Which side are you on?
Why is the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain willing to be an ally of the Labour thought police, asks Dave Lynch
We are in the middle of a war inside the Labour Party, with the party bureaucracy - inspired by the right and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party - busily seeking to trample its ‘authority’ over the rank and file. It is time to stand up, take sides with the left and defeat the Labour traitors.
If this is a statement of the bleeding obvious to make in a communist newspaper, we write it in order to make clear our disgust at the attitude of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain (CPB), and its general secretary, Robert Griffiths, to some of the issues at stake.
Griffiths has recently written to the Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, to assure him that the CPB “does not engage in entryism”.1 Griffiths writes:
According to reports in The Guardian and other media outlets, … Labour Party staff have produced a research paper [that] links the Communist Party to ‘entryism’ in the Labour Party. In particular, that research paper cites a report made to our party’s executive committee [that] on June 25 declared that “defending the socialist leadership of the Labour Party at all costs” should be a priority for communists. Nowhere in that executive committee report … do we propose that our members join or register with the Labour Party. “At all costs” is a rhetorical flourish that cannot, obviously, be taken literally!2
So far, so dull and so pointless.
However, just so McNicol is clear how earnest the intentions of Griffiths are in this regard, the letter continues:
Should you or your staff have any evidence that Communist Party members have joined the Labour Party without renouncing their CP membership, or engaged in any similar subterfuge, please inform me, so that action can be taken against them for bringing our party into disrepute.3
So, let us be clear what is being proposed here: in the middle of a civil war, with the Labour Party rank and file struggling with the bureaucracy over who should be the arbiter of matters such as suitability for membership, Griffiths is prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with McNicol and suggest that it is a Labour bureaucrat who is the final arbiter of any such issues; and, worse, is prepared to scab on any CPB member who has taken out Labour membership and do McNicol’s job for him. This wretched attempt by Griffiths to put himself forward as junior cockroach monitor is one that should be met with widespread contempt by the Labour left. It is actually the business of the whole Labour membership to decide who is a member of the party - not the likes of McNicol or would-be Boy Scout helpers such as Griffiths.
How did things come to this pass? The seeds of such an approach are, of course, embedded in the undynamic and cautious manner in which the ‘official’ CPGB approached the Labour Party in the 1960s and 1970s. This was instantly apparent in October 2015, shortly after Corbyn’s election as leader. The CPB wrote then:
Given the balance of forces in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the requirements of Labour’s cumbersome policy-making procedures, Corbyn is now constrained in terms of the political positions he can adopt publicly. The need to compromise forced upon him and his supporters should not be used to spread cynicism, pessimism and defeatism or to call into question the significance of his victory. That can be left to the ultra-leftists, sectarians and anarchists. Criticism of the compromises in question should be firm, but temperate and mindful of realities.4
The CPB also instructed its members to “combat negativism, adventurism and defeatism”.5 In practice, and in the context of a torpid and low-level political culture, this has merely translated into an empty display of solidarity with Corbyn. The CPB members we have encountered recently have simply turned themselves into uncritical cheerleaders - frankly useless for the battle raging inside the Labour Party. In this situation, with the CPB desperately concerned not to rock the boat, communists, even of the Morning Star variety, joining the Labour Party in any numbers and advocating the particular policies of this or that external body become an ‘embarrassment’ to Corbyn and therefore need to be expelled voluntarily by the CPB itself, kowtowing to the Labour right’s definition of membership.
For an organisation that prides itself on somehow being the continuation of the ‘official’ CPGB, we can note in passing the huge gulf that separates the CPB from the CPGB of the 1920s. Whatever our many criticisms of the party back then, we can note with pride the militant manner in which the CPGB fought back against the bureaucracy that was hounding it out of the Labour Party, organising the National Left Wing Movement to fight against expulsions and the disaffiliation of branches. Unsurprisingly, no-one in the CPGB of the 1920s had the enterprising idea of expelling their own members and doing the Labour bureaucracy’s dirty work for it. There was no question of the CPGB turning down Labour Party membership in the cause of not embarrassing the Labour left.
We can also read in Griffiths’ letter an implied threat to those in the CPB thinking of decamping into the Labour Party and arguing for the CPB’s politics. Back in September 2015, the CPB was already fielding concerns that “Jeremy Corbyn’s victory and the left turn in the Labour Party might result in membership defections from the CP”.6 While at this point the group noted “news has been received centrally of four or five such resignations - and there have no doubt been a few more unreported ones”,7 we can be certain that there have been further membership defections (particular among those large numbers who just hold a CPB card and do no organised work for it) and that close CPB sympathisers will have signed up to the Labour Party in large numbers. There was already a big drop in the CPB membership from December 2014 to December 2015, when it fell from 917 to 772. The CPB tries to explain away these figures by arguing that it has applied a more strict interpretation of rules in relation to arrears.8 However, some of this drop is undoubtedly accounted for by the falling away of membership in the wake of Corbyn’s victory in 2015.
