Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Transitional demands and action: Transform Journal article

Where we are and where we could be: transitional demands and actions

Len Arthur for Transform Journal edition 2 July 2017

As radical socialists we have confidence in the potential of people to act together to create a society where wealth is collectively owned and used for need and not profit; is free from oppression; is just; is democratic and addresses climate change. It is seemingly a tall order when seen from our current neo liberal predicament where the world’s richest 8 people have the same wealth as the poorest 50%; a misogynist and racist elected as US President and who has pulled out of the modest Paris Climate agreement. Yet here we are, with big ambitions for us humans and the planet, protesting on the sidelines as the world moves in a different direction.

How can we bridge the gap between where we are and where we know we could be? How do we contest the power and strategies of capital saying no, yet at the same time, as constructive socialists, do something to make the world a better place? It reminds me of when I was teaching what was then called liberal studies to day release apprentices and one of them replied, after I had explained the unequal distribution of wealth, “Yes sir, we agree with you but what can we do about it?”

This, of course, is not a new issue for socialists and debate has raged about a maximum or minimum programme; ‘standing on our principles’; offense or defence; or the apparently esoteric need for ‘transitional demands’ for at least the last 200 years. It will continue and you will be relieved to know that this article is not going to claim, eureka like, to finally come up with an answer. More modestly, it is just going to suggest that actually there might be something of use in the debate about transitional demands, with ‘transitional action’ added on.

Transitional demands

‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’, Pope’s entreaty needs consideration when talking about transitional demands bearing in mind the 150 years plus of debate that lies behind the idea. So some caveats. There is not a list of transitional demands that suit all circumstances; the term is better seen as signifying a continuous process of development, changing with the shifting balance of contextual forces or terrain of struggle. The processes offer a method of prioritising certain strategies and tactics, linking current grievances and concerns with a challenge to the power of capital over, say charitable concerns that are helpful and needed but are contained in relation to changing the way wealth is used and allocated in our society. Thus the argument is that not all demands of radical socialists should be transitional but that their development should be emphasised in practice.

So what does a transitional demand look like? Take the current fight against the politics and policies of austerity. Behind these cut backs, wage restrictions, privatisation and deregulation lies a neoliberal strategy of making the working class pay for the 2007-08 banking crisis. The state bailed out the banks by pouring money into them, the bill for the resulting increase in government spending and deficit has been foisted onto workers, the very people who did nothing to create the crisis. These policies have resulted in the almost overwhelming destruction and degradation of public services and social welfare, across the UK and globally and lie at the heart of the criminal decisions that led to the fire and avoidable deaths at Grenfell Tower.

Mobilising to challenge the whole policy direction is daunting yet has been attempted by organisations such as the People’s Assembly and now perhaps the movement against the Tory government. Certainly the overall challenge has been reflected in the successful Corbyn led Labour Party campaign. Up until this time the effects of austerity have been experienced by people sectionally and locally have consequently often responded at this level. The ability and desire to help locally has resulted in foodbanks being established; local hospital closures have been fought ferociously; the bedroom tax was mobilised against across the UK. Socialists are often usually involved in these campaigns and action but for us there is an additional task: mobilising to challenge the politics of austerity. So, instead of demanding that a particular local hospital stays open with the risk of pushing the cut on to another community, we would argue to link up with other campaigns demanding that NHS cuts are reversed with local trade unions and health boards in support. This would be a transitional demand linking the local with the national. Similarly with council cuts, involvement in a campaign to, say, keep meals on wheels would need to be linked to the transitional demand that cuts do not take place in any other service and councillors should vote against a cuts budget. Again with benefits, whilst those involved with running food banks will understand that many people have to use them because they have been sanctioned; a transitional demand would be to place the priority on fighting the changes that have led to sanctioning.

The radical socialist case is that all of these attacks on the working class are unnecessary and avoidable and are only taking place because the Tory government wishes to prop up the profitability of the capitalist system they represent. So it is for us to find ways of challenging and blocking that strategy and arguing an alternative economic case. Transitional demands start the process of blocking the capitalist strategy, act as a basis for generalising resistance through the experience of solidarity, allow wider access to the narrative against austerity and open up the logic that leads to legitimating a radical alternative: they act as a bridge between where we are and where we need to be.

