For or against liquidationism

Two recent resignations from the CPGB underline the nature of the political period. These letters of personal justification written in April are printed below with a reply from Mark Fischer which draws out some political lessons

Unreasonable demands

Having heard nothing from Mark Fischer, CPGB national organiser since I informed him of the decision of Nick Clarke and myself to leave the CPGB, it was with great interest that I awaited some comment in ‘Party notes’ (March 26). I was surprised however that he skimmed over the resignations from the organisation of Andy Hannah but more particularly of Lee-Anne Bates. Lee-Anne was a leading comrade, former editor of the Weekly Worker and member of the PCC.

This is significant, as it was the treatment of Lee-Anne by the organisation when she raised criticisms of Jack Conrad which was a major contributing factor in our decision to resign. I have made my view on this clear at all Party forums: I believe she was treated appallingly not by an individual, but by the leadership as a whole. I disagreed with many of her formulations and proposals particularly over the Weekly Worker, but when at one meeting I said that I could understand the logic of her proposals, I was berated for not being outraged at her suggestion of a fortnightly paper.

Perhaps that was the start of the “rightwing liquidationist” nonsense. I hold my hands up to having being outraged by that accusation. Our crime was to disagree with the Jack Conrad interpretation of the referendum result. Anyone who was in Scotland at the time - and I include those who have now returned to England - knows the impact we had was marginal. Our campaign did not have a mass impact. This did not mean that the campaign was wrong or a failure and we have outlined our views on this elsewhere.

I cite both of these incidents as examples of part of the reason for our resignation. We believe that the culture and method of polemic both within the organisation and within the Weekly Worker is wrong and we have raised this within the organisation on numerous occasions. We believe that this method repels people from, rather than attracts people to, the CPGB. I can understand the spin put on events by Mark Fischer, but he too is well aware that all is not well within the organisation at the highest level.

The quotations that Mark repeats in ‘Party notes’ are not from either Nick Clarke or myself but, I believe, from at least one other comrade who has not resigned but is concerned about the CPGB method.

Mark says that we “evidence a pronounced reluctance to speak to the leaders of our organisation”. This is untrue. I have spoken directly to three members of the PCC. I understand other comrades were advised not to contact us. However, any who have, we have been happy to speak to. We are happy to talk with comrades at any time. I was reluctant however to have John Bridge camped out in my living room at this stage, but made it clear that within the next few weeks we would be happy to discuss all our reasons for leaving.

Comrades should be aware that this was not a spur-of-the-moment decision and that for almost a year now I have felt that the demands made on us by the organisation have been unreasonable, given the state of the working class movement at this time. We have stressed that the reasons were a mixture of both the personal and the political, and acknowledge the pull of bourgeois life on us all. I only wish the leadership would acknowledge mistakes on its part rather than putting all moves away down to the period of reaction.

Another constant refrain from ourselves has been that the leadership do not listen to the membership, particularly those based outside London. This has been the experience of every comrade that I know of who works or has worked away from centre.

Mark’s suggestion that only through the CPGB as it exists at the moment can someone fight for the “project of human liberation” is frankly frightening. Thankfully, there are comrades everywhere who have the same ultimate goal.

We have no intention of giving up politics and will continue to fight for communist politics within the SSA or any other formation that may develop as SML move towards dissolution into a Scottish Socialist Party. We intend to argue against the move within the SSA to take up an independence position by putting forward a resolution on the fight for a federal republic.

We do not wish the CPGB ill. We believe in broad terms with the project to reforge the Communist Party of Great Britain and accept the organisation’s draft programme, but we have clearly lost confidence in the method of the CPGB to bring this about.

We too will do our utmost to maintain relations and hold many within the organisation as comrades and friends and look forward to the day when we will be united in a single mass party of the working class.

Mary Ward

Intolerant of critcism

While I do not wish to repeat Mary Ward’s letter to the Weekly Worker, I would like to make the following points in reply to the ‘Party notes’ column (Weekly Worker March 26). Responding to our resignations, Mark Fischer says that “the departees have raised no principled or programmatic differences with the majority of Party members … disagreement is that of nuance or style.” This is Mark’s interpretation, not ours. It is true that I believe that there are no programmatic differences and there are disagreements that could be described as ones of nuance and shade. However, there are principled differences.

