Self-declared heretic replies
Tony Greenstein insists that the merging of LAW and LIEN is precisely the ‘twin-track’ approach that Jack Conrad advocates
Replying to Jack Conrad, I feel as if I am being accused of denying that the sun revolves around the Earth. My crime is having “abandoned any pretence to working class politics”. In other words, I am a heretic. I am fortunate not to be burnt at the stake.
What is ironic about Jack’s accusation (‘Something serious is needed’ Weekly Worker December 16) is that, if anyone is guilty of this charge, it is Jack himself, who stubbornly refuses to use any form of Marxist or class analysis in relation to the current political and economic crisis in Britain and Europe. Indeed there is no analysis.
However, a few words about Jack’s method. His article is littered with snide innuendo and personal attacks. I am accused of being “an occasional contributor” to the Weekly Worker, albeit “not an attentive one”. This prompted me to go through the list of articles I have written for the Weekly Worker over the years. Even I was surprised - 150!1 One article a week for 3 years is hardly “occasional”. Why the need for this sneering condescension?
Jack regurgitates what the German working class did in 1875, Russia in 1917 and the formation of the Labour Party over a century ago, without even a hint as to why there has not been a successful working class revolution since 1917. It hardly needs to be said that the conditions arising out of the formation of the German working class - Bismarck’s attempts to outlaw the Social Democratic Party and his Kulturkampf - the repression of the tsarist autocracy and the conditions surrounding the founding of the Labour Party bear no resemblance to today.
Unfortunately we do not have mass strikes in the docks, the mines and on the railways, as happened before and after World War I. Yes, capitalism still exists, but it has not stood still. Dockers and miners barely exist any longer. The information technology revolution has taken its toll on groups such as printers. Yes, the same contradictions between capital and labour still exist, but the European working class today, its state of organisation and political consciousness have changed out of all recognition. Yet to Jack this is all irrelevant.
Yes, the 20th century was a century of “wars and revolutions” (mostly wars), but most revolutions were not working class revolutions. The main form of class warfare has been wars against imperialism and colonial occupation, but these have, with few exceptions, not progressed beyond the replacement of the colonial masters with a native comprador class.
To imagine that we are in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation is to engage in the politics of fantasy and wishful thinking.
It might therefore be thought that the question of how we form a mass revolutionary Marxist Party and indeed whether it is possible at this juncture might at least merit some consideration by Jack. Because if it is not possible today to form such a party then the question is what form of mass socialist organisation is possible in the face of an authoritarian government prepared to outlaw demonstrations, deport Assange and play the race card, whilst indulging in the most reactionary form of identity politics.
Jack’s motive for writing his article is the merger that took place following two all-members meetings of Labour Against the Witchhunt and the Labour In Exile Network. While Jack admits that the words ‘liquidation’ and ‘closing down’ did not appear in the successful motions, our denials that this was the purpose are “clearly a pedantic attempt to pull wool over eyes ... [to] cover up, to obfuscate, to hoodwink”. Clearly nothing I say will convince Jack of our good intentions, because it suits his purposes to believe in our ill intentions.
At no stage did Roger Silverman, Esther Giles or myself - to say nothing of the 63% of LAW members who voted for the successful motion - contemplate or argue for an end to the fight against the witch-hunt. Nor have we ever argued that anyone should resign from or abandon the fight against Starmer in the Labour Party. However, with democracy abolished within Labour, it is impossible to mount a successful fight inside the party. The fight has to be largely conducted from the outside.
The reason why the CPGB is so willing, even eager, to abandon the supporters of the Corbyn movement is that they never understood what was happening in the first place. Jack says:
… sad to say, the younger generation ... were not politically determined, not politically educated and therefore did not fully engage. They... had not much of a clue when it came to national executive elections.
Bizarrely, comrade Greenstein says we write off these people and are “happy” to see 150,000 of them “disappear” ... No, comrade, we ... want them educated, we want them organised. But this will not happen if we attempt to do the impossible and follow them to their 150,000 different destinations.
