Campaigning with Marxist teeth

Oppose all halfway houses, says Peter Manson. We need to be absolutely clear on our principles

I must confess to being taken a little aback by the vehemence of the reaction to my article on the Campaign for a Marxist Party ('Where now for the CMP?', May 31).

The article was intended as an honest assessment of where the CMP is and of the problems we have encountered, and attempted to chart possible ways ahead. But national secretary Matthew Jones describes it as "a tirade against the Campaign for a Marxist Party", and Marxist Voice editor Dave Spencer regards it as proof that the CPGB was never "genuine in their support for the CMP" (Letters, June 7).

Well, comrades, there is a difference between fraternal criticism and hostile attack. Obviously I should have underlined the point. We in the CPGB have a culture of robust debate and hard-hitting exchanges, which I suppose this writer takes for granted. Perhaps I should have taken into account the sensibilities of comrades who come from a different tradition and who operate in gentler, more restrained conditions. If I had, they might not have taken me the wrong way. So let me put the record straight.

It is true that my criticisms were strongly worded. I said that the CMP has made "next to no impact" and "hardly functioned". By contrast comrade Jones states that the CMP has "achieved a considerable amount" and has "recruited members steadily". Perhaps we can just agree that progress has been slow and only the first few faltering steps have been taken in the direction we have set ourselves.

For example, when I said that CMP meetings are attracting smaller and smaller numbers, I thought this was pretty uncontentious, at least as far as national meetings are concerned. There were around 40 comrades at the founding conference, 16 at the March 10 members' meeting and 14 at the May 26 day school. However, maybe three events is too small a sample to be considered indicative of a trend and, in any case, I am sure that the June 23 conference will produce a much better attendance.

My comments were intended to be neither "hostile" nor "sneering". Far from wishing ill on the CMP, I advocated and briefly outlined three things that need to be done urgently if we are to overcome what I believe to be real problems. One, I advocated the need for a clear and unambiguous restatement of our fundamental commitment to campaign for a Marxist party and oppose 'halfway-housism'; two, I opposed over-elaborate rule-making and suggested a streamlined leadership committee; and, three, I said that we must progress fusion talks with the CPGB.

A resolution calling for such talks was overwhelmingly agreed at our November 2006 founding conference. Yet it took the CMP six months to reply to the CPGB letter proposing measures to facilitate matters. Hardly good practice. Anyway I am glad to report that Jack Conrad and Mike Macnair met Hillel Ticktin, Matthew Jones and Dave Spencer in Birmingham last week. Though the meeting was short, it was useful. Certainly it helped to clear the air, especially about the June 23 CMP membership meeting. Comrade Ticktin was particularly insistent that halfway-housism had to be firmly rejected.

Anyway, I can definitely plead guilty regarding my statement about Marxist Voice, the CMP journal. I said only one edition had been published, but the second was already being distributed before my article was written. I did not know that issue No2 was out. If I had known, of course, I would have said so.

But there is another lesson here - surely there is room for a nationwide CMP email information and discussion list. Then members would know that the latest edition of our journal had just been published. Such a list would also serve to overcome other communication hiccups. Perhaps the CMP website could be regularly updated too. An announcement about Marxist Voice at a day school in Manchester is not really sufficient - especially when some people, myself included, arrived late after a long journey and did not hear it.

While we are talking of Marxist Voice, by the way, my comment that comrade Spencer has been producing our journal "single-handedly" was not intended as an accusation - it was meant as a compliment for all his hard work! I really must learn to express myself more clearly.

Pointing out various organisational shortcomings was not, however, the main purpose of my article. I warned of the undue political influence being exerted by an open advocate of a halfway house 'workers' party' - namely comrade Phil Sharpe. The fact that the CPGB has associated this particular problem with a named comrade does not mean we are resorting to "personal abuse" or are engaging in a "disgraceful witch-hunt".

Funnily enough, I actually agree with those who say that comrade Sharpe's views are not shared by the CMP majority. We shall, of course, test this out at the June 23 conference. If comrades wanted a halfway house party they would have adopted the old Socialist Alliance's People before profit as the basis for programmatic discussion and focused hopes on transforming the Socialist Party's Campaign for a New Workers' Party into a Scottish Socialist Party or something equally horrible. At our founding conference motions to that effect were overwhelmingly defeated.

So I am definitely not trying to paint comrade Sharpe's views as those of the majority. What the CPGB is complaining about is that comrade Sharpe is being promoted by office-holders - whether consciously or not - as a kind of CMP theorist. At the first membership aggregate in March it was comrade Sharpe who was asked to introduce a discussion on programme. Perhaps not all the current committee were familiar with the content of his rambling, 95-page, 82,000-word so-called draft programme - but they ought to be. After all, in it he advocates a non-Marxist "workers' party". Despite that, a good number of those present at the March meeting seemed to think that comrade Sharpe's meanderings were just the thing.

Note, by the way, that being prepared to debate with comrade Sharpe - as the CPGB most definitely is - is not the same as promoting him as an approved CMP spokesperson. The CPGB operates on the basis of open polemic, whereby wrong and badly mistaken views are directly engaged with, especially when they seem to be exerting some kind of influence. For example, in this edition we carry another piece by Dave Craig - a CMP member - where he too openly advocates a halfway house party (see opposite). Of course, being either dishonest or just dumb, he once again misrepresents the views of the CPGB. But the reason why we carry articles by him is because, as he makes clear, most of the so-called 'Marxist' left in Britain advocate a halfway house party of one kind or another.

