Friday, 10 May 2013

Is a transitional programme still relevant today?

In the socialist party we have a basic programme of key transitional demands which we raise within the labour movement and at various times raise as key demands that workers can take up and take on and will lead them to the conclusion that there is a need to change society that is the basic outlook of a transitional demand. They are constantly changing as the situation and current consciousnesses changes too. I thought I’d look at what others are saying about a programme and the need for one and whether we are still right to hold to such demands as Marxists today. In the weekly worker the CPGB publication they take up the look at left unity and Nick Wrack’s contribution to the need for a new party of the left. As they go through this they look at the transitional programme parties on the revolutionary left claim to uphold and take a look at things. They write and I quote In terms of its fundamental propositions Marxism is extraordinarily simple. Marxism can be grasped by anyone. Marxism can be summed up by saying that the working class needs democracy in the state and its own organisations, that the whole of society must be run from below according to the principle of need, not profit. That is easy to understand. But in terms of building a Marxist party we must begin in a fundamentally different way. A Marxist party is not built on the basis of going out and getting thousands of signatures. Nor is it built through activity for the sake of activity. Nor is it built by smoothing over differences, fudging the 20% where we differ in favour of unity around the 80% where we agree (or some such other rotten formulation). The Marxist party is built top-down. It is built through the struggle for the correct theory and the correct politics. It is built around its programme. Not, it should be emphasised, the programme of warmed over social democracy. But the sort of minimum-maximum programme the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party had. In other words, not a confession of faith, but a statement of basic principles and a practical, testable, road map which can take us from the hell hole of capitalism to the high heavens of communism and human liberation. So Marxist parties must be built top-down, around a historically informed and fully theoretical programme. The CPGB has its Draft programme, and the word ‘draft’ is not used accidentally. It is there in order to make a very important point. We may have the name, Communist Party of Great Britain, but we are not a party. The word ‘party’ is derived from ‘part’: i.e., part of the class. And a Marxist party must by definition be based on the advanced part of the working class. At present the CPGB is simply one of many different groups on the left and, even if the existing left was to unite into single organisation, in itself that would not constitute a party in the genuine sense. Our Draft programme is actually what we bring to all unity projects. We do so not as an ultimatum, but as a contribution. For example, comrade Wrack says he agrees with much of it, but does not particularly like some of the language. Well, we are not precious about that. If he disagreed with its internationalism and the need for a pan-European strategy, then we would have a furious argument ... an argument that could continue and gain full clarity within the space of a single organisation. All we would demand is the unrestricted right to combat and defeat all forms of opportunism: egg, Stalinism, British nationalism, left economism, general strikism, pacifism, etc. So the Marxist party begins with the programme. Some people say that such an approach is sectarian, excludes anarchists, syndicalists and Labourite nostalgics, and is therefore bound to fail. Well, one of the advantages of studying history is that you can learn to avoid making the same mistakes again and again. However, far from providing only negative lessons, history also provides positive ones - which we must always treat critically, in context, and never mindlessly copy, of course. That said, if we apply the positive lessons of the past to our current political impasse then perhaps we can find a way forward that will bring victories instead of yet more heroic defeats. I am thinking in particular of the mass parties of social democracy and the unity symbolised by the Second International. Not the social democracy that treacherously voted for war credits in August 1914, but the social democracy that became a mass movement across the whole of Europe, to the point where in Germany it became a ‘state within a state’. A model that was applied in Russian conditions by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. It is a myth that Lenin ‘broke’ with the SPD model in 1914 or 1917. In fact, October 1917 was the vindication of the correctness of that model. We can argue about the particulars of the SPD and the RSDLP. But what is unarguable is that they were successful in organising the advanced part of the working class and through that not only in leading the mass of the working class, but other sections of the population too (crucially, in Russia, the peasantry). That success did not come from watering down principles, from fudging differences, from unity for the sake of unity. No, in the last analysis it came from the Marxist programme. I shall now turn to what frequently excuses and certainly explains the all too common rightism of the left. Whether it be the SWP’s Alex Callinicos, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Sean Matgamna or Peter Taaffe of the socialist party , they all say that are guided by what they