Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Unity Association (Marxist-Leninist)

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


It is only possible for the working class to develop revolutionary class consciousness, the consciousness of its historic task of seizing power and ending the present system of exploitation and oppression, by developing a spirit of proletarian internationalism; so long and so far as the working class is filled with narrow nationalism, identifying itself with the exploiters and oppressors of its own country rather than with brother proletarians and oppressed colonial peoples abroad, it can never be revolutionary. One basic task of the proletarian vanguard, the Communist Party, is therefore to struggle to raise mass consciousness to the level of proletarian internationalism, and in so doing to combat chauvinism and narrow nationalism. This is particularly true of the vanguard in imperialist countries such as Britain where, as Lenin says:

The imperialist ideology also penetrates the working class. No Chinese Wall separates it from the other classes.[28]

The question of proletarian internationalism, and indeed of proletarian revolution, is completely bound up with the question of imperialism, and this has been true since the dawn of the era of monopoly capitalism and imperialism.

In his great work ’Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ Lenin made clear the essence of this final stage of capitalism. It is the stage when free competition gives way to monopolies, which play a decisive role in economic life, when “the merging of bank capital with industrial capital ” takes place, when “the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance”, when “the formation of international monopoly capitalist combines which share the world amongst themselves” comes about, [and when “the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed”].[29]

The era of imperialism is the era of capitalism in decay, in its final moribund state. The monopoly features of capitalism, the very concentration of production, are in themselves a transitional stage to a higher social and economic system, that is, socialism. The contradictions within the imperialist system are much more acute than in the earlier stage of free competition and developing capitalism. With the uneven development of capitalism in the various imperialist countries, and the complete division of the world into imperialist spheres of influence, the most intense inter-imperialist rivalry comes into being, leading to imperialist wars aimed at the re-division of the world. The system of colonialism and neo-colonialism brings about the most acute contradiction between the oppressor nations and the oppressed nations, and gives rise to wars of national liberation. The oppressed peoples struggling against imperialism have become the staunchest allies of the proletariat in the imperialist countries.

The era of imperialism, therefore, is also the era of proletarian revolution, and the victory of the Great October Revolution in 1917, the victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1949, and the other victorious proletarian revolutions, have ushered in an era when proletarian revolution is on the agenda all over the world. The very existence of socialist countries such as China and Albania, the very fact of the historic victory of the working class in Russia (despite the subsequent betrayal of the revolution by the revisionist leaders of the Soviet Union) provide examples and inspiration to the oppressed and exploited throughout the world and lead the way to revolution.

In the era of imperialism, Lenin says:

Monopolies, oligarchy, the striving for domination, instead of striving for liberty, the exploitation of an increasing number of small or weak nations by a handful of the richest or most powerful nations – all these have given birth to those distinctive characteristics of imperialism which compel us to define it as parasitic or decaying capitalism.[30]

The economies of the imperialist nations become parasitic to a very considerable extent upon the colonial oppressed nations, the areas of the world in which the huge surplus capital of the monopolists is invested, the areas from which come huge surplus-profits.

In the CPB (ML) document the point is made that poverty is greater in colonial countries than in imperialist nations because living standards are higher in highly industrialised countries than in “non-industrialised economies”. But do the colonial country and the imperialist country live in two separate worlds? Is there not a relationship between them? In fact there is, that relationship being imperialism, whereby the colonial country is kept a colonial non-industrialised country, with the imperialist power preserving its exploitative relationship by forming supportive alliances with the most backward, reactionary classes in the colonial country. It is this, along with the direct plunder and exploitation of the resources of the colonial country by imperialism that prevents its becoming industrialised.

This “industrialised”/“non-industrialised” ’analysis’ of the CPB (ML) is worthy of the most abject apologist for imperialism! To put it out in the name of Marxism-Leninism makes the crime even worse! It is aimed at concealing the imperialist, exploitative and oppressive relationship between oppressor and oppressed nations.

And what about the point that ”exploitation is no less (in the imperialist nations), for what the workers produce is stolen by the capitalists”? “Exploitation”, the CPB(ML) leaders have gone on to say, but not to publish, “is even less in colonial countries; a larger proportion of the much larger value created by a British industria1 worker is taken by his capitalist boss, than a land-lord in the colonial country can squeeze out of a peasant’s un-productive labour.” But it may shake the CPB (ML) leadership to know that revolutionaries are not really concerned about whether this individual or that, this section or that, is more exploited (provides more surplus-value for the immediate exploiter). We are concerned about exploitation and oppression with relation to the whole of the working class in capitalist countries, including the masses of unemployed who are not being immediately exploited, and the labouring masses of the whole world, including poor peasants who can hardly mange to stay alive and who pay their landlord a rent that would seem tiny by Western standards. We are not even as concerned about exploitation in itself, as about the vicious system created to maintain this exploitation, and the fact that this system prevents the use of the tremendous productive power of modern technology, the productive power of humanity, being used for the needs of the people.

