A hypothesis to change the world

Mike Macnair explains the thinking behind the new version of the CPGB's Draft programme

Firstly, I am going to discuss the relationship of programme to the question of party. Secondly, I will look at programmes in general, including the history of workers’ party programmes, so as to place our own partyist project in that context. I am not going to discuss in detail the content of the new version of the CPGB Draft programme, or the changes we have incorporated.

There is a historical dialectic relating to the question of programme and party. However, the history does not play out exactly in the form of the dialectical logic. The underlying contradiction in the society is one between the interests of capital and the interests of the working class. That contradiction is reflected not necessarily in the class-consciousness of the working class, but in active management by capital to keep the working class under control.

This question constantly enters into the political economic decision-making of capital - the class war is not something which the working class invents. The capitalists wage war on the working class all the time by constantly managing them. In turn the existence of organisations of the working class is a reactive response to that war.


There are four levels of this dialectic of class struggle. The first level concerns the workers’ immediate organisations: strike committees, tiny workplace formations to defend workers’ interests. The first phase of trade unions has usually taken the form of organisation in a single plant, a single locality - these are useful organisations for conducting an individual struggle or strike. It may extend beyond that, becoming a wave of strikes, for example, and the highest form of this sort of organisation are soviets or workers’ councils. But this is still an elementary form of organisation for conducting a single struggle.

Such a form runs up against a limit, which is imposed by the class struggle. At the end of the day the workers have to go back to work - you cannot stay out on strike forever. The capitalist class is organised both on a national and on an international level and this exposes the limits of the workers’ immediate forms of struggle. As a result, organisational forms evolve to the second level: that is, unions equipped for prolonged struggle, operating on at least a national scale - the American trade unions originated as international organisations, which attempted to organise north and south of the US-Canada border.

In creating a union an attempt is being made to overcome the limitation of the immediate organisation of the working class by creating something more permanent. This allows strike funds to be built up from small contributions, specialist negotiators and lawyers to be employed, national trade union newspapers to be produced, through which struggles can be linked and strikes conducted on a national scale. Ideally we would want to see trade union organisation and strikes on an international scale. The fact that we do not is partly a matter of the active intervention of capital to control trade unionism, but trade unions also come up against an internal limit.

The limit which is posed by the class struggle in relation to a trade union is that, in order for it to function as a union, it cannot be a party. If it turns itself into a political party it ceases to function as a union. Trade unions have to include Tory workers, even though there may not be very many of them. They have to include all workers in the trade or industry, even if they have pro-bourgeois politics.

The gist of economism is the claim that the trade union struggle comes up against the capitalist state and therefore the workers are radicalised and understand the class nature of that state. So if we launch people into struggle, they will, through this understanding, become revolutionaries and seek the overthrow of the state. However, it does not actually work like this. In reality, when the trade union comes up against the state, the consequence is that workers seek a political organisation to represent the interests of the working class as a pressure group within the state order - the third level.

In Britain the trade union leaders broke from the First International and went into the Liberal Party in order to win the legalisation of their organisations. The next step was that the Tory Party, in the form of the judiciary, struck back through an interpretation of the act passed by the Liberals which rendered it completely ineffective.

The working class, therefore, objectively seeks independent political representation within the capitalist order. In a sense there is already an objective dynamic toward working class political representation as a pressure group within the capitalist order in the form of Lib-Labism - of the relationship between the trade union leadership and the Liberal Party (or the relationship between the trade union leadership and the Democratic Party in the United States).

This is a deformed form of political representation of the working class within the capitalist order, but it can, and very commonly does, take the form of the creation of a ‘labour party’. I place the phrase in quote marks, because there are ambiguities and contradictions in the actual history of the British Labour Party: it is a party set up to represent labour, but is actually a pressure group within capitalist society.

It can perfectly well be the case that such a party devolves into something else. Take the German Social Democratic Party. It started out as a party through which the working class tried to express its own interests, up to and including taking over the state and replacing capitalism, and mutated into something like the Labour Party over the course of time. In the same way some communist parties have moved into the political space of either the US Democratic Party (Italy) or the Labour Party (France). The Lanka Sama Samaja party - Trotskyist at its foundation - was transformed over the course of the 1950s into a Labourite party.

The formation of a broad party of labour, which aims to represent the interests of workers within the framework of capitalism, arises from the objective logic of the class struggle, aiming to overcome the limits of trade unions.

The fourth level then arises logically when the working class thinks about its independent political interests - that is to say, its interests over and above the problem of struggling against the class war waged by the bourgeoisie. The idea that the working class should take over and remake the society in a way which corresponds to its own interests.

Logically this is the final stage, because it follows from the limits of Labourism/social democracy, from the limits of representation of the working class by a pressure group. Those limits are the consequence of the fact that the capitalists intervene to manage or to control the working class. The capitalists have institutions of their own: the international state system, nation-states, the judiciary, media, constitutional limitations on the power of elected bodies - like the UK monarchy and House of Lords, but equally like the presidency and Senate in the United States. It is all very well trying to represent the interests of the working class as a pressure group within the framework of capitalist society, or within the capitalist nation-state system, but the levers of power remain in the hands of the capitalist class.

Therefore the question of a Communist Party is logically posed. It is logically posed, but as a matter of history things work out differently. In many cases we have had the formation of parties which aimed to be communist, without having previously gone through the stages of the construction of basic workers’ organisations, of national trade unions, of a party of political representation of the working class within capitalist society. As I say, parties can devolve from communism into Labourism, because the logic is still there.


This logic poses the question of programme. Why? Precisely because the point of a Communist Party is that the working class is to take over and remake the society in ways which are consistent with its own interests. But in order to say that, you have also to say something about how it will happen.

The necessity of a party relates to the same issue. A party is a political group within the society - it can be called a faction, as George Canning did in his ‘Epitaph on the ministry of all the talents’, which expresses Tory hostility to political parties per se:

The demon of faction that over them hung,
In accents of horror their epitaph sung,
While pride and venality joined in the stave
And canting democracy wept at the grave.

His hatred of parties (what he calls ‘factions’) is a hatred of democracy. A party is a group which makes proposals for how the whole society should organise itself. There is not here a counterposition between a reformist party and a communist party, except in so far as it is perfectly possible to have a reformist party without a programme at all. But there cannot be a communist party without a programme. If, as in the case of the Socialist Workers Party, there is no programme, what results is a sort of enraged liberalism, which represents only a scream of hatred against the existing order and can lead absolutely nowhere.

What is the history in terms of the Marxist movement in this respect? The political line of Marx was in a sense to try and reproduce Chartism. Marx and Engels not only saw Chartism as an organisation of the working class, but characterised its six points as representing the working class taking over.

In the First International, Marx sets out to support the construction of an organisation of the working class as an international class, with the most minimum possible aims: organising itself and uniting as an international class, identifying itself as an independent class and then setting out on that basis to discuss its programme. Actually the bulk of what happens in the First International is discussion of what the policy of the working class should be.

What were the components of the First International? First, the French workers’ movement, which was substantively Proudhonist. Then there was the British trade union movement and the third component was the Bakuninists, who came in late, but actually had broad support. There was an attempt to form a workers’ party out of the First International, but the reality was that the trade union leaders took fright.

On the one hand, they were pulled towards the Liberal Party by the promise of electoral reform, of trade union legalisation and so on. On the other hand, they were pushed away from the International by the Paris Commune and by Marx’s response, by the civil war in France and by the enormous, European-wide witch-hunt.

Marx and Engels were determined to push forward the idea that the working class should intervene in bourgeois politics. They won by a narrow majority, but the result was a de facto split. The Proudhonists had been wiped out and the British trade unions had withdrawn, so they moved the headquarters of the International to New York - otherwise they would in reality have been in the minority against the anarchists - and it survived for only another seven years before collapsing.

In response to that there develops a process of trying to construct national parties, most notably in Germany. Its real leaders are not Marx and Engels, but Bebel and Liebknecht. These national parties are being constructed as communist parties from the outset. Even within the Lassallean framework, the General German Workers’ Association (ADAV) had a section in its constitution outlining a world beyond capitalism. The Eisenach party, which Bebel and Liebknecht constructed out of a left split in German liberalism and drew towards affiliation to the International, adopted a semi-Marxist political programme.

Unity is achieved between the Eisenachers and the Lassallean ADAV. They adopt the Gotha programme, which is half-Lassallean, half-Marxist. The unified Gotha party grows dramatically, as German social democracy develops. It is rendered illegal by the anti-socialist law, but continues to grow in spite of this. In France the Parti Ouvrier is formed - for whom Marx writes the first part of its programme.

What is the character of programmes, such as that of the Parti Ouvrier? Generally speaking, we have a short description of general aims, an outline of the logic of the class struggle, posing the question of workers’ organisation, of the working class taking power.

Step two in the programme of the Parti Ouvrier, the Eisenach programme, the Gotha programme and Erfurt programme is a set of democratic demands. The working class proposes the reconstruction of the state as a democratic republic with a militia. It calls for freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of association - a whole series of demands of that sort.

After that we have a list of economic demands, which are not presented as ‘transitional’. They are not characterised as demands to alleviate the unpleasantnesses of capitalism either. They are demands to strengthen the position of the working class within capitalist society, by improving its conditions of existence: the eight-hour day, free universal primary education, etc.

So it is a three-part structure. Marx says of the programme of the Parti Ouvrier that the third part consists exclusively of demands raised by the movement itself. Why do we not just recapitulate that? This is very much the idea of the left: we call for the working class to organise itself on the basis of the most minimal platform - those few demands raised by the movement itself. That will trigger the organisation of a workers’ party and this party will discuss the adoption of a programme.

