Report on the December 8 CPGB aggregate which discussed the war in Ukraine and criticised of the sort of unity being pursued by comrades in the Netherlands. This report was originally published in WW1423, which can be found here
The December 8 aggregate of CPGB members and invited supporters, from both Britain and internationally, discussed the war in Ukraine, not least in the context of the broad party-in-formation being pursued by comrades in the Communist Platform in the Netherlands. The discussion was framed by two opening contributions from Jack Conrad and Mike Macnair.
Jack Conrad began by reviewing the character of the Ukraine war as a proxy war between Nato and Russia which the west had been seeking for some considerable time. Nato was not simply looking for victory on the battlefield, but sought regime change in Moscow and the end of Russia as any kind of great power. The wider geo-political dimension was, of course, the rivalry between the US and China. In other words, America’s attempt to reboot its super-imperialist global position. Comrade Conrad noted the obvious parallels with 1914 and the outbreak of World War I, but also the significant differences between the early 20th century and our much diminished 21st century realities.
The most important difference was the role of the organised working class. It was a world power in its own right in 1914. Potentially it was in a position to overthrow capitalism and become the ruling class. Indeed, many capitalists saw going for war as a pre-emptive strike against the working class threat. The accumulated strength of the working class meant that Lenin could be confident that revolutionary social democracy would recover, despite the split in the Second International and the social imperialists backing their own ruling classes.
Today what passes for the working class movement, such as Sir Keir’s Labour Party, the Congress members of the Democratic Socialists of America and a rag, tag and bobtail of groups and individuals, Anticapitalist Resistance, AWL, LRC, SSP, etc, support their own bourgeoisie and call for more Nato arms for Ukraine. Meanwhile, perhaps a majority of the left upholds a social pacifist position, calling for the UN to intervene, all sides being urged to respect international law and other such pious crap. Still others have adopted a pro-Moscow line on the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
Jack Conrad concluded by dealing with the issue of ‘self-determination’ which many social imperialists use to justify their support for Nato. This is an important principle, but not an absolute one, he argued. The principle always has to be put in the wider context, the interests of the global working class.
Comrade Macnair drew on what he had recently written. In particular he looked at the consequences of the type of ‘diplomatic’ politics conducted by the Mandelite Fourth International. Unity in diversity is essential to the working-class movement if we are to have effective unity in action, and this unity requires open debate and disagreement, not one-man management. The suppression of dissent and the imposition of uniformity has only produced further splits, fragmentation, and the hollowing out of the revolutionary left. These forms of bureaucratic centralism are dominant throughout the labour movement and are constantly reproduced in both ‘official communism’, Trotskyism, Maoism, etc.
Most importantly for the current period, comrade Macnair believed, is the way that this political culture is often combined with diplomacy which fudges serious differences. In practice this means self-censorship for the sake of a spurious unity which avoids hard political choices. Mike traced the evolution of this type of politics from the early 1920s and the debates within Comintern on the united front, through to the popular front line of Stalin and Georgi Dimitrov in the mid-1930s.
Turning to contemporary examples, comrade Macnair argued that the war in Ukraine is not a secondary issue: its impact on the living standards of Europe’s workers alone means it is centre-stage. The Mandelites’ support for Nato arms, etc, constitutes political scabbing.
The method of centrism is to support broad statements of general agreement and avoid matters of serious disagreement. So, failing to take on the social imperialists and draw sharp lines is centrism, he concluded.
The discussion that followed took up many questions, but most importantly, the Netherlands, where comrades are actively pursuing unity with the Mandelites in the name of having a wider pond to swim in.
Yassamine Mather drew on the experience of the Iranian left. Many comrades on the Iranian left want to avoid hard debate and instead favour ‘leaving everything to the masses’. Anne McShane, from Ireland, outlined the situation there where the left, such as Richard Boyd Barrett of the Socialist Worker Movement, are making concessions to the pro-Ukraine nationalism of Sinn Féin. Their hope is to become coalition partners, ministers, real players in the politics of government. With that there comes, of course, all manner of petty privileges and possibilities of considerable enrichment.
However, the main focus of the discussion was on the position adopted by the Communist Platform in the Netherlands. Ollie Hughes stated that the comrades were wrong. The unity they are seeking is unprincipled and unsustainable, Jack Conrad explained that the CP comrades found themselves in a unity situation not of their own making. It was the result of the witch-hunt conducted by the coalition-seeking former red tomato Maoists in the Socialist Party. They purged everyone who held even the mildest criticisms.
However, the Socialist project appears to be a lash up united by who we are against, not what we are for. It seems that the CP comrades in the Netherlands want unity for unity’s sake. In practice that means avoiding fundamental disagreements and lining up with scabs who side with the bourgeoisie over Ukraine.
Roy Frost referenced the history of Bolshevism and Lenin’s arguments for clear lines and political demarcations: we have a duty to let the working class movement know about our political differences so that rank and file comrades can decide. He also talked about the problems of working in organisations that include social imperialists and what the boundaries to negotiation were. The issue, he suggested, remains that of self-censorship and not advancing your own ideas to preserve unity. Parker McQueeney of the Marxist Unity Group in the US outlined how the war in Ukraine has produced similar issues of diplomatic fudging in the DSA.
While much of the focus was understandably on the current situation in the Netherlands CP, many contributions also referred to the experience of CPGB and LPM comrades in groups such as the Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance, the Labour Left Alliance, Left Unity, Respect and the Socialist Labour Party, as well as how comrades in Britain might orientate to future left unity projects. Comrades agreed that there are not timeless formulas. Communists must develop their positions in relation to concrete situations. Politics is an art, not a science. However, whatever the nature of the formation the key issue is to be up-front about our political principles and not silence debate by agreeing to generalised compromises which conceal fundamental political differences.
In their contributions, members of the Provisional Central Committee stressed the need for open discussion and that in criticising the subordination of political differences to organisational unity, they were not giving orders to our Netherlands comrades.
The PCC does not want an oil-slick international or a culture of bureaucratic centralism which stifles debate. If our assessment of the situation is wrong, then let us be corrected. We can all learn.
The aggregate discussion was hopefully the start of just such a process of clarification and debate, with a proposed meeting between the PCC of the CPGB and the CP board. We have, of course, proposed such a meeting at the earliest opportunity.