Fighting for what is necessary

The July 7 RCN fringe meeting at 'Marxism 2001' pitted Mark Fischer and Martin Thomas, who are for a party of a 'new type', against Steve Freeman, who is for a party of a 'mixed type'. Peter Manson reports

Around 30 comrades attended a successful Republican Communist Network fringe meeting at the Socialist Workers Party?s ?Marxism? event last weekend.

Entitled ?Which way for the Socialist Alliance??, the meeting featured speakers from the CPGB, Revolutionary Democratic Group and Alliance for Workers? Liberty. Their contributions - particularly that from the CPGB?s Mark Fischer - provoked some thoughtful and interesting questions and debate from the floor.

Comrade Fischer began his remarks with a call for a ?cultural revolution? in working class political organisation. Stating the need for the Socialist Alliance to transform itself into a party, he warned that it was essential that such a party did not simply replicate the problems and culture that had plagued the left throughout the 20th century.

The CPGB, he said, would fight for the new formation to become a revolutionary party, based on democratic centralism. However, it was important to be clear that it could not be built on the basis of a sect, where agreeing with the defining ?line? is a membership requirement and the expression of public disagreement is banned. A genuine party, continued comrade Fischer, must be an ?organic part of the working class? and will contain within it all sorts of different ideas, which must be allowed ?fresh air and light?.

Non-aligned comrades who spoke from the floor responded positively to his speech. Clive Power from London agreed that it was essential to move towards a single SA party, although he had his doubts about whether it would be possible to persuade the majority, in the shape of the SWP, of this course of action. Comrade Power said that we should aim for a conference like the one which set up the CPGB in 1920 to establish a party ?with full factional rights?.

Ray Gaston from Leeds stated that he liked what comrade Fischer had said and agreed with a lot, but, he asked, ?If you are serious about building a democratic, pluralist socialist party, how can it be revolutionary?? The next speaker, a comrade from Barnsley, made it clear that he also did not understand how a party could be revolutionary while containing a variety of openly expressed views. In any case, he said, surely an SA party must be ?much broader? than simply revolutionaries.

Both these non-aligned comrades, responding to criticisms made by the three platform speakers of some aspects of SWP behaviour, warned against what they described as ?sectarian SWP-bashing?. Although most of those at the meeting had been attending ?Marxism?, none of them appeared to be members of the SWP - or at least, if they were, they had nothing to say about the speakers? criticisms. Almost half of those present were members or supporters of the CPGB, AWL, RDG and RCN, but nobody else admitted to any political affiliation.

In his reply comrade Fischer stated that making criticisms was hardly the same thing as sectarianism - putting the interests of one?s own group above that of the class. Indeed it was the duty of partisans of the working class to express their disagreements - in however sharp a way circumstances dictated - including of the SWP. This was because, far from wanting to poach its members, as the comrades may have suspected, we wanted to ?save the SWP?. In fact the CPGB always tried to persuade members of other groups who were moving towards us to stay in their existing organisation in order to fight for partyism within.

Turning to the comrades? other concerns, comrade Fischer stated that genuine democratic centralism did not mean blindly following the ?party line? and keeping your criticisms to yourself. It required acceptance of, not agreement with, the party programme, and the right to fight openly to change it. He urged comrades to ?get rid of the template in our heads labelled ?revolutionary party??.

As for the claim that such a party would necessarily exclude reformists, thus acting as a barrier to those alienated by New Labour, he argued that in the current period, where there is no revolutionary situation, the distinction between revolutionaries and reformists was largely an artificial one in terms of political actions. Revolutionary communists have always been the best fighters for reforms, but the question is, which reforms and how we fight for them. He accepted that it was a central task to ?relate to the millions who still vote for the Labour Party?, but that did not mean adapting to Labourism.

Comrade Fischer stated that those breaking with Blair would be looking for a different type of organisation. Many might still believe that workers? interests could be served through old parliamentary methods, but he was confident that most could be won over intellectually to the programme of communism. Some, such as Neil Thompson, our candidate in St Helens South, have already stated that, just as they had been prepared to be in a minority in the rightwing-dominated Labour Party, so they would be prepared to be a minority within a revolutionary party - the important thing was that their democratic rights must be guaranteed.

Martin Thomas of the AWL argued along parallel lines: ?There are lots of people who consider themselves left Labour - the SWP is right. But they won?t come to us if we stand on the same old platform.? He argued that those militants wanted a ?party of a new type? (or of the ?old type - before the consolidation of Stalinism?). The last thing they wanted was ?an SWP party?.

Comrade Thomas stressed that to point this out was not being ?sectarian? at all. At the recent SA executive meeting he had been taken to task by some comrades for complaining about the SWP?s decision, taken without consultation with other SA components, to instruct its comrades to drop canvassing. He was told it was wrong to mention the organisation by name that was clearly responsible for this ill considered and unilateral action.

In the SWP?s own culture, comrade Thomas went on, ?sectarians are people who want to argue about things?. Why should anyone want to argue? After all, the central committee is there to tell you what to do. Democracy was not needed if the leadership?s job was to dream up ?catchy slogans?, such as those used in the SA election campaign, while the membership?s job was simply to follow instructions.

But in order to decide upon a proper strategy democracy was essential. We needed more ?resolution-mongering?, not less. And to facilitate public discussion a regular SA newspaper was essential.

The final speaker was Steve Freeman of the RDG (see below). Unfortunately, however, his reply was totally at odds with the powerful arguments in favour of a revolutionary party that had gone before. Much as comrade Freeman would like to see one, ?I don?t think we have either the base or the political roots to set up a Communist Party.? If, for example, the SA party were to adopt the call for the dictatorship of the proletariat, that would simply ?close the door on the Labour left - in that respect I agree with the SWP?.

Instead we needed to aim for a reformist ?republican socialist party? - republicanism was the unifying factor which stretched far beyond the revolutionary left. He hoped the RCN would be able to operate both as a communist alliance within the SA and as the ?revolutionary wing of a republican socialist party?. That, he said, was the ?best way to get a Communist Party?.

This dismal scenario offers no way forward at all. If it is wrong to fight for a Communist Party now, within the SA, why would it suddenly become correct to do so as the ?revolutionary wing? of a party emerging from the SA? It is true that the establishment and development of a Communist Party would require a mass movement to make it fully a reality - something that is lacking at this time - but the process of bringing such a party into existence would itself provide a boost to working class militants and hopefully stimulate a renewed confidence. Certainly fighting for a Communist Party in the here and now is an elementary duty for communists. It has nothing to do with issuing ultimatums or driving away Labourites.

It must also be said that comrade Freeman?s position on republicanism is highly problematical. The fight for a republic which is not conducted in the context of a communist minimum programme, a fight for a republic that is presented as a thing in itself and not as a bridge to the maximum programme, is to fall back to the programme of bourgeois revolution in an epoch when the bourgeoisie is no longer revolutionary.

For us the republic is a key part of the communist minimum programme, to be fought for using the most revolutionary methods objective circumstances allow. We argue for a federal republic now in the same way as we argue for a Communist Party now - it?s the programme, stupid.