December 30, 2020 | 45 minutes read | Tags: Class struggle in Britain, News & Analysis, Revolutionary history, Theory

The Road to Nowhere: A Critique of the Parliamentary Programme of the CPB

Breaking the nightmarish logic of capitalist realism necessitates a shattering of illusions in left reformism and the ‘parliamentary road’ as representing anything other than a brake on working-class emancipation.

The Road to Nowhere: A Critique of the Parliamentary Programme of the CPB
There is no such “peaceful, gradual” way [to socialism] … It is nothing less than a crime to delude the workers with the false hope that the capitalists will quietly lay down their powers and privileges if only sufficient Labour members of Parliament are elected.

Communist Party of Great Britain, For Soviet Britain (1935)

[The] revolution can and should be achieved peacefully as far as possible, combining the power of mass organisations such as trade unions and campaigns to push the struggle forwards with representation at parliamentary and local elections.

Website of the Young Communist League (2020)

The ‘revolutionary’ left in Britain has long suffered from an unhealthy obsession with parliamentary manoeuvrings. Even with the demise of Corbynism, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB)’s ‘strategy’ for achieving socialism revolves around brokering electoral alliances with ‘left-wing’ Labour MPs. Yet the Labour left has always exerted a moderating influence on the working-class movement, helping make Britain safe from revolution during key periods of inter- and post-war industrial militancy, as well as successfully co-opting and defanging countless extra-parliamentary social movements. The CPB remains stuck in the eternal farce of assuming that the end goal of electing a left-reformist government justifies the most self-defeating means: permanent class collaborationism, equivocations and ‘lesser evilism’, betrayal of proletarian internationalism, and erasure of Labour lefts’ longstanding occupation as agents of the ruling class.

The CPB’s notion of a harmonious parliamentary road to socialism through cross-class coalitions is predicated on revisionism – specifically, its negation of the foundational Marxist understanding of the state as functionally a ruling-class dictatorship, and subsequent inability to prepare the working class for defensive measures against counterrevolutionary terror. In order to understand this sorry state of affairs, this article examines the development of revisionist deviations in the original Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), formed 100 years ago.

The seeds of revisionism were present at the CPGB’s inception in its decidedly soft attitude to the Labour Party, for which it was repeatedly censured by the Communist International (Comintern). Problems were caused by the relative absence of an existing Marxist tradition in early-twentieth century Britain, exacerbating the confusion sown within the CPGB by the post-Lenin Comintern’s policy vacillations. With the notable exception of its ‘Class Against Class’ period (1929-34), the CPGB often found itself riding the coattails of Labour and the conservative trade union bureaucracy, and it failed to provide independent revolutionary leadership during crucial moments of class war,  like the 1926 General Strike, and the miners’ showdown with Thatcher. What began as a ‘temporary’ abandonment of the Leninist insurrectionary path to socialism in the face of the anti-fascist Popular Front, ended with the CPGB advocating all-out class collaboration in the form of the neo-Keynesian ‘Alternative Economy Strategy’. Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, the purportedly ‘Marxist-Leninist’ CPB today has, as we will see, relegated its role to that of a think tank for pro-capitalist reformers.

Lenin’s original assessment of the Labour Party has been heavily sanitised by the CPB (and various Trotskyist groups), and his insistence on exposing the political opportunism of left reformists is forgotten. Lenin, while not rejecting engagement in electoral politics altogether, insisted that ‘criticism of parliamentarism is not only legitimate and necessary’ but is ‘quite correct, as being the recognition of the historically conditional and limited character of parliamentarism, its connection with capitalism and capitalism alone … and of its reactionary character as compared with Soviet power.’ Socialism can only realistically be achieved by building up counter-hegemony (dual power) capable of confronting the existing capitalist state machine, and the historical example of the workers’ Councils of Action in interwar Britain remains instructive. In this critical conjuncture in the protracted global breakdown of capitalism, we need to shatter any remaining illusions in the bogus parliamentary road, and reconnect with the post-war anti-revisionist critique.

Roots of Revisionism

When the Communist International (Comintern) was formed in 1919, one of its first tasks was to encourage the creation of a unified Communist Party in Britain. Lenin was particularly concerned to check the syndicalist and ‘left Communist’ tendencies of British socialism, which spurned involvement in electoral politics altogether. In his ‘Speech on Affiliation to the British Labour Party’ in 1920, Lenin instructed the CPGB to attempt to affiliate with Labour as a strictly tactical gambit, based on his (hotly contested) assessment that Labour was still a flexible political federation, in which revolutionaries would retain ‘sufficient freedom to write that certain leaders of the Labour Party are traitors … [and] agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement.’ Lenin still viewed Labour as a ‘thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie’.

The CPGB was formed from a number of small existing socialist organisations, and especially because of the loss of prominent leftists like Sylvia Pankhurst during the affiliation controversy, the largest contingent came from the British Socialist Party. The BSP took a very lenient approach to Labour and placed an overemphasis on parliamentarism, to the extent that it was censured for this by Lenin.[1] Further problems arose from the general immaturity of Marxism in Britain – notably the absence of English-language translations of many of Marx’s political writings, and, until 1929, of Lenin’s seminal What Is To Be Done?[2] In May 1924 Ruth Fischer, the German Communist Party leader, attended the CPGB congress and reported to the Comintern how the British Communists expressed ‘the loyal attitude of the left wing within the Labour Party itself rather than the attitude of a Communist Party really fighting against the government’. In his reply, the Comintern Chair Grigory Zinoviev admitted that the CPGB was ‘at present no better than the Left German Social Democrats’.[3]

Lenin himself did not write much specifically on Labour’s ‘left’ wing, but from his fierce polemics against Mensheviks in Russia and the renegade Kautsky, his position on left reformism was hardly a secret. Lenin lambasted the brand of opportunists who ‘flaunt before the workers high-sounding phrases about recognising revolution but as far as deeds are concerned go no farther than adopting a purely reformist attitude’; emphasising how the capitalist class ‘needs hirelings who enjoy the trust of a section of the working class, whitewash and prettify the bourgeoisie with talk about the reformist path being possible, throw dust in the eyes of the people by such talk, and divert the people from revolution’. The United Front strategy, formalised by the Comintern in 1922, instructed ‘absolute autonomy and complete independence of every Communist Party’ vis-à-vis social-democratic organisations, including ‘freedom to present its own views and its criticisms of those who oppose the Communists’.

However, after Lenin’s untimely death in early 1924, the Comintern’s application of the United Front became increasingly muddled. A watershed moment came during the Fifth Comintern Congress in July 1924 when Zinoviev, frustrated by the slow advance of the CPGB, promoted the misguided notion of ‘the other door’ to a mass Communist Party in Britain: through strategic alliances with ‘not merely the lefts in the TUC [Trades Union Congress] but also the left wing of the Labour Party’, which was to be encouraged to develop along ‘revolutionary’ lines. By December 1924, the Comintern was insisting that ‘one of the most important prerequisites for the development of the Communist Party of Great Britain to a real mass party is to be found in the crystallisation of a left wing within the Labour Party. On this account the Communist Party should assist in the organisation of this Left Wing, which is the expression of the masses’ desire for struggle’.[4] During a crucial period in the class war in Britain, Zinoviev’s intervention inadvertently consolidated the latent rightist tendency that already existed in the CPGB, catalysing an absolute shift away from Lenin’s original line on tactical affiliation, to a pursuance of strategic alliances with the left wing of governing reformism.

It is often forgotten how revolutionary the interwar years were in Britain, which witnessed a groundswell of popular indignation against mass unemployment and savage wage cuts. There was a full-scale revolt on the Clyde, with wholesale arrests and deportations of strike leaders. The Comintern’s new position on the Labour ‘left’ was especially devastating in the lead up to and during the 1926 General Strike, as the CPGB refused to acknowledge the treachery of the reformists. Taking his cue from the Soviet delegation, Rajani Palme Dutt, the CPGB’s foremost theorist, greeted the election of Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour government in 1924 as ‘a victory for the working class’, and wrote that ‘We are not fighting against the Labour government, which it is our concern to uphold and sustain against the attacks of the bourgeoisie’.[5] But it was immediately apparent that MacDonald was intent on suppressing the new strike wave, with the first ever meeting of a Labour Cabinet setting in motion the Emergency Powers Act, enabling the government to use troops against workers.[6] In 1925, the new Conservative government prepared for a class showdown by drawing up extensive martial law plans to take control of essential supplies, as well as enlisting the assistance of paramilitary fascist strike-breakers. A police raid on the CPGB’s London headquarters led to the arrests of 12 leading Communists including Harry Pollitt.

