Book Review: ‘The Revolutionary Road to Socialism’

‘The Revolutionary Road to Socialism’ by Alex Callinicos, (Socialist Workers Party, Second Edition, February 1986)

Formed in 1951 as the Socialist Review Group, changed in 1960 to the International Socialists, then to the Socialist Workers’ Party in 1977, they claim to represent the revolutionary socialist tradition in Britain. Callinicos says there are two other “socialist traditions” in Britain — Labourism and Stalinism — and that these have proved to be dead ends. That the Labour Party and the Communist Party are dead ends is true enough, but where is the evidence that they were ever socialist? Come to that, on what grounds do the SWP claim to be socialist?

The SWP attempt to justify their insurrectionary politics with the assumption that the Labour Party has sought to establish “socialism” and failed. According to Callinicos:

    “Throughout this century working people in Britain have placed their hopes in the Labour Party as a means through which they could improve their lot and achieve a socialist society.”

Callinicos concludes that, as the Labour Party have failed to establish socialism, this also proves that socialists cannot use parliament. But his assumption is false. What most working people have really done throughout this century is place their hopes in reformist political parties to improve their lot within capitalism. If some left wingers thought that a Labour government implementing reforms (such as nationalisation) would lead to socialism, then they were mistaken. The reality behind the left wing rhetoric is that if some Labour supporters felt betrayed by Labour governments being run by capitalism, then their hopes were misplaced: it is not the case that the Labour Party changed from being something it was never in the first place. In other words, the Labour Party has never had a mandate for socialism and has always been committed to capitalism.

So it is not, as Callinicos claims, that the parliamentary road to socialism has failed; it has never been tried. The sad but indisputable fact is that there has never been more than a small minority of socialists in any country. But Callinicos sees “revolutionary situations” even when the workers themselves do not want it:

    “So, in 1918-19 the Social Democratic Party in Germany, elected by massive workers’ votes, allied themselves with the Imperial General Staff of the army to prevent the workers taking power.”

Callinicos argues that the SWP stand for “socialism from below” and he endorses Marx’s claim that socialism is “the self-emancipation of the working class”; but there is one contradictory qualification — the leading role of the party. This enables Callinicos to maintain that the Russian revolution of 1917 was a revolution for socialism which later degenerated when the revolution failed to spread into the West. But here again, his assumption is false. Whatever the Bolsheviks may have said or done, most of the workers and peasants in Russia wanted peace, bread and land—not socialism. In any case, self-emancipation and leadership contradict each other, and this has caused much Leninist ink to be spilt on the dangers of “substitutionalism” — the party substituting its own wishes for those of the masses because the party knows best. This totalitarian strategy can be avoided if the majority of workers know what they are doing before the socialist revolution takes place, in which case leadership becomes irrelevant.

Above all, the irrelevance of the SWP can be seen in their conception of socialism: “For what is socialism?” asks Callinicos, and he replies:

    “With the frills removed, it is people collectively running society. Instead of being prisoners of anarchic capitalist competition and the mad rush of profit at any cost, it is working together for the common good. Our tremendous co-operative power would be controlled, not by a ruling class in the search for ever greater profits, but democratically and for the fulfilment of human need.”

This is about as sound a definition of socialism as you will get from the SWP but, as with other statements coming from them, extreme caution should be used. Profits will still be made, even if these go only to the state. Profits will still be made because workers will still be paid wages. Workers are exploited through the wages system and the wages system presupposes that the workers do not possess the means of production. Moreover, what would happen of the workers went on strike for higher wages in this “socialist” society, and who would they be striking against? Although the SWP recognise that Russia is state capitalist, it is clear that their conception of “socialism” means state capitalism. There can only be one conclusion. The SWP represent the state capitalist ideology of Leninism and, as such, are yet another dead end for those seeking the revolutionary road to socialism.

Lew Higgins

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