Lenin, Trotsky and Voroshilov along with other delegates at 10th Congress in 1921

Communist unity and its refuseniks

We must reject bureaucratic centralism, sects of one and diplomatic unity-mongering. Instead, we must uphold the right to engage in sharp polemics and form factions, says Mike Macnair. This is an edited version of his January 21 Online Communist Forum talk

This is a further contribution to the discussion of communist unity which has been running in the pages of the Weekly Worker and to some extent elsewhere in the last few months. Most of the interlocutors in this discussion did not actually attend this Online Communist Forum meeting, though we were pleased to have some significant critical contributions from Caitriona Rylance.

Let me outline the background to the discussion. The Young Communist League, which is attached to the Communist Party of Britain (in turn the appendage of the Morning Star), has had a recent sharp turn to militant ‘spectaculars’, using masks, red flags, etc on demonstrations, to present itself, in a sense, well to the left of the ‘official’ CPB. The turn has been less apparent on the Palestine demos, so it may have been short-lived.

In 2023 the Socialist Appeal group decided to run a recruitment campaign using the slogan, “Are you a Communist? Then get organised - join Socialist Appeal”. It has now decided to rebrand itself as the Revolutionary Communist Party, reappropriating a name first used by a Trotskyist group of the 1940s, but later appropriated by Frank Furedi and co (previously the Revolutionary Communist Tendency, later Spiked; it would be a diversion to attempt a political characterisation of the Furedi RCP before the group’s turn, through ‘contrarianism’, to eventual Toryism).

‘Talking About Socialism … from a Marxist point of view’ (TAS) of Nick Wrack, Will McMahon, Chris Strafford and others issued a socialist unity appeal without offering any explanation of how theirs was different from anybody else’s - including here the CPGB’s own long-term campaigning for communist unity. We did then have an exchange, and at that point it became clear that TAS was not in fact willing to talk face-to-face to the CPGB, because they regard us as being marginal and unimportant, and they are busy building up their own organisation; and because we were ‘rude’ to them in some way (I am not quite clear how we were rude, as opposed to arguing that they needed to explain what was new in their proposals and expressing political differences. But there it goes.)

Comrade Lawrence Parker, who has a widely read blog on communist history, has embarked in the last few months on a course of purely negative criticism of the CPGB. His argument is that we are a “wilting specimen” and display a “sluggish ‘non-combat’ culture” leading to “the politics of the holding pattern” and suggests that “the CPGB-PCC’s organisational crisis, its 20-year curve towards liquidation, is set to continue”.1 What comrade Parker’s positive alternative is (if any) is very unclear.

Arising from these various issues, TAS and ourselves have had, as I already said, an exchange, including in the Weekly Worker.


Let us look first to the general background of this discussion. The left is actually moving - in relation to the objective needs of politics - in ever-decreasing circles. Sir Keir Starmer (assuming that he wins the general election, which now looks likely) will be the most rightwing Labour prime minister presiding over the most rightwing Labour government.

That is not actually saying a great deal, of course. Think about the role of Arthur Henderson and co in supporting the British war effort in 1914-18. Think about how rightwing Ramsay MacDonald’s government in 1924 was, with Philip Snowden’s treasury orthodoxy or Jimmy Thomas as colonial secretary authorising the bombing of Iraqi villages. And so on.

Nonetheless, in 1945-48 the outcome of World War II (Soviet tanks on the Elbe, mass communist parties in several ‘western’ countries and much wider hostility to capitalism, forced the bourgeoisie to make major concessions to the working class (Labour as a party of government was, of course, made possible by the 1918 concession on the suffrage, which would never have been made without the 1917 Russian Revolution). Capital and its political representatives have pursued a long-term policy of taking back these concessions, by quite devious means of policy steps intended to bear fruit 20 or 30 years down the road. This has been facilitated by the belief of the social democrats, and more recently the Eurocommunists, that concessions to capital will produce concessions from capital. The reverse is the reality: capital concedes significant reforms when it is faced with the ‘stick’ of threats to its political power, in addition to the ‘carrot’ of reformists willing to settle for less than working class political power. Thus we already had the 1867 Reform Act and 1871 and 1875 legalisation of trade unions, in response to the ‘Sheffield Outrages’ (trade union violence of the 1860s) and trade union leaders’ participation in the First International.

