The CPB tortoise stirs

The Communist Party of Britain has named April as a “month of heightened political activity”. Ian Farrell reports on its London public meeting

The Morning Star debate on ‘Which way forward for the left’ has had more contributions against the position of the Star’s party, the Communist Party of Britain, than for it. This according to its industrial organiser Kevin Halpin, chairing a CPB public meeting in Marx Memorial Library, London, on March 20.

A public meeting is an unusual thing for the CPB, as those of us familiar with the character of this bureaucratic ‘official communist’ group will know. These comrades are more at home fixing things up in smoke filled trade union committee rooms than arguing their views openly in public. The Star’s censorship protects the faithful few from unsafe information and ideas which might endanger their off-the-planet belief in the Labour Party and parliament as the instruments of revolution. It is indeed risky for the ‘revolutionary’ reformist CPB tortoise to venture out of the dark safety of its private shell and expose its ossified dogmas to the clarifying light of public debate.

It is the SLP initiative, coming on top of Labour’s ditching of clause four, which has precipitated this risky move. Hiding inside its shell would not prevent the CPB from losing more than Bob Crow, and not only to the SLP.

Much of the Star debate has been arguing for total backing for Labour candidates in all constituencies. Obviously, if the SLP could split the Labour vote and let the Tories back in, so might the CPB. The logical action for comrades who argue this way is to join the Labour Party.

So the CPB executive has decided “to try to stand candidates in England, Scotland and Wales” in the general election, “while campaigning for a Labour victory” (Morning Star March 11). And “try” is what they mean. In the London public meeting, contesting one constituency each in Wales, Scotland and London was spoken of as “an achievable aim”.

The announcement that April is to be a “month of heightened political activity” with CPB public meetings in “all its districts and branches” prompts the question of whether the group has any normal level of political activity to “heighten”. Certainly, if there is a CPB rank and file, activity is not its thing, let alone politics.

Of the 20 comrades present at the London public meeting, only one third might be described as rank and file members; a majority were CPB officials and Morning Star journalists. The discussion was sharpened by the intervention of an SLP member arguing for communists to join the SLP and help to forge it into a Communist Party.

Star deputy editor Paul Corry presented his ‘vision’ that, because Labour is organisationally linked to the trade unions, a Blair government can be forced by extra-parliamentary action to fight the bosses on behalf of the workers. The SLP will divert comrades from building alliances with those fighting the effects of capitalism who do not yet oppose the system as such.

As comrade Kenny Coyle explained, “the problem is there is no majority for socialism” in Britain. Therefore we must take up issues, not raise the divisive question of socialism, on which people disagree. A new party should only be started on the crest of a revolutionary wave, as the CPGB was in 1920, he said, not in a period of defeat like now.

CPB women’s organiser and Peoples Press Printing Society chief executive Mary Rosser is not one to uphold communist organisation: “We are letting down the class when we get together to discuss the minutiae of organisation. Let’s not argue over organisational matters, but work together over policies on which we all agree.” And further, “The CPB would be happy to be a party within the mass federal party of the organised working class.”

London district secretary Anita Halpin thought that state funding of trade unions under Blair could break the link and change the nature of the Labour Party, but this has not happened yet. If these poor lost souls want to defend the revolutionary potential (!) of the Labour Party - the mass party of reformism - why on earth do they need a communist party?

It was left to general secretary Mike Hicks to square the circle of ‘revolutionary’ reformism. “Only when combined in a communist party can Marxists work out a revolutionary programme,” he argued. Quite right. But, sadly for comrade Mike, his efforts to keep the CPB tortoise alive cannot overcome the liquidationist essence of the British Road to Socialism programme he himself defends.

The CPB is already more a fossil relic of ‘official communism’ than an endangered species. As such, those of us who are fighting for a revolutionary democratic centralist Communist Party can usefully study its features.

Bureaucratic centralism is the norm in the CPB, not democratic centralism. Factions are forbidden. When the ruling clique gets its way, this is called democratic centralism. When five members of the recommended list fail to be elected to the executive committee, as happened at the November 1995 CPB congress, this indicates factionalism. So the executive has set up a commission to investigate.

Meanwhile, those whom the congress rejected are to be let into the executive committee through the back door. “The highest runners-up from the congress” will be invited to “fill seats not taken up by comrades who have since resigned from the executive” (Morning Star March 11). To my knowledge only Bob Crow has resigned so far, to join the SLP, and a “health service comrade” is thinking of pulling out “for personal reasons”.

The real problem for the oppositionists who, understandably, find it necessary to organise a faction in order to rebel against the ruling Morning Star clique/faction is that they themselves believe factions are wrong (comrade Mike Hicks himself claims never to have attended a factional meeting). Like masturbating priests, they feel guilty but still do it.

No, comrades, differences of opinion are natural, they arise spontaneously between thinking communists; if suppressed, they are not sorted out, not overcome. Clarity can only be obtained consciously, through open debate between freely expressed ideas. This requires freedom to form factions so that like-minded comrades can combine to express their ideas in a fully developed form. Polemic between factions, whenever comrades find it necessary, is far healthier than the stunted debates which are forbidden to go above branch level.

Freedom to factionalise, however, like all freedoms, must be seized. Against a bureaucratic, faction-forbidding ruling clique, communist rebellion is a duty. As Marx said in the Communist Manifesto, communists disdain to conceal their views - and if CPB members wish to put their views in print, the columns of the Weekly Worker are at your service.

Factions were banned in the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in 1921 under extraordinary circumstances, and this temporary measure was subsequently made permanent and generalised as a principle in the ‘official communist’ movement throughout the world, stifling debate and providing fertile conditions for opportunism to flourish. Perhaps the new CPB commission on inner party democracy - one rep from each district and nation - will introduce factional rights into the CPB? And perhaps tortoises will fly.

Ian Farrell