Trotsky's transitional program: its uses and abuses

by Allen Myers • Published 12 January 2014

This article originates in efforts to discover as much as possible about the reasons for the disappearance, over a decade, of what at the turn of the century was the largest revolutionary socialist organisation in Australia, the Democratic Socialist Party. It is not concerned with the primary reason for that disappearance, which was persistence in a misguided attempt to create a “broad left party” called the Socialist Alliance in conditions that were not suitable for doing so. Rather, it deals with what I argue was a secondary but important contributing factor, namely a serious misunderstanding of the concept of “transitional demands” and their application to revolutionary activity in Australia today. While the 2005-08 debate in the DSP may be water under the bridge, our understanding of transitional demands remains relevant to socialists’ current practice.[1]

One of the central arguments of the minority in the DSP internal debate was that the Socialist Alliance orientation was causing the majority to modify the DSP’s program in a reformist direction. The response of the majority was that it was expressing the essence of the program through transitional demands, that is, the sorts of demands advocated by Leon Trotsky in what is now known as the Transitional Program. Thus the summary of the majority report on party building at the April 2007 National Committee meeting: “Putting Marxist ideas in a transitional manner is being dismissed at this NC as being left reformism” by the minority.[2] And at the following National Committee in September of the same year: “Socialist Alliance should not be disparaged as a ‘social-democratic half-way house’. Rather, we should appreciate its transitional platform and see it as a labour school of politics.”[3]

Clearly, there are different ideas about what distinguishes a transitional demand or program from a non-transitional one. To begin discussing these differences, it may help to put “transitional demands” in historical context. Why are they considered necessary? If we are fighting for the interests of the working class and its allies, why can’t we just fight for everything necessary for their welfare, as the issues arise or the workers decide they are timely, until we have defeated the capitalists and their government? Why can’t we just start from wherever we are and keep fighting the bastards until they aren’t there any more?

The reason, of course, is reformism. Reformism divides the natural continuum of fighting for the interests of our class into two parts: a “legitimate” part that remains within the system, and a part that seeks to overthrow capitalism but which is “illegitimate” or “unrealistic” in the short or medium term, something only for the distant future. Historically, reformists concentrated on the “minimum program” of reforms achievable under capitalism and left the “maximum program” of socialist revolution to the indefinite future.

For Marxist revolutionaries, the point was not to separate the minimum and maximum programs, but to unite them dialectically. In her pamphlet Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg wrote: “For Socialist Democracy, there is an indissoluble tie between social reforms and revolution. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its goal.”[4] Similarly, when Lenin said that there was no “Chinese wall” between the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia and the socialist revolution,[5] he was pointing out that the separation between minimum and maximum programs was ideological, not a reflection of social necessities. And of course Trotsky’s Transitional Program was explicitly presented as an attempt to bridge the “gap” between reforms and revolution. Let us therefore look at what Trotsky and Lenin had to say on the matter, and then consider how it applies in Australia today.

It may also be relevant to look at what Trotsky didn’t say. The document that Trotsky wrote for the founding of the Fourth International in 1938 is usually referred to today as the Transitional Program. But Trotsky didn’t call it that; that name was attached later by Trotsky’s followers. Trotsky called it The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. The death agony of capitalism had brought about fascism, worldwide economic collapse and the degeneration of the Soviet Union and the Communist International. It was now about to produce a new world war that would determine the future of the planet for generations. In this situation, the task was to find a way for the working class to take power within a few years at the most.

Thus the document was a very immediate, short-term program that Trotsky hoped would help the small parties of the Fourth International grow rapidly and win the leadership of the proletariat in a situation of extreme crisis. It was not intended for revolutionaries of the 1970s or 1990s or 2010s, because Trotsky expected the rapidly developing crisis to result in either the onset of world socialist revolution or historic defeats of the working class from which it would take many decades to recover. It is clear, for example, that he believed that the Soviet Union could not survive the approaching world war in its then form: the Stalinist ruling layer would be overthrown either by the workers or by imperialism.[6]

Of course, this does not mean that revolutionaries today cannot learn from studying the Transitional Program. But it does mean that we will understand the document better if we keep in mind the context in which it was written. It was not a letter to the future, not intended as a program for a different age from the one in which it was written.

This context also makes it clear that Trotsky was not advocating a general “method”, other than the science of Marxism. The crisis facing the world proletariat was not a matter of discovering new programmatic methods but a “crisis of the leadership of the proletariat”, as the first sentence of The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International puts it. It was a matter of those who had maintained the Marxist program winning the leadership of the working class away from those who had betrayed that program. “This program is not a new invention of one man. It is derived from the long experience of the Bolsheviks. I want to emphasize that it is not one man’s invention, that it comes from long collective experience of the revolutionaries. It is the application of old principles to this situation.”[7]

Thus Trotsky emphasised that the tasks of the Fourth International were mainly concerned with convincing the workers of the need for them to take power. Transitional demands were those that were most effective in persuading workers of that necessity. There were two sides to such demands. One, they had to relate to workers’ current consciousness. Two, they had logically to lead to the creation of a workers’ government for their fulfilment.

