“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 todays conditions and from todays consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”
Trotsky, The Transitional Programme, 1938
In dozens of town centers throughout Scotland on Saturday mornings “£10 Now” stalls are run by SSP branches collecting signatures, raising money and engaging with passers by, attracted to the demand. The demand is of course referring to an hourly minimum wage based on 2/3rd of the current median male income to be legally enforced for all workers.
As is often said, its not asking for the moon, it’s simply a fair wage. The TUC officially supports it and it is currently the EU decency threshold. By itself it represents a reform to the capitalist system and no one would pretend otherwise, but its a very good reform. If it were implemented it would significantly increase the living standards of millions of workers.
Not only this but if it were gained through campaigns, strikes etc. it could advance class consciousness. The experience of having gained something through organisation on a class basis would vastly increase the morale and confidence in the collective ability of our class. For these reasons socialists support, fight for and often lead such campaigns. What role should socialists play in campaigns for such reforms?
The Transitional Programme
After the Russian Revolution, the Third International (Comintern) was set up with the aim of building mass revolutionary communist parties in every country with the ultimate aim of overthrowing capitalism internationally and implementing a world socialist order. To start with this was by most accounts extremely successful. Mass revolutionary Marxist parties were created amidst the post war revolutionary mood in countries such as Germany, Czechoslovakia, France and smaller promising parties in many other countries including Britain. Unfortunately with the Stalinist degeneration of the USSR came the same ideological degeneration of the communist parties. This obliged Trotsky to set up the Fourth International in 1938. Against all odds the Fourth International’s task with its tiny national groups was to build a new revolutionary Marxist international.
In 1938, Trotsky wrote the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International. This relatively short document of less than fifty pages was written to give general advice for the small national sections of the international. It said
“The strategic task of the next period prerevolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organization consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation .”
A revolutionary mood had stormed the world after the First World War, leading to events such as the revolutions in Germany, Spain, Italy, the General Strike in Britain, uprisings in colonial countries, the Chinese revolution etc., all of which failed due to failures of the leadership. The working classes were now going through a period of demoralisation, conservatism and in many countries fascist reaction. These defeats, especially in Germany, paved the way for the bourgeoisie to launch another, even more horrific world war.
The task of this period of reaction was to build the forces of Marxism, i.e. to build organisations in every country amongst the thin layer of class conscious workers and youth, so that when the next revolutionary wave came there would be a solid revolutionary party that could lead the working classes to power.
The problem is that when events draw people into politics they usually dont draw them to the automatic conclusion of “we need a socialist revolution”. Often they will be drawn to economic reforms such as the £10/hour minimum wage, sometimes to struggles against work place closures such as in INEOS in Grangemouth, or even through movements for national independence like the YES campaign. There are unlimited ways and forms in which political radicalisation and class consciousness can express itself and socialists cannot choose what they will be. We have to take what the objective conditions throw at us and intervene in events appropriately.
In the Transitional Programme, Trotsky obviously did not talk of the YES campaign or a £10/hour minimum wage but picked a handful of examples of struggles, concerns and demands of workers (as well as small urban business owners and peasants) and wrote about how to take on these issues alongside the workers whilst linking them with the need for a socialist revolution. I would seriously advise all socialists to read this text as it contains simple but extremely valuable lessons many of which can be applied to today including the £10 Now campaign.
What about Inflation?
Of course the attraction of launching a minimum wage campaign, as opposed to simply calling for a socialist revolution, is that it is concrete and seems realistic to people. However, this practicality and realism is often illusory. Those putting it forward are often asked: If wages increase surely prices will follow? And surely business owners cant afford it, and so employment will go down? This was dealt with in the Transitional Programme under the idea of a sliding scale of wages:
“Neither monetary inflation nor stabilization can serve as slogans for the proletariat because these are but two ends of the same stick. Against a bounding rise in prices, which with the approach of war will assume an ever more unbridled character, one can fight only under the slogan of a sliding scale of wages. This means that collective agreements should assure an automatic rise in wages in relation to the increase in price of consumer goods.”
The £10 Now campaign should be very clear that the demand is linked to inflation, particularly of the rising prices of necessities such as food, clothes, rent and travel. In reality the capitalist system cannot afford this, as many we meet instinctively realise. Therefore it obliges us to use this slogan as a means to show how even the most reasonable of demands a living wage cannot be implemented by this system, and thus the system must be changed.
During the inevitable crises of capitalism such as the current one, workers’ purchasing power is pushed down. This can be done by wage cuts or freezes whilst prices continue to grow. This can also be carried out by austerity cuts to public services which would have been free or cheaper before but now eat into workers’ wages. It can carried out by accelerated inflation or a combination of all the above. There are all sorts of options available to capitalists and their state to cut the purchasing power of the workers for their own benefit. Where possible this should be explained at stalls and in campaign literature. It flows nicely into an explanation as to why for such a demand to be sustained, the economy would need to be planned for the needs of people rather than for profit.
How would it be funded?
Employers condemn such reforms as bad for business and claim not to be able to afford them. How do we respond?
“The abolition of business secrets is the first step toward actual control of industry. Workers no less than capitalists have the right to know the secrets of the factory, of the trust, of the whole branch of industry, of the national economy as a whole. First and foremost, banks, heavy industry and centralized transport should be placed under an observation glass.”
This is as appropriate now as in 1938 and from this we can add workers in service, tourism, call centers, local authorities and any other employment today. We workers create the wealth. Without us you would make no profits, but you won’t let us see what you spend it on? Why?
