Frayed tempers and mischievous motions

Patrick Presland reports on the national conference of the Campaign for a Marxist Party on June 23

A national conference of the Campaign for a Marxist Party took place on Saturday June 23 in London. It was attended by around 40 comrades, more or less the same number who were present at the CMP inaugural conference in November 2006.

The conference cannot be called a success. True, some progress was made, but the main purpose of the meeting - to agree a constitution and elect a committee - was not achieved. Overall it was surely a disappointing and frustrating experience for all concerned - at best a half-step forward, when comrades had been hoping at last to see some real acceleration in the tempo of the campaign and some much-needed clarity.

Why was this so? On one level, the meeting was a procedural dog's breakfast, a classic example of how not to run a conference. The agenda was hopelessly ambitious, with a small mountain of business (some of it quite contentious) meant to be dealt with in the space of just two and a half hours before lunch and then followed by a so-called "day school". The result was a frenetic, neurotic, ill-tempered affair, in which nothing was really debated properly. The chair's job was an impossible one, of course, though that is no excuse for shouting at a comrade trying to raise a point of order to "sit down and shut up". People who have given their hard work, time and money to the CMP deserve some respect.

The obvious solution was flexibility: to extend the conference beyond lunch. After some wrangling this was eventually agreed, along the lines of 'We'll see how it goes', but against the adamant insistence of comrade John Pearson that the existing ad hoc committee's decisions could not be overturned by the conference, and that come 2 o'clock any unfinished business simply must be adjourned to a reconvened conference.

On a deeper level, these technical-procedural squabbles were revealed to have a political basis, when yet more time had to be wasted in a surreal debate about who, of those present, were actually members of the CMP.

Take London comrades. Most had been coming to all the CMP's meetings in the capital (and some had participated in its intervention at the Campaign for a New Workers' Party conference in May), and had contributed to various collections to pay for room hire and so on. But, because of the previous easy-going attitude towards membership, not all had formally joined, but expected to be able to do so before the conference. Exactly the sort of thing that happens with the other campaigns on the left, to which most of us belong - essentially free associations of like-minded comrades.

But suddenly that was not enough. Just a couple of weeks before the conference new membership procedures were introduced by the committee, requiring every individual who wished to join the CMP (or to confirm their existing membership in some cases) to complete a written application form giving full personal details and enclosing payment. Applicants not known to the CMP ad hoc committee would be contacted by the secretary to establish their 'bona fides'. It would no longer be possible for those who wished to come and vote at the conference to join on the day (or perhaps even a week or so in advance). Becoming a member of the CMP suddenly felt like trying to join the masons or the MCC.

Comrade Pearson darkly suggested that the meeting had been "packed by the CPGB" in order to ensure the success of the CPGB's "mischievous motions". There were others, he maintained, notably comrade Steve Freeman, who were definitively not members of the CMP and his application for membership was not acceptable, as he did not agree to the campaign's objectives.

Had it not been for a tree falling on the railway line, comrade Pearson would have arrived on time and would, presumably, have personally separated his sheep from the CPGB's goats by handing out the red and blue cards he had thoughtfully brought with him to the meeting - red for members, blue for observers.

Again the obvious answer, proposed in a motion by comrade John Bridge of the CPGB, and supported by comrade Hillel Ticktin, was one of comradely, common sense flexibility - let all those present, almost all of them well known for their involvement in the CMP from its inception - have the right to vote on the resolutions put to conference. This idea was accepted by all present, except comrade Pearson.

As a matter of record, a glance around the room and a quick head-count at this point confirmed that CPGB members and supporters did not constitute a majority of those in the hall. That situation remained the same throughout the conference. However, as virtually every decision taken was carried by a large, if not overwhelming, majority, it was clear that almost all the votes would have gone the same way with the presence of far fewer CPGB comrades - and without those considered by comrade Pearson to be non-members. Nevertheless, he constantly seemed to call into question the legitimacy of the meeting and of the votes taken.

