CPGB-AWL debate on the transitional method

Notes of the third, July 14, meeting between the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and the CPGB. Martin Thomas (MT) and Paul Hampton (PH) represented the AWL, while Mark Fischer (MF) and John Bridge (JB) spoke for the CPGB

T: The fundamental problem for revolutionaries is that we have to operate in struggles that are not in themselves revolutionary, but are limited or defensive. We must do so in a way that endeavours to transcend those limits, to point the way to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

In the minimum-maximum programme that became dominant in the Second International, the link between the present and future was the socialist party itself. It agitated on minimum demands, within the framework of capitalism by definition. The revolutionary implication of this activity was that it strengthened the party and its associated organisations, thus preparing for the day when capitalism collapsed and the party would be strong enough to take over.

The problem with this is, first, conservatism. Everything is contingent on the tempo of the organisational strengthening of the party. Thus, faced with a struggle that might put organisational strength at risk, the inclination was to be cautious. That was the reason why large sections of German social democracy capitulated in 1914. Opposition to the war would have injured the organisation as an organisation.

The other problem is that it has an element about it of doctrinaire socialism. The maximum programme is by definition the property of the party - does not come primarily out of the struggles of the working class, except to the extent that the class is under the influence of the party. The basic role of the party is to propel the party into power and then the party will implement its carefully worked out plan for 'socialism'.

You can find rough drafts of transitional demands in the writings of Luxemburg, and of Trotsky in 1905. Luxemburg also said in her speech on the Spartacus programme that the same method was in the Communist Manifesto, which can be debated. Certainly you can find it in Lenin's Impending catastrophe, written in 1917. This approach was developed systematically by the Communist International in its early years.

The idea was that communists intervene in struggles by trying to maximise the class struggle logic, the class struggle potential, in order to generalise them, to maximise working class control, the fight for the political economy of the working class. Whether you can do this in each and every struggle will depend on that struggle. To the extent the class is mobilised, there develops in practice a linked series of demands which can take the fight from the level of localised struggles for particular measures to a wider struggle which poses the question of the creation of workers' councils, control of production, state power, etc.

This conception was a huge advance in that it did away with the predominantly organisational view of the party and also the maximum programme being some doctrinal work by the party. It was simply the culmination of the sum total of transitional demands that takes you to that point.

This method was developed subsequently by Trotsky in material on the Action programme for France in 1934 and the Transitional programme in 1938. It contains a very crisp summary of the basic method and also some very valuable ideas on particular issues. What warped the question somewhat, particularly in 1938, was that the whole approach in the transitional programme is couched in terms of a particular perspective for world capitalism and the USSR. It drew a picture of capitalism in apocalyptic crisis. It seemed obvious that, at that time, for capitalism there was no way but down.

Also, there are problems with the picture it draws of the labour movement. Since 1923, Trotsky had been fighting to reorientate the revolutionary movement. Firstly, via the Left Opposition and its struggle within Comintern. Then after 1933, seeking to regroup large elements from Comintern and the left of social democracy. By 1938, the workers' movement had been crushed in a number of important countries. The Trotskyist movement was extremely isolated.

Trotsky points back to the experience of World War I. Principled socialists were very small in number and they had to construct an adequate cadre able, in the upheavals caused by the war, to link up with mass movements of millions. Zimmerwald had the perspective of winning over a large part of the membership of the social democratic parties. It actually happened essentially because of 1917.

By 1938 it all looked very different. The Stalinist parties were much more heavily controlled. They had been through the third period, the popular fronts. The idea of them suddenly turning around was much more far-fetched. Similarly the social democrats had been through decades of governmental power and had had their left splits in the 1930s. Given that, the whole perspective of the Transitional programme tended towards a tailing of spontaneity. Somehow the masses were just going to throw off these established parties and find the revolutionaries with a correct programme.

