Failed revolutions

Danny Hammill reports on the CPGB debate on ‘the transitional programme’, opened by a speaker from the International Bolshevik Tendency

Representatives from both the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ wings of Trotskyism attended the July 19 meeting in central London. Apart from the IBT, comrades from Workers Fight, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Socialist Democracy Group and the Trotskyist Unity Group were present. Bob Pitt of the Socialist Campaign Group and comrades from the Revolutionary Democratic Group (faction of the SWP) and the Socialist Labour Party also attended, as well as some visitors from Japan and the United States.

Comrade Barbara Duke of the IBT - publishers of the Marxist Bulletin - gave the opening. She usefully reminded us that Leon Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional programme (TP)was written primarily for the Socialist Workers Party of the USA and was co-authored with James Cannon. For some this fact alone could indicate a potential weakness with the TP.

Comrade Duke outlined the general approach of the TP. It was rooted, she said, firmly in the approach adopted by the first four congresses of the Third International. The transitional approach, insisted comrade Duke, flows from “day-to-day struggles of the workers”. In that sense, the slogans and demands “picked up” by those advocating the TP are “chosen by the workers themselves”. We must “start with the existing consciousness of the workers”. The programme must apply to “real movements” and it “must reflect society as it is”. The TP also takes the “long-term view”.  

Comrade Duke denied that her approachwas economistic - it raised economic slogans merely “as a starting point”. Trotskyists, she continued, “do not pick up on each and every demand of the workers” - which appeared to contradict her earlier statement. As comrades from the CPGB later pointed out, where is the role of science in the ‘transitional method’ as outlined by our Trotskyist friends? These comrades strongly give the impression that it is the job of Marxists always to place themselves slightly to the left of the existing consciousness of the workers, whatever level that might be.

The Stalinised Comintern, argued comrade Duke, represented a return to the method of the minimum-maximum programme. She also maintained that Engels, in his 1872 preface to the German edition, dumped the minimum-maximum aspects of the Communist manifesto which had become “antiquated” - ie, the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of section two (such as nationalisation of the “means of communication and transport”).

The TP stands the test of time, said comrade Duke. It is all very well accusing the TP of being “catastrophist”. World War II did represent “a clear choice” between either socialism or barbarism. Sure, continued the comrade, the “future predictions” of the TP never came to materialise. Neither fascist counterrevolution nor proletarian revolution triumphed. (In fact, deviating from the script, the Red Army tanks extended the range of Stalin’s bureaucratic socialism - ie, anti-socialism. US imperialism emerged from World War II as an imperialist colossus. There was an unprecedented post-war boom.) However, said comrade Duke, we should be looking for the programmatic essence of the TP. After all, she added, the TP was never actually completed in any real sense. Comrade Duke quoted James Cannon to this effect - amongst its other inadequacies, a “theoretical expression of the epoch” is lacking.

For comrade Duke and the IBT - and most Trotskyists - the situation now is basically the same as it was in 1938. The objective conditions are ripe, if not over-ripe. But the subjective factor is still the determinate - ie, we continue to witness a crisis of leadership. This was hotly contested. Comrades from the CPGB, and Dave Osler from the Socialist Democracy Group, retorted to the followers of Trotskyist orthodoxy that what we have is more a crisis of class consciousness than leadership.

A programme must take us up to the seizure of power, insisted comrade Duke - hence the vital importance of the “workers’ government” slogan. This meant, according to the comrade, that the TP must include “simple demands”: the job of revolutionaries is “to fill the gap between the objective and subjective”. This surely points to another central weakness of the TP.Based on the supposed epochal “stagnation of the productive forces” and the belief that economic crisis - and revolution - was imminent, Leon Trotsky thought that even the most minor demands would spark off the world revolution. Debatable even in the 1930s, post-World War II Trotskyism made this an article of faith.

One of the most unconvincing aspects of the general IBT thesis was that their work inside the SLP was a sterling example of the transitional method in action. Specifically, we were referred to the Marxist Bulletin’s ‘Marxist programme for the SLP’. The IBT went through all the SLP policy documents picking out those it could paint with a left gloss. For instance, the SLP’s call for a four-day week without loss of pay can be ‘reinterpreted’ as the TP’s demand for a sliding scale of wages. This proved to be “immensely popular with the Scargillite membership”, said comrade Duke. The same goes for nationalisation. “There is an audience for transitional demands,” she concluded.

This is all counterposed to the CPGB’s “minimum” - possibly Erfurtian - approach to the SLP. In the mind of comrade Duke and fellow IBTers, the CPGB abandoned the struggle for politics in the run-up to the SLP’s congress last December. Instead, the CPGB concentrated its fire on the single issue of democracy. So much for the CPGB’s commitment to the transitional method, said the IBT comrades. The “CPGB’s heart was not in the SLP project”, to use comrade Duke’s asinine words.

Comrade Mark Fischer of the CPGB pointed out that this particular accusation by the IBT was pure hypocrisy - the CPGB adopted the ‘democracy tactic’ precisely to “give itself a space to fight” for communist politics. The IBT, on the other hand, had openly called upon all the left groups to liquidate themselves and then “creep into” the SLP as individuals. It demanded that the ‘outsider’ Weekly Worker be closed down. In the meantime, the IBT pretended to dissolve its ‘external’ organisation in Britain in a mock display of pro-SLP loyalism. The IBT/Marxist Bulletin has now abandoned the SLP!

