In my letter of September 30, I expressed some doubt about a comment that Mike Macnair made in his article, ‘Enlightened constitutions’ (September 23), that the Enlightenment theory of historical progress “logically implies that there may be a future beyond capitalism”.
In ‘Modern ancient constitutions’ (October 23), Macnair responded to my criticism, saying that I support “the view that the Marxist class perspective is to be rejected in favour of a democracy-first perspective” and that I turn my “fire mainly against [the] suggestion that the possibility of a future beyond capitalism is an important part of motivating a mass anti-constitutional movement”. In formulating this characterisation of my views, Macnair makes it clear that he is drawing less from my short letter than from two articles published in Cosmonaut. But he misunderstands the argument contained in those two articles. I do not argue in them that democracy should replace “the Marxist class perspective”. My argument is that democracy is the Marxist class perspective.
Warrant for this assertion is based specifically on the theory of political consciousness and agitation that Lenin articulated in chapter 3 of What is to be done? and the Iskra article, ‘Political agitation and “the class point of view”’ - and more generally on the primacy of the struggle for a democratic republic in the classic period of Marxism from 1844-1917. I won’t reproduce the argument in those articles here. Rather, I’ll just point to the places where my conception of what is most important in Marxism differs from Macnair’s and what consequences follow from these differences.
I’ll begin where Macnair begins, by emphasising that we share a great deal of common ground. The discussion of the place of the democratic republic in the history and theory of Marxism was neglected for many decades following the Bolshevik revolution. Although there was important historical work done in the 1960s and 70s, it was not until the 90s that the democratic republic as a strategic goal was reintroduced in a serious way into Marxist political debates. Daniel Lazare’s The frozen republic: how the constitution is paralyzing democracy (1996) and the CPGB PCC’s post-1995 political reorientation were pivotal in this revival in our respective countries. I agree with Macnair that the reformist “bread and butter” centre-left’s and the militant “bread and butter” far left’s blindness to the problem of a lack of democracy is politically debilitating, but I don’t blame them for the left’s political fragmentation, as he does. Nor do I agree that the far left’s political errors should be characterised as the elevation of militant tactics over the democratic strategic goal of the minimum programme. The problems of the left are far deeper and more complex than that.
The roots of the left’s weakness go back to the staggering upheaval of life and thought in the 20th century that began with the outbreak of World War I. It was not just the reformists and the semi-syndicalist far left that lost their way, but the Third International as well. The CPGB PCC sees itself as part of the Third International tradition, but why did it take until the mid-1990s for it to realise that political and organisational democracy are essential to the left and Marxism?
I’ll interject a little of my own history here. I was a member of Students for a Democratic Society in the late 1960s. Our democratic ideology was derived from the civil rights movement and the writings of C Wright Mills. Stalinism was already a dead letter for us, and Trotskyism along with it. The intensity of the Vietnam war did drive the US New Left to adopt the anti-imperialism of the Chinese Communist Party for a while, and I was a member of the Maoist Revolutionary Union in the early 1970s, but two things happened that quickly turned me away from Marxism-Leninism.
First, the Vietnam war gradually wound down and the entire theory of people’s war in the third world defeating imperialism in the metropoles ended with it; and, second, I read most of Lenin’s Collected works and discovered he was an advocate for democracy and that his so-called theory of the party was a myth created in the 1920s. Hal Draper had already written about the Lenin myth in the 1960s, and in 1977 volume 1 of Neil Harding’s Lenin’s political thought was published. Much of the weakness and political disorientation of the left stems from the decades-long inability of Marxist-Leninists themselves to examine and understand their own history.
As for the far left’s elevation of tactics over programme, Macnair’s formulation is partly true and partly misleading. It is true insofar as the neglect of democracy is ipso facto a substitution of militant posturing for political content. It is misleading in that Macnair goes on to argue that left unity therefore cannot be based on tactics, but must be based on unity around a programme. The second conclusion does not follow from the first. It is possible to have agreement on a classic Marxist minimum-maximum programme and still be divided politically and organisationally over tactics.