During April the following year, 2.5 million workers struck for eight days, paralysing the movement of goods and fuel. They were joined by a further million workers on the last day of the strike. Certain areas of the country including Northumberland and Durham were under the total control of workers’ Councils of Action, which had begun to link up on a regional basis and even establish proletarian militias. Despite the internment of their national leadership, Communists played a crucial role at the local level: ‘Wherever the Councils of Action were most effective, wherever the local strike was most solid, there a knot of CP members was usually to be found in the thick of it’, coordinating actions, organising strike funds and food distribution, and printing bulletins.[7] Ultimately the strike faltered in the face of acute state repression, with mass arrests including of over 1,000 Communists, gunboats anchored at Mersey, Clyde and Cardiff, and battalions dispatched to Liverpool and Hyde Park.[8]

However, the CPGB made a crucial strategic error in failing to expose the reactionary role of Labour and the TUC General Council. On the instruction of the Soviet delegation on the eve of the strike, and instead of advancing an independent revolutionary line, the CPGB adopted the tailist slogan ‘All Power to the General Council’.[9] This was despite the fact that, as Clydeside revolutionary and founding CPGB member Willie Gallacher later explained, the TUC and Labour leadership had ‘succeeded, through the decisions of the 1925 [Labour] conference, in isolating us from the general body of the workers, and the Baldwin Government, as part of its preparations for the attack on the miners, followed up with our arrest and imprisonment. As early as 1925 [Ramsay] MacDonald, [J.H.] Thomas and Co. were working in close combination with Baldwin against the revolutionary advance of the working class.’[10] The CPGB’s muted criticism of Labour was based on its desire not to alienate TUC and Labour ‘lefts’ like George Hicks, George Lansbury, Alfred Purcell and John Bromley; even though these politicians had backed the Labour Party’s expulsion of Communists. A March 1926 CPGB statement targeted only ‘a small number of labour leaders’ for failing to represent working-class interests, presenting a narrative of betrayal by a minority of right wingers. In the runup to the national confrontation, the CPGB’s manifesto The Political Meeting of the General Strike failed to pinpoint the opportunism of the left reformists, and instead of presenting a Communist transitional programme it merely called for the election of another Labour government. As Gallacher retrospectively lamented, ‘A class action such as was in progress then demanded a class leadership, a leadership that had not been corrupted by, and made part of, the bourgeoisie.’[11]

Among Trotskyists and the revisionist ‘C’PB today, charges of ‘left Communism’ are frequently levelled whenever anybody has the gall to advocate independence from Labour. Such accusations confuse Lenin’s own analysis in several ways. Firstly, they typically equate his positions on political parliamentary reformism with the role of revolutionaries within trade unions (the latter being based on a distinct struggle against spontaneous economism/trade union consciousness). Secondly, they forget his conditionality of retaining absolute political independence and freedom to criticise Labourites (affiliation with Labour on such grounds has never, in one hundred years, proved to be possible); and thirdly, they wrongly assume Labour is the same loosely federalist organisation it was in the first decade of the 1900s.

It is worth remembering that Lenin’s writings on affiliation were before the Labour Party had accrued ruling experience (the first Labour government was formed the very day after Lenin’s death). Once in power, left reformists are not immune from the ‘parliamentary embrace’ – the inevitably moderating effect of mingling with ‘the Great Ones, the Powerful Ones, the Lordly Ones’. The multifarious pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to conform to the role of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition saw the life-long anti-monarchist and purported internationalist singing along to the national anthem and giving a tribute speech to the queen of the realm on the occasion of her 90th birthday. As Lenin emphasised, governing bodies are ‘bound by thousands of threads to the bourgeoisie and permeated through and through with routine and inertia’ – one example being the ‘revolving door’ of the establishment, with politicians spending their time in business boardrooms and meeting with senior civil servants, media bosses, police commissioners, arms traders and so on. These threads have only gotten tighter and tighter as imperialism developed throughout the twentieth century, and the increasing concentration of economic power into fewer hands has engendered a corresponding concentration of political power, severely limiting the scope for manoeuvre in the parliamentary sphere within the advanced capitalist countries.

The contemporary CPB and various Trotskyists make a mockery of Lenin’s analysis of Labour. When Lenin referred to the ‘bourgeois labour party’ he did not mean ‘half proletarian and half capitalist’! Its ‘left’ wing has always shared the right’s commitment to bourgeois-reformist Labourite politics and ideology: in essence a merger of the British traditions of bureaucratic trade union collaborationism, Owenite social-reformism and imperial English patriotism. Even the New Leftist Ralph Miliband (the father of Dave and Ed) was forced to admit that ‘the belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone.’ The hegemony of Labourism on the British left ensures that whenever working-class struggles (whether inside or outside the workplace) transcend narrow economism, their political aspirations are diffused into safe mediatory channels. As Dutt wrote after the experience of the 1920s:

The workers are urged to believe that if only the Labour government would move a point or two to the “Left”, all would be well; instead of being assisted to see that the whole line of the Labour government is the line of capitalism and imperialism, against the workers and that, therefore, support of the Labour government is necessarily support of capitalism. In this way, the “Left” and the “Right” in the Labour Party are objectively allied parts of a single machine. (Labour Monthly, January 1930)

The relationship between the ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings of reformism is symbiotic. The Labour left functions as a ‘safety valve for the radical mood of the masses’, converting workers’ emancipatory aspirations into ‘left phrases of opposition’ that place no real obligations on the pro-capitalist reformers.[12] When the Labour Party headquarters joined in the anti-Communist witchhunts in 1924-6, the foremost ‘left-wing’ Labour MP George Lansbury supported the policy in the name of party ‘unity’, and in his Labour Weekly denounced Communist sympathisers as ‘wreckers’. After Lansbury inherited the Labour leadership in 1932, he pursued a policy of ‘MacDonaldism without MacDonald’, blocking proposals that Labour-controlled councils refuse to enforce the draconian Means Test on unemployment relief.[13]

The wild contradictions within the CPGB generated by the Comintern’s Third Period (1928-34) are largely beyond the scope of the present analysis, but for now it’s worth noting that despite pinballing from Labour-tailism to ultra-left sectarianism (i.e. frenzied splittism and calling left reformists ‘social fascists’), these years did see the party begin to develop an independent revolutionary politics of ‘Class Against Class’. Communist historian Willie Thompson outlines how during this time the CPGB ‘schooled its activists diligently in both political analysis and practical organisational and agitational skills. They were therefore able to become very effective practitioners, influential far beyond their numbers, in trade union and political struggles, whether on the shop-floor, pursuing Comintern objectives in the British colonies or engaged in anti-fascist activity’.[14] The problem was that the renewed critique of reformism was seen primarily in tactical terms, and the underlying revisionist strain was allowed to fester. The overall outlook of the CPGB’s 1935 programme For Soviet Britain was red, but it still contained ‘a pink vein of Social-Democratic thought’.[15] As a result, with the advent of the anti-fascist Popular Front, the party had little trouble seeking alliances ‘first with Labourites, then Liberals and finally “progressive” Tories such as the Duchess of Atholl’; and by the end of the Second World War, it had virtually become an organic appendage of the bourgeois Labour Party.[16] As Jack Conrad puts it, what ‘starts off as a minor watering down of principle’ for the sake of short-term advantage ‘ends in class treachery.’[17]

Peaceful Coexistence in One Country

The CPGB’s revisionism solidified post-WWII, as it seamlessly transitioned from the Popular Front policy of winning the war to an absurd permanent class-collaborationist position of ‘winning the peace’. Its wartime no-strikes policy continued in the months following the Allied victory, including opposition to the industrial action taken by dockers; while its new programme, The British Road to Socialism (BRS), placed a renewed emphasis on parliamentarism and a reorientation of party work towards residential branches and away from workplace organising.[18] The party’s adaptation to reformism was inextricably tied to its social imperialism, which is discussed in a recent Ebb Magazine article.

