Revolutionary Continuity and Transitional Demands
From the Comintern to the Fourth International
In 1939, Marceau Pivert, a prominent French socialist, disparaged the Fourth International for fetishizing the “dogmas” of the Communist International of Lenin’s time. Leon Trotsky responded:
“Only continuity of ideas creates a revolutionary tradition, without which a revolutionary party sways like a reed in the wind.
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“Pivert either refuses or is unable to understand that our invincible strength lies in our theoretical thoroughness and irreconcilability. ‘Trotsky allows in his organization,’ writes Pivert, ‘only those members who accept as dogma (?), and consequently without discussion (?), a systematic reference to the principles elaborated in the first four congresses of the Communist International. Our conception of the party is altogether different’…. “In the Bolshevik Party differences arose after the first four congresses of the Comintern, whose decisions were elaborated with the most direct participation of the future leaders of ‘the Left Opposition.’ A sharp turn toward opportunism was sanctioned by the Fifth Congress. Without renouncing the revolutionary tradition, the greatest in the annals of history, we have nevertheless not made the first four congresses more than our starting point, nor have we restricted ourselves to them.” 
The Communist (or Third) International was launched in 1919 by the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution as an agency of world proletarian revolution. It is well known that Trotsky played a prominent role in the Third International in its early years, but the direct political continuity between the first four congresses and the Fourth International is less widely appreciated.
The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (commonly known as the Transitional Program) was adopted as the program of the Fourth International at its founding conference in September 1938. In it Trotsky fused the programmatic conceptions of the revolutionary Comintern with the subsequent contributions of the Left Opposition (particularly on Stalinism and fascism). The 1938 program is chiefly noted for its inclusion of a series of “transitional demands” (a sliding scale of wages and hours, workers’ control of production, workers’ defense guards, etc.) aimed at mobilizing the working class to struggle for power. It is often supposed (even by many ostensible Trotskyists) that the idea of a “transitional” program (as opposed to the minimal/maximal program of the social democrats and Stalinists) was devised by Trotsky as a sort of gimmick to distinguish his new international. But anyone taking the trouble to read through the major documents of the early years of the Comintern can plainly see that the transitional demands in the Fourth International’s 1938 program came directly from the resolutions of the first four congresses of the Third International.
In the turbulent years following World War I, the “World Proletarian Revolution” seemed a very immediate prospect. Between the First Congress of the Comintern (1919) and the Fourth (1922), European capitalism was shaken by a series of revolutionary and near-revolutionary upheavals. In a July 1921 speech in Moscow, Trotsky recalled the mood at the first two congresses:
“…it is unquestionable that in the era of the First Congress (1919) many of us reckoned—some more, others less—that the spontaneous onset of the workers and in part peasant masses would overthrow the bourgeoisie in the near future. And, as a matter of fact, this onset was truly colossal. The number of casualties was very large. But the bourgeoisie was able to withstand this initial onset and precisely for this reason regained its self-confidence. “The Second Congress in 1920 convened at the breaking point. It could already be sensed that by the onset alone the bourgeoisie would not be overthrown in a few weeks or in one, two or three months; that needed more serious organizational and political preparation. But at the same time the situation remained very acute.”
Factory committees and Workers’ Control
The Second Congress had addressed the importance of the struggle for leadership of the mass organizations of the working class:
“The indecision of the working masses, their intellectual irresolution, their susceptibility to the specious arguments of the opportunist leaders, can be overcome only in the course of the sharpening struggle, to the extent that the broadest strata of the proletariat learn from their own experience, from their victories and defeats, that it is no longer possible within a capitalist economic system to get human conditions of life, to the extent that the advanced communist workers learn to act, in the economic struggle, not only as heralds of the ideas of communism, but as the most determined leaders of the struggle and of the trade unions. Only in this way will it be possible to get rid of the opportunist union leaders. Only in this way can the communists get at the head of the trade union movement and make it an organ of revolutionary struggle for communism….”
The resolution called for forming “factory committees” to implement “workers’ control of production” in order to counter the effects of capitalist economic irrationality and sabotage:
“The economic disorder which is enveloping one country after another shows even the backward workers that it is not enough to fight for higher wages and a shorter working day, that with every day the capitalist class is less and less able to restore economic life and to ensure for the workers even the standard of life they enjoyed before the war. From this growing recognition arise the efforts of the working masses to create organizations which can take up the struggle to rescue economic life by workers’ control, exercised through the control of production by factory committees….”
The creation of factory committees and the imposition of workers’ control (dual power on the shop floor) are “transitional” measures that clearly pose the question of state power:
“The struggle of the factory committees against capitalism has as its immediate general object workers’ control over production….The committees in the different factories will soon be faced with the question of workers’ control over entire branches of industry and industry as a whole. But since any attempt by the workers to supervise the supply of raw materials and the financial operations of the factory owners will be met by the bourgeoisie and the capitalist government with the most vigorous measures against the working class, the fight for workers’ control of production leads to the fight for the seizure of power by the working class….”
These ideas, subsequently reiterated by both the Third and Fourth Congresses, feature prominently in the Transitional Program.
‘Conquest of the Masses’
The Third Congress took place in 1921 in the midst of a series of setbacks for the international workers’ movement:
“During the year that elapsed between the II and III Congress of the Communist International a series of working-class uprisings and battles have resulted in partial defeats (the Red Army offensive against Warsaw in August 1920; Revolutionary Continuity and Transitional Demands 205 the movement of the Italian proletariat in September 1920; the uprising of the German workers in March 1921).
“The first period of the revolutionary movement after the war is characterized by the elemental nature of the onslaught, by the considerable formlessness of its methods and aims and by the extreme panic of the ruling classes; and it may be regarded by and large as terminated.”
The Third and Fourth Congresses attempted to solve the problems posed by the transition from a period of working-class offensive to one of relative capitalist stabilization. In a report on the Fourth Congress, delivered on 28 December 1922, Trotsky recounted how, in the aftermath of the German Communist Party’s abortive March 1921 uprising:
“The International issued a warning: ‘You must conquer the confidence of the majority of the working class before you dare summon the workers to an open revolutionary assault.’ This was the lesson of the Third Congress. A year and a half later the Fourth World Congress convened. “….The Fourth Congress developed, deepened, verified and rendered more precise the work of the Third Congress, and was convinced that this work was basically correct.”
The “Theses of the Third World Congress on the International Situation and the Tasks of the Comintern,” drafted by Trotsky, and adopted on 4 July 1921, proclaimed:
“The fundamental task of the Communist Party in the current crisis is to lead the present defensive struggles of the proletariat, to extend their scope, to deepen them, to unify them, and in harmony with the march of events, to transform them into decisive political struggles for the ultimate goal.”
RILU’s ‘Program of Action’
The “Program of Action” for the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU—also known as the Profintern), adopted by the Third Congress, addressed the same question:
“17….Red unions should remember that these problems cannot be lastingly settled within the framework of capitalist relations….They must use every action, every local strike, every conflict, however minor, to argue their point. They must draw the lessons from the experience of struggle, raising the consciousness of the rank and file and preparing the workers for the time when it will be necessary and possible to achieve the social revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The “Program of Action” addressed the problem of layoffs and unemployment as follows:
“5….In no circumstance should factory owners be allowed to throw workers out onto the streets without bearing any of the consequences. They ought to pay full redundancy pay. The unemployed and, to an even greater extent, the employed workers should be organized around this question. They should be shown that the problem of unemployment cannot be solved as long as capitalist relations exist and that the best method of beating unemployment is to fight for social revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The call in the Transitional Program for a sliding scale of wages and hours is more elegant, and more clearly anticipates how work is organized in a planned economy. But the intent of the RILU program is the same: to unite the employed and unemployed in common struggle to make the bosses bear the costs of labor-displacing technological innovation and “downsizing.” The RILU program proposed to respond to capitalist threats to cut hours or close down operations by opening the books. This demand was clearly linked to the imposition of workers’ control and workers’ management of production:
“6….The unions must fight the closure of factories and demand that the workers have the right to investigate the reasons behind the closure. Special control commissions to deal with raw materials, fuel and orders must be established to carry out on-the-spot checks of the raw materials in stock, the materials essential to production and the bank balance of the factory or institution. Specially elected control committees must undertake a thorough investigation of financial relations between the concern in question and other concerns—this raises in a practical way the need to open the books.
“7. Factory occupations and work-ins are also forms of struggle against the mass closure of factories and wage cuts. In view of the prevailing lack of consumer goods, it is particularly important that production be maintained and unions should not permit the deliberate closure of factories….The administration of factories occupied by workers should be placed in the hands of factory committees and union representatives specially picked for the purpose.”
Workers’ defense guards, another key transitional demand, was also raised in the RILU program:
“12….Every important strike, for example, needs to be thoroughly prepared. Furthermore, from the outset the workers must form special groups to fight the strike-breakers and combat the provocative action of the various kinds of right-wing organizations which are encouraged by the bourgeois governments. The Fascists in Italy…have as their object the destruction and suppression of all working-class activity, not only by providing scab labour, but by smashing the working-class organizations and getting rid of their leaders. In such situations the organization of special strike militias and special self-defence groups is a matter of life and death.”
Third Congress ‘On Tactics’
The resolution “On Tactics” adopted by the Third Congress (1921) was drafted by the Russian delegation led by Trotsky and Lenin. Of particular interest is the section entitled, “Single-Issue Struggles and Single-Issue Demands,” which outlines how communists connect the immediate struggles of the working class to its historic interests:
“By putting forward a militant programme urging the proletariat to fight for its basic needs, they can show the backward and vacillating masses the path to revolution and demonstrate how all parties other than the Communists are against the working class. Only by leading the concrete struggles of the proletariat and by taking them forward will the Communists really be able to win the broad proletarian masses to the struggle for the dictatorship.
“All the agitation, propaganda and political work of the Communist Parties must start from the understanding that no long-term improvement in the position of the proletariat is possible under capitalism….This does not mean, however, that the proletariat has to renounce the fight for its immediate practical demands until after it has established its dictatorship.
“Even though capitalism is in progressive decline and is unable to guarantee the workers even a life of well-fed slavery, social democracy continues to put forward its old programme of peaceful reforms to be carried out on the basis and within the framework of the bankrupt capitalist system….The social democrats are thus retreating to their minimum programme, which now stands clearly revealed as a counter-revolutionary fraud.
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“The Communist Parties do 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 organize mass campaigns to fight for these demands regardless of whether they are compatible with the continuation of the capitalist system.”
Unlike reformists, revolutionaries do not limit themselves to what the capitalists can afford to concede:
“If the demands put forward by the Communists correspond to the immediate needs of the broad proletarian masses, and if the masses are convinced that they cannot go on living unless their demands are met, then the struggle around these issues becomes the starting-point of the struggle for power.”
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“The Communist Parties should make certain that the demands they put forward not only correspond to the demands of the broad masses, but also draw the masses into battle and lay the basis for organizing them. Concrete slogans that express the economic need of the working masses must lead to the struggle for control of industry—control based not on a plan to organize the economy bureaucratically and under the capitalist system, but on the factory committees and revolutionary trade unions. Only the creation of such organizations and their co-ordination within the different industries and areas makes possible the organization of a unified struggle of the working masses….The present epoch is revolutionary precisely because the most modest demands of the working masses are incompatible with the continued existence of capitalist society, and the struggle for these demands is therefore bound to develop into the struggle for Communism.”
Many demands from the old social-democratic minimum program remained relevant, but the Comintern posed them not in a reformist spirit, but in ways that promoted awareness of the necessity for workers’ power:
“In place of the minimum programme of the centrists and reformists, the Communist International offers a struggle for the concrete demands of the proletariat which, in their totality, challenge the power of the bourgeoisie, organize the proletariat and mark out the different stages of the struggle for its dictatorship. Even before the broad masses consciously understand the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat, they can respond to each of the individual demands. As more and more people are drawn into the struggle around these demands and as the needs of the masses come into conflict with the needs of capitalist society, the working class will come to realize that if it wants to live, capitalism will have to die. This realization will be the main motivation in their struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The tasks of the Communist Parties is to extend, deepen and unify the struggle around these concrete demands.”
Fourth Congress Endorses ‘Transitional Demands’
The Fourth Congress was supposed to discuss and adopt a program for the Comintern. Three draft programs were prepared for discussion: one by the Bulgarian party, one by the Germans and one by Nikolai Bukharin on behalf of the Soviet leadership. While the adoption of a program was to have been one of the main political tasks of the Fourth Congress, the delegates felt that they lacked the time to properly consider the drafts and voted to postpone a consideration of the question to the next congress.
(The question was again postponed by the Fifth Congress in 1924. Finally, at the Sixth Congress in 1928, where Trotsky was expelled, the Stalinized Comintern adopted a very different program, also written by Bukharin, in which the task of organizing the World Revolution was replaced with that of building “Socialism in One Country.” Trotsky’s critique of this program is contained in his book The Third International After Lenin.)
