Tactic or strategy

Notes of the May 3 meeting between the CPGB and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, which continued our discussion on 'tradition' and the 'official communist' movement. Martin Thomas (MT) and Paul Hampton (PH) represented the AWL, while Mark Fischer (MF) and John Bridge (JB) spoke for the CPGB

MT: I am interested in a comment of MF's from the last meeting. He said that a key mistake of Trotsky's was to abandon the world communist movement in 1933, to set up the Fourth International.

It seems to me that the CPs were no longer communist parties. Everywhere they came to power, they constructed repressive police states. There were countries where there were large numbers of would-be revolutionary workers in the party. There were also many countries where the communist parties did not even have a membership that was sociologically working class. Even in those countries where the CPs contained large numbers of revolutionary-minded workers, their internal regimes made it impossible to operate inside them, to fight for Marxist politics in their ranks.

There is a case to be made for a tactical approach to workers in the CPs. Trotskyists did try some subterranean interventions in these organisations - normally with rather odd perspectives and usually with very little result. There is nothing to rule that out theoretically, but that is quite a different matter from considering these organisations to be communist in any meaningful sense of the word.

JB: We have severe criticisms of all the CPs of the world, including the Communist Party of Great Britain when it was formed in 1920. The world communist movement deviated fundamentally from Marxism when its parties voted at the 5th Congress of Comintern to approve of socialism in one country. The majority of our organisation believes that there was a social counterrevolution in 1928 in the USSR. On that basis, those parties that celebrated 1928 as the triumph of socialism have something pretty fundamentally wrong with them.

Sure, formally the 'official' CPGB was 'communist' until 1991 when it dissolved itself. But when we came out as The Leninist in 1981, we denounced all the other factions that existed around us. Perhaps the difference is that we would say - with all our criticisms - that it was necessary to have a strategic orientation to these parties, not a tactical one. In general, in world terms, they contained a decisive layer of the vanguard of the working class. In order to win a new vanguard, even to win over sections of this old vanguard, requires a strategic orientation.

MF: When we came out with The Leninist journal, we might have had tactical approaches to different factions or trends within the CPGB, but we wrote that we were out to conduct a war of extermination against the opportunist trends within the party - which we made clear was everyone but ourselves. We wrote that they were opportunist, anti-working class and counterrevolutionary.

We are an organic product of 'official communism' in this country. But it is not sentiment that leads us to say that what was required was a strategic approach to these parties. The point is that the CPGB was a party: it had organic roots in sections of the class. It organised a substantial layer of the advanced workers in the movement. If you want to write a political and industrial history of the working class in the 20th century, you must at every point correlate the ups and downs of the struggle with what the CPGB is doing, saying and thinking as a reflection of the world movement of which it is part.

What Trotskyist group can you say that about? You might say that comrades in some of these groups defended some formally correct political principles. But you cannot make the same point about the history of our class.

PH: It still seems to me that some of your drift is sociological rather than political. Politics is key. It is obviously the case that communist parties in various parts of the world (not everywhere) had large sections of vanguard militant workers. But what was the world communist movement? From the late 1920s it was dominated by the politics of the USSR and was therefore anti-working class. On one level you acknowledge that. But it seems not to be decisive for you.

In world terms, your approach in certain cases in plainly wrong. For example, by the end of the 1920s the Chines CP had about four or five percent workers as members. The argument that this represented the vanguard is preposterous. They had presided over the decimation of that vanguard and they had decamped to the countryside.

The problem remains one of how you characterise these parties and their role. Yes, there were militants in the CPGB and other parties, but in fact they acted as part of the apparatus of the trade union bureaucracy. They played the role of policing the working class movement - even smashing working class movements in a whole series of countries. Thus, via these parties, you have rather a funny relationship to the advanced part of the class.

MF: Unlike your work in the Labour Party ...?

PH: There are clearly differences. German social democracy played a role in smashing the vanguard of the German working class in 1918-19. However, it was possible to work in those organisations. It was not possible in the communist parties.

Labour Party work for us is because of where the Labour Party is in relation to the trade union movement. The issue is how you characterise these parties. That is the key question, not where militants happen to be at a particular point.

JB: It is not correct to say that we characterise the communist parties sociologically: we do so politically. For example, because of its position in the workers' movement, we say the strategic question of the revolution in Britain is overcoming the influence of the Labour Party and Labourism over our class. Is that "sociological"? We had a similar approach to world communist movement.

You can dismiss the CPGB - as SM did in a previous meeting - as a "rightwing sect". If that is true, why bother to even mention it? Why not treat it like the Fabian Society or the Socialist Party of Great Britain?

You recognise there were a lot of workers in there. But what sort of workers? They were not defined sociologically, but politically. Very often, they were at the head of rebellions, of strikes, of protests. To dismiss these militants simply as the police of the bureaucracy is far too one-sided. Regaling us with anecdotes of the negative role of the CPGB in industry is pretty boring. We know. Should we regale you with our own tales of the militant role - locally and nationally - of other CPers? The real point is to understand it with all its contradictions.

I was in the Party in 1972 around the Pentonville Five. You can tell me that the CPGB did not have the right politics in that dispute. I agree. But I think we would also agree that the SWP did not have the right politics either. To equate the two, however, in terms of their role in the working class would be nonsense. The party's politics in 1972 were of course thoroughly rotten. But was it just the 'police' of the bureaucracy?

What stood for 'communism' in the 20th century was this movement. Thus, it has to be dealt with, to be overcome positively. Frankly, if revolutionaries in China did not have a strategic orientation to the Communist Party of China up to 1949, then they were not in politics. That was the mass organisation claiming the tradition of Marxism.

