SWP changes

Under the buckling pressure of the Socialist Alliance the Socialist Workers Party has been forced into adopting more and more of a programme. Excellent. After shunning any hint of programmatic commitment for decades the SWP is at last telling us what it believes in and crucially how it - or at least the Socialist Alliance - should go about arriving there.

Unfortunately the pinched outline submitted in preparation for the Socialist Alliance's March 10 conference in Birmingham is - deliberately - vague to the point of constituting a real danger. The thing could be read as an out-and-out reform programme whereby capitalism is to be slowly made more humane before at some point in time it clicks over into - a state - socialism. Of course, as a guide to action such a road to 'socialism' leads to disaster. For example, Chile 1973.

Our SWP allies might be tempted to argue that their programmatic outline is designed for the Socialist Alliance alone. That it reflects some lowest-level common denominator, upon which all can agree, that it falls far short of what the SWP actually seeks to obtain. If so - and we earnestly hope it is not the case - then it marks out the SWP as a sect.

The task of communists - ie, Marxists - is to always bring to the fore the general interests of the whole working class movement. We have, or should have, no special credo, which separates us, or marks us out. Only a sect preaches one thing to chosen initiates and another publicly. Indeed it would be perverse in the extreme for the SWP not to strive might and main to equip - through democratic debate and agreement - other socialist and working class forces with what it considers to be the most accurate, most safe, most direct road map to the desired future.

The Socialist Alliance programme must be a programme for the entire working class. That is exactly what the CPGB has presented to the Socialist Alliance in the form of its draft.

Being an outline, the SWP's presentation leaves much unsaid. No description of classes and class relations. No stand on the contradictory process of globalisation. No sense of history. Nevertheless, though the SWP's submission is introduced as a "contribution to the establishment of a common 'minimum' programme", the maximum aim of "a socialist world" and "a more extensive programme for socialist change" is included. Put another way, the SWP finds itself advocating a minimum-maximum programme - not of the revolutionary kind advocated by the Bolsheviks, but the centrist kind characteristic of classical German social democracy.

Not that there are no worthwhile demands. Full employment, a 35-hour week with no loss of pay, the right to lifelong education, an end to homelessness. Indeed, compared with what the SWP has said one can detect some micro advances. Eg, there is an explicit call to "end arms spending". True, this is wide open to pacifist interpretation. Nevertheless, previously the SWP has talked merely of "slashing arms spending".

The CPGB is much clearer. As a matter of principle we are against the capitalist state having even one penny or even one person for its armed forces. At the same time though we stress that any class aspiring to become the ruling class must as a precondition arm itself. First as a desire in the collective mind, finally in consummation on the streets. The working class needs a powerful militia to protect and further its universal interests. Without that, talk of socialism is no more than empty phrase-mongering.

Another tentative step forward is to be found under the heading, 'Political structure'. The SWP says: "Abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords." Remember this comes from an organisation which voted on the Socialist Alliance's Liaison Committee in opposition to a militant campaign on the monarchy. Instead of taking the lead, our majority seems intent on chasing votes. Worse, much worse, in Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance the SWP's benighted full-timer has been militantly campaigning to remove republican demands from the Luton election address - again, you understand, so as not to frighten royalist voters. Unless one is guided by a correct programme, such electoralist cretinism is inevitable.

Obviously there remains some notable lacunas. What, for example, is to replace the monarchy? How will the SWP answer that? The comrades want a republic, yes. But do they have no aim short of a socialist republic? What about self-determination for Scotland and Wales? What about Ireland and the British-Irish? Do they want the break-up of Britain? What about voluntary unity in an England-Scotland-Wales federal republic? So far all we hear is silence.

In sum there is no bridge joining, or systematically linking, the struggles of today with the goal of working class rule. As the SWP commands, for the time being, a majority in the Socialist Alliance, this is no internal matter. It concerns us all.