Since 1945, capital’s long-term policy and the reformists’ craven loyalism have produced an objective rightward dynamic. The first Harold Wilson government in 1964-70 was well to the right of Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 administration, while the second in 1974-76 was to the right of the first. Tony Blair’s government was a long way to the right of the second Wilson government, but Starmer will be to the right of Blair. The same dynamic affects the Tories. The governments of Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan in 1951-64 were substantially to the right of the 1940-45 coalition government. Edward Heath (1970-74) was sufficiently far to the right of Macmillan to gain the name, ‘Selsdon man’, for his reactionary politics, while Margaret Thatcher was notoriously way to the right of Heath. As for David Cameron, he signalled his intentions early by taking the Tory Party out of the centre-right group in the European parliament to form a new rightwing group, together with the Italian post-fascists and other characters of this sort.


So the Starmer government - assuming Starmer does win - will be a very rightwing government, and its failure to deliver anything significant to Labour voters will produce demoralisation, and a Conservative government to follow it - which will be to the right of Sunak, Braverman and co. and look more like Giorgia Meloni or Viktor Orbán.

On the left, we have seen a succession of small left electoral initiatives of one sort and another, each broadly trying to pretend to be left Labour: the Socialist Labour Party in the 1990s; the Socialist Alliance, Respect - the Unity Coalition, Left Unity, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. And so on and so on. The left is doing the same thing over and over again, with decreasing returns.

On the other hand, we have seen in the last year or so a significant uptick in student radicalisation. The YCL’s turn to ‘leftism’ is an example of this, but there has also been a significant recovery of the Socialist Workers Party, back to being able to recruit large numbers at freshers fairs. Socialist Appeal has plainly grown rapidly among students (as is visible from its participation in Palestine demonstrations). Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century - again, basically an organisation based among students - self-reports that it has trebled or quadrupled in size.

Student radicalisation is based on the idea that the past is very easily forgotten - there is a three- or four-year turnover of activists. Hence it is possible, as with the SWP, that a group can actually adopt the idea that ‘The membership has failed us: we must elect a new membership’. Rapid student recruitment can promote the delusion of the ‘breakthrough’ to a mass scale without left unification, which is so apparent in Socialist Appeal’s ‘party turn’.

In this respect, SA’s party turn is like the Furedi group’s (similarly student-based), and more unrealistic than the similar (unrealistic) turns of the 1940s RCP, of Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League to create the Workers Revolutionary Party, and of Tony Cliff’s International Socialists to create the SWP. The 1940s RCP, the SLL-WRP and the IS-SWP all imagined that they had made the breakthrough by recruiting militants in industry. (In reality the old ‘official’ CPGB was in the 1940s and 1970s also growing, and much bigger than the 1940s RCP, the 1970s SLL-WRP and IS-SWP.)

On the other hand, in the 1960s-80s left groups outside universities and colleges could nonetheless intervene in them. More recently, that has become a lot more difficult. Universities have tightened up massively on who may turn up to freshers fairs; more generally, there are elaborate controls on who can book meeting rooms, and so on. If you already have student supporters, you can recruit; less so from outside. That is a problem for the CPGB, and for other left groups.


Nonetheless. I suggested in my most recent article on this topic that it may be actually impossible for the CPGB’s project to work.2 This is what TAS argues: the openly polemical character of the Weekly Worker is so repellent that it cannot work. TAS’s counterproposal is in essence an organisation based on a platform which is formed by private, diplomatic agreements, not open to discussion as to what the platform should be, and which insists on ‘comradeliness’ in political exchanges.

TAS’s platform, as was the case with comrade Wrack’s Socialist Platform in Left Unity in 2013, is so drawn that the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty could sign up to it without discomfort. But the AWL is an ‘anti-anti-imperialist’ organisation: it opposes (alleged) Russian imperialism and (alleged) Iraqi and now Iranian imperialism, but “does not oppose” but merely “places no confidence in” British and US overseas military operations. The AWL pioneered much of the anti-Semitism smear campaign deployed against the left in the Labour Party. On Ukraine, it demands, ‘Arm, arm, arm Ukraine’: that is, escalate Nato’s proxy war against Russia. In origin a Trotskyist organisation, the AWL has become a plain social-imperialist group, like HM Hyndman’s and HG Wells’s 1916-1922 National Socialist Party: a component of the social democratic right.

