Source: The Marxist Quarterly, Vol. III, No. 3, July 1956.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
I believe that all British Communists deeply welcomed the two articles by Professor G. D. H. Cole—the one in the New Statesman and Nation of 5 May and the other in the Daily Worker of 14 May. The need for closer contact, understanding, unity between Communists and Socialists, between members of the Communist Party and of the Labour Party, was at the heart of the discussions and decisions at the Communist Party’s Congress in April. The point now from our side is honestly and vigorously to work to further this aim.
I do not think that there has been a more favourable opportunity. The general relaxation of international tension in the world symbolised in the visits of Bulganin and Khrushchov to Britain and of the French Government representatives’ visit to the U.S.S.R., provides an excellent background. Communists and Socialists should understand more clearly than anyone that peace does not come just from wishing for it, that passivity or complacency are the worst road to peaceful co-existence, and that they, above all, have the responsibility to lead the struggle for peace.
Favourable too is the situation inside Britain. The Tory Government is attacking not only the working class but very wide middle sections of the community. On wages, work, rents, social services, on issues of trade, relations with the colonies and peace there is a mounting desire and will to resist Tory policy which is reflected in resolutions of every type in the trade unions, Co-operatives, professional organisations and the Labour Party. The Tory Government is weak; the Tory leadership disunited. There is a rising determination to get rid of the Tory Government quickly and to replace it by a Labour Government with a policy of peace and social advance. This both necessitates and provides an opportunity for a much greater degree of Labour unity, of Communist-Socialist understanding.
Favourable again, for bringing about greater unity and understanding, is the situation inside the Labour Party and the Communist Party. “Re-thinking” is a word that has increasingly been used in the recent period inside the Labour Party. Of some of this “re-thinking” we Communists have been extremely critical, because we have seen in it a desire to get rid of traditional socialist aims and to replace them with what are in fact capitalist concepts. But “re-thinking” in the Labour Party is much deeper than this, and reflects amongst very many members a desire to return to, rather than dispose of, a genuine socialist objective: to study critically what were the weaknesses of earlier Labour Governments, above all, what went wrong after 1945 that led after six years, to the return of the Tories. And there is no doubt that we in the Communist Party have been undergoing a very deep process of “re-thinking” in recent months, that we have looked with a critical eye at some of our past work and are very much in a mood to come to grips with and overcome shortcomings in our work, including amongst the first, forms of sectarianism and doctrinaire attitudes that have weakened our approach to Labour unity.
All these factors together build up a background that is extraordinarily favourable to closer co-operation and better understanding between members of the Communist and of the Labour Parties.
In our mutual efforts for closer contacts and co-operation, one cannot but agree with Professor Cole that our long-term aims and deeper principles should come under examination; as well as and along with those immediate issues that serve as a basis for united action. There is an enormously wide, field for. immediate united action, but such action and such unity will be the easier, the firmer, the more durable, the more we seek at the same time what we have in common in our long-term aims, the more we begin in a frank but fraternal way, without recrimination, insult or epithet, to discuss our points of difference. Of course we have differences, and it is mutually advantageous to discuss them provided that we mutually work to create a free and comradely atmosphere for such discussions.
I think that there are three types of issues that it would be useful to examine:
(1) On what long-term aims do the great majority of Communists and Socialists agree?
(2) On what long-term aims or points of principle are there genuine differences between Communists and Socialists?
(3) Are not there a number of imaginary points of difference that have been worked up by the distortion of Communist policy by capitalist spokesmen who have a vested interest in Labour disunity?
I pass therefore to the problem of where there is a common basis for agreement. Here I find myself very close to the points raised by Professor Cole in his New Statesman article. Firstly, we Communists and the overwhelming majority of Socialists hate capitalism with our heads and with our hearts; I mean on rational, theoretical, and on emotional grounds, because we see in it an out-dated social system, an anomaly in our present world, holding back that wonderful development of technique and material resources that the present state of our knowledge could turn to the well-being of the people. We see in it a social system that carries within itself slumps and wars, poverty amidst plenty, colonial oppression. We, all of us, want to end it as soon as possible.
Secondly, we aim at replacing the present capitalist (and imperialist) system by socialism, understood broadly as a system where there will be social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, or in the words of the Labour Party Constitution of 1918, a system that would “secure for the producers by hand or by brain, the full fruits of their industry”. We envisage socialism as a society where material wealth will be in the hands of those who produce it, where the exploitation of man by man will be ended, where production will be used not for private profit, where a new relationship of fraternity will develop between peoples based on equality and independence, where individual men and women will find totally new possibilities to develop their capacities, where a new morality will arise in the relationship between individuals and nations.
Thirdly, though we strive to replace capitalism by socialism, we all of us believe that it is both possible and essential to fight now, within capitalism (imperialism) to defend and improve the immediate lot of the working people. We believe that the more effective the struggle on the immediate issues of living standards, democracy, peace, the easier becomes the transition to socialism. We understand therefore the great importance for Socialists who are working for a new social order to give their support to those organisations of the people whose main present concern is improving conditions under the existing social order. We therefore most actively support such organisations as trade unions, Co-operatives, professional organisations, and work in every way to develop and strengthen them.
Fourthly, we see both the need and the possibility to win the overwhelming majority of the population for the fight against capitalism and for socialism, including professional people, intellectuals, small farmers and small shop-keepers; but we see the industrial working class as the driving force in the advance to socialism, as the only force that could take the lead, and under whose leadership all other sections of the population can be grouped together.
Much more could be added to these four points after further thought and discussion but they in themselves can serve to show what a broad basis there is for long-term as well as short-term agreement between the immense majority of Socialists and Communists.
What then are the main points of difference? And on what issues is there need for extended polemic, debate and discussion? I do not mean that on all these issues there is a difference between all Socialists and Communists but I do think that these are issues on which there is a division amongst Socialists and on which therefore much further clarification is needed.
Firstly, on the issue of the State. If you asked me for a short definition of socialism, I would start by saying that socialism is a society where the means of production, distribution and exchange were socially owned, were in the hands of the working people. This is generally agreed, as we have already seen, and has been traditionally accepted in the British Labour movement. But I would add to this as a corollary that socialism is a society where political power is in the hands of the working people led by the industrial working class, where the state has become an instrument in the hands of the working people, the great majority, and has ceased to be an instrument of the capitalist class. I believe that an absence of this understanding has been the Achilles’ heel, a longstanding weakness, not only amongst reformist Socialists but also amongst Socialists well on the left and indeed amongst the early British Marxists. Both our theoretical understanding as Marxists and the practical experiences of the international working class movement has shown that without the winning of political power and the transformation of the state, no successful advance to socialism is possible. We Marxists believe that this has always been and remains true. This after all is the essence of the old conflict of revolution versus evolution, because revolution means in essence a change of political power. We Marxists do not believe that the state in Britain is in essence different from the state in any capitalist country. We do not believe that it is neutral or above classes, and we do believe that in order to advance to socialism in Britain it is necessary for the working class majority to take political power out of the hands of the monopoly capitalists and to transform the British State so that it becomes an instrument of the will of the majority.
Secondly, we believe it is very necessary to understand that there is a difference of principle (a difference of “quality”, we who are Communists would call it) between those countries where the working people have won political power and those where political power is still in the hands of capitalism or imperialism. This means that there is a difference of quality between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A., between People’s China and Nigeria and between Czechoslovakia and Belgium. We know that a united working class and strong popular organisations can secure improved conditions within capitalist society, and we know that there can be deep errors and even abuses within countries where the working people have power, as was revealed, for example, in the discussions following the Twentieth Congress of the C.P.S.U. But we believe it is most important to realise that the Soviet Union and the people’s democracies are countries that have successfully carried through their revolutions, that they are successfully building socialism and communism, and that even if they at times make mistakes, they stand in a different category from a Socialist point of view from the countries where capitalism still rules. We do not believe that it is possible to understand the new position in the world, the more favourable position for advancing to socialism everywhere, the new possibilities of averting world war, without understanding the profoundly important role that has been played by the U.S.S.R. as the first country to make the advance to socialism.
Thirdly, we attach an importance of the highest order to the question of the struggle for national independence of the peoples of the colonial and semi-colonial countries, and consider that Socialists and Communists have a duty not only to accept the right of self-determination of nations in principle, but to give practical support to the struggles of all peoples to that end. We do not believe that it is possible successfully to advance to socialism in any country which continues to oppress other countries or to maintain any form of colonial oppression. We do not believe that there, is any justification for keeping any country in a colonial status, nor do we accept any argument of strategic needs or “degree of education” as valid for maintaining such subjection.
Fourthly, on the role of the Communist Party itself, we as Communists do not believe that it is possible to advance successfully to socialism in any country, including Britain, without a strong Party based on Marxist theory, on scientific socialist principles. If you ask me to sum up shortly what is distinctive and essential about the role of the Communist Party, I would say that it is a Party which aims at one and the same time to carry out a triple task:
(1) To give the working class a scientific socialist theory, a socialist perspective, socialist consciousness, based on Marxism. To help the working class and its allies to understand the capitalist system under which they live; how to end it by winning political power, and to replace it by a system of socialism.
(2) To give leadership to the struggle of the working class and working people on all issues which confront them at the moment; wages, prices, social services, rents, issues of peace and democracy—to lead, guide, co-ordinate these struggles.
(3) To provide the vanguard, the most conscious section of the British working class, with a new sort of organisation, a revolutionary organisation capable of leading the struggles of the British working people right up to the winning of political power and the building of socialism.
It was for this aim that the British Communist Party was founded in 1920, bringing together the older Marxist groups and organisations, and this remains the essential aim of the Communist Party. The leadership that can be given by such a Party cannot be provided by any other section of the Labour and progressive movement, and without it, as we in Britain have learnt to our cost, no amount of numerical and organisational strength can secure the successful transition to socialism. We cannot and do not expect all sections of the Labour movement at this moment to agree with our aims or with our analysis of the need for a Communist Party, but we would ask that they should respect our sincerity and become acquainted with our purpose.
These last points which I have outlined are issues on which I do not consider there is as yet by any means agreement amongst Communists and Socialists, but I believe the more we discuss these issues the more we shall come to respect one another’s approaches and in fact step by step, through discussion and experiences, to come to agreement; but beyond these points I believe there is a further series oŁ issues on which widespread agreement is immediately possible and in fact almost exists but where disagreement has arisen because of the distortion by the capitalist press, wireless and spokesmen of the nature of Communist policy and aims. I would agree too that we as Communists are also guilty in that we have. not sufficiently tried to explain our aims in a concise and clear manner. I select once again four main issues.
Firstly, the issue of violence in the transition to socialism which was raised by Professor Cole in his article in the Daily Worker. We Communists have never said that violence is an aim in itself. A revolution means a change in political power, a change in state power; it does not necessarily mean a violent bloody insurrection. Some revolutions are necessarily violent and illegal (against existing law). Other revolutions can be both peaceful and legal. What form a revolution takes depends on the balance of class forces in the world and in the given country under consideration at any particular moment. It depends too on the traditions, customs, institutions of that particular country. We have made it quite clear in The British Road to Socialism, first published by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party in 1951, that our aim in Britain is to win legally and constitutionally the majority of the British people for a People’s Government, pledged to carry through a radical economic and political transformation of Britain. We consider that such a Government supported by a broad People’s Alliance led by a united working class could carry through a transformation of the British economy and the British State, and at the same time transform the existing oppressive British Empire into a voluntary fraternal alliance of independent peoples.
The stronger the movement behind such a Government, the more certain becomes the possibility of a peaceful transition.
We do not believe that a People’s Government should set itself the objective of banning other political parties, including the Tory Party, for when the Government, backed by the people and their organisations, has taken away the special economic and political and cultural privileges of the monopoly capitalists, the Tory Party will more and more lose its mass basis, and more and more Tory supporters will turn their support to the People’s Government.
Our aim therefore is a peaceful transition to socialism in Britain: though we have always made it clear that an aim is not a guarantee and that the form of the transition to socialism does not depend on the working people alone. We do not stand for violence, but if violence should be used by the old ruling class against the legally constituted Government of the people, then the people themselves will, with all legality behind them, have to find appropriate methods to deal with it. It seems to me that once the distortions of Communist policy so common to the capitalist press are put away, there is a very wide basis here for Communist-Socialist agreement.
Secondly, on our Communist attitude to the Labour Party. Those who try to distort and smear Communist aims present Communist policy as a desire to disrupt and destroy the Labour Party. The truth is quite the reverse.
We believe that the formation of the Labour Party was a step forward of the greatest importance for the British working class. The early British Marxists (at first the S.D.F., who later made their wrong decision to disaffiliate) and then the B.S.P. who were affiliated to the Labour Party, and the pioneers who founded the Labour Party, saw it as a comprehensive body embracing all sections of the Labour movement including the Marxists.
On the foundation of the Communist Party in 1920 we applied for affiliation to the Labour Party, which was refused, and again on numerous occasions we repeated our request, but always to be rejected. We stand, and Harry Pollitt made this clear at our Twenty-Third Party Congress in 1954 and again at our Twenty-Fourth Congress this April, for a stronger Labour Party embracing all sections of the Labour movement. Communist trade unionists have always fought for the maximum affiliation of their members to the Labour Party.
We believe that one day in the future the possibility will arise for the formation in Britain of a single working class Party based on Marxism, but we see this only as the end of a long process of discussion and experience arising only through democratic conviction and never through imposition. In the meantime we see the solving of the relationship of the Communist Party and the Labour party as one of the most important problems facing us, of which the first step could be the ending of bans and proscriptions.
We believe that here again, once distortions of Communist policy are knocked away, there is a basis for a very wide agreement between Communists and Socialists. I think that we should accept that we have not always sufficiently made our attitude clear on this issue.
Thirdly, on the issue of personal betrayal that was raised by Professor Cole in his Daily Worker article, I think he has here a very strong point. We have been far too prone to brand individuals whose Policy we consider wrong or even disastrous as personal traitors. Personal intentions are not in fact the issue. There is no such thing yet invented as a “sincerometer” that could measure accurately personal sincerity, and a man with a disastrous policy can be perfectly sincere.
There have been and still are trends in the Labour movement and in the Labour Party whose policy we consider harnesses the Labour movement to capitalism and inevitably leads to fiasco and defeat. I think that we have been and still are quite correct to fight such trends and to make known our attitude towards them, and to argue our case against them. But this need not and should not involve attacks on personal integrity, which is not in any way the main issue.
Fourthly and lastly, on the issue of our relations with the Soviet Union, we have continuously been attacked as “agents of Moscow”. The early British radicals were attacked as French agents or Jacobins, the early British Marxists as German agents and later Marxists as Russian agents. This is a smear weapon as old as history.
We have stood as long as we have existed as a Party for solidarity with those countries that successfully have made their socialist revolutions, beginning with the U.S.S.R. It was natural perhaps that the Communist Party in the country that first made the revolution, and first successfully began to build socialism, should emerge as the leading Communist Party in the world, exercising a very great influence on the thought of revolutionaries in all countries, including Britain. It was perhaps also inevitable that, in our utterly correct attempt to defend the U.S.S.R. from attacks of every description, ranging from interventionism through espionage to smears and slanders, there should have occurred certain mistakes. The Soviet comrades have recently made the deepest self-critical analysis of past policies and we can see that we too had on certain issues followed them in making errors. Where we have done this we are acknowledging our mistakes openly and trying to repair them. And I believe that the Communist Parties in the Soviet Union and the people’s democracies have given an example unknown in previous world history of open acknowledgment of mistakes and of public effort to repair them.
But our efforts at solidarity with these countries that have successfully made revolutionary advances do not mean that we are in any way a foreign Party any more than the early British radicals or early Socialists. Our Party grew out of the British working class movement, it was formed from existing Marxist streams that had developed over forty years of British labour history and which were the heirs to movements that had developed earlier still. No one described the origin of the British Communist Party more fairly than the Daily Herald, reporting on 3 July 1920 on our Foundation Congress:
“Today the National Convention that is to found the Communist Party of Great Britain meets in London. The founding of such a Party we count emphatically a gain to the movement in this country. It is not a new split. It is indeed a fusion. It is the creation of an organisation for the expression in action of a definite and existent body of revolutionary thought. . . .
“They are preparing to face the question which too many of us are inclined temperamentally to evade—the problem of the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of the British revolution. The strong point of the Communist Party is its steady realism.”
We make and evolve to the best of our ability our own policy. We do not attempt to impose on our members lines and attitudes on cultural and scientific matters evolved in the Soviet Union. We stand for the greatest solidarity for peace and friendship, but not for attempting to impose in Britain methods of advance to socialism that were appropriate to the Soviet Union. The British road to socialism will depend on British circumstances, must take into account British traditions, customs and institutions, on the background of the world relation of class forces.
The more these long-term problems of principle and attitude are worked over and discussed between Communists and Socialists, the more I believe we will discover that we have much in common, not only of an immediate nature but also on deeper and long-term issues. The more we delve in a fraternal and comradely way into points of difference, the more easily we shall learn from one another.
This discussion of long-term issues and points of principle is not an alternative to united action on urgent immediate issues—on the contrary I believe that one helps the other and vice versa.
There is, I think, the basis for immediate agreement on a number of points which do not brook any delay unless we are to be content to go to disaster under Toryism. I mean that we can immediately, as is already taking place so widely in. the trade union movement for example, work and fight together and co-ordinate our efforts on present-day issues of wages, work, rents, social services, colonial freedom and peace. We can immediately, and this too is urgent, work for the lifting of those bans and proscriptions that only hamper and hinder the Labour movement and only help monopoly capitalism.
In this work, both short-term and long-term, we can and will learn mutual respect and develop, an influence and atmosphere in which issues can be discussed in a comradely way without recrimination on things that are past.
The essential enemy is modern capitalism. British capitalism is the oldest, most cunning, most skilled, most experienced in the world. It is no mean enemy to overcome and we would do wrong in any way to underestimate it. To defeat capitalism we need all our resources, and the issue of the moment is how best to bring them together in unity for the common struggle.