End bureaucratic centralism

Unity of the Marxist left is both possible and realistic, argues Mike Macnair. What is lacking is the will

On May 25 and 31 the Weekly Worker carried Dave Craig's and Phil Sharpe's respective defences of their 'halfway house' ideas of a workers' party. Both are 'steps sideways' (neither forward nor back) in different ways.

Comrade Craig's article was, to be frank, dishonest and a waste of space. Comrade Sharpe's contains a serious argument about the history of the movement. Though I think this argument is wrong, it is a variant on the common starting point of most far-left thought and is therefore worth getting to grips with.

There is a point which has to be addressed first. In my view both comrade Sharpe and comrade Craig either utterly misunderstand the views CPGB comrades have argued on the question or deliberately misrepresent them. After a fairly prolonged debate, I am pretty confident that in comrade Craig's case he is deliberately lying about our positions in order to make his own appear more attractive.

In both cases, I think that underlying this circumstance is the fact that both comrades think that, whatever the working class needs now, at some point in the future we will need a "revolutionary party", defined in such a way as to amount to a sect: that is, a group defined by agreement with a particular theory, as opposed to a party, which is an organisation defined by reference to a common political programme.

If the comrades were being upfront and open about their positions on this question, they would say, as Simon Keller and Dave Brown have said in the May 31 letters pages and as Gerry Downing, International Bolshevik Tendency comrades and others have said before, that the problem with CPGB is that it is a centrist formation and that I in particular am a Menshevik or Kautskyite. What is objectively necessary, they would argue, is a party which is very substantially 'more leftwing' - ie, more Trotskyist - than CPGB. It would then be utterly obvious that there is no present prospect of such a party becoming a 'mass workers' party' and that some sort of 'intermediate' or 'halfway house' formation is objectively necessary. Of course, the reality is that under no conditions could a Trotskyist party become a 'mass workers' party' and retain its Trotskyist character.

However, since the comrades do misrepresent what CPGB comrades have been saying, it is worth restating it yet again.

What we have been arguing

First: we are not and never have been opposed to participation in any project which in the slightest way points towards effective unity of the left. We have on this basis participated in the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance and Respect, and given critical political support to the McDonnell campaign. In this respect we are more consistently for participation in the broader movement than comrade Sharpe (who rejected participation in the Socialist Alliance) or comrade Craig (who rejected participation in Respect).

Given this history, we are entitled to regard as prima facie dishonest allegations that the CPGB's line stands for isolating the Marxists from the broader movement. All the more so when these allegations come from comrades Craig and Sharpe, who have in the recent past argued, against us, in favour of small groups abstaining from participation in broader movements.

However, we do not think that it is the task of Marxists - here including the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Morning Star/Communist Party of Britain, Labour Briefing and so on - to pretend to be the Labourite left or "people breaking from Labour". Nor do we think we should ourselves select bits of our political programme (like, for example, opposition to all immigration controls, or the replacement of the standing army with universal military training and a militia) to be dropped for the sake of making us look more like the Labourite left or 'people breaking from Labour'. In our view this is merely fakery, spin and - at the end of the day - a 'left' version of Blairism.

Second: unlike SPEW and unlike comrades Craig and Sharpe, we do not think that the rightwing character of the Blair administration means that the Labour Party has ceased to be the Labour Party or to be a mass bourgeois workers' party. Hence, we do not think that there is a present objective dynamic towards the creation of a new party based on nothing more than the idea that the working class should have independent political representation within the existing capitalist political order. There already is such a party: the Labour Party.

It has been a remarkable feature of this debate that both I and other comrades have made this argument repeatedly, and that comrades Craig and Sharpe have never responded directly to it, instead shifting sideways onto other ground. Until they produce some serious counter-arguments, we are entitled to conclude they are, in fact, unable to defend the claim that the Labour Party under Blair has ceased to be a mass bourgeois workers' party.

In this respect we have some common ground with both the Morning Star's CPB and with the far left within the Labour Party. Our difference with these groups on this issue is that we do not fetishise the Labour Party, and that we do not imagine that Labour, which was always a loyalist and imperialist party, can be 'reclaimed' or that the old Labour-trade union 'broad left' can be recreated on the basis of a politics of nostalgia for the 1950s-70s.

A united party of the Marxist left

Third: we think that the most urgent task of the Marxist left - again, including the SWP, SPEW, Permanent Revolution, Workers Power, Morning Star/CPB, Labour Briefing and all the smaller groups inside and outside the Labour Party - is to put its own house in order. That is, to break with bureaucratic centralism and unite in a common organisation which will openly defend a Marxist political programme (both inside and outside the Labour Party).

It is important to be clear here that 'Marxist political programme' does not mean agreement with (or acceptance of) the CPGB Draft programme. We ourselves organise on the basis of this document, and we put it forward as a draft of the sort of programme we think a united party would need. But we would be perfectly willing to function as a minority in a party which was openly Marxist (ie, committed to working class political independence, radical-democratic and internationalist) and not bureaucratic centralist, but which did not accept important elements of the CPGB's Draft programme.

A united party of the Marxist left could rapidly reach a membership of around 20,000 and win around 5%-10% of the popular vote. Such an organisation would not be a 'mass party', but it would be a starting point, a next stepping stone towards creating both a serious and effective left wing in Labour, and a real mass-scale political competitor to Labour. But to take the first step we - the Marxist left - have to overcome our own disunity, our own bureaucratic centralism and our own fear of openly putting forward Marxist politics.

Comrade Craig says that this policy is impossible: the SWP, SPEW, etc leaderships will never give up bureaucratic centralism in order to achieve unity. Hence, he argues, it is necessary to go round the existing far left to make a link between the 'real revolutionaries' (the Revolutionary Democratic Group and those close to them) and the Labour and ex-Labour left.

Comrade Sharpe's view on this question is unclear. His 95-page 'draft programme' text seems to defend the view that there can be no serious organisation of the left without a very high level of reconstruction of Marxist theory, and agreement with comrade Sharpe on the theoretical issues in question. This would at the end of the day imply that there are no Marxists in Britain except comrades Sharpe and his close associate, Phil Walden - hence that the question of unity of the Marxists is not posed. Comrade Walden has said to me in informal discussion that he, like comrade Craig, considers that there is no possibility of any of the groups breaking with bureaucratic centralism in order to make unity possible. But without more clarity I hesitate to say with certainty that comrade Sharpe thinks the unity of the existing Marxist left is impossible.

The question is of critical importance. I see no real reasons to support comrade Craig's view: it is merely a matter of disappointment with the (undoubtedly dreadful) character of the existing organised far left. But in reality the existing Labour and trade union left beyond the organised far left is equally dreadful, and to the extent that we try to work beyond these layers - as we, along with the rest of the left, must - we are not arguing with pure and uncorrupted innocents who will flock in their thousands to a 'republican socialist party,' but with Mirror, Star and Sun readers with their own political prejudices.

Moreover and on the other side of the coin: if we are to have a democratic party at all, comrades will have to accept being in a minority in relation to cherished beliefs. The belief that there are pure and uncorrupted millions out there just waiting to be reached by comrades who have 'the truth' - or at least purer and better people outside the organisation than within it - is a common cause of the splits which have divided our movement into a multitude of ineffective sects. The CPGB's own recent and short-lived 'Red Party' splinter is a case in point.

The splintered and undemocratic character of the far left is not guaranteed by objective dynamics: it is a matter of false choices. And in reality these choices about democracy and about unity are inseparable from one another. The Weekly Worker can report openly both the CPGB's own debates and, so far as we can, the debates of the rest of the left, and have a lively letters page, because we advocate the unity of the Marxists in a single party, not an attempt to win broad masses either to some sort of 'pure' Conradite theory or to some 'halfway house' front. Conversely, it is possible for us to imagine the unity of the Marxists because we are for a party which holds its debates as openly as the CPGB does.

In other words, willingness to fight for the unity of the Marxist left, and to act, if necessary, as a minority in a united organisation, is a condition for having an open and democratic organisation, and vice versa. If comrades in the Campaign for a Marxist Party believe that it is possible to combine open and democratic functioning of the CMP with a sectarian policy towards the SWP, SPEW and so on, of 'outflanking' them by a better relation to forces to their right, they are fundamentally mistaken.

Pygmy version of Rees

Comrade Craig's argument as usual contains a substantial number of rhetorical points of very limited value which we have to hack through to get to the core. The core will then turn out to be a very traditional argument on the British left: that, since the times are characterised by the dominance of the right, it is necessary to adapt to the right the politics we fight for openly, in order to move the times slightly to the left. This is a pygmy version of arguments which were put forward by the Eurocommunists to justify what became, in the end, Blairism, and which have put forward by John Rees and others to justify the character of Respect.