In some senses, Trotsky had no choice. There appeared to be no other alternative, apart from saying that socialism was off the agenda for a long time to come. In that case you would have to start from scratch. As it happened, that is the way things turned out, but to start from that in advance is another matter. There is an element of sense in the perspective that Trotsky advanced, although it was warped in important ways. More to the point though, after World War II it became fixed as a schema, a sort of magic talisman. The masses are meant to be always seething in revolt, always held back by treacherous leadership. The method became fetishised, giving a bad name to the document and the method.

It is not true that as a method it is tied to a perspective of immediate, apocalyptic crisis. In 1921, the transitional method developed out of an assessment of a relative stabilisation of capitalism, an ebb in the class struggle, so it is not just valid for revolutionary crises.

JB: On the Transitional programme itself, we also note its catastrophism, its bowing to spontaneity.

Looking back with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we can feel nothing other than sympathy with the dilemma faced by Trotsky in 1938 and with understanding as to why he produced the type of programme that he did. Revolutionaries were beleaguered, yet were facing a huge, imminent crisis. But if you were down to 2,000 genuine cadres across the face of the planet, as Trotsky thought, what else could be done?

Nevertheless, we have to have a very critical attitude, for all our sympathy and understanding. We find many of the same errors loyally repeated in the contemporary Trotskyite movement - both in left and right forms. On the one side, there is the 'revolution tomorrow morning' madness of Healyism. In another form, there is the notion that the job of revolutionaries is to tail the spontaneous economic struggles of the workers and give them a Trotskyite coloration. That can be seen in the SWP, in fact in most of the left, including the AWL.

As a result day-to-day struggles are substituted for programmatic vision. They thus repeat the fundamental flaw of Second International centrism - strike-worshipping on the one hand, while preaching a disembodied version of a future 'socialism' on the other.

Besides Marx and Engels, our lodestar is not the Transitional programme, but the classic minimum-maximum programme. Not the programme of the SPD, but how the Bolsheviks applied and developed the RSDLP programme from Two tactics to the April thesis. Our minimum programme is technically restricted to demands within the social parameters of capitalism - our demands are not technically incompatible with commodity production and the wages system - but they challenge their logic.

Thus, we take Comintern's slogan - 'Fight for what the working class needs, not what the system can afford'. This is the starting point of our approach on economic demands, for example.

We also look to the model of the Bolsheviks when we highlight democratic questions, and the importance they gave to constitutional demands: how the working class is ruled and how the ruling class rules over us. We regard this as of central importance. The key lesson of the Bolsheviks for us is their struggle to make the working class the hegemon for all democratic questions. Our minimum programme is not designed to strengthen capitalism. No, it is designed to make the working class a political class, the master of politics, because of the level and culture of its organisation and theory, and its ability through correct strategy to win allies around itself.

The comrades guided by the Transitional programme bow not only to trade union spontaneity on economic questions, but to bourgeois reformism/liberalism in the realm of politics. For example, almost without exception they all voted for the creation of the Greater London Assembly and a presidential mayor, they all voted for the Good Friday peace deal in Northern Ireland (with some honourable exceptions!), and they all voted 'yes' for the sop Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly.

Leaving such vital matters to the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie means that no independent working class voice is raised. The attitude of such comrades is that we should vote 'yes' for minor reforms handed down by the liberal bourgeoisie simply to get them out of the way, so as we can get onto 'real working class' issues. In our view, this approach negates the very reason the left exists - to train the working class in politics.

Thus, our minimum demands are related to our maximum demands. The emphasis on the fight for democracy under capitalism creates the conditions for democracy under socialism, which is not possible without democracy. The struggle for democracy in all spheres of life under capitalism is not something designed to protect or 'refine' capitalism today. Quite the opposite. It is designed to prepare the working class to be the ruling class tomorrow.

MF: Martin spoke about how some Trotskyist comrades took the word of the Transitional programme and transformed it into dogma, without understanding its method. It seems to me that the method itself is flawed. In periods that are not marked by huge crises and impending revolutionary upheavals, it actually lends itself to reformism. Thus, the Transitional programme is undoubtedly a revolutionary document, but, taken out of its particular historical context, its method per se is not revolutionary.

Comintern's approach - 'Fight for working class needs, not what system can afford' - is infinitely preferable. Clearly, such needs are defined socially - what is a luxury for the few one day becomes a necessity for the mass the next. So 'what we need' is a dynamic category - it constantly expands with productive technique itself. This method does not throw up some arbitrary set of demands, - but is linked to the reality of society itself.

Thus a sharp line of demarcation is drawn between our needs, our interests on the one side, and their profits, their system on the other. For example, we calculate a minimum wage not by posing just to the left of what the TUC or even the European Union currently think is 'decent'. We start from what is required by the class under the prevailing conditions in order to reproduce itself culturally and physically. Unlike the Socialist Party et al, we do not go around advocating a minimum wage that is actually below the level of subsistence.

Our approach challenges the logic of supposed common interests between our class and theirs. We formulate our minimum demands according to our needs, not the dictates of their system.

PH: It is not clear what you mean by substituting a programmatic vision for day-to-day struggles. Could you say what you mean by your "programmatic vision"? If it is the case that your programmatic method starts within the current boundaries of capitalism but you accept that this is not fixed, it is not clear how you can talk about the 'technical' boundaries of capitalism. Precisely because these things are fluid, there is a logic which flows from one particular demand to a higher, wider one. There is a dynamic relationship between one and another.

The virtue of the Transitional programme is the way is starts from today's conditions and today's consciousness, the state of the existing labour movement. This explains our disagreements on the Labour Party and its role in politics. It also colours what we say about 'high' political struggle. Discussions concerning the workers' government, the united front and so on are inextricably linked with discussions on the Transitional programme. Some of our differences may be located there.

The point about starting with existing consciousness and conditions is for revolutionaries to get to the cutting edge of the struggle. From your point of view, you believe the left should make more noise about the monarchy, the constitution and so on. That is a long way away from the method of the Transitional programme that attempts to locate the key issues in the class struggle. For example, the NHS.

The NHS is not an economic question per se, although there are economic issues contained within it. The fact that we use the demand for free healthcare is related to what you both refer to about needs. It is a political demand, but one which is a cutting issue for working people and the labour movement at this time. The struggles around the monarchy, or for a federal republic, are not in the same league.

It seems that you pick political issues that address questions of the state constitution, but that are not central to the class struggle at the moment. Nor are they likely to be the way in which you can link day-to-day struggles with wider questions of the state. This expresses the gulf between the minimum and maximum that the Transitional programme is trying to bridge.

MT: You talked about Two tactics. Don't you think Lenin modified his approach in the April theses and The impending catastrophe? The third congress of Comintern is fairly clearly in favour of transitional demands. What is your assessment of that?

The SWP is a bad example of the method of the Transitional programme. In fact they always repudiated the Transitional programme, although it has recently become operable again, apparently. But the SWP's basic position is that the whole programme thing is a waste of time. Their vulgarised version of transitional demands is basically something you can't get. If it's impossible, it's a transitional demand.

In The fate of the Russian revolution, there is a description of a discussion in the Trotskyist movement about democratic questions and their relevance to transitional demands. That reveals how democratic demands have been marginalised for a lot of the Trotskyist movement. What do you think of that?

JB: First, on the logic of struggles. Of course struggles do have a logic, but their outcomes very much depend on circumstances and leadership. The left seems to believe that wage struggles of themselves have an anti-capitalist, pro-socialist logic, if pushed far enough. Unless such struggle become consciously political, consciously engaged with the state, then inevitably what results is the reproduction of forms of bourgeois consciousness in the working class. It is a circular process, no matter how militant the struggle.

Now, 1938 is located in a definite period, one of capitalist general crisis and the onset of world war. But if we live in a situation where capitalism is not just about to collapse, where it is possible to systematically raise the living standards of the masses and enact a raft of social reforms, as happened for a whole period after World War II, then the call for a sliding scale of wages hardly seems to us a "cutting edge" demand.

On the Labour Party. We're talking about programme. Programme is not about addressing the tactical slogans and minutiae of the day. Programme is about strategy. What is capitalism? Where does Britain stand in the imperialist system? Does globalised capitalism negate demands for reform? What are the mutual relations between the classes? What vital democratic questions have to be mastered in order to transform the working class into the ruling class? Thus, we would not address Blairism and NHS funding in a programmatic document, although our programme informs our attitude to both.

In our draft programme, we state that positively overcoming the Labour Party - a bourgeois workers' party - is a strategic task for the working class in Britain. You would agree with us on that, one assumes. Thus, we have no problem with voting Labour under certain circumstances, in taking out membership, or standing against it. Tactically our approach must be very flexible.

Of course, Lenin modified his views on Two tactics. He openly said so. Life, as it does, moves on and creates new challenges and new power relationships, which demand new answers. In 1917 he called for 'all power to the soviets'. In that respect 1917 was a modification of 1905 - that was the word both VI Lenin and Martin T used. What most Trotskyites say is that Lenin broke from his previous perspectives. Obviously, he did not. 'All power to the soviets of workers, soldiers, peasants and Cossacks seems to me a concretisation of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.

Didn't Trotsky refer to this debate in his Permanent revolution? Doesn't he dismiss the juxtaposing of Results and prospects and Two tactics as sterile or crude Stalinite invention? It was all enveloped in factional spleen. Doesn't Trotsky insist that Lenin's strategic perspective coincided with his own? Doesn't Trotsky point out that Lenin in 1907 used the exact formulation of the proletariat leading the peasantry in any revolutionary dictatorship? When some stupid critic accused Lenin of employing a 'Trotskyite' formulation, he bluntly replied that this is what he had been calling for all along.

Fundamentally, in terms of strategy for the Russian Revolution, the differences between Trotsky and the Bolsheviks were ones of nuance and opposed factional interests.

The hidden agenda behind the false claim that Lenin 'broke' from his previous strategic approach to revolution in 1917 is the idea that he was abandoning his previous stress on democracy, on politics and on the active fight for revolutionary consciousness. The Transitional programme substitutes spontaneity and relies on an apocalyptic collapse of capitalism instead of the battle for democracy. This is why defence of Two tactics and Leninism in general is important for us.

No-one is saying the struggle around the NHS is unimportant. On the other hand, some of your comrades - including leading ones, who should know better - appear to believe that Scotland and the national question in Britain is an irrelevance or of only minor importance. This was sadly illustrated when we were invited to debate with your organisation on Scotland and your comrades then castigated us for not rabbitting on about the NHS! That's our experience of the left in general.

We have pointed to obvious developments: eg, Blair's rigged referendum in September 1997, the Holyrood parliament, the Scottish National Party and its standing in the opinion polls, how the Scottish Socialist Party panders to nationalism and promotes separatism. Clearly something is going on. There is a national question. Yet the left tells us that we are Menshevik stageists, or Scottish nationalists, or that the question is a figment of our imagination.

In fact, most on the left here in Britain are strikeists or economists - they give economic struggle a socialist coloration. Menshevism would be a step forward by comparison. At least the Mensheviks had politics - they began as Iskraists: ie, staunch opponents of economism.

The similarity that does exist between the economistic left in Britain and the Mensheviks is that you both have a mechanical view that democracy equates with the bourgeoisie and its revolution.

PH: Do you think the bourgeois revolution in Britain has been completed? Are you Nairnites?

JB: No. Our view is that there are huge democratic deficits in Britain because it is a class-divided society. The job of the working class is to lay hold of consistent and substantive democracy as a proletarian weapon in order to liberate itself. We would criticise some of Lenin's formulations on this question. He sometimes equated democracy with the bourgeoisie. His basic categories on this question were taken from Second International orthodoxy and were wrong.

