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Programme in the Imperialist Epoch

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An analysis of the development of the communist programme in the age of Imperialism by Mark Hoskisson

Forty-nine years ago the Fourth International (FI) was founded. In the year approaching the 50th anniversary the self proclaimed inheritors of Trotskyism will dust off their copies of the FI’s founding document. They will adopt their ritual postures toward Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, affirming its validity in one way or other. Then they will return the programme to its shelf and carry on with the systematic negation of its method and principles that has characterised their practice for more than three decades.

Workers Power, by contrast, welcomes the opportunity provided by the 50th anniversary of the Transitional Programme to explain and defend its programmatic method. This is not just an excercise in Marxist history. For us it provides the key to the most important task facing revolutionary communists today; the re-elaboration of the Transitional Programme for today’s class struggle.

Disorientated by the post war social overturns in Eastern Europe, the FI collapsed definitively into centrism at its 1951 Third World Congress. Each one of its centrist fragments has defended aspects and parts of the Transitional Programme, developing them necessarily in a one sided way as a rationale for their opportunist or sectarian practice.

The centrists have plundered and dismembered the Transitional Programme. Without an understanding of its method their attempts at ‘reconstructing’ the FI have collapsed. Every grand fusion, ‘parity committee’, open conference and ‘reconstructed’ FI has quickly crumbled. Substituting manoeuvre and ‘agreement in principle’ for real unity of programme, strategy and tactics has led to further splits and deeper disorientation amongst the subjectively revolutionary militants of the so-called Trotskyist organisations.

The task of re-elaborating the programme today begins from a defence of the method and principles of the Transitional Programme. This is the first of two articles outlining the origins of the Transitional Programme’s method by tracing the history of the Marxist programme itself, from the Communist Manifesto to the Comintern’s Sixth Congress. Part two (to be published) deals with Trotsky’s programmatic development from the Sixth Congress to the Transitional Programme.

The Development of the Marxist Programme: Marx and Engels

The Marxist programme is a living, developing programme. This does not mean that it is an eclectic mixture of demands that can be altered with every change in the objective situation. Rather, the Marxist programme, for a given period, is a focused application of the accumulated lessons, insights and methods of struggle, embodied in the key programmatic documents of the movement—the Communist Manifesto, the programmatic declarations of the Bolsheviks and the revolutionary Comintern, the theses and resolutions of the Left Opposition and the Movement for the Fourth International, and the Transitional Programme of 1938. In no sense do any of these programmes simply repeat one another. Each was focused to a particular period. But, in a vital sense, each was developed on the basis of the method of their predecessors. Demands in one way or another may differ. The fundamental method by which those demands are arrived at does not.

The methodological uniformity of the successive Marxist programmes is decisive. It provides a safeguard against eclecticism. At the same time it provides the mechanism for developing and refining the programme when profound changes in the objective situaiton do occur. The idea that either the Communist Manifesto or the Transitional Programme represent, in and of themselves, the Marxist programme, that their particular elements are sacred and timeless, is un-Marxist. Trotsky explained:

‘Revolutionary thought has nothing in common with idol-worship. Programmes and prognoses are tested and corrected in the light of experience, which is the supreme criterion of human reason.’(1)

He understood that in the ninety years since the Communist Manifesto fundamental changes in the world—not least the development of capitalism into its imperialist epoch—required the refinement of the Marxist programme. He would not have bothered writing the Transitional Programme if he had held to the timeless view of programme that is common amongst his epigones today. On the other hand Trotsky carefully demonstrated the continuing relevance of the Communist Manifesto. He argued that its re-elaboration, ‘can be successfully made only by proceeding in accord with the method lodged in the foundation of the Manifesto itself’.(2)The same is true for a re-elaborated transitional programme for today’s class struggle. It will encompass the gains of previous programmes and be constructed on the basis of the method lodged within them.

The Communist Manifesto was the first Marxist programme. It summarised the theoretical insights accumulated by Marx and Engels in their process of breaking with left-Hegelianism. It encapsulated the key elements of scientific socialism; a basic understanding of the nature and laws of motion of capitalism, of the role of the class struggle in historical development and, therefore, of the fundamental antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and of the historic tasks of the proletariat vis a vis capitalism:

‘They have nothing of their own to secure and fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.’(3)

These elements constitute the general, theoretical part of the programme. Also within the Manifesto there is a key perspectival element—a prognosis of impending revolutionary crises opening up the possibility of overthrowing capitalism in a number of European countries. Linked to this perspective is an action programme as a specific component of the programme as a whole. That is, a series of interlinked demands, focused on the key issues of the impending crisis and, in their totality, charting the transition from the immediate crisis through to the establishment of a socialist regime.

In an underveloped but nevertheless historically significant manner, the transitional element of the Marxist programme was formulated by Engels. Anticipating the Manifesto, Engels wrote in 1847 against a bourgeois liberal, Karl Heinzen:

‘All measures to restrict competition and the accumulation of capital in the hands of individuals, all restriction or suppression of the law of inheritance, all organisation of the labour by the state, etc, all these measures are not only possible as revolutionary measures, but actually necessary. They are possible because the whole insurgent proletariat is behind them and maintains them by force of arms. They are possible, despite all the difficulties and disadvantages which are 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 towards the abolition of private property, but not in any other way.’(4)

This viewpoint finds its way into the programmatic heart of the Manifesto (section two), where economic measures are called for ‘which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order.’(5)

The transitional element of the Manifesto was rendered temporarily inoperative after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions. Marx and Engels commited errors of perspective concerning the nature of capitalism’s immediate crisis. Work was needed to place Marxism on firmer theoretical foundations.

However, a revolutionary who is a participant in the class struggle is often guilty of errors of perspective. Far from this being a major fault it is often an unavoidable overhead cost in the war against exploitation. Revolutionary optimism is no crime. But Marx and Engels understood that their perspective was not a religious prophecy. It was a working hypothesis, which like all hypotheses, required refinement and correction in the light of new developments. The important thing was that they realised their error of perspective and set about correcting it. They retained the programmatic method they had developed as a conquest of Marxism that would have to be re-applied in later revolutionary situations. In the aftermath of the Paris Commune Marx and Engels alluded precisely to the need for programmatic re-elaboration, declaring the actual demands of the Manifesto to be secondary and antiquated. As Trotsky wrote:

‘The reformists seized upon this evaluation to interpret it in the sense that transitional revolutionary demands had forever ceded their place to the Social-Democratic “minimum programme”, which, as is well known, does not transcend the limits of bourgeois democracy. As a matter of fact, the authors of the Manifesto indicated quite precisely the main correction of their transitional programme, namely “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” . . . As for the rest, the ten demands of the Manifesto, which appeared “archaic” in an epoch of peaceful parliamentary activity, have to day regained completely their true significance.’(6)

The Second International

Marx and Engels thus corrected their perspectives but did not abandon their programmatic method. Yet, the Marxist movement, in the shape of the Second International, and German Social Democracy in particular, espoused a programme of minimum demands as the basis for action and maximum goals as the basis for vague and general abstract propaganda. This method was codified in the Erfurt Programme of the SPD in 1891.

