End the cycle of splits

If the left is to build a serious political organisation it will have to facilitate internal dissent, writes Mike Macnair. And that will require both majorities and minorities to act responsibly

Labour of Sisyphus: the left never seems to learn

The CPGB has just experienced a slow-motion ‘split’, in the form of three resignations in succession by comrades who were recruited to CPGB in Manchester. In essence, the comrades share the view that the project of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative launched by the three fragments of Workers Power (WP itself, Permanent Revolution, and the new and as yet nameless youth split from WP) is more promising than the CPGB’s project.

It has been difficult for CPGB comrades to make out exactly what this split is about. The comrades who have departed did not form an organised faction or platform, and did not before they departed make any positive proposals about what the CPGB should do, though comrade Chris Strafford has over the last few years offered a variety of (inconsistent) negative criticisms of the slogans put forward by the CPGB in several elections and of the CPGB majority’s strategic, and tactical, approaches to the Labour Party. The comrades who have left us have complained that it is difficult for young and inexperienced comrades to argue and put forward proposals against the older and more experienced comrades in the majority; and that this explains both their failure to propose a clear alternative course, and their decision to leave.

Indeed, comrades have said informally that they will and do continue to defend in the ACI the politics of the CPGB’s Draft programme. Acceptance of the Draft programme as the basis of common action is a requirement of CPGB membership (together with paying dues, and work in a CPGB organisation). This makes the split appear on its face completely non-political.

This article is my personal response to this problem. It is not an agreed CPGB (or Provisional Central Committee) response, but merely my own view. I largely put on one side the debate over the merits of the ACI, which other comrades have addressed.

I simply do not believe in the inability of young and inexperienced comrades to argue against older or more experienced comrades or develop their own positive positions. If they are confident in their own ideas, very young and inexperienced people can stand up (or write) and contradict the old-timers. I have plenty of experience of this from the old International Marxist Group and International Socialist Group. By this I do not mean to refer to my own involvement in oppositional groupings (at any date after 1976); I mean the numerous other relatively new comrades who came up with one or another sort of oppositional idea and argued it with more or less success.

In my view the split is about a political difference, and an extremely fundamental political difference. The unclarity of the comrades’ criticisms of the CPGB, and their failure to fight for an alternative line before they left, are in fact expressions of this political difference. The difference is about the core of the problems of the British far left.

Unity in diversity

It is only possible to have a collective political organisation - as opposed to a series of top-down sects and a gravel of sects of one member (‘independents’) - if we have open disagreement within the organisation. Open political disagreement within the organisation depends on two elements: first, that majorities (or leaderships) do not kick the minorities or individual dissenters out, either for expressing disagreement or on factitious disciplinary charges of one sort or another; and, second, and equally important, that minorities do not walk out in search of fresh fields and pastures new. The latter is what the comrades who have recently resigned have done.

Of course, the presence of open disagreement within a common organisation is not a guarantee that splits will not occur. The problem is the inverse: the absence of open disagreement is a guarantee that splits will occur.

The comrades may have walked out of the CPGB due to their failure to understand this issue. But if so it is not because the CPGB has been keeping quiet about the two sides of the issue or not attempting to educate new comrades about it. On the contrary, we go on and on about it. We have quite recently publicly condemned both the Rees-German faction[1] and Chris Bambery[2] for effectively walking out of the Socialist Workers Party (under severe provocation, in contrast to the situation of the comrades who have resigned from the CPGB), even while we condemned the SWP majority for their anti-democratic practice. On a larger scale we have condemned the comrades of the Socialist Party in England and Wales who walked out of Unison in the (ludicrous) belief that Unite was a more democratic union, or the slightly less ludicrous belief that the Unite bureaucracy would not personally persecute them (in reality because, Unite being less democratic than Unison, trivial groups of Trots do not in any way threaten the Unite bureaucracy).[3] Our very similar criticisms of Simon Hardy and his co-thinkers for walking out of Workers Power may have played a role in comrades’ decisions to resign themselves.[4]

Why isn’t the simple point that to have a serious organisation we are going to have to facilitate internal dissent, and that this requires both majorities and minorities to act responsibly, utterly obvious to the British far left? After all, it is obvious to a substantial part of the continental far left.

