In the middle of the 'Road'
Lawrence Parker reveals new evidence of Stalin's legacy in the post-war CPGB programme
The September 2007 issue of Revolutionary Democracy, an Indian journal working from a ‘Marxist-Leninist’, ‘anti-revisionist’ perspective, has some interesting historical documents revealing Stalin’s involvement in the drafting of Communist Party of Great Britain’s 1951 programme, the British road to socialism (BRS). The publication of these papers, translated from the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History, is a real service and the comrades involved should be congratulated for making them available for the first time.
The documents are accompanied by an introductory article by the journal’s editor, Vijay Singh. While I feel his interpretation is a weak and somewhat desperate attempt to salvage Stalin’s (and the original BRS’s) revolutionary honour, he should at least be praised for tackling a thorny issue (for his political trend at least) head on. In Britain, we have been used to Stalinist trends - from Harpal Brar’s relatively leftist Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) (CPGB-ML) through to the more rightist variants, the New Communist Party (NCP) and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain (CPB) - generally ignoring any contrary evidence that threatens their particular mythologies.
Ray Jones, in a review of the Revolutionary Democracy presentation in the NCP’s New Worker, says: “In the old [CPGB] it was sometimes said that Stalin had approved of the … [BRS] programme - not often and not loudly because the revisionists obviously did not wish to be seen appealing to Stalin and the anti-revisionists did not like to think that Stalin could have approved of the BRS”.1 Or, in Stan Keable’s words: “Revisionism was seen [by CPGB oppositionists] as a British sin against the Soviet god in which we all believed”.2
But, even though the CPGB’s right-opportunist leadership of the 1960s and 1970s was generally unwilling to use Stalin’s legacy (Stalin was, of course, something of an ‘unperson’ in the Soviet Union post-1956), it was, as Jones indicates, quite prepared to make limited use of its inside knowledge of his involvement in the 1951 BRS against revolutionary oppositionists who claimed fealty to Stalin (for example, then general secretary John Gollan in his 1964 pamphlet Which road?). Generally, the CPGB’s anti-revisionists turned a deaf ear to such announcements and only the comrades around The Leninist in the 1980s really faced up to the fact that what Gollan had said was true, putting this in a more general frame of rotten opportunist politics in the CPGB and the Comintern from before World War II.
It might seem bizarre that a revolutionary opposition would have any illusions in Stalin, the architect of ‘socialism in one country’, popular frontism, the sabotaging of the Spanish revolution and the dissolution of the Comintern. However, such illusions had a material base. Imagining that Stalin (and the Soviet bureaucracy in general) was somehow in tune with anti-BRS sentiment could act as political comfort blanket alongside the harsh and isolating reality of inner-party struggle where the leadership held most of the cards. Maoist oppositions, such as the one led by Michael McCreery in 1962-63, were relieved of the onerous task of providing a revolutionary justification for developments in the post-Stalin Soviet Union, but even these groupings were generally in thrall to the record of Stalin himself.
The documents here - letters and minutes of meetings between CPGB general secretary Harry Pollitt and Stalin - kill any lingering doubt around Stalin’s role in the BRS. In a discussion with Pollitt on May 31 1950, Stalin shows himself fully in tune with the reformist and nationalistic ideas distorting the ‘official’ communist movement at the time. For example, Stalin makes it clear that the CPGB should be posing as the saviours of the British nation: “Comrade Stalin said that in their programme the communists of England [sic] should also respond to the accusations that they are trying to destroy Britain. Communists must make it clear that it is not they but the Conservatives and Labourites who are destroying Britain” (p183). This is an uncontroversial statement for the father of ‘socialism in one country’ and leader of the ‘great patriotic war’.
The most contentious part of the BRS for many opponents was its advocacy of a parliamentary road to socialism and its apparent junking of ‘Marxist-Leninist’ texts such as Lenin’s State and revolution. In the previously mentioned discussion, Stalin says: “English [sic] communists are accused in England [sic] that they have put before themselves the aim of establishing soviet power in England. The English communists must respond to this in their programme that they do not want to weaken the parliament, that England shall reach socialism through its own path and not through the path traversed by soviet power, but through a democratic republic that shall be guided not by capitalists but by representatives of people’s power: ie, a coalition of workers, working intelligentsia, lower classes of the cities, as well as farmers. Communists must declare that this power shall act through parliament” (p182). Stalin approves the CPGB’s drafting of these proposals in a letter to Pollitt of September 29 1950 (pp188-189).
In terms of the framing of these revisionist proposals Stalin also offers a rather eclectic mix of criticisms from the left and right. For example, “the Communist Party of England [sic] takes a very soft and completely unprincipled position in the struggle against the Labour Party” - although “in the elections the defeat of the Labour Party should certainly not be permitted” (p181). In a further conversation on the draft BRS with Pollitt on January 5 1951: “He, comrade Stalin, thinks it is necessary to think about … partial compensation for those property holders who shall have a loyal relationship with the people’s government but denying compensation to those owners of nationalised property who shall resist the people’s government” (p194).
