Discussing the alternatives

Issue: 129

Grace Lally

In the last issue of this journal Alex Callinicos invited discussion on the kinds of demand that might provide a “complete” and “universally valid” transitional programme for revolutionaries today.1 This is somewhat of a new departure for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and most certainly requires more consideration by party members than I can give it here, but I want to take issue with a number of the points he makes.

Alex describes transitional demands as reforms that can “only be won over the fiercest resistance of capital”. This is certainly one element of what would constitute a programme of transitional demands but is by no means the most important. I’m presuming for instance that Alex does not believe the Green Party manifesto is a transitional programme simply because it includes the call for one million climate jobs or any other particular radical reform.

The key questions are, who is making these demands? In what context? For what purpose? And crucially, how are these demands to be achieved? A classic formulation of transitional demands was the Bolsheviks slogan “Peace, bread and land” in 1917. These demands formed part of a transitional programme in so far as they were connected to another demand—”All power to the soviets”. In a revolutionary period of dual power, this programme could both relate to the urgent desires of workers and raise their consciousness of the immediate tasks required to achieve the transition to socialism.

It only makes sense to talk about this programme as “transitional” because it was put forward by revolutionaries—in direct opposition to reformist leaders—seeking to gain the leadership of a mass movement to smash the bourgeois state. The Comintern report of 1921 that Alex quotes also argued for transitional programmes in what they assessed was a “transitional period” where “any confrontation may turn into a struggle for power”.2 As it became increasingly clear that the “ebb” of revolutionary struggles was more than just the temporary oscillation of a rising revolutionary wave, and that gaining leadership of the majority of workers in order to take state power was not an imminent prospect, Lenin and Trotsky placed ever greater emphasis on the tactic of the united front as a means to influence reformist workers in the course of joint struggle for immediate demands.

When Trotsky put forward his transitional programme in 1938, which included in the title a call to “Prepare the Conquest of Power”, he believed the world was once again in a pre-revolutionary situation—”a transitional epoch”.3 Whatever the validity of Trotsky’s assessment, given the very small forces of the Fourth International at the time, this programme was destined to be used more as a means for winning individuals to a genuinely revolutionary party than for winning the class to a revolutionary strategy.

Until now the SWP has tried to avoid the error of other Trotskyist groups who came to view the transitional programme as an end in itself without any reference to the forces it relates to or the context in which it is put forward.4 Rather, we have attempted to incorporate the spirit of the transitional programme by relating in a concrete way to demands that emerge from the movement instead of drawing up abstract schemas.

The interview with Panos Garganas in the same issue seems to provide a very clear example of this method.5 The SWP’s sister organisation in Greece is taking part in the debt debate from an independent class standpoint of demanding default in order to “save jobs and pensions and wages in the here and now”. They are countering those who see the elections as the key to winning these demands by raising the argument that “there’s no other way but to fight back and build a strike movement”. And they are preparing workers for continued crisis rather than stabilisation in the wake of any default—continued attempts to “make the workers pay”—that will require new demands that cannot as yet be determined.

The reality is that not every demand around which we organise will be transitional in any respect. In Ireland at the moment calling for the government to go is hardly “transitional”—by the time of publication it will probably be a fact—but this seems beside the point when thousands of workers are prepared to come onto the streets to achieve this aim.

Whether or not we now break with past practice to launch a transitional programme, Alex is signalling a political shift of an entirely different magnitude when he proposes that we treat the programmes of People Before Profit (PBP) and Research on Money and Finance (RMF) as transitional.

He suggests that their programmes are qualitatively different to the left reformism of the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) in the 1970s because they “advocate measures…that challenge the power of capital” whereas the AES was “a reformist attempt to rescue capitalism”. This differentiation rests on a misrepresentation of both.

