Vital debates for unity

Hillel Ticktin, the CPGB's Jack Conrad and A Canadan from the Communist Party of Turkey were the main speakers at a meeting to celebrate the TKP's 85th anniversary. Mark Fischer reports

"There has been a lot of progress in the interaction between us over the last year," commented comrade A Candan from the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) at the September 10 London rally to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the TKP's formation. He was referring to the organisations represented by the other two platform speakers, the CPGB's Jack Conrad and Hillel Ticktin, editor of Critique. Indeed there has been progress and this found a partial reflection in the rather livelier discussion from the floor than similar meetings have sparked over the last 12 months or so. Amongst a whole range of important topics touched on, three themes in particular emerged that should provide some rich material for future debate, although this short article will not be able to do them justice. First, the question of whether a mass Marxist party can be built this side of the revolution; second, the nature of genuine proletarian internationalism and the concrete tasks it imposes on us; and, last, the character of the epoch that confronts us. In fact, this question of concreteness seemed to pose a problem for the TKP - while comrade Candan's contribution was interesting and perhaps indicative of the political direction that some in the organisation are taking, it was characterised by a degree of formalism. He was actually criticised for this by one comrade from Turkey in the audience, who singled out comrade Ticktin for praise for the far more specific nature of his contribution. Mass Communist Party Clear lines of difference were revealed on the question of the Communist Party as a mass formation. Comrade Candan reiterated the accepted wisdom of some of the more muscle-bound squads of both the Stalinoid and Trotskyist left: that is, it is impermissible for the party to become genuinely mass before the explosion of the revolutionary situation itself. Inevitably, any premature attempts to realise this will lead via some iron logic in the direction of reformism and collapse à  la Second International and German social democracy in particular. To me, this has a sniff of the apocalyptic school of revolutionism about it - the revolutionary party must remain a small, semi-conspiratorial group almost until the moment of the revolution itself. Then, like a cornered rat, the working class finds itself with no alternative but to mount an insurrection "¦ and is gratified to discover the communists, ready and eager to provide leadership. Thus, comrade Candan seemed to identify the striving of the Second International during a period of relative quietude to be a "mass party encompassing the entire working class" as spontaneously generating a momentum towards parliamentarianism, reformism and ultimately the calamitous collapse into the rank social chauvinism of 1914. This "whole class" category is a partial red herring, of course. No leader of the Second International - Kautsky included - ever suggested that the entire proletariat should be members of the party. Criteria of discipline and consciousness would always apply. In fact, the essence of the position of Kautsky - the most authoritative leader of the Second International - was codified in a resolution adopted by the 1904 Amsterdam congress: "In order that the working class may put forth all its strength in the struggle against capitalism it is necessary that in every country there exist vis à  vis the bourgeois parties only one socialist party, as there exists only one proletariat. Therefore, it is the imperative duty of all comrades and socialist organisations to make every effort to bring about this unity on the basis of the principles established by the international congresses "¦" (Cited in Spartacist Publishing Company Lenin and the vanguard party New York 1978, p4). As a general statement of revolutionary intent - not as some binding organisational ruling, regardless of political developments - this seems to me uncontroversial. Indeed, the CPGB today makes "every effort to bring about this unity" on "the basis of the principles" we identify as key to revolutionary Marxism. Comrade Candan insisted, however, that "it is not possible to have a Leninist mass party at times of relative calm". His comments on legality and illegality appeared to implicitly reinforce this, although he seemed to introduce some important qualifications in his summing up. Comrade Jack Conrad of the CPGB rejected this, suggesting that the parameters of the struggle itself would dictate the size of the party: "I see no reason why a Communist Party in a country like Britain must be small," he said. Our model was not simply the Bolsheviks as they existed as a hunted group, deep underground in tsarist Russia: we need to look at their experiences as a vibrant and inclusive revolutionary party that burst out of that protective shell with the rise of the revolution and their attempts to organise society itself. Another instructive model (not in terms of its centrism and collapse, of course) was German social democracy. We need to emulate and even go beyond its achievements in sinking profoundly deep roots in its society and winning a huge membership. The key idea was that the role of the party was not simply in maintaining some fireproof programme in expectation of the proletariat's aforementioned 'rodent moment': it