The Socialist Platform’s programme was designed to contain diplomatic formulations which would allow unity with the AWL. The same is in fact true of TAS’s platform - though TAS comrades have published better articles.3 But, at the same time, the diplomatic formulations are not in principle amendable, and the ‘principle of politeness’ is adopted: ie, it is necessary to avoid arguments and sharp polemics in order to avoid “repellent” publication.

We are also running a debate in the letters column of the paper with Andrew Northall, who argues that banning factions is essential to effective organisation. This is the view of the Morning Star/CPB, and indeed of the traditional ‘official’ communist parties in general. In fact it is also, as it happens, the line of the SWP, banning ‘permanent’ factions, from the mid-1970s, and before that of the American Socialist Workers Party (not connected to the British SWP) from the mid-1960s.

Trotsky, in Where is Britain going? (1925) made an analogy between the ‘official lefts’ in the British labour movement and those who breed pigeons which are so short-beaked that they cannot get out of the egg on their own. I argued in the article mentioned above that actually, if the CPGB is wrong on the question of factions and on the question of open polemic, then it follows in reality that the labour bureaucracy, and the capitalist state which stands behind it, have been so successful in breeding short-beaked pigeons on the left that the victory of the right in the labour movement is guaranteed. And, if that is the case, then the victory of the right overall is guaranteed, and the underlying dynamic of capitalist politics towards World War III is likely to proceed more or less unabated.


I offer here a little more explanation of this point, by way of fundamental lessons on this question. The first is actually the fall of the Soviet Union. This demonstrated, in the first place, that bureaucracy controlled a regime in which the planning authorities lied to the party leadership about the ‘success’ of the five-year plans, the managers lied to the planning authorities about the extent to which they had fulfilled plan targets, and the workers lied to the managers about their work. The end result of this was the famous Soviet joke: ‘They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work’.

The result was a general demoralisation, and very widespread illusions in the direct political agents of capitalism - reflected in the fact that large parts of the working class actually supported the overthrow of the USSR and the satellite regimes. Once these were gone, of course, capital dumped on the workers. But, after 60 years of lying ‘official optimism’, anyone who pointed out that the fall of the regimes would have disastrous consequences could not be believed.

Secondly, once the core leadership of the party decided to restore capitalism, which is essentially what happened under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, there was no institutional means within the regime by which anybody could resist. All that could be attempted was an inherently politically illegitimate - and hence easily defeated - military coup.

The proletariat is the potential bearer of socialism, because as a class it needs to organise collective action in order to assert its interests. That is just as much true in a regime which purports to be a workers’ regime as it is in a capitalist regime - a point which Lenin made against Trotsky in the debate on the militarisation of labour and the trade unions in 1920-21. The proletariat still needs to organise. But then the corollary of that is, if you ban all the parties other than the Communist Party and you ban all factions within the Communist Party, the upshot of that is inevitably going to be that there is no means by which the proletariat can collectively organise to assert its interests. And if it happens that the political leadership is captured by pro-capitalist elements, the restoration of capitalism becomes inevitable.

Hence, the comrades of the Morning Star/CPB, and people who hold similar views about the supposed necessity of the ban on factions, need to accept political responsibility for the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is both because the regime of lies which was enabled by the absence of competing factional views and open arguments produced the ‘anarchy of the plan’ and utter demoralisation of everybody in those societies; and because the ban on factions and apparatus control of what could be said also meant that, once the leaders of the regime set out to restore capitalism, nobody could effectively resist.

The second lesson is the fate of Corbynism. The far left clings to unity with the ‘official left’ (Corbyn and co) and avoids openly denouncing the ‘official left’ - just as the ‘official left’ clings to unity with the rightwing of the labour movement, and avoids openly denouncing it. After all, there is no way in which you can get a Labour government without the unity between the Labour left and the Labour right. But the labour right, in coordination with the capitalist state and capitalist media, witch-hunts both the ‘official left’ and the far left.

