Reform Becomes Revolution

The third in our series on the early history and ideas of the British Communist Party.

European Social Democracy never satisfactorily settled the problem of Reform and Revolution, of whether or not a party aiming at Socialism ought also to campaign for reform of capitalism. They tried to combine the two, having a maximum programme of Socialism and a minimum programme of reforms. This minimum programme was called variously “immediate demands”, “partial demands” and “reforms”. The question the Social Democrats did not face was: did campaigning for reforms hinder the struggle for Socialism? All the evidence seemed to show that it did; that the support for the Social Democratic parties was build up for reforms, not Socialism, so that these parties in effect became the prisoners of their non- socialist supporters and to retain that support were forced to compromise their socialist objective. Social- ism became merely a pious “ultimate” aim which meant, to all intents and purposes, no aim at all. Some observant members of the German Social Democratic Party around the turn of the century saw this and suggested that the party recognise that it was only out for reforms and so should drop its paper commitment to social revolution. This the party refused to do but in August 1914 the weakness of the basis on which it had built its support was exposed to all. It was not a Socialist party but a patriotic democratic reform party.

Once they had got over the initial enthusiasm of a Bolshevik government in Russia, the Communists were going to be faced with the same problem, but their theory left them even worse equipped to deal with it. The Social Democrats at least were committed to majority understanding as a pre-condition of Socialism. The Bolsheviks were not, holding that a skilful leadership using the right slogans could get the workers to rise against capitalist rule. They saw the Reform or Revolution issue as Parliament or Armed Insurrection. But in logic this was not so. Parliament could be used for the one revolutionary purpose of ending capitalism, while mass action and violence could be used to get reforms. An outside observer would not have seen much difference between the “slogans” of the Bolsheviks and the “minimum demands” of the Social Democrats, except perhaps that the Bolsheviks were demanding a lot more. There was a reason for this. The Social Democrats put forward their demands as something practical to be achieved to improve the immediate position of the workers. The Bolsheviks were more concerned with the psychological effect of their slogans. They knowingly put forward extravagant demands in order to teach the workers how little capitalism could offer. They were thus in a basically dishonest position: they told the workers lies in order to get them to struggle for reforms and so learn from their failures that only Socialism was the solution.

The Communists, no matter whether they considered the period revolutionary or not, always demanded reforms. In a revolutionary period the reforms were more extravagant still, but this was because they were “transitional”, i.e., were supposed to lead on directly to the workers’ overthrow of capitalism. The 1929 Programme of the Communist International explains:

“When a revolutionary situation is developing, the Party advances certain transitional slogans and partial demands corresponding to the concrete situation; but these demands and slogans must be bent to the revolutionary aim of capturing power and of overthrowing bourgeois capitalist society. The Party must neither stand aloof from the daily needs of the working class nor confine its activities exclusively to them. The task of the Party is to utilise these minor everyday needs as a starting point from which to lead the working class to the revolutionary struggle for power.”

This is quite frank and clear. It might have been thought that in a revolutionary period the Communists would only demand the maximum, i.e., power for Socialism. But this view, which was argued by a group of Italian Communists who had just been excluded, was specifically repudiated:

“Repudiation of partial demands and transitional slogans ‘on principle’, however, is incompatible with the tactical principles of Communism, for in effect, such repudiation condemns the Party to inaction and isolates it from the masses.”

This is unfair in that Bordiga and his supporters were not advocating inaction but a different type of action. This may well have led to a drop in support for the Communists but that would “merely show that the workers still had reformist illusions. The Comintern’s line amounted to opportunism: if we do not demand reforms we shall lose and not gain the support of the workers.

Thus the Comintern required a cynical attitude of mind of its supporters. While knowing that a reform could not be achieved under capitalism, they had to pretend that it could in order to get workers to fight for it. In fact most Communists were not as cynical as this so that it was a difficult tactic to apply. Either they themselves really believed the reform could be achieved or they did not really try to pretend that it could. No wonder “right opportunism” and “left sectarianism” were frequent Comintern criticisms of its affiliates.

The British Party until 1929 provides a good example of the first deviation. We have seen how many even of the leaders had accepted that the role of the Communist Party was to be a ginger group within the Labour ‘Party, trying to change it into a revolutionary, socialist organisation. When they called for a Labour government, they really meant it and tended to share the illusions of other Labour supporters. This was why they found the 1928 left turn so difficult to accept. Right opportunism was more of a problem than left sectarianism in the British Party because the bulk of its members had come originally from the pro-reform wing of the English Social Democracy (the BSP). Those who opposed Socialists advocating reforms {the SPGB) never joined the Communist Party.

In America it was the other way round: the Party there did not always put its heart into the struggle for partial demands. Listen to Gusev’s complaints at the 12th Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) in September 1932:

“Comrade Bedacht states that in a number of cases he found, that when our comrades spoke in the election campaign, they apologised for the fact that the Party put forward partial demands. They stated, that, of course, they knew that the solution of all problems is revolution, but that the workers do not know this, and therefore we put forward partial demands, although they have absolutely no meaning (laughter). At one meeting where Comrade Bedacht spoke on the question of social insurance, the workers in the hall told him that other Party speakers had informed them that our campaign for social insurance was not serious, that we did not expect to get anything out of it, and we were not worrying much about it, because any concessions would objectively patch up the capitalist system, the workers would be satisfied, and would not want a revolution.”

Of these two deviations that to the left was the more dangerous from the Bolshevik standpoint of trying to lead the masses. It meant less masses to lead or, as they put it, “isolation from the masses”. The Comintern was not unaware of the dangers of right opportunism: particularly that a party might get so engrossed in reform struggles that it might slip out of Comintern control. But since mass influence was their aim this was obviously the direction they would move in, as they did when the tactic of “class against class” was gradually abandoned. Without mass influence parties were less effective as instruments of Russian foreign policy.

So when the Comintern launched the tactic of “independent leadership” this did not mean independent leadership in a direct struggle for Socialism, but independent leadership of the reform struggles that were supposed to lead on to the struggle for Socialism. Their theory of transitional demands involved tricking workers into believing that reforms could be achieved. To do this the Communists had not only to pretend that reforms could be got but also to denounce these who said they could not, those who in fact told the workers what the Communists agreed was the truth. In Britain the ILP served as the whipping boy. The ILP was itself a reformist party and certainly did not repudiate immediate demands but it did include a number of confused, but sincere, people who saw no harm in saying that capitalism could not be reformed and that only Socialism was the answer.

The ILP, or rather some of its leading members, put forward three particular arguments which upset the Communists -the automatic collapse of capitalism, that trade union action could not stop things getting worse and the call for “Socialism in Our Time”. Listen to the way the Communists answered these points.

Pollitt is debating Fenner Brockway in April 1932:

“In the ILP literature today it is possible to find references to the automatic collapse of capitalism. No automatic collapse of capitalism is possible. There will never be a breakdown of capitalism in the sense that every- thing will come right for the workers simply to take the reins of power without mass struggle. Capitalism will find a way out of the crisis unless the workers can fight back and know how to fight back. ..Any talk about the automatic collapse of capitalism, any talk about capitalism having no way out of the crisis, leads to fatalism and disorganising the workers’ fight.”

Pollitt must have hoped that his audience did not remember that this is precisely how the Communists themselves had talked only a few months previously.

In the same debate Pollitt had this to say about a passage in an ILP paper that the striking Lancashire cotton workers should realise “the price of the continuance of capitalism is worsening conditions for the working class. We must go all out for Socialism:

“Such a lead takes the heart out of the textile struggle. For the fight to defend existing conditions is the fight for Socialism. Because it is only in that fight that the workers learn solidarity, increase their political consciousness and discipline and develop a powerful weapon that can hold back the capitalist offensive. ..The ILP tells the textile workers of Lancashire that they will support them through thick and thin, but that the situation is of such a character that it is useless to do anything because Socialism alone is the alternative.”

Actually, the ILP did not say that the trade union struggle was “useless”, but note how Pollitt is forced to repudiate the idea that “Socialism alone is the alternative”.

