Against sectarianism

Nick Rogers argues against the CPGB’s tactics for the June 4 European elections. There should have been an unconditional call for a No2EU vote

As Peter Manson reported last week, an aggregate of the CPGB’s members voted by a fairly narrow margin to endorse the PCC’s European election tactics.1 Those tactics involved offering No2EU support in any region where the candidate who topped its list met the conditions - against Fortress Britain and for republican democracy - set by the CPGB. In the event, the CPGB concluded that no candidate had passed the test and urged instead a vote for the Labour Party.

I argued against these tactics on the CPGB’s internal e-caucus and in person at the aggregate. I remain unconvinced that the PCC (and now the majority of the CPGB) got it right.

Surely the issue is decided, comrades may reason? Why pursue an argument, when the CPGB has already reached a considered view. And on events for that matter which are now past. Well, the debate is still important because, although the European elections are over, the significance of decisions made - not just by the CPGB, but by other left forces - will continue to reverberate. Specifically, the UK general election will be held within the year. That election will shape the contours of British politics for many years to come. The lessons we as an organisation draw from our tactics in the European elections will have the highest relevance over the coming months.

Of course, no member of the CPGB or reader of the Weekly Worker will doubt our organisation’s commitment to open debate both before and after a united action, during which members are correctly obliged to implement collective decisions. The leadership of the CPGB has reiterated on many occasions the imperative that minorities within a Communist Party have a right to organise and fight to become the new majority and to conduct that struggle openly in front of the working class. That is why it was a serious error on the part of the editorial team not publish the first draft of this article when it was submitted for the May 21 issue.

I had agreed the article with the editor and the PCC had not declared that we had entered the period of a united action. Indeed the reason given to me for its non-publication on May 21 was lack of space - not that it was “simply being held over until the completion of the united action”, as comrade Manson now explains.

The fact that Jack Conrad wrote a three-page article in the very same issue dissecting the differing positions within the CPGB while denying members the right of reply, added insult to injury.

In any case, allowing a debate when a decision had yet to be implemented - on who the CPGB would back on June 4 - carries a somewhat different import than the debate which is now opening in the pages of the Weekly Worker. That is why, whatever the motives of the editorial team, blocking publication of my article four weeks ago “flouted the CPGB’s commitment to open debate”. Indeed the PCC itself at its first meeting after May 21 criticised the action of the editorial team. I believe our commitment to open debate still stands, as the publication of this article testifies, but it is the responsibility of the editorial team and the PCC to make a living reality of it with every issue of the Weekly Worker.

Admittedly, the PCC’s task in deciding how to respond to the ‘No to the EU - Yes to Democracy’ initiative was far from easy. Assembled by Bob Crow, the RMT and the CPB, in the first instance, with the Socialist Party brought on board to provide organisational ballast, No2EU functioned purely as an electoral platform. Other left groups - including the Socialist Workers Party as well as the CPGB - were apparently deliberately excluded.

The platform’s name was truly lamentable, making No2EU at first glance impossible to distinguish from the politics of the UK Independence Party. The leadership may have seen the appeal to anti-EU nationalism as a clever opportunist manoeuvre, but a name that failed to identify No2EU as a workers’ or socialist organisation can only have backfired when potential supporters, poised to mark their cross, scanned down the very long ballot paper.

Readier ideological identification probably accounts for the better performance of the Socialist Labour Party, although there is the suspicion that its vote is boosted by a small proportion of voters confusing the SLP with the Labour Party itself - especially in Scotland, where Labour stands as ‘Scottish Labour Party’.

Over the three months preceding the election comrade Manson and other Weekly Worker writers had forensically analysed the flawed politics of No2EU. I believe the PCC was correct to challenge No2EU and its candidates to explain their position on immigration and democracy. Both of these are key issues for working class politics and tackled important aspects of No2EU’s platform. The international unity of the working class can only be built if racist, chauvinist and xenophobic ideas are tackled. Opposition to border controls should be a clear principle for socialists.

