Reply to Martin Thomas

Your letter is disappointing. The political situation in Britain cries out for a viable leftwing alternative to Labourism. Not a day passes without New Labour revealing its craven attitude towards big business and contempt for the working class. Tony Blair and his cabinet colleagues befriend and fawn before billionaires. Meanwhile trade unionists are denounced as wreckers. No wonder there is an ongoing and constantly deepening crisis of auto-Labourism, initially amongst the left groups, now in the trade unions. The Socialist Alliance was born and can grow into a substantial social force from these conditions. Yet the Socialist Alliance project will never take off without a serious political paper in which, like the Weekly Worker, debate and controversy are the norm, not the exception. No political paper - no consistency in principle, no organisational girding, no dialogue with the working class. Under the short-sighted leadership of the Socialist Workers Party and their camp followers there exists a real danger of the Socialist Alliance quietly sinking into oblivion as an ineffective, on-off electoral front. Clearly the SWP is both the Socialist Alliance's biggest asset and its biggest problem. An unofficial paper is therefore a matter of urgency. Frankly to be lackadaisical or nonchalant about this, as is the AWL, is to be irresponsible. Such a publication must set its sights on swiftly transforming the Socialist Alliance. The Socialist Alliance needs a collective agitator, educator and organiser now, not at some vauge time in the future. By providing a lead on every issue - secularism, anti-capitalism, trade union struggles, tenants' rights, the national question in Scotland and Wales, the NHS, the fight for substantive equality between men and women, the war on terrorism, immigration, etc - by building a nationwide network of supporters and by recruiting a whole new layer of activists, the Socialist Alliance can be made into the foundations of a revolutionary party. All the while the hand of friendship and the prospect of unity in a single organisation must be held out to the comrades in the Welsh Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party. Does the initial wherewithal for such a paper exist? Undoubtedly. The CPGB already produces the Weekly Worker. This paper has achieved a moderately healthy sale for its print version along with an impressive number of hits on the web - monthly readership is approaching 15,000. Because of sales and readers' donations the paper is financially self-supporting. Our organisation has moreover pledged to devote all the resources of the Weekly Worker in terms of finances, subs and personnel to an unofficial Socialist Alliance paper. Incidentally, despite comrade Thomas's insistence, we have no intention of dismissing or belittling the Weekly Worker and its steadfast orientation towards the Socialist Alliance. An unofficial paper must be pro-Socialist Alliance and include open polemics. But it can, and surely will, concern itself too with "working class battles" and "other struggles of the oppressed" and be designed to be sold "at workplaces, in trade union branches, on the streets and door to door". That perspective has, of course, been fully explained in our recent book Towards a Socialist Alliance party. Then, in terms of resources, there is, or should be, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and its fortnightly Solidarity. The comrades routinely boast to us about the brilliant trade union and student work conducted through their paper. Combined, the efforts of what are two of the Socialist Alliance's five principal supporting organisations would surely prove to be greater than the sum of their parts. Together we would attract a far wider audience and body of active support. Comrade Thomas reverses this line of reasoning and descends into tailism. He willingly pulls the plug on an unofficial paper because there is no "halfway substantial body" of "unaffiliated" Socialist Alliance members "actively committed" to it. There are, he says, no "acknowledged and reliable representatives" who would be "active in the actual production of the paper". A merger of the Weekly Worker and Solidarity "with the active support of a scattering of other SA comrades" would be "adventurist". There would be "administrative and organisational difficulties and disputes". Of course there will be "administrative and organisational difficulties and disputes". But, comrade, when they arise problems must be calmly and quickly overcome, not turned into insurmountable obstacles before we even know what they are. Nor should we look forlornly to the so-called 'Nanas' - the National Association of Non-Aligned Socialists - to be the answer. On the contrary the CPGB and the AWL, as strong Socialist Alliance factions, should combine efforts and provide the lead. Courage inspires courage