The ‘P’ word
This week’s paper features an article commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto (February 1848 - see centre pages). Now and over the next month, every left group worth its salt will be producing articles on the subject. Most of these, however, will be the standard, run-of-the-mill, hack jobs. The majority of the revolutionary left in Britain mouth platitudes about this great work while their day-to-day practice underlines the fact that they have learned little or nothing of the method that informed it.
Without becoming too ‘philosophical’, the significant silences of some groups on key features of the Manifesto are far more instructive than their tired homilies. None more so than the largest organisation on the extra-Labour left, the Socialist Workers Party. Thus, Socialist Review (January) devotes seven full pages to proving the contemporary relevance and power of this, “one of the most powerful political pamphlets every written”. Dave McNulty - one of the authors - suggests the Manifesto was written in response to an identified need of the Communist League: “namely, a small pamphlet giving a short account of the key ideas of the communists”. The Manifesto has become - they assure us - “one of the most popular pamphlets of all time”, “second only to the bible as the highest selling book ever” (my emphasis).
And so it continues. With studious cynicism, these SWP journalists avoid mentioning what the Manifesto actually was, managing to steer clear of that dreaded ‘P’ word: it was a programme.
It is now imbedded in SWP culture that having a party programme is a thoroughly bad idea. The last time the organisation debated this question with any degree of seriousness (about the last time it debated anything, in fact) was in the early 1990s. Prominent member Gareth Jenkins - in a contribution taken as an unofficial reply from the leadership to calls from party members for a programme commission - actually went as far as to state that just like the SWP, “the Bolsheviks were light-minded about programmes, but principled in practice” (SWP Internal Bulletin No3, November 1991).
An even more telling comment was made by Maureen Watson (subsequently expelled) at the session on ‘Centrism and ultra-leftism’ at the SWP’s annual ‘Marxism’ school in 1990. She confidently told her audience that “Lenin would be turning in his grave, at the thought of being bound hand and foot by a programme” (cited in Republican Marxist, July 1990).
The philistine notion that the mere existence of a party programme somehow trusses the party up and prevents it from being ‘principled’ in practice is barely worth commenting on. If this were so, one wonders why the most astute, flexible and principled working class politician of the 20th century underlined again and again the “tremendous importance of a programme for the consolidation and consistent activity of a political party” (VI Lenin CW Vol 4, Moscow 1977, p229).
However, comrade Watson’s foolish throwaway remark does reveal a truth about the SWP’s attitude to programme. In fact, it was not Lenin and the Bolsheviks who were traumatised by the idea of being “bound hand and foot” by some programmatic document. No, this is a phobia transferred onto them from the leadership of the SWP itself.
Why? Simply because like too many others on the British revolutionary left, the SWP, far from being engaged in a party project, is in the business of building a centrist sect. A programme in these circumstances can be not simply a nuisance, but an actual obstacle to the opportunist manoeuvres of the leadership.
For us, “the programme is the foundation for the building of the Communist Party [in that] it firmly links our continuous and all-encompassing agitational work with the ultimate aim of communism; it represents the dialectical unity between revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice. [It] thus establishes the basis for agreed revolutionary action and is the standard, the reference point, around which the voluntary unity of Party members is built and concretised” (J Conrad Which Road? p235). As a centrist formation, the SWP must keep itself ‘free’ to adapt to prevailing moods and prejudices. The last thing the leadership needs is a revolutionary “standard, a reference point”, against which today’s particular opportunist or sectarian twist can be judged.
As the comrades who went on to form the Revolutionary Democratic Group commented, “the SWP method [is borrowed] from the British ruling class, past masters at deceiving people. The British constitution like the SWP programme is scattered around in a number of documents ... Not surprisingly the average British person … doesn’t really know their constitutional rights” (From The Marxist programme and the Socialist Workers Party, undated). And - unsurprisingly - the average SWPer displays equal political confusion; it has no “standard” against which to judge the actions of the all-powerful clique around Tony Cliff and is therefore characterised by profound political passivity.
James Cannon was quite right when he said that “it is not the party that makes the programme: it is the programme that makes the party” (J Cannon Speeches for socialism p180). The fight for a reforged Communist Party in this country is centrally a fight to re-equip our class with a revolutionary programme. It is in this spirit that we celebrate 150 years of the Communist Manifesto, a brilliant communist programme written by the founders of scientific socialism. The task of communists is to understand the method that produced it and to stand on its shoulders as we struggle for clarity and a revolutionary unity of purpose in today’s world.