Ditch sects and fronts
Last Saturday's launch of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative provided further evidence of an increasingly fractured, rightward-drifting left. Ben Lewis reports
As I reported in last week’s Weekly Worker, bound up with the recent decamping of 15 younger comrades from Workers Power (British Section of the League for a Fifth International) is another far-left unity drive under the title of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative. I was at its founding national conference on April 28, and was thus able to get more of an insight into the dynamics. All three recent splinters are heavily involved: Workers Power itself, Permanent Revolution and the former WP youth.
Not that the split was openly, honestly debated and accounted for from the conference floor. I think I was the only speaker to mention it at all. Most of what I was able to discover about what is actually going on came from where the politics really happens - in the café before the meeting, and in the pub following it. This is, after all, British Trotskyism, and Saturday was about talking to the ‘broader’ masses: ie, the 40 or 50 people who are not involved with Workers Power and its splits (those present from WP/ex-WP backgrounds must have numbered around 25-30).
Indeed, almost all of the ‘local anti-capitalist groups’ represented at the meeting came from areas where WP and its splinters have traditionally been organised - south London, Sussex, Manchester and Leeds. In spite of the ‘official optimism’ witnessed in several reports of the weekend, the low numbers, the low level of politics and the inability to reach out to wider forces must have been a cause for some disappointment.
Behind the scenes
More of that later. My first impressions of what was in store came when I arrived at the University of London Union early to grab a coffee and catch up with some reading. I came across the two people who had made it down from Manchester - former WP leading member John Bowman and ex-CPGB comrade Chris Strafford. We were soon joined by other members of the recent split, such as Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper, as well as Stuart King of the Permanent Revolution group.
It slowly became evident that I had inadvertently walked into some kind of organisational meeting for the day. Who was going to run registration? Who was going to chair? Etc. Indeed, in between some exchanges around my article on the WP split in the Weekly Worker, I was also asked whether I would run the registration desk (I politely declined, but comrade Chris Strafford was more than willing to carry out such a task).
I then heard something in conversation which made my ears prick up. A comrade was having a jest with Simon Hardy for not placing any demands on Permanent Revolution in relation to “a new journal”, when he quite clearly should have asked for “less on Kronstadt, and less on political economy”. I enquired as to the status of this journal, and was told it would be “announced when it is announced”. It would appear that there has been some behind-the-scenes rapprochement between PR and the WP youth. This seems to have taken place two weeks ago, when leading WP youth were seen at the ‘PR publications’ aggregate.
I later found out, again in private conversation, that this journal was going to be for “the Marxists in the Anti-Capitalist Initiative”. Only those in Permanent Revolution and the recent young split seem to be in the loop for now.
Anyway, this little organisation meeting did allow me to also get an impression of what those pulling the strings in this project understand by it. For Stuart King, whose joint resolution with Luke Cooper was later passed, the Marxists should seek to be “as minoritarian as possible” within a new formation, reaching out to “broader” forces in the Occupy movement, anarchists, autonomists, etc. Stuart took issue with my argument that the failures of the left in the last 10 years or so should be located at the level of programme and faux-attempts at unity around things like the sub-reformist, nationalist hodge-podge that was People before profit. For Stuart, however, the latter was a “good, leftwing programme” for unity.
Just before the conference, I also spoke to Richard Brenner (WP majority) , who was very friendly and forthcoming. He explained what he meant by his proposals for an anti-capitalist initiative, arguing that the ‘non-affiliated’ unions could play a role in what he saw as a kind of ‘transitional party’ on the way to the revolutionary party we need. I asked whether, as a result, he would, for example, support Unison disaffiliation from Labour, which he affirmed. When I pointed out that such a move would be likely to lead to an apolitical dead end, comrade Brenner said that I did not understand Trotsky’s workers’ party tactic of the 1930s. That we are not in America, or the 1930s, did not seem directly relevant to him.
I then made my way up to meeting room 3B, more aware of what was going on behind the scenes than many of the other comrades attending, who would be told nothing of the plans of those pulling the strings. (Indeed, Richard Brenner was also surprised to hear of the plans for a publication!)
It was quite clear, however, that both sides of the WP split were seeking to set their agenda ‘to the right’ of the Marxist politics they purportedly uphold.
