Agitation for independent working class politics
Electoral tactics was the main topic on May 8 at the CPGB's all-members' aggregate meeting in London. Alex John reports
Opening the discussion on the May 5 local elections, Provisional Central Committee member Mike Macnair reaffirmed that the organisation had been right to call for a critical vote - without conditions - for George Galloway and the Coalition Against Cuts list which he headed in Glasgow. It would have been wrong to make our support conditional on Galloway renouncing his support for the Islamic Republic of Iran and his involvement with the regime’s Press TV, as some comrades had argued during the run up to the election, just as it would have been wrong to make our support for candidates conditional on their calling for troops out of Afghanistan, because the key issue for the mass of the population was public service cuts - not Iran, and not war.
A resolution upholding this policy (see below), and critical of the open letter calling for no vote for Galloway because of his support for the Islamic regime (Weekly Worker May 7) was carried unanimously, after debate and a number of amendments.
Drawing on the arguments in his recent three-part series of Weekly Worker articles on electoral tactics, comrade Macnair sketched out a communist understanding of bourgeois democracy as the background for our method of tactical intervention in bourgeois elections. The bourgeoisie is not a democratic class, and universal suffrage has been won by working class struggle. When the working class is organised, then the bourgeoisie can only rule with its consent. Working class consent must be gained.
The early workers’ movement gave electoral support to one or other of the bourgeois parties. The concept of independent working class politics and independent working class parties was brought into the workers’ movement through Marxist intervention, and mass workers’ parties were built on that basis. But the bourgeoisie was able to capture the mass socialist parties through nationalism and bureaucracy.
Communist intervention in bourgeois elections, comrade Macnair said, is essentially agitation, in Plekhanov’s useful definition: presenting a few ideas to many people - as opposed to propaganda: presenting many ideas to few people. The “few” ideas we are offering are (a) independent working class politics, and (b) the need for an independent party of the working class, a communist party.
In the present dire situation, lacking any mass party based on independent working class politics, we have little or no purchase on the results of an election. So how to intervene? Our method is to identify the dominant political issue and seek to drive a wedge into the mass electoral conversation, in order to open it up for our communist ideas. Our electoral tactics to this end are diverse, because of changing political circumstances.
In 2005 the invasion and occupation of Iraq had been the dominant political issue, and we had made our support for Labour Party and other working class movement candidates conditional on them taking a public position for immediate withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Today the cuts in public services dominate the terms of public debate, and can be expected to do so for the immediate future. That is what determined our decision to make public service cuts the basis of our electoral tactic this time.
Our “framework position”, he said, was to critically support (a) those Labour Party candidates publicly opposing the cuts, and saying that they will not implement them; and (b) (where there is no Labour anti-cuts candidate) candidates of left platforms who say the same. In this way we seek to engage with the supporters of such candidates and to insert the idea of a Communist Party and programme around the anti-cuts question.
We made no general line on which of the multitude of non-Labour left anti-cuts platforms to support, in the event that they were standing against each other, leaving that for comrades to weigh up locally. But we did explicitly call for critical but unconditional support for the Galloway-led Coalition Against Cuts list which, besides Galloway himself, was a left unity list in which various left organisations in Scotland - Socialist Workers Party, Chris Bambery’s McCounterfire, Socialist Party Scotland and Solidarity - participated.
Comrade Macnair said that the open letter had made a serious political error because, while it condemned Galloway’s support for the obnoxious Islamic regime in Iran, it failed to mention imperialist sanctions and the threat of imperialist war. If the CPGB had chosen to make conditions for electoral support with respect to Iran, we would have said ‘Don’t support the imperialist war drive’, rather than ‘Don’t support the Islamic regime’ - because the immediate enemy of the British working class is the British state, which operates globally as an imperialist state. The main enemy is at home.
Some CPGB members had been involved in campaigning for signatories for the open letter against Galloway, said comrade Macnair, but had withdrawn their own signatures before it was published, because support for the Galloway list was an agreed action of the organisation. This showed their commitment to the organisation, and to the principles of democratic centralism. If CPGB comrades had let their signatures remain on the open letter that would have been a breach of democratic centralism, which requires that we all pull together in action. Workers do this in a strike action: you may vote against strike action, but then you abide by the majority decision. This is essential for the political democracy of a party.
In the discussion, comrade Farzad said that she agreed with our “framework” anti-cuts electoral tactic, and that she had declined to support the open letter. However, she was critical of the organisation - and self-critical - because we did not adequately investigate and elaborate its concrete application, particularly given the circumstances in Glasgow. Galloway is not simply a supporter of the Islamic regime: he has a close relationship with Press TV, which is directly involved in the persecution of political prisoners, putting torture victims on display to make forced confessions.
Much more could have been done. CPGB comrades in Hands Off the People of Iran should have explained how the framework fits the present situation. ‘Vote Galloway, but ...’ was a difficult position to argue in Glasgow. We needed to directly address local Iranians who are in danger from the Islamic regime. The regime has people following students in Glasgow. The election of Galloway would have encouraged the harassment of Iranian exiles by supporters or agents of the regime. We should have been sensitive to the growing anti-Galloway feeling in Glasgow, and perhaps produced a local leaflet explaining our approach. Nevertheless, she said, the AWL’s social-imperialist anti-Galloway campaign had been the worst evil.
Comrade Tina Becker emphasised that critical support should indeed be critical. We do not have a problem criticising Galloway during the election campaign, and much more of this should have been done. He has many other faults besides his support for the regime. For example, his opposition to abortion rights. We had castigated him for this previously, in Respect, while calling for a vote for him. Comrade Nick Rogers said that it was correct for the motion to be critical of Hopi supporters who had signed the open letter. In the united front principle, he said, it was a duty to openly criticise our allies. Unity in action must not mean diplomatic silence.
Comrade John Bridge backed this approach, saying that critical support is our way of engaging with our allies. He reminded us of the pregnant man image with which we had spoofed Galloway’s opposition to abortion rights - while supporting him electorally. However, it is legitimate to make an exception to our framework tactic in concrete circumstances. This should not be ruled out in principle, but in this case there was nothing new. We had given critical support to Galloway before, in the full knowledge of his shortcomings. It was important that our motion criticises Hopi signatories to the open letter, he said.
The meeting also accepted, without opposition, the PCC’s decision, after the March 26 TUC demonstration, not to proceed with the immediate publication of an anti-cuts pamphlet, as had been agreed at the February 13 aggregate. First, the PCC - and the organisation as a whole - will undertake longer-term serious research and study, aimed towards a deeper, concrete assessment of the crisis of world capitalism, as the basis for developing an effective anti-cuts strategy. Our analysis will be developed through Weekly Worker articles tackling different aspects of the question.
Comrade John Bridge pointed to the TUC’s March 26 anti-cuts demonstration. It was certainly very big, but the political level was low. On the demo, although we handed free copies of Weekly Worker to those who showed an interest, they were not snapped up. The PCC estimated that if we had produced a pamphlet, we would have not sold very many. However, the public service cuts are only just beginning, and the inevitable mass fightback by the working class is likewise at a very early stage. Comrade Bridge reminded us that we are a “left unity organisation”, aiming to establish a Marxist party by going through the existing left. A deeper analysis is necessary than anything currently on offer.
Furthermore, a CPGB pamphlet must give the view of the organisation, whereas Weekly Worker articles give the views of the author. At present, leading PCC members have differing assessments of the room for manoeuvre open to the capitalist class in the present crisis. John Bridge considers that, faced with a powerful working class fightback, they have room to make Keynesian concessions, whereas Mike Macnair believes they are adopting austerity measures because they have little elbow room. However, these are “underdeveloped differences” and should be tackled by research and study. Likewise, comrade Macnair casts doubt on the appropriateness of the organisation’s current policy of calling on local councils to refuse to implement cuts and set illegal budgets, suggesting that a study of the history of the mass social democratic parties of France and Germany, among other things, may cast useful light on this issue.
The aggregate set the launch date for the CPGB’s Summer Offensive annual fundraising drive for June 11 - to coincide with the projected launch date of our new website. And the initial draft plan of topics and speakers for Communist University 2011 (Saturday August 13 to Saturday August 20 inclusive) was briefly reviewed, with an open invitation to comrades to make fresh suggestions.
1. We recognise that the motivation of the ‘Open letter to the left’ arguing for no support to George Galloway in the Scots parliament elections is a legitimate disgust at Galloway’s support for and organised links to the tyrannical theocratic regime in Iran. This support is directly opposed to the interests of the working class, and it was justified that these criticisms should be made during the election campaign.
2. Galloway’s support for the theocratic regime in Iran is not unique to him. It is a scab policy widespread on the left. Galloway’s particular role arises merely from his personal prominence. It is necessary to combat this policy in order to promote the political independence and international solidarity of the working class.
3. However, the CPGB considers that the open letter was a political mistake.
4. Hands Off the People of Iran has throughout its existence insisted on a two-sided policy in which opposition to imperialist war threats and sanctions has to be accompanied by support for the workers’, women’s and democratic movements in Iran, and conversely support for the workers’, women’s and democratic movements in Iran has to be accompanied by explicit opposition to imperialist war threats and sanctions.
The open letter, which focussed solely on Galloway’s support for the theocratic regime in Iran without clearly opposing the operations of the imperialists, being signed by people who identified themselves as Hopi supporters and as members of Communist Students as such, risks associating Hopi and Communist Students with the Eustonite/Alliance for Workers’ Liberty camp. By doing so, in our view it undermines our ability to win supporters of an anti-war position away from the scab policy of political support for tyrannical regimes targeted by imperialism.
5. In particular, if the CPGB had called for a position on Iran to be a condition of our calling for a vote for candidates in these elections, the condition we would have put forward would have been opposition to imperialist sanctions and war threats against Iran. The UK state is an active party in these sanctions and war threats, and the first responsibility of communists in the UK is to oppose them.
6. In fact, the main question facing the working class in Britain at the May 5 elections was not Iran, but the vicious cuts assault of the coalition government. The CPGB’s position was to vote for working class candidates who committed themselves to oppose and, if elected, vote against all cuts.
7. For these reasons the CPGB dissociates itself from the open letter and reaffirms that it was correct to call for a critical vote for the ‘George Galloway (Respect) - Coalition Against Cuts’ list in Glasgow.
8. We self-criticise for the late expression of a clear CPGB line on specific votes in these elections, though our main line and orientation were expressed in our perspectives document adopted in March; we also self-criticise for weaknesses of discussion in our press of the concrete issue of the ‘George Galloway (Respect) - Coalition Against Cuts’ list in Glasgow and of criticisms of George Galloway in this context.