Regarding your report last week on the Tower Hamlets selection meeting for Shadwell ward, Glyn Robbins is not, as you state, an SWP member (‘Tower Hamlets disarray’, July 12).

And for good reason - the majority of members would not accept him if he was. He is doing a skilful job, as the most acceptable chair, by managing the local businessmen and the apparently weakening influence of the SWP. But for how long Robbins will be acceptable only time will tell.


Rabbit hutches

At last the government has decided to do something about the housing crisis in this country. The ‘solution’ is to house people in Ikea-style homes which are not quite rabbit hutches.

It appears, though, that opinion about this is divided, with some asking why we should accept these continental homes - can’t we do something better? There are many examples of good housing schemes, such as the Span development of Eric Lyons in the 50s and 60s. But we should not be dismissive of what the rest of the world has to offer: we should use some imagination and look at what is happening beyond these shores - an international perspective, where many of the social problems that currently blight the UK have been resolved.

In this context your article about the proletarian housing of Red Vienna is to be recommended (Weekly Worker May 31).

Rabbit hutches

Marxist fetishes

There are many who don’t just assume ‘the working class’ are the chosen people. We need to make a case for using this term and question if it is the right one, because most people don’t take it as given just because it’s in the Marxist bible, Capital.

While some religions make a fetish of the church, Marxists make a fetish of ‘the party’. Trotsky substituted the subjective factor of what workers think for “the party, the party, the party”.

Fredric Jameson pointed out how capitalist ideology has gradually cleansed itself of some pre-capitalist, overtly religious elements, while Marxism has made little use of the last hundred years of philosophical discussion. While much has been written about post-structuralism, existentialism and even abysmal postmodernism, Marxism remains an advocate of the grand narrative. The variants of dialectical materialism and the iron laws of history remind me of ‘intelligent design’. A fetish is made of ‘the mode of production’ in an ahistorical and omnipresent manner.

Is it any wonder so many see suicide bombers as being less driven by materialistic, self-serving sell-out tendencies?

Marxist fetishes
Marxist fetishes

Same old faces

Why all this agitation around a Marxist party? From reading the contending views in the Weekly Worker, it seems obvious that there’s little by way of unanimity in how the Marxist project is to be recognised. Even on single issues, such as whether troops should be withdrawn from Iraq immediately or not, there are contending views. However, this should be seen as a strength. Unless someone possesses an unequivocally definitive prescription for the achievement of communism, then debates will and should rage on.

Why is there a need to create a Marxist party at this point? Even if one could be cobbled together, how could it make any impact on this country’s indifferent working class? It isn’t disputes between the CPGB and the Democratic Socialist Alliance that keep people from flocking to the ranks. Even the principle famine that the SWP seems to be suffering from in resorting to fisticuffs and Respect won’t stop an otherwise eager revolutionary proletariat from massing behind the red banner of unity. To be frank, very few would even notice if the political prestidigitation could be performed and the vibrant new party sprang fully formed onto the stage.

Surely, socialism is a process. At certain times, as in tsarist Russia, a unified and disciplined revolutionary party is required because open and public debate is not possible. Under liberal bourgeois democracy, however imperfect and presently under threat, loose alliances and contending groups on the left might well be better served by a Marxist forum rather than a party. Ideas and analyses could be discussed and campaigns organised, propaganda distributed as widely as possible, generally keeping Marxism as a live ideology in the public sphere. From that forum, the party should grow organically as and when revolutionary conditions emerge.

Presently, people may not be totally enamoured of the Labour Party, the war in Iraq or any number of political, economic and social issues. However, most feel relatively comfortable with the ways things presently are: they may have to work long hours but they enjoy their Easyjet holidays and plasma TVs. A Marxist party, one united around a common purpose, isn’t going to persuade them otherwise at the moment.

I realise it is not the remit of the Campaign for a Marxist Party to be such a Marxist forum, but perhaps it should be rather than worrying about refining a constitution for itself and whether this or that group presently dominates the steering committee. Instead, it could be where the various groups and individuals come together and sink sectarian differences while still arguing vehemently for their points of view, but without invective, that most destructive rhetorical device denying open debate. It would also require discipline from all members - that is, the discipline of listening, especially when what is being said contradicts some fundamental matter of principle dear to the listener. If Marxists can’t listen to each other, how can we expect people in general to listen to us?

