Secrets: for insiders only

Aggregate: The left must aim higher

The weekend aggregate meeting of CPGB members saw debates on democratic centralism and the new Left Unity initiative. Michael Copestake reports

The question of democratic centralism has assumed renewed relevance since the beginning of the Socialist Workers Party crisis and the June 8 CPGB members’ aggregate discussed its continuing significance. We also debated our approach to the Left Unity project and looked forward to the forthcoming CPGB summer school, Communist University, and our annual fundraiser, the Summer Offensive.

John Bridge led off on the question of democratic centralism. The crisis in the SWP, he noted, has exposed profound political differences on the question of organisation not only within the SWP, but also on the wider left. Indeed, he added, the consensus appears to be coming down against what is seen as the ‘outdated’ practice of democratic centralism, or ‘Leninism’ - the two terms often being used interchangeably.

The SWP leadership had done absolutely nothing to help itself by publishing Alex Callinicos’s awful article on the subject, ‘Is Leninism finished?’, which has been pulled apart recently by veteran SWP member Ian Birchall, amongst others. Comrade Callinicos had repeated several myths regarding Leninism, such as the claim that the SWP’s version of democratic centralism - in reality bureaucratic centralism - is modelled on that of the Bolsheviks pre-1917; and that left organisations that have allowed factions have eventually split and collapsed as a direct result.

On the first claim, the comrade made reference to the invaluable work of Lars T Lih on the history of Leninism and the Bolsheviks. So does the SWP work like the RSDLP did? ‘No’ was the definitive (and obvious) answer. Contrasting Lenin’s open, public polemics - against named opponents - within his organisation, comrade Bridge noted that the SWP took the opposite approach, refusing to publish Mike Gonzalez’s contribution in Socialist Review because, at bottom, he specified his polemical target - the SWP central committee itself - whereas the leadership of the SWP agreed to publish Ian Birchall’s article on the basis that comrade Birchall was written in sufficiently Aesopian, circumspect language to make it past the party censor. The opposite of the genuine Bolshevik approach, where differences within the CC, the wider party, and between organisations were debated openly and in public.

This turning upside-down of genuine Bolshevism by the SWP manifests itself not only in such censorship, but also extends to the way that conferences are run and the SWP itself is organised, the comrade went on. For example, in one of Lenin’s own write-ups of an early RSDLP conference, he gives detailed information on all the different factions present and their politics, all of the disagreements, and all of the hammering out of compromises between different groupings to get their resolutions through. Moreover, he recommends to the reader that, rather simply take his word for it, they check the official minutes for themselves. And this was under conditions of illegality. By contrast, the SWP practice is to avoid mention of internal differences as far as possible.

Another myth relied upon in the standard SWP history of Bolshevism is that the Bolsheviks were a tiny, highly centralised group that managed to mushroom out of nowhere in 1917. In fact, as comrade Bridge noted, unlike the SWP today, the RSDLP had a mass character from 1905 onwards, with the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks having 70,000-80,000 members apiece and deep social roots. Though necessarily a minority in a peasant-dominated society, amongst the working class the Bolsheviks’ RSDLP managed to win every seat in the 1912 duma elections allocated to the working class curia. Nevertheless, he disagreed with comrade Birchall’s implied claim that the Bolsheviks became a majority with the 1917 revolution. Yes, the Bolsheviks won a majority in the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. But their ‘majority’, the legitimacy they needed to form a government, relied on the split in the Socialist Revolutionary Party and the formation of the Left SRs. With its bloc in the peasants’ soviet there was indeed a majority for the overthrow of the provisional government and soviet power.

The comrade also added ‘Lenin, the elitist intellectual’ to the list of myths which somehow persist in SWP world. The other side of this is that, in reaction to the SWP’s parodic Leninism, you get people advocating organisations without leaders at all, thus throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Turning to centralism, comrade Bridge pointed out that much of the left is infatuated with ‘broad parties’ of the Syriza type. But the RSDLP - the real RSDLP, that is, not the caricature - was, despite its relatively free-wheeling political culture, nonetheless a centralised party based on a Marxist programme. Not on mobilising for the next demo or rally, but on a positive proposition for society.

The message of the CPGB to the rest of the left concerns the need for internal democracy and a coherent political party that can act. We say that you can have both.

In the debate that followed Mike Macnair made the interesting point that the portrayal of Marxism as coming “from the outside” of the workers’ movement is two-sided. On the one hand, it is the case in fact that the idea that the working class should seize power predates Marx, originating in left Chartism, and thus in that sense does not come from outside the movement at all. On the other hand, Kautsky and then in turn Lenin, though not taking an elitist approach to workers on the subject of programme and theory, did represent Marxism as coming from beyond the immediate economic struggle. Comrade Macnair said it was ironic that Tim Nelson of the International Socialist Network characterised Marxist ideas as being elitist and introduced from without in his recent article,1 as these are in fact the same arguments that the right wing of the German trade union bureaucracy used against the Marxists in the Social Democratic Party of Germany, saying that the politics of revolution and working class power were alien to ‘ordinary workers’ and had been introduced by devious intellectuals.

A guest at the aggregate, Moshé Machover, stated that the term ‘democratic centralism’ should be abandoned as carrying too much negative baggage. Others disagreed - using that argument, one may as well stop talking about ‘socialism’, ‘communism’ and so on - these are terms that had also been misused and are associated with the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Left Unity

Mike Macnair began the session on the Left Unity initiative. The direction of travel being pushed by most LU far-left partisans is to aim for a ‘broad’ party, within which elements - the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, International Socialist Network and Socialist Resistance - will cooperate and perhaps come to some kind of regroupment.

So far Left Unity appears to be run on the basis of extreme privacy of information. Nothing from the steering group in the way of proposals or decisions has been circulated apart from the draft statement of principles written by Kate Hudson, which in the end was not adopted by the first national delegate meeting. Comrade Macnair noted that the statement itself contained no positive propositions and consisted entirely of ‘anti’ politics - what we are against, not what we are for. Restricting yourself to opposition to austerity and suchlike means being able to avoid raising political differences. On this basis, comrade Macnair fears that LU could have a short life on the grounds that people will resort to procedural disputes in the absence of open political conflict and discussion.

In spite of this, it is clear that Left Unity will pull in a few hundred people in a new, membership-based organisation, as opposed to an electoral lash-up or federal approach. The CPGB will therefore participate in this process on the basis that we too want a party (albeit a specifically Marxist one). Indeed CPGB comrades have an obligation to engage with their local Left Unity groups in a comradely and helpful manner (a resolution to this effect was passed). We will also seek to work with those who make up what can broadly be characterised as the left of Left Unity - those like Nick Wrack and whoever is open to Marxist ideas.

Picking up on a recent debate within Left Unity on the argument that LU should not talk about socialism, the working class and so on, on the grounds that many of the people ‘out there’ will consider this to be jargon and be put off, comrade Macnair noted that there is a real issue underlying this, in that the ongoing, precipitous decline of the left means that our terminology becomes marginal alongside us. This argument is itself part of the larger idea that we should basically just junk our history, in the hope that this will free us from unwanted baggage.

The issue with the argument that ‘We can’t give people history lessons’ is twofold. In the first place the only history that many of the groups provide are false histories, so we have a duty not to leave our history and our language to them. Secondly, it is utterly illusory to suppose that we can in fact escape these issues: our political opponents, as well as ‘ordinary people’, are not stupid and we will have to account for the Soviet Union and so on. Given that the only mention of communism in the school history curriculum is in relation to Stalin and the USSR, we are obliged to have our explanations and historical accounts ready.

Changing tack, comrade Macnair commented that the choice facing us, according to much of the left, is between a Keynesian mixed economy and unfettered neoliberalism. It sees ‘realistic politics’ as fighting for a return to the 1950s-60s and unrealistic politics as fighting for socialism. As comrade Macnair noted, the conditions that created the mixed-economy welfare model of that period arose out of the material conditions created by two world wars and Stalinism. Would we want a repeat of that?

This is why we need to talk about capitalism. Just talking about ‘neoliberalism’ is senseless. And in order to get beyond capitalism you have to pose the question of how. Therefore, we need to discuss and implement a system of political organisation and decision-making, which poses the question of political ordering. This implies transparency about our aims and methods, and in our collective decision-making. But, as comrade Macnair reiterated, Left Unity does not embody a transparent approach at this time - for example, there have not even been published minutes for meetings.

In the debate that followed, comrades agreed that it was necessary to intervene positively in Left Unity, but with the understanding that this was a political formation on a lower level than many previous unity attempts, such as the Socialist Alliance, and that there is a very high chance that it will not end well.

CU and SO

Namina Drew updated comrades on the preparations for the August 12-18 Communist University. Most speakers - some new, some returning - have now confirmed, but there are still one or two vacant slots. Many people have expressed an interest in attending and we are expecting a good turnout at our south London venue.

CPGB national organiser Mark Fischer got the ball rolling for the start of this year’s Summer Offensive by placing it in the current political context. He noted that the left continues to decline, though the present period had a certain fluidity, but the problem is that political fluidity does not lead to a fluidity of funds! Indeed, this year’s SO must by necessity aim higher than in recent years, with a target of £30,000.

As always, comrades are encouraged to find creative ways to up our income - through engagement with the wider left, our closer periphery, readers of the Weekly Worker and so on. The SO is, after all, a political as well as a financial endeavour. In the discussion that followed, there was an agreed need to emphasise the collective nature of fundraising - something that should not be seen as in contradiction to individual pledges, but part of the same process.


1. ‘Illusion is the first of all pleasures’ Weekly Worker May 30.