Left Unity: Solid basis for intervention
Daniel Harvey reports on last weekends Communist Platform meeting
On Saturday February 8, the Communist Platform in Left Unity held its first national meeting, where comrades agreed an amended platform and a number of policy motions. We are now approaching Left Unity’s March 29 policy conference, where the party will begin to decide on its own priorities and policy.
Comrade Farzad Kamangar started the day by reminding those present of the strategic thinking behind the Communist Platform. This stands in sharp contrast to that of the majority in Left Unity, which fits in with the prevailing strategy on the left of only putting forward what they think will be acceptable to those to their right. In fact this surrenders crucial ground to the bourgeoisie, which inevitably wins the argument by framing the acceptable parameters of discussion.
The default position now is that the best solution must be a centrist one, so, as society becomes more rightwing, and therefore more unequal, the left’s response is to slide further to the right itself. The Labour Party re-invented itself in the mid-90s as a successful business-friendly bourgeois workers’ party, whilst the bulk of those to the left of Labour, and the soft left in general, favour either a mixed economy or a Keynesian managed economy. Platforms are therefore presented in moderate and ‘people-friendly’ terms, whilst ditching ‘problematic’ commitments essential for the transformation of society concerning the state, the army, the judiciary and the monarchy. In this sense, continued comrade Kamangar, capitalism has won, especially since the 1970s, helped by the fall of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of social democracy into a rightwing, pro-business agenda.
Whilst all of this is taken by the rest of the left as a reason to capitulate ideologically, it in fact compels us to be ambitious: “We propose the ‘impossible’ not because we are mad, but because we are realists,” she said, adding: “We start by what is imaginable”. Being a realist today means seeing that any kind of left- Labour or Keynesian programme is unworkable, certainly in isolation from the rest of the neoliberal capitalist world.
But, she concluded, getting people to accept these realities means also confronting head on the reasons behind them: the disastrous attempts to build socialism in the past, the ‘workers’ states’ descending into the violence of the gulags, and control by a bureaucratic elite.
In the debate which ensued, a number of platform supporters commented on the state of the left in LU. John Bridge reminded comrades of the failure of the Socialist Platform leadership to support basic socialist principles at the SP founding meeting last year, by first of all denying supporters the right to amend the platform and then voting ‘indicatively’ against basic Marxist propositions like human freedom, the withering away of the state and the principle of “democratic, not bureaucratic” organisation. The Communist Platform is made up of those who, having won all but one of the ‘indicative’ votes in this SP meeting, went on to put such principles forward to the Left Unity founding conference in November.
Some comrades were, however, very wary of continuing to insist on a complete separation from the SP. Moshé Machover made it clear that he still regarded members of the SP as potential allies, and that, whilst there was a gap between the politics of the SP and the CP, it was far less than the distance from the rightwing Left Party Platform which won out in Left Unity last November.
The CPGB’s Tina Becker and independent Lee Rock both supported this position. The former thought it would be useful if the CP reached out to the SP in order to coordinate some kind of joint work before the March 29 conference in Manchester, but also made clear that it was important to bear in mind the disorganisation of the SP, which has not put together a meeting since LU’s founding conference, or any kind of publicity. She suggested making this gesture may expose such inactivity in practice. Comrade Rock said that he “enjoyed kicking Nick Wrack around politically as much as anyone”, but eventually it “could get a bit boring”.
Mike Macnair also emphasised the very low level of organisation in the SP. He warned that some in the SP see it as a way of intervening in favour of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition inside Left Unity, and so are coming from a very different position politically.
John Bridge stated that he considered the situation in Left Unity far more complex. He thought it would be possible to win support for Communist Platform policy proposals from different sections, not just those in and around the SP, and so it was not a question of focusing exclusively on the SP when it came to possible alliances.
At this point, the meeting moved onto its real business, and the first decision to be made was whether to base ourselves on the original Communist Platform - that is, the Socialist Platform plus amendments - or to go for the new version drafted by the CPGB. This removed the redundant phrases of the original and was pared down to the essentials.
No-one opposed the adoption of the new version (see p6), although Ian Donovan abstained - he had proposed amendments to the original platform, but these fell automatically when the new platform was adopted. But comrade Donovan had also proposed amendments to this version.
The first of these centred on the original phrasing in point 2 that “Under socialism the means of production pass back into common ownership” (emphasis added). Ian proposed an amendment to make more sense of this: “pass back from their ancient point of origin under primitive communism to common ownership under conditions of an advanced industry-based economy”.
