Broad versus mass
Principles should not be negotiated away. Peter Manson reports on the discussion at last weekend’s meeting
The joint aggregate meeting of CPGB and Labour Party Marxists (LPM) comrades, which took place online on June 6, focused on a theoretical question which was directly related to our practical policy: how we try to win working class activists to Marxist principles.
Introducing his talk, the chair of the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee, Jack Conrad, began by reminding comrades of the decision taken by a previous aggregate in March (see ‘Put principle first’ Weekly Worker March 12). A motion calling on the PCC to “organise an educational event”, where the “issues of method, theory and concrete political tactics” (in particular relating to the Labour Party) could be clarified, was not carried following a tied vote. But the PCC had assured comrades that, rather than being lectured to at an “educational event”, they would be able to discuss the question fully at future aggregates.
Comrade Conrad began by stating that the matter under debate could be entitled “Broad versus mass”. Unlike most of the left, we do not attempt to bring together within a single political organisation people with a wide variety of views - certainly not by watering down our own politics and finding some “lowest common denominator”. Nevertheless, the aim was to build a mass party - but on a principled basis.
He reminded comrades that the main parties affiliated to both the Second and Third Internationals, while not exactly being ‘narrow’, could hardly be described as broad. But they were certainly mass parties, despite being organised for the most part on a principled basis. Broadness, he said, was not the “road to socialism”: it was more likely the road to nowhere.
We were, of course, used to accusations of sectarianism because we insist on fighting for our principles, but “nothing could be further from the truth”, he said. It is not the job of Marxists to “trail behind the movement”, but to win leadership over it.
A good example of this struggle came with the founding of the Labour Left Alliance (LLA) in 2019, continued comrade Conrad. The majority involved - initially including the Labour Representation Committee - were in favour of a broad alliance, which adopted exactly such a “lowest common denominator” approach. That is why LPM proposed its principled alternative constitution - in contrast to the version originally put forward by Labour Against the Witchhunt (LAW), which failed to even mention capitalism, socialism, the ecological crisis or the need to fight for democracy - it was more or less limited to the struggle for democracy within Labour, as well as opposition to the anti-left witch-hunt.
We support that struggle, of course, but for us the main question is the need to equip the working class with the politics needed to become the ruling class. By contrast, the majority sought justification in numbers and were prepared to “tone down” their politics in order to attract in particular those with left reformist politics. That was the wrong approach, he said.
Here comrade Conrad gave examples from the early struggle for Marxism, starting with the Communist manifesto, which specified exactly what type of socialism was needed. He went on to mention the German Social Democratic Party’s Gotha programme, which was opposed by Karl Marx, then its Erfurt programme, as well as the struggle for principled politics within the Parti Ouvrier in France.
By contrast, he continued, the left today is disorganised into rival “confessional sects”. His first example was that of the Socialist Workers Party, which actively discourages any serious questioning of, let alone opposition to, its dogmatic positions, such as the idea that the Soviet Union was an example of “state capitalism”. Like other sects, the SWP has a “self-perpetuating leadership”, which adheres to an “unofficial programme”.
And overwhelmingly the left adopts the ‘broad’ approach - the SWP attempts to build unity with those to its right through its so-called ‘united fronts’, such as the Stop the War Coalition and Stand Up To Racism. It does not attempt to use such bodies as a platform for Marxism. But it is not just single-issue campaigns: much of the left is prepared to build parties on such a basis.
Comrade Conrad’s first example of that was the Scottish Socialist Alliance, which adopted a “tailist approach” to Scottish nationalism and then itself became a left-nationalist organisation in the shape of the Scottish Socialist Party. Then there was the Respect party in England and Wales - described by the SWP as an “alliance between socialists and Muslim activists” - in which it was prepared to “sacrifice one principle after another”, he said. It not only rejected the call for a republic in opposition to the current monarchy, as well as open support for gay rights, but the SWP even voted down the adoption of its own ‘What we fight for’ statement (which is published each week in Socialist Worker) in the name of unity with those to its right - not least the Muslim Association of Britain.
Before that there was the Socialist Alliance, which - following the line of not only the SWP, but also the Socialist Party in England and Wales - stood in elections on a left-Labourite platform, the idea being to establish a “Labour Party mark two”.
Comrade Conrad stressed the point once more - broadness disempowers us, because we end up with politics based on those to our right, not Marxist principles. A prime example was the adoption by ‘official communism’ of popular frontism in the 1930s: in something that was “eerily reminiscent of Menshevism”, socialism was ruled to be “off the agenda”.
Finally there was the question of the Labour Party itself. Its very form embodies broadness: its professional councillors, its career MPs, its trade union bureaucrats, its cooperative businesses, etc, with their tendency to seek acceptability in the eyes of the bourgeoisie. In this environment the reformist left finds itself constantly drawn to the right. Many completely sell out. That has seen Momentum actually joining the anti-left witch-hunt, he said. Talking of which, it was not just Wavertree Constituency Labour Party that is being investigated: the purge will be far wider.
In conclusion comrade Conrad emphasised that our position was not to stand aside: we need to engage critically not only with Labour members, but within all such ‘broad’ bodies where we are able to put forward our clear, Marxist principles. We say, “Neither sectarian purity nor broad-frontism!”
