Publish and be damned

Mark Fischer replies to Alan Gibson

Readers will have noted last week’s letter from Alan Gibson on behalf of the Marxist Bulletin, British section of the International Bolshevik Tendency (Weekly Worker December 3). Alan complains of the “misrepresentations” of his organisation’s positions in the report of our ‘Against economism’ school (Weekly Worker November 12). Centrally, he contends that the charge of economism directed against MB was not proved, but simply reiterated from an “ill-thought out comment made by a CPGB speaker during the discussion”. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that we have a practice of distorting the politics of our opponents - something for which we are “increasingly well known on the left” (all Alan Gibson/MB quotes from Weekly Worker December 3 unless otherwise stated).

We dismiss his accusation about our credibility. It deserves contempt. The fact that Alan and his comrades raise such a smokescreen says nothing about the veracity of reports in this paper; everything about the political sensitivity of those on the receiving end of them. When we call centrists, national socialists or reformists by their proper names and provide evidence for our assertions, those attacked often complain that we are “misrepresenting” them, or even telling “sensational lies”.

Frankly, comrades, if this paper simply filled its pages with “lies” and distortions then nobody at all would be worried about it and its circulation would not make it one of the most influential papers on the left. What would be the point of taking it, still less replying to it?

This paper follows Lenin’s blunt maxim, aussprechen was ist - to say what is. It is not distortion, but accuracy that our opponents object to. For examples, let us cite the Socialist Alliance, the SLP, the SWP, the Socialist Party and the CPB-Morning Star split. Those who want the truth turn to the Weekly Worker. Our method always has been to report facts to the best of our ability and to draw a sharp line of demarcation between Leninist politics and opportunism.

Thus, comrades - particularly those who participated in our school and witnessed the political knots comrade Gibson and other MBers tied themselves into, not least over the slogan for a federal republic - will need little convincing that what has actually hurt these comrades is our accurate reporting of their problems. Indeed, if further proof were needed of the charge of economism against the Marxist Bulletin, comrade Gibson’s brief letter generously supplies ample evidence of it. But I will come to this later. In the meantime it is worthwhile shading in some of the background to the exchange. This will explain why we were pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation from the comrades.

The Communist Party was approached by the MB comrades for a “series of discussions between our two organisations to follow on from discussions at the Communist University and continue the process of movement towards political clarity between our organisations” (letter, October 4 1998). Concretely, the comrades proposed five meetings - on the united front, the popular front, World War II, permanent revolution and the national question - at six-weekly intervals.

Before going on, a comment is in order on the narrowness of the topics proposed for study. The leadership of our organisation was prepared to accept them without amendment, as they appeared to be the issues that the MBers regarded themselves as strong on. Given that we are keen to engage with these comrades, we were anxious not to place any obstacles in the way of meeting them. However, as a means of engaging with our organisation, they illustrate something quite important about MB’s sectarian method.

Frankly, these seminar titles have the feel of either being banged out quite casually without any genuine thought as to what our Party majority actually stands for, or having been cobbled together by an out-of-touch international leadership with a ‘left-Stalinist’ template already in mind for the CPGB.

This notwithstanding, our organisation was prepared to accept this series. We estimated that at least one section of participants in such meetings might find the proceedings enlightening - the MB comrades.

However, we have totally rejected demands from the comrades that other left organisations and individuals are excluded, and that no reports are permissible in the Worker Worker. In a meeting between representatives on November 25 convened to discuss details, the MBers indicated that they would find open publication acceptable only after the series had ended.

Readers with a command of elementary maths will note that - with the interruption of the schedule by other meetings - the comrades were thus proposing that reporting restrictions be imposed for nearly one year.

Challenged on this, the MBers suggested that reports in the Weekly Worker - as evidenced by our comments on their participation in the ‘Against economism’ school - were so full of “misrepresentations” that too much time would be wasted responding to them. Yet last week, comrade Gibson fired off a reply on behalf of MB - in other words, precisely the open, democratic procedure urged on them in the first place and rejected at the November 25 meeting as “a waste of time”.

In fact, what we can draw from this puzzling episode is further confirmation of the nature of this group.

The last Marxist Bulletin was actually in May of this year. Strangely for a political organisation, the comrades appear to feel no imperative to publish, to see their views in public, where they can be assessed and perhaps attacked by others. Evidently, this reticence even extends to being unwilling to fill the space offered to them in this widely read newspaper, let alone going to all the time and effort of producing a journal themselves.

This brings to mind a polemical exchange this paper had with the Spartacist League/Britain (internationally the parent organisation of the IBT, of course) last year. We wrote of the “ponderously bureaucratic” and “excruciatingly slow lumbering” of the SL/B’s political life, evidenced by their rarely glimpsed press (Weekly Worker January 16 1997). This “painfully slow pace provides a protective shield to the SL/B. Working at such a polemical pace, it is impossible to do much more than simply reiterate positions, rather than provide proof, clarification and justification. This is why we offered a robust polemical exchange in the pages of this more frequent and influential paper - a clash, given the SL/B’s evident political fragility, we speculated would probably be the death of it. Clearly, the SL/B thought so too” (Weekly Worker April 10 1997).

And clearly the MB can see its point. Yet it is axiomatic for Marxists that open publication is an essential requirement of the fight for precisely the type of political clarity the comrades purport to be fighting for. MB/IBT’s laid back attitude illustrates that it is actually seeking something other than “clarity”. The purpose of the organisation is not to change the real world - a hard process of testing and re-elaborating programme. The activity of the group is strictly subordinated to the preservation of the integrity of a dogma and the sect organisational apparatus that serves it.

Perhaps comrade Gibson’s letter of last week indicates that the comrades are breaking at long last from this. This is to be welcomed, although it would surely spell death for the MB/IBT as currently constituted. Open debate would inevitably reveal differences of opinion and perspective in its ranks. Such differences - even the most nuanced - are enough to precipitate crisis within organisations based on ‘agreement with’ rather than ‘acceptance of’ a collective programme that brims with as much extraneous detail as the MB/IBT’s.

Thus, the MB/IBT recently lost comrade Ian Donovan - who now produces Revolution and Truth. He left over whether it was correct to offer critical electoral support to workers’ parties involved in popular fronts. Incredibly - despite the fact that all sides in the dispute agreed that “nothing of immediate application” in terms of the work of the group was raised by the non-discussion (in other words, practice was not involved), comrade Donovan felt it necessary to resign.

Of course, it is easy to criticise the comrade for this - and this paper has. However, it should also be noted that he was following a method lodged in the IBT since inception. In a communication to IBTers internationally, Adaire Hannah on behalf of the organisation’s international secretariat, characterises this question as one of the “fundamentals of its politics … [a matter that is] settled in our tradition” (my emphasis, undated). Clearly, polemic is dangerous territory for such comrades.

Essentially, comrade Gibson’s letter asserts that the charge of ‘economism’ against the MB/IBT is misplaced on the strength of the evidence presented. Specifically, a leaflet issued by the comrades around the Steve Hedley dispute was characterised as “economistic” by comrade Danny Hammill (Weekly Worker November 12). This leaflet states - correctly - that “railworkers need what all workers need - secure jobs, good pay, strong unions, decent free healthcare, good education and more leisure time”.

Comrade Gibson however cites the very next paragraph as proof against the “economism” charge. This states that “militant trade unionism by itself is not enough to get what we need ... We need to build caucuses in the unions around a political programme for working class state power that can successfully meet the assaults of the bosses.” The leaflet ends with the flourish - “Break with the New Labour traitors! Union funds only for pro-working class candidates! For a workers’ party funded by the unions to fight for a workers’ government!”

This is perfect, comrades. Really, we could not have illustrated the miserable method of left economism better if we had tried to concoct a parody of it ourselves. In terms of the immediate demands the MB/IBT advance for the struggle in the here and now, we get a series of low-level, essentially ‘economic’ calls that on face value could be accepted by most people to the left of William Hague.

But tacked on the end is the supposedly distinctly ‘Trotskyist’ feature: the demand for ‘socialism’, a “workers’ government” - in reality such abstract slogans are common to the entire economistic spectrum - from the Bennites to the SWP. The realm of high politics, the question of how the people of this country are ruled and by whom, the task of making the working class the hegemon of the fight for democracy - all of this is left unaddressed. Comrade Gibson attempts - naively or cynically - to restrict the definition of economism to the denial of the need for any sort of politics. Assuming this falsehood, he seriously suggests that blandly stating, “Militant trade unionism by itself is not enough”, or we need a “workers’ government” is sufficient to absolve the MB/IBT of the charge of economism!

Perhaps before the comrades present another tetchy defence they could perhaps expend some energy to find out what economism is.

Mark Fischer