Similarly, the question of democracy is of the highest importance for the working class. Workers can only prepare themselves to take state power if they collectively take up the issue of how we are ruled under capitalism. No2EU included the demand for democracy in its title. Good. But this is meaningless if candidates cannot bring themselves to oppose the monarchy and House of Lords; have no vision of a fully accountable parliament; or shy away from proposing abolition of the secret state and standing army (the heart of the capitalist state). On the latter point, it is good that CPGB articulated this demand in terms of a popular militia. The current Draft programme talks only of workers’ militias. The redrafted CPGB programme should develop this section.2

However, there was a demand missing from the PCC’s conditions. What about No2EU’s explicit British nationalism? The call for the repatriation of powers to EU member-states and the promise not to take up seats in EU parliament (opposed by the Socialist Party) only confirm that this political initiative sought to argue that neoliberal attacks on workers are primarily a function of the European Union. A fairly ahistorical analysis when you remember that the ruling class programme of privatisation, marketisation and retrenchment of the welfare state, and of anti-union laws, originated in the Anglo-Saxon world in the 1970s and early 80s. And that Britain’s ruling class - in or out of the EU and whoever is elected at the general election - will engage in a brutal assault on public expenditure in order to bring under control the huge government deficit incurred by the temporary turn to ‘Keynesianism’.

The demand that candidates support open borders did successfully challenge the nationalism of No2EU. However, although the conditions around republican democracy were intended to expose the implicit assumption that Britain’s political system prior to entry into the Common Market represented a genuine, truer democracy, the conditions failed to raise the banner of democratising the EU. The slogan of a European republic, as elaborated by Dave Craig,3 would have been a sharper antidote to No2EU’s UK-centric politics. The CPGB should have raised it.

The key question is whether the demands we make, informed as they are by our minimum programme, should be conditions for our support for candidates from other organisations. As matter of historical record, the demands raised in this election campaign have not previously been set as a condition of electoral support. The SWP, for instance, voted down open borders at Respect conferences. They would no doubt have done the same if we had proposed a popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms. Yet despite SWP candidates’ refusal to campaign publicly on a range of issues we regard as fundamental, we recommended support for them on the basis that they were Respect’s working class candidates. In 2009 no-one is suggesting that the RMT, Socialist Party and CPB candidates are anything other than working class.

And the Scottish Socialist Party and SLP also presented working class alternatives to the Labour vote we ultimately recommended.

We should bear in mind that we do not have a particularly happy history of applying conditions in return for a Weekly Worker endorsement. In 2005 we managed to recommend a vote against Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leading rebel, who voted more times against the government (on 148 occasions, to be precise) than any other Labour MP and who had a long history of opposing British and US imperialism.

The Weekly Worker’s failure to write any further exposures of the Jeremy Corbyn’s presumed ‘soft imperialism’ suggests that the original accusation was not well founded.

We should judge who to support in elections on the basis of a frank assessment of candidates’ public record - actions, after all, speak louder the words. Obviously, the responses of candidates to our questions in interviews and to the demands we raise in meetings will contribute to the decisions we reach. But why do we make recommendations during election campaigns and who is the target audience? I can only assume that we are attempting to speak to the working class. The immediate and longer-term interests of workers - rather than any sectarian calculation of the interests of our own group - should be our only consideration.


The PCC correctly argues that tactics by their nature need to be flexible. As comrade Conrad put it in an article that otherwise argues for an approach to tactics that “rule nothing in and nothing out”, “only by combining correct strategy and correct tactics can communists win the unity of the left, earn the trust of the masses and bring about our historic aims”.4

Tactical flexibility, therefore, needs to be rooted in political principle and a fully worked out strategy. The initial bewilderment in the ranks of the CPGB at the tactics advanced by the PCC - particularly the proposal to support the Labour Party - indicates that the principle and strategy on which they were based had been insufficiently considered within our organisation.

The CPGB’s core objective is to build a Communist Party that can lead the working class to socialism. Currently, the CPGB is a small organisation that faces a large number of self-declared revolutionary groups seeking to build halfway house reformist parties.

Everyone in the CPGB is agreed that the strategic conceptions of the Socialist Party with its Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, the Communist Party of Britain with its illusory vision of a leftwing Labour government supported by CPB MPs, and even comrade Craig’s republican socialist party - their attempts, in other words, to either revive the existing Labour Party or build a new one - are a dangerous dereliction of duty for revolutionaries and Marxists.

