British Marxists launch a campaign for a new Party.
New experiment a difficult but refreshing alternative.
6 November 2006
Attempts to unite the left in Ireland and elsewhere have invariably been based on seeking the unity of reformists and revolutionaries on a reformist basis. Whenever those calling themselves revolutionaries have found themselves in a majority in such attempts they have ditched their reason for the initiative, based on the idea of the united front, and organised on a reformist programme. In effect they unite to advance reformism, postponing the struggle for revolutionary Marxism into some indefinite future.
Socialist Democracy has opposed this method. We have argued that Marxists should unite as Marxists, as revolutionaries, and debate out their differences in an honest, open and democratic manner. Acknowledging the deep distrust that exists we have argued that such debate should start now, before organisational unity is begun even though we recognise that common membership of an organisation tends to break down antagonism and distrust. In order to ‘get round’ this we have suggested unity in common campaigns that are based on the clear needs of the working class and do not involve compromising the interests of the class for the sake of unity with others.
The true united front is unity of working class organisations pulling those of other classes behind them if possible, with freedom of Marxists to voice their own programme in criticising the weaknesses of the reformists who lead it. Current unity initiatives invariably violate the united front method. They often involve unity based on avoiding an explicit class view of the issues engaged in and include Marxists refusing to fight for their views on the way forward for the sake of maintaining unity with those to their right.
What appears as an honest attempt to implement a process of Marxist unity has begun in Britain with the setting up of a ‘Campaign for a New Marxist Party’ at a meeting in London on 4th November. This meeting was sponsored by the supporters’ group of the journal ‘Critique’, the Democratic Socialist Alliance, Communist Party of Great Britain (Weekly Worker), the magazine ‘New Interventions’ and the Revolutionary Democratic Group (RDG). None of these are in any way sizeable organisations so the significance of the event was never going to rest on the numbers attending but in the potential it might hold out for the future.
We say this despite the assertion of ‘Critique’ supporters that most real Marxists in Britain are not members of the current left groups e.g. the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party but are independent activists, often ex-members of the latter organisations. Whether it is true or not that these people are the majority of Marxists in Britain today they are not on the periphery or under the strong influence of the organisers of the initiative so it was no surprise that the attendance was small, around 40 people.
The opening address was by the editor of ‘Critique’, Hillel Ticktin, who stated that it was no accident that the call for the conference came from ‘Critique’. Its longstanding argument that Stalinism would come to an end has been confirmed. Critique has also argued that the existence and power of Stalinism had made it impossible for the working class to seriously threaten the existence of capitalism and pose the question of taking power. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Stalinism has thus created a period of change in which genuine Marxism can grow to win the majority of the working class. Far from lamenting the death of Stalinism and social democratic reformism Marxists should welcome their crisis and decline.
Ticktin argued that the capitalist class is now weaker than it has been. It does not have control of the working class in the way that it used to, relying more on force and on the natural illusions that workers have about the nature of capitalism. Reformism no longer has the influence it once had to limit workers dissatisfaction and resistance. The relative economic stability of capitalism has come to an end and now faces an economic downturn comparable to the 1930s. The growth of finance capital, which is capital not directly engaged in pumping out surplus labour from the working class, that was previously absorbed by the cold war has signalled the growing decline of the system.
These have created the circumstances in which the creation of a new Marxist Party that openly proclaims the objective of overthrowing capitalism and instituting working class power is possible and necessary. We don’t need sects which hide these objectives behind reformist platforms or manifestos. We need a party that is honest with the working class and in which we can trust each other. We are not catastrophists, believing that capitalism was meeting a terminal crisis that will compel the workers to rise up to overthrow it, but we do recognise that capitalist crises do exist and that it will be necessary for the working class to seek solutions in a socialist alternative. Ticktin expressed confidence that the campaign for a Marxist Party could grow in the coming period.
The first session of the meeting was devoted to the founding principles of the campaign. The resolution of the Critique Supporters Group (CSG) was carried as was that of the Democratic Socialist Alliance (DSA) as amended by the CPGB. We have set out the address of the DSA which contains the motions proposed at the conference at the bottom of this article. To give some immediate indication of the nature of the discussion the opening CSG resolution was the following:
‘The Campaign has three founding political principles:
1. We are in favour of a planned, democratic
socialist society and against the market.
It will only be possible to record some of the contributions to the debate here and apologies to those who attended who feel my report is partial.
The DSA argued for a return to Marx while recognising the positive contribution of the Russian revolution and of the fight of Trotskyism against Stalinism. It emphasised three principles – socialism from below, internationalism – the international character of socialism, and the relationship between the party and the class with democracy inside the party and the right to tendencies and factions.
