Mike Pearns politics are a strange mixture (Letters, June 28). On the one hand, in his enthusiasm for a mass, peoples art, it exhibits Zhdanovist tendencies. On the other, in his disdain for the state subsidy of culture, it is reminiscent of Thatcherism.
However, the problem with so-called socialist art is that, by taking the current level of working class consciousness as a critical limit, its horizons risk being delimited by those educational and cultural constraints imposed by the very system socialism seeks to replace. And, with regard to state subsidy, despite Pearns concern about subsidised musical forms favoured by the bourgeois establishment, he can feel reassured that the past 20 years of neoliberalist reform has all but removed state subsidy for new music and much else besides.
But what Pearns politics exhibit most prominently are an acute class sectarianism in which working class equals good and bourgeois equals bad. As Lenin stated in response to the excesses of Proletcult, cultural policy had to build upon the achievements of bourgeois art and develop them. In other words, expropriate them for the working class. Pearn, on the other hand, seems happy to let young workers wallow in the intellectual constraints imposed by capitalist education systems. It would appear that it doesnt matter that aspiring creative inclinations are arrested by this process: as long as the working class feel empowered, whether they really are or not doesnt seem to matter.
Post-1917, Lenins main concern was not the creation of a new socialist literature, but the creation of mass literacy. Pearn should ask himself whether three chords, an amplifier and a weird hairdo would qualify in these terms. If the young workers he describes are only able to express themselves with resources and materials of this nature, should we give tacit support to the system that determines what these resources and materials are by endorsing what is produced using them? Or is musical illiteracy okay?
Pearn is incorrect in asserting that popular culture has embraced new media in ways that so-called bourgeois art has not. If he were to consult 20th and 21st century music history he would see that an engagement with such media has been one of the most dominant strands in modernist music, whether in the pioneering electronic scores of Edgard Varèse in the 1950s, Karlheinz Stockhausens seminal blending of tape and instruments in Kontakte in 1960 or current leading-edge production at IRCAM in Paris. Indeed, it was John Chownings research in frequency modulation at Stanford University in the 1970s that helped give the pop industry its Yamaha FM synthesisers in the 1980s.
But excitement with new media is not enough: it has to be reinforced by theory and technique. And therein lies one of the main problems with the leftism of which Pearns politics seem to be an example. Whilst he may be happy to employ the complex theoretical tools and intellectual schemas of Marxism to analyse, critique and change society, when it comes to culture the opposite is the case. In this view, art would seem to have a primarily utilitarian function, what Dobrolyubov sentimentally described as an expression of the natural aspiration of a given people, to achieve what the Russian formalist Osip Brik derided as spontaneous, non-rational self-revelation.
It is in this sense that Mr Pearn and the Rotten Elements have much in common. They seem to want to have their cake and eat it. Whilst I imagine they acknowledge the oppressive nature of capitalist society, they seem unwilling to acknowledge the serious impact that this oppression has on wider class-consciousness. This has serious implications for strategy. For they detect freedom where there is only unfreedom and reject one of the most important and effective theoretical perspectives and tools with which to analyse and understand how the capitalist system functions and reproduces itself.
Philip Fergusons article Connollys strategy and 1916 (June 28) is one of the finest, best researched and Marxist essays on the struggle of 1916 Ive ever read. Well done!
However, I think its important to note something else about the uprising. The cause of its failure was not just the inability to crack through the MacNeills of Ireland to reach the Irish masses. The military strategy itself was fraught with problems, which were perhaps not in evidence until the uprising was crushed. The biggest of these was the idea that seizing and trying to hold a stationary position (the general post office) against the much better armed and larger British army would be possible. In reality, that was a militarily insane idea.
The article by Peter Manson argues that I have misrepresented the CPGBs conception of how to bring about revolutionary unity (Unity and opportunism Weekly Worker June 28). Peter states that what is not being suggested is unity with the SWP as it is presently constituted. Instead a political process of transformation, such as the adoption of revolutionary principles and open democratic centralism, will be necessary if the unification process is to be realised.
