Geary explains what Marxists understand under “programme”, why it matters and what differences there are.


Marx and Engels took programme seriously

This will be the first part of a series on the question of “programme”. I intent to write a three-part on this question. This will be an introduction. The second part will be an investigation of the main contemporary alternative view on this, that is, the “transitional method” of the Trotskyist movement. The last part will look into the democratic republic as a goal and why it matters for our programme.

What is a programme?

What is a programme and why do we need one anyway? Well, there are many views about what should and shouldn’t constitute a programme. In the Marxist tradition, programmes range from the rather minimal sized 1880 document of the Parti Ouvrier 1 to the extended “library” of works Trotskyists base their programme on, which isn’t often an actual document but more of a “method” or tradition. There are quite a few problems with the latter definition, to which I will return later.

The definition I would suggest is that a programme is a document, stating our long term aims (communism) and our immediate goal (working class political power) and how to get there. As our introductory article puts it 2:

Because the programme is about the political take-over of the working class over society, it stipulates the strategic, objective, steps needed to reach our goal and overcome the undemocratic barriers that the ruling class – a minority – put into place to keep itself in power.

So a programme has several aims: It must strengthen our class against capital, weaken the rule of the capitalist state and the power of the ruling class generally and force democratic concessions. Democratic demands can consist of the following: abolition of the monarchical/presidential one-man rule system that exists at all levels of capitalist society and its state; abolition of judicial veto over the legislature; arming of the people; disbanding the secret state apparatus; abolish “state secrets”; for local democracy; abolish copyright laws … and the list can go on.

This has the aim of undermining the existing constitutional order and prepare the working class for the moment of a revolutionary crisis. When our class can take power. Communists however do not make revolution, our task is ‘merely’ to prepare our class for it the best way we can. And that is by forming it as a class-collective or, as Marx put it, as “ein Klasse für sich” (a class for itself).

This is because while the working class exists naturally within capitalism, it exists ‘naturally’ as a slave-class with a slave-mentality, for the most part. It is true that communist political awareness and other types of proletarian responses are also ‘natural’ (spontaneous) results of the way our society operates, but only a small minority gain this insight by themselves and as a spontaneous development there are many different levels and variations of class consciousness.

Levels of proletarian organisation

So, how can we make a sensible differentiation between these levels? We can start with the class struggle, the ‘motor of history’, and work our way from there. Class warfare under capitalism is a given, not because the working class desires it, but because the ruling classes force it upon us. Since the current crisis began in 2008, there have been harsh attacks on living conditions, severe cuts in social services, mass layoffs, etc. In fact, ‘neoliberal’ policies of the last 30 or so years have done much to undermine the living conditions of our class, to make it more insecure, more ‘precarious’… A divide-and-rule scheme designed for the benefit of the ruling classes. Effectively, political power is used by the bourgeoisie to actively manage the working class in their interests.

Since the modern proletariat came to be, we have had this warfare waged against us and we learned the hard way, time and again, that collective organisation is a necessity for survival. Over the years this has led to several types of organisation and it makes sense to make a distinction at four levels that are both historical and logical:

  1. The strike committee. The highest form of which is the “soviet”. This is an elementary form of organisation that is very common at strikes and grows in importance as the strike grows. In its basic form it is the leadership of the strike (either elected workers or, these days far more commonly, trade union bureaucrats) which negotiates with the bosses about the terms of a deal. In it its highest form (an all out general strike) its responsible for keeping basic services running in a city (or region, country…) like hospitals and electricity. Much of the contemporary left has great illusions in this “soviet” form for these reasons; after all, if you’re running the city/region/country during a strike, why not take power completely? However, it doesn’t work like that at all. You can’t stay on strike forever. In the most acute crisis, if perhaps the government collapses, a power vacuum appears and mere strike-committees will not be able to fill up that vacuum, without thoroughly transforming themselves into an alternative center of power, that is, a political party.

  2. The trade union. The next level is the trade union. Where the strike committee typically will run out of strike funds and dissolve after the strike is over, the trade union is a more permanent organisation, with permanent funds and with a professional leadership. Trade unions are typically organised on a national level, although international unions have existed in the past (especially between the US and Canada). The strength of a trade union is that it potentially organises the entire class through the workplace. However, this is also its great weakness: A trade union cannot be a political party for the simple reason that in order for it to function it needs to include as many workers as possible. This includes politically backward layers, such as pro-liberal workers, pro-conservative workers, etc. Furthermore, the trade union leadership has a great inclination to act as a bureaucracy, that is, a detached layer of officials that act in the name of workers, but with little say by the rank-and-file. The reason for this is that there is a perfect niche for them to exist under capitalism: As a layer between the working class in whose name they act and the capitalist state/bosses with whom they negotiate (and which often requires highly specialised legal knowledge and other skills).

  3. The labour party. The leftwing response to overcome these limitations is often that we need to “struggle” against the bosses and the state. We need an “escalating plan of strikes”, they say, so workers will start to see the true nature of the state and, thus, will come to revolutionary conclusions. In reality though there is a logical extension of the trade union bureaucracy in the political field. This is best seen in the countries where a “Labour” party exists. This is a party that has a formal link with the trade unions and is a party that acts in the interests of that bureaucracy, which may (and does) end up very pro-capitalist. These Labour parties act as a pressure group within the framework of the state.

  4. Social-democracy / communist party. This is the higest stage. It may seem strange that I put social-democracy and the communist party in one header. Is social-democracy not the same as “Labour”? I’m talking here though of revolutionary social-democracy, that is, a Marxist political movement. It is the highest stage because it overcomes the limitations of Labour parties in being a mere pressure group within the state framework, it comes to the conclusion that we cannot leave any power to the capitalists and we must in fact dismantle the existing state and powerstructures in order to move forward.

The first organisation of revolutionary social-democracy, the German SPD, was founded in 1875 as a result of the merger of two far left groups, the Lassallean General German Worker Association (ADAV) and the Marxist Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany (SDAP, commonly referred to as the Eisenachers in Marxist literature, named after their founding place). This party grew exponentially after its founding and within a period of a mere 30 years united over a million German workers and had an influence on many more. However, for reasons which are beyond the scope of this article, it knew a regression so to speak from “level 4” to “level 3”. Indeed, it wasn’t going to be the only example of such a regression. A more contemporary example could be found in the French Communist Party (PCF) or the communist party of Cyprus (Progressive Party of Working People, AKEL) that until recently held executive power on the Greek part of the island.

A compass

So, what does this have to do with programme? Well, as I tried to show with the distinction of four levels of organisation, there are strong tendencies for the workers movement to stay within the capitalist framework, become a part of it and, thereby, become a part of the machinery that submits the working class to the rule of capital and disciplines it.

So, a reformist party doesn’t need a strong programme. A vague statement of aims is more than enough. Furthermore, an actual programmatic document could well serve to hold the leadership to account and in a bureaucratised organisation that is the last thing that a party leadership wants or needs.

To look at the far left, John Rees, once a leading member of the British SWP, sees a programme as akin to tying one’s hands behind one’s back, a likely hindrance when faced with the twists and turns of the class struggle3. Consequently, there arises an opportunist leadership that fancies itself infallible and, as a result, never seems to learn from past mistakes. An unaccountable regime where the rank-and-file membership is expected to march into the tune of the leadership at every twist and turn… With such a political upbringing, it is something of a miracle that SWP rank and file still find it within themselves to challenge the leadership and starts thinking and reconsidering politics for themselves, as we’ve seen most acutely these last eight months or so.

You get the organisation you deserve and without a programme the contemporary left is adrift. Without a programme the leaderships of the diverse sects are able to entrench themselves and if you disagree with “the line” you’re expected to either shut up in public or leave. If a group disagrees, a split is often inevitable. A joke I heard a while back applies here: “Trotskyism has been at the forefront of science! – It has been splitting atoms since 1938!”. It’s funny because it’s true and that’s sad. But the joke doesn’t only apply to the Trotskyists, but to any group that enforces an agreement on theoretical principles rather than political strategy, and where the leadership is unaccountable in absolute or effective terms (many groups do allow for some level of “internal” disagreements, but please don’t let anyone outside know about it!).

A programme is essential because it serves as a compass: Where are we heading? Are we still on course? A programme binds the leadership and any deviation from it must be able to be called into question, openly as it is in the interests of our whole class.

A programme is furthermore a “compass” in a different sense: It shows us the way we need to build our movement. If our aim is to organise our whole class, then it should be a programme for the whole class! A Klasse für sich can have (and does have, historically speaking) a great variety of organisations: trade unions, co-ops, educational societies, community centers, sports clubs, food banks, etc, etc. Today we see much of the same organisations, to a bigger or lesser extent, but they’re all part of “the system”: often with the best intentions, but still. Only a communist party, with a communist programme, can act as the compass to win these organisations over to universal human liberation, through the revolutionary self-emancipation of our class.

A programme is a compass in a third sense: Class struggle is, as the term implies, the struggle between classes, under capitalism crucially between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Lenin made the point in What is to be done? that the class struggle is not restricted to the workplace, the direct struggle between boss and worker, but is fundamentally a political struggle. This awareness needs to be “inserted” from outside this workplace relation. This is not an obvious conclusion; trade unionist ideas are far more ‘logical’ than a communist political programme. A programme can help in a pedagogical sense: it goes into contradiction with existing consciousness in order to move forward. It is in fact of vital importance that a programme is constructed in such a way that millions of workers can easily digest it. “Anything redundant in a programme weakens it” Engels remarked in his critique of a draft of the SPD’s Erfurt programme. The aim of the Marxist party is to build an organisation that “merges” the communist programme with the practical experience and living bodies of the workers’ movement.


What does a programme look like then? We can look at several examples. The programme of the Parti Ouvrier was already mentioned. This programme contained the aims in the form of a preamble at the top, drafted by Marx himself. And the “way to get there” below that, divided into a political and economic section. The latter section was based on the concrete demands that came from the workers’ movement at that time.

Another well known source for inspiration is the Erfurt programme that the (then still Marxist) SPD adopted in 18914. Often the word “Erfurt” is met with much disdain from the left, which sees in it the seeds of the SPD’s later degeneration. But Frederick Engels in commenting on an earlier draft of it states that “[t]he present draft differs very favourably from the former programme [at Gotha].The strong survivals of outmoded traditions — both the specific Lassallean and vulgar socialistic — have in the main been removed, and as regards its theoretical aspect the draft is, on the whole, based on present-day science and can be discussed on this basis.” 5.

Furthermore, the RSDLP adopted a very similar programme at its second congress in 1903 6. The main improvement here is that it mentions the democratic republic, something sorely lacking in Erfurt, even after Engels gave his comradely critique.

All these programmes have a distinct structure that is often described as “minimum-maximum”. An approach decried by the modern far left as tainted by reformism. It is true that the minimum programme of the SPD became more and more its “maximum” as time went on, under the influence of the rightwing “realists”, but the minimum or immediate programme is really nothing more than the programme that, given its full implementation, results in the political rule of the proletariat. Every aim though can be, in principle, concretely fought for under capitalism. So it is not some unrealistic maximalist “wish list”, but a concrete list of objective demands that lead to a weakening of the existing state and a strengthening of our class, with the logical conclusion of proletarian power, which would mean a radical form of direct democracy.

The “maximum” part is the ‘longer view’ and answers “what do we do when we reach power?”. In a word, it aims for communism.

A more contemporary attempt at such a programme can be found in the CPGB Draft Programme 7. This is much more extensive than the previous programmes discussed (about 16 pages of A4, in contrast to 1 to 3 pages for the others). Mike Macnair, who is in the leadership of the group, makes the point 8 that more needs to be explained because there is a far more active intervention of the state in the workers movement today, and we now have the experience of Stalinism behind us. If we claim to want to achieve communism, we need to engage on these topics with workers.

Trotsky and revolutionary patience

All of this is blasphemy to many comrades, especially the Trotskyists. They will point to the Transitional Programme as the “last word” on programmatic development, much as Muslims claim that they carry the “last word” from God. I will delve into the “transitional method” in my next article, but I would like to conclude with a reference to Trotsky’s A programme of action for France 9, published in 1934, where he makes some real demands regarding democracy and high politics, unlike the Transitional Programme of only a few years later.

Also, a dichotomy is often placed between “reformism” and “revolutionism”, taking a misunderstood cue from a pamphlet Rosa Luxemburg wrote as a reply to Eduard Bernstein 10 (Luxemburg didn’t actually oppose reforms at all, just criticised those that saw it as the be all and end all of it). The minimum programme, these Trotskyist and other comrades claim, will automatically lead to reformism. Reforms are indeed a part of it, yes. Of course we need to force concessions from the ruling class to strengthen our position and weaken the state. So putting it as “reform” versus “revolution” will only lead to ultra-leftist demands (as the anarchists and left-communists do) or else an “all-knowing” leadership which itself is the “compass” that leads the workers movement towards revolution (as the Trotskyists do). Neither leads to anywhere.

The real dichotomy is that between ultra-leftism – that is, those leftists that take nothing below a fully fledged revolution for an answer on the one side – and, on the other, the “realists” that claim that in order to become “relevant” we need to aim towards government positions as soon as possible, including coalition participation. Both ways lead to destruction.

Instead we need a strategy between these camps, at the “center” of it in fact (take a clue from our site name huh?). A strategy towards ‘revolutionary patience’ that aims to build a mass movements over the timespan of decades, just like the original parties of the Second International did and whose work was, in part, inherited by the Third International (Comintern). The social fossils of these organisations still exist today, thoroughly bureaucratised and integrated into the political system.

The Marxist programme is the crystallisation of the “merger formula”: It offers the way out of capitalism, based on an objective and scientific understanding of the way our society works, and offers it to the working class for it to accept as their very own compass towards liberation.

  1. T. Chevsky says:

    Just a little heads up. Although Geary will delve into the “transitional method” in his second article, a seperate article will be published later this year on the historical development of this “method” (from 1919 onwards).