But even in 1930s France or Spain, there could be a considerable gap between the current consciousness of many workers and an understanding of the need for workers’ power. Trotsky therefore talked of transitional demands as a “system” of connected demands: winning demand A (or the ruling class’s resistance to conceding it) convinces workers that demand B is necessary; a similar experience with demand B convinces workers of the need for demand C; and so on, up to the seizure of power:

It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands 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.”[8]

Or, as Trotsky put it even more succinctly, “The slogan of soviets…crowns the program of transitional demands”.

But if transitional demands are necessarily part of such a politically logical series, then it follows that no demand is transitional in and of itself: a demand is transitional only if it fits into an uninterrupted chain from workers’ current consciousness to their support for revolution. Obviously, a demand that meets that condition in country A in year Y may or may not meet it in country B in year Z.

A quite different understanding of transitional demands is provided by an article that appeared on the Links web portal in January 2013, written by Dave Holmes, a leader of Socialist Alliance and of the DSP and its forerunners. The text of a talk delivered to the national conference of Socialist Alliance, the article included the following passage:

Socialist Alliance has raised the call to nationalise the banks and the mining/resource sector – under community control – and we intend to make this a major feature of our federal election campaign.

The call for nationalisation of specific sectors of the capitalist economy is definitely a transitional demand. Trotsky includes a separate section on this in the Transitional Program as well as [a] specific one on taking over the private banks.[9]

This treats a call for nationalisation as inherently transitional, regardless of circumstances. Does such a demand relate to the current consciousness of wide layers of workers in Australia? At the very least, that needs to be shown, not assumed. Does it form part of a system of demands that would lead workers to the conclusion that they need to take power into their own hands? It is certainly capable of forming part of such a system, but the Socialist Alliance does not tie the nationalisation demand to further steps or the necessity of a workers’ government, as will be discussed below.

If we look in more detail at the section of the Transitional Program on nationalisation of specific sectors, we find that Trotsky did not regard such demands as inherently transitional. On the contrary, he pointed out that they could just as well represent “muddleheaded reformism”:

[W]e demand the expropriation of the corporations holding monopolies on war industries, railroads, the most important sources of raw materials, etc.

The difference between these demands and the muddleheaded reformist slogan of “nationalization” lies in the following: (1) we reject indemnification; (2) we warn the masses against demagogues of the People’s Front who, giving lip service to nationalization, remain in reality agents of capital; (3) we call upon the masses to rely only upon their own revolutionary strength; (4) we link up the question of expropriation with that of seizure of power by the workers and farmers.[10]

In the next section, Trotsky called for “the expropriation of the private banks and the concentration of the entire credit system in the hands of the state”, to benefit small depositors, provide cheap credit for farmers, tradespeople and small merchants and create a mechanism with which to manage the economy in the interests of working people. But he concluded the section with the warning that these results would occur “only if the state power itself passes completely from the hands of the exploiters into the hands of the toilers”.[11]

In insisting that nationalisation had to be linked to the slogan of a workers’ or workers and farmers’ government, Trotsky was firmly within the tradition of the Communist International in Lenin’s day. For example, the resolution “On Tactics” adopted by the Third Congress of the Comintern said this:

Although it is evident that capitalism in its present stage of decline is incapable of guaranteeing workers a decent human existence, the social democrats and reformists everywhere are daily demonstrating their unwillingness and inability to fight even for the most modest demands in their programme. The demand advanced by the centrist parties for the socialisation or nationalisation of the most important branches of industry is equally a deception because it is not linked to a demand for victory over the bourgeoisie. The centrists want to divert the workers from the real, vital struggle for their immediate goals by holding out the hope that industrial forms can be taken over gradually, one by one, and that “systematic” economic construction can then begin.[12]

The current political situation in Australia is not one in which revolutionaries need to counter the influence of reformists calling for nationalisation with compensation or of demagogues promising nationalisation but not intending to carry it out. But Trotsky’s third and fourth points on distinguishing between transitional and reformist demands for nationalisation are much less conjunctural.

Demands and slogans

There is a possible misunderstanding of the concept of transitional demands that is relevant here. As far as I know, this point was first raised by the late Doug Lorimer, a long-time leader in the series of organisations that eventually became the RSP. At a meeting of the RSP National Committee in March 2009, Lorimer pointed out that “slogans” and “demands” are not the same thing, and that there are situations in which confusing the two can mislead socialists’ political practice.

A “demand”, Lorimer pointed out, “is a strong request for someone else to do something” that you would like to have done – raising your wages or releasing someone from jail or legislating for same-sex marriage or repealing anti-labour laws. It is therefore addressed to the people who have the immediate control of whatever the issue is. In a political context, this is normally the capitalists or their agents, such as government, parliament or police.

On the other hand, “A slogan is a short, easily remembered phrase encapsulating an idea.” In the context we are discussing, the idea will generally be that the workers or movement being addressed should take a certain course of action – going on strike, organising a demonstration, voting for a particular party, boycotting a corporation or country, disarming the bourgeoisie. It is not a call on the class enemy to do something, but an urging of our side to take some action against the class enemy.

Confusion between “demand” and “slogan” has been around for some time, and it may often make little or no difference. When the Comintern resolution quoted above decried the centrists’ lack of “a demand for victory over the bourgeoisie”, the phrase might have been clearer as “a slogan mobilising workers for victory over the bourgeoisie”, because the Comintern was not telling the workers that they should ask someone else to overthrow the bourgeoisie for them. However, it is unlikely that many people reading the resolution in 1921 would have been misled about what it was advocating.

Lorimer cited several instances of early Comintern documents treating “demands” and “slogans” as equivalents. He did not claim that any of these instances led a Communist Party astray in its practice. However, he pointed out that the identification of “transitional demands” and “transitional slogans” was much more systematic with Trotsky, particularly but not only in The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. Trotsky’s “description of ‘transitional slogans’…as ‘transitional demands’” risked confusing left reformism with revolutionary politics by glossing over the class character of government.

Lorimer’s original presentation of this question cited the example of an article in Green Left Weekly which claimed that “demanding that Australia’s capitalist government guarantee full employment” is “an important transitional demand that can open the road to even more radical developments”. Lorimer pointed out that this argument was “based on the correct idea that it is impossible for a capitalist government to ‘guarantee full employment’ as this would mean it would have to eliminate the reserve army of labour, the existence of which is a necessary condition for the existence of capitalism”. However, getting a mass campaign going for this demand “would require revolutionary socialists to conduct propaganda to convince large numbers of workers that they should undertake such a mass campaign. You’re not going to do that if you tell them the truth, i.e., that no capitalist government can ‘guarantee full employment’… So such propaganda has to lie to them, i.e., peddle the bourgeois-reformist deception that ‘full employment’ can be ‘guaranteed’ by a capitalist government.”[13]

Note the different dynamics depending on whether the aim of full employment is presented as a demand on the government or a slogan addressed to the workers and their organisations, especially the unions. In the latter case, socialists urge workers to fight to impose particular measures on the bosses: stop lay-offs by forcing the company to reduce hours of work with no loss of pay; fight youth unemployment by demanding that the boss provide positions for a certain number of apprentices. In the present state of the class struggle in Australia, such slogans are not likely to be taken up in a major way by the union movement. That means that they are primarily propagandistic rather than agitational at present, and to that extent not transitional, because there is not a real movement of workers that might be persuaded to fight for them, or a sufficiently large revolutionary party that can give them wider currency. Nevertheless, they can be useful as propaganda – because they are accurate propaganda: they indicate that the fight against unemployment is a fight against the bosses, not something that the government has to be pressured or convinced to guarantee.

Furthermore, such slogans will fit easily into a series of transitional slogans once workers’ organisations do take them up. If the bosses say they can’t afford such measures, then the workers can logically demand that the bosses open the books so that everyone can see the real situation, or that the company reduce wasteful spending on executive salaries and use the savings to hire workers, or that it change its production methods or even its products – that is, the more the workers struggle around such slogans, the more they will challenge the “right” of the capitalists to run the economy and will move towards imposing workers’ control.

But if the workers take up the demand that the government guarantee full employment, where does it lead? If the government replies that “our” economy can’t afford it, does the movement for a government guarantee respond: “We don’t believe it! Open the books! Show us the figures!”? The government would hand over stacks of statistics and academic economic papers. Then what?

What sort of transition?

Rather than clarifying the distinctions between different sorts of transition, leaders of the Socialist Alliance have been increasingly abstracting “transitional” from the specific meaning it had for Trotsky or the Comintern and applying it more and more broadly. So, in addition to transitional demands, transitional slogans and transitional programs, their documents speak of transitional platforms, transitional measures, transitional approach, transitional formation or organisation, transitional method of party building, transitional manner, transitional vehicle and even transitional newspaper.

