National Sections of the L5I:

Alex Callinicos

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Callinicos, a leading member of the British Socialist Workers Party and secretary of the International Socialist Tendency, has published An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto. A regular speaker at World and European Social Forums his views on the direction the anticapitalist movement should take try to split the difference between the ideas currently in vogue in the movement and the principles of communism.

At the heart of the book is what Callinicos calls a “transitional programme”. This phrase derives from Leon Trotsky, who developed a programme on this basis for the Fourth International in 1938. But while Trotsky developed a series of demands linking the contemporary struggles of the working class movement to revolution, working class state power and a planned economy, Callinicos instead presents a series of disconnected reforms together with the vaguest possible explanation of the need for revolution. For Callinicos his demands “represent responses to contemporary realities, and have all been raised by existing movements. At the same time, the tendency of these demands is to undermine the logic of capital... while not necessarily formulated for explicitly anticapitalist reasons, these demands have an implicitly anticapitalist dynamic. They are what Trotsky called transitional demands, reforms that emerge from the realities of existing struggles but whose implementation in the current context would challenge capitalist economic relations.” (p. 140)

Now this is not what Trotsky understood by transitional demands. He explained transitional demands in his 1938 programme as follows, making it clear that each of these demands will only challenge capitalism if they are presented as part of a system linked to the need for revolution:

“The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old ‘minimal’ demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. ... Insofar as the old partial, ‘minimal’ demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism – and this occurs at each step – the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very foundations of the bourgeois regime. The old ‘minimal program’ is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilisation of the masses for the proletarian revolution.”

So do the demands listed in Callinicos’ programme undermine the logic of capital and do they in their totality provide a bridge from today’s situation to revolution?

In its entirety, Callinicos’ programme of transitional demands includes: cancellation of the third world debt; introduction of the Tobin tax; restoration of capital controls; a universal basic income; reduction of the working week; renationalisation and an end to privatisation; progressive taxation; abolition of immigration controls; a programme to defend the environment; dissolution of the military-industrial complex; defence of civil liberties.

There is not a word on how these demands are to be effected – not a word on how the struggle to implement them could be linked to the struggle for a social revolution – not a word on the tasks of making that revolution a reality.

It is entirely correct to support reforms that improve the condition of the working class, irrespective of whether, on their own, they direct the movement towards revolution. But it is entirely false and downright dangerous to suggest that such reforms, outside of a system of interlinked demands, can somehow automatically grow over into revolutionary struggle. This notion legitimises the idea that all revolutionaries need do is fight for reforms and history or “the process” will do the rest. It is an excuse for systematic opportunism.

Transitional demands are the means by which revolutionaries seek to build a bridge from the immediate burning needs of workers today to the goal of working class power. Here’s what Frederick Engels said about the method as early as 1847:

“All measures to restrict competition and the accumulation of capital in the hands of individuals... are not only possible as revolutionary measures, but actually necessary. ..They are possible, despite all the difficulties and disadvantages alleged against them by economists, because these very difficulties and disadvantages will compel the proletariat to go further and further until private property has been completely abolished, in order not to lose again what it has already won. They are possible as preparatory steps, temporary, transitional stages toward the abolition of private property, but not in any other way.”

Here we have the whole transitional method explained. Engels, and Trotsky after him, stressed that the “preparatory steps” must be linked to the conquest of power.

Take the fight for a universal minimum income. This will, if it is to be set at a reasonable rate, have to be won through industrial action. Workers will have to build strike committees and wage a battle against their own union bureaucracy, who will want to sideline the campaign.

To establish the level of the income, working class communities will need to set up price watch committees, so as not to be swindled by economists or inflation. Bosses may plead bankruptcy and sack workers or even shut down enterprises as a result, in which case workers will need to occupy the factories and demand to see the accounts and fight for nationalisation under workers’ control.

As Argentina shows, this too is only a “temporary, transitional stage” and “in order not to lose again what it has already won” the working class will have to fight for a workers’ government that can bring the whole economy onto a socialised basis.

This is what is totally missing from Callinicos’ Manifesto. In fact, the opposite is implied: “the demands listed above are generally placed on states acting either singly or in concert. This reflects the fact that, whatever the effects of globalisation, states are still the most effective mechanisms in the world as currently constituted for mobilising resources to achieve collectively agreed goals.” (p. 139)

Here, Callinicos lays bare the limits of his vision. Of course, we should place demands on the capitalist state, but we should not sow illusions in the ability of the capitalist state to mobilise resources to “achieve collectively agreed goals”.

The capitalist state cannot be depended upon to uphold anti-capitalist goals. It can only be forced temporarily to concede measures in the interests of the workers – it will immediately attempt to claw them back. While a state power is indeed “the most effective mechanism” to achieve the goals of the working class, this must be something Callinicos cannot bring himself to mention: a working class state erected on the shattered ruins of the capitalists’ repressive state power.

The world working class will need to establish democratically centralised planning – something which demands a working class government and a working class state. This would be a dictatorship over the former ruling class: not simply to ensure capitalism does not mount a counter-revolution, but also to raise the living standards of six billion toilers so that they can truly control their – and our – destiny.

The weakest element of Callinicos’ programme is how it says this can be done. Despite the SWP’s newspaper carrying a ‘Where we Stand’ column calling every week for workers’ councils, a workers’ militia and revolution to smash the state, the ‘Anticapitalist Manifesto’ calls for none of these things.

Any transitional programme worth its salt today would relate to the most promising, militant and potentially revolutionary aspects of the anticapitalist movement and develop demands linking their further development to the struggle for revolution. After the mass attempt at organised self-defence at Genoa, it would call, as Trotsky’s transitional programme did, for a working class defence guard, starting with the task of defending protestors and strikers from police attack but able to move forward to challenge the capitalists’ monopoly of force.

It would point to the social forums in Italy and the people’s assemblies in Argentina as a growth of popular democracy and call for delegate based councils of workers, peasants and urban poor, as a way of co-ordinating the struggle on the broadest possible basis and as an alternative basis of power in society, the seeds of a future working class republic. And it would call for the smashing, the forcible demolition by the workers, of the apparatus of state repression that the capitalists use against the anticapitalist movement and the peoples of the third world alike. This, and only this, is social revolution.

In contrast the revolutionary high point of Callinicos’ analysis, the boldest he gets is this statement:

“But the latter option [a revolution] would be a revolution not simply in the sense of a systemic transformation: it could only be achieved by overcoming – forcibly if necessary, the resistance of capital and those mobilised behind it.” [emphasis added]

If necessary? Is there is any possibility whatsoever, in the age of the War on Terror, of Genoa and the bombing of Baghdad, that force will not be necessary?

This is a contemptible abandonment of Marxism. For revolutionaries, a transitional programme is the “bridge” between the needs of the struggles of millions today and the need for revolution. Alex Callinicos’ manifesto, on the other hand, is a bridge reaching out to liberal commentators like Susan George and Monbiot ... a bridge the working class components of the anti-capitalist movement must not cross.