For a minimum programme!

Continuing his series on 'permanent revolution', Mike Macnair suggests that the victory of workers' power through a democratic republic does not remove the distinction between the two parts of the communist programme

Trotsky argues that the communist programme should be 'transitional' in the sense that the distinction between minimum and maximum programmes is superseded. But, taking into account the supposed Russian evidence for this supersession, is this correct as theory? Equally, is it correct to suppose that there can be a programme which is 'transitional' in the sense of making a direct link between the immediate economic class struggle and the seizure of power by the proletariat? These are, as I said in the first article in this series, two separate questions.

Min-max and transitional

In the first article, I said:

"In a maximum-minimum programme, the maximum part would outline the general idea of communism as a society without classes, state or family as an economic institution, in which production is collectively managed for the human good, and explain briefly why this sort of society is becoming possible, but can only begin to be attained through the working class, as a global class, taking over the running of society.

"The minimum part would outline the minimum commitments to transferring political power from the capitalist class to the working class, without which a workers' party would not participate in a government (whether formed on the basis of an electoral majority or as a provisional government arising from an insurrectionary movement). It would also add some 'immediate' economic demands of a, broadly, currently agitational character."

In other words, the minimum programme is the programme of 'from here to the dictatorship of the proletariat'. The maximum programme is the general aim of communism (I carefully do not say: a plan for reaching full communism and its nature; the reasons will appear below).

This interpretation of the minimum-maximum programme is certainly contentious: Trotskyist critics of the CPGB insist, in contrast, that the minimum programme is a programme for the 'bourgeois democratic' revolution.

I have done some limited research into the original justification of the minimum-maximum division. It is surprising how little there is in English on this topic: its theoretical basis is almost entirely discussed by opponents of the idea. There is presumably material in German from the periodicals of the pre-war German Social Democratic Party (SPD), but it does not seem to be cited either by those who debated the issue in the 1900s-1920s or in the historical works I have read.


The expression 'minimum programme' appears to be Marx's, if it was not already in use. It is found in an 1880 letter to Sorge discussing the programme of the Parti Ouvrier (of earlier the same year) and its impact in France. Marx says: "With the exception of some trivialities ... the economic section of the very brief document consists solely of demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself, except for the introductory passages, where the communist goal is defined in a few words."

He goes on to discuss the impact of the programme, in the first place in the workers' movement, but also more widely: "Meanwhile we also have had and have our champions in the camp of the enemy itself - ie, in the radical camp ... Clemenceau, who publicly came out only last April against socialism and as the advocate of American-democratic-republican views, has swung over to us in his latest Marseilles speech against Gambetta, both in its general tendency and in its principal points, as contained in the minimum programme."

Barry Biddulph claims on the basis of 1848-50 that "[t]he minimum programme was a common programme or bloc with the democrats for the overthrow of feudalism and absolutism." Where is the "feudalism and absolutism" in the France of 1880?

'Minimum' and 'maximum' are, in a sense, slightly misleading. The programme of the Parti Ouvrier has, in fact, three sections. The first (what came to be called the 'maximum programme') is what Marx in this letter calls "the introductory passages where the communist goal is defined in a few words". The second is the political section. In the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier this contains the following:

(1) Abolition of all laws over the press, meetings and associations and above all the law against the International Working Men's Association. Removal of the livret, that administrative control over the working class, and of all the articles of the code establishing the inferiority of the worker in relation to the boss, and of woman in relation to man.

(2) Removal of the budget of the religious orders and the return to the nation of the 'goods said to be mortmain, moveable and immoveable' (decree by the Commune of April 2 1871), including all the industrial and commercial annexes of these corporations.

(3) Suppression of the public debt.

(4) Abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people.

(5) The Commune to be master of its administration and its police.

Very similar sets of political demands can be found grouped together in the German Eisenach (1869), Gotha (1875) and Erfurt (1891) programmes. The marked common features of these 'political' programmes indicate that they are all versions of the common position of the 'Marx party' at this period: ie, that the working class has to fight for the democratic republic as the form in which the working class can take power. Thus, unlike the third, 'economic', section of the Parti Ouvrier (PO) programme, the political demands are not (as Marx put it), "demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself". Note the inclusion in the political section of "suppression of the public debt", which necessarily implies expropriation of the banks and financial institutions.

