A road to nowhere?

[Note: the following deals with the Communist Party of Britain, not the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee). Both claim the legacy of the historical CPGB, but the former is regarded as the Communist Party in the UK.]

Bloody revolutions
There has always been a tension between revolution and reform in the working class movement. The point is rather that revolutions are processes rather than abrupt changes. Is the power of the bourgeois being gradually eroded or is it not being eroded at all? That is the question we must ask of revolutions.

Much criticism has been made of the British Road to Socialism, the programme of the Communist Party in the UK. Other countries have their own National Roads, and I’m sure they have been similarly critiqued. This dispute over revisionism might appear irrelevant today, but with the advent of new socialist revolutions in Latin America, and possibly elsewhere, the question of how to make an anti-capitalist revolution arises seriously in the oppressor countries for the first time in many years.

The turn towards the parliamentary road and peaceful revolution in the international communist movement was influenced by the foreign policy of the Soviet Union after the Second World War. “Peaceful co-existence” is impossible, of course, but it is not hard to see why the Soviet Union adopted this stance. The world’s first socialist state did not come into existence at the right time or in the right place; the Civil War and then the Second World War had a negative impact on its development.

After the war there was no appetite for a bloody revolution in Britain and it seemed that a Labour government could introduce socialistic measures. So the switch from a proletarian revolution on the back of workers’ councils to a peaceful revolution through parliamentary action would have been made without the input of Joseph Stalin.

Parliamentary cretinism?
The same criticism made of the Communist Party’s programme has been made of Socialist Party’s notion that an enabling act passed by parliament could nationalise the hundred largest monopolies (or whatever the number) without the bourgeoisie kicking up a fuss. But in truth, neither the CP nor the SP envisaged the revolution happening without massive extra-parliamentary pressure.

And yes, Marx and Engels observed in the 1872 preface to the Manifesto that the Paris Commune demonstrated that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. This is often cited in objections to the National Roads thesis, sometimes by groups which lack a programme of action. Marx and Engels were right, but the act of smashing the old state takes time and what is, in effect, dual power will exist for a period of time whilst the capitalists are being expropriated. It is a process.

My own problem with the BRS (which was last updated in …) is the lack of any understanding of the role of the aristocracy of labour in the oppressor nations and the CP’s continued support for the position that the Labour is a mass party of the working class. But much of the revolutionary left in the UK still orients itself towards the labour aristocracy and is critical of Labour, so this is not an exceptional trend. Those Trotskyists still remaining in New Labour are finding it hard to justify continued support, and have failed to reclaim an inch from the leadership; conversely, Trotskyist groups outside of New Labour have failed to unite around an “Old Labour” party or capitalise on the disaffection of traditional Labour supporters.

Labouring under a misapprehension
Of the advent of neo-liberalism and the attack on the living conditions of the proletariat in the 1980s, the BRS observes:

“Crucially, the TUC and the unions failed to maintain a united, militant front in the face of this onslaught.”

But this failure is not explained. Why did the TUC and unions not react in a united and militant way? Could this failure have something to do with divisions within the working class?

There is a faint acknowledgement of the split that imperialism has created in the working class:

“The predominance of class collaboration and reformism in the British labour movement has its roots in empire. The propaganda and some of the super-profits of British imperialism have been used to make some layers of the labour movement and many leaders identify their own interests with those of the capitalist class and its system.”

The italics are mine, but they are needed. If you weren’t reading the text closely you would miss this concession to the theory (and reality) of the labour aristocracy. There is no further elaboration because these are the layers that the CPB, and the wider revolutionary left, are primarily oriented towards.

“To maintain divisions, the ruling class is still prepared to provide privileges and benefits to some sections of the working class. It continues to use every possible avenue to promote capitalist concepts and ideals in order to prevent dissatisfaction from being turned against capitalism itself.”

These paragraphs are phrased to allow for the possibility that reformism can be argued away. The BRS does not entertain the possibility that these “layers of the labour movement” do indeed have a stake in the capitalism and, by extension, imperialism.

