Friday, October 10, 2014

Women and socialism (1986)

From the September 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The following is made up of two extracts from the Socialist Party's latest pamphlet which examines women's role in society, the weaknesses of feminist theory and how socialism will be a society without distinction or inequalities based on sex.
From her earliest years the female child is conditioned into a 'feminine' role: she is likely to be dressed in 'pretty' clothes encouraged to play quietly with dolls or to 'help mummy' with the household chores. Her brother, meanwhile, will be dressed in clothes appropriate to the rough-and-tumble games considered normal for little boys; he will be given cars, trains, and other toys that require manual dexterity and technical skills. He will be praised for being clever, brave and strong, his sister for being pretty, good and quiet. These 'masculine' and 'feminine' roles, instilled in early childhood, will then be further reinforced throughout life regardless of whether or not they suit the personality or preferences of the people concerned. Even if in later life there is a conscious attempt to overcome this early conditioning and to break out of the stereotyped roles, it may leave scars: thus the woman who rejects motherhood and hopes instead for a 'career' may feel that she is forced to adopt the 'other', masculine role and become the hard-nosed businesswoman. Likewise, the woman who attempts to combine both full-time paid work and motherhood may feel guilty because she is neglecting her first responsibility to her children. For men too, early socialisation into a 'masculine' role may create difficulties in later life: some men become locked into the 'tough' role. This leaves them incapable of expressing themselves emotionally and fearful of allowing the gentler sides of their characters to emerge in case they are labelled 'soft'. Men generally seek status and a sense of personal fulfilment through their work; as a result, when unemployed, they frequently experience a sense of having failed because they are not fulfilling the role for which they have been psychologically prepared throughout their lives.

As the child progresses through the education system, she or he is exposed to further pressures to conform to stereotyped gender roles. For example, boys are more likely to be encouraged to do sciences and girls to do arts. Boys take more and higher examinations - after all they will, in theory, spend a large part of the rest of their lives in paid employment where qualifications are an important means of 'getting on', i.e. earning more or getting a more interesting job. For girls this is felt to be of less importance since it is still widely believed that most girls will eventually get married, that this will be their 'career' and any paid work they do outside the home will be secondary. Besides, much women's employment is unskilled and low paid and so does not require any formal qualifications.

Adolescence brings with it more pressures to conform to what is considered to be natural. The teenage girl is intent on attracting the opposite sex and learns that to do this she should model herself closely on the image of what is currently deemed to be beautiful – she must be the right size and shape, wear the right clothes and use the right make-up. These images confront the young woman from advertising hoardings and stare up at her from the pages of glossy magazines and from television screens. The message is unambiguous: 'Come on girls, look like us and men will find you irresistible. They'll sweep you off your feet and carry you away to true love and happiness!'

With the approach of adulthood and entry into the labour market, boys and girls are again likely to find their respective opportunities circumscribed. Many young women will go into the 'caring' professions like nursing, teaching and social work. They are well suited for these by virtue of their early social training. Many more women, however, will enter low-paid, unskilled or semi-skilled work in manufacturing and offices. Despite recent Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay legislation a sexual division of labour continues to exist and on the few occasions when that divide is crossed we read about it in the newspapers (the first woman judge, crane driver, astronaut, etc.).

The nature of much women's work - the fact that it is often carried on in isolation from other workers and is subject to interruption for child-bearing - is such that women are frequently not in trade unions and therefore lack the necessary muscle and organisation to enable them to protect their pay and working conditions Many trade unions have been historically reluctant to admit women members or to take action on their behalf. Sexism can still be found within the trade union movement. Also, for many women, to enter the world of trade union activity is to enter a world where it is necessary to be assertive and vociferous, types of behaviour which are not encouraged in women and from which many women shy away.

For the woman worker, marriage and children bring new roles and new problems. Most women continue in paid work out of financial necessity after their marriage and will return to work as soon as it is possible after having children, provided they can find child-minders. But now they have the additional burden of caring for their home and family on top of work outside the home. The domestic chores of childcare, cleaning, cooking and shopping are still generally considered to be the woman's responsibility, even where the man does 'help' around the house. For the woman who does not go out to work, small children are not the most stimulating of companions if they are the only people you see for most of the day. That 'dream house' on a modern housing estate can quickly turn into a nightmarish prison for the young mother who is forced to stay there all day. It is no wonder that so many women prefer the companionship of the factory production line despite the boring nature of the work.

As her family grows, so will the demands made on the woman's emotional and physical energies. Her life is likely to be spent almost entirely in the service of others - employer, husband, children - until in middle-age with the approach of retirement, her children having left home, she is left without a role. Small wonder that some women of this age become depressed unless they are able to pick up the threads of their own lives again or find themselves usefully re-employed looking after their children's children so that their daughters can go out to work. 

Clearly this is only a generalised picture of women's lives today. Not all women experience all these aspects of sexism. But most women have experienced at least some.

