Preparing for battles ahead
Mary Govan reports on the joint meeting of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists comrades.
The November 30 aggregate began with Jack Conrad giving his assessment of the various possibilities following December 12. He pointed out that, according to the polls, Labour is increasing its support and the Tories are slipping back. In view of this, there could be yet another hung parliament - indeed even a small Labour majority is possible.
Comrade Conrad stated that the 2019 manifesto, It’s time for real change, is certainly more radical than the 2017 equivalent, For the many, not the few, although it is still “radical reform” within the paradigm of capitalism. In contrast Labour’s very first manifesto in 1900 called for a citizens’ militia, while in 1945 Clement Attlee outlined what he called a “socialist road” (It’s time for real change uses the word ‘socialism’ only once as a description of the national health service).
Of course, the Tories’ main campaigning call is “Get Brexit done”. Their strategy would not work if the Brexit Party was doing well, but Nigel Farage fell on his sword, and the Brexit Party has withdrawn hundreds of candidates, while others walked of their own accord, so the Tories are expected to “mop up” much of the Brexit Party’s support. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats are coming out strongly for remaining in the European Union, but they are not doing well in the polls. It is ironic that every time their leader appears on television their poll numbers dip.
By contrast, the Labour Party has maintained its position of studied ambiguity on Brexit, and will not commit to ‘leave’ or ‘remain’, but says it will hold a second referendum to put its own newly negotiated deal before the people.
While a small minority predicted the outcome of the last election, comrade Conrad was far more cautious on this one. In 2017 there was a working class surge for Labour towards the end, and this election has seen a large group of under-35s registering to vote. It is this that opens the way to the possibility of Labour emerging from the election as the largest party. However, Tony Blair has been talking up a government of national unity, and that is also possible if Labour has a majority. The establishment does not like large parts of the manifesto and will not take it lying down. Richard Dearlove, the former director of MI6, has spoken out against Corbyn, and in this he is obviously representing the views of his successors. The army is another factor - it swears allegiance to the queen and not to the government. If Corbyn is elected, said one general, “We will not obey the peacenik”. There is the possibility that the army would intervene if the privy council decides the country is ungovernable.
Attacks on Corbyn have come thick and fast - he has been too close to Britain’s enemies, is a friend of Hamas, etc. And, of course, there is Labour’s ‘anti-Semitism’ - large numbers of Jews will allegedly leave Britain if Corbyn becomes PM (amongst other predictions of doom). However, comrade Conrad reminded us that president François Mitterrand abandoned his programme in France within six months, and believes Corbyn might so the same if he headed a government.
The advisors to Corbyn have a strategy that basically says, ‘Stick to the economy, stupid’ - alongside ‘Throw your friends to the wolves’ - many of Corbyn’s supporters have been sacrificed on this altar. What the eventual impact will be is not known, but the strategy has given Boris Johnson the ability to taunt Corbyn that the Labour Party is full of racists. Corbyn’s only reply has been, ‘We are dealing with it’. The result of all this has meant that anyone who criticises Israel now is in danger of being called an anti-Semite, and we have seen the results.
Comrade Conrad ended by referring to the recently formed Labour Left Alliance (Carla Roberts of LPM had been expected to speak on this, but in the end was unable to attend). He spoke of the need for the left to see Corbyn in a positive way, as opposed to the Labour right - but without pretending that he would usher in socialism. The LLA would need to defend a Corbyn government against the “push-back” of the army, secret service, etc, but at the same time we needed to promote our own programme.
The Labour left, including groups like the Labour Representation Committee, has not been growing. But this is not surprising, given the witch-hunt, the anti-Semitism campaign and the fact that the leadership has pursued an economistic programme. When it comes to the LLA, we are for a structure based on individual membership, not an alliance of different groups making it impossible to win the left to a genuine Marxist alternative. But the LRC, for example, has made a choice between criticism of the Corbyn programme and the safety of the Labour leadership and the trades unions.
Our work will really start after December 12, when it will be essential to win the membership to stand up to the right, which wants to replace Corbyn with someone more ‘sensible’. We must fight to arm the party with a leadership that will not be afraid to put forward a radical anti-capitalist programme.
Stan Keable from LPM was the first speaker from the floor. He said that the Labour right would like to get rid of the entire pro-Corbyn membership, which it regards as far too radical. It is happy to join in the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign to this end. Historically, he said, discontented Labour voters stayed at home rather than voting Tory. Tony Blair lost us 5 million votes. A Corbyn surge and a Labour majority is still possible, if we can get the vote out. Bob Paul spoke next and said that it was obvious that the establishment is worried about the election. But he was critical of Corbyn’s interview with Andrew Neil, as the Labour leader was ineffective, in that he was not aggressive enough. For his part, James Harvey felt that there was the possibility of good results in the north, although in the south things are perhaps different. So he felt that this was a difficult election to call. He also reported that in his own branch Labour was still recruiting - at about 15 members a month - although two or three were also dropping out each month. The Corbyn factor is important, he said, and the right would like a candidate like Angela Rayner, who talks left, but makes compromises.
Sarah Clarke spoke about how many in her area feel that Corbyn is anti-Semitic and will step down if Labour does badly, “because that is what leaders do”. Jim Coates, a guest at the meeting, felt that true Labour voters do not vote Tory, while Vernon Price reported that canvassing in his locality demonstrated that there were many undecided Labour voters, who believe “Jeremy Corbyn is the problem”. Qualitatively, the Labour left has not grown and Momentum has not lived up to expectations. He felt that the left must rethink its approach, as we are not making the impact we should.
Coming back in, Jack Conrad talked about the problem of drawing conclusions from radio and television reporting. He also rejected the idea that after this election the country would “go back to normal” - now there is no ‘normal’ to go back to. Whether the UK leaves the EU or not, Brexit is here to stay as part of politics. Turning to Labour, he pointed out that trigger ballots would have to be used after the election in order to rid Labour of pro-capitalist rightwing MPs. More generally, the coming period needs to be one where the battle for ideas takes precedence. And, in relation to the LLA, he said that after the election we should assess its worth - we must not pretend to be the Labour left: we need to say who we are and to fight for our own political positions.
After the break for lunch, this discussion continued, with Peter Manson stating that the current manifesto was much more radical than the previous one, but was still immersed in “Labourism”, and therefore operating within the confines of capitalism. He felt that if Labour failed to win the election, the right would renew its open campaign to replace Corbyn as leader and he would be under great pressure to resign. With respect to anti-Semitism, comrade Manson believes that Labour’s strategy was hopelessly wrong - Corbyn should have challenged the “fake news” about the party’s ‘anti-Semitism’.
Anne McShane spoke via a computer link in relation to the situation in Northern Ireland, where the election was focussing not only on Brexit, but also on the extra impetus towards a united Ireland if the UK left the EU. More generally there was the impact being made by environmentalists.
Meanwhile, Phil Kent agreed that the political crisis will continue after the election. He felt that, for Corbyn, unity in the party was everything and, as he gains more status, he is likely to move to the right. On the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign, he felt that this really derived from American foreign policy - and if we leave the EU we will be “in the pocket” of the US and its foreign policy.
Mike Macnair spoke about what he sees as the 40-year experiment in neoliberal non-state intervention unwinding. The capitalist class cannot see any way other than privatisation, even though it has failed. He wondered if the Scots would unilaterally declare independence after the election, although, if the Tories win a big majority, this may help face down the Scottish National Party. While in Northern Ireland the issue of a possible separation from the EU was central, there was no chance of an independent Scotland joining the EU, as that would be automatically vetoed by Spain because of its own problem with separatists in Catalonia.
After this comrade Keable spoke again and said that the Labour left and right are essentially saying the same things: “Elect us and we will deliver.” In both cases careerism was endemic. With respect to the LLA, consensus does not work, and the question is whether the LRC will be split over the LLA, he thought. The present situation is that there are no officers and no steering committee, only the growing and already cumbersome Organising Group, consisting of delegates from affiliated groups.
In relation to Ireland, James Harvey pointed out that the all-Ireland context was a new element in the Brexit controversy, although other questions like abortion and gay marriage were also important. Electoral polarisation was increasing in the north and the central issues of nationalism and class remained intertwined.
