Chris Bambery discusses Trotsky's attempts to use transitional demands to relate socialist ideas to the real world
This is the ultimate issue for any socialist serious about changing society.
Some socialists feel they have found the Holy Grail of revolutionary ideas when they read Leon Trotsky’s 1938 manifesto of world revolution, ‘The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International’.
For generations of orthodox Trotskyists the conclusion was simple – to get a revolution you need to get the right programme. In reality that trapped them in a dead end. Why?
In 1938 Trotsky was aware, very aware, his time was short. Stalin had ordered his death and the KGB would not rest until they had carried out his order. World war was on the horizon and Trotsky believed the Russian regime could not survive it, being either overthrown by the working class or supplanted by private capitalism. Trotsky expected the war would be the last conflict, followed by international revolution.
By 1938 when the Fourth International gathered it was, arguably, weaker than at any time in the decade long history of the Trotskyist opposition. The revolutionary wave of 1934-36 had ebbed, the Stalinist Communist Parties had emerged much stronger and Stalin’s terror and show trials were in full swing, all of which added to the isolation of the Trotskyists.
What Trotsky attempted in 1938 was to leave his followers a strategic road map for the coming storm of war and revolution.
The ‘Transitional Programme’ as it became known, was written as a manifesto for a new international – but this didn’t reflect the facts on the ground. Trotsky had a small group around him, not a mass organisation of people capable of agitating for his programme on a global scale, which is what his programme demanded. The programme is magnificent in many ways, but it doesn’t relate to the needs of socialists at that point in time.
Transitional demands, agitation, propaganda and concrete propaganda.
The document was centred upon putting forward ‘transitional demands’. This was a concept developed at the 4th Congress of the Communist International in 1922.
In the old, pre-1914 social democratic parties there had been two programmes, a minimum one for immediate, attainable demands, and a maximum one for when a socialist society could be built. Naturally the first became the guide to daily work and was shorn of any revolutionary ambition while the latter was relegated to late night utopian chatter between socialists.
Transitional demands were aimed at bridging the gap between the two by raising demands which were achievable but challenged the hegemony of the existing order. In other words they pose the question of power.
These cannot be cast in stone, they flow from the specific needs of the struggle. For example, tax the rich was in no way a transitional demand in the boom years which followed World War 2. Today it is a fundamentally counter-hegemonic demand which raises the question of who should pay for the crisis, who caused it, why a tiny minority subordinate the rest of us and challenges the hegemony of free-market ideology. Thus even the hint of a tiny increase in tax for the super rich brings shrill cries that they’ll all flee abroad leaving economic devastation behind!
The Russian Marxist, Plekhanov, conceptualised how socialists put forward ideas. He differentiated between propaganda – many ideas addressed to a few – and agitation – few ideas addressed to many.
Socialists must always be engaged in both. You can make a great speech to popular acclaim but the follow up means sitting down afterwards to win a smaller number to your strategy, tactics and revolutionary ideas.
One more category is necessary – concrete propaganda. Sometimes we engage in concrete propaganda to gain support among a significant minority to the extent that it can move onto become a demand which wins majority support among the working class as the struggle further develops.
Just over a year ago the argument that we needed a general strike to defeat austerity began to pick up weight beyond the far left, in other words it began to become concrete propaganda. But many of those who championed the message began raising it 24/7 as an agitational demand which did not match the dominant mood of the working class. There’s no point agitating for a general strike if you cannot realistically advance it one iota.
You can raise the most brilliant demands in the world, such as the Trotskyists did in Spain and France in 1934-36, but they correspond to little if you do not have the social weight to translate them into a real force in society.
Trotsky produced a brilliant action programme for France in 1934. This was far superior to his 1938 effort. Trotsky was living in France and the programme was written specifically for French conditions. Its brilliance nevertheless was not matched by the abilities of his supporters in France, and it therefore had little impact on events.
The October 1917 Bolshevik programme ‘Bread, Peace and Land, All Power to the Soviets’ was the most simple, and therefore the best. The old order could not deliver the first three, which were what the Russian people yearned for, and the Bolsheviks said in the simplest terms how the Soviets could deliver all three demands. Brilliant!
Antonio Gramsci often quoted Romain Rolland’s maxim “Pessimism of the intelligence, Optimism of the will”. I take this to mean combining an accurate assessment of what’s going on in the real world with an ambition about the possibilities to take history into our own hands. If this method is taken seriously, then transitional demands can be a useful way of thinking about how to project socialist ideas.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.