Open letter to Peter Taaffe
Jack Conrad castigates the yearning for a Labour Party MkII
Admit it, you are steering the Socialist Party in England and Wales further and further to the right in the search for allies. Those who authored No2EU’s platform - which SPEW candidates pledged to uncritically support - have more than a whiff of the red-brown about them.
Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, Brian Denny, managing editor of RMT News and No2EU’s returning officer, oppose a ‘Fortress Europe’. Ditto both wings of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain (the ‘innovators’ are led by general secretary Robert Griffiths; the ‘traditionalists’ by international secretary John Foster).
Opposition to ‘Fortress Europe’ is proclaimed under the virtuous banner of resisting discrimination, racism and fascism. Breathtaking hypocrisy. Comrades Crow, Denny and the CPB actually wish to impose a ‘Fortress Britain’. Their ‘non-racist’ immigration controls would bar unwanted migrants in the interests of safeguarding British jobs and British industry.
That is why the CPGB demanded that No2EU candidates unambiguously stand against all immigration controls as a condition for gaining our support. Opposition to ‘Fortress Britain’ symbolised internationalism and served to challenge the nationalist divisions that weaken, disarm and blind workers globally. Without taking such an elementary stand the No2EU bloc, including SPEW, showed itself as being ideologically in thrall to left nationalism.
Then there is the EU. No2EU’s name says it all. According to CPB general secretary Robert Griffiths, Britain is ruled by unelected Brussels commissioners. Criminally our political, intellectual and business elite negotiated away the nation’s sacred right to self-determination. Sovereignty must be restored. Meeting in Croydon, its last congress reiterated the CPB’s narrow-minded approach: “Britain’s continued membership of the European Union precludes any possibility of real socialist advance.”1 Considered the natural human unit by the CPB, the nation-state must be recovered, cherished and then carefully guarded by the working class. Capital, but especially finance capital, is anathematised as unpatriotic, anti-national and cosmopolitan.
So what Hannah Sell, your deputy, calls “this huge step forward” is in actual fact a constitutional harking back to before Britain joined Europe in January 1973 and therefore a sovereign House of Commons, House of Lords, monarchy, etc.2 Where we in the CPGB begin, as our decisive point of departure, with the working class winning Europe, with No2EU it is a clear case of ‘back to the future’.
In its bid to “repatriate” power to Britain the CPB has been more than willing to enter anti-EU alliances with some very dubious parties, campaigns, movements, coalitions and personalities. Not so long ago Brian Denny was billed in the Morning Star as speaking alongside Henry Nietzsche, a gay-bashing, Islamophobic German MP, and Sir Teddy Taylor, the fanatical Tory little Englander.3
The main slogans of No2EU are indisputably premised on anti-EU nationalism. You must know it and so must your top cadre. Hence in the midst of the biggest economic downturn capitalism has experienced since the 1930s, No2EU stood on June 4 not to popularise the case for superseding the market and establishing a socialist society (not even of the national and bureaucratic kind). No, the EU was presented as the main problem. Getting out the main solution. Capitalism escaped scot-free in No2EU election propaganda.
Comrade Taaffe, your desire for unity, your rationale in accepting the No2EU platform, is not without foundation. Divided into countless confessional sects and isolated from the mass of workers, the left can exerts no decisive influence over society.
But instead of single-mindedly fighting for the unity of Marxists in a Communist Party - not around this or that theory of the Soviet Union, or this or that interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy, but an agreed practical programme of aims and demands - you, like the leaders of most other left groups, yearn for a Labour Party mark two.
Though based on only a few trade union affiliations, a born again Labourism is supposed to provide the space which you believe SPEW desperately needs if it is to gain social weight. Of course, when you and Ted Grant jointly led Militant, it was the MPs of the Labour Party mark one that you banked on to drive through the nationalisation of the country’s top 200 monopolies and usher in the socialist order. Your Labour Party mark two is an unmistakable proxy for an organisation which last time round produced not socialism, but Neil Kinnock, the purge of Militant and New Labour. Second time it will surely be just as farcical.