Why did Marx insist so strongly in his letter to Sorge on the 'economic section' consisting of "demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself"? The answer is that this approach is counterposed to utopian schemes about the nature of the organisation of the future communist society and about the transition which were current in France (and elsewhere).

The essence of the 'Marxist' policy was that the working class needed to take political power, and for that purpose to struggle for the democratic republic. Given that the proposal was that the working class take over the running of society, it was the working class itself which had to decide on economic and other policy priorities. This was the approach of the First International: it was founded on a minimal set of claims about the need of the working class to organise, and the organisation itself then discussed what concrete working class policy should be in relation to several areas.

In the PO programme, the French working class is taken to be as yet unorganised, so not in a position to decide its policies and priorities. The "demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself" of the 'economic section' then stand in for this decision-making process in order to initialise the process of working class self-organisation.

As an aside, it should be said before going any further that this is not an approach which Marxists today could practically use to formulate a programme. The reason is that (as Bakunin, in a muddled way, foresaw at the time) the capitalist class today rules through the support of the labour bureaucracy controlling the workers' organisations. In this situation "demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself" express the contradictory unity of the interests of the labour bureaucracy and of capital and the capitalist nation-state. They do not in any direct way express the decisions of the working class as a class as to its own interests, except insofar as they arise out of mass movements which have momentarily escaped the control of the bureaucracy (strike committees, shop steward committees, tenants' movements and so on).

In Marx's letter describing the PO programme, there is a 'minimum programme' which consists of the democratic republic (= the dictatorship of the proletariat) plus the immediate demands of the class movement. There is not a 'maximum programme': merely "introductory passages where the communist goal is defined in a few words".


In The class struggle, Kautsky's 1892 exposition of the 'maximum part' of the Erfurt programme, this remains the character of the division. Kautsky writes:

"The programme adopted by the German Social Democracy at Erfurt in 1891 divides itself into two parts. In the first place it outlines the fundamental principles on which socialism is based, and in the second it enumerates the demands which the Social Democracy makes of present-day society. The first part tells what socialists believe; the second how they propose to make their belief effective."10 

However, in his 1902 The social revolution and the day after the social revolution Kautsky explains the political part of the minimum programme as (to use what later became 'orthodox' language) 'uncompleted tasks of the bourgeois revolution':

"Let us imagine then that this fine day has already come, in which at one stroke all power is thrown into the lap of the proletariat. How would it begin? ...

"In the first place it is self-evident that it would recover what the bourgeoisie has lost. It would sweep all remnants of feudalism away and realise that democratic programme for which the bourgeoisie once stood. As the lowest of all classes it is also the most democratic of all classes. It would extend universal suffrage to every individual and establish complete freedom of press and assemblage. It would make the state completely independent of the church and abolish all rights of inheritance. It would establish complete autonomy in all individual communities and abolish militarism ..."11 

Kautsky here has plainly lost sight of the idea that the struggle for the democratic republic is connected to the proletariat's struggle for political power: it is by some other means that the proletariat wins power.12 

Following Kautsky, this is also certainly the way Lenin used the idea of the minimum programme: the minimum programme (meaning the 'political section' of the programme) is the programme of the logic of the bourgeois democratic revolution; the maximum programme that of the proletarian socialist revolution.13 

Bakunin, Marx and Engels

Why did Kautsky begin to identify the struggle for the democratic republic with the (perhaps uncompleted) bourgeois revolution?

Bakunin in 1870 sharply criticised the Eisenach programme, and attributed its faults to Marx's policy. In particular, he argued that "All the German socialists believe that the political revolution must precede the social revolution. This is a fatal error. For any revolution made before a social revolution will necessarily be a bourgeois revolution - which can lead only to bourgeois socialism - a new, more efficient, more cleverly concealed form of the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie."

Criticising particular aspects (insufficient internationalism, failure to propose the abolition of the state, Lassallean state-sponsored cooperatives), Bakunin made his point concrete in relation to the democratic demands of the Eisenach programme: "These demands merely duplicate the familiar programme of the bourgeois democrats: universal suffrage with direct legislation by the people; abolition of all political privileges; replacement of the permanent standing army by the volunteers' and citizens' militias ..."14 

The criticism evidently stung. Several of Marx's points in the 1875 Critique of the Gotha programme are aimed to distance Marx and Engels from the 'Lassallean' - ie, nationalist and state-socialist - features which are almost as much present in the Eisenach programme as they are in the Gotha programme; and several of them follow Bakunin's 1870 arguments against the Eisenach programme.

Among them, Marx commented of the democratic demands: "Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people's militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People's Party, of the League of Peace and Freedom."15  Engels, similarly, wrote: "How can one explain the adoption in this same programme of no less than seven demands that coincide exactly and word for word with the programme of the People's Party and of petty bourgeois democracy? I mean the seven political demands, 1 to 5 and 1 to 2, of which there is not one that is not bourgeois democratic."16 

Yet five years later (and nine years after the Paris Commune) Marx was to endorse a very similar (though not identical) set of democratic political demands in the PO programme, and in 1891 Engels was to complain of the absence of the call for a republic in the draft Erfurt programme, but propose only minor amendments to the concrete democratic political demands. How to resolve this contradiction?

Kautsky's approach to the problem in The social revolution is to say: in the past the bourgeoisie struggled for the democratic republic, but today it does not. Hence the proletariat must now promise to "realise that democratic programme for which the bourgeoisie once stood".

This may have been Engels' view, too: this idea is made more plausible by the fact that in his Critique of the Erfurt programme he characterised France and the US as 'democratic republics' and said that in these countries (and in Britain) "the old society may develop peacefully into the new one" since "the representatives of the people concentrate all power in their hands, where, if one has the support of the majority of the people, one can do as one sees fit in a constitutional way".17 

Capitalists not democratic

There is, however, an alternative. This is to recognise that - contrary to Bakunin and, in this case, to Marx's and Engels' appropriation of Bakunin's arguments against the Eisenach programme - the democratic republic is not and never has been the political programme of the capitalist class.

Rather the capitalist class fights for rule of law constitutionalism and 'natural rights', as opposed to democratic republicanism. The democratic republic was the programme of the urban artisans in process of becoming proletarianised and the proletariat in process of formation: from the Levellers in 1640s-50s England, through the Democratic Republicans in the 1780s-1800s US and the 'Mountain' in 1790s France, to the Chartists in 1830s-40s Britain. To use the language of analogies with classical antiquity that was current at the time, the urban working classes (= the proletariat and the urban petty proprietors) fought for an 'Athenian' democracy; the capitalists for a 'Roman' oligarchic constitutionalism.

As long as there is a large urban artisan class and no independent party of the proletariat, capitalist politicians are prepared to dabble with radical democratic ideas in order to win the support of the lower orders against the pre-capitalist state. Even so, once the capitalists attain political power the ideas are rapidly dumped: Cromwellianism and restoration in 1650s England; federalism in the 1780s-1800s US, directory and Bonapartism in 1790s-1800s France.18 

Once there is an independent workers' movement, radical democratic ideas become too dangerous even for capitalists who are not yet in power, and are dumped (1848-50 being one of the classic moments). As capitalism develops, the urban artisan class is marginalised. The managerial middle class which replaces it is deeply antagonistic to political democracy, which tends to undermine its own managerial authority. The radical democratic-republican programme now becomes, effectively, only the property of the working class movement.

It follows that Marx and Engels were wrong in their critiques of the Gotha programme to make casual comments which in effect accepted Bakunin's criticism of the democratic demands of the Eisenach programme. Engels was wrong in 1891 to characterise the US (or France) as a democratic republic. And Kautsky was wrong to see the struggle for the democratic republic as a task of the bourgeois revolution. We arrive at the analysis I made above of the PO programme: the minimum programme is the democratic republic (= the dictatorship of the proletariat) plus some immediate 'economic' demands in the interests of the working class. The 'maximum programme' is simply the ultimate aim of communism.


