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Transitional Demands Reconsidered

Alistair Mitchell

From New Interventions, Vol.6 No.3, 1995

IN THEIR Communist Manifesto of 1848 Marx and Engels wrote: ‘The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible. Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, 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.’1

They then note that the measures will vary from country to country, but list some demands which would be generally applicable in most advanced countries. These include: the abolition of landed property; a plan of agricultural improvement; progressive taxation; abolition of all rights to inheritance; a national monopoly bank centralising credit; placing transport and communications in the hands of the state; extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; social and economic planning; abolition of child labour; free education for all.2

Thus, Marx and Engels didn’t just call for the introduction of a socialist society (the maximum programme) without charting the way of getting there. Neither did they merely advocate reforms which fell way short of breaking from capitalism (the minimum programme). The key to their method lies in the extract quoted above with its steps which are by themselves inadequate, but through the workers’ struggle for them lead to other attacks on capitalism. These further measures become possible and necessary as the workers gain in confidence and rally others to their side, leam the next steps required and challenge a weakened and retreating ruling class. The method of Marx and Engels is to connect the present situation and immediate aspirations of the proletariat with the task of the socialist revolution. The minimum and maximum programmes are linked in a transitional programme.

Trotsky and Epoch
It would be unfair to say that Trotsky believed that in a particular crisis the collapse of capitalism was inevitable. On the contrary he argued that: ‘So long as capitalism is not overthrown by the proletarian revolution, it will continue to live in cycles, swinging up and down’;3 and: ‘There is no crisis which 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’.4

Instead, the problem with Trotsky’s view lies with his understanding of how these periods fit in with the overall epoch.

In 1937 Trotsky wrote: ‘Only in the last twenty years, despite the most modern conquests of science and technology, has the epoch of out-and-out stagnation and even decline of world economy begun.’5 Here Trotsky has described the immediate economic situation as he saw it and generalised it to the level of the whole epoch. Yet, as we now know, within ten years of this statement world capitalism embarked on a thirty year period of economic growth and – at least in the advanced countries – relative class peace. For his programme Trotsky’s confusion of epoch and period would have important consequences. His ‘Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’ was designed to meet the needs of what he called the ‘transitional epoch’. Yet in this very document he identifies ‘a social crisis, characteristic of a pre-revolutionary state of society’.6 This generalising of the perceived situation in the late 1930s to cover the whole epoch and all its phases left a legacy of catastrophism in the Trotskyist movement. It rendered the ‘Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’ valid as an action programme for the world of 1938, but quite unsuitable for the next period of the epoch which would be one of capitalist recovery.

Trotsky and Class Consciousness
For Marx the proletariat was formed as a class ‘in itself’ by the development of capitalist society; it needed to develop into a class ‘for itself’ by developing its class consciousness. Without this precondition no situation could be revolutionary: ‘... If these material elements of a complete revolution are not present (namely, on the one hand the existing productive forces, on the other the formation of a revolutionary mass, which revolts not only against separate conditions of society up till then, but against the very "production of life" till then, the "total activity" on which it was based), then, as far as practical development is concerned, it is absolutely immaterial whether the idea of this revolution has been expressed a hundred times already, as the history of communism proves.’7

However, a different view was taken in the Bolshevik tradition. In ‘Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution’ Lenin writes: ‘The degree of Russia’s economic development (an objective condition), and the degree of class consciousness and organisation of the broad masses of the proletariat (a subjective condition, inseparably bound up with the objective condition)....’8

This view that workers’ consciousness was not an objective factor was continued by Trotsky. In 1938 in discussions with members of his movement before the conference that would adopt the Transitional Programme Trotsky commented: ‘We know that the subjective conditions – the consciousness of the masses, the growth of the revolutionary party – are not a fundamental factor. It depends on the objective situation; in the last instance the subjective element itself depends on the objective conditions, but this dependence is not a simple process.’9

But is it possible to have an ‘objectively revolutionary’ situation without the existence of a mass class conscious movement, as its absence means that the class will not be aware of the possibilities in the situation and the tasks in hand? Surely the consciousness of the masses is one of the most decisive elements in deciding whether a situation is revolutionary or not? Yet for Trotsky it was ‘not a fundamental factor’. His denigration of this vital element repeatedly blighted his analyses and those of others who shared his outlook, as the following examples illustrate.

