Lev Kamenev arriving at Brest-Litovsk

Minimum programme again

To achieve the global transition to communism the working class must first conquer state power - that requires the minimum programme of economic - but crucially political - demands. Mike Macnair responds to Andrew Northall, Gerry Downing and Steve Freeman

Last week’s Weekly Worker (June 20) contained a variety of criticisms of what Jack Conrad and I have in different articles said about the question of the communist programme - and in particular the minimum programme and its relation to the maximum programme. Our critics are coming from a variety of different places, so it is most convenient to take them one by one; but hopefully real issues of general principle will emerge.

To begin with, there is Andrew Northall, our letters column’s resident Morning Star supporter. To begin, in turn, with the most important issues of principle he poses, comrade Northall says:

… we have Macnair, on the one hand, saying the minimum programme can only be implemented through working class rule: ie, after a socialist revolution. Conrad, on the other, (rightly) states it is an essential component of a strategy for socialist revolution - indeed many of its demands are “perfectly realisable” under capitalism. So, is it me in a ‘complete muddle’ or is it the Weekly Worker group, with its two leading (competing?) ideologues speaking with two contradictory voices?

It is entirely possible that comrade Conrad and I use different theories of the minimum programme. We probably have differing interpretations of the USSR, as Lawrence Parker remarked last year (though my opinion is that this does not at present pose distinct political tasks);1 and I have openly criticised the CPGB’s positions on the national question in a series back in 2015.2

These disagreements - not the only ones in the CPGB; merely ones that come immediately to my mind - are entirely consistent with our political purpose. That is, we are a pro-party group founded on acceptance of a political platform - our Draft programme. We are not a sect founded on agreement to a body of theory (Owenism, Lassalleanism, Marxism-Leninism, Cliffism, and so on).

Comrade Northall’s criticism of the supposed divergence between comrade Conrad and myself precisely supposes that the Morning Star group is such a sect. This was, of course, already apparent in the Morning Star group’s inability to assimilate even the ex-Trotskyist, but now fully ‘official communist’, Socialist Action group.

That said, I am not at present persuaded that comrade Northall has identified a theoretical difference, as opposed to merely imposing his own muddle. In my letter of June 13, I wrote:

Andrew Northall says: “Certainly, I could never see how some elements of the [Weekly Worker group’s] ‘minimum programme’ - such as the abolition of the standing army (and police and other state forces) and its replacement by a people’s or workers’ militia, and the general self-arming and self-organisation of the working class in their workplaces and communities - could possibly be achieved this side of a socialist revolution.”

This is a startling claim, given that the militia system is the foundation of the current Swiss armed forces, and the general right to keep and bear arms is a (controversial) element of the US constitution. It is true that the United Kingdom is unlikely to break with the model that in 1991 David Edgerton called “liberal militarism” in New Left Review, without the overthrow of the UK political regime; but that is not the same thing as being inconsistent with the continuation of money and markets.

My position is that all of the individual demands of the minimum programme are consistent with the continued existence of money and markets, and therefore of at least small and medium-sized enterprises. A good many of them - like a Swiss-style militia system or the general right to keep and bear arms under the second amendment to the US constitution - could in principle be achieved under continued capitalist rule.

In practice, of course, what we would get as concessions under continued capitalist rule would be counterbalanced by something taken away: just as the working class’s achievement of extended suffrage has been accompanied everywhere by the reduction of the powers of parliaments and local authorities in favour of increased power in the executive and the judiciary.

But, if the whole of the minimum programme was implemented, the result would be that political power passed from the capitalist class to the working class.

“Surely we agree,” says comrade Northall, “that working class rule can only come about as a result of a socialist proletarian revolution …” Here comrade Northall has added the word ‘socialist’ and by doing so made his argument slippery.

In the first place, the CPGB in our Draft programme use ‘socialist’ as shorthand for the dictatorship of the proletariat:

Socialism is communism which emerges from capitalist society. It begins as capitalism with a workers’ state. Socialism therefore bears the moral, economic and intellectual imprint of capitalism.

