Whilst last-ditch negotiations to get Democratic Left into coalition with New Democracy and Pasok are still going on as I am writing, the probability is that Greece will have a second general election on June 10 or 17. If, as is likely, Syriza emerges as the largest single party and gains the 50-seat bonus, it has an obligation to try and form a united left government with the KKE, Democratic Left and any other left group that might hypothetically cross the threshold and obtain parliamentary representation.
To argue, as the Weekly Worker does (‘Electors in France and Greece strike a blow against austerity’, May 10), that it should remain a party of extreme opposition until it has the support of over 50% of the population and could implement whatever the CPGB regards as the full programme makes no sense in these circumstances of extreme crisis. A failure of leadership on the part of the left could open the way to Golden Dawn, Laos, the Independent Greeks or the military coming up with some form of extreme-right, nationalist, authoritarian solution in the event of Greece leaving or being expelled from the euro zone.
Obviously, a left government - what some call a ‘workers’ government’ on the basis of the theory adopted by the Fourth Congress of the Comintern - would find itself in a very difficult position (under attack from both domestic and international reaction) as a result of a repudiation of the memorandum and its austerity policies and a refusal to pay the debt. It would have to appeal to the labour movement elsewhere in the EU - in the first instance, the labour movement in Spain, Portugal and Italy, where there is a greater awareness of what is at stake - for support. But, if Syriza failed to make such an attempt, large numbers of those Greeks disgusted with the troika and its austerity policies would lose all confidence in the left and turn to the nationalist right.
If historical comparisons with Germany are to be made, they are with 1923 or 1929-33, not the position of Kautsky and the SPD before 1914, as you seem to be suggesting. In practice, whilst you are not adopting the more blatantly third period position of the KKE in its post-election statement, which in effect regards Syriza as the last card of the bourgeoisie, your position is a form of ultra-leftism too.
Whatever the differences amongst the rest of the British left, everybody I have come across in recent days - whether in the Socialist Alliance, the Alliance for Green Socialism or the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party or Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - would broadly support my position and not yours. If a second election gives Syriza a lead over ND, we should be urging Syriza: take the power!
Not our baby
Simon Hardy and Chris Strafford say of the new Anti-Capitalist Initiative meeting, on which we reported negatively, that, “even though it was just an organising meeting, it was still bigger than anything the Campaign for a Marxist Party - the CPGB’s one-time ‘baby’ - was ever able to pull off” (Letters, May 10).
This response is just to clarify that the Campaign for a Marxist Party was never the CPGB’s “baby”. It was the initiative of the Glasgow Critique Supporters Group, with the support of the Democratic Socialist Alliance of John Pearson, the late Dave Spencer and others. We were from the very outset critical of the call issued by Critique for the conference which set up the new formation - among other reasons because we thought the project of simply planting a flag for a new Marxist party was unrealistic: see, for example, my own article, ‘Fight where Marxists are’ (July 11 2006).
We decided initially to participate on a minority basis in the experiment, and later blocked with Hillel Ticktin and other comrades when the DSA leadership seemed to go mad; but at no point did we abandon our fundamental criticism that the creation of what we would call a Marxist party requires the unity of the existing organised far left on an open and principled basis, not the setting up of a wholly new group without its participation; and, at the end, comrades outside the DSA came to agree with us that the experiment had failed.
The history is summarised in Mark Fischer’s December 4 2008 article, ‘Time to move on’, explaining the decision to propose closure of the CMP. It can be traced in more detail in articles in this paper in the intervening period.
There is a sense in which the decision of the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire to launch the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste displayed on a much larger scale the same problem of attempting to go round the existing organised left and appeal directly to ‘newly radicalising forces’. This project had a brief success, but is now reduced to something of around the same size as the Ligue at the time of its launch: it turned out that the NPA’s appeal to new forces of activists could not bypass and marginalise either Lutte Ouvrière or the periphery of the Lambertistes in the Socialist Party who are reflected in Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche.
The Anti-Capitalist Initiative manages to combine this problem with the Brit far left’s usual fetish of covering up comrades’ own politics in the name of ‘breadth’.
