Strategy and tactics

Has the Weekly Worker “collapsed into shabby opportunism” over Ken Livingstone’s bid to become London mayor? Maurice Bernal responds to some criticisms

I have great respect for comrade John Pearson. He is a staunch communist, passionately committed to the cause of our party and the working class.

There is nothing wrong with passion, but it can lead us into serious mistakes. It can blind us to the objective nature of the complex and ever-changing political processes taking place around us - our categories become ossified and our view of the world fixed and monochrome; we cease to think dialectically and, without our even realising it, we abandon the Marxist approach. Similarly, the intensity of our conviction can lead us to misapprehend positions adopted by comrades in the course of polemic.

Sad to say, I believe that comrade Pearson’s correspondence on the Livingstone question (Letters, October 28 and December 9) suffers from both these defects. In both letters the comrade quotes with approbation my position on the problem some six months ago (‘Livingstone for mayor?’ Weekly Worker June 24). In his latest contribution, however, he expresses dismay, even anger, at the “180 degree changes” that have occurred in the CPGB’s “prevailing line” - changes exemplified by a number of front page articles and most of all by the draft theses on ‘The Labour Party and Livingstone’ by comrade Jack Conrad (Weekly Worker November 18).

Comrade Pearson speculates that “a number of prominent Weekly Worker journalists”, including me, must have found the theses “shocking or at least embarrassing reading”, because our previous writings on Livingstone now consign us to the ranks of those doctrinaires and sectarians “who back Livingstone’s right to stand but cannot bring themselves to vote for him as mayor if he is chosen by the Labour Party electoral college in London” as the party’s official candidate for mayor (thesis 12). The comrade is puzzled by our silence and contends that we “owe a duty to the readership and the working class” to explain what has happened. I shall do so, at least so far as my own position is concerned.

First, let me put the comrade’s mind at rest. I am neither “shocked” nor “embarrassed” by the content of the theses. After long and serious discussion, I found myself in agreement with them and believe that my own, albeit modest, contribution to the debate played a part in clarifying the issues on which the theses are based. In comrade Pearson’s view, this must mean that Bernal has joined the “collapse into shabby opportunism” (October 28).

As regards my silence on the subject, the two articles by comrade Michael Malkin (‘Ken ups tempo’, November 4; and ‘Back Livingstone’, November 18) exactly reflected my own thinking. There was no point writing an article that would only have restated Malkin’s assessment.

Now, however, at the risk of reiterating what has already been set out clearly enough by Malkin and others, let us try to get a few things straight - not, I fear, with any prospect of changing comrade Pearson’s thinking, but at least with the hope that we can eradicate some of the misapprehensions which his letters so patently exemplify.

The comrade maintains that the CPGB’s current approach - ie, giving (critical) support to Livingstone, even if he emerges as the Labour Party’s official candidate for mayor - means that we are misleading the working class into the “nauseating” position of “supporting a fight for ‘old Labour’ against New Labour”; that our support for Livingstone is founded on little more than the fact that he is a man whom “Tony Blair hates”. This amounts to treachery towards the working class and our commitment to communism.

On one level, these views simply do not represent serious politics, but they do touch on the nub of the matter. That Blair does hate Livingstone is incontestable: the increasingly desperate, farcically unsuccessful attempts to prevent Livingstone from reaching the short list prove this, as do the more recent - equally ill-conceived and counterproductive - efforts at vilification of Livingstone by the Millbank machine and by Blair personally. But the real question which the comrade should be asking himself is why Blair hates the man so much.

Blair’s claim that a Livingstone victory would mean a return to the days of the ‘loony left’ is an absurd smokescreen. What he hates (and fears) about the consequences of a Livingstone victory is that it would expose the ‘triumph’ of Blairism as a myth; that it would reveal the concept of ‘New Labour’ to be a merely epiphenomenal manifestation, fostered by a small minority, supported by the metropolitan intelligentsia; most damaging of all, it would confirm the existence of a sizeable and potentially powerful left wing so disenchanted with what they view as Blair’s betrayal of ‘socialism’ that they might be tempted to follow Livingstone out of the party altogether.

Even by itself, the struggle around Livingstone’s candidacy has already shown that Blair’s fears are well founded. There has been a significant, qualitative change in the actual and potential disposition of political forces that constitutes a new political reality - a reality undoubtedly complex and contradictory - that comrade Pearson seems unwilling or unable to recognise.

Contrast this with the situation nearly six months ago, when I wrote the piece that comrade Pearson approves of so much. Then, the situation as we now apprehend it had not even begun to mature; there was just ambivalence and ambiguity. On my desk there were two piles of cuttings: one contained pledges of loyalty from Livingstone to Blair, including the assurance that he would never stand as an independent; the other consisted of leaked reports from friends and associates to the diametrically opposite effect - ‘Ken might go it alone’.

