Agreeing to disagree

Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty demands to know the politics on which a new workers' party would be based. Is ideological consensus a requirement for unity? Manny Neira argues not

“Five socialists locked in a room together would form four parties and an entrist faction.”

I first heard this over 20 years ago, and it was not funny then. When opening with a joke, it is perhaps ill advised to choose one which is both old and dull. The only thing sillier might be to then carefully explain exactly how old and dull it is. In my defence I can only say that, whatever this gem lacks as humour, the situation it describes is as true now as it was then.

Indeed, it may even be worse. As the size of the British revolutionary left has dwindled to perhaps a few thousand active comrades, their membership has remained divided between roughly the same number of different ‘parties’. Logically, the only limit seems to be that the number of groups cannot exceed the number of comrades.

The chief problem faced by our movement, if it is serious about changing society, is not the reluctance of the working class to protest: this was magnificently shown by the historic demonstrations in London against the invasion of Iraq. Neither is it any current weakness in the trade unions, which are showing renewed industrial militancy. It is not even the force of the British state, which is on the back foot at home and abroad. It is our own division and consequent paralysis.

Cry ‘unity!’

Thus far, my argument may seem uncontroversial. Most groups speak in favour of unity. Turn to the What we fight for column in this paper, and you will find the view of the Communist Party of Great Britain:

“Our central aim is the organisation of communists, revolutionary socialists, anti-capitalists and all politically advanced workers into a Communist Party … there exists no real Communist Party today. There are many so called ‘parties’ on the left. In reality, they are confessional sects. Members who disagree with the prescribed ‘line’ are expected to gag themselves in public. Either that or face expulsion.”

Amen to us, then. Amen also to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, who wrote in their special Unity! issue of their magazine Workers’ Liberty:

“A more united left would impact far more forcefully on the working class and its movement, and on the capitalist world around us. It could hope to grow much more quickly than the left does now. It would also be forced by the conditions of its existence to talk about its own political divisions and disputes as a united left, and thus evolve a civilised and democratic party regime.”

I could go on. It would not be difficult to find words written by socialists of many different stamps which called for unity: and indeed it is difficult to imagine a group opposed to the principle as such.

The question remains, therefore, why do we remain divided?


At the May 10 fringe meeting for those who had supported pro-workers’ party motions at the last Socialist Alliance conference, I found myself sitting opposite leading AWL comrade Sean Matgamna. I spoke on the dangers of sectarianism, which I defined as allowing the ideological fetishes of individual groups to be placed above the objective needs of the working class. As I spoke, I was marginally distracted by comrade Matgamna carefully scribbling a note, which he passed to me as I sat down. It read: “What you’ve just said is entirely apolitical.”

I was a little nonplussed. Had I, in an attack of nerves, forgotten the point I had planned to make, and instead unconsciously treated the assembled delegates to my favourite paella recipe? I looked around the room, but there was no sign of the mixture of amusement and bewilderment such a performance would have aroused.

I was especially interested, then, when this same debate resurfaced inside the AWL. Comrade Gerry Byrne, a member of the AWL national committee and one of Solidarity’s editors, wrote of the meeting I mentioned above:

“Roughly a third of the Socialist Alliance conference voted for the workers’ party resolution and for an SA paper … Many stayed for the post-conference fringe meeting, wanting to take the first steps towards a workers’ party (as yet undefined). An opportunity was missed - criminally.”

Comrade Matgamna’s reply appeared in the next issue: “Gerry’s approach here is entirely apolitical. The Marxist organisation is built around politics. It unites with others, if it does, on the basis of spelled out politics.”

Essentially, and I hope comrade Matgamna does not feel I am misrepresenting him, this argument runs as follows. We should not suppress our political differences - hide them, or refuse to discuss them - in order to achieve a nominal ‘unity’. To do so is apolitical, in the sense that it avoids a discussion of politics in order to support the creation of a group united only by organisation. Such a group would be of no value: it would be unable to speak on issues of principle, and so be equally unable to act. Socialists unite with others only on the basis of political agreement, and this must therefore be secured before a united party can be achieved.

Though he will doubtless be appalled to be associated with them, I believe that comrade Matgamna here makes explicit the political argument which underlies not only the practice of the AWL, but of the leadership of most of the left groups. I believe that he is wrong, and that this error damages not only the cause of unity, but that of the very political debate he seeks to defend.

Ideology and division

There are really two parts to comrade Matgamna’s position. Firstly, he argues that political differences should be discussed openly, and not suppressed to support a unity project. Secondly, he says that socialists should only unite in a party on the basis of political agreement.

In fact, I agree with his first point. The political debate should always be honest and open. What he mistakes for disagreement with this first point is actually disagreement with the second. I do not believe socialists should only unite in a party on the basis of political agreement.

At first, this might seem surprising. After all, what is a political party if it is not a group united around a set of political ideas? But I would argue that this betrays a bourgeois conception both of the party and of politics.

The bourgeois model is of a free society in which all are equal before the law, and the law is passed by a democratically elected legislative. As different people have different ideas about which laws should be passed, they form like-minded groups or political parties. These parties publish manifestos of the legislation they are planning, and the people vote on them. Those attracting the greatest support are elected and put their manifestos into practice. The resulting laws are impartially enforced by the state.

Marxism, though, is not based on this legalistic fantasy, but on materialism: that is, on an objective analysis of society as it actually exists. From this, it derives an understanding of society’s class divisions. Power lies in the hands of the bourgeoisie - those who own the means of production and those who defend and serve the operation of capital. We are not all equal before the law: indeed, the law largely exists to regulate the operation of capitalism between capitalists. The interests of the mass of humanity can only be served by the abolition of the existing state, and the creation of a genuinely democratic society. While such revolutionary change is ultimately in the interests of all, it is the working class - those brought together by capitalism into an inescapable recognition of their common interest - which holds the power to actually achieve it.

The party of the working class is therefore not a group of like-minded people, but the most politically conscious part of the working class itself, committed to its own interests. As there is only one such class, there can be only one such party.

The bourgeois model, in which parties are defined by their ideology, naturally leads to a proliferation of parties. If individuals within a party come to disagree with the majority positions - or, given imperfect democracy, mere leadership positions - they will leave, as there is nothing but agreement keeping them in. If groups leave, they will form new parties, based around an ideology which better expresses their minority opinion. Sometimes groups will unite if their ideologies veer towards each other, but the interests of leaders who do not wish to concede status, and sub-political animosities based on a mere history of separateness, frequently prevent this. In the main, the tendency is towards fission.

It might be objected that the largest bourgeois parties survive despite these pressures, but at their level another factor comes into play: the realistic prospect of power within the existing system. In Britain, the Conservative Party has traditionally been the party of power. It offered a realistic chance of election, to anything from a local council to the national or European parliaments. Membership might provide you with a political career, or a position from which you might form useful associations with those who held power. To a lesser but still significant extent, smaller but still relatively large bourgeois parties such as the Liberal Democrats offer the same.

Even those with a sincere belief in the bourgeois system will reason that their level of agreement with their party’s programme must be balanced against the realistic chances of that programme ever being implemented. When the Liberal Party merged with the Social Democratic Party, many sincere Liberals faced a dilemma: would they join the united organisation, despite what they saw as the watering down of its politics? A rump did not, and still campaign under the name of the Liberal Party, which remains closer to the politics of the Liberal rank and file of the 70s. Most, clinging to the possibility of political power, stayed.

It is amongst the smaller parties that the doctrine that they are defined by their ideology causes fission - and particularly amongst the parties of the revolutionary left. This is a bourgeois approach, and has served only the bourgeoisie.

The Marxist conception of a party based not on a unity of thought, but an expression of the political consciousness and interests of the working class, must therefore be re-established.

A party of Labour

If ideologically defined groups are doomed to fission and failure, what are we then to do?

There are left only two positions worthy of consideration: the ‘reclaiming’ of the Labour Party, or the building of a new workers’ party: in Marxist terms, a real Communist Party.

In a recent Weekly Worker, Graham Bash of Labour Left Briefing wrote a carefully argued and clearly passionately felt piece in which he set out his position that socialists should work within the Labour Party. He expressed no illusions:

“[The Labour Party] was born a distorted and bureaucratic expression of the working class. Key here was Britain’s early bourgeois revolution … The Labour Party was based on the growth of trade unionism, which was largely cut off from revolutionary influences and under bourgeois hegemony. The opposite, for instance, of the working class in Russia and China, where the bourgeoisie developed too late and was too weak to carry out its own revolution, and the working class was powerful and revolutionary almost from the moment of its creation” (September 25).