Now let us imagine something different. Let us imagine that our children have been born instead into a society where life is not organised around the need to produce goods for profit but where people co-operate freely, irrespective of sex, to produce the things they need in such a way that everyone contributes what she or he is able. In such a society children, both boys and girls, are given adequate opportunities to develop their skills and abilities, whatever these might be, without consideration of what is or is not 'natural'. Thus girls who show an aptitude for, say, metalwork are encouraged in this direction while a boy who shows an interest in the care of young children has the opportunity to participate in that. Education is organised not on the basis of competition and the acquisition of a narrow range of skills of use to the labour-market but rather as a continuing and life-long experience of giving and receiving skills and knowledge which enable people to pursue whatever kind of life they think most likely to result in their own happiness.

Work in this kind of society - socialism - will not be wage-slavery. People will not have to sell their energies to the minority who own the means of production and distribution - the factories, offices, transport systems, shops, etc. - in return for a wage or salary. In socialism - a society based on common ownership - people will co-operate to produce those things which they need as a community- useful things, which will be freely available to all members of society. With the profit motive removed, men and women will be able to choose their work in accordance with their talents, skills and preferences, contributing as much or as little as they feel able. The criterion for choosing one kind of activity rather than another will no longer be which one pays the most, has the best perks, the best prospects for promotion or the most job security. All these considerations will be obsolete in a moneyless socialist world. Work will no longer be the activity we do to obtain the wage packet or salary which enables us to survive.

In socialism women will not be forced to choose between children and paid employment or to work out unhappy compromises between the two. Children will no longer be seen as the sole responsibility of the mother or even of both parents, but of the community as a whole. Women, if they wish, will be relieved of having to care for small children twenty-four hours a day, freeing them to pursue other interests as well as being mothers. Men too, freed from the tyrannical demands of wage-slavery, will be better placed to participate equally in the raising of children. Those men and women who care for children in socialist society will do so because they want to. Socialism will have no need for marriage in the sense of the property relation which, in essence, it is.

Men and women will not be bound together by pre-determined roles and notions of what is or is not 'natural', or out of economic necessity. Rather they will be free to enter into relationships which are suited to the emotional needs of the particular individuals concerned.

In capitalism because of the need for the ruling class to protect its own interests against the opposing interests of the workers, the majority have very little say in the decision-making process - in central government, at local level, or at work. In socialism, however, each individual will be able to participate fully in the making of the decisions which affect their lives. Democracy in socialism will not be the sham that it is in capitalism but a meaningful process which recognises the worth of everyone and through which people will be able to contribute fully to society in accordance with their particular skills, knowledge or experience. And in this women and men will be recognised as equal.

In capitalism the world is divided into nation-states, reflecting the territorial interests of the capitalist class. This is the cause of patriotism, nationalism, and futile wars in which the working class are sent to be killed themselves, or kill other workers in order to protect the interests of their masters. Socialism will be a world-wide system without arbitrary and divisive distinctions between one area of the world and another.

Socialism will include the liberation of women as part of its project of human emancipation. This will not come about in an automatic or inevitable way. A political organisation whose object is socialism cannot permit sexism within its ranks on the grounds that nothing can be done now and that the problem will be resolved 'after the revolution'. For a political organisation to be credible, it must embody the attitudes, values and practices that it seeks to institute in society at large. Socialists believe that all people, men and women, are equally worthy of respect - and the Socialist Party of Great Britain includes in its Declaration of Principles, and has done since 1904, the following clause:
. . as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
Copies of this pamphlet can be obtained from the Literature Department, SPGB, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4. Price 55p post paid. 

Stalin Turns Left (1972)