In general, socialism is defined as the rule of the working class.3

Comrade Northall, on the other hand, argues in his letter for a transitional phase of socialism beyond the phase of working class rule, but before communism, and which is (along with communism) the subject of the maximum programme: “the ‘maximum programme’ … is a programme - after the socialist revolution and the establishment of working class rule - for the implementation and development of full socialism and then full communism” (emphasis added). The ‘third position’ in this discussion is that of the Trotskyists, for whom “full socialism” is a synonym for “full communism”.

But, on the basis of either comrade Northall’s or the Trotskyists’ approach, what makes a revolution that brings in working class political power a “socialist” revolution in any sense other than as inscribing on its long-term banner the socialist (communist) goal - that is, the aspirations stated in the maximum programme? The answer is that comrade Northall’s argument, and that of the Trotskyists, slide in the great anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin’s 1869 critique of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany’s Eisenach programme:

All the German socialists believe that the political revolution must precede the social revolution. This is a fatal error. For any revolution made before a social revolution will necessarily be a bourgeois revolution ...4

Bakuninism, precisely by virtue of this commitment that the revolution must be ‘social’, rather than in the first instance primarily political, produced in the first place useless ultra-left adventures in France and Spain - and then the ‘Possibilism’ (capital P) of former Bakuninist Paul Brousse, who argued for dumping the democratic content of the “minimum programme” of 1880 in favour of “achievable” reforms. This is what has become of ‘immediate demands’ in comrade Northall’s hands.5 In my June 13 letter I wrote:

Comrade Northall counterposes to the CPGB’s minimum programme - which is founded on constitutional change with some limited, immediate economic and social demands - the Morning Star-CPB’s Britain’s road to socialism. But the BRS project is (and indeed he presents it as) an ‘economic issues first’ project, like the Trotskyists’ ‘transitional programmes’.

In reality, as the Corbyn experience shows, we can’t get to first base with the BRS project - a ‘left government’ - without first achieving effective mass hostility to the constitutional order, including the judicial power, the media ‘fourth estate’, the security service as a paramilitary wing of the Conservative Party (as in the ‘Zinoviev letter’ a hundred years ago, and as in the orchestrated smear campaign round ‘anti-Semitism’ recently), and so on.

Indeed, the Corbyn team’s efforts to achieve a ‘left government’ - by clinging to the Labour right, and by allowing Starmer free rein to tail-end the Tory ‘remainers’ dodgy manoeuvres in parliament in the hope of bringing down the May government - prepared the ground for the shattering defeat of the Labour left in 2019. It is remarkable that the 2020 edition of the BRS does not draw any effective balance-sheet of the Corbyn disaster.

Comrade Northall’s latest letter jumps sideways onto his allegation of a conflict between Jack Conrad’s views and mine, rather than addressing these objections.


Comrade Downing’s ‘anti-Pabloite Trotskyism’ is like 19th century French Bourbon-monarchist ‘Legitimism’ (capital L), which “learned nothing and forgot nothing”. I flag comrade Downing’s ‘anti-Pabloism’ both because he does so himself and because his account of why the Fourth International of 1938 failed rests - implicitly, if not openly - on the ‘anti-Pabloite’ mantra that ‘Stalinism is counterrevolutionary through and through’. Oppositionists in the United States Socialist Workers Party in the 1950s, where this mantra originated, challenged the SWP leadership to produce evidence for it in Trotsky’s writings. They could not do so: and, indeed, the 1938 Transitional programme claimed:

The public utterances of former foreign representatives of the Kremlin, who refused to return to Moscow, irrefutably confirm in their own way that all shades of political thought are to be found among the bureaucracy: from genuine Bolshevism (Ignace Reiss) to complete fascism (F Butenko). The revolutionary elements within the bureaucracy - only a small minority - reflect, passively it is true, the socialist interests of the proletariat. The fascist, counterrevolutionary elements, growing uninterruptedly, express with even greater consistency the interests of world imperialism.6

Anti-Pabloism’s belief in ‘Stalinism counterrevolutionary through and through’ was, thus, a revisionist break with this programme in the direction of Shachtman’s third-campism. The fact that the 1938 programme clearly overstated the extent of ‘genuine Bolshevism’ in the Soviet bureaucracy, reflecting the extent to which Trotsky’s (believed) correspondence with Russia was actually controlled by Soviet secret service agents, does not alter this point.

