Winning the battle of ideas
Peter Manson reports on the October 8 meeting of CPGB members
Understandably last weekend’s meeting of CPGB comrades and friends focused on the situation in the Labour Party and its impact on British politics.
The aggregate began with a report on the Labour conference from Marsha Thompson, who had an inside seat on the proceedings. She considered it the most leftwing Labour conference for years, featuring some very good interventions from the left. But these had been overshadowed by subsequent expulsions - most notably of Jewish Israeli socialist Moshé Machover and the secretary of Labour Party Marxists, Stan Keable.
Yet, in her view, the vast majority of delegates had not been taken in by the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign - they pointedly rose to give standing ovations whenever the struggle of the Palestinians was mentioned, for example. They recognised it for what it was - an attack on the left by the party right.
As for the organised left, Labour Party Marxists - since identified by the bureaucracy as a group whose aims are “incompatible” with the party - undoubtedly got a very good reception. On the other hand, non-party organisations, such as the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales, had sellers outside the conference, but cannot be said to have made much of an impact.
When it came to the Labour left, comrade Thompson reported that in addition to LPM the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy made recommendations on how to vote on most motions and amendments. Momentum sent last-minute texts to its supporters with the same purpose.
In her view, however, conference is not the sovereign body of the party. All you can say is that nowadays it is slightly less stage-managed than it was under Tony Blair. Trade union delegations still operate according to a block vote decided, in effect, by one person, the general secretary. So, despite the fact that next year the conference arrangements committee will finally have a pro-Corbyn majority, the lesson is: win union members to get more involved and hold their leaders to account.
William Sarsfield, who had also been in Brighton, said that the “vast majority” of conference-goers had been on the left - and applauded LPM’s front page headline: “Anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism”. It was the young apparatchiks of the Jewish Labour Movement, who were downright antagonistic.
Mike Macnair commented that Labour conferences had always been “stitched up” long before Blair - genuine inner-party democracy had actually been against the interests of what he called the “traditional left” - ie, those aligning themselves with the left union bureaucrats. Jack Conrad added that the history of the Labour Party had been the history of the union block vote - Constituency Labour Party delegates had tended to the left, but those from the unions had been more likely to be rightwing.
Farzad Kamangar wanted to know if others shared her impression of conference - there had been nothing that could be described as “socialist” in Corbyn’s speeches regarding economic or foreign policy. Comrade Sarsfield agreed.
Jack Conrad introduced the second session, on the prospects following the Labour conference. He noted that just a couple of years ago the Labour right had considered its control of the party “completely secure”. But then along came the “morons” who nominated Corbyn for leader in 2015 - we really do have to acknowledge “the role of accident in history”, he stated. Then there was the general election and now things look bad for the Tories and “brilliant” for Corbyn. Two years ago a victory for a Corbyn-led Labour government looked impossible, but now it “could happen very soon”.
Now that the right has lost its total control, it has only one option - the use of disciplinary measures and false accusations against the left. But, while the balance on the ground is “massively to the left”, the new national executive committee will have only a marginal pro-Corbyn majority - and the right is still in charge of the Labour machine. The outcome of the left-right struggle for control will depend most of all on “the battle of ideas”, he contended. The left is faced not only with the hard right, but those on the ‘centre-right’ who are playing a more subtle - and therefore more dangerous - game.
Turning next to the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ smear campaign, comrade Conrad stated that this was part and parcel of the attempt to “relegitimise” Israel following its loss of popular support over the past couple of decades. The real point in targeting Moshé Machover was because he is opposed to Zionism and Israel’s continued programme of settler-colonialism. Behind that, of course, there is the US-UK alliance - Israel serves as its symbol. While at the moment there is no mileage for the right in the right attacking Corbyn directly, targeting opposition to Israel can be used as a substitute. After conference, Jon Lansman of Momentum had declared that “Labour is united”, but Iain McNicol and the compliance unit had immediately proved him wrong.
Turning next to one of the most contentious issues dividing both Labour and the Tories, comrade Conrad commented on the Brexit negotiations. In his view they will probably fail - and things do not look good for a US-UK trade deal beneficial to British capital either. But the Corbyn alternative would be, in the view of the Financial Times, a “danger to Britain”.
Comrade Conrad recalled the “rumours of a coup” against the rightwing Labour government headed by Harold Wilson in 1974. The bourgeois consensus is that “something must be done” against the “danger” of a Corbyn government. One possibility if Labour wins the next election was the formation of a ‘national government’, consisting of Labour rightwingers alongside the Tories and Liberal Democrats. After all, there is a risk of a “crisis of expectations” - the perception of Labour’s programme amongst workers, who might be moved to take independent action in support of what they believe to be Corbyn’s policies. For example, we could see the occupation of empty houses and the mass defiance of anti-union legislation. In short, the ruling class could be heading for a “profound crisis” - yet the left is totally unprepared.
It is, of course, true that Corbyn could end up heading a ‘normal Labour government’, but that looks much less likely at this moment. So there are “a whole range of possibilities” before us. And our task is to be “one step ahead” of the Corbynistas, while at the same time distancing ourselves from Corbyn himself. Obviously we defend Corbyn against the right, but we believe his politics are no more than left reformist.
Our aim is to empower members and transform the Labour Party into a united front of a special kind. The democracy commission should be used for that purpose, added comrade Conrad - it provides the left with an opportunity to win “hearts and minds” in the constituencies. There should be a growing “clamour” demanding the automatic reselection of all Labour MPs.
Comrade Conrad reminded the meeting that, while the CPGB seeks cooperation and principled unity with the organised left, we are often “in battle” with them over our insistence on the centrality of Marxist organisation, as opposed to some centre-left alliance. And, of course, we need a “twin-track approach” - not even a transformed Labour Party can lead the working class to power. For that it needs a mass Communist Party.
While we are for free speech in society, he continued, each political party must ensure that its members adhere to core principles and impose limits on what is acceptable. For example, the politics of the so-called Jewish Labour Movement in support of Israel’s “racist colonising project” should be considered unacceptable by Labour members. But, once again, the defeat of the JLM and its co-thinkers will depend on the outcome of the “battle of ideas”.
Yet at the moment there is an anti-left witch-hunt - directed, for example, against members who have had articles published in the Weekly Worker. But “who hasn’t had an article published in the Morning Star?” However, the targeting of comrade Machover could be misconceived - there are signs of an upsurge against his expulsion amongst wide sections of the Labour membership. His reinstatement would be a “big blow” to the Labour bureaucracy and the right.
In the debate that followed, comrade Thompson took issue with comrade Conrad over the likelihood of a move by the bourgeoisie against Corbyn. In fact the Labour leader could be viewed as the man who wants to “save Britain from Brexit” with the backing of the ruling class. For our part, we need to explain to Corbynistas the “limits of national Keynesianism”.
Next, Gerry Green took up the argument in relation to the JLM - who will decide that its aims are “incompatible” with those of Labour? Labour members ought to campaign for an “official verdict” on that, he thought.
Comrade Kamangar’s intervention took up a different point - the expulsion of anti-Zionists like comrade Machover. She thought that the connection between the false ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign and the UK-US alliance should be continually stressed as its central motive. Obviously, arguing against a particular state form, or quoting Nazi leaders to make a historical point, is not “racist”. She also thought it likely that Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and co would sooner or later “sell out” - which was why the left must not go along with any “cult of personality”.
Comrade Macnair, taking up one of comrade Thompson’s points, thought Corbyn’s strategy could be likened to “Keynesianism in one country”. But he thought it was most improbable that Corbyn would head a last-ditch ‘remain’ campaign, backed by the ruling class. He agreed that a no-deal Brexit was the most likely.
A non-CPGB guest, Lawrence Parker, thought we should look beyond both the Corbyn personality cult and the pro-Palestine chants at conference, and focus on the Labour right. He too stressed that the prime task of the left is to win support within Labour for socialist politics.
That was the sentiment that was unanimously endorsed by all present.