Developing a Marxist programme
Mike Macnair continues the debate on what is meant by a Marxist party and how to campaign for one, begun by Critique's call for a conference on November 4
Last week we carried an article by Critique's editor, Hillel Ticktin (Weekly Worker October 12). As comrade Ticktin notes, objective conditions have changed since the cold war and are continuing to change.
The problem, which we will certainly need to discuss further, is how they are changing. My own opinion is that, while there is a global movement away from the world order of US imperialist ascendancy, the dynamic of British economy, society and politics in the recent past has been towards increased dependency on financial income and on Britain's role as a US side-kick. This objective economic dynamic has consequences for employment patterns and is, I think, relevant to the marked weakness and decline of immediate mass class struggles, the British workers' movement and the left.
Comrade Ticktin makes a number of points which help to clarify the issues, and some of which I can agree with. A number of others, however, concern theoretical issues - in particular, whether the Soviet bureaucracy is to be characterised as a new exploiting stratum (Trotsky's argument, which comrade Ticktin shares) or as a segment (that immediately participating in the state) of a segment (owners of skills monopolies) of an existing class, the petty proprietors (which is my view). This issue is too complex to be argued out in even quite a long Weekly Worker article. In any case disagreement on it does not imply that we cannot agree on a political programme.
Comrade John Pearson helpfully poses a very pertinent question in his letter (also October 12). He says that he is "pleased that the CPGB has agreed to co-sponsor the conference". But he "only hope[s] that this positive move is not cancelled out by the submission of a defensive proposal that the Campaign for a Marxist Party should join the CPGB rather than the CPGB join the campaign." This is a misunderstanding of our proposal.
Our proposal is short. It is that:
"The central aim of the Campaign for a Marxist Party is the fight to organise all communists, revolutionary socialists and politically advanced workers into a single party. Conference notes that this too is the central aim of the Communist Party of Great Britain and its paper, the Weekly Worker. Therefore over the next year, not least in the interests of effectiveness, the elected leadership of the Campaign for a New Marxist Party is instructed to enter into fusion talks with the CPGB."
This is not a proposal that the campaign should join the CPGB (Provisional Central Committee), and it is not in the least defensive. It is a proposal to discuss fusion of the combined forces of the CPGB (PCC) and those around the campaign. Put another way, it is to discuss the conditions under which the CPGB (PCC) would either wind up the Weekly Worker in favour of a new paper of a common organisation, or under which we might hand over the Weekly Worker to be the paper of a common organisation, controlled by that organisation.
Under such conditions it might be the case that there were sufficient political differences that there would be a platform within the new organisation based on some of the political ideas that the CPGB (PCC) now defends. Then, again, there might not. It depends on the outcome of the discussions.
The proposal also contains an implicit idea that the first task of a campaign would be to discuss the question: on the basis of what concrete strategic political programme (as opposed to general principles) should the campaign for a new Marxist party be carried on? We offer our Draft programme to the campaign as a framework for identifying the issues such a document would need to discuss, and for identifying points of agreement and disagreement, and thereby exploring the possibilities of effective unity.
We are not in the least proposing that comrades who come to the conference should just join the CPGB. What we are proposing is discussions, over a year or more, to see if it is possible to fuse the forces of the CPGB and those who organise themselves under the banner of a campaign for a Marxist party.
What is the CPGB (PCC)? The first point, and the first sentence of the second point, of our 'What we fight for' column in this paper, should make it clear:
"Our central aim is the organisation of communists, revolutionary socialists and all politically advanced workers into a Communist Party. Without organisation the working class is nothing; with the highest form of organisation it is everything. The Provisional Central Committee organises members of the Communist Party, but there exists no real Communist Party today."
"There exists no real Communist Party today." We are not a party, but a campaign for a Communist Party. That is what we do. We use the name 'CPGB' for several reasons. In the first and lowest place, our founders came from a factional struggle in the 'official' Communist Party. Secondly, that party had a terrible history of Stalinism; but it also had an honourable history of its early struggles in the 1920s, and a history of real roots in the working class movement in this country.
Thirdly, and most important, we think that 'communist' is the scientific name for a Marxist party. The Communist manifesto was issued by the Communist League; 'socialist' meant utopian, nationalist and class-collaborationist. The Second International used 'socialist' and 'social democratic'; but these names, too, came to stand for nationalism and class-collaboration. We aim to reclaim the name of 'communist' from the 'officials' who have smeared it with filth.