How this bears on the present question is that comrade Downing explains the failure of the Trotskyists in 1939-48 merely “because the Stalinists and the imperialists had formed their popular fronts to defeat the revolution and assassinate the revolutionaries”.

Let us imagine, however, the counter-factual that the Stalinists and imperialists had assassinated no Trotskyists. The Trotskyists went into the war with less than 10,000 organised members worldwide. They were immediately split in 1939 over Soviet-defencism and the Hitler-Stalin pact (Shachtman’s tendency took half the international executive committee elected in 1938) and during the war were again split between supporters of dual defeatism, on the one side, and of the ‘proletarian military policy’, on the other - at least in China, Vietnam, France and Britain, and probably elsewhere. In the unusually favourable circumstances of Britain, where the Trotskyists supported strike action and the ‘official communists’ did not, the Workers International League - Revolutionary Communist Party ‘broke through’ to around 300 members in 1945; the Communist Party of Great Britain in March 1945 had 45,000 members.7

If the programmatic foundations of the Trotskyist movement had had radical political purchase on the political situation and the line of the Stalinists (the people’s front, socialism in one country and national roads to socialism, and the monolithic militarised party) had lacked this political purchase, the Trotskyists might have grown explosively: though still probably only to achieve a Russian ‘1905’ or Chinese ‘1925’, to make their movement a mass movement, not to be immediately in a position to take power in 1944-48. But this was not the situation.

Trotsky in 1938 was a general fighting the last war. He had argued that the fluidity of military operations in the Russian civil war reflected the low development of the forces of production in Russia rather than new military techniques,8 and he therefore anticipated for World War II the rapid development of ‘stalemated’ fronts like the 1914-18 western front.

And, secondly, Trotsky had been deported from France in October 1916, and had therefore not seen personally the moves towards extensive industrial planning and food rationing that occurred under Clemenceau in France from November 1916, in Britain under Lloyd George from December that year. He returned in 1917 into the chaos of the failed Russian attempts to manage food and other supplies both to the cities and to the armies. Meanwhile, in Germany the Hindenburg-Ludendorff dictatorship’s radical preference for army supply and munitions production dislocated (from late 1916) the limited planning and rationing arrangements that Germany had achieved in 1914-16.

Trotsky’s error

The design of the 1938 Transitional programme starts with the inflation and economic dislocation of Britain and France in 1914-16, and of Germany at the end of the war; hence the centrality of the demands for the sliding scale of wages (to combat inflation) and of hours (to combat unemployment produced by economic dislocation).

But, in fact, in 1939 the belligerent states went straight to directive planning, conscription and industrial mobilisation that wiped out unemployment, and to rationing and rent controls. And the western front operations in 1918 had shown how to break the stalemated lines - methods exploited in the Blitzkrieg, which made the dual-defeatist policy severely politically problematic. Hence Trotsky’s turn in spring 1940 to the “proletarian military policy” - and the splits this turn produced in the Trotskyist movement.

The 1938 error of military judgment (shared, it must be said, by the British and French high commands in 1939-40) also explains the failure of Trotsky’s policy towards the USSR. The Nazi conquest of western Europe set up not only the German invasion of the USSR, but also the response to it: a global popular front between the USSR, USA and UK, and mass mobilisation in the USSR under Stalinist leadership, rather than the Soviet bureaucracy being driven to split between leftwing defencists and rightwing defeatists. Stalemated fronts east and west, with European governments attempting to hang onto ‘free markets’ as long as possible, as in 1914-16, would have produced very different politics and ones to which the 1938 Transitional programme would have been fairly well adapted.

