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Communists and the Labour Party

IN HIS ARTICLE "Electoral Challenges to Labour: the Failure of Illusion" (What Next? No. 13), Jim Dye accuses the CPGB/Weekly Worker of moralistic sermonising in relation to our attitude toward standing electoral candidates against New Labour. The truth of the matter is that the CPGB has never ruled out the possibility of offering the Labour Party critical support or doing fractional work inside its structures.

Of course our Party does not offer this critical support in the present period of reaction. The working class simply does not exist as a political force in society; there are no socialist illusions in the ability of Labourism to transform society, neither does Blair seek to foster them. This scenario has been resoundingly illustrated by the complete refutation of the left’s "crisis of expectations" thesis following Blair’s election in 1997. Instead we seem to be witnessing one of the longest honeymoons in history.

Jim Dye’s tactical advice is disastrous. We are asked to critically support something that offers nothing qualitatively different to other bourgeois parties in a context where the working class exists in a politically atomised state. "Sects" are continually decried in the pages of What Next?. But take a look at the auto-Labourite groupings on New Labour’s fringe. Not exactly a blinding success story is it? The collective lack of impact from Socialist Outlook, Workers Power, Workers Action et al bears eloquent testimony to their contemporary irrelevance.

Jim argues that: "In the present period of low levels of industrial struggle, and [the] lack of a generalised movement against Blair ... it is unlikely that an electoral challenge would represent more than waving little red flags." Reading between the lines he seems to be suggesting that we should timidly wait for the spontaneous upsurge to begin: then the Communists can enter the stage. The thought that this upsurge will need to be moulded and led by Marxists in order to reach such a "generalised" stage does not seem to occur to our comrade. Instead he consoles himself with the fact that a sociologically defined working class votes New Labour.

My other bone of contention with Jim would be on the trade union question. I would certainly not look to separate this issue from that of Labourism. Rather I would pose it in a different way. It is ABC that Communist work in trade unions is a general necessity. However, we look to politicise them not adapt to their economistic routine. The task of politicising the unions should lead us to pose the need for a reforged Communist Party, something that cannot be achieved by merely subordinating ourselves to Blair’s ruthless pro-capitalism. If comrades such as Jim are performing (undoubtedly hard and unrewarding) tasks in the union sphere and still arguing the politics of the "lesser evil", I would want to scrutinise those union tasks more deeply.

In a sense myself and Jim Dye formally agree on a lot. The Labour Party is a tactical issue; revolutionaries should not crudely counterpose political and economic tasks; the working class cannot successfully advance until it is led by Communists. On the other hand the cultural distance between us is alarming. The CPGB takes account of the social and political backdrop in order to best pose itself as an embryonic solution. Jim looks at it and goes all conservative.

Phil Watson

Stop this Entrist Nonsense

WHAT NEXT? advertises itself as a Marxist discussion journal, which might lead readers to assume that it would repudiate the notion of a "party line" and aim to reflect the spectrum of political views within the far left. But the never-ending debate on Marxists and the Labour Party, which has been a central feature of the journal, is heavily weighted towards those who advocate entry work. Contributors who favour building an alternative socialist organisation in opposition to Labour are far fewer in number, and articles and letters representing their views appear far less often.

Yet anyone who has followed the evolution of the Marxist left in Britain in recent years cannot but be struck by the fact that supporters of entrism are now an isolated and irrelevant minority. By contrast, the only tendency that has maintained its membership and political influence in the current adverse conditions – the Socialist Workers Party – pulled out of the Labour Party long ago. The Communist Party of Britain similarly rejects entry work in favour of independent party building, yet it has over a thousand members and produces a daily paper that has widespread influence in the labour movement.

During the recent campaign against NATO’s war in the Balkans, it was the SWP and the CPB whose speakers were featured prominently on platforms at public meetings. If representatives of the various entrist groups featured at all, they preserved their political anonymity in order not to compromise their positions in the Labour Party – hardly the most effective way of winning working people to their politics.

Even tendencies with a history of involvement in Labour Party work – the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty or Socialist Outlook, for example – have withdrawn from the party over the past decade. In the face of Labour’s inexorable rightward drive, they have evidently concluded that a turn to open work is now unavoidable.

This does suggest that the number of pages of What Next? devoted to the defence of activity in the Labour Party is far in excess of the importance which should be attached to that particular minority view. Personally, I would be much more interested in seeing a serious debate over the way in which a socialist alternative is to be built, rather than endlessly repeated justifications of an entrist tactic whose value – if it ever had any – has long been superseded by political developments.

Jo Green

Conditions for Regroupment

FOLLOWING THE discussion in What Next? between Gerry Downing and Nick Davies on the issue of regroupment, I felt it would be useful to try and put forward conditions for such a process. It is felt that this means that regroupment then doesn’t depend on the "name" of an organisation or the label that others may put on it, but instead on its practice and its work in the development of theory.

I propose the following 10 conditions:

1. Opposition to all imperialist war whether for "humanitarian" reasons or not.

2. Recognition of the democratic right of nations to self-determination when this is not in contrast to the cause of the international proletariat.

3. Recognition of the superiority of planned publicly owned economies over privately owned and "mixed ownership" economies, and therefore unconditional defence of the gains of the planned economy in Cuba, etc.

4. Support of socialist work in the mass organisations of the working class, i.e. the trade unions.

5. Complete non-sectarianism in work between the organisations, with freedom of speech, press and debate as well as democratic organisational structures.

6. In Britain, recognition of the fundamental class difference between the Labour Party and the Tory/Liberal parties, and therefore an orientation towards the Labour Party although this by no means rules out orientation towards other left formations outside Labour.

7. Proletarian internationalism: recognition of the need for socialists to be organised internationally and the development of socialism on an international scale. For this reason socialists must oppose nationalism whilst recognising the difference between the nationalism of oppressed and oppressor nations.

8. Acceptance of the need to work in Marxist blocs and united fronts with organisations and tendencies not actually involved in the regroupment process such as sections of the Labour left.

9. Acceptance of the need to involve ourselves in the day-to-day struggles of the working class whilst always explaining the need for socialism as an alternative to capitalism.

10. Recognition that we have all been wrong on occasions and can be in the future, and that Marxist theory needs to be renewed seriously with many different people contributing to this process in different ways in an attempt to overcome the crisis and degeneration of the left.

Will Matthews

Police Spies and Madmen

THERE ARE probably police spies and certainly mad people in the left movement. However, calling a comrade a police spy or a madman effectively blocks discussion. May I offer an alternative explanation? Some of us believe that the objective situation is ripe for revolution or, at least, for radical change. These I term the instant revolutionaries. Others on the left believe that it will be a long haul.

The instant revolutionaries keep themselves in a state of continuous alert. But still revolution or radical change does not happen. They try every means that they can think of to convince people to rise up. Still nothing happens.

The first explanation that occurs to them is that people are being misled. It is but a short step from there to a belief that they are being deliberately misled. Who would deliberately mislead people? Agents of the ruling class, of course.

I was in an organisation once where one of the members was convinced that the leadership was a ruling class fifth column and circularised all and sundry accordingly. The leadership over-reacted and the comrade was expelled. The real explanation for the comrade’s conduct is that he is an instant revolutionary who was disappointed with the organisation’s progress. This does not just happen with those of us who are, like John Maclean, on the left of the left. When the Socialist Labour Party was formed, Ken Livingstone as much as asserted that Arthur Scargill had been put up to it by MI5. Ken Livingstone has plans for the Labour Party which entail keeping the left within the party.

So, please, let’s stop throwing round labels such as police spy, madman, or even stalinist, trotskyist or maoist, etc, in order to avoid reasoned analysis of other comrades’ arguments and of the objective situation.

Ivor Kenna

In Defence of Incurable Sectarianism

"THE CHARACTER of his [John Maclean’s] politics at the end of his life is indicated by the fact that the SWRP affiliated to the ultra-left ’Fourth International’ founded by the German KAPD, Sylvia Pankhurst’s group and other incurable sectarians" ("The Socialist Workers Party and the Legacy of John Maclean", What Next? No.13). Is that sort of dismissive trivialisation representative of the standard of your journal? "A forum for discussion" – by whom?

Name not supplied

Towards an Assessment of Lambertism

WHILE BELIEVING that What Next? is a good journal with a valid contribution to make and a valuable role to play in the development of Marxism today, that does not mean that I do not have disagreements of a quite serious nature with it. One such disagreement is with the journal’s failure to deal adequately with the politics of the Lambertist current, a subject close to my heart as I spent several years of my political life around that current and think a reasoned debate on its faults might be quite fruitful.

My purpose is not to uncritically defend the politics of "Lambertism" (as it is commonly known, after the historical leader of this current, Pierre Lambert), but rather to offer an alternative perspective to the usual denunciations by Phil Hearse – now a political renegade in exile in Mexico – or Earl Gilman, as well as former members of Lambert’s own group such as André Langevin or Pierre Broué (who, though a noted Trotskyist historian, dumped the Fourth International years ago!).

Whilst there are millions of workers and militants in this country who have never heard of the Lambertists, there are nonetheless many so-called revolutionary socialists around who are out to smash them. One must ask the question "why?" Why do certain people in this country fear the Lambertist current so much? What is it that causes a problem for so many British left groups?

Although it is clear that the theoreticians of the Fourth International/International Centre of Reconstruction (FI/ICR) in Paris are quite capable of defending themselves, they are not in a position to argue with the left here, as their main theoreticians are based in France and in the USA. Sometimes they send their "emissaries from France" to meet with the trade unionists and MPs that they are engaged in "united front work" with, but their small numbers dictate that it is almost impossible to engage in debate with the British far left.

It is far more important to have an orientation to the labour movement than to the Diaspora of the fifty different tiny Trotskyist currents. However, this means that attacks against the Lambertists are allowed to go unanswered within the far left in Britain.

A recent "study" entitled This Strange Mister Blondel, published by Bartillat Editions and written in the name of one Christophe Bourseiller, purports to "dish the inside dope" on the Lambertists. The book, which is meant to be about Marc Blondel, the leader of the CGT-Force Ouvrière trade union, was reviewed in Workers’ Liberty by Martin Thomas, who used it to mount his own attack on the FI/ICR. In the same journal an anti-Maastricht rally organised by the Lambertists in London in 1997 was reported by Colin Foster under the sneering title "The Circus Is Coming to Town".

There also needs to be a response to the pieces carried previously in the pages of What Next? by Bob Pitt in issue No.4 ("Stalinophobia and the SLP"), by Martin Sullivan in No.5 ("In Defence of Al Richardson") and by Earl Gilman/Jack Davis in No.11 ("A Lambertist Conference in San Francisco"), all of which are heavily critical of the Lambertists.

If the FI/ICR ignores such attacks in the journals of the British far left, it is because it has more important opponents to deal with. In France the FI/ICR section has in recent years been savagely attacked on at least four occasions. The first was by Pierre Broué in 1987. Then Munir and Samir Mansour attacked it in 1993 over its positions in relation to Palestine – something with direct ramifications, as Munir was a prisoner in Ramlah jail and his family was financially supported by the FI/ICR at the time. The third recent attack was also in 1993, by a Morenoist faction within the FI/ICR led by Pedro Carrasquedo, who denounced Lambert quite savagely in the leftist press for his opposition to ETA’s bombing campaign in the Basque country. And the most recent attack was by Bourseiller in the book mentioned above. The French USec grouping, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, which continually attacks the Lambertists, has a good 2,000 members. They and Lutte Ouvrière recently had 5 MEPs elected to the European Parliament.

The attacks on the FI/ICR in What Next? are quite problematic to deal with. They are based not a reasoned critique but on gossip and innuendo. If comrades wishing to engage were to criticise the Lambertists for their work with the supporters of the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), or for their lack of activity within the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Unison, this would be helpful. Instead we get tales of rumours, and rumours of rumours.

According to people I know in the FI/ICR, there is a debate within its ranks over what the leadership mean by defence of "national sovereignty" in relation to the Maastricht issue. We should be engaging the Lambertists on these subjects. How is it they can ally with a Maoist group whose catch phrase is "Rebuilding Britain"? A group who have had members on the NEC of Unison (Moz Greenshields) and NATFHE (Geoff Woolf and Jacqui Johnson among others) but done nothing to build the left?

The one thing that should be said of the Lambertist international current is that they are growing. How can people criticise them for that? Especially small groups of two or three people! The French section of the FI/ICR has some 4,000 members, and the broad Workers Party (PT), of which it forms the core, has about 6,500 members. We are talking about an organisation that is considerably larger than anything currently existing in Britain. The Lambertists are not building a "cult of mystical influence" as Bourseiller and Martin Thomas claim they are. Thomas’s own group is stagnant – at what, 200 supporters maybe? – and split over the Labour Party. That is not exactly a prescription for us all to follow!

The International Liaison Committee, the body set up in 1991 by the First Open World Conference held in Barcelona, also seems to be growing and is possibly the largest regroupment of its kind since the Movement for Socialism (MAS) in Argentina. The 1991 Conference was attended by representatives of significant forces embarking on a process of wide regroupment at an international level. These forces included expelled leaders of the Brazilian Communist Party, representatives from the Soviet Union, Palestine, the USA, most European countries and other places where the FI/ICR had a presence. It included many forces not close to the FI/ICR. This process has broadened and deepened and a Fourth Open World Conference is taking place in San Francisco in March 2000.

There has been a significant growth in the last eight years in the numbers attracted to the projects of the Lambertist current. This is a fact – not an opinion! They have recruited a large number of militants and fractions that are breaking from the Stalinist and Social Democratic milieu – not least recently on the issue of opposition to Maastricht and around the welfare state strikes in 1996. Only in January 1999 there was a conference in the northern area of the Pais de Calais on this very issue.

The Lambertists have also recently begun to produce a regular newsletter or bulletin of the partisans of the Fourth International. This has begun with a number on the Labour Party and the 1997 general election, followed by one on the Northern Ireland Peace Accords and a third on the need for a working class solution in the Balkans.

The Fourth Internationalist Bulletin on the Labour Party contains a very reasoned defence of why militants should work within the Labour Party – a much more positive approach than that of many left groups in Britain today. The piece explains the position of the Lambertists in the aftermath of the election of the first Labour Government in 18 years. It analyses the rise of Blairism and goes as far as explaining how they see the development of a potential split in the British Labour Party. The document goes on to explain how such a split in the Labour Party can open up huge opportunities for worker militants but also what the role of Trotskyists should be in relation to it. It defends positions similar to the ones articulated by some people associated with What Next?, among others, in seeing the importance of the trade union-Labour Party link.

Although their analysis was written a year or so ago, it clearly stands in stark contradistinction to those who have jumped off the edge of the political world into the fantasy island of the so-called Socialist Alliances. It underlines the important point that comrades who are committed to building an open organisation and comrades inside the Labour Party organising to defeat Blairism should not put up artificial barriers against collaboration.

The Lambertists may or may not be all the things their critics in other organisations such as the USec say they are. It may be that they did or didn’t do all the things their enemies accuse them of! In any case, political currents can change – they are not set in stone. Like people, they develop with experience. Indeed, a number of healthy critiques of Lambertism have been written by their own supporters, such as François DeMassott and Jean-Jacques Marie.

There is a need to reassess the place of Marxism in today’s world – not in the contemptuous manner in which Blair speaks of the traditions of the Labour Party, but in a way that will take us all forward in the current period. One must assess what it is that the far left seeks to achieve in the conditions before us today.

Is our task to be one of abstract propagandism ... a la Militant circa the 1980s? When they were confronted with the realities of power on a local level they flunked it big time (just look at the debacle of Liverpool). Or, do we seek to construct a world-wide party based on the transitional method that is capable of helping the working class to resist the hammer blows being rained on it by the capitalist class? The recent war in the Balkans clearly illustrates for us that the choice facing humanity is one of socialism or barbarism. You can follow the new realist path of New Labour into the realm of barbarism or resist.

Those on the far left who continue to bury their heads in the political sand, quoting from the great texts but keeping their banners bright and sparkly clean, will achieve nothing. We cannot advance without trying our best, with our limited resources compared to the capitalists, to build mass socialist organisations in every country. No-one ever said this was going to be easy!

Whatever happens to the far left, and those who talk good socialism or write good theory, the working class always finds ways and means to resist. In this respect, organisations come and go, and in the last 60 years a lot have gone. Surely our role as Marxists is to try and orientate ourselves within the actually existing labour movement – as it is, not as we wish it to be – putting our politics on the basis of democracy and letting the working class movement decide: "The emancipation of the working class will be the task of the workers themselves."

Frank Wainwright

From What Next? No.14 1999