in others. The Socialist Alliance independents are flotsam and jetsam. Ideologically incoherent, organisationally ineffective, they are often half-burnt out because of profoundly negative experiences in one or another of the confessional sects - WRP, IMG, SPEW, SWP, etc. Comrades such as these cannot be expected to provide the lead. Nor, let me stress, do we have any desire to create a "substantial body" of independents. By organising an ever wider body of Socialist Alliance comrades through an unofficial paper a pro-party faction and a new leadership is forged. Comrade Thomas is right when he says differences on partyism distinguish the CPGB from the AWL. True, the comrades pay lip service to the revolutionary party. However, their commitment is platonic, abstract and shows the continuing hold of a sect mentality - and life in, and adaptation to, Labourism. In May 1997 the AWL enthusiastically urged a New Labour vote and then celebrated Tony Blair's triumphal entry into No10 Downing Street with unconcealed joy. Straight lines and direct routes aside, the Socialist Alliance is for them a site for recruitment, primarily from their SWP rivals, not the "nearest thing we have to a party". Dismissive talk of "two ex-army people" and an "armed wing" sadly indicates how casually the AWL regard what has been achieved already - the almost unprecedented unity of left groups that have over many decades been bitterly opposed, a unity which acts as a beacon, attracting socialist intellectuals, former Labourites, prominent trade union militants and even has the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain now seriously discussing entry into our ranks. Comrade Thomas does his best to muddy the waters. He lambastes the formulation, "Our central aim is to reforge the Communist Party of Great Britain. Without this party the working class is nothing; with it, it is everything." The name 'Communist Party' is irredeemably associated with Stalinites, he objects. Why should we want to reforge - ie, remake through revolutionary means - the Communist Party of Great Britain? Unfortunately his intention is to create confusion, not bring enlightenment. Like a naive philistine the comrade proceeds to tell us that the "working class is not 'nothing' without a revolutionary party". If it were, "it is hard to see how such a party could be created", he argues. Needless to say, we have fully answered such essentially trite points and corrected comrade Thomas's evident confusion. Polemical exchanges become sterile if one side refuses to listen to, and therefore properly and constructively reply to, the actual argument. Old ground must therefore be revisited. A tremendous victory was scored for the whole revolutionary left by the success our organisation had in recovering the title 'Communist Party' from the opportunist traitors who, yes, for many years dragged it in the mud. Joseph Stalin and Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaping in China, and John Gollan and Nina Temple in Britain were anti-communists who nevertheless portrayed themselves as communists and hence the legitimate heirs of Marx, Engels and Lenin. They were not. And we were correct to fiercely dispute their right to call themselves communists. By implication comrade Thomas would leave them and their reputations as communists intact. Stalinite ghosts cloud his brain. Why not abandon the appellations 'Marxist', 'Leninist' and 'Bolshevik' to them as well? What about the red flag, the clenched fist and the hammer and sickle symbols? Then there is the Internationale anthem. Should we junk everything from a hotly contested past and leave our entire heritage to the surviving remnants of 'official communism'? Things are not cut and dried. Comrade Thomas's claim that 'Communist Party' is a "name which in all living memory" denoted "something very different" is actually far more problematic. Yes, bureaucratic socialism and 'official communism' were alien to proletarian socialism and human liberation and brought great discredit to communism and as a result give succour to the bourgeois. But countless people, including today's anti-capitalists, come to authentic communism, despite the crimes of the past, not least by reading and thinking for themselves. The Manifesto of the Communist Party, written by Marx and Engels and first published some 150 years ago, still sells in huge numbers and exerts enormous intellectual influence. Marx and Engels were insistent throughout their adult lives in describing themselves as communists - not international socialists, or social democrats, or revolutionary libertarians. When their German followers adopted the 'social democratic' moniker for their party, Marx famously called it a "pig of a name": eg, see the 1875 Critique of the Gotha programme. Engels in his turn mocked 'social democracy' as totally inadequate in more popular form in 1894. Lenin must also be recalled. In 1917-18 he urged that the Bolsheviks rename themselves 'Communist Party' - following the example of Marx and Engels. Why? Two main reasons. Firstly, the term 'social democrat' had been thoroughly discredited "throughout the world" in the course of World War I because of the venal actions of Philipp Scheidemann, Georg Plekhanov, Karl Kautsky and their like (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p24n). Secondly, Communist Party is "correct scientifically". It simultaneously defines our organisation as the advanced part of the working class and its overriding political mission. We too strive to go beyond the confined limits of capitalist and socialist democracy to a stateless society which operates according to the motto, 'From each according to their ability, to each according to their need'. Lenin and the Bolsheviks are still thought of in the popular mind as communists. They were, and today so are we. Yes, our immediate aim as CPGB members is to reforge the CPGB. Why? Because the working class in Britain, and elsewhere, requires the highest form of organisation if it is to fight capitalism and win. Fear not: necromancy holds no attraction for us. The CPGB of 1920, 1926, 1935 or 1977 can safely rest in its grave. The poetry we write is of the future, not the past. A Communist Party that has a revolutionary programme and is based on the principles and practice of democratic centralism is a precondition for a victorious socialist revolution. No-one is wedded to the name as a matter of unbending principle: 'Socialist Alliance Party' is a "pig of a name" but would do. Nevertheless, as we have seen, for Marx and Engels, and after them Lenin, 'Communist Party' is correct scientifically. What of our contention that without a Communist Party the working class is "nothing", but with it "everything". For comrade Thomas "nothing" simply means 'nullity'. How can a nullity, the comrade asks, become anything, a something, let alone everything? Of course, as he knows full well, this formulation of ours is directly adapted from Lenin. He spoke of the "working class mass" being "nothing" without organisation. With organisation "it is everything" (quoted in C Silahtar Party discipline London 1979, p24). Far from using "nothing" in comrade Thomas's prosaic, everyday sense, Lenin and ourselves philosophically recognise that every "nothing" must by definition be a something and as such is in the process of becoming. The beginning of any process therefore contains both being and nothing: the unity of being and nothing, or being which is at the same time non-being. The same can be said specifically of the working class. Without a Communist Party the working class is a slave class. As a class in itself it is nothing. But with a Communist Party the working class can become a class for itself: ie, a class that knows itself and its historic task of fighting for universal freedom. Between nothing and everything there is a process of becoming. We do not start with a finished Communist Party as something outside the working class. The Communist Party is the leading, vanguard, part of the working class and comes into being through the class and the class struggle - not, as comrade Thomas suggests in his criticism of us, from the outside. A working class that has formed itself into a Communist Party is everything, but again is in the process of ceasing to be and becoming something else. As the working class liberates humanity and in the process itself, workers cease to be workers and simply become associated producers and, more to the point, rounded and thus for the first time fully human beings. So the fight for the Communist Party and the correct revolutionary programme is not "fetishistic". No, on the contrary, the party question is in current circumstances for revolutionaries the main immediate task, the key link, from which everything else follows. Unless we succeed here and make a serious step towards overcoming the sects then we will be doomed to a never ending cycle of amateur attempts at revolutionary trade union work, fragmented interventions amongst students, etc. That is why we are committed to the Socialist Alliance and an unofficial political paper. The CPGB is more than willing to engage in further discussions with the AWL comrades. We sincerely want to see the merger of the two groups in the fight for a Socialist Alliance party. In the meantime our comrades will give backing to all local and regional Socialist Alliance publications, including the Welsh Socialist Alliance paper. However, we communists are obliged to press ahead with the campaign for a Socialist Alliance political paper and in the absence of an official paper we shall argue for, and work towards, the launch of an unofficial paper - with the AWL if possible; without it if we must. Jack Conrad * SA paper 'not viable': Letter to CPGB from AWL, February 22 2002