Peacefully if we can

In June this year an aggregate of CPGB members decided on a new text of the 'What we fight for' column, published in every issue of Weekly Worker as a brief summary of the aims and methods of the Party. Since then, the updated version has been the cause of much debate and argument in the pages of the paper and in internet discussions. The phrase "peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must" at the end of point nine has proved particularly controversial. In response to the reaction it provoked, both from our own comrades and others, the CPGB organised a day school to debate the possibility of peaceful revolution on Sunday October 14, at which questions of revolutionary violence and what we mean by the dictatorship of the proletariat were examined. Attendance was not large but it was widespread. Comrades from Scotland, Wales, the north of England and East Anglia joined those from London and the south east and in total 30 were present, of whom 15 spoke in a total of 26 interventions. Mostly these expressed differing opinions among CPGB members, but there were also contributions from members of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and others. Mark Fischer began his introduction to the session on 'The past' by quoting the letter from Barrie Biddulph in the current Weekly Worker: "The suppression of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution" (October 10). Interrogating how revolutionaries have interpreted and applied such ideas of Lenin's is part of the process of rearming the working class for revolution. In the last century the revolutionary movement was defeated from within, and in the process of death by a thousand opportunist cuts the ideas of Marx and Engels have been overlaid by a mass of rubbish. Sorting through this morass will cause controversy, he predicted. People who adhere to a violent and anti-democratic interpretation of the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' reflect a pre-Marxian, Blanquist belief that it involves an educative dictatorship by a benign elite and a society untrammelled by any laws. For Marx and Engels, in contrast, the dictatorship of the proletariat meant rule by the whole working class. They also thought peaceful revolution was possible in some conditions, and never insisted on violent revolution as a universal law. Comrade Fischer put forward two key ideas that he suggested we could all agree on. Firstly, peaceful revolution is preferable. Not just for moral reasons - we are humanists, not moralists; we want to reorganise society, beginning at the highest level reached by capitalism: we do not want to revert to barbarism. Secondly, the possibility of peaceful revolution, and whether or not it is followed by civil war and violent counterrevolution, depends on the calculations by the deposed capitalist class of its chances of success. To minimise the likelihood of counterrevolution being attempted, the working class should organise with maximum potential force. In other words, the working class must arm itself materially as well as ideologically. Comrade Fischer went on to look at the views of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Even after the defeat of the Paris Commune Marx and Engels continued to believe that peaceful revolution was both possible and desirable. There is a lot to criticise in Lenin, but at his best he showed the same flexibility as Marx and Engels. He too believed that the workers would be able to take power peacefully in Russia for a whole period in 1917. Next comrade Fischer looked at how the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat' came to depart from its original meaning: 'rule of the working class'. The desperate situation the Bolsheviks found themselves in after 1917, and the measures they were forced to take to survive, went against their principles as Bolsheviks and also account for the tragedy of the Russian Revolution. The semi-military and anti-democratic methods used by the Bolsheviks in this period, and the errors they made, such as the banning of factions, were turned into models and principles, with disastrous consequences. Comrade Fischer said that when Lenin wrote about the dictatorship of the proletariat in this period it had a lot in common with Plekhanov's elitist version. As he has done before, John Pearson spoke out in defence of the CPGB's previous positions. The Manchester branch worries about the "move to the right" by the leadership, he said. Comrade Pearson did not think that it is the Party majority that has moved to the right: a large block of London comrades are guilty of passively following the "rightward drift towards reformism" of the Party's intellectuals. He referred to Jack Conrad's current series of articles in the Weekly Worker. The latest sets up the Lenin of 1905 against the Lenin of 1917, and it is "worrying" that for comrade Conrad the unproblematic Lenin is the 1905 version. From 'Stalin bad, Lenin good' our leading theoreticians seem to be moving towards 'Lenin bad, Kautsky good', was comrade Pearson's conclusion. He quoted from Conrad's 1991 book Which Road? in which the programme of the Militant Tendency is criticised for "its denial of the inevitability of violent revolution" (p226). Eleven years later our own 'What we fight for' column has been changed to incorporate that very concept. Mark Fischer had claimed in his opening that the opponents of this change see the dictatorship of the proletariat as the rule of the party or a minority, rather than of the whole working class. Comrade Pearson said this is not his view or that of the Manchester branch. But he said comrade Fischer's statement - that they think the dictatorship of the proletariat should be untrammelled by any laws - is correct. Eleven years ago this was also the view of the leadership, as comrade Pearson demonstrated by again quoting Which Road?: "The socialist state is ... the dictatorship of the proletariat, ... the rule of the working class unrestricted by any laws" (p227). Comrade Pearson said it would have been better to hold the school after the completion of the Conrad series of articles. He feared that in a future article comrade Conrad would condemn the dispersal of the constituent assembly by the Bolsheviks - in other words a disavowal of 1917 and advocacy of a parliamentary road to socialism. Conrad's emphasis on a passage in Marx mentioning the possibility of buying off or compensating the bourgeoisie is another step on the road to reformism. Marx may not have thought a violent revolution was inevitable, but Lenin did, and so did Jack Conrad when he wrote Which Road?, comrade Pearson