Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 5, 2011

Rethinking the question of a revolutionary program

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 11:15 pm


Talmud scholars debate

Back in 1967, not long after I joined the Socialist Workers Party, I once asked a veteran party member what our “program” was. I kept hearing references to “defending our program”, especially when Arnie Swabeck had been expelled at one meeting, and was curious what that meant. We were up on the second floor of 873 Broadway, home of the headquarters of the NY branch and the national office at the time, and a very well-stocked bookstore. The veteran smiled at me and gestured toward all the Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky books on the shelf and said triumphantly, “That is our program”.

I was fairly sure what he meant when he said it but it would sink in the longer I was in the Trotskyist movement. The “program” referred to all of the classics of Marxism, at least our particular fraction of the movement, as well as all of the approved resolutions of all our conventions. In many ways, the program represented the same thing to us as the Talmud meant to orthodox Jews. It was the record of all the ideological battles that we had fought and won since Marx had it out with Bakunin.

James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism, put it this way in an obituary for “the old man”:

A great heritage of ideas he has left to us; ideas which shall chart the struggle toward the great free future of all mankind. The mighty ideas of Trotsky are our program and our banner. They are a clear guide to action in all the complexities of our epoch, and a constant reassurance that we are right and that our victory is inevitable.

Now, the curious thing is that all “Marxist-Leninist” groups have pretty much the same understanding but differ on the details. Almost all, for example, will concur that Marx, Engels and Lenin have “mighty ideas” but begin to differentiate among themselves not long after Lenin’s death. The CP and the Maoists tend to elevate Stalin and Mao, while the Trotskyists are into Trotsky—obviously. Then among this group you get competition over who is more faithful to Trotsky’s legacy. Depending on which group you belong to, it was James P. Cannon, Ted Grant, Gerry Healy, or Tony Cliff who was maintaining “revolutionary continuity”. Having the correct position on when and how the USSR became “state capitalist” or “bureaucratically degenerated” was a litmus test that would separate the pretenders to the throne from the legitimate leader. It should be stressed that the leader of the party was imbued with special powers, having the necessary gifts and training to maintain the purity of the program.

This interpretation of the “revolutionary program” actually had little to do with how Marx and the pre-1917 generation viewed things. Instead of trying to define and defend ideological bloodlines, they were far more interested in identifying a set of goals that the working class would fight for in the course of making a socialist revolution. Compared to the bookstore approach of the veteran SWP leader, the programmatic statements of Marx and others were minimalistic by comparison.

Let’s take the Communist Manifesto for example. This is about as fundamental a statement of goals that our movement has ever come out with. Let’s look at some of what Marx and Engels defined in terms of a program:

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

It should be obvious that Marx and Engels did not conceive of a program much differently than bourgeois parties. When the Democrats or Republicans gear up for a presidential campaign, you can go to their website and find a similar statement of aims, but of course from an opposing class perspective. Where Marx and Engels call for ” Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State”, they would call for deregulation and privatization with the Democrats concealing their aims in a bunch of high-flung populist rhetoric.

Moving forward in time, we come to the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democracy of 1891. Like the Communist Manifesto, it is basically a statement of goals, including these first five:

1. Universal, equal, and direct suffrage with secret ballot in all elections, for all citizens of the Reich over the age of twenty, without distinction of sex. Proportional representation, and, until this is introduced, legal redistribution of electoral districts after every census. Two-year legislative periods. Holding of elections on a legal holiday. Compensation for elected representatives. Suspension of every restriction on political rights, except in the case of legal incapacity.

2. Direct legislation by the people through the rights of proposal and rejection. Self-determination and self-government of the people in Reich, state, province, and municipality. Election by the people of magistrates, who are answerable and liable to them. Annual voting of taxes.

3. Education of all to bear arms. Militia in the place of the standing army. Determination by the popular assembly on questions of war and peace. Settlement of all international disputes by arbitration.

4. Abolition of all laws that place women at a disadvantage compared with men in matters of public or private law.

5. Abolition of all laws that limit or suppress the free expression of opinion and restrict or suppress the right of association and assembly. Declaration that religion is a private matter. Abolition of all expenditures from public funds for ecclesiastical and religious purposes. Ecclesiastical and religious communities are to be regarded as private associations that regulate their affairs entirely autonomously.

It should be mentioned that this 1891 program could be dusted off and adopted by some new left party today with very few changes. More about that momentarily.

As we know (at least those of us who have read Neil Harding, Lars Lih and yours truly), Lenin sought nothing more than to create a socialist party in Czarist Russia modeled on the German party that had adopted the Erfurt Program.