Nevertheless, to his credit, Lenin did then say that the bourgeoisie in Russia was miserable and cowardly: therefore the working class must do the business. The 'bourgeois' revolution was to be a peasant revolution led by the proletariat. 'Bourgeois' only applied to the social parameters of the immediate post-revolutionary period. Commodity production and wage labour would remain: in fact, they would be strengthened, albeit under the revolutionary dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry. We take Lenin's stress on democracy and working class hegemony and generalise them. The bourgeoisie has never had much to do with democracy historically. Cromwell, Washington and Robespierre were inconsistent democrats at best. Today neither capital nor the bourgeoisie are democratic: in Britain only the proletariat is democratic.

MF: There is a check-list which some would apply to what they call 'bourgeois democracy' - freedom of the press, universal suffrage, etc. In fact the parameters of democracy that we see in contemporary society have been achieved as a result of struggle. The other approach is a determinist, mechanical one. It assumes that these boundaries are somehow immanent in capital itself, that, once unleashed, a 'normal' capitalist society will assume the features we see in countries such as Britain, the US and France.

The elements of control we have from below today, the democracy of this society, is the result of class struggle. It is an indicator of the balance of power between the two main contending classes. That equilibrium can be upset as a result of defeats and victories. We believe we are in a period of reaction of a special type in which the proletariat has practically disappeared as a political class. Thus, we see many encroachments into hard won rights. We are unable to adequately defend what we have gained.

This all relates to the nature of capitalism as a system. We reject the idea that there is a model of democratic norms that go with the 'bourgeois' revolution. The English revolution was a result of a particular unique constellation of class forces in the countryside. Elsewhere, capitalism was often introduced from above, by the old state apparatus, as a conscious response to the dynamic new system in England. The real world does not correspond to the crude model held by some Marxists, where a rising industrial bourgeoisie overthrows an old feudal regime and introduces capitalism as a mode of production along with a political system commonly called 'bourgeois democracy'.

Thus, we see no automatic identification between the bourgeoisie and democracy. Capital is interested in democracy and freedom for capital, certainly. But that hardly equates with universal suffrage, a free press, an independent judiciary and so on. Fundamentally, the fight for democracy must be tied to the working class and its struggle.

PH: I still need a bit more clarity. When you set out what you call your programmatic vision, you said that you look back to the 'minimum-maximum' model. You describe the minimum as demands that are within the technical parameters of capitalism. These include economic demands, but then you go on to discuss the issue of economic demands and what you see as their role in politicising the working class.

OK, but then there is still this gap between the mini and the maxi. What I'm curious to find out is whether the party is the bridge, as it was for the Second International.

Then there is the question of the wider labour movement. The broader issue the transitional method raises is the relationship between the party of revolutionaries and the class. The key is having demands, campaigns, and mobilisations that take the class forward. Transforming the labour movement does not mean for us that the party is built separately from the trade unions and the Labour Party. Actually, the fight to build the revolutionary party is integral to transforming that existing movement. Although there is nothing wrong per se with anything you said on the Labour Party, what still concerns me is what you would say about working class representation, your assessment of what we say on the workers' government. Again, that seems to us consistent with what we say on the Transitional programme.

My impression is that there is still this sense in the CPGB of the party being the bridge. That would be very different to our conception of transforming the labour movement and how we get from here to the revolution.

MT: The economists that Lenin polemicised against in What is to be done? had a crude approach. Basically, they said, 'Let's involve ourselves in the workers' movement, put forward economic demands and leave questions of political democracy to the liberal bourgeoisie.' Eventually socialist consciousness will arise spontaneously out of the struggles of the working class itself.

On the contrary, Lenin said, the working class cannot be a revolutionary class unless it takes up all these questions of democracy, unless it makes itself the tribune of the oppressed.

It is possible to read Lenin's polemic in a one-sided way. Approached in this narrow way, one might believe it is the job of the party to come along to the working class and tell them, 'OK, economic demands are all very well, but what about Scotland, what about the monarchy, what about minority rights and so on?' That is, the party counterposes itself to the spontaneity of the working class.

