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.