Comrade Craig begins with a discussion of the May 12 conference of SPEW's Campaign for a New Workers' Party. Like a SPEW member or an SWP 'booster' writing about one of their front events, he talks the conference up: for no other reason than because it adopted an amendment to the campaign's charter of demands, proposed by the micro-Socialist Alliance, which called for a democratic republic and an extension of democracy. This is progress because, "whilst the SWP and SP could easily ignore the democratic questions in 2001, the mistake becomes ever more obvious as the years go by."

But, of course, the old Socialist Alliance's People before profit did not ignore the democratic questions: it was in the practice of the SA that these were downgraded. Moreover, what is missing here is the context. The numbers attending the CNWP conference were down on the 2006 launch conference. In the May 2007 local elections, while SPEW more or less held its ground, it made no breakthrough.

The CNWP, says comrade Craig, needs to develop "its own democratic republican constitution" and culture. This, he argues, is possible; but "if the communist forces are ultra-left and sectarian, nothing will change".

What is most striking about this argument is its utter irrealism. When I took a break from the CNWP conference for a smoke, another smoker asked me which branch I was from. I answered that the town where I live did not have a CNWP branch, to which she responded, "No, I meant party branch"; she was startled to discover from my reply that I was not a SPEW member. The fact is that the CNWP is a transparent front for SPEW.

The conference began with video greetings from actor Ricky Tomlinson. But if he was willing to contribute video greetings to the CNWP and thus lend his name to SPEW, he was equally willing to contribute (more publicly) to a party political broadcast on behalf of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party. In his video greeting, in amongst discussing his personal-political history and the character of New Labour, comrade Tomlinson made a fundamental point: that the left needs to unite. Comrade Tomlinson can see what we can see, what comrade Craig turns his blind eye to: that CNWP is not a unitary formation, but a front for SPEW. Creating unity cannot be done through fronts, but only through a direct struggle for the unification of the existing far left.

If SPEW breaks with bureaucratic centralism, we could certainly have a massive advance for the left. But breaking with bureaucratic centralism would imply willingness to fight for unity with the SWP (as well as with the smaller left groups). If SPEW does not break with bureaucratic centralism, the CNWP will remain a SPEW front; and the most democratic and republican constitution or 'culture' in the CNWP will remain merely formal, with the real decisions being taken in the SPEW leadership.

It is simple. The struggle for democracy in the workers' movement is not in the first place a struggle against the parliamentary monarchy: it is a struggle against bureaucratic centralism, in all its trade union official, Labourite and so-called 'Leninist party' sect forms. And in relation to the far left, the problem is the forms of the sects themselves, not the forms of the fronts through which these sects operate. If we agitate for democracy in the fronts, without at the same time making clear that we are arguing for democracy in the organised left groups - and their unity - we are deceiving both ourselves and those we address.

Analogies and metaphors

In support of his characterisation of the CPGB's policy as ultra-left comrade Craig offers a series of analogies and metaphors which serve only to obscure the issues. These are (in the order in which they appear): the analogy between CPGB's line and the supposed 'left-rightism' of Bukharin; the parable of winter and summer; and the parable of the swimming pool and the fish tank. It will be most convenient to consider the swimming pool and fish tank first and then the others.

Comrade Craig says: "The SP is trying to build a relatively big swimming pool. It is wholly designed by the SP, but with a dodgy filter system. Our argument is that we welcome the attempt to build the pool. But before we can swim in it we should try to influence the design. But not by proposing a fish tank."

This metaphor is a variant on Mao's famous tag that revolutionaries "must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea". In comrade Craig's view, as with John Rees and co's arguments for replacing the Socialist Alliance with Respect, it is better for the fish (Marxists) to have a bigger pool (front) to swim in.

The problem with it is simple. To the extent that Marxists in Britain "move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea", the sea we swim in is the broad workers' movement: the trade unions, the political life around the Labour Party and the milieu of broad mass campaigns. Every group, no matter how small or how sectarian, actually does swim in this sea. Outside the largest cities, where the sheer size of the conurbation supports sectarian isolationism, SWPers, SPEWers, CPGBers, etc, etc are forced to work together to some extent, for the simple reason that we are swimming in the same sea.

In this context, projects like Respect and the CNWP are in reality attempts by single groups to fence off a little bit of the sea - they are fish farms, or, in comrade Craig's expression, 'fish tanks' - to isolate a bit of the sea for the benefit of their own group. What CPGB wants to see is a common party of the Marxist left - a bigger fish - which can swim more effectively in the real sea of the broad workers' movement: not any sort of 'fish tank'.

Now look at the other side of the coin. Suppose Crow, Serwotka and suchlike launched a campaign for a new party of a kind which could actually recruit on the ground, and it got real broad support in the movement. The CPGB would without hesitation join, fight for our politics within it and build it (by participation in canvassing, membership drives, money-raising, and so on) even if we did not win our political positions.

But, of course, nothing of the sort is either happening or about to happen. What is happening is that far-left groups are creating fronts which pretend to be left-Labourite formations: Scottish Socialist Party, Respect, CNWP. In order to 'take the lead' in creating a halfway house, they create nothing of the sort: merely an artificial, sectarian front. Because they are 'taking the lead' in this way, they need to suppress their own formal Marxist political positions. The result is not the actual creation of a mass halfway house party, but merely the suppression of the public defence of Marxist politics.

Next we come to comrade Craig's reference to the supposed "left-rightism" of Bukharin. This draws on an argument the comrade made in April in connection with 'permanent revolution'. But, as I said in a letter responding to that article, comrade Craig's only ground for supposing that Bukharin's arguments were wrong is that Trotsky disagreed with them. So the charge of 'left-rightism' is, in fact, merely a charge of not being Trotskyist on the question of 'permanent revolution'. Bukharin's strategic line in his 'left communist' period (1916-21) may also have been false, but to show that it was requires more evidence than just quoting Trotsky (or, for that matter, Lenin). Comrade Craig's argument is thus in itself dogmatic-sectarian.

This argument of comrade Craig fades rapidly into the next, which is that we are now in very adverse conditions in the general class struggle and that calling for a new Marxist party is therefore inappropriate: like "wearing furs in summer and going naked in winter" - another of comrade Craig's quotations from Trotsky.

In this case the quotation from Trotsky is most strikingly inapposite. Trotsky's use of the tag was aimed at Radek. The Comintern leadership had argued that, since what was on the agenda in China was the bourgeois democratic revolution, the Chinese CP should keep quiet about elements of its politics in order to preserve its policy of entry in the nationalist Kuomintang. This policy turned out to be disastrous. In the wake of the defeat which resulted, the Comintern leadership zig-zagged to the left and argued against the Chinese CP campaigning for political democratic demands (constituent assembly, etc.). Radek, Trotsky argued, was capitulating to this line (in fact, he was capitulating to the Stalin faction more generally).

Comrade Craig's argument, like the SWP's with Respect and SPEW's with the CNWP, is that the task of the Marxists is to create an English equivalent to the Kuomintang - a left-nationalist party, in comrade Craig's case one "like the Scottish Socialist Party" - in order to enter it. This is a version of the line of the Comintern majority on China in 1926-27. For comrade Craig to quote Trotsky's critique of this line, in defence of it, is to throw stones at his own glasshouse.

It is not news to CPGB comrades that the political situation is adverse to the left. CPGB comrades have argued from the 1990s that we are in a period of reaction of a special type. The question is how to respond to this situation. The large majority of the left takes the view that the way to proceed is to 'put on furs' - ie, move our own politics to the right - and/or 'huddle together' - ie, unite the left on the basis that its most rightist element has a veto on what can be said and done. Comrade Craig's particular variant has exactly the same logic: at the end of the day, the line of the Blairites.

How can the Marxist left contribute to the mass working class movement in such hard times? The first thing to recognise is that, as far as we are concerned, the state of the mass movement is a matter of objective dynamics. We will not cause a rise in the mass movement by pretending to be 'the alternative', any more than we will by 'minority initiatives' of finding opportunities to fight the police. We will not do so, either, by trying artificially to find a set of politics which the 'masses will agree with' and on this basis create a front.

We can contribute to the movement - as we all do - by working in the broad movement at its existing level. But the major contribution we can make is not to the movement as it is, but to the movement as it will be when the reactionary tide begins to recede and there begins to be a tide in the other direction. This contribution is now to set our own house in order: to create a unified party of the Marxists in place of the present 57 varieties of sect.

Sharpe's history

Comrade Sharpe's argument is, as I said, more interesting, but it can also be dealt with more briefly. Like comrade Craig, comrade Sharpe caricatures CPGB comrades' positions.

Unlike comrade Sharpe, the CPGB does not think that a party which is both Marxist and mass is impossible: our argument for unification of the existing Marxist left is that this is the next step on the road to a mass workers' party, of millions of members, which is Marxist in its politics. We are not advocating an "elite party of the left" or a "tightly knit group of professional revolutionaries" (Sharpe, May 31).

