The Weekly Worker Group ("CPGB"): Under the Sign of the Oxymoron

Submitted by martin on 22 January, 2003 - 10:31
  • See also: Weekly Worker: A Little Light on the W W Group ("CPGB")
    Song of the Weekly Worker:

    I'm so small! But I'm poisonous too;
    What I say is at best but half-true:
    I spread gossip thin,
    So they'll think I'm well in;
    But I'm useful, torn up in the loo!
    *(And see appendix by the Marxist-Limerick Tendency)

    The contradictions of the 'CPGB'/WWG
    By Sean Matgamna

    Trotsky, describing it in himself, called it "topographical cretinism". He'd have found a less flattering name for my version of it. I get lost easily.
    Author's Doppelganger: Oh, a metaphor! You are about to confess your political sins - why you get lost so often?
    No, not a metaphor. I can go out to the corner shop and get lost coming back, go in the wrong direction up a street I've been in before, etc. So I ask directions.
    A few weeks ago, late in the evening, I did that while making my way through the centre of Oxford toward the railway. I made the mistake of asking a middle aged woman standing in front of a cash machine: "Is the station this way?" Before I'd finished speaking, she started shouting at the top of her voice: "No! No! No! Go away! I'm sick of it! Go away! Go away! Go away! I'm sick to death of it! Just go away!" She thought I was about to ask her for money.
    Doppelganger: Perhaps you should dress better?
    Perhaps. But she didn't turn round before she started shouting. Clearly a woman under pressure, ready to go off. I am reminded of that incident by the series of articles in the Weekly Worker "replying" to a document, "Critical Notes on the CPGB/WW", which I put on the internet last September. There too, I seem to have triggered something that was waiting to go off.
    Five pieces at about 5,000 words each, a sixth at half that length, and at least one more instalment to come in what the author, Jack Conrad, the Malvolio of the Weekly Worker group (the "CPGB"), describes as "this short series". Titles have included: "Bourgeois Revolution and Walter Mitty polemics", "National Questions and the AWL Patriarch", "Sectarianism and the World of Sean Matgamna", "Matgamna's Platonic Republic", etc. Earlier, there had been two (or was it three?) one-page pieces replying to my "Critical Notes" by Mark Fischer, the Weekly Worker group's National Organiser. Between them, Mark Practice and Jack Theory have so far devoted the equivalent of an entire 16-page paper "replying" to my analysis of their politics.
    Doppelganger: You've upset them, then?
    No, not at all. Each instalment has reminded the reader that my "shambolic", "tedious", etc, "Critical Notes" arouse in them nothing but disdain. One way in which they express their disdain is by quoting only severely trimmed little snippets of it.
    A proportion of each article is given over to stuff like this (from part 6): "...Sean Matgamna - the patriarch of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - clumsily, perhaps cynically, categorises our approach as 'formed' in, and 'still' displaying, 'patterns of Stalinist politics'...He can of course, faultlessly, almost miraculously, prove that contention in his surreal inner world. There he revels in the status of an intellectual titan. But, poor man, he is unable to deliver anything of substance in the harsh, unforgiving external world. Comrade Matgamna might imagine himself as the modern day Leon Trotsky. To the rest of us he resembles Walter Mitty. Only for unthinking devotees and the oafishly naive do comrade Matgamna's polemics have any worth. Sad".
    Doppleganger: Patriarch? I like it! There is a lot of this sort of stuff? Let's have some more.
    "Point by point we have shown that when it comes to [the Weekly Worker group] Comrade Matgamna's polemics are a bumbling concoction of hyper-sensitive petulance, burlesque fabrication.... It is quite conceivable that [he] is actually proud of the tedious, sloppy nonsense that he has written...[But] far from being put on the defensive, as he presumably expected, we simply, almost effortlessly, turned the tables..."
    Doppelganger: Almost effortlessly! That "almost" is unexpected - a needless concession to modesty.
    Yes, with one "almost effortless" bound Jack was free. This is typical of the war-dance, smoke-coming-out-of-the-shaman's-ears, witchdoctor-having a-loud-nervous-breakdown style of these pieces. Like the lady at the cash machine, Jack Conrad was waiting to go off. Why?

    His grouping is wracked by tensions that arise from the impossible political contradictions it has accumulated within itself as it has half-moved away from its disreputable Stalinist past.
    It originated as a small, still ultra-Stalinist, offshoot from the New Communist Party, which was a stone-age Stalinist breakaway from the real CPGB in 1977.
    They were called "Tankies" because, as their critics justly said of them, they believed in a "Russian Tanks Road to Socialism". The Tankies first emerged as a distinct segment of the Communist Party in August 1968, when they loudly supported the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia to put down Alexander Dubcek's attempt to create "socialism with a human face" there. The CP, opposing the Russians for the first time in its 48-year history, had condemned the invasion.
    The founding leaders of the NCP were third rank bureaucrats of the old Party. They created was a grotesque miniaturised theme-park of the previous 50 years of Stalinism. They would, for example, organise a small demonstration outside the Czech embassy to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Russian invasion!
    Their paper, the New Worker, glorified the USSR, and backed up whatever the Russians were doing or saying. They engaged in silly, malevolent and dishonest polemics against the "Trotskyites", something which the official party did very rarely by that time and never in its big-circulation press. When USSR dissidents such as Anatoly Sharansky - now the Israeli politician, Nathan Sharansky - and Vladimir Bukovsky were "tried" and found guilty amidst an outcry in the bourgeois press, the New Worker carried a triumphant headline: "Guilty!". When in 1980 the Polish workers seized the factories in one of the greatest working-class movements in history, confronting the Stalinist police state and facing the threat of a Russian invasion like that in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary twelve years earlier, the New Worker carried big headlines: "No concessions! No compromise!" No concessions to and no compromise with... the Polish working class! A decade earlier that approach had meant that hundreds of striking workers were shot down at the Gdansk shipyards (December, 1970).
    When the Russians invaded Afghanistan during Christmas 1979, the next New Worker carried a big headline across the front page: "Afghanistan tastes a new freedom".
    Their brains switched off, entirely devoid of socialist or democratic instinct, the irredeemably stupid backwoodsmen of the old party gleefully enacting a witless parody of what Stalinism was in, say, the late 1940s - that is the nearest I can come to summing them up. Jack Conrad was National Organiser of the NCP for a period. (He organised the picket to celebrate the tentm anniversary of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.)
    He - and three or four other people, I guess - broke with the NCP and formed a new group, The Leninist, under the influence of a faction of the Turkish Communist party (the Workers' Voice) which tried to develop a revolutionary strain of Stalinism, and made some limited criticisms of the Stalinist parties, including those in power.
    It was an eclectic mixture. It had a subjectively revolutionary drive; but, in basic political culture, it remained entirely Stalinist - a dialect of the general NCP tankie culture I have described. Indeed on issues like Solidarnosc and Afghanistan it added a hysterical vehemence all its own.
    The Leninist were Stalinists not because of a special devotion to the memory of Stalin himself - neither they nor the Turks, though they would occasionally write pointedly of "Comrade" Stalin, were Stalinist in that sense - but because they sided squarely with the bureaucratic ruling classes against the workers. They did that because of their conception of socialism; of the relationship of the revolutionary party to the working class; of the relationship of society to the state under socialism; and the political tradition to which they adhered - all of them entirely Stalinist.
    Incoherent eclectics and devout oxymoronists in all things, The Leninist simultaneously called for "democracy" in the Stalinist states, continued to support the suppression of Solidarnosc, and opposed independent trade unions in the Stalinist states. Admitting that there were defects in those states, they looked for solutions to their "comrades" of the ruling parties and the police state unions there.
    By democratisation they meant that their comrades of the ruling communist parties should reform, and lead the working class safely to democracy. When the chips were down, they invariably backed the ruling Stalinist party, the cartel of the ruling oligarchy. In their calls to the corrupt bureaucrats, they were a species of utopian socialists, appealing to sections of the ruling class - to "the communists" amongst them.
    Their paper served up the typical Stalinist mix of agitation about the wrongs of workers and others in capitalist states, combined with an opposite attitude towards similar things in the Stalinist states. They could be indignant as Prime Minister Thatcher brought in the first of a series of anti-union Bills, and at the same time cheer on the police state ban on the Polish trade union, Solidarnosc.
    They were substitutionists. The CPs everywhere were the working class in politics. Deficient they might be, in many or most cases, but they were the elect, the preordained communist leadership.
    "The party" could substitute for the working class, in Afghanistan, in Poland, in the USSR - everywhere. Against those parties any "spontaneist" or "economistic" working class movement was counter- revolutionary.
    Wherever the working class, or a whole nation, came into conflict with a ruling Stalinist party, the party had a right to suppress them, and should be supported in doing it by "internationalists" such as themselves. Thus the attitude to Czechoslovakia, and, in retrospect, to Hungary a dozen years before - and to Afghanistan.
    They supported the Russian invasion of Afghanistan to shore up one faction of the Stalinist party that had taken power there twenty months earlier in a freakish military coup. They backed the suppression of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc (while criticising their "Polish comrades" for having lost the "leadership" of the working class). Right up until the collapse of the USSR, they opposed the formation of independent trade unions there - that was dangerous "spontaneism"and "economism", a labour movement outside the control of those whom they never, right up until the collapse in 1991, ceased to call their "comrades" of the "Communist Party of the Soviet Union".
    While recognising that it was no long-term solution, they expressed relief in 1991 when it looked as if a Stalinist coup against the reforming Russian President Gorbachev had been successful. They called on their "comrades" of the ruling class cartel there, the misnamed Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to take action to secure the socialist future!
    In other words, for most of its existence, politically this group did not dwell on mother earth.
    In the mid and late 1990s - under new names, CPGB and Weekly Worker - they seemed to evolve away from such politics. A measure of how far they still have to travel from Stalinism is the plank in their current platform in which they still express their substitutionist-Stalinist conception of the revolutionary party and its relationship to the working class. "Without such a [Communist] party the working class is nothing; with it everything". Through most of the two-decades life of the group, ideas like this were not harmless gobbledegook, but a political philosophy that lined them up against the working class in the Stalinist states. It made them avid supporters of the war of colonial conquest in Afghanistan in which the Russians did what the USA did in Vietnam, the French in Algeria and the Nazis in Poland and the Ukraine. One and a half million of Afghanistan's 18 million people were killed, and six million of them driven over the border as refugees.
    Early in 1999 there was a controversy in Weekly Worker around the true description of Russian workers under Russian Stalinism as "slaves of the state" by a prominent member of the group, Anne McShane. One was left with the impression that this view, or something very close to it, was now shared, very belatedly to be sure, by the whole leadership of the group - that it had finally, if still only partially, emerged out of the Stalinist stone age.
    I would have guessed that they would be as ashamed of some of their past politics as I am for having let myself, aged 17, be persuaded by the Pablo-Mandel "Fourth International" that the Chinese assumption of active control in Tibet in 1959 should be supported as an "extension of the Revolution". I would have been wrong.
    Late in 2001, WW 403 republished an excerpt from a book on Afghanistan written in 1982 by the Turkish Stalinist Emine Engin. She praised and defended the Stalinist coup of 1978. Engin was endorsed in a long introduction by Mark Fischer.
    It is impossible to square the democratic politics the group now says it stands for with what they say about Afghanistan's 1978 "revolution" and Russia's nine-year war there. The Critical Notes put it like this:
    "You are still shaped and still marked by your Stalinist past, and you have not yet fully shed your old Stalinist baggage. You still operate in recognisable Stalinist patterns... Afghanistan shows it.
    "On the one hand, you go on about 'democracy'. You are born-again ex-Stalinist democrats... In practice your operational politics are confined to "democratic questions", and your 'communism' is, for operational purposes, reduced to a thing of shibboleths, symbols, fetishes, nostalgias, mummeries and self-designation. It is the theory of your self-identity rather than what you are in practice...
    "But on the other hand, though vociferous born-again ex-Stalinist democrats, you seem still to support the Afghan Stalinist coup of 1978, and, astonishingly still describe it as a real revolution! These things just don't go together."
    The political crisis of the Weekly Worker group takes the form of an accumulation of contradictory positions. Evidence of this is rampant throughout Jack Conrad's "short series". They have moved to pick up new positions, shifting sometimes 180 degrees from what they used to think - but they drop nothing!
    For example, they used to be conventional green nationalists on Ireland. Then they took from AWL the idea that the Northern Irish Protestants are a national minority on the island and are entitled to the rights of a national minority. The conflict in Northern Ireland is not primarily a matter of legitimate Irish nationalism against British imperialism, but an intra-Irish conflict. Most of what the IRA has done has been done against other Irish people.
    If that is true, then it shapes everything else. The WW accepts it is true, but see no reason to modify their old view, in which the IRA was fighting a simple anti-imperialist war of liberation. They are both for a democratic resolution of the intra-Irish conflict and supporters of the Catholic-sectarian IRA!
    They have also learned from us to understand that the Jews in Israel have a right to national self determination, where before they vehemently denied it. They now support a Two States solution to the Palestinian-Jewish conflict. In part 3 of his Great Work (WW460) Jack Conrad writes: "To call for Israel's abolition is unMarxist. Such a programme is either utopian or genocidal".
    But, having picked up the new position, Conrad can't see that logically he has to lay down its opposite. He wants to combine Two States with their old slogan of the Palestinian "right of return" - collective repossession - which for over fifty years has, to Jews and Arabs alike, implied the opposite of Two States: the dissolution, in one way or another, of the Jewish state.
    "Two States" and "right of return" are starkly at odds with each other. The Jewish state and the right to collective resettlement of millions of Palestinians in Israel - right of return - are incompatible. Recognition of the Jewish state established in the 1948 war, and trying to reverse the outcome of that war, are mutually exclusive.
    How does Jack deal with the contradiction? He defines it out of existence. The Palestinians as a "collective" would only "return" if they were forced at gun-point to do so. There is no problem. Both Arabs and Jews have gone on about for half a century because they can't see what he sees: the problem does not exist! Hysterical denial is not a Leninist way of dealing with political issues.
    On Afghanistan, while seeming to accept or half-accept that the USSR was a slave state for its workers, Jack Conrad sees no reason to look afresh at his long-time politics of supporting the expansion of that slave state, or the attempt of their Afghan understudies to impose such a system on the peoples of Afghanistan. The WW tendency remains as eclectic and incoherent as its earlier self and its Turkish mentors.
    Jack Conrad thinks it is possible to re-elaborate a revolutionary politics for the 21st century on the basis of shreds and rags of the Stalinist tradition embodied in the old CPGB, garnished with bits and pieces from other traditions. He sings karaoke Leninism. He proclaims himself an "extreme democrat", yet retains the substitutionist conception of the revolutionary party he had when he was an unreflecting and unashamed Tankie Stalinist.
    But now he has no tanks. The body of the Cheshire cat of Stalinism has faded, leaving Jack with only... not the smile, but the snarl, the shriek, the style of exhortation. One example to conclude: Jack anathematising the "Trotskyite" idea of transitional programme,
    "So say it. Say 'minimum programme (say it out loud till the fear vanishes). Leave behind atavistic prejudice and take up the militant struggle for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales".

