Before the First World War most socialist groups and many individuals from around the world were grouped together in an organisation called the Second International (set up in 1889).
There were many different types of socialist organisation at that time, and often more than one in the larger countries. The most important and the biggest organisation was the German Social Democratic Party. Socialist activity tended to be organised around two different kinds of demands.
On the one hand, day to day “bread and butter” reforms for the working class, such as the eight hour day. This was the minimum programme of the socialists.
On the other hand, socialists also had a long-term goal of ending capitalist exploitation once and for all and introducing a socialist society based on equality. This was the maximum programme of the socialists.
How would the working-class on which they based their socialism get from A to B, from successful reforms to the socialist society? The assumption was that steady activity round the minimum demands would build the workers’ organisation and confidence. Then, one day, capitalism would collapse into crisis, and the workers’ movement would be strong enough to take over.
Many socialists assumed that periodic breakdowns in the functioning of capitalism would one day, almost automatically, lead to the overthrow of the system. But then apart from the experience of the Paris Commune in 1871, when Parisian workers took control of their city for nine weeks, the socialists had no real-life examples to help them think how the workers could take power.
After a while some socialists began to imagine a gradual or evolutionary way in which the workers’ movement could get from A to B, from reforms to socialism.
At this time capitalism was expanding in Europe. For instance capitalist factories were getting bigger, and bigger groups of workers were organising together against exploitation. New trade unions were being set up.
The right wing in the socialist movement, particularly in Germany, thought that as the trade unions grew and the socialist party grew, reforms would come more easily to the workers. Eventually the workers’ movement could reform away all that was unpleasant about capitalism. It could set up workers’ co-ops and win better democracy for working people. No need to rely on a final “crisis”.
The German socialist Eduard Bernstein was one of these so-called “revisionists”. He said, “The movement is everything, the goal is nothing”. Left-wingers in Germany like Rosa Luxemburg fought bitterly against Bernstein.
Many of those who had believed in the “final crisis” put it further and further away in their minds, and in practice came to follow Bernstein’s line. And then in 1914 they did the worst thing any socialist can do. They backed their own rulers in a war to expand power and territory — the First World War. What had gone wrong?
The parties of the Second International tended to see the working class as needing steady education in the ideas of socialism and being there to “back up” the party in its carefully-measured campaigns. They failed to appreciate how, when working class people come together to fight exploitation and oppression, they can learn more in a few days than routine agitation can teach them in decades. Their creativity can outstrip all the best-laid plans of the party. As Marx said, “the emanciption of the working class must be conquered by themselves”. Unfortunately, even very erudite socialists began to put the interests of the party and of preserving the movement first. In 1914 they were scared of seeing their funds confiscated and their organisations banned if they should oppose the war.
The socialist movement had to reorganise itself during and after the First World War, and come to terms with why so many socialists had backed the ruling class war drive. And as revolution broke out in Russia in 1917 and in Germany in 1918, the socialists, now working in the new Communist Parties, wanted to organise the working class throughout Europe to confront capitalism.
They believed that in every struggle the working class should be pushed towards the most revolutionary possibilities. They thought it dangerous, especially in those times of tumultuous class struggle, to lose sight of the ultimate goals of the socialist movement. And they did not want to be “top down” socialists preaching to the workers about what they must do; instead they wanted to give expression to the workers’ own dreams and desires.
So the new Communist International set up after 1917 decided to take the full socialist programme, all the things the workers would do if they were in power — from nationalise the banks, to the introduction of free education — and break it down into its component parts — into demands which were not “enough-for-now” reforms, but which in combination challenged the existing capitalist order and, if won, could take the workers’ movement on to more radical, more generalised struggle. They were to be the logical next step in a revolutionary struggle. The socialists had systematised the idea of “transitional demands”.
• Next issue: “transitional demands” today