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Introduction to the Irish version of the Transitional Programme (An Tidirchlar)

The Transitional Programme: An Introduction 
by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght 

April 2013

One of the greatest excuses for the denunciation of Bolshevik-Leninism is the document entitled officially The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, better known as The Transitional Programme. There are essentially three excuses for such attacks. The first is that transitional demands are simply impossible demands because they cannot be achieved without weakening the bourgeois state. The second is that they do not provide a programme for government. The third objection is that they are revisions of Marxist practice.

The first objection to transitional demands is true enough. Such demands are made to mobilise workers and the intermediate classes to the task of overthrowing the state. They are not aimed at being achievable within its limits, though, as the revolution continues postponed, isolated demands might be so achieved. In this matter, there are two dangers. One is that, in times of reaction, such has been prevalent over the last three decades, such demands be abandoned altogether in favour of proposals more obviously achievable. The fact is that transitional proposals have to be maintained by a revolutionary political party if only as propaganda to maintain a conscious group that can transmit these ideas to arm the awakened revolutionary people. On the other hand, in times of political regression, these demands should not be an excuse to abstain from participating in campaigns for demands that fall short of challenging for state power. Rather, those who uphold them should join such campaigns and participate actively in them whilst emphasising the superiority of their formulations to their allies in struggle.

The second objection to the concept of transitional demands, that it they do not constitute a programme for government is partly true. Though as an isolated unit unaffected by outside powers, a state government could be administered according to the internal measures proposed, an actual government pledged to implement them would have to escalate or decelerate such implementation according to the state of the international class struggle. This is why the Transitional Programme is an attempt, although inadequate, to unite the exploited and oppressed in support of all demands that challenge capitalist states and service the international class struggle. It should not be necessary to add that this differentiates the Transitional Programme from the programmes of the bourgeois and petit bourgeois parties that are designed to be the prerogative of governments to apply and, all too often to abandon without interference from those who made them.

The third objection, that the Programme is a revision of the Marxist norm of presenting minimum and maximum programmes is simply untrue. The minimum/maximum dichotomy is, in fact, a dilution of the first attempt at a Transitional Programme as presented by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Manifesto of the Communist Party:

The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.
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.

There follows a set of ten measures “generally applicable” to the developed countries in which the Communist League was organised. Even at the time, the authors recognised that “these measures will of course be different in different countries”. Within a quarter century, they qualified this statement further:

The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the abiding historical conditions, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II.

They backed this statement with the examples of “the gigantic strides of Modern Industry in the last twenty-five years” and the experiences of the working class movement in the 1848 revolutions and in the Paris Commune.

This was reasonable. Even in Europe major national struggles had still to be won and national development was even less even than it is today. They might have given a more detailed critical analysis of their ten proposals. These are a mixture of transitional, utopian, maximum and minimum. Four of them, those calling for a graduated income tax, the nationalisation of credit and of transport and free education would make their appearances in the future minimum programmes of social democracy (including that of James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP). Of the other measures, the first, the undoubtedly transitional abolition of property in land and state monopoly of rent would be abandoned by social democracy and the “extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state” would be limited and made gradual. 

Marx and Engels themselves would oppose the Anarchists’ demand to assert the Manifesto’s demand to end the right of inheritance. Belonging still more to the long-term was the plan to abolish gradually “the distinction between town and country”, though it was more possible in 1848 than it would be today. On the other hand the call to establish “industrial armies, especially for agriculture” is to be described as “distopian” in the light of Stalin’s highjacking of the Soviet experiment.

Where Marx and Engels failed was in developing the Manifesto proposals to greater relevance to the changing times.  They had enough to do, of course, having to repel attacks from the reformist followers of Ferdinand Lassalle on the right and from the Anarchists on the ultra-left. In particular, Marx’s Critique of the Gatha Programme was an attack on the Lassalleans. Engels similar critique of the Erfurt Programme gives half its space to that programme’s weakness on political issues. 

