Debate  •  Reviews

The Communist Party of Britain’s reformist road to socialism

30 November 2020

Tim Nailsea reviews Britain’s Road to Socialism, Communist Party of Britain, 2020.

This year the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) re-released its programme, Britain’s Road to Socialism, marking one hundred years since the founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which the CPB traces its lineage back to. This programme was first published in February 1951 and, while some details have been updated as society has changed, the political substance remains largely unaltered. 

The political substance is that of a reformist, parliamentary approach to socialism. Britain’s Road to Socialism is, in fact, probably one of the clearest blueprints for reformist socialism one might find on the British left. As such, it makes the argument for a path to socialism via the election of a left government based on a cross-class alliance, including “progressive” capitalists.

The CPB itself is small, with less than one thousand members. It does, however, remain influential in the British workers’ movement, particularly with the trade union bureaucracy and the left of the Labour Party. This is due in part to its influence over the Morning Star newspaper, the editorial line of which is that of the British Road to Socialism and has a wide readership in the labour movement. This is also due to the continued influence of Stalinist politics, characterised by nostalgia for the Soviet Union and other “Communist” countries, on the British left.

For most of the century of its existence, the CBGP (CPB’s forerunner) enjoyed the patronage and the prestige of its association with the “really existing socialism” of the Warsaw Pact states and used this patronage (and perks such as free holidays to these countries) to build close links with the trade union bureaucracy. This influence has persisted, as a centre-left of the TUC, whose officials and broad lefts continue to network within the pages of the Morning Star. What distinguishes Stalinism from social democracy is the formal adherence to a postcapitalist goal: the belief that socialism can be achieved in a non-revolutionary way through nationalisation and state intervention to plan the economy on behalf of the working class, i.e. through a cold overturn of property relations, leading to a society based on the model of the degenerated USSR.

A number of Jeremy Corbyn’s advisers and operatives, such as his Director of Communications Seamus Milne, subscribed to Stalinist ideas. Andrew Murray, one of Corbyn’s closest advisers, was until recently a leading member of the CPB. The party, in utilising the strategy outlined in its programme, has leading roles in several campaigns, including the Stop the War Coalition and People’s Assembly. Its influence, therefore, far exceeds its membership.

The reformism of Britain’s Road to Socialism is the result of the rightwards turn that the Communist Party took, when it abandoned even the pretence of revolutionary politics and instead attempted to tail the existing reformist perspectives of the British labour movement. Its continued influence, therefore, reflects the reformist, class collaborationist outlook of the trade union bureaucracy and much of the Labour left, which the CPB attempts to put itself at the centre of. 

The Programme

The key premise of Britain’s Road to Socialism is that the main enemy in Britain is not the capitalist system as a whole, but rather monopoly capitalism and the predominance of finance capital, itself the merger of monopoly and banking capital. Modern capitalism in Britain is dominated by large monopolies, which control the markets and to which the state is completely subservient. The “core” of this system is a tiny minority of finance capitalists. Industrial capital is marginalised as a whole, though certain parts, like aerospace, arms manufacture, are hugely important.

But the CPB extrapolates from this that, although the working-class has the “most direct” interest in challenging monopoly capitalism, other elements of society also have an interest in its defeat. Small business and industry, therefore, are potential allies in the fight against the main enemy. This, as we shall see, is politically problematic, but also ignores the web of all the class’ relations and the thousands threads that tie the dominant sectors of British capital to its subordinate partners in exploitation.

It is on this basis, however, that the programme argues for a broad “progressive movement” which will include sections of the capitalist class:

When assessing the forces that can be mobilised for progress, due account should be taken of divisions within the capitalist class. Some sectors or enterprises orientated towards industry rather than financial services, or the domestic rather than export market, or which are home-owned rather than owned from outside, can be split away from a united front of monopoly capital by appropriate measures. Small business owners may have their own reasons for opposing monopoly power, and their support for anti-monopoly policies can prove important in blocking reactionary mobilisations against the labour movement and the left.

This is an argument for what, in the Stalinist tradition, is referred to as a “popular front”, an alliance which includes not just workers’ organisations but also those of the “progressive” bourgeoisie, against the “immediate” enemy. As well as these, the programme envisages the progressive movement to be made up of the TUC, the left of the Labour Party and worthy campaigns such as Defend Council Housing and Health Campaigns Together. An important, if not leading role is reserved for the Communist Party as “the Marxist party with the largest and deepest roots in the labour movement”. This might appear a laughable claim for such a tiny party but what they really mean is influence over large sections of the trade union bureaucracy. Its role is to provide a “vision” of socialism and a strategy for achieving it. 

