In defence of the transitional method

[This was originally a talk given at the Socialist Alliance National Conference, Geelong, January 18, 2013. When it was run in Links online magazine it attracted a number of responses. I have included my rejoinders below. The four pieces form a more or less coherent whole. See the whole debate at Links.]

Socialist Alternative comrades take us to task

Socialist Alliance is currently engaged in a process of discussion and clarification with Socialist Alternative, with a view to exploring the possibilities of greater cooperation and unity. How this will ultimately develop is an open question. But I think it is fair to say that on both sides today there is a much greater interest in the political positions and approach of the other.

Recently Omar Hassan, a leader of Socialist Alternative, has criticised the very concept of a transitional program and our use of it.[1] Presumably his views more or less reflect the outlook of his organisation as a whole. I'll consider them later.

Our general approach

Socialist Alliance members need to understand our politics more clearly and, especially, the transitional approach and how it applies to our work. In this regard, I urge comrades to read the Resistance Books title, The Transitional Program and the Struggle for Socialism.[2] The introduction by Doug Lorimer is particularly useful.

Put simply, the transitional method which underlies all our work seeks to engage people on the basis of their real needs and from there seek to lead them toward an understanding of the need to change the whole system, i.e., to replace capitalism with socialism.

The broad masses of people develop their ideas on the basis of their experience. Socialists have to join them where they are at, engage in struggle with them, help them draw lessons from those experiences and on that basis educate them about the need for a root-and-branch change in our social relations and economy.

Trotsky’s Transitional Program

What is a political program? In general a socialist program outlines how we understand what's going on in society and what we advocate doing about it, both right now and more generally. It not only nails our colours to the mast, so to speak, but it also serves to orient our work.

Naturally, a program is never a finished thing but develops in response to the unfolding of the political situation and the progress of the struggle. New developments (fascism, war, financial crisis, environmental crisis, etc.) need to be reflected in our program.

Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program in 1938. Its actual name is The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. The central issue it addresses is how to overcome the contradiction between the crisis of capitalism and the political immaturity of the working class. Trotsky explained it this way:

. . . 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.

Classical social-democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program, which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program, which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed. And indeed social-democracy has no need of such a bridge, since the word socialism is used only for holiday speechifying. The Comintern has set out to follow the path of social-democracy in an epoch of decaying capitalism: when, in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses' living standards; when every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state.

. . . 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.

The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old “minimal” demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective. Insofar as the old, partial, 'minimal' demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism — and this occurs at each step — the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old 'minimal program' is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilisation of the masses for the proletarian revolution.[3]

Putting aside some specific references, I think that some 70 years on these ideas have a great contemporary relevance.

We can distinguish three general types of demands in the Transitional Program: immediate, democratic and transitional demands.

Immediate demands concern the day-to-day defence of the interests of the masses. Some examples are demands for better wages and conditions or opposition to neoliberal cutbacks and privatisations.

Democratic demands are particularly important given capitalism's constant tendency to restrict democratic space on every level. Demands for free speech and against government snooping, the call for women's right to abortion; opposition to imperialist wars (US and Australian troops out of Afghanistan; let the Afghans determine their own destiny) — all these are examples of democratic demands.

This brings us to transitional demands. As longtime US Socialist Workers Party leader Joseph Hansen explained, 'these are of broader scope'.

They are based on the incapacity of capitalism to provide for the needs of the working class as a whole. They stress the feasibility of meeting those demands in a society constructed on a rational basis. On the economic level, transitional demands point toward the planned economy of socialism. On the political level, they centre on the need for the workers to establish their own government.[4]

Examples of transitional demands are: A sliding scale of hours (with no loss of pay) — to combat unemployment; a sliding scale of wages — to combat inflation eroding the living standards of the workers; nationalisation of particular industries or economic sectors (under workers control) — to allow us to grapple with pressing issues; an end to business secrets — to enable us to plan the economy, etc.

It is important to understand that whether the struggle is around immediate, democratic or transitional demands, we advocate playing to the strengths of the working class, its economic position and its numbers, that is, we advocate mass struggle in all its forms rather than relying on parliamentary manoeuvres, lobbying, etc.

It is also important to understand that there is no hierarchy between the three types of demands in terms of their mobilising power. Any one type of demand can be the basis of a very big struggle. The huge struggle against the Vietnam war in the US and Australia in the 1960s and early 1970s was around the democratic demand of self-determination for the Vietnamese people, their right to determine their own destiny without outside interference.

Marx & Engels

Trotsky did not invent the idea of a transitional program, nor did he claim to. He presented in a more systematic way a method that began with Marx and Engels.

We can look at the first communist program, the Communist Manifesto of 1847. It contains 10 demands outlining what a revolutionary workers government would do.[5] This is very much a transitional program, which, if carried out would constitute a huge step in moving towards socialism.

Early the next year, in the context of the developing German Revolution, the 17-point Demands of the Communist Party in Germany was widely circulated throughout the country over the names of Marx, Engels and other leaders of the organisation.[6] The demands included measures to achieve a radical democracy and measures to improve the lot of working people. Other points called for the nationalisation of key means of production (banks, transport, mines, feudal estates). Here are the 17 points:

1. The whole of Germany shall be declared a single and indivisible republic.

2. Every German, having reached the age of 21, shall have the right to vote and to be elected, provided he has not been convicted of a criminal offence.

3. Representatives of the people shall receive payment so that workers, too, shall be able to become members of the German parliament.

4. Universal arming of the people. In future the armies shall be simultaneously labour armies, so that the troops shall not, as formerly, merely consume, but shall produce more than is necessary for their upkeep.

