A communist appeal to Socialist Appeal
Going from Fabian clause four socialism to self-declared communism is welcome progress, says Mike Macnair. But what that poses is unity in a Communist Party
Socialist Appeal is at present running a recruitment campaign under the slogan, ‘Are you a communist? Then get organised’ - it seems with some success. And the slogan itself is a radical step forward.
But how far is ‘communist’ a real commitment for Socialist Appeal, as opposed to a mere marketing device to appeal to radical youth (Socialist Appeal has been through several such marketing devices since the Blair years)? And the critical question is: what does “get organised” mean?
If it means only ‘join Socialist Appeal’, this is just a new form of the delusion experienced by the Healyite Socialist Labour League with its November 1973 transformation into the Workers Revolutionary Party, by the Cliffite International Socialists with its January 1977 transformation into the Socialist Workers Party, and by Socialist Appeal’s former Grantite co-thinkers in the Militant majority (now Taaffeite after the break with Grant) with its 1997 transformation into the Socialist Party (now, of England and Wales).1 “Get organised” really needs an effort to organise all the communists, not just the ‘Grantites’.2
And that needs more openness to debate with other sections of the left - and internally - than is the common inheritance of all these four fragments of the 1944-49 Revolutionary Communist Party.3
We will begin with the strengths. First, ‘Are you a communist?’ is aimed at a section of the youth who are willing to self-identify as communists. This is an important positive development (though not, as yet, a mass one). Comrade Lawrence Parker rightly makes the point in his blog post about the campaign:
At root, the demand to call ourselves communist is a claim on unity in diversity. Once you make a positive demand that you are a communist, you are signalling a difference with the working class movement as a whole in a way that defining yourself as ‘socialist’ (which the Labour right also has a claim on), ‘trade unionist’ or ‘activist’ does not. Being a communist or in the Communist Party does not mean that you are instantly set aside from the class as a whole, but it does imply a separation, a difference, which is the only practical foundation for any lasting unity. If a so-called united movement frowns on communists, and the communists thus feel impelled to soften or hide their identity, then that unity is not worth having.4
A second point here is that ‘Nothing to do with us, guv’, as expressed in the old Cliffite slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism”, was never a plausible answer to the right wing’s claim to tar all forms of communism with the brush of the Soviet bureaucratic regime. The common delusion of the Trotskyist left - that the Soviet regime was the main thing holding back the combativity of the working class and hence ‘after Gorbachev, us’ - was exposed pretty rapidly: indeed, even more rapidly than the illusion that neoliberal ‘shock therapy’ in the former eastern bloc would produce rapid capitalist development resulting in major prosperity.
From the perspective of 30 years on, it is now clear that, in spite of all their vices, the fall of the eastern bloc regimes was a massive defeat for the working class across the globe. That this defeat may have been inevitable does not prevent it being a defeat. Hence, open self-identification as ‘communist’ is a worthwhile recognition that this was a defeat. And it is the necessary beginning of a willingness to fight back against this defeat, as opposed to merely ‘resisting’ the latest capitalist attack.
Thirdly, as comrade Parker says, the Labour right also has a claim on ‘socialism’. And this ‘socialism’ is nation-state-loyalist. It is so in its support for imperialist operations overseas: visible in Starmer’s line on Palestine, in the votes of the US left-Democrat Congress ‘squad’ for military appropriations, in the destruction of Rifondazione Comunista over Italian participation in the Afghanistan war. It is so in its commitments to Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg Keynesian schemes to ‘restore the national economy’ without confronting the international economic dynamics of capitalism.
It is so in the ‘socialist’ loyalists’ persistent promotion of the idea that the capitalists’ parties and the state core will play by the constitutional rules in face of persistent evidence that they will not: Berlusconi’s media manipulations in 1990s-2000s Italy; the 2000 ‘Brooks Bros riot’ in Florida and the persistent efforts at ballot-rigging since; in this country the big oil-promoted campaign of direct action against fuel price duties in 2000, the ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign begun in 2015 and ongoing, the recent rightwing press-promoted campaign of criminal damage against Ultra-Low Emissions Zone enforcement cameras, and so on. In this context, to identify as ‘communist’ is to assert plainly the uselessness of state-loyalist ‘socialism’.
Related to this, ‘communist’ asserts the need for a radically different social order: one based on human need and human development, not on the imperatives of ‘efficiency’. As Alan Woods puts it in his November 2 article on the campaign in In defence of Marxism,
Our aim is to create a paradise in this world: a new world, in which life will acquire an entirely new meaning. And for the first time, men and women will be able to raise themselves to their true stature.
That is the only cause worth fighting for.
That is why we are communists.5
The CPGB’s Draft programme puts it slightly differently, but with the same underlying idea:
Through society reabsorbing the functions of the state the need for it withers away. Democracy (as a form of the state) negates itself and gives way to general freedom. The higher stage of communism is a free association of producers. Everybody will contribute according to their ability and take according to their need. Real human history begins and society leaves behind the realm of necessity. In the realm of freedom people will become rounded, fully social individuals, who can for the first time truly develop their natural humanity.
This is what we want to achieve. To win that prize we shall overcome all obstacles.6
‘Get organised’, says Socialist Appeal’s slogan. The point is absolutely fundamental. The working class as a class needs organised collective action to defend its immediate interests against the employers, landlords and so on. Hence trade unions, cooperatives, mutuals and collectivist political parties.
Communists just as fundamentally need organisation. If we remain unorganised and rely on individual action, the capitalist class wins: because its control of concentrations of wealth allows it to employ paid agents: lawyers, lobbyists, advertising and PR agents, professional politicians, journos, and the institutional structure of the capitalist state order allows capital to dictate through these agents. Organised action can begin to counterweigh the capitalists’ ability to pay for favourable ‘public opinion’, for election results, for ministerial and for judicial decisions.
It is a strength of Socialist Appeal that it does seek to organise some of the basic structural forms of a party. That is, it has a dues-paying membership organised in branches or cells, a leadership, and a fortnightly newspaper and other publications. In this respect Socialist Appeal is a fundamental step forward relative to the very large number of sects of one member who call themselves ‘independent’ leftists, and to ideas of ‘networks’, pure discussion circles, and low-intensity leftism of one sort or another. This strength of Socialist Appeal is, of course, common to the organised far left as a whole: the SWP, the Morning Star’s CPB, SPEW and a variety of smaller groups, ourselves included.
The point of Communist Party organisation is to create a political voice for the independent interests of the working class and the struggle for communism: both by publishing, and by, as far as possible, electoral intervention. ‘Rank and file’ militancy in the trade unions, single-issue campaigning, and so on, can perfectly well be conducted by ad hoc coalitions of ‘independents’ or by ‘networks’ and suchlike. On the other hand, a communist paper or journal is unavoidably in competition with the capitalist class’s regular publications, backed by the capitalists with advertising revenue to help them drown out alternative voices. However small we start, regular publication and the maximum possible frequency of publication are essential. Election campaigns, where they are possible, take money and effort. Developing a political voice thus requires organised resources, membership activity, dues and fundraising.
I started by saying that Socialist Appeal’s slogan, ‘Are you a communist? Then get organised’, is a radical step forward. Step forward in relation to what, though? The answer is: in relation to the common practice of the far left of behaving like Chameleons and trying to take on ‘protective coloration’ from the surrounding movement, and thereby self-silencing or turning down the volume on their advocacy of communism.
Socialist Appeal and its predecessors are not the only practitioners of this method. The SWP and other groups do it so extensively that their independent political identity is hard to detect. But Socialist Appeal also has a long history of this practice. The old Grantite Militant Tendency represented itself as ‘Labour’s Marxist wing’ and elaborated a schema under which Labour would be won for the left, and could then win a general election and bring in socialism through an ‘Enabling Act’ authorising the government to legislate by decree. This was a ‘leftish’ version of the old ‘official’ Communist Party’s British road to socialism and within the framework of the common ideas of the Labour broad left of the 1960s-80s.7
In this context, once the Grantites had been left alone in the Labour Party Young Socialists by the withdrawal of other Trotskyist tendencies (Cliffites, Mandelites) in 1967-69 in favour of open work, they were able to recruit and train youth without competition from other leftists in the LPYS milieu, and were protected from immediate witch-hunting by the Labour broad left (which was animated by the old ‘official’ CPGB). The Militant thus grew to a considerable size by the 1980s. Then, with the capture of the CPGB by the Eurocommunists, the broad left broke up and serious witch-hunting started.
The 1991 split, in which the founders of Socialist Appeal were expelled from Militant, was initially a matter of the continuity of this Grantite project, while the Taaffe wing, claiming that Labour had become just another capitalist party like the US Democrats, went for open party-building and public electoral work. However, it took a long time for the underlying dynamics of the contradiction in Labour between, on the one hand, its bourgeois character as capital’s ‘second eleven’ and, on the other, its name, its working class electorate and its trade union connection, to reassert itself. The contradiction surfaced in a subterranean way in manoeuvres between ‘Blairites’ and ‘Brownites’ after the 2005 general election, then in 2010 in the election of Ed Miliband as party leader, and first burst into full view with the Corbyn movement in 2015 - 24 years after 1991.
The Grantites were thus right and the Taaffeites were wrong on the analysis of the Labour Party. But there was from the early 1990s, and remains, no space in Labour for the practical pursuit of the old Grantite policy that built the Militant Tendency: this in fact depended on the general contradictions of Labour, not immediately, but as mediated by the old Labour and trade union broad left, animated by the old CPGB.
Hence Socialist Appeal had to, and has, shifted to other fields of practical work - and has taken on new protective colorations to fit these milieus. The first ‘turn’ was around Venezuelan solidarity work, based on Alan Woods’ connections to the Spanish-speaking left, through his prior work in this field. In this context the Socialist Appeal tendency took on protective coloration as ‘Bolivarians’; Woods met with Hugo Chávez in 2004; and so on. Since Chávez’s death in 2013 this identification has somewhat faded, but remains as a solidarity theme.
Next, but ephemeral and probably limited to Scotland, was an abrupt decision after the 2014 independence referendum to leave Scots Labour for the Scottish Socialist Party (which Socialist Appeal had previously identified as marginalised by its crisis over Tommy Sheridan).8
Soon after this, the outbreak of the Corbyn movement drew the comrades back to Labour. How to approach it? In 2018 Socialist Appeal launched an organised and serious campaign for the restoration of the old Lassallean/Fabian ‘clause 4’ of the Labour Party rules.9 This was a discontinuity with the old Grantite approach in the 1960s-80s, which focussed on the Grantites’ own programme, since it was plainly a broad-frontist project that aimed to draw Labour lefts into a campaign on their own Fabian political terms. It is thus radically different from Socialist Appeal’s present promotion of communism and comrade Woods’ broadly correct assertion in his article, quoted above, of the long-term aims of communism.10
Comrade Woods’ argument also sits uneasily with Socialist Appeal’s ‘What we are fighting for’, which appears as ‘programme’ on the menu of their web page. After a series of standard ‘transitional demands’ we arrive at:
We therefore stand for the nationalisation of the 100 biggest monopolies, banks and insurance companies - under workers’ control and management - without compensation. They have stolen enough from us already. On this basis, the economy can be democratically planned in the interests of the majority, and not for the super-profits of a few billionaires.
As internationalists, we fight for a Socialist Federation of Britain linked to a Socialist United States of Europe and a World Socialist Federation, in order to plan resources internationally for the benefit of all. This would allow humanity to begin solving the urgent issues of climate change, disease and poverty that face society and our planet.
Compare and contrast the final paragraph of the Weekly Worker’s ‘What we fight for’ column (behind which stands CPGB’s more elaborated Draft programme):
Socialism represents victory in the battle for democracy. It is the rule of the working class. Socialism is either democratic or, as with Stalin’s Soviet Union, it turns into its opposite.
Socialism is the first stage of the worldwide transition to communism - a system which knows neither wars, exploitation, money, classes, states nor nations. Communism is general freedom and the real beginning of human history.
It should be obvious that Socialist Appeal’s ‘What we are fighting for’ is a lot less ambitious than either the CPGB’s version or comrade Woods’ article.
The question is thus posed: is Socialist Appeal’s communist turn a real move towards open communist political work? (In this case Socialist Appeal needs to deepen the turn and rewrite its programme consistently with this.) Or is it merely a new form of protective coloration, to deliver more new recruits after the successive turns to ‘Chavismo’, Scottish nationalism, and campaigning for the Fabian clause 4? Socialist Appeal comrades, and those attracted by the ‘Are you a communist?’ campaign, or attending the organisation’s November 10-12 school, need to address this question.
‘Get organised’, says the slogan: ‘join us’: that is, join Socialist Appeal. And Socialist Appeal’s ‘What we are fighting for’ concludes with: “It is therefore time to energetically build the forces of Marxism, embodied today in the International Marxist Tendency, which alone offers a revolutionary way out of this crisis.”
Let us begin by stating that Socialist Appeal is growing and recruiting youth. This is obvious. But it is necessary to say also that this is also true of both the SWP, which is the largest of the far-left organisations, and of the Morning Star-CPB, which is in the same size range as SPEW and Socialist Appeal. There are also, as I have already said, a range of smaller groups, the CPGB included.
Comrade Woods’ article claims that the explanation of the success of Socialist Appeal’s ‘Are you a communist? Get organised’ campaign is that:
The reformists and the Stalinists are in crisis. And they are united in their hopeless confusion by the myriad of sects that swarm around the periphery of the labour movement.
It is precisely their ideological bankruptcy that has landed the whole of the self-styled ‘realists’ of the left in a mess. Their contempt for theory renders them totally incapable of understanding the real processes at work in society and of reacting to them effectively.
Consequently, they have drawn the most pessimistic conclusions from the present situation.
In all this lamentable spectacle of defeatism, scepticism and demoralisation, the International Marxist Tendency stands out as an organisation that bases itself firmly on Marxism and Leninism, and that pays serious attention to theory. Our strength lies in the power of our ideas. Lenin stressed that without revolutionary theory the building of a revolutionary organisation is impossible. This idea is one thousand percent correct.
Comrade Woods offers no evidence whatever for these claims. And, in reality, when Socialist Appeal comrades attend Palestine demonstrations, or trade union meetings, or whatever - except the circles of the former Corbynite left - they will find the rest of the organised and unorganised left there as enthusiastic and upbeat participants, too.
Comrade Woods thinks of the present global situation as analogous to February 1917, when large masses had supported the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, but, as the situation matured, the Bolsheviks were able to win the majority:
The revolutionary process does not emerge all at once, fully armed, like Athene from the head of Zeus. It unfolds in stages, following a process of successive approximations.
As Trotsky points out in The history of the Russian Revolution, this process manifests itself as the rise and fall of different parties and leaders, in which, he says, the more radical always replaces the less.
The first wave of radicalisation that followed the collapse of 2008 brought to the front what you might call the left reformists, or at least some leaders that expressed themselves in very radical language.
In Greece, there was the sudden rise of Syriza and Alexis Tsipras. In Spain, there was a similar development with Podemos and Pablo Iglesias. In the United States there was the mass movement around Bernie Sanders.
But in February 1917, the tsarist regime was facing military defeat; the soldiers already ceased to obey their officers; and it was five years since the Bolsheviks had in 1912 won the majority of the workers’ curia in the Duma elections, so that the Bolsheviks were not a grouplet like any of the Brit far-left groups, but already a faction that could win big in a general election, though temporarily knocked back by wartime repression. In addition, the eventual Bolshevik victory in October was a political victory, which (temporarily) won over the majority of the SR party - not one of pure membership and vote growth of Bolshevism.
I have personally heard very similar claims to those of comrade Woods about the impressionism, lack of grasp of the dialectic, and consequent pessimism, of the rest of the left and its failure to grasp the imminence of the revolution - from Gerry Healy of the WRP at a public meeting in 1975, and from Nahuel Moreno of the Argentinian Socialist Workers Party at an international faction meeting in 1979. In both cases they were signs of delusive thinking. It is startling to hear those claims from Grantites like comrade Woods, since it can be seen from the histories that the same arguments from the dialectic to the immediately arriving revolutionary crisis were used by James P Cannon, Michel Pablo, Gerry Healy and co against the RCP majority - including Ted Grant - in 1946-49, when Grant and co were clearly half right (they only expected a short boom, not a prolonged period of growth), but Cannon, Pablo and co were wholly wrong.
These arguments in fact involve a misunderstanding of the dialectical ‘transition from quantity to quality’. The water warms before it boils, and cools before it freezes. The qualitative leap - whose exact timing is indeed unpredictable - does generally not take place after unobservable prior gradual developments, but after observable ones.
This pseudo-dialectical delusion of ‘revolution tomorrow’ and ‘breakthrough for our individual group’ licenses downplaying the preparatory tasks of organisation and education. And in the present context it gives a philosophical gloss to the illusion that the relative success of your individual group’s tactic means that your individual group is about to break through to the big time and marginalise the rest of the groups. It ain’t true; and the illustrations I have given from the British left could be paralleled repeatedly from the histories of the French, Italian, Argentinian and no doubt other countries’ far lefts.
‘Organise’ then does not pose to us the task of Socialist Appeal leaping over the rest of the left to become a mass party (or of any of the other groups doing so). ‘Are you a communist? Then get organised’, if properly read, does not call on us to join one of the competing groups defined by particular theories (like Cliff’s state capitalism) or tactics (like Grant on Labour Party entry or Taaffe on the rejection of entry) or the cult of the personality of particular theorists.
It calls on us to seek out ways to construct an effective party out of the groups and breaking with their separation - as the German SPD was constructed out of Eisenachers and Lassalleans, and several other parties of the Second International in the same way, as the Polish Communist Party was constructed out of Polish Socialist Party-Left and Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, and as the old CPGB was constructed out of the British Socialist Party and the pro-unity wings of the De Leonist Socialist Labour Party and other groups.
If we do not take this road, and revolutionary crisis actually arrives (as Woods imagines it is arriving), we will be as ineffective as the divided far left was in Chile in 1970‑73, in Argentina a few years later, in Iran in 1979-81, and so on, and so on - recently in Greece, where the inability of the divided far left to act coherently meant that the Syriza government resulted in defeat and demoralisation.
To take the road of unity requires us to take the road of open discussion. We can see this in Socialist Appeal’s own history. Lawrence Parker has made the point well: the opposition in Militant round Grant, Woods and Sewell fought, as it had to, for factional rights against the bureaucratic control of Taaffe and co. Quite inevitably, that fight spilled into the public domain. When Socialist Appeal itself has endeavoured to contain discussion in private, the result has been complaints of the same bureaucratic practices - and splits.11
Back to the point of Communist Party organisation, as I said above: it is to create a political voice for the independent interests of the working class and the struggle for communism: both by publishing, and by, as far as possible, electoral intervention. It is not to be Bakunin’s ‘invisible dictatorship’, the coordinators of the day-to-day trade union struggle, etc; nor to be the left’s Großer Generalstab, the ‘general staff of world revolution’.
But creating a political voice also requires open debate, just as much as practical unity does. Because, if we tone down differences for the sake of unity, as opposed to agreeing to unite on what unites us, while debating out what divides us, the result is that the communists tone down their ideas to cling to the left social democrats - as Socialist Appeal did with the ‘clause 4’ campaign’. Then the left social democrats tone down to cling to the right social democrats - as the Corbynites did with the Labour right; and the right social democrats do the bidding of their capitalist state masters. The result is that the working class as a class does not get the option of choosing communism.
The CPGB invited Socialist Appeal to send a speaker to debate the question of communist unity at our Communist Unity school in August. We got a blank refusal from them. Maybe ‘we’re not important enough’ - but just providing a speaker for an open debate is not much of a resource commitment. And it is just as much a problem that the comrades seem to have embarked on the path of Cliff, Healy and so on of delusions of grandeur, so that it is not only us who are to be ignored.
But our invitation remains open. The path of unity and of debate is the actual path of communists getting organised.
The 1981 renaming of the Revolutionary Communist Tendency led by Frank Furedi as the ‘Revolutionary Communist Party’ seems too quick (from foundation in the split in the Revolutionary Communist Group in 1978) to have been produced by delusions of grandeur following rapid growth, as these others were. We in the CPGB hold onto the party name, though we recognise that we are not the party, but merely a group campaigning for it to be reforged; that “There exists no real Communist Party today” (‘What we fight for’ column in the Weekly Worker). We do so in order to deny the right of the Eurocommunists to liquidate the party (in 1991) and to deny the right of the Morning Star group to claim it for their faction. The Maoist-derived CPGB(ML), CPB(ML) and RCPB(ML) merely follow a tradition of naming, going back to the original creation of western Maoist parties in the 1960s.↩︎
‘Healyite’ from Gerry Healy (1913-89); ‘Cliffite’ from Tony Cliff (1917-2000); ‘Grantite’ from Ted Grant (1913-2006).↩︎
The 1944-49 RCP itself was a party name based on the illusion of success after rapid growth of the Workers International League from double to treble figures and the absorption by fusion of the remnants of the rival Revolutionary Socialist League.↩︎
See Jack Conrad’s Which road London 1991 (available at communistparty.co.uk/resources/library/jack-conrad) - chapter 4 for discussion and critique.↩︎
D Harvey, ‘Doing a Scottish jig’ Weekly Worker November 27 2014: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1036/doing-a-scottish-jig; socialist.net/britain-ssp-crisis251104.↩︎
Eg, socialist.net/labour-and-clause-4-100-years-on; socialist.net/by-hand-or-by-brain-the-case-for-clause-iv.↩︎
For a critique of the Clause 4 campaign see labourpartymarxists.org.uk/category/labour-structures-and-programme/clause-4.↩︎