We need to build a Communist Party committed to a programme that genuinely represents the interests of the working class. In such an organisation there cannot be unanimity of opinion on theoretical issues or even programme, strategy and tactics. A large part of the problem for the left today is that a homogeneous sect is precisely what many revolutionaries aim for. Expulsions and splits are the consequence.

No wonder most revolutionaries cannot conceive of a revolutionary party that is a mass party of the working class. For a mass party will contain a multitude of tendencies and factions and will inevitably incorporate those with reformist and downright opportunist ideas. The first recourse cannot be to expulsion. An internal culture of open and sharp debate in which reformist and opportunist ideas are exposed is the best protection against the degeneration of the party. Indeed this process of engagement with all the ideas that are found in the working class (a process of political struggle) will form the birth pangs of a Communist Party.

This has relevance for the CPGB’s tactics in elections. Communists should engage with workers in the Labour Party, but we also need to engage with those who break with Labour. This engagement with those who are seeking an alternative, however tentatively, to Labourism cannot be on the basis of ‘You must accept immediately our conception of a revolutionary party and those sections of our minimum programme that we choose to highlight’. Yet that is just what our tactics in these elections looked like.

Dave Nellist and other Socialist Party candidates for No2EU mostly accepted our conditions on open borders and every single democratic demand bar the right to bear arms. It is hardly surprising that Socialist Party leaders would be very reticent about putting their name to politics they see as suited to a revolutionary period while they are in the midst of an election campaign. It is part of the ‘transitional approach’ common to Trotskyism. Explain away your political timidity and place a ‘revolutionary’ imprimatur on any old reformist demand by claiming you are adopting the politics of the Transitional programme.

The CPGB knows this well, having worked in any number of initiatives over the last decade and more - for instance, the democratic demands in People before profit did not raise the issue of arms. By all means adopt tactics that seek to expose the bankruptcy of such politics, but to go a step further and say that it makes no difference to the working class whether Dave Nellist or a nondescript New Labour politician is elected smacks, as comrade Conrad reported me saying, of third period sectarianism.

The third period politics of the Communist International involved a refusal to distinguish between social democracy and fascism. There was a certain historical basis for this assertion. Social democrats had played a directly counterrevolutionary role in the German revolution. Those who stick with social democracy or Labourism will effectively take the side of the bourgeoisie in the revolutions of the future, just as fascism took the side of the bourgeoisie in crushing working class revolution 80 years ago.

At the same level of abstraction purported ‘revolutionaries’ who build yet another reformist organisation face the very real danger of repeating the experience of reformism. At some point, not necessarily very far down the road, Labour Party mark twos will play exactly the same anti-working class role as the neoliberal Labour Party mark one. That was the basis of the CPGB’s call to vote Labour rather than for another attempt to revive Labourism.

But that is a sectarian argument because it ignores the immediate reality of the class struggle and of working class politics. In the 1920s and 30s fascism was an immediate threat to the physical survival of the working class and building a working class united front against fascism was essential. Stalinism failed the challenge.

Thirty years of neoliberalism have taken a heavy toll on the organisations of the working class. The social democratic politics of the post-war era incorporated the working class into bourgeois society and served as a block to the revolutionary transformation of that society. However, part of the quid pro quo for the historic compromise between labour and capital were the genuine reforms that did improve conditions for the working class. Workers in economically advanced capitalist societies remained wage-slaves, but in general much better paid and more cosseted than their grandfathers and grandmothers.

Over the last 12 years any concessions by New Labour to the working class have been precious few and far between. Trade unions leaderships have played a hopeless role - capitulating to New Labour’s reactionary politics and the emasculation of any internal party democracy or accountability - all in the hope that a few crumbs might fall their way. Their lack of ambition on behalf of their members never fails to astonish. The trade union link increasingly chains the trade unions to directly anti-working class politics.

In fact the relationship between the unions and the Labour Party in Britain is not so very different from that between the unions and Democratic Party in the United States. Presidential candidates such as John Edwards and even Hillary Clinton from time to time on the election trail struck a populist, pro-worker tone that is rarely heard these days from Labour Party leaders. Unions have a presence at the Democratic convention. On both sides of the Atlantic within the ‘left of centre’ party there is the same big business support, the same pro-capitalist policies, the same dearth of democratic party structures. The distinction between the Labour Party as a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ and the Lib-Lab politics of the Democratic Party is becoming increasingly tenuous.

In these circumstances it is hardly surprising if a variety of political initiatives outside the Labour Party have won a degree of support from working class activists. Over the last decade we have had the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance and Respect. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity. The tragedy is that misleadership has led to a law of diminishing returns. Broadly speaking, each initiative is less ambitious, less successful and frankly less supportable. The CPGB and the Weekly Worker have been at the forefront of challenging and exposing the mistakes and errors committed in the name of building a new workers’ party that ducks the vital question of how to break with Labourism - not just the Labour Party. Through it all though, when it comes to elections we have urged support for working class candidates who have been prepared to make a stand against neoliberalism. It has to be from such forces - and No2EU did incorporate militant workers involved in the Lindsey and Visteon actions - that the Communist Party the working class needs will be built.

The turn to a “we might just as well vote for the genuine article” argument5 on June 4 - to fail to distinguish between New Labour and those working class activists fighting it - does seem to me to mark a method that is reminiscent of the sectarianism of the third period Comintern.

Labour Party

In the last week or two of the election campaign PCC writers in the Weekly Worker advanced a new argument to explain why recommending a vote for the Labour Party was justified. Apparently, the expenses scandal that engulfed parliament after the campaign led by The Daily Telegraph threatened a populist anti-politics movement that could see the Labour Party ousted as a viable alternative party of government.

Mike Macnair explained the reasoning best: “In the absence of a clear communist alternative, the economic crisis if anything strengthens the dynamic towards right-populism. The danger is that the fall of New Labour will take down even the idea of independent workers’ political organisation. Hence, under current political dynamics, it is necessary to vote Labour ... To vote Labour in this election is to defend the idea of a workers’ party, which is right now under attack from ‘non-partyist’ populism.”

This is certainly an audacious argument that side-steps the accusation of sectarianism. If these are the stakes, why did the CPGB for one second consider voting for No2EU? But does the argument stand up?

First, I think it overplays the dangers of the current political environment. The Labour Party, despite our organisation’s best efforts, crashed to a historic low of 15.7% and third place behind Ukip in the European elections. Does this mean the Labour Party is finished? If the ICM poll this week is anything to go on, probably not. Labour is back up at 27%; the Conservatives on 39%; the Liberal Democrats far behind on 18%. Labour looks destined for electoral defeat in the general election, but it will remain the second largest party - Ukip will not get a look in (polling 10 days after its European triumph at only 6%). The Conservatives may even struggle to achieve an overall majority.

There was some discussion at the aggregate about whether the CPGB or its predecessor organisation, The Leninist, had ever recommended a blanket, unconditional vote for the Labour Party. Some old-timers pondered whether we had done this in 1983. I have checked my back-copies of The Leninist, which in 1983 was a quarterly magazine. The only discussion of the election is in the issue which came out after the campaign had concluded and the result was known. I cannot exclude the possibility that an election leaflet was produced, but certainly The Leninist gives no suggestion that the comrades back in 1983 would have gone out and voted Labour or suggested anyone else should do so.

The article looks forward to “the deepening crisis of reformism”, pointing out that leading Tories had warned of the dangers, if the Conservative majority was too large, of “working class discontent breaking out from the confines of the parliamentary system”.6

The article announces: “We defiantly declare that the working class has no interest whatsoever in the Labour Party’s revival as the alternative party of government; on the contrary it has every interest in breaking the Labourite stranglehold. We say that those who throw Labour a life-line are in the greatest danger of sharing Labour’s fate ... Our task is to break the hold of the Labour Party over the working class - it is how to do this that we should be addressing ourselves to, not how to save it!”7

I could take a couple of amusing shots at the PCC, accusing them of opportunist back-tracking in 2009 compared to 1983, but I do not think that would be accurate. The 1983 position, although understandable within the context of the struggle of The Leninist against opportunism and liquidationism within the CPGB of that era, was wrong. It did make a difference to the working class whether Margaret Thatcher or Michael Foot was elected.