This argument does not answer the point I was making about how to get from A to B. In what concrete sense can the CMP grow in relation to the situation we are in? Instead of addressing this issue, Peter is more concerned to argue in a negative sense that the CPGB has acted in a principled manner in the Socialist Alliance and Respect, and this shows that they are not in the business of trying to conciliate the SWP.
However, there is still another important political problem that Peter has not addressed. Peter says: 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. In other words, the central concern becomes what happens within the SWP, and as a result we neglect, or even downgrade, the issue of how we construct relations with the rest of the left. But the objective result of this standpoint, whatever may be the stated intentions of the CPGB, is to conciliate the SWP, because the SWP is conceived as the axis around which everything turns.
This means that the CPGB do effectively gloss over the extent and the effect of the opportunist degeneration of the SWP, in order to argue that the SWP could potentially constitute the basis of a hypothetical and future revolutionary unity. For example, Peter implies that the SWPs understanding of globalisation is not problematic.
He goes on to argue: 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 like saying that because Kautsky was an important theoretician we should ignore his vitriolic hatred of the October revolution and the connected conciliation of the right wing of social democracy.
In fact someone like Alex Callinicos can be put in the same category as Kautsky. Callinicos has written many books that represent an important contribution to Marxism. However, as a sophisticated apologist of the SWP, he has helped to pioneer their present reformist turn. His Anti-capitalist manifesto (2004) argues that, because globalisation is no more than the expression of the policy of the so-called neoliberal offensive, the effects of this policy can be reversed by the implementation of what would effectively be the realisation of a welfare state-type capitalism.
In this context, the demands he raises are not revolutionary, and certainly do not express the aim of the self-emancipation of labour. Instead they are about how we can put pressure on the ruling class to reject its existing policies. This reformist stance is precisely an expression of the theoretical rejection of the importance of globalisation.
The opportunist degeneration of the SWP is not because they reject the theory of imperialism. On the contrary, they adhere to it very dogmatically, and argue that capitalism is still primarily nation-based. But the very rigidity of this standpoint has led to the justification of a reformist practice. For they cannot imagine the international class struggle outside of the national state terrain, which is reduced to a tactic of putting pressure on the existing state. In other words, the SWP use their very loyalty to a form of Marxist orthodoxy in order to justify a reformist type of political practice.
But for Peter the main problem with the SWP is its lack of democratic centralism and hence conflates the organisational form with the theoretical and political content. The question of an absence of programme, and the connected opportunism, certainly has an organisational form, but what is its content? The content is provided by the very theoretical limitations which sustain the reformist degeneration of the SWP.
At this point, Peter may well object and argue that the question of party democracy goes alongside opposition to opportunism. In other words, in an inconsistent manner, Peter, and by implication Mike Macnair, recognise the link between theory and practice. How do we start the process of opposing opportunism other than by developing the struggle at the level of theory, which will then acquire implications at the level of practice?
Peter essentially agrees with this point, but his difference with me is actually at the theoretical level, because he seems to suggest that the question of the SWPs attitude towards globalisation does not have practical implications and so is irrelevant, whilst the attitude of the SWP about republicanism, secularism, open borders and other questions is of immediate practical importance, and therefore requires an immediate political response.
The CPGB glosses over the only principled basis that political unification with the SWP could occur, which is when the balance of political forces have changed between the SWP and the rest of the left. Such a possibility will only occur when the fragmented Bolshevik left has united, and the Mensheviks are becoming a minority.
The process of unity cannot start from grand ideas that actually justify sectarianism. Peter issues an ultimatum to the left: 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 confessional sects (based on agreement with a particular analysis or line) and agree to unite around democratic centralism in a Marxist party of the whole class, where contending views are fought out in the open?
In contrast to such ultimatism, the very possibility of what would presently be small-scale, yet realistic unity, around a process of give and take, is possible. For example, at the recent Permanent Revolution discussion weekend, Stuart King said that the split with Workers Power had indicated the necessity of open democratic centralism, and he made a cautious call for dialogue with the left.