R. P. Andrews had to do the same in a 1932 introduction to a reprint of The Communist International Answers the ILP (1920) when he asked:

“In the fight for a revolutionary way out of the crisis, why does the ILP leap straight into “socialism in our time” and hide from the workers the necessity of a grim and bitter struggle against the capitalist state?”

These anti-ILP arguments all have the same con- tent. They accuse the ILP, by its talk of “capitalism cannot be reformed” and “socialism is the only way out”, of discouraging the struggle for reforms and the struggle on the economic front, thus undermining the discontent the Communists were trying to exploit. Up till 1932 they maintained that this was a deliberate manoeuvre on the part of the ILP to sabotage the workers’ struggle. For the Comintern had decreed that not only should the “main blows” be aimed against the Social Democrats but that of these the “lefts” were the most dangerous. As Pollitt told Brockway “the chief support of world capitalism today is that of Social Democracy, and the most dangerous part of that is the ILP because of its left wing phrases”. Nevertheless, the Communist criticisms of, for instance, the ILP advice to the Lancashire cotton workers did have a logic in terms of Bolshevik theory. Those who told the truth by pointing out the limitations of trade union action were a nuisance.

L. J. Macfarlane, in his study of the British Communist Party up to 1929, comments on this aspect of Communist theory and practice:

“The workers had to learn through their own experiences that capitalism could not provide them with a tolerable standard of living. Communists needed to campaign around the day-to-day issues and demands of the workers and, through their leadership and example, gain the workers’ confidence. The Communist Party refused to see any contradiction in urging the workers to press for concessions which could not, according to their analysis, ever be granted. This was a parallel contradiction to that involved in calling on them to vote for a Labour government which would betray them. In practice, of course, it was impossible to call on workers to come out on strike in order to learn through defeat the folly of purely industrial action. The Communist Party, therefore, formulated demands based on the expectations of those involved and insisted that those demands could be realized if only they campaigned hard enough for them.

Failure to achieve the aims set in any particular industrial dispute was usually ascribed to the treachery of the official union leaders, the ruthless cunning of the employers or the intervention of the capitalist government, rather than to the underlying economic condition of the industry concerned. The result was that the leading Communists working in the trade unions were supported primarily as militant trade unionists instead of as Communists.” (The Communist Party. Its Origins and Development until 1929, 1966, emphasis added).

In other words, the Communists were supported because they told lies, because they pandered to the illusions of their followers. Macfarlane also hits the nail on the head when he says that even after the expected failure to get a reform or win a strike, the Communists still cannot tell the truth but, in order to retain their support, must think up some other excuse like “betrayal”. The Communists thus played a confusing role but this was a reflection of their own confusion.

Their 1929 programme Class Against Class is a prime example of this. After declaring that “there is no way of escape for the working class of this country from the degradation and oppression now imposed upon it other than by the fundamental revolutionary measures which only a Revolutionary Workers Government can put into life” they go on to outline “the programme of the Revolutionary Workers’ Government” (4 pages) and then “our immediate programme of action” (12 pages). But, apart from the nationalisation without compensation of industry, land and the banks by the Revolutionary Workers’ Government, the two programmes are almost word for word the same -repudiation of the national debt, rent limited to 10 per cent of wages, free medical service, non-contributory health insurance giving equivalent of wages when sick, 7-hour day and 40-hour week, raising the school leaving age to 16, independence for the Empire, publication of secret treaties, etc., etc. One difference is that the Revolutionary Workers’ Government will introduce the 6-hour day for miners, while the capitalist government is only expected to go down to 7 hours, but to provide pension at 55, a promise not made for after the revolution !

But if these are “fundamental revolutionary measures which only a Revolutionary Government can put into life” is it not futile to campaign for some capitalist government to implement them? Is it not absurd to list a number of measures which you say can only be carried out after the overthrow of capitalist rule and then to campaign for their implementation by a capitalist government before it is overthrown? There is an explanation of this, that these immediate demands were really “transitional” designed only to raise revolutionary consciousness. This, in essence, is what the Communists try to say:

“Preparation for the coming of the Revolutionary Workers’ Government is the present work of the Communist Party. It enters this General Election with the object of strengthening the workers to that ultimate end. It puts before the workers the following proposals for an immediate militant working-class policy -not an alternative to the programme which has just been outlined, but a statement of things which the working class demands at once.

