5. On “Transitional Revolutionary-Democratic Demands” in the Present Period

Most adherents of Trotsky’s theory – particularly those from Europe and North America – assume that democratic demands are of no importance and distinguish between them and vital transitional demands. What is true is that democratic demands must – in order to play a revolutionary role – be integrated into a transitional program. In the founding document of the Fourth International in 1938 – the famous Transitional Program – Trotsky emphasized the interdependence between the different types of demands:

Democratic slogans, transitional demands and the problems of the socialist revolution are not divided into separate historical epochs in this struggle, but stem directly from one another.[1]

This means that Bolshevik-Communists have to integrate democratic demands into a program which starts from the present situation and elaborates a series of slogans (including immediate demands) which all lead to the core slogan of the transitional program: the conquest of state power by the working class and the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship. This is why the key slogans of the transitional program are calls for the formation of soviets, of workers and popular militias, of workers control in the enterprises, and the establishment of a workers’ government supported by the poor peasants and the urban poor.

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.[2]

Trotsky insisted that democratic slogans must be revolutionary, mobilizing slogans, but not demands which become an obstacle for the advance of the working class. Hence, such democratic slogans must not be misused – as was done by the Stalinists – to subordinate the proletariat to a sector of the bourgeoisie. This means that democratic demands must not be issued as passive appeals to the state or be distinct from mobilizing and organizing demands designed to raise the self-organizing capabilities of the working class (action committees, soviets, militias etc.). On this Trotsky noted:

Of course, this does not mean that the Fourth International rejects democratic slogans as a means of mobilizing the masses against fascism. On the contrary, such slogans at certain moments can play a serious role. But the formulae of democracy (freedom of press, the right to unionize, etc.) mean for us only incidental or episodic slogans in the independent movement of the proletariat and not a democratic noose fastened to the neck of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie’s agents (Spain!). As soon as the movement assumes something of a mass character, the democratic slogans will be intertwined with the transitional ones. [3]

Let us deal with the question of whether democratic demands assume the character of transitional demands? While many so-called “Trotskyists” deny this, we say that under specific conditions this is certainly possible.

In its declaration of principles, Trotsky’s International Left Opposition – the predecessor organization of the Fourth International –in 1933 proclaimed as one of the conditions of membership:

Recognition of the necessity to mobilize the masses under transitional slogans corresponding to the concrete situation in each country, and particularly under democratic slogans insofar as it is a question of struggle against feudal relations, national oppression, or different varieties of openly imperialist dictatorship (fascism, Bonapartism, etc.).” [4]

In other writings Trotsky spoke explicitly about transitional revolutionary-democratic slogans[5]. In the case of China, at that time he considered the slogan of a Constituent Assembly as such a crucial transitional demand:

The struggle against the military dictatorship must inevitable assume the form of transitional revolutionary-democratic demands, leading to the demand for a Chinese Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal direct, equal, and secret voting, for the solution of the most important problems facing the country: the introduction of the eight-hour day, the confiscation of the land, and the securing of national independence for China[6]

In another document dealing with the problems of fighting against fascism in imperialist Italy, Trotsky wrote in 1930:

In no way do we deny a transitional period with its transitional demands including democratic demands.[7]

Let us try to define more concretely which democratic slogans in the imperialist countries could assume the character of such transitional revolutionary-democratic demands. It goes without saying that this question can not be discussed in abstract. Certain demands can assume a transitional character in a given period but not in another. For example, the democratic demand of suffrage for migrant workers who are foreign citizens did not have a transitional character in the 1960s and 1970s in Europe when migrants were still a relative small minority. However, things are very different in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar where migrants constitute between 69–86% of the whole population! Similarly, the demand for abolition of the monarchy and the expropriation of the nobility is much less explosive in Britain than it is in Saudi-Arabia.

Another example is the demand for full equality for sexual minorities (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender persons, etc.). Such a demand naturally deserves the fullest support of socialists, but it cannot be considered a transitional revolutionary-democratic demand.

In short, we think that the democratic slogans which should be considered as transitional revolutionary-democratic demands relate to core issues of the capitalist system in its present political, economic, and social configuration and have the potential to shake it. In other words, revolutionary-democratic demands which challenge the logic of imperialist capitalism can be considered as transitional. Or to put it in another way: such slogans which are capable of attracting the attention of the working class to the issue of conquering state power and building a new, socialist society.