concluded. Commenting on the Hal Draper books drawn upon by comrade Conrad in his current series of articles, comrade Bob Paul observed that when a group of CPGB comrades had collectively studied Draper they were much more critical than comrade Conrad is now of the description of Lenin's supposed "blunders". But he described as "too glib" comrade Pearson's dismissal of the new WWFF column as a move to the right. It contains many useful clarifications, said comrade Paul. Phil Sharpe said that the analysis presented by Marx and Engels was accurate for their historical circumstances, but it is wrong to read it as correct for all time, as Draper does. The growth of imperialism led Lenin and Trotsky to modify their earlier views and give prominence to the necessity of smashing the bourgeois state. Phil Kent argued against this criticism of Draper. His books analyse what Marx and Engels did and thought, and what we can learn from them - principally the crucial idea, lost since the 1920s, of making the working class central, and equipping it with the ability to judge for itself if, when and how to use revolutionary violence. Comrade Mike Macnair, a CPGB supporter from Oxford, also disagreed with Phil Sharpe. He said Marx and Engels are rightly regarded as the founders of scientific socialism, and the 'corrections' made to their ideas by Lenin, Trotsky and others were actually reversions to Blanquism. Draper has analysed what Marx and Engels said. Our task is to work out how to test their ideas and to operationalise them: in other words, how to carry out a peaceful revolution in practice. Comrade Mark Cotterill from the AWL said when the majority of the working class supports the revolution it will be essential to develop independent working class institutions such as soviets outside the framework of the existing bourgeois state, and always remember that the enemies of the working class will be ruthless in using violence against us to reclaim their property and privilege. It is essential to make the working class aware of this danger, and to prepare it to use violence in defence of the revolution if necessary. The fate of the John Brown slave rebellion in the US, and of the Chartist demonstrations in Britain, showed that Marx and Engels may have underestimated the ferocity of the bourgeois state and the need for working class violence to counter it. Replying to the debate at the close of the morning session, comrade Fischer warned comrades not to confuse the period of civil war with a post-revolutionary society. It is true that civil war should be pursued ruthlessly, but the government of a newly established workers' state will have to be controlled by laws. Even members of the bourgeoisie should be tried by a due process of law, he asserted. The afternoon session on 'The future', introduced by Jack Conrad, continued the debates of the morning session. Comrade Conrad emphatically agreed with Mark Cotterill about the importance of the working class arming itself. 'Peacefully' does not mean 'unarmed' - quite the reverse in fact: if workers do not take the question of arms seriously there can be no peaceful revolution. We cannot predict the future, but we can learn from an examination of present-day society and its trends, he said. In the second half of the 20th century the bourgeoisie was compelled to give us the welfare state, because otherwise the working class would have made revolution. Also, individual capitalist owners of firms have increasingly been replaced by boards of directors and ownership of capital by pension funds and insurance companies. The laws of socialism are appearing in a negative and distorted way within capitalism, as a way of preventing the development of real socialism by bribing, bamboozling and misleading the working class. The working class, in turn, has become larger and in general more organised. Do these changes mean a peaceful revolution is more likely? Objectively, yes, comrade Conrad believes, although it was impossible to predict what the British revolution will look like. He said that directors of an insurance company would be less likely to be willing to die for capital they do not own. The workers' state may even pay such people to continue to do their jobs for the benefit of the workers. Comrade Conrad agreed with Mark Fischer that our task has to be to work out what went wrong in the 20th century. It is not enough to say things only started to go wrong with Gorbachev, or with Stalin. Our critique must be radical and fearless, and we should not shrink from pointing out where we think Lenin himself made errors - for example, in effectively transferring the control of the state from the class as a whole to the party and then making a virtue out of neccessity. Our criticism should extend also to our own earlier works, he said, referring to Which Road? It would be remarkable if we learned nothing and did not change our ideas in 11 years. However, that does not mean a reformist road to socialism. And the best way to guard against such a programmatic collapse is to have open debate and criticism in which the members can challenge the leadership - he welcomed the constant questioning of comrade John Pearson, whom he described as the "shop steward" of the CPGB. Much of the debate following comrade Conrad's opening focused on the role of parliament. All comrades agreed socialism cannot be legislated into being by a majority of left Labour or communist MPs, as envisaged by the Eurocommunist British road to socialism. Phil Kent observed that workers' representatives in parliament will be under the discipline of their party, while Stan Keable suggested that propaganda using parliament is an excellent way to maximise the effectiveness of small forces. But comrade Pearson said the concept of using parliament in the way suggested in the new WWFF column is at odds with the CPGB's draft programme, and so should not have been published unless the draft programme itself had been updated by a vote of members. He said, unlike working class bodies such as soviets, parliament contains representatives of other classes, and so there is no possibility of it being adapted for use by the workers' state. Anne Mc Shane welcomed the critical re-evaluation of our tradition. We should acknowledge and defend the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution, but not use it as an inviolable model that cannot be departed from or doubted. She warned that in the context of Britain, with its history of the BRS and tradition of parliamentary reformism, we must make it absolutely clear that when talking about a peaceful road we definitely do not mean a reformist road. Mary Godwin