Left wing activity or communist work?

When the entire Gravesend branch resigned from the Socialist Workers Party, we printed an edited version of their resignation letter (Weekly Worker 111). Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group discusses recent documents by two former members

COMRADE GILL, former Gravesend branch secretary, in her appraisal of SWP politics quotes John Rees, editor of the SWP’s International Socialism journal. Rees says:

“Our aim is to build local roots, to gain serious implantation in local workplaces ... to be at the head of (or initiate) local struggles over every issue from racism to new roads ... we still have before us the task of winning the trust of the poorly housed, the steward who leads the strike, the tenant faced with eviction, the parents whose school is under attack.”

“Exactly,” says Gill. “I joined the SWP because I believed, and I still do, that those should be the aims of any revolutionary party.” Yet here is exactly what is wrong.

Ask yourself if such a quote could have come from a leading fascist. Don’t fascists want to get roots in the working class on every issue from racism to new roads? Don’t they want to win the trust of the poorly housed, etc? The fascists, of course, have an answer for the poorly housed. It is to be found in their programme for British society. What distinguishes a communist from a fascist is not in the desire to sink roots into the working class. It is the profound differences in their programmes for revolution or counterrevolution. This is not just a cheap debating point. It goes to the heart of the problem.

For Gill implicitly agrees with Rees that there is nothing wrong with the SWP programme. Although she cannot tell us what it is or how it guided her intervention in the class, it is beyond criticism. So much so that she hasn’t thought about it or inquired into it. Yet it is the programme question that is at the centre of the problem of building a communist party and what attitude to take to the SWP.

Gill’s document was one of two documents sent to me by ex-members of Gravesend SWP. The first, from comrade Reg, was an angry denunciation of a critical comment I made in the Weekly Worker (No 111) about their resignation letter. The other, from comrade Gill, was a rather more reflective consideration of her experience of the SWP. Before criticising some of the politics in these documents, it should be said that Gravesend SWP deserves praise for its principled stand in solidarity with an unjustly expelled member, Chris Weller.

The Gravesend resignation letter says, “We do not now think the SWP can be reforged, reformed or changed from within.” In itself, not something we would want to take issue with. But instead of concluding that we must therefore step up the struggle against the central committee, they then conclude the opposite. There should be no further struggle against the central committee or “we retreat from active politics in the real world.”

This is also the ultra-left conclusion of the now infamous ‘reformability’ thesis advanced by the Republican Worker Tendency. The last thing bruised and demoralised ex-SWP members want to do is have any contact with the SWP. This is an understandable emotion. But it betrays an anarchist, not Marxist view of politics. The Bolsheviks were forged out of struggle against the Mensheviks, not by capitulation or running away.

Comrade Reg, sensitive to this charge, is keen to point out to me that they still believe in the need for a party. Believing is not enough. It is what you do that counts. What they are doing is looking for unity with left activists and anarchists, rather than making their first concern unity with other communists.

There is nothing new in this. In 1982 virtually the whole of the Bradford branch of the SWP resigned in protest over the expulsion of Geoff Robinson. They came to the same conclusion as Gravesend. They were going to do more and more local activity. Bradford comrades decided that they would not waste time discussing such esoteric matters as the SWP programme, under which they had been labouring for years. This was hifalutin theory, for intellectuals, not for the likes of rank and file SWP members. Instead they would continue with the SWP politics of ‘activism’, by being super activists in the Socialist Federation.

The Socialist Federation did not survive long as super activists. At about the same time, Red Action was set up by ex-SWP members. The name also paid homage to the SWP tradition of activism which these comrades felt, especially in relation to anti-fascism, was abandoned. As soon as they began independent political work, nearly all the early 1980s SWP dissidents revealed their theory of spontaneity and super activism, their hostility to theoretical debate and a Marxist programme.

These comrades did not suddenly invent these attitudes when they were unceremoniously kicked out. They learnt them in the SWP. They saw them as the best aspect of SWP politics, to be reproduced in their new groups. No real surprise. Leaving the SWP was an organisational break, not a theoretical or programmatic advance.