Comrade Sharpe's argument is that, on the contrary, mass parties are necessarily not Marxist. Thus he denies the Marxist character of the pre-war German SPD or of the Russian RSDLP: instead, he argues, the SPD saw "the opportunist degeneration of a mass Marxist party into a workers' party with conflicting tendencies", while the RSDLP similarly saw "unity between the centrist and revolutionary trends".

On the basis of this argument, comrade Sharpe argues that the formation of the CPGB in 1920 was a sectarian error. But not, as is more usually argued, that the CPGB should not have been formed in order for the Marxists to stay within the Labour Party as a party based on the trade unions. Instead, he argues for a British Socialist Party-Independent Labour Party merger, which would have created unity of the revolutionaries (BSP after their split with Hyndman) and centrists (ILP) on the basis of their common anti-war stance in 1914-18.

There are two problems with this historical argument. The first is that comrade Sharpe is using 'Marxist' as a synonym for 'Bolshevik'. He is therefore presupposing that the "centrists" (the Kautskyans in the German SPD, the conciliators in the RSDLP) were not Marxists.

On the one hand, this definition presupposes that the Bolsheviks were broadly right in their conduct in 1918-21: because otherwise trends hostile to the Bolsheviks ("centrists") might turn out to have been better Marxists than the Bolsheviks. It may be true that the Bolsheviks were right, but after 1991 this falls to be argued, not merely assumed by defining terms. I have on several occasions argued explicitly that the sort of 'Marxist' party we are fighting for in the immediate term must be capable of including Kautskyans and not just 'Bolsheviks', so if comrade Sharpe's "centrists" were just Kautskyans and conciliators, his 'party of the revolutionaries and centrists' and my use of 'Marxist party' would mean the same thing.

On the other hand, using the terms 'revolutionaries' and 'centrists' allows comrade Sharpe to characterise the ILP as centrist. But what the ILP was certainly not is Marxist: its members were in their majority christian and ethical socialists and (little-) British nationalists, were on the far right wing of the Second International before the war, and opposed the war (like the German 'revisionist' leader Eduard Bernstein) on ethical and pacifist, not class, grounds. For this reason, the idea of the unity of the BSP as 'revolutionaries' and the ILP as 'centrists' in 1920, as an alternative to the formation of the CPGB, is a complete chimera. Actual unification of the BSP and ILP would have involved a split in the ILP. Conversely, a substantial part of the early CPGB's working class base came from outside the BSP, from the SLP and South Wales Socialist Society and so on. Comrade Sharpe's argument here truly tortures reality to fit it in the Procrustean bed of theory.

The second and more fundamental point is that any party which is of any serious size, however Marxist or 'revolutionary' it is, will have 'left', 'centre' and 'right' tendencies/factions. Witness the Bolsheviks in 1917. Were Zinoviev and Kamenev 'revolutionaries' when they denounced the proposed October insurrection in the bourgeois press? It is thus completely illusory to seek a 'pure' 'revolutionary' party at any time. What is possible is to create a party which has certain clear Marxist programmatic commitments - grounded on the core principles of working class power, radical democracy and proletarian internationalism - and seeks to agitate and propagandise round these commitments and to educate its members in them.

How does this relate to present conditions and present tasks? Comrade Sharpe argues that "the crisis of Marxism means we have a situation where the party is marginalised from the class". In the CPGB's view, it is not a case of the (presumably existing) revolutionary, or Marxist, party being isolated from the class: rather, there is a mass reformist party of the working class (Labour) and no party of the Marxists exists. We would not recognise the SWP, or SPEW, or, for that matter, ourselves, let alone the Democratic Socialist Alliance or comrades Sharpe and Walden, as parties. It is quite meaningless to talk about a party "marginalised from the class" if there is no party. To return to comrade Craig's fish metaphor, the problem is that we have a lot of single-cell Marxist organisms swimming in the sea, and what we need is to get beyond these to the level of a multicellular organism: a party.

The condition of doing so is to go beyond sects based on agreement to theories to a party based on a clear political programme within which rival theories can coexist and contend. But both the RDG and the Sharpe-Walden group are sects based on agreement to theories, which each group claims to be essential to a 'revolutionary' party. And so are the SWP, SPEW and so on. Both comrades Craig and Sharpe argue that there can be no unity of 'revolutionaries' without agreement on 'revolutionary theory': the difference is in the particular theories, and the fact that comrade Sharpe's theoretical output pretends to be a programme. In this respect, both comrade Craig and comrade Sharpe cling to the dogma which is the fundamental ground of the far left's disunity and consequent political impotence.