To do justice to the task of analysing the latest edition of the CPB’s programme, it must be acknowledged that it has a place in the history of the British working-class movement that means it cannot be lightly or glibly brushed aside. The British Road to Socialism (BRS), first published in 1951, set the orientation of what was then the only communist party in Britain having organic links to both the British working-class movement and an international communist movement, centred around the Soviet Union and the growing camp of People’s Democracies that to all observers seemed on course to become the chief force in global politics. In that sense, the BRS has been central to the history of the British working class over the last seventy years – whether all the members of that class are aware of this fact or not – and the analysis that follows reflects the fact that the document itself has expanded to fill some seventy pages, being itself the product of continuous process of revision that has mirrored the history and the declining fortunes of the British and world communist movement. The central premise of the BRS, however, has remained constant.
The dawn of communism in Britain
Britain’s first communist party was formed in 1920 under the direct impetus of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. Many of its leading comrades were themselves great working-class organisers, orators, and propagandists, active in various socialist organisations (the British Socialist Party, formerly the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist Labour Party, the Clydeside Shop Stewards’ Committee, The Workers’ Socialist Federation and the South Wales Socialist Society) and they agreed, firstly, to throw their lot in together, to form a common organisation affiliated to the Third Communist International, uniting their activity throughout the whole of Great Britain, and, secondly, to hammer out a common programme of struggle on the insistence of none other than Lenin, who met with British socialists, including John MacLean, Tom Quelch (son of Harry Quelch) and Jack Tanner, at the Second Congress of the Comintern in Russia.
The Communist Party of Great Britain has many strengths and achievements to its credit that it is not our purpose to list here. Lenin’s pamphlet, Left wing communism, an infantile disorder, was published during the proceedings of the Second Congress of the Comintern. William Gallagher, in The rolling of the thunder (1947) describes both John McLean’s initial outrage when he learned, on arriving in Moscow to participate in the deliberations of the Communist International, that he had been dubbed a ‘left-wing communist’ by none other than the great Lenin and his determination to defend his position – until he met with the force of logic and great benevolence of Lenin’s arguments, given in person, and was won to the Leninist position. He returned home and threw his full weight behind establishing the CPGB.
First Edition of The British Road to Socialism
Fast forward, past thirty tumultuous years of the Great Depression and Second World War, past the victory of the Soviet Union’s Red Army over fascism, and the victories of China’s Red Army and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, to 1951. The original Communist Party, the CPGB, published an electoral programme entitled The British Road to Socialism. This document replaced the previous programmes For Soviet Britain and Class against Class, with a quite different notion of the tactics to be adopted by Britain’s communists. It had the merit of being brief and relatively explicit, covering just 8 short sections (the latest edition runs to 70 meandering and contradictory pages). It was published in the context of the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee and after more than thirty years of experience of the Labour Party in government. The 1951 election, in fact, returned Winston Churchill to power at the head of a Conservative administration.
In the opening lines of the CPGB’s original 1951 programme, introduced by Harry Pollitt, we note that the BRS asks “Why has the Labour Government thus failed the hopes of the people?” (Note that this is the post-war Labour government that today is often spoken of with reverence as being the ‘originator of the NHS’, and a model of true socialism). The answer it gives is:
“Because far from challenging the rights and privileges of big business at home and abroad, it has allied itself with big business against the people.
“It joined hands with the Tories and the American big capitalists in an imperialist foreign policy which is ruining Britain.
“The Labour Government has formed a war bloc with American imperialism against the Socialist Soviet Union, the New China, the People’s Democracies and the colonial peoples struggling for their national liberation and independence.
“It has conducted wars against the peoples of Malaya and Korea. It has sold out Britain to American big business.
“The Labour Government has imposed a crushing rearmament programme for a new war at the expense of the social needs of the people.
“The profits of the big trusts and monopolies are higher than they have ever been. Nine-tenths of the wealth of the country is still owned by one-tenth of the population. The sham measures of nationalisation have only increased exploitation and put still heavier burdens on the workers to pay huge sums of compensation to the old owners.”
“The capitalists have done exceptionally well under the Labour Government; indeed, they have never been better off. The workers have paid for all this in low wages, higher prices and heavier taxation, while the Labour Government has conducted an offensive against the workers’ efforts to secure increased wages. Troops have been used in strikes, hard-won democratic rights have been ruthlessly attacked, strikers have been arrested and prosecuted, and collective bargaining has been turned into a farce by means of Order 1305 and compulsory arbitration.1
“The talk of Peace and Socialism by the Labour leaders has proved to be a fraud and a deception.
“The dominant Labour Party leaders, Attlee, Bevin and Morrison—like MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas before them—have nothing in common with Socialism or the interests of the working people. Their outlook and practice reflects that of the Tories and the wealthy ruling class whose interests they serve, and not the aims of the working people. They are in reality only a left-wing of the Tories, like the old Liberal Party.
“Right-wing Labour policy has strengthened the Tories at home and the most reactionary governments abroad. It has confused, disorganised and split the working-class movement and the employers.
“It has done this at a time when all over the world vast changes are taking place. A great part of Eastern Europe has gone Socialist and the workers are in power. In the Far East, the Chinese revolution has freed hundreds of millions from the landlords and the foreign bankers.
