The polemical alternative

Peter Manson reports on the latest debates of CPGB members and supporters


The November 29 aggregate of CPGB comrades discussed the role of the Weekly Worker against the background of the continuing economic crisis, as demonstrated by events in Dubai.

Some comrades in internal discussion have raised the possibility of a change in emphasis in our paper - it has been suggested that perhaps we are concentrating too much on reporting on and polemicising against other sections of the left, or at least that we ought to state more clearly and more often the reasons for this concentration.

Before this was discussed, Mike Macnair introduced a debate on the economic crisis. The near collapse in Dubai, he said, had sparked an acute bout of nerves - and once more given the lie to those like Permanent Revolution, who ask, ‘Whatever happened to the great depression?’ While it was impossible to predict the exact nature of the recession, the nervousness of the stock markets and the capitalist class as a whole adds to the impression that the current phase is similar to 1929-31. Will the “second shoe drop”?

The problem is that there is too much overcapacity, said comrade Macnair - unemployment in the backward capitalist countries is enormous and in the advanced countries this to some extent has been masked (such as in the UK by the transfer of jobless people to sick benefit and the expansion of education and ‘training’ for youth). The fact of the matter is that the capitalists are just not behaving as though they believe investment in material industry will deliver a profit. They do not seem to place much trust in the reported recovery of the rate of profit or the relatively stable GDP - they know that such statistics represent more the redistribution of existing surplus than the creation of real wealth.

The huge cuts that all the establishment parties in Britain are promising would certainly mean a new, deep recession if they were carried out. What we are witnessing is not just a “recession of no consequence” following the long post-war boom. However, the strategic conceptions of the far left, said comrade Macnair, stake everything on a massive crisis, which will force workers to turn to the already existing ‘revolutionary leadership’. This has led to the tendency to constantly predict a devastating crisis. Crisis can, of course, be predicted theoretically - the system of capital is transparently irrational, after all. But it is also irrational to wish for a massive crisis, since, as well as causing untold misery and hardship for millions, it could just as easily lead to the rise of the far right than revolutionary socialism.

There is no alternative but the long, patient work of constructing a Marxist party, he concluded.

In the discussion Andy Hannah said that only a very small percentage of the workforce in countries like the UK is engaged in the genuinely productive economy, but he did not think that a country such as China could rescue capitalism. Bob Davies also raised the question of China, wondering what comrades thought about the possibility of an eventual replacement of the US as global hegemon. Jim Moody described China as a “US manufacturing outpost” and also outlined the false hopes invested in India as an upcoming power.

John Bridge was scathing about the idea of a China or India replacing the US. China, he said, is “Detroit exported”: its government polices its working class for the benefit of US capital. Because of the huge discrepancy in labour productivity, economic size, diplomatic influence, financial pull and military power, the US debt to China made the latter dependent on the former, not the other way round.

Comrade Bridge pointed out that it was not just a question of capitalism’s cyclical crises that ought to concern us, but the fact that it is a system in long-term decline. That is why Keynesian boosts can only but be short-term remedies. He agreed with comrade Macnair that the cuts consensus would lead to a new recession and, crucially, to the likelihood of working class resistance, as in Ireland.

This would produce huge possibilities, but also a huge task for communists - the task of mapping out a viable strategy. One thing was certain: calling demonstration after demonstration, Stop the War style, would lead nowhere in itself. And hoping for a return to “boom-time capitalism” was a similar dead end. We must aim for mass consciousness of the possibility of human freedom.

Yassamine Mather pointed out that the full extent of the banking crisis was still unknown. She too thought that the current situation was more like pre-1931 than the wobbles of the 1980s or 2001. Tina Becker and Ben Lewis talked about the example of Germany, which has continued a policy of state subsidies, financed by massive borrowing. Comrade Lewis stressed that this cannot carry on forever, however, and he also noted that a crisis may indeed pose the question of power. But for this to be realised depends on there being in place a mass party of the working class.

Stan Keable argued that it was impossible to consider capitalist crisis in isolation from the class struggle. In that sense the depth and extent of the coming government cuts would depend on the degree of workers’ resistance and interplay between the rival parties, both of which reflected aspects of class struggle.

In his reply to the debate, comrade Macnair also emphasised the necessity of winning the battle of ideas. He warned that crisis actually reduces the effectiveness of the working class, but it is when the economy begins to recover that workers, with the crisis fresh in their memory, feel more empowered. It was perfectly possible for capitalism, despite its long-term decline, to stage a recovery.

Weekly Worker

The second session was introduced by comrade Bridge. In view of what we had just discussed, he asked, should we consider changing the emphasis of the paper so as to appeal more directly to thousands of workers in struggle?

He reminded comrades that the rest of the left press, for the most part, has always attempted to do that - with very little success. The left media paint a universally optimistic, positive picture of the working class struggle - a picture that almost never admits to internal problems or even the existence of rival groups.

The Socialist Workers Party’s internal bulletin has just published a searing critique of the recent style and content of Socialist Worker by elements close to the current leadership. But how come they never raised this before now? Similarly Militant - forerunner of The Socialist, published by the Socialist Party in England and Wales - refused to publish details of the split that tore the Militant Tendency apart in the 1980s. As for the Morning Star, while it has improved in recent years, it still has all the characteristics of an “advertising sheet”.

By contrast the Weekly Worker is mainly devoted to the left. Why? Because in order to build the kind of organisation that will be necessary to arm the working class in its coming battles it is essential to ruthlessly criticise the grossly inadequate formations and organisational theory that exists. Workers in their thousands may now be more prepared to fight, but they are, by and large, not directly looking for socialist answers. On the contrary, they survey the competing sects and write off the entire left as a force for thoroughgoing change.

But, concluded comrade Bridge, the existing left is not only part of the problem: it is part of the answer. That is why the CPGB Provisional Central Committee believes that the Weekly Worker has roughly the right balance - focusing on the left, but also analysing economic and social questions, as well as the politics of the bourgeoisie.

In the discussion comrade Mather said she was not fully convinced of the thesis that we need to “go through the left”. Hence she was a little concerned by the reaction of former members of left groups she knew, who, while they appreciated the paper’s reports from Iran, for example, refused to read anything it contained about the organised left. Perhaps we come over as slagging off the opposition without providing a clear alternative. She favoured a better balance, with more regular articles on, in particular, the economy. Comrade Matthias was also worried about the characterisation of the Weekly Worker as a paper of “leftwing gossip” that fails to present a clear alternative.

Ben Lewis said that, as well as polemicising against the rest of the left, we should not be shy about building up our own forces. He went on to criticise the commissioning of the Weekly Worker editorial team, which he thought was not always sufficiently planned.

For my part, as editor, I accepted that this criticism was valid - although I pointed out that our small team of volunteers works the type of extended shifts that no trade union would tolerate!

In response to comrades Mather and Matthias, I found it hardly surprising that former members of left groups had given up on all the existing organisations. But we should expect the better elements of this ‘flotsam and jetsam’ to rejoin the organised left once our fight for a single, democratic-centralist Communist Party was seen to be bearing fruit. I stressed that our aim was not simply to polemicise against the left for its own sake. Our exposure of the errors, weaknesses and failings of the existing left should also contain within them an outline of that alternative vision.

Comrade Macnair pointed out that the Weekly Worker does not attempt to “speak to the masses”, but Socialist Worker, which does try to do that, fails dismally. Its official circulation figure of almost 9,000 is clearly exaggerated (a good proportion are unsold or unread) and most of its first-time readers never buy it again.

The problem is that none of the existing left groups are up to the task that faces our class and this is clearly reflected in their press. That is why the Weekly Worker will continue to fight for principled Marxist unity - this alone can provide the type of organisation capable of leading the struggle for human emancipation.