Road to nowhere

Much of the left is now talking about a ‘crisis of expectations’ amongst the working class. But is there any truth to it? Last weekend the CPGB organised a round-table discussion on this, under the heading, ‘Where now for the left?’ Eddie Ford reports

In many respects, the fact that this meeting happened at all is to be welcomed. The revolutionary left in this country has a history of chronic sectarianism and petty in-fighting. Most ‘debates’ have usually ended up in bitter and often very silly recriminations - ‘Look at what you did in China 1927’ or, ‘You stabbed us in the back in Barcelona 1936’, etc. In this light, to have speakers from such disparate political backgrounds and traditions is no small achievement. Hopefully this achievement will be replicated and copied.

The invited speakers were Phil Hearse - Socialist Party (formerly Militant Labour); Sean Matgamna - Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and editor of Workers’ Liberty; Jack Conrad - Communist Party of Great Britain; Bob Pitt - editorial board of the discussion journal, What next?; and Dave Osler - Socialist Labour Party. But there were also supporters from other organisations, such as Socialist Outlook, the Revolutionary Democratic Group and the International Bolshevik Tendency (New Zealand), so we had a very wide range of the left political spectrum represented at this meeting.

Bob Pitt presented an extremely ‘realistic’ view of Blair’s landslide victory, dissenting markedly from the ‘crisis of expectations’ school of thought. He was keen to stress throughout the meeting that “you have to start from you are”. Therefore, he thought that “most Labour supporters don’t have any great expectations in Labour” - in contrast to Tony Cliff of the SWP who has made wild comparisons between Blair and the Attlee government of 1945. The Blairites, as comrade Pitt observed, are “overtly pro-business”. The appointment of Frank field as minister for welfare reform clearly indicates what the Blairite agenda is.

The key question for comrade Pitt, then, was how the left should respond to these unfavourable developments. As was later pointed out by comrade Jack Conrad of the CPGB, comrade Pitt draws “conservative conclusions” from the success of Tony Blair, not fully revolutionary ones.

Thus, for comrade Pitt, the key task for revolutionaries in this period is to form “broad alliances and minimum demands” within the trade unions and the Labour Party - and by “minimum” demands comrade Pitt certainly means minimal. He said that we should fight for £4.22 per hour, even though - as he admitted - that it was “completely inadequate”. Even more remarkably, comrade Pitt said that it was incorrect to fight for the complete scrapping of all the Tory anti-trade union laws - which Blair has promised to keep. No, that would be too ‘ambitious’ in comrade Pitt’s estimation. He argued that revolutionaries should fight only to “reform” the anti-trade union laws, not get rid of them.

Comrade Pitt believed that this was the correct strategy, given the reality that there is no crisis of expectations. “The role of Marxists,” hammered home comrade Pitt, is to evaluate “the state of the class as it actually is”, not retreat into fantasy. It is hardly surprising that the comrade thinks the Socialist Party, and even the SLP, is “ultra-leftist” for standing candidates against Labour. It was a pessimistic prognosis, and as one comrade light-heartedly heckled, “Bob’s depressed”.

Dave Osler of the SLP argued that there was a crisis of expectations - well, of sorts. The security guard on £3.50an hour, according to the comrade, expects a minimum wage of some description to be introduced. For that individual worker, if Blair ever gets round to implementing a minimum wage, “that’s a reform”. In this light, he attacked a front page article in the latest issue of the Weekly Worker (June 12), which stated that Blair “has guaranteed that there are no expectations of his administration. He has got his ‘betrayals’ in first” (original emphasis). Comrade Osler objected strongly to this viewpoint, calling it “stupid”. The Weekly Worker, said Dave, makes the mistake of swallowing Blair’s propaganda - in effect, believing Blair’s promises - and “overestimates” Blair’s strengths.

As the debate unfolded however, his formulation became that “there is something less than a crisis of expectations”. What this “something less” exactly is, though, was never made clear by the comrade.

