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a socialistworld is possible: the history of the cwi by peter taaffe
new introduction

The Transitional Programme

Now the IST, despite its formal adherence to the goal of a ‘revolutionary party’, has followed the USFI through a blatant opportunist turn, particularly in Britain.

This seems to be in marked contrast to their policies in the 1990s. Reality, however, always imposes itself, even belatedly, on those in political denial. Towards the end of the 1990s, the IST came up against a political brick wall. The SWP was compelled to moderate its previous crude sectarian ultra-leftism – “no participation in elections”, “smash the state” etc., which Peter Hadden took up effectively in his pamphlet, ‘The Struggle for Socialism Today: A Reply to the Politics of the Socialist Workers Party’.

In the manner of pre-1914 social democracy, the SWP put forward the ‘maximum’ programme – the call for revolution and socialism, “smash the state” – together with the ‘minimum’ programme of day-to-day reforms. The ‘maximum’ and ‘minimum’ programmes are separated in the agitation and propaganda of the SWP. Trotsky, on the contrary, basing himself on the experiences of the Bolshevik Party, put forward a programme of transitional demands in the 1930s. This flowed from the economic situation pertaining then, in which capitalism could no longer afford lasting reforms. Therefore, the struggle for reforms, seriously conducted, posed the need for the socialist transformation of society.

Trotsky’s series of ‘transitional demands’ were a bridge from the existing level of consciousness of the working class at that stage to the idea of the socialist transformation of society. But the IST, beginning with Tony Cliff, rejected this idea. Cliff made his organisation’s view clear: “The basic assumption behind Trotsky’s transitional demands was that the economic crisis was so deep that the struggle for even the smallest improvement in workers’ conditions would bring conflict with the capitalist system itself. When life disproved the assumption the ground fell from beneath the programme.”20

No programme is put forward irrespective of the concrete historical conditions. Trotsky’s approach was entirely justified in the 1930s. But what Cliff did not understand was the change in the objective situation which flowed from the world upswing of capitalism in the post-1945 period, which did allow serious reforms to be conquered by the working class. Even then, contrary to Cliff’s assertion, the working class did actually implement some of the transitional demands outlined by Trotsky. For instance, for an historical period the Italian workers implemented the idea of a sliding scale of wages, through the scala mobile. The colossal development of the shop stewards’ committees in Britain, in the post WW2 period, and in other countries, was a partial realisation, in a slightly different form, of the demand in Trotsky’s programme for “factory committees”.

But the conditions sketched out by Trotsky in the 1930s are beginning to mature today. There is an organic world economic crisis of capitalism, which has compelled the ruling class to engage in a ferocious attack on living standards, as described earlier. This means that the struggle for lasting reforms inevitably poses the question of the revolutionary transformation of society. In no way does this mean that important short-term gains by the working class are not possible but they are temporary and cannot have a lasting character, given the inevitable attempts by capitalism to take them back. Witness the stubborn insistence of the French ruling class – despite the fact they have been defeated time and again over ten years of efforts – to cut the living standards of the French workers and to even take back the 35-hour week, a conquest of a previous period.

Therefore, just when the method of Trotsky is beginning to come into its own, although the type of programme and many of its demands will be different today because of the different conditions, the SWP rejects it. In the past, they accused the CWI, particularly ‘Militant’ (now the Socialist Party) in Britain, of capitulating to ‘reformism’. This was never the case; we indissolubly connected the day-to-day demands of the working class with the idea of the socialist goal, specifically mentioning the contribution of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Sometimes the SWP may still shout about “Revolution!” but more often then not now their day-to-day activity consists of limiting their programme to minimum slogans like “Tax the rich!” This goes hand-in-hand with an uncritical approach towards leading ‘Left’ figures.

Another example of the IST’s attitude is the pamphlet ‘Anti-Capitalism’ by leading SWP member, Chris Harman. This deals in great length with the anti-capitalist movement but does not make a single programmatical proposal and does not mention socialism once. Nowhere does Harman call for the nationalisation of the multinational corporations under democratic workers’ control and management. Nowhere does he put forward a democratically planned economy as an alternative to the market system. He deals with the anti-capitalist movement and the workers’ movement as if they were two completely separated things which cannot be brought together. The necessity of new workers’ parties with a socialist programme is not mentioned.