A vital task

After the launch of the Campaign for a Marxist Party, and the CPGB decision to redraft its Draft programme, Nick Rogers identifies possible weaknesses in the current version

The CPGB is to update its 1995 Draft programme. This will allow members of the CPGB to comprehensively reconsider the party's strategy and theory - a vital task. Of equal significance, the process is to be thrown open to allow members of the Campaign for a Marxist Party to participate. Only a relatively small number attended the November 4 launch conference of the CMP. However, if the campaign kick-starts a process of rapprochement between Marxists from different traditions, then its initial size may belie its ultimate impact.

In this article I want to take a first (and relatively brief) stab at outlining those aspects of the programme that strike me as weak or underdeveloped - or simply controversial. I do this as someone who has recently joined the CPGB and will participate in the party's internal discussions, but also as someone who attended many of the Critique supporters group's discussion meetings (including those addressed by Hillel Ticktin) when I lived in Glasgow.

I am, therefore, familiar with prospective areas of disagreement between the two most theoretically coherent groups in the CMP (although both are also healthily relaxed about sharply expressed internal discussion). Perhaps my concerns will mirror some of the principal debates that will emerge from within the CMP. Readers of the exchanges between Mike Macnair and Critique supporters in the pages of the Weekly Worker in recent months will be aware of some of the potential polemical fault lines.

The CMP is not going to devote itself exclusively to discussing the CPGB's Draft programme. It will engage in a range of activities, including a "basic programme of common work". Even when implementing the motion that commits the campaign to discussing a programme that will be submitted to a congress launching a new Marxist party, comrades are perfectly free to submit whatever proposals they wish. But then, for that matter, members of the CPGB are also free to do this. However, the CPGB is one of the few groups involved in the CMP who already have a programme - probably the only group if you exclude John Pearson's proposal to take the Socialist Alliance's 2001 general election manifesto, People before profit, as a template. Also the CMP is committed to exploring over the next year the possibility of fusion with the CPGB. And in London the CPGB is making its weekly seminar available every month for the London group of the CMP to discuss programme and theory and plan its local activities.

Therefore, the CPGB's focused examination of its own programme will help to shape the dynamic towards unity within the CMP. Jack Conrad has indicated that he believes the European and the environmental questions to be the two big areas that are missing from the Draft programme. On that I agree with Jack. However, the discussion of programme (both within the CPGB and the CMP) will range over far wider terrain.

The CPGB's Draft programme is divided into six sections, discussing in turn: the political economy of contemporary global capitalism; the development of capitalism in Britain; a set of immediate demands (the minimum programme); the nature of the socialist revolution; the transition to communism; and the role of the Communist Party. Although others will disagree, this structure makes sense to me, so I will adopt it as a framework for my own comments.

Our epoch

I think in this section two key phenomena of our capitalist world require more detailed treatment. First, the programme begins by stating that, "The main contradiction in this our epoch is between decadent capitalism and imminent socialism." We shall see how imminent socialism turns out to be. Immanent is probably a better adjective in the sense that that the potential for socialism exists in abundance within the capitalism of today.

However, it is the description of capitalism as decadent that will feature in any discussion on political economy: the perspective of Hillel Ticktin and Critique on the decline of capitalism. Now, I do not believe that capitalism is approaching any kind of terminal economic crisis. Nor do I think that Marxists should eagerly await salvation from every swing of the stock exchange. But I do think we need to take account of the ways in which capitalism has changed over the last couple of hundred years. And, more specifically, over the course of the 20th century. Here Critique's analysis of the constraints that have been placed on the law of value is helpful. It argues that the law of value has declined in the sense that economic oligopoly and the role of government have increasingly undermined the operation of the 'free' market.

A related aspect of this debate will be the significance of the collapse of the Soviet Union and 'official communism'. Again, Hillel Ticktin has a distinctive analysis about the role of the former eastern bloc regimes in shoring up capitalism and, subsequently, capitalism's weaker position now that those regimes no longer exist. An analysis that seems to me to tell only one aspect of the history of the "short 20th century", but nevertheless a discussion with which the CMP must engage.

Second, the nature of the neoliberal offensive of the last quarter of a century merits analysis. The current Draft programme touches on this in the context of the end of the post-war boom and Britain's de-industrialisation. However, the rolling back of workers' social, trade union and political rights is a global phenomenon and needs to be incorporated into the analysis of global capitalism. Furthermore, any theory about the decline of capitalism needs to account for the neoliberals' self-image as fervent warriors against the over-mighty state. As it happens, the privatisations of the last couple of decades, plus the introduction of market mechanisms into social services, have amply demonstrated how difficult it is to restore anything remotely approaching competitive capitalism to any major economic sector.

What neoliberalism does represent is a succession of defeats for the global working class. Over the long term, the impact of the bloody Pinochet regime on the Chilean labour movement and constitutional Thatcherism/Blairism on Britain's has been remarkably similar. Just consider: a reversal of previous working class gains, submissive and ineffective trade unions, a hegemonic social democratic party that has accepted the neoliberal consensus, and a left that is next to non-existent. Globalisation itself can be understood in this context as a deliberate strategy by the major capitalist powers from the early 80s onwards to unleash the full force of international capitalism on the strongest working classes. To take an example close to home, no trade barriers or exchange controls were to stand in the way of importing Colombian and Polish coal to crush the will of Britain's miners.

This is more than just the inevitable outcome of the normal swing from boom (when working class conditions advance) to bust (when concessions are withdrawn), as the Draft programme implies. It is a fundamental shift in the balance of class forces related to the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the lack of an external threat to capitalism, at least not a threat posed by any kind of working class regime), and a deliberate restructuring of the world's economy. That refashioning of the global political economy of capitalism has initially been to the advantage of the historic capitalist powers. But Pandora's box has been opened. In the course of the 21st century we may yet see the United States toppled from its position as global hegemon.

Capitalism in Britain

It is at this point in the programme that we will presumably focus our attention on the growing importance of the European Union (it may require an additional section). And also Britain's distinct relationship with the United States. It is not the job of a programme to comment on pressing contemporary events that in time will fade into history. But the imperialist wars of the last 10 years (and Britain's schizophrenic attitude to the EU) have highlighted important contradictions within the ruling class about the orientation that British capitalism should take - either European or trans-Atlantic.

Immediate demands

It is in this section that the CPGB presents its minimum programme: "The demands we communists put forward are based on what the masses need if they are to live any sort of decent life in Britain. They are not based on what the capitalist system says it can afford .... The formulation of our demands thereby connects today's conditions and consciousness to the aim of revolution and the establishment of socialism."

The very concept of a minimum programme may prove a sharp bone of contention within the CMP. Especially given Trotsky's condemnation of the minimum programme of "classical social democracy" as a limited set of "reforms within the framework of bourgeois society" (1938 Transitional programme). However, the CPGB's espousal of immediate demands that go beyond what capitalism is prepared to concede and "make the workers aware of their power to refashion society so that it serves human interests" embodies the professed logic of many a Trotskyist transitional demand. The difference is that, rather than vacuous reformism, the Draft programme seeks to articulate simple, manifestly just demands for a reasonable life for workers that, if won, would genuinely begin to break open the incubus of the rule of capital.

More than 10 years on from the original draft there is a need, nevertheless, for a wide-ranging revision of these demands. Many retain their sharpness. However, some are strangely lacking in ambition. A 35-hour working week? Well, like many workers in the public sector, I am lucky enough to already work a 36-hour week. Given the massive technological advances in recent decades that have been accompanied worldwide by downward pressures of working class conditions, should not a communist programme be pointing toward something more like a 20-hour working week?

A minimum wage to "reflect the value of unskilled labour-power"? True, this is "to be decided on the basis of what is needed to physically and culturally reproduce the worker and one child". But the value of unskilled labour-power is what present bourgeois society decides is needed to reproduce a worker lacking any marketable skills. And stipulating a worker and one child begs the question of what workers who dare to have larger families need physically and culturally to reproduce themselves.