Here a few words are in order on our attitude to the Erfurt Programme. From what has been said above it is clear to everyone that we consider it necessary to make changes in the draft of the Emancipation of Labour group that will bring the programme of the Russian Social-Democrats closer to that of the German. We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely to day, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.

In the very same article, Lenin proposes that the Russian social democrats tailor their demands to their own social reality but retaining the spirit of the German program:

We think that the working-class party should define the demands made on this point more thoroughly and in greater detail; the party should demand: 1) an eight-hour working day; 2) prohibition of night-work and prohibition of the employment of children under 14 years of age; 3) uninterrupted rest periods, for every worker, of no less than 36 hours a week; 4) extension of factory legislation and the Factory Inspectorate to all branches of industry and agriculture, to government factories, to artisan establishments, and to handicraftsmen working at home; election, by the workers, of assistant inspectors having the same rights as the inspectors; 5) establishment of factory and rural courts for all branches of industry and agriculture, with judges elected from the employers and the workers in equal numbers; etc.

Interestingly enough, despite the hair-splitting of the Trotskyist groups over who has the best “program” (i.e., the doctrinal understanding of the Soviet state and other such states), Trotsky’s own efforts in that direction had much more in common with the Communist Manifesto and the Erfurt Program. The Transitional Program, that every Trotskyist pays homage to, is actually “minimalistic” in terms of its adherence to the finer points of Marxist theory. In fact, some of the demands were lifted directly from the mass movement of the 1930s. Some of what you will find in the TP remains very timely, including the following demands:

* Complete abolition of secret diplomacy;

* all treaties and agreements to be made accessible to all workers and farmers;

Now wouldn’t Trotsky have loved Wikileaks?

It should be clear what I am leading up to. I believe that a new left movement or party has to return to these roots. It is a big mistake to think in terms of program as the accretion of doctrinal statements made by a particular aspiring “nucleus of a vanguard party”.

Socialism, or anti-capitalism, has to be reconstituted on a much broader basis. Without a doubt, a program similar in spirit could be reconstituted from all of the points that the myriad of sects in the U.S. agrees on. I doubt that you will find the ISO and the Workers World fighting over, for example, the need to provide free medical care or the need to ban “fracking”. But in their fight to the finish line—the proletarian revolution of the distant future—they seek to protect their intellectual property, the sum total of all the resolutions voted on at all their conventions and all the newspaper articles, books and pamphlets churned out by their party press.

Whether or not they see the light, it is up to the rest of us to move forward as rapidly as possible drafting a program and building an organization that focuses on the real issues facing working people and not those that divide small propaganda groups from each other.


  1. Short and to the point. Thank you for spelling it out.

    Comment by Greg McDonald — January 5, 2011 @ 11:35 pm

  2. Well, if you put it that way, Louis . . .
    Indeed, this “manifesto” is an excellent starting point.
    Interestingly, I had always thought that “we” in the SWP had such a program and that we articulated it in our election campaigns as well as what we stood for in the mass movement. However, I agree that such was my own interpretation and not necessarily the actuality. In retrospect, I was probably very naive in simply propounding a revolutionary program with anyone who would listen thinking it was what “we” all believed. One result of this post, is that it, today, explains why I was always getting quizzical looks and constantly being “reined in” when I got involved in my areas of “intervention”. It just made sense that you would adopt positions consistent with Marxist “teachings”; that getting such an education was for the purposes of being able to think through demands–transitional or otherwise–and then advocate for them in the mass movement. Perhaps I wasn’t as democratically centralized as I thought I was?
    Louis very concrete suggestion is excellent. So . . .when and where do we get started?

    Comment by Manuel Barrera — January 6, 2011 @ 12:13 am

  3. Louis,

    this is solid. I’ll spread it around to folks. Best, Brian

    Comment by Brian McKenna — January 6, 2011 @ 12:19 am

  4. Nicely thought provoking. Thanks Louis.

    Comment by ish — January 6, 2011 @ 12:54 am

  5. My sense is that we can gain even better clarity by going back a bit further. The distinctions people made between Marx and Engels in the years formative to their thinking and those Engels articulated later merit consideration.

    This is particularly so where Engels to distinguish the ideas he and Marx articulated as “scientific” socialism as opposed to earlier “utopian” currents. This approach reflected the ascendancy of a mass social democracy and represented a departure from the position he and Marx had taken in the formative years.

    That is, what Engels later proclaimed as the class struggle politics distinctive to their “scientific” socialism were earlier discerned in the broader working class movement and currents later redefined as “utopian.” Perhaps, this might be best considered as reflecting the weight of a new mass social democracy…taking a first step towards a distinctive dogma.