These groups had no known programmatic differences with the SWP. They thought the SWP programme was basically correct, but the leadership were a bunch of shits. This is probably the view of the silent majority inside the SWP today. For them, everything would be alright if the SWP was genuinely democratic and accountable. This is the politics that the new International Socialist Group is trying to tap into.

Today, programme is the key to understanding the politics of the SWP and its various satellites. Those opposed to the central committee fall into two camps. The ISG and the Gravesend group have made no criticism of the SWP programme. As was implied in the document I received from Gill, she shares the same programme as John Rees of the central committee, and wants these politics rooted in the class. So does the ISG. The RDG and the RWT advocate a different programme.

The revolutionary programme makes the vital connection between revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice. Without programme there can be no revolutionary practice. This is why the programme provides the foundation for a communist party and its activity. The SWP programme is obscure. Hence the link between theory and practice is equally obscure. This enables reformist practice to flourish.

The programme question is at the centre of the difference between leftwing activism and communist activity. It goes to the heart of the party question and our differences with Gravesend SWP. Leftwing activists work in campaigns and trade unions and fight for reforms. The British working class movement does not suffer from a lack of leftwing activists. When an issue arises spontaneously, whether it be the poll tax, or strike action, nuclear disarmament or animal exports, left activists will be campaigning.

Being a communist is fundamentally different. Communists are not inactive people. They can be found wherever people are fighting for change. But communist work is based on a different set of priorities. For communist work to have any solid foundations it must be based on revolutionary theory, programme and tactics. Since there is no one great bible that will tell us all the answers, we have to engage in ideological struggle, polemic and debate and make democratic decisions. This is also practical activity that takes time and energy.

Communists agree with Lenin when he said, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” He might have added, ‘But of course without revolutionary theory, there can be plenty of leftwing activism.’

Every communist has a duty to engage in theoretical work at whatever political level they are. Communists have to raise themselves to an ever higher level. It does not come naturally to everybody. But it has to be done. We have to create a culture which positively encourages this.

Communists devote time and energy to building a communist party. This is practical activity. To win support for the communist programme, we must finance, produce and distribute publications, newspapers, propaganda and conduct communist agitation. We must organise ourselves around such work. This is also practical work, not to be confused with being the secretary of your local CND.

Communists participate in the day to day struggles of the working class not as left activists, but as communists with a definite programme, tactics and organisation. This is not one-way traffic. It creates an interaction with the advanced sections of the class, in order to raise the revolutionary consciousness, combativity and organisation of the class.

Today the terrible weakness of the British working class is that it is full of left activists, many exiled from the Labour Party. But there is no Communist Party.

Reg tells us all about the activity they did in Gravesend. They were at various times secretaries or convenors of the CND branch, Miners Support Group, Anti-Apartheid Movement, Anti-Nazi League, Anti-Poll Tax Union, Health Campaign. We can respect these comrades for their struggles.

But when Reg argues that this kind of activism is the foundation for a communist party, he is wrong. He says,

“We reject out of hand that such a party can be built only ‘top down’. Trees grow from their roots. Houses are built from foundations. We are trying to construct such roots and foundations.”

This sounds sensible. But it mixes up “roots” and “foundations”. Reg is thinking like a left activist, that the foundations of a party are in local campaigning. Communists think that the foundation of communist work is the programme. And the foundation of the programme is in the revolutionary theory of the international working class.

Local work without any programmatic basis is like trying to put the roof on before putting down the foundation. It simply does not work. The proof of this pudding is in Gravesend. Despite all the excellent campaigning work done by these comrades, there is now no communist organisation in Gravesend, not even of the pseudo-communist SWP variety. Local activism cannot build a communist party, if that activity is on rotten foundations.

The Gravesend comrades have burst out of this SWP shell into the light of day. They now seem set to become leftwing activists no longer enmeshed in the pseudo-communism of the SWP. If these comrades are real communists, as Reg claims, and not simply left activists, then their first task is to seek out and work for unity with other communists. They should at least begin a dialogue with those like themselves who come from the SWP. But there are other groups of communists, with whom closer links can be made. They must start to take seriously their theoretical responsibilities and their duty to contribute to developing a communist programme. Their experience suggests they have a lot to offer.

If the CPGB, RDG, Open Polemic, and RWT can begin working together, then the Gravesend group must also join in.