There are demands for the unemployed and students to receive the minimum wage. Excellent. Once a minimum wage is determined, why should anyone in society fall beneath this level? The fact that it is a common sense of bourgeois society that the unemployed should be 'punished' for being thrown out of a job is a stark reminder of how anti-human our society is. Our programme should counterpose our own common sense to that of capitalism. Of course, it is the reserve army of labour that is capital's prime instrument for disciplining the working class. So any demand that extends the rights and improves the conditions of the unemployed strikes at the very heart of capitalism as an economic system.

But setting the state pension at the level of the minimum wage? The whole point of the current struggles by workers in both the private and public sectors over pensions - especially to defend the principle of final salary schemes - is that workers want a pension that provides them with an income that is a high proportion of what they earned in work. They want to ensure that retirement is not accompanied by a sharp drop in living standards. A communist programme should demand nothing less.

We should develop a policy that combines a high basic state pension with a state income-related pension that ensures anyone on up to, say, twice average earnings receives at least 80% of what they received in wages. Those below average earning would receive up to 100%. Those above the cut-off point less. These are demands to which it should be possible to win increasing numbers of trade unions, given the crisis in the pension funds to which so many union bosses have committed themselves (See 'Towards a socialist pensions policy' Weekly Worker May 5 2005.)

Of course, what happens to the billions held by those pension funds that are failing the basic interests of future pensioners will remain unanswered as long as our programme characterises demands for "wholesale nationalisation" as "objectively reactionary". It is true that demanding that national capitalist states intervene to create myriad national state-owned champions out of the transnational corporations that bestride the globe is not progressive. Nor do nationalised industries under capitalism very well serve the interests of the working class. But would we oppose the RMT's demand for the renationalisation of the railway industry? Are we indifferent to moves to contract out the jobs of civil servants? Would not a properly socialised national health service involve a pharmaceutical industry that served human need rather than profit?

Surely, we need to articulate demands that point towards the workers' control of industries - and towards full socialisation. We are certainly not going to legislate our way to socialism, but our minimum programme should encourage workers to challenge the logic of the rule of capital at every point in their live - whether in the workplace or as the users of public and private services.

The Draft programme limits its demands for nationalisation "under workers' control" to companies planning "closures" or "mass sackings" as a way of defending jobs. Since over the last decade this would have encompassed quite a high proportion of British industry, the end point of this section of the programme pretty much amounts to a demand for "wholesale nationalisation". But on what are fairly economistic grounds that on many occasions would take on a chauvinistic coloration in defence of 'British' jobs.

Once we start to construct minimum demands to be directed at the European Union, nationalisation at a continental level begins to enter our calculations. As does continent-wide coordination by workers to prevent workers in one part of the EU undermining the working conditions and jobs of workers elsewhere.

Which takes us neatly on to the democratic demands that should be raised to challenge the lack of democracy at the heart of the Brussels bureaucracy. Because what strikes me about this section of the Draft programme is that surprisingly few democratic demands feature. A federal republic is raised as a solution to Britain's national questions. Workers' militias are discussed. As are freedom of information and crime and prison (the election and recall of all judges and magistrates). But what about the abolition of the whole monarchical system as a fundamental democratic objective? What about demanding a single-chamber parliament that is elected annually - at last fulfilling the programme of the Chartists? And alongside opposition to the standing army, the abolition of the security services would deprive the bourgeois state of the ability to block the advance of the working class.

Any discussion of programme should tackle the CPGB's perspective on "extreme democracy". And the demands that arise from a strategy of directly challenging the political rule of the capitalist state should be at the heart of the minimum programme.

Character of the revolution

Despite the title of this section of the Draft programme, its attempt to characterise the nature of the revolution in which the working class takes political power leaves me confused. The Draft programme warns: "Nationalisation could be used tactically as a political weapon against those who refuse to cooperate or who rebel. But the full socialisation of production in Britain is dependent on and can only proceed in line with the completion of the world revolution." But in what sense then can we talk of socialism, rather than a workers' state? This section talks of both as if they are synonymous. Socialism must clearly involve the rule of the working class - otherwise it is not socialism - but a workers' state in which the bulk of the economy remains in capitalist hands is not socialist.

