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Alex Callinicos

A New Road for the Communist Party?

(April 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 97, April 1977, pp. 12–15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Communist Party is at present discussing the new draft of its programme, The British Road to Socialism, published in February this year. The debate on the new draft, which follow on from that started by John Gollan’s article Socialist Democracy – Some Problems (Marxism Today, January 1976), will continue until the CP’s national congress in November. In the meantime, according to the Foreword to the draft,

‘As well as amendments from party organisations, submitted in accordance with party rules, the executive committee will welcome the views of others in the labour and progressive movement.’

The following article by Alex Callinicos is a contribution to this debate within the Communist Party.

THE NEW draft of The British Road to Socialism is a strategy:

... based on our actual political and social conditions, historical traditions, degree of working-class organisation, and the new world setting. Every socialist revolution is unique in major respects. [1]

This statement is undeniably true. Every revolutionary party must gear its strategy to the realities of the society in which it operates. Otherwise it will be irrelevant.

The new British Road attempts to spell out the Communist Party’s answers to the main problems of the British situation. The draft looks at the present phase of world capitalism and the particular from of the crisis in Britain. It looks at the situation inside the labour movement and tries to locate the forces for change. It outlines a strategy for the introduction of socialism. It defines the role of the revolutionary party in this process. We will examine these proposals in turn.

1. State Monopoly Capitalism

THE CENTRE of the draft’s analysis is the notion of state monopoly capitalism. The CP argues that the economies of Western capitalism are today dominated by huge monopolistic firms whose activities interlink with the state so that the latter is increasingly the instrument of the monopolies.

These monopolies are largely multinational in scope so they are outside the control of the individusl national states:

The major monopolies are now multi-national, investing and operating all over the world. For them, patriotism does not exist. Britain is outstanding in the extent to which it is dominated by the multinational firms. (134–6)

This domination has meant a continuous export of capital, the consequent backwardness of the British economy and a threat to national control of the whole economy.

Multinational firms certainly have a big impact in Britain and they do have some of the consequences described. But what this analysis does not explain is the fact that we are living through a world crisis of capitalism. This crisis affects the system as a whole – the strong capitals like West Germany as much as the weak ones like Britain. [2] For Marx, these crises arose from the contradictions of the system as a whole and the ‘real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself.’ [3] Thus the only solution was the overthrow of the capitalist system.

The only contradiction of capitalism discussed in this draft is that caused by wage-restraint, which reduces the market for the goods produced by capitalist industry. This analysis of capitalism adds up to a reformist solution to the crisis. It implies that the problems of British capitalism can be dealt with if only control of investment were taken out of the hands of the multinationals so that capital instead of being exported, were used to expand British industry, and if the market for the goods produced by British firms were widened by the abadonment of wage restraint.

This analysis lies at the foundation of the overall strategy for socialism which rests on the idea that opposition to the monopolies can unite a broad spectrum of social groups, including sections of the capitalist class. The task of the day is to ‘rally all those seeking a way out of the crisis, and unite them in a broad alliance for democracy and social change’ (457–8). This ‘broad democratic alliance’ will start with the working class, but:

There objective basis for an alliance between many of these sections of the capitalist class (small employersAC) and the working class against the common enemy – the big capitalists. (613–15)

The main task, the draft argues, is to unite the mass of the people to wrest power from the hands of the monopolies. The focus of the current struggle is not socialism, but democracy.

2. A New Kind of Labour Government.

THE AUTHORS of the new British Road would report that the struggle for democracy would be merely the starting point for the struggle for socialism:

The winning of political power by the working class and its allies will not be a single act, but a process of struggle, in which the next important stage is the winning of a Labour Government which will carry out a left policy to tackle the crisis and bring about far-reaching democratic changes in society, opening up the road to socialism. (26–30)

The CP’s strategy is centred on winning this ‘new kind of Labour Government’. This will emerge as a result of a battle between left and right inside the Labour Party. The CP see some role for the ‘mass struggle’ in pushing the Labour Party leftwards and in helping the government fight big business, but they do not see the need for independent mass action by rank-and file workers. There is no discussion of the role played by the prominent ‘lefts’ in the Labour Party or the Trade Unions under the present Labour Government in selling the Social Contract.

