'Official communist' opposition

Pathology of 'revolutionary' reformism

The Morning Star's so-called Communist Party of Britain limps from one deep crisis to another. Founded in 1988 after a bitter struggle against the now liquidated Eurocommunists, the CPB trumpeted its admiration of Mikhail Gorbachev - "the Lenin of our day" - and proclaimed itself as the true defender of the British road to socialism - the national socialist programme of 'official communism'.

Obviously the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in the former Soviet Union along with Blair's de-Labourisation of Labour makes the pipe dream of peacefully introducing 'socialism' into Britain through a Labour parliamentary majority appear dafter than ever. As a result the CPB is now riven with vying factions.

The 'leadership faction' around general secretary Robert Griffiths and Morning Star editor John Haylett is uneasily aligned to the Diamat faction of Nick Wright, Anita Wright and Morning Star journalist Andrew Murray (Diamat was a publication which broke away from the pro-Stalin Straight Left faction - it still ekes out an almost unnoticed existence amongst the detritus of 'official communism'). The Diamat faction poses left against the Griffiths-Haylett faction. However, as a matter of principle it is opposed to standing candidates in elections. As comrade Murray hints in his regular 'Eyes left' column in the Star, these comrades feel obliged to automatically support the Labour Party. Against these two 'in' factions is ranged the 'out' faction around the former apparatchiks Mick Hicks (ousted CPB general secretary), his partner Mary Rosser (former Morning Star chief executive) and their veteran ideologue Ron Bellamy (former CPB executive member).

In 1998 the hidden rivalry burst out into the open. Mary Rosser - still in control at the Morning Star - sacked the newly appointed editor John Haylett. Backed by Griffiths, the majority of journalists struck in retaliation and comrade Haylett was eventually reinstated. Not surprisingly the Griffith-Haylett faction moved to swiftly remove from all positions of influence those who had sided with Rosser and co.

Since then the 'out' faction has been systematically sniping at and working to undermine the CPB's leadership, accusing it of adopting a "sectarian" outlook towards the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy. Over the recent period fire has been directed in particular at the Diamat faction in general and comrade Murray in particular. Clearly a stalking horse. The CPB is ripe for a split.

The only half worthwhile elaboration of the 'out' faction's position was written by comrade Bellamy and published in the semi-underground journal Marxist Forum (summer 1999). As will be readily appreciated, what is of interest is not Bellamy's miserable reformism and the turgid 'official communist' prose, but the glimpse it gives us of the factional struggle within the CPB and what passes for democratic centralism - in reality bureaucratic centralism - in this tradition. Evidently, where the Weekly Worker and the CPGB stands for honest and open polemics between comrades, the CPB and the Morning Star inhabit a closed world dominated by cliques, intrigue and theoretical poverty.


This Marxist Forum arises from an urgent need - to find a way out of the acute crisis in the Communist Party of Britain caused by the sectarian and anti-democratic conduct of the leadership. The crisis was precipitated in particular by the document written by Robert Griffiths, adopted in July 1998 by the votes of 14 EC members out of the 30 elected by congress, and circulated to the whole party.

The comrades who were abused and falsely attacked have been denied all right of reply. They are here exercising that right given to them by the principles of inner-party democracy.

This refusal to tell the members of the party what has been going on is the culmination of a continuous process of concealment started in January 1996 by the majority of the EC elected at the 1995 congress.

.... The splitting character of the Griffiths document is accompanied by, and indeed caused by, a shift towards sectarian policies over a considerable period by what is now the dominating section of the leadership. These can only damage the party because they narrow down and weaken to the point of destruction the fragile movement of left unity whose urgent priority for the party was stressed in earlier congresses during Mike Hicks's period of office, and was powerfully highlighted in Tony Chater's reply to discussion at the 1995 congress, embodying the strategic line of the British road to socialism, which in its turn applies concretely for Britain in our time the Leninist conception of the struggle for revolutionary change. The most urgent priority for communists is to build unity of the left of the labour movement as the basis for the widest possible struggle against the policies of the Blair government.

