Dave Spencer situates the end of the CMP in the context of the British Left – and reflects on some of his experiences of communism from below, and bureaucracy from above, since the early ’60s
New Interventions has published two accounts of the demise of the Campaign for a Marxist Party by two comrades who were centrally involved and were in the minority who opposed the closure – Phil Sharpe and Steve Freeman. Both take an admirably serious look at the political differences within the CMP and how these developed. However, in my opinion they both let the CPGB off the hook. In my view the main reason the CMP was closed down was the sectarian and bureaucratic centralist methods used by the CPGB. There was never any fraternal discussion of political differences. The CPGB deliberately misrepresented the views of those they considered rivals and carried out a policy of gossip and character assassination among their members and contacts and in the Weekly Worker. On the CMP website they encouraged the use of personal abuse — not amongst themselves of course but targeted on minorities or individuals they thought were not winnable to their organisation. Phil Sharpe and Steve Freeman were in particular recipients of this method.
In my view the CPGB were never interested in building a broad, democratic and open Campaign for a Marxist Party right from the start. They had a Machiavellian calculation of what they could get out of it – if anything – and saw any growth in the CMP as a potential rival to itself, rather than as an ally in building a mass movement where they would be one section.
This type of behaviour is of course not new on the Left. The CPGB’s sectarian closure of the CMP was an exact replica of the SWP’s closure of the Socialist Alliance. The cynical calculations are exact replicas of the methods used by the SP in the Socialist Alliance and the CNWP and the SP and SWP in the Scottish Socialist Party. The key policy is the building of the sect. They enter alliances only to get members not to build the movement as an open, democratic process. If they cannot control the broad movement, they will destroy it.
I have a number of conclusions from this experience. I think it was a mistake for the CMP to have anything to do with the CPGB. Originally I thought they were different because their public pronouncements in the Weekly Worker and their criticisms of other groups are based on policies of extreme democracy and openness. But their practice is exactly the opposite of what they preach.
I generalise from the CPGB to include all other Left Groups that are based on a one sided interpretation of Lenin’s theory of the party – to produce elitism, vanguardism, substitutionism and statist solutions. Global capitalism is on the ropes and the Left is nowhere. The Left Groups have passed their sell-by date and are unfortunately a blockage on the road to communism. Of course individual members of these Groups can be subjectively revolutionary but the groups themselves are hopeless.
When I have made these criticisms of Left Groups, the reply is usually that it is a personal matter. Thus the CPGB leadership said I was ”thin-skinned” and afraid of “robust debate”. In the Socialist Alliance, Pete McLaren constantly accused me of “hating the Socialist Party” for personal reasons. It is not a subjective question it is a political criticism of the political methods stemming from sectarianism and bureaucratic centralism endemic on the Left.
In his introduction to “In Defence of the Russian Revolution”, Al Richardson makes some political points which are directly relevant to the Left Groups. He is talking about the implosion of Stalinism in 1989 but his remarks can be adapted and used to explain the Left’s reaction to the present economic crisis or to any crisis really:
“It has to be said that the collapse of the Soviet Union caught them all (The Left) napping. In spite of their claims to scientific Socialism, possession of this science gave them no predictive powers whatever, and apart from Critique magazine, you can scan their journals right up to the event in vain for any suggestion of what was coming…”
“No overall theory has emerged about this state form (i.e. Communism in the USSR) that explains its birth, its mechanism of decline and its subsequent collapse – and it should be added that no theory can be counted as adequate unless it explains the whole process from start to finish.”
In 1989 I was on the NC of the newly formed ISG. I remember at the time being bewildered by the events in the USSR because as Al Richardson points out in his Introduction, we Trotskyists did not expect things to turn out this way. There should be a violent political revolution or a counter-revolution, not a “velvet revolution” back to capitalism. I argued on the NC and at the ISG Conference that we should start an open debate on the question of the nature of the USSR. I pointed out that clearly Ernest Mandel’s view that industry in the Soviet Union was superior to that in the West because it was nationalised, was wrong – otherwise the Russian working class would have defended it. Instead of welcoming this opportunity for democratic discussion, the NC brought out the cross and the garlic and made it clear that any questioning of the holy texts was verboten.
Applying Al’s comments to the economic recession today — the Left did not predict this crisis and do not have any real explanation or answers for it. Certainly they have not prepared politically to challenge the capitalists or the social democrats. The organised Left in the UK is weaker now than it has been for a long time — just at the point when Marxism is mentioned even by the capitalist class as an alternative system. Marxism remains a “spectre” because it hardly exists as a living movement.
My conclusion is that any communist movement has to be built from below. The mass parties of Stalinism and Social Democracy have failed. The Trotskyist Left Groups have failed to develop as an alternative, to fill the vacuum left by the mass parties of the working class.
Some draft theses on the crisis of Marxism
Internationally there is a crisis in Marxism.
A corollary of this is that there is a crisis in the organisations of the working class.
The main reasons for this crisis are:
a) the implosion of the Third International (Stalinism) following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites
b) the abandonment of reformism by the Second International (Social Democracy) in favour of neo-liberalism
c) the failure of any Left Groups e.g. those looking to the Fourth International (Trotskyism) to fill the vacuum on the Left.
The Trade Union movement has clearly been affected by this political crisis.
A consequence of the crisis is that “The Left” is littered with parties, groups and individuals trained in sets of ideas and methods which are:
- inappropriate to the present economic and political conditions of global capitalism
- remote from the life experiences of the working class.
A key feature of the failed politics of the Left is its aping of the hierarchical and adversarial politics of the bourgeoisie. Without exception the parties and groups on the Left were and are bureaucratic. They conduct policy-making in a Machiavellian manner, doing deals behind the backs of the members. Internally their regimes are undemocratic and characterised by bullying and the use of personal abuse. Our politics has to be the opposite — open and democratic and comradely. This will not be easy because we are not used to it. We have to make a conscious effort.
A key source of bureaucratic and hierarchical methods is a vanguardist or substitutionist approach to party building. This sees the party leadership as an elite with the correct ideology to be passed down to the members and hence to the working class. This is an idealist approach not a dialectical one.
The emancipation of the working class has to come from the working class itself. The life experiences of the working class is the vital component in the development of party policy.
Another feature of the failed sets of ideas and methods of the Left is that the present class struggles against capitalism tend to have a contradictory nature. In reacting to events, groups and individuals can have positive and/or negative effects. Therefore the use of traditional categories like “revolutionary, reformist, centrist, economistic even socialist and communist” seem to be meaningless and miss the point. The key factor is the contradictory nature of the views put forward and the actions engaged in. Sometimes they can be supported even if critically, at other times not.
In striving for theoretical clarity in this situation we need to dispense with dogmatic and biblical approaches to revolutionary texts.
We need to ask:
- What did Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky etc. actually say and do?
- Using our benefit of hindsight, should they have said and done things differently?
- How can we develop their categories, frameworks and methods of analysis and apply them to the problems of today?
Because of the crisis of Marxism, there are social movements or campaigns which have reacted to changes or events in the class struggle which the Left have either neglected or worse have tried to incorporate or use only for gathering members. I would cite the feminist, Green and CND/anti-War movements as examples. There are many others. Members of these campaigns and movements are often more radical and creative in action than the Left Groups. In addition we have many people who have reacted against the bureaucratic methods of the Left Groups and either belong to no group at all or are attracted to various forms of anarchism. There are many more radicalised people and potential communists than belong to Left Groups.
The building of a new organisation is a dialectical process — the interaction between theory as discussed in the party based on Marxist method and the life experience and consciousness of the working class as practised in campaigns and struggles.
Key elements of a new approach have to be:
- international solidarity of the working class
- open dialogue and accountability within the organisations of the working class.
- members to have practical involvement within the struggles and campaigns of the working class.
Organisation from below
I’ve been in various groups on the Left for 50 years. In my experience there have been a number of periods when Left Groups in the UK have connected with class struggles and grown as a result. In each case the method of organising has come from the members against the bureaucracy and sectarianism of the leadership. I will give a few examples.
The SLL and the Young Socialists
In the early 1960s the SLL (Gerry Healy’s group) took advantage of the formation of the Young Socialists by the Labour Party in 1960 to build a sizable youth movement. This was the period after 1956 – the loosening of the hold of the CP — with the Hungarian Revolution and Khruschev’s speech to the 20th Congress; the formation of CND and the New Left Review; the shock to British imperialism of Suez; and of course youth rebellion in the form of Rock and Roll. The SLL had gained some new members after 1956 and were less of an homogenous group than later. I was a delegate to the first Conference of the YS in 1960 which brought together a large group of independent youth, mainly sons and daughters of Labour Party members. There were three small factions operating within the YS – the official right wing faction around the paper New Advance edited by Roger Protz (later editor of Keep Left and then of Socialist Worker and then of the Campaign for Real Ale!); the SLL’s faction around their paper Keep Left and the paper Young Guard which united the Cliffites and Grantites (surprise surprise). Within four years Keep Left had taken over the NC of the YS and had built the YS into a large organisation. In 1964 when Keep Left was expelled from the Labour Party, we had 8,000 at a demo outside the LP’s Blackpool Conference.
The way the SLL achieved this was by getting University students to go into Council Estates to organise weekly discos and weekly meetings for the youth of the area. Delegates from the youth groups were then sent into their local constituency Labour Parties.
The students were organised in Marxist Societies in the University. They did not participate in the Student Union politics as Left students do now — pushing their own sectarian groups. The Marxist Society was open to any discussion of Marxism. In Leeds and Leicester where I studied we focussed our meetings on particular departments like Agriculture and Engineering as well as Economics and Sociology to try to get students discussing Marxist approaches to their particular academic subject. We then encouraged the students to accompany us to the discos.
The originators of this scheme were not the SLL Central Committee but some youth in Wigan YS who started a weekly disco which soon became very popular. Through Keep Left young socialists learned about the Wigan experience and copied it in their own areas. In those days Rock and Roll and jiving were banned in the city centre ballrooms so a local disco run by the youth themselves was naturally a winner. In Leicester three of us from Leeds aged 21 built an SLL branch of 30 within 6 months using the Marxist Society and YS disco method. Essential to this method was that the youth organised and controlled the discos themselves, not the SLL’s older members.
The problem was of course the bureaucratic and hierarchical nature of the SLL. Orders came from above and there was no trust in the life experience or creative ideas of the youth. Many of the older members of the SLL did not approve of regular discos because it made the youth more difficult to control.
The politics of the SLL became more esoteric and sectarian. I remember during the purge on Pabloism in the group in the early 60s, the regional organiser identified a member of our YS branch in Coventry as a Pabloite and was in full flight denouncing him when a spirited youth spoke up: “Hang on a minute Harry, he’s only 15 years old!” A sense of proportion and a spirit of humanity was not what you got in the League.
The International Socialists and shop stewards
The second example was in the late 1960s in the IS (later SWP) after the 1968 French Events; the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and Grosvenor Square marches; the rebellion in the Universities; and the Labour government’s “In Place of Strife” policies which were designed to curtail the power of the shop stewards’ movement. The SLL which was the largest Trotskyist group at the time refused to join the VSC demonstrations and were not very influential in the Universities. In a shrewd move, Tony Cliff opened the doors of IS promising democratic rights, freedom for factions, regular Internal Bulletins etc. He invited various groups to join and was particularly keen to attract disaffected members of the SLL. He toured the country and was very successful in recruiting new members. Jim Higgins claims that the reason for this opening up was that Cliff was frightened of the effects of Enoch Powell and fascism and that it was not a genuine anti-sectarian move at all. Nevertheless the move was effective.
The particular pro-active method used to build IS branches was the adoption of the industrial bulletin method from the French group Lutte Ouvriere. I believe this method started in Manchester where there was a nest of “Workers Fight” members who were active on the docks. Workers Fight was set up in 1967 by Sean and Rachel Matgamna and was the only group to take up Tony Cliff’s offer of factional rights. I was a founder member of Workers Fight. The point is that the LO bulletin method started at the grass roots not on orders from the Central Committee.
The industrial bulletin method is quite simple but takes a lot of organising. We used to produce fortnightly bulletins which were handed out at particular factory gates on both the day shift and the night shift, to both shop floor and office staff. Once a week there would be a paper sale at the factory gates as well. The bulletin itself consisted of one sheet of A4 with comment on topical political events on one side and comment on what was happening in the factory on the other. Naturally we needed contacts in the factory to get information and to discuss what went into the bulletin. At least once a fortnight a meeting of a factory fraction of IS members and contacts would discuss the next bulletin and how to produce and distribute it. Students were a vital part of this work because they had the time to distribute the leaflets in the early morning. We never exposed our factory contacts to the possibility of being sacked. In Coventry IS we had factory bulletins going into most of the major factories in the city. In 1970 we had about 100 members most of whom were shop stewards. At Chrysler we had an IS factory branch which had international connections with Detroit and Simca in France via the Lutte Ouvriere factory bulletins in the USA and France.
As with the youth discos, there was life and creativity in the method of organising. The IS leadership took a benign attitude at first, as had the SLL leadership. After all members were being recruited, papers were being sold.
However in 1971 Cliff decided to bureaucratise the group. There had been some disagreements over policies. For example Socialist Worker welcomed the British troops going into Northern Ireland in 1969. Also SW called for a No vote in the referendum on the Common Market – contrary to IS Conference which had called for a boycott. Actually there was quite a healthy if heated debate on both of these issues but Cliff unleashed a witch-hunt on Workers Fight as a means of asserting control on the organisation as a whole. The expulsion of Workers Fight was an excuse, a way of warning against any kind of dissent. Factions were banned, the Internal Bulletin closed down and after that, opposition groups were expelled or individuals left in dribs and drabs.
Politically the IS suffered from what we called “workerism” where worker members were flattered and appointed to positions in the group while the political level was kept deliberately low. Trade Union militancy was seen as the answer to all the problems in industry – a disastrous policy throughout the 70s and ending in the defeat of the 1984 miners’ strike. Open and democratic discussion of Marxist politics was not encouraged. Also national rank and file papers were produced by the leadership and the local industrial bulletins were dropped.
The Labour Party in the 80s
A third example of organisation from below was in the 1980s when there was a growth in the Left of the Labour Party as a result of the fight against Thatcherism and her attacks on local government and the Trade Unions. There was the Benn for Deputy campaign and the de-selection of right-wing MPs and local councillors. One would have thought that this would have been the opportunity for the third Trotskyist group Militant to come to the fore by opening up their organisation. Many people have claimed that this was the case and that Militant was the dominant force at the time. However Militant always maintained a strictly sectarian approach to organisation in the Labour Party. They never participated fully in Broad Left groups and in elections for Council candidates or Committee places in LP constituencies they would vote for right wing candidates rather than for any left wing candidates they thought they could not control. For example when I became a candidate to be a West Midlands County Councillor for Coventry South East which Militant thought was “their patch” their fury was unbounded and threats of violence were made. The Militant had voted for the right wing candidate against me. Later they organised to knock me off the shortlist for MP for Coventry North East by spreading rumours that I was a “sexist womaniser” in order to get on their preferred candidate, their “contact” Bob Ainsworth, now Minister of Defence for the Armed Forces. The fact that at the time I was responsible for an Adult Education Programme in a College in Coventry North East for working class women which in 1992 had 2,271 women on it and won the NIACE national award for Access to Education during Adult Education Week may give some idea of what sort of “sexist womaniser” I was! This was not a personal matter but a political method adopted by the Militant and I was by no means the only victim of this sectarianism.
Instead of opening up their organisation Militant maintained a top down control. Socialist Organiser did make some attempt to develop a broad base in the Labour Party but without any success. London Labour Briefing also played a role. The phenomenon was however that the Labour Left grew and organised without any real national centralised organisation. It was much bigger and in many ways more radical than the Militant.
The Labour Party structures provided a routine way of organising. These structures correspond to electoral activity. There are your local ward meetings to go to. The wards then send delegates to the local constituency. The constituency sends delegates to the district etc. We did have some power over selection and de-selection of MPs and councillors and we did have some say in local Council policy; so resolutions at Ward, Constituency and District levels did mean something. We did feel we were making a difference and we were. If the Left controlled a Ward, we could write our own leaflets for election campaigns and decide on our own candidates. Those powers have been taken away by the New Labour bureaucracy to control from the top down. Those comrades who claim that there will be a new upsurge within the Left of the Labour Party must think of new ways of organising. At the moment most LP meetings cannot get a quorum of members. And if they did get a quorum what would the members do? They have no power to do anything.
Methods of approaching the working class did tend to be based on routine. Canvassing was much easier than now because you had more members and usually met up afterwards for a drink. Some comrades did a questionnaire or survey of local problems as they went round canvassing – and then encouraged people to come to ward meetings and address the complaints and put resolutions to the local Council. Many a ward was taken over by the Left on this basis. We had our ward banners which we took on demonstrations. Some comrades had a regular stall in the local shopping centre where they tried to recruit people. Social activities were organised. Our local Labour Briefing group used to have meetings on a Friday night at one period — with a speaker and a buffet. We also organised crèches and baby sitters to allow parents to attend meetings.
This was all done from below. In fact there was no real centralised political leadership of the Left in the Labour Party in the 1980s. Also most of the Left were more radical than Militant.
Some other methods of organisation I have been involved in.
In the mid 60s after the YS discos had been stopped, a dissident Keep Left branch in Coventry that I was a member of, ran a Folk Club, the Bandiera Rossa, in a local pub. In 1966 we organised a May Day celebration in the Belgrade Theatre with Dominic Behan, Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeker and a local Irish group playing. The SLL boycotted it. They said it was petty bourgeois. We also ran a Rhythm and Blues Club in a pub for a while with a resident band called the Edgar Broughton Band which had a few hits at the time.
In the late 70s when Workers Fight (later AWL) joined the Labour Party and the LPYS (then dominated by Militant) we resurrected the idea of recruiting University students and organising social activities for working class youth. We called it “Wiganisation” after the Wigan YS branch of the SLL. Instead of discos in community centres we went for bands in pubs (as described above). In Coventry we had a good relationship with the two tone bands, the Specials and Selector and organised an anti-racist concert in the athletics stadium when there were some racist murders in Coventry. Unfortunately the WF leadership stuck to the recruitment of students without turning them outwards to the working class youth. We did have some very lively and creative youth members at the time. The women members joined “Women’s Voice” and were involved in lots of feminist activities.
In 1997 during the SLP general election campaign, some women SLP members (ex Militant) objected to going out on stalls in the shopping areas, like the Militant. They said that it was a con trick because the Militant used to get signatures on a petition for a Campaign, say about the local hospital and then get people to donate money to the campaign; but the money went straight into the Militant coffers. They suggested having a pitch at the local car boot sale. We had our banner over the stall and our papers and leaflets on the stall with second hand goods collected from SLP members to sell. The response from workers attending the car boot sale was very good. We got into a lot of conversations. We also made some money legitimately from the sale of goods.