From the February 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard
The second in our series on the early history and ideas of the British Communist Party.
In 1930 The Communist Party of Great Britain had just entered the period of "independent leadership" in accordance with the tactical turn made by the Communist International. The new tactics involved the end of working within the Labour Party and the trade unions in favour of outright opposition to them. When the change of tactics was being discussed in 1928 and 1929 a majority in the leadership of the British Party was opposed to them, arguing that the time had not yet come to give up work in the Labour Party and the unions.
In 1920 Lenin had argued that the CPGB should try to affiliate to the Labour Party since this was not an orthodox Social Democratic party but rather a federation of workers' political and industrial organisations; as one such organisation the Communist Party had every right to be in the Labour Party without any compromise of principle. In 1922, in accordance with a Comintern decision of the previous December in favour of "united front" tactics, the CPGB raised the slogan of a .'Labour Government' and began to work, as best it could, through the Labour party and the unions to achieve this.
Seeing that they were only a small party this tactic can be said to have been fairly successful. Through the Minority Movement, set up in 1924, they were able to rally any Leftwing trade unionists behind their slogans. In 1925 the British TUC even agreed to establish with the Russian unions an Anglo/Russian Trade Union Committee. The leaders of the Labour Party, however, hit back. The 1924 and 1925 Party Conferences carried a number of anti-Communist motions barring members of the Communist Party from being candidates or even individual members of the Labour Party. Affiliated unions were urged not to include Communists in their delegations to the Labour Party Conference. Some local Labour parties, already under Communist influence, refused to accept these decisions and were disaffiliated. These local parties, together with others still in the Labour Party, were organised by the Communist Party into the National Leftwing Movement.
The Anglo/Russian Trade Union Committee broke up in mutual recriminations after the raid in 1927 on the London offices of the Russian trading firm Arcos. But, through the Minority Movement and the Leftwing Movement the Party was having some success with its tactic of boring from within the reformist organisations.
However, the end of the General Strike and then the Mond-Turner talks on "industrial peace", together with the anti-Communist rulings of the Labour Party, made co-operating with the Labour and TUC leaders unpopular with a section of the CPGB membership. They found a spokesman in R. Palme Dutt, who had been the founder and editor of Labour Monthly, and was one of the CPGB's leading theoreticians. He, with Harry Pollitt, had played a key role in the committee which had recommended major changes in the organisation of the Communist Party, leading in 1922 to the replacing of the old federal structure by one (involving 'cells' and the like) more suited to the CP tactic of boring-from- within and controlling other bodies by secret caucuses. Trotsky, too, who had fallen out of favour in Russia, was criticising the Stalin leadership for relying too much on alliance with people like the Left in the British TUC and not enough on working class militancy. There is evidence that Dutt sympathised with some of Trotsky's criticisms. In any event his Where is Britain Going? was favourably reviewed.
Dutt became the spokesman of those in the Communist Party dissatisfied with the boring-from-within tactic which, in their view, meant that the Party acted merely as a leftwing ginger group for Labour. These critics, mainly among the younger members, were calling for what in Bolshevik terminology was a "left" turn. They wanted the Communist Party to come out in open opposition to the Labour Party.
The Communist Party leaders, and probably a majority of the members, were quite content with the old tactic. Indeed, some of them obviously thought that being a ginger group for Labour was their party's role. Thus, again in Bolshevik terminology, '.opportunist" trends were strong in the British party.
It so happened that the Stalin group was also planning a "Left" turn in 1928, both in its domestic and in its foreign (and so Comintern) policies. In Russia forced collectivisation began. The Comintern changed its tactics. However, as we saw, tactical changes should only take place in Bolshevik theory when the situation changes. Thus the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International in 1928 proclaimed the end of the period of partial capitalist stabilisation which had existed almost continuously from 1921 and the beginning of another "crisis of capitalism". This meant that the old pre-1921 slogans, suited to “revolutionary situations", were brought out again.
Once again the Social Democratic parties were seen as openly counter-revolutionary outfits pledged to help maintain capitalism by confusing workers and diverting their discontent into peaceful reform rather than into civil war and revolution. For this the notorious phrase “social fascists" was coined. But the turn went further than this. Not only were the Social Democrats “social fascists" but the “main blows" ought to be directed against them since they had more influence over the workers than the ordinary fascists. The most dangerous kind of Social Democrat, said the Comintern, were the "Lefts" who mouthed revolutionary phrases to cover up their treacherous role of diverters of the workers' discontent into reformist channels. The ILP in Britain fell into this category and among the first to receive the main blows were Cook and Maxton for their 1928 Manifesto.
Naturally, such a sharp turn caused misgivings amongst those who had joined the Communist Party thinking it was just a part of the Labour Movement. The leadership of the Party tried to resist the change but, once the Comintern had decided, they had to abide by it. Then they tried to interpret it in a not so anti- Labour manner: Did it really mean that Communists in the unions should no longer pay the political levy to the Labour Party? Yes, it did, replied the Comintern. Gradually the leaders of the British party were driven further and further to the left till they had to publicly proclaim before the 1929 election that Labour was "the third capitalist party" and to put up their own candidates in opposition to Labour. This clearly went against the grain for some and the Comintern knew it. They resolved that a new, more reliable leadership was required to carry out the new policy faithfully.
In the British Communist Party there were those who had criticised the old line and were enthusiastically in favour of the changed tactics. It was from their ranks that the new leadership would be drawn. The Tenth Party Congress in January 1929 was the last more or less democratic Communist conference. It elected the same old names to the Central Committee. After pressure from both the Comintern and the Left in the party another Conference was held in Leeds in December of the same year. This time the delegates were given a recommended list to vote for, a list which omitted several of the old leaders. Not all of them were dropped since it was recognised that they had the political experience that would be a valuable aid to the inexperienced new men who were being brought in. The post of Secretary was up-graded so that the man who filled it would be the recognised "Leader" of the Party.
The man chosen by the Comintern was Harry Pollitt. He had all the qualifications: an industrial worker (Pollitt was a boilermaker by trade), with a record of militancy (the Jolly George incident in 1919), reasonably well-known at Labour and TUC Conferences, an experienced party official of many years standing, tough-minded and, finally, thoroughly reliable. Till 1929 the CPGB had had what amounted to a collective leadership. After the Eleventh Congress of December 1929 Pollitt was the recognised Leader with Dutt as his deputy in charge of theory.
The names of Dutt and Pollitt had in fact already been linked in the title of a document calling for and justifying a change to open opposition to Labour. This was the Dutt/Pollitt Thesis, though it was obviously mainly the work of Dutt.
There were two reasons why the Communists had been pro-Labour: (1) Lenin's view on the federal nature of the British Labour Party. (2) A dose of Labour government would rid workers of their reformist illusions.
Dutt, therefore, had to refute both of these. Naturally, he was not going to challenge them head on (though of course he could have said they were mistaken all along). He merely argued that conditions had changed.
First, the Labour Party had changed from a federation of workers' organisations into a disciplined party of the Social Democratic type. Dutt brought forward as evidence the anti-Communist rulings and the con- sequent expulsions and disaffiliations. Thus he was saying here that it was no longer possible for Communists to bore-from-within the Labour Party, at least not very effectively.
Second, the failure of the 1924 Labour government had disillusioned the workers who were now looking for revolutionary leadership. This was a more dubious proposition, but Dutt justified it by reference to the General Strike and, oddly, to falling Labour votes at national and local elections. The Labour Party, the thesis was saying, was finished and on the way out.
We need not say much on the first point except that when after 1935 the Communists returned to the pro- Labour tactic they were quite successful in getting into the Labour Party, the "bans and proscriptions" not- withstanding.
But the second point was patently wrong and could have been seen to be so at the time. Labour was by no means finished (and, if it was, why wait till 1928 to change tactics, why not 1925 or 1926?). Indeed they emerged from the 1929 election as the largest Party (despite Communist opposition) and once again took over the administration of capitalism. This miscalculation meant that, from the viewpoint of Bolshevik tactics, the CPGB zigged while the masses zagged. The "revolutionary vanguard" was moving in the opposite direction to the workers and as a result became “isolated" from them, a terrible fate to befall a Bolshevik party.
Of course, it is not quite correct to say that this was a "miscalculation" for what was happening in Britain was not the only relevant factor for the Communists. What was happening in Russia was just as important and the Stalin government had its reasons for turning to the left-collectivisation, fear of growing hostility towards Russia by other States.
Adam Buick
 Next month: how the Communist Party used revolutionary phrases to disguise its reformist practice.