Labour reformists claim that the Communist Party is concentrating all attention on distant revolution, whilst they, as practical people, are concentrating on getting something now. This, of course, is nonsense. The struggle for reforms in the present period leads to revolution. The following programme of immediate demands is. therefore, not an alternative to the programme of the Revolutionary Workers’ Government, but the application of its principles to the immediate situation as preparatory measures expressing the needs of the workers, the struggle for which weakens the forces of the capitalist class and strengthens the power of the working class, and prepares it for its greater task of conquering power.”

But this will not do. If their demands are transitional then their Labour critics are right: the Communists are not concerned with getting something now (since transitional demands are not supposed to be able to put into practice under capitalism). On the other hand, if these are not transitional demands then they are an alternative to the “ultimate end”. The basic confusion arises because the Communists probably felt that some of these reforms could be achieved under capitalism (as indeed some could and have been) but had to justify campaigning for them in revolutionary terms. They were ordinary reforms but had to be labelled “transitional” because there was supposed to be a revolutionary period. Note the old Social Democratic dichotomy between “ultimate end” and “immediate demands”.

Speaking “r-r-revolutionary” but acting as a reform party is about all the Comintern’s left turn amounted to. The Communists were guilty of the charge they levelled at the ILP (and other “left Social Democrats”): they were revolutionary phrase-mongers side-tracking the direct struggle for Socialism into reform struggles.

Their phrase-mongering drew not only on Socialist but also on old Radical sources. When in 1931 the National government abandoned free trade and went over to protection, the Communists raised the slogan of “No Taxes on the People’s Food”, a slogan which nearly a hundred years previously Cobden and Bright had used to trick workers into backing the capitalists’ demand for Repeal of the Corn Laws so as to pay lower wages and which the demagogue Lloyd George had used to win support for the Liberals against Tory plans for tariff reform twenty-five years before. The Communists, too, were playing the demagogue and it is a measure of their lack of revolutionary intent that they revived this hoary old anti-working class slogan in a bid to gain a mass following.

Brian Pearce has pointed out how when in 1926 the CPGB brought out its own edition of Trotsky’s Where is Britain Going? they omitted the word “revolutionary” :

“It omitted the preface specially written by Trotsky for the American edition in May 1925, which included these words: ‘The inference to which I am led by my study is that Britain is heading rapidly towards an era of great revolutionary upheavals’; and, though giving the bulk of the introduction written in May 1926 for the second German edition, it omitted the word ‘revolutionary’ from the phrase ‘the revolutionary prediction for the immediate future of British Imperialism made in this book’ and also an entire paragraph which included these words: ‘The most important task for the truly revolutionary participants in the General Strike will be to fight relentlessly against every sign or act of treachery, and ruthlessly to expose reformist illusions’.” (Early History of the Communist Party of Great Britain. p.59).

This was in line with the Comintern’s then assessment of the situation as non-revolutionary. After 1928, on the other hand, the word “revolutionary” was back in favour. Instead of an ordinary Labour government there was to be a revolutionary workers’ government. The Communists began to refer to themselves as the revolutionary Communist Party. Ordinary reform and trade union activity became “revolutionary mass work”. There was a revolutionary trade union opposition to the bureaucrats.

So, when is there a revolutionary situation? Answer: When we say there is. And what do you do in such a situation? Answer: we call our reform and trade union activity revolutionary.

This is no exaggeration for the Communists always held that “the struggle for reforms in the present period leads to revolution”, however they assessed the period. They argued this before 1928 and they argued it ten years later, when they wanted a Popular Front government. The fact is that they were essentially reformers justifying their reform work in terms of Bolshevik metaphysics. If, in accordance with the Marxist method, we judge the Communists by what they do rather than by what they say, they stand exposed as hypocritical reformists mouthing revolutionary phrases.


Next month: the Communist Party retreats from “sectarianism”.

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