“Transitional demands”: how the fight for reforms can transform the labour movement
At the moment, workers are confronted by the most basic defensive struggles: how to defend ourselves against real-terms wage cuts and an avalanche of job losses, for instance. Isn’t it unreal to talk about a workers’ government, let alone socialism, when we are engaged in these defensive battles?
In fact, there is a necessary link between these sorts of struggles and the fight for working-class power. Only by fighting for reforms can the working class transform itself and its movement into a force capable of remaking society.
In itself, the demand that every worker should have a job and every job provide a living wage is hardly revolutionary. Neither, for instance, is the demand for state-of-the-art healthcare to be provided free and on an equal basis to every citizen. Such demands can be achieved within a capitalist society — and, to a limited extent, have been in the past, in Britain for instance.
However, these rights were not handed down as an act of philanthropy by the bosses. They were won against the bosses in the course of many decades of working-class and popular struggle (and have been eroded and slashed back since the capitalists once against took the offensive). They represented, in a partial form, elements of what Karl Marx, referring to the Act of Parliament which limited factory labour for women and children to ten hours a day, called “the political economy of the working class” — the law of human solidarity carved out against the cannibalistic, dog-eat-dog values and practices of capitalist society.
If enough people organise, lobby and act — through demonstrations, strikes, occupations of government departments and workplaces, and so on — we can blunt the capitalists’ attacks, push them back and eventually win new concessions. But such struggles, however small they start, have the potential to challenge the capitalist system — its ideas, its values, its priorities and its distribution of resources. People drawn into action around one demand — that their workplace be kept open so they can keep their jobs, say, or against NHS cuts — can, particularly if already organised socialists point it out to them, begin to make the links between their struggle, other struggles and the way society is organised. They will think about the world and their place in it. “We” can’t “afford” a decent job, or healthcare, for everyone? Then slash profits! Tax the rich! Reallocate resources! Remake society!
To a greater and greater degree, as they interlink and intensify, such struggles can clearly pose the questions of what kind of society we have and who has power in it. Workers ruling themselves in a society run to meet human needs? Or the continued rule of the capitalists to meet the “needs” of a rich minority?
In the current crisis, demands like full employment, a living wage for all and the rebuilding of the health service are not just powerful but potentially explosive. They are what Marxists in the tradition of the Russian revolution, the pre-Stalinist Communist movement and the Trotskyist opposition to Stalinism have called “transitional demands” — transitional in the sense that they can help us move from where we are now to where we need to be. Such demands, linked and intertwined in a chain from here to the socialist transformation of society, can help call into existence a growing movement of working-class opposition to the capitalists and their system. If the labour movement mobilises, reorganises, draws in new activists, developing combativity and confidence and learning in action and struggle, it can remake itself — and prepare to remake society.
It is no shock that the time-servers and fakers who currently lead most of our movement have no time for such a perspective. They are no more willing to lead a serious fight for jobs, or against the destruction of the health service, than they are to fight for the overthrow of capitalism — because they accept, in fact if not in words, the values and priorities of capitalism. Part of the point about a programme of “transitional demands” is that it can help workers renew the labour movement in struggle, pushing our leaders to fight and replacing them if they refuse to.
Working-class direct action or government action?
Some of the ideas contained in this programme are proposals for direct action by workers and others — for instance strikes to win wage rises at least in line with inflation. Others, for instance the demand for democratic control over the banks and high finance, are inescapably proposals for action by a government.
With a high enough degree of mobilisation, workers can impose even highly revolutionary demands on the bosses. In Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina, for instance, workers have in recent years won control over some workplaces and even companies, successfully defending them against their former owners and the police, and in some cases getting them nationalised under workers’ control. At the same time, such victories will always be partial, unstable and vulnerable to counter-attack while the capitalists remain in power in society as a whole; even forms of organisation such as workers’ councils can be gradually stripped of their revolutionary dynamic and neutralised within the structure of capitalist society.
Whether particular demands are achieved before, during or after the overthrow of the capitalists is in the last instance a matter of the balance of forces and the way struggles unfold. For society as a whole to be transformed, however, clearly requires the working class to overthrow the bosses and become the ruling power in society.
In “normal”, bourgeois political life, there is a strict separation between direct action struggles by the working class (demonstrations, strikes, etc) and “politics”, which happens somewhere else, e.g., in a Parliament bureaucratically sealed off from pressure from below. A bureaucratic, pro-capitalist working-class party like the old, pre-Blair Labour Party, does partially disrupt and soften this division, but still tends to siphon off working-class politics to a professional caste of politicians insulated from the mass movement they may have come from. (With the downgrading and destruction of party democracy and what remained of Labour’s organisational links to the unions under Blair and Brown, normal bourgeois political service on the American model is being fully resumed.)
We need to rebuild the labour movement as a force by which the working class can assert itself and its interests at every level of society — from the workplace to the streets to national politics. We need to break down the division between direct action and politics which bourgeois political life imposes on us. A workers’ government, resting for its power on the mass organisations of the working class, would represent the working class finally breaking through that wall.
Generally speaking, the demands contained in this pamphlet are reforms which the working class can fight for now and a programme for a workers’ government to carry out. They are not a one-after-the-other linear time line. In so far as they are achieved prior to the creation of a workers’ government, the demands for state action are aimed not at bolstering the existing government, but at strengthening and reinforcing direct action by the working class against it. In all instances our proposals represent an action plan for class struggle, not a detailed, idealised blueprint for a new society.
We hope organisations and activists in particular industries, particular unions, particular campaigns will use this plan as a source of ideas to draw on, expand and develop in order to produce action plans focused on their own particular arena of struggle.