Stalin and the ‘British Road to Socialism’

Andy Brooks

For years we had been told that Joseph Stalin himself had played a part in the drafting of the first edition of the British Road to Socialism (BRS). During the struggle led by Sid French against revisionism in the old Communist Party, which we left in 1977, the revisionists of the old CPGB would occasionally throw that back in our faces to somehow justify the failed policies of the ‘parliamentary road’ that had marginalised the British communist movement for decades – not often and not loudly because the revisionists obviously did not wish to be seen appealing to Stalin and the anti-revisionists did not like to think that Stalin could have approved of the BRS.

Nor did any of them ever publicly spelt out what Stalin’s role had been because the now forgotten men at the helm of the old Party in those days had taken their lead from Khrushchev and demonised Stalin to justify their own departure from Marxism-Leninism.

Most of us believed that if Stalin had seen the draft of the first BRS it had just been looked at and returned with the diplomatic courtesy and acceptance due to a fraternal party’s internal affairs. Now it is clear that this was not the case.

Indian Marxist scholar Prof. Vijay Singh, the editor of Revolutionary Democracy, has discovered the minutes of meetings and letters between Stalin and the CPGB general secretary Harry Pollitt in 1950 that reveal that Stalin and the Soviet Party had a serious input into the programme and that on the whole their amendments were accepted by the CPGB.

Vijay Singh uses these documents to argue that the first British Road reflected the line developed by Georgi Dimitrov and others on people’s democracy and that it only became a reformist and social-democratic programme with the adoption of the second major revision in 1957 which was clearly influenced by Khrushchev and the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

The documents consist of:

And they are held by the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History.

First of all we have to consider the authenticity of the documents published in Revolutionary Democracy, if only because some self-styled ‘Stalinists’ in Britain are suggesting that they are forgeries – forged not by Prof. Singh himself but by revisionist historians who ‘planted’ these papers in the Soviet state archives. But this state of denial simply reflects dogmatism and ignorance of the history of the CPGB.

The idea that anyone would go to the trouble of forging correspondence between Stalin and a relatively minor western European communist party in the hope that it would then be discovered by a Marxist scholar decades later is, of course, absurd. But in any case Stalin’s meetings with Pollitt were never a secret within the highest echelons of the old Party.

Mike Power, a former leading Eurocommunist, states that George Matthews, a former editor of the Daily Worker and the Morning Star and a leading revisionist within the CPGB throughout most of its existence, knew ‘that Stalin had influenced the contents of the party programme, The British Road To Socialism (1951), hailed as a purely home-grown product’ in the obituary he wrote for Matthews in the Guardian of 8th April 2005.

Prof Singh argues that the first edition of the BRS was correct. He says: 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.

Vijay Singh argues that the revisionist line only appears in the subsequent editions published after the 20th Congress of the CPSU and the general line of Nikita Khrushchev and his followers. But is there any essential difference between the first and the last BRS’s?

It’s clear from these documents that Stalin approved of the formulations of the first draft of the BRS but what was Stalin’s views based on?

The CPSU papers are unfortunately one-sided in that they only record the minutes (marked TOP SECRET) taken by the Soviet side during the discussions along with some written exchanges between Pollitt and Stalin concerning the draft. The Stalin leadership clearly based their advice on an assessment of the British communist movement that must have largely come from the CPGB in the first place. The CPGB, even in Pollitt’s day, regularly exaggerated its importance and influence within the British labour movement and there are some hints of this in the Soviet record of Pollitt’s comments.

For instance:

Comrade Stalin says that within the English working class there are taking place certain processes that are seen but which are unnoticeable from the outside, that explain the fact that the Conservatives managed to amass such a large quantity of votes in the last elections. To illustrate the processes taking place in the English electorate that are not observable for an outside observer, he, Comrade Stalin, could cite the fact that the results of the elections in 1945 in England were unexpected for Churchill and Eden as well as for Attlee and Bevin. Labourites as well as Conservatives have an apparatus, informing the leadership of the party about the mood of the electors. In 1945 Churchill was confident of his victory in the elections, and Attlee did not expect the victory of the Labourites. The information providing apparatus let them down. Apparently in 1945 in the mood of the electors there took place some hidden internal processes, as a result of which the Labourites unexpectedly emerged victorious. And at the present time too something is happening to the mood of the British working class.

Pollitt answers, that in 1945 nobody expected the victory of the Labourites because every worker out of millions of English workers who had lived through the hard years of depression, when the Conservatives were in power, took a decision for themselves that they shall not permit the Conservatives to come to power.

Comrade Stalin comments, that neither the leaders of the Labourites nor the Conservatives could understand this.

Pollitt answers that this happened because the leaders did not continue with the contacts with the masses of the English people. As also, during the war years the working people of England openly talked among themselves in bomb-shelters and in the Metro, where they used to take shelter from bombings that they shall never again permit the Conservatives to come to power.

But Pollitt does not explain that the CPGB leadership was also taken by surprise by the massive swing to Labour in 1945 and that it must therefore have been as equally out of touch with the mass of the people as the leaders of the other parties.

Here Stalin asks a question that Pollitt simply evades:

Comrade Stalin asks – why did the Conservatives get such a large number of votes?

