Broad fronts and liquidationism
CPGB members have been discussing the Anti-Capitalist Initiative and the role of Communist Students. Peter Manson reports
The May 26 aggregate of CPGB members, meeting in London, considered our attitude to the new Anti-Capitalist Initiative. This was particularly pertinent, as three CPGB members have recently resigned over our lack of enthusiasm for what is basically yet another halfway house with a strong liquidationist pull.
Linked to this was the question of Communist Students - the organisation founded by CPGB comrades to fight within the student movement for our politics of unity around Marxism. This is connected to the question of the ACI, because one of the leading members of CS has been comrade Chris Strafford, who led the pro-ACI split and would naturally like to see CS gravitate towards his new political home.
The CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee presented a motion which said that the ACI “embodies a tried and failed method”. That is, those behind it believe that “the path to influence is through the promotion of politics other than those they are formally committed to”. While the intentions of the ACI may be “worthy and some of its interventions critically supportable”, it is “extremely unlikely to produce anything of long-term political value to our class”.
The motion concluded: “Building the ACI on its own political terms is a waste of time. At best, work in its ranks can win comrades to our perspective of building a serious Marxist alternative”; and it can also “provide our own comrades with some experience of the politics of the opponents of such a perspective in the workers’ movement.”
Comrade Mike Macnair, introducing the PCC motion, contrasted the ACI with previous initiatives - the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party and Respect - within which the CPGB had participated. These other organisations, particularly the first three, represented potentially fruitful sites to advance the fight for a united Marxist party - all had attracted militants from a variety of groups, as well as scores of leftwing individuals. But, in the words of the motion, “The Anti-Capitalist Initiative unites nothing but the insignificant fragments of the insignificant Workers Power. Consequently it has attracted next to nothing in terms of periphery.”
Comrade Macnair gave a wide-ranging presentation, in which he set the ACI against the history of liquidationism in the Marxist movement of both the right and left variety, and placed it in the peculiar British context of creating broad fronts - usually on the basis of trade union or old Labour-type politics. While, of course, broad fronts are “not necessarily liquidationist”, he said, in most cases the “party concept is postponed” in favour of attracting activists on the basis of their own existing - confused and inadequate - politics.
Beginning in the 1890s, British Fabians began to win support across Europe for the idea that revolutionism was an obstacle to winning reforms in the here and now. Most notoriously Eduard Bernstein’s gradualism was founded on the notion that the “movement is everything, the final goal nothing”. The Russian economists had wanted the party to drop agitation for the overthrow of the state in favour of workplace demands - but the 1905 revolution proved that workers themselves spontaneously adopt political demands.
However, the achievement of the 1906 Trades Dispute Act in Britain - affording union rights unequalled across Europe - saw a revival of Fabian-inspired liquidationism and calls in Russia for the winding up of the illegal party and the creation of a British-style Labour Party. Some comrades - for example, Pham Binh in the United States - seem to believe that liquidationism relates mainly or exclusively to proposals to end illegal party activity, such as in the early US Communist Party as well as in Russia.
The comrade states: “Calling for the liquidation of the existing Marxist groups does not make one a liquidationist in the way Lenin understood it, because we in America do not have a mass worker-socialist party to liquidate!” (Letters Weekly Worker May 10). But, as comrade Macnair explained, liquidationism also relates to the postponement of the fight to establish such a party.
Comrade Macnair moved onto a different misunderstanding of liquidationism that is prevalent amongst Trotskyists: it is associated with Pabloism and even with calls to allow internal democracy and factions within left groups (when the bureaucratic-centralist sects set up broad fronts, their “high degree of mechanical centralisation sterilises” these fronts), whereas in reality liquidationism is reflected in the aim of creating a Labour Party mark two and promoting the politics of trade unionism rather than Marxism.
The comrade concluded by reiterating the CPGB’s position that we will “take seriously any initiative aimed at uniting the far left” and we do not make the adoption of our own Draft programme a precondition for such unity. But we do ask, “Does it have legs?” and unfortunately, in the case of the ACI, we have to answer in the negative.
In the subsequent debate comrade Callum Williamson took a different view to the PCC: we should encourage participation in the ACI, as it had “some potential for a counteroffensive”. He was also concerned that a failure to take part would leave us open to charges of sectarianism. Paul Demarty was more cautious: get involved if you like, he said, but do not volunteer for organisational tasks. It would not wash to point to the severe inadequacies of the ACI, while at the same time pretending to be enthusiastic for fear of being dubbed ‘sectarian’. Weekly Worker editor Peter Manson also thought that false accusations of sectarianism were insufficient grounds upon which to offer support for the ACI project.
Other PCC members also spoke in favour of the motion. Ben Lewis pointed out that the ACI was “born of splits”, grouping together WP and ex-WP fragments, so could anyone really claim that it was an initiative for genuine unity? New PCC member Soheil Frazad, while strongly supporting the motion, did think that we were sometimes “too negative” in our attitude to other left groups. She pointed out that it was difficult to get ex-members of left groups involved in the kind of partyist project we favour. Comrade Manson replied that that was why we orientated to the existing organised left.
John Bridge said that the ACI was similar to all the other halfway houses, but, unlike the SLP, SA, etc, it is “microscopic”. While objective reality demands decisive action in favour of partyist unity, the left insists on watering down its politics in the latest broad front. It is no use trying to curry favour with the left by toning down our criticisms: “We will be unpopular.”
Comrade Williamson came back in to make the point that it was better to “argue within the ACI rather than from afar”. He proposed deleting the sentence from the motion which read: “We will not actively encourage comrades to join the ACI, but neither will we instruct any comrade already in it to leave.”
Replying to the debate, comrade Macnair reminded the meeting of Marx’s famous statement: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” However, he questioned whether the ACI represented even one step: it was proposing to do what the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales were already doing via their various fronts - only with much smaller forces. And with the difference that it also intends to hold up a mirror to the likes of Occupy and UK Uncut. He concluded that initiatives like the ACI in reality reflect the “process of decay” that the left has been undergoing. It was indeed a form of left liquidationism deriving from the desire to “do something now”.
When comrade Williamson’s amendment was put to the vote it was carried by the narrowest of margins. The motion, as amended, was unanimously adopted.
Earlier the aggregate had debated the situation within and prospects for Communist Students. PCC and CS executive member Ben Lewis reported on the latest developments - including a recent online executive meeting which had also been attended by comrade Strafford and a couple of his supporters (executive meetings are open to all CS members).
Comrade Strafford had claimed the support of a third of all CS members for a proposal to ‘recall the executive’, following its decision to deny him, and other non-authorised comrades, editorial access to the CS website. Absurdly the comrade is now alleging that the executive is now ‘recalled’ by virtue of his putting the proposal.
While it would seem evident to most people that such a serious step could only be taken by a decision of the majority of the membership through a formal vote, comrade Strafford appears to believe that a one-third minority should be able to overrule the majority who may disagree with him. He is clearly confusing the right of one third of the membership to demand an emergency national meeting with the right of such a meeting to recall its leaders if it so chooses.
The CS constitution states: “Between conferences an emergency national meeting can be called by either the executive or one third of the total membership of CS. The executive can be held accountable and is recallable by these emergency national meetings.” The very next paragraph confirms that “all decisions are taken by a simple majority vote of all members present at the relevant meeting or committee” (http://communiststudents.org.uk/?page_id=453).
Comrade Lewis pointed out that the executive had already organised a conference (to be held in London over the weekend of June 9-10), so there was no need for a one-third minority to demand an emergency meeting. The conference is empowered to elect a totally new executive if it wishes. Comrade Lewis also pointed out that those supporting comrade Strafford’s move numbered less than a third in any case (and some of them are not even paid-up members!).
Comrade Lewis called for a “dedicated team” to visit freshers fairs at the start of the new academic year in order to win new recruits. Like all student groups, CS has had its “ups and downs”, but it has a key role as a body politically linked to the CPGB that fights for Marxist politics.
In the debate, several comrades likened the ‘recall the executive’ farce to an “attempted coup” just before conference, but, of course, it had no chance of succeeding. Others suspected that the aim was to liquidate CS by merging it with Revo, Workers Powers’ youth group, and bring it into the ACI fold. Revo has emailed CS calling for “closer collaboration” between the two groups, reported comrade Lewis, and CS has replied welcoming its proposals for “formal talks”.
Comrade Laurie Smith stated that CS had been “too lax” over its control of the website, while comrade Williamson said that this also applied to formal membership - some comrades who had attended CS events had not actually taken out membership or even been formally recruited.
In view of the resignations from the CPGB of the three comrades (all of whom were also CS members), the discussion also focused on possible failings on the part of the CPGB itself, with comrade Smith criticising the lack of integration of some recruits, while comrade Frazad wondered if we had not “made enemies” of comrade Strafford and co.
But comrade Bridge pointed out that we will always lose comrades as well as recruiting them - in this case they have left for what they see as a more activist milieu that is “with the movement”. We do, however, need to take our own membership requirements more seriously, he said, and we should also strive to keep on good terms with those who have resigned.
Tina Becker called for a discussion on CS’s priorities, and Sarah McDonald assured comrades that, while there had been problems and the loss of members, “better times will come”. This was reiterated by comrade Lewis in his reply to the debate. It is normal for student groups to encounter a rapid turnover of membership, he said, but the project can “take off again relatively quickly” and build on its past successes.