Yes we also want to see the education and politicisation of those who identify with the Corbyn movement. So how does packing up your tent and retreating into one’s own sect help educate people?
It is precisely because we do not wish to follow people to 150,000 different destinations that we have sought to create a new organisation out of LAW and LIEN. It is therefore bizarre that the CPGB first opposed this and then simply walked away. You may not follow those who leave, but you have nothing to say to them when they do disappear, except that they should join a tiny sect which wants to form a mass Communist Party some time in the next 100 years. That simply isn’t serious politics.
The Corbyn movement represented an insurgency of the dispossessed. A genuine mood of popular anger at the unexpected election victory of David Cameron in 2015 with the second lowest vote ever (for a majority government) as a result of the near decimation of the Lib Dems.
It is because of this failure to understand the Corbyn movement that Jack has chosen to rewrite the history of the 2017 general election, which represented the high point of that movement.
Jack mocks my “rather sad lack of self-awareness” and my “amazing powers of prediction”. When I wrote my blog article, ‘Labour can win if Corbyn is bold’, on April 20 2017,2 virtually no-one - the CPGB included - predicted anything other than a massive defeat for Labour.
Eddie Ford wrote on May 4 2017: “There have been some very worrying regional polls for the Labour Party - all of which strongly indicate, as we have long predicted, that the party is heading towards a crushing defeat on June 8” (my emphasis).3
Reporting on the May 7 CPGB aggregate in the following issue of the Weekly Worker, Pete Manson wrote:
Comrade Conrad stressed that the result of the election was not really in doubt, as shown by the May 4 local elections, where the Tories gained 563 seats, while Labour lost 382 …
So, barring some unforeseen development, the result of the general election seems pretty clear …
I also pointed out that the left’s false optimism about the likely general election outcome, plus its exaggerated praise for some of Corbyn’s positions, were hardly helpful in assessing where we were at in the fight to transform Labour (original emphasis).4
He added that Mike Macnair thought there would be a “very substantial Tory majority”.
On May 18 2017 James Marshall lamented:
Theresa May’s hard Brexit stance and appeals to working class national chauvinism have proved very effective. Her calculation being that Tory remainers have nowhere else to go ... Therefore the expectation of a Tory government with perhaps a majority of up to 150.”5
But now Jack writes: “Well, what was the result? Against a hapless Theresa May, Labour experienced a tremendous surge in support in the last week or two of the campaign and secured 262 seats.”
Theresa May certainly came to be seen as “hapless”, but on April 20 she had been “strong and stable” and Jack went along with that. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
However, Corbyn was defeated so Jack proudly proclaims that, unlike the CPGB, “comrade Greenstein got it wrong”. That is “nothing to be ashamed of, but nothing to brag about either”. I’ll let Jack into a secret. The only people who said that Corbyn was defeated in 2017 were the Labour right and people like John Woodcock.
Firstly I did not predict that Corbyn would be prime minister and a Labour government would be formed. Corbyn winning an election and becoming prime minister were clearly two different things. Of course, the latter would have been an extremely remote possibility, since there was a hard core of at least 50 in the Parliamentary Labour Party who would have committed mass suicide rather than vote for Corbyn as prime minister. What I foresaw was that Labour would gain support and seats, and could become the largest party.
My article of April 29 2017 was titled ‘Labour can win if Corbyn is bold’, not ‘Labour will win’. Likewise my article of June 3 was headed ‘Is Labour on the threshold of victory?’, not ‘Labour is on the threshold of victory’.6 In that first article I wrote:
Theresa May has taken a gamble that her 21% lead will hold. It is a gamble that she may yet come to regret.
There is only one direction that her lead can go and that is down. Once her lead falls, then a snowball effect can take over. What is essential is that Labour marks out the key areas on which it is going to base its appeal ...
No election is guaranteed to be without its surprises. Theresa May is a cautious conservative. She is literally the product of her background, a conservative vicar’s daughter. Reactionary, parochial and small-minded, she is a bigot for all seasons. What doesn’t help is that she is both wooden and unoriginal. The danger is that Corbyn tries to emulate her.
I defy Jack to find an article making these same points when the election was called in April 2017. On June 1, as the opinion polls began to turn in Labour’s favour, David Shearer wrote: “It is evident that the reason why we cannot win a majority at this time is not the personal and political shortcomings of Jeremy Corbyn, but the sabotage of his leadership carried out by the Labour right.” Nonetheless, Shearer told readers that “we should realistically expect a Tory victory”.7
Shearer was right. Corbyn could well have won the general election if the Labour right had not been covertly campaigning for the Tories. At the time I was only dimly aware of this sabotage. What happened only came out later in Labour’s leaked report.
On June 3 I wrote: “My initial prediction that there would or could be a hung parliament was based on my assessment of the situation. This is still quite possible.” But I also cautioned:
We could be in for a period of political instability ... A Tory government is still possible if it cobbles together a coalition of the Lib Dems and the Ulster Unionists/DUP. Even a majority Tory government cannot be ruled out.
Unlike Jack, I apparently got it wrong!
On June 15 I wrote one of those “occasional” articles - ‘May’s fatal miscalculation’8 - in which I explained exactly why it was dangerous to rely on opinion polls to gauge the mood of the working class. Jack Conrad was having none of this and wrote on July 13: “Comrade Greenstein criticises us for taking opinion polls seriously. OK, if he has another, better, more accurate method of judging the public mood outside a general election, he ought to let us into the secret.”9
This is a truly staggering statement. A group which aspires to be the core of a mass revolutionary Marxist party is telling us that the best way to judge the mood of the working class is to read the opinion polls! As I stressed in everything I wrote, I did not have a crystal ball. However, what I did do was to look at what was happening on the ground instead of accepting the views of the bourgeois press. As we know, the polls adjusted their results on the assumption that young people would not vote. Because that assumption was false, everything else followed.
My views were formed and hardened as a result of campaigning locally. In Brighton Kemptown, where a Tory marginal turned into a Labour majority of nearly 10,000, I was impressed that such was the depth of opposition to school cuts that there were long banners outside every school detailing the cuts. Nationally there were mass rallies that Corbyn was addressing in the heartland of Brexit territory. Even in prosperous Leamington Spa, which Labour gained, Corbyn addressed a mass meeting of over 8,000.
Likewise Jack and the CPGB are misjudging the mood of those who have left or been expelled from the Labour Party. They are angry - but also politicised - by six years of trench warfare with the Labour right. It is our duty to ensure that they do not simply disappear. Hence why we are merging LAW and LIEN.
Even Jack admits that “LAW has done very little, has been paralysed even”. Why then would he want to preserve it in its current form other than as a stage prop to parade at rallies?
Jack tells us that “we have a fully worked out strategy... a twin-track approach”. And what is this wonderful strategy? “The main emphasis [is] on the struggle for a mass Communist Party.” Perhaps he can tell us how this strategy differs from their strategy for the past 30-plus years and how successful it has been. This is no strategy: it is at best an aspiration - or a fantasy.
There is no possibility of forming a mass revolutionary Communist Party today. We are not in 1917 or at the end of World War I. Marxism and class analysis are about taking the particular period we are in and understanding the relative strengths and weakness of both ourselves and our opponents. We have seen over 35 years of industrial quiet with a recomposition of the working class and the halving of trade union membership.
The Corbyn era stands out as the exception to this - an advance on the political side which was not accompanied by increased social and industrial struggles. The question is how we can adapt our tactics and strategy to meet the current circumstances of an unprecedented witch-hunt in the Labour Party and unify the thousands under attack by Starmer and Evans. To this the CPGB has no answer other than build a mass Communist Party. Jack calls this a strategy. I call it a religious dogma masquerading as politics.
There are serious political and theoretical questions we have to face up to and retreating into slogans and fixed formulations turns Marxism not into a guide to action and a means of analysis, but into a catechism. Dialectics become the means of bewitching your critics.
We should not shy away from questions such as whether the western working class today is capable of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism when at the height of its industrial power. When class-consciousness was at a peak, they fought economic but not political battles, leaving the latter to a reformist Labour Party. Why should an atomised and deunionised working class fare any better today or tomorrow? To that Jack has no answers.
We are facing a very serious ruling class attack on the most basic democratic rights that previous generations have won. We are told citizenship is a privilege, not a right. We have a Police Bill that outlaws effective protests, a Border Immigration Bill which allows citizenship to be removed from someone without them even knowing and an overtly racist state that consciously divides and rules. But to the CPGB the state isn’t even racist!
Forming a socialist movement is crucial to generalising the fightback against these attacks. It is through such struggles that the fight for a mass socialist party of the working class can be born, not through parroting empty slogans.
Jack Conrad dismisses the proposed new organisation as “yet another rickety, broad left lifecraft”. In other words, all attempts to unify the socialist left are doomed to failure. This is a recipe for passivity and defeat. He is arguing that no attempt should be made to consolidate the left, to build on the gains of the Corbyn era or harness the anger of members/ex-members against the Labour bureaucracy.
In the most bizarre section of his article Jack gives us a lesson in theoretical physics and cosmology, and analogies between Marxism and the laws of physics. Quite what bearing water turning to steam and the merits of the steady state and infinite expansion of the universe have to do with questions of revolution leaves me baffled.10 Leaving aside the controversies over the Big Bang and singularity, I am at a loss to see how the theory of quantum mechanics, whereby sub-atomic particles can only exist in certain energy levels, parallels the political process. Water is inanimate, whereas human beings are conscious.
There may be no halfway houses in the wider universe (although even this is debatable), but there clearly are under capitalism. For example, the bourgeois revolution itself is a halfway house between feudalism and socialism. The question is how we get there.
Jack tells us that “revolutionary parties do not need revolutionary conditions in order to grow”. So perhaps he can tell us why for the whole of the CPGB’s existence there has been no growth? The essence of the scientific method is that one adapts or changes one’s theory on the basis of the evidence, yet Jack supplies us with just assertion. I accept that consciousness can grow very rapidly, given the right set of conditions. The problem is that we don’t yet have those conditions.
Jack also tells us that such a party can only be built “top down”. I disagree. We are not in 1917, with a small working class and a large peasantry. As conditions change, our tactics change. Yes, the working class has largely been atomised. That does not mean that it has disappeared, but that its consciousness of itself for itself has diminished.
Yes, the slogan, ‘bourgeois workers party’, is today meaningless. It was relevant a hundred and more years ago, as trade unions and socialist parties formed, but today we are seeing the complete destruction of the Labour Party as a working class party.
In order to ‘prove’ his thesis that I have abandoned working class politics Jack accuses me of being merely “a mere tail of the bourgeois ‘remain’ campaign”. If this is true, then there is indeed substance to Jack’s criticisms. I am in effect being accused of having crossed class lines. The most honest thing to do would be to immediately resign as vice-president of Brighton and Hove Trades Council, since it is clear that I have one foot, if not both, in the camp of the bourgeoisie!
There is no truth whatsoever in this allegation. It is part of a ‘dead cat strategy’ designed to divert attention from Jack’s own absence of anything to say. I took no part in the People’s Vote Campaign, which was clearly an anti-Corbyn project.
It was barely two months ago, that the Weekly Worker wrote that
… the Festival of Resistance owes comrade Tony Greenstein a little debt for managing to get in and take on Joti Brar, the number two in George Galloway’s Workers Party ... comrade Greenstein managed in his two minutes to mention the historical dichotomy between international revolution and ‘socialism in one country’. He reminded us that Galloway had “specifically said that Trotskyists are not welcome in the Workers Party” ... Worse, Galloway had actually given support to Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party (as had Joti Brar). “You cannot win the working class to socialism by appealing to the worst common denominator,” said comrade Greenstein - a militant remainer.11
Two months ago I was a “militant remainer”, but today I am virtually Peter Mandelson’s aide!
Joti Brar defended Galloway by pointing out that Tony Benn had appeared on the same platform as Enoch Powell in the EEC referendum in 1975. Tony Benn was wrong then and Galloway is wrong now. Just as it was wrong for the Labour Party to fight independence in Scotland by allying with Tories. My position has always been absolutely clear on this. We don’t ally with bourgeois parties.
What irks Jack is that I fervently oppose Brexit, I voted against it and have written and argued against it. Brexit was always a project of the nationalist right and far right. Lexit was a nationalist delusion at best and a product of the backward political consciousness of a layer of demoralised workers.
Brexit was supported by sections of the northern working class on the basis that migrant workers constituted a threat to their wages and living conditions. It was a reactionary product of deindustrialisation and despair, based on the widespread demoralisation consequent on the defeat of the miners in 1985.
The economic and political unification of Europe, which was the aim of the European Union, is politically progressive, as opposed to the division of Europe into competing states with their own tariffs and customs. Just as when production moved from the home to the factory socialists did not oppose this and demand a return to the old ways. That was what Engels called ‘feudal socialism’. Workers demanded a shorter working day, higher wages and the recognition of unions. Of course, socialists are critical of the EU as a capitalist club, but in the words of one worker, “I don’t see why I should change one set of exploiters for another because they are Jewish”.
The unification of Europe is a project that cannot be completed under capitalism, because even in the age of multinationals capitalism is based on competing nation-states. However, just because we oppose capitalism it does not mean that we are opposed to everything under capitalism. As Trotsky wrote in ‘Learn to think - a friendly lesson to ultra-leftists’, “The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign - this would make every sectarian a master strategist.”12
The CPGB by way of contrast took no position at all on the most fundamental political question to confront the working class and the Corbyn leadership since 2015. Instead it used its opposition to referenda - a subsidiary question - to abstain on an issue that was being debated the length and breadth of the country. Far from participating in this debate the CPGB abstained. This was a serious political error, which you are now compounding by your attitude to any recomposition of the Corbyn left.
Yes, the Fabians were in a distinct minority at the founding of the Labour Party, but, when it came to policy formation, they were prominent. For example, clause four was the product of Sidney Webb, founder of the Fabians and the New Statesman. What matters is not quantity, but quality!
Because capitalism is incapable of planning and is driven by profit and capital accumulation it is unable to deal with Covid. It is also through global warming endangering the very existence of human civilisation. If the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is not possible, then we have to look at alternative methods of preventing human catastrophe. Socialists have to try and unify the disparate social movements into a force for change in a society and system that is producing climate disaster. Clinging to slogans and rigid doctrine as a substitute for strategic thinking is a serious political mistake.
The CPGB and Labour Party Marxists made a serious political error in walking out of LAW, having lost the vote. Instead it should have asked why the majority of the LAW steering committee found itself in a minority. Instead of putting forward cogent plans as to how we can take the campaign against the witch-hunt forward you have retreated into a sectarian bunker.
I can only hope that you emerge with revolutionary speed!
‘Turning the other cheek’ Weekly Worker May 4 2017: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1153/turning-the-other-cheek.↩︎
‘What happens after June 8?’ Weekly Worker May 11 2017: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1154/what-happens-after-june-8.↩︎
‘Aim to be a party of extreme opposition’ Weekly Worker May 18 2017: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1155/aim-to-be-a-party-of-extreme-opposition.↩︎
‘Labour can win if Corbyn is bold’: azvsas.blogspot.com/2017/04/labour-can-win-if-corbyn-is-bold-key.html.↩︎
‘Prepare for after June 8’ Weekly Worker June 1: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1157/prepare-for-after-june-8.↩︎
‘May’s fatal miscalculation’ Weekly Worker June 15 2017: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1159/mays-fatal-miscalculation.↩︎
Letters Weekly Worker July 13 2017: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1163/letters.↩︎
See, for example, M Williams, ‘What is the Big Bang theory?’ Universe Today: phys.org/news/2015-12-big-theory.html.↩︎
‘Unity without principle’, October 21: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1368/unity-without-principle.↩︎
‘Learn to think - A friendly lesson to ultra-leftists’ (May 1938): www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/05/think.htm.↩︎