Placing demands on Labour
Jack Bernard retells the hoary old tale of the inadequacies of the minimum-maximum programme of classical Marxism and the wonders that can be performed once equipped with transitional demands
Classical social democratic parties divided their programmes into two parts: a minimum programme and a maximum. For example, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks shared a similar programme with this basic division.
The demands of the shared Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s ‘minimum’ programme were partial, minimal demands that were placed on the tsarist government and were realisable under a bourgeois regime. For example, Lenin explained that the demand for nationalisation of the land was a bourgeois measure, and not a socialist measure. He cited the example that Britain had nationalised the land in Australia, with the specific purpose of ensuring that farming would be done on a large scale and not by numerous petty bourgeois, small farmers operating on small plots.
However, whilst not openly challenging social democracy’s division of programme into minimum and maximum parts, Lenin’s ‘minimum’ demand for nationalisation of the land took on a transitional character by only being realised by the transitional government that was established following the October 1917 Bolshevik insurrection. The demand was theoretically realisable by the bourgeoisie, but in practice it was realised by a transitional workers’ and peasants’ government consisting of Bolsheviks and Left Socialist Revolutionaries.
The Russian Revolution that started in February 1917 raised conjunctural concerns that were not addressed by the RSDLP’s programme. The tsarist army was not doing well in the imperialist World War I, and this problem needed addressing. In addition, the cities were short of food, and the poor peasants were now in a worse situation because of capitalist developments in agriculture following the counterrevolution of 1907.
The programme of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 has been summarised as ‘Bread, land and peace’, but this three-demand programme was largely something new. It addressed the conjuncture and was neither a minimum nor a maximum programme, but a selective transitional programme. And this programme of demands was accompanied by the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets’. The October 1917 Bolshevik insurrection helped concretise this slogan by establishing not a Bolshevik government, but a transitional workers’ and peasants’ government based on the soviets.
Subsequent discussions within the Bolshevik Party led to the jettisoning of the classical minimum/maximum programme approach, in favour of a programme of transitional demands and slogans that were appropriate to each given concrete situation.
Prior to the establishment of the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament) in 1999, I had travelled to Cardiff to specifically listen to my friend and comrade, Ceri Evans, speak at a public meeting, in favour of an as-yet non-existent Welsh assembly.
Ceri was a revolutionary and a member of the Welsh Labour Party. He responded to talk within the party for a possible future Welsh assembly, but was not happy about the very limited powers that it was proposed to have. Ceri addressed this question by arguing that it should have nothing less than the powers of a constituent assembly: ie, of the highest expression of the legislature within bourgeois democracy. (Ceri died at a young age and at his memorial meeting in Pontypridd a Labour member claimed that he had single-handedly won the Welsh Labour Party to supporting the establishment of the Welsh parliament.)
The demand for a Welsh assembly was a demand placed on the incumbent UK government. As Ceri formulated it, he in effect was demanding the right of self-determination for the Welsh people. Of course, this demand was not realised in full, but it doubtless had educational value. It was in effect an ‘opening bid’. A Welsh parliament appeared, thanks to Ceri, but not with all of the powers that he had argued for.
But members of Workers Power at the Cardiff public meeting did not support the demand for a Welsh assembly and instead raised, and counterposed to it, the slogan of soviets. Doubtless, the comrades had read Leon Trotsky’s so-called Transitional programme and had noticed that it stated: “The slogan of soviets … crowns the programme of transitional demands.”
But the comrades had also doubtless failed to notice that The transitional programme was specifically aimed at addressing coming pre-revolutionary situations. It clearly states the character of its envisaged “next period”:
The strategic task of the next period - a pre-revolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organisation - consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation) …1
A transitional programme is needed to bridge this contradiction: ie, this objective/subjective gap. Today in Britain, there is not a pre-revolutionary situation - the existing political regime of bourgeois parliamentary democracy continues to function. We must not counterpose to bourgeois democracy soviet democracy, because bourgeois democracy has not yet broken down. To do so would be abstract.
