Ideas to transform Labour
William Sarsfield reports on the weekend’s CPGB members’ meeting
While the agenda of the CPGB’s March 6 aggregate had to be juggled at the last minute due to a speaker’s illness, the two openings presented were thought-provoking and sparked plenty of discussion.
Jack Conrad kicked off the day on the situation in the Labour Party and our role in the civil war that the right has launched (and is more energetically prosecuting than the left, it must be said). Early in his talk, he noted that - in view of the surprise landslide victory of Corbyn - it was perhaps worthwhile comrades rereading Plekhanov’s On the role of the individual in history, and in particular his comments on the interplay between the talents and attributes of the particular humans involved, the objective circumstances that they are presented with and accident. In an intervention later in the day, Moshe Machover added the qualification that, while Corbyn’s addition to the leadership ballot courtesy of the “morons” was an accident, his crushing victory certainly was not. It was to be explained by the contradictions inherent to the Labour Party: “necessity sometimes makes itself apparent through contingency”, as the comrade put it - another example he pointed to being the success of Bernie Sanders in the US.
Comrade Conrad firmly restated the orthodox Marxist position on the Labour Party and gave us a thumbnail history of its early period and the attitudes taken by members of Second International, such as Lenin and Kautsky, to the new formation. Usefully, he reminded the audience that the largest constituent organisation - the British Socialist Party (which went on to form the Communist Party itself in 1920) - had been an affiliate of Labour from 1916 and that a very high percentage of the CPGB members in those early days would have held dual membership, including some MPs who came over to the communists.
He also used an amusing anecdote from the Weekly Worker series on the formation and early years of the party to illustrate the point about the communists’ close relationship with Labour at that time. The debate on possible CPGB affiliation to Labour provoked some heated exchanges in the first congress. One delegate from Wales roundly denounced the possibility of changing the Labour Party to a body that could genuinely serve long-term working class interests - and underlined his leftist-leaning point with words to the effect of “And I should know - I’ve been a Labour councillor for years!”
The political situation we currently face in Labour is historically unique, comrade Conrad stressed. Corbyn is definitively not a George Lansbury type - ie, a lefty actively promoted by the Labour bureaucracy to pacify a restless and alienated membership. From the moment he was elected - before it, actually - a one-sided civil war had broken out in Labour with the vicious opposition of the majority of the parliamentary party. These foul rightwingers are biding their time so far as a direct challenge to Corbyn’s leadership is concerned, only because the polls tell them that the man would, if anything, be re-elected with an even bigger majority. They would be in for a spanking and they know it.
However, in the comrade’s view they were unlikely to do us the favour of simply walking à la Social Democratic Party of yesteryear. That rightist 1981 split from Labour coincided with a relatively strong Liberal Party and the subsequent SDP-Liberal alliance was able to prosper for a time. Clearly, the political landscape today is far less hopeful for a similar development, not least because of the enjoyably parlous state of the Lib Dems. No, these treacherous careerists will stay and fight.
That said, Jack noted that there had been a small surge of resignations from the party in the aftermath of Corbyn’s victory - between 15,000 and 20,000 according to reports (although, of course, that number has been dwarfed by the thousands of recruits). And “good riddance” the comrade added, to universal approval in the room.
But, while the rank and file of the right wing may have contracted, the new mass base of the left is not homogeneous either politically or demographically. It tends to be divided between older ‘returnees’ who are out of touch with the new innovations in the party’s rules, structures, etc, and much younger, politically raw recruits (the comrade later defined these types as having “Owen Jones” politics). The political (and cultural) problems that this poses in cohering a left that is able to effectively deploy its numerical advantage in the organisation are not insurmountable, but should not be underestimated either. An important element in this will be to defeat the idea that the internal party politics of the fight against the right is ‘boring’ - a diversion from ‘the real struggle’ (ie, demos, strikes, etc), as so many comrades who should know better put it. Rather, it is a “very welcome development”, comrade Conrad observed, that these people are now in a serious organisation - “better to have 10,000 people in a party than simply 100,000 people turning up on a demo”, as he put it.
Taking “a step sideways”, comrade Conrad then turned his attention to a left whose lack of theory “has been utterly exposed” by developments in Labour. While it was hard to say whether the new influx into Labour represented a shift to the left or the right by the people involved, on the organised left we have definitely seen utter confusion.
As examples, the Independent Socialist Network, the Socialist Party in England and Wales, Socialist Resistance, Workers Power, Socialist Appeal and Left Unity were cited. The comrade caustically dubbed these profoundly disorientated comrades “leftwing flotsam and jetsam” - they have “no theory, no strategy - they simply flip” from one mutually contradictory position to another.
However, the comrade wondered “what better circumstances” could we possibly have imagined to open up the Labour Party to affiliation from all working class political groups and organisations? Yet the vast majority of the organised left is programmatically and strategically adrift. They have “internalised defeat”, as one comrade put it in the debate, and thus become simply a “protest movement”.
The left in Labour obsesses about the elections scheduled for 2020. But what sort of social and economic programme would a victorious Labour Party under Corbyn implement? Would he stick to any of its more radical promises? We have seen him buckle already. Would we perhaps see a British version of Syriza? The left is not politically equipped to navigate a crisis like this.
