No easy road to popularity
Peter Manson reports on a wide-ranging debate amongst CPGB comrades
The annual general meeting of the CPGB, which took place in London on January 26, featured a vibrant discussion on the prospects for 2018. Attending also were comrades from Labour Party Marxists, whose thoughts on developments in the Labour Party were much appreciated.
The AGM began with Jack Conrad, chair of the CPGB Provisional Central Committee, looking back on 2017 and giving his assessment of the likely developments in the current year. We are still “living in the shadow” of the 2007-08 financial crisis, he stated, and, although there has been a recovery, wages are continuing to fall in real terms. This meant that the next recession will be bad for the working class - and we in the CPGB do not go along with the idea that what is bad for the ruling class must automatically be good for us, especially given the current weakness of working class organisations.
Turning to Donald Trump, comrade Conrad admitted that he had been as surprised as anyone that he had been elected president, when most of the Republican establishment had taken the view of ‘anyone but him’ as their candidate. Much of the mainstream commentary of Trump’s presidency, in the USA and elsewhere, has been mocking - it was only when he ordered a Cruise missile attack on Syria that the BBC reported that at last he was acting in a presidential manner.
But, of course, war has always been a useful weapon for unpopular leaders and in Trump’s case it seems that ‘fighting terrorism’ is no longer the priority - big-power rivalry is officially back. Other states are allegedly guilty of ‘unfair trade practices’, which are putting the US at a disadvantage, while at the same time Trump has identified US military ‘weaknesses’ (in reality America is in a “separate league” in terms of military might, said comrade Conrad). This, together with increased arms spending, means that was a real danger of actual war.
Moving on to another surprising result, comrade Conrad reminded the meeting of the very poor general election showing for Theresa May, who had expected to oversee a “massacre” of the Labour Party, following the anti-Corbyn right’s acts of sabotage. This, she thought, would have helped her navigate the European Union referendum “disaster”. The Conservatives had stolen the ground occupied by the UK Independence Party, but, following the ‘leave’ vote, the establishment had hoped ‘president Hillary Clinton’ would instruct the UK prime minister to ‘sort the mess out’ and keep Britain in the EU. Things have turned out rather differently on both sides of the Atlantic, but the EU is hardly horrified by Brexit - instead there has been renewed talk of ‘ever closer union’.
Turning his attention to 2018, comrade Conrad repeated that the possibility of war was a real one. Just last week we had seen the Turkish incursion into Syria, while Israel is still looking for the opportunity provided by conflict in the region to drive out hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the territory it occupies. In relation to another key state in the Middle East, the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign remained very pertinent, he said.
Returning to the question of the EU, he thought that, while a hard Brexit was a possibility (although he suspected it might result from some sort of “accident”), it was also entirely feasible that the UK would remain in the EU at the end of the day. Comrade Conrad wondered how on earth a “frictionless border” in Ireland could be delivered unless there was some kind of Swiss or Norwegian deal.
In this respect the Labour position - for a Brexit that delivered ‘jobs’ and was good for ‘the economy’ - was virtually identical to that of the Confederation of British Industry. By contrast the CPGB had been correct to campaign for a boycott of the EU referendum rather than choose between two pro-capitalist options. The fight for working class independence was crucial and in this respect we view Europe as a strategic question. Working class power in Europe would mean that the “flame of liberation” would rapidly spread elsewhere.
Focusing next specifically on Labour, comrade Conrad stated that the civil war was still very much alive. For the right it was not just a question of Corbyn, who eventually had to be forced out, but those mobilised behind him. We should also expect a degree of exacerbation between the soft and hard left, as the Momentum leadership attempted to contain criticism of the right within ‘reasonable’ limits.
Comrade Conrad praised the role of Labour Party Marxists, which had made a big impact at Labour’s conference in Brighton (LPM comrades present were confident that they would make a similar impact this year in Liverpool). This had exposed the bogus anti-Semitism allegations, to the approval of many delegates - any mention of Palestinian rights earned an ovation from the conference floor. All this showed the potential of Labour Against the Witchhunt, especially following the successful campaign to reverse the expulsion of comrade Moshé Machover.
Ending his review of our prospects with the CPGB itself, comrade Conrad warned that Corbynmania had produced a “liquidationist view” among some on the left - what is the point of Marxist organisation, when we can campaign within Labour? And, of course, it was now more difficult to recruit people to left groups - there had been no growth in CPGB membership, with applicants generally of poor quality and not very serious.
However, we are firmly of the view that the fight within Labour is essential for the building of a Communist Party. The aim must be to transform Labour into a united front of all working class forces. Yet other left groups had failed to take this question seriously - both the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales had advised their milieus to stay away. Even the Labour Representation Committee had not campaigned in any effective manner against the witch-hunt - despite one of its leading comrades - Jackie Walker - herself being targeted.
But comrade Conrad warned that it would be very easy to adopt a “Labour Party mentality”, where Marxist members felt they had to keep their heads down. But Labour needs a Marxist leadership - which was very different from saying that Labour could become a Communist Party, which was impossible.
While CPGB finances are reasonably healthy, we need a successful Summer Offensive fundraising drive (target - £30,000) in 2018, so that we can ensure active participation in essential campaigns and a vibrant Communist University summer school. In this regard, comrade Conrad mentioned the Weekly Worker, which he was pleased to report was now self-financing. The print version, he said, was our “peacock”, even though the vast majority of our readers are online. He thought that the paper had been excellent in 2017, hosting some vital debates - not least around Lars T Lih’s theory of continuity regarding Lenin’s April thesis.
I gave a little more detail regarding the Weekly Worker, explaining how, as comrade Conrad had reported, the financial situation was now a little easier. However, this was largely down to just two or three comrades making substantial regular donations to the paper. I too was pleased with the overall standard of the paper, although our pool of regular writers is far too small. I also urged those present to take advantage of the space for debate on our letters pages rather more frequently than most comrades do.
I reported that while the online readership long ago eclipsed the readership of the print version, by how has become difficult to ascertain. Because of ad-blockers Google analytics is considerably understating our readership - it was agreed that we should investigate this to see if we can establish reliable figures.
First in was comrade Mike Macnair, who pointed out that we were witnessing a period of both left and right populism - especially with Trump. On the question of big-power rivalry he said that the only possible way that there could be a successor to the US as global hegemon was through war - which at the moment would clearly be won by the US in any case. While there was more and more talk of a ‘Russian threat’, this actually served Trump very well. While it was true that both Russia and China had substantial military weaknesses, comrade Macnair thought that movement in the direction of a “great-power war” was “not impossible”.
He agreed with comrade Conrad about liquidationism, pointing out that instead of the party many of the left were campaigning for a “people’s front”, identity politics and activism for the sake of activism. They were rejecting not just Marxist organisation, but class organisation.
Comrade Macnair was followed by another PCC member, Paul Demarty, who pointed to the problems arising from the two different forms of the Weekly Worker - that is, the print and web versions. The paper is still being edited first and foremost with the print version in mind, but he was confident that the automatic transformation process he and others were working on would soon smooth out the glitches. He also reported that the redesign of the Weekly Worker website would be completed later in the year. As for the web readership, he was pretty confident that the figures we publish each week are considerably understated (just as with our previous server they had probably been overstated).
Carla Roberts of LPM agreed with those who warned of the danger of adapting to Labourism, while, at the same time, the party was regarded by many as a “bureaucratic hellhole”. She noted that some people had been expelled for distributing Labour Party Marxists - or simply for sharing something from LPM on social media. While comrades on the left were being targeted in this way, groups like the Jewish Labour Movement were threatening that, if such unjustifiably expelled comrades were allowed back in, the JLM would consider that a ‘red line’ had been crossed. Apparently Jeremy Corbyn is still taking heed of what such groups are saying - he is therefore acting like a prisoner of the right. On the Weekly Worker, she wondered why the editors were continuing to publish the readership figures if they were so obviously wrong.
Farzad Kamangar focused more on international politics in her contribution. She pointed out that there was a fear amongst the US bourgeoisie that Trump was “mortgaging our future”. They were concerned that recently there had been two issues where he had managed to isolate America in the United Nations - over recognising Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and ending the nuclear deal with Iran. On winning recruits to the CPGB, she agreed with comrade Conrad that applicants were of very poor quality - one comrade recently told her that Weekly Worker articles were “too long”, which did not augur well for his commitment to theoretical study.
Phil Kent also centred his contribution on international affairs, saying that the growth of nationalism could lead to the “disintegration of Europe”. As for the left, it had been in decline “for decades”, but it was essential to keep stating the truth, which would surely win out in the end.
Dave Price stated that, while we are making good propaganda for a “socialist Europe”, he saw no sign of progress when it came to our call for a “Communist Party of the European Union”. In fact links between left groups across the continent had declined considerably since the days of the European Social Forum. Turning to Labour Against the Witchhunt, he said he had been “disappointed” by the LAW campaign, which he thought ought to be focusing mainly on the use of clauses in the Labour rulebook being interpreted to allow the expulsion of anyone with Marxist sympathies. He wondered whether there was any basis for a “common approach” on this with groups such as Socialist Appeal and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. On the Weekly Worker he was against any moves seeking to make the website “primary”, which he thought would lessen the impact of the paper.
For her part, Sarah Stewart concentrated mainly on internal organisation and the production of the Weekly Worker. She thought that, while working on the print version provided the necessary routine and discipline, and was therefore essential, improvements to the web format ought to be a priority, not “an afterthought”. When it came to recruitment, she stressed the importance of individual contacts.
For William Sarsfield, however, the print edition was primary - the Weekly Worker contains an “arsenal of ideas”. On Labour, he said that, although there were many self-proclaimed Marxists in the party, in reality they were only Marxists “in the pub, not in meetings”. He agreed with others that there was not much evidence of study and it was no wonder that the actual left was in “steep decline” - the softer left drawn to Labour over Corbyn was difficult to engage with, having not yet learnt the “basic vocabulary of socialism”. Patience was needed, he concluded.
James Harvey was another who was for the print version of the paper first and foremost. It was something you could actually give to people rather than telling them to go and look on the website, he said. In relation to the Labour left, he believed that the emphasis amongst most of them was on “not rocking the boat” - if we don’t back Jeremy “the whole thing will collapse”. However, criticism of the bureaucratic running of Momentum was “not out of place” amongst such comrades.
Stan Keable of LPM urged people to be “patient” regarding the Labour Party. He reminded the meeting that the balance on the national executive committee was now with the pro-Corbyn left following the recent NEC elections. And now three comrades who had been suspended for well over a year - Jackie Walker, Tony Greenstein and Marc Wadsworth - would shortly be attending their hearings at last. We must insist that all three are reinstated - but will the NEC newcomers adopt such a stance?
Responding to this wide-ranging debate, comrade Conrad began with the danger of war during this period of US hegemony. For him the USA was “unchallengeable” at this moment in time. It might be in the interests of the Trump faction to encourage new wars, but in no way was America in danger of defeat.
Turning to Labour and the witch-hunt, largely based on false allegations of anti-Semitism, he stressed that this was linked to the US-UK alliance. But, as the Machover case demonstrated, massive support was generated within local Labour organisations, which was why the rightwing-run party machine was forced to retreat. This clearly demonstrated that the argument against the bureaucracy’s oppressive behaviour can be won. That was why LAW was so important. But he was against any suggestion of cooperating with the likes of the AWL, which, although its own members had been victims, had itself laid the ground for the anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism nonsense.
He was pleased that LPM was “not going out to be popular” in the way it was sticking to its principles within Labour. Yes, tens of thousands had joined in support of Corbyn and John McDonnell, but LPM, like the CPGB itself, must maintain its criticism of the two leaders’ headlong retreat. It is true that at the moment there is “no thirst for Marxism”, but it would be very wrong for Marxists within Labour to pretend they were Corbynites - just as it would be very wrong for the Weekly Worker to attempt to make its article “more accessible” (ie, shorter and more simplistic).
Comrade Conrad agreed that Marxist cooperation across Europe was as essential as ever and that we need to make a move in that direction. However, the problem was the absence of principled left groups throughout most of the continent - and, of course, the European Social Forum has long since died a death.
Concluding with the Weekly Worker itself, he stressed that the fact that it was a weekly printed paper was the key. That it receives so many donations speaks for itself. He also thought that, if we believe the readership figures we publish are wrong, then we should stop publishing them.
The AGM ended with the election of the PCC. There were no nominations for the leadership apart from the current members and, as a result, comrades Conrad, Demarty, Kamangar, Macnair and Manson were all re-elected unanimously.