"Can the (socialists) be against reform? Can we counterpose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the [socialists] the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal - the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labour. Between social reform and revolution there is then for the [socialists] an indissoluble tie."
"It is necessary to find the particular link in the chain which must be grasped with all our strength in order to keep the whole chain in place and prepare to move on resolutely to the next link."
V I Lenin
As we rush towards the 21st century the state of the world testifies to the truth that working-class socialism is not only a good idea, but a stark necessity for humankind. Capitalism is still a system of waste, irrationality and savage inhumanity. Wage slavery and exploitation are at the heart and root of capitalism. Every year tens of millions of "Third World" children die needlessly and horribly under this system ruled by bankers, factory owners and self-righteous media magnates. In some Latin American cities unemployment is 40%, in Europe now over 15 million are unemployed. Socialism is necessary.
Yet the credibility of socialism is buried under the debris of Stalinism, that savage and malign pseudo-socialism. That Stalinism was the "socialism that failed" is now the conventional wisdom. The ideas of socialism are everywhere under attack. They are at the nadir of influence and prestige. Socialism is reduced to a vague word. Most people haven't a clue what real socialism is about or what it would look like.
The reformist counterfeit of socialism is in a state of collapse scarcely less complete than that of Stalinist socialism. In Britain, the best fruits of reform socialism, the Health Service and the Welfare State, are in ruins. In many countries, working-class organisations now have less weight and are less self-confident than they were in the decades when they forced welfare and other reforms on the bourgeoisie. In Britain, the labour movement - without which socialism can never be more than "good ideas" - bears the scars and mutilations of two decades of defeat, and of structural changes in industry forced through on the bosses' terms.
The labour movement has been curbed and is half-stifled. The trade unions are tied up by what New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair himself has called, "the most restrictive laws in the western world." Everything that makes for effective trade unionism is illegal in Britain - solidarity strikes, for example - actions, to take one of the finest examples of what the Tories outlawed, like the miners' strikes to back the demands of hospital workers. Wide swathes of British industry are no longer unionised. The Labour Party, organised by the trade unions a hundred years ago so that there could be an independent working-class force to fight and bargain in Parliament on our behalf, is in the process of being hijacked by cliques of lawyers, journalists, and practising capitalists, whose political outlook is closer to Thatcherism and Reaganism than to socialism - or even the drive for reform characteristic of the old Labour Party in its best days. The organised working class is being driven out of politics.
Socialists and labour movement activists are thus faced with a series of battles to remake and rebuild the labour movement and to win back the freedom for trade union action destroyed by the Thatcherites and still banned under New Labour. The unorganised must be organised into trade unions. Class must be restored to its proper place as the measure for the labour movement of everything in political and public life. The possibility of a workers' government, a government that will minimally do for the working class and its movement what the Tories in power do for the bourgeoisie, must be restored. These problems should not dishearten but energise those who understand the reason why the working class has to fight once again basic battles that were won by our parents and their parents - and then lost. It is in the nature of capitalism.
History tells us that the working class and its movement are repeatedly made, re-made, and made over again by the never-ending changes in capitalist production and technology and by the outcome of the struggles between labour and capital. The working class pays dearly for missed chances and defeats. The working-class movement is forced again and again to resurrect, remake and redefine itself. To keep their bearings, its militants are forced to probe the past for lessons, parallels, examples and precedents. The socialists are the memory of the class, the curators of its historical experiences, and the harbingers of revival.
Tremendous transformations in the consciousness and organisation of the working class can happen quickly - so quickly that they seem miraculous to those who do not comprehend why they happen. The everyday consciousness of the workers under capitalism does not correspond to their objective needs. When an event - a strike for example - makes that clear to many workers, they can be catapulted forward. In 1968 in France 9 million workers who had seemed dormant and politically depressed suddenly seized the factories. Another example: the events that launched the modern labour movement at the end of the last century. The docks had armies of casual workers employed on a short-time basis as ships came and went. They were typically brutalised and degraded men who drifted down from better work into docking. Docker competed with docker, sometimes in physical fights, to gain a few hours' work. No group of workers was more distant from the ideal and practice of working-class solidarity.
Then they were influenced by the agitation of Marxian socialists like Tom Mann, John Burns, Eleanor Marx, Harry Quelch and others, who were not themselves dockers. They struck for a wage rise and suddenly organised themselves into a trade union. Over time, these dockers, who had seemed to be the most degraded and unorganisable of workers, created a splendid working-class culture of solidarity, animated by the idea that a blow against one is a blow against all. They lived in their workaday lives by an ethic - solidarity - at stark odds with the dog-eat-dog principle of capitalism, an ethic which, generalised to society as a whole, is the seed of a higher and better civilisation. Their solidarity was legendary in the labour movement. Miracles happen!
In that case the work of socialist agitators, propagandists and organisers made it happen. Things like that can be made to happen again. There are vast stifled reserves of anger, resentment and energy in the British working class. The trade unions are still potentially a tremendous power. The possibilities for reviving genuine socialism are greater and more favourable than at any time since the rise, three quarters of a century ago, of Stalinism, which Leon Trotsky rightly called the leprosy of the labour movement. The collapse of Stalinism has opened the road for a mass rebirth of genuine socialism.
How quickly the labour movement unshackles and rebuilds itself, and once more goes on the offensive; how soon socialism is again erected into a force to challenge the domination over us of the rich and their political agents - that, to an appreciable degree, depends on the socialists. What can we do? What approaches are suggested to us by the long history of the international labour movement? How can the elemental working-class struggle for palliatives, amelioration and reform be tied to the fight for socialist consciousness and for socialism? That is the subject of this collection of texts.
How "reform" struggles can revolutionise the labour movement
Nothing is more obvious than that the duty of socialists - those who are worth anything - now is to go to the working class and into the working-class movement to help organise, reorganise and regenerate it, and to plant the seeds of unfalsified socialism once more, especially amongst the youth. Yet this work is scarcely being done.
The space that should be occupied by serious Marxist socialists doing this work is filled instead by a raucous tribe of middle-class sects impotently shouting about "revolution" and conducting catchpenny pseudo-campaigns of agitation on issues calculated to "fit the mood", advertise militancy, and attract recruits. A socialism that immerses itself in the working class and in working-class immediate concerns and, while advocating revolutionary socialist politics and perspectives, avoids becoming a toy-town "Bolshevik" sect - that today is the property of only a minority of the socialists.
Because that is so, objective possibilities for socialist renewal are being let go by unfructified. Great chances are being missed. A vastly destructive polarisation exists between the concerns of reform socialists and labour movement activists on one side and would-be revolutionary socialists on the other. The polarisation is, psychologically, a natural tendency. If it had not been overcome in the past, then the mass socialist labour movements would never have been built. How can we bridge the gap now? The burning question of the welfare state illustrates our point.