1. Programme and the SWP

Both to show how far the SWP has come, and how far we in the Socialist Alliance have yet to go, it is necessary to tie together the final threads of our previous discussions on Bolshevism and programme and move on to critically examine the shortcomings of Trotsky's famous transitional programme. The way forward - not only for the SWP, but the whole Socialist Alliance - will then start to become clearer.

Under Tony Cliff, the SWP's founder-leader, the role of revolutionaries in a country like ours was seen as twofold. In the here and now support and give an SWP coloration to bread-and-butter issues like the minimum wage and trade union rights. That is practical politics, which in spite of the grandiloquent phrases about the logic of the struggle, remains firmly within the narrow horizon of the present system and the UK constitutional monarchy state.

Then in the indefinite future lies the socialist millennium. As there is no revolutionary situation in Britain, that exists in the realm of propaganda, where the ideologically defined sects engage in a primeval battle for supremacy - the SWP appearing as of this moment triumphant over once mighty rivals: eg, 'official communism', the WRP founded by Gerry Healy and Peter Taaffe's rapidly disintegrating Socialist Party in England and Wales.

The minimum, or immediate, programmatic demand for a federal republic and a "more generous democracy" advanced by the Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB never had a place in comrade Cliff's world view. The only republic Cliff willingly countenanced was the socialist republic.

In the meantime his SWP gave a left gloss, or alibi, to Blair and his programme. The SWP campaigned for and enthusiastically welcomed the election of the Blair government in May 1997. Subsequently the SWP called for a 'yes' vote in the Scottish and Welsh referendums; a 'yes' vote over the Good Friday deal for Northern Ireland; and a 'yes' vote for the 'presidential' Greater London mayor (thankfully the SWP's outline for the Socialist Alliance says we should now "oppose the cabinet and mayoral system in local government" - presumably that means actively exposing it in any future referendums and not voting 'yes').

Evidently till recently the SWP has been content to leave initiative around high politics to New Labour, top civil servants and the bourgeois establishment. No wonder Cliff was determined to rubbish Lenin. His Bolsheviks were committed to a minimum or immediate programme whereby the working class would exercise hegemony in the struggle for democracy and a republic in Russia; something to be crowned by the seizure of power by the workers at the head of the peasant masses (the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry).

In marked contrast Cliff eschewed any kind of testable and democratically agreed programme. To have a programme was to court questioning of his autocratic leadership style and was therefore best avoided.

That is, until 1998, when the SWP's 'Action programme' suddenly appeared. Here we find no democracy - rather a list of unexceptional minimalist demands: stopping closures and the nationalisation of failed concerns; a 35-hour week with no loss of pay; a £4.61 minimum wage; ending privatisation; repealing the anti-trade union laws; state control over international trade in order to curb speculation; an increase in welfare spending and slashing the arms bill; full employment so as to boost demand.

As noted above, three years later there appears to be a certain hardening up. The SWP's programme for the Socialist Alliance is slightly less minimalist and even contains a brief mention of the maximum demand for socialism.

Anyway, in order to provide authority for the 'Action programme' it was backed with reference to Comintern's 'Theses on tactics', agreed at its 3rd Congress in June 1921, and Trotsky's 1934 'A programme of action for France' (see A Callinicos International Socialism No81, winter 1998; and J Rees Socialist Review January 1999). But the boldest claim is that it was premised on essentially the same conditions which prompted Trotsky's 1938 Transitional programme. This came from Tony Cliff himself (see T Cliff Trotskyism after Trotsky London 1999, p82).

2. Transitional programme

As most readers will be aware, Cliff distinguished himself from orthodox Trotskyism during the immediate aftermath of World War II. He was able to recognise the palpable reality of capitalist boom and the inappropriateness of Trotsky's Transitional programme. In my view Trotsky was badly mistaken even in 1938.

Trotsky believed that capitalism was more than just decadent and moribund. Capitalism faced immediate extinction, was experiencing its "death agony" (L Trotsky The transitional programme New York 1997, p111). As a system it could no longer develop the productive forces. The introduction of new machines and technology provided no answer to chronic stagnation. Nor in general can there be in the epoch of "decaying capitalism" systematic social reforms or a raising of the masses' living standards.

