Ben Lewis’s criticism of the new Anti-Capitalist Initiative exposes not the weakness of our new project, but the problems of his own sect and its approach to politics (‘Ditch sects and fronts’, May 3).
Firstly, deriding the meeting as small is petty and misleading. The meeting was initially planned as a small get-together of people who were interested in the project. Indeed, it was an organising meeting and was never intended to be a ‘conference’. It was only after it captured some momentum on Facebook and over 100 people were down as ‘attending’, with a further thousand invited, that it became a de facto open event. Even then, not a single leaflet was given out for it – it was only advertised through Facebook – but we still got 80 people along. They were all activists, in one way or another involved in building the movement, who wanted to organise a new kind of left, people who wanted to get stuck in, not just talk.
And even though it was just an organising meeting, it was still bigger than anything the Campaign for a Marxist Party – the CPGB’s one-time ‘baby’ – was ever able to pull off, and was it as big as the initial meetings for the London Socialist Alliance back in the late 90s, an initiative which at the time the CPGB heralded as the “start of a real fightback”.
We believe, like the CPGB once did, that “what characterises the left throughout the country is a fatal lack of ambition, a timid paralysis in the face of the task of challenging Labour and bourgeois politics in general for the allegiance of our class. Organised on a militant platform of independent working class politics, the left has the possibility to start to exercise hegemony over far wider sections of society than simply itself.” Today that possibility could be realised with the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, yet the CPGB seem too bitter to take part and have absented themselves from this struggle.
Lewis goes on to bemoan that the meeting dared discuss the situation in the unions and how to organise a genuine rank-and-file initiative. No-one at the meeting claimed that “80 people are going to go off and build” such an initiative, but those involved in the conference can be part of the steps that are being taken to rebuild basic working class organisation. There is nothing “delusional” in wanting to link up existing forces fighting for this, such as Grass Roots Left or the rank-and-file committees in the building industry. This task is an immediate necessity for the working class and any revolutionary organisation of any worth or relevance would see it as a priority.
On the charge of liquidationism – let’s get real. It is true that some of us involved in the project have recently left small, narrowly defined propaganda groups to build something larger and more plural. No-one has renounced Marxist politics, but we are realistic that we cannot simply slap down a Marxist programme and rally thousands to our banner. We need to convince and be prepared to be convinced over political questions, and recognise we do not have all the answers, although we have some ideas and principles on how to proceed.
Of course, Lewis is right that liquidationism can be the reverse side of the coin to sectarianism, but he does not realise that in his accusation of us as liquidators he is simply revealing himself to be a sectarian of the highest order. The ex-Workers Power members did not want to form a new Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist micro-grouping with their own website and regular publication. That would have been sect-building. Instead they are trying a different approach. However, the Weekly Worker has accused the ex-WP grouping of both building a sect and liquidating themselves, all within the space of a week. Our heads are spinning – we can barely keep up with the polemic!
What we defend in this new initiative is that we are launching a process of discussion, debate and united action, with the aim of launching a revolutionary organisation in the future – one which is more united and brings in wider forces of the left. Have we achieved that now? No, which is why we are taking it slowly and carefully, despite the demands of various sects that we must adopt a programme and policies and all sorts of slogans straightaway. Our answer to all the sprinters is that this is a marathon: you are welcome to come with us on this journey, but you will have to slow down your pace a little. Be more cautious and pragmatic about which political battles you pick and how you fight them.
It is a curious situation that the CPGB can find a problem with an attempt to engage the widest range of those on the left in serious discussion. Yet in almost every issue of your paper, stitched-up conferences that end up with Labourite platforms are condemned. Arguing for an open process of unity and then dismissing such a process is hypocrisy and demonstrates a lack of seriousness in approach. Amongst the British left, there is a common approach that each and every group believes and thinks it has all of the answers. In their isolation, they comfort themselves with the idea that the objective situation is awful, or the other groups are the problem, but ultimately what most left groups have in common is the belief that they are fighting for unity, but having to wait for everyone else to agree with their particular method and programme. We believe that this is a failed, self-replicating dead end and that, as communists, we need engage in a wide-ranging rethink to clarify what a revolutionary programme looks like today. That takes time, not one afternoon in London.
But for all of Lewis’s bluff and bluster, the CPGB did not submit a single resolution to the conference, let alone their much fabled Marxist programme. He urged us to adopt a Marxist programme “right away”, calling for workers’ control of production and internationalism. Yes, Lewis says the meeting was disappointingly small, implying it had no basis to really do anything. Do we really want another small left meeting declaring a revolutionary programme and party? Isn’t this what we should try and get away from? Aren’t we sick of the latest sect declaring itself, bells and all, with a new international programme without first going through the essential task of discussing and debating out what should be done with activists from across the unions and social movements? The CPGB is fond of Marxists working within the NPA in France – but that party took nine months of pre-founding meetings and discussions over policies to decide on an initial programme before it was launched. How come our French cousins have almost a year to organise their party but we have less than an afternoon before we are written off as liquidators? This is not a serious criticism.
In his previous article about the split in Workers Power, we find a similarly unserious piece of advice for us. Lewis’s suggestion to the ex-Workers Power members was that they should have stayed in our group and carried on a protracted faction fight and broken discipline in public. If they had followed his advice, it would have resulted in a demoralising year of internal struggle, as well as bitter acrimony from their former comrades, for flouting the group’s rules on public debate.
What appalling advice! If you disagree with a group’s method or line, then you have to follow the organisational principles your group lives by to try and change them; if you disagree with them fundamentally and there is no hope of reform, then you leave. Advocating breaking party rules just because you don’t agree with them strikes the ex-WP members as unprincipled. Furthermore, we are not talking about large organisations, let alone a mass party. It can sometimes be the case that the fight for unity can be better served by having the debate openly, not just within the confines of narrow Trotskyist grouping.
Finally, by cutting through the tone and ferocity of the CPGB’s criticism, we arrive at a stark truth. The CPGB is going nowhere fast, its various attempts to unite the left on their version of Marxism have failed and now they have collapsed into the Labour Representation Committee. It is not us that is moving right, comrades: it is you. We have supporters in the new initiative who are active in the anti-cuts movement and playing an important role in student struggles. We do not want to build a sterile sect fixated on reliving the glory days of Kautsky and Plekhanov. We are looking to the future and want to build a revolutionary organisation that is suited to the conditions and tasks we face today.
Those of you who want to come with us are more than welcome; to the rest, we wish you luck in the Labour Party. You are going to need it.