Of course the question could be asked, “Well this already happened in fighting austerity, so what’s all the fuss with a name?” Well, actually a lot of it didn’t happen and where it did it was largely the result of socialists making the case. We need to be better and more systematic at naming the process as ‘developing transitional demands’.  

There is a reluctance to use the term which is difficult to explain. Colin Barker and colleagues[1] have produced a superb book called Marxism and Social Movements that really deserves to be widely read. In this long quote they seem to come close to arguing the case for transitional demands but shy away from the actual words:

In this view, existing forms of activity and organisation (and of passivity and
disorganisation) need to be understood as transitory, inwardly contradictory,
and open to large- or small-scale transformation. The real problems for Marx-
ists concern how precisely to grasp this in a given situation, and what to propose
doing about it. For – as a theory of and for movements – Marxism is only of
value as a contribution to the processes of argumentation and transformation
within those movements, as an engaged practice that itself develops and learns
alongside those with whom it participates in the effort to change the world. It is
necessarily ‘critical’, always looking at the distance between what a movement is doing and whom it is mobilising and for what, and the potential to which it
might realistically aspire.

Similarly Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen[2] writing in the first edition of this Journal Transform about ‘left populism’ argue that

What we have found is that, for something like a left populist movement to gain traction, it is necessary to connect the anti-system demands with the particular demands.

Transitional demands are closely associated with Leon Trotsky and his 1938 Transitional Programme[3] where he succinctly stated the case:

It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand 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.

Possibly due to the peremptory wording of the last phrase and the way some followers raised the status of the demands in the programme from relevancy within the context of the time to serving all circumstances, socialists have tried to steer clear of being caught up in a sectarian mess.

However, it is important to realise that transitional demands have a long and rich socialist history which is relevant to our current needs.

Marx railed against what he called ‘indifferentism’ in 1873,[4] when defending workers fights for wage increases and lessening the working day against anarchists and utopian socialists, who said socialists should be indifferent to these struggles as they did not overthrow capital. It is worth a read just for the invective. Similarly Marx argued that the Ten Hours Bill which limited the hours of work for women and children in British factories was a great victory, Roberto 2015.

Engels, in 1891 in his criticism of the political demands in the German Social and Democratic Party’s Erfurt programme,[5] argued that many of the demands were ‘opportunistic’ as they failed to relate to the need to overthrow the monarchist government pretending that change could come through peaceful reforms. Engels pointed out the danger and in doing so made the argument for transitional demands:

In the long run such a policy can only lead one’s own party astray. They push general, abstract political questions into the foreground, thereby concealing the immediate concrete questions, which at the moment of the first great events, the first political crisis automatically pose themselves. What can result from this except that at the decisive moment the party suddenly proves helpless and that uncertainty and discord on the most decisive issues reign in it because these issues have never been discussed?

The Third International, following the recognition that the revolutionary moment had ebbed at the third and fourth congresses in 1921 and 1922, started to support the use of transitional demands and slogans as a way of continuing to build the communists parties in a more difficult situation. August Thalheim, then leader of the German Communist Party writing in 1928,[6] reflected on the importance of transitional slogans (same meaning as demands in this text) whilst at the same time giving a potted history of the development of the term. He was using this to argue for a process of developing transitional demands:

Moreover, one must see that this period of struggle must be prepared agitationally, propagandistically, organisationally, that is, that the transitional slogans must be propagated before the struggle for power has begun, until and so that become slogans of action in the struggle for power.

When and which specific transitional slogans are agitated for and propagated before the immediate struggle for power, depends on the concrete conditions, but must be investigated in each single case. In other words, that is the task of leading the masses to the struggle for power.

Finally, a more recent assessment of the relevance of the process of developing transitional demands, together with an update of historical references has been produced by Ed Rooksby [7] where he concludes:

Indeed, I have argued that once the necessity of transitional demands is admitted – and it is hard to think of any other method of bridging the gap between day-to-day struggles and revolution – the strategic perspective that emerges also implies the necessity of some sort of left government. This need not be a problem, however, for those operating within the Leninist tradition because, as we saw, the workers’ government perspective of the early Comintern seems to provide the justification of historical precedent in this regard.

Transitional demands summary

Transitional demands are about offering political leadership within campaigns. It is not a dishonest or parasitical process as it involves openly making a bridging link between the problems people are experiencing and a trajectory toward a socialist alternative. Radical socialist parties need to consider adopting the process of developing transitional demands to try to ensure the arguments about the need for socialism are put. However the process is just that and is free and open to all to use.

