Midlands Discussion Forum Meeting

Birmingham, 25 April 2009

The document which follows is our initial contribution to the above meeting. It was written at the request of the Midlands Discussion Forum (MDF) which organised a meeting of revolutionary tendencies in Birmingham on 25 April 2009. The invitation was:

“At a time when even our rulers admit the current crisis will be worse than the Great Depression, a heavy responsibility now lies on our shoulders to present and develop our views - not least of all, to each other.
You are invited to participate in an important meeting being hosted by the Midlands Discussion Forum, with the aim of providing a major opportunity to put across ideas and perspectives at this critical juncture, on a subject profoundly significant for the working class and its future.”

This invitation was sent to left communist, libertarian communist, anarchist, syndicalist and neo-social democratic groups. In the event only left communist groups and individual left/libertarian communists turned up alongside the newly formed (September 2008) International Communists, who were referred to by their journal title “The Commune” throughout.

Each group was asked to prepare an introduction and post it on the libcom website before the meeting. Only the Communist Workers’ Organisation (British affiliate of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP and former Communist Bulletin Group (ex-CBG) comrades actually did so. The CWO posted a text aimed at a more general audience rather than simply at the participating groups. Since the meeting the Commune, Internationalist Perspectives (IP) and the International Communist Current (ICC) have all posted their contributions (or at least an approximation to that contribution) whilst the Midlands Discussion Forum have posted minutes of the meeting on the same website.

The meeting was divided into two sections, the first in which each group presented its introduction on the current crisis and the perspectives for the working class followed by questions where time permitted, followed by a second section in which there was a general discussion. This format enabled the MDF to attempt to get each participating organisation to respond to the same questions and was reasonably successful.

The most important thing about the meeting was that it took place at all and that the debate was also conducted in a fraternal and non-sectarian manner. Indeed, given the undercurrent of mistrust between many of the groups, the meeting was probably more about what was not said rather than what was said. Many of the participants carried with them the scars of past experiences but with one exception these were not openly alluded to. The one exception was when, at the start of the section of general discussion, the delegate from Internationalist Perspectives directly asked the ICC about the contempt and hostility demonstrated in the past and if they still considered IP “parasitic”. The ICC and IP apparently have (in France) banned each other from their public meetings. There was a discernible frisson at this point that the meeting would descend into a slanging match about the past especially as every other organisation (and ex-organisations) in the room had at some time or other been the victim of the ICC’ penchant for name calling.1 The ICC replied that “parasitism” was a political question but did not rule out their re-evaluation of different groups. The ICC also raised the issues of “gangsterism” and “theft” in the past and argued that name-calling was not a prerogative of the ICC as some people see the ICC as a “crazy cult”. They stated that these issues could not be swept under the carpet but needed to be faced up to before any new start could begin. It was a sign of the seriousness and responsibility of those in the meeting that no-one pursued that theme there and then. Instead the discussion showed such a remarkable agreement on the perspectives for capitalism (and this is reflected in all the texts submitted) that the main focus of debate was on the IBRP’s views on the party. We once again had to explain that we are for the Party but we are not the party, and in contrast to the ICC, we did not see ourselves as a “prefiguration” of that party. We did however hope to be part of the process of the formation of a world workers’ party which would emerge from struggles not yet undertaken by the working class. We also had to clarify that such a party would not be a repetition of any past experience of the working class. We had to learn from the past and not be a prisoner of it (as IP accused us of). Quite a few of the contributors seemed to think that calling for an international centralised party was just asking for a small group to be made large. But the party cannot operate like a small group. It has to have a basic document (a platform or programme); a body of working practices and it has to be controlled by its membership (and not some self-perpetuating elite). It also has to be broader in composition and infinitely deeper entrenched in the daily life of the working class. We struggled to get this message across to the meeting and some simply loftily rejected the need for a party at all. The worst here was the IP comrade who claimed that it was an illusion to see the party as the encapsulation of the best of the consciousness of the class but did not say how else the scattered consciousness of the class could be channelled into a revolutionary force capable of overturning capital. The IP still appears to espouse the spontaneist ideas it had when it split from the ICC in the mid 1980s.

The ICC also stated that it was for the party and, as noted above, said it was the prefiguration of it. The Commune did not enter this discussion. This was a pity since the speaker from the Commune had at the beginning articulated a totally different political experience which would have been interesting to discuss. He had come via Trotskyism to his present positions which seem close to left communism in many respects. After the fall of the USSR in 1991 he had questioned the whole idea that the USSR’s relations of production could have been socialist even whilst the state was not and tried to raise this issue for debate but found Trotskyism firmly vetoed such fundamental discussion. However the notion of the party that D (the Commune speaker) articulated seemed to be an electoral one. He bemoaned the lack of Marxist electoral challenge to the bourgeois parties, in particular the “Labour” party and appeared to be advocating a new electoral alliance on the left of Labour. It appeared as if he was advocating a repeat of the experience of social democracy all over again. What we found interesting were his comments about how to build up an organisation inside the working class in both workplaces and tenants associations. This link between the daily existence of the working class and its own political organisations has always been one of the weaknesses of the communist left in Britain. We have always called for the establishment of groups which link the every day with the future programme and so it would have been fruitful to discuss this further. We may ultimately have disagreed but that is something that only future discussions will now resolve.

In conclusion there were some plusses for the meeting. In the first place it got many communists together to hold face-to-face discussions and no-one was trying to distort the opinions of others (even if we did not always understand each other). There was a common seriousness of purpose. There was also broad political agreement that the crisis was derived from the internal workings of capitalism itself and that the capitalist class did not have a solution to it. The actual secular tendencies which caused the crisis were not discussed but there was general agreement that it would be the working class who would be forced to pay for it. There was consequently an agreement that the future will bring austerity and fresh attacks on the working class. While we share these perspectives we don’t however share the views of say IP that all that stands between us and salvation is “sectarianism”. There are genuinely held political differences and these need as much debating as any questions about the errors of the past.

Communist Workers’ Organisation - Address to the Midlands Discussion Forum Meeting

The CWO welcomes this meeting and the opportunity it gives for us to meet other revolutionaries face to face. Above all we share the view of the organisers that the current crisis of capitalism is potentially greater than the Great Depression of the 1930s. In a few months we have gone from “there is no alternative to capitalism” to the point where the very fate of capitalism is in question. The fatuousness of the outcome of the G20 in London this month only underlined the fact that our rulers have no solutions to offer. They are almost in a state of panic. And the G20 Meltdown March on the Saturday before it only underlined that the unions and their allies can only beg for more state capitalist measures to shore up the system. But this is not a simple “meltdown” nor is it just a “credit crunch”. It is the last act in a crisis of capitalist accumulation which has been going on for 35 years. Despite all the assumptions of the G20 leaders they cannot put the world back as it was. The attacks which are already taking place: increasing unemployment, homelessness, and cuts in the social wage are only the start of long road to barbarism. The only alternative is working class revolution.

However as long as the working class accepts the propaganda that this is just a credit crunch and that normal exploitation will be resumed as soon as possible the system can drag us all down to barbarism unless we recognise we are part of the alternative, and an important part at that.

As the comrades of the Midlands Discussion Forum have stressed “a heavy responsibility lies on our shoulders”. We accepted this and asked for their criteria for inviting groups. They replied that these were “fairly pragmatic” but included “formal commitments to internationalism and defence of workers' interests”. But it occurred to us that such criteria could also be applied by Trotskyists, and even by ex-Stalinists.

