Debate: Not a matter of style
CPGB interventions are marred by a serious theoretical flaw, argues Ian Donovan
A response to Daniel Harvey’s report on the Communist Platform founding meeting is in order.1 Some of the contradictions of the CPGB’s leadership’s claim to represent a consistently communist programme are shown in the discussion around my amendments.
It is good that the platform is committed to “stand on the historic examples of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Bolshevik-led revolution in October 1917 as the first attempts of the working class to dispossess the capitalists and begin the construction of socialism”.
However, it is worrying that this amendment was so controversial. Despite the reasoning about the ‘minimalism’ of a maximum programme coming from leading CPGB comrades like John Bridge and Mike Macnair, it seems to me that even within the framework of the CPGB’s own approach of a revolutionary maximum-minimum programme, there ought to be a positive, even if critical, reference to previous revolutionary events.
One of the arguments for this ‘minimalism’ was to emulate the method of Marx in his formulation of the programme of the Parti Ouvrier, which the CPGB leadership hold up as a model of how a revolutionary maximum-minimum programme should be formulated.
What is intriguing is that when you go back and read this document, which was drawn up in 1880, nine years after the Paris Commune, there are clear, positive references to that experience. Both the political and economic sections of this programme contained quotations from decrees of the Commune, and point (5) of the political section calls for the Commune “to be the master of its administration and its police” - which in late-19th century France was as clear an evocation of the Commune as any.2
In the current context, one wonders what is really driving those who wish to avoid positive references to the Russian Revolution and the Paris Commune as the two premier examples so far in history of specifically proletarian revolutionary events. This does not seem to me to be some sort of accident or quirk, but must represent at some level an adaptation to social pressure.
It is one thing to produce a maximum programme that speaks abstractly about communist goals. It is quite another to link that with the Russian Revolution today, when imperialist propaganda and the crimes of the Stalinist regimes have managed to obscure the original liberatory aims of that revolution behind a mountain of vilification. This retreat to abstraction was not the method of Marx.
Here it appears to represent - particularly with the central question of the October revolution - a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater, given the undeniably rapid degeneration of the revolution due to backwardness and isolation. But that does not make the October revolution one iota less worth defending, particularly as part of a programme that seeks to address the ‘maximum’ demands of communists - centrally the question of power and what we aim to do with it.
This is a symptom of the CPGB’s main weakness: namely third-camp politics. It is good that the comrades have moved a considerable distance from the political closeness to the social-chauvinist, pro-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty that they had in the early 2000s when I was a member and indeed a member of the Provisional Central Committee. But many of the political issues that became rather explosive at that time remain, in latent fashion, in some of the amendments that were put and defeated at the Communist Platform meeting.
For instance, there were the amendments that I moved to the resolution on ‘The danger of war’, on the question of so-called ‘weapons of mass destruction’, and also on support for mass-based anti-colonial uprisings. Daniel writes:
Ian’s amendments meant adding a couple of sentences about the interests of imperialist states to “enforce an effective monopoly” in weapons of mass destruction, and their being the “chief purveyor of such obscenities”. It would also have committed the CP to opposing “military ‘policing’ actions aimed at enforcing such a monopoly”. His other amendment would have added to what was contained in the motion about our support for “just wars, above all revolutionary civil wars for socialism”, to include “mass-based struggles against national oppression, imperialism and colonialism”. These amendments were felt generally to be redundant and to weaken the original formulation stylistically. They were both defeated.
This misses the point about what this debate was about. The questions were not matters of style - if that were all it was about they would not have generated so much passionate disagreement from both sides. They are issues of substance, about the right of existing bourgeois states and movements in backward or dependent countries to resist outright imperialist conquest.
These things have been posed in several recent wars - over Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, for example - over the last decade and a half. They are also posed today over Iran and the campaign to deprive it of the means of enriching uranium for domestic nuclear energy generation, on the grounds of the dual usability of this for nuclear weapons generation.
