1990s >> 1990 >> no-1026-february-1990

British Left in Disarray

Now that Leninism is stewing in its own ideological juice, and the vanguard parties which bullied workers in the name of “the proletarian dictatorship” are being hissed off the world stage by the workers who detest them, the British Leninists must decide what to do. Apart from a diminishing number of left-wingers within the pro-market Labour Party who have never embraced the Leninist dogma, the vast majority of those on the British Left subscribe to the political ideology of Leninism. They may call themselves Marxist-Leninists, but in practice they stand in the tradition of Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, and not Marx whose ideas Lenin distorted.

As Leninists they believe that the workers cannot understand the case for socialism, but must be led to revolution by politically-conscious cadres. The model for such a revolution is the Bolshevik coup of November 1917 in which a minority party claimed to establish a new social order on behalf of the non-socialist masses. Leninists preach the need for a vanguard party to lead the workers. Such a party must be organised on the basis of the Leninist principle of “democratic centralism” according to which dissent from the decisions of the leadership is an act of betrayal not to be tolerated. The Leninists’ contempt for our ability as workers to emancipate ourselves from capitalism is matched by their opportunist efforts to be wherever the workers are in struggle, constantly aiming to lead such struggles. The Leninists are Generals looking for an army.

In Britain the Generals have always looked rather pathetic and the workers have shown a wise unwillingness to join the Leninist army. After the Bolshevik revolution most of the British Left went over to the side of Bolshevism. They were overwhelmed by the romanticism of the historically absurd claim of a small, secretive party in backward Russia to have established socialism by force of arms. Dazed by the Bolshevik daydream, the parties of the Left swallowed Lenin’s writings as if they were the revolutionary gospel, and formed the Communist Party of Great Britain.

From the outset the CP had as its purpose to repeat in Britain what the Bolsheviks had done in Russia. Without Leninism as a dogma and “Socialist Russia” as a model, the CP had no reason to exist. As Russian state capitalism became more obviously anti-socialist in its nature, so the CP had to twist and distort more and more in order to justify itself. The CPGB of the 1930s was a party committed to the propagation of lies. Purges? But there are no purges, they said. A dictatorship ruled over by the monster Stalin? But Russia is a workers’ dictatorship and Comrade Stalin is the greatest Marxist alive, they solemnly declared. Wage slavery? No, no, the Russian workers are free from capitalist exploitation. Most of them believed that what they were saying was true: some of the more cynical leaders knew they were lying, but “tactics, comrades, tactics!” They were good Leninists, and if lies were required to make workers follow them, then why let mere “bourgeois honesty” stand in the way? After 1945. as the Russian Empire expanded to take in millions of new East European subjects, the British Leninists praised the wonderful lifestyles of the new prisoners of Leninism.

Sixes and Sevens

With the collapse of East European Leninism, what is the British Left to do? It has three basic options. Firstly, it can pretend that nothing has happened and go on supporting the glorious socialist paradise of Russia, even though the rulers of Russia now admit that the paradise stinks of its own failure. Secondly, the Leninists can support reform in Eastern Europe, pretending that this is what had been necessary all along. It can enter into a love affair with perestroika, even though the current reforms embody everything that the Leninists have traditionally regarded as counter-revolution. Thirdly, the Leninist Left can hang up its boots and retire. After all, the Hungarian Communist Party has dissolved itself, and other East European CPs are due to do likewise. The Australian Communist Party, which had 20,000 members in its heydey of the 1940s, has voted by a three to one margin to close down, and in Italy the PCI (the largest in West Europe) is to change its name. The Dutch CP has joined a faction of the Greens.

