Communist Party of Great Britain

The British Road to Socialism (1977)

Why Britain needs socialism

Britain is in a deep economic, political and social crisis. It is not the result of natural catastrophes, or forces beyond our control, but of the capitalist system under which we live, and of the world crisis of capitalism.

Since the end of the Second World War there have been Tory governments for about half the time, and Labour governments for the other half. They have differed in many of their policies, but neither have solved the basic problems. Always the economic miracle is to come. It never does. North Sea oil is presented as the hope for the 1980s. But whatever benefits it brings, it will not end the inequalities and injustices of our present society or resolve the crisis in the interests of the majority of the people.

After the Second World War, with the expansion of the productive forces, advances. in living standards were won as a result of struggle and important social reforms were introduced. But in recent years things have been going into reverse. The concept of a health service free at the time of need has been undermined; educational advance is halted; the problems of housing get more acute; the future for millions of young people is bleak. There is widespread unemployment, and more are caught in the ‘poverty trap’. Pensions remain at poverty level. But in health, education and insurance, wealth can buy privileged treatment and services; and vast sums are squandered on armaments.

The utmost struggle is needed even to maintain living standards, let alone improve them. The trade unions, the main defence of working people, are under constant attack. Millions of women are doubly oppressed, as workers and because of their sex. Black people suffer discrimination in jobs, housing and education, and are made the scapegoats for problems caused by capitalism.

The quality of life is under increasing attack. City centres become goldmines for property speculators. Long overdue urban renewal is further postponed. The countryside is despoiled, pollution is spreading, and fortunes are made out of ‘land development’. The railways and public transport are sacrificed to the interests of the big monopolists. Culture is commercialised, and people are denied the opportunity to develop their talents and abilities to the full. Human relationships are distorted and sex exploited for profit by newspapers, advertisers and big business. There are frequent examples of corruption and financial scandals.

Government is divorced from the people. Bureaucratic control by the state has increased as local democracy has been eroded. The ruling class tries to confine democracy to the right to vote in elections, and deny the people real participation in decision-making.

Hard-won democratic rights are increasingly threatened by authoritarian trends. There are calls for ‘order’ and ‘strong government’. Army chiefs, with Northern Ireland as the training ground, prepare for What they call ‘counter-insurgency action’. Police chiefs demand more powers, protect racist demonstrations and intervene increasingly in industrial disputes on the employers’ side. Reactionary revision of the law is pressed for, and thinly-veiled preparations are made to block democratic progress. Parliament’s sovereign rights are being eroded, and still more limitations on its powers are being demanded by reactionary forces. Although the government has been forced to propose limited measures of devolution in response to the national and democratic aspirations of the people of Scotland and Wales, efforts to thwart the fulfilment of those aspirations continue, and the English dimension is ignored. Even the right in principle for the British people to determine their own affairs is being eroded by membership of the Common Market.

Yet there is a way out of the crisis. By their actions people can change the situation. Britain has great resources and wealth and a highly-skilled population. At present those resources are under-used or misused. If they are to be fully used to provide a better life, there must be far-reaching democratic changes, giving the people control of the country’s resources and leading to the replacement of capitalism by socialism.

Contradictions of capitalism

The root cause of Britain’s problems is an economic and political system in which effective power is in the hands of a tiny minority of the people - the capitalist class, which is dominated by the big monopolists. Capitalism’s motive force is not production for the needs of society, but for the maximum private profit for the employers and bankers. The basis of the economy is the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class.

Most of the productive forces are privately-owned, and become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. There is a constant pressure to subordinate the public sector and make it serve the interests of the private sector. The workers by hand and brain - the great majority of the population - own little but their labour power, their capacity to work.

The wealth they produce by their work is greatly in excess of the wages and salaries they are paid, and is the source of the profits of the capitalists.

Thus at the heart of the capitalist system there are deep contradictions. In modern society production is a social process, but ownership and control are predominantly private. Within the enterprise production is planned; but in society as a whole it is not planned.

The capitalists always try to increase their profits, not just for their own personal consumption, but to enlarge their capital so as to get greater productive power and make still more profit. In general, the more they can cut costs and limit increases in wages and salaries, the more profit they can make, and the more capital they can accumulate.

But to get the profit, the goods produced have to be sold. And since a major factor in the demand for goods is the level of wages and salaries, restricting them also restricts the market in each capitalist country.

These contradictions of capitalism are the basic cause of capitalist crisis, and the political and social problems it creates. They are the fundamental reason why capitalist production does not develop smoothly, but in a series of booms and slumps.

Over the past century the monopolies have grown in size and increasingly dominate Britain. Whole sections of the economy are controlled by giant companies and their subsidiaries, syndicates and trusts commanding their own sources of banking finance and holding sway over the market in their own field.

The big firms have taken over not only many of the small firms, but medium and large firms, and increasingly take over or merge with one another. Excluding the nationalised sector (roughly one-fifth), the top hundred firms in Britain were responsible for 25 per cent of manufacturing output in 1950. By 1970 they were responsible for 50 per cent, and it is predicted that within a few years they will account for 75 per cent or more.

The major monopolies are now multinational, investing and operating all over the world, and owing allegiance to no-one but themselves. Britain is outstanding in the extent to which it is dominated by the multinational firms. Their policies have led to a continuous export of capital, with under-investment in British industry and its consequent backwardness as compared to other advanced industrial countries. This process has been accentuated by Britain’s entry into the Common Market, seriously threatening national control over the economy and natural resources, such as oil and natural gas.

Monopoly capitalism has become state monopoly capitalism, with the state and the monopolies closely interconnected. It can no longer exist without massive injections of state funds. The modern capitalist state has become more intricate and its functions greatly extended. It is the biggest single employer - through the nationalised industries and its general apparatus. As it extends its so-called regulatory functions over the now highly complex capitalist economy, it does so mainly in the special interests of the monopoly and City sectors of capitalism.

While there is an extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, the great majority of the people own little but their personal possessions, and, sometimes, their dwellings. According to the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth, reporting in 1975, the richest 5 per cent of the population owned nearly half the total wealth. The bottom 80 per cent owned less than a fifth. The wealth of the rich is mainly in the form of shares and land, so that a mere 320,000 people (eight out of every thousand) owned 70 per cent of all personally- held company shares, and 72 per cent of the land. Some 13 million people live on or near the official poverty line. They include those on low wages, old people, unemployed, one-parent-families, and many who are sick or disabled.

Capitalism’s contradictions are not only in the sphere of economics. All human activities are seen as a source of profit. While men and women are exploited at work, their cultural, sporting and leisure activities are commercialised, and they are held to ransom as consumers by the big business concerns which dominate the supply and distribution of the goods they buy. The development of science is distorted, with its use for the super-exploitation of workers, degradation of the environment and pollution, and the development of weapons of mass destruction. The economic crisis of capitalism is paralleled by a deep political, social, cultural and moral crisis.

How capitalist rule is maintained

The concentration of wealth and economic control in fewer and fewer hands means that a small number of big firms exercise enormous power. Their decisions have a major influence on Britain’s economy, on the extent of investment, the amount and type of goods produced, the prices charged, the balance of payments, and the position of the pound. Yet those who own and run them are not elected by, or responsible to, the people. It is a system which makes a mockery of democracy.

But the capitalist class does not only hold economic power through its ownership of the main sectors of industry and the economy and of the bulk of the country’s wealth; it also exercises political and ideological domination in society, by direct and indirect means.

It dominates the state and government, not only when the openly capitalist party, the Tory Party, is in office, but, as experience has shown, under Labour Governments, too. Such governments, although they have often introduced valuable reforms, have failed to challenge the monopolists and have subordinated working class interests to the effort to make capitalism work. But political power is not just a matter of the elected government, but of all the institutions of the state. Ruling class ideas and interests are deeply entrenched in all these institutions — the civil service, the police, the armed forces, the judiciary, the Foreign Office, etc. Through them, as well as through its economic strength, the ruling class exercises a degree of coercion to maintain its rule.

However, in Britain today it relies primarily on the fact that millions of people believe that the capitalist system is the natural way to organise society, that the present political system is truly democratic, and that there is no realistic or better alternative. Every new generation is influenced to accept this. The family and school often perpetuate and reinforce capitalist ideas among children, while among adolescents and adults the media and social and cultural activities increasingly assume importance. Most of those in charge of the main information, social, educational and cultural institutions of capitalist society accept its outlook and its values, and play an important part in securing acceptance of capitalist rule. But among those who work in these fields a struggle also takes place on the role of these institutions and on the ideas they disseminate.

The capitalist class, comprising a small minority of the population, seeks to ally itself with other social strata, through alliances involving a multitude of organisations of all kinds. Among these the political parties, including the Tory Party, the Liberals, and to some extent the right-wing sections of the Labour Party, play a particular role in securing support for capitalist ideas and policies in the sphere of mass politics.

All these efforts have not been able to prevent millions of people entering into struggle against the effects of capitalism, as a result of which they have won improvements in the standard of life over the years. But these advances are then attributed to the virtues of the system, and the belief is encouraged that, despite temporary setbacks, people can continue in the long run to improve their conditions within it.

Thus, as a result of a combination of the efforts of the ruling class and of people’s own experiences and material circumstances, including the rise in living standards since the end of the last war, there is a large measure of voluntary acceptance of capitalist rule.

Within this degree of acceptance there have also been conscious struggles for social reforms and democratic rights, and working class and progressive challenges to some aspects of capitalist domination, expressed particularly in the founding and growth of the labour movement.

Of special significance in the people’s experience in Britain is the character of the Labour Party. Its formation represented a break with the traditional capitalist parties, since it was based on the trade unions, with the aim of giving political expression to the aspirations of the working class and achieving Labour governments. Its trade union base and federal structure distinguish it from social-democratic parties in other countries.

From the beginning there have been two main trends within it - the left and broadly socialist trend, and the right-wing trend, accepting capitalism, which has been dominant throughout its existence. The strategy of the ruling class, faced with this potentially hostile force, has been to contain it within the limits of the capitalist system. And, in fact, despite the election of Labour Governments, and whatever the social progress achieved, the social and economic system has remained capitalist, and the class divisions and social contradictions of society continue.

A major reason for this is the fact that the growing strength, organisation and working-class consciousness of the trade unions have not been matched by a growth in socialist consciousness, and that the decisive control of the labour movement, particularly on the parliamentary side, has therefore been, and still remains, in the hands of the right wing.

So Labour governments have acted primarily as the administrators of capitalism. They have not made, nor had they the desire to make, any significant challenge to monopoly domination of the economy and the state. Whether in or out of office, the Labour leaders have helped to maintain substantial social support for the capitalist system.

Thus persuasion, politics and coercion are all utilised by the ruling class to maintain its rule. Though it is prepared to use coercion and violence, unless prevented by overwhelming working class and popular strength, it mainly relies on achieving a social consensus and class collaboration through its ideological control and influence, its alliances, and the effect of right-wing ideas in the labour movement.

To challenge capitalist rule the working class and its organisations need not only to defend and improve the living conditions of the people through economic struggle, but to overcome capitalist ideas and build alliances also in the fields of politics, ideology and culture. For all these areas are the arena of struggle between reactionary and progressive ideas, between the capitalist and socialist forces in society. It is a struggle which must develop in new ways and through new, as well as existing, forms of organisation, so that the people develop confidence in their own ability to run society.

World balance changed

The democratic and class struggles in Britain take place against the background of the world crisis of capitalism and the big change in the balance of world forces.

Until 1917, capitalism dominated the entire world. The various capitalist states not only exploited their own workers and resources, but secured super profits from their colonial empires, with Britain in the lead. This resulted in a big expansion of production, but as we have shown, progress was not continuous, proceeding through a series of booms and slumps — the ‘cyclical crisis’ of capitalism. The capitalist countries developed unevenly in relation to each other, and this led to conflict, and sometimes to war.

Now, although it is still powerful, capitalism is in its period of relative decline and decay, its period of ‘general crisis’. Its world domination has been shattered. The twentieth century has been the century of social revolution and national liberation. In 1917 the Russian Revolution led the way, and the world’s first socialist system was established in the USSR. Following the Second World War more socialist states were established, and today they include a third of the world’s population. The national liberation forces, inspired and supported by the new socialist world, put an end to the old colonial empires of the imperialist countries. The people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, aided by international solidarity, won an historic victory against the world’s strongest imperialist power, the USA. This has been followed by important victories for the liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, and a big intensification of the struggle in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.

The existence and support of the socialist countries have been crucial factors in helping the national liberation movements to achieve and consolidate their victories.

However, with direct colonial rule largely ended, imperialism has taken new forms — capitalism’s use of economic and political power to enforce unequal trade relations with the Third World, the control and exploitation of its natural resources by multinational firms, and political operations to destabilise governments or enmesh them in military alliances and financial indebtedness. But there is continued resistance to these neo-colonialist policies, and a powerful tendency towards non-alignment and anti-imperialism.

The economic, social, political and cultural advances of the socialist countries have shown socialism’s great potential for human development, despite the problems which exist within these countries and in relations between them. In the post-war period the Soviet Union and other socialist states have achieved consistent economic growth increases and maintained full employment and stable prices, in contrast to the crisis- ridden economies of the US and capitalist Western Europe, showing that capitalism will eventually be outpaced by socialism.