If the CMP conference had passed the DSA resolution calling for discussions with Permanent Revolution, it would have been possible to put these good intentions to the test. We could have asked Permanent Revolution whether they would be prepared to argue for their ideas within the CMP.
Contrary to what Peter is suggesting, the result of this process is not adherence to a monolithic line. What will be required will be an intense process of discussion, with much disagreement, as to how we understand globalisation and what it implies for the class struggle. However, this would not mean that differences would be limitless. Obviously to argue a position that was identical to that of the SWP would show the degeneration of a revolutionary approach into that of reformism.
What is on offer is not the creation of a sect around a particular line, but the elaboration of theory to explain an increasingly complex world in principled and non-dogmatic terms.
For a full version of the letter click here.
As a new subscriber to the Weekly Worker, I am beginning to wonder if theres much going on in the world other than the CMP. Having been involved to a greater or lesser extent in Marxist politics since the early 1970s, its sad to see that sectarianism continues to thrive.
I accept that this is not the way those directly involved will see it; Im sure that for them its all a matter of principle. But does anyone ever pause to wonder why there is no engagement by the mass of workers who struggle on regardless of what Marxists have to offer?
The CPGB leadership seem determined to continue their mischievous antics against non-CPGB comrades in the CMP. There is yet another dishonest polemic in the Weekly Worker attempting to pass as a report of the CMP conference, this time under the name, Patrick Presland (Frayed tempers and mischievous motions, June 28). The truth is that their thoughtless and heavy-handed intervention in the conference only served to seriously undermine and damage the fragile unity achieved so far.
What was the point in the entire CPGB leadership dragging in the flotsam and jetsam of CPGB members and supporters to vote through a motion calling on CMP members to sell the Weekly Worker? There was no point. In the absence of a merger process and the opening up of editorial control, the resolution would have been a dead letter. The CPGB leaders only thought about this when comrade Moshé Machover found a diplomatic way to refuse the invitation, simply noting the call to sell the paper - in other words, Thank you, but no thank you. It was a factional attempt to pretend the CPGB is the campaign for a Marxist party. Sell the paper and join us was the message.
What was the point in putting forward a rant of a motion against halfway houses that contained a clause in favour of working in them without the qualification that any such engagement should be on the basis of organisational independence or the freedom to advocate a Marxist programme and party? I had to table an amendment to save the motion and make it consistent. The CPGB leadership then took the trouble to think about the motion and declared that my amendment strengthened it.
What was the point in trying to stitch up the elections for the committee with a slate of candidates decided behind the backs of the conference and CMP membership? There was no principle involved in the CPGB selection for the committee, since it was seeking to remove strong advocates of a Marxist party in the here and now, such as myself and our leading trade unionist, Gerry Downing, and voting for comrades it had severely criticised, such as John Pearson and Matthew Jones. The motivation for drawing up a slate seems to have been the futile attempt to absorb the Critique comrades from Scotland into the CPGB in order to give the CPGB a branch in Scotland. Indeed this appears to be their main motivation for involvement in the campaign.
I was the chair of the CMP conference about whom Patrick Presland complains in his heavily pro-CPGB-biased report. An obvious question he does not ask is why, as an experienced chair, I would tell some CPGB comrades at the start of the conference to sit down and shut up. First, Nick Rogers was interrupting a comrade when he was talking and then John Bridge sprang to his feet and addressed the conference without going through the chair. If I expressed myself robustly and with Marxist teeth, then I was only following the advice given by the Weekly Worker the previous week.
The role of the chair is to maintain order and to guard the rights of the collective over those of the individual. For Patrick to complain about my chairing and not showing respect for the rights of his CPGB comrades seems to me rather thin-skinned and somewhat Bakuninite - vices of which myself and other CMP comrades are usually accused by the CPGB.
I can understand that the CPGB comrades were excited at being in a majority at the conference - an unusual event for them, I imagine. And they were in a majority, despite Patricks denial. I was at the front and could see what was happening. They obtained a majority by the neat device of getting their own comrades who were not CMP members to pose as observers at the conference and then to vote whenever John Bridge put his hand up. Observers are, of course, always welcome - when they observe. However, I have never known organisations to allow observers to vote, particularly when they do so as part of an organised gang.
