Opportunism in matters of organisation
While we broadly agreed over Israel and Gaza, we sharply disagreed over membership commitment and maintaining barriers. James Harvey reports
Our October 22 aggregate of CPGB members and invited guests had two agenda topics: firstly, Israel’s war against Gaza and the developing situation in the Middle East; secondly, the issue of dues paid by CPGB members and political differences thereby revealed over organisational principles and approaches.
The aggregate’s main political discussion on the Middle East was opened by Moshé Machover and Farzad Kamangar. Comrade Machover’s contribution is carried in this issue of the paper, so I will focus on comrade Kamangar’s talk on the impact of Israel’s attack on Gaza on the wider Middle East, especially the danger of a wider war with Iran. She explained the widespread opposition to Israel’s occupation and ethnic cleansing and the pressures it exerted on regimes in the Arab world. The Arab states have long ago sold out on the Palestinian question, but cannot ignore the Palestinian diaspora, which is in many cases an integral component of their own population.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is in a difficult position, with its leadership verbally militant, but, because of its political and military weaknesses, reluctant to act. There is little mass support for the Palestinian cause in Iran, which many felt had been cynically manipulated by the regime to secure its own position. However, comrade Kamangar cautioned, this was a fast-changing situation and the trajectory of events was unpredictable. Given this, it remained an open question whether Iran might or might not be drawn into war.
The wide-ranging discussion that followed looked, amongst other things, at the changing balance of forces in the Middle East, perspectives for the immediate period, the nature of Hamas, and the impact of the Gaza crisis on British politics. Above all, comrades located the discussion in the wider, geo-political context and stressed the importance of understanding US strategy in the region. Hamas has been successful in disrupting Israel’s normalisation attempt, especially its proposed rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Palestine has been forced back onto the political agenda. Comrades agreed that Hamas was a reactionary, anti-working class organisation, but that, given the context of Israel’s historic repression of Gaza, resistance, including atrocities, is inevitable.
Addressing both the uncritical support given by some on the left to Hamas and the reservations others have expressed about the nature of the organisation, Carla Roberts referred to Trotsky’s argument that we can make “alliances with the devil without calling him an angel”. Mike Macnair further developed the point in distinguishing between moral condemnation of Hamas for an atrocity and the politics which produce atrocity. Citing Marx on the Indian War of Independence 1857‑59 and the experience of other anti-colonial struggles, Mike commented on the hypocrisy of the idea of ‘the laws of war’ and argued, a là US civil war general, William Tecumseh Sherman, that ‘war is hell’ by its very nature.
Jack Conrad argued that Hamas was not the equivalent of Islamic State, but was a pan-Islamic resistance movement with deep popular roots and a clear strategy. Presumably it acted to wreck the Abraham accords and to set the whole region aflame. In the context of Gaza and the Palestinian struggle it was not our job to “run a health check on the resistance”. Communists must raise their own slogans, demands, and programme for the Middle East, locating our opposition to the Israeli state in its alliance with US-UK-EU imperialism. The best support we can give the Palestinian resistance is to fight against our own government - and the whole political class - which lines up behind Israeli settler-colonialism and the horrors that entails.
Comrades also gave their views and shared experiences of the protest demonstrations and the character of the movement that is developing. The establishment campaign to identify anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, so successful in the Labour Party, was now being deployed against the protest movement, along with increased threats by the Tories to further clamp down on free speech.
There was a discussion of the significance of the slogans raised in the movement and the various positions adopted by the left on the bourgeois one/two state so-called ‘solution’, calls for a federation of the Middle East and an Arab revolution under the leadership of the working class. Jihad, it was suggested, can be perfectly innocuous - meaning as it does, a ‘struggle against sin’, etc. Others insisted that its meaning on Palestine demonstrations was perfectly clear: religious war against Israel (not our politics, but defensible, if only in terms of free speech). Mike Macnair asserted that the accusation that the widely heard one-state solution slogan, ‘Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea’, is anti-Semitic was first levelled by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and then picked up by the capitalist state.
Giving you dues
If the discussion on the Middle East showed general agreement with the CPGB’ s position on Israel’s war on Gaza, the second session showed some considerable differences on organisational questions. While ostensibly the discussion began on the level of dues that members should pay, the issues of recruitment, communist unity, and the nature of the party that the CPGB wishes to build quickly came to the fore. Behind seemingly technical proposals, lurked serious disagreements with the leadership that - though as yet, inchoate - amount to opportunism on the organisation question.
In his introductory remarks, comrade Conrad, speaking on behalf of the Provisional Central Committee, said the issue of dues had been raised by members, supporters and frenemies in various discussion forums, rather than by the PCC itself. The level of dues paid by members is, however, covered in our draft rules, article 23, and has therefore always involved flexibility and taking into account the ability of an individual comrade to pay a given amount. Ten percent of one’s net income and more is certainly an aspiration. One shared by devout Christians, Jews and Muslims. But there has been some really stupid chatter doing the rounds about us bankrupting comrades. However, the only confusion on this issues comes from those who want an excuse not to commit themselves, or those who want to excuse those who want an excuse for those not wanting to commit themselves. Hence, comrade Conrad argued, the issue of dues is really about what we actually mean by building a Communist Party.
We have little time for recent ‘do your own thing’ initiatives such as Nick Wrack’s and Will McMahon’s Talking About Socialism project, the broad parties/fronts past, present and future, the freelance gadflies and the little army of the lost and lonely. Despite the huge setbacks internationally for the left over the last 30 or 40 years, our strategy remains that of going through the existing left. We stand for unity, but not on the basis of the lowest common denominator. Rather unity is fought for around our Draft programme, a minimum-maximum programme which stands fully in the tradition of classical Marxism. Our struggle for a mass Communist Party is one that encourages splits and fusions, organised rebellions against the bureaucratic centralist regimes of the existing left and then a systematic reaching out, through agitation, propaganda and organisation, to the advanced part of the working class. Only then can we begin to win the broad mass, seek to win or neutralise the middle classes and achieve a clear social majority for socialist change.
This is not a process of unity brought about by cosy consensus, agreements not to subject others on the left to harsh polemics, but, on the contrary, the fearless clarification of positions, establishing sharp lines of demarcation and the constant struggle against the opportunist tendencies that will inevitably occur and occur again and again.
Anne McShane responded to comrade Conrad’s opening by suggesting that there was a lack of consistency about how the rules on dues were applied, resulting in some confusion. She talked about a sliding scale which by definition is consistent but inflexible and could genuinely prove bankrupting for the heavily indebted, those with children and a big mortgage to boot.
However, she agreed that the real issue was around the type of organisation we want to build. We were not simply a Zoom discussion forum, although she believed that there was a ‘general view’ outside the organisation that the CPGB was apathetic to recruitment, did not put enough effort into social media work, etc, etc. Comrade McShane was also critical of our lack of CPGB involvement in broad front projects such as the Labour Left Alliance (where actually our comrades on its leadership formed an opposition fraction). She also bigged-up the Zoom discussion circle Why Marx? (a worthy enough project where our members, candidate members and supporters more than occasionally appear). She also denounced the intolerant and polemical style of some leading comrades. Jack Conrad in particular was singled out. “We are not always right about everything”, she said. “We set up barriers to membership”. She wanted “all communists in the CPGB”.
Ryan Frost argued along similar lines. He questioned the hostile and combative tone. He suggested that we need to change not our arguments, but how they are presented.
In her contribution Carla Roberts argued that things are changing politically and that a certain space might possibly be opening up for communist politics, in which the CPGB is well-positioned to make some substantial gains. She put her finger on the dues question. Behind it lies political differences. Obviously the CPGB needs to improve its online and social media presence to make these areas more attractive and interesting. She wanted to see greater emphasis on communist unity, maybe a communist unity conference. Not that she held out any great hopes on that score. Indeed she rightly said it might well be better to hold fire on that particular idea. Ian Strong, a candidate member, argued that we may be in a period of some considerable change: he believed that the Palestine issue and the mobilisation it had produced was far more significant than the Corbyn movement in the Labour Party. We need to intervene.
Amongst others, PCC members Mike Macnair and Farzad Kamangar reminded comrades of the partyist nature of our politics. Our politics are not based on diplomatic coalitions, agreements around the lowest common denominator or tailing mass movements. Many of the new left projects are still predicated on ideas of a Marxist core in a reformist sea: we have to expose them rather than humbly submit and accept our minority status in the interests of not putting people off.
Consequently, style is substance, comrade Macnair argued, since we cannot have the openness of the Weekly Worker without its polemical character. Comrade Kamangar dealt with a number of comments on organisational issues and strongly defended the idea that the success of the Weekly Worker was due to its hard editorial line and political coherence. That, and not some mythical broad appeal, was the way forward. We had a distinct voice and focus, and that needed to be emphasised and advanced, not weakened or dissipated by chasing after soft people with soft politics.
Strategically she disagreed with the idea that the protest movement around Gaza was a fundamental turn in world politics that would almost automatically lead to a mass influx into principled revolutionary politics: it was excellent that so many people, not least young people, were becoming involved, but at this stage it remained a protest movement. Without a Communist Party worthy of the name it will eventually dissipate. We do, after all, have the examples of the mass protest movement against the Afghan and Iraq wars. All that they produced was Stop the War Coalition and Respect. Popular fronts both.
Jack Conrad made the final reply to the discussion. He said that we do indeed actively maintain barriers stopping people from entering the CPGB. Especially in what is still a period of reaction, that is the only serious approach. Our members have a meaningful voice and a meaningful vote. It would be criminal to let all and sundry join. There has to be a willingness to commit to unity in action, making a meaningful financial contribution and a proven political understanding, no matter how elementary.
Our slogan is therefore not ‘every’ self-declared communist a member of the CPGB. We sift, we sort, we separate the mere talkers from the doers, the poseurs from the really committed. This matters. We have had some near run-ins, including when it comes to our Draft programme. There was after all a 50:50 tied aggregate vote to amend it on the women’s question so that it conformed with the political economy of the bourgeoisie as opposed to the political economy of the working class. A fundamental issue.
Instead of fighting to limit competition between workers, limit the exploitation of women, we had the bourgeois feminist proposal to facilitate the equal competition between men and women in the workplace. A gift for the boss class. Note, having been defeated both the mover and the seconder left our ranks. Not that the PCC pushed them, but the PCC did not fight to stop them.
No resolutions were submitted to this aggregate. But it is clear from some of the contributions that the discussion needs to continue. Nuances, differences and fundamentals need to clarified and fought out.