Main ISR Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialist Review, Fall 1956


The Editors of the The Reasoner

The Case For Socialism

Discussion from the British Communist Party


From International Socialist Review, Vol.17 No.4, Fall 1956, pp.119-122, 137.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We are publishing herewith for the information of the American radical movement an extremely interesting article from a new British publication, The Reasoner. This publication, sub-titled A Journal of Discussion, was launched by a group of prominent members of the British Communist Party and has thus far appeared in two issues, dated July and September. Attached to the second issue is a Statement by the editors, announcing that the Executive Committee of the British CP has called upon them to cease publication. We are also reprinting herewith this statement.

By publishing this article and statement we do not in any way imply either agreement on the part of The Reasoner editors with our point of view, or our agreement with theirs. But we do regard as notable the editors’ intense interest in theoretical clarity, their insistence on a full and frank discussion, and their determination to think through all the basic questions arising from the Twentieth Congress.

* * *

We published our first number in mid-July. It sold out in three weeks. We have now received close on three hundred letters from readers, the great majority welcoming the journal. All voice disquiet, self-questioning, the need for fresh Marxist analysis, for Socialist discussion with a new temper and direction. All have helped us, and we thank those who have written.

But the letters also raise a question. In our first number we emphasized that this is a discussion journal, written, in the main, by Communists and addressed in the first place to Communists. Why have so many readers written to us, but without thought of publication? Why have so few sought to address other readers, to take up and carry forward the discussion?

We think there are two main reasons. First the discussion is still in a primitive, a negative and partially destructive, stage. Cherished illusions have been shed. But they have not yet been replaced by new and positive affirmations. Problems are seen more clearly: but practical solutions have yet to be presented. And the first number of The Reasoner reflected this negative phase of the discussion.

In the second place, The Reasoner has almost been drowned in infancy by the waters of argument about discussion itself: what is the place for discussion, how do ideas grow and develop, how can theoretical controversies (which can never be decided, initially, by majority decisions) take place within the structure of a party of action where, rightly, the discipline of majority decisions must prevail?

The contributions in this number from Ronald Meek, Doris Lessing, and Professor Hyman Levy show the very wide implications of this controversy: indeed, the discussions around the rights of minorities, and this unofficial publication, have revealed a central place of conflict between the needs of united, disciplined action on the one hand, and the claims of honest and unrestricted discussion and inquiry on the other.

In this controversy, we have been guided by one main consideration: the discussion must continue. And it must be more frank and searching than any at present being conducted in official Communist journals. For example, the Communist Party cannot effectively pursue its aim of unity if Communists are unwilling to enter an honest and self-critical discussion of the serious criticisms of Communist method and theory put forward by Socialists who hold the general position of Professor G.D.H. Cole. The discussion must take place across the barriers of party loyalties: for this reason, we publish among the documents in this number certain views of two non-Communists, Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman, interpretative of the Soviet Union, which pose questions which Communists must consider and discuss. Further, we publish a letter from Lawrence Daly, until recently a member of the Scottish District Committee of the Communist Party, who has recently resigned his membership of the party. We regret his decision. But is it possible to consider realistically the problems of recruiting, the need for a party of 50,000, questions of unity, etc., if we are unwilling to receive and reply to the arguments of responsible Communists who have left the party on political grounds?

The discussion must continue: it must be honest: it must cross party barriers. How the discussion shall be conducted: the personal position of the editors: the continued existence of The Reasoner as an unofficial publication – all these are secondary questions.

It may be that discussion of the right way to discuss must be carried to some conclusion before the discussion itself can begin in earnest.

But let us be clear what this discussion is about. There are some Communists who are so concerned with urgent day-to-day struggles that they mistake the discussion for a distraction of energies. They are prepared to admit full discussion on certain immediate tasks and problems: and, within defined limits, discussion on certain questions of organization and verbal alterations of program. Discussion which does not have an immediate bearing on these tasks and questions they regard with impatience.