In place of adopting a program, the presidium of the Fourth Congress proposed a motion on the question which was introduced by Grigory Zinoviev. This short five-point motion, which passed unanimously, indicates Revolutionary Continuity and Transitional Demands the centrality of the concept of transitional demands in Lenin’s time. It thus vividly illustrates the political continuity between the Third and Fourth Internationals:
“3. The programmes of the national sections must clearly and decisively establish the necessity of the struggle for transitional demands, making the necessary reservations about the dependence of these demands on the concrete circumstances of time and place.
“4. The theoretical basis for all transitional and partial demands must be clearly stated in the general programme, and the fourth congress likewise 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.
“5. The general programme must clearly explain the basic historical types of the transitional demands of the national section, in accordance with the basic differences in the economic and political structure of the different countries, for example England on the one hand, and India on the other.”
In terms that were later echoed in Trotsky’s 1938 draft program, the “Theses on Comintern Tactics” approved by the Fourth Congress declared that world capitalism had:
“…fulfilled its mission of developing the productive forces and…reached a stage of irreconcilable contradiction with the requirements not only of modern historical development, but also of the most elementary conditions of human existence. This fundamental contradiction was reflected in the recent imperialist war….
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“Capitalism to its very end will be at the mercy of cyclical fluctuations. Only the seizure of power by the proletariat and a world socialist revolution can save humanity from permanent catastrophe, caused by the existence of the modern capitalist system.
“What capitalism is passing through today is nothing other than its death throes. The collapse of capitalism is inevitable.”
The “death throes” of world capitalism have proved considerably more protracted than either the Comintern or the Fourth International anticipated. But, as the current “globalization” offensive by capital against the past gains of the working class reminds us, “if [the working class] wants to live, capitalism will have to die.”
1 Leon Trotsky, “’Trotskyism’ and the PSOP,” Leon Trotsky On France (New York: Monad Press, 1979), pp 242–43
2 Jean van Heijenoort reported:
“In February 1933 in Prinkipo [Trotsky] had asked Pierre Frank and me to put together all the theses and resolutions adopted by the first four congresses of the Communist International. His plan was to use them exactly as they were, so that they would constitute a kind of chart for the international Trotskyite organization. Once the texts had been collected, it became obvious that, besides dealing with broad political perspectives, they covered so many narrow, out-of-date problems that it would be impossible to use them unchanged for a new program. The project had to be abandoned.”
—With Trotsky in Exile (Harvard University Press, 1978), p 63
Trotsky did not entirely abandon the project, as is evident from the programmatic “chart” he produced five years later for the Fourth International. His attachment to the traditions of the Leninist Comintern is also reflected in his remarks on selecting a name for the new revolutionary international, as reported by van Heijenoort (p 54) from a 27 July 1933 discussion:
“There is the secondary and subordinate question of a name. Fourth International? It is not very pleasant. When we broke with the Second International, we changed our theoretical foundations. Now, no; we remain based on the first four congresses [of the Communist International]. We could also proclaim: the Communist International is us! And call ourselves the Communist International (Bolsheviks-Leninists). There are pros and cons. The title of Fourth International is neater. This may be an advantage as far as large masses are concerned.”
3 Leon Trotsky, “The School of Revolutionary Strategy,” The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2, (New York: Monad Press, 1972), p 8
4 “Extracts from the Theses on the Trade Union Movement, Factory Councils, and the Communist International,” The Communist International 1919–1943 Documents, Vol. 1, (London: Frank Cass and Company, 1971), p 147
5 Ibid., p 148
6 Ibid., p 149
7 “Theses of the Third World Congress on the International Situation and the Tasks of the Comintern,” Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, (London: Ink Links, 1980), p 184
8 Leon Trotsky, “Report on the Fourth World Congress,” The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2, (New York: Monad Press, 1972), pp 312–13
9 “Theses of the Third World Congress on the International Situation and the Tasks of the Comintern,” Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, (London: Ink Links, 1980), p 202, emphasis in original
10 “The Communist International and the Red International of Trade Unions—The Struggle Against the Amsterdam (scab) Trade-Union International,” Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, (London: Ink Links, 1980), p 273
11 Ibid., p 270
12 Ibid., pp 270–71
13 Ibid., p 272
14 “On Tactics,” Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, (London: Ink Links, 1980), pp 284–86, emphasis in original
15 Ibid., pp 286–87
16 Ibid., p 286
17 “Resolution of the Fourth Comintern Congress on the Programme of the Communist International,” The Communist International 1919–1943 Documents, Vol. 1, (London: Frank Cass and Company, 1971), p 446
18 “Theses on Comintern Tactics,” Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, (London: Ink Links, 1980), pp 388–89, emphasis in original