Equally, our view is that the creation of a separate organisation in Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party, was an opportunist adaptation to a dominant nationalist mood and to reformism. The working class needs, as we say in 'What we fight for', a Communist Party of Europe and a new Communist International. Within these - and right now, even if these cannot yet be created - it needs a Communist Party of Great Britain uniting working class militants in a common struggle against the British capitalist state that rules them.
We use the name 'CPGB' and we often do so loosely. But we insist that our leading body is a Provisional Central Committee. Our programme is a draft programme. We hold aggregate meetings of members, and elect a PCC from them; but we have held no congress. That would be a task of the Communist Party we are fighting for, not of our existing campaign for a Communist Party.
The CPGB (PCC), then, is a campaign for a Communist Party. Critique has proposed a Campaign for a Marxist Party. We think these two are the same thing under different names. We are not in favour of duplication of effort. There is all too much of that in the British left. We therefore want to explore the possibility of fusing our forces to create one campaign. If we could achieve it, we would create a dynamic of unity on a principled basis which would begin to work against the dynamic of opportunist tactics and unprincipled splits which currently bedevils the British left. That is the meaning of our proposal.
The CPGB (PCC) is a small organisation. We have two assets which we think we can bring to such a unity.
The first and obvious one is the Weekly Worker. Our web readership is extensive. We also sell far more paper copies in proportion to the size of our membership than any part of the far left press has done in the last 35 years. (The Morning Star may well have higher proportional sales; but this is a daily, supported by purchases from the surviving bureaucratic regimes and by financial subventions from a section of the trade union bureaucracy, and distributed through the wholesale news network.)
If we ask why the Weekly Worker has done so much better than the rest of the far left press, the answer will also seem to be obvious (at a superficial level). The Weekly Worker has an open culture of debate. It is reflected in our letters page and in the character of the articles we carry. We also pay attention to what is going on in the left as a whole: not as well as we would like, but very different from papers like The Socialist or Socialist Worker (or Resistance or ... insert name here) which are aimed at "broader layers" and tend to act most of the time as though the rest of the left does not exist.
Readers have also said that the paper does not talk down to them. It is sometimes tough going, but it has things to say which go beyond the common pieties of the left (supporting strikes, opposing privatisations and imperialist wars, etc).
Why are we able to do this? In the first place - and this is often all that 'independent' comrades see - we insist on conducting our own debates among ourselves as far as possible in public in the pages of the Weekly Worker; and our letters page is open to hostile as well as friendly comments. We also carry full articles from comrades critical of views expressed by CPGBers in these pages. Comrade Ticktin's article is a current example. But we have made the physical space in the paper to do it. We have done so in two ways.
The first is that our paper is a weekly. This enables it both to carry debate and to be topical. In contrast, Solidarity is currently coming out every three weeks and Resistance is monthly - like many magazine-format left publications. Less frequent publication forces a choice between debate which has a very limited connection to day-to-day politics, as in What Next? or New Interventions or Red Pepper, or reporting of events and 'party line' commentary with much more limited debate, as in Resistance or Solidarity. To produce a weekly requires a lot of resources in the shape of our members' time, effort and money.
The second is that we have made a conscious choice to produce a paper for existing leftists. We do not attempt to address the broad masses. In consequence we do not, unlike Socialist Worker or The Socialist or a good deal of Solidarity, take up much space with articles relating the nastiness of capitalism or reporting elementary economic struggles. The space which would be occupied by reports of this sort is freed up for debate and for more in-depth arguments.
In reality, of course, Socialist Worker, The Socialist, Solidarity and so on are not mainly sold to passers-by on the street or door to door to broad masses: they are mainly sold to people who go to meeting and demonstrations: ie, to existing leftists. And to these people, these papers have little new to say. The comrade who used to sell me Socialist Worker back in the 1970s described it to me as "the comic", a rueful recognition of its theoretical worth. Hence relative to membership the circulation figures of these papers are low, while the Weekly Worker's is high.
