Lenin in 1919: he went to great lengths to formulate and then defend the programme

Programme makers

Without the working class organising itself into a political party there can be no chance of socialism. But, argues Jack Conrad, without a comprehensive, fully worked-out programme, that party has no chance of taking coherent form, guarding against opportunism or navigating the road to socialism

Socialism cannot be delivered from on high. So no socialism via an ‘onwards and upwards’ would-be labour dictator; no socialism by winning over trade union officialdom to sponsor non-Labour election candidates; no socialism by voting Labour and triggering an entirely fanciful ‘crisis of expectations’. Certainly, no socialism via Sir Keir Starmer - that despite him running Socialist Alternatives from his Highgate home in the 1980s and his youthful dalliance with Pabloism.1 He is, of course, a “harmless moderate”.2

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 as the ruling class and begins the transition to the communist mode of production. A necessary precondition being the fight for the most extensive democracy, the highest level of class-consciousness and, correspondingly, organising the working class into a disciplined political party.

Though it may appear paradoxical to some, that party is built top-down. As Lenin bluntly explained, doubtless simplifying for the sake of the argument:

We have said that there could not have been social democratic [communist] consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness: ie, the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.

By their social status the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the very same way, in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of social democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working class movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of thought among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.3

Lenin had in mind the role of the Emancipation of Labour group founded by Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, Leo Deutsch and Pavel Axelrod - members of the “revolutionary socialist intelligentsia” who had gone over from Narodism to Marxism in the early 1880s. They studied, adapted and applied the theory of Marx and Engels to Russian conditions and then brought it to the working class from the outside - the outside in this case not being from Switzerland, where they were exiled, but, as Lenin made clear, from outside the economic struggle between workers and employers.

Economic struggles in and of themselves produce nothing more than trade union consciousness and therefore trade union politics - what Lenin called the “bourgeois politics of the working class”, because trade unionism primarily involves selling, bargaining over the market price of labour-power (a commodity in principle no different to any other commodity).4

Does that mean the party we envisage - its proper, scientific name being ‘Communist Party’ - is going to consist of a thousand or so activists, managed, controlled and directed by a self-perpetuating central committee or some 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.

Class party

No, what we 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”.5

The kind of class party Marx had in mind was realised, to some considerable degree, by the Social Democratic Party of August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Karl Kautsky. A million members and, in the 1912 elections, 34.8% of the popular vote. Over a hundred Reichstag deputies and well over a hundred, largely autonomous, specialist, local and regional papers, all of which featured robust debate. Politically viewpoints ranged from the overtly revisionist (who should have been expelled, but in the main were not) to those who would later be called ‘left’ communists (who needed to be patiently brought around). The SDP constituted almost a ‘state within the state’: it not only had its own press and politicians, but its festivals, mass trade unions, libraries, sporting clubs, pubs, cooperatives and local government strongholds too.

Although there were exceptions - such as the British Labour Party - most parties of the Second International took the German party, along with its 1891 Erfurt programme, as their template.6 Amongst them, indubitably, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and its Bolshevik (majority) wing led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (aka Lenin).

Lenin, it should be stressed, was perfectly candid about his desire for the RSDLP to imitate the German SDP programmatically:

... 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.7

A little later Lenin 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.8

With good reason the pro-Bolshevik historian, Lars T Lih, dubs Lenin a “Russian Erfurtian”.9 Not that any of the confessional sects take a blind bit of notice. Their version of Bolshevism is that of the confessional sect which suddenly, almost out of nowhere, grows into mass proportions, given a strike wave and peace demonstrations. In other words, a patently false version of the Russian Revolution.

The actual parties of social democracy, including, of course, the RSDLP, sunk deep social roots in the working class and, through tireless, often heroic struggles, managed to become a power in their own right 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, the willingness of minorities to stay and abide by majority votes - that and the very considerable room allowed to local districts and branches to take their own initiatives. However - and this is the main point here - these parties were built around their programmes.

The RSDLP was no exception. The real founding congress happened in 1903 (the 1st Congress in 1898 proved abortive: it failed to unite Russia’s social democrats and most delegates were arrested soon after it finished). What about the programme? Well, as early as 1895-96, while he was in prison, Lenin wrote the ‘Draft and explanation of a programme for the Social Democratic Party’.10 At the end of 1899, during a period of exile in Siberia, he prepared another draft programme - ‘A draft programme of our party’.11 And, with the launch of Iskra, in December 1900, Lenin declared, that its key task was to overcome opportunist tendencies - most importantly economism - and achieve the political unity of Russian social democrats around a definite party programme.12

With talk of convening a 2nd Congress gaining momentum, drafting a party programme became a matter of extreme urgency. Lenin suggested that the theoretical part be written by Georgi Plekhanov (the ‘father of Russian Marxism’ and a fellow Iskra editorial board member). However, he was unhappy with the results and once again took up the task himself. That resulted in Iskra’s six-strong editorial board being presented with two drafts. Though Plekhanov’s was taken as the basis of amendments, many of Lenin’s suggestions were adopted.

The draft programme of the RSDLP, finalised by Iskra’s editorial board in Lenin’s absence, was published in June 1902. And it was this draft that the RSDLP’s 2nd Congress, held over July 30-August 23 1903, took as its starting point. After agreeing standing orders and dealing with the Bund - its demand for a federal party was rejected - the draft programme was the third item on the agenda.13 Many sessions followed before the programme was overwhelmingly agreed (there were a few minor amendments and just one abstention).

There were, it should be noted, 43 full voting delegates representing 26 organisations: they included 33 Iskraists, five Bundists and two economists. There were also those with a consultative voice, but no vote (eg, the Polish social democrats). We shall not deal with the Bolshevik/Menshevik split - suffice to say that both main wings of the party agreed that the rules should begin by stating: “A party member is one who accepts the party’s programme …”14

Rank opportunists, who know a smattering of Marx, often, too often, gleefully quote this statement: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”15 This is certainly true - think 1848, 1871, 1905 and 1917. But anyone who fields these words, or other similar such phrases - in these days of fragmentation, confusion and disorganisation - to dismiss, mock or play down the centrality of programme scabs on the cause of partyism.16

Taken from

No less to the point, these words - taken from Marx’s letter to Wilhelm Bracke - are commonly attached to his ‘Critique of the Gotha programme’ (1875), where he eviscerates the compromising, the backtracking, the trading away of principled programmatic formulations by his comrades in Germany. So, 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.

Needless to say, Marx fully appreciated the role and importance of programme - after all, he (co)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 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. Marx dictated the maximum section (the preamble), while the two parts of the minimum section, the immediate political and economic demands, were formulated by himself and Jules Guesde, with help coming from Frederick Engels and Paul Lafargue. Their programme was adopted, with certain amendments, by the founding congress of the Parti Ouvrier meeting at Le Havre in November 1880.

Incidentally, after the programme was agreed, differences arose between the Marx-Engels team in London and their French comrades. Whereas Marx saw the minimum section of the programme as a set of demands which, while technically realisable under capitalism, serves to train - not least through mass agitation and mass mobilisations - the working class and thereby readies it for taking power, Guesde took a very different approach. He discounted the possibility of obtaining reforms such as the “abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people” and the “legal reduction of the working day to eight hours for adults”. In fact, Guesde regarded the minimum programme not as a means to rouse millions into action - no, for him the minimum programme was to be nothing more than “bait with which to lure the workers from radicalism”. The rejection of such reforms would, Guesde believed, “free the proletariat of its last reformist illusions” and convince them of the need for a workers’ 1789.17

This practical dismissal of the minimum programme - somewhat in the manner of the Socialist Party of Great Britain - meant, unsurprisingly, that what was known as ‘Marxism’ in France was widely ridiculed by practically-minded workers, leading an exasperated Marx to accuse Guesde and Lafargue of “revolutionary phrase-mongering” and delivering this well known put down: “Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” (“If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist”).18

Back to Germany. It is doubtless true that a party should be judged primarily by what it does, rather than what its programme says. But a pre-party, a proto-party, a new party, will rightly be judged by its programme. And the Gotha programme represented a considerable retreat, compared with the prior 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 - an organisation of just a few thousand. Its programme had, though, definite shortcomings: eg, it demanded an altogether vague 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. And it constituted the SDWP as “a branch” of the First International - “to the extent that the associational laws permit”.19 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 - a reputation they were determined to uphold. Eg, Mikhail Bakunin attacked what he called Marxism in his Statism and anarchy (1873), in no small part by laying hold of the failings, real and imagined, of the “duumvirate of Bebel and Liebknecht” and the “Jewish literati behind or under them”.20 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, by the followers of the state socialist, Ferdinand Lassalle, a new 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”.21 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 blistering 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.