    Comment by Mark Lause — January 6, 2011 @ 12:54 am

  6. Well said!

    Comment by will shetterly — January 6, 2011 @ 1:21 am

  7. If there’s one irrefraggable fact about 20th century history that cannot be avoided it’s this: V.I. Lenin had more impact on the outcome of the 20th century than any other human being, and that’s mighty important to recognize going forward.

    The point is such a figure must be studied & referred to in this new century and Lou’s contribution is admirable. Herein lies the significance of this blog & Proyect’s invaluable interpretation of Lenin.

    Yes, I’m biased. I’m the quintessentail Red Diaper Baby. The 1st words I uttered according to my parents in 1962 when I was one year old was “Len-in”. Len-in”.

    My late dad’s influence no doubt. More on the story of how he was radicalized to the SWP later, a fascinating story. Needless to say he was murdered by capitalism in 2002 at the outset of W’s Gulf War when he contracted a heart attack after marching for Palestinian Rights just days before the Iraqi invasion.

    There’s a book out called “Murdered By Capitalism” that features many ancient comrades I’ve known and/or admired but I warn in advance that it’s a depressing read.

    All I’m saying is if the modern left thinks that it doesn’t need to consult Lenin then it’s headed toward a blind alley full of political perfidy & turpitude that ultimately shortchanges the toiling masses on which the future of humankind must be built lest the planet deteriorates into a poisonous pond of scum so foul that not only do choking bursts of corpse gasses runinate but blind white cockroaches spill from all the duct work formerly filled with with writhing red hook-worms full of Terberculosis.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 6, 2011 @ 2:59 am

  8. Karl,

    John Ross pulls no punches. I really liked that book!

    Comment by Greg McDonald — January 6, 2011 @ 8:07 am

  9. A self evident conclusion — self evident to so very few.

    On top of it all the Trotskyists have had almost 80 years to perfect “the revolutionary program ” (by discussing it and arguing about it ) — and each groupuscules has worked its little red heart out striving to achieve just that. I think the primary mistake in the reading of both Lenin – -and Trotsky ( to a degree) — was that the august program was not seen as a means to struggle today but as a resource from which to propagandize.

    You just gotta check out our extremely revolutionary program ’cause its the absolute answer to everything you every wondered about: capitalism, wage slavery, alienation…and haemorrhoids.

    However, if you start with your base level stuff things are going to get complicated over time as new issues arise that challenge the collective point of view. The problem is then a bit of a conundrum: do you deal with every new issue as it arises, trying to arrive at a new agreement and new programatic consensus — or do you turn away from the challenge and only adopt those program points you can all, more or less, agree on?

    You can see this tension being played out, for example, in the French NPA.

    This is also where Lenin’s genius kicks in — advocating a collective leadership (within which you can have confidence) and of collectively advanced and developing point of view in the form of a newspaper. The problem I see in many new left party attempts is that they don’t also engineer a collective thinking through means outside the leadership layer.This is different from voting and democracy as it is about being informed and engaged. It’s about information sharing.

    That was Lenin 101 I thought — but you must have missed the tutorial, Louis –because you fail to address that particular challenge.

    Whether it is a newspaper or some other collectivizing medium in the digital age is beside the point. The problem with base level programs is that they need always to be developed by a process that engages successive broader layers of combatants and “minute takes” the thinking out and doing process.

    So if you start with Program A you also need to put in place a means by which day to day you can move beyond it– and become non A. The tragic irony of the far left orgs is that they spent most of their political energy defending A from all takers, as though the documentation of a program was the only thing that separated them from being non revolutionary.

    Comment by Dave Riley — January 6, 2011 @ 8:34 am

  10. Re the Erfurt Program and the Bolsheviks: check out Paul Cockshott’s take on how the Bolsheviks ended up watering down the more radical demands of the Erfurt program for direct democracy in favour of a system based on representation. After the October revolution the soviet republic – a representative system – became the norm in the demands of communist groups.

    Erfurt program demanded “Direct legislation by the people through the rights of proposal and rejection”, i.e. direct democracy, but the RSDLP program of 1903 was ok with representative democracy (a republic), and in their 1917 program the Bolsheviks called for a soviet republic based on the Paris commune model, i.e. a representative system, where politicians rule, supposedly controlled by the right of recall. Cockshott argues that a representative system is always an aristocracy (rule by the best), which – especially in revolutionary situations – is very easily turned into a monarcy (rule by one person).