Groundhog Day

The answer, I think, is that the British far left as a whole is caught in a self-reinforcing ‘Groundhog Day’ paradigm, which leads us (the far left as a whole) to do the same thing over and over again with decreasing effect. This is reflected in the fact that split groupings repeatedly promise more democratic functioning and a better approach to unity; but, somehow, never seem able to deliver. The paradigm involves three elements which reinforce each other.

The first is a practice in which party activity means mainly ‘activism’: ie, running round from one agitational initiative to the next. The effect of this ‘agitationism’ is to devalue both the long-term base-level activity of building trade unions, cooperatives, workers’ education initiatives and so on, and the production of party propaganda and party education. It also has the effect, central to our present concerns, that discussing internal disagreements appears as a waste of time, and as not doing ‘activism’, not ‘getting out there’. This perception, in turn, leads to both majorities chucking people out and minorities walking out - in both cases in order to ‘get on with the job’ or ‘stop wasting time’.

The second element is an ideology of this practice, which consists of the concept of the ‘party of a new type’ or ‘revolutionary party’ and Lukácsian, and similar, critiques of ‘Second International Marxism’ (which is actually also a critique of pre-1918 Bolshevism, including the Bolsheviks’ intense electoral activity during 1917).[5] The ideology may take both more or less explicit, and more or less sectarian, forms. Cliff’s Lenin is one example.[6] The Spartacists’ Joseph Seymour’s Lenin and the vanguard party is another; astonishingly for an ostensible Trotskyist, Seymour draws arguments from those of Stalin and his co-thinkers against the Trotskyists in the 1920s, and thus demonstrates on the face of the text its ideological-apologetic character.[7] The Workers Power (majority) argument that a ‘fighting propaganda group’ must be more monolithic than a mass party is a third.[8]

The third element is a concept of revolution which underlies both the practice and the ideology. According to this concept, the basic difference between ‘revolutionary politics’ and reformism is the difference between, on the one hand, strikes and street demonstrations (and ultimately barricades and fighting the police), identified as ‘revolutionary politics’ - Cliff’s ‘moderate demands and militant action’ - and, on the other hand, ‘passive propagandism’, electoral and parliamentary activity, identified as ‘reformist’. In this conception, as long as the way of ‘mass action’ is pursued, our side will come up against the state, and therefore be driven automatically to radicalise and pose a counter-power.

This concept of revolution is in substance left-economist, or ‘Luxemburgist’ in a negative sense. That is, it is in (unadmitted) continuity with the ideas of the semi-syndicalist left wing of the Second International before 1914, and of the left wing of Iskra’s ‘economist’ opponents in 1900-02, and those of Trotsky in Our political tasks (which he later disavowed) in 1904.[9]

It is possible within the framework of this paradigm to be substantially more democratic than the SWP: as, for example, is the case with the Mandelites. But the drag back to the pattern of not wanting to ‘waste time’ on propaganda, education and internal discussion is persistent. The Mandelite version bases unity on common tactics, and makes unity both internally and externally depend on backstairs diplomacy between groups within the permanent leadership. The problems of this approach are visible in the oscillations of the International Socialist Group/Socialist Resistance in Respect between near silence on political differences, followed by an abrupt split; and on a larger scale in the very similar behaviour of the Sinistra Critica group in the Italian Rifondazione Comunista. Socialist Resistance’s split from Respect over the Scottish issue was merely silly, while Sinistra Critica’s split from Rifondazione concerned a real issue of principle: Italian troops in Afghanistan. But in both cases the prior history of diplomatic blocs was an obstacle to broader understanding.

CPGB

Against this combination the CPGB remains, regrettably, a voice crying in the wilderness; though it has to be said that the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and SPEW are substantially less poisoned by the paradigm than the SWP and its offshoots (WP, etc) and the sad remnant of the British Mandelites in Socialist Resistance. We have been persistently arguing against all three elements.

Our practical priorities and choices - like the Weekly Worker and its character, like producing a Draft programme and writing our Theses on the Labour Party, like calling for critical votes for various dodgy semi-left politicians, and so on - reflect at root a fundamentally different conception of the revolution and the party. (Our ability to actually practise the alternative, beyond the character of the paper, is gravely limited by our very small forces.)

