The League’s old motto of “All men are brothers” was replaced with “Working men of all countries, unite!”

The importance of being programmed (part 3)

When it comes to political principles, writes Jack Conrad, broad is bad, mass is good

Almost without exception the left pays fulsome tribute to the Manifesto of the Communist Party, aka the 1848 Communist manifesto authored by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Take Chris Harman, editor of Socialist Worker, first between 1975 and 1977, and then again from 1982 and 2004. He wrote a glowing introduction to the 2003 Bookmarks edition. Revealingly, however, he could not bring himself to call it a programme. Instead, throughout, he deceitfully, sneakily, guiltily, uses the studiedly neutral term, “pamphlet”.1 No matter of mere semantics.

The Manifesto, “a detailed theoretical and practical programme”, was commissioned by the Communist League in June 1847 and agreed by its London congress in November 1847.2 Using breathtaking, almost poetic-prose, it outlined a new, materialist world outlook, highlighting winning the “battle for democracy” and the centrality of proletarian self-liberation for communism. The League’s old motto of “All men are brothers” was replaced with “Working men of all countries, unite!”

The Socialist Workers Party is programmophobic - at least when it comes to the programmes of classical Marxism. For a rank-and-file member to advocate that the SWP debate and agree a Marxist programme is to be regarded as suspect, invite ostracism and being eased out. But without the ‘encumbrance’ of such a programme, the likes of Tony Cliff, Chris Harman, John Rees, Lindsey German, Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber and Martin Smith were free to pursue whatever zig or zag that took their fancy.

The 2010 general election saw the SWP standing candidates under the umbrella of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. The stated goal of Tusc’s initiator and main driving force - the Socialist Party in England and Wales - was to gain trade union sponsorship. Towards that end, “the trade union leaders that are involved in Tusc have a veto over what’s decided … in other words they have ownership of Tusc.”3 At its giddy heights that meant ownership was vested in the RMT rail union and the POA prison guards’ union. A Labour Party mark two on a Lilliputian scale.

An obvious problem. Trade union leaders often enjoy a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Mick Cash, RMT general secretary, has an annual salary of around £162,000. That puts him firmly amongst the top 2% of earners.4 Then there is RMT senior assistant general secretary Steve Hedley, who brings home some £105,500, and assistant general secretary Mick Lynch (£90,307). President Michelle Rodgers’ “allowances and expenses” total £57,401.5

Of course, they are amongst the most militant trade union leaders in today’s Britain. Whenever possible they seek to advance the pay and conditions of their members. Nonetheless, their role is to mediate between labour and capital. To do that they have to closet themselves off in negotiations with Network Rail, Stagecoach or the DfT and at some point reach a compromise deal. In effect then, they are merchants haggling over the price of labour-power. The danger is that even outstanding trade union leaders become managers in their own right. Some, because of particular attributes, do not fit neatly into the groove. In the general run of things, though, the great bulk of trade union officials consider their position a rung on what is a lucrative career ladder. The union is there to serve them. The fat salary, the generous pension plan, the well located London flat, the swish car - all are jealously guarded, along with the power, the patronage and the numerous other perks that come with the job.

That is why Marxists speak of a trade union bureaucracy - a caste which exists within, but does not point beyond, the capitalist system. By material interest, social location and political instinct trade union leaders, almost as a body, willingly integrate themselves with the state, and not only under the supposedly more benign conditions provided by a Labour government: registration with the certification officer, legal services for individual members, postal ballots, employment tribunals, the arbitration service, government consultations. At moments of acute crisis the trade union bureaucracy reveals itself as one of the system’s principal walls of defence.6

It is not that the trade unions can do without an apparatus. That is impossible for organisations of tens or hundreds of thousands. But the trade unions can do without a self-serving apparatus. The growth and success of the Communist Party alone provides the sure, workable solution here. It is not a matter of substituting a ‘bad rightwinger’ with a ‘good communist’. That would be naive in the extreme. Too many ‘good communists’ have become corrupted, and incorporated into the trade union bureaucracy over the years.

