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The Question of Transition and the Transitional Programme

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part I

The question of transition is directly linked with the fact that capitalism in its imperialist stage is the age of proletarian revolutions. This question expressed by Lenin was brought up in order to win the mass of the working class to the cause of the proletarian revolution and advance the struggle to this end. That Lenin brought up the question of transition was a clear response to the conception of revolution in stages which was once a controversial issue among Marxist ranks. Lenin was thus pointing to the fact that in all capitalist countries, small or big, revolutionary programme must aim for a workers’ power. But with the Stalinist bureaucracy taking power after his death, the workers’ power in the Soviet Union would come to an end and world communist movement would be instilled the conception of revolution in stages which was a hallmark of the opportunism of the Second International or of Russian Menshevism.

Although Stalinism seemingly accepts the Marxist conception of the question of transition, in reality it has either totally hollowed its revolutionary essence out of it or denied it. It is Trotsky as a revolutionary leader who tried to continue Lenin’s conception of revolutionary action programme. The Transitional Programme shaped by Trotsky constitutes an important link in the revolutionary Marxist chain.

The history of the question

The Communist Manifesto, which came into light in a period when foundations of Marxist thought and conception of struggle are laid, was written as the programme of the Communist League which was an internationalist workers organisation. The primary concern marking Marx and Engels’ work on revolutionary programme was to lay bare the conception of communist struggle which was to end capitalism and carry the working class to power. As in the example of Germany, even in countries where a bourgeois democratic revolution did not happen yet, Marx and Engels approached the question of revolution with a view to determining the strategy and tactics that would ultimately make sure the proletariat become the ruling class. Their conception of revolutionary programme illuminated the road to workers’ power in a context of continuity and permanency of the revolution.

However, opportunist and reformist political tendencies have worked to distance workers’ parties away from the line of revolutionary programme since the times of the founders of Marxism. Hence, the conception of separating the minimum and maximum programme emerged, which was to dominate the Second International. The Erfurt Programme of the German Social-Democratic Party, the leading party in the Second International, with its built-in lack of a revolutionary bond between the struggle for minimum demands and the maximum goal (workers’ power and socialism), was totally contrary to the Marxist conception. Nevertheless, the political line and programme conception of the Second International unfortunately succeeded in establishing its rule over the socialist movement for a long time, and it turned out that it was not easy to overcome this.

The programme of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party, shaped by Plekhanov, leading Russian Marxist of 19th century, was, in general, inspired by the conception of the Second International with its two-part structure separating the goal of revolutionary power into a minimum and maximum. In the following years, leaders such as Lenin, Rosa, Trotsky were to re-explore the revolutionary thread blunted by opportunism and reformism in all fundamental matters such as programme, strategy, tactics, conception of struggle. Thanks to this, as time passed, the un-Marxist character of the Second International would be clearly exposed. Lenin’s formulation of revolutionary tactics, as early as in the course of 1905 Russian revolution, against the Mensheviks’ tactics that were strangling the revolution in a compromise with the liberal bourgeoisie, meant claiming the revolutionary roots of Marxism. And, that Trotsky developed the concept of permanent revolution and that Rosa waved high the flag of revolutionary struggle against the chiefs of the Second International were similar examples.

Revolution is not instructive only for the masses but also for revolutionary leaders. The period from February to October in 1917 in Russia testifies this. In this period, Trotsky moved forward to the point that his concept of permanent revolution could only be realised by means of a Bolshevik type of organisation led by Lenin. And Lenin was able to open the way to abandon the old Bolshevik approach that had traces of the separation of minimum-maximum programme of the Second International and lead the way to workers’ power.

The well-known April Theses that Lenin read out in Tauride Palace on April 4, 1917, just the day after he returned to Russia, are of crucial importance in this respect. The incorrectness of the idea that, in a country such as Russia, objective conditions required first a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of workers-peasants” has been proven. In April Theses, Lenin explains that the soviets of workers’ deputies are the only possible revolutionary government. So he prepared the ground to abandon that “old” Bolshevik conception that divided the question of revolutionary power into two separate stages in terms of democratic and socialist tasks of the revolution. But it was not to be easy to persuade Kamenev, Stalin and many members of the Bolshevik Central Committee, who at that time were marching to a different tune and bringing up the issue of uniting with the Mensheviks. He could win the party majority over to his positions only after nearly a month. Life would prove the revolutionary positions of revolutionary leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky on the question of power and the dictatorship of the proletariat established by the victorious October Revolution would find itself responsible for the solution of both democratic and socialist tasks.