In the first place, proletarian revolution involves not only mass actions coming up against the state, but also and utterly indispensably the masses coming to imagine the possibility of a real alternative to the existing order.

Secondly, it follows that the function of a workers’ independent political party, as distinct from trade unions and other workers’ organisations, is not to ‘coordinate the struggles’ and ‘push them forward’ towards the general strike. Rather, it is to spread the idea that ‘another world is possible’ by concretising it as far as possible in propaganda, electoral manifestos and selected forms of agitational campaigning which promote socialism, as opposed to merely opposing this or that effect of capitalism. And, at the same time, the political party’s job is to back up the struggles, workers’ organisations and so on by delegitimising the state order through which the capitalist class rules - exposing its corrupt and anti-democratic character - and proposing another state order in which the working class rules.

Hence electoral and parliamentary interventions, together with our own workers’ press and media, really matter. Hence, also, clarity on political democracy, both in and against the state, and in the workers’ movement, really matter and are not subordinate to the question of mobilising forces for strikes, street actions, etc.

Thirdly, if the job of the left really was to promote ‘moderate demands but militant action’, then, on the one hand, the dispersal of our forces would be unfortunate, but not disastrous: arguing for more head-banging militancy is something every individual in the movement can do without organisation. On the other hand, the obvious basis of unity would be to give up on fancy programmes, etc, and agree to unite on the basis of a little motherhood and apple pie - plus the promotion of more head-banging militancy. This is the policy of the ACI.

But if the jobs of a left political party are to pose and concretise the idea that ‘another world is possible’, and to back up the mass movement by delegitimising the state order, the dispersal of our forces is a complete disaster. We cannot expect either Labour, deeply committed to the ‘British national interest’ and the constitutional order, or trade union leaders who are left-Labourites in politics, to do these jobs for us. We need effective, independent workers’ media, and organised resources to support and distribute them, and electoral interventions, on the basis of clear (even if limited) programmatic commitments to the independent interests of the working class. Hence we need effective far-left unity on the basis of the open defence of working class political independence, radical democracy and proletarian internationalism.

It follows from this that the question of the unity of the existing organised left really matters. And it follows in turn that both, on the one hand, ideologically defending bureaucratic-centralist forms (the WP majority, the Spartacists and International Bolshevik Tendency) and kicking dissidents out (SWP), and, on the other hand, walking out of organisations, however small they may be, without a serious fight, are actual crimes against the working class.

Programme

The possible - not guaranteed - basis of a unitary party is a political programme. On this point Workers Power is right against its splitters. But its problem is a failure to understand that a programme for this purpose has to be primarily a statement of aims or goals, with only a limited element of strategic orientation, not an elaboration of precise theory or tactics.

From Trotsky’s efforts to save the inheritance of the first four congresses of the Communist International from the Stalinists, the ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ of one sort and another have developed the idea that a political programme has to include points of theory, like the ‘permanent revolution’ and the class character of the former Soviet-bloc regimes; and points of tactics, like the ‘united front’ and ‘transitional demands’. The orthodox Maoists came to similar results by a different ideological route: the construction of ‘anti-revisionist’ parties. The result is to ‘programmatise’ and make into split issues all sorts of secondary questions.

When comrades react against this false conception of programme and party, it is all to easy for them to slip, as the new WP split and Pham Binh in the United States seem to have done, into the opposite position: all that matters is a few elementary moral commitments and the commitment to ‘activism’. But on this basis organising independently of the SWP’s, SPEW’s and Counterfire’s fronts is sectarian: there is no political justification for yet another front based merely on the commitment to resist - even with ‘anti-capitalism’ added as a brand name.

It is in this context that the CPGB has insisted that the political basis of membership in CPGB, beyond paying dues and active participation in party organisations, is acceptance of our Draft programme as the basis for collective action. It is not agreement with the Draft programme.

