Judge tactics in the concrete
Mark Fischer reports on the surprisingly united July 11 meeting of CPGB members
From early 2020, readers will be aware that the CPGB has been embroiled in political controversy which - in its first stages - resulted in the resignation from our ranks of a talented and long-serving comrade. While there were sharply diverging viewpoints about how the matter had been handled by the leadership, I think there was a general consensus that we should use the episode to deepen understanding of our methods of work in broad fronts of one sort or another.
However, the issue developed a sharper edge, when comments by Peter Manson - editor of the Weekly Worker - initially suggested that we should as a matter of course boycott top leadership positions in broad frontist organisations. The ‘comrade X’ affair showed us “the dangers of our comrades actually leading such bodies, which is what happened with the Labour Left Alliance ... In my view, we must avoid taking up such senior posts within broad groupings.”
Comrade Manson had raised this idea first in a verbal contribution to the June 6 aggregate, a meeting convened to try to distil some lessons from the comrade X affair. At the time it was missed by most comrades in what was a long and intense meeting. However, when our editor wrote up the report of the meeting - including his suggestions on how to avoid similar problems in the future - comrades sat up and took notice.
Jack Conrad put fingers to keyboard to reject the notion that “we cannot initiate, or countenance comrades taking a lead in, establishing an organisation where we would be in a minority, where the majority would almost certainly pursue opportunist, broad-frontist politics”. This would be “utterly alien to our approach”, he wrote. Moreover, we “likewise reject the bureaucratic notion that members of ours who have been elected to leading positions in trade unions, leftwing fronts, the Labour Party, etc, are obliged to silence themselves and merely implement the positions of the majority.”1
In the following week’s paper, comrade Manson “on reflection” came to the view that he had been “too prescriptive”. Better that “we should be wary of taking up such senior posts”, he now thought.2
July 11 saw CPGBers in an online aggregate, discussing the merits or otherwise of a motion that not only addressed our editor’s position, but took the opportunity to outline the communist approach to broad frontist organisations. The motion was authored by just three members of our leadership. Comrade Manson himself was not approached to sign, as the three felt that clarity and delineation of political lines was needed - especially as comrade Manson insisted that his position was not an alternative to the majority stance (embodied in the motion of the three), but merely a cautious addition.
It would be blasé to the point of negligence if we thought that this settles the question - either in our own ranks, or in our intervention in a workers’ movement where ‘broadness’, and its concomitant pull on the left to the right, is regarded as ‘sensible’ politics. The argument we have had about this issue was highly unsatisfactory for many reasons. Too few comrades intervened, for example (including myself, I readily admit). The key problem, however, was that the opponent of what became the majority line repeatedly stated that he agreed with the motion and even voted for it - although, unamended as it was, it contradicted the amendments he had suggested.3
So, while the correct line won out, clearly confusion remains - and at the highest level of our organisation.
Recently, I have been involved in a study group that is working its way through Lenin’s Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder over the last few months.4 The timeless nature of the strictures that the ultra-lefts threw down about boycotting parliament for fear of political contamination, working in reactionary unions, the need to avoid the fetid swamp that is parliament - all of this reminds me of much of the argument Peter put forward (without the ultras’ élan, unfortunately). Much of the content of Lenin’s polemical broadsides against his contemporary leftists now apply to our editor, I am afraid.
The discussion has taken on a hazy aspect due to comrade Manson’s shifting position and the fact that he insisted the stance he had adopted in no way contradicted the motion of the three, and his amendment was simply an addition.
He put the vigorous opposition to his stance down to a “big misunderstanding … I obviously haven’t explained my position very clearly”, insisted that the motion of the three was “not in contradiction to what I am saying” and that “I have been saying this for quite some time … on the Provisional Central Committee” (“six months ago”, he reminded his fellow PCCers, for example). However, as “some people can see some contradictions, I will explain.”
The comrade posed the problem this way: “Is it a good idea for our comrades to actually take the leadership - as in the leading position - in a broad formation where the majority is clearly to our right?” “You can’t be leading the organisation and simultaneously opposing its line,” the comrade insisted - or, in other words, communists should passively accept the same sort of conspiratorial cabinet discipline that prevails in mainstream politics - ‘It doesn’t matter what you decide, as long as you all tell the same story,’ as Jim Hacker might have put it.
The motion was discussed and unanimously passed at the meeting. Comrade Manson had tabled an amendment to the text to add at the end of point 7 the following sentence: “We should, however, be wary of taking up leadership positions in such political formations.” This received only one vote - that of himself.
Obviously, this report is limited by space and we will need to return to these important issues in future articles. That said, I think the closing remarks of comrade Conrad were a useful summation of where the vast majority of our comrades stand.
First, we reject timeless warnings of the need to be “wary” in all circumstances. An example is the experience of the London Socialist Alliance in the early 2000s. This was an organisation - where the majority of members stood to our right - that we fought to retain the leadership of. Political forces we were working with tried on several occasions to oust our comrades - in particular the chair who was a member of ours.
