Small rooms and the politics of dishonesty
The Anti-Capitalist Initiative represents a further liquidationist retreat, writes Peter Manson
Richard Brenner of Workers Power is not too keen on the Weekly Worker’s characterisation of the aim of his organisation in its sponsorship of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative: to create yet another halfway house formation as a ‘stepping stone’ to the revolutionary party our class really needs.
Responding to Ben Lewis’s article, ‘Ditch sects and fronts’ (May 3), which reported on the April 28 launch of the ACI, comrade Brenner writes: “It is … a distortion for Ben Lewis of the Weekly Worker to write that we promoted ‘an open, unashamed halfway house party’ on some kind of incoherent programme intermediate between parliamentary reforms and revolution. We are simply practical enough to recognise that a programmatic discussion cannot be successfully concluded before it has begun.”
So, in the meantime, why call for the ACI to put forward any programmatic demands at all? Comrade Brenner has an answer to that one: “… we are very clear that our proposals were just a few starting principles at the beginning of a discussion, not a systematic political programme, let alone the revolutionary programme we will need if we are to create a unified new organisation that will survive the blows of the class struggle over the years ahead and that will distinguish itself in the movement by promoting a far-sighted and coherent strategy to the resistance, to connect it in practical ways to the fight for revolution.”
In other words, the “starting principles” which WP wants the ACI to adopt as a basis for discussing its programme are not those of revolutionary Marxism, but a series of demands for the movement of resistance to capital’s austerity assault. It is, of course, an excellent thing to equip our movement with such a series of demands, but should they be used to establish the political parameters upon which a party should be based? Surely a revolutionary workers’ party, of the type WP says it will fight for within the ACI, must attempt to unite working class militants around a programme for a socialist society.
Back in September 2009, when WP launched its ‘Call for an Anti-Capitalist Party’, it was presented as an “appeal to all the trade unions and socialist organisations, to all activists fighting for resistance from below, to anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigners confronting the BNP, to the trade union leaders and members: let’s unite and build a new anti-capitalist party”.
Is it likely that all those “trade union leaders” looking to found a new party would accept revolutionary Marxism as its basis? As recently as last month in fact, comrade Brenner confirmed that such a Labour-type party remains WP’s aim. Writing on Louis Proyect’s blog on April 14, he stated: “In Britain we are campaigning for a rank-and-file movement in the trade unions, for the unification of the anti-cuts campaigns, for a new mass working class party based on the unions and the left. It is in close connection with all three of those projects that we are promoting the new anti-capitalist initiative”.
So why deny that the proposed party would be a halfway house? At a WP weekend school in November 2009 comrade Brenner declared that the new formation would “not be an alternative to the revolutionary party of the working class” - it would be “a way of getting there”. And that is exactly how advocates of halfway house formations envisage them. In reality, however, they end up seeking approval from the right and represent a retreat from revolutionary politics.
It goes without saying that if such a formation really could open the road to a Marxist party then it would be crazy to oppose it. But the problem is that a halfway house set up by revolutionaries cannot but lead in the opposite direction. They must water down their revolutionism to stand any chance of attracting the non-revolutionary union leaders and members - not to mention the libertarian/anarchistic Occupy partisans in the ACI’s sights. After all, none of them are exactly rushing to join the existing revolutionary groups, are they? That is why we say that to campaign for a halfway house is a form of liquidationism, whereby the left contents itself with platitudinous “starting principles” and restricts its Marxism to its own internal events and the pages of its little-read journals.
Simon Hardy and Chris Strafford in their joint letter to the Weekly Worker confirm this approach when they write: “No-one has renounced Marxist politics, but we are realistic that we simply cannot slap down a Marxist programme and rally thousands to our banner.” Neither comrade is a WP member, of course - Hardy recently led a small split from that organisation, while Strafford has just abandoned the CPGB in favour of the ACI - but, rest assured, like WP they retain “the aim of launching a revolutionary organisation in the future”.
For their part the comrades of Permanent Revolution, an earlier split from WP, reject the idea that the ACI should even adopt the aim of a party (of any type): “… the remaining members of WP, who are helping to build the project, have a schema that sees the ACI in terms of ‘building a workers’ party’ as an alternative to Labour, replete with programme, democratic centralism, directing centre, etc. This is not how we, the comrades who recently left WP or the majority of people involved see this initiative.
“Most of the people involved … don’t see this as some Leninist or Trotskyist project, but an initiative to link up and work with quite divergent movements and activists - from libertarian, syndicalist, horizontalist and even anarchist traditions, alongside those from none of the above. It means we are going to have to move outside our comfort zones, work with people from UK Uncut, Occupy, climate change activists, in ways that are new, and go beyond ‘selling the paper and building the party’. But it also means trying to build some sort of local and national anti-capitalist coordination that overcomes the traditional divisions and sectarianism on the left; one that aims to link the new radical movements into the struggle to transform the trade unions into fighting allies of anti-capitalism.”