Therefore, Trotsky concluded, defence of existing economic gains through demanding a "sliding scale of wages" and hours would virtually spontaneously trigger a final and apocalyptic collision with capital. The question of democracy was likewise reduced to merely defence of the existing "rights and social conquests of workers" (ibid p115).

In explaining his programme of transitional demands Trotsky takes to task the minimum-maximum programmes of "classical" social democracy. Most doctrinaire Trotskyites interpret this religiously, as a final judgement from on high, damning the minimum-maximum programme per se.

Of course, the Bolsheviks too had a minimum programme. It mapped out a road under conditions of tsarist autocracy, which would culminate in a democratic republic born of a popular revolution. Economically the minimum programme did not envisage Russia going beyond the norms of capitalist commodity production. Nevertheless at the level of regime Russia was to be ruled over by the working class in alliance with the peasant masses.

State power in the form of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat and peasantry was the bridge which united the minimum and maximum sections of the programme. The Bolsheviks were committed to using the salient of state power to help spark the socialist revolution in the countries of advanced capitalism.

With the aid of the socialist west Russia could then embark on the transition to socialism (the first stage of communism) without the necessity of a second, specifically socialist, revolution. The workers' and peasants' revolution against tsarism would thereby - given the right internal and external conditions and circumstances - be made permanent. It would proceed uninterruptedly from the tasks of political democracy to the maximum programme and the tasks of leaving behind commodity production, the wages' system and bourgeois right.

The fall of the tsar in February 1917 and the emergence of a protracted dual power situation - a bourgeois provisional government (class content being determined by politics, not personnel) alongside which stood the workers' and peasants' soviets - caused Lenin to modify - not, as Cliff erroneously contends, "break" with - his minimum programme. As argued in last week's article, the revolutionary dictatorship (rule) of the workers and peasants was concretised in the slogan, 'All power to the workers', soldiers' and peasants' soviets'.

In defence of their own economistic practice, Trotsky's latter-day disciples - Cliff included - have woefully misrepresented the history of Bolshevism and Leninism. As a direct by-product they stupidly reject, as a matter of supposed principle, the concept of a minimum section of the party programme - ie, a logically designed series of immediate demands and perspectives under the socio-economic conditions of capitalism which, in the orchestrated struggle to fulfil them, transform the workers into a class that is ready to seize state power.

As an aside, Trotskyite economism too explains why in International Socialism No81 Alex Callinicos can quote Comintern's 'Theses on tactics' and simultaneously claim it as a repudiation of the minimum programme per se and as a pretext for the SWP's 'Action programme' - which is in actual fact nothing more than a minimalist programme of the centrist type, which could easily be met within capitalism - and within the existing constitution to boot. The crucial question of state power is entirely absent.

Let us quote Callinicos's quote: "The communist parties do not put forward minimum programmes which could serve to strengthen and improve the tottering foundations of capitalism. The communists' main aim is to destroy the capitalist system. But in order to achieve their aim the communist parties must put forward demands expressing the immediate needs of the working class. The communists must organise mass campaigns to fight for these demands regardless of whether they are compatible with the continuation of the capitalist system. The communist parties should be concerned not with the viability and competitive capacity of capitalist industry or the stability of the capitalist economy, but with proletarian poverty, which cannot and must not be endured any longer ...

"In place of the minimum programme of centrism and reformists, the Communist International offers a struggle for the concrete demands of the proletariat which, in their totality, challenge the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat and mark out the different stages of the struggle for its dictatorship" (A Alder [ed] Theses, resolutions and manifestos of the first four congresses of the Third International London 1980, pp285-6).

Clearly the target of Comintern is not the minimum programme as such. Rather it is the minimum programme of "socialisation or nationalisation" put forward by the centrists and reformists - which was to be achieved peacefully in an attempt to ameliorate the conditions of the workers, boost demand and thereby stabilise society (ibid p285). As the resolution explicitly states, the understanding that capitalism cannot bring about the "long-term improvement of the proletariat" does not imply that the workers have to "renounce the fight for immediate practical demands until after it has established its dictatorship" (ibid p285). Quite the reverse.