It is a serious political weakness that the Communist Platform voted not to specifically oppose imperialist attempts to enforce their monopoly of such weapons, in favour of a vanilla-style position on the horror of such weapons, even if such observations are factually true. Whether or not the imperialists’ casus belli in such cases are fabricated, not to specifically oppose them in principle is a concession to social pacifism and an evasion of the duty to defend the right to self-determination of dependent countries targeted for conquest and subjugation by imperialism - which have become more frequent since the collapse of Stalinism.
Likewise, the other amendment Daniel is referring to was not a matter of style either. The whole point of including the formulation about “mass-based struggles against national oppression, imperialism and colonialism” in the definition of what constitute “just wars” that we support, alongside “revolutionary civil wars for socialism”, is to commit us to a basic communist position of concretely, and not merely abstractly, opposing national/colonial oppression.
This is not an abstract debate, as shown by some important events in the Iraq war. In the spring of 2004, less than a year after the US and British imperialists proclaimed ‘mission accomplished’ with their conquest of Iraq, obviously coordinated mass uprisings took place in two important regions: Fallujah in Sunni north-central Iraq, and Najaf/Kerbala in the Shia south. In Fallujah the uprising was led by the Association of Muslim Scholars, a mainly Sunni umbrella group; in Najah/Kerbala, it was led by the Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Army of the Hidden Imam (al- Mahdi). These started off a chain of events that led to the US and Britain eventually, at least formally, retreating from Iraq, albeit several years later, after embedding a fragile and unstable puppet regime, which still totters on.
At the time that these events happened, in the spring of 2004, I wrote front-page agitational-type articles in the Weekly Worker, which explicitly called on the international left to solidarise with these uprisings. There was an extensive debate around these issues, expressed in the most political terms between myself and comrade Mike Macnair.3
These differences were fought out concretely, but hardly conclusively, over the Iraq war a decade or so ago. However, they are still current: similar issues are posed by any number of situations that we could be confronted with today, as the implicit thrust of even the unamended resolution testifies.
The debates between myself and comrade Macnair were intertwined with a difference of opinion on the nature of Respect, with myself considering Respect as an anti-imperialist, working class left split from Labour with a base among oppressed, mainly working class Muslim immigrants and subsidiary far-left support; while comrade Macnair and others considered it to be a popular front - equating the immigrant, political-Muslim petty bourgeois element in Respect with a wing of the British ruling class. A false equation, in my view, and linked with the other differences.
The debates between comrade Macnair and myself took place concurrently with a situation in the CPGB involving a small faction (which comrade Macnair was not involved in), some of whose leaders were intent on splitting (and did so), to form something called the Red Party, whose politics were an eccentric variant of those of the AWL. I was probably the most consistent and outspoken opponent of their politics.
Unfortunately the response of the CPGB leadership to the eruption of something close to open factional warfare was a political disorientation, and a temporary deviation from their norms of open debate - even introducing a pre-moderation regime on the internal e-caucus.
These were unfortunate political errors, not so much as they led to the loss of comrades from the organisation, but they also stymied the possibility of intervening correctly in the anti-war movement and Respect. That opportunity could have come to fruition a few years later, when the inevitable clash came in 2007 between the Socialist Workers Party and the serious, if often flawed and confused, elements which contributed the core of Respect’s ‘native’ support.
The CPGB’s error was compounded by its support for the SWP’s sectarian and idiotic Left List against Respect on this third camp basis in 2008, on the grounds that the SWP represented the ‘left wing’ of Respect, against George Galloway and those independent leftwingers who supported him, whom it alleged were popular frontists opposed to class politics (though in reality because the CPGB viewed Galloway and his supporters as ‘reactionary anti-imperialists’).
The false nature of this analysis is evident today, when you look at where those involved stand now. The most outspoken of those in favour of the SWP’s Left List fiasco at the time, and who have not retreated entirely into Counterfire-style movementism away from the fight to build a leftwing party that stands in elections include … the likes of Richard Seymour and many of the others who make up a large contingent of the right wing of Left Unity.
On the other hand, what of the supposed ‘right wing’ of Respect that backed Galloway? Some of the most political, independent elements later initiated the Socialist Platform of Left Unity, which the CPGB itself rightly welcomed with open arms. Nick Wrack has spoken at Communist University and for a while at least was regarded as a CPGB semi-ally. And, of course, as a separate case, I am a member of the Communist Platform.
If the analysis that had led the CPGB to take the stance it did on these questions had been accurate, one would have expected this line-up to be reversed.
The CPGB’s third campism led it to take the wrong orientation on a very important leftwing development in British politics. Respect was fatally flawed indeed - though not in the way the CPGB analysed it - and thus ultimately doomed without an organised and collective communist intervention. Nevertheless, it inflicted an important political blow against the ruling class at Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, and was thus far more important than the Socialist Alliance. The CPGB’s third-campist analysis meant its intervention was directed at the wrong people, and thus an important opportunity for a communist organisation to grow, influence this formation and win new forces to communism was lost.
These are all issues contained, in microcosm in the dispute about “mass-based struggles against imperialism and colonialism”. Not an issue of style at all.
Crux of the matter
Which brings us back to my other contentious amendment on historic/ international questions, the one regarding my supposed attempt to ‘smuggle in’ a state-capitalist analysis. But in fact it was pretty openly stated. My amendment read: “An isolated socialist government will either be crushed by capital or forced by material circumstances, despite the best of initial intentions, to become a surrogate capitalist force in its own right.”
This is contrasted with the discussion on part of my previous amendment, where there were strong objections to using the word ‘degenerated’ for describing the Soviet Union, on the grounds that it sounds too much like the term, ‘degenerated workers’ state’. The two concepts are hardly compatible. But the common thread here, again, is third campism. A prerequisite of third campism is the existence not of two classes contending for hegemony and ultimately world domination, but three. And hence there must be room for a ‘third system’ theory, even if it has not been properly formulated yet.
The problem is that this concept has implications, which put it at odds with key aspects of Marxism. For instance, in the Communist manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote:
Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes facing each other, bourgeoisie and proletariat.
This is the crux of the matter. The notion of a ‘third camp’ in class terms is what is fundamental to third-camp politics; thus ‘space’ has to be left in any putative communist programme formulated by third campists, for a third force, a third class camp - even if its nature is as yet unknown!
The CPGB’s polemics against ‘reactionary anti-imperialism’ (the Iraqi resistance, for instance), and ‘reactionary anti-Zionism’ (eg, Hamas), are in the third-campist vein, and show this theoretical flaw and programmatic error. Of course, the politics of such forces are reactionary. But, insofar as they resist the domination of ‘their’ population by an imperialist/colonialist occupation force, in that narrow sphere they are fighting against oppression, and that aspect of their actions deserves support, just as it would if it were being carried out by more superficially attractive, ‘democratic’ bourgeois forces. Neutrality on such struggles is a capitulation to the demonisation of the oppressed by political agents of the oppressor and can only undermine the authority of communists among the oppressed.
There is no third class camp. These forces - from the Stalinist regimes (some of which were imperialist in their own right, which obviously requires a different attitude; some of which led oppressed nations), to old-fashioned, ‘democratic’ petty bourgeois or bourgeois nationalists, to today’s Islamist movements - are manifestations of petty bourgeois and bourgeois politics that are compelled to use radical rhetoric and sometimes carry out real acts of resistance to maintain mass support among workers and other sections of impoverished people where they do lead masses in oppressed and dependent countries.
To build a strategy for communism on the contention that there is a third class camp, and to promote neutrality in struggles between imperialism and alleged ‘second camp’ forces leading oppressed peoples, is a fundamentally flawed strategy that can only lead to stagnation and an organisation that fails to spread beyond the imperialist centres.
1. ‘Solid basis for intervention’ Weekly Worker February 13.
2. See www.whatnextjournal.org.uk/Pages/Back/Wnext11/Prog.html.
3. For an example of such an article, see ‘Imperialism out of Iraq’ (May 13 2004). For a response by comrade Macnair, see ‘Imperialists, Islamists and communists’ (May 20 2004). For further contributions to this very extensive debate over questions of principle, see Mike Macnair’s ‘The politics of “taking sides”’ (June 10 2004) and my response, ‘Political Islam and surrogate nationalism’ (June 17 2004). There are others that can be searched out at www.cpgb.org.uk.