The word “transitional” is of course a perfectly acceptable word in the English language, referring to “passage from one position, state, stage, etc., to another” (Macquarie Dictionary). In that sense, all the above phrases are unobjectionable. But that is not the sense in which socialists normally speak of things transitional. For revolutionaries, it is not a question of the passage from just any position, state or stage to any other (such as Mary’s transition from kindergarten to primary school), but of the passage of workers’ collective consciousness from its present condition to a realisation of the need to struggle for power, for the passage from a capitalist government to a workers’ government and then the further passage to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Much of the Socialist Alliance use of “transitional” conflates these different meanings. It thereby identifies as “transitional” actions or slogans that are not and thus risks trivialising the idea of a transitional program and transitional slogans.

Consider the phrase “transitional platform”, which Socialist Alliance leaders have used to describe their organisation’s electoral platform. Is this meaningful for revolutionaries? It could be meaningful in an election to soviets, but not in a bourgeois election, which is about selecting a government for the capitalist state, not replacing that state. A socialist party’s platform for a bourgeois election can propagandise around many issues and raise the consciousness of those who come in contact with it. That is a worthwhile activity, but not every worthwhile activity is transitional.

Furthermore, this activity needs to be carried out with an awareness of the inherent dangers which stem from a real contradiction. However radical its individual planks, the context of an election platform is asking voters to elect the party’s candidate to a bourgeois legislature, and participation in bourgeois legislatures is not a necessary and logical stage for workers in their passage from current consciousness to the struggle for power. In fact, participating in bourgeois elections has an inherently class-collaborationist or reformist tendency to it, because it implies that the changes sought in the platform can be achieved through the capitalist electoral system. That is not an argument against participating in elections, but an argument that such participation should always include a clear popular explanation of why electing socialists to this particular legislative body will not solve voters’ problems. Without that, the platform is not transitional, but merely an exposition of the old minimum program.

Or consider the concept of a transitional organisation or formation. Several times in the DSP internal debate, Dave Holmes specifically identified that notion with a transitional program: “S[ocialist] A[lliance] is a transitional formation in the same way as we have [a] transitional program – S[ocialist] A[lliance] is a bridge to the revolutionary party, a framework or vehicle for projecting its influence and program, a down-payment on a new mass socialist workers party.”[14]

The mixed metaphors – bridge, framework, vehicle, down-payment – are not the main problem with this argument, although they may be a symptom of it. The problem is the attempt to equate two different things, whose real commonality consists only in the word “transitional” used to describe both of them. How can an organisation, a political party, exist or function “in the same way” as a program? A transitional program, as already described, is a series of demands intended progressively to raise the consciousness of the working class in the course of struggle, until it understands the need to create its own government. The “transitional formation” described by Holmes was envisioned as a short-term tactic to turn a small revolutionary party into a somewhat larger revolutionary party. It would be possible for a party to implement this tactic without having a transitional program, just as a party with a transitional program could decide not to use that tactic. Neither program nor tactic determines the other, and it is politically disorienting to believe that they do.

To consider briefly just one more example of the misuse of “transitional”: in October 2006, Holmes wrote an article for DSP members on “the transitional method of party-building”, in which he said that the newspaper Green Left Weekly was also “transitional”, because it could project DSP politics “to broader layers than a purely party newspaper could possibly do”.[15] In fact, when the DSP decided to launch GLW as a non-party paper in 1991, it was not because anyone thought the DSP paper Direct Action was insufficiently transitional. The change was a concession forced on the DSP by economic realities. In the political climate of the day, the potential audience for an exclusively revolutionary Marxist newspaper was not large enough to make a weekly sustainable. The new paper aimed to win a larger audience who considered themselves left and/or green but were not short-term potential members of a revolutionary party; this would allow parts of the paper to provide the functions that DA had provided for the DSP.

Both DA and GLW were “transitional” in the sense that they sought to persuade radicalising people to make the transition from opposition to current conditions of life to seeing the need to join and build a Leninist party. But GLW was arguably less transitional, because a smaller part of its content was directed towards winning readers to a revolutionary party. Holmes’ argument appeared to be that GLW was more transitional because of its lesser identification with the DSP. It would follow from that argument that it’s more transitional to hide part of your politics, at least for now. That is a very long way from what Lenin or Trotsky advocated.

‘Transitional method’

Holmes and other Socialist Alliance leaders try to combine these varied “transitional” concepts and objects into a system, which they summarise under the name of “the transitional method”. This is included in the title of Dave Holmes’ talk to the Socialist Alliance conference in January: “In defence of the transitional method”. That talk focuses on Socialist Alliance’s campaign in the 2012 Moreland municipal council election.