A good example of this was the vote on Matthew Joness motion on strategy. When I called for the vote it was quite clearly won. When John Bridge asked for a count and made clear that he was opposed to the motion, hands mysteriously rose that hadnt before and some hands changed sides. The result was that the motion was lost - by more than 17 to 16 (I stopped counting at 17). This result would explain why some independent comrades did not vote on some motions - because they knew in advance that the CPGB had a majority.
Personally I can see no difference in principle between the behaviour of the CPGB at the CMP conference and the behaviour of Arthur Scargill and his 3,000 votes at Socialist Labour Party conferences, the Socialist Workers Partys bussing in of hand-raisers to close down the Socialist Alliance or the Socialist Partys domination of the Campaign for a New Workers Party. These have been quite rightly condemned as undemocratic in the pages of Weekly Worker.
Patrick scoffs at John Pearsons description of the CPGBs behaviour as sect-like. It would be interesting to know how Patrick thinks a sect would behave in the circumstances if it wasnt like the CPGB. Is it any wonder that some of us were not prepared to be part of the CPGBs slate for their proposed seven-person committee, to be passed with the help of observers who did not even know who we were? Those of us who were members of the Socialist Alliance used to object to the SWPs slates for the SA national committee being full of their own members and cronies. What on earth were the CPGB playing at trying to pull the same stunt?
All I can say is that if this was not a deliberate attempt to wreck the CMP and pick up a few pieces, then the CPGB better rethink their strategy.
Laugh or cry?
I had to laugh at Hanif Leylabis diatribe against Torab Saleth (Letters, June 28).
Calling Torab ultra-left and a useful idiot in the hands of Brown and Bush reminded me so much of Tudeh, the pro-Moscow official party, calling us a radish (red on the outside and white on the inside) in league with the United States - just as we were fighting to reclaim the factories, schools, universities and streets of Iran for the democratic movement. Tudeh went on to applaud, and in some cases cooperate with, the mullahs, as they arrested thousands of the ultra-left and executed them in their hundreds. Tudeh later came to feel the same blade on its neck - but only after it had helped destroy Irans left and democratic movements.
But I also had to cry at comrade Hanifs ignorance of the most elementary principles of Marxism - that the only truly anti-imperialist force is the self-empowered working class and the self-empowered grassroots organisations. Just look at Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil for living proof.
And I had to scream when comrade Hanif went on to talk of exaggerating the abuses that go on in Iran today. No, comrade. The islamic regime is not just a quaint, mildly authoritarian regime. It bans - no, actively suppresses - all efforts at self-organisation. The democracy and working class movements exist despite the regime, not because of it. In plain English, this means that the only forces capable of making a real stand against imperialist aggression are being denied the means of doing so.
That is why we should unequivocally support the democratic and working class movements in their life and death struggle. The imperialists have understood this and are desperate to woo them. We might be on the very fringes of the anti-war movement, but our task is clear: to convince it of the self-defeating content of its slogans.
Laugh or cry?
Why is it that some sections of the British left forget that both supporting the working class in Iran and opposing attacks on Iran at the same time is the position that should come naturally to us as socialists?
I was disgusted by Hanif Leylabis letter last week. Why should we keep silent about the struggles and repression in Iran? The SWPs position only helps undermine those struggles by lining up with the theocracy.
Phil Kent writes: I shall be calling for the defeat of imperialism. I also want the defeat of the Iranian state by the working class. It is not only possible to fight on two fronts: it is also necessary (Letters, June 28).
Thats it in a nutshell. Phil says that in the event of an imperialist attack, the workers should not put themselves in a position where they are at the mercy of the ayatollahs, because they will receive no mercy.
Well, we saw this in Iran back in 1979. The point is that if the Iranian workers movement is going to take on the imperialists they must simultaneously (or even first) take on the theocracy. As Phil correctly points out, should they not overthrow imperialism but the Iranian state is victorious, the workers movement will definitely get the 1979 treatment, where communist leaders were executed. In the event of an imperialist assault, the theocracy will proclaim jihad, and a holy war is not a place where a leftist with any brains would wish to hang around.
Should the Iranian left stupidly align itself with the imperialists, and this includes calling for intervention by the United Nations, they will be slaughtered. In the face of the threatened imperialist attack, its imperative that the Iranian working class overthrow the theocracy so that they will truly have a workers state to defend.
Id like to highlight how my position with regard to imperialism is very different to Phil Kents. He is an example of what I meant by not caring about oppression. I do, however, suppose he has Marxist views and is genuinely concerned about class.
To illustrate this, Id imagine he wouldnt prioritise The main enemy is at home as a slogan against a unions leadership when the bosses are attacking workers. I suspect he wouldnt be against a fighting bloc with a bureaucratic mini-dictator at the head of a union. I doubt hed oppose a victory against the bosses under the present union leadership because that would make the workers even more at the mercy of their machinations. He wouldnt warn against coming to the aid of an undemocratic union. He wouldnt put the blame for the bosses attack squarely on the neo-bosses posturing. He wouldnt argue that it was keeping the union bureaucrats in power.
Its not that Phil Kent isnt principled about his Marxist theory, but that Marxism isnt that principled. Whilst the pseudo-scientific posturing may prevent it re-evaluating its assumed values (and tendencies for betrayal), it is its underlying religious nature that causes its failings.
On the bloc
In my letter of June 21, I asked if the CPGB leadership would agree with the position on which their youth supporter, Jim Grant, and I had reached agreement - that The main enemy is at home is not an appropriate slogan to use in Iran if or when the imperialist attack comes. Long-time CPGB member Phil Kent replied to say that he could not disagree more and argued that it would be necessary to fight on two fronts.
I suppose it is good to see that at least one of the younger generation of CPGB supporters has an accurate understanding of the genuine Marxist response to imperialist attacks on non-imperialist countries, even if the old-timers are still sticking to their Conradite revisionism.
Jim does, however, argue that he hasnt adopted the military/political bloc dichotomy by taking this position. Lets look at what Jim actually argued on the UK Left Network email list: You ask me directly - is The main enemy is at home the wrong slogan during a ground invasion of Iran by the US? Yes, it is, because the threat posed by [the] direct presence of US troops in the country is far more catastrophic The difference for me is the total independence which should be sought by dissident forces in fighting the invasion, and the cautious approach taken towards the government forces also fighting.
I agree completely with Jim that the Iranian working class must organise separately and they should certainly have a very cautious approach, to say the least, towards any government forces that are also fighting the imperialists. But just because you have a cautious approach towards an unreliable ally does not mean that you arent in some kind of a bloc with them. In fact, it may well be that in particular localised situations a more formal ongoing bloc for combined military operations against the imperialist invaders might be arrived at - though I suspect this would be the exception rather than the rule and in most situations it would not extend much beyond a tacit agreement not to shoot at each other.
As Jim is, correctly, not politically on the side of the Iranian regime in any way, then this must mean he has a military side - ie, despite his protestations to the contrary, his concrete position is actually one of recognising the existence of the military/political bloc dichotomy.
On the bloc
Steve Freeman has the following to say about my contribution to the Campaign for a Marxist Partys June 23 conference: 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, he goes on to say, are dogma (What stage are we at?, June 28).
He might at least get my dogma right. I said Labour was a bourgeois workers party - a living contradiction. It is not degenerate because it was never a genuine workers party in the first place: it was founded with pro-capitalist ideologues in the leadership, but with a mass working class base.
It is not a parallel with Russia. In the Soviet Union a genuine revolution degenerated under Stalin, but its economic base, the planned economy, remained until 1991. The law of value was suppressed and production was not for the market but for the plan. The bureaucracy appropriated vast amounts, but as parasites, not as capitalists, who were historically progressive as against feudalism. Capitalists exploit workers for profit; they do not simply steal off the state, as the bureaucracy did.
I have no idea what a bourgeois workers state might be. Get your terms of abuse correct, please, comrade.