The role of this cross-class alliance is to fight for changes against monopoly capitalism, and Britain’s Road to Socialism advances and “Alternative Economic and Political Strategy” (AEPS) and “Left Wing Programme” (LWP) around which the broadest possible coalition of progressive forces can be united. The economic element of this strategy is to advance reforms, which would improve the lives of working people without advocating a radical overthrow of capitalism. Policies include full employment, collective bargaining rights, nationalisation of large monopolies and the “promotion” of industrial democracy.

All of these are envisaged as being achieved within the capitalist system. A place remains for private capital, which should be “directed” into manufacturing and productive industry, and the state should use “planning agreements” with these capitalists to ensure they pursue the left government’s policies. Nationalisation would be limited to certain sectors, such as utilities, transport, finance, oil and pharmaceuticals. The economic strategy is one of state intervention and reform, which leaves the wider capitalist system untouched.

 The Communist Party aims to work within the various progressive movements in society, and win them to the LWP:

The first stage in the revolutionary process in Britain will be signified by a substantial and sustained shift to the left in the labour movement, growing support for key policies of the LWP among the working class and the population more widely, and the development of an anti-monopoly alliance of forces across a range of battles and campaigns.

Once this is achieved, the movement should be mobilised to elect a left-wing government. Because parliamentary democracy is so firmly entrenched in British society, a socialist “revolution” can only come about through the election of such a government. This is likely to be an alliance of progressive “anti-monopoly” parties, “based on a socialist, Labour, communist and progressive majority at the polls”. It does not rule out the involvement of the Greens or the nationalist parties.

The election of a left-wing government committed to the AEPS and LWP marks the “second stage” in Britain’s Road to Socialism. Both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity would need to be utilised in order implement socialist policies. The programme recognises that such a government will face hostility from international capitalism, and this would need to be countered by alliances with countries such as China, but also by focusing on building “socialism in one country” in Britain.

It also acknowledges that the left wing government would face hostility from the pro-capitalist state apparatus in Britain, but this could be counteracted by “changes in recruitment, staffing and management policies”, and the involvement of public sector unions. The unions would also be brought into the military, which would be over-hauled, with a greater role given to reservists.

Once the threat of counter-revolution has been staved off, the left-wing government would now be free to implement Britain’s transition to communism. This would be achieved through the government peacefully extending social ownership into the economy and encouraging a move towards more workers’ cooperatives. There would still, of course, be “scope for small businesses”. Extreme inequality would be “reduced” and capitalism, eventually, would disappear. The transition to communism will be a gradual, incremental affair. 

Reform or Revolution

Britain’s Road to Socialism is thus a comprehensive argument for reformist socialism and the establishment of socialism in one country. As such, its continued popularity amongst reformists in the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy is unsurprising. While it, at times, gives lip service to the need for mass movements and extra-parliamentary activity, it firmly establishes their role to be, first, to elect a left-wing government and, second, to support that government’s implementation of socialist policies. 

Although it acknowledges the hostility of international capital and counter-revolutionaries within the state apparatus, it argues that these can simply be legislated against and reformed away, providing there is a powerful labour an progressive movement outside parliament which can mobilise public opinion to support such a government against economic sabotage by the capitalist elite and the deep state.

But this is an auxiliary supportive role not the principal agency. The Peoples Assembly, founded in 2013, is an expression of this. Readers will easily recognise this as the approach pursued by Jeremy Corbyn, his closest advisers and Jon Lansman’s role for Momentum. Their effectiveness can be judged from their inability to defend Corbyn as leader against the media and Labour right before he could even get into power.

It further argues that socialism can be established in one country, and in fact this is one of the main ways in which the hostility of international capitalism can be countered. A hope is expressed that other countries will follow suit, but their failure to do so will in no way inhibit Britain on its journey to socialism.

The weakness of Britain’s Road to Socialism begins with its premise, that the key to building a “progressive” alliance can be found in opposition to the “common enemy”, monopoly capitalism. It is correct that capitalism has long transitioned to a stage where the world economy, including that of Britain, is dominated by monopolies. It is also correct that the predominance of finance capital has an important influence upon the nature of British capitalism, turning it into an imperialist power, which exploits a share of the world’s subordinate powers primarily through the export of finance capital, rather than manufactured good.

The mistake, however, is to elevate this to being the primary contradiction in British society. In doing so, the Communist Party reject the Marxist concept that the main division in society is between capitalist and worker; instead seeing it as between “state-monopoly capitalists” and everyone else, including other capitalists. This means that the abolition of capitalism ceases to be the main aim, only the abolition of a particular aspect of it.

