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Stalinism and the return of the repressed

Reply to Jack Conrad, 12 March 2002

Jack Conrad is rattled. Why? He puts on the robes of a high priest scourging an apostate. Responding to the letter I wrote on behalf of the AWL to register that the project of a new 'unofficial Socialist Alliance paper' has in fact narrowed down, for now, to the hypothesis of a merger between Solidarity and the Weekly Worker, and to propose that we must work through some big political issues before such a merger, he intones that my 'intention is to create confusion'. 'Needless to say', he has already 'fully answered such essentially trite points and corrected comrade Thomas's evident confusion' (WW 421).

Well! Why is Jack so rattled? I'll first review the immediate practical issues, and then the underlying political questions.

For the Socialist Alliance conference in December 2001, the AWL submitted a proposal for a Socialist Alliance newspaper, which the CPGB supported. It got wide support but was defeated. At a fringe meeting after the conference both Jack Conrad and I spoke in favour of organising an unofficial Socialist Alliance paper. We were both talking about a publication of the broad spectrum of Socialist Alliance members who saw the need for a paper - with due space for controversy and minority views - not just a merger of Solidarity and the Weekly Worker.

We put the idea about. We - the AWL and the CPGB - produced a joint leaflet on the idea for the Socialist Alliance 'independents'' conference on 19 January.

Maybe Jack Conrad's scorn for the 'independents' reflects his disappointment at their response: 'flotsam and jetsam... ideologically incoherent, organisationally ineffective... often half burnt-out'.

Be that as it may, the possibility within grasp now is a merger between the Weekly Worker and Solidarity, with some support from others, rather than something broader. Jack describes my letter as 'disappointing' but, in fact, concurs with my conclusion. The possibilities of a new paper which he discusses are those of a merger of the Weekly Worker and Solidarity.

If there is no common paper of the Socialist Alliance - and still less, one adequate as regards openness, liveliness and political alertness - then the Alliance's political life must rely heavily on its various 'unofficial' papers. Both Solidarity and the Weekly Worker are 'unofficial Socialist Alliance papers', contributing to that life in our different ways. And so, in its own yet different way, is Socialist Worker.

A merger between Solidarity and Weekly Worker could contribute better. But the discussions we've had with the CPGB about it suggest to us that there are serious political issues to thrash out first, and therefore 'an immediate merger would be, so to speak, 'adventurist'.'

Jack overlooks the word 'immediate' and quotes me as claiming that any merger would be 'adventurist'. From that point, he quickly launches into apostate-scourging mode: we are 'lackadaisacal... nonchalant... irresponsible', whereas Jack's 'courage inspires courage in others'.

What does he think such ranting inspires? A full merger of Weekly Worker and Solidarity - not just collaboration between the CPGB and the AWL within a much broader Socialist Alliance effort, or in the production of this or that occasional joint publication, but a merger of the two organisations' regular staple publications - would be 90% of a merger between the two organisations. Good. There is much common ground: Ireland, Israel-Palestine, Europe, opposition to 'reactionary anti-imperialism', support for consistent democracy... However, the difficulties are not a matter, as Jack puts it, of us inventing 'insurmountable obstacles before we even know what they are'. We have a pretty good idea of what the issues are, and what the problems with an immediate common paper would be. Jack's article develops some of them.

They should be tackled, as my letter said, 'in the form of a direct discussion of principles', rather then by way of day-to-day disputes where the basic politics would inevitably become entangled with quarrels about why this article rather than that has been shelved or lopped for lack of space, why this headline rather than that has got the front page, and so on.

There are straightforward political questions. Would the new paper limit itself in its chief political slogans, as the Weekly Worker does, to the formal-democratic call for a federal republic? Or would it, without neglecting formal democracy, venture to agitate for a workers' government? Would it give space and emphasis to trade-union struggles, or scorn them as 'economistic'?

More. A merger can take place with disagreement on many political questions, just by providing space for controversy in the paper on those questions. It cannot happen, however, without some agreement on what sort of common paper we should produce.

Solidarity and the Weekly Worker are very different papers. Weekly Worker is a paper geared to internal disputation in the Socialist Alliance. I do not sneer. That is valuable. However, in the AWL's activity - regulated by our understanding of our responsibilities to the class struggle around us, not by a 'sect mentality' - we find we need a paper that also orients more broadly and deals directly (not just by refraction through critique of the Socialist Alliance's activity, or lack of it) with trade-union and student battles, struggles over public services, and so on. We believe that sort of broader-oriented working-class paper is also what the Socialist Alliance needs.

At the earlier stages of the discussion on the 'unofficial Socialist Alliance paper', we thought the CPGB was saying that the Weekly Worker is as it is primarily because of the CPGB's small size, not because of any larger political principle. In the more recent stages the CPGB has rejected the notion that a new paper should be substantially different in orientation from the present Weekly Worker - arguing, or seeming to argue, that the WW's orientation is a matter of 'partyist' principle rather than of limits chosen because of the CPGB's small size.

As far as I can see from Jack's article, there are two areas of dispute about 'partyism' - general conceptions of a party, and specific deductions in relation to the Socialist Alliance.

The results from the general election of June 2001 showed us that the Alliance is still marginal in working-class politics. The preparations for the Socialist Alliance trade union conference on 16 March have shown us that the Alliance is miles from a coherent intervention in the unions, and has no collective understanding of how to help the working-class base of Labourism assert itself and break through the New Labour shell.

We fight to help develop the Alliance into a rounded party. The issue revolves around establishing the centrality of independent working-class representation in politics. To confine ourselves to debating with the other components of the Socialist Alliance on this would indeed be 'sect mentality'. We have a duty to be active on our own account, in the broader labour movement. The AWL strives to discharge that duty. That is why we want a broader-oriented paper.

Jack is scornful about our 'amateur' trade union work and 'fragmented' interventions among students. But what does he recommend instead? Not doing any such work at all, abstaining, and instead issuing advice on how the Socialist Alliance - in practice, for the most part, the SWP - should be active!

The less-than-party approach here seems to me to be the CPGB's. Lenin wrote against Kautsky: 'We have any number of promises to be a Marxist some time in another epoch, not under present conditions, not at this moment. For tomorrow we have Marxism on credit, Marxism as a promise, Marxism deferred...' Isn't there more than a trace of that here? Shying away from supposedly 'amateur' intervention in basic working-class struggles now, and instead offering promises that someone else will do it 'professionally' some time in the future?

The substitution here of dressed-up ideal constructions for real solutions is, I think, connected with the fact that the CPGB's concept of 'partyism' carries stultifying traces of your tendency's Stalinist past.

Jack's disquisition on how Marx, Engels and Lenin called themselves communists is beside the point. We are communists in that sense, just as we are also social-democrats in the best sense of that word. Your aim is to build a communist party, small c, in the sense that Marx understood communism rather than in the Kremlin sense? Fine.

But you say that your aim is 'to reforge the Communist Party of Great Britain', specifically. And, to nail down the point, your 2002 perspectives cite, as what you reckon to be your main strength - above and before any item of political acuity, or meritorious activity - your 'name and the traditions associated with it'. 'The gathering pace of inquiries about our Party underlines the fact that the CPGB was the only genuine working-class party built in the last century, a body that occupied a strategically important role in the workers' movement'.

But no-one today can have any living memory of the CPGB's 'role in the workers' movement' as other than vile and corrupt. To remember any other 'CPGB' you would need to be at least 90 years old.

In what way was the CPGB, after a few early years, a 'genuine working-class party'? Its social composition was no better than the Labour left. Its politics, after 1935 at latest, were distinguishable from those of the worse sections of the Labour left only by occasional episodes in which it was worse, not better, such as the Hitler-Stalin pact. As early as 1938, Trotsky rightly pointed out that even the right-wing Labourites like Herbert Morrison were then to the left of the CP, which advocated a Popular Front with Liberals and 'progressive' Tories.

The only way in which the CPGB was closer to being a 'genuine working-class party' than the Labour left was the forms, the trappings and the insignia of 'partyism'. The clothes, however, had no emperor. To think otherwise is irrational reverence for tokens and signs, in abstraction from real content. And, worse, it is Stalinist-tinged fetishism, because even in formalities the bureaucratic centralism of the CPGB was very different from a revolutionary working-class party regime.

Your tendency has, to its credit, moved a long way politically from your Stalinist beginnings. Jack's argument reveals that you have not cleared all the old fetishes out of your minds.

Thus, you fetishise the symbols - hammer and sickle, red flag, the title 'Communist Party of Great Britain', and so on. Not to claim those, writes Jack, is to abandon 'our entire heritage'. Entire! No, the substance of our heritage is not in such symbols, but in the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, and the rest, and, for those who consistently stand for what both the AWL and the CPGB want to stand for, in the struggle of the uncorrupted communists around Trotsky. If we can conveniently reclaim some symbols, like the red flag, which was never narrowly tied to Stalinism, all the better. If others go the way of the 19th and early 20th century usage of revolutionary socialists calling each other 'Citizen' and singing the Marseillaise, so be it.

Arguing for the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) to change their name to Communist Party, Lenin told those who were 'loth to cast off the 'dear old' soiled shirt' that it was 'time to cast off the soiled shirt and to put on clean linen'. The blouse of 'Communism' is a thousand times more encrusted with filth - and workers' blood - from the direct crimes of 70 years of Stalinism than was the chemise of Social Democracy from its complicity with bourgeois crimes in two and a half years of World War 1. To see the wearing of the 'Communist' shirt as the main strength and asset of a working-class tendency today is fetishism.

Fetishism of symbols - and then fetishism of the 'party' form, expressed as fetishism of the Socialist Alliance. Just as Jack sees two CPGBs in history - the actual one, which was 'in the mud' for decades, and an ideal one, 'the only genuine working-class party built in the last century' - so also he sees two Socialist Alliances today.

One of them comprises the actual components of the Alliance - the SWP ('short-sighted' and liable to reduce it to 'an ineffective on-off electoral front'); the 'independents' ('incoherent', 'ineffective', 'burnt out'); and various 'confessional sects' sharing, so the CPGB's 2002 perspectives opine, an 'economistic, sub-reformist consensus'.

The whole is more than the sum of its parts? In Jack's vision it becomes something flying in a stratosphere far above its parts. The 'other' Socialist Alliance is 'a beacon attracting socialist intellectuals, former Labourites, prominent trade union militants'; it is almost-a-party, capable of being made into 'a substantial social force' straight off by a good push from inside. This is not far from the sort of vision which sees priests as venal and bossy, the laity as credulous or cynical, and the prelates as corrupt, but the Church they collectively comprise as God on earth.

Within this dual vision of the Socialist Alliance, Jack also seems to have a dual vision of the SWP. With his eyes open, he sees an SWP with 'crazy perspectives', a 'sect-building project', 'no party democracy', and 'a high rate of turnover' around a core which 'comes to see what exists around itself in a cynical, manipulative way', as the CPGB 2002 document puts it. With his eyes shut, in the visions that his brain projects onto the back of his eyelids, he sees an 'other' SWP, one which good polemic and advice will turn into the core of the 'other' Socialist Alliance.

These dual visions expressed themselves, in our recent AWL-CPGB face-to-face discussions about a new paper, in the idea that such a new paper should generally cover class battles through the prism of advice and critique about what the Socialist Alliance should do or is doing about them.

Jack's argument about a new paper is that the Socialist Alliance cannot develop without one - and so one must be launched, 'with the AWL if possible; without it if we must'. This is rather like the idea that calling yourself the CPGB and referring to it as 'our Party' makes you more of a force than you actually are. The Weekly Worker could be renamed 'Socialist Alliance Weekly', but the pretence involved would hinder rather than help the passage from the real Socialist Alliance of today to the 'other' one etched on the back of Jack's eyelids.

Jack transcribes formulas from another period and other circumstances, rather than translating basic ideas into the language of our circumstances. We, AWL and CPGB, have already discussed this in relation to the way the CPGB transcribes polemics about 'economism' from early 20th century Russia to early 21st century Britain, with little regard for the fact that the monarchy in Russia then had a different political and social significance from the monarchy in Britain today.

Jack's picture of the new paper and its role is transcribed from the history of Iskra, a paper of which 51 issues were published by Lenin and others between December 1900 and November 1903. Iskra played a big role in pulling together the then scattered local groups of Marxists in Russia into a coherent party with common politics. Though the party-founding conference which it prepared, in summer 1903, produced two factions (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) rather than a united party, and the Mensheviks appropriated Iskra, the paper had played a great role in promoting 'consistency in principle... organisational girding... dialogue with the working class'. Lenin's pamphlet 'What Is To Be Done?', published in spring 1902, was in large part a polemic for the idea of organising around Iskra as against haphazard local agitation.

An Iskra for the Socialist Alliance? It is not possible. A Socialist Alliance paper with the SWP - i.e., in the present or short-term foreseeable circumstances, one dominated by the SWP - could not be Iskra because it would have some SWP-appointed functionary in place of Lenin. A Socialist Alliance paper without the SWP could not have the authority of Iskra, which started with not only Lenin but also Plekhanov, Zasulich, Martov and others as editors.

Fortunately it is possible to make progress in other ways than by re-enacting historical drama. It is entirely possible for the Socialist Alliance to develop through the interplay and dialogue of a variety of publications. That is how the German Marxist movement developed up to 1914 (and that development produced much more than just those leaders who would back the World War in 1914); that, indeed, is largely how the Russian Marxist movement developed between 1903 and 1917.

Jack paints rosy prospects for the Socialist Alliance - 'a beacon', 'can grow into a substantial social force from these conditions' - but then stipulates, as a precondition for those prospects, something which we cannot get.

'The Socialist Alliance project', he writes, 'will never take off without a serious political paper'. He means one which provides the 'organisational girding' for the whole Alliance, not just one that is 'serious' in the way that Solidarity or the Weekly Worker already are.

That sort of 'Socialist Alliance Iskra' is not a feasible next step from where we are now. It would have to start from somewhere other than where we are now. Even the best new paper formed by merging the WW and Solidarity, immensely useful though it would be, could not be that 'Socialist Alliance Iskra'.

That leaves Jack with two options. One is to give up; the other is to resort to pretences and the substitution of fetishised formulas for real political solutions. He cannot make the Weekly Worker really become a 'Socialist Alliance Iskra'; he can, however, by appropriating symbols in the way already practised with the names 'CPGB' and 'Daily Worker' and the hammer-and-sickle emblem, emancipate himself from mundane realities and declare it such.

In the spirit of hyping up the CPGB as the 'real' Socialist Alliance, and dismissing the rest, the CPGB's 2002 perspectives document says that 'the AWL's 'transitional method' compass pitches them up on an even more right-wing shore than the others' [in the Socialist Alliance]; that what they loftily call our 'relatively healthy approach' on democratic openness is probably just 'a product of liberal/semi-anarchist appetites in [our] ranks'; and that we are 'ripe for a split'.

Why do the CPGB think that the AWL is 'ripe for a split'? 'Its adoption of the demand for a federal republic along with its call re: revolutionary unity takes it onto our political terrain - and our theoretical compass is rather better and more accurate than theirs'.

We have argued for revolutionary unity for rather a long time now (our first 'Open Letters' on the subject date from 1967 and 1974). We have known about the importance of formal democratic demands for a long time, too, and can take up another one without any of us lurching over into a repudiation of all so-called 'economistic', i.e. capital vs labour, concerns. We are capable of criticising our previous positions, and recognising that hostile tendencies were right against us on some issues - as we did, for example, when in the mid-1980s we renounced the call for a single joint Arab-Jewish state in Palestine, and came over to advocating self-determination for both nations there - without collapsing. You have managed to come over to our views on Ireland, on Israel-Palestine, and, at least partly, on the Labour Party, without splitting.

Your boast that revolutionary unity and a federal republic are (c) CPGB, marking out terrain where people are bound to get lost without your fine 'theoretical compass', reads extra oddly after the rueful admission, just a couple of pages earlier, than you have 'only one comrade undertaking serious theoretical work'. We not only have a small group as 'the Communist Party', and the Weekly Worker (with a suitable facelift) as Iskra, we also have your 'one comrade' as the 'theoretical compass' of our era!

If the AWL can see more clearly than others, and we believe we can, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Our stock of ideas is not our work alone, but a development of a tradition which we trace through many contributors - Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Gramsci, Cannon, Craipeau, Shachtman, Draper, and others. The CPGB's view of Marxist tradition, by contrast, postulates a single sudden leap from the shoulders of Lenin, straight over the decades of official Communism (solidly, genuinely 'working class', but intellectually yielding only 'great discredit') to the navigator's seat where the 'only one comrade' perches today.

Children are said to develop their personalities in part by copying and adapting elements from their parents' personalities. We can emancipate ourselves from that impress, to the partial extent actually possible, only by consciously understanding and acknowledging it. The person who proclaims that he or she carries forward the name of his or her parents, but owes nothing to those parents in the cranky and dismal later years which are all that living memory retains of them, and only reprises their bright and exuberant youth - that person is the most likely to be the helpless victim of parental influences. So also with the CPGB.

Your statement, 'What we fight for', declares that: 'Our central aim is to reforge the Communist Party of Great Britain. Without this Party the working class is nothing; with it, it is everything'.

Jack tries to present and defend a non-Stalinist reading of those sentences. To do it he has to resort to tortuous reinterpretation. 'Nothing' is not 'nullity'. It 'contains both being and nothing: the unity of being and nothing, or being which is at the same time non-being'.

The sentences, however, make perfect, literal, straightforward sense in a Stalinist reading. I know Jack would reject that reading. My point is that his thought is still trapped in formulas which belong to that reading.

In the Stalinist reading, the continuing core of 'the party' is constituted by means of the prestige, financial subsidies, and paid agents of the Kremlin. To gain any weight it must latch on to causes with popular support; but it is not in the least necessary for it to be built with a working-class membership, or through support for working-class struggles. The PDPA in Afghanistan could build itself up to a strength sufficient to take power by recruiting instead from the army and airforce officer corps. The CPGB, fortunately, never got anywhere near taking power, but it achieved its maximum growth in the period when its policy was most directly opposed to independent working-class struggle (in the years after 1941).

In the major Western capitalist countries, where other social layers like the officer corps were 'already taken', the CPs often used working-class demands - within limits - to win support. The Kremlin's antagonistic relation to the bourgeois capitalist states allowed the CPs to do that. But it was by no means the essence of 'party-building'. In fact, full success for a CP - its seizure of state power - required the working class to be weak or passive. Wherever the working class was strong, active and self-confident, that fatally limited the prospects for a Communist Party.

In the Stalinist vision, everything depended on the party-building. 'With the party' - or, to take the 'best' outcome, with the party gaining totalitarian state power - the working class would be 'everything'. It would have the joys of communism, even if the actual workers were reduced to slave labour.

'Without the party' - or, worse, against the party, as when the workers of East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, or Poland in 1980-1, rose up for their own demands - the working class was 'nothing'. If working-class demands ran counter to Kremlin foreign policy - as they did in Britain, for example, in the period of the CPGB's greatest growth in the 1940 - then those working-class demands were worth 'nothing' and to be opposed.

The CPGB today agrees with us that the Stalinist states were not workers' regimes but bureaucratic, exploitative systems. It has not thought it through. Jack writes about Stalin and Mao being 'opportunist traitors', who thus gave 'succour to the bourgeoisie'. They were not 'traitors' to their own bureaucratic ruling classes; as for the bourgeoisie, sometimes they gave succour to it, but sometimes they fought, overthrew and crushed it. The Stalinists were most virulently anti-working-class in those times and places when they were also most anti-bourgeois - when they took power. But Jack's thought is still shaped by a picture of the 'official Communists' as bad and opportunist leaders of the working class against the bourgeoisie.

The CPGB has undoubtedly moved a long way politically. It retains, however, as points of honour, much Stalinist debris: minimum/maximum programme, in opposition to the method of transitional demands; 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry', in opposition to permanent revolution; and a fetishised concept of 'partyism'. Your recent reassertion of the idea that the April 1978 coup in Afghanistan was a genuine social revolution is startling new evidence that the debris is still there. (Presumably that would make Afghanistan 1978 the one genuine communist revolution of the 20th century, after 1917? I am reminded of those ex-Maoists who - having first repudiated the USSR's claim to be socialist, and then reluctantly having had to reject China's claim too - finally settled on Albania as their model. As with the 'pro-Albanians', the acceptance for remote and obscure circumstances - then Albania, now Afghanistan - of the revolutionary working-class credentials of the Stalinist politics which gross evidence has made the comrades repudiate for the 'big' Stalinist states indicates that they still have not fully understood what Stalinism meant in the large. To be fair, I assume that you developed your views on Afghanistan against the 'opportunist' old CPGB in 1980, and have not yet rethought the question).

Again: 'the working class is nothing without a party'. Even on the most generous reading, this notion feeds straight into the CPGB's extravagant anti-economism and its disdain (in recent months partially corrected, but only partially) for the existing labour movement. A working class with no organisation, and a working class with developed trade unions but no revolutionary party - are they both equally 'nothing'?

The CPGB, as we have seen, chides the AWL for 'liberal/ semi-anarchist appetites'. Yes, within the framework of class-struggle politics, and with an understanding that the framework precludes any one-sided elevation of individual desiderata above the overall needs of the struggle, we do have an 'appetite' for the 'liberal' and 'semi-anarchist' values of individual freedom and minority rights. Doesn't the CPGB?

At the Socialist Alliance structure conference in December, the CPGB argued against any guarantees for minority representation on the Alliance executive on grounds of 'partyism' and 'centralism', and cast its second-preference votes for the SWP's draft constitution with the argument that its admittedly bureaucratic centralism was nonetheless better, since it was centralism of some sort, than the looser structures of other drafts.

It was good, at the Alliance executive meeting on 9 March, to see the CPGB shifting on this question, and coming out in support of guarantees for minority representation in Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance. It makes no sense that such guarantees are good in Bedfordshire, but bad in the Alliance nationally. The CPGB is caught in contradictions here because of the conflict between its sense of reality and the fetishes and dual visions which clog its thinking through the 'return of the repressed' from its Stalinist past.

Those fetishes and dual visions affect both the CPGB's general politics - the idea that 'federal republic' is the most that can be proposed for now, the repudiation of the fight for workers' representation and a workers' government, the extravagant 'anti-economism', its retrospective endorsement of Afghan Stalinism, and so on - and its conception of the sort of new paper we need. We need to discuss these things.

In final paragraph Jack writes: 'we communists are obliged to press ahead... we shall... work towards the launch of an unofficial paper - with the AWL if possible; without it if we must'. What does this mean? Spurn the 'flotsam and jetsam', dismiss the supposedly 'lackadaisacal and nonchalant' AWL, and declare the group round the Weekly Worker to be the 'real' Socialist Alliance, as it has already declared itself to be the 'real' CPGB? Is that what he really means? Much better to descend from the pretences and discuss with us the substantive politics that can lay the basis for a real step forward.

Martin Thomas