Flame war reignites

On the eve of this weekend's anti-war demonstration, another row has blown up between the two wings of the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain over its stance on the occupation of Iraq, writes Peter Manson

The CPB is deeply divided over its whole trajectory. On the one side are the traditionalists, led by international secretary John Foster, who insist on adherence to its official programme, the British road to socialism, with its pipe dream of a more and more leftwing Labour government gradually, through a series of reforms, ushering in 'socialism' in Britain with the help of its 'communist' allies.

On the other side are the 'innovators' - along with John Haylett, Morning Star editor, are Stop the War Coalition chair Andrew Murray and, perhaps less enthusiastically, CPB general secretary Robert Griffiths. They point to the Blairites' grip on the Labour Party and are not surprisingly pessimistic as to the chances of success for the BRS. While paying lip service to the scheme of 'reclaiming' Labour, the innovators have been promoting an alternative strategy - that of seeking to build alliances with and promote some sections of the non-Labour left, including the Scottish Socialist Party and especially Respect.

Comrade Murray in particular, having worked alongside leaders of the Socialist Workers Party for several years in the STWC, has taken on a good deal of the SWP's overall politics too. Critics accuse him of having gone native. Of course, the CPB has always been at home with the notion of cross-class popular fronts, and so Murray has been perfectly happy to join with the SWP in attempting to keep principled working class politics out of the anti-war movement. But he has, it seems, also taken on other aspects of the SWP politics - namely the view that we should try to win over muslims via the muslim establishment and that 'anti-imperialism' should take precedence over working class politics (however that is viewed) in oppressed countries.

When it comes to Iraq, the traditionalists are clear that the first task of communists is to offer diplomatic support to their fraternal organisation - in this case the Iraqi Communist Party. The problem is that the ICP has been collaborating with the US-UK occupation, working with the US-installed transitional administration and urging the establishment of a "national unity government" to enhance Iraq's "security capabilities" and defeat the insurgents. The ICP is against the immediate withdrawal of the US-UK armed forces.

For the traditionalists, that conveniently fits in with the views of many Labour lefts and trade union bureaucrats. Sure, they were against the invasion, but, now that 'our troops' are there, they must be allowed to get on with the job of 'restoring order'. To pull out now would be to invite chaos.

Rather than recognise the simple fact that the occupiers have no right to be in the country at all and every day they remain makes the situation worse, the CPB traditionalists have either resorted to ambiguity or called for withdrawal after a suitable period. Thus industrial organiser Kevin Halpin, in his speech to the September 7 2005 meeting of the CPB's political committee, said: "Our troops should be withdrawn by the end of the year, with or without US permission" (Morning Star September 9 2005).

By November, however, with "the end of the year" rapidly approaching, general secretary Robert Griffiths - despite his association with the innovators - opted for a formulation that was rather more vague. He told the CPB executive committee that ""¦ the interests of both the Iraqi and British people will be served by a planned and speedy withdrawal" (my emphasis Morning Star November 13 2005).

Perhaps this retreat was too much for comrade Haylett. When the political committee met again two weeks later, the Star's report of its meeting was headlined: "CPB calls for British forces to leave Iraq now" (my emphasis, November 25). But there was no direct quote to back this up. The nearest to it was the call from Martin Levy (who was presumably presenting the resolution agreed by the committee) for British troops to leave Iraq "before the 100th soldier dies" (which occurred in February 2006).

Comrade Levy in fact upholds the position of the traditionalists on the occupation of Iraq and it is very unlikely he would have called for troops out "now". In an interview with the Weekly Worker during the 2005 general election campaign (he was the CPB's candidate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne East and Wallsend) he said he was for a withdrawal of British troops "at the earliest possible date". When asked to elaborate, he added: "Well, you know, there are logistical practicalities. But it should not depend on a political settlement."

When we probed further, asking him whether or not that meant 'troops out now', he would only say: "Our position is the same as the Stop the War Coalition's (Weekly Worker April 28 2005). The STWC's stated position is of course, for "the speediest possible ending of the illegal occupation" (www.stopwar.org.uk) - an unprincipled fudge, in other words.

The latest twist came with the Morning Star introduction of an interview conducted by comrade Foster with a leading member of the Iraqi Communist Party, Salam Ali. The paper began with these words: "Labelled as collaborators by some sections of the British peace movement, the Iraqi Communist Party has opted to work within a system set up by the occupying forces "¦" (Morning Star March 7).

The content of the interview, as written up by comrade Foster, enables us to understand why the ICP is fully deserving of the "collaborators" label. Ali states: "The elections held on December 15 marked an end of the transitional phase and were based on a constitution that had been endorsed in a referendum last October. The Iraqi CP sees the elections as an important step along the path of restoring full national sovereignty in accordance with UN security council resolutions."

Ali goes on: "Consensus was reached among all Iraqi political forces at the National Accord conference held in Cairo last November that there should be a timetable for withdrawal that takes into account the need to rebuild Iraq's security capabilities in order to avoid further chaos and suffering."

In fact the ICP is proud of having taken the lead in this collaborationism: "Our party called long before the elections for the setting up of a national unity government as the only way to deal with the current dangerous situation. This idea has now been generally accepted by the main political players, though with different emphasis and variations."

The barbed presentation of the interview elicited a terse note of complaint from comrade Foster, published in the Star's letters column: "The phrase 'opted to work within the system created by the occupying forces' is seriously misleading. All political forces in Iraq took part in the recent elections. The constitution under which they were held was the result of a complex process of struggle "¦

"The objectives of the ICP have been to redevelop working class organisation and values, to defend democracy, secularism and gender equality and to develop political action to halt privatisation, for which the prime precondition is the restoration of national sovereignty and an end to occupation."