We in the CPGB have a twin-track approach: on the one hand, restore, extend, maximise democracy within the trade unions: this facilitates, sharpens the battle of ideas, and provides the best conditions to build the membership, strengthen combativity and raise the political level; on the other hand, the Communist Party must closely watch, and exert tight control over, its own members who have been elected to trade union positions (the same goes for councillors, MSPs, AMs, MPs, etc).

Only with this dual approach can trade unions really be won “to work for the supersession of the capitalist system by a socialistic order of society” (RMT rule 1.4b).7 And to guard against careerism, naturally, the take-home pay of all elected party members must be capped to that of, say, the average skilled worker (the balance being donated to the movement). Our own full-time staff, it should be added, are expected to survive on a relative pittance.

Crucially, though, we insist on upholding programmatic principle, facilitating open polemics and ensuring the election and recallability of leaders. That is not a guarantee against bureaucratisation, but it does provide the best conditions to fight, to push back against, to overcome such inevitable tendencies.

With Tusc we saw a mirror image. While Tusc provided trade union bureaucrats with a platform to burnish their leftwing credentials, it did nothing to challenge either their power or their privileges. How could it? Trade union officials “own and control”. The SWP and SPEW therefore willingly constituted themselves not as the socialist vanguard, but as foot soldiers of the trade union bureaucracy.

Before Tusc there was Respect, the brainchild of the dynamic duo of John Rees and Lindsey German. With Tony Cliff safely dead and huge numbers having turned out for demonstrations against the Iraq war, they led the SWP into a popular front party (parties being, of course, potential governments). Respect was designed to unite the SWP, George Galloway, the Muslim Association of Britain and a layer of British-Asian businessmen. The dynamics, the very nature of such cross-class projects, mean, however, that it is the right wing - even if it is a mere shadow - which, overtly or covertly, sets the political limits. Failing that, they simply walk.

That is the proven experience of the much more substantial popular fronts put together by the ‘official communists’ in the 1930s. The presence, or courtship, of the Radical Party, Republican Union, Liberal Party dissidents, religious high-ups, pacifists, celebrity actors, etc, ensured that the aim of socialism was put off to the far future. Correspondingly, demands for fundamental democratic change, self-determination for colonies, disbanding the standing army were either abandoned or reined in. Defeating fascists, counterrevolutionary generals, monarchists and Catholic reaction became the overriding priority. A self-defeating strategy. As sights are lowered to reforming capitalism, not raised to transcending capitalism, advanced workers feel cheated, lose confidence, become disorientated. Instead of a going forward, there is a going back.

Respect embodied crass populism, unfulfillable Keynesian nonsense and fudge after fudge. The most notorious example being comrade German’s “shibboleth” speech at the Marxism 2003 event.8 She argued, that to keep MAB and patriarchal, socially conservative businessmen on board, the SWP should not make too much of a fuss over gay rights. More than that, the SWP should see to it that such divisive issues do not appear in election materials.

Protests there were, but not from SWP loyalists. A defining moment. Clearly the rightwing shadow exercised passive control. In the attempt to keep in MAB and socially conservative businessmen, the SWP ensured that secularism, international socialism, republicanism, gay rights and a woman’s right to have an abortion were kept out.

Unfortunately, the SWP and SPEW are far from alone. Frustrated by their inability to break into the ‘big time’, too many organisations on the left, including on the Labour left, seek to put together a broad front, through which the various sects, including the sects of one, believe that they can lever social influence. Hence, depending on the dominant sponsor, the broad front is designed to appeal to the existing consciousness of left reformists, Scottish nationalists, Islamists, anarchists, pacifists, etc. Of necessity, the platforms of these many and various broad fronts are dictated by the need to achieve diplomatic unity: therefore they stink of equivocation, compromise and self-imposed limitation.

