Honing and updating
Vernon Price reports on last weekend’s membership aggregate and the three debates over programme
January 23 saw the first online aggregate of 2021, attended by members and supporters of the Communist Party of Great Britain and Labour Party Marxists. In December we commenced a review of the CPGB’s Draft programme,1 and this month we considered updates to sections covering freedom of speech, Europe and crime.
I must stress that these are not fundamental changes - the programme is not based on struggles against this or that policy of the current government. It addresses the period of the transition from capitalism to communism, and is intentionally confined to main principles and strategy. However, these changes are to section three, which contains immediate demands, and it is appropriate that we make changes according to either experience or big political developments.
Our reworked section on freedom declares that the “interests of the working class require the open struggle of ideas and the ability to freely organise”. In opening the first discussion comrade Paul Demarty took us through the demands that flow from that. First, “Unrestricted freedom of speech, publication, conscience, association and assembly”. The key word here is ‘unrestricted’. As soon as we permit state bans on the far right, we are opening the door to similar bans aimed at silencing the workers’ movement. Paul was very clear though - our right to freedom of speech includes the right to picket those we oppose.
He went on to criticise bureaucratic ‘safe-space’ policies, which are being imposed on student campuses and in the wider movement - this is not the way to defeat bigoted ideas or to educate those who hold them. The comrade thought the call to abolish state secrecy would open the eyes of the working class to the methods used to maintain capitalist rule, and could also provide lessons on how to run things properly, once we are in control.
In considering the demand to abolish copyright laws, patents and intellectual property rights, Paul noted how these can end up denying millions the medical treatment they need in a time of global pandemic. The final demand in this section calls for “Socialisation of internet service providers, public cloud infrastructure and other natural monopolies in communications”. Paul revealed that on the day before the aggregate Facebook had arbitrarily shut down the pages of the Socialist Workers Party on that platform. Although they were now restored, no explanation was provided. And similar, unaccountable, private corporations are to be found running all the different layers of the internet.
Comrade Farzad Kamangar informed the meeting about problems encountered when trying to arrange Facebook advertisements for talks at the recent Winter Communist University. Eventually most were accepted, but not for the two sessions covering the Middle East. Jack Conrad drew attention to the new Campaign for Free Speech being set up by Labour Against the Witchhunt and other groups. Whilst we support no restrictions on freedom of speech, others involved are insisting this does not apply to fascists, which seems like a contradiction in terms. He also referred to the thousands of online accounts of far-right activists which have been terminated for supporting the January 6 failed coup in Washington DC, and that many on the left are welcoming this response by big tech. But we can expect that the very same bots used to identify the far right in the USA will be used against the left here, as the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie gains general acceptance.
Opening the discussion on Europe, comrade Conrad acknowledged that Brexit has changed the UK’s relationship with the European Union and the rest of the world, but the issue is far from settled. Donald Trump’s defeat removes Boris Johnson’s key Brexit ally and, with Joe Biden rebuilding bridges with the EU, this leaves the UK facing economic and constitutional crises.
The communist tradition has always favoured larger countries - these provide the best conditions not just for achieving socialist revolution, but also for its defence. That is why we still look to a united continent of Europe under the rule of the working class. This would include the EU as well as non-EU countries. And any such European revolution would need to be able to withstand the wrath of US imperialism and in turn support the working class in the USA in overthrowing imperialism.
The comrade contrasted this strategy with that of the destruction socialists, like the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and the Socialist Workers Party. These comrades believe that any damage inflicted on the imperialist states is good for the cause of socialism. Hence their support for Brexit and also Scottish independence.
Finally Jack contrasted our approach with groups like Another Europe Is Possible, which sought reform to the EU institutions, and disgracefully took funds from the likes of George Soros. Our unity of the European working class requires the abolition of the EU commission, the council of ministers and the existing treaties.
Comrade Peter Manson spoke next, describing how leaving the EU was regarded as a strategic victory for the ‘official communists’ in the Communist Party of Britain, restoring national sovereignty and opening the way to building socialism here in one country. But the reality for the working class is that socialism is no nearer at all.
James Harvey highlighted the problems that the Brexit deal will bring for capitalism in Britain, and that this is likely to lead to a strengthening of support for national chauvinism. He also spoke about the contradictions within the EU itself that prevented steps to further European unity.
Jack Conrad agreed with that assessment. The EU shows no sign of being able to act independently, as illustrated by its inability to deliver on the Iran nuclear deal, once the Trump administration imposed sanctions. For him the only force capable of uniting Europe is the working class. And European unity is essential for a viable socialist revolution that can defend itself and inspire the rest of the world.
The final discussion centred on the section covering crime and prisons, in particular our policy towards drugs. In his introduction Mike Macnair took us through the history of laws to prevent the consumption of recreational chemicals by ‘the undeserving poor’ from the 17th century with a ban on tobacco and a clampdown on ale houses, through to the US ‘war on drugs’, as started by Richard Nixon in 1971. In the 1990s the Clinton administration ramped up this policy with mandatory minimum sentencing laws, leading to mass incarceration - all pushed through with the help of senator Joe Biden. This was accompanied by diplomatic pressure on its allies to impose prohibition rather than offer support to addicts. The proposed wording for the new addition on drugs reads:
End the war on drugs. Recreational drugs should be legalised and quality standards assured. People with a dependency problem should be offered treatment not given a criminal record.
Two minor amendments proposed by Ollie Grant were then discussed. First he wanted to use the term ‘psychoactive substances’ rather than ‘recreational drugs’. His justification here was to cover everything included within the scientific definition of ‘a chemical that induces a change in mood, behaviour or state of consciousness’ rather than just those traditionally considered as ‘recreational’. In particular many drugs considered as ‘medical’ are consumed ‘recreationally’. His second change was to include the phrase “production and distribution organised by the state to break the black-market monopoly”. The problem here being the constant pressure on the private sector to increase profits by adulteration of the ingredients.
Jack Conrad pointed out that the problem in the USA and in the UK was the criminalisation of the use of recreational drugs, and the huge prison population this engendered. The ‘psychoactive’ term was too broad, because it covered everything from tea to LSD, and also included substances manufactured for military use. He also noted that effective state regulation of drugs, including alcoholic drinks, can be enforced without full state control of production.
A number of other comrades joined in the discussion, many pointing to the opioid crisis in the United States and other examples, where the distinction between medical and ‘recreational’ drug use was not straightforward.
In replying to the debate Mike Macnair reminded comrades that the addition being discussed related to the ‘Crime and prisons’ section of the Draft programme, and that the section on health also covers control of the pharmaceutical industry. He emphasised that the core of the issue was the illegality of the sale of recreational drugs - currently described as ‘the war on drugs’, but dating back centuries. The consequence of the illegality is that there is no quality control and distribution occurs via the black market - our aim is to strike down this illegality.
In illustrating the small scale of recreational drug production, Mike told us about the activities of the chemistry postgraduates when he was a university student - the humour that followed was all but destroyed by the Zoom platform. He explained that they made and sold LSD when that was fashionable, but the cops cracked down on LSD, so they shifted to making speed. Then the police also cracked down on speed, so they moved into downers … “and I can’t remember what happened after downers”.
Mike’s final point was that we should avoid state control of production and distribution of recreational drugs, because much of it at present happens on a small scale, basically as a cottage industry. Rather than enforced collectivisation of the petty bourgeoisie we favour the formation of voluntary cooperatives. Only in the case of considerable concentration would the call for nationalisation be appropriate.
In the votes that followed Ollie Grant’s amendments were both defeated.
All three updated sections were approved overwhelmingly. We expect to debate and vote on further Draft programme amendments at forthcoming aggregates later this year.