Minority rights and the CPGB

Democratic centralism

Comrade Roger Harper (Letters, April 22) has now added his voice to that of comrade Phil Watson (Letters, March 18), criticising a passage in Danny Hammill’s article on the London Socialist Alliance launch rally (Weekly Worker March 11).

Comrade Hammill reported part of Anne Murphy’s speech in the following way: “The CPGB consistently champions democracy in our movement, but also in society at large. As comrade Murphy made clear, in the view of the CPGB, Stalin and his wretched cohorts ruled over societies which had absolutely nothing to do with socialism. The bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union - and all those modelled upon it - treated the working class as state slaves. The ‘Soviet experience’ demonstrates that democracy is no add-on extra, but is an essential feature of socialism.”

Phil Watson’s complaint seems to be that comrade Murphy was expressing the opinion only of a majority of Party members and supporters, which presumably implies that the phrase, “in the view of the CPGB”, ought to be restricted to instances of unanimous Party opinion. This is clearly wrong.

I doubt if there is a single issue where we have complete unanimity down to the last detail. The existence of differences is natural and would be replicated a thousand times in a mass, reforged Communist Party. So does that mean that an authoritative Party view can never be publicly stated? Obviously, when it comes to questions of immediate tactics, agreement on strategy or the adoption of a programme, the method of overcoming our differences is through a democratic vote. To do otherwise would be to risk paralysis. I am sure comrades Watson and Harper would agree that the majority position could in such circumstances be described as “the view of the CPGB”.

But the nature of the Soviet Union is not a question that requires a vote. It is not a matter of action, but theory and history. How we view the USSR today does not determine what we do in the immediate sense. Indeed it would be positively undesirable to force the issue to a vote, implying that the question was now ‘settled’ and should not be reopened. Nevertheless, as the comrades readily admit, the position stated by comrade Murphy is the view of the majority. To differentiate between questions that have and have not been put to a vote smacks of formalism.

Comrade Harper writes: “If indeed this [comrade Murphy’s description of the Soviet Union] was the policy of the CPGB, it would be incumbent on all members to argue for this political perspective.” Absolute nonsense. That may be the interpretation placed on democratic centralism by most of the left, but it is certainly not the position of the CPGB (or of VI Lenin). As comrade Watson correctly states, “the CPGB ... does not impose a gagging order on its minorities”. That is why the disagreements of minorities are published, including those of comrades Harper and Watson. The description of comrade Murphy’s speech as “the view of the CPGB” in no way implies a “desire to bury our differences and stifle debate in the cause of ‘unity’”, as comrade Watson alleges.

Democratic centralism means unity during an action. Only when a decision to embark upon a particular course has been taken is it “incumbent on all members” to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the campaign, and do nothing to undermine it. For example, the CPGB has now decided to contest the forthcoming European elections. It is therefore the duty of all comrades, including any who may have reservations, to make our intervention as successful as possible. The Weekly Worker should not be expected to publish comrades’ agitation against the decision once the action has begun.

However, after the election has taken place, we will then have to assess every aspect of our intervention, including the original decision. Comrades will have not only the right, but the duty to voice criticisms.

Comrade Harper is not content with criticising Anne Murphy’s original speech and comrade Hammill’s reporting of it. He goes further, reproaching myself for “slapdash editing of material”, and adds: “This wholly incorrect statement should have carried an apology and correction by the editor.” It goes without saying that it is not the editor’s job to strike out - or ‘correct’ - contentious statements, whether they be those of the majority or a minority (although it would clearly be impermissible for a minority opinion to be described as “the view of the CPGB”).

Finally, comrade Harper ends his letter in the following way:

“I call on all those in the ‘majority’ to inform the ‘minority’ when, where and how its understanding of Soviet Marxism is incorrect, and how exactly it ended up as a ‘slave society’ after a workers’ revolution. Come, comrades, don’t just postulate a position - prove it!”

It is as though comrade Harper has just flown in from Mars. Leading supporters of the majority position - not least comrade Jack Conrad - have proved the validity of their analysis in drafts of a forthcoming book, open debates and in the pages of the Weekly Worker.

Jim Blackstock