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CPGB – The Final Countdown?

Phil Watson

MOST OF you are probably familiar with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and its paper – the Weekly Worker. Although the CPGB is in fact much more peripheral to the labour movement than its members are led to believe, it does wield a fairly widespread influence. This is mainly confined to a role as a facilitator of information on the revolutionary left (I hesitate to use the word "gossip", although sometimes its writers are encouraged to embroider half-truths for the greater good).

Much could be said about the organisation. Having been a member of it for a number of years (I finally left it for the "political wilderness" last year), there are many positive features I could list (an open press, democratically run meetings, a willingness to debate with other ideas and so on). However, there are signs that the CPGB is approaching a critical period of its existence, with its future seemingly dependent on the success, or otherwise, of the fragile Socialist Alliance.

The CPGB took the name of the old "official Communist" party in the early 1990s, after this had imploded into the Democratic Left. Previously, the tendency had existed since 1981 as The Leninist opposition (influenced by a similar grouping within the Turkish Communist movement), working inside the CPGB to win the party to its version of revolutionary politics. After taking on the mantle of the CPGB/Provisional Central Committee, it stood candidates in the 1992 general election, winning some paltry votes, but establishing itself as a definite rival to the Communist Party of Britain/Morning Star grouping that had broken away from the "old" CPGB in the late 1980s. Probably the major coup in terms of a breakthrough was the involvement of the CPGB in the formation of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) from 1996. Although CPGB members wielded a tiny influence in terms of winning positions and policy arguments, the fact that they were able to expose the undemocratic practices of Scargill and the various low level factional wars that took place inside the SLP meant that the Weekly Worker was able to win itself a much larger audience. It was the ruination of the SLP as an arena to work in that pushed the CPGB into a much more pronounced relationship with the Socialist Alliance.

The rationale of the CPGB’s existence is the breaking down of the sectarian barriers on the left in the pursuit of what it calls a "non-ideological" Communist party. According to the CPGB, there is nothing to stop the various strands of the revolutionary left joining together in an open organisation that debates its differences in front of the working class. This version of democratic centralism (which seems to me fairly uncontroversial) is grounded by the CPGB in the practice of Lenin and the early Comintern. Initially this led the CPGB into some fairly bizarre dalliances with the exotica of the far left (Communist Action Group, Open Polemic, International Bolshevik Tendency, the Trotskyist Unity Group, not to mention the Revolutionary Democratic Group, a relationship which lumbers on to this day, to the consternation of the CPGB’s rank and file). Despite these early failures, the CPGB’s perspectives appeared to bear fruit with the emergence of the London Socialist Alliance (LSA) in the Greater London Authority (GLA) elections of 2000.

Previous to this time the "Network of Socialist Alliances" had existed as a grouping around Dave Nellist of the Socialist Party (the SP as a whole was only episodically involved), disenfranchised Labour lefts and a strange (and very right wing) mixture of environmentalists and community campaigners. Initially the CPGB struggled to retain even a tenuous grip on the project, having to fight a number of protracted battles over internal democracy.

However, all this was turned upside down following the LSA’s emergence in 2000. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) were the prime movers, while the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), Workers Power, the International Socialist Group/Socialist Outlook, alongside many left wing veterans pissed off with the left’s sectarian inertia, joined in its wake. Despite a very modest vote in the GLA elections, the LSA managed to run a lively campaign hanging on the coat tails of Ken Livingstone’s successful attempt to become Mayor of London. The national unity of the Socialist Alliance was of course carried forward into the 2001 general election. Its performance was quite woeful. An average national vote of 1.69% proved to be highly demoralising to its activists (if my experience in a Stoke Newington pub on the night following the election count was anything to go by). The SA could not even manage to decisively defeat Arthur Scargill’s SLP, which was effectively reduced to standing paper candidates in most of the seats it contested.

But what of the CPGB? It is the most enthusiastic of the SA’s sponsors, being continually involved in an effort to push it into a centralised party structure. This immediately poses problems. One wonders what the impact would be if the SA folded tomorrow. Certainly the SA’s performance in elections thus far would not encourage serious activists to back it as a political winner.

Most of the CPGB’s problems relate to the SWP. Some people on the left have accused the organisation of having its tongue firmly entrenched in the SWP’s backside. Not true, actually, but the CPGB leadership has certainly developed a somewhat dubious relationship with the SWP tops, indicative of its wider difficulties with the SWP. Of course, the CPGB has been a fairly consistent fighter for internal democracy inside the SA, helping to successfully overturn SWP-sponsored attempts to stop comrades selling their tendency’s literature, for example. Nobody would seriously dispute their record on this.

But I, along with many other members of the CPGB, began to wonder what exactly was happening at the top of our organisation in 2000. For a start, Jack Conrad inflicted on the Weekly Worker a series of articles on Tony Cliff that, despite the appearance of a theoretical critique, lent Cliff the stature of a great Marxist thinker. Some CPGB reps even went to Cliff’s funeral – which stuck in the throats of some CPGB comrades who had been on the receiving end of Cliff’s repulsive regime. Also, some leading CPGBers seemed to take to take a sycophantic delight in reporting conversations with SWP leaders – "don’t worry about that, Rob Hoveman/John Rees et al said this" was a stock refrain. More worryingly, CPGB leaders gave fairly short shrift to any reports of SWP malpractice in the Alliances – "just get on with working with them on the ground" was the SWP-type response. I myself ran into problems when I submitted a review on a book by SWP member Ben Watson on cultural matters to the Weekly Worker. My little piece, guaranteed not to set the world on fire, was rejected by de facto editor Jack Conrad on the grounds that it was "sneering" towards the SWP. It was only published after I had gone through it and deleted anything that could be deemed offensive to the poor little souls. What was going on?

