What stage are we at?
Steve Freeman assesses the CMP conference from the point of view of a halfway house advocate
The first conference since the launch of the Campaign for a Marxist Party was an opportunity for members to assess what stage we have reached. The honest truth is, not very far. The campaign has not grown. It is not yet well organised. The call for a Marxist party has not received support from the vast majority of British Marxists. Worse, the campaign seems uninterested in trying to persuade them. If they are simply dismissed as sectarians, then the CMP is beaten before it has begun.
The campaign is at a very preliminary or primitive stage. There is not yet any real strategy or sufficient unity of purpose. We are not in a position to intervene in the wider movement. The frustration of all this was reflected in a fairly fractious meeting.
A number of arguments did, however, shed light on the political problems facing the campaign. These began over membership and spread into aims, programme, the Labour Party and electing a new committee. Most of these remain unresolved. The reconvened conference will surely settle some of them.
The conference started with a dispute over the aims of the campaign. But this began life heavily disguised as an argument over membership. It involved a dispute over some membership applications, including my own and some CPGB members. But behind the appearance, something else was lurking.
I had joined the campaign, or at least I thought I had, from the start. I had attended all the London CMP group meetings. I was on the discussion list and spoke from the platform at one of the meetings. However, there was a difference of opinion over whether I had paid my subs. I was reminded of this when I submitted a motion and two amendments two days before the deadline.
The national secretary should have replied, drawing this to my attention. Instead I was told unofficially by a CPGB comrade that the secretary did not consider me a member and that I needed to rectify this. I emailed the secretary asking for clarification and advice. But again no answer was forthcoming. The London CMP organiser did likewise on my behalf, but had no better luck than me in getting a reply. Subsequently I met the London organiser and filled in the form he supplied, and paid my subs. That should have been the end of the matter.
I should say at this point it was my responsibility to ensure my subs were paid. Although I thought I had done so, I blame nobody else. It was my mistake, but one that should have been easily rectified. In fact it was becoming clear that the responsible officers were less than keen to reply to my email or in any way encourage me.
It now transpired that two weeks earlier a new membership application process had been invented. This was unknown to almost everybody. It seemed the impending conference had encouraged some officers to think about changing things. A form was produced, although copies were like gold dust. A prospective member had to submit this to the committee who would then consider it at their next meeting. It also contained a set of campaign aims which you had to sign up to, stating you agreed with them.
Since the campaign committee would not meet until after conference, the unfortunate by-product of the new system was that my membership could not be confirmed nor any of my motions accepted. They were duly missing from the first circulation of conference motions. A campaign which was generally unorganised - anarchistic, some might say - had confounded the critics by suddenly imposing the most rigid bureaucratic rules on membership!
The CPGB strongly objected both to the new membership procedure and to my apparent exclusion. The good news in all this was the sense of the rank and file membership. At the start of the conference they voted overwhelmingly to recognise my membership and accept my motions as in order and on the agenda.
However, before the conference voted, more information came to light. John Pearson, (the membership secretary/treasurer) spoke against accepting me into membership. He did so on political grounds. All this business about filling in forms and submitting it to the committee for approval had really been motivated by a desire to put up a political test.
John argued that my membership should be rejected for political reasons. He produced a couple of quotes from me, like a rabbit out of a hat, which he read out to conference. According to him these views were such as to rule me out of membership. He said these proved I did not agree with the aims of the CMP.
Now it became crystal clear why the newly invented membership form contained a list of aims which prospective members had to say they agreed with. I cannot remember what quotes John had found to use against me. I am certain they were partial and taken out of context.
However, his point was not without some element of truth. I had submitted an amendment to the aims of the campaign which indicated that I did not completely agree with them. So, instead of debating the aims, through my constitutional amendment, they were now to be set as a rigid dogma that you must agree with to become a member.
All this indicates there are some political differences about the aims of the campaign in which John Pearson stands at one extreme and I am at the opposite. Before anybody jumps to the wrong conclusion, this has nothing to do with another debate over so-called halfway house parties. Neither myself nor Phil Sharpe have introduced halfway houses into the aims clauses of the campaign.
My proposed amendment concerns the relationship between the Marxist party and the communist party. Are these parties the same thing or are they different? It is a fundamental condition for the success of the campaign that we get this right. If the current formulations are politically incorrect then the campaign starts with a millstone round its neck. This will be an issue before the recall conference.
What had begun as a bureaucratic argument over membership and a new form merely concealed a more significant debate about the aims of the campaign. This tells us the CMP has not yet settled some basic questions. We need to get the aims right before we fool ourselves that we are ready to write a programme and launch a party. If the foundations are not correct the campaign will sink without trace in a slurry of quicksand. Certainly the symptoms that flow from poor foundations were visible to anybody who sat through the conference proceedings.
Another significant issue was the debate on programme, although this took the form of an educational discussion. The focal point seemed to be Phil Sharpe's contribution. This highlighted the unevenness of political consciousness in the CMP. The CPGB have a common theory on which their ideas on programme are based. They are all united around the concept of minimum and maximum programme. When the CPGB discusses programme, as they are doing now, they have a shared theoretical assumption about min-max. It is simply a matter of drafting a programme to fit in that framework.
The rest of the campaign does not share this assumption. We have different theories about the revolutionary experience of the working class. Any attempt to construct a programme will founder on the rock of revolutionary theory. This implies that, although the CPGB itself can write a programme, the campaign as a whole is in a pre-programme stage.