OK, so let us suspend our disbelief and assume that a few hundred people from the “libertarian, syndicalist, horizontalist and even anarchist traditions” are won over to the idea of linking up with the WP milieu in a loose network. Continuing the fantasy, let us imagine that the left “overcomes the traditional divisions and sectarianism” and does the same. Where does that lead? To a nice, big anti-cuts movement? It goes without saying that a single anti-cuts movement would be an advance on the current divisions, but can you really see it happening as a result of the ACI, which in its own peculiar way embodies the disorientation and fragmentation of the left?
Wait a minute, though. This “coordination” will not just be against the cuts, will it? It will be “anti-capitalist”, presumably campaigning against the system as a whole. Yet it will not set itself the aim of fighting for the socialist alternative to that system, let alone of establishing the only force that can lead that fight: a single, united Marxist party. So what is the point of it all?
Comrades Hardy and Strafford stress another laudable aim: the ACI can help “organise a genuine rank-and-file initiative” and “link up existing forces fighting for this”. The problem with this is that class-conscious workers are very thin on the ground and where they exist they are often aligned to, or are members of, one of the existing left groups. True, there will be groups of workers who are prepared to use very militant tactics to defend their own terms and conditions. But that hardly adds up to a class viewpoint. The key question today, therefore, is how to unite the left in a way (a) that can work, (b) that is principled, (c) that can dig deep social roots, and (d) that has a realistic prospect of equipping the working class with the kind of programme needed for it to come to power not only in this country, but globally: ie, it must have correct orientation to the existing state and its constitution, the Labour Party, the trade unions, the European Union.
So it is not a case of “deriding the meeting as small”, as comrades Hardy and Strafford allege we have done. Small meetings are certainly needed if we are to work towards meaningful unity and thrash out our differences. Nor is it a case of our being “too bitter to take part”. We actually wrote to WP asking about its proposals for the ACI. But we got no reply. Perhaps this was because the comrades were too busy splitting. But we did send an observer to the ACI national launch. From the report-back we received it is clear that what we have is yet another of those fundamentally dishonest and usually totally futile front projects. Therefore we have no intention of turning our back on the fight for party in favour of the ACI illusion.
But “Do we really want another small left meeting declaring a revolutionary programme and party?” the two comrades ask. “Aren’t we sick of the latest sect declaring itself, bells and all, with a new international programme, without first going through the essential task of discussing and debating out what should be done with activists from across the unions and social movements?”
No, we do not want to see yet another sect - we have always shunned all such nonsense. Comrade Strafford seems to have already forgotten that, while we have the name of a party, that party needs to be made real. Hence the title of our leading committee and the first clause of our ‘What we fight for’ column published each week in our paper. Ditto the programme. We call it a draft programme precisely because there is no party.
But do you really think that “discussing and debating out what should be done with activists from across the unions and social movements” is the way to unite the forces of Marxism? No, actually in the name of unity with forces to the right, we have yet further divisions on the left and a further watering down of basic Marxist principles.
Comrades Hardy and Strafford write: “Arguing for an open process of unity and then dismissing such a process is hypocrisy.” It depends what you mean by an “open process”, comrades. We say that Marxist unification would involve an “open process” in the sense that it would require honest debate and long, hard negotiations, where the outcome was not guaranteed. But in the case of the ACI none of the participants are even aiming to begin any such undertaking.
Comrade Pham Binh takes another approach in his letter in last week’s Weekly Worker: “If the CPGB’s ‘anti-liquidationist’ approach of ‘uniting all those committed to a Marxist political party’ had prevailed in 1875, the German Social Democratic Party would have never gotten off the ground, because it was a merger of Marxist and non-Marxist elements (followers of Lassalle) on a thoroughly non-Marxist basis: the Gotha programme”.
The comrade seems to be committed to the ‘what was, had to be’ school of history. Of course, we cannot rerun events. Marx was certainly against the Gotha unification with the Lassalleans. He thought that the Marxist Eisenachers should cooperate with them, but not unify with them. Instead of agreeing an eclectic programme, they should have stuck to their guns and fought for mass influence. I do not know of any historical law which says they were bound to be unsuccessful if Marx had won out. Indeed there is every reason to believe that they would have succeeded (and in the process they would have politically destroyed the Lassalleans).
However, in our assessment circumstances today require us to go through the existing left. Take the example of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, formed in 1996. We in the CPGB threw ourselves into this left split from the Labour Party, which brought sections of the left together with miners and other militant workers looking to found a new political force. In fact we faced an instant witch-hunt and specially selected ‘gatekeepers’ employed by the former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers to bureaucratically exclude us. The SLP was quickly destroyed by Scargill’s control-freakery and dictatorship, but it would have been sectarian to stand aside from such a development.
The Socialist Alliance, formed at the end of the same decade, was rather different. It did not include masses of militant workers, but did bring together all the main far-left organisations, as well as scores of former members of those organisations. Its problem was the insistence of most of the other groups that the SA should present itself as a mainly electoral alliance standing on an old Labour-type platform. Nevertheless, we participated enthusiastically, because here was an opportunity to work with the other groups in an organisation that could potentially have formed the basis of a Marxist party. Even Respect - especially in its initial stages, with the participation of the Socialist Workers Party - allowed us space to make propaganda for such a formation.
Pham Binh continues: “A living, breathing, provisional experiment like the ACI has a much better chance at succeeding than a group or publication that focuses on getting the demands, programme, formal politics, history and theory ‘right’ (or criticising everyone else’s demands, programme, formal politics, history and theory for being wrong), because the former has the possibility of real, qualitative transformation and development, while the latter can only repeat its criticisms ad nauseum and will in practice go nowhere, no matter how right those criticisms are.”
I am sorry, comrade, but our criticisms are concerned with practicalities - and very important ones at that. How can the working class arm itself with the party it needs? How is such a party to be formed and on what basis? ‘Forget your differences and get on with the action’ has always been the cry of opportunists. It can never lead to anything worthwhile and permanent.
Taking issue with comrade Lewis, Pham Binh writes: “Our task is not ‘at all times, whatever the level of the class struggle … to unite all those committed to a Marxist political party’. This is ahistorical. It is also wrong in a situation where the Marxist wing of a crippled workers’ movement is made up of fragmented, competing splinters and slivers. Getting these marginal elements to all agree on the definition of Marxist fundamentals would not help to recreate the powerful worker-socialist movement that Europe’s ruling classes feared and hated at the turn of the 20th century.”
And Pham Binh wonders why we describe ACI supporters as liquidationist. Because the left is hopelessly divided and marginalised, he says, let us give up on trying to provide political leadership and hope that we can somehow magic into existence a “powerful worker-socialist movement” that will reduce the bourgeoisie to trembling ineptitude. Not very likely.
He does, however, raise an interesting question when he writes: “… making the ‘fundamentals of Marxism’ the precondition for any party-building project guarantees that our efforts never get beyond the conceptual stage of abstraction for a simple reason: there is no consensus about what constitutes ‘the programmatic fundamentals’ of Marxism among Marxists.”
Comrade King (the author of the Permanent Revolution piece quoted above) takes a different view in his letter to this paper (Letters 'Caffeine Rush' May 10). Referring to the CPGB leaflet handed out at the ACI launch, he states: “We find no mention of revolution, overthrowing the state, worker council democracy, the need for a revolutionary party - that is, ideas that most of us understand to be ‘Marxist fundamentals’. When it comes down to it, the CPGB offers only its minimum democratic programme as a basis for anti-capitalist regroupment.”
In other words, he is saying that there is agreement on the fundamentals - although, for some reason he does not follow this through with any advocacy of unity on the basis of such agreement. He prefers instead to offer his disingenuous criticisms over what the leaflet did not say. For example, it is true that it did not use the words, “revolutionary party”, but it did state: “We in the CPGB argue that … this meeting should take the first steps towards a fight for principled left unity around the acceptance of (not full-scale agreement with) a political programme that commits itself to the fundamentals of Marxist political strategy.” I am sorry if comrade King did not understand from this that we were talking about a party.
It is also true that the leaflet was incomplete in its description of our understanding of Marxist fundamentals, so I will restate what I believe them to be, as comrades Hardy and Strafford also touch on this when they write: “The CPGB is going nowhere fast; its various attempts to unite the left on their version of Marxism have failed and now they have collapsed into the Labour Representation Committee.” Leaving aside the nonsense about the LRC (if you can work out what they are talking about you are more astute than I am), what is the CPGB “version of Marxism”, as the comrades put it?
The ‘fundamentals’ - or fundamental principles, if you prefer - upon which Marxists ought to unite within a single party are these:
1. Working class independence. First and foremost we promote the interest of our class, which alone has the power to open the way to the emancipation of humanity. We reject all strategic alliances with other classes, and especially governmental ones. The working class party will not administer capitalism - a key differentiation with Labourism.