Not our baby
Not our baby
Joy of sects
Pham Binh is correct when he writes that making the fundamentals of Marxism the precondition for any party-building project guarantees that our efforts never get beyond the conceptual stage of abstractions (Letters, May 10).
There are those who believe that, if we are going to form a party, or win over the Labour Party, we should do this on the basis of Marxism. Such individuals are not only living in the past, but they are also demonstrating their sect mentality. Does the ruling class make believing in Adam Smith a precondition for membership of the Conservative Party? Like the ruling class, we should seek to win over people on the basis of our core values rather than ideological dogmas.
The communist movement needs to grow up and move beyond the stage of infantile doctrinarism. We can all agree with the aims of Marx - a communist society. This should not oblige anyone to agree with Marx’s theories as a precondition for forming a party. For instance, I am a communist, but I follow Marx’s own position of not calling myself a Marxist. One reason for this is that I no longer believe in the Marxist teaching that whether or not people exploit each other depends on the degree of development of society’s productive forces. Marxism also teaches that it is overproduction which would most likely lead to the downfall of capitalism. Neither Marx nor any of his followers anticipated that an energy shortage could trigger a crisis which ends in the downfall of capitalism.
Forming a new party or winning over the Labour Party on the basis of ‘Marxism’ is today the height of sectism.
Joy of sects
Joy of sects
What a series of exchanges the past couple of weeks! From economistic overtones on the part of Chris Strafford to responses by Pham Binh, I’ll try to respond to each as concisely as I can.
First, Chris Strafford’s move to the Anti-Capitalist Initiative seems to be a move with economistic and especially trade unionist overtones, yet I don’t know what to make of his concerning statement of “collapsing into the Labour Representation Committee” in light of polemics for working inside and outside the Labour Party. I have made my case in past letters that three kinds of parties need to exist on the British left to supplant Labourism: communist worker parties, proletocratic or proletarian-not-necessarily-communist parties, and continental ‘bourgeois worker’ parties. Strafford’s concerns about CPGB relations with some left Labourites are at least somewhat valid, because of the Weekly Worker’s straw man of equating all left-reformist projects in the UK with ‘Labour mark two’. Continental ‘bourgeois worker’ parties didn’t start out as somewhat political projects by a country’s trade unions, but were formed independently of trade union activity.
Second, in all the exchanges between Lars Lih, Paul Le Blanc, Pham Binh and Mike Macnair on ‘liquidationism’, for some reason nobody mentioned the German precedent historically or currently (the four participants I just mentioned). Even if the liquidationists succeeded, their amateurism would have been less damaging than, say, the SAPD of Germany liquidating its illegal underground during the anti-socialist laws - the illegal underground apparatus of the Gotha programme party was simply much larger. Contemporarily speaking, if a mass party organisation had a wing for legal activity and a wing for mass civil disobedience campaigns and other ‘extra-legal’ but not bomb-throwing-style illegal activity, trying to wrap up the latter through party mechanisms would be tantamount to liquidationism.
Third, Pham Binh’s concluding remarks are mixed, in my opinion. There’s too much attachment to unions; the main problem isn’t that they’re reformist (which most of them certainly are), but that they’re rarely political in the first place. The comrade mentions the Eisenacher-Lassallean unity of 1875, but the Lassalleans pointed to problems with union activism more accurately than any left communist ever did (which almost circles back to my statement above on Strafford).
Also, conflated as one are programme, strategy and ‘theory’. Programmatic unity is paramount, for without a revolutionary programme there can be no revolutionary movement. Next in line is strategic unity, around the revolutionary strategy that adapts orthodox Marxism to modern circumstances (alternative culture and an independent but nonetheless institutional approach, refusal of non-proletocratic coalitions, of strike and council fetishes, of popular and other fronts that aren’t both communitarian and populist, etc). Way, way down the pecking order is ‘theory’ (whether historical à la state capitalism vs bureaucratic collectivism vs degenerated/deformed workers’ state, or contemporary à la inclusive democracy, power theory of value, etc).
