www.socialistparty.org.uk/pamphlets/state2006/1.htm on Mon, 14 Apr 2008
(Edited to view outside CWI's frameset)
Marxism and the state: an exchange
State: A Marxist Programme and Transitional Demands
A MARXIST PROGRAMME AND TRANSITIONAL DEMANDS
The formal or 'logical' contradiction between, on the one
side, demands for reforms and, on the other, spelling out the need for a
socialist transformation of society reflects the very real contradiction
between the objective need for socialism and the immaturity of the
consciousness and organisation of the working class.
Trotsky commented on this issue during a discussion on the
Transitional Programme in 1938. One issue that came up at that time was the
Ludlow Amendment, a constitutional amendment moved in the US Congress which
would have required a popular referendum before the US could go to war. The
leadership of the US Socialist Workers Party (the US section of the Fourth
International) opposed support for the Ludlow Amendment on the grounds that it
would promote pacifist and democratic illusions. Trotsky disagreed, and his
comments are relevant to the issue of democratic demands in general.
This is a rather long excerpt from Trotsky's comment, but it
is worth quoting in full because it illuminates the issue of democratic
"The [SWP] NC declaration states that the war cannot be
stopped by a referendum. That is absolutely correct. This assertion is a part
of our general attitude toward war, as an inevitable development of capitalism,
and that we cannot change the nature of capitalism or abolish it by democratic
means. A referendum is a democratic means, but no more and no less. In refuting
the illusions of democracy we don't renounce this democracy so long as we are
incapable of replacing that democracy by the institution of a workers' state.
In principle I absolutely do not see any argument which can force us to change
our general attitude toward democracy in this case of a referendum. But we
should use this means as we use presidential elections, or the election in St
Paul [Minnesota]; we fight energetically for our programme.
"We say: The Ludlow referendum, like other democratic means,
can't stop the criminal activities of the sixty families, who are incomparably
stronger than all democratic institutions. This does not mean that I renounce
democratic institutions, or the fight for the referendum, or the fight to give
American citizens of the age of eighteen the right to vote. I would be in
favour of our initiating a fight on this; people of eighteen are sufficiently
mature to be exploited, and thus to vote. But that's only parenthetical.
"Now naturally it would be better if we could immediately
mobilise the workers and the poor farmers to overthrow democracy and replace it
with the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the only means of avoiding
imperialist wars. But we can't do it.
"We see that large masses of people are looking toward
democratic means to stop the war. There are two sides to this: one is totally
progressive, that is, the will of the masses to stop the war of the
imperialists, the lack of confidence in their own representatives. They say:
Yes, we sent people to parliament [Congress], but we wish to check them in this
important question, which means life and death to millions and millions of
Americans. That is a thoroughly progressive step. But with this they connect
illusions that they can achieve this aim only by this measure. We criticise
this illusion. The NC declaration is entirely correct in criticising this
illusion. When pacifism comes from the masses it is a progressive tendency,
with illusions. We can dissipate the illusions not by a priori decisions but
during common action.
The situation is now different-it is not a
revolutionary situation. But the question can become decisive. The referendum
is not our programme, but it's a clear step forward; the masses show that they
wish to control their Washington representatives. We say: It's a progressive
step that you wish to control your representatives. But you have illusions and
we will criticise them. At the same time we will help you realise your
programme. The sponsor of the programme will betray you as the SRs [Social
Revolutionaries] betrayed the Russian peasants."
Programme for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder 1977,
A bourgeois cop is a bourgeois cop?
One of the demands we put forward in the Militant in 1981 (and
the 1983 pamphlet) was for "The right of the police to an independent,
democratic trade union organisation to defend their interests as workers." In
Michael's view, however, "it is a mistake to view the police in general as
'workers in uniform' who should be treated like any other worker". The role of
the police in the 1984 miners' strike, he argues, confirms the position of our
'What is Marxism?' pack, that "the police, together with the army, constitute
the central 'body of armed people' which is at the centre of the state
apparatus. They are the first line of defence against anything which disturbs
the public order of capitalism."
As on other issues, Michael can see only one side of the
issue: the reactionary, repressive role of the police as an instrument of state
repression. They undoubtedly played an aggressive, repressive role during the
1984 miners' strike. The miners, as well as other sections of militant workers,
certainly did not regard the police as 'any other workers'. They organised to
counter police tactics, and took them on in massive confrontations, notably the
battle of Orgreave. Similarly, in the 1972 miners' strikes, the flying pickets
countered the police and defeated them at the famous 'battle of Saltley gates'
(where miners' pickets and other workers blockaded the Midlands' coal depot).