There is mass hostility to what the Tories have done and New Labour now do to the NHS, and to the Welfare State in general. They are "reforming" it out of existence. New Labour no longer believes in the underlying principle of the Health Service Labour established in the 1940s: universal state-of-the-art health care, free at the point of delivery. They accept and apply the monstrous Tory argument that Britain cannot afford the best health care for the sick poor - that on this most fundamental question, an equal right to life, people are not equal, that the right to adequate health care exists for those in need of it only if they can pay for it. Labour's leaders have set their faces against restoring the Health Service to the principle Nye Bevan proclaimed at its inception: comprehensive state-of-the-art health care, free at the point of delivery, as a basic right of equal citizenship. Under democracy all are equal, but in the chances of life the rich are very much more equal!
The leaders of New Labour thus betray the best traditions of their own reform-socialist current of labour movement opinion. The reformist leaders of the 1940s would have responded to the ideas which the Tories proclaimed and acted upon, and Tory Blair and Frank Field dogmatically embrace, as people stung to action in defence of their most cherished and most basic beliefs - the belief in human equality, in human solidarity and in social justice. But they were convinced reformists. New Labour's leaders are not for reform in the interests of the working class and the mass of the people: they accept the gruesomely Tory elitist argument that "we" cannot afford proper health care for the poor.
Ideas are central here. You cannot fight the Tories or New Labour if you accept their basic premises and do not know how to refute their ideas, if you believe that the commercial imperatives and ethics of capitalism and not the needs of the working class are the highest court of appeal. Without the acceptance by the Labour leaders of the basic premise of what the Tories did - that "we" cannot afford the Health Service or a proper Welfare State - the labour movement's fight against the Tories in the 1980s and '90s would have been fuelled by righteous, invigorating anger and determination, and propelled forward by the determination of millions of people. If only some of the union leaders, for example, had refused to accept the Tory line, the fight against the New Labour Government would be more advanced than it is.
The opposition to the Tories was ineffective - and the opposition to New Labour may, if we do not change things, also be ineffective - because the natural spinal column around which resistance could organise, a labour movement confidently in possession of a vigorous culture and a solid philosophy of its own, did not exist. That takes us to the heart of our subject: how can the day-to-day concerns of the working class, and struggles for palliatives and reforms, be linked to the fight for a fundamental change, that is, for socialism?
The demand for "state-of-the-art health care, free at the point of delivery" is, in the prevailing circumstances, the demand for the establishment of values, priorities, and recognised working-class rights that are starkly at odds with the values, priorities and interests of those who control the wealth in our society and the politicians who serve them - the Thatchers, Blairs and the renegade one-time leftists like Blunkett and Beckett and Cook. It is implicitly to demand the re-allocation of social resources and the reorganisation of society so that we can establish equality in the right to life. It is a clear assertion, in terms of the felt needs of millions of people, of human solidarity, counterposed to the exploitative and cannibalistic, that is, capitalistic, practices dominant in our society and glorified in its governing ideas as expressed by politicians, newspapers and television. It demands and can mobilise people to fight for, the reorganisation of our society.
The idea of free state-of-the-art health care for all proposes a struggle for immediate felt needs which can in principle be achieved even under capitalism, if enough people organise and mobilise, lobby and act - by strikes, occupations of public buildings, and other forms of direct action. At the same time, even though it can be won under capitalism, it challenges the fundamentals of the capitalist system - its ideas, values, priorities, and distribution of resources. People drawn into action around the one demand will, especially if socialists explain it to them, begin to make the connection between this question and the way society is organised. They will think about society and their place in it. We "can't afford" modern health care for all? Then tax the rich! Reallocate resources! Remake society! Put human needs first.
If workers organise, mobilise and agitate even on this one issue, then other "adjacent" social issues will also be brought to the fore - for example, the right of trade unionists to take industrial action for the Health Service. Action and success generates confidence and combativity that brings things near which, a short time ago, were far off and seemingly impossible. A big energising mass campaign on the Health Service - a campaign of the scale and scope of the old Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and that is surely possible, given the mass feeling that exists - would help prepare and generate mass working-class action for free trade unions and many other things.
Free state-of-the-art health care is therefore an explosive demand. It is no wonder the time-serving trade union leaders and the neo-Thatcherite Labour politicians have no time for it. It is what Marxists have called a "transitional demand". Such transitional demands, of which there are many - and which can be joined into a linked chain from here to the socialist transformation of society - form the bridge between reform and revolutionary socialist politics.
Such demands help call into existence the living bridge between reform and socialist politics. The working class mobilises, organises, develops combativity and confidence, learning in action and struggle. The socialists who do not engage with the concerns of the real working class, and content themselves with shouting socialist abstractions and calls for revolution are sterile; so are the socialists who bury themselves in labour movement routines or the fight for one particular reform. The "to be or not to be" question for socialism is to link immediate battles and the goal of transforming capitalist society through revolution. If we do not do that, we will miss the tremendous opportunities opened by the collapse of Stalinism and, in Britain, by the election of a neo-Thatcherite Labour Government whose conflicts with the basic labour movement will help forward the necessary recomposition of working-class politics.
From Karl Marx to Rosa Luxemburg
The first programme of "transitional demands" was in the 1848 Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, in the form of a ten-point programme on which to mobilise a mass movement and, once the workers had won power, to begin the transformation from capitalism to socialism. Principles of Communism, by Engels, included in this book, was a first draft for the Manifesto, and sums up the basic ideas of communism in question-and-answer form. The Communist League, for which Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, collapsed after the defeat of the revolutions of 1848. When mass workers' socialist parties emerged, from the 1880s, they divided their programme into two parts: a minimum programme and a maximum programme. The classic programme of this type was the German socialists' Erfurt Programme of 1891. The excerpt we include in this book from German Marxist Karl Kautsky's commentary on that programme communicates both some of the strengths of the socialist movement of that time - which laid foundations which all subsequent Marxists and socialists have built on - and its weaknesses.
The maximum programme was the great socialist goal in the far distance, the abolition of wage-slavery and the elimination of all exploitation. It was the intellectual property of an elite within the loose workers' parties of the time, known as "social democracy" and organised together in the "Socialist International", also called the "Second International". The minimum programme consisted of more immediate, limited, practical goals such as wage demands, the right to free trade unions, the right to vote, the building up of trade unions.
What was the link between the two? The party and the trade unions would be built in the struggles for minimum demands and through propaganda. As time went on, the party would grow stronger and capitalism would move nearer to its pre-ordained economic downfall. At the culminating point, the party would be strong enough to take the helm when capitalist disintegration threw affairs into its hands. Then the "maximum programme" would come into its own.
In the vision of the Marxists before 1914, progressive capitalism was advancing organically; so was the labour movement. One key measure of capitalist progress was that it made possible a labour movement: that capitalism bred and in day to day struggles trained its own gravedigger. The right-wing social democrats saw this process continuing indefinitely - the labour movement would win reform after reform, and thus over a long time transform society bit by bit. "The movement is everything, the goal nothing," said their theoretician, Eduard Bernstein. Kautsky and the mainstream left believed evolution involved qualitative breaks and leaps, and that the evolutionary process would have to culminate in a revolutionary proletarian seizure of power.
Both failed to link the daily class struggle with the goal of socialism. Control of the movement was left in the hands of those whose practice corresponded accurately to the separation between the minimum and the maximum programme. In practice the ultimate goal of socialism was no real part of what they did. They were reformists, and socialism was a matter of festival speeches and spiritual uplift. In turn, this overweening reality of the labour movement increasingly led the "orthodox" left to turn their Marxism into dry formulas. Kautsky and the "orthodox" left won verbal victories in debate, but in practice what the labour movement did was shaped by the right wing. The left accepted the cautious tactics of the right "for now", promising that they would be revolutionary in the more favourable future circumstances sure to be brought along by social evolution. World War One shattered this movement. The reformist practice tied the socialist parties to their own bourgeoisies. The International collapsed.
Both wings of mainstream social democracy failed to see in the creative self-controlling activity of the working class the central force for socialism. Left and right had in common a bureaucratic, elitist conception of socialism. Their operational image of the relationship of the revolutionary party to the revolutionary class tended towards one of pedagogic teacher to passive pupil, or self-substituting bureaucratic instrument to inert mass.
The Marxists reorganised themselves during and immediately after World War One. They resolved to have done with the minimum/maximum division. Aiming to mobilise the working class to fight immediately for socialism, they reverted to the model of Marx and Engels in 1848. They re-elaborated the conception of a transitional programme and the practice of linking the everyday struggles of the working class with a socialist challenge to the dominant capitalist ideas and prerogatives and with the goal of socialist revolution. They tried to focus every struggle so as to rouse workers and direct their struggles, even if in only a limited way, against the pillars of capitalist society. The great Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote the Spartacus Programme for the founding of the German Communist Party in 1918. It is the classic text of this Marxist renaissance.
The Communist Parties, founded from the revolutionaries of the old socialist parties and newly roused workers after the Russian Revolution of 1917, attempted to bring socialist propaganda down from the cloudy skies and harness it to the hard daily grind of working-class efforts at self-defence and self-betterment. The full socialist programme was broken down into a linked chain, each link of which might successfully be grasped, and the movement hauled forward, dependent on the degree of mobilisation, intensity of struggles, and relationship of forces.
Everyday demands, as on wages, were expressed not as of old within the framework of acceptance of a capitalism that the socialists believed to be maturing towards some optimum time of ripeness, when it would fall. They were expressed against capitalism, so as to challenge capitalist prerogatives on a day-to-day basis.
Central to the new Marxism was: mobilisation and involvement of the broadest layers of the working class in immediate conflict with capitalism; a break with elitism, propagandism, and waiting upon an evolution driven by abstract, mechanical forces of History; the integration of the various fronts of the class struggle, ideological, political, economic, into one strategic drive.
Luxemburg and Trotsky
Rosa Luxemburg's Spartacus Programme was written in the perspective of almost-immediate revolution. Germany's Emperor had just been overthrown, workers' councils had sprung up in all the major cities, the government was in the hands of a "Council of People's Commissars" led by politicians who called themselves social-democrats but were secretly working with the army's high command to stifle the workers' movement. But Rosa Luxemburg here outlines a whole approach to politics, valuable even when the immediate conditions are nowhere near revolutionary.
In 1918, at the same time that she advocated an end to the old "social-democratic" step-by-step policy, Luxemburg told the impatient young activists of the new Communist Party that revolutionary victory would become possible only after patient, persistent work to win the majority in the workers' councils and to give reliable leadership in strikes on the most modest issues. She argued with them that they should not boycott the elections for the National Assembly being called by the Social Democrats, but use them as a platform for revolutionary explanation.
The Communist International began to discuss transitional demands systematically in 1921, at about the same time as it accepted that capitalism had survived the post-World War 1 earthquake and reached temporary stabilisation. Fighting against those many within its own ranks who reduced tactics to a permanent revolutionary "offensive", the International declared: "The alternative offered by the Communist International in place of the minimum programme of the reformists and centrists is: the struggle for the concrete needs of the proletariat, for demands which in their application undermine the power of the bourgeoisies, which organise the proletariat, and which form the transition to the proletarian dictatorship, even if certain groups of the masses have not yet grasped the meaning of such proletarian dictatorship" (3rd Congress of the Communist International, 1921). Dictatorship meant the dictatorship over the old ruling classes by the working-class organised in democratic soviets.
By 1938 Leon Trotsky was the only leader from the great days of the Communist International who remained at his post, neither struck down by capitalist or Stalinist repression, nor corrupted by the slave-driving bureaucratic class which had seized power from the workers in the USSR. He restated the idea of transitional demands, in a pamphlet, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (known usually as the Transitional Programme), which is also included in this book.
The Transitional Programme covers a range of slogans up to the most directly revolutionary, and it was written with the hope that the then-coming World War would within a few years produce revolutionary working class explosions. But the programme was designed not for the Trotskyists to keep it in a cupboard and bring it out at the time of the revolutionary explosion, but for use there and then.
The Transitional Programme was written, in 1938, at a time when authentic revolutionary socialism was not only terribly isolated but eclipsed by the ascendancy of Stalinism. The most militant and would-be revolutionary workers followed and were controlled by the Communist Parties, which in turn were controlled by the Russian bureaucratic ruling class and its agents. The Central Committees of all the Communist Parties included representatives of the Russian secret political police, the GPU. Since 1934, the Communist Parties had swung their members solidly behind "Popular Front'' politics - coalitions of working class organisations with outright bourgeois parties, supposedly against fascism. Fascism had triumphed in Germany and Austria and was about to triumph in the Spanish Civil War. The Stalinist police had already crushed working-class revolution in the Republican areas, in Barcelona in May 1937. The revolutionary impulse from the French general strike of 1936 and the CIO trade union movement in the USA had petered out.
In the USA - the country Trotsky had most in mind when writing the Transitional Programme - the situation was summed up thus: "The workers seem absolutely apathetic about a labour party [there was discussion at the time about the US trade unions forming a labour party in opposition to the Republicans and Democrats]; their leaders are doing nothing, and the Stalinists are for [president] Roosevelt". To that comment, from an American comrade, Trotsky replied: "But this is characteristic of a certain period when there is no programme, when they don't see the new road. It is absolutely necessary to overcome this apathy. It is absolutely necessary to give a new slogan".