This got us thinking about what we all do share. Some may wish to disagree but we think that the invitation is to those groups which see the working class as the main agent of revolution, and probably have a similar vision of what communist society will look like. After all we all know that we do not see a repeat of the experience of the state capitalism of the USSR as offering anything for the working class. The society which we envisage will have abolished the exploitation of wage labour, national frontiers, money, the state and all standing armies. We all probably agree that such a society cannot be built by the working class passively following a particular set of leaders who will be expected to have the right polices. Socialism or communism is a different mode of production which demands a totally different social commitment. Either the working class actively as a mass build the new society or it will not come about at all. It is only in this way that we will arrive at a society of freely associated producers, run by those producers themselves.

What really divides us are the differences about how that society can be achieved. Here we have two problems - one is the ideological hangovers of the past where we have a series of different workers’ traditions. Thus here today we have left communists, left social democrats and anarchists. We not only disagree about how the new society will come about but even about what the process of revolution will entail and even the definition of what constitutes the working class. On top of this there are the divisions created by the counter-revolution that followed the revolutionary wave of the 1920s. For example this is now what keeps the left communists and libertarian or council communists apart. And these differences are just as deep as the ones based on the different traditions in the workers’ movement.

The biggest difference of all is of course over the question of the party since the great tragedy of the Russian Revolution was that the very party which had the clearest workers’ programme in 1917 was the one which a few short years later found itself holding power in a new state which became the very opposite of what it had set out to be in 1917. To some this proves for all time that all parties are bourgeois and that the road to proletarian revolution lies only through spontaneous grassroots organisation or some variant on this theme.

Obviously, as the British affiliate of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party we do not share this perspective, which seems to us like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We don’t expect in a few brief opening remarks to be able to convince anyone of our point of view but our basic case rests in the nature of revolution and in the uniqueness of the workers’ revolution. Basically the working class has no property to defend. It sells its labour power. It is the ultimate exploited class. As Pannekoek once wrote it has only its consciousness and its capacity for organisation. What we say is that the two are inextricably linked. The world wide resistance to global capitalism even in this most global of all capitalist crises will not spontaneously lead to revolution overnight. Workers will resist in Greece, then in Guadeloupe and then in China and so on. But the one organisation which keeps alive the sparks of consciousness from one place to the next, from one time to the next, is the political organisation of the class. Call it what you like but it is party. It is a part of the class. This party is not a world government in the making. It seeks no votes. It is an original kernel of those workers who through their own experience have come to understand that the continuing survival of capitalism is inconsistent with the future of humanity. From this it forms an international body which links and supports struggles, which leads then where necessary, and which always poses the question of the overthrow of the capitalist state. Such a party has to exist before any wider revolutionary outbreak in order to combat all the tricks and obstacles which a determined capitalist ruling class will throw in front of us. Its leading organs are not the organs of any state (that is a task which the workers themselves must decide in any area). It is the guide for world revolution and does not as a body become the local government even if its local members play an active part in the fight for a communist programme in the class-wide bodies of the working class.

For us the present crisis has not yet created the level of resistance which we expect, although the signs of the world working class stirring are increasing. Having an international political organisation of revolutionaries in place before such wider struggles come about seems to us to be an indispensable condition for success. To this end we would be willing to deepen this discussion with any of the participants to this meeting or any future meetings, as we believe the future of our class, and ultimately humanity itself, rests on this.

Communist Workers’ Organisation, April 2009

(1) Although most of this name-calling arises from the ICC’s need to justify its actions after each split , the IBRP has also been a victim of this in the so-called “Open Letter to the IBRP” in which the ICC using as an excuse our publishing of a text from someone in Argentina describing the ICC as “nauseating” to launch a campaign against us which has not stopped at political debate but has taken the form of organisational denigration. This is a line not crossed by any of us before and led to the sabotage of the Wikipedia entry of the Bureau by an over enthusiastic ICC contact (now a member of the organisation). In the above meeting one young ICC member made reference to “trust” “morality” and “ethics”. This may have been a coded attack on us but we did not respond and the young comrade is probably unaware of some events in the past which show the ICC has no monopoly on this question. libcom.org

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