For example the handling of members’ criticism by the leadership and the treatment of those members who do criticise the leadership has left a lot to be desired in recent months. This is particularly true in the case of Lee-Anne Bates. Although I do not share a number of the criticisms she raised, she did make some valid points, which she argued coherently. However any defence of her right to express them and to be taken seriously was met with a barrage of smears and accusations of “rightwing liquidationism” and “pessimism”. So the debate over the real content of her argument failed to happen. This was also my criticism of the Weekly Worker’s obsessive use of the phrase ‘national socialism’. I do not dispute its validity as a political term, but the Weekly Worker deliberately overused it to provoke Scottish Militant Labour, not to encourage a comradely debate on the concept of ‘a national road to socialism’.

When it comes to principle, it is some leading members of the Party who actually defend as a point of principle the use of invective and insult against internal or external dissenting comrades, as if it is part of the Leninist tradition. I disagree: yes, we should have sharp and incisive debate, but it should be comradely (see Lenin v Luxemburg in the Right of nations to self-determination). On numerous occasions I have raised this criticism only to be dismissed as “soft”. Abuse, disguised as Leninist polemic, is no substitute for constructive criticism that genuinely attempts to reach the truth, not bury it.

The leadership seems unable to accept, as valid, any form of criticism of itself by members. This is not healthy. Some comrades express criticisms in private, but there is a reluctance to do so in print or in public because of the ‘polemical’ mugging that may follow.

Over the last six months I feel that I have conducted some form of political fight over issues such as the analysis of the referendum in Scotland, the style and content of the Weekly Worker and the debate around openness. I have raised political differences, including the above points, either at various Party meetings or in print (in the Weekly Worker and in internal documents). I am happy to continue discussing these both with the leadership or members of the organisation. I am not retiring from communist politics, as Mark implies. I intend to continue that struggle in the Scottish Socialist Alliance.

Nick Clarke

Mark Fischer replies

I won’t bore readers with a detailed refutation of all the complaints and jibes contained in these short letters from the Dundee comrades. I have produced a 20,000-word internal document for members, supporters and friends of our organisation which of necessity has to reply in painful detail to these two bruised individuals. I will try to concentrate here on the more substantive political issue that is presented by these sorry personal implosions: that of liquidationism.

I understand comrades Mary Ward and Nick Clarke are putting together a rejoinder which I look forward to reading. But, more importantly, I think our organisation is justified in demanding that comrades beyond our immediate ranks actually take a side.

The equivocal role played by comrade Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group has been disappointing. Despite having these dire letters and being fully aware of the sober and mature reasons why our organisation felt it prudent to delay publication, the comrade has foolishly claimed that this episode blew a “big hole in the policy of [Communist Party] ‘openness’” (Weekly Worker May 28). His latest comments (Weekly Worker July 16) are more ambiguous, but they are still studiously neutral. While he agrees with me that there is no “absolute” right of reply involved, he tells our readers that “we all need to know whether the Dundee comrades can give us any insights”. Dave and the other RDG comrades have had these letters and my reply for some time. Therefore I hardly need to simply ‘assure’ him that they are politically “without merit”. If he had spotted any “insights” in these sad documents, I presume he might have mentioned it already in any one of the numerous articles he had written in our press or the CPGB internal and public forums he has attended.

A serious approach to communist rapprochement is incompatible with ‘even-handedness’ between forces fighting for the Party and those who have deserted it. I am sure comrade Craig would agree that one cannot pursue genuine rapprochement around a Party project by appealing to backwardness. One must be for or against liquidationism, in other words.

One more comment before I get into the substance of this reply. The Provisional Central Committee of our Party categorically rejects the suggestion from comrade Ward that Lee-Anne Bates - the ex-editor of this paper - was treated “appallingly” by the “leadership as a whole”. Lee-Anne erupted into print with an opposition platform without once ever having even hinted at having any criticisms in Party forums or the leadership of which she was a part. The first inkling that members of the Party - including her closest comrades - had of her views was when, along with the rest of the left, they read them in the pages of the Weekly Worker.

For reasons I examine below, the comrades seem to find the polemical vigour with which Lee-Anne was replied to “appalling”. But what leadership worth its salt would not respond to the sudden appearance of a liquidationist opposition platform in the pages of its press? Comrade Bates subsequently resigned as editor of the paper, resigned from the PCC (against the advice of the majority of that committee) and finally from Party membership. Today, she has retired to private life to “read Marx” and - presumably - wait for better times.

I have chosen to reply to only those issues raised by our ex-members which have general applicability. In this way, the debate can be raised above the petty and real lessons can be drawn which can benefit the whole of the workers’ movement. The issues are:

First, on our culture of polemic. Of course, the comrades are not alone in finding our style abrasive. But what are the Leninist traditions of polemical exchange and does our organisation stand in them?

The defining feature of communist polemic should be rigour and openness. We are after truth, an attempt to make transparent all political relationships between phenomena, people and their actions. The angularity of our language, its sharpness and search for precision is a product of this.

Martov - judged rather a ‘soft’ Iskraist, by the way - neatly captured this blunt, no-nonsense expositional style when he commented that the editors of this paper “strove to make sure that ‘all that is ridiculous’ appears in ‘a ridiculous form’” and to “expose ‘the very embryo of a reactionary idea hidden behind a revolutionary phrase’” (my emphasis - cited in M Liebman Leninism under Lenin London 1985, p29).

Therefore truth for communists - engaged as we are in the class struggle - is not arrived at by some mushy process of “constructive criticism” instead of “abuse”, as comrade Clarke puts it. The search for truth is an active affair, involving constant, sometimes harsh conflict.

Thus, this ruthless exposure of “the very embryo of a reactionary idea hidden behind a revolutionary phrase” - a “polemical style that was destined to enjoy a brilliant future in the Bolshevik party” (ibid) - was damned by political competitors:

“On all sides, Iskra’s opponents condemned the polemical methods of this journal, which was accused, to quote Trotsky’s testimony at the time, of ‘fighting not so much against the autocracy as against the other factions in the revolutionary movement’” (ibid).

What distinguishes our political theory is its scientific foundation and - paradoxically - it is this that often can introduce the sharpness, the conflict into its expression. Science consists in the practice of moving beyond the observation of relatively simple causal-consequential relations and surface connections to the formulation of more profound and fundamental laws of social being and thinking. It is in this context that Marx commented that if the surface appearance of things and their inner essence coincided, then there would be no need for science.

Given that scientific truth is thus hidden behind what is ‘accidental’ and ‘chaotic’, how does it come into the world? Always and everywhere as the viewpoint of either individuals or extreme minorities.

Why were Lenin’s hard political formulations almost always in a minority when they began? Because he merely concerned to “insult” and to use “invective”? No - precisely because they were characterised by scientific exactitude, by a striving to grasp what was essential to a political phenomenon, not to be diverted by “all that was external, accidental, superficial” and instead “reached to the heart of the matter and grasped the essential methods of action” (L Trotsky On Lenin p194).

While ultimately Leninism is verified and made more precise by the practical experience of society itself, because it is a species of political life, it cannot expect its victory to simply materialise through the unfolding of the objective laws of history’s development. In other words, it is not like waiting for the seasons to change or for a solar eclipse. To be a successful Leninist politician, one must master the art of politics, an essential aspect of which is polemic.

Thus, given what I have said above, it has to be the ABC of Leninist polemics that they are required to carve out an audience for themselves, to make other, larger, forces pay shocked attention. To do battle against the prevailing flow of political ‘common sense’, they must be expressed in stark, angular political terms. And if in the course of such a tussle, a word, phrase or idea hits home, then for Christ sake keep repeating it, drive it into the heart of your opponents. It should be obvious that when a political opponent starts at our use of particular phrase, when, like Tommy Sheridan and Alan Green, they make demands that we ‘withdraw’ these accusations, the likelihood is that we have touched a soft spot.

Comrade Clarke attempts (not very successfully) to enlist a ‘polite’ Lenin into his camp of “constructive” debate as opposed to “abuse”. It would be too easy for us to present over and over again a ‘rude’ Lenin. This type of quote-jousting is of little use, apart from to prove that our list would be far, far longer. So how are we to explain this ‘nasty’ and ‘nice’ Lenin?

The form of the polemical struggle of the revolutionary party is framed within an understanding of its political tasks. The organisation and the proletariat it seeks to represent operate in a world saturated with the ideas of an enemy class. Bourgeois consciousness - and its ‘working class’ political form of opportunism - is constantly reproduced - a spontaneously generated poison within the ranks of the proletarian movement.

The fight of our Party is for proletarian independence. Fundamentally, this is not an organisational attribute - it is political/theoretical. The struggle for our politics thus takes the form of drawing sharp, unambiguous lines of political demarcation. The tendency to blur such lines, to be coy about political differentiation, to let opportunists off the hook - all of which has been manifest in the Scottish comrades’ approach to politics - is an expression of a slide away from Leninism, towards bourgeois politics in the workers’ movement.

Thus, Lenin’s famous angularity was not simply for the sake of upsetting people. His politics were formed thus in order to draw implacable lines of political distinction between proletarian politics and those of our enemy class.