Recall that, for Trotsky, a transitional program was a system of transitional demands leading working class consciousness to the need for revolution. But within “the transitional method” as presented in the article, a “transitional program” does not need to contain even one transitional demand. Holmes writes: “The platform outlined in our election leaflet is a mixture of immediate and democratic demands.” That is, it contained no transitional demands or slogans. Nevertheless, a few paragraphs later he declares: “Overall, in the given situation, our Moreland program was a transitional one. It implied a radically different set of priorities and pointed towards a different sort of society even if we really only touched on this.”[16]

In actuality, the politics of the Socialist Alliance Moreland campaign were not all that radically different, at least judged by the election leaflet that Holmes attached to his article. The demands for the most part didn’t even “touch on” a different sort of society. They were for things like more bicycle paths, green spaces and public toilets, solar panels and rainwater tanks on council buildings, developers being required to reserve 20 percent of new developments for low-cost housing, “ward accountability meetings” – immediate and democratic demands that, if won, might improve the quality of life for Moreland residents, but nothing that was connected to further struggles that might eventually lead to a fight for working class power. Indeed, the leaflet’s only mention of a layer of government beyond the council was a call for the council to “pressure” the state government to provide more public transport.

Holmes’ justifications for calling a mix of mild immediate and democratic demands a “transitional program” were two. One was that the demands were popular. This may well be true, since the Socialist Alliance candidate, Sue Bolton, was one of four candidates elected. But popularity, while desirable, is not what makes demands transitional. The second justification was this: “Many demands [of the Socialist Alliance’s campaign] might appear modest but neoliberalism is going 100% in the opposite direction in every single area. Our overarching slogans of ‘Community need, not developer greed’ and ‘People before profit’ summed it up…”.

And that’s it. A transitional program, in “the transitional method”, is a collection of reasonably popular immediate and democratic demands that are contrary to neoliberalism. But wouldn’t most Green candidates, in elections at all levels, present platforms that meet those criteria? In council elections, there is probably still the rare left Labor candidate who presents such a platform. And beyond Australian elections, there are liberal Keynesians like Paul Krugman who regularly present economic recipes in the New York Times and other publications that are 100 percent against neoliberalism and supportive of democratic and immediate demands. Are all of these figures also practising “the transitional method”? If not, what is the difference?

On the only criteria stated in Holmes’ article, there is no basis for declaring that the Socialist Alliance Moreland council campaign was “transitional” but campaigns of the Greens or articles by Paul Krugman are not. The only distinction is not stated; it is implicit: it’s transitional if we do it. The Socialist Alliance intends to bring about socialism; those others do not.

Even aside from the old saying about what the road to continued capitalism is paved with, this really doesn’t help, because, as pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations develop, quite a few Greens, Keynesians and others who do not mention socialism now will decide that they are in favour of it. Some of them will even mean it, but nearly all will have inadequate ideas about how to get there. And, if it follows the method advocated in Holmes’ article, the Socialist Alliance will say to these people: “Being opposed to neoliberalism and gaining popularity is transitional, and transitional leads to socialism.” “Too right!”, many of these people will reply. “We hate neoliberalism, and we certainly want to be popular. Let’s all form an alliance with the ALP, which has now endorsed Keynesianism and can help make us popular.”

Political context

In a comment on Holmes’ article on the Links site, Daniel Lopez of Socialist Alternative argued that it was “utopian and substitutionist” to describe Socialist Alliance’s Moreland council campaign “in terms of the transitional program or the transitional method”. Lopez wrote: “Interestingly, the two major influences the article cites – Lenin and Trotsky – are explicit that their political context makes a transitional approach possible. Both strongly imply that it would be impossible outside a revolutionary context.” He cited as examples the following from Trotsky: “The present epoch is distinguished not for the fact that it frees the revolutionary party from day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried on indissolubly with the actual tasks of the revolution” and from Lenin: “The present epoch is revolutionary precisely because the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society, and the struggle for these demands is therefore bound to develop into the struggle for communism.”

Lopez’s argument is solidly based not only in the writings of Lenin and Trotsky but also in political logic. If a transitional program is a system of demands designed to lead workers’ consciousness through struggle to the need for revolution, then there cannot be such a large gap between today’s consciousness and the slogan of soviets as to make the transition impracticable or impossible. Either the present level of working class consciousness needs to be on a rung not a great distance from the top of the ladder, or the class needs to be involved in a wave of struggles such that its consciousness can rise with unusual rapidity. Otherwise, consciousness can stagnate or deteriorate, advance here and retreat there. Even though we are concerned here with the collective consciousness of the working class, which is preserved to varying degrees in its organisations, given sufficient time, capitalism will wear down a radical consciousness, and the most perfectly formulated “transitional demand” will not lead anywhere. A transitional program is possible only when the relationship of class forces makes a transition possible. And the size of the revolutionary forces is of course a crucial part of that relationship.

In a response to Lopez, Holmes first denied that Trotsky and Lenin should be understood in this way. But he then tried to argue that in the present period capitalism is in an even worse crisis than in the two earlier periods: “Obviously the situation we face today is very different to 1921 or 1938. But the crisis of capitalism remains and has actually deepened.” (This seems to be an admission of the point Holmes previously denied, since whether or not the periods are politically similar has importance only if Lenin and Trotsky were in fact making the point that a transitional program is possible only in particular political situations.)

It is true that the general, overall crisis of capitalism has deepened: capitalism is closer to wiping out human civilisation, and maybe human life, than it was 75 or 90 years ago. But that deeper crisis does not at all mean that capitalism today is closer to being overthrown; in fact, much of the depth of the crisis consists precisely of the fact that there is not a threat of capitalist overthrow equal to some that existed in 1921 or 1938. What Lenin and Trotsky were discussing in the passages quoted was not the degree of necessity of replacing capitalism, but the potential for mobilising the working class to do that in the immediate future.

Doug Lorimer’s distinction between slogans and demands should be recalled here. While “Guarantee full employment” is clearly a demand addressed to the capitalist government, there can be situations in which it is not so clear whether something is a demand or a slogan. When the Bolsheviks raised “Bread, peace and land!”, was that a slogan or a demand? Lorimer’s paper called it an “agitational or mobilising slogan”, and that is certainly what it was for the Bolsheviks, who had no illusions that the bourgeois provisional government would implement it. But for the workers and peasants who heard it, it must have meant, “This is something that should be done.” That raises the question of who should do it, but by itself doesn’t supply the answer. For at least some of the workers and peasants, it would have seemed obvious that the provisional government should be doing it. But the provisional government wasn’t doing it, so the implication is: we need a different government. As Lorimer noted, the Bolsheviks combined “Bread, peace and land!” with “All power to the soviets!” That was necessary to make “Bread, peace and land!” transitional.

Furthermore, unlike “Guarantee full employment”, no part of “Bread, peace and land!” is something contrary to the nature of capitalist government. The emergency provision of food, withdrawal from a war and even land reform don’t necessarily violate the class nature of bourgeois government. In that sense, they are demands, but not transitional demands; they are immediate demands. They could lead to revolution because of the concrete circumstances that the provisional government was unable to meet them, and the mobilised working class and peasant masses were “convinced that they [could] not go on living unless their demands [were] met”.[17]

Propaganda and agitation

The early Communist International and Trotsky in 1938 were both facing situations of widespread radicalisation, in which mass movements were fighting against particular aspects of capitalism. Their transitional slogans were intended to move a mass audience already in struggle to follow a particular course of action. That is, they were primarily agitational, not propagandistic. (Of course, neither the Comintern nor Trotsky thought that the use of transitional slogans did away with the need for systematic propaganda. Even in pre-revolutionary situations, both are necessary, because different layers of the population and different individuals radicalise at different times and different rates.)

The attempt to formulate and implement a transitional program when there is not a widespread radicalisation, when mass movements are not fighting against aspects of capitalism, runs up against the problem that there is little audience for agitation. People aren’t very susceptible to slogans about how to take a struggle forward when they aren’t involved in one. In such a period, Marxist ideas about the socialist future will necessarily be primarily propaganda. There is nothing passive or sectarian about recognising and adjusting political activities to such a situation, provided that the situation is evaluated correctly and that we remain alert to even partial changes in it and to opportunities to encourage the molecular processes that can help to speed the arrival of the next major radicalisation.

In fact, in the course of the discussion of Dave Holmes’ article on the Links page, Holmes and Chris Slee (another long-time DSP-Socialist Alliance member, who defended Holmes’ position) eventually acknowledged that Socialist Alliance’s “transitional demand” for nationalisations is intended as propaganda, not agitation. Thus Chris Slee wrote: “In the short term, the demand for nationalisation is a theme for propaganda… But if it gets a good response it could become a theme for mass action at a later stage.” The hope for future mass action only emphasises the present absence of any dynamic that could be called transitional. Similarly, Holmes wrote: “Socialist Alliance intends to raise the call to nationalise the mining/resource sector and the banks. We think it is very important to make propaganda around this issue.”

Propaganda around nationalisation of mining, banks and/or other industries is certainly worthwhile. But the propaganda has to be accurate, not distorted by the illusion that it is agitation, something that can set a course for masses who are already in motion. Propaganda requires detailed content and explanation, including about the need for a revolution to replace the bourgeois state. If that is lacking, those who hear the propaganda will tend to substitute bourgeois ideas for the missing explanations.