Here, his key point is that the Labour Party was not merely an ideologically defined group - indeed, it was not defined by an ideology at all. It was an expression of the objective interests of the working class, though distorted by the strength and prevalence of the British bourgeoisie. Growing out of the trade unions, it remained at best economistic, and at worst an instrument by which the working class was wedded to the state, but it was nevertheless the party of the British working class.

Twenty years ago, at the time I heard the joke which opened this article, I would have agreed with this. I was a member of Militant, and a member of the Labour Party. Our most common complaint against the Trotskyist left outside Labour was that they had failed to understand the objective, historic role of Labour as the party of the class. However, in the witch-hunt which chased out Militant, the foundations of New Labour were already being laid by Kinnock in the 80s.

It is difficult to say whether comrade Bash entirely subscribes to this view, or whether he views New Labour as a more recent phenomenon; and he does not mention Militant, or its fate, at all. He points out that New Labour has imposed an explicitly capitalist character on the party more completely than “even Kinnock” could aspire to, which suggests he believes that the fundamental change happened recently. His view of New Labour, though, is clear:

“New Labour had a qualitatively different relationship to the labour movement. It was not and is not the distorted and bureau-cratised expression of the working class. It was, and is, … the direct and immediate expression of the interests of big business … the logic and explicit intention of New Labour is to destroy the Labour Party. But - and this is the central point - it has not yet happened. It has not yet succeeded. The Labour Party is a party based on the trade unions and the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions, however bureaucratised, is still there.”

Ultimately, this is comrade Bash’s main argument: the same argument presented by Militant in the 80s. It is interesting to note that the largest rump of Militant, the Socialist Party under Peter Taaffe, is now the most strident critic of the link between the trade unions and Labour - though Ted Grant, Militant’s leading theorist, remains in the Labour at the head of Socialist Appeal.

While it is certainly true that the Labour Party retains important links with the unions, the class base of the party has been degenerating over a long period. Internal democracy has been dismantled. Relations with the trade unions have become increasingly strained, and there has been open discussion within some about the possibility of withdrawing funds from, and supporting candidates against, New Labour.

Such transitions are difficult to judge. At what point does this quantitative change represent a qualitative change in the objective nature of the Labour Party? The disarray within the Conservatives seems likely to leave Labour in power for at least another term - during which the contradictions between Labour’s links with the trade unions and the interests of those unions will inevitably sharpen. Are socialists going to find themselves arguing against the most militant and politically independent trade unions who seek to break first?

And are we merely to be observers? One of the main reasons the trade unions retain their links with Labour is that there is no realistic alternative - particularly in England and Wales. This is why we do not currently support the call for disaffiliation: trade unions should not drift into apoliticism and the economistic defence of narrowly defined interests. However, comrade Bash uses the links between the Labour Party and the trade unions as an argument against building precisely the kind of organisation which might allow those links (which will become increasingly regressive as the New Labour project takes hold) to be broken.

Ultimately, I remain unpersuaded. The Labour Party retains its links with the working class, but is now, as comrade Bash acknowledges, in the hands of an explicitly pro-ruling class leadership. The more militant trade unions show more sign of breaking with Labour than they do of trying to reclaim it; and, as the Labour government accelerates its programme against both the trade unions and the class as a whole, this tendency is only likely to increase. The crying need now is for party which might offer a political alternative.

Interestingly, the situation in Scotland may yet provoke a crisis which we will be ill-equipped to deal with. The Scottish Socialist Party provides an alternative political focus which the Socialist Alliance plainly does not, and Scottish trade unionists may be drawn towards it. The peculiar strengths and weaknesses of the SSP, as a united workers’ party which we would support, but as a nationalist party active in only part of the country, are likely to create further contradictions.

Democratic centralism

And so, if not Labour, and not ideologically defined groups, we return to the argument for a workers’ party: and to comrade Matgamna’s accusation of ‘apoliticism’. Will we have to suppress our differences to achieve some nominal unity?

My answer is an emphatic ‘no’. The party will draw together the most politically conscious elements of the working class, and exist to further their interests. Its aim will be to replace Labour, not by reconstituting old Labour (for all the reasons of class contradiction which comrade Bash correctly identified in old Labour) but by establishing an independent working class position.

And the politics? What are we to do about, for instance, George Galloway or the involvement of the Muslim Association of Britain in the Stop the War Coalition? These are merely two of the many arguments which the AWL have taken up with the rest of the movement, and which have led them to characterise us as “fake left” and, in the case of the CPGB, even “crazies” and “leftwing fuckwits”. Comrade Matgamna demands to know what we will do about our disagreements over Galloway and MAB before he will consider political unity.

