Welcome political fluidity

An aggregate of CPGB members was held in London on January 26. Most of the day was taken up with discussion of the imminent war on Iraq and the tasks of communists in the current period, with John Bridge opening. The US administration wants to begin the war within weeks rather than months, comrade Bridge began, to avoid losing the momentum it has built up and to take advantage of the cooler spring weather. But Russia, China, Germany and France have all spoken out against the war, at least without a delay and UN endorsement. The governments of these countries know that only the United States will benefit from a war waged to secure oil supplies and control of the region. And in Germany especially a mass popular protest movement has had real influence. Britain is the only significant European power backing the US, sending a 30,000-strong military force to the Gulf. So the anti-war movement in Britain has a particularly important role, with both responsibilities and opportunities, said comrade Bridge. Government propaganda efforts to convince us of a link between Iraq and terror have not worked. People know it is a cynical war for oil. The parliamentary Labour Party contains a significant anti-war bloc, largely as a result of the strength of public opposition. It is not unrealistic to anticipate half a million or even a million people on the February 15 demonstration. But demonstrations alone, however large, cannot stop wars. However, comrade Bridge warned of the danger of complacency about numbers, remembering how the mass pacifist movements for peace melted away once war started in 1914 and in 1939. He reminded comrades of Marx's view of war: it acts as a signal to mass action and also speeds up historical change. Political developments are accelerated in times of war. The division in the British establishment over Iraq reflects the key question for the UK state machine: is it a part of Europe or a special ally of the United States? We cannot predict with any certainty what will happen once the war starts. The corrupt and narrowly based Ba'athist regime is so unpopular that US troops could be welcomed as liberators, as they were in Kabul. On the other hand, they could find themselves fighting building by building. It will be totally different to the first Gulf War 12 years ago: this time the US is determined to achieve a regime change and take control of the Iraqi oil fields. So simply bombing tanks and troop emplacements from the air will not be enough. What is more, an upheaval in the region could easily see the regime in Saudi Arabia come crashing down resulting in either an islamic fundamentalist state or a US protectorate. The situation in the Middle East is extremely fluid. This war is causing political events to speed up in Britain too. For the first time since coming to power in 1997 Blair looks vulnerable. Of course he could be lucky, and have a good war. But if things go wrong, his opponents in the Labour Party will take advantage of the strength of popular opposition. World events and a mass movement from below could topple Blair. Communists should strive to make this happen and to influence the outcome. The strategy of the Stop the War Coalition and its Socialist Workers Party leadership is inadequate to our tasks, comrade Bridge added. Numbers are important, but politics decide. Discussion of differences within the Stop the War Coalition does not detract from the task of building a mass movement, but strengthens it in the long term. The SWP is a sect with no political programme, only a determination to grow. It could possibly even split under the weight of its own success. Comrade Bridge went on to discuss the CPGB project. Our main perspective is still the Socialist Alliance. Under the misleadership of the SWP the Socialist Alliance appears to be reaching a crisis point, but, given the weakness of the British left, no other force can at this present moment substitute for it. He called for revolutionary patience. We need to work imaginatively to channel the energy of the anti-war movement in a political direction: that is, into the Socialist Alliance. Comrade Bridge then referred to the discussion within and around the ranks of the CPGB about the Muslim Association of Britain, and outlined two opposing, incorrect views. The MAB is undoubtedly a reactionary organisation. Some on the left refuse to march with the MAB, and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty motion to the STWC conference earlier this month called for the coalition to desist from inviting the MAB to co-sponsor anti-war activities (it received one vote). Others, including the SWP, have shown themselves willing to defend the indefensible in an effort to court the support of the MAB - toning down or suppressing their own socialist politics and in some instances even acting as apologists for reactionary anti-imperialism. Both approaches are wrong, comrade Bridge argued. He explained the Comintern slogan, 'March separately, strike together'. 'March separately' means that communists should preciously guard their own programme, and not dilute it with reformism or through pandering to religious reaction, as does the SWP. But 'strike together' means acting alongside others who share the same immediate aims, even if they have backward views. What use are communists if they cannot do that and instead stand aloof from a mass movement? MAB is introducing a whole new layer of young people to political activity, and our involvement exposes them to communist ideas. The MAB question was a recurring theme in the debate which followed. Mark Fischer agreed that the AWL is incorrect in saying we should not work alongside the MAB, which would only play into the hands of reactionaries in the muslim community. In reality, by gaining access to their youth, we are challenging them. Ian Donovan said that working with those mobilised by MAB provided us with an excellent opportunity to bring us into contact with people we would not otherwise be able to reach, while Tina Becker agreed that cooperation with the MAB is a tactical question. She pointed out that, although unlike the SWP MAB condemns the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, it does not condemn the attacks in Kenya last November because the target was Israelis. We must not hold back on our criticism of this appalling position. Marcus Ström said, although he agreed with comrade Bridge, the political price of cooperating with reactionaries can sometimes be too high. John Pearson brought up the CPGB's own motion