Grasping at straws

Party notes

I had to smile when I read the latest piece from Richard Brenner of Workers Power (see p7). Richard roundly castigates the “carefree philistine” Don Preston for “failing completely to get to grips with the subject” of WP’s line change on the overthrow of capitalism in Eastern Europe in the period 1948-51 (‘Admission of failure’ Weekly Worker March 5).

But this is simply trying to engage with the article comrade Brenner wishes Preston had written. In his piece, comrade Preston explicitly focuses on the way WP arrived at their new public theoretical formulation, not its content. This is the “subject” that Preston chooses. Thus, it is extremely instructive that comrade Brenner brands this “agnosticism”. Clearly, for this comrade, schooled as he has been in the sectarian world of British Trotskyism, democratic centralism is a technical question, a set of appropriate organisational operating procedures as distinct from political content.

For us, democratic centralism is a political process through which an organisation wins and then defends unity around a revolutionary programme. Without an open, living engagement with the most advanced ideas in the movement, how can anything approximating to scientific truth be arrived at? Unless comrade Brenner believes that all advanced thinking on the nature of the USSR is the preserve of a tiny number of people fortuitously within WP, he tacitly admits the unscientific nature of WP’s method.

Comrade Brenner has an answer to this, of course. Essentially, he suggests that this conspiratorial approach to theoretical development is something forced on Workers Power by objective conditions. WP - like the rest of us - are “still fighting to develop and defend its programme” (when won’t it be, I wonder). In a more authoritative article in the January-June issue of Trotskyist International - WP’s theoretical journal - Dave Stockton draws out the logic of this understanding:

“The working out of the overall perspective, strategy and key tactics of that programme is, necessarily, the task of a small nucleus of political cadres. A new programme, a new party, cannot be born and find its way in the world except in struggle against pre-existing parties or movements and their ideas and their programmes. Such an original nucleus must, therefore, develop the maximum homogeneity in order to see its ideas triumph’’ (pp45-46).

Picking up on an idea that I originally suggested to him, Brenner characterises the contemporary left scene as being composed of “factions without a party” which are - by definition - characterised by higher degrees of political homogeneity. By itself, this tells us nothing. Indeed, when Brenner clumsily tries to illustrate his point with an example from the history of the Bolshevik faction, he tends to prove our point not his own.

He cites the exclusion of some “ultra-leftists” of the Bolshevik faction, blandly characterising the issue that led to their expulsion as “whether to boycott the duma” or not. Yet Lenin was clear that this question posed the continued existence of the party itself, not the neat regimentation of the political views of his particular faction. He fought tooth and nail to exclude from his faction those he characterised as left liquidators, and he demanded that the Mensheviks expel their right liquidators.

The concrete issue we are discussing here is designated by WP to be “an important but narrow circumscribed theoretical difference”, the exploration of which led “all sides [to realise] that … they are bound together in complete agreement on the programmatic tasks facing the working class …” (Trotskyist International p43). Comrade Brenner himself reiterates that “difference in the debate was very specific”. By drawing the particular parallel with Bolshevik history, is he suggesting that the future survival of WP rested on the outcome of this particular debate (as it did with Lenin’s struggle against the left and right liquidators)? He would be foolish to try.

The approach of comrade Brenner and his co-thinkers in the arid deserts of Trotskyism discredits Marxism in the eyes of advanced workers. Theoretical disputes and development on questions large and small are treated as matters of conspiracy. My comrade Don Preston is quite correct to therefore mock the “complete agreement” of WP. The question of the nature of USSR state, the character of the post World War II overturns in Eastern Europe are considered - erroneously - by this group to be ‘programmatic’ questions.

Yet, in Workers Power (January 1997) Colin Lloyd told us that a stipulation of membership of a communist organisation is that you “agree” with its programme - a foolish, anti-Leninist position it has never repudiated in print. Clearly, there is now a minority in WP who stand by the old position - or do they now all “agree”?

One last point. Comrade Brenner clearly has been bruised by past characterisation of WP as a passive - not a fighting - propaganda group. Frankly, the comrades’ list of the ‘exciting’ arenas of WP intervention - readers will remember this included “young people … discussing the environment” (Workers Power February 1998) - only tended to reinforce the impression.

He now - rather childishly - tells us that we are the passive ones and this is inevitable given our approach to democratic centralism. “Without applying democratic centralism in this manner [ie the conspiratorial manner of WP - MF], a fighting propaganda group today would become merely a talking shop”. Like us, comrade?

Regular readers who have followed the intervention of our two organisations around the Socialist Labour Party project will recognise Richard’s method here. It’s called grasping at straws.

Mark Fischer
national organiser