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Communism - Destroy the Old to Build the New!

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The British Road to Socialism was first published in 1951. Since then it has been re-drafted, but it still retains those ideas which provoked such controversy when it first appeared. In this programme the main break with earlier Marxist thought lies in the claim that it is now possible for the working-class to win control over the capitalist state in Britain, by constitutional means, and then transform this capitalist state into one which will meet the needs of the working-class. Thus:

“At a time of mounting class struggle, when the entire working class is brought into action and is supported by other sections of the population, a general election fought on the issue of a socialist solution to Britain’s problems could bring decisive results. It could return to Parliament a Socialist Labour and Communist majority and establish a Socialist Government which, with the backing of the people, would begin to carry through a fundamental social change.

“In this way, using our traditional institutions and rights, we can transform Parliament into the effective instrument of the people’s will, through which the major legislative measures of the change to socialism will be carried. Using the rights already won in the Labour movement’s historic struggle for democracy, we can change capitalist democracy, dominated by wealth and privilege, into socialist democracy, where only the interests of the people count...”

Working class power is the essential condition for far-reaching social change. The programme of a Socialist Government must therefore aim to consolidate that power, and put an end to the political, economic and social power of the capitalist class. Only a working-class state, with the full support of working-people, can carry through the measures that will open the way to socialism. How is the capitalist state, which serves the interests of monopoly capital, to be transformed into a working-class state, which will serve the interest of the working-class?


“(The Socialist government will achieve the) consolidation of the political power of the working people by ensuring that those in commanding positions in the armed forces and police, the civil service and diplomatic services are loyal to the Socialist Government and increasingly representative of the people; and by democratic electoral reform, democratic ownership of the press, and control of broadcasting by the people.” In other words, the structure of the state will not be modified, but there will be a purge of all those in high places whose loyalty lies with monopoly-capital.”

Why is this programme controversial? Because it is just this line of argument which Lenin tore to pieces in The State and Revolution, written in 1917, and The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, written in 1918. Thus, from State and Revolution:

“If the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonism, if it is a power standing over and above society, and increasingly alienating itself from it, then it is obvious that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class and which is the embodiment of this ’alienation.’ The Commune especially proved that the working-class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes (my italics M.McC). The words ’to smash the bureaucratic military machine’ briefly express the principal lesson of Marxism in regard to the tasks of the proletariat during a revolution in relation to the state.”

Again and again this point is driven home.

“It was Marx who taught that the proletariat cannot simply conquer state power in the sense that the old state apparatus passes into new hands (my italics M.McC). As we have seen, Marx meant that the working class must smash, break, shatter (sprengung – explosion, the expression used by Engels) the whole state machine.”

Lenin emphasises, and we in the working-class movement in Britain in particular need to remember, that democracy is a form of the State.


“A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and therefore, once capital has gained control of this very best shell... it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change, either of persons, or institutions, or of parties in the bourgeois democratic republic can shake it.”

We must also note that Engels is most definite in calling universal suffrage an instrument of bourgeois rule. Universal suffrage, he says, obviously summing up the long experience of German Social Democracy, is the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present day state.

The petty bourgeois democrats, such as our own Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, and also their twin brothers, all the social-chauvinists and opportunists of Western Europe, except just this ’more’ from universal suffrage. They themselves share, and instill into the minds of the working people, the false notion that universal suffrage ’in the modern state’ is really capable of ascertaining the will of the majority of the toilers and ensuring its realisation.”


It follows that Parliament must not be regarded as the means whereby the working-class win power. In criticising a statement of Kautsky’s which read: “The aim of our political struggle remains, as hitherto, the conquest of state power by winning a majority in Parliament and by converting Parliament into the master of the Government,” Lenin wrote, “This is nothing but the purest and most vulgar opportunism, repudiating revolution in deeds, while accepting it in words.”