Arguably the AES, with its explicit aim of bringing an eventual transition to socialism, was to the left of RMF’s more muted aim of achieving a “wholesale reversal of neoliberal economic policy”.6 The AES provided the same kind of “detailed outline” as RMF of the measures that would need to be taken to stop things such as capital flight after the introduction of import controls and the nationalisation of key industries and banking. But the AES also included demands for “workers’ control” and its proponents were clear about the need to mobilise workers to achieve it.7 On the substantive question of what “social power” would wrest these reforms from capital there is a complete convergence between RMF and the AES—it is the nation-state.

Alex clearly feels that to equate the RMF programme with the AES would be to “dismiss them”. But surely we can relate to people who are putting forward radical left reformist ideas without collapsing into labelling them as revolutionary? How we relate to left reformism is of course a subject for debate in itself.

In 1980 Geoff Hodgson of the Labour left argued that revolutionaries should not “abandon the AES to the reformists”. The fact that it was “endorsed by both the TUC and several major unions” created the possibility of “bringing thousands of workers into the experience of struggle”, struggles which “could then be diverted in a revolutionary direction”.8 The Communist Party (CP) saw “the implementation of this programme as the first stage in a revolutionary process characterised by intense conflict and struggle”.9 They proposed that this was a “third road” to socialism long before Labour championed a third way that had nothing to do with socialism at all. Our argument was that the political strategy of the AES, by proposing piecemeal national reforms and confining itself primarily to the methods of parliamentary legality, would objectively tie workers to the interests of capitalism and so disarm them politically in the fight for their own class interests.10

Of course, in contrast to their lofty ideals, the Labour left and the CP in the late 1970s played a treacherous role in collaborating with the Labour governments’ attacks on workers. Their politics of supporting a national economic solution to the crisis played no small part in disorganising and disorienting the working class militants who looked to them for leadership.11 The tragedy is not that we dismissed their ideas but that we were too small to challenge them effectively or to provide an alternative.

Today, RMF advise that “if peripheral countries were to adopt debtor-led default, they ought to do so on their own accord, decisively, in good time”, in order to avoid the Argentinian situation where debtor-led default was only adopted “in the midst of social and economic chaos caused by failed austerity”.12 But the “chaos” they wish to avoid is the kind of mass uprising of workers and the poor that overthrew successive governments in Argentina in 2001-2. Defaulting on the debt did not push this process forward: it was a strategy pursued by the state to gain some breathing space within which to co-opt and suppress the movement. RMF argues that, after defaulting on its debt, Greece, like Argentina, could “regain credibility” with international capital markets “within a short space of time”. This is predicated on the experience of a country where this was only made possible because the state was able to subvert popular resistance and restore a stable capitalist order.13

The RMF’s call for “participation by organisations of workers and civil society in renegotiating debt” would be a recipe not for extending democracy but for class collaboration if, as they hope, default were to pave the way for a “recovery of competitiveness”.14

Left reformist programmes are not transitional: they are utopian. They demand measures which capitalism will not easily grant but they believe that such measures can be achieved without an all-out conquest of political power by the working class—without a revolution to smash the capitalist state. Because of this, left reformism proves to be entirely reactionary in practice during periods of crisis.

Despite the “radically different context” from the 1970s that Alex notes, it is interesting to see that Tony Benn has committed the new Coalition of Resistance to developing and supporting “an alternative programme for economic and social recovery”.15 We need to engage in joint struggles with all those who are pulled into activity through this or any other anti-cuts organisation. But there is no less call to counter Benn’s politics with the same conviction we did 40 years ago and to patiently explain that “there’s but one solution, revolution”.16

The case of PBP is more complex than RMF as its main component organisation is a revolutionary party, the Irish Socialist Workers Party, rather than a group of pseudo-Marxist academics. Its raison d’être, however, is to organise workers who are not yet revolutionary so it necessarily stops short of linking its immediate demands with the need to smash the state—it cannot put forward a transitional programme. Whether, through their involvement in this broad left alliance, our comrades in Ireland will have more success in building a stronger revolutionary party than we in Britain experienced in Respect remains to be seen.

