Campaign for a party - or another sect?
The organised left cannot be bypassed in the fight for a Marxist party, argues Mike Macnair
Regular readers will recollect that the journal Critique is sponsoring a conference on November 4 to start a campaign for a new Marxist party. The CPGB aggregate meeting in September voted to support this call. It is consistent with arguments we have been making for some time.
However, in July I wrote an article welcoming the call, but criticising certain aspects of the text accompanying it and addressing two particular issues: what sort of Marxist party? And how to get one? Since then, I have been debating these issues in these pages with several comrades, but particularly Matthew Jones (of the Critique supporters group and Democratic Socialist Alliance) and Barry Biddulph (also DSA).
The core issue remains, for me, as I wrote on August 3, that "the call was capable of being read as a call for a new party of the existing Trotskyist type - with the difference merely that it made moral or utopian commitments to 'do better' on democracy, on theory, etc. But this has been tried repeatedly: at the origins of the Matgamna organisation or of the International Socialist Group, to take two among many examples."
Comrades Barry Biddulph, Matthew Jones, Dave Spencer and Paul Smith have replied to my two most recent articles on the question. Comrade Spencer's letter is positive, and I agree with him that several of the issues under discussion are perfectly capable of being debated within a united formation.1 Comrades Biddulph, Jones and Smith make a series of points which deserve answers. I may seem to be using a lot of space to reply to letters from a very small number of comrades. But the matters raised are, in reality, big questions. Comrades Biddulph and Jones defend, in a slightly variant form, views which are widespread on the left.
The 'What sort of party?' question is: if we succeed in getting a Marxist party, should the strategic orientation of this party be to winning power through a mass strike struggle leading to the formation of workers' councils, which could then be urged to take the power? Or should it be the struggle to win a majority for a political programme of extreme democracy, carried on in a variety of ways - not excluding strike struggles, but not making them strategically central, either?
To put the same point another way, should the programme of the party, its public press and its agitation focus on economic issues (to use Tony Greenstein's phrase, "issues which have resonance with the class") and the tendency of economic struggles to come into conflict with the state? Or should the party address the question of the form of the state directly?
I should emphasise, as I have emphasised before, that I am not arguing that agreement with CPGB comrades' or my particular views on this question is a precondition for unity; these are matters which we could in principle debate in a united movement. My objection is to making pre-commitments to the Trotskyist approach in these questions which would tend to foreclose any such debate.
The 'How to get a party?' question is this: assuming that large numbers do not immediately flock to answer Critique's call, how do the supporters of a new Marxist party relate to the existing organised left? The CPGB has argued for some years that the existing organised left groups are both the primary obstacle to the creation of the sort of Marxist party we need and contain much of the material from which any such party can be reforged. This view is reflected in the character of the Weekly Worker, which is a paper addressed precisely to the organised and unorganised activists of the existing left, and devotes a lot of attention to what the existing left does, right and wrong.
Comrades Barry and Matthew argue against this view. It is not entirely clear what their positive, practical alternative is, or whether they have a common view on this question, but they do seem to share the view that the militants of the existing organised left are too corrupted by Stalinism and bureaucratic centralism to be capable of being saved, so that the fundamental orientation of a campaign for a Marxist party will be to 'new forces'.
On the 'What sort of party?' question, comrade Biddulph has argued that my criticisms of Trotskyism display uncritical 'Leninism' in relation to economism and whether Lenin's What is to be done? or the 1903 split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party marks the original sin of 'vanguardism' which led to the sects (September 21).2
In my previous reply I said comrade Biddulph relied on a false history; and I referred him to the historians, including Liebman and Lih. Comrade Biddulph responds that Liebman criticised Lenin for rigidity and sectarianism in 1901-04; and that the fact that the cold war academy supported the standard story does not make the standard story false. I referred comrade Biddulph not simply to Liebman, but to the whole literature which has grown up since Liebman, which demonstrates that the Bolsheviks' practice was a long way from the sectarian dictatorship of Lenin - or from the 'orthodox' (and Luxemburg's and Trotsky's) interpretations of What is to be done? It is this inconsistency of the record of practice with the standard narrative of continuity from What is to be done? to 1921 and thence to Stalinism that falsifies the standard narrative of 'Leninist' original sin.
In point of fact, a reading of 'unimportant' material in Lenin's Collected works for the period 1904-14 (newspaper articles, letters to individual comrades, draft resolutions and so on), without using the other evidence provided by the various authors, is enough to show that the standard account is inconsistent with the Bolsheviks' practice.