After the Bolshevik insurrection of October 1917, a soviet government was established. But the Bolsheviks nevertheless kept their promise to convene the Constituent Assembly: ie, a bourgeois-democratic institution. At the initial meeting of this assembly, the Bolsheviks counterposed to it the power and authority of the existing soviet, and the constituent assembly was subsequently dissolved in favour of the soviet.
We must do what the Bolsheviks did: ie, exhaust all progressive possibilities within bourgeois democracy before counterposing soviet democracy to it.
The lesson lost on the comrades of Workers Power is that it is necessary to take account of the concrete political situation. In other words, The transitional programme must be interpreted in this light. For example, some of its demands and slogans are relatively timeless, whilst others are appropriate only to pre-revolutionary situations. In Russia in 1917, the demand for a constituent assembly was a transitional demand. This is because it proved to be realisable only by the workers’ and peasants’ government established after the seizure of state power by the Bolshevik insurrection in October.
In other words, Ceri Evans’ demand for a Welsh assembly with the powers of a constituent assembly, was also a transitional demand. More precisely, it was a transitional revolutionary democratic demand. If such a Welsh assembly had been actually realised, and if this assembly had decided that Wales should form its own independent state, this would have meant political revolution, albeit hopefully a peaceful revolution, if it had been carried out. Of course, this hypothesis was not actually realised. Today’s Senedd Cymru has no such power. Nor does the Scottish parliament.
The so-called The transitional programme is properly titled: The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International. I will refer to it simply as the DA.
The document was published in English by the American Socialist Workers Party and they took the liberty of renaming its section on the ‘Workers’ and peasants’ government’ the ‘Workers’ and farmers’ government’. In the UK today, there are no ‘peasants’ as such; and small farmers are not as politically significant as, say, the mass of poor petty bourgeois, who often have been obliged to become self-employed because of reactionary government legislation.
Hence, for the UK today, the term “workers’ and peasants’ government” can be translated as ‘workers’ and poor peoples’ government’, ‘workers’ and poor petty bourgeois government’, or - most appropriately - simply ‘workers’ government’.
The aforementioned section of the DA contains the following paragraph, which includes a crucial transitional demand:
Of all parties and organisations which base themselves on the workers and peasants and speak in their name, we demand that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers’ and peasants’ government. On this road we promise them full support against capitalist reaction. At the same time, we indefatigably develop agitation around those transitional demands which should, in our opinion, form the programme of the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’.
Though this demand in effect addresses the far left in the UK today, the most important party it addresses is the Labour Party (in Northern Ireland, it is Sinn Féin).
The Labour Party is a bourgeois workers’ party. It is bourgeois because it has a bourgeois programme: ie, it defends capitalism; and it is controlled by politicians employed by a bourgeois state: ie, it is not controlled by its membership. It is the only mass workers’ party in Britain. However, the Labour Party will almost certainly never form a true workers’ government, though, as I will argue, this theoretical possibility must not be entirely ruled out.
Much of the argumentation within the DA section, ‘Workers’ and peasants’ government’, concentrates on lessons drawn from Russia in 1917. But the latter period was different to the situation in Britain today. Russia today has in effect stepped over the historical stage of bourgeois democracy. The latter was not an option for the Russian Revolution of 1917, and it has not been an option since then. The period between the February and October revolutions saw a brief period of petty bourgeois democracy. Today in the UK we have an established bourgeois democracy. The UK is in an aftermath of the post-war boom. Just as the so-called ‘American dream’ is now over, UK society follows suit, tail-ending the USA, as it has done since the 1930s. The UK is the USA’s lap-dog.
Britain, but not the UK’s Northern Ireland of today, has a functioning bourgeois democracy that has a long, post-World War II history. But some lessons of the period between February and October 1917 in Russia are nevertheless appropriate to the UK today. Specifically, revolutionaries must demand that a future Labour government breaks politically from the bourgeoisie. This is the most important transitional demand for revolutionaries in Britain today. It means also not taking a sectarian attitude towards all other parties of the proletariat, but there must be a particular focus on the Labour Party.
The following quote from DA illustrates the need for a basic non-sectarian attitude to other workers’ parties. I apologise for its length:
From April to September 1917, the Bolsheviks demanded that the [Socialist Revolutionaries] and Mensheviks break with the liberal bourgeoisie and take power into their own hands. Under this provision, the Bolshevik Party promised the Mensheviks and the SRs, as the petty bourgeois representatives of the workers and peasants, its revolutionary aid against the bourgeoisie; categorically refusing, however, either to enter into the government of the Mensheviks and SRs or to carry political responsibility for it.
If the Mensheviks and the SRs had actually broken with the Cadets (liberals) and with foreign imperialism, then the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ created by them could only have hastened and facilitated the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
But it was exactly because of this that the leadership of petty bourgeois democracy resisted, with all possible strength, the establishment of its own government. The experience of Russia demonstrated - and the experience of Spain and France once again confirms - that even under very favourable conditions the parties of petty bourgeois democracy (SRs, social democrats, Stalinists, anarchists) are incapable of creating a government of workers and peasants: that is, a government independent of the bourgeoisie.
Incidentally, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was established in Russia in the autumn of 1918. A workers’ and peasants’ government existed until roughly late February 1918. Sometimes, Trotsky uses the term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, to refer to the post-February political régime of an all-Bolshevik government. But these distinctions are outside the scope of the present article.
Having stated above, that “the parties of petty bourgeois democracy (SRs, social democrats, Stalinists, anarchists) are incapable of creating a government of workers and peasants”, the text later adds the following qualification:
Is the creation of such a government by the traditional workers’ organisations possible? Past experience shows, as has already been stated, that this is, to say the least, highly improbable. However, one cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc), the petty bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists, may go further than they themselves wish, along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie …
In other words, the Chinese revolution of the late 1930s and 40s led to the establishment, by the Stalinists, of the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949, and a workers’ state. Similarly, the July 26 Movement in Cuba, after resolving some internal differences, established a workers’ state following the January 1959 government overthrow. Subsequently, Stalinism presided over the counterrevolutionary transformations of both the USSR and the PRC into bourgeois states; respectively, in the late 1980s and the early 1970s. Again, these matters are outside of the scope of this article.
Our task as revolutionaries is not to speculate whether or not the Labour Party may go further than it wishes, along the road to a break from the bourgeoisie, but rather to simply demand that it does break from the bourgeoisie. The purpose of this transitional demand is thus not to expect a direct positive result, but rather to gradually expose the Labour Party - it will undoubtedly never break from the bourgeoisie - and this ongoing exposure will have crucial ‘educational significance’ for the masses. The DA explains this purpose of such a demand:
… the demand of the Bolsheviks, addressed to the Mensheviks and the SRs, ‘Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power into your own hands!’, had, for the masses, tremendous educational significance. The obstinate unwillingness of the Mensheviks and SRs to take power - so dramatically exposed during the July Days - definitely doomed them before mass opinion, and prepared the victory of the Bolsheviks.
The main alternative to this approach - and it is one that is common among the UK far left - is to simply denounce the Labour Party in a sectarian fashion; and to continue to attempt to gradually, and bit by bit, build an alternative mass party to Labour.
Another approach is to reduce this to simply an organisational question of whether or not revolutionaries should enter the Labour Party or do fraction work of a clandestine or non-clandestine nature within it. This is sometimes combined with the gradual, organic so-called party-building approach. It too, avoids the question of how to win the masses, by relegating it to the indefinite future and/or trying to win the masses solely by propaganda for socialism.
The demand, ‘Break from the bourgeoisie’, must also be placed on those revolutionary parties in the UK today that have adopted a social-patriotic position by their failure to clearly oppose the British government’s sending arms and financial aid to the Zelensky régime in Ukraine and/or their tail-ending of Brexit.
On June 30 1923, Pravda published a discussion article, ‘Is the time ripe for the slogan: “The United States of Europe”?’ Its political line was officially adopted by the executive committee of the Communist International shortly after its publication, against considerable opposition.
In Trotsky’s The first five years of the Communist International, volume 2, there is an endnote from the editors for the above discussion article, which states:
“It was no mere accident,” wrote Trotsky in 1928, “that despite all prejudices, the slogan of a Soviet United States of Europe was adopted precisely in 1923, at a time when a revolutionary explosion was expected in Germany, and when the question of state interrelations in Europe assumed an extremely burning character. Every new aggravation of the European - and indeed of the world - crisis is sufficiently sharp to bring to the fore the main political problems, and to invest the slogan of the United States of Europe with attractive power.” The slogan appeared in Comintern literature as late as 1926.