The Erfurt Programme exists in two parts. The theoretical section was written by Karl Kautsky. The practical section was, significantly, written by Eduard Bernstein, the pioneer of opportunism within the SPD. The programme was a product of its times. The prolonged period of capitalist expansion and relative class peace in Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had rendered revolutionary transitional demands on the model of the Manifesto temporarily inoperative. Revolutionary crises were the exception, while relatively peaceful development of working class organisations was the rule. Violent clashes between capital and labour did take place but on an episodic rather than generalised basis. Attention centred, particularly in Germany after the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Laws (1890), on winning democratic rights within a parliamentary framework.

The Erfurt Programme reflected this situation in that it posed socialism as a distant prospect and emphasised as immediate tasks the struggle for suffrage and other democratic rights within capitalism. Thus the programme was ambiguous and in fact contradictory. It was to take the development of the class struggle itself, in a revolutionary fashion in the early twentieth century, to expose these ambiguities and contradictions. However, notice of the existence of these problems with the minimum-maximum programme was served by the existence of widely diverging interpretations of it by the revolutionary, centrist and opportunist wings of international social democracy.

For Engels the programme was a necessary concession to the period. But he warned vigorously against making the division between immediate demands and the socialist revolution an eternal feature of the programme. In his critique of the draft of the programme (a precursor of the final work drafted by Liebknecht) he urged that the minimum demands be linked to the socialist goal by a sentence connecting the two sections, which read ‘Social Democracy fights for all demands which help it approach this goal.’(7)Instead the programme of Kautsky and Bernstein ‘linked’ the minimum and maximum sections by emphasising their separateness ‘On the basis of these principles the Social-Democratic Party of Germany demands in the first instance . . .’ (8) . . . the minimum programme. What it demands in the second instance is open to speculation. Engels saw in the Liebknecht draft the danger of democratism obliterating revolutionary socialism, through an over-emphasis on minimal political demands:

‘The political demands of the draft have one great fault. It lacks precisely what should have been said. If all the 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.’(9)

In the 1880s Marx and Engels had come to the view that an extended period of capitalist stability required a temporary stress on immediate demands– the eight hour day, protective labour legislation and, above all, the democratic republic.

Engels generally approved of the final draft of the Erfurt programme, especially its theoretical part. But he had serious reservations about the second half, in particular its failure to call for a democratic republic. Active campaigning on these issues, he believed, would hasten the crisis of the semi-absolutist Reich. In this context there was no question of Engels’ rejecting transitional demands and revolutionary tactics, merely of finding a road to them through a period of expanding capitalism.

Indeed, Engels was already wary of the growth of optimistic short-sightedness in the German party in the early 1890s. Engels warned:

‘This forgetting of the great, the principal considerations for the momentary interests of the day, this struggling and striving for the success of the moment regardless of later consequences, this sacrifice of the future movement for its present, may be “honestly” meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and “honest” opportunism is perhaps the most dangerous of all.’(10)

Bernstein openly espoused the opportunist maxim that the movement was everything, the final goal nothing. Kautsky opposed this initially, conducting an ‘orthodox’ defence of the minimum/maximum programme. But in a sense this orthodoxy only encapsulated the contradiction lodged within the method of the Erfurt Programme itself. As early as 1893 he vacillated towards a reformist application of the programme:

‘Even today it is beginning to become clear that a genuine parliamentary regime can be as much an instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an instrument of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.’(11)

This ‘evolutionary’ outlook developed in German Social Democracy as the party grew massively in organisational and electoral strength in the early 1900s. Kautsky, despite left vacillations, eventually became the most theoretically sophisticated mouthpiece for this outlook. It was the outlook of an increasingly conservative party and trade union bureaucracy that was breaking from Marxism in deeds, though not yet in words. Kautsky reflected this process by theoretically justifying a break with the revolutionary transitional element of the Manifesto.

In a review of this founding document Kautsky praised its theoretical side but described its revolutionary measures as ‘obsolete'(12) rather than simply temporarily inapplicable. The development of capitalism in a peaceful fashion required a new peaceful manner of conducting the class war. The task of Marxists was to engage in a slow build up of working class organisation which would peacefully fill the breach when capitalism, of its own accord, collapsed. Membership book–keeping replaced revolutionary practice, a ‘displacement of revolution by evolution’(13) took place:

‘Outside of the revolution and preceding it this ripening and strengthening must take place. It must have reached a certain degree before a revolution is at all possible. It must take place through methods of peace, not of war—if one is permitted to express oneself as distinguishing between warlike and peaceful methods of class struggle.’(14)

Essentially, Kautsky offered no tactics for achieving the demands of the minimum programme beyond the ever-increasing numbers of social democratic votes for the Reichstag. Indeed, the unfulfilled minimum demands merely served to show how reactionary was bourgeois society in general and Wilhelmian Germany in particular.

Bernstein, on the other hand, was impatient with this isolationism and inactivity. He looked to the experience of French and British parliamentarism, with their regular combinations of liberal and labour politicians, with the mounting tide of social reforms, and asked ‘why can’t we do the same in Germany?’

Bernstein saw the SPD’s Marxist ‘orthodoxy’ as the obstacle to this strategy in Germany while Kautsky rallied to the defence of the orthodoxy. But, more importantly, he also rallied to the defence of the passive waiting for the distant revolution which he insisted would come some day.

Thus his orthodoxy became increasingly sterile. Born in a period of relative social peace it was inadequate for the new period of class warfare which ushered in the twentieth century. This posed a new task: not simply the defence of Marxist orthodoxy against revisionism, but the re-elaboration of the programme for a new epoch; the imperialist epoch of war and revolution.

It fell to a new generation, the revolutionary left in Social democracy, to carry out this re-elaboration. In both Germany and Russia however, it was Kautsky and Plekhanov—the men who had conducted the ‘orthodox’ defence of Marxism—who stood in the way of this re-elaboration.

Kautsky, Luxemburg and the General Strike

Both Kautsky and the revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, agreed with the Erfurt Programme’s call for ‘Universal, equal and direct suffrage with secret ballot for all citizens over twenty without distinction of sex for all elections and votes’.(15) Yet formal adherence to this tenet of the programme shed little light on the sharp disagreement between Kautsky and Luxemburg. The difference manifested itself in the manner in which this demand was fought for, in the tactics used to achieve it, or at least to defend what suffrage rights did exist.

In response to an attack on the working class’ right to vote in Prussia Luxemburg argued that the party should agitate for a general strike. In an article attacking this call Kautsky presented his perspective of a protracted war of attrition between the workers and the junkers and capitalists. He cautioned against working class direct action to beat off the attack on democratic rights and urged a strict adherence to parliamentary methods of combatting the anti-democratic onslaught. He wrote of the attack:

‘It threatens to make next year’s general election a terrible day of judgement for the Prussian Junkers and their allies or semi-allies. Their statisticians already recognise the possibility that we will win 125 seats in the coming elections . . . We have the key to this momentous historical situation, victory in the coming Reichstag election, already in our pockets through the whole combination of circumstances. Only one thing would lead us to losing it and ruining this tremendous situation: an act of stupidity on our part.’(16)

Parliamentary cretinism—an outlook that led Kautsky eventually to embrace full blown opportunism—dictated that class struggle methods were taboo, were ‘acts of stupidity’. Rosa Luxemburg, on the other hand, showed in practice the link between the struggle for immediate demands and the organisation and preparation of the working class for a decisive confrontation with capital. She argued that the attack on rights could be fought by the use of the general strike on the grounds that:

‘We live at a time when no more advantages can be gained in parliament for the proletariat. That is why the masses themselves must enter the theatre of action.’(17)