Following this, comrade Conrad responded to the debate. He argued that the purge of the Labour left would continue until we organise to beat it. ‘Anti-Semitism’ has become a powerful weapon and the left is divided over it. This is the first time the break-up of the UK is a real possibility. It is a question of nationalism vs class and nationalism vs internationalism. As Benedict Anderson pointed out, people are prepared to die for a nation, but not for a class. We must change that.
He stressed that the importance of the LLA is not its name, but what it was organised around. We need to think, whereas much of the left in Britain is only looking towards the next strike or demonstration.
As comrade Roberts was unable to attend, the CPGB Provisional Central Committee asked Mike Mcnair to stand in and summarise the Kautsky debate in the USA, which he had discussed in a series of articles in the Weekly Worker in August and September.
But the issues at stake apply everywhere. For instance, in Britain, while the Labour leadership fetishises getting into government, the left continues as mere self-perpetuating sects. The Socialist Workers Party, for example, has a managerialist version of direct action. It thinks of everything being determined by the next demonstration or strike - not the political organisation needed. Their members are instructed to go from one single issue to another, and are not expected to contradict their leaders. They “do not need to think” and are told what to do.
By contrast a party needs to first have a programme, from which members can take guidance - whether in relation to Labour, trade union work or individual campaigns. A managerial approach is anathema to a principled Marxist party, for which both programmatical intransigence and tactical flexibility are essential.
Comrade Macnair discussed an article by Ed Rooksby in the New Socialist, in which he said that the “Bolsheviks did not smash the old state.”. This was correct - the German army smashed the state and the Bolsheviks created a new one. But Rooksby was arguing for reformist electoralism. Unfortunately, said comrade Macnair ironically, the working class struggle does not rise and fall in time with a parliamentary timetable.
Turning to the USA, he pointed to the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America, which now has 50,000 members and is bigger than the US Communist Party. Here too the left needs to be guided by a principled programme. He took issue with the views of Eric Blanc, who in the debate on Kautsky insisted that there must be no “ruptural” transition to socialism. He too stakes everything on the winning of elections.
When he ceased to be a Marxist, Kautsky polemicised against the Russian Revolution - in fact he was more hostile to it than some people to his right. But before that Kautsky had argued in favour of winning over the army alongside mass working class action. This does not fall into the trap of Blanc’s reformist electoralism.
All this led to a number of interesting contributions. First up was Farzad Kamangar, who commented that for the left at the moment tactics were more important than strategy, and that “tailing” is a reflection of the weakness of the left. For instance, she did not feel that the British left was genuinely interested in the environment - it was more a case of following the crowd. Participating in the electoral process requires an acknowledgement of the centrality of working class independence, which at present scarcely exists.
James Harvey was interested in particular in the influence of the ideas of Kautsky on the Second International. Turning to the present day, he felt that the weakness of the left was its lack of hope and a fear of what will happen in a sudden “rupture”. He also pointed out that the form of social democratic consciousness advocated by the post-Marxist Kautsky can be used to police workers.
Lawrence Parker, another non-CPGB/LPM guest at the meeting, said that for many on the left strategy had been demoted in favour of tactics. One problem is that the left does not read Lenin or Kautsky. In relation to the latter, he said that an individual’s contradictions needed to be taken into account, so that we are in a position to understand them dialectically.
Jack Conrad commented that what we need is to look at what is possible for today, since what has gone before has ended in failure. The working class is nothing without organisation, and the working class must organise around every aspect of life. A party newspaper, even if published abroad, as Iskra was, is essential. Turning more precisely to the Kautsky debate in the US, he said that the good thing about it is that it has encouraged the notion that the left has the obligation to think. Then there is the importance of Bernie Sanders’s campaign to win the Democratic nomination while openly saying he is a socialist. By contrast, in Britain, the rise of Corbynism has not produced any notable thought, so, even if Corbyn is elected, he will end up heading a reformist government to the cheers of the left. What is needed now is healthy debate within the movement.
In reply, Mike Macnair summed up his conclusions as follows:
- The working class must have its own press - an idea that dates back to the Chartist movement.
- We must stop and rethink - how do we begin again? The mass movement has been destroyed and has to be rebuilt.