It is not just that your Labour Party mark two will be a minuscule version of the real thing and have all the bureaucratic tendencies towards class compromise, witch-hunting and managerialism that are born out of loyalty to the nation-state. Your whole approach to the working class is wrong.
SPEW is expected to be a party within a party. Behind the backs of the masses SPEW’s executive committee will pull the levers of power in your Labour Party mark two. Trade union officials, elected representative, constituency organisations and rank and file workers alike are to be set in motion, pressed ever onwards, skilfully directed and benignly manipulated, stage by stage, into taking state and economic power away from the capitalist class. An illusory, misconceived and thoroughly elitist perspective which quite frankly is nearer in spirit to the conspiratorial approach of Bakuninist anarchism than orthodox Marxism.
Obviously your hopes today rest on comrade Crow and No2EU. Of course, there is not the slightest hint of democracy or control from below in No2EU. This does not appear to bother you. Organisationally the guiding principle comes down to one-man management. And, thanks to comrade Crow’s diktat, that saw the swift imposition of Labour Party-type bans and proscriptions - Socialist Workers Party, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and CPGB were singled out. Were there objections and protests from SPEW? None that I have heard of.
Your recent piece in The Socialist, ‘A very British revolution?’, is self-evidently a gallant attempt to catch up with the expense account crisis engulfing Westminster. Simultaneously it tries to present No2EU as being in the forefront of those with democratic answers.4
No2EU has a longer name. Its officially registered title is ‘No2EU - Yes to democracy’. Despite that, when it comes to democracy, there is a huge void. Nothing in its publicity material about advancing democracy in Europe. Nothing about advancing democracy in Britain. Only “repatriating democratic powers”. That is No2EU’s leitmotif.
My guess is that you feel deeply ashamed and embarrassed by No2EU’s red, white and blue politics. Your article is a kind of respray job. Many excellent and highly pertinent demands are listed in your call for “an extension of genuine democracy”. We can readily concur with all of them. Obviously you have been busily re-reading Leon Trotsky’s writings on France, especially his 1934 ‘A programme of action for France’.5
Then there is the CPGB’s Draft programme and the principles defended by the Weekly Worker, of which you are more than aware. We have a proud, consistent, audacious and fully theorised approach to democracy. At the heart of our strategy for making socialist revolution lies the battle for democracy.
In general the left has been extremely reluctant to discuss, let alone prioritise, democracy. The prejudice is that the bourgeoisie long ago fulfilled its historic mission to introduce democracy. Raising democratic demands is thought of as unnecessary and to all intents and purposes diversionary. Utter nonsense, of course. The bourgeoisie is not a democratic class. And to the extent that democracy and democratic rights have been gained in countries like Britain, it is entirely due to mass actions, demands and pressures, crucially by the organised working class.
Hence we wholeheartedly welcome your demands for the abolition of the House of Lords and monarchy, a single-chamber assembly, fixed-term parliaments and recallable MPs living on an average skilled worker’s wage (by the way, do you extend that principle to include trade union officials such as comrade Crow?).
Anyway, and this is a point I want to underscore, it is more than a pity that you have come round to giving due importance to democracy not as a result of a thorough-going programmatic reassessment undertaken inside SPEW’s ranks.
No, it is The Daily Telegraph’s tsunami of fiddling, flipping and fraud stories that has bounced you into a reconsideration at last. Remember, to its everlasting shame SPEW voted en bloc, presumably following your instructions, to combine with the Socialist Workers Party and others on the economistic left, such as the International Socialist Group and Workers Power, to defeat our motion which would have prioritised democratic demands in the Socialist Alliance’s 2001 general election manifesto People before profit.
Arms and No2EU
There is a notable absence in your article. We demanded that No2EU candidates stand for “a popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms”. As you know full well this is a dutiful reformulation of the second amendment to the US constitution - ratified to popular acclaim in 1791: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”6
Those who made the American revolution, crucially the urban and rural masses, saw a standing army as a threat to democracy.7 At great sacrifice they had overthrown the tyranny of George III and were determined to do the same again if an unacceptable government arose in the United States.