Equally the intended target of Trotsky's 1938 aside on the minimum programme was not Leninism, but pre-World War I social democracy, epitomised by the German party of Bebel, Kautsky, Bernstein, Noske, David and Scheidemann. Like the Bolsheviks it arranged its programme - written by Kautsky - in two sections.

The minimum programme "limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society". Furthermore, it must be emphasised, these reforms were within the framework of kaiserdom. As Engels, and in her turn Rosa Luxemburg, bitterly complained, the timorous minimum programme of German social democracy declined to even raise the republican demand for the abolition of the monarchy and the imperial constitution. Incidentally Engels argued that the working class "can only come to power under the form of the democratic republic" (F Engels MECW Vol 27, London 1990, p228).

True the maximum programme of German social democracy "promised" socialism (see K Kautsky The class struggle New York 1917). But between the minimum and maximum programme there was, said Trotsky, no bridge. Indeed, as Trotsky explains, the right and centrist leaders had "no need for such a bridge", since the word "socialism" is only used for "holiday speechifying" (L Trotsky The transitional programme New York 1997, p114).

Trotsky warned his tiny band of followers, organised under the tight umbrella of the so-called Fourth International, that it would be a terrible mistake to "discard" the programme of old "minimal" demands "to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness" (ibid pp114-115). Nonetheless, simply because capitalism was viewed as being in absolute decline, every serious economic demand of the workers "inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and the bourgeois state" (ibid p114).

In effect Trotsky was reduced by extreme organisational weakness into advocacy of a particular apocalyptic version of economism: ie, the workers would through strikes and other such elementary struggles find their "bridge" to revolutionary demands and revolutionary consciousness. With him eschatology was combined with revolutionary economism. This is what the much-vaunted Transitional programme amounts to.

No matter how we excuse Trotsky in terms of how things appeared on the eve of World War II, there is no escaping that he was wrong in method and periodisation. Trade union struggles are not hegemonic; nor was the capitalist general crisis permanent. Suffice to say, after World War II capitalism experienced its highest and longest boom. By organising a further deformation, or retreat, from the law of value with Keynesian welfarism, nationalisation and the Cold War arms economy, conditions were laid for a sustained, albeit temporary, spasm of capital accumulation.

Cliff readily admits how "excruciatingly painful" it was to face up to the reality that Trotsky's prognosis had not come true (T Cliff Trotskyism after Trotsky London 1999, p14). Yet he was one of the few voices of sanity on the left. While 'official communism' gained solace from the Stalinite mantra that capitalism's general crisis was getting ever deeper, orthodox Trotskyism repeated Trotsky's 1938 formulations in order to inoculate itself. Ernest Mandel arrogantly denied the new-found dynamism of the system with the certainty of a Moses. Gerry Healy demanded obeisance before the crisis of leadership and imminent collapse of capitalism throughout his horrid life. In contrast Cliff fearlessly tried to come to terms with reality. Arriving from Palestine in 1946, he was struck by the relatively high living standards of the working class and the existence of full employment in Britain. That had to be explained, not explained away.

Essentially Cliff held an under-consumptionist theory of capitalist crisis. Slumps, for him, have their origin in the inability of the masses to buy the goods which have been produced. Against that theory it has to be said that workers are employed only to the degree that they produce surplus labour - which living labour produces beyond what is necessary for its own production and reproduction. So it is quite obvious that the profit system by its very nature must rest on a demand exterior to that of the working class. Surplus product can only be realised in the last analysis through sale to other capitalists. True, the more dead labour is accumulated in relation to living labour, the greater the amount of surplus product which has to be realised.

Nevertheless under the lash of competition capitalists are engaged in an endless drive to expand production in order to realise profit - in the process new markets and new demands are created. Profit, not the consumption of the working class, therefore constitutes the limits of the system of capital (see S Clarke Marx's theory of crisis London 1994, pp144-47).