The transitional method is a weapon against opportunism and sectarianism - this was the message rammed home by the pro-TPers. “The 20th century is a history of failed revolutions,” observed comrade Duke. Hopefully the next century will be different, if we are armed with the TP.

From this perspective, one that fetishises the 1938 TP, the CPGB must indeed look like it “wants to have it both ways” (Alan Gibson - IBT). The CPGB wants the transitional method and the minimum-maximum programme. Does the CPGB have a “unique version” of the minimum-maximum programme, one not contaminated by the centrism of the Erfurt programme of German social democracy, the Second International and ‘official communism’? Why is the CPGB “so reluctant to embrace Trotskyism”? (A common chorus these days.  A comrade from Workers Fight ventured the Freudian opinion that CPGB members were de facto Trotskyists but their “inner psychology” prevented them from admitting it). Comrade Duke implied that the real reason for the CPGB’s ‘anti-Trotskyism’ lies in the fact that it is a bit like the Revolutionary Communist Party. Like the RCP (now LM), the CPGB “thinks it is new and different”.

Comrade Marcus Larsen (CPGB) tried to introduce a note of history. Engels rejected the minimum-maximum demands ... “of the centrists”. Contrary to popular Trotskyist myth, Lenin in his April theses did not suddenly embrace the ‘Trotskyist’ notion of the transitional programme. There is “not necessarily a contradiction between transitional methods and the minimum-maximum programme,” suggested comrade Larsen. He also posed the following serious question: why is it that virtually all the post-World War II Trotskyist groups collapsed into social democracy and left economism? What happened to the TP safeguard?

The comrade from the RDG developed this theme. You can have “different kinds of transitional programmes” - even a series of them. The Bolsheviks’ old minimum programme was transitional. When the tsar was overthrown, Lenin decided that they needed a different programme - ie, different transitional demands. The fatal flaw in the Erfurt programme, stated the RDG comrade, was not its minimum-maximum nature. It lay in the fact that it was not republican. This was in sharp contrast to the Bolsheviks’ minimum programme, which was republican - and democratic. A revolutionary programme for Britain also needs to be of a republican minimum-maximum nature.

Bob Pitt made some useful criticisms of the TP, even if they were essentially from the right. The period has fundamentally changed since 1938 - this can only mean that the TP is “fundamentally flawed”. Trotsky’s demands were based on the perspective of imminent economic collapse, general catastrophe, etc. With the power of hindsight, said comrade Pitt, the TP’s talk of “the stagnation of productive forces” comes across as nonsense. Transitional demands are purely propagandist in this period. In fact they are “irrelevant”. We need new minimum-maximum demands - “veryminimum” ones. For him the call for a £4.61 an hour minimum wage would help to “unify” the workers.

“Bob Pitt just replicates the mistakes of the Second International right,” replied comrade John Bridge of the CPGB. Its approach was devoid of any sort of transitional politics - it is minimal. Comrade Bridge detected a “false debate” being set up between transitional methods and the minimum-maximum approach. Virtually all Trotskyists treat the minimum-maximum programme “as the source of all evil”. They were brought up by their sects to unthinkingly regurgitate the ‘anti-minimum’ mantra.

With a revolutionary minimum-maximum programme, continued comrade Bridge, “we are talking about what the workers should fight for, in order to make themsleves into a class” - about “how the workers are readied politically to seize power”. Communists aim to equip the workers with a scientific and hegemonic programme. This means not bowing to spontaneity, unlike the comrades in the IBT who want to lend strikes and other essentially trade unionist politics “a Trotskyist coloration”. Comrade Bridge said we need a programme for attacking the state. Communists distinguish themselves by bringing to the fore political questions like Ireland and the British constitution. They also propose to fight for democracy - eg, a federal republic, using revolutionary, proletarian methods.

Comrade Bridge concluded by agreeing with one statement of comrade Duke. Yes, “the 20th century is a history of failures of programme”. This only makes it all the more urgent to provide the advanced section of our class with a guide to action. Our class needs the truth, needs to question everything. A revolutionary minimum-maximum programme, as the foundation of a non-ideological - ie, a non-confessional - Communist Party, can unite the advanced workers. (Comrade Bridge rebuffed the silly and dishonest accusations of the IBT, and others, that the CPGB has been “coy” about the crimes of Stalin and ‘official communism’. Our tendency has offered its opinions openly, in print, since 1981.)

There were other interesting contributions. Comrade Ian Donovan, ex-IBTer, held up the old Spartacist League theory of ‘inter-penetrated peoples’ as a good example of how the transitional method can be applied. “Economic slogans” can break down the “communal divisions” in Northern Ireland, suggested comrade Donovan. He also objected to the idea that workers’ militias are a minimum demand, as they are presented in Jack Conrad’s Draft programme for the CPGB.

Mark Osborn of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (minority) talked about the CPGB’s “Moss Side disaster”. During the local elections in May, the CPGB’s election addresses - incredibly - called for the abolition of the age of consent, the legalisation of drugs, etc. Clearly madness. Left groups need to concentrate and organise around “slogans that can penetrate the movement” - such as defending the NHS and free education. These are the sort of slogans that “can unite the left”. We can all agree on these bread and butter issues “in the here and now”, said comrade Osborn. Presumably we should drop all the ‘awkward’ political stuff.