This should enable us to come back to Trotsky's argument that the distinction between the minimum and the maximum programme is superseded (a) because the "classical Social Democracy function[ed] in an epoch of progressive capitalism" and hence "the minimum programme ... limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society" (Transitional programme), or (b) when a workers' government is formed under revolutionary conditions (Results and prospects).

The first of these statements is quite plainly false. The point of having a minimum programme was not to abandon the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state. It was to get rid of attachment to utopian speculations about the detailed nature of the communist society as the ground of the several Proudhonist, Lassallean, Bakuninist, etc sects, and insist simply on the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The maximum programme is the general aim of communism. It is certainly true that Marx speculates about the nature of the communist society in the Critique of the Gotha programme; but he does so in order to argue that the Lassallean nostrums should be removed from the programme. Engels' critique of the draft Erfurt programme similarly calls for the 'maximum part' to be shortened and simplified.

The reason is that between the working class seizing political power and the disappearance of classes, supersession of state, nation, family etc is a substantial period of transition. The transition, and the communist outcome, will be shaped by the choices made by the working class when it has attained political power. To 'fuse' the maximum and minimum programmes in this sense is precisely to return to the Proudhonist, Lassallean, Bakuninist etc world of sects defined by utopian speculation.

It also has a striking consequence, to which I have referred in polemic with Campaign for a Marxist Party comrades before.19  This is that the core 'transitional demands' of Trotsky's 1938 Transitional programme - sliding scale of wages and sliding scale of hours - if fully implemented, amount to the immediate abolition of money. Replacing the minimum programme with one 'transitional' to the maximum programme then turns out to mean "¦ transitional to the 'war communism' regime of the Russian civil war, or to a Maoist 'cultural revolution' or Cambodian 'year zero'.

Moreover, the Transitional programme argument depends on the argument - explicitly maintained in that text - that capitalism is in its death agony and no longer capable of granting reforms. As a statement about the immediate political situation in 1938 this was close to being tenable: the death agony of the British world-regime was about to issue in world war. Even so there were serious problems: for example, Latin America avoided direct involvement in the war and was relatively prosperous through the 1940s. As an epochal statement, it was plainly false.

Workers' government

What about Trotsky's narrower claim, in Results and prospects? This was that a workers' government under revolutionary conditions will be forced to collectivist measures - inconsistent with the market order and the rights of private property - in order to coerce the capitalists. This, Trotsky says, amounts to the disappearance of the difference between minimum and maximum programme.

Two points should be made. The first is that the claim that a revolutionary workers' government will be forced to make despotic inroads on the rights of private property and on the market in order to coerce the capitalists is transparently true. The second is that the use of such methods does not amount to the disappearance of the distinction between minimum and maximum programme.

The first point is a very important one. It is absolutely routine for capitalists to both threaten to withdraw their capital in order to coerce governments to abandon proposals they dislike, and for them actually to do so in response even to quite limited proposals, like those of the first Mitterrand government in France in 1981. There is no sanction which will be effective to deter this conduct other than forms of confiscation of property without compensation - which then requires that the firms in question be, at least temporarily, kept running under public management.

It is equally important to be clear that this is not a difference between Trotskyists and the CPGB. Our draft programme says:

"Under definite circumstances, however, nationalisation serves the interests of the workers. Faced with plans for closure or mass sackings, communists demand that the state - the executive committee of the bourgeoisie - not the workers, bear the consequences for failure.

"Against closures and mass sackings communists demand:

No redundancies. Nationalise threatened workplaces or industries under workers' control.

Compensation to former owners should be paid only in cases of proven need ..."

In this passage nationalisation is formulated as a defensive demand to defend the immediate interest of the working class in the availability of employment (and of the particular group of workers in their jobs). But most cases of capitalists using the withdrawal of capital to coerce a workers' government would fall under this head anyhow. Trotskyists need not fear that a hypothetical government which had CPGB's political ideas would hesitate to use coercive confiscation of the property of capitalists who attempt to withdraw their capital in order to coerce the government.