A brief comment at the end of a report of a CPGB aggregate has prompted Chris Stratford to write a letter claiming victimisation and making accusations of lack of democracy in the CPGB (Letters, May 10). As far as I know, the CPGB Provisional Central Committee had consciously decided not to press the issue of Chris’s irregular payment of dues or his frequent absence from party events when he was a member precisely so that he did not feel he was being victimised for his political differences.
Chris is well aware that Hands Off the People of Iran has its own budget, which is used for travel, booking rooms, etc. Any Hopi expenses he incurred should have been raised with Hopi itself, not paid in lieu of CPGB dues. The question of lack of commitment was raised in the week before Chris’s resignation as a criticism of his decision not to attend the Hopi weekend school, an event he had helped organise. For all his excellent work in Hopi, Chris should realise that serious political commitment, a level of self-discipline and perseverance in convincing others is essential for anyone who wants to be taken seriously, and he is no exception to this rule.
Those of us who keep reminding him of this are not using this as slander or to undermine his politics.
In view of your comradely inclusion of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in a pre-election article, it was slightly disappointing that in the round-up of results the SPGB vote was omitted (‘Same old failings’, May 10). Under our usual manifesto of socialism and nothing but socialism, declining to present a wish-list of palliatives, the two Socialist Party candidates acquired a total of 4,281 votes. In Lambeth and Southwark, Daniel Lambert achieved 2,938 votes or 1.9% (up from 1,588 votes and 1.0% in the 2008 election). In Merton and Wandsworth, James Martin achieved 1,343 votes or 0.9%.
It is interesting that the list vote for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was smaller than the constituency vote for ourselves (1,047 less in Lambeth and Southwark and 439 less in Merton and Wandsworth), since Tusc was offering a programme of attractive reforms (“jobs with a living wage for all”, “cheap, efficient and safe public transport”, “affordable homes for all”) while we just advocate socialism. We also succeeded in gaining more votes than the BNP for both wards.
Who says impossiblism doesn’t hold an appeal to voters?
It is not just the Weekly Worker which overlooks the electoral result of the SPGB. Simon Hardy and Chris Strafford write: “… we cannot simply slap down a Marxist programme and rally thousands to our banner” (Letters, May 10). While you could dispute the motives of the 4,281 people who voted SPGB, the election literature is unambiguous. ‘Don’t vote for us unless you understand and want socialism’ is a principled position that any new fronts would do well to consider.
Under the guise of finding an explanation for Anders Breivik’s behaviour, Willie Hunter introduces some dubious propositions (Letters, May 10). He sets up, in opposition, those he terms blue-eyed, blond, Christian Norwegians against others who are not - ie, Muslim Norwegians. He takes the latter to be an intrusive, sudden and surprising constituency, which he labels a problem.
Just because a sociopathic racist went on a murder spree, there is no call for an examination, ‘careful’ or otherwise, of Islam in Norway. Overwhelmingly, Norwegians live at peace with each other. Yet apparently Hunter knows which is the “dominant Nordic population” and it does not include that small fraction of Norwegians who, in Hunter’s view, fail these essential racial qualities. His lurid dichotomies are reminiscent of a Nazi ideology that saw the blond, blue-eyed Volk under threat from the Jewish bacillus in their midst.
Hunter is puzzled that Norway, which is not in the European Union, should “suffer from ... ethnic minority migration”, presumably because he believes that Norway should restrict itself to ethnically similar migrants. Or perhaps he thinks that non-EU countries shouldn’t accept migrants at all. Perhaps he believes the EU shouldn’t either, given the threat to its “traditional populations”. In the end, who cares? The Weekly Worker had the courage to expose Hunter’s rant and is suitably rewarded, with his description of the newspaper’s opposition to Islamophobia as “rotten”.
Over the weekend of March 30-April 1 I was invited to speak at the Platypus International Convention in Chicago, USA. I must thank the Platypus comrades for the invitation and for their hospitality. Equally, I must apologise for taking so long in writing up my impressions of the event.
The convention, entitled ‘What just happened?’, was attended by about 90 people over the course of the three days. The aim was to work through some of the theoretical and political problems of the “1990s and 2000s left” as a way of understanding contemporary far-left practice.
