Revolutionaries, unity and the SWP

For a democratic workers' party!

OVER FORTY people attended the July 9 fringe meeting organised by the Provisional Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Revolutionary Democratic Group (faction of the SWP) at ‘Marxism 95’ - the SWP’s annual school.

The meeting was convened to discuss the open letter to the SWP central committee - ‘For Communist Unity’ - signed by the two organisations. It began with brief openings from John Bridge (CPGB) and Steve Freeman (RDG). Both speakers emphasised the need for democracy in a revolutionary party - not as a ‘nice’ thing in itself, but as an indispensable element. Without genuine democratic centralism, both speakers underlined, a revolutionary party cannot be built. Only sects are characterised by uniform views, by no discussion or dissent.

The discussion that followed from the floor was well informed, but illustrated the theoretical weaknesses of the majority of the left on the Party, the key contemporary question.

Those already in revolutionary organisations criticised the process of rapprochement that the CPGB and RDG are engaged in as “opportunist”. First, detailed programmatic agreement should be reached, and only then, apparently, should organisational unity follow.

This was the position of the Workers Power representative, of comrades from the International Bolshevik Tendency and - to a certain extent - of the speaker from the Republican Worker Tendency.

However, the programmatic unity of the Party is a process achieved by constant communist work, discussion and self-criticism. The type of ‘programmatic unity’ these organisations suggest is dry, sterile and semi-biblical. Their history of splits, divisions and sectarian impotence is eloquent testimony to this.

In contrast, John Bridge stated that the basis for communist unity is acceptance (not 100% agreement) of the Party programme and disciplined work. Within the broad strategic parameters of a programme - the need for revolution, workers’ councils versus parliament, etc - there could be a wide difference of opinions on many matters among revolutionaries. With genuine democratic centralism - the provision for open factions and platforms to contend and struggle - the vital unity of the Party can be maintained and developed.

The IBT also suggested that while debate is permissible between members of the organisation, this must be a closed, “internal” affair. Workers Power did not comment on this at the meeting, but it is certainly a view it shares.

Nothing illustrates a sect-like understanding of working class organisation better than this. John Bridge responded by emphasising the importance of arguing every theoretical and political controversy publicly so that the debate is the property of the whole of the working class, so that all learn.

Steve Freeman agreed, pointing out that independent thought was not a barrier to unity in action but the only basis for correct action, achieved through the open struggle of ideas.

Both the IBT and Workers Power are splits from larger organisations (the Spartacist League and the SWP respectively). These fragments exist precisely because ‘dissidents’ were not allowed to develop and defend their thinking within their parent organisation. They need to learn the lesson and not repeat history as farce.

The fractious and divided nature of the revolutionary left is its major weakness. This weakness is fundamentally theoretical, rooted in a misconception of the nature of a working class party. None of the groups could present concrete, practical alternatives to the living process advocated by the RDG and CPGB. Instead, “united fronts” were called for.

These consist of revolutionary organisations cooperating in single or limited issue joint campaign work - the Brian Douglas Campaign was cited by the WP rep as one example.

But this is simply a recipe to continue the current hopelessly divided state of the left. The working class needs a party. A party will contain many different tendencies and divisions. The idea that such a party will be built by Workers Power, the IBT or any other sect simply growing bigger and bigger is quite hopeless.

Supporters of the Colin Roach Centre were also present in the meeting. These comrades are typical of many good activists repelled by the sectarian and undemocratic nature of the left. Their approach to working class politics is not a communist one, however. They tend to tail the spontaneity of the class. Nevertheless, some from this milieu are starting to see the need for a working class party and to recognise that the process of rapprochement is ambitious, but one with a real chance of success. As one comrade put it, “I have many disagreements with the CPGB, but if other groups join in, I believe it could be the basis for a real workers’ party. I certainly hope so.”

The real significance of the meeting should be underlined. The RDG and the comrades from the CPGB come from very different traditions. They are uniting on the basis of pro-partyism, without renouncing their political views or distinctive positions. This is precisely the method communists need to build a genuine mass workers’ party, not just another mono-idea sect.

Mark Fischer