A programme to unite all Marxists
Peter Manson reports on the second day of the October 16-17 CPGB aggregate
The CPGB took a further step in the process of adopting a revised version of our Draft programme on the second day of last weekend’s aggregate of members and supporters.
The meeting accepted without a vote the Provisional Central Committee’s recommended procedure for agreeing the new draft. The PCC’s proposed version has, of course, already been published, and, in the absence of any alternative drafts being put forward, amendments to the PCC’s version must be submitted by December 17, to be discussed at a programme conference to be held over the weekend of January 15-16 2011.
All this was outlined by CPGB national organiser Mark Fischer, who chaired the aggregate. He reminded comrades that, even after its adoption, the new draft would remain just that - a draft. The document is intended as the CPGB proposal to be put before a future founding congress of a Communist Party. We are absolutely clear that the current CPGB does not constitute such a party, which must be created by the coming together of the most advanced militants, most of whom are currently members of the various left groups.
Comrade Fischer explained that the aggregate discussion was intended to further air differences so as to pave the way for the smooth running of the conference and there would obviously be no vote at the current meeting on the actual content of the Draft programme.
Mike Macnair opened the first session, dealing with the first two sections of the PCC draft, ‘Our epoch’ and ‘Capitalism in Britain’. He stated that a programme should embody a commitment to common action, but not to common theoretical interpretations. The Draft programme is “an outline, not a theoretical work”. While the sections were certainly “improvable”, he was against extending them to include a specific subsection on neoliberalism, as Nick Rogers had contended in a Weekly Worker article. He thought this would mean adopting a tighter theoretical position than was appropriate and would imply that it should inform the likely action we should take over the coming period. But the next decade may not look like 1980-2008 at all.
Comrade Rogers himself spoke next and agreed that the programme was intended as a basis for action for a mass Communist Party, but he denied that his proposed subsection on neoliberalism was an attempt to imbue it with a particular take on political economy. However, neoliberalism has been a global trend, he said, and the consequent attacks on the working class will become fiercer. He also contended that the programme should be a “living document”, which needed to reflect “where we are now”, so we should not worry too much if it became necessary to amend sections that became out of date.
This was strongly contested by Jack Conrad, who insisted that the programme must not be “about now” - rather it should be intended as a guide to action for the foreseeable future. The programme must also be as brief as possible and should not attempt to “explain itself”, he added. It is true that the average worker will not understand everything it contains, but it was the role of newspaper articles, pamphlets and books to fully elaborate on its contents. If anything, we should be aiming to pare the programme down further.
Comrade Chris Strafford added that a programme should most certainly not deal with specific and passing phenomena, while Tina Becker stressed it should be “shorter rather than longer” and Ben Lewis stated it was a document for revolution, which should stand the test of time.
Comrade Rogers came back to point out that our current draft is “already 10 times longer” than the Erfurt programme, so we should not “get too hung up about length”. But he thought it was “nonsense” to say that a programme should stand the test of time for, say, 20 years. He also reiterated his call for a subsection on neoliberalism, which embodied the capitalist offensive against our class - a “trend within capitalism’s decline itself”.
In my contribution I wondered how real the difference between Nick Rogers and other comrades was on this point. After all, while he insisted that the programme could include transient details, the only example of an addition he was currently proposing related to a long-term trend.
I also took issue with James Turley, who had claimed that the statement, “The present epoch is characterised by the revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism” (section 1), is “not theoretically defensible” and resonant of the programme of the ‘official communists’. There can be other outcomes than communism, comrade Turley had said, pointing to capital’s ability to destroy the environment and risk the future of humanity.
However, I, along with other comrades, believed that this point was more than covered in the section and in the programme as a whole and Stan Kelsey put the point succinctly: “An acorn produces an oak tree - unless you tread on it.”
Replying to the debate, comrade Macnair emphasised the PCC view that the programme needed to deal with long-term questions and to avoid unnecessary divisions over points of theory amongst comrades. Taking into account comrade Rogers’ views, he agreed that perhaps the decline of capitalism needs further elaboration in the first section.
Opening the discussion on section 3, ‘Immediate demands’, Ben Lewis stressed that the CPGB was unapologetic that its programme was divided into minimum and maximum sections. The minimum programme was not a reformist invention, but, despite the prejudices of the Trotskyist left, was rooted in the method of Karl Marx himself. The minimum programme - our immediate demands - was not about reforming capitalism, but about taking us from the present to the socialist revolution.
Comrade Lewis noted that in our view the draft has been greatly improved by promoting the question of democracy to the top of our list of demands. This had nothing to do with ‘completing the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution’ or any other such nonsense, but was about training the proletariat to become the ruling class. He contrasted our minimum-maximum programme with the ‘transitional method’ of dogmatic Trotskyists, which often does no more than defend what exists and elevates spontaneity above consciousness.
None of this was controversial for anyone who spoke and the subsequent discussion tended to focus on specific individual demands, with comrades raising criticisms and suggestions relating to particular phrases and bullet points.
The first concerned the dropping of the demand for the abolition of all religious schools, with Jim Gilbert calling for this to be retained in order to achieve the “secularisation of universal education” - the PCC draft merely calls for the withdrawal of “state funding, charitable status or tax breaks” (3.12). However, comrade Macnair said the banning of religious schools would be impractical, while Sarah Davies pointed to the particular difficulties and contradictions in Scotland. Phil Kent contended that the ending of the special status of religious schools would effectively mean universal state education sooner rather than later.
Mohsen Sabbagh took issue with the fact that that the draft called for compulsory education only up to the age of 16, whereas there are already moves to extend this to 18. But comrade Conrad explained that, from the age of 16, young people must be free to decide for themselves whether to stay at school or leave.
Another question that raised a good deal of discussion was the new subsection on the environment, with comrade Turley describing the call for towns and cities “full of trees, roof gardens, planted walls, allotments, wild parks and little farms” as “naive utopianism”. This view was strongly opposed by several comrades, including Jack Conrad and Phil Kent, with Liaket Ali insisting that cities must be much better designed, incorporating open spaces.
Comrade Rogers briefly mentioned issues relating to nation and nationality and the minimum wage, but he also queried the assertion that the minimum programme, as well as taking us to the point of revolution, should be viewed as the immediate programme to be implemented by a workers’ government. A workers’ state might want to go further than putting into practice the demands we make on capital, he said.
Comrade Conrad introduced the debate on sections 4 and 5, ‘Character of the revolution’ and ‘Transition to communism’.
He began by emphasising that communists would only enter government on the basis of fulfilling our minimum programme - we would not compromise on this point. However, unlike the anarchists, we insist that the state could not immediately be abolished - it was necessary both to defend the gains of the revolution and to discipline those who refused to comply with the democratic decisions of the majority.
Comrade Conrad discussed his difference with Mike Macnair over the use of the word ‘socialism’. While comrade Macnair preferred ‘period of working class rule’, comrade Conrad insisted that there was no need to discard certain terms because they had been misused or regarded as discredited. We needed to win them back for the working class.
He also took issue with those who thought that the period immediately following the revolution should not be termed ‘socialism’, but the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. For him ‘socialism’ included not only the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is synonymous with the democratic republic, but the whole of the lower phase of communism.
The lack of time truncated the discussion on these sections. This was a pity, since differences - which could only be afforded a brief airing at the aggregate - had been revealed in Weekly Worker articles primarily between comrades Conrad, Macnair and Rogers.
However, there is no doubt that the debate will continue and all comrades - including those from both sides of the recent Labour leadership dispute - are determined to produce an exemplary document around which all Marxists can unite.
- ‘The road to working class revolution’, April 8.