Marxists of different countries did try to develop programmes applicable to their “abiding historical conditions”. Like the British socialists whose ten point programme was copied by Connolly in the IRSP they kept a large proportion of the Manifesto’s demands and sometimes improved upon them. The inheritance ban went out, as did the industrial army and the expropriation of emigrant and rebel property. On the other hand, not only was the abolition of the distinction between town and country dropped, but so was the more immediate demand that made it unnecessary, “the combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries” (particularly relevant in Ireland). Excluded, too, was Marx and Engels’ first demand, “abolition of property in land”. In their place were two political democratic demands -  “Universal suffrage” (too obvious to be listed in 1848, but still unachieved an half century later) and democratic control of education, besides (the desirable “Free maintenance for all children” and the 48 hour week and the minimum wage. The only specific rural demand concerned the state leasing out agricultural equipment to farmers. Overall, on the central issue of the Manifesto, the abolition of private property, there was a retreat. Credit was to be expropriated by the state and centralised still, however insincere those advocating it, but the “means of communication and transport” for such treatment were now to be limited to railways and canals. The “extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state” had become “gradual extension of the principle of public ownership to all necessities of public life” with no clarification of any immediate expropriation. The ISRP’s most incendiary demand was in its title: an Irish Republic; its socialist nature could frighten the bourgeoisie; in the form presented here, it could not mobilise the workers and oppressed against them.

Part of this was due to the change in circumstances since 1848. The Manifesto had been produced in a developing European revolutionary situation to give direction to worker insurgents. Despite two successive working class internationals, and a short-lived workers city-state (the Paris Commune), nothing as quantitatively serious had taken place since then. Despite this the numbers of the self-proclaimed followers of Marx had multiplied. As he had stated in his Gotha Critique, he and Engels allowed their parties to make their specific demands according to “the abiding historical conditions”, intervening only to assert the principles that were to decide them.  What they saw only vaguely was that “abiding historical conditions” were having a negative effect on their followers’ consciousness deeper because less conscious than what could be formulated programmatically. The capitalist states of Europe and America had not been smashed. If anything they seemed stronger than before 1848. Bismarck had replaced the ramshackle German Confederacy with an imperial federacy dominated by the victorious Prussian army. In its moment of national defeat, the French capitalist state rallied to smash the Paris Commune. The slump of ‘73 (the largest before that of 1929) heralded not revolution but the collapse of the First International. On the other hand, capitalist states could reform in the direction of socialism. This was shown by Bismarck; even while he suppressed the new German Social Democratic Party, he was creating a welfare state and nationalising the German Railways. Many followers of Marx began to query whether revolution was either a necessary or practical way for the workers to achieve state power let alone socialism. Might it not be possible for them to capture the existing capitalist state machine and subvert it to serve their own ends?

Except for a small but growing group of “possibilists” (later “revisionists”), these speculations remained unformulated. While they lived, Marx and Engels were scathing about Bismarck’s “state socialism” which they distinguished from the real thing. Yet, in his Gotha Critique Marx stated that “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” and the manhood suffrage of the German Empire provided opportunities for his followers to take such steps at the polls. Accordingly, the demands of their parties were tailored to win votes rather than to prepare the workers to seize power for themselves.  The one demand on which the masses were to be mobilised outside the polling booths was that of universal suffrage, since without this, even the revisionists saw no future in parliamentarism. With the vote, social democratic demands were aimed at pleasing the electorate, forming Minimum Programmes, with socialism relegated to utopian maximum.

This programmatic regression was the more effective for being implicit, except, sometime, when open revisionists gave the game away. Marx died when it was still relatively undeveloped. Engels only began to realise what was happening on his deathbed when he found his German comrades had censored his introduction to Marx's Class Struggles in France to remove any suggestion that the revolutionary way was the necessary one. Three years later, Engels’ former protege, the German Social Democrat, Eduard Bernstein published his Evolutionary Socialism, giving a theoretical base of his party’s practice. Though this was attacked by the party leaders, they were handicapped because Bernstein was doing no more than justifying their practice. The next year, the revisionist Alexandre Millerand joined his country’s government on the excuse that he would be better able to defend democracy from clericalist and militarists. Like Connolly in Ireland, the future revolutionaries of Russia denounced Bernstein and Millerand but were ready to accept the minimum programme because it was obvious that there was an immediate need for a democratic revolution even to begin agitation for minimum demands.

However, there was one voice that was not restrained in its criticism of Bernstein. In her articles that became the pamphlet Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg declared on the first page, “between social reforms and revolution there exists for the social democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution its aim.”   