A rush and a push and the Party is ours?
It is the Communist Party’s belief that Labour will remain the mass party of the working class until the majority of unions have disaffiliated. Labour, we are told can be influenced by its base when the party is in power:

“In any major clash of interests, a Labour government will tend to side with the ruling class – unless massive pressure can be brought to bear by the labour movement and the mass of people, forcing a change of course at the earliest opportunity.”

I realise that this paragraph is addressed to domestic economic matters, but we might ask why Labour could not be brought to heel in 2003 when millions marched against the invasion of Iraq. Why did the TUC and the unions not present a “united, militant front” against this imperialist war?

There has not been massive opposition to the occupation of Iraq from the trade unions, and the lack of any “change of course” has cost Labour votes and members – because no change could be forced. There is no democracy in the Labour Party; rank and file members can not exert any pressure on the leadership, which is the party’s membership has halved in the last ten years.

Biting the hand…
The Bristish Road to Socialism is based on a “democratic anti-monopoly alliance”, led by the working class, winning a parliamentary majority and mass support for an alternative political and economic strategy. But the programme does not address how the divisions that exist within the working class, briefly alluded to, can be overcome.

The leadership of both Labour and its affiliated unions would rather see the defeat of the party and the death of independent trade unionism than embrace a socialist agenda. New Labour is keen for state funding of political parties to ensure the union link is diminished, if not abolished. Leaders of the big unions are not just devoted to the “social partnership” but to managing the workforce for employers, allowing the odd token demonstration of unity and militancy, but stubbornly refusing demands from below on grounds of co-operation with the incumbent Labour administration.

Labour cannot be reclaimed or pushed to the left; John McDonnell’s campaign for Labour leadership has shown the limitations of attempts to influence the direction of the party by working with its left wing in parliament. McDonnell was unable to guarantee the backing of all of the Socialist Campaign Group’s MPs. His inability to even get on the ballot to challenge Gordon Brown was not just down to the considerable pressure MPs were put under to back Brown: the Labour left in parliament consists of social democrats, not socialists. It’s clear the Labour left in parliament will remain a loyal opposition to Brown and try again for Labour leadership following Labour’s defeat in 2009.

A break from Labour is the only way that the unions will come to reflect the consciousness of their members and respond to demands for united action to put an end to wage restraint and privatisation. I believe that the organised working class can be won to an alternative economic and political strategy. It is clear, however, a change of leadership and policy within the labour movement will not take place if the unions remain affiliated to Labour and left groups like the CPB continue to promote the Labour Party as a mass party of the working class.

No one buys it, least of all the thousands of ex-Labour Party members and the millions of voters who have given up hope in electoral politics. A credible socialist alternative to Labour would get the backing of those unions which have already disaffiliated and would win the votes of traditional Labour supporters.

Parting shots
The result of recent elections to the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, and the strong support in opinion polls for an English equivalent, signals another low for Labour and proves that British national identity is unraveling. Labour lost support in both Scotland and Wales to nationalist parties that promised to implement Old Labour policies. Class-conscious workers now see Labour as being no better than the Tories, which is why “don’t let the Tories back in” has been dropped in favour of “don’t let the fascists in” as a way of motivating turn out come election time.

I do not see a British road to socialism, I see English, Scottish and Welsh roads, which may or may not involve a federation – but the continued existence the British state stands in the way of socialism, both in the oppressed and oppressor countries.

It does not look like the CPB and the rest of the Anglo-centric left will wake up to the desirability of the break-up of the UK and the potential of that independence for Britain’s internal colonies will bring, but I live in hope. In Scotland, the SSP made great advances before the messy split and subsequent losses and if there can be left unity then the SNP/Green administration can be challenged from the left and held on the promised social reforms. Socialists in Wales may prefer to work within Plaid Cymru, where there is a better chance of winning reforms and a more progressive, independent Wales.

There is strong support for Scottish and Welsh independence in England, but the case for an English Parliament is mainly made by xenophobes and Unionists. The English independence cause is not viewed as being progressive, but a separation can be made from British nationalism and the fascist policies of the BNP and the Poujadist UK Independence Party.

And finally
We should be careful not to confuse organised workers with advanced workers. Workers who are given no special privileges by the capitalist class are likely to be more militant than organised workers.

