Donald Parkinson’s essay on the “Revolutionary Minimum/Maximum programme” reopens the debate that took place amongst English-speaking Social Democrats at the turn of the 20th century as to whether or not a Socialist party should have a minimum programme (of measures to be implemented under capitalism, by the capitalist state) in addition to the maximum programme of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production (to be implemented by the working class once it had won political power). Some, such as Daniel De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party of America, argued against this. The same position was taken in Britain by the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Founded in 1904 as a breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation, the SPGB is in a line of descent from the French Parti Ouvrier as seen from the similarities in the wording of its declaration of principles. However, the SPGB adopted only the maximum programme set out in the POF’s preamble, rejecting adding a programme of immediate demands and has always refused to have one, campaigning for socialism and only socialism.
The reason for this rejection was not rejection of the demands as such — some such as political democracy and health and safety at work legislation are clearly beneficial for workers. It was because advocating them ran the risk of a socialist party being transformed into a reformist party, i.e., a party seeking only political and social reforms within capitalism, with the maximum programme relegated to the status of a long-term aim evoked only on ceremonial occasions.
The history of the Social Democratic parties of the pre-WWI Second International bears this out, amply. The support they built up, as expressed in votes in elections, was on the basis of their minimum not the maximum programme. What these supporters wanted were the proposed democratic and social reforms, not socialism. The parties became the prisoners of their non-socialist voters. Since socialism can only be established when a majority of workers have come to want and understand it and democratically organise to take political action to get it, this meant that these parties became useless as instruments for furthering the maximum programme.
The danger of lapsing into reformism from having a minimum programme of reforms, to be achieved under capitalism and implemented by the capitalist state, exists irrespective of the reasons invoked for having one. This applies to the Trotskyists’ “transitional demands”, which Donald Parkinson quite rightly rejects as dishonest and manipulative, but also to the alternative theoretical justification for one that he offers. A reform programme will always attract people who want the reforms; support built on that basis is built on sand as far as furthering the cause of socialism is concerned. Support needs to be built directly for socialism.