The real road to power for the proletariat and its allies, Marx, Engels and Lenin maintained, was not into the Parliamentary cul-de-sac but through proletarian dictatorship. As Lenin wrote in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky:


“The formula ’dictatorship of the proletariat’ is merely a more historically concrete and scientifically exact formulation of the proletariat’s task of ’smashing’ the bourgeois state machine, about which both Marx and Engels, in summing up the experience of the revolution of 1848, and still more so, of 1871, spoke for forty years, between 1852 and 1891. The capitalist state machine will be broken up by the working-class, who will use their own organisations to achieve this. It is these organisations which will constitute the main weapon whereby the capitalists are overthrown; these and not Parliament. It is these organisations which will form the nucleus of the new working-class state; these and not Parliament. (Although, of course, once power has been won, and the dictatorship of the proletariat firmly established, Parliament can be transformed into an instrument of the people’s will).”


Until the final and decisive struggle for power we cannot be sure just what forms these working-class organisations will take. They may be councils of action, shop stewards’ committees, trades councils, or some new form of organisation. But in essence, whatever their form, they will be centres of working class power (Soviets); the means whereby the working-class exerts superior force against the capitalist state in order to win power. This is why Lenin wrote, in Left-Wing Communism:


“Gallagher... fully understands that only workers’ Soviets and not Parliament can be the instrument whereby the aims of the Proletariat will be achieved. And of course those who have failed to understand this up to now are hopeless reactionaries, even if they are most highly educated people, most experienced politicians, most sincere Socialists, most erudite Marxists.” On the question of whether this road to Socialism was likely to be a peaceful or a violent one, Lenin was equally adamant. In 1918, when commenting on Marx’s view, expressed in the 1870’s, that a peaceful transition might be possible in England and America, he wrote:


“The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is violence against the bourgeoisie, and the necessity of such violence is particularly created, as Marx and Engels have repeatedly explained in detail... by the existence of a military clique and a bureaucacy. But it is precisely these institutions that were non-existent precisely in England and in America and precisely in the 1870’s when Marx made his observations. (They do exist in England and in America now!)”

And in the 1960’s have they disappeared?


For this leads us to consider the developments in the world since Lenin’s time. We have seen that the British Road adopts, on this question of the relation of the state to the proletarian revolution, an attitude which is identical in essentials with that advanced by right-wing opportunists in the past. But since the 1920’s there have been immense’ changes in the world as a whole and in Britain. Do these changes justify us today in contradicting Lenin’s teaching? Let us look at one of the mod recent justifications. I quote from James Klugmann’s article in Marxism Today, of October, 1960; “Within imperialism, ever more restricted by the growing socialist system, the general crisis deepens. Imperialism is weakened, it attacks all sections of the people—not only the working class, but the peasantry, town petty-bourgeoisie, intellectual and professional people, even the smaller capitalists. Imperialism becomes more reactionary. It tends, more and more, not only to attack the living standards of the people, but to attack the limited democratic rights that the working people have won within capitalism, to renounce national sovereignty, to reject and turn against all that is best and most progressive in its own cultural heritage. It becomes identified with a policy and strategy of nuclear war.


“In this situation, more and more clearly, the working class stands forth as the truly progressive force of each nation, the leader in the defence of peace, national sovereignty, liberty and democracy, the cultural heritage. Opportunities arise, in a way that did not previously exist to the same extent, of developing a broad political alliance around the working-class for peace, democracy, independence, living standards and cultural progress. At the same time the ideas of socialism gain ground amongst the working people.


“Externally the rise and strengthening of the socialist countries exercises a growing moral and ideological influence amongst the peoples of the capitalist countries. Moreover the stronger the socialist camp, the more opportunity there is for preventing imperialist interventions against countries that take the socialist road, the more opportunity exists for giving economic and cultural aid to the peoples building socialism. Imperialism is no longer able to threaten, blackmail and intervene in the old way.


“The Conception of The British Road to Socialism was that, taking into account the new more favourable relation of class forces in the world and inside Britain, taking into account the specific traditions and institutions that have developed in Britain, it was now possible for the working class to win around itself a broad popular alliance to win political power, to win a Communist and genuine Socialist majority in Parliament, to transform (my italics M.McC.) the capitalist state into a state representative of the interests of the working people, and to build socialism in Britain, not without continuous class struggle, but without armed conflict.”


This passage deserves a careful reading. The first three paragraphs outline, correctly, the main development since Lenin’s time—the rise of the world socialist system—and the more favourable prospect which this has created for isolating monopoly capital in Britain prior to its final overthrow, and for preventing imperialist intervention to restore the old order after a successful socialist revolution. The prospect of toppling monopoly capital is greater than in Lenin’s time; the prospect that the revolution can be achieved with a minimum of violence, and without prolonged civil war, also greater. But even on Klugmann’s own analysis the prospect of a constitutional revolution, of a legal transfer of power, is smaller. For he himself emphasises that as imperialism weakens, and it is much weaker than it was at the beginning of the century, it “tends more and more... to attack the limited democratic rights that the working people have won within capitalism.” We all recognise that Parliament plays a less important role within the constitution than in the past. If any conclusion is to be drawn from this it is that the possibility of using “the specific traditions and institutions that have developed in Britain” (our constitutional liberties), to win power by peaceful, legal, constitutional means is fainter than it was in Lenin’s time. If there has been a curtailment of constitutional liberties then constitutional advance to Socialism is less likely. In fact the conclusion which Klugmann seeks to draw in the fourth paragraph simply does not emerge from the preceding evidence.


“Imperialism,” writes Klugmann, “becomes identified with a policy and strategy of nuclear war.” But what does this entail? Greatly increased militarisation of the state. In fact, as all comrades know, the bureaucracy, the military and police, and the propaganda machine, have, together, been immensely enlarged since Lenin’s time, as a direct result of the deepening crisis of capitalism. If the need to smash the capitalist state machine was particularly created “by the existence of a military clique and a bureaucracy” in the 1920’s then this must be even more necessary today. This immense, top-heavy military and bureaucratic apparatus, which has been built up by British imperialism to contain the growing contradictions, which threaten to disintegrate its system, can never be transformed from within, by legal means. It must be smashed from without, by force.


Let us look at just what is involved in achieving power by constitutional means. “At a time of mounting class struggle, when the entire working-class is brought into action, and is supported by other sections of the population, a general election fought on the issue of a socialist solution to Britain’s problems could bring decisive results.” What an assortment of wishful thoughts! Consider the situation envisaged by the British Road in this passage. When is “the entire working class,” or even a major part of it, “brought into action?” Only during a widespread, or general strike. There have not been many such situations in British history. The general strikes of 1842 and 1926, the 1919 struggle, described so vividly in Gallagher’s Revolt on the Clyde, can be cited. They were all potentially revolutionary situations, which might have developed into revolution given correct revolutionary leadership of the working class.

At such times, as the capitalists well know, either the workers and their allies press on to seize political power and smash the bourgeois state machine, or the bourgeoisie re-establish their grip and crush the revolutionary forces. That class which can exert superior force, at the decisive moments, will win the struggle for power. That is why it is essential for the revolutionary leaders to maintain the initiative, preserve the cohesion of the revolutionary class and its allies, exploit every disagreement between different sections of the bourgeoisie, and, vitally important, win over decisive sections of the armed forces.


Hesitation and delay at such a time would be fatal. Yet this is the moment, when the Communist Party of Great Britain, instead of leading a revolution, will call for–a general election! What a farce! What a negation of revolutionary leadership this would be! For such a slogan, such a demand, surrenders the initiative to the ruling class. They can then decide whether or not acceptance would best serve their interests. In all probability the demand itself would cut very little ice on either side, and would only serve to isolate the C.P.G.B. from the immediate, and unconstitutional, struggle, it would be like throwing a stone into mountainous seas. The two great classes locked in mortal combat and–the demand for a general election!