How is our old friend, Harpal Brar, theoretical guru of the Stalin Society and the CPGB-ML, and the titanic guiding genius of the magazines Proletarian and Lalkar, going to face up to the news that Stalin was something less than the principled revolutionary that Brar has always painted? After all, an unsigned recent article in Lalkar defined the BRS (with some, although not total, justification) as “the start of the rot that saw a revolutionary party with a proud history sink into a squabble between two opposing groups of revisionists and end in liquidation, as the victorious revisionist group, the Eurocommunists, wound up the party and transformed themselves into the short-lived and never lamented Democratic Left”.3 This is said of a document that Stalin thought had “come up well” in its draft form (p193).
Stupidly, the Lalkar article calls the idea that Stalin had approved the BRS a “fiction”. As ‘proof’ of this assertion it draws attention to Stalin’s apparent differences with the CPGB on the inevitability of further wars and the question of peace. This proves nothing. From the documents presented by Revolutionary Democracy we can see that Stalin did indeed have various differences with the CPGB and criticised it from the left and right. However, all this obscures the fact that Stalin completely approved the CPGB’s line on using parliament (which Lalkar calls “non-violent revolution clap-trap”).
How then can Brar and company explain away Stalin’s revisionism and hold on to the idea of a Stalin as some kind of presiding revolutionary genius? Answer: they can’t, unless they are either incredibly devious or stupid. However, I do have a solution for Brar. He could claim that Trotskyites have infiltrated Marxist-Leninist ranks in India to circulate these obvious forgeries. After all, those counterrevolutionary hyenas certainly get about, don’t they, comrade?
Of course, in and of themselves, tiny and deluded sects such as the CPGB-ML are of little importance. What are more important are the thousands of subjective revolutionaries organised in Maoist or more traditional ‘Marxist-Leninist’ groups across the world. The idea of Stalin as a principled revolutionary tends to be a constituent part of these comrades’ ideology. Thus, it is actually positive for these groups that the archives are opened up and Stalin is thoroughly exposed for what he objectively was: a counterrevolutionary.
Vijay Singh has a slightly, but only slightly, better stab at defending Stalin’s revolutionary honour (pp162-73).4 Singh uncritically reproduces some of the CPGB’s dogma of the time - namely that the BRS “necessarily took into account the new correlation of forces on a world scale”. He adds that the programme “was not one of establishing a soviet socialist Britain but of establishing a people’s democracy in Britain” (p164). Thus it was only “a road to socialism and so it did not envisage the immediate establishment of socialism based on workers’ councils …” (ibid original emphasis).
This misrepresents the various critics of the BRS. Very few, if any, have criticised it on the grounds that it does not envision the “immediate establishment” of socialism; only the most block-headed voluntarist would argue this way. What its critics have argued is that a struggle based on soviets, popular sovereignty, an armed working class, the dispersal of parliament and appropriate doses of revolutionary violence would be a more likely road to socialism. Singh is also suggesting that the parliamentary road to socialism is some kind of prelude to a later stage of soviets and revolutionary violence: but how could this later stage flower (other than by an undemocratic coup), coughed up in an alien class instrument such as a bourgeois parliament?
Singh thinks that the BRS (and Stalin) is saved by the fact that the 1951 and 1952 editions do not refer to “a peaceful transition to socialism” (p164) and that the 1958 (post-Stalin) version was “radically different” because it envisaged a “parliamentary path to socialism without armed conflict” (original emphasis, p171). In actual fact the question of revolutionary violence was fudged in the 1951 version, as Singh is seemingly forced to admit. He says of this version: “The methods whereby the organised working class would counter and defeat the resistance of the capitalists were not spelt out but it may be reasonably supposed that the methods adopted by the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution and the communist and workers’ parties in the revolutionary process in the people’s democracies of eastern and south-eastern Europe and the national liberation war in Greece were not unknown to the CPGB” (p165).
But then this begs the question as to what trajectory the CPGB had generally been on since the 1930s: to the left, centrist zig-zags, or to the right? Only by isolating a programme that fudged the issue of revolutionary violence from the CPGB’s gallop rightwards can Singh’s thesis be made to work. Actually, it can be more “reasonably supposed” that the CPGB leadership would have stood against those willing to organise militias against the class enemy. However, this obscures a broader point.
Singh, despite his criticism of the likes of McCreery for ignoring the differences between the 1951-52 and 1958 versions of the BRS, shares a common theoretical flaw with various ‘anti-revisionist’ factions that developed in the CPGB through the 1960s and 1970s (as well as latter-day groups such as Brar’s CPGB-ML). The nub of the issue in relation to whether the CPGB was ‘revolutionary’ or ‘revisionist’ tended to be boiled down to whether it advocated armed conflict or not. This means that Singh can hail coups such as those undertaken by the ‘official’ communists in eastern Europe after World War II as part of a “revolutionary process”.
Even if the BRS had stridently advocated militant violence and the dispersal of parliament this would not have necessarily made it any more revolutionary. The form that a revolution could take could be violent or peaceful. But what is decisive in either case is the democratic content of that revolution (whether it advances the rule of the class as a whole). To that end it is more crucial that the working class is formed into armed and democratic popular militias than to have a situation in which an unrepresentative minority is prepared to open fire. It is this formalism that ultimately dissolves Singh’s critique and ultimately exposes him as a stereotypical Stalinist.
2. ‘Hidden from history’ Weekly Worker November 22.
4. Singh’s article, ‘The British road to socialism of 1951: a programme of people’s democracy’, can be read on the Revolutionary Democracy website: www.revolutionarydemocracy.org/rdv13n2/brs1951.htm. Copies of Revolutionary Democracy can be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org