This will moreover be conducive to the organisation of labour.

5. Legal services shall be free of charge.

6. All feudal obligations, dues, corvées, tithes etc., which have hitherto weighed upon the rural population, shall be abolished without compensation.

7. Princely and other feudal estates, together with mines, pits, and so forth, shall become the property of the state. The estates shall be cultivated on a large scale and with the most up-to-date scientific devices in the interests of the whole of society.

8. Mortgages on peasant lands shall be declared the property of the state. Interest on such mortgages shall be paid by the peasants to the state.

9. In localities where the tenant system is developed, the land rent or the quit-rent shall be paid to the state as a tax . . .

10. A state bank, whose paper issues are legal tender, shall replace all private banks …

11. All the means of transport, railways, canals, steamships, roads, the posts etc. shall be taken over by the state. They shall become the property of the state and shall be placed free at the disposal of the impecunious classes.

12. All civil servants shall receive the same salary, the only exception being that civil servants who have a family to support and who therefore have greater requirements, shall receive a higher salary.

13. Complete separation of church and state. The clergy of every denomination shall be paid only by the voluntary contributions of their congregations.

14. The right of inheritance to be curtailed.

15. The introduction of steeply graduated taxes, and the abolition of taxes on articles of consumption.

16. Inauguration of national workshops. The state guarantees a livelihood to all workers and provides for those who are incapacitated for work.

17. Universal and free education of the people.

It is to the interest of the German proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie and the small peasants to support these demands with all possible energy. Only by the realisation of these demands will the millions in Germany, who have hitherto been exploited by a handful of persons and whom the exploiters would like to keep in further subjection, win the rights and attain to that power to which they are entitled as the producers of all wealth.

The Comintern

The early Comintern under Lenin discussed the need for 'transition demands' in the programs of the communist parties.[7]

The Comintern Third Congress in July 1921 adopted a resolution On Tactics. The passages below are vitally important:

[The task of the Comintern] is not to establish small communist sects aiming to influence the working masses purely through agitation and propaganda, but to participate directly in the struggle of the working masses, establish communist leadership of the struggle, and in the course of the struggle create large, revolutionary, mass communist parties . . .

[The communist parties were to] take advantage of all the opportunities the bourgeois state provided for organising the working class and conducting agitation.[8]

Later on the resolution explained:

In place of the minimum program of the centrists and reformists, the Communist International offers a struggle for the concrete demands of the proletariat which, in their totality, challenge the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat, and mark out the different stages of the struggle for its dictatorship …

It is not a question of appealing to the proletariat to fight for the ultimate goal, but of developing the practical struggle which alone can lead the proletariat to the struggle for the ultimate goal . . .

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.[9]

Such passages have a striking resemblance to parts of the Transitional Program. In fact, Trotsky deliberately incorporated these ideas into his work, sometimes almost word for word.

Moreland election campaign

Let's see how all this works out in practice.

In the Victorian council elections last October, Socialist Alliance stood Sue Bolton in Moreland’s North-East ward. Sue was elected, becoming Victoria’s second socialist councillor (the other being the Socialist Party's Steve Jolly in Yarra, first elected in 2004.) Our campaign leaflet is appended at the end of this article.

The platform outlined in our election leaflet is a mixture of immediate and democratic demands. Our main demands concerned curbing rampant over-development and improving public transport. Our platform related to the various small campaigns already in existence in the area well as various public concerns (right down to calling for more public toilets). We also called for a more democratic and open council.

Many demands 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 all up and our message really appealed to a significant number of people. Sue got over 2000 first-preference votes and we know from scrutineers that many Greens supporters broke their ticket and gave Sue their second preference.

Obviously Sue's position at the top of the ballot in a field of 24 (!) candidates (for four council slots) played a part in her win but there is no doubt that our radical but very reasonable message really hit the mark with a lot of people.

(In the Geelong mayoral race Socialist Alliance had a similar approach. In addition, the pledge of our candidate Sue Bull to take only the wages of a skilled worker rather than the inflated salary on offer ($250,000) really struck a chord with a lot of people. In the end some 10,000 people voted for Sue which must be some sort of record for a socialist in the recent period. Even subtracting 1000 or so possible 'donkey' votes, this is still a tremendous result.)

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.

Of course, we understand that the election campaign was one thing. Now we have to make a sustained effort to help develop campaigns in the area and really show people what our politics amounts to.

While wishing Sue well, Daniel Lopez of Socialist Alternative blogged that Sue's election win 'will drag things to the right; local council politics is hardly the most radical thing out there'.[10] The clear implication here is that socialists should just forget the whole thing. I think this attitude is seriously mistaken.

Whenever socialists get involved in a serious campaign there are dangers of opportunistic adaptation. But there is another danger which — in the concrete situation we face — looms larger and that is sectarian abstention.

Yes, our resources are limited but within our means it is precisely at this moment — when distress, insecurity, apprehension and concern on so many levels is widespread and growing — that socialists need to get out there and be heard. In this regard, electoral work — of course, conducted on a real socialist basis — has a very great importance.

If the socialist left can take some serious steps toward a much greater cooperation and unity, contesting council elections on a larger scale would surely be an important area of activity.

Defend & extend the public sector

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 on specific one on taking over the private banks.

While nationalisation is not impossible under capitalism, in today's circumstances it is very unlikely. Under universal neoliberalism all state assets are being sold off. Those that remain are being systematically corporatised and white-anted (e.g., Australia Post, our water supply) with private interests taking over more and more operations.

During the recent 'Global Financial Crisis' some banks were effectively taken over by the state but the governments tried to avoid mentioning the dreaded 'N' word (nationalisation) and were quick to put them back in private hands when the situation stabilised (often after taking over their debts).