The problem is exactly the active intervention of the bourgeoisie within the existing workers’ parties. The proposition is, as we have constantly pointed out to people who want to create another Labour Party, that there is no point, when such a body already exists. Such existing general workers’ organisations have been rendered under the control - imperfect, but nonetheless control - of the capitalist class, as instruments of the capitalist management of society.

The consequence of this is that we are forced to put forward a fuller programme. It is not just that we confront more complex questions than were confronted in the 19th century. It is also the fact that we are not engaged in the formation of a general workers’ party, which will formulate its own policies. We are engaged in trying to pose a strategic alternative to Labourism, to the idea of a party which represents the interest of the working class within the capitalist order, but goes no further than that.

In addition, of course, we have had the experience of Stalinism. It is no good just saying, ‘We are for socialism’, when the immediate response is, ‘You mean Stalinism? I am not sure I want that. Go back to Moscow.’ The consequence of Stalinism is that it is not good enough just to say that our general aim is socialism: we have to say more about the transition, more about what immediately replaces capitalism than the programmes from the period of Erfurt, etc.


The structure of our Draft programme is in fact based on the structure of the Bolshevik programme.

First, we deal with the nature of the epoch in six substantive subsections - outlining the fact that we are in a historical process, the transition from capitalism, and the contradictions which that involves. We are clear that this transition can only be global.

Secondly, we move on to capitalism in Britain - we are not writing a programme of the World Party of Socialist Revolution.

Thirdly, there is a large set of immediate demands, whose aim is the same as it was in the programme of the party which created the Erfurt programme, and in the programme of the Bolsheviks: to strengthen the position of the working class within capitalism. As it happens, the immediate demands contain what would have been a separate section on democratic demands in the programmes of the Second International.

The view of Marx and Engels - whether it was right or wrong is debatable - was that if the democratic demands in their totality were won, that would amount to the dictatorship of the proletariat, to the replacement of the political rule of the bourgeoisie with the political rule of the working class. The working class then proceeds to reorganise society. The economic initiatives it takes and how it goes about reorganising society are a matter of tactics, but the first step is to replace the political rule of the bourgeoisie with that of the working class.

We have in a sense gone back to that idea, in that we have set out our democratic demands at considerable length and they are upfront, heading the list of immediate demands. We begin with the issues of political democracy not because we believe that, if we win, say, a workers’ militia and the right to bear arms, that will amount to the overthrow of the capitalist regime on its own. No, each individual demand can be won in theory within the framework of capitalism, just as Switzerland, for example, has a militia system.

But the creation of political democracy in the full sense - not in the sense of bourgeois democracy, with its judicial review, separation of powers, etc - has as its logical consequence that the working class starts to run the society. As for the economic demands, they do not amount in their totality to socialism - they are demands simply to strengthen the working class.

Fourthly, we discuss the character of the revolution and the role of the different social classes within it. We think it is illusory to state that Britain has become a society with just workers and bosses - there is, on the contrary, a large petty bourgeoisie and a substantial professional/managerial middle class.

This part of the programme also deals with the working class constitution - its implementation would undoubtedly and unambiguously amount to the working class taking over. Then there are proposals for economic measures. The general shape of these proposals is given by the fact that there remains a substantial petty bourgeoisie.

The aim is the immediate socialisation of everything which the capitalist class cannot run without subsidy - there is in reality an elephantine public sector. Here we pose the question of rapid movement towards a fully democratic self-management - rotation and election of managers, freedom of information and full democratic rights within the workplace. As for the remaining private sector, for all practical purposes it will consist of small enterprises, which we do not propose to forcibly expropriate, as long as they comply with working class legality.

The fifth section deals with the global transition to communism, which we talk about in the most general terms. We discuss the necessarily democratic character of socialism - but it is a transition, not the desired end. We talk in the most general terms about the transition precisely because the way things evolve will depend on circumstances and the decisions of the masses themselves. What we need to say is merely an outline.

Section six of the Draft programme discusses the nature of the Communist Party that must be built, and we have appended a set of draft rules. There is a common confusion relating to this - people say, ‘Why the hell are you drafting rules for a party that does not exist?’ But the point is, if there was a unification process on the left and such a party was brought into existence, it is vital to make clear our proposals on how it should operate.

In fact this is true of the whole document. It is a draft programme because it consists of our proposals - it is not a question of ‘Vote for this or we walk out’. They are our proposals for the programme of a serious, united Marxist party. For the same reason, we put forward draft rules and a draft constitution.

If there were a serious unification of the left on such a principled basis, it would rapidly balloon to twenty, thirty thousand. The far left is used to thinking in terms of organising small numbers, but the proposals in the draft rules are based on the prospect of organising thousands in a way which is democratic, allowing people to self-manage their practical work at the base and demanding accountability and responsibility of the leadership.