In Britain there have been moves in all of these directions. The membership of the CPGB was 20,000 in 1980: it is now under 7.000—and those are just book numbers. In 1977 the CPGB split: those who left formed the New Communist Party, committed to uncritical support for the Leninist states, while those remaining began to criticise certain aspects of the Russian Empire, still insisting that it was socialist. These critics—the so-called Eurocommunists—were still committed to the basic Leninist dogma: amongst their leading thinkers was Monty Johnstone who spoke in a debate against the Socialist Party, arguing that Lenin was a good Marxist. The Eurocommunists were used by a new group within the CP, based around the party’s “theoretical journal”, Marxism Today and its editor-cum-guru, Martin Jacques, who wanted to advocate the policies of an important role for the market under “socialism”, electoral pacts with all anti-Thatcher forces and the rejection of any kind of class analysis. It is an irony of CP history that ten years ago Johnstone and those like him were the radical heretics within the CP, fighting against its Stalinist past: now they are the mainstream Leninists, fighting against the total abandonment of anything resembling Leninism by the new Jacques leadership.

In 1988 the CP split again: the Marxism Today loyalists retained control of the CPGB. while some of the old Leninists who could not tolerate the complete rejection of ancient doctrines formed the 1500-strong Communist Party of Britain. So, there are at least three CPs in Britain today: the Jacques-dominated CPGB. the more conventionally Leninist CPB and the incorrigibly Stalinist NCP. At its November 1989 Congress the CPGB did not vote on a motion to wind up the party—although there are plans for a referendum to close it down and form a so-called Socialist Forum which would not be a party and which anyone, including members of other parties such as the Greens, could join. It seems likely that this is what will happen eventually (so the ‘Premature Obituary which the Socialist Standard published last year was not all that premature after all). In the meantime the CPGB has voted to follow the Jacques line of celebrating the downfall of East European “Communism” (as he calls it) and of abandoning Leninist dogma for support for what they call a socialist market economy.

The future of the 200-strong New Communist Party looks very bleak. Its funding came from the traditionally Stalinist Czech Party, which is now fighting for its political life (a fight it will surely lose) and is unlikely to pay for the NCP’s weekly newspaper. So. the last true advocate of unadulterated Stalinism awaits burial. The Communist Party of Britain will either go the same way or will remain a sect in which old Leninists can comfort themselves in seclusion from the rest of the world, endlessly repeating worn-out Leninist cliches to each other in public meetings which the public will regard as a club for those whose time has passed. One thing is for sure: nobody will be persuaded to join political parties which exist to support conceptions of socialism which history has shown to be detested by the workers who were forced to put up with them. A few Leninists will turn their attention to the fantasies of “socialism” in China (until that dam bursts, as it is bound to) or Cuba or Albania (for as long as that lasts). In general, the myth that socialism/communism now exists somewhere is virtually dead.

Left in a Mess

Writing in Marxism Today (a journal which must soon decide to change its name, for it is no longer Marxist even on its own terms). Martin Jacques has stated that the tradition of the Bolshevik revolution, in which Russia stood as a socialist model against the rest of the capitalist world, is no longer relevant:

  That era is at an end. From now on. with gathering pace, there will be an interpenetration of the two systems. The Soviet Union, over time, will acquire markets, international firms will operate there. Soviet tourists will be a common sight in London The international communist movement is now surely at an end. (January 1990).

What Jacques means is that the old division between state and private capitalism is ending. In an Open Letter to Marxism Today, John Lloyd, a member of the Labour Party, writer for the Financial Times and advocate of the Swedish market system, has suggested that Jacques cannot continue to pay lip service to Marxism while rejecting everything that the CP has always meant by the term (New Socialist, January 1990). Lloyd is quite correct: if Jacques is to continue to accept that Leninist ideology is irrelevant and also that class analysis is redundant, then why pose as a Marxist? Why not go the whole way and admit that he and his fellow “communists” are opponents of socialism/ communism and are simply interested in trying to make the capitalist market-system work well? Incidentally, the same question can be put to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Of course, there are still the Trotskyists. These are the Leninists who want it both ways: they hold passionately to the Leninist dogma, which the CPGB has thrown overboard, but whenever the results of Leninism are pointed out to them they cry in unison, “Nothing to do with us. It was all Stalin’s fault”. This is crass historical idealism: as if one man turned Russia from a home of revolutionary socialism into a police state. The fact is that Stalin did nothing that Lenin, the authoritarian statist, had not begun. Furthermore. Trotsky, who was an accomplice of Lenin and was the leader of the massacre of the Krondstadt sailors as well as the advocate of the Bolshevik policy that trade unions must be subservient to the state employers, could not have ruled the Bolshevik dictatorship in any significantly different way from Stalin. At least the now-dying New Communist Party can be credited with defending unto the last the hideous consequences of their Leninist recipe: the Socialist Workers Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party want the recipe to be used, but demand the right to spit out the cake.

All in all, the British Left is in a huge mess. It is a mess of their own design. Ever since the formation of the Communist Party in 1921 the Socialist Party has warned them of the fallacies inherent within the Leninist strategy. In the 1930s our party was called fascist by the CP because we exposed the crimes of Stalin in the pages of this journal. It was official CP policy to break up our meetings. The Leninist Left is now left with a discredited record and no future. Despite our political hostility to them, we are bound to feel some sympathy for those workers who have wasted their lives in a cause which is now so rapidly crumbling before their eyes. Some of the workers who joined the Leninist parties in the early days were conscious of the iniquities of the profit system, often well read in Marx, and frequently active in the fights over wages and conditions which wage slaves must inevitably enter. These were the deluded workers who would talk endlessly about how well-off were workers in Eastern Europe, how rumours of dissent in those countries were mere CIA propaganda and how happy workers would be here if they were governed by a Gierek or a Brezhnev. How utterly mistaken they were; what an immense dis-service to the cause of world socialism they unintentionally caused.

After Leninism

Talk of a crisis of socialist ideas is much in the air. Thatcher, in her New Year message, said that the 1980s had been the decade in which socialism was shown to have failed. What has actually failed is state capitalism and the Leninist illusion that the state can run the profit system in the interest of the class which is exploited for profit. Leninists of all descriptions are in a dizzy crisis, the seeds of which are to be found in the illusory belief that the capitalist revolution in Russia in 1917 led to the establishment of socialism.

As far as real socialists are concerned, we have no awful record of lying and self-deceiving to explain away. Far from suffering from a crisis of ideas, recent events in Eastern Europe have served to clear the air of a number of foolish illusions about “socialist countries” which we have had to waste too much of our time having to expose as false. Indeed, now that the Labour Party has come out in its indisputably capitalist colours and the Kremlin is admitting that its job is to run the market profitably, just like all the rest of the capitalist governments, the task of socialists faces fewer obstacles. We can state the case for a world society without property, classes, states or money and only the most stupid of opponents will be able to tell us that that is what the Labour or Communist parties stand for. More clearly than ever it is apparent that there is only one Socialist Party in Britain. We have always been the only ones to stand for the establishment of a genuinely socialist world community; now we are the only ones to say that that is what we stand for.

Never having been taken in by the dogmas of Leninism or the myth of “socialist nations”, the Socialist Party stands with a reputation which advertises the validity of our principles. Here in the West the profit system wears the mask of freedom. While ambulances are run by cops and soldiers, because the state thinks so little of workers’ health that they would rather let us die than pay the ambulance workers above the rate of inflation; while the monopolised press tells lies with impunity and BBC employees are vetted by MI5 before they are allowed to report the news; while the inner cities fall prey to the Crack Culture and the Arthur Daley business ethics; while kids sleep in cardboard boxes and fifteen million British workers can only exist on state hand-outs; while Thatcher spits out the rhetoric of militaristic jingoism and all parties relegate human needs to the good health of the Stock Exchange, the workers of Eastern Europe are being offered this bogus freedom as a prize for their struggle against their pseudo-Communist masters.

Socialists stand in hostility to the boss class of the West and the East; whether they pretend to dictate on the workers’ behalf or they are undisguised legalised robbers, we are out to end their power, and to expose the ideologies which have allowed them to hold it this long. Socialism is not dead: it has not yet been tried. And now that we can bury not just the corpse of Lenin but the myths of Leninism, it is a great time to be in the struggle for a society freed from the Dictatorship of Capital.

Steve Coleman