The solution to the problem of climate change is impossible if the resource (and broader energy) sector remains in private hands. It needs to be nationalised (brought under community control, as our poster says). The coal mines need to be rapidly phased out, as do the natural gas wells (fracked or otherwise).

Accommodating to public anger, Gillard lectured the mining bosses that the country’s mineral wealth didn’t belong to them. But she has no intention whatsoever of taking it into public hands or even of taxing the miners more heavily. We have a real chance to get some political traction here. The big mining outfits and their plutocrat bosses wouldn't win any popularity contests among ordinary people.

It is especially important to win support for this call in the environment movement which has generally not attached any importance to questions of private ownership of the country’s economic infrastructure (especially its energy resources and infrastructure).

The call to nationalise the banks and establish a single state bank with branches everywhere, with staff with secure jobs, to cheaply finance vital public infrastructure (public transport, schools, clinics and hospitals, etc.), to radically ease the pressure on people buying their homes — this too can attract real interest and support.

It would be good if Socialist Alternative and other left groups would support these demands. It would be even better if we could have a strong united left campaign on the issue. We could have a real impact, especially on Greens supporters. In any event, we will give it our best shot.

'Reformist and relatively vague'?

Now, let's look the criticisms raised by Comrade Omar.

1. He says that reformism is not the product of an inadequate program; there is an objective pressure to reformism even if you have a transitional program.

OK, but what sort of program do we need? Surely a transitional program and approach — which tries to link our practical work with the socialist goal — is a weapon against opportunist backsliding; a banner around which the genuine left can unite?

2. Omar argues against any idea that correct demands by themselves can transform a situation.

We have never argued this but certainly wrong, confused or inadequate demands can help isolate and weaken a movement. Gillard's carbon tax, which big sections of the climate movement supported, is a case in point.

3. Omar says that winning 'reformist' (immediate) demands 'would be a bloody good thing'.

We certainly agree! Within the limits of our resources, therefore, we should be active in all efforts and campaigns to win them.

4. Then he raises the danger of being 'sectarian' by advancing demands 'to the left' of the movement. The correct demands can’t be plucked 'from the heads of individual leaders'.

It's not clear what his point is here. Sometimes we are isolated and we just have to wear it. In the climate movement Socialist Alliance stood firmly against the Labor-Greens carbon tax which sections of the movement supported and many were confused about. We had to do this and I think our criticisms have been clearly vindicated.

5. Omar criticises our Moreland council campaign: it doesn’t fit into some 'transitional framework'.

This comment seems a result of complete confusion. As I have argued above, our election platform was transitional; our two slogans summed up everything. Now, of course, the big challenge is to develop a fight around the points in our platform wherever we can.

6. Omar says it is 'better to use the language of partial [immediate] demands over the transitional rhetoric'. We 'cannot do away with the schism between minimum and maximum program'.

But how does he classify what we would call transitional demands (e.g., nationalisation, an end to business secrets, etc.). Do they have any place in his theory? Does this mean we just make abstract propaganda for socialism?

7. Omar criticises 'the Alliance's reformist and relatively vague "transitional program". It is the worst of both worlds, it is vague and relates to nothing that is real and in motion in society, and it is fuzzy and is no basis for the education of a Marxist cadre. So it lacks the relevance of a true immediate program (through no real fault of the Alliance, this is due to the lack of serious struggle going on), and lacks the clarity of a maximum program.' I would make the following responses to these claims.

A. Our program/policies are 'vague'. Even a casual look at Socialist Alliance's policies or our Moreland election platform will show that this charge simply cannot be substantiated.

B. Our policies relate 'to nothing that is real and in motion in society'. Well, in Geelong some 10,000 people related to what our mayoral campaign had to say. Was this a good thing or not? Did it help the struggle or not? Shouldn't we conclude that the left should do more of this sort of thing?

C. 'Marxist cadre' presumably should be educated around various abstract Marxist propositions. In reality, our Marxism only means anything if we can present and defend a concrete transitional program, that is, to present socialism in a realistic way arising out of present struggles and issues.

D. Our policies are 'reformist'. Omar himself says earlier that winning immediate demands would be good for the working class. So we are talking about worthwhile reforms. Fighting for reforms does not make you a reformist. In fact, today, with neoliberalism determined to obliterate the welfare state and any gains made in the last 150 or more years of struggle, fighting for reforms is aimed squarely against capitalism and has to be seen as an absolutely essential part of the struggle for socialism.

'The revolutionary action of millions'

In the Transitional Program it is worth reading the) section on sectarianism. While Trotsky had in mind the outfits of his day, some of his comments seem very relevant to our work today:

[Sectarianism, he says, is based on] a refusal to struggle for partial and transitional demands, i.e., for the elementary interests and needs of the working masses, as they are today. Preparing for the revolution means to the sectarians, convincing themselves of the superiority of socialism . . .

These sterile politicians generally have no need of a bridge in the form of transitional demands because they do not intend to cross over to the other shore. They simply dawdle in one place, satisfying themselves with a repetition of the selfsame meagre abstractions. Political events are for them an occasion for comment but not for action . . .

. . . A program is formulated not for the editorial board or for the leaders of discussion clubs but for the revolutionary action of millions.[11]

OK, in Australia today we are a long way from the 'revolutionary action of millions' but within our resources and possibilities we have to be part of the struggle. We can't simply 'dawdle in one place' making abstract propaganda for socialism. Obviously we have nothing against propaganda as such — it is necessary, we have to do it, and we put a lot of effort into doing it — but it has most impact when it is connected to real struggles in which people are involved and of which socialists are a part.

