[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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.