We are told by the CPB(ML) that:

The different forms and different degrees of exploitation and poverty in the industrialised imperialist countries and the non-industrialised colonies, should blind no-one to the fact that in essence they are the same wherever encountered.

But the point is that the whole economy, the world population, of colonial countries is exploited by imperialism. The backwardness of feudalism, unproductive agriculture, corrupt state bureaucratic and comprador capitalism are preserved precisely because they are propped up by imperialism, because the social revolution necessary to change this situation would definitely make it impossible for imperialism to continue its exploitation. Imperialism works through colonial and neo-colonial regimes drawn from the most reactionary, backward sections of the colonial populations to keep the colony ’safe’ for investment, and oppresses the whole colonial nation. This is why even some reactionary classes can play a revolutionary role at least temporarily in the struggle against imperialism.

To speak of “equal” or of “greater” exploitation in “industrialised” countries as compared with “non-industrialised” countries is to conceal the relationship between oppressor and oppressed nations, to deny the fact of imperialism. We must certainly tell the British workers the truth that they and the oppressed peoples of the world have a common interest in smashing imperialism, but this will not be achieved by concealing from them the truth concerning imperialist relationships.

The CPB(ML) document contains the statement that ”imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, is stronger than national capitalism.”[31] The whole paragraph beginning with this sentence is a confused rigmarole showing that the CPB(ML) neither understands, nor wishes to understand, Lenin’s theory of imperialism. It is aimed at denying the special oppression of colonial countries by imperialism. The CPB(ML) thinks that only by lying to the British working class on this issue can it approach it.

The utter contempt for the British working class that this implies is incredible. Can British Workers really only understand their interest in defeating imperialism if they are lied to by the CPB (ML) concerning the, super-exploitation and oppression of colonial countries by imperialism? British workers know they are exploited, they experience exploitation every day they certainly do not need to be told that they are the most exploited people in the world in order to want to end their exploitation. And when they understand fully how much the capitalist economy of Britain is propped up by imperialist plunder, they will (perhaps more readily than the leaders of the CPB (ML)) understand that a socialist economy in Britain would not need to be, and could not be, propped up by such plunder.

We want the workers to understand all this – the difference between oppressor and oppressed nations and the link between imperialism and “non-industrialisation”. Proletarian internationalism and the needs of the revolutionary movement require that the workers understand these things, as well as the truth of the thesis that today the “country-side of the world”, that is, the colonial countries, is rising up against the “cities of the world”, that is, the imperialist countries, and that in so doing the oppressed peoples are playing the vanguard role in defeating imperialism. It is the oppressed peoples, led by the proletariat but including other classes as well, and even patriotic reactionaries at times, who are carrying out this struggle. We want the workers to understand these things, and to understand exactly why they are true. The CPB (ML) apparently neither understands them itself, nor wishes the workers to understand them.

Why are these distortions of Lenin’s theory of imperialism introduced into the CPB (ML) document? In order to refute any attempt at a concrete analysis of the effects of imperialism on Britain, and particularly its effects upon the working class movement. But there is no short cut which can avoid the difficult task of applying our theoretical understanding to the concrete historical situation in Britain.

To what extent does a ’labour aristocracy’ exist in Britain, that is, a section of the working class directly or indirectly bribed by the fruits of imperialism, so as to turn it to the side of the bourgeoisie? To what extent are large sections of the working class infected by imperialist ideology, by racism and big-power chauvinism? To what extent has the historical triumph of opportunism in the British working class movement had an economic base is generated by imperialism? To some extent, all of these are unquestionably true, but the work of concrete, thorough analysis of this question has yet to be done. It must be done, for without such an analysis opportunism cannot be defeated, imperialist ideology cannot be successfully combatted and a true revolutionary strategy cannot be developed.

But the CPB(ML), instead of examining seriously these questions, dogmatically asserts:

The interests of the classes, and in Britain there are only two – those who sell their labour-power and those who exploit the labour of others – are so opposed as to make struggle inevitable.[32]

The lumping-together of all those “who sell their labour-power” is a glossing-over of the existence of different levels within the working class and denies the existence of a labour aristocracy, or any section of the working class which espouses the interests of the bourgeoisie rather than those of its own class, without even any pretence of a class analysis of Britain.