Hence my reference to the fact that both the Stalinist regimes and the US state, via the cold war academy, supported the standard account. Of course, when a statement or argument is true, who argues it is unimportant. But when an argument is obviously false on the evidence, then its persistence has to be accounted for, and the interests that back it become critical.
Marx versus Lenin?
Secondly, comrade Biddulph offers a quotation from Marx (which he suggests supports the political approach shared by Rabochoye Delo), Trotsky's 1904 Our political tasks and his 1938 Transitional programme against Lenin's "one-sided polemic against the so-called economists". This quotation is taken out of its context.3 The bulk of the letter is an outline and critique of the Proudhonists, Lassalleans and Bakuninists. Then at the end, Marx writes the following:
"NB as to political movement: The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.
"On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement - that is to say, a movement of the class - with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.
"Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power - ie, the political power of the ruling classes - it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game Messrs Gladstone and co are bringing off in England even up to the present time."
When put back in its context, Marx's argument is flatly counterposed to the Trotskyists' fetishism of the strike weapon and the strategic line of turning the immediate strike struggle into the struggle for power without passing through the political struggle (for legal reforms and ultimately revolutionary constitutional change). This is hardly surprising, since the line of turning the immediate strike struggle into the struggle for power without passing through the political struggle was the line of the Bakuninists (who are the primary object of Marx's criticisms in the letter to Bolte).
Thirdly, comrade Biddulph argues that the course of the Russian revolutionary crisis of 1905 supports his view, drawing on Rosa Luxemburg's The mass strike, the political party and the trade unions. On this, the five demands of father Gapon's petition which led to 'Bloody Sunday' and the opening of revolutionary political crisis in Russia will bear repetition: (1) An eight-hour day and freedom to organise trade unions; (2) Improved working conditions, free medical aid, higher wages for women workers; (3) Elections to be held for a constituent assembly by universal, equal and secret suffrage; (4) Freedom of speech, press, association and religion; (5) An end to the war with Japan.
Points 1 and 2 could properly be called political demands growing immediately out of the economic struggle. Points 3, 4 and 5 are purely political demands. In fact, it is the political crisis of the regime - caused by the Russian state's defeat in the Russo-Japanese war - which opened the way for Gapon's movement to have a national resonance, and for 'Bloody Sunday' to open a phase of revolutionary crisis.
It is perfectly true that, once a revolutionary crisis or mass strike movement has begun, the mass movement switches to and fro between the political and the economic - as Luxemburg argues in The mass strike, and as has been confirmed in every revolutionary crisis since 1905. But to resolve the crisis in the interests of the working class requires a political outcome. This is confirmed - disproving Luxemburg's and Trotsky's (1904 and 1938) strategic lines - by the course of events in Russia in 1905 and 1917, Germany in 1919, Italy in 1920, Spain and France in the 1930s, Europe in the immediate post-war period, France in 1968, Portugal in 1974-76, and numerous other examples.
In this respect, I am not engaged in "dogmatic repetition of Lenin's one-sided polemic", as comrade Biddulph argues. I am, rather, following the arguments of Marx, Engels and Kautsky against the Bakuninists and their syndicalist supporters and the semi-syndicalist left in the SPD and elsewhere, and those against the trade union 'non-politicals', arguments which Lenin partially (and not entirely clearly) follows in What is to be done? I follow them not because what Marx or Engels or Kautsky - or Lenin - says is to be treated as dogma, but because the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence of the class struggles of the last century and a half supports the arguments of Marx, Engels and Kautsky against the arguments of the Bakuninists and the later semi-syndicalists and 'Hegelian Marxists'.
Comrade Smith argues that I am afraid of 'Year Zero' politics and that this is an implausible danger.4 I think he misunderstands my point in the argument about a transitional programme. In my last response to comrade Biddulph I argued that the maximum programme is socialism/communism, and the minimum programme is a programme for working class power to begin a period of transition. I argued that Trotsky was wrong in 1938 to argue that this distinction is 'overcome' as a result of the decay of capitalism, and that the concrete examples of the demands of a 'transitional programme' Trotsky posed there amounted in fact to the utopian idea of the immediate abolition of the law of value, which would imply forced collectivisation, Year Zero and so on.5
But, of course, because the 1938 policy is utopian, very few Trotskyists argue that the economic demands of the 1938 programme can actually be used as a tool for mass mobilisation. So I do not in the least imagine that, however Trotskyist the campaign or the hoped-for party was, it would actually attempt to use the economic demands of the 1938 programme - let alone that such a party could come to power in Britain and implement such a policy. Rather most Trotskyists defend the 'transitional method' or 'method of the transitional programme'.
