Documents - Lutte Ouvrière: "The programmatic foundations of our policy"

Jan/Feb 2004

The following text is the translation of a document adopted by the 33th conference of our sister organisation in France, Lutte Ouvrière, which took place in Paris, on 6-7th December. As its title indicates it is meant to encapsulate the political tradition and approach on which our tendency is based.

In 1848, Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto: "Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other - bourgeoisie and proletariat."

The programme and practice of proletarian revolutionaries is based on this fundamental assertion, which has been tested against a century and a half of historical development.

From the onset of the 16th century, the development of the bourgeoisie, of manufacturing, of trade with America, Africa and India, led to the expansion of world trade, often in the form of looting, and, by the same token, to the establishment of a national and world market.

Industrialisation resulted in an exodus from the countryside towards the towns, growing urbanisation and the emergence of an industrial proletariat. This proletariat was herded to production sites in unhealthy slums and subjected to horrific working conditions.

In the very early part of the 19th century, as a result of the industrial revolution, the world market grew enormously. The industrialisation of Western Europe and, subsequently, the eastern coast of the USA, effectively resulted in an international division of labour and the birth of the proletariat.

The development of the means of production - both industrial and agricultural - linked to the development of the bourgeoisie, created an economic basis on which it was possible to provide for the needs of the entire world population - whether it be its physical, material or intellectual needs.

Today it is already possible to build a world free from hunger, poverty, exploitation and alienation. It is towards the building of such a communist society that we wish to contribute.

Contrary to what some economists claim, the high birth rate which exists in most under-developed countries, and on which these people blame these countries' under-development, will not be an obstacle. Indeed it has been shown in western countries that higher standards of living and culture have resulted in the stabilisation or even the reduction of birth rates. The fact that populations of the rich countries are still able to show an increase is thanks to the contribution to these populations by immigration from the poor countries.

The struggle of the proletariat cannot be conceived, therefore, within the limited framework of national borders. On the contrary, it is an international struggle, which sets itself the aim of destroying the political and economic power of the bourgeoisie and organising the working class as the ruling class, both economically and politically, on a world scale. Internationalism expresses this fundamental community of interests and objectives rather than just solidarity. Politically it implies, as the Communist Manifesto says, that "in the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they [the communists] point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality." If the Russian revolution experienced the horrific bureaucratic degeneration represented by Stalin, it was due to its isolation.

Winning over a section of the working class and other proletarian classes which are exploited directly or indirectly, to revolutionary communist ideas, in order to build a revolutionary communist party here in France, can only be conceived as part of the building of a world party of socialist revolution, or at least within the perspective of building such a party.

This is why, despite the absence of such an International, we must always strive to approach the political problems faced by the French proletariat and society as a function of the social and political interests of the world proletariat.

Our programme is based on the political tradition of the international communist movement and, therefore, on the programmatic foundations formulated in the Communist Manifesto, the first four congresses of the Communist International and the Transitional Programme, the founding programme of the Fourth International.

By stating that "the proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, 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", the 1848 Communist Manifesto stresses the irreplaceable role of the proletariat in social change.

This statement also provides the true meaning of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" which was defined by Marx, in 1852, as the democratic power of "the proletariat organised as the ruling class" (which has nothing to do with the distorted version of this concept imposed by Stalinists to justify the dictatorship of the bureaucracy in the USSR). It is only a dictatorship in so far as its main function will be to organise "despotic inroads on the rights of property and on the conditions of bourgeois production (..) as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production."

Workers' power will be the antithesis of the bourgeois state which, even dressed in its most formally democratic clothes, retains a dictatorial character due to its fundamental role - that of defending bourgeois property ownership and the capitalist mode of production.

The "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat" will have to be, right from its inception, more democratic than the most democratic of all bourgeois regimes - in which, behind the cover of elected institutions, big business imposes its own dictatorship. It will be a form of political power which is designed to whither away and to be replaced by "an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

This Marxist conception of the state, its role and nature - bourgeois in nature today, proletarian tomorrow - and of its withering away, as society moves forward, was formulated and, above all, advocated by Lenin in August 1917, between the February revolution which had overthrown the czarist regime and the October-November revolution which overthrew the bourgeoisie.

In his pamphlet, "State and Revolution", written in August 1917, Lenin put the record straight on Marx's thinking. Lenin shed new light on Marx's and Engels' ideas, using the experience of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions and the revolutionary crisis which was taking place at the time he was writing, against the opportunists who had deformed these ideas while pretending to represent them.

From the first four congresses of the Communist International, we draw our conviction that it is indispensable for the proletariat to have a political party in order to carry out the socialist revolution.

"Only if the proletariat is led by an organised and experienced party which has definite aims, and a worked-out programme for immediate action in the sphere of both internal and external affairs, can the seizure of power be the starting point for a long period of communist construction instead of merely a chance episode" (2nd congress of the Communist International).

This is what makes us stand apart not only from the anarchists but also from a whole range of present-day currents, which oppose the very idea of a political organisation for the exploited and oppressed classes, referring instead to "social movements". In fact, behind their denial of politics, these currents always conceal reformist, if not reactionary, political objectives.

But this also distinguishes us from the supporters of a "mass workers' party". A party which works towards the revolutionary transformation of society will only be a mass party in the context of a revolutionary period, when the vast majority of the working class itself is convinced of the necessity to take political power. The idea of a "mass workers' party" is generally used as a cover for those who defend a reformist policy. In normal times, most workers are not revolutionary. On the contrary, the masses are reformist and it is only in critical periods that the need for a radical political change takes hold among the masses. Outside such periods, only a minority of the working population can be won over to revolutionary ideas.

While building on previous programmatic documents, the Transitional programme (September 1938) provides an analysis of the bureaucratic degeneration of the first workers' state and upholds the communist programme against Stalinist distortions. It defines the "transitional demands" it contains as "stemming from today's conditions and today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat" as opposed to the split between "the minimum programme which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum programme which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future."

It is this programme's approach that leads us, on the basis of today's economic, social and political conditions, to put forward the demand for a ban on all redundancy plans under threat of requisition by the state without compensation, particularly against companies which, at the same time, boast cynically of their profitability. This is a transitional demand in so far as its implementation would require that the class struggle reaches a level high enough to allow it to put capitalist private property into question.

Likewise, the demand for commercial and financial secrecy to be abolished is a transitional demand in so far as only the proletariat can actually implement it. Indeed, if this objective was reduced to making the publishing of accounts and business transparency dependent on the law, or to leaving the scrutiny of company accounts to institutions of class collaboration such as works councils, this objective would not be revolutionary, but crudely reformist. However, if the proletariat was to take this objective on board when it is mobilised, this would lead it to exercise control over company and bank accounts, intervene in their management and, at the end of the day, put into question the monopoly exercised by the rich bourgeoisie over industrial, commercial and banking capital.

The Transitional Programme is also the key to understanding the bureaucratic degeneration of the first workers' state and the distortions introduced by Stalinism to the programme and basic values of the working class movement. We have always fought for a Trotskyist analysis against the many currents (some predating Trotsky's death, but mostly post-dating it) which, by dropping the characterisation of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state, effectively renounced the very concept of a workers' state.

By holding on, in the main, to this understanding of the USSR, even though the Soviet Union has splintered and virtually all its leaders are working towards the restoration of capitalism, we are continuing this political fight. Indeed, even today, some of the features of the former Soviet society cannot be explained without reasoning on the basis of Trotskyist analysis. Besides, the evolution towards total social and economic domination by the bourgeoisie is still far from being completed.

The Fourth International, which was founded by Trotsky in 1938, was, until his death in 1940, the only political continuation of the movement which had been represented previously by Marx's and Engels' Workingmen's International Association, the Second International until WWI and the Communist International between 1919-1923. Although the Fourth International did not survive WWII as an international leadership, its founding programme, the Transitional Programme, remains, despite being marked by the circumstances in which it was written, the best existing guide for proletarian revolutionaries. Meaning that their fundamental task is, accordingly, to rebuild a revolutionary communist international.

Our political programme

The rebuilding of an International requires the building, in every country, of proletarian parties which defend the historical role of the proletariat. This does not mean that they should refrain from defending the immediate interests of the proletariat. Quite the contrary, as long as they do this as part of the defence of the general interests of the proletariat, that is, the interests of society as a whole.

On our scale, this implies that our working class comrades take part in all struggles, whether small or large, waged by workers, and more generally by the exploited, to defend their living conditions, just as it implies that these comrades should get involved in some form of trade-union activity. However, in the small and large struggles against the bourgeoisie and its state, just as in trade-union activity, revolutionary communists should, to use the formulation of the Communist Manifesto, "always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole."

Building genuine proletarian parties and fighting for the socialist revolution require the rigorous delineation - both politically and organisationally - of the class basis chosen by revolutionaries. In particular, in response to the many kinds of "fronts" aimed at putting the working class in the tow of bourgeois organisations and interests, revolutionaries should defend the need for an independent proletarian organisation and policy, whose aim is the establishment of the democratic power of the proletariat represented by a plurality of revolutionary parties.

Bourgeois society maintains and reproduces many forms of oppression and exclusion, against women, national or ethnic minorities and many other minorities. In fact, it constantly produces new such minorities - illegal immigrants, the homeless, etc.. - thereby triggering reactions of protest, whether circumstantial or permanent. Just as it triggers many other protests because of the consequences of the capitalist system's operation.

Revolutionary communists support any challenge to the capitalist organisation of society, no matter how limited and partial. However they do not consider automatically that such challenges have a revolutionary content - which they do not have in most cases.

Most of the objectives of the working class movement have been distorted or deprived of any content by Stalinism. This is true of "anti-imperialism", "anti-capitalism", and even "internationalism". This is why, today, many political currents which have no link - neither past nor present - with the working class movement, can hijack these words and be all the more vocal in using them as they deprive them of any meaning.

The anti-globalisation current is only the most recent example of such currents, which use notions inherited from the working class movement, albeit emptied of any content, to channel the indignation or revolt caused by some of the most blatant injustices or catastrophic consequences of the capitalist economy.

We should distance ourselves clearly and firmly from these currents, dispel the ambiguity of their language and expose their policies which, although apparently challenging the system, are most respectful of the existing social order.

Likewise, Stalinism has distorted the Bolshevik tradition of the revolutionary communist party upheld by the Communist International. Instead of a party which was both disciplined and democratic, and above all totally devoted to the political interests of the proletariat, Stalinism introduced a party in which discipline was replaced by an authoritarian regime. This was designed to prevent any criticism which might reveal that the party had given up defending the interests of the working class in order to serve, at first, the Soviet bureaucratisation and, subsequently, by the same token, the interests of the bourgeoisie in every other country.

The political and organisational transformation of the Stalinist parties into social-democratic parties completed their evolution. Under the pretext of putting into question their Stalinist past, the Communist Parties - and in particular the French CP - abandoned primarily any reference to the communist tradition. The CPs' own evolution contributed to the rejection of the very idea that the proletariat needs a democratic political party, which is both centralised and disciplined, in order to achieve its emancipation. Many pseudo-revolutionary organisations followed suit and are now stating that the party is no longer the main issue for social revolution.

A revolutionary communist party which refuses to dissolve itself into broader fronts is needed, not only in the industrialised countries, where the tasks of the democratic bourgeois revolution have been completed and where the proletariat forms a very large class.

It is also necessary in the "under-developed" countries, where the tasks of the democratic bourgeois revolution have not been completed, where imperialist looting takes place and where the proletariat is often small and always over-exploited. Although the vast majority of the world's poor countries are no longer subjected to direct colonial oppression, they are still subjected, more so than ever in fact, to the economic and political domination of imperialism. The main change brought about by decolonisation is that a local elite has taken over the oppressive role that used to be played by the colonial power. In most cases, the states of the poor countries are corrupt dictatorships which pressurize the population over and above the demands of imperialism, in order to squeeze out of them what little is left over after imperialism has taken what it wants. The poverty of the masses of these countries has no limits.

