Duncan Hallas

Class struggle, but no party!

(December 1983)

Book review, Socialist Review, No.59, December 1983, pp33-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Politics in Britain
Colin Leys

World Review 1954
Pluto Press, £7.95

‘The crisis in Britain is so far advanced that much of the familiar ground covered by the textbooks in the past has become increasingly irrelevant ... Politics in Britain is distinguished by its stress on the link between politics, economics and social structure, and by its use of a historical approach ...’

So says the publisher’s blurb and it is a fair enough description. Certainly the notion of crisis is central to Leys’ book. The second chapter, Britain in Crisis, sets the scene for all that follows. More than that, the book is about class struggle in modern Britain, not merely about politics and the class structure, is relatively free from sociological or ‘academic Marxist’ jargon and firmly rejects the still dominant mystification of ‘value free’ political science.

The final chapter begins:

‘Unless a solution is found to the problem in Britain it is obvious that the political system will be radically altered: and a solution will also require political changes no less profound.. .a period of crisis implies that the options have narrowed: society cannot go on in the old way.’

Very true.

I would like to leave it at that but cannot. The contrast with a much earlier crisis’ book, Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? (1925), will explain why. Trotsky was mistaken about various things – a too `’reductionist’ view of the decline of British capitalism, for example – but he was exactly right about the main things. First, that the boss class would be driven to confrontation (as was to occur one year later); second, that the outcome would depend on the struggle within the British workers’ movement between the reformists and the revolutionaries (the CP at that time); third; that the outcome, for good Or ill, would determine what happened, what was possible, for a long time, that a defeat of the revolutionary left would be disastrous for the whole workers’ movement. And it was.

A purely historical matter? Not at all. Leys scarcely mentions the role of the labour bureaucracy at any stage. For him the struggle inside the labour movement is a matter simply of ideas. His view of the Labour Party left – ‘the Labour movement seemed for the first time to be potentially on a collision course with British capital (1981)’ – demonstrates it. He has no conception of the role of a revolutionary party.

Quite the opposite. I quote in full his description of us:

The Socialist Workers Party, with about 4,000 members in 1981, was originally distinguished by some interesting departures from orthodox Trotskyist ideas, and was particularly attractive to intellectuals in the late sixties. In 1977, however, its leadership determined to convert it into a party of the Leninist type. Subsequently it contested by- elections with derisory results. Although in 1981 its weekly newspaper Socialist Worker sold about 30,000 copies, and although it had played an effective part in some common front’ movements such as the Anti-Nazi League, it seemed handicapped by centralism and dogmatism.

That alleged ‘centralism’ and ‘dogmatism’ is simply a determination to hold fast to revolutionary politics against the gadarene stampede of ex-revolutionaries to the right, itself a reflection of a (temporary) downturn in the class struggle. And a determination to. stand fast, to intervene in the here and now in the many struggles that occur, and to pull together a core of committed militants for the future – the same future that Colin Leys expects. Except that he is not willing to commit himself to the revolutionary left now.

That criticism apart, it is a very useful book, and one that should be pushed as against the establishment works that Leys criticises. He is a transparently honest writer and that alone merits support. More than that. Everyone can learn something from Politics in Britain.

World View 1984, successor of World View 1983, is useful, irritating in its omissions and politically very soggy.

Useful factually. The publishers call it ‘an authoritative, scholarly and reliable yearbook that also provides an alternative, critical view of the world’. I would quarrel with that on a couple of points: to find the population of East Germany (DDR) I had to pr~actical1y search the book from end to end, and the British statistics are vastly inferior to those given in Leys’ book. OK, it is a useful book but really we could have been spared the soggy, autonomist (i.e. autonomous from the class struggle) pieces which disfigure it. Autonomism in the present political situation, is a movement to the right, a shift away from working class politics.

That said, try to get your local library to buy the book. It is certainly the best of its kind.


Last updated on 27.12.2003