What kind of programme?
Mary Godwin reports from the second London meeting of the Campaign for a Marxist Party, held on Sunday February 18
The second London meeting of the Campaign for a Marxist Party, held on Sunday February 18, discussed what sort of programme a new Marxist party needs. Around 20 comrades took part in the debate between partisans of the revolutionary minimum-maximum and Trotskyist transitional programmes, plus the eccentric 'min-max-trans' theory of the Revolutionary Democratic Group's Dave Craig.
The first speaker was Jack Conrad of the CPGB, who said that all parties have a programme, either official or unofficial - the Socialist Workers Party's unofficial programme amounts in practice to whatever the SWP leadership considers will help build the organisation at any given time. Unlike the SWP, however, genuine Marxists take the question of programme seriously and discuss it openly at length. A programme does not tie the party down. It is democratically agreed and can be discussed and changed as part of the democratic process. Any programme worth the name is a guide to action based on a Marxist analysis of the current political situation.
The new Marxist party needs a minimum-maximum programme, continued comrade Conrad. For some Marxists this is a matter of controversy, but it should not be. The minimum element deals with the question of how the working class can be formed into a class and what immediate measures a working class government should take.
This is not reformism. How could a programme that advocates the people bearing arms under capitalism be called reformist? It is founded on the basis of organising production on the basis of need, not profit. This, he said, is standard, orthodox Marxism, as found in the Communist manifesto onwards. It means fighting for a democratic republic in which the working class becomes the ruling class - the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as briefly existed in France at the time of the Paris Commune in 1871.
Comrade Conrad reminded the meeting that Marx was responsible also for the programme of the Workers' Party of France, which, like the Gotha and Erfurt programmes, was minimum-maximum in form. The Bolsheviks too were armed with a minimum-maximum programme, which they defended both as a faction and as a party. It is a misreading of history to suggest that the Lenin of the Finland station, the Lenin of the April theses, advocated the scrapping or abandonment of the Bolshevik minimum-maximum programme. He only advocated replacing outdated elements, such as calls to overthrow the tsar.
Comrade Hillel Ticktin is mistaken when he accuses the CPGB of seeking to revive outdated slogans, said comrade Conrad. We propose placing a democratic republic at the centre of our programme for Britain. Not Lenin's very Russian 'revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' or the very reformist Nairn-Anderson thesis and its stupid call for the completion of the bourgeois revolution. The capitalist class is not and cannot be democratic. Only the working class is really democratic, as it will demonstrate when it attains power and becomes the ruling class.
Referring to Dave Craig's article, published in the February 15 issue of the Weekly Worker, comrade Conrad said that the comrade does not appear to understand dialectics: he pictures democratic and socialist revolutions as two categories that are in contradiction with each other. In fact, the main contradiction is between the immanent world socialist revolution and a declining global capitalism. Hence while the proletarian revolution is national in form to begin with, its content is always international. The Russian Revolution should be understood less as a national democratic revolution, more as a failed international revolution. The CPGB does not advocate any kind of theory of stages. As soon as the working class seizes power in a single state, it must reach out to spread the revolution internationally.
Gerry Downing is an active trade union militant with long experience in the Labour Party and various Trotskyist groups. He spoke next. The comrade said the minimum programme, as described by comrade Conrad, sounds very much like a transitional programme. Trotskyists have one single programme to make a revolution. They do not have a programme for communism, because that is something about which we can only speculate.
The Transitional programme of 1938 may be outdated, but it remains essentially correct, he said. A revolutionary programme must be about how to gain the leadership of the movement and Trotsky was right to say that leadership of the working class is the critical thing.
By going back to the Erfurt programme, the CPGB sidesteps the Russian Revolution, claimed comrade Downing. Programmatic questions were hammered out in 1917 and in the first four congresses of the Comintern. The CPGB, formed out of propagandist sects, orientated itself to the working class on the basis of instructions from the Comintern.