“In the Socialist Soviet Union, great peaceful schemes of new construction are raising the living standards of the people every year. Instead of bringing Britain into close association and friendship with these advancing countries, the Labour leaders in Britain have joined in a united front with the Tories and the American millionaires to attack Socialism and the national liberation movements and to defend capitalism and imperialism.
“As a result, the Tories, who suffered a setback in the 1945 election, were able to advance again in 1950, and seek to return to open power”. 2
This assessment of the Labour Party must be endorsed whole-heartedly – and contrasted to the current content both of the 2020 BRS and the Morning Star, in its appraisal of the Labour Party – but in the next paragraph enters the rot, the sleight of hand by which the entire noble project of building a liberating party of the workers was to become its opposite:
“If the people are to advance, both the Tories and their allies in the Labour Movement, the right wing Labour leaders must be fought and defeated.
“The lesson of the failure of the Labour Government is not the failure of Socialism. It is the failure of Labour reformism and Labour imperialism, which is the servant of the big capitalist interests”.
It is clear from this – with the benefit of hindsight, yes, but there were many who saw it at the time – that despite all the evidence quoted by the communist comrades of the CPGB in 1951, the writers of the BRS had not imbibed Lenin’s opinion that the entire British Labour Party was a “bourgeois” labour party, a party that had workers in its ranks (more so then, than now), but followed bourgeois, capitalist policies against the workers’ interests. Labour was in fact already in 1951 a proven party of imperialism.
Lenin’s advice to British workers
Lenin in 1920, when he had cajoled the British delegates at the Second Congress of the Third International (the Communist International, or Comintern) to form the Communist Party, had also settled the dispute among them as to whether they should stand in elections and. in doing so. enter into electoral agreements with the Labour Party, such that communist candidates would stand allied with Labour, against the Liberals and Conservatives. (He refrained at that time from giving his opinion upon another major dispute, i.e., whether affiliation to the Labour Party was desirable, for want of adequate information).3
At that time – in 1920, in the aftermath of WW1 and the Russian Revolution – Lenin gave the advice that British communists should enter into an electoral alliance with the Independent Labour Party4, since (1) the latter had the overwhelming support of the workers; (2) Labour at that time had never formed a government, and the workers had not yet had the experience of its betrayals in practice; and (3) at that time it was possible to affiliate to the Labour Party, and yet maintain absolute freedom of criticism of its leaders and policies.
Communists, wrote Lenin, should therefore support the Labour Party “as a rope supports a hanged man”.
Workers should be canvassed on the clear understanding that voting Labour would not bring socialism, but show the limits of the Labour Party in government: “…with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as a rope supports a hanged man – that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens [and MacDonalds] just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany”.5
The purpose of the proposed 1920 electoral pact – on the basis of a direct agreement and an agreed split in MPs between Labour and Communist candidates [is such a proposition viable today?], the most vigorous agitation, organisation, and freedom of criticism by communists within the Independent Labour Party and the working class – was not to embellish social democracy, but to expose and destroy it.
If further proof be needed of Lenin’s attitude toward the Labour and TUC leadership, his Letter to British Workers, written at the request of a 1920 TUC delegation to Russia with which he met, should be read and understood.6
The original sin of the BRS
Elections in the 1920s were very different from those in 1951, and even more radically different from the current situation. Following the experience of MacDonald and Attlee governments, there was ample evidence – as the original 1951 BRS itself states in its opening preamble – of the true nature and character of the Labour Party. Rather than use this evidence of Labour government crimes committed on behalf of Britain’s bourgeoisie to hang Labour as a political organisation, to destroy it and build a political force representing the interests of the mass of the working class, the 1951 BRS programme considers Labour ‘as a whole’ still to be the mass party of workers, and that it could be ‘won’ for socialism and the working class, by “fighting its top right-wing leadership” from within.
There are other mistakes in the original BRS. The emphasis on US imperialism, rather than Anglo-American imperialism being the agent of the Cold War, a capitulation to pacifism at the dawn of the nuclear age, and the call for peaceful co-existence rather than a determined struggle against the British imperialists’ warmongering, failure to state in unequivocal terms that the nations of the empire had a right to self-determination, and the idea that Britain would continue to have the same economic relations with those subjugated nations, etc.; but the key capitulation, the key error from which others stemmed, the BRS’s ‘original sin’, was the idea that the British Empire could be won for the working-class by the simple means of an election, and every institution and branch of state could be peacefully turned into an instrument of working-class rule. And central to this amorphous concept of the ‘conquest of imperialism’ was the concept of conquering the Labour Party – imperialist though it may be – as the central instrument to wage this reformist scheme:
“Socialism means the abolition of capitalism. The Labour leaders do not want to abolish capitalism.” – Quite right!
“…at present this potentially mighty political force [The Labour movement – with the Labour Party at its centre] is split and divided, misled by the propaganda of the ruling class and the policy and outlook of the right-wing leaders of the Labour Party and the right-wing leaders of the trade unions and co-operative organisations, who in practice support the ruling class and carry on the Labour Government in the interests of capitalism.
