Marxists and the British
The 'Open Turn' debate
Introduction to Trotsky's Transitional programme
(Peter Taaffe, October 1978)
[Editors note - This Introduction was written by Peter Taaffe, using a pseudonym partly because the first attacks on the Militant were beginning in earnest at this time.
It is not directly relevant to the 'Open Turn' debate. It has a strongly international character, a feature of much of Peter Taaffe's writings. Nevertheless this Introduction does briefly show how the question of the Labour Party was posed in 1978 by Peter Taaffe, and we note that he specifically warns against treating the Transitional Programme like "an ossified document whose demands must be brought forward in a completely mechanical fashion at all stages irrespective of the concrete situation or the level which has been reached by the movement of the working class, its mood, etc." This equally applied to the Labour Party entrist tactic.]
The Transitional Programme was written by Trotsky in 1938, in preparation for the coming World War and the social upheavals which would result from this.
In the whole preceding period, and particularly after the victory of Hitlerite fascism in Germany, Trotsky had predicted the inevitability of the Second World War. Out of the ashes of this world conflagration would come an irresistible revolutionary uprising of the working class in the capitalist states against imperialist barbarism which would be paralleled by the revolt of the Russian proletariat against the monstrous regime .of Stalinism. Trotsky anticipated that the revolutionary wave which would issue from the war would even put in the shade the revolutionary convulsions which followed the First World War and the victory of the working class in Russia in 1917. This in turn would shatter the old organisations of the proletariat—"not one stone upon another of the old Internationals would be left standing"—out of which would crystallise new mass revolutionary organisations and a new mass Fourth International. The Transitional Programme was conceived as the means of creating and arming mass organisations.
There are not a few wiseacres today who dismiss this prognosis, together with the Transitional Programme, as an example of Trotsky's 'revolutionary phantasmagoria'. And yet Trotsky's perspective was in one respect borne out to an even greater extent than even he could have anticipated. From 1943 to 1947 a revolutionary wave swept over Europe which threatened the rule of capital. The mere announcement that Mussolini had been replaced by Badoglio — Lucifer for Satan — by the Fascist Grand Council in 1943 was enough to bring millions of Italian workers out onto the streets. This opened the floodgates of revolution in Italy. Similarly the French workers rose in Paris in 1944 to smash the Nazi occupation forces while the troops of American Imperialism and De Gaulle's 'Free French' were fifty miles from Paris. Fearing a new version of the Paris Commune, De Gaulle was rushed to Paris to be filmed by the news cameras, thus fostering the legend that he was the 'liberator' of the city. In Britain also, the conviction of the workers, particularly the troops, to never again return to the mass unemployment and misery of the '30s, swept the Labour government to power in 1945.
In Africa, Asia and Latin America the colonial peoples set in motion a movement which resulted in the retreat of imperialism from at least direct domination of these areas. In Eastern Europe also, revolutionary uprisings followed the flight of the quisling capitalists—who had collaborated with the Nazi invaders—and the advance of the Red Army. But even the most revolutionary theory cannot anticipate all developments. Trotsky did not foresee, and indeed could not foresee, that the Social Democratic and Stalinist leaders would be able, in the immediate aftermath of the war, to provide the necessary breathing space for capitalism to recover from the devastation.
Capitalism was saved in Western Europe by the Social Democratic and Stalinist leaders who entered bourgeois governments and undertook to rescue the system from collapse. In Italy the Stalinists and socialists entered a series of Popular Front governments, even attempting to screen King Emanuel, Mussolini's benefactor, from the anger of the masses. Their French cousins did the same, with 'Communist' ministers like Maurice Thorez sitting in the government which bombed Madagascar and re-occupied Indo-China (later Vietnam), which in turn set in train the 30 year horror of the Vietnam war.
The Social Democratic and Stalinist leaders laid the political pre-conditions for the recovery of capitalism from the devastation of the war. From 1947 onwards the conditions sketched out by Trotsky were thus not present in the advanced capitalist world at least. Trotsky had spoken and written about the incapacity of capitalism to give large scale or lasting reforms. The struggle for reforms, and even to defend the gains of the past, was bound up with the idea of socialist revolution he maintained.
But the beginnings of the world economic upswing—the causes of which have been sketched out many times by the British Marxists—allowed significant concessions to be granted to the working class. 20% of industry was nationalised in Britain; true, only those industries which had been ruined by the capitalists, who received lavish compensation into the bargain. The National Health Service, one of the most important reforms, was introduced, which put hospital and health care in reach of millions for the first time. Similar reforms were introduced in education, social services, housing, etc. Undoubtedly, the absolute living standards of the working class began to rise, (one of the factors being a big increase in overtime working and women going out to work).
Rather than undermining the reformist leadership of the mass workers' organisations this led to a temporary consolidation of their position. The Gaitskelites emerged as the dominant force in the Labour Party while the trade unions were controlled from the top by _ the Carrons, Deakins and Lawthers. A similar process unfolded within the Social Democratic organisations on the European continent. In Germany, the Social Democratic leaders, at the Godesberg Party Conference in 1958, went so far as to eradicate the demand for the Socialist transformation of society from the SPD programme. But when Gailtskell tried the same thing in the British labour movement, with his attack on the famous Clause 4 part 4 of the LP constitution in 1960, he provoked the fury of the rank and file of the Labour Party and trade unions. Gaitskell and his right wing cohorts would have been broken if they had not retreated in the face of this mass opposition. (The pro-Clause 4 movement was an entirely spontaneous outburst by the Labour Party and trade union rank and file. When Gaitskell first announced his intentions the 'Tribune' and its supporters were silent or muted in their opposition.)
This process also resulted in the reduction of the genuine adherents of Marxism to tiny handfuls in the advanced capitalist countries. The programme of Marxism—of which the Transitional Programme formed a vital part—was consigned to the rubbish bin by the reformists. An era of 'progress', of steady improvements in living standards, had opened up which would irretrievably lead to a more and more 'bourgeoisified' working class, which would become inoculated against socialism by the 'welfare state'. Unemployment and the miseries of the 1930s were banished forever. Social engineering, increased state expenditure etc, would be used by enlightened governments to avoid the reappearance of slump or recessions.
These ideas were also part of the thinking and actions of some of alleged Marxists. The relative quiescence of the working class in the advanced capitalist states was used as a justification for turning away from the industrial working class and the advanced industrial countries as the main agency and main arena, respectively, of the socialist revolution. These ultra-left sects looked first towards Tito, then Mao-Tse-Tung and then Castro as the new 'liberators'. The peasantry and even the lumpen proletariat—certainly this was the case in the colonial and semi-colonial world—were seen as the real revolutionary force as opposed to the 'corrupted' industrial workers.
During this period, the main task of Marxism was to stubbornly defend the methods and programme of Marxism both against reformist and ultra-left backsliding. Marxism did not light on the industrial working class as the main force for the socialist revolution for accidental or sentimental reasons. Only this class, organised and disciplined by big industry, can develop the necessary social cohesion and combativity to carry through the tasks of the socialist revolution.
The peasantry, which by its very nature is split and divided into different layers pulling in different directions, cannot play an independent role in society. They can play the role of auxiliary to the movement of the working class as was the case in Russia in October 1917. It is true that a peasant army, as in China, or guerrillas resting on the peasantry, as in Cuba, can be used as the battering ram to eliminate landlordism and capitalism. This is because of the complete impasse of bourgeois society in the colonial or semi-colonial world. But this in turn means that from the beginning power is concentrated in the hands of a bureaucratic caste. This necessitates a new supplementary revolution—a political revolution—before there can be a movement towards socialism. Only where power is vested in the hands of the working class and their democratic organs such as Soviets, can the transition towards socialism take place.
The fact that it proved necessary to defend and restate these fundamental ideas of Marxism during the 1950s and 1960s was an indication of just how far back in terms of theory and understanding the labour movement had been thrown during this period. Yet even during the boom we witnessed the enormous accumulated power of the proletariat which the British Marxists alone had pointed out was the other side of the post-war economic upswing. Thus in 1960 the Belgian workers shook the ruling class of Europe to its foundations with a General Strike. In May 1968 10 million French workers occupied the factories and paralysed the 'strong state' of De Gaulle. The peaceful transformation of society was within the grasp of the working class but for the perfidious role of the leaders of the French Socialist and Communist Parties.
