Programme, or ad hoc reflections?

Mike Macnair replies to Phil Sharpe on the question of programme

Comrade Phil Sharpe of the Democratic Socialist Alliance has argued that a Marxist programme - far from being a concise and succinct reference point around which agreed action is based - should contain lengthy elements of "propaganda", the "role of the polemical" and "theoretical discovery" (Marxist Voice No1, March-April).

Now we can see what he has in mind. The DSA has made available on its website comrade Sharpe's draft programme - all 82,000 words and 95 closely argued pages of it - which he hopes will form the basis of the agreed programme of the Campaign for a Marxist Party (see http://sademocracy.org.uk/Programme%20forum.htm).

The DSA says that the draft is "put ... in the public domain as a 'work in progress'". My comments are therefore obviously subject to that point. However, in my opinion comrade Sharpe's draft as a whole is a beautiful example of why the CMP should not attempt to create the sort of programme he is proposing.

1. In the first place, if the campaign is to define itself by a programme which includes specific and explicit formal rejection of the arguments put forward by CPGB comrades (Jack Conrad and myself, pp12-23) and by Critique - in particular Hillel Ticktin - (pp 82-95), it might as well proceed immediately to a formal split with us. I cannot, of course, speak for comrade Ticktin, but, as for the CPGB, we could certainly be members of a campaign or party whose platform was inconsistent with our ideas (as was the case with the Socialist Alliance); however, it would be quite pointless for us to give support to a campaign whose platform positively denounced our ideas. We would have no tactical reason to do so: remember, the campaign is as yet in no sense a mass movement, and, indeed, as yet has less resources and public presence than the CPGB (or, for that matter, Critique).

2. Secondly, the structural core of comrade Sharpe's positive policy - the section on 'Party and class' in pp8-12 - argues the case which the Campaign for a Marxist Party was founded to reject: that is, that the task of Marxists is to build a 'new workers' party' on the basis of something less than the fundamentals of Marxist politics (exactly how less is never explained) and a 'Marxist tendency' within it.

3. Thirdly, my opinion is that polemic against other trends in a programme should be minimal. However, to the extent that a programme is to contain polemical or summary rejection of alternative views - as the 1919 Bolshevik programme or the 1938 Transitional programme do - these should be addressed (as the polemics in both those documents are) to the political ideologies dominant in the workers' movement: 'pure trade unionism', social democracy, 'official' communism, anarcho-'movementism'. If we are to engage with the ideologies of greenism, feminism and anti-racism (as the draft makes some attempt to do), the political ideas dominant in these movements should be engaged.

In comrade Sharpe's draft we have nothing of the sort. What we have instead is polemics against a small number of authors whose work comrade Sharpe has recently read: (in the order in which they appear) Mike Macnair, Jack Conrad, Maurice Cornforth, Adolfo Sanchez Vazquez, Andrew Glyn, Rob Sewell, Michele Barrett, Heidi Hartmann (and a small number of other early 1980s writers of patriarchy), István Mészáros (on feminism only), Graham Bash, Richard Price, James Boggs, Paul Gilroy, Hillel Ticktin. This is nothing remotely like a polemic against the ideas currently dominant in the workers' movement - or in any of the 'social movements'. If it was to play this role it would require far wider reading and research in order to grasp which authors' ideas are currently influential, and in addition show signs of being influential for the medium term, and hence need to be engaged.

The polemical method of constructing a programme, in fact, has the consequence that the draft is immediately and violently dated. The polemics on philosophy address 1970s-80s material which has ceased to be fashionable, and the same is true of those on 'black power' and feminist authors. The token nods in the direction the Socialist Workers Party's pro-islamist policy, as it affects race and gender, relate to today's issues, but completely fail to hit the target. The reason is simple: the SWP's actual arguments on these questions flow from its 'anti-imperialist front' position, which comrade Sharpe shares (pp44-45).

4. In the fourth place, both the polemical method and - I suspect - the clinging to the 'transitional method' have the consequence that the draft is radically incomplete. At pp23-27 we have 'Tactics', covering 'Peace' (on which comrade Sharpe's line is genuinely that of the pre-1914 Second International and of the 'official communists' in the people's front period - the utopian belief that it is possible to prevent the capitalist states starting wars without overthrowing them: "it is vastly preferable to stop the advent of war by the success of the call for peace"), 'Global justice', 'Ecology', 'Religion', 'Immigration' and 'Crime' [to be added]. At pp43-44 we have conventional Leninist anti-imperialism and the anti-imperialist front. At pp68-72 we have some theoretical reflections on feminism and at pp72-81 some similar reflections on anti-racism.

Wholly missing, though, are, to give a few examples: the national question in Britain and Ireland's British problem; agriculture and the relationship between the workers' movement and small family farmers (or, indeed, relations of the workers' movement with the petty proprietors more generally); European integration; military policy; education; housing ...

The fact is that the method by which the draft has been constructed inevitably produces, not a programme which could politically orient a party in relation to the underlying dynamics of the political situation globally, its local features and the flashpoint issues which might trigger political crises or broad mass movements, but a set of ad hoc reflections, primarily of a theoretical character, on what the author perceives as current controversies.

5. I leave aside for the present the philosophical arguments, which are in my opinion utterly unrigorous and provide merely an inconsistent set of philosophical sticks with which to (attempt to) beat opponents: the method of Healyism.

However, it is not comrade Sharpe's lack of rigour and consistency with which the CPGB takes issue primarily. It is his methodology.