Debating our strategy and tactics
Last weekend’s membership aggregate voted on two motions relating to Brexit. Peter Manson reports
The December 9 aggregate of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists members, together with invited guests, discussed two related motions: the first, moved by Mike Macnair, dealt with the Brexit shambles and the second, introduced by Jack Conrad, looked at People’s Vote, the possibility of a national government, referendums, Another Europe Is Possible and accusations of anti-Semitism made by its members, supporters and allies.
First comrade Macnair introduced his motion, which was published at the end of his Weekly Worker article, ‘New stage of Brexit politics’ (November 29). While noting that much of that article was already out of date (even more so now, of course, following Theresa May’s last-minute decision to call off the December 11 vote on her Brexit deal, and the subsequent Tory vote on her leadership of the party), the main point of the motion, he said, remained highly pertinent: ie, “we need working class political action on a continental scale … to pose the possibility of an alternative to the choice between neoliberalism and rightwing populism”.
In stressing this “most fundamental point”, comrade Macnair stated that neither socialism nor even the dictatorship of the proletariat was possible within a single country. Even under capitalism production today takes place on an international scale - and in fact a no-deal Brexit threatened “a radical shutdown of production” in Britain. Since there can be “no serious economic activity without trade”, ‘socialism in one country’ would be “strangled by economic sanctions”.
Socialism - “the working class taking power and beginning to reorganise” on the road to communism - can only be undertaken on a “sufficient international scale”, such as over Europe as a whole. In that case, he asked, why was the CPGB not in the ‘remain’ camp? The answer for him lay in the current dismal state of the European left. If it was able to fight for common reforms and establish political unity across the continent, then it would be “obvious that ‘remain’ would be right”.
But, far from pursuing such a policy, the left for the most part is divided into two equally unprincipled camps. First, there are those who cling to some notion of socialism in one country. Eg, the Communist Party of Greece, the Morning Star’s CPB, the SWP and SPEW. They all call for some form of left exit from the European Union. This, he said, made sense, at least for the ‘official communists’ in the days of the Warsaw Pact, when the existence of two rival global forces meant that it might not always be so straightforward for imperialism to see off every challenge.
The second camp on the left consists of those, beginning with the Eurocommunists in the 1980s, who have been “mesmerised by liberalism and constitutional order” and today champion “human rights” rather than international working class power. As a result we end up with those like Syriza, Die Linke, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Left Unity and Socialist Resistance, which in practice are “committed to the European Union in its current form”.
Comrade Macnair went on to refer - with not a little irony - to that “clever guy”, David Cameron, who thought he might be able to “kill off two birds with one stone” by calling an EU referendum. This, he hoped, would not only see off Ukip and the Tory right, but would force Labour into a “statesmanlike defence” of the EU. After the expected ‘remain’ victory, the Conservatives would then be able to launch a right-populist attack on Labour.
But, of course, things did not turn out like that. The referendum was a “scam” that backfired in any case. In reality the two unprincipled weaknesses that dominate the left in general are also a feature of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. As a result the party has been “paralysed”, refusing to adopt a clear position on the EU.
I was the first to speak in response. While I overwhelmingly agreed with comrade Macnair’s line of argument, I took issue on two main points. First, I contended that the dictatorship of the proletariat could exist in a single country for a short period of time. If we define socialism as the period of transition - beginning with the working class seizure of power and ending with the establishment of communism - we are obviously talking about an international process. However, that process could be sparked by a revolution which begins in one state, but rapidly spreads elsewhere. If that were the case, it would be correct to talk about the existence of the dictatorship of the proletariat in such a state, although I agreed that this situation could only apply for a matter of months.
Secondly, I disagreed with the idea that, even in a situation of advanced working class unity across Europe, we would necessarily have advocated a vote for ‘remain’. True, we oppose any nationalist withdrawal from the EU, but we are also opposed in principle to the “scam” of referenda, whereby the ruling class decides upon the question and then interprets the answer to its own liking. You can be sure that working class power will never be among the options! Furthermore, it could be argued that, even in the current situation, the EU offers the potential for advancing European left unity and so, according to comrade Macnair’s logic, we might have voted ‘remain’ in 2016 on that basis alone.
Vernon Price was also largely supportive of the motion, in that it accurately described “just how things are”, but he said it was lacking in mapping out a way forward. He thought the last paragraph, which posed the possibilities that would open up if “Labour were to break with its constitutionalism and nationalism”, was a little like “getting the Church of England to give up on god”.
For his part, Jack Conrad pointed out that David Cameron might be more accurately described from the bourgeois point of view as “the worst prime minister that Britain has ever had” rather than a “master strategist”. Obviously comrade Conrad was totally unaware of what was about to occur in relation to both the Brexit vote and May’s premiership over the following three days, but he knew that British capital was “in a hole”. By December 11 we would be dealing with a capital-C “Crisis”, he said.
‘Leave’ had always been illusory, he continued, and the Tories themselves were now even more deeply divided over the question - he drew an analogy with the 19th century Corn Laws. And the Conservatives were also at odds with big business - he disagreed with comrade Macnair that business had actually approved of May’s deal as the best available that was on offer. In reality it was hoping the whole thing would be abandoned. So we were now in the territory of a “national government” - one that would kill off both Brexit and the possibility of a Corbyn administration. Even John McDonnell was straying into that territory, although he probably did not realise it.
As for the EU bureaucrats, there were those who claimed it would be good to get rid of that “troublesome Great Britain”, but it was actually in the EU’s interests, as well as those of European capital, to adopt a totally different agenda. Comrade Conrad thought it was obvious that the EU would be willing to enter into further negotiations.
He agreed with me that our stance on the referendum was not determined by the state of the European left - although he thought that I was “veering towards” a position that regards the EU as a “progressive” formation (obviously I had not expressed myself clearly!). As for socialism in one country, the most important thing was the necessity to coordinate our action internationally: if there was no chance of a revolution in one country spreading elsewhere, then comrades in that country should hold back. However, he thought that Russia in 1918 could be accurately described as an example of socialism.
For her part, comrade Yassamine Mather disagreed with Jack Conrad over the attitude of big business towards May’s proposed deal. The main problem for capitalists was uncertainty, she said, which was why it was prepared to go for it. After all, the new relation would be “better than no relation”.
Next to speak was a guest - who was at pains, for obvious reasons, to stress that he was not a CPGB supporter. Moshé Machover agreed that we need to stay some distance from the “‘remain’ versus ‘leave’ scam”, as he put it, referring to the referendum. But there was “another dimension”, he said: what is in the best interests of the working class? While he said he did not often agree with Steve Freeman, whose letters often appear in the Weekly Worker, he also believed that we were “better in than out”, both in the short and long term. This had nothing to do with the state of the left, said comrade Machover: working class conditions would be worse outside the EU, when we would see a decline in workers’ standard of living, as well as our class strategy. All this was missing from the CPGB position, he argued.
In response to the debate, comrade Macnair agreed that, while ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ was a tactical question for the working class, if there were a radical and thriving international workers’ movement - picking up a good number of votes across Europe, for instance, and enjoying an influential presence in the European parliament - we would certainly “want to fight alongside our European brothers and sisters”.
In the end, the disagreements expressed were clearly those of emphasis and comrade Macnair’s motion was unanimously agreed.
Opening the afternoon session, comrade Conrad began by stressing that the CPGB’s opposition to EU withdrawal featured in our Draft programme - although we were, of course, opposed to referendums (which did not mean it was a principle to boycott every one of them).
The comrade warned that a national government is now a distinct possibility and that Theresa May would not survive for long. However, in his view, the whole Brexit question is illusory. Conceivably the UK could stumble into a no-deal Brexit disaster. More likely Brexit will not happen - though in that case we should expect a storm-five reaction from the hard right.
Like comrade Macnair, he was introducing a motion supported by the Provisional Central Committee. Based on what he had written in the Weekly Worker article, ‘Left tails of liberal bourgeoisie’ (November 29), his motion was originally prompted by an exchange that had taken place on social media. A CPGB comrade had raised with supporters of Another Europe Is Possible the fact that billionaire George Soros had donated £70,000, and wondered how they could claim that AEIP was somehow campaigning in working class interests.
Incredibly, AEIP supporters around the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and Red Flag responded with accusations of anti-Semitism - after all, Soros is Jewish, isn’t he?! When CPGB comrades pointed out on our internal email list that such accusations could be linked to those being made within the Labour Party, comrade Alec Carnovic disagreed, stating that, unlike in the Labour Party, such accusations had nothing to do with targeting anti-Zionists.
Comrade Conrad dealt first of all with the acceptance of money from capitalists - it was not in every case wrong in principle - after all, some of the most prominent communists had been traitors to their own class (the bourgeoisie). But when such money ends up shaping the kind of politics you propose, then it is clearly disastrous. And, in the case of AEIP, its politics are for a “social democratic version of the Common Market” rather than aiming for the overthrow of the current EU, with its anti-democratic, pro-capitalist constitution.
It was correct to link the ‘anti-Semitism’ smears to those taking place within Labour, he continued. The intention there was to persecute anti-Zionists and the left in general in order not only to defeat the Corbyn leadership, but to ensure that Britain - including the Labour Party - remained loyal to the USA, for whom Israel is a key ally.
As for the AWL, it had historically pointed the finger at the left for not accepting a Zionist Israel (leader Sean Matgamna once proudly proclaimed that he was not just a little bit, but a full-blown, Zionist), and there had been a substantial crossover between those supporting the Labour smears (in the shape of the AWL in particular) and those involved in AEIP.
So it was wrong to state, as Alec Carnovic had done, that we saw the whole world through the lens of the Labour witch-hunt. He thought the comrade was in practice “bending in the direction of conceding to the witch-hunt”. We should not go along with the notion that, since it was true that there are some anti-Semites in the Labour Party, we should devote as much energy to exposing them as to opposing Zionism. In reality, we are talking about a tiny minority of backward people who post on social media (rather than being Labour activists per se). While it is correct to stress our strong opposition to anti-Semitism whenever we come across it, the notion of ‘zero tolerance’ towards those expressing it was wrong: we aim to educate and persuade people - that is the way to defeat backward ideas. But, in any case, the Weekly Worker is aimed at advanced workers - not those overwhelmingly influenced by capitalist society.
Next to speak was comrade Carnovic himself, who regretted that the discussion of the motion had not been delayed, as he had requested, since he had had very little time to draw up his amendments (although, as comrade Conrad had pointed out, the motion had first been circulated five weeks earlier).
Comrade Carnovic stated that Soros had nothing to do with the Labour witch-hunt or anti-Zionism. It seemed to him that CPGB comrades who pointed to the link were on “auto-pilot” - their “motivating factor” seemed to be to “prove that anti-Semitism doesn’t actually exist”. Mysteriously - to this writer at least - comrade Carnovic said he was often “embarrassed” by our coverage of ‘Zionism’ in the Weekly Worker, although he did add, “Maybe it’s just me”. He also thought there was “a conspiratorial element in attributing omnipotence to Israel” - which he thought was what some comrades were doing.
He strongly denied wanting to give ground to the witch-hunt: it was just that we ought to be trying to strengthen the campaign against it by “making it more considered”. In reality there are “lots of people” involved in Palestine solidarity work who express a “regressive form of anti-Zionism”: maybe some are “proto-anti-Semites”. He denied that anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was “extraordinarily rare”, as the motion stated, and he claimed that the “instinct” of some comrades was to defend as “completely OK” people who are in reality anti-Semites.
Comrade Machover came back in at this point. He himself had originally been accused of anti-Semitism, despite being an Israeli Jew, simply for pointing to the collaboration in the 1930s of the Nazis with German Zionists. But he was then expelled from Labour for allegedly being a “supporter” of Labour Party Marxists, in whose paper his article had been published - before being rapidly reinstated following a mass campaign within Labour and numerous international protests.
Speaking from his own experience, he stated that there are indeed “very few examples” of actual anti-Semites in the Labour Party - “I suspect there are more paedophiles!” And he insisted that the smears are linked to defeating anti-Zionism. After all, Binyamin Netanyahu has declared anti-Zionism to be “the new form of anti-Semitism”. He agreed with comrade Conrad, who had pointed out that, contrary to one of comrade Carnovic’s amendments, Zionism was not simply an “ideology of the oppressed” - it had been reactionary from the very beginning, in that it was based on the colonisation of another people.
In her contribution, Sarah Stewart pointed to the different kind of behaviour that features on social media, compared to the real world. While it was true that the AEIP accusations of anti-Semitism were not part of the campaign to discredit Corbyn, the people who made them had clearly “defaulted” to such claims “because of the actual campaign”. Yes, she continued, we should confront individual anti-Semites we come across, but that cannot be a major feature of our work: at the end of the day they will be influenced by the class struggle - which is why we must continue to focus on advanced workers.
Mike Macnair spoke against all comrade Carnovic’s amendments apart from one. That proposed replacing the sentence, “… such examples [of anti-Semitism] are isolated and extraordinarily rare [within Labour]” with: “Such examples are isolated and far from epidemic, but they are unfortunate.” The amendment also proposed adding: “In this context regressive forms of anti-Zionist expression that transparently borrow features from the ‘anti-capitalism of fools’ are a gift to the Israeli government and political establishment.”
Comrade Mather spoke against another amendment, which sought to remove the quote marks around ‘left’ from the sentence in the motion which read: “The AWL and its Clarion outriders provide a useful ‘left’ cover [for the witch-hunt]”. The AWL was in reality a social-imperialist formation, she said. She also strongly disputed comrade Carnovic’s claim that the Weekly Worker was “dominated by anti-Zionist articles”.
The debate ended with comrade Carnovic speaking again in defence of his amendments and comrade Conrad summing up. Comrade Carnovic insisted that, however much we oppose the AWL’s politics, it was still part of the left, claiming to be “Trotskyist” and “Marxist”. He thought that Zionism had originated as an ideology of an oppressed people but had become reactionary, maybe once settlers arrived in Palestine and started to remove the native population from their land. But he insisted that “regressive types of anti-Zionism” are “a gift to the right” and so we must “acknowledge that certain types of anti-Zionism are retrograde”. Otherwise, “it looks like we’re lying”. Similarly he insisted that those who criticise anti-Zionism by linking it to anti-Semitism “shouldn’t automatically be considered part of the witch-hunt”.
In his summing up, comrade Conrad stated once again that the amendments had been “motivated by wrong politics” - those of giving ground to the witch-hunt. He also thought that five weeks had been “more than enough time” for anyone to propose amendments and, what is more, the whole question can always be raised again at subsequent aggregates in any case.
It was misplaced to accuse the CPGB of failing to take anti-Semitism seriously, he said, when it had given a good deal of support and publicity to those within Labour Against the Witchhunt who had insisted, for example, that Socialist Fight could not be part of the campaign - unless it renounced its claim that pro-Zionism in the imperialist countries originated in large part to the “overrepresentation of Jews” in the ruling class. So it is absurd to say we have “turned a blind eye” to actual anti-Semitism. However, it was totally wrong to demand we be “even-handed” in our attitude to, on the one hand, a cynical and powerful campaign against Corbyn and the left, backed by the rightwing establishment, and, on the other, a “handful of backward individuals”.
When it came to the vote, most of comrade Carnovic’s amendments were overwhelmingly defeated, but two were narrowly accepted. The first was the one quoted above about “isolated” examples of anti-Semitism; and the second inserted the words “and intelligence” in the sentence, “The witch-hunt must be fought with all the strength at our command”.
The motion, as amended, was then put to the vote and it was overwhelmingly carried with only comrade Carnovic voting against. Two comrades abstained: Jack Conrad and Stan Keable.