The left and the Muslim Association

Jack Conrad discusses Marxist strategy and tactics

There has been heated debate on the left - including in these pages - about the legitimacy, advisability and possible dire consequences of cooperating under the same umbrella with non-working class elements and organisations.

The presence of Liberal Democrats in the Stop the War Coalition has been mentioned. However, the main bone of contention is the islamic fundamentalists in general and in particular the Muslim Association of Britain and its sponsorship of the February 15 anti-war demonstration.

Various comrades have tortured themselves trying to decide whether or not the STWC has ceased being a 'united front' - which by definition is presumably good - and instead has degenerated into a 'popular front', and therefore a political formation revolutionary socialists and communists should vigorously oppose and certainly stand apart from.

Others, such as Sean Matgamna's Alliance for Workers' Liberty, are quite clear. MAB is the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, they reason, the left must forthwith break off relations with them. On February 15 the AWL will nevertheless march - despite MAB sponsorship - but, as a matter of high principle, will organise an entirely separate micro-contingent.

In all seriousness we are ignorantly told that this is an application of the old Comintern slogan, 'March separately, strike together'. I believe that such ideas owe everything to sectarian muddle and nothing to Marxism. Let us begin to disentangle things by discussing strategy and tactics. Firstly, we shall ask an elementary question.

What is meant by strategy and what is meant by tactics? In general strategy refers to fulfilling the working class programme for human self-liberation and establishing which social strata or forces can or must, at various stages, be won as auxiliaries to realise that goal.

Strategy indentifies the main enemy that needs to be attacked and overpowered by the working class and the secondary opponents that must be neutralised or taken advantage of at various stages. Accordingly the working class leadership strives to unite its forces and win over allies. In this way our resources can be harnessed and concentrated.

Strategy is, in other words, the war plan of the working class. Tactics, on the other hand, involves the many and varied forms of struggle employed: ie, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary tactics. Put another way, tactics are the weapons used by the working class. Only by combining correct strategy and correct tactics can the reforged Communist Party we envisage win the trust of the masses, provide leadership and help bring about the aims of the revolution.

Our CPGB draft programme outlines two basic stages of struggle and therefore two distinct but interlinking war plans. The first war plan is designed to pave the way for the second to commence. Under capitalism, here in today's Britain, our immediate strategic objective is to overthrow the existing constitutional monarchy system and bring about a wide and unrestricted democracy.

The main class force that can achieve that goal is the working class. The middle classes can be won as an auxiliary. The medium bourgeoisie must be neutralised. The main class enemy is monopoly capital which employs the constitutional monarchy system in order to protect and promote its exploitative interests.

By uniting the working class in opposition to the existing state not only can allies be won, but the working class makes itself into a future ruling class. Overthrowing the constitutional monarchy system and simultaneously delivering a body blow to the monopoly capitalist class combine to create a revolutionary situation. That can have many comparatively drawn out and overlapping phases or can, under favourable circumstances, be reduced to a single moment.

Either way, the objective is to establish the rule of the working class by overcoming all resistance put up by the bourgeoisie. Wavering by the middle classes must be counteracted. Bureaucracy must be rolled back and eventually abolished by constantly deepening popular control. Working class rule in Britain can only be sustained to the degree that socialist revolution spreads in other countries.

Capitalism can only be superseded universally. The main ally of the working class internationally is the urban poor and the peasantry. The main enemy is imperialism and those forces which serve or align themselves with imperialism. The end goal is to realise world communism and bring about genuine human fulfilment.

This is, of course, a rough sketch. Reality will doubtless be far richer, produce many surprises and demand novel strategic innovations. Our draft programme is, after all, the work of a few dozen militants, whereas revolution itself is made by tens of millions of people with all their passion, creativity, imagination and fighting capacities.

Nevertheless - with or without that caveat - it is clear that strategy deals with the main contending social forces and their allies or potential allies. Strategy alters only when the main contending social forces change: eg, when the constitutional monarchy system is overthrown in Britain.

Tactics are subordinate to strategy. Because circumstances and the opportunities that go with them are constantly changing, opening and closing, due to the shifting balance of forces, splits and divisions above, etc, tactics must alter accordingly. What is demanded one day can be completely inappropriate the next. Redundant tactics and slogans must be discarded and replaced by fresh ones.