The political background to this seemingly scholastic debate about membership will be familiar to readers of the Weekly Worker. Since the publication of comrade Peter Manson's article, 'Where now for the CMP?' (May 31) and his subsequent 'Campaigning with Marxist teeth' (June 14), the letters page has seen correspondence from various CMP comrades taking issue with his arguments about the direction of the campaign. A row was brewing and it duly happened, though it is a pity that daft allegations about "packed meetings" and "mischievous motions" had to be called in aid by one of the protagonists.

Finally, conference could get on with discussing the concrete questions we had all come to debate. The first of the CPGB's motions, 'On the nature of the CMP', was moved by comrade Mark Fischer. The motion set out to reaffirm the importance of a campaign for a Marxist party, as opposed to yet another halfway house. There seemed to be comrades in the CMP for whom this commitment to a united party of Marxists presented a problem. In fact one or two do not believe such a party is possible or desirable at present, despite the fact that it is the fundamental purpose of the campaign, its raison d'être in fact.

What was needed for progress to be made was a clear, unequivocal restatement of the campaign's aim - and a commitment not to allow those whose agreement with that aim is, at the very least, questionable to be promoted as CMP theorists or spokespersons. Comrade Fischer stated that, although the CPGB felt that those who signed up to the CMP should agree with its aims, we are against the use of bureaucratic methods to exclude them. We prefer to combat the views of comrades Freeman and Phil Sharpe - another 'workers' party' advocate - politically.

Comrade Barry Biddulph called the CPGB's motion "bullying and hectoring", based on a "bullying, sectarian polemic" (he did not expand), which was putting people off. Comrade Pearson opposed the CPGB's motion, claiming that the CPGB had failed to define what a halfway house actually is. He denounced the CPGB as a sect.

Comrade Ticktin, by contrast, sympathised with the motion because it reiterated what the CMP was founded for back in November - a Marxist party, not a stageist project. We have to make clear to people what is needed. There was no point going on with the CMP if it was for something else and he personally would leave it if that were the case.

Comrade John Bridge emphasised that the CPGB has no problem with having debates and that truth flourishes in an atmosphere where hard polemic is permitted - that is not not "bullying" or "hectoring", as comrade Biddulph calls it, but serious discussion. But we must be clear that halfway house projects are a complete diversion which we should struggle against, not seek to emulate. Nevertheless, the CPGB accepted comrade Biddulph's proposed amendment, removing the commitment to "combat/educate those who advocate" halfway houses, since comrade Biddulph feared the phrase might be seen as "a dissident-bashing/brainwashing attempt to drive out those who have tactical disagreements or doubts".

Comrade Sharpe confirmed to the meeting that his preference is for a Marxist party, but the CPGB was too negative, he said. Suppose a movement arose, something genuine and popular; how would the CMP relate to it? What matters is to advocate a Marxist programme, whether in a Marxist or broader workers' party.

The CPGB motion, incorporating comrade Biddulph's amendment, was carried overwhelmingly (comrades Pearson, Sharpe and Phil Warden voting against).

Next, comrade Sharpe moved a motion from the Democratic Socialist Alliance for the development of the CMP on the basis of a revolutionary programme; that the CMP will consider what organisations we can approach to join the CMP on the basis of the above; and to circulate for discussion the document submitted by the DSA entitled 'The way forward for the CMP', written by comrade Sharpe himself. The comrade stressed the centrality of theory as a method of first establishing the aims and principles on which to base the elaboration of a programme. The CPGB, on the other hand, had a purely organisational approach, he alleged. Merely calling for the creation of a united party of the Marxist left was just wish-fulfilment. If created it would just be swamped by the Socialist Workers Party/Socialist Party.

Comrade Manson opposed the idea that Phil Sharpe's document should be circulated in a way that would give it official or semi-official status. The proposal contained within it to approach two small Trotskyist groups with a view to cooperation and eventual fusion was based merely on comrade Sharpe's personal agreement with aspects of their politics, not on any commitment by them to unity in a single democratic Marxist party. The DSA motion was defeated overwhelmingly (five for, the rest against).