The main obstacle to the building of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the course of 1917 revolution in Russia was not stemming from objective conditions but the subjective ones. The subjective conditions of revolution were not ripe yet since the level of consciousness and organisation of the working masses was not sufficient and the working class was still under the influence of petty-bourgeois ideology. And what Lenin dealt with extensively at that time was to determine and apply the tactics to overcome the gap between the ripened objective conditions of revolution and inadequate subjective conditions.

To overcome this task, Lenin set out to formulate the demands, in fact before the April Theses, to advance the revolution. The five letters known as Letters From Afar contain his views and suggestions about this. In these letters, Lenin mentions the state of dual power and says that the working class now needs to replace the old state machinery with its own organs of power. It was quite obvious that there was no choice for the revolution to stop in a minimum (bourgeois democratic) stage, and that it would either press ahead or retreat and be defeated. Therefore the struggle of the proletariat must be carried to the point of realising the socialist revolution.

He was to develop further his thoughts in his fifth letter, which was unfinished, in The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution (the April Theses in ten points) and Letters on Tactics. Thanks to this, what Lenin called the demands and measures ensuring transition to socialism would be clarified and they would also be the backbone of the renewed party program. In this framework, Lenin numerates demands such as transition of political power to Soviets; abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy; confiscation of big landed estates and nationalisation of all lands; immediate union of all banks into a single national bank brought under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies. And he continues to say: “It is not our immediate task to ‘introduce’ socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.” (“The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution”, LCW v.24)

It is clear that Lenin linked the transitional measures directly to the question of power. Shaped in this way, the conception of transition was to be discussed in the meetings of the Bolsheviks and approved. And on the eve of October, in face of impending catastrophe caused by war and hunger, Lenin was to formulate the demands known as control measures. These measures outlined in five points also constitute the basis for Trotsky’s Transition Programme. The transitional demands formulated by Lenin that are to be carried out under workers’ control are the following:

1. Union of all banks into a single bank and nationalisation of it;

2. Nationalisation of the most important capitalist syndicates (sugar, oil, coal, iron etc.);

3. Abolition of commercial secrecy;

4. Compulsory association of all industrialists, merchants and bosses in general into industrial unions;

5. Organisation of the people in consumption cooperatives.

Recognition of all these points formulated by Lenin is very important from the standpoint of the world communist movement. Since, this way, the conception of minimum programme of the Second International which, in reality, confined the working class struggle to a framework of partial demands such as gradual improvements in working and living conditions, gaining or expanding bourgeois democratic rights, was historically transcended. In Russia, under Lenin’s leadership, the transitional demands, formulated directly in the course of a revolution and presented to the masses as urgent action targets, would illuminate the revolutionary action programme of the working class in all capitalist countries since then.

In the imperialist age the task of the communist parties is to struggle for the proletariat to take power, without erecting any other stage of power before that. And this is already the fundamental element that marks the amendment in the Bolshevik programme in the course of 1917 revolution. This is also related to Lenin’s definition of the age. He states that capitalism in its imperialist stage is the age of proletarian socialist revolution. Only the proletarian socialist revolution can save humanity from the impasse created by imperialism and imperialist wars. “Whatever difficulties the revolution may have to encounter, whatever possible temporary setbacks or waves of counter-revolution it may have to contend with, the final victory of the proletariat is inevitable. Objective conditions make it the urgent task of the day to prepare the proletariat in every way for the conquest of political power in order to carry out the economic and political measures which are the sum and substance of the socialist revolution.” (Lenin, “Materials Relating to the Revision of the Party Programme”, LCW v.24)

In such an age, the role of the communist vanguard acquired a very decisive importance in terms of emergence or ripening of objective conditions (revolutionary situation) that make the accomplishment of this task possible. Communist parties should not confine mass struggle solely to a struggle for partial demands that seem achievable under capitalism, instead, they should advocate such demands that bring the goal of workers power closer in actual fact. This is the essence of the system of demands developed by revolutionary leaders such as Lenin, Rosa, Trotsky, to be embraced when it comes to the revolutionary programme.

The impact of the Russian revolution in 1917 was surely not limited to Russia, it spread to the whole world with Europe being the most effected. In explaining the Spartacists’ conception of programme in December 1918, Rosa, who had already been opposing the evolutionist and reformist line of the Second International for many years, she was listing the demands to advance the revolution. Again Rosa, in her address in the founding congress of the German Communist Party shortly before her death, pointed out the absolute need to abandon the separation of minimum and maximum programme of the Second International. She emphasized that the programme of the Spartacists was deliberately opposed to the Erfurt Programme which breaks the link between the socialist goal and immediate and so-called minimum demands. “For us, there is no minimal and no maximal program; socialism is one and the same thing; and this is the minimum we have to realise today.” (Rosa Luxemburg, Our Programme and the Political Situation)

The October Revolution that brought the working class to power in Russia was a major test proving the perspective of permanent revolution defended by Trotsky and the revolutionary strategy and tactics developed by Lenin during the course of 1917 revolution. The October Revolution showed not only the socialist tasks but also the democratic tasks of the revolution can be tackled under workers’ power. The victorious October Revolution made it possible for an International organisation to see the light of day on communist principles and goals.

In the congresses of the Communist International while Lenin was alive very important issues were debated and resolutions were passed, which were to constitute the threads of the revolutionary Marxist tradition. In his book, known as the Infantile Disorder, written as a contribution to the second congress of the Comintern in 1920, Lenin drew the attention of the world communist movement to the question of transition. As he emphasized, the vanguard of the working class had been won over to the ranks of the dictatorship of the proletariat against the bourgeois democracy and thus a very important task had been accomplished. However, this was not the end of everything. “All efforts and all attention should now be concentrated on the next step, which may seem (…) less fundamental, but, on the other hand, is actually closer to a practical accomplishment of the task. That step is: the search after forms of the transition or the approach to the proletarian revolution.” (“Left-wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder)

Based on this, the Third and Fourth World Congresses of the Communist International dealt with the question of transition. However, the objective conditions that provided the lifeblood to the transitional demands as an urgent call for action had changed and the revolutionary wave in Europe was subsided. And this situation inevitably had an influence on the debates on the question of transition. The incompatibility of the desires harboured for a resurgence of the revolution and the adversity of the period that was now being passed through would cause some twists relating to the question of transition (workers’ government, for instance) and ambiguity in certain respects.

The Third Congress and the transitional approach

The conditions in which the revolutionary surge was subsided and the October Revolution was isolated in such a backward country as Russia, and bourgeois reaction, fascism came to rise, brought Comintern to a position to face vital problems. The Third Congress convened in July 1921 draws the attention of communists to dangers of the vanguard going to war unprepared without winning over the masses and emphasizes the need to form a united front of the working class against capital.

The inadequately prepared March uprising attempted by the communist vanguard in central Germany in 1921 caused a lot of damage. Making an assessment of the dire situation, Comintern came to conclude that it would be correct to apply defensive tactics and not the offensive ones. In Trotsky’s report which was presented to the congress and approved unanimously (International Situation and the Tasks of the Comintern), it was established that the proletariat’s open struggle for power slowed down and stagnated in many countries. In response, Comintern decides that work for organising and agitation to win the masses must be given priority.

The question of transition was also addressed in the Third Congress and the Theses on Tactics presented by Radek were formulated according to the conception of transitional demands. In the Theses it was stated that the communist parties would not put forward minimum programmes which could serve to strengthen and improve the tottering foundations of capitalism. “The Communists’ main aim is to destroy the capitalist system. But in order to achieve their aim the Communist Parties must put forward demands expressing the immediate needs of the working class. The Communists must organise mass campaigns to fight for these demands regardless of whether they are compatible with the continuation of the capitalist system.” (Theses on Tactics)

It was also stated in the Theses that if the demands put forward corresponded to the urgent needs of the broad working masses and were adopted seriously by the masses, then the struggle for these demands would be a starting point for the struggle for power. In place of the minimal programmes of reformists and centrists the Communist International resolved to put a system of demands challenging, in their entirety, the power of the bourgeoisie, organising the proletariat and advancing the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Depending on the rise of the struggle, it is also very important to create organisational forms to save the mass of the class from the grip of the union bureaucracy which is integrated with the order. Transitional demands could be put forward in such a way to promote the self-organisation of the working masses and should be coupled with the goal of the control of production by workers. In this respect, factory committees and revolutionary unions are important. “The factory committees will be able to accomplish their tasks only if they are established in the course of the struggle to defend the economic interests of the broad working masses and if they succeed in uniting all the revolutionary sections of the proletariat – the Communist Party, the revolutionary workers’ organisations, and those trade unions undergoing a process of radicalisation.” (ibid)

