Representatives of the CPGB and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty have been meeting to explore areas of difference and agreement between us. Over the coming weeks, we will feature edited minutes, starting here with those of the March 3 meeting. Comments and criticisms are welcome
Present: for the CPGB John Bridge (JB) and Mark Fischer (MF); for the AWL Tom Rigby (TR) and Martin Thomas (MT)
Minutes: Martin Thomas
MF: Our origins were as a faction in 'official communism' in the late 70s and early 80s. From 1981 we defined the fundamental task as "reforging the Communist Party of Great Britain". Some said that this just meant reassembling the fragments of the CPGB, or that we were idealising the past. This is to misunderstand what we were fighting for.
The foundation of the CPGB in 1920 was a huge step forward. It was a genuine party of the working class, the highest political achievement so far of the working class in Britain. Its subsequent history, good and bad, showed that its influence reached out to millions of workers. It was not just a sect or an ideological group.
The task for all communists was to reforge a party of the advanced part of the working class. What followed from that was the place for all communists was in the Communist Party. It should be an inclusive organisation,.
In 1991 we faced a turning point. The Eurocommunist leadership liquidated themselves. In fact, as a party, the CPGB had already ceased to exist in the 1980s. We as CPGB members took up the banner. We said we would continue our battle at a higher level. We later entered into a process called rapprochement - coming together on the basis of partyism - a process of achieving unity around a revolutionary programme. We fight for that in various different spheres: eg, in the London Socialist Alliance.
This first meeting between our two organisations is exploratory. We see certain ideas in common between the CPGB and the AWL - democracy and openness.
TR: It would be good to have back something like the CP of the early or mid-1920s. But that is not the same as building a revolutionary party. It is a stage in it. You seem to fetishise that stage.
MT: The question of building a revolutionary party is the question of what revolutionaries should do in relation to the broader labour movement and working class. The measure of how effectively a particular group is working towards building a revolutionary party is that group's activity in relation to the broader labour movement and working class. We cannot build a party somewhere else and then present it to the working class ready-made.
TR: We can't discuss building the party without also discussing nitty-gritty questions of how revolutionaries relate to the working class: eg, workplace bulletins as a way of relating to the working class, or orientation to the mass workers' movement in general. The party is built in the struggle to transform the existing labour movement. It is not separate. The CPGB comrades seem to present building the party as abstracted propagandism.
Take the argument about economism, for example. The way to fight economism effectively is not to mention the monarchy and self-determination for Scotland in every speech. A workplace bulletin can fight economism by developing the existing struggles of the working class. There seems to be a missing link in the CPGB's theorisation of the party.
Trotsky's comments on "the lever of a small group" are instructive. At one point in the 1930s he argued for the British Trotskyists to orient to the ILP - and to fight to make the ILP orient to the Labour Party. The CPGB's tactic in relation to the SLP was not necessarily wrong - the CPGB was better placed to carry out such a tactic than we were - but it should have involved arguing about the SLP's orientation to the unions.
What is your job as revolutionaries? Who do you orient to? What is economism?
We can agree on some formalities: eg, opposition to a Zinovievist conception of the party. We believe revolutionaries must demarcate, unite and divide around the axis of relating to the existing workers' movement. Your conception of the party seems depoliticised. Where the politics of transforming the labour movement should be, instead the space labelled 'politics' just has stuff about the monarchy and Scottish self-determination.
MT: It may be arguable that the CPGB has such small resources that it cannot do any significant trade union work yet. But consider when you were in the SLP. The SLP had the forces to do substantial trade union work. In fact it had a lot of union bureaucrats, being bureaucrats, and it had rank-and-file union activists just being active as individuals, without coordination or direction. Surely in the SLP you should have argued for building union fractions and developing policies which could guide those fractions (instead of just policies for what a future 'SLP government' would do).
JB: Our approach is, yes, dictated by resources, personnel, etc. We don't dismiss trade union work as economistic in principle. That would be stupid. But we have a limited number of comrades. We could try to do many things, but then we would do none properly. So we direct our efforts towards what we identify as the main link, the crisis of the left.
Where does the left want to take the working class movement? To reinventing Labourism? To the SWP sect as the future party? Given that the left is divided between reinventing the Labour Party and trying to organise the advanced part of the working class into antagonistic sects, we have a big problem.
We direct our main energy to the left as it exists. Since 1981, we've picked out our major opponents - SP, SWP, etc - and campaigned in relation to them. We don't look to reinventing Labourism, or to restoring a supposed Bolshevism of the 1920s. Those are false alternatives.
People say that the Weekly Worker is the gossip sheet of the left, but it isn't. Gossip means trivialities. It is not trivial that the Socialist Workers Party withdrew from the Socialist Alliance before the Euro-elections, or that the Socialist Party is backing the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation for the London assembly elections.
A Communist Party is the advanced part of the class. It will have many voices in it. Factions in such a party are not good, but Party faction are better than the sects we have now. We can't organise instantly a Communist Party, but we can unite a section of the left around some key partyist ideas.
As to a trade union orientation in the SLP. The question is abstract. The left in the SLP faced a struggle for survival from day one. The key question was to unite against the witch-hunt.
TR: But why counterpose uniting against the witch-hunt to intervening on the trade union question? I remember you mentioning the trade union question in the SLP, but not much. Properly it would be a necessary part of the fight against the bureaucracy in the SLP.
JB: In the actual circumstances, we didn't find ourselves meeting rank and file railworkers, for example, in the SLP. The SLP organised through branches with atomised members.
You asked about economism. If you look at the LSA platform, it basically says that workers are only interested in wages, services, and so on. Those issues are important. But we should also highlight politics. Workers aren't just people in workplaces. Communists and socialists must raise questions like Ireland and Scotland in the London elections. We don't fetishise those question. We don't have a bee in our bonnet.
MF: Obviously there are dangers in our present approach. But it is not fixed. In 1984-5 we didn't just say to the miners that they couldn't win without a reforged Communist Party. We linked that idea - the need for a genuine working class party independent of Labour - to a whole range of slogans designed to facilitate victory.
TR: I'd like to read your material from that time.
MF: The question of the party is not a sterile, set slogan. Our work has gone through many different phases. There is not just one note we bang on the piano. We have discussed communist work in the trade unions. To underline the point, work in the trade unions is not per se economism.
TR: Isn't there a danger of constituting yourselves as a negative image of what you see as the faults of the left?
JB: When I look at the left, I see a crying need for regrouping into a single united organisation. Of course we're one-sided ...
TR: You have talked about people addressing select meetings of left activists as if they're talking to a raw mass audience. But I think you're missing some points about, for example, the big Socialist Alliance rally. In their speeches the SWP were trying to reorient their comrades - telling them the virtues of unity, indicating to them how to argue the issues on the doorstep. I was very pleased to hear them talk about working class representation. But you think we're among those wanting to revive Labourism.
MF: Teetering on the edge ...
TR: That's missing the point that we must build the revolutionary party and fight to reorganise the broad labour movement at the same time. Under the heading of the Labour Representation Committee, or similar, you might get a 'Labourite' regrouping, but it's not that we want to reinvent Labourism. We want to advocate working class political independence. Your horror of 'reinventing Labourism' seems to come from old CP prejudices. You miss the potential for important splits in the existing labour movement. To relate to such potential developments with the template of 'people wanting to reinvent Labourism' is false. Think about Engels on the ILP, or Trotsky on the workers' party based on the trade unions in the USA.
MT: Or the Livingstone business. You support Livingstone for mayor. Why isn't that 'reinventing Labourism'?
MF: The Livingstone movement is a real movement. It is not a formula imposed on the movement by a left group, like 'Labour Representation Committee', or 'workers' government'.
TR: Maybe 'Labour Representation Committee' is not a good form of words for a slogan. But the question is, do we advocate a line in the unions for a class-based break with Blair?
JB: On the left there are those who look back with fond memories to Labourism. We orient to the Livingstone movement. Some of our members have Labour Party cards. What does partyism mean? The fundamental question is, what sort of party do we want? If a new Labour Representation Committee emerges, we will not repeat Hyndman's mistake. We were in the SLP. But sections of the left do have the idea that a Labour Party must be recreated and could then introduce socialism. There is also the general culture of the left - the SWP, SP, etc are sects. We constantly attack that. The SWP has the wrong programme - albeit an unofficial one - and anyway can't possibly organise the advanced section of the class.
TR: I would criticise the SWP by explaining what a party should do, and measuring them against that criterion. You want to call that partyism? Why?
MF: We're fighting for an organisation that can contain the advanced part of the working class. We're not a single-theme organisation. The question of partyism is not technical. For example, one way to overcome the political crisis of the left is to unite the left sufficiently to debate openly and honestly.
MT: 'Advanced worker' is not an individual quality, like a badge a boy scout can wear after passing certain tests. The 'advanced workers' are defined only by what they do in relation to each other and to the rest of the working class, and by programme. It may seem obvious in Britain today who the 'advanced workers' are - the leftists and militants in the unions. It is not so obvious in general. Take Ireland in 1919. Who were the advanced workers - those leading a great strike by mainly protestant engineering workers in Belfast, or those, scattered across the south, taking an active and leading role in the fight for Irish independence? If some of both, on what political programme could they be brought together? Wouldn't it need to be a programme which enabled both those in Belfast and those in the South to relate to the other workers around them?
To define 'partyism' as finding an organisation to unite the advanced workers is to take out the political dimension. And then to bring politics back in by way of an insistence that it is 'economistic' not always to be banging on about the monarchy and Scotland is arbitrary. Why are the monarchy and Scotland the great political questions now?
JB: Blair has carried out a constitutional revolution in Scotland! The AWL's attitude, underestimating that constitutional revolution, is very English. Even in Wales, Plaid Cymru has made sweeping gains. One AWL comrade once said to me that the bourgeois revolution was completed in Britain when women got the vote. That philistine attitude leaves you with nothing to say on the vital democratic questions.
MF: There was an editorial in Workers' Liberty saying that the Scottish parliament was possibly a slight extension of democracy, so we should vote for it. But the important thing was to settle that issue and then get on to the class questions. That is economistic. The working class should make itself the hegemon on the democratic questions.
JB: We don't have headlines in our paper that just proclaim 'partyism', full stop. But partyism is our aim. Where do we want to go? To the unity of the left, with a correct programme.
MF: Can I get back to the advanced workers? In Britain today it's those in and around the left and the socialists in the trade union movement. Maybe hundreds of thousands of people.
JB: Lenin's definition of the advanced workers was those who can be convinced by propaganda. It's a question of political consciousness. Workers who take up questions of cross-union links, of racism, of sexism, of Scotland, etc, in the unions - those are the advanced workers.
Obviously the party is going to be made in struggle, we don't know by who. The CPGB in 1920 was put together often by oddballs, but included advanced workers from the various factions and they made it something more than the sum of its parts. We are not concerned about the name, but we do think the Bolshevik form of organisation is vital. When the class begins to move then things will change.
Agreed in conclusion: to put economism; organising the revolutionaries to revolutionise the labour movement; and Party and programme - minimum-maximum and transitional - on the agenda for a day school (date to be fixed). Next four-hander discussion: Friday March 17, to cover minimum-maximum and transitional programmes, and the nature of the 'official communist'parties