It needs to be kept in mind that Marxism is a process by which the past and present can be analysed and understood for the purposes of devising and carrying through action. It indicates future possibilities, but cannot predict certainties or precisely the forms required.

I have no doubt the CMP can lead to the founding of a party, but if it is just made up of the same old faces glowering at each other behind rictus smiles of compromise it hardly seems worth the effort.

Same old faces
Same old faces

CMP optimism

Dave Alton asks whether anyone in the CMP wonders why “the mass of workers” do not engage with “what Marxists have to offer” (Weekly Worker July 5). He regrets that “sectarianism continues to thrive” within the CMP and suggests that the CMP is responsible for creating a milieu that institutionalises the isolation of Marxists from other workers.

Dave has noticed a tendency within the campaign towards sectarian isolation. This is unattractive to workers. He might also have observed that the composition of the CMP presently consists, on the whole, of middle-aged men with a history of active engagement with various Stalinist or Trotskyist groups over the last 30 years.

These individuals have struggled in courageous and thoughtful ways with the difficult conditions Marxists faced during the cold war. As a result, many of them were subject to vicious and brutal attacks masquerading as comradely criticism. They may have also been denounced for undisciplined deviations from democratic centralism.

The Stalinised culture of the left led to an attitude or intolerance, fear and suppression of opinion. It led to irrational loyalties to particular leaders and a sense of betrayal, shame and humiliation when leaders made mistakes.

Stalin’s doctrine of the possibility of building socialism in one country is the model of the ultimate betrayal of Marxism and Marxists. The description of Phil Sharpe’s thinking as “halfway-housism” reproduces this attitude. Phil has betrayed the second of the founding principles of the campaign - that there are no intermediate ‘democratic’ or other stages in the achievement of socialism - and his influence should be removed. Betrayal informs the fear that many members have. This is that their thinking will be exposed as stageist. Stageism/halfway-housism will lead to exclusion and expulsion.

A Stalinised articulation of differences of opinion generates antagonism, hostility and mistrust. The CMP therefore appears to Dave to be just another useless sect with no potential to engage workers’ intelligence.

The question remains whether there are any healthy tendencies within the CMP. Is there any movement to examine, identify and destroy sectarianism? Is there any awareness of the hold that Stalinism has on the minds and behaviour of members? Are members capable of engaging educated workers in developing a scientific understanding of capitalism? Are members keen to develop their leadership through the teaching and learning of Marxism?

It is a habit of the Stalinised left that, when justifying a position of control or dominance, a leader appeals to the authority of a Marxist text. It is to the credit of members of the CMP that, however distrustful the expression of difference of opinions has been, there have been no attempts yet to silence dissent by rigidly rehearsing the position a Marxist leader had in the past. On the contrary, there has been a recognition that, in order for workers to liberate themselves, they need to have a clear understanding of the political economy of a declining capitalism and to develop their own fresh thinking on this basis.

Moreover, my impression is that members are increasingly reluctant to resort to ad hominem attacks in political argument. There is also a growing consciousness that to distort or misrepresent an opponent’s thinking in order to attack him is unacceptable and that there can be no place for ‘straw-manism’ within Marxist debate and discussion.

Despite two well attended conferences it is arguable that an effective campaign for a Marxist party has been formed. Presently, an uneasy, fragile coalition between three separate forces - the Democratic Socialist Alliance, the CPGB and the Critique supporters group - carries forward aspirations.

It is possible that the differences between the three groups are insuperable and no effective campaign will emerge.

I think this is unlikely. None of these groups appear to want to wreck the initiative despite plenty of opportunities to do so. The subjective perception of what the campaign might achieve is still hopeful (despite claims that it lacks “Marxist teeth” and needs to be more predatory and vicious). The objective conditions determining the consciousness of the majority of workers worldwide demand an effective political and economic leadership.

CMP optimism
CMP optimism


Hasn’t the Socialist Workers Party learned anything from Lenin? You never use your fists in a polemic. Wrestling can be construed as the same thing.

