Fight for Marxist principle in Respect

Mary Godwin reports from the latest CPGB members' aggregate, which saw discussions on Respect, Communist University and Northern Ireland

The September aggregate of CPGB members confirmed the need for work in Respect and urged all comrades to participate in their local branches. Introducing the debate, Peter Manson described Respect as a site for the struggle for the Marxist party the working class in Britain needs. Before looking at the type of organisation Respect is and what we hope to achieve within it, he surveyed possible alternative sites for this struggle. First, the Labour Party. It is essential to engage with the Labour left in the form of Labour Left Briefing, the Labour Representation Committee and other groups. But, as Graham Bash has pointed out (see, for example, Weekly Worker September 22), the Labour Party has become a shell with virtually no activity at the base, and so working within it at this time would not be particularly productive. Secondly, the latest attempt at left unity in the shape of a reconstituted Socialist Alliance. It is clear that the SA mark four will contain very little by way of real forces. Nevertheless, we support all efforts towards left unity and will therefore take part in the forthcoming conference, where we will argue for a Marxist party and try to persuade the comrades to work with us inside Respect. Finally, the Scottish Socialist Party is an important site for partyism for comrades based in Scotland. Comrade Manson said it is a mistake to think that Respect itself can be transformed into a workers' party. The Socialist Alliance, by contrast, brought together all the main revolutionary groups, and was therefore undeniably based on a partyist logic. This is not the case with Respect, in which the Socialist Workers Party has attempted to unite with specifically non-working class forces. In order to do that, the SWP has further watered down its socialism and is doing all in its power to exclude the rest of the left. It is still trying (with very little success) to attract disenchanted Labourites, but its main target is now the 'muslim community'. The SWP has viewed all its 'united fronts', including the SA, first and foremost as 'transmission belts' for recruitment into its own ranks, and undoubtedly at first Respect was also regarded in that light. However, in order to build on its electoral success Respect must become a real party, yet the SWP will have huge difficulties in trying to maintain two parallel organisations. This situation has produced a liquidationist pressure to downgrade the SWP and internal tensions between those who still regard Respect as mainly a conduit into the already existing 'revolutionary party' and those who effectively want to dissolve the SWP into Respect. Neither approach puts the working class first, and we reject both as unprincipled. In the Respect popular front the main non-working class force (or rather the ghost of it) pulling to the right is the Muslim Association of Britain, which comrade Manson described as basically an organisation whose leaders subscribe to a form of bourgeois politics. It is certainly essential to engage with muslim workers, but the task of revolutionary socialists and communists is to break them from their reactionary leaders, not adapt to the politics of those leaders. A Respect conference is scheduled for November 19-20. According to the constitution agreed a year ago, groups of 20 members have the right to put forward motions, but the SWP has sought to exclude critical voices by omitting this right from conference standing orders. This demonstrates its contempt for democracy - the SWP would prefer a rally to serious debate. However, this clause cannot be wished away and the CPGB has so far drafted four motions which we intend to submit (see Weekly Worker September 8). Comrade Mike Macnair agreed that, where it exists, Respect can be a site for our struggle for a workers' party, and that communists should therefore seek to take an active part in it. He said in the past he had overestimated the potential of the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform for providing a basis for revolutionary unity, although he also favoured continuing to work alongside such comrades. Comrade Macnair questioned the correctness of the second CPGB draft motion, titled 'Socialism'. It was taken from the SWP's own 'What we stand for' column, and expresses a false and unproductive leftist dichotomy, he said. It would have been better to propose our own definition of socialism, stressing self-emancipation. To this argument comrade Manson replied that the opportunity to starkly expose the SWP's abandonment of its former socialist principles is too good to miss. Jack Conrad called for a fifth draft motion, on religious hate laws. The SWP, in alliance with George Galloway, say that Respect should favour such laws - another unprincipled concession in its collapse to the right. Comrade Lee Rock hoped that rank and file SWP members can be won to reject this rightward drift. Members shared their experiences in Respect branches in different parts of the country. Some work hard within it yet are still marginalised by the SWP. Comrades from Sheffield reported that the SWP walked out of a recent meeting of the Respect students group because of the CPGB presence. Comrade Phil Kent suggested the best way to engage with Respect is through the Weekly Worker, but comrade Macnair replied that both polemic in the Weekly Worker and direct involvement in branches is needed. He argued that many Respect branches contain independents and also SWP members uneasy at the direction the SWP leadership is taking, who will be willing to work with us. Respect is moving backwards politically but forward in terms of becoming more like a party, he suggested. Several comrades were critical or self-critical because we had not been actively involved enough. As comrade Rock pointed out, we may be accused by SWP members of only attending branch meetings when we want to get motions voted through or put ourselves