In the Transitional Programme itself, he wrote: "Even among the workers who had at one time risen to the first ranks... There are not a few tired and disillusioned ones. They will remain, at least for the next period, as bystanders. When a programme or an organisation wears out, the generation which carried it on its shoulders wears out with it... Only the fresh enthusiasm and aggressive spirit of the youth can guarantee the preliminary successes in the struggle; only these successes can return the best elements of the older generation to the road of revolution."
We are now again in a period when "a programme or an organisation wears out, [and] the generation which carried it on its shoulders wears out with it." The collapse of Stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, coupled with the recent defeats of the working class in the West, has "worn out" the Stalinist or Stalinist-influenced mainstream left wing of the West European labour movements. Yet the "apathy" and disorientation comes together with a reassertion of the most nakedly brutal exploitative and oppressive capitalism, a sharpening of the objective conflict of interest between bosses and workers, and deep-seated mass disgust at the established capitalist regimes. The working-class movement needs now, as then, to be reorganised and rallied on a new basis. In Britain the labour movement needs to recompose itself in conflict with the neo-Thatcherite "New Labour" Government. The Transitional Programme was intended to be a tool for such work.
Trotsky argued that in America the revolutionaries should initially concentrate the attention of the workers on "one point" - "the sliding scale of wages and hours", or automatic inflation-protection for wages and creation of jobs through cutting work hours.
"We can present [a slogan] which is honest, part of our entire programme, not demagogic, but which corresponds totally to the situation.... We ask that Mr Roosevelt [the president]... propose such a programme of public works that everyone capable of working can work at decent wages. This is possible with a sliding scale of wages and hours. What is this slogan? In reality it is the system of work in socialist society - the total number of workers divided into the total number of hours. But if we present the whole socialist system it will appear to the average American as utopian, as something from Europe. We present it as a solution to this crisis which must assure their right to eat, drink, and live in decent apartments. It is the programme of socialism, but in a very popular and simple form".
As we noted above, agitation now to tax the rich to rebuild the welfare state is a close parallel to agitation then for the "sliding scale of wages and hours". In capitalist prosperity, inflation-protection for wages or full employment on the basis of a decreasing work-week may be possible as harmless reforms. In 1938 they were revolutionary proposals. Today, a fight for the welfare state is a challenge to capitalism and to all the parties which defend capitalism.
The call to rebuild the welfare state now, like the "sliding scale of wages and hours" then, connects with a series of other slogans, from the more petty, detailed and local to the more advanced and revolutionary. It points the way to uniting the working class in a fight for control over social wealth and the organisation of the economy. It goes hand-in-hand with a fight to "re-found" the labour movement, to reclaim the right of political representation of labour which the Blairites seek to abolish, and for a workers' government - just as in 1938 in the USA the agitation for a "sliding scale of wages and hours" went hand-in-hand with a fight for the trade unions to form their own labour party.
The essence of transitional demands is not - as both hostile and friendly caricature have it - that they cannot be realised under capitalism. As Trotsky put it, "realisability" or "unrealisability" is in the last instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle.
Each demand or proposition in the programme gains its value from its relation to the whole and to the all-round activity of the working class and the Marxist organisation. If demands from a transitional programme are conceded without the bourgeoisie being overthrown, they will either be taken back by the bourgeoisie once the moment of danger is passed, or they will be robbed of their revolutionary content and neutralised within the structure of capitalist society.
Even workers' councils (soviets) can be neutralised this way. After the failure of the working class to seize power in the German Revolution of 1918-9, the councils (organs of workers' struggle and self rule based on factories and working-class neighbourhoods and set up during the first throes of the battle) were given a legal position as organs of "co-determination" within the framework of normal factory life. They were thus gutted, minimalised and later abolished.
The concept of transitional demands was closely and logically linked with that of the united front of working-class organisations. In the fight for partial demands, Marxists struggle for the involvement in united action of the broadest sections of the labour movement, including the reformist and bureaucratic leaderships. Broader and more extensive mobilisation both corresponds to the immediate need for maximum strength in the struggle, and opens the way for the growth of more radical demands and mobilisations, and thus for the verification, fructification, and development by workers, through their own experience, of the ideas of the Marxist programme. Essential to the concept of transitional demands and of the united front is an orientation to the logic of class struggle and the potentialities of mass direct action. It is the opposite of all conceptions which offer the working class no role other than to join the organisation which will in its own good time see to their liberation.
In history the idea of transitional demands summed up a break with bureaucratic conceptions of socialism, whether those of the pre-1914 socialist mainstream, with their idea of cautious step-by-step evolution towards the final goal, or those of the sects, with their declamatory irresponsibility towards the inner processes of the labour movement. That is what it means for us.
Transitional demands and "maximalism" today
There will be no revolution without the organised working class. Very few workers can be won to abstract calls for "revolution." Those young workers won by such calls, or by one-off shows of militant activism, will grow rapidly disillusioned unless they are set to systematic activity in the working-class movement to revive it for socialism.
The struggle for reforms and transitional demands is now the indicated way the British working class - but not only the British - and the labour movement can revive: it is the tool socialists have for use in the work of reviving it.
Reforms - restoring the Health Service, repealing the anti-union laws, for example - are not enough? No, but the focus on reforms does not, in logic or in reality, set prior limits to the march of the workers who fight for them. It does not rule out rapid and even explosive advances in that combativity which in turn can lead to the development of mass militant action and the development of revolutionary consciousness.
Far from ruling it out, it can help it to develop. In terms of things the revolutionaries can do at will, building movements to fight for reforms - like proper health care - is the right and necessary thing to do for socialism now.
Workers who began to fight for their own and their neighbours' and workmates' felt needs can be drawn into escalating battle, to mass demonstrations, to occupying hospitals, or to (illegal) protest strikes. In the course of such a struggle they will have to think about all sorts of related issues - the nature of society, of bourgeois politics, of Labour leaders who won't fight for their members' interests, of a Labour Government that is shamelessly a bosses' government, of the social, philosophical and political implications of such a seemingly modest and limited reform demand as "state-of-the-art, universal, free health care for everyone."
To convince workers and the labour movement to fight for this single demand is to convince them to embrace the rudiments, or at least one potent and fecund element, of the socialist or worker-solidarist outlook on the world - what Marx, speaking of laws to limit exploitation, called "the political economy of the working class". They will learn as the fight develops - helped by the propaganda and all-round explanations of the socialists - and be recruited, at first, in ones or small groups, to the ranks of organised socialists.
At issue here are questions Marxists first confronted nearly a century and a half ago: what is "revolutionary" and who are the revolutionaries? It isn't enough to shout for "revolution"; just wanting "a revolution" does not make you effectually a revolutionary in relation to the world around you. In history, the Marxists have more than once had to insist, against anarchists and sectarian socialist shouters for "revolution now", on the need to step back from talk about the "ultimate goal" so as to prepare for it in the only way it can consciously be prepared - by convincing workers to organise and struggle for their own interests on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis, and in the course of this helping them to realise the need for socialist goals.
