Tuesday, February 13, 2007

What Kind of Programme?

Introduction by Neprimerimye

The document below belongs to a debate that took place in the International Socialists in the early 1970’s. It was but one of many contributions to a debate that was in the end fruitless in that no programme was ever published. In fact the debate was never satisfactorily concluded and the very idea of a programme became something of a touchstone for successive oppositional tendencies within the group.

The debate rumbled on through the early 1970’s as IS developed a small foothold in the working class with pride of place being given to the toeholds in blue collar industries. By 1974 IS was the largest and most theoretically grounded of the revolutionary groups. It was beginning what was hoped to be its transformation into the core of a revolutionary communist party based in the mass production industries. It was not to be and within a year its toeholds in blue collar industry and a large section of the central cadre of the group had departed from the organisation.

One result of the factional havoc wreaked on IS was that the question of a programme for the group was quietly forgotten about by everybody concerned. The debate too was to be left forgotten, orphaned and lonesome in the pages of dusty Internal Bulletins, hidden away in attics and suburban garages. Several drafts and numerous contributions to the debate were simply washed away as if the subject had not been raised at all. And when the IS was rebranded as the Socialist Workers Party the new party failed to adopt a programme.

Nevertheless fragments thrown off by the IS did adopt programmes and made grandiose claims for their productions. Indeed it was claimed that so called programmatic work was absolutely vital to the construction of a new revolutionary party. Years after beginning such work the small groups which took this approach are of course no larger but rather older in composition than they were all those years ago. More to the point the programmes so proudly produced have proven to be wrong in part and useless in general.

Despite which the argument that a new revolutionary party based on a new programme can be heard from time to time in the less well populated, if sometimes more intelligent and certainly better read, sections of the far left. Even sections of the Guardian reading intelligentsia (sic) have felt the need for a programme of sorts and have been provided with one by George Monbiot the radical aristocrat. Not to be left out the equally aristocratic theoretician of the SWP, Alex Callinicos, has produced his own personal programme. The latter being an interesting contribution as it can be argued that it is not a revolutionary programme but a programme of something vague and amorphous, an anti-capitalist manifesto as its author described it, whatever that might mean.

It is a sad pass indeed when one of the leading revolutionaries in this country can produce a programme that is not explicitly revolutionary at a time when the party he is a member of has no programme at all. Which latter point a cynic might point to as an advantage for the leadership of that party. The author of this introduction is however of the opinion that it is but a consequence of the failure of the revolutionary leader concerned, and of his party as a whole, to place the working class at the centre of their work on all levels other than the historical.

In light of the above then the document below is reproduced here to illustrate some of the concerns of revolutionaries when last this debate was taken up by a revolutionary organisation that sought to win a hearing within the working classes. It was, it should be noted, but a single contribution to what was a long and largely verbal debate. It has then the fault, if we may call it that, of drawing on past debates in the revolutionary movement and directing us to those debates rather than seeking to innovate. More importantly it makes the point, or rather repeats the point first made by Lenin, that a revolutionary programme, and by extension the revolutionary party, cannot but develop out of the struggle of the working classes against capitalist exploitation.

The essential irreducible argument of the document being that only an organisation that seeks to root itself in the struggles of the working class both theoretically and in practice can develop a genuinely revolutionary programme. The alternative, especially in a period characterised by a low strike level and few social struggles of any size, is for small socially isolated political revolutionary groups to write programmes which only further illustrate the distance between them and the organised workers movement leave alone the class as a whole. Such an undertaking can only reinforce tendencies towards academicism and substitutionism and must be fought if revolutionary clarity is the aim of any discussion as to the question of what kind of programme.


What Kind of Programme?

Steve Jeffries

For years IS has not had a programme. We have published journals, and newspapers, books and pamphlets, but along with our correct reluctance to declare ourselves the Party, there has been until now little sustained pressure to produce a Programme.

The reason for this has nothing to do with a lack of theory or perspectives. At any time during the past five years we could have mobilised our resources to produce a document that contained the IS world-view, our Marxism, our origins, traditions and future. No, our non-production of a Programme has itself been a more or less conscious result of our understanding of exactly what a Marxist programme is about.

The first thing that a Marxist Programme is about is the relationship between organised revolutionaries and the working class movement, a relationship that is above all an active one. Thus in 1899 Lenin advanced three reasons why the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party should adopt a Programme: “the tremendous importance of a Programme for the consolidation and consistent activity of a political party; the fact that a period of fierce polemics about Russian Marxism had just ended; and lastly because the upswing in activity of both workers and revolutionaries “showed clearly that the demand for a Programme grew out of the needs of the movement itself”. (A Draft Programme of our Party”).

Engels had made a similar point a quarter of a century earlier when he wrote to Bebel about the Gotha Programme that “as a rule, the official Programme of a Party is less important than what it does”. If the Party doesn’t do anything, or is too small and the working class too passive for its actions to mean anything, then the Programme becomes totally unimportant. In these circumstances Marxists would still retain their theories and perspectives, but the element that distinguishes a Marxist Programme from any other variety utopian or bourgeois, the overriding notion of active organisation in struggle to change the world, would be missing.

IS is now in the throes of debate as to what our programme should contain precisely because our relationship with the working class is becoming increasingly active. We are now contending for leadership in particular situations, and many workers are beginning to look for leadership from us. Our Programme, therefore, must provide an overall revolutionary strategy responsive to the needs of the working class in the present period.

