By Jerry Goldberg
The current period of capitalist development is characterized by the imposition of austerity by the capitalist class against the working class worldwide. Austerity means the direct rule by finance capital over cities, states and even countries, where the banks impose drastic cutbacks in services, wage cuts, destruction of pensions and privatization to ensure the payment of debt service on fraudulent and usurious loans. Austerity in the U.S. means 41 million people struggling with hunger, 15 million households suffering water shutoffs in 2016 alone, 38.1 million people living in unaffordable housing (based on a 30% of household guideline), roughly a half million people experiencing homelessness and 58 percent of adults with less than $1000 in savings.
When the attacks on the basic rights to survival, water, shelter, food, jobs, freedom from police and ICE terror, etc. manifest themselves constantly, the necessity to revive the transitional program within the communist movement and to apply transitional demands to the struggles of our class presents itself every day.
The transitional program
Leon Trotsky described the substance and importance of the transitional program as follows:
The strategic task of the next period — pre-revolutionary 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). It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands 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.
In the book “High Tech Low Pay,” Sam Marcy discussed the application of the transitional program to the conditions of the U.S. working class. Marcy emphasized the need to frame transitional demands in legal language where possible, because of the belief in “legal rights” that permeates large sections of our class. Of course, while framing demands in such a way, we always emphasize that it is the struggle that is the only way to win these “legal rights.”
The essence of all transitional demands is to move the workers in the direction of confronting capitalist property relations, through occupations of the worksite, home, hospital or whatever institution is involved. That is what distinguishes transitional demands from social democratic demands to “reform the system.” Most importantly, raising transitional demands that truly speak to the workers’ needs and capture their attention and imagination, allows us as communists to make up for our small numbers with the boldness of our program.
Application of transitional program in Detroit
Detroit has been the epicenter of the imposition of austerity against the working class for many years. Auto industry restructuring, especially by Chrysler and General Motors, eliminated tens of thousands of union jobs in the city beginning in 1979. The economic attack on Detroit further intensified from the early 2000s through the present with the housing crisis precipitated by the banks’ subprime predatory lending practices against Detroit’s homeowners, and ultimately against the city government itself.
In 1982, when the recession hit Detroit particularly hard, the All-Peoples Congress (APC) launched the “Food is a Right Campaign.” The APC sued the federal government in Detroit for the release of surplus food during the recession of 1982. At that time, the federal government was paying agribusiness over $30 billion a year to store “surplus food” in warehouses to keep food prices high. We held mass rallies in Detroit preparing our class to locate the warehouses and to liberate the food in them. The campaign succeeded in forcing the federal government to institute monthly free commodity food distributions that lasted for 17 years in Detroit.
In response to an announcement of massive plant closings by General Motors in December 1986, our comrades launched the “A Job is a Right Campaign.” We had one comrade in the Fisher Body Fleetwood Plant in Detroit that was closing, and sent one or two comrades to Flint, but with the support of our national organization at the time, we succeeded in building a national movement to challenge the plant closings by General Motors and other corporations. We raised the demand that “A Job is a Right” and for an immediate moratorium to halt all plant and office closings. We articulated the idea that workers, who produce all the wealth, have a property right to their jobs. If the bosses refuse to keep the plants open, the workers have the right to take them over and maintain production for human needs, not profit. Our program took on a national life, while the leadership of the million-person UAW was paralyzed because of its acceptance of bourgeois property relations.
The campaign carried out many actions around this program, including a workers’ demonstration that disrupted the National Governors’ Conference in Traverse City, Michigan, mass in-plant meetings (where workers discussed taking control of the factory), a national meeting on plant closings at the UAW local associated with the 1937 Flint sit-down strike and a tent city in June 1988 on the front lawn of the Michigan Capitol. While the movement was not strong enough to prevent the shutdowns, it helped generate language in the 1987 UAW contract for guaranteed lifetime jobs and a moratorium on future plant closings. (This language was unfortunately eliminated in subsequent concession agreements.)
Application of transitional program to banks’ war on Detroit from 2005 to present
In the mid-2000s, the banks launched their subprime predatory lending scheme that particularly targeted African-American and Latinx communities and led to the destruction of 53 percent of Black wealth and 66 percent of Latinx wealth across the U.S. Detroit, the city with the highest African-American homeownership rate in the U.S., was especially devastated. Sixty-five thousand families suffered bank foreclosures from 2005 to 2010. By 2017, one-third of the city’s 360,000 homes had been lost to bank or property tax foreclosures.
Every state has provisions for the governor (or sometimes local officials) to declare a state of emergency to avert a natural or “man-made” (corporate-made) crisis that can be utilized in advancing the transitional program. The first step is to demand a proclamation of a state of emergency under the particular law in effect in the state. The next is to demand that the official implement whatever transitional demands are being raised to meet the emergency. Most importantly, activists begin implementing the program ourselves through direct action.
Our comrades utilized this approach in launching a campaign for a moratorium, or halt, on all foreclosures. This demand confronts capitalist property relations, asserting that the workers’ right to their homes supersedes any claim the banks had on them.
As early as 2007, we demanded that Michigan’s governor declare a state of emergency and implement a moratorium on foreclosures. We pointed out the legal precedent for such a demand, and the fact that 25 states had implemented foreclosure moratoriums in the 1930s. These were won as a result of the unemployed struggles in the Great Depression and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1934 in its decision in Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell.
A bill for a two-year moratorium on foreclosures that we drafted was introduced into the Michigan state legislature by State Representative Hansen Clarke. Most importantly, we took the moratorium campaign to the community and stopped numerous foreclosures and evictions through direct actions such as move-ins, preventing the placement of dumpsters in front of homes slated for eviction as required by a Detroit ordinance, and by numerous pickets and occupations of the banks. The Occupy Detroit movement adopted the campaign and organized a Detroit Eviction Defense Committee, which still operates. This struggle kept hundreds of families in their homes and educated many Detroiters as to the nature of capitalism and the need for a direct struggle against the banks and finance capital.
Anti-capitalist intervention against emergency management and austerity
Under monopoly capitalism, the banks play a central role in every attack on the workers and oppressed. By examining their bond deals and studying the financial statements, we can become familiar with them, and point out their fraudulent, swindling character. This strengthens the demand for canceling the debt and positions us communists as the anti-capitalist voice in the larger struggle. Raising a transitional demand means going beyond just raising a slogan. Rather, it means putting forth the demand in a serious manner both in substance and tactics, so the workers perceive the demand as winnable even as its essence is a direct challenge to capitalist property relations.
After one-quarter of Detroit’s population was driven out of the city through 65,000 mortgage foreclosures based on racist, predatory, fraudulent mortgage loans between 2005 and 2010, the city was placed into a financial crisis. An emergency financial manager, appointed by the governor, was placed over the city. Detroit became the epicenter within the U.S. of the struggle against the destructive forces of finance capital.
There was a large movement that developed challenging this usurpation of democratic rights and self-determination for this African-American city. Our comrades, while completely supporting the anti-racist aspect of the struggle against emergency management, studied the emergency manager bill and noted that while he was empowered to break contracts and privatize city services, the emergency manager was required to guarantee payment of debt service to the banks.
We pointed out that behind this racist law was the imposition of direct control of the city’s finances by the banks, the same ones that had destroyed our neighborhoods with their massive foreclosures. We obtained all the city loan documents through a Freedom of Information Act request, studied them, and became familiar with the fraudulent character of the city’s debt service, especially with the interest rate swaps owned by Bank of America, UBS, Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citi, etc. When the emergency manager took the city into bankruptcy to steal the pensions of the city retirees, the Moratorium Now Coalition intervened in the bankruptcy, both with daily demonstrations calling for cancellation of the debt and guaranteeing the pensions and city services and with a legal intervention in a trial against the banks and their interest rate swaps during the bankruptcy proceedings.
We also pointed out how the massive water shutoffs that led to 100,000 homes in Detroit having their water disconnected were similarly initiated to pay off termination fees to the banks on swaps on water bonds, and we brought that issue into the bankruptcy trial as well.
Our comrades carved out a large role in the struggle against emergency management and the Detroit bankruptcy precisely because we developed a programmatic approach that targeted the real source of the crisis in Detroit: finance capital. To this day, the Moratorium Now Coalition is known throughout the movement of the workers and poor in Detroit as the organization to turn to in order to fight the banks and the capitalist system. Unfortunately, the representatives of the labor unions, retiree associations, pension boards and most prominent religious figures in Detroit failed to mobilize a mass struggle against the bankruptcy. In the end, 78 percent of the $9 billion written off of the City of Detroit’s debt was stolen from the pensions and healthcare of 30,000 retired city workers.
Linking U.S. workers’ struggle to international movements against austerity
We can and must link our struggles for the most basic human needs of the workers to the worldwide struggle against austerity, bringing internationalism to the workers. In March 2018, the Moratorium Now Coalition built a National Conference to Defeat Austerity. A highlight of the conference was both the reports from different cities, which helped the many Detroit workers and community activists in attendance feel that they were not fighting alone, and also the terrific session on the international dimensions of the struggle against austerity, featuring two Puerto Rican comrades and including the former president of the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union of Puerto Rico (UTIER), a statement from Jose Maria Sisson from the Philippines, a young woman who had just returned from Lebanon, a speaker on Cuba and solidarity statements from Italy and Spain The next day, Ricardo Santos Ramos from Puerto Rico did a Facebook video while we toured a hard-hit Detroit neighborhood. It got over 50,000 views, with many Puerto Ricans bemoaning the fate the banks had in store from them upon seeing Detroit’s neighborhoods. (Pretty wild when you consider this was after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico.) A delegation of the Moratorium Now Coalition was hosted in Puerto Rico in September 2018 by UTIER to participate in mass meetings linking the struggles against the bankruptcies in Detroit and Puerto Rico.
The day-to-day struggle around the basic needs of the workers and oppressed necessitates attacking the capitalist system to win anything. The reformists are incapable of formulating demands that meet the crisis because they limit the struggle to reform within the confines of bourgeois property relations. As communists, we have no such limitations. Raising transitional demands that speak to the immediate needs of our class while moving the workers and oppressed in the direction of challenging the foundations of capitalism allows communists to intervene in these struggles in a serious manner even where our numbers are small. This is the Art of Revolution, an art that can and must be revived in the communist movement if we are to reach the multinational working class and win them to the revolutionary perspective that is the only solution to the capitalist war that intensifies every day.
Jerry Goldberg was an organizer for the All-Peoples Congress, Job is A Right Campaign and Moratorium Now Coalition and is a member of the Communist Workers League.