Our republic

For too long the left has dismissed minimum-maximum programmes. Jack Conrad argues that as well as shortcomings, gaps and faults there is much that can positively be learnt from them

Almost without exception comrades on the left pay tribute to the Manifesto of the Communist Party, aka the 1848 Communist manifesto authored by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Revealingly, though not surprisingly, the elder statesman of the Socialist Workers Party, Chris Harman, writes glowingly about the Communist manifesto - but cannot bring himself to admit that this "pamphlet" as he consistently, sneakily, guiltily calls it, is in fact a programme.

As we have exhaustively shown, of course, the SWP is programmophobic. At least it fears, rejects and belittles the revolutionary programme. For a member to advocate that the SWP debate and agree a revolutionary programme is to risk being charged with being a CPGB agent and to court expulsion. Meanwhile, John Rees, Lindsey German and Michael Lavalette stand for Respect on a programme that stinks to high heaven of fudge, crass populism and unfufillable Keynesian nonsense.

The Communist manifesto can also be described as a minimum-maximum programme. An anathema for those brought up on the so-called 'transitional method', derived from Leon Trotsky's 1938 programme The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International (aka the Transitional programme). For the innocent amongst our readers - and there are not a few of them - let me explain that the minimum-maximum programme is by definition transitional. Fulfilling the minimum programme creates the conditions which enable the fulfilment of the maximum programme (though some minimum demands might well be fulfilled only after the socialist revolution, so there is a certain blurring). Nonetheless, the long and the short of the matter is that the minimum-maximum programme is about how we go about getting from A to B, or - put another way - from capitalism to communism.

The problem with Trotsky's Transitional programme lies not in the term 'transitional'. The problem with it is that it is not transitional. In actual fact in Marxist terms it marks retrogression. It is a retreat to a Marxist version of Labourism, trade unionism, the putschism of Auguste Blanqui or the general strikism of Mikhail Bakunin and the anarchists.

According to the Trotskyite comrades, under what is pejoratively called 'bourgeois democracy' there is no need to bother ourselves with demands for extreme democracy, a republic or high constitutional politics. Understandable, though wrong, in 1938 - Trotsky thought capitalism was in final and complete collapse. He thought that all that was necessary was to defend existing wages, conditions and rights. That spontaneous movement would lead to the clash of class against class and pose point blank the question of state power. Sheer idiocy, however, in 2006.

Instead of high constitutional politics and fighting for the principle of need, all that is needed to usher in the socialist dawn, at least according to these comrades, yes, basing themselves on the 1938 method, is to encourage trade union struggles and build broad anti-racist, peace and other such so-called 'united front' campaigns. At a certain point this is supposed to lead to the general strike, revolution or social chaos - through which a determined minority can seize power in the name of the majority.

Behind the 'united front' masks, manipulating them as levers and cogs, operates the semi-militarised sect commanded by the infallible central committee and the all-knowing general secretary. Hence Respect, Solidarity, Scottish Socialist Party, Campaign for a New Workers' Party and the Socialist Alliance's 2001 general election manifesto, People before profit, and its famished priority pledges are all a logical outcome of Trotsky's Transitional programme (though Trotsky himself would doubtless be mortified).

The Communist manifesto enshrines a very different, minimum-maximum, method: "Communists fight for the attainment of immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement." Being a global programme, or at least a Euro-American programme - ie, for those countries where modern capitalism and the working class had taken root - the Communist manifesto outlines both the goal of a communist society and the goals communists fight for under capitalism. That includes, of course, high politics.

Hence, in Germany, Marx's comrades are for the revolutionary overthrow of the monarchs and petty princes and a fight against the "petty bourgeois", all in alliance with the bourgeoisie. That would be "but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution".

A necessary addition soon came. With the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany (1848), Marx and Engels supplemented the Communist manifesto with a series of minimum demands and certainly, when it came to their attitude towards the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie and small peasants, corrected it.

The Demands do not present the bourgeoisie as an ally against the forces of reaction. Instead the "proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie and the small peasants" are urged to support "with all possible energy" the 17 minimum demands outlined by the communists.

