The exchange of letters between myself and Alan Gibson has on occasion been frustrating. But, especially given his last contribution, I think it has proved worthwhile (Letters, September 28).
Let me conclude this correspondence then, by answering his last letter, point by point.
1. Comrade Gibson believes that the CPGB defence of the principles of democratic centralism amounts to a “shibboleth”. Eg, it is “empty of real meaning” and merely serves as a means of “distinguishing” our organisation from the confessional sects. But then comrade Gibson, revealingly, says this: “every other left group … apply a different understanding (which is not to defend all those other versions of democratic centralism, many of which are, to varying degrees, effectively what I would personally understand as bureaucratic centralism).” Well, of course, I basically agree with him here. Most left groups - not all - practice not democratic centralism, but bureaucratic centralism (there are, though, those groups which reject the necessity of centralism altogether).
So where does that leave the idea that the CPGB’s democratic centralism is a “shibboleth”?
We defend the idea of ‘freedom of criticism and unity in action’: a two-sided formulation taken directly from the classic tradition of Marxism - in particular, of course, the Bolsheviks. But, presumably, given his internalisation of bureaucratic centralism, thanks to his long-time membership of the International ‘Bolshevik’ Tendency, comrade Gibson still cannot grasp the simple fact that freedom of criticism was the unproblematic norm amongst the Bolsheviks. He continues to find something unusual, something strange, something exceptional about the Bolsheviks openly debating Lenin’s April theses.
Revealingly, comrade Gibson puts it this way: “Decisions on whether or not to debate issues openly (in the public press) were the result of internal discussion and votes or consensus decisions - just as with any other political activity.
As I have readily admitted, I simply do not know exactly what happened with the leading Bolsheviks in terms of “internal discussion and votes or consensus decisions”, when it came to Lenin’s April theses. But it is certainly worth pointing out that, having read out the whole thesis to Bolshevik delegates attending the all-Russia conference of soviets on April 4 1917, Lenin was asked by the chair, Gregory Zinoviev, to immediately read it out once again. This time to “a joint meeting of Bolshevik and Menshevik delegates” (transcribing and printing facilities were severely limited at that precise moment in time). Though he was doubtless dog-tired, Lenin did as asked.
It should be emphasised, though, that this was before the April theses had been published in Pravda, before differences amongst leading Bolsheviks had been put into print and before it had been agreed to openly debate out such differences in the run-up to the 7th Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. To state the obvious, the Mensheviks did not like what Lenin had to say. They accused him of going over to anarchism. But the vast majority of Bolsheviks went along with its main thrust.
To press home my case, let us take several steps back … to 1906 and Lenin’s article, ‘Freedom to criticise and unity in action’. Here, in the context of Bolshevik-Menshevik reunification, Lenin is to be found rebelling against the Menshevik-dominated central committee resolution, which was, in effect, attempting to impose an outright ban on “conducting agitation” against congress decisions at public meetings.
This is what Lenin says in reply:
“Those who drafted the resolution have a totally wrong conception of the relationship between freedom to criticise within the party and the party’s unity of action. Criticism within the limits of the principles of the party programme must be quite free … not only at party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such ‘agitation’ (for criticism is inseparable from agitation), cannot be prohibited. The party’s political action must be united. No ‘calls’ that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated either at public meetings, or at party meetings, or in the party press.”
Put another way, Lenin did not ask permission, engage in some polite internal consultation, reach a consensus or win a vote. No, he simply got up from his seat - eg, at the 300-strong meeting held in St Petersburg’s Moskovsky district - and rounded on what he considered to be the wrong decisions of the 1906 unity congress.
Lenin’s approach just cited above neatly sums up our democratic centralism in the CPGB. Hence there is no shibboleth, nothing unique in our democratic centralism. It is simply Bolshevik democratic centralism applied to 21st century British conditions.
2. Comrade Gibson chides me for trying to pull a fast one when I quote Lenin, saying that his differences with Kamenev were “not very great”. Yes, I plead guilty to trimming Lenin’s remarks to a mere three-word phrase (I am, after all, writing a letter, not a full length article).