Conclusion

The transitional approach, with all that implies, is necessarily at the heart of our political work.

Capitalism is in its most acute crisis ever — a combined ecological and economic crisis which threatens humanity with utter catastrophe. While the working masses are increasingly concerned they are generally far from being radicalised and the socialist movement remains small. The transitional method points the way forward to overcoming this contradiction.

Of course, the transitional method is not a cookbook — it is a method, an approach. We have to work out how to develop and formulate our program. More importantly, we have to work out how to apply it in practice.

Electoral work is very important here and we have gained valuable experience in the recent Victorian council elections. And we have already made a decision to highlight the nationalisation of the mining/resources sector and banks in our federal election campaign.

Work in the whole range of concrete struggles is also critical. Within the limits of our resources, that has always been our practice.

And in all cases, we come up against the problem and frustration of the small size of our organisation and, more generally, the divided and fragmented nature of the socialist movement. Doing all we can to overcome this division and achieve a stronger, more united left is absolutely critical to winning mass support for fundamental social change.

Notes

  1. https://www.facebook.com/OmarSherrife on Friday, 14 December 2012 at 13:19.
  2. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program & the Struggle for Socialism (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1999).
  3. Ibid., pp. 25-26.
  4. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1977), pp. 24-25.
  5. Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto & Its Relevance for Today (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1998), pp. 62-63; also online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm.
  6. Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 7 (Lawrence & Wishart: London, 1977), p. 3; also online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/03/24.htm.
  7. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 42 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1969), pp. 427-428 & notes.
  8. Alan Adler editor, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (Ink Links: London, 1980), p. 277.
  9. Ibid., pp. 286-287.
  10. http://www.facebook.com/notes/tad-tietze/some-thoughts-on-the-current-australian-debate-on-left-unity/10151336874180944, December 13, 2012 at 11am.
  11. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program & the Struggle for Socialism, pp. 56-57.

Appendix: Socialist Alliance Moreland leaflet, for council elections on October 27, 2012.

Response to Daniel Lopez I

I welcome Daniel's response to my article. Comradely discussion in the socialist movement is necessary and hopefully will make clearer the real points of agreement and disagreement.

That said, I think Daniel completely misunderstands my argument. He puts forward many propositions that I think are dead wrong but here I will try to concentrate on the substantive issue.

The objective situation

What is the objective situation in Australia today? Neoliberal capitalism is pushing on all fronts to roll back the gains made by the working class over the last 150 years or so. Everything is under threat or actual attack: the environment on which we depend for life itself; people’s wages and conditions; the conditions of life in the cities (public transport, education, healthcare, the amenity of life in the suburbs); welfare (for the old, the sick, people with disabilities, the unemployed). By scapegoating refugees and Muslims our rulers are fostering deep divisions in the community. Our civil liberties are being eroded. We are a dependable cog in the US war drive. And so on.

Are we in a revolutionary situation? Obviously not. But 'distress, insecurity, apprehension and concern on so many levels is widespread and growing'. The concessions that maintained social peace in the postwar period are inexorably being dismantled (that's what neoliberalism is about) and we can expect great social and political turbulence in the years ahead. In some countries (e.g., Greece, Spain, Egypt) the situation is explosive, but not yet revolutionary.

How to bridge the gap

Daniel quotes with approval two of the same passages from the Comintern theses and Trotsky's Transitional program that I do but completely misunderstands what they mean:

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. [Comintern, Theses on Tactics, July 1921]

. . . 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. [Trotsky, The Transitional Program, 1938]

Daniel's conclusion from these passages is that 'a transitional approach . . . would be impossible outside a revolutionary context'. This is clearly not what the passages above are saying. The basic task which both the Comintern theses and Trotsky's Transitional Program grappled with is how to bridge the gap, how to make the transition, between the current consciousness of the masses and the consciousness of the need to get rid of capitalism. As Trotsky puts it:

. . . 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.

People before profit

Obviously the situation we face today is very different to 1921 or 1938. But the crisis of capitalism remains and has actually deepened. We can say that just about any issue or struggle today does indeed raise the question of a different form of social organisation.

That's why the slogan 'People before profit' resonates with many people. They can see that our rulers lavish money on corporate welfare and accommodating the rich but outright refuse to spend on people's pressing needs — whether it be renewable energy, public housing, disability care or whatever.

Daniel says:

[To] pretend that our demands lead towards a revolution, simply because they logically contradict the priorities of capitalism, is equal parts voluntarism and utopianism. It is also unhelpful rhetoric because it prevents us interrogating the real strengths and weaknesses of different campaigns and demands by insisting on dressing everything up as somehow transitional.

We have never argued that our demands, by themselves, lead toward a revolution. But the transitional method helps us to frame our demands, our program, in a way that it leads people to question the system, to see the links between their situation and the ruthless profit drive that is built into capitalism — and to point towards a rational society (socialism) where meeting basic human needs come first.

Suburban struggle

In my talk I used our Moreland election campaign as an example. Our campaign platform wasn't sucked out of our collective thumb. It encompassed a number of very real and strongly felt local issues and clearly resonated with a lot of people.

But any program is only part of the equation. The other part is the struggle. We are fully aware that the big challenge now facing us in Moreland is to support and develop campaigns around various points in our platform. Sue's council position is valuable precisely in this context: She is a real voice for ordinary people within the local government of the area.

Daniel can't see where involvement in local struggles fits in with the struggle for socialism:

. . . I can't for the life of me imagine how you will recruit and train young, serious Marxist revolutionaries in Moreland, while campaigning around local council issues. Even the Labor Students I know couldn't care less about council issues. I have never in my whole political career met a serious radical who even knew about local council issues. Maybe I'm wrong here . . .

Daniel, with all the restraint I can muster, I have to say this is absolutely crazy! Do you know what you are saying here?

A large part of our lives are spent in the suburbs. Residents worry about public transport, traffic congestion, whether high-rise apartment blocks will sprout on our back fence, forever rising council rates, finding a place to rent at rates you can afford, what's happening to our local parks — and even where one can find a public toilet. Is Daniel saying that socialists — let alone 'young, serious Marxist revolutionaries' — should just forget about all this?

Across the city small groups of people are fighting to save their suburbs from this or that aspect of the capitalist neoliberal juggernaut. Consistent with our limited resources, socialists have to stand with them. In the course of just such struggles, over time people will come to see that the problem is capitalism and that our fundamental economic infrastructure has to be in public hands.

Having a socialist on council can be a big help in this fight. Look at what the Socialist Party has been able to accomplish in Yarra with Steve Jolly on the council since 2004. As a result of his consistent struggle to represent his ordinary constituents, in the October council elections he got a whopping 34% of the vote in his ward and across the municipality 20% of those voting chose an SP candidate. We can discuss other aspects of the Socialist Party's political practice but there is no getting away from these impressive figures.

In Moreland the council has put forward a plan to give developers open slather in Coburg's Bell St-Sydney Road area. With Sue's assistance and using her council position, concerned residents are organising to fight against this latest overdevelopment horror. Perhaps some Socialist Alternative members live in the area and can get involved. It is a different sort of work to what many of us may be used to but it is a necessary part of the struggle and we should get involved in it. Today this is a part of the struggle for a different sort of society, i.e., socialism.

Cadre are forged in the struggle

Both Daniel and Omar are concerned about training 'young, serious Marxist revolutionaries' and 'Marxist cadre'. I certainly agree that socialist activists can profit from a broader theoretical understanding. But Marxist cadre can't be defined simply by abstract theoretical knowledge. We have to be able to apply it in the struggle. As the Christian Bible says, faith without works is dead.

In my talk I made a point of saying that 'our Marxism only means anything if we can present and defend a concrete transitional program, that is, to present socialism in a realistic way arising out of present struggles and issues'.

Furthermore, the socialist movement can only win authority with ordinary people if we not only support but participate in their struggles. We can't have popular struggles here and 'Marxist cadre' over there. When big crises hit, people won’t enquire about the address of some small group of radicals. They will turn to people they already know. Socialists have to be there.

That is what the transitional method is all about. As my original talk put it:

Put simply, the transitional method which underlies all our work seeks to engage people on the basis of their real needs and from there seek to lead them toward an understanding of the need to change the whole system, i.e., to replace capitalism with socialism.

The broad masses of people develop their ideas on the basis of their experience. Socialists have to join them where they are at, engage in struggle with them, help them draw lessons from those experiences and on that basis educate them about the need for a root-and-branch change in our social relations and economy.

Response to Allen Myers

Comrade Allen Myers of the Revolutionary Socialist Party takes me to task for my presentation and response to Daniel Lopez.

What is the context?

Allen argues that the passages I quoted from the Comintern's 1921 Theses on Tactics and Trotsky's 1938 Transitional Program are concerned with 'revolutionary or prerevolutionary situations or, at the least, periods of mass radicalisation'.

I think this is wrong for both documents.

The context of the 1921 Comintern theses was precisely the fact that the capitalist class in Europe had managed to achieve a certain stability after surviving the deep popular unrest following World War I. And in 1938, were Britain, France, the United States — let alone Italy, Germany or Spain which were in the grip of fascist dictatorships — in a period of mass radicalisation? Clearly not.

The most general context of these documents, which gives them their continuing relevance, is the imperialist epoch and the ongoing crisis of capitalism. On a world scale, this is an explosive period of wars and revolutions but this obviously doesn't mean that we have revolutionary or prerevolutionary situations in all countries all the time. But the political situation can turn quite quickly — which is what we are seeing in Greece and Spain today.

What we value most in these two documents is the method they advocate, which is of general applicability.

That is the certainly the way the Democratic Socialist Party — to which both Allen and I both belonged for a long time — always understood the matter. Thus the 1994 Program of the Democratic Socialist Party says that a key task is:

How to help the masses to cross the bridge from demands and forms of organisation that stem from their day-to-day struggles against capitalist exploitation and oppression to the level of political consciousness and action required to impose revolutionary socialist solutions.[1]

At the time this was written Australia was definitely not in a state of mass radicalisation or anything approaching it, however much there may have been important struggles around particular issues.

'Capitalism will have to die'

Allen argues that 'revolutionaries in Australia today need to relate to a situation in which modest working-class demands do not threaten the existence of capitalism'.

Obviously a fight for more public toilets in Moreland doesn’t in itself threaten the system. But overall I think Allen’s claim is dead wrong. The Comintern Theses have it right:

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.

Elsewhere in the Theses it says that as the mass struggle develops 'the working class will come to realise that if it wants to live, capitalism will have to die'.[2]

In its remorseless, ruthless drive for profit at all costs, neoliberal capitalism is heedlessly stoking climate change which threatens the continuation of life on our planet. At the same time it is trying to roll back the gains won by the masses in over a century and a half of struggle.

Look at Greece! The modest hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary people have been smashed, despair is growing and the suicide rate is soaring. Wages and pensions have been slashed; the bosses are pushing for a six-day working week; medical care is evaporating; the country is being sold off to international corporate carpetbaggers; a fascist movement is being created; and so on.