For example the demand for a universal suffrage for women was of crucial importance in the period before 1914. On the other hand, the demand for free abortion was and remains an important democratic demand but does not contain a transitional dynamic. However it is an entirely different matter with the demand for the socialization of housework which fundamentally challenges the chaining of women to unpaid domestic work and childcare. This is a demand which partly can only be realized in an advanced socialist society when classes and the structures of the traditional family will be withering away.

Similarly we consider the slogan for open borders for migrants and refugees in the present period as a transitional revolutionary-democratic demand. Given the enormous global weight of the proletariat in the semi-colonial world, the increasing super-exploitation of the South by the monopoly capitalists, the drive for more imperialist wars in the South, and the inability of the imperialist metropolises to accommodate the mass of those in the South who wish to migrate to the North – all these factors demonstrate the importance of the slogan for open borders. In addition, this slogan helps mobilize the workers and popular masses against imperialism by building links of international solidarity between the oppressed of the North and those of the South. Furthermore, this slogan challenges the social-imperialist bond which chains the backward sectors of the working class in the North to their capitalist masters.

For similar reasons we see the slogan for full equality for migrants (equal wages, abolition of a state language as such and equality for all languages of migrants, truly universal suffrage, etc.) in those imperialist countries with a significant sector of migrants as a transitional revolutionary-democratic demand. Let us recall that in a number of European and North American urban metropolises, migrants and racial minorities constitute between ¼ and ½ of the population. Again, this constitutes a central issue for a crucial migrant sector of the proletariat and it helps to break domestic workers away from identification with “their” imperialist nation state.

These slogans concerning migrants and refugees are also particularly relevant in the current historical phase because in the period of globalization the gulf between the base and the superstructure and between world economy and national state widens even more.

Other important democratic slogans which can be considered as transitional revolutionary-democratic demands are the slogans for local self-government and those which fundamentally challenge the capitalist state bureaucracy (i.e. popular election of those who serve as state functionaries, etc.). We note in passing that these slogans are hardly even mentioned by “Marxists” today. However, this should not be very surprising, as, for Stalinists and left social democrats, these slogans are clearly much too radical! How, they ask, can you possibly combine sitting (or aspiring to sit) in a government which presides over an imperialist state and at the same time call for universal eligibility in filling the role of all state functionaries?! From their perspective, centrists either don’t want to irritate these reformist bureaucrats or they consider these slogans as entirely “anarchistic.”

The slogans for local self-government and for the eligibility of state functionaries were initially raised by Marx and Engels in 1871 after the experience of the Paris Commune, and they became part of their program to smash the state as “machine of class domination.[8] In 1891 Engels criticized the German social democrats for not including such slogans in their Erfurt Program and proposed that they include the following demands:

Complete self-government in the provinces, districts and communes through officials elected by universal suffrage. The abolition of all local and provincial authorities appointed by the state.[9]

Engels explained that the desire for local self-government is not in contradiction with the notion of a centralized state. Quite the contrary, he maintained, a centralized state creates the best conditions for authentic local self-government. In the same letter to his German comrades he wrote:

So, then, a unified republic—but not in the sense of the present French Republic, which is nothing but the Empire established in 1798 without the Emperor. From 1792 to 1798 each French department, each commune [Gemeinde], enjoyed complete self-government on the American model, and this is what we too must have. How self-government is to be organised and how we can manage, without a bureaucracy has been shown to us by America and the first French Republic, and is being shown even today by Australia, Canada and the other English colonies. And a provincial [regional] and communal self-government of this type is far freer than, for instance, Swiss federalism, under which, it is true, the canton is very independent in relation to the Bund [i.e., the federated state as a whole], but is also independent in relation to the district [Bezirk] and the commune. The cantonal governments appoint the district governors [Bezirksstatthalter] and prefects—which is unknown in English-speaking countries and which we want to abolish here as resolutely in the future as the Prussian Landräte and Regierungsräte” (commissioners, district police chiefs, governors, and in general all officials appointed from above).[10]

These by no means antiquated slogans for capitalism of the 19th century. In his book State and Revolution published in 1917, Lenin insisted that such a program retains full validity in the epoch of imperialism. The slogan for local self-government is of crucial importance to fight against the “imperialist robber state.”

