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Weekly Worker; love it or hate it?

Andy Newman


 

You have to admire the brass-neck of the CPGB. Not only did they pinch the party name of the old official (Morning Star) communists when the previous proprietors briefly went out of business, but they also publish Britain's most outrageous, unsettling, and probably best read (but not bought!) socialist newspaper. (http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/index.html)

Weekly Worker has become a publishing sensation, (although few of its readers may ever see it in printed form). As a previously long term member of the SWP, I always felt deliciously guilty about checking the Weekly Worker web page - as I regarded it as the fruit of the forbidden tree. When I first started reading the paper on-line I used to feel physically uncomfortable, because as Jim Higgins, a former National Secretary of the International Socialists (precursor of the SWP) has written: "Long ago the SWP established a policy of minimum debate that is now so firmly embedded as to be part of the tradition." (http://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/1997/locust/chap14.htm )

There is undoubtedly extreme hostility to the paper amongst many on the left. It is therefore helpful that the CPGB has printed a defence of its own unique "kiss and tell" style of left journalism. http://www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/521/12truth.html

In short: "It is an unfortunate fact of our movement that the predominant culture on the left could be summed up by the old saying, 'Never wash your dirty linen in public'. However, such a sentiment is deeply antithetical to the values of Marxism and authentic communism. Though it might comes as a shock to some comrades, the journalistic style of the Weekly Worker is not the result of an obsessive desire by its writers to embarrass or humiliate our comrades on the left, least of all by a prurient urge to expose their private lives to the full gaze of public scrutiny. Rather it springs from our understanding that a real communist newspaper is one that unflinchingly fights for extreme democracy - which in practice means the open circulation and clash of different and contending views."

As always on the left, the author doesn't allow his argument to stand on its own merits, he feels the need to plump it up a bit with some quotations from Marx, but we can indulge him this as he is pushing uphill against the weight of received wisdom. Although the CPGB are probably unaware of it, support for their position also comes from a seemingly unlikely source.

In 1960 former SWP leader Tony Cliff wrote: "The managers of factories can discuss their business in secret and then put before the workers a fait accompli. The revolutionary party that seeks to overthrow capitalism cannot accept the notion of a discussion on policies inside the party without the participation of the mass of the workers - policies which are then brought "unanimously" ready-made to the class. Since the revolutionary party cannot have interests apart from the class, all the party's issues of policy are those of the class, and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open, in its presence. The freedom of discussion which exists in the factory meeting, which aims at unity of action after decisions are taken, should apply to the revolutionary party. This means that all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day: in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party, its apparatus and leadership" (http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1960/xx/trotsub.htm )

"Trotsky on Substitutionism" is indeed one of Cliff's best articles, and the SWP saw fit to republish it in a collection of essays in 1982. As well as advocating that the Party press should, as a question of principle, cover the internal debates in the party; it also provides a robust defence of organised factions in socialist parties and demolishes the myth that the Russian Bolsheviks didn't disagree with each other in public (the issue over which I recently parted company with John Rees).

Now personally I think we need to move on from organisational schemas dreamt up to suit Russian conditions a hundred years ago, so I don't really care anymore what Trotsky or Lenin did or said on how to build a party. I recognise that the October revolution was a tremendous achievement, but we don't expect Sven Goran Erikson to studiously follow the thoughts and tactics of Sir Alf Ramsey. Not only are the balls lighter nowadays but the players are fitter and back-passes to the goalie are no longer allowed. I quote Cliff on the issue merely in the hope that his modern day followers will be stimulated by it to involve themselves in the debate.

So is Weekly Worker a 100% good thing? Unfortunately there are a few things seriously wrong with it.

Firstly, it has almost nothing to say to trade union militants or Labour left-wingers who are not interested in the internecine disagreements of the left groups. This weakness becomes truly acute when faced with industrial struggle, as Weekly Worker looked at the Fire-fighters dispute through the looking glass of the left groups instead of addressing itself to what militant Fire-fighters should be doing to win. This is a reflection of the consitently ultra-left politics of the CPGB. Now I know that "ultra-left" is a term freely tossed around as an insult on the left to mean anything you happen to disagree with - especially if you have already decided to call the other side of the argument "opportunist", but I do mean something quite specific. A good example is the CPGB's advocation of abstention in any referndum on the Euro. They take a formally correct position - that the European bosses are no better than the British gang - and conclude from it that socialists shouldn't take sides. Thus ignoring the political context within the British working class movement as a whole. The "purity" of their position means they would not effectively engage in the debate with the mass of workers, and instead they seek to influence only the existing far-left.

Secondly, it reports these internal discussions on the left, but it doesn't really engage adequately with the conflicting theories informing the debate. For example, Socialist Outlook (Winter 2003) published a very useful contribution on how we build a broad mass party by Alan Thornett ("Broad Parties, Revolutionary Parties and the United Front"). Frontline is also consistently thought provoking. I simply cannot imagine theoretical articles that actually move the movement forard being published in Weekly Worker.

Thirdly, it is sometimes indiscriminate in publishing stuff that is simply divisive or abusive. For example a while ago a letter was published advocating violence against supporters of the British SWP in Hong Kong. There can be no justification for this.

Fourthly,  it applies double standards, depending upon whether someone is seen as an ally or not. We can all think of examples.

and finally,  publishing spoken contributions at meetings may inhibit evolution of thought because it can make people reluctant to put forward an idea they are not yet 100% sure of, in fear that it may end up in print.

Hopefully these weaknesses can be explained by the current immaturity of the CPGB, and time and experience will correct them. However, for that to happen the CPGB comrades need to look beyond the goldfish bowl of the left to the wider world outside. Until then of course you can continue to follow (and participate in) the debates in the movement through our web page, which has all the virtues of the Weekly Worker and none of its vices!! (Well, that is the aspiration).

 

May 2004

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