Communists and the coming UK General Election

What position should socialists/communists((

I regard the words ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ from the point of view of Marxism as meaning the same thing, that is, those who struggle for a new form of society which supersedes capitalism, that is ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’. Again, ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ mean the same thing, the new society in which capitalist exploitation will no longer exist, classes will have disappeared, along with the state. All the wealth of society will be owned in common, by all, and production will be decided democratically by all.

In the interests of brevity and ease of reading I will no longer use both terms – socialism/communism, socialist/communist – as it is unwieldy and interrupts the flow of the text. I will use the terms communism and communist, while accepting that others will use the terms socialism and socialist to mean the same thing. My explanation of what socialism (communism) means can be found in my article, “What is Socialism?

)) take in respect of the forthcoming general election in Britain? Which candidates should we support, if any? What should we say? What should we do?

In order to answer these questions it is necessary to remind ourselves of what we, as communists, are trying to achieve. What is our strategic objective? Only then can we begin to consider what we should do in order to achieve that objective.

Communists aim to abolish capitalism, not to manage it. Communists have a fundamentally different objective from social democrats.

Our ultimate goal

Our aim is communism: a society in which capitalism has been abolished, without the exploitation of labour to create profit for the capitalist class. It will be a society in which classes have disappeared, for there will be no minority class of owners. All the wealth of society, the land and the minerals in it, the trees, plants and crops upon it, the seas and rivers, the factories, transport, and all science and technology – the means of production – will be owned in common – that is, by everyone.

The aphorism of Karl Marx will apply, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”((See Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme)) Everyone will contribute to the best of their ability. And everyone will receive what they need. Unfettered by the limitations imposed by the private ownership of the means of production, the nation state, and production only for profit, it will be a society of abundance, able to meet the needs of all. Everyone will have a say in how that wealth is nurtured and managed, and production will be planned to meet the needs of all. There will be no oppressive state. There will simply be the democratic administration of production and distribution.

To achieve this will first of all require the working class – the majority in society, the majority class in the world – to come to power, to fundamentally change the existing state of affairs in which the minority, owning, capitalist class rules.

The democracy we currently have is not genuine democracy; the state we currently have is not genuinely democratic. Real power lies not in parliament but with the billionaire-millionaire class which owns the world’s capitalist companies and financial institutions, and with the undemocratic, unaccountable, capitalist ‘market’ which it uses to hide behind, to obscure its acts of exploitation and manipulation of the economy for profit – as if it is nothing to do with them. The capitalist class will not hesitate to use this ‘market’, which is made up of institutions and individuals who act on behalf of the capitalist class, to bring down any government that threatens its interests, as we saw, paradoxically, by the revolt of the ‘market’ against Liz Truss’s mini- budget which brought her term of office as Prime Minister to an end after only 45 days. (We can observe in passing that the ruling class itself is divided between various factions – financial, industrial, national – over how to confront the various international economic and political crises it faces.)

If the international capitalist finance and banking class can do that to a right-wing Tory, what will they do to any left-wing Prime Minister who has not prepared the working class majority to resist such machinations? We see the imposition of austerity measures by the International Monetary Fund on any country requiring loans. We saw the destruction of the mildly reformist Jeremy Corbyn before he got anywhere near Downing Street; we saw the treatment of the Syriza government in Greece by the European troika. Albeit in different circumstances, on both occasions the ‘socialist’ left capitulated, rather than mobilising the mass support behind it to defeat those attacks.

The working class in power

The working class has no control over any significant aspect of society – not the press, not education, not the legal system, not the army or the police, and certainly not big business and the financial sector. The working class is excluded from power. The working class has no real power over what happens in Parliament either. It can vote for a different candidate once every five years but the power of the capitalist class, through its ownership of business and finance, its media, its lobbying, its bribery and corruption of politicians, and through the capitalist state, of which parliament is part, with its secret services, the senior civil service, the judiciary, police and army, remains the same. Even the limited democracy of parliament is continually undermined by Cabinet and Prime Ministerial dictat, with decisions about bombing campaigns, for example, being taken without the approval of parliament.

The working class must come to power to change all this, to replace the existing state institutions with genuinely democratic ones. From top to bottom, the old regime must be turned upside down to give voice and power to the majority. This must entail the extension of democracy fully into all aspects of society, including the economy – abolishing the private ownership of the means of production and establishing common ownership under the democratic control of its collective owners. It means the expropriation of the ruling class and turning that private property into the property of all.

Proclaiming our programme

Communists seek to advance their cause by through working-class struggle, inside the trade unions and other working-class organisations, and in working-class communities, through the dissemination of communist arguments and agitation, and by making communist ideas popular in the working class and labour movement, and in broader society. Young people, especially, need to be won to the struggle for a new society in which they can flourish and develop, to achieve what their parents have been prevented from achieving by this present society.

Communists should also use elections, especially to parliament, to bring our programme to a wider audience.

Unless and until socialist/communist ideas become the predominant ideas of the working class, we will not be able to achieve our objective. Class oppression will continue; poverty will persist; inequality will widen; reforms and rights achieved by past struggles will be eroded; climate catastrophe will loom ever closer. A mass struggle for the ending of this system is vital.

Communist ideas have been pushed back in recent decades. They are advocated by fewer people than in the past. The ideas have been discredited by the experience of the Soviet Union and similar states, distorted by our class enemies but also undermined by some who call themselves communist or socialist today. Communism has nothing to do with the Soviet Union and its satellite states. It has nothing to do with present day China or the billionaire dominated capitalist Communist Party of China. Communism is completely democratic, or it is not communism.

There are ‘communists’ who defend Stalin, and who defend the pernicious idea of ‘socialism in one country’, or the ‘national road to socialism’, which is the complete opposite of genuine communism. Our struggle is international. There are ‘socialists’ who don’t argue for the abolition of capitalism. They appear to think that it can co-exist with capitalism. It can’t.

The Labour Party claims to be a ‘democratic socialist’ party, yet its programme under Starmer is indistinguishable from Sunak’s Conservative government. Even the ‘left’ of the Labour party and the trade unions, represented by Jeremy Corbyn and his co-thinkers, does not argue for an end to capitalism.

Reforming capitalism or replacing it

The programme of Jeremy Corbyn, when leader of the Labour Party, did not call for the abolition of capitalism. It sought to achieve some reforms within the capitalist system, not to change it fundamentally. Under Corbyn’s programme workers would still be exploited for profit. The rich would still be there, only taxed a little bit more. Nothing fundamentally would be different. Capitalism would still exist. It would be the same dog’s dinner, served with a sprig of parsley on top.

Corbyn’s programme might be described as a mildly social-democratic one, not ‘socialist’ at all. In fact, his mild social-democratic programme is essentially a left-wing version of liberalism, an ideology that doesn’t like the consequences of capitalism – war, poverty, inequality – but will do nothing to challenge the private ownership of the means of production which causes them. Partial nationalisation does not equal socialism. The main power in society would remain in the hands of the capitalist ruling class. The state would remain unchanged. The working class would remain excluded from power. However well-meaning, Corbynism is simply a programme to manage capitalism, not to replace it. Communists can never be content with that. Our aims are completely different.

Since Corbyn resigned as Labour Party leader and was replaced by Keir Starmer, many of his supporters, now outside the party, have been seeking to build support for his mildly reformist programme. Corbyn, so far at least, has refrained from calling his supporters to rally to his cause in a new party. There’s no doubt that were he to do so he would be able to rally tens, if not hundreds of thousands. It would be a significant political development.

But what would be its programme? It would be the same mild programme for managing capitalism, not for replacing it. Corbyn has his own non-party project called The Peace & Justice Project. Its five key demands are: A real pay rise for all; a green new deal; housing for the many; tax the rich to save the NHS; welcome refugees and a world free from war.
These are worthy demands. But worthiness won’t bring them into existence.