We are not against work in the Labour Party. Far from it. But we do not take this attitude just because such work is "possible". We start from what is necessary. Was it "possible" for us to work in the CPGB? We were banned. We were an illegal faction. But it was necessary to work in it. Surely our orientation in the workers' movement is decided by considerations other than ease of implementation.

These bodies pose a strategic task. The CPs were not simply left sects whose viewpoint needed to be combated ideologically - they were far more than that. The same is true with the Labour Party. Our task is not just to write polemical articles against Tony Blair - we need to shift masses of people.

MT: I presume, given your analysis of the USSR, you would not be arguing for the same sort of strategic orientation to the CPSU? Or to the other ruling CPs? So we seem to be scaling it down into an orientation towards some CPs. There have been CPs that it was very important to orientate to - for example, the French. The question could almost be posed as to how you assess the weight of the CPGB. Was it in the same league as the French or others?

Yet there seems to be more. You talked about your origins in 1981 and you spoke of yourselves as "organic". This implies an appeal to a hypothetical past. Somehow there is a strand of politics going back to the 1920s that you are tied to. There could not be such a strand. When you appeared, you stated that things had been rotten since the 1930s, not that the Party had relatively recently gone wrong. You took many points from the Trotskyist movement. For example, 'socialism in one country' - who was criticising it in 1924? Not the 'official communist' party ...

MF: And not Leon Trotsky. Zinoviev was actually first into print against it.

JB: Exactly. The critique of socialism in one country is not the intellectual property of Trotsky.

MT: Historically, it is the property of the Trotskyist movement. There is no other movement that has defended this critique, with the possible exception of the Bordigaists. It certainly was not disputed by any current within the 'official communist' parties.

What you were doing in 1981 could not have been done previously. It might have been possible for decades to say you were an illegal faction of the CP, but it would have been an imaginary statement. It would not have meant taking part in the life of the party in any sense. Looking at the CPGB in the 1970s or 80s, you see some working class activists, a lot of decent people doing their best for the working class as they understood it. But what would a strategic orientation to the CPGB have meant during World War II, in 1941, when the CPGB was a major strike-breaker? What would it have meant in the third period when the CPGB was extremely isolated? What would it have meant in France in the war, when Trotskyists were actually killed by the communist-dominated resistance?

Until 1968, if you wanted to be critical of the CP, to put forward revolutionary socialist views, you had to attend their meetings prepared for a physical fight. You are taking your present position and extrapolating it backwards in an imaginary way. That position would have been impossible. There was no organic process. Most CPs do not now exist. So what is your balance sheet of that strategic orientation? Most have not left any revolutionary residues: they have simply gone.

MF: Your ignorance of the situation in the CPGB is truly frightening. As a faction, we did not arrive from Alpha Centuri in 1981. As individuals our comrades had a long political history in the left, pro-Soviet opposition of the CPGB. This opposition had been organising within the Party for decades. JB has a history in the Party from the 1960s. He was part of a left faction that was hunted and despised by the leadership.

This opposition controlled whole districts of the Party. It had parallel structures at branch level, district level, all the way up to the central committee. I should know. I was a left Eurocommunist in my shameful youth. One of my first jobs in the Young Communist League was to help hunt these types down and expel them! The notion that everything became possible only in 1981 and that we were somehow Trotskyists in denial who tried to graft themselves onto this foreign body - this is nonsense. It might be the only way you can explain it to yourselves, but it is nonsense.

You must deal with the reality of us as a political trend, just as you must deal with the reality of the point we are making about the CPGB. We come from the various left, pro-Soviet oppositions in the CPGB. Nowhere else. We were left products of an opposition within the CP that has a long and rather effective history.

Let us see where your method goes when you extrapolate backwards. Are you saying you would not have had a strategic orientation to the CPs during the third period? Didn't Trotsky? When on the instructions Moscow these parties are losing thousands of good comrades around the world, when those that remain are disorientated and often deeply uneasy with the line? But when they actually thought they were implementing a revolutionary turn? You are sectarian in hindsight.

PH: Chinese Trotskyists were leaders of the official party. They were purged because of twists and turns of the Stalinist leadership of Comintern. They were central figures. They did orientate to the CP and clearly did not ignore it. After the revolution, they were rounded up - many were arrested and shot. Some were not released until the 1970s. It was impossible to do Trotskyist work on mainland China. Probably it still is. Practical problems like this are not irrelevant, although I am not judging what you are saying just on the basis of practicalities.

You have drawn the analogy between work in the CP and Labour Party. There are important differences. The Labour Party was set up, run and funded by the trade union movement. In that sense, it is a much more organic part of the working class than a formation that comes along and says, 'We're a bunch of revolutionaries who want to make a revolution.' Work in the Labour Party has much more to do with these connections with the organised trade union movement. Labour never has claimed to be a revolutionary party leading the working class to socialism. The CP did.

Thus the basis on which you judge it as a formation is different. Its relationship to the working class has been different. Therefore, there is no simple analogy along the lines of 'We might work in CP; we might work in the Labour Party'. The strategic problem is political. The CP has acted as a brake, yet was claiming to be a revolutionary party. That is a different problem from a largely reformist labour movement, with the trade union bureaucracy having an arm in parliament. These are different issues. You cannot draw a simple parallel and say we can work in both - it is the politics that is crucial.

Communist parties did represent the vanguard of the working class in the late 1920s. That is why Trotskyists tried to work in them. If you say that after that period they stopped being revolutionary parties, surely that tells you something about a process of change in their members. Good individuals continued to join the CPs. But that is a totally different question to how they would react as a collective in the class struggle. You cannot talk of the CPs as an organic part of the working class movement in the way we would describe the Labour Party.