What is an Action Programme?

04 May 2022

By Peter Main

For most people, a political programme is a list of policies that a party would enact if it gained power in a general election.

The more cynical might suggest that most programmes are little more than wish-lists, dressed up with slogans that a party thought might be popular.

In the Marxist tradition, however, a party programme is a great deal weightier than that. From the Communist Manifesto on, the programme played two related roles. Firstly, on the basis of a theoretical analysis of the economic situation, the balance of class forces in the light of recent developments and an estimation of the organisation and morale of working class organisations, it charted a course to the overthrow of capitalism, identifying the principal tactics to be employed, the forms of organisation to be built, the key objectives to be won and the relationship to other organisations of the class and the socially oppressed.

Secondly, the programme defined the basis of membership of the party, those who commit themselves to fighting for the programme in the working class movement. In this respect, the programme is the clearest expression of a fundamental tenet of Marxism, that socialist class consciousness does not arise spontaneously out of the inevitable struggles of the working class; it has to be brought into those struggles by revolutionaries.

What then, is an ‘action programme’ in this tradition? The essential difference can be traced back to the Russian Revolution of 1917. In April and May, the Bolshevik Party made a major change to its programme. It recognised that the workers’ councils, (soviets in Russian) were not only the best organisations to lead the overthrow of the government but were themselves the basis for a new kind of state, summed up in the slogan, ‘All power to the Soviets!’

In September, however, recognising that the combination of the military situation, the collapse of the economy and the approach of winter meant that the decisive confrontation had to come soon, Lenin wrote a pamphlet, The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It. In this, he argued the need to control all aspects of the economy in order to avoid widespread starvation.

Nationalisation of all banks and their amalgamation into one state bank would allow efficient use of resources. Similarly, nationalisation of all the major industrial enterprises and the introduction of rationing, not only for bread but for all consumer necessities, were necessary to ensure equal distribution of essentials. Recognising that the existing owners and managers would resist, Lenin argued that the workers in the various sectors should enforce the necessary measures themselves.

For Lenin, the only government that would introduce laws to implement such necessary measures would be a soviet government and, in this way, he concretised what ‘All power to the Soviets’ would mean in practice. Other measures, such as the abolition of commercial secrecy, would generalise workers’ control over the capitalist class and state bureaucracy and, while not in themselves socialist policies, these clearly pointed the way towards socialism.

This, then, was a programme for government but, unlike the party’s ‘full’ programme, it did not deal with the whole range of issues but rather focused very tightly on the immediate tasks that had to be undertaken in weeks, if not days, to avoid catastrophe.

Like so many of the programmatic and tactical innovations developed by the Bolsheviks in 1917, this idea, the crystallisation of the ‘general programme’ into a highly focused set of demands for a very specific conjuncture, was never fully codified either by the Bolsheviks or the Communist International in the years after the revolution. However, neither was it completely forgotten. An echo of Lenin’s approach can be heard in Trotsky’s critique of Bukharin’s draft programme of 1927, ‘The proletariat does not need a catalogue of truisms, it needs a manual of action!’


Throughout the Twenties and into the Thirties, Trotsky repeatedly criticised the failure of the Communist International to fight for the policies that could lead the working class to revolutionary victories. At crucial turning points – Germany 1923, the British General Strike of 1926, the Chinese Revolution of 1925-7 and the rise of the Nazis after 1929 – the CPs adopted strategies, either opportunist, as in China, or sectarian, as in Germany, that led to avoidable defeats.

In 1934, attention shifted to France. In February, armed fascist demonstrations in Paris made it clear that France could follow Germany. In response, the Comintern ordered the Communist Party to seek an alliance with the bourgeois Radicals. Realising that such an opportunist policy would be disastrous, Trotsky formulated A Programme of Action for France.

This short pamphlet, just 10 pages, pulled together all the lessons that had been learnt since 1917. Having set the international context, it sketched how the French bourgeoisie was planning a massive onslaught on working class and peasant incomes and rights. Whether faced with inflation or deflation, the workers should make the rich to pay for the crisis.

For that, however, workers’ organisations needed an accurate assessment of the bourgeoisies’ wealth; business secrecy had to end; the accounts of the bosses and landlords had to be inspected. Like Lenin in 1917, Trotsky argued that, ‘factory committees, peasant committees, committees of small functionaries and employees, could very easily, with the help of honest technicians, accountants… establish public control over banks, industry and commerce.’

The programme also spelt out key demands: a 40 hour week with increased pay, social security and unemployment insurance, equal wages and rights for women and young workers, repeal of repressive laws against foreign and colonial workers.

Such defensive measures, however, would not be enough to resolve the crisis. That would require workers’ control over the whole economy and the most direct route to that would be nationalisation of the banks, key industries, insurance companies, transport and commerce – almost the same wording as Lenin in 1917!

The programme was not limited to economic measures. Obviously, the bourgeoisie would fight back and it would be necessary to disband their police, whose necessary functions would be undertaken by the workers’ militia, aided, if necessary, by committees of rank and file soldiers.

Nor was the international role of France ignored; the right of self-determination would be recognised for all colonial possessions and, despite Stalin’s propaganda that the Trotskyists were puppets of Hitler, a revolutionary France would unconditionally defend the Soviet Union. At the same time, it would raise the slogan of a United Socialist States of Europe as the only real alternative to the war that the imperialist powers were already planning.

In this way, the immediate priority of opposing the fascist threat was linked to the urgent needs of the workers and poor peasants. Equally, forms of organisation and political goals were proposed that pointed to the need for a revolutionary government. The Action Programme for France went a long way towards the codification of the lessons of the recent past. It not only provided a model of how to deal with a developing crisis but was a key stage in the development of the revolutionary movement which, just four years later, produced the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International.

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