But the essential argument remains. There was no programmatic break when Lenin presented the Bolsheviks with his April theses. As for Kamenev versus Lenin, yes, there was a to-and-fro open polemic, but arguments were those of nuance, shade … and clarification. They resulted, within a very short time, in agreement. As I have argued elsewhere at length, there was a convergence between the two men: the leader and his main lieutenant in Russia. And, whatever Lenin says about Kamenev coming round to his viewpoint, a good case can be made for Lenin coming over to Kamenev’s viewpoint. Eg, at least in my opinion, when it came to the peasantry: “Kamenev was clearly right and Lenin wrong” (Jack Conrad, ‘False memory syndrome’ Weekly Worker April 4 2017).
3. Comrade Gibson charges the CPGB with a “capitulation to popular frontism”. The evidence? We had CPGB members operating in, reporting on, exposing and throwing conference bombs in Respect.
I agree, of course, that Respect was an example of one of those unpopular popular fronts. The Socialist Workers Party established it with a view to cementing unity between itself and the Muslim Association of Britain (the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). Towards that end the SWP voted down our motions calling for a republic, secularism, a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, Respect MPs only taking the average skilled worker’s wage, etc, etc.
Comrade Gibson says that this activity is “just one example from what is a consistent history of the CPGB giving political support to popular frontist projects”. For further details he recommends the International Bolshevik Tendency’s pamphlet, Bolshevism vs CPGB-ism.
I must confess to never having read that particular gem. But, from what I can gather from comrade Gibson, he believes that the principle that “working class independence” rules out being in any organisation that is, or supports or advocates, a popular front (ie, an implicitly or explicitly cross-class organisation, which in its higher forms joins together working class parties with the bourgeoisie in one way or another).
I recognise the principle of “working class independence”. By this I mean the struggle to organise the working class into its own distinct political party. But I do not recognise the principle of ‘thou shall not’ political purity. In other words, I do not recognise the principle of holding ourselves aloof from political fights, in case we, the league of the pure, get contaminated.
Historically, Marxists have participated in all manner of parties and movement. Eg, Marx himself took out membership of the cross-class Democratic Association in 1848; in the 1860s his comrades in America were to be found in the Republican Party. They took a lead in campaigning to ensure that Abraham Lincoln got to be its presidential candidate. The Bolsheviks fought to become a majority in the soviets - that despite the presence of Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary ministers in the bourgeois Provisional government.
The same is true in Britain. With Lenin’s full approval, the young CPGB had around half its foundational membership in the Labour Party, although the first Labour government - which also featured Liberal ministers - faithfully defended the interests of the British empire. Indeed today’s Labour Party includes official affiliates such as the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Business. Then there is Progress, Labour First, etc.
Comrade Gibson’s purity politics remind me of Hugo Oehler, an opponent of Leon Trotsky’s so-called French turn. When Trotsky entered first the French Socialist Party then other Second International affiliates, Oehler objected, fearing reformist contamination. Note, the French Socialist Party constituted the central core of the 1936 Popular Front government - the French Communist Party declined ministries, but did, consistently, support the Léon Blum government, in parliamentary votes.
4. Finally, comrade Gibson issues a challenge. I must prove my “assertion” that in his first letter he denied the “reality” that Lenin described the soviets that existed in April 1917 as being the concretisation of the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ slogan (August 31).
Well, instead of going over comrade Gibson’s first, second and third letters, I will simply say this. If comrade Gibson has, at last, come round to my point of view when it comes to the history of Bolshevism, that is a welcome development.
In an October 2 email, Labour’s ‘governance and legal unit’ informed me that Labour Party Marxists, of which I am secretary, has been accused by persons unnamed of publishing “apparently anti-Semitic articles”, which “appear to meet” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, “which has been adopted by the Labour Party” - the definition promoted by Israel, which deliberately and dishonestly conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.
This obviously false accusation of anti-Semitism is evidently worthy of being “placed under formal notice of investigation”.
