Open polemics cauterise
James Harvey reports on plans, problems and the need to openly thrash out principled differences
Last weekend an online aggregate meeting of CPGB members, Labour Party Marxists supporters and invited guests discussed a number of key current issues in British and international politics.
One session was devoted to the current situation in Iran - the opening contribution by Yassamine Mather is summarised in this edition of the paper.
Outlining the nature and significance of the protest movement, comrade Mather also stressed that the working class movement internationally needs to adopt a clear, principled position which distinguishes our opposition to the Islamic Republic from that of the imperialist powers. Equally important, she argued, is the need to counter leftist justifications and naive apologia for the regime in the name of anti-imperialism. The meeting agreed that we need to take on these arguments and those who support external intervention and regime change by the US.
Comrades agreed that Hands Off the People of Iran has an important role to play in this process and that consequently we need to step up our activity - both in building support internationally for the current wave of protests, and in developing the revolutionary currents within Iran itself. Flowing from this discussion, a number of practical and organisational tasks were discussed and some concrete actions were agreed, so that this could be taken forward by CPGB members and supporters. Amongst the future activities suggested were further public and online meetings, interventions in the organised labour movement internationally and the strengthening of our links with Iranian revolutionaries. It was agreed that a group of comrades will be brought together with the task of organising these activities.
The other session of the meeting featured a wide-ranging report by Jack Conrad which dealt with the immediate political prospects in Britain, the likelihood of a Keir Starmer-led Labour government, Cop27, the US midterms and Russia’s abandonment of Kherson without a fight.
However, most debate centred on recent developments on the left in the Netherlands and followed up on issues raised in the pages of the Weekly Worker and during an Online Communist Forum meeting in October. Comrade Conrad went over the main arguments that had emerged so far, grounding his approach to the developments on the left in the Netherlands and the growing great-power conflict across the globe and the proxy war in Ukraine. He stressed that the left internationally was seriously divided, with many adopting social-pacifist positions, while various schools, such as the Mandelite Fourth International, have gone over to an overtly social-imperialist line of supporting the arming of Ukraine and effectively lining up behind Nato and the US.
A Rubicon had been crossed. Therefore what should be on the agenda of the principled, internationalist left is schism with social-imperialist groups and their leaders. However, that is clearly not the case with the pre-party formation in the Netherlands. From what we have read of the “historic” De Socialisten Utrecht conference, the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee believed that the leadership of the Communist Platform in the Netherlands is falling into opportunist, specifically centrist, politics.1 That is, upholding a verbal commitment to Marxist politics, while countenancing unity with social-imperialists.
Consequently, given the vital importance of this issue at this current moment of time, and the CPGB’s long-established critical attitude to ‘unity’ projects of this kind, comrade Conrad said that the PCC had decided not to deal with the question privately, diplomatically, quietly, but through an honest exchange with the CP. Open polemics are the best way to sort matters out. That is only right. After all, the Weekly Worker has carried two articles from comrades in the Netherlands - one before the De Socialisten conference and one afterwards.
The subsequent discussion largely concentrated on the political impact of the war in Ukraine, the role of social-imperialism and the calamitous history of lowest‑common‑denominator unity projects. Mike Macnair argued that our differences with the social-imperialists were not just any old political disagreement. There was a live war in Ukraine, which will have important geo-political effects and a serious impact on working class living standards. Calling for the arming of Ukraine meant siding with imperialism and was the worst kind of political scabbing.
There is clearly a war drive by Nato, seeking not just the defeat of Russia and regime change in Moscow, but gearing up in the longer term for a war with China. It is in this context that we have to develop our own position in complete opposition to ‘the west’ and to any compromise with social-imperialism. Arguing for these politics is inextricably linked to the idea of principled Marxist unity and the development of a Communist Party, not broad-front unity projects that embrace forces to our right, including open supporters of Nato. The experience of advocates of such projects, such as the Italian Mandelites working in Rifondazione, was that serious differences were glossed over, with the result that the left ended up making damaging concessions to the right, which ultimately produced a demoralising dead end.
Anne McShane developed these arguments by reference to the Utrecht conference and the position of the CP. The reports from the conference gave the impression that the CP was unwilling to tackle the hard questions that divided them from the soft lefts and the social-imperialists. It seemed that in supporting this unity project they wanted to create a space for people they did not agree with on fundamental questions.
While it was true that the CP had not conceded its position on the war in Ukraine, it had not made it a key question either. Holding back on major points of disagreement at the first stage like this is a big mistake, she argued. Instead, the article in the Weekly Worker suggested that there had been cosy and diplomatic relations with social-imperialists at the conference: the CP had steered well clear of the war and the imperialist war drive, which were the central political questions of the moment. These were not matters of tactics, but of principle. Clear, sharp lines of demarcation had to be drawn. The foundation of any principled organisation or party had to be based on programme.
One comrade disagreed with Jack Conrad’s characterisation of the CP and its position during the Utrecht conference. Ollie Hughes believed that the only fudge was on party formation and was not related to Ukraine. The Mandelites of the Socialistische Alternatieve Politiek (SAP) were peripheral and do not lie at the centre of the project. He thought the key issue was that the CP had chosen not to start with programme, but rather with organisation. The next step, however, would be to fight for a programme inside De Socialisten.
Comrade Hughes thought the disagreements between the CPGB and the CP were about the tactics employed in Utrecht, not matters of principle - an obvious form of opportunism in and of itself. The Netherlands comrades had, argued comrade Hughes, adopted a non-confrontational approach, which was, yes, in marked contrast to how our comrades had sharply raised political disagreements in the Labour Left Alliance and Labour Against the Witchhunt. The CP was mistaken and we were right to comment on the position they had adopted. The issue at stake was speed and style.
However, comrade Hughes disagreed with the characterisation of the CP’s position as centrist. Citing the motion on Nato passed at the De Socialisten conference, he argued that the war had been raised in speeches and resolutions at Utrecht. After all, the De Socialisten conference agreed a CP resolution which opposed giving “direct or indirect” support for any capitalist government.
Of course, the SAP Mandelites can vote for such bullshit. They claim, after all, that what they are supporting is not capitalism, not this or that capitalist government, but the “Ukrainian people and their right to self-defence”. So the “direct or indirect” resolution is, in fact, a typical centrist fudge which excuses unity with social-imperialists.
Nonetheless, comrade Hughes, insisted that the CP in the Netherlands were not ‘cosy’ on political questions. True, they conceded on some procedural points at Utrecht and there are clearly dangers for the CP in not having the argument out at the De Socialisten conference. But they have not deviated from the elementary principles of Marxism, comrade Hughes concluded.
Responding to these comrades, and others who took part in the discussion, Jack Conrad dealt with the nature of centrism and its congenital unity with the right. Given the war drive and growing great-power rivalry, failing to directly raise the war in Ukraine was an avoidance of the central issue facing the working class movement - well, he said, apart from climate change and the likelihood of the 1.5°C temperature target being exceeded within the next 10 or so years.
War in Europe, including a Nato poxy war, is not a minor or peripheral issue: we need clear statements and principled politics, not opportunism and centrist diplomacy. The “no indirect or direct” position adopted by the Utrecht conference was pitched in radical terms, but it manifestly failed to address the real issue at hand: Nato’s war with Russia in Ukraine.
In not presenting a principled opposition to the Ukraine war at Utrecht, the leadership of the CP made dangerous concessions to the right and acted not as revolutionaries, but as compromisers, as centrists.
To sort matter out, to cauterise disagreements, comrade Conrad, invited the leadership of the CP to take part in a discussion with the PCC on these issues, along with an open public debate at an Online Communist Forum.
‘Uniting a motley band’ Weekly Worker October 13: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1414/uniting-a-motley-band.↩︎