Thursday 10 January 2008

The cpgb and Me

Though I haven't been associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee/Weekly Worker) for over three years, I still occasionally get comrades, including a few leading Socialist Party cadre, who are only too keen to ask me about my time as a member and supporter. Sadly, left watchers and gossipmongers will be disappointed to learn I know nothing about the alleged Sketchleys connection, property portfolios, the INLA relationship, and input from Turkish dissidents. I wasn't a particularly active comrade, you see. My sum contribution to the cpgb consisted of turning out as voting fodder at a few Socialist Alliance meets, selling the WW at my local Stop the War group, arguing for the cpgb's general political approach on the UK Left Network, and writing the regular Around the Web column for almost two years.

For such a small group, the cpgb is a presence on the British far left most activists have to come to grips with at some point. Because the WW massively bends the stick in the direction of reporting almost every argument and significant development on the left, it quickly became a must-read paper, like it or hate it. A lot of the time, mountains are often made out of mole hills, mad predictions made about the doom of other left wing organisations, and articles are written in such a way almost guaranteed to get the backs up of other lefts. Generally, it's not noted for its high degree of accuracy. One particular set of examples were the gloomy predictions the cpgb forecast concerning the SP in the late 90s and early 00s. Readers were told the party was in crisis, and the political graveyard beckoned. There is a bit of truth to this - in that period the small short-lived Socialist Democracy Group upped sticks, as did a chunk of former cadre in Liverpool (who became the Merseyside Socialists), the majority of the Scottish organisation left the CWI, and there were splits in Pakistan and the USA. But, the WW claimed, a more serious split was brewing between Dave Nellist and the leadership over the SA, and oblivion loomed. However, evidence for such a split amounted to nothing more than brother Nellist and the Coventry comrades appearing (from the outside) to be more enthusiastic and hands-on with the SA than the rest of the organisation. This foray into Mystic Meg territory came to naught, and far from going into terminal crisis the SP has largely recovered from the experience and remains very much alive.

The big problem I have with the cpgb comes down to a question of orientation. If they want to concentrate their energies on recruiting other leftists, then fine. But this comes at the price of having an indirect relationship to the class, effectively insulating the cpgb as an organisation. In practice, the only grounding their politics have are as responses to what they perceive as deficiencies of the wider left rather than what might attract working class people to socialist ideas. This at times can assume quite comic forms. For example, long-time WW readers might recall the long-running dispute between it and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. On paper, there was much to commend a fusion. They have similar internal regimes and attitudes to open political debate. Their views on the Soviet Union were not dissimilar, and they weren't a million miles away from each other's critique of the left's standard issue anti-imperialism. And yet could either groups discuss their differences rationally? Definitely not. The narcissism of small differences came very much into play and not for a million years would you believe these are organisations were talking about uniting! We've all seen classic front page headlines like 'Bush's 'Troop Surge' Deepens US Ruling Class Divisions. But AWL Still Won't Demand Withdrawal'. However, the intensity of their exchanges peaked some five years ago, over a thinly-attended public meeting in Leeds. The cpgb had recruited a lefty vicar, the Rev. Ray Gaston. He organised a public meeting and invited along Mike Marqusee, then of the SA and Stop the War, and the AWL's guru, Sean Matgamna to debate the issue of Marxism and religion. When comrade Marqusee found out who he was sharing the platform with, he objected on the grounds he didn't fancy being abused as an anti-semite for daring to criticise Zionism and Israel. The good reverend then left a message on Matgamna's answer phone, contacted the local AWL group, and arranged for the cpgb's Jack Conrad to step up to the plate. Unfortunately, something got lost in translation. Matgamna turned up and sat sullen and silent in the audience. Now, how should this have been dealt with? Should Matgamna have politely but firmly registered his displeasure? Should, on behalf of the cpgb, Jack Conrad have apologised for the mix up? Yes. So what happened? Months and months and months of tedious polemic in the WW's pages and on the AWL website. Matgamna alleged there was some cpgb conspiracy preventing him from addressing the massed ranks of Ray Gaston's congregation. Conrad in turn dug his heels in and refused, as a point of principle, to apologise for the mistake. In all, it was a ridiculous farce. Both sides acted like spoiled brats and, in my eyes, seriously damaged eithers' claims to be serious working class organisations. It helped put me on an exit trajectory out of the cpgb.

All this said, my association with the cpgb spanned about six years (I continued Around the Web 18 months after I left, in April 2003), and it was bound to leave some impression upon my understanding of Marxism and revolutionary politics. And it has. For starters, I went into the cpgb as a fairly orthodox Trot regarding my politics, particularly on the Soviet Union. But through reading their material, including the "unconsciously" Trotskyist From October to August (which is one of the best Marxist analyses I've read on the road from Gorbachev to Yeltsin), I came to the conclusion the USSR and other "socialist" countries could not be workers' states. This is not to say they didn't have some progressive features worth defending, but the conflation of "proletarian property forms" (in reality, legal fictions) with "proletarian property relations" is a mistake and one Marxists shouldn't really make. The cpgb position, which was more a point of departure for further analysis than a neatly rounded out category, was these social formations were neither capitalist or socialist, and belonged to those species of societies - such as European absolutism, the Andean mode of production, etc. who proved not to be viable in the long term.

Then there is the analysis of New Labour's project to remould and "modernise" the British state. Drawing heavily on Steve Freeman's ideas around the 'social monarchy', the cpgb argued that as Thatcher attacked the Keynesian compromise underpinning British capitalism in the 1945-79, the limited stake the British working class had in the state was severely undermined, and hence its loyalty to the UK was put into question. Blair's constitutional project was aimed to strengthen the union by granting Scotland a limited parliament and Wales an Assembly to head off nationalist discontent. Other projects like House of Lords reform, introduction of proportional representation to non-Westminster elections, (aborted) regional devolution, presidential mayors, and the London Assembly can be seen in the same light. The monarchy has had a bit of a makeover too. Fewer royals leech off the civil list, they pay taxes, the rules of succession changed (the next in line to the thrown is now the eldest child, irrespective of gender), and so on. The cpgb argued the left as a whole needs to take constitutional issues more seriously and develop an alternative programme that maximises political democracy under capitalism in a bid to weaken the state and help empower our class. This seems reasonable to me.

Another positive in my view is the open approach they take to differences between revolutionaries. Some comrades believe this gives the cpgb carte blanche to muckrake, but nonetheless the WW has helped facilitate debate of issues, even ones that are controversial by left standards. In my opinion the left should generally be open and honest about its internal differences and allow more open debate in the pages of its press. After all, inviting readers to submit their thoughts means they're engaging with the contents of our papers, and could draw them closer to our orbit. But unfortunately the sad truth is most bourgeois papers operate more open editorial policies. Local rags, the "quality" press, and even tabloids allow debates on their letters pages. As socialism is more democratic than anything capitalism can muster, isn't it high time our press reflected that?

Finally, there is another critique of a central plank of Trotskyist orthodoxy. The first line of Trotsky's Transitional Programme reads "The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat." I couldn't tell you how many times I've heard this repeated over the years. Problem is, it was a questionable conclusion when Trotsky wrote it in 1938, and is doubly absurd for 21st century Britain. The implication behind the phrase is the working class is out there champing at the bit and ready to strike capital its deathblow. All that stands in its way are the parties of social democracy, the leadership of the trade union movement, and of course, revolutionaries who happen to be in other socialist groups. If these are brushed aside the masses can be won to the revolutionary programme and hey presto! Job done. I don't want to sound facetious: this isn't to say the issue of leadership isn't a problem - for example, if several trade union leaders declared their support for a new party and moved to set one up, it would act as a rallying point for class conscious workers fed up with New Labour. But it would only constitute a starting point, there will be no stampede of hundreds of thousands to join and unions queuing up to affiliate. Why? Because the working class itself is in crisis. The defeats of the Thatcher years, the structural shift to a neoliberal labour market, the individuating effects of consumerism and the media, and the absence of a coherent, independent working class political voice has given us a working class much more atomised, fluctuating, fragmented, and insecure than that of 25 years ago. To be fair, the left on the whole has not allowed a bad theory to get in the way of recognising this basic fact of revolutionary political life. For instance, you could say the SP's hallmark is its ability to relate socialist politics to workers of varying levels of political understanding, but there is a gap between the correct practice and the faulty theoretical perspective. Ironically, the cpgb gets it the other way round. It has elaborated this perspective on a theoretical level but it still puts forward ultra-left slogans and positions out of sync with the thinking of the overwhelming majority of working class people. They have a formally correct understanding but, because of their self-imposed isolation from the class, are unable to follow through and have to fall back on posture politics.

So, the cpgb does have some useful things to say and they do possess a team of commentators who can be quite perceptive at times. But what of the cpgb's prospects? Let me tell you a little story. Back in the late 90s and early 00s, it built quite a reasonable profile as being one of the keenest, if not the most enthusiastic participant in the SA. It was starting to attract a number of independents into its orbit and overall made a positive contribution to the cause of left unity. Even the SWP leadership were saying nice things about the WW. They looked like the small ultra-left group most likely to succeed. But they didn't. Comrades who joined tended to drift again after a couple of years (none of the comrades who signed up roughly the same time as me are still around), and then a further round of newer recruits were shed when the cpgb prevaricated over the forming of and participation in Respect. Now though, judging by interventions at left meetings, the launching of Communist Students, and their leading role in pulling Hands Off the People of Iran together, they find themselves in a position not dissimilar to that in 1999-2001. They have recovered numbers, are not just based in London anymore, and appear to have gained a new degree of self confidence. But whether they will grow or not depends on learning the lessons of the SA and Respect interventions. If they are to become sizeable it requires a big shift away from the traditional practice of just speaking in and reporting on left meetings. This means seeing HOPI as an opportunity to engage with wider layers and new audiences, and not just an opportunity to bash the SWP and Stop the War. If they don't, the newer layer of comrades will be shed and the cpgb will continue to be seen as that rather eccentric group of lefty trainspotters.


Frank Partisan said...

I will look at their site.

My instincts are that it is useless to spend time dealing with other small groups matters.

Speaking of other groups, your comrades in the US are allowed to decide what presidential candidate to support on a chapter by chapter basis.

Anonymous said...

Hi RE,

I agree with you on the first bit.

On the CWI in the US, could you elaborate further?


Phil said...

Cheers Renegade. I wrote this for self-clarification more than anything. Comrades have asked me before if I've held anything over from my cpgb days, so writing this gave me a chance to think through a part of my political experience and see what positives can be salvaged. I will not be writing anything similar about the League for a Revolutionary Party or whatever.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

I have to admit i've been quietly waiting for you to post something on this issue.

I also tend to take a glance at the WW online every week, although I have to admit it seems to be riddled with debates that are not really of that much interest except for sect watchers. The stuff they're doing around HOPI sees interesting though (i was planning on going to the fringe meeting on it at socialism but got sidetracked)

Jim Jepps said...

Nice post. Not bitter in its criticisms and giving praise where its due.

I think people underestimate the cpgb frankly as their influence goes well beyond their tiny size and i think all credit should be due to them for that.

In addition I'd say it's the only way many members of organisations can find out about what is happening in their own organisation, which makes them of a use beyond simple sect watching.

The problem with accuracy is a real one (that goes beyond disagreement with political outlook) but it's made all the worse because they are the only source of information.

Anonymous said...

Jim: I don't think that your remark about activists finding out what is going on in their own organisation from the Weekly Worker is at all accurate, with the exception of the SWP.

I read the WW online and have done so for years but I have never once found out anything of significance about the Socialist Party that I did not already know. Anything that turned out to accurate that is - on a few occasions I have read something that surprised me but that on further investigation I found to be false. I would be surprised if comrades from the AWL, Workers Power or wherever else had a different experience.

The SWP's rather odd internal regime may well mean that some of their members do find out what is happening in their own organisation from the WW. If so, that is a function of the SWP's oddness rather than a typical feature of left organisation. The SLP, back when it mattered, may well have been another organisation where members might have found useful information in the WW.


I suspect that Renegade Eye is saying that there is some debate in Socialist Alternative about whether Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney should be supported for the US Presidency. I haven't been following events there very closely but from here I can certainly see an argument for backing either.

Korakious said...

That was a good read.

Anonymous said...

The Andean mode of production? Fuck me, I've been a Marxist for 25 years now, and that's the first time I've ever heard of the Andean mode of production.

Indeed, the AMP gets just nine hits on google, include this site.

So, smartarse - explain ...

Fatal Paradox said...

Interesting post. I also like the CPGB's ideas about the need to build a revolutionary party in which comrades do not have to sign up to a single "line" on issues like the class nature of the former USSR or how to make a revolution in XYZ country on the other side of the world, as well as the importance of allowing comrades to debate differences openly.

However while I think it's healthy to openly discuss disagreements on the revolutionary left in the party press I agree with you that having as your main headline "Crisis in the SWP" or "John Rees must resign" as the CPGB are frequently known to do is just bizaare!

At the end of the day you've also got to have an orientation to the wider working class.

I guess at least in the UK you have the excuse that some of the main socialist groups are fairly sizable and their is a reasonably big revolutionary activist mileu.

But if we were to try something like that here in NZ where the total membership of the revolutionary left is only in double digits people would think we were stark raving mad!

Jim Jepps said...

mark p:
Whilst it's probably true that the ww has been more significant airing internal discussions for the swp (and I'm leaving aside their inaccuracy for the moment) it isn't true that internal debates are always out in the open or even obvious to members themselves in other groups.

This has obviously been true in Respect and the SA too - and not just around the SWP.

For instance in the year that the sp was preparing to leave the sa it would have been very useful to know what they were doing as there was clearly a period of preparing the membership for leaving where they were nigh on impossible to work with. To have that internal policy aired in the open would have been helpful for both sp and sa members.

Personally it would have saved me a lot of time trying to work and negotiate with people who'd already decided they didn't want the sa to work.

Also the minority faction inside the awl that takes a decent anti-war position isn't given the opportunity inside that grouping to make itself heard and I'm sure there are some members who don't know they exist.

ian said...

Good, interesting post.

I read WW every week online.God entertainment.
I wish thought they could concentrate on Industrial issues more rather than the inter sect rivalry, interesting though that can be.


Anonymous said...

I wasn't saying that the SP always has its debates in public, or that anyone else does or even should.

I was making the point that, as an SP member, I've never learnt anything from the Weekly Worker about goings on in my own organisation that I didn't already know. Except for a few "discoveries" that were news to me only because they weren't actually true. I would be very surprised if anyone from the AWL, Workers Power or any other left organisation, bar perhaps the SWP and SLP, had a different experience. The, always heavily spun, often innaccurate, occasionally maliciously false, information the WW gives about debates in left groups may or may not be of interest to people outside those groups. It is never likely to be news to anyone in those groups, with the aforementioned exceptions.

On the particular issue you raise of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance back in 2001, you misunderstand the dynamics involved quite seriously. There was no organised effort by the leadership to "prepare" the rank and file to leave. The feeling that the Socialist Alliance was turning into a worthless SWP front was something that filtered up from the branch level and in my experience the leadership found it increasingly difficult to convince members to go along to local alliance meetings over the course of 2001.

The leadership's point of view internally and externally was that the alliance would be worth continuing as long as it wasn't converted into the wholey owned property of the SWP. If any constitution protecting the rights of minority, ie any constitution other than the one actually passed unamended, had been passed in 2001, the Socialist Party would not have left the alliance.

The leadership didn't have to do any convincing when it came to the decision to leave if the SWP openly converted the SA into a front. There would have been uproar in the organisation if they'd asked people to stay and next to nobody did in fact stay.

Phil said...

Re: Dave - the Andean mode of production. You've caught me out as a pseud I'm afraid! lol. I remember reading something about it donkey's years ago. I can't remember if it referred to the mode of production of pre-Conquistador Andean civilisations, or the attempt to graft feudal relationships on post-Incan enslaved populations. Either way, in the long term they proved historically unviable (incidentally, is anyone aware of decent Marxist scholarship on the invasion/colonisation of Latin America?)

It also occurred to me another aspect of the cpgb's politics I found quite useful was their critique of bourgeois multiculturalism and liberal anti-fascism, which is pretty much standard left thinking outside of the SWP and Labour Left. But again, as insightful their analyses are, this was not a result of their own practice in speaking to and winning over workers from outside the left milieu.

Re: Ian - I think a Weekly Worker-style approach to the trade unions would be very interesting, useful, and genuinely ruffle some feathers. How about it comrades?

Anonymous said...

i did on ocassion read things in the ww that i didn't know at the time, or i uncovered other details or sides to them. (when i was an sp member this is).

maybe these things were known to insiders, those 'in the loop' close to the leadership, but in the absense of any internal bulletin or healthy flow of information, the ww was at times the first source. i strongly suspect many more 'average' sp members would agree with me on this.

as it happened, the ww was usually wrong or inaccurate or sensationalised... but often if was the starting point to then go and find out the reality through further investigation. so to an extent the ww, and the internet as a whole, provides a v useful service.

no longer can the leadership of the sp, or any of the sects, keep things a secret for long. far better then, you would think, to have an open, democratic culture, with bulletins, information, debate etc.

but no! the dying breed of sect leadership continues to this day and perpetuates itself by falsely training youth in the same methods!

ironically, the power of the ww, bloggers, and others who may be hostile to any particular left group, would be greatly diminished if members were kept fully informed about everything in the first place! the membership would also learn, and crucially learn to think, question, and debate, and actually stand a chance of becoming true communist cadres!

anyway, the sect model continues, and as we know those in power don't give up that power easily. so it's half bad methods learnt from the 'old days', and half personal power, that means the sect continues.

it wont last forever though. especially the younger generation, used to free debate and information to hand wont accept it.

death to all sects!


Jim Jepps said...

Well I could have done with someone telling me what was going on in that section of the SA, even if it was apparent to all SP members that they were going to leave, I just thought they were being rude and unpleasant in meetings and simply took it to mean they were difficult to work with.

If I'd known that these fellow members of the SA had been planning to leave I'd have helped them on their way out instead of constantly trying to accomodate them and biting my tongue about their behaviour.

Anonymous said...

Could you give me an example of something you read, in the Weekly Worker, about the Socialist Party that (a) was news to you, (b) was of some signicance and (c) was substantially accurate, while you were an SP member.

I've been a member of the Irish SP, CWI Scotland and the English and Welsh SP over the last decade. I've read the Weekly Worker reasonably consistently in that period. I can't think of one piece of information that fits all of those criteria. By the way, I think you'd amuse quite a few people in the SP by suggesting that I'm particularly close to the leadership.

Finally, the Socialist Party does have an internal bulletin.

Anonymous said...

Jim Jay:

I think you have misunderstood my point. The Socialist Party wasn't planning to leave the Socialist Alliance. It was planning to leave the SA if and only if the alliance was converted into an SWP front.

That wasn't a secret. In fact the SP explained that repeatedly and publically in the period approaching the 2001 conference. I'm not sure how you could have worked with SP members at that stage without noticing that they were saying that they would leave if the SWP's constitution was passed unamended.

Anonymous said...

the international bulletin and party bulletin are irregular to put it mildly! sometimes years apart in fact!

an example, not just from the ww but the net in general, the ukraine fraud scandel. the expulsion of the lpp. many reports on events and goings on in the alliance and the pcs. the joint respect/sp ticket in lewisham. the vpered split in russia. the split in kazakhstan to the lambies.

if i went through the back issues there would be other examples as well. i cant be bothered to do that though!

i'm not saying these reports were accurate! but they reported things that were unknown by the 'average' member. the net is often the only way to find out what is going on. unfortunately these reports can be distorted as i said. at least the net enables you to read different reports from different correspondents though.

i don't think the internal regime is anything like as bad as the swp - from what i've read. but it is far from perfect. the flow of information and ideas is limited to say the least. without this there can't be any real democracy.

best wishes,


Anonymous said...


I agree with you that the internal bulletin could be more regular, and moves in that direction have been made recently. The key point there is that for it to come out more often, more people have to write articles for it!

The International Bulletin is a slightly different issue, as it isn't really a discussion bulletin in the same sense - more a series of reports. It too could do with coming out more often.

The precise issues you mention are difficult to respond to as what precisely you are saying isn't clear to me. For starters, as you say yourself, it isn't clear which of them you found out about in the Weekly Worker, in a substantially accurate form. Nor is it clear which of these things you regarded as being of major significance. Most significantly, I would dispute any implicit claim that significant decisions went undiscussed within the organisation.

The expulsion of the LPP, to take what was by far the most important issue you mention, was, to my recollection, very thoroughly discussed. The evolution of the Socialist Alliance was also discussed in a great deal of detail.

The Ukrainian scandal happened very suddenly from the organisations point of view - in fact it was brought to the attention of the leadership by rank and file members who found out about the issue on the internet.

As far as vpered and the Lambertists go, I'm not sure how much discussion you think there should be in England about minor splits in small sections halfway across the world?

By the way, KS, do we know each other?

Anonymous said...

From a CWIer in the USA: What compelled you to join the CPGB as a Trotskyist? I read WW more than I should and feel like I've wasted my time after I read it most of the time. Yeah, our election tactics in the USA are complicated, and we leave some room for nuances amongst different branches. Eventually, the developments out of our control will clarify the situation since there is general agreement to critically support the strongest possible left candidate.

redmetalgeek said...

To the anonymous right above me:

So how would that roughly work inside Socialist Alternative? Would it be, for example, the Seattle branch and Twin Cities branch decide towards McKinney, the Oberlin and NYC branches are in favour of Nader, and the Boston branch decides to support Brian Moore for some reason. Then come your next national convention/whatever, the group as a whole takes a look at which candidate is probably going to be the strongest, put it to a vote and go from there?