We are more than willing to publish comrade Sharpe's views in the Weekly Worker, and to have him as one of a panel of speakers at a CMP day school. But we are doing that for the same reason as we publish comrade Craig. Namely in order to show beyond a shadow of doubt the complete muddled-headedness and misguided nature of what is being proposed.

Let us be clear - if comrade Sharpe's views were regarded as in some way typical of the CMP, it would be a disaster. We would be a laughing stock that, quite rightly, would not be taken seriously. I am sorry if my critics regard such a statement as "personal abuse", but for us the continued existence of the CMP as a vehicle for the promotion of a Marxist party is important. What we are engaged in, let me stress, is political criticism, not character assassination. And, as far as I know, comrade Sharpe himself understands this perfectly well.

Although the Weekly Worker is an open publication that welcomes contending views, we have hardly been overwhelmed with contributions from members of the current CMP committee challenging comrade Sharpe either on programme or party - this certainly gives me the impression, at the very least, that the comrades are unconcerned by the prospect of the campaign itself becoming identified either as yet another halfway house or as a purveyor of sheer eccentricity.

Of course, some of this could be connected to the fact that the Democratic Socialist Alliance, to which comrade Sharpe belongs, dominates the current committee. While the DSA is, as its name implies, an alliance (and a small and rather eclectic one at that) rather than a disciplined, pre-party-type formation, it could be that comrades are constrained by loyalty to the group and feel unable to come out against comrade Sharpe's views. If that is the case their loyalties are misplaced. What we are dealing with here is a basic principle. The comrades are surely obliged as CMP office-holders to let us know exactly where they stand on this vital issue: for or against halfway-housism.

The DSA as a body has, after all, adopted comrade Sharpe's so-called draft programme as a basis for discussion and wants the CMP to do the same. Just as worrying, the DSA is proposing a motion for June 23, as a "counterposition" to the CPGB, calling on the CMP to "circulate for discussion" a 4,000-word document entitled 'The way forward for the CMP' - written, of course, by Phil Sharpe.

Here comrade Sharpe suggests that the CMP should seek to cooperate with two small Trotskyist groups - Permanent Revolution and the Workers International League - despite the fact that neither has ever shown any interest in the unity of Marxists within a single party. In fact comrades from Permanent Revolution were invited to attend the Manchester day school, but they did not show. It seems that comrade Sharpe is very impressed with an article he has recently read in Permanent Revolution which has similar views to his own on the state of the working class in Britain.

The CPGB would welcome any genuine steps towards Marxist unity, no matter how small the forces involved. But not, it has to be said, on the basis of what happens to catch comrade Sharpe's eye this week. Rather we advocate the principles of working class political independence, internationalism and extreme democracy (within our own organisations and within the state). Comrade Sharpe's approach - even in the unlikely event that groups such as PR and the WIL were remotely interested - could only result in another sect (containing within it the seeds of future splits) based on agreement with a particular analysis or 'line'.

The CPGB fights for what we have called a "non-confessional"  party - a party that can contain all sorts of Marxist views on the state of the working class (or anything else), but will nevertheless unite around democratically agreed actions. That is why it is incorrect to label the CPGB a sect - we are prepared to operate as a minority within a Marxist party based on the principles outlined above.

But the promotion of comrade Sharpe does not stop there. Incredibly he was also proposed to present the CMP motion at last month's Campaign for a New Workers' Party conference/rally, despite his obvious disagreement with its main thrust. His DSA comrade, John Pearson, bureaucratically argued that we should drop the motion rather than let Mike Macnair move it. Thankfully the majority of CMPers present - mostly from the CPGB - strongly disagreed. Yes, comrade Sharpe was able to make his intended speech - but during the debate, not as officially speaking on behalf of CMP. And he was warmly applauded by the Socialist Party "¦ because of his inept and frankly ridiculous call for supporters of the John McDonnell campaign - if they were "principled" - to quit Labour and join the CNWP.

Let me repeat: we are not concerned simply with the crass and clearly mistaken views of one comrade, but with the fact that this comrade has been promoted as having official or semi-official standing. We are most certainly not engaged in a "witch-hunt" against comrade Sharpe, who has every right to put forward his ideas - although we would ask whether the Campaign for a Marxist Party is the right place for him to propagate them.

Nor do CPGB criticisms mean that we see the CMP as a rival that must be either closed down or taken over. It is true that we have been getting a number of comrades to formally join so that they can vote at the June 23 conference. Perhaps understandably, in view of thin skins and misplaced fears, the CMP committee decided not to accept a block of CPGB membership applications and has asked them to be resubmitted individually. We are quite happy to comply with this. There is a danger, however, that the membership application procedure and elaborate vetting system that has been agreed will be seen as bureaucratic overkill.

More to the point, nothing the CPGB is proposing for June 23 poses a danger. Quite the opposite in fact. Our intention is to ensure that the CMP lives up to its name and acts like a campaign  with Marxist teeth.

We are also proposing a much simpler set of rules and a smaller, more representative committee that reports to regular membership aggregates. It is completely untrue to say that our constitutional amendment will "remove the accountability" of office-holders. All committee members must be accountable and recallable. That is elementary democracy.

We are convinced that the Campaign for a Marxist Party can make real progress. But for that to happen we must ensure that halfway-housism is comprehensively defeated.