But Engels did not at all mean democratic centralism in the bureaucratic sense in which the term is used by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideologists, the anarchists among the latter. His idea of centralism did not in the least preclude such broad local self-government as would combine the voluntary defence of the unity of the state by the “communes” and districts, and the complete elimination of all bureaucratic practices and all “ordering” from above. (…) I have already had occasion to point out (…) how on this point (of course, not on this point alone by any means) our pseudo-socialist representatives of pseudo-revolutionary pseudo-democracy have made glaring departures from democracy. Naturally, people who have bound themselves by a “coalition” to the imperialist bourgeoisie have remained deaf to this criticism.[11]

And Lenin added self-critical: “Insufficient attention has been and is being paid in our Party propaganda and agitation to this fact, as, indeed, to the whole question of the federal and the centralised republic and local self-government.[12]

Today, in a historic period like the present, characterized as it is by the massive expansion of the imperialist state apparatus, such demands are even more topical and relevant than before for the revolutionary program in the imperialist countries.


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Reformists will object that our revolutionary-democratic slogans are “unrealistic.” Of course, they cannot be consistently implemented under the capitalist regime. This is – as Trotsky pointed out – true for all transitional demands: ”It is easier to overthrow capitalism than to realize this demand under capitalism. Not one of our demands will be realized under capitalism. That is why we are calling them transitional demands.[13]

But since we are realists and thus understand that sustainable reforms cannot be achieved under capitalism, we see it as the main task of the revolutionary vanguard to mobilize and organize the working class and the popular masses in the struggle for reforms in order to prepare them for the final assault on bourgeois power. This is, by the way, also the best guarantee – insofar as any guarantees are possible – to achieve concrete improvements in the living conditions of the masses.

Another objection, mostly made by sectarians, is that such democratic demands are so “vulgar” that even sectors of the bourgeoisie could support them, and consequently they call us “opportunists.” It is certainly true that both in past as well as in the present sectors of the capitalist class – sometimes even a majority – supports half-heartedly this or that democratic demand. To give an actual example: in a referendum held in Ireland on 22 May 2015, the majority of the ruling class, including all established parties, supported the legal possibility of same-sex marriages. Irrespective of this, revolutionaries too called for support for the legal possibility of same-sex marriages at the referendum.

The main difference between Bolshevik-Communists and truly opportunistic revisionists is certainly not the fact that they both raise democratic demands. Rather the difference is how they do so and the limitations which they set, or don’t, for these demands. We can summarize our differences with the revisionists on this issue as follows:

i) Revisionists don’t raise the democratic slogans consistently (e.g., they do not support anti-imperialist struggles, migrants’ rights, etc.)

ii) Revisionists don’t raise democratic slogans in a revolutionary but rather in a reformist manner. In other words, they put forward such slogans as an appeal to the bourgeois state and focus on the parliamentary struggle instead of on mobilizing the working class and popular masses. They also don’t denounce the un-reformable anti-democratic nature of the imperialist state and they don’t work towards fighting against democratic illusions in this state.

iii) Revisionists limit themselves to such democratic demands instead of combining them with the goal of a proletarian revolution. Thus they usually create around such demands a separate democratic stage, mechanistically separating it from the class struggle with the result being that the working class is politically subordinate to the bourgeoisie.

Lenin already pointed out the possibility that sectors of the bourgeoisie may try to utilize this or that democratic demand for their own purposes. This however must not lead socialists to fight less energetically for such rights. Quite the contrary, it is instead necessary to strive towards leading mass mobilizations for such democratic demands, thereby freeing them from any subordination to the bourgeoisie.

The fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain conditions, be utilised by another “great” power for its own, equally imperialist, aims, is just as unlikely to make the Social-Democrats refuse to recognise the right of nations to self-determination as the numerous cases of bourgeois utilization of republican slogans for the purpose of political deception and financial plunder (as in the Romance countries, for example) are unlikely to make the Social-Democrats reject their republicanism.[14]


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Finally, it is useful to remember that the democratic program is not limited only to demands concerning various legal rights and freedoms. Marxists have often considered economic minimum demands – higher wages, shortened working week, more labor rights, social security, etc. – as also being part of the democratic program. So, for example, when in Permanent Revolution Trotsky discussed the program for the Chinese Revolution 1925–27: “Without the democratic programme – constituent assembly, eight-hour day, confiscation of the land, national independence of China, right of self-determination for the peoples living within it – without this democratic programme, the Communist Party of China is bound hand and foot and is compelled to surrender the field passively to the Chinese Social-Democrats who may, with the aid of Stalin, Radek and company, assume the place of the Communist Party.[15]

The demand for an eight-hour day was an important democratic demand at that time as a slogan to unite the working class. Economic minimum demands retain their validity particularly in the present historical period characterized as it is by the increasing dichotomization of imperialist society. On one hand there is increased consumption (financed by private debt) and rising living standards of small sectors of the middle class and the labor aristocracy. At the same time we see increasing unemployment and impoverishment of the lower strata – i.e. the broad masses – of the working class. Under such conditions the struggle against lay-offs, for higher wages, higher unemployment benefits, etc. are of inordinate importance. However, Bolshevik-Communists must combine such slogans in their propaganda with transitional demands like worker control of enterprises, a sliding scale of wages, and the creation of public works programs financed by taxing the rich.

[1] Leon Trotsky: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. The Transitional Program (1938); in: Documents of the Fourth International, Pathfinder Press, New York 1973, p. 205

[2] Leon Trotsky: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, p. 183. Elsewhere in the same document, Trotsky wrote: “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 mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution.” (p. 184, Emphasis in the Original)

[3] Leon Trotsky: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, p. 209

[4] Leon Trotsky: The International Left Opposition, Its Tasks and Methods, in: Documents of the Fourth International, Pathfinder Press, New York 1973, p 24 (Emphasis in the Original)

[5] Leon Trotsky: The Political Situation in China and the Tasks of the Bolshevik-Leninist Opposition (1929); Trotsky: Writings 1929. p. 149

[6] Leon Trotsky: The Political Situation in China and the Tasks of the Bolshevik-Leninist Opposition (1929); Trotsky: Writings 1929. p. 149 (Emphasis in the Original). In the Transitional Program Trotsky spoke also about transitional demands for the petty-bourgeoisie: “The sections of the Fourth International should work out with all possible concreteness a program of transitional demands concerning the peasants (farmers) and urban petty bourgeoisie, in conformity with the conditions of each country. The advanced workers should learn to give clear and concrete answers to the questions put by their future allies.” (Leon Trotsky: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, p. 194)

[7] Leon Trotsky: Problems of the Italian Revolution (1930); in: Trotsky Writings 1930, p. 224

[8] Karl Marx: The Civil War in France. Address of the General Council of the International Working Men's Association (1871); in: MECW Vol. 22, p. 329

[9] Friedrich Engels: A Critique of the Draft Social Democratic Programme of 1891, in: MECW Vo. 27, p. 229

[10] Friedrich Engels: A Critique of the Draft Social Democratic Programme of 1891, in: MECW Vo. 27, p. 228

[11] V. I. Lenin: State and Revolution. The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution (1917); in: LCW 25, pp. 452-453

[12] V. I. Lenin: State and Revolution. The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution (1917); in: LCW 25, p. 454

[13] Leon Trotsky: The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder, Pathfinder Press, New York 1983, p. 159

[14] V. I. Lenin: The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1916); in: LCW 22, p. 148

[15] Leon Trotsky: The Permanent Revolution (1929), Pathfinder Press, New York 1969, p. 273 (Our emphasis). Likewise was the demand for an eight-hour day one of the (three) key demands of the Bolsheviks’ democratic program: “The whole work of the Bolsheviks between the two revolutions went under the slogans of 1. A democratic republic; 2. the land to the peasants (democratic-agrarian reform); 3. eight-hour day (demand for workers democracy). The Bordigists will certainly explain that all this was a compete error, that it belongs to the dark period in which the truth about the proletarian dictatorship had not yet been discovered.” (Leon Trotsky: Critical Remarks about Promoteo's Resolution on Democratic Demands (1931), in: Trotsky Writings 1930-31, Pathfinder 1973, p. 136)