Classic examples are Lenin’s disagreements with Rabochee Delo over the tactical plan for Iskra and with the Mensheviks in Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution. I would also add the disagreement between Luxemburg and Kautsky in 1910 over support for the mass strikes and demonstrations demanding a democratic republic in Germany as an example of a disagreement over tactics rather than programme. Regarding Lenin, Neil Harding and Lars T Lih capture his distinctive conception of the relationship between the content of the minimum-maximum programme, tactics and organisational unity in two aphorisms: respectively, “Lenin’s argument was that workers did not have to come to socialist consciousness in order to acquire political consciousness”; and “If you were willing to fight for political freedom, you were Lenin’s ally, even if you were hostile to socialism. If you downgraded the goal of political freedom in any way, you were Lenin’s foe, even if you were a committed socialist.”
Lih also has a section in Lenin rediscovered (pp508-17), where he contrasts Lenin’s conception of a “revolutionary democratic party” with Akselrod’s and Trotsky’s conception in 1904 of a “class party”. In all of these examples, Lenin and Luxemburg argued that the immediate tactics required for the struggle for democracy took precedence over the pleas of their opponents within the social democratic parties to maintain organisational unity. I don’t think Macnair does an adequate job of taking these examples into consideration.
What consequences follow from my analysis? Macnair says that I reject a Marxist class perspective for a democracy-first perspective. I reject this division. Democracy is the Marxist class perspective. By the Marxist class perspective Macnair seems to mean the CPGB PCC’s plan to form a new Communist Party, based on acceptance of a revolutionary minimum-maximum programme. Only after this party is formed will it then be possible to go over to mass democratic agitation.
Lenin’s plan for Iskra was the reverse. He thought political agitation for democracy and the consolidation of an activist core had to precede the formation of a party in order to avoid an unwieldy collection of disparate political tendencies that might be able to agree in words on general principles, but not on a tactical plan of action. Macnair thinks an organisation based on tactical unity must swing from issue to issue and be vulnerable to the whims of a maximum leader, but his own citation of the example of the real historical Lenin undermines his own argument.
The reason is that Lenin did not base his tactical or organisational ideas on chasing after rapidly shifting, popular, single issues, but on the fixed goal of a democratic republic. This broad goal itself provided the political gravity that both drew activists into Lenin’s political orbit and kept them from flying too far apart, even when tactical disagreements emerged within their own ranks. As for envisioning the possibility of a future beyond capitalism, I’ll just reiterate the perspective contained in the two aphorisms by Harding and Lih. Capitalism and political authoritarianism go together. The envisioning of an alternative to the present can involve a conception of how a socialist society might work, but it can also just as easily be conceived of as the political overthrow of authoritarianism and its replacement by democratic decision-making.
The problem with focusing on the vision of a socialist future beyond capitalism as the key to motivating a mass anti-constitutional movement is that it overlooks Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s argument that the direct appeal to democratic sentiments themselves is the most important motivating factor in generating a mass anti-constitutional movement. In Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s view, the immediate struggle for democracy was the factor that differentiated those who only talked about a democratic and socialist future from those who were willing to fight for it by first winning the battle for democracy.
I’m with Lenin and Luxemburg: democracy first!
Give up on Labour
Way back when John McDonnell was trying to stand for leader of the Labour Party in 2007, the present-day CPGB understandably declared that a substantial cohort of its members and a much wider number within its influence should join Labour to advocate and vote for McDonnell, were he to make the ballot. Work within the Labour Party was concomitant.
This intervention followed CPGB participation in the Socialist Labour Party, then the Socialist Alliance, and later Respect. The chance that McDonnell might shake up the Labour Party and make it an important site of working class struggle was presented as of essential concern to Marxists, who were to carry the fight forward on Labour turf. However, McDonnell never made the cut in terms of MPs’ nominations on that occasion; and then in 2010 he withdrew his leadership candidacy, fearing he would again fall at the first hurdle.
However, many of us on the Marxist left who continued our Labour membership after 2010 had realised that we were largely seen by the right in the party as just another part of a leftwing troop of useful idiots. We carried out grunt work at election times, canvassing for votes and dishing out leaflets. In fact, we were a left cover for the right’s permanent control. We might come up with hard-hitting motions, take up branch and constituency posts, or be conference delegates. But so what? We would never to be allowed control of the real levers of power in the party. Some at the time said that was self-evident; more are saying it now.
Come Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election as leader in 2015, much changed. The right’s complacency about its control of the party was shaken, even if control itself was not. Then began the Labour right’s determined machinations to destroy or neuter any Labour left worthy of the name and to mould remaining lefts into compliance with its dominion, forcibly restructuring them into a tolerated ‘official left’.
