Towards a common Socialist Alliance programme

A discussion contribution submitted by the Communist Party of Great Britain

Our Socialist Alliance conference on March 10 is to debate policy. Quite rightly, preparatory work began in mid-January. Yet it should be freely admitted that things started far too late. After all, virtually everyone expects a May 3 general election.

The intention is not to set about writing a general election manifesto by conference. That would be a complete disaster. Nor do we want to see one submission crudely pitted against another. The Socialist Workers Party bloc would, of course, be the winner. However, we all, including the SWP bloc, would be the loser. All parts of the Socialist Alliance have to be brought on board and into a process of rapprochement, and all have something valuable to contribute. That is why every viewpoint ought to be seriously considered and given due time and consideration.

March 10 (and the preceding preparatory meetings) must be used to patiently discover and carefully formulate what we have in common programmatically - ie, what we envisage for the Socialist Alliance in terms of ways, means and destination. Having done that, we can then honestly lay out our inevitable areas of disagreement.

In terms of the general election, what we actually stand on vis-à -vis principle will be voted upon by the March 10 conference (minorities, of course, retaining their right to differ and openly criticise where they see fit). Such a democratic decision-making process will firmly underpin the manifesto, which as a work of literature as well as politics must surely be initially left to one trusted individual and then finally amended and honed by the liaison or executive committees.

Besides the eclectic 80-20 proposals agreed by a 1997 conference majority - and revised by the West Midlands SA for the Euro elections in 1999 - a number of constituent affiliates and supporting organisations have submitted outlines of their views - Leeds Left Alliance, Workers Power, Bedfordshire SA, Leicester SA, Revolutionary Democratic Group, Merseyside SA, etc. As for the CPGB, this submission will first explain our general approach to programme and then present our draft Socialist Alliance programme - we will shorten this into a précis for the working group on a common programme.

The need for a Socialist Alliance programme is pressing and arises from the objective needs of our movement. Without such a democratically debated and constantly tested and therefore adjustable compass we operate blind or according to the whim of this or that passing majority or set of office-holders. We are thereby prone to chase every fad or succumb to short-term temptations and thus fall into confusion and incoherence.

An obvious starter. What is a programme? To begin with let us answer in the negative. For revolutionary socialists and communists a programme is not some list of admirable but abstract objectives - eg, social justice, decency, equality and ecological sustainability. Nor is our programme a binding doctrinal credo, agreement with it being a requirement of sect membership. Nor is it a futile appeal for the great and the good to improve the lot of Britain's 'socially excluded' and overcome 'third world' poverty. Nor is it a general election manifesto with up to the moment attacks on Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the New Labour project along with barbed comments about the latest news - eg, Ken Livingstone's New Yorkist solutions for the London underground system versus John Prescott's PPP proposals.

Our programme must be a long-term guide to action for the working class itself and should be informed by the most advanced theory available.

Hence our Socialist Alliance programme represents the crystallisation of world historical experience and logically unfolds key defining principles and an overall strategic approach, taking us from the present day to the winning of state power by the working class and then universal liberation.

Those who are distinguished from other sections of the working class only by a single-minded commitment to the general interest have a duty to formulate a clear road map that will help take our movement step by step towards our long-term goal of general freedom. Lenin made this exact point time and time again during the course of his struggle to equip the working class in the Russian empire with a mass working class party that could lead the overthrow of tsarism and then carry through that revolution uninterruptedly to the tasks of socialism. Indeed it could be said that the prime purpose of the celebrated paper Iskra was the unity of all revolutionary socialists and communists around a definite Marxist programme.

The Socialist Alliance programme is the foundation upon which everything else is built, including in time our exact organisational forms and constantly shifting tactics. The programme links our continuous and what should be all-encompassing agitational work with our ultimate aim of a communitarian, or communist, system. Our programme thus establishes the basis for agreed action and is the lodestar, the point of reference, around which the voluntary unity of the Socialist Alliance is built and concretised. Put another way, the programme represents the dialectical unity between theory and practice.

Every clause of the programme must be easy to assimilate and understand for 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. Here we can well learn from the Communist manifesto, the Erfurt programme of classical German social democracy, and the first and second programmes of communists in Russia.

