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Revolutionary Road

Alex Callinicos

The Revolutionary Road to Socialism


THESE ARE BAD times for socialists. All around us are the signs of a world in crisis, yet men and women seem unable to do anything about it.

In Britain during the years of Margaret Thatcher’s first government, between 1979 and 1983, nearly two million people joined the dole queues. One and a half million jobs disappeared in manufacturing industry alone, while production in 1983 was a fifth lower than it had been ten years previously.

The picture is much the same throughout the industrial world. Economic forecasters predict that there will be 40 million people unemployed in the rich countries of the West in 1984.

The slump spells catastrophe for the poor countries of the Third World. There are 800 million people hovering on the brink of starvation in Africa, Asia and Latin America. For many of them international recession means the difference between survival and death.

In the 1930s economic depression bred war and dictatorship. The same is true of the world today. The rulers of most states can hold on to power only by the open use of force. Amnesty International recently launched a campaign against political killings by the state, which it estimates has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in more than twenty countries.

More dangerous still are the rivalries between states. Resources that should be used to feed the hungry are squandered on ever more costly and destructive weapons. Half a million pounds is spent on ‘defence’ every minute of every day.

The inevitable consequence is war. The South Atlantic war in 1982 was a bloody and expensive sideshow compared to the slaughter elsewhere. The war between Iran and Iraq cost 100,000 lives in its first two and a half years.

Of course, the greatest threat comes from the arms race between the two super-powers. After a brief thaw in the 1960s and 1970s, the Cold War has burst out again with redoubled vigour. Strategists in Washington dream of ‘theatre nuclear wars’ in Europe and of fighting a five-year nuclear war, while the Kremlin tightens its grip on Eastern Europe and commits more troops to imposing its will on Afghanistan. Both sides invest in ‘first-strike’ missiles which make a mockery of the idea that nuclear weapons are there, not to be used, but to deter.

The most probable outcome of slump and rearmament is, as in the 1930s, world war. But a Third World War would truly be a war to end all wars, destroying the human race in a nuclear holocaust. Before the Second World War, working people looked to socialism as the way out of a world of poverty, unemployment, and violence. Two main traditions embodied these hopes of a socialist society. The Communist Parties stood for the victorious socialist revolution which occurred in Russia in October 1917. The Labour Party and similar social-democratic parties in other countries sought to achieve socialism by winning a majority of seats in parliament.

The record of both these traditions in the past fifty years has been one of defeat, disillusionment, and betrayal. What exists in the eastern bloc is a hideous parody of socialism. A monstrous despotism rules in the name of the working class but denies workers the most fundamental of all rights, the right to organise. Equally, the Labour Party has not fulfilled the hopes placed in it. The three most important Labour governments, those of 1945, 1964 and 1974, concentrated on administering the present system rather than seeking to transform society along socialist lines. Many loyal Labour supporters have found it difficult to distinguish the policies of these governments from those of their Tory rivals.

And now the situation is even grimmer. For a while after its defeat in the 1979 general election, it seemed as if the Labour Party might move sharply to the left, and become a fighting socialist movement. Constitutional changes believed to be favourable to the left were passed by Labour Party conferences, and Tony Benn came within an inch of becoming deputy leader of the party in October 1981.

Then everything changed. The old conservative alliance of party and trade union leaders regained control of the party and began to clamp down on the left. The general election of June 1983, which followed, was the most disastrous election for the Labour Party in more than a generation. A reactionary, anti-working class Tory government, presiding over four million unemployed, won a landslide victory. Labour’s share of the vote was the lowest since 1918, when it first became a major political force. Its roots in the working-class movement which it was set up to represent are visibly withering. Of every five trade unionists, only two voted Labour in 1983.

The picture is the same on the industrial front. Thatcher won most of her big confrontations with the trade unions – with the steel-workers, the civil servants, and the health workers. The miners, whose 1974 strike led to the fall of the last Tory government under Ted Heath, this time humiliated their left-wing president, Arthur Scargill, by rejecting his calls to strike in a succession of pit ballots.

No wonder many are in despair. Some socialists talk of a ‘terminal crisis’ of the labour movement, of the ‘disappearance’ of the working class and the ‘disintegration’ of the Labour Party. We seem condemned to permanent right-wing Tory government, tempered perhaps by a milder interlude of the SDP/Liberal Alliance.

But all is not lost.

There is a third socialist tradition which stands apart from the failures of social democracy and orthodox Communism. Both these traditions see the state as the main instrument of change. Theirs is a ‘socialism’ handed down from above. Revolutionary socialism, the third socialist tradition, is socialism from below, and looks to the power of the working class to transform society.

This is the socialist tradition founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and continued most notably by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It is the tradition in which the Socialist Workers Party stands.

For most of its existence, revolutionary socialism has been confined to small minority groups in the working-class movement. But at times of great crisis and upheaval, when the mass of workers are thrown into confrontation with the state, revolutionary socialists have won mass support. Now, after the disastrous failure of Labour and Communist, those socialists who seek a way out of a world of poverty, unemployment and nuclear destruction, must look to revolutionary socialism.

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Last updated: 2 June 2015