By contrast communists aim for a mass party. Paradoxically, a mass Communist Party built upon what might be called a narrow programme - ie, a principled minimum-maximum programme. Millions - qua left reformists, Scottish nationalists, Islamists, anarchists, pacifists, etc - are excluded. A source not of weakness, but strength. We confidently aspire to win millions of left reformists, Scottish nationalists, Islamists, anarchists, pacifists, etc, over to communism.

Let me conclude my case for a principled minimum-maximum programme by calling three star witnesses.


The Communist manifesto can certainly be described as a minimum-maximum programme. We read:

Communists fight for the attainment of immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.9

The programme includes not just immediate demands to improve conditions. High politics - ie, democratic demands - constitute the spinal core. Hence, in Germany, the Marx party stands for sweeping away the numerous kingdoms, principalities, electorates, duchies and city states. The party also envisages a fight against the “petty bourgeois” and an alliance with the bourgeoisie. That would be “but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”.10

Being Rhinelanders, Marx and Engels were, in their youth, very much the children of the French Revolution. Leave aside the illusory expectation of the working class - a minority, dwarfed by the petty bourgeois mass - standing on the cusp of state power. Marx and Engels expected a German version of the Jacobins and leaders of the stature of Danton, Marat and Robespierre.

But life teaches. A necessary addition soon came.

With the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany (March 1848), Marx and Engels supplemented the Manifesto with a series of concrete minimum demands and certainly, when it came to the attitude towards the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, which by definition includes the peasantry, a necessary corrective was introduced.

The Demands no longer present the bourgeoisie as an ally against the forces of reaction. Instead the “proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie and the small peasants” are urged to support “with all possible energy” the 17 minimum demands presented by the communists.11

Amongst those demands are: (2) universal suffrage; (4) “universal arming of the people”; (6-8) aid for the peasantry; (10) a “state bank” to replace all private banks; (11) nationalisation of the means of transport; (13) “complete separation of church and state”; (17) “universal free education”. Heading them all, though, is: (1) the clarion call that the “whole of Germany shall be declared a single and indivisible republic”: ie, a big Germany, including Austria. Such a republic, wide in space and with a considerable population, can alone realise, safeguard and take the minimum programme forward to the higher tasks of the maximum programme. Leftwing advocates of nationalist break-ups, regionalism and localism might care to take note.


There is much to be learnt from the minimum-maximum programme adopted by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) at its Erfurt congress of 1891. Here, however, by contrast to the Communist manifesto, most contemporary leftists almost automatically dismiss it as having relevance only for semi-autocratic kaiser Germany and a long period of class peace. Either that or it is held up as a terrible warning, because on August 4 1914 SPD Reichstag deputies unanimously, including therefore Karl Liebknecht, voted for war credits, allegedly because of the separation of the programme into minimum and maximum sections (by convention the fraction acted as a single bloc).

We shall come to August 1914 below. Meanwhile, we shall begin at the beginning.

The Erfurt programme was initially drafted by Wilhelm Liebknecht and discussed by the SPD executive. That process was completed on June 18 1891. Engels was then asked, in a “strictly confidential” communiqué, for his views. On June 29 1891, he sent back what we know as Critique of the Erfurt programme (remember, what he criticised was the leadership’s first internal draft). Most of his suggestions were incorporated into the leadership’s ‘official’ draft (July 4 1891). Without knowing anything about Engels’ Critique, the editorial board of Die Neue Zeit - ie, Kautsky - also produced a draft (August 1891). August Bebel, knowing full well about Engels’ Critique, contributed his own edits (October 1891). The final version being agreed by the Erfurt congress, meeting over October 14-21 1891.12

Having looked over the Liebknecht draft, Engels approvingly remarked that it “differs very favourably from the former programme”: that is, the Gotha programme of 1875, which Marx had furiously denounced because of its unprincipled and unnecessary compromises with Lassalleanism.13 Labour being the source of all wealth, statism, the iron law of wages, other classes constituting a single reactionary bloc, etc.