to the Stop the War Coalition conference, which condemned the terrorist attacks in Mombasa last November. The motion stated that such actions have nothing to do with genuine anti-imperialism: they are reactionary atrocities that progressives condemn without hesitation. Failure to make our position clear on such questions can only weaken the anti-war movement. Comrade Pearson said British muslims would ask why it was necessary for the party to be so selective, to ignore the atrocities of the oppressors such as in Jenin. Even Cherie Blair said she understood the motives of the suicide bombers, which is why the establishment went for her, he added. Responding to comrade Pearson, Peter Manson said it is important to oppose both imperialism and reactionary anti-imperialism. Our motion was a necessary corrective to the SWP practice of making excuses for reactionary anti-imperialism. Marcus Ström also defended the CPGB motion, pointing out that, as we are part of a movement which is weak on one point - criticism of reactionary anti-imperialism - it is correct to try to strengthen it on that point. The Weekly Worker has carried numerous articles attacking the Zionist regime and its atrocities in Jenin and elsewhere, he added. Ian Donovan emphasised that if we go along with the idea that there is something progressive in events such as Mombasa, the bourgeoisie will use this as ammunition against the anti-war movement. This is an example of the way politics and debate strengthens the movement. We can be opposed to both the violence of reactionary anti-imperialism and the violence of imperialism. On the subject of the Socialist Alliance and our prospects, comrade Becker urged that although we are a small organisation we should continue to take the initiative, as we did in attempting to set up an unofficial paper, which is still needed. We must combine patience with initiative. She said it is hard not to be pessimistic about the SA. Comrade Lee Rock went further, saying that, although we should stay in the Socialist Alliance, we should criticise its severe shortcomings. On the imminent war, comrade Rock said that unlike previous wars people have no personal involvement. For example, there is no draft to dodge, so the US and British governments will be under less pressure. He warned that if Blair is toppled by events it will not necessarily be the left who will benefit. Comrade Ström noted that the forces of the British state are deliberately whipping up chauvinism and islamophobia, and urged the Stop the War Coalition to raise questions of high politics, such as Blair's use of the royal prerogative to go to war in defiance of the wishes of the majority of people. The aggregate moved on to discussion of three documents drafted and introduced by Mark Fischer, CPGB national organiser. These were theses on democratic centralism, notes towards theses on the Labour Party and Labourism, and notes on CPGB perspectives. Comrade Fischer said that in such a fluid period it was futile to make firm plans for months ahead, especially since the open culture of the CPGB means we can review our perspectives regularly at aggregates. But he could make a few observations. Firstly, he re-emphasised the need for patience. As usual the political preparedness of the left lags behind what is demanded of it by life. We are in a new period in which the reach and influence of the Weekly Worker has significantly increased, not least due to the internet. But the organisation itself has not qualitatively changed: we still have a meagre cadre base. The Weekly Worker remains central to our work, and we must spend time and energy building it. Most of his proposals related to this. The gap between the paper and the party has widened and the two must be brought together. Commercial profits from the print shop are reduced, and the Weekly Worker should be used more vigorously as a fundraiser, he said. Introducing his two sets of draft theses, comrade Fischer said we must re-emphasise our commitment to democratic centralism in the current period. Another weakness of the left is the untheorised flip from auto-Labourism to auto-anti-Labourism. The continued existence of the proletarian pole within the Labour Party means we must have a strategic approach to winning the mass base away from the Labour leadership, and our tactics have to be flexible. The Socialist Alliance has set itself up as a holding pen for disillusioned ex-Labourites, but when the Labour left revives there is a danger the SA could be squeezed out. Comrade Pearson opposed the theses on the Labour Party and Labourism. He referred to the theses on the Labour Party approved at the March 2000 aggregate, saying they are superior to the new draft and there is no need to replace them (see Weekly Worker November 18 1999). Comrade Pearson claimed that the new draft theses are much softer on the Labour Party and in particular on the Labour Party left, and this is a shift in entirely the wrong direction. Some comrades felt that a war against Iraq could provoke the revival of the Labour Party left wing, and there was a range of attitudes to such a development. Comrade Rock argued that we should encourage a break from Labour, but beware of working against our long-term interests by giving a left cover to the building of a left reformist bloc that could act as an alternative to the Socialist Alliance we want to build. Comrade Bridge said that we are not trying to revive the Labour left, but recognise that, while the Labour Party remains a bourgeois workers' party with a base in the working class, such a revival is always likely to happen as a reaction to external events. But the growth of the Labour left and of the Socialist Alliance are not mutually exclusive, he said: they could happen in parallel. What matters is to get our politics into the unions and influence the reviving Labour left. In Scotland the International Socialist Movement wing of the Scottish Socialist Party would rather vote for the Scottish Nationalist Party than for Labour, comrade Sarah MacDonald told the aggregate. While the ISM claims the Labour Party is now purely a bourgeois party, the Socialist Worker platform of the SSP still regards it as a bourgeois workers' party, but knows it is in a minority so is not pushing the issue to a vote. It was clear when the time available for the aggregate ran out that there was still a lot of discussion on all three documents to be had, so comrade Anne Mc Shane, from the chair, suggested that they be carried over to the next aggregate. This was agreed. Mary Godwin