The NATO powers have been forced by the peace policies and strength of the socialist countries and the pressure of the world movement for peace to begin to negotiate measures of détente, including the signing of the Helsinki Agreement. But there are still powerful forces in the imperialist countries which resist moves to end the arms race and support the development of new means of mass destruction such as the neutron bomb and the cruise missile.

Important changes have taken place within the capitalist world. The US supremacy which was a feature of it in the earlier post-war period has been challenged by the rise of other capitalist states, notably West Germany and Japan. True, though the US is still by far the strongest capitalist power, it has lost the pre-eminent position it occupied in recent years. At the same time, the period of post-war economic expansion has been replaced by stagnation and depression. The growing demand of the former colonial and under developed countries for control over their own natural resources and for trade relations based on equality puts an increasing strain on the capitalist world economic system.

Its monetary system is in disarray. Contradictions between the capitalist states grow. The Common Market was originally encouraged by the US, not only as an economic grouping directed against socialism, but as the political counterpart of NATO. Despite the subsequent efforts of the EEC countries to develop it also as a counter to the US and Japan, deep-rooted differences within it impede the efforts to integrate Western Europe economically and politically.

There have also been major political shifts to the left in Western Europe. The fascist regimes in Greece, Portugal and Spain have been ended, and new possibilities for advance opened up. The left forces in France and Italy have made major advances, opening up new prospects of fundamental political and social change in these countries.

The capitalist world is still strong, with the greater share of world production and assets and a huge military machine, and its leaders are bitterly hostile to socialism and national liberation. World peace is not yet guaranteed and continued efforts are needed to strengthen the peace movement.

Nevertheless, a decisive tilt in the balance of world forces has taken place in the direction of socialism and progress. This change continues despite all setbacks and efforts of imperialism to redress the balance. It is the main feature of the world today.

Because of the growing strength of socialism, national liberation and the working class and progressive forces, more favourable conditions have been created for the advance to socialism in Britain without foreign military intervention. Unity with those forces throughout the world helps us in the struggle for such an advance.

Britain’s crisis

In Britain, the first capitalist power, once the most powerful of all, the crisis is especially deep. London used to be the centre of the biggest colonial empire in history and the financial capital of the world. The pound was the monarch of the world monetary system.

All that has changed. New capitalist nations, and especially the US, entered the scene and challenged Britain for supremacy. The people of the colonies have fought for, and in most cases achieved, political independence. By the end of the Second World War the British Empire had been greatly weakened. The need for a complete break with past imperialist policies was urgent. Instead, successive governments, whether Tory or Labour, have continued with such policies. Central to them was the effort to maintain the international role of the pound and of London as a major financial centre. There was huge investment abroad at the expense of investment at home. Colonial wars and repression continued after the war, neo-colonialist policies have thwarted the efforts of the former colonies to achieve real independence, and racialist and oppressive regimes have been backed in Southern Africa. Britain played the role of junior partner in US imperialism’s efforts to hold back national liberation and direct the cold war against socialism, and there was a gigantic waste of resources on arms and bases abroad.

In the initial, stages these policies, though their cost was enormous, did not prevent some advances in living standards being made. But by the mid-sixties their effects had become disastrous, with the forced devaluation of the pound in 1967 and acute balance-of-payments crises. The modest rise in living standards was slowed down, then halted, and finally turned into a fall.

The contradictions of the British economy and the policies of successive governments have resulted in the lowest economic growth rate in Europe, the lowest investment per worker among the major capitalist countries, repeated attempts to impose incomes policies or wage restraint, and increasing attacks on the social services.

The illusion of a ‘special relationship’ with the US, based on a common interest in holding back the advance of national liberation and socialism, only resulted in increased US economic and political domination of Britain. Similarly, when the big monopolies, backed by successive governments, pushed for and achieved Britain’s entry into the Common Market, this not only imposed serious limitations on the country’s sovereignty, but resulted in a big trade deficit with the Market, higher prices, and further economic difficulties for Britain.

The country’s economic and political problems have been accentuated by the attempt to impose a military solution to the crisis in Northern Ireland, where British Governments have continued to pursue a policy of

repression and denial of democracy. The growth of the civil rights movement and of democratic struggle in Northern Ireland led to the collapse of the Stormont regime which had operated there on behalf of British imperialism for 50 years. But successive governments, both Labour and Tory, have sought under the system of direct rule to prevent the further development of united struggle involving the whole of the working class.