“The enemies of Communism accuse the Communist Party of aiming to introduce Soviet Power in Britain and abolish Parliament. This is a slanderous misrepresentation of our policy. Experience has shown that in present conditions the advance to Socialism can be made just as well by a different road. For example, through People’s Democracy, without establishing Soviet Power, as in the People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe. [A most confused formulation – the ‘people’s democracies’ were formed under direct leadership of working-class parties and coalitions in their respective countries, but on the basis of the overthrow of Nazi occupation at the end of WW2, at the hands of the liberating Soviet Red Army and the communist resistance. The former Nazi-collaborating bourgeois state apparatus of those countries had therefore been thoroughly discredited and destroyed by the course of the war. The same was not true in Britain.]
“…the people of Britain can transform capitalist democracy into a real People’s Democracy, transforming Parliament, the product of Britain’s historic struggle for democracy, into the democratic instrument of the will of the vast majority of her people“.
They can “…break the political hold of the capitalist class by democratic reform, democratic ownership of the press, the people’s control of the BBC and the democratic transformation of the Civil Service, Foreign Office, Armed Forces and Police, the Law Courts and the administration of justice…”
The British imperialist state can thus be ‘won and used as an instrument of working-class rule’ [together with High court judges, the British upper-class army generals, police chiefs, civil servants, the Lords, the Crown itself perhaps? [!] by “building up… a broad coalition or popular alliance of all sections of the working people”.
Building up a broad coalition or popular alliance of all sections of the working people means creating a new power in the land. It can only be done against the will and active opposition of the currently existing state, which exists precisely in order to preserve the rule of capital against such an eventuality, to perpetuate the conditions for exploitation of the working class. To build up such an alliance requires a working-class party guided by the clearest consciousness, and not divided by the ideological and organisational influence of the enemy capitalist class. That is the whole meaning of, and reason for the victory of the Bolshevik struggle in Russia and the basis on which the Third International was created.
The idea that such a mighty working-class power, equivalent to the Soviets in the USSR, could be built in Britain – then to act merely as a pressure group on the imperialist Labour Party, is absurd in conception, and has proved self-defeating in practice, as we shall see. “The mountain has brought forth a mouse” as Marx would say.
“The Labour Party, with its present policy and under its present leadership, is preventing the building up of such an alliance and splitting instead of uniting the working-class movement. [Therefore we should surely counterpose the treacherous leadership and policy of the imperialist Labour Party to that of a militant working-class party, and win workers to the correct line, to a party that represents their own interests? No! Conversely, the BRS went on to conclude that the communists must exert all their strength in an attempt to change the policy and leadership of that hostile Labour Party!]
“In order, therefore, to bring about a decisive change in Britain, the millions of workers in the trade unions, co-operatives and individual members’ sections of the Labour Party will have to use their political and industrial strength to make it impossible for either the right-wing Labour leaders or the Tories to carry on their present pernicious policy.
“A People’s Parliament and Government which draws its strength from a united movement of the people, with the working class as its core, will be able to mobilise the overwhelming majority of the people for decisive measures to break the economic and political power of the big exploiters.
“… A key role would be performed by the trade unions, without which no People’s Democracy can function. National arbitration would be abolished and full powers of collective bargaining on wages and conditions restored, the socialist economic plan ensuring the basis for steadily advancing wages and conditions.
“All large-scale industry and transport, the banks, monopoly-owned wholesale and retail trading concerns, as well as large landed property, will be brought under social ownership by the People’s State. [That is the Westminster parliament, the Lords, the police, the army, as they stand].
“The National Debt and stock representing compensation for industries previously nationalised will be annulled.
“This socialist nationalisation differs fundamentally from the measures of capitalist nationalisation carried out by Tory, Liberal or Labour Governments, which have nothing in common with Socialism, and have aroused the widespread criticism of the workers…. Thus these measures of state ownership were beneficial to capitalism as a whole, and in no way changed the capitalist character of British economy any more than similar measures carried out by Bismarck or Hitler, or British Tory Governments in the past.”
All this “…policy and programme is based on the impregnable foundation of Marxist theory. The science embodying the experiences of the international working class, as developed by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and demonstrated in history as the theory and practice which brings victory to the working class and socialism. History proves that without such a Party the battle for Socialism cannot be won.”
The 1951 BRS is, to be sure, far more class conscious and frank than the latest edition, but the foundation stone of all subsequent errors was already there to be seen.
Marx’s teaching on the state
The ideas of the 1951 BRS stand in glaring opposition to Marx’s most fundamental teaching on the state, deduced from the living experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, and summed up in his work The Civil War in France, which reached the conclusion that the proletariat could not simply lay hold of the ready-made apparatus of the bourgeois state and wield it for its own purposes.
“The last preface to the new German edition of the Communist Manifesto, signed by both its authors, is dated June 24, 1872. In this preface the authors, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, say that the programme of the Communist Manifesto ‘has in some details become out-of-date’, and the go on to say:
“… One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes‘….”7,8
The British Road to Socialism was a departure from the revolutionary line of the international communist movement at the time, and a controversial document from its inception, enshrining as it did the anti-Marxist and anti-Leninist notion of British exceptionalism, of Britain being sufficiently ‘mature and developed’ as to be able to embark upon a non-revolutionary road to the working-class gaining state power. That road could and would be possible, asserted the CPGB in its BRS, not through a process of conflict with the British imperial class, which would be ‘abhorrent’ to the British working class and its ‘traditions’, but rather via the peaceful election of a coalition of Communist and Labour MPs who would use Parliament as a platform for progressive reforms to bring about socialism.
To an extent this theoretical confusion had grown out of the practical truce made during WW2 between the imperialist Labour Party (which had shown its true colours in WW1 along with the now defunct, but partially resurrected, Second International) and the Third International affiliated Communist Party, and was due to the temporary exigencies of the war-time alliance between imperialist Britain and the USSR. But the post-WW2 Labour Party was quite clear that, along with its imperial master, it was back on the anti-communist Cold-warpath. It had been the brilliance of Soviet diplomacy that had frustrated the will of the British and American imperialists to see the USSR crushed by Nazi Germany, and had forced them, against their will, to confront the Nazi beast militarily. Labour along with their imperialist masters, it seems, understood this better than the CPGB.
The rise of revisionism and the demise of the USSR
The ascent of Khrushchev in the USSR, after 1953, and particularly after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, initiated the gradual dismantling of the economic and political programme of Soviet socialism, its slide back towards capitalist market economics, and its eventual disintegration and collapse. This change in line from Moscow meant that the BRS, rather than being discarded quickly, increasingly dovetailed with the developing interests of the revisionist communist leadership. The BRS (now Britain’s Road to Socialism) subsequently went through six further iterations, principally at times of election, when its contents and language were felt to be too outdated to have ongoing resonance, but the essence of its tactical programme did not change.
The CPGB’s final version of Britain’s Road to Socialism was published just prior to its 41st congress in 1989 when, amidst the counterrevolutions in the European People’s Democracies and the USSR itself, the ‘Eurocommunist’ faction of the party, grouped around its magazine Marxism Today, dissolved the CPGB, sinking under the weight of its increasing burden of revisionism and capitulation to the pressures of imperialism, and passed a Resolution declaring that “Communism was a mistake of historic proportions”. A sad but logical conclusion to the abandonment of class struggle and Marxist-Leninist analysis.
The revisionist Programme outlives the revisionist Party
In the process of disintegration, however, the old CPGB gave rise to several decaying splinters and factions including the Communist Party of Britain – Marxist Leninist (CPB-ML), the New Communist Party (NCP) and the Communist Party of Britain (CPB). Several of these organisations took issue with the content of that self-annihilatory resolution, or the politics of Eurocommunism that had prepared the ground for its ignominious passage, and considered that there may indeed be an ongoing role for Marxist-Leninist teachings to guide British workers, who undeniably remained firmly in their former place of exploitation and subordination – irrespective of the decline and collapse of the land of the Soviets.
This was a crisis moment in the history of the communist movement. Without reflecting on the processes that led to this moment, none could continue to maintain their ideology and activity among the working class – ‘Hasn’t communism failed?’ was the question on every worker’s lips. This question could only be answered correctly – in the negative – by serious study and historical analysis. What was right and should be preserved in our glorious working-class revolutionary history and tradition? Where did Russian communism then go wrong, and what lessons should be learned if we are to avoid repeating those mistakes?9
The great misfortune of those splinter groups, who stayed aloof from the deliberations and practices of the anti-revisionist movement, was that they had insulated themselves from the mechanisms of self-criticism and democratic centralism by which any serious political party of workers could – and periodically must – correct its line.
The Communist Party of Britain (CPB) broke organisationally from its antecedent, forming itself in 1988, but not politically, in that it retained the essence of the 1951 revisionist CPGB programmatical weakness, in the British Road to Socialism, which it republished in 2000 and again in 2011.
That 2011 version, afraid to ignore completely the question of the counter-revolution in the USSR, offers this frankly anti-communist assessment of the Soviet Union:
“Russia and the other countries of the Soviet Union were transformed from semi-feudal, semi-capitalist monarchist dictatorships into modern societies with near-full employment, universally free education and healthcare, affordable housing for all, extensive and cheap public transport, impressive scientific and cultural facilities, rights for women and degrees of self-government for formerly oppressed nationalities. This was achieved through a world historic break with capitalist ownership and social relations, on the basis of social ownership of industry and centralised economic planning.
“But [Shchedrin’s “but!”, as Lenin would say] the struggle to survive and to build socialism in the face of powerful external as well as internal enemies also led to distortions in society that might otherwise have been avoided. In particular, a bureaucratic-command system of economic and political rule became entrenched. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the trade unions became integrated into the apparatus of the state, eroding working class and popular democracy. Marxism-Leninism was used dogmatically to justify the status quo rather than make objective assessments of it.
“At times, and in the late 1930s in particular, severe violations of socialist democracy and law occurred. Large numbers of people innocent of subversion or sabotage were persecuted, imprisoned and executed. This aided the world-wide campaign of lies and distortions aimed at the Soviet Union, the international communist movement and the concept of socialism.” 10
But if such events were in fact the norm in the USSR, then the “world-wide campaign of anti-Soviet lies”, was in fact a world-wide campaign of anti-Soviet truth, was it not, bold CPB revisionist gurus?
If the ‘command’ (planned) economy is a failed idea, then what is the economic programme of socialism? If trade union and mass Communist Party leadership of the working class was not a huge expansion of working-class power, of working-class democracy, then what was it? And why did the CPGB, and even the CPB’s BRS, in fact call for the involvement of the trade union movement in its “broad coalition” that would bring socialism to Britain?