For only if the working class begins to fight on those issues which express its most immediate interests can the decline in numbers and level of struggle of trade unionists and the decline in activity of Labour Party organisations be reversed. And without that reversal it is academic to discuss higher stages in the struggle for socialism. This unity of the left has always been threatened, and is threatened even more today by the sectarian policies of the EC led by Griffiths.

If this left is going to defend the interests of the working class, its most immediate task is to build action around demands for which struggle already exists and can be widened. Only when this action becomes wide enough to challenge the status quo will resistance by big business demonstrate to millions that they can satisfy their demands only by going deeper. Only through the experience of such struggle can workers come to identify clearly who in the labour movement is opposing them, and start to replace those opponents.

Without such struggle there can be no advance. The condition for it is not whether people see socialism as the answer. The condition is whether people see struggle for working class demands and working class interests as the answer.

... Propaganda, which integrates many aspects of present and future demands and struggles into a single socialist perspective, is effective only among those prepared to listen, that is to those who are already becoming disillusioned with other perspectives. Their numbers are small compared with the millions who are already, or are becoming, disillusioned with this or that aspect of Labour government policy, and have begun to struggle on one or more fronts.

Faced with this challenge and need, the last thing the working class needs is a communist party committed to a sectarian outlook.

Sectarianism has taken over the CPB leadership

The document we have previously circulated ('The political basis of recent divisions - a brief reply') showed three fields in which sectarians on the EC have fought against the British road to socialism since the re-establishment of the CPB in 1988 - namely communist unity, the ARA [Anti-Racist Alliance - ed.] and the Morning Star. This picture is reinforced by other and later developments.

At the national congress in November 1995 a new executive committee was elected through a pattern of votes so abnormal that many experienced delegates immediately attributed it to secretly organised abstentions. Here is a summary of the evidence (See 'An analysis of the voting pattern at the 1995 congress of the CPB', submitted to the executive committee January 1996).

First, all the candidates recommended in the final report of the election preparation committee (EPC) of the congress were elected, except three - Joan Bellamy, Ron Bellamy, Pete Ritman. Also not elected was Tony Chater, recommended by the EC to the EPC, and recommended in the EPC's own first report, but removed from final recommendation - only too late for any protest (except for a ridiculous one minute allowed by the chair to each speaker). Tony Chater had been editor of the Morning Star for 21 years, had been a key figure in the struggle against the revisionists, in the re-establishment of the CPB, and in the drafting of the new British road to socialism. Objections to these comrades made at the EPC were either nil or totally insufficient to change the EPC's conviction that its recommendations were right.

Second, the votes received by recommended candidates fell into two well defined groups. The first group had votes closely centred round an average of 93, and the other group had votes closely centred around an average of 72 - i.e., a gap of 21 in a possible vote of 114. The names of comrades in each of these two groups corresponded very closely with voting patterns (given in the EC minutes in named votes) in the EC on the three issues noted above.

The immediate reaction among many experienced delegates at the congress was that so unusual a pattern could not have arisen by chance, and that there had been some organised abstentions, expressing secretly organised opposition which had not been brought out openly for debate in the congress. Not surprisingly, there were accusations that a faction was in operation.

The first post-congress EC of January 1996 was faced with 25 submissions from districts and individuals, amounting to more than a quarter of the delegates. Two districts called for a special congress, in accordance with rule, to re-run the election process, and a third called for a re-run in default of an enquiry being set up. Under rule, a demand by three districts makes it obligatory on the EC to call a special congress. A motion at the EC for a recall congress was voted against, in a named vote, by the present majority on the EC.

At this same EC, Joan Bellamy, Ron Bellamy, Pete Ritman were all removed from office, even though there had not been any requirement or past practice that officers of the party for specific tasks should be members of the EC. In any case this could not be the only reason, since Mary Rosser, who was a member of the EC, was also removed from office. The narrow majorities (13-12 in two cases) showed the EC to be split down the middle, a split typified also in Mike Hicks's re-election as general secretary by a vote of only 13-12. Tony Chater, Ron Bellamy and Pete Ritman were removed from the PC, which now had a majority of eight to two in favour of the sectarian group.

The EC gave the party no explanation of these decisions, as it is required to by rule, and later rejected a written demand that it give the required explanation. Justifying this refusal, Robert Griffiths argued in the EC that these votes "could not be explained, since members of the EC voted as they did for a variety of individual reasons". This argument is hardly consistent with the communist concept of the EC as a collective, taking decisions after an exchange and clash of opinions!

