Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Unity Association (Marxist-Leninist)

Economism or Revolution? A Critique of the Communist Party of Britain (M-L)


The opening paragraph of “The British Working Class and its Party”, quoted above, contains the statement that the CPB (ML) aims for the “revolutionary overthrow of capitalist class power and its replacement by the dictatorship of the proletariat for the building of socialism”. This is very good! An understanding of the necessity for the working class to smash the bourgeois state, and to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, is basic to Marxism-Leninism. It is in the abandonment of Marxism on this question, more than on any other, that the revisionist counter-revolutionary nature of the CPGB can be seen. These revisionists put forward their support for the most central lie in the arsenal of bourgeois lies, the idea that bourgeois democracy in Britain allows for fundamental, revolutionary social change to take place ’peacefully’ or ’legally’ through the parliamentary system. Thus, these revisionists show clearly that they are capitalist agents in the working class movement.

In the CPB (ML) document, one could wish that the phrase “revolutionary overthrow of capitalist class power” was made more explicit. It should be clearly indicated that this means the violent overthrow and smashing of the bourgeois state, based on the understanding that this state, comprising the army, police, law courts and bureaucracy, all the weapons at the disposal of the exploiting class, will be used against the revolutionary working class as long as these weapons exist, and that this British imperialist ruling class, like all ruling classes in history, will use every means, whether violent or non-violent, legal or illegal, to preserve its power.

But we could not quibble about this point. Let us assume that it is this revolutionary concept that the CPB (ML) is paying homage to in its use of the phrase “revolutionary overthrow.”

Unfortunately, however, one perfunctory mention is all this concept gets in this document, and in fact the strategy outlined by the CPB(ML) in this document and elsewhere seems to be totally unrelated to their claim that they are aiming for the “revolutionary overthrow of capitalist class power”, for the party is urged to carry on “the struggle in Britain is constantly ’denigrated as ’economic’”[4] We are told that “the fight for better wages and conditions, the fight for the right to organise in pursuit of working class aims, the fight for the very right to work at all are inevitably part of the fight to smash capitalism and establish a workers’ state”[5], and further, we learn that every worker’s struggle “by its very nature. ...has a political content, and does not need to have one ascribed to it. To fight for wages when the policy of the capitalist class is to keep them down is in itself a political struggle, to fight for retention of jobs goes against the political strategy of the ruling class”[6], and Chairman Birch himself tells us

Everywhere you are struggling against the employer you are struggling against the Bill and the capitalist state and we support you. That is a protracted war. We will have no premature general strike
...The workers army will out-manoeuvre and out-fight the class enemy, keeping its forces intact and its moral high, engaging on the principle of ’ten against one’. Our guns at this time are industrial action wherever and however it occurs, our village bases the factories.[7]

In fact we are told that the economic struggle is “as organic and necessary to revolution as the gun”.

The strategy of the CPB (ML) is essentially that “the class war expressed in economic struggle has to be a guerrilla war, a protract offensive related to a strategy of utter defeat for the class enemy, for the economic struggle is “corrupting only if it becomes an attempt to live with the opposite class, the capitalist class”[8]. But economic struggles cannot become an “offensive”; they are by nature defensive. Under the capitalist system, the, constant striving for profits from investments always brings prices up and real wages down. Unless the workers engage in collective struggle to maintain their living standards they and their families would starve, and this type of struggle, trade union struggle, develops spontaneously among the workers. This economic struggle is allowed for by the capitalist system, and is even necessary for its continuation, for how else can the workers, whom the capitalist needs to exploit, how else can they survive? One can even say that the economic struggle of the workers is “organic and necessary” to capitalism.

From this struggle, the working class can learn how to organise to fight collectively, and on whose side the police and the bourgeois courts are always to be found. It is certainly not always “corrupting”, although in itself it is precisely “an attempt to live with the opposite class”, a struggle by workers to maintain their living standards so that they can “live with”, survive under, capitalism,. In Lenin’s words:

The economic struggle is the collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labour power, for better conditions of life and labour.[9]

In an attempt to justify their total concentration on the economic struggle, the CPB (ML) leadership encourages the party to “persuade the workers” that ”economic gains of all types of struggle are temporary and in the long run illusory .The true gains are political and consist in the-ideological clarity that can be won in such struggle”. Presumably, “ideological clarity” is a euphemism for revolutionary consciousness of the necessity for the working class to smash the bourgeois state and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is true that revolutionaries must participate in the economic struggle, as in all forms of class struggle, as one of the means of raising mass consciousness to the awareness of the necessity for the political struggle to seize power. But they must not fail to engage in all-round political agitation and propaganda from the beginning, not restricting themselves to agitation on economic issues. To prate that “ideological clarity ... can be won in such struggle” alone is anti-Marxist. Revolutionary consciousness can only be developed through thorough all-round political education and political struggle.

One of the “denigrators” of economic struggle, who never had the opportunity to learn from the teachings of Chairman Birch, was V.I. Lenin. In his great book ’What is to be Done?’[10] Lenin says:

Social Democracy[11] leads the struggle of the working class not only for better terms for the sale of labour power, but also for the abolition of the social system which compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich. Social Democracy represents the working class not in the latter’s relation to only a given group of employers, but in its relation to all classes of modern society, to the state as an organised political force. Hence, it follows that Social-Democrats not only must not confine themselves entirely to the economic struggle; they must not even allow the organisation of economic exposure to become the predominant part or their activities. We must actively take up the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness.[12]

The Economists against whom Lenin was writing claimed to support these ideas (just as we suppose the CPB(ML) would), but at the same time they maintained that the economic struggle was “the most widely applicable means” of drawing the masses into political struggle, and that the task was one of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”. Lenin utterly demolished their arguments, saying that:

The pompous phrase about ’1ending the economic struggle itself a political character’, which sounds so ’terrifically’ profound and revolu1tionary, serves as a screen to conceal what is in fact the traditional striving to degrade Social-Democratic politics to the level of trade union politics![13]

Further, he stated that:

As a matter of fact, it is possible to ’raise the activity of the masses of the workers’ only provided this activity is not restricted to ’political agitation on an economic basis’. And one of the fundamental conditions for the necessary expansion of political agitation is the organisation of comprehensive political exposure. The masses cannot be trained in political consciousness and revolutionary activity in any other way except by means of such exposures.[14]

The fact is that the power of the ruling class rests ultimately in the bourgeois state. All our efforts as revolutionaries must be directed to raising the consciousness of the working class to this understanding. Chairman Mao teaches us that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”, and our task is to help the working class to understand the profound truth of this statement, and to lead it to participate in the armed struggle to overthrow the bourgeois state. This can only be done by drawing the workers into political struggle, by agitating on all examples of bourgeois state oppression, by the most widespread propaganda work, and not simply through the workers’ economic struggles. Is it a secret that only revolutionary political agitation and propaganda raises revolutionary political consciousness, that the economic, trade union struggle by itself leads only to trade union consciousness, to trade union politics?

Are we proposing left sectarianism, thinking that all we have to do is to shout ’revolutionary’ slogans? Certainly not. As Lenin also said:

The whole task of the Communists is to be able to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them by artificial and childishly ’Left’ slogans.[15]

We do not win the workers to revolutionary politics simply by sloganising, but must go to the workers, agitate on issues, and in, a language, that they understand from their experience, in order to raise their political consciousness. But does this mean, as the CPB(ML) leadership and the old Russian Economists say, that the most important, most ’widely applicable means’ of doing so is through the economic struggle? No! This is to espouse the stages theory, of political struggle that maintains that we should restrict our demands to economic and reformist issues and only when somehow in the course of the economic struggle, the workers’ consciousness has risen to a higher level should we introduce direct political agitation. But spontaneously (see the next section) through the economic struggle alone the workers will never develop a revolutionary political consciousness. It is the task of the revolutionary party to introduce it, to constantly strive to involve workers in political activity and to raise the question of class struggle for political power.

But, says the CPB (ML) leadership, the present situation is different; today “to fight for wages when the policy of the capitalist class is to keep them down is in itself a political struggle”. (When has the policy of the capitalist class been other than this?) Economic struggles today, they say, must be waged not only against the employer, but directly against open and declared government opposition therefore they are political. Certainly they are, but what kind of politics? Trade union politics; not revolutionary politics The CPB (ML) leadership is satisfied with the fact that every worker’s struggle “has a political content, and does not need to have one ascribed to it”. A political party which is content to tail behind spontaneous trade union politics is far from being a revolutionary party.

This idea, like the other economist ideas of the CPB (ML), is not new, Martynov, one of the Russian Economists referred to above, spoke of “the economic struggle of the workers against the employers and the government”, provoking Lenin to reply

This clear and concise postulate (expresses) the quintessence of Economism: from calling to the workers to join in the political struggle which they carryon in the general interest, for the purpose of improving the conditions off all the workers, continuing through the theory of stages, and ending in the resolution, of the Congress on the ’most widely applicable’, etc. Economic struggle against the government is precisely trade unionist politics, which is very, very far from being Social-Democratic politics.[16]

We say that it is correct for the CPB (ML) to urge its members to participate fully in the economic struggles of the working class. But for the CPB (ML) not to emphasise the importance of simultaneous political agitation is economism, not revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. For the CPB (ML) to oppose the “denigrating” of economic struggles (by calling them economic!), by speaking of’ economic struggles as an “offensive”, “as organic to revolution as” (equivalent to) armed political struggle, is the most clear, unequivocal anti-Marxist economism.

The essence of economism is clearly expressed in the statement of a prominent Russian Economist quoted by Lenin:

’Political agitation must be the super-structure to the agitation carried on in favour of the economic struggle and follow in its wake.’[17]

By the time Lenin wrote ’What is to be Done?’, the Economists of his time, no less than the CPB(ML) today, no longer dared to make such a clear statement of their theory. But the political line they projected, like that of the CPB(ML), followed exactly this theory.

Lenin also pointed out that the term ’economism’ did not adequately convey the real character of this trend, although the term being so well established, it would be difficult to abandon it. This wiling behind economic struggles is not really ’economism’ as contrasted to ’politics’; it is, in fact, the substitution of bourgeois politics for revolutionary politics, since when “it absolutely refuses independently to work out a specifically Social-Democratic policy corresponding to the general tasks of Socialism and to contemporary conditions”[18], it inevitably accepts bourgeois politics. Therefore when we say that the economist CPB(ML) abandons political agitation and propaganda, we mean specifically revolutionary political agitation and propaganda.

Perhaps we shall be accused of being unfair to the CPB(ML) by saying that it does not emphasise the importance of political agitation and propaganda. After all, the CPB (ML) does say that its aim is to “smash capitalism”. But such occasional mentions bear no relation to their overall strategy, and are therefore meaningless.

And what does the CPB (ML) mean when it says that “we have to convey our politics to the mass through our Party and not just through the agency of some ’broad front’”? Presumably this refers to the fact, stated at various times by leading members of the CPB(ML), that the ’party’ opposes organisations built to unite workers against some specific oppression directed against a specific section of capitalist society, whether this be black organisations aimed at combating racism, or women’s organisations aimed at fighting the special oppression suffered by women.

Is this a Communist stand? Certainly not. Communists must encourage, and participate in, all struggles against; oppression and exploitation, everywhere raising the class question, working on every issue to promote an awareness of the truth that all those forms off special oppression are integral to the capitalist system and that the only solution is working class revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. What organisations does the CPB(ML) approve of other than itself? Trades unions, organisations of economic struggle, and not organisations aiming at drawing the non-party masses into directly political activity.

The line of the CPB(ML) in opposing such organisations, and in talking only of economic struggles, is the line of the Economists who said that the economic struggle “is the most widely applicable means” of drawing the masses into political activity. When the CPB(ML) says that every worker’s struggle “by its very nature has a political content”, they are putting forward the line of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character”. Those earlier Economists were demolished by Lenin, yet now we have the CPB(ML) putting forward exactly the same line, in the name of Marxism-Leninism.

