The Labour Representation Committee is in danger of adopting a thoroughly bureaucratic, intolerant and dangerous approach to what are legitimate political differences. James Marshall calls for free speech, openness and democracy
Socialism can only be the act of self-liberation for the great majority by the great majority. Therefore it follows that the working class cannot be approached or treated like little children, who are incapable of handling anything beyond the simplest propositions. If socialism is ever to be realised, the overwhelming majority of the population – ie, the working class – needs the truth in all its complexity. One of Marxism’s fundamental tasks is to tell it like it is.
Great revolutions of the past – England 1642, America 1776 and France 1789 – were carried out in the interests of an exploiting minority. If wider sections were to be mobilised, used as a social battering ram, that necessitated hiding real aims, concocting elaborate subterfuges and unleashing intoxicating enthusiasms.
The workers’ revolution – the communist revolution – is different. It requires the fullest democracy, active control from below and therefore transparency when it comes to political decision-making, both within our own movement and in state affairs. Without that there can only be hollow pretence, disappointment and failure.
Appearance and essence interpenetrate. Never exactly correspond though. So discovering the truth sometimes requires a long, hard, difficult struggle. Things can get bitter. Even with mathematics, biology, geology and physics that is the case. Established reputations, vested interests, those occupying well rewarded official positions, the conservatively minded – all conduct a stubborn rearguard action. They do everything in their power to sideline, block and silence bearers of dangerous insights and concepts. Baruch Spinoza, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, William Harvey, William Paley, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Stephen Jay Gould all faced campaigns of disinformation, ridicule and non-publication, if not outright persecution.
That being the case with the natural sciences, it is perfectly understandable that campaigns of disinformation, ridicule and non-publication, if not outright persecution, are magnified a thousandfold when it comes to Marxism. Why should that be so? The answer is obvious. Marxism is unequalled in revolutionary ambition and yet is soberly realistic. Marxism threatens the monarchy, the judiciary, the secret state, the military and the labour bureaucracy. Marxism is against the market and promises to end forever the power of capital and its gilded hangers-on.
Despite being no more than 5% of the population, the bourgeoisie begins with a great advantage. The dominant ideas of society are the spontaneously generated ideas of the bourgeoisie. Exploitation is uniquely concealed behind what Marxists call commodity fetishism. Wage-slavery, unemployment, money, profit are all considered perfectly natural. Capitalists themselves are often admiringly believed when they boast that they are society’s wealth creators. Marxism therefore has to hack through a thicket of common sense.
But there is more confronting us than that. Much more. Leave aside the police, army, MI5 and special branch. Marxism faces ideological opposition in the form of the many and various paid persuaders. Career politicians and church divines, TV pundits and newspaper columnists, university historians and evolutionary psychologists manufacture and disseminate a floodtide of half truths, diversionary nonsense and cynical lies about Marxism.
Inevitably, this, together with the actuality and seeming naturalism of capitalist society, colours and distorts the views of many who sincerely consider themselves to be good socialists, committed internationalists and devoted partisans of the working class.
Hence the struggle to unite the working class against capitalism is predicated on winning the battle of ideas within the working class movement itself. And not only against overt anti-Marxism – Labourism, left nationalism and narrow trade unionism. What passes itself off as Marxism, but is patently not Marxism, must be combated too. Stalinism, Maoism, Eurocommunism, Shachtmanism, Healyism and Cliffism being glaring examples.
So Marxism can only unite the working class by conducting a protracted – sometimes aggressive, sometimes destructive, sometimes upsetting, but always edifying – struggle to establish what is truthful and what is untruthful.
What political culture best suits the struggle for the truth? A political culture, where, within the parameters of our basic principles, questioning is the norm, where serious study, thought and debate are encouraged.
Yet, as we all know, the advanced part of the working class is disorganised into numerous leftwing sects, fake fronts, halfway-house projects and unprincipled campaigns. Mostly there is nothing even remotely resembling democracy or serious debate. Too often minorities are gagged, critics threatened with disciplinary measures and public dissent branded as treason.
Conferences are designed to be little more than rallies. Instead of being forums where members gather as equals, they are dominated by worthy and not so worthy platform speakers. Such a culture stultifies. The end result can only be a downwards spiral of splits, frustration and a demoralising loss of support.
It might appear encouraging therefore to read the Labour Representation Committee’s National Committee statement to the November 8 conference. Section three, the section dealing with “culture”, says it is committed to “preserve freedom of political debate” within LRC “meetings and activities”.1 However these fine words are mocked, insulted, flatly contradicted by the clauses that follow.
Clause A. LRC refuses to tolerate “physical, sexual or verbal abuse, attacks or harassment”. Needless to say, no-one in the LRC advocates physical or sexual assaults. Such acts are, rightly, against the law and carry heavy penalties. What about verbal abuse, attacks or harassment? It all sounds beastly, crass, something to be rejected outright. Yet, I somehow suspect that rightwing members of the Labour Party – eg, Blairite MPs, Progress councillors and Brewer’s Green functionaries – regard the trenchant speeches of LRC members in constituencies, policy forums and the annual conference as abuse, as harassment. Should acceptance of cuts, austerity, anti-union laws, imperialist wars, Nato, immigration controls, Trident, etc, go unattacked? Obviously not … and our comrades do attack. To do anything else is to betray the working class and the cause of socialism.
What about clause B? LRC refuses to tolerate “discrimination or abuse on the grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or religion/belief.”2 No socialist could possibly object to opposing “discrimination or abuse” on the grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability.
But should “religion/belief” be included here? Let us begin therefore by separating belief from religion. Belief can be commonplace and well founded – I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Belief can be delusional – I believe I am Jesus of the second coming. Belief can also be factually incorrect and politically unacceptable. Eg, EU migrants are responsible for unemployment, the shortage of affordable housing and growing NHS queues.
What about religion? Nowadays, not least in a country like Britain, religion is a choice. It is a world view which comes with a socially established package of texts, doctrines and practices. Of course, no Marxist wants to discriminate against or abuse religious people. But we do want to end subservience to the religious hierarchy and win the widest masses to the struggle for socialism.
The fact of the matter is that religion is a fantastic reflection of earthly realities. Religion is the self-degradation of the human being. Religion is the obfuscation of class society and class exploitation. That is why Marx was so angry when the German social democrats included freedom of religion in their Gotha programme (1875). That formula was perfectly acceptable when it came to the state. But the workers’ party should, on the contrary, seek to “liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion”.3
However, the really worrying stuff comes with clauses C, D and E. The NC threatens to “suspend or terminate” the membership of individuals, affiliates or local LRC groups who are guilty of:
(C) Wilfully misrepresenting the views of the LRC, its elected national bodies or officers, whether to other LRC members or the wider public, by any means; including but not limited to word of mouth, in writing, in printed publications, or online via electronic or digital communications or other social media.
(D) Threatening or disruptive behaviour at LRC meetings whether public or private, or at events of campaigns officially supported by the LRC.
(E) Bringing the LRC into disrepute.4
Almost certainly these clauses are intended to deal with the LRC’s two most notable dissidents: NC member Graham Durham and Labour Briefing editorial board member Stan Keable. But they are also possibly designed to exclude troublesome LRC affiliates: namely Labour Party Marxists, Brent LRC, Communist Students, the Communist Party of Great Britain and Socialist Fight. Others who might be targeted are the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the New Communist Party.
What have comrades Durham and Keable done to provoke the NC into proposing such draconian measures? In the case of comrade Durham it seems it is his insistence on loudly and unapologetically lambasting what he considers to be wrong-headed decisions. Eg, affiliation to the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign. An organisation that basically supports the indivisible unity of Ukraine and therefore opposes Russian-speaking breakaways. Comrade Durham wants the LRC to affiliate instead to Solidarity with the Anti-Fascist Resistance in Ukraine.
He also occasionally throws in a heckle or two at LRC meetings and conferences. A time-honoured way for the weak to challenge the power of the strong. In Homer’s Iliad the common soldier, Thersites, dared heckle Agamemnon, the high king of the Greeks (he was, as a result, savagely beaten by Odysseus).5 In more recent times there was, of course, Walter Wolfgang, an LRC member. At the age of 82 he was hauled out of the 2005 Labour Party conference because he heckled Jack Straw over the Iraq war. If the LRC NC gets its way heckling is to be deemed “threatening or disruptive” behaviour and therefore an expulsion offence.
What about comrade Keable? He has publicly reported NC and EB meetings.6 NC meetings, it ought to be stressed, are open to all LRC members. Yet because comrade Keable’s plain speaking is not to the liking of some easily offended souls, he has been accused of “wilful misrepresentation” and therefore bringing the LRC into “disrepute”. “Wilful misrepresentation” is a piece of cod legalese borrowed from contract law. What it amounts to in our context, though, is nothing more than a crude attempt to silence an inconvenient voice. No-one can seriously consider what comrade Keable wrote as an attempt to fool, rob or cheat. In other words, the NC’s “wilful misrepresentation” is comrade Keable’s honest opinion.
It is significant therefore that the facts that he supposedly misrepresented are entirely unspecified. Instead of replying to comrade Keable, instead of ‘putting the record straight’, the NC has turned to the methods of popes, kings and bureaucrats. Fear of the truth results in the claim to privileged information, the need to speak without the inhibition of public reporting, the insistence that the only version should be the official version.
For the record, the Labour Party’s national executive committee considers it entirely unproblematic to have regular public reports of its closed meetings. Though they are somewhat anodyne, Ann Black and Christine Shawcroft both publish monthly blogs on its votes and proceedings.7
Comrade Keable’s real offence seems to be that he quoted John McDonnell, LRC chair, to the effect that the November 8 AGM will be “make or break” for the organisation.8 He also reported that the EB of Labour Briefing, the official journal of the LRC, admits that it faces an “emergency” when it comes to personnel, finances, support, etc. If reporting this brings the LRC into “disrepute”, then it is a classic case of shooting the messenger.
Reporting meetings should be the norm. It was with the Bolsheviks. Lenin published detailed, often highly polemical accounts of congresses, conferences, editorial boards and central committees. Eg, in 1903-04, there was ‘Second congress of the RSDLP’, One step forward, two steps back, ‘Second congress of the League of Russian revolutionary social democracy abroad’, A letter to a comrade on our organisational tasks, etc. A model which ought to be emulated.
The NC maintains that the “purpose” of the LRC is to “unite a broad section of the British left in pursuit of agreed socialist objectives”.9 But, while claiming to “respect the right of everyone to argue for their beliefs”, the NC seems intent on purging the awkward squad and leaving the LRC as a useless centre-left husk.
Hence in the NC’s ‘non-sectarian’ sectarian phraseology: the LRC is “not an appropriate place for any member or group to engage in sectarian activities”.10 And, therefore, any minority tempted to continue advocating their own, “sectarian”, course of action will find themselves excluded.
We in the LPM are presumably expected to refrain from advocