A programme for which class?
The fringe meeting organised by the CPGB that followed the Campaign for a New Workers' Party conference gave our comrades and others the opportunity to discuss its politics. Mary Godwin reports
Very little genuine political debate had taken place at the conference itself, which had the character of a Socialist Party in England and Wales rally, at which a succession of SPEW members gave platitudinous three-minute speeches telling us how bad New Labour and the bosses are. The aim of our fringe meeting was to give the CPGB's view, which we were prevented from doing effectively in the conference itself, and also to hear other comrades' opinions.
Opening the meeting, comrade Mark Fischer said when a significant organisation like the Socialist Party takes the step of launching such a campaign, Marxist groups such as the CPGB have to take it seriously. There is a political fluidity and an obvious vacuum on the left, but very little clear idea of what sort of left alternative to New Labour is needed or how to get it. There have been a series of attempts from the Socialist Labour Party, through the Socialist Alliance, to, most recently, Respect, and all have failed or look doomed. The CNWP is the latest project, but there are obvious dangers in the course the Socialist Party is taking. Holding up newly politicised people as the key to unlock the alternative is philistine and will actually lead to bureaucratism, added comrade Fischer.
John Bridge was the CPGB's main speaker. He said the very name, Campaign for a New Workers' Party, implies that there had been an old workers' party. For the Socialist Party there was. It was called the Labour Party and now the SP wants to create a Labour Party mark two. Its leader, Peter Taaffe, believes that somehow old Labour represented the interests of the working class, but this is a mistake. Engels and Lenin were correct to call the Labour Party a bourgeois workers' party. Although the Labour Party members and voters were working class, the political character of a party is determined principally by its policies, not by who is in it.
Right from the start Labour's policies were bourgeois. Even the famous clause four was actually written by Sydney Webb as an alternative to Bolshevism. He wanted state capitalism and workers to have fair pay, but was for the continuation of the system of wage-labour. In World War I the Labour Party encouraged young workers to die for British imperialism, and in the 1926 general strike, while rank and file members of the Labour Party were strikers, their leaders strove to restore normality and end the madness.
Comrade Bridge disputed the notion that New Labour represents a complete break. True, the Labour Party is even worse under Blair than before. But the attacks on the working class, and the corruption, are not new phenomena.
The first and crucial difference between the CPGB and the Socialist Party is that, whereas the SP wants a Labour Party mark two, we want a Communist Party. Probably at least 95% of the people at the CNMP conference would describe themselves as Marxist, and it is obvious to us that Marxists should campaign for a Marxist party. Yet the Socialist Party voted against this.
Comrade Bridge emphasised that in arguing for a Marxist programme we are not laying down ultimatums or threatening to walk out of the campaign. We simply demand the right to speak, and if it is denied we will speak out anyway, as we did in the Socialist Labour Party, Socialist Alliance and Respect. We do so in order to tell the truth to the working class.
Some Socialist Party members may imagine that revolution and reformism are two roads to the same destination, but actually they lead to two separate destinations, as is proved by the fate of the Socialist Workers Party in Respect. Abandoning principles in an attempt to attract the masses leads to such absurdities as supposed Marxists voting against secularism. In Respect the largely phantom right wing which sets the parameters consists of George Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain, etc: in the Labour Party mark two it will be the trade union bureaucrats, real or imagined.
Fifteen comrades spoke in the debate, which lasted for an hour and a half. Many welcomed the Socialist Party's initiative in setting up the CNWP. Comrade Andrew Coates agreed with the CPGB about the importance of secularism, and claimed that unlike Respect the Socialist Party does at least exhibit "some degree of socialism". It is trying to create a new mass party and maybe it will succeed - it should be given a chance, he said. SP members are engaged in the real class struggle, which is good. There is no alternative.