The possibility of transitional actions

Transitional demands are about a processual trajectory to helping develop resistance against the power and strategies of capital; shifting the balance of forces in our direction. The intention is to grow the mobilisation to such an intensity that there is an actual possibility of taking power collectively and transforming society in a socialist direction. The demands are directed at those who currently have power to changing direction and, if they don’t, developing sufficient countervailing power to remove them. Gramsci in his writings between 1929 and 1935, later collected in the Prison Notebooks,[8] developed a useful distinction between the ‘war of movement’ where the capitalist state is under direct revolutionary threat and the ‘war of position’ where, like siege warfare, neither the working class nor the capitalist state, can strike decisively against each other. Transitional demands thus relate very much to collective organisations and campaigns that rely for their effectiveness on generalisation and mobilisation such as trade unions, anti war and anti cuts campaigns.

Historically the working class, and people drawn to resist the power and oppression of capital, have also developed broader forms of ‘repertoires of contention’ that rely more on developing power now and prefiguratively, creating alternative and possibly radical social space, which by their very survival, can come to challenge the power of capital. Classically, workers and consumers cooperatives are an example and as Roberto indicates[9] were praised by Marx in his address to the First International in 1864. Both Marx and Engels continued to recognise the role of cooperatives and, similarly, their role was recognised in the early first congresses of the Communist International in the early 1920s.

Since the 1960s social movements that emphasise building alternative power, now ‘building the future in the present’ have taken many forms and have been theorised as ‘autonomism’, ‘horizontalism’ and ‘intersectionality’. All three emphasise non hierarchical flat organisation, which is a political and social alternative both to capitalism and traditional working class structures such as parties and trade unions. They emphasise the links between different exploited, oppressed, and excluded groups and their unity in acting directly to address these problems as opposed to relying on representative democracy. Acting and organising in this way these alternative spaces developing clear boundaries between themselves and the capitalist state. That such resistance is happening and being organised in this way has been seen by some as a sufficient end political endpoint in itself such as by Gibson-Graham[10].

Prefigurative politics have attracted criticism from the left largely in that they create ‘islands in a sea of capitalism’ that they exist but are contained by the overwhelming power that surrounds them. An article on John Holloway (a supporter of prefigurative politics), by Paul Blackledge[11], recognises that Holloway usefully places an emphasis on the link between socialism and human self-activity and criticises the idea that the capitalist state can be used to bring about socialist change. Blackledge agrees with Holloway, and, indirectly with the autonomist and horizontalist case, about the necessity of having a criterion of what a change to an alternative – socialist – society means. Blackledge goes on, however, to identify serious flaws in Holloway’s arguments by exploring his central idea of the “scream”, making the case that there is a real limitation to just producing ‘use values’ and attempting to separate these from their marketable ‘exchange values’, as a way of overcoming alienation. Blackledge argues that, under capitalism, the need for capitalists to realise surplus value as money – ‘exchange value’ – through sales of products as commodities in the market, feeds back and determines what is produced as ‘use values’, thus blocking the scope for alternative spaces to exist. Holloway, in turn argues, that the outcome of trade union struggles just perpetuates the exploitative and alienated relationships.

So out of this debate a dichotomy has developed between socialists who argue for the privileging of collective generalisation and mobilisation against social movement type organisations that emphasise prefigurative alternative space. This is an unhelpful dichotomy that tends to divide the opposition to capitalism, does not fully recognise the role that alternative social movements can, and could play, and actually goes against the grain of the history of socialist practice. The core problem seems to be a conflation of organisational form with the political agency, debate and self activity of the people who make up these different forms of resistance. So it is not that a cooperative, as such, challenges capital but the political and strategic trajectory that it may take - either toward being an integrated business or an alternative and mutual social space. Similarly with trade unions. A union is not by virtue of its organisational existence anti capitalist, it is the outcome of the internal political debates that make it more or less so. In both types of organised resistance there can either be a trajectory toward being contained or one toward transgression and socialism. The key in both is whether there is leadership present in the organisation to argue for the left trajectory. In the case of forms of resistance that depend on collective mobilisation the key bridge is the process of developing transitional demands. In the case of social movement prefigurative forms of resistance the key bridge, it is argued here, is the process of developing transitional actions.

