He advocated, wrote and defended the revolutionary minimum programme

Minimal symmetrical errors

One upholds only the maximum programme in elections, the other rejects the maximum programme as ultra-leftist, but neither shows the least understanding of the minimum programme. Mike Macnair replies to Adam Buick and Steve Freeman

By coincidence, last week this paper carried pieces that included symmetrical errors on the minimum programme.

Adam Buick in a letter advertised the point that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is not doing significantly better in elections on (what he calls) a minimum programme than the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which is standing on an avowed maximum-programme-only platform. Steve Freeman in his article, which we headlined ‘Marching towards what solution?’, criticises Moshé Machover (and the CPGB, which has adopted a variant of comrade Machover’s position) for advocating a socialist regionalist approach to the decolonisation of Palestine, which he argues is ultra-leftist, because it fails to take (what he calls) a minimum programme approach.

Comrade Buick comments:

the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, appealing to trade union-conscious workers with a programme of attractive-sounding reforms (what used to be called ‘the minimum programme’), polled more or less the same as the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which was standing on a straight platform of socialism - the common ownership and democratic control of the means of living, with production directly to meet people’s needs, not profit - and nothing but (what used to be called ‘the maximum programme’).

But what’s the point of standing on a minimum programme when you are not going to get more votes than if you stood on the maximum programme?

This is at one level a fair point. But Tusc actually stands - thanks to its Trotskyist progenitors, the Socialist Party in England and Wales - not on a ‘minimum’ programme, but on a version of a ‘transitional’ programme. That is, one that aims (according to the Fourth International in 1938):

to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.1

In practice, what is ‘transitional’ turns out to be merely what is currently popular - “attractive-sounding reforms”. In contrast, the minimum programmes of the pre-1914 social democratic parties generally included the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by a militia, or the general arming of the people. They also included a series of other constitutional demands that would not be obviously adapted to “today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class”. For example, the German Eisenach (1869) and Gotha (1875) programmes called for trial by jury, and the 1891 Erfurt programme for the election of judges;2 the 1880 Programme of the French Parti Ouvrier called for the confiscation of the assets of the (Catholic) church and the ‘suppression of the public debt’ (which means the destruction of the financial markets);3 the Socialist Party of America’s 1908 platform called for the abolition of the Senate and of judicial review of legislation.4 The point of the minimum programme, then, is not to be “a programme of attractive-sounding reforms”.

Turning to comrade Freeman, he claims that the ‘Middle Eastern socialism’ position

veers into ultra-leftism, because it has no political programme for the Israeli-Palestinian working class. It sets international socialism against the national democratic struggle and lumbers the Hebrew working class with a passive ‘wait and see’ politics. A national programme makes the ambition of fighting for the unity of Israeli and Palestinian workers central. It is not that Moshé simply ignores the national dimension: rather he adopts a limited programme of minimum conditions, not a minimum programme. …

Working class republicanism makes the democratic secular republic the central plank of a programme of achievable reforms. This was called the minimum programme in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

Comrade Buick thinks that we should dump the minimum programme, defined as “attractive-sounding reforms”. Comrade Freeman thinks that we should limit our proposals to the minimum programme, conceived as “a programme of achievable reforms”. This is a degraded form of comrade Freeman’s earlier arguments for a two-stage revolution - first a ‘democratic’ revolution against the monarchy leading to a ‘dual power republic’, which then poses the question of workers’ power. We can leave this history of comrade Freeman’s arguments on one side, however. The idea that “the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy and its replacement by a democratic republic” and implementation of the rest of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party’s programme5 was an “achievable reform” in the tsarist empire of 1903 is plain nonsense: it would be the revolutionary overthrow of the state. (The same is, in fact, true of the overthrow of the monarchy in the UK today.) The point of the minimum programme, then, is not to be “a programme of achievable reforms”.

I wrote 17 years ago on the question of what the point of the minimum programme positively was, and how the confusion that is reflected in the idea of a ‘transitional programme’, and in comrade Buick’s and Freeman’s specific versions, began.6 But the issue is a fundamentally important one and it is worth repeating some basic points.


The expression, ‘minimum programme’, appears to be Marx’s, if it was not already in use.7 It is found in an 1880 letter to Friedrich Sorge discussing the programme of the Parti Ouvrier (of earlier the same year) and its impact in France. Marx says:

With the exception of some trivialities ... the economic section of the very brief document consists solely of demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself, except for the introductory passages where the communist goal is defined in a few words.