That said, the idea of ‘transitional programme’ and ‘transitional method’ has become a fetish of the Trotskyists, because they are no longer willing to defend the historical claims of their tendency against ‘socialist construction in one country’ and against ‘national roads to socialism’ or against the militarised, monolithic party (which most of them have actually adopted). But ‘transitional programme’ and ‘transitional demands’ are not originally Trotskyist: they come from a resolution of the Fourth Congress of Comintern in 1922 - albeit one that did not appear in the 1980 collection, Theses, resolutions and manifestos of the first four congresses of the Comintern.


The immediate background to this resolution was a debate that had been running since October 1917 about whether the minimum programme was superseded by the Russian seizure of power. Bukharin and his co-thinkers argued it was, Lenin that it was not.9 In Germany, Luxemburg at the founding congress of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in December 1918 argued that it was.10 At the Fourth Congress of Comintern, debate on the floor led the Russian delegation to withdraw to caucus, and at this caucus the formulation, ‘transitional demands’, was adopted. This formulation was pretty clearly a fudge to avoid a clear division on the matter debated.11

However, the issue had already been debated in pre-congress proceedings.12 And behind it was the underlying situation reflected in the congress’s decisions on the ‘united front’ and on the ‘workers’ government’: in particular, the situation of the KPD, which - after fusion with the majority of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany in 1920 - had become a mass party, but had lost a lot of members as a result of the ‘March action’ adventure in 1921.13 The problem was that communist parties, which had hoped that purging the right wing would leave them strengthened, turned out to be at best large minorities of the workers’ movement.

How to win the majority? The method proposed was to engage as far as possible in unity with the right wing on immediate demands (whether these were to be called ‘immediate’, ‘partial’, ‘minimum’ or ‘transitional’); in the struggles in question the communists would succeed in displaying themselves as the best fighters for the immediate demands, and the right wing as the real opponents of united action.

There is no case in which this policy has resulted in a minority communist or Trotskyist party becoming a majority party. Where communist parties have become majority parties of the working class, this has been through political circumstances - like wars - rather than by being ‘best fighters’ for immediate economic demands. Trotskyist groups have in several places acquired an ephemeral mass character through leadership of trade union struggles: thus in Saigon in the 1930s, in Sri Lanka and Bolivia in the 1940s-50s. But in all these cases problems of political questions - particularly that of government - have ended up derailing the Trotskyists.

I have argued in the book Revolutionary strategy that why the ‘united front’ policy, of which ‘transitional demands’ is part, has failed is because there is a flat inconsistency between the policy of the united front, which poses unity in diversity, and the militarised conception of the communist party, developed from the eighth party congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1919 and the second congress of Comintern in 1920 onwards. The militarised concept of the communist party precludes the communists persuading the majority of the working class that they are either more democratic or more unitarian than the pro-capitalist right wing of the movement.

In fact, we can go further than this. In October 1917 power was seized in the former tsarist empire by a coalition of the Bolsheviks, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (who were the majority party of the peasantry), and some much smaller groups, with the passive support of the Menshevik Internationalists. In February-March 1918 the German eastern front field army went back on the offensive, and the improvised Red Guards were unable to hold them off. The Bolshevik leadership agreed (narrowly) to capitulate to the Germans and agreed to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3.

But there was probably no majority for this course of action in the party at large, and certainly no majority for it in the country. The Left SRs broke with the government, and the Bolsheviks were driven to rig or suppress soviet elections. The Left SRs attempted an insurrection, followed by small-scale terrorism, to which the Bolsheviks responded with ‘red terror’. This history was far from being unreported in the west. It conveyed the impression of Bolshevism as a terrorist minoritarian regime.

The Russians (not just the Bolsheviks) almost certainly had no practical option other than to surrender at Brest-Litovsk.14 If they had not done so, the German army would have taken Petrograd, destroyed the regime, and (as the Germans and the Whites did in Finland) massacred the working class on a very large scale. The decision to capitulate was anti-democratic; but could be analysed as a regrettable, but necessary, emergency action overriding the majority.