While Stalin was involved in drafting the BRS (which for CPBers is grounds to dogmatically uphold the programme, and for Trotskyists provides ammunition for the simplified narrative of the retrograde ‘Stalinisation’ of British Communism), he nevertheless criticised the CPGB for holding in his words ‘a very soft and completely unprincipled position in the struggle against the Labour Party’. M.B. Mitin, a leading Soviet theoretician, subsequently drew up a report on the ‘Social-Democratic deviation’ in the CPGB, arguing: ‘the Communist Party’s Executive Committee clearly overestimates the role of the Labour Party and in fact gives the Communist Party only an auxiliary role ... The Communists of England do not understand the independent role of the Communist Party and its special tasks. The Labour Party becomes for them, as it were, the center of all their aspirations’.

As in 1920-6, the CPGB focused on influencing the Labour ‘left’, which it saw ‘as a bridge between itself and the rank and file of the Labour Party’. But as Miliband explained, this approach was fundamentally flawed:

What [the CPGB] fails to see is that the Labour Left has traditionally been and remains a bridge (and a much-trampled bridge at that) between the rank and file and the Labour leadership. The Labour Left does not, so to speak, open out leftwards but rightwards: it affords an important link between the activists and the leadership, and cannot as a constituent element of the Labour Party help but do so. It may be a nuisance at times; but it is nevertheless exceedingly useful to the Labour leaders. It helps to keep alive the myth of a transformable Labour Party. The Communist Party in its turn and at one remove is involved in the same enterprise.

Oppositional sentiments within the party began to spill over, and there were ‘a whole slew of branch resolutions to the 1945 congress that were critical of the CPGB’s attitude to the Labour government’.[19] The Glasgow Party Secretary Bob McIlhone laid out the major points of contention:

The slurring over of class differences in Britain and the sharpening class struggle against monopoly capitalism. The neglect of basic propaganda and agitation on the decisive role of the working class against the dictatorship of monopoly capitalism and for socialism. The confusing of the class relations in Britain by an emphasis on the mutual interests of “progressive Toryism” and the labour movement in the post-war period. The failure to study and learn from the working class that our policy of “national unity” was not in accordance with the developing political sentiment of the workers.[20]

The CPGB’s anti-Leninist deviation was indeed so overt (mirroring the Browderised CPUSA) that the Australian Communist Party published an official polemic in 1948, stating that:

[Revisionism] reached its climax in the [CPGB] central committee’s pronouncements that Britain was “in transition to socialism”. The non-Marxist character of this estimation is quite clear when it is remembered that here we are dealing with the second-strongest imperialist power in the world, where monopoly capitalism is in complete control and the bourgeois state has not been undermined and the government is led by social democrats whose role is so well known to students of Marxism-Leninism as that of the saviours of capitalism, more particularly in the moments of its gravest crisis[21]

The CPGB was once again tailing a Labour ‘left’ devoted to safeguarding capitalism. The current Communist Party of Britain characterises Labour as an organisation permanently polarised between a ‘social-democratic’ and a ‘socialist trend’, with the latter supposedly being hostile to monopoly capitalism, but this is magical thinking.[22] Labour has never been a ‘centrist’ party like the German USPD, straddling a line between revolution and reform: both its ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings are wholly committed to reform within the current capitalist system. Immediately after the Allied victory, the Labour government imposed wage constraints and efficiency measures in the nationalised industries, provoking strikes by dockers, gas workers, miners and lorry drivers. From 1945-51, Labour declared two states of emergency and on 18 different occasions deployed troops to take over strikers’ jobs. In secret, the government also revived the Supply and Transport Organisation, used in 1926 to help crush the General Strike, with the active involvement of prominent ‘left wingers’. These included Aneurin Bevan (celebrated as the ‘socialist’ founder of the NHS) and Stafford Cripps, previously a proponent of unity with the CPGB, who upon being appointed President of the Board of Trade, declared: ‘I think it would be impossible to have worker-controlled industry in Britain’.[23]

The counterrevolutionary pressure of McCarthyite state subversion also played a significant role in the CPGB’s deterioration. The new Labour government set up a cabinet Committee on Subversive Activities in 1947, and the following year there was an anti-Communist purge of the civil service. The TUC General Council encouraged unions to ban CPGB members from office, leading to nine Communists being expelled from the executive of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. While MI6 spent ‘years penetrating the official Communist Parties in Western Europe’, the domestic state apparatus ‘firmly fixed its sights’ on the CPGB: its headquarters were bugged by MI5, and influential academics associated with the party including E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm were placed under extensive surveillance. Before the war the party was even infiltrated by a sleeper agent, Olga Gray, resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of several members.

The party nevertheless retained significant influence among the organised working class, and in 1966 it formed the Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Unions (LCDTU) in response to the Wilson government’s attack on collective bargaining rights. The LCDTU, however, remained subordinate to the party’s new strategy ‘with its stress on a parliamentary road and its perspective of building up of electoral alliances within the trade unions to pressurise Labour towards more left-wing positions’. This hamstrung the CPGB’s ability to constitute any political vanguard during the militant workplace struggles of 1970-4 – although, as in the interwar years, rank-and-file Communists were often at the forefront of these industrial battles.[24] Complementary to the CPGB’s tailing of the Labour left was its innocuous ‘Broad Left’ approach to trade unionism, which entailed brokering alliances with ‘radical’ reformists, in a plea to exert Communist influence on the trade union bloc vote at the annual Labour Party conference and drag the party leftwards. In the 1967 presidential election in the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) the CPGB canvassed for Hugh Scanlon, regarded an ‘extreme’ left-winger, instead of the Communist candidate Reg Birch (who subsequently turned to Maoism). Once in office, Scanlon, a self-avowed Marxist, spurned rank-and-file militancy, dropped the engineers’ demand for a shorter working week and put an end to their sit-ins, essentially eroding the credibility of the left within the union. The Communists for their part ‘faithfully executed official [AEU] strategy and opposed attempts even to organize a joint occupation committee.’[25]

The CPGB had abdicated its duty to struggle against the limits of narrow trade union consciousness. The purpose of unions is the short-term fight for better wages and conditions, rather than the abolition of the capitalist system: thus, as Lenin recognised, they inevitably inculcate ‘a certain craft narrow-mindedness, a certain tendency to be non-political, a certain inertness, etc. [i.e. pure “economism”]’. Communist must, as Lenin stressed, wage a relentless battle against economism, ‘to a point when all the incorrigible leaders of opportunism and social-chauvinism are completely discredited and driven out of the trade unions.’ To eschew this duty is to throw the working-class movement into the hands of the reformists and social patriots. The current Communist Party of Britain continues to defend the Broad Left ‘strategy’ at its Trade Union Futures website, while the 2020 edition of its BRS programme states that the TUC ‘must play a leading role in taking bold, broad-based and campaigning initiatives’, and utilise its ‘unique leverage within the Labour Party’.[26] What was true in the 1960s remains true today:

Given its affinity to the trade union bureaucracy, the BRS is afraid to call for trade unions to become politically dependent on the Communist Party, afraid to say that communists should fearlessly fight for democracy in the trade unions and seek to replace reformist leaders with communist ones who would work under the iron discipline of the Party, afraid to call for trade unions to be made into schools for revolution.[27]

The CPB presents a historical narrative that blames any rightist deviations in the original CPGB on the Eurocommunist intellectuals like Hobsbawm associated with the party’s theoretical journal Marxism Today, which was counterposed to the ‘traditionalist’ trade union flank aligned with the Morning Star daily paper. Yet as the party had long since abandoned Leninism, there was little qualitative difference in the Eurocommunist-authored 1977 BRS: as Willie Thompson admits, the changes ‘were more of style and terminology than of real substance’ – for instance the formulation ‘broad popular alliance’ was replaced with ‘broad democratic alliance’.[28] Likewise, Lawrence Parker in his study of minority anti-revisionist trends in the CPGB notes that, throughout the entire post-war period, ‘the culture of most CPGB trade unionists and their practical and ideological reliance on bourgeois institutions that regulated and controlled labour power (trade unions) was complementary to the reliance of the BRS on the bourgeois crutch of the Labour Party’.[29] The difference between the original BRS upheld by the CPB and the Eurocommunist revision was simply a matter of degrees of reformism.

The CPB especially plays up the self-serving ‘Euros versus traditionalists’ schema in its account of the great miners’ confrontation with Thatcher in 1984-5, emphasising how the ‘Eurocommunists, now the dominant force in the Party leadership, had launched a furious attack on the class-based, pro-Soviet politics of the Morning Star and its editor Tony Chater’.[30] But in practice, the Euros and the Chater faction from which the CPB sprung were united when it came to tailing Labour and the TUC. An anti-revisionist factional publication in the CPGB, The Leninist, complained of the traditionalist wing how, on the eve of the miners’ strike, ‘instead of directing this struggle against the capitalist system, we are told to “support all campaigns by the TUC”, to fight for “binding ever closer the traditional organic links between the trade unions and the Labour Party, which is the mass party of the working class and its allies”; for our leadership believes that the crisis of capitalism can be overcome, without socialism, that the TUC’s Alternative Economic Strategy can transcend all the economic laws of capitalism’.[31] Indeed, the ‘C’PB says the problem was that the Euros should have given more support to the Labour ‘left’, stating:

In a period when the resurgent Labour left headed by Tony Benn would have benefited from Communist support and advice about the importance of extra-parliamentary alliances and mass struggle, the Eurocommunists instead denounced Labour Party socialists as the “hard left”. … The revisionist leadership spent much of its time sniping at Scargill and militant picketing rather than meeting the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] leadership to plan solidarity activities.[32]

As usual, however, the left Labourites played a reactionary role, putting a brake on the miners’ militancy. Tony Benn, while rhetorically sympathetic to the miners and their leader Arthur Scargilll, did not want to upset the right-wing Labour leadership and so withdrew a motion to the National Executive Committee (NEC) calling for countrywide demonstrations, in favour of calls for discussions with the NUM bureaucracy.[33] The CPGB particularly failed to expose the opportunism of Neil Kinnock, originally a member of the Tribunite left, who upon becoming Labour leader set about making the party safe for Blairism. On 19 April 1984 the Morning Star ran the headline ‘Kinnock Gives Complete Backing to Miners’ Fight’, but in reality Kinnock took a ‘both-sides’ approach to the confrontation, and at that year’s annual Labour conference went out of his way to attack the ‘violence’ of the strikers.[34] Similarly, on 9 March 1985 Morning Star reported that the Scottish miners’ leaders ‘were greatly encouraged by positive support from Labour leader Neil Kinnock in their campaign to get hundreds of sacked miners their jobs back’ – when Kinnock had actually refused to support amnesty for all those who had been sacked.[35]

Scargillism was essentially a militant syndicalism that never transcended radical reformism, and yet the CPGB leadership (and several Trotskyist groups) attacked it from the right, criticising the strikers’ combative tactics and opposing the formation of miners’ defence squads. This was hypocritical, since these groups universally celebrated historical workers’ defensive militias, like those formed in 1926, but when there were themselves in the midst of class war – and this was warfare in a literal sense, as trade unionists came up against a force of 20,000 police officers armed with truncheons and utilising mounted charges, illegal fingerprinting, snatch squats and agents provocateurs – they suddenly became pacifists.[36] Some leading CPGBers did refuse to condemn the miners’ confrontational approach, and instead attacked the constitutionalist fetish of their critics – for instance Mick McGahey, a prominent Communist in the NUM, mocked the ‘ballotitis’ of the Labour lefts.[37] But, contra the CPB’s retelling, Morning Star also distanced itself from workers’ militancy:

The Morning Star and its new breed of centrist followers, the positive interpreters of the British road, have also considered it their “communist duty” to tail the NUM, following every twist and turn of the NUM executive like a shadow. Thus in the wake of Arthur Scargill’s declaration that “the NUM disassociated itself” from the attack in which taxi driver David Wilkie was killed [the tragic blunder that provided an excuse for Kinnock’s attack on Scargillism], the Morning Star editor came out with the following statement: “Throughout nine months of warfare against the pit community the Tory media has focused on violence no trade unionist would condone.” This is, of course, a foul attack on the justified, heroic and audacious resistance of rank-and-file miners, who have been forced to organise their violence against police terror.

At the local level, individual CPGB members took leading roles in organising picket lines, winning solidarity from other sectors and collecting strike funds. But in their desire not to alienate the left Labourites, the party leadership, along with the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, followed Kinnock in hiding behind calls for a national ballot, and opposed the launching of flying pickets into the Nottinghamshire coalfield, the crucial strategic site in the conflict where half the workforce scabbed. Thatcher successfully isolated the area through a military-style onslaught, and rather than the lack of a ballot, which likely would not have passed anyway, what may have proved fatal was the absence of an ‘active picketing strategy’, which ‘backed up with a propaganda offensive from the outset of the strike might have won a much larger network of support in the area, thereby considerably diminishing the damage to the strike that transpired.’[38] And instead of clinging to the coattails of the trade union bureaucracy, the CPGB could have encouraged the formation of militant committees modelled on the 1926 Councils of Action, an idea raised by the leader of Kent NUM:

If organised and under the democratic control of the militant rank and file in the National Union of Mineworkers and the miners support committees … such bodies could have transformed the defensive actions of the miners - the spontaneous retaliation against police attacks, the sporadic attacks on scabs or coach companies transporting them - and put the strikers on the front foot.

In addition to the Euros and the Chaterites in the CPGB was the Straight Left faction, which contained a number of members who later became prominent figures in the CPB including John Foster (the CPB’s ‘International Secretary’) and Andrew Murray (currently Chief of Staff to Unite). The Straight Left represented ‘a “traditionalist” distillation of the CPGB’s post-war reformist drift’, and held a right-liquidationist position of literally merging the Communist Party with Labour.[39] During the miners’ strike Murray (who in 2016 jumped ship from the CPB to become a close advisor to Corbyn) wrote in the Morning Star that ‘the Parliamentary Labour Party did its duty to those who sent them to parliament’. As The Leninist complained, ‘Such is the Labourphilia of the Straight Leftists that they insist on lionising scabs like Kinnock, ascribing the treachery of the Labour Party not to its loyalty to the capitalist system, not to the fact that it is a bourgeois workers’ party, but to mere “mistakes”.’ There is a striking parallel here to the CPGB’s calamitously passive approach to Labour during the 1926 General Strike. The inability of the CPGB to provide a modicum of revolutionary direction during the Miners’ Strike cannot just be put down to the ‘rotten elements’ of the Eurocommunist wing, but was rather the result of revisionist ideas about the nature of the capitalist state which the Communist leadership had long shared with Labour ‘lefts’.

