Openness and organisation
The January 31 aggregate reunited the ranks of CPGB members
Readers could not have missed it. Since Blair’s September 11 rigged referendum in Scotland our organisation has been engaged in a fruitful, if somewhat fractious debate. Harsh things have been said on all sides. For example this writer has been rounded on in the pages of the Weekly Worker for supposedly being a bombastic bully, an adventurist and, of all things, an optimist ... the latter charge I readily confess to. In turn Jack Conrad has pointed to the right-liquidationist mood which exists among certain comrades and has been manifested in some of their published formulations.
Of course, tired cynics, the theoretically weak, the politically agnostic will complain about or dismiss such ‘intemperate’ exchanges. Those who fail to take their own politics seriously are incapable of registering in their dull brains anything other than rudeness, petty squabbles and irrelevant hair splitting when it comes to polemics between communists. Like the musical ear the politically receptive mind or intelligence can only be nurtured and sustained with diligent study, constant criticism and self-criticism, and single-minded practice.
The fact of the matter is that we communists are not afraid to reveal our differences and disputes. Quite the reverse. It is our duty to bring every shade, nuance and trend out into the light of day, the more so since we have rescued, and stand in the name of, the Communist Party - within which we aim to organise all advanced workers. Open polemic is necessary to win understanding, trust and in due course to bring all partisans and fractions of communism together and forge them into a single whole. Openness invigorates, builds and steels us. It is therefore to be positively encouraged.
Public unanimity on all matters, along with pub room gossip, is the sure sign or product of a sect mentality, not a living Partyist ethos. Through the clash of different ideas we in the CPGB can and do sort out who and what is probably right and who and what is almost certainly mistaken. Real and lasting unity is the result. Enemies and opponents inevitably join the philistine detractors. But communists know full well that honesty is no sign of weakness. In the last analysis it shows our faith and supreme confidence in the working class itself as maker of history. After all socialism must be an act of self-liberation by politically conscious - and therefore fully informed - revolutionary proletarians. Socialism cannot be handed down from on high. Neither by a parliamentary majority nor a bureaucratic state. Neither by a central committee nor some guru of sectarian dogma.
So let me return to our disagreements. On the surface what has been at dispute was the assessment of the CPGB-sponsored boycott campaign in Scotland. At least that is how things started out. Were we correct to bank on self-determination and use it as our cutting edge? Did the Scottish Socialist Alliance’s decision to go for a double ‘yes’ vote on September 11 leave the boycott campaign dead in the water? Was the call for an active boycott thereafter a mere propaganda pose? Or given changed circumstances - for example, a scandal, an outburst, an accident - was the boycott campaign something which had the chance of igniting the flame of mass politics? Did we have a social impact of any sort, or is it impossible to say?
To begin with there was much confusion - including, it has to be said, among members of the Provisional Central Committee. But through debate clarity was gained and our leadership united around a firm line and set of propositions. They were put to the November 9 1997 aggregate of CPGB members in the form of a series of theses.
Our purpose was fourfold. First, show that a majority of Party members reject the false assertions of those comrades who claimed that the PCC “overestimated” the movement for self-determination in Scotland and made “predictions” of “political strikes, meetings and demonstrations, occupations and civil disobedience”. Second, emphasise the correctness of the call for a mass boycott of Blair’s rigged referendum against our left nationalist, Scottish Militant Labour, Trotskyite, pro-Labour and other critics. Third, underline our estimate that during the course of the referendum the CPGB and the Campaign for Genuine Self-Determination made a marginal or peripheral - but nonetheless real - impact on the masses in Scotland. Fourth, proclaim the perspective of maintaining our politics on an all-Scotland basis.
A clear majority was gained for the PCC document. However, up to November 9 and beyond, other, perhaps more important, matters came to the fore. Apart from the now withdrawn proposal to close the Weekly Worker, there was a coordinated attack on robust polemics per se - along with the opposite, but closely related notion that nothing can do us harm and that comrades should have the absolute right to have anything they wish printed in the Weekly Worker. The logic of such reasoning is unquestionably right-liquidationist, stemming as it does from a liberal, not a communist viewpoint (if this became an organised faction or trend then we would be forced to wage a war of extermination against it).
Phrases such as ‘political cretinism’ were cited as examples of “abuse”, “mere personal insults” and, strangely, as having “no political [sic] content”. Such modes of expression should have no place in our communist culture or should at the very least be viewed with disdain, it was argued. The term ‘right-liquidationist’ also fell into this class of ‘bad’ words that should be “guarded against and frowned upon as a deviation from comradely norms of debate”. So our dumbing-down advocates of New Labour or US-style political correctness would decree.
Insults, of course, have a legitimate, proud and enlightening place in CPGB polemics (and human culture in general). I make no apology for savaging Martin Jacques and Nina Temple, Mike Hicks and Tony Chater. Certainly our tradition is full of healthy invective. Marx insulted Proudhon; Engels insulted Bakunin; Lenin insulted Kautsky; Trotsky insulted Stalin. The suggestion that the person must or should be separated from their ideas, that in debate we must or should only attack the idea never the person, is utterly absurd. We attack the political person not because of their private persona but because of their political ideas. Marx insulted Proudhon because of Proudhonism, Engels insulted Bakunin because of Bakuninism, etc, etc. In the same spirit this writer has never attacked anyone in the Weekly Worker on the basis of their hairstyle, weight or table manners ... but will continue to attack opponents like Arthur Scargill, Peter Taaffe and Tony Cliff because of their politics - which can be and often are idiotic, foolish and stupid. What applies externally also applies internally. Members of the CPGB must have the right to mock and lambast fellow comrades - no matter what their history or official standing - when they consider them in error.
But that does not mean internal polemics should be entered into lightly. Nor that the majority is obliged to automatically publish everything in our press. In my considered opinion a number of recent contributions in the Weekly Worker could have done with far more thought and reflection before they were submitted for publication. I suppose the best example was the one written by comrade Linda Addison which was introduced with the immortal words: “I have been away and therefore not involved in the debate following the referendum in Scotland.” Despite being “in the dark” the comrade launched into a sustained polemic against the leadership, theory and practice of the CPGB (Weekly Worker October 9 1997).
If that ill-considered article was not bad enough in itself, we had the appalling situation where the editor of the Weekly Worker published the Linda Addison article without any consultation either with the editorial committee or the PCC. But this was not an individual aberration. The majority of our editorial committee saw no problem with publishing - though they profoundly disagreed with the content. The same liberal sentiment was echoed by a swathe of other CPGB members. Evidently our comrades have learnt and made their own the principle of open polemic ... but in a one-sided manner. That is why the PCC recommended to the December 21 1997 aggregate of CPGB members a series of theses on revolutionary openness.
Frankly the original set of theses drafted by comrade Mark Fischer did contain some rather crude and angular statements. They were in my view essentially correct, but were considered by most comrades to be unrounded and on specific details incorrect. Hence they were rightly modified and improved by the PCC. Comrade Lee-Anne Bates also took the lead in adding what was in effect a long preamble. Her role here was honourable and entirely positive.
Comrade Bates’ amended document formed the substantial basis for the theses tabled for the January 31 1998 aggregate (see Weekly Worker February 5 1998). Debate lasted more than five hours. The skill and sophistication of most interventions was very impressive. There was much passion too. Many comrades were genuinely worried that the PCC was welching on the principle of openness. That the leadership was overreacting to criticism that originated from within. Our Manchester comrades formed themselves into a bloc and acted as the core of opposition to the PCC. They arrived at the aggregate armed with an alternative motion which stressed freedom of criticism but contained no mention of the right and duty of editors to edit - hardly an oversight.
Those supporting the PCC hammered home again and again the point that, while we wanted to assert the right of our editors to “refuse contributions they consider harmful or ill-considered”, this in no way took away the universal and full freedom of criticism (as long as it does not disrupt a definite action). “All Party members have a responsibility to ... engage with debates in the paper and to develop criticism in print” (thesis 12). The authors of unpublished submissions have the right of appeal up to and including a “Party aggregate” (thesis 13). Moreover “comrades or groups have the right to publish outside the Party” (thesis 14).
Faced with these arguments, the Manchester comrades reconsidered, retreated and redrafted. They changed their own motion by incorporating the PCC’s insistence on the right of editors to edit:
“The leadership of the Party or the bodies delegated with editorial functions must have the right to refuse contributions they consider disrupt a definite action or of low political merit. Disagreements over such decisions should be raised with the relevant Party committees and if necessary at an aggregate of the organisation” (Weekly Worker February 5 1998).
To all intents and purposes the PCC and the Manchester bloc drew together. Unfortunately despite that the comrades still maintained their opposition from what can only be a position of mistrust of the leadership. Their argument seems to be that what the PCC was saying was formally right, but the motivation was wrong. When it came to the vote at the end of the afternoon session leading PCC members had no hesitation or compunction in urging support for both propositions, the theses backed by the PCC and the Manchester motion. The majority of comrades agreed. The Manchester motion was carried with only a few abstentions. The PCC-backed theses were also passed overwhelmingly ... but with a small minority, mainly from Manchester, against.
These split votes indicate continued differences. Yet in terms of substance I believe that CPGB members have after five months of fierce debate reunited themselves on a higher level. Our organisation is visibly maturing. There is unity of all parts of the organisation around the post‑September 11 perspectives. There is unity of all parts of the organisation on the need for communist rapprochement. There is unity of all parts of the organisation on the responsibilities that come with democratic centralism. There is unity of all parts of the organisation around the right of editors to edit. Best of all there is a palpable spirit and desire for unity.
This is excellent and should give CPGB members and supporters great confidence. Where other left and revolutionary groups - from the SWP to the Socialist Party - are suffering a considerable weakening we, albeit modestly, are going from strength to strength. Due to stubborn and steadfast work - though not without setback and friction - our membership, influence and the circulation of our press continue to grow. Crucially, where over the last decade one left and revolutionary group after another has lost self-belief and disintegrated - the Euro CPGB, WRP, RCP, Class War, etc - we are prepared to openly confront and resolutely combat liquidationist tendencies which are inevitable in a period of reaction and extreme downturn in the class struggle such as this.
The future is bright, the future is red.