    Comment by jjonas — January 6, 2011 @ 9:31 am

  11. That’s really good thinking, Louis; I might add three points:

    1. One has to be mindful of what a programme is for, its real purpose. It can be a statement of values/beliefs (what you stand for) which unites a bunch of people, a statement of intended policy, or a general statement of goals providing an ultimate means-ends rationale. Programme, strategy and tactics are different things, often confused.
    2. A program in America has a different meaning than in Europe. When you say “get with the program”, you refer to the agreed procedures flowing from a policy for which resources have been allocated and an executive authority has been created.
    3. When Marx quipped that one step forward for the movement is worth a dozen programmes” or something like that, he emphasized that the program is only as good as its ability to articulate what many interested people believe and mobilize them. Anybody can write a programme for what is to be done, but it’s much more difficult to write it, so that it really strikes a chord.

    Here in Holland, the SP decided that the core socialist values were three: human dignity, social equality and social solidarity. That may seem terribly simplistic to some, but it was good enough to build a well-funded party upon with 40,000 members. That’s just to say that the intricate disputes Marxists like to have about doctrine are more, or should be more, an “internal matter” or an individual initiative, which is not very useful from the point of view of communicating to large numbers of people interested above all in the important things they have in common, and that would enable a common fight.

    The idea of a programme in the sense of an intellectual or historical heritage arose when (1) communist bureaucrats sought to forge a political myth to bolster their political rule, and when (2) communist dissenters sought to preserve the true idea in the face of its apparent corruption in practice. But not only is such a interpretation of programme, whatever its merits, rather conservative, it also transforms the meaning of a programme into something which it really cannot be – because a programme has to be a living articulation of what people are struggling for now, rather than simply a reiteration of past thinking, “injected” as it were into current controversies from the outside by a ventriloquist, as it were.

    There are, of course, people who need to have all political ideas spelled out to them in precise terms, but there are also many people who need to know only the main goals and the broad perspective, in order that they can orient their own creative living activity, which embodies the real movement. Sadly, all to often programmatic discussions seek to place strictures on people’s activity, rather than provide them with ideas they can use in their own lives and battles.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — January 6, 2011 @ 5:27 pm

  12. Certianly I agree that unity (or disunity) should be built upon questions relevant to the current moment. Who is on our bookshlef matters less then what barricade we’re behind.
    But I wonder if the ‘program’ expressed in vague goals is a useful point if unity; if that kind of program describes our barricade. Your point that the ISO and Workers World (and for that matter, the PSL) would likely agree on a goal reveals the problem: tactics.
    Off the cuff tactical unity:
    1. Single Issue or Radical Issue organizing. Do you build groups based on opposition to the war or upon opposition to imperialism?
    2. Do you accommodate your work to influential ‘left’ power brokers or do you strive to build a base from below (see point 1 for the basis of building that base)? I’m referring here to the Democrats and their allies in many movement organizations ranging from NGOs to unions.
    3. Open/closed/disciplined caucuses.  See recent posts on this blog.

    When there are communists that advocate electoral abstension, other communists that run their own candidates and still others that organize for Democrats, one wonders if the word ‘communist’ (and the bookshelf that it refers to) has any meaning. Certainly you would find ‘socialist’ and even ‘anarchists’ advocating the same range of views.
    (apologies for formatting, I wrote this on a cellphone)

    Comment by red in seattle — January 6, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

  13. When there are communists that advocate electoral abstension, other communists that run their own candidates and still others that organize for Democrats, one wonders if the word ‘communist’ (and the bookshelf that it refers to) has any meaning.

    I don’t know how much clearer I can make this. Point one of a program for a socialist or left party in the USA would be total opposition to the two-party system.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 6, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

  14. There are two senses in which many of us think of “program.” One is the sense that Louis describes here: the immediate tasks at hand for the working class. “The art of politics is knowing what to do next” (J.P. Cannon). The other sense refers to the generalizations we derive from the history of the workers movement — we might call it the “science” of politics. That is probably what the “veteran party member” was referring to, in Louis’s example. Perhaps a better term for this is “theory” rather than program. Perhaps some of us have tended to confuse, or conflate, the two. But it would be equally mistaken to exaggerate the difference. Program is informed by theory.

    An example from the movement against the US war in Vietnam: The SWP focused its role in the antiwar movement around the demand for immediate withdrawal of imperialist troops from Vietnam. That was part of its “program”. But that programmatic demand was shaped by a theoretical concept developed over the years in the Marxist tradition: the right of nations to self-determination, and its application in the epoch of imperialism. In the antiwar movement, differences in program reflected different theoretical (or “programmatic”) assessments. The Stalinists of the CP, for example, although paying lip service to self-determination as a principle, advocated a political line that violated it in practice, advancing the demand for “negotiations” that implied that the imperialists had some appropriate interest to defend in Vietnam. This line pointed toward reliance on capitalist politicians and their ability to extract the US from the war while accommodating imperialist interests. As we know, the demand for immediate withdrawal became the axis around which the mass antiwar movement was built in the USA and internationally.