Alternative Economic and Political Strategies… for Capital

Interpretations of socialism became even more muddled in the discussions surrounding the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES). In the context of waning global economic boom conditions, successive Labour administrations in the late 1960s and 1970s broke with social-democratic orthodoxy, implementing massive cuts to public spending in exchange for several IMF loans to bolster the pound.[40] The AES, developed by Labour lefts like Tony Benn, some leading trade unionists and the CPGB, was an attempt to revive Keynesian class compromise.[41] An important reference point in the AES debates was British Leyland, the state-owned car company whose nationalisation under a Labour government in 1975 was interpreted by Communists as a vindication of the BRS. At Longbridge factory, the biggest in Leyland, the key union figure was Communist Works Convenor Derek Robinson, nicknamed ‘Red Robbo’. Robinson declared a need to convince ‘the broad masses of people on the shop floor that they’ve got a vested interest in efficiency’, and that to ‘make Leyland successful as a publicly-owned company … will be a major political victory.’ As James Eaden and David Renton explain, ‘Leading Communist activists such as Robinson, effectively saw their role as winning the loyalty of the rank and file for a restructuring plan which entailed job losses and speed ups on the production line’. In February 1977, when skilled toolroom workers at Leyland struck against the terms of Labour’s collaborationist Social Contract, they were publicly denounced by their union leader, and the Broad Left, Scanlon, and Robinson all encouraged Leyland workers to cross picket lines. The lack of principled political leadership ensured there was little resistance to the 12,500 redundancies at Leyland under Jim Callaghan’s Labour government the following year.[42]

As the Revolutionary Communist League of Britain (RCLB, a Maoist grouplet) pointed out at the time: ‘What is class collaboration in “private” industry is class collaboration in nationalised industries too. This class collaboration with a “left” face is the hall-mark of the so-called “Communist” Party of Great Britain.’ Placing a few workers on company boards, an AES staple that was revived by Corbyn, was identified by the RCLB as little more than a ploy to ‘involve workers in the planning of their own exploitation’. As happened at Leyland, ‘workers’ participation’ under collaborationist terms simply leads to a situation where the gap between lay employees and ‘an increasingly bureaucratised layer of full time stewards and convenors’ grows.[43] The AES is a prime example of the one-way route to reformism identified by Miliband. The CPGB basically achieved what it laid out in its programme, from the successful defence of Clause IV to the crystallisation of a left-Labour faction committed to revisionist parliamentary ‘socialism’, and yet all this ‘certainly brought [the CPGB] no recognition from its putative allies and produced no communist gains of any consequence.’[44] In 1965 a Tribune editorial advised CPGB members to just join Labour, because: ‘The programme for the immediate future outlined [by the BRS] contains almost nothing to which a Labour left-winger … could take exception’.[45]

The CPB now refers to an ‘Alternative Economic and Political Strategy’ (AEPS), formulated by the likes of Murray, Foster, Seumas Milne (another Corbyn advisor), Jonathan White and Mary Davis, but the addition of ‘political’ has made no concrete difference, with the 2020 version of the BRS advocating a ‘popular democratic anti-monopoly alliance’ of Labour ‘lefts’ and trade unionists. The AEPS is nothing but a utopian project to return to the ‘golden era’ of welfare-state imperialism, making references to Roosevelt’s New Deal and Attlee’s state-capitalist nationalisations.[46] Of course, the AEPS authors forget to mention the post-war Labour governments’ record of neo-colonial violence, strike-breaking, and ruthless rationalisation measures including the closure of 4/10 collieries.[47] Instead of workers’ control, the AEPS advocates for ‘public ownership’ and ‘public stakes’. It makes no attempt to hide its overriding aim of streamlining capitalist exploitation, highlighting ‘functions necessary for the maintenance of an economically effective labour force’, and calling for measures to ‘bring the deficit down in a consistent and sustainable manner’.[48] As the RCLB commented 30 years ago, ‘If the BRS is little more than a blueprint of the battle for a “left wing” Labour government, then the question is raised: why two reformist parliamentary parties of the left?’

As in the 1970s, a problem related to the revisionists’ abandonment of the fundamentals of Marxism is their anachronistic equation of monopoly capitalism with finance capital and foreign trade, and subsequent erasure of the class character of national industrial capital. The AEPS speaks of ‘restoring democracy’ in Britain by curbing ‘the economic and political power of the City [of London]’ (similar sentiments are advanced by several tiny surviving left-nationalist ‘Communist’ sects like the CPB-ML and CPGB-ML).[49] For the CPB, ‘democracy’ is clearly equated not with workers’ control and ownership, but with state nationalisation measures under a bourgeois Labour government. The real issue for the working class is not whether the state runs industry, but the question of who controls the state. The CPB’s long-standing General Secretary Robert Griffiths has seized on Lenin’s argument in 1917 that the development of state-monopoly capitalism involved a ‘material preparation for socialism’, but that statement was mostly in reference to the context of agrarian Russia, where the nascent development of capitalist production had birthed an increasingly militant proletariat class. The comparison to a highly developed imperialist country is quite absurd, as is Griffiths’ claim that in Britain ‘state capitalist measures continue to prepare the ground for fundamental change’. Lenin further explicitly stressed that while the development of monopoly capitalism in the early 1900s had increased class contradictions, and thus in a purely objective sense was a ‘material preparation’ for revolution, this was ‘not at all … an argument for tolerating the repudiation of such a revolution and the efforts to make capitalism look more attractive, something which all reformists are trying to do.’

Nationalisation is not inherently bad, and there is a pressing immediate need to fight to defend key services and the health and care sectors in this country, but the CPB muddleheads have obscured the true socialist terms of engagement: rejecting class collaborationism and pay-outs to private owners, being clear about the fact that public ownership under capitalism will never be adequate, and opposing any concessions to economic imperialism – while simultaneously advancing an independent revolutionary politics. An incisive breakdown of the AE(P)S-style state capitalist logic was made four decades ago by the anti-revisionist Workers Newsletter Group and Coventry Workers Association:

What is more significant is the total absence of any class analysis or any characterisation of the state as an instrument of class rule. Nowhere do they [the left reformists] indicate how the fundamental contradiction within the capitalist mode of production can be resolved; nowhere do they discuss the response that might be expected from capitalists in defence of their class interests; nowhere do they deal with the role that the police and the armed forces might be expected to play; nowhere do they seem prepared to learn from the experiences of others who have taken that road, only to have their hopes of achieving socialism thwarted by the iron heel of the dictatorial Right. Perhaps of equal significance is the definition of the enemies of the working class used by Benn and others on the Left of the Labour party (and Communist Party) which generally consists of “the City, the IMF, the multinationals”, all of which are part of finance capital. Industrial capital is not only largely excluded, but is, indeed, seen as the lifeblood of the nation. The nature of industry, production for profit, and the relations within production are not criticised. The problem is characterised as one of decline within manufacturing industry.

Corbynomics was even less ‘radical’ than the AES of the ‘70s, essentially presenting a programme for capitalist growth based on technological innovation, with John McDonnell invoking ‘the Entrepreneurial State’ and ‘socialism with an iPad’. McDonnell quickly dropped his initial talk of nationalising all the main banks, in favour ‘people’s quantitative easing’ through a single state investment bank which, as Marxist economist Michael Roberts points out, is hardly extreme when there is already a European Investment Bank, a Nordic Investment Bank and many others, ‘all capitalised by states or groups of states for the purpose of financing mandated projects by borrowing in the capital markets’. The CPB’s AEPS programme likewise in 2012 highlighted the utility of French and German-style state investment banks for securing ‘additional competitive advantages [for capital!].’[50] The kicker comes when it barefacedly states that ‘An alternative economic and political strategy also has the potential to bring the trade unions and working people into alliance with large sections of the business community.’[51] In an act of gross class betrayal, the CPB has once again relegated its role to that of a think tank for capitalist Labour Party policies. It’s no surprise that the CPB’s original 1989 Draft BRS and the Morning Star were full of praise for the counterrevolutionary reforms of Gorbachev – which the farsighted CPB leadership claimed did ‘not in any way herald a return to capitalism’ in Russia(!)[52] Like a pathetic broken record, in the wake of Corbyn’s 2019 election defeat and Labour’s complete reversion to neoliberal orthodoxy, the revised 2020 BRS tells it readers that ‘it remains to be determined whether the left trend in the party can – with enough trade union support – win the struggle not only for leadership, but also for policies that challenge British state-monopoly capitalism’.[53]

The politics of the BRS are clearly not of a revolutionary flavour, but of Marxism deep-fried in Labourism. As Lenin wrote of ‘centrist’ parties like the USPD, the CPB expresses ‘both an inability and an unwillingness to really prepare the party and the class in revolutionary fashion for the dictatorship of the proletariat.’