Nowhere does the website explain why we have poverty wages, homelessness, or attacks on the NHS . Nowhere is capitalism analysed, criticised, or attacked. In the section on the NHS, the website states, “The government says there’s no more money for our NHS – but they’re wrong. We can give our public services the money they need by introducing a wealth tax, raising income tax on the top 5% of earners and making corporations pay their fair share.” This is not a call to get rid of the capitalist corporations that squeeze profit out of the sweat of their workers, but simply to make them pay their ‘fair share’. What level of profit is ‘fair’? We need a programme to eradicate the profit system, so that the product of people’s labour is owned collectively by all, not by a few super-rich capitalists.

Any party that is built around this sort of programme is a party that accepts the continuation of capitalism, and therefore all of the inevitable consequences of capitalism: poverty, inequality, refugees fleeing destitution, oppression and war.

The Peace & Justice Project wants a world free from war. Don’t we all? But how are we going to get it if we allow the violently competitive rivalry of capitalism to continue. Under capitalism, wars are inevitable. Capitalism means war. If we want a world free from war, we have to fight for a world free from capitalism. Wars take place primarily because of the competition between rival national capitalist classes over the extraction of profit, over the control of markets or access to them. The profit system means war.

Rochdale

In the recent Rochdale by-election we saw the victory of George Galloway, standing for his Workers Party of Britain (WPB), winning on the back of a strident campaign against the murderous Israeli war on Gaza, with more than 30,000 Palestinians killed by the indiscriminate bombing and land assaults, the majority of them women and children. It resonated because any person with a drop of humanity would support the call for a ceasefire and be aghast and angry at Keir Starmer and those Labour MPs who have opposed it.

Galloway will make his significant presence felt in parliament and will use his position there to promote his arguments more broadly. He will stir things up, making things difficult for Starmer and his careerist, supine acolytes. His interventions will no doubt inspire anti-war protesters across the country and beyond to put themselves forwards as candidates in the general election.

Yet there is no prospect of any democratic, socialist organisation developing around Galloway. He is a brilliant and powerful orator. But he is a law unto himself. He is not one to be bound by the democratic decisions of any party, not even one he has created. He will be accountable to no-one. He will do his own thing, including continuing to promote his weirdly eclectic programme of very minor social-democratic reforms with a conservative populist nationalism.

In addition to highlighting the Israeli war on Gaza, the programme Galloway put forward in Rochdale included getting a maternity ward back in Rochdale –  something that almost everyone would support – a call to re-open the indoor market, a promise to organise a consortium to save Rochdale Football Club, and a plan to clean up the Town Hall. One of his campaign slogans was the very Trumpian ‘Make Rochdale great again’. None of these local reforms provide any solution to the long-term problems crises faced by the working class, from the cost of living crisis to impending climate catastrophe.

One letter that has circulated on social media, said to be one that Galloway’s campaign sent out to voters, contains the nationalistic ‘I believe in Britain’, along with ‘I believe in family’, ‘I believe in law and order’, and ‘I believe in small business’ – demands straight out of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative playbook. Galloway is a big fan of the Soviet Union, and Winston Churchill, and is no friend of the genuine Marxist left, or of radical trade unionists. The programme of his WPB appears to question climate change, and panders to anti-immigration sentiment.

He opportunistically appeals to Muslims as Muslims, rather than as workers. Communists oppose all forms of racism, including Islamophobia, which blames all Muslims for reactionary acts of terrorism carried out by various Islamist political groups. It is similar to blaming all Jews for the actions of the Israeli state – a form of antisemitism.

Communists defend the freedom of all to practise their religion of choice. But there is a danger in appealing to adherents of any religious faith for political support on the basis of their shared faith. It ignores class differences, obscuring the different interests of rich and poor believers. Their faith may be all they share, and even in terms of their religious beliefs each person will interpret them differently according to their own circumstances, especially in terms of class. It gives undue and undeserved prominence to the views of religious leaders, whereas communists seek to emphasise the importance of workers thinking independently for themselves as a class.