There was absolutely no wariness or pussyfooting in our approach: we grasped an opportunity with both hands, despite being fully aware that the politics of the people we were working with were significantly to the right of us.
Second, why can’t minorities take leading positions? Marx was the leading figure in the First International - but was the organisation he led a solid Marxist phalanx? No, the Marxists were in an extreme minority! Marx was dealing with the British trade unionists, Proudhonists, Blanquists, Russian Narodniks, etc.
This is the crux of the majority’s argument. Every political tactic must be judged concretely. It is not our culture to go into these fluid situations weighed down with political commandments stipulating ‘wariness’ or abstention in all cases. These political moments must be judged in the concrete.
The aggregate concluded with a discussion of a rather shorter motion, proposed by myself, on the CPGB’s annual fundraising drive, the Summer Offensive, which this year has been cancelled because of the pandemic. My motion pointed out that the SO has never been just about money, but is “an integral element of the revolutionary culture of our organisation”.
In any case, although our finances are “relatively healthy”, partly because of the lockdown, “there is no such thing as ‘enough’ money for a political organisation such as ours, especially given the volatile and dangerous political context we work in”. I therefore proposed that we should organise the Offensive later in the year, with the “specific format” to be decided on by the PCC.
After a brief discussion, a slightly amended version of the motion was overwhelmingly agreed, with just one comrade abstaining.
Unanimously agreed resolution
1. When it comes to tactics, we do not consider ourselves bound by timeless formulas. Tactics serve strategy.
2. In our specific circumstances the key question is forming a genuine, mass Communist Party. Without that nothing serious, nothing decisive, can happen in terms of achieving genuine democracy, socialism and human liberation.
3. Given the current period of disorganisation, confusion and retreat, that means that our main task is the struggle for political clarity and unity around a definite programme and a definite set of organisational principles (as set out in our Draft programme and Draft rules).
4. The main weapon we use at this moment in time is therefore literary - such as recovering history, theoretical development and engaging in polemics.
5. Tactics should be based on a concrete assessment of a concrete situation. They are designed to take advantage of particular opportunities or guard against particular dangers.
6. To fight this or that battle all manner of campaigns, actions and forms of organisation can be considered.
7. Tactics change with the ebb and flow of the movement. At certain times it is vital to build defensive organisations, Labour Against the Witchhunt being a good contemporary example. The main thing at any one moment is to locate the most suitable tactics to further the struggle for a Communist Party.
8. Decrees to the effect that we cannot initiate, or countenance comrades taking a lead in establishing, an organisation where we would be in a minority, where the majority would almost certainly pursue opportunist, broad-frontist politics, are utterly alien to our approach.
9. We likewise reject the bureaucratic notion that members of ours who have been elected to leading positions in trade unions, leftwing fronts, the Labour Party, etc, are obliged to silence themselves and merely implement the positions of the majority.
10. We expect members to fight for the strategy and tactics of the organisation. How exactly that is done depends on circumstances, the quality of political leadership and education and commitment to, and understanding of, communist discipline.
11. When it comes to broad fronts, our tactics must necessarily take into account the morbid fear that centrists and left reformists alike have of serious debate about, let alone commitment to, overthrowing the existing constitution, republican democracy and establishing working class rule. That, so they say, would put off voters, make an easy target for the capitalist media and alienate allies, or potential allies, in the trade union and labour bureaucracy.
12. The justifying idea is that adopting ‘sensible’ politics and avoiding ‘sectarian’ principles will bring ‘important’ people on board, deliver a big membership and allow a real step to be taken in the direction of socialism (often via ‘the next Labour government’).
13. This road gives effective veto powers to the right. If concessions are not granted, there is the ever present threat to walk. Maintaining unity with the right therefore excuses an adaptation to the politics, methods and organisational forms of the right. This sees a preference for federal structures - that or loose alliances - bureaucratic attempts to sideline or exclude communists, minimising the room for debate and, at the most elemental level, severely limiting the speaking time available for minorities. Conferences are typically little more than top-table-dominated rallies.
14. With the confessional sects, it is commonly the case that talk of revolution, working class rule and socialism are kept for members, readers and possible recruits alone. Revolution, working class rule and socialism are not to be fought for in broad-front organisations. This is a form of self-censorship, which often involves attempts to censor others.
15. Our tactics should be designed to thwart and, in time, overthrow bureaucratic centralism, managerialist restrictions and kowtowing before the trade union and labour bureaucracy. If we agree to or adopt broad-frontist norms, we effectively abandon our core principles and purposes and go over to the right.
Letters Weekly Worker June 18.↩︎
Letters Weekly Worker June 25.↩︎
As one comrade notes: “I’m a bit confused by Peter’s amendment. If it is added to the end of point 7 it makes the point self-contradictory … on the one hand, it’s ‘utterly alien’ to our approach to not take a lead, but, on the other, we should be ‘wary’ of taking leadership positions.”↩︎
The more accurate translation is Leftwing communism: a growing pain.↩︎