Of course, it goes without saying that "every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programmes", as Karl Marx famously once quipped in reply to the brittle sectarians of his day. But neither Marx nor anyone else genuinely standing within the Marxist tradition has ever denied the tremendous importance of a programme. It was Eduard Bernstein, the father of revisionism, who sought to belittle the programme and elevate the organisation of the party into a thing in and for itself.

Unfortunately we find a distinct echo of that shortsighted attitude in the established approach of our SWP allies. Their founder-leader, Tony Cliff, actually warned of the "danger" of adopting a programme. What was perceived as encouraging recruits appears to have been the sole guide to practice. A democratically agreed programme would certainly have created palpable difficulties for the SWP's many and sudden about-turns under Cliff. But more importantly, mistakes might have been avoided or at least minimised. Much to the discredit of the incumbent quadrivirate of Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos, Chris Bambery and John Rees, Cliff met with no open opposition.

So the SWP has never produced a programme - though it is rumoured that in the early 1970s comrade Harman penned a draft. Needless to say, it still gathers dust. Perhaps now it should see the light of day.

'Programmatically' the SWP is naked apart from its thumbnail, or figleaf, 'What we stand for' column in Socialist Worker and the recently adopted and thoroughly minimalist Action programme. Except for those totally in thrall to the economistic 'transitional method', it is clear that the former contains some vital principles, but no overall strategic thread. On the other hand the latter does not even challenge the constitutional monarchy system in the United Kingdom let alone the global system of commodity production.

Let us now turn to the Socialist Alliance programme. Its structure should be closely connected with its content. Our programme must therefore follow an inner logic. Each section, each statement, each demand logically leading to another and to the final conclusion that socialists must unite within a single democratic and centralist party.

We divide our Socialist Alliance programme into six distinct, but connected sections. The opening remarks are a brief preamble describing the origins of the Socialist Alliance and the decision to produce a programme. The first numbered section 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 here are the immediate economic and political measures which are required if the peoples of Britain are to live a full and decent life in the here and now. Such a minimum or immediate programme is, admittedly, technically feasible within the confines of present-day advanced capitalism. In actual fact, though, it can only be realised in its totality by way of revolution.

From these radical foundations the character of the British revolution and the position of the various classes and strata can be presented.

Next, again logically, comes the workers' government in Britain and the worldwide transition to socialism and then communism. Here is our maximum section of the programme. Finally the need for all partisans of the working class to unite in the Socialist Alliance itself is dealt with.

The essential organisational principles of democracy and unity in action are stated and we underline in no uncertain terms why the Socialist Alliance must facilitate criticism and the discussion of differences.

What follows is the draft Socialist Alliance programme which we submit to the March 10 policy conference in the spirit of comradeship.

It will be readily appreciated that our draft Socialist Alliance programme has no place for long historic explanations or passing facts and fleeting details, relevant only to a certain year, let alone a particular day.

Our programme must be as short and concise as possible. Everything that is not essential should be kept out. Engels rightly insisted that, "All that is superfluous in a programme weakens it." Our Socialist Alliance programme therefore consists where possible of pithy statements, statements that are well honed and can serve as slogans.

The programme deals with principles. Again because of that we give no space to tactical tasks or explanations; this ought to be left to pamphlets and, when we have it, a regular political paper.

On this subject Lenin made the following telling point: "The programme should leave questions of means open, allowing the choice of means to the militant organisations and to Party congresses that determine the tactics of the Party. Questions of tactics, however, can hardly be introduced into the programme (with the exception of the most important questions, questions of principle such as the attitude to other fighters against the autocracy). Questions of tactics will be discussed by the Party newspaper as they arise and will be eventually decided at Party congresses."

Our programme, if it is adopted as a generally correct approach, will therefore not of necessity need rewriting every couple of years, but will serve as a long-term guide that will hopefully need modification only in terms of big developments and unexpected changes.

Because it is intended to be a long-term guide, the programme is of supreme importance. It is therefore quite natural for us to take great pains in finalising our Socialist Alliance programme and then to guard against any attempts to water it down.