Banksy: merge socialist theory with the workers’ movement

The importance of being programmed

Without a comprehensive, fully worked out programme there is no road map to socialism and beyond. Jack Conrad begins a short series of articles

Socialism cannot be delivered from on high. So, no socialism via a so-called good leftwinger getting their hands onto the bureaucratic state machine, winning over trade union officialdom, lifting into power a charismatic liberator or some confessional sect. Socialism is an act of self-liberation by the great mass of the working class for the sake of the great mass of humanity. The working class smashes the old state machine of the bourgeoisie, constitutes itself the ruling class and begins the transition to the communist mode of production. A necessary precondition being the fight for the most extensive democracy, a high level of class consciousness and, correspondingly, organising the working class into a disciplined political party.

Though it may appear paradoxical, that party is built top-down. Does that mean that the party we envisage - its proper name being ‘Communist Party’ - is going to consist of just a few thousand activists, managed, controlled and directed by a self-perpetuating central committee or an all-knowing guru? No, not at all, and that is why we consider the perspectives and political culture of groups such as the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Workers Revolutionary Party, etc, etc, so problematic.

No, what I mean by ‘party’ is the kind of mass organisation fought for by Karl Marx. At the Hague congress of the First International, held in September 1872, he moved a successful resolution which called for workers to form themselves “into a political party”. Otherwise the “working class cannot act as a class”.1 The kind of class party Marx had in mind was realised, in good measure, by the Social Democratic Party of August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Karl Kautsky. Although there were exceptions - such as the British Labour Party - most parties of the Second International took the German party, along with its Erfurt programme, as their template. Amongst them, of course, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (aka Lenin).

Lenin, it should be stressed, was perfectly candid about the debt the RSDLP owed to the German SDP:

... a few words are in order on our attitude to the Erfurt programme ... we consider it necessary to … bring the programme of the Russian social democrats closer to that of the German. We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely today, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.2

Later he advises those who want to “understand the whole of our programme” to

get hold of two pamphlets to use as aids. One pamphlet is by the German social democrat, Karl Kautsky, and its title is the Erfurt programme. It has been translated into Russian. The other pamphlet is by the Russian social democrat, L Martov, and its title is The workers’ cause in Russia.3

With good reason, Lars T Lih dubs Lenin a “Russian Erfurtian”.4

The parties of social democracy sunk deep social roots in the working class and through tireless, often heroic struggles managed to become a considerable material force in the politics of continental Europe: an achievement which rested in no small part on thoroughgoing internal democracy, the lively, frank and open debate of differences, and the considerable autonomy allowed to local districts and branches. However - and this is the main point here - these parties were built around their programmes. The first point of Lenin’s draft rules of the RSDLP reads: “A party member is one who accepts the party’s programme and supports the party both financially and by personal participation in one of its organisations.”5

There are, of course, those rank opportunists who know a smattering of Marx and gleefully quote his famous statement: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”6 But to field those words now, in a period of historic defeat, organisational fragmentation and theoretical confusion - well, that is to actually hold the movement back. No less to the point, these words of Marx are taken from the letter to Wilhelm Bracke - commonly attached to his Critique of the Gotha programme (1875) - where Marx eviscerates the compromising, the backtracking, the trading away of principled programmatic formulations by his comrades in Germany.

Needless to say, Marx fully appreciated the role and importance of programme - after all, he authored the Manifesto of the Communist Party and the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany. Then there was the International Workingman’s Association, the First International, Marx was responsible for its rules and fundamental documents. Marx was, in fact, a consummate writer of programmes: eg, the role he played in drafting the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. No, far from downplaying the need for a programme - and this is obvious with even a cursory reading of his Critique - Marx was striving to reorientate, to rescue, the proto-SDP programmatically.

It is doubtless true that a party should be judged primarily by what it does, rather than what its programme says. But a new party will be judged by its programme. And the Gotha programme represented a considerable retreat compared with the Eisenach programme.

A little background. The Social Democratic Workers Party was founded at Eisenach in 1869 under the leadership of August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Its programme had definite shortcomings: eg, it demanded a free people’s state and universal male suffrage. But there were also calls for the liberation of the working class, abolition of the standing army, establishing a people’s militia and the separation of church and state. It also constituted the SDWP as “a branch” of the First International - “to the extent that the associational laws permit”.7 Bebel and Liebknecht, note, both served lengthy prison sentences for membership of the International.

Contemporaries regarded the SDWP as a Marxist party. So everything the SDWP said and did in Germany reflected on the reputation of the Marx-Engels team in London. A reputation they were determined to uphold. Eg, Mikhail Bakunin attacked what he called Marxism in his Statism and anarchy, in no small part by laying hold of the real and imagined failings of the “duumvirate of Bebel and Liebknecht” and the “Jewish literati behind or under them”.8 The Slavophile Bakunin hated Germans and Jews with a horrible passion.

Anyhow, put together jointly by Bebel and Liebknecht, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the followers of the state socialist, Ferdinand Lassalle, the programme was to be presented to the unity congress of the two groups meeting in Gotha. After much haggling Marx’s comrades agreed a series of rotten compromises. Not only the “iron law of wages”, but other Lassallean drivel, such as “state”-financed industry and the claim that “all other classes are only a reactionary body”.9 The justification for making such compromises? The opportunist dictum of beginning where people are at and pursuit of the holy grail of ‘unity for the sake of unity’.

Disobeying doctor’s orders, Marx took to his desk to compose a furious commentary. He also offered the advice that, unless his alternative formulations - or something very much like them - were adopted, then it would be better, far better, for the SDWP and the Lassalleans to remain separate organisations and find issues where they could engage in common action. Rather disunity and maintaining principle than unprincipled unity. That was the thrust of Marx’s criticism, and yet, despite that, there still are those today - in the name of Marx - who seek to belittle the importance of establishing firm programmatic principles. Pathetic.

Unity and unity

Without a revolutionary programme there can be no successful socialist revolution. This truth cannot be insisted upon too strongly, especially at a time when: (1) the numbers committed to building a mass Communist Party remain tiny; (2) single-issue, anarchistic, ephemeral campaigns flourish; (3) much of the left remains trapped in confessional sects; (4) that, or with the soft left and refugees from the confessional sects, prime energies, loyalties and hopes are invested in Momentum, Forward Momentum, Momentum Internationalists, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Left Unity, Labour Left Alliance, Labour Representation Committee, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and other such broad-frontist organisations.

Communists aim for nothing short of an explicitly Marxist party - a mass Communist Party that is fit for the burning tasks of the 21st century: breaking the hold of the labour bureaucracy; transforming the trade unions; delegitimising the existing constitution in the popular mind; securing an active majority for socialism; winning working class state power and superseding the malfunctioning, ecologically destructive, historically exhausted system of capitalism on a global scale.

The working class has a vital interest in fighting capitalism and realising a communist society. The instinctive struggle for improved wages and conditions, the struggle for self-respect, the struggle for a better way of living propels, drives or at the very least tends to move the working class in that direction. So, looking to the future, we have every reason to be confident. Millions upon millions can be won to the cause of communism. In 1932, Bertolt Brecht put things like this in his marvellous little poem, ‘In praise of communism’:

It’s sensible, anyone can understand it.

It’s easy.

You’re not an exploiter, so you can grasp it.

It’s a good thing for you, find out more about it.

The stupid call it stupid and the squalid call it squalid.

It’s against squalor and against stupidity.

The exploiters call it a crime but we know:

It is the end of crime.

It is not madness, but the end of madness.

It is not the riddle, but the solution.

It is the simplest thing, so hard to achieve.

Yet Marxism, rightly, is spoken of as a science. After all, another term for it is ‘scientific socialism’. Marxism richly deserves that title, because it is solidly founded, rigorously logical and painstakingly developed.

