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Alex Callinicos

Revolutionary Strategy in Britain

(June 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.99, June 1977, pp.24-27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

GEOFF ROBERTS’ reproaches against the SWP can be summed up very briefly. Obsessed with staging a rerun of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in the very different conditions of contemporary Britain, we await some catastrophic economic crisis to galvanise the masses into revolutionary action with us at the head. This leads us to ignore the political and ideological conditions that secure the hold of the ruling class over the minds of the masses, and so to denounce as reformism the Communist Party’s ‘Gramscian’ strategy aimed at breaking this hold.

Economics, Politics and the Crisis

ON this account, ours is ‘the politics of catastrophe’: the blind workings of the capitalist economy will inevitably bring about its own collapse and thus provide us with a short cut to revolution. Roberts offers little evidence to support his interpretation of the SWP’s political strategy, which is not surprising, since there is none. The following passage, from a discussion in the last issue of this journal of the difficulties facing the capitalist world economy, amounts to the complete rejection of ‘the politics of catastrophe’

and it is only one example among many in SWP publications:

‘This analysis is not an invitation to sit down and await the inevitable collapse of capitalism. If workers will pay the price – the massive increases in unemployment and in the rate of surplus-value necessary to offset the decline in the rate of profit – then the system can recover temporarily.’ [1]

Perhaps Roberts would explain this passage away as an example of the ‘sane’ Callinicos as opposed to the (presumably) ‘insane’ Tony Cliff. But, before dealing with the article by Cliff which is the only evidence of our ‘catastrophism’ that Roberts offers, let us deal with the allegedly ‘reductionist’ and ‘mechanistic’ interpretation of historical materialism that Duncan Hallas and I share with Cliff and which underlies, apparently, the SWP’s political strategy. [2]

We are accused of operating with an ‘analytical model’ that denies to consciousness, which embraces ‘the institutions and practices of the superstructure – the domains of politics, ideology and culture’, its autonomy. Hence our ‘catastrophism’, and everything else wrong with our politics – economism, workerism, rank-and-filism, insurrectionism.

To say, as we do following Marx, that the economy exercises a determining role over politics and ideology is very far from denying the latter any autonomy. What it does mean is that the nature of the superstructure will be determined by the relations of production. To quote Marx:

‘It is always the direct relationship of theowners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it ... the corresponding specific form of the state.’ [3]

The relationship between lord and peasant, capitalist and worker in the process of production, shapes politics and ideology into a particular form appropriate to the prevailing mode of production. In this way, the economy sets limits to the autonomy of the superstructure. The impact of economic development upon society may be distorted, displaced or delayed as a result of the functioning of the superstructure, but they will nonetheless exercise a determining role.

In any case, if our version of historical materialism is ‘mechanistic,’ ‘reductionist’, and what have you, what alternative does Roberts offer? He confines himself to protesting against Hallas that he never denied that there is a ‘connection between social being and social consciousness‘. What this relationship is we are never informed. But in any case, no bourgeois sociologist would deny that the economy, ideology and politics are connected. What he would reject is the fundamental thesis of Marxism, that the relations of production determine the rest of society. His reasons would be little different from those Roberts offers when attacking SWP’s ‘economism’ – that concentration on the vulgar economic struggle of workers for their material interests means ignoring the important things in life – the spiritual realm of ideas on which the academic sociologists and economists who make up so many of the CP’s new theoreticians subsist.

The determining role of the economy means that any serious revolutionary strategy must start from, and integrate into its political analysis, an understanding of the situation of the capitalist economy. If the present crisis is merely a temporary problem which comparatively minor adjustments can resolve, then there is nothing to prevent the curve of capitalist development resuming the upward movement it described during the boom of 1950s and 1960s. A return to the conditions of the boom would mean that capitalists could afford the increases in real wages that provided the material basis for the political passivity of workers in the advanced capitalist countries during the post-war years.

If, on the other hand, as we argue, the capitalist system on a world scale is entering a period of crises unparalled since the 1920s and 1930s, then the political possibilities are quite different. In this case, workers will be faced with theprospect of mass unemployment, galloping inflation and falling living standards as a continuing feature of the system. The material basis for reformism will be undercut.