These were the seismic tremors of the coming earthquake which, with the beginnings of the Portuguese and Spanish revolutions, have completely shattered the bourgeoisie's confidence and rosy perspectives for the future.
During the boom the capitalists had looked forward to decades of uninterrupted progress. The recession of 1974/5—the first simultaneous small slump since the war—completely dissipated this feeling. The prevalent despairing mood amongst the ruling circles was summed up by the German Social Democratic leader Willy Brandt: "The lights are going out in Europe. In twenty years Europe will either be Communist or Fascist". The post-war boom, which had been claimed by those like Brandt to have banished the spectre of the 30s, had proved to be a temporary upswing of an obsolete and doomed system. It is true that the post-war boom produced the biggest growth in production in world history. But a match flares up very brightly before it is extinguished.
All the serious representatives of capitalism now recognise that the epoch of 'uninterrupted growth' is over. Only the right-wing leaders of the labour movement retain a lingering hope in the ability of capitalism to stage a recovery. A period of turbulence and struggles between the classes has now opened up. We are now in a period of economic instability, of booms and slumps. A reserve army of unemployed has re-appeared—which will grow and be added to as capitalism faces further difficulties—in all the advanced capitalist countries and countless millions in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Thus all the conditions sketched out by Trotsky in the Transitional Programme are beginning to re-appear.
"The economy, the state, the politics of the bourgeoisie and its international relations are completely blighted by a social crisis characteristic of a pre-revolutionary state of society."
Who can doubt that this is a more accurate description of the present day state of capitalism than the current writings of the soothsayers and apologists of capitalism? Italy, one of the seven major capitalist powers, has been in a pre-revolutionary situation for ten years! This is something which is unprecedented and which could never have been anticipated by the great Marxist teachers. By its very nature a pre-revolutionary situation is usually of a short duration which must either end in revolution, as in Russia in 1917, or in counter-revolution as in the case of numerous aborted revolutions since. The very fact that a pre-revolutionary situation can exist for such a protracted period is due to the extreme weakness of the bourgeoisie on the one side—in the face of the enormous power of the proletariat,—its fear of going over to the methods of open civil war, and on the other, because of the bankruptcy of the leadership of the workers' organisations.
This is the main theme of 'The Death Agony of Capitalism': "The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership," In the light of the French events of 1968, of Chile from 1970 to 1973, of Italy over the last ten years, of the Portuguese Revolution since 1974 and the grandiose movement of the Spanish workers over the past ten years—but particularly since the death of Franco—who can doubt the validity of Trotsky's appraisal of our epoch? In the case of the Portuguese Revolution even the strategists of capital in the editorial offices of 'The Times' had given up the ghost: "capitalism is dead in Portugal" they wrote in the aftermath of the March 1975 events. The workers in Portugal, despite the ferocious resistance of their own leaders, by occupying the banks, and insurance companies, compelled the government to take over 70% to 80% of the economy. Nine tenths of the socialist revolution had been carried through by the Portuguese workers.
All that was required to completely eliminate capitalism was to set up workers' and peasants' councils—Soviets—, establish workers' and small farmers' democracy, organise a state monopoly of foreign trade and set in motion the planning of industry and society. But this road was barred to them by the leadership of the Communist Party and Socialist Party. The former attempted to grab a political monopoly for itself and its military supporters and to establish a regime similar to those in Eastern Europe or Cuba. The SP leadership with its campaign on 'democracy', without any class content, allowed the reaction to hide behind its skirts. The capitalist state machine which was shattered following the March 1975 events has been carefully re-assembled. The reaction is undoubtedly planning another attempt to crush the Portuguese Revolution and the working class. The absence of a genuine Marxist leadership in either of the mass workers' organisations has strewn colossal obstacles in the path of the Portuguese workers. Whereas a powerful transformation was entirely possible it now seems that the issue will be decided by an open collision of the classes in Portugal. If this should come to pass the responsibility will rest on the shoulders of the leaders of the CP and SP.