However, for a different reason I am expelled forthwith from membership of the Labour Party for five years with no right of appeal - for being secretary of LPM, the aims and principles of which are “incompatible” with Labour Party membership, and which is “a front organisation” for the Communist Party of Great Britain, a “rival political party” - this despite LPM’s best efforts to persuade the non-Labour left to cease standing candidates against Labour.
LPM will continue the fight to democratise and transform Labour into a party for the whole of the working class movement, open to affiliation by all socialist organisations which agree not to stand candidates against Labour. Instead of excluding Marxists, the limits of membership should be redefined to exclude rightwing, pro-capitalist careerists who support welfare cuts, wage restrictions, anti-trade union laws and imperialist military actions.
I am registered as resident in Spain, in Catalonia, but I didn’t know if I had a vote in the October 1 (“illegal”) referendum on independence - I can vote in municipal elections, but not national ones, so it wasn’t very clear what the situation was. In the end the people running things at the polling station regretfully informed me that I was not eligible to vote in the referendum.
This took quite a long time. Although the registers were controlled electronically (so that voters denied access in one place could go elsewhere), there seemed to be some electronic sabotage going on (is there any investigation, is it indictable?) and we had to wait quite a long time. My wife is a Spanish national and eventually managed to vote.
We are both for ‘no’ and from a rational point of view should not have tried to vote at all. The overwhelming majority of votes cast were, of course, for ‘yes’ and the real contest was to see how many people actually turned out. But if you are against the petty nationalisms inherent in this contest your ‘vote’ would be not to take part at all. However, the even more distasteful petty nationalism and nasty, spiteful actions of the Spanish government convinced us - and I am sure many people like us - that we had to stand up this time and be counted as voters.
I have always been a ‘voter’. I remember with pleasure the works of Welsh author Gwyn Thomas and his stories, where he refers to the people of any particular place not as ‘the inhabitants’ or ‘the citizens’, but as ‘The Voters’.
Anyway we had a jolly time standing around while the activists were trying to rectify the electronic problems and eventually half a dozen of The Voters accompanied us home and we had an impromptu meal and a few bottles of the (very good) local wine.
A jolly day for us, yes, in our small municipality, but then we started seeing the pictures on television of what was going on in other parts of Catalonia. I was outraged. Is this what the Madrid government (I can no longer call them the Spanish government) had been planning all along? The scenes of brutal violence were absolutely sickening.
The people (sorry, The Voters) were outraged. A national strike was called for October 3 and was supported overwhelmingly. Transport, banks, shops closed; communications cut, roads closed. We had to wait till the next day to go for our prescriptions to the chemist in the next village - on the strike day even she closed down.
Is this what Rajoy wanted? He said he had to do everything he did to frustrate the vote, in the cause of ‘constitutional legality’. But two million people voted. It is Rajoy’s supporters who should be asking for his resignation.
I wanted to voted ‘no’ on October 1. Today I would vote ‘yes’ - my Homage to Catalonia
The people have spoken. More accurately they rather quietly slipped into the isolation of polling booths and secretly made their marks on ballot papers. This amidst the clamour of hyperbolic voices speaking with forked tongues.
The constitutional status of referenda in Britain is ambiguous. The broader history of the plebiscite is troubling, it being the favoured tool of the despot eager for at least a vestige of popular credibility. It is a blunt instrument allowing only choice between predetermined polls.
The 2016 referendum on European Union membership was essentially called to settle a long-running and acrimonious dispute in the Conservative Party in particular, and British capitalism more generally. It was largely a campaign of competing assertions largely devoid of factual detail.
The result was that a small majority in favour of withdrawal from the EU has subsequently become the democratic will of the British people as a whole - or at least that is essentially how it is being portrayed by triumphalist Brexiteers. That there was a majority is beyond question, around 17.4 million people voted for leaving. However, that is only about 37% of the electorate. Therefore, 63% did not vote for Brexit: a rather larger, if quietly spoken, voice.