Comrade Foster concludes with a scathing attack on his pro-Respect CPB comrades: "Most communist and workers' parties in the immediate region have expressed their solidarity with the ICP and an understanding of its stand against both imperialism and occupation and against religious fundamentalism and terrorism directed against civilian populations. It would seem that distance makes condemnation easier" (March 9).

Comrade Foster, who thinks that "Labour must return to its original values", has previously attempted to dig in against the pro-Respect wing in other ways: for example, by stressing the centrality of secularism in contrast to the SWP/Respect's accommodation with islamism. He told the CPB political committee in February 2006: "Secularism remains a central objective. Only a fully secular state can guarantee the equality of all individuals to practise or not practise a religion" (Morning Star February 16).

Quite right. But mention of secularism is like a red rag to a bull in some circles - the SWP goes so far as to imply that it is being used as a cover for islamophobia in its smears against those to its left. Secularism is one of those unwanted "shibboleths" that can be ditched when circumstances dictate. Comrade Murray seems to agree, as he made clear in this year's Marx memorial oration in Highgate, delivered on March 12:

"Secularism is an important principle. So, needless to say, is free trade unionism. So is equality for women and for gays and lesbians. But [there was bound to be a 'but'] we can still have a secular chauvinism or a trade union chauvinism if these principles are not fought for in the context of an understanding of the dialectics of imperialism "¦" In other words, not fought for when it is a question of opposing imperialism. After all, "It is "¦ wrong to allow the sometimes religious form of the struggle for national liberation in particular countries to distract from the core of the question" (Morning Star March 13).

Comrade Murray, like the SWP, is missing the point. The defeat of imperialism is not something we aim to achieve for its own sake. Our aim is the advance of working class power, which can only be achieved through the struggle for consistent democracy, for the communist programme as a whole. The approach adopted by the SWP, and shared by comrade Murray - 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' - opens the way, quite logically, for the dropping of certain inconvenient "principles". What is even worse, it can sometimes result in further setbacks to our cause (as with the support from much of the left for that notoriously anti-working class anti-imperialist, ayatollah Khomeini).

Murray's Marx memorial speech, reproduced in full in the Star, was in its entirety aimed at the traditionalists. He began by saying that he had been "struck" by the "rather diplomatic character" of previous orations, but he had learned from Marx that "diplomacy may be an overrated virtue". However, he still retained sufficient diplomacy to prevent him from informing the audience who his polemic was directed against.

Comrade Murray reminded the gathering that "complacency and an avoidance of uncomfortable controversy" had proved "problematic" when the 'official communists' "led one third of the world's people in building socialism". Today, when the "communist movement is weak and fragmented", it is "disastrous".

He then posed "the central issue": "Do we believe that the occupation of Iraq "¦ is entirely illegitimate and should be ended immediately? Or do we believe that it has been legitimised by the United Nations and should be ended at some point in the future, when the political situation in Iraq appears more favourable? In practice, behind purely verbal camouflage, communist parties have different positions on this. They cannot be reconciled. One or other meets the international interests of the working class. This debate needs to be had without being bashful."

Murray is absolutely right in this criticism of the ICP and its CPB apologists like comrade Foster. It is a pity, however, that comrade Murray feels the need to 'correct' Marx in order to establish the truth of the anti-imperialist position. Not only had Marx "acknowledged the brutality of British rule" in India: he had also "exalted its progressive work in uprooting Asiatic backwardness and implanting in its place the dynamism of European capitalism".

Comrade Murray "would like to think" that Marx "would not have put the question in exactly the same way later on, when the economic and social destructiveness of imperialism was more fully revealed as a systematic block to the development of the peoples of Asia." Comrade Murray goes on to chide Marx for failing to realise that "human progress is not unilinear"! However, Murray is pleased to inform us that "Lenin and the Communist International, reflecting on later developments in world capitalism, made the necessary corrections."

It is ignorant in the extreme to implicitly equate Marx with the likes of the ICP national socialists. While the latter sees something relatively progressive per se (compared to the reactionary anti-imperialists) in the occupation of Iraq, Marx identified the progressive aspect of the spread of capital as being the birth of its "gravedigger", the global working class. On this Marx and Lenin were as one.

Comrade Murray makes two specific criticisms of his (unnamed) 'official communist' comrades. The first relates to their "revisionist position", which "poses the demand for democracy "¦ against the struggle for freedom from imperialism "¦ We must "¦ say that those who expect imperialism to deliver democracy in Iraq or elsewhere will meet disappointment or worse."

The second concerns "imperialist economism", which he says "poses social demands against the national and anti-imperialist struggle. It reduces the campaign against imperialism to demanding trade union rights and urges the satisfaction of economic problems without posing the fundamental task of national democratic emancipation."

Comrade Murray concludes his criticism of the ICP and its traditionalist supporters by quoting its own words against itself: "The Anglo-American imperialists who occupied our country and robbed us of our independence with the collaboration of a handful of national traitors today work more frenziedly than ever to turn our country into a war base." However, comrade Murray notes: "That statement was, alas, issued in 1954 rather than more recently, but it retains its full force today."

You can be sure that Foster, Halpin et al will not take this lying down. To imply that they are backing "national traitors" in Iraq is hardly a remark calculated to end the flame war.