The CPB (ML) leadership, however, equates even the raising of such issues as the labour aristocracy with a theory that there is no class struggle in Britain, or that the working class has ceased to exist, or has been thoroughly corrupted by a share in imperialist plunder. There are those who do hold such theories, and who reject the Marxist theory of the revolutionary role of the working class. But we certainly do not hold that the working class has become totally “corrupt” or “ceased to exist” in Britain or in any other imperialist nation. The basic contradiction between the capitalist class and the proletariat, and the exploitation and oppression of the working class, can only come to an end in the victorious proletarian revolution. In many ways, by concentrating wealth, and economic and political power in over fewer hands, or putting the working class even more at the economic mercy of a small number of monopoly capitalists, by concentrating production even further, the contradictions in imperialist nations have become more pronounced.

At the same time it is true that the development of imperialism has enabled the capitalist economies of the imperialist nations to avoid total collapse, in this temporary historical period of the final stage of capitalism, and to continue to expand, although essentially the system is in internal decay. This implies, certainly, that the standard of living of the working class in imperialist countries has risen, in general, rather than the horrible destitution which the collapse, or partial collapse of capitalist economies brings to the workers.

Does this mean that imperialism benefits the working class as a whole? We are benefitted in so far as we are permitted to work and be exploited, and so remain alive under imperialism, and even at times to attain some modest comforts in our standard of living. Low wages and appalling dreariness at work, inadequate housing, unemployment, racial and sex discrimination, the wretched condition of old people, the cultural impoverishment of the working class, and all the horrible conditions of human life created by this vicious system of exploitation and oppression always remain, that the working class will really benefit from is socialism, the ending of exploitation and oppression and the opening-up of an entirely new life for all the masses of the people.

So we certainly do not accept the line put forward by the CPB (ML) in this document and elsewhere, that any questioning, such as that of Lenin, on the bond between imperialism and opportunism, is equivalent to calling the whole working class corrupt or bought-off by capitalism.

The only questions the CPB (ML) poses on this subject are:

Why is the oldest and most experienced proletariat so lacking in political acumen (and how) to change this situation.

But having posed these questions, the CPB (ML) document makes no attempt to answer them. Presumably, “lacking in political acumen” is a euphemism for ’low political consciousness’, or for ’dominated by opportunist leadership’! Perhaps the statement in Reg Birch’s ’Preface’ that “the truth is that the revolutionary aims of Marxism have been distorted to deliberately corrupt the working class-mind, direct it to reformism even, if allowed, to subservience” is meant to be an answer. But firstly, the primary opportunist trend in Britain, the Labour Party, never accepted Marxism, even in order to distort it, and secondly, and most important, even if this were not the case, this would not be an explanation; opportunists and Social Democrats exist, but why in such numbers, and why have they won support, why have they triumphed for so long in the working class movement? We are now back at the original question, and the document, having posed it, makes no attempt to answer it. On this question Lenin said:

The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists in one of the numerous branches of industry, in one of the numerous countries, etc. makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie of a given industry or given nation against all the others. The intensification of antagonisms between imperialist nations for the division of the world increases this striving. And so there is created that bond between imperialism and opportunism, which revealed itself first and most clearly in England, owing to the fact that certain features of imperialist development were observed there much earlier than in other countries.[33]

But in the CPB (ML) document, the entire section beginning with this question is devoted to ’proving’ that imperialism has nothing to do with the answer, that imperialism has had no effect on Britain or on the British working class movement. Their attempt to ’prove’ this has led the CPB(ML) into the most complete distortion of Lenin’s theory of imperialism. This line is intimately bound up with their central economist strategy, dealt with in an earlier section; if imperialism has no effect on the working class, then it is not necessary to struggle ideologically and politically to combat chauvinism and racism in the British working class, it is not necessary to struggle to raise working class consciousness to an understanding of the relationship between the imperialist powers and the colonial countries. These countries are only poor because they are “non-industrialised”, imperialism has nothing to do with it. The CPB (ML) is thus free to concentrate on the really important thing, the struggle “so constantly denigrated as ’economic’”. This is the rankest opportunism and betrayal of proletarian internationalism.

But here again, aren’t we being unfair to the CPB (ML)? Don’t they introduce proletarian internationalism into the pages of ’The Worker’ by printing articles about the revolutionary struggles of the Vietnamese people, the Palestinian people, socialist construction and revolutionary victories in People’s China and in Albania? Certainly they do. Could they even pretend for ten minutes to be a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party without paying at least lip-service to proletarian internationalism?