Of course that figure includes more than a quarter of the electorate who did not vote, but this must not be construed to imply apathy. Indeed, this may well be the most clear-sighted section of the electorate, the ones who realised there was no rational way of voting. With an absence of certain data and no possible way of knowing what the future consequences of staying or leaving might be - both sides could only offer partial speculation - the only reasonable response was not to vote either way.
There should have been a third option on the ballot paper: ‘Neither of the above’. The onus would then have been on the ‘leave’ campaign to achieve a clear majority of the electorate. This, at least, would indicate a more accurate view of voters’ wishes at that moment.
Yet another problem lies here though. So far consideration has only been given to the electorate as constituted on the day of the vote, but the implications of acting on that vote affects the futures of everyone - even, perhaps especially, those not eligible due to age. Voters in favour of Brexit constituted about 26% of the population. This, it must be remembered, was a referendum, not an election. Were a government returned on 26% it would only be for four or five years, after which that result could be reversed.
Also, those too young in any given election do eventually grow up and have the opportunity to vote and undo whatever political mess their elders might have created. The Brexit vote is being cast as once and for all time, allowing the past to dictate to the future.
The 2016 referendum actually resolved nothing. The inequalities, the social and economic problems, the pernicious ideological influence of nationalism, all of which influenced the vote, are symptomatic of capitalism. Following the vote, following withdrawal from the EU, capitalism will adapt and remain.
Voting in the referendum, either way, was largely an exercise in magical thinking: an X on a piece of paper is some sort of votive offering to forces beyond the control of ordinary men and women that might grant a future much better than the present. Whatever it was, the referendum result was not the voice of the people ringing out loudly and clearly. In fact, it wasn’t even a majority, but, in capitalist terms, a democratic decision notwithstanding.
Now free him
On September 29, the syndicate of bus workers in Tehran and suburbs announced that in response to internal and international requests and having received firm promises by the authorities of a judicial review of his case, trade union activist Reza Shahabi has agreed to end his 50-day hunger strike.
We in Hands Off the People of Iran are glad that the life of this leading anti-war and labour activist has been saved and Hopi would like to thank all those who intervened on his behalf. We will continue to support Reza and other labour activists who remain in the Islamic regime’s prisons and we call for their immediate, unconditional release.
President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are adamant in interviews with the foreign press and media that no-one in Iran is arrested or held in prison for their political views. This is clearly not true. In the case of Shahabi, his support for workers’ rights has landed him in a dreadful situation. He should be released and all charges against him dropped immediately.
Hands Off the People of Iran
As naive as it may have been, I thought I’d lived long enough to have witnessed absolutely everything that reformist politics could chuck at the world in terms of its innate contradictions (let alone by way of any irony, verging upon outright self-parody).
Clearly not so! Because last week Labour’s John McDonnell very publicly revealed that his crew are preparing for “all eventualities”, should they be elected into government - including any potential so-called run on the pound sterling. Surely, with this announcement from McDonnell, we have now entered Alice through the looking glass territory? At least this particular aspect of Jeremy Corbyn’s third party conference as leader is now a damned good approximation of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Talk about handing your enemies a machine gun with a full magazine! Talk about admitting defeat before you’ve even settled your trainers onto the starting blocks!
Even if they do absolutely nothing else during the run-up to the next general election by way of re-educating themselves, I suggest McDonnell and Corbyn, as well as all others in that freshly ‘socialist’ leadership, read an article online at The Intercept - one entitled ‘Government by Goldman’ by Gary Rivlin and Michael Hudson.
Crystal-clear and in astounding factual detail, there they will see laid out the cold and hard realities of how far capitalism as a system will go - and what bottomless depths capitalist financiers as individuals will sink to - purely in pursuit of profit and advantage. Profitable exploitation, that is, even if pursued whilst simultaneously destroying the lives of working class citizens in their own country, or even on a global scale.