This mistake itself is rooted in Stalinist theory. When in the 1930s the Soviet Union under Stalin moved decisively away from the idea of international revolution in order to focus upon building “socialism in one country”, its bureaucracy needed to come to terms with international capital and capitalist states. The Communist parties in other countries began to attempt to build cross-class alliances wherever possible. In the third world this took the form of anti-imperialist alliances with the national bourgeoisie. In the West, it took the form of “Popular Fronts” with “progressive” capitalists against fascism.

In the anti-imperialist struggle, the contradiction between imperialism and all classes in the colony or semi-colony was thus raised above that between the working class and capitalism; in the West the contradiction between fascists and anti-fascists was considered primary. In both instances, Leon Trotsky argued that while the anti-imperialist or anti-fascist struggle might be the immediate issue, the working-class should not cede the leadership of those movements to the bourgeoisie by abandoning revolutionary aspects of its programme to the capitalists, who will ultimately betray the working class to pursue their own interests.

It is impossible, however, to achieve socialism in this manner. This is because the primary (strategic) division is that between the interests of the capitalists and those of the workers. Any political alliance between the working class and sections of the bourgeoisie will necessarily require the abandonment of any revolutionary elements of the programme, such as the abolition of private property or the seizure of the means of production, as these would bring about the abolition of the bourgeoisie as a class, obviously something not in their interests. 

Even reformist policies such as the programme of nationalisation argued for in Britain’s Road to Socialism would be treated with outright hostility by the British bourgeoisie, even its smaller elements, who have a vested interest in preventing state intervention and in the sanctity of private property. In fact, the smaller capitalists that the Communist Party envisages forming an alliance with tend to make up some of the most reactionary elements of the British bourgeoisie, as they feel their profits threatened by the smallest changes in taxation or labour regulations.

Small business owners often have a direct, proprietary attitude towards their capital in a way that larger corporations may not. This is borne out by having formed the base of the Conservative Party throughout its modern history and the backbone of every reactionary movement for over a century. Class interests, for Marxists, are paramount in determining political strategy, and a cross-class alliance against one aspect of capitalism cannot be a realistic path to socialism. 

The failure of this approach is born out by history. When Stalin and his supporters pushed for the Chinese Communist Party to form a cross-class alliance with the “national bourgeoisie” led by Chiang Kai-shek, it resulted in workers and communists being massacred by their supposed allies in 1927. The Popular Front government, supported by the Stalinist Communists, did everything it could to hold back the workers’ revolution in Spain and eventually violently suppressed the workers’ movement in Catalonia in 1937. In Chile, from 1970 to 1973, the popular frontist Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, supported by the Communist Party, bent over backwards to win support from “progressive” capitalists, who ultimately backed a fascist coup to displace them.

Capitalists and their parties will always defend their own class interests over those of the working class, and attempts to come to terms with them will ultimately lead to an abandonment of socialist politics, or defeat at their hands.

The reformist approach, by viewing electoral politics and parliamentary activity as the chief vehicle for achieving socialism, abandons the Marxist idea that the liberation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. This is not simply a tactical question. The very act of the working class seizing power for itself, rather than expecting parliamentary representatives to do it on their behalf, is what makes the working class truly free. The revolutionary method insists upon mass working class self-activity, seizing control of the means of production and forming its own centres of power.

It is telling, therefore, that Britain’s Road to Socialism makes little reference to the concept of workers’ control. The working class movement is seen primarily as one element in an electoral coalition, the purpose of which is to elect parliamentary representatives and support them in passing “progressive” legislation.

There is an occasional reference to workers’ cooperatives and a democratised economy, but these will be encouraged by the socialist government, rather than created by the self-activity of the working class; they certainly are not seen as alternative centres of power to the capitalist state, let alone as the basis of a workers’ state, as the soviets (workers’ councils) were developed to become in 1917. This fact alone shows that the CPB envisages a bureaucratic, degenerate form of socialism, bereft of its beating, revolutionary heart.

The programme also underestimates the level of resistance even a reformist left wing government could expect from the capitalist class. The measures described in Britain’s Road to Socialism, such as staffing changes in the civil service and reforms to the military, would not be enough to prevent attempts to paralyse or even overthrow a socialist government.