Clinging to unity on the basis of diplomacy - unity without open controversy, unity without denunciation and polemic - entails that result. It is a natural and probable consequence (stronger than merely a foreseeable consequence) that, as long as the far left continues to be diplomatic towards the official left and the official left continues to be diplomatic towards the right, the right will be victorious. The victory of the right is guaranteed, and we saw it play out with Corbynism.

We had already seen it in different forms in Rifondazione Comunista in Italy. The leadership decided to join a government which was backing the imperialist war in Afghanistan, and the result of that was the total and utter destruction of Rifondazione, with merely political gravel left behind. We have seen it in the fate of the left in the Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT or Workers Party) which originated as a broad-front left unification on the basis again of diplomatic methods in relation to political differences, and ended as merely a ‘social liberal’ party, like New Labour.

If the ban on factions within the party is necessary in order to achieve unity in action, then that also logically entails the diplomatic approach to creating unity beyond the party. If you cannot have unity without suppressing the open discussion of differences within the party, then it follows inescapably that to have unity outside the party we also need a diplomatic approach, where we must tone down our polemics. That in turn entails the suppression of speech which might disturb such diplomacy.

So the Morning Star/CPB’s policy has been actually tested and failed on the largest possible scale - in the fate of the USSR. And it has also been tested and failed on a very large scale in the case of Corbynism, of Rifondazione, of the Brazilian PT, as well as many other examples.

But this policy is not only that of the Morning Star/CPB. It is shared by the SWP in its policy within the Stop the War Coalition in the early 2000s, in Respect - the Unity Coalition at the same period, and so on and so forth. It is shared by the Socialist Party in England and Wales in its policy in Tusc, and so on. It is shared by Anti-Capitalist Resistance.

And TAS also offers the method of diplomatic unity and the method of politeness. So imagine that the tens of thousands of ex-members of left groups of one sort or another who have not gone over to the right all flock round TAS on the basis of adopting the general approach it proposes, and as a result TAS becomes a mass force. (I have to say that I do not think that is very likely! I am merely imagining such a highly positive development.) The same would be true of a mass surge into one of the SWP’s projects, or into Tusc. The result would necessarily be a repetition of the catastrophes and demoralising defeat of the Corbyn movement.


I will turn now from the negative to the positive. The first point is that what we seek is communist unity, not socialist unity. No doubt it would be nice to have a unified workers’ party and a unified workers’ international, which would include the right wing of the movement if it was willing to act in a disciplined fashion if it lost votes, and to tolerate dissenting minorities if it won them.

The reality, however, is that the rightwing of the movement is not willing to act in a disciplined fashion: it collaborates with the capitalist state to exercise police control over the movement. And, as Lenin and Zinoviev wrote in 1915,

On all important occasions (for example, the voting on August 4 [1914]), the opportunists come forward with an ultimatum, which they carry out with the aid of their numerous connections with the bourgeoisie, of their majority of the executives of the trade unions, etc.4

The Corbyn movement displayed this process at work, and yet again reconfirmed that this is the normal practice of the rightwing of the labour movement.

Hence, before we can pose the issue of partial unity with the loyalist rightwing, we need communist unity - the unity of those who stand for the overthrow of the capitalist state, for the overthrow of the regime of imperialism; who stand for generalised human emancipation, including the emancipation of all the people whose lives do not matter in the eyes of the imperialists, like the Palestinians, the Yemenis, and so on, and so on. Communist unity, not unity with the ‘anti-anti-imperialists’.

We need that, partly because our own ability to combat the loyalist wing of the workers’ movement is massively undermined by the inability of the communists to unite as communists.

Secondly, we need to organise. On this point the CPGB is on the same side as the Morning Star/CPB, SWP, SPEW, Socialist Appeal/RCP, and so on, and against the various left ‘independents’. We need a political voice. To get a political voice entails the ability to run election campaigns, if we have the resources to do so. It entails the ability to publish regular newspapers and other journals and publications, which can combat the monopoly of the capitalist-controlled media.

In order to do all this, we need to have an organised, dues-paying membership - we need to draw lines on the basis that people get to vote if they participate and pay dues. We need to have fund drives. We need to have the necessary assets and organisational structures, etc.