A little after the Communist Manifesto was written, Marx and Engels were the minority in a bitter struggle within the Communist League against people who said it was either "revolution now", or all would be lost. Marx told them, with not a little scorn, that these revolutionaries themselves needed 10 or 20 years to make them fit for revolution. Revolutions are not made by raw rage, or pure willpower, but only by a complex process of working-class self-organisation and self-development. The process includes sudden leaps forward as well as periods of slow, patient, grinding work - but it cannot be skipped over.
So also the experience of the Russian Marxists. Against the vaguely defined but very "revolutionary" terrorist populists - most of whom said that they were socialists - the Marxists were the "right" wing insisting on patient, unspectacular work to prepare the working class. It was not, as Trotsky later put it, those who started with bombs, but those who started with the weighty books of Marx and Plekhanov, who buried Tsarism.
Socialism and democracy
TThe Health Service; welfare; jobs; trade union rights; restoration against the Blairites of the political representation of labour; a workers' government - all these issues call for activity by Marxists to help the working-class movement revive and reorientate, using the method of transitional demands. So does the issue of democracy. For decades Stalinism drummed into the heads of revolutionary-minded workers the idea that a serious concern for democracy was the mark of the middle class and the "rotten liberal" reformist. Democracy came to be only an empty word, to be used as and when convenient to adorn tyrannies like the so-called "people's democracies" of Eastern Europe. Even before Stalinism, the Russian revolutionaries and their comrades in the West had suffered slippage on the question, because they tended to make virtue out of the cruel exigencies of the terrible civil war that followed the 1917 revolution.
That corruption of working-class thought has made easier the operation whereby politicians like Tony Blair have transformed official democracy - institutions and rights which generations of working-class activists, from the Chartists of 1838-50s and even earlier, fought to establish against entrenched privilege and hierarchy - into little more than a branch of advertising and show business. We live in an era of the immense bureaucratisation of politics and of the growth of the power of the unelected civil service. Yet democracy is basic to working-class needs. The working class can only own the means of production collectively, that is, democratically; the working class can liberate itself through democracy or not at all. Socialism is democratic self-rule or it is not socialism. We must reorient the labour movement to the cause of winning genuine democracy as the labour movement pioneers understood it and fought for it.
Trotsky outlined an approach to this question in the Action Programme for France, a sort of first draft of the Transitional Programme written in 1934. France was then a parliamentary democracy threatened by a powerful fascist movement. Parliamentary leaders sought special ("Bonapartist") powers in the name of defending the status quo against both the fascists and the revolutionary-minded workers. Trotsky wrote:
"As long as the majority of the working class continues on the basis of bourgeois democracy, we are ready to defend it with all our forces against violent attacks from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisie. However, we demand from our class brothers who adhere to 'democratic' socialism that they be faithful to their ideas, that they draw inspiration from the ideas and methods not of the Third Republic [the regime from 1870 to World War 2] but of the Convention of 1793 [the high point of the great bourgeois French Revolution]. Down with the Senate [the upper house of parliament], which is elected by limited suffrage, and which renders the power of universal suffrage a mere illusion! Down with the presidency of the republic, which serves as a hidden point of concentration for the forces of militarism and reaction! A single assembly must combine the legislative and executive powers. Members would be elected for two years, by universal suffrage at eighteen years of age, with no discrimination of sex or nationality. Deputies would be elected on the basis of local assemblies, constantly revocable by their constituents, and would receive the salary of a skilled worker. This is the only measure that would lead the masses forward instead of pushing them backward. A more generous democracy would facilitate the struggle for workers' power. We want to attain our objective not by armed conflicts between the various groups of toilers, but by real workers' democracy, by propaganda and loyal criticism, by the voluntary regrouping of the great majority of the proletariat under the flag of true communism."
From historical experience, we believe that workers' councils - created outside the bureaucratic framework of the existing state, free of official privilege, flexible, responsive, kept accountable by the right to recall representatives at any time - are the proper democratic form of workers' rule. To try to establish socialism through parliamentary action alone leads to disasters like the massacre of the labour movement in Chile in 1973, when the army overthrew a parliamentary reform government which had told its socialist and communist worker supporters to subordinate their struggles to parliamentary schedules and to a tempo acceptable to the military elite. That same military elite would strike the labour movement down.
Is this Marxist view counterposed to the basic labour movement commitment to parliamentary democracy? Not at all. Socialism is not possible until the mass of workers want it and are prepared to realise it - neither is an extension of democracy beyond the level already attained. It is in the direct interests of the working class to defend the existing system against anti-democratic attacks. It is in our interest to extend it and better it. Marxists have much in common with people in the labour movement whose best notion of democracy is parliamentary democracy. We can agree to fight to rejuvenate the existing system; we could agree to defend it with guns against any threat from fascists or from Armed Forces officers of the type who in 1974 discussed a military coup in Britain (the then Chief of Staff, Michael Carver, admitted it publicly much later). Marxists can and do form such alliances with honest "non-soviet" democrats. The reason why we cannot and do not ally right now, to extend democracy, with New Labour and the soft left, is not because we are not democrats, but because they are very bad democrats. They worship the miserably inadequate system that exists, whereas we favour greater democracy.
They have, in successive Labour governments, and especially recently, done more than anyone else to discredit parliamentary democracy and render cynical large sections of the labour movement - to move back in the direction of the USA, where a majority of the electorate don't even bother to vote. This cynicism has corroded not only democracy but the political consciousness of the labour movement. Marxists, while we tell the workers who listen to us that they should rely only on their own strength, see no advantage or gain in cynicism about politics, or even about the existing parliament. While small groups can advance to a higher understanding by way of such disillusionment, the great mass of the labour movement is thrown back by it. The mass of the labour movement will advance to a better understanding of the limits of parliamentary democracy, not by pure disgust with the Labour right - that is a passive, powerless response - but most likely by class struggle which includes attempts to use to the very maximum the existing institutions of the labour movement and of British bourgeois democracy.
The "Transitional Programme" and its misuse
"The significance of the programme is the significance of the party", said Trotsky, discussing the Transitional Programme of 1938. A Marxist programme of action is not a blueprint. We need written summaries and codifications of experience, of course, but also more - a living and fluid inter-relation of those summaries with conjunctural analyses and concrete responses on the part of a revolutionary organisation whose members educate themselves to know the background and meaning of slogans like, say, "workers' government" and to be able to work out what to say - and when, and how - according to the needs of the class struggle. The programme is a living thing, not just a document. It can only live and develop in and through the practice of the revolutionary organisation.