Well, I got an idea after the Greater Manchester AGM of the Socialist Alliance in Autumn 2000, when Peter Grant of the CPGB was incorporated onto the steering committee of this magnificent organisation, following the intervention of a numerically strong SWP. Manchester comrades had been bombarded in the preceding week with emails from the CPGB leadership that basically amounted to an attempt to get us to tone down our politics and our critique of the undemocratic way in which the Manchester area SA had been run. Clearly some sort of deal had been thrashed out with the SWP tops beforehand (and there was John Rees to keep a careful eye on things). Since that time, the CPGB has had a fraught relationship with the SWP, often critical, but always with one eye on the fact that without the SWP there would be no functioning Socialist Alliance.

The pressure the CPGB has felt is essentially the problem of the Socialist Alliance writ large. No SWP, no Alliance – but SWP involvement means no development of the Alliance. The SWP has essentially treated the project as another front from which it can recruit; it has no interest in developing the Socialist Alliance into a party, non-ideological or otherwise. This position has been further enhanced since the recent walk out by the Socialist Party. The CPGB’s perspectives are built on foundations of sand.

The objection would be that you should work to change the SWP. Well, you have to face facts. The opportunist practice of the SWP has hardened over the decades, buoyed by a viciously undemocratic internal life. The SWP as a whole simply does not have the critical means by which to change. Assessing possibilities is one thing. Recognising when something is historically played out is also important. Having seen the SWP at close quarters during the GLA campaign, I can vouch for the fact that this nasty leopard has definitely not changed its spots.

This leaves the CPGB in the position of pushing itself forward as the substitute (along with a seemingly unwilling AWL) for a numerically strong "pro-party" trend inside the SA. But how does the CPGB shape up on this front? Judging by national organiser Mark Fischer’s recent "Party Notes" column (Weekly Worker, 24 January 2002), not very well at all. Fischer notes that the SA project "is reaching a critical point … with the determination of the SWP to limit the SA’s remit to sporadic electoral work … this must be fought". Unfortunately, one of the things that Fischer sees as a merit of the CPGB, its role as an effective dissenter and representative of principled minority positions, is in fact a key feature of a narrow, sect-like culture, underwritten as it is by Jack Conrad’s (and by that token the whole organisation’s) insistence on "bending the stick" – emphasising the CPGB’s differences with the SA majority.

Fischer suggests that his comrades "must now advance to become more like leaders of the SA project as a whole". This will mean that the organisation’s members will have to become adept at representing the politics of others – alien territory for most of them, I would suggest. For example, when the CPGB discussed the SA’s attitude toward a Euro referendum last year, it was suggested that the majority of the SA would agree a "no" position, and the CPGB would have to abide by the decision and fight for the position in the labour movement. This was not to the liking of two leading members, Jack Conrad and Marcus Larsen, who said that the CPGB couldn’t abide by such a decision. After some thought, they retracted their views, but the episode does indicate that, by and large, the first instincts of the CPGB are to "defend" its own positions. This narrowness of approach runs counter to the fuss it makes over the "non-ideological" party.

This impression is further underlined by Fischer’s complaint that his organisation is characterised by "low theoretical levels". In reality, the CPGB rank and file generally organises itself around a particular line handed down by Jack Conrad (one CPGB wag referred to this as a "cult of non-personality"), it doesn’t seek to do its thinking based on theoretical insight. The organisation’s internal life is generally benign, and dissent is usually focused on the same individuals. The majority tend to parrot the decisions of the Central Committee, and the opposition tends to be sterile and lifeless in its arguments. Anyone who sat through the CPGB’s internal debate on the "British-Irish" question in 1999 would have to admit that it was incredibly boring, basically consisting of large amounts of people repeating the arguments of others – endlessly. This is the very obverse of the critical culture that the CPGB would require to become "leaders" of the SA and the labour movement in general. People who have to wait around for a "line" or "guidance" make very poor leaders of the working class – the SWP being one particularly frightful example.

The truth is that the CPGB could well unravel in the next year. Of course, the SA might blow up tomorrow along with the SWP – and in that case, good riddance to both. But if the CPGB gets itself into a position where it is able to force the pace inside the SA, well, that could be game over for them too. The culture of the CPGB is formally pro-party, but its day-to-day existence is something very different. Liquidating the Weekly Worker into an unofficial SA paper (with the AWL and various SA "independents") will only increase their difficulties tenfold. If your activity has been fundamentally organised around defending minority positions, then the importance of your own paper is significantly enhanced. If that disappears, then you really are putting members out on a limb. The CPGB could find itself adrift in some very strange waters in the coming period.

Finally, there has been much discussion on the left about the financing of the CPGB, with many dubious explanations being advanced. In order to scotch these rumours I can reveal that, many years ago, Mark Fischer bought out all the copyright on songs by The Wurzels. This has been a constant source of finance for the CPGB over the years, and cider is indeed now obligatory at their many social gatherings. So the next time you’re reading some tedious diatribe from Jack Conrad, think about "I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester" and raise your glass with me. I hope that clears it up.