For businesses that say they cannot afford to pay £10/hour now the SSP would quite rightly say open the books. Let’s see your accounts. What are you spending your turnover on? How much is going to profit? Tell us why you can’t pay us £10/hour. Trotsky discusses the role of this demand:
“The task is one of reorganizing the whole system of production and distribution on a more dignified and workable basis. If the abolition of business secrets be a necessary condition to workers control, then control is the first step along the road to the socialist guidance of economy.”
The role of this demand to open the books isn’t just to expose the capitalists for their greed but also for their inefficiency. A fundamental aspect of socialism is that of workers control. A genuinely socialist planned economy would be democratically controlled by the mass of workers. Socialists must have this belief not just that their class is unjustly treated under the capitalist system but that their class could do things better. Not only would a socialist economy be fairer but it would be more efficient. The wealth would not only be distributed fairly but would be controlled democratically. This would mean the setting up of workplace committees and genuine democratic councils for communities where decisions on how communities and workplaces are run could be debated, voted on and implemented.
The demand to open the books must be linked to a campaign for the nationalisation under workers’ control of any company who cannot pay their workers the living wage. The point must consistently be made that there is more than enough wealth to pay workers this. The SSP already campaigns for the end of trident which would relieve £120bn and the collection of avoided tax which would bring £100bn a year. This is correct but even these demands must be linked to socialism. Both war and tax evasion are fundamental aspects of capitalism, this must be explained along with the perspective for a socialist society.
What about the unemployed?
This is also dealt with in the Transitional Programme.
“Against unemployment, structural as well as conjunctural, the time is ripe to advance along with the slogan of public works, the slogan of a sliding scale of working hours. Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility. On this basis all the work on hand would then be divided among all existing workers in accordance with how the extent of the working week is defined. The average wage of every worker remains the same as it was under the old working week. Wages, under a strictly guaranteed minimum, would follow the movement of prices.”
This is even more relevant today than it was at the time. With the level of potential productivity being so high, working hours could be lowered even further. This could be carried out without loss of pay and with this the masses of unemployed people could be brought into the workforce. In other words we want to share out the burden of work across society. This is actually in parts of the SSP programme but not in the £10 Now campaign. If it were a systematic part of the agitational literature and discussion, it would allow for activists to link the minimum wage struggle to unemployment and the shortening of the working day necessary for workers’ control.
What about small businesses?
“By falsely citing the excessive demands of the workers the big bourgeoisie skillfully transforms the question of commodity prices into a wedge to be driven between the workers and farmers and between the workers and the petty bourgeoisie of the cities.”
We can stress that in a system where the main levers of the economy are nationalised under democratic control of the producers and consumers, conditions could be much more favorable to small businesses allowing them to afford reasonable working conditions for their employees. This is also dealt with in the text. The emphasis is on small rural landowners but much of it can be applied also to small urban business owners:
“While the farmer remains an independent petty producer he is in need of cheap credit, of agricultural machines and fertilizer at prices he can afford to pay, favorable conditions of transport, and conscientious organization of the market for his agricultural products. But the banks, the trusts, the merchants rob the farmer from every side. Only the farmers themselves with the help of the workers can curb this robbery. Committees elected by small farmers should make their appearance on the national scene and jointly with the workers committees and committees of bank employees take into their hands control of transport, credit, and mercantile operations affecting agriculture… To the capitalists lamentations about costs of production, of transport and trade, the consumers answer: Show us your books; we demand control over the fixing of prices. The organs of this control should be the committees on prices, made up of delegates from the factories, trade unions, cooperatives, farmers organizations, the little man of the city, housewives, etc. By this means the workers will be able to prove to the farmers that the real reason for high prices is not high wages but the exorbitant profits of the capitalists and the overhead expenses of capitalist anarchy.”
Despite accusations often thrown at us, socialists don’t want to forcibly take small cafes or kebab shops under public control. Many of these small business owners are struggling to get by themselves. However it must be stated that many self proclaimed “small businesses” are the worst exploiters. We show no sympathy to restaurant owners with ten or so underpaid chefs and waiters on casual contracts whilst the owner pockets a six figure salary. Anyone who profits off another person’s labour must pay 2/3rd of the male median income with pension, holidays, sick pay and the right to union membership and participation regardless of how small the business is.
In the context of small business owners it should be emphasised that they would benefit from the profit being taken out of the main levers of the economy and the cheapening of raw materials and manufactured goods. They’d also benefit from nationalised , democratically controlled banks with cheaper credit and cheaper rent.
Instead of the forced nationalization of every tiny business, socialists should be in favour of a voluntary collectivization. We should make the case that all parts of the economy including that of small businesses would be better run collectively and democratically. However we understand that this may take time to achieve. With a growing and successful socialist economy around them, with the main levers under public democratic ownership, small and honest business owners could witness the successes for themselves and in their own time would join the collective.
It is not enough just to call for a £10 minimum wage for it to be achieved. As Trotsky says in the pamphlet, it is the relationship of forces which will decide it. By this he means how strong the working class and its allies are as opposed to the ruling class and its allies. What we revolutionary socialists can do to help is to expand our forces, build a solid revolutionary organisation and explain the real obstacle to decent pay the capitalist system itself.
The £10 Now campaign has proven in action that it can attract many disaffected workers and youth. If the agitation, explanation and solutions in the campaign were altered to give it a ‘transitional’ character and the demand were clearly linked with the need for a socialist planned economy, it could be very affective in raising consciousness of this this layer and bringing them into the SSP and with it the new left alliance, RISE, as bold revolutionary socialists.