must have an indispensable role in the reorganisation of the class in the here and now. Comrade Ticktin approached the same question from a different angle: "The class does not exist at all times," he observed. It might be true that "the workers exist as a potential class at all times; but they only become an actual class when they are a collectivity". The first task of party - not a simple one, by any means - is to assist the coalescence of that class collectivity. The fight for this collectivity must address the division between work time and leisure, the private and public sphere - we "cannot have a situation where the worker only regards him or herself as a worker when engaged in production". He generally concurred with the comments of comrade Conrad regarding the lessons of German social democracy and its profoundly deep roots in the class. Internationalism On internationalism, there is a clear difference between the CPBG and TKP - at least when it comes to the concrete applications of the lessons of the past. Comrade Candan suggested that the "primary task of all communists today is not the building of their own 'brilliant' communist party, but work towards the building of the International". The tendency to counterpose the task of building an International to nationally-based communist organisation in the here and now may sound terribly principled, but its operative effect is the dispersal and disorganisation of Marxists. Comrade Candan's speech had correctly denounced the Stalinist degeneration of our movement, attended by the growing nationalism of it component sections. However, he also suggested that Stalinism is responsible for the idea that the proletarian revolution is a "national revolution" and the dictatorship of the proletariat comes into being within a "nation-state". This was partially contradicted in Jack Conrad's speech. He first emphasised the international character of the world communist movement from its origins - both the CPGB and TKP were sections of an international party fighting an international enemy - world capitalism. Agreeing with the TKP comrade, he pointed out: "We didn't start off saying, 'Here is a nation: it is our task as communists to liberate it'." However, he added as a partial corrective to the comrade's contribution the observation that "the state has a national basis and that is why we need particular sections organised under particular states". Pointing to the multinational nature of UK and Turkish societies, comrade Conrad underlined that it was the duty of communists who live under these states, whatever their ethnic or national origins or background, to unite. An incontrovertible principle of the very International the TKP comrade was referring to was 'One state, one party', he stressed. Of course, international influence and open critical intervention were decisive in the formation of the CPGB in the first place - one thinks of the impact of Lenin's Leftwing communism and its role in bringing together the plethora of warring sects that remind us of the contemporary political scene on the left. So unity, yes - "but unity with democracy", comrade Conrad emphasised. Comrade Ticktin underscored the same point in his summing up. He also replied on this party question to the brittle sectarianism of a speaker from the International Bolshevik Tendency (a leading member who has privately conceded that he and his comrades would have actually been expelled from the Bolshevik faction and would have had to seek collaborators amongst the ultra-lefts - surely time for a change of name, comrades?). Against the IBT notion that agreement on a detailed programme must be a precondition of unity, comrade Ticktin emphasised a minimalist approach. What is required is that "people are honest; that they understand Marxism at a reasonably profound level and that they are dedicated to overthrowing capitalism. You don't really require very much more than that." Comrade Ticktin asserted that it was perfectly natural that "people will disagree" - Lenin and Trotsky had "important programmatic differences" even when they were in the same party, as Trotsky himself acknowledged in the 1930s. "In fact, there may be more substantial differences amongst Marxists than there are among anti-Marxists," the comrade added. "That's what you would expect, precisely because our method is scientific. The moment you apply such a method there is going to be an enormous range of viewpoints. And that's good." Nature of epoch Clearly, one important difference with some TKP comrades is the question of the nature of the epoch itself. Are we on the verge of a new surge of life for capitalism, as it subordinates areas of the world previous not dominated by its laws? Are we looking at another thousand years of this system before the project of socialism becomes a viable one in anything other than theory? Or are the very laws of capitalism itself in the process of decline and self-negation, as suggested by comrades Ticktin and Conrad in the meeting? Clearly, this is a vital debate, with fundamental consequences for organisation. For example, after the meeting one leading TKPer who holds to the 'thousand-year' thesis told me that he has concluded that there "are no organisational solutions" to the current malaise of Marxists. I took from this the implication that questions such as communist unity and the nature of the party are not worthy of serious contemporary consideration. These questions need rigorous debate and clarification between us, we believe.