The political outlook of a rich business-owning Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Christian will seldom be the same as a Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Christian worker. It also has the danger of reinforcing differences between workers on the basis of their religion – as we have seen on many occasions, Protestant and Catholics, Hindus and Muslims  – driving them apart, whereas communists seek to forge a common bond of class solidarity between workers of all faiths and those with none.

There is no single Muslim community, with one shared point of view, any more than there is one single Jewish community with a shared point of view. There are class divisions, between workers and bosses. While Muslims may feel a greater empathy for the plight of co-religionists in Gaza, it is opportunist and condescending to appeal to them as one homogeneous block. Would Muslim voters be less concerned if the victims of mass murder were Jewish or Christian or not religious at all? Similarly, it is insulting to non-Muslims to imply that they would be less concerned about the plight of the Palestinian population of Gaza than Muslims. The population of Gaza will include devout Muslims, not so-devout Muslims, non-Muslims, as well as Christians and atheists, who are all suffering. And one doesn’t have to be a Muslim to oppose what is being done to Gaza.

When Chris Williamson, the former Labour Party MP who was wrongly blocked from standing again for election and who is now the deputy leader of the WPB, was asked whether he would repudiate the support for Galloway’s candidacy in Rochdale from fascist Nick Griffin, he refrained from doing so. This failure to distance Galloway and the WPB from any fascist endorsement is the worst sort of parliamentary opportunism – not wanting to lose votes, even when they come from quarters hostile to the labour movement.

While we can welcome his victory as a punch in the face of the pro-imperialist, pro-Israeli war on Gaza, it is vital that we do not allow his patriotic chauvinism and socially conservative attitudes to find support within the workers’ movement. Even his position on the war on Gaza offers no socialist/communist solution to the crisis in the middle east, which can only be resolved by the working class of the region combining to overthrow not only Zionism but the various corrupt dictators and tyrants of the Arab world.

Workers should dispel any and all illusions that he or his party could be a step towards providing any solution to the multiple crises hitting the working class.

Left challenge

Is there going to be a wider challenge from the anti-war and socialist left at the general election? Galloway’s WPB has declared that it will stand 50 candidates. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which seeks to coordinate a disparate anti-austerity opposition, seeks to stand at least the 98 candidates required to get it a television election broadcast.

Last weekend we saw the announcement of another electoral challenge. Andrew Feinstein, a former African National Congress (ANC) activist and MP in the post-apartheid South African parliament, and anti-arms trade campaigner, is to challenge Labour leader Keir Starmer in his London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. Feinstein and others who share the political positions of former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn have announced the creation of ‘Collective’. Its website announces that it is “time to start building a mass movement that will eventually transform into a new political party, one that can take on both the Tory-Labour establishment and our rigged political system to restore democracy and hope for all.” (One wonders when we ever had the democracy that it wants to restore.) It has adopted the five demands of the Peace & Justice Project. It has all the hallmarks of Corbynism without, at least for the time being, Corbyn.

Galloway has now called for an alliance between him and Jeremy Corbyn, calling on Corbyn to lead that alliance. So far, Corbyn has shown no indication that he wants to create a new party, with or without Galloway. He has wasted a lot of time if that is what he now does. He made serious mistakeswhen he was Labour leader, failing to challenge the right of the party and the media over the false and exaggerated allegations of antisemitism, failing to face down the right of the party and basing himself on the massive influx of new members. He could have split the Labour Party, driving the right out. He could have rallied his supporters when he resigned, four years ago. Yet still, the Corbyn loyalists await his return, as if it were the second coming.

However, it is possible that his Peace and Justice Project will now come to life, albeit in the form of the ‘Collective’ movement. Collective seeks to be yet another tributary of disaffected Labour councillors, Labour members and other activists seeking a solution to the disgusting direction in which Starmer has taken Labour. But two important and critical questions remain to be answered.

First, what will be the programme of any ‘movement’ of independents? On what programme will they stand?

And second, if Collective develops into a party, what sort of democracy will that party have? Its councillors and MPs, should they win any, must be accountable to the members. But if there is no party, no membership, and no agreed programme, such accountability is impossible. It is building on sand.

Communism – from a minority to a majority trend

At this time, the ideas of communism are a minority trend in society, in Britain and on a world scale. The ideas of Corbynism have much greater support. But they are completely inadequate in the face of the multiple crises that we face – economic, social, attacks on reforms, attacks on the limited democratic rights we have, war, impending climate catastrophe.

If communists do not promote our own programme, if we do not use every ounce of energy, and every minute available, to argue for an end to the present abomination of a system and champion the necessary new society, then we are allowing capitalism to maintain its rule. Our programme and that of the left social democrats are fundamentally different. To repeat: our programme aims to abolish capitalism. Theirs aims to manage it.

We have to engage in political debate with all who support Corbynism or any of its social-democratic and liberal variants, and convince them that their programmes are inadequate to deal with the problems facing the working class. These are problems caused by the capitalist system. To tackle the causes we have to defeat capitalism and replace it. Presenting anything less than this as a solution is a dangerous deception.

We cannot persuade others by standing to one side and ignoring the struggles taking place. Communists have to be in the thick of working-class struggle, helping to achieve victories but always spelling out that the ultimate goal is defeating the system which causes the crises; explaining that the symptoms will not disappear unless we tackle their root cause.

We will not convince anyone by allowing the social-democratic, liberal programme to be the only one presented to the working class, to go unchallenged. This means presenting our opposing communist programme at every opportunity, including in elections.

Elections are important

Contrary to what some Marxists argue, elections are an extremely important arena for communists to engage in. Workers discuss politics all the time. They discuss the inability to pay bills, low pay, inadequate benefits, problems with the NHS, the brutality of the police, the sexism and racism in society, the obscenely rich lifestyles of the rich, and so on. But elections, especially a general election, are a time when different parties seek to persuade workers of their programmes, of their supposed answers to all of these issues.

Why do Marxists not take this opportunity to present their programme; to present their vision of the new society they fight for? Why do Marxists not go boldly and confidently into the election campaigns, to enthuse, to rouse, to inspire the working class, to explain that this system is not permanent, that it can be overthrown, that it has the power to change things in their own interests? If we don’t do this, how will voters even know of our existence, let alone support our communist programme?

We need to intrude energetically into the electoral terrain, confidently taking on the arguments of the warmongers, the profiteers, as well as the well-meaning but ineffectual social democrats.

We need a party

This will not happen overnight. Primarily we need a party to do this, a clearly communist party. It is disappointing that in the coming general election there will be very few candidates who will present a communist programme to the election. It would be a tremendous step forward if existing Marxist organisations such as the Revolutionary Communist Party (formally Socialist Appeal), the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party, and others, were to present communist candidates in selected seats under the banner of a united communist party. Unfortunately, it is probably too late now for that to be achieved, even if the parties named were inclined to take that step. But this must be discussed by all communists, so that we do not miss yet more opportunities to present our shared ideas.

Standing in elections is not an easy step to take. Doing so for the first time is even more difficult. There is the lack of name recognition, the small forces to be called on to campaign, the lack of money, and the low level of understanding of genuine communism. On the other hand, if we never make a start, we will never get the opportunity to find out how our ideas are received. If standing in elections is part of a clear party building project it is worth doing, even with only small forces, so long as participants and supporters understand the difficulties of the terrain and are prepared for low voting figures in the first stages. The important thing is to take our ideas to a wider audience.