The economic crisis will continue to create deep class conflict but also to create rifts between competing capitals. Austerity will hit workers and benefit some sections of capital but it will also disadvantage others. Each state will attempt to shift the burden onto other states as well as onto the working class. This is why Ireland is under pressure to raise its corporation tax or China to raise the value of its currency. The job of socialists is not to intervene in these debates to establish the best course of action for “our” economy. It is ruthlessly to resist the logic of a system which has no permanent solution to the crisis it faces and to argue for an independent class position—to put forward demands which place the burden of the crisis on the capitalist class and to give a lead in organising struggle to fight for them.

Alex argues that “the logic of resisting the cuts…demands the formulation of an alternative economic programme”. I disagree. Thankfully it has never been necessary for people to have worked out a coherent alternative to the profit system in order to fight for “fair” pay or pensions, nor to completely reject the idea of a “national interest” in order to fight against racism or war. It is the contradictions in people’s ideas that opens the possibility for workers to engage in struggle and learn through their own experience that solving the problems they face demands challenging the entire capitalist system. But the existence of a substantial organisation of workers who do understand this in the here and now is indispensable to carrying forward those struggles through which the mass of workers can throw off “the muck of ages” and achieve the final victory of our class.

Millions of men and women all over the world in every generation have fought the bitter realities of life under capitalism and dreamed of a better alternative. They’ve never needed socialists to tell them what they want, they’ve needed revolutionary politics to help them achieve it.


1: Callinicos, 2010.

2: Communist International, 1921.

3: Trotsky, 1938.

4: See, for instance, Hallas, 1973.

5: Garganas, 2010.

6: Lapavitsas and others, 2010, p3.

7: See Sparks, 1977.

8: Hodgson, 1980, p87.

9: Rowthorn, 1980, p88.

10: See Cockerill, 1980, for a reply to Bob Rowthorn and Geoff Hodgson.

11: See Cliff, 1979.

12: Lapavitsas and others, 2010, p50.

13: Lapavitsas and others, 2010, p51.

14: Lapavitsas and others, 2010, pp5; 52.

15: Benn, 2010.

16: Green, 1981, p103.


Benn, Tony, 2010, “The time to organise resistance is now”, Guardian (4 August),

Callinicos, Alex, 2010, “Austerity politics”, International Socialism 128 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=678

Cockerill, Sue, “Reply to left reformism”, International Socialism 8 (spring).

Cliff, Tony, 1979, “The balance of class forces in recent years”, International Socialism 6 (autumn), www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1979/xx/balance1.htm

Garganos, Panos, 2010, “Greece: striking back”, International Socialism 128 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=695

Green, Pete, 1981, “’Alternative’ and ‘socialist’ economic strategies”, International Socialism 13 (summer).

Hallas, Duncan, 1973, “Do we support reformist demands?” International Socialism 54 (first series, January), www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1973/01/reform.htm

Hodgson, Geoff, 1980, “Britain’s crisis and the road to international socialism—a reply to Jonathan Bearman”, International Socialism 7 (winter).

Lapavitsas, Costas, A Kaltenbrunner, G Lambrinidis, D Lindo, J Meadway, J Michell, JP Painceira, E Pires, J Powell, A Stenfors and N Teles, 2010, “The Eurozone between Austerity and Default”, Research on Money and Finance (September),

Communist International, 1921, “On Tactics”, Third Congress of the Communist International, www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/3rd-congress/tactics.htm

Rowthorn, Bob, 1980, “The Alternative Economic Strategy”, International Socialism 8 (spring).

Sparks, Colin, 1977, “The Reformist Challenge”, International Socialism 97 (first series, April), www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1977/no097/sparks.htm

Trotsky, Leon, 1938, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International: The Mobilization of the Masses around Transitional Demands to Prepare the Conquest of Power”, www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/index.htm