Debating unity in Socialist Alliance
Recently there has been talk going around about CPGB-AWL ‘fusion talks’ in the early 2000s. There were talks, that is for sure, but not about fusion. This was before the Iraq war and in the context of the Socialist Alliance, which brought together six principal organisations, including the CPGB, AWL, SPEW and SWP. In the interests of clarity and to encourage worthwhile left unity, we republish our report from October 2 2002 of the CPGB’s membership aggregate, written by Mary Godwin
Two rival motions concerning the CPGB’s relations with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty were presented to the September 29 aggregate of CPGB members.
After a lengthy and intense debate, the following motion, formulated by John Bridge, was adopted with no votes against and one abstention: “This aggregate of CPGB members reaffirms the existing position regarding the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Namely that fusion will be sought through the struggle in the Socialist Alliance and the successes made towards establishing a Socialist Alliance party. An important stepping stone in that direction is a Socialist Alliance political paper - official if we can, unofficial if we must.”
An alternative motion was presented at the start of the debate by Martyn Hudson: “This aggregate of CPGB members must affirm not a project of fusion with the AWL, but the construction of a CPGB-AWL bloc with regard to the Socialist Alliance. A political paper is a necessary part of that project. This bloc is necessary to undermine the misleadership of the Socialist Alliance by the Socialist Workers Party.” Comrade Hudson’s motion attracted some support during the discussion, but was defeated in the vote with only three comrades in favour.
Opening the discussion, comrade Bridge gave a brief account of the history of the AWL and its involvement with the Socialist Alliance. Like other left groups, the AWL celebrated Blair’s election victory in 1997, and anticipated a “fructification of hope”, a “crisis of expectations”. When this did not materialise, this caused another crisis - this time for auto-Labourism - resulting in a welcome, if untheorised, gravitation towards the Socialist Alliance.
Two loose wings can be discerned within the AWL, which are primarily characterised by the comrades’ attitude towards democratic questions and their importance. We should encourage the victory of the political wing - despite its half-formed nature - over the economistic wing, which is at present dominant and colours the whole organisation.
Comrade Bridge described our relations with the AWL as healthy: we can fight alongside them in the Socialist Alliance despite political differences. The kind of disagreements illustrated by the debate at Communist University on Palestine (reported in Weekly Worker September 26 2002) cannot be allowed to be made into a barrier preventing the co-production of the political paper mentioned in both motions. Such differences ought to be debated out within its pages.
Comrade Bridge pointed out the crucial reason why it would be a mistake to aim for fusion with the AWL now, despite the open, democratic culture of both groups. The uniting goal of CPGB members, and the overriding aim of our work in the Socialist Alliance, is to bring together the revolutionary left into a single, democratic-centralist organisation. Both the old and new versions of the ‘What we fight for’ column in the paper make this clear, and the comrade rebutted claims that the new version represents a watering down of this goal with the aim of facilitating unity with the AWL.
However, the reason for the existence of the AWL seems to be to build the AWL, in the hope that one day the masses will join them. While the AWL calls in the abstract for the unity of the revolutionary left, such a notion does not guide its practice - and certainly not its participation in the Socialist Alliance. At the SA national conference on December 1 2001 the AWL took an anarcho-liberal position, standing against steps that would take the alliance in a partyist direction and instead voting for a loose form of organisation in a futile attempt to prevent the Socialist Party in England and Wales walkout. Leading AWL comrades openly state that the alliance is mainly useful in that it provides them with the opportunity to attack the SWP. It is this difference in fundamental aim which makes immediate unity with the AWL impossible, comrade Bridge concluded. We positively engage with the revolutionary left as a whole, and regard groups like the SWP as part of the solution. The AWL regards the SWP purely and simply as part of the problem.
Comrade Hudson, in presenting his alternative motion, pointed to two areas in which he agreed with the AWL against the CPGB majority. First, there is nothing positive in the history of the old CPGB - at least for the last 60 or 70 years. Reforging the CPGB and uniting the revolutionary left are not the same process, he said, but mutually exclusive concepts. Second, he did not think the SWP are objectively revolutionaries. He characterised them as Stalinist with rotten politics and an authoritarian internal culture which stamps on dissent. The SWP is a “machine to maim revolutionaries”. Therefore he proposed a CPGB-AWL bloc which would be aimed at undermining the SWP and winning the leadership of the Socialist Alliance. He said such a bloc would unite two democratic-centralist groups against a bureaucratic-centralist, authoritarian regime which is paralysing the SA.