To this end, the convention hosted a number of political organisations, groups and networks from several countries, with several competing agendas and outlooks. There were speakers from groups as diverse as the International Bolshevik Tendency, the International Marxist Tendency, News and Letters Collective and anarchist groups like Crimethinc.
This aspect of Platypus’s approach - “hosting the conversation” - is to be welcomed. We on the left as a whole cannot move forward without serious and rigorous political debate and discussion, or without closely scrutinising our collective history. It was therefore encouraging to see most of the small, fragmented US left come together for the event (one notable exception was the International Socialist Organization, which, despite a strong presence in Chicago, did not attend).
However, the conference often felt less like a “conversation” and more like a monologue. The workshops saw comrades give a short talk outlining the case for their particular group, and matters of controversy were only broached in the rather restricted Q and A session. While I was able to listen to some interesting presentations from comrades like Peter Hudis (US Marxist Humanists) and Josh Dekker of the IBT, I missed out on other groups’ workshops running at the same time. In my opinion, if the groups had discussed particularly contentious or dividing issues with each other, that would have made for a far better introduction to their politics.
Yet some of the panel discussions that were held were disappointing. The one on the 1990s and 2000s left featured a smattering of far-left groups, but speakers seemed to go out of their way not to discuss their differences. That was a shame, and several other comrades made comments to that effect. The debate between the IBT’s Tom Riley and myself was certainly not characterised by diplomacy or skirting around differences, however, and I think many of the conference attendees took a lot from it as a result.
There was one particularly worrying aspect of “hosting the conversation”. For example, when one speaker from the journal Phase II repeatedly conflated the terms ‘anti-Zionist’ and ‘anti-Semitic’ in his talk on anti-fascism in Germany, I was the only one who challenged him on this typically protean anti-Deutsch method of debate. Whatever the merits of “hosting” such views, they should certainly not go unchallenged.
Having only met a few of the Platypus leading cadre in the past, the convention allowed me to gain more of an impression of the organisation and its dynamics. I was impressed that the project has been able to draw together a number of quite serious young people on the American left looking for a rigorous engagement with Marxist theory. The Platypus comrades are often, though not always, students who have simply had enough of mindless, demoralising, ‘headless-chicken’ activism. The comrades are often fairly up to speed with the nuances and shades of far-left opinion.
The level at which many engaged with the politics of the CPGB and the Weekly Worker was certainly a refreshing change from the usual ‘They’re Stalinists/Kautskyites/Trotskyites’ response with which we CPGBers are all too familiar. The Platypus people had lots of questions for me, and this led to lengthy, engaging and indeed exhausting discussions - in the meetings, in the breaks and at the social on Saturday evening (I have to admit that I missed the session on anarchism due to a very long argument on Lenin with Platypus co-founder Richard Rubin and several IBT and Platypus members).
I cannot say that I fully understand where Platypus is going or what it is trying to achieve. This is perhaps because it self-defines as a “pre-political” project, summed up by one comrade when he said: “The question of whether to act means asking whether it is possible to act.” It would indeed be difficult for Platypus to act politically at all in its present form. It has no programme, and its ‘theoretical heritage’ is a complex, even eclectic, mix of Moishe Postone, Karl Korsch, Theodor Adorno and the Spartacism of Joseph Seymour. The latter’s Lenin and the vanguard party (in my opinion, a résumé of essentially everything that is wrong with the left’s understanding of Bolshevism) is still a Platypus-recommended text.
During the Lenin debate, I made the point that, for all our significant differences, the CPGB and the IBT are, for example, probably ‘closer’ as a project than the CPGB and Platypus. Some of the Platypus comrades, and indeed the IBTers, were surprised by this, but I still think it is true. Formally speaking, the CPGB and IBT project is the same: ie to form an international revolutionary party that can lead a revolution. As far as I can see, that is not true of the current Platypus project, because it actually questions whether it is possible to forge such an organisation in light of the defeats that Marxism has endured. Perhaps my belief that it is possible is premised on some historical naivety.
But, to repeat the basic point I made at the school, we certainly will not be able to make moves in the direction of Marxist partyism and regroupment by basing ourselves on Seymour’s Stalinoid version of Bolshevism. That is the tried and tested road to sectdom.