A Pair of Labour Bleeders (1974)

Book Reviews from the April 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

"The Future of the Left: Lincoln and After," by Dick Taverne. Cape, £2.95 (paperback £1.50).

Dick Taverne's book is divided into sections. The first reads like an adventure story, where our hero comes out on top having conquered the forces of evil (left wing of the Labour Party). The second part presents Taverne's alternative for radical politics in this country, with ideas as new and exciting as egg-and-chips.

Taverne's thesis is that the Labour Party, which according to him has been the only radical alternative since 1929, has become so dominated by its left extremists that those who want to pursue "sensible" policies don't stand a chance. Successive Labour governments fail to deliver the goods for the left wing: "There were very few measures from the 1966 government which they [the left] could regard as socialist." He never tells us what measures would be regarded as socialist; hardly surprising, as he states also that terms like "socialist" and "working class" have "no precise definition". The result is that the militants who tended to be a large section of part workers are disillusioned, the party loses the next election, and Labour-inspired radical change takes a dive.

He then explains his rejection of the left-dominated party machine, and the steps that led to his resignation and his success at a Lincoln bye-election. For his Democratic Labour party he would have preferred the title "Social Democrats", but felt this was inappropriate for Lincoln. His campaign based on "realism" (opportunism?) claims to be for a society of equal rights and equal opportunities. To achieve it he would require a permanent wages policy; allowing people more say in decisions that affect their working lives; forcing the big companies to disclose their affairs; fairer distribution of wealth; fiscal reform including an accessions tax to replace estate duty; and above all his chief love, the continuance of the Common Market. The package can be summed up in his favourite phrase "Social Justice". Heard it before?

The book does spotlight the undemocratic nature of the Labour Party (if it needed showing), the way politicians twist and turn at every corner (for example Wilson's volte-face on the Common Market) , and the fact that "ultra-right" Enoch Powell and "ultra-left" Michael Foot have much in common on major issues. It also shows the author as thoroughly confused about many things, specially economics. For example, he accepts the myth that rising wages cause inflation. The tragedy is that the working class — who, by the way, Mr. Taverne, are the vast majority having to sell their capabilities to live, because they do not own any part of the means of production — are taken in by this sort of confusion.