In introducing the meeting, Simon Hardy talked about how the initiative had been launched last December, following a sense of “disappointment” with a situation where there are three different national anti-cuts campaigns and there has been such a weak level of resistance to austerity. While, behind the scenes at least, his plans were quite clear, he stated that “nothing was off the table” in terms of a future organisation. He wanted it to be “an open forum where people can come with their ideas”. Nick Jones of the National Union of Teachers then spoke about the mood for a fightback in the NUT, something that was being held back by the leadership and the union ‘broad left’. This necessitated a rank-and-file movement in the unions.
Quite right, and this discussion dominated the first session. Many bemoaned the fact that little was done about actually building a rank-and-file movement, despite the left constantly talking about a much needed initiative. But what politics was this movement to have? I made the point that the political basis of such a movement would have to offer a consistent, viable and inspiring alternative to the nationalist, state-loyal and anti-democratic outlook of the trade union bureaucracy, including many of the ‘broad lefts’ or ‘left bureaucrats’.
Moreover, the notion that 80 people are going to go off and build a rank-and-file movement in the unions is either cynical posturing or naive self-delusion. Rebuilding the class as a whole, not just in the unions, presupposes a partyist project that is different from, and counterposed to, Labourism. Matt Cooper from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty made the point that a rank-and-file movement is not something that is announced or built overnight: it takes long and patient work.
Little by way of programme was discussed, with most comrades content to speak about the “key points we agree on” (Andy, Leeds Workers Power), especially since “nobody on the left” was attempting rank-and-file work at the moment. The basis for this rather odd assertion was that the Socialist Workers Party’s Unite the Resistance front had cancelled its proposed conference. But is establishing another, significantly smaller, front really the answer? Comrade Barbara Dorn from the International Bolshevik Tendency did suggest that the problem was one of “programme”: ie, that we were divided on the key question of reform or revolution. Therefore, it would be better to join in common actions wherever possible and discuss such cardinal questions as honestly as possible. That is certainly preferable to setting up yet another front group.
All three strands of current/former WP cadre mainly focussed their fire on the need for grassroots organisation and rank-and-file structures in the unions, which often involved reporting on the state of basic union organisation and structure. This was not entirely without merit, but it also exposed the ‘activist/spontaneist’ limitations of the comrades. One of the WP youth splinter talked about pushing for a national demo on the national health service through an organisation similar to the Stop the War Coalition, but geared towards the NHS. He cited the “days of action” that “drew the mass” behind the student movement of 2010-11, which is hardly thinking big.
To the extent that the party question emerged at all, it mainly came from the ranks of those who saw such a formation as the last thing that was needed, given they had already spent years of their life ‘building the party’. Doubtless sincere, these comrades were obviously burnt by their experiences, and thus were content to concentrate on building ‘the movement’. This sentiment was hardly challenged by the Marxists in the room.
The politics of the new initiative was discussed in the second session. Comrade Brenner introduced a motion from Workers Power, which broadly sketched out a “process to develop a political programme” based on the template I critiqued in my last article: ie, “opposition to austerity, privatisation, racism, sexism, imperialist war”. Comrade Brenner said that his proposals did not mean “waiting for the unions”, but taking steps forward now (this did not mean that the programmatic proposals were not aimed at luring ‘left’ unions, of course).
However, his proposals did actually have the merit of putting forward actual politics aimed at some kind of party project - Luke Cooper had defended a ‘broad network’ by pointing out that there was not agreement on the party question at this point. While he did not do so explicitly, Stuart King defended this kind of anti-party liquidationism with clarity: “Let’s not rush it,” he implored. “If we say we are for a party then UK Uncut and the anarchists will run a mile.” Toby Abse said that the forces for revolutionary regroupment were “too small” at this time. Better, he thought, to set up a broad party able to fight back by defending the NHS, etc. Things got even worse when Bill Jeffries of PR spoke. Echoing the infamous words of John Rees at the founding conference of Respect, he said: “We are building a network from the base up.” Therefore, it was not the people at this meeting who would decide our policy, but those not currently in the room - “the ones who are out there joining” the movement.
I wonder, then, just what Bill thinks the role of Marxist politicians actually is. Why bother with programmatic debates, and studying the works of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky et al? Speaking against WP’s motion, Simon Hardy said something that perhaps let slip the limited nature of the project’s aim. For him, WP’s (halfway house) proposals should be seen more as “the end of the process than the beginning”. Agitating for what she called “libertarian communism”, one comrade quite rightly made the point that this whole thing smacked of the far left once again toning down its politics in the name of a quick fix.
The first resolution from PR and the ex-WP youth was almost entirely lacking in programmatic content. It was important to search out “avenues for unity and cooperation that present radical and socialist ideas in a way that is more appealing to new layers of activists”; and to promote “activity and struggle that aims to overcome division and sectarianism and points the way to a new type of society without exploitation and oppression” (in line with the spontaneism of WP, this emphasis on ‘action’ as the main way of overcoming left divisions and sectarianism was a common one).
Given the choice between an open, unashamed halfway house party (Workers Power, motion 2) and one that left this aim unstated (motion 1), I argued that both should be opposed - it is utterly pointless setting up a network on such a basis, and much better to continue to seek further political and strategic discussions. As it was, the first part of motion 1 passed by 35 votes to 13 with 11 abstentions. The second part, establishing a steering committee etc, passed with just two votes against and a handful of abstentions. Motion 2 was fairly soundly defeated (I do not have the exact figures), so the ACI is not officially aiming for any kind of party. A third motion, aimed at establishing a campaign to defend the NHS, was unsurprisingly passed with just one recently expelled WP activist dissenting.
For all the talk of a ‘new’ initiative, on Saturday, the speeches, atmosphere and nature of the discussions reminded me of the many student ‘unity’ conferences I have attended over the years. The difference being that initiatives like Education Not for Sale, Education Activist Network, Student Respect, etc actually mobilised more numbers to their events, despite the fact that they were limited to students.
Those like Chris Strafford who walked out of the CPGB in order to pursue the “positive step” of the ACI, but who remain members of Communist Students, might do well to look back at the CS critique of these ‘broad front’, ‘anti-capitalist’ student organisations such as ENS. They apply in equal measure to the ACI. What Dave Isaacson and Ben Klein wrote after an ENS conference in 2007 could apply to 2012: “The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is setting up this organisation - it supplies the bulk of the organised activists and has political control of ENS. Instead of looking to establishing something guided and informed by the politics of Marxism, the AWL comrades are, in the name of unity with largely imaginary forces, consciously limiting their politics.”
Comrade Strafford, unwilling to take up the argument for the ACI in the CPGB, is now concentrating his fire on getting Communist Students involved. Aware that he cannot now plausibly argue that the problems of the left in the past 20 years have stemmed from illusions in broad frontism and the conscious limiting of the Marxist programme, his recent article on the CS website offers us a new explanation: “The last two decades are littered with the corpses of failed left unity projects. One of the key errors of these attempts was the focus on or collapse into electoralism. Instead of building organisations that were in tune with the rhythm of working class struggle, the left built entities that hibernated between elections. The left must dump this approach and see elections as an occasional opportunity to spread its programme or progress a particular struggle”.
This is highly confused. It is true that the Socialist Alliance in particular “hibernated between elections” and that it was guilty of “electoralism” by opportunistically watering down its programme. But in this it is at one with the approach of the ACI. The idea is not even to “spread” a dishonest, extraordinarily limited and thoroughly incoherent programme. The idea is that action, almost in and of itself, provides the key to the future. A hopeless perspective.
So what about the recent split from WP? So far neither side has published the details of their disputes, but some kind of picture is starting to emerge. I agree with the WP majority (with reservations) when it describes the recent split as liquidationist: ie, that these comrades saw “the transitional organisation” (the ACI) as “an end in itself, a replacement for Workers Power in its present form and with its present politics”. The comrades of the split are clearly junking their old politics, but together with their former comrades are bent on setting something up which has nothing whatever to do with the Marxist world outlook, the Marxist programme and the Marxist method of party building: in other words all three current and former WP factions are committed to the politics of liquidationism.
It is delectably ironic that these debates are occurring around the time of the 100-year anniversary of the 1912 Prague conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The controversy surrounding liquidationism and partyism at that conference has big ramifications for today. If the newly decamped WP comrades are claiming to draw on some of the latest scholarship on Lenin and the Bolsheviks, then they are definitely drawing the wrong conclusions. Certainly not the kind of Marxist-partyist conclusions we in the CPGB draw. Rather disingenuously, a WP statement attributes the liquidationism of their former comrades to “the quasi-libertarian critiques of Leninism and Trotskyism presently fashionable on the English-speaking left: Pham Binh, Louis Proyect and the Weekly Worker”. But this paper has polemicised against the movementist and, yes, liquidationist conclusions drawn by Pham Binh.
Of course, what the young WP comrades are liquidating is not Marxism, but the sect outlook they have acquired in Workers Power. This constant flipping between sectarianism and liquidationism/opportunism has, unfortunately, been characteristic of the far left for far too long. On the one hand, Marxism for them means the ideological agreement of the tightly-knit sect around things like the first four congresses of Comintern or the nature of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the comrades constantly limit their ‘practical’ political outlook so as to ‘get an audience’, ‘catch the wind’ or provide a space to seek allies to their right. This, not “electoralism” per se, is the “key failure” of the left to make any serious moves in the direction of a united Communist Party.
Understanding the sectarian side of the coin is important, because it directly feeds into liquidationism. The former WP comrades are reacting negatively, apolitically, to the culture of their former organisation. WP states: “The public discussion of internal disputes is not a general principle of communist organisation. It is, of course, unavoidable in a mass party, whose internal life will be reported in its mass press. There is no abstract ‘right’, however, for an individual party member, or for minorities, to criticise the party in public.”
In conversation with me, comrade King accused the CPGB of operating on a similar sect basis to WP and the IBT: ie, that the CPGB is only prepared to unite with you “when you agree to our programme”. But again this is nonsense. What we say is that unless we openly commit to building a party committed to the programmatic fundamentals of Marxism, with space and room to debate tactical and indeed strategic disagreements, then we will not get anywhere at all. What do we learn from 1912? That at all times, whatever the level of the class struggle, the task of Marxists is to unite all those committed to a Marxist political party.
For us, theory and programme are not afterthoughts, or things that are abandoned for further ‘down the line’ as part of some non-defined ‘process’. Social democracy is not a signpost to Marxism.
Comrade Brenner and other speakers on Saturday quite correctly highlighted the anti-capitalist sentiment that exists in society. There is a real mood for change. But the task of Marxists is to finally break with both sides of the sect dichotomy. That requires a political fight amongst the advanced sections of the class, not walking away from big disputes like the younger comrades from WP in the name of ‘getting out there’, frustrated at the failures of the left. So now we have yet another ‘broad front’ initiative (with a behind-the-scenes regroupment project in the background), which now seems to have spilled over into the ranks of Communist Students.
If we are to live up to the great historical responsibilities thrown the way of revolutionaries, then we must foreground the creation of a political alternative that can rebuild the class, instead of merely posturing in that direction.
1. There is a fourth splinter around those who were expelled at the last conference of Workers Power for breaking discipline over Libya. These comrades appear to be working closely with Gerry Downing’s Socialist Fight group.
2. ‘Building a new left: a great start’ (http://southlondonanticapitalists.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/building-a-new-left-a-great-start) includes this quote from ‘Tom’, which shows the direction in which the project is headed: “I’ve long been active in social movements and interested in Marxist ideas, but the idea of joining a top-down left party never appealed. I’m excited about this new initiative because it offers a space to discuss a range of anti-capitalist perspectives and organise action as equals.” Stuart King’s report, ‘A hopeful start’, can be read at www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/3400.
3. In reality the ‘anti-capitalist party’ tactic of Workers Power has a much longer history. See Peter Manson’s report of the (united) Workers Power advocacy of halfway-housism: ‘Rival CNWP launched’ Weekly Worker November 19 2009.
4. ‘Left unity not on offer’ Weekly Worker, May 15 2008.
5. http://communiststudents.org.uk/?p=7354. Bizarrely, given what actually happened on Saturday, his article is entitled ‘Revolutionary unity and building the fightback’.
6. ‘Statement on resignations from the British section of the League’.
9. Such an approach is not exclusive to the IBT. It is also that of Workers Power. In its statement WP writes, without any sense of irony or humility: “We do not present our programme as an ultimatum, in a ‘take it or leave it’, ‘all or nothing’ way. We are clear, however, that without it the new organisation would not be a fully revolutionary organisation; it would be some sort of intermediate centrist organisation.” This is all the more absurd, as it is essentially arguing that it is somehow incumbent upon Marxists to establish centrist parties!