The problem of the program

stencil+girl_135387513Notes on revolutionary Marxism

The central tenets.

(beginning from the ‘Founding Statement’ of the Trotskyist group ‘Permanent Revolution’ to be found online at, accessed 15.11.07)

  1. Belief in communism, “using Karl Marx’s rough guide to communism – from each according to his (or her) ability, to each according to his (or her) need – as its starting point”.
  2. Belief in revolution – violent revolution – because (a) the state will defend its interests and (b) wholesale change is necessary (radical break) rather than reform.
  3. Belief in the working class as the ‘agent of change’ – the only revolutionary class.
  4. Belief in the need for a revolutionary, internationalist party.
  5. Lineage – tradition (Paris Commune; Marxist wing of 1st International; Left wing of 2nd International, the Bolsheviks and Rosa Luxembourg rather than the Mensheviks; 3rd International (first four congresses) before Stalinisation onset; 4th International – then debate.
  6. The need to continue to develop a program “in the light of experience, the supreme criterion of human reason”. (Empiricism) It is on the basis of this programmatic development that further distinctions are then made (i.e.; the decline or ‘degeneration’ of the 4th International – in the case of PR this involves classifying the ‘United Secretariat of the Fourth International’ (USFI) as having ‘collapsed into opportunism).

This takes us up to point 6 of the ‘founding statement’, which consists of 14 points in all. The following 8 points all, to one degree or another, mark the analytical differences that then form the necessary conditions for the new move (the founding of a new group).

The one thing that is more ‘programmatic’ than ‘analytical’ is the further belief in democratic centralism. In principle this is an organisational form intended to construct a ‘collective agency’ – this is a kind of militant decision making, a conscious intention to form a ‘unity in action’ having allowed space for a ‘democratic discussion’. The details of such an organisational form vary enormously and the way in which it is implemented is always to be understood as a tension between the weight given to the ‘democratic’ element within the centralist dynamic and the ‘bureaucratic’ element. Democratic centralism is understood as the positive side of a coin, the reverse of which is ‘bureaucratic centralism’.

Program is the result of an analysis. Yet the implementation of a program is going to require a further analytical stage. This final stage cannot – in principle – be decided by the program, rather the program stands as a form of criterion. Given a disagreement about what to do in a specific and concrete (actual) situation, the decision will be made by finding whose analysis best implements the aims of the program. Such a decision, of course, is implicitly bringing in a further criterion – that is, the ‘best’ implementation. How is one to decide this, the real heart of the matter? On the basis of the program? No, the very question is one of how to implement the program, and as such the question implies that the answer cannot be merely ‘read off’ from the program. In logical terms, there is no direct implication from the program to the action. The program as a form of criteria is a kind of ‘limit device’. It operates like a methodology.

Let us take, as an example, the role of theoretical debate, in the field of anthropology for example. The development of Levi Strauss’ structuralism, for example, occurs at two levels. On the one hand concrete analysis but at a higher, more abstracted level, the development of powerful analytical tools. To analyse a situation we use theoretical tools. To develop further and better analysis we find the need to examine the effects of these tools and perhaps produce revisions or revolutions in the analytical tools, the framework within which we do analysis. This method of a kind of ‘analytical feedback’ premises itself on something like the claim that ‘the tools effect the possibility of the products’, what is, effectively, a technological principle. Political programs, then, operate as a kind of theoretical framework, a set of analytical tools, which are then used to understand and act within concrete actual situations. The crucial difference, it seems, amongst revolutionary Marxist organisations is that the program becomes a singular defining limit. Unlike in academic or scientific analysis, the framework becomes almost sacrosanct and a breach in the framework becomes a sign of ‘degeneration’, a ground for a division. The framework is not a hypothesis to be tested but rather a benchmark to be kept to and achieves in this way a kind of ‘arbitrary necessity’, an inherently problematic situation. Despite the claims to an empiricism as the highest criteria, the need to maintain a program in fact instills something that looks like a form of idealism or dogmatism.

Is this something to be decried as false however? Is there any option but for a revolutionary organisation to hold onto something like a program? Within revolutionary Marxist organisations this role of the program is explicit and central and the advantage of analysing the dynamic of the program within these specific forms of political organisation is that the tension is most acute here. This tension, however, exists within all political groups – at least that is my current working hypothesis – only in a more implicit form, sometimes in the shape of ‘shared values’, sometimes in the shape of a particular figurehead or theorist. The question is rather one of asking whether it is possible in principle for a political organisation to exist without embodying this ‘problem of the program’. The program embodies, in explicit or implicit form, the grounds for a collective agency. A political organisation is premised on the notion that only a collective agency is capable of efficient and effective action within the socio-political field of power (as distinct from a socio-political field of ideas or concepts). In effect a political organisation must necessarily prevent the free flow of concept formation. It must do this in order to establish the conditions of collective action, in order to move from virtual ideas to actual ideas. This is a dynamic that is specific to the field of power.

If all political organisations embody the problem of the program, if in fact the very condition of their being a political organisation is co-extensive with this problem of the program, then two options present themselves. Either the problem of the program will inevitably destroy any political organisation that attempts to resist the natural dynamics of desiring production, the economy of forces that produces the changing flux of material conditions, or the successful political organisation will need to make the problem of the program productive.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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