Today in the UK, as with Workers Power at the Cardiff public meeting that I have previously referred to, it is abstract and inappropriate to raise a slogan of a Soviet United States of Europe. But it is not abstract to raise the slogan of simply a ‘United States of Europe’ by in effect demanding that the European Union is transformed into a single-state, federal European entity rather than the restricted confederation that it presently is.
Trotsky, the author of the 1923 discussion article, claims that the bourgeoisie will never unite Europe peacefully. Today, all evidence suggests that he is right to make this claim: for example, war rages today in Ukraine. In other words, like World War I and World War II, which were both European-led wars, the bourgeoisie, with its EU, has only made partial steps forward in uniting Europe.
The call for a ‘United States of Europe’ is a transitional slogan despite the fact that it avoids mentioning either soviets or socialism. It is transitional because it requires a workers’ and peasants’ government to realise it.
Marxists who go beyond ‘common sense’ by taking dialectics seriously will understand that revolutionaries must exploit the dialectical contradiction between what is needed and what is ‘possible’ or ‘realistic’. Bourgeois democracy was impossible in Russia in 1917, but a superior type of democracy - ie, soviet democracy - nevertheless proved to be possible. Democracy appeared to be impossible; but it was realised in soviet form.
Putting this another way, we must demand that the bourgeoisie unites Europe peacefully despite the fact that it will never achieve this. This is applying permanent revolution to the European revolution. (But again this is to a degree outside the scope of this article.) State unification of Europe is necessary. Hence, our slogan for a United States of Europe and our demand that the bourgeoisie establishes it have an educational significance, because they help expose the bourgeoisie’s failures during the entire period since the revolutions of the 1848 period, and particularly since 1913. To repeat: a United States of Europe requires a future workers’ and peasants’ government to realise it in practice, hence it is a transitional slogan.
We must also raise demands that underpin the idea of a United States of Europe as a single, federal state. For example, the EU does not recognise the right of nations to self-determination. Instead, it simply recognises this right for its existing so-called ‘national’ states. The EU imposes no federal requirement that its member-states recognise the right of nations to self-determination. So, for example, in recognising both the UK and Éire as ‘nations’, the EU is denying the right of the Irish people to self-determination. We must demand a united Ireland as a part of a united Europe. All Irish people living both inside and outside Ireland must vote in elections for an Irish constituent assembly. But this is a tactical question, once again outside of the scope of this article.
Hence, as with the Labour Party, revolutionaries must not simply denounce the EU as being a ‘nasty capitalist institution’, but must place demands on it in order to expose its failures; and they must do this despite the fact that the UK is no longer an EU member. We must demand that the Labour Party begins the process of breaking with the British bourgeoisie by rejoining the UK to the EU.
What underpins the need for European political integration is that Europe is an economic entity. Hence, because of major economic links, both the Ukraine and Russia should be parts of the EU, as should be the Balkan states of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, North Macedonia and Serbia. But the bourgeois EU refuses to unite Europe. Instead, the EU remains a privileged club.
Turkey has been a candidate to join the EU since 1999. Accession negotiations started in 2005, but have not advanced recently. The EU is by far Turkey’s largest merchandise import and export partner. In 2022, 26% of its goods imports and 41% of its exports were with the EU. But the EU’s political institutions are blocking Turkey’s membership of their privileged and exclusive club.
The sale of, for example, Russian gas to Germany has been literally sabotaged by the US - with EU support. Just as the British bourgeoisie indulged in economic sabotage by implementing Brexit, now the two western Anglo-Saxon countries have conspired to oppose Europe’s economic and political integration, by demonising Russia and those countries that are or may be sympathetic to Russia.
As Lenin argued, the bourgeoisie in its imperialist epoch is decadent. It cannot solve the basic conflict between the world character of the productive forces and the national-state framework in which the world economy operates.
