Rival CNWP launched
Another month and yet another call for a halfway-house working class party - this time by the Trotskyist group, Workers Power. Peter Manson is not impressed
Back in June Workers Power's monthly paper published an article calling for "a democratic party like the New Anti-capitalist Party in France, within which revolutionary socialists would be able to mount an argument in favour of overthrowing the capitalist system for good. If you agree, contact Workers Power and join us in the fight for a new anti-capitalist party!" (Workers Power June).
By September this had been formalised into the "Call for an Anti-capitalist Party", in which Workers Power comrades "appeal to all the trade unions and socialist organisations, to all activists fighting for resistance from below, to anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigners confronting the BNP, to the trade union leaders and members: let's unite and build a new anti-capitalist party".
WP hopes to see the establishment of "local committees for a new party" which would "start building roots in communities". Eventually there would be "an open conference - bringing together unions, socialist organisations, workers, youth and left campaigners - to launch a new anti-capitalist party". The call also looks forward to standing "a slate of candidates in the general election" - presumably before such a party is formed.
WP claimed in a leaflet put out for the November 7 RMT conference on working class representation that "nearly 300 activists" had signed up to the call, but at the November 14-15 Anti-capitalism weekend school Workers Power editor Richard Brenner was vaguer: he announced to the Saturday evening rally that "hundreds" had signed, including, he said, members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales and Socialist Workers Party, "whether their leaders want them to or not". The new party he had in mind would attract "thousands" of people, he predicted.
He reported that WP had approached the SWP suggesting an initiative to form such a party, but the SWP leadership had responded that the "time isn't right". But the time for building a new party was now and standing a slate of candidates in the general election must be regarded as part of the process. As for 'No to the EU, Yes to Democracy', comrade Brenner did not know the process for getting involved. But "if the train doesn't stop at our station, we'll have to find an unconventional means of boarding" - not to mention "find out where it's going".
Writing in Workers Power in October, John Bowman elaborated further on the example of France:
"The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) in France of over 10,000 members was set up, not primarily by an alliance between the left and trade union leaders with a programme written up behind closed doors, but by local committees of struggle in over 400 towns and cities across France. They developed a radical programme in an open conference of 600 delegates from these committees in February this year. In addition, the NPA, despite its faults, is a party of struggle that campaigns on the streets and the picket lines, not just outside the polling booths."
The NPA was, of course, not formed as a result of some spontaneous coming together of "local committees of struggle", as comrade Bowman's account would have you believe. It was actually established on the initiative of the Ligue Communist Revolutionnaire, whose members made up the bulk of the local committees and eventually managed to draw in three or four times the number of LCR members. But WP is no LCR - its leader, Olivier Besancenot, is a national figure, who polled 1.2 million votes in the 2002 presidential election. So what chance is there of Workers Power, a group of a few dozen comrades, being able to "do an LCR"? To ask the question is to answer it. Either comrades Brenner, Bowman and Luke Cooper are playing a cynical game or they are seriously deluded. I fear it is the latter.
But there is another difference between the French and proposed British versions of the Anti-capitalist Party. Brenner and co are explicitly looking to the unions - national bureaucrats as well as rank-and-file members - to launch the new party. In this their approach is virtually identical to that of SPEW and its Campaign for a New Workers' Party. But WP walked out of the CNWP earlier this year after the latter's steering committee voted to back the first Lindsey strike (which, of course, began with some workers displaying placards with the slogan, 'British jobs for British workers').
I asked comrade Brenner during the Saturday lunch break what WP would do if either workers or union leaders that signed up to the anti-capitalist call used the same slogan themselves; or if, like SPEW (and the CPGB, of course), they were prepared to back Lindsey-type strikes despite such a slogan. His reply was less than convincing. While he accepted that it was more than possible that a party of the type he envisaged would include such people, he told me that there was a difference between a campaign, like the CNWP, and an actual party.
So let me get this straight: WP would work in the same party alongside workers or bureaucrats whose combativity came mixed with nationalistic ideas. But it would not support any militant action they took where the same mix was on display. However, even that would only apply once the party was set up. In the campaign to form it, WP would have to walk out if the majority, very sensibly, decided that the Lindsey strike was clearly over jobs, wages and conditions despite the initial reactionary slogans. Or have I missed something?
This is hardly an impossible scenario, since WP expects - hopes? - to be in a minority if its new party ever sees the light of day. This was made clear by WP comrades who spoke from the floor at the rally.
To say that the party had to be revolutionary from the beginning was to be passive, claimed one, while another asked us to imagine the meeting hall full of hundreds of delegates from the unions and socialist parties. Obviously in such a fantasy situation the revolutionaries would be in a minority: "Probably we would lose the initial argument." This comrade thought that until such a time as the League for a Fifth International (WP's oil slick 'international') gained prestige from having led a revolution (he thought that might happen in somewhere like Pakistan), we "have to engage with reformists".
In view of all this comrade Brenner predicted from the platform that criticism of the call would come from two sides: first there were those who would say that WP was seeking to create a "reformist party"; second, others would say that WP wanted to "impose our revolutionary politics" on the new entity. However, neither was correct, he said. Although the party WP was seeking to establish would definitely not be "pluralist", it would be "a democratic party where people could say what they think" (he did not explain what he meant by that - which, given WP's recent record of expelling a third of its old membership, is not exactly irrelevant).
He summed up by saying that the new formation would "not be an alternative to the revolutionary party of the working class" - it would be "a way of getting there". If ever there was a description of a halfway house, this was it.
Unlike myself, Barbara Dorn from the International Bolshevik Tendency was able to speak in the very short time available for debate. She denounced WP's proposed "halfway house" and said that, while it might be correct to join a new party set up by left Labourites, as with the Socialist Labour Party when it was initially formed, it was not the job of revolutionaries to try and set up an SLP-type formation themselves.
In response, comrade Brenner denounced this approach as sectarian: it was necessary to "reach out to people breaking from Labour", to "workers in struggle". While WP did not want a party that was "half revolutionary and half reformist", sometimes "the prophet has to go to the mountain". He criticised groups like the IBT for joining a new party only if it was set up by reformists: "Let's take the initiative, comrades. Let's think and act like revolutionaries."
Superficially this is an attractive argument. As comrade Brenner says, if we are in the forefront of the campaign for a halfway house, that will leave us better placed when such a new party is formed. That was certainly the case with the "revolutionaries" of the Fourth International Supporters Caucus of Brian Heron and Pat Sikorski in the SLP. It was also the case, of course, with the "revolutionarie"' of the SWP in Respect. Both achieved influential positions thanks to their "initiative" in driving forward the halfway house in question and in both cases they willingly behaved like reformists.
But what else can "revolutionaries" do when they find themselves in positions of leadership over reformists in a party constructed to attract non-revolutionaries? They must water down their Marxism if they are to appeal to the "millions out there", as John Rees put it. If we suspend our disbelief and imagine comrade Brenner playing the role of a Sikorski or Rees, no doubt we can picture him toning down his revolutionism much more reluctantly than they did. But he would be forced to do that nevertheless. After all, if the masses will not join a party that stands for revolution, the revolutionary "prophet" will have to think of another way of enticing them.
Sympathetic non-WP comrades were on the platform. They included Nick Durie from the Scottish Socialist Party, who believes that "Unity comes from doing things" and that "a new anti-capitalist party has to come from the ground".
Duncan Chapel from Socialist Resistance and Respect is a signatory to the call and, not unexpectedly, favours a new formation that will be unambiguously reformist (and rather to the right of the NPA): "We want a new party - a party where people don't have to be a Marxist to join." Like comrade Durie, he hoped it would be built "from the ground up" from the various struggles - "we must aim to occupy the whole space to the left of Labour".
Andy Yorke, a WP postal worker, concentrated in his speech on winning union support. There are three broad positions amongst the unions. Firstly, those where it is necessary to mount "guerrilla war" on the "oppressive bureaucracy" just to get the question of working class representation on the agenda. Secondly, those like the PCS and NUT that do not have a political fund. Thirdly those like the RMT and FBU, which have broken with Labour. Comrade Yorke sounded exactly like SPEW comrades and their CNWP - he is definitely of the opinion that for the unions to disaffiliate immediately would be a highly positive step, even though there is clearly no viable alternative party to support.
Right now, said comrade Yorke, if WP addressed a group of a 100 workers engaged in militant struggle, "maybe five would join Workers Power". But what about the other 95? They "can be won to revolutionary politics too".
Carl Zacharia of Surrey Anti-capitalists is another signatory, along with his group, which brings together supporters of existing left organisations, including the Socialist Workers Party and the CPGB. But he said: "We don't think the national groups are capable of meaningful unity". He singled out the CPGB, which he implied makes the sectarian call to 'build the Communist Party', whereas in reality we appeal for the unity of Marxists as Marxists.
The evening rally was in effect the second of the day. The first session in the morning featured a panel of five speakers, consisting of four WP supporters/members and a representative of the striking Leeds bin workers. The intention was to display Workers Power at its best, as an organisation at the heart of every militant struggle. So comrade Yorke (CWU) was joined by Kam Kumar, who spoke of the importance of anti-racist work, Alex Kelly from Revolution, WP's youth front, whose comrades have been active in attempting to physically confront the English Defence League, and Luke Cooper from the WP leadership, who talked about the current political situation and the need for "clear anti-capitalist answers".
Comrade Cooper referred to the experience of what he called the "French workers and youth who formed the New Anti-capitalist Party" in France. In this session too WP or LFI comrades who spoke from the floor talked of the "tens of thousands of workers who could form a new party". We "can't sit around waiting for Labour to be reclaimed", said one, while a comrade from Austria stated that an alternative must be provided "for social democrats who want to fight".
Bash the fash
Attendance at the Saturday evening rally increased by perhaps a dozen or so over and above the 60-70 who were there during the day. Many were students or young workers whom WP has pulled into Revolution mainly around anti-fascist work. The leadership, particularly comrade Brenner, made a concerted effort to recruit them into WP itself.
Apart from the rallies, I attended two other sessions, the first of which was on the far right: 'How can the BNP be stopped'?
Dan Edwards, a young WP comrade, shows all the signs of actually trying to think about the subject. Pity about the bog-standard far-left 'bash the fash' template he has to work from. He said, for example, that, in his view, the EDL is "not consciously fascist", but is "playing the role of fascists". His critique of the popular-frontist Unite Against Fascism was sound enough, but he came out with the usual nonsense: you "don't beat the fascists by winning arguments".
In my contribution from the floor I pointed out that an essential element of the communist analysis of fascism had been missing from comrade Edwards' opening. The bourgeoisie turns to fascism in a revolutionary situation, where the proletariat is actually threatening to take power. But today, far from such a situation existing, working class organisation is in a pitiful state. However, if there were a revolutionary situation, would the bourgeoisie look to the BNP or EDL as its counterrevolutionary fighting force?
While nothing is impossible, it was much more likely that a new organisation of some kind would be summoned forth. I gave the Countryside Alliance as an example of a reactionary grouping that - while not fascist, of course - mobilised mass support and enjoyed the support of key sections of the establishment. For all these reasons it is foolhardy to regard groups like the BNP as the main and most immediate threat.
I also pointed out that it is necessary to 'win the argument'. There was something worryingly elitist about the demand that far-right views be totally suppressed. While, unlike the SWP, WP is against demanding that the state denies the BNP the ability to state its views, it believes this is the job of communists always and in every situation. I said that it is not a question of defending Nick Griffin's right to free speech, but about the right of workers - the future ruling class - to hear the arguments and decide for themselves. Or do we say that only the wise leaders can be trusted to judge which views are suitable for the masses to hear?
One WP comrade demonstrated this elitism to perfection. He said that there were two mistaken liberal arguments for ever allowing the BNP to be heard. First, it is assumed that the BNP can be beaten by "rational debate", when this is impossible (like others who say this, the comrade did not explain why it is that a working class audience is incapable of choosing between BNP irrationality and scientific socialism).
The second mistaken liberal argument, according to the comrade, is that if people found out that the BNP were racists they would not vote for them. However, lots of people sympathise with the kind of opinions the BNP puts forward and these opinions would be strengthened if the arguments are heard. Obviously then, we should deny the ignorant workers the right to make a judgement in case they get it wrong.
Luke Cooper said that Marxists are the "strongest proponents of democratic rights", but (there was bound to be a 'but') "not in the abstract". Of course the CBI isn't about to sponsor the EDL, he said, but it remains an immediate danger. However, he was contradicted by another WP leader, John Bowman, who said that "only people who don't really talk to workers" (he meant people like me) could say that the far right was not sponsored by the bourgeoisie.
Comrade Brenner was at his most pompous. Didn't I realise I was addressing a "courageous audience of communists" and my views were out of place? Unlike the "brother from the CPGB", who displayed an "extraordinary bit of credulity" for taking the word of a fascist leader (I said that the EDL is clearly not a wing of the BNP), WP comrades had studied the history of fascism. Apparently this taught them that every statement of people like Griffin must be a lie - but you do not have to be a student of history to know that even pathological liars mix their falsities with large elements of the truth: the job of communists is to distinguish one from the other.
Comrade Brenner asked me: "Where have you been for the last two and a half years?" Didn't I know that there had been the "deepest capitalist crisis" and we are about to enter a "period of sharp class struggle" (the implication was that this would produce intense polarisation between strongly organised communists and establishment-backed fascists)? I should be ashamed for "spreading deadly complacency" and for trying to "turn us away from our responsibilities".
I was also at the afternoon session led by comrade Brenner, entitled 'Two decades on from the fall of the Berlin Wall: 20th century communism - what went wrong?' Here was the WP leader going all out to confirm those new recruits through placing his organisation firmly in the revolutionary Marxist tradition.
It goes without saying that the period beginning with the Russian Revolution was outlined according to WP's version of Trotskyism - Stalin's USSR was a "degenerated and degenerating workers state in transition to capitalism". But the only reason I could detect to justify the "workers' state" description was that the Soviet Union had a "planned economy" (although other comrades also mentioned nationalised property forms).
In my contribution - also from the floor - I disputed this claim. Comrade Brenner himself had said that genuine, effective planning could only occur under conditions of democracy - what existed in the Soviet Union was arbitrary target-setting. Furthermore, as comrade Brenner had pointed out, Stalinism ruled over the working class and imposed brutal conditions on it - describing this monstrosity as a "workers' state", degenerated or otherwise, was a travesty of the truth. Even in terms of opportunist self-promotion it is hardly an effective way of advancing an attractive image of the kind of society we are striving to achieve.
I also commented on comrade Brenner's statement that "a revolutionary party has to have democracy - otherwise you have a load of people parroting a line". I pointed out that several left groups, of which Workers Power is a typical example, have been characterised by minorities 'parroting a line' with which they actually disagree. That is because the sect version of 'democratic centralism' insists that members who oppose the line are obliged to suppress that fact in public. I said that, if the working class is to be the ruling class, it must become familiar with the arguments of its leaders and be able to take sides between them.
Unfortunately, as with most of the sessions, there was insufficient time for the platform speaker to reply and comrade Brenner could do no more than urge comrades to join Workers Power in the couple of minutes available to him.
And that, of course, is ultimately the answer for WP. Even the revolutionary party which eventually emerges from the anti-capitalist halfway house will be but Workers Power writ large. But this is a hopeless scenario. While no doubt WP will recruit ones and twos, why should thousands flock to it, let alone the many millions that are needed, rather than to any of the other sects, not least the much larger SWP and SPEW?
But there is something the revolutionary left can do to make a difference. It can begin the process of Marxist unity within a single party - a party based on genuine democratic centralism, where, on the one hand, every comrade and minority grouping agrees to work to fulfil agreed decisions and, on the other hand, they have the right to publicly state their views and to fight to become the majority.