The following additional points combine to form a systematic picture: Mary Rosser had worked closely together with Tony Chater in the struggle for the autonomy of the Morning Star against the CPGB revisionists. But Tony Chater had been opposed by the Straight Left faction during that period and called "the editor of the reformist Morning Star". Ron Bellamy was, together with Tony Chater, the original drafter of the 1989 British road to socialism, of its revised first chapter in 1992, and of the 1992 congress resolution, 'Assessing the collapse of the Soviet Union', all of which had been adopted, after long discussion throughout the party, at national congresses by large majorities. Together with Mike Hicks, these three had been earlier abused with the title of "gang of four" by Diamat, the journal of former members of Straight Left. Pete Ritman was district secretary of the third largest district [Northwest - ed.], and one of the three districts (along with Yorkshire, where Joan and Ron Bellamy had for decades been members of the district committee) most active in calling for a special congress in early 1996. One must indeed be either naive or devious to argue that the removal of this group of comrades from the EC and from positions of office had no political basis, or that those who did it had no common and opposite political viewpoint.

In order to sidestep the demand for a special congress, where the divisions on the EC could have been resolved by a political discussion in the highest body, representing the whole membership (in accordance with communist democracy and tradition), the EC nevertheless by a narrow majority took two steps, though it should be noted that even these two steps were opposed (in named votes) by those who compose the core of the EC's present-day majority. First, it co-opted Joan and Ron Bellamy onto the EC, and second it established a commission of enquiry into alleged factionalism at the 1995 congress. This commission was composed of two EC members. Such an investigation, where the very body whose election is to be investigated appoints the investigators from those so elected, might seem dubious.

This commission gave its report, promised for May, to the July 1996 EC. While pointing to "the most serious crisis since re-establishment", it rejected the view that there were any political differences, and attributed all divisions on the EC to personal antagonisms. It also rejected the view that there was anything abnormal in the congress voting.

It would be normal for a report which uses terms such as "most serious crisis since re-establishment" to receive extensive debate at the EC. But before debate could begin, it was precluded by a procedural device, carried by 13 votes to 12. The report was then adopted, without any debate, and circulated to the party as the views of the EC. Centralist discipline was then used to prevent any feedback to the EC from debate at lower levels. In effect, the EC was split down the middle, yet every attempt was made to conceal from the membership that there were any political differences.

This trend was reinforced at the January EC after the 1997 national congress. Mike Hicks was replaced as general secretary with 13 votes against 17.

But this majority of four, out of an EC of 30, was used to establish a PC of 10 to zero in favour of itself. From here on serious debate became impossible since the EC's majority of 17 consisted of 10 PC members and the remaining seven (of whom two or three were usually not present) who voted automatically for the PC's proposals. Majorities were consequently half or less of the EC elected by congress. The March 1999 expulsion of Pete Ritman was, for example, carried by 11 votes to four. In this context some of the newer EC members found it pointless to come.

During the Morning Star journalists' strike in January-March 1998, decisions to give it the CPB's support were taken by the general secretary and the political committee without any attempt to call an emergency meeting of the EC, or even to consult its members, as Mike Hicks had done during the Bosnian and Gulf War crises.

For the 1998 AGM of the People's Press Printing Society, Robert Griffiths circulated a letter to the party, naming candidates for which CPB shareholders of the PPPS were required to vote ... The new management committee recommended by the EC and - largely in consequence - elected by the AGM reflects an increase in sectarian influence. This has since been reinforced by the co-option of members associated with sectarian groups - Ludi Simpson was well known as a member of the anti-BRS Straight Left in the Yorkshire CPGB during the 1980s, and the responsibility for the new Newsletter given to Nicola Seyd, a member of the Islip group.

The May 1998 EC's disciplinary actions included the removal by the EC of two of its own members. This action ignored the long-standing Leninist tradition that EC members are elected by the highest body, congress, and cannot be removed by a lower one, the EC.

In July 1998 14 members of the EC, out of 30 elected by the congress, adopted the extraordinary document originating from Robert Griffiths - The political basis of divisions in the executive committee. Its vitriolic and abusive style, showing an unbalanced judgement impermissible in a general secretary, offended even some of the EC who voted for it.