In the argument that followed comrade Machover challenged the accuracy of the amendment, as it assumed that primitive communism was not the only circumstance where there was common ownership. Comrade Macnair followed on from this by pointing out that common ownership under feudalism was clearly in no way related to, or a hangover from, primitive communism, while comrade Bridge opposed the amendment, saying that there was no need to explain what “pass back” meant - the platform was not aimed at the “average person in the street”, after all. In the end, the arguments in favour of both comrade Donovan’s amendment and the original were rejected, as comrade Machover’s amendment from the floor to simply delete the word “back” being narrowly carried.
Comrade Donovan’s second amendment related to point 4. He suggested inserting “parties” and “or simply fictional”, so that the sentence now read: “Without open discussion as a norm and the right to form parties, platforms and oppositions, democracy can only be formal or simply fictional”. This was passed without any opposition.
Ian’s third amendment, however, provoked a prolonged argument. He put forward an addition to point 5, which read: “We stand on the historic examples of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Bolshevik-led revolution in October 1917 as the first attempts of the working class to dispossess the capitalists and begin the construction of socialism.” Comrade Donovan emphasised the importance of not just presenting abstract principles, but having some kind of fidelity to previous historical attempts to supersede capitalism.
The opposition to this focused on whether it was necessary or useful to spell that out, but the second part of this amendment, which would have added “the degenerated Soviet Union and its later imitators”, attracted more criticism. Maciej Zurowski stated that he thought the formulation implied an orthodox Trotskyist interpretation of the failure of the Soviet Union as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’. At the same time, comrade Kamangar rejected the word “imitators” for countries on the USSR’s periphery, which she said were in reality brought into the Soviet camp by force rather than conscious decisions.
Comrade Machover disagreed with the phrase “stand on” in the first part of the amendment, stating that he thought we should be “inspired by” the examples of the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution. He pointed out that Marx was against the initial attempt to form the Paris Commune and in any case both it and 1917 were ultimately failures. However, James Turley of the CPGB defended Ian’s amendment on the basis that it was “two fingers up to the philistines” in Left Unity, who chastise people for invoking ‘dead Russians’.
Comrade Bridge opposed both amendments, calling the first redundant and stating that there were many competing ideas about what went wrong in the Soviet Union and so it was wrong to specify its ‘degeneration’ in the platform. Lee Rock, however, challenged John on the first point, stating that he disagreed that in this case “more is less”, surely comrade Bridge should not vote against an amendment he agrees with? (Like Nick Wrack presumably).
Comrade Donovan opposed Moshé’s phrase, “inspired by”, on the basis that the attempts were valid in their own right, which is why we should “stand on” them. He rejected the idea that “stand on” in any way implies a commitment to replicating their failures. The first part of the amendment was passed, but the second part was heavily modified in a counter-amendment from comrade Zurowski, which removed reference to the USSR’s ‘degeneration’.
Ian’s final amendment was criticised for wanting to commit the Communist Platform to a state capitalist interpretation of the Soviet Union and similar regimes: “An isolated socialist government will either be crushed by capital or forced by material circumstances, despite the best of initial intentions, to become a surrogate capitalist force in its own right.” This fell with the only support coming from the mover.
There was one more amendment put forward to the maximum programme which came from comrade Machover, and this challenged the phrase “semi-state” to describe what would exist after a workers’ revolution. He thought this failed to take into account the transitional nature of such a state, and called for the phrase “transient state” to be used instead. Prior to the meeting it was thought by some in the CPGB that an accommodation could be found, with perhaps a combination of the two words, such as “transient semi-state”.
Mike Macnair pointed out that “semi” was used to imply that some of the features of the original capitalist state would have been removed, like the standing army, whilst others would continue to exist over a transitional period. In the end both “semi” and “transient” were rejected, and “partial state” was adopted instead - it was pointed out that its transient nature was sufficiently covered by the phrase “withering away”.
Before moving on to the discussion on the proposed policy motions, there was a debate over the French state’s crackdown on the black comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, on the basis of anti-Semitic comments he had made. Comrade Donovan’s motion, which was opposed by a shorter counter-proposal from James Turley, called for the “defence” of Dieudonné in light of the state’s attacks, together with black footballer Nicolas Anelka, who is being disciplined for performing a Dieudonné-inspired ‘quenelle’ gesture.
The motion stated that the CP would “carefully note” the charges of anti-Semitism, as well as Dieudonné’s links to the far-right Front National, but that this ought not settle the issue. We should not base our understanding of racism on the liberal notion that this is simply a matter of “bad ideas”: it is structural, and based on “social relations”. Therefore, the motion continued, we could not “equate the nationalism of the oppressed with the nationalism of the oppressor”. At the same time it blamed Israel for the “despairing embrace of anti-Jewish hatred by layers subjected to racial oppression both in the Middle East and, as this case shows, not confined to that region”.
The motion was opposed by comrades Farzad Kamangar and Moshé Machover. For Farzad it was important to recognise that anti- Semitism remains a serious social phenomenon, not least because of the use of it made by the Israeli state. At the same time she noted the opportunist character of the French state in not adopting Zionism pure and simple - its policy was influenced by, for example, Saudi arms contracts. Moshé called the motion “dangerous”: Dieudonné panders to the “anti-Zionism” of fools, which in fact reinforces the position of Israel in the Middle East, and should not be defended.
James Turley made a case for his own shorter motion, which simply stated the platform’s opposition to state crackdowns of any kind on free expression. He illustrated this with the example of the attempts made to take the British National Party to court to force it to accept ethnic minorities into the party. He said it was wrong for the left to support this, as the exclusion of black people was “their right as a gang of racists”. In the end, both motions were referred back for consideration at a later date.
Since the platform focuses on the aims we believe Left Unity should adopt, it was felt necessary in addition to adopt policy proposals in the shape of minimum demands - which would also shape our intervention at the forthcoming policy conference. The CPGB proposed motions based on the minimum section in its own Draft Programme for this purpose.
But first there was one more motion from Ian Donovan on “governmental power”, which committed Left Unity to “win political power to end capitalism, not to manage it”. Therefore the motion ruled out any possibility of Left Unity participating in any “governmental coalitions with capitalist parties at national and local level”, or administering “the existing capitalist state alone or in coalition with reformists”. The motion laid out a precondition for power based on the “abolition of the core of the capitalist state - centrally the police, the officer caste of the armed forces, the capitalist judiciary and prison system, and the command structure of the civil service”. The motion specified that a workers’ government must be complemented by “independent, armed working class organisations”.
The motion was unanimously agreed - at a stroke scotching criticism from those in Left Unity such as David Ellis, who claims that the CP is “an eclectic mash-up of minimal reformist demands and maximalist propaganda”, meaning that “the right wing will be able to live with the opposition of the Communist Platform without losing too much sleep”. In fact, the minimum programme lays out an effective road map for abolishing the capitalist state and the “bridge for the labour movement from capitalism to the socialist revolution” that he claims is missing.1
This was further reinforced by the CPGB’s first motion on “winning the battle for democracy”, which states that democracy can only be achieved by the “working class taking the lead in the fight to ensure popular control over all aspects of society” and “removing all judicial, structural and socio-economic constraints on, or distortions of, popular control from below”. Demands under this rubric meant extending and completing the legacy of radical Chartism: abolishing the second chamber, “proportional representation, annual elections and MPs’ salaries set at the rate of a skilled worker”. The motion also called for the abolition of the “presidential prime minister” and the accompanying patronage, as well as the disbandment of the entire “secret state apparatus”. Again, this passed unanimously.
The second motion by the CPGB on the question of the European Union saw a challenge from Moshé Machover. In general the CPGB position on constitutional questions, as outlined by Mike Macnair at the meeting, is to favour centralism over federalism, and that centralism should be operated through a powerful legislature and a massively weakened executive. In effect this empowers the democratic component against the bureaucratic parts, and limits the ability of the centre to trample too much on the local autonomy of the base.
Comrade Machover proposed that instead of calling for the total abolition of the EU commission, which represents the constituent nation-states on a more equal basis, it should still exist, but be made more accountable to the parliament. In this sense, he was calling for a small concession to federalism, stating that he thought absolute democratic centralism across Europe would be unworkable. He also called for an additional demand to be added: end all immigration controls across the union.
Tina Becker was forthright: “Fuck national sentiments!” she said, whilst adding her optimism about the possibility for organising a mass movement across European countries when the circumstances arose. John Bridge strongly diagreed with the first point, but agreed with the second. He also challenged Moshé to consider Lenin’s opposition to any kind of federalism - although he was willing to concede it when there was no alternative. Federalism is not something that communists generally advocate - it was a question that should be “left open to history”, he said. On this the original CPGB position won out, but the section was still reformulated slightly to put the demand for power to the EU parliament first. An amendment proposed by Sarah McDonald for the “free movement of people” and opposing all immigration controls was unanimously agreed.
There was then some debate about the third CPGB motion on ‘The danger of war’. This centred on two more amendments from comrade Donovan, plus a hurriedly drafted one from Chris Gray, which would have eliminated a dialectical formulation contained in the motion: “With global socialism the word ‘war’ will become redundant. So will the word ‘peace’. The absence of war will gradually render obsolete its opposite, as humanity leaves behind its pre-history.”
For Chris this is deliberately confusing and offers a “hostage to fortune” to those looking for things to object to. In the debate which followed, John Bridge said we should not worry about our programme being “interpreted badly by idiots”, which he claimed would happen in any case, whatever we did. He thought that challenging the notion of “peace” was important for revolutionaries, and referred to ancient Indo-European languages, where the word did not exist at all till long after the invention of war. Comrade Machover supported the amendment, as did Mike Macnair. In the end, this came to a split vote in the meeting with the chair, Peter Manson, ultimately using his casting vote to save the passage from deletion.
Ian’s amendments meant adding a couple of sentences about the interests of imperialist states to “enforce an effective monopoly” in weapons of mass destruction, and their being the “chief purveyor of such obscenities”. It would also have committed the CP to opposing “military ‘policing’ actions aimed at enforcing such a monopoly”. His other amendment would have added to what was contained in the motion about our support for “just wars, above all revolutionary civil wars for socialism”, to include “mass-based struggles against national oppression, imperialism and colonialism”. These amendments were felt generally to be redundant and to weaken the original formulation stylistically. They were both defeated.
After this, a tranche of CPGB motions were passed without amendment or opposition, relating to crime and justice, the environment, freedom of information, health, housing, migrant workers, the national question, sexual freedom and trade union demands. There were only a few areas of contention left, where comrade Donovan had expressed differences with the majority.
The first of these was an amendment to the ‘Unemployment and capitalism’ motion that would have committed the CP to demanding the “elimination of mass unemployment through programmes of public works and work-sharing on full pay, expropriation of bankrupt and obviously parasitic sections of capital and other such demands that challenge capitalist economic logic and property rights”.
Ian defended this on the basis of the “much maligned Transitional programme”, on which he differs from the CPGB: whilst he objects strongly to the way it is deployed on the left today, and especially by the reformist majority in Left Unity, he does not see it as an inherently flawed or deceptive method for persuading workers to look beyond capitalism for what is necessary for their everyday existence. His amendment, he said, does not aim to lure workers into opposing capitalism by stealth, but constitutes an important set of demands for those locked into the reserve army of labour.
John Bridge objected to this as another redundancy. Mike Macnair thought that the demands did not just “challenge capitalist economic logic”: they amounted to a call for capitalism’s immediate abolition. For Sarah McDonald, the transitional nature of the demand made it incompatible with the political approach at work behind the platform. The motion was defeated with Ian voting for it on his own.
Comrade Machover challenged a formulation in the ‘Women’s liberation’ motion which stated that “Ending exploitation will mark the beginning of women’s emancipation”. Of course, this implies that the process leading to women’s emancipation has not already long begun, and so was amended to read: “Ending exploitation will create the framework for the full realisation of women’s emancipation”.
Further CPGB motions - on ‘Working conditions’ and ‘Pensioners and the elderly - passed without opposition. But there was a final difference between Ian Donovan and the CPGB over ‘Youth and education’ - specifically over age-of-consent laws, which the CPGB opposes. Ian proposed a softening of this position, which called for abolishing “rigid, absolute age-of-consent laws”, with an additional explanation of the kind of legislation needed to protect children, which is left unspoken in the original. Ian’s amendment called for “Alternative legislation to protect young people and children from sexual abuse based on proven, effective consent, which takes full account of the wishes and feelings of any younger party. The burden of proof of this to be on an older party, if such exists.”
Comrade Donovan thought the original wording came over as “irresponsible”, considering the real dangers that children face, because it did not give any impression of how it intended to protect children in the absence of any legal age of consent.
Comrade Macnair compared Ian’s formulation with the Polish laws that existed till the 1980s for protecting children. These specified the responsibility of a person in a position of authority to demonstrate that a sexual advance towards a young person was not unsolicited. Jean Smith drew on her experience as a teacher to state why she objected to all age-of-consent laws: they artificially impose themselves on situations which in her professional life require a lot of caution and careful consideration on a case-by-case basis.
John Bridge disagreed with Ian’s amendment, but made a suggestion to the meeting that the section be remitted, and that there be a debate in the pages of the Weekly Worker. The meeting agreed, and the rest of the section was passed.
This brought the meeting to a close, with compliments offered to the chair for ensuring that the meeting overran by a mere two minutes, all business having been completed despite the packed agenda. In this writer’s view it represented a highly successful step forwards for the Communist Platform, which now has a solid basis to guide its intervention within Left Unity.
It also showed how much was possible, and how constructive the discussions can be, in the absence of the sort of bureaucratic games favoured by the Socialist Platform steering committee last year.