However, Trotsky's formula about the crisis of leadership has been transformed into a lifeless dogma by the ultra-left sects vegetating on the outskirts of the labour movement. Once the 'bankruptcy' of the leaders of the mass organisations is established, for them, then all that remains to be done is to stand on the sidelines, denounce these leaders and the masses will come flocking to their banner. Trotsky insured himself against these alleged disciples of his when he wrote in the Transitional Programme: "They propose turning their backs on the 'old' trade unions, i.e., to tens of millions of organised workers—as if the masses could somehow live outside of the conditions of the actual class struggle! They remain indifferent to the inner struggle within reformist organisations—as if one could win the masses without intervening in their daily strife!"
Since Trotsky wrote these lines, experience, both in the advanced capitalist countries and in the colonial and semi-colonial world, has shown that when the working class first awakens to political life it will turn in its millions towards its traditional organisations in the first instance. Within these organisations it will test and re-test the leaders. On the basis of events and its experience it will grope in the direction of Marxism. And it is the methods and slogans outlined in this programme, added to and expanded by the workers themselves, which will form a vital part of the armoury of a mass Marxist force. It is above all a programme for building and theoretically arming a mass force. It is, as Trotsky explains, an indispensable means of providing a bridge from the workers' present conditions and level of understanding to the conception of the socialist revolution. This is to be achieved on the basis of a series of transitional demands. What are the objective factors which make transitional demands necessary? Capitalism can no longer afford steady improvements or lasting reforms. Even the struggle to defend what has been gained in the past is bound up with the need to change society. This has been underlined by the experiences of the British working class over the past period. All the achievements of the past have been subjected to attack both under Tory and Labour governments.
The working class will move into action to defend and extend its gains and in the course of the struggle will see that what is involved is the need to carry through the socialist revolution.
The opponents of Trotskyism—i.e. [the opponents of] Marxism—picture transitional demands as 'impossible', as 'utopian', 'lacking in realism as to what can be achieved' etc. The first thing to note is that transitional demands have been raised by the working class at one time or another in the course of their struggles. Trotsky himself pointed out in discussions with his American followers: "I want to emphasise that it is not one man's invention, that it comes from long collective experience."
Critics of Trotsky, particularly within the ranks of the Communist Party, usually oppose transitional demands because they allege that they 'cannot be realised'. Trotsky anticipated this argument when he wrote in the Transitional Programme: " 'realisability' or 'unrealisability' is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle". Trotsky elaborated the point further in discussions on the programme: "revolutionaries always consider that the reforms and acquisitions are only a by-product of the revolutionary struggle. If we say that we will only demand what they can give (which is the present position of the reformists—Editor) the ruling class will only give one-tenth or none of what we demand. The more extended and militant the spirit of the workers, the more is demanded and won."
It is not excluded that under certain conditions some transitional demands can be achieved by the working class. Thus in Germany in 1918 and in Spain in 1936 the proletariat won, for a time, the eight hour day. Today it is possible that the 35 hour week, which is a transitional demand, can be won by the working class in Britain and Europe if it throws its full weight into the struggle. In these conditions the bourgeoisie can retreat under the onslaught of the masses and grant concessions. But these gains would invariably be of a temporary character unless the working class uses its power to effect socialist change. Marxism does not counter pose transitional demands to the day to day struggles of the working class. On the contrary it is the best fighter for these demands. But in contradistinction to the reformists, it points out to the working class the limitations of those demands on the basis of capitalism, and helps the workers to draw the necessary conclusions on the basis of their own experience: "by means of the struggle, no matter what the immediate practical successes may be, the workers will come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery."
Take, for instance, the widespread demand of the labour movement for massively increased state expenditure to soak up unemployment. This is a cornerstone of the programme of the 'Tribune', the main left-reformist current within the labour movement in Britain. The Marxists also inscribe on their banner the demand for a useful programme of public works on hospitals, housing, schools etc,. But the 'Tribune' tendency create the illusion that such a programme is entirely possible within the framework of capitalism. The Marxists, on the other hand, while energetically fighting for this demand, stress to the working class that this cannot be fully met by a system racked by crisis. Increased state expenditure can be financed either through taxes on the capitalists or on workers and the petit-bourgeoisie. If it is through the former method then the capitalists will not have the necessary wherewithal to invest and will thus go on, what Harold Wilson called a "strike of capital" which will result in factory closures and a consequent rise in unemployment. Thus what is gained on the swings will be lost on the roundabout. If it is by the second method then it will mean a cut in the market with the same result. If on the other hand, it is covered by the government resorting to the printing press by printing pound notes without the backing of increased production of goods, then it will lead to a rise in inflation which will also have the same effect as the other methods. Thus what is given with one hand will be taken back by the other: "every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petit-bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and the bourgeois state."