The state is ultimately in the service of the ruling class; therefore socialism through Parliament is not achievable. Workers need to form their own revolutionary organisations and use them as the basis for a new system of self-government, out of the organisations they have created through struggle. The “workers’ state”, as envisaged by Marx and Engels, and described by Lenin in State and Revolution, is not simply a majority “progressive” government in Parliament. It is a new Kind of state, or as Lenin says a “semi-state”, a state on the way to self-dissolution, formed by the workers themselves, for the purpose of destroying the bourgeoisie as a class and enabling workers to administer production and distribution themselves without the need for a permanent state bureaucracy, police or standing army.

In Russia from 1917, it was the system of factory committees and soviets, created during the revolution, that were the basis of the new workers government. By leaving the state apparatus of the capitalists largely untouched, in the naïve belief that it could be used to implement socialism, a left-wing government in Britain would face the same fate as Allende’s in Chile 1973 – its violent overthrow by counter-revolution. The capitalists’ state must be “smashed” i.e. totally dismantled and their resistance suppressed, violently when necessary.

Problems with Stalinism

One theme of Britain’s Road to Socialism is its insistence that it is a programme specific to Britain. As already discussed, it was the turn towards building “socialism in one country” that set the Stalinist parties down the reformist path, as by necessity this project requires a “socialist” country coming to terms with international capital.

Socialism, however, cannot peacefully coexist with capitalism, as these are two completely antagonistic social and economic systems, just as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are antagonistic classes. One must always win out against the other. The failure of international revolution to spread following the Russian Revolution of 1917 is what ultimately led to the Soviet Union’s degeneration and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Any revolution in Britain or elsewhere is doomed to failure unless it spreads elsewhere. For this reason solidarity with the workers’ movement across the world should be a fundamental principle.

A parochial, national outlook permeates the CPB’s approach throughout the programme, privileging alliances with British capitalists over international solidarity. This is evidenced by its treatment of the question of the European Union. Britain’s Road to Socialism considers the EU to be one of the main obstacles to the construction of socialism in Britain, an agent of international monopoly capitalism. However, rather than seeing the aim as being to overturn capitalism and construct socialism across Europe, the programme sees the task as being to build socialism within Britain’s borders, thus separating the UK from the EU is necessary.

A narrow view of socialism as a national project, completely divorced from the international working class movement, allows the Communist Party to privilege all manner of “alliances” with our own bourgeoisie. The type of bourgeois that formed the backbone of the Brexit movement – racist petty bourgeois, small employers concerned with “regulations” which impede their exploitation of workers, and financial speculators hoping to turn a profit – should warn us of the kind of “cross-class alliance” the CPB hopes to form to build “socialism in one country”. 

The contents of Britain’s Road to Socialism make it clear where the faults with the Communist Party and its fellow travellers lie. It is not simply nostalgic romanticism for past totalitarian regimes and the whitewashing of their historic crimes. Nor is it even their continued support for states such as China and Assad’s Syria and apologism or denial of their monstrous crimes. These are all a by-product, however abhorrent, of the party’s reformist politics, which seeks alliances with those who have no interest in building socialism, and ultimately holding back or wrecking the workers’ movement in the name of these alliances.

The CPB’s reformism largely takes the form of tailing the left of the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy. In other West European countries, such as Italy and France, mass Communist parties were able to form alliances with the “progressive” bourgeoisie under their own steam. Since in Britain the Communist Party never gained a mass membership, it has mostly confined itself to tailing the Labour Party in the hope of exerting influence through it. 

The CPB and its fellow travellers were amongst the most vocal supporters of the Corbyn leadership but failed completely to push for anything like a mass workers’ movement, let alone revolutionary politics. The Corbyn “movement” was always seen as auxiliary to the strategy of winning an election. For this the prerequisite was to maintain the unity of a parliamentary party (PLP) still in the hands of the right and a at the same time to prevent the new mass membership from fighting to remove the right wing MPs or councillors or to democratically decide the policies a left Labour government would pursue.

The broad alliance with the Labour right, not to speak support of progressive parties and business owners, turned out to be an illusion. Unfortunately the failure of the Labour left in the branches and the unions to self-organise and take control of “their” movement, out of a misplaced loyalty to Corbyn, led to the collapse of the whole project.If at all active in the British labour movement, one is likely to come across any number of left Labour activists and trade union officials whose views reflect the politics of Britain’s Road to Socialism. This, however, does not suggest that the party has the ability to actually shape politics in these circles, so much as its programme simply reflects the outlook of Britain’s labour officialdom – the primacy of elections and parliamentary politics over workers’ mass movements, alliances with the “progressive” capitalists over class struggle, petty nationalism over international solidarity. As such this programme is less of a road map to socialism, so much as a path of endless compromise in politics and in principles.

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