Real Marxist argument can stand on its own two feet without violence. I would prefer to have haemorrhoids than stick with the SWP Stalinoids.


Party unity

Peter Manson contends: “We cannot predict where the core of a Marxist party will come from, any more than we can predict the precise circumstances that will act as a trigger to bring such a party to fruition” (Letters, July 12).

I would certainly agree in general terms that the art of prediction is very difficult and that the question of the exact formation of a revolutionary party cannot be dogmatically anticipated in advance. However, the crucial question is, what can the CMP do in the present to further the advance of revolutionary unity? It is this question that Peter has not answered satisfactorily. Instead he offers us the prospect of the merger of the CPGB and CMP, and, secondly, the possibility for the transformation of the SWP, which would then create the basis for the formation of a mass-based Marxist party.

With regard to option one, this is obviously a question of negotiation and discussion between the CPGB and the CMP, but, assuming that progress is made, the outcome would not alter the balance of forces between the CMP and the rest of the left. The situation would remain that the forces of potential Bolshevism remain fragmented and marginalised, and the Socialist Party and the SWP would remain dominant. To all intents and purposes, the CMP would have gone through a process of internal reconstruction, but it would not have shown a potential to grow and expand. In other words, the possibility for expansion must be based upon developing relations with those groups that are also based upon the intention to build revolutionary organisations around firm principles, theoretical development and commitment to programmatic advance. This was the intention of the DSA resolution to the CMP’s June 23 conference.

However, what Peter’s defensive response shows is that the CPGB do not have a tactical conception of how the CMP could go from A to B. Instead what they offer us is the reorganisation of A. This insular standpoint is defined as partyism and the standpoint of the democratic centralist reorganisation of the party. But the question remains, on what basis should this democratic centralist party be formed? Apparently a common theoretical approach is ruled out and, by implication, unity around an agreed programme would also be defined as a secondary issue. Instead, the prospects of the development of this party is around democratic centralism itself.

We are now back with option two. For the question of the formation of such a party is apparently dependent upon the struggle for democracy within the SWP. Peter goes on to argue that the opportunist domination of the SWP is a major problem that undermines the prospect to form this democratic centralist party. Hence, the task of the reorganisational reconstruction of the SWP is central to the prospect of the development of revolutionary unity.

However, this perspective begs the question: what do we do in the present? For there is a massive distance between the theory of the CPGB and what is happening now. We know from the pages of the Weekly Worker itself that the SWP has been transformed into a populist and popular frontist organisation, and this process of degeneration has not apparently led to resistance within the SWP. Indeed, any dissent is ruthlessly punished, and even violence against former members is considered an acceptable part of political conduct.

Consequently, the question of the democratic transformation of the SWP requires a protracted process of political regeneration that is not remotely likely in the present. Instead the SWP continues its political degeneration and justifies this in the most rigid bureaucratic centralist terms. But we have to ask ourselves, what is the aspect of responsibility that we have for this development? The answer is that those of us not in the SWP have not developed an effective revolutionary alternative that could challenge the very opportunism of the SWP.

Hence we are back with the problem of the fragmentation and marginalisation of the left. Why should the SWP, or anyone else for that matter, take us seriously when we cannot get our act together and develop the political conditions for the possibility of principled political unity? Only when we are successful in this task will the balance of forces change between ourselves and organisations like the SWP, and so only in these changed conditions will the prospect for a political struggle against the opportunism of the SWP start to become successful.

Peter argues that it is ludicrous to consider that unity around democratic centralism is an ultimatum. Unfortunately, what is left unclear by him is the question of how this organisational form will realise effective political unity. Instead we have the nightmare scenario that open democratic centralism will merely consolidate and justify the differences between what have been pre-existing groups and factions. The recipe will be for the possibility of a split in the near future. Indeed, this has already been the history of the CMP, and the difference between three distinct tendencies has had an impulse towards splitting, and this possibility was only avoided at the last moment on June 23!

This is precisely where the question of programme is important. If the CMP can unite around a common programme, a programme that will develop its already agreed aims, then the question of unity will take on board a political dimension that will overcome the present organisational limitations.

In this context, whilst the DSA will present its finally agreed programme for consideration, and presumably important revision by the CMP, the CPGB will have a party programme that will be for the CMP to take it or leave it. This shows the ultimatism of the CPGB - what they offer is not the very development of theory in order to realise our closer and more effective political unity within the CMP, but instead the question of unity around the politics of the CPGB.

Instead of this ultimatism, the real unity of the CMP will be advanced when we can arrive at a stage when it is possible for us all to vote as individuals concerning the merits of programme, or any other issue.

Only then will the CMP no longer be a collection of tendencies and instead realise real movement towards the formation of a united organisation that can progress.

Party unity

Elitist art

It is amusing to learn that Gordon Downie considers his views on art to be in some fashion ‘Marxist’ in light of his unabashed elitism and contempt for forms with which he has no sympathy.

Nevertheless, in a response to another correspondent, Downie makes some sensible points about the incompatibility of various musical schools and forms (Letters, July 12). He also makes some reasonable remarks about the ever increasing tendency to the commodification of cultural production and the duty of communists to oppose it. Despite this, his letter ends on the elitist, and therefore anti-communist, note that art must be ‘autonomous’ from the market. In other words, our friend argues for art for art’s sake in a manner reminiscent of the most vacuous of bourgeois aesthetes.

This is of a piece with his earlier reply to me, in which he failed to defend his argument that ‘Marxists’ deserve better than The Clash and other rock bands he so clearly despises (Letters, July 5). In defence of his thesis, Downie resorts to the authority of a certain Lenin, which is risible in its sheer ineptitude and lack of understanding of the limits of Marxism as an analytical tool in relation to cultural products such as music.

It is certainly true that Lenin, not noted otherwise as a cultural critic, argued against what Downie describes as the “excesses” of Proletcult. He argued that in conditions of mass illiteracy the working masses needed to master the achievements of older, necessarily class, cultures. It followed that he was also opposed to the notion that specifically working class cultural forms could be created by a class whose historic task was its own self-negation. In plain language, he derided the idiotic notion of a working class or proletarian culture, while encouraging the development of literacy and by extension cultural literacy at all levels.

Downie misses the point that, in its early days prior to submersion in the Stalinist project of creating a state in which the bureaucracy functioned as an exploiting class and therefore became an expression of the rule of capital, Proletcult enabled many workers to produce art of their own. It matters little that much of this art was constrained and delimited by a lack of materials and indeed of a healthy theoretical understanding of what art might be. What was crucial to these acts of self-expression was the attempt of relatively large numbers of workers to overcome their alienation by means of artistic creation. The same point holds true for even the crudest, most naive punk rock.

In light of the above, Downie’s attempt to cast me as an advocate of a people’s or socialist art is a risible nonsense, if not an outright falsification. In fact, his argument that punk rock acts were, by virtue of what he alleges was their crudity and lack of theoretical understanding, doomed to become expressions of an equally crude and anti-theoretical doctrine in the shape of anarchism is closer to Zhdanovism than anything I would even dream of writing.

This arises because Downie assumes that, should a given form be taken up by followers of a specific ideology, then it is because it is suited by virtue of its form to being used as a vehicle for the expression of that ideology. From this foolish notion it is a very short step indeed to arguing, as Zhdanov did, that given forms must be the expression of specific classes. In fact, any and every form known in the history of art has a relative autonomy from the classes which sponsor it.

I would go further and argue that forms can be taken up and utilised by any class or fraction of a class so long as they have access to the material resources required to sustain production in that form. However, specific forms will, of course, come into being as a result in changes in technique and perception due to the development of the economic base of society and the prevailing social norms. This suggests that punk rock is a form that can and has been taken up by individuals from all social strata because it is affordable, within certain limits, to considerable layers. The same cannot be said of those forms which require the use of a symphony orchestra, for example.

It would, then, be daft to ignore the material restrictions on cultural production in class societies. In fact, it would be rank idealism to ignore, as does Downie, who calls for music - the more “complex” and difficult, the better - to be produced for the sake of music, to ignore the relations of production in this class society that determine that cultural production cannot be conceived of other than as a form of commodity production. Recognition of this is not, as Downie claims, acceptance that art produced under such restrictions is “mediated”, but recognition of how art cannot be produced in class society other than in a commodified form. All art, regardless of its level of commercial success, is commodified and mediated. It simply cannot be otherwise prior to the destruction of class society.

Elitist art
Elitist art


It’s good that Gordon Downie has started to respond to criticism at last, even if what has been said about Gordon so far mostly misses the point - including, unfortunately, recent comments from my own group, the Rotten Elements (Letters, June 28).

I’ve been listening to the four pieces of Gordon’s music at www.gordondownie.net. It sounds a bit like Anton Webern (1883-1945), Austrian composer and user of 12-tone technique. In a sense that’s a compliment, but in 2007 it is also ridiculous.

There’s also an interview with Gordon online at www.musicalpointers.co.uk. It’s a long piece of self-important techno-verbiage, a pigeon nibbling parasitically from late-resigned Theodor Adorno, masquerading as insight: “Most art feeds off and is based on the irrational and the illogical, and makes little sense as a result … My own techniques of composition have no significance to me greater than the structural and intellectual elegance that mathematical systems of thought intrinsically offer us: they are already fascinating and offer us efficient tools with which to model, structure and explore our thinking. I can think of no alternative to basing one’s actions on reason and associated logical processes. They strike me as the most effective weapon against the anarchy and irrationalism that is at the foundation of capital.”

This is the kind of shtick you need to brandish if you are, to quote Gordon’s site, “artistic director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble of Wales, which regularly records for BBC R3” and “senior lecturer in computer science in the faculty of computing, engineering and mathematical sciences at the University of the West of England, Bristol, where he leads programmes in AI, programming and object orientation, and where he pursues research into the algorithmic formalisation of music composition”.

In the interview Gordon makes a lot of fuss about “equivalent forms” and “egalitarian relationships” in his compositions: don’t hold your breath. It’s impossible to establish ‘egalitarian’ relationships between musical instruments unless you first establish the same between human beings. Gordon always talks of himself as the composer for instruments, never with musicians. Creating equality between the composer and a musician would necessitate both becoming joint makers and players and would at a stroke put Gordon out of a job and cause him to lose power. It’s fair to say that Gordon has a deep antipathy to improvisation.

A musician of a qualitatively higher order than Gordon, British improvising guitarist Derek Bailey (1930-2005), in his book Improvisation - its nature and form, quotes the Grove dictionary of music and musicians (1954), which defines improvisation as “The art of thinking and performing music simultaneously”. He goes on: “It is undeniable that for many musicians, performing music is a matter of being a highly skilled executant in a well-rehearsed ensemble, and it is also true that this role has its satisfactions. But it does seem that to be trained solely for that role is probably the worst possible preparation for improvisation.”

Despite all his talk about “egalitarian” relationships, Gordon as composer demands total domination, unswinging obedience. The weird but inevitable thing is that Gordon’s music tries to sound like it is improvised. And so for all his claims to rigour and logic, his music is irrational. He asks musicians to learn complex musical parts to be performed exactly as he wrote it, exactly the same over and over again, only for it to sound remotely like the wonderful improvised music you can hear for £3 in a top room of a pub in London tomorrow.

Except it doesn’t, not really: it’s not that good. It actually sounds like it’s from the first half of the 20th century, 70 years too late.


Verbal punches

I must take issue with the idea that socialists never employ violence to settle their differences (‘SWP and morality’, July 12). Where is this written down? After 1918, Bolsheviks did not settle their differences with Mensheviks and others by purely non-violent means. Then there is the issue of Kronstadt. It might be argued that the ‘other lot’ are not socialists, so it is permissible to use violence, but that seems like semantics to me.

I have never known the Weekly Worker to pull its verbal punches. The trouble is that verbal punches can easily give rise to real punches. I remember Mark Fischer once observing that some of the biggest discussion list lions and ruthless denouncers of others online are pretty innocuous in face-to-face encounters. I suppose they would have to be - otherwise they would be spending a lot of time in accident and emergency wards.

Verbal punches