Later in the same article quoted above, Lenin summarises the requirements of the Programme as follows:

“The Programme must formulate our basic views; precisely establish our immediate political tasks; point out the immediate demands that must show the area of agitational activity; give unity to the agitational work, expand and deepen it from fragmentary partial agitation for petty, isolated demands to the status of agitation for the sum total of Social-Democratic demands”.
Attacking Plekhanov’s “Second Draft Programme” some three years later, Lenin sharply criticised its resemblance to an academic commentary on international capitalism as exemplified in Russia:

“The Programme of the Russian Social-Democratic Party should begin with a definition (and indictment) of Russian capitalism - and only then stress the international character of the movement….”

And explaining what such a “definition” would involve, he adds:

“As to what capitalism is - that will of itself follow from our definition of exactly how matters stand.”

He adopts this approach because his Programme is aimed at the “fighting proletariat”, and not at intellectuals or as a contribution to inner-Party education.

It is totally wrong to reject Lenin’s starting point, as comrade Hallas did at the June NC, by arguing that Lenin’s Programme could start there only because their audience was fully acquainted with the Marxist world-view as established in the widely-circulated Erfurt Programme of the German Social-Democrats. Lenin chose his starting point because as a Marxist he believed that being determines consciousness:

“The fighting proletariat learns what capitalism is, not from academic definitions (as one learns from textbooks), but from practical acquaintance with the contradictions of capitalism and with the development of society and its consequences.” (“On Plekhanov’s Second Draft Programme”, 1902).

It is this view of the Programme’s readership, and not false assumptions about its prior knowledge of international Marxists writings, that persuaded Lenin to begin with a clear statement of the pace and character of capitalist development in Russia.

Later on in the same article, he spells out his position even more clearly. Because the Programme is an active weapon in the hands of the Party, it should contain “only what the contradictions of capitalism consists in and what its tendency is”. Quoting Engels on that same Erfurt Programme, he repeats “All that is superfluous in a Programme weakens it”, and goes on to suggest that “all explanations of why things are proceeding in just thins way” should be left to accompanying commentaries.

Seeing the Programme as an important item in the Party’s armoury, should it then lay down highly detailed policy statements? This was another area investigated by Lenin in those early years of the Russian Social-Democratic party. His conclusion was that the Programme can only lay down the principles and strategy within which Party Congresses, the leadership and the members operate tactically.

“questions of tactics can hardly be introduced in the Programme (with the exception of the most important questions, questions of principle, such as our attitude to other fighters against autocracy).” (“A Draft Programme of our Party” 1899).

And writing of which basic working class demands to include he continues:

“In drawing up this section of the Programme, we should strive, therefore, to avoid two extremes - on the one hand, we must not omit any one of the main basic demands that hold great significance for the entire working class; on the other, we must not go into minute particulars with which it would hardly be rational to load the Programme”.

The debate inside Isis primarily between those who support the general line of the Leninist Programme, and those who, pricked by accusations of anti-intellectualism, feel the need to produce an “IS Manifesto” that might rank in future with good old Marx’s. It is not that we don’t need such a general statement of a Revolutionary Socialist world-view for the 1970’s. In my synopsis of a Programme (reproduced in this bulletin) I argued that the “Draft Programme” rejected at Conference should form the basis of some kind of IS Manifesto. But we cannot afford the luxury of producing such a work as our Programme.

The IS Programme should if possible represent an advance on Lenin’s, and most certainly not a retreat. It must be shaped as a weapon to guide, develop and deepen our members’ intervention in the class struggle, and must positively assist the building of the Party. By establishing clear principles and an overall strategy, it guards against both opportunism and dogmatism. Against opportunism by limiting the scope of tactical manoeuvres to those which do not conflict with our principles. And against dogmatism by encouraging the membership to determine changes in tactics in response to the developing struggle.

The General Line of the synopsis rejected by the June NC was an attempt at indicating the main direction of such a Programme. It began with a picture of the main tendencies at work in present-day British capitalism. It then described the major contradictions in the system (without neglecting its international character, as comrade Hallas charged), and went on to pick out British capitalism as one weak link in the chain. Turning to the consequences of this for the major classes in Britain, it then focussed in depth on the working class response, and in particular on the combination of developed trade union organisation with virtual political impotence. The rejection of the politics of reformism (obviously including the CP) then led on to a general statement of the need for a working class revolutionary party. This party has both immediate and long term aims which were then to be spelled out in the course of which its commitment to the International class struggle would be strongly emphasised.

The second half of this synopsis was basically about IS and our strategy for building such a Party. It reviewed our origins, which are clearly related to the consequences of the international decay of organised Marxism from the 1920’s. but because the document is a Programme an not anything else, only the broad line should be drawn in here, with the details being left to a separate manifesto or commentary. Finally, it isolated the main guiding principles behind our strategy for the revolution, and related them to our principle positions in the major arenas of the class struggle.

Such a programme at least attempts to answer the questions that a Marxist programme should - why be a revolutionary, what do revolutionaries think about the major world issues, and how should a revolutionary best work for the revolution? The danger of the old rejected “Draft Programme” and of the decision by the June NC to reject rather than amend my “Draft Synopsis”, is that the thinking behind it doesn’t appear to even recognise the questions. It is turning inwards and not out towards the “fighting proletariat”.

Steve Jeffries

Glasgow North branch

IS Bulletin August 1972

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