It’s good to talk
Unwillingness to fight through political differences results in unprincipled splits which cannot be explained and reduces the movement to gravel. Mike Macnair issues a call for debate
Socialist Students, the student wing of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, recently leafleted Socialist Appeal’s Marxist Student Federation, criticising its parent body and challenging the MSF to debate:
How can militant trade unions be built that are capable of fighting cuts and struggling for above-inflation pay rises? How can the working class prepare politically for a Starmer-led, rightwing Labour government? What forms of working class political organisation are needed? What attitude should be taken to the democratic right of the Scottish people to independence? How can students be mobilised for struggle and what should their relationship to the workers’ movement be?1
These questions are in response to the MSF’s ‘Are you a communist? - Then get organised’ postering and stickering campaign. Quite a striking initiative, and the MSF no doubt hopes to be rewarded with the recruitment of freshers in the new university term.
Socialist Students tell us that by ‘communism’ they mean the “more advanced society that would develop after the working class in power enacts a socialist transformation, a revolution, on an international basis”. But they think that the MSF’s campaign does not “[raise] clearly what communism is and what it is not. But this is crucial. In the minds of many, communism means the totalitarian Stalinist dictatorships …”
It is then a little surprising that Socialist Students offers to debate not the conception of communism and why the MSF has chosen to use ‘communist’ as a political identifier, but instead a series of very short-term tactical issues.
We may wish Socialist Students the ‘best of luck’ in getting the MSF to agree to debate. We in the CPGB offered Socialist Appeal a debate on ‘communist unity’ at our Communist University summer school this August and received a simple, unexplained refusal.
Socialist Students may have more luck. This is not only because SPEW is a great deal bigger than the CPGB (and probably Socialist Appeal too). It is also because the offered subjects for debate are ones on which SPEW is, to be frank, vulnerable to a self-identified ‘communist’ challenge. SPEW is in effect part of the ‘official left’ in the trade union movement. Its attempt to create an alternative Labour Party through the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition effectively failed with the withdrawal of the RMT union, and the whole idea of building a Labour Party mark two, based on the trade unions, is illusory, since the existing Labour Party is based on the union bureaucracy. Tailing the SNP around ‘independence for Scotland’ has had pretty lousy results for the Socialist Party, and at least Socialist Appeal’s U-turn after the 2014 referendum seems to have the merit of being a less persistent error. And ‘student trade unionism’ has never been a very effective recipe for leftwing work among students …
Nonetheless, hats off to Socialist Students for offering debate. It is still part of the dominant culture of the far left to refuse to debate, and, indeed, to refuse to recognise the existence of other far-left trends. It is only necessary to scan the pages of Socialist Worker or The Socialist to see this phenomenon at work. In issues concerning trade union policy and elections, of course, the problem cannot be completely avoided. But it is far too common for groups to set up their own front organisations, which will secure first-mover apparatus control for the group, and avoid their ‘grunts’ at the base being ‘contaminated’ by contact with other left groups. (Witness, for example, the fact that this summer has seen three rival far-left initiatives to try to organise ‘rank and file’ trade union militancy.)
Hats off to Socialist Students too for the fact that their leaflet addresses the divergent histories of SPEW and Socialist Appeal. Part of the far left’s traditional refusal to debate, and to address the existence of other groups, is a refusal to explain their own group’s history, and/or its reason for separation from other groups. Instead we find a variety of competing publications and websites which offer far-left ‘motherhood and apple pie’ as the reason for the group’s existence - but no explanation of the promoters’ back-story, or why they need to publish independently from other left groups.
Take, for example, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21).2 On its website, if you go to ‘Articles’, then ‘Archive’ and on that page, search ‘SWP’, you can find a few documents from RS21’s 2013 split. The impression you would get is that the split was merely about the SWP leadership’s personal misconduct in betraying the organisation’s anti-sexist political commitments. If so, we should expect that RS21 would be in its organisational forms a smaller version of the SWP, and that in its political activity it would give a considerable focus to trying to persuade potential SWP recruits that Alex Callinicos, Charlie Kimber, Amy Leather and co are not fit and proper persons to hold leading positions in a left group - because if the SWP could get rid of these wrongdoers, RS21 could return to the fold. In reality, RS21 is not like this. It has identified some larger lessons from its split with the SWP - but what these lessons are, it does not share with website readers.
‘Salvage’3 is the depressed relic of the other (smaller) part of the 2013 split in the SWP, the International Socialist Network, which itself split in late 2013-early 2014 over a ridiculous argument about BDSM imagery.4 Its most recent update is the May 2023 ‘perspectives’. Neither there nor in the ‘About Salvage’ page can we find any accounting for the founders’ political history or the differences with the rest of the left.
‘Tempest’, is produced by a group which (largely) emerged from the implosion of the US International Socialist Organization in 2019.5 It is possible to find reference to the collapse of the ISO on the Tempest website,6 but there is not a lot, and certainly no real attempt to draw serious lessons from a collapse to which Tempest authors were party.
