This open letter was submitted in late April by British IBT supporter Liz H. to the Weekly Worker, paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain, explaining why she had ceased to support their organisation. Despite frequent claims to provide a platform for all sides in disputes within the left, the WW choose to print a few heavily edited extracts of the piece in the letters column of their 3 May issue. They did so without consulting the author or providing any indication to their readers that the text had undergone substantial alteration. As one might expect, the deletions tended to eliminate issues the CPGB is not comfortable addressing.
For example, in Liz's original letter she commented:
"The CPGB claims that increased democracy will somehow awaken the consciousness of the working class and thus lead in a socialist direction. But the key question is always which class rules, and no amount of 'democratic' reform will change the fact that the bourgeoisie holds power, nor the fact that they will do whatever they consider necessary to hang on to it. This is elementary for any serious Marxist."
The Weekly Worker printed this but omitted the historic experience of the Bolsheviks that Liz used to make her argument concrete:
"If, as the CPGB claim, the expansion of formal bourgeois democracy has an inherently socialist dynamic, what position do they take on the Russian Constituent Assembly in January 1918? The logic of the CPGB's view that democracy is everything puts them in the Menshevik, not the Bolshevik, camp.
"Perhaps the CPGB considers the October revolution premature? The Bolsheviks were not very tolerant of the Cadets and they ended up crushing Yeltsin-type 'democratic' opposition forces. Perhaps, using the same criterion they today apply to Iraq, the CPGB considers Russia under Lenin to have been 'imperialist'--after all the Soviets invaded Poland in 1920!"
Clearly, these are questions the ultra-"democrats" of the CPGB prefer to avoid.
Bolshevism v. the swamp
An open letter to readers of the Weekly Worker
I first met the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) on May Day last year, when the GLA and London Mayoral elections were taking place. The London Socialist Alliance (LSA) was campaigning for Ken Livingstone as mayor. The CPGB are a part of this alliance, along with the SWP, Workers Power, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) and the Socialist Party.
For a time I became a supporter of the CPGB, selling the Weekly Worker and participating in their discussions, although I had problems with some of their positions. Individual comrades from the CPGB seemed to have no illusions themselves concerning Ken's pro-capitalist policies yet were quite happy to tail popular sentiment thereby promoting whatever illusions the working class may have had. Their reason, so they claimed, was a belief that mass support for Ken could somehow create a split to the left in the ranks of the Labour Party. They also put across the idea that Ken Livingstone is somehow himself to the left of New Labour and that mass support for him could reawaken the political consciousness of the working class.
Such ideas, however, are nothing but wishful thinking. Ken Livingstone has stated himself that he has 'no ideological difference with New Labour'. He ran for mayor for careerist reasons, not any substantial political ones. Although he stood as an independent, he made it perfectly clear that he wished to get back into the good books of Blair & co. Not only this, but he was not even calling for independent working class action, which social democrats have at least paid lip service to in the past. Rather Ken openly sought support from Tories, Greens and Liberals. Such tactics can be described as popular frontist or class collaborationist. All the components of the LSA assumed political responsibility for this policy when they called for a vote for Livingstone.
Ken Livingstone may occasionally rant against the excesses of global capitalism and speak sympathetically of trade unionists, but only to maintain illusions. This is what popular fronts are for. If Ken were to be completely and openly identified with the bosses then he would lose his political value to them, along with his popular base. The only political difference Ken had with Tony Blair was the issue of tube privatisation, and even that was not substantial. Ken does not call for public ownership, but rather semi-privatisation through issuing public bonds. This is not what the tube workers call for and is in itself a rather insubstantial difference with New Labour.
Ken could probably well have done without the grovelling support of the 'far left', as he deliberately kept his distance from them and denied any association. From Ken's point of view this was no doubt a principled stance, as he made it clear his heart was with New Labour and Tony Blair. In his mayoral campaign he did not ask for any support from any left-wing groups, appealing instead to loyal Labourites and liberals. Where exactly was Ken on May Day , while the LSA were busy drumming up support for him? I was unable to catch a glimpse maybe I wasn't looking hard enough but nobody else seemed to have seen him either.
The left break with New Labour that the CPGB hoped for from Ken did not occur. Nonetheless, long after this was clear, the CPGB still believed they were right to call for a vote for Livingstone. Darrell G. of the CPGB stated on the internet:
'Livingstone had been forced into an organisational break from Labourism though I would certainly not contend a political one. This organisational rupture opened up a gap which the LSA attempted to fill, the path to an intersection with the movement behind Livingstone was opened up by this. Livingstone did not build an organisation and so the LSA filled the void somewhat half-heartedly because it continued to tail Livingstone's politics but it did that and was correct to do so' (UK left network email list, 14 Nov, 2000).
The comrade did not state exactly why this was the correct move, and probably felt obliged due to organisational loyalty to defend an opportunist position that is in essence indefensible. Thus he proves the bankruptcy of the CPGB's policies, and shows that they don't learn much from their own mistakes. No doubt, then, they will support other popular frontist candidates in future.
The LSA itself is a political swamp, with a programme to the right of most of its adherents. This policy is no doubt tailored to attract left Labourites and reformists to the alliance in order to 'win them to a revolutionary programme'. Yet the LSA has no revolutionary programme but a reformist one that looks very similar to many of Old Labour's promises. The LSA even went so far as to send a letter of support to Ralph Nader, the openly pro-capitalist Green presidential candidate in the US! You cannot 'win' someone to a programme that isn't there.
The Socialist Alliances are supposedly vehicles for left unity in these reactionary times. Most of the groups participating in the venture pursue unity through submerging their political differences in order to present a common reformist minimum programme that treats socialism as an abstract goal realisable only in the distant future. Marxists do not pretend there is unity where there is none; such a policy can only disorient those who practice it as well as broader layers of the working class.
For these reasons the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), the organisation which I now support, has chosen to remain outside the Socialist Alliance. Unlike the sectarian Spartacist League, the IBT are interested in developments in the alliance and at times, depending on concrete circumstances, may give critical support to its electoral candidates.
However, the IBT never supports candidates of a popular front, which are mechanisms for class collaboration and therefore counterposed to any sort of independent working class action. Leon Trotsky condemned the 'tactic' of the popular front during the 1930s. The lessons of Spain still echo clearly, yet it appears most of the self-proclaimed revolutionary left fail to learn from them. This was evident in Chile in 1971, when most of the left was advocating votes to candidates of Salvador Allende's popular front government which paved the way for the bloody Pinochet coup. Independent working class action in Chile could only be premised on a break with Allende's Unidad Popular.
When a left group takes the first step of giving electoral support to popular frontists such as Livingstone or the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe (see 1917, no. 23), it is often downhill all the way from there, as each subsequent step takes them further and further to the right.
Bourgeois democracy and deformed workers states
The CPGB has an unhealthy regard for bourgeois democracy which contributes to the policy of support for popular fronts. Their view of democracy in the abstract ignores the fact that bourgeois democracy is but a fig leaf for the dictatorship of capital. Marxists always look at democracy in class terms, and ask which class holds power. The bourgeoisie has dropped the democratic facade when it has suited them in the past, and will undoubtedly do so again. Struggling for democratic rights under capitalism is a vital component of the class struggle, but the struggle for democracy must always be subordinated to the fight for socialism.
The reformism of the CPGB is reflected in its minimum-maximum approach, which leads to a view of socialism as something realisable only in the distant future. Trotsky's transitional programme is premised on the need to create a bridge between the perceived needs of the working class and the necessity for socialism. It does not fail to take into account the present consciousness of the working class, but rather seeks to link that consciousness to the struggle for revolution. The CPGB's approach, conversely, often leads to tailing bourgeois consciousness.
The CPGB claims that increased democracy will somehow awaken the consciousness of the working class and thus lead in a socialist direction. But the key question is always which class rules, and no amount of 'democratic' reform will change the fact that the bourgeoisie holds power nor the fact that they will do whatever they consider necessary to hang on to it. This is elementary for any serious Marxist.
Consider the October revolution: after February 1917 Lenin described Russia as the most democratic country in the world. Yet did this fundamentally alter conditions for the working class? To retain the democratic gains they had made, such as the soviets, to extricate Russia from the imperialist war and even to be able to eat, it was necessary to overthrow the Provisional Government. If, as the CPGB claim, the expansion of formal bourgeois democracy has an inherently socialist dynamic, what position do they take on the Russian Constituent Assembly in January 1918? The logic of the CPGB's view that democracy is everything puts them in the Menshevik, not the Bolshevik, camp.
Perhaps the CPGB considers the October revolution premature? The Bolsheviks were not very tolerant of the Cadets and they ended up crushing Yeltsin-type 'democratic' opposition forces. Perhaps, using the same criterion they today apply to Iraq, the CPGB considers Russia under Lenin to have been 'imperialist' after all the Soviets invaded Poland in 1920!
Unlike social democrats (and the CPGB) Marxists do not pretend that democracy and socialism can never come into conflict. When they do, we automatically put the struggle for socialism first. The Bolsheviks did not claim to be absolute democrats. They did not see democracy as being an end in itself, but as necessary to further the cause for communism. Communism, not abstract democracy, was the final goal. The workers' state envisaged by Marx and Lenin was to be a transient stage necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie. Only the working class could bring socialism into being, a process that would involve the dissolution of all class divisions in society. Establishing a workers' state will inevitably entail certain 'undemocratic' measures against the exploiters. But the intensity of repression required will depend entirely on the extent of their resistance.
The Russian proletariat, led by its Bolshevik vanguard, took state power into their own hands and expropriated the bourgeoisie in October 1917. However, the isolation of the Soviet Union, the pressure of world imperialism and the delay of the world revolution led to working class demoralisation and the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party itself. A parasitical bureaucracy rode to power that was personified by Joseph Stalin who advanced the 'theory' of socialism in one country. The bureaucracy consolidated its rule by depriving the working class of political rights. This acted as a fetter on the planned economy, stifled the creative initiative of the proletariat and removed all incentive. The Stalinists eventually ended up strangling not only workers' democracy, but also the very workers' state itself which was destroyed by the victory of capitalist restorationists in August 1991.
Nonetheless, until then the economic gains of the October revolution still remained in the form of collectivised property and the planned economy. Under fascism the bourgeoisie may be expropriated politically, yet the state remains bourgeois as it defends capitalist property. In the Soviet Union, political power was in the hands of the bureaucracy, but it remained in essence a degenerate workers' state as it defended collective property forms.
The bureaucracy itself had a contradictory character, as Trotsky explained rather well. It was not an independent class in itself, as the bureaucrats held no independent relation to the means of production or property forms. They only defended proletarian property forms (collectivised property) because their rule rested upon it. Their interest in preserving the gains of October was purely selfish, and Trotsky anticipated that in any serious confrontation the bureaucracy would split. Some would be inclined to try to cling to the system of nationalised property from which their privileges derived, while others would immediately go over to the side of restoration.
Trotskyists defended the USSR (and continue to defend the remaining deformed workers' states of Cuba, China, Vietnam and North Korea) to protect proletarian property forms. We call for political revolution to oust the bureaucracy, while defending the foundations of the workers' states from both imperialist aggression and capitalist restoration from within. Capitalist restoration, despite its 'democratic' rhetoric, is the enemy of the working class. One only has to look at what has occurred in the countries of the former Soviet Union over the past ten years to realise this.
Yet the CPGB upholds, in a modified form, the renegade American Trotskyist Max Shachtman's theory of 'bureaucratic collectivism', and refuses to defend Cuba and the other deformed workers' states from capitalist restoration. This policy is rationalised in the name of 'democracy'. Even though they claim to defend Cuba against imperialism on the grounds that it is an underdeveloped country, in the past the CPGB has consistently found reasons not to defend neo-colonial capitalist countries when they are attacked by imperialism. The CPGB refused to defend Serbia from Nato's brutal 1999 assault and instead claimed to oppose the two sides equally. Same with Iraq. Will the CPGB really back efforts to defend Cuba against the imperialist 'democracies'?. Or will it end up supporting efforts to bring 'democracy' to the Cuban masses by some Cuban equivalent of Boris Yeltsin or Lech Walesa? The fact that starvation, disease, and crime are the result for most workers is hardly offset by the fact that they might get to vote every few years. If the voters are too hungry and weak to walk to the ballot box then I suppose it's their problem, isn't it? We mustn't be economistic!
Refusing to defend deformed workers' states while fetishising abstract 'democracy' leads logically to social-chauvinism and wholesale capitulation to the bourgeoisie. One only has to look at Shachtman's support for the CIA-engineered Bay of Pigs invasion to see where such politics lead. What does the CPGB say about the Bay of Pigs gusanos after all they were fighting for 'democracy', weren't they?
The main enemy is at home
The CPGB's appalling refusal to defend Serbia against Nato's 1999 terror bombing shows that they are already pretty far down Shachtman's inglorious path along with Sean Matgamna's AWL which also refused to defend Serbia from imperialist attack. The CPGB position on Yugoslavia was clearly to the right of the SWP.
According to the CPGB: 'It is obvious to all but the wilfully stupid that Nato attempted to minimise civilian casualties' (Weekly Worker 292 Thursday 10 June 1999). Forgive me, then, if I am being 'wilfully stupid', but I feel that power generators that provide electricity for schools and hospitals, along with media stations, cannot be described as military targets. The Weekly Worker, throughout the period of the bombing, did not emphasise the aims of the imperialist powers in the region and thus helped provide left cover for Natos cynical denunciations of the crimes of Milosevic. Today even various imperialist mouthpieces admit that the accusations of genocide were stretching things. Yet the CPGB makes no apologies, preferring to accuse those who defended Serbia as supporting the Milosevic regime and endorsing ethnic cleansing.
Nato has not brought self-determination to Kosovo, in fact is clearly opposed to this. Kosovo still remains a militarised zone, and an increasingly ethnically pure Albanian region. Since the bombing, the KLA has forcibly evicted Serbs, Romas and Jews from their homes.
Lenin's slogan of 'revolutionary defeatism on both sides' originated in World War I, an inter-imperialist conflict. It is not applicable in cases of imperialist attacks on neo-colonies. Revolutionaries defend semi-colonies, like Iraq or Serbia, when they are bombarded by imperialists. This was Lenin's policy and it is ours. This does not mean giving any support to the political programmes of Milosevic or Saddam Hussein, or apologising for them. But getting rid of the Milosevics and Husseins is the job of the Serbian and Iraqi workers, not British or American imperialism.
A defeat for imperialism in either the Balkans or Iraq would have been a massive gain for the world proletariat. Conversely, the victory of the US/British-led gang of oppressors was a setback for all the oppressed and exploited including British and American working people.
Serbia's increased dependence on imperialism for loans to repair industry and infrastructure is a direct result of imperialist military aggression, along with the economic sanctions that were previously in place. It is absurd of the CPGB to claim that Nato did not threaten Serbia's right to self-determination or its sovereignty. The subjugation of Serbia was one of imperialism's aims. Anyone familiar with the terms of the Rambouillet agreement knows that to avoid attack Milosevic would have had to agree to an all-out Nato occupation.
The CPGB's 'stages' theory of revolution, along with its 'minimum' programme, are no doubt connected to the policy of tailing the supposedly bourgeois-democratic movement that put Kostunica in power. Independent working class action is what is necessary in Serbia, and a revolutionary leadership opposed to all wings of the capitalist restorationist proto-bourgeoisie those aligned with Milosevic as well as Kostunica.
The CPGB claim that the overthrow of Milosevic in September 2000 has vindicated their slogan of 'revolutionary defeatism'. Does this mean that they intend to support similar imperialist attacks in future to advance similar 'revolutions'? Does the CPGB support imperialist aggression against any country with an 'undemocratic' regime? The appraisal of Nato as some sort of revolutionary midwife is a cover for blatant social patriotism. This is highlighted by the scandalous call for 'a revolutionary peoples tribunal' under Kostunica to 'Try Milosevic' (Weekly Worker 355, Thursday 12 October 2000) which somehow omits any mention of trying Blair, Schröder, Clinton and the rest of the Nato war criminals.
I do not recall seeing any substantial criticism of the anti-working class nature of the new Serb government in the Weekly Worker. You do not see the CPGB drawing conclusions from Nato's takeover of the Serb mine of Trepca in September 2000, led by French forces. One would be naive to believe the claims of the French government that this was due to concerns about pollution. French imperialism did not hesitate to sink the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior when it challenged French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Strange then, that France is suddenly so concerned over alleged pollution in Kosovo. Certainly France and the other imperialists were not concerned with the effects of depleted uranium from Nato munitions used in the region. Bourgeois hypocrisy knows no limits!
Leninists recognise that imperialism remains the major enemy of the world proletariat and is a far greater threat than any tin-pot dictator. Kostunica's victory is no victory for the working class, so we have nothing to hail. Kostunica is a 'moderate' Serb nationalist who the imperialists hope will prove more pliable than Milosevic.
One should look at the nature of the uprising itself. While the masses that took part were understandably angry at the Milosevic regime, the leadership was totally pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist. The youth organisation Optor is also funded by US imperialism, and states that it is committed to market policies (see New York Times, 26 November 2000). The new government is partly administered by the G17 group of economists, who are totally committed to carrying out the measures of the IMF. The elections themselves were also monitored and watched over by Western imperialism, which dispatched an entire fleet to the Adriatic Sea. ('The biggest Nato armada since the Kosovo war, including 15 ships from Britain, gathered in the Mediterranean last night as the opposition claimed it was ahead in the Yugoslav presidential elections. Nato's show of strength, which involves the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible and the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, is intended to send a message to President Slobodan Milosevic not to use force to maintain his hold on power if, as the opposition predicted, he is defeated'. Independent, 25 September 2000.) The CPGB gave no coverage of this, instead portraying the uprising against Milosevic as some kind of leftist revolution, while giving tactical support to Kostunica and his pro imperialist DOS.
In the early 1980s the CPGB's forerunners opposed the CIA-supported Solidarnosc movement in Poland. The logic of their current positions is that today the CPGB would give Solidarnosc full support. The victory of imperialism in the Cold War has been an unmitigated disaster for working people in the former Soviet Union. Many of the same people who cheered for capitalist restoration ten years ago are now suffering from it and wish they had never helped to open this Pandora's box. They have learned a bitter lesson about IMF-style 'democracy'. They have learned that free markets mean the freedom to starve, to be homeless and to be unemployed. Some freedom! Yet the CPGB, in its plunge to the right, bolsters illusions in bourgeois so-called democracy. And not just overseas, even right here at home where the Weekly Worker pushes the absurd and reactionary view that the British ruling class has somehow become anti-racist.
The CPGB claims that the British bourgeoisie is not in itself racist, and that Blair & co are sincere in their official anti-racism. Yet when did the 'anti-racist' multicultural Britain campaign begin? At exactly the same time Murdoch's press were whipping up ethnic hatred against Romanian asylum seekers, and at precisely the same time that the draconian Asylum Bill was introduced with its dehumanising voucher system! Anyone familiar with Orwells novel, 1984 will recognise this as double talk. Claims were made at the time by the British government that Roma (gypsies) have a tradition of begging that is not welcome in 'our culture', that of multicultural 'cool Britannia'. Anyone who claims this kind of propaganda is not racist needs their head examined. But the CPGB is still for some reason determined to show that neither the British state nor capitalism is inherently racist.
Capitalism promotes inequality and social injustice on a global scale. The development of the global capitalist system relied heavily on the slave trade, which could not be maintained without a racist ideology to justify the treatment of black slaves. The British imperialist state as a founding partner in the brutal imperialist world order shares responsibility for the conditions migrants attempting to enter Britain are trying to flee. If the CPGB paid more attention to this and the racist persecution of 'illegal' immigrants it might be less impressed with the 'anti-racist' facade of the British state.
Leninism means programme first
Finally, there is the CPGB's ludicrous tendency to label as 'cults' those political opponents (like the IBT) who they have difficulty answering politically . The CPGB's definition of a 'cult' appears to include any Leninist organisation, i.e., a group with a definite set of ideas and democratic-centralist internal discipline. This is just standard anti-communism with a New Age twist and not worth seriously addressing.
The CPGB claims to be 'open' and 'democratic', but for me a correct programme and political clarity are worth a lot more than the all-inclusiveness of a swamp. Besides, I found out that the 'openness' of the CPGB depends on how the leadership views a particular question. Prior to last year's Socialist Alliance Conference, I was told that I could not attend with the CPGB's delegation as I wished to speak against supporting Ken Livingstone. The CPGB's attendance, I was told, was a party action rather than a matter of debate. Fair enough I suppose, so I went instead with comrades from the International Bolshevik Tendency who I agreed with on Livingstone, and as it turned out, on an increasing number of other questions. But the necessity to use such measures reveals some of the problems with the Menshevik formulas of open party and external criticism. When does discussion of an issue actually become a 'party action'? Whenever the CPGB leadership says it does apparently. It is unclear where they draw the line. I am not claiming that I was a victim of CPGB bureaucratism, or 'cultism', but merely pointing out that the group's practice does not always correspond to its ultra-democratic rhetoric.
If the CPGB were truly communists, they would not tail left-liberal opinion as they do. While claiming to be Leninist, they reject Lenin's organisational methods and essential elements of his programme. Their politics have far more in common with Karl Kautsky. Hence I decided some time ago that it would go against my political conscience to continue to support the CPGB. I have withdrawn my support from the organisation in favour of the International Bolshevik Tendency.
I would like to hope that members of the CPGB are now aware of the political reasons why I withdrew my support, and deal with my criticisms in the honest and open manner they recommend to others. Perhaps this may lead you to reconsider your support to some of the wrong positions taken up by your organisation.