Guest post by Chris Strafford on how communists should relate to mass movements, and his experience of the CPGB
The capitalist crisis has opened up a new period and instigated the intensification of class warfare on every continent. Movements such as Occupy, the uprisings in the Middle East, the student movement in Quebec and the popular protests in the Russian Federation represent an acceleration of the class struggle. After listening to two electricians speak in Manchester about their struggle against BESNA I was struck by how these movements have transcended national boundaries and how the language of Occupy and Los Indignados in Spain have embedded themselves in a layer of working class activists. This is also evident in the affinity many people have with the 99% slogans adopted by Occupy.
This opening up of a new period places a great deal of responsibility on communist militants to explain what is happening but also to propose a positive solution to the crisis. Proletarian revolution. To take this forward we have to have some critical reflections on the state of the left, how we understand our collective history and to examine whether our relationship to the class is healthy. This article will focus on the latter through the prism of my experiences in the Communist Party of Great Britain (PCC) for the last three years.
Hal Draper wrote in 1960 that the crisis of the left is because “throughout the history of socialist movements and ideas, the fundamental divide is between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below.” (1) This crisis and conflict is even clearer today when you consider the absence of or opportunism by the left in the mass movements. It is a clear indictment on the revolutionary milieu and their isolation from the working class that when mass eruptions have occurred such as Occupy or Los Indignados, communist politics were not just dismissed but not even evident as a serious trend. These movements are a timely opportunity for the left to critically examine methods of struggle and party building. What we also have been shown is that workers, especially younger workers, are adept at building radical actions, opening up dynamic spaces for discussions and seeking a democratic approach that does not allow the movement to be organisationally dominated by cliques and small groups. How successful they have been on the latter is debatable but the searching by hundreds of thousands of young workers for a democratic approach to building resistance has to be welcomed and engaged with.
For a communist collective to be isolated from the broader movement represents a serious danger. The further Marxists retreat from engaging in the basic common organisations of the class; the unions, the anti-cuts groups and such, the greater the rate of disorientation and confusion takes hold. As we enter into a new period of confrontation by mass movements to capital the traditional left has failed to seriously relate and participate. In Britain the symptoms of isolation are obvious, the left spends most of the time running behind trade union and Labour Party leaders begging for them to deliver a fightback. Instead of building a credible alternative we are left with competing sect building projects. The numerical weakness of the revolutionary left is also a symptom of the left’s sectarian isolation, the membership of the Socialist Workers Party numbers no more than 2000, the Communist Party of Britain’s and the Socialist Party of England and Wales’ membership is probably less than half of that. Then we have several groups, mostly from some sort of Trotskyist tradition, that would each be hard pressed to fill the top-deck of a double decker bus. Yet there must be hundreds of thousands of workers who have at one time been either a member or a supporter of a left wing organisation. Where are they now? This is a pitiful situation considering the disillusionment with the last Labour government, mass protests against the Iraq war and the ruthless attacks on living conditions by the Conservative-led administration.
The common answer to communist isolation is that the current conditions aren’t favourable and so as long as the group is replicating cadres in a small way it can rise to the top of mass movements when they appear. Another excuse put forward by the CPGB is that whilst conditions might be poor, the left is also in a parlous situation and thus needs transforming. All very well and good, if only its talk matched up to its actions within the movement. Where active participation in the movement should be there are only poor polemics and an aloof voluntarism. Both solutions to communist isolation are backwards, leaving the necessary work of creating a credible communist centre in the worker’s movement to another day and another era. Essentially pursuing strategies of sect self-preservation and a political outlook dominated by defeatism. A couple of examples of this from the CPGB; when commenting on a spate of resignations PCC member John Bridge said that the idea of communist work at the base of the worker’s movement was “nonsense”. (2) Secondly, when myself or others raised the importance of doing serious work with trade unions or anti-cuts work committees as part of strengthening a partyist project it was dismissed as “movementism” and no serious organisational steps would be taken to this end. This is why those active in trade unions or other working class bodies tend to drop out of activity if not resigne from the organisation. What the CPGB have retreated into is a political method that theorises and accepts isolation as necessary. When groups give up the fight like this, it is a clear sign that the they are facing the beginning of the end. The only question is how long will it linger on?
This kind of theorised isolation linked three key controversies within the CPGB over the last two years, the Labour Party, Communist Students (CS) and the Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI). Nowhere was it more clear how far the leadership clique was from reality when they hastily decided that Labour in opposition would move to the left and open itself up. Thus, John Bridge and Stan Keable began to organise an entryist “marxist” platform called Labour Party Marxists. CPGB members in trade unions or involved in the anti-cuts movement did point out on numerous occasions that Labour isn’t moving left and isn’t actively drawing in the working class. This is for some very good reasons, most important is that the Labour Party is implementing savage cuts through councils across the country, channelling working class anger against the Labour Party, not into it. On a higher level they began to theorise that the Labour Party should be an instrument of implementing a socialist programme, in other words the British version of a soviet and a “permanent united-front”. In short, the repudiation of the split after the social democratic collapse into chauvinism of the First World War.
Communist Students has been a project run and organised by two distinct methods. Firstly the group in Manchester and individuals in London sought to place CS at the heart of the struggles on campus and relating to working class actions beyond. The other approach taken up by the self-titled “veterans” of CS is akin to the passive approach of the CPGB majority. The latter has now led to the collapse of the organisation, whilst the former brought in several independent comrades creating a dynamic organisation. Our efforts have been consistently undermined, firstly CS was used by the CPGB to move a motion at the Labour Representation Committee about democratising Labour. It was a motion most CS members rejected and implied a political approach that the overwhelming majority of comrades opposed. This damaged the organisation as independent members lost confidence in whether they had a say in the direction of the organisation. Since leaving the CPGB this issue has again arisen with the leadership clique instigating a campaign of lies and bureaucratic provocations within CS. After writing a brief note on the Anticapitalist Initiative national meeting the website quickly became the property of the CPGB, who were a majority on the exec, and thus my access was removed on the orders of John Bridge, (3) next came the revelation that new members in the only active branch, Manchester, would not be able to vote at the next conference. They excused the latter internally by peddling a lie that Manchester would pack the conference in league with members of the Revolution youth group. This move was to produce a false CPGB majority within the organisation whilst cohering CPGB membership under the pretence that the organisation was “under siege.”
The third dispute which is still ongoing is over how communists approach the Anticapitalist Initiative. This is being used to cover up for the real reasons why I and several comrades have left over the last 12 months. Several former and current members of the CPGB consider the initiative an interesting space for the left to reflect and clarify a common political project, whilst at the same time carrying out much needed common work. My understanding of communist work in such situations comes from a CPGB pamphlet called ‘Towards a Socialist Alliance party’ and many of the articles on the Socialist Alliance between 1998 to 2003 within the Weekly Worker. In my, and other younger members’, opinion our support and work within the Anticapitalist Initiative was part of the CPGB orthodoxy in such situations. For example, in 1998 the Weekly Worker reported that an “important idea to win in united front alliances such as the SAs was that there must be room for both a right and left wing.” (4) and in 1999 after an aggregate heard “a report on the Socialist Alliances and agreed to continue our campaign for a broad, inclusive Network.” (5) Their approach to the Anticapitalist Initiative is complete retreat, where instead of a positive intervention the CPGB leadership clique have embarked on a tactically inept attempt to discredit the initiative, through reporting on fantasy intrigues between the left groups involved.
For me, the key question facing our movement is how to build a credible revolutionary alternative whilst strengthening the resistance. That answer can only be found if communist militants organise and debate with others in our movement. This means any organisation that doesn’t take seriously work at the base of the unions, within the anti-cuts movements or even in small unity projects is useless and an impediment on what needs to be done.
2 CPGB Members Report May 6 2012
3 “The CS executive majority should take firm control of the site. Quickly.” – eCaucus 01/05/12
4 Open Fight for Communism – Weekly Worker 249 (1998) http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=91606
5 CPGB agrees perspectives – Weekly Worker 273 (1999) http://cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=90033