Put principle first

We remain united despite a resignation. Peter Manson reports.

Readers may be aware that the CPGB has recently had to deal with a heated dispute, following the resignation of a comrade in a disagreement over the engagement of Labour Party Marxists members in the newly founded Labour Left Alliance. This was discussed - and hopefully resolved - at the March 7 aggregate meeting of comrades from both the CPGB and LPM.

However, I am sure readers will understand if I do not go into too much detail about the exact nature of the dispute. With an ongoing witch-hunt against the left, comrades who openly identify themselves as LPM supporters will be targeted by Labour’s right-dominated bureaucracy. So I will avoid saying anything that might facilitate such identification.

It was certainly promising that the comrade who resigned accepted our invitation to attend the aggregate, in an effort to end what was largely a misunderstanding - although, as described below, there are also, we believe, underlying political differences with the comrade. Nevertheless, the meeting agreed unanimously to offer her “the opportunity to withdraw her resignation and continue her membership of the CPGB without penalty”.

The aggregate began with an opening from the chair of the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee, Jack Conrad, who began his speech with his take on the nature of the LLA, following its February 22 founding conference. Comrade Conrad stated that the conference had failed to prioritise a discussion on basic principles and instead the conference arrangements committee tried to find commonalities between the alternative - and markedly different - constitutions being proposed. These included one that basically aimed to equip the LLA with a Marxist outlook, which received around 30% support from delegates. However, despite the failure of LPM comrades to win majority support, he stressed that they were correct to state they had no intention of abandoning the LLA. It was a site for struggle, in which the battle to transform the Labour Party could be waged.

Turning to the dispute with the comrade in question, he outlined the background, which had centred on the particular positions that we should advocate in relation to the LLA. The comrade had been involved in drafting a constitution to be put to the LLA conference several months earlier, but the PCC only seriously studied it four or five weeks before the conference. Comrade Conrad admitted that we had been remiss on that question, but declared that this first constitution was hardly something the CPGB should support: it basically advocated uniting the Labour left as it is, rather than attempting to arm it with a Marxist programme.

He said that the comrade seemed to have been won round to the PCC position, but then a row broke out over a motion supported by LPM that somehow had not appeared on the LLA website, despite having been ready for submission well before the deadline. The row was over whether that omission should be challenged by LPM, and led to the comrade threatening to resign if it was.

Comrade Conrad stated categorically that laying down such an ultimatum was not a healthy way for comrades to resolve disputes. He admitted having used the word ‘sabotage’ in relation to the comrade’s behaviour, but stated that the PCC had no intention of ‘dumping on’ her, as she subsequently alleged. It was perfectly legitimate to criticise comrades. However, he was more than pleased to see her in the room. He proposed a motion on behalf of the PCC, which combined an outline of our political approach towards Labour and the LLA with criticisms of the comrade who had resigned and her behaviour.

Next to speak was William Sarsfield, who presented a motion on behalf of several comrades, who believed that the resigned member had been badly treated by the PCC. It urged the leadership to “distance itself from claims” that her behaviour was “a result of conscious sabotage”. As well as calling on the PCC to offer the comrade “the opportunity to withdraw her resignation”, it also stated that the PCC should “organise an educational event, where the issues of method, theory and concrete political tactics” relating to Labour could be clarified.

Comrade Sarsfield stated that the notion that the comrade had consciously sabotaged the work of the CPGB was “absolutely perverse”. He thought that the problem lay in the fact that decisions relating to LPM work had not been properly recorded.

At this point the ‘former member’ was invited to speak. She confirmed that before the row she had been won round to the overall approach of the PCC to the LLA and was actually going to write an article for the Weekly Worker, stating why the PCC’s preferred motion should be supported. However, she thought that the PCC’s insistence on opposing a constitution that differed from the PCC’s preferred version by only two words was “stupid, sectarian, mad”.

She finished by making an interesting point about the extent to which LPM should be involved in the leadership of groups like the LLA, where the majority share politics that are well to our right. She said that the problem would only arise if Marxists stopped fighting for their own views and she would be totally against that.

Next up was Maciej Brzozowski, who proposed an amendment to the motion moved by comrade Sarsfield, which read: “This aggregate does not believe that [comrade X] committed a conscious act of sabotage. It rejects any such implication or insinuation.” He said that the motion which he wanted to amend was far preferable to the one moved by the PCC, which was “pompous and pedantic”. However, he said he supported the current PCC members, who all worked conscientiously.

He was followed by Anne McShane, an associate member from Ireland who had also resigned, but then within days accepted that she had been wrong to do so and withdrew her resignation. She stated that comrade X had also been wrong to resign. But both sides had to admit their responsibility for the crisis, which was based on a “misunderstanding, not sabotage” - and now we need to “move on to the politics”.

At this point comrade Conrad came back in to declare that he thought comrade Brzozowski’s amendment should be accepted. But he was against that part of the motion which called for an “educational event.” That sounded patronising and what was needed was the kind of debate that we were currently engaged in, not being lectured by some ‘expert’. He repeated that he, like others, was open to criticism, and everyone should be able to accept criticism - after all, “no-one is indispensable”.

He was followed by Bob Paul, who thought the whole affair revealed questions about our culture and the “management of comrades”. The member who resigned had been part of the CPGB for over 20 years, but no-one from the PCC had telephoned her to try to persuade her she was wrong to quit. This sentiment was echoed by Sarah Stewart, but she added that she was now “heartened” by what comrade Conrad had said. However, Farzad Kamangar, speaking from the chair, said members of the PCC have a collective responsibility and individual approaches would have caused further confusion. Farzad also doubted very much that picking up the phone to the departed comrade would have helped, judging by the kind of response from her to various emails.

Comrade Kamangar was followed by Ben Lewis, who, while stating that the whole affair had been handled “incredibly badly”, agreed with comrade Conrad that there were “underlying political differences” that should not be overlooked. I spoke next and stated that I was delighted to see the comrade in question, who I hoped would soon be a member once again. However, I strongly criticised her behaviour prior to her resignation, although I thought the point she made about Marxists taking up leadership roles in organisations like the LLA was a useful one to discuss.

While Phil Kent’s brief contribution was limited to calling the PCC’s behaviour “bureaucratic, manipulative and arrogant”, Stan Keable - a comrade expelled from Labour because of his association with LPM - was more thoughtful. He directly asked the departed member whether she would now withdraw her resignation - the fact that she had been accused of negative behaviour should not be the central question. After all, that “works both ways: you’ve accused us of some awful things” - including “wanting to push her out”. He added that any agreement by her to rejoin should not be conditional on the PCC withdrawing certain statements. That had no bearing on the central principle: the fight for a Marxist party - if the CPGB had given up on that task it might be correct to resign in order to form an organisation prepared to take it on, but quitting because of a dispute over a motion was not serious politics.

A guest at the aggregate, Andy Hannah, said that maybe the comrade had made mistakes, but he reminded us of the valuable work she had done over the years. He was followed by Oliver Grant, who argued that the affair showed that political differences had arisen - “meetings like this are a great way to deal with them” (as opposed to ‘educational events’). But resignations - or threats of them - were very damaging and should not be entertained over such questions.

However, showing that she did not agree with either comrade Grant or comrade Keable, the ex-member came back in to state categorically that if the PCC motion was accepted, then “I can’t come back”. And she declared that, as far as groups like the LLA were concerned, yes, we must fight for our politics, but not go over the top. We must “speak with normal voices”, not “just shout”.

In response to the debate, comrade Conrad stated that he and comrade Kamangar had decided to withdraw the PCC motion - although he stressed that this was not in response to any “ultimatum”. They had taken into account all the views expressed and decided to elaborate upon the principles it contains at future aggregates and other forums.

With the PCC motion withdrawn, there was just the one moved by comrade Sarsfield. This was split into three parts, which were voted on separately. The first part, in its amended form, which rejected the notion of “conscious sabotage”, was overwhelmingly supported, with just one member opposing it. Part two, restating that the comrade would be welcome to rejoin without penalty if she withdrew her resignation, was, as I have said, unanimously agreed, while part three, calling for an “educational event”, was not carried after a tied vote l