Critical Notes on the British Road to Socialism

Jim Rosenbaum

First, Vijay Singh, the editor of Revolutionary Democracy, should be congratulated for bringing to light the discussion around the development of the British Road to Socialism. Now this programme must be examined in a critical light.

The main problem with the British Road is its view of a parliamentary road to socialism. It says: ‘the people of Britain can transform capitalist democracy into a real People’s Democracy, transforming Parliament, the product of Britain’s historic struggle for democracy, into the democratic instrument of the will of the vast majority of her people.’ People’s Democracy was to be the first stage in transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat as the second stage.

In their 1872 Preface to the German Edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels point out that: ‘One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.’ Lenin reiterated this point and elaborated on it in State and Revolution.

In the discussion of the state machine, Lenin generally discussed two aspects: the armed forces, which are the tool of the ruling class to repress the exploited classes and the bureaucracy. But the British Road replaces the smashing of the state machine by the call to: ‘Break the political hold of the capitalist class by… the democratic transformation of the Civil Service, Foreign Office, Armed Forces and Police, the Law Courts and the administration of justice.’

It is true that the British Road of 1951 (and 1952) do not specifically talk of a peaceful transition to socialism – this was a ‘contribution’ of the version drafted in 1957 and finalised in 1958, under the influence of the revisionist, anti-Marxist-Leninist positions of the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956. But the 1951 edition already left the door wide open to ‘peaceful transition.’ It states:

'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.'

This is not sufficient. The chances that the big capitalists would allow the working class and its allies to become strong enough to elect a majority and form a People’s Democratic government without making an all-out effort to suppress it are negligible. This view is a myth that has been put forward by the revisionist CPUSA for decades.

The one example of a People’s Democracy coming to power through a Parliamentary majority would be Spain in 1936. There a popular front government was elected under bourgeois rule and the reactionary big bourgeoisie and landowners instigated Franco to carry out a fascist coup. The popular front government was finally defeated after three years of civil war, by the combined power of Spanish reaction, German and Italian fascism, and the ‘non-intervention’ policy of ‘democratic’ Britain, France and the U.S. Only the socialist Soviet Union as well as the progressive-democratic Cardenas government in Mexico supported the Republic. If the Spanish Republic had prevailed, it would probably have lead to a People’s Democracy on the road to socialism. But to count on such a government coming to power through parliament would be wrong.

Lenin in State and Revolution stated that:

'The Commune is the form ‘at last discovered’ by the proletarian revolution, under which the economic emancipation of labour can take place.

'The Commune is the first attempt of a proletarian revolution to smash the bourgeois state machine; and it is the political form ‘at last discovered,’ by which the smashed state machine can and must be replaced.'

But while the Soviets, or earlier the Commune, were the most advanced form of socialist power, the experience of Eastern Europe after World War 2, as well as China, Vietnam and Korea, showed that there were other forms of socialist power.

Sobolev, in his excellent pamphlet, People’s Democracy, points out that in the particular circumstances of World War 2 and after, People’s Democracy was a form of socialism (or perhaps more accurately, a form of transition to socialism). In the circumstances of the end of the war, when the Soviet Union with the aid of the partisan movements chased the Nazi fascist invaders out of the countries of Eastern Europe, most of the big bourgeoisie and landlords fled with the Nazis. Even in Czechoslovakia in 1948, when the people’s democratic government took power in Parliament, the bourgeois state had never been fully reconsolidated and the workers were armed. In these countries, it was possible to establish people’s democracies on the road to socialism. But Sobolev clearly points out that this was not an example of peaceful transition to socialism. He states:

‘The great successes achieved in the struggle against the German, Italian and Japanese aggressors by the Soviet Union and the powerful anti-fascist movement of the working people thus resulted in the rise of People’s Democracy. That was the outcome of the armed collision between the world democratic forces with the Soviet Union at their head and the international reactionary forces which at that time were led by Hitlerite Germany. In the light of the aforementioned a definite answer may be given to the question how People’s Democracy came into being: peacefully or in the course of an armed struggle.

