Breaking barriers

As part of the CPGB’s process of rapprochement and discussions with other organisations, we have been talking with the Revolutionary Democratic Group (faction of the SWP). In this issue we present a joint open letter to the Socialist Workers Party, an historic move toward unity of two different traditions. Lee-Anne Bates spoke to Dave Craig, editor of the RDG’s bulletin, Workers Republic

Can you tell us why the RDG was originally formed?

The RDG originated in the Republican Faction of the SWP which was set up in 1980 and 1981. Some of us believed that the SWP did not have any long-term strategy regarding the national question. We went back to Lenin’s writings on bourgeois democracy in State and Revolution. In a country like Britain, based on a union of nations and a monarchy, Lenin predicts that the national question will develop in the future and as a consequence of this a federal republic would be a step forward.

At about the same time Tony Cliff was developing the downturn theory - that the working class was in retreat and likely to be defeated. From this, sectarian conclusions of the need to retreat from the working class movement into the party were drawn. Opposed to this, we wanted to work with other socialists using the united front tactic to combine our forces against the employers’ offensive.

Around 1982 and 1983 a lot of people were being pushed out, including Steve Jeffreys, who was a central committee member. A number of people were expelled in Manchester and Bradford for example.

As a result of this, a regroupement of ex-SWP members began to take place, leading to a conference in Bradford in 1983, following which a group of us formed the RDG. We were formed out of retreat and defeat really - as a result of Cliff’s moves against any opposition.

What proposals was the RDG raising?

Our struggle was for a democratic centralist party, forged around the programme. The SWP, we felt, was forming its own bureaucratic tradition, linked to the lack of any revolutionary programme which could be the guide to action. We rejected their syndicalist strategy in favour of a strategy based on the idea of permanent revolution.

We had a number of proposals for internal democracy, including factional rights. As well as this we always stood firmly against Labourism and for standing candidates in elections. All things which we are still saying today.

What was the aim of the RDG?

To promote these ideas in the SWP. But as well as this we worked independently, promoting rank and file groups. We were active at Wapping, in the miners’ support groups, the anti-poll tax groups and around the Gulf War. We were active in Irish solidarity work and for British withdrawal. All the time we worked with other groups, including your comrades.

In 1987 the SWP made a unity appeal to the whole of the left. We wrote to the SWP three times in response. They did not reply. We decided then to formalise our relationship as a faction of the SWP even though we had been excluded.

What has brought you towards rapprochement discussions with us?

We have never been a sectarian organisation, having been ourselves the victims of SWP sectarianism in not talking to other groups and in barring discussion on serious questions. We have always had the perspective of uniting revolutionaries and have always been prepared to debate with other groups on the left and to do joint work. Not to create bigger groups just for the sake of it, but for unity on a principled Marxist basis - otherwise it is useless. It was in this tradition that we were quite prepared to come and listen to your proposals and have since entered into further discussions.

We heard about the rapprochement appeal you had made and the debate going on through discussions we were having with the Republican Worker Tendency which we had split with in 1989 and now are re-engaging in talks. We are now also talking to the International Socialist Group, another split from the SWP.

We have worked with each other in the past and read each other’s journals. What for you has been the barrier in the past towards unity?

For us it always was the Stalinist tradition, which we saw you as emerging from - in the CPGB and your attitude to the Soviet Union. But as to politics in Britain we have found ourselves on common ground in many areas - particularly your attitude to the Labour Party, to standing candidates, for a minority movement and, importantly, the necessity for programme.

It was also true that when you began publication of The Leninist, prior to the Weekly Worker, you were filling a gap to the left of the CPGB, which the SWP was not filling with its ‘ultra-leftism’, as I saw it at the time. Certainly that journal’s politics seemed much more genuinely Marxist than anything we had seen in the CPGB. Our critique of the SWP began as a Leninist critique also, although we never called ourselves Leninist.

In a way our struggles were similar - your fight for the CPGB and the original formation of the Leninist tendency; and our fight in the SWP, trying to form a faction, although we were being excluded for our disagreements. We, like yourselves, do not believe you should leave an organisation because you disagree with this or that. You must fight to confront and overcome these problems.

Do you think the SWP itself can be transformed?

It is clear that a revolutionary party will not come out of the simple growth of the SWP. Cliff’s strategy of just accumulating more people will not work. Without correct politics in the face of the growing economic, social and constitutional crisis it cannot continue on its present course. Real life will intrude. There has to be an alternative that makes sense - both in theory and in practice - otherwise the SWP could just break up in demoralisation.

We have to talk to all groups on the left, including the SWP and Militant Labour, to unite the best elements into an effective organisation. The discussions that we are having now are just the start - it is a debate for the whole of the left. This will have to be a programmatic debate, because we cannot unite our forces without a programme for action - a centralised and democratic agreement of what the party is fighting for, without which you cannot have democratic centralism.

On reforging the party of the working class - how should discussions between us go forward?

We argue for a revolutionary Socialist Workers Party, and you the reforged  Communist Party. The difference between us is that we associate the actual CPGB with Stalinism. We don’t disagree on what we need. We need a Party which is part of the class - a democratic centralist Party with a revolutionary programme.

A reforged Communist Party has to ditch the Stalinist traditions of the CPGB. As part of that process I think we will have to re-analyse the Soviet Union, which you are already doing. Discussions with us will help take that analysis forward, I hope. State capitalists and CPGBers, because of our respective sectarian heritage, have not been able to discuss face to face before. The fact that we are talking to each other is a big thing in itself, even if our organisations no longer reflect those old ‘Stalinist’ and ‘Trotskyist’ labels. I would say that your view that Russia was bureaucratic socialist is actually closer to orthodox Trotskyism than anything.

Our attitudes to the Soviet Union should not necessarily keep us in separate organisations. The break-up of the Soviet Union can lead to new debate on the left and a shifting of positions, making a process of rapprochement possible. Those people who are fighting for unity will be the ones who will make things happen.

But we do have to come together around a common programme before we can work together, and this has to be a programme which can not only unite the whole left, but rally the working class.

Hopefully our discussions and joint activity will help to break down some sectarian barriers. Whether we end up fusing or not, we hope that both organisations will develop through this process. I also hope that others on the left will be interested in our discussions, which will be openly available in print for all revolutionaries and militants to read and take part in.