Not surprisingly then, Engels greeted the Erfurt congress as a sweeping victory. Writing to Adolph Sorge in America, he said:

We have had the satisfaction of seeing Marx’s critique win all along the line. Even the last traces of Lassalleanism have been eliminated. With the exception of a few poorly written bits (though it’s only the way they’re put that is feeble and commonplace), there is nothing to complain of in the programme - or not, at any rate, at first reading.14

The first of the two parts opens with a brief analysis of capitalism and its development: monopoly concentrates production and increases the number of workers; the middle classes are being squeezed and there is a general growth of insecurity. The programme calls for the social ownership of the means of production and includes the forthright statement that the working class alone can bring about the liberation of humanity. Other classes are tied to “existing society”.

Then the fundamental aims and principles of socialism are set out - what Marxists aspire to. Following on from that we have the “demands which the social democracy makes of present-day society” - the ways and means.15

The Erfurt programme is emphatic: the working class cannot rely on mere trade unionism. Politics are key:

The struggle of the working class against capitalistic exploitation is of necessity a political struggle. The working class cannot carry on its economic contests, and cannot develop its economic organisation, without political rights. It cannot bring about the transference of the means of production into the possession of the community, without having obtained political power.16

To give the struggle of the working class “a conscious and unified form, and to show it its necessary goal” are fundamental tasks.17 The Erfurt programme is also quite emphatic, when it declares that the supersession of capitalism is an international task:

The interests of the working classes are the same in all countries with a capitalistic mode of production. With the extension of the world’s commerce, and of production for the world market, the position of the worker in every country grows ever more dependent on the position of the worker in other countries. The liberation of the working class, accordingly, is a work in which the workmen of all civilised countries are equally involved. In recognition of this, the SPD of Germany feels and declares itself to be one with the class-conscious workmen of all other countries.18

The SPD is not fighting for new class privileges and class rights, but for the abolition of class rule and of “classes themselves” (a formulation suggested by Engels), for equal rights and “equal duties of all”, without distinction of sex or descent (another Engels suggestion - he sought to rid the programme of any specifically bourgeois meaning of equality).

The programme proposes “to begin with” 10 key political demands. Engels had argued for a different, surely more militant, formulation: “social democracy fights for all demands which help it approach this goal” of a classless society.19

The 10 demands can be summarised as follows:

1. “universal, equal and direct suffrage”; proportional representation, biennial parliaments and pay for elected representatives;

2. “self-determination and self-government of the people in realm, state, province and parish”, election of magistrates and annual voting of taxes;

3. education of “all to bear arms”, a militia in “place of the standing army”, questions of war and peace to be decided by elected representatives and settlement of “all international disputes by arbitration”;

4. abolition of all laws which limit or suppress the “right of meeting and coalition”;

5. abolition of all laws which “place women, whether in a public or a private capacity, at a disadvantage as compared with men”;

6. the “declaration that religion is a private affair” (a formulation criticised by Marx back in 1875, because for the party religion is not a private matter) and the end of public funding “upon ecclesiastical and religious objects”, with ecclesiastical and religious bodies to be regarded as private associations, which regulate their affairs entirely independently;

7. “secularisation of schools”;

8. “free administration of justice” and election of judges;

9. a free health service;

10. graduated income and property­ tax for “defraying all public expenses” and abolition of all indirect taxes.20

Then come five minimum economic demands, designed to protect and improve the lot of the working class, such as an eight-hour day, prohibition of child labour under 14, inspection of workplaces, and a national insurance system administered in the main by representatives of the workers.

Kautsky wrote a semi-official commentary on the Erfurt programme: a short book called The class struggle (1892). Here he explained, in popular form, the theories of Marx and Engels - not least Marx’s analysis of capitalism, as presented in Capital. The class struggle was widely read in Europe and the US between its first publication and 1914: a sort of Marxist bible. Translated into 16 languages, it certainly influenced Marxists in Russia - not least Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin).