The transitional method which we use is designed to bridge the gap between people’s present consciousness — which I defined as one in which 'distress, insecurity, apprehension and concern on so many levels is widespread and growing' — and the consciousness of the need to get rid of profit-mad capitalism.

Moreland election campaign

Allen doesn't like our Moreland election platform with its 'mild' immediate and democratic demands that 'most small-l liberals could agree to'. Again, I prefer the assessment of the Comintern Theses: 'the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society.'

Of course, as I stressed in my presentation, a platform is one thing. We now have to do what we can to bring it to life in the struggle.

Allen puts the most contorted negative interpretation on our platform subhead 'Imagine a council that fights for you'. He claims it translates as:

Not 'a council that assists your fights' or 'a council that helps you organise to fight'. A council that fights for you, once you've voted for it, so you can go back home until the next election.

Yes, the slogan could mean that but apart from Allen I doubt that anybody would take it that way. But when you are on a mission to prove that the Socialist Alliance is reformist or adapting to reformism I guess you see the world through somewhat foggy glasses.

There has been a great response to Sue Bolton's election win. Many people feel they have a real fighter on their side inside the council. Of course, Sue is only one voice among 11. But what if a majority of councillors shared Sue's political outlook? Then Moreland residents would indeed have 'a council that fights for you'. It would give them more confidence to press their demands, with a progressive council providing strong leadership and support.

Was our platform as a whole transitional? Clearly it did not explicitly call for a workers government. But if you took the trouble to read the whole leaflet you would find:

The Socialist Alliance is an anticapitalist, activist party. We contest elections for all levels of government, but unlike other parties we don’t see parliament as the main vehicle for social change. Election campaigns for us are part of our year-round work campaigning in workplaces and communities.

We help to build movements capable of bringing about the change we need: change that benefits ordinary people and the environment, and that can lead to a democratic, socialist society, run by and for working people.

The platform of demands together with the overall slogans ('Community need, not developer greed' and 'People before profit') was a great package in the situation facing residents in Moreland. It was a good example of the transitional approach.

Communist Manifesto

In my original presentation I touched on the Communist Manifesto:

We can look at the first communist program, the Communist Manifesto of 1847. It 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.

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 a 'the first such system of transitional measures'.[3]

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.

Nationalisation of the mines and banks

As I explained in my original presentation, 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.

Many people are angry about the free ride given to these corporate bludgers with their huge profits and low tax rates.

A particular target group for our propaganda about the mining giants is those people concerned about climate change. Meaningful action on climate change is impossible if the resource sector remains in private hands. In my talk I pointed out that:

It is especially important to win support for this call in the environment movement, which has generally not attached any importance to questions of private ownership of the country’s economic infrastructure (especially its energy resources and infrastructure).

Allen, however, is concerned that we will present the wrong message.

But to be successful as propaganda, the slogan [of nationalisation] has to be connected to an explanation of the realities of capitalist class society and the need for socialist revolution. If Socialist Alliance election material presents this explanation, great. But if the material doesn't explain that, then it will risk misleading its audience.

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.

Whether our material will satisfy our critic is doubtful but I would be happy to be surprised here.

Notes

  1. Program of the Democratic Socialist Party (New Course Publications: Chippendale, 1994), p. 67.
  2. Alan Adler editor, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (Ink Links: London, 1980), p. 286.
  3. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program &: the Struggle for Socialism (Resistance Books: Chippendale, 1999), p. 6.

Response to Daniel Lopez II

Comrade Daniel Lopez's second response has the merit of making even clearer his view of how a socialist organisation should orient itself politically. Obviously we have a number of disgreements. But I do agree with Daniel's 'enthusiasm for the growing culture of debate on the Australian far left . . . For too long, these conversations have been left unsaid.' If we can have a real dialogue, that has to be a step forward. It is certainly a precondition for unity, although not in itself a guarantee.

Marx and Engels

In his section on the Communist Manifesto and the First International, Daniel stresses that the context in each case 'was completely different to today'. But who is arguing against this? The situation in Russia in 1917 was also different to today but we can still draw some useful lessons from the revolution there.

The important thing is that Marx and Engels also used a method which is applicable today. For instance, in regard to his 1864 Inaugural Address to the First International,[1] Marx later wrote to Engels: 'It will take time before the reawakened movement allows the old boldness of speech. It will be necessary to be fortiter in re, suaviter in modo [firm in action, gentle in manner].'[2] Dare I say it, this is an example of a transitional approach: the form of the message is adapted to the state of consciousness of the masses.

Daniel is keen to stress that a program by itself does not revolutionise consciousness.

Also, it is clearly evidenced that Marx and Engels took their lead from the state of consciousness of the class, and even so, did not expect the program itself to revolutionise consciousness, but only to articulate changes that were already happening.

Popular consciousness is shaped, in the first place, by capitalism and its crises. This is not in dispute. But how should we develop our program? Our demands are a tool which we use to relate to people. Their basic content should be formulated according to the objective situation, but the form of presentation must take account of the state of popular consciousness. The more skilfully we can present our ideas, the better will we succeed in catching people’s attention. But nothing will happen without strenuous effort on our part.

What period are we in?

Daniel takes issue with my assessment of where things are at in Australia today.

The Australian economy — almost uniquely in the western world — has been expanding for years. The mining sector alone is making vast profits, as is the banking sector. The bottom has not fallen out of Australian real estate, despite something of a slow down. To imagine that in this context that the ruling class is not capable of granting concessions is downright bizarre.