Enemy camp

He goes on to discuss the impact of the programme - in the first place in the workers’ movement, but also more widely:

Meanwhile we also have had and have our champions in the camp of the enemy itself - ie, in the radical camp ... Clemenceau, who publicly came out only last April against socialism and as the advocate of American-democratic-republican views, has swung over to us in his latest Marseilles speech against Gambetta, both in its general tendency and in its principal points, as contained in the minimum programme.8

The usage at this period is not only Marx’s. Paul Brousse was a Bakuninist in 1870-77. By 1880-81 he had become one of the creators of the ‘Possibilist’ (capital P) wing of the Parti Ouvrier, which in 1881 denounced the 1880 programme, called the “programme minimum”, as an ultra-left text that created a separation between the party and “workers’ aspirations”.9

‘Maximum’ and ‘minimum’ are, in a sense, slightly misleading. The programme of the Parti Ouvrier has, in fact, three sections. The first (what came to be called the ‘maximum programme’) is what Marx in this letter calls “the introductory passages where the communist goal is defined in a few words”. The second is the political section. In the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, this contains a series of democratic-republican demands, also found grouped together in the German Eisenach (1869), Gotha (1875), and Erfurt (1891) programmes, and in a variant set in the programmes of the pre-1914 Socialist Party of America, which I have already mentioned.

The marked common features of these ‘political’ programmes indicate that they are all versions of the common position of the ‘Marx party’ in this period: ie, that the working class has to fight for the democratic republic as the form in which the working class can take power. Thus, unlike the third, ‘economic’, section of the Parti Ouvrier programme, the political demands are not (as Marx put it) “demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself”.

Why did Marx insist so strongly in his letter to Sorge on the ‘economic section’ consisting of “demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself”? The answer is that this approach is counterposed to utopian schemes about the nature of the organisation of the future communist society.

The essence of the ‘Marxist’ policy was that the working class needed to take political power, and for that purpose to struggle for the democratic republic. Given that the proposal was that the working class take over the running of society, it was the working class itself that needed to decide on economic and other policy priorities. The core of the minimum programme is the democratic republic. But it also contains a variety of economic demands: the Parti Ouvrier programme calls, for example, for the eight-hour day, for a “legal minimum wage determined each year according to the local price of food, by a workers’ statistical commission”; for “the 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”. The Erfurt programme calls, for example, for “free medical care, including midwifery and medicines. Free burial”. And so on.


The minimum programme needs to be placed in the context of Marx, elsewhere, on the nature of proletarian revolution. First is a famous passage from The civil war in France (1871):

The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realise, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old, collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.10

Second is a much less famous one, from Marx’s ‘Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and anarchy’ (written at some point in 1874-75, and first published in 1926):

Bakunin: If there is a state [gosudarstvo], then there is unavoidably domination [gospodstvo], and consequently slavery. Domination without slavery, open or veiled, is unthinkable - this is why we are enemies of the state.

What does it mean, the proletariat organised as ruling class?

Marx: It means that the proletariat, instead of struggling sectionally against the economically privileged class, has attained sufficient strength and organisation to employ general means of coercion in this struggle. It can, however, only use such economic means as abolish its own character as salariat, hence as class. With its complete victory its own rule thus also ends, as its class character has disappeared.11

The point is that the transition from capitalism to communism is a prolonged process. It is one that has already begun, in a deformed way, under capitalist rule - but has been partially thrown back by the policy of ‘rollback’ begun most clearly under Jimmy Carter, by the fall of the USSR, and so on. These defeats illustrate the fact that, as Marx and Engels and their co-thinkers argued, it is only under working class political rule that the transition can be completed. This will also be in a prolonged process: “long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men”.

What full communism will look like will depend on choices made over decades by the working class ruling on a global scale. The minimum programme is a programme for working class rule right now. It is for this reason that it combines a platform for political democracy with some economic measures - ones that are immediately posed.

Much has changed in the 150 years since the Gotha programme and Marx’s ‘Conspectus’. But the fundamental point still stands. We need a minimum programme not to be “attractive-sounding” or “achievable”, but because the working class needs now to take political power - through the democratic republic or ‘extreme democracy’ - and, having done so, to begin a prolonged process of the communist reconstruction of society.

  1. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp.↩︎

  2. Eisenach: archive.org/stream/EisenachProgram/725_socDemWorkersParty_230_djvu.txt; Gotha: archive.org/stream/GothaProgramme/726_socWrkrsParty_gothaProgram_231_djvu.txt; Erfurt: sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1891erfurt.asp.↩︎

  3. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.↩︎

  4. cosmonautmag.com/2023/01/american-socialism-from-1892-to-1908-a-study-in-two-programs.↩︎

  5. www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/rsdlp/1903/program.htm.↩︎

  6. weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/686/for-a-minimum-programme (part of a series accessible at communistuniversity.uk/mike-macnair-programme-and-party-articles.)↩︎

  7. The phrase is not in the Oxford English dictionary, and a Google search has produced nothing earlier than Marx; but this does not exclude the possibility that it was in political use before Marx.↩︎

  8. Marx to Sorge, November 5 1880: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/letters/80_11_05.htm (original emphasis).↩︎

  9. D Stafford From anarchism to reformism Toronto 1971; the quotes are from p175.↩︎

  10. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm.↩︎

  11. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1874/04/bakunin-notes.htm.↩︎