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Britain in the 1990s: The Crisis of Socialist Theory and Prospects for the Left

Kate Hudson

From New Interventions, Vol.6 No.2, 1995

This piece was originally written for contacts in Eastern Europe, to summarise developments within the various political tendencies originating in the official Communist tradition in Britain.

FIRST OF all I would like to make a few brief remarks about the general socio-political situation in Britain, because our situation is so different from that of Eastern Europe. It is important to know, in the context of the discussion so far, that Britain has very highly developed social movement, for example, a women’s movement, a movement against racism and anti-Semitism and for black equality, an environmental movement and a movement for homosexual equality. The progressive causes of these social movements have generally been embraced by the communist and Marxist forces in Britain for over a decade. The significance of these movements has been mostly to shift the consciousness of the population as a whole, on these issues. They are not in direct challenge to or confrontation with the state.

This type of resistance or challenge to the state is carried out primarily in the arena of more traditional class politics – in industrial struggle and in other political initiatives and defensive strategies. It is this area of British politics – that of the problems, and the future, of class politics in Britain – that I wish to concentrate.

In recent times, the British government has stumbled from one embarrassing crisis to the next and popular disaffection with the status quo has led to renewed debate on the legitimation of western systems; in this context one might expect a resurgence of militant anti-capitalism. Yet recent events in British politics, like the election to the Labour Party leadership of Tony Blair, and the relaunch of the Trades Union Congress, have confirmed the rightward trend of the broad labour movement. It is clear that now more than ever an incisive anti-capitalist theoretical perspective is needed, which can inform an appropriate and constructive practice: where this is going to come from is not clear.

This theoretical and practical absence is completely intertwined with the decline and demise of the Communist Party, of Great Britain, which was for decades the country’s only real anti-capitalist force. Despite a number of tiny, successor groups which continue to function, the communist movement from the Comintern tradition in Britain is effectively incapable of regeneration. Why is this so? The primary reason is a rigid and inflexible dogmatism. This leads to a failure to constantly reanalyse the contemporary situation from a Marxist perspective, to constantly, reassess and reconsider strategies and tactics to ensure that they are the appropriate means of struggle.

An opportunity was presented to change this tradition in 1956 when Khrushchev released the movement from the straightjacket of Stalin’s "Leninism", but developments of Marxism and Marxist philosophy for the contemporary world were not forthcoming. The CPGB leadership was not prepared to engage in these, and the development of these debates was primarily taken up by the New Left.

The New Left had a major theoretical impact during the 1960s and for the generation influenced by 1968: but the major problem for the New Left lay in this lack of organic relationship to the working class – a relationship which at this time the CPGB still possessed. The new ideas were divorced from the movement they, were presumably intended to serve; and the CPGB was unwilling to take those ideas to the working class – or even seriously to consider them. The implications of this intellectual failure have been terrible for the British labour movement, leading most significantly to a divorce of theory from practice. Developments in Marxism ideas slipped away from the party to the universities; this left economism rampant in the CPGB’s trade union work because party intellectuals failed to apply Marxism theory to the class struggle in Britain or develop Marxism theory in these conditions. In this way, the party confirmed a tendency which already, existed: for the British working class to develop without theory. This set of circumstances is clearly related to the low level of political and social consciousness in the British working class movement today.

So this problem of dogmatism in the past has led to a crisis of socialist theory, but it also still exists to a great extent amongst those post-CPGB groups in Britain today who still consider themselves to be communist. As the party, leadership embraced Eurocommunism in the late 1970s, and moved away from Marxism in the 1980s, ideological divisions led to two extra parties being set up. The New Communist Party was founded in the late 1970s, and the Communist Party of Britain in 1987 around the newspaper the Morning Star.

Both these parties continue to exist, and both retain broadly the same political positions that they had at the time of their foundation, in spite of all the changes in the world. It is estimated that their memberships are in the region of 150 for the NCP and 1,000 for the CPB, although these may be somewhat on the generous side. There has been no change in either grouping as regards the status and operation of democratic centralism. Both consider themselves to be Marxist-Leninist parties, although strictly speaking only the NCP conforms to this description in terms of party theory. Both are enormously rigid in their insistence on retaining their own interpretations of the Marxist-Leninist faith.

These two tiny parties, together with a more informal group called Communist Liaison, continue to promote fairly traditional communist ideals. Possibly the most significant step that they have taken recently is to attempt to begin discussion on communist unity in Britain, with the aim of a united party instead of several smaller groups.

The prospects for the unity initiative are not enormously bright because, although there are almost certainly less than two thousand members involved in these groups, there are some fairly major theoretical differences. The NCP and Communist Liaison are united in supporting the revolutionary overthrow of the state, although they do not agree on everything. Communist Liaison is a much less rigid organisation than the NCP and opposes the NCP’s rehabilitation of Stalin and adulation of the late Kim Il Sung. The CPB opposes this perspective and it makes support for its parliamentary road to socialism programme a precondition for communist unity. Thus it appears that, whilst many of the members already work together amicably within the labour movement, they will not actually see organisational and theoretical unity amongst their own communist organisations. Under such circumstances it seems unlikely that any new injection of Marxist ideas into the British labour movement will come from the remnants of the former communist movement.