She adds, all too prophetically:-

As soon as “immediate results” become the principle aim of our activity, the clear-cut, irreconcilable point of view, which has meaning only insofar as it proposes to win power, will be found more and more inconvenient. The direct consequence of this will be the adoption by the party of a “policy of compensation”, a policy of political training, and a diffident, diplomatic conciliation. But this attitude cannot be continued for a long time. Since the social reforms can only offer an empty promise, the logical consequence of such a programme must necessarily be disillusionment.       
Although Rosa Luxemburg warned of the results of following a strategy expressed in the division of its programme into minimum and maximum agendas, she did not offer any unified alternative as had the Manifesto. Probably, such a task required the stimulus not of a polemic against revisionism but of nothing less than a developing revolutionary situation that would concentrate socialist minds.

Within five years, such a situation began in Russia.  A leading figure in the process was Leon Trotsky who became the second President of the St Petersburg soviet before it was smashed by the tsarist regime. Even before the revolution caught fire in January 1905, Trotsky had shocked his comrades be predicting that the success of such a rising would depend on the parties of the proletariat taking power, though he did not raise the issue of how it would be able to win the support of Russia’s majority of peasants. As the struggle continued, he developed this idea, showing that a working class revolutionary government could not stop with liberal reforms or, even the reforms of the minimum programme, but would have to introduce immediately rather than gradually the expropriation of capitalist enterprises. The barrier between the “minimum” and the “maximum” programme disappears immediately the proletariat comes to power.  After the defeat of the revolution, he developed the idea to extend the programme to attract the peasantry by adding to the basic, and bourgeois, demand for land nationalisation the promise of the expropriation and collectivisation of the landlords’ estates. Finally, he insisted on the need to spread the revolution to success in Europe if it were to secure all its gains and achieve socialism. 

With counter-revolution in Russia and agitation short of revolution elsewhere, the matter rested.  Social Democracy continued with its dual programme until the first World War began to telescope social contradictions into overall revolutionary situations. In Ireland, James Connolly read the signs and prepared for revolution, jettisoning in the process his dual programme of twenty years before:-
As the propertied classes have so shamelessly sold themselves to the enemy, the economic conscription of their property will cause few qualms to whomsoever shall administer the Irish Government in the first days of freedom.
All the material of distribution - the railways, the canals, and all their equipment will at once become the national property of the Irish state. All the land stolen from the Irish people in the past, and not since restored in some manner to the actual tillers of the soil, ought at once to be confiscated and made the property of the Irish state.... All factories and workshops owned by people who do not yield allegiance to the Irish Government immediately upon its proclamation should at once be confiscated, and their productive powers applied to the service of the community loyal to Ireland, and to the army in its service. 
It was substantially with this programme that Connolly formed a revolutionary alliance with a section of the nationalist petit bourgeoisie.

He was unsuccessful for two reasons. Firstly, as Lenin commented, he and his allies misjudged their timing. Secondly, by his acceptance of the syndicalist industrial union form of organisation as the proper form of leadership for the workers and their allies to seize state power, he had not built any political organisation of trained revolutionary socialists to execute such a role. Without him, the Labour leaders concentrated on building their organisation giving only spasmodic support to the struggle for state power being waged between the Irish Republic and the British monarchy.

The immediate prospects of social revolution shifted to Russia. In 1917, in what the calendar there called February (March to most of the rest of the civilised world), a rising of the working class in Petrograd spread to other centres and overthrew the Tsar only to be hijacked by the liberals in the absence of a strong revolutionary party.  The outstanding claimants for the role of such a party, the Bolsheviks were guided by their acceptance of a strict reading of the theory that a bourgeois democratic regime had to be established before there could be any question of socialism. They moved towards supporting the new Provisional Government, although it was failing spectacularly to act even on basic democratic demands and there was a potential working class alternative to it in the shape of the soviets. 