Marx himself had to - and did - penetrate through the outer appearance of the capitalist mode of production, revealing its inner laws of motion and historical tendencies. It took him a lifetime to write Capital. (In fact, he was unable to complete even that study. Volume 3 was put together by Engels with only a few mistakes and, much more problematically, Theories of surplus value, volume 4, was originally compiled by Kautsky - Capital itself being part of a much bigger, multi-volumed project that would encompass “landed property”, “wage-labour”, “the state”, “foreign trade” and the “world market”.10)

While Marx and Engels undoubtedly possessed minds of the first order, they had to put in endless hours of study (not forgetting their leading role as practical organisers and revolutionaries, which immensely enriched their theory). As with Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein, their genius was 99% sweat. Likewise, explaining finance capital, the permanent arms economy, the ecological destruction resulting from production for the sake of production, the betrayal of social democracy, the contradictory role of ‘official communism’, the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe … none of that is “easy”.

Such phenomena have to be studied, grasped, in all their complexity, and answers transmitted with even more energy and imagination than displayed by physicists, evolutionary biologists and mathematicians. I emphasise the term ‘even more’, because Marxism is dedicated not merely to explaining what is: the goal is to completely transform what is. A task which Brecht, ending with a neat twist, called “so hard to achieve”.

So the mass Communist Party we envisage merges the working class movement with Marxist theory. Incidentally - and it must be emphasised - at this moment in time, though there are members of the CPGB, there is no CPGB. The Weekly Worker’s ‘What we fight for’ column says that, while there are “many so-called ‘parties’”, there “exists no real Communist Party”. One of those paradoxes which exist in the real world that causes endless confusion for those mired in formal logic.

While doing our best to support key strikes and mass movements, taking a disproportionately prominent role in all manner of unity projects on the left (and not forgetting the civil war raging in the Labour Party), we put the aim of establishing a mass Communist Party at the centre of our work. Today that means not only combining political education with ongoing class struggles. It means ending the debilitating disunity of Marxists, and would-be Marxists, their instrumentalisation, their maltreatment, their dumbing down by the countless confessional sects.

Instead we must secure solid, worthwhile, meaningful unity in a viable project for a mass Communist Party. Of course, it is no good just calling for ‘unity’. It is necessary to have a definite political programme. Without that there can only be unprincipled lash-ups, empty phrase-mongering and then, usually within a very short time, the inevitable floundering, break-up and bitter recriminations.


We have devoted some considerable time and effort to drawing up a Draft programme.11 Not to present others with an ultimatum, but as a contribution, a means of provoking thought, stimulating debate and, hopefully, facilitating serious negotiations. Nonetheless, we are proud of what we have produced.

There is nothing faddish, doctrinaire or myopic about our Draft programme. It is neither a litany of unfulfillable Keynesian nostrums - eg, Labour’s For the many, not the few (2017) or Tusc’s May 2010 general election manifesto12 - nor is it a sectarian confession of faith: eg, the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s Our object and declaration of principles13 or the Spartacists’ Declaration of principles.14 Nor is it a trite commentary that has to be constantly updated: eg, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and its Britain’s road to socialism.15

No, the communist programme stems from the needs of the real movement. Hence, firstly, the communist programme is a guide to action: ie, how to go about organising the working class into a political party. Secondly, the programme represents the crystallisation of our principles - spun not out of thin air, but derived from the accumulated theoretical knowledge and practical experience of the global working class.

The programme is thereby the foundation for the Communist Party. It links the everyday work of members with the goal of communism and full, collective and individual, human development. To use a well rubbed formula: the programme represents the dialectical unity between theory and practice. It thereby constitutes the basis for agreed actions. It is the standard, the reference point, around which the unity of communists is built, tested and strengthened. Practice teaches.

The Communist Party - organising the advanced part of the working class - formulates, agrees and adjusts the programme. But in many ways the Communist Party is in itself an outgrowth of the programme. Recruits are attracted to its far-reaching, inspiring, but theoretically well-grounded demands. Members are then trained, encadred, made into mass leaders by the struggle to realise those goals. In that sense the programme is responsible for generating the Communist Party. For certain, the main determination runs not from the needs of the organisation, but from the programme and its principles to the organisation and its membership.