Starkly, there was no reference whatsoever to those core considerations or that fundamental truth from McDonnell. No exposure for the benefit of the hard-working UK citizenry of those ‘dangerously’ revolutionary facts. No, merely what we got was his revelation of how Labour plans to be “prepared” for any such eventuality, as per their generalised reformist scheme of things.
Please don’t get me wrong. As my atom-like contribution to the moving forward of mass consciousness, I voted Labour at the last general election and I’ll do so at the next. But I believe your readers of the Weekly Worker might well agree that Corbynism is stretching the rope of tolerance extremely close to breaking point by stumbling blind along a policy pathway that quite possibly will result in its early annihilation at the hands of international financial institutions.
Not in the bag
Jeremy Corbyn’s programme includes such policies as the funding of free sanitary products in our secondary schools, homeless shelters and food banks. Other ‘revolutionary’ policies include the ending of all benefit sanctions on jobseekers, which are the main reason people go to one of the 2,100 food banks across Britain. Work capability assessments that have caused so much distress to hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people, including over 50 suicides, will be abolished
The nationalisation of the railways, which has the support of 60% of Tory voters, will stop government subsidies being syphoned off by the train-operating companies. Building 500,000 new council houses over five years will help deal with the housing crisis and reduce subsidies being paid to private landlords. The employment of hundreds of new tax inspectors will bring in £35 billion a year in tax, which is currently being evaded in the black economy and avoided by the rich.
A Corbyn government is not yet in the bag. Labour will have to campaign for every vote amongst the young and the tens of millions of people who are ‘just about managing’.
Despite growing pressure from the establishment to stop the roll-out of its flagship welfare reform, ‘universal credit’ (UC), to the whole country, works and pensions secretary David Gauke confirmed to the Tory conference that the roll-out will continue.
This is devastating news for those having to claim benefits. Rugby has been one of six pilot areas for UC since 2013. We have been campaigning against it ever since, pointing out that its aim is to make it harder for people to claim the benefits they are entitled to, and thereby pushing more people into poverty. What we have seen happening to the poor and vulnerable in Rugby will now happen nationwide.
Our evidence has been gained by talking to claimants outside Rugby Job Centre on at least a monthly basis over the last four years. We are not at all surprised that former government advisor Dame Louise Casey urged the prime minister at the weekend to delay the roll-out of universal credit: “Otherwise, some people will end up in dire circumstances - more dire than we have seen in Britain for years,” she claimed. This friend of the Tories highlighted the likelihood of families being made homeless if UC continued to be pushed forward. A number of Tory MPs have also written asking the government to halt the roll-out.
Official figures show that 24% of new UC claimants wait longer than six weeks to get their benefits, and many fall behind with their rent. If claimants are sanctioned for unavoidably missing an interview, this also means rent arrears build. We met a single parent with a three-year-old child outside the job centre who was being evicted for rent arrears to Rugby Borough Council: she thought her UC was paying her rent. A 50-year-old woman was sanctioned by actually having her rent stopped because she apparently failed to provide enough evidence of her 17-year-old daughter’s apprenticeship - even though she doesn’t receive any benefits for her daughter.
A man who was living with a friend after separating from his partner was told he might be sanctioned if he did not find his own place to live. Claimants in Rugby are being asked to pay for sick notes demanded by the DWP, and we spoke to a woman with a tumour on her spine who was told by the DWP she had to continue working until she was in a wheelchair.
In a partial admittance of the hardship caused by universal credit, the Tories have also announced that claimants may be able to get a loan to help with the six week delay when first claiming. However, this comes off their first monthly payment and will not cover both rent and food. Claimants can supposedly already get financial help if they are awaiting benefits or have been sanctioned, but this simply does not happen in Rugby. The DWP do not inform claimants there is a ‘nil income form’ which can reinstate housing benefit and council tax, and give access to food vouchers, emergency cash payments and Utility Meter Credit. Rugby Council housing benefits office does not even stock these forms, four years into UC locally!
These problems, and the poverty they cause, will be replicated everywhere, given Gauke’s announcement. Our campaign will need to move up a gear.
Rugby Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition