First principles

CPGB: Debating Left Unity alternatives

The CPGB is considering its next moves following the political collapse of the Socialist Platform’s leadership. Michael Copestake reports

Taking place just 24 hours after the first meeting of the Socialist Platform, it was only natural that the September 15 CPGB members’ aggregate should focus on what took place, as well as the wider view of the platform and the Left Unity project.

The aggregate also discussed the situation in the Middle East - the Arab spring having turned into winter, and the left having failed to sufficiently grasp the historical, political and economic driving forces of the region that gave rise to both the uprisings and their defeat.

Leading off the discussion on the Socialist Platform in the wake of its meeting the day before, John Bridge began by outlining the bureaucratic methods which have obviously come to the fore.

The comrade first described the CPGB’s attempt to amend the platform prior to its publication. An amendment from Moshé Machover on anti-imperialism was accepted (although such a clear omission could hardly have been ignored). The CPGB, however, had just two days to draft and submit amendments, which were in any case rejected without any meaningful explanation, but, crucially, with the explicit promise that a democratic meeting of Socialist Platform members would discuss and vote on amendments. An email was sent out to all platform signatories inviting them to submit such amendments, with a deadline set at two weeks before the September 14 meeting.

Of course, continued comrade Bridge, on the day there were to be no substantive votes nor even the possibility of amending the platform before the November 30 LU conference. Naive ideas to the contrary were scotched by Nick Wrack on the grounds that another meeting would be “hard to organise”.

Naturally comrade Wrack expressed his outrage at this collapse into bureaucratism being criticised by the CPGB. He insisted that this was misdirected and unnecessarily offensive polemic. But on the day it became only too clear what was going on.

The idea that voting at the meeting should only be indicative was mooted by four comrades from the original drafting group just a week before the meeting. Itself a worrying sign. But the political collapse of comrade Wrack was there on display on September 14, continued comrade Bridge, in the arguments used to justify this move.

Comrade Bridge noted that the same old clichés about watering down or limiting our politics for the sake of those ‘out there’ or ‘not here’ (on whose behalf every opportunist claims to speak) were wheeled out once more. During the discussion before the indicative votes almost no-one on the side of the group of four (Go4) made political arguments against the content of the amendments. Certainly not comrade Wrack, who instead made “lawyer’s arguments”, identifying changes in the wording of CPGB amendments from one date to another, etc.

For her part, meeting co-chair Soraya Lawrence chose to forego the pretence of having anything serious to say and threw herself instead into bureaucratic phrase-mongering against “political hobbyists” and pleaded that we should stop talking about things that ordinary people don’t care about. Another comrade complained that ‘ordinary people’ won’t know what the word ‘withering’ means!

Comrade Bridge noted that, even though the votes on the CPGB amendments were only indicative, Go4 comrades still voted against them. Of course, they insist that their method is different from what we saw in the Socialist Alliance, Respect and so on: ie, voting against what you claim to believe in for the benefit of ‘getting rich quick’ in terms of votes, or in deference to a phantom right wing which might be alienated. So, comrade Bridge reminded us, they not only denied everybody the chance to democratically amend what they view as their own property, but also voted against all of the CPGB amendments, which include basic things like the goal of human freedom, the struggle to extend working class gains and the assertion that the Soviet Union and its satellites were not on the road to socialism. We take it from these votes that they are against communism, Marxism and revolutionary socialism ... whatever they might say on this or that platform.

Comrade Bridge reminded those present that comrade Wrack had also suddenly decided that the SP, after all, is not actually a platform for the foundation of a party, or a living thing that belongs to its supporters. No, it is just “a petition” that you merely attach your name to. This hardly bodes well for Left Unity if the Socialist Platform happens to win on November 30. Clearly the Go4 even treat basic democratic norms with contempt.

Comrade Bridge stated that he personally thought that comrade Wrack had been sincere when he spoke at a London Communist Forum and at Communist University about the importance of openly setting out our vision of communism, of starting from our actual principles and beliefs, as opposed to tailoring them for the benefit of those to the right, of saying that he found much in what the CPGB said agreeable and so on. But clearly, he added, something had changed since then. We have therefore witnessed some sort of political collapse that is unlikely to be undone in the short term. Anyway the illusion that the Go4 can win Left Unity to the Socialist Platform appears to be driving the backsliding of their method, he concluded.

As for his views on where the CPGB now stands in relation to the Socialist Platform, comrade Bridge was open-ended. It is quite possible to remain a part of it. On the other hand, it would be perfectly principled to present an alternative platform to the November 30 conference on the basis of the majority votes on September 14. After all, the CPGB amendments - bar one - gained a majority despite the Go4’s opposition and the aiding and abetting by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

Mike Macnair, amongst others, noted the ‘anti-group’ prejudices on display and commented that the idea of not voting for what we believe ‘for the sake of those not present’ was reminiscent of the ‘silent majority’ of Richard Nixon. The idea that the 44 attending the meeting out of 106 signatories should not change the platform was a kind of internalisation of the anti-trade union laws passed over the decades, leading to the insistence on postal balloting for strikes, etc. He concluded that, although Left Unity is a project which is going nowhere, is obsessed with political correctness and is politically insubstantial, the CPGB nonetheless ought to go through this experience and attempt to win people over.

Regarding the decision not to take substantive votes, Peter Manson commented that the turnout would be the envy of any trade union branch or Labour Party ward and that the idea that this was not enough to amend and endorse the platform was a joke.

For other comrades, the presence of the AWL - was problematic. The AWL’s social-imperialism is clearly in contradiction to the Socialist Platform’s formal opposition to “all imperialist wars and military interventions”. But, exposing the low level of politics, there was an unwillingness on September 14 to actually say so. In other words, the platform does not take its own platform seriously.

Mark Fischer believed the SP meeting symbolised not just the moral decline of the left, epitomised by the unprincipled arguments of the Go4, but also the political decline, epitomised by the absence of serious arguments against our amendments.

Middle East

The chair of Hands off the People of Iran, Yassamine Mather, opened the second session with a fascinating account of the underlying historical and political-economic forces driving developments in the Middle East.

Given events of recent weeks - more exactly the fact that the sole world superpower, the United States, having drawn a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons by Syria, is flailing about, this should be seen as a sign of relative decline.

It is noticeable that those who apologise for imperialist interventions also have had the tendency to reduce these region-wide events to single-issue, abstract, moral questions. They are the most determined to avoid an examination of the historical background.

For example, today’s politics are partially shaped by events following the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the artificial borders drawn up by Britain and France, the creation of states whose rulers tended to also be from national or religious minorities. Nasserism and Ba’athism attempted to get rid of those colonial borders, as they pursued a ‘non-capitalist road to development’. Nasserism and Ba’athism also maintained control over their peoples through a strong state security apparatus, gangs of hired thugs and the crushing of political opponents. This was not totally unpalatable to many, as such regimes also subsidised food and provided state-run health, social security and education services. This arrangement was, however, brought to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading to dramatic changes within the Arab world.

We must be clear, the comrade went on, that US policy in the Middle East is guided by political concerns. Its allies in the region include strategically important oil-producing countries. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar have small populations and basically rentier economies, which can be used in turn to control the other states in the region. We have seen this in the past through the offering of loans as a means of control, for example, backing the Muslim Brotherhood (till the high command coup in Egypt).

The financial crisis of 2008 has only exacerbated the structural problems in the Arab world - the imposition of International Monetary Fund programmes and loss of income from contract workers leading to the reduction of food subsidies, increased unemployment and the privatisation of state industries.

Part and parcel of this has been the establishment of ‘free trade zones’ and ‘qualified trade zones’ - which have privileged access to US markets. However, there is a catch. There must be an agreed level of trade with Israel - boycotting Israeli goods is out of the question. The advantages of dollars outweighing pan-Arab solidarity in most cases.

Comrades agreed that comrade Mather had made an illuminating contribution. There was some discussion about the role of economic factors in the initial uprisings - was the poverty that resulted from the removal of food subsidies a force that had driven people forward or held them back? Comrade Macnair, however, noted that the military coup in Egypt was likely undertaken partially to nip economic discontent in the bud: to undermine the trade union movement whose members had become disillusioned with both the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime.