When Robert Griffths was anti-British road

Here we reprint edited extracts from an important document published in The Leninist (March 20 1987), the forerunner of the Weekly Worker.

These ‘discussion papers’ were the product of, amongst others, Robert Griffiths, who in the mid-1980s played a leading role in the Communist Campaign Group in Wales (CCG de Cymru). The CCG later formed itself into the so-called Communist Party of Britain, which recently elected Griffiths general secretary in place of Mike Hicks. As the ‘South Wales discussion papers’ show, Griffiths was then decidedly opposed to both the British road to socialism and the Alternative Economic Strategy. However, as Jack Conrad explained at the time, his critique was flawed, limited and hence in danger of becoming a mere apologia.

Griffiths’ critique of BRS

Where are the roots of [the] dilution of the Party’s class essence, of the errors on fundamental questions, of the abandonment of Marxist-Leninist principles? What are the factors to be taken into account? Of course, we can go right back to the Party’s foundation in 1920 - but for reasons of space, this inquiry will confine itself here to the outward, visible signs of departure.

The 1935 programme of the Party, For Soviet Britain, mapped out an ‘insurrectionary’ road to socialism in which the Communist Party would lead the working class to state power, to a dictatorship of workers’ and soldiers soviets. Social democracy, as represented by the Labour Party and in the trade unions, would be an obstacle - not an ally - in this process, whether it was of the left or the right. Bourgeois democracy was characterised as a hidden, camouflaged dictatorship of capital over labour, exercised through a state machine that would have to be destroyed during the revolutionary transition. Aspects of this programme are open to criticism, but it did not depart from fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism, although it applied some of these principles in a sectarian and dogmatic way.

Did the popular front strategy adopted by the 7th (1935) Congress of the Communist International (but actually being formulated and implemented a year or two earlier in some countries) break with Marxism-Leninism? Not in principle. The Comintern debates and resolutions sought to apply these principles to the concrete circumstances of the period, notably the rise of fascism and the danger of imperialist world war. Estimating that social democratic workers could turn in droves to communist politics during the struggle against fascism and war, the main Comintern resolution argued that unity with them must not lead to glossing over the fundamental differences between communism and reformism, must not weaken the criticism of social democracy as “the ideology and practice of collaboration with the bourgeoisie”. Nor must the communist parties weaken their own struggle against “the illusion that it is possible to bring about socialism by peaceful, legal methods”. Social democratic workers had to be won to the cause of a single mass working class party, committed to establishing a soviet dictatorship of the proletariat. Rectifying communist errors of ‘left sectarianism’ must not spill over into ‘right opportunism’, when trying to unite the left in defence of bourgeois democratic liberties, against fascism and imperialist war.

.... But Marxism-Leninism runs right though the Draft programme for the Party’s 16th Congress (scheduled for October 1939 but postponed by the outbreak of war to 1943). On reformism and social democracy (of the left as well as the right), on the state, on the need for a dictatorship of the working class and its allies, the programme bases itself clearly on Marxism-Leninism. The CP, it points out, strives to “win the majority of the working class for the aims and principles of communism”. CP affiliation to the Labour Party is seen as part of the struggle to unite the working class movement and create the conditions for winning workers away from Labour reformism. The Draft programme also devotes a large section to British imperialism and its relationship to social democratic reformism.  Yet in February 1939, general secretary Harry Pollitt had called in Defence of the people for “strengthening the Labour Party” and for the election of a (Labour dominated) progressive government. Alongside appeals for popular front unity in pursuit of a limited programme, there was no criticism of reformism as such - only of the right wing leaders of social democracy. Underestimating the political impact of imperialism on the labour movement, disregarding the grip of reformism, Pollitt expressed his supreme confidence in the working class as it is: the only problem was one of giving the right lead. Indeed, so politically strong was the labour movement in his estimation, Liberals and capitalists can serve in a people’s government because we have no need to be afraid of them! Reflections of this emerging poltiical line can be seen in the inner-Party struggle that came into the open in 1939, when Pollitt was compelled to resign amid accusations of taking a social chauvinist position at the outset of the war - only to be reinstated two years later.

The postponed 16th congress in 1943 endorsed the emerging line. It declared that the defeat of fascism would deal such a powerful blow to reaction as to make a peaceful and constitutional road to socialism - through extensive nationalisations - much more possible. The call was issued to strengthen the Labour Party as well as to build a mass Communist Party. But there was no more mention of winning the majority of workers to the aims and principles of communism. The 1939 draft programme was not presented to the congress.

Almost as a footnote to the Report of the 1943 congress is this single sentence on page 55: “The dissolution of the Communist International was reported by the congress”. No debate, no dissent. With this one fell swoop, declared the now-restored general secretary Pollitt, Nazi propaganda about “the hoary old bogey of the menace of Bolshevism” - designed to turn the western allies against the Soviet Union - had been discredited. Dissolving the Comintern “took Hitler’s last trump card right from under his nose”. Within three years, though, the cries about ‘communist fifth columns’ (Winston Churchill) came louder than ever from the imperialist powers; dissolving the Comintern might have served an important short-term purpose, but at what longer-term cost to proletarian internationalism and the world communist movement?

By May 1945, Pollitt declared on behalf of the Party in Answers to questions: “The doom of fascism is settled, and this armed victory of democracy has led to the weakening of reaction in every country … It has also settled the question of future wars. Likewise it has made it doubly difficult for the reactionary capitalist forces, after a war waged with extreme violence to defend democracy, to resort to violence to crush democracy” (Democracy, note - not bourgeois democracy). Together with the new international situation, in particular the victory of the Soviet Union, unity in the British labour movement would make a peaceful transition to socialism more possible than ever. In fact, an even wider national unity was on the cards … “The most important sections of the capitalist class have also an interest in co-operating in all efforts to solve the urgent problems.... Capitalism, in its pre-1939 set-up, had become such a fetter on production that the capitalists themselves find these very fetters a nightmare … Hence there is, up to a point, a common interest between all the progressive sections of the nation, labour and capitalist alike, in finding a common solution.” ....

There would be a peaceful transition to socialism in Britain - with a broad poplar alliance of people who favour social change, led by the working class, defeating any attempts at capitalist sabotage and counterrevolution. The key role in the transformation would be played by a Labour-dominated ‘People’s government’, enacting sweeping changes throughout the state machine, and putting massive measures of ‘socialist’ nationalisation and state control through parliament … “The people of Britain can transform capitalist democracy into a real people’s democracy, transforming parliament, the product of Britain’s historic struggle for democracy, into the democratic instrument of the will of the vast majority of her people” (British road 1952 edition).

No more talk of new organs of workers’ power, of direct democracy, of any British form of the dictatorship of the proletariat - just British special pleading for abandoning the very principle of dictatorship of the proletariat. “Britain’s historic struggle for democracy”! - whose struggle? Against whom?

No distinction - as there had been in the 1939 draft programme - between ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ programmes, between reforms under capitalism and goals which require the overthrow of capitalism. Instead, the British road mashed the two together and proposed an alliance that does not change its basis or its composition according to different stages.

Rightwing Labour leaders were claimed to be the problem in the movement, not social democracy itself, and not the other influences and products of imperialism such as racism, chauvinism and economism. In fact, Britain is not considered so much as a major imperialist Nato power (although independence for the British colonies is demanded) - but as an oppressed nation in need of national independence from US imperialism.

The Communist Party’s role was to be a (very) junior partner in parliament and the ‘people’s government’, the organiser of leading trade union activists, and the supplier of programmes to the labour movement and social democracy. There is no explanation in the British road of why the optimistic forecasts of 1945 had gone so wrong - apart from the treachery of rightwing Labour leaders. Why these leaders in the first place? Why the trust in them? Why was the left unable (or unwilling) to turn the 1945-51 Labour government away from its rightward course?

