Unity and opportunism

The CPGB is not advocating building a Marxist party through a rotten deal with the current SWP and SPEW leaders, writes Peter Manson. Our call for unity is inseparable from the struggle for working class principle

What is remarkable about the polemical style of comrade Phil Sharpe is his extreme reluctance to quote the words of his opponents. His latest contribution, for example, despite being written in reply to previous articles by myself and Mike Macnair, is notable by the complete absence of even a single set of quotation marks ('How to build Marxist unity', June 21).

Of course, it is perfectly possible to accurately paraphrase the views of one's adversaries in order to refute them, but comrade Sharpe does not do this. He appears to have no understanding whatsoever of what I and comrade Macnair wrote, with the result that he spectacularly fails to grasp the CPGB's position and ends up arguing against a straw man.

To sum up comrade Sharpe's conclusions, the CPGB, through the application of "a magic formula", combined with "miraculous organisational moves", wants to summon into existence an unprincipled "unification of Mensheviks and Bolsheviks". He asserts: ""¦ the CPGB is not arguing for a revolutionary party organised around a revolutionary programme: rather unity around minimal principles that would not upset the present domination of opportunism."

Comrade Sharpe is labouring under the misapprehension that the 'Marxist party' we advocate is to be arrived at by the simple merger of the existing left groups - not least the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales - as currently constituted, through polite negotiation with their current leadership. If we really were advocating such a process, comrade Sharpe would be correct to label us not only conciliationists, but hopeless dreamers. But we are not advocating it.

Look at what comrade Macnair actually wrote: "But to take the first step [on the road to a mass Marxist party] we - the Marxist left - have to overcome our own disunity, our own bureaucratic centralism and our own fear of openly putting forward Marxist politics" ('End bureaucratic centralism', June 7). Note that he did not end the sentence with the need to overcome the disunity of the left, but went on to state two basic conditions for unity: the abandonment of undemocratic and bureaucratic practices and internal regimes; and the dropping of unprincipled 'halfway house' fronts.

In other words, the revolutionary left must totally transform itself through the adoption of genuine democratic centralism and the rejection of short-cut-to-nowhere opportunism. By democratic centralism we mean, on the one side, the right of minorities to openly struggle to become the majority, including their right to speak out publicly against majority positions; on the other side, the duty of such minorities to unite behind agreed actions and strive to ensure their success. This can be summed up by the slogan, 'For the right to criticise, for unity in action'.

It really is astonishing that comrade Sharpe has failed to notice that the CPGB's call for Marxist unity is, and has always been, predicated on Marxist principle and the explicit rejection of all forms of opportunism. Three examples.

Firstly, in the Socialist Alliance, our main demand was for an SA party. But not just any old SA party. We put forward our full communist programme as the basis for its formation and consistently opposed the dropping and watering down of revolutionary principle in order to appeal to those (largely phantom) Labourites whom the SWP, SPEW, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and International Socialist Group insisted we had to win over as Labourites.

What about Respect? Has comrade Sharpe not noticed that, from the beginning, we have been a constant thorn in the side of the SWP, as it moves further and further to the right and even welcomes into its popular front party non-working class elements? Open borders, republicanism, secularism, a woman's right to choose an abortion, a workers' representative on a worker's wage - the list of SWP abandoned principles is endless. But it is the CPGB that holds the SWP to account by pointing out that a genuine working class alternative can only be built on the basis of working class socialism.

Finally, within the Campaign for a Marxist Party the CPGB helped fine-tune the 13 agreed principles upon which we, along with the CMP, insist a Marxist party must be based. So how does comrade Sharpe arrive at the conclusion that we are "not arguing for a revolutionary party organised around a revolutionary programme: rather unity around minimal principles that would not upset the present domination of opportunism"?

Returning to comrade Macnair's three evils that the Marxist left must overcome - disunity, bureaucratism and fear of openly proclaiming its own professed politics - it is essential to stress that the struggle against each cannot be separated from the struggle against the other two.

It is no coincidence that both the SWP and SPEW uphold an internal regime that is the antithesis of democratic centralism. The SWP leadership, for instance, cannot allow open, honest and public criticism, because that would inevitably expose its dismal departure from working class principle. Its refusal to adopt a formal programme is also based on this fear of becoming accountable to the membership.

Similarly, neither the SWP nor SPEW can countenance the principled unity of Marxists, for that would mean, at least to some extent, having to open up their respective internal regimes (they would have to extend and formalise minority rights, for example), which in turn would risk losing control over their rank and file.

For all those reasons it is simply absurd to accuse the CPGB of advocating 'Marxist unity' at the expense of Marxist principle. Our call for a single party of the revolutionary left is not about appeasing John Rees and Peter Taaffe, but is in the first place directed at their members. We are appealing over the heads of the leadership - appealing for the honest, the sincere, the thinking comrades to question and if need be to rebel. That is why we do not make the sectarian call for SWP and SPEW members to resign from their organisations in order to join the CPGB. Those SWP and SPEW members who are for Marxist principles need to fight where they are, not turn and run.

What of comrade Macnair's statement that "A united party of the Marxist left could rapidly reach a membership of around 20,000 and win 5%-10% of the popular vote" (my emphasis)? (Note, by the way, that comrade Sharpe, in his sloppy, lazy style, transposes this into: "This united party of the left will apparently quickly attain a membership of 20,000 ...") Is that not a declaration for the "unification of Mensheviks and Bolsheviks"?

Not at all. It is simply comrade Macnair's assessment of the objective result that could result from unity of the left - an assessment which, in my opinion, seems a reasonable one. Even if unity were attained on an unprincipled, opportunistic basis (which, as I have said, is hardly likely), that would result in a formation that was, in the words of Tommy Sheridan, "much more than the sum of its parts". One only has to look at what comrade Sheridan's Scottish Socialist Party, despite its dire reformist nationalism, was able to achieve for a short period. Of course, the SSP's left nationalist foundations meant that it could not last - if it had not been the Sheridan court case, something else would eventually have caused its demise.

The problem, then, is not what is objectively possible, but the subjective weaknesses that prevent it coming about. That is why comrade Sharpe is so utterly wrong when he dubs Mike Macnair's argument for Marxist unity "an idealist approach that argues because something should happen, this means it will happen".

No, comrade, it is up to us to make it happen - and that means conducting an unremitting struggle against the opportunism that precludes the unity of Marxists (which, in the era of New Labour, predominantly takes the form of 'halfway housism').

As an aside, if an organisation like the SWP, through some miracle - or, perhaps more likely, some peculiar change of circumstances - called on the other groups to unite within a single left party under its umbrella, what would be our attitude? Well, we would, at the very least, give such an invitation very careful consideration. We would certainly regard the new grouping as a site for struggle, where we could continue to conduct our ongoing campaign for a Marxist party. In other words, we would most certainly not regard it as the finished article.


If comrade Sharpe's misunderstanding of the CPGB's call for unity of all the Marxists were not bad enough, he manages to portray our attitude to rapprochement with the smaller left groups as the exact opposite of what it is.

He writes: ""¦ in practice, the CPGB reject any concrete suggestions that may contribute to the formation of a mass Marxist party, such as fusion with other groups." More particularly: "Peter Manson rejects any prospect of talking with groups like Permanent Revolution and the Workers International League "¦ Instead, what is on offer is business as usual, and means accepting the proposals of the CPGB."

It is quite incredible that comrade Sharpe can write such nonsense - all the more so since he was responding to my article of the week before ('Campaigning with Marxist teeth', June 21).

Here is what I actually wrote: ""¦ 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 in a single party [emphasis added] ... 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 [emphasis added]. 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 independence, internationalism and extreme democracy (within our own organisations and within the state). Comrade Sharpe's approach "¦ 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 contains all sorts of Marxist views on the state of the working class (or anything else), but will nevertheless unite around democratically agreed actions."

It should have been clear from this that the CPGB favours the coming together of small left groups - as something that "may contribute to the formation of a mass Marxist party" - provided such fusion is carried out on the correct basis. But comrade Sharpe's approach is completely incorrect.

He starts by identifying the organisations which he claims are "most compatible with the principles and aims of the CMP". This is what he has to say about Permanent Revolution: " "¦ their study of globalisation and the working class tries to establish the historical facts in order to comprehend the objective balance of class forces, and on this basis develop a strategy of revolution that is not based upon illusions and a false perspective."

There are several criticisms to be made of this. First of all, it could equally be said of SWP leaders like Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos that "their study of globalisation and the working class tries to establish the historical facts in order to comprehend the objective balance of class forces". In fact there are many spheres where SWP writers have made worthwhile contributions. Yet comrade Sharpe does not advocate rapprochement with the SWP.

This is because the SWP writers he has recently read have failed to "develop a strategy of revolution that is not based upon illusions and a false perspective", whereas, in comrade Sharpe's opinion, the author of one particular Permanent Revolution article has done so. This is a roundabout way of saying that comrade Sharpe agrees with this particular PR comrade's views on globalisation and the state of working class combativity.

But how can he be so sure that the CMP as a whole, or even in its majority, shares his own agreement? After all, there are conflicting opinions within Marxism on the nature of globalisation. Has there been a quantitative change in the nature of imperialism? To what extent has the role of the state been undermined? These are legitimate areas of debate for Marxists that not only could, but should, be contained within a single party.

The same applies to the state of working class combativity. Is it at an all-time low? What are the causes of this lack of militancy? Are we about to witness a revival? But comrade Sharpe has discovered someone who shares his own particular take and proposes this as a basis for the formation of a party!

That is what I meant when I said that his approach "could only result in another sect (containing within it the seeds of future splits) based on agreement with a particular analysis or 'line'" (emphasis added). The central point for partisans of genuine Marxist unity is not some narrow, confessional agreement, but partyism. Are our prospective partners prepared to abandon their cherished sects (based on agreement with a particular analysis or 'line') and agree to unite under democratic centralism in a Marxist party of the whole class, where contending views are fought out in the open?

In contrast to the CPGB's partyism, however, comrade Sharpe is clearly proposing yet another single-line confessional sect. But for him our refusal to accept this as a basis for unity simply demonstrates the "underlying reluctance of the CPGB to actually test their theories in practice".

Another remarkable claim. He knows full well that we have offered to hand over not only the Weekly Worker, but our office, printshop and entire structure, to a new partyist organisation that emerged out of fusion talks between the CMP and CPGB. These are the "proposals of the CPGB" that comrade Sharpe rejects without specifying what they are.

These are our "concrete suggestions of how to actually build a Marxist party" - our "tactics for how the CMP should advance in the present" that comrade Sharpe dismisses as "business as usual". Instead of real, concrete fusion with the CPGB - something that actually is "on offer" - comrade Sharpe pretends that unity with a group with whom the CMP has not even exchanged an email and has not to date shown the slightest interest in partyism, still less the CMP, is what ought to be pursued. And it is comrade Sharpe who accuses the CPGB of proposing a "magic formula".

Clearly comrade Sharpe's polemics grossly misrepresent the CPGB view. Whether that is because he is simply incapable of understanding it, or because he dreads the prospect of serious unity, hardly matters here. Theoretically, what comrade Sharpe produces and what he practically proposes is worthless for the cause of Marxist unity.