The emphasis on Stalinism was questioned by another speaker, with the role of the Labour Party as the main obstacle to socialism in Britain being pointed out. The character of the Labour party was not addressed in the resolutions nor were the trade unions seriously analysed. It was pointed out to a defender of the positive role of Stalinism in the Second World War that Stalin and the local Communist Parties had betrayed revolution in Greece and Northern Italy at the end of the war and assisted the preservation of capitalism.
Other CSG speakers argued that the resolutions from others minimised the role of Stalinism, it was not just that the approach of Stalinism to socialism was wrong compared to others but that it wasn’t socialism at all! It was counter revolutionary. The Soviet Union did not work and in Cuba there exists a division between the rulers and the ruled. The reason the British Labour Party was not explicitly mentioned in the resolutions was that it had never claimed to be Marxist unlike the Stalinists.
The second session of the meeting was devoted to programme. The DSA proposed the now defunct British Socialist Alliance’s election manifesto ‘People before Profit’ as the template for drawing up a programme, one that could only be ratified by a later congress that would launch the new Party. This was argued on the basis that the document was the highest expression of left unity in Britain, possibly since 1945, and that the gains of the Socialist Alliance should be built on. It was not a reformist document but could still be developed. What had been wrong with it was not so much the document itself as the context and the use to which it was put.
Speakers from the CPGB put forward the draft programme of their own organisation as a contribution to the elaboration of the new Party’s programme, but not as an ultimatist demand of seeking its adoption wholesale. They proposed it because, very naturally, they believed in it, but were already seeking to review and update it. They argued that ‘People before Profit’ was a left reformist document with the structure of an electoral manifesto. It was to the right of where the left groups who wrote it stood. It was an electoralist vehicle and a con. It ends where it should have started – with internationalism.
A speaker for the RDG said that ‘People before Profit’ was a device to draw together left unity, not one to bring about a Marxist programme. The latter would begin from the highest experience of the world working class – the 1917 Russian Revolution- not Britain today. A Marxist programme has to be international not built on a structure put together for a British election in 2001.
Other interventions said the manifesto was intended only as a contribution to elaboration of a programme, not proposed as an end product, while the CPGB explained that what was being proposed was its use as a ‘template’ and this it definitely should not be. The central problem was shown by the fact that it was a list of promises that a socialist government would carry out for the workers, involving a passive electorate and passive working class. It was not based on working class self-emancipation. Its economic policy was a version of Keynesianism and as a starting point would lead where every such project has led, including the Mitterrand government in France at the start of the 1980s: to capitulation to the power of an unchallenged capitalism.
CSG speakers claimed it was a document
for revolutionaries pretending to be reformists. It was a product
of the larger left organisations which have failed.
Another speaker argued that although the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels and Trotsky’s Transitional Programme had been superseded these could contribute to the elaboration of a new programme. However at present the completion of a programme was not possible. Hillel Ticktin quoted from the back of the People before Profit manifesto which talked about taxing the rich and defending the welfare stare, in other words assuming the continued existence of capitalism. It was not therefore a revolutionary or Marxist programme. We can only really agree, he said, to write one in the future. Another speaker argued, in relation to the CPGB proposal, that the continuing separation by the CPGB of the Marxist programme into a minimum and maximum one was wrong and that the transitional approach was correct. Another argued that it was not possible to launch a party now but only look at what the strategic basis of one should be.
Part 3 of the meeting dealt with practical proposals on organisation including a membership structure and election of a committee to lead and organise the work of the campaign until its next meeting. A commitment to democracy and proposals to ensure democratic functioning were stressed during the debate and in the proposals passed at the meeting. The CPGB argued that the purpose of the CPGB and ‘Weekly Worker’ was the same as the new campaign and there should therefore be discussions between the new campaign and the CPGB with a view to fusion, not as a take-over, but as a merger based on mutual agreement on united tasks. To do any other would immediately call into question the whole basis of the project: unity yes, but not with them! This was agreed by the meeting. It was pointed out that the method of the Socialist Party where its Campaign for a New Mass Workers Party did not even have a membership meant that it excluded democratic functioning from the outset.
So how do we evaluate this initiative? While Socialist Democracy is in favour of the unity of Marxists around a revolutionary programme we do not fool ourselves into thinking that this will be an easy task, in Britain or Ireland. We propose it because we think it is correct, not because it is easier than unity on some opportunistic basis. In the longer term it will undoubtedly prove more effective but the attraction of opportunism is precisely its promise of quick gains that ultimately prove to be built on sand. The project in Britain is to be welcomed as an earnest attempt even though it faces real difficulties.
Although the parties to the London meeting agreed on the need to advance on the basis of a Marxist programme it is not clear that real agreement about the nature of such a programme exists. Although the second principle passed by the conference insists on the direct struggle for socialism, without the existence of any intermediate stages, at least two of the organisations have strategic conceptions that may conflict with this.
The Revolutionary Democratic Group gave out a leaflet at the conference that posed the need for a struggle for a democratic republic in Britain. The CPGB has enunciated three principles on which a Marxist Party should be built but none of them explicitly state the need for socialist revolution, i.e. the destruction of the capitalist state and its replacement by workers power based on the workers’ own organs of organisation. If Marxism could be abbreviated to a single principle, it would be commitment to socialist revolution.
The CPGB’s insistence on the fight for a democratic republic, which they say can take various concrete forms, leaves open reformist conceptions that do not insist on the qualitative break involved in the change of class rule from the capitalist class to the working class, expressed in destroying the capitalist state and with the workers own organisations of struggle becoming the foundation of the new state.
The CPGB see the dynamic of revolution as being the fight for extreme democracy. If this simply involves a conception of how the working class can be made aware of its class interests and the programme that flows from this then perhaps there are no fundamental differences. If on the other hand it means that socialism is just extreme democracy then there is no reason to posit a revolutionary break in society. There would be no reason to insist on the counterposing of workers power to the most democratic capitalist institutions the capitalists may invent to defend their system.
In the latter schema the fight for extreme democracy can become an inevitable stage that conflicts with the second principle passed by the conference and proposed by ‘Critique’ – that there are no intermediate stages between capitalism and socialism. This semi-Stalinist notion of the potential of democracy has led the CPGB to put forward political demands that do not flow from anticipation of a direct fight for working class rule and the conditions must be created to assist this. Rather these notions lead to projects based on some distorted view of a perfect democracy. This is what may lie behind support for the ‘right’ of the racist, settler and colonial state of Israel to exist beside a Palestinian State. This two-state solution conceptually can only involve acceptance of division. By putting forward the demand the CPGB cuts across the need to unite the working class around the demands of revolutionary socialism.
The same applies to the utterly reactionary position of the CPGB on Ireland which again invents undemocratic ‘democratic’ solutions which do not start from seeking the conquest of political power by the working class. The call for working class power contradicts their call for re-partition – a call that could only involve them being on the same side as imperialism and loyalism in fighting for such a project. The rest of the Irish working class, were it to embark on a mass political struggle for socialism, could not fail to oppose repartition and seek the defeat of imperialism and loyalism in pursuit of its own interests. Only when one seeks a separate ‘democratic’ stage before socialism can such reactionary ideas come to the fore.
We have had occasion to severely criticise the position of the CPGB on our web site before and interested readers are invited to follow this up at: http://www.socialistdemocracy.org/Debate/DebateTwoNationsOnceAgain.html
But perhaps I have misunderstood the politics of the CPGB. In any case this will hopefully be clarified in the work of the new campaign. If we have any advice to give the new project we would only ask that it remember that Ireland used to be termed the ‘acid test’ of British revolutionaries. This did not mean Ireland was the most important question that they faced, but that it was one that tested their political conceptions and ruthlessly exposed deficiencies. That is why the Irish question should be high on their agenda.
The second problem facing the campaign is of a more practical nature. Proving the validity of pursuing an explicitly Marxist programme above that of reformist programmes advanced by larger left groups will not be easy. If the Marxist programmatic approach is superior how will this difference be demonstrated? When the class struggle is at a relatively low ebb different programmes are not so easily tried and tested. There are obviously no guarantees of success.
The CPGB have themselves pointed to difficulties in reconciling their own perspective - that it is the members of the existing left organisations that will be the terrain on which the majority of British Marxists will be united - with that of the Critique group which is much more dismissive of this left membership. What are the implications of the two approaches? At the meeting one intervention questioned the CPGB’s entry into RESPECT in order to implement their orientation. He described RESPECT as not something Marxists could support. The tension between this and the much repeated need for honesty in the face of the working class was clear. Was the CPGB saying RESPECT was or could be a vehicle for advancing the interests of the working class?
Whatever the problems this initiative is new in recent history and will be watched with interest by militants seeking the unity on a revolutionary basis of those claiming to be Marxist.
The motions proposed at the conference can be found at: http://www.sademocracy.org.uk/DSA%20Nov%204%20motions.htm