Rightly, the Erfurt programme is based upon the conviction that the Marxist party had to win for itself a mass membership and a clear majority in society. And after the repeal of the anti-socialist laws in 1890 the SPD experienced rapid growth and sank deep social roots. Membership grew to a million, the number of Reichstag deputies seemed set to inexorably increase with each election and powerful trade unions were built too. However, under such easy, safe, accommodating circumstances the germination of conservative, bureaucratic forces was inevitable.

The “first serious theoretical attack” against the Marxist foundations of the programme came with Bernstein’s Evolutionary socialism.21 He claimed that capitalism was itself inexorably moving in the direction of socialism: eg, nationalisation, social security, increased democratic rights. All the SPD had to do was to encourage innate tendencies and finally take hold of the representative institutions of the kaiser state. Others were not so bold, not so foolish. Instead they paid lip service. So leading right opportunists projected the maximum section of the programme - the prospect of socialism and universal human liberation - to a further and further distant horizon. Socialism still appeared in their lexicon, but as an empty phrase - although one which earned them applause at rallies and meetings.

So we arrive at August 4 1914.

Clearly there was an ongoing right-opportunist drift away from the programme. We see too not a few examples of the Bebel-Liebknecht-Kautsky leadership itself equivocating, wobbling and giving ground: eg, naval policy, the Russian threat, toleration of revisionism.

Yet, though it had a material basis in the Reichstag fraction, in trade union officialdom, in newspaper editors and journalists, and the party’s considerable body of national and regional full-timers, the rightist trend remained a minority - certainly a largely hidden one - till August 4 1914. Only then did it burst out into the open amidst the panic, fear and confusion that accompanied the outbreak of World War I.

Even a few days before, most people expected the SPD Reichstag fraction to follow the example of Bebel and Liebknecht in 1870 and at least abstain. The SPD itself expected that too. Congresses overwhelming voted to condemn Prussian militarism, colonialism was roundly denounced and the SPD press constantly warned against the danger of inter-imperialist war.

Kautsky did propose abstention. When that failed, he urged SPD deputies to denounce both imperialist camps and to limit support for the kaiser government to a defensive war alone. But the fraction voted for war credits and in effect wrote an economic and political blank cheque for German imperialism - supported by ‘special advisor’ Kautsky, there were just 14 votes against.

So what explains the about-turn, the great betrayal? First and foremost, it was fear that the kaiser government would move to ban the SPD, fear that the SPD press would be closed down, fear that meeting halls and offices would be confiscated, fear that glittering parliamentary careers would end with prison sentences. So narrow self-interest was put before the interests of the global movement for socialism.

Kautsky faced a momentous choice. Either split the party over what he thought was a temporary panic. That or keep his opposition to the war private and limit himself to justifying defensive wars, opposing annexations and calling for a just peace. Fatefully, he chose the course of least resistance. In the name of party unity he refused to lead a split with the social-imperialist majority in the SPD’s Reichstag fraction.

Lenin, it should be added, did not offer his former mentor understanding, sympathy or, despite the kaiser state’s threats, call for solidarity. No, he indignantly, unforgivingly, remorselessly denounced the “renegade Kautsky”.

The right, because it occupied leading positions, because of the deep culture of discipline and unity, managed to secure the temporary silence, or sullen cooperation, of the majority of members. Most thought that the war was going to be primarily against tsarist Russia - the “bulwark of reaction” (Marx). A theme heavily played upon by the SPD right. And, hopefully, the war would soon be over, perhaps by Christmas. Then the jingoistic madness raging at the top of the party would sort itself out. Sanity would prevail.

But German social democracy had a long history of being “revolutionary social democracy” (Lenin ‘Leftwing’ communism: an infantile disorder22). There was, as a result, a quick regaining of spirit and strength. Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin formed the Spartacus League on August 4 1914! Prison sentences were meted out. A big split occurred in April 1917 with the formation of the Independent SPD - which included, on its right, Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein. The ISDP grew to a 750,000 membership (the Spartacist League constituted itself as an open faction till the formation of the Communist Party of Germany).

Note, the leaders of the ‘official’ SPD were accused of having “violated” the class and internationalist principles of the Erfurt programme.23 At the Gotha congress of the ISDP Kautsky declared that the ‘government socialists’ had “betrayed” the programme and its mission. We are authoritatively told that this no doubt reflected “the real feeling of most delegates.”24 Not that this stopped him and the centrist rump of the ISDP reuniting with the ‘official’ SPD in September 1922.

Especially with hindsight, one can easily find the germs of August 1914. Rather than risk being made illegal once again, the SPD leadership preferred to skirt around particularly thorny issues, most notably the democratic republic. What was omitted therefore has significance. But the germs of a cancer are not the same as a cancer. To reject organising our programme into maximum and minimum sections on the basis of August 1914 is certainly to come to an absurd, an unwarranted conclusion.


There are those who paint Engels as a rejectionist. Supposedly because the Erfurt programme failed “to call for the overthrow of the Prusso-German military state”, he must be counted as an opponent of Erfurtianism.25 Clearly, an unfounded statement. No, he, Engels, was a critical Erfurtian. He privately writes back to the SPD executive:

The political demands of the draft have one great fault. It lacks precisely what should have been said. If all the [immediate] 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.26

Germany was in 1891 still ruled under an extended version of the anti-democratic Prussian constitution of 1850. A constitution which concentrated power in the hands of the kaiser, the army and the state bureaucracy, not the people. Engels calls the Reichstag a “fig leaf” for absolutism - an absolutism that was always prepared to threaten bloodcurdling counterrevolutionary measures.

Famously, the conservative, Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau, told the assembled Reichstag, to ringing applause: “The king of Prussia and the German emperor must always be in a position to say to any lieutenant, ‘Take 10 men and shoot the Reichstag’.” He meant, of course, chiefly the SPD deputies.27

Hence, Engels reiterates the demand for a democratic republic. A single and indivisible republic: ie, the abolition of the Prussian kaiser and the system of petty states within the German empire like the minuscule Thuringia (analogous to the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, etc).

This owes nothing to a desire to finish the “incomplete bourgeois revolution”.28 Engels is insistent: “our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of the democratic republic. This is even the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”29 He repeats the point a few lines down: “In my view, the proletariat can only use the form of the one and indivisible republic.” And here, as with so much else, Engels was, of course, perfectly in tune with Marx. He too viewed the democratic republic as the form of the rule of the working class.

Engels is well aware of the difficulties of bluntly stating this. The danger of renewed anti-socialist laws loomed heavily over the SPD. They could easily be reintroduced and the party forced underground once again. Yet, he urges, there must be some subtle phrase that would get around the legal problem: he recommends “the concentration of all political power in the hands of the people’s representatives” - that would serve for the “time being”.30 A formulation not included in the Erfurt programme.

Engels warns that “forgetting the great, the principal considerations” - specifically he had in mind the democratic republic - for what he calls the “momentary interests of the day” is a “sacrifice of the future movement” for its “present”. This, Engels says, may be “honestly” meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and, he adds, “honest” opportunism is “perhaps the most dangerous of all”.31

Bernstein, of course, honestly espoused the opportunist maxim that the movement was everything, the final goal nothing. And Kautsky opposed Bernsteinism, conducting an orthodox defence of the minimum-maximum programme, as did many others, including Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism. Indeed Plekhanov called for Bernstein to be expelled. Bernsteinism was officially condemned by the SPD’s Dresden congress and in its turn by the Second International. Bernstein’s revisionism and gradualism was part of an attempt to replace the conquest of power by a policy which “accommodates itself with the existing order.”32 Given what happened later, it would assuredly have been correct to have done what Plekhanov advocated. Though he was thought of as representing nothing of significance organisationally, the fact of the matter was that opportunism was insidiously gaining strength and confidence. Expelling Bernstein would have drawn a clear line and shown in no uncertain terms what is, and what is not, acceptable.

Parti Ouvrier

This minimum-maximum programme was drawn up in May 1880, when Jules Guesde, a leading French socialist, met Marx in Engels’ front room in London’s Primrose Hill (not that we should forget the assistance provided by Engels and Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue - who, along with Guesde, became a leading figure on the Marxist wing of French socialism). Anyway, the preamble, which amounts to the maximum section of the programme, was dictated by Marx himself - “word for word”, according to Engels.33

It reads as follows:

Considering that the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race; that the producers can be free only when they are in possession of the means of production; that there are only two forms under which the means of production can belong to them: the individual form, which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress; the collective form, the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society; considering, that this collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class - or proletariat - organised in a distinct political party; that such an organisation must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation; the French socialist workers, in adopting as the aim of their efforts the political and economic expropriation of the capitalist class and the return to community of all the means of production, have decided, as a means of organisation and struggle, to enter the elections with the following immediate demands.34

The programme then moves on to political demands for the abolition of all laws over the press, meetings and associations and women’s equality “in relation to man”; removal of subsidies to religious orders and the return to the nation of the “‘goods said to be mortmain, movable and immovable’ (decree by the Commune of April 2 1871), including all the industrial and commercial annexes of these corporations”; suppression of the public debt; “abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people”; communes “to be master of its administration and its police”. The economic section calls for the eight-hour day, a ban on child labour under 14 and between that age and 16 the “reduction of the working day from eight to six hours”; protective supervision of apprentices by the workers’ organisations; a legal minimum wage, determined each year according to the local price of food, by a workers’ statistical commission; legal prohibition of bosses employing foreign workers at a wage less than that of French workers; equal pay for equal work, for workers of both sexes; scientific and professional instruction of all children, “with their maintenance the responsibility of society, represented by the state and the commune”; responsibility of society for the old and the disabled; prohibition of all interference by employers in the administration of “workers’ friendly societies, provident societies, etc, which are returned to the exclusive control of the workers”; responsibility of the bosses in the matter of accidents, guaranteed by security paid by the employer into the workers’ funds, and in proportion to the number of workers employed and the danger that the industry presents; intervention by the workers in the special regulations of the various workshops; an end to the right usurped by the bosses to “impose any penalty on their workers in the form of fines or withholding of wages” (decree by the Commune of April 27 1871); annulment of all the contracts that have alienated public property (banks, railways, mines, etc), and the exploitation of all state-owned workshops to be entrusted to the workers who work there; abolition of all indirect taxes and transformation of all direct taxes into a progressive tax on incomes over 3,000 francs; suppression of all inheritance “on … all direct inheritance over 20,000 francs”.

Marx modestly said of the programme that “this very brief document in its economic section consists solely of demands that actually have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself. There is in addition an introductory passage, where the communist goal is defined in a few lines.”35 However, Engels admiringly described the first, maximum, section as “a masterpiece of cogent argumentation rarely encountered, clearly and succinctly written for the masses; I myself was astonished by this concise formulation”.36

Yet for right-moving leftists the programme of the Parti Ouvrier appears to be exactly the kind of “broad platform” that could serve as a model for what is needed to “bring together a broad organisation” in British circumstances.37 If that was the case, then that would be good news indeed. But, in fact, we have yet another bad case of misreading both the programme and history.

There were those in France who advocated a “broad platform” and a “broad organisation”. Paul Brousse founded the monthly journal Le Travail in March 1880, which was open to all “schools” of socialism, not least the anarchists - a school of thought with which he retained an enduring sympathy. His conception of the party was therefore federalist and, yes, decidedly broad. Then there was Benoît Malon. He was determined to keep the door open to “social Radicals”, who still had the allegiance of some working class voters, “thus creating a broad-based party, stretching from anarchists on the left to Radicals on the right”.38

The fact of the matter is that the Parti Ouvrier’s programme served to draw lines of demarcation. Proudhonists, Blanquists, anti-political syndicalists and anarchists were to be repelled, told to keep out, barred by, for example, the programme’s seemingly innocuous commitment to transform universal suffrage from an “instrument of deception” into an “instrument of emancipation”. The naive vision of socialism promoted by Proudhonists, Blanquists, syndicalists and anarchists discounted parliamentary politics and relied instead on forming cooperatives, a revolutionary coup, the general strike or exemplary actions. The anarchists, for example, turned to the propaganda of the deed: the assassin’s bomb or well-aimed bullet.