There is no precedent in the history of the Communist Party in Britain for this kind of attack upon long-standing comrades. Not surprisingly one district committee [Yorkshire - ed.], of which two of these comrades [Ron and Joan Bellamy - ed.] have been members since 1953 and 1957 respectively, insisted on its right to make a collective reply. This has been repeatedly refused by the EC.

In November 1998 Robert Griffiths and the PC initiated a process of changes in the party's programme, the BRS. They have claimed they were trivial, but they are now able to quote as acceptable a precedent that the programme can be changed by the EC without reference to congress. This change is in fact unprecedented. Following the same line in January 1999, the EC asserted it had "the right to interpret the rules on all matters". This "on all matters" is a direct violation of the rules, which give such interpretative rights only where the rules are not specific.

In January 1999 a document drafted by Robert Griffiths was issued - 'Campaigning in 1999'. In the name of stressing the independent role of the Communist Party, this takes the step, unprecedented in party history, of starting an analysis with the party and finishing up with the mass movement. This has been later paralleled by John Foster's article in the Morning Star in which the left of the Labour Party is completely omitted from the left forces to be united against the Millbank tendency.

Two former members of Straight Left (Nick Wright and Anita Wright) have been appointed to the editorial board of Communist Review. The responsibility for political education in the biggest district (London) has been given to Andrew Murray, author of an unrepudiated 1995 history of the Communist Party in Britain which characterises it as reformist after 1941. This includes the whole epoch of the British road to socialism.

.... As we have said earlier, there are few if any communist parties that have not made sectarian mistakes. There is no hope of such mistakes being corrected unless open communist debate exists. It was the closing down of the channels of discussion which prepared the ground for the victory of right opportunism in the CPGB in the 1980s and for its collapse as a communist party. The same process of denial of rights of discussion has now been in process for some time in the CPB and is being intensified. It carries with it the same inevitable consequences.

Effects upon the 'Morning Star'

Experienced readers of the Morning Star have already noticed sectarian changes in content as a result of the changes in the management committee ... the co-option to the management committee and the responsibility for the new Newsletter reflect forces which are opposed to the BRS ... This tendency is also reflected in the only regular political column in the paper: namely Andrew Murray's 'Eyes left' ... Murray regards the BRS as a revisionist document. His sectarianism has been shown in his repeated attacks upon Ken Livingstone at a time when Livingstone is the only feasible leftwing candidate for the politically important post of mayor for London.

At the same time the editor, John Haylett, has spoken on the platform of the organisation Reclaim our Rights, together with its two leading figures Bob Crow and John Hendy, well known as executive members of the Socialist Labour Party.

Nick Wright, a frequent writer in Diamat and a former Straight Left supporter, has been appointed as a sub-editor. Ann Green and Richard Maybin, members of the CPB's EC majority, have replaced George Wake and Mary Rosser in daily administration.

Political changes of direction are becoming clearer. Less emphasis is being placed upon left unity, with attacks upon Livingstone and Bickerstaffe, and absence of articles from the Labour Party left. These are replaced by increased emphasis on articles from foreign communist parties (especially US and Australia).

.... There is a big reduction in information about our own Labour movement, with few feature articles from leading trade union and Labour left figures ... the Morning Star is being treated as "the CPB's paper" ...This same tendency is reflected in the way Roy Jones's frequent articles on Wales have called for helpers in CPB election campaigns with the Labour Party not mentioned.

Old and new sectarianism

.... The first full programme of the CPGB, the British road to socialism, was adopted in 1951-52 and readopted with second-order changes at the national congresses of 1957, 1968 and 1977. This programme, drawing on the experience of post-war struggles for people's democracy in eastern Europe and Asia, which took full account of national and historical traditions and institutions, saw socialism as capable of achievement in Britain through a broad democratic anti-monopoly alliance which would transform the institutions of state, developing and deepening the historical struggles for democracy by the working class and other progressive forces.

From the first, this programme met opposition inside the party. Since it was repeatedly re-adopted by majorities of around four to one, the opposition, especially after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, conducted a struggle initially using Soviet Weekly.