Whereas strategy is determined by concentrating the maximum social force against the main enemy, tactics are designed to achieve less important objectives. Strategy is akin to fighting a war; tactics are about winning a particular battle or even a mere skirmish. While strategy remains largely fixed for an entire period, tactics are constantly changing with the ebb and flow of the struggle.

Depending on the moment, tactics can encompass the most diverse forms and combinations. So when the political struggle reaches fever pitch, new forms of struggle are required and must be deployed.

The Russian Revolution surely provides the best historical example - fraternisation with troops, armed political demonstrations, land seizures, factory occupations, soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers, red guards, agitation for a peaceful revolution, insurrection, coalition government, civil war, etc.

But Britain too is not without its rich lessons. Take the miners' Great Strike of 1984-85. Though it was far from a revolutionary situation, this titanic class struggle saw countless support groups spring up throughout the length and breadth of the country, the miners forming hit squads, flying pickets fighting to maintain the strike in backward areas such as Nottinghamshire, and railworkers defying the law in order to impose a boycott on coal.

Meanwhile communists raised the perspective of coordinating the support groups politically, recruiting wider forces to the hit squads, generalising the miners' struggle through bringing in dockers, car workers, local government workers and toppling the Thatcher government. With the defeat of the miners other tactics come to the fore. In particular we have emphasised the potential of the election tactic and how that can help to build a mass working class party.

Old tactics can in that way be given a new content. In terms of strategic allies things are more or less straightforward. They consist of the middle classes in Britain, the working class in other countries, and political forces, such as those in the so-called third world leading the urban and rural poor, who are fighting for genuine democracy and against reaction.

Strategic leadership consists of bringing together these forces and taking advantage of contradictions in the enemy camp. To ignore or play down such vital strategic questions is to commit a profound mistake. The working class should aim to exploit deep-seated conflicts within the capitalist class or the political establishment.

Hence in distinguishing the Labour Party from the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats our draft programme points to the necessity of splitting the Labour Party's base - which is working class - from its leadership, which is bourgeois and thoroughly reactionary. To lump together the Labour Party, the Tories and the Lib Dems as equally reactionary, however, is to commit a strategic blunder.

By the same measure the working class must take advantage of tensions between the US and the European Union, including over the so-called 'war on terrorism'. Such a war carries a threat to rights and civil liberties; it also speeds up time and acts as a tocsin, or signal, for independent working class action.

Britain could be forced out of the war, Blair's reign as prime minister ended and the US isolated, leaving the Bush administration vulnerable to its own anti-war movement. Undoubtedly the potential exists for our forces to be multiplied many times over. Very wide sections of the population are being rallied against the threat of a US-UK war against Iraq. Suffice to say, our tactics involve weaving together as many struggles as possible against the war.

An obvious example is the firefighters' dispute. That cannot be an end in itself, however. Stopping the war with Iraq must be linked with the strategic aim of overthrowing the constitutional monarchy system. A system which, we emphasise, makes such a war possible without any popular mandate - either in the form of a parliamentary vote or a referendum. Tony Blair can simply resort to the royal prerogative.

Tactics must conform with and advance these ends. Tactical leadership therefore consists of having a working knowledge, and even better mastery, of all tactical forms and, no matter what the risk, ensuring that they are used properly and at the appropriate moment so as to maximise the results for the cause of the working class. That can involve the swiftest change from offence to retreat and therefore demands the highest level of discipline.

Communists are not only concerned with convincing the advanced section of the working class that New Labour is corrupt and rotten and that the war on Iraq is not against tyranny but is designed to consolidate the US-dominated new world order and give it greater control over vital oil reserves. The task of communists also consists of helping to mobilise the widest numbers into a struggle where they can learn through their own experience that the United Kingdom needs a regime change. Not a mere alteration of government through a general election, let alone a palace coup in which Blair is replaced by a Charles Clarke or a Peter Hain.

The constitutional monarchy system - the monarch, the elected or unelected House of Lords, MI5, the presidential prime minister, appointed judges, the standing army, etc - must go. In its place must come a fully democratic federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales, brought about using the most militant tactics objective circumstances allow. Sectarianism is a constant danger.

To propose to go into battle with just the advanced guard - eg, those "within or close to the labour movement" - is folly. To argue that the vanguard must be sealed off and supposedly kept uncontaminated by contact with reactionaries such as MAB is criminal. Real, decisive movement in society only comes about when millions upon millions of people - previously inert, politically backward and often still deeply reactionary in this or that aspect of their lives - realise through their own experience in the course of struggle that far-reaching change is a burning necessity.