Firstly, in Germany after the November 1918 revolution the masses had achieved their aims: peace and a democratic republic. The collective consciousness of the masses never went beyond that at this time – the SPD was able to dominate the movement as a result, and there was no chance that the KPD could by-pass the Social Democracy. The majority of the revolutionary workers would look in any case to the USPD (at least until it split at its congress in Halle in 1920).10 The failure of the revolution to go beyond bourgeois-democratic aims was largely due to the limited consciousness of the masses.

Secondly, in Germany in 1923 Trotsky wrote: ‘Why did the German revolution fail to lead to victory? The causes for this lie wholly in tactics and not in objective conditions.’11 Yet this is to ignore the shift in consciousness of the masses which occurred after the fall of the Cuno government and the arrival of Stresemann’s coalition which brought in the SPD. The workers’ actions which had helped topple Cuno stopped after his fall; the masses’ consciousness was still Social Democratic – they looked to ‘Marxist’ ministers like Hilferding to represent them. Again, consciousness was a hugely important factor in the situation.

Thirdly, in Britain in the 1920s Trotsky held what he thought were realistic hopes for the building of a mass Communist Party. This was an illusion. The workers’ consciousness was still largely Labourite; indeed many workers were still coming over to Labour from the Liberals. It would be twenty years before the first majority Labour government would be formed, so there was no chance that Labour might be ‘exposed’ before then and masses of workers would go over to communism. Even amongst the best workers many looked no further than the TUC lefts (left reformists). The consciousness of the workers was an objective factor blocking the building of a mass Communist Party in Britain.

Finally, the perspectives of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union in the 1920s foundered largely because of Trotsky’s underestimation and misunderstanding of class consciousness. The Left Opposition assumed that the power of the working class would grow as industrialisation developed. Yet, as we now know, this did not happen – the Soviet working class did become more numerous, but was atomised and unresponsive to the Left Opposition. Marc Rakovski sheds some light on this:

‘The only reason why Trotsky could hope to strengthen the proletarian nature of power through accelerated industrialisation was because he saw the working class as merely a category of economic statistics and not as a political force which had acquired its consciousness through its own practice. For him it went without saying that an adequate class consciousness and an adequate level of organisation would emerge as soon as the economic weight of the working class grew. It did not occur to him that the historical process, the socio- and politico-economic institutions in which this new working class was being formed and its practical experiences would be equally essential factors. It did not occur to him, because he too had no doubt that the existing system of institutions was, in terms of its original function, the embodiment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. He thought that the Soviet working class would no longer have to wear itself out in long struggles errors and failures in order to reach an adequate level of organisation and class consciousness: both were given in the institutions and ideology of Soviet power. This is the deeper reason Trotsky thought it possible to address himself to the apparatus with a programme which sought to restrict the power of this apparatus.’12

Of considerable interest is the pre-conference discussion which took place before the adoption of the ‘Death Agony of Capitalism...’. The following extracts are quotations from Trotsky:

‘What are the tasks? The strategic tasks consist of helping the masses, of adapting their mentality politically and psychologically to the objective situation, of overcoming the prejudicial tradition of the American workers, and of adapting it (their mentality) to the objective situation of the social crisis of the whole system.’13

‘What is the sense of the transitional programme? We can call it a programme of action, but for our strategic conception, it is a transitional programme – it is a help to the masses in overcoming the inherited ideas, methods and forms and adapting themselves to the exigencies of the objective situation.’14

‘I say here what I said about the whole programme of transitional demands – the problem is not the mood of the masses but the objective situation, and our job is to confront the backward material of the masses with the tasks which are determined by objective facts and not by psychology.’15