Firstly, these economic struggles were not that 'spontaneous'. It is a crude model to say - economic demands equal spontaneity; democratic demands equal politics. The Bolsheviks were very concerned that the working class should take up these democratic issues in its own way - as with every issue, in fact, including economic questions. However, I can see how a particular reading of What is to be done? can lend itself to a downplaying of the struggle for economic demands.

Of course, we do agree about the importance of democratic demands and recognise that many groups on the left fail to address them seriously. But this is not the thing that the party has to bring from 'outside' to the spontaneous struggles of the proletariat. I don't think it is true to say that wages struggles cannot become socialist struggles unless they become consciously political, unless economic demands are somehow supplemented by demands about Scotland and Wales, or the monarchy.

There is something in economic demands that, if generalised, can acquire a political character. Read Rosa Luxemburg on 1905, for example. She shows a constant interpenetration, an interweaving of economic struggles with the political. Through the generalisation and development of the economic struggle, you have the development of workers' councils. You have a mass strike movement that paralyses the economy, posing the need for the working class to take the running of society into its own hands.

Economic struggles thus have a logic that points in the direction of becoming a conscious, socialist struggle for state power. This is because the struggles around the basic contradiction in society - that between capital and labour - tend, as they become more general, to organically pose going beyond capitalism itself. Look at the miners' strike of 1984-85, for example.

MF: We don't deny that a serious, strategic struggle on the wages front or against pit closures will come up against the state. But then, if you look at the miners' Great Strike, you see precisely the problem we are pointing to.

Because the miners were unable to go beyond the boundaries of fighting for solidarity against the decimation of 'their' industry, precisely because they were not able to constitute themselves as political working class activists, they were defeated. Sure, because of its scale, the strike took on certain political characteristics. Still it was defeated - we need to look at those struggles we win and how we win them.

That's why we put so much emphasis on the experience of the Bolsheviks - because they were successful. Of course they supported and participated in spontaneous economic struggles. But their basic orientation was to organising the class to make a conscious working class intervention into the politics of contemporary society. That is the key lesson we draw.

MT: But there is no revolutionary potential in giving prominence to the question of Scotland, for example. Ireland and Palestine are different in that these are important, real democratic questions that have been spontaneously raised by mass movements.

We should not mechanically counterpose aspects of our programme to the real movement of the class. We are its collective memory rather than its 'teacher' in that sense. This is precisely why the Third International contrasted its - transitional - approach to that of the pedantic sectarianism of Lassalle.

Of course, we don't wait for spontaneity. As revolutionaries we agitate on questions of economic inequality in the here and now. We attempt to spark action and movement.

Again, the nationalist struggle of the Northern Irish catholics does not have a socialist potential. The struggle round wages, however, if generalised, does have the potential to organise the class for itself. This is not a case of re-inventing economism.

JB: There is no logic vis-à-vis Scotland, nor any democratic or economic question per se, that leads towards socialism. Look at the vote. It could have been won from below, via the revolutionary struggle of the Chartists. Instead, it was granted to a tame working class from above as a means of integrating them into the British empire system. One road posed revolution; the other road a means to put off revolution.

What about Scotland - isn't this a living democratic issue? The Scottish National Party might become the biggest party in the next Holyrood elections - are we inventing the question? Our class and our movement needs the right answers. The key is not to talk about self-determination in Scotland, but to educate the working class in England to take up the demand as their own.

MF: In practical terms, how have you in the AWL fought for Scottish self-determination? At the time of the referendum on Blair's proposals for a parliament, you advocated a 'yes' vote, with the proviso that it would not solve the real problems of the Scottish people and that 'proper working class' demands would have to be forced on to it - that is, wages, the NHS and the like.

Quite apart from your very narrow definition of what constitutes working class demands, how can you stand for Scottish self-determination, and then vote for a constitutional sop that denies this very right?

PH: JB has evaded the question. Yes, there is a living struggle in Scotland, therefore we address it. We address other similar questions like Ireland or Palestine.

It is correct to bring up the Scottish question to educate English workers - but why give it the prominence you do? What makes you decide to place such emphasis on the question? Surely the prominence we give to particular questions has to be related to their resonance in the class itself?