We do not agree with the view, implied by a correspondent in our first number, that individuals must cease political activity while fundamental review of theory and policy takes place. The shock of the “revelations” had this initial effect upon many of us: but this phase is now surely passing? Events such as the BMC [British Motor Corp.] strike and the Suez crisis underline the fact that activity and discussion must go together and strengthen each other.

But this is no argument for any limitation of the discussion. Even questions of the most general theory, such as the nature of dogmatism, have the most direct bearing upon our political work: first, because they concern the very processes by which we interpret reality, decide policy, and conduct discussion: second, because they have important bearings upon the political relations of Communists with the labor movement.

Questions of general attitude, good faith, political honesty, and party history, every when they have no obvious bearing on the immediate political line, can be of the first importance in our political, as well as personal, relations with people. When Engels condemned the early SDF it was not because of major disagreements with its political line, but as a result of the abstract, didactic opportunism revealed in its approach to the working class: “People who pass as orthodox Marxists have turned our ideas of movement into a fixed dogma to be learnt by heart ... and appear as pure sects.” And William Morris elevated the same question of attitude to a similar level of political importance:

I sometimes have a vision of a real Socialist Party at once united and free ... but the SDF stands in the way. Although the individual members are good fellows enough ... the society has got a sort of pedantic tone of arrogance and lack of generosity, which is disgusting and does disgust both Socialists and Non-Socialists.

The Communist Party does not share the faults of the early SDF, nor does it express its sectarianism in the same way or to the same degree: certain aspects of sectarianism are the inevitable result of isolation during the Cold War, and will be shed not through discussion but through breaking this isolation, through activity among the people: but discussion will hasten this process and is necessary to it.

This is not the heart of the question. The discussion, surely, is first and foremost about Socialism? Second, it is about the political honesty, independence, and effectiveness of the Communist Party as a party capable of leading the British people to Socialism.

British Communists have taken note of Engels’ warnings against purism and abstract propagandist sects, have studied Left-Wing Communism, and have learnt from Lenin that Communists must carry on activities “right in the heart of the proletarian masses,” participating in every struggle for living standards, peace, and social advance.

But in place of the clear analysis of imperialism, the agitational explanation of the Socialist alternative, which Engels and Lenin, Morris and Tom Mann, knew must be carried on alongside and in the heart of every struggle, we have increasingly substituted, for the first, an over-simplified myth of the “two camps,” and for the second, utopian propaganda about the Soviet Union as the land of Socialism-realized.

Communists have won industrial strength through the courage, militancy and intelligence of their members in day-to-day struggles: but the Communist Party has failed to emerge as a political influence corresponding to the energy and quality of its membership – despite repeated betrayals both of Working-class interests and of Socialist principles by reformist Labor leaders – precisely because the British people did not believe or trust this central political message.

Into this situation there comes the speech of Khrushchev, setting out in all its grotesque barbarity the political distortions and violations of human rights which have taken place – and which we have for so long denied – in the country which, to a great degree, we have substituted in our propaganda for the explanation of Socialism in general and in British terms.

For months Communists have been seeking to disentangle many confused issues in their minds: those aspects of Soviet history which can be seen as pre-determined by conditions at the time of the Revolution, or made inevitable by the problems of holding power in the face of internal and external threat: those arising from the general problems of building Socialism in any country: those deriving from specific Russian traditions and culture: those aspects of degeneracy which arose in specific conditions of acute conflict and threat, but which outlived those conditions in certain ideological, moral, and institutional forms: those deriving from the particular qualities and failings of individual leaders: those organisational or theoretical manifestations of the “Stalin era” which have in their turn been reflected in the theory and practice of other Communist Parties. We have now reached a point where all agree that far more detailed knowledge, more detailed analysis, is necessary. But in all this there has run a common thread: the problem of disentangling the understanding of the essential character of Socialist society from the specific and concrete historical problems of the Soviet Union – of achieving an understanding of Socialism both enriched and chastened by the experience of the Soviet people – and of returning with fresh eyes to our own people, our own problems, our own traditions.

To suggest that we have now “had” the discussion, that this or that statement “answers” these problems, that we can forget these unpleasant matters and return to our old tasks in the old way, is to retreat from Socialist theory itself.

No Communist Party, no party aiming at Socialism, can maintain the enthusiasm of its members if there is to be an inhibition, a “closed season,” in the discussion of its very aims and reason for existence. And – while the discussion must focus more and more on British problems – this surely is why discussion of “the Stalin business” must and will go on?

But this is not only a question of the enthusiasm of Communists and Socialists – of the inner conviction which generates activity in a hundred day-to-day struggles. It is surely impossible that any can fail to see that the Khrushchev revelations – while it is true that they present problems which only the Soviet people can solve – while it is true that they do not touch the pockets or jobs of British workers – affect the whole political standing of the British Communist Party, and its relations with the British people.

A reader from Glasgow expresses this:

Two people have recently put it briefly. One lives in a Lancashire cotton town: and when asked what the neighbors were saying about the Stalin business, replied angrily but honestly: “They’re laughing their heads off.” Another is a university lecturer in Scotland, who when asked the same question about his colleagues, replied: “They’re not saying much, but they’re all thinking: ’Let’s see you talk yourself out of this one.’”

The primary datum of the discussion is that we are proposing to promote political and economic change among people who regard us with amusement, tolerance, and a kindly contempt. They are also quite prepared to use us, at least individually, if we can serve their ends, for example, in doing the donkey-work in Trade Unions and other organizations.

This is not an issue of sudden origin; nor is it one which will “soon blow over.” It is ridiculous to say that the British workers “are not concerned with ‘the Stalin business.’” The fact that they are concerned, and were concerned long before the 20th Congress, is revealed every time a Communist – often with wide respect and industrial influence – goes to the polls. So long as the British workers suspect the independence, the honesty, and the authoritarian tendencies of the Communist Party, this discrepancy between industrial and political influence is likely to remain.

The records of any TUC or Labor Party Conference during the past ten years show how “the Stalin business” has been used by reformist leaders to divide the movement, and how the quarrel about human rights and liberties, in which more than once we have taken the wrong side, has become embedded in the history and even in the structure of our labor movement.

Nor have the Khrushchev revelations in any sense “rehabilitated” Communists on those questions where we have been mistaken; although they have created a situation within which, if we ourselves draw the right lessons and take the right initiatives, we can regain our honesty and independence of judgment and action.

But “the Stalin business” is here to stay. It will not be forgotten next year nor in ten years time. At the worst, the capitalist class will see to that. Nor will Communists, in ten years time, be able to look with indifference upon those aspects of the history of the first Socialist revolution which destroyed – by torture, death, and slander – many of its own best sons. The “business” is part of the Socialist history: it forms a central experience to which Socialist theory must constantly return.

So long as we refuse to face these facts, honestly and publicly, we are self-defeated in our work, and the return from every political action of Communists is diminished. Fine comrades will redouble their efforts and expend their energies in day-to-day struggles: they will succeed in alleviating suffering here, and in restraining imperialism there: but few results will accrue in the deepened political consciousness of the British people and the direct political influence of the party. The goal of Socialism will be brought little nearer.

What is necessary?

This is not what we are already doing. Our Communist Party still has peculiar elements of econo-mism in its thought and practice.

Starting from the understanding that Socialism is not won by propaganda speeches, some Communists have come to elevate the day-to-day struggles to the exclusion of the fight to win the minds of the working class. There has gradually entered the tendency to view the party as a small and disciplined elite, in possession (as Marxists) of a correct understanding of the needs, interests, and way forward for the working class. To some degree the purity of the party’s doctrine has been insured by an exacting orthodoxy and a highly centralized structure, which has acted as a barrier to the growth of the party itself, and hedged round the initiatives of its members among tin masses. Stalinism, and the cult both of authority and of the Party associated with it, have hardened these attitudes in Britain also.

Hence, the Communist tends to see his role as being largely that of building influence and connections with the masses and within mass organizations, for some period when economic crisis or external pressure will bring a mass following which the elite will steer to power.

Certainly, we should not slacken in any way our mass activity around industrial and social issues. Certainly, Socialism will not come by converting twenty million people to Marxism by lectures and street-corner propaganda. But we do suggest that it is urgent that we break sharply with the outlook which sees these struggles as ends in themselves, as means for building the party, as incidents within a never-ending perspective of defending living standards within a capitalist framework, alongside many years of peaceful co-existence and peaceful competition.

It is necessary now to mount a propaganda such as has not been seen in this country for many years to win the minds of the British people for Socialism: and it is necessary to mount it in ways that take fully into account the intelligence, experience, democratic traditions, and organizational maturity of the British working class.

It is imperative to rebuff the actions of British imperialism in Cyprus and at Suez: but at the same time to explain as never before the nature of imperialism and its general weakness.

It is necessary to resist in every way the suffering brought upon the British workers by the introduction of automation: but it is also necessary to explain in a new, sharp, and imaginative manner the general character of monopoly capitalism and the perspectives opened to a Socialist society by automation and nuclear power.

It is necessary to struggle to defend and improve existing living standards: but it” is necessary to generate anew – and especially among our youth – the understanding that Socialism is not to be measured in living standards alone, but in new social relations, new values and opportunities, a new, more generous, more just, and less selfish way of life. We should recall more often the words of Maxim Gorky:

It is well known that a characteristic and inherent peculiarity of bourgeois society lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority of its members must expend all theirenergy in obtaining the most primitive necessities of life. People have become used to this accursed and humiliating “peculiarity” of theirexistence and although it drives them to concentrate on themselves and think only of themselves, only a very few understand the monstrous nature of such a social order.

It has been this clear conception of a new society which has given inspiration and staying-power to Socialists and Communistsin earlier years. It is the violation of important aspects of this vision which – half-suspected, half-understood – has blurred the vigor of our imaginative appeal in recent years: and which, now fully known but still imperfectly explained, has caused some Communists to stop dead in their tracks.

We have no ready-made solutions to this problem which events have forced upon us. We claim only that the problem must be faced: and there must be discussion.The result of this discussion, we hope, will be the liberation of great political energies, the re-emergence of Socialist principle with a new vigor in Britain.

A reader from Colchester gives us encouragement:

As for “unity,”is there no one sufficiently Marxist to ask “Unity for what?” Unity for unity’s sake seems as uninspiring a slogan as it is sterile. I think the unity of conscious and informed purpose in the struggle for socialism and communism is the only unity worth having, and that can only be promoted by such important and basic debate as I see in The Reasoner.

We think he is right. Clearly, he – and all readers – know the urgent need for common unity in action of all possible sections in immediate struggles against the Tory Government, around Suez, in the coming industrial battles.

But this is not the same, as questions of organizational and political unity of Socialists. ‘This can come only through open discussion, in good faith. It will not come by slurring over past or present disagreements.

The crisis of British imperialism is real enough now, and laid open before all eyes: its repercussions upon British industry may soon provoke a rapid sharpening of political consciousness among the British working class: the abatement of the Cold War has given us a brief breathing-space. The seriousness of immediate, and impending, political and industrial issues makes it more, and not less, urgent that we get the equipment of our Socialist theory sharp and into good order. The gathering threat to British living standards makes it more, rather than less, urgent that we should contest all propaganda which seeks to fool the British people into the belief that there is any long-term solution to their problems, within the framework of monopoly capitalism. If the mock battles of Gaitskell on the one hand, and “the Stalin business” on the other, have brought the ideals of Socialism into discredit with sections of our working people, it becomes our first duty to reassertthem in their full truth and power.

The unity required is that of tihe gathering of Socialist forces, the renewal of Socialist understanding, for the final assault upon British imperialism itself. Such an assault can only be carried by those who, like Cromwell’s soldiers, “know what they fight for, and love what they know.” It is our hope that The Reasoner will strengthen their number.

Statement by the Editors of The Reasoner

Top of page

Main ISR Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on: 21 April 2009