Unity and its discontents
Are campaigns calling for unity bound to fall on stony ground? Lawrence Parker takes issue with Mike Macnair on communist rapprochement
What follows is partly based on a recent blog article discussing remarks made by Mike Macnair at the CPGB‑PCC’s Communist University on the subject of communist unity.1 I am not much of a fan of simply repeating previously written articles, as one runs the risk that chunks of the target audience will have already read the original. However, comrade Macnair suggested it would be a useful exercise to produce an article for further debate and I am happy to do so in that spirit.
At CU, comrade Macnair was left holding the baby after Socialist Appeal had refused to debate with the CPGB on the topic of communist unity. Naturally, the last thing Socialist Appeal would want to do during its current ‘Are you a communist?’ promotional campaign is talk to actual communists. It was correct to invite Socialist Appeal, of course, and its non-appearance illustrates vividly that what we are dealing with here is a sect project fundamentally concerned with building a secluded group rather than the mass Communist Party that its current efforts might imply to the naive.
The irony here is that the ‘Are you a communist?’ schtick follows in the wake of the Young Communist League (linked to the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain) growing its forces around its communist identity. And now other groups, such as the Socialist Party (along with Socialist Appeal they share Militant Tendency as their ‘mothership’), are suddenly discovering that they too are communist organisations. However much these groups, who all think they are singularly anointed and righteous, may dislike it, this then becomes a collective far-left issue that begins to pose the problem of partyism. That brings us to the CPGB, which is itself a long-running campaign for communist unity - albeit one that has lost ground in recent years.
As part of this, the CPGB is now not often self-reflexive about its own role in communist unity, and the Weekly Worker does not have a strong narrative about its own party project. This now tends to be occasionally mentioned as part of perspectives or fund columns, but not ceaselessly broadcast, reflected upon and elaborated, as it used to be. However, what comrade Macnair did fuzzily say in passing about the CPGB in his CU session struck me - and others, I think - as definitely not in keeping with his organisation’s history and culture.
He said: “Suppose the CPGB were to launch an appeal to the left to unite. This wouldn’t work. We’ve had a series of attempts of one sort or another of a small group launching appeals to unite, but it won’t work.” Now, people who know their left history will, of course, remember that it was precisely this kind of rapprochement that the CPGB undertook in late 1994, after Jack Conrad’s ‘Party, non-ideology and faction’ Weekly Worker supplement,2 which, in its early stages, was a unity campaign with micro-groups (Open Polemic, the Communist Action Group and Independent Communists) that had emanated from the collapse of ‘official’ communism.
While this was not hailed by the CPGB of the mid-1990s as a wildly successful initiative, it was agreed to have been a useful undertaking. Open Polemic (partly composed of people previously in the Proletarian group, which, like The Leninist, had been a split from the New Communist Party) even took out a form of representational factional entry in the CPGB in 1995-96 and had a regular column in the Weekly Worker. In the context of endless trivial splits and rancour on the left, such things are not to be sniffed at. I did ask comrade Macnair for his opinion of this venture during the session, and he was honest enough to say that he did not know an awful lot about it.
I would advise comrades to read a very useful balance sheet of this period of CPGB activity by Mark Fischer. He argued:
While the process has not produced scores of eager-beaver new cadre, it has been successful and a source of real strength. Firstly, it has clarified admirably the question of pro-partyism with some of the detritus of official communism, elements which previously might have regarded themselves as rivals of some sort for the heritage of the CPGB.3
We can project that lesson into the future. As the communist left revives and becomes more united and purposeful, pretenders and silly sects will most likely be swept aside. I saw this partly happen in the Socialist Alliance in the late 1990s, as the bigger organisations moved in and quickly side-lined the prima donnas and sects of one, who had previously been holding court. What it will also likely expose is who is comfortable being in a minority; who is comfortable with losing votes and tough arguments; and those who want to swan around as leaders. The CPGB has not historically had a problem in being in a minority; others have a more dubious record.
Groups such as Open Polemic, the Communist Action Group and Independent Communists had winked out of existence by the late 1990s, precisely because it was very difficult for them to pretend that they stood for the idea of a Communist Party any more, after they knocked themselves out of a pro-party unity campaign. Rapprochement both clarified and cleaned up this piece of leftwing backwater. If, as comrade Macnair correctly argues, we cannot go around the existing far left, then such small bonfires are necessary.
Fischer also argued that Open Polemic’s “brief membership of the party brought a concreteness to the call for rapprochement. This is a strength - something openly recognised even by people who today categorise themselves as ‘enemies’ of our party.”4 This is also very true. Where can communists today learn and grow into conducting themselves in a mass party of the future with its debates, trends, clashes of opinion and probable personal rancour and bitterness? At this juncture, only by working as closely as possible with micro-groups and rivals on the left, given that far-left groups are not generally thought of as viable by most working class people due to their fissile nature.
In the CPGB-PCC’s case, I came across it in the Socialist Labour Party (just as Open Polemic was walking out, as it happens) and, in the bigger arena of Arthur Scargill’s party, its members’ skill in patiently talking to a factionally divided left, without offering them a non-aggression pact, was noticeable. Rapprochement did start to lay foundations for reaching the wider left, as the decade wore on.
I do not think comrade Macnair’s relative dismissal of the unity of tiny far-left groups holds water and this became particularly clear when he talked of having hopes and expectations in splits that took place a decade ago in the Socialist Workers Party (which, I agree, has mostly produced sub-political rubbish). This sounded very much like passivity to me, as if the CPGB was polemicising and critiquing the left, but then waiting for something positive to emerge. The group’s old activist conception that allowed it to punch beyond its weight in the 1990s (partly informed by a false narrative of a “Bolshevik party of the new type”5) has disintegrated. Its subsequent idea of a patient strategy is correct, but it does need some kind of activist underpinning and methodology. If it is patience, then it needs to be shot through with some sense of urgency and purposefulness. Otherwise, you end up with the disappointments of comrade Macnair’s rather hazily expressed waiting game.
Doing ideological battle with the larger organisations of the far left and the labour movement as a whole is vital, as is the goal of a truly mass, multi-tendency Communist Party that forms the advanced part of the working class. But, given that, don’t we have an elementary duty to do all in our power to unite, even at the micro-scale, to begin that process? As Jack Conrad said in 1994:
Stage one is calling again upon the surviving pro-party elements scattered by the collapse of ‘official communism’ and those groupings who, formally at least, take a pro-party position. Stage two will require us to reach out to those who define themselves as being in the Leninist tradition. Stage three should open the door to all genuine Marxists. Stage four might still be a long way off, but any sizeable Communist Party ought to set itself the aim of organising those serious libertarian and syndicalistic workers who are revolutionary, but at the moment mistrust the party …6
To that end, these early stages of rapprochement were deemed by Conrad to be an integral part of the attempt to “make the CPGB into a mass vanguard party, together with those who want to help and against those who are incapable”.7
But 1994 was not quite 2023 despite the continued dispersal of the Marxist left. Back then, Conrad could confidently spotlight the CPGB-PCC as a broker of a future Communist Party. After the dissolution of the ‘official’ CPGB, his faction had captured the name of the party with only a largely stillborn Morning Star’s CPB as a potential competitor: “Objective conditions dictate rapprochement with the PCC. A rapprochement of pro-party groups with the PCC, because it is the only established and effective pro-party centre.”8 This clear and confident tone, that could self-reflect on its role and lay out the means by which it could achieve its ambitious goals seems to have faded in recent times. Some of that self-doubt was evident in comrade Macnair’s session at CU.
Read against other public statements, it is easy to see a context for this drift. Last year, comrade Conrad argued:
There has been a recent uptick in various individuals and little groups declaring themselves to be communist. If they are worthwhile, however, not mere social media poseurs, they will contact and enter into negotiations with the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee.9
This defensive statement assumes that the CPGB-PCC is in the same position in 1994 and the natural arbiter of any future communist unity process.
The comrade repeated this line to the recent aggregate, stating that other groups and individuals “know where to find us”. But this is exactly the problem. All of the left knows the Weekly Worker and, even though its audience and influence has shrunk in recent years, visibility and awareness is not a problem. But most of the left, including a majority of those that class themselves as communist, do not wish to approach the CPGB for one reason or another.
So, there needs to be something beyond sitting in a corner. Unless you are beautiful beyond all compare, you could wait an awful long time for someone to buy you a drink.
Ibid (original emphasis).↩︎
J Conrad Problems of communist organisation London 1993, p8: communistparty.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Problems-of-Communist-Organisation.pdf.↩︎