Alfred Rosmer, in his book Lenin's Moscow, reports the comment of one Marxist when Lenin's pamphlet Left Wing Communism appeared in 1920 - "It is a dangerous book", meaning that people would take from it only recipes and license for artful dodges and "flexibility" of a type altogether different from that which Lenin was trying to teach the ultra-lefts. Through the decades of Stalinist misuse of that pamphlet as a cover for their shameful tactics he would, of course, be proved right.
Leon Trotsky's Transitional Programme is also a "dangerous book". When he wrote it in 1938, Trotsky proceeded by assuming a large background of socialist culture inside the revolutionary groups for whom he wrote and among left-wing workers around them. In 1938 the great debates of the early Communist International were still living and recent memory (16 to 18 years back) for many of the activists. In the pamphlet, on the workers' government slogan for example, Trotsky could limit himself to a very telegraphic summary of the ideas of the Communist International, adding only a brief warning about the mis-use of the slogan by the Stalinists.
For decades, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the Transitional Programme was used as a political recipe book - as the political recipe book - by neo-Trotskyist groups who had no living memory of the revolutionary Marxist culture in which the Programme was embedded, and often did not even have access to the major texts of that culture. Many of the slogans in the Transitional Programme were put about in bowdlerised form - "workers' control" to mean blueprint-mongering for trade-union influence on management, "nationalisation of the monopolies" as if its enactment by parliament would amount to full socialism, "workers' government" in the flaccid illusion-spreading and essentially ridiculous form of "Labour to power with socialist policies!".
In the Middle Ages physicians worked from anatomical textbooks by Galen, which they inherited from the ancient world. In a period when it was deemed degrading for such people to do manual work, the doctor would sit in the operating room on a high stool, with Galen's book open, giving directions to minions and apprentices who actually carried out the operations. Eventually the textbook was discovered to deal not with the anatomy of men and women, but of monkeys! Much of the use of the Transitional Programme by the "orthodox" neo-Trotskyist sects was painfully close to that! Many, or most, of the demands were made into fetish-objects, outside of and above rational judgment and critical and concrete assessment. This made it impossible to use them as Trotsky intended them to be used. Neo-Trotskyists would pride themselves on "not having departed from the Transitional Programme". The appropriate response was that made by Trotsky in 1930 to some Italian comrades, followers of the jailed communist leader Amadeo Bordiga, who remonstrated with him that they had "not departed from" their programme of 1925, which in 1925 Trotsky had approved. He said that the purpose of a programme is not "not to be departed from", but to be "applied and developed".
The debauch of the fetishists and the vandals inevitably generated reaction. The tone today is set by the SWP, who long ago rejected the idea of a systematic, connected political programme as a dogmatic relic of a bygone era. They are entirely confined to the minimum/maximum conception of a programme - minimum demands to "fit the mood", the maximum demand of "revolution" to enthuse the activists.
Hindsight makes it plain that the Transitional Programme was in error on some points. Capitalism had not, in 1938, reached a dead end. There were, in fact, ways out for the bourgeoisie. In World War 2 it bombed and bled its way out of the impasse. The "economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution" has been developed much further, and more widely across the world, since 1938. Trotsky was right to declare that the government of the USSR had been "transformed from a weapon of the working class into a weapon of bureaucratic violence against the working class," and that politically it differed from the pre-Holocaust Nazi regime only "in more unbridled savagery." He proposed a working-class programme against that tyranny to which nothing need be added. But he also sustained the false idea that the USSR was still a "degenerated workers' state" - with some considerable doubts, as the other writings of his last years make clear - by the false notion that the whole foul Stalinist system was on the brink of a collapse. The bureaucracy would disintegrate and working-class revolutionaries could utilise a united front with those bureaucrats tied to nationalised property in order to promote the overthrow of the whole bureaucracy and "the regeneration of Soviet democracy". He was wrong about that. The Stalinist system proved more solid, and capable of expanding enormously. Beginning in 1939 it erupted into an expanding bureaucratic imperialism that by 1945 had turned Eastern Europe and half of Germany into its protectorates and satellites. The "property wrenched away from the capitalists and transformed into state property" had long before 1938 been wrenched away from the workers and transformed into bureaucratic property, as the basis of a new exploiting class.
Trotsky, as it turned out, was also wrong to hope that there was enough common socialist culture in the labour movement of 1938 for the small revolutionary groups to hope to find ways radically and quickly to "switch the points" for the "train" of an already-existing revolutionary-minded workers' movement. Perhaps Trotsky was "compelled" to make this "error" - or else abandon all short-term revolutionary perspectives in a situation where the labour movement faced dramatic short-term choices: mobilise for revolution or be crushed - as in fact, within two years of his writing, it was crushed right across Europe, except in Britain, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland. But the bureaucratic grip and ideological corruption of Stalinism in the labour movement was such that no quick "switching of the points" was ever a realistic hope. Trotsky had underestimated the solidity of the USSR bureaucracy; he was also wrong to postulate "the definite passing over of [Stalin's] Comintern to the side of the bourgeois order".
Just before his death in August 1940, Trotsky would correct himself by writing that the "ideal" of the Communist Party leaders was, "to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule." In the 1940s and after, Stalinist leaders in several Third World countries would fight to make reality those aspirations to totalitarian rule; they would indeed be revolutionary leaders, though not of the proletariat, whom they enslaved along with whole peoples. The consequent anti-bourgeois though reactionary vigour of Stalinism would maintain the mass influence of the Communist Parties for decades yet.
In the five years before writing the Transitional Programme, Trotsky had made several attempts at a broad regroupment of revolutionary forces in the working class. Because of the repeated defeats of the working class, those attempts failed. Trotsky was left, in the Transitional Programme, postulating a revolutionary recomposition of the workers' movement without being able to point to any practical way that it could be achieved. In some passages of the Transitional Programme, therefore, the prospect of revolution appears in rather mystical form, almost as a sudden apocalyptic coming-together of elemental mass working-class rage and a revolutionary leadership prepared by pure willpower. As Trotsky put it in another article around the same time: "The harsh and tragic dialectic of our epoch is working in our favour. Brought to the extreme pitch of exasperation and indignation, the masses will find no other leadership than that offered to them by the Fourth International." This vision, abstracted, crudified and dogmatised, would contribute to much sectarian posturing in later years.
Despite all that, the Transitional Programme remains the most brilliant summary in the whole Marxist literature of the method of transitional demands and of the experience of socialist struggle on a vast range of issues - unemployment, trade unions, anti-fascist battles, war... Its current neglect by many revolutionary groups comes not from reasoned critiques, but from demoralisation and catchpenny opportunism. Its approach and many of its basic ideas are those we need today. "The Bolshevik-Leninist stands in the front-line trenches of all kinds of struggles, even when they involve only the most modest material interests or democratic rights of the working class. He takes active part in mass trade unions for the purpose of strengthening them and raising their spirit of militancy... To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one's programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives - these are the rules of the Fourth International."
Agitate for socialism!
We are faced with rebuilding socialism almost from the ground up, and with rebuilding, regenerating and politically rearming the labour movement. This introduction is, therefore, best rounded off by a basic account of the whole activity of socialists, within which the method of transitional demands is an essential element.
What we do was long ago summed up in these three words - "Agitate! Educate! Organise!". We in the Alliance for Workers' Liberty do this in our magazine Workers' Liberty, in factory bulletins, and through broader publications in which we collaborate with other left groups and individuals such as the newspaper Action. You will find those three words - agitate, educate, organise - emblazoned on labour movement banners today. You will find them in files of old socialist newspapers, decade after decade, back for 150 years.
You will find them spread in socialist literature across the world, in the writings of the Russian Marxist, Lenin, for example. These words sum up what a socialist does and what socialist organisations exist to do. What do they mean? Take them one at a time.
Agitate means to move, to stir up. It means:
- that you object to the way people are treated, and that you urge them to fight back;
- that you expose and show up in detail the human meaning of capitalist exploitation, oppression and indifference;
- that you expose and bring to light conditions in factories, offices, colleges, housing estates;
- that you expose the brutalities and injustices of the police and the law courts; and
- that you point out the exploitation and corruption at the heart of the capitalist economic system on which all our lives depend.
It means, in short, that you, as a socialist, hold a mirror up to the world around you, draw people's attention to the details of capitalist exploitation and oppression, show them their situation, and urge them to act. You stir them up. You tell them not to accept this state of affairs. You move things out of the congealed social inertia that holds the capitalist wage-slave system in place.
But don't people already know their own situation? Don't they know that they are badly treated and oppressed?
Of course they do! They know it in the pores of their daily lives. They feel it minute by minute doing jobs that do not interest them; when they are driven into degrading drudgery for money which too often does not even buy them all they need; when they are forced to live on the dole, or made homeless and forced onto the streets; when they experience the countless grades and degrees of humiliation and exploitation that working-class people must endure. Of course they know!
But it is not as simple as that. People get used to terrible conditions, even when they directly experience them as terrible. Things are now accepted in Britain that would, not so long ago, have provoked outrage and spurred the labour movement into vigorous action to end them. The hordes of young people sleeping out on the pavements of our cities are one example; the vast growth of a cheap-labour, sweatshop, un-unionised economy is another. If enough people had kicked up a fuss, if the trade union leaders or Labour leaders had done their job, these things would not have come to be so widely and fatalistically accepted. The shout of anger, protest, outrage - even if for the moment it changes little - is a great creative force in human life.
Learn from history! One of the most important strikes in British working-class history was the famous "matchgirls" strike at Bryant and May's works in the East End of London in 1888. It was the start of mass trade unionism. It was sparked by left-wing agitation.
Annie Besant wrote an account of the conditions in which the women worked producing matches, of their poverty, their exploitation, and the terrible diseases they contracted working with sulphur without protection. Reading Besant's account of their own lives, those women were spurred into action. Their strike was the first of a wave of strikes - the following year the London dockers struck - that led to the creation of the great general trade unions, that is, to the creation of the modern labour movement and, indirectly, of the Labour Party.
The women had suffered for years. They had seen their sisters sicken and die young from sulphur poisoning. Of course they knew all about their own conditions!
They had experienced what Besant wrote about, and knew it in a way that Besant never could know it; but the mirror held up by Besant's articles sharpened their perception, clarified the way they saw their conditions, and let them see their lives through the eyes of someone coming fresh upon conditions to which they had had to grow accustomed. They were stirred up - agitated.
Just as in a personal quarrel or conflict of opinion you can be vastly strengthened in your intuition, feeling or conviction by a friendly voice of agreement, so also workers who already feel oppressed can be roused by agitation to do something about it. They can be shown their conditions starkly and freshly by comparison with others more fortunate. They can be encouraged by a show of anger to raise their own voices. Agitation can free them from the hypnosis of familiarity, the submission generated by hopelessness and the inability to see an alternative, even if only a slightly better one.
Experiences like the matchgirls' strike are likely to be repeated in Britain today, where traditional trade unionism has been uprooted across large swathes of industry to make way for casual working and very intense exploitation.
The agitating socialist is the probing, implacable accuser and prosecutor of capitalism as it impinges on particular lives and specific groups of people - in the first place before its victims, our class. As James Connolly once defined this work of ours: "The men and women of your class, show them their wrongs and yours/ Plant in their hearts that hatred deep that suffers and endures."
To rouse, "agitate", people into action even for a small change or a petty reform is to help them start down the road to outright opposition to capital and all its works.
Educate for socialism!
Take the second big word, educate. What is education? Agitation is education. But it is not rounded, deep, broad education. And that education is needed, too. For socialism, as distinct from trade unionism, it is irreplaceable.
To urge revolt against particular conditions is good. Hatred of the conditions which add up to much of the reality of working class life under capitalism - that is the beginning of wisdom for the socialists themselves. If they lack that hatred, if they let it fade, if they do not keep in their minds all the time the bitter details of capitalist reality, then they themselves will soon wither and die as socialists.
Yet it is not enough. It is also necessary to understand why things are as they are, how and why capitalism oppresses people. For this you must educate yourself and educate others, who will then educate yet others. Workers react against particular outrages. They fight. They strike, demonstrate, lobby MPs. They feel burning indignation. But unless they are educated to see how their concern - what "agitates" them - fits into the whole capitalist system, and educated, too, to see capitalism for what it is, a temporary phase in history, then they will never go beyond blind reaction to this or that aspect of capitalism. No matter how violent and spectacular that reaction may be - think of the inner-city riots of the early 1980s or the Poll Tax riot, for example - it cannot change society fundamentally, even where it wins partial concessions.
The workers will get what they want, or fail to get it, or get some of it, and that, perhaps, only temporarily. They will never understand the system. They will never fight capitalism, as capitalism, in all its aspects, but only in one. And they will never fight to replace it. Militants in one cause will not "make the connection" between their concerns and the concerns of others of the oppressed. They will not become socialists.
For example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, some of the most consistently militant workers in Britain, London dockers, marched through London in support of racism and racist politicians. They were militant on wages and conditions, and even on broader questions like asserting a high degree of day-to-day workers' control in their industry. But they were politically backward, they were not educated - though their day-to-day leaders were members of the Communist Party - in the general socialist view that matched their outlook on immediate industrial issues.
Worse, they were poisonously miseducated. They lacked an adequate overall view. They were part of a widespread wave of working-class militancy that had neithe active hope nor a realistic strategy for the transformation of society. Ultimately because of that, the dockers were unable to defend themselves even industrially. They were crushed in the 1980s. The other side of such phenomena as militant workers who hate the Tories but who are also racists is that very often black militants, seeing only their own large concern, are one-sided too, lacking both an overall view and a view of where they fit into the capitalist social system. They do not orient to the working class or labour movement to change it and make it serve their needs.