When the programme was adopted, with a few amendments, by the founding congress of the Parti Ouvrier, meeting at Le Havre in November 1880, the aim was not to bring together diverse, incompatible, schools of thought. No, the dialectic ran from firm principles and a definite line of march to the masses.

There is surely a profound lesson here, when we consider Momentum, the Scottish Socialist Party, Left Unity, Tusc and the abject failure of much more serious ‘broad party’ projects in Europe, such as Syriza, Podemos, Rifondazione Comunista, Die Linke and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste.


  1. C Harman, ‘The Manifesto and the world of 1848’ The communist manifesto London 2003.↩︎

  2. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 23, London 1988, p174.↩︎

  3. Clive Heemskerk, Tusc national election agent, quoted in Socialism Today October 2012.↩︎

  4. gov.uk/government/statistics/percentile-points-from-1-to-99-for-total-income-before-and-after-tax.↩︎

  5. The Daily Telegraph September 7 2019.↩︎

  6. “[T]rade unions have become the last refuge of the international bourgeoisie and the main foundation of capitalist rule” - Solomon Lozovsky, quoted in J Riddell (ed) Towards the united front: proceedings of the Fourth Congress the Communist International, 1922 Chicago IL 2012, p529-30.↩︎

  7. rmt.org.uk/about/rmt-rule-book.↩︎

  8. Weekly Worker July 10 2003.↩︎

  9. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, New York 1976, p518.↩︎

  10. Ibid p519.↩︎

  11. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p4.↩︎

  12. See ‘Synoptic overview of the drafts of the Erfurt programme’ (1891) in B Lewis (ed) Karl Kautsky on democracy and republicanism Leiden 2020, pp305-28.↩︎

  13. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p219.↩︎

  14. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 49, New York 2001, p266.↩︎

  15. K Kautsky The class struggle New York 1971, p7.↩︎

  16. fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1891erfurt.html.↩︎

  17. Ibid.↩︎

  18. Ibid.↩︎

  19. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p225.↩︎

  20. fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1891erfurt.html.↩︎

  21. P Broué The German revolution, 1917-23 Chicago IL 2006, p17.↩︎

  22. VI Lenin CW Vol 37, Moscow 1977, p34.↩︎

  23. CE Schorske German social democracy 1905-17: the development of the great schism Cambridge MA 1955, p168.↩︎

  24. P Broué The German revolution, 1917-23 Chicago IL 2006, p83.↩︎

  25. Gil Schaeffer, Letters Weekly Worker May 15 2020.↩︎

  26. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p225.↩︎

  27. CE Schorske German social democracy 1905-17: the development of the great schism Cambridge MA 1955, p168.↩︎

  28. P Broué The German revolution, 1917-23 Chicago IL 2006, p3.↩︎

  29. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p227.↩︎

  30. Ibid.↩︎

  31. Ibid.↩︎

  32. Quoted in P Broué The German revolution, 1917-23 Chicago IL 2006, p18.↩︎

  33. K Marx and F Engels Selected correspondence Moscow 1975, p344.↩︎

  34. revolutionary-history.co.uk/otherdox/Whatnext/POprog.html.↩︎

  35. K Marx and F Engels Selected correspondence Moscow 1975, p332.↩︎

  36. Ibid p344.↩︎

  37. anticapitalists.org/2013/02/08/the-road-to-a-united-left.↩︎

  38. HB Moss The origins of the French labor movement Berkeley CA 1980, pp108-09.↩︎