The 1930s was indeed a fierce era of class struggle throughout the world. And at that time the Soviet Union, the CPSU(B) and the Comintern faithfully represented the interests of the working class, in the USSR and globally. To assert otherwise is to assert that there was no positive contribution to mankind’s liberation made by the victorious workers’ and peasants’ revolutionary Soviet government following the Great October Revolution of 1917. To assert otherwise is to agree with the renegacy of the Eurocommunist rabble who passed negative judgement on the glorious October revolution, the workers’ and peasants’ rebellion in Russia, led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, which “broke the iron circle of imperialist relations”, and, with their petty-bourgeois defeatism, stated it to be “a mistake of historic proportions,” before quitting the field of struggle and embezzling the party’s hard-won funds. A more abject capitulation and statement of bankruptcy would be hard for any ‘communist’ to compose.
CPB will not stand in elections – just support Labour (2017 – 2020)
The coalescence of its own decline and its total capitulation to Corbynism, heralded as the much dreamt of ‘left Labour leadership’, led to the following remarks in the runup to the 2017 General Election, seized upon by the bourgeois press for their own reasons of seeking to discredit Corbyn:
“The Communist Party of Britain will not field election candidates for the first time since its formation in 1920 [The CPB was formed in 1988] in order to throw its weight behind Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
“Declaring its endorsement of Labour’s leader, the Communist Party of Britain said victory for Mr Corbyn at the general election in June would be ‘the first step towards a formation of left-led government at Westminster’.
“The party’s general secretary Robert Griffiths added that it was crucial to stop the Labour leader facing a leadership challenge from ‘right-wing’ figures in his own party. He added his party was in ‘no doubt’ that Mr Corbyn’s party ‘serves the interests of workers and their families’”.11
So much then for the much cherished programme of a people’s government based upon a “coalition of Labour and Communist MPs”!
Rebirth of the CPB as an electoral ‘force’?
Yet, claiming to have learned from Corbyn’s defeat, which saw the active participation – in fact gleeful cooperation – of the Labour Party apparatus and leadership (exactly what the CPB leadership has learned is not at all clear!), now in 2021, the CPB have found it in themselves, as we emerge from the Covid pandemic, once again declaring that standing for elections is the order of the day – and what better way to enter a bourgeois parliamentary election than to republish their Britain’s Road to Socialism manifesto?
Since the collapse of Project Corbyn, the destruction of Labour’s ‘red wall’ of loyal electoral seats in the wake of its betrayal of Brexit, much has changed. We stand in the midst of an economic crisis in which a further 8% of the workforce is set to lose their jobs in the coming three months (raising the numbers of the economically inactive from 26 to 34 percent of the working age population, i.e., another 2.6 million workers – from 8.5 million to a staggering total of 11.1 million working age adults).12
Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is reasserting an openly Blairite doctrine in the Labour Party, arguably to the right of the Conservatives. More workers than in living memory are questioning the political status quo, and new formations – such as the Workers’ Party, led by George Galloway and Joti Brar – have emerged as a force for anti-capitalist and pro-socialist politics.
So, having paid our three pounds for a copy (who else other than its determined critics will bother to do so is an interesting question in itself!), let us turn to the meat of the 2020 BRS document and see what it has to offer…
The 2020 BRS
Sadly, there is little advance in the overall strategy of the document, which essentially repeats the formulation that Labour is the mass party of the working class. Some minor additions tend to compound rather than mitigate the fundamental flaws in its social-democratic thinking, with increasing pandering to Scottish, Welsh and Cornish (yes Cornish!) ‘nationalism’, and the seeping petty-bourgeois poison of identity politics and intersectionalism.
In his poetic and incisive commentary The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, replete with historical lessons on the nature of the state and the use the working-class movement can make of it, Marx made the penetrating observation that “History repeats itself – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce!” What then are we to say of this ninth re-iteration of the BRS?
It was launched with a whimper, rather than a fanfare. Writing in the Morning Star (the online edition neglects to furnish either the original date of publication of the article, or its author), the author states that “The will, however sincere, to reform capitalism from within has been shown again and again to be insufficient to the task.” [Yes]
“However great the attempts to curb its worst excesses, they run up against two great obstacles.
“First, for as long as the fundamental basis of capitalism remains unchanged, the profit motive… remains the driving force of society, the final arbiter of all struggles.
“Therefore, reformist attempts to create a ‘humane’ capitalism are like King Canute trying to hold back the sea. [Yes.]
“Second, even on their own terms, without setting their sights on the ultimate prize — the conquest of state power — they are doomed to failure. [Yes]
“As the recent experience of the Corbyn project shows, the entire political, legal, military, media structure is set up to prevent any fundamental challenge to the prerogatives of capital. [Yes – although Corbyn and the Labour Party, of course, represented no such fundamental challenge.]
“Witness, for example, the secret-service personnel who claimed Corbyn was not fit to be prime minister and must be stopped, or the serving general who promised a ‘mutiny’ of the armed forces in the event of a Corbyn victory, or the consistent media onslaught and constant political briefing (some of it only coming to light this week) throughout his time as Labour leader. [Yes, although how misguided these half-hearted interventions were, perhaps even against the interests of capitalism in crisis, in all likelihood, will be shown in time.]
“These put lie to the idea that electing a left government would be enough.
“There is no parliamentary route to socialism. We must not confuse government office with state power: nothing short of a revolution can reset the trajectory of our society.”
But wait… “That is not to say that reforms under capitalism cannot improve things for workers and should not be supported. They can, and they should.
“Most, if not all, of the rights we currently have under capitalism are the product of such reforms and in many cases, workers have sacrificed their liberty or even their lives to achieve them.
“Some reforms go further and conflict not just with the immediate drive to profits but with the fundamental conditions of reproduction of capitalism.
“Struggle for these reforms provokes deeper conflict with capital, which cannot be resolved within the system. This, then, leads to a direct need to challenge not just capital, but capitalism itself. [And how will that challenge be effected? And by whom? And with what ideological and organisational preparation?]
“As capitalism becomes more and more moribund and crisis-prone, the number of people whose daily lives are blighted by the system increases. [Yes]
“It is our job to unite these people in a broad democratic anti-monopoly alliance, with the working class at its heart, in order to change our society through our own action. [Aaah yes, the broad democratic anti-monopoly alliance of the Labour Party?]
“Many workers are looking now for a way forward. They see the problems with the current system but may not be sure of the way forward.
“This includes young workers, casualised workers, those on the front line against the virus.
“It includes those new to the movement and those more experienced who were enthused by Corbyn’s message of hope and the challenge his leadership of the Labour Party presented to neoliberalism, if not to capitalism itself. [But did Corbyn in fact represent anything of the sort? This is not a sincere attempt to learn any lessons, but rather a dogmatic repetition of the same tired formula: that we must win the Labour Party ‘for the workers’ and ‘for socialism.’]
The 2011 edition lists a summary page expressing its main ideas in bullet points, and laying out the immediate parliamentary strategy. The 2020 edition carries a summary which is virtually identical, punctuated by a small amount of greenwashing.
The heart of the 2020 BRS – Support for the Labour Party13
The central premise of the entire programme, remains the idea that “…through an upsurge in working class and popular action, a left government can be elected in Britain based on parliamentary majorities of Labour, socialist, communist and progressive representatives, and strengthened by the election of left majorities in Scotland and Wales.”
Forget that Corbyn, their favoured left candidate, was deposed by the Labour Party itself; forget the fact that Starmer is proving to be an inept but staunchly right-wing Blairite, and that Blair himself is making an increasingly visible comeback at the fringes of government and Labour Party policy – notably laying out the Covid vaccination strategy on behalf of his monopolist sponsors.
Undeterred, the key points continue relentlessly: “A socialist society can then be built [How? By whom? With what political and organisational preparation?] in which wealth and power are held in common and used in a planned way for the benefit of all, with the working class and its allies liberating the people from all forms of exploitation and oppression.” [We shall return to the question of who are the ‘allies’ of the proletariat later].
The fantasy continues, as the plan unfurls, bullet point by point. Labour in government will then: “Put an end to British imperialism – the exercise of monopoly capitalist exploitation and power in other parts of the world – is the biggest contribution we can make to international liberation and socialism.”
No doubt this ‘dismantling of British imperialism’ by a left Labour government will proceed in the manner of Jeremy Corbyn’s great left Labour shadow-administration: denouncing Chinese steel production as being the real cause of the industrial crisis of overproduction and therefore the cause of the loss of British manufacturing jobs? By denouncing the ‘violence’ of the socialist government of Venezuela? By calling for a free parliamentary vote on the issue of whether to rain cruise missiles on the people of Syria, to topple their democratically elected government and support the ISIS proxy Wahhabi thugs in their partition of that land to boost monopolist oil profits in the Middle East? By supporting the renewal of British imperialism’s nuclear arsenal (Trident)? Or acceding to the demand that the Palestinians be labelled ‘anti-semitic’ for their opposition to being annihilated by the state of Israel (see the IHRA definition of anti-semitism sponsored by Corbyn et al)?
Yes, we are confident that in this manner the CPB can build a platform of perpetual opposition, for they certainly pose no threat to British imperialism, let alone the social-imperialists they would warmly embrace, if only they could get close enough.
And still they have the nerve to state that the 2020 BRS “programme is based on the study, analysis and assessment of concrete realities, tendencies and trends. It is a guide to action, not a speculative prediction or a dogmatic blueprint. It is a living, developing programme to be constantly tested in practice and reassessed in the light of experience.”
Presumably they have not got round to evaluating the results of 70 years of ‘testing’ the BRS programme in practice (the dissolution of the CPGB, for example? The waning of the communist movement as a force in Britain?), or realised that the test result is failure demanding the programme’s wholesale revision. Einstein said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. Perhaps one of our readers will inform the petrified deities of the CPB central committee of the predicament in which they find themselves.
Can a “popular democratic anti-monopoly alliance” be built upon “the Labour movement” based on “a parliamentary majority for the Labour Party”?
The CPB in its 2011 BRS, repeated in 2020, gives a central place, in fact the central place, to this ‘formula’, this ‘plan of action’, this ‘programme’ for achieving socialism in Britain – the idea that we must elect a majority Labour government at the centre of an anti-monopoly alliance.