From 1919 the revolutionary programme was laid down by Comintern. The old programmes of the Second International were rejected. Lenin himself openly declared the need for transitional demands through the strategy of the united front which would allow the communists to capture the leadership of the mass working class organisations and build soviets.
The revolutionary period of the CPGB was 1920-24. After 1924 Stalin replaced the leadership with his own henchmen. The failure of the German revolution in 1923 was a turning point. But Stalin and Zinoviev pretended that nothing untoward had happened. Because of Stalinism the British working class lost the possibility of having a revolutionary leadership.
Turning to the present, comrade Downing described the CPGB organised under the Provisional Central Committee as a propaganda sect. It does not attempt to win workers in struggle or engage in serious work in the Labour Party or the unions.
True, he said, CPGB forces are small, but they will not grow so long as the CPGB confines itself to propaganda activity directed at other left groups. The Weekly Worker does not provide proper coverage of trade union matters, nor does it try to influence unions engaged in concrete struggles. For example, comrade Lee Rock recently wrote an interesting article on the situation in the Public and Commercial Services Union, but it was not developed further to give guidance on how to intervene in active struggles. Comrade Rock himself needs guidance on how to proceed, comrade Downing declared.
On democracy, after 1917 Lenin and Trotsky both wrote about the differences between bourgeois and workers' democracy and how they are incompatible. One must overthrow the other. Either organs of working class democracy or the government of landlords and capitalists will win. Only workers' councils can make a revolution. Bourgeois democracy is no more than a myth, an empty sham. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is not abstractly democratic - it will, for example, deny the vote to the capitalists and their supporters and thus make them unable to operate. Every successful revolution has to be dictatorial, he concluded.
The final speaker from the top table was Dave Craig, who expanded on his article, 'One step forward, no steps back, carried in this paper on February 15. He said comrade Downing is right to say we should go back to the Russian Revolution as the source of the most advanced lessons for our class. The Russian Revolution destroyed the idea of a bourgeois democratic revolution. As early as 1900 Lenin had said that the bourgeoisie were incapable of leading such a revolution, but October 1917 actually saw the full flowering of democracy.
The communist programme must recognise two main events: the democratic revolution carried out in a given country, and the international socialist revolution. Therefore we need both a democratic programme and an international socialist programme - together they comprise a real communist programme taken as a whole. In 1905 Lenin had a revolutionary minimum-maximum approach, said comrade Craig: the democratic minimum and socialist maximum. By contrast the Socialist Alliance's People before profit was essentially a reformist minimum-maximum programme.
Clearly, to have a revolutionary programme you have to have a theory of what revolution is: permanent revolution or stageism. He returned to his analogy of a plug and socket: in permanent revolution, a version of which he advocates, they are connected. Stageism, by contrast, regards them as separate events with a gap between them - perhaps extending to hundreds of years. With the victory of the democratic revolution, said comrade Craig, a new, transitional, programme would need to be adopted.
Comrade Craig said Gerry Downing seems to regard the democratic revolution as bourgeois, taking the model of the English revolution of 1649 and suggesting that a new revolution has the primary task of 'completing the bourgeois revolution'. This is not so. Any country can have a democratic revolution, bringing with it the potential to become international and thus socialist. Of course, comrade Conrad is right - it is the working class which is the real democratic class. In so far as the working class wins power in a democratic revolution, it can go on to make a socialist revolution, but it is impossible to have socialism on the basis of a single country.
What would a democratic programme for Britain include? A democratic republic, a single chamber elected possibly from the workplace, plus the abolition of the standing army. It would also need to democratise the economy by introducing nationalisation and workers' control. In essence it would mean democratising every facet of life to create a new Britain.
This would be a great advance, but it would immediately be virulently attacked by imperialism intent on strangling the revolution, which would have to spread internationally to survive. Capitalism is international and socialism needs to take internationalism to a higher level. A single democratic revolution in Britain could in no sense solve the problems of the world. The answer to capitalist globalisation is a world communist system, including the abolition of the nation-state.
