but begin creating them for themselves. They would not demand the ‘nationalisation of land’ from some distant central body but immediately socialise and communalise it themselves. As long as workers and others are only demanding improvements, they are not engaged in revolutionary transformation, but in reform of an existing system.

So who needs a Transitional Programme?

It should be obvious, by now that those who are in most need of any programme claiming to be revolutionary, are those who wish to direct others on the course they have already decided upon. That is to say those who consider themselves the ‘vanguard’ of the future anti-capitalist revolution, are prone to concocting their own preferred systems approach to this prospect.  Yet while such systems approaches are useful for some tasks, it is the crassest form of idealism, when these approaches are applied to the death agonies of an existing system, and the creation of an alternative out of its disintegration. Yet this top-down systems approach was exactly the method used by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in Russia after the revolution of October 1917.

Lenin and Trotsky, as with most Bolshevik intellectuals, thought they already knew the ‘true’ pattern of history and what a future society should look like after the present one had served its purpose. Out of this intellectual arrogance they could not countenance, let alone allow, collectives of working people to creatively experiment and choose how to work and co-operate in any post-capitalist reconstruction. According to this Bolshevik derived logic, workers needed to be persuaded to follow the dictates of the planners – state bureaucrats and intellectuals. Or if persuasion failed workers would need to be forced to adhere to the plans and strategies devised by these self-appointed elites.  Predictably this was a strategy which failed completely to end the domination of capital and wage labour.

Famous (or infamous) in this systems approach were the top-down programmes and detailed plans of the Bolshevik dominated Soviet Ogburo and other allied state institutions, for electrification, industrialisation and collective agriculture. The inevitable savage oppressions, failures, mistakes, contradictions and blunders of this period – and many others – did not deter these would-be systems builders from imagining that entire societies can be revolutionised and reconstructed according to a sufficiently well thought out programme. From the Bolshevik perspective, workers and others, during the decay and collapse of the capitalist mode of production, could not be trusted to find their own economic and social solutions (their own bridges) to the challenges they and a new mode of production found themselves confronted with.

Instead, according to this top-down transitional programme type mentality, workers and the rank and file Party Members needed the supposedly sound guidance from the petty-bourgeois intellectuals who had managed to gain executive control of the so-called revolutionary party.  In other words the 1938 Transitional Programme, discussed above, followed exactly the same line of middle-class intellectual reasoning as the Bolshevik elites had tried to make work in the Soviet Union before it finally collapsed.  The final result of these elite-led programmes was a totalitarian form of wage-slavery, which in many ways mirrored the slavery and semi-slavery which had taken place under the worst examples of Colonialism and Fascism.

Roy Ratcliffe (January 2015)

Before his assassination in 1940 the most influential figure in the founding of the Fourth International was Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had taken an active and leading part in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. From October 1917 until his expulsion from Russia by the Stalinists in 1929 he had been appointed by the Bolshevik Central Committee (and/or the Politbureau) to various high positions within the Soviet State.  After Lenin’s death in 1923 Trotsky had become the intellectual mouthpiece of an internal group designated as the  ‘Left Opposition’.

The function of the Left Opposition, (as with the ‘Joint Opposition‘) according to Trotsky, was to seek “..reform in the party, and through it the state.” (Challenge of the Left Opposition. Pathfinder page 100). However, in all such cases, faced with a ruthless and determined ruling elite (in this case headed by Stalin) unsolicited reform was a non-starter. In fact advocating reforms in opposition to a firmly entrenched and armed totalitarian elite was nothing more than the sowing of illusions and an invitation to be silenced or eliminated. Many supporters of the Left Opposition within Soviet Russia realised this and voluntarily (or forcibly) abandoned this project.

This collapse, along with imprisonments, disappearances and banishments of internal Soviet Left Opposition support, left those who remained actively opposed to Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy with an alternative option. This was to gather as much support as possible and to work to form an alternative organisation.  This was a difficult task and a protracted process but eventually led to the formation of the Fourth International and, as noted above, its most important founding documents – ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’ and the Transitional Programme.


This entry was posted in Anti-Capitalism, capitalism, Critique, Marx, neo-liberalism, Politics, Reformism, The State and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. My own rather precarious (Working class) life since about 1983 has consisted of this recurring experience, The representatives of capitalists have made it plain that I am dispensable but that they are not.
    Revolution would be this, we make it plain to the capitalists that they are dispensable but that we are not.
    I do not expect you Roy to altogether agree with this general conclusion but I do not care whether working class demands are broadly reformist or revolutionary as long as we (Workers) have the confidence in our own collective strength to actually make demands, we must reach the point where they try to crush us and fail to do so.

    • Hi Leslie! Thanks for commenting. Although we haven’t always agreed,I actually do agree with you very much on this question. I also have had the recurring experience that as a worker I was frequently dispensed with.

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