I think this is a very superficial way of looking at what is going on. The description I gave is much more concrete:

What is the objective situation in Australia today? Neoliberal capitalism is pushing on all fronts to roll back the gains made by the working class over the last 150 years or so. Everything is under threat or actual attack: the environment on which we depend for life itself; people’s wages and conditions; the conditions of life in the cities (public transport, education, healthcare, the amenity of life in the suburbs); welfare (for the old, the sick, people with disabilities, the unemployed). By scapegoating refugees and Muslims our rulers are fostering deep divisions in the community. Our civil liberties are being eroded. We are a dependable cog in the US war drive. And so on.

Are we in a revolutionary situation? Obviously not. But 'distress, insecurity, apprehension and concern on so many levels is widespread and growing'. The concessions that maintained social peace in the postwar period are inexorably being dismantled (that’s what neoliberalism is about) and we can expect great social and political turbulence in the years ahead. In some countries (e.g., Greece, Spain, Egypt) the situation is explosive, but not yet revolutionary.

The Australian economy might well be doing better than those of most other advanced capitalist countries. But still the welfare state is being rolled back on all fronts. It was a product of three things: pressure from below by generations scarred by the Great Depression; the postwar boom; and the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. That's all changed now and the welfare state is not coming back.

Daniel mentions the real estate boom. Are we supposed to feel good about this? It is a disaster for ordinary people. As prices rise the dream of buying your own home recedes for more and more people. And those who do achieve home “ownership” via a mortgage are in an increasingly tenuous position as job security is held hostage to capitalist restructuring and the inexorable growth of casualisation, deregulation and outsourcing.

Of course, the capitalist class may concede something here and there. Daniel mentions the talk of an increase in the dole. Obviously an extra $30 or $50 per week would slightly ease the desperate situation of the unemployed. But it won't change the basic reality that being out of work in Australia is a grim business with a host of soul-destroying consequences for those affected.

The mining boom has generated vast wealth but is it really lifting the quality of life of a big section of the working class? I don't think so. A small layer of workers may get a high gross income but the dominant fly-in-fly-out work regime has a terrible effect on relationships and family life. And often these workers are forced to pay huge rents. Moreover, the effect on ordinary people in the mining towns is dire: rents soar out of reach, services collapse, and community breaks down as a rootless itinerant population swamps the locals.

The main beneficiaries of the mining boom are the mining capitalists. In theory, the wealth below the surface belongs to all of us but the mining corporations pay minimal royalties and make huge profits. That’s one reason Socialist Alliance has decided to use the election period to raise the call for nationalising the mining-resource sector under community control.

What ordinary person feels confident about the future? Fewer and fewer, I would suggest.

(So far, I have said nothing about climate change. Yet this is fast becoming the major issue — the framework in which all other issues will unfold. I will deal with it below.)

The validity of the transitional method

Daniel says that: 'This is not a situation in which anything even remotely like a transitional struggle is possible. Masses will not be moved into radical struggle by the best programs.'

He appears to think that unless the struggle has reached a certain stage or an organisation is large enough, a transitional approach is not relevant. But it is clear that even in quiet times, even for a small organisation, this is the method we should use. In fact, unless we retreat to simply making abstract propaganda for socialism, what other method can we use?

In 1940, for example, before the United States had entered World War II, Trotsky had discussions in Mexico with leaders of the Socialist Workers Party on the so-called 'Proletarian Military Policy'.[3] In a situation where conscription was overwhelmingly accepted by the working class (because of its fear and hatred of Hitlerism), this was an attempt to draw the class line inside the imperialist military machine. Demands included the right of soldiers to be able to express political opinions, for military training to be carried out under trade union control, and for soldiers to be able to elect their officers.

The Proletarian Military Policy never went beyond a campaign of propaganda and had little impact but it showed Trotsky’s dynamic concept of revolutionary politics, always trying to formulate our basic ideas in a way in which they might achieve some traction in popular consciousness.

We can't simply enunciate the timeless truths of socialism. We have to get out there and find the ways to insert ourselves into real live politics and have an impact on the consciousness of people.

Municipal work

I think Daniel's comments on socialist involvement in municipal struggles are dead wrong.

In the case of the Socialist Alliance campaign in Moreland, not surprisingly, we did not expect to win. While we took the development of our platform very seriously, we would be the last to deny that our victory involved a level of accident. But now Sue is a councillor and we are doing all we can to act on our platform demands where that is possible.

Daniel argues:

But do you really think that opposition to inappropriate development pushes people towards an anticapitalist world view?

. . . do you really think that you will build a Marxist cadre in a politically quite moderate campaign whose main audience are homeowners approaching (or past) middle age? Or any other local council issue, for that matter.

The profit-crazed developer feeding frenzy across Melbourne’s suburbs is one more example of corporate greed versus the needs of the community. That's why a lot of residents related to our campaign message in Moreland and Geelong. And, yes, for some people involvement in such struggles can be a step in a journey towards 'an anticapitalist world view'.

Daniel says that the 'obvious answer to inappropriate development is better regulation'. Well, fine, except that most councils are not regulating the developers but are instead accommodating to their ceaseless and remorseless pressure. And when a council actually does oppose a particular development, the state government or VCAT is likely to overrule it. What can be done about this? Only the development of more and more massive and determined campaigns to assert the rights of the community over private greed.

All this is part of the struggle for a different future.

Will Daniel's 'Marxist cadre' come out of such campaigns? Perhaps he attaches a different meaning to the term. For us, socialist activists will come out of real struggles. They are not produced on some academic assembly line. Theoretical knowledge is fine but unless it helps us relate to, and become involved in the real fight going on in society it will remain abstract and rather beside the point.

