Two forms of unity
There are any number of broad unity projects being plotted, floated and pushed at the moment. All will fail. James Harvey reports on our assessments, debates … and a membership application
September’s aggregate of CPGB members, supporters and invited guests had two main items on the agenda: the development of new left initiatives, such as Transform and an application for CPGB membership from a Socialist Fight comrade. There was also a review of Communist University 2023 which I shall not cover here.
The aggregate’s main political discussion focussed on the current state of the left and the various attempts at some form of left unity, such as the Transform initiative involving Left Unity and various other failures and fragments. Opening the discussion, Mike Macnair of the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee argued that Transform was “deeply unserious” and essentially a rebranding of the Left Unity project drawing in some smaller groups around it.
The project will go nowhere, not least because of the timing of the initiative in a pre-election period, when the focus of many is on unity against the Tories and the need to elect a Labour government. However, the question of an alternative to Labour will be posed within a few years if Sir Keir wins the election - and governs, as we can safely predict, in the interests of capitalism.
The central issue for comrade Macnair was the nature of that alternative and the character of the various initiatives that were now being and had been advanced in the past by the left. The working class movement objectively needs a mass Communist Party with a revolutionary programme, with links European-wide and to similar parties internationally. A mass party means one of millions with a real presence and clear impact throughout society, not merely a grouping of even tens of thousands operating on the margins.
In Britain the Labour Party stands as a block in the way of the construction of such a mass Communist Party because it pretends - as its very name suggests - to represent the working class as a whole. The history of Labour from its origins in the late 19th century was of an alliance between the trade union leadership and essentially Lib-Lab MPs, producing a party unswervingly loyal to the constitutional order and British imperialism, and giving Labour its doubled-sided character as a bourgeois workers’ party.
Comrade Macnair’s perspective was that in order to build a mass Communist Party Labour in this form has to be broken - either by its development as a real united front of the class through the ending of bans and proscriptions, thus allowing communists to affiliate and campaign within its ranks, or through the party leadership itself breaking with the trade unions and making Labour an openly pro-capitalist party. Thus, for communists the Labour Party remains an important strategic focus that can not be ignored in the struggle to build a mass Communist Party.
Reviewing attempts at left unity since the 1970s and then subsequent projects such as the Socialist Labour, Socialist Alliance and Respect, comrade Macnair catalogued a history of failures, splits and unprincipled unity projects, which were explicitly ‘broad-based’, as opposed to Marxist. He also reviewed the various ways that CPGB comrades had participated in such projects, including their attempts to argue within them for a Communist Party and a specifically Marxist programme, instead of a nebulous ‘broad unity’.
Comrade Macnair also stressed that the experience of the defeat of the Corbyn movement and the impact of its “clicktivist” form of activism needs to be taken into account in assessing the current demoralised and incoherent state of the left. He concluded that we need serious initiatives and a real process of regroupment, not a repetition of past failures which simply create yet more blocks on the road to a mass Communist Party.
In the discussion that followed there were no challenges to the strategic perspective that Mike outlined, with comrades adding their individual experiences to illustrate the arguments about the political and strategic weaknesses of broad unity formations. However, the discussion broadened out to consider how we should respond to any new initiatives and the organisational issues that this will throw up for our political work.
Lawrence Parker described the cycle of demoralisation that produces, and is indeed reinforced by, such unity projects. He contrasted the older partyist tradition of many on the left in the 1990s and 2000s with the specifically anti-party culture. Comrade Parker argued for engagement and debate with those groups and individuals talking about a Communist Party alongside critical polemics pointing out both the political and strategic limitations and contradictions in their positions.
Scott Evans related his experience of some of the recent meetings organised by Transform and the ways it reinforced the low-level clicktivism that comrade Macnair had mentioned. Carla Roberts described how the post-Corbyn projects had not learned anything from defeat. She agreed that the appeal of communism was growing, but it was important that in a period of fluidity we need to show those on the left who use this language what real Marxist unity looks like, how we understand a real revolutionary programme and how a Communist Party should organise itself. Comrade Roberts added some specific suggestions on our propaganda work and how it should be improved, such as the development of Communist TV and our regular Online Communist Forum meetings.
In her contribution comrade Farzad Kamangar outlined the impact of our ideas and arguments on the wider left, especially when presented through the Weekly Worker. The paper was widely read and had a degree of influence amongst sections of the left, both in Britain and internationally. Even so, she counselled comrades to be realistic and not expect rapid growth: a Starmer victory will not lead to an immediate change in the dynamics of the left. Drawing on the experience of 1992, she thought it was still possible that Labour might not win.
For the left, the lessons of the Corbyn period have not been addressed, much less learned, although we might expect that in the aftermath of defeats people might begin to question long-established ideas and begin to think strategically. We too must continue to think strategically over the longer term, and not be tempted to react simply in terms of the immediate ups and downs of politics.
For Jack Conrad the important issue in this period was politics and programme, not numbers of supporters. He criticised the lack of seriousness of the far left and the failure of many to come to terms with the defeat of the Corbyn movement. Even those who called themselves communists lacked real seriousness, as evidenced by Socialist Appeal’s refusal to debate with the CPGB. We need to be clear about what we mean by communism and the key historical and current strategic questions of our movement and how we can link these issues to the idea of communist unity.
In summing up the discussion, Mike Macnair agreed that those on the far left who were pro-partyist were a small current, but one that we should address in our paper and work as a propaganda group arguing for Marxist unity and a mass Communist Party. He agreed that the discussion on how comrades should orientate towards these currents on the far left and the role of the paper and other aspects of our propaganda work had been useful. Projects like Transform were doomed to failure and would only produce more disappointment and disillusion amongst genuine leftists who got involved. We must continue with our serious, principled politics around the need for a revolutionary programme and party, and develop our strategy from those imperatives.
Discussion on the application of a supporter of Socialist Fight for CPGB membership was opened by Jack Conrad, who said it had been referred by the PCC to the aggregate because of the wider issues of communist unity that are a central issue in our politics. In his application letter the comrade asked to join the CPGB as part of a tendency, although in effect it was an individual application, and so the PCC treated it as such.
The application had arisen from a discussion at Communist University on communist unity, in which CPGB comrades had said to the Socialist Fight supporter, “You’re welcome to join the CPGB with factional rights and subject to the same rights and responsibilities as all members of the party.”1 With these provisos the PCC was in favour of accepting the application in line with our principled position on Marxist unity.
The resulting discussion touched on these wider questions, as well the history of factions and oppositional currents in the CPGB, alongside the specific details of the application itself. All the comrades who spoke in the discussion supported accepting the application. It would be a healthy demonstration of the type of party that we want: namely one which encourages the debating of differences and unity in action. Moreover, we might hope to see more applications of this type and there could be no principled reasons for rejecting the application. Such an approach did not involve ‘soft unity’ or the submerging of differences: on the contrary, communist unity demanded a serious exploration of political differences and a clarification of ideas and strategies.
Summing up the discussion, comrade Conrad said that communist rapprochement was not a process of adding numbers, but was one of serious political discussion and overcoming muddled ideas. What have Marxists to fear in open debate and the honest disagreements amongst comrades committed to the communist programme?
See the CPGB draft rules for further details: communistparty.co.uk/draft-programme/7-draft-rules.↩︎