Getting to grips with Trumpism
Peter Manson reports on the joint meeting of the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists
But then what?
On January 29, CPGB and Labour Party Marxists members and supporters gathered for an aggregate meeting, which discussed, firstly, the new political situation following the inauguration of Donald Trump; and, secondly, the state of play in both the Labour Party and Momentum.
First up was Mike Macnair, who introduced the debate on Trump. He emphasised that the position he was about to outline - and had previously elaborated in the Weekly Worker1- was his own view and not that of the CPGB Provisional Central Committee.
Since World War II the US project had involved the integrity of capitalist states under its own hegemony, he said, and the question now arises as to whether Trump represents a break from that entire strategy. It had seemed possible that Trump’s threats had been nothing but electoral campaign rhetoric, but he has, of course, already enacted, amongst other things, an executive order for the building of a wall on the US-Mexico border, and another to ban from the USA citizens of a number of Muslim-majority countries, and so we should think about the possibility of a “fundamental shift in the geopolitical orientation” of the United States.
Following the founding of what was then the European Economic Community, the position of the US had been to urge the United Kingdom to become a member, precisely in order to veto European defence and political cooperation which could threaten US interests. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the US regarded international institutions as weapons to keep in check Germany and France, and prevent them moving towards a unified Europe that would pose a threat to US hegemony.
However, in comrade Macnair’s view, the eurozone crisis has “irretrievably wrecked the European Union as a whole” and ensured that a united Europe has been removed from the agenda for the next couple of decades. There can no longer be any thought of a common European defence force, which means that the US can now “comfortably dispense with the old strategy” - a factor which could justify the US establishment going along with Trump.
While comrade Macnair regarded Trump’s anti-Muslim moves as “purely ideological”, he thought that the promotion of Israel to help impose ‘order’ on the Middle East and the break with the old free trade policies were consistent with a possible new orientation. Of course, the situation remains unpredictable - Trump could still be “forced into orthodoxy”.
Nevertheless, as Trump himself most certainly represents an increased threat of military action against Iran (if only on the part of the US proxy, Israel, rather than America itself), comrade Macnair reported that the PCC believed it would now be wrong to wind down the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign, as had previously been the intention.
I was the first to contribute to the debate from the floor. For me there was a problem with the proposition that Trump could represent a rational shift in US strategy - or he had somehow “stumbled upon” what was in the interests of US imperialism. I tended to agree with the common perception that Trump was a maverick - the first elected president in living memory who was not part of the US establishment. While comrade Macnair had stated that his anti-Muslim policy was “purely ideological”, surely we should view this as part of a package, none of which was in the interests of US capital. We should expect the establishment to move against him, sooner rather than later.
Following on from this, Jack Conrad asked what serious section of US capital had been pushing for this new strategic line. He quoted the Socialist Workers Party’s Alex Callinicos, who had said: “We don’t like Trump, but neither do the bosses.” In fact the message of the whole establishment - taken up by Women Against Trump, etc - was anti-racist, anti-sexist and pro-establishment. In the US the anti-Trump protests were virtually a Democratic Party operation.
Contrary to Mike Macnair then, comrade Conrad did not believe that Trump represented some kind of establishment strategic rethink. Trump was more a reaction to the fact that in the US, as elsewhere, the working class was “refusing to be ruled in the old way”, while the bourgeoisie “cannot rule in the old way” (the missing ingredient was, of the course, the absence of a revolutionary party).
Rather than major sections of capital throwing their weight behind Trump, a “more likely scenario” was a concerted effort to get rid of him: impeachment, treason trials, even assassination. Meanwhile the danger for the left was in backing a ruling class anti-Trump movement - a movement which wanted to strengthen, not destroy, current international institutions.
A non-CPGB/LPM guest, Lawrence Parker, did, however, express support for comrade Macnair’s thesis - he had sketched out a way in which the ruling class could use Trump, said comrade Parker. However, he could “think of an awful lot of people US capital would rather have leading a strategic turn”.
Another guest, Chris Gray, wondered if there was some kind of parallel with Winston Churchill, who had posed the need for a new direction for British imperialism after World War II. He also wondered whether Trump might attempt to pass an “enabling act” allowing him to “rule by decree”. For her part, Carla Roberts thought the US establishment was unlikely to go for a coup of some kind. She drew a comparison with the UK - there was no real effort to try to stop Brexit: rather an attempt to make it work.
In response to myself and Jack Conrad, comrade Macnair pointed out that geopolitical turns do not usually happen after a lot of prior signalling. In this case, the US establishment had been “flailing around” - and “then Trump gets in”. So it was a case of either (a) try and get rid of him (although vice-president Mike Pence was regarded as even worse); or (b) “use Trump to try something new”. It was hardly a case of a “cunning plan”, but there was no clear alternative strategy to replace one that was “dying”.