The economic programme of this new Labour Government reflects the draft’s analysis of the crisis. All the measures – state control of investment, nationalisation of the banks, insurance companies and oil firms, selective import controls, price controls and increased public spending – are based on the assumption that the British crisis can solved in isolation from the world crisis.

The other aspect of the programme is a set of measures aimed at democratising the British state – proportional representation, the abolition of the House of Lords, devolution, repeal of the 1971 Immigration Act, workers’ participation in nationalised firms and full trade union and democratic rights’ for soldiers and policemen’ (1258).

3. The State and Revolution.

IT IS here that the British Road runs slap bang into the problem facing their strategy, and indeed any strategy, for socialism: would not capitalist resistance to a left government lead either to a violent reactionary overthrow of the government or to the armed seizure of power by the working class?

The Communist Party thinks not. The draft argues that things have changed since 1917, and the authors have ‘confidence that socialism can be achieved in our coutry without civil war’ (1096–8). This is because of Britain’s ‘democratic traditions’:

The nature of the British constitution, under which Parliament has supreme authority, gives a left government the democratic right and the means, backed by the mass struggle of the people, to carry through drastic and necessary reforms in the state apparatus to correspond to the political change in the country expressed in the electoral verdict of the people. (1460–4)

These arguments have been used before. A tragic example was that of the Chilean CP just before the armed forces overthrew the Allende government on September 11, 1973.

The draft British Road takes into account the danger of this being repeated in-Britain, but argues that this can be avoided if the Tory Party is isolated:

The possibility of a coup, in fact, depends above all on the relation of political forces. Hence the importance of winning the mass political majority, with the working class at its core, ready and willing to use its strength to support the left government. This also emphasises the need to win all democratic forces around the labour movement, so isolating the Tory Party. The more support there is for the left government, the less will be the possibility of creating the political atmosphere of tension and social chaos in which a coup could be launched. (1517–23)

The focus on the need to win all democratic forces’ implies that the workers’ movement should tie its hands in order not to endanger the loyalty of small businessmen to the government. But the argument also avoids the real question – that of the capitalist state.

For Marx and Lenin: ‘...the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.’ [4] In a parliamentary democratic state like Britain this is achieved through the operation of the state machine as a set of institutions apparently independent of classes and their interests. This can be seen in the structure of the capitalist state. The division of powers between Parliament, the executive and the courts serves drastically to restrict the power of any elected government in the name of the neutrality of the state.

The extent to which Parliament affects the state machine is very small. The number of political appointments any prime minister can make is tiny. The Civil Service is run by a small closed corps of professional administrators. The Army is run by a small group of professional soldiers. The law is run by a small group of professional judges. All of these groups are closely linked by class origins, training and lifestyle to the ruling class. All can, and do, defy the will of an elected government, even a right-wing one like the present Labour government.

The effective independence of the state machine serves to guarantee the political power of the capitalist class. The state functions as an autonomous set of institutions unified by their commitment to the defence of capitalist society. A change of personnel at the top, through the election of a left Labour government, will not change this. Attempts to make more drastic changes, for example, by sacking recalcitrant civil servants or trying to democratise the army will simply serve to strengthen the resistance within the state machine to the government’s policies. The relative autonomy of the capitalist state machine also plays a very important ideological role. As the draft British Road correctly points out, the capitalists’ ideological domination over society plays a vital part in maintaining the system. Because the state machine appears to function autonomously it serves to perpetuate the myth that the state is somehow above classes, representing the interests of society as a whole. This myth underlies the apparently democratic character of the capitalist state.

Not all counter-revolutions are led by brutes like Pinochet or Hitler. Some are carried out in the name of ‘democracy’ and led by men who call themselves ‘socialists’. The most famous case was in Germany in 1919, when the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party presided over the massacre of workers and revolutionaries which eventually opened the door to Hitler.

In the face of a ‘democratic’ counter-revolution of this sort, revolutionaries find themselves dis-armed unless they reject the ideology of the neutral state. But the draft of the British Road bases itself on the notion that the capitalist state can be used in the interests of the working class: ‘Parliament, itself the product of past battles for democracy, can be transformed into the democratic instrument of the will of the vast majority of the people’ (1113-6). It seems that Parliament would continue to be ‘the sovereign body in the land’ under socialism (see 1742-53).

However, Parliament is simply part of the state machine. It provides a veneer of democratic control without giving the mass of the people any real say in the way the country is run [5]. Lenin’s criticism of Kautsky applies to the British CP:

Kautsky has not understood at all the difference between bourgois parlimentarianism, which combines democracy (not for the people) with bureaucracy (against the people), and proletarian democracy, which will take immediate steps to cut bureaucracy down to the roots, and which will be able to carry these measures through to the end, to the complete abolition of bureaucracy, to the complete introduction of democracy for the people. [6]

There is no reason whatsoever to change the conclusions reached by Marx and Lenin that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’ and that the role of a workers’ revolution ‘will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it.’ [7]

In the place of the state machine of the capitalists the workers set up their own state based on the arming of the working class and the formation of organs of proletarian democracy, tike the Paris Commune and the Soviets, through which, by means of their directly elected and recallable delegates, the workers can exercise power. There have been many examples of this since Marx and Lenin drew their conclusions: Germany 1918–19, Barcelona 1936, Hungary 1956, Portugal 1975. The draft British Road rejects this road and sows illusions in the neutrality of the capitalist state. It can only prepare the way for new defeats like Chile.

4. The Role of the Communist Party

MOST OF the above positions are the culmination of a process which has been going on at least since the publication of the first British Road in 1951. There are, however, new developments. The new draft stresses that: ‘Britain’s road to socialism will be different from the Soviet road’ (1089). At the same time the CP is following the lead of the Italian and French Communist Parties and being much more critical of the Russian bureaucracy. They are trying hard to lay the ghost of Stalinism.

This is designed to make it much easier for the CP to collaborate with the Labour lefts, and it is here that an important change has been made. According to the new draft, the function of the Communist Party is not as an independent working-class party but as a pressure group to push the Labour Party left:

The Communist Party does not seek to replace the Labour Party as a federal party of the working class. Rather, we see a much more influential mass Communist Party as crucial to the future of the Labour party itself. (864–6)

In this alliance between the CP and the Labour Lefts the main function of the CP is to be ‘the initiator and inspirer of discussion and debate’ (826). This emerges very clearly from a recent interview with Gordon McLennan, the CP General Secretary:

... the Labour Party, on the whole, insufficiently discusses socialist aims and what socialism would mean for Britain, with the people ... That is why the Labour movement needs a much bigger, more influential and more effective Communist Party now, playing its unique role in the movement ... an organisation that ... above all, in British conditions, fights for understanding of that central concept of marxism, that mass struggle, people and their mass organisations in action, is the crucial factor in determining human and political development. [8]

The role of the Communist Party is no longer to lead the masses in struggle. Its job is now to persuade the Labour lefts that they should lead the masses.

But if this is the role of the CP, then the obvious question is: why bother to have an independent CP? The original reason for founding Communist Parties throughout the world was that it was only possible to win the masses to the revolution if there was a CP which put itself at the head of mass struggles. The Theses on Tactics adopted at the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921 state:

Communist Parties can only develop in struggle. Even the smallest communist parties should not restrict themselves to mere propoganda and agitation. They must form the spearhead of all proletarian mass organisations, showing the backward vacillating masses, by putting forward practical proposals for struggle, by urging on the struggle for all the daily needs of the proletariat, how the struggle should be waged, and thus exposing to the masses the treacherous character of all non-communist parties. Only by placing themselves at the head of the practical struggles of the proletariat, only by promoting these struggles, can they really win over large masses of the proletariat to the fight for the dictatorship. [9]

People change their ideas in struggle, not just as the result of preaching by socialists. The condition for a revolutionary party to succeed in its’propaganda is that it is, at the same time, the party which is seen by the masses as the most determined fighters in action.

The new draft of the British Road represents the final abandonment of the historic mission of the Communist Party. Some members of the CP see this very clearly:

This draft is not the programme of a revolutionary Communist Party. It is the programme of a sect, a ginger group, not a political party created to lead the working class in the overthrow of capitalism and the building of socialism ... Clearly, if this draft is correct, the decision to form the Communist Party in Britain was wrong. [10]

Conclusion: The Drift to the Right

THE NEW draft crystallises a growing trend within the CP. There is an increasingly influential intellectual right wing which draws its inspiration from the Italian CP.

The leadership of the CP encourages this trend. David Purdy, the most prominent member of the new right, is now a regular contributor to CP publications like Marxism Today. His most original contribution to Marxism has been to advocate CP support for the Social Contract. According to him, wage controls are an embryonic form of the socialist planned economy: The unions’ acceptance of a social contract, at least under a Labour government, represents a new stage in the quest for the regulation of the anarchy of distribution under capitalism. [11]

The task of Communists is to exploit this ‘deformation’ of the capitalist system by trading wage restraint for an ‘alternative economic strategy’, consisting, for example, of ‘social control ... over the scale, timing, location and character of investment’. [12]

This strategy is little different from that argued by some union leaders, such as Alan Fisher. [13] But it is not that far removed from the ideas of the leadership of the British CP. In the new draft we read this coy hint: ‘A government carrying out such a progressive programme (state control of investment, etc. – AC) could be assured that the unions would take this into consideration in forming their wage demands’ (1225–7).

The reason why both the leadership of the CP and the right wing share the view that an incomes policy under capitalism is not necessarily such a bad thing, while having minor disagreements over timing, is that they share a common attitude to working-class struggle. For them, the central arena in the struggle for socialism is the capitalist political system – parliament, general elections, etc. The mass of the workers are a stage army to be marched on and off as and when they are needed. For both wings the idea that socialism is the result of the independent actions of the workers themselves is an anathema.

The growth of these ideas within the Communist Party musi horrify the working-dass militants in its ranks. Many of them do want to see a real fight by rank-and-file workers against the present system. Our task must be to help them to draw the conclusion that this fight can best be furthered within the Socialist Workers’ Party. We have to seize every opportunity for united working-class action with them.


1. The British Road to Socialism, draft, lines 1084–6. All subsequent references to this document in the text are to line number.

2. See Notes of the Month, in International Socialism 94.

3. K. Marx, Capital, volume III (Moscow 1971), p. 250.

4. V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, Selected Works (London 1969), pp. 267–8.

5. It is, therefore, suprising to learn that Professor Ernest Mandel of the ‘Fourth International’ believes that ‘it is an essentially tactical matter’ ‘whether parliamentary organs are necessary’ in a workers’ state. See E. Mandel, A Political Interview, in New Left Review 100, p. 121.

6. Lenin, op.cit., p. 343.

7. Marx, quoted by Lenin, op.cit., p. 289.

8. G. McLennan, An Interview on the Communist Party and Unity, in Marxism Today, March 1977, pp. 68–9.

9. J. Degras, The Communist International 1919–43: Documents, Volume I, p. 248.

10. Published in the CP magazine Comment, March 5 1977.

11. D. Purdy, British Capitalism since the War, Part Two, in Marxism Today, October 1976, p. 317.

12. D. Purdy in The Leveller, January 1977, p. 14.

13. See A. Callinicos, Alan Fisher, NUPE and the New Reformism, in International Socialism 96.

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