The CPB and the Morning Star, together with the CPB’s forerunners in the Communist Campaign Group, do not have a particularly happy record in terms of even written support for those on the receiving end of witch-hunts in the Labour Party. When the purges against Militant were underway in 1986, the Morning Star took a rather ambiguous position on the matter. While it did not line itself up to support expulsions in the manner of the New Communist Party at the time, it refused to defend Militant and identified it as a problem.9 Even worse, before his death in 2013, the CPB used to give many political platforms to Jim Mortimer, the Labour Party’s hapless former general secretary, who, despite some apparent reservations about expulsions, was prepared to front the initial purge on Militant in the most politically objectionable way. At the 1982 Labour Party conference, for example, Mortimer defined Militant, laughably, as the “ideological allies” of the “right wing of the Conservative Party”.10 In terms of the CPB, by your former friends shall you be known. Left militants - particularly those from other political tendencies - should have no illusions whatsoever in the Morning Star’s consistent and continued support in any witch-hunt.
So what role does the CPB envision for itself, other than as a passive cheerleader for Corbyn and company, and being mindful of the “realities” and “compromises” that are part of maintaining a left-led Labour Party? The answer is in an echo of the ‘movementism’ that currently bedevils the Socialist Workers Party. The CPB executive committee thinks “it can serve as a bridge between the new and young left in the Labour Party and anti-austerity, peace and environmental campaigns on the one hand and the organised labour movement on the other”.11
This is nonsense on a number of levels. First, the CPB is simply too small to carry out this role. As we have seen above, the organisation’s membership at the end of 2015 stood at the historically low level of 772, around half the total of its founding membership in 1988. In any case, these formal totals are relatively meaningless. The CPB has no more than around 150 members active at any level and is currently embarked on yet another ‘renewal’ process to desperately try and inspire its inactive membership into life. As Griffiths himself put it in 2015, when asked about the CPB’s rivals to the title of ‘Communist Party’, “We’re 10 times [sic] bigger than all the others put together, but I won’t make too much of that, because we’re still pretty small.”12 Quite how a disorganised rubbish heap such as the CPB can take on a grand design of inspiring the new left in the Labour Party is, ahem, somewhat difficult to comprehend.
True, the CPB does have some advantages over its rivals. Unfortunately, it is still the ideas of the CPB’s parliamentary programme, Britain’s road to socialism, that forms the base of much of the left’s strategic thinking inside the Labour Party (even though that relationship would be largely unconscious in all but a few cases). However attenuated, the idea of ‘getting rid of the Tories’, as a prelude to a succession of ever-leftward-moving governments working in a national silo, remains a predominant one that has its roots in the gradualist perspectives of ‘official communism’ in its dotage. Despite this, the CPB’s blunt refusal to organise these perspectives in the Labour Party in the context of younger and more varied forces joining in numbers renders that influence problematic and more marginalised.
The CPB does also have its main ‘inspiration’ and animator, the Morning Star, to connect with the Labour left, with Corbyn and his circle being readers and supporters. However, even beyond the downward spiral in its print circulation since the 1980s (with some putting the daily sale down to around 2,000), the paper suffers from a major contradiction. The fact that it shares a political line with the CPB (despite the loose involvement of some trade unions), means that it can never truly be seen as a broad left paper. Even though these are more agnostic times (in terms of the articles it produces and the attitude of some on the left), the Morning Star will never be anything other than a ‘Stalinist rag’ to a hardened group of politicos. For them, the paper is controversial by its very existence and the atrocious history of political prostitution (most notable more recently on its attitude to the Chinese workers’ paradise) that its name implies. On the other hand, the fact that CPB members have to distribute a publication often containing lowest-common-denominator political bilge means that the paper plays little or no role in cohering their organisation as communists.
Add now into that toxic mix the absurd idea of this small group joining hands with the right to expel its own members from the Labour Party and we can only suggest that anyone looking to take the comradely advice of the CPB over the coming months would be engaged in an act of political suicide.
4. Party Line October 14 2015.
9. See ‘The revenge of the living dead’ The Leninist July 1 1986.
10. Cited in M Crick The march of Militant London 1986, p201.
11. EC resolution for the 54th congress, 2016.