What are the responsibilities of a Marxist journalist in such circumstances? I would say that his primary task is to examine the disposition of political forces in a given situation and assess what tactical potentialities it offers us to work towards fulfilling our strategic goal - namely, mobilising the currently atomised, passive and demoralised labour, trade union and working class movement, so that through its self-activity and through our own active intervention and struggle, we can win it to our communist, revolutionary politics. It is not, of course, about the futile undertaking of making exact predictions or categorical assertions, but about helping to determine as accurately as possible the nature of objective reality at any given moment, in order to contribute to the formulation of the correct tactics for the organisation to pursue. The mere mention of ‘tactics’ sadly leads some comrades to look for ‘trimming’, ‘tailing’ and a dozen other opportunist heresies or departures from the ‘true path’.

In the circumstances of June, where so much remained unclear, it seemed to me that there was still the real possibility of a cynical accommodation between Blair and Livingstone, whereby the latter, in return for the party’s official blessing - would be prepared to run for mayor on a totally Blairite platform, including acceptance of plans to privatise the tube, and generally ‘behave himself’.

Again, in the circumstances of June - despite the dismaying debacle of their collapse over the European elections - there still seemed a chance that the London Socialist Alliance had the strength and will to find a real socialist candidate for mayor. Given Livingstone that is now a dead letter.

Hence  - at the time - I came to the conclusion, twice quoted by comrade Pearson, that “it is essential for the left to prepare itself to fight for an authentic socialist mayor of London ... In the unlikely event that Blair bites the bullet and allows Livingstone to contest the election as Labour’s official candidate, we argue it is the duty of the left to fight for a socialist mayoral candidate: ie, a candidate endorsed by a united front of socialist organisations, campaigning on a minimum platform acceptable to such a bloc, as a precondition for principled unity” (Weekly Worker June 24).

Even at this relatively early stage in the development of the situation, I did, however, make it clear that a decision by Livingstone to contest the mayoralty as an independent would bring about “a new and tantalising situation ... even if only 20% of Labour’s London membership chose to follow Livingstone and break with Labour, they would constitute some 14,000 potential recruits for real socialism. In such circumstances, we believe that it would be the duty of communists and revolutionary socialists not just to engage polemically with the new grouping, but to struggle for socialism within it.”

A few months later, the situation was transformed, when virtual open warfare broke out between the Livingstone and Blair-Dobson camps. Every attempt by the latter to destroy Livingstone backfired and achieved its opposite. The struggle over the short list was already serving to galvanise wider opposition to Blair - witness the decision of the majority of unions in London to ballot their members individually. This decision was brought about not by the union bossocracy’s affection for democracy - everything suggests that many would have been content to fall in line with Blair’s choice of Dobson - but because they were aware of a firm and growing mood for Livingstone among their members at the grassroots. They simply would not be prepared to accept the usual bureaucratic block voting being decided by their leaders, if it were used as part of a strategy to keep ‘their candidate’ from gaining Labour’s nomination. Poll after poll began to indicate that support for Livingstone, both among Labour’s rank and file membership and the population at large, would give him victory, either as Labour’s official candidate or as an independent.

Comrade Pearson refers to a “fulcrum date” of October 21 as marking the point when the Weekly Worker’s stance changed: ie, in the article ‘Back Livingstone’ by comrade Jim Blackstock. But if he examines the situation more carefully, he will see that the paper’s position has been constantly evolving in response to the changing situation and that even now there are, and inevitably must be, aspects that might well change further. Constant throughout has been the recognition, most certainly promulgated by myself, that as an individual and a politician, Livingstone himself is a slippery, fundamentally untrustworthy and odious careerist, for whom the mayoral election represents in effect the last throw of the dice.

Does this mean that, following comrade Pearson’s advice, we must eschew any involvement in Livingstone’s campaign? No. On the contrary, it means doing our best to use the present situation as a means of bringing about precisely those “further working class victories” that comrade Pearson (and we too, comrade, believe me) see as intrinsic to our further progress along the road of struggle to working class self-emancipation. Can the comrade doubt that we share his goal of “getting rid of the bourgeois workers’ party in favour of a workers’ party”? I hope not. The question, therefore is how this goal is to be achieved? By washing our hands of anything that could taint the (dogmatic, as I would contend) ‘purity’ of our communist principle, or by involving ourselves in the struggle as it is, rather than as comrade Pearson - and, for that matter ourselves - would prefer it to be?

This is what we, as an organisation, will soon be debating. It is a matter of the greatest importance, not just to us, but to the working class as a whole - a class to which, whether comrade Pearson accepts it or not, we who are condemned as “shabby opportunists” pledge our wholehearted and total commitment.