By 1977 key figures in the CPGB's older leadership had died or retired, and trends of both left and right opportunism grew up in the 1970s, reflected particularly in disputes inside the Young Communist League and student movements, where sectarian methods of manipulation were common. Both these trends emerged at the 1977 congress. One part of the long-standing opposition left the CPGB before the congress (about 500 out of a party of 30,000) to form the New Communist Party. At the congress itself the sectarian anti-BRS opposition gained about one fifth of the votes.

The right opportunist opposition, which later developed as "the revisionists around Marxism Today" made itself known. Its important victory at that congress lay not only in the omission of the class conception (anti-monopoly) of the main enemy from the universally agreed concept of broad democratic alliance, but much more in the election of a leadership in which an organised faction concealed its real political position until after it had been elected and had built up a majority on the EC. Then its leading figure, Martin Jacques, used his editorship of Marxism Today, in the context of a leadership weaker in theory, to promote revisionist ideas as "new, original and creative Marxism".

The revisionists were helped in winning over the centre of the party by the dogmatism and sectarianism of that part of the left opposition to the BRS that stayed in the party. After their defeat at congress the latter organised themselves around a new paper - Straight Left. When the revisionist EC attempted in 1982 to subordinate the Morning Star to its direct organisational control, and pursued mass disciplinary actions against that half of the party who opposed such policies, Straight Left supported the revisionist EC. But when the expelled comrades formed the Communist Campaign Group (CCG), to which attachment was conditional on support for the programme (the BRS) and the rules of the CPGB, the CCG was joined by some members and sympathisers of Straight Left's sectarian position. They were helped in masking their opposition to the BRS by the shared opposition to the main enemy of the time, revisionism.

Specific new features

It is important to stress, firstly, that the sectarians of the EC of the CPB are mainly long-standing ones. They have not suddenly or recently emerged out of a spontaneous reaction to Blair-type reformism. They are led by an anti-BRS faction from CPGB days, with their ideas going back to 1951 (which is why we gave the detailed picture above). They also attract romantic revolutionaries and dogmatists, especially those who have not come to terms with facts about the Soviet Union.

Secondly, like its right opportunist predecessors in the CPGB of the 1980s, this sectarian left opportunist group pretends public support for the BRS, despite a history and present practice of opposition to it. One aspect of that present practice has been the admission into the CPB, and into positions of influence within it, of some groups with various 'communist' labels who shared opposition to the BRS. To make their admission plausible, there has been continuous appeal to the emotive slogan of 'communist unity' and it has been argued on the EC that these groups have abandoned their opposition to the BRS, or that the BRS is a secondary issue compared with the communist credentials, even communist heroism, that can be claimed by all those who opposed revisionism, irrespective of what they stood for themselves. Ultra-leftism is now said by these forces on the EC to exist only among those who can be labelled Trotskyist, as if ultra-leftism has never existed among anti-Trotskyists, or even before Trotskyists themselves existed.

A third aspect of sectarianism, analysed in more detail below, is its reliance on manipulation, on 'winning positions' in a manner familiar in the practice of the ultra-left, rather than on the communist method of winning people through their experience of communist policy and leadership in struggle. This manipulative method has also spilled over into conspiratorial manoeuvre inside the party itself. A turning point was the organised abstentions of a faction at the 1995 congress from voting for candidates for the EC against whom they had expressed no open political criticism.

We have already shown by figures of voting at the EC that it has been split down the middle, especially since 1994, with two opposed positions on a range of key issues. Unity within the leadership of a communist party, because it must rest upon a shared ideology, requires that such divisions be resolved by political discussion: that is, by appeal to the highest body - congress. Any demand for such an appeal was opposed at all stages by the sectarians.

The end result of this process by March 1999 is the very negation of democracy. For example, disciplinary actions against the former general secretary and the secretary of our third largest district have been taken with a vote of nine in one case and 11 in the other - one third of the EC of 30 elected by congress.

Nature of sectarianism

We examine first its sources in the development of the class struggle, and second its opportunist character. The latter explains why sectarianism (left opportunism) parallels right opportunism (reformism or revisionism) in many ways, and may often lead to or even coincide in practice with the latter's policies.

a) Sources: Sectarianism is continuously reborn in the communist movement

i) In the history of communist parties there have always emerged what Lenin called "disorders of infancy". A 'noble proletarian hatred' of imperialism and of its agents within the working class movement, combined with insufficient experience of the complexities of revolutionary struggle, produced the over-simplified and 'revolutionary' sectarian policies of the newly born communist parties, analysed by Lenin in 1920.

This source of sectarianism should diminish as parties mature, both with the growth of experience, and as a result of a conscious internal fight for creative Marxism (against dogmatism). Both aspects of maturing depend crucially upon maintaining democratic discussion as the basis for centralised discipline.

ii) But the working class constantly receives new recruits from those newly threatened by decaying imperialism. They desperately want immediate radical change, but lack the fruits of long experience of the more elementary forms of working class struggle. These sections bring with them into the movement residues of petty-bourgeois individualism and immature and romantic belief in instant solutions.

b) Sectarianism as opportunism of the left

Opportunism is the seeking for and posing of partial and short-term solutions to urgent problems. It arises from the objective possibility of winning partial or short-term gains, even though they lead to losses over the whole field and in the long run. Opportunism has a right and a left form. We have experienced both in the history of our party.

Right opportunism ... reflects the ability of privileged sections of the working class to win gains within imperialism and to generate illusions in their minds from those gains before they have learned from experience the ruling class's use of short-term concessions to divide the whole movement, create conditions for its defeat, and reverse the gains over the longer term.

Left opportunism: The partial and limited vision re-emerges, even within a more experienced working class, as the view of its advanced section that revolutions can be made by the vanguard alone without the strength of the main body. This expresses itself in adventurism leading to defeat, consolation for defeat in dogmatic purity of the principles of Marxism-Leninism, in contempt for the masses, and in confining leadership to propaganda among the advanced sections. This is what is represented in the present EC's version of the "independent role of the party".

Short-termism remains because it is easier and quicker to win the advanced section itself by propaganda and education than to win the main body by leading the struggle through which it raises its level of consciousness. But without winning the main body the vanguard is the vanguard of nothing, and its 'revolutionary consciousness' remains sterile rhetoric.

This short-termist aspect of sectarianism frequently takes the form of seeking control by manipulation, by seeking to 'capture positions' in vanguard organisations by concealment of real views and by 'organising' votes. This sectarian method becomes a substitute for genuine communist leadership. The latter, on the contrary, seeks to advance the main body of working people by open support for struggle around their immediate demands. During such struggle the resistance from reaction forces people to learn the limitations of those demands and their existing means of achieving them, to learn to respect the organisational skill and determination of communists, and above all to realise that more radical steps are needed to consolidate such immediate gains as they make and to use them for further advance.

The sectarian method of 'capturing positions' in outside organisations spills over into using similar methods within the party itself. In place of an open political debate to determine policy and to elect a leadership that embodies it, there is use of factional organisation of voting to achieve majorities in leading bodies which then change policies without going to congress, and then direct inner-party education and discussion in such a way as to shape future congresses. We all saw this happen in the CPGB. Jacques and co passed themselves off as Marxists (while later disclaiming any past adherence to Marxism) ...

It is not some academic desire to make an endless study of pathology of communist organisations that prompts the above detailed and historical analysis. It is rather the fact that the working class is not going to trust communist parties and take part in building them until it is convinced that there will be no repetition of the degeneration of communist parties than took place in countries with state-owned property and planning and with communist governments and organs of state power.

Since parties based on scientific socialism (to use Engels' term) are essential to the struggle for and construction of socialism, it is crucial to uncover how and why weaknesses initially developed. Only in that way can their repetition be prevented. The resolution 'Assessing the collapse of the Soviet Union' adopted by our 1992 congress argued that the key question was democracy. This needs to be made concrete in respect of the relations of communist parties to organisations outside them, and in respect of the internal relations between members of communist parties. The last four years have provided considerable experience of sectarian methods in both these fields.

Studying pathology is a painful process. It is tempting to say, 'Let's forget it and get on with the positive tasks.' But if we are not going to repeat old mistakes and so produce new disasters, we cannot spare ourselves from the need to study the old mistakes and devise remedies.

Ron Bellamy