There was no intense and widescale inner-Party struggle over the adoption in 1951 of the reformist British road to socialism, no revolt of the membership. Why not? Democratic centralism and loyalty and trust in the leadership are some factors; so was the desire for unity in the face of Cold War pressure. But the basis for replacing a revolutionary programme by a reformist one was laid not at the 1951 congress, but as far back as 1943. There had been a huge influx of members from 1936, tens of thousands, many of them out of anti-fascist and pro-Soviet sentiment. At the turning point congress in 1943, 50% of the delegates had joined the Party after June 1938 - and many of them had less than 12 months membership. This was the period when the Party dropped its fundamental criticisms of social democracy, of bourgeois democracy and of illusions about the road to socialism. It was also a period when massive successes were scored in terms of recruitment, influence in the Labour Party and unions, and mass campaigning on a wide range of issues. Why risk driving away potential recruits and offending new allies, why risk a return to ‘sectarian’ isolation, why not postpone the polemics on fundamental differences as the Party grows stronger? Such is the fertile ground for right opportunism, as the Comintern congress had warned. By 1943 most Party members and delegates were not equipped theoretically to detect and challenge a slide towards reformism.

Subsequent failures and decline after 1950 could be wholly attributed to the Cold War, to the post-war boom, consumerism and growing working class prosperity. The pressures were, in fact, building up on the Party to adapt to Cold War propaganda (as it nearly did in 1956 on Hungary), to adjust to an apparent downward trend in class consciousness and militancy. The post-war revival of British imperialism actually strengthened trade union organisation in the short and medium term, because it could afford the concessions that strengthen economism (a narrow trade union obsession with wages and conditions to the detriment of wider political questions and goals). This was reflected in the CP where - aided by the winding down and dilution of Marxist-Leninist political education - the separation between industrial members and ideological activity widened in the 1950s and 1960s. The influx of petty bourgeois elements in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many under the influence of academic Marxism and even Maoist ultra-leftism, uncorrected by Marxist-Leninist politics and discipline, provided the future leadership of the Eurocommunist faction; they swung over to the right, with only their anti-Sovietism remaining constant.

The latest (1977) British road is in one respect an advance on the 1951 edition. Under the impact of communist influenced mass campaigns in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and possibly in recognition of Party failure at parliamentary elections, it advocates mass struggle outside parliament. This is intended as a means of pressure on a left government, and as a means of support for it against counterrevolu-tionary moves - but not as the basis for exercising revolutionary state power. The central role is still to be played by a constitutional parliamentary government, utilising the modestly reformed institutions of the bourgeois state. What is also envisaged in the 1977 programme, however, is not the legislation for socialism in a single parliamentary term - but a series of Labour left governments making deeper and deeper inroads into capitalist power, gradually laying the basis for the construction of socialism. The broad democratic alliance led by the working class that is built up in the course of mass activity is to be aimed explicitly at the capitalist monopolies; in recent years, those communists who uphold this aspect of the British road have been attacked for their ‘narrow and sectarian’ and ‘class reductionist’ interpretation!

Absent from all editions of the British road is any Marxist-Leninist analysis of the bourgeois state, of social democracy, of the leading role of the Communist Party. British imperialism and its impact on the working class movement is played down. Major democratic questions such as women’s liberation, racism and national rights are dealt with in a liberal and non-class way, thereby opening the door to a narrow redefinition and relegation of class struggle. The only path to socialism that is mapped out is a peaceful, gradual and constitutional one, although the need to crush counterrevolution (if it is unconstitutional) is mentioned in vague terms; the necessity for the working class and its allies to create their own organs of state power in order to suppress the capitalist class in the face of near certain subversion and counterrevolution, is unmentioned.

Long running right opportunism has resulted in the Party’s current crisis. In its most modern and degenerate form, Eurocommunism, it now raises the serious possibility of the organisational liquidation of the Communist Party. These words of Lenin’s, written in 1914, should have been heeded:

“Advocacy of class collaboration; abandonment of the idea of socialist revolution and revolutionary methods of struggle; adaptation to bourgeois nationalism; losing sight of the fact that the borderlines of nationality and country are historically transient; making a fetish of bourgeois legality; renunciation of the class viewpoint and the class struggle for fear of repelling the broad masses of the population (meaning the petty bourgeoisie) - such, doubtlessly, are the ideological foundations of opportunism” (The positions and tasks of the Socialist International).

In State and revolution (1917) he attacked:

“The petty bourgeois democrats, those sham socialists who replaced the class struggle by dreams of class harmony, even pictured the socialist transformation in a dreamy fashion - not as the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class, but as the peaceful submission of the minority to the majority which has become aware of its aims. This petty bourgeois utopia, which is inseparable from the idea of the state being above classes, led in practice to the betrayal of the interests of the working classes”.

Lenin went on to point out that “only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat”. Only an organised struggle against the political liquidation of the Communist Party, including an honest inquiry into the early signs of right opportunism, can prevent the organisational liquidation of communism in Britain.

Griffiths’ critique of the alternative economic strategy

This is intended to highlight some aspects of the political strategy set out in the CCG’s second pamphlet, Which way for Labour: a communist perspective for the labour movement (1986), aspects which require discussion and re-appraisal. This opening does not, therefore, provide a balanced assessment of the pamphlet, in that material which is not contentious is referred to only briefly, if at all.

The introduction: The pamphlet opens by stating the seriousness of the situation at present facing the British working class and emphasising that the necessary lead is not being given by the leadership of the Labour Party or the TUC. The reason for the absence of an appropriate political lead from these quarters is explained in terms of the role of the soft left and the Eurocommunists. This is superficial and subjective. There is a key question here - why does the Labour and the TUC leadership behave as it does? - which is never satisfactorily answered in this pamphlet.

Counterposed to the inactivity/collaboration of the Labour and TUC leadership is the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES). Several formulations here are very emphatic and should be noted, because we will have to return to them later. The AES is described as “the movement’s own independent programme for economic advance and for socialism” (p2); abandonment of the AES is equated with “removing socialism from the agenda of struggle” (p3); a direct link is made between “the AES and the struggle for socialism” (p3); it is argued that what is needed is “total commitment to the policies of the AES and to the struggle for socialism” (p3); and it is stated that the purpose of the pamphlet is to enable the case to be made for “the AES and for socialism as the labour movement’s answer to the crisis” (p3).

Chapter 1 - The Tory offensive: The historical introduction to this chapter shows confusion. First it is asserted that capitalism was weaker after the Second World War, then the early post-war years are described as an exceptional period which saw sustained growth in the capitalist economies. This muddle is not important for the purpose of this pamphlet, but it shows that we all need to read some more political economy.

Section 2, emphasising the importance of Britain’s position as an imperialist power, and describing the 1970-74 Heath government - particularly in its first two years - as a predecessor of the Thatcher regime, is one of a number of sections of the pamphlet which make a welcome change from the liberal nonsense current in Marxism Today.

Section 3, on the failure of the Labour government of 1974-79 is also very sound, explaining that: “In essence the class objectives of Labour’s rightwing leadership were fundamentally those of Heath and the Tories”. If this is correct, which it clearly is, shouldn’t it lead us to ask some pretty basic questions about the nature of the Labour Party?

Sections 4 to 7 on Tory strategy, policies and results are useful; but Section 8, however, shows again a tendency to avoid asking unpleasant questions. It opens, in fact, with a crucial question - “What then is the general state of the trade union and labour movement today?” - but no real answer is given and the subject is quickly changed.

Chapter 2 - The AES: Never mind the detail, what is important is the broad political argument. First, it is asserted that the AES “was collectively formulated and developed by the CP in particular, by Labour’s leftwing and eventually by the TUC”, and many of its key proposals, as well as a statement of its overriding objective, were incorporated in Labour’s election manifesto in 1974, but were never implemented by the Labour government. This raises two questions - firstly, is it at all accurate to say that the Labour Party or TUC ever adopted a set of policies which were understood as a socialist orientated AES? Secondly, how is it that the Labour Party when in power regularly performs such a complete about turn that it represents class interests diametrically opposed to those it would, when in opposition, wish us to believe it represents?

