Against the politics of purity
James Turley takes issue with comrades who oppose our affiliation to the LRC
A number of comrades – including some self-identified left-communists – have raised objections to the decision of the Communist Students executive to affiliate CS to the Labour Representation Committee, a grouping of leftists operating in the Labour Party, but open to affiliates and individuals who are not LP members.
This is in fact a relatively minor tactical matter – in practice it amounts to a decision on whether or not to send delegates to the upcoming LRC conference. There will be no three-line whip to get comrades to London to do so, although they are encouraged. Yet the underlying argument is an important one, and indeed an old one – the issue of Labour Party affiliation was the principle sticking point in the debates that led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. Unfortunately, the comrades’ statement on the issue falls at all the same hurdles as left-communism always has, and attempts to dig its way out of this predicament with logic-chopping and diversions.
Engagement and affiliation
The comrades see as an animating force in the executive’s decision the adoption by the CPGB of a number of theses on the Labour Party at a recent members’ aggregate (not without controversy). This is only half-true – Communist Students was an affiliate of the Socialist Youth Network, the short-lived youth section of the LRC, throughout its existence. CS members Ben Lewis and Nick Jones even sat on that organisation’s leading body. It was a SYN motion to LRC conference that won the latter to affiliate to Hands off the People of Iran, among other things.
That said, affiliation to the LRC is in line with the CPGB’s approach to the Labour Party and engaging with other currents on the left more generally. We argue that standing aside from organisations of even the most craven opportunists amounts to the ‘politics of purity’ – all that is achieved by such a stance is a state of splendid isolation, untroubled by the need to win other militants over to principled communist politics.
The opposition argue that this is to conflate engagement with affiliation – it is quite possible to engage with others without becoming members of their organisations, which supposedly implies political support. Indeed, it is possible – however, what refusing to countenance affiliation amounts to is reducing considerably the range of approaches and tactics available to us in doing so. An LRC affiliate body, for example, can move motions at LRC conferences, opening up debates and with them the potential for greater influence. Without the political will to hold our noses and go into opportunist political formations, the only manner in which we can realistically engage with opportunists is haranguing them on demonstrations, or occasionally cajoling them into organised debates.
As for affiliation amounting to political support, it simply isn’t true. The CPGB – and, one hopes, CS – have certain aims in common with the LRC vis a vis the Labour Party. We share the aim of ousting the current, entrenched rightwing leadership and transforming Labour into an organisation that will fight for the interests of the working class. We have very, very different ideas as to how to do this, it is true. The same is true, however, of the Stop the War Coalition, for example. The CPGB has been an affiliate to that body since its inception – throughout its innumerable and very public political errors, from adopting the slogan “time to go” (as if there was a time when troops should have been in Iraq!), to building up illusions in the institutions of ‘international law’, to cosying up to odious apologists for reactionary regimes…
Are our opposition comrades seriously suggesting that our criticisms of these errors were hampered or compromised by the fact that we paid a nominal fee to STW central office, or indeed that we pushed to get CS and Hands off the People of Iran affiliated? The question answers itself. We said – and continue to say – to STW that if they are serious about stopping war, they need to go about it in a different way. Why can we not do the same in the LRC – or, indeed, Labour itself?
Other arguments fall in exactly the same way; thus the comrades write: “Those present at LRC conference will either be members of various socialist groups or similarly committed followers of social democracy. While it is necessary to win people away from such politics – it is idealist to think this can be achieved through work within the LRC because it fails to understand that its membership corresponds to particular ideas and consciousness that expresses the politics of a certain section of the labour bureaucracy.”
I fear that they do not realise how pessimistic a conclusion this really is. After all, every ideology has some material basis – from the ‘average Joe’ who believes that radical change is impossible to the Stalinist hard-liner who believes that Trotsky really was a spy for Hitler, ideologies are sticky things, and if it is impossible to convince left and far-left Labourites of the errors of their ways, mutatis mutandis, it is equally impossible to convince anyone else. There is little left for us to do except, as the saying goes, go home and dig our gardens.
Instead of adopting this grim outlook, it seems our comrades believe some shelter can be found from the corrupting influence of the labour bureaucracy elsewhere. “The LRC members who are most likely to be won to Marxism are those whom we shall meet on demonstrations or work with in anti-cuts groups, LRC affiliation does not affect our contact with these layers.” Which demonstrations will these be, then – the March 26 TUC march, perhaps? The recent student demos, which have been organised in part by the UCU, the NUS and various students’ unions? As for anti-cuts groups, would this be the Coalition of Resistance, headed up by various union tops and Labour grandees, propped up by the willing lieutenants of Counterfire and the CPB – or perhaps its junior competitors, Right to Work and the national Shop Stewards Network, even more reliant on and desperate for the patronage of union bureaucrats? Even local alliances are reliant on trade unions, trades councils and, often, local Labour figures.
In any case, it seems to have escaped the comrades’ notice that the LRC is an anti-cuts group. Its forthcoming conference, which our oppositionists are so keen to avoid, is titled “Resist the Cuts, Rebuild the Party”. The labour bureaucracy’s hand weighs heavy on its shoulder, yes – so what else is new?
Against this, the comrades allege that London LRC councillors plan to roll over and “implement the cuts agenda”. No source is cited for this, although it would not particularly surprise us or change the fundamental issues at stake. The principled conclusion to draw from this would be to make a stink about it in the LRC, which certainly doesn’t fancy itself in command of the butcher’s knife. It would be a very good subject for a motion to LRC conference. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the subject being avoided, given the significant numbers of Marxists and other far-leftists involved in the LRC.
The conclusion the comrades draw, however, is very different: “The CPGB thesis implies that the labour left wing is an ally. This is an error.” Here, we should be with Trotsky – it is quite permissible to ally with the devil, so long as one does not portray him as an angel. If the comrades are serious about going on demonstrations, as they no doubt are, they will have to reconcile themselves to marching with the Labour left – and not-so-left. Likewise with anti-cuts groups. These amount to limited alliances around particular goals. It is perfectly permissible to ally with the Labour left in order to overturn bans and proscriptions in the Labour Party, and to oust – and eventually expel – the openly pro-capitalist wing. These are matters of mutual interest, and there is no point in refusing such united actions because they are, like all alliances, shaky and temporary at best.
The opposition statement, however, seems somewhat concerned that the CPGB isn’t simply operating in its usual critical manner with regard to the Labour Party, but instead has adopted some variant of soft Labourism. The authors rather peculiarly interpret the CPGB theses as recommending that we “[put] the Labour Party into office in order to expose its leadership”. This isn’t anywhere in the document – though there is a certain history, going back in some ways to Lenin, of leftist ‘exposure’ in this manner, it is clear that illusions in social democracy do not go away unless people are won to communism, as they are generated by the very existence and social role of the labour bureaucracy.
What we are proposing is a root and branch reconstruction of the Labour Party that will allow it to serve the purpose it claims to uphold, but betrays at every turn – to be a genuine united front of all working class partisans. This does not entail going soft on Labour, or rewriting history in such a way as to imply it was ever truly working towards this aim. Quite the contrary – it means breaking the Labour left’s illusions in its own history and its present, and transforming Labour into something utterly different to its existence hitherto.
The left and the class
There is another underlying dispute of some significance. The comrades write: “Those who support affiliation argue that Marxists should use the LRC to argue for communist politics, as they have attempted previously. This is a typical position taken by the Weekly Worker, that of an orientation towards ‘the left’” (emphasis in original). They conclude: “The LRC makes up some of the working class, but not all of it. Our immediate aims should be to engage with our peers and work colleagues, newly politicised students on demonstrations and workers on picket lines. Affiliation to the LRC is at best a distraction from this struggle.”
This points to a significant strategic difference between the CPGB and most other currents on the left – while most consider it a prime duty to go directly ‘to the class’, and build support among the broad masses as a matter of priority, we consider the divisions and disunity among the left to be a serious obstacle which needs to be overcome before the Marxists can truly punch at our weight. This means we prioritise, as the opposition statement rightly points out, an orientation towards the left – though we see no need to put self-aggrandising scare quotes around ‘the left’.
In practice, of course, one has to walk and chew gum. CS turns out at freshers’ fairs to recruit directly; CS and the CPGB produce materials for demonstrations targeted at a broader audience than the existing far left; and so on. But the perspective of orienting towards “our peers and work colleagues, newly politicised students on demonstrations and workers on picket lines,” without the perspective of serious engagement with other left tendencies, is wrong-headed for two reasons.
Firstly, nobody is ‘newly politicised’ in a vacuum. If a student is not talked into activism by an existing group (many of which have a far more extensive recruitment apparatus than we do), then they will be provoked into it by the dominant ideas in society. These include the ideas of the labour bureaucracy and other bourgeois forces; breaking the existing militants from these forces reduces their power, and enables us to fight for communism more successfully. There is no shortcut to doing so; only long-term and determined struggle will do the job. Taking principled politics to LRC conference is a very small part of this larger fight. If we counterpose throwing ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ into anti-cuts work, strike solidarity and so forth to winning over the existing militants, including in the Labour Party, then it will be our slender forces against the state, the capitalist class, the labour bureaucracy and every faulty notion entertained by existing left groups. To imagine we will win that struggle certainly is idealist.
Secondly, the existing left – and more broadly, trade union militants and so forth – is, for all its faults, the best and the brightest of our class. Its revolving-door roster of student recruits aside (for the most part), the Socialist Workers Party is an organisation of militants steeled in the class struggle. The same is true of Unite, PCS and so on – and the LRC. This experience is tragically misused, but it need not be. Winning the vanguard of the class is not a precondition to ever recruiting the newly politicised, strike solidarity and so on. It is, however, a precondition for doing it on a scale that will take us measurably closer to revolution. (It is certainly a precondition for the strategy marked out in the CPGB theses on Labour to have any large scale success.)
“In response to our opposition to LRC affiliation,” the comrades complain, “we are characterised as taking as taking a sectarian position, not wanting our revolutionary credentials to become muddied by mixing with the dirty reformists of the LRC.” Unfortunately – both in its implicit denigration of seriously orienting to the existing left, and its reticence about using all methods of engagement in relation to the LRC and Labour – the logic of this statement is, precisely, sectarian. Communists should not be afraid to get their hands dirty – in Labour as in anywhere else.
Nor should we be afraid to play the long game. In the end, overthrowing capitalism for good is the work of mass communist parties – numbered in the millions of members in Britain, and hundreds of millions in the most populous countries. These will not be built overnight, and they will not be built primarily through the primitive accumulation of ones and twos. We need serious long term strategic approaches to the major material obstacles we face on the road. In Britain, Labour is just such an obstacle.
The CPGB theses are an attempt to produce such an approach. There is certainly the possibility that they are wrong. To establish that, however, the oppositionists will have to do more than counterpose strategic political work to the immediate tactical tasks of fighting the cuts here there and everywhere, and instead produce some indication of an alternative strategy for overcoming Labourism. There is certainly no way around Labourism, as the history of the last century attests.