The other organisation succeeding the CPGB after its dissolution in 1991 is Democratic Left, which won majority support for its foundation at the last Congress of the CPGB. Because of its rejection of Marxist theory, Democratic Left cannot properly be called an anti-capitalist organisation, but because it mirrors swings to the right in the movement as a whole it is worthy of some consideration.

Following a membership figure in the final year of the CPGB of around 5,000, the Democratic Left had on foundation a membership of around 1,300.

The main political target for Democratic Left is what it considers to be the undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system. This puts it into the political orbit of organisations like Charter 88. DL states that wide coalitions must be established in civil society – even including dissident Tories around some issues – that can push the government onto the defensive.

DL has been sharply critical of what it termed the Labour left’s "inadequate" response to the last General Election defeat: it chastised the so-called "hard left" for rejecting proportional representation, coalition government and other supposedly "democratic initiatives".

The DL has committed itself to achieving consensus, helping to consolidate resistance to the Tory government and developing a credible alternative. But it is clearly attempting to build this alternative outside the parameters of the more traditional left. Articles in their newspaper New Times by leading members of DL have been harshly critical of discussions around eco-socialist realignment held by a broad cross-section of left figures. They have also rejected attempts by Ken Livingstone MP and others, since 1992, to generate a socialist forum embracing left Labour, Marxist and former communist thinkers and activists. This initiative was the closest parallel in Britain to the Hungarian Left Alternative.

It is interesting to note the DL’s response to the last but one Labour leadership election, which resulted in the election of John Smith. The DL criticised Smith for adopting an essentially "statist approach"; instead they supported the approach put forward by the current leader Tony Blair, who was then Labour’s Employment spokesperson, that "neither justice nor empowerment can be fully secured without action by the community".

It is also interesting to observe that Demos, the think-tank founded by former right-wingers in the CPGB, has been developing support and influence for the ideas of "communitarianism": these are very popular in the United States, particularly around the Clinton administration. This perspective is for a new public policy which attempts to give self-help and mutual aid groups a more central role in meeting welfare need, and it is clearly a significant one in the approach of Tony Blair.

Because it shares these views to a great degree, the Democratic Left finds itself at odds with much of the left, which continues to attempt to move the TUC and Labour leadership to the left. A recent example of this conflict was Democratic Left’s support for the participation of the Conservative Employment Minister at the TUC’s Full Employment Conference; his attendance was condemned by most of the left.

It seems clear that Democratic Left has made an irrevocable break, not only with Marxism-Leninism, but also with virtually all traditionally socialist ideas. The national conference in June 1993 confirmed the dominance of the so-called "radical democratic" current within the tiny organisation. The radical democracy concept, as outlined by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, became more and more influential within the CPGB leadership in the late 1980s through its promotion by the journal Marxism Today. It lays great stress on the self-activity of autonomous movements in civil society, but tends to pose this against the need to achieve a government which will tackle the power of capital.

It is unfortunate that, in rejecting many of the worst aspects of the communist tradition, the Democratic Left has also rejected the basic Marxist idea that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable contradiction between capital and labour. This renders it incapable of being a basis for the renewal of the left in Britain.

Any Marxist wanting contemporary analysis and strategy must now realistically look beyond the remnants of the communist movement towards other Marxist currents. In today’s embattled situation in Britain, where hard-won achievements like the welfare state are under major attack, there is much to be said for former communists joining other Marxists both inside and outside the Labour Party to work as broadly as possible in the movement, yet retaining an overall Marxist and anti-capitalist strategy. Whether or not such a left realignment can be achieved depends on setting aside articles of past faiths and facing up to the urgent needs of today. Without such an abandoning of sectarianism and sentimentality by its self-styled vanguard, the British working class will lose everything it has ever won. These are clearly the needs of the British labour movement which, if achieved, can help develop its prospects into the twenty-first century.

We need an open-minded approach to the application of Marxist theory, to our current problems. We need a collective approach to political practice which is non-sectarian and sets aside past hostilities. And we need to recognise that we do not need to have all the details of a strategy for socialism in place before we can work together to fight the attacks of our government on the mass of the people. We have to operate on the basis of the current political reality.

These goals will be difficult to achieve, but they are not impossible, for in spite of the fact that the left in Britain is very divided, we have a reasonably well-organised labour movement which, despite its rightward drift, in parts retains a fairly high degree of class consciousness.

Our major concern must be to ensure that while we rethink socialist strategies we do not withdraw from practical political activity. This is essential, not only because of the actual need of the working class in Britain, but also because our new theories can only be tested and refined in practice.