Support for trade union rights for the police ranks (or for the army ranks, for
that matter) does not for a moment cloud our analysis of the role of the police
and army as part of the state apparatus, or undermine the recognition of the
need to organise against police or military repression.
This is only one side of the question, however. The other side
of a revolutionary policy (which Michael, with his characteristic
black-and-white approach, fails to see) is a policy of making a political
appeal to the ranks of the police and the army and supporting their democratic
rights, including the right to organise in a trade union. Anything that weakens
the authoritarian control of the state over the ranks of the police (and the
army) and brings their ranks, or even a section of their ranks, nearer to the
workers' movement, helps create more favourable conditions of struggle for the
But Trotsky rejected this approach, exclaims Michael! He
proves this by an experiment. Searching an internet Trotsky archive with the
word 'policeman', he came up with the following quote: "The worker who becomes
a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop, not a
worker." This quote comes from Trotsky's article, 'What Next? Vital Questions
for the German Proletariat', written in 1932. Having googled this quote from
the internet, Michael appears to think that Trotsky's comment is the last word
on the matter. If he conducted further searches on the context of Trotsky's
comment and the situation in Germany in 1932, Michael doesn't bother to relate
them to the issue under discussion. In fact, Michael generally appears to
believe that demands, slogans, etc, are eternal, and that we should uphold them
without concerning ourselves about changing conditions.
The situation in 1932 in Germany was not the same as in
Britain in 1981 or today. Only a year before Hitler seized power, there was
already an intense struggle between the forces of revolution and
counter-revolution. Because of the failure of the working class to carry
through a successful revolution, Germany was ruled by a series of bonapartist
regimes (under chancellors Brüning, von Papen, and von Scheicher), who
relied on reactionary sections of the military and the fascists to smash the
In the passage from which the "bourgeois cop" sentence is
taken, Trotsky is arguing against the 'parliamentary cretinism' of the Social
Democratic leaders. They argued that because the German army was controlled by
the president of the German republic, they would not allow Hitler to come to
power. Trotsky, in particular, was arguing against the wishful thinking that,
because the police were originally recruited from among social-democratic
workers, they would prevent the fascists from coming to power: "Consciousness
is determined by environment, even in this instance." A "worker who becomes a
policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop not a
worker. Of late years, these policemen have had to do much more fighting with
revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to
leave its effects."
There was a pre-revolutionary situation in Germany, which
(apart from the need for a revolutionary party politically armed with a Marxist
programme) posed the need for workers to arm themselves, to form workers'
militias, to counter the fascist onslaught. It was absolute cretinism to appeal
to the government, the chancellor, etc, to protect the working class against
"I think that Trotsky was right," says Michael. But it would
only be in a world of pure abstraction that we could ignore the differences
between Germany in 1932 and Britain, or for that matter France, or Germany,
There is no question of our material arguing that, if trade
union rights were conceded to the police or the army, it would be sufficient to
counter the danger posed by the state to the workers' movement: "
would be fatal to pretend, as the Communist Party leaders and the reformist
left of the Labour Party do, that 'the democratisation of the state' will be
sufficient in itself to guarantee the British working class and a Labour
government against the fate which befell their Chilean brothers and sisters".
The state should not remain untouchable, as right-wing Labour
leaders have always argued. "On the contrary, measures to make the state more
accountable to the labour movement must be stepped up. But the limits of such
measures must be understood by the labour movement. The capitalists will never
permit their state to be 'gradually' taken away from them. Experience has shown
that only a decisive change of society can eliminate the danger of reaction and
allow the 'democratisation of the state machine' to be carried through to a
conclusion with the establishment of a new state, controlled and managed by
working people." (The State
The pamphlet gives many examples of episodes of radicalisation
of sections of the police in Britain and elsewhere. In Britain, there were
police strikes in 1918 and 1919 during the post-first world war crisis. Between
1970 and 1977, a series of police pay disputes, together with the general
political climate, brought a radicalisation of some sections of the police. At
the Police Federation conference in 1977, a young Metropolitan constable said:
"We're no different from other workers. We may wear funny clothes and do
society's dirty work for them. But we come from the same stock as other
workers. (Boos) We have only our labour power to sell, not capital." (The
, p45) This speaker clearly belonged to a small minority, but the
fact that such a class-conscious attitude could be expressed by even one
delegate was significant. Would Michael argue that Marxists should ignore such
trends, regarding the ranks of the police as 'one reactionary mass' regardless
of actual conditions or the mood within the police?