Taverne's majority at Lincoln shows nothing and leads nowhere. To make any real change the working class must take the problems surrounding them into their own hands, abolish the system of society based on private ownership, and establish Socialism. When that happens, ideas about instituting "Social Justice" will be placed in a Museum of Muddled Thought from this age.
Ronnie Warrington 


"John Strachey", by Hugh Thomas. Eyre Metheun, £4.50.

Strachey was the political Heinz. His range of allegiances and convictions was not far short of fifty-seven varieties; and each one was found tasty by people whose relish for an easy snack is heightened by thinking it a bore to eat more substantially.

From Eton and Oxford, Strachey joined the Labour Party in 1923 and the ILP in 1924, becoming editor of the ILP's Socialist Review and in 1926 editor of the NUM's The Miner. Elected a Labour MP in 1929, he left the Labour Party to help found Oswald Mosely's "New Party" in 1931 but quickly parted company; later the same year he lost his parliamentary seat and was found "drawing towards the communist party". On the advice of Communist leaders he never joined the CP, but from 1932 to 1938 wrote books expounding their theory, including The Nature of Capitalist Crises and The Theory and Practice of Socialism. Mr. Thomas tells us that in these books "the most articulate Marxist spokesman in Britain" received the assistance of Dutt, Pollitt and Emile Burns of the CP.

However, he was "appalled" and "staggered" by the Soviet-German pact in 1939. He sold his £1,000-worth of Russian Five Year Plan bonds (and re-invested in General Motors); in 1940 he published A Programme for Progress — "frankly a 'revisionist' work"; and dissociated himself from the CP. Thereafter, he served in the war and at the end of it was again elected to Parliament for Labour and was a Minister in successive governments.

In 1953 he wrote three articles called "Marxism Revisited" in the New Statesman. These were expanded into another book, Contemporary Capitalism, in which Strachey rejected old errors in favour of new ones. He wrote to Michael Foot in 1958 that he had "reverted to my ancestral tradition of Whiggery". His last change of mind, incurring Gaitskell's disfavour, was over whether or not Britain should enter the Common Market.

Mr. Thomas's biography is interesting and well documented. It ought to provide lessons in several things. One is the perennial weakness of the Left for "intellectuals" and its readiness to attribute depths to whatever they say. Strachey was fundamentally a dilettante, belonging really with his cousin Lytton in the "Bloomsbury set". His radicalism and copious writing were founded on a private income and on entrée to circles where thinking-aloud would be readily, over the port, accepted for print.

The other observations to be made is how unchanged the Left is, despite all the alleged re-thinking and rejection of old Communist stuff. Strachey writing in The Miner in 1926 that "the handful of cruel, stubborn and dull-witted reactionaries, who today have the audacity to claim that they 'own' the great coalfields of Britain, will be deprived of every vestige of the power which they have so terribly abused" — could be any militant broadsheet-writer today. The theory of The Nature of Capitalist Crises, that the capitalist system was being delivered into the "revolutionaries" hands by the law of the falling rate of profit, is now repeated by IS, WRP and the rest. In the 'thirties it was a non-runner by Dutt out of Strachey. They never learn.
Robert Barltrop

"Black Flag": Ignorance & Lies (1973)

From the November 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

The July issue of Black Flag, published by "the Anarchist Black Cross", consists an attack on the Socialist Party of Great Britain headed "SPGB — the Mumpsismus".

The first part of the article jeers at us for "having stood with the same principles since 1905", and claims that the Party was founded in error. The writer with this eye for error has his date wrong; but in the adjoining column an "anarcho-quiz" asks what is the oldest section of "the left" in Britain — and proudly tells us that the anarchist movement goes back to 1850s. Whether anarchist principles have remained the same or shifted about, and how much credit the answer implies, we are not told.

The alleged mistake in the Socialist Party's origins is as follows:
"Socialist prophet Fitzgerald got hold of the works of Marx. But the version he read in English was from the edited translation of Karl Kautsky. Kautsky had rigidly censored Marx and Engels, to conform with the anti-Socialist laws, and also to mould Marxist Social-Democracy, as it had arisen in Germany, into a legalistic form. It was on this censored version that Fitzgerald founded his faith . . . The SPGB took the 'mumpsismus' seriously."
To dispose of this ignorant rubbish, the English translation of Vol. I of Capital appeared in 1887. It was by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, and was edited by Engels. Moore translated the Communist Manifesto for its English appearance in 1888, also edited by Engels. Other major works available in English before 1904 included Engel's Origin of the Family and Marx's Poverty of Philosophy and Critique of Political Economy — none of them edited by Kautsky. It can be added that several of the 142 founders of the Socialist Party (only one of whom was named Fitzgerald) had previously attended classes in Marxian economics given by Aveling.

The reader may wonder where Kautsky entered the picture at all. In 1895 Wilhelm Liebknecht published, not in England but in the German Vorwarts, a cut version of Engel's introduction to Marx's Class Struggles in France; and Engels wrote to Kautsky complaining of it. The first English edition was not till 1936, when Fitzgerald and many of his contemporaries were dead. Thus, the Black Flag writer's statement is a complete fiction.