    We referred to these differences with the CP as programmatic. The CP line of course reflected its overriding programmatic concern: to defend the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy and its line of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. Louis characterizes our theoretical (“doctrinal”) understanding of the Soviet state as a “hair-splitting” difference over “program”. I prefer to call it a difference of theory (and therefore strategy), but one with direct implications for our program.

    A similar differentiation could be found in a contemporary phenomenon, the climate crisis movement. Most Marxists (and some non-Marxists) believe there is no solution to this crisis within capitalism. That is a theoretical conception or framework within which we develop certain programmatic demands: switch to renewable energy sources, break from productivism and reduce consumption of energy on a global scale, build an anticapitalist current within the ecology movement, challenge intellectual property rights and laws, etc. The ecology activists who do not share this theoretical (“programmatic”) assessment advance demands that point the movement toward capitalist politics, as in the concept of a “green capitalism” (carbon credits, emissions trading, tax incentives, respect for capitalist cost efficiency, etc.) These are programmatic differences within a broad movement, a movement in which there may be conjunctural or partial agreement on certain demands but where different programs reflect underlying theoretical differences that are quite fundamental and that the movement, to be successful, must resolve.

    There was (and is) a problem in the specifically Trotskyist current in that it has tended, historically, to fetishize certain theoretical (“programmatic”?) concepts, making them the hallmark that distinguishes their tendency from all others — drawing a line in the sand, so to speak, to defend their existence distinct from the broader movement. An example is the “theory of permanent revolution”. That theory, as a generalization, is arguably quite valid. But it tells us little about “what to do next” in specific national and class struggles, other than to be aware of the need to seek consistently to deepen the process, not to rely on the bourgeoisie, even when (as in a dependent country) they may be temporarily allied with the workers as in conflicts with imperialism. As Carlos Fonseca (not a Trotskyist) put it, “only the workers and campesinos will go all the way.” But in many instances, strict insistance on this theoretical concept as “program” has led Trotskyists to abstain from or oppose, for example, progressive movements for national liberation that tactically (programmatically) necessitated certain cross-class alliances.

    I think it is this particular sectarian tendency — not unnatural, perhaps, in a current that in its intial decades was absorbed by defensive struggles in opposition to both Stalinism and Social Democracy — that has led many of us, veterans of that tendency, to question what is meant by “program”. Distinguishing program from theory may help to clarify what is at issue.


    Comment by Richard Fidler — January 6, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

  15. Richard, there will certainly be a need for theoretical debate in a mass left-wing party but it will look a lot different than what takes place today. Turning once again to the Bolsheviks, we must remember that Lenin and Bukharin debated the nature of imperialism in the party press. We can expect the same thing to happen in our own version of such a party. However, to get a party off the ground, it is necessary to formulate a class struggle program that can unite the left. Other examples of such programs, btw, include the FSLN program written by Carlos Fonseca, which unfortunately, is not online in English as far as I know. There is also the 1992 program of the ANC that unfortunately they decided to use as toilet paper after taking power. It can be read here:


    Comment by louisproyect — January 6, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

  16. “a class struggle program that can unite the left.” I agree, of course. My point is that there are certain theoretical acquisitions of the historic workers movement that can assist us in developing that program, although the program must be based on current tasks facing the movement. The FSLN program you cite is a good example. As Matilde Zimmermann argues in her biography of Fonseca (“Sandinista”), that program reflected what he and other FSLN leaders had learned from their studies of the past history of Nicaragua, Latin America and the world communist movement, as well as their practice and observations in the day-to-day struggles of Nicaragua’s popular classes.

    Comment by Richard Fidler — January 6, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

  17. What Richard Fidler is really commenting on is the prioritization of tasks (a srategic and tactical matter) which, he implies, is rationally deduced from the means-ends relationships specified by the programme.

    That is, the programme specifies that certain ends (goals) can or should be achieved only by certain means, which implicitly or explicitly articulates a rational morality of the movement (“why we do what we do”). For example, the programme axiomatizes the independent action of the working class as the agency for human emancipation.

    The CPUSA and the Trotskyists both faced the same question: what will best advance the class struggle and the struggle for socialism? They were both interested in that goal, and in that sense they had something in common. But they provided very different answers to it, as Richard describes. This prevented them from working together.

    The question today then seems to be whether you can identify and articulate as an ideology some common beliefs and values sufficiently clear to ensure a minimal organizational unity, while permitting different interpretations of priorities.
    That is more or less where the Usec of the FI is at (the problem of a pluralism that works).

    But I tend to think that in reality the question today goes much deeper than that, it concerns the meaning, efficacy and validity of radicalism itself and how to give it form. We know from experience that a lot of modern radicalism is silly, harmful, quixotic and ineffective. The question is really whether the movement can be oriented to personalities of whom it can be said that radical action really means something, and that achieves successes which conservative or liberal attempts cannot. In this, we have to distinguish between the way people express themselves literally, and what they really mean, the deeper foundation of their motivations. A very radical person may in fact not come across as very radical at all – the radicality becomes apparent only when you understand what they do, nevermind the public communications.

    The inherent problem of radical endeavours, left or right, is that you can be far behind the real movement, or far ahead of the real movement. That is because radicals want something that does not exist in the status quo. I don’t mean by movement “the official labour movement” or “the official social movements” but simply what really moves people right now. The challenge is whether you can be in step with that movement and provide real leadership in it, by showing the way out of the mess, out of the problems.

    But obviously “leadership” does not mean propagating the programme. The programme is merely the ultimate rationale for your quest to provide leadership, showing people the next step and so on.

    Trotsky’s “mature” understanding of programme revolved around the need to preserve what revolutionary Marxism really stands for, to transmit this idea to a future generation so that it would have the concepts to “think” and learn the solution to the problems of class struggles. But this idea is to a large extent idealist, in particular because it seriously neglects the patterned ways in which revolutionary ideas are formed in the first instance. The idealism may be admirable or laudable, but in reality revolutionary processes do not evolve because radicalizing masses suddenly see the light and adopt the Trotskyist idea from way back when.

    I remember a classic case of what goes wrong when, in a discussion among demonstrators after a mass Amsterdam protest against the war in Iraq, Ron Blom (CWI) proceeded to explain what the “correct” basis for the political unity among protestors was. He made it very clear, that he already had the truth in advance, and he made explicit the programmatic basis of his idea. It sounded great, but people thought it arrogant and did not believe it, judging by their responses. And there you have the perpetual puzzle of these “Marxists” – why won’t people believe their ideas? The answer is devastatingly simple – you cannot introduce the true idea “from the outside”, but only by feeling what they feel and thinking what they think, talking in their language. This was precisely Trotsky’s weakest side – he was great as a commander, individual agitator, intellectual, orator, but he could not himself bring people to work together, which required an entirely different packet of skills… really he was not one of them. People feared him or admired him, but he was in a different category than they. No doubt if I say this it will create a furore among Trotskyists but in substance it’s true. The reality is that you do not know in advance what the answer is, you have to learn it in the course of life. If you pretend to have the answer already, you are constantly advancing answers in search of a question to which it can be an answer. But the real problem as Marx taught is to understand what the question itself really is, so that you can provide an answer with your own creative input, your own innovation.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — January 7, 2011 @ 12:12 am

  18. Clearly the biggest obstacle in the way of meaningful Left Unity in the USA is what Lou mentions in post # 13, that is, no serious threat to capitalism’s evils can be managed when millions of Leftists insist every 4 years on throwing a vote of confidence to the Democrats.

    That has to be point #1 in any revolutionary program — down with the 2 party kleptocracy. Without that fundamental agreement on the Left we’re all just pissing in the wind. But with all the Norman Solomon’s and Carl Davidson’s out there this goal seems as far away as it ever has.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 7, 2011 @ 11:32 am

  19. Hello,

    Hope all are well.

    Truly in a struggle for a world in which equality is a fundamental tenet in developing our principles, theories and actions, the consideration of other interpretations or points of view are important.

    In the frame of the Church of Christ I have seen arrogance when one believes they have the ‘answer’ and thus can dictate the ‘correct’ terms. They meant well but simply by the way they came across they could achieve nothing.

    Nothing proves ‘correct’ tactics, ideas, etc then results. That is why Lenin, Mao, Trotsky, etc. must be considered as they achieved something. However there is complexity as to actually how that success was achieved. In a contemporary example Martin Luther King is attributed the success of the Civil Rights movement. Though contributed greatly a vast variety of factors and individuals help tremendously. The reason MLK is exalted is that the message the powers want expressed is that “A great man did this.” Thus we are waiting for another great man. The truth of the matter is the oppressed were the ones who brought change and that change was brought on by action. An excellent leader simply articulates the will of his followers, inspires and develops methods to achieve what is desired.

    If I was to ask an engineer how to build a bridge I would ask the man that successfully built many bridges rather than the one who has never achieved.

    However the inclusion of every person as a contributing and vital entity is paramount. It is greater to listen well than to speak well. There are many ideas out their. If one is a communist one must have faith in the masses. If you have faith in the masses you will be among them and share their lives through good and bad.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by john kaniecki — January 7, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

  20. Here’s the Labor Party program which would constitute a good core
    program for working class partisans.


    We, the members of this Labor Party, see ourselves as keepers of the
    American Dream of opportunity, fairness, and justice.