If we do not accept these necessities, we will not get a political voice. Instead, we get merely one or another form of ephemera, whether it is Occupy in 2011 and other such anarchoid spectaculars, or the various short-lived fronts and coalitions previously mentioned. It is quite fundamental, then, that we stand for the organisation of a Communist Party.

Thirdly, we must be willing to be a minority and, for those who happen to be a majority, to risk being a minority. It is necessary to take seriously the discussions which we have among ourselves, and not regard them as a waste of time (the idea that we need to stop talking among ourselves in order to turn outwards to the masses, to broader forces, or whatever).

Think of the old slogan, ‘Educate, agitate, organise’. And in this case, both ‘educate’ and ‘organise’ involve taking seriously political debates among ourselves. They involve being willing to go on as a minority fighting within an organisation which you think is going badly wrong. It means being willing, as a majority, to put up with the disruptive complaints, and the arguments and grumbles, and so on, and so forth, of the minority. It means, therefore, necessarily the acceptance that there will be ongoing disagreements of one sort or another, and there will be factions.

If we could get the acceptance of the need to unify as communists, to organise as a party and to accept that there will be ongoing disagreements and factionalism alongside our common work, then in principle, we could unify the forces of the Morning Star/CPB, SPEW, SWP and all the rest of the smaller groups.

And, if we unified communists as communists, it is possible that we could start a snowball effect (with the snowball running downhill and getting rapidly bigger). I gave earlier the negative examples of the Brazilian PT and Rifondazione. But they are also positive examples of the snowball effect which is possible as a result of unification. And if we look at the history of the Second International, it is perfectly clear that there was just such a snowball effect. In relation to the 1875 Gotha fusion of the Eisenachers and Lassalleans, which unified small groups, both of which had paper membership of around 10,000, the result of the unification was to create a snowball effect which grew very rapidly to a mass scale. The same is true of the unification processes of the Austrian Socialist Party, the Italian Socialist Party, the French Workers’ Party.

The same is true, in fact, of the unification process of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, in spite of the fact that the unification in 1903 immediately issued in a split. But it was two big public factions, the majorityites (Bolsheviks) and minorityites (Mensheviks), still plainly identifying as parts of the RSDLP, not as separate parties. It was on this basis that the RSDLP could grow by a snowball effect, once there was a temporary opening of political conditions in 1905 (and this drove towards the partial organisational reunification of the factions in 1906).


The CPGB is not presently in a position to launch an organisational initiative for communist unity of this sort. We do not have the weight, the presence or the numbers to be able to kick something off on our own. Moreover, conditions are unlike the 1990s. On the one hand, the global political tide is running strongly towards right-populist nationalism. On the other, among the far left, the defeats of the broad-front projects since the 1990s, and the illusions of outcompeting the rest by linear recruitment that are created by the recent revival of student leftism, make unity a marginalised aspiration.

That does not mean that it is impossible. There is no reason why it cannot happen, except that the majority of the left cling to the method of diplomacy, the ban on factions and all the other forms of apparatus control (‘comradeliness’ requirements, ‘safe spaces’ and so on). By clinging to these methods, they preclude the unity of communists as communists.

And, by clinging to these approaches, they make our movement safe for the capitalist class. From the point of view of the capitalist class, it is fine to have a labour movement controlled by a loyalist leadership. Hence it is no problem to have the sort of left ‘opposition’ that is diplomatic towards the loyalist leadership. Equally, if the far left is diplomatic towards the official left, that is no problem for capital either. If the only choices which are available are the loyalist-controlled Labour Party or a wilderness of competing sects, that is safe for the capitalist class.

As I say, right now the CPGB is not in a position to launch an organisational initiative for communist unity. But the possibility of communist unity exists, if the revolutionary left is prepared to break with the methods of diplomatic unity. The alternative is the dominance of the loyalist right wing of the workers’ movement - and with it the slide of capitalist politics towards nationalism and world war.

  1. communistpartyofgreatbritainhistory.wordpress.com.↩︎

  2. ‘Taciturns offer nothing positive’ Weekly Worker January 11: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1473/taciturns-offer-nothing-positive.↩︎

  3. See, for example, Nick Wrack’s strong article at talkingaboutsocialism.org/sunak-shapps-and-starmer-beat-the-war-drum.↩︎

  4. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/s-w/ch01.htm.↩︎