Debating the anti-cuts fight and Labour strategy

Members and supporters of the CPGB met on November 28. Jim Gilbert reports

In the first session of the last CPGB aggregate of 2010, Mike Macnair introduced the question of the fightback against the cuts, following the Coalition of Resistance launch conference that took place the previous day. The second session of the aggregate adopted a set of theses on the Labour Party and our general attitude to Marxists working within its ranks.

Comrade Macnair pointed out that the Counterfire-inspired COR is only one among several anti-cuts campaigns, even if it is the most promising to date. He argued that what we need is a mass, unified campaign of all forces against the cuts. Its central leadership must be answerable to the base: in other words, fully democratic. As things stand, he said, campaigns such as COR look set to repeat the mistakes of the Stop the War Coalition, endeavouring in its case not to offend the leftish part of the Labour Party right. This leads to calls for an alternative economic strategy, fair trade, arms cuts, etc, in what can only be described as a British nationalist alternative politics. Keynesianism and deficit spending is not at all realistic: its limits have already been reached in Britain. What is missing is the Marxist alternative.

If Britain wants to retain its place in the global pecking order, it has to implement deep spending cuts. The ruling Tory elite cannot imagine serious resistance: it cut its political teeth during Thatcher's regime, which saw the strategic defeat of the miners and other militant workers. Yet, in order for the bourgeoisie to withdraw the cuts, it needs to be faced with the prospect of "something worse" than not implementing them. It could happen that the capitalist class might get scared as resistance grows, but action is needed on a European scale to effect this. And the overthrow of capitalism needs to be posed, since anything less than this is more easily shrugged off. That is why the party question is basic: it requires a real Communist Party to argue for the overthrow of capitalism, linking the cuts campaigns as a first step. Comrade Macnair's speech is reproduced in full on pp5-6.

Peter Manson also thought that the absence of a Communist Party was key. However, comrade Manson disagreed with the assertion that the cuts regime could not be defeated without at least the threat of overthrowing capitalism. The ruling class was not united on the necessity of a drastic, immediate reduction in spending and cutting the budget deficit: it could be forced to retreat.

Counterfire, COR's initiators, were the right people in the right place at the right time, according to John Bridge. He worried that COR would have no accountable leadership for six months until the next conference is held. Once things really take off, there will be the urgent need for flexibility and accountability. Hence elected and recallable delegates. However, he disagreed with comrade Manson over a ruling class split, certainly when it comes to parliament. Both the coalition and the official opposition were united over cuts. Speed and depth are mere technicalities and the appointment of Alan Johnston, as opposed to Ed Balls, sent a clear message. A Labour government under Ed Miliband would be looking for sweeping cuts. The room for concessions is narrowing because of capitalism's long-term decline and the idea of going back to Keynesianism and the 1960s and 50s was completely illusory. The crisis of capitalism is structural, not episodic, and could only be positively resolved by the working class coming to power.

Nick Rogers was dismayed by comrade Bridge's suggestion, which he interpreted as saying that cuts were inevitable without the overthrow of capitalism. Saying cuts can only be combated by a Communist Party and revolution is wrong. These are not unprecedented levels of national indebtedness, and the UK was hardly the same as an Ireland or Greece. So there is leeway for the ruling class to make concessions, which we can exploit. Tina Becker agreed with comrade Rogers and argued that, while all the proposed cuts could not be overturned without capitalism being superseded, we could force a retreat. She gave the example of student fees being dropped in Germany after the rise of Die Linke.

James Turley pointed out that the parameters for deficit spending were set by global relations: any defeats of cuts in Britain would have to get past the EU and the US first, so it was not a simple question of forcing the British ruling class to retreat. Comrade Farzad emphasised that there was a crisis of over-accumulation. Some bourgeois writers see doomsday scenarios. As Keynesian proposals were non-solutions, she agreed that we must energetically take up the question of overthrowing capitalism, arguing persistently against temporary 'solutions'.

Lee Rock considered comrade Bridge's position "not well thought out" - if occupations and strikes cannot win, he asked, why organise them? He characterised comrade Bridge's view as "cuts or communism". But the cuts can be stopped - the ruling class always has an escape option. However, a trade union fightback was not inevitable, he said - look at Ireland. Even the left-led trade unions in Britain refuse to organise a pre-Christmas strike against the cuts, and there is no TUC strike call to accompany its March 26 anti-cuts demonstration.

For Stan Kelsey, the balance of class power determines the level of concessions that can be obtained and comrade Bridge agreed with this: yes, of course, the capitalist class will give concessions - but it will try to "take them away the next day".

Replying to the debate, comrade Macnair underlined the fact that David Cameron's privatisation agenda cannot be successfully countered by mass demonstrations and strikes. While the "something worse" faced by the bourgeoisie did not necessarily have to be the threat of revolution, he felt something like the working class revolt of the early 19th century would be necessary to force the ruling class to abandon 'austerity'. Victory for our class means coercing the capitalists; serious action can win concessions, but strikes alone will not do it.

Labour Party

The second session of the aggregate returned to the Provisional Central Committee's draft theses on the Labour Party (see Weekly Worker October 21).

Comrade Bridge, introducing the discussion, now thought the document uncontroversial in our ranks. It designated the Labour Party as still being a bourgeois workers' party: class-conscious workers vote for it, trade unions are affiliated to it. During the formative period of the CPGB, Lenin's advice was to follow the British Socialist Party tactic of affiliating to Labour.

He declared bans and proscriptions illegitimate: the left should accept no rightwing bar to communists being part of what is a federal party of our class. Marxists should not knuckle under within Labour, which provides them with a field for struggle. We want its leadership to be subordinate to its members and to enfranchise union delegates (not bosses). But the Labour Party is not, as it was for Militant during its entrist period, the be-all and end-all. Marxists in the Labour Party should be encouraged to unite as Marxists… and to unite with Marxists outside the Labour Party. These theses are but a start, said comrade Bridge; if they are agreed the PCC will seek to give them a practical edge.

Lee Rock disagreed. He saw the theses as tactical, not strategic, and found nothing much positive happening in the Labour Party now; nor was he convinced that Labour Party Marxists would be easy to find. Comrade Rock thought we should focus on anti-cuts work, given our relatively small numbers. He contended that, while the theses were "not for the liquidation of the CPGB, they were close".

Stan Kelsey reminded comrades that even Alan Johnston was talking about democracy in the Labour Party, a key question. We say to the revolutionary left: get involved in the Labour Party; trade unionists should pay the political levy. But Dave Isaacson was dubious that Labour could ever be won for Marxism and shared some of comrade Rock's concerns. Comrade Farzad warned that Marxists in the Labour Party have to hide their identity and she certainly would not want them to become councillors. It would be disastrous for the left to implement cuts.

Nick Rogers complained that the theses cover neither current tasks nor the immediate future. He asserted that Marxists in the Labour Party would not, for example, be able to openly support a Marxist organisation or sell its publications. On the contrary, Jim Gilbert felt that direct engagement was perfectly possible. He refuted comrade Farzad's suggestion that Marxists in the Labour Party needed to keep their heads down, pointing to the time when recognised communists could even be Labour MPs. Democratisation was widely supported within the Labour Party and Marxists had a clear role to advance it. He wondered why no-one was suggesting boycotting trade union work if, as it seemed, they wanted to boycott Labour Party work: both were legitimate arenas of struggle for us. For her part, Sam Drummond thought a two-pronged offensive was quite possible: fight in the anti-cuts movement and help develop a clearly Marxist voice in the Labour Party.

Mike Macnair could envisage the Labour Party gaining Marxist leadership - but this would require the removal of the bans and proscriptions. But we should still fight for affiliation and we can indeed make propaganda now. The theses address comrades in the Labour Party, in the Labour Representation Committee, in Labour Briefing, etc, as well as for the entire left: they aim to provide Marxists with fighting objectives.

Comrade Rogers wanted to defer a decision on the theses, proposing a motion that read: "1. Delay the vote on the theses to the next aggregate. 2. At that aggregate the PCC should submit a perspectives document that outlines what tactics our organisation should take towards the Labour Party and how that relates to our project of building a mass Communist Party." This motion was lost, following which the theses were agreed by margin or around three to one