Reform or revolution?

CONVINCING workers in Britain that a revolution against the capitalist state is necessary has always been an uphill struggle. Indeed it is hard anywhere; workers always prefer peace and peaceful ways of doing things. But the long history of the British labour and trade union movement — which begins long before Marx and Engels published their analysis of the class struggle — means that it was created predominantly as a reformist movement with a goal of gradually reforming capitalism into socialism.

Britain’s bourgeois revolution, from 1642 to 1649 removed feudal restrictions on finance and trade. A counter-revolution in 1660 led eventually to a compromise between the aristocracy and budding capitalism that allowed them both to exploit to the full the slave trade and sugar trade and allowed the accumulation of massive fortunes by the great Whig families. It enabled investment in huge projects: mining, canals and iron production and later industrialised production of cloth and other commodities — and equipped the Royal Navy to protect trade routes and wipe out rivals.

This kicked off the industrial revolution and created the proletariat in Britain. The new class had no land rights — it had no way to feed itself except by selling its labour power and no right to a home without paying rent. The history of our dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has always hinged on land rights, which have divided the haves from the have-nots.

Our ancestors were very vulnerable to the new economic cycles of boom, over-production and depression and started to organise themselves long before the class forces at work were properly understood. Reformers like Robert Owen tried to humanise industrial production but failed. Capitalist investment always chases the most profitable enterprises and the needs and interests of the workers do not enter the consciousness of the investors.

But improvements have been wrung out of the system through working class organisation in trade unions — giving rise to the myth that this path could eventually lead to a workers’ democracy. Marx and Engels introduced a revolutionary perspective through the International Working Men’s Association in 1864 but it remained a minority within the mainstream reformist labour movement.

The 1917 Great October Revolution had a massive impact all around the world. It was followed by the creation of Marxist-Leninist communist parties in most nations including Britain. But even then, the founding parties that came together to create the Communist Party of Great Britain still contained a strong reformist trend.

This trend was in abeyance for a couple of decades as the Soviet Union grew in strength and gave leadership to the world movement through the Comintern. That ended at the start of the Second World War when the Comintern was suspended during the alliance with capitalist nations.

Immediately after the war thousands flocked to join communist parties out of admiration for the Soviet Union. In Britain this strengthened reformism within the CPGB and this trend soon dominated the party.

It was a time when social reform was leaping forward: our state welfare system came into being, healthcare became free, millions of council homes were being built, wages and living standards were rising and the road to socialism through the existing state seemed possible. Even Stalin backed the new British Road to Socialism which focussed political activity on winning seats in Parliament for communists and left labour candidates.

We can see now this was a glaring error. Since then the ruling class has chained our trade unions and is now taking back all those concessions and we are nearly back where we started, with no rights, even to sleep under a roof at night without paying rents that are soaring beyond our reach, while wages fall.

History is vindicating the revolutionary trend in the British labour movement but the media have mocked and trivialised revolutionism and many of those who need it most are discouraged from even thinking about it. This is where the anarchist TV personality Russell Brand is doing us a favour — he is raising the issue and trying to get it debated.

He is mistaken in telling people not to vote at all but he is right that we will not improve anything by voting alone. We need to take him up in this debate, to point out the lessons of history: that workers need solidarity, organisation and self-discipline if they are to survive challenging the ruling class and to succeed in overthrowing it.