Whatever the case, comrade Osler thought that this “something less” was “potentially a weapon for the organised left”, as revolutionaries could tap into the subsequent disillusionment. He also believes that the period ahead will see a “deeper recomposition of the revolutionary left” and he emphasised how important it is to build a “Fourth Internationalist current” within the workers’ movement.

Comrade Matgamna of the AWL was a lot more ‘orthodox’ in his views and reiterated the arguments already made in Workers’ Liberty. He detected a “change of mood”, a “revival of hope” and a feeling of “clear relief” that the Tories were gone. He admitted that these were “vague expectations” and backtracked on any suggestion that there was a crisis of expectations. A comrade from Socialist Outlook at this juncture helpfully held up a copy of Workers’ Liberty, which had the headline, ‘A revolution of expectations’, emblazoned on it. Comrade Matgamna insisted that the AWL’s views were confined to its editorial ‘commentary’ - itself citing France 1936.

Sean’s central thesis was that the Blair victory had seen a “loosening of the tombstones” on the workers’ movement and that “socialists have to relate to these hopes” - vague and ill-defined though they be may be. For the comrade, the fact that the Labour Party is no longer an “effective reformist party” - indeed, “it looks like the Liberal Party of 100 years ago” - only reaffirms the importance of campaigning to keep the trade union link with Labour, and he pushed the AWL’s notion of a new Labour Representation Committee. What sort of party Rodney Bickerstaffe, John Edmonds, Bill Morris and co would produce in the unlikely event of a break with Blair the comrade did not explain. Almost certainly it would be a Labour Party mark II - only as farce. We are now living in a period of defeat and retreat for the working class, organisationally and ideologically. Which is not to say that communists would refuse to participate in such a development - far from it - if the spontaneous actions of the working class created such a political formation.

The new LRC project led him, quite ritualistically, to attack the “sectarianism” of the left - by which he effectively meant any group which dares to challenge Labour at elections (or which has the barefaced cheek to be outside the Labour Party). In fact, for the AWL anything to the left of their pro-Labourism is an obvious manifestation of either “sectarianism” or “ultra-leftism”, or both.

Comrade Matgamna ended his speech on a note of high ‘optimism’ though. He told the meeting that we must “assume” that a “ferment will happen” under the Blair government - thereby conveniently rescuing the AWL’s tenuous thesis.

Comrade Jack Conrad of the CPGB took a completely different tack to the previous speakers. “I don’t live on the same world” he announced, as those who promulgate the crisis of expectations theory. He ridiculed the notion that the Labour vote represented a “class vote” in any shape or form, except in the most banal sociological sense. The working class does not exist politically, and has not done so for some time - it just exists in a limbo state as passive, atomised voting-fodder for the bourgeoisie. The election of Labour - which, in his opinion, is still a bourgeois workers’ party - was not qualitatively different from the election of Clinton in the United States. If all we are talking about is hope and choosing the lesser evil, said comrade Conrad, then why not back Clinton in the USA - ie, a bourgeois politician - during the election campaign? The major part of his election rhetoric consisted of the desire to ‘bring back hope’ to the American masses. The comrades in the AWL, SP, SWP etc are not acting like working class politicians by fetishising “hope” - they are delivering the working class to the butcher and encouraging the working class to have illusions in the butcher.

He also poured scorn on the idea that workers can only fight back under a Labour/social democratic regime. He recalled how his “hopes were up” under the Thatcher regime - ie, during the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85. Comrade Conrad mentioned the obvious examples of New Zealand and Australia, where vicious, ultra-Thatcherite Labour governments knocked the working class for six - and from which it has not yet recovered. The comrade from the IBT (New Zealand) personally vouched for this fact.