Other comrades said it is a step forward that the Socialist Party insists workers' representatives should only take the same pay as the wages of those they represent, and pointed out that Dave Nellist announced our fringe meeting from the platform during the afternoon - something the SWP would never have done. Comrade Dave Church welcomed the conference, saying, "I don't know how it will turn out, but it is worth a shout." But, as he said, nothing happened during the conference that was unpredictable.
Most speakers criticised the Socialist Party for voting down the CPGB motion for the new party to have a Marxist programme. Comrade Nick Rogers said the Socialist Party has an entirely trade union-centred approach, with purely economistic demands, and does not address key political issues.
CPGB comrades present at the conference met during the lunch break to discuss how to vote on the nine motions. There was no disagreement on eight of them, but after a short debate comrades voted to support the Workers Power motion.
Comrade John Bridge proposed not supporting the motion, because point nine advocated encouraging trade unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. The CPGB policy is that unions should remain affiliated to Labour - to do otherwise would be to invite depoliticisation.
Arguing that we should vote for the WP motion, comrade Lee Rock, supported by comrade Anne Mc Shane, agreed that we have this disagreement with Workers Power, but said nevertheless it was correct to critically support their motion. There were two broad blocs at the conference - the revolutionaries - principally ourselves and Workers Power - and the reformist majority around the Socialist Party. For the revolutionaries to divide their forces at this early stage would be a tactical mistake.
All CPGB comrades at the conference, including those who did not agree with comrade Rock's analysis, voted for the Workers Power motion in the afternoon.
Comrade Anne Mc Shane said the Socialist Party recognises that as Marxists they are in a minority in the movement they seek to work within. But they should seek to link their avowed Marxism to the real movement, not hide it. Comrade Peter Manson agreed - what is wrong with being open about your real views? Comrade Michelle Euston said she was disapointed to see Marxism put on the back burner because of the belief that you cannot go to the masses with a revolutionary programme. Having seen the same process carried out in Respect, she warned the Socialist Party that it leads to dumbing down your politics and becoming reformist. Comrade Phil Kent agreed: to say, 'We have to adopt the position of people who are not here yet or they will never join us' is the road to defeat.
Comrade Terry Liddle explained why he voted for the CPGB motion. It is a strange Marxist organisation, he said, that votes against a Marxist party. It is true that the working class may not understand Marxism at the moment. But the solution is not to water down your policy until you end up with reformism. Until the average person understands Marxism, the means of their self-liberation, the working class will never end its enslavement. He reminded comrades that Marx said communists do not hide their views, and warned the Socialist Party that if they did, they would end up as another group of reformists and do-gooders.
When you get a bunch of Marxists together, comrade Rogers said, it is a problem if they decide to put aside their Marxism in speaking to the masses, without actually analysing what it is that for a hundred years has stopped them from being able to speak to the masses and be heard. Marxist groups have not addressed the sectarianism and lack of democracy in their own ranks, and have not discussed their differences openly. As they have not dealt with the factors which have held them back, they will not be able to start addressing the masses as revolutionaries when the time is right.
As comrade Manson put it, the Socialist Party, like the SWP, does not think the working class is ready for socialism, so they keep it to themselves. Workers Power is correct to call this dishonesty, he said. Unfortunately no member of Workers Power came to the meeting.
Comrade Thomas House spoke at length in support of the Socialist Party position. First, in reply to criticisms made during the conference by both CPGB and Workers Power members, as well as by comrade Bridge during his opening, He said that if speakers had been allowed longer than three minutes fewer comrades would have had the chance to speak, and added that as the structures of the new organisation develop there will be an opportunity to vote for a different format of conferences. He added that comrades who criticise the Socialist Party for hiding their Marxist principles are either mendacious or misunderstood what is being said.
The Socialist Party has stalls in many places selling introductions to Marxism, and is growing on this basis and recruiting people to the ideas of Marxism. But in the Campaign for a New Workers Party, genuine working class forces that are not Marxist are welcome, and the Socialist Party does not wish to exclude them by setting programmatic preconditions. He said his organisation is not winding itself down in favour of the CNWP. As for debate within the Socialist Party, there is a healthy discussion. But disagreements are kept internal.
In his second contribution to the debate he said the Socialist Party is opposed to the setting up of formal platforms within the CNWP, as that would be "too restrictive" - the SP wants the maximum openness. The aim is for affiliates to be able to join, whether they are Marxist or not: he gave the example of non-Marxist anti-war groups. He claimed that the Socialist Party is not voting down its programme: it is launching a "united front" around a specific set of demands. If it were possible to build the Socialist Party itself as a Marxist party to the degree required, they would not need to bother with such a united front. He added that the Socialist Party would never countenance a popular front such as with the Labour Party.
Comrade Church accepted that the tactic of first involving people in struggle and then explaining Marxism to them can give good results, and he warned the CPGB and others against being too quick to condemn people for abandoning their principles in an attempt to get votes. If you say to people, 'If you do not agree us, we do not want you', then they will not want you either. But he agreed there are certain principles he would not give up - "lines in the sand that I won't cross", as he put it.
Replying to comrade House, comrade Stan Keable said the CPGB does not want to denigrate the CNWP or pick holes: we want to take a full part. But our overriding goal is a Communist Party in Britain and in Europe.
Steve Freeman described Labourism and Trotskyism as two forms of economism in the working class movement. Trotskyists quickly turn into Labourites when they interact with people. The way to challenge them is not by talking about Marxism, as the CPGB had done - the Socialist Party, like the SWP, believes itself to be the Marxist party, meaning they see no need for another one. Instead we should be arguing for republicanism and putting forward republican slogans and ideas, he said.
Having had the experience of the SWP claiming at the start of the Respect project that it would remain a revolutionary group operating within a 'broad' formation, comrade Euston was dubious of comrade House's statement that the Socialist Party would differentiate its own politics from the reformism it wanted to foist on the CNWP. She said cadre cannot successfully wear two hats for long. Would, for example, The Socialist criticise the CNWP for its reformism? Obviously not - quite the contrary.
Comrade Lee Rock also talked of his experience in Respect, and found that if SWP comrades consistently argue for a line deemed to be more suitable for Respect than the revolutionary politics they claim to stand for, in the end they start to believe what they have been putting forward. The same will happen to the Socialist Party. He added that a small reformist party that cannot get elected is meaningless, except as a vehicle to recruit to the SP. Trade union leaders will have no incentive to join such a small party - their job is to deal with capitalism where they can have influence, such as with governments.
Comrade Lawrence Parker pointed out that Socialist Party comrades speaking at the conference gave several examples of Labourite corruption, attempting to demonstrate that they have the solutions to deal with that. But they cannot deal with the managerial, manipulative politics Tony Blair practises, because their own organisation is manipulative and managerial in its own way, as had been demonstrated by the way it stage-managed the conference.
Replying to the debate, comrade Bridge emphasised that, although we have seen it all before, we are not Jeremiahs: we remain optimistic. Referring to the idea expressed several times during the conference that a party should be built from the bottom up, he said it should be constructed from the top down in terms of theory. He reiterated that a party is a part of a class, and represents the interests of a class. A party with a Marxist programme represents the interests and ideology of the working class, whereas a party with any other programme can only represent the interests of another class.
As for the notion that the SP's new party, and the CNWP that fights for it, would be a "united front", comrade Bridge pointed out united fronts are alliances around specific issues, not organisations that stand in elections offering a programme for government. He repeated that the party arising from the CNWP, if the SP had its way, would be standing on a platform that ultimately defended capitalism.
The SP was not interested in debating and uniting with the left on the basis of Marxism, said comrade Bridge. It wants to do deals with sections of the labour bureaucracy instead. Will the unions join the new project? Almost certainly not. But if they did, on the basis of the programme proposed by the Socialist Party, the result would be Labourism and reformism, leading inexorably to a new form of New Labour at the end of the day. Comrade Bridge said our first job as Marxists is to tell the truth.