In the Third Congress, what Lenin dealt with before and described as sectarian approaches harming the mass work were also addressed. Those left communists who come against joining unions or utilising parliamentary platform reject the conception of transitional demands as opportunism. This erroneous attitude was rightfully criticized by the Comintern. As stated in the resolutions of the Congress, the point is not to declare the final goal to the working class, but draw the class to the struggle for the final goal and intensify this kind of struggle.

The Fourth Congress and the workers’ government

The Fourth Congress convened in December 1922 deals with the transitional demands that can be put forward in the context of the work for united front and examines the slogan of workers’ government in this framework. Theses on Tactics, presented by Zinoviev and approved unanimously, include points on workers’ government. However, this issue involves an extremely sensitive dimension as a difference from other transitional demands as it is directly related to the question of power. It was precisely because of this that heated debates took place in the congress.

As explained in the Theses, the slogan of a workers’ government (or a workers’ and peasants’ government) can be used everywhere as a general propaganda or agitation slogan. “However, as a central political slogan, the workers’ government is most important in countries where the position of bourgeois society is particularly unstable and where the balance of forces between the workers’ parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the order of the day as a practical problem requiring immediate solution.” (ibid)

The slogan of a workers’ government was put forward by the Comintern on a general level, but those problems that could come up in different conditions caused a serious debate. Zinoviev, who presented the theses to the Congress, was to say that one must be particularly careful in using the slogan of a workers’ government in those countries where parliamentary traditions are strong. To put forward this slogan in a way to defend a “workers’ government” established in the framework of usual parliamentary struggle would amount to nothing but reformism. Accordingly, Duret, a French delegate, underlined that the slogan of a workers’ government could have only a parliamentary content in France and that if a workers’ government was to rest on the masses then this would correspond to a soviet power. And Bordiga, Italian delegate, said if the slogan of a workers’ government was to be used in place of the dictatorship of the proletariat then he would not oppose it although he was not entirely happy with certain aspects of this approach. But if it was to mean anything other than the conquest of power by the working class in a revolutionary way, then he would not accept it. Bordiga, who was generally accused of left sectarianism, was not wrong in his concerns expressed on the question of a workers’ government.

We find it useful to say openly what we see as problematic with the assessments of the Fourth Congress on the question of a workers’ government, which is also our overall assessment of the issue. If the demand of a workers’ government was based on the purpose of making the masses assimilate the goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat through popular slogans, then it would be fine, and also there would be no ambiguity. But that was not the case. On the one hand, this goal was attributed such tasks that could in practice only be accomplished under the revolutionary dictatorship of the working class; on the other hand, it was said that a workers’ government did not mean that yet. Adverse effects of such an approach that can easily be stretched to erroneous directions would show up in the following years.

Let us give an example of contradictory assessments on a workers’ government during the debates of the Fourth Congress. Radek openly says that a workers’ government is not yet the dictatorship of the proletariat but can be considered a transition to that. However, in the resolution approved by the congress, the tasks to be accomplished by a workers’ government were counted to be: “to arm the proletariat, disarm the counter-bourgeois revolutionary organisations, bringing control over production, shift the main burden of taxation onto the propertied classes and break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.” (ibid)

If these positions of the Fourth Congress were to be maintained, this could have meant only to defend those measures to end a state of dual power in favour of the revolutionary proletariat, as exemplified by Lenin during the course of the 1917 revolution. In other words, this was clearly to ask for a transfer of power to the soviets. And the practical struggle to this end would enable bringing about this goal, that is, establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This was essentially what Lenin meant by the demands for transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

