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The revolutionary programme

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What is the revolutionary programme and why is it important? Because it is the key to building a revolutionary party and waging a successful struggle against capitalism, argues Mark Harrison

The revolutionary Marxist movement has developed many programmes, beginning 150 years ago with the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Sixty years ago Leon Trotsky founded the Fourth International on the basis of the Transitional Programme.

For all political parties a programme states what it stands for and its policies once in government. For bourgeois parties it is a statement of what they will do for (or to) us when they gain office.

For revolutionary organisations the programme is more. It is a statement of what we stand for, but it is also outlines what the workers and oppressed should fight for in the here and now. Unlike Labour’s election manifesto it is not a series of passive policy statements. It is rather, as Trotsky called it, “a manual of action for millions”. It is something we fight for the working class as a whole to take up.

The Marxist movement has produced a number of programmes historically precisely because the revolutionary programme has to be relevant to the current class struggle and to the stage of capitalist development. It is a living thing, tested and corrected in the course of struggle, by the experience both of the revolutionary organisation and of the workers engaged in action.

But while there have been many programmes, some elements have remained the same. The reasons for this are:

• that the fundamental principles of the Marxist programme have changed little in 150 years – our critique of capitalism, our belief in the need for workers’ power and socialism, for example;
• that the method of developing a programme that points out the road to the revolution has remained constant – it is what we call a “transitional” method.

The transitional method developed as a response to the first serious undermining of the revolutionary programme of Marx and Engels. While the Communist Manifesto outlined an elementary programme for the “transition” to socialism, the major working class parties formed in the later nineteenth century, especially the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), gradually abandoned this idea of a transition (and later revolution) altogether.

In its place they developed a minimum programme (a set of demands for reforms within capitalism) and a maximum programme (socialism). The concept of a bridge between the two was considered unimportant.

The SPD grew rapidly and won parliamentary representation. But it came under increasing pressure to adapt to capitalism. Its minimum demands were often important and radical, supportable even today (arming the people, for example). While the transitional programme has replaced the minimum programme for Marxists, the fight around reforms (minimum demands) remains important and can kickstart many struggles.

But the minimum demands did not, taken as a whole, constitute a programme for a revolution. Any mention of socialism as the movement’s goal became the stuff of Sunday speeches, separated by a growing chasm from the SPD’s actual programme and practice as it became ever more reformist.

It was Engels, writing in 1891, who first spotted the problem with the minimum/maximum approach. When he saw the SPD’s draft programme (“the Erfurt Programme”) he wrote:

“The political demands of the draft have one great fault. It lacks precisely what should have been said. If all ten demands were granted we should indeed have more diverse means of achieving our main political aim, but the aim itself would in no wise have been achieved.”

Engels saw that the fight for reforms, though important, ran the risk of becoming the fight for the reform of capitalism rather than for its revolutionary overthrow. His doubts were confirmed by the SPD’s evolution into a reformist party.

After the Bolsheviks successfully re-elaborated the transitional method in the Russian Revolution of 1917, the international revolutionary movement, the Communist International, looked back to Marx and Engels and their transitional method in order to avoid the pitfalls of the SPD-style minimum/maximum programme.

Tragically, the Russian revolution’s internal defeat – at the hands of Stalin and his bureaucrats – cut short the debate in the Communist International and it was left to Trotsky (exiled and eventually murdered by Stalin) to keep the revolutionary flame alight and formulate a transitional programme for the modern epoch of imperialist capitalism.

As well as incorporating the revolutionary movement’s historic principles, the programme had to grasp the lessons of recent revolutionary struggles. It was not a lifeless, abstract schema but a guide to action in the existing world. As such, it also had to elaborate the key revolutionary tactics for the class struggle. And it had to be an international programme, capable of spreading the fight against capitalism globally .

The 1938 Transitional Programme codified all these essential aspects. Just as it was a re-elaboration of previous programmes so today it has required re-elaboration. But its method and structure, its key demands and many of its tactics hold good for today. Above all else it spelled out the transitional method – the key to revolutionary strategy today. Trotsky summed the method up as follows:

“The strategic task of the next period . . . 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 the present demands and the socialist programme of 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.”

The fight for workers’ control, exercised by new forms of workers’ power, is central to the system of transitional demands. To the extent that these demands are won the capitalist’s power – in both the economic and political spheres – is in Engels’ phrase “encroached upon”.

The question is, how do such demands work in practice? Let us take one example from today’s situation that illustrates Trotsky’s point.

Unemployment is beginning to hit hard at what is left of Britain’s factories.

Clearly, the issue of job cuts at Rover, for example, is both immediate – 2,500 sackings are threatened – and poses the question of capitalism’s general crisis-ridden character. It highlights once more capitalism’s callous indifference to working class needs. Workers will want to defend their jobs, but with Labour politicians blaming them and with union leaders willing to negotiate away their remaining rights, the danger is that the fight will be misled and go down to defeat, not because the workers lack the will, but because they lack a coherent political answer, a transitional answer.

Revolutionaries at Rover could turn this situation around through the use of transitional demands. They begin with action. Workers need to occupy the threatened plant (Longbridge). Such action immediately poses the questions of control and ownership since it means the workers seizing the bosses’ plant and machinery. Action like this requires new and fresh organisation. The occupied plant must be run by elected workers’ committees, and must be guarded by defence teams, both made accountable to regular workforce mass meetings.

This action puts immediate pressure on the bosses and the government, but it needs to have a goal. If BMW cannot guarantee every job then Rover must be re-nationalised (it used to be British Leyland). The bosses, post-privatisation, have made a mint. Now these bosses are saying the workers are expendable. Our answer is the bosses are expendable. They must not receive a penny in compensation for their mismanagement. We must open up their accounts so that everyone can see the way in which they have run the company.

But on its own seizing the plant back from the bosses – and forcing Labour to nationalise the industry – will not guarantee future jobs unless a regime of workers’ control is established. This means control over the speed and intensity of work. It means control over the hours worked so that the grinding working week can be cut (to 35 hours immediately) with no loss of pay or bonuses and so that during lulls work can be shared out among the workforce with nobody having to be sacked.

Demands such as these defend the needs and the interests of the workers against the bosses’ ruthless drive for profits. They hit at the bosses’ control of the plant. They conflict with capitalist priorities. They organise the workers as an independent class force. And they pose much wider questions of control over government and industry. Is the government to act in the interests of the workers by meeting these demands? If not then let us have a workers’ government that will. Is the rest of industry going to sit back faced with such a struggle or will it recognise the danger and go on to attack other sections of workers? If it does then the workers’ action and demands must be spread to other sections of workers, generalising the struggle more and more.

In this way transitional demands can both relate to the immediate needs of the workers and pose the question of power. When combined with militant action and overseen by new forms of working class organisation they begin to show the real possibility of workers’ power in the here and now. They serve as the “bridge” Trotsky talked about.

Whether or not such demands can be realised under capitalism – i.e. whether in the eyes of the bosses and their reformist supporters in the Labour Party and the unions they are “realistic” – is not the main point. Such gains cannot be maintained indefinitely unless capitalism itself is overthrown.

But these transitional demands have a burning relevance when a capitalist boss tells 2,500 people that they are expendable. Indeed, the realism of such demands can only grow when the likes of Bank of England boss Eddie George can openly tell tens of thousands more that they must lose their jobs for the “good of the whole economy”.

To those who say transitional demands are “too advanced” for the workers, we say it is not the job of revolutionaries to put forward demands that we know are inadequate (and we know because of the bitter legacy of previous crises that have caused mass unemployment) to save jobs.

Workers currently dominated by reformist ideas may indeed think what we are saying is too advanced but through the fight for a revolutionary action programme a party can win ever wider popularity for it to challenge and overcome the backward ideas that lead straight to the dole queue and show that the new ideas can lead to socialism’s triumph.

That is the importance of the transitional programme today.