What actually is the transitional programme and method? This short article aims to help explain the Trotskyist approach to formulating a programme, and broadly follows on from some of the points we have previously made on the issue [1].

Replacing the Minimum Programme

  1. As Trotsky explained in the Transitional Programme, “the old ‘minimal program’ is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution.”[2] What this means is that we do not mechanically separate the demand for improving the livelihood of the working class from the ‘maximal’ goal of socialist revolution and the achievement of a workers’ state and planned economy.
  2. This does not imply, however, that minimal demands, for example, for [defence of] trade union rights, disappear from our programme. What makes a programme “transitional” is the combination of bourgeois-democratic, minimal and transitional demands that point towards the need for socialist revolution, but without explicitly declaring the need for the armed insurrection, at least not until a revolutionary period. As Trotsky noted : “[T]he end of the [transitional] program is not complete because we don’t speak here about the social revolution, about the seizure of power by insurrection, the transformation of capitalist society into the dictatorship, the dictatorship into the socialist society. This brings the reader only to the doorstep. It is a program for action from today until the beginning of the socialist revolution. And from the practical point of view what is now the most important is how can we guide the different strata of the proletariat in the direction of the social revolution.” [my emphasis] [3]

Transitional Demands

  1. So what then makes a demand transitional? Quite simply, a transitional demand is one which cannot (except in the most rare and extreme situations) be achieved under the objective conditions of capitalism, but appeals to workers on the basis of their current subjective consciousness. In a non-revolutionary period, calls for revolution and armed insurrection carry no echo with workers. These ‘maximum’ demands are either too abstract or too ahead of workers’ consciousness. Thus, transitional demands are applied to bridge the gap between the objective situation (the need for socialist revolution) and the subjective consciousness of the workers (to improve and reform their lives).
  2. A transitional demand is ultimately to help workers realise the objective situation, not to sow illusions in a reformist solution to capitalist crisis. Unfortunately, elected Socialist Alternative (US section of CWI) councillor Kshama Sawant eschewed the need for transitional demands in her Seattle Council electoral programme. Despite being described as a “limited transitional programme” (by a SA member on Facebook), nearly all the demands in her electoral programme [4] are actually reforms that do not infringe on the logic of capitalism. Whilst we support the winning of reforms for the working class and should advance reforms as part of a transitional programme, a programme that consists  primarily of reforms ceases to be transitional. The few demands that, in the correct context, could have become transitional demands were: “Raise the minimum wage to $15/hr”, “End homelessness in Seattle” and “The council should campaign for immediate, unconditional citizenship rights for all undocumented immigrants”.

Reformist Demands vs. Transitional Demands

  1. The demand to “end homelessness” directly followed the demand “we need rent controls!”, implying that homelessness could be abolished if the council (state) implemented regulation on private business. Again, we would support the call for rent controls – but a transitional programme to build socialist consciousness must go further. A correct transitional demand to “end homelessness” would be: “Expropriate the housing stock of Seattle’s billionaire landlords and allocate accommodation based on need, not profit!”

The demand that “The council should campaign for immediate, unconditional citizenship rights for all undocumented immigrants” implies that the workers are to be passive in such a fight, and that only “the council” should do it on behalf of the workers. A better demand would be: “For workers and unemployed to organise for unconditional citizenship rights for all immigrants.” And also “End racist discrimination! Equal pay for equal work, no exemptions!”

The last demand clearly leads on to the call for “$15/hr minimum wage”. However, it should be clearly stamped with “No exemptions!”. Unfortunately, Sawant has made many concessions on this issue, to the point where workers in companies with fewer than 500 employees (apparently 499 employees is “small business”!) will not obtain this minimum wage until the year 2021! [5] Yet, in the US over half of all workers work in companies employing less than 500 employees. [6]

  1. Sawant is dangerously dividing the movement for $15/hr “Now!” with “large business” employees getting their wage hike 3 or 4 years before “small business” employees. This is classic divide and rule, rather like when the British Public Sector Trade Union, PCS, in the 2006 pension dispute, conceded to the government that only existing members could retain their pension arrangements at the expense of new members, who would receive inferior conditions. [7] A genuine socialist leadership (which could have been achieved, since the Left Unity faction of PCS was a majority on the NEC) would have not capitulated but have continued the fight against the government on behalf of both current and new members (i.e. not dividing them), linking it to the governments deeply unpopular policies such as intervention in the Middle East, tuition fees and privatisation of the NHS. Such a programme linked to generalised strike action could have galvanised a whole new layer of workers and young people. Instead, the sell-out language of the labour-bureaucracy was spouted; the need for compromise, to be realistic etc. In the same way, does Sawant really think that workers in big business will continue to campaign so vigorously for a minimum wage they have already received? I do not want to downplay the notion of solidarity, but clearly the impact of Sawant’s tactics has not been thought through.
  2. This demonstrates the difference between the application of the reformist programme and the transitional programme. Marxists know that the transitional programme cannot be fully realised under the current state of things, which is why it must necessarily propel the working class into conflict with the capitalist class and the state. The centrists, like the CWI leadership, either do not take up the transitional demands at all (like Sawant), or they fail to carry it through in practice (as per the PCS leadership and the SP’s shameful capitulation to the Trade Union bureaucracy).

Workers’ Government, Control and Nationalisation

  1. The transitional programme, in the non-revolutionary or pre-revolutionary period, must clearly call for a workers’ government [as opposed to in the revolutionary period, where the call would be for workers’ councils]. However, this must be put in context of the rest of the transitional programme, i.e. the expropriation of the big capitalists (e.g. top 150 corporations etc). This is so not to sow illusions in reformist, social-democratic or Stalinist parties in government as “workers’ governments”.
  2. Whilst initially rejecting the term “nationalisation” as a “muddleheaded reformist slogan” [2], a few months after writing the draft Transitional Program Trotsky said [8] that the term “nationalisation” of industries was acceptable in place, alongside, of “expropriation”, as long as it is linked to the coming to power of a workers’ government and the action of the masses, rather than the bureaucratic top-down nationalisation such as the 1945 British Labour government, which was what we would describe as “state capitalist” measures.
  3. Additionally, under the heading “Expropriation of the Private Banks and State-ization of the Credit System” in the Transitional Programme, Trotsky says that “the state-ization of the banks will produce these favourable results only if the state power itself passes completely from the hands of the exploiters into the hands of the toilers.”[2]
  4. Unfortunately, the Socialist Party continues to advance “muddleheaded reformist slogans” in its literature. For example, a recent article in the paper entitled “Socialist Change to Remedy Climate Change” [9] has the sub-heading “Nationalise the giant corporations to fund millions of ‘green’ jobs”, without reference to workers control or a workers’ government. Instead, the article mentions “democratic socialist nationalisation”, implying parliamentary top-down nationalisation. To repeat, the aim of the transitional programme is ultimately to prepare the working class for action against the capitalist class, i.e. for revolution. It is not to imply that a parliamentary government can carry out the action on behalf of the class.

Explaining the Objective Situation

  1. Whilst the demands in our programme will be both minimal and transitional, the actual programme itself must explain the crisis of capitalism as we understand it objectively, namely in relation to the inability of the capitalist class to extract sufficient surplus value from their workforce, the rival imperialist powers looking for cheaper labour and resources to exploit, the revolutionary movements of the masses and the failure of the workers’ leadership etc.
  2. We avoid “dumbing down” our programme and explanation of the objective situation, as Trotsky explained in the United States in 1940: “Now the United States enters into an analogous situation with analogous dangers of catastrophe. The objective situation of the country is in every respect and even more than in Europe ripe for socialist revolution and socialism, more ripe than any other country in the world. The political backwardness of the American working class is very great. This signifies that the danger of a fascist catastrophe is very great. This is the point of departure for all our activity. The program must express the objective tasks of the working class rather than the backwardness of the workers. It must reflect society as it is and not the backwardness of the working class. It is an instrument to overcome and vanquish the backwardness. That is why we must express in our program the whole acuteness of the social crises of the capitalist society, including in the first line the United States. We cannot postpone, modify objective conditions which don’t depend upon us. We cannot guarantee that the masses will solve the crisis, but we must express the situation as it is, and that is the task of the program.” [10] [my emphasis]
  3. It is therefore a complete abomination of Marxism to describe the current capitalist crisis as one caused by cuts in workers’ income which “depresses demand”, as Peter Taaffe does [11]. We have explained already in our first two major documents [12,13] that the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall and the subsequent overproduction/overaccumulation of capital is behind the current crisis, which demonstrates why capitalism is an out-dated mode of production ripe for replacing. A succinct explanation of this must form part of our transitional programme.