The Spectre of Dual Power and Insurrection

The CPB’s ‘strategy’ for working-class revolution amounts to an electoral front of socialists and reformists, combined with loosely-defined ‘extra-parliamentary struggle’: ‘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’.[54] But we have already seen how it’s an iron law that the Labour ‘left’, from Lansbury to Bevan to Benn, will not hesitate to sacrifice the working class on the altar of ‘party unity’. This is why the need to build up a politically-independent revolutionary force is paramount. As CPGB dissenter Dick Jones wrote half a century ago, ‘Lenin never advocated the “Transforming of Parliament into an instrument of the peoples ‘will’”, neither did he envisage an alliance of Communist and Left Labour MP’s bringing in Socialism’. It is worth recalling the warning of the leader of the Bavarian Soviet Republic (April-May 1919) Eugen Leviné, who summed up the treachery of ‘left’ reformists shortly before his execution: ‘The Social Democrats start, then run away and betray us; the Independents [USPD] fall for the bait, join us and then let us down; and we Communists are stood up against the wall.’

As Ralph Miliband observed, ‘people on the left who have set out with the intention of transforming the Labour Party have more often than not ended up being transformed by it, in the sense that they have been caught up in its rituals and rhythms, in ineffectual resolution-mongering exercises, in the resigned habituation to the unacceptable, even in the cynical acceptance and even expectation of betrayal’: the effect of which is to block any serious challenge to capitalist exploitation and racial imperialism. The same drive to assimilate and defang characterised the Corbyn project. The grassroots anti-austerity campaigns that arose post-2010 were undermined when young socialists once again flocked into a Labour Party intent on implementing ruthless cuts at the council level. Labour appropriates and disposes of activists’ demands as proves convenient: the Labour Campaign for Free Movement poured its efforts into securing a nonbinding resolution and was subsequently ‘betrayed’ by the 2019 manifesto, as was the campaign to get Labour to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Corbynism even reinforced trade union passivity, as left-wing unions like the FBU re-capitulated to their traditional ‘don’t rock the boat and ruin Labour’s electoral chances’ posture. As we put it in our article on the general election last year, Labour is a black hole for social movements, ‘drawing in energy, work, time and hopes and dissipating them into nothingness.’

If such a left-reformist parliamentary coalition did get in power, it would more than likely soil the name of socialism in succumbing to the inexorable pressures of capital accumulation and the entrenched state bureaucracy, along the lines of the rapid capitulation of Syriza in Greece to an austerity package from the EU and IMF. On other occasions, nominally-‘socialist’ parties have entered into governing coalitions with reactionaries and ended up helping implement brutal anti-working-class and pro-imperialist policies, as was the case with François Mitterrand’s Parti socialiste in the 1980s, and the Italian Partito della Rifondazione Comunista in the 1990s. Miliband noted of the post-liberation Popular Front government in France that ‘Communist participation, far from notably “radicalising” the government, helped, on the contrary to “de-radicalise”, or at least to subdue, the most militant part of the working-class movement.’ Likewise, the ill-conceived involvement of French Communists as junior partners in the first Mitterrand government was a disastrous endeavour that led to an absolute decline in their support.[55] There is little reason to believe a successful BRS­­-style ‘broad-based anti-monopoly alliance’ or ‘other door’ entryist strategy, as unlikely as both scenarios are, would be any different in their results. One of the glaring lessons of the twentieth century is that there is no Kautskyan ‘third way’ to socialism.

This is not to say that anti-electoralism should be made into a dogma: under certain conditions the parliamentary arena can be weaponised by socialists for agitational purposes, as when Karl Liebknecht made his heroic stand against the imperialist First World War in the German Reichstag. But in general when it comes to electoral work, the Comintern’s guidelines laid down at its Second Congress remain applicable, namely that Communist MPs must ‘subordinate all their parliamentary work to the extra-parliamentary work of their Party’; and must not only expose the bourgeoisie, but also ‘systematically and relentlessly’ expose reformists and centrists – Communist MPs are first and foremost party agitators in the ‘enemy camp’.[56]

By advocating a ‘peaceful transition’ the CPB and its youth wing resolutely turn away from the ramifications of confronting the ruling-class dictatorship. It is certainly the case that, because the superprofits of imperialism give the ruling class more leeway to grant concessions to workers within the advanced capitalist countries, direct coercion is less prevalent here than in the global periphery. Nevertheless, vicious reprisals have followed whenever workers have asserted themselves, from the Peterloo Massacre to the Miners’ Strike. Throughout the imperialist core after WWII there was intense state repression of progressive forces, and while ‘Lenin established the Communist International to support socialist revolutions and hoped they would follow in the Bolsheviks’ footsteps, the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] and CIA engaged in covert and overt warfare to defeat communist revolutions in Western Europe.’[57] Winston Churchill helped fascists in Greece crush left-wing partisans, and the CIA and MI6 spearheaded Operation Gladio which allied with right-wing terrorists in Italy.

In post-war Britain, violent counterrevolution has mostly been retained at the level of a threat, but there have been killings of several protesters including Blair Peach, Kevin Gately and Ian Tomlinson in clashes with police, as well as paramilitary ‘swamping’ of Black communities by the Special Patrol Group; not to mention the occupation of the north of Ireland. In 1968 the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, former chairman of the NATO Military Committee, plotted a coup against Labour leader Harold Wilson, and Edward Heath’s government authorised the potential use of armed forces to stop Britain becoming a ‘Communist state’. Such overt threats from more reactionary elements of the bourgeoisie against reformist parliamentarians, of the kind Corbyn was also subjected to, are double-edged. Partly, the attacks on Corbyn and odious revival of Red-baiting reflected real anxieties within the bourgeoisie about the breach in the neoliberal status quo. Primarily though, this open hostility served the role of further moderating pressure on the Labour leadership in addition to the principle day-to-day regulatory functions of the parliamentary and public spheres. Given all of Corbyn’s political backtracking even while in opposition, it is extremely doubtful the bourgeoisie would ever have resorted to an actual coup, just as they never needed to with Wilson, who capitulated to the IMF and supported the US’ butchery in Vietnam. But suffice it to say that if any serious revolutionary challenge is posed in Britain, state terror would be readily unleashed.

In the present context of ruling-class anxieties about economic disintegration, there has been an intensification of arbitrary state power in Britain, seen for instance with the stripping back of civil liberties via the emergency Coronavirus Bill rushed through the House of Commons in March. The mailed fist of state repression is primarily trained against migrants and colonised people, but workers in general are under fire – the draconian 2016 Trade Union Act introduced an extremely undemocratic double strike ballot threshold, along with authorised supervisors on pickets; and blacklisted trade unionist Dave Smith has exposed the ongoing collusion between police, security services, private agencies and construction companies. The organised left has also been targeted, and it recently came to light that police have been infiltrating socialist and anti-racist organisations from 1999 to at least 2011. Last year, the Met implemented a city-wide ban against the Extinction Rebellion (XR) climate demonstrations in London, and arrested 1,300 protestors. The XR protests were capitalised on by reactionaries as an excuse to ramp up repression, with talks held between police and the government about strengthening the 1986 Public Order Act, while a report by the UK Commission for Countering Extremism portrayed the far left as a potential terrorist threat. As this article is being written, Labour leader Keir Starmer is helping the Tories vote through the ‘Spy Cops Bill’ that will give a green light for police and MI5 to infiltrate unions and social movements. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, ‘bourgeois legality … is nothing but the particular social form in which the political violence of the bourgeoisie, developing its given economic basis, expresses itself.’

Lenin similarly captured something fundamental when he insisted that in ‘every single country in the world, even the most advanced and “freest” of the bourgeois republics, bourgeois terror reigns, and there is no such thing as freedom to carry on agitation for the socialist revolution, to carry on propaganda and organisational work precisely in this sense. The party which to this day has not admitted this under the rule of the bourgeoisie and does not carry on systematic, all-sided illegal work in spite of the laws of the bourgeoisie and of the bourgeois parliaments is a party of traitors and scoundrels who deceive the people by their verbal recognition of revolution.’ It was the most politically liberal state in Europe, Weimar Germany, that birthed the horrors of Nazism; and it is in the supposed ‘land of the free’ that fascism is once again threatening to rear its ugly head. ‘The more highly developed a democracy is’, wrote Lenin,

the more imminent are pogroms or civil war in connection with every profound political divergence which is dangerous to the bourgeoisie. The learned Mr Kautsky could have studied this “law” of bourgeois democracy in connection with the Dreyfus case in republican France, with the lynching of negroes and internationalists in the democratic republic of America, with the case of Ireland and Ulster in democratic Britain, with the baiting of the Bolsheviks and the staging of pogroms against them in April 1917 in the democratic republic of Russia.

The 2020 BRS admits that ‘the British ruling class and its allies can be utterly ruthless in defending their interests’, yet as to how to combat this it remains suspiciously vague, indicating that violence can simply be prevented by securing ‘the greatest possible support’ for socialist policies.[58] But as the cases of Salvador Allende in Chile, Lula da Silva in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia all tragically illustrate, pursuing a popular electoral path to ‘democratic socialism’ is no insurance against counterrevolution. The BRS also points to ‘extensive’ reforms of the police, secret services and military, and claims that ‘Over time … the balance of resources will tilt away from a full-time selective professional army towards popular military reservists’.[59] But ‘time’ for such reforms of the repressive state apparatus is precisely what we will not have in the heat of a revolutionary situation. The British army is a highly disciplined weapon of imperialism, dominated by an upper- and upper-middle-class officer caste, and it is extremely ideologically reactionary (recall the leaked video of paratroopers shooting a target of Corbyn’s face). Its function as a tool of capitalist domination cannot be ‘reformed away’ or solved, as the BRS suggests, by simply getting rid of a few ‘reactionary personnel in top state positions’.[60] As Conrad insists, we can only ‘rely on the class strength of the proletariat; namely its ability to cause internal divisions in these “bodies of armed men” through a combination of political magnetism and willingness to physically confront the armed might of the state with the armed might of the working class in the form of the workers’ militia.’[61] Replacing the capitalist standing army with armed workers’ bodies was identified by both Marx and Lenin as one of the first fundamental tasks of socialist revolution.

By wilfully ignoring the revolutionary laws of motion, the CPB’s BRS is setting the working class up for failure. As Donald Parkinson argues in Cosmonaut Magazine, ‘Saying that insurrection is off the table while saying you will do whatever is possible to defend a revolutionary government is contradictory if not dishonest, or at least a confusion of legitimate insurrection with putschism. … at some point, there must be a decision to engage in military confrontation with the bourgeoisie or not.’ Put bluntly, in the revolutionary context, to be indecisive is to die. Defensive measures against bourgeois reaction cannot be delayed until the last moment, because ensuring the least damage to workers is predicated first and foremost on ‘the potential of the working class to inflict massive, irresistible and overwhelming punishment in the event of capitalist resistance.’[62] The 1917 October Revolution was itself relatively bloodless as the Bolsheviks had organised workers’ militias (Red Guards) that managed to occupy strategic government buildings. Conversely, the municipal stronghold of Red Vienna in the 1920s and ‘30s was brutally defeated because the Austrian Social-Democratic Party failed to prepare their party and paramilitary organisation (the Schutzbund) for decisive action before the appearance of the revolutionary situation.

It is not enough, as the revisionist authors of the BRS would have us believe, to elect a left-wing government and attempt to just shuffle around resources within the existing state. As Marx identified, reflecting on the lessons of the 1871 Paris Commune, ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’, because the bourgeois state, ‘with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy and judicature’, is nothing but the concentrated expression of ‘the national power of capital over labour … [and] an engine of class despotism.’ Whereas all previous revolutions had merely passed control of the state machine from one exploiting class to another, in 1871 the old structures of state power in Paris had been smashed and, for the very first time, workers had begun replacing those structures with their own rule. The elected Commune government was ‘a working, not a parliamentary body’ – all officials were on workers’ wages, and the standing army and police were replaced with a citizens’ militia.

As Parkinson puts it, the task of socialists is to ‘build a counter-sovereignty to the capitalist state, not become integrated into it.’ This counter-sovereignty is achieved through a long period of protracted struggle, with the ambition of forging a ‘state within a state’ – the ideal of early-twentieth century revolutionary Marxism. ‘Dual power’ established alongside the existing state is won by a variety of extra-parliamentary means – soviets, Councils of Action, shop-floor committees, mutual aid societies, self-defence networks, trade and tenant unions, carceral abolition groups, even social and educational clubs. Lenin explained how Bolshevik success in 1917 owed to the fact that ‘for years illegal machinery was systematically built up to direct demonstrations and strikes, [and] to conduct work among the troops’. We can also point to the example of the CPGB in the 1920s-30s, which set up ‘Little Moscows’ in mining communities such as West Fife, Rhondda and the Vale of Leven: ‘The local Communist parties of these industrial villages were deeply integrated with every aspect of the community’s social life and culture as well as exercising their strengths in the workplace.’[63] Agitation around wages, poor relief and housing was coupled with the creation of red co-ops, sports leagues and even music bands. Local governance by the Communist Parties in post-war France and Italy also ‘led to a massive provisioning of social services’.

Ultimately, it is not enough to merely establish red islands in a capitalist sea: as Sophia Burns puts it, socialism ‘isn’t a gradual process where reforms (or mutualist co-ops!) stack on top of each other until one morning, you wake up to find that capitalism is gone.’ As we’ve seen of 1926 in Britain, the CPGB should have been calling for immediate power to be handed to the spontaneously-formed Councils of Action while advancing its own revolutionary programme, rather than tailing the TUC. Burns is particularly critical of certain strands of the ‘base building’ activist fad in North America, in which community work goes little further than creating ‘red charities’. An absence of revolutionary political direction in worthy base-building projects like the US Marxist Center and its British counterpart will inevitably result in their co-option by liberals and social democrats. Revolutionary socialist leadership on a national basis is necessary to prevent various movements from remaining struggles within the capitalist system, rather than against the system itself. This is not to make a fetish of the vanguard party, as is often the case with neo-Maoist critics of base building: as Salar Mohandesi recently argued in a Viewpoint article, ‘The party is not, and can never substitute itself for [dual power] bodies. … But the party can help catalyze, develop, and protect them – and most importantly of all, it can hold these oppositional organizations together in a deeper unity through its articulating function.’ After the February revolution in Russia, the soviets (workers’ and soldiers’ councils) comprised a parallel government in parts of the Capital. However, this dual power on its own was neither adequate nor sustainable, and in Lenin’s words the capitalist state machine had to be ‘broken, smashed’. Alyson Escalante expands:

After months of compromise, the workers had grown tired of the opportunist bourgeois socialists [the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary parties]. They had seen that the dual power of the soviets and the provisional government was not tenable. One side had to take unitary power. Most importantly, the workers saw that the bourgeois government had done nothing for them: it had smashed their printing presses, it had crushed their demonstrations, it had broken their strikes. Of course, it could do nothing else, the bourgeois state is designed to do precisely this. The events of October, 1917 ought to have concretely proven that the strategy of infiltrating the bourgeois government is untenable. Lenin and the Bolsheviks proved that the workers are willing to throw the bourgeois state away in favor of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

The insurrectionary ‘October road’ was not a uniquely Russian episode: ‘before the dust settled in Russia other countries experienced their “Octobers”. In Hungary, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Latvia and various German cities short-lived soviet republics were established.’[64] Soviet power was also briefly won in interwar Germany, Ireland, Austria and Italy. As we slip ever-deeper into another inter-imperialist crisis, the lessons of that period will be especially relevant.

Conclusion

The overriding lesson to be gleaned from the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain is that the parliamentary road leads inexorably to the treachery of class collaboration. For all its faults, the pre-BRS CPGB in the 1920s-30s was the closest thing to a mass vanguard party that’s ever existed in this country – it had begun to build an independent revolutionary politics, and also established red bases in a number of working-class communities. The surviving Communist Party of Britain, however, is not a revolutionary organisation in any sense; it is a splinter group that emerged from a relatively small network of Morning Star-aligned trade unionists (the Communist Campaign Group) in the mid-1980s, and has inherited the Labourphilic politics of its predecessor. Its leadership comprises a collective of British Mensheviks hiding behind the historical prestige and branding of the original CPGB.

Labour tailism has been the most persistent and insidious brand of opportunism within the British Communist movement. It has engendered a sustained historical revisionism that fails to educate the working class about the left reformists’ true role – giving ‘socialist’ legitimacy to austerity policies and strike-breaking, exerting a moderating influence during critical moments of industrial militancy, from the 1926 General Strike to the miners’ confrontation with Thatcher, and diverting extra-parliamentary social movements into safe constitutional channels. Obviously, there is still a qualitative difference between the Labour ‘lefts’ and Blairites; but equally, the idea we should avoid ‘alienating’ Corbyn supporters by tempering our criticism is precisely what enables self-proclaimed ‘revolutionary’ groups to constantly slip into the same self-defeating habits: it is an absolute law that in attempting to appease the Labour left, socialists and Communists have ended up pandering to the dominant right. It is high time to put the nail in the coffin of what Luxemburg referred to as the ‘stinking corpse’ of social democracy.

In the midst of the unprecedented twinned economic and environmental crises that will define this century, socialists and Communists of all stripes need to stop mourning their projected fantasies of ‘what could have been’ with Corbyn. Instead, we must begin the serious task of rebuilding the revolutionary alternative from the wreckage, including: the development of a transitional programme that completely transcends AE(P)S-style state capitalism, and a return to the Leninist path of Soviet power, and of building counter-hegemony capable of smashing the capitalist state machine. Breaking the nightmarish logic of capitalist realism expressed by TINA (‘there is no alternative’) necessitates a shattering of illusions in left reformism and the ‘parliamentary road’ as representing anything other than a brake on working-class emancipation.

Endnotes

[1] Lenin also admitted that ‘a larger section of the finest revolutionaries [not least John Maclean] are against affiliation to the Labour Party’.

[2] Ralph Darlington, The Political Trajectory of J. T. Murphy (Liverpool University Press, 1998), p. 266.

[3] Raymond Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism (Croom Helm, 1977), p. 234.

[4] Darlington, The Political Trajectory of J. T. Murphy, pp. 129-30.

[5] Ibid., p. 126.

[6] Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964), p. 109

[7] James Eaden and David Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain Since 1920 (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 23-7.

[8] Rob Sewell, In the Cause of Labour: A History of the British Trade Unions (London: Wellred Publications, 2003), p. 195.

[9] Eaden and Renton, p. 22.

[10] William Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde: An Autobiography (4th edn, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), p. 268.

[11] Ibid., p. 269; Eaden and Renton, p. 28.

[12] It may surprise readers that these comments on the Labour left are from Leon Trotsky’s writings on the ‘Problems of the British Labour Movement’ (1925-6). In the context of factional struggles within the Comintern, Trotsky, the leader of the Left Opposition in the Bolshevik Party, took up an implicit critique of Zinoviev’s open door concept and restated the orthodox Leninist insistence on exposing left reformists’ duplicity. During the Third Period when the Comintern’s foreign policy veered sharply to the left, Trotsky lurched in the other direction and began claiming Labour was ‘a workers’ party’ that should be ‘critically supported’ by British Communists because, unlike the governing Tories, it ‘represented the working class masses’ – something Lenin never came close to suggesting – and he even encouraged the centrist Independent Labour Party (ILP) to temporarily undertake ‘entryism’ within it.

[13] Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, p. 212.

[14] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992), p. 8.

[15] Neil Redfern, Class or Nation? Communists, Imperialism and Two World Wars (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2005), p. 3.

[16] Jack Conrad, In the Enemy Camp: Using Parliament for Revolution (November Publications Ltd, 1993), p.49

[17] Jack Conrad, Which Road? A Critique of ‘Revolutionary’ Reformism (November Publications Ltd, 1991), p. 2.

[18] Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside – Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991 (2nd edn, November Publications Ltd, 2012), pp. 15-21.

[19] Ibid., p. 22.

[20] Quoted in Redfern, p. 195.

[21] Quoted in Parker, The Kick Inside, p. 34.

[22] ‘Communist’ Party of Britain, Britain’s Road to Socialism: Programme of the Communist Party (Updated 8th edn, Croydon: Manifesto Press Cooperative, 2020), p. 36.

[23] Jim Phillips, The Great Alliance: Economic Recovery and the Problems of Power, 1945-1951 (London: Pluto Press, 1996), p. 125.

[24] Eaden and Renton, p. 156.

[25] Dave Lyddon, ‘“Glorious Summer”, 1972: The High Tide of Rank and File Militancy’, in John McIlroy et al. (eds), The High Tide of British Trade Unionism: Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, 1964-79 (Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1999), p. 345.

[26] ‘C’PB, Britain’s Road to Socialism, p. 35.

[27] Conrad, Which Road?, p. 55.

[28] Thompson, p. 171.

[29] Parker, The Kick Inside, p. 36.

[30] ‘C’PB, ‘1979-88: Reaction on Every Front’ (2012). Accessed at https://www.communist-party.org.uk/history/42-history/90-years-of-struggle/1540-79-88-thatcher-euros.html

[31] James Marshall, ‘Britain: Before and After the Election’, The Leninist, no. 5 (August 1983).

[32] ‘C’PB, ‘Reaction on Every Front’.

[33] David Reed and Olivia Adamson, Miners Strike 1984-1985: People Versus State (London: Larkin, 1985), p. 38.

[34] Quoted in Michael McGeehan, ‘Do Kinnock and Co Back the Miners?’, The Leninist, no. 11 (August 1984), p. 3.

[35] Quoted in Reed and Adamson, p. 10.

[36] Ibid., p. 4.

[37] Thompson, p. 191. Peter Carter, the CPGB’s Eurocommunist industrial organiser, opposed the use of mass pickets but so did George Bolton, the party chairman and vice-president of the Scottish NUM. Donald MacIntyre, ‘Close Up on Mick McGahey’, Marxism Today (September 1986), p. 60.

[38] Ralph Darlington, ‘There is No Alternative: Exploring the Options in the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike’, Capital and Class (April 2005), p. 10.

[39] Lawrence Parker, ‘Understanding the Formation of the Communist Party of Britain’, in Evan Smith and Matthew Worley (eds), Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press, 2017), p. 90.

[40] Robert Clough, Labour: A Party Fit for Imperialism (2nd edn, Larkin Publications, 2014), pp. 159-64.

[41] In his epic history of the European left, Donald Sassoon writes that the AES ‘should be taken to represent one of the very few attempts by British socialism to develop an industrial policy aimed at making capitalism more profitable. That it should have been supported by the Labour Left, and not by the Labour Right, is a demonstration of the extent to which the political reform of capitalism, and not its abolition, had become part of socialist thinking.’ Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century (Revised edn, London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2010), p. 525.

[42] Eaden and Renton, pp. 164-5.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Thompson, p. 11.

[45] Quoted in ibid., p. 142.

[46] Jonathan White (ed.), An Alternative Economic and Political Strategy for 21st Century Britain: Building an Economy for the People (Manifesto Press, 2012), p. 28. Accessed at https://21centurymanifesto.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/an-economy-for-the-people-free.pdf

[47] Royce Logan Turner, ‘Post-War Pit Closures: The Politics of De-Industrialisation’, The Political Quarterly 56, no. 2 (1985), p. 170.

[48] White, p. 12; 27.

[49] Ibid., p. 6; 17.

[50] Ibid., p. 15.

[51] Ibid., p. 67 (emphasis added).

[52] Quoted in Conrad, Which Road?, p. 146.

[53] ‘C’PB, Britain’s Road to Socialism, p. 37.

[54] Ibid., p. 2.

[55] Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, p. 116.

[56] Conrad, In the Enemy Camp, p. 56.

[57] Radha D’Souza, ‘The Surveillance State: A Composition in Four Movements’, in Aziz Choudry (ed.), Activists and the Surveillance State: Learning from Repression (Pluto Press, 2019), pp. 43-4.

[58] ‘C’PB, Britain’s Road to Socialism, p. 60.

[59] Ibid., p. 64.

[60] Ibid., p. 61.

[61] Conrad, Which Road?, p. 100.

[62] Ibid., p. 30 (emphasis added).

[63] Thompson, p. 38.

[64] Conrad, Which Road?, p. 79.