The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) are well-known on the British left for their frequent invitations to all who consider themselves communist to join with them in one big communist party or, failing that, to attend their many events and seminars or write for their paper, the Weekly Worker. While we have differences with their conception of a communist party, the IBT is certainly in favour of political debate and in the past year since our comrades left the SLP we have participated in various CPGB-initiated events, debating crucial questions such as the transitional programme and the nature of the USSR. We also wrote a reply to a short eight-point memo on Trotskyism (see page 18 for details of this exchange).
Following this we proposed a series of organisation to organisation discussions on what we felt to be some of the central issues differentiating Bolshevik revolutionaries from reformist/centrist pseudo-communists in order to clarify where the differences between our organisations lay. The topics proposed were united-front tactics, the popular front, permanent revolution, the national question, and World War II.
In response we received a reply from the CPGBs Provisional Central Committee (PCC) that accepted the topics we had suggested but proposed an organisational framework for these discussions effectively the same as their regular public forums. As we had hoped to move the discussions on to the higher level of focused organisation to organisation talks we suggested instead that the talks be limited to the two organisations and their supporters with no written polemics on the discussions until the series had ended.
The PCC have rejected this proposal as being unprincipled. They then made the discussion public in an article entitled Publish and be damned (Weekly Worker no. 268). This article also replied to a claim of misrepresentation of our politics which we had made about their report of our intervention at their Against Economism school in November (letters page Weekly Worker no. 266).
The following is an open letter to CPGB members and supporters on how we see the situation at this time.
We have read with interest Mark Fischers Publish and be damned article. You have indeed published and your own words do indeed damn you well done to the comrade who came up with the title for the article!
It is unfortunate, if not entirely unexpected, that in their narrow-minded response to our proposals for discussion the PCC has decided to place their openness fetishism before our attempts to move towards genuine political regroupment.
Leaving aside your dubious arithmetic (a set of five six-weekly discussions is actually just over seven months not nearly one year), we find it strange that such vocal proponents of Partyism can only conceive of serious political discussion taking place within one framework.
The IBT has a proven commitment to serious political engagement with the CPGB. Over the past year we have, for example, given presentations at your Sunday forums and Communist University and have attended your Against Economism school all were public discussions with other organisations and individuals present and at events organised by you. We note, however, the low attendance of your comrades at public forums organised by us. These public discussions were useful and certainly should not cease if we were to undertake a serious programme of organisation to organisation talks. Surely it is not unreasonable to expect you to try it our way for five meetings. You are employing the most simplistic formal logic to counterpose our discussion proposal to all other forms of interaction between our organisations.
Our disagreement is over whether private organisation to organisation discussions would represent a higher level of debate, and resulting clarity, than less structured public discussions with a wider range of views represented. The structure of discussions is, of course, a tactical question but, as you recognise, this disagreement indicates more profound differences in methodology between our organisations. We understand this difference to be based on the different emphasis the two organisations give to the struggle for programmatic clarity between the different tendencies in the workers movement.
This is, in part, over the nature of democratic centralism. Bolsheviks subordinate themselves to the democratically decided degree of centralism for all aspects of our political activity. The IBT considers that it is useful to generally draw the line of centralism to cover all public activity both written/spoken propaganda and concrete actions. The CPGB applies centralism only to joint actions while relaxing that discipline for most written and spoken propaganda. Although you formally recognise that an organisation can prevent minorities arguing their views in public, in practice your members interpret your advocacy of openness as an inherent individualistic right on the level of principle. This is nothing to do with genuine democratic centralism.
Hence your insistence on these meetings being regularly reported in the Weekly Worker before the series is completed. From past experience we note that such reports are often your major polemics against other organisations, based on comments made during verbal debate. Even when reported in context (which is often not the case), such comments will inevitably be a less sophisticated representation of the organisations position than published material thus, conveniently for your writers, easier to polemicise against. The resulting misinterpretations create a barrier to political clarity and waste precious time.
