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Alex Callinicos

The Socialist Register 1976

(February 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.95, February 1977, pp.28-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Socialist Register 1976
eds. Miliband & Saville
Merlin Press £2.50

TWENTY years after Krushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin and the Hungarian revolution. The Socialist Register 1976 is largely devoted to the lessons of 1956.

The contents page reflects the editors’ preoccupations. No less than three articles are devoted to the impact of these events on the Communist Party of Great Britain; another deals with the reverberations of Krushchev’s speech within the French and Italian Communist parties; and Ken Coates uses a review of David Widgery’s The Left in Britain, which took 1956 as its starting point, for another of those violent attacks upon the politics of the Socialist Workers’ Party that seem to be becoming a regular feature in Socialist Register.

Only one article – an account by Bill Lomax of the rise and fall of the workers’ councils of Budapest in 1956 – looks outside the conference halls to any mass struggle. But should the inclusion of this article give us the wrong idea, Ken Coates is careful to set us right: what was important about 1956 was not the Hungarian workers’ uprising against Stalinist tyranny but rather the ‘liberating speech to the closed session of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’ by the man who sent the tanks in to crush the uprising.

1956 is the political reference point for the editors and contributors to Socialist Register. The 1973 issue contained a rambling hundred-page invocation of the ‘generation of 1956’ by Edward Thompson. But why 1956? Why not 1968, after all the year when the general strike of May-June in France and the Tet offensive in Vietnam put revolution back on the agenda in the West?

The reasons for this choice are not just sentimental – Edward Thompson and John Savile were driven out of the CP in 1956 for editing the Reasoner, a magazine critical of the Party leadership’s suppression of the secret speech and their support for the invasion of Hungary. They reflect a political orientation which focusses on splits within the existing bureaucracy – Krushchev’s ‘liberating speech’ was, according to Coates, ‘the result of a purely personal initiative, launched at the end of the Congress, while the General Secretary temporarily held isolated power, before the Central Committee had been convened to elect the other members of this leadership’. Politics for Coates is a matter of backing the right man in the right position, perhaps exerting a little pressure upon him to move a bit faster than he wants, but never raising one’s voice too loudly in criticism.

The oddest thing about this issue of Socialist Register is that it contains a trenchant critique of this type of politics by none other than one of the editors, Ralph Miliband. In a review of the British left today he attacks the illusion that there can be no socialist alternative to the Labour Party and that therefore we must work to win over the Party. The conclusion of his argument, which any Socialist Worker supporter would find it difficult to fault, is to call for the construction of a new socialist party.

So far so good. But Miliband goes on to dismiss not only the Communist Party, but also the revolutionary left, and principally the Socialist Workers Party, as the possible starting points for such a party.

The reason Miliband gives for this dismissal is that

‘all these organisations (the SWP and the rest of the revolutionary left – AC) have a common perception of socialist change in terms of a revolutionary seizure of power on the Bolshevik model of October 1917 ... (However) the context of a bourgeois democratic regime in Britain at least as much as elsewhere, imposes upon revolutionary socialists a strategy of advance which has to include a real measure of electoral legitimation’.

Miliband’s explanation of what he means by ‘electoral legitimation’ is very obscure. He talks about

‘a complex and diffuse scenario that must include many different forms of action, pressure and struggle’


‘the attempts to achieve a measure of electoral legitimation at different levels’.

If my this Miliband means that presenting the socialist alternative to Labour requires a concerted and serious intervention in parliamentary elections, then his objection to our politics has already been met. The SWP has already contested two by-elections and intends to run at least 50 candidates in the next general election.

But I suspect his objection runs deeper. The rejection of ‘the Bolshevik model of October 1917’ is widely in fashion among sections of the European left influenced by the Italian Communist Party’s search for a historic compromise with Italian capitalism. David Purdy in his attack on the theory of state capitalism concluded by rejecting ‘the insurrectionist conception of revolution’ [1] Coates also in his attack on Widgery dismisses our politics as a form of ‘Council Communism’ for which ‘the Socialist revolution is workers’ councils plus the Bolshevik party’.

The critics of the ‘Bolshevik model’ repeat over and over again the same argument: Russia in 1917 is different from Europe in 1977. What lies behind this stunning discovery is revealed by Coates:

‘The extent to which power must be “seized” in late capitalism is ... a complex and difficult issue. Were the working class to become a genuinely hegemonic force, “seizure” would become a rather misleading metaphor. The key question remains, how far can working-class organisations strive, from within a capitalist structure, to become the dominant social power?’

In other words, can the working-class become the ‘dominant social power’ without smashing the capitalist state? Here we are siding not only with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but also with Marx and Engels on the basis of their experience of the 1848 revolution and the Paris Commune, and the Communist International in its early years, when we say that the working class must smash the capitalist state and replace it with its own state based upon workers’ councils. In this sense, we are unapologetic ‘Council Communists’.

In reply, David Purdy would say that ‘the insurrectionist model of revolution completely overemphasises the repressive functions of the state in the advanced bourgeois democracies’. In other words, the capitalist class will peacefully accept their expropriation and, if they did not, the armed forces and the civil service will continue to obey the orders of the legally elected socialist government.

A few years ago people would point to Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile as support for this argument. After September 11 1973 this was no longer possible. Now the argument hangs in the air unsupported by any facts. No wonder those like Miliband who do not believe that socialism can be introduced through parliament and yet cannot stomach the ‘Bolshevik’ alternative are forced to resort to the comfortable ambiguity of revolution as ‘a complex and diffuse scenario’.

Of course revolutionary Russia involved a very different situation to one in which the mass of workers are organised in reformist trade unions and political parties under conditions of bourgeois democracy. Lenin and Trotsky were well aware of this in their efforts to apply the lessons of October to Europe. But the fact that in both cases the objective is the same – the destruction of the capitalist state machine and its replacement by a republic of workers’ councils – means that, despite the very different conditions under which the struggle is waged, the experience of the October revolution is of decisive relevance to us today.

Someone as preoccupied with historical accuracy as Coates seems to be (much of his article is devoted to niggling factual criticisms of Widgery’s book) ought to note that, after the Russian revolution, it was the authentic Council Communists who argued that the Bolsheviks had nothing to teach Western European revolutionaries. Ultra-left Communists in countries like Germany and Holland were opposed to the strategy advocated by Lenin in Left-Wing Communism of using any arena, including the existing reformist-dominated trade unions as well as parliamentary elections, in order to win the support of the mass of workers for extra-parliamentary revolutionary action. Since Lenin invoked the Bolshevik experience in support of this argument, the Council Communists argued that this experience was irrelevant. [2]

No one, of course, could accuse Coates of ultra-leftism. His position is much closer to that of those like Kautsky, who believed that the capitalist state and its organs, like parliament, can co-exist peacefully with workers’ councils. Coates argues that the choice is not between bourgeois democracy and capitalist crisis, on the one hand, and socialist democracy based on workers’ councils on the other. His reason is that ‘the corporate interests of working people can conceivably achieve a representation and a degree of satisfaction’ under bourgeois democracy and therefore that ‘if bourgeois democracy were rolled back in Western Europe’ the result would be ‘cataclysmic’.

Again, underlying this argument is the idea that socialism can be introduced without the armed seizure of power by the working class. Instead, the power of the working class within capitalist society can be gradually expanded through the development of ‘industrial democracy’. Workers’ participation in industry offers the way forward. Coates points out how the trade unions and even the shop stewards’ organisations are being assimilated by the employers and the state, hastily adding in a footnote that

‘... “assimilation” in this sense does not imply any necessary abandonment of autonomous social objectives’. (Emphasis in the original).

Unfortunately, this is exactly what it does imply. If we take the example of the car industry, the effect of the Ryder Report and the introduction of workers’ participation in British Leyland has been that the union and the convenor intervene immediately a dispute breaks out to force the men involved back to work. Again, as a result of the crisis internationally, the employers and the state rely heavily on the trade union bureaucracy to enforce wage restraint and mass unemployment on its members. In exchange, trade union leaders have enjoyed much more direct access to the corridors of power – the best examples are the Social Contract in Britain (masterminded by Coates’ erstwhile allies in the Institute of Workers’ Control, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon) and the relationship between Italian Communist parliamentarians and trade union leaders and the minority Christian Democratic government they keep in power. The assimilation of the trade union bureaucracy in recent years has meant precisely the abandonment of even the pretence of ‘autonomous social objectives’ on its part.

The fundamental issue dividing the left in Britain as elsewhere is that of reform or revolution. The reformist camp includes not only the left wing of the Labour Party but also the Communist Party, which recently explained that it did not use the phrase ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ because of its connotations of violent revolution. Once the reformist premises are accepted, the inevitably conclusion is to support measures aimed at propping up the system at workers’ expense because the alternative, as Coates put it, would be ‘cataclysmic’. The collapse of bourgeois democracy would be a cataclysm only if there were no socialist alternative to it. Coates ignores the alternative present in the stubborn pattern repeated by workers in struggle at many different times, in many different places, the pattern of developing organs of workers’ power, even though the pages of Socialist Register include a description of how workers’ councils emerged in Hungary in circumstances where the word socialism was identified with the most vile tyranny.

It is not surprising to see opponents of ‘insurrectionist Marxism’ like Purdy advocating Communist support for wage restraint. What is more surprising is to see those like Miliband, who have argued eloquently that socialist cannot come through parliament, in the same camp.


1. D. Purdy, The Soviet Union – state capitalist or socialist? London 1976. See the reply by P. Binns and D. Hallas in International Socialism 91.

2. H. Gorter, Open Letter to Comrade Lenin in International Communism in the Era of I.enin, Ed. H. Gruber New York 1972.

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