Our Draft programme is as short and concise as possible. Everything that is not essential was deliberately kept out. Passing facts, prime ministers, presidents, opposition leaders, demonstrations, opinion polls and episodic alliances have no place in the communist programme. Engels, of course, himself urged exactly that approach: “All that is redundant in a programme weakens it”.16

No, our Draft programme, rightly, concentrates on principles and strategy. Particular tactics, theoretical and historical explanations - all that should be dealt with elsewhere: party meetings, articles in our press and on the internet, seminars, pamphlets and books. As we confidently stated back in 1991, it should follow that our programme “will therefore not of necessity need rewriting every couple of years, as with the programmes of the opportunists, let alone go out of date even before it has come off the press, as was the case with the CPB’s version of the BRS” (ie, the British road to socialism - the precursor of its Britain’s road to socialism).17

For our purposes Lenin provides a pertinent back-up:

The programme should leave questions of means open, allowing the choice of means to the militant organisations and to party congresses that determine the tactics of the party. Questions of tactics, however, can hardly be introduced into the programme (with the exception of the most important questions, questions of principle, such as the attitude to other fighters against the autocracy). Questions of tactics will be discussed by the party newspaper as they arise and will be eventually decided at party congresses.18

Evidently, the communist programme has a twofold function. On the one side, it presents chosen demands, principles and aims. On the other side, it charts an overall strategic approach to the conquest of state power, based on a concrete analysis of objective socio-economic conditions. Naturally, to state what should be obvious, we seek to navigate the shortest, least costly route from today’s cramped, squalid socio-political conditions to a truly human world.

Our programme owes nothing to holy script - it is not fixed, timeless and inviolate. On the contrary, given a major political rupture - eg, Brexit, the break-up of the United Kingdom and its historically unified workers’ movement, the abolition of the monarchy, etc - then various passages in our programme ought to be suitably reformulated; that or new sections added.

The programme must become the political compass for millions. As I argued a few years back:

Every clause of the programme must be easily assimilated and understood by advanced workers. It must be written in an accessible style, whereby passages and sentences can be used for agitational purposes and even turned into slogans.19

We have sought to learn from the best that history provides: eg, in my opinion, the Marx-Engels Manifesto of the Communist Party, the Erfurt programme of the German SDP and the first and second programmes of Russia’s communists. Of course, we have not mindlessly aped. Conditions in the UK, its history, economic peculiarities, specifics and, not least, its constitution and class structure must be taken into account.

Let me briefly describe the structure of our CPGB Draft programme. There are six sections, one logically leading to the other. Form and content being closely connected.

The opening section is a brief preamble describing the origins of the CPGB and the inspiration provided by the October 1917 revolution. We also, rightly, touch upon the liquidation of the CPGB by its various opportunist leaderships and conclude with the organised rebellion staged by the Leninist forces and the subsequent struggle to reforge the party.

The next section - the substantive or real starting point - outlines the main features of the epoch: the epoch of the transition from capitalism, by way of socialism, to communism. Then comes the nature of capitalism in Britain and the consequences of its development. Following on from here comes the economic, social and democratic measures that are needed if the peoples of Britain are to live a full and decent life. Such a minimum, or immediate programme is, admittedly, technically feasible within the confines of present-day capitalism. In actual fact, though, the minimum section of the programme can only be genuinely realised by way of revolution.

There will be those who might want to call some, or all, of the demands contained in this section ‘transitionary’ demands. I am fine with that. The real point though is the necessity of having a minimum programme. Those who reject the minimum programme, as Rosa Luxemburg did in 1918, disarm the party: “socialism”, she proclaimed, “this is the minimum we are going to secure”.20 In the midst of a revolutionary situation it is doubtless right to raise slogans such as “all power to workers’ and soldiers’ councils”. But if the revolutionary situation is drowned in blood and becomes a counterrevolutionary situation, what does the party then have to say?

From our minimum demands we move on to the character of the British revolution and the position of the various classes and strata. Marxists, let it be noted, do not consider non-proletarian classes to be one reactionary mass. Sections of the middle class can and must be won over. Next, again logically, comes the workers’ government in Britain and the worldwide transition to socialism and communism. Here is our maximum programme. Finally, the necessity for all partisans of the working class to unite in a Communist Party is dealt with. The essential organisational principles of democracy and unity in action are stated and we underline in no uncertain terms why the CPGB must combine unity in action with internal democracy and the open expression of differences.

SWP versus Marx

Though communists treat their programme with the utmost seriousness, talk to any SWP loyalist and I guarantee you that they will adopt a completely dismissive, even a hostile attitude, if you dare suggest that it would be a good idea to adopt a programme. There have been, thankfully, various members of the SWP who have agreed with us on this subject. But now, of course, they are ex-members.

Anyway, in justifying the SWP’s bizarre aversion to adopting any kind of rounded programme, its loyalists typically insist that a programme would be too rigid, inflexible and constricting. Chains and manacles are even referred to. Therefore, it supposedly follows, a programme is a horrible danger that must be avoided at all costs. To provide themselves with the sanction of ‘orthodoxy’, SWP loyalists will, yes, invoke the ghost of Marx and the “Every step of the real movement” statement. That is meant to clinch the argument. In fact, it does no such thing.

Neither Marx nor anyone standing in the authentic Marxist tradition has ever denied the necessity of a programme. It was the revisionist, Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932), who openly scorned the maximum programme and tried to theoretically justify elevating the organisation of the party into a thing for itself. Unconsciously this was echoed and turned into dogma by the SWP’s Machiavellian founder-leader, Tony Cliff. He routinely warned against adopting a programme. Gaining recruits and factional advantage was his sole guide.

Yes, a democratically agreed programme would have created intolerable difficulties for the SWP central committee and its many and sudden about-turns under Cliff. True, in the early 1950s, when his Socialist Review Group was deeply ensconced in the bowels of the Labour Party, Cliff agreed to a pinched, 12-point programme of “transitional demands”, which were meant to attract and recruit “individual” Labour and trade union activists:

1. The complete nationalisation of heavy industry, the banks, insurance and the land.

2. The renationalisation without compensation of all de-nationalised industries.

3. Suspend interest on the national debt. Compensation to ex-owners only as a result of an income test administered by elected workers’ committees.

4. A majority of workers’ representatives on all nationalised and area boards, subject to frequent election, immediate recall, and receiving the average wage obtaining in the industry.

5. Two or more workers’ representatives to sit on boards of all private concerns employing 20 or more people with access to all documents.

6. Workers’ committees to control hiring and firing and working conditions.

7. Abolition of payments for national health service and of private beds.

8. Establishment of principle of full work or full maintenance.

9. Sliding scale of adequate pensions, based on new and realistic cost-of-living indices.

10. Interest-free housing loans to local authorities and drastic powers to requisition and rent free, state-owned land.

11. A foreign policy based on independence of both Washington and Moscow.

12. Withdrawal of British troops overseas; freedom of colonial peoples and offer of economic and technical aid.21

It was Duncan Hallas who wrote and submitted the original “transitional programme” to the SRG. Cliff, however, ensured that it was stripped, shorn, of anything too radical: eg, the “overthrow of the Tory government by all the means available to the working class” and “defence of socialist Britain” against Washington and Moscow.

The inspiration was clearly provided by Leon Trotsky. Here, though, the ‘transitional method’ is taken to the point where democratic questions, both in the workers’ movement and society at large, go ignored, along with the attitude towards the middle classes. The tasks of the working class movement are reduced to trade union politics. As to the “final aim” of working class rule, socialism and the transition to communism, that is left to spontaneity. Hallas explains the duplicity involved. The “programme of demands” must be “made to appear both necessary and realisable to broad sections of the workers, given their present (reformist) level of understanding, but which in reality pass beyond the framework of bourgeois democracy. Naturally … [this is] only part (a fairly small part) of what we advocate.”22

With the Cliffite turn away from Labour Party deep entryism in the mid-1960s, economistic minimalism was abandoned for a heady brew of eclectic Luxemburgism and the International Socialists. Cliff sought distance from what then passed as Leninism and Trotskyism.

It is rumoured that in the early 1970s Cliff’s loyal lieutenant, Chris Harman, penned a draft programme. Needless to say, it never saw the light of day. From then on afterwards Cliff wanted nothing to do with anything that smacked of a programme - including a dishonest, severely limited, truncated, “transitional” one (that is, until two years before his death and the now totally forgotten and thoroughly minimalist 1998 Action programme).

I shall discuss this Action programme, along with Trotsky’s transitional programme (The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International, 1938), in the second part of this article.

Meanwhile, suffice to say, what went for Cliff went double for his chosen heir and successor, John Rees, especially with his Respect popular-front adventure. The modus vivendi of Respect was, of course, to unite “secular socialists with Muslim activists” on the basis of whatever it took to get local and national candidates elected.23 Much to the discredit of the post-Rees SWP, it has steadfastly refused to conduct any kind of autopsy into the Respect popular-front debacle. Indeed, the SWP central committee continues to blithely pursue an ever narrowing expediency.

Programmatically the organisation remains unencumbered - well, apart, that is, from its ‘What the SWP stands for’ column in Socialist Worker (and the slightly different ‘About us’ which appears in ‘SWP online’). Except for the most narrow-minded loyalists, it is clear that this thumbnail sketch contains little more than a few selected SWP shibboleths - there is no overall strategy.

  1. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 23, London 1988, p243.↩︎

  2. VI Lenin CW Vol 4, Moscow 1977, p235.↩︎

  3. VI Lenin CW Vol 6, Moscow 1977, p429.↩︎

  4. LT Lih Lenin rediscovered: What is to be done? in context Chicago IL 2008, p111.↩︎

  5. VI Lenin CW Vol 6 Moscow 1977, p474.↩︎

  6. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p78.↩︎

  7. ghdi.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=688.↩︎

  8. libcom.org/files/statismandanarchy.pdf.↩︎

  9. archive.org/stream/GothaProgramme/726_socWrkrsParty_gothaProgram_231_djvu.txt.↩︎

  10. K Marx Theories of surplus value part one, Moscow 1969, p14.↩︎

  11. CPGB Draft programme London 1995, 2011.↩︎

  12. tusc.org.uk/policy.php.↩︎

  13. worldsocialism.org/spgb/our-object-and-declaration-principles.↩︎

  14. icl-fi.org/english/icldop/index.html.↩︎

  15. Britain’s road to socialism (2020) is credited with being “up to the minute”. Therefore, almost by definition, like all previous versions it is instantly made outdated by the course of events. Take the November 1989 version. Its Labour Party road to socialism was premised on what was supposed to be the “decisively” shifting international balance of class forces. “Socialism” in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and China would allow a peaceful road to national socialism in Britain through the election of Labour, CPB and progressive MPs. Needless to say, when the CPB rewrote its programme in 1992, though the Soviet Union and the “socialist countries” in eastern Europe had to be crudely airbrushed out, the parliamentarism remained.↩︎

  16. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p220.↩︎

  17. J Conrad Which road? London 1991, pp239.↩︎

  18. Quoted in VI Lenin CW Vol 4, Moscow 1977, p238.↩︎

  19. J Conrad Which road? London 1991, pp235-36.↩︎

  20. M-A Walters Rosa Luxemburg speaks New York NY 1997, p413.↩︎

  21. Socialist Review Vol 1, No1, February-March 1953.↩︎

  22. grimanddim.org/tony-cliff-biography/duncan-hallas-and-the-1952-programme-for-action.↩︎

  23. Socialist Worker November 20 2004.↩︎