ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, June 1977



Geoff Roberts

The CP, the SWP and the Strategy for Socialism in Britain


From International Socialism (1st series), No.99, June 1977, pp.22-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I was asked to write a reply to Duncan Hallas’ comments in International Socialism 95 on an article of mine – The Strategy of Rank and Filism – which had appeared in Marxism Today. Given the publication in the meantime of a redraft of the CP programme The British Road to Socialism and the discussion of it which has taken place in this and other journals I felt it would be more fruitful to take up the general issues raised by Duncan Hallas which have a direct bearing on that discussion and to consider some of the criticisms made of the draft by Alex Callinicos in International Socialism 97, rather than restrict myself to a point by point reply to Hollas. As to the specific question of industrial strategy which is not discussed below I feel a comparison by the reader of my original article with the Hallas piece will suffice to reveal the weakness of the latter’s riposte.


‘THE fundamental issue dividing the left in Britain as elsewhere is that of reform or revolution.’ So argues Alex Callinicos in a recent issue of International Socialism. [1] A statement which sums up the response of the SWP, and other contenders for the mantle of revolutionary leadership on the Trotskyist left, to the redraft of the Communist Party’s programme The British Road to Socialism. Echoing the approach of the Stalinist wing of the CP [2] the draft is assessed not in terms of the solutions it offers to the complex problems faced by the left, but in terms of its fidelity to a series of timeless ‘revolutionary principles’. The conclusion that the draft is ‘reformist’ is forgone since the critics reserve the right, of course, to select and determine what is and what is not ‘revolutionary’. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that the task of devising a strategy for socialism is unproblematic, reducible to a choice between reformism or revolutionism. Presumably this why for all its polemical vigor when it comes to the British Road the SWP has yet to produce an equivalent strategic document.

The suspicion is confirmed on reading an article by Tony Cliff published in Socialist Worker earlier this year. [3] In it Cliff argues that in a ‘few years time’ Britain will enter a revolutionary crisis, consequent upon unemployment levels of 3-4 million. In such a situation the only alternatives will be either socialism or fascism. He concludes: ‘If, at the beginning of the revolutionary crisis, there is a mass revolutionary party of sorts, it can grow quickly in the months of the crisis so it is able to lead the working class to power.’ What need of a strategy when capitalism will all-but do the job for you? Policy is reduced to a series of tactics designed to prepare the revolutionary party for the cirisis which at the appropriate moment will intervene and lead the working class to power á la 1917. As Duncan Hallas once said in reference to the old Socialist Labour League this is ‘the politics of catastrophe’ which results in ‘building the leadership ... becom(ing) a substitute for serious and industrial work.’ [4]

Social Being and Social Consciousness

SUCH a crude cataclysmic perspective does not, I hasten to add figure in Alex Callinicos’ strictures against the British Road. [5] Nor for that matter in Duncan Hallas’ critique [6] of my The Strategy of Rank and Filism. [7] There is, however, an underlying connection between the arguments of Hallas and Callinicos on the one hand, and Cliff on the other, examination of which indicates that the difference between them is more one of degree of political sanity than fundamental political conceptions. This connection is a shared understanding [8] of the central problem of historical materialism, and by extension of revolutionary strategy – the relationship between social being and social consciousness. Hallas in dealing with this question accuses me of denying any connection between the two. This is clearly untrue and nowhere in that article or anything else I have written will you find such a statement or even implication. What you will find, though, is an attack on mechanistic interpretations of the connection between material conditions and ideas. This seems to have passed over Hallas for he proceeds to argue in favour of precisely such a mechanistic interpretation as in the following passage: ‘Changing consciousness is primarily the result of changing conditions and of the activity that is both the cause and consequence of changing conditions.’ It is apparent from the context of this remark that the concept of primacy assumes a reductionist content in Hallas’ hands as, for example, in his contention that ideas are important ‘insofar as they lead to activity of the desired kind’, and in his uncritical incantation of Marx’s statement that social being determines social consciousness. [9]

Much could be said by way of theoretical criticism of this so-called ‘historical materialism’ but suffice it to ask what it contributes to our understanding of political developments of recent years? How does it explain an intense economic crisis accompanied by the most massive class struggles since the 1920’s that results in an overall political shift to the right? How does it explain the continued grip of reformism on the working class in the absence of reforms? How does it explain, given undeniably favourable objective conditions, that the left faces an increasing prospect of a Tory return? Perhaps its all a question of time, or traitorous leadership, or lack of effort by revolutionaries, or, as Cliff suggests, all will be well come the catastrophe. For my money it is the analytical model that is wrong, principally the absence from it of the notion that consciousness has its own autonomy. To understand the relationship betweensocial consciousness and social being we must examine the determinants which operate at the level of the institutions and practices of the superstructure – in the domains of politics, ideology and culture. On the basis of such an analysis it will be possible to arrive at a strategy for political intervention by revolutionaries.