Section 2 of chapter 2 expounds the AES in outline. Section 3 asks all the important questions - “Who will pay?” - and argues that the programme can be paid for by cuts in arms expenditure, price controls, investment controls, renationalisations, further nationalisation of key multinational companies, major banks and financial institutions, and of North Sea oil and also advocates planning agreements, capital-export controls, import controls and withdrawal from the EEC.

Two questions arise here. The first results from omission: the internationalist dimension of the AES is referred to only in passing, but no attempt is made to assess the economic returns from British imperialism, or to consider the economic, social and political implications of a non-imperialist economic policy. This is an old fault on the British left, but precisely because it is such a persistent blind spot, attention must be drawn to it. The second question, which concerns the political implications of the proposals outlined above, is the central question which regularly recurs throughout the pamphlet, and which will be returned to.

 Section 4 outlines the nature of the resistance to be expected from the ruling class. The means proposed to counter this are weak. Mention is made of “the widest possible democratic involvement”, but there is no mention of the need to build alternative organs of power.

Democratisation of the media and the civil service is proposed, but there is no mention of what would need to be done with the police or the armed forces. At no point is it made clear that the working class will at some stage need to build its own state, not merely taking over the bourgeois state. Page 19 clouds the issue by talking of the state in non-class terms, and makes purely rhetorical use of the concept of democratic centralism in a passage which links mass extra-parliamentary struggle with the use of a (still capitalist) state by the working class against capital! “Steps must be taken to ensure that the central power of the state is effectively utilised to limit and severely restrict the powers of resistance of the opponents of the AES”. This is hopeless confusion: whose state are we talking about?

Section 5 contains the fundamental confusion as to the nature of the programme being put forward. On page 20 it is asserted first that: “The AES in itself is not a socialist programme … [but it is] the indispensable prerequisite for the advance to socialism”. At the bottom of the same page we read that “the AES directly brings into play the question of state power and the question of its use by the working class … the fight for the AES directly presupposes, and coincides with, the fight for socialism”. So, is the AES a socialist programme or not, and what are the implications, either way? ...

Page 43 outlines the scenario of a Kinnock-led right wing Labour government leading next time around to the return of an even more reactionary Tory government - which is a very realistic assessment. Yet the alternative which we are asked to accept is that Kinnock and Hattersley can be compelled to implement the AES against their own wishes. What sort of a movement will be required to achieve this Herculean feat is left unexplained. In particular, the role of the CP is unexplained. The relevant passage begins by referring to the CP as the think-tank of the left and then tails off into a description of the Party’s present plight.

The pamphlet under review is much clearer about what we are against than about what we are for.... [It] therefore reflects the view that the problems of the Party have arisen during the last five years, and that it is only necessary to revert to the policies of the 1970s for Eurocommunism to be defeated and for everything to be alright. A close examination of this pamphlet, however, should show that it is necessary to discuss another view - namely, that it was precisely the weaknesses and contradictions of the British road....

The central problem is the concept of a new type of Labour government. Both the British road and Which way for Labour? attempt to tell us that the decisive levers of economic power can be taken into public ownership by a Labour government, which will be able to accomplish all this because it does not amount to a socialist programme (!). Then, carried away with enthusiasm by this prospect, they assure us that the AES is a socialist programme after all. In this hazy vision, the role of the Communist Party appears to be little more than a ginger group. Britain must be one of the few countries - if not the only one - where the CP has a programme that relies on a social democratic party to carry through the socialist revolution.

In order to begin sorting out this confusion, it would be useful to broaden the discussion in two ways:

Firstly, by considering the relevant experiences of other communist parties, for example, the French, Greek and Chilean; and indeed the experiences of other Labour and socialist parties - eg the French and Greek socialist parties.

Secondly, by considering the traditional distinction between a minimum and maximum programme and reviewing the British road in this light.

Jack Conrad’s response (extract)

Although the South Wales CCG comrades are critics of the AES and the BRS, they are members of a faction which proclaims itself the true defender of the AES and the BRS. Our South Wales CCGers have therefore not given an inch to reformism, they have given a mile.

The plain truth is that the CCG is one hundred percent reformist. It was formed on the basis of defending the politics of the BRS and AES. This means it is attacking today’s Eurocommunism by defending ten year old Eurocommunism. The current 1978 edition of the BRS was heavily influenced by the ideas of Eurocommunism, as anyone who remembers the debate that raged around the BRS Draft in 1977 will tell you. But even without the specifically Eurocommunist input, the BRS was always thoroughly reformist....

The CCG cannot show us one country where the capitalist crisis has been overcome through an AES or one country where the working class has become the ruling class through a BRS! The reason? No such country exists. So why does the CCG defend such dangerous illusions?

The South Wales CCG comrades do not really ask the question. Surely the CCG’s defence of the Euros’ old AES and BRS must be an example of opportunism. What else is it, an intellectual slip? .... No, quite simply the CCG is opportunist just like Eurocommunism, and opportunism has social origins, it does not result from disturbed brain waves or bad potty training.

As the South Wales CCG know, opportunism is a result of the influence of bourgeois ideas on the working class movement. More than that these bourgeois ideas tie opportunist political trends hand and foot to bourgeois society itself. In other words, the CCG is like the Eurocommunists because it is a bourgeois trend in our communist movement. Do the comrades in the South Wales CCG agree? Perhaps they do, but for the sake of their goal of having ‘influence’ in the CCG they do not say so. If this is so, then they would do well to look at what happened to the leftists who in their search for relevance, have attached themselves to Kinnock and the Labour Party - how leftwing are they now comrades?...

On page seven of the Discussion papers the BRS is rightly said to be “absent” of “any Marxist-Leninist analysis of the bourgeois state, of social democracy, of the leading role of the Communist Party”. Indeed in the BRS “British imperialism and its impact on the working class movement is played down”. And again, according to the Discussion papers, in the BRS we do not have “proletarian internationalism” but “national uniqueness and isolationism”. The AES fares no better. Which way for Labour? - the CCG’s pamphlet defending the AES - is not only slated for not assessing “the economic returns of imperialism” but for “hopeless confusion” (p14).

This is all very well. No genuine communist would disagree. But it only scratches the surface of things. Marxism is about getting below the surface ... While the Discussion papers can trace the origins of today’s sorry state to developments encapsulated in the decisions of Comintern’s 7th (and last) Congress in 1935, ... any relationship between [Harry Pollitt’s] opportunism and the Soviet Union is dismissed with hack phrases about the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, as if it were Hegel’s ‘world spirit’....

Pollitt might have been a most enthusiastic advocate of class collaboration, abandoning revolution and retreating into national narrowness, but he was only carrying out the logic of the 7th Congress. And who can doubt that the CPSU was the guiding force in Comintern. Indeed far from the Soviet Union being the ‘world spirit’, its narrow diplomatic interests opened the door, albeit accidentally, to the Eurocomunist plague we have today....

Communists understand the need for the truth, so let us speak the truth. The CPSU was stunned by the victory of the Nazis in Germany, the ease with which the Communist Party of Germany was crushed and, fearful of German invasion, it discarded all the centrist leftism of the so-called Third Period and with extreme haste tried to align itself with the bourgeois democracies against German redivisionism.

Communists had to be eminently respectable, they had to wave the national flag, show that they and the Soviet Union were safe and would be good allies. As the South Wales CCG illustrates, Harry Pollitt loved it, he was in his element. But the needs of diplomacy change like the wind and with every turn opportunism became ever more intractable, ever more a way of life, ever more revolting.

Communists in the bourgeois democracies first courted the favours of ‘progressive’ imperialist politicians, then after the signing of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact they had to equate these very same politicians with the Nazis and following Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 everything was thrown into reverse. Communists indulged in the most excessive patriotism and class collaborationism for the sake of wartime alliance. Thus the Soviet party leadership not only acquiesced to the growth of opportunism in the world communist movement, it created a Frankenstein’s monster.

As is their way, this is something the South Wales CCGers fight shy of even considering.