Of course, the latter alternative will not automatically lead to workers swarming into the ranks of the SWP, or any other would-be revolutionary party. Whether they do or not at a time of deep crisis will depend on the implantation and activity of revolutionaries within the working class. This is the point argued by Cliff in the article which Roberts produces as evidence of our ‘catastrophism’. In the conditions of mass unemployment on a 1930s scale described by Cliff (quite a likely prospect in the medium term, given the weakness of British capitalism), then, in the absence of a sizeable revolutionary party, workers will be attracted, not to the left, but to the fascist and Tory right. The conculsion Cliff draws is not that we should passively await inevitable catastrophe; but of the urgent need to start on the process of building the revolutionary party now.

Reformism, Consciousness and Action

ALL THIS, Roberts would reply, is irrelevant. The SWP’s economic analysis cannot explain ‘the continued grip of reformism on the working class in the absence of reforms.’

But nothing in our version of historical materialism forces us to claim that economic changes will be automatically and immediately reflected in people’s heads. Their response to these changes will take shape within the existing institutions and practices through which they participate in economic, political and ideological activity. For British workers, the most important of these institutions are the mass reformist organisations – the Labour Party and the trade unions.

To understand workers’ response to the crisis it is necessary to start from their relationship to these organisations. This involves a concrete analysis rather than the generalities about hegemony which Roberts deals in.

Neither in his present article nor in Marxism Today does he offer even the beginnings of such an analysis. Perhaps this is because it would face him with the embarrassing task of accounting for the decisive role played by the trade union ‘lefts’ (Scanlon, Jones, etc.) in the ‘overall political shift to the right’ that has taken place under the present Labour government. Their role results, not from the wickedness or treachery of the individuals involved, but of the very considerable specific weight of the trade union bureaucracy as a distinct conservative layer within the workers’ movement. I shall not repeat Duncan Hallas’ arguments [4] here although it is worth saying that Roberts’ failure to reply to them is extremely revealing. His excuse for this failure – the allegedly obvious ‘weakness’ of the Hallas article – is very unconvincing: it is more likely that he was unable to answer the points Hallas makes.

In any case, Roberts seems to imply, industrial strategy is really rather unimportant. What really matters is the ‘battle ... to break ruling-class hegemony and to, simultaneously, develop (sic) a new working-class hegemony – the basis for a consent to a new social order’.

This so-called ‘Gramscian strategy’ is counterposed to the economic class struggle, the trade union struggle for higher wages, etc, with which the economist SWP is obsessed. Roberts is emphatic that the battle on the terrain of ‘civil society’, by which he seems to mean politics and ideology, takes priority over the economic class struggle: ‘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.’ Now we certainly do place priority on the struggle at the point of production. We do so not because of all the ‘isms’ we are allegedly guilty of (economism, reductionsim etc.) but because of the role of that struggle in changing workers’ consciousness.

The starting point for Marxism as a revolutionary theory is the way in which their common exploitation in the process of production draws workers together and forces them to organise collectively. It is this collective organisation at the point of production that is the source of workers’ strength and of their growing sense of their existence as a class with the power to transform society.

This is at the centre of Gramsci’s thought in particular. He saw the internal commissions – the Italian equivalent of the shop stewards’ committees – as the workers’ state in embryo. Through the common experience of struggle workers would begin to develop the organs of power – Soviets – that would form the basis of their state. [5]

Struggle at the’ point of production is the focus of our activity because only there do workers develop a collective consciousness of themselves as a class. In the other areas, those of ‘civil society’, mentioned by Roberts – the ballot box and the community – workers exist as atomised individuals or families, participating in these activities under conditions that deny their existence as a class. This does not imply that these areas are irrelevant; the SWP participates in a range of activites outside the confines of the workplace – parliamentary elections, abortion campaigns, anti-fascist work, etc. But it does mean that these activites are subordinated to the struggle in the workplace, where the hold of bourgeois ideas can be decisively broken.

Parliamentary Democracy and the Capitalist State

HOW DO the broader social struggles, whether they are fought in the factories, or in ‘civil society’, relate to the struggle for political power itself? Contrary to Roberts’ claims, our differences here are fundamental ones.