And finally: ‘Question: Isn’t the ideology of the workers a part of the objective factors? Trotsky: For us as a small minority this whole thing is objective, including the mood of the workers. But we must analyse and classify those elements of the objective situation which can be changed by our paper and those which cannot be changed. That is why we say that the programme is adapted to the fundamental, stable elements of the objective situation, and the task is to adapt the mentality of the masses to those objective factors.’16

Thus, Trotsky’s rather confused contention is that consciousness is either merely a subjective factor and not part of the objective conditions, or it IS part of the objective conditions but not a ‘fundamental element’ of them. Either way the problem remains – if the masses are not looking for radical solutions and are prepared to fight for them then the situation cannot be revolutionary (or pre-revolutionary).

Transitional Demands
‘The Death Agony of Capitalism...’ contains partial and democratic demands as well as transitional ones, but the emphasis, as its commonly used title ‘The Transitional Programme’ suggests, is on transitional demands. None of the transitional demands in the programme are necessarily wrong by themselves. The key question is the context in which they are used. Trotsky explained an important aspect of transitional demands as follows:

Question: Can we actually realise this slogan? Trotsky: It is easier to overthrow capitalism than to realise this demand under capitalism. Not one of our demands will be realised under capitalism. That is why we are calling them transitional demands.’17

The view that transitional demands were not achievable under capitalism is not unique to Trotsky, but was shared by others outside his movement, as the following two examples indicate. The first is Heinnch Brandler, a leader of the ‘Right’ in the KPD, and is from his suggested action programme for Germany in 1928:

‘The programme of action demands in addition to the daily demands (wages, hours of work, etc) a number of measures comprehensible to the masses of the workers based on their necessities, the realisation of which, however, denotes a revolutionary encroachment on the imperialist economic system and raises the question of the power of the bourgeoisie. They are transition measures, transition demands, but not in the case of the Erfurt Programme which was to be realised within the bourgeois state; they are demands which in case of their realisation denote an advance towards the final aim and struggle.’18

The second example comes from August Thalheimer, a comrade of Brandler, who it might be remembered debated with Bukharin the question of the programme and its various demands at the Fourth Congress of the Third International in 1922. In his critique of the programme adopted by the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, Thalheimer says that a transitional demand ‘breaks the framework of the bourgeois order’, in contrast to partial demands where ‘the limits of the capitalist order and the bourgeois state are not overstepped’.19

So there is a consensus between these three revolutionaries (who together with Lenin and Paul Levi probably did more than any others to keep alive the transitional method in the twentieth century) that transitional demands are designed not to be achieved under capitalism and require a break with it to be carried out. As revolutionaries want to overthrow capitalism there may not seem to be any problem with this – the problem only appears when transitional demands are considered alongside the issues discussed previously, as the remainder of this article will seek to do.

1. Trotsky characterised the epoch by its extremes (‘wars and revolutions’) and confused particular phases of it, such as the pre-revolutionary, with the situation in the epoch as a whole. This accompanied a tendency to underestimate capitalism’s capacity to develop the productive forces and the likelihood of times of class peace as a result of an economic boom. The Transitional Programme was written for what Trotsky called the transitional epoch, but was more suited to one particular period of it – the one that it was written in, in 1938. All this encouraged an exaggeration of the crises in capitalism and the revolutionary possibilities by both Trotsky himself in his time and his followers then and now. Thus, what for Trotsky was the main element of the objective situation would often be misjudged.

2. Trotsky said ‘confront the backward material of the masses with the tasks which are determined by the objective facts’. If the objective facts arc wrongly appraised, and are assessed without any consideration of workers’ consciousness, which is said to be merely subjective and not a fundamental factor, then this can lead the Trotskyist programme and its movement into attempting to force a reluctant, even hostile, working class to follow its lead – a venture which will always be doomed to failure.

3. The key demands in the Trotskyist programme are transitional ones, as the short title of ‘Death Agony...’ indicates. These demands, as we have seen, are designed not to be achievable under capitalism – their purpose is to effect a break with capitalism and provide a transition to socialist revolution.

Taken togther these three points can add up to the following: Trotskyists habitually give a faulty diagnosis of the health of capitalism (as the title ‘Death Agony...’ illustrates) by extending over the whole historical period (or epoch) what is perhaps true of one particular period within it. They then exclude any consideration of workers’ consciousness from assessing the ‘objective situation’. As a result the situation is invariably considered more favourable than it really is for revolutionary activity. Whilst Trotskyists have in their programme a whole range of demands, their emphasis is on transitional ones. As these are designed not to be achievable under capitalism we see the following: Trotskyists trying to arouse the masses with demands that require a break with capitalism when the workers are either simply not interested, or do not feel confident to fight for the demands.

There is a place for transitional demands, and it is when a variety of economic and political factors are present INCLUDING THE NECESSARY LEVEL OF WORKERS’ CONSCIOUSNESS – i.e. their desire for the demands and their readiness to fight for them. When these factors are absent, transitional demands are doomed to failure, to be ignored, and to be left as just propaganda calls and sectarian schemas. In these situations instead of transitional demands others should be used such as reform, partial and democratic demands. However, central to the formulation of such demands should be three factors: (i) wherever possible, the taking up of whatever is progressive about the existing concerns and demands of the workers; (ii) the demands should seek to mobilise workers to fight for the demands themselves or organise to monitor/control any representatives committed to carrying them out, the demands should where possible avoid demobilising workers and handing over the initiative to politicians; (iii) the demands should be part of a perspective.

Such a perspective is necessary so that when a struggle is waging around initial demands and is finding the ear of wider layers of workers and building a fight, then other, more ambitious, demands can be raised. Then, when these are being fought for, other, still more ambitious, proposals can be put. Eventually such a ‘step-by-step’ approach might lead to the raising of transitional measures if the necessary pre-conditions are present.20 Trotskyists claim that transitional demands provide the bridge between immediate struggles and socialist revolution; in fact they will rarely provide any such connection. Instead we will usually need a bridge, or a series of bridges, to the bridge. Only then can we cross it.


1. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Communist Manifesto, in Karl Marx, Selected Works, Lawrence & Wishart, London 1942, p.237.

2. Ibid.

3. Leon Trotsky, First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol.1, Pioneer, New York 1945, p.200.

4. Leon Trotsky, Whither France, New Park, London 1974, p.4.

5. Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38, Pathfinder, New York 1985, p.22.

6. Leon Trotsky, Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, World Books, London 1978, p.20.

7. Karl Marx, German Ideology, quoted in David McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx, MacMillan, London 1980, p.232.

8. V.I. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, quoted in Al Richardson (ed.), In Defence of the Russian Revolution, Porcupine, London 1995, p.36.

9. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder, New York 1983, p.99.

10. For more information about these developments see Mike Jones, ‘Decline, Disorientation and Decomposition of a Leadership’, in Revolutionary History, Vol.2 No.3, Autumn 1989.

11. Leon Trotsky, First Five Years..., Vol.1, p.2.

12. Marc Rakovski, Towards an East European Marxism, Alison and Busby, London 1978, pp.117-18.

13. Leon Trotsky, Transitional Programme..., p.100.

14. Ibid., pp.100-101.

15. Ibid., p.163.

16. Ibid., p.180.

17. Ibid., p.159.

18. Heinrich Brandler, ‘Contributions to a Programme of Action for Germany (Part 2)’, in Communist International, 15 February 1928, pp.89-90.

19. August Thalheimer, Programmatische Fragen: Kritik des Kommunistischen Internationale (VI. Weltkongress), Decaton, Mainz 1993, translated by Mike Jones. [A section of Thalheimer’s document has been published as ‘Strategy and Tactics of the Communist International: What are Transitional Slogans?’ in What Next? No.13.]

20. The term ‘step-by-step’ to describe such an approach is taken from Ernie Roberts, Strike back, published by Ernie Roberts, Orpington 1994, p.221.