Comrade Conrad returned to Lenin’s tactics towards Labour at the end of the opening. He reminded us that Lenin’s ‘hanged man’ approach was premised on his plausible view of the world as being ripe for revolution. Therefore, what was posed were tactics to expose Labour. Obviously, we are under no illusions that the situation we face is comparable. Thus we need a long-term strategy, a protracted fight to make Labour into a permanent united front of our class. We may not succeed in this, but anything else is to implicitly or explicitly attempt to go round Labour and Labourism.
Next, the comrade spoke about the Labour Party Marxists organisation that the CPGB has been involved in. It needs to be developed in qualitative and quantitative ways and make itself far more Labour-rooted - although he stressed that this does not mean an assimilation into the party apparatus. We are in there to propagate ideas, not primarily to win positions.
Finally, he reminded comrades that, while we aim to transform Labour, that is not in contradiction to our central goal - the creation of a Communist Party that alone can lead our class in the battle for humanity’s emancipation.
In the discussion that followed, friend of the CPGB Moshé Machover wanted clarification on what we were calling on individuals rather than organisations to actually do: “People who read the Weekly Worker - what should they do?” (“Definitely join Labour!” the reply came later.) Alluding to comrade Conrad’s comments on the left’s tendency to tout activism as ‘proper’ working class politics, comrade Machover put forward the notion that this was actually an expression of them having “internalised the defeats” of the previous period - an idea that comrade Farzad Kamangar picked up on and developed in her immediately following intervention.
It was a “good way to put it”, she thought. In addition, activism is a “cover” for not “seriously re-interrogating” your political positions - she used the example of the Socialist Workers Party’s absurd gyrations over the Arab spring. Activism diverts serious attention from drawing up a critical balance sheet of disastrous interventions like this - indeed, any attempt to do so is normally denounced as time-wasting and a diversion from the next activity … then the next, ad infinitum.
The challenge for LPM must be to become an “extreme opposition” to things like Corbyn’s economic position, while at the same time rooting itself in the party.
The aggregate’s second session was on ‘Corbynomics’ and was led off by comrade Farzad. She apologised for the sketchy and provisional nature of her opening - she had been given very little time to prepare. Nonetheless, the meeting clearly found the item a useful beginning to a much more detailed and theorised critique of the economic programme of Corbyn, John McDonnell and the ‘expert’ advisers they have surrounded themselves with.
The comrade warned at the outset that “some of what I’m going to tell you is extremely depressing” - and she lived up to her word. For instance, she drew our attention to a February 2016 McDonnell speech in the London School of Economics - ominously titled ‘Rewriting the rules of the market economy to achieve shared prosperity’. McDonnell has drawn around him a group of what he dubs “respected figures” to develop Labour’s economic policy.
These “respected figures” include economist Danny Blanchflower CBE; Preem Sikka, who has done some good work on non-dom tax; plus Paul Mason, Yanis Varoufakis, Nobel prize-winning Joseph Stiglitz and others - all brought together to produce “new ideas” for what is dubbed a “balanced economy”. Comrade Farzad noted that a significant absence from the list of bodies that these luminaries were consulting in their work were the trade unions or any other working class bodies. Being approached instead are the likes of British Telecomm, the Confederation of British Industry, the Bank of England and Microsoft (comrade Farzadcommented ironically that if you’re looking for “new ideas”, Microsoft are really the last people you call).
The comrade made three key points in her wide-ranging opening.
First, that from the Labour leadership’s point of view the main aim of gathering these advisors together and the associated consultation was, in John McDonnell’s words, to “win back economic credibility” and convince people that Labour can “balance the books”. In fact, McDonnell was actually introduced in the LSE meeting referenced above as “one of the few Labour politicians who has balanced the books” - an allusion to his time as treasurer of Livingstone’s Greater London Council. An institution like the GLC is one thing, but comrade Farzad blasted the notion that a national economy can be treated in the same manner as “a silly idea”.
Similarly, another comrade - speaking in the debate following the opening - suggested that the notion should be “laughed at”. A national debt has been intrinsic to the development of capitalism as a system and the fact that the left in the party, not least shadow chancellor McDonnell, was bowing to reactionary, essentially petty bourgeois notions of ‘book balancing’ shows the success of the pressure exerted by the right.
Secondly, the material our comrade had read or watched online that suggested that automation and technological innovation provide an objective basis for “shared prosperity” made her think for a moment that “I was in a business meeting at work”. Nobel prizewinner Stiglitz uses this phase quite frequently. While he has done some quite useful work on inequality, he sees the growth of this inequality as being simply a result of structural reforms, consciously initiated by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher. In fact, as comrade Farzad suggested, it is more accurate to see the post-World War II Keynesian period as the exception and the idea that it can be repeated - that we can revive the ‘Spirit of 45’, as it were - is “day-dreaming, complete madness”, she emphasised.
In fact, capital itself has reverted more to its true character - destructive, war-mongering, producing failed states and harsh treatment of workers. This development is “impossible to reverse”, comrade Farzadsuggested.
Thirdly, comrade Farzad made the damning observation that all the versions of a “shared, participatory economy” that McDonnell’s team of “respected advisors” might dream up could, if it became politically expedient, be lifted wholesale by the right and peddled as their own solutions to a crisis. In today’s world, big business itself uses all the same buzz-words of inclusiveness, participation, equality and the environment. There is nothing inherently radical - let alone socialist - about any of it.