The British Road to Socialism of 1951:
A Programme of People’s Democracy

Vijay Singh 

In the post-Second World War period a number of Communist Parties made requests to the CPSU (b) for assistance in drafting their party programmes. The Communist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of India were two such parties which benefited from these consultations. Stalin and Liu Shao-chi jointly co-operated in helping in the drafting of the programme of the Communist Party of Indonesia. The CPSU (b), as part of the united front of Communist Parties in power, gave its advice on the advance to democracy and socialism in the People’s Democracies of Central and South-East Europe and the People’s Republic of China. The detailed suggestions and advice of the CPSU (b) in the struggles against nationalism and opportunism in the leadership of the communist parties of the new democracies is apparent from the contemporary documentation and the materials released after the fall of the Soviet Union. The entire gamut of these materials reveal a unified approach to the advance of democracy and socialism right across the globe.

The contribution of Stalin in the writing of the British Road to Socialism was the object of controversy in the midst of the period of the polemics of Albania against Soviet revisionism when both Khrushchev and the Albanian communists referred to it in 1963. However, in the absence of the relevant documentation the nature and significance of Stalin’s contribution was always opaque. There were clear grounds for supposing that the interpretation of Khrushchev and the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU of the ‘peaceful’ and ‘parliamentary’ path to socialism did not correspond to the known views of Lenin and Stalin on these questions. Equally it was apparent that the early British criticisms of the British Road to Socialism had not taken a number of questions into account.

The British Road to Socialism was published in January, 1951 after being adopted by the Executive Committee of the CPGB and a new, revised edition was issued in the April of the following year after its adoption at the XXII National Congress of the Communist Party. The new programme replaced the earlier ‘For Soviet Britain…’ which had been adopted by the CPGB at its XIII Congress in February 1935. The British Road to Socialism underwent a number of modifications after the 20th Congress of the CPSU. A comparison of the programmes on the cardinal questions of the workers’ councils, parliament, the relation of the Communist and Labour Parties in the transition to socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the attitude to be adopted to the British Empire, indicate the changes which occurred in the understanding of the international communist movement and the CPGB over intervening years.

The CPGB programme in 1935 rejected the possibility that capitalism could be ended and socialism established by the election of a majority in the House of Commons as suggested by the Labour Party as the capitalist class would not permit itself to be expropriated by successive Acts of Parliament.  The fact there was no ‘peaceful, gradual’ way to socialism was revealed by the rise to power of Fascism in Europe which showed that the capitalists themselves had thrown overboard all forms of democracy to preserve their power and profits. The Labour Party in Britain did not tolerate united action amongst the workers against Fascism and war just as the German Social Democrats had rejected the United Front against Fascism and so opened the way to the success of Fascism in Germany. The only way to win power was through a workers’ revolution founded upon a united front of the working class around the elementary demands against wage-cuts, high rents, speed-up, wholesale dismissals as well as the fight against Fascism and for colonial liberation. Civil war was forced upon the working class by the capitalists which meant that the overthrow of capitalism would be a forceful one. The conquest of power by the workers is facilitated by the men of the armed forces who after all were only workers in uniform. The CPGB rejected the possibility that the parliamentary system could serve the workers’ dictatorship after capitalism had been overthrown as it was but one part of a machinery of government which included the Cabinet, the civil service the military and the judiciary and the police which maintained the rule of capital.

Under conditions of the workers’ dictatorship, through the Workers’ Councils, the capitalist machinery of the government would be broken up and replaced. After taking power the workers’ councils would immediately proclaim the right of all countries in the British empire to complete self-determination up to and including complete separation. All British armed forces and police would be withdrawn from the colonies and all the claims of British imperialist finance would be cancelled. Freed of the burden of imperialism the less industrially developed would be in a position to exchange their products for the industrial equipment required to build up their own industry.

It is evident that this programme conformed to the traditions of Bolshevism and the Comintern of that period. With the rise to power of Nazism in Germany, the Spanish civil war and the Japanese invasion of China, the CPSU (b) and the Comintern re-orientated their activities to defend the democratic and socialist movement from the onslaught of reaction by the establishment of proletarian and popular fronts against fascism and the war danger which was represented by Germany, Italy and Japan. Because of this the British party programme became quickly outdated.

The new party programme which was adopted in 1951, the British Road to Socialism, necessarily took into account the new correlation of forces on a world scale, the experiences gained after the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, particularly with the establishment of the New Democracies and People’s Democracies in Central and South-East Europe, the Chinese revolution. The new party programme was not one of establishing a Soviet Socialist Britain but of establishing a People’s Democracy in Britain. As one of the sub-headings of the programme states: ‘People’s Democracy – The Path to Socialism’.   It was the road to Socialism and so it did not envisage the immediate establishment of Socialism based on Workers’ Councils, the immediate establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the destruction of parliament, the civil service, the police, the military, the judiciary and the rest of the bourgeois state apparatus. Drawing on the experiences of the People’s Democracies of Central and South-East Europe the British Road envisaged the utilisation of Parliament and the formation of a People’s Government based on the various sections of the working-class movement: Labour, trade union , co-operative and Communist based on a parliamentary majority. In the economic sphere the road to socialism envisaged socialist nationalisation and workers’ control of monopoly capital and big landed property but not the properties of the small shopkeepers, businessmen, small landowners and farmers in the countryside. The British Empire was to be transformed, inspired it is clear by the example of the Soviet Union, into ‘a strong, free, equal association of peoples by granting national independence to the colonies’.

The British Road to Socialism in the editions of 1951 and 1952 does not refer to a peaceful transition to socialism. On the contrary the programme anticipated that:

In carrying through these decisive measures to implement the democratic will of the people, every effort of the capitalist class to defy the People’s Government and Parliament will be resisted and defeated.

The great broad popular alliance, led by the working class, firmly based on the factories, which has democratically placed the People’s Government in power, will have the strength to deal with the attacks of the capitalist warmongers and their agents.

The Government will rely on the strength of the organised workers to ensure that the programme decided upon by Parliament is operated in practice, and that attempts to resist or sabotage it are defeated, and the enemies of the working class brought to justice.

It would be wrong to believe that the big capitalists will voluntarily give up their property and their big profits in the interests of the British people.

It would be more correct to expect them to offer an active resistance to the decisions of the People’s Government, and to fight for the retention of their privileges by all means in their power, including force.

Therefore the British people and the People’s Government should be ready decisively to rebuff such attempts.

The methods whereby the organised working class would counter and defeat the resistance of the capitalists were not spelt out but it may be reasonably supposed that the methods adopted by the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution and the Communist and Workers’ Parties in the revolutionary process in the People’s Democracies of Eastern and South-East Europe and the national liberation war in Greece were not unknown to the CPGB.

The programme did not prescribe a parliamentary or constitutional road to socialism. The novel element in the British Road to Socialism in 1951 is that the notion of the utilisation of parliament in the transition to people’s democracy was introduced for the first time in a British party programme. 

The theses, ‘The Communist Party and Parliament’, adopted by the Second Congress of Comintern in 1920 had noted that parliament had played a certain progressive role as an instrument of the developing capitalist system but that in the period of imperialism, of civil war when the proletariat had to establish its own power the task was to wrest the parliamentary apparatus from the hands of the ruling classes, destroy it and replace it with new organs of proletarian power. Parliament could not serve as a form of proletarian state in the transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat, or as the state form of the future society. It could only be used with the object of destroying it.

In the period of the Popular Fronts, of New Democracy and People’s Democracy the perspectives radically changed: the possibilities of using parliament in the revolutionary process now came to be actively considered. The two initial, major examples of this were in the course of the national liberation wars in Spain and China. The Letter of Voroshilov, Molotov and Stalin to Largo Caballero of December 1936 argued as follows:

The Spanish revolution plots its course, different from many viewpoints from the course followed by Russia. This is determined by the difference in social, historical and geographic conditions and by the needs of the international situation, different from those the Russian revolution had to contend with. It is very possible that the parliamentary way will show itself to be, in Spain, a more efficient means for revolutionary development than in Russia. But, having said that, we believe that our experience, especially the experience of our civil war, applied in accordance with the peculiar conditions of the Spanish revolutionary struggle, may have a certain importance for Spain. (Our emphasis).

A similar position obtained in China where Mao and the Communist Party of China dropped the perspectives of expanding the Chinese Soviet Republic and in the interest of the united national front against the invasion of Japanese imperialism now came out in February 1938 for the establishment of a democratic republic in China:

In the democratic republic which the Communist Party advocates, parliament will be elected by our people, who refuse to be colonial slaves. Elections will be based on universal suffrage without any restrictions. Ours will be a democratic state. In broad outline it will be that state on whose establishment Sun Yat-sen insisted long ago. It is along these lines that the Chinese state must develop. (Our emphasis).

Mao and six other leading members of the Communist Party of China, in the interests of the joint struggle against Japan, went on to join the government of China, the National Political Council, notwithstanding the fact that it was not an elected body:

‘The Communist members of the Council do not repudiate responsibility on the pretext that the members of the Council are not elected by the people. We realise deeply that the members of the Council are the servants of the people, consequently we will resolutely strive to realise the desires, hopes and demands of the people of China. The unanimous demand of the people is that national unity be strengthened and the Japanese invaders driven out of China. We hope that our fellow countrymen will assist us and criticise us if we commit any mistakes. We hope that all the members of the Council will fulfill the desires of our people.’

The participation in a semi-parliamentary institution and joining a government headed by Chiang Kai-shek represented another instance of the changed perception of utilising parliament during the course of the revolutionary process.

Subsequently the parliaments of the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia when faced with the threat of an aggressive and expansionist Nazi imperialism passed resolutions in 1940 requested to be permitted to accede to the Soviet Union. 1943-44 saw the rise of the Krajowa Rada Naradowa, the underground parliament of Poland which attempted to lead the armed struggle of the Polish people.  In the post-war period the working class forces headed by the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia were able to seize power in 1948 which was facilitated by the strong positions which the party held within parliament. In Eastern Europe the political life was democratised and the judicial and state institutions introduced by the Nazis were destroyed. As these countries proceeded from the democratic revolution towards socialist revolution very diverse means were used to defeat the bourgeoisie including political demonstrations, the forcible seizure of state institutions, and the armed suppression of the military detachments of the bourgeoisie. Step by step the old bourgeois state apparatus was crushed, including the bourgeois democratic organs, and replaced by a new popular democratic state apparatus.  In this struggle parliamentary forms of struggle were used but they were of a subordinate nature, reflecting the political changes rather than the means of their accomplishment. The Soviet specialist A. I. Sobolev writing in 1954 registered the parliamentary forms of the people’s democratic republics in the different countries of Central and South-East Europe which were incorporated into the dictatorships of the proletariat:

The parliament elected by all the people on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot is the highest organ of state power in the people’s republics. In Bulgaria and Albania this organ is called the National Assembly, in Hungary – the State Assembly, in Hungary – the State Assembly, in Rumania – the Grand National Assembly, in Czechoslovakia – the National Assembly, and in Poland – the People’s Sejm.

Through a continuous process of struggle the transition took place of the first stage of the People’s Democratic states identified as a form of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry to the second, socialist, stage of People’s Democracy in which the functions of the dictatorship of the proletariat were carried out and the process of socialist construction was accelerated.

The British Road to Socialism of 1951, as a Programme of People’s Democracy, cannot be separately read from the understanding of People’s Democracy as a new form of political organisation of society considered applicable across the globe from Mongolia to the United States of America. The experience of the People’s Democratic States in Central and South-East Europe as well as those of Asia was of paramount importance here. Within this it was understood that the process of the break up of the bourgeois state structure and the carrying out of the functions of the dictatorship of the proletariat was an elongated though uninterrupted one. In his report to the Fifth Congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party in December 1948, Dimitrov graphically illustrates this in the context of Bulgaria. The September 1944 anti-fascist uprising in conjunction with the advance of the Soviet Army in the Balkans swept away the fascist regime in one blow. The bourgeois-fascist police was ‘smashed to pieces’ and a people’s militia formed. Political power was wrested from the monarchy and the bourgeoisie which was allied with German imperialism and passed to Fatherland Front which under the leadership of the Party united the workers, peasants and intellectuals. The old bourgeois state machine was partially broken up in September 1944 and later completely so enabling Dimitrov to argue in 1948:

Embodying the rule of the working people under the leadership of the working class, the People’s Democracy, in the existing historical situation, as is already proved by experience, can and must successfully perform the functions of the dictatorship of the proletariat for the liquidation of the capitalist elements and the organisation of a socialist economy. It can crush the resistance of the overthrown capitalists and landowners, crush their attempts to restore the rule of capital, and organise the building of industry on the basis of public ownership and planned economy.

Similar experiences were reported from elsewhere in Central and South-East Europe by Hilary Minc, Boleslaw Bierut and Matyas Rakosi. The understanding of People’s Democracy elaborated in this period gave no exemption to Britain on the question of establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat under the British Road to Socialism through the path of People’s Democracy.

This perspective was reversed in Central and South-East Europe with the rise of revisionism and ‘market socialism’ after 1953. In Yugoslavia the revolutionary process had already been halted and reversed in 1948-49. In the People’s Republic of China after 1949 the people’s democratic state incorporated the middle bourgeoisie and its political parties into the state structure. As an editorial of Pravda dated 23rd September, 1950 pointed out:

While noting the fact that the Chinese People’s republic is a people’s democratic state and that it fights with the whole democratic camp for common aims and tasks, one cannot fail to see the difference between the people’s democracy in China and in the countries of Central and South-East Europe. It is known that in the Central and South-East European countries the people’s democratic regime is performing the functions of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the struggle for building the foundation of Socialism.

At the present stage, the people’s democracy in China is not a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Socialist construction has not yet been placed on the immediate order of the day in China.

However as is known the middle bourgeoisie and its political parties were never removed from the National People’s Congress or the state structure of the Chinese Peoples’ Republic so that the people’s democratic dictatorship never came to exercise the functions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is apparent from a reading of the 1954 and subsequent Constitutions of the People’s Republic of China. Over half a century the People’s Republic of China has remained frozen as a people’s democratic dictatorship which never developed towards carrying out the functions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The failure to achieve any progress in this sphere paralleled the rise and expansion of ‘market socialism’ in the country.

Stalin’s interventions in the framing and content of the British Road to Socialism confirm that he saw the programme of People’s Democracy as the path to Socialism in the country, approved of the utilisation of Parliament and saw the programme as ‘in its essence’ as ‘a suitable document for the Communist Parties of USA, Canada, Australia and other Anglo-Saxon countries’. He authored the suggestion for a free association of the peoples of the empire based on the right of self-determination. Stalin furthermore gave his concurrence and support to the electoral tactics of the CPGB in relation to the Labour Party in the General Elections. The stands of the CPGB on all of these questions have been contentious and the attitudes of Stalin the object of conjecture so it is invaluable to have his suggestions and observations available in the public domain for scrutiny by the communist movement.