Of course, there is no single mode or tempo of polemical struggle. We employ different tactics in order to affect the real world in some way. The polemical assault conducted by the Communist Party and the Weekly Worker on the explicit embrace of nationalism by SML has been designed to shock, outrage and engage comrades in its ranks. We have raised our voice so piercingly because we have seen this organisation about to disappear over the nationalist cliff. As a much smaller group, we have to make our voice heard in the first place. Thus, when a scientifically accurate but shocking phrase draws a response, we keep using it. If the positions were reversed and we were the size of SML, we could perhaps smother its rightism with politeness, if we thought it worthwhile. This is not the case. We want it to be saved as an organisation if possible; if not, it must be split, destroyed and a minority orientated to genuine working class politics.

This sensitivity to the ‘style’ of the Weekly Worker has clearly now revealed not simply “nuance or shade”, but the differing programmatic appetites of these two comrades. Far from this ‘style’ obscuring the message of our organisation, I think its approach is fully in the tradition of the art of Leninist politics. It has been brilliantly effective. Thus we actually come far closer to the truth if we say that comrades Clarke and Ward wanted us to quietly drop the ‘national socialist’ label for SML precisely because it had hit home, because it was continually causing controversy, heated exchanges. Comrade Clarke did not want to “provoke” more.

The current guiding ethos of these two comrades is to recommend to us not that we do what is necessary, but simply the level dictated to us, “given the state of the working class movement at this time”. The “demands” we place on comrades - in line with our consistent principle of ‘fighting for what is necessary’ - are thus “unreasonable” according to comrade Ward.

Fighting for what is necessary always has been the method of this organisation and it continues unchanged. This is the slogan with which we have launched Summer Offensive after Summer Offensive, convinced comrades to give up jobs and become full-time revolutionaries, to move around the country, or even from one continent to another.

The implied arguments of these letters thus flippantly overthrow the whole history of our organisation from its very inception. The suggestion is that this organisation - as a Leninist collective - should never have been founded in the first place.

Let us look at comrade Ward’s casual lurch into sub-Menshevism in some detail. First, if the general demands of the Party are “unreasonable due to the state of the working class movement at this time” (my emphasis), when exactly were they ‘reasonable’? In 1920 when the Party was formed? In 1981 when The Leninist was launched? And if the level we demand must be mechanically fixed to the level of the general workers’ movement, should we be demanding progressively less and less every year, given the period of reaction?

In much the same philistine vein, two comrades of the liquidationist (and now liquidated) International Socialist Group once accused us of having “elevated democratic centralism into a fetish - inappropriately organising [our] cadres as ‘professional revolutionaries’ on a cell basis - a state of affairs which smacks of nothing less than wish-fulfilling voluntarism” (Weekly Worker September 26 1996). The ignominious way this dismal little sect winked out of existence - a demise perhaps ‘reasonable’, “given the state of the working class movement at this time” - is a more eloquent polemic against these type of politics than anything I could ever write. 

Having not “given up politics”, are comrades Ward and Clarke now doing what is necessary, or just what they believe is possible? If it is what is necessary, they must believe what they have done in leaving the Party in the manner they have represents the future, that all comrades should follow their example.

Organisation flows from politics in that it is the form of mediation between theory and practice. Therefore, the opportunist groups we see strewn about the British left are not ‘partial solutions’ to the crisis afflicting the vanguard of the workers’ movement. They are actually organised forms of that crisis.

A communist organisation - if it is to have any merit or purpose - must be regarded by the people in it as a conscious step towards overcoming this crisis, a conscious step in the fight for communism. This is certainly how I view the Communist Party: is this what comrades Clarke and Ward think of the two-strong ‘group’ they have formed since resigning? If not, why does it exist?

Believing in communism means being a communist, taking the conscious steps that lead to it. This may require communists to do many things, to undertake all sorts of irksome tasks, sacrifice time, money and their personal freedom. But then, we communists look at “the pull of bourgeois life” as inherently corrupt and corrupting. The chase for the easy life is a chimera based on the unfreedom of others. As communists we do not therefore search for individual salvation under capitalism but consciously subordinate ourselves to the organised collective that will facilitate winning real freedom: that is, communism.

Like many others, comrade Ward foolishly writes that she looks forward to the day “when we will all be united in a single mass party of the working class”. But, it must be asked, what is the link between today’s actionsand this pretty picture of the future? Does the manner of comrade Ward’s departure from our ranks contain, in however abstract and undeveloped a form, the goal she and comrade Clarke claim to want to achieve? A genuine Communist Party, as a revolutionary form of consciousness of the proletariat, is a process by its very nature. It comes into being as a product of struggle. It is built in the course of battles in the here and now. As Lukács puts it,

“However little the final goal of the proletariat is able, even in theory, to influence the initial stages of the early part of the process directly, it is a principle, a synthesising factor and so can never be completely absent from any aspect of that process” (G Lukács History and class consciousness London 1983, p313).