A Gramscian Strategy

HEREIN lies the importance of Gramsci’s contribution to revolutionary theory. Gramsci’s investigations demonstrate that the power of the ruling class in advanced capitalist societies such as ours rest predominantly on its ability to mould consciousness and, thereby, win consent to its rule. It does this through its direction (hegemony) of the institutions, structures, and processes, and their ideological content, of ‘civil society’, i.e. all those social relationships based on a predominantly consensual framework. Civil society, therefore, constitutes a terrain on which revolutionaries must struggle if there is to be any hope of developing socialist consciousness on a mass scale. A battle must be waged to break ruling class hegemony and to, simultaneously, develop a new, working-class hegemony – the basis for a consent to a new social order. Such a strategy is not reducible, as Hallas argues, to propagandism. Quite the contrary it is based above all on hegemonic action on the part of the working class. [10]

Considerations such as these are clearly irrelevant if you believe as Chris Harman does (and presumably Hallas and Callinicos) that ‘the strength of Big Business does not lie in ballot boxes, but in its control of industry and armed power’ [11], which is the same as saying that what happens before people enter the polling booth and ensures that millions upon millions of people vote the way they do is a secondary matter. But until you can change the way people vote, given what that expresses about their total outlook, how on earth are you going to abe able to mount a successful challenge to the economic and coercive power of the ruling class? In that sense, in the first instance at least, the power of the ruling class does reside in the ballot box and what is required, above all, is a strategy capable of challenging that power. And before you can arrive at such a strategy you need an analysis. The SWP has no such strategy since it has no real analysis. Insofar as it has any strategy at all for challenging this aspect of ruling class power it comes down to militant action plus propaganda plus build the party. In other words sterile agitationism and propagandism spiced up with the increasingly apocalyptic visions of people like Cliff.

But this is not all, for in pursuing this line the SWP actually serves to reinforce the hegemony of the ruling class. A truly hegemonic class is one with the capacity to allow and to incorporate into its system forms of autonomous practice on the part of subordinate classes. Among forms prevalent in the British working class is that of economism. To give economism a more militant slant, as the SWP does, is not to challenge it and it remains an aspect of ruling class hegemony. What is required is a strategy whose object is to transform practices such as economism into genuinely autonomous, hegemonic practices. Despite its many limitations the new draft British Road contains in embryo, a strategy capable of measuring up to the hegemonic tasks that confront the left. We can point, in particular, to its central concept of a broad democratic alliance of class and social forces. An alliance for democracy both because of the unifying potential of democratic struggle and because of the challenge that democracy poses to ruling class hegemony. An alliance of social forces and movements as well as classes because a crucial manifestation of the latter on the terrain of civil society is social, e.g. in the community.

The State

This said Alex Callinicos is correct to point out that any strategy for socialism must sooner or later, confront the problem of coercive power, i.e. the state. The British Road does embody such a strategy and I want to now deal with the fairly common objections raised by Callinicos to it. It is worth noting initially that on two important points there is some agreement. Firstly, that the state is not neutral but functions to preserve the interests of the ruling class and, secondly, flowing from this the working class must create its own state. The main difference arises over the means to this common end. In the draft the perspective is advanced of the democratic transformation of the existing state into a new, socialist state. Callinicos, to the contrary, argues for the ‘smashing’ of the existing state and its replacement by a state based on Soviets and workers’ militia. Be it noted that this position is not rooted in any concrete analysis of the present-day British state, apart from the fact that its capitalist, but on its concurrence with the reputed teachings of Marx and Lenin. Since Callinicos states but does not demonstrate the relevance of the views of Marx and Lenin on this question there is little basis for a discussion. A point worth making, however, is that Lenin did not subscribe to Callinicos’ view of the state as a monolithic structure. He took great care to differentiate between its parts stressing on the one hand, that it was necessary to ‘smash’ that which ‘is routine and incurably bourgeois in the old state apparatus’ but arguing, on the other hand, against smashing other parts:

‘Besides the pre-eminently "coercive" machinery – the standing army, the police, and the bureaucracy – there is in the modern state an apparatus that is closely connected with the banks and syndicates, and apparatus that performs a vast amount of work of an accounting and statistical nature ... This apparatus must not and should not be broken up. It must be wrested from the control of the capitalists; the capitalists must be cut off, lopped away, chopped off from it together with the threads by which they transmit their influence.’ [12]

In a sense the British Road perspective is merely an extension and development of that kind of notion. Callinicos’ main objection to it appears to be that the capitalists will resist attempts at democratisation. Since no one has suggested otherwise and given that the perspective is based primarily on mass action to implement the necessary changes and not on governmental legislation from above I fail to see the force of this objection. Furthermore, by emphasising the control exercised by small groups at the top within state institutions Callinicos obscures the crucial contradiction that exists between the function of the state and the interests of the vast majority who carry out its work, i.e. civil servants, soldiers etc. The possibility exists, therefore, of democratic struggle within the state as well as without. The ability of the working class to transform the state is not dependent upon the whim of the ruling class but, as in the case of its ability to ‘smash’ it on the balance of social and political forces. The difference between the two, ‘smash’ or transform, is that the struggle for the latter forms part of the actual process of changing the balance of class forces.

The problem with the perspective of an assault on the state is that nowhere is it explained how, given British conditions, a situation is going to be created in which the mass of people are willing and able to carry it through. The tendency is to retreat into the idea of the sudden eruption of a revolutionary crisis. Given that the foundations of the ruling class power are such that it is able, in Gramsci’s words, to resist the incursions of economic crises arid the like such a view is unrealistic to say the least. As to the question of Soviets the view of the British Road is that existing representative institutions such as Parliament are capable, on condition of their reform, of becoming adequate means through which working class power can express itself. This, in my opinion, although it is not clear in the draft, does not rule out the development of autonomous working-class institutions even of the soviet-type. These two processes – the transformation of existing institutions and the development of new ones – should be seen as complementary rather than contradictory.

The British Road‘s perspective of democratising the state forms part of an overall strategy of democratic transformation. This latter concept forms the link between the battle for consent on the terrain of civil society and the struggle for state power. Democracy threatens both the hegemony of the ruling class and its coercive power. Such a strategy proceeds not from an abstract set of revolutionary principles but from the concrete reality of decades of working class democratic struggle and achievement. It seeks to further that democratic struggle and to give it a revolutionary content. To advocate, as Alex Callinicos does, a ‘Bolshevik’ path for Britain to bypass that democratic tradition and hand it over lock, stock, and barrel to the ruling class who know so well how to pevert it for their own ends. Such advocacy is particularly dangerous in a period in which the ruling class is attacking hard-won democratic rights. As dangerous as the illusion of the neutrality of the state is the illusion that democracy can be defended by restricting one’s defence to trade union type rights (e.g. the exclusion of the defence of Parliament) plus propaganda for an abstract workers’ democracy. Only a global offensive democratic battle on the terrain that exists now can do this.

The Role of the Party

FINALLY, we come to the question of the role of the revolutionary party which both Hallas and Callinicos touch upon in their articles. Broadly speaking both agree that the role of the party is to lead the masses in action and through that win their adherence to the party. This is then contrasted to an alleged propagandist conception held by the Communist Party. Both appeal to the authority of the early Comintern as the conclusive proof of the validity of their arguments. Callinicos asks why have an independent CP at all if its role is an essentially propagandist one? The confusion of Hallas and Callinicos arises from the fact that they cannot conceive of the role of the party except in exclusivist, vanguardist terms. For the Communist Party, however, the role of leadership is the prerogative of the left as a whole. It views as a major task the development of a united left capable of coming to terms with the strategic problems that confront it. An independent organisation of revolutionaries is seen as an essential component of a united left with a particular role to play – a role by no means restricted to the realm of ideas by embodying a dynamic relationship of action with the developing mass movement for progressive change. Crucially, for the Communist Party left unity is not, as tends to be the case with the SWP, a party-building tactic but forms an integral part of its overall strategy for socialism. If we cannot unify the left what hope have we of unifying the working class? But such unity must be a principled unity based on the recognition of the role that each of its components has to play. If this and other debates like it, by clarifying differences and clearing up misunderstanding, can make a small contribution to that process then it will have been worthwhile.

Top of page<


1. No.95, p.29

2. Alex Callinicos even goes so far as to approvingly quote one of its representatives (Peter Hall). Peter Hall was expelled from the YCL for, among other things, his outspoken public support, against the policy of the YCL, for the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

3. 8.1.77, p.10

4. International Socialism 40, p.31.

5. International Socialism 97.

6. International Socialism 95.

7. Marxism Today, December 1976.

8. In the case of Alex Callinicos this appears to extend only to the political consequences of this view of the relationship between social being and social consciousness not to the relationship itself. It is apparent from a reading of his Althusser’s Marxism (Pluto Press, 1976) that he generally concurs with the now common critique of reductionist forms of Marxism.

9. Hallas, p.13.

10. On the points made in this section see R. Simon, Gramsci’s Concept of Hegemony, Marxism Today, March 1977.

11. Socialist Worker, 6.11.76.

12. Selected Works, vol.6., p.269.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 23.3.2008