Underconsumptionism was with Cliff turned on its head. His explanation of the post-World War II boom lay in the theory of the permanent arms economy. The huge military budgets post-World War II served to temporarily stabilise the system by staving off overproduction through expanding a third department of production - arms - which relied solely on governmental demand. Manufacturing the means of destruction boosted aggregate demand and thereby, through the multiplier effect, increased investment in the production of the means of production and in turn the production of the means of consumption of the masses: ie, it stimulated both departments one and two.

Be that as it may, Cliff decided that Trotsky's Transitional programme was disproved "by life" and that reformism was enjoying a second spring (T Cliff Neither Washington nor Moscow London 1982, p117). In conditions of rapidly rising real incomes, demands for a sliding scale of wages in line with the cost of living were at best "meaningless" or at worse "reactionary." The same went for a sliding scale of hours under conditions of full employment.

Unfortunately an incorrect 'Trotskyite' reading of Bolshevik history plus a correct recognition that Trotsky's Transitional programme did not correspond to post-World War II conditions produced in Cliff's mind a disdain for the revolutionary programme, full stop. SWP leaders, Cliff included, routinely boasted of their freedom from programmatic constraints. They might just as well boast of being at sea without a compass. In practice, for the SWP absence of programme meant hugging the familiar shores of everyday trade union politics and making abstract propaganda about the unknown continent of socialism. Unexpected lulls and violent storms could only but produce impressionistic bouts of pessimism or paroxysms of ultra-leftism. The SWP had no programme to guide it.

3. Back to Trotsky

For example, in the midst of the miners' Great Strike of 1984-85 - a strategic clash of class against class - the SWP specialised in pessimism. The year-long strike with its hit squads, mass pickets, nationwide support groups, women against pit closure movement, etc, was, announced Chris Harman, an "extreme example" of what the SWP called the "downturn". Cliff had decreed that the whole period throughout the 1980s was one of retreat. Hence, as the miners gallantly battled with the Tory government and the semi-militarised police outside power stations and in the pit villages, the SWP proclaimed from the Olympian heights of abstraction that this was more like 1927 than 1925: ie, agitation to generalise the miners' strike by fusing it with the dockers, the railways, the Liverpool council and countless other such disputes - both possible and vital - was completely misplaced. We had already lost.

Such irresponsible defeatism, along with a deep-seated anti-programmism, led comrade Cliff to write - only a few years ago - that Trotsky's Transitional programme was only relevant when there was "a situation of general crisis, of capitalism in deep slump", and that many of the programme's proposals - eg, workers' defence squads - "did not fit a non-revolutionary situation" (T Cliff Trotsky: The darker the night, the brighter the star London 1993, p300). As if the miners' hit squads of nine years before were not embryonic workers' defence corps, or militias, in all but name.

Then, all of a sudden, everything changed. In late 1992, when the NUM was forlornly looking towards Tory MPs and the shire county set to save Britain's remaining deep coal mining industry from Heseltine's savage decimation, the SWP stole the WRP's semi-anarchist slogan: ie, 'TUC, off your knees - call the general strike'. The general strike being, of course, a prelude to social revolution, which in the deranged schema of the WRP had been imminent since at least the early 1970s.

That is why for serious Marxists, as opposed to charlatans and windbags, the call for a general strike is always accompanied by agitation - ie, a dialogue with the masses, about the necessity of forming workers' defence squads.

Needless to say, in 1992 the SWP did no such thing. Cliff did, however, wildly suggest in an interview that if the SWP had had 20,000 or 30,000 members the mass demonstration in London in support of the miners would have been re-routed and parliament stormed. Shades of Sergei Eisenstein and October ... or more likely the Odessa steps in Battleship Potemkin.