The only place where there might exist a crisis of expectations, argued comrade Conrad, is Scotland. This makes it all the more outrageous that Scottish Militant Labour has deserted the fight for self-determination and fallen for Blair’s sop parliament, he said. The general election also amply proved that the Socialist Party “wants to have its cake and eat it”. It claims that Labour is now a “bourgeois” party, yet implicitly (if not quite explicitly) urged workers to vote Labour, as evidenced by such headlines as “Kick the Tories out!” - which in the real world means ‘vote Labour’. If Labour is no different, why concentrate on kicking the Tories out?

Of course we all know that the SP has abruptly designated New Labour as “bourgeois” because it could no longer operate within it. Many suffer from the unMarxist idea that you have to vote for a bourgeois workers’ party - an idea explicitly articulated by comrade Osler. This is nonsense, as comrade Conrad said in a later contribution. The comrade from IBT (New Zealand) heartily concurred with this rebuff.

Somewhat oddly, comrade Phil Hearse, like comrade Matgamna, also denied all knowledge of the crisis theory. The latest issue of Socialism Today, for one, disproves this denial (see the ‘Around the left’ in this paper). Yet comrade Hearse was convinced that a “massive obstacle to struggle has been removed” by the election of Tony Blair, and that peoples’ hopes had been raised - which sounds suspiciously like a crisis of expectations.

Even comrade Hearse, incurable ‘optimist’ though any SP member must be, had to confess that the masses were not “articulating advanced demands”. He referred to the Ken Loach film which appeared on Newsnight before the election. In this film the unemployed workers were completely cowed and beaten, with a deep sense of powerlessness. However, comrade Hearse referred to the observations of ex-Tory MP Matthew Parris, who foresaw an alliance between the public sector and the dispossessed.

However, comrade Hearse stated that that was inadequate and held up the United Left in Spain and the Communist Refoundation in Italy as organisations to emulate.

This brings us to the most important part of the discussion, and also to the most disquieting aspect of the meeting. Some of the comrades at the meeting - particularly the comrades from SP and comrade Osler - were positively advocating the need for a “mass, centrist” halfway house. Comrades like Phil Hearse seem to believe that there is some sort of intransgressible law of history which decrees that you have to go through such a stage in order to arrive at a Communist Party - if that is what they actually want. Marxism knows of no such law, and such a view could spell disaster for the working class.

Of course, as speakers from the CPGB pointed out, if there was a “mass, centrist” party like Communist Refoundation, communists would relate to it, intervene in it and fight to shape its political form and content. Not to do so would be leftist sectarianism. But in Britain there is no such organisation. The situation is still fluid. Therefore, to direct one’s main efforts to the building of such a phantom organisation is dangerous. Instead of the Marxist science of the necessary, the comrades prefer the bourgeois, opportunist art of the possible.

Comrade Osler made his position clear: “Viva Communist Refoundation!” he exclaimed, stating that “Communist Refoundation is the model of a future party of a new type for the 21st century.” As comrade Conrad said in reply, “If this is the case, then god help us”. Bloodshed, terror and barbarism is what the 2lst century must offer then.

Comrade Osler is unintentionally courting the ‘Chile scenario’. The absence of a revolutionary Bolshevik Party, and the illusions fostered in the bourgeois state apparatus by the ‘Marxist’ president Salvador Allende and his vociferous backers - such as the Communist Party of Chile - left the working class literally defenceless and ready for the slaughter. Have no illusions - Communist Refoundation would play exactly the same counterrevolutionary role if circumstances required. It is a parliamentary-roadist, Menshevik organisation, whose first and overriding concern has to been to prop up the bourgeois Olive Tree alliance government. In a recent confidence vote in parliament, it voted with the government - and hence in support of its anti-working class policies. Given Communist Refoundation’s ‘official communist’ past and pedigree, this should hardly be astonishing.

The working class needs something more. More than Bob Pitt’s mass reformist Labour Party. More than a new Labour Representation Committee. More than a centrist coalition.

Instead of proposing such halfway house solutions, revolutionaries should be devoting all their energy to seeking unity through rapprochement to build the Communist Party - the only form of organisation that can liberate our class.

That task is for today, not some indeterminate time in the future.