1 – Building a Revolutionary Party in the 21st Century http://marxistworld.net/2014/01/building-a-revolutionary-party-in-the-21st-century/

2 – The Transitional Programme https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm

3 – Discussions with Trotsky http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tpdiscuss.htm

4- Sawant Campaign Platform http://www.votesawant.org/issues

5 – Proposed schedule for $15 min wage in Seattle http://murray.seattle.gov/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/ProposedSchedule.jpg

6 – Small Business in the United States http://economics.about.com/od/smallbigbusiness/a/us_business.htm

7 – PCS Conference: The record of a campaigning Union http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/5249/01-06-2006/pcs-conference-the-record-of-a-campaigning-union

8 – Preconference Discussions with Trotsky, “For a workers ‘ and Farmers’ governments”, 29th July 1928

9 – Socialist Change to Remedy Climate Change, http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/846/20204/04-03-2015/socialist-change-to-remedy-climate-change

10 – The Political Backwardness of American Workers, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1940/05/backwardness.htm

11 – Inequality and Fightback in the Richest Country in the World – The United States http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/19223/16-09-2014/inequality-and-fightback-in-the-richest-country-in-the-world-the-united-states

12 – What is the Cause of the Current Capitalist Crisis? http://marxistworld.net/2013/09/what-is-the-cause-of-the-current-capitalist-crisis/

13 – In Defence of Marx’s Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall http://marxistworld.net/2013/11/in-defence-of-marxs-law-of-the-tendency-of-the-rate-of-profit-to-fall/




1 Comment

    • John Reimann

      Engels, in writing on the United States, commented on the necessity of workers to have “a movement of their own.” He also explained how they would be driven further by their own mistakes.” I think that is really the point – that regarding every issue we look to how can the working class – through their own organizations – resolve the question. Related to this is the question of not seeking resolution to issues through or within the system of production for profit. That’s why, for instance, I think it is a mistake for socialists to call for rent control. The whole point is that production for profit, no matter how it’s regulated, cannot resolve the housing problem. What Sawant and Socialist Alternative should have called for is a program of building public housing, not like the giant prisons that exist in Chicago, but decent, pleasant public housing, whose design and production are determined and controlled by the residents and future residents and the construction workers themselves. (Sure, if there is already an ongoing movement for rent control socialists should support it, but with some criticisms, but that’s a different story.)

      Sawant and Socialist Alternative also call for something like community control of the police. In the United States this has traditionally meant some sort of civilian police review board. But these boards exist in some cities, including Portland, Oregon. They are obstructed at every step by the police and cannot and do not stop police harassment, brutality and racism. The police can never serve the interests of the working class, any more than can the capitalist-organized government as a whole. What Sawant and Socialist Alternative should have called for, and should call for, is something like community committees of public safety, elected and controlled by the residents and the workers of the community. We saw the role of the Black Panther Party back in the 60s and 70s, where they patrolled the black community of Oakland. This was a small step in that direction and it should be built upon.

      That, incidentally, was the position of “Labor Militant”, which was the predecessor to Socialist Alternative. It’s interesting to see that it has been changed, and I wonder whether there was any sort of serious discussion within Socialist Alternative when it was changed.

      Despite these criticisms, I enthusiastically supported Sawant when she ran for office the first time, and I would support her with my vote (although a little less enthusiastically) this time if I were in Seattle. but it’s too bad that the comrades won’t engage in serious discussion of these issues.


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