Back on this side of the Atlantic, a couple of examples are the websites, ‘Prometheus’7 and Nick Wrack’s ‘Talking about Socialism’.8 ‘Prometheus’ appears at the moment to be a dead or dormant site: the most recent post is from “winter 2022-23”, the next before that from spring 2022. Nonetheless, it still contains an editorial, ‘The politics of Prometheus’, which has some substantial common features with the politics of CPGB (the primacy of politics and democracy, the rejection of broad frontism). But the site still does not offer an explanation of what its differences are, either with us or with anyone else.
‘Talking about Socialism’ is further from the CPGB politically, in so far as it places less emphasis than we do on political democracy and constitutional questions. But its response to the Ukraine war is broadly sound.9 And it appears from comrade Wrack’s July 29 article discussing the ‘Transform’ initiative, that he at least shares with us rejection of the project of building a new Labour Party. He concludes:
Socialists-communists (I use the words as meaning the same) need to work together to build the beginnings of a new mass socialist party. There are thousands of socialists-communists in Britain who are not in any existing organisation. We call on you to join our discussions. There are thousands of socialists in parties like the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal. These parties should be seeking to form a united, new Socialist-Communist Party. Together we could build a serious, significant socialist-communist party, which could dramatically transform the political landscape in the trade unions, and on the left in general.10
Comrade Wrack has a long political history: he resigned as editor of Militant in 1996, and was subsequently involved in the leadership of the Socialist Alliance, Respect, Respect Renewal, and the short-lived ‘Socialist Platform’ of Left Unity. Will McMahon, another regular contributor to ‘Talking about Socialism’, also has a long history in the various broad-front projects, going back at least as far. It is great news if comrades Wrack and McMahon have drawn the lesson from experience to break with their long-standing commitment to broad-frontism to take an initiative to unify ‘socialists-communists’ as ‘socialists-communists’, rather than making broader unity round ‘something less’ a precondition for unity.
But, as with the other groups/sites discussed so far, what remains missing is an actual discussion of the history (beyond the recent experience of Corbynism), or open explicit polemic which explains why a new initiative is necessary. Equally, it is not explained why it is inappropriate to unify efforts in this direction with the CPGB, which has been arguing for 30 years for a regroupment of communists as communists, of the sort that comrade Wrack now proposes.
What lies behind this and all the other cases is the common belief of the late 20th century left that ‘talking to ourselves’ is a waste of time, and what we have to do is ‘get out there’ and address ‘new forces’. In this way the old mantra, ‘Educate, agitate, organise’, is replaced by ‘Agitate, agitate, agitate’. The result is diseducational, because real learning beyond school level progresses through dialectic (in the pre-Hegelian sense): the engagement of competing ideas. And it is disorganising, because unwillingness to take the time to fight through the political issues results in unprincipled splits which cannot be explained to the larger movement and tend to reduce the movement to political gravel.
These points are not a novelty. The 1933 Pre-Conference of the International Left Opposition posed the issue thus:
The frequent practical objections, based on the ‘loss of time’ in abiding by democratic methods, amount to short-sighted opportunism. The education and consolidation of the organisation is a most important task. Neither time nor effort should be spared for its fulfilment. Moreover, party democracy, as the only conceivable guarantee against unprincipled conflicts and unmotivated splits, in the last analysis does not increase the overhead costs of development, but reduces them …11
Our debates need to be conducted in the open anyhow, because it is only in this way that they can be educational for the broader readership of our publications and (at the end of the day) that the broad workers’ vanguard - and beyond it the class as a whole - can have the opportunity to choose between competing conceptions. All the more when our movement is splintered into pieces: each of the pieces needs to openly avow what the differences are and the lessons they have drawn from their own political histories.
On this basis I issue my own call to debate. All the groups I have mentioned should be telling the world more about their own specific histories and views. But I would call in particular on the comrades grouped round ‘Talking about socialism’ to tell us explicitly about their differences with the CPGB and why they do not propose unity to us. It would be great to hear what we are doing wrong in their view, and this could potentially carry the discussion forward.
I am indebted to comrade Lawrence Parker for images of the leaflet, which is a four-page text, the front page being the headline, “The struggle to build a revolutionary party in the 2020s: the limits of the Marxist Student Federation’s ‘Are you a communist?’ campaign”.↩︎
See, for example, P Demarty, ‘IS Network: bondage and bigotry’ Weekly Worker January 30 2014 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/995/isnetwork-bondage-and-bigotry); C Winstanley, ‘IS Network: Self-flagellation and the “kinky split”’ Weekly Worker February 13 2014 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/997/is-network-self-flagellation-and-the-kinky-split). My point is not that arguing about BDSM imagery is ridiculous: it is the conduct of the argument, and the fact that it led to a split.↩︎
W Reisner (ed) Documents of the Fourth International: the formative years (1933-40) New York 1973, p29.↩︎