What is the essence of the CPB (ML) strategy as spelled out in their document and in the pages of ’The Worker’? Is it a revolutionary strategy aimed at the violent overthrow of the capitalist state, and the introduction of the dictatorship of the proletariat? It seems not. Their only strategy is militant trade unionism.[19] We are all for militant trade unionism. It is fine as far as it goes. But it only goes so far and no farther. To dress it up with a few slogans and call it ’revolutionary’ is blatant economism! The working class needs militant trade unionism, but much more, it needs revolutionary politics, and a party that will put forward a revolutionary political line.

In its recent pamphlet, ’Guerrilla Struggle’ the CPB(ML) states:

The aim is to apply the strategy of guerrilla war to the economic arena. This does not necessarily fall into direct political action, but is in fact an aid to the working class in the daily bread-and-butter struggle it is compelled to wage because of class relationships.

It would seem from this that the CPB (ML) accepts that there is a distinction between economic and political struggles, which is a step forward, but that at the present time its strategy is only related to the “bread-and-butter struggle”, whilst ignoring the political struggle, which is in direct contradiction with Lenin’s statement that “the masses cannot be trained in political consciousness and revolutionary activity in any other way except by means of such (political) exposures”.

In fact the CPB (ML) is waiting for the political struggle to develop spontaneously before drawing up a strategy to lead it, believing that the economic struggle itself will eventually take on a political character, for the above Quotation continues:

It is a daily tool but is also political and will develop as changing contradictions force direct political struggle on the working class.

But we shall have to wait some long time before even contemplating the development of this political struggle, for we are told:

State measures used by the employing class, the Industrial Relations Act, Counter Inflation Act with its various phases 1~2~3, the resurrection of Pay and Price Boards, the introduction of direct fining of workers pursuing wage demands…show that the struggle is to be long, protracted guerrilla.

This latest publication underlines the fact that in reality the CPB (ML) proposes nothing more than militant trade unionism.


[4] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from the CPB (ML) are taken from their document reproduced as an appendix to this pamphlet.

[5] The Worker, January 1972

[6] Ibid, July 1971

[7] Ibid.

[8] What can the CPB (ML) mean by saying that economic struggles should become an “offensive”? Certain types of anarchist have dreamed of destroying capitalism simply by a general strike, ignoring the existence of, and the necessity of destroying, the armed state of the bourgeoisie. Possibly the CPB(ML) thinks that all that is wrong with this idea is that it attempts too large and open a confrontation with the enemy all at once, hence the idea of ”guerrilla war” economic struggles. However, this would contradict their slogan ’Not one at a time, but all together’, which seems to be calling for a general strike. In any case this sounds like the crude bourgeois propaganda put out by papers like the Daily Express, to the effect that strikes are brought about by ’agitators’ and ’communists’ who aim to wreck the economy. (We do not have to wreck the economy, for the basic, insoluble contradictions within capitalism are perfectly able to manage that.)

[9] What is to be Done?, Foreign Languages Press, Peking 1973, P.75. In this and other quotations, the emphasis is from the original.

[10] It is our earnest hope that members, or supporters of the CPB (ML), perhaps seeking to show that we are quoting out of context, will read the entire book. Nothing could help more to demolish the nonsense spouted by the leadership of the CPB (ML).

[11] For ’Social-Democracy’ we should read ’Communism’. Lenin was writing before the revisionists of the Second International had succeeded in making the name of ’Social-Democracy’ stand for the betrayal of the working class, and when Lenin was a member of the Russian Social-Democratic Party.

[12] What is to be Done?, p.70

[13] Ibid, p.76

[14] Ibid, p.85

[15] Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, Peking 1970, p.46

[16] What is to be Done? p.80

[17] Ibid, p.54

[18] Ibid, p.52

[19] We are prepared to accept, because we are not in a position to investigate, that the trade union leaders in the CPB (ML) are very militant. However, this should not be taken for granted, and the record of Reg Birch and others should be examined. Despite the reputation of “Killer Birch”(The Worker, August 1971) , some points in the CPB(ML) document are worrying. The point about the basic soundness and mass nature of British trades unions rings a little strange when so many strikes in Britain (that are neither “ill-conceived” nor “tactically misdirected” from the workers’ point of view) have to be fought against the unions and the TUC as well as the bosses.