For this reason propaganda and agitation are in themselves insufficient. Tactics are required which draw the overwhelming mass of the population into battle. Yet through the trials, tribulations and victories scored in the course of the struggle they come to their own conclusions - the obscurantism and narrowness of political islam disarms; pacifism is hopeless and naive; Labourism is treacherous and full of double talk.

That way, and that way alone, these millions come closer and closer to our side. To move forward strategically communists must at every turn of events locate what Lenin called the main "particular link" in the tactical chain. If that link is grasped "with all one's might" the conditions are prepared for moving to the next link and solving a host of other associated problems and bringing nearer eventual strategic success.

In our conditions the main link can be summed up in one sentence. Division of the left into countless amateurish and narrow-minded sects must be superseded by partyism. Concretely that means transforming the Socialist Alliance into a democratic centralist party with deep roots in the working class. Such a party - which embodies disciplined unity in action - acts as a piston which harnesses mass anger and increases its effective power no end.

Ensuring that social energy is directed against the right target relies, of course, not on some self-appointed guru, but rather on constant open debate amongst the membership, democratic votes and elections. Without building such a party - brought about in the first place by launching a common weekly or daily paper, as argued for and described in my Towards a Socialist Alliance party - popular anger, mass mobilisations and widespread discontent will inevitably be dissipated and diverted into dead ends and another round of disillusionment and demoralisation.

The Socialist Workers Party might recruit a couple of thousand, maybe even 10,000. But it is a confessional sect with an appalling bureaucratic regime which knows neither proper internal democracy nor open debate and discussion. Hence those who enter just as quickly exit. In other words from nothing to nothing.

How do our tactics differ from the tactics of Labourism and the trade union bureaucracy? There are those who seem to imagine that Marxists oppose reforms in general and shun all compromises and temporary agreements. That is rubbish. On the contrary Marxists advocate reforms - ie, from the abolition of the monarchy to a proper minimum wage - and are prepared to join all manner of coalitions, campaigns, actions and protest movements.

The suggestion that we only have a black and white pallet of the 'united front' with reformists or the 'popular front' with the imperialist bourgeoisie is ridiculous. Marxists know full well the value of conciliatory manoeuvres, zigzags, retreats, exploiting the conflicts between our enemies and temporarily joining together with what in his Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder Lenin called "transient, unstable, vacillating and conditional" allies.

To unilaterally renounce "transient, unstable, vacillating and conditional" alliances is like an army refusing to train in the use of all the weapons and means of warfare. Obviously any such army is behaving in a stupid manner and invites defeat. If, on the contrary, communists learn to master all the methods of struggle, we become a real threat to our enemy and victory comes within reach.

Inexperienced comrades and hardened dogmatists alike are prone to dismiss "transient, unstable, vacillating and conditional" alliances as wrong in principle. All the while these comrades proclaim the virtues of united fronts - which, whether they are from above or below, are with reformists of various stripes "within or close to the labour movement" - as being the only principled alliance communists should enter. They are wrong on both counts.

We shall cite the example of the Bolsheviks to illustrate our contention. The main strategic allies sought by the Bolsheviks were the peasantry. Meanwhile they championed all sections of the oppressed and exposed all examples of oppression. This included students, gays, women and minority nationalities imprisoned in the Russian empire - Ukrainians, Finns, Jews, Poles, Turks, etc. It also included persecuted religious minorities.

Old believers, catholics, muslims and everyone outside the ambit of the officially sanctioned Russian orthodox church. Rightly in January 1905 the Bolsheviks were prepared to march behind the priest Gapon as he led a mass demonstration of St Petersburg workers - many of them woefully backward and full of illusions - to present his half-loyalist, half-revolutionary petition to the tsar in his Winter Palace.

The ensuing massacre fuelled the revolutionary outbreak that brought tsarism near to the point of collapse. Between 1907 and 1912, in the second round of duma elections the Bolsheviks adopted a tactical policy of backing the lesser evil candidates against the greatest evil candidates: ie, Constitutional Democrats against Black Hundreds.

In the same period they were formally united in the same party as the Mensheviks. Throughout most of 1917 the Bolsheviks advocated a peaceful revolution and a coalition government of the left - the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and themselves.

