'It has to go'
The May 26 CMP day school, held in Manchester's Friends Meeting House, was the first in a series of four originally designed to facilitate the CMP-CPGB merger process. Peter Manson reports
The CPGB had identified three issues over which there were likely to be disagreements needing to be resolved before any united organisation could be achieved - the sort of regime a Marxist party should operate; the type of programme it needs; and its relations with the rest of the left. Later a fourth issue - the nature of modern capitalism - was suggested by another comrade and agreed for later in the year.
Saturday's day school covered the first topic - 'How should a Marxist party be organised?' When the CPGB proposed this subject, we had in mind a discussion on the nature of genuine democratic centralism, as opposed to the bureaucratic centralism practised by so many of the left sects, and its application in current conditions. However, as it turned out, a minority of the 14 comrades attending want the CMP to reject democratic centralism altogether.
The first platform speaker was Mike Macnair of the CPGB. He summed up what democratic centralism was all about in this way: "We have to decide on action and we have to discuss." In other words, there must be full, open debate within the party, and minorities must have the right to publish their opposing views, but there must also be unity in action around agreed decisions.
Ex-CPGB member John Pearson's speech was generally in line with this, but he placed a lot of stress on what he called the "distortions" resulting from the "conservatism of the incumbent leadership". In his opening he called for "equality of access" to the party press and media (although in the debate he accepted that more prominence ought to be given to majority views, particularly those that related to agreed actions).
He was, though, adamant that there should be no "string-pulled hand-raising" in what he called "parliaments of the working class" - he mentioned trades councils and socialist alliances. While it was acceptable for communist representatives in bourgeois parliaments to be mandated by the party, when it came to working class institutions, delegates must always be free to speak and vote as they wished. Comrade Pearson was, of course, expelled from the CPGB after stubbornly refusing to accept party discipline in respect to agreed actions at particular conferences.
The third speaker, Barry Biddulph, focused mainly on the Bolsheviks - not only the nature of their party regime, but the various theories of revolution. He said little specifically about the application of democratic centralism in today's conditions, but did express disagreement with clauses in the CPGB's draft rules which allow for the coopting of members to leading committees and which specify what in his view are too infrequent congresses.
Although comrade Biddulph did tend to wander away from the subject, the three opening speakers, taken together, laid the ground for what ought to have been a useful debate. However, contributions from the floor tended themselves to stray far and wide away from the very pertinent subject at hand.
In particular Phil Sharpe wanted to debate his own 93-page draft programme and his "workers' party" hobby horse. Though these are subjects that need to be thoroughly debated, surely the CMP should be firmly united against such diversions. Not that comrade Sharpe wants to be bound by democratic decisions. He refered dismissively to democratic centralism as a "shibboleth of Leninists".
His long-time sidekick, Phil Walden, was more expansive. For him, we are "not living in the historical conditions where democratic centralism is helping the working class to form a mass party of socialism. Unfortunately democratic centralism is something that's got to go."
As the CPGB's Stan Keable pointed out, comrade Walden was "relegating democratic centralism to special occasions". But "what's the point of democracy and discussion if you can't do anything in unity?"
In fact, according to comrade Walden, democratic centralism is to blame for what he described as the intolerant behaviour of the left. It has "caused CPGB members to line up like toy soldiers" to oppose comrade Sharpe's eccentric, 93-page draft programme (which is simultaneously a "discussion document", it seems).
For his part, John McIntosh stated that the CMP "should not even dream" about going down the path of democratic centralism, which had been "a disaster in Russia". Centralism means that the party can be "slow to act compared to the masses", he said, and even the Bolsheviks realised that the workers will often "outstrip the party in any case".
Instead of democratic centralism, what was needed was what he called, rather vaguely, a "legal mass party". He gave two examples of "suitable organisations" - Sinn Féin and the "movement against apartheid in South Africa".
That was about as good as it got as far as an alternative to democratic centralism was concerned.