We must make it clear that government formulations that move away from this approach and disregard the extraordinary character of the state of a dual power would either hang in the air or, worse, open the door for opportunism. In a state of dual power that arose in the course of 1917 Russian revolution, the executer of the transitional demands defended by Lenin was the workers’ organisations created by the revolution, and it cannot be others. A propaganda campaign for a workers’ government in a way to imply a coalition of several workers’ parties, which suggests those governments of relatively stable periods, cannot at all be a popularised propaganda of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Ambiguous assessments of the Fourth Congress on the workers’ government in fact reflected an effort for a compromise between different political tendencies. Let us give an example of contradictory points. While listing the possibilities over the issue of government, the kind of liberal workers’ governments that one can encounter in Britain or social-democratic workers’ governments in the example of Germany were analysed in the Theses. About these two types of governments, the theses would say: “The first two types are not revolutionary workers’ governments, but in fact coalition governments of the bourgeoisie and anti-revolutionary labour leaders. Such governments are tolerated by the enfeebled bourgeoisie in critical times as a means of deceiving the proletariat about the real class character of the State, or to ward off, with the help of the corrupt workers’ leaders, the revolutionary offensive of the proletariat and to gain time. Communists cannot take part in such governments. On the contrary, they must vigorously expose to the masses the real character of these pseudo-workers’ governments.” (ibid)

While drawing attention to these points is entirely correct, there were false assessments as well, in contrast to this assessment. An example: “But in the present period of capitalist decline, when the most important task is to win the majority of the proletariat for the revolution, even such governments may objectively help to accelerate the process of disintegration of bourgeois power.” (ibid)

Such ambiguous and contradictory assessments over the workers’ government made by the Fourth Congress indeed prepared the ground for excuses for deviations to arise later on this issue. Stalinists, on the one hand, sought to base their concept of Popular Front governments which meant in fact compromise with the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, some Trotskyites, moving from the same point, defended a coalition of communists and social-democratic parties (or socialist parties to the same effect) as a transitional demand.

But, to be fair, the ambiguity created by the Fourth Congress over the question of workers’ government is not that far and therefore it cannot be a correct attitude to make an over-criticism of the resolutions of the congress. For example, the conditions for communists to take part in a government with other workers’ parties are correctly established by the Congress.

 “1. communists may take part in a workers’ government only with the consent of the Comintern;

2. the communist members of such a government are under the strictest control of their party;

3. the communists chosen to take part in the workers’ government must be those who have the closest contact with the revolutionary organizations of the masses;

4. the communist party retains without any restrictions its own identity and complete independence of agitation.” (ibid)

One last thing we want to touch upon would be another point in the decisions of the Congress on a workers’ government which should not be misunderstood. This is about how to conceive the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the resolutions it is said that, “the complete dictatorship of the proletariat can only be a genuine workers’ government consisting of communists.” (ibid) It is obvious that Lenin and other revolutionary leaders defended the principle that power must be in the hands of the soviets and not the party, and they acted in line with this principle. The mission of the party is to be the leader within the soviets and this mission can surely be accomplished by winning the majority within workers’ mass organisations. Therefore Lenin defended that a call for taking power in practice without ensuring a Bolshevik majority in the soviets would be untimely and this attitude is correct. But this cannot, and should not, at all mean that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the dictatorship of the communist party and that a workers’ government can be counted as a genuine workers’ power only if it is composed of elements from the communist party.

There was another important resolution of the Forth Congress over the question of transition. In the Resolution on the Programme of the Communist International the national sections were instructed to begin drafting of their programmes. They were required that the draft programmes state clearly and decisively the necessity of the struggle for transitional demands. Besides, the Comintern would draft a general programme and there theoretical basis for all transitional demands and partial demands would be clearly stated. In the resolution Comintern “decisively condemns the attempt to depict the inclusion of transitional demands in the programme as opportunism, as well as all attempts to gloss over or replace the fundamental revolutionary tasks by partial demands.” (ibid)

According to this resolution, the general programme was to take into account the basic differences in the economic and political structure of different countries and explain clearly the basic historical types of the transitional demands. But with Lenin’s death and advent of the Stalinist rule the Communist International unfortunately went astray the revolutionary road. Therefore the 1928 programme written by the Stalinist Comintern was not the accomplishment of the task decided upon in Lenin’s time. On the contrary, Stalinism hurled way back the conception of the revolutionary programme of the working class from the positions achieved once thanks to the leadership of Lenin. It drew the world communist movement into the dirty waters of Menshevism. The political leader who took up the responsibility of the revolutionary mission set by Lenin in the context of the transitional demands and the question of the programme would be Trotsky who embraced the Bolshevik legacy in a revolutionary way.