‘As it has been proved above, People’s Democracy triumphed as a result of the defeat of fascism, in the course of a bloody, fierce conflict between the forces of democracy and the forces of reaction. Hence, the thesis on the peaceful rise of People’s Democracy is wrong and by its content is bourgeois-nationalistic, as it bases itself on the analysis of only the internal events in the countries of Central and South-Eastern Europe and ignores the common front of the international anti-fascist struggle, ignores the greatest revolutionary significance of the Soviet Union’s struggle against fascist reaction.’

Clearly a comparison of the situation in Britain in 1951 and after to that of Eastern Europe at the end of World War 2 is incorrect, as it leaves out the specific circumstances of the development of People’s Democracies in these countries. The chances of ‘the formation of a People’s Government based on the various sectors of the working-class movement: Labour, trade union, co-operative and Communist based on a parliamentary majority’ as the Revolutionary Democracy article states (p. 164), are negligible.

The question of People’s Democracy is not the same as the united front against fascism, which was correctly put forward by Dimitrov in 1935. Dimitrov clearly puts forward the united front as a tactical demand to preserve democratic rights, defend the standard of living of the working people, and stop imperialist war. Dimitrov speaks of ‘the fundamental tactical problems and tasks of the struggle of the working class against the offensive of capital and fascism, and against the threat of imperialist war’ (my emphasis) and again: Ours has been a Congress of a new tactical orientation for the Communist International’ (emphasis in original). He also states: ‘ “Social-Democracy is for democracy, the Communists are for dictatorship; therefore we cannot form a united front with the Communists,” say some of the Social-Democratic leaders. But are we offering you now a united front for the purpose of proclaiming the dictatorship of the proletariat? We make no such proposal now.’

It is not clear that Britain in 1951 was facing similar conditions of fascism and war, necessitating united front tactics, though the British Road correctly points out that Britain was following the U.S. in its increasingly aggressive imperialist positions abroad and reactionary attacks at home (at the height of the McCarthy era).

Today U.S. imperialism under the Bush regime is conducting wars of aggression against Iraq and Afghanistan and aiding reactionary governments in suppressing their own people from Colombia to the Philippines to Pakistan. The Bush-led imperialist regime has been crying from the rooftops about ‘endless war,’ that any country that is not with ‘us’ is with ‘the terrorists,’ and it is attacking the democratic rights and living standards of the working people. In these conditions some progressive forces have put forward the need for a people’s programme to fight these attacks, and for putting up progressive candidates for Congress or even for President. In fact, Afro-American former Congressperson Cynthia McKinney is running for President with a progressive programme under the banner of the Reconstruction Party. But it would be irresponsible to put this forward as a road to socialism by gaining a parliamentary majority.

Lenin and the Comintern called for the Communist Parties to take part in Parliamentary elections as a way to reach out to the broad layers of the working masses with their programme; if communist representatives were elected, they would use their positions in Parliament to further the aims of the working class (see Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma), and to expose Parliament from within.

But the question of the dissolution of Parliament (or of bourgeois parties) was a tactical one. The Bolsheviks called for elections to the Constituent Assembly, and these elections were held after the October Revolution. They only dissolved the Assembly when it refused to recognise Soviet power.

In the U.S. today not only communist groups but even any progressive forces do not achieve more than a few percentage points at best in elections. We need to achieve a broad coalition, including with some forces in Congress, against imperialist war and for democratic rights. In this situation it would be foolish to talk of the need to dissolve Congress or disband the bourgeois Democratic and Republican Parties. But this is still far from calling for building socialism through winning a majority in Congress.

Finally, there is one separate point that, though secondary in the context of the main criticism of the British Road, still needs to be raised. On p. 196 of the Revolutionary Democracy article, there is mention of the British Road as being suitable for the U.S.A., Canada, Australia and other Anglo-Saxon countries. The description of the U.S.A. as Anglo-Saxon (even if has an Anglo-Saxon majority) is incorrect, especially in view of the help given by the Comintern in recognising the multi-national nature of the U.S. state that included the oppressed Afro-American nation in the Black Belt South. (A similar point could be made about most of the other countries mentioned, even if Britain itself was basically an Anglo-Saxon nation at that time.)

These are only meant as initial points in the criticism of the British Road. I hope they will help to stimulate a broad discussion of the errors on this question and their significance.

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