But if the C.P.G.B. could obtain mass support for such a demand at such a time might the ruling class not decide to follow their lead and hold a general election? For would this not give them a breathing space, of which decisive advantage could be taken? As a necessary preliminary the general strike would have to be called off. No general election would be possible with the country paralysed by a general strike. (One could not even print the ballot papers!) But once the strike is called off, the revolutionary enthusiasm and energy and activity of the masses must inevitably subside. Activity is followed by passivity. The masses are no longer controlling events, they are waiting upon them, as is usual in capitalist society. In fact, the class struggle could no longer be “mounting,” it would be declining.

During the following days and weeks of the election campaign, the capitalists would close ranks, and unite most of the petty-bourgeoisie, the middle classes, and many of the less class-conscious workers around “the defence of the constitution and traditional British liberties.” For note that this general election will be decided, according to the British Road, on the issue of socialism–for or against a socialist revolution. Day after day the press, radio and television would pour out a flood of calumnies and lies to bewilder and confuse the revolutionary masses. For or against red revolution. Liberty or tyranny. The united front between the workers and their allies would soon crumble. Opportunist leaders would waver, and then turn against a full socialist programme “at this stage.” Before long the ruling class would be in a position to isolate, and strike hard at those who persisted in presenting the revolutionary alternative to capitalism. Indeed the moon will turn blue before we succeed in winning a majority to vote for socialism within the legal framework of the capitalist constitution, and with the bourgeois state machine unbroken. But let us assume this blue moon. Parliament has been captured. The “Socialist” government has been duly summoned to Buckingham Palace, and sworn in. It then proceeds with the task of transforming the capitalist state into a working-class state. The purge of capitalist minded civil and military authorities begins. But they are all capitalist-minded and bitterly hostile to the new government. Will they meekly accept the order to “dismiss”? No-one in his right mind will assume that state monopoly capital would commit suicide.


The British Road states:


“The capitalist class cannot be expected to surrender its wealth and power without a struggle. The big capitalists, whose interests are threatened by the advance to socialism, are likely by every means in their power, constitutional and unconstitutional, to hold back the movement. At all stages in the struggle for progressive policies and for socialism, therefore, the working class and progressive movement needs to be vigilant and if necessary to use its political and industrial strength to defeat any attempts by the big capitalists to restrict democratic rights or block the road to democratic advance.”


“This will be of particular importance when the Socialist Government is established and begins to carry through measures to break the economic and political power of the big capitalists. The extent to which the working class is alert and prepared to use its strength in support of the Government’s measures will determine whether the big capitalists accept the democratic verdict of the people or attempt to resist it by force.” In this passage we have recognition that the ruling class may use unconstitutional means of checking the revolution if constitutional means do not suffice. But what are “unconstitutional” methods. Quite simply, the use of force, the use of the army, to overthrow the constitutional “Socialist” government. How is this threat to be countered? By mobilising “the political and industrial strength” of the people. But political parties and trade unions cannot stand against an army. There is no escaping the need, at some stage of the revolution, for armed strength to back the political and industrial strength of the people. Only the people in arms can counter a putsch by the army. To ignore this fact is to ensure the defeat of the revolution. But it is ignored in The British Road to Socialism.


It has been said that those who criticise The British Road are dogmatists. But dogmatists are surely those who stick to a point of view in the face of all the evidence. A programme which revises basic Marxist teaching on the role of the state, which rejects the accumulated experience of the working class, is dogmatic beyond belief. With such an obviously false perspective is it any wonder that there is widespread reluctance within the C.P.G.B. to accept this document?


The British Road is like one of those medieval paintings, produced before the laws of perspective had been fully grasped. The foreground, our decaying capitalist society, is seen in all its ugliness. In the background a Socialist Britain stands out in full glory. But the middle distance, the intervening ground which links the two, and should give coherence to the whole picture, is somehow blurred. The perspective of advance is false. For this there is no excuse. The laws of perspective have been discovered–by Marx, Engels and Lenin–and we must apply them to Britain.

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