Rosa Luxemburg and the German left resolved the programme queston in a manner that drew a sharp line of demarcation between reformism (and eventually centrism) and revolutionism. With the experience of the Bolshevik revolution behind her and with the treachery of Social Democracy in Germany manifest—first through its betrayal of socialism in the war when it sided with the German bourgeoisie, and then through its counter-revolutionary role from the outset in the German Revolution—Luxemburg overcame the Erfurt Programme’s fatal contradiction by fearlessly declaring in favour of an entirely new programme. In December 1918, at the founding conference of the Spartacus League, she recognised that the essence of a programme was its role as a guide to action, as something that is tested in application in the class struggle:

‘Far more important, however, than what is written in a programme is the way in which that programme is interpreted in action.’(18)

The Erfurt Programme had declared for socialism but contained no prescription for how that goal could be pursued in action in the contemporary class struggle. Rosa Luxemburg recognised, retrospectively, that this was a perversion of Marxism:

‘What passed officially for Marxism became a cloak for all the hesitations, for all the turnings-away from the actual revolutionary class struggle, for every halfway measure which condemned German Social Democracy, the labour movement in general, and also the trade unions, to vegetate within the framework of capitalist society without any serious attempt to shake or throw that society out of gear.’(19)

The great crisis of Marxism brought about by the imperialist war in 1914 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, tore away the cloak and reformism was revealed to be hiding behind it. Programmatic re-armament became necessary. But Luxemburg did not pluck her ideas from out of the air. She explicitly called for a return to the Communist Manifesto, and the method lodged within its section two. While she did not use the term transitional demand, she was clear that the revolutionary measures espoused by Marx and Engels were designed to take the working class from their existing stage of struggle towards socialism. She superseded the minimum-maximum divide in a way that anticipated Trotsky’s 1938 programme:

‘Our programme is deliberately opposed to the standpoint of the Erfurt Programme; it is deliberately opposed to the separation of the immediate, so called minimal demands formulated for the political and economic struggle, from the socialist goal, regarded as a maximum programme. In this deliberate opposition we liquidate the results of seventy years of evolution and above all, the immediate results of the World War, in that we say: for us there is no minimal and no maximal programme; socialism is one and the same thing; this is the minimum we have to realise today.’(20)

As for Kautsky, he resolved the ambiguity within the Erfurt Programme by embracing reformism. During the war he vacillated hopelessly, never transcending social-pacifism. He denounced the Bolshevik Revolution as a coup d’etat and, true to his earlier positions on parliament, he counterposed parliamentary democracy to soviet power as the basis for working class rule. These positions brought him close once again to the architect of revisionism, Bernstein. Kautsky recalled that at the beginning of the war:

‘I then found myself closely linked to Bernstein. We came together again during the war. Each of us preserved his own political physiognomy, but in practical action we found ourselves almost always in agreement. So it has continued to the present day.’(21)

Kautsky’s vacillating position, his attempts to cover up opportunism with Marxist phraseology mark him out as the classic centrist.

Lenin and Trotsky

Lenin, like Luxemburg, stood on the revolutionary wing of Social Democracy. Like Luxemburg, he adhered for a long time to the Erfurt Programme, calling for it to be ‘imitated’ by Russian Social Democracy in 1899. Like Luxemburg he demonstrated through his struggles with Menshevism, that it was at the level of the practical and tactical application of the programme that the dividing line between revolutionism, reformism and centrism lay. It was in the heat of the revolution of 1917 that Lenin made his break with the Erfurt Programme, transcending the rigid divide between the minimum and maximum programmes.

In the early debates on the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) Lenin took as his starting point the old programme of the Emancipation of Labour Group. In 1899 he argued that the old programme needed to be focused more sharply towards the specific tasks confronting the Russian working class. He gave the minimum-maximum programme a heavy practical and class struggle slant, totally unlike the slant it was being given by the right wing of German social democracy during the same period. The essence of Lenin’s interpretation of the programme was revolutionary:

‘We have stated that the essence of this programme is to organise the struggle of the proletariat and to lead this struggle, the ultimate aim of which is the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the establishment of a socialist society.’(22)

The key words ‘organise’ and ‘lead’ denote an emphasis similar to that of Engels in his critique of Liebknecht’s draft. The stress is on the application of the minimum programme in the class struggle and the use of class struggle methods as the means of establishing a living connection between it and the ‘ultimate aim’. Lenin’s ‘ultimate aim’, posed in this way, is not an empty abstraction. It is a practical proposition being prepared for by a revolutionary fight for minimum demands.

This interpretation of Lenin is borne out by his own draft programme for the RSDLP in 1899. He argued that detailed, day to day tactics, have no place in a programme, but wary of an opportunist approach to immediate questions, he insisted that care must be taken in drawing up the list of practical measures:

‘In drawing up this section we should strive, therefore, to avoid two extremes—on the one hand, we must not omit any one of the main, basic demands that hold great significance for the entire working class; on the other, we must not go into minute particulars with which it would hardly be rational to load the programme.’(23)

The central practical questions facing the working class had to find a place in the Marxist programme. In a period of struggle for revolutionary-democratic (i.e. minimum) demands, this necessarily included the methods as well as the aims of struggle . Even before the 1905 revolution the clash with the Plekhanov brand of Menshevism (at that time a brand of centrism) was prefigured in Lenin’s notes on Plekhanov’s draft programme for the RSDLP in the period before the 1903 congress. Echoing his 1899 views, Lenin observed of the draft:

‘1. Extreme abstractness of many of the formulations, so that they might seem intended for a series of lectures rather than for a militant party.

2. Evasion and obscuring of the question of specifically Russian capitalism are a particularly serious shortcoming, since the programme should provide a compendium of agitation against Russian capitalism. We must come out with a direct appraisal of Russian capitalism and with an open declaration of war against it specifically.’(24)

Lenin and Plekhanov both agreed on the nature of the immediate tasks facing Russian workers in 1905; they were revolutionary democratic, not socialist tasks, and they corresponded to the minimum rather than the maximum programme of the RSDLP. But from this starting point they drew completely different answers to the question: which class must lead the bourgeois-democratic revolution?

For Plekhanov and the Mensheviks it was the bourgeoisie who must lead during, and govern in the aftermath of, the anti-Tsarist revolution. Lenin on the other hand argued that only the proletariat and the peasantry could overthrow Tsarism. Lenin, of course, was vindicated by history. But Plekhanov’s arguments found some justification in the programmatic method which both he and Lenin claimed to adhere to.

Since the revolution was limited to bourgeois democratic tasks, Plekhanov argued, it was impermissible for a workers’ party to take part in the provisional government of the revolution. This would mean governing a capitalist economy in a way no different from the Australian Labour Party which in 1903 had become the first workers’ party to ‘take power’ in an election to a bourgeois parliament.

Against Plekhanov, Lenin’s arguments placed an important new element alongside the minimum programme. Alongside the aims outlined by the RSDLP’s minimum programme Lenin outlined the key methods of struggle for it.

At the Third (Bolshevik) Congress of the RSDLP in April 1905 we find Lenin arguing for an embryonic action programme, a ‘compendium of agitation’ consisting principally of; support for land seizures, arming the workers, the political general strike and armed insurrection. In December 1905, after the experience of the St Petersburg Soviet, we also find the soviet incorporated into this ‘plan of action’ as the potential form of the provisional government.

However, precisely because he envisaged the soviet, the general strike and so on, as ‘tactics’ not ‘programme’ this embryonic action programme of largely proletarian and poor-peasant methods, co-existed with the minimum programme whose aims were purely bourgeois democratic.

It was in the profoundly flawed slogan of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ that Lenin found a conceptual framework for this contradiction.

It fell to Trotsky to make a cleaner theoretical break with the limitations of the minimum/maximum programme in 1905. At this time Trotsky was a left Menshevik. He had sided with Plekhanov and Martov on the question of party organisation in 1903. But in the early theory of ‘permanent revolution’ we find Plekhanov’s Menshevik objections to proletarian leadership in the bourgeois democratic struggle turned on their head.

Trotsky agreed with Lenin that only the proletariat and peasantry could seize power. But unlike Lenin he understood that, precisely because of this, the revolution could not limit itself to the realisation of the minimum programme. He wrote:

‘Immediately however that power is transferred into the hands of a revolutionary government with a socialist majority, the division of our programme into maximum and minimum loses all significance . . . the Social Democrats cannot enter a revolutionary government giving workers in advance an undertaking not to give way on the minimum programme and at the same time promise the bourgeoisie not to go beyond it. Such a bilateral undertaking is absolutely impossible to realise’(25)

Here the transition from minimum to socialist demands is posited as necessary after the seizure of power. Consequently for Trotsky, despite this important theoretical insight into the limitations of the minimum/maximum programme, there is no need to abandon the minimum programme in the present, that is, pre-revolutionary period. However, Trotsky’s Menshevism meant that he did not translate his grasp of the post-revolutionary transitional tasks into immediate tactics .

Despite their respective weaknesses, however, both Lenin and Trotsky in 1905 made one sided and partial breaks from the limitations of the maximum and minimum programme. In Lenin’s embryonic programme of action and in Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’ we find two key elements of the future transitional programmes. That is, they approach methods as well as aims, and begin to deal concretely with the transition to socialism. It was the synthesis of these two elements which characterised the Transitional Programme; a synthesis which Lenin approached as he grappled with the programmatic implications of the theory of imperialism during the war and the 1917 revolution.

War and Revolution

Adherance to the old programme of social-democracy became impossible for the Bolsheviks during the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Formally Lenin and Plekhanov, Kautsky, Bernstein and Luxemburg, were loyal to the same programme. Yet these people were irreconcilably divided between revolutionary internationalism (Lenin and Luxemburg) and social chauvinism or social pacifism. The great crisis in Marxism in 1914-1919 required a re-definition of the programme, and a demarcation of programmes. The old minimum programme did not transcend demands that were attainable under capitalism. The revolutionaries believed that the struggle for these demands could develop into revolutionary struggle.

The Bolsheviks and the internationalist left fought opportunism throughout the pre-war period. But the extent of its domination in the Second International surprised even Lenin. The Erfurt Programme had, in fact, disguised the rise in opportunism. Programmatic re-armament was now a desperate necessity. In the first place this consisted of analysing capitalism’s modern development (i.e. the development of the imperialist epoch) and the impact of that on the workers’ movement. This analysis was decisive in enabling the Bolsheviks and the left of Social Democracy to transcend the minimum/maximum programme. By explaining the epoch as one of wars and revolutions the maximum programme was an immediate possibility. The question became how to achieve this goal, with what strategy and tactics.

Lenin’s ‘April Theses’ together with his works on the eve of the insurrection—‘The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It’ and ‘Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?’—are the first examples of transitional programmes in the Marxist movement since the Communist Manifesto. In the ‘April Theses’, Lenin defeated the Stalin-Kamenev line of conditional support for the (bourgeois) provisional government. Their line was based on the tenets of the old programme. The struggle against the Tsar necessitated, so that programme said, a provisional government which revolutionaries would support, and even take part in.

Lenin excoriated these views as ‘pre-revolutionary antiques’. He argued that life had rendered his old formula of the ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ redundant and that a programme for the revolutionary seizure of power by the proletariat was now necessary.

Lenin’s programme called for the mobilisation of the masses around demands which corresponded to their immediate needs in a situation of extreme political and economic crisis, but which also posed before the masses the need to control the capitalists and to overthrow their state power, replacing it with soviet power. This method was summarised in ‘The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It’, written in September 1917. He demonstrates with telling accuracy the bankruptcy—literally and historically—of capitalism. He explains that ruin is the economic reality facing Russia unless the proletariat act. The basis of that action is a series of linked measures to ensure the regulation of economic life by the proletariat:

‘In point of fact the whole question boils down to who controls whom i.e., which class is in control and which is being controlled . . . We must resolutely and irrevocably, not fearing to break with the old, not fearing boldly to build the new, pass to control over the landowners and capitalists by the workers and peasants.’(26)

The programme outlines the framework for this control as the nationalisation of the banks and key syndicates, the establishment of control committees and consumer organisations, the abolition of commercial secrecy and, governmentally, all power to the soviets. Underlying this advocacy of transitional demands is the scientific appraisal of the stage capitalism has reached:

‘Imperialist war is the eve of socialist revolution . . . because state-monopoly capitalism is a complete material preparation for socialism, the threshold of socialism, a rung on the ladder of history between which and the rung called socialism there are no intermediate rungs.’(27)

Hence transitional demands become immediate demands. The struggle for workers’ control in the economy becomes an integral and immediate part of the struggle for working class power. The triumph of Bolshevism in October 1917 was a vindication of this transitional method.

However, Bolshevism itself did not generalise this method and thereby create an international programme based on an explicit rejection of the Erfurt Programme. The re-elaboration of programme was at an early stage and Lenin himself was most cautious in revising the party programme in October 1917 at an extraordinary Congress and again in March 1918 at the Seventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party (RCP). The transitional measures articulated by Lenin were to combat an impending crisis. In other situations he recognised the need to utilise minimum demands.

Rather than produce a new programme, therefore, Lenin initially proposed adding a section to the programme on imperialism, thereby providing the link between the minimum programme and the maximum. Lenin was firm in his opposition to Bukharin and Smirnov who wanted to discard the minimum programme altogether. He believed that in the struggle for power a transitional programme was obligatory. But, he warned, that if that battle was lost, the struggle for minimum demands—using class struggle methods—would again become necessary. Transitional demands would cease to be immediate demands:

‘Is it possible to guarantee now that the minimum programme will not be needed any more? Of course not, for the simple reason that we have not yet won power, that socialism has not yet been realised, and that we have not achieved even the beginning of the world socialist revolution.

‘We must firmly, courageously and without hesitation advance towards our goal, but it is ludicrous to declare that we have reached it when we definitely have not. Discarding the minimum programme would be equivalent to declaring, to announcing (to bragging, in simple language) that we have already won.

‘No, dear comrades, we have not yet won.’(28)

Lenin’s reluctance was based both on the lack of experience the communists had of applying transitional measures and on his recognition that while intermediate rungs between capitalism and socialism (such as Kautsky’s ‘democracy’) were impossible nevertheless non-revolutionary periods were conceivable in which minimum demands would become necessary.

The actual experience of transitional methods in the Soviet state led Lenin to modify his attitude to the minimum programme. He argued in March 1918:

‘And here we come to the question of whether we should abolish the difference between the maximum and the minimum programmes. Yes and no . . . In place of the old programme we must now write a new programme of soviet power and not in any way reject the use of bourgeois parliamentarianism.’(29)

For the Russian party that had conquered power the minimum programme could be abolished, but in the event of a counter-revolution, the minimum programme might again become necessary.

Lenin’s position during these debates is instructive. In an important sense he had bridged the gap between the minimum and maximum programmes. Soviet power is now a programmatic goal for international communism and a programmatic reality for the Russian Party. But the problem that is not solved by Lenin’s position is the relationship between the minimum programme and the transitional programme for parties that are struggling—sometimes for protracted periods—for power. At the heart of this problem is the question of whether transitional demands are applicable only in an acute revolutionary crisis (February to October 1917 in Russia) or whether they can be used in the form of an action programme designed to break workers from reformist leaders and set them on the road of revolutionary struggle in all periods during the imperialist epoch. Lenin did no more than touch on the problem. It fell to the early Comintern and then to Trotsky and the FI to answer this problem.

The Comintern

The first two congresses of the Comintern were characterised by the elaboration of clear revolutionary policies designed to draw a distinct line between communism and reformism. But the issues on which the parties of the Comintern were defining themselves were the fundamental questions of revolution—for soviets, for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The immediate task was to seize power in post-war Europe.

In this context it was the ‘maximum’ end of the transitional method which the first two Comintern Congresses (1919 and 1920) elaborated. Nevertheless, as early as the First Congress the epochal character of the programmatic method is spelt out:

‘The revolutionary epoch demands that the proletariat use those methods of struggle which concentrate its entire energy, namely, methods of mass action leading logically to direct clashes with the bourgeois State machine in open struggle. All other methods, as for example, the revolutionary use of bourgeois parliaments, must be subordinated to this purpose.’(30)

The First and Second Congresses thus elaborated the centrality of soviets, the factory committee, the workers militia, the nature of communist parliamentary work, and Marxism’s fundamental critique of syndicalism and reformism. But it was with the period of capitalist offensive and working class retreat—1921 and after—that a more detailed consideration of a programme for the Comintern to enable it to win the support of the masses, began. A new reality existed for the Comintern when it held its Third and Fourth Congresses. The Soviet Union was the only workers’ state in existence. In Europe the reformists still exercised considerable influence over a majority of the working class. In Asia the developing struggles against imperialism were led by bourgeois nationalists, not communists.

These developments prompted a review of tactics by the Comintern. Lenin and Trotsky fought those leftists who, remaining blind to the new reality, wished to continue the ‘revolutionary offensive’ and nothing but that. Through this fight great strides forward in the development of revolutionary strategy and tactics were made. The tactics of the united front, the anti-imperialist united front, the general strike, the tasks of work amongst the oppressed and the workers’ government slogan were all debated and incorporated into the arsenal of Marxism. In turn the development of a range of tactics posed the need for their relationship to the strategy for seizing power to be spelt out. That is, the codification of a new programme was required.

Steps towards codification were taken in the ‘Theses on Tactics’, adopted at the Third Congress (1921). The theses recognised the character of the epoch as a transitional one. Transitional, that is, from capitalism to socialism. This understanding obliged the Comintern to abolish the rigid separation between the every day struggle and the struggle for power because ‘any struggle may turn into a struggle for power.’(31)

Their tactics had to take account of this possibility. But at the same time it was necessary to recognise the existence of partial struggles without pretending that they were struggles for power. The transitional epoch was posing communists with very uneven struggles in which elementary tasks of defence of working class interests became combined with struggles that objectively posed the need to take steps forward in the struggle for power. Partial struggles could grow into revolutionary struggles but were not identical to them. The need was for demands which could really reflect these combined factors, for demands which avoided posing the struggle for power as an ultimatum to the working class, but at the same time organised them precisely for this struggle. Transitional demands were the answer. As the theses explained:

‘The communist parties do not put forward any minimum programme to strengthen and improve the tottering structure of capitalism. the destruction of that structure remains their guiding aim and their immediate mission. But to carry out this mission the communist parties must put forward demands whose fulfillment is an immediate and urgent working class need, and they must fight for these demands in mass struggle, regardless of whether they are compatible with the profit economy of the capitalist class or not.’(32)

By so combining partial tasks with strategic tasks the Comintern sought to find a bridge between itself and the proletariat, which was compelled to struggle, but did not yet accept, in its majority, communist leadership. But the combined, the transitional demands, advanced by the communists were distinct from the old-style partial demands, in that they were interlinked—one with the other—comprising in their totality a strategy, a line of march towards the proletarian dictatorship:

‘If the demands correspond to vital needs of the broad proletarian masses and if these masses feel they cannot exist unless their demands are met, then the struggle for these demands will become the starting-point of the struggle for power. In place of the minimum programme of the reformists and centrists, the Communist International [Comintern]puts the struggle for the concrete needs of the proletariat, for a system of demands which in their totality disintegrate the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat, represent stages in the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship, and each of which expresses in itself the need of the broadest masses, even if the masses themselves are not yet consciously in favour of the proletarian dictatorship.’(33)

What were the chief characteristics of these early transitional demands? Like the demands in Lenin’s ‘Impending Catastrophe’, each of them sought to organise the working class for direct action against the capitalists with the objective of establishing workers’ control over the capitalists. In the economic sphere this took the form of a struggle for control over production. This struggle was counterposed to the class collaborationist utopias of industrial democracy (still being peddled by left-reformists). It was not shared control, but control over and against capitalism. It was a fight for a systematic veto over the capitalists’ plans for speed of work, hours worked, hiring, firing and, ultimately, over their right to close factories.

In this sense it met the urgent needs of the working class. Being sacked was an immediate problem for millions. Trying to control the capitalists doing the sacking was an obvious answer. Yet, at the same time, it challenged the fundamental priorities of the capitalist system, the economic foundations of that system and the way in which that system was run. Moreover, by fighting to create institutions based on the rank and file of the workforce—factory committees—the communists were creating both organs of struggle against capitalism and organs of economic power (of workers’ management) for after the conquest of political power. The road to workers’ management in the economy as a whole (in a workers’ state) was paved by the constant battles for control in factories and branches of industry (in a capitalist state).

The Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) clearly recognised the centrality of the struggle for workers’ control. It understood how this struggle could be combined with the partial struggles of the working class. In the Action Programme it adopted at its first congress in July 1921, it stated that against lock-outs:

‘. . . the unions must lead action against closures, and for the right of investigation, on the part of the workers, into the cause of closure. For this purpose special control committees, composed of workers, should be instituted to oversee raw materials and orders. They should verify the quantity of available raw materials necessary for production, and also the financial resources of the enterprise deposited in the banks. Specially elected control committees must investigate, in a most thorough manner, the financial relations between a given enterprise and other concerns. For this it is necessary to place the abolition of commercial secrecy before the workers as the practical task of the day.’(34)

And the resolution on workers’ control passed at the same congress makes the transitional content of workers’ control explicit:

‘This response to direct necessity, which in reality means a prologue to the resolution of the contradiction of the capitalist system by force (i.e. the path of social revolution), takes in fact the form of workers’ control over production.’(35)

The key word used in relation to workers’ control is a ‘prologue’, that is, it comes before the main event but is inextricably bound up with that event, and is an introduction to that event.

At the Third Congress, therefore, the need for transitional demands was established. The centrality of workers’ control with regard to these demands was emphasised. In fact the third congress stressed that:

‘Every practical slogan which derives from the economic needs of the masses must be channelled into the struggle for the control of production. . . ’(36)

However, when it came to incorporating transitional demands into the programme of the Comintern—a problem broached at the Fourth Congress in 1922—a clear divergence appeared that prevented the revolutionary Comintern from resolving the programme question.