Union membership remains the preserve of affluent workers. The lower you are paid the less likely you are to be organised. The union bureaucracy is generally disinterested in organising these workers and the TUC demands legislation to ensure low-paid and casualised workers have improved conditions rather than launching a concerted effort to help workers organise.

The aristocracy of labour will not be won over to an anti-capitalist position through agitation alone. The coming to power of more anti-imperialist and socialist governments in the oppressed countries, Scottish and Welsh independence, and a crisis in the world economy may come before the labour aristocracy looks to the rest of the working class instead of the bourgeoisie.

The BRS would be convincing if the formation of a democratic anti-monopoly alliance was conditional upon the suspension of the centralised British state and independence for Scotland and Wales (weakening imperialism and militarism), the disaffiliation of the trades unions (undermining class collaboration and reformism) and the presence of united, pluralist workers’ parties in England, Scotland and Wales.


3 Responses to “A road to nowhere?”

  1. shabhaz Says:

    See lalkar and http://www.cpgb-ml.org for this, as well as more thorough critique’s of the cpb’s BRTS…

    The Lessons that the ‘awkward squad’ must learn

    Imperialism is not a policy which capitalism can pick up or put down as it chooses. It is not a policy practised by modern capitalism; rather, it IS modern capitalism. By the same token, opportunism is not a policy which the Labour party and TUC bureaucracy can pick up or put down depending on the weather. Opportunism is a key feature of the politics of imperialism, just as monopoly is a key feature of the economics of imperialism. In recording the way in which a labour aristocratic layer of the working class is drawn into class treachery by means of systematic bribery, a corruption of the labour movement only made possible by diversion of a fraction of imperialist super-profits sweated and looted from the world’s toilers, Lenin was at pains to identify this bourgeois ideological contagion as a fundamental tendency within imperialism itself, eradicable only with the overthrow of bourgeois power. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, he wrote:

    “Imperialism has the tendency to create privileged sections also amongst the workers, and to detach them from the broad masses of the proletariat…the tendency to split the workers, to strengthen opportunism among them and to cause temporary decay in the working-class movement.”

    It follows that the fight to resist opportunism, to resist this “temporary decay” in the working-class movement, which is part and parcel of the general decay of imperialist society, is inseparable from the fight against imperialism itself. It would be as fruitless to try to reason the Labour party and the TUC out of acting against the interests of workers as it would be to try to reason modern capitalism out of its addiction to monopoly.

    These facts should be kept in mind now that a clamour starts to grow on the “left” flank of social democracy in promotion of conferences for reviving the shop stewards movement, conferences for building “fighting unions”, conferences with the avowed purpose of raising grass roots militancy etc.

    Inviting trade unionists to help make a success of a recent national shop stewards’ conference, the RMT called for the “active and vocal participation of trade unionists from the broadest possible range of backgrounds”, adding that “the depth and breadth of grass-roots organisation of workplace reps has always been a crucial barometer of the general health of the trade-union movement”. But why do workers need a healthy trade-union movement, if not to advance the workers’ cause against capitalism? Seen in this light, the only real barometer by which the health of the labour movement can be measured is the amount of progress made in the direction of the working class freeing itself from the system of wage slavery. In the absence of this perspective, all the necessary daily struggles to defend wages and conditions – the terms of sale of the worker’s labour power within the exploiting confines of capitalist commodity production – cannot advance the proletariat even one step towards its own emancipation.

    This was well understood by the National Minority Movement in the 1920s. In its 1924 Manifesto, the NMM set out the tasks of proletarian leadership in words whose contemporary relevance is startling. The question of the Labour party and the policies it was pursuing in the first ever Labour government are not, said the NMM, “outside trade unionism but the central question for the trade union movement”. The Manifesto went on to say that “trade union questions are inseparably bound up with politics. Economic and political questions far beyond the control of any individual union govern the living conditions of the workers and compel them if they are to go forward at all, to handle these forces… The combined power of trade unionism has been organised into the Labour Party to win the power of the Government”. But what had that same Labour government been doing? “It threatened to operate the Emergency Powers Act during the tramway strike, ordered naval men to unload mail during the dockers’ strike, threatened to use naval men in the power stations during the rail shopmen’s strike. On no single occasion has it used its power to help the workers to fight the capitalists… It is supporting the capitalists against the working class. At home and abroad it has declared itself the servant of the capitalist state and of all the commercial and financial interests. It has failed to take one single step towards the only object of working-class organisation – the conquest of power, in order to break the power of capitalism and establish working-class control of economic and social conditions” (pp. 43,4).

    This insistence that the only purpose in having a “healthy trade union movement”, the only object in having working class organisation, is to assist the working class in making progress towards the conquest of power, in no way underestimates the importance of struggles to defend the wages and conditions of workers. The reverse is in fact the case. The most militant struggles the British proletariat have waged against wage cuts, lock outs and unemployment have precisely been fought under the influence of a political leadership which set its sights on the overturn of the whole wages system, not contenting itself with improving the terms of slavery.

    At the conclusion of World War One, the grass roots militancy which pitted itself against the capitalist policy of wage cut and lock out was fired by the Bolshevik example. The lead given by the October Revolution, forcing a conclusion to the first imperialist world war and proving how the proletariat could free itself from capitalist bondage, galvanised the British labour movement. The Hands Off Russia campaign which swept through the British working class came in direct response to the class appeal for solidarity sent out by the Russian toilers.

    Dockers in British ports and British troops waiting to see if they would be sent to fight against their own class brothers in Russia had thrust into their hands a direct appeal, signed by Lenin and Chicherin, headed: “Are you a trade unionist?” This appeal concluded as follows:

    “We, the workers of Russia…in October last swept the capitalists out of power, and declared that Russia belongs to the whole of the Russian people. We are not going to grow food for the rich to eat, or weave cloth for the rich to wear. The people will enjoy the product of their labour. Can you wonder that the capitalists of all countries should hate us? We have shattered their dreams of the vast fortunes to be made out of the great stores of natural wealth contained in our country… They have decided therefore to crush us before we have time to consolidate the position. And you, English trade unionists will be used for this purpose. The Russian capitalists do not stand an earthly chance against us by themselves. But your capitalists know that their interests are the same as those of the Russian capitalists, and they have come to their assistance. Why do you not recognise your class interest in the same way? You as trade unionists are fighting your capitalists; we have settled our account with ours. What are you going to do? Are you going to undo the work we have commenced? Are you going to do the dirty work of your enemies, the capitalist class? Or will you remain loyal to your own class – the working class – and support our efforts to secure the world for labour? … Fellow workers, on whose side are you – the workers’ or the masters’?” (Quoted in Harry Pollitt: a biography, by John Mahon, pp 76,7)

    In direct response to this appeal, the London Workers’ Committee called a national conference to call for “Hands off Russia”, which went on to call on the labour movement to prepare for a general strike unless British military support for the counter-revolution ceased. Significantly, no Parliamentary Labour Party leaders showed up for this militant grass roots conference. In fact the problem for these leaders of Social Democracy was not merely the grass-roots character of the developing movement, but the key role played in the campaign by the Communist Party of Great Britain, which made a clear link between solidarity with the Bolsheviks and struggle against the opportunists of the Labour party and the TUC.

    The fruits of this painstaking political struggle within the Labour movement appeared in May 1920, when the Polish seizure of Kiev on behalf of international reaction was answered by the coal-heavers and dockers of the East India Docks. Acting on information that the Jolly George was due to set sail with a cargo of munitions bound for Poland, these workers refused to let it set sail again until it had dumped its load to rust on the wharf side. This great moment of working class history, so often forgotten, or misremembered as simply a lucky spark of spontaneous solidarity, was in fact the result of a consistent struggle against opportunism in the labour movement. And this action in its turn served to further electrify the labour movement, with the formation of 350 local Councils of Action, dedicated to the preparation of a general strike if Britain’s anti-Soviet war effort continued. There can be no doubt that this potentially revolutionary threat of independent class action helped the Lloyd George government to reach the decision to desist from further overt military aggression against Russia.

