"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."
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
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:
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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