Daniel’s deconstruction of the Coburg residents’ meeting is false. As far as I can see, the single biggest age cohort in the campaign is people in their thirties. They are trying to build a life in the area but then the neoliberal juggernaut bears down on them — as it does in so many other realms of the lives of ordinary people. But in any case, socialists support the campaign and are involved in it and we shall see what happens.

What should socialists be doing?

Daniel says: 'if we are being serious, we have to admit that small groups make choices about where to orient.'

Socialist Alliance makes choices too. We also try to prioritise our work. But socialist groups still have to justify the choices we make. The possibilities of recruitment is one criterion but it can’t be the only one and certainly not the main one.

For instance, socialists simply must be involved in the refugee movement, irrespective of the immediate recruitment possibilities. It would be unthinkable not to be involved.

I think Socialist Alternative's activity is heavily skewed towards a propagandistic approach and recruitment based on this. To my mind this is what explains the hostility of Omar and Daniel towards the very idea of a transitional method.

This leads to two very serious gaps in SAlt's activity: the organisation does not stand in elections and does not relate in any meaningful way to the issue of climate change.

Socialists should run in elections

Socialist Alternative says it is not opposed to running in elections in principle but the time is not right for them. In fact, it has never stood in elections. The old International Socialist Organisation, from which SAlt split in 1995, also never stood (except when part of Socialist Alliance). I think this is a serious failing, especially in today's political situation.

I do not accept the argument that the organisation is too small to do it. Within the limits set by our limited financial and activist resources, Socialist Alliance has always stood in state and federal elections and sometimes in council elections. (The old Democratic Socialist Party, to which I belonged, first stood in the 1975 federal Whitlam dismissal election and regularly thereafter.)

We are not electoralists but elections are an absolutely invaluable means of getting socialist politics out to a wider audience. Socialist participation in elections allows us to reach out to people and to measure our forces. It forces us to refine our message and to couch it in a transitional form. When we stand we can't simply say socialism will be superior to capitalism. We have to put forward a transitional approach, with a mixture of basic and intermediate demands, linking the problems people face with the need for a workers government and the reorganisation of society.

An obvious step towards greater unity on the left would be some sort of united socialist ticket in state or federal elections. Done properly it could arouse real enthusiasm and have an impact, especially on left-leaning Greens supporters. And it could be an important step along the road to an eventual uniting of left forces in a common organisation.

Socialists must help build climate movement

This brings me to the issue of global warming and climate change. As the perspectives document adopted by the Socialist Alliance at its January 2013 conference states:

47. A defining feature of politics today is the refusal of the capitalist class and its political representatives to confront the global climate crisis. Their wilful negligence promises to devastate nature, kill most of humanity and reduce civilisation to scattered remnants. The Socialist Alliance does not believe this refusal is due to ignorance or chance. It stems from the fundamental need of capitalism to prioritise near-term private profit — even when the eventual cost to the system is its own destruction.[4]

This is what the recently adopted Socialist Alternative Declaration of Principles says:

9. Capitalist exploitation of the working class and the natural world has created a situation where the profit system threatens the habitability of the planet. We oppose attempts to halt climate change and environmental destruction through measures that place the burden on working class people and the poor. We instead demand fundamental social and political change that directly challenges the interests of the ruling class. The environmental crisis can only be solved under socialism, where the interests of people and the planet are not counterposed.[5]

As far as it goes, I agree with these individual points but nevertheless for a socialist group this paragraph is absolutely and totally inadequate and completely unconvincing. We need a transitional approach here. We need to be involved in the movement. Readers can check out the Socialist Alliance Perspectives document (points 47 to 55).

55. As a party with no commitment to defending capitalist interests, the Socialist Alliance makes the fight to preserve the climate, along with the rest of the environment, a vital thread running through all its activities. We use our media to tell the truth about the climate emergency, and to publicise the actions of environmental campaigners. We organise our members to support and take the lead in campaigns to halt climate-damaging industries such as coal-seam gas and other fossil fuels. We support campaigns to build clean, zero-carbon-emissions alternatives to current industry and agriculture. We support campaigns that explicitly target the fossil fuel industry as a 'rogue' industry, such as the fossil fuel divestment campaign. Struggles such as these help generate alliances between farmers, environmentalists, unionists and urban communities, breaking down divisions between country and city and between communities and individuals. They provide an opportunity for socialist ideas to reach beyond the urban centres, challenging the politics of conservative populism in the suburbs and in the bush.

Also relevant is the Socialist Alliance Climate Change Charter.[6] Obviously this is work in progress but I think it is a very good start.

We are involved in the climate arena and are always looking for openings for activity and dialogue with serious people and forces around issues and campaigns.

To my knowledge, Socialist Alternative is not involved in the climate movement and does not even comment on the issue in any serious way. Why is this? We are talking about most of the world’s population perishing and serious problems are already apparent (in Australia: heatwaves, bushfires, floods and hurricanes and the consequences that flow from these).

This seems definitely to be an issue where applying Daniel's recruitment-is-the-top-priority criterion leads to a big mistake. Actually, I think serious efforts around this issues are not only essential but can win people to the socialist cause. But if we restrict ourselves to simply saying that socialism will solve the issue, then we won’t make much headway.

If Socialist Alternative could join with us in our efforts here that would be a major gain and would be a very big step along the road to socialist unity and a big expansion of the socialist movement.

Notes

  1. See Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association.
  2. Marx to Engels in Manchester, November 4, 1864, Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence (Progress Publishers; Moscow, 1975), p. 140.
  3. See, for example, James P. Cannon, [October 12, 1940], Military Policy of the Proletariat.
  4. See Socialist Alliance perspectives for 2013.
  5. See SA's new Statement of Principles.
  6. See Climate Change Charter.