Fighting for an international programme

Richard Brenner of Workers Power replies to recent criticisms in the Weekly Worker

Don Preston’s piece (‘Admission of failure’ Weekly Worker March 5) on the article, ‘Marxist theory of the state’, in the latest issue of Trotskyist International was pitifully inadequate, failing completely to get to grips with its subject.

The article in Trotskyist International is a detailed examination of the overthrow of capitalism in Eastern Europe in the period 1948-51. It asks whether Stalinist parties in those years could be said to have smashed the bureaucratic-military apparatus of the bourgeois state or not. It gives an account of what for Marx and Lenin was specific about the notion of ‘smashing’ the state in the proletarian revolution as opposed to laying hold and ‘perfecting’ the existing state machinery as occurred in bourgeois and all previous revolutions. It records an important change in the League for a Revolutionary Communist International’s analysis, correcting the notion, as contained in Workers Power and the Irish Workers Group’s 1983 book The degenerated revolution, that the smashing of state could for Marxists be reduced to the violent seizure of power.

Don Preston filled his article out with several lengthy quotes from Trotskyist International, but never actually bothers to address any of the issues. He admits that he is “not concerned here with the actual ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of the theoretical position sketched out [sic] in the article”, and later again dodges expressing any view on the article’s conclusions with another agnostic phrase: “Whatever the merit [!] of such a perspective...”

Ever the carefree philistine, Preston returns to the CPGB’s petty obsession: the “near comical” fact that the LRCI has changed a position, after a lengthy debate, international discussion, a vote at an international congress, to which the CPGB was not privy. But the more Preston and the CPGB attempt to paint a picture of the LRCI as a bureaucratic organisation in which dissent and disagreement is not tolerated, the more they reveal the opposite to be the case. The undeniable conclusion, which any but the most jaundiced observer would have to reach about our debate on this question - as on Workers Power (Britain)’s debate and change of position last year on the Scottish Assembly - is that the LRCI and its sections have a thriving internal democracy. It is possible to campaign for minority views within our tendency - there are no sacred articles of faith which may not be criticised - and it is possible for minorities to become majorities in the course of political struggle.

All Preston’s cheap sniping about “swapping one infallible truth for another”, “the gods walking among us”, etc, is just demagogy. It panders to the scepticism of anti-party intellectuals towards the whole idea that an organisation can and should have a position on theoretical questions.

The real issue here is the CPGB’s insistence that there is something ‘bureaucratic’ or ‘sect-like’ about an organisation deciding on its policy after an internal debate, and then requiring its members to fight publicly for the majority position. This, we are told, is not how the Bolshevik Party operated. For Lenin’s party, unity in action around agreed positions was the key; factional or theoretical differences could nevertheless be debated publicly.

True - as a norm for a mass party which had passed beyond the stage of a propaganda group still fighting to develop and defend its programme. But here the CPGB starts to get into real difficulty. Because, as they are well aware, the groups on the far left in Britain and around the world today are not parties at all. They remain propaganda groups - some active and militant like the LRCI, others completely passive like the CPGB. In this sense Workers Power and every section of the LRCI are indeed, as Mark Fischer has recently reminded us in the Weekly Worker (February 19), like factions without a party. And - again as you have conceded - factions are groupings united around a clear political and programmatic goal, necessitating a higher degree of homogeneity. Thus the Bolshevik faction did not just allow its members to take any position they wished on, for example, whether to boycott the duma, but adopted a position in favour of participating in elections and excluded from its ranks those ultra-leftists who would not argue for this conception in the RSDLP.

Without applying democratic centralism in this manner, a fighting propaganda group today would become a mere talking shop. And yes, in a period in which revisionism is running rife on the far left, this must apply to the organisation’s struggle against Stalinist, social-democratic and centrist theories. If a part of our membership comes to believe that one of our theories is inadequate or false, they have the right and the duty to struggle for its correction - but unless and until they secure a majority, they must uphold the existing position of the organisation in their public activity.

Apart from anything else, Preston is not going to get very far trying to convince WP or LRCI members that there is something wrong (let alone ‘anti-Leninist’) about our ideas simply by pointing out that our organisation stands by its majority decisions. If I were to attack, for example, the CPGB’s slogan of the ‘federal republic’ simply by writing “So the CPGB ‘just knows’ that this slogan is ‘right’” it would be futile. If a democratically-organised group takes a position of course it is because it believes it to be correct. Mocking this only serves to undermine the idea - as Preston does - that there is such a thing as objective truth (‘right’ or ‘wrong’), that one position can be broadly correct and another can be fatally flawed and false. Instead I should concentrate on criticising the substance of the position under discussion, not the mere fact that a position has been taken.

Now this was beyond Preston, not just because he did not understand the ‘tortuous’ - in fact perfectly clear - article, but because he does not know what to say about its content. After all, the CPGB has made no analysis of this vital question. Did the Stalinists smash the capitalist states in Eastern Europe in the Marxist sense of the term in the 1940s? What was the class character of the form of the bureaucratic military apparatus? What was the class character of the property relations they introduced? How was it possible for capitalism to be restored in several states in the 1990s without a violent struggle? A communist organisation worthy of the name has to be able to answer these questions. And please, we need not only a discussion, but some answers, some conclusions that give guidance to advanced workers on how to respond to these developments and what lessons they carry for the future. Otherwise your organisation is, frankly, of no use - bankrupt.

Of course the LRCI has never claimed for one minute that any of its theories or programmatic positions are ‘infallible truths’ - the fact that we do change positions in a democratic manner should explode this ridiculous assertion. Nevertheless, it is simply untrue for Preston to say that this debate was in any way an alteration of “our entire world view”.

Indeed, the difference in the debate was very specific. Preston is obviously disappointed that nobody in the course of our debate opposed Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state, but ... nobody did. We can hardly be expected to share in his disappointment, because ... well, we think Trotsky was right on this (though not on everything, as Preston would know if he bothered to read our material on his post-war perspectives and his view of imperialism).

That is why we had complete agreement not on “everything under the sun” but over the programmatic necessity both to defend the gains that existed for the working class in those states and to smash the Stalinist bureaucracy’s bureaucratic-military apparatus of oppression of the working class. Of course disagreements are normal in every organisation, but this does not mean that unity around fundamentals is a bad thing. Just because Preston’s national-centred grouplet has not achieved such a level of clarity about its aims, goals and international programmatic tasks does not make clarity and unity undesirable ends in themselves.

Finally, the CPGB has to misrepresent reality in order to avoid recognising what they obviously regard as a deeply embarrassing fact: the existence of the LRCI as an internationally-organised democratic centralist tendency. This is why when Don Preston writes of “Workers Power, British section of the League for a Revolutionary Communist International”, he adds: “(in reality, we all know that WP is the LRCI)”. Here Preston is simply appealing again to the hoped-for ignorance of his British readership. As he knows full well himself, the LRCI has sections in Sweden, France, Germany, Austria, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia. Under a third of the members of the LRCI are in Britain or members of WP(B). The far left and vanguard workers in each of these countries will be well aware of their existence - publications, papers in German, Swedish and French, our comrades’ intervention in spheres of struggle such as the student protests in Berlin, the Melbourne Dockers’ strike, mobilisation against the FN in France, the recent demonstrations of Kosovans in Vienna and so on.

But Don Preston is obviously desperate to deny that this can be real. To do otherwise would be to highlight - once again - both the possibility of developing an international programme and winning forces to it, and the miserable national-centredness of the CPGB, a group which makes no efforts whatsoever to organise an international tendency or develop an international programme itself.