The turn to ‘market socialism’ and revisionism registered at the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU and the Eighth Party Congress of the CPC reverberated around the people’s democracies and the international communist movement. It resulted in the radical restructuring of the British Road to Socialism. A Commission was established to prepare a new draft of the programme and a revised text was submitted to the Party Congress in 1957, together with 1,500 amendments from Party organisations. The final text was adopted by the Executive Committee of the CPGB in January 1958. The new programme dropped the references to People’s Democracy as being the Path to Socialism in Britain. It retained the understanding that Parliament required to be utilised but toned down the portion of the original programme which warned of the dangers presented by the resistance of the big capitalists to measures depriving them of their property and profits. New clauses were inserted which argued that ‘a transition to socialism without armed conflict is possible today in many countries’ (our emphasis), and this was ‘particularly true of our country, whose powerful Labour movement embodies the British workers’ fighting ability and experience of struggle, and where there is a strong tradition of democratic institutions.’ By this the notion of a peaceful path to socialism was endorsed. In line with the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU the programme accepted ‘decolonisation’ theory, authored by Kautsky, under which colonial countries such as India were deemed to have become independent without the eradication of the hold of metropolitan finance capital. The right of all subject peoples to self-determination was retained (it had been repudiated three years earlier by the Communist Party of India) but the proposal for the formation of a free association of the peoples of the former empire was removed.

The British Road to Socialism of 1951 which had originally spoken of the use of parliament on the road to People’s Democracy and Socialism was now transformed in 1958 to a parliamentary path to Socialism without armed conflict.

In the polemics which arose in the 1960s between the CPSU and its allies and the Party of Labour of Albania and the Communist Party of China the theses embodied in the British Road to Socialism became the object of analysis and discussion. In Britain the pioneer critic of modern revisionism was Michael McCreery who headed The Committee to Defeat Revisionism for Communist Unity from its formation in November, 1963, until his early death from cancer at the age of 36, in April 1965. The formation of the CDRCU was a major milestone in the development of the Marxist-Leninist movement in Britain and it had an international presence such that its materials were on sale in a number of countries including India.

A re-reading of two of McCreery’s articles, The British Road to Socialism and The Way Forward suggests that the author did not distinguish between the two radically different versions of the British Road to Socialism of 1951 and 1958, and, also did not consider the events in the post-Leninist period and their theoretical summing up by the Communist movement. McCreery confined his criticisms to the 1958 programme. It is noticeable that the names of Dimitrov and Stalin, as well as those leading Communists who had written on the questions relating to People’s Democracy, are absent from the collection of his writings available to us. McCreery criticised the propositions put forward in 1958, which had not been present in 1951, that Parliament could be transformed ‘into the effective instrument of the people’s will through which the major legislative measures of the change to socialism will be carried’ and that is was possible to build Socialism in Britain ‘without armed conflict’. He based his criticisms on Lenin’s writings which stressed the need to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and to break up and destroy the existing state structure. Moreover he understood the falsity of the views projected by the leaders of the CPGB such as James Klugmann that because of the alleged strengthening of the socialist system and the ‘weakening’ of imperialism that a transition to socialism was possible without armed conflict in Britain.

In retrospect we know that far from being strengthened socialism in the USSR had been reversed in the period 1954-58 with the means of production beginning to circulate as commodities in the state sector, labour power thereby becoming a commodity and profit becoming the criterion of efficiency of the enterprises; directive planning for constructing advanced socialism and communism was replaced by ‘co-ordinated planning’ to establish a market economy. Imperialism far from being weakened went from strength to strength and ultimately destroyed the camp of socialism and democracy.

McCreery’s criticisms of the 1958 British Road to Socialism were fundamentally correct. However, he did not enter into the question of evaluating the programme of 1951 which he considered contained the ideas of the 1958 programme. He was, apparently, unaware that the original 1951 version of the British Road to Socialism was an integral part of a Programme of establishing People’s Democracy in Britain.

Bibliography

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On the Character and Specific Features of People’s Democracy in the Countries of the East, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1951, Revolutionary Democracy, Vol. V, No. 2, September 1999.

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