Without rounded socialist education, all the agitation in the world will not change capitalism or replace it. Blind agitation on particular issues, separated off from other agitation, and not integrated into a coherent outlook on the world, can even strengthen capitalism by pitting one group of disaffected people against another.
Most people involved in direct action of the sort that occurs spontaneously and which we try by agitation to evoke, tragically never attain any overview. It is the job of socialist education to help them develop such an overview. Socialist education is necessary not only to help workers make sense of the overall position but also to help militants avoid what is often the nonsensical picture they would get by extrapolating from immediate impressions.
It is not enough to urge people to be guided by mere instinct - by such rules of thumb as siding with the oppressed, opposing what the ruling class wants, supporting militancy, and being sympathetic to our rulers' enemies. Of course you should side with the oppressed! As James Connolly once rightly said: "Impartiality as between the strong and the weak is the virtue of the slave". But what does it mean to side with oppressed people? Do you adopt their views? But their views may be, and usually are, sectional, one-sided, narrow-minded, or even blindly self-centred and chauvinist.
For example: the Palestinian Arabs are oppressed. History has dealt with them very harshly, and, in general socialists should support them. But for decades their leaders proposed a solution to their condition based on destroying the state of Israel and subjugating its Jewish inhabitants. That was to be done by the surrounding Arab states.
Until the late 1960s, this was expressed in the crudest terms by Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader, and Yasser Arafat's predecessor, Ahmed Shukhairy: "Drive the Jews into the sea!" Thereafter it was proposed in the disguised form of calling on Israel to abolish itself and cede its territory to a new Arab state of Palestine, in which the Jews were to be guaranteed religious, but not national, rights. That too could only be achieved by Arab subjugation and conquest, but it sounded better. It was not only an Arab chauvinist programme; it was, in the circumstances, so unrealistic that it helped Israel's chauvinists isolate the Palestinians for decades. Whatever that position did, it did not serve the interests of the Palestinian people.
We in the AWL advocate two states for the two peoples living in the area - as the PLO has done since 1988. The point is that without all-round socialist education in the history of the conflict and in the general principles and politics which Marxists bring to bear in all such conflicts - consistent democracy and compromise where the conflict is one of right as against right - you could not make sense of the issues. You could not arrive at rational solutions. To endorse the old PLO programme because it was the programme of the oppressed would have been to substitute other concerns and principles for socialist and democratic concerns and principles. Many socialists - including ourselves for a time - did exactly that.
The same follows for all the other crude rules of thumb. Support militancy? Yes; but the most militant in a national or communal conflict are likely to be the reckless chauvinists.
Side against the ruling class? Yes, but if we just say yes when the ruling class says no, and no when it says yes, then we surrender all independence and become a negative imprint of the ruling class. We abandon all objectivity and all attempts at an independent working-class outlook on the world. We implicitly surrender the fight for working class independence.
For example, large sections of the British left have responded to the fact of European semi-unity, organised by the capitalists, with the kneejerk slogans "Britain Out!", "No to the European Union! No to the single currency!" - when they should instead have been fomenting cross-Europe unity of the working class.
All-round Marxist education is as essential as the independent working-class outlook it helps produce.
Organise for socialism!
What about the third big word, organise? So we expose, pillory, and point the finger of accusation at the horrors of life under capitalism and missed chances for a better, more civilised exploitation-free, collective life. So we educate young people and militants into a rounded view of society, fitting the things we denounce into the whole picture of capitalism, and fitting capitalism itself into a conception of history and the role of the working class in history. We urge the need to overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism. What then? We urge people to organise alongside us to achieve these things. Without organisation the rest is diffuse, incomplete and likely in the long term to be without lasting consequence.
Socialists organise on many levels. We organise trade unions that fight to get the best price for our labour-power. We organise broad trade-union-based parties like the Labour Party. We organise for specific goals in society, in the Labour Party and in the unions - for example, to defend the welfare state or fight for free trade unions. We organise the rank and file for trade union democracy. We organise ourselves, the hard-core socialists, in our own organisation.
Workers' Liberty, the industrial bulletins Workers' Liberty supporters produce, and Action, the paper we, alongside other socialists, support, are the means by which we organise or help organise these things. So are meetings, pickets, demonstrations.
Persuasion, discussion and debate are the essential tools of socialism. Without them, without dialogue and debate, the left will never advance beyond its present tragic fragmentation. Free debate is essential. The left itself is still marked by the scars of the Stalinist ice age. We live in a world where the left, after so many decades of Stalinism and after so many defeats, is in a condition of corruption and decay; so we must regenerate the left by way of honest debate and polemic.
The precondition for effective socialist activity is the existence of a distinct working-class world outlook. This has not only to be propagated. It has to be tested against reality, and developed in line with reality. Our socialist movement is first of all a movement of ideas, proposals, memory and perspective of history. That is why the polemical and discussion element in the magazine Workers' Liberty is irreplaceable for our work.
For, of course, what we argue for in the working-class movement, and the ideas in which we educate those who respond to our agitation, are not entirely given and fixed in advance. They are never frozen, or "finished". Not everything is known, or can be known. Marx died over 100 years ago, Trotsky over 50 years ago. An essential part of the work socialists do is to keep reality under review, to register, discuss, and assess new things in society and in the continuing experience of our class.
We argue our views as sharply as we think necessary, and, while advocating left unity in action, we debate with other socialists. But we aspire to be neither Popes, Cardinals nor the one true Church of the left. Workers' Liberty is not a closed monopoly but an open vehicle for honest and free discussion.
We organise ourselves as tightly as necessary, but all our work is aimed ultimately at serving the broad movement of our class. We teach the working class, and try to be "the memory of the class" - but we also learn from the working class and codify that learning. Thus we work to prepare the future by fighting in the struggles of the working class now and by socialist education.
We are, we believe, the bearers of a socialist culture and of a Marxist outlook on the world, and therefore we believe that our magazine, like our work in general, is of great importance for the future of the labour movement.
In a letter appealing to a Spanish anarchist trade union to join the Communist International, in 1919, the Chairman of the International, Gregory Zinoviev said: if we miss this chance at overthrowing capitalism, it may go now and not come again for decades. He was absolutely right. The chance was missed. Now is not 1919. But it may be a major turning point. This book, we hope, will help ensure that fewer chances are missed, and help speed the revival of a clear-cut, working-class, revolutionary socialism, untainted by Stalinism, reformism or the sectarianism and cultism that deform most of the neo-Trotskyist tendencies.
London, April 1998
How Solidarity Can Change the World was first published as a double issue of Workers' Liberty magazine, numbers 46 and 47, in April 1998.
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