Different times

Politics and organisation

The CPGB AGM looked back at the past year and forward to our current tasks. Mickey Coulter reports

Sunday September 24 saw CPGB members from across the country gather together in London for the organisation’s annual general meeting. The AGM cast an eye back at the year that was 2015, its positive and negative aspects, debated our future work in the light of this, and considered how organisational tasks, and responsibility for them, are directed and shared out.

Mike Macnair for the Provisional Central Committee kicked things off with a reminder of the - relatively simple - goals of the organisation: that is, the formation of a politically and organisationally independent party of the working class, imbued with a proletarian-internationalist perspective. We call this a Communist Party, and it remains our primary aim. Our orientation to this end, he added, does not imply an attempt, like every other left group in existence, to go directly to ‘the masses’ in order to ‘build the party’ - especially given how fruitless this has been for the sects themselves.

According to the dominant left ideology, ‘going to the masses’ avoids sectarianism, but in practice it means little more then avoiding an open presentation of a Marxist programme, open political disagreement and hammering things out openly. The bureaucratic, activism-centred groups usually ignore the existence of rival groups, but this is in fact a dead end, which only produces and reproduces a powerful sectarian poison within the movement. Nonetheless, he believed that fundamentally it was to the currently constituted left we should look for the raw material to bring about the democratic, mass Communist Party and international of the future, or at least its seeds.

Looking forward to 2016, the comrade began with the current economic situation. We should expect a continued period of low growth and of the progressive manifestations of the gradual decline of the United States as the main world power. Likewise, we should expect the decline of the left to continue - a decline he backdated to around the time of the collapse of the USSR: traditional Trotskyist organisations had anticipated a workers’ revolution in the former Soviet Union, and when this failed to materialise they were left theoretically at sea. Their bureaucratic centralism, combined with their sectarian proliferation, was totally unappealing to the working class.

In addition, the appearance of new left parties, such as Die Linke, Syriza and Podemos, had failed to benefit the far left in Britain. There was no significant growth in 2015 - either in the UK or more widely in the world. In his judgement, the Labour left and the new Momentum organisation, formed to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, were weaker than their 1970s and 80s predecessors.

We are not living in a period of general leftwing or working class political revival, but of continue decline, he concluded. Yet looking back to our 2015 AGM, the political scene was in many ways very different. A year ago, the general election was still looming, there was no Corbynmania, and Left Unity still looked as though it had some life.

The main problem for LU was that its leadership persisted in imagining that, despite left Labour capturing the heights of the Labour Party and drawing hundreds of thousands towards it, LU’s left Labour politics plus activism would enable it to attract the thousands who it imagined would soon become disillusioned with Labour. Despite small but significant victories within LU - the Communist Platform has, for example, helped push back ‘safe spaces’ and drawn attention to the utterly insane party constitution - the leadership has for all practical purposes ignored the developments within Labour under the rubric of ‘business as usual’.

In the debate fellow PCC member Jack Conrad concurred that we might well be looking at continued economic stagnation in 2016, the fact is that another catastrophic downturn was also possible - which, he thought, would alone provide the circumstances in which Labour could be propelled into office come the 2020 election. Looking towards the coming period, the comrade stressed the role that Labour Party Marxists - the group that takes its inspiration from the CPGB’s Draft programme - could play in equipping Labour members with a strategic outlook. We must try to ensure that Momentum is not, like many before it, run aground through ‘movementism’ by either its leadership, or those operating in its margins, including members of LU, the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party, who believe “the movement” and “the next demonstration”, not the internal Labour Party struggle, to be of prime importance.

Sarah McDonald thought that groups like the SWP and SPEW would remain confused about the Labour Party, having no interest in fighting the battles within it against its bourgeois pole, and yet unsure how to lead its membership into the so-called ‘real’ struggle - marches, strikes and demonstrations.

For Charles Gradnitzer Labour’s witch-hunting clauses should not be a significant obstacle to joining or engaging with Labour, so long as the right was not in total control locally. In his view Momentum was not split between those who wanted to turn outwards and others who thought we should concentrate on the internal Labour struggle, but that it would do both.

Looking forward to the coming year, comrade Farzad stated that questions of political economy were something of a weakness for our organisation and thought it was a good thing for the Weekly Worker to carry articles on the subject from the likes of Michael Roberts and Hillel Ticktin. Adding to the list of what Mike Macnair had considered our “good judgements” during 2015 (on Syriza, Corbynmania, Left Unity), comrade Farzad also mentioned our opposition to any outside intervention in Syria, which saw many on the left demanding imperialist intervention.

Following this discussion, comrade Conrad gave a brief introduction looking forward to 2016 and our tasks. This session merged with a discussion on the party’s internal organisation that had been sparked by a short document circulated by comrades Tina Becker and Sarah McDonald.

In comrade Conrad’s view Left Unity’s future did not look bright - in many parts of the country it has been substantially weakened or no longer functions at all. In view of this, while the CPGB has not totally given up on its LU work, it would be urging its supporters to focus more on the Labour Party, engaging with both Momentum and Labour Party Marxists. He anticipated that LPM would be looking to open up its ranks, whereas previously it had attempted to establish and retain its own distinctive political identity and programme. It should now welcome all comrades who accept the thrust of its established positions.

It was the task of communists in and around the Labour Party to emphasise that the 2020 elections, and ‘taking office’ generally, are not the main goals towards which we should strive, but rather the strengthening of the working class and its organisations, based upon their opposition to the existing order and a commitment to an alternative vision for the world. As for the Labour right, it is stuck with Corbyn for the time being, and will not be able to mount a successful coup in the short-term.

Turning to Hands Off the People of Iran (Hopi), a campaign within which CPGB comrades have played a leading role, comrade Conrad stated that the PCC’s view is that an organisation with a more specific, pro-working class solidarity remit is needed, now that the immediate threat of military action or outright war has clearly subsided. It should perhaps be renamed to reflect that change.

In terms of our wider perspectives, he stressed that the Weekly Worker would go on attempting to demonstrate to the rest of the left the way basic questions of Marxism and communist organisation should be tackled, and that, despite its weaknesses in this or that respect, it was an excellent paper, an outstanding achievement, and one that we should look to continually improve.

As far as our organisational affairs are concerned, comrade McDonald spoke to the contents of the short document that had been circulated. Since Mark Fischer had to step down from the post of national organiser, essential party tasks were now falling to a few already busy individuals. In addition the weakness of some cells necessitated a rethink on how to move forward - she questioned whether there was a need for a cell that specifically focuses on Left Unity at this time, for example. The discussion document recommended locally based rather than online cells as being generally more effective.

In terms of reorienting and renaming Hopi, some comrades argued that this might add too much to our existing work, which in any case ought to be shared out better. In the absence of a national organiser, there was also concern expressed that one or two PCC members had perhaps taken on too much. The debate that followed helped enlighten all, with a little heat too, as to the thinking of the PCC and the amount of work involved.

Comrade Farzad stated that a reorientated/renamed Hopi would not mean a whole lot of extra work. In her view the organisational work taken on by the PCC was hardly excessive and the PCC should seek to inform itself better in relation to such tasks, rather than relying on one person, as perhaps it had done in the past.

As far as the recurring burden on particular individuals resulting from the organisation of certain events - the CPGB’s annual summer school, Communist University, was specified by several comrades - both Paul Demarty and Mike Macnair were sympathetic, while Laurie McCauley thought that it was wrong to generate the idea that organisational and political work were two separate things.

Comrade Conrad commented that the PCC had brought its views on our 2015 activities and its perspectives for the coming year to this AGM precisely to avoid putting the organisational cart before the political horse, and, since comrades seemed pretty happy with the PCC’s proposals for the coming period, we now knew what we would be organising around.

For ex-national organiser Mark Fischer it was important that knowledge relating to the functioning of party tasks be shared, so as to decrease reliance on a few individuals, who, after all, may suddenly fall under a bus or whatever. He argued that we must continue to exert every effort to improve the way we function, as well as our collective culture, which means that the PCC as a whole must be better acquainted with the distribution of tasks and responsibilities.

As the discussion continued, it seemed evident to me that greater clarity had been brought to the subject and many concerns had been assuaged. The general view was that it had been a useful debate and the circulated document contained some good points.