Comrades in Transform Europe in early 2016 held a Production and Commons workshop covering similar issues. Roberto Morea[12] in summing up made this observation:

The interventions dealt with the question how, nowadays, workers’ takeovers of companies are always taking place from a defensive position: they happen to save jobs. However, these recuperations show that working without bosses and shareholders is not an utopia. In addition, worker's co-ops are more resilient than other companies, and, on average have greater success. This presents an immediate possibility to bypass capitalism. Therefore, we should see these takeovers as a practical way to get rid of capitalist companies. But the question remains: how to move from a defensive mode to an offensive one to end capitalism? [my emphasis].

What is proposed now is to explore the role transitional actions could play in addressing the question asked in the final sentence.

Transitional actions then are about using the collective power we already have to take forward decisions that challenge the strategies and power of capital. They are about making that island in the sea of capitalism bigger and linking up with other islands. So, in the case of cooperatives instead of competing on the same basis as a business in a market, the emphasis is on trading with other cooperatives; on Fair Trade; on sharing control and resources with the local community, using green energy and joining in consumer boycotts. Ultimately the aim should be to link transitional demands and actions together in a movement of movements. That, in Gramsci’s terminology, they can also move from being part of the shift from a war of position to a war of movement.

The interconnection between movements of mobilisation and social movements and the dangers of drawing a dichotomy between them is increasingly being recognised in academic studies in this area such as in Barker et al op.cit.. Hence, whilst the difference between making demands on someone with power, as opposed to implementing changes with the power that people currently control remains, transitional demands and actions, the trajectory toward a socialist transformation, needs to be embedded in both. Some more examples about how this has and can work more effectively helps to make this point.

First there are actually organisational similarities between movements based on collective mobilisation and those on alternative space. Tarrow[13] recognised that there are cycles of contention where some types of resistance predominate over others; where movements build and go forward and then reach the maximum of their power and fall back. In some ways echoing Gramsci wars of position and manoeuvre. As Gramsci suggests alternative forms of hegemony, in terms of both ideas and organisation, are required to sustain the ‘war of position’, and critically he points to both Italian history and revolutionary history more generally, to indicate how difficult it is to move back from a ‘war of movement’ to one of ‘position’. Moreover, he argues that a war of position is not easy to sustain and ‘is concentrated, difficult, and requires exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness’ [my emphasis]. In a trade union context, for example, going forward and developing the momentum of a struggle is easy compared with having to compromise and fall back. The latter part of the struggle is always difficult, with accusations of selling out. Two key aims are essential in assessing whether a compromise needs to be reached with the employers. First: are the members affected fully and truthfully informed of the current state of play in the negotiation and level of resistance, and are they in democratic control of the decision making process? Second, do the terms of the proposed agreement take forward the benefits and the control of the members over their work and contracts and, if not, does the agreement still allow for a resumption of the struggle at a later date?

An example from my own experience relates to the early 1990s when, at the end of a two-year struggle to sustain our existing contract in higher education, the employers wanted all members to sign individually to accept the new contract. As a union branch we argued that we would sign on behalf of the members and they would just sign to say they had received it. Making the point that the agreement remained a collective and not an individual one. This may seem like a small point and some representatives, keen to get an agreement, couldn’t see the problem but it would have meant that the employer could argue, disingenuously, that the members had signed– not us, as a union. However, what was at stake was the chance to come back: by signing as a trade union, we preserved the collective agreement and retained our collective control over policing and interpretation. It was clear that we could have re-started the dispute over the principled issue of recognition and under this threat the employers backed down. Small, difficult but important in the longer run, and the argument came from our wider socialist understanding of the longer-term strategy and the balance of forces.

Goodrich, writing in 1920[14], described such an outcome as a ‘frontier of control’: the line at which the battle had temporarily stopped. In the case cited above, the collective agreement and contract described in detail the terms of employment and associated procedures, forming a boundary between the rights of the employer and those of the workers. In this case, the boundary, or frontier of control, is another way of expressing what is meant by the ‘war of position’. It represents a temporary outcome of an ongoing process of resistance, struggle and contention. It forms an essential part of sustaining the possibility of a war of movement and transformation and in many respects resembles an alternative space covered by a collective agreement where the power of management can continually be challenged. The agreement represents the frontier and the boundary between the area of control and no control but a process of developing transitional actions and demands can re-start a trajectory toward challenging the employer's power.