Two illusions

Two more matters, which are interconnected.

The first concerns soviets and the second transitional demands. We have included soviets - councils of action - in this programme, but we have them there as a subordinate element - as a useful way of conducting the class struggle. They are something which may play a role in the constitution of the future state. We do not regard soviets as a magic solution - the belief that ‘All power to the soviets’ will solve everything.

This aspect is not orthodox Trotskyism, but it is orthodox Trotsky - as in Lessons of October, for instance. However, the British and maybe the European far left fetishises the soviet form, which is regarded as the solution to the problems of democracy. Soviets are also envisaged to a large extent as a means whereby the working class can be won. By fighting within the soviets the small group can transform itself into a large party - which is, of course, false history in relation to the Bolsheviks: the RSDLP majority was already a mass party in February 1917. They had been cut down in terms of absolute numbers by mass repression, but to have 17,000 members on your books in circumstances where anybody who appeared to be a member of the Bolsheviks was immediately conscripted and sent to the front - or shot - represents a mass organisation.

We do not think that soviets are either a magic wand to create a mass revolutionary organisation or a solution to the problem of democracy: if there are soviets, but no freedom to form parties, factions, etc, that would be the equivalent of early-period Stalinism. If there are soviets which meet once a year to elect an executive committee, and once a month to elect a presidium, that is also Stalinism.

Soviets - as in the constitution of 1918, long before Stalinism - could be geographical representative bodies, which exist in every city and in the countryside, not the representatives of factory committees. The 1918 constitution, as written by the revolutionary Bolsheviks, takes that form precisely because the working class as a class includes the unemployed, women in the home, pensioners, etc. The conception of soviets as a federation of factory committees, etc, which is widespread on the Trotskyist left, does not succeed in organising the working class and does not succeed as a form of workers’ democracy.

The second matter relates to transitional demands. It has never been really possible to satisfactorily explain what transitional demands or, for that matter, a transitional programme mean. It was a fudge in origin, resulting from a dispute at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern over the nature of the programme. It starts out as a fight between Bukharin, who argues for the abolition of the minimum programme and for maximum programme only, and Lenin, who is arguing - as in fact he did in 1918 in relation to the revision of the party programme - that the minimum programme cannot be abolished, because we may lose power and certainly the people in the west European countries say they cannot do without the minimum programme.

Somehow these two positions were brought together by a drafting commission, which came up with the formulation, ‘transitional demands’. What they are is not explained. But Trotsky took them from the trade union programme of the Comintern and they are very largely the product of the KPD - the German Communist Party - and this is combined with an idea of his own, which was present in Results and prospects. In this book he says that, with the decline of capitalism, the distinction between the maximum and minimum programmes disappears and instead there needs to be a programme for the immediate introduction of socialism.

He does not use the word as we do, to mean the immediate phase which follows capitalism. Socialism, we say, is a synonym for working class rule, for the dictatorship of the proletariat - the transitional period which is initiated by the revolution. But Trotsky does not mean that: he means the collectivisation of everything, the abolition of money. So the transitional programme is transitional to general socialisation.

The sliding scale of wages, for example, actually means rationing in kind - it only makes sense if you work out what the worker’s shopping basket is and you index the wages against that. By proposing this rationing of the worker’s shopping basket, you are actually proposing the immediate abolition of money.

The sliding scale of hours is somewhat less problematic, but if you think of it as a programme for the society as a whole, rather than just for the public sector, it actually amounts to the immediate abolition of small capital, the immediate expropriation of the petty bourgeoisie.

It is for that reason that Trotskyists have been unable to actually make any real use of those parts, of that core conception, and so ‘transitional demands’ and ‘transitional programmes’ constantly collapse into something else. They are supposed to be a bridge between the present consciousness of the masses - ie, reformism - and a consciousness of the need to overthrow capitalism. But, as Workers Revolutionary Party guru Gerry Healy once pointed out - correctly - it is necessary for communists to say something that the masses do not already believe in order for their present consciousness to be shifted. The problem with so-called ‘transitional programmes’ and ‘transitional demands’, which do not enter into any contradiction with the consciousness of the masses, is that they wind up as common-or-garden reformism or economism.

One of the fundamental principles of our Draft programme is that we need to say upfront what we would do if we win the majority. We are setting out what we believe that majority should do and we are clear that by doing this they will overthrow capitalist rule and begin the construction of the future society. That is the point of a programme: it is not a way of tricking the masses into making a revolution.

There is no doubt whatsoever that what we are proposing will be changed and amended once a Communist Party is actually forged. But you cannot change and amend something that does not exist - you must start with a hypothesis, which is changed in the light of experimentation. And our hypothesis - our Draft programme is about the way the working class can change the world.