Unity and unity

Without a revolutionary programme there can be no successful socialist revolution. That truth cannot be insisted upon too strongly, especially at a time when: (1) the numbers genuinely committed to building a mass Communist Party remain frighteningly small; (2) single-issue campaigns and so-called united fronts dominate, when it comes to mass actions; (3) much of the organised left remains trapped in confessional sects; (4) with the reformist left and refugees from the confessional sects, prime energies, hopes and expectations are vested in working towards yet another broad-left alliance, network or privately owned company.

By contrast, 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; 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.

Easy to grasp

Bertolt Brecht’s wonderful poem, ‘In praise of communism’ (1931), calmly insists that the truths of communism are easy to grasp and “simple” … unless you are an exploiter. The working class has a vital interest in fighting capitalism and realising a communist society. The common struggle for improved wages, the common struggle to set legal limits on working hours, the common struggle for conditions which allow for full individual and collective development, drives - or at the very least tends 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.

Yet Marxism, rightly, is spoken of as a science. After all, another term for it is ‘scientific socialism’. The Marxism of Marx and Engels richly deserves that title, because it is always rigorous, logical, critical and open-ended. Of course, science is not easy. While Marx and Engels undoubtedly possessed first-rate minds, 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 current problems: the persistence of capitalism, the betrayal of social democracy, the contradictory role of ‘official communism’, the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, the nature of modern-day China, how to put a stop to the ecological destruction wrought by production for the sake of production, while not allowing billions of people to be impoverished … such problems cannot be solved with trite catchphrases and bestowing ready-made labels. There has been far too much of that over the years and that is why so much of what today passes for ‘Marxism’ - certainly what comes from the sects, including the sects of one - ought to be regarded as being closer in spirit to religion than science.

Things have to be studied, grasped, in all their many-sided complexity, and, of course, interpretations, hypotheses and results must be transmitted with far more energy and imagination than displayed by physicists, evolutionary biologists and mathematicians. We emphasise the term, ‘far more’, because Marxism is dedicated not merely to explaining what is: the goal is to completely transform what is.

Brecht’s poem ends with this neat twist, calling communism “the simple thing, that’s so hard to achieve”. We not only have the state machine of the ruling class against us: we have the ruling ideas of the ruling class against us too.

The Weekly Worker’s ‘What we fight for’ column says this: while there are “many so-called ‘parties’”, there “exists no real Communist Party”. So at this moment in time, though there are members of the CPGB, there is no CPGB. One of those paradoxes which exist in the real world that so confuses narrow-minded pedants and incurable cynics alike.

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 opposition to the witch-hunt 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 - not least in the confessional sects and their systematic mistreatment of members (they are typically considered as mere speaking tools).

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 sloganising, the chasing after marketing opportunities and then, usually within a very short time, the inevitable floundering, break-up and bitter recriminations.

That is where programme comes in. We have devoted some considerable time and effort to drawing up a Draft programme.22 Not to present others with an ultimatum - an accusation made by the ignorant, the embittered or the plain dishonest. No, our Draft programme comes with the same idea in mind as when the Iskra editorial board printed, published and then presented the Plekhanov-Lenin draft programme to the RSDLP’s 2nd Congress.

It is a contribution, a means of provoking thought and stimulating debate, and, hopefully, it will provide the substantive basis for amendments at the Refoundation Congress of the CPGB, when it eventually happens. That is, of course, entirely a matter for the assembled delegates. If we have the majority, as was the case with the Iskraists, then debating our Draft programme will certainly be one of the first agenda items.

As the leading and only authoritative, pro-party centre, we might expect a clear majority of congress delegates. Who knows? But, even without that majority, there are very good reasons for delegates to take our Draft programme as their starting point.

We are proud of what we have produced. There is nothing faddish, doctrinaire or myopic about our Draft programme. It is not a warmed-over wish list of Keynesian nostrums - eg, the Corbynite For the many, not the few (2017). Nor does it consist of the bland medley of economistic and tailist demands served up by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Nor is it one of those attempted ‘transitional’ tricks designed to put the working class into motion and the confessional sect into power. Nor is it a national socialist prognostication that repeatedly proves itself to be spectacularly wrong, as in the case of the old, ‘official’, CPGB’s British road to socialism.23

No, the communist programme stems from the needs of a clear majority of population. Hence, firstly, it 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 historically.

Our Draft programme thereby constitutes a sound basis for the refoundation for the Communist Party. It links everyday struggles with the goal of communism and full, collective and individual, human development. To use a well-worn 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.

Naturally, the Communist Party - organising the advanced part of the working class - reformulates and adjusts the programme when necessary. 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 its 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.

Form and content

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 on Scottish independence and episodic parliamentary arrangements have no place in the communist programme. Engels himself urged exactly that approach: “All that is redundant in a programme weakens it”.24 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”.25

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, crisis-ridden, ecologically unsustainable socio-economic 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 (and have been in the case of Brexit) suitably reformulated.

The programme must become the political compass for millions. Again, as I argued not 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.26

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 social democrats/communists. Of course, we have not mindlessly aped them. Conditions in the UK, its history, economic peculiarities and specifics, and, not least, its constitution and class structure must be, and are, fully 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 ‘official’ 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 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 there comes the economic, social and democratic measures that are needed if the peoples of Britain are to live a full and decent life.

This minimum, or immediate, section of programme is most definitely not an attempt to throw the social weight of the working class into the ‘liberal’ task of completing the bourgeois revolution.27 That happened in 1688. The monarchy, the House of Lords, the established Church of England, the Privy Council, etc, are not feudal relics. They are thoroughly embourgeoisified forms, through which capital rules - bourgeois democracy being, in my opinion, an oxymoron. The only democracy the capitalist class considers ‘natural’ is ‘One share, one vote’. Hence every real democratic advance has been won from below, crucially by the organised working class - that in the face of savage opposition from those above. To credit capitalism with democratic rights, such as universal suffrage, free speech and the right to strike, is ahistorical and politically naive to the point of treachery.

Though our minimum programme is technically feasible within the framework of present-day capitalism, in actual fact, its demands can only securely, genuinely, comprehensively be realised by way of revolution. So the minimum programme is not a programme to reform capitalism, so that it conforms to some entirely bogus liberal ideal. On the contrary, our programme is designed to shift the main focus of the class struggle from the day-to-day economic, to high politics and the question of state power.

There will be those who might want to call some, or all, of the demands contained in this programmatic section ‘transitionary’. I am fine with that, as long as the democratic question remains central and there is no retreat into relying on routine economic struggles to spontaneously generate mass socialist/communist consciousness. That would be fatal. 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”.28 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 have to say then?

From our minimum demands we move on to the character of the British revolution and the positions 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 classes 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 reforged Communist Party is dealt with.

The essential organisational principles of democracy and unity in action are then 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 vs programme

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 an aggressively hostile - attitude, if you dare suggest that it would be a good idea for them 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 mostly ex-members.

Anyway, in justifying the SWP’s bizarre aversion to adopting any kind of programme, its loyalists typically insist that a programme would be too rigid, inflexible and constricting. Chains and manacles are often mentioned. 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 invoke the ghost of Marx and, yes, 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 petty factional advantage was his sole guide.

Yes, a democratically agreed programme would have created intolerable difficulties for the SWP central committee, with its many and sudden about-turns under comrade Cliff. True, in the early 1950s, when his Socialist Review Group was a mere bacillus in the bowels of the Labour Party, he agreed to a pinched, 12-point programme of “transitional demands”, which were meant to attract and recruit “individual” Labour and trade union activists.29 It was Duncan Hallas who wrote and submitted the original “transitional programme” to the SRG. Tony Cliff, however, ensured that even this 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.

Inspiration, clearly, came from Leon Trotsky. Here, 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 workers’ movement are thereby reduced to trade union politics. As to the “final aim” of working class rule, socialism and the transition to communism, that is, yes, 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.”30

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, in the aftermath of World War II, passed as Leninism and Trotskyism, because he was at least able to recognise both Stalin’s palpable success in creating an empire in eastern Europe and the palpable reality of the long economic boom in the west. Events had, after all, beached Trotsky’s 1930s expectations. Stalinism did not collapse with the Nazi invasion. Nor was capitalism in its “death agony”.31 In fact, it was the Trotskyites who were spiralling into crisis. As Cliff wittily put it: guided by Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional programme, they were like people trying to navigate the Paris metro using a London tube map.

Cliff readily admitted how “excruciatingly painful” it was to face up to the reality that Trotsky’s predictions had proved false.32 But false they were. Cliff, therefore, reluctantly concluded that the Transitional programme had been “belied by life” and that reformism was enjoying a second spring.33 In the fourth volume of his Trotsky biography, Cliff argued, surely rightly, that its demands, such as a sliding scale of wages, were adopted in response to a “capitalism in deep slump” and therefore “did not fit a non-revolutionary situation”. He concluded:

The basic assumption behind Trotsky’s transitional demands was that the economic crisis was so deep that the struggle for even the smallest improvement in workers’ conditions would bring conflict with the capitalist system itself. When life disproved the assumption, the ground fell from beneath the programme.34

In the 1950s at least, Cliff was no fool.

Nonetheless, his blasé attitude towards programmes can be judged by what might appear to be the glaring exception. Namely the International Socialists’ programme of the early 1970s. Cliff, and industrial organiser Andreas Nagliatti, took the lead by writing an article with this revealing title: ‘Main features of the programme we need’.35 Drafts were discussed over several meetings of the IS national committee.

The main motivation behind the programme move seems twofold. First, induct the growing body of recruits into the belief-system of the confessional sect. Second, draw lines of demarcation. The IS had just suffered two jarring faction fights - first with Sean Matgamna’s Workers Fight group, then the Right Opposition (the origins of today’s Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism and the pro-Zionist online journal Spiked). Both factions showed an unwelcome fondness for Trotsky’s Transitional programme.

Ian Birchall recounts that the draft programme was mainly the work of Chris Harman and Duncan Hallas, though others made contributions. It ran to some 15,000 words. Far, far too long. Programmes should be precise, succinct and short.

Submitted to the 1973 IS conference, the draft was remitted to the NC for further consideration - a job given over to a sub-committee, consisting of Cliff, Hallas and Birchall. “However, Cliff, without consulting the sub-committee, let alone the NC”, passed it on to the (new) industrial organiser, Roger Rosewell, who “turned it into a pamphlet” (The struggle for workers’ power 1973). Incidentally, Rosewell, a rather pathetic figure, dropped out of the IS soon afterwards and quickly moved to the right. He joined the short-lived Social Democratic Party, serving on its industrial committee, then worked for the free-market Aims for Industry outfit and wrote leaders for the Daily Mail.

Anyhow, showing the importance attached to programme, the September 1974 conference took just 30 minutes to debate and agree the whole thing … and then nothing more was heard of it! As a result Cliff was free to do and say what he pleased without reference to any map: tube, road or anything else for that matter. 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 to unite “secular socialists with Muslim activists” on the basis of whatever it took to get local and national candidates elected.36

Much to the discredit of the post-Rees SWP, it has steadfastly refused to conduct any kind of serious autopsy into the Respect popular front debacle.37 What goes for the SWP goes double for Counterfire.38 Same with Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century.39

The problem runs deep and the problem goes back to the refusal to learn from the Marx-Engels team, the German SDP, the French PO and the RSDLP, when it comes to the central importance of programme.

  1. M Kosman ‘Keir Starmer: from “Marxist” to “cop in an expensive suit”’ - see libcom.org/article/keir-starmer-marxist-cop-expensive-suit-mark-kosman.↩︎

  2. For an amusing, if somewhat eccentric, opposite opinion, see Peter Hitchens Daily Mail June 9 2022. Also, ‘Starmer’s history of leftwing views revealed’ - a first attempt at Trot-baiting Starmer in the 2024 general election campaign as far as I know, it is written by one Gordon Rayner, associate editor of The Telegraph, who exposes Sir Keir’s “younger years” - see www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2024/06/09/keir-starmer-political-views.↩︎

  3. VI Lenin CW Vol 5, Moscow 1977, pp375-76.↩︎

  4. Ibid p426.↩︎

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

  6. For those interested, Ben Lewis gives a fascinating “synoptic overview” of the numerous drafts produced by the party leadership, along with the various suggestions coming from Engels and Die Neue Zeit’s editorial board - see B Lewis (ed and trans) Karl Kautsky on democracy and republicanism Leiden 2020, pp307-28.↩︎

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

  8. Ibid p429.↩︎

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

  10. VI Lenin CW Vol 2, Moscow 1977, pp99-121.↩︎

  11. VI Lenin CW Vol 4, Moscow 1977, pp227-54.↩︎

  12. Ibid p324.↩︎

  13. See B Pearce (trans) 1903: second congress of the RSDLP London 1978.↩︎

  14. www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/rsdlp/1903/rules.htm.↩︎

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

  16. In terms of the most recent example of this sordid phenomenon, there is the ludicrously named web journal, The Partyist. On a first read, it appeared to me to be a spoof - a lame attempt at humour. But, no, despite the utterly crude plagiarism, the numerous basic errors, the jejune attempts at theory, it wants to be taken seriously. Have a read: thepartyist.com/our-principles.↩︎

  17. BH Moss The origins of the French labour movement, 1830-1914: the socialism of skilled workers Berkley CA 1976, p107.↩︎

  18. This is Engels quoting Marx in a letter to Eduard Bernstein in Zurich dated November 2-3 1882 (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 46, London 1992, p356).↩︎

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

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

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

  22. CPGB Draft programme London 1995, 2011, 2023 (communistparty.co.uk/draft-programme).↩︎

  23. The BRS and its precursors went through a whole number of versions. Most were completely outdated even before they came off the press. Britain’s road to socialism (2020), the programme of the Morning Star’s CPB, is credited with being “up to the minute”. Inevitably then, short-termism, inane news commentary dominate and become more outdated with each passing day. Par for the course. Take the November 1989 version. Its Labour government ‘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, we find though that the Soviet Union and the “socialist countries” in eastern Europe have been crudely airbrushed out. However, predictably, the parliamentary cretinism, the popular frontism, the national socialism remained. Therefore, the claim, made by our resident Stalinite letter-writer, Andrew Northall, that the successive editions of the BRS constitute “by far the best and most credible programmes which have been developed for Britain” is simply laughable (Letters Weekly Worker June 6 2024). As an aside, in his letter, the comrade gets into a complete muddle over our demand to abolish the standing army and establish, in its place, a popular militia. He thinks that we believe this is a maximum demand - a demand that can only be realised the other side of the socialist revolution. Possibly - life will decide; but for us, meanwhile, it is a minimum demand. Firstly, because it is perfectly realisable this side of the socialist revolution; secondly, because a socialist revolution in the absence of a popular militia of some kind is impossible to imagine (except for parliamentary cretins). Note, in 1917, the Bolsheviks’ red guards and effective leadership over whole army regiments and naval units.↩︎

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

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

  26. Ibid pp235-36.↩︎

  27. The thesis of Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson presented in a series of New Left Review articles beginning in January-February 1964 and subsequently demolished by EP Thompson (The poverty of theory 1978) and Ellen Meiksins Wood (The pristine culture of capitalism 1991).↩︎

  28. M-A Walters (ed) Rosa Luxemburg speaks New York NY 1997, p413.↩︎

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

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

  31. L Trotsky The transitional programme New York NY 1997, p111.↩︎

  32. T Cliff Trotskyism after Trotsky London 1999, p14.↩︎

  33. T Cliff Neither Washington nor Moscow London 1982, p117.↩︎

  34. T Cliff Trotsky Vol 4, London 1993, pp299-300.↩︎

  35. Internal Bulletin, January 1973. In those far-off days this publication came out all year round. It was not confined to the two months prior to the annual conference. Incidentally, my information here comes from a short article authored by Ian Birchall - ‘The programme of the International Socialists 1972-1974’ (May 2013).↩︎

  36. Socialist Worker November 20 2004.↩︎

  37. Joseph Choonara’s ‘Revolutionaries and elections’ is apologetics of the worst kind. Nowhere does he question the profoundly unprincipled nature of the Respect lash-up. Though he admits the involvement of “Muslim notables” such as “millionaire restaurateurs and building contractors”, he cannot bring himself to utter the damning phrase, ‘popular front’ (or words to that effect). As for George Galloway, today he is pictured as promoting “anti-woke”, “patriotic” class politics via his Workers Party of Britain. Back in 2004, however, when Respect was founded, he was “a firebrand MP, one of the most celebrated orators of the anti-war movement and the most prominent figure to be expelled by Labour for opposition to the Iraq war”. In reality Galloway has been pretty consistent, when it comes to the reactionary side of his politics. What comrade Choonara is actually attempting to do with his two Galloways - and, as it happens, not very convincingly - is to cover up for the fact that within Respect the SWP used its numbers to vote down motions, moved by CPGB comrades, which supported abortion rights, open borders, MPs taking only an average skilled worker’s wage, republicanism … even international socialism (International Socialism No179, July 2023).↩︎

  38. I cannot find a single reference to Respect on Counterfire’s website. If any reader knows otherwise I would be grateful to know.↩︎

  39. RS21 has, though, the virtue of running a thoughtful piece by David Renton, the leftwing barrister and author: ‘The Socialist Alliance, George Galloway and Respect: left electoralism the last time around’ March 18 2024 (www.rs21.org.uk/2024/03/18/the-socialist-alliance-george-galloway-and-respect-left-electoralism-the-last-time-around). However, while comrade Renton highlights many instances of rank opportunism in Respect, including by the Rees-German SWP leadership, he cannot locate the fundamental problem: popular frontism, which saw the right systematically set the political agenda on a whole range of issues.↩︎