When I raised this caveat in a comment on Holmes’ article, he replied that there was nothing to worry about:

We have already started explaining our nationalisation call through articles in Green Left Weekly and through Socialist Alliance statements. Obviously a lot more needs to be done. Our candidates will also highlight the issue.

It is worth noting that our draft document Towards a Socialist Australia calls for the main elements of the economy to be owned and controlled by society.

This is not very reassuring. Of course Socialist Alliance propaganda explains why nationalisation is necessary. But what its propaganda has been noticeably lacking is an explanation of what is necessary before the economy can be really “owned and controlled by society”. The word “socialism” of course appears, but there is nothing that clearly indicates the need to replace the capitalist state with a proletarian state, or even with the transitional formation of a workers’ government. Towards a Socialist Australia is at best vague on state power, suggesting no course to social ownership and control of the economy that does not pass through electing a government of “popular forces” in the capitalist parliament and then mobilising “to defend any progressive moves” it may choose to make.[18]

Nor did Socialist Alliance propaganda for the 2013 federal election campaign address in any form the need for a workers’ government. Indeed, remarkably for an election platform, the Socialist Alliance broadsheet[19] avoided questions of government: while there were numerous statements about desirable policies that “the government” could or should implement, there was no mention of what kind of government would be necessary to do this. Far from being transitional, the broadsheet pointed readers no further than electing good parliamentarians.

Communist Manifesto

In an earlier comment on Holmes’ Links article, I challenged his claim that his idea of “the transitional method” originates in the Communist Manifesto. He had written: “It [the Manifesto] contains 10 demands outlining what a revolutionary workers’ government would do. This is very much a transitional program, which, if carried out would constitute a huge step in moving towards socialism.”

The 10 points were neither demands nor elements of a transitional program. They were not demands, because Marx and Engels did not address these points to either existing governments or capitalists, as measures that they should be forced to carry out. They were not a transitional program, because they were not slogans designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow existing governments; rather, Marx and Engels clearly described them as measures that would be carried out by a future workers’ government – that is, after the capitalist government had been overthrown.

In a reply to me, Holmes persisted with trying to abolish the difference between a “transitional program” – a series of slogans to mobilise the working class to seize power – and “transitional measures” – actions that would need to be taken by the workers after they had seized power. He did this simply by repeating the claim that they are the same thing:

Allen says I am wrong to call them “demands” and am “even more wrong” when I say “they constitute a transitional program”. If this is the case, I have a number of fellow sinners.

For instance, Doug Lorimer, today a comrade of Allen’s in the RSP, in his introduction to the Resistance Books edition of the Transitional Program, refers to them as “the first such system of transitional measures”.[20]

I had pointed out that a program for the overthrow of a capitalist government and measures enacted by a revolutionary government are quite different things. Holmes’ reply amounts only to saying, “But they are both transitional.”

The 10 measures proposed by Marx and Engels would be part of “despotic inroads” on capitalist property rights by a workers’ government and would therefore be part of the transition from a capitalist state to a workers’ state, so it is quite accurate to call them “transitional measures” to the dictatorship of the proletariat by a workers’ or workers and farmers’ government that has replaced the capitalist government. But the word “transitional” cannot make revolutionary slogans into the same thing as the measures enacted by a revolutionary government. That would be like saying that a “socialist party” and a “socialist government” are the same thing because both are socialist.

Holmes then went even further in trivialising the meaning of “transitional”: “These measures are transitional in the sense that even for a newly installed workers’ government the elimination of capitalism is a process. It moves forward both as the technical-material conditions come into existence and as popular political support consolidates.”[21]

Here, “transitional” is reduced to meaning only “part of a process”. Is there anything that happens in the world that is not part of a process?

Two consequences

The persistent and multiple confusion about what is transitional seems to have had at least two consequences. The first was to lend the Socialist Alliance tactic the aura of a revolutionary strategy by identifying it with Lenin, Trotsky and the Transitional Program. For instance, in the DSP internal debate over Socialist Alliance, Holmes used the following argument at least twice: “In the early 1920s, after the big post-war upsurge in Europe had somewhat subsided, the Comintern promulgated the line of the united front with the social-democratic and other currents in the working class. Other tactics on the road to the mass revolutionary party include regroupments, entry work in other parties and building broad transitional formations.”[22] You still have to read that passage very carefully in order to realise that Holmes didn’t quite say that the early 1920s Comintern advocated “building broad transitional formations” – which of course it didn’t.

This use of “transitional” by the DSP majority was prophetically described by the reporter for the minority at the October 2006 meeting of the DSP National Committee:

The original justification for the [Socialist Alliance] turn was that it would allow us to grow our cadre core relatively rapidly from within the new party. Four years on, there’s still no new party and the DSP is diminished in every sense.