Amongst those demands are universal suffrage (demand 2); "universal arming of the people" (demand 4); aid for the peasantry (demands 6-9); a "state bank" to replace all private banks (demand 10); nationalisation of the means of transport (demand 11); "complete separation of church and state" (demand 13); "universal free education" (demand 17). Beginning, but also capping them all, is the demand that the "whole of Germany shall be declared a single and indivisible republic": ie, a big Germany, including Austria (demand 1). Only the democratic republic can fulfil and safeguard the minimum programme.


There is also much to be learnt from the programme adopted by the German Social Democratic Party at its Erfurt congress in 1891. Instead, unlike the Communist manifesto, most of the left lazily dismiss this programme as having relevance only for semi-autocratic kaiser Germany. Either that or the comrades actually hold it up as a horrible warning, because in August 1914 the SPD fraction in the Reichstag voted for war credits. The two are by no means simple cause and effect. Therefore it is a mistake to dismiss the Erfurt programme on this basis.

Clearly there was a decades-long process of opportunist drift away from the programme to the point where there was, yes, in August 1914, a qualitative break. But not by the whole party. A big split occurred in April 1917 with the formation of the Independent SDP - which included Karl Kautsky. By 1919 the ISDP boasted 750,000 members (the Spartacist League of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin, Franz Mehring and Leo Jogiches formed an open faction till the formation of the Communist Party of Germany). Significantly, the rightwing majority were accused of betraying the internationalist principles of the Erfurt programme.

The Erfurt programme is not above criticism. Especially with hindsight, one can find the germs of August 1914.  Crucially when it came to the compromising method of writing it. Rather than an honest fight, the SDP leadership preferred a bad peace with the right over sensitive issues, most importantly the democratic republic. What was omitted therefore has significance. But the germs of a cancer are not the same as a cancer. To reject organising our programme into maximum and minimum sections on the basis of August 1914 is certainly to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The Erfurt programme was initially drafted by August Bebel (1840-1913) and Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826-1900), leading members of the SDP's executive, who asked Engels, in a "strictly confidential" communiqué, for his comments. Engels generously did as requested in the document we now know as Critique of the Erfurt programme (though what he actually criticised was the first draft). Most of his suggestions were incorporated into the final draft written by Karl Kautsky (1854-1938). The version agreed by the Erfurt congress meeting over October 14-21 1891.

Having looked over the first draft, Engels remarked that it "differs very favourably from the former programme": that is, the Gotha programme of 1875, which Marx had so thoroughly disapproved of because of its unprincipled and unnecessary compromises with Lassalleanism. Not surprisingly then, Engels greeted the Erfurt congress as a victory. Writing to Adolph Sorge in America, he said: "We have had the satisfaction of seeing Marx's critique win all along the line. Even the last traces of Lassalleanism have been eliminated. With the exception of a few poorly written bits (though it's only the way they're put that is feeble and commonplace), there is nothing to complain of in the programme - or not, at any rate, at first reading."

The Erfurt programme divides into two parts. The first outlines the fundamental principles of socialism - what Marxists believe - while the second enumerates the "demands which the social democracy makes of present-day society" - the hows.

The programme opens with a brief analysis of capitalism and its development. Monopoly concentrates production and increases the number of workers. The middle classes are being squeezed and there is a general growth of insecurity. The programme calls for the social ownership of the means of production and includes the forthright statement that only the working class can bring about the liberation of humanity. Other classes are tied to "existing society".

However - and this is of cardinal importance - the Erfurt programme is emphatic: the working class cannot rely on mere trade unionism. "The struggle of the working class against capitalistic exploitation is of necessity a political struggle. The working class cannot carry on its economic contests, and cannot develop its economic organisation, without political rights. It cannot bring about the transference of the means of production into the possession of the community, without having obtained political power." Giving the struggle of the working class "a conscious and unified form, and to show it its necessary goal" are the tasks of the SDP.

The Erfurt programme is also quite emphatic that there is no national road to the supersession of capitalism: "The interests of the working classes are the same in all countries with a capitalistic mode of production. With the extension of the world's commerce, and of production for the world­ market, the position of the worker in every country grows ever more dependent on the position of the worker in other countries. The liberation of the working class, accordingly, is a work in which the workmen of all civilised countries are equally involved. In recognition of this, the SDP of Germany feels and declares itself to be one with the class-­conscious workmen of all other countries".

The SDP is not fighting for new class ­privileges and class ­rights, but for the abolition of class rule and of "classes themselves" (a formulation suggested by Engels), for equal rights and "equal duties of all," without distinction of sex or descent (another Engels suggestion - he wanted to rid the programme of the specifically bourgeois meaning of equality).

After this, the maximum section, the programme logically proceeds to the minimum section and how the SDP will combat "within existing society" not only the exploitation and oppression of wage­-earners, but "every kind of exploitation and oppression, whether directed against a class, a party, a sex or a race".10 

The programme proposes "to begin with" 10 key political demands. Engels had argued for a different, surely more militant, formulation: "social democracy fights for all demands which help it approach this goal" of a classless society.11 

The 10 demands can be summarised as follows: "universal, equal and direct suffrage"; proportional representation, biennial parliaments and pay for elected representatives (demand 1); "self-­determination and self-government of the people in realm, state, province and parish", election of magistrates and annual voting of taxes (demand 2); education of "all to bear arms", a militia in "place of the standing army", questions of war and peace to be decided by elected representatives and settlement of "all international disputes by arbitration" (demand 3); abolition of all laws which limit or suppress the "right of meeting and coalition" (demand 4); abolition of all laws which "place women, whether in a public or a private capacity, at a disadvantage as compared with men" (demand 5); "declaration that religion is a private affair" - a formulation criticised by Marx back in 1875 because for the party religion is not a private matter - end of public funding "upon ecclesiastical and religious objects" and ecclesiastical and religious bodies to be regarded as private associations, which regulate their affairs entirely independently (demand 6); "secularisation of schools" (demand 7); "free administration of justice" and election of judges (demand 8); free health service (demand 9); graduated income and property­ tax for "defraying all public expenses" and abolition of all indirect taxes (demand 10).12 

Then come five minimum economic demands designed to protect and improve the lot of the working class, such as an eight-hour day, prohibition of child labour under 14, inspection of workplaces, and a national insurance system administered in the main by representatives of the workers.

Kautsky also wrote a semi-official SPD commentary on the maximum programme, a short book called The class struggle (1892). This explained in popular form the theories of Marx and Engels, not least Marx's analysis of capitalism presented in Capital. The class struggle was widely read in Europe and the US between its first publication and 1914. A sort of Marxist catechism. It was translated into 16 languages and certainly influenced Marxists in Russia, not least Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Rightly, the reasoning behind the Erfurt programme lay in the fact that the Marxist party had to win for itself a majority in society. And after the repeal of the anti-socialist laws in 1890 the SDP experienced rapid growth and sank deep roots. Membership grew to a million, the number of Reichstag deputies seemed to inexorably increase and powerful trade unions were founded. Under such circumstances the growth of conservative, bureaucratic forces was inevitable (a tendency articulated most honestly and ably by Eduard Bernstein in his infamous Evolutionary socialism (1899) - it is in fact an exceedingly bad book).

Engels was acutely aware of the growth of opportunism in the SDP. There were those who imagined that they could simply lay hold of the kaiser constitution and peaceably reform Germany all the way to socialism. While being prepared to admit the possibility of a peaceful revolution in countries such as Britain and the US, Engels was insistent that such a road was impossible in Germany. To suggest otherwise was to become a cover for absolutism.

Though it had a material basis in the Reichstag, in trade union officialdom and in the SDP apparatus, the rightist trend remained a minority in the SDP, or at least a largely hidden one, till 1914. Only then did it burst out into the open in full force, and in the panic and confusion that accompanied the outbreak of World War I it managed to secure the silence or the sullen cooperation of the majority of members. Most would have thought that the war would soon be over, perhaps by Christmas, and that the chauvinist madness at the top would prove short lived.

But neither the creeping opportunism nor the full blown social imperialism can be blamed on the programme. There is no direct correspondence. Indeed the right, at least in the form of Bernstein, openly attacked the maximum programme. Others were not so bold. Instead they paid lip service. Eg, the leading right opportunists projected the maximum section of the programme - the prospect of socialism and universal human liberation - to a further and further distant future. Like the SWP, the right opportunists came to regard socialism as no more than an empty phrase, but one which earned them applause at rallies and meetings.

Meanwhile, they treated the minimum section of the programme more and more as maximum demands. Secularism, arming the people and the election of judges were talked of as being too advanced for the existing consciousness of the workers and therefore not to be agitated for in election campaigns, on May Day demonstrations or anywhere else.

What really mattered to the right was building the party's finances, winning more Reichstag votes and securing better pay and conditions for trade union members. That was supposedly the real labour movement.


Clearly Engels approved of the Erfurt programme. For him it involved no sordid concessions; rather the vote agreeing it represented welcome progress. There are those charlatans, of course, who regard Engels as akin to original sin. A minor industry in academia exists which blames the 'vulgar Marxism' of Stalinism on Engels. Personally I treat such claims with the contempt they deserve. Marx and Engels formed a lifelong revolutionary partnership. True, Marx's thought is often deeper. In part this reflects the division of labour agreed between the two of them. However, I readily admit it, Marx was unquestionably the senior partner. But there can be no doubt that there existed profound agreement between the two men. Marx trusted Engels above anyone else politically. He was almost his alter ego. That is why we owe the completion of Capital volumes two and three to Engels.

Therefore I think it incumbent on all genuine Marxists to treat with the greatest seriousness the main criticism of the Erfurt programme - draft and final version - that comes from Engels. Some Trotskyites - for example, Mark Hoskisson (expelled from Workers Power for not being an out and out anarchist) in the following quote - have it that Engels saw the "danger of democratism obliterating revolutionary socialism, through an over-emphasis on minimal political demands".13  In fact the opposite is true. Comrade Hoskisson could not be more wrong. The Erfurt programme is lacking in "¦ democratism.

Engels writes to the SDP executive that: "The political demands of the draft have one great fault. It lacks precisely what should have been said. If all the demands [outlined above - JC] were granted, we should indeed have more diverse means of achieving our main political aim, but the aim itself would in no wise have been achieved."14 

Germany is in 1891 still ruled under an extension of the anti-democratic Prussian constitution of 1850. A constitution which concentrates power in the hands of the monarch and the governmental bureaucracy, not the people. Engels calls the Reichstag a "fig leaf" for absolutism. Hence he once again reiterates the demand for a democratic republic. A single and indivisible republic: ie, the abolition of the Prussian kaiser and the system of petty states within the German empire like the minuscule Thuringia (analagous to the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, etc).

This owes nothing to the 'completion of the bourgeois revolution'. Engels is absolutely insistent: "our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of the democratic republic. This is even the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat."15  He repeats the point a few lines down: "In my view, the proletariat can only use the form of the one and indivisible republic." Note this and note it again. And here, as with so much else, Engels was perfectly in tune with Marx. He too viewed the democratic republic as the form of the rule of the working class.

Engels is well aware of the difficulties of bluntly stating this in the Erfurt programme. The anti-socialist laws still loom threateningly over the SDP. They could easily be reintroduced and the party forced underground once more. Yet he says there must be some subtle phrase that would get around the legal problem: he recommends "the concentration of all political power in the hands of the people's representatives" - that would serve for the "time being".16  A formulation not included in the Erfurt programme, however. A major flaw.

Engels warns that "forgetting of the great, the principal considerations" - specifically he had in mind the democratic republic - for what he calls the "momentary interests of the day" is a "sacrifice of the future movement" for its "present". This, Engels says, may be "honestly" meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and "honest" opportunism is "perhaps the most dangerous of all".17 

Bernstein, of course, honestly espoused the opportunist maxim that the movement was everything, the final goal nothing. And Kautsky opposed Bernsteinism, conducting an orthodox defence of the minimum-maximum programme, as did Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Bernsteinism was officially  condemned in the SDP and in the Second International as revisionism and a gradualist deviation from Marxism.

Of course, 'orthodox' Trotskyites take passages in Kautsky's The class struggle - and in articles and other books - which advocate an extension of popular power through the Reichstag as vacillation "towards a reformist application of the programme".18  Eg, "A genuine parliamentary regime can be as much an instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an instrument of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie." But this is just as much the view of Marx and Engels as it is of Kautsky. It is certainly not Bernsteinism. After all a genuine parliamentary regime would necessitate the overthrow of the kaiser constitution - as it would the overthrow of the UK's constitutional monarchy system, which contains all manner of checks and balances against democracy.

Programme of Parti Ouvrier

This minimum-maximum programme was drawn up in May 1880, when Jules Guesde, a leading French socialist, met Marx in Engels's front room in Primrose Hill. The preamble, which amounts to the maximum section, was dictated by Marx himself  - "word for word", according to Engels.19 

In full, the maximum section reads as follows:

"Considering, that the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race; that the producers can be free only when they are in possession of the means of production; that there are only two forms under which the means of production can belong to them: the individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress; the collective form, the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society; considering, that this collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class - or proletariat - organised in a distinct political party; that such an organisation must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation; the French socialist workers, in adopting as the aim of their efforts the political and economic expropriation of the capitalist class and the return to community of all the means of production, have decided, as a means of organisation and struggle, to enter the elections with the following immediate demands."20 

These demands were formulated by Marx and Guesde together, with assistance from Engels and Paul Lafargue (who, along with Guesde, became a leading figure in the Marxist wing of French socialism).

They include the political demands for the abolition of all laws over the press, meetings and associations and women's equality "in relation to man"; removal of subsidies to religious orders and the return to the nation of the "'goods said to be mortmain, movable and immovable' (decree by the Commune of April 2 1871), including all the industrial and commercial annexes of these corporations"; suppression of the public debt; "abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people"; communes "to be master of its administration and its police".

The economic section calls for the eight-hour day, a ban on child labour under 14 and between that age and 16 the "reduction of the working day from eight to six hours"; protective supervision of apprentices by the workers' organisations; a legal minimum wage, determined each year according to the local price of food, by a workers' statistical commission; legal prohibition of bosses employing foreign workers at a wage less than that of French workers; equal pay for equal work, for workers of both sexes; scientific and professional instruction of all children, "with their maintenance the responsibility of society, represented by the state and the commune"; responsibility of society for the old and the disabled; prohibition of all interference by employers in the administration of "workers' friendly societies, provident societies, etc, which are returned to the exclusive control of the workers"; responsibility of the bosses in the matter of accidents, guaranteed by security paid by the employer into the workers' funds, and in proportion to the number of workers employed and the danger that the industry presents; intervention by the workers in the special regulations of the various workshops; an end to the right usurped by the bosses to "impose any penalty on their workers in the form of fines or withholding of wages" (decree by the Commune of April 27 1871); annulment of all the contracts that have alienated public property (banks, railways, mines, etc), and the exploitation of all state-owned workshops to be entrusted to the workers who work there; abolition of all indirect taxes and transformation of all direct taxes into a progressive tax on incomes over 3,000 francs; suppression of all inheritance "on "¦ all direct inheritance over 20,000 francs".

So here we have another example of the hand of Marx and Engels in formulating a minimum-maximum programme. It was adopted, with certain amendments, by the founding congress of the Parti Ouvrier, meeting at Le Havre in November 1880. Marx said of this programme that "this very brief document in its economic section consists solely of demands that actually have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself. There is in addition an introductory passage where the communist goal is defined in a few lines."21 

Notably Engels described the first, maximum, section as "a masterpiece of cogent argumentation rarely encountered, clearly and succinctly written for the masses; I myself was astonished by this concise formulation".22  He also strongly recommended the economic section to the German SDP in his comments on the 1891 draft Erfurt programme.