Nor is it clear how the "systematic extension of workers' control over production" can be achieved in the absence of a change in economic ownership. I agree that the speed at which a revolutionary workers' state can proceed to overthrow the economic rule of capital is dependent on the progress of the revolution internationally. It will certainly be a question of wresting power "by degrees". A process that will be immeasurably speeded up if socialists and the working class in Europe organise at a continental level. However, a good deal more clarity is required on this issue.

Nor am I convinced that most members of the CPGB, let alone the CMP, think the orientation of the "non-monopoly bourgeoisie" is of much significance. In the Draft programme the possibility of exploiting divisions within the ruling class is discussed at some length. It looks to me if this is a theoretical legacy bequeathed by the old 'official' CPGB. It is not a tactic that has been promoted in recent years in the pages of the Weekly Worker. It probably will not find such a prominent position (if it has any place at all) within the redrafted programme.

As for a socialist constitution, the Draft programme proposes that, "Supreme power in state will be in workers' councils, composed of delegates who are elected and recallable at any time." If this means the classic Trotskyist model of indirect democracy - workers elect their local factory committee, which then elects a district committee, which in turn elects a city-wide committee, all the way up to a supreme soviet - then I think this proposition is untenable.

If we are to fight in the minimum programme for direct elections to parliament and the right to directly recall MPs, we can hardly expect workers after the revolution to tolerate less influence over national political affairs - and an arrangement that is eminently open to bureaucratisation. After all, the only society in which such a mode of indirect election has been implemented in recent years is Castro's Cuba. I suspect any Cuban workers who initiated a move to recall Fidel, or anyone in the leadership, would get pretty short shrift - and probably a lengthy prison sentence.

The right of workers and citizens to directly elect and recall their delegates/representatives at all levels of government is fundamental. This position will no doubt be characterised as Kautskyan. But then this charge has already been levelled at Mike Macnair. As it happens, the CPGB's formulation of "democratic republican self-government" was passed at the CMP's founding conference, so perhaps comrades are prepared to reconsider long-held dogma.

The nature of planning in a socialist society would also bear elaboration. The relevant paragraph in the Draft programme could be interpreted as meaning a national plan covering all aspects of economic life to cover a specific time-span - a Stalinist model. In fact socialist planning should involve maximum flexibility and maximum devolution of decision-making. At a national, European or global level, only the most indicative of plans would be appropriate. Within different economic sectors and at different geographic levels planning (within a broad framework) would be relatively autonomous. What is more, the latest technological advances - which allow capitalist firms to engage in just-in-time production - transforms the options for socialist planning.

Transition to communism

This section may require the least amendment. Although I would question the observation, however, that in Britain, "Once the hard task of winning working class state power has been achieved, we will advance directly towards communism." Surely the building of communism will be the most international of tasks?

Communist Party

The way in which Marxists should organise will be of quite crucial importance for the success of the CMP. The discussion of programme may lead to a greater degree of consensus, but wide differences will remain. The question that will be posed is whether those differences can be accommodated within one political party. It is a challenge that has eluded Marxists and revolutionaries for decades.

I will not engage in a detailed discussion of structures and organisation in this article. But democracy and the accountability of the leadership is crucial. Certainly, as the Draft programme says, "Our party attaches great importance to the cultivation of leaders, their theoretical knowledge, revolutionary energy and political instinct and experience." But if bureaucratic degeneration is to be avoided, this principle should apply equally to every member. The party's theory and strategy and indeed its programme need to be the property of the whole membership.

Jack Conrad argues that the "Marxist Party is built top-down" (Weekly Worker November 9). This is true in the sense that Marxist theory and organisation do not arise spontaneously from the day-to-day struggles of the working class. The development of theory and the building of organisation requires the conscious intervention of what will inevitably be a minority of the working class. What is crucial, however, is to tackle any manifestations of elitism.

I would also make the observation that the Draft programme's insistence that "every effort should be made to promote women comrades in the party" is sharply relevant, given the male domination so far of the CMP. We will know we are beginning to make an impact when the gender composition (and also the age and ethnic profile) of our organisations and meetings begins to more accurately reflect the class for which we are fighting.