Still less does eligibility for membership require a high level of understanding of the theoretical and historical judgments that inform the Draft programme (like the critique of ‘left economism’ discussed above). We endeavour to promote this understanding through our public press; we do not ask comrades to pass exams on it (or on Marxist political economy, as was rumoured, perhaps falsely, of the 1970s Revolutionary Communist Group) in order to join.

This is a right and necessary judgment. If we were to go down the path of demanding more theoretical agreement as part of the basis of membership, we would contradict our own aims. It is, however, a part of the context of the current split.

The resigners

The Manchester comrades were originally attracted to the CPGB because of our democratic internal practice and rejection of the system of competing sects - but without ever grasping that our democratic practice and rejection of the system of sects is inextricably linked to our rejection of the left’s ‘activist’ practice and our rejection of its left-economist concept of revolution. The comrades continued to work and think in the frame of the ‘activist’ practice. Hence (among other things) comrade Strafford’s very limited attendance at CPGB aggregates. Hence also the fact that from quite an early date he began to take political direction from Manchester Permanent Revolution comrades as the basis of criticisms of the line of the PCC and CPGB majority.

But this internal contradiction explains why the comrades have felt unable to actually argue their criticisms and work up an alternative within the framework of the CPGB.

The problem is that the logic of the Manchester comrades’ criticisms was to reject the whole CPGB project. But to argue for turning CPGB into something more like Permanent Revolution would contradict their own initial reasons for joining the CPGB (it would plainly be merely to create another Trot grouplet). So they could never work up a systematic alternative to the lines of the leadership majority or gain enough confidence to argue for such an alternative.

We have not driven comrades out for disagreeing on the issues discussed here. On the contrary, we have urged comrades to argue, develop and publish in this paper their views. Rather, their disagreement has led them to choose to leave us.

The ACI provides an apparent way out of this intolerable contradiction. It appears to escape the Trot-sect model, while preserving the ‘activist’ model. The reality, however, is that it is yet another piece of frontist fakery and will go nowhere. Hopefully, when they actually experience this, the comrades will be led to self-criticise on the question of the left-economist, ‘activist’ model which has led them out of the CPGB.

mike.macnair@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1 . P Manson, ‘Left Platform throws in the towelWeekly Worker February 18 2010. See also my own ‘Bureaucratic centralism and ineffectiveness’ February 25 2010.

2 . P Manson, ‘Latest irresponsible split from SWPWeekly Worker April 14 2011.

3 . P Manson, ‘Giving up on UnisonWeekly Worker August 4 2011.

4 . B Lewis, ‘Another split, another sectWeekly Worker April 26 2012.

5 . D Jenness Lenin as election campaign manager (New York 1971); A Rabinowitch The Bolsheviks come to power (London 2004), chapter 5, on the importance of local election campaigns in the Bolshevik revival after the repression following the July days.

6 . www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1975/lenin1.

7 . www.bolshevik.org/Pamphlets/LeninVanguard/LVP%200.htm.

8 . www.fifthinternational.org/content/statement-resignations-british-section-league.

9 . On ‘Luxemburgism’, the ‘classic texts’ (which somewhat polemically overstate Luxemburg’s views relative to other aspects of her writing) are Reform and revolution and The mass strike (both at www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/index.htm); these are the main ‘Luxemburg sources’ for modern left ideas. See also H Weber (ed), A Brossat (trans), K Kautsky, R Luxemburg, A Pannekoek Socialisme: la voie occidentale (Paris 1983) on the debates of 1911-12. On the contradiction between Luxemburg’s explicit democratic commitments and the bureaucratic-hierarchical-sectarian character of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania under her and her co-thinkers’ leadership, see R Blobaum Feliks Dzierzynsky and the SDKPiL (New York 1984) - a striking early example of the connection between the ‘left’s’ conception of revolution and sectarianism. On left economism see R Larsson Theories of revolution (Stockholm 1970), chapter 6; and the rather different take in Lars T Lih Lenin rediscovered (Leiden 2006), chapters 4 and 5. Trotsky’s Our political tasks is at www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1904/tasks. The disavowal is somewhat indirect, in his explanation of his association with the Mensheviks at this period in My life (1930), chapter 12 (www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/mylife/ch12.htm), and his repeated assertions in his later writings that Lenin was right as against himself on the party question.