Pollitt answers that the number of votes cast for the Labourites on the last elections in industrial regions of England has grown significantly and on the whole as a party the Labourites got unprecedentedly more votes in the history of England.

Comrade Stalin observes that none the less the Conservatives also got a large number of votes.

Pollitt answers that Labour party got a record number of votes in the last elections. In 1945 the Labourites attracted the middle classes to their side. In 1950 the Labourites lost the support of the middle classes who were not happy with the taxes, rationing of benzene and other steps of the Labour government that hurt the interests of the small shopkeepers. However, the miners, ship-builders, workers in the heavy machine building industry, textile workers, metallurgists, they all together voted for the Labourites. All these sectors of the working class had experienced the years of depression during pre-war days when the Conservatives were in power. Now they think that the Labour government shall save them from the onslaught of a new depression. Similarly, this fact also requires attention that England has millions of voters who are between 25 and 35 years of age. These voters have never known unemployment, have not experienced on their own skin the effects of lock-outs and have not participated in the demonstrations of the unemployed. Their salaries today are higher than ever earlier. To the same one may add that factually at the moment there is no unemployment in England.

Stalin presses the point:

Comrade Stalin again asks if at present there is no unemployment in England.

Pollitt answers that the general quantity of unemployed in England at the moment consists of 350 thousand, while the unemployed in the main are the old people. The concentration of unemployed has the following distribution: Liverpool – 40 thousand; South Wells – 35 thousand; Scotland – 50 thousand; all these in the main are old people.

Pollitt says that the English workers obsessed by the danger of Conservatives coming to power, do not vote for the Communists as they do not want a division of votes of those candidates who are inclined against the Conservatives. English workers think that there is no sense in voting for the English Communists as the English Communists have no chance of coming to power.

Comrade Stalin says, in any case in the mood of the electorate certain changes are taking place that favour Conservatives.

Pollitt answers, that taking recourse to all sorts of demagogy the Conservatives have organised a strong youth movement.

Comrade Stalin says that certain sections of the English electors have been disillusioned from the Labourites. It is not just chance that the Conservatives got such large number of votes in the last elections.

Pollitt answers that the middle classes have left the Labourites which the Conservatives captured to their side by promising change in a number of limitations including the rationing of benzene. Conservatives were also succeeded in gathering to their side a large number of votes by playing on the mood for peace among the people. As is well known, during the election campaign Churchill made the announcement that in case of the Conservatives being elected he will personally talk to the Soviet leaders. This trick of Churchill put the Labourites in confusion. Bevin very messily replied to this speech of Churchill.

Pollitt said that some workers were influenced by the announcement of the Conservatives that with a more close relationship with the Americans, which they could support after coming to power, the English working class shall be guaranteed against unemployment.

Once again Pollitt avoids explaining why the swing back to the Tories in the 1950 elections. He barely covers the issue of rationing or the growing Cold War hysteria and seems to imply that Labour’s victory in 1945 was due to a swing in favour of Labour amongst the middle classes.

The Cold War was at its height back when Pollitt and Stalin met. People’s democracies had been established in China, north Korea and throughout eastern Europe. In Vietnam a communist-led resistance was fighting to drive the French colonialists out and US-led imperialist was about to plunge the Korean peninsula in flames in an attempt to snuff out the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north. The peoples of the Indian sub-continent had broken the chains of British colonialism and throughout what we would later call the Third World the struggle to smash the European colonial empires was beginning. Though Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito had broken with the Soviets and turned to the West the then massive French and Italian communist parties fired the hope that the march to socialism was at hand in western Europe as well. British communists could be forgiven for thinking that the balance of forces in the world was now irreversibly tilting in favour of the Soviet Union and the new world socialist camp.

But that wasn’t the only agenda behind the BRS. Left social-democratic ideas that had existed within the CPGB from its earliest days clearly came to the fore when the Party’s rules were changed in 1943 following the dissolution of the Communist International.

The 1951 document not only assumes a ‘constitutional’ road but also a ‘peaceful’ road in what it says and more importantly, in what it omits. It downgrades industrial work – where the CPGB did have significant strength – in favour of campaigning in the localities in pursuit of the illusion of winning seats in parliament and by so doing creating an artificial barrier that divided the Party between industrial branches and local and area committees. Contrary to popular myth factory branches were not dissolved throughout the Party though this did occur in some districts. But the role of factory branches was sidelined by the Party’s district committees while national industrial organisation concentrated on developing Party ‘advisory’ committees, which were union based, to concentrate on union election campaigns and developing the broad left movement rather than building the Party at the work-place.

Though the BRS recognised the significance of the Labour Party and the trade union movement it perpetuated the myth that a left social democratic electoral alternative to Labour could succeed while at the same time calling for working-class unity in the fight for social justice and the re-election of a Labour government.

After over half a century of failure it is clear that British Roadism is a road to nowhere. But these myths continue today in the various ‘British Roads’ of the revisionist Communist Party of Britain and amongst the left social-democratic and Trotskyist movements like George Galloway’s Respect, the Socialist Party and the SWP.

These documents from the Soviet archives are important for our understanding of our own communist history and Prof. Singh should be congratulated for making them available to the public. But there is nothing in them that would shake us from our consistent view that the BRS was revisionist from the very beginning.

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