But much more is required than this. It is necessary to have a clear line of proletarian internationalism to introduce to the working class movement, showing the actual relationship of imperialist Britain to the co1onial countries and to the whole imperialist system. In contrast to this, the CPB(ML) puts forward a line of promoting the insularity and narrow nationalism of British workers: “The British working class is the most class conscious in the world.”[34] ”In every industrial country save Britain there is relative industrial peace. Here every agreement is but an armistice and tomorrow is the war.” “The struggle in Britain so constantly denigrated as ’economic’ is as organic and necessary (we’re just as revolutionary as anyone) to revolution as the gun, just as is the fight for land, bread and liberty for the peasant in other lands.”

The July 1971 edition of ’The Worker’ has a cartoon showing an armed liberation fighter standing side by side with a British trade unionist on strike, with the caption “One struggle”. Presumably, this is proletarian internationalism aimed at convincing British workers that they are struggling against the same enemy as the Indo-Chinese and other revolutionary peoples, namely, monopoly” capitalism-imperialism. This aspect of it is fine, if workers should understand this. But the picture and caption imply other things as well. Firstly, the nonsense that the economic struggles, the strikes of the British workers, are a comparable blow struck at imperialism as the military struggles for liberation in Indo-China. Secondly, that British workers are equally oppressed by imperialism. This cartoon and the quotations mentioned above, are anti-Marxist in equating, economic struggles with political, armed struggles, and chauvinistic in claiming that we British workers are fighting as hard for revolution as anyone.

To these few examples of the essential opportunism of the CPB (ML) on the question of proletarian internationalism must be added one more. In the section on the economism of the CPB (ML), their opposition to black organisations existing separately to struggle against racism was noted as an example of their refusal to support an all-round political struggle to raise working class consciousness. This is also a failure in proletarian internationalism, a failure to grasp the special oppression of black people in this society and to recognise that this special oppression requires specific forms of organisation to combat it.

Denouncing racism is essentially a question of proletarian internationalism, for racist attitudes are the product of imperialism, and existed in Britain before there was any appreciable black population here. This question is of crucial importance to the working class movement. Unless the divisions created by racist ideology in the white working class, encouraged and profited from by the bourgeoisie, are overcome, a united revolutionary workers’ movement cannot come into being. As long as workers share the imperialist racial chauvinist ideology of the bourgeoisie, they will not be revolutionary.

Can any Marxist-Leninist fail to understand the importance of this question? Yet what is the record of the CPB (ML), which aims to “convey our politics to the mass through our Party and not just through the agency of some broad front”’? It does not agree with black organisations, but what has it done on this question? Has the racist Immigration Bill been given much coverage in the pages of ’The Worker’, has the question of racism in general been given anywhere near the thorough coverage it requires? We think not.[35]

The general question of proletarian internationalism, of an understanding of imperialism, is extremely important to any revolutionary movement and particularly to one in an imperialist country. The CPB (ML) shows itself to be completely unprincipled and opportunistic on this question, denies any effect of imperialism on Britain, refuses to recognise or explain the distinction between oppressor and oppressed nation, and promotes narrow, nationalistic, insular views. This opportunism, as we have already stated, is fully consistent with, and is indeed inseparable from, its general line of economism. It is totally inconsistent with Marxism-Leninism and a Marxist-Leninist party line.


[28] Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Peking 1969, p.131

[29] All phrases are from Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

[30] Ibid, p.150

[31] This reveals a great deal about the CPB (ML). Firstly, one point in their favour, they know the phrase “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”. Secondly, they apparently do not know what it means? Imperialism, the highest, final, moribund, dying and decaying stage of capitalism, they say, is “stronger than” national capitalism! Thirdly, where do they introduce the topic? In the midst of an argument aimed at proving that imperialism has had no effect on the British working class movement! Could anything make more clear the phoneyness of their Marxism-Leninism and the reality of their opposition to Marxism-Leninism?

[32] The CPB (ML) has eliminated the petty-bourgeoisie, waived it out of existence in a really masterful way! Unfortunately, in the real concrete Britain where the rest of us live, the petty-bourgeoisie still exists. We see the need of a concrete analysis which includes him, as well as the lumpen, declassed elements in society. And what about these ”two” classes? Are they undifferentiated, homogenous units? Is it not necessary to analyse, for example, the difference between the small and the big bourgeoisie? We think so.

[33] Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, p.152

[34] Said on several occasions at public meetings by Reg Birch.

[35] Since October, 1971, we have only been able to trace two editions of ’The Worker’ containing any article on racism, and neither of these deals satisfactorily with the subject.