The election of a Labour government committed to a reflationary, state-led economic policy and nuclear disarmament, while it would not have opened the road to socialism - the sharp about-turn of the Mitterrand government elected in France a couple of years earlier indicates the likely trajectory of a Foot administration - would have created a greater immediate crisis for reformism and bourgeois politics than did the election of Thatcher with her largest ever majority. The major defeat for the British working class represented by the outcome of the 1984-85 miners’ strike might well have been avoided, leaving working class combativeness in this country even a quarter of a century later at a higher level.

But the Labour Party never was going to win the 1983 election. Back then Labour really was considered to be facing the possibility of extinction - it ended the election less than 3% ahead of the SDP-Liberals. The conservatism of the British first-past-the-post electoral system and the party’s bedrock of trade union support ensured that did not happen then. It is difficult to see why the bourgeoisie would make a particularly vigorous effort to ensure that the travails of Labour in 2009-10 have a different strategic result after more than a decade of New Labour’s sterling service to Britain’s ruling class.

The second flaw I see in the PCC’s ‘catastrophist’ thesis is the complete failure to engage with the internal politics of Labour Party. No PCC member is arguing that we should shore up the Labour Party so that we can set about building the communist-labour alliance envisaged by the British road to socialism. The strategic objective remains building a mass Communist Party that will replace the Labour Party. The problem is that the blanket vote tactic provided no way of breaking through to the working class base of the Labour Party in an attempt to win them to communist politics.

The CPGB ‘Theses on the Labour Party’ state: “A wilful refusal to differentiate between the Labour left and right when it comes to elections is commonly nowadays a manifestation of crass rightist sectarianism …”8 These elections provided no opportunity to pick and choose between left and right. Electors selected from lists of candidates standing on a common platform. The selection process within the Labour Party was under tight central control. The ranks of Labour MEPs have been purged of leftwing dissidents even more successfully than the parliamentary party.

A vote for the Labour Party in these elections was therefore an undifferentiated vote of confidence in a government that has ramped up the neoliberal offensive against the working class at home and tied Britain even more closely to the US imperialist project abroad. This was simply not an appropriate election in which to make a tactical turn to intervention in the Labour Party. The general election will be - and will also have much greater significance for the “the idea of independent workers’ political organisation”. However, following through on the implications of the tactical decisions made in this election campaign and recommending a blanket vote for Labour, whenever the general election comes, would be a serious mistake. More nuanced tactics are required.

Working class electors are justified in their outrage at the corrupt system of MPs’ expenses - small fry as it may be compared to the equivalent corporate gravy train. MPs’ pleas about the relative poverty of their salaries entitling them to milk the expenses system are particularly galling. Offering the New Labour government a prop at this time was no way to win workers to communist politics. This is exactly the time to raise democratic demands around regular elections, recallable MPs, representatives on a skilled worker’s wage - and, yes, the abolition of the secret state and the standing army.

A new initiative to unite the revolutionary left and working class militants - that breaks with the distorted and reactionary forms represented by No2EU - is required. The CPGB should play a constructive role in facilitating the birth of such a formation. Within it, the Weekly Worker should advocate principled politics vigorously and sharply. But confirmation over the coming months of a turn to sectarianism by the CPGB can only set back the project of building a genuine Communist Party.

  1. ‘Why we voted Labour’ Weekly Worker June 11.
  2. I discussed this aspect of the Draft programme in ‘For democratic, republican self-government’ (Weekly Worker January 25 2007).
  3. ‘No2 EU-UK, yes to a European republic’ Weekly Worker May 7.
  4. ‘Strategy and tactics’ Weekly Worker May 28.
  5. P Manson, ‘Yes to internationalism, yes to republican democracy’ Weekly Worker May 14.
  6. J Marshall, ‘Britain: before and after the election’ The Leninist No5, August 1983.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Weekly Worker January 29 2004.