Getting in touch
Jack Conrad takes up the offer made by Will McMahon and Nick Wrack about talks and joint work towards creating the basis for a mass Communist Party
Looking at the Talking About Socialism website was somewhat a strange experience. If the Weekly Worker had not existed for 30 years, if the Communist Party of Great Britain name had not been rescued from the Eurocommunist misleadership in 1991 - that after a fierce 10-year polemical war conducted by The Leninist against all forms of liquidationism - if there was no Provisional Central Committee, no CPGB Draft programme, no CPGB members, no CPGB committees and no CPGB co-thinkers abroad, TAS would have to be greeted with three resounding cheers by any worthwhile communist.
While, for example, I do not by any means agree with the TAS ‘Who we are’ statement - there are too many vagueries, too many fudges, too many opportunist escape clauses - I could certainly accept it as the initial basis for collaboration.1 However, to make the obvious point, the Weekly Worker does exist. So does the Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB, our members, committees, co-thinkers, etc, and our four decades of open, tireless and undeviating struggle for a mass Communist Party.
So those who drew up, agreed and finally published the TAS statement on April 4 2023 were not intrepid pioneers, the bringers of a new message. But that is how it is designed to read. They really seem to expect those coming across their website to believe that TAS alone has discovered the necessity of a “serious democratic organisation”, uniting around “the aim of building support for socialist/communist ideas and for the construction of a mass socialist/communist party”, which has members in every city, town, school and workplace, with the aim of winning a “majority in society”.
Their joint Weekly Worker article talks about overcoming “narrow sect interests”, “layers” of individual Marxists and “the larger Marxist groups, such as Socialist Appeal, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party”.2 Yet, nowhere is the CPGB mentioned and, therefore, nowhere do they set out their points of agreement and points of disagreement with the CPGB, which would, of course, be the only serious - the only honest - thing to do, especially when writing in the Weekly Worker. Despite that, the two of them have the nerve to lambast the confessional sects for ignoring “each other, pretending that they are the only band in town, insulating or inoculating their members against the ideas of other Marxists”.
Perhaps it is true: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocracy can pay to greatness” (Oscar Wilde). Nonetheless, we should not forget that imitation that does not attribute, does not acknowledge, is nothing less than crude plagiarism. In the world of commerce and intellectual property, such “flattery” can land you in deep financial trouble. But in the world of Marxist politics and Marxist intellectual scrupulousness, it invites tough questioning - if not outright mockery and scorn.
TAS comrades (I do not hesitate to use the term) have been on a journey. With some of them, well, that has been in the right direction; with others, though, it has been in the wrong direction. Take Will McMahon. Unless I am mistaken, he was a member of the International Socialist Group (the Mandelite Trotskyites in Britain). We first came across him in the Socialist Alliance. If I remember correctly, comrade McMahon was by then an Independent Socialist and a modestly useful broad-front ally of the Socialist Workers Party leadership of John Rees and Lindsey German. A nice enough guy, but, yes, with much to be modest about. I do not know anything about him after that, till a couple of decades later he resurfaces as a born-again communist. So why not contact the CPGB? Why not engage with us? The problem lies, I believe, with what Lenin famously called “opportunism in matters of organisation” (One step forward, two steps back 1904).3
Opportunists in matters of organisation advocate a “diffuse, not a strongly welded, party organisation”; they are hostile to the “idea (the ‘bureaucratic idea’) of building the party top downwards”, starting from the highest, the best organised, the most authoritative; they advocate lowest-common-denominator politics, horizontalism and building bottom upwards; they are fearful of vigorous debate, binding votes and unity in action (‘being told what to do’); they recoil from the demand that every party member be active in one of its organisations and makes a regular, meaningful, financial contribution; they tend to limit themselves to innocuous discussion circles and a platonic commitment to communism; they pander to freelance individualism, as against democratic centralism - in short they go for the sort of founding statement being currently peddled by TAS.
Then there is Nick Wrack. Undoubtedly he has a colourful backstory. Comrade Wrack rose through the ranks of Militant Tendency at a pace of knots and for a short while served his master as editor of Militant (true, always a crushingly boring, economistic, advertising sheet). He broke with Peter Taaffe for unknown reasons. In the Socialist Alliance comrade Wrack was one of the leading Independent Socialists and another useful ally of the John Rees-Lindsey German SWP power couple. Hence, unsurprisingly, he went along with the SWP’s decision in 2005 to close down the Socialist Alliance, which possibly had genuine potential, and instead go for the ‘big time’ with George Galloway, Yvonne Ridley, Ken Loach, Salma Yaqoob and the popular front with the Muslim Association of Britain - otherwise known as Respect. Our Nick (over)enthusiastically, chaired Respect’s first conference. He briefly joined the SWP only to break with it in favour of Respect Renewal. Meanwhile, we worked to expose the SWP’s crass opportunism and ‘supported’ Respect like the ‘rope supports the hanged man’ (George Galloway).
Our political paths crossed once again in Left Unity. He argued for socialism, as against Socialist Resistance (given its opposition to socialism, an absurdly misnamed iteration of Mandelite Trotskyism before they became Anticapitalist Resistance). They resisted socialism as a programmatic commitment - something comrade Wrack argued for. And he argued well. However, he would not join Communist Platform, nor did he support our demands for a proper orientation to the Labour Party. Eg, Communist Platform’s motion calling for Left Unity to campaign for the right of all socialist groups to affiliate to the Labour Party (as stipulated in the original 1900 constitution). He dismissed the idea as lacking mass traction. Er … unlike socialism.
Comrade Wrack formed his own Socialist Platform that was distinguished first and foremost by its refusal to countenance any democratic changes to its ‘Who we are’ statement, a visceral hostility to organised communists and, ironically, horribly, a positive reliance on the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, when it came to votes.
Nonetheless, we sincerely attempted to engage with comrade Wrack. He featured on CPGB platforms alongside myself on more than one occasion. We wanted some kind of fusion and would have been more than happy to see him as a member of the CPGB’s PCC. On balance he would have been an asset. But it was not to be. He careered off … and again, like comrade McMahon, reappeared on my radar as a born-again communist in TAS.
Therefore, albeit with considerable qualifications, one can say that McMahon-Wrack have gone from extreme opportunism to something approaching the appearance of orthodox Marxism - well, at least for the naive observer. Their current failure to engage with - even to mention - the CPGB testifies to opportunism in matters of organisation.
But there are others - the friends by whom you shall be known. When I last dipped into the TAS website the third article listed there was by one Chris Strafford (‘Broad to death’4). From a CPGB point of view, this is a rather run-of-the-mill critique of Left Unity, Respect and the latest Transform nonsense. The problem being that the last polemic I wrote against Chris Strafford was when he was in and around the CPGB … and when he advocated broad fronts/parties. So ‘Broad to death’ is not flattering imitation, but crude plagiarism, especially given the refusal, the failure to account for his own past and accept that my polemic against him was fully justified.5
The comrade broke from our ranks in favour of the utterly forgettable, utterly dumb, Anti-Capitalist Initiative (along with Caitriona Rylance, who has recently appeared in the letters pages of the Weekly Worker in full self-righteous mode demanding that we should show “humility”6). This ‘exiting’ ACI project was backed by Workers Power’s Richard Brenner, Marcus Halaby and Dave Stocking, Permanent Revolution’s Stuart King and the Luke Cooper-Simon Harvey split from Worker Power (ie, all three WP fragments were involved in driving this opportunist merry-go-round). ACI was, laughably, going to ever so ’umbly strive for a situation where so-called Marxists would be “as minoritarian as possible”, so as to reach out to “broader” forces: local residents, trade unionists, anti-capitalists, anarchists, autonomists, etc. Comrade Strafford was put in charge of the registration table at its founding conference.7 One bright idea was to campaign against Ladbrokes betting shops.8 The whole thing began as farce and predictably ended as farce.
Continued commitment to broad frontism led comrade Strafford to Left Unity, where, unfortunately, he joined the witch-hunt against Communist Platform’s Laurie McCauley (whose ‘crime’ was reporting a routine meeting of the Manchester branch in the Weekly Worker). Comrade Strafford gravitated to Nick Wrack’s Socialist Platform and in the process, presumably, reinvented himself politically. Later he published an online journal Prometheus (since closed).
Seen in this light, TAS is an eclectic, unstable outfit, which claims to be in the forefront of the struggle for a “mass socialist/communist party”, but in actual fact fights shy of engaging with what long went before it, what now stands in front of it and what towers above it: the CPGB. The appeal of TAS is to the disappointed, the demoralised, the hurt, even the downright cynical. More of a trauma recovery group than a serious organisation of communists then. TAS offers to provide a “home” to those “many individuals who are not members of any existing Marxist group, who consider themselves to be Marxists, but who have rejected [the] groups because of their intolerant, undemocratic and sectish behaviour”.
Should we tolerate the social-imperialists who back the foreign policy of their own ruling class and call for Nato to ‘Arm, arm, arm, Ukraine’? We think not. Is it sectish to fight national chauvinism, broad frontism and the economistic rejection of the battle for democracy? Once again, we think not. There should be no wish to live and let live, when it comes to advocates of opportunism. Doubtless that produces anarchistic accusations of inquisitions, inflexibility and bureaucracy. But what we are really talking about is open debate, resolutions and the normal workings of internal democracy. The CPGB certainly opposes backsliding and conciliationism, and will continue to undeviatingly argue for organising the advanced part of the working class into a party based on the solid foundations of a definite minimum-maximum programme.
Instead, with TAS, we get the toleration of opportunism and pandering to individualistic freelancers: “No-one likes to be hectored, lectured, belittled or told what to think and what to do. Thinking Marxists want comradely debate.” Doubtless some leaders of the confessional sects try to hector, lecture and belittle. Perhaps that is what happened to young Nick Wrack under the Peter Taaffe regime. Either way, we should be careful not to throw the communist baby out with the sectarian bathwater. Surely we favour telling communist trade union officials, communist MPs and communist councillors “what to do” - though, of course, not what to think. So, yes, we favour vigorous debate, binding votes and disciplined unity in action.
What about the abusive behaviour of the leaders of some confessional sects? Eg, Gerry Healy and Martin Smith. We say, publicly expose them after exhausting all available internal channels, defy bureaucratic centralism and organise co-thinkers into a politically coherent faction, even if that results in expulsion. So we favour splits as well as fusions.
In the interests of clarity, in the interests of overcoming any misunderstandings, in the interests of taking forward the fight for a mass Communist Party, we therefore formally offer TAS a debate, an exchange, a discussion at one of our Online Communist Forums. We shall get in touch.
‘Get in touch with us’ Weekly Worker October 12: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1462/get-in-touch-with-us.↩︎
VI Lenin CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p204, ff.↩︎
Posted October 8 2023.↩︎
Eg, J Conrad, ‘Programme and party: broad bad, mass good’ Weekly Worker February 21 2013: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/950/programme-and-party-broad-bad-mass-good.↩︎
Letters Weekly Worker October 12 2023: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1462/letters.↩︎
B Lewis, ‘Ditch sects and fronts’ Weekly Worker May 3 2012: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/912/ditch-sects-and-fronts.↩︎
Daniel Harvey wrote an excellent critique of this kind of broad politics, amusingly including the aborted ACI campaign against Ladbrokes. See ‘Organisation, consciousness and knack of falling apart’ Weekly Worker December 4 2014: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1037/organisation-consciousness-and-knack-of-falling-ap.↩︎