Here the other side of the problem comes to the fore. This is that, even leaving out the false unification of maximum and minimum programmes, what Trotsky proposed in 1938 is a link between the immediate economic strike struggle and the struggle for power, without passing through the political struggle about laws, governments and constitutions: Bakunin, not Marx. This approach has been shared by subsequent Trotskyist interpretations of the 'transitional method', etc.
It has had the consequence that a forward movement of pure-trade-union struggle, which is opposed by the official leaderships, tends to lead to growth in the size and influence of Trotskyist groups (as, for example, in Britain, in 1941-45 and in the late 60s and early 70s), but as soon as political questions are posed the Trotskyists are all at sea and become a political tail to some other tendency.
Comrade Biddulph's September 21 letter simply fails to answer these points at all, preferring merely to repeat his original claim that "[my] minimum programme is transitional".
The 'how' problem and numbers
In his September 28 letter, on the question of how to get a Marxist party, comrade Biddulph writes that he "argued that Macnair was arbitrarily putting the number of 2,000 on attendance at the November conference for a Marxist party for it to be worthwhile, when he was one of the leaders of the CPGB who regarded the Bolsheviks' methods in building a party to be a model and they often had far fewer than 2,000 - and sometimes very few - comrades in attendance at their conferences. This was when the CPGB were not sponsoring the conference. Like the majority of DSA comrades I welcome this change of mind."
The supposed "change of mind" indicates that comrade Biddulph either has not read what I wrote at all or is utterly blinded by prejudice. Both my original article and my subsequent pieces welcomed Critique's initiative. There is no "change of mind" and that there is none should be obvious to anyone who reads the articles.
The 'numbers question' itself may involve a more real misunderstanding. I said that to launch a Marxist party would require 2,000-3,000 people: enough to outvote any attempt by the Socialist Workers Party, or the Socialist Party in England and Wales, or an SWP-SPEW bloc, to pack the meetings and take it over; and enough to prevent militants in the broader movement writing it off as marginal by comparison with these groups. (I say "an SWP-SPEW bloc" because the SWP and SPEW have opposed fronts - Respect and the Campaign for a New Workers' Party - in England and Wales, but were perfectly willing to bloc in Scotland in order to split the Scottish Socialist Party).
Socialist Workers Party
This issue relates to the character of the SWP, which also forms the core of comrade Jones's arguments. Comrade Jones argues that the continued existence of the SWP and SPEW as organisations with their present political character is an obstacle to the creation of a real Marxist, or even a real workers', party. This is undoubtedly true, and neither I nor other CPGB comrades have ever denied it.
We have, however, insisted on grasping as well the other side of the contradiction: that there are many comrades in these organisations who are honest and serious militants, who do real work in the concrete immediate class struggle, and who think seriously about politics, but who are politically misled and confused - in substance by the fetish of 'the revolutionary party' derived from the 1920 and 1921 Comintern theses. This category includes at least some members of their leaderships.
The problem which is posed is: how to overcome the obstacle to building a Marxist party posed by the bureaucratic centralist sects?
Comrade Jones goes on to ask the question of the SWP: ""¦ is this now a rightwing organisation?" If it was, the problem would be a lot simpler. The SWP's present bloc with political islamism is in contradiction with the muddled leftist politics which still make their appearance in Socialist Worker and International Socialism. If the SWP had become a rightwing organisation, as happened to the LaRouchists, we would not meet them in the workers' movement. It has not. At the moment the SWP acts as a small and sectarian Stalinist organisation, and if it continues on its present course for any length of time it will, like the formerly Trotskyist US SWP, 'correct' its theory to fit its political practice, and openly become one. However, it is not clear how far this process has gone.
In my opinion the SWP has been consistently characterised, since the splits of the 1970s and transformation of the old International Socialists into the SWP, by two dominant features. The first is fetishism of 'the revolutionary party', meaning the SWP as an organisational form, complete with its bureaucratic-centralism. Comrade Jones refers to members being expelled for publishing statements by party leaders as an example of recent degeneration. But similar incidents of pre-emptive expulsion of dissenters have been a consistent feature of the SWP since the last major opposition, Protz-Palmer-Higgins, was chucked out in the mid-70s; they are not a new low.
The second feature is extreme political opportunism - in the sense not of consistent rightism, but of short-term bandwagon-jumping and political chameleonism. This opportunism has led the SWP from the 'Right to Work' campaign (pretending to be Jarrow marchers) through the Anti-Nazi League, Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the late 1970s and 1980s (pretending to be left Labourites and 'official communists') into the anti-globalisation movement in the late 1990s-early 2000s (pretending to be anarchists) and the Socialist Alliance in the early 2000s (pretending to be left Labourites again). It has now led them into Stop the War and an unprincipled 'anti-imperialist' party-alliance with political islamists (Respect).
The Socialist Alliance was not an SWP initiative, and was directly opposed to the SWP's line in the 1990s. But the SWP jumped on the bandwagon, packed the meetings and took it over. It is for this reason that the 'numbers' issue matters. If a campaign for a Marxist party achieves any success, the SWP will, if it can, do the same thing: jump on the bandwagon, pack the meetings and take it over.
I judge that it is unlikely that the November conference will organise numbers sufficient to outvote the SWP or an SWP-SPEW bloc, or that a campaign for a Marxist party will produce such numbers in the very short term. Then the problem posed is: how to avoid any campaign for a Marxist party, when it begins to succeed but is not yet numerically stronger than the SWP and SP combined, being hijacked by an SWP, SPEW or SWP-SPEW operation?
SPEW's proposed solution, in the old Socialist Alliance and now in CNWP, is organisational federalism. But, as was already apparent in the Network of Socialist Alliances and is already becoming apparent in the CNWP, the result is simply to give the component national groups freedom of action, so that there can be no movement towards a party.
Scargill's solution to the problem in the Socialist Labour Party was to place an organisational ban on the left groups. The result was bureaucratic centralism and witch-hunting. Comrade Jones, very regrettably, was party to this policy in the SLP before he saw its consequences actually take effect. Whatever comrades' intentions, banning the left groups from a campaign for a Marxist party would have the same effect.
The practical solution I argue for is one which CPGB comrades have been arguing for some time. The struggle for a Marxist party has to go through the sects, by fighting against their false politics and their false party conception in the closest possible unity in action with them and their members - in order to destroy the groups functioning as obstacles to the creation of a party.
Both comrades Jones and Biddulph argue that the bureaucratic centralist regime is so corrupting and miseducative that militants cannot develop as Marxists without first leaving the groups; and, on the other hand, that there is a substantial layer outside the groups which is serious about Marxism, but repelled by the groups.
Both points are empirical claims. The second is about the future and is readily testable. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I am sceptical about how large this layer presently is, and about how far these comrades would be willing to commit the sort of time, money, and self-discipline in the face of not winning every vote, which is involved in campaigning for a party (let alone actually building one). I will very happily eat my words if the November conference produces even 200 or 300 people who are willing to commit to an organised effort to campaign for a Marxist party, and if the result is a serious organised grouping which does not rapidly fall apart like the Socialist Alliance Democracy Platform.
The first point is equally empirical and testable, but appears to be tested and manifestly false. CPGB comrades who came from the 'official communist' tradition made the point at Communist University that if it was really true that there was no route from Stalinism back to Marxism, where the hell did The Leninist and the CPGB come from? Moreover - as comrades have said before - there are very large numbers of ex-members of the Trotskyist groups as well as of the CP, and a good many of them are still politically active and have tried one or another means of finding a healthy alternative to the dreadful internal regimes of the sects. Some, no doubt, dropped out without any ideas beyond being pissed off, and later developed new approaches; but others dropped out or were expelled because they began to question the sects' false politics. Some, indeed, carried on organised oppositions within the sects before they were driven out.
They were able to do so because the political life of the sects is contradictory. It both trains people in a false concept of 'the revolutionary party' and in the particular anti-Marxist ideas which support the sect leadership's particular political projects; and provides an elementary ability to read and understand the Marxist writings of the past - which can lead comrades, through these writings, to begin to develop as Marxists (and develop into opposition, resign or get chucked out).
Comrade Biddulph characterises my theoretical argument for going through the sects rather than trying to go around them as "pessimism" This is pretty empty rhetoric.
I am undoubtedly 'pessimistic' about the prospects of going round the sects or 'doing mass work' in simple competition with them by denouncing them as sects, using organisational measures to exclude them from a new project (which would corrupt the democracy of the new organisation) or falsifying their character (as, it seems to me, comrade Jones's analysis of the SWP falsifies the character of that organisation). I think these are policies which have been repeatedly tried, all over the world, and have been shown by experiment not to work. I am similarly 'pessimistic' about the prospects of engineers building road-bridges out of papier mà¢ché or any other engineering project which is inconsistent with the experimental evidence and the scientific analysis of this evidence.
On the other hand, I am optimistic about the ability of engineers to build road-bridges out of concrete and structural steel, taking account in their calculations both of physical laws in general and of the experience of bridges that have fallen down in the past. And I am similarly optimistic that an evidence-based Marxism, grasping the objective dynamics and subjective errors which have produced the sects and engaging in direct political combat against their errors, together with unity in action with them where it is possible, can overcome the present dominance of the sects.
'Elitism' . . .
Comrade Biddulph also charges that my theoretical argument for taking the existing activists seriously is 'elitism' and "helps create the very bureaucratic centralism Mike wants to avoid". This is either Bakuninist rhetoric or just possibly involves a misunderstanding of what I am saying, due to a misunderstanding of the Comintern theses which do form the intellectual basis of bureaucratic centralism.
The Bakuninist aspect is that my theoretical argument starts from an analysis of how the working class organises itself under capitalism, which reflects the dynamics of capitalism as a social division of labour. Just as the Bakuninists sought to 'abolish' classes and the state at one blow, so comrade Barry seeks to 'abolish' at one blow the labour bureaucracy and the larger division of labour between the masses and the activists within the workers' movement, of which it is part. My argument, in contrast, follows Marx and Engels: it is that we cannot abolish the bureaucracy at one blow, but we can create institutional forms which tend towards its being subordinated to the working class and gradually superseded.
The possible misunderstanding is this. The 1920 Comintern theses argue that the class is necessarily politically represented by the party, since the party activists are its most advanced part or 'represent the class as a whole'; and that the party is necessarily represented by the leadership, either because the leadership are the 'most advanced' party members or because the leadership 'represents the party as a whole'. This was an ideological defence of the dictatorship of the party over the class and the dictatorship of the central apparatus over the party.
I argue that the activists are a social layer thrown up by the class struggle, who (among other things) perform the role of memory of the class, but who precisely because of that role may sometimes be ahead of the mass of the class and at others behind it. I make neither the claim that the activists are necessarily more advanced nor the claim about 'representation'. In my opinion it is these claims about 'advanced' character and representation which are the basis of 'vanguardism' as an ideology of Stalinism and the sects.
... and the CPGB/Weekly Worker
Comrade Biddulph argues that "Mike certainly does not chart an independent route for the Campaign for a Marxist Party ... It is rather like we were able to transport Mike in a political tardis back to a meeting to discuss the formation of the Weekly Worker. He would have told the comrades, 'Not another leftwing newspaper in competition with all the others. You are wasting your time. You would be repeating points made by others. The last thing we need is another editorial board.'"6
He goes on to say that "A democratic Marxist party based on general Marxist principles with a culture of comradely debate, freedom of criticism, factional rights, the right to publicly criticise the leaders and maximum democracy for the members will not be just one party among others. Just like the Weekly Worker is not just another left newspaper."
Actually, these arguments reduce comrade Biddulph's argument to absurdity. In the first place, The Leninist began as a public faction of the 'official' Communist Party - not a trend which proposed to ignore the old CP on the basis of its revisionism. The passage from The Leninist to the Weekly Worker was a passage to the struggle to reforge a Communist Party through the struggle for communist unity. Both the struggle in the 'official' CP and the struggle for communist unity are exactly the sort of struggles comrade Biddulph denounces as "entryism" and so on.
Secondly, the Weekly Worker is indeed "not just another left newspaper". Why not? The answer is precisely because we take the rest of the organised left seriously. The 'openness' of the paper in practice is intimately connected to the fact that the paper is intended to win as much as possible of the organised left to the project. Of course, we could in theory have a paper which was 'open', but only to 'independent Marxists' or 'non-sectarians', and not to debate with the existing organised left. But such a paper would rapidly evolve into a Socialist Challenge of the 1970s or something like today's Resistance: another boring 'party paper' with a sectarian fetish of 'non-sectarianism'.
With this we return to the practical question. Let us assume that a Campaign for a New Marxist Party does not immediately regroup more forces than the existing organised left put together. What can we do in practice to conduct such a campaign? The answer is that we can conduct propaganda for a Marxist party, which is roughly what the Weekly Worker does; we can focus this propaganda positively around programmatic issues and negatively against the errors of the sects; and we can carry on very limited agitational initiatives in our own name - for example, perhaps on Iran. But in relation to many issues of agitation and elementary trade union and local organising, we will unavoidably be working alongside the rest of the left around very similar slogans and demands.
A larger campaign could no doubt do much of this better than the Weekly Worker does now. But to follow the path of writing off the existing organised left would actually be to follow the path taken by the existing organised left - to the creation of yet another sect.