Phil Sharpe's contribution is a pre-programme document. Whatever he may claim, it is not a draft programme. This point was correctly made by a number of speakers. Phil is focused on pre-programme theoretical clarifications. A programme is not theory-light. If a revolutionary programme could be written without theoretical underpinning, then the average non-Marxist worker could write the programme and Marxism or science would be superfluous and irrelevant.
The Socialist Workers Party has theory and no programme. We cannot overcome this by the neat device of programme with no theory. Desperate speed seems to be the problem for some. Let us simply write a programme and not waste time debating its theoretical foundations! Phil Sharpe should withdraw his claim to programme. It is a red herring. We can all benefit from discussing the theoretical foundations of a programme rather than pretending we are about to write one.
I should say in passing that Mike Macnair has constructed a false argument, in which we can all accept a programme but cannot agree theory. Mike has set up the latter as some kind of sectarian ultimatum which he naturally rejects. But in accepting a min-max programme the CPGB members are accepting the theory behind it, even if they are not sure what it is. Why could we not agree to adopt a theory as the basis for drafting a programme, even if all comrades do not agree with every dot and comma? Mike seems to tell us that nobody can be expected to agree with min-max theory. Instead we should only agree to adopt a programme based on min-max theoretical foundations.
There is no point in the CPGB being in the campaign to write a programme. The CPGB can simply do it without the rest of us. They all agree or accept their own theoretical foundations. The point about being in the campaign is if their theoretical assumptions and foundations are challenged. It is not a matter of votes. They are put to a bigger test of winning hegemony for the theoretical foundations of their own programme.
The CPGB will therefore have to jump a higher theoretical hurdle than if they simply confine their programme debate to their own cadre. Mike's argument deprives the CPGB of this test. He does not seem to accept that a programme needs theoretical foundations. We should entertain no sectarian delaying tactics and simply draft a programme on a min-max basis. The merit of Phil Sharpe's document is that it helps identify some of the pre-programme theoretical areas we need to address.
In fact the educational session did discuss some theoretical foundations for programme. It identified an underlying difference on the question of democracy, what it means and its relationship to the working class and socialism. But it failed to some extent to identify that within the campaign there are three programmatic alternatives. The London CMP meeting debated these as 'min-max', 'transitional' and 'democratic programme and international socialist programme'.
One thing the campaign should be doing is identifying officially the different positions that actually exist in the campaign and in the movement. In the role of public accounting, the campaign can provide a useful service for the Marxist movement. Each sect has its own theory or variation. A campaign can produce an authoritative account of positions taken, which go beyond each sect or group. It would be useful to take stock of the Marxist movement in a non-sectarian way. This is very different from the function of polemics against this or that theory.
My resolution on the Labour Party was overwhelmingly voted down. I do not consider this is important for the campaign one way or another. We are not yet in a position to intervene in the wider movement. It is a vital question for the socialist movement, but is largely academic for the campaign. I was drawn into this argument because Phil Sharpe had raised the issue of a workers' party. For the CPGB this was almost a test of the campaign itself. They had become quite fearful of the workers' party slogan. They had named this a 'halfway house' as a term of disapprobation.
A lot of ill defined nonsense had been forthcoming about halfway house parties. Barry Biddulph made this point very well in one of his contributions. For me this debate was really about the Labour Party. Although only two of us spoke, Gerry Downing's contribution proved my point. He still considered the Labour Party to be a workers' party, albeit degenerate. It is a parallel to the Trotskyist view of Russia as a degenerate or bourgeois workers' state. These terms have become dogma, long outliving their sell-by dates.
In my view the campaign currently has a soft attitude to the Labour Party and a sectarian attitude to the rest of the extra-Labour left. As a consequence the CMP came out against the workers' party slogan. I do not know if that has really been thought through. But the mood of the conference was not to tolerate anything that might be called a halfway house. So for the moment we have settled for a tent in the back garden.
The workers' party is of course a tactical question, not a matter of principle. In any case the CMP is not yet ready to intervene in the wider movement. No doubt when the time arrives for us to intervene in a non-sectarian way, we will be forced to revisit the Labour Party issue again.
The final question before the discussion on programme concerned the election of a new committee. The CMP needs a better leading committee. The CPGB proposed a slate of seven. However, the implication of this was that the existing constitution or 'custom and practice' would be set aside. Yet we had already decided not to discuss the constitution.
The CPGB proposal had some merit. But for a number of non-CPGB officers this was the last straw. They had been grumbling that the CPGB was taking over. Now they were determined to resist. They began refusing to stand for office.
After some attempt to find replacement candidates, it became clear some very bad karma was infecting the CMP. Perhaps a split or walkout was on the cards? A resolution to delay the decision until the constitutional conference was voted down. But miraculously, as we looked over the precipice, the defeated resolution sprang back to life and the conference decided it was the sensible option after all. Disaster avoided, the CMP lives to fight another day.
Overall despite the difficulties, at the end of the day we managed to pull back from doing anything fatal. We made some sensible decisions. We remain at an early or primitive stage, where some basics such as our aims and constitution still need to be worked on.
Let us therefore end on an optimistic note. The CMP reflects all the weaknesses of the communist movement and some of its strengths. We will become strong, even if we attract only a few, if we can overcome our weaknesses by political, not bureaucratic, means. And, of course, we need bucketsful of patience.