    By the Marxist-limerick Tendency

    They were "Leninists" once, in a mime,
    To be Trots was the hideous crime,
    Still, one lies through his teeth,
    And one thinks with his feet,
    They're at home most of all hashing grime.

    Mark practices, Jack is the seer,
    Backed Stalinist rule everywhere,
    Backed the '91 Coup,
    Russia's Afghan war too,
    Two dim Stalinist nutters,I fear!


Submitted by Jason Schulman on Wed, 19/10/2016 - 05:18

This is not the big deal that people think it is. I suspect most in the Palestinian diaspora would rather receive monetary restitution than to go live in what is now Israel. Furthermore, given the Orthodox Jewish birth rate in Israel, it's not as if Israeli Jews would become a national minority if the right of return was implemented, especially if there still existed a Law of Return for refugee Jews who are genuinely fleeing antisemitic persecution.

BTW, whatever else the CBGB/WW people may be wrong about, they're right about transitional demands as Trotsky originally formulated them in 1938. They're completely economistic (no demands for making existing states more democratic) and they amount to a way to trick nonrevolutionary workers into becoming revolutionaries.

Marx and Engels never put forth a "transitional method" and there's no point in Marxists doing so today.

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 02/11/2016 - 19:41

In reply to by Jason Schulman

The wooden, sectarian conception of the transitional method expounded by many would-be-Trotskyist groups may well have amounted to "a way to trick nonrevolutionary workers into becoming revolutionaries." But that's not what it is, properly.

The idea is not to raise an unwinnable demand in the hope that workers will fight for it, lose, and then realise that capitalism can't deliver what they want, and thus rise up with new revolutionary vigour. A transitional demand should precisely be something winnable; the idea is to improve the material conditions of life for our class by winning it, but also, through the process of fighting for it, build up the political and organisational strength, consciousness, and confidence to broaden our fights.

Transitional demands connect immediate, day-to-day struggles to the struggle for a different kind of society.



Submitted by Jason Schulman on Thu, 03/11/2016 - 04:05

In reply to by AWL

So how is this conception of transitional demands any different from what André Gorz, in the 1960s, defined as the fight for "non-reformist reforms"?

Because I have no problem with what you describe, but to be honest I don't think it resembles what Trotsky spells out in the Transitional Program.

Submitted by Jason Schulman on Fri, 28/10/2016 - 00:13

"The very fact that the Zionists declared that the land belongs to one nation, despite it being populated by another people, is an expression of privilege on the basis of religion and nationality. The very fact that the state is based on Zionism means that it excludes large portions of the population, whether or not they are Jewish — and whether or not they are Zionists."

"It is time to recognize that Zionism has become an empty slogan used only to grant Jews rights over non-Jews, and to say goodbye to it forever. Israel’s Zionist citizens’ fear of losing these privileges is, of course, understandable. But it should not be taken into consideration. We cannot continue to allow Zionism to deepen the discrimination against Palestinians."…

Submitted by John D on Mon, 31/10/2016 - 11:52

"I suspect most in the Palestinian diaspora would rather receive monetary restitution than to go live in what is now Israel." Really?!

And with the context of the times * being what it is, upon what research database of facts is this somewhat counter-intuitive suspicion constructed? (My goodness, aren't I polite!).

"It is time to recognize that Zionism has become an empty slogan used only to grant Jews rights over non-Jews, and to say goodbye to it forever. Israel’s Zionist citizens’ fear of losing these privileges is, of course, understandable. But it should not be taken into consideration. We cannot continue to allow Zionism to deepen the discrimination against Palestinians."

With this, I'm quite unequal to the intellectual pressure.

Just exactly who is this "we", Kemo-sabe?
And how is this "we" going to go about it?

As one of the set of whose views are not to be taken into consideration (in a highly multi-dimensional Venn), I'm just a wee bitty** skeptical about both the theory and the implementation of field practicalities here. (Gosh, there's that politeness breaking through again).

And after all that has appeared on the AWL site, Mr Schulman demonstrates that the old, old circle is unbreakable. A Mobius circle, where the inside morphs inevitably to the outside and then back again. If there is daylight between this and the SWP - Stop the War et alia I don't see it.

* It is really noteable how the concept of "the context of the times" is so rarely applied in I/P analysis.
** Some disclosure: Any attempt to object on the basis of inappropriate linguistic cultural appropriation is rejected out of hand.


Currently feeling right at home and rejoicing in the weather in the unreconstructable constituency of the Hebrides.

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