Thus to write a communist programme requires the involvement of communists of different countries, who would need to come to an agreement on a programme resting on permanent revolution. The democratic programme is for individual countries, the international socialist programme is for the whole world.
In the debate Weekly Worker editor Peter Manson said comrade Craig's analysis could be seen as orthodox in some senses, but he insists on using different terms for his own reasons. Comrade Craig accepted this, saying his new terminology is intended to make the analysis clearer. But he denied that his democratic revolution is simply the socialist revolution under another name, because socialism in one country is impossible.
Comrade Manson said the biggest disagreement between the CPGB and comrade Craig is over the question of the type of party needed today. According to comrade Craig, it is not only unnecessary, but sectarian, to try and set up a Marxist party in current conditions - that task would have to wait.
The orthodox Trotskyism expressed by comrade Downing was both attacked and supported by different speakers in the course of debate and CPGB members replied to criticisms made by comrade Downing. Comrade Phil Kent accepted that at present we are able to do little more than make propaganda, but he said the reason for this is that the left is split and has no influence - which is why we need to organise ourselves into a single Marxist party.
On the claim that the CPGB ignored the Russian Revolution, comrade Conrad replied that we learn many lessons from it, but we do not pretend that everything Lenin and Trotsky did is beyond criticism. Like Rosa Luxemburg, we criticise the generalisations and retrospective theorisation of measures first adopted as an emergency, such as the abolition of soviet democracy and suppression of oppositional trends.
The most important area of disagreement between comrade Downing on the one side and others, including CPGB members, on the other turned out to be on the question of democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Comrade Mike Belbin from New Interventions said the real crisis in Britain today is not in the leadership of the working class, but in the loss of democracy, which is reducing "by the day". Marxists should declare themselves the champions of defending and extending democracy: democracy and socialism must be inextricably linked.
Comrade Kent agreed that we should attack the non-democratic nature of bourgeois institutions, and said comrade Downing is wrong to say revolutionaries should adopt non-democratic methods: we should build our own democratic institutions. Comrade Conrad also stressed the need to fight to extend democracy.
Comrade Jim Smith disagreed. He said our programme must be about helping the working class achieve power, and the first stage of this is the dictatorship of the proletariat. What matters is what class rules, not formal democracy. Any revolution involves coercion of one class against another using armed force.
Comrade Mark Fischer said the dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean one-party rule, or disenfranchising a section of the population. The capitalist class is such a small fraction of the total population, it is mad for communists to commit themselves programmatically to disenfranchising them. As he reminded comrades, Hal Draper has demonstrated that when Marx and Engels used the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' they simply meant the rule of the working class: the term had no especially repressive implications. Comrade Conrad said anyone who counterposes the dictatorship of the proletariat to democracy is wrong and should be criticised, whether they are Kautsky, Lenin, Trotsky or Gerry Downing. Marx and Engels refused to do so.
Comrade Fischer traced the disagreement to a difference in understanding of the concept of bourgeois democracy. For Trotskyists, bourgeois democracy means the democracy which comes from - is inherent in - bourgeois social relations. We say the bourgeoisie is not a democratic class; for us 'bourgeois democracy' means the democracy which the working class has won through struggle, and which should be extended.
Comrade Downing said Marxists should not, as the Weekly Worker does, uphold the democratic rights of fascists. Comrade Simon Wells replied that it is for the working class to decide whether or not to listen to groups like the BNP and whether or not to accept their arguments. It is not for us to insist that workers cannot be trusted to arrive at their own conclusions.
Other comrades agreed that the tactic of 'no platform for fascists' should not be turned into a principle - our main task is win the battle of ideas. Comrade Lawrence Parker said this error demonstrates the Trotskyist confusion about democracy - if workers are actually electing BNP members as councillors, they would "not be impressed if you put them in hospital". Comrade Downing said he has no problem alienating people who vote for fascists.
London CMP organiser Nick Rogers, who chaired the meeting, urged comrades who had not yet done so to sign up to the campaign. He said the next meeting would be on March 25.