Second, within workers cooperatives, especially where all workers are members, alternative democratic power can be seen to exist, survive and be a radical example of what is possible. I was involved in a research project for four years at Tower Colliery in South Wales[15], where we were able to show just how alternative this experience was. The colliery was the last deep mine in South Wales and as a cooperative was under worker control of the 300 miners from 1996 through to 2011 when accessible reserves ran out. In that time a profit was made every year, the miners had the best pensions and pay in the UK, there was not one fatal accident, the six directors, two had to stand for election each year, so democracy was continuous, there was 100% trade union membership and collective bargaining continued. Solidarity donations were and still are made, to groups in the local community and the example of this colliery became internationally famous with weekly visits from people around the world and even a French film and an opera being inspired by the experience. Ownership of the land together with the minerals and no external debt obligations meant that the workers truly owned and controlled all the income. 

Transitional actions having the strategic political trajectory towards developing the collective power we already have and finding ways of increasingly challenging the strategies and power of capital can, in practice, help to unite different forms of social movement. The key is not downgrading these forms of resistance due to their organisational form but recognising that the internal political debate has a critical influence on whether the resistance becomes contained or has a trajectory toward being part of a socialist transformation. Transitional actions act as a bridge between where organisations like cooperative are and could be; they need to be part of these internal debates. For this to happen requires socialist leadership and intervention in the same way as taking forward transitional demands. In turn that requires radical socialists to reject the prioritisation of one form of struggle over the other and return to the socialist tradition of working within a wide range of repertoires of contention.


Hopefully the case has been put sufficiently for socialists to start to take the the process of developing transitional demands and actions seriously again. The issue of how could a transition to socialism take place cannot any longer be discarded with ‘we don't agree with blueprints’ type quips. For many people, particularly the young, being hammered by austerity, losing their EU citizenship, facing a world where racism is constantly being legitimated by the media, how we bridge the gap between where we all are and a viable, meaningful and radical socialist alternative, is a pressing need. The trajectory toward this aim needs to be built into the campaigns and actions that people care about.

Putting into practice the process of developing transitional demands and actions is simply providing leadership in trying to ensure the appropriate questions are asked. When developing the aims of a campaign the question needs to be asked: what demands do people care about and how can they be worded so they appeal beyond the campaign and directly challenge the power and strategies of capital? Then in terms of transitional actions the question needs to be asked: how best can we use the power and resources currently available to us to create an alternative and radical space that similarly challenges the power and strategies of capital and at the time same inspires others to do the same? Basically, the answer to the question, if I were a rich Tory what would really get up my nose and worry me.

Finally sustaining such a political process and trajectory does require a socialist party to prioritise the process of developing transitional demands and actions. Moreover, a radical socialist party is required to develop a manifesto incorporating these demands and actions and help to coordinate the transition to power at all levels and through electoral and direct action strategies.


[1] Barker, C, at al 2013 Marxism and Social Movement, Leiden & Boston, Brill, p15.

[2] Prentoulis, P, and Thomassen, L, 2017 Left Populism: The challenges from grassroots to electoral politics in Transform: a journal of the radical left: 2017:1 PRRUK, London, p114.

[3] Trotsky, L, 1938 The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Task of the Fourth International: The Transitional Programme. First para under the ‘Minimal Programme and the Transitional Programme’

[5] Engels, F, 1891 Critic of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891, third para under section two Political Demands

[6] Thalheim, A, 1928 Strategy and Tactics of the Communist International: What are Transitional Slogans?

[7] Rooksby, E, 2014 Left Reformism and Socialist Strategy

[8] Gramsci, A 1971 Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence & Wishart, London, p239.

[10] Gibson-Graham J & K, 2006 Postcapitalist Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[11] Blackledge, P, 2012, In Perspective: John Holloway in International Socialism 136,

[12] Roberto, M, 2016 Production and Commons Workshop as reported in Transform Europe.

[13] Tarrow, S,G, 2011 (updated) Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

[14] Goodrich, C, 1975 Frontiers of Control: A Study of British Workshop Politics, Pluto, London.

[15] Smith, R, et al, 2011 A Narrative Of Power; Tower Colliery as an Example of Workers Control Through Cooperative Work Organisation

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