Comrade Farzad Kamangar agreed that capital had no long-term strategy: it was short-termist by nature. However, a section of capital was supporting Trump and, given that he had the support of billionaires, who was going to impeach him? We should not forget either that a large section of the US population actually believes in Trump-type politics. Also, while the US president can eventually be challenged and removed, in the meantime he has great power. Comrade Kamangar pointed to two issues that could prove to be Trump’s undoing: firstly, Russia - she thought the Republican Party would move against him to prevent a new US-Russia alliance; and, secondly, the economy - if there was a crash, then impeachment, etc would come into play.
Comrade Phil Kent thought that, just as there was no going back to the pre-Trump era, it was quite possible that on this side of the Atlantic the EU would fall apart. There was even the prospect of a “hot war” with China, which would have a huge effect on world trade. For his part, comrade Simon Wells stated that to some extent Trump was merely following the popular mood; he also pointed out that share prices were actually going up.
Coming back in, comrade Conrad agreed that capital was of necessity short-termist - which is why it needs a state machine. But capital and the state were not the same thing and Trump is an example of “the state getting out of control”. He was a “rogue element” who did not require spin doctors: he wrote his own inaugural speech, for instance.
Replying to the debate, comrade Macnair reiterated that we are living in conditions of extreme uncertainty: it was possible that Trump could be disposed of or actually contained. But it was also possible that the state bureaucracy could use Trump to impose a new strategy. Everything was “up in the air”.
Introducing the afternoon session, Jack Conrad talked about Jeremy Corbyn’s underlying strategy of uniting the Parliamentary Labour Party so as to win a general election. Of course, there was no question of Corbyn campaigning on matters of “high politics”: his was an “inbred economism” that focused on “bread and butter issues”.
However, Labour was way behind in the opinion polls and could suffer a defeat of “1931 proportions” in the expected early general election. That would undoubtedly produce a wave of demoralisation amongst the pro-Corbyn left. Which was why it was essential to adopt the correct strategic orientation: we should oppose the notion that ‘any Labour government is better than a Tory government’ and look to the combativity and consciousness of the working class. Our aim must be to transform Labour into a mass movement for socialism: a united front of a special kind.
Turning to Momentum, comrade Conrad stated that it would be a good thing if it were to campaign to be accepted as a Labour affiliate: that would open up possibilities for the rest of the left. However, it was unlikely that Momentum would actually do so. In reality Corbyn never had a plan for the new grouping. So Momentum was set up with a branch structure and a facade of democracy, but it did not fit in with Corbyn’s plans when sections of its membership thought their main task was to defeat the PLP right. Things would get out of hand if Momentum were allowed to organise on the basis of genuine democracy - which was why we had Jon Lansman’s coup. It was not a question of ‘If only Jeremy knew’. He does know and he authorised the coup.
Comrade Conrad stated that the initial PCC response to this had been incorrect. We had thought that the Momentum national committee should constitute itself as the new leadership, which would have resulted in a split. But it became clear almost immediately that there was no mood for such a fight - the left is fragmented, with no clear strategy. However, Labour Party Marxists called for the left to stay in Momentum and agreed to stand comrade Stan Keable for the Lansman-created national coordinating group. He was standing not to give the Lansman version of ‘democracy’ any legitimacy, but to expose it.
Comrade Conrad ended by stating that it was easy to focus only on the Labour Party. But, of course, we must not lose sight of what is needed more than anything - a Communist Party. He thought that perhaps it was time for a new joint initiative with others on the left in connection to this.
First up in the ensuing debate was comrade Keable, who reported from the previous day’s meeting of the (now officially disbanded) Momentum national committee. About eighteen out of the original 60 members were present, plus around 30 observers. Comrade Keable said that it had been the “first and only NC meeting with any political discussion!” The mood for compromise was clear, he said, from the positive reaction to the idea of a meeting between NC representatives, and Jon Lansman “under the auspices of John McDonnell”, which a comrade present had suggested was a possibility.
LPM’s Carla Roberts, who was also at the NC meeting, said that some people seriously believed that Corbyn and McDonnell were “very unhappy” with the actions of comrade Lansman! She also pointed out that a pro-split minority thought that the NC could still organise a conference based on elected delegates from local groups.
There was some debate as to why LPM was contesting the NCG elections in only one of the three Momentum regions: comrade Vernon Price in particular thought that it would have been useful to put forward LPM propaganda everywhere (it was not a question of winning the election, of course). In his reply, comrade Conrad said that that would not have been a bad idea, but LPM only took the decision to contest at the last minute, when it became clear that there would be no Momentum split and it was right to stay and fight within the official structure.
1. ‘The new president and the new global order’ Weekly Worker January 26.