A “popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms” was a core democratic demand of the masses in America and naturally the Marxist parties of the 19th and 20th centuries unproblematically included it in their programmes. The Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party both formed well-drilled defence squads in the 1920s. Striking workers did the same in Britain during 1926. Countless other such examples could be cited.
Nevertheless, in 2001 the demand was voted down in the Socialist Alliance. Once again with the help of SPEW. So, comrade Taaffe, I have strong grounds for suspecting that your silence signifies outright rejection.
Negative confirmation also comes courtesy of Dave Nellist. Replying to the Weekly Worker comrade Nellist - No2EU’s lead candidates in the West Midland and for the public SPEW’s most prominent member - ducked the question. The comrade told us to come back on June 5. He would then deign tell us what he thought about a “popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms” … and, showing that he does not treat it as a serious issue, this would be over a quiet pint.8
However, comrade Griffiths, who besides being CPB general secretary, stood at the top of No2EU’s list in Wales, was rather more forthcoming, though he was clearly rattled: “What is the CPGB up to?” The “right to bear arms has nothing to do with real struggle.” There exists no revolutionary situation in Britain. Hence he feels obliged to lambaste the slogan as a CPGB “provocation”.
Calling for a militia and the constitutional right to bear arms was “presenting a gift to British state”. If we advocate arming the class “MI5 will be around straightaway”. Comrade Griffiths finally resorts to “ordinary people”. A militia and the constitutional right to bear arms “don’t matter” because nobody is clamouring for AK47s on the doorsteps (true).9
Griffiths actually sums up what you and SPEW really think and believe. Can I therefore urge you, comrade Taaffe, to once again return to Trotsky’s ‘Programme of action for France’.
No trace of flabby pacifism, no cowardly bluster, no pitiful cringing before the state. Point 10 has the defiant title: “Disbanding of the police, political rights for soldiers”.10 Trotsky condemns the police and standing army and shows how they are used to “develop the civil war but also to prepare the imperialist war”. He demands democratic rights for ranks and file soldiers and the “execution of police duties by the workers’ militia.”
Further down, under point 15, we find Trotsky putting forward a militant plan for the main workers’ parties and trade union federations to form their own militias and then uniting them “in action” against the growing threat from reaction. In February 1934 French Catholics, royalists and fascists called for a massive demonstration against economic chaos, weak government and political corruption. Armed with razors, clubs and knives their gangs tried to invade parliament. Fifteen people were killed and 1,435 injured after gendarmes beat them back.
Trotsky, however, concludes, in point 17, warning against the delusion - spread by the Socialist Party and the ‘official’ French Communist Party - that the bourgeois police could be relied upon to disarm the reactionary gangs.
His slogan rang clear and loud: “Arming of the proletariat, arming of the poor peasants! People’s anti-fascist militia!” “The exploiters,” he explains, “are but a tiny minority” and will recoil from unleashing a civil war with their non-state fighting formations “only if the workers are armed and lead the masses”.
Trotsky and his fellow-thinkers were subjected to exactly the same kind of dismissals that today we hear coming from the mouth of Griffiths. Trotsky almost effortlessly knocked down the objections one by one in Whither France? Hence we quickly come to his “least serious and honest” opponents. Blubbers, who insisted that to “call for the organisation of a militia” is to “engage in provocation”. This is “not an argument, but an insult”, fumes Trotsky.11
Arming the working class flowed from the entire situation in France. Trotsky rhetorically asked if a workers’ militia “provokes” fascist attacks and government repression? If that is the claim, he says this is “an absolutely reactionary argument”. Liberalism has always told workers that by their class struggle they “provoke” reaction.
Today in Britain, it certainly does not take the call for a “popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms” to “provoke” police kettlings, batterings and killings, the sequestration of trade union funds, racist firebombings and MI5 infiltration, spying and wrecking operations.
Accusations that we are engaged in a “provocation” have always been used by timid opportunists. Trotsky recalls that the Mensheviks hurled the charge at the Bolsheviks after their December 1905 uprising in Moscow.