So a new justification had to be invented, the so-called “transitional approach” to Leninist party-building…

[T]he evidence is overwhelming that this line has been a disaster for the DSP… So what is this “transitional form” really useful for? It’s the transitional form of the DSP on its way to becoming S[ocialist] A[lliance].[23]

The second consequence of the confusion between slogans, measures and organisations is the illusion that there is something called “the transitional method” that can prevent the degeneration of a revolutionary socialist organisation’s politics into reformism. We have already seen that Holmes considers some demands as inherently transitional, regardless of the circumstances in which they are raised. That idea is defended, at least implicitly, by the claim that there is an overarching “transitional method” autonomous from political content.

The early Comintern’s and Trotsky’s ideas of transitional slogans or transitional programs were inseparable from the goal of mobilising the working class to overthrow the capitalist state. Trotsky clearly described a transitional program as an inseparable combination of method and goal: relating to the current consciousness of the working class and leading it forward to the struggle for power. When Socialist Alliance leaders put the Communist Manifesto and the Socialist Alliance Moreland Council election campaign in the same box on the argument that both are examples of “the transitional method”, they are artificially separating goal from method, focusing only on the latter and putting the goal off to the never-never. The elevation of “the transitional method” above the actual content of the demands raised means relating to the current consciousness of the working class and hoping that these demands might somehow lead to better opportunities in the future, but without having any real idea of how that might happen. In this way, Holmes’ “transitional method” ends up re-creating the old division between minimum and maximum programs. The main substantive difference is that now the maximum program is ignored almost completely, because bicycle paths and the like have been declared an inherent part of the “transitional method” leading to socialist revolution.

“Party building perspectives report”, Activist 17 (8), September 2007.

“Party Building report”, Activist 17 (4), May 2007.

“Party building counter- report and summary” Activist 16 (7), October 2006.

Communist International, 1980 [1921], “On Tactics”, in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Ink Links,

Holmes, Dave, 2013, “In defence of the transitional method”,

Holmes, Dave, 2006, “The transitional approach to party-building”, Activist 16 (7), October.

Holmes, Dave, 2005, “A project worth persevering with”, Activist 15 (23), December.

Lenin, V.I., 1921, “Fourth Anniversary of the October Revolution”,

Lorimer, Doug, 2009, “RSP constitution and program”, RSP Discussion Bulletin 1 (1), March.

Trotsky, Leon, 1936, The Revolution Betrayed,

Trotsky, Leon, 1938, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, 1938/tp/index.htm.

Trotsky, Leon, 1973 [1938], “The Political Backwardness of the American Workers”, in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press.

[1] I was an active partisan of the minority in the DSP, and was expelled with the other members of the minority in 2008. We regrouped as the Revolutionary Socialist Party. In 2012, Socialist Alternative proposed that we explore the possibility of combining our two organisations on the basis of our common view of current revolutionary tasks in Australia and agreement to disagree about and discuss at leisure historical and other questions that do not immediately impact on revolutionary work here. The unity process was completed at the time of the Marxism 2013 conference. The former members of the RSP did not consider it necessary to continue any form of separate organisation or discussion within Socialist Alternative, so this article reflects only my own opinion, except where indicated otherwise.

[2] Activist 17 (4), p35.

[3] Activist 17 (8), p38.

[4] The translation I have used here is from the Wikipedia article on Reform or Revolution. The Rosa Luxemburg Archive, luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/intro.htm, has a less felicitous “The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”

[5] Lenin, 1921.

[6] For example, Trotsky, 1936, concluding paragraph.

[7] Trotsky, 1973.

[8] Trotsky, 1938, section “The Minimum Program and the Transitional Program”.

[9] Holmes, 2013. Replies and comments to this article quoted below are appended to the original web page.

[10] Trotsky, 1938, Part One.

[11] Trotsky, 1938, Part One.

[12] Communist International, 1980.

[13] Lorimer, 2009, p27.

[14] Holmes, 2005, p4. Emphasis in original.

[15] Holmes, 2006, p60.

[16] Holmes, 2013.

[17] Communist International, 1980.

[18] The document has gone through several versions, and is still considered a “draft”. The latest version can be found at http://socialist-australia.blogspot. For two more detailed criticisms, see my articles at and

[19] Available at An “issue 2” of the election broadsheet appeared on the Socialist Alliance website during the campaign. It had essentially the same content as the first issue, and was later removed from the website, so I presume it was not produced.

[20] Holmes, 2013.

[21] Holmes, 2013.

[22] Holmes, 2005, p5.

[23] Activist 16 (7), p50. Emphasis in original.

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