The answer is simple. Everyone will be allowed to speak, and then we will vote on them. The majority vote will form the basis of the party’s programme. The minorities will be allowed every opportunity to argue and publish their case, but will be expected to show unity in action.

And here we come to the nub of the argument. The problem of accommodating different political opinions within a single party - a party which must be single because it represents the objective interests of a single class - has long been understood by our movement. The solution has already been found: democratic centralism.

Now, the abuse of this term has taken its colouring from the inevitable, anti-democratic ideological bludgeoning which has gone under the name of democratic centralism within the ideologically defined groups. They have failed in democratic centralism not because they were bad people, or insincere democrats, but necessarily because of the contradiction between the free expression of opposing views within a group and the group’s coherence around a particular ideological position.

This contradiction is not hard to understand. Consider the position of the AWL. It will not unite with other groups until it has won political agreement with them. And yet, what is the position of one of its own comrades if he or she, either through a change of mind or through a different interpretation of underlying politics of the group to a new situation, disagrees with the majority? If the AWL cannot unite with, say, the CPGB because the majority of CPGB comrades adopt different positions, then logically, the individual dissenter inside the group is as intolerable to it as the CPGB is outside, and on the same grounds: ideological disagreement. While some nominal freedom to express the opposing views may be written into the organisation’s constitution, the very logic of its status as an ideologically defined group demands that the comrade is silenced, removed from important offices and ultimately even forced out.

The demand for democratic centralism - full-blooded, scrupulously observed, jealously guarding the rights of its minorities, while acting in unison to implement its democratic decisions - is the only political guarantee comrade Matgamna should need. He, like the rest of us, will have to rely on the quality of his argument to win the day: and not refuse to play and take his ball home if it does not.

Comradely discussion

I would add one final note.

There seems to be a tradition in our movement of the most violent and abusive tone being adopted in debate. The AWL has referred to “the fake left continuing to rot”, has characterised members of the CPGB as “crazies” and made reference to “leftwing fuckwits”. Neither is it alone in using such language - and on one occasion I was one of several CPGB comrades protesting the judgement in the Weekly Worker that the AWL ‘didn’t like Arabs much’.

I object to this absurd practice on two grounds: of justice, and of effectiveness.

Firstly, such language is almost always unjust. To put it simply, the political judgements we make are extremely complex. The world is not a simple place, and the application of our basic principles is not always an easy process. In my experience, when I have tackled comrades inside my own organisation or outside it about political differences, I have found them to have sincere reasons for their views. There is a breathtaking arrogance in assuming not merely that you are right (which is implicit in the mildest assertion), but that you are so obviously right that anyone who disagrees is a ‘fake left’ or ‘crazy’. It seems that the simple dignity of being ‘wrong’ (let alone ‘possibly wrong’) is no longer extended.

Secondly, it is both a result of and a contributor to the division of the left. As such it is an obstacle to unity and to clear political discussion - both of which are in the interests of the class. As comrade Byrne argues, “Is it any surprise that people who are described as some kind of human sewage are reluctant to unite with us?” This is not a demand for political censorship, merely comradely discussion.

I have long made such objections, and am generally met with quotes from Lenin as a counter-argument. Lenin, it is true, was not always gentle in his writing: but there are a few problems in engaging his support.

To begin with, we are materialists who draw from the work of historical revolutionaries because of the light they can shine on our own struggles: not scriptural theologians quoting infallible sources. Or, to put it more simply, just because Lenin wrote like that, it does not follow we have to. (There, I’ve said it. The fear has passed.)

This is particularly true when we consider the objective conditions in which Lenin was working. A moment’s thought should suffice to reveal the huge differences between Russia at the turn of the century and modern Britain: in levels of education and literacy, in the development of ubiquitous political ‘commentary’ through television and radio, and generally in a century of social and political development in countries which were not on a par to begin with. Lenin would have written with his own audience in mind. If we ape his style, we will not be writing for our own, but for one which existed a long time ago: and we will sound like it. To summarise again: even if it worked then, that does not mean it will work now.

But above all, I cannot help wondering if all the would-be Lenins are not carrying it a little high. When we have all done the work and faced the risks that he did, maybe we can speak with his assurance and expect the same respect for doing so. Until then, it seems a rather proud parallel to draw.