They have openly tolerated right-wing and Unionist para-military terror, and the army itself has been responsible for torture, many killings, mass arrests and the maintenance of a martial law presence in working class areas. British imperialism has exploited the divisive IRA bombing campaigns both in Ireland and Britain, which have made more difficult the development of joint action by the working class and labour I movements of Britain and Ireland. The cost of this repression has been the loss of hundreds of lives and the squandering of millions of pounds, while the experience that the army has obtained in Ireland is a serious potential threat to democratic rights in Britain.

Racist and fascist organisations have taken advantage of the worsening situation in Britain to put the blame for social and economic problems on the 2.5 per cent of the population who are black. Full advantage is being taken of the deep-rooted racist ideas which have resulted from Britain’s colonialist history. There has been a growth of racist propaganda, of provocative racist marches organised by the National Front, of violence against black people, and of support in elections for racist and fascist candidates. The racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia benefit from the activities of racist organisations in Britain. Though black people bear the brunt of this oppression and discrimination, racism is a menace to black and white working people alike. It sets workers against each other, and helps the capitalist class to maintain its rule.

As the crisis of the capitalist world deepened in the mid-sixties, increasing efforts were made by the ruling class to put the burdens of it on the working people. Resistance to the consequent attacks on wages, employment, the social services and the quality of life showed that the post-war experience had raised the level of the people’s expectations, and that they were prepared to act to achieve them. As we show in the next chapter, new forces came into the struggle and new forms of action were developed. The increasing strength of the trade union movement was displayed in the struggles against the Industrial Relations Act and in support of the miners, eventually leading to the defeat of the Heath government in 1974.

But despite the efforts of the labour movement and other forces the capitalist forces were able at crucial times to create confusion, describing, for example, high wages and trade union militancy as the main cause of inflation, and so holding back the struggle. For the most part the various movements did not develop beyond the stage of defensive struggle, they were often isolated from each other, and the left advances in the trade union movement were not accompanied by comparable political advance among the people.

Strategy for socialism

The lesson of the past thirty years is that it is not enough to fight defensive battles, or for each group to fight only for what it conceives to be its own interests under capitalism. What is required is awareness of the need for a common struggle to end capitalism, which will, in the first stages, weaken the grip of the monopolists and begin to tackle the grave economic, social and political problems of Britain in the interests of the working people.

Millions of people who are not yet convinced of the need for socialism are nevertheless deeply concerned about the present plight of Britain and the effects of capitalism’s crisis. The big question is whether they will be won to struggle for democratic, political and social advance, or whether the Tories and other reactionary forces will be able to take advantage of frustration and confusion to secure support for policies which would further worsen living standards and increase the danger of authoritarian rule.

A great and urgent responsibility therefore rests on the labour movement and other progressive forces. They need to put forward and campaign for an immediate policy which, as outlined later, can rally all those seeking a way out of the crisis and unite them in a broad alliance for democracy and social and political change.

As people are drawn into this movement of struggle and action, the Communist Party and other socialist forces need to raise their political consciousness and convince them of their common need to end capitalism and advance to socialism. For the experience of past decades has also shown that capitalism’s crisis cannot be solved within the limits of capitalism. A new strategy of social change is needed. It must be a strategy for a socialist revolution.

Only socialism can overcome the basic contradiction of capitalist society from which every aspect of the crisis flows. Socialism replaces private ownership by social ownership. The social process of production is matched by social ownership of the means of production. Production for private profit is replaced by production for social needs.

Socialism creates the best conditions for the development of democratic control and popular initiative. Industrial democracy becomes a reality with the development and extension of a new type of nationalisation, and the democratic planning of production makes possible the full use of modern scientific and technological advance to eradicate poverty and raise the standard of living. The scandalous contrast of extreme wealth for a few and hardship for millions can be ended. A new quality of life, in relationship to work, the family and the whole environment, and a common social purpose, can be achieved.

More than that. Instead of power being in the hands of a tiny minority, it is in the hands of the overwhelming majority. For the fullest extension of democracy, socialist democracy, to become possible, the working class and its allies, must take power out of the hands of the capitalist class. This is what is meant by the socialist revolution.

We are in a world in which social change is taking place on an unprecedented scale. The growth of the socialist world, the sweep of national liberation, the struggles of the working class movement throughout the world have, as we have pointed out, brought about a decisive change in the balance of world forces. Thus we have the opportunity to carry out social transformation in conditions in which world war can be prevented and without the social collapse and human destruction such a war would bring.

The advance to socialism can only take place through the active democratic struggle of the great majority of the British people. But because of their overwhelming potential strength, and because of the changed balance in the world, we believe that we can achieve socialism in Britain without military intervention and civil war.