Trotsky turns savage: “Such accusations reduce themselves, in the final analysis, to the profound thought that if the oppressed do not baulk, the oppressors will not be obliged to beat them.” This, says Trotsky, is the “philosophy of Tolstoy and Gandhi, but never that of Marx and Lenin”.12
If comrade Griffiths wants to adopt the doctrine of non-violence, the CPB’s hammer and sickle, the symbol of the 1917 October Revolution, ought to be replaced by the dove. Ah, but then looking at its website I see that the sickle has gone and in its place, yes, there is a pacifistic dove. But why stop halfway!
Then there is the hoary old claim that “arming of the workers is only relevant in a revolutionary situation”. Trotsky pours scorn on this: it means, he says, that the workers must permit themselves to be “slaughtered until the situation becomes revolutionary”. Peaceful, normal and democratic situations suddenly give way to storms, crises and unstable conditions, which “can transform itself into a revolutionary as well as a counterrevolutionary situation”.13
Revolutionary situations do not fall from the skies. They take form, mature and find direction in no small measure because of the long and patient preparatory work done by the Communist Party, including popularising the idea of “a popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms”.
In common parlance what you and your No2EU ally, comrade Griffiths, advocate is the so-called ‘art of the possible’. The communist method is entirely different. We do not begin by asking what “voters”, “the people on the doorstep”, “the majority”, etc, are supposed to think and then bring out our principles from the closet, as mass support is gained in one election after another.
No, the communist method begins with firm principles and then goes to the masses: “In our intransigent attitude lies our whole strength. It is this attitude that earns us the fear and respect of the enemy and the trust and support of the people” - so runs Rosa Luxemburg’s famous argument against the revisionists in the Social Democratic Party of Germany.14 Our aim is to win the majority to the principles of communism through an unremitting political struggle in the teeth of bourgeois hatred, slander and detestation. Necessarily, that must include taking on and overpowering the forces of opportunism within our ranks. Put another way, the ideological influence of the bourgeoisie, as filtered through the prism of the labour and trade union bureaucracy, has to be defeated.
The CPB traces its history through successive editions of the notorious left-reformist programme, The British road to socialism - it has a long pedigree dating back to the mid-1930s. In point of fact, it is a British version of Joseph Stalin’s socialism in one country. Comrade Griffiths and co may have rechristened it Britain’s road to socialism, but the underlying method is exactly the same.
Existing democratic forms, crucially parliament, are to be improved, moved forward, built into a socialist powerhouse through securing an ever more leftwing majority in parliament (the Labour Party was once considered crucial).
Undemocratic excrescences and encumbrances are to be chipped away and discarded. Equipped with a suitably transformed state machine, nationalisation will be remorselessly extended till capitalism is finally banished and the Socialist Republic of Great Britain is established through a historically momentous vote in the House of Commons.
Comrade Taaffe, you clearly share a very similar approach. Once you envisaged a Labour government pushing through an “enabling act” which would at a stroke nationalise the “top 200 monopolies, banks and insurance companies”.15 Of course, now that programme is expected to be carried out by your Labour Party mark two.
Either way, and this is the main point, faced with your socialist majority in parliament, the courts, armed forces and the police are presumed to be either loyal to parliament or powerless to act contrary to its wishes because of mass support for your government. “The capitalists would not be able to put up a serious resistance,” readers are assured.16 Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, etc branded such politics “parliamentary cretinism”.
Your reformist democracy would rid Britain of the monarch, House of Lords and the monarchy. That is true. At least that is the promise. However, it would leave in place the British armed forces. Frankly, an open invitation for a British version of Augusto Pinochet to launch a bloody counterrevolution. In Chile thousands of leftwingers were slaughtered after the 1973 army coup which overthrew the Socialist Party-Communist Party Popular Unity reformist government under president Salvador Allende.
That is politically criminal. Why trust the thoroughly undemocratic British army? An armed body which relies on inculcating unthinking military discipline in the ranks. An institution run by an upper-middle class and aristocratic officer caste, which is trained to command from public school to Sandhurst as if by right of birth. The British army swears to loyally serve the crown - believe it, more than harmless tradition. The monarch and the monarchy function as a potent symbol, an ever-present excuse for a legal coup.