The structure of the bourgeois parliamentary state is incompatible with the exercise by the working class of political power. All sides in the debate within the CP on the new British Road to Socialism are agreed on one point, that the transfer of poltical power to the working class will take place through the strengthening of the institutions of parliamentary democracy. Roberts writes:

‘existing representative institutions such as Parliament are capable, on condition of their reform, of becoming adequate means through which wokring-class power can express itself.’ [6]

Yet consider the nature of the parliamentary regime. Like all capitalist regimes (with the exception of the limiting case in which the entire national capital is in the hands of what Bukharin called ‘a single state capitalist trust’) it involves the separation of economics and politics – representation is allocated on a geographical rather than an economic basis, and the function of Parliament is deemed to be the securing of a ‘general interest’ above classes. The masses are denied effective participation in government and are reduced to casting a vote between different capitalist parties in conditions dominated by the capitalist-controlled media every four or five years. Parliament itself once elected is responsible for making laws, not for executing or interpreting them, which are in the hands of the civil servants and judges.

The only time the House of Commons did exercise anything approaching the power the CP would like it to have was between 1846 and 1867. This was in conditions when it was elected on a very restrictive suffrage and still largely composed of the nominees of the big landowners. The emergence of a mass electorate after 1867 coincided with the beginning of the decline of Parliament as power shifted to the Cabinet, the civil service and the big corporations. This development is a commonplace of bourgeois political science from Walter Bagehot onwards. The restoration of the sovereignty of Parliament is a reactionary utopia.

The alternative of soviet power arises from the reality of workers’ position within the capitalist process of production. Only soviets composed of workplace delegates directly reflect the interests and aspirations of workers at the point of production and enable them to overcome the separation of politics and economics, ruler and ruled, executive and legislative, inherent in the capitalist state.

As to the revolutionary transition to societ power, Roberts’ quibbles about whether smashing the state means destroying the Water Boards is irrelevant. The central problem is that of the repressive state apparatus. Roberts admits the need to organise soldiers against the capitalist class. Good (it’s more than the French Communist Party for one will admit). Let’s think through what this implies.

The experience of the Portuguese revolution shows that it is not enough to rely on ‘progressive’ army officers to deliver the goods. Rank-and-file soldiers would have to be organised independently of their officers, demands that officers would have to be elected, etc., would be raised. This would challenge the hierarchical relationships on which the very existence of the capitalist army depends and provoke a bitter class struggle within the army. Such a soldiers’ movement would depend for its survival on its ability to link up with the mass of workers organised in soviets and on the arming of the workers to counterbalance the armed forces – loyal regiments, special units like the SAS, special constables, ‘unofficial’ fascist groups – the ruling class would bring to bear.

The result would be the destruction of the capitalist army and civil war – a civil war whose bloodiness and outcome would depend on the strength and determination of the contending sides. It would not be Parliament but the independent organisation and armed strength of the working class that would be decisive.

What about the ruling-class attacks on existing democratic rights? The struggle to defend and extend these rights can be given a revolutionary content, according to Roberts. Here there is no quarrel. We would defend even Parliament against a right-wing coup. The present parliamentary regime provides the framework of democratic rights which enables the workers to organise comparatively freely. But the real issue is whether these rights can be defended effectively within the framework of the parliamentary regime. The closer the workers’ movement seems to be to making real inroads into capitalist power, the stronger the tendencies will be within the ruling class to reply by naked force and the destruction of workers’ organisation, as in Chile. Here again the only effective defence of democratic rights will be to go beyond bourgeois democracy – by arming the workers and forming soviets. It was the revolutionary initiative of the masses that initially frustrated Franco’s coup in 1936. If it had been left to the parliamentarians of the governing coalition, his victory would have been child’s play; as it was Franco had to wait for the GPU and their bourgeois republican allies to eradicate workers’ democracy before he could triumph over bourgeois democracy.

In Conclusion

I APOLOGISE to those readers who will be wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, much of what I have said amounts to little more than the Marxist ABC – the determining role of the economy, the centrality of the industrial working class, the class nature of bourgeois democracy, the necessity of armed insurrection. Unfortunately, these basic propositions are ones that need repeating for the benefit of the Communist Party’s new ‘intellectuals’.

Roberts’ sneers about the ‘timeless’ and ‘abstract’ nature of the SWP’s politics are little more than an evasion. In the first place, Marxism involves the generalisation of the experience of the international working class. The great events in our history – the Paris Commune, the Russian revolutions, the German revolution of 1918-23, the Italian biennio rosso of 1918-20, the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, the Spanish revolution of 1936-7 – have lessons to teach us; that at least we should have learned from the experience of Chile and Portugal. Otherwise, why bother to have any theory if it is of no relevance to our present tasks?

In the second place, despite their trumpeted ‘novelty’, the ideas of Roberts and his co-thinkers on the right of the Communist Party are very old. They are all to be found in the works of those leaders of the Second International like Bernstein and Kautsky who sought long ago to deprive Marxism of its revolutionary essence. The only slight surprise to find these ideas being advocated by members of a party founded to overthrow British capitalism as part of the struggle for an international Soviet republic.

The conception of the revolutionary party as one built through struggle, which we share with the early Comintern, is dismissed by Roberts as ‘exclusivist’ and ‘vanguardist’. As usual, these labels (yet more ‘isms’) substitute for arguments. I shall not argue at length for our conception of the party, which Hallas and I dealt with in our earlier articles, and to which Cliff has devoted the two volumes so far published of his study of Lenin.

Very briefly: if Lenin was right when he said that ‘revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone’ [7], then the revolutionary party can only be built through its participation in, and leadership of, the day-to-day struggles through which workers acquire this experience. This means, far from ‘exclusivism’, as open an atitude as possible. We have shown repeatedly in practice our readiness to work with anyone prepared to fight all attacks on workers’ organisations and living standards. The Right to Work Campaign has involved many rank-and-file Labour and Communist Party members as well as SWP members.

What is the alternative presented by the Communist Party? The abandonment of any independent role for the CP in the new British Road is little more than a codification of existing practice. It is now too closely wedded to the trade union bureaucracy to take independent initiatives. Events in the last few months have confirmed this beyond any shadow of doubt – the retreat by Communist stewards from the initial calls to action against the Social Contract in February this year and the strike-breaking role of the CP at Leyland and Heathrow. [8]

Long after the CP ceased to be the party of world revolution in Britain it united a community of trade union militants that gave it an importance out of proportion to its size and electoral weight. Today it seems to be abandoning even this more modest role. The ‘hegemonic action’ which Roberts wishes to put in its place amounts to little more than contesting elections, the arena to which, as we have seen, he gives priority. There seems to be little left to the Communist Party except propaganda. Bert Ramelson, the CP industrial organiser, made exactly one practical proposal in a recent pamphlet on the Social Contract written at a time when opposition to wage controls had become a burning issue for many rank-and-file workers:

‘I invite you to study and discuss with us our basic draft programme, The British Road to Socialism, and to join our Party.’ [9]

Nothing about the present wave of struggles against the Social Contract (not surprising perhaps since the CP opposed the most important of them). Nothing about the fight against Phase Three – not even a call for resolutions in union branches. And Roberts has the nerve to accuse us of propagandism and ‘exclusivist’ party building!

Of course, the CP could still prove us wrong. Roberts concludes his article with the customary obeisances to left unity. If the CP is genuinely committed to action against the Social Contract and the other anti-working-class policies of the present government, then let it respond to the call made last November by the Right to Work Campaign and supported by the SWP for joint action by the Campaign and the CP-dominated LCDTU and Assembly on Unemployment. Unity in action is the only meaningful form of left unity.


1. Notes of the Month, International Socialism 98.

2. Roberts kindly excludes me from the SWP’s ‘reductionism’. But my position as defended here – the determining role of the economy – is the same as the SWP’s, while Roberts’ own position, as we shall see, is closer to bourgeois sociology than any of the great Marxists, including Gramsci.

3. K. Marx, Capital, Vol.III, Moscow 1971, p.791.

4. D. Hallas, The CP, the SWP and the Rank-and-File Movement, International Socialism 95.

5. For an interpretation of Gramsci that demolishes the idealist and reformist version peddled by Roberts and his co-thinkers see C. Harman, Gramsci versus Eurocommunism, International Socialism 98 and 99.

6. Since Roberts, accuses me of lining up with the pro-Russian Stalinist opposition within the CP, let me quote a contribution attacking the new British Road by one of Moscow’s men, John Tarver, writing from the German Democratic Republic: ‘Qualitively new functions must be acquired by the House of Commons, such as controlling foreign trade and banking’, Comment, May 15 1977. The debate with the CP is not one between reform or revolution, but about whether if should shrink into a Stalinist sect reprinting Soviet foreign policy statements or into a reformist propaganda group oriented on the Labour Party, the ‘community’ and the Conference of Socialist Economists.

7. V.I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder, Collected Works, Vol.31, Moscow 1966, p.84.

8. See S. Jefferys, S. McGregor and J. Rose, The Struggle against the Social Contract, International Socialism 98.

9. B. Ramelson, Bury the Social Contract, London 1977, p.36.

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