What the communists in fact did at the second congress of Comintern in 1920 was the opposite. It was, in the Theses on the role of the communist party in the proletarian revolution, to theorise minority rule, on the basis that the working class as a class was necessarily represented by its ‘advanced part’, the party: so that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ means the dictatorship of the party.15

But this means that communists cannot speak about constitutional and governmental issues without exposing themselves as advocates of minority rule (and, at that, minority rule by a militarised party). This false re-theorisation was as much a betrayal of the historic programme of Marxism as the social-patriots’ pro-war line was. Hence the communists’ attempt to dodge the question of political power by talking only about economic issues, in the form of ‘transitional method’ - but equally in the form of the method of Britain’s road to socialism.


The question of the minimum programme in general is relatively secondary to Steve Freeman’s article, ‘Another Israel is possible’.16 It is framed by his argument that the workers’ movement has to advance proposals within the framework of the borders of mandate Palestine: it is only these that would comply with the requirements (in his view) of a ‘minimum programme’.

It is unavoidable to say a little about this issue. In 1920-22 the League of Nations (meaning, in practice, Britain and France) partitioned the Ottoman vilayet of Syria17 into four parts, giving Britain and France ‘mandates’ to run these. The four parts are modern ‘Syria’ (to France, to be the Muslim part of the French mandate); ‘Lebanon’ (to France, to be the national home for Levantine Christians); ‘Transjordan’, modern Jordan (to Britain, to be the Muslim part of the British mandate); and ‘Palestine’ (to be the national homeland for the Jews).

In 1920-21, in the exact same period, Britain partitioned the island of Ireland between the six counties of ‘Northern Ireland’, to be the national homeland for Ireland’s Protestants, and the 26 counties given to the ‘Irish Free State’ (expected to be Catholic),18 today’s republic of Ireland.

The age and the legitimacy of these two sets of border arrangements is identical. They both rest on nothing more than the power of the imperialists.

Now comrade Freeman (on behalf of the ‘Republican Labour Education Forum’) urges on us the policy that:

The aim of building a real and lasting peace must be a democratic, secular, federal republic of Israel and Palestine - one state and two nations - from the river to the sea. Twenty one million people, including Palestinian refugees, living in peace, with a more united working class movement and the hope of building a democratic commonwealth for all its citizens.

We have to ask whether comrade Freeman would equally urge on the Irish the policy that:

The aim of building a real and lasting peace must be a democratic, secular, federal republic of Loyalist and Nationalist - one state and two nations - from the border to the sea. Two million people, living in peace, with a more united working class movement and the hope of building a democratic commonwealth for all its citizens.

I rather doubt it; and if comrade Freeman is prepared to avow this policy for Ireland, I hope that it would serve to discredit his views.

It would, of course, be perfectly defensible to argue for a federal 32-county republic that could accommodate the Ulster loyalists to some extent;19 and for the same reason, it would be defensible to argue for an all-Syria federal republic that could accommodate the Hebrews.

We can present the same issue in a different form. Social democrats in 19th century Germany stood for the unification of Germany; they were divided between grossdeutsch tendencies, who wanted a unification that included German-speaking Austria, and kleindeutsch tendencies, who wanted a unification round Prussia. Comrade Freeman says:

The Israeli Mikha’el Macnair is sitting in Tel Aviv without any programme except to tail the economistic ‘minimalist’ reformism and hold on until the cavalry of revolutionary liberation arrives from Syria, Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

Should we say on this basis that, because German ’48-er and social democrat co-founder Wilhelm Liebknecht was on the grossdeutsch side of the German debate,

The Hessian Wilhelm Liebknecht is sitting in Leipzig without any programme except to tail the economistic ‘minimalist’ reformism and hold on until the cavalry of revolutionary liberation arrives from Austria or Prussia?

It should be obvious that this is mere nonsense. The right to national unification is, if it is anything, a democratic demand. It is a part of a minimum programme - and certainly in principle achievable within capitalism (see, for example, German or Italian unification) unless the imperialists prevent it, as they do in both Ireland and Syria.20

Beyond this, comrade Freeman’s argument is concerned to restrict the minimum programme to the ‘republican programme’. He still clings to the fantasy that the republic was an “achievable reform” in the tsarist empire of 1903, when in fact this would amount to the overthrow of the state.

He does so because he wants to cling to the idea of a ‘transitional programme’ for some future date; and to the idea that the ‘republican programme’ is a platform for some sort of broad-front coalition. To this extent, what I have said against comrade Downing applies with equal force to comrade Freeman.

If he was willing to dump the ‘transitional programme’ second-stage element, he might be able to think effectively about the place of the democratic republic in the minimum programme. As it is, he is forced to turn this into a variant of the Morning Star’s - and most of the Trotskyists’ - Possibilism.

  1. communistpartyofgreatbritainhistory.wordpress.com/2023/02/06/ussr-ticktin. I do not mean by this citation to endorse comrade Parker’s judgments on the issue.↩︎

  2. ‘Democracy and rights’, July 9 2015 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1066/democracy-and-rights); ‘Nation-state and nationalism’ July 16 2015 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1067/nation-state-and-nationalism); ‘Self-determination and communist policy’ July 23 2015 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1068/self-determination-and-communist-policy).↩︎

  3. Draft Programme, section 5, introduction: communistparty.co.uk/draft-programme/5-transition-to-communism.↩︎

  4. libcom.org/article/critique-german-social-democratic-program-mikhail-bakunin.↩︎

  5. D Stafford From anarchism to reformism: a study of the activities of Paul Brousse 1870-90 (Toronto 1970) is sympathetic to Brousse; I wrote last year on the connection with the politics of the official left, as they appear in Morning Star articles: ‘Blind leading the blind’ Weekly Worker July 27 2023 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1453/blind-leading-the-blind).↩︎

  6. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text2.htm#ussr.↩︎

  7. RCP: www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/upham/13upham.html#n20; CPGB: A Thorpe, ‘The membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1920-1945’ Historical Journal Vol 43 (2000), pp777-800 (down by 10,000 from the peak in 1943).↩︎

  8. More than one place in the section ‘Questions of military theory’ in B Pearce (trans) How the revolution armed vol 5: 1921-23 New Park 1981, pp299-429.↩︎

  9. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/06.htm (section VII); www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/rcp8th/03.htm.↩︎

  10. www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/31.htm.↩︎

  11. Debate in J Riddell (ed) Toward the united front: proceedings of the fourth congress of the Communist International, 1922 Leiden 2012, pp479-527. The Russian delegation proposal and comments on it are on pp631-33.↩︎

  12. D Gaido, ‘The origins of the transitional programme’ Historical Materialism Vol 26 (2018) pp87-117.↩︎

  13. On the unification see B Lewis (ed) and LT Lih (trans) Martov and Zinoviev: head to head in Halle London 2011; on the ‘March action’, see B Lewis, ‘Before, during and after March 1921’ Weekly Worker supplement May 6 2021 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1346/supplement-before-during-and-after-march).↩︎

  14. M Mulholland, ‘Distrust your government’ (Weekly Worker March 14 2024: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1482/distrust-your-government) argues that revolutionary war might have been a preferable option. This is possible, but the likelihood of the loss of Petrograd if the German offensive continued, I think, calls it into question.↩︎

  15. www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch03a.htm.↩︎

  16. I guess the editors’ title rather than his own.↩︎

  17. Before it was an Ottoman vilayet, Syria was the Roman imperial diocese of Oriens; then the centre of the Umayyad Caliphate; after that a province of the Abbasid Caliphate; then, after the crusades and before the Ottoman conquest, a vassal of Mamluk Egypt.↩︎

  18. There was, in fact, some ‘religious cleansing’ of 26-county Protestants after partition: see R Bury Buried lives: the Protestants of southern Ireland Dublin 2017.↩︎

  19. See, for example, www.thepensivequill.com/2018/12/eire-nua-proposals-for-federal-republic.html.↩︎

  20. The imperialists did prevent grossdeutsch unification by at Versailles barring the rump of German-speaking Austria from unifying with Germany - against the wishes of the Social Democratic Party of Austria.↩︎