And the right’s offensive was swift. Using any stick to beat a dog, the avowedly Zionist and Labour Party-affiliated Jewish Labour Movement was rejigged at its 2016 AGM for use against Corbyn and the left, fantastically smearing anti-Zionists as anti-Semites. Bogus anti-Semitism accusations were worked up by a gleeful bourgeois press and the Tory Party, who collectively remembered their nursery schooling: “Alice laughed: ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said; ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’ ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast’” (Lewis Carrol Alice in Wonderland).
As the witch-hunt against Marxists and other firm leftists in the Labour Party began in earnest, the soft left caved in as its due payment for staying in the party. Anxious to retain bureaucratic privileges and positions within the labour movement, some - especially those drawing MPs’ salaries, such as Corbyn and his hangers-on - showed their true colours. This fake left surrendered to a determinedly forceful right, conceding to them the nonsensical idea that there was widespread anti-Semitism in the party. Such ‘lefts’ thereby became party to the witch-hunt against the real left. But the right’s panzers roll on.
What the lack of fight by the official left illustrated were fatal flaws: seeing the Labour Party, including its bureaucracy and leadership, as in its essence comprising both left and right, both socialist and non-socialist wings; and clinging to the vain hope that any Labour government would be a step toward socialism. In this way ‘left’ misleaders expose themselves as being unable and unwilling to challenge the bourgeois state, which they accept as legitimately limiting the Labour Party’s actions. They submit gladly to being mere supplicants of the ruling class, and are thus of no use to the working class.
While it might once have been correct to join and work within a Corbyn-led Labour Party as a base to try to develop Marxism and a Marxist presence, that ship has now sailed. Many Marxists and socialists certainly did join the Labour Party in the new atmosphere that obtained with Corbyn’s victory, at a time when hundreds of thousands of members of the working class were potentially moving left. But stasis, dither and collaboration with class enemies in the party meant reaction inevitably won on this front.
Have we been able to influence more than a very small percentage of the membership? Clearly not. Instead, we had dead-end Corbyn adoration rather than the development of Marxist ideas and politics; and a failed Führer, not revolution: all in all it has been a poor result. With the onset of the witch-hunt many new, some naive, members got caught up in the official left’s desperate, yet bankrupt, mantra of ‘we must have a Labour government’ no matter what (ie, however rightwing). This is pure, unadorned Labourism that deflates and disables aspiration toward a Marxist outcome for work in the Labour Party. As a consequence of the party’s now pretty obvious trajectory rightwards, with restrictions on internal democracy increased by this year’s conference decisions, many have decided that the Labour Party is not a project with which they want to be associated: 150,000 or so members have left to date. They are not to be blamed for seeing that the game is not worth the candle.
Over 100 years have passed since Lenin’s dictum on Labour labelled it a bourgeois workers’ party. His assessment, in the ferment of revolution and with great hopes that western European revolution could still carry the day, was based on the material situation that then existed. After an exhausting war, worldwide excitement at 1917 showed that capitalism could be replaced if Marxist parties united workers under its banner. Russia’s revolution was on everyone’s lips and labouring folk everywhere were affected by its success.
The idea that the Labour Party was or could be ‘socialist’ in any sense of working class ideology was bogus, of course. No, it was despite the Labour Party’s ideology that Lenin saw it as a site for struggle; the place for Marxists to cohere was nonetheless the Communist Party of Great Britain, founded in 1920 (and in 1991 formally dissolved by Eurocommunists, who seized its assets). As a direct response to the Russian Revolution, Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald insisted on inserting the famous faux-Marxist clause four in the party’s 1918 constitution as a direct foil to hobble the formation of a real workers’ party in Britain. Nonetheless, in the early 1920s, some CPGB prospective general election candidates were supported nationally or locally by the Labour Party - notably Shapurji Saklatvala, who won in Battersea North in 1922 and 1924 as the CPGB/Labour candidate.
Now ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ has become a shibboleth. Notions that the ‘Labour Party’ name means that the party was or could be an umbrella organisation of the British working class are unhelpful and have long been untrue. The defeat of Corbyn and the movement around him relatively easily shows the lack of fertility for this growth of consciousness within the confines of the Labour Party. The idea of its ceasing to be a membership organisation are being touted openly: if that happens it would join India’s Congress Party and the US Democratic Party in being devoid of members.