Why trust the British army, which has fought countless imperial and colonial wars, up to and including the latest adventure in Afghanistan? A British army that has been used when necessary to intimidate, threaten and crush the working class. Never forget 1819 and Peterloo, the 1926 General Strike and, more recently, the 2002-03 firefighters strike.
Opportunities and dangers
It is absolutely vital that Marxists correctly assess both the opportunities contained within the present situation and the dangers. Capitalism is undergoing the mother of all economic downturns.
To save the system, G7 governments doled out billions of dollars, pounds, euros and yen. Banks, insurance companies and giant manufacturers have been nationalised at a stroke. National debts and deficits correspondingly ballooned. So there remains the possibility that the crisis could further expand in scope and trigger a “US fiscal crisis” and a run on the world’s main reserve currency, the dollar.17
Any recovery in 2010 or 2011 will almost certainly be exceedingly shallow and weak. Borrowing levels ensure that. Mass unemployment and vicious attacks on the pay, benefits and rights of workers can therefore be expected to continue and intensify.
Meanwhile poverty in the so-called third world spirals upwards, along with failed states, general social decay and endemic warlordism. Pakistan looks like going the way of Somalia, Congo and Afghanistan. Similar fears persist over Mexico.
Capitalism is coming up against its limits. The crisis is structural. Hunger exists alongside overproduction, overwork alongside unemployment, government control alongside the anarchic market, etc.
The sheer irrationality of the system is proved beyond doubt by the abject failure to meet the huge challenges posed by the threat of runaway global warming and imminent ecological collapse. December’s climate summit in Copenhagen, billed as the world’s last chance, will produce countless platitudes. That is guaranteed. But workers and peasants will be expected to pay for the half- and quarter-measures. Capital’s need for constant self-expansion will go unquestioned. Growth for the sake of growth is considered inviolable.
Everything tells us that the continuation of the capitalist system imperils human civilisation as never before. Social change is therefore a matter of urgency. The only viable alternative is working class rule and the global transition to communism. Axiomatic for Marxists. However, workers are not organised into a Marxist party. Not in Britain. Not in Europe. Not anywhere else, for that matter. A task that cannot be circumvented. Comrade Taaffe, your Labour Party mark two, even if it ever gets off the ground, is a complete diversion.
Necessarily, the fight to organise the working class into a party capable of taking on and defeating capitalism, especially at this juncture, must include defensive elements. Wages and conditions, of course. But also past organisational gains and achievements such as the Labour Party.
It remains a bourgeois workers’ party. A compromised and highly limited embodiment of foetal working class independence from the bourgeoisie. Certainly Labour is an unavoidable site of struggle for Marxists, not least because of trade union affiliation. Something we were quite prepared to underline with a critical vote. If lead No2EU candidates refused to openly stand against immigration controls and for republican democracy there was every reason to vote Labour on June 4.
The media, with The Daily Telegraph baying at the front of the pack, is conducting a flame war. All three major parliamentary parties have been burnt. One after another Labour, Tory and Lib Dem MPs have announced that they wish to spend more time with their families.
The language employed is revolutionary - though impeccably patriotic. When commons speaker Michael Martin agreed to resign, the Telegraph triumphantly announced: “Only the start of a very British revolution.”18
A few days later the same paper was crowing in exactly the same hyperbolic terms over MPs’ expenses and the rush of cosmetic changes being conceded by party bosses: “It may have happened without bloodshed, riots or beheadings, but there can be no doubt that the events of the past week will take their place in history as the nearest thing any of us have seen to a British revolution.”19
Of course, masses of people are absolutely furious. They feel betrayed, cheated and taken for fools. Right honourable MPs have lied, bent the rules and used every trick to line their pockets. Sums involved are trivial compared with what company chairs, managing directors and top City traders get away with. But, with mounting unemployment, wage reductions and swingeing government spending cuts taken as a given by the mainstream parties, the electorate are clamouring for revenge.
The mood is ugly. The rage palpable. There are no clear class or party lines. Some automatically dismiss MPs as leaching parasites. No distinction is made between John McDonnell and Douglas Hogg. Party politics is damned as inherently corrupt. Voting a waste of time. Incoherent anti-politics politics. Brown’s ‘Star chamber’, the standing down of ministers and his promise of “outside scrutiny” is angrily dismissed as too little, too late.
The disillusioned and desperate beseech minor celebrities to come to their rescue. Esther Rantzen, Terry Waite, David Van Day, Simon Heffer and Martin Bell elevate themselves into secular saints. Britain’s saviours. Short on political specifics, they insist, however, on their moral rectitude and trustworthiness. Showing total political bankruptcy, Gordon Brown has attempted to follow suit. He paraded his “Presbyterian conscience” on the BBC - as if belief in direct communication with god stood him above parliamentary corruption.20
Of course, there are coherent politics. The politics of the far right. Nigel Farage, despite a £2 million expense bill paid by the European parliament, thinks his moment has arrived at last. Playing to the popular mood, United Kingdom Independence Party candidates present themselves as non-career politicians. While Ukip’s obsessive focus remains on British EU membership, the BNP is making much greater play over the expenses scandal. “Punish the pigs,” runs the headline slogan on its website. Chairman Nick Griffin recognises a chance for the BNP to make a Westminster breakthrough. On the doorstep BNP canvassers excoriate cosmopolitan bankers, greedy politicians, dangerous Muslims and petition for recallable MPs.
Come the hour, come the man. A well financed, ‘non-political’ movement headed by a Mr, Mrs or Ms Clean, perhaps a charismatic billionaire, a retired general or TV star, a man or woman of decisiveness, benevolence and imagination, and parliament would be under siege. The Countryside Alliance shows the sea of reaction that right populism can summon up and command.
All it would need is quiet encouragement by a few Conservative grandees, discreet backing from City and big business circles and some generous media coverage and the demand for an early general election would be unstoppable. Brown’s government is visibly disintegrating. He would cave in.
Comrade Taaffe, you admit, almost grudgingly, that there is “undoubtedly an element of an attempted ‘coup’ against the Brown government in the campaign undertaken in the Telegraph”.21
Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, The Daily Telegraph’s mega-rich proprietors, are widely known to be sympathetic to Ukip. Not a few Tory bloggers have detected a sinister Barclay brothers plot to bring down all three mainstream parties.
David Cameron and the Tory leadership have not panicked, though. Their calculation appears to be eminently sound. Okay, we suffer losses to Ukip over the expenses scandal. But a general election will see our voters returning to their natural home.
Many political commentators are predicting a Labour Party general election meltdown. That could throw Labour back decades and reduce it to third-party status. Gordon Brown will certainly resign if he loses and that once again opens up the possibility of renewing Tony Blair’s holy crusade to de-Labourise Labour. In other words, the Americanisation of British politics. A two-bourgeois-party system. That would be an historic victory for the capitalist class over the working class.
So, comrade Taaffe, the current situation carries real and present dangers. Reaction is confident and smells blood. Our movement is divided and confused. However, there are huge opportunities. Possibilities too. But only if the left provides a united, honest, consistent and bold lead. Reborn Labourism offers the working class nothing worthwhile. Anti-EU left nationalism even less.
Objective circumstances cry out for a mass Marxist Party, a Communist Party. That is what we need to debate and discuss at a conference of the serious left after June 4 - not how we carry forward the No2EU disaster.
2. Socialism Today May 2009.
3. Morning Star March 28.
4. The Socialist May 27.
5. L Trotsky Writings 1934-35 New York 1974, pp21-32.
7. And note, in purely legal terms, the ideologues of the American revolution - Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay et al - based their legal defence of the right to bear arms on English law, not least article 61 of the 1215 version of the Magna Carta. So there is nothing alien, nothing foreign, nothing crazy about the right to bear arms.
8. Weekly Worker May 21.
9. See 'Less than convincing', this issue.
10. L Trotsky Writings 1934-35 New York 1974, pp26-27.
11. L Trotsky Whither France? New York 1968, p26.
15. T Grant, P Taaffe and L Walsh The state London 1983, p32.
16. Ibid p33.
17. Financial Times May 23.
18. The Daily Telegraph May 19.
19. The Daily Telegraph May 23.
21. The Socialist May 27.