We were intrigued to read in the last letter from the PCC that you think these sharp polemical exchanges, the correcting, refining and the evolution of positions as they are reflected in the written words of the other organisation, is actually the core of the search for the type of programmatic clarity you [the IBT] purport to be seeking. (my emphasis)
We have published a large number of programmatic articles in the Marxist Bulletin, our international journal 1917 and other IBT pamphlets. Yet most significant polemics against us in the Weekly Worker have concentrated on tactical manoeuvres in the SLP or on reported discussion. Your article in which you attempt to justify your failure to defend Iraq against US and British attack is a welcome recent exception.
A verbal debate is one thing; an exchange of written polemics is another. A public multi-faceted discussion is one thing; a focused discussion between two clear sets of views is another. All these fit very nicely alongside each other in discussions between organisations. But they are not the same thing, and cannot be blindly achieved through universal openness. A major obstacle to the process of clarity is your organisations inability or unwillingness to define such a clear set of views, that is, a programme.
In politics there inevitably will be occasional misrepresentations of others positions, written as well as spoken. We were disappointed to see that you do not have the political courage to own up when one of these misrepresentations is exposed, as in my letter to Weekly Worker no. 266. Does the CPGB seriously expect anyone to believe that the earlier article written by Danny Hammill is not a misrepresentation of our politics? Let us repeat what he wrote in case you have forgotten. Quoting from a Marxist Bulletin supplement on the recent rail disputes [reproduced on page 11] he said: We are informed that railworkers need what all workers need secure jobs, good pay, strong unions, decent free healthcare, good education, and more leisure time. Not a mention, you notice, of what workers really need so that they can take control of their own lives political power to make a revolution.
What are the words not a mention supposed to mean when we read them in the pages of the Weekly Worker? Or perhaps for the CPGB the phrase political power to make a revolution has nothing in common with our following paragraph: But militant trade unionism by itself is not enough to get what we need. Any major strike of workers against the bosses comes up sooner or later against the cops, courts and government the forces of the capitalist state. Instead of trumpeting the virtue of the rank and file in and of itself, we need to build caucuses in the unions around a political programme for working class power that can successfully meet the assaults of the bosses. (my emphasis)
At least comrade Fischers article includes something approaching a political argument as he attempts to justify the CPGB claim that we are economist. Because our leaflet does not include a long list of general democratic demands, it seems that this proves that the IBT merely limits itself to economic struggles and the demands associated with them. This accusation is bizarre as any reader of our journals would attest. We would suggest that CPGB members actually read our material (now also available on our web site www.bolshevik.org/mb/) and judge for themselves whether the programme of the IBT is deficient on The realm of high politics, the question of how the people of this country are ruled and by whom, the task of making the working class the hegemon of the fight for democracy, and whether all of this is left unaddressed.
The topics we proposed for discussion represent what we consider to be some of the central questions of Marxism which keep our two organisations apart politically. We note that comrade Fischer does not respond to my point that Marcus Larsen was at fault in his description of Trotskys theory of permanent revolution. We suspect that differences of approach to the Socialist Alliance and the SLP might have something to do with our different conceptions of united front work. Our differences on Ireland are well known but there are also differences on the national question in terms of distinctions between imperialist and non-imperialist countries and how revolutionaries should relate to conflicts between them such as the imperialist bombing of Iraq. These are all worth discussing.
We were somewhat disappointed that your responses, both written and verbal, to our proposal for organisation to organisation discussions have focused quite so completely on organisational questions with virtually nothing to be said about the political content of the topics proposed (casually dismissed by comrade Fischer with a petty slur about our international connections). If the PCC believes that there are more important political questions that could be usefully discussed between our organisations then we would welcome alternative suggestions but we have been deafened by the silence.
Despite your unwillingness to move the discussions between us onto a more tightly focused organisation to organisation level we still wish to engage your organisation in debate. To that end we propose a public debate, chaired by a mutually agreed independent figure, on the following topic which we consider deals with one of the central differences between us at this time Democratic revolution and permanent revolution.