A range of different views emerged in the debate. This was a natural consequence of comrades from different regions, who do not regularly have the opportunity to thrash out ideas face to face. Comrades attended from Wales, Scotland, Manchester, Peterborough, Liverpool, north-east England, Surrey, Hertfordshire and, of course, London. Many intervened in the course of the debate.
Cameron Richards from south Wales claimed that comrade Bridge had given a distorted impression of the AWL in his opening: it is still a horrendously economistic organisation, but has improved in recent years, and we could benefit from cooperating with it in trade union work. Comrade Richards regretted the way the quality of debate with the AWL has declined in recent months. He did not agree with comrade Hudson’s dismissal of the history of the CPGB, but thought the resumption of “fusion talks” with the AWL would be valuable - “we should give the bloc a go”. He added that on the ground very little is happening in the Socialist Alliance, which may not remain the focus of our partyist project in the way comrade Bridge’s motion implies.
Replying to comrade Richards, Mark Fischer said there never were “fusion talks” - what took place were exploratory discussions with a view to cooperation. He criticised the AWL leadership for using differences over the history of Afghanistan to avoid serious debate about the party question, and for attributing to the CPGB political positions it quite clearly does not hold. Similarly, others criticised the AWL for using the excuse of the so-called independents in the Socialist Alliance to back out of their initial support for an unofficial Socialist Alliance paper. At the fringe meeting on an SA paper, jointly organised with the Revolutionary Democratic Group at the SWP’s Marxism 2002, the AWL refused to provide a platform speaker.
Stan Keable said that the way the Socialist Alliance has developed means that the SWP needs the participation of other groups, which gives us the opportunity to polemicise and work with them in a way we could not in the past. The partyist project is aimed at organisational unity among all those who share our aim of building the revolutionary party the working class needs, irrespective of their particular ideological differences. He made the point that the closest organisational unity both facilitates and necessitates clarification of differences, and added that our aim of reforging the CPGB does not mean we have illusions in the old CPGB tradition.
Lee Rock, a PCSU militant from east London, said that the two motions have elements both for and against a fusion with the AWL, so the situation is unclear. He was opposed to fusion now, but thought a bloc with the AWL would be more useful and more likely than a joint paper with them, as it would mean unity and cooperation at all levels rather than just among the leadership and editorial boards. If a joint paper was published, he advocated maintaining our own separate publication alongside it.
Marcus Ström, a member of the Provisional Central Committee and the SA’s executive, argued that a joint paper would facilitate cooperation at all levels of the party. In reply to comrade Richards, he said the AWL cannot teach us much about trade union work. All they do is ape the sectarian methods of the SWP at a lower level. He rejected comrade Hudson’s motion, saying it focuses not on what the class needs, but on the sectarian aim of bashing the SWP. He agreed with comrade Bridge that to dismiss thousands of leftists as part of the problem is both sectarian and pessimistic. He hoped to recruit the SWP and other groups to the partyist project.
Peter Manson, Weekly Worker editor, said we can cooperate with the AWL on particular questions within the SA, as with any other group - such as over a motion on the euro for the forthcoming conference. However, what would be the aim of comrade Hudson’s bloc, apart from opposing the SWP? The AWL does not agree with our aim of fighting to transform the Socialist Alliance into a revolutionary party. In fact, as comrade Ström pointed out, it does not even meet its commitment to help pay for the SA office.
Bob Paul said he broadly agreed with the motion put forward by comrade Bridge, but would have preferred it to have contained some mention of the positive aspects of the AWL - its openness, willingness to debate and democratic internal culture. John Pearson from Manchester said he was reassured by the motion and the discussion, having previously suspected that the Provisional Central Committee intended to subordinate the CPGB to the AWL in the editorial board of a joint paper.
In reply to comrade Hudson’s description of the SWP as Stalinist, Ian Donovan said the phenomenon of revolutionaries being damaged or “maimed” is a characteristic not only of Stalinist groups, but some of the more bizarre Trotskyist sects too, such as the Spartacists or Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party. Despite its democracy and openness, the AWL retains traces of the same Trotskyist sectarianism, as demonstrated by their ranting denunciation of the SWP as anti-Semitic, comrade Donovan claimed.
Replying to the debate, comrade Bridge said the Trotskyist groups on the left today embody the worst errors of Leon Trotsky - a sect mentality adopted as orthodoxy as a consequence of their lack of a partyist perspective. This mentality can be overcome by winning comrades to the perspective of building a revolutionary party, not by joining forces with the AWL in some sectarian hostility towards the SWP. He called for a clear vote from the aggregate and a clear message on the idea of a joint paper.
The decisiveness of the vote for the resolution moved by comrade Bridge indicates that the long discussion helped to clarify in comrades’ minds their own ideas and the position of the leadership.