Unity based on solid principles
Mike Macnair replies to criticism of the CPGB on partyism and explains why we uphold the use of sharp open polemics and reject the soggy methods of diplomacy
This article is in response to Lawrence Parker’s letter of October 12 and his undated blog entry, ‘Recruit and integrate redux’; to Caitriona Rylance’s letters of October 12 and October 26; and to part of Andrew Northall’s October 26 letter.
Both comrade Parker’s arguments about Labour Party Marxists and comrade Rylance’s more general arguments seem to me to involve implicit misunderstandings of what we are trying to do, and why we have produced a Draft programme, publish the Weekly Worker and other publications, and so on. It is these misunderstandings that make it worthwhile to reply at article length, in order to reassert the ABCs, rather than merely add another letter to the exchange.
I begin with Andrew Northall’s argument, because in certain respects the problem is posed more explicitly there. Comrade Northall argues against Nick Wrack and Will McMahon (I think probably on inaccurate assumptions about their proposals), and for comrade Parker against Paul B Smith, that a call for Trotskyist unity - or for “Marxist” unity that in effect requires Trotskyism - is “pursuing a chimera”. This is correct. But his reasons are unsound: he claims that
‘Trotskyist unity’ is a complete oxymoron, if ever there was one. The 557 varieties of Trotskyism are all able to quote from their god from a very large selection (Trotsky was nothing if not flowery and verbose) to support their individual lines and separate existences, primarily because their god was so chaotic, eclectic and contradictory. He was literally the factionalist and splitter in chief.
The fissile nature of Trotskyist groups gives this argument a certain superficial plausibility. But, in reality, Maoist groups are as fissile as Trotskyist groups, and anarchist groups even more so. The method of ‘citation grazing’, treating works as sacred texts, can produce as many contradictory statements in the Collected Works of Marx and Engels, of Lenin or of Stalin, as in Trotsky’s writings. The Morning Star-Communist Party of Britain’s ‘official communism’ is in Britain smaller than the Socialist Workers Party and in roughly the same size range as the Socialist Party in England and Wales and Socialist Appeal; it has not even been able to unify with Socialist Action, which broke decisively with its Trotskyist past in favour of ‘official communism’. Comrade Northall is right that unity for Trotskyists only is a chimera; but unity that excludes Trotskyists is also a chimera.
Comrade Northall asks, as Eurocommunists and ‘official communists’ have repeatedly asked,1
Are people in their “new layers” and “new generations” really that bothered about historical and doctrinal differences over individuals and events which are often over 100 years old? I suspect not, except insofar as these might affect current revolutionary strategy and tactics.
In the first place, as to the question of the USSR itself, almost every schoolchild is taught at GCSE level the ‘age of the dictators’: ie, the equation of Stalin and Hitler. This narrative has not only persisted - just as the narrative of republicanism inevitably leading to tyranny and the consequent necessity of monarchy persisted for centuries between the perceived failure of Italian city republicanism in the 1400s and the English revolution of 1688 and its consequences offering a perceptible alternative future.2 The media’s use of the narrative has recently intensified as political cover for the USA’s policy of aggressive encirclement of China, like the UK’s policy of aggressive encirclement of Germany in 1898-1914.
And in this context I need to repeat against comrade Northall a point that I made against Tony Clark and others in 2008: they
argue that the Soviet-style bureaucratic regimes were in transition towards socialism; that this inevitably “has both positive and negative features to begin with”, but that the transition was turned into its opposite by the seizure of power by the bourgeoisie “gain[ing] control of communist parties and socialist states under the banner of anti-Stalinism”.
If we momentarily accept this analysis for the sake of argument, the question it poses is: why have the true revolutionaries, the Stalinists, been so utterly incapable of organising an effective resistance to this take-over, given that ‘socialism’ in their sense covered a large part of the globe and organised a large part of its population? This is exactly the same problem as the Trotskyists’ ‘political revolution’ strategy, only with a different substantive line. The weakness of Stalinist opposition to the pro-capitalist evolution of the leaderships in Moscow, Beijing, and so on, reveals the same problem as that facing the advocates of ‘political revolution’. There were neither institutional means in the regimes through which the “non-revisionists” could resist revisionism, nor any objective tendency in the regimes towards ongoing mass working class self-organisation on which opponents of revisionism could base themselves.3
Defenders of ‘mainstream communism’ need to account for this problem. The fact that a tiny section of the youth (born more than 10 years after 1991) are now willing to self-identify as ‘communists’ is excellent. But as yet, this is merely an identification pour épater la bourgeoisie (to shock the respectable middle classes), and it needs to be much more. And, as soon as it tries to be much more, it will come up against this issue.
Secondly, a substantial part of the issues debated do “affect current revolutionary strategy and tactics”. OK, ‘permanent revolution’ versus ‘stages’ is now a dead-and-gone issue, since it addressed the tasks of the workers’ movement in states with extensive pre-capitalist social relations in the countryside and pre-capitalist state formations; and the peasantry in the ‘global south’ has been massively dispossessed, while the state formations are almost universally capitalist.
But ‘people’s front’ versus ‘united front’ was already a replay of the debates in the Second International around 1900 about whether to participate as a minority in capitalist liberal or nationalist coalition governments - and we have recent bad experience with left participation in coalition governments (Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, Syriza in Greece …).
The pro-imperialist line of Eduard Bernstein’s arguments for ‘humanitarian intervention’ against Turkey in the 1890s, the defence of ‘socialist colonial policy’ by Henri van Kol and others in the mid-1900s, the pro-war wings of the Second International in 1914-18 - and the opposition to these - can be shown to concern issues that are still live. See the call of a part of the former left to ‘arm, arm, arm Ukraine’ (leave aside the smaller minority that continues to claim to be ‘left’, while supporting ‘Israel’s right to self-defence’).
And ‘democratic centralism’, as we have shown in this paper, began with the pre-1914 Social Democratic Party of Germany tackling issues about parliamentary representation, central and local publication, and so on, which are live today. On the other hand, the ‘1921’ version, in which the party is characterised by military centralism outside limited pre-congress discussions, necessarily entails the fissile quality of the far left - unless a party has a peasant base to support its Bonapartist role, or a state to back it. As I pointed out above, it is not just the Trotskyists who are fissile; this is part of why.
There are other ‘live’ issues that unavoidably involve talking about the past … I do not propose that their existence of differences about revolutionary strategy means that communists should not unite. It means, rather, that we will only be able to unite on the basis that we will continue to carry on open debate and with factional rights to enable people to organise to promote their ideas.
The core of comrade Northall’s objections to Nick Wrack’s and Will McMahon’s call for unity is a little earlier in his letter. He asks: “what standing or status do either of them have within the real labour movement? If little or none, then this by definition will not go very far.” And he goes on:
You have to meet the class at least halfway - without, of course, sacrificing, underplaying or hiding your principles. Where its most advanced elements have organised themselves within more significant parties and groups, you have to treat them, as well as those parties and groups, with respect and on the basis of equality.
This is a slightly coded version of the standard argument for broad-frontism: that is, that there can be no unity of the communists without unity with some ‘broader forces’ with ‘standing or status within the real labour movement’ - which means, decoded, ‘official lefts’ like Labour MPs or trade union general secretaries.
If we start with the explicit arguments, the first is that “You have to meet the class at least halfway.” This is true some of the time and to some extent. ‘Some of the time’, because, for a single type of example, it was right for the left to stand out as a minority against the pro-war enthusiasm that swept the European workers’ movement in 1914, and it is again right to stand out as a minority against the pro-war enthusiasm that has affected the workers’ movement in this country over Ukraine. ‘To some extent’, because it is certainly right to participate in mass movements, like the 2002-05 anti-war movement round Iraq, the Corbyn movement or the recent strike wave. But it is not right to do so uncritically. And hence it is not right to self-censor for the sake of unity.
Secondly, “respect” is a weasel word, which too frequently expresses a demand for deference.4 Acting on the basis of equality with others, including those with whom we disagree, is entirely correct. But that means making clear where we agree and where we disagree. To defer is not to act on the basis of equality, but to assert subordination (and to promote damaging groupthink). To make diplomatic agreements behind the back of the class is not to act on the basis of equality, but to treat the people outside the group that made the agreements as subordinate to that group.
Let us move on now to the form encoded by the arguments that there can be no unity of the communists without its being unity with some ‘broader forces’, having “standing … in the real labour movement”. In essence, the fate of the Corbyn movement in the Labour Party demonstrates in practice the falsity of this idea. The bulk of the far left inside and outside Labour clung to Corbyn, McDonnell and co, given their very clear “standing … in the real labour movement”. Corbyn, McDonnell and co clung to unity with the Labour right, in the hope of forming a government. The result was the victory of the right and the utter demoralisation of the left. The point had, of course, already been demonstrated in the defeats of the left in Syriza, before that in Rifondazione Comunista, and before that in the Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores. Only the form of the defeat was different; the underlying dynamic - the pursuit of governmental office without winning a majority for the minimum programme - was the same.
What lies behind this is the way in which the capitalist class is able to exercise day-to-day rule through universal suffrage as an “instrument of deception” (as Marx put it in the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier5). There are, of course, constitutional back-up mechanisms (like the monarchy, the House of Lords and so on). But in day-to-day governance what is involved is institutions of corruption.
In its political aspect, this has two sides. First, the duopoly of corrupt professional politicians. They seek public office, for career reasons or in the hope of ‘doing good’ in a small way; but they cannot obtain office against the opposition of the media. Second, the advertising-funded media, which by virtue of its funding by advertisers, works like a public address system brought to a meeting or court to drown out rival voices, and thus by its own corruption forces corruption on professional politicians.
These mechanisms work to silence or drown out voices which attempt to break the regime of corruption. A workers’ political party, which seeks to overthrow the constitution and bring in socialism, but which contests elections and which promotes the publication of workers’ media independent of the advertising industry, can partially overcome the silencing and drowning-out effects of this regime, and hence both “[transform] universal suffrage … from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation” (Programme of the Parti Ouvrier), and also provide political support against the capitalists’ use of their state and their judges against strikes and unions, or to expropriate or incorporate cooperatives, mutuals and so on.
Labour is a bourgeois workers’ party. In the present context, the significance of this expression is that, while its voting base is primarily the working class, the parliamentary party is one half of the duopoly of corrupt professional politicians, animated by careerism to seek public office. This is most obvious when Labour is in government.6 The interest of Labour MPs as professional politicians, and potential ministers, is an interest in upholding the capitalist regime of corruption; and this is most transparent in the Labour right.
But then the consequence of this is that the Labour left by its nature clings to the idea of a Labour government as the way forward, as opposed to a workers’ political voice or a workers’ opposition. And the aim of a Labour government requires seeking the agreement of the pure corrupt careerists of the Labour right, and seeking the support or at least neutrality of the advertising-funded media. The Labour left cannot, as communists can, openly describe the constitutional regime as one of institutionalised corruption and lies.
The effect of broad-frontist diplomatic approaches, then, is to silence or ‘turn down the volume’ of the communists for the sake of the alliance with the ‘official lefts’; the ‘official lefts’ then silence themselves or ‘turn down the volume’ for the sake of the alliance with the Labour rights, and trying to avoid open conflict with the advertising-funded media; the Labour rights and the advertising-funded media express the interests of their capitalist paymasters.
Broad-frontism is thus not merely a tactical error: it actively serves the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Comrade Parker’s arguments appear to a considerable extent to be animated merely by personal animus against comrade Jack Conrad, rather than serious politics. This is in particular apparent in the claims in his letter that “Removing Jack Conrad from the membership ‘hotline’ would most probably be a positive move” and similar points repeated in his blog post. Replying to these is a mere matter of political hygiene. What is being claimed - that Conrad routinely gives membership applicants the brush-off - is just false.
It is, I suppose remotely possible that someone hostile to CPGB has hijacked our email address (most but not all of the time) and is sending brush-off responses; but this fantasy would probably overstate the willingness of our political opponents to spend resources on us. The whole Provisional Central Committee sees our electronic correspondence. On the basis of that, comrade Conrad’s characterisation of it is clearly correct: there are not many people who contact us by this means, and most of those do not respond at all to a first reply pointing them to the Draft programme as identifying the shape of our politics and inviting them to an Online Communist Forum. Comrade Parker perhaps believes the contrary, but if he wants us to believe him he needs to prove it by producing what he calls “gnomic and unintentionally hilarious replies” and identifying the dates and recipients.
The more political issue is in his letter, the contrast between the supposedly good Communist Platform in Left Unity, and the supposedly bad Labour Party Marxists. Communist Platform in Left Unity differeneciated itself from Nick Wrack and his associates’ Socialist Platform over democratic functioning, in the shape of comrade Wrack and co’s refusal to allow votes on amendments to the platform - on totally spurious arguments that its launch meeting was unrepresentative and, as far as we could see, with a view to preserving an alliance with the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Communist Platform never organised much beyond the CPGB and its immediate periphery, though we did succeed in winning votes in Left Unity on several occasions (and getting four members elected to its leadership).
Labour Party Marxists was, as comrade Parker says, founded well before the Corbyn movement happened: after Labour lost office in 2010, we expected that there would be some sort of left shift in Labour and we wanted to prepare for such a development. The name was chosen to avoid immediate witch-hunting.
It does, however, have a disadvantage. This is that, while advocates of broad-frontism are not terribly likely to call themselves ‘communists’ (unless they are actual CPB supporters), they are quite likely to call themselves ‘Marxists’. We encountered this in the Campaign for a Marxist Party in 2006-08, in which a significant proportion (of the small overall number) of participants sought a broad-front formation. In the Labour Party, Labour Briefing was the relic of just such a ‘Marxist’ broad-frontism, derived out of the Mandelite advocates of broad-frontism in the later 1960s, and continuing with the diplomatic/broad-frontist approach both in its own publication choices (also on view in Red Line TV) and through a series of ‘broader’ initiatives, down to and including John McDonnell’s Labour Representation Committee.
LPM, as comrade Parker says, never organised more than the CPGB’s immediate periphery in the Labour Party. The relationship of forces was far too adverse for us to have much likelihood of winning votes, as we could in non-Labour left formations. LPM did, however, have significant public impact at Labour conferences in 2017-19 with Labour Party Marxist, the A3 publication, and the daily Red Pages.7 And, as a result of this, the issue was posed either of opening up LPM to be a broader formation - which we rejected - or of attempting to create a broader formation in which LPM would play a role. This was Labour Against the Witchhunt which was a relatively successful single-issue campaign, but alongside that there came the Labour Left Alliance. The LLA in substance adopted a broad-front approach (and in the process, regrettably, produced a definite vacillation in our ranks).
In this situation, the reality was that for us to ‘open up’ LPM, or to engage more ‘creatively’ and supportively in the LLA, would unavoidably not have been to permit LPM or the CPGB to recruit new forces to a partyist project, but, on the contrary, to submerge ourselves in among a variety of competing Labour left broad-frontist projects. Instead we chose to stand alone. We constituted our members on LLA’s leadership as an opposition fraction. If we hadn’t done that we would joined ourselves to the infernal dynamic in which the left clung to the Corbyn project, Corbyn and his associates clung to the Labour right, and the Labour right did the work of the capitalists and their state. Comrade Parker’s contrast thus has no purchase on reality.
Comrade Rylance’s argument in both her letters is essentially that because CPGB has very small forces and devotes most of them to the regular production of this paper, and is not currently growing rapidly, we should infer that our approach to the issue of partyism is wrong, and in particular should move away from ideological polemic:
A more active orientation towards the left in a real day-to-day way is part of what is needed (eg, attending events and discussing widely with others, engaging in joint activities like strike fundraising, etc). At the very least this would provide a richer knowledge from which to make developed analysis of the left. Further it would allow estimation of the particular pressure points to push at in particular contexts to advance the development of the left as a whole, and further still, it is precisely to be a living, breathing part of the left in this way which gives polemic traction and meaning …
… we are surely served best not by “banging away” with the same approach in the same form with no ready example of its meaningful success, but instead by an approach and process of questioning, humility, reflection, creativity and experimentation (October 12).
The same argument is presented in her October 26 letter on the basis that “a very open process, involving the free exchange of perspectives, analysis, information-sharing, criticism, etc, might be fundamental to map a way forward” and that “Defensive responses, such as those displayed in Jack’s article, encourage the opposite of free exchange - they encourage in practice the closing down of discussion, criticism, questioning, etc” (which is the sort of stuff that advocates of Left Unity’s ‘safe spaces’ policy offered us ten years ago, and which Mandelites have been arguing for since the 1960s at the latest).
What comrade Rylance is asking us for here is, in fact, the method of diplomacy under a different name. We are to turn our resources towards the common activities of the rest of the left, and in doing so - inevitably - away from the effort of publishing.
But that would, in fact, be to abandon partyism in favour of the common concept of the far left, which conceives the party not as a political voice for independent working class interests, both through party media and through electoral intervention, but as a coordinator of the day-to-day class struggles: in reality, though the lineage is rarely openly admitted, Mikhail Bakunin’s ‘invisible dictatorship’.8
For myself, I have never suggested that far-left groups of the ‘invisible dictatorship’ type cannot recruit and grow - even up to sizes a lot larger than the British far left, as in Lotta Continua in 1960s-70s Italy, the Chilean Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria in the same period, or the Iranian Fedayeen during the revolution of 1979-80. It therefore does not surprise me that - for example - the Socialist Workers Party has largely succeeded in ‘electing a new membership’ from the freshers’ fairs and putting the ‘Delta case’ behind it. Nor that the Young Communist League or Socialist Appeal can appeal to the épater la bourgeoisie mood to self-identify as ‘communist’ among a section of the youth.
What such groups cannot do is perform the political function of a workers’ disloyalist political party that enables the workers’ movement to grow as a ‘state within a state’ and the question of workers’ power to be posed - as it was, temporarily successfully, by the Bolsheviks and with less success by the other parties of the Second International towards the end of World War I.
Moreover, growth within this framework cannot produce the sort of ‘snowball effect’ that can be produced by unity of the existing organised left, as in the Gotha unification in Germany and other examples in the Second International, and as in the (ultimately failed) more recent examples of Rifondazione Comunista, Syriza and on a smaller scale the Scottish Socialist Party in 1998-2003.
The sort of unification we seek, as is obvious, does not require agreement to the CPGB’s Draft programme. We put this forward precisely as a draft. But it does require openness to permanent factions and public reporting of political differences and polemics within the unified organisation. It does so for the reason that I gave against comrade Northall: the differences that divide the left groups one from another are not all still live strategic issues, but quite a lot of them are. An agreement to avoid polemics on these issues would, therefore, inevitably shipwreck the unity project as soon as it came face to face with one of them. (In this context I am disappointed that Talking about Socialism, which appears built on the diplomatic method like the Socialist Platform 10 years ago, seems as yet to be unable to offer a political line about the Gaza prison break and the Israeli response of ‘collective punishment’ shading closely into genocide.)
So we defend the right to polemical exchanges not only for our own sake, on the basis that we offer a different conception of the nature and role of the workers’ political party, but also because without the right to open and sharp polemics, any unification of the left will at best be short-lived (more probably, will not happen at all).
I am, therefore, completely unconcerned with the question whether, as comrade Parker puts it, “the CPGB-PCC faction can be the only organisational sieve or funnel for a future Communist Party”. Other organisations would be in a much stronger position to take the sort of initiatives that would lead to a future communist party - if they would only break with their political conceptions of the ‘invisible dictatorship’ version of the party, and of broad-frontism.
We are not concerned with the amour propre of leading CPGB comrades, or with CPGB as an organisational form, except in so far as it is necessary to our political tasks. Comrades Parker’s and Rylance’s arguments show that they fail to grasp those political tasks.
I commented on one example in ‘Broad parties: theories of deception’ Weekly Worker June 20 2013: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/967/broad-parties-theories-of-deception.↩︎
M Macnair, ‘Historical blind alleys: Arian kingdoms, signorie, Stalinism’ Critique Vol 39, 2011.↩︎
Revolutionary strategy November 2008, pp11-12.↩︎
‘Left unity: Safe spaces are not liberating’ Weekly Worker May 29 2014: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1012/left-unity-safe-spaces-are-not-liberating; ‘“Speaking bitterness” and Left Unity’ June 19 2014: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1015/speaking-bitterness-and-left-unity.↩︎
M Macnair, ‘Sleaze is back’ Weekly Worker July 20 2006: www.weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/634/sleaze-is-back.↩︎
There is a friendly account by Iain McKay at theanarchistlibrary.org/library/anarcho-bakunin-and-the-invisible-legions-revisited. Nonetheless, it displays the commonality between Bakunin’s idea and the anti-parliamentarist far-left concept of the role of the party.↩︎