forward as delegates. We are unlikely to have any success, since most of our potential allies in the shape of non-aligned socialists have resigned from Respect in disillusionment at its political direction and the control-freakery of the SWP. In reply to this comrade Anne Mc Shane pointed out that in the Socialist Alliance no amount of leafleting or other work was enough to satisfy the SWP, whose leadership trains its cadres to be hard-bitten sectarians. She accepted that some inexperienced members might be disgusted by the antics of the right-moving SWP and therefore see no need to work in Respect. However, she did not think we should be in the slightest embarrassed or intimidated when it comes to putting forward our politics. The SWP should be challenged over its crass abandonment of principles. Our strong point is our commitment to principle. Comrade Manson added that it was also right to argue for minority representation as a democratic norm. Communist University Earlier comrade Mark Fischer had opened the aggregate by introducing a debate on Communist University 2005. The quality of the openings at CU was high despite the effects of the decline and fragmentation of the left, which led to there being fewer debates with other groups than at previous universities. The CPGB approached various organisations and individuals, but encountered a general stepping back from engagement. The lack of sharp disagreements in our own ranks at the time also made for an event that was less combative than previous CUs. The venue was good, said comrade Fischer, except that it had poor disabled access. The PCC will write to Goldsmiths college thanking them but pointing this out and asking for the necessary modifications to be carried out. Quite a number of CPGB members and candidate members had been absent for all or part of the week, and comrade Fischer described this as the main weakness of the event. Next year comrades should make more of an effort to attend, if necessary by booking time off work, and should also build for CU - for example, by distributing leaflets at events such as the SWP's Marxism. He recognised that for this to be done effectively the timetable needs to be finalised earlier. In the discussion comrade Conrad added that all members have both the right to Marxist education and the duty to take it up. In organising CU the leadership is supplying the education members are entitled to, and members are obliged to attend if at all possible. There is room for improvement in all aspects of preparation for CU, in terms of reading lists, making previous openings available as voice files, and attracting people with useful things to say. Comrades agreed more preparatory study is also needed, and that it would be beneficial to have the timetable decided earlier. Anne Mc Shane pointed out this would make it easier to target specific sessions at Marxism. There were different points of view about the quality of some sessions at this year's CU. Most thought the three openings by Hillel Ticktin were most valuable, but a minority thought openings on subjects such as current events in Venezuela or the history of the Irish struggle would be more useful. Comrade Rock asked what the CPGB's engagement with Ticktin and the Critique group was designed to achieve. Comrade Manson replied that comrade Ticktin has come out for a Marxist party, and has valuable things to say. Comrade Macnair observed that historically communists have sought to build links with both worker activists and with leftwing intellectuals. Most of the left intelligentsia has decayed into post-modernism, and Critique is the best of what remains, and the closest to us. Comrade Conrad added that the CPGB is constantly looking for authors of high-quality Marxist books to invite to CU, but at present the best of them are often in the USA. There was some criticism of the quality of the two debates with other groups. Referring to the session in which he was a speaker alongside Andy Newman, comrade Rock said it was absurd to have two speakers with such similar views on the platform. Regarding the debate with the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Duncan Morrisson's arguments were described by several speakers as appallingly poor, and it was suggested by one or two comrades that the AWL ought not to be invited again, as they cannot rise above moralistic ranting. Other speakers argued that it is worth engaging with the AWL face to face to illustrate its theoretical weakness, and to this end we should try to persuade them to debate theory rather than immediate political questions. Replying to the discussion, comrade Fischer said there needs to be a balance between using CU to educate ourselves, and to reach out to what remains of the rest of the left. He stressed his most important message: CPGB members must make more of an effort to attend for the whole week. Ireland The final session of the aggregate saw the start of a debate on Ireland. Jack Conrad presented his draft theses, and Mike Macnair followed with a brief opening on his own submission (see pp8-9 for both documents). Comrade Conrad began by explaining that the theses are intended to clarify discussion on the new situation in Ireland following the IRA's destruction of arms. In particular, he wished to join the debate on the left and counter the economism of those such as Alan Woods (see thesis 18). The job of the left should be to import revolutionism from Ireland into Britain, not export reformism from Britain into Ireland. Comrade Macnair said he agreed with most of comrade Conrad's theses. But he placed greater emphasis on the military aspect of the British state's strategic interest in Ireland (point 1.3) and was doubtful about the concept of the 'British-Irish', which he claimed was a redundant term in the light of the analysis in his point 2.3. He also (point 6.5) sought to stress the importance of placing the fight for Irish unity in the internationalist context of the fight for European unity. This debate on Ireland will continue in the Weekly Worker and at future CPGB meetings.