If the CPGB (PCC) had not made these choices, the Weekly Worker could not be the sort of paper it is and could not have the level of circulation it has. They are also political choices. They flow from our judgment that the present problem of the left is that it lacks a party which unites the self-identified Marxists on the basis of a Marxist political programme. Instead it has (a) confessional sects based on particular commitments to agreement on questions of theory (Trotskyism, Marxism-Leninism, state capitalism, etc); and (b) 'unity projects' which attempt to bring together Marxists and Labourites on the basis of left Labourite political programmes: Socialist Labour Party, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance (all three variants), Respect, Campaign for a New Workers' Party ...
Behind these choices is the fundamental point which is the CPGB (PCC)'s second, and less obvious, asset. We campaign for a party which is based on the acceptance as a basis for action of a Marxist political programme, not agreement to everything in the programme.
As a result of this view, CPGB (PCC) comrades in 1991-95 engaged in the hard, serious work of discussing and producing a Draft programme. This document is certainly not a final product. As I said before, it is a draft which we offer as a potential basis for a new Communist/Marxist party. The adoption of a programme would be the task of the founding congress of a new party.
Within this framework, the PCC has recently agreed to recommend to our next aggregate meeting that the organisation revisit the Draft programme over the next months, with a view both to updating it where it is clearly necessary - for example, on ecological questions - and to educating members and sympathisers both on what a programme is and on why the Draft programme makes the sorts of choices it does.
Perhaps the most fundamental point is that a party programme is about long-term choices over fundamental issues, which identify the character of the party and will inform the party's work for the foreseeable future. Moreover, a programme identifies what we as a party (as yet, a non-existent party) seek to persuade a majority of the society as a whole to support and carry into action.
Socialists are presently a small minority. Marxists are a small minority of socialists. Our present tasks are tasks of persuasion, to win a majority for our ideas expressed in our programme, not tasks of coercing the capitalist minority. This judgment that our tasks are those of persuasion informs CPGB (PCC) comrades' decision to put most of our resources into the Weekly Worker. It informs the open character of our paper.
The Democratic Socialist Alliance is proposing to the projected Campaign for a Marxist Party that it "will use as a template for the democratic development of a programme, the Socialist Alliance's 2001 programme People before profit" (motion 2, http://sade mocracy.org.uk/DSA%20Nov%204 %20motions.htm).
We disagree. In the first place, People before profit was a formal manifesto for the June 2001 election. It was not a strategic long-term programme, and both the world and British politics have changed very significantly since September 11 2001. Secondly and more fundamentally, People before profit was a programme of a supposed alliance of 'old Labourites' and Marxists. It does not take the elementary ideas of Marxism as a starting point, but is a mish-mash of Labourite politics (put forward by the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales and some 'indies') on some topics and Marxist politics (proposed by groups to the left of SWP and SPEW and other 'indies') on others.
This is, of course, the same sort of programmatic perspective as that of the SSP. And we have now seen the results of this sort of approach. A radical left-reformist and left-nationalist programme left the SSP without fundamental Marxist-orienting principles on the question of the state. This created the political space for them to adopt a statist and purity-politics approach to the question of prostitution. And this in turn led both Sheridan and his critics to panic in the face of the News of the World's 'revelations' and take utterly disastrous decisions, which have led to a completely unprincipled split and mutual hatred.
People before profit is therefore a bad starting point. We would need to discard too much of it - all that is statist and proposes an alternative worker-friendly British capitalism - before we could begin to formulate a Marxist programme.
Comrade Ticktin says that "no programme has been mentioned because we consider that the programme will emerge from the process of formation of such a party, however long it takes". There is an element of truth in this idea. Of course a programme could only really be adopted by the founding congress of a party.
But there is also a contradiction with a correct point comrade Ticktin makes in criticising what I have written before. He says that "Mike is right to include the three aspects of working class control, democracy and internationalism, but the slogans are so broad that Tony Blair could sign up to them under the slogans of popular democracy and globalisation." Comrade Ticktin is right here: the three general principles I argued for need to be rendered concrete in order to identify the basis not only of a party, but also of a campaign for a party.
There is only one way to render them concrete. And that is to discuss and adopt a draft programme - subject to change in the process of campaigning, and when a party is actually founded. But such a draft programme nonetheless defines the strategic coordinates of the sort of party we are fighting for. In a sense, the brief points proposed in Critique's conference call and refined in the DSA's motion No1 are already a (very outline) draft programme (http://sade mocracy.org.uk/DSA%20Nov%204 %20motions.htm).
