The Party ‘line’

Party notes

There has been a little flutter of controversy around the question of a supposed change of the Communist Party’s ‘line’ on the nature of the ex-Soviet Union. Comrade Steve Riley from Manchester CP was featured in Weekly Worker of July 30 expressing concern that “the ongoing work of one comrade [is changing into] the perceived wisdom of the majority”.  Anxious to leave no piece of mud unflung, the recent reply from Mary Ward to my July 23 polemic against her and Nick Clarke thus highlights - idiotically - the “recent changes in the organisation’s ‘line’ on the Soviet Union [which] must have left at least some comrades wondering when and where they had voted for a change” (Reply to Mark Fischer August 20).

We will soon be reproducing comrade Ward’s document in full along with a reply, but I know all CPGB members will agree with me that we can afford to wave away such mischievous comments from such bruised individuals with contempt. The majority opinion of this organisation is indeed changing on the USSR. But the idea that this process will be punctuated by votes on theory, or indeed that the last ‘line’ - or rather, majority viewpoint - of Party member’s was decided by a show of hands is either profoundly ignorant or simply dishonest.

Indeed, our approach to ‘Party lines’ is organically linked to our understanding of the ‘non-confessional’ nature of the revolutionary Party of the working class. The term ‘line’ is much misused on the left, but if it is to mean anything at all its basic premise must be action. In a specific political context, faced with concrete political tasks, the Party will adopt a line of march, a practical approach on what to do next. In united action decided on by the Party - be it a picket line, a demonstration or the insurrection itself - not one word of discord or criticism can be permitted. A dissenting minority must strictly subordinate itself to the Party majority and fulfil all tasks in a disciplined way.

The idea that this approach has anything in common with having a ‘line’ on questions such as the nature of the USSR, the Kronstadt rebellion or - as in the case of the Socialist Workers Party - the precise character of the transition from ape to human, is indicative of hopeless sectarianism.

Take Workers Power’s recently changed ‘line’ on the USSR. We commented on its method, prompting an exchange in the pages of this paper (see Weekly Worker February 26, March 5 and April 2). Essentially, after a clandestine “five-year debate” inside WP and its international co-thinkers, readers of the organisation’s Trotskyist International had a new world view announced to them in the January-June issue. This revelatory article informed us that “under the impact of events in eastern Europe” from 1989 onwards, “some members of the former majority joined the old minority” after the debate “broke out anew in 1993”. Fascinating.

But what of the content of the debate - by what process of logical development did the minority become a majority, exactly how and why did people change their minds? All of this is a matter of conspiracy. What has become the minority view gently subsides into the depths, only to publicly exist now in fond memory. Workers Power has a new binding ‘line’ on the nature of the eastern European states after World War II.  The minority viewpoint has no opportunity - trussed up as they are by ideological ‘discipline’ - to criticise the views of the majority openly, to learn from and critically engage with other advanced ideas in the movement. Unless, of course, the 50 or so individuals fortuitously thrown together in today’s WP have an absolute and total monopoly of all advanced thinking on the USSR. And if this is indeed the case, WP comrades should perhaps inform us from what far-off star system they have come and what fate they have in mind for the human race when they take over our world.

This approach to theory bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the Stalinist practice of imposing Party ‘lines’ in other fields of scientific thought. Normally it is justified by pointing to the obvious - that today’s groups are more like factions of a Party rather than Party formations. Therefore, the argument goes, they must be cohered by a much higher degree of theoretical and political homogeneity. Yet where is the link between today’s internecine practice of the revolutionary left and the future united Party? Is their current work imbued with a spirit of Partyism? Or is it what it looks like - narrow manoeuvring on a political and theoretical level to further the interests of particular sects organised around this or that ideological shibboleth to justify their separate existence?

Without exhaustively scouring the material from all Party conferences and aggregates, I think I am correct in saying that the only membership vote we have ever taken on the USSR was to study it. Whatever conditional and partial categories the Party majority coheres around during the course of this important work will not be a Party ‘line’ or anything like it. We are not in business to build just another sect. We take the fight for scientific ideas rather more seriously

Mark Fischer
national organiser