No rights without responsibilities

Party aggregate: the first item on the agenda concerns the behaviour of John Pearson, a CPGB member from Manchester. There is a motion demanding his immediate expulsion.

Our December 7 aggregate of Communist Party members will debate and decide upon a number of important questions - the composition of the Provisional Central Committee, the new Respect coalition and the recent revival of the Labour Party left. However, the first item on the agenda concerns the behaviour of John Pearson, a CPGB member from Manchester. There is a motion demanding his immediate expulsion.

He stands charged with acting in “gross violation” of the democratic centralist rules which CPGB members are expected to abide by. Democratic centralism is, of course, a fundamental principle for us communists, and one which can be readily grasped and fully appreciated by any class-conscious trade unionist. Centralism is designed to achieve the maximum unity in action. We are strong because we are tightly organised and strike as one. In tandem, democracy provides the best conditions to ensure that our actions are directed at the right target and mistakes and shortcomings are swiftly rectified. That requires open debate around key issues of theory, strategy and tactics.

The charges against comrade Pearson relate specifically to the November 8 meeting of the Socialist Alliance’s Democracy platform. As is its right and duty, the PCC appointed an authoritative comrade - Marcus Ström - to lead this particular action. Moreover, to ensure that there was no doubt as to the Party’s position our members were caucused during the lunch break. Despite this, and knowing the seriousness of the issues facing us, John Pearson not only voted against the CPGB on three separate occasions, but proceeded to publicly abuse comrade Ström.

These facts are not in dispute and are well known by our members. That is why the suggestion of establishing some kind of investigative control commission - eagerly seized upon by comrade Pearson - which would effectively delay any final decision on him till 2004, is misplaced and diversionary. December’s aggregate is more than competent to be both judge and jury.

Our rules are spare and perfectly clear. Members are “required to fulfil all tasks assigned to them by the Party” - John Pearson did not do that on November 8. Nor did he “fight for the Party’s unity in action” (article 4). Before or after a “particular action” members can “oppose the decisions taken by higher committees”, including in our press; however, that goes hand in hand with “fulfilling all directives” (article 9). Article 18 includes the following “violations of Party discipline”: “failure to adhere to Party rules”, “rebutting the Party”, and “behaving in a way that brings discredit to the Party”.

Comrade Pearson pig-headedly refuses to admit that he broke our rules. True, he has issued a self-justifying, “fixed and final” statement, which contains a grudging “apology” for voting against the CPGB over one issue. Needless to say, this only adds insult to injury. An assessment underlined by the rest of this sorry statement. It amounts to a baseless, offensive and uncomradely attack on the CPGB, its leadership and membership. Instead of giving a straightforward commitment to subordinate himself to our rules, the comrade boasts that he would act in the same undisciplined way again. Supposedly he is mandated by Stockport SA ... and anyway the CPGB’s position of critical engagement with the Respect unity coalition is a “betrayal of principle”, he mendaciously claims.

Without doubt his mandate is entirely bogus. A mere fig leaf, cynically used as an excuse to license whatever clowning he so pleases. Neither the statutes nor the standing orders of the SA contain any mention of delegates being mandated (incidentally, in general communists are against mandating).

Moreover, November 8, it should be pointed out, was an unofficial gathering of individual SA members. Crucially though, communists - authentic communists, that is - always put the discipline of their Party above the discipline of other organisations ... including that august body, Stockport SA.

As to the notion that critically engaging with the Respect coalition is a “betrayal of principle”, nothing could be further from the truth. Communists consider it perfectly legitimate to work in leftish and working class formations which in terms of their leadership and programmes are a long way removed from our politics and positions.

Lenin and the Communist International urged the early CPGB to join and actively help into office the Labour Party of Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden. Naturally that was done in the full knowledge of the Labour Party’s pro-imperialist role in World War I and its leadership’s rabid hatred of the October revolution.

In more recent years too, our organisation encouraged supporters to take part in launching the Socialist Labour Party - despite its national socialism and Arthur Scargill’s overbearing personal dictatorship. Ditto the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party. Our members went in openly voicing criticisms of the pink-green politics of Dave Nellist and John Nicholson and the left nationalism of Tommy Sheridan and Alan Mc- Combes ... but determined to engage. Walling ourselves off in a sectarian ghetto of the pure, is, in fact, utterly alien to our tradition.

Obviously no one in our ranks contemplates expulsion lightly. Especially of a comrade like John Pearson, who has a respected record of hard work and is regarded by many as a friend. Everyone - apart, it seems, from comrade Pearson himself - has been doing their utmost to save him as a CPGB member. A sincere self-criticism and a pledge to mend his ways would even at this stage result in a withdrawal of the motion demanding his expulsion.

But comrade Pearson is incorrigibly stubborn. He is also politically backward - our rules specifically oblige us to take into account a comrade’s “level of consciousness and experience” before proceeding with any disciplinary action (article 19). That explains why we have shown such extraordinary patience.

November 8 was no isolated, uncharacteristic incident. Rather it was the final straw. Over the last three years or so we have gone to great lengths to win comrade Pearson to understand exactly what democratic centralism entails and what the requirements of CPGB membership are. Eg, the Communist University, both in 2001 and 2003, featured special sessions on democratic centralism. Clearly we failed. Comrade Pearson still manifests a morbid hostility towards elected leaders, insists on elevating a branch of the SA, and its ‘mandate’, above CPGB discipline, and contemptuously dismisses other CPGB members as sycophants and voting fodder. A haughty, deceitful and thoroughly obnoxious attitude, which owes everything to anarcho-bureaucracy and nothing to Leninism.

Throughout our three-year struggle we have never tried to silence him, nor anyone else who holds minority viewpoints. Quite the reverse: within our ranks members are entitled to come out with their criticisms openly - including in the Weekly Worker, on e-lists, etc.

Evidently our democratic centralism is far removed from the suffocating bureaucratic centralism operated by so many present-day left groups and sects. Whether it be the Socialist Workers Party or the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain or Workers Power, the fear-fuelled message is exactly the same. Members are expected to agree in public with the existing leadership line and keep any doubts or differences strictly private. Designed to ward off splits and ensure unity, such methods, ironically, achieve the exact opposite. Fragmentation and theoretical sclerosis is inevitable.

Our practice, it should be stressed, is solidly based on studying the history and best practice of the Bolsheviks. Against Menshevik control-freakery Lenin argued, in May 1906, that their attempts to bar members from openly expressing their individual opinions were wrong and damaging. On the contrary, Lenin insists, Party members must be permitted to criticise everything - including at public meetings - as long as it is “within the limits of the principles of the Party programme” (VI Lenin CW Vol 10, Moscow 1977, p442).

Needless to say, such rights come with corresponding responsibilities. Again, as explained by Lenin, members cannot make “calls” that “violate the unity of definite actions” - that cannot be “tolerated either at public meetings, or Party meetings, or in the Party press” (ibid p443). A formulation which sums up our approach.

Clearly the November 8 Birmingham meeting was a definite action for the CPGB. Comrade Pearson not only broke our unity: he anarchistically announces that he cannot be bound by our discipline. Sneeringly he dismisses our method of working through an authoritative comrade as “string-pulled hand-raising”. In that same anti-Party spirit he wants to liquidate our democratic centralism in all SA matters and yet contradictorily makes the dishonest, and quite frankly bizarre, claim that the CPGB’s democratic centralism has already “collapsed” - a situation he would, of course, bring about, if he were allowed to get away with it.

But he shall not get away with it. There can be no compromise here.