Class contradictions remain, therefore, explosive in the poor countries. For a whole historical period, during and after decolonisation, the aspirations of the masses to democratic rights and, above all, to a better life, were channelled by the influence of petty-bourgeois nationalist organisations, which were more or less progressive and even, sometimes, claimed to be Marxist-Leninist.

However, imperialist looting does not only bleed these countries. It also forces on them a regression of political consciousness. "Progressive" nationalism, pan-Africanism and other Third-Worldisms are giving way to the rise of reactionary forces - fundamentalism in some countries, ethnicism in others. Imperialism domination is pushing many poor countries back towards barbaric medieval situations, permanent wars and the rule of warlords.

In every poor country, proletarian revolutionaries would have to represent the anti-imperialist aspirations of the masses as well as their aspirations to democratic rights and freedoms. A proletarian party would seek to take the front stage in this struggle by demonstrating, through its policy, that it is the only force capable of leading it to victory.

But it should do this on a class basis - which means that it must remain rigorously independent from a class point of view. It should do it by constantly highlighting the class interests of the urban and rural workers and what makes them different - or opposed - to the social layers whose representatives may resort to an "anti-imperialist" language. This will put these parties clearly in opposition to fundamentalist and ethnic currents, but also to the petty-bourgeois nationalist organisations, including those which claim to be progressive.

We never pretended to be an International, not even in the sense of the Fourth International when it was launched. At the time, although extremely weak as an organisation, the Fourth International was led by Trotsky, who embodied on his own the political capital inherited from the experience of the Russian revolution and from the Communist International. This capital virtually disappeared with him. Various Trotskyist currents indulged in the game of posing as Internationals. But, in addition to being irrelevant, these games only concealed these currents' renunciation to strive to root themselves in the working classes of their own countries, thereby effectively abandoning the building of revolutionary communist parties.

We have always tried, however, to reason on the basis of the interests of the international proletariat. It was from this point of view that we analysed the developments which have taken place since Trotsky's death - for instance the People's Democracies and the Chinese revolution. As a result, our positions have often been different from, and sometimes opposed to those adopted by the other Trotskyist currents. Since the collapse of the People's Democracies, the object of these differences has disappeared, but their history has not, nor the differences in the methods used to analyse social processes. These differences can still be found in our respective assessments of the more or less radical nationalist currents of the poor countries, or in our respective attitudes towards social-democracy and its by-products.

At the same time, we have also considered it our duty, when the opportunity arose, to help activists from other countries to be active on the basis of revolutionary communist ideas.

Despite some electoral successes which were relatively significant - i.e. relatively, compared with our roots in the working class - our fundamental task remains what it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Besides the fact that our electoral influence is modest, it cannot be, in and of itself, a substitute for a revolutionary party. We may be prompted by circumstances to take part in many demonstrations in support of peoples in other countries, or particularly oppressed sections of the population in France. We may also consider it as a duty for revolutionary communists to stand in elections. But all these activities should remain within the perspective of building a proletarian revolutionary communist party and subordinated to it.

Of course, the emergence of such a party does not depend on us only. It also depends on circumstances, on the proletariat regaining confidence in itself, in France and elsewhere. However, what does depend on us, is that we maintain the ideas and programme inherited from the history of the revolutionary working class movement over the past 150 years, and that we refuse to allow these ideas to be dissolved into any kind of front or alliance for the sake of short-term successes at best, and that we try to organise workers around these ideas.

Our belief that, tomorrow, favourable circumstances will allow the seeds which are being sown today to blossom, is based on the conviction that historical evolution will vindicate the objectives of the revolutionary working class movement, because capitalism, exploitation, oppression, war cannot represent the only future for mankind.

20 October 2003