Trotsky’s following words from his 1923 discussion article, basically remain valid today, 100 years later. He writes:
To the toiling masses of Europe, it is becoming ever clearer that the bourgeoisie is incapable of solving the basic problems of restoring Europe’s economic life. The slogan, ‘a workers’ and peasants’ government’, is designed to meet the growing attempts of the workers to find a way out by their own efforts. It has now become necessary to point out this avenue of salvation more concretely: namely, to assert that only in the closest economic cooperation of the peoples of Europe lies the avenue of salvation for our continent - from economic decay and from enslavement to mighty American capitalism.
The DA contains, in its section, ‘Against sectarianism’, a general criticism of “sectarian moods and groupings” that were, in 1938, “at the periphery of the Fourth International”. It states: “At their base, lies a refusal to struggle for partial and transitional demands: ie, for the elementary interests and needs of the working masses, as they are today.”
The British Socialist Party - formerly Militant - claims to be guided by the DA, but. whilst totally ignoring the document’s section on the workers’ and peasants’ government, it also proposes a reformist programme of partial, minimum demands, and it fails to place these demands on the Labour Party. Its demands are posited as a programme for a future SP government. It thus takes a basic sectarian stance towards the Labour Party: ie, towards the only existing mass workers’ party that might implement its demand for a £15 per hour minimum wage.
The SP has returned to the minimum/maximum programme division of classical social democracy: ie, it raises no genuinely transitional demands nor slogans. For example, by demanding a minimum wage of £15 per hour, the SP avoids the transitional demand for a “sliding scale of wages and sliding scale of hours”, as proposed in the DA. Today healthworkers need a wage that is protected against inflation - hence, a “sliding scale of wages” is needed by them and others. This is a transitional demand that revolutionaries must continually explain, elaborate on, repeat and thus popularise through both agitation and propaganda.
The SP’s programme is a fraud because it claims to follow the DA, but does not raise transitional demands and/or slogans, raising only partial, minimal demands. And alongside this minimum programme it raises abstract propaganda for socialism: ie, its maximum programme. The SP has in the past raised its reactionary slogan for a ‘left Brexit’ and it counterposes to a United States of Europe (ie, to a federal Europe) its so-called “voluntary socialist confederation of Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland”. This implies that an isolated, socialist British Isles can somehow exist within a hostile capitalist environment. In other words, the SP has learnt nothing from the historic failure of the programme of ‘socialism in one country’.
Thus, the SP claims to follow Trotskyism, but it ignores Trotsky’s main programmatic argument that the USSR would inevitably succumb to the pressure of hostile capitalist economic encirclement unless there was revolution in the west. A similar problem of economic isolation also destroyed the Chinese workers’ state after it failed to build socialism in one country, and consciously adopted a capitalist road.
The SP in effect asks the toiling masses to wait until it is in a position to implement its minimum programme: eg, its demand for a minimum wage of £15 per hour. It thus has a rationalistic, gradual, building-blocks approach that ignores Marxist dialectics, as well as transitional demands and slogans.
I have used the example of the SP because it best illustrates the basic general programmatic problems of far-left revolutionary politics in the UK and elsewhere, today. In this article, I have specifically concentrated on two transitional demands/slogans; namely, that a future Labour government must break politically with the bourgeoisie; and that the UK should rejoin the EU, with full membership, adopting the euro as its currency. Also, the slogan of a United States of Europe must be given substance by, for example, demanding that the EU recognises the right of nations to self-determination. And this demand must also be placed on each and every European government. Unlike with the British SP, revolutionaries must be genuine internationalists.
Ongoing discussion is also necessary in order to identify what the “elementary interests and needs of the working masses … are today”, and on how to formulate and struggle for partial and transitional demands that address these interests and needs. But instead, virtually the entire UK far left indulges in abstract propaganda for socialism, with each party often pretending that it has a programme, and consequently each failing to agitate around an absent programme.
However, this article is about transitional demands and slogans, and thus avoids the needed discussion about partial demands that must accompany them. Suffice it say that a programme of partial and transitional demands is needed; and from this programme, a shorter programme of transitional demands must be selected, which, in the opinion of revolutionaries, should form the programme for a Labour government that breaks from the bourgeoisie.
Demanding this break is to demand that a Labour government enters upon the road of struggle for a genuine workers’ government. When Labour deviates from this road, revolutionaries must clearly criticise it.