After the programme was agreed, however, a clash took place between Marx and his French supporters over the purpose of the minimum section. Marx saw it as consisting of essentially practical demands, demands that are achievable under capitalism, but which also provide a bridge.

Guesde took a rather different view. Discounting even the possibility of obtaining such demands under capitalism, he regarded them not as practical, but as a carrot with which he could tempt workers away from petty bourgeois radicalism. Rejection of these reforms by the political establishment, Guesde thought, would put an end to constitutional and economic diversions and propel the working class to a proletarian 1789.

Marx accused Guesde and his son-in-law, Lafargue, of "revolutionary phrase-mongering" and of denying the practical value of minimum demands. This proved to be the occasion of Marx's famous quip that, if their politics represented Marxism, "Ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi je ne suis pas Marxiste" ("What is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist").


Rashly, most Trotskyite comrades nowadays mock the demand for the democratic republic. A typical example being Martin Thomas the numero due of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. According to this wag, our minimum programme is "the brightest red on the cover, but pale pink inside".23 Why? Simply because under the conditions of capitalism we fight for a democratic republic. It is "without class definition", he tut-tuts.

This from a leading member of an organisation which refuses to call for the unconditional withdrawal of US-UK forces from Iraq, which dreams of electing a real Labour government and which in practice prioritises issues such as wages and conditions. Banal economism still passes for profundity in such circles.

The CPGB raises the demand for a federal democratic republic for two main reasons.

Firstly, the democratic republic involves a rupture with, or overthrow of, the existing constitutional monarchy system. We are not talking about simply replacing Elizabeth II with an elected president. That would leave Britain as a mere quasi-democracy. A France, a USA, a Germany or a Russia. Hardly what we aspire to. Engels damningly called the French second republic a continuation of the Bonapartist monarchy.

A democratic republic, a real democratic republic - ie, rule of the people, by the people, for the people - is, for us, the form that working class rule will take in Britain, and therefore necessarily involves a whole raft of far-reaching radical measures which both massively extend democracy and involve draconian inroads into the sacred rights of property: ie, the sort of immediate measures outlined in the Communist manifesto, Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, the Erfurt programme and the programme of Parti Ouvrier.

For example, we call for the abolition of MI5, special branch and MI6; abolition of the standing army and the arming of the people; abolition of the House of Lords; recallability of MPs; elected representatives to receive only the average wage of a skilled worker; election of judges; nationalisation of land; free movement of people; workers' control of hiring and firing; a minimum income based on need; healthcare, education and other social provisions based on need; reduction of the working week to a maximum 35 hours; separation of the Church of England from the state.

Secondly, we raise the demand for a federal democratic republic because it meets the current, legitimate aspirations of the peoples of Scotland and Wales to self-determination and simultaneously embodies the principle of working class unity. Writing in his Critique of the Erfurt programme, Engels takes the view that a federal republic would be "a step forward" in the British Isles.

Socialist revolution is, almost by definition, the act of a united working class. Communists certainly have a general preference for centralised states today "¦ and under socialism. Only the existence of a living national question in Scotland and Wales prevents us from immediately advocating a democratic centralist state - yes, under commodity production - in opposition to the present monarchical unity of the kingdom of England, the kingdom of Scotland, the principality of Wales and the province of Northern Ireland.

Needless to say, in eschewing the minimum programme, the AWL hopelessly entangles itself in all manner of barbed contradictions. After all, a few years ago the AWL underwent an untheorised conversion to the call for a federal republic. Does this call apply only after the socialist revolution? If so it mistakes the bridge, the means, for the end. What about abortion rights, equality for homosexuals, etc? Or are these demands too only put forward under the condition that they are realised by a workers' government?

For its part the CPGB's Draft programme is quite clear. The working class must, under today's conditions, take the lead in the struggle for democracy in general and the democratic republic in particular. Without that, socialism is impossible.