The years that followed saw Cliff rationalise his flip from extreme pessimism by undertaking an intellectual return to Trotsky's 1938 version of programme (not Lenin's). Despite working class confidence and self-activity being at an all-time low ebb and revolutionary consciousness almost non-existent, Cliff decided that pursuit of even the most minimal demands is all that is needed to fell our mortal enemy.

Cliff insisted that we live in a period not of reaction (of a special type), but, one must presume, of maturing revolution: "Capitalism in the advanced countries," he wrote, "is no longer expanding and so the words of the 1938 Transitional programme that 'there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and raising the masses' living standards' fits reality again" (T Cliff Trotskyism after Trotsky London 1999, pp81-2). As Cliff once said about the periodisation of Trotsky's epigones - pure fantasy.

Suffice to say, despite being punctuated with downward oscillations, capitalism in the advanced countries has been expanding. True, at the beginning of 2001 the USA began to experience a definite economic slowdown. Nevertheless, throughout the 1990s the USA recorded sustained high growth rates. The European Union remains a - precarious - economic powerhouse for capital and has yet to catch cold after the American sneeze. For those in work in Britain, especially in the private sector, living standards continue to climb in real terms. As for worst paid labour, it is now benefiting from the minimum wage, albeit far below subsistence levels. Pathetically the 'Action programme' whimpers that "at the very least" such workers need "£1 an hour more".

Even if economic struggles were all that it takes - which they are definitely not - to transform the workers into a class for itself, capitalism in Britain still exhibits - at this phase - the potential to concede substantial reforms. As is universally known, Gordon Brown commands reserves counted in the tens of billions. The financial crisis, which so excited Cliff in 1999 - significant though it was - remained stubbornly confined to the far east and Russia. Reforms are anyway primarily by-products of class struggle, not capitalism's health. In the most difficult conditions, to save their system, the ruling class will enact the most far-reaching measures. As Luxemburg rightly noted, in 1905 the workers in backward Russia "were, as regards the economic and social freedom of their movement, head and shoulders above the Germans" (R Luxemburg The mass strike London nd, p56).

On May 1 1997 the SWP enthusiastically voted Labour. After two decades the slogan, 'Tories out', was realised. But not in the way the SWP hoped. Blair and his shadow cabinet, it should be stressed, had done everything to steer Labour to the right and lower popular expectations to ground level. Those who turned out for Labour did so in the main because they thought it would be no worse than the Tories. Despite that, not least in order to excuse themselves, the SWP - along with the whole auto-Labourite left - did their utmost to talk things up. In the months following Blair's parliamentary landslide the SWP press carried daft articles on the theme that there existed a crisis of expectations. To state the obvious, there was no explosion.

Needless to say though, Cliff left the SWP he did so much to create and build facing a crisis of perspectives. Blair's de-Labourisation of Labour undermined auto-Labourism. At the same time the absence of any serious mass movement from below forced programmeless SWP theoreticians and propagandists to make the most absurd and hyperbolic claims to bolster Cliff's last about-turn. Prior to entering the Socialist Alliance the SWP momentarily came to resemble the old WRP under the raving and ranting Gerry Healy.

Take Lindsey German - one of the top leaders of the SWP and an intelligent person by any reckoning. She insisted in early 1999 that Blairism was between the proverbial hammer and anvil "in every major area of government policy". Therefore, comrade German held out the prospect of Britain being pushed to the brink of revolution through purely economic struggles: "It is increasingly obvious that even one major national strike or an all-out strike in one city would lead to a rapid crisis of Blairism and Labourism as society polarised along class lines" (International Socialism No82, spring 1999, p35).

This was no objective assessment. It was servicing the Cliff line, which had to be parroted no matter what the evidence to the contrary. Hence in response to polls showing Blair enjoying historically unprecedented ratings, Mark Steele, then a Guardian columnist, felt duty-bound to talk nonsense: "Blair must be the most unpopular 'most popular person' ever," he lamely joked (The Guardian April 14 1999).

The gulf separating SWP theory from reality stemmed directly from Cliff's 11th-hour reconversion to Trotsky's Transitional programme.

Jack Conrad