Difficult but refreshing alternative

Joe Craig of the Irish group, Socialist Democracy, welcomes the formation of the Campaign for a Marxist Party, but wonders whether he might have misunderstood the politics of the CPGB

Attempts to unite the left in Ireland and elsewhere have invariably been based on seeking the unity of reformists and revolutionaries on a reformist basis. Whenever those calling themselves revolutionaries have found themselves in a majority in such attempts, they have ditched their reason for the initiative, based on the idea of the united front, and organised on a reformist programme. In effect they unite to advance reformism, postponing the struggle for revolutionary Marxism into some indefinite future.

Socialist Democracy has opposed this method. We have argued that Marxists should unite as Marxists, as revolutionaries, and debate out their differences in an honest, open and democratic manner. Acknowledging the deep distrust that exists, we have argued that such debate should start now, before organisational unity is begun, even though we recognise that common membership of an organisation tends to break down antagonism and distrust. In order to 'get round' this we have suggested unity in common campaigns that are based on the clear needs of the working class and do not involve compromising the interests of the class for the sake of unity with others.

The true united front is unity of working class organisations pulling those of other classes behind them if possible, with freedom of Marxists to voice their own programme in criticising the weaknesses of the reformists who lead it. Current unity initiatives invariably violate the united front method. They often involve unity based on avoiding an explicit class view of the issues engaged in and include Marxists refusing to fight for their views on the way forward for the sake of maintaining unity with those to their right.

What appears as an honest attempt to implement a process of Marxist unity has begun in Britain with the setting up of a Campaign for a Marxist Party at a meeting in London on November 4. This meeting was sponsored by the supporters' group of the journal Critique, the Democratic Socialist Alliance, Communist Party of Great Britain (Weekly Worker), the magazine New Interventions and the Revolutionary Democratic Group (RDG). None of these are in any way sizeable organisations, so the significance of the event was never going to rest on the numbers attending, but in the potential it might hold out for the future.

We say this despite the assertion of Critique supporters that most real Marxists in Britain are not members of the current left groups - eg, the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party - but are independent activists, often ex-members of the latter organisations. Whether it is true or not that these people are the majority of Marxists in Britain today, they are not on the periphery or under the strong influence of the organisers of the initiative, so it was no surprise that the attendance was small - around 40 people.

The CPGB argued that the purpose of the CPGB and Weekly Worker was the same as the new campaign and there should therefore be discussions between the new campaign and the CPGB with a view to fusion - not as a take-over, but as a merger based on mutual agreement on united tasks. To do any other would immediately call into question the whole basis of the project: unity yes, but not with them! This was agreed by the meeting.

So how do we evaluate this initiative? While Socialist Democracy is in favour of the unity of Marxists around a revolutionary programme, we do not fool ourselves into thinking that this will be an easy task, in Britain or Ireland. We propose it because we think it is correct, not because it is easier than unity on some opportunistic basis. In the longer term it will undoubtedly prove more effective, but the attraction of opportunism is precisely its promise of quick gains that ultimately prove to be built on sand. The project in Britain is to be welcomed as an earnest attempt, even though it faces real difficulties.

Although the parties to the London meeting agreed on the need to advance on the basis of a Marxist programme, it is not clear that real agreement about the nature of such a programme exists. Although the second principle passed by the conference insists on the direct struggle for socialism, without the existence of any intermediate stages, at least two of the organisations have strategic conceptions that may conflict with this.

The Revolutionary Democratic Group gave out a leaflet at the conference that posed the need for a struggle for a democratic republic in Britain. The CPGB has enunciated three principles on which a Marxist Party should be built, but none of them explicitly state the need for socialist revolution: ie, the destruction of the capitalist state and its replacement by workers' power based on the workers' own organs of organisation. If Marxism could be abbreviated to a single principle, it would be commitment to socialist revolution.

The CPGB's insistence on the fight for a democratic republic, which they say can take various concrete forms, leaves open reformist conceptions that do not insist on the qualitative break involved in the change of class rule from the capitalist class to the working class, expressed in destroying the capitalist state and with the workers' own organisations of struggle becoming the foundation of the new state.

The CPGB see the dynamic of revolution as being the fight for extreme democracy. If this simply involves a conception of how the working class can be made aware of its class interests and the programme that flows from this, then perhaps there are no fundamental differences. If on the other hand it means that socialism is just extreme democracy then there is no reason to posit a revolutionary break in society. There would be no reason to insist on the counterposing of workers' power to the most democratic capitalist institutions the capitalists may invent to defend their system.

In the latter schema the fight for extreme democracy can become an inevitable stage that conflicts with the second principle passed by the conference and proposed by Critique - that there are no intermediate stages between capitalism and socialism. This semi-Stalinist notion of the potential of democracy has led the CPGB to put forward political demands that do not flow from anticipation of a direct fight for working class rule and the conditions that must be created to assist this. Rather these notions lead to projects based on some distorted view of a perfect democracy.

This is what may lie behind support for the 'right' of the racist, settler and colonial state of Israel to exist beside a Palestinian state. This two-state solution conceptually can only involve acceptance of division. By putting forward the demand the CPGB cuts across the need to unite the working class around the demands of revolutionary socialism.

The same applies to the utterly reactionary position of the CPGB on Ireland, which again invents undemocratic 'democratic' solutions that do not start from seeking the conquest of political power by the working class. The call for working class power contradicts their call for repartition - a call that could only involve them being on the same side as imperialism and loyalism in fighting for such a project. The rest of the Irish working class, were it to embark on a mass political struggle for socialism, could not fail to oppose repartition and seek the defeat of imperialism and loyalism in pursuit of its own interests. Only when one seeks a separate 'democratic' stage before socialism can such reactionary ideas come to the fore.

We have had occasion to severely criticise the position of the CPGB on our website before and interested readers are invited to follow this up at www.socialistdemocracy.org/Debate/DebateTwoNationsOnceAgain.html.

But perhaps I have misunderstood the politics of the CPGB. In any case, this will hopefully be clarified in the work of the new campaign. If we have any advice to give the new project, we would only ask that it remember that Ireland used to be termed the 'acid test' of British revolutionaries. This did not mean Ireland was the most important question that they faced, but that it was one that tested their political conceptions and ruthlessly exposed deficiencies. That is why the Irish question should be high on their agenda.

The second problem facing the campaign is of a more practical nature. Proving the validity of pursuing an explicitly Marxist programme above that of reformist programmes advanced by larger left groups will not be easy. If the Marxist programmatic approach is superior, how will this difference be demonstrated? When the class struggle is at a relatively low ebb, different programmes are not so easily tried and tested. There are obviously no guarantees of success.

The CPGB have themselves pointed to difficulties in reconciling their own perspective - that it is the members of the existing left organisations that will be the terrain on which the majority of British Marxists will be united - with that of the Critique group, which is much more dismissive of this left membership. What are the implications of the two approaches? At the meeting one intervention questioned the CPGB's entry into Respect in order to implement their orientation. He described Respect as not something Marxists could support. The tension between this and the much repeated need for honesty in the face of the working class was clear. Was the CPGB saying Respect was or could be a vehicle for advancing the interests of the working class?

Whatever the problems, this initiative is new in recent history and will be watched with interest by militants seeking the unity on a revolutionary basis of those claiming to be Marxist.