2. Internationalism. The proletariat is an international class and its liberation cannot take place within a single country. Here too we find another sharp delineation that separates Marxists from Labourites and reformists.
3. Democracy. Full democracy, both within the state and within our own movement, is a precondition for the success of the struggle for communism. Over and over again we point to the bureaucratic failings of the left’s own internal regimes in the here and now. Yet there can surely be no Marxist unification without the acceptance of democracy.
Of course, the CPGB hugely expands on these principles in our Draft programme. But neither are set in stone. We believe that all Marxists should be able to accept the above principles as the basis for initial discussions on unification, but we are open to the possibility that they may be inadequate or incomplete. Similarly, if a unification process were to begin tomorrow, we would propose that the Draft programme (so called because it is the CPGB draft proposals for the Marxist movement to consider) be adopted as a starting point for debate.
In other words, we do not consider either the three fundamentals or the Draft programme as the specifically CPGB “version of Marxism”. They, or something like them, ought to be acceptable to all Marxists.
At first sight, there would appear to be much common ground between the CPGB and Workers Power. For example in a recent article WP states that the SWP and Socialist Party in England and Wales “repel generation after generation of activists through their bureaucratic regimes, in which members cannot organise within the party to change policy or hold their leaderships to account”. It also declares that “Workers Power has always recognised that the path to a revolutionary party will not come simply through individual recruitment to a small, mainly propaganda-focused, group like our own. We are always seeking avenues to work with other forces and to debate and agree revolutionary policy with them. We believe a revolutionary party will come into being not through recruiting ones and twos, but through ‘the fusion of communism and the working class movement’ (Lenin).”
WP’s international grouping, the League for a Fifth International, states in its online article, ‘The method and principles of communist organisation’: “Where no revolutionary communist party exists, the first duty of communists is to fight for its formation. This obliges communists to unite their forces in a pre-party organisation of struggle.” To that end, as well as individual recruitment, there must be merger with other “propaganda societies”.
However, it warns: “Where these organisations are propaganda societies without the masses, the strictest and most intransigent attitude is necessary on questions of programme.” In other words, only the Workers Power “version” of Marxism will do. It is not a question of agreement over the fundamentals, but the agreement, at least in public, to every dot and comma, take it or leave it, of every WP/LFI policy.
The same document rejects the “criminal abuse of the term ‘democratic centralism’ by the Stalinist bureaucracy, both in the former USSR and in contemporary capitalist China, to excuse a totalitarian regime of bureaucratic centralism in which all democratic rights, all debate and discussion, all attempts to subordinate the actions of the leadership to the interests and wishes of the workers is choked off through police terror” (point 40).
Point 41 continues: “By contrast with this perversion, democratic centralism involves both the fullest internal democracy and debating of disputed questions, and disciplined common action in the implementation of party decisions.”
This too appears all very well - until you realise that one essential element is missing. WP openly states that internal democracy ought not to extend to the right to publicly criticise the leadership or publicly declare disagreement over policy. This, combined with its “intransigent attitude” towards any slight divergence from its programme, means in practice that no substantial unification can take place. No minority ought to be expected to accept that any views it holds in contradiction to those of the leadership will be permanently suppressed outside the narrow confines of the organisation.
This is not only wrong in principle, but antithetical to the entire communist project. Socialism must be the act of the class itself, yet the proletariat cannot rule unless it is able to grasp every shade of opinion and has knowledge of every possible weakness in the leadership line.
That brings me to my final criticism of comrades Hardy and Strafford, who write: “Lewis’s suggestion to the ex-Workers Power members was that they should have stayed in our group and carried on a protracted faction fight and broken discipline in public. If they had followed his advice, it would have resulted in a demoralising year of internal struggle, as well as bitter acrimony from their former comrades, for flouting the group’s rules on public debate. Advocating breaking party rules just because you don’t agree with them strikes the ex-WP members as unprincipled.”
Undemocratic rules are there to be broken, comrades. Surely that is ABC for revolutionaries.
1 . www.workerspower.co.uk/2012/05/a-new-anticapitalist-initiative.
2 . Quoted in ‘Rival CNWP launched’ Weekly Worker November 19 2009.The ‘Call for an Anti-Capitalist Party’ has now disappeared without trace from the WP website.
3 . http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/a-simple-proposal-for-a-new-anticapitalist-left.
4 . ‘Rival CNWP launched’ Weekly Worker November 19 2009.
5 . Letters Weekly Worker May 10.
6 . ‘New anti-capitalist initiative: a hopeful start’: www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/3400.
7 . Letters Weekly Worker May 10.
8 . Ibid.
9 . www.cpgb.org.uk/pdf/draft_programme_2010.pdf.