Upfront, sharp and personal
Communist unity cannot come about through broad-frontism, safe spaces or tailing the existing left. Mike Macnair responds to three recent contributions
On November 2 I wrote an article, ‘Unity based on solid principle’, in response to recent letters from Andrew Northall, Lawrence Parker and Caitriona Rylance. All three have since replied to my article: Lawrence Parker in his blog on November 11, titled ‘Mike Macnair is talking bollocks about communist unity’; Andrew Northall in our letters column on November 16; and Caitriona Rylance on November 23 (also a letter). Here I offer a reply to all three - who have distinctly different things to say - in chronological order of their interventions.
Comrade Parker asserts - quite rightly - that he is not a broad-frontist. On this basis he accuses me of making “a crude amalgam” between him and comrades Northall and Rylance (the expression is Trotsky’s characterisation of the Moscow Trials, his point being that the prosecutors stuck together to construct a fantasy conspiracy). I do not accept this argument. In his original October 12 letter comrade Parker wrote:
I was quite surprised with the Labour Party Marxists (LPM) enterprise (which had, of course, been founded long before the Corbyn movement) that the CPGB-PCC, to all intents and purposes, ran as a front. It seemed to function either as a mere subcommittee of the faction or an alternative badge for CPGB-PCC members who were working in the Labour Party. There was an attempt by some members to involve other Marxists in LPM in 2016, but this idea was quickly sat on by others. LPM ended up as an unattractive and sterile front …
My article replied to this claim with the point that the CPGB’s view - discussed at a members’ aggregate and not just on the PCC - was that the nature of the intervention in the Labour Party made it inappropriate to “involve other Marxists” in LPM. That is because Labour is a deeply hostile environment for communists - its left is far more dominated by broad-frontism than is the (quite broad-frontist) left outside Labour. To do so would inevitably have produced just another far-left fake broad-front project (like the Labour Left Alliance, which comrade Parker rightly decries as “blessedly short-lived” in his November 11 posting). It is not an ‘amalgam’ to make this point about the common logic of ‘opening up’ LPM (given the character of even the best elements of the Labour far left) with broad-frontism.
In that posting comrade Parker reduces the point from this larger claim to “why I was told that I could only get involved if I joined the CPGB-PCC - which I found sectarian and uncomradely”. The context of this decision is that because of the character of operating within the Labour Party, we chose not to ‘open up’ LPM. We can (and I do) admit that this policy did not save us from the influence of broad-frontism (witness the Labour Left Alliance). But that is what it was about, and it is therefore not an ‘amalgam’ to link comrade Parker’s criticisms of LPM to the issue of broad-frontism: in Moscow Trials terms, this is not a ‘bloc of the lefts and the rights’.
In relation to the question of CPGB recruitment, comrade Parker said in his October 12 article that “Removing Jack Conrad from the membership ‘hotline’ would most probably be a positive move.” And in his October 17 blog post: “I’ve seen some of Conrad’s gnomic and unintentionally hilarious replies to actual membership enquiries, which have a distinct undertone of Basil Fawlty telling guests he can’t help them because he’s too busy running a hotel.” I responded to this in my article by saying that the PCC sees all the email membership enquiries, which makes comrade Parker’s claims seem implausible, and that “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”.
Comrade Parker responded to this by saying:
Comrade Macnair obviously doesn’t keep up with the various Discord channels his members use. If he did, he would know that some recent recruits to the CPGB-PCC voiced certain dissatisfaction with the way their recruitment was handled.
To be blunt, I take the political or factual content of what people say on Discord channels no more seriously than I take the political or factual content of what people say in pubs when they’ve had a few. I have no problem with comrade Parker’s “deliberately rude article”. But if CPGB comrades are being told that we are lying to the membership (and/or to ourselves) about what happens to email membership enquiries, we need harder evidence than hearsay from unidentifiable sources on Discord channels.
It is not his rudeness that is objectionable, but the untruth of comrade Parker’s factual claim. If we are doing something wrong, we may be able to correct it. If we are accused of doing something wrong that we are not doing, that leads nowhere.
Comrade Parker writes that “comrade Macnair’s faction doesn’t own principles such as the democratic republic/the workers’ militia/the main enemy is at home and so on”. I agree entirely; though the other organised factions of the far left in their large majority want to downplay the democratic republic or oppose it in the name of the ‘workers’ council state’, and are extremely coy about the militia question.
Principles and the need to organise will live on because they are powerful and true. Who gives a fuck if existing far-left sects and factions with their silly tin-pot leaders and internal idiocies get a bashing in the meantime? Not me.
Not me either. But “existing far-left sects and factions” have a fundamental strength over sects and factions of one member who accept no discipline (like comrade Parker): that is, precisely, acceptance in effective practice of the need to organise.
Comrade Northall’s letter illustrates my point, rather than countering it. Because he clings to the ban on factions (“I do disagree that ‘permanent’ (or any) factions are in any way compatible with genuine democratic centralism,” he writes), the only form of communist unity he can imagine is the creation of a Labour Party mark two, on the political basis of the “commitment to replace capitalism with socialism and mass democratic action to bring that about” rather than anything more; and on the organisational basis that the groups “could affiliate, retaining their distinct identities, traditions and contributions, alongside ideally at least some trade unions, trades councils, anti-cuts/anti-austerity campaigns and groups, progressive community groups and movements, etc” - that is, the structural form of the Labour Party.
The effect would quite inevitably merely be yet another of the left’s repeated attempts to recreate the Labour Party in a slightly more leftwing form, whether within Labour itself (John McDonnell and others’ Labour Representation Committee) or outside it (Socialist Labour Party; Socialist Alliance; Respect …).
The Bolsheviks who led the Russian October were the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party ‘majorityites’: that is, a permanent faction (since 1903) of the RSDLP. Had the RSDLP banned factions, the temporary capture of a majority by the Mensheviks in 1904 and 1906 would have barred the Bolsheviks from organising. Had the split from the Mensheviks into fully independent parties been fully completed by autumn 1917, the common action of the Siberian RSDLP to secure grain supplies for Petrograd and Moscow at that time could not have happened and the cities would have been quickly starved into surrender.1 The Bolsheviks, now a party, continued to have open factions throughout the 1917-21 civil war - the ban introduced in 1921 being addressed to the needs of the New Economic Policy. Whatever one thinks of Trotsky’s ideas in general, he was certainly correct to argue, in The Third International after Lenin, that banning factions is inevitably not banning all factions, but banning all factions except one - the faction of the party’s full-time staff.2
Trotsky in fact fails to draw the correct conclusion from his analysis: that the 1921 ban on factions was already juridically the political expropriation of the proletariat; though this was not carried fully into practice until the double police coup against successively the lefts in December 1927 and the ‘rights’ in April 1929. The proletariat as a class is compelled to organise in order to defend its interests; it is this fact that makes proletarian organisation potentially the core of a road to the communism which is posed as the necessary future by capitalist decline. But then the consequence is that the proletariat cannot control its own organisations without the right to organise within them; without this right, the organisations become the private property of the staffers, and there is a gradual tendency for their base to be hollowed out.
As far as the modern left is concerned, the ban on factions operates to raise the stakes in every political difference. This results in splintering almost as soon as a difference appears, as with the Trotskyists, Maoists and anarchists: but also, as I said, reflected in the inability of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain to draw towards unity groups like the New Communist Party and Socialist Action, which have very similar politics to the CPB’s (let alone communists more generally). It also results in clinging desperately to dogmas disproved by experience, like insisting on endlessly rebuilding papier-maché road-bridges (eg, broad-front parties that repeatedly fail) in the hope of avoiding splintering: this one definitely including ‘official communists’ like comrade Northall.
His original October 26 letter called for treating the left groups - or at least the “significant” ones - “with respect and on the basis of equality”. In my November 2 response I said:
… “respect” is a weasel word, which too frequently expresses a demand for deference. 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.
I cross-referred in a footnote to Left Unity’s attempt to enforce ‘respectful’ debate through a ‘safe spaces’ disciplinary code in 2013‑15, and my own arguments against this policy (there was a lot more by other authors in this paper at the time).
Comrade Northall’s November 16 letter wanders around this question, but does not offer a clear answer on what “respect” requires - other than his proposal for unity through a new broad-front federal party. Such a party would, of course, be highly ‘respectful’ of the rights of full-time officials to freedom from interference in their baronies. But the issue of ‘respectful’ debate - or at least opposition to excessive sharpness of polemic - is also posed by comrade Rylance’s November 23 letter.
Comrade Rylance complains that the CPGB is affected by a “defensive political culture” and “a culture of defensive, brittle and personal responses”. What is meant by either of these formulas is very unclear. She gives as an example the fact that she claims I misinterpreted her earlier (October 12) letter. In fact, however, this claim does not respond at all to the question of the right interpretation of the fairly extensive passage I quoted from it, which I will do once again now:
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.
Nor does it respond to the context I placed the issue in: that is, that the CPGB has limited resources and chooses to devote most of them to publishing a weekly newspaper. Hence, arguing that our resources should be directed more towards “engaging in joint activities like strike fundraising, etc”, so as “to be a living, breathing part of the left in this way”, would precisely imply that we reduce the resource given to publishing. I argued at length that, however much its proponents might want open discussion, that choice would imply acceptance of the Bakuninist project of the far left in general, and hence work in practice against open discussion.
Rather than explain why my argument on this point was wrong, comrade Rylance avoids attempting to answer it by complaining that it is “defensive” or part of “a culture of defensive, brittle and personal responses”. “Defensive” appears only to mean that I do not accept comrade Rylance’s arguments.
“Brittle” I take to be meaningless in this context. An argument is ‘brittle’ (according to those who use this criterion in methodological arguments) if the whole argument will fall to the ground if one component of the logical chain is defeated.3 But comrade Rylance does not offer any argument that any of the components of my argument fail. She claims, rather, that the CPGB’s failure to grow is evidence against our arguments as a whole. That is not a critique of the internal logic of my argument (‘brittleness’), but extrinsic evidence that, even if my argument is right, it proposes an impossible course of action; and it offers evidence that in fact relies on the relative success of the larger existing far-left groups.
But, as I said in my November 2 article, I do not in the least deny the relative success of the larger far-left groups; indeed, I expect it. The evidence of the whole period since 1945 is that many such groups have temporarily outgrown their rivals, but none has succeeded in radically outgrowing the rest by this sort of recruitment. My point is that the way in which this relative success is achieved leads both to failure to perform the political tasks of a party and to the practical impossibility of unity beyond the endless repetition of forms of broad-frontism that each time fail.
Why “personal”? I take it that what drives this is partly that I polemicise directly with the individuals who have written to our letters column about this issue, including comrade Rylance. It may partly be that the polemic is sharp or violent. It may also be that I criticise the Socialist Platform in Left Unity, LU’s safe spaces policy, or that Jack Conrad criticises both as well as Chris Strafford, since he was a party to the witch-hunting of CPGBer Laurie McCauley in Manchester Left Unity (for publishing a report of branch discussions in the Weekly Worker).4 It would be helpful to have a clear idea of what the objection actually is.
That said, in the first place these ‘personal’ criticisms relating to the conduct of the Socialist Platform or in relation to Left Unity’s ‘safe spaces policy’ and the witch-hunting of comrade McCauley (and, it must be said, various others) under it, are not at all personal issues. They are live political differences. Is the adoption of unamendable statements of aims constructed by diplomatic agreement democratic practice, or not? Is the creation of intra-party speech controls in the name of ‘safe spaces’, and the construction of an apparatus of ‘confidential’ disciplinary proceedings, democratic practice, or not?
In our view both these methods, though by different means, deprive the membership of the right to information and the right to choose between competing ideas, and are therefore anti-democratic. We do not want comrades to personally abase themselves over these issues, but we do want clarity on democratic procedural principles for the future.
Secondly, the fundamental problem with non-personal or ‘impersonal’ polemic is that it utterly obscures what it is about. Comrades may imagine that they are targeted when they are not; who and what are targeted become the subjects of ‘Kremlinological’ speculation. Thus, again, non-personal polemic deprives the membership, the readers of any paper, the voters, and so on, of information that they need in order to make decisions between competing points of view. It is thus an inherently anti-democratic procedure.
Thirdly, sharp ‘personal’ criticisms are the tradition of our movement before a rather recent date. Consider Karl Marx’s 1847 Poverty of philosophy - a critique of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 1846 System of economic contradictions, or philosophy of poverty that was sharp enough to break Marx’s personal relations with Proudhon. Consider Friedrich Engels’ 1878 Anti-Dühring (partly co-authored by Marx). Consider any number of personal polemics in Lenin’s Collected works. This method continued down to the 1980s - outside the milieu of the gnomic internal exchanges of ‘official communist’ parties.
Such polemics are also the common coin of discussions among scientists, classicists, historians and so on, as well as of political exchanges outside the narrow circle of the far left. They are necessary in order to draw lines between what is really presently debatable, on the one hand, and what are attempts to resurrect flat-earthism or phlogiston theory, on the other.
Comrade Rylance argues that “a defensive political culture results, in practice, in the closing down of discussion, criticism, questioning, etc - and so a weakening of political clarity”, and that
… opportunistic self-censure5 (in which open expression of difference is discouraged on the basis that it appears disloyal, weak and disunited) is a very different thing to giving consideration as to how differences and criticism can be expressed in a way that encourages others to engage in this exchange rather than disengage.
This would be a plausible argument if it were not the case that the left, when ‘personalistic’ polemics were normal, displayed more debate and more ability of the youth and of newer members to engage in that debate than is true of the present left.
The reality is that the demand for ‘civility’ in the form of rejection of sharp personal polemics is, along with ‘safe spaces’ in general, part of the political culture derived from western ‘soft’ Maoism after its ‘long march through the academy’.6 And like that culture in general, it does not promote debate, but has dumbing down effects.
The demand for civility in polemic also promotes the protection of the right wing of the movement from sharp criticism. Thus German pro-war ex-leftist Heinrich Cunow in 1915, on opponents of the SPD’s support for the war:
The opposition to our Reichstag fraction’s vote on August 4 and December 2 last year is assuming ever more obnoxious forms. Those who do not agree with the vote on war credits undoubtedly have the right to criticise it, in an objective, party-comradely fashion, of course - although even on this condition one could be of the view that for certain reasons it would be better to postpone criticism until after the war. Yet when the German social democratic working class and its leaders are accused by opponents in Germany and abroad of cowardice, betrayal, a lack of principles, abdication, collapse and so on then surely there can hardly be any talk of objective criticism.7
Arguments need to be personal in order to be precise. They also need to be as sharp as is needed to make the real nature of the differences clear. The demand for civility and respect in arguments is as much tied to opportunism today as it was in Heinrich Cunow’s hands in 1915, even if comrades do not intend that consequence.
RE Snow The Bolsheviks in Siberia 1917-1918 Cranbury NJ 1977.↩︎
Pathfinder 1970, pp147-54.↩︎
Eg, the discussion in M Candea Comparison in anthropology: the impossible method Cambridge 2018, pp156-60. I have to say that I am somewhat sceptical of ‘brittleness’ as an objection to arguments in general. The reason is that to make an argument less ‘brittle’ in this sense is to make it less testable as a scientific argument.↩︎
‘Getting in touch’ Weekly Worker October 19: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1463/getting-in-touch.↩︎
Meaning ‘self-censorship’ presumably - ‘self-censure’ would mean self-condemnation.↩︎
See M Macnair, ‘Intersectionalism, the highest stage of western Stalinism?’ Critique vol 48, pp541-58 (2018).↩︎
Partei-Zusammenbruch? Ein offenes Wort zum inneren Parteistreit Berlin 1915 (The collapse of the party? an open word on the controversy in the party), p3 (Ben Lewis’s translation).↩︎