Comrades looking for an example of why the Socialist Party is going down the plughole should cast an eye over the front page of The Socialist of January 8. In a small article, we are informed that the SP now fights for “a £7 an hour minimum wage, with no exceptions”. This is a requirement for workers to enjoy what the SP calls - without a hint of any irony that I can detect - “a half decent living standard” (my emphasis).
The justification for SP’s adoption of a minimum wage that it estimates is about “half” of that required to lift people out of poverty is very instructive. The £7 an hour figure is plumped for because “the low pay unit has recently said that the European union decency threshold now stands at £6.90 an hour”. Further noting that “a number of unions are now calling for a £5 an hour minimum wage”, the SP tells us that it also “supports the campaign for [this] as the first step towards ensuring a £7 an hour minimum wage”.
This logic may be miserably timid, convoluted and self-contradictory - but at least SP is consistent about it. Replying last year to the criticism from its dissident Merseyside regional committee that the national leadership was trying to “water down our demands for a £6 per hour to £4.60 as a step towards £6” (MRC statement September 26 1998), the Taaffe leadership attempted to explain its thinking thus:
“We have always argued in party material for £6 per hour. But at times, we also have had to make it clear we support trade union demands for a minimum of £4.61. In our work for the Unison demonstration we should not appear to be counterposing our demand for £6 per hour to Unison’s demand for £4.61, but rather support the campaign for £4.61, while at the same time pointing out in our material that it is not sufficient to lift people out of poverty” (SP executive committee statement, November 11 1998).
OK, so the argument goes like this. SP’s preferred minimum wage is £7, plumped for after the EU decided it could be afforded. This is a minimum that SP itself characterises as “half decent” - that is, it is a poverty wage below the real level of subsistence. However, in its practical intervention in the workers’ movement, SP is at pains not to ‘counterpose’ its left reformist demands to those of the trade union bureaucracy. Thus, in practice, SP agitates for an even lower minimum - £5 an hour - because it does not want to offend the various trade union leaderships that support this.
It is very easy to laugh at this miserable tailism of the official union tops. Clearly SP’s politics are an incoherent left version of the Labour reformism that politically dominates - and suffocates - our movement. However, the important point to note is the question of method.
The SP leadership would no doubt dub all of this an application of ‘transitional’ demands. While it takes a particularly rightist, reformist and muddled form with the SP, I think in essence such pathetic demands do result from the Trotskyite ‘transitional’ method. It underlines once again the profound superiority of the programmatic method defended by our own organisation - a minimum/maximum approach.
Ian Donovan of the journal Revolution and Truth penned a useful critique (Weekly Worker October 29 1998) of the draft programme worked on collectively by a number of Communist Party comrades and then written up by Jack Conrad. He expresses a common misconception when he writes that we seem unable to make up our minds
“whether [our] ‘minimum programme’ really is a minimum programme of reforms under capitalism, or whether it is a transitional programme aimed at providing a bridge from ‘bread and butter’ reforms to the overthrow of capitalism itself”.
Essentially, the comrade confuses a minimum programme with a minimal approach. Thus, he is genuinely baffled by what we include as our “immediate demands”: “Just as much as ‘councils of action’ are out of place in a minimum programme, so is the demand for a workers’ militia!”
In fact, our starting point is what the working class and oppressed sections of the population need. As it is based on profit, real capitalism constantly negates human need. Therefore the logic of the struggle for our immediate demands poses the task of overthrowing the system as a whole. The fight for a minimum wage is an excellent example of what we mean.
Rather than adopting a left version of the demands of the official movement (which are essentially pro-capitalist, based on what is ‘sensible’ within the parameters of existing society), our starting point is what working people need for subsistence, to physically and culturally reproduce themselves in contemporary capitalism. The category of ‘need’ therefore is an ever-expanding one. As technology expands, things that yesterday were items of ‘luxury’ - society’s access to them being necessarily limited - become necessities for all. This is the process we can see when we look at something like the internet. (see also John Walsh’s article in Weekly Worker December 17 1998).
Of course, the ‘transitional’ method of the SP has the advantage of avoiding the serious study and research a minimum programme like this entails for it to be credible. You just wait for what the bosses or the trade union bureaucrats offer, then position yourself slightly to the left of it.
It is pretty easy, but it is not Marxism.