In other words, if these are the actions of principled communists, why not make the call to liquidate the Communist Party as presently constituted explicit (as opposed to just implicit by their actions)? If it is not what is necessary for communists, if it is simply the result of the “pull of bourgeois life”, how is it possible for anyone who calls themselves a communist to remain neutral?

Communism - Lenin tells us - attempts to “proceed from the top downward, and uphold an extension of the rights and powers of the centre in relation to its parts” (VI Lenin CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p394). Having lost confidence in the leadership, are Nick Clarke and Mary Ward proposing the replacement of this Party centre by another, higher centre? Are they proposing that their phantom ‘Dundee group’ does the job? Or are they - as seems obvious by their actions - actually proposing the obliteration of any Party centre whatsoever in the anticipation of some fictitious “single mass party of the working class” in the misty future?

I have no doubt that Mary Ward genuinely feels a sense of ‘outrage’, of scandalised anger against the “accusation” of rightwing liquidationism. “Nonsense,” she firmly tells us. Yet I have illustrated in some detail how this characterisation exactly describes the actions of these two comrades specifically. But let us try to draw some broader historical parallels.

The nature of the period of reaction we are going through has its own unique features, but we can see glaring similarities to previous gloomy times. Particularly instructive have been their corrosive effects on individual revolutionaries. Take Russia as an example after the defeat of the 1905 revolution.

Trotsky points out that “the liquidators were in the forefront during the most desolate years”, and veteran Bolshevik Mikhail Olminsky later recalled that “they were the cocks of the walk and they crowed about it” (cited in P Le Blanc Lenin and the revolutionary party, p172).

An important element in the wide appeal of this current was demoralised disappointment. What this produced in elements of the workers’ movement should sound very familiar to us. The old Menshevik Nicolaevsky wrote of the post-1905 period as one when the ranks of the professional revolutionaries were decimated not simply by tsarist reaction, but by “revolutionaries ... talking about such things as planning marriage and a family, about getting out of the revolutionary movement - temporarily, they claimed - in order to finish school or find a job” (cited in A and J Rabinowitch Revolution and politics in Russia, pp28-2).

Now, before going on, an important point needs to be made here about the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Of course - in 1998 - everyone is a ‘Leninist’, including Nick Clarke and Mary Ward, no doubt. It is ‘obvious’ that Lenin was right and our Dundee comrades and others would consider it a great personal insult - a “smear” or a “polemical mugging” perhaps - if I suggested that the contemporary positions they advocate would have taken them far from the ranks of the Leninists, perhaps out of the revolutionary movement altogether in this corresponding period.

It would be glib of any comrade to declare that ‘of course’ they would have been with Lenin. When you read what the opponents of Lenin wrote at the time, it appears as very seductive.

Thus, why did the Menshevik and other liquidators possess such a degree of influence and strength? Precisely because their prescriptive analysis corresponded to a real truth, an aspect of reality of the Russian workers’ movement. After all, what ‘party’ was there left to defend?

Zinoviev notes that “in retrospect”, in the period of reaction following the defeat of 1905, “we can say quite unhesitatingly that in those hard times the party as such did not exist: it had disintegrated into tiny individual circles which differed from the circles of the 1880s and early 1890s in that, following the cruel defeat that had been inflicted on the revolution, their general atmosphere was extremely depressed” (G Zinoviev History of the Bolshevik party p165). By 1910, the party as a whole had on paper perhaps 10,000 people. Perhaps. Krupskaya actually wrote that “we have no people at all” (Elwood Russian social democracy in the underground, p36).

Thus the liquidators were in fact proscribing what was supposedly reasonable,“given the state of the working class movement at this time” - the methodology comrade Ward would have us adopt. What could be more sensible?

In 1910, Potresov responded to Leninist broadsides by pointedly asking, “Can there exist in sober reality, and not merely as the figment of a diseased imagination, a school of thought that advocates liquidating what has ceased to be an organic whole?” He compared the activities of his critics to “playing with toy soldiers in the face of tragedy” (Ascher The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, pp76-77).

The patient organic work in legal organisations - work that yielded tangible results for workers - superficially compared well to the collapsing Bolshevik underground. During periods of reaction, the rationale of liquidationism is powerfully attractive because it appears to have the whole weight of contemporary society backing it up. It is only “unreasonable” revolutionaries who do not succumb.

No serious communist can deny that the resignations of these two comrades is justified by them on the basis of particularly trivial, personal complaints. Nevertheless, the issue of substance raised by their implosions is that of the continued existence of communist organisations altogether. This alone dictates that there should be no hint of equivocation, or detached impartiality. Communists must stand with the Party, against liquidationism.