It would be possible to regard it as a painfully weak venture in the unfamiliar realm of political theory — some boy attempting a man's errand; except that the second part of the article consists of allegations about the lives and motives of Socialist Party members in general. In that light, we have to assume that the writer knows that he has written is untrue. We may also assume that his readers will note the allegations are in lieu of, and show incapacity to give, any answer to the Socialist case.

Marxist Ideas in Britain (1972)

From the January 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard
The first article in our series on the early history and ideas of the British Communist Party. We recall this history not only for its own interest, but because today others are making the same mistakes.
The Russian Revolution had a great impact on the thinking of radically-minded workers everywhere. Very few of those who had opposed the War were not enthusiastically swept off their feet by events in Russia. To them it appeared that in one part of the world capitalist rule had been overthrown in favour of a government committed to introducing Socialism. The Bolsheviks themselves were caught up in this enthusiasm as reflected in the speeches of Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev (who was in charge of the Communist International). They also encouraged it, calling their regime a "Socialist Republic". Many outside of Russia took this further than the Bolsheviks intended and devoted their energies to spreading the good news that Socialism had actually been established in Russia.
What sort of people supported the Bolsheviks and heeded Lenin's call to split the Labour movement and form separate communist parties? Naturally they varied from country to country but nearly all their leaders had been associated either with the Social Democratic or, in a few cases, with the anarcho-syndicalist movements. In Britain they came from the small political parties that claimed to be in the Marxist tradition and from the militant trade unionists who had built up a following as a result of the official unions' war- time "truce" with the government and employers.
Marxism never caught on in Britain in the way it did on the Continent, and to the extent that it did it was recognisably different. Everywhere the Labour movement grew out of the radical wing of the parties supported by the industrialists and petty capitalists. So it is not surprising that its theory and language tended to reflect its background. On the Continent the radicals were anti-clerical and even insurrectionary, so Marxism with its materialist philosophy was not too radical a departure especially when linked with the rising consciousness amongst industrial workers that they ought not to remain the tail-end of their employers' political party. But in Britain the Liberals (and the Radicals) were Nonconformist Christians and believers in peaceful political change, features which were inherited by the Labour movement here. In Britain atheism was not popular amongst the workers; nor were appeals to class interest. The Labour leaders preferred to see Socialism as a question of "morality" and as a "faith", with the result that what passed for theory were the vaguest, sentimental repetitions of the Sermon on the Mount. But even in Britain, and especially London, atheism had a following amongst some Radicals. And where Secularism had been strong there Marxism found a following.
In 1883 a number of working-class Radical clubs in London came together as the Democratic Federation. Later, under the influence of a rich former Tory, H. M. Hyndman, this became the Social Democratic Federation, which proclaimed Socialism as its aim and professed adherence to Marxism. At that time, few of Marx's works had been translated into English and were only available in French or German. As a result those who couldn't read these languages had to rely on those who could for a knowledge of Marx's ideas. Men like Hyndman and the writer and designer William Morris did grasp more or less what Marx was getting at but put it over in a crude form. Hyndman made both Marx's Labour Theory of Value and his Materialist Conception of History much more rigid than in fact they were. In particular he made Socialism appear as the inevitable outcome of a mechanical operation about which human beings could do very little: sooner or later the capitalist economic machine would break down so Socialists must be prepared to take over when it did. This was Morris' view too, though in his writings he also touched on problems like that of Reform and Revolution which Marx did not really have to face.
The SDF took over traditional working-class Radical demands and justified them as "stepping stones" to Socialism. Of course they were nothing of the sort and would not have been out of place in the programme of a radical, non-socialist party. Concern about this was one of the reasons why Morris left the SDF and helped to form the Socialist League. The Socialist League did refuse to advocate reforms though this was often obscured by its general anti-parliamentarism.
At the time of the Chartists a group of London artisans had emphasised the importance of mass understanding and support for change. Secularism, too, with its street-corner propaganda meetings exerted an influence in the same direction of educational rather than reform activity. This was to be an issue which was to split English Social Democracy.
So Marxism in Britain tended to play down the workers' class struggle as the way to Socialism in favour of the mechanical breakdown of capitalism or the equally mechanical build-up of abstract "knowledge".
When towards the end of the century Marxist writings, of a sophisticated kind, became available in English (mainly from America) this contributed towards the dissatisfaction with the SDF's whole policy and structure amongst some of its younger members. The critics were dubbed "impossiblists" by the SDF leaders, a word which conveyed two meanings. One, that they were raising "impossible" demands and, two, that they held it was "impossible" to reform capitalism so as to benefit the workers.
The outcome of what has been called the Impossiblist Revolt was the founding in 1903 of the Socialist Labour Party and in 1904 of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, both of which -though the SLP a little vaguely -opposed the suggestion that a socialist party should have a programme of immediate demands to be achieved within capitalism. Nevertheless, the SDF did continue to attract those who considered themselves Marxists but wanted reforms.
The SLP, destined to supply some of the leading lights of the Communist Party of Great Britain, was based on the ideas of the American party of the same name led by Daniel De Leon. De Leon had been one of the first Social Democrats to come out against a reform programme declaring that a socialist party should concentrate exclusively on achieving Socialism. But he is more well known for his advocacy of "socialist industrial unionism", a hybrid of Social Democracy and syndicalism. He was in favour of setting up separate socialist unions opposed to the "pure and simple" trade unions. In the absence of mass support for Socialist ideas these unions were a failure and De Leon eventually turned to the Industrial Workers of the World. In Britain the SLP did have its own industrial union but this never got off the ground so SLP members, though banned by Party rule from holding union office, worked inside the existing unions. The effect, therefore, of De Leonism was to turn their attention to union work, an alteration that was to bear fruit during the war - but at the expense of their original "impossiblism".
The SPGB was the only party not to be carried away by the Russian revolution, refusing to concede that Socialism was possible in backward Russia or that the Bolsheviks had found a short-cut to Socialism. The SPGB differed from the SLP in not lauding De Leon and in not preaching "socialist industrial unionism". Members of the SPGB were active trade unionists but had no illusions about it. Because our support, small though it was, was built up as support for' Socialism alone we were to emerge from the War (which of course we opposed) and the Russian revolution still basically "impossiblist". The SPGB is important here in that we have been in continuous and active existence, particularly in London, since 1904. We were thus a thorn in the side of the Communist Party's attempts to palm off Bolshevism as Marxism and state capitalist Russia as Socialism. The SPGB's mere existence meant that the Communist Party had to meet the arguments of traditional Marxism.
Meanwhile those workers for whom Marxism had no attraction but who still favoured independent Labour politics had been organising with support many times larger than that of the SDF, SLP, and SPGB combined. In 1893 had been founded in Bradford the Independent Labour Party committed to the vague ethical "socialism" discussed earlier. The ILP was weak where the SDF was strong in London. But under Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald they skilfully used trade union disquiet over certain Court decisions to win support for the idea of a "Labour Party". Their efforts were successful when in 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was set up, a body which, when it had enough MPs, became in 1906 the Labour Party. This was not, and did not claim to be a socialist party. It was basically a trade union parliamentary pressure group. Along with many trade unions the ILP was affiliated to the Labour Party and worked for the election of Labour candidates. The SDF had attended the inaugural conference of the LRC but had later withdrawn. It was not affiliated to the Labour Party but at the same time was not completely opposed to it like the SLP and the SPGB.
The Labour Party presented socialists and Marxists in Britain with a problem: should they oppose or should they work within the Labour Party? As we shall see, this was an issue on which the British Communist Party zigged and zagged. Those who weren't outright against the Labour Party were put in a more difficult position when in 1918 its new constitution committed it to "socialism", albeit of the Fabian variety (and therefore really only state capitalism).
The SDF became the Social Democratic Party in 1908 and in 1911, together with a number of dissident ILP branches and others, became the British Socialist Party, the party which was to supply the bulk of the members of the Communist Party when it was formed. Despite opposition from some of the old SDP members, the BSP soon began to move towards affiliation to the Labour Party. A party referendum in 1913 favoured this and in 1914 the party joined with Labour, leaving only the "impossiblists" and some "industrial unionists" and "syndicalists" opposed.
The poor record of the Labour Party as the mere tail-end of the Liberal majority in the House of Commons (it had to be since most of its MP's had been elected by Liberal votes) helped encourage anti-political and anti-parliamentary ideas in the period of industrial unrest immediately before the war. The subtle difference between the syndicalists and the industrial unionists does not concern us here for on one point they were agreed: that the workers could get more by "direct action" and relying on their own "economic power" than through sending representatives to parliament. It was an argument really not about how to get Socialism but how to get social reforms, though there were those who accepted the full anarcho-syndicalist argument that the way to overthrow capitalism was through a General Strike. Most didn't go this far and thought that Labour MP's could playa subsidiary role in getting reforms.
At this time, with the growth of trade unionism, there was a demand for workers' education to train people to fill the administrative posts in the unions. Ruskin College, Oxford, was originally set up with government support for this purpose but a row soon blew up when the principal wished to teach Marxian economics and sociology alongside the more orthodox versions. He was dismissed and eventually a rival "Labour College" financed mainly by the South Wales miners and the railwaymen was set up. Here a kind of Marxism (in addition to journalism, book-keeping, etc) was taught, but a Marxism tailored to trade unionism. The journal Plebs became the organ of the Labour College movement and its "Marxism".
The way in which this was different from traditional Marxism was in its emphasis on "economic power". Traditional Marxism had pointed out the necessity of winning political power, arguing that when a particular social class had become parasitic it was able to hang on to and preserve its privileges through its control of political power. Thus in effect that class had economic power because it was the ruling class (that is, the class that controlled the State). Labour College Marx- ism reversed this, arguing on the contrary that the capitalist class was the ruling class because it had economic power (of course they genuinely thought this was Marx's view). This was economic determination rather than historical materialism. But it implied that the struggle at the "point of production" was more significant than the political struggle, a doctrine that was attractive for militant trade unionists and in keeping with their anti-parliamentary mood at that time.
This view that the capitalist class rule because they own rather than own because they rule came to be accepted as "Marxism" by the Communist Party, which is not surprising since anti-parliamentarians like the South Wales (formerly Rhonddha) Socialist Society were amongst the founding groups of the British Communist Party. The SWSS also had links with Sylvia Pankhurst's Socialist Workers' Federation, another anti-parliamentary body. In addition, this version of Marxism was attractive to the SLP who were able to use the loose organization of the Labour College movement to get in some of their members as lecturers and to get some of their views published under its auspices.
The SLP arguing for "socialist industrial unions" as the main weapon to overthrow capitalism naturally tended to the view that economic power was more important than political power.
Soon after the war began the trade unions concluded an industrial truce with the employers. How- ever, the war with full employment and speed-up put pressure on the workers and at the same time put them in a strong position to resist it. It was inevitable that the workers would find a way of fighting back, if not through the official unions, then outside them. This is what happened. Unofficial bodies like the Clyde Workers' Committee in which members of the SLP and BSP were prominent took up the struggle. By the end of the war there was a fully-fledged and fairly influential Shop Stewards and Workers Committee Movement. The end of the war and industrial truce, together with growing unemployment, meant that this movement rapidly declined in influence but, before and while it did, its leaders transferred their allegiance to the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Those who supported Lenin in Britain were thus drawn from two groups. First, left wing Social Democrats, mainly from the BSP but with some from the ILP (the pro-war section of the BSP under Hyndman had split off at the beginning of the war) and, second, militant trade unionists and their supporters who regarded the economic struggle as paramount.
The bulk of the members of the CPGB set up in 1920 were from the first group, ex-members of the BSP. The Communist Party thus did not evolve out of the intransigent Marxist trend in English Social Democracy but rather from its pro-reform trend. And the SLP members who went over had already abandoned their Impossiblism, the prisoners of the non-socialist support they had won as prominent labour agitators. But the SPGB was opposed to the CPGB from the start knowing from past experience the reformism of the BSP and its members.
The manoeuvring which eventually led to unity amongst the pro-Bolshevik groups in Britain has been described elsewhere and we need not repeat it here. Suffice it to set out what were the conditions for unity: support for
1. the soviets, or workers' councils, as the way to power and then to control society;
2. the "dictatorship of the proletariat" to crush all opposition to the introduction of Socialism;
3. the Third (Communist) International. This left unsettled two important issues on which the pro-Bolsheviks were divided -the attitude of the new party towards the Labour Party and towards parliament. The BSP had been affiliated to the Labour Party and had always been committed to using parliament to get reforms. The ex-SLP members were opposed to the Labour Party but not to parliamentary action, while the others from the Workers Commit- tees, the SWSS and the SWF were opposed to both the Labour Party and parliament,
As most of the members had come from the BSP a party referendum would have gone in favour of both. But another factor helped secure this result. Lenin favoured it. He argued that the Labour Party was not so much a Social Democratic party as a federation of workers' political and industrial organisations, which the Communist Party ought to join while retaining full freedom of thought and action.
The pro-Labour decision meant (though this is hardly what Lenin intended) that the Communist Party was destined to be the tail-end of the Labour Party, its extreme left wing rather than a Leninist party in its own right. The reformists who had come from the BSP did not appreciate Lenin's subtle pro-Labour arguments. For them this was not just a "tactic"; they remained reformists who really believed that a Labour government was the way to Socialism and would help solve the workers' problems. This reformist trend in the CPGB was strengthened in 1921 when the Communist International adopted the "united front" tactic.
The question of parliamentary action was easily settled: the workers could only win power through the workers’ councils so that the role of parliament could only be subsidiary, a sounding board for revolutionary propaganda.
When the Communist Party applied for affiliation in 1920 the Labour Party turned them down. However, undismayed, the Communists joined local Labour parties and as such were delegates to the Labour conferences, Labour candidates, councillors and even MP's.
As we shall see, except for a few years between 1929 and 1933, it has been Communist policy to work for or within the Labour Party (as far as that party has allowed them). For most of its existence it has thus been a left wing ginger group encouraging, and sharing, illusions about some form of Labour government as the way to Socialism.
Next month: The effect of Stalin’s “left” turn in 1928 on the British party.
Adam Buick