Charting the way forward

We have suffered, and continue to suffer, from political fragility, but we have every reason to be confident about the future. James Harvey reports

CPGB members, associate members and invited guests met to discuss our political perspectives and chart the way forward for the organisation in the coming year. The result was some lively discussion and an assessment of how the organisation had responded to recent political developments.

In a very brief introduction on behalf of the Provisional Central Committee, Jack Conrad explained that the perspectives were an attempt at mapping out politics, both where we had been and how we saw the situation developing over the next period. He outlined both the negative and positive impact of Covid on the organisation’s activity, and how this ‘new normal’ shapes our activities. The comrade went on to discuss the drafting of the perspectives and how the PCC had incorporated a large number of comments and suggestions from comrades to produce the final version presented to the meeting. However, a number of comrades still wished to amend the perspectives and the bulk of the meeting was taken up with discussing these amendments.

Moving an amendment to section 1 of the perspectives covering climate and environmental change, Anne McShane argued that this was not just another issue, but was of profound importance and formed the backdrop to all the imperialist rivalries and economic crises that we currently face. Capitalism had produced this threat to the environment that could result in parts of the planet becoming uninhabitable and in humanity being thrown back centuries. Given this existential challenge, she added, it needs to be treated much more seriously and be placed at the very beginning of the perspectives.

Paul Demarty agreed with Jack Conrad that the amendment did fit logically as an introductory idea, but it was too limiting in its current form in the way that it tied contemporary crises, such as great power rivalry in Ukraine, to the issue of global warming. Outgoing PCC member, Mike Macnair followed up on this by suggesting that the drive to war was caused not just by climate change but was a product of the objective dynamics of American decline and the US policy of aggressive encirclement of China, which he compared to British policy directed against Germany before 1914. It was not right to say that climate change is the only existential threat. Whilst communism is posed by the threat of global warming, war is an equal existential threat and he thought that nuclear winter was a more likely possibility in the 21st century than runaway global warming. In supporting the amendment Ollie Hughes argued that by its very nature, capitalism cannot solve this crisis because it is built on production for production’s sake. A focus on climate change links directly to the nature of the transitional epoch and poses the question of communism more bluntly than most issues. Jack Conrad said that it was inadequate to say that it’s just capitalism that’s the issue. He warned that the climate movement could conceivably line up behind the state and a reactionary climate socialism. The amendment was overwhelmingly defeated.

Jim Nelson moved two amendments to sections six and seven dealing with the gridlock in US domestic politics. He thought that the sections oversimplified the issue of gridlock. Biden’s policies were being held up by Senate Democrats, not Republicans: in many key areas such as the environment and immigration Biden was a deal-maker, continuing Trump’s policies; the real opposition to Republican voter suppression at state level came from not from the Democrats, but activists and civil rights’ groups. Paul Demarty said the main issue was that the US does not have the political architecture to deliver what the Democrats promised. There are serious differences and divergences between Democrats and Republicans with real gridlock for at least a decade, raising the possibility of yet more coups and counter-coups in the future. Jack Conrad agreed, saying that there was a real polarisation in bourgeois opinion and society, and it was increasing rather than diminishing, with a general trend of a move to the right. Bourgeois politics were not simply a matter of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In his contribution Mike Macnair described a real polarisation between the Democrats, who despite Biden’s ostensible Keynesian platform, remain neo-liberals, and a neo-conservative Republican party that wants, in essence to preside over the revolutionary overthrow of the 1865 settlement and restore a limited class- and race-based franchise. The amendments were clearly defeated.

In an amendment to section ten, Alex Carnovic challenged the PCC’s argument that there was a continuous drift to the right. He saw the dynamics as less stable and moving back and forth between a centrism that wanted a liberal continuity and populists who argued for a politics of social cohesion focussed on the nation or the family, depending on national or local circumstances. He suggested the outcome of these struggles was uncertain and cited the case of Germany and its new coalition government which combines social liberalism with a pro-Nato, military interventionism and neo-liberal economic policy. The dynamics of these political conflicts and culture wars pulls in the left internationally, who tail behind liberalism. Comrade Carnovic believed that the PCC perspectives implicitly expressed a preference for the centrists and the liberals, whereas he argued for political independence and no preference for either side of this divide. In response Mike Macnair suggested that there are live grounds for a limited preference for the liberals because the working class has an objective interest in democratic rights which the right, such as Law and Justice in Poland or the British Tories, consistently attack. However, given our experience of the way that centrist governments ratchet to the right and pursue anti-democratic policies, it is not wrong to say that the underlying tendency of politics remains to the right. Citing examples from the Labour Party, Jack Conrad developed this point and suggested that the political ‘centre ground’ had indeed shifted massively to the right since the 1970s, caused, not least, by the weakness of the working class. While it is important to recognise that the ruling class is not one reactionary bloc, and that there are differences we ought to exploit, we must not get drawn into the politics of the lesser evil or believe that the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie is genuinely progressive, as some on the left have done. Anne McShane saw merit in the amendment, especially in describing the way that the left had moved to the right and that the connection between liberals and conservatives was stronger, making the centre much marshier. However, the main problem outlined in the perspectives was correct: the lack of an independent working-class programme and the failure of the left to address that fundamental issue. The amendment was overwhelmingly defeated.

Anne McShane and Sarah Stewart moved two different amendments to section 26, which dealt with a recent debate on the CPGB’s Draft programme on the woman question. Anne suggested that the PCC perspectives defined the terms of that debate “too narrowly”: it was not just about “the collectivity and political economy of the working class versus the illusory goal of obtaining equal opportunities in bourgeois society”, but included “wider issues” such as parental leave, the more diverse contemporary forms of family and the impact of child care and domestic labour on women. Her amendment singled out “the pursuit of a career in bourgeois society”. She also questioned whether the differences that had emerged during the debate reflected political fragility. Rather many comrades had not thought about these issues and comrade McShane hoped that further debate and structured study would be led by the PCC, not merely encouraged. From this process clear Marxist demands based in the logic of a collective approach to resolving social problems in society could emerge.

Comrade Stewart wanted to delete the section entirely as it was flawed and distorted the nature of the original debate that had taken place around the women question. She restated her criticism of those sections of the Draft programme as patronising and having a romanticised idea of parenthood and motherhood. Sarah referred directly to the experience of women at work and the importance of social interaction and life beyond the home for mothers as a means of overcoming alienation and forms of oppression. Work was not just about bourgeois careerism, but could be individually fulfilling, socially useful and politically important. For her, discussing these issues was not a sign of political fragility.

Jack Conrad disagreed with comrade Stewart and argued that what is important about the CPGB as a proto-party is how we develop and uphold our programme. Attempts by some comrades to root our demands in the liberal bourgeois ideology of meritocracy and equality of opportunity was evidence of political fragility, he argued. It showed confusion and should not be simply brushed aside or downplayed. Going back over again the question of compulsion and the nature of the political economy of the working class, comrade Conrad argued that these were fundamental issues that should be brought before the whole movement and should not be hidden away in a purely private, internal discussion.

Paul Demarty supported the deletion of the whole of section 26, arguing that it seemed like a sideswipe that just came out of nowhere. There are a lot more complexities and subtleties that have not emerged in the discussion and which need to be considered and discussed much further, both in terms of the political economy and the oppression of women.

Ollie Hughes took issue with Jack Conrad’s arguments about equality of opportunity and bourgeois ideology, describing it as a red herring. No one, he claimed, was calling for that at all (he was joint sponsor of the “our programmatic differences” amendment being over “the political economy of the working class” versus “the pursuit of a career in bourgeois society”). Likewise to identify our programmatic differences as comparable with the political fragility some comrades had shown over broad frontism and the Labour left was simply wrong. He felt that the PCC was not really engaging with the issues raised in the discussion.

Vernon Price spoke as a comrade who had originally ‘voted the wrong way’, but now supported section 26, especially on the need for further discussion and study. He was unsure whether the outstanding issues could be easily characterised in black and white terms, and much remained to be discussed. We need to thrash things out and agree a programme we can take out into the movement.

Coming back into the debate comrade Conrad rejected Ollie Hughes’ arguments about ‘red herrings’. It was ‘self-evident’ that we had political fragility on the woman question, there was a real programmatic clash and, in a spirit of self-criticism and openness, we need to openly debate it. In their summing up comrades McShane and Stewart both agreed on the need for debate but were critical of the way some comrades had characterised the nature of the disagreements over the woman question and whether these differences really constituted ‘political fragility’. Both stressed the need for further debate and study, and the need to listen to, and engage with, the wider experiences of other comrades on this issue. Both amendments were clearly defeated.

Moving his amendment to section 29, Alex Carnovic asked how we might assess the patterns of change amongst the organised far-left. He outlined what he saw as a process of decline on the Trotskyist left, with ageing leaderships, groups shrinking in size and declining in authority and influence. There were zero signs of any recognition of the need for change or a desire to create anything different: the dominant trend, he suggested, was that they would slowly fade away and die. The next generation of the left in Britain would look very different and we needed to draw up a balance sheet and a correct prognosis of these trends.

In a rather hurried discussion in the tail-end of the AGM, comrades gave examples of the current trajectory of the left, including the rather surprising revival of the YCL and CPB, and the ways in which we might continue to intervene effectively in the wider left milieu. When the vote was taken comrade Carnovic’s amendment was clearly defeated.

Ollie Hughes’ amendments to the same section had a rather different emphasis on organisation, recruitment, and education and, given the pressure of time, it was agreed to refer this to a future aggregate. However, the proposal not to proceed with the Summer Offensive was considered and overwhelmingly defeated. The meeting concluded with the adoption of the PCC’s perspectives and the election of a new PCC comprising Farzad Kamangar, James Harvey, Jack Conrad, and Mike Macnair.