Communist organisation

Mary Godwin reports a recent discussion on making the CPGB is the party of the whole class

For nearly two years, comrades attending the London Communist Forum on Sunday evenings have been reviewing the CPGB’s Draft programme section by section, discussing possible improvements in preparation for its redrafting. This process has now reached the final section, on the Communist Party. On October 26, I opened discussion on the first part of section 6, and on November 16 comrade Stan Keable spoke on section 6.1, ‘Principles of organisation’.

The introduction to section 6 outlines some key aspects of what a Communist Party is. It is the voluntary union of communists, the highest form of class organisation of the proletariat, formed and built by the self-selection of the most class-conscious, most courageous and most far-sighted workers. It is organised as a single party based on the existing borders of the bourgeois state that is to be overthrown, and it stands on the principles of proletarian internationalism.

These fundamental ideas are uncontroversial for Marxists, and comparison of the existing draft programme with more recent writings by CPGB theoreticians on the question, such as the article by Jack Conrad in the October 2008 Marxist Voice entitled ‘What sort of party do we need?’ also contains them, expounded at greater length. Other ideas and formulations in the existing draft may prove more controversial, and may need to be rephrased, expanded or revised.

For example, the existing Draft programme characterises a Communist Party as “the theoretical, political and organisational vanguard of the working class.” In my opening I said that this needs to be explained. The revised draft should make clear that by “vanguard” we do not mean that the party substitutes itself for the class. Neither are we for undemocratic manipulation or attempts to hoodwink the working class into making revolution.

The current version describes the CPGB as “a Marxist-Leninist party guided by the scientific theory established by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels”. As comrade Conrad explains in his article, “Marxism in this context implies not agreement with every theory, every prediction, every statement made by Marx and Engels. Let alone the political leaders and thinkers who claimed to carry their flag after them”. In the seminar comrade Conrad added that by “scientific theory” we mean rational, open-ended socialism, as opposed to utopianism. Comrade Phil Kent described science as a methodology based on evidence.

The current draft goes on to say the party is “organised on the principles of Leninism”. Predictably, this phrase, along with “Marxist-Leninist party”, generated the most discussion. Several comrades contended that ‘Leninist’ and ‘Leninism’ open up too many ambiguities - do they, for example, imply support for the ban on factions introduced in 1921?

In my opening I pointed out that comrade Conrad’s Marxist Voice article seems to describe the principles of organisation without actually using the term ‘Leninist’: “The Marxist party can direct the class struggle because, via the operation of democratic centralism, it is itself the most disciplined detachment of the working class. Within the party, lower bodies subordinate themselves to the authority of the higher ones; both majorities and minorities act together as one in agreed, practical action. Therefore the Marxist party forms a single system … centralism is ensured through constant debate, education, open criticism and voting. Such far-ranging democracy is no indulgent luxury. It provides the best conditions through which the party is self-united around Marxism.”

The majority of comrades who spoke were for the dropping of ‘Leninism’. Comrade Peter Manson said that 25 years ago, when our comrades were an anti-liquidationist faction in the old CPGB, ‘Leninist’ was a useful label to denote revolutionary opposition to the reformism of the Eurocommunists. But the present day left apes the later Lenin, transforming measures that were forced on the Bolsheviks into principles. Recently, as in the Marxist Voice article, we have referred only to a “Marxist” party.

Steve Freeman of the Revolutionary Democratic Group suggested dropping all reference to names, and replacing ‘Marxist party’ with ‘revolutionary democratic communist party’. This makes it more straightforward to examine the ideas of all revolutionaries, he said, and decide what we want to take from each of them.

Comrade Conrad pointed out that Stalinists, too, can claim to be revolutionary democrats, just as they describe themselves as Leninists. The decision whether to fight for a word or cease using it should be a political judgement. He said he had no problem with dropping the phrase “organised on the principles of Leninism”. Comrade Keable concurred that ‘Leninist’ is understood in too many different ways by different people. In relation to party organisation it should be replaced by ‘democratic centralist’, he said.

In his own opening on section on ‘Principles of organisation’, comrade Keable said he broadly agrees with the content of the existing draft, but would put the points in a different order. He suggested starting with the statement that there are no ready made blueprints for communist organisation. Organisation has to be flexible, and will change as the party grows and the political conditions it works in alter. Comrade Kent favoured starting the section with the paragraph on democratic centralism. The current version begins with the role of the central organ, which is the collective propagandist, agitator and organiser. It enables all the parts to know what is happening in the party as a whole. In the discussion comrade Conrad pointed out that despite the desirability of local and special interest papers, the internet and blogscasting, a central organ is still vital, whatever particular form it takes.

The basic organisational unit of the Communist Party is the cell. Cells must be autonomous, and must be small, generally five to seven comrades, all of whom are involved in party work. This is a key principle of organisation which is true now and will remain true even when the CPGB has millions of members. The branches of the now defunct ‘official’ CPGB often had many dozens of members, many of whom were inactive, and a good deal of time was spent by the minority of activists in servicing them. Comrade Keable raised the present-day problem of how to organise geographically isolated members into cells.

The main shortcoming of this section, in the opinion of comrade Kent, is that neither the section on cells nor the section on the leadership contains anything about how the leadership is to be democratically accountable to the cells, or how ideas can get from the cells to the leadership. Comrade Conrad said a series of intermediate committees, formed from elected delegates and autonomous in their own field of work, should link the cells to the central committee.

Comrade Keable felt the existing section on “criticism and self-criticism” sounds too negative. Criticism can also be encouraging. In the discussion comrade Kent agreed, he said people would be deterred from joining a party if they expected to be slagged off all the time.

The section on men and women states that while there must be no discrimination in the Communist Party, every effort must be made to promote women comrades. Comrade Kent wondered whether comrades from other disadvantaged groups, such as ethnic minorities, should also be specially promoted.

At first comrade Manson was against such an idea, but after some debate he agreed that it might be a good thing for the party to advance such comrades to leadership positions. Comrade Conrad argued that in an area with (for example) a large Polish or Bengali population it would make good political sense to encourage a comrade from that community to be secretary of a CPGB branch. This is one way of ensuring the CPGB is the party of the whole class. As comrade Kent pointed out, the class as a whole is weakened if national or ethnic groups organise separately outside it.

The preparation of a new version of the Draft programme is an ongoing process and all CPGB members, supporters and Weekly Worker readers are welcome to submit comments on or suggestions for the amendment of any section.