The left must organise on the basis of genuine democratic centralism, argues Ben Lewis
Readers might be aware that Workers Power, the organisation which heads the League for a Fifth International (LFI), has recently suffered yet another split – its second haemorrhaging of cadre in the last six years. Around 15, predominantly younger comrades departed, reducing WP’s forces by about a third.
The 2006 split came as a bolt out of the blue, when a substantial number of the predominantly more experienced members were expelled, after a protracted period of internal argument, and then proceeded to form the Permanent Revolution grouping. While the latest parting of the ways also results from the usual tale of comrades being prevented from openly expressing tactical and strategic differences, it has been subject to dynamics that have led to some strange results. For example, the combined forces of Workers Power, the recent split and the Permanent Revolution group are – irony of ironies – the current main players in another far-left unity drive, the Anti-Capitalist Initiative. The ACI has some meetings in places where WP and PR have cadre, like Manchester and London.
It is worth looking at the split in closer detail to establish what it means for the current state of the left.
No public dissent
In this instance, the dispute played out around the question of ‘party’ building, democracy and the lessons of Bolshevism. On the one hand, the ‘old guard’ of Workers Power, led by Richard Brenner and David Stockton, defended the typical conception of the Trotskyist ‘propaganda group’, according to which, in order not to inhibit effective intervention in the class struggle, there must be no public dissent from, or expressions of disagreement with, the majority ‘line’ worked out behind closed doors.
The dissenters initially formed a majority of the WP political committee. Thus, when it came to publishing articles written by dissenting comrades, the bureaucratic centralist ‘discipline’ of the LFI ‘international committee’ was invoked in order to doctor articles and make official statements fit the ‘line’ of what was, after all, the British leadership minority.
Not only is the whole idea of treating political ideas in such a way absurd, but when this is excused by falling back on some vacuous references to an ‘international’ that is to all intents and purposes run and staffed from London, tragedy becomes farce.
In some ways, the recent misfortunes of Workers Power and its dwindling numbers reflect the very difficult history that the far left has experienced. However, given the challenges ahead, we need to break from the irresponsible propensity to split and split again – seemingly located in the very DNA of ‘fighting propaganda groups’ like WP.
Those in WP questioning the ‘keep polemics private’ dogma emerged gradually, and found support amongst the group’s younger members. Some of them are very inexperienced, having joined during the student demonstrations of the last few years. But others have been around for a lot longer, and were leading cadre (eg, Simon Hardy and John Bowman). These comrades presented a number of oppositional documents to the WP conference in London over the weekend of March 24-25, which called for a change in direction, and sought to correct the erroneous WP conception of democratic centralism (in reality bureaucratic centralism). This change, so they argued, would allow the group to positively intervene in the ‘new anti-capitalist project’ established by the (then united) WP, rather than seeing it as a ‘bigger wheel’ to simply be manipulated by the ‘small cog’ of an artificially homogeneous WP.
As it was, the majority on the PC did not translate into a majority of the membership as a whole, and their perspectives were soundly defeated. However, some of the minority members did get re-elected onto the leadership. But after their proposals were defeated at the LFI international council in Berlin on April 8, they resigned from the organisation and were followed by a number of supporters (mainly from Britain, but also from Austria and the Czech Republic). Apparently there were no hard feelings, and comrades who had gone separate ways were able to go for a drink together afterwards.
No harm in being civil, of course. Yet the minority comrades must surely be criticised for simply ‘walking’, rather than staying and fighting. Of course, the bastardised version of Bolshevism that informs the practice of those like Workers Power, Counterfire, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, etc means that dissenters have no option but to keep their heads down and pretend to the outside world that they are in total agreement. But the comrades should have defied this gagging-order, openly rebelling against such a farcical conception of working class democracy. They could, and should, have published and spoken out openly, all the while maintaining their commitment to the transformation of their organisation.
This might have inevitably resulted in expulsion. So be it. Bureaucratic methods need to be exposed for what they are. Moreover, an open fight would then have brought the whole controversy into the light of day, allowing militant workers to follow and learn from the disputes. As it is, the only public expression of their opposition thus far is a short statement signed by the former Workers Power editor, Simon Hardy.
The fact that this has not happened is more than a shame, because the minority comrades have actually spent some time reading, writing and criticising some aspects of the past. I have been able to access some of the documents they have worked on, and it is encouraging to find that they are engaging with the better historical scholarship on Lenin, including that produced by Lars T Lih. They are attempting to show, as this paper has been for years, that the public airing of differences was a healthy, normal characteristic of Bolshevism from its inception.
It is here that the new split contrasts favourably with that of Permanent Revolution in 2006. While making some nods towards interrogating Bolshevik history, the PR group has, debates about Kronstadt notwithstanding, actually done very little in this regard. It has firmly established itself as simply another Trot group, albeit with particular quirks about ongoing upswing of the world economy and the long wave, etc.
In contrast, the former WP minority seems more willing to think. As they have argued in one of the documents they presented to the March conference, WP should be willing to show that it is a “vibrant and critically minded organisation rethinking the ‘big questions’ … prepared to listen, to learn and to be open to new ideas, as well as to teach others what we ourselves already know. In the best spirit of the revolutionary tradition our debates should be open and fraternal.”
For the time being, the recently decamped WP comrades do not seem to be interested in forming a separate organisation. They seem to be throwing their entire weight into the project of the ACI. As I will briefly discuss below, however, the political approach and the method informing the ACI appear to be seriously flawed, and there is a real risk that they will simply dissolve into it, and the ‘movement’ more generally, without taking the time to crystallise the lessons of their experience in WP and move forward positively in a partyist way.
So where are the minority WP comrades going? There are certainly some healthy signs of a rethink. Yet there is also the danger that they will simply break with Trotskyism’s conception of Bolshevism without fundamentally challenging the false dichotomy it draws between the tightly-knit propaganda group (sect) on the one hand, and the ‘mass’, ‘broad front’ on the other. As Simon Hardy puts it in his statement, “We came to the conclusion that a method of organising exclusively focused on building specifically Leninist-Trotskyist groups prevents the socialist left from creating the kind of broad anti-capitalist organisations which can present a credible alternative to the mainstream parties”.
Given its jaundiced understanding of both Bolshevism and mass, revolutionary social democracy, the WP school of Trotskyism tends to view everything ‘mass’ or ‘broad’ as non-Marxist. A good example is the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, which the WP younger comrades helped to establish on an explicitly non-revolutionary basis. The NCAFC has rapidly become a safe haven for left-talking bureaucrats in the student movement and has not helped to propagate the fundamentals of Marxism amongst students one bit. It would be a real shame if, as a result of the bad experience of so-called ‘Bolshevism’ in Workers Power, the comrades junk sectarianism and go on to throw themselves into a liquidationist Anti-Capitalist Initiative.
Mike Macnair neatly sums up this problem, one which the far left as a whole faces: “The curious paradox about 1912 and 2012 is … that the large majority of today’s far left, while defending Stalinist organisational norms on the basis of variant forms of the myth of Bolshevik history created in 1920, defend the actual politics of the liquidators: the abandonment of any practical struggle for the fundamentals of Marxism in favour of the constitution of one or another sort of broad-front party. We have to get beyond both sides of this politics.”
For far too long much of the left has laboured under two main illusions. That the Labour Party has ceased to be a workers’ party in any sense, and that consequently the left can, and must, establish itself as the ‘Marxist wing’ of a broader, explicitly non-Marxist alternative.This alternative is often conceived as resting on the need to win the trade union bureaucracy to break with the Labour Party and fund instead a Labour Party mark two. But this is hopeless. Bitter experience shows that we cannot simply ‘outdo’ the Labour Party by luring the labour bureaucracy. We have to create an alternative to Labourism itself, based on radical democracy, internationalism and the idea that the working class majority must take over the running of society to initiate a new period in human history.
Some months ago, the CPGB wrote to (the still united) Workers Power to ask what its intentions were behind the ACI project. We did not get a response. Yet reading WP’s suggestions for this weekend’s conference, we see the same tired, tried-and-failed exhortations to establish a (politically undefined) ‘mass working class alternative’ to Labour. While some of the WP proposals floating around the internet have a slightly more radical edge to them than formations like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition or Respect, ultimately the same political method is in operation.
In his official WP response to Simon Hardy’s ‘A simple proposal for a new anti-capitalist left’, comrade Richard Brenner is clear: “In Britain we are campaigning for a rank and file movement in the trade unions, for the unification of the anti-cuts campaigns, for a new mass working class party based on the unions and the left”. Both sides of the split seem to agree that the new formation must be “opposed to austerity, privatisation, racism, sexism, imperialist war …” Fine. But what are we actually for? What do we want to achieve? Should we limit ourselves to Britain? What about the question of Europe? What about the question of the state? What about the unions? The Labour Party? These are the kind of strategic questions that must come to the fore. For all the excitement and hype about the creation of a so-called ‘new’ left through the ACI, its outlook and modus operandi thus far appears to consist of distinctly old, recycled variants of previous far-left electoral campaigns.
We cannot avoid these strategic questions, nor can we simply rely on the ‘logic of struggle’ to clarify matters. Political unity springs from serious programmatic discussion, and in the first instance is built at the top, not ‘from below’.
We in the CPGB have always been amongst the most consistent champions of revolutionary political unity on the British left. We are willing to engage with all comrades addressing this question, no matter how confused or incoherent their current position. But we should be under no illusions: democratic unity around the acceptance, not (à la Brenner) complete agreement with every detail, of the revolutionary Marxist programme is the only way to lastingly and effectively regroup the left and the class more generally.
Anything short of that can only lead (no doubt after a brief flurry of excitement) to generalised disillusionment, as proved by the electoral disasters of the 1990s and 2000s, or for that matter by the decline of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste ‘model’ in France.
1. However, there is potentially a willingness to engage in discussion on Marxist unity. The Workers Power youth group, Revolution, has also recently written to Communist Students to look to establish “more formal discussions … about closer unity” (email, April 20). Hopefully, these talks can also be made public and initiate the kind of strategic debate on the ‘big questions’ that our side so urgently needs.
3. M Macnair, ‘Both Pham Binh and Paul Le Blanc are wrong’ Weekly Worker April 5.
5. http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/a-simple-proposal-for-a-new-anticapitalist-left (Comment 4, emphasis added).