    It was thus at a moment of incipient revolutionary upsurge that British trade union militants met up with their Soviet and Italian counterparts in June 1920 to promote the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). Their purpose was to counter the class-collaborationist influence of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), an instrument in the hands of the disgraced Second International.

    The pernicious consequences of such opportunist influence were on full display in April 1921, when the hoped-for Triple Alliance defence of the miners against wage cut and lock out was deserted by the rail and transport leaders, on what became known as Black Friday. Similar setbacks internationally marked the onset of a period of temporary and partial capitalist stabilization, with millions “rationalized” out of employment or kept in work on starvation wages. But British communism was tempered in these hard times, with the CPGB taking a leading role in the unemployed workers’ movement, the national minority movement and the RILU.

    Those in the contemporary labour movement who hope to see a rejuvenation of the trade unions by organising a new shop stewards’ movement should cast an eye over previous working class history. Among the first to affiliate to the RILU was the shop stewards’ movement. Indeed, it was the National Committee of the shop stewards which set up the British Bureau of the RILU, based in Manchester, whose work complemented that of Harry Pollitt’s London Committee. The London Committee sent speakers to address 85 trade union branches in two months, and in May 354 delegates from 217 trade union branches elected Tom Mann to speak for them at the coming World Congress. The Manchester Bureau included militants from the docks, from the engineering industry, and from the unemployed movement. Pollitt was clear, both about the crucial role of developing grass roots working class initiative and about the need for the highest level of political leadership. He insisted that “the main work must be done by the advanced section of the rank and file in the trade union branches”, who must “show the inseparable connection of national and international affairs” (ibid p.99).

    The twin slogans of the RILU at this period of reaction were “Stop the retreat” and “Back to the unions”. In the struggles which ensued in the course of this temporary stabilisation of capitalism at the expense of the working class, culminating in the heroism of the 1926 General Strike and the opportunist sabotage of that great class offensive, the CPGB and the RILU together acted throughout as the rallying point for trade union militants. We are told (Mahon pp.112,3) that “The activity of the British Bureau of the RILU greatly stimulated workers’ resistance to the capitalist attacks on wages and conditions. In the strikes and lock-outs, among the unemployed, and on the trades councils, thousands of trade unionists rallied to the slogans launched by the Bureau. Among miners and engineers organised militant minorities had taken shape. The widespread frustration caused by official defeatism was being replaced by a growing and well-informed understanding that changes were needed in trade union policy and leadership”. Out of this development sprang the National Minority Movement (NMM) in the summer of 1924. Communists played a leading role in this movement, owing its name to the TUC’s habitual dismissal of trade union militants as a “rebellious minority”.

    If today’s generation of “awkward squad” union leaders hope to emulate the example set by that earlier “rebellious minority”, they will need to do more than denounce “new” Labour whilst keeping the back door open for “old” Labour or some other “left” vehicle for social democracy. The Minority Movement understood very well the crucial role of work in the grass roots of the trade union movement, but this work was always informed by the struggle against social democracy. The task today is to raise the political level, from posturing around a Trade Union Freedom Bill and calling for the departure of Blair and “new” Labour, to a root and branch struggle against social democracy, made concrete in the demand that the unions must “Break the Link” with Labour. And key to this struggle are the efforts to break down the wall dividing the proletariat in Britain from those fighting imperialism around the world, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Instead of the phoney “trade union internationalism” preached by those who take a sudden and selective interest in the trade union rights of some sections of the Iranian working class, the better to distract workers’ attention from the most urgent threat to the human rights of the Iranian masses posed by “our own” Anglo-American imperialism, we take our cue from Tom Mann in 1927. Attending the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Conference in China on a Red International of Labour Unions delegation, he cabled back from Hankow to tell Harry Pollitt, “Mobilisation of warships at Hankow includes ten British vessels ready for bombardment. This shameful assault can only be stopped by direct action on the part of the workers in Britain…Chinese trade unionists ask help”. In the same spirit, we urge organised labour to break with Labour imperialism, do all within its power to place obstacles in the path of the warmongers, and embrace the slogan of “Victory to the Iraqi and Afghan resistance”.

  2. charliemarks Says:

    Thanks for that, Shabhaz. Reminded me to put Lalkar in my links.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: