Left Unity: The spirit of ’45?
What do we hope will come out of the May 11 Left Unity conference? Following Nick Wracks speech at the April 27 London Communist Forum, Jack Conrad replied for the CPGB. This is an edited version of his response
Nick Wrack says he agrees with much of the CPGB’s Draft programme and for my part I agree with much of what he is saying.1 So we can call this a discussion rather than a debate, because I am genuinely interested in achieving a convergence of viewpoints.
Let us begin with the Left Unity project. We have written to the organisers of Left Unity asking for observer status and speaking rights at the May 11 conference (see p3). We want to attend the conference and speak with an authoritative voice. We have not attempted to get as many delegates there as possible - that would not be the right approach. So in the spirit of left unity hopefully the comrades will welcome our request.
As Nick was saying, if a new unity project comes into being which has any sort of viability, it is obligatory for Marxists to engage with it. It has to be said that our experience has largely been negative. Disappointment and disenchantment with the Labour Party, exemplified by 8,000 signing up in support of the Left Unity statement, is hardly new. For example, when Arthur Scargill broke from the Labour Party the potential existed to immediately rally many thousands. But Scargill did not want any of the groups. He wanted to be the unchallenged labour dictator.
So when in 1996 the Socialist Labour Party was launched, Scargill began it with a witch-hunt. The first SLP conference was open to anyone - except stationed at the door were people from a curious organisation called the Fourth International Supporters Caucus. And what were they there for? To keep out members of the CPGB! Well, a lot of our comrades got in anyway - the doorkeepers did not know every face. Because of that, Scargill got a couple of prominent leftwing lawyers to write his party’s rules. The SLP’s rulebook contained clauses specifically designed to keep the communists out. Clauses which were almost borrowed word for word from Labour. So the SLP was eerily like the Labour Party, except that it banned and excluded the communists on day one rather than after 20 years.
The most farcical of the SLP’s anti-democratic practices was Scargill’s use of the bloc vote of an ‘affiliated organisation’ - the North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners Association, made up of retired members of the National Union of Mineworkers. If conference looked as though it would vote the ‘wrong’ way, Arthur would ensure with just a nod and a wink that the NWCCMA delegates put their 3,000 votes to good use.
But the main thing to criticise about the SLP concerns its reformist political basis. And we could make the same criticism about subsequent organisations. Namely, the Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party, Respect and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
Not in front of the children
There is an extraordinary paradox. As capitalism has gone into deeper and deeper into crisis, not only have we seen the Labour Party move further and further to the right, along with the whole of bourgeois society: the left itself has also been moving to the right.
And it is common sense amongst comrades on the left that, while within the privacy of our own groups we can talk about Marxism, socialism, the history of our movement and the difficult ideas it has grappled with, when it comes to the ‘children’ - that is, the working class, a class that is meant to liberate itself - we pretend, especially when standing in elections, that really we are just like Labour used to be. That we are committed to a parliamentary road to socialism, to welfarism, to some sort of Keynesian golden age: in short that we are born-again Labourites.
Now, I am not arguing that we ought to stand under a banner which simply reads ‘Revolution now!’ In fact we do stand for reforms. Quite clearly we are not in a revolutionary situation and in terms of readying our class to become the ruling class reforms are essential. We must have more democracy, we must have more power within capitalism. So it is not an argument about reform or revolution: it is an argument about what sort of reforms we want and how we go about getting them. That is the question.
Within the Socialist Alliance the CPGB put forward the proposal that our election manifesto should prioritise democratic questions - eg, annual parliaments, abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, self-determination for Wales and Scotland, a united Ireland, opposition to immigrations controls, scrapping the standing army, establishing a system of local workers’ militias, etc. We were told that this was “too radical” (Weyman Bennett). The SWP was in firm control and it insisted on what we would call economism; ie, improving the terms and conditions of a slave class which cannot see beyond capitalism. The idea was that we should limit our demands to simple proposals, around which the working class can be mobilised into militant action: pay, hours, the NHS and other such questions. Democracy is far too complex.
Indeed, whenever the left has supported unity projects, its comrades have almost invariably put forward programmes far to the right of where they themselves formally stand. That, for me, is another paradox.
The most extreme example was Respect. The SWP killed off the Socialist Alliance just as the anti-war movement was reaching mass dimensions. It refused to countenance the Socialist Alliance alternative to war: instead it threw its weight behind what was to become Respect. A party that was initially premised on uniting socialists with greens and Muslims, crucially the Muslim Association of Britain (the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). Although the greens never came on board and the Muslims who did were always equivocal, that perspective says everything about how far to the right the left had gone. After all, a party which stands in elections is putting itself forward as a potential party of government. Presumably, though it has never been theorised, or even admitted, the SWP envisaged a grand coalition that would lead to a Respect stage of capitalism (only then could socialism be envisaged). The Stalinists called it a popular front that joined the working class organisations with progressive elements of the petty bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie. But, whether you call it a popular front or Respect, the programmatic dynamics are exactly the same.
And we all know that under the leadership of the SWP the Respect project ended up dumping one principle after another. For example, the SWP itself is historically wedded to a “democratic, secular, one-state” solution for Israel/Palestine. But come Respect we had the SWP’s Elane Heffernan get up to successfully oppose the adoption of secularism. Not only in Britain - that would supposedly put off religious people. But when it came to Israel/Palestine too.
The SWP behaved in exactly the same fashion over the question of abortion. When we put forward a resolution that would have committed Respect to a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, we were told by comrades in the SWP that this was not something that voters ‘on the doorstep’ were bringing up. True, in the end there was a political fudge and the phrase, ‘a woman’s right to choose’, was included in Respect’s election manifesto - except that what women had a right to choose was left out! The clause could be interpreted as the right of Muslim women to wear a headscarf.
Apparently Respect needed to base its programme not on what conference delegates thought and believed. No, what was important, what should decide, is what the “millions out there” will agree with. A crass form of opportunist surrender. The reality was that the SWP killed off one principle after another in order to appease Muslim clerics, MAB, George Galloway, Yvonne Ridley, Salma Yaqoob and all those who stood on the right of Respect. Not because of their voting strength at conference. At the end of the day, the right set the political agenda because of its ties with bourgeois society, because what it says echoes the media’s common sense. Of course, exactly the same happened with the popular fronts of ‘official communism’.
Indeed that has been the history of the unity projects thus far. The right wing always sets the agenda, even when the right is actually in a tiny minority. The left, rather than putting forward its own programme, agrees to water it down. That is certainly the case with Tusc. Last year, Socialism Today, the magazine of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, featured a debate between SPEW’s Clive Heemskerk and the left journalist, Owen Jones. Comrade Heemskerk boasted about the success and potential of Tusc, comparing it with the early Labour Party.
Crucial for him was the support Tusc had gathered from the trade union movement. Support which he suggested was bound to grow. And towards that end he assured the trade union bureaucrats who apparently will soon be decamping from the Labour Party and eagerly knocking on Tusc’s door, that they will be in charge. They will certainly set the programmatic limits. In his own words, “the trade union leaders that are involved in Tusc have a veto over what’s decided, because Tusc operates on a consensus basis - in other words, they have ownership of Tusc”.2 So, the RMT, Tusc’s only union affiliate, can veto any decision, just like the NWCCMA (in reality Arthur Scargill) could in the SLP. Before any policy is adopted in Tusc, SPEW has to approach RMT general secretary Bob Crow and humbly ask, ‘Is that all right, brother Bob?’
So I am glad that comrade Wrack is going into Left Unity, just as we in the CPGB will do, armed with the idea that any Left Unity programme should explicitly state that it is about superseding capitalism. With that in mind it is also vital to stress internationalism. Socialism cannot be achieved in Britain alone. Nor can it be achieved even in Europe alone - though I think we need a bold, pan-European strategic perspective. Socialism is the task of the working class of all countries; socialism is the total transformation of all existing conditions. So, yes, we must argue in Left Unity for a clear programme that commits us to the global supersession of capitalism. Of course, we have to defend and advance the existing gains of the working class. But that can best be done through a class struggle that does not stop at the shores of Britain.
Given the negative experience of the SLP, the Socialist Alliance, Respect and Tusc, it is vital that any new party is thoroughly democratic. Not just ‘one member, one vote’: the rights of minorities to organise and to publicly express their views must be explicitly recognised. In the same spirit there must be transparency when it comes to political differences, programmatic and theoretical arguments at the top. The presently constituted left is absolutely mad. Too often it is organised into what we have dubbed ‘confessional sects’. Every member is expected to publicly ‘agree’ with the line (even if they do not).
I can remember one group changing its attitude to the Soviet Union. After the fall of the USSR the comrades debated whether or not the successor countries remained “workers’ states”. For many years the old line prevailed - yes, they were “workers’ states” because over 51% of the economy remained nationalised. A stupid idea, only rectified when the minority became the majority. But all of that was kept secret, kept internal. In other words, for years those who led what was the minority had lied to the working class (or at least those who took notice of the group’s pronouncements). However, once the minority became the majority it was now the turn of the new minority to parrot the latest ‘truth’ (even though they might still be committed to the old line). What nonsense. What an insult to the science of Marxism. How can we ever expect to be taken seriously with such a ridiculous method?
No, that is not how the left should behave. Of course, if it comes to organising an armed uprising on Wednesday at 3pm, then obviously we think such things should be kept quiet. But the nature of the Soviet Union? Such a question, like differing explanations for the present crisis, like the nature of the Labour Party, like the attitude towards feminism, ought to be debated openly. Anything else is bonkers.
So, yes, transparency in terms of debate. And the right to organise platforms, the right of those platforms to get publicity in the party’s press - for us these are basic principles.
And that is why I for one am worried. Of course, Left Unity has not even had its first conference, but at the moment it is being promoted on the basis that it is inspired by Ken Loach’s film, The spirit of ’45. Ken Loach is not just one of the initiators of Left Unity, it seems. Left Unity is the party of his film. To me this is hopeless. Looking back to 1945 is not about learning from history. It is about being determined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Such politics are bound to fail, even when it comes to defending existing gains from the ongoing attacks of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat privatisers. That does not mean that Left Unity should be dismissed as not being ‘pure’ enough. But it shows us the nature of the task we have in front of us. In other words, communists and revolutionary socialists should join with their eyes open. We have been here before and, given the balance of political forces, we should expect a hard fight.
In terms of its fundamental propositions Marxism is extraordinarily simple. Marxism can be grasped by anyone. Marxism can be summed up by saying that the working class needs democracy in the state and its own organisations, that the whole of society must be run from below according to the principle of need, not profit. That is easy to understand.
But in terms of building a Marxist party we must begin in a fundamentally different way. A Marxist party is not built on the basis of going out and getting thousands of signatures. Nor is it built through activity for the sake of activity. Nor is it built by smoothing over differences, fudging the 20% where we differ in favour of unity around the 80% where we agree (or some such other rotten formulation). The Marxist party is built top-down. It is built through the struggle for the correct theory and the correct politics. It is built around its programme. Not, it should be emphasised, the programme of warmed over social democracy. But the sort of minimum-maximum programme the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party had. In other words, not a confession of faith, but a statement of basic principles and a practical, testable, road map which can take us from the hell hole of capitalism to the high heavens of communism and human liberation.
So Marxist parties must be built top-down, around a historically informed and fully theoretised programme.
The CPGB has its Draft programme, and the word ‘draft’ is not used accidentally. It is there in order to make a very important point. We may have the name, Communist Party of Great Britain, but we are not a party. The word ‘party’ is derived from ‘part’: ie, part of the class. And a Marxist party must by definition be based on the advanced part of the working class. At present the CPGB is simply one of many different groups on the left and, even if the existing left was to unite into single organisation, in itself that would not constitute a party in the genuine sense.
Our Draft programme is actually what we bring to all unity projects. We do so not as an ultimatum, but as a contribution. For example, comrade Wrack says he agrees with much of it, but does not particularly like some of the language. Well, we are not precious about that. If he disagreed with its internationalism and the need for a pan-European strategy, then we would have a furious argument ... an argument that could continue and gain full clarity within the space of a single organisation. All we would demand is the unrestricted right to combat and defeat all forms of opportunism: eg, Stalinism, British nationalism, left economism, general strikism, pacifism, etc.
So the Marxist party begins with the programme. Some people say that such an approach is sectarian, excludes anarchists, syndicalists and Labourite nostalgics, and is therefore bound to fail. Well, one of the advantages of studying history is that you can learn to avoid making the same mistakes again and again. However, far from providing only negative lessons, history also provides positive ones - which we must always treat critically, in context, and never mindlessly copy, of course. That said, if we apply the positive lessons of the past to our current political impasse then perhaps we can find a way forward that will bring victories instead of yet more heroic defeats.
I am thinking in particular of the mass parties of social democracy and the unity symbolised by the Second International. Not the social democracy that treacherously voted for war credits in August 1914, but the social democracy that became a mass movement across the whole of Europe, to the point where in Germany it became a ‘state within a state’. A model that was applied in Russian conditions by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. It is a myth that Lenin ‘broke’ with the SPD model in 1914 or 1917. In fact, October 1917 was the vindication of the correctness of that model.
We can argue about the particulars of the SPD and the RSDLP. But what is unarguable is that they were successful in organising the advanced part of the working class and through that not only in leading the mass of the working class, but other sections of the population too (crucially, in Russia, the peasantry). That success did not come from watering down principles, from fudging differences, from unity for the sake of unity. No, in the last analysis it came from the Marxist programme.
I shall now turn to what frequently excuses and certainly explains the all too common rightism of the left. Whether it be the SWP’s Alex Callinicos, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Sean Matgamna or Peter Taaffe of SPEW, they all say that are guided by what they call the ‘transitional method’.
The ‘transitional method’ is widely held on the left to be the highest achievement when it comes to programmatic demands. In fact, it represents a regression to a pre-Marxist conception of revolution. It certainly owes something to the anarchism of Mikhail Bakunin and general strikism. Anyway, I can well understand Leon Trotsky coming out with his Transitional programme in 1938. He knew that the world war was looming. He had seen what had happened in Spain. He knew that humanity faced the threat of fascist barbarism.
But how many people were organised under the banner of the so-called Fourth International? It was smaller in global terms than the left is today in Britain. In the absence of real forces Trotsky turned to spontaneity. Out of desperation he proposed that if his comrades put forward ‘reasonable’ demands, such as resisting factory closures and pay cuts, then in the fight to realise those ‘reasonable’ demands the logic of struggle would take the working classes one step at a time from the politics of the defensive to the politics of the offensive. Through that process the working class would eventually find its way to power. That is basically what the much vaunted ‘transitional method’ amounts to.
Here is the logic that says resisting cuts, fighting for pay demands, mobilising to save the NHS are revolutionary. Hence what the working class needs is not Marxist consciousness, not Marxist theory, not a Marxist programme, but protests, strikes, occupations. In a word, action. Of course, no Marxist would oppose resisting cuts, striking for pay demands or fighting to save the NHS. But we do emphasise consciousness and therefore polemics and the struggle of ideas.
In many cases the ‘transitional method’ results in what I would call honest rightism. Nevertheless, even the most honest rightism is thoroughly elitist. So-called ‘ordinary people’ are treated as if the only thing that motivates them is wages, conditions and the NHS. The implication is that they are incapable of anything higher and therefore the members of the revolutionary sect, especially when they are enlodged in trade unions, reformist parties and protest campaigns, should lead them by the nose, should not confuse them with factional arguments, should keep any differences safely behind locked doors. Only the members of the elect are really aware of what is going on and where things are expected to go.
As I say, I can understand why Trotsky put forward such a perspective in 1938. But it did not work, it will not work, it cannot work. No, we have tell the working class the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Sometimes that will involve difficult concepts, obscure references and fine nuances. That is why Marxists place such stress on theory. As Lenin once famously said, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” So we in the CPGB do not consider theory as some kind of hobby for intellectuals. The working class needs theory as much as the body needs food and drink.
So, when it comes to the nature of the Soviet Union, this is no side issue. There are those who say it was just state capitalism. If that was the case, what happened in 1991? Did the USSR go from capitalism to capitalism? If so, what was all the fuss about? What about the ‘degenerate workers’ state’ theory. Was Stalin’s mass murder regime really an example of the working class in power? Was Brezhnev’s USSR really a ‘planned’ economy superior to capitalism? What about those who remain with the Stalinite tradition and say that China, North Korea and Cuba are conquests of the working class? Do such people have anything in common with Marxism apart from a few deracinated phrases and slogans? These and other questions will not only be asked by our class enemies. They will be asked by intelligent members of the working class and we must have full, frank and honest answers.
There can be no short cuts to communism and human liberation. To become a ruling class the working class needs to master all the big political questions. That is also why we cannot compromise on the fight for democracy at every level. Without democracy leaders cannot be held to account; without democracy there can be no control from below; without democracy wrong ideas cannot be overcome.
I will finish by touching on the Labour Party. All unity projects so far have either dismissed or fundamentally belittled the importance of Labour. Of course, the Labour Party has never been a socialist party. Therefore calls to ‘reclaim’ it are historically ill-informed and politically naive. After all, when did the Labour Party go wrong? With Tony Blair? With Harold Wilson? With Clement Attlee? With Ramsay MacDonald? No, the Labour Party remains an organisation of the working class, but an organisation of the working class led and dominated by pro-capitalist reactionaries of the worst kind: that has been its nature since its formation.
Nevertheless, we need an orientation to the Labour Party because most the big trade unions are affiliated to it and because most people who self-identify as working class vote for it. So when the CPGB was in the Socialist Alliance we suggested the tactic of giving critical support to all Labour candidates who declared their support for the SA ‘priority pledges’. Today that would almost certainly include MPs such as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn.
That is something Left Unity should seriously consider. We need to develop a dialogue, develop an intervention, develop a hearing from the Labour Party’s mass base. Without that there can only be life as a fringe group.
1. For Nick Wrack’s speech, see ‘How can we supersede the sects?’ Weekly Worker May 2.
2. Socialism Today October 2012: www.socialismtoday.org/162/representation.html.