The present Communist Party leadership, while condemning a programme of transitional demands, is blissfully ignorant of the fact that the Bolsheviks were armed with such a programme in 1917.
What is Lenin's pamphlet 'The Threatening Catastrophe And How To Avoid It'—including as it does a whole series of demands on workers' control, abolition of business secrets, opening the books, nationalisation of the banks, etc—if it is not a transitional programme? Moreover the Communist International in its first and revolutionary period urged the young Communist parties to adopt and fight on a series of transitional demands.
The transitional programme has also been subjected to distortion from another quarter—the sects who allegedly adhere to the programme. In their hands it has become an ossified document whose demands must be brought forward in a completely mechanical fashion at all stages irrespective of the concrete situation or the level which has been reached by the movement of the working class, its mood, etc. Trotsky himself pointed out that if this was all that was required then every "sectarian would be a master strategist". He urged Marxists to root themselves in the working class and its organisations to listen to, and learn from, the workers in order to be able to grasp the rhythm of events. Only then would it be possible to acquire the necessary skill and understanding to be able to bring forward those aspects of the programme which correspond to the situation and which can take the working class forward.
Examples of the sects' inability to understand this approach are legion. Thus one of the sects has been anticipating 'fascism or. socialism within a year' for thirty years, in the belief that they were adhering to Trotsky's approach! During the last Tory government they were expecting a military coup, which was seemingly indicated by the army manoeuvres at Heathrow airport! Entirely foreign to them was the real relationship of forces in British society, with the enormous potential power of the proletariat, which made a coup utterly impossible at that stage, and for the next period. The move towards a Bonapartist regime in Britain could only come after a protracted period of struggle between the classes and a series of defeats of the working class. Allied to their general approach was the slogan of an unlimited general strike, Soviets and a workers' militia. Without perhaps the exaggerated expectations of a coup, in fundamentals this was also the approach of all the sects to the situation which existed in Britain at that stage.
Trotsky had warned against those who "mistake the first month of pregnancy for the ninth month." Such people in an influential position within the workers' movement can produce an abortion. Fortunately the tiny grouplets on the fringe of the labour movement will never occupy a position from which they can wreak such damage. Nevertheless, with this approach they can succeed in mis-educating a layer of workers and more importantly, prejudice many more against transitional demands and the ideas of Trotsky in general.
The situation in Britain between 1970-74 was a period of heightened class tensions. But it was completely ultra-left to advance the slogan of an unlimited general strike which Marxism had pointed out again and again posed the issue of power before the working class. A painstaking accounting of all the conditions for the success of such a strike needs to be undertaken before putting forward such a slogan. A-small section of workers were demanding a general strike at that stage—without understanding all the consequences—but the mass of the working class were clearly not ready for such a slogan. The demand that best corresponded to the feelings of workers for action against the Tory government was the call for a token one-day general strike to be organised by the General Council of the TUC. This was obviously a call which would have been heeded by the vast majority of the working class. Following the jailing of the five dockers in 1972 the threat of such action was first raised by the TUC. A 24-hour stoppage of work accompanied by demonstrations, meetings, etc, would have marked an enormous step forward for the working class, allowed it to feel its power as a class and prepared it for the next stage of the struggle. It would have had tremendous consequences for class relations and within the labour movement. It was for this reason that the General Council made the call only when there was no possibility of it being carried out (due to the assurances from the government that the dockers would be released).
The same incapacity to understand the stage of which we were at and the special features of the British labour movement was underlined by the virtual unanimity of the sects at this time in the call for 'soviets' and factory committees. This is but one of the many examples where ,these 'Trotskyists' use the letter of Trotsky's writings against its spirit. They are completely incapable of understanding his method. It is true that in the transitional programme Trotsky distinguishes between the trade unions and factory committees. He pointed to factory committees as organs of struggle which could embrace those workers, particularly the most oppressed strata, whom the trade unions were normally unable to attract. But the sects just repeat Trotsky's phrases by rote without understanding his method and without moreover recognising the changes which have taken place since the transitional programme was written.
Thus in relation to the membership of the trade unions Trotsky wrote: "Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25% of the working class, and that predominantly the most skilled and better paid layers." Yet the membership of the trade unions in Britain today is 12 million, which is over 50% of the labour force. In Sweden it is 70% for white collar workers and a colossal 90% of manual workers are organised, and in Belgium it is 70%. Even in Portugal, a mere four years after the ending of fifty years of fascism the membership of the trade unions stands at an enormous 82% of the working class, while in Spain it already represents 35% of the labour force and will undoubtedly soon encompass a majority of the proletariat. Moreover, in Britain, at a time when unemployment has increased by a million, the membership of the trade unions has increased—it shot up by 350,000 in 1977-78 alone.
The colossal authority which the trade unions have in the eyes of the working class is shown by the attitude of the formerly backward and inert layers. The hospital workers, local government workers arid those oppressed layers who were aroused by the attacks of the last Tory government did not by-pass the trade unions—a possibility held out by Trotsky—or create new instruments' of struggle, but poured into already existing unions and in turn began the process of transforming them into fighting organisations. The further radicalisation of British society will undoubtedly see even wider layers of hitherto hostile or apathetic workers looking towards trade union organisations.
Alongside of the strengthening of the official apparatus of the trade unions has also developed the shop stewards, numbering about 250,000 in Britain, and the stewards' combine committees. What are these if not the 'factory committees' mentioned by Trotsky in the transitional programme? In relation to these committees Trotsky writes: "From the moment that the committee makes its appearance, a factual dual power is established in the factory". The powerful development of the shop stewards' movement in Britain and in other advanced capitalist countries has undoubtedly led, if not to the "factual dual power" which Trotsky speaks of, then to the elements of dual power in the factories. The workers through these organisations exercise the right to veto management decisions, some of them, in effect, controlling the right of hiring and firing, the amount of overtime that is worked, canteen facilities etc. And yet the hidebound sectarian grouplets have counter posed their mythical 'factory committees' to the already existing shop stewards committees. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see!
The same sectarian myopia is displayed in their attitude towards the slogan of 'Soviets'. During the struggle against the Tory government they busied themselves by inventing phantom 'soviets' or 'committees of action'. This is despite the fact that Trotsky himself makes the point: "Soviets can arise only at the time when the mass movement enters into an open revolutionary stage." Apart from the fact that the movement had not reached the level at which this would find a favourable echo amongst the mass of the workers they failed to understand that it was to the trades councils which the British working class had turned in the past in periods of upheaval. Thus in 1926 it was the trades councils, filled out with increased representatives from the unions, the factories and districts which formed the councils of action. Both during the General Strike in 1926, and in 1920, when the British ruling class was threatening to intervene in Poland against the Red Army, the trades councils became embryonic Soviets.
The form which the movement of the British workers has always taken has been to transform and re-transform their already existing organisations. Undoubtedly, when frustrated by the official apparatus of the trade unions, the workers will throw up temporary ad hoc organisations. Even in this case, it will probably be around the shop stewards' committees that such organisations will develop. But to see these organisations as substitutes for the official movement would be totally false. The shop stewards' organisations are now an 'unofficial' part of the official trade union organisations.
The sectarians invariably put forward the wrong slogan at the wrong time. Thus in Britain they raised the demand for a workers' militia at a time when the working class, under the hammer blows of the Tory government, were just beginning to move, and when moreover, there was no sign of a fascist movement prepared to physically attack the workers' organisations. Yet in Northern Ireland where workers were being shot down by sectarian thugs on either side of the religious divide, when intimidation, threats and beatings-up of trade union officials and shop stewards were taking place daily they denounced those Marxists who advanced the entirely correct slogan of a Trade Union Defence force. They are like the fool in the Russian proverb, who sings a wedding song at a funeral and a funeral dirge at a wedding!
At the same time an opportunist twist has been given by some of them to the transitional programme. They serve up one or two transitional demands—on workers' control for instance—as all that is necessary at this stage of the workers' movement in Britain. Any attempt to put forward general demands for society and the economy as a whole is denounced as 'abstract'. In so doing they are forgetting a simple truth propounded by Trotsky in the transitional programme that the demands are a bridge to the programme of the socialist revolution. What is this programme but the need to expropriate the capitalist and all that flows from this? Expressed in language which workers can understand this means the nationalisation of the monopolies under workers' management and control and with compensation to those in proven need. There is no contradiction in putting forward a general programme of this character alongside of the other transitional demands e.g. the demand for the 35-hour week, a useful programme of public works to end unemployment and the nationalisation of individual firms and industries which declare redundancies. The programme has to take account of the fact that there are different layers of the working class at different stages of development.
But a vital task of the Marxists is to generalise the experience of the working class. Moreover this now becomes more possible because of the enormous concentration and centralisation of capital into huge monopolies and their growing together with the state machine have been taken to enormous lengths in Britain. This invests almost every particular and sectional struggle of the workers with a general character. Take the issue of wages. In 1966 Harold Wilson warned the seamen that they were not just taking on the owners but the state itself. The struggle for wage increases comes up against the resistance of the government itself. This in turn raises the need for a general solution to the problems of the working class and the need for a socialist re-organisation of society.
It is forty years since the transitional programme was first written by Trotsky. Yet throughout this period the main task of the Marxists has been to defend its central ideas and method of approach against both opportunist reformist ideas and their mirror image in the shape of the ultra-lefts. The period when it will become the indispensable weapon for millions of workers in the struggle to liberate themselves from the horrors of capitalism still lies ahead of us. This document will arm the workers in the battle to defend and improve their living standards. That does not mean to say that the demands outlined in the transitional programme would be formulated in exactly the same way today, as when it was first written. The call for the 35-hpur week expresses the same sentiment as the slogan "the sliding scale of hours". The latter would seem abstract to most workers in Britain today while the struggle for 35-hours (and an even shorter working week) has been enthusiastically taken up by the working class in the past period. Trotsky always stressed the need to express Marxist ideas and slogans in the language of the proletariat itself. Doctrinaire sectarianism in ideas and language is entirely alien to Marxism.
It is therefore necessary to express transitional demands in such a way that they can be understood and fought for by the working class. Moreover it will also be necessary to incorporate into the programme those transitional demands which the working class itself throws up in the course of the struggle. It is also necessary to give a more concrete expression to some of the demands raised by Trotsky. Thus Trotsky raised the demand for workers' participation in the management in the nationalised industries. In the conditions which obtain in Britain today this is best expressed by the call of the Marxists for majority representation on the boards of the nationalised industries by the trade unions with all representatives elected and subject to recall: these representatives to tear away the veil and show to the mass of workers the way nationalised industry is used as a milch cow by the monopolies. This will in turn lay the basis for the taking into state ownership of these industries. This demand answers all the objections of the capitalist and their shadows within the labour movement to the concept of workers' management.
The transitional programme more accurately expresses the real situation which faces the working class today internationally than all the scribblings of the writers and spokesmen of capitalism or their reformist cohorts within the workers' movement, "The bourgeoisie sees no way out...it now toboggans with closed eyes towards an economic ...catastrophe". Is this not a crushingly accurate description of the ruling class internationally and particularly in Britain today? 'Reformists without reforms'; is this not the present role of the right-wing leadership? Above all Trotsky's general characterisation of the epoch has been reinforced again and again by the events of the last four decades: "the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of leadership of the proletariat."
This crisis can only be resolved by the re-arming of the workers' organisation with a Marxist programme and leadership. The mighty events which are opening up in all parts of the globe will provide many opportunities for realising this. It will not be achieved in one day or by one act. But through defeats as well as victories the proletariat will increasingly look to those who can provide the programmatic means of banishing capitalist and, Stalinist barbarism from the planet. Trotsky's transitional programme will play a vital role in the accomplishment of this task
John Harris [Peter Taaffe], October 1978.