During the May events of 1968 in France, the mood of the
police (in contrast to the paramilitary riot police, the CRS) was affected by
the mass general strike movement. Representatives of the police "tacitly let it
be known that operations against workers could not only cause a grave crisis of
confidence within their ranks but also the possibility of what would in effect
be a police mutiny". (Beyond the Limits of the Law, Tom Bowden) The logic of
Michael's position is that the advanced workers should ignore such
developments, and pass over the possibility of winning sections of the police
over to the side of the workers, or at least neutralising a section of the
forces of the state.
In fact, Michael makes no comments on these and other episodes
related in the pamphlet, demonstrating the completely abstract character of his
approach to the issue of the police.
The Communist Manifesto and Marx's Demands
The problem is that Michael does not understand the Marxist
idea of a programme. He is only really happy with declarations of "the
fundamental principles of Marxism". "The existing bourgeois state
broken up, smashed, and replaced by a new workers' state." Anything less is
"confusion, dissimulation, and ultimately betrayal". Michael criticises all our
immediate demands as part of "a more limited reformist agenda" or "elements of
an outright reformist strategy".
What is noticeable, however, is that Michael himself nowhere
suggests any immediate demands that might relate to existing consciousness and
provide a bridge to revolutionary aims. Marxists, he says, should not seek
popularity or be afraid of being socially ostracised. It is our "responsibility
to maintain the link in the chain of revolutionary continuity by developing and
charting a path towards socialism armed with the distilled lessons of past
class struggles. We must stand firmly on the tradition based upon the
historical legacies of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, for if we deviate from
the latter then we will inevitably recede into empiricism and the eternal
present." So how, may we ask Michael, will our party "engage with, and
intersect, the existing consciousness of workers" in order to change it? He
offers us no guidance at all.
An important part of the historical legacy of Marx and Engels,
Lenin and Trotsky, is the understanding of the role of a programme in providing
a bridge between existing consciousness and revolutionary objectives. In the
course of their activity, they drew up various programmes, some corresponding
to relatively quiet periods of class struggle and some for revolutionary
situations. All of them were based on the understanding that mass consciousness
lags behind social reality. In periods of social quiescence, class
consciousness, even of the advanced layers of workers, may develop very slowly.
Under the impact of social crisis and intensified class struggle, it can
develop very rapidly. But the 'subjective factor', the involvement of a
conscious revolutionary leadership, especially in the form of a mass
revolutionary party, is a vital catalyst in the process. Moreover, a programme
which encapsulates the vital political tasks facing the working class and at
the same time engages with existing conditions and consciousness is an
indispensable instrument of intervention for a revolutionary party. A Marxist
programme is not merely a declaration of fundamental principles. According to
circumstances, a programme has to fulfil a variety of theoretical, programmatic
and immediate tasks.
Let's consider a well-known example. In February 1848, Marx
and Engels published (under the banner of the Communist League) the most famous
programme of all, the Manifesto of the Communist Party, just before the
outbreak of the revolutions that swept Europe in that year
(www.socialistparty.org.uk/manifesto/). Clearly, the Manifesto was in many ways
a declaration of fundamental principles and political objectives. It
brilliantly sketched out a theoretical analysis of capitalist society and a
perspective for socialist transformation under the leadership of the
proletariat. But it also included a number or democratic, immediate and
"The Communists fight for the attainment of the
immediate aims, for the enforcement of the immediate aims of the working class;
but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the
future of that movement." (Manifesto, Chapter 4) The Manifesto (Chapter 2) puts
forward ten demands, calling for an end to landlordism and progressive taxation
of wealthy property owners; for a national bank with a state monopoly of credit
and the extension of state industries; and for free public transport and
education. The aim of these demands is "to raise the working proletariat to the
position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy".
"The proletariat will use its political supremacy to
wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all
instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat
organised as the ruling class
Undoubtedly, the Manifesto sets out fundamental aims, even
suggesting some of the features of a future communist society. When the
revolutionary wave broke out, however, Marx and Engels wrote another
programmatic document, published by the Committee of the Communist League in
March 1848. Published as a leaflet and reprinted in many radical newspapers
throughout Germany, the 'Demands of the Communist Party in Germany' was at the
time much more widely read than the Manifesto.
The 'Demands' constituted an immediate programme, a political
weapon for the intervention of the Communist League in the developing
revolutionary movement. The seventeen demands corresponded to the situation
then unfolding, where the relatively weak German working class was playing a
key role in the struggle for a bourgeois-democratic revolution. The Demands
called for the unification of Germany under universal suffrage, and the
universal arming of the people. Demands 6 to 9 were aimed at the abolition of
landlordism. Like the Manifesto, the Demands call for free public transport,
and progressive taxation of the wealthy. Demand 10 is for a state bank to "make
it possible to regulate the credit system in the interests of the people as a
whole" and "undermine the dominion of the big financial magnates". Point 16
calls for "national workshops", in effect a transitional demand that would in
practice challenge the basis of capitalism: "The state guarantees a livelihood
to all workers and provides for those who are incapacitated for work."
Unlike the Manifesto, however, the Demands do not call (apart
from the public ownership of all transport) for the extension of state
industries. There is no mention of aiming "to raise the proletariat to the
position of ruling class" or of wresting "all capital from the bourgeoisie" or
of centralising "all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e.
of the proletariat organised as the ruling class
" The aim of the Demands,
set out in the concluding paragraph, is summed up in this way: "It is in the
interest of the German proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie and the small
peasants to support these demands with all possible energy. Only by the
realisation of these demands will the millions in Germany, who have hitherto
been exploited by a handful of persons and whom the exploiters would like to
keep in further subjection, win the rights and attain to that power to which
they are entitled as the producers of all wealth."
The Demands were focused on the immediate task of
strengthening the struggle for a bourgeois-democratic parliamentary republic in
Germany, by exerting the maximum working-class pressure on the radical
petit-bourgeois democrats. Despite its class limitations, a parliamentary
republic was the form of government that would provide the most favourable
conditions for the working class to strengthen its forces and struggle for
Were Marx and Engels, in putting forward a more limited
programme in the Demands than set out in the Manifesto, guilty of dissimulation
and pretence? Were they spreading illusions in bourgeois democracy? Isn't this
the logic of Michael's position?
But, of course, Marx and Engels were putting forward of
programme of demands that corresponded to the immediate situation of an
unfolding revolution and to the consciousness of the most radical sections of
the mass movement. The Demands form an action programme, a platform for
intervention in a mass movement. The Demands are much more limited than the
Communist Manifesto. But this did not mean for a minute that Marx and Engels
had abandoned the ideas of the Manifesto, or postponed fighting for communist
aims to the distant future. They did not have the idea of 'stages', later
adopted by Stalinist leaders, according to which the proletariat had to accept
the limits of the bourgeois-democratic revolution until it was completed, and
only then proceed to socialist tasks. Nor did they have the position later
adopted by social-democratic leaders (criticised by Trotsky in the Transitional
Programme) of a maximum and minimum programme, independent of each other: a
minimum programme of reforms achievable within the framework of capitalism and
a maximum of socialism in the distant future.
In 1848 the Demands and the Manifesto complemented each other.
During the course of the revolution, Marx and Engels never ceased to criticise
the radical bourgeois democrats from the standpoint of the ideas set out in the
Manifesto. They quickly moved from a position of critical support of the
radical bourgeois democrats to a position of remorseless criticism of their
political cowardice and treachery towards the working class and poor peasantry.
From the outbreak of revolution through to the end, they advocated the
ideological and organisational independence of the working class. The German
workers, wrote Marx and Engels, must not be "misled for a single moment by the
hypocritical phrases of the democratic party into refraining from the
independent organisation of the party of the proletariat. Their battle cry must
be: The Revolution in Permanence!" (Address of the Central Committee to the
Communist League, March 1850)
The working class should not allow the radical bourgeois
democrats to consolidate power solely in the interests of the bourgeoisie, but
prepare for the workers to set up their own revolutionary workers' governments
(in the form of "municipal councils" or "workers' committees") alongside and in
opposition to bourgeois-democratic governments. (This was the germ of the
theory of permanent revolution later developed by Trotsky on the eve of the
1905 revolution in Russia.) The policies of the Communist League went far
beyond anything in the Demands of March 1848 and were more concrete than those
set out in the Manifesto. Formally, there are many 'inconsistencies' between
the Manifesto, the Demands, and Marx and Engels' statements during 1848-1850.
But demands and tactics the evolving programme of the League - were
developed by Marx and Engels in response to events not according to some
abstract, logical schema of the kind Michael seems to favour.
A bridge to existing consciousness
The Communist Manifesto and the Demands set out the tasks of
the proletariat in a period of bourgeois revolutions. Trotsky's 'Transitional
Programme', written in 1938, sets out the tasks for the period of the "death
agony of capitalism", with a life and death struggle between fascism and
communism and the approach of a new world war. Like the Manifesto, the
Transitional Programme is based on a concrete, theoretical analysis of the
period. It is based on a perspective.
The programme contains immediate demands, that is, for
reforms, democratic rights, etc. "Indefatigably, [the Fourth International]
defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers
the framework of
[a] revolutionary perspective." But the key demands are
transitional demands. For example, the demand for a "sliding scale of wages and
hours" (to achieve full employment and a living wage for all workers) could not
be fully implemented within the framework of crisis-ridden capitalism. The
demand implies a socialist society, without spelling it out.
Discussing the Transitional Programme with US comrades,
Trotsky commented that "if we present the whole socialist system it will appear
to the average American as utopian, as something from Europe. We present it [in
the form of a sliding scale of wages and hours] as a solution to this crisis
which must assure their right to eat, drink and live in decent apartments. It
is the program of socialism, but in a very popular form."
A programme is not a compilation of fundamental principles.
The essential elements of a programme for socialist transformation have to be
presented in a way that relates to the actual consciousness of different layers
of workers. Trotsky recognised that the way a programme is presented to workers
is very important. "We must combine psychology and pedagogy, build the bridge
to their minds." Trotsky could never be accused of being afraid of standing
out, when necessary, in defending revolutionary principles, even if it meant
being isolated for a period. But he would never have willingly accepted the
'social ostracism' that Michael appears to welcome.
some demands," commented Trotsky in
discussions on the Transitional Programme, "appear very opportunistic
because they are adapted to the actual mentality of the workers
demands appear too revolutionary because they reflect more the objective
situation than the actual mentality of the workers."
Moreover, Trotsky pointed out that the Transitional Programme
was incomplete: "
the end of the programme is not complete, because we
don't speak here about the social revolution, about the seizure of power by
insurrection, the transformation of capitalist society into the dictatorship
[of the proletariat], the dictatorship into the socialist society. This brings
the reader only to the doorstep. It is a programme for action from today until
the beginning of the socialist revolution. And from the practical point of view
what is now most important is how can we guide the different strata of the
proletariat in the direction of the socialist revolution."
In other words, it stops short of what Michael advocates, a
programme for smashing the bourgeois state and the establishment of a workers'
state, a programme for an uprising and seizure of power. To have satisfied
Michael, the Transitional Programme would have had to incorporate a new,
updated version of Lenin's April Theses (The Tasks of the Proletariat in the
www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/04.htm). Produced as the Russian
revolution moved from its bourgeois phase to a "second stage, which must place
power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the
peasants", the Theses called for the seizure of power by the soviets of workers
and peasants, the formation of a workers' republic, and control by the soviets
of social production and distribution.
Clearly, the Transitional Programme of 1938 was written when
there was a pre-revolutionary situation in a number of key capitalist
countries, not in the middle of a deepening revolution. But by stopping short
of the question of seizing power, 'leaving it till later', was Trotsky not
falling into "confusion" and "dissimulation"? That is the logic of Michael's
method of argument.
Michael says he recognises the need for our demands "to engage
with, and intersect, the existing consciousness of workers if we are ever going
to change it". The approach he advocates, however, is that we should be raising
general theoretical formulas, abstract demands, such as "smash the state".
Nowhere in his critique of our position, which he represents in an extremely
one-sided way (to say the least), does he propose any immediate, democratic or
transitional demands that would "engage with existing consciousness". He shows
no recognition of the need for a flexible transitional programme that
corresponds to different periods and different situations. If we were to adopt
his approach, we would be doomed to political isolation in a period that
is actually becoming more and more favourable to winning workers and young
people to socialist ideas. Adherence to abstract formulas might allow
individuals or small groups to comment on events and level doctrinaire
criticisms of those who do engage in struggles. But the method to which Michael
has now unfortunately turned will never provide a bridge between the programme
of revolution and wide layers of workers and young people. If he follows this
line, Michael will certainly be in no danger of becoming a populist but,
more importantly, he will not be an effective Marxist either.