A programme, in fact, cannot "emerge". Some person or small group has to provide a first draft, or several people or groups drafts of sections. Then we can correct and amend the first draft in discussion. And so on.
In contrast, Tony Cliff and SWP leaders since have always argued that the lesson of Lenin's 'flexibility' in appropriating the Social Revolutionaries' programme of distributing land to the peasantry was that the programme would "emerge" from the engagement of the party in the immediate class struggle. John Ross of the 1970s International Marxist Group followed Cliff in this respect. The result in both cases has been a shallow bandwagon-jumping opportunism, coupled with a sectarian attitude to both internal and external opposition to the current tactic. Even when the group started out with democratic and unitarian commitments - and this was certainly true of both the International Socialists before the foundation of the SWP and of the IMG - the refusal to base the organisation on a definite written programme produced anti-democratic and sectarian behaviour.
When the CPGB (PCC) proposes to the November 4 conference that the organisation it founds should enter into fusion discussions with the CPGB (PCC), we are in effect proposing that our Draft programme should form one element of the discussion about what programme to adopt. We do not think that our programme is the last word and we are ourselves going to discuss it and how it might be changed; but we do think that it is broadly correct in its approach and that it is a more useful starting point for a struggle for a Marxist party than People before profit.
We make the proposal in this form precisely to avoid in effect making an ultimatum to people at the conference who are not CPGB members - which might be the effect of putting to the vote that our Draft programme should be the basis of discussions of the draft programme of the campaign. As I said before, what we are proposing is fusion discussions.
Comrade Ticktin is concerned that my arguments point towards a theory of "two or more stages in which we first get democracy and then socialism. That is a theoretical nonsense and implies that people will not understand a socialist programme. Worse still, it might lead to a dead end in which there are formal democratic institutions behind which the market rules."
I take it that what is meant is not the 'stages theory' of the bourgeois (anti-feudal) revolution having to precede the socialist revolution by some definite period (as opposed to Trotsky's 'permanent revolution' theory of the proletariat leading the anti-feudal revolution and this passing over immediately into the socialist revolution). The question of which of these theories is right is now completely moot, because there are no significant genuine pre-capitalist state regimes or social orders remaining in the world. Nor (in spite of Bash and Fisher's use of it in 100 years of Labour) does any major group believe in the Anderson-Nairn thesis that there are significant pre-capitalist features of the British political order. Our enemy today is capitalism and capitalist political regimes.
Rather I take it that comrade Ticktin is concerned that my approach can be interpreted in terms of the Morning Star-Communist Party of Britain's British road to socialism. This approach proposes that people do not now understand the idea of socialism (for various reasons) and that they can only come to do so through 'participation in struggles'. (This second idea is, perhaps surprisingly, shared by advocates of Trotsky's Transitional programme.) The way to create these struggles is through an "alternative economic and political strategy" (AEPS) which will create a broad "democratic anti-monopoly alliance". The economic substance of the AEPS is a combination of Keynesian economic measures applied on the basis that the UK economy can be treated more or less autarkically, with democratic reforms.
The AEPS is intended to lead to the election of a left Labour government committed to it. Of course, as soon as such a government took office, it would be advised by the civil servants that most of the economic measures it wished to introduce were illegal (contravening European Union law and the European Convention on Human Rights) and that they would, if implemented, crash the London financial markets and the banks and wipe out the savings of broad masses of the middle classes and upper working classes.
The problem posed is that this advice would be true. Even much milder left-reformist measures, like those of the Mitterrand government in France in 1981, have led to huge capital flight and economic crisis. Since the UK economy today is massively dependent on the proceeds of financial operations, the disaster would be more rapid and complete.
Comrade Ticktin says that we have to argue directly for socialism; not for an 'anti-monopoly alliance' first stage. In this he is quite correct. The Weekly Worker places heavy emphasis on democratic questions. We do so in the first place because "Socialism is either democratic or, as with Stalin's Soviet Union, it turns into its opposite" ('What we fight for').
We do so secondly because in order to get rid of capitalism it is necessary to overthrow the capitalist state: that is, to disarm the bourgeoisie, dislocate the organisations which enable it to act in common (the monarchy, the officer corps and security services, the judiciary and the bar), and arm the working class and create mechanisms through which the working class can take decisions in common. This is what the struggle for the democratic republic is about.
We do so thirdly because the large majority of the left (a) evades confronting the question of democracy in the state by hiding behind the idea of workers' councils; (b) gives political support (in the name of anti-imperialism) to anti-democratic and anti-working class regimes and movements; and (c) acts in anti-democratic ways in its own organisations and in the broader movement.
Nonetheless, comrade Ticktin is right to say that we should certainly argue directly against capitalism and 'the market' and for socialist measures. In our view that implies chiefly putting forward measures based on the needs of the working class, as we have argued in response to the McDonnell campaign.
That said, we in the CPGB (PCC) do not in our draft programme advocate use of a programme of nationalisations like the Militant Tendency's call for nationalising the "top 200 monopolies". The draft programme writes:
"From the point of view of world revolution, programmes for wholesale nationalisation are today objectively reactionary. The historic task of the working class is to fully socialise the giant transnational corporations, not break them up into inefficient national units. Our starting point is the most advanced achievements of capitalism. Globalised production needs global social control.
"Communists oppose the illusion that nationalisation equates in some way with socialism. There is nothing inherently progressive or socialistic about nationalised industries. Under definite circumstances, however, nationalisation serves the interests of the workers. Faced with plans for closure or mass sackings, communists demand that the state - the executive committee of the bourgeoisie - not the workers, bear the consequences for failure.
"Against closures and mass sackings communists demand:
l No redundancies. Nationalise threatened workplaces or industries under workers' control.
l Compensation to former owners should be paid only in cases of proven need ..."
On the other side of the coin, we do not advocate the forcible expropriation of the petty proprietors (farmers, artisans, shopkeepers) or forced collectivisations. That implies the continuation of money and market relations as a subordinate element after the working class has taken political power.
If we are really to address the question of 'stageism' in the peculiar sense of programmes like the BRS, we should ask the question: why do the Morning Star's CPB and other Labourites and left reformists propose Keynesian economic solutions mixed with democratic reforms, in spite of the fact that it must be obvious to them that whenever they have been attempted these projects fail?
My answer is that the world economy is so integrated that it is impossible for the working class to take political power in a single country and hold it for more than a period of months. Indeed, I have argued in my long strategy series that it is impossible for the working class to attain independent class-political consciousness, and hence even approach taking political power in any country, without the existence of an international political working class movement which is perceived by the workers of any single country as standing at their side (Weekly Worker May 25).
Hence parties which aim to take power in a single country are driven to propose Keynesian and nationalist reformist solutions which will leave intact not merely market mechanisms for the petty proprietors, but the dominance of the market, and will force a socialist government to 'manage' what they imagine will be an ameliorated capitalism. But Keynesian solutions do not work, so they are driven in turn to Blairism - or to 'Prodiism', 'Schröderism', 'Lulaism' and so on: 'reformism without reforms'. The people who form 'social-liberal' governments did not, with the possible exception of Blair, start as cynical careerists: they started as supporters of policies not unlike the British road to socialism.
We cannot get out of this trap by expecting the mass movement and workers' councils in a single country to provide us with an 'attractive' national revolution which will then spread. That is no more than a cruder version of the line of the Mandelites in the 1970s.
Rather we have to aim to take power on a continental scale: that is, within a period of months of the initial uprising. That in turn means that, when the question of power is posed, we have to be willing to say that if necessary workers' power should come to England on the point of French or German bayonets. After all, capitalist power came to England initially in 1638-40 on the point of Scots pikes, and was restored in 1688-89 on the point of Dutch bayonets.
In more immediate practice, it means that we have to aim to create an oppositional workers' party - one which does not reach for national governmental office - in continental regions: Europe in particular, but also Latin America, the Indian subcontinent and so on. Immediately, this implies participating in any step, however politically limited, towards practical collaboration of the working class and workers' organisations on a continental scale (and more generally internationally).
None of this represents a CPGB (PCC) 'line', but is my own position. However, my concern in this debate all along has not been to impose either the positions of our Draft programme or my own individual ideas about strategy on the campaign. It is to avoid having formulae which pre-commit the campaign to the Trotskyist position that the mass movement and workers' councils will sort the problem out.
Hopefully, comrade Ticktin's insistence that the Critique initiative "is not a call to found a party with a programme based on the transitional programme" means that we will avoid adopting such formulae.