With time running out, it was agreed that comrade Dave Spencer's motion on CMP strategy be remitted. Matthew Jones's motion on organising the left contained little in itself that was controversial, apart from the call to "maintain regional representation" on the CMP committee. However, in his speech comrade Jones made it clear he was against the strategic necessity of working through the existing organised left and for this reason the CPGB voted against. His motion was defeated by one vote (the only close vote of the day).

Comrade Paul Smith put forward a motion on the need for Marxist education to defeat the hold that Stalinism and social democracy has over the working class. Comrade Ticktin strongly supported the motion, saying that the Marxism we know as Marxism is not Marxism at all, but Stalinism. The motion was carried unopposed.

The CPGB's second motion concerned the Weekly Worker and was moved by Peter Manson. It urges members of the CMP to make full use of the paper by writing for it, promoting it and selling it in the movement and in particular to promote the idea of an openly Marxist party on the basis of our founding principles, as opposed to yet more halfway house projects. Not, one would have thought, a particularly controversial viewpoint. He pointed out that the current issue has eight or nine contributions in one form or another from non-CPGB members of the CMP, a characteristically open and democratic approach to the expression of divergent views.

John Pearson had tabled a personal (as opposed to DSA) amendment calling for the Weekly Worker voluntarily to cease as a "factional publication" that was "under the proprietorial control of the CPGB" and for negotiations to begin with the aim of putting all the "financial, editorial and journalistic resources" of the Weekly Worker at the service of the CMP. According to comrade Pearson, the CMP should only make use of the Weekly Worker if it were handed over to the CMP. Otherwise members and supporters of the CMP would be "the servants of the newspaper" rather than the other way round.

Comrade Pearson's amendment, to use his own words, looked like a somewhat "mischievous motion". It was difficult to take it seriously, especially when he assured comrades: "I don't want enmity with the CPGB". Both he and comrade Biddulph, (who submitted an amendment making the start of a "process of extending editorial control" a condition) complained bitterly that some of their best points had been "censored" out of their contributions to the paper by its editor, comrade Manson.

In his speech comrade Manson made it clear that such a charge was completely without foundation. He added that the CPGB was committed to handing over not only its paper, but its printshop, office, etc, to any organisation that resulted from ongoing CMP-CPGB merger talks. But comrades Pearson and Biddulph wanted the CPGB to cede control of the Weekly Worker immediately while at the same time opposing such a merger.

Both amendments failed overwhelmingly (receiving only four votes apiece). However, the CPGB motion was withdrawn in favour of a proposal from comrade Moshé Machover to "note the CPGB's kind offer". This was carried overwhelmingly.

At this point (just before 2pm) comrade Pearson duly proposed that the conference should be adjourned forthwith, as the time had come to begin the day school. His proposal was rejected. A 40-minute break for lunch ensued.

The remainder of the conference was dominated by the question of the draft constitution and elections to a new committee. The procedural problem was that there was no time to debate the former, without which the basis of the latter was unclear. Amidst considerable confusion the conference was divided into those comrades who argued that the existing interim arrangements (with an ad hoc committee of 10 committee posts to which volunteers had committed themselves last November) had to remain in place until a new conference was called formally to approve a new constitution; and those who thought that the conference should proceed with elections immediately.

Comrades John Bridge and Mike Macnair argued that the meeting had the right to decide now what it wanted to decide, including to replace one committee with another. Comrade Bridge listed a proposed committee of seven members, including comrade Pearson - who promptly refused to be involved, describing the suggestion as a "CPGB stitch-up", involving voting by "non-members". A couple of others joined him in this.

These comrades appeared metaphorically to be packing their bags and putting on their hats and coats. So, in order to avoid what looked like the real possibility of a split, comrade Bridge decided, with great reluctance and under strong protest, to accept a motion from comrade Steve Freeman which had already been put and rejected once by the meeting: "That we do not change the existing constitution, including the size of the committee, until we hold the constitutional conference. The current committee continues until that conference, when it is re-elected in line with the new constitution". In accepting this compromise proposal, which received the support of a large majority, comrade Bridge urged the committee to ensure that a general meeting was called at the earliest opportunity to discuss a constitution.