The second point, however, is that the coercive use of confiscation of property does not amount to the maximum programme. In the first place, such measures are routinely used by capitalist governments in wartime against the property of enemy nationals. Secondly, capitalist revolutions have equally normally involved not only the abolition of forms of feudal property rights, but also the coercive seizure of the ('capitalist') property of opponents of the revolution. The parliamentary regime of the 1640s-50s seized the property of royalist 'Malignants', the revolutionary regime in the 1770s-80s US the property of pro-British 'Tories'. The British state maintained through the 18th century a legal regime in which protestant relatives could expropriate the landed property of catholics. None of this, obviously, amounts to socialism.

The socialisation or collective appropriation of the means of production - the maximum programme - involves the holding in common of the means of production as a whole. To achieve this result, a large swathe of productive activities which are now carried on by petty proprietors (small farmers, self-employed tradesmen, etc) and by small capitalist firms, needs to be socialised. No Marxist before the Stalinist 'forced collectivisation' ever suggested either that the way to approach this problem was by forcible coercion of the petty proprietors and small capitalists to give up their property, or that the overcoming of surviving petty property could be achieved in a single 'revolutionary leap'. After the results of the Russian forced collectivisations, Chinese 'great leap forward' and so on, no Marxist should suggest it.

This is, in fact, a fundamental reason for a minimum programme. It is also why the demands of the minimum programme have to be in a certain sense consistent with the continued existence of money and commodity exchange. If the workers are not to expropriate the petty proprietors by force, it will be necessary to trade with them and tax them; while setting the terms of trade and taxation in such a way as to favour socialisation of their productive activities, whether through promoting cooperatives or through competition driving them out of business (the capitalists, of course, already set the terms of tax and trade in ways which favour large-scale enterprises). This implies that, in the first phase at least of workers' rule, money and markets will continue to exist. Hence the demands of the minimum programme should be consistent as far as possible with this continued existence.

This carries with it, as a secondary result, a further feature. Each of the individual demands of the minimum programme could, on its own, be conceded by capital with the capitalist state remaining intact. But if all the demands of the political part of the minimum programme are implemented - ie, the democratic republic replaces the rule-of-law state and the public debt is suppressed (which requires that the financial sector be nationalised under democratic control) - political power will have been transferred from the capitalist class to the working class.

Immediate class struggle and workers' power

What about the argument for "a system of transitional demands, stemming from today's conditions and from today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat" (1938 Transitional programme); or for "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" (1921 Comintern Third Congress On tactics)?

This idea is either true and utterly trivial, or embodies a radically false strategy.

The true and trivial side of it is this. Any party which seeks immediately to win the masses to its side has to link its programme, in agitation, to the immediate concerns of the masses and their immediate material well-being. But this is as true of the Conservatives and Labour in their election campaigns as it is of a communist or 'revolutionary' party. Moreover, the immediate concerns and well-being of the masses are affected by absolutely conjunctural and local features of the political situation. The agitational form thus has to vary to an extent which is radically inconsistent with building a party on the basis of an agreed programme.

For example, Trotskyists commonly use the Bolshevik 'programme' - 'Land, peace, and bread: all power to the soviets' - as an example of a 'transitional' programme. In reality it was merely a linked group of agitational slogans, based on the Bolsheviks' party programme. Moreover, this 'programme' was utterly local to a Russia in which the peasantry was predominant, and conjunctural to the conditions of the war and the crisis of the revolution.

To have a 'transitional programme' in this sense is hence, as the British Socialist Workers Party has understood better than the orthodox Trotskyists, not to have a formal party programme at all, but merely to grab hold of whatever currently seems agitational: 'Troops out of Iraq'; 'Save the NHS'; 'Vote Respect"!

The radically false strategy is the strategy of the general strike, the attempt to move directly from the economic strike struggle to the 'social revolution' in the sense of generalised workers' control, without directly addressing the question of the state or passing through the political struggle under capitalism. This argument depends on a theory of the movement of mass consciousness and its relationship to organisation, which the next article will address.