We communists need to present those ideas in easily understandable language. Workers know from their own daily experience that they live in a class society, that the bosses and their parties are out to screw them. We can point a way out of their exploitation. We must not make the mistake of thinking that workers won’t understand our ideas. After all, how did we become communists? The ideas of communism are easy to grasp. The problem is that they are very seldom presented. For too long we have allowed our ideas to be kept off the table, giving a clear run to the class collaborators and to the reformists who currently dominate the labour movement. We must challenge them and aspire to win the leadership of that movement.

Persistent, consistent campaigning will win others to the communist banner, broadening our support. So long as we enter the arena aware of the difficulties, low votes should not deter us. At the same time we will campaign for all communists to come together to forge a new, united communist/socialist party, in which debates will help to clarify our programme, develop our tactics and thus lay the basis for a mass party with supporters everywhere.

A break with capitalism

The break with capitalism can only take place by the action of the majority in society, that is, by the action of the working-class acting to liberate itself from its own exploitation. It will be the most democratic event ever in history. But to achieve that, we need to win the mass of working class to the idea of a fundamental break with capitalism. We need to make the working class conscious of its own power, and to know how to use that power to bring about workers’ rule, to replace capitalist rule.

Standing in elections is an important part of achieving that. It is a way of testing how far support for our programme reaches. If we cannot get communist MPs elected on the basis of our programme, it shows that we are a long way from changing society. Only when we are returning dozens and hundreds of communist to parliament will we know that we are gathering the force to fundamentally change things. Every vote for a communist is a vote for changing the system. We have to develop our support to the point when we can count those votes in the millions before we have any real prospect of bringing about fundamental change. That means serious electoral work, good leaflets, knocking on doors, workplace meetings, as well as the daily work inside the unions, workplaces, schools, universities and working-class communities.

Stand candidates – build a unified mass communist party

Therefore, we should present communist candidates, if possible, in the general election, even if this is just in one or two areas. We are pleased that some comrades who are involved in Talking About Socialism…from a Marxist point of view, have taken an initiative, with other communists in Manchester from different Marxist backgrounds, to present a communist candidate and programme under the name ‘Communist Future’.

This will be a difficult thing to do, but an important step. We support it, and ask others to back it with finance and campaigning activity.

Where communists are too weak to stand candidates – which at this time will be in most places – we may support strong working-class candidates with a good record, even though they stand on an inadequate programme. But we must not refrain from pointing out the weaknesses of their programme.

For communists a party is essential. Only with a party can the working class win power. An amorphous movement of individuals, each with their own set of policies, can never seriously challenge the rule of the capitalist class. A party that limits its objectives to piecemeal reforms, without a fundamental uprooting of all aspects of capitalist class rule, is doomed to fail.

We need to build a mass, democratic working-class communist party, clearly stating its objective of abolishing capitalism and its state institutions, replacing them with genuinely democratic ones, along with the expropriation of the capitalist class.

Today we are small and fragmented. Tomorrow, together, we communists can contemplate changing the world.

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3 thoughts on “Communists and the coming UK General Election

  1. Hi Nick,
    Good article, no criticism of it. Only difference between us is on Transitional Programme – you eschew it, I/we in the Socialist Party don’t. I think there’s more of a reason to stand on an avowed “tear down capitalism, build socialism” in a general election than in local elections. We in Cornwall have just started discussions with others about forthcoming electoral work. You’ve given me something to think about.

  2. Hi Rob
    The problem with the Transitional Programme is that it assumed the absolute stagnation of the productive forces so that even reformist demands had revolutionary implications that reformists could not handle. So enter the Trotskyists to take leadership. But a young economist who was assisting Trotsky in exile told him that the productive forces were not in absolute stagnation or a dead end in the 1930s. There was growth in technological development in the 30s. Besides productive forces or technology does not determine history in itself. The steam engine did not determine or drive forward the industrial revolution. There is the primacy of relations of production which includes values and culture. The class struggle over exploitation. Its not simply about an alternative leadership picking up the technological bits after an economic collapse.

  3. Did they actually say that the productive forces were absolutely stagnant? Did they not say for example that new technology and inventions were failing to raise the living standards of the masses?

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