In April, the Bolshevik leader, Lenin arrived from exile and convinced his party to change its line. He declared that the objective potential for a working class seizure of power had existed in February, and that it was only subjective organisational weakness that prevented its achievement. Now it was time to make up for lost ground. Accordingly, he presented a set of ten Transitional Demands (The April Theses) with which his party was to convince the workers and peasants to take power for themselves. The war had to be ended, state power had to be placed in the hands of the soviets, the army and the police had to be disbanded and replaced by the arming of the whole people, the bureaucracy would be replaced by elective and replaceable officials, the land should be nationalised, the estates expropriated and model farms established thereon, the banks would be nationalised, the soviets would supervise production, the Bolshevik party would rename itself “the Communist Party” and act to initiate a new, Third International.

On this programme, the party called for now still Bolshevik led the workers to take state power in October/November 1917. Across the world, Socialists were inspired by its example. In Germany, the empire’s defeat led to the creation of a Communist Party too weak and inexperienced to lead the numerically strong working class to power. Its task was made completely impossible by the murder of the party’s leaders, Karl Liebknecht the agitator, Rosa Luxemburg the theorist and Leo Jogiches the organiser on orders from their former comrades in the capitalist government. (Before this, the British Labour politician, Arthur Henderson had sat in the British cabinet that allowed the execution of Connolly.)

Before her death, Rosa Luxemburg addressed the founding convention of her party and developed her earlier arguments on the programme:-

Our deliberately opposed to the separation of the immediate and so-called minimum demands formulated for the political and economic struggle, from the socialist goal regarded as a maximum programme...We liquidate the results of seventy years of revolution . . . we liquidate, above all, the primary results of the war, saying that we know nothing of minimum and maximum programmes; we know only one thing, socialism is the minimum we are going to secure. 
Outside Russia, the new Communist Parties were unclear as to what was involved in abandoning the dual programme approach. The new set of demands praised by Luxemburg were a rehash of those of the Communist Manifesto plus one of all power to the German workers and soldiers’ councils.

Other attempts at such demands were even worse. The new Hungarian Communist Party failed because of its inability to understand the land question: it attempted to initiate the maximum programme from the beginning. Still, it is difficult to see how such risings would have been more successful with the old dual programme approach.

Certainly, the new Communist International did not think they could have done better. At its third World Congress in June 1921, it passed a set of “Theses on Tactics”. The fifth thesis, “Partial Struggles and Partial Demands” declared:-

In place of the minimum programme of the reformists and centrists, the Communist International puts the struggle for the concrete needs of the proletariat, for a system of demands which in their totality disintegrate the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat, represent stages in the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship, and each of which expresses in itself the need of the broadest masses, even if the masses themselves are not yet consciously in favour of the proletarian dictatorship... The task of the Communist Parties is to extend, to deepen and to win this struggle for concrete demands... It is not a question of proclaiming the final goal to the proletariat, but of intensifying the practical struggle which is the only way of leading the the proletariat to the struggle for the final goal.   
At its next Congress, Nicolai Bukharin presented to delegates a resolution agreed by himself, Lenin, Trosky, Zinoviev and Radek (a resolution about which he seems to have had doubts ). In it, for the first time, the term “traditional demands2 was used;-


1. All draft programmes shall be submitted to the Executive of the Communist International or to a committee appointed by it for study and detailed examination. The Executive is obliged to publish all draft programmes which it receives as quickly as possible.

2. The Congress confirms that those national sections of the Communist International which do not yet have programmes are obliged to begin at once on the drafting of their programmes which shall be submitted to the Executive at least three months before the next Congress for ratification by the next Congress.

3. The programmes of the national sections must clearly and decisively establish the necessity of the struggle for transitional demands, making the necessary reservations about the dependence of these demands on the concrete circumstances of time and place.

4. The theoretical basis for all transitional and partial demands must be clearly stated in the general programme, and the Fourth Congress likewise decisively condemns the attempt to depict the inclusion of transitional demands in the programme as opportunism, as well as all attempts to gloss over or replace the fundamental revolutionary tasks by partial demands. 

5. The general programme must clearly explain the basic historical types of the transitional demands of the national sections in accordance with the basic differences in the economic and political structure of the different countries, for example England on the one hand and India on the other. 

The Sixth Congress of the International did not come for six years due to the defeats occasioning and occasioned by the continued isolation of Soviet Russia and the rise of Stalinism.  When the projected programme was presented to it, it was revealed that, with Stalin’s encouragement, the draughtsman, Bukharin, had revived his hostility to transitional demands and presented a type of Socialist International dual programme, suitable for the old revisionist perspective of the achievement of a socialist society in a single country. It was left to Trotsky in exile to present the set of such demands that is reproduced here, in Irish for the first time.

They were not intended as a final or as an universal programme, rather as a programmatic framework within which to co-ordinate the strategies of the sections of the new Fourth International, and to be a reference point on which such sections and the International itself would campaign to take power.

In sixty-four years, this Programme has not been changed to any great degree. This fact reflects a general situation in which successful revolution has not occurred outside the colonial/semi-colonial world. This failure is due partially to the notorious divisions in the world Bolshevik-Leninist movement, going back to Trotsky’s time but worsening after his death. What is more significant is that these divisions were fostered by conditions outside the movement. It had expected not only that there would be an imperialist war but that such a struggle would end either in a Fascist victory or as the stimulus to world socialist revolution. Instead, with all its deformities, the Soviet Union was strong enough to defeat a Fascist Axis that reflected the extreme irrationality of capitalism and could not use its potential diplomatic strength against its strongest enemies. In this struggle, the Soviet Union could not and would not wage a revolutionary war. Instead, it relied on the brute strength of the Red Army and agreements to divide the world with its capitalist allies. (The partition of Korea has been the most lasting expression of this wheeler dealing.)  The world settled down to nearly half a century of cold war between imperialism and Stalinism, with the forces of the latter gaining some victories, outstandingly in China, which they ascribed, in part, to the superiority of their revolutionary stages strategy and to the related dual programme, but which was achieved by superior armed force in countries in which capitalism was not developed enough to enjoy the benefits of prosperous democracy. Among the imperialist metropoles, the wartime boom was extended long enough to make capitalism appear a more attractive option to Stalinised Communism and to see its rival collapse in its Russian heartland and in the satellites that it had been allotted after the second World War. Encouraged by the capitalist media, these facts seemed to prove to all too many that capitalism had recovered from what had seemed its death agony and that the Transitional Programme was essentially irrelevant. 

Today, the blessings of capitalism are less obvious than they were. The world is assured that the recession is at an end, yet unemployment stands at its highest level since the 1930s and, unlike then, commodity prices are not falling while capitalism is not raising living conditions across the world. The objective situation is closer to that of the1930s than it has been since that decade. Even the long vanquished form of Fascism is returning in the metropoles, aided by the capitalist governments’ actual and projected constitutional reforms that are aimed invariably at weakening democracy.

The problem is that the after-effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union is still influencing popular assumptions, while the endemic divisions with which the days of its prosperity infected the actual self-proclaimed heirs of Trotsky continue and tend to negate the fact that these heirs are more numerous than seventy years ago.  Moreover, they operate in a political culture more resistant to the general idea of socialism, In much of the developing world, resistance to imperialism is expressed through movements hamstrung, on the one hand, particularly in the Muslim world, by religious superstition and, on the other, notably in Latin America, by straight populism, both enabling their executors only to embarrass imperialism rather than replace its control of their countries.  In the metropolitan world, the siren voices of the ruling classes and their organs (as well as the leaderships of the largest official working class parties) repeat two messages. One is, of course, that socialism has been tried and has failed. The other is that what is needed is more rather than less brutal capitalism, with stronger states governing in the interests of that international capital that is ruining most of their citizens. Even the fig leaf of capitalist economic planning has been abandoned.

All that can be done here is reassert the truths of the Transitional Programme more widely than before because more relevant than they have been since they were published. To help this process is the reason why this edition is being published.

The demands are read best here. There are still omissions that can and must be repaired. Sexual discrimination requires more attention than is provided here; the slogan, Open the Road to the Woman Workers is not a substitute for specific demands. The effect of production for profit upon the environment requires more definite socialist proposals. All that is to be said further is to emphasise two particularly relevant facts. The first is that the capitalist offensive cannot be stopped unless socialists are willing to assert their leadership in the struggle to satisfy the needs of the workers and the oppressed. The second is that the method of the Transitional Programme is not simply to list demands for the workers’ representatives in government to execute on behalf of their followers. It is a programme to mobilise the masses to size power and then to force their delegated representatives to execute it, even if it means going beyond it. The time for this is overdue.  


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