Labour is a reactionary party of the ruling class: a bourgeois party in its ideology and functioning. For the ruling class, the right is glued back in the saddle - likely for a very long time - and Labour is again a safe party that can be allowed into government. As to the trade union link, that is worth what the bureaucrats make of it. They have stirred little democracy into their own unions’ pots in recent years, and members in the main have so far failed to deepen union democracy. Add to which, purported left union leaders have started to reduce funding and to withdraw from active involvement in Labour Party affairs. The trade union connection is weakening.
It ill behoves Marxists to encourage continuing involvement in the failed venture of intervention in the Labour Party. This major game is over and we did not win. However, we must recognise and openly accept the lessons this failure presents. Sadly, not all self-described Marxists even acknowledge that they are on a hiding to nothing by expecting the party to be some kind of vehicle to achieve socialism. But even those comrades who have no such expectation have been blinded to the obvious: time is up on this intervention, militants’ energies are being wasted, and settling into a quite possibly long haul of establishing and building a mass Marxist party, a communist party, has to be our single-minded objective.
What is needed is an open and clear message and a change to a hard focus and priority on communist party building outside the Labour Party. Objective defeats for CPGB interventions in the SLP, the SA, Respect, and now the Labour Party bear no shame. No, in all prior cases those projects have provided valuable experience that has been at least partially theorised, to the benefit of our struggle to establish a real communist presence and an independent working class advance to revolution.
Acknowledging that the Labour Party is no longer a major site of Marxist action has now to be part of the same decades-long journey toward understanding of the present, concrete tasks for revolutionaries in today’s Britain and the world.
Mark my words
I am writing to complain about Gerry Downing’s continued misattribution of quotes in his letters and his smearing of comrades for holding views that only Gerry thinks they have (Letters, October 28). This clumsy method of amalgam makes a mockery of any kind of polemical standards.
I note that David Broder has similarly been on the receiving end, when, in his case, he had the words of other comrades put in his mouth by Gerry. David said: “Downing has still not worked out what quote marks mean” (Letters, March 11). I regret to report that this is still the case.
Gerry writes: “Comrade Parker is clearly nostalgic for Uncle Joe, as the title in his piece of October 16 - ‘The Communist Party of Britain disappears comrade Stalin’ - shows. In challenging the view of former CPB member Andrew Murray that ‘violations of socialist democracy during the Stalin period’, which were ‘a shameful blot on the proud history of the communist movement’, he points out that this ‘existed alongside a contradiction: the Soviet Union, despite these abuses of democracy, was still adjudged to be a socialist society and one where the ‘positive features of the socialist experience would far outweigh the negative ones’.”
First, the quotes that Gerry has lifted here are not from October 16’s ‘The Communist Party of Britain disappears comrade Stalin’: they are from October 20’s ‘Why is the Communist Party of Britain squeamish about Stalin?’ I haven’t been “challenging” Andrew Murray’s views in particular: just pointing out where they differ and where they are in alliance with the views of others in the CPB/Young Communist League. Second, the bits quoted by Gerry above are not my words, but those of the CPB’s general secretary, Rob Griffiths, made to look like my opinions and to make me appear like a Stalinist. (Note for Gerry: quote marks mean it’s not Lawrence Parker when Lawrence writes stuff down; it’s someone else.) I strongly object to this.
I don’t believe the Soviet Union was a socialist society after 1928 or that its progressive features outweighed the negative ones. My blunt view is that it would have been better if Stalin and other Soviet bureaucrats had their heads put on poles by the victorious international proletariat. I am not remotely nostalgic about Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union. The headline, ‘The Communist Party of Britain disappears comrade Stalin’, was very obviously a contextual joke in the sense that for many older CPB members it is precisely ‘comrade Stalin’ that they are disappearing, considering some of their factional evolution in the old CPGB. Most people with half a brain get that, of course.
Finally, the CPGB’s Betty Reid is characterised as “comrade Parker’s Stalinist hack”. But she’s not ‘mine’; I just quoted her in ‘Why is the Communist Party of Britain squeamish about Stalin?’, because - call me old-fashioned - I thought she might be a reasonably authoritative source on the old CPGB’s evolving line on the Soviet Union. I didn’t realise that from the mere act of quoting her some kind of magical transmutation happens, whereby I’m hers and she’s mine. Silly me.
Until Gerry can work out what quote marks mean and stop putting words in other people’s mouths he’s just going to make himself look thoroughly foolish, piss people off and waste everybody’s time in the process.
Jim Nelson says his abiding memory of the recent all-members meeting of Labour Against the Witchhunt, the Labour In Exile Network and the Labour Left Alliance was of Roger Silverman and myself “grinning and shaking their heads” (Letters, October 28). I can assure the comrade that if I was shaking my head it was in disbelief, not delight!
It is as if the whole Corbyn era, when hundreds of thousands of people streamed into the Labour Party, and the radical manifesto of 2017, when Labour secured the largest swing since 1945 - in the teeth of wall-to-wall opposition from the British state and its lackeys in the media - had passed Jim and Stan Keable by.
The only lessons to be learnt are to look at the Weekly Worker’s ‘What we fight for’ column: viz that “Without organisation the working class is nothing”. All we need is to build a genuine Marxist party. And that is it. What is lacking, of course, is any suggestion as to how we go from where we are now to where we want to be.
Jim criticises me for “scoffing” at the membership numbers of the CPGB, whereas “we’re looking at what the working class needs and what it must achieve, not just at what we have now”. No, comrade. I wasn’t scoffing at the fact that the CPGB has had roughly the same numbers (30? 50?) for the past 30 or so years. I was trying to explain that pointing out what the working class needs is not good enough. You have reduced Marxist politics to a never-changing and never-ending dogma, a socialist catechism.
Marxism, if it means anything, means applying a class and historical-materialist analysis to the current situation and the position the working class finds itself in, and learning the lessons that derive from that analysis. If after decades you have made no progress, logic would suggest that you have got something wrong. I think Einstein said something about the definition of madness being to repeat an experiment in the hope of achieving different results!
The Corbyn project was a mass insurgency by the working class and the dispossessed. It frightened the ruling class from Washington to Tel Aviv. It was the failure of the politics of the Labour left to understand what was happening and in particular the political paralysis caused by the ‘anti-Semitism’ offensive and the reduction of class politics to identity politics that led the way to the success of the counteroffensive in 2019.
The problem for the CPGB was that it never understood what it was that led to Corbyn winning the leadership in 2015 and going on to nearly winning the election of 2017. I remember having this argument with Jack Conrad. At the time he told me that one could only rely on the opinion polls, whereas I suggested one should look at what was happening - for example, the mass meetings Corbyn was addressing. That is why I predicted, against all the bourgeois pundits, that Corbyn could actually win outright.
Counterposing a Marxist Party to the current situation is not revolutionary or Marxist politics, comrades: it is in practice an abject surrender, because what you are saying is that the question before us is a choice between a Starmer-led Labour Party or a Marxist party. In other words, between nothing and everything. In practice, as you know, you will get nothing and you will relate to no-one.
At the AMM meeting Stan Keable and Labour Party Marxists offered no political strategy whatsoever. Instead they proposed two amendments. One added one word to the existing motion: “consultative”; and the other, a wrecking amendment, simply deleted over half of the main motion. And that was it.
Yes, it is true that Roger Silverman and myself, and also Ken Loach, are focused on the 150,000 that have left the Labour Party (as well as the 150,000 who are going to leave the party). That doesn’t seem a bad place to start.
It would therefore seem obvious that, instead of parroting slogans about a Labour Party mark two or a “united front of a special kind”, which are meaningless and trite phrases, Jim and others might concentrate on what we do concretely in the current situation.
If we are correct, Starmer is embarked on his own project - completing what Blair started and driving the left out of the Labour Party. As Derek James so rightly says, “the truth is that Sir Keir and the Labour right are in complete control of both the party machine and policy” (‘Right firmly in control’, October 28). There is therefore no possibility, certainly not at the present time, of mounting a fightback inside the Labour Party. That is why most comrades in the CPGB/LPM and in LAW/LIEN have been expelled or suspended.
What then do we do? A clear and indeed overwhelming majority of the AMM meeting agreed with us that steps should be taken to start building a socialist movement that would embrace both those now outside the Labour Party and the thousands of socialists who still remain.
What concretely does the CPGB suggest we do? At the present there is a complete absence of proposals. Instead there is a regurgitation of slogans. What the CPGB has to ask itself is whether it is going to continue to be content with simply being a vehicle for abstract propaganda.