One should pause to reflect that in 2011, this demand was issued just 3 years after Gordon Brown, the Labour leader who had been Blair’s Chancellor of the Exchequer for a decade and then became the British Prime Minister, had spearheaded the global bailing out of the banks, in Britain offering Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, et al., some £850bn, gratis from the taxpayer, thus transferring all the bad gambling debts from the billionaire parasites of finance capital to the British state, and preponderantly the working-class taxpayer, so ushering in a decade of austerity – austerity that, far from rectifying the fundamental flaws of monopoly capitalism, has led inexorably to the worst ever global recession of 2020-21, triggered, but not caused, by the 2019-21 coronavirus pandemic.
This is not Labour acting as the “centre of an anti-monopoly alliance” to “diminish the means of reproduction of the capitalist system itself”! This is the polar opposite. This is Labour using the bourgeois state apparatus and all its political, economic, diplomatic, financial, media (and cultural) machinery, to save the monopoly capitalists from the depredations of their own doctrine of free-market fundamentalism. This is ‘socialism for the billionaires’; this is an anti-democratic alliance of the Labour Party leadership and the monopolists, conspiring against the mass of the British nation – workers, petty-bourgeois and medium sized capitalists alike – to transfer the debts and liabilities of the oligarchs of the market system away from these gamblers onto the backs of the British labouring and small business class.
Apparently unaware of, or if aware then unable to see, the contradiction between reality and their ‘programme’, the 2011 BRS pines for “… a left government [to] be elected in Britain based on parliamentary majorities in the Labour, socialist, communist and progressive representatives, and strengthened by the election of left majorities in Scotland and Wales.”
The drooping flowers may pine for love, but the heartless brook babbles on! Shorn of all euphemism, and observing the parliamentary results obtained by the much diminished and, honestly speaking, politically insignificant CPB,14 this amounts to (1) Giving a pass to Scottish and Welsh nationalism, to bourgeois separatism, which they lack the will and the means to fight, and (2) Overwhelmingly supporting and canvassing for a Labour government.
Form and content of the BRS
And here we must state that Britain’s Road to Socialism is a ‘political programme’ of a peculiar type. It does not take the form of a series of statements upon which are predicated the goals, orientations and plans of the Party. You will seek in vain for any telling evidence of analysis of the class structure of Britain, or of the alliances of class forces that can be built at any stage of the struggle for socialism. There is no clear exposition of Marxist-Leninist ideas, though these are what the BRS professes to follow, or of how they should be concretely applied to 21st century Britain.
Rather the BRS takes from the outset the form of a meandering historical sketch of the last 150 years, which attempts to give some sort of background, justification or rationale for the bullet-point summary, and the central concept that the Labour Party should form the backbone of the assault on Capital. But this insipid and lifeless sketch not only glosses over most of the salient features and events of the 20th century and the political landscape of Britain, it fails even to come to terms with the history of the Party. Perhaps that is why, although formed in 1988, the CPB recently and rather confusingly celebrated its ‘centenary’.
A split in the working-class movement
Nowhere in the 2011 BRS, or its 2020 revision, is there recognition that Britain’s monopoly capitalist or imperialist economy has implications for the political formations of the British working class. Yet Engels’ and Lenin’s profound observations that the British imperialists had engendered a split in the working class are a central feature of their writings.
Nowhere does the CPB in the 9th iteration of the BRS mention that the Labour Party was from its inception the representative of the upper stratum of privileged workers (the labour aristocracy), who had allied themselves to the ruling class and had at every opportunity vociferously fought for the preservation and maintenance of the system of imperialism, of capitalist exploitation in Britain and super-exploitation of the colonies.
Peripheral mention is made of the anti-war movement, but no mention is made of the fact that within living memory, the most brutal, in fact genocidal, imperialist wars – the 2003 Iraq War, the 2001 Afghan war, the 1999 Yugoslav War, the 2000 invasion of Sierra Leone – took place under the leadership of the Labour Party. No mention, in fact, is made of any of Labour’s thousand crimes against the workers of Britain and the world.
British imperialist history, where it is touched upon, is sketched simply as being the work of “Britain’s ruling class”. Quite so. But very little attention, for a political programme, is given to the political mechanisms by which British ruling-class democracy operates, via its faithful representatives in Parliament – not only Conservative and Liberal, but also, and centrally, Labour. In fact, both Labour and Conservative are equally the representatives of the monopoly capitalists (as indeed is the SNP), and the idea that voting in a Labour Party government will bring salvation for the workers one step closer, is about as true as the idea that voting for Barrack Obama on a Democrat ticket ended racism and liberated workers in the United States of America, or that Kamala Harris, were she to accede to the presidential office, would bring women’s emancipation.
Nowhere is it admitted that the working-class electorate must, in the last analysis, be the voting fodder for all bourgois parties. Rather, undue emphasis is placed on the connection between the Labour Party and the trade union movement, as proving that the Labour Party is ultimately the party of the working class. But the nature and history of that connection is studiously avoided. Mussolini’s fascist party also had a very regimented and formal relationship with the trade union movement. That did not make either the vehicle for advancing the interest of the working class. Quite the reverse.
In short, while alluding to them in passing, we find that the BRS demonstrates no real understanding of imperialism, and no real understanding of Marx’s profound teaching on the state. Any honest appraisal of Labour as a potential party of socialism must at least mention its manifold historical betrayals – which span, now, some 120 years of British history.
Rather the CPB regale us in the BRS with fairy-tales dreaming that “A popular democratic anti-monopoly alliance can be built, led by the labour movement [always in the mouths of CPB supporters simply a synonym for the Labour PARTY], to fight for a left-wing programme of policies that would make inroads into the wealth and power of the monopoly capitalists”.
“Inroads into the wealth and power of the monopoly capitalists” such as the 2003 Iraq War perhaps? Which so enriched the arms manufacturers and oil conglomerates that Labour prime minister and war criminal Tony Blair has been rewarded personally to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds?
“Inroads into the wealth and power of the monopoly capitalists” such as the 2008 banking bailout, in which the Labour Party gifted £850bn to the monopolists precisely to protect them from being bankrupted by the workings of capitalist market itself, that much trumpeted arbiter of ‘efficiency through competition’?!
Or the “inroads into the wealth and power of the monopoly capitalists” that Corbyn and his Trotskyite hangers-on failed to make when they proved incapable of turning the Labour Party machine to support even their limited reformist schemes between 2015 and 2019?
No wonder that the Young Communist League15 has been taken over by a petty-bourgeois student coterie infected by the liberal ideology of intersectionalist identity politics, under the influence of this profound theoretical guidance from the elder statesmen of the CPB.
TO BE CONTINUED
1 During WW2 industrial relations were controlled by the Conditions of Employment and National Arbitration Order, usually known as Order 1305. The Order effectively banned strikes and forced any side in a dispute (usually the trade union) to bring their case to an arbitration panel rather than to go on strike. In 1951 the Order was still in place and dockworkers were prosecuted for not following it. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/alevelstudies/1951-cabinet-memorandum.htm
2 The British Road to Socialism. Communist Party of Great Britain. 1951, https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/britain/brs/1951/51.htm
3 Tom Bell, leading member of the British Socialist Party, a delegate at the Second Congress of the Third Communist International, and closely involved in the unity discussions between the British socialists that led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, records in his book Pioneering days that the question of affiliation to the Labour Party was so contentious that advice was sought from the Executive Committee of the Communist International. “The reply came back in the form of a letter from comrade Lenin: ‘I have received a letter from the Joint Provisional Committee for the Communist Party of Britain, dated June 20 , and, in accordance with their request, I hasten to reply that I am in complete sympathy with their plans for the immediate organisation of a single Communist Party of Britain. I consider erroneous the tactics pursued by Comrade Sylvia Pankhurst and the Workers’ Socialist Federation, who refuse to collaborate in the amalgamation of the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party and others to form a single Communist party. Personally I am in favour of participation in Parliament and of affiliation to the Labour Party, given wholly free and independent communist activities. I shall defend these tactics at the Second Congress of the Third International on July 15, 1920 in Moscow. I consider it most desirable that a single Communist party be speedily organised on the basis of the decisions of the Third International, and that such a party should establish the closest contact with the Industrial Workers of the World and the Shop Stewards’ Committees, in order to bring about a complete merger with them in the near future’”.
Lenin was interested in the unity of the militant leadership of the working class in order to bring about a really socialist society, based on the rule of the working class. All should be done to bring about this state of affairs. And the more speedily the reformist leadership could be exposed and cast aside the better. This was the tactical position characteristic of Leninism and expounded in detail throughout his works.
4 The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was the forerunner of the modern Labour Party, and started with a federal structure that allowed different labour organisations to affiliate to it, including, for example, the British Socialist Party. The ILP’s stated aim was to represent the interests of working men in parliament. In 1920 there had not yet been a Labour administration. Arthur Henderson, however, was a noted pro-war leader of the Labour Party who joined Asquith’s War cabinet whom Lenin referred to as “Socialist in words, Imperialist in deeds”, or “Social-Imperialist.”
5 VI Lenin, Left Wing Communism, an infantile disorder.
6 Letter to the British Workers. Pravda No. 130. June 17 1920. [Written at the request of TUC and Labour Party parliamentary delegation which met with Lenin in 1920].
7 VI Lenin, The State and Revolution. Experience of the Paris Commune summed up.
8 Karl Marx, The Civil War in France. May 1871.
9 Interested readers should study Harpal Brar’s Perestroika – the complete collapse of revisionism, 1992. https://shop.thecommunists.org/product/harpal-brar-perestroika-1992/
10 ‘Socialism – the lessons so far, Britain’s Road to Socialism (8th ed.). Communist Party. 31 October 2011. pp.16–17. ISBN 978-1908315052. OCLC 793083894.
13 Britain’s Road to Socialism, Programme of the Communist Party, updated edition. ISBN 978-1-907464-43-0, published by Manifesto Press Cooperative. https://yclbritain.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/britains_road_to_socialism.pdf [BRS]
14 At the 1997 general election, the CPB ran five candidates whose combined vote came to 911. At the 2001 general election, the party ran six candidates whose combined vote came to 1,003. In 2005, the party fielded six candidates whose combined vote came to 1,124.
15 YCL is the youth wing of the CPB.