The Debate on Transitional Demands

The Fourth Congress debated draft programmes put forward by Bukharin, the KPD and the Bulgarian party. Bukharin’s draft had not, at that time, been discussed by the Russian party. The debate revealed a confusion on the status of transitional demands in a programme and on the concept of an action programme. Leaders of the communist parties that had not yet taken power were acutely aware of the problem of mobilising the masses for this task. Bukharin, entirely scholastic in his approach to the question of programme, accused these leaders (Varga, Thalheimer) of opportunism.

Against their emphasis on the need for an action programme—that is a programme outlining the strategy and tactics for the seizure of power in the specific circumstances of the post-war world—he presented the programme as a kind of general education document. Its principal sections would enlighten workers on the fundamental principles of Marxism and explain in very general terms the Marxist attitude to reformism, the unions and so forth. Ridiculing the concept of an action programme he argued that the Comintern’s programme should consist of:

‘1. A general part which is suitable to all parties. The general part of the programme should be printed in the membership book of every member of the party.
2. A national part, setting out the specific demands of the labour movement of the respective countries. And possibly also. . .
3. but this is really not part of the programme — a programme of action which should deal with purely tactical questions, and which might be altered every fortnight (laughter).’(37)

Cloaking his opposition to the action programme concept in ultra-radical garb, Bukharin suggested that the inclusion of questions such as the workers’ government, or other aspects of the united front, in the programme ‘would make it impossible to assume the offensive’ (38). Bukharin warned that he would fight against the inclusion of major tactical questions in the programme ‘with all the weapons at my disposal’ .(39)

Bukharin’s position had two fatal interconnected flaws. He believed that tactics, principles and strategy could be kept separate and that the programme only really required the explanation of principles and some general guidelines with regard to strategy. Thus principles explained capitalism and presented ‘a picture of communist society’(40). In fact Lenin, in the programme debate in the RCP opposed this painting of (abstract) pictures of communism. But for Bukharin such pictures were an integral part of his essentially passive propagandist conception of programme.

Flowing from this dislocation of tactics (by which we mean major tactics of the class struggle like the workers’ government, the fight to transform the unions, the general strike, etc) from principles Bukharin gave tactics an autonomous life. They were the product of ‘shifting ground’(41) and therefore change every five minutes. In fact this view of tactics is entirely opportunist. It leads to the use of tactics in a manner unconnected to a declared strategy.

This timeless view of programme led to Bukharin’s second error which was to conceive of the action programme as dealing with ‘purely tactical questions’. The revolutionary programme can never be purely tactical. The action programme is the elaboration of the tactics and strategy for the mobilisation of a section of workers, or the working class as a whole at particular junctures—economic chaos, the threat of fascism or Bonapartism, the revolutionary situation, the launching of a bosses’ offensive, etc—with the objective of developing the immediate struggle into a struggle for power.

As such, an action programme is not something separate from the general communist programme. It is an immediate programme that focuses the central elements of the general programme towards the tasks of the day. The communist programme includes the general call for soviet power. An action programme would seek to concretise that call in the given circumstances—for example the building of councils of action in the British general strike of 1926.

In this sense the action programme element of the general revolutionary programme is intimately tied to an understanding of perspectives. Dramatic, rather than momentary, transitory and ephemeral, changes in the world situation, the balance of class forces, call forth the need to alter the focus of the action programme element. To be blind to such changes and to hang on to programmes which are clearly tied to a specific perspective that has not materialised, is to repeat the errors of those who clung to the Erfurt Programme in the name of ‘orthodoxy’.

Testimony to the democratic nature of the Comintern at this time, was the unhindered opposition to Bukharin’s views, expressed by communists like Thalheimer, Varga and Radek. These men advanced a concept of programme far closer to that of Marx and Engels, than Bukharin. In his article ‘How to draw up the Programme of the Communist International’ the Hungarian Varga anchored the programme in the objective situation of capitalism. As such, he reasoned, the programme had to encompass developments in that situation if it was to serve as a guide to action:

‘We need a strategy that will not merely lay down principles of the working class struggle in general, but will apply particularly to the stage of world history in which capitalism loses its stability, and in which capitalist states, proletarian dictatorship, and countries with transitional forms of government, such as the Far Eastern Republic, exist side by side—a strategy that corresponds to the various stages that the proletariat has reached in various countries in its struggle for the capture of political power.’(42)

While it is true that Varga took too short term a view of the programme and had a questionable understanding of what constituted a ‘transitional’ government, his belief in the need for the programme to serve as ‘a weapon of struggle and not a text-book for the education of the Party members’ (43), placed him on the correct side in the debate with Bukharin.

Thalheimer developed, and indeed refined, Varga’s argument. He saw in Bukharin’s opposition to an action programme an opposition to transitional demands. As such he saw the danger of the programme being turned into a scrap of paper. In doing this, he rightly stated, the Comintern ran the risk of repeating the error of social democracy by separating transitional demands and tactics from the programme proper:

‘One need only look at the history of the Second International and its decay to realise that it was precisely this division of the tactical clauses of the programme from the ultimate aim which accelerated its deterioration into opportunism. How did this process start in Germany? With the Bernstein-Kautsky debates on tactics.’(44)

To Bukharin’s charge that this would overload the programme with tactical details and turn it into an encyclopeadia Thalheimer answered:

‘My answer to this is: we need not bring into the general programme nor into any national programmes the concrete everyday demands in all their details, but we must give the fundamental tactical rules, the tactical principles and the methods (if you will allow me to say so) from which all these concrete, separate demands may be unmistakenly drawn.’(45)

Thalheimer’s approach to the problem was far more concrete than Bukharin’s. He understood that the problem of the transition to revolution and the transition to socialism (after power had been conquered) were related, but not one and the same thing. For this reason he fought for the inclusion of transitional demands—in the sense of demands taking the masses towards revolution—as well as demands for the transition period when soviet power had been established. In this sense his concept of programme was more comprehensive, less speculative and transitory, than Varga’s. The programme had to be made up of constituent elements that sealed the party from the danger of opportunism, but which could be utilised in a different fashion in different circumstances. Thus, he argued:

‘A programme — and here I make use of a remark of comrade Luxemburg which seems to me to be most appropriate—must furnish a handle which may be grasped at in any essential transitional phase. A programme which leaves us in the lurch during such phases, or which can apply in some cases, but cannot be applied in others has but little political value.’(46)

The Centrist Comintern

Thalheimer moved close towards the concept of a transitional programme, but did not draft such a programme. The debate was not fully resolved at the Fourth Congress. On paper, at least, Bukharin’s position was defeated. The resolution of the Congress on the programme explicitly called for the inclusion of transitional demands and condemned ‘the attempt to depict the inclusion of transitional demands in the programme as opportunism’.(47)

At the Fifth Congress in June 1924 Bukharin held fire on transitional demands in the continuing programme debate. He paid little heed to this problem in his report to the congress, choosing instead to explain that the New Economic Policy (NEP), adopted as a tactical retreat by the Russian Communist Party in 1921, was now the ‘only correct economic policy for the proletariat’(48) in all countries. This was a clear indication of his rightward trajectory. In the debate, therefore, Thalheimer was able to simply re-iterate points he had made about the validity of transitional demands without really taking the development of a transitional programme forward. The full implications of the Comintern’s failure to resolve the programme debate at the Fourth Congress, and the failure of the Fifth to really take matters forward, were soon to be revealed by developments in Russia and Germany.

The aftermath of the civil war in Russia had left the land of the soviets exhausted. Economic dislocation had obliged a tactical retreat in the shape of the NEP, which allowed a degree of private enterprise within the peasant economy. But NEP also gave rise to a layer of NEP-men, middle men often within the party, who provided the material base for the growing bureaucracy within the party and state apparatus.

By 1923 the conservatism of this developing bureaucracy coincided with a mood of exhaustion amongst the revolutionary masses. Death, privation and the receding chance of a revolution in the west all contributed to this war-weariness amongst the masses. The necessary evil of the bureaucratised apparatus in the party and state during NEP was beginning to engulf and extinguish the revolutionary flame of Bolshevism. Lenin, despite illness, attempted to fight this process of bureaucratisation. Trotsky, hesitatingly at first, but soon determinedly, joined and continued this fight. Ranged against him was the triumverate of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, and later the Stalin-Bukharin bloc. The bureaucracy—represented essentially by Stalin—was, by dint of the exhaustion of the masses, gaining the upper hand in both the Russian Party and, through that, the Comintern.(49)

The year 1923 also saw a decisive development on the international plane. In the autumn of that year Germany was plunged into an economic crisis of enormous proportions. Trotsky saw in this and the extensive development of factory organisations of the proletariat, a profoudly revolutionary situation. The perspective of an armed insurrection in Germany was placed on the agenda. In fact the insurrection was called off by the Brandler/Thalheimer leadership of the KPD at the last minute. Their policies had, in fact, developed in an opportunist fashion. In particular they elevated, almost to a supreme principle, the tactic of the united front. Their dithering—a reflection of rightist tendencies—had catastrophic results. The revolutionary situation passed and the German workers paid dearly ten years later.

Trotsky, in his Lessons of October which concerned the German events, argued that the Comintern faced a generalised rightist danger. When the Russian leaders sought to scapegoat Thalheimer and Brandler, Trotsky argued that the Comintern leadership should share in their culpability. He saw the growth of a bureaucracy in Russia as an example of the generalised rightist trend. And that bureaucracy was injected with an essentially rightist (though he later recognised that the ‘bureaucratic centrism’ of the Stalinists included a capacity for ultra-left zig-zags) fear of revolution. Stalin’s letter to Zinoviev in August 1923 accurately depicts the hesitancy of the growing bureaucratic faction of the Russian party: ‘In my estimation the Germans must be restrained, not spurred on.’(50)

This hesitancy—conservatism as Trotsky correctly called it—was the beginning of the end for the Comintern. After the German defeat the triumverate and later the Stalin-Bukharin bloc led an onslaught on Trotsky and ‘Trotskyism’, which culminated in 1927 with the expulsion of the Left Opposition from the Russian party.

The Stalinisation of the Comintern was fought tooth and nail by the Left Opposition. Their defeat owed less to this or that error they committed and more, far more, to the favourable circumstances that facilitated Stalin’s rise to power—namely, the ebbing, internationally—of the revolutionary tide. Defeats in Germany (1923), Britain (1926) & China (1927) had a profound impact on the Comintern itself. With each defeat, the process of degeneration was deepened. The frenzied attacks on ‘Trotskyism’ increased.

The Sixth Congress

This process necessarily found a reflection in the programmatic development of the Comintern. In 1922 Bukharin’s scholastic attitude to the programme was decisively rejected. In the aftermath of the 1923-1927 events, it re-emerged and became the basis for the programme adopted by the Comintern in 1928.

The by now discredited Brandler did conduct a rear-guard action in defence of Thalheimer’s conception of a transitional programme in 1927-28. Brandler had proved himself a rightist. However, his right-centrism, contained within it some elements of the Marxist understanding of programme that were correct. Against the line of the Stalinised KPD Brandler argued for an action programme of transitional demands for the KPD. Arguing for demands based on the RILU’s old slogans of workers’ control (now derided as a ‘minimum programme’ by the Stalinists who were on the verge of an ultra-left turn) Brandler explained the way in which transitional demands could be utilised in a revolutionary fashion:

‘On the other hand a programme of action cannot be a mere collection of final slogans. It is the task of a programme of action to link up the daily demands with the final demands, to develop one from the other. The programme of action demands in addition to the daily demands (wages, hours of work, etc) a number of measures comprehensible to the masses of the workers based on their necessities, the realisation of which, however, denotes a revolutionary encroachment on the imperialist economic system and raises the question of the power of the bourgeoisie. They are transition measures, transition demands, but not in the sense of the Erfurt Programme which was to be realised within the bourgeois state; they are demands which in case of their realisation denote an advance towards the final aim and struggle.’(51)

The party leadership responded in an apparently left way. Control of production, they asserted, was only conceivable through proletarian dictatorship and should not be struggled for unless the dictatorship was on the order of the day. And they attacked Brandler’s conception of an action programme, repeating Bukharin’s 1922 position that an action programme was only a ‘tactical platform’(52). The fatal separation of tactics from the programme was taking place in the Third International as it had done in the Second, but via a different route and for different reasons.

The programmatic method of the Comintern found an adequate mouthpiece in the increasingly rightist Bukharin. While Stalin was soon to break with the right faction in the Comintern, in the programme debate at the Sixth Congress he made use of this faction. Bukharin’s scholastic approach to the programme had, as we have seen, the effect of reducing strategy and tactics to a distinct sphere. thus, the credentials of the Comintern leaders as communists could be gained through their declaration of loyalty to a programme that was nothing more than a catalogue of general principles. The real strategy and tactics of these leaders had revealed themselves in the degeneration of the Soviet State and the defeats of the world situation.

Yet in Bukharin’s draft programme (adopted in all essentials, at the Sixth Congress in 1928) the lessons of these world historic events are dealt with, if at all, in platitudinous terms. The hallmarks of Bukharin’s programme are its rejection of internationalism in favour of ‘socialism in one country’—the reactionary creed of the conservative bureaucracy—and its refusal to take the objective situation as its point of departure. Statements of principle abound in this miserable document. But a real estimation of the world situation finds no place. In 65 pages of turgid text only seven are reserved for strategy and tactics that are supposed to guide the communist parties. And in these pages precision and clarity are notable by their absence.

Transitional demands are referred to in the abstract and are confined exclusively to ‘a revolutionary situation’(53). The miserable pedantry and ultra-leftism (masking opportunism) of the German leadership, is reported by the express command that demands for workers’ control can only be advanced in revolutionary situations(54). With one stroke of Bukharin’s pen the accumulated wisdom of RILU and the healthy Comintern on this question, expressed in their resolutions, is deleted from the ‘communist’ programme.

Brandler’s right-wing trajectory rendered him incapable of building on the valuable points he made in his debate with the German leadership. His centrism severely limited his ability to advance any alternative to Bukharin. Like so many others in the Comintern he effectively capitulated to the accomplished fact of Stalinism. He was incapable of answering and fighting it. That task fell to the ‘outlawed’ Trotskyists.

Trotsky’s Critique

Trotsky’s refutation of Bukharin’s draft programme represented a continuation and defence of the conception of programme that had begun to emerge at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern. As such it constituted an essential building block for the development of the Transitional Programme itself.

Two aspects of Trotsky’s critique have a vital bearing on any attempt to develop the Marxist programme for today. Trotsky always rejected the creed of ‘socialism in one country’. In attacking this creed as it manifested itself in the draft programme, Trotsky developed the concept of the international programme. His basic line of argument, which remains true today, was that the imperialist epoch had so interwoven the world economy, that socialism in a single country, no matter which country, was a reactionary utopia. As such, the imperialist epoch had sounded the death knell for purely national programmes and national roads to socialism. The point of departure for a programme for a particular country had to be an international programme, and not the other way round:

‘An international programme is in no case the sum total of national programmes or an amalgam of their common features. The international programme must proceed directly from an analysis of the conditions and tendencies of world economy and of the world political system taken as a whole in all its connections and contradictions, that is, with the mutually antagonistic interdependence of its separate parts.’(55)

Only from such an international starting point could a strategy and tactics for a particular country be developed. Unless this was done, Trotsky warned, a social-patriotic break up of the Comintern was inevitable. His warning was not heeded and Stalinism did indeed suffer such a break up.

The second aspect of Trotsky’s critique, which has a profound importance for revolutionaries today, was his clear understanding that the programme had to be based on an extremely concrete assessment of the period, on clear-sighted Marxist perspectives. Like many of Trotsky’s epigones after the war, Bukharin and Stalin showed a disdain for perspectives in formulating their programme. They correctly asserted—in the period up to 1933 at least—that the imperialist epoch was an epoch of wars and revolutions. From this general characterisation of the epoch they formulated a perspective for all periods of imminent capitalist collapse and revolutionary crisis. In a way that anticipated the thoroughly false perspectives of the Healy wing of British Trotskyism, they saw reality as crisis and revolution. Stabilisation was ruled out as a possibility.

Many on the left today echo, in a modified form, this view of perspectives and programme. The two get confused—the perspectival assessment of a period gets confused with the programmatic understanding of the epoch. Crisis becomes a permanent and undeviating feature of every period. Trotsky hammered such a standpoint. He was clear that a prolonged period of stabilisation was possible as a result of the clash of real social forces producing a defeat for the masses. This, he argued, would require a return to a very basic, preparatory form of struggle in the working class. The programme of transition towards revolution would, in such a period, be rendered temporarily, and only temporarily, inoperative. Against the permanent crisis mongers he insisted that to deny the possibility that the bourgeoisie would be able ‘to secure for itself a new epoch of capitalist growth and power. . .would be mere revolutionary verbiage’ .(56) This flowed from his view—and from Lenin’s before him—that policy and programme were necessarily modified by periodic fluctuations in the economy and in the political situation:

‘The Leninist policy has nothing in common with liquidationism; but it has just as little to do with a disregard of the changes in the objective situation and with maintaining verbally the course towards the armed insurrection after the revolution has already turned its back upon us, and when it is necessary to resume the road of long, stubborn, systematic and laborious work amongst the masses in order to prepare the party for a new revolution ahead.’(57)

This did not represent a return to the method of the minimum programme. It simply recognised that, during certain periods, the demands directing the masses towards insurrection would give way to more immediate and preparatory demands—minimum demands if you like—for that period. The Transitional Programme did not abolish the minimum programme as some have suggested. It abolished the separation of the minimum programme from the struggle for socialism. Minimum demands do find a prominent place in certain periods, not as a substitute for transitional demands, but as a preparation for them, a means of marshalling the forces for carrying transitional demands forward in struggle.

The perspectival considerations that were part of Trotsky’s understanding of how to formulate a programme led him to resist all attempts to exclude from the programme the lessons of the preceding period as the basis for intervening in the period ahead.

‘But a programme of revolutionary action naturally cannot be approached as a bare collection of abstract propositions without any relation to all that had occurred during these epoch making years. A programme cannot, of course, go into a description of the events of the past, but it must proceed from these events, base itself upon them, encompass them and relate to them. A programme by the position it takes, must make it possible to understand all of the major facts of the struggle of the proletariat and all the important facts relating to the ideological struggle within the Comintern. If this is true with regard to the programme as a whole, then it is all the truer with regard to that part of it which is specifically devoted to the question of strategy and tactics. Here, in the words of Lenin, in addition to what has been conquered there must also be registered that which has been lost, that which can be transformed into a “conquest”, if it has been understood and assimilated. The proletarian vanguard needs not a catalogue of truisms but a manual of action.’ (58)

Bukharin had proffered a lifeless programme to the Comintern.Trotsky’s autopsy revealed his revolutionary grasp of the nature and role of a Marxist programme. It is a guide to action. As such it is a living, developing thing encompassing the lessons of the past so as to arm workers for the future. After the death knell of the Comintern was sounded in Germany by Hitler’s victory, Trotsky set about welding his followers into the Fourth International, which was to be founded on the basis of a new programme, the Transitional Programme.

1 L Trotsky, Writings 1937-38, p22 (New York 1976)
2 Ibid, p22
3 K Marx and F Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p92 (Harmondsworth 1967)
4 K Marx and F Engels, Collected Works (CW) Vol 6, p295 (London 1976)
5 Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, op cit, p104
6 Trotsky, op cit, pp23-24
7 K Marx and F Engels, Selected Works (SW) Vol 3, p433 (Moscow 1970)
8 The Erfurt Programme
9 Marx and Engels, SW Vol 3, p433
10 Ibid, p435
11 M Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938, p37 (London 1979)
12 K Kautsky, To What Extent Is The Communist Manifesto Obsolete?
13 Ibid
14 Ibid
15 The Erfurt Programme
16 K Kautsky, What Now?, (translated in Workers Action No 143)
17 R Luxemburg, 'Speech to party members in the 4th Berlin constituency', reported in Vorwaerts, 24 July 1913
18 R Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings, p380 (New York 1971)
19 Ibid, p385
20 Ibid, p387
21 Quoted in Salvadori, op cit, p226
22 V I Lenin, Collected Works (CW) Vol 4, p212 (Moscow 1960)
23 Ibid, p241
24 Lenin, CW Vol 6, p57
25 L Trotsky, Results and Prospects, pp210-12 (London 1962)
26 Lenin, SW Vol 3, pp198-99
27 Ibid, p212
28 Lenin, CW Vol 26, p171
29 Lenin, CW Vol 27, pp135-36
30 J Degras (ed), The Communist International 1919-43: Documents, p44 (London 1978)
31 Ibid, p249
32 Ibid, pp248-49
33 Ibid, p249
34 Workers Power, Marxism and the Trade Unions, p17 (London 1978)
35 Ibid, p19
36 Degras, op cit
37 The Bulletin of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, pp12-13
38 Ibid
39 Ibid
40 Ibid
41 Ibid
42 Communist International [the Comintern's discussion journal]
43 Ibid
44 Bulletin of the fourth Congress of the Communist International, p20
45 Ibid, p23
46 Ibid, p23-24
47 Degras, op cit, p446
48 Bulletin of the Fifth Congress of the Communist International, p139
49 For a full account of these developments see Workers Power/Irish Workers Group, The Degenerated Revolution, (London 1982)
50 M Shachtman, The First Ten Years of the Left Opposition, p13 (London, no date)
51 Communist International, Vol 5: No4, pp89-90
52 Communist International, Vol 5: No3, p74
53 The Programme of the Communist International, p61 (London 1929)
54 Ibid, p62
55 L Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, p4 (New York 1970)
56 Ibid, p64
57 Ibid, p117
58 Ibid, p79