As the first to speak from the ‘floor’, I stressed the two-sided nature of broad fronts: while, as comrade Conrad had emphasised, they can lead us nowhere in such a form, they almost always give us the opportunity to intervene and fight for principled politics. We had, of course, intervened in the Socialist Alliance, the SSP, Respect, etc, while today LPM comrades are intervening in the LLA.
However, I warned of the dangers of our comrades actually leading such bodies, which is what happened with the LLA. A long-standing former member of ours ended up effectively running the new alliance, once the LRC pulled out, and as LLA secretary she felt obliged to reflect the views of the ‘broad’ majority on the organising group in bulletins, website statements, etc. In my view, we must avoid taking up such senior posts within broad groupings.
Next up was another PCC member, Mike Macnair, who referred to the “snowball effect”: we cannot “just stand aside”, because we need to build a new party. He gave several historical examples to illustrate the positive steps that can be taken from engaging with formations to our right, such as winning over members to our ideas.
He was followed by the meeting’s chair, Farzad Kamangar, who talked of the grouping in which she has played a leading role: Hands Off the People of Iran. There had been problems in agreeing a statement in Farsi amongst Iranian activists - not so much as a result of their own differences, but because some comrades felt there was a need to cater for the views of activists who were not necessarily for socialism or were even opposed to it.
Comrade Kamangar went on to point to the “serious problems” with Corbynism: its unwillingness to stand up to the right. But LPM had “operated on a different level from the very beginning”: whereas most on the Labour left look back to what had existed in the past, LPM looks forward to a future under working class rule.
Next to speak was Bob Paul, who wondered if the LLA might end up as a Labour centrist organisation - that is why it needs an injection of “revolutionary ideas”. After which James Harvey of LPM added that one of the problems of working within the Labour Party was that it was tempting to make concessions. If you critique existing policies, etc, you may be asked, “What’s your alternative?” Comrades know that to propose, for example, the need for popular militias is likely to provoke mockery, as it represents a complete break with the existing British constitution. Similarly, socialism is seen by much of the Labour left as the policies of a Labour government, which means we have to explain what we mean by it before we can outline how it can be achieved.
A guest at the aggregate, comrade Moshé Machover, responded to this by once again stressing the need to engage with Labourism, while not giving in to its politics. He was followed by another LPM comrade, Stan Keable, who pointed out that the likes of Momentum’s Jon Lansman see the need to win over the centre ground, so advocating genuine working class socialism is the last thing they think we should do. He pointed out that LPM was formed in 2011 - ie, before Jeremy Corbyn became leader - and its aim is the creation of a Marxist party, not a “halfway house”.
Comrade Keable responded to my point about the dangers of taking leadership of broad campaigns and factions by stressing that it is quite possible to form a Marxist minority within their leadership. He added that LPM was central to the formation of a ‘broad alliance’ in the shape of LAW.
William Sarsfield came back to the question of ‘broadness’ on the part of the SWP, which decries those who insist on putting forward principled politics within organisations like Respect or Stop the War as “sectarians”, and opposed to “the movement”. Part of this derives from the SWP’s own lack of programme, which allows it to “slip from one approach to another”, but that very broadness has a “corrosive effect” on the revolutionary organisation itself.
Replying to the debate, comrade Conrad stated that the problem with the kind of ‘left unity’ advocated by many on the Labour left was that it had to also include the centre in order to defeat the right. It was opportunist to call for the unity of the Labour left without specifying for what. In the case of the LLA, it refers to the “inspirational leadership” of Corbyn and laughably Labour being a “democratic socialist party”. For our part, we do not aim to “reclaim Labour”, as do so many on the left. After all, the original clause four was deliberately Lassallean and anti-Marxist.
Responding to comrade Keable, he pointed out that LAW was rather different from the LLA, since the former was a “single-issue campaign” unlike the latter or other party projects. Finally he summarised the whole purpose of this aggregate debate: to “restate our opposition to broad fronts”, which are “a trap for socialists”. Within them they either “get silenced or silence themselves”. Yes, we must win over the masses - but to the programme of working class self-liberation.
The aggregate ended with a brief session on the CPGB’s annual summer school, introduced by comrade Kamangar, who reiterated that this year Communist University will take place from Friday August 14 to Saturday August 22. It will, of course, almost certainly be an online event for obvious reasons.
Comrade Kamangar gave details of how the PCC is planning to organise CU and asked comrades for their views. Since online debates are rather different from face-to-face events - it is more difficult to remain focused for a lengthy period when sitting alone in front of your computer - the PCC felt that there should be only two sessions a day rather than the usual three. But their length has not yet been determined.
Then there is the problem of the variation in sound quality, depending on where the speaker is located and what software they have. There was also the need to update our website and to decide the exact form in which people could access the event and the role of social media.
Emil Jacobs, a guest from the Netherlands, explained how he and his comrades had created a new CU website. He wondered about the possibility of setting up a special studio in London with first-rate equipment, from where speakers could give their talks.
Comrades also raised the question of our usual lunchtime sessions on basic Marxism and the possibility of online fringe meetings. There was also the question of evening socials, since an important part of CU is precisely the social aspect and the need to exchange views informally as well as within official sessions.
There were many useful suggestions raised from the floor, which the PCC will look at over the coming period.