Taciturns offer nothing positive
Naming your organisation Talking About Socialism and then not wanting to talk is as perverse as it is revealing. Mike Macnair responds to the arguments of Nick Wrack and Will McMahon
This reply to Nick Wrack and Will McMahon (‘Nothing positive to be gained’, Weekly Worker January 7) is not from the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee, but an individual response on my part.1
We formally invited their organisation ‘Talking About Socialism … from a Marxist point of view’ (TAS for convenience) to debate the question of communist unity face-to-face with us. The comrades’ response to this invitation is in the conclusion to their article:
We are small, new, and our priority at this stage is to develop our network, publications and Zoom discussions. In the New Year we hope to organise face-to-face meetings in selected towns and cities. At this stage we see nothing positive to be gained by discussing with the CPGB-PCC, which already has a pre-determined and hostile assessment of who we are and our value to the cause of socialism/communism. We therefore decline the invitation.
The comrades should expect in principle that it is not just the CPGB that will have a “pre-determined and hostile assessment of who we are and our value to the cause of socialism/communism”. We are, in fact, likely to be more willing to imagine that TAS could have positive value, and to engage in discussions with TAS, than other organised left groups.
The reason for this is that what TAS describe themselves as doing in this paragraph is just setting up another competing left group to add to the substantial number of left groups already in existence and to compete with them in recruiting unorganised militants. And none of the other groups are likely to be persuaded (without a lot more argument) to line up behind TAS’s outline ‘Who we are and the ideas that guide us’ in preference to their own political projects.
The difference is merely that the Weekly Worker has published Jack Conrad’s, and my, critical initial responses to TAS’s arguments: other groups will hold equally critical, if not more critical, views of TAS in private, and not publish them. We publish them because we want to see debates among the organised left, because in our view we cannot practically unite without openly addressing our differences.
This point is, in fact, symptomatic of the whole character of the differences. TAS comrades seek to create “a mass socialist/communist party”. They take it that these two names mean the same thing, as defined at a little more length in their ‘Who we are’:
6. Capitalism must be replaced by a different system in which the private ownership of the means of production - the land, its waters and minerals, factories, machines, transport, science, and technology - has been abolished, along with the exploitation of the working class for profit. In this new society the world’s resources will be owned in common by all, with production planned democratically for the benefit of all. It will be a society without any classes because everyone will be a worker like everyone else. It will be a society in which the government of people is replaced by the administration of things and of the way production is organised. This system is called ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’. Both words have been distorted and misrepresented by misuse in theory and practice. In our material we generally use the two terms interchangeably to mean the same thing.2
The aim here is common ground of the whole of the non-Labour left and the part of the Labour left that thinks of itself as socialist, Marxist, or communist.3 Now, of course, the ‘Who we are’ goes on to express differences with parts of the left:
15. We reject the idea that the various labour and social democratic parties, which aim simply to manage capitalism and which in office carry out attacks on the working class, represent any form of genuine socialism/communism.
9. We reject the possibility of building socialism/communism in one country. We reject the idea that the undemocratic Stalinist regimes of the former Soviet Union and similar other countries were socialist/communist.
(I have inverted the order because historically, the betrayals of social-democracy/Labourism came before those of Stalinism).
Point 17 perhaps expresses reasons not to join the Socialist Workers’ Party, given its recent commitments to ‘anti-electoralism’:
17. A socialist/communist party would seek to win both parliamentary and local council seats. All elected representatives would be tribunes of the working class and the oppressed, using their positions to advance the cause of socialism/communism. They will be accountable to the party membership. The party must be completely democratic.
But the expression of the point is unclear.
Why create a new group on a basis like this, rather than simply join up with one of the stronger organisations of the far left, like the Socialist Party of England and Wales, Socialist Appeal/Revolutionary Communist Party, etc?
And, coming back to the issue of the betrayals of the social-democracy/Labourism, point 8 on internationalism contains the statement that “Socialists/communists oppose all capitalist wars.” This is a diplomatic statement, which could be signed up to by people who are “socialists” but emphatically not “communists”,4 because they are anti-anti-imperialists, like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
The point of my original September 28 article ‘It’s good to talk’, which comrades McMahon and Wrack characterise as “aggrieved, peeved, indignant and disingenuous” was that comrades who set up new organisations, publications and websites are under some degree of obligation to account for, first, where they are coming from, and, second, why a new formation is needed, rather than adherence to one of the existing organisations. I was as much concerned in that article with the various splinters from the British SWP and US International Socialist Organisation and the general culture of the left of creating ‘new’ formations without accounting for their history, or explaining why a new formation is needed, as with the specific cases of Prometheus and TAS.
And, in fact, comrades McMahon and Wrack in their reply do address the history. “Aggrieved, peeved, indignant” is just empty verbiage, having no purchase on what I wrote, either in ‘It’s good to talk’ or in the later ‘Unity based on solid principle’ (November 2) or ‘Upfront, sharp and personal’ (November 30). ‘Disingenuous’, on the other hand, is given some content. Comrades Wrack and McMahon assert, in the first place, that when I said that comrades Wrack and McMahon have a “long history in the various broad-front projects”,
We have sat in meetings of many of these projects with members of the CPGB. We have always tried to argue for socialist politics within them. We have also argued for a ‘partyist’ approach.
Before Left Unity in 2013-15, this is not my impression of their history. Both comrades were ‘leadership insiders’ in the Socialist Alliance and Respect. They may have argued privately for socialist politics and a ‘partyist’ perspective in these formations. I am happy to accept that this is possible. But publicly they gave political support to the broad-front politics of the leaderships of the projects.
It is for this reason that we were very strongly positive about the Socialist Platform project in Left Unity at its outset (though we thought Left Unity had a lot less chance of producing a positive outcome than the Socialist Alliance). It did seem to be a break with broad-frontism by leading comrades who had been up-front supporters of this method.
But then, first, the formulations adopted were ones that could be signed up to by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. The AWL was already a left-Zionist and witch-hunting organisation, committed to an anti-anti-imperialism that amounts to giving practical backing to Atlanticism and US imperialism. To adopt ‘diplomatic’ platform formulations which the AWL can without discomfort sign up to is, in consequence, inherently broad-frontist - because it is to include an element of the Labour rightwing in your ‘left bloc’. This may have been a little less completely obvious in 2013 than it became after the ‘anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism’ smear campaign, which the AWL helped pioneer, hit the big time following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. But it was already pretty obvious.
Then, secondly, came the decision - at short notice - to argue for ‘indicative votes only’ at the founding meeting of the Socialist Platform. This was, in essence, to repeat the techniques of the broad-front projects, and arguments of the sort used by John Rees in Respect, that people present at a meeting have to defer to the possibility of disagreement from those absent.5
Comrades McMahon and Wrack in their present article defend this course of action:
Our argument for not taking the amendments was simple. A huge amount of work had gone into drafting it and then getting people to sign it. We had originally thought that it would be possible to amend it. However, we became concerned that were the document, which by then a large number of people had signed, to be changed without consulting them and involving them in the decision to make changes, we couldn’t be sure that they would still support it.
The problem with this argument is that the proportion of signatories who were present at the Socialist Platform founding meeting was extraordinarily high relative to attendance at left (or, indeed, Labour or trade union) meetings in general. If an equivalent proportion of signatories had attended Left Unity’s own founding conference, the meeting would have spilled onto the streets.
Conversely, if the non-attendance of signatories to the appeal was a ground for not taking votes, Left Unity itself could have taken no votes at all at its founding conference (or any of its later ones). The argument is thus specious.
It is, of course, true that the meeting did itself vote to take only indicative votes (narrowly, and including AWL votes in support). But this vote, though it is a vote, is like the referenda to establish the powers of Louis Bonaparte or Adolf Hitler or that Iran should become an Islamic republic - or, closer to home, the vote to ban factions in the Russian Communist Party in 1921. It is self-cancelling majority rule - because the objections to allowing a binding vote in this meeting would apply with equal, or probably greater, force to any subsequent meeting. The logically inherent claim is that the diplomatic agreements reached behind closed doors have to override any vote that might be taken. The majority thus denied itself, not just the CPGB-led minority, the right to democratic decision-making for the future.
Comrades McMahon and Wrack claim that
In our view, the CPGB-PCC realised too late that our initiative to launch the Socialist Platform was something that it should have done. They realised that our initiative exposed their own lack of initiative on the very issue they claim to have the monopoly - socialist/communist unity.
This formulation is illuminating, because of the role it gives to initiative. The problem is that this method - the idea that ‘taking the initiative’ gives you some sort of proprietary rights over what is created - is at the core of the problems of the British far left.
After all, how does it come to be the case that there exist in the trade unions at least four rival ‘rank and file’ movements: SPEW’s National Shop Stewards’ Network, the SWP’s Workers’ Summit, Counterfire’s Rank and File Combine, and RS21’s Troublemakers’ Conference? The answer is that each group takes an initiative and insists by procedural mechanisms on the right of control. It is for the same reason that SPEW broke with the Socialist Alliance after it lost control to the SWP, and that the SWP broke with Respect after it lost control to a coalition of George Galloway and others. Comrades Caitriona Rylance and Chris Strafford broke with CPGB over our negative evaluation of the 2012 New Anti-Capitalist Initiative launched by the three fragments of Workers’ Power.
TAS is a new ‘initiative’ with the same framing conception: launch the right initiative at the right time, and you will overtake the rest of the left and be on the road to the mass party we all want. It is one among a lot of new initiatives of one sort or another. TAS comrades have been critical, as we have, of the attempt to regroup a number of these small new initiatives as Transform.6 But the method is one shared by comrades McMahon and Wrack’s argument.
CPGB is not worth talking to, in the comrades’ view, at the end of the day, because
The CPGB-PCC may want to go through the existing left but its manner of engagement is counter-productive and it has little, if anything, to show for its efforts. …
… we do also want to attract new layers. Most of them won’t turn to the CPGB because its invective is repulsive. However much the CPGB-PCC thinks it a strength, it isn’t. It puts up an unnecessary barrier to anyone who might want to learn more or get involved.
Our point is not that invective is a strength - though invective may at times be essential to political clarity. It is that diplomatic methods of constructing unity, and speech controls in order to avoid conflict, are inevitably a weakness. As soon as serious issues arise, sharp disagreement will happen. For example, the AWL will call us anti-Semites; and so on. We say that the anti-Semitism smear is a big lie; in doing so, we are accusing the AWL of lying. In Left Unity, people who had denounced heckling went on, very soon, to - heckle Communist Platform speakers. And so on. Since ‘comradeliness’ is required, the result is to drive immediately towards a split.
An organisation which is constructed on the basis of diplomatic agreements and formulations is like a ship with a cracked keel, which will break up at the first storm. An organisation that commits itself to speech controls in the name of ‘comradeliness’ will find itself, like Left Unity, confronted with endless vexatious disciplinary complaints.
On a larger scale, does the principle of ‘comradeliness’ apply to Jeremy Corbyn and other leaders of the Labour left? The problem this produces is that these people, in turn, cling to ‘comradeliness’ with the Labour right - who witch-hunt them. Avoiding ‘invective’ here means being dragged behind the Corbynista leadership’s failure to confront the anti-Semitism smear campaign.
At this point I am merely repeating arguments I made in previous articles, and which comrades McMahon and Wrack have made no attempt to answer.
I add only that I agree that it is possible CPGB’s approach cannot work. If so, that would mean that the British left is absolutely incapable of breaking from the methods of diplomatic agreements and formulations, and repulsion from ‘invective’, so as to be able to get back to the level of open dispute that characterised the Second International and the early Comintern - and, indeed, the left in the 1970s.
It would mean that the British state and its supporters in the labour bureaucracy have so successfully bred ‘short-beaked pigeons’7 that failure is inevitable, not just for CPGB but for the whole labour movement. The result of that would be that a Starmer government is inevitably followed by some sort of far-right regime (further to the right than Sunak, Braverman, and co) - and so on down to the World War III towards which US policy and its British yap-dog are driving.
I prefer to believe that it is possible for us to overcome the recent fetishes of diplomacy and politeness rules, and on that basis to conduct debates that can lead to real communist unity. The alternative makes it worth trying.
N Wrack and W McMahon ‘Nothing positive to be gained’ Weekly Worker January 4 2024: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1472/nothing-positive-to-be-gained.↩︎
The text is ‘orthodox Marxist’ in imagining that “the government of people is replaced by the administration of things” (from Engels’ Socialism, utopian and scientific) but not in the claim that “it will be a society without any classes because everyone will be a worker like everyone else,” which in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha programme refers to a ‘first stage’ of communism rather than to fully developed communism. My personal view (not a CPGB party view) is that both formulations rest on the state of economic development, and of the understanding of anthropology, in the late 19th century, with the result that neither is particularly helpful in conceiving communism in 21st century conditions.↩︎
Eg, M Thomas, ‘The name of the new world we aim for’ www.workersliberty.org/story/2023-12-05/name-new-world-we-aim.↩︎
Compare the exchange at the time, weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/977/socialist-platform-an-exchange.↩︎
C Strafford, talkingaboutsocialism.org/broad-to-death-the-problem-with-broad-left-parties (October 8 2023); M Macnair, ‘Rebranding as Transform’ Weekly Worker August 3 2023: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1454/rebranding-as-transform; C Roberts, ‘Sixty seconds and no politics’ Weekly Worker November 30 2023: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1469/sixty-seconds-and-no-politics.↩︎