After the October Revolution, those who now called themselves communists concluded a pact with imperialist Germany. Later under the new economic policy there were willing to grant far-reaching concessions in Siberia and other parts of Russia to British, US and French monopolies. To maintain the alliance with the peasantry market relations were partially restored. Obviously what matters to us is not reforms or compromises in themselves: rather the advantages to the cause of the working class.

To Labourites and other such reformists, reforms are the be-all-and-end-all of politics. Not surprisingly reforms enacted by reformists tend therefore to be ways of reconciling the working class to capitalism, not step towards its final overthrow. For communists, on the other hand, reforms are viewed as by-products of the struggle, means of educating, steeling and empowering the working class. Reforms are fought for as a way of weakening the existing constitutional order and are thus turned into weapons for making revolution.

Communists therefore refuse to be seduced by legal methods of struggle, but everywhere look to advance on all fronts. So the art of communist politics lies not in rejecting compromises and alliances except with those who are "within or close to the labour movement". Such an approach is impossible to take seriously.

On the contrary communist politics requires an ability to locate compromises and alliances which advance the struggle and those that are inappropriate or express crass opportunism. Labourites are, for example, past masters at negotiating parliamentary deals and pursuing what they call practical politics. Traditionally MPs fight each other like cat and dog, depending on which rival party they belong to.

However, in this they resemble professional footballers. They play for a team and seek to beat all their rivals. And yet they move from club to club in the course of their career. Labour MPs are with very few exceptions middle class careerists. Their profession, just like that of their Tory and Lib Dem opposite numbers, is politics. Their aim is to rise to the top.

The other parties are rivals in elections but those who block their way on the ladder to success are fellow Labour MPs. MPs instinctively recognises that they have far more in common with each other than with those who elect them. Deals, cosy chats and pairing go with the territory. Not surprisingly then when things really matter - in a war or national crisis - both sides of parliament experience little or no problem in uniting against the common enemy.

Put another way, there are compromises and compromises, and alliances and alliances. Each compromise or alliance must be judged concretely, taking into account the forces involved and circumstances that obtain. Lenin gave the example of a man who hands over money and a firearm to bandits, under duress, with a view to ensuring their later capture, and one who hands weapons and money to bandits so as to share in their loot.

In this spirit Lenin wanted the newly formed CPGB to stand in selected parliamentary elections under its own banner. He also urged the party to support Labour into government and apply for affiliation. The underlying idea was quite simple. Communists in Britain were small in number and they found great difficulty in gaining a hearing from the mass of the working class. The Communist International, Comintern, later gave such general tactics the name of the workers' united front. The tactic - in its various manifestations and applications - was designed to unite the working class in struggle.

At every stage the communists retain the right to criticise and are obliged to exercise that right. Through the practical experience of the masses and the educative effect of our propaganda communists emerge, faster or slower, as the undisputed leadership because they have proved their worth.

What of MAB and islam? There is no need to debate whether or not MAB in particular and islam in general is reactionary. Like all religions it is. Indeed the form of neo-traditional islam promoted by MAB, and its Muslim Brotherhood progenitors, is alien to the elementary principles of democracy, secularism and equality we adhere to. Eg, MAB might favour certain democratic rights here and now in Britain, but it is committed, as an overriding aim, to a theocratic state, where god, not the people, exercises sovereignty. This means rule by a religious-political aristocratic elite.

Of course, neither MAB nor any other neo-traditional islamists seriously envisage putting all the stipulations of the Qur'an into practice. That very human book, like the old testament of the Hebrews, was written for a confederated tribal people, whose leading class in the cities of Medina and Mecca excelled in, and grew rich from, long-distance mercantilism, based on monopolising caravan routes.

Instead of restoring the past, MAB and the like arbitrarily pick upon various religious laws and codes of conduct and dress, to which they ascribe special religious significance. Fasting during Ramadan and headscarves for women being notable examples. Hence a mythological past is laid hold of in order to make a regimented, anti-western and anti-democratic present. Islamic neo-traditionalists - shi'a and sunni - can realistically hope to usurp power in the long arc of muslim countries stretching from the Maghred in the west to Indonesia in the far east. There is no doubting their influence in Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and northern Nigeria.

In different forms islamic neo-traditionalists briefly captured Sudan and Afghanistan. They came near to power in Algeria and still firmly dominate Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover in Iran, in particular, but also elsewhere, islamic neo-traditionalists acted as a counterrevolutionary force in a manner that is reminiscent of fascism in 1920s and 30s Europe. Ayatollah Khomeini mobilised a mass movement of the declassed urban poor and the bazari against the shah regime and then, in the counterrevolution within the revolution, turned the whole weight of its social base plus the reconstituted state against the working class and the left. The result was a bloodbath.

However, outside the muslim countries such hopes, no matter how nightmarish, are mere phantoms. There is no possibility whatsoever of MAB or any such organisation winning a parliamentary majority in Britain or staging some counterrevolutionary coup. If anything, reaction in Britain targets MAB, etc, and the whole minority community of muslims. They are collectively blamed for social tensions, lack of housing and schools, accused of receiving privileged treatment and routinely equated with illegal migrants and terrorists.

Under these concrete circumstances drawing a direct parallel with MAB and its co-thinkers and fellow neo-traditionalists in the muslim world is to completely miss the mark. Sagely telling about how the left completely underestimated the Khomeiniist movement, issuing dire warnings about the complete absence of democracy in Saudi Arabia and universalising the danger of islamic reaction is to stray into territory normally associated with the ultra-right and the conspiracy-mongering of the type that produced the Protocols of the elders of Zion.

Just as misplaced is the suggestion that MAB is led by clever, sophisticated, worldly-wise politicians and that therefore on the February 15 demonstration and other such protests against Gulf War II it will gain far more than the working class and the left. This is to turn reality on its head and reveals a worrying inferiority complex.

By mobilising its own forces MAB et al help bring into direct political struggle for the first time whole swathes of the muslim population in Britain. Though they account for only two or three percent of the overall population, that potentially means hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, people. The idea that the hold of neo-traditional islam will be strengthened by such political engagement beggars belief. Surely, especially if we do our job, the opposite will happen.

Ruling out an episodic, unstable and conditional alliance with MAB over the war with Iraq on the basis of the crimes of political islam, whether it be the Twin Towers or in Tehran, is to shrink and weaken the potential mobilisation against the Bush-Blair war for the sake of a completely spurious revolutionary solidarity. Blair, New Labour and the constitutional monarchy system cannot be defeated by communists who reduce Marxism to a pompous but empty gesture.

On the contrary communists must energetically and skilfully use even the smallest divisions within the establishment and furthermore they must use every opportunity that presents itself of winning a mass ally - no matter how backward, obscurantist, vacillating and temporary it may be. Frankly, those who will not, or cannot, grasp that reveal an inability to understand the ABC of Marxist tactics.

Those who do not work in practice to win the broadest masses into political struggle alongside the left and the working class have not yet learnt anything about revolutionary politics. To attack the idea of marching with MAB on February 15 on the basis that such an alliance - which in this case amounts to striking together - gives succour to islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, Iran, Palestine or Turkey is indeed to betray the working class movement in those countries by weakening our movement in Britain.

The main enemy is at home, not in Cairo, Tehran, Gaza or Istanbul. It would be as if in 'solidarity' with communists in Germany the CPGB had dismissed the voting and affiliation tactics advocated by Lenin in 1920 because somehow they would legitimise and give renewed standing to the social democracy of Gustav Noske and Philip Scheidemann: ie, those who presided over the state killings of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Of course, a condition of any principled alliance is our freedom to criticise. An alliance with MAB, or any other such political force, must go hand in hand with propaganda and agitation directed against neo-traditional islam and an unyielding advocacy of democracy and secularism.

In was therefore astoundingly wrong of Workers Power - which, along with the CPGB, is one of the Socialist Alliance's five principal supporting organisations - to propose to delete all mention of secularism and democracy in the Socialist Alliance's publicity material for distribution on February 15 - supposedly because that would smack of 'islamophobia'. That position - adopted by a majority which included the SWP - is pure opportunism. Ditto the alibying of the Taliban by the SWP. The reader will recall that Socialist Worker notoriously excused the imposition of the burqa upon women in the traditionally secular city of Kabul. Nor has the SWP rectified its approach. Nowhere does it criticise MAB or the islamic neo-traditionalists.

Communists must avoid these twin mistakes. Sectarianism isolates us and lessens the mass forces that can be mobilised against our main enemy and influenced by us. On the other hand opportunism waters down or simply suppresses all that is critical, all that is distinct about the programme of revolutionary socialism.