    In our American Dream, we all have the right:


    To a decent paying job and a decent place to live

    To join a union freely without fear of being fired or other retribution.

    To strike without fear of losing our job.

    Not to be discriminated against because of our race, gender,
    ethnicity, disability, national origin, or sexual orientation, at work
    or in our communities.

    To free, quality public education for ourselves and our children.

    To universal access to publicly-funded, comprehensive, quality
    health care for all residents.

    To retire at a decent standard of living after a lifetime of work.

    To quality of life in our communities enhanced by a fully funded
    public sector.

    The Democratic and Republican parties serve the corporate
    interests that finance them.

    We oppose corporate power that undermines democratic
    institutions and governments.

    We oppose corporate politicians and parties that provide
    billions in corporate tax breaks and subsidies to the rich, selling
    themselves to the highest bidder.

    We reject the false choice of jobs versus environmental
    responsibility. We will not be held hostage by corporate polluters who
    poison our workplaces and our communities.

    We reject the redistribution of billions of dollars of wealth
    from poor and working people to the rich.

    And we reject every opportunist who plays the race, gender, or
    immigrant card to keep us from addressing our real needs, and the
    needs of our families and communities.

    Our Labor Party understands that our struggle for democracy pits us
    against a corporate elite that will fight hard to retain its powers
    and privileges. This is the struggle of our generation. The future of
    our children and their children hangs in the balance. It is a struggle
    we cannot afford to lose.

    1. Amend the Constitution
    to Guarantee Everyone
    a Job at a Living Wage

    CB: I developed this programmatic element back in 1988 or so. I have
    an essay arguing for it based on Marxist principles.


    Corporate America is systematically destroying millions of decent
    paying jobs for working people.

    At the same time, the rich and the powerful are leading an assault on
    the public sector and demanding cutbacks in government jobs that
    provide services for us all.

    As a result, there are not enough good jobs to go around and our
    public services are crumbling.

    Nearly one in four workers are either unemployed, involuntarily
    working part-time, or are working full-time at poverty-level wages.

    Since World War II, the government has been committed on paper to a
    full employment economy. But Corporate America and its army of pliable
    politicians have made a mockery of that idea. In the name of creating
    jobs they give the rich and powerful more tax breaks, more subsidies,
    and less government regulation.

    But trickle-down economics doesn’t work for us. It only works for them.

    The more subsidies and tax breaks for corporations the politicians
    give away, the more jobs that are destroyed through mergers, runaway
    investments, automation, and subcontracting.

    These give-aways and concessions must stop.

    First and foremost everyone, both in the private and public sectors,
    needs a guarantee of a right to a job at a living wage — one that pays
    above poverty-level wages and is indexed to inflation. And in today’s
    world that comes to a minimum of about $10 an hour.

    We want this right written directly into the U.S. Constitution.

    The Declaration of Independence affirmed our right to life, liberty,
    and the pursuit of happiness. The Preamble to the Constitution
    promised “to establish Justice,… promote the General Welfare, and
    secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

    But for working people all this means nothing if we don’t have the
    right to a job.

    Comment by Charles — January 7, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

  21. it takes a hack at moving away from wage/debt slavery (without addressing it), but glaringly, nothing in charles’ program addresses imperial slaughter or international solidarity. workers of the world, unite.

    Comment by jp — January 7, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

  22. If the issue is simply one finding a party campaign which does a good job of articulating issues without getting eternally bogged down in “the Russian question” then I thought that the Socialist Equality Party did a good job in thier 2004 campaign. They launched a very late campaign in 2008, which I think was motivated by a decision not to expend too many resources contesting Obama when so many Leftists were gushing over him. But I thought that the SEP campaign of 2004 was a more natural model. Here one can sample the record of a campaign speech by Bill Van Auken:


    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 7, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

  23. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David F O'Connell. David F O'Connell said: Rethinking the question of a revolutionary program: http://bit.ly/hSmXK2 (via louisproyect.wordpress.com) […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Rethinking the question of a revolutionary program « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist -- Topsy.com — January 8, 2011 @ 12:31 am

  24. “Trotsky’s own efforts in that direction had much more in common with the Communist Manifesto and the Erfurt Program. The Transitional Program, that every Trotskyist pays homage to, is actually “minimalistic” in terms of its adherence to the finer points of Marxist theory. In fact, some of the demands were lifted directly from the mass movement of the 1930s. Some of what you will find in the TP remains very timely, including the following demands”

    The Weekly Worker has criticized the Transitional Program for its latent economism and extreme reliance on a mass strike route to power.

    Note how the Eisenach, Gotha, and Erfurt programs – and also the Program of the French Workers Party – placed explicitly political demands first after analysis and principles, then listed last economic demands. The Transitional Program does the exact reverse.

    The first demand for sliding scales of wages is aimed at union-level dealings, not at making something into law. The demand for sliding scales of hours addresses unemployment, and the CWI/SPEW thinks that the 30-hour workweek is “transitional” in the sense of addressing unemployment, but Marx and Engels addressed the shorter workweek for entirely different reasons. The demand to “defend democratic rights” doesn’t bother with expanding democracy to the point of what the CPGB calls “extreme democracy.”

    Comment by Jacob Richter — January 8, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

  25. I had not been born yet in the 1960s, and was in high school when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, so I have a view of things from that perspective. I think your picture of Talmudic scholars is apropos, to me these little communist “vanguard” groups in the US are just secular versions of religious sects arguing over how many angels dance on the head of a pin. I do think there are some positive aspects of the ISO, RCP and WWP in their various bookstores, campus and demonstration organizing and the like. Although ultimately, Avakian’s RCP is a cult, just like Barnes’s SWP now is, although the RCP has done some good stuff up to even recently.

    One interesting anecdote – I knew some Ivy League, upper middle class bourgeois types gathered around a Trot sect. They knew their whole sects program inside and out, and have read a lot of Trotsky. I don’t think I have ever fully read anything of Trotsky’s, although I did begin to read the Transitional Program once, and am familiar with some of the internal Trot doctrinal disputes. But anyhow, these educated, smart guys knew their program in and out, knew the Trotsky texts their sect highlighted back and forth – but had no idea Trotsky was a Menshevik. And I barely know anything about Trotsky. It showed me how programmed their whole indoctrination was.

    Comment by Adelson V. Landis — January 11, 2011 @ 4:20 am

  26. > but had no idea Trotsky was a Menshevik.

    Trotsky was not a Menshevik. Trotsky did initially side with the Mensheviks at the time of the initial split, and he made many polemics against Lenin around that split, but Trotsky’s ideas of Permanent Revolution placed him too much at odds with the Menshevik notion of Two-Stage Revolution for him to remain a Menshevik. Trotsky instead advocated that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks should be able to merge back together, and this infuriated Lenin all the more. But these people you knew were correct that Trotsky was not a Menshevik.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — January 11, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

  27. Adelson:

    I agree with McNally but it doesn’t really matter what Trotsky “was” before 1917, rather what he did when the shit hit the fan, as my reading of the Civil War history concludes that without the decisive role of Trotsky’s leadership the Red Army would have lost.

    If you haven’t really read anything he wrote except the Transitional Program, which is frankly kind of boring, then consider this brief pamphlet, Their Morals and Ours, which is the opposite of boring and arguably the most important piece of Marxist literature written since the death of Lenin in that it captures the spirit of Bolshevism amidst triumphant world reaction and is therefore still extremely pertinent in today’s climate of reaction. It’s one of the few pamphlets I’ve ever read that actually gets your heart rate up while reading it!


    If you don’t read it then your understanding of Trotsky can only be a distortion based on other people’s (usually narrowminded) opinions.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 11, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

  28. Karl,

    Hi hope you are well. That was an interesting read. I found some parts difficult to understand. The highlights to me were the contrasts between Stalinism and Trotskyism, the similarity of east and west beaurocrats, the exposure of the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and how Stalin in fact was just trying to achieve power and not Marxism.

    My favorite line however is this:
    A slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains – let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!

    Regarding the end justifying the means I believe the means make the ends. Also a true Christian does indeed Love one’s enemy, turn the other cheek and so forth. As we discussed before and agreed upon the Catholic church and Christ are disimilar as Stalin and Communism.


    John Kaniecki

    Comment by john kaniecki — January 13, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

  29. Hello, I feel like I may be intruding into that den of Talmudic scholars, since I have not been a follower of this blog. Anyway, the author sums up with “it is up to the rest of us to move forward as rapidly as possible drafting a program and building an organization”. OK. Drafting a program would be relatively easy as compared with building an organization. It is the 2nd half which is most difficult. Therefore, we need articles that address THAT to at least the same degree and level as the current article that is about program. That’s about it; there’s a book on my site about the US two-party system; google utps414 — RJC

    Comment by RJ Cymbala — January 16, 2011 @ 11:13 am

  30. I think the important point is that “program” isn’t what’s on paper but what you do. That is, it’s inseparable from organization.

    Comment by Mark Lause — January 16, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

  31. […] Proyect: Rethinking the question of a revolutionary program (love the photo illustrating the […]

    Pingback by Poumatica « Poumista — January 19, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

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