call the ‘transitional method’. The ‘transitional method’ is widely held on the left to be the highest achievement when it comes to programmatic demands. In fact, it represents a regression to a pre-Marxist conception of revolution. It certainly owes something to the anarchism of Mikhail Bakunin and general strikism. Anyway, I can well understand Leon Trotsky coming out with his Transitional programme in 1938. He knew that the world war was looming. He had seen what had happened in Spain. He knew that humanity faced the threat of fascist barbarism. But how many people were organised under the banner of the so-called Fourth International? It was smaller in global terms than the left is today in Britain. In the absence of real forces Trotsky turned to spontaneity. Out of desperation he proposed that if his comrades put forward ‘reasonable’ demands, such as resisting factory closures and pay cuts, then in the fight to realise those ‘reasonable’ demands the logic of struggle would take the working classes one step at a time from the politics of the defensive to the politics of the offensive. Through that process the working class would eventually find its way to power. That is basically what the much vaunted ‘transitional method’ amounts to. Here is the logic that says resisting cuts, fighting for pay demands, mobilising to save the NHS are revolutionary. Hence what the working class needs is not Marxist consciousness, not Marxist theory, not a Marxist programme, but protests, strikes, occupations. In a word, action. Of course, no Marxist would oppose resisting cuts, striking for pay demands or fighting to save the NHS. But we do emphasise consciousness and therefore polemics and the struggle of ideas. In many cases the ‘transitional method’ results in what I would call honest rightism. Nevertheless, even the most honest rightism is thoroughly elitist. So-called ‘ordinary people’ are treated as if the only thing that motivates them is wages, conditions and the NHS. The implication is that they are incapable of anything higher and therefore the members of the revolutionary sect, especially when they are enlodged in trade unions, reformist parties and protest campaigns, should lead them by the nose, should not confuse them with factional arguments, should keep any differences safely behind locked doors. Only the members of the elect are really aware of what is going on and where things are expected to go. As I say, I can understand why Trotsky put forward such a perspective in 1938. But it did not work, it will not work, it cannot work. No, we have tell the working class the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Sometimes that will involve difficult concepts, obscure references and fine nuances. That is why Marxists place such stress on theory. As Lenin once famously said, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” So we in the CPGB do not consider theory as some kind of hobby for intellectuals. The working class needs theory as much as the body needs food and drink. So, when it comes to the nature of the Soviet Union, this is no side issue. There are those who say it was just state capitalism. If that was the case, what happened in 1991? Did the USSR go from capitalism to capitalism? If so, what was all the fuss about? What about the ‘degenerate workers’ state’ theory. Was Stalin’s mass murder regime really an example of the working class in power? Was Brezhnev’s USSR really a ‘planned’ economy superior to capitalism? What about those who remain with the Stalinite tradition and say that China, North Korea and Cuba are conquests of the working class? Do such people have anything in common with Marxism apart from a few deracinated phrases and slogans? These and other questions will not only be asked by our class enemies. They will be asked by intelligent members of the working class and we must have full, frank and honest answers”. To this I would reply I agree with a lot of it but not all. I do think Trotsky’s transitional programme is still relevant today as it aims to raise workers political consciousnesses but I am still unconvinced it can lead to over throwing the system. As the piece above states it is a guide a way of leading workers by the nose but will it ultimately give them the confidence to go on and to start running society on socialist democratic lines? This awaits to be seen. I think as Marxists we put a lot of emphasis on building for demonstrations strikes and the like which is all well and good but we also must not loose sight of our eventual goal of fighting for the best reforms but still explaining to workers the truth that reforms under capitalism are only ever temporary. I like the weekly worker not for its so called bitchy comments about other sects but its approach to theory and understanding the process’s going on. Not just detailing what strikes have happened this week but detailing how we can go beyond that and what Marxism really means to us and the working class itself. Marxism is only ever a guide it’s not a set of actions we must carry out to fulfil socialism it’s a guide to action and theory is something we must always pay close attention too. I feel sometimes we who call ourselves Marxists today fail to really pay enough attention to theory as we ought to. Theory is hugely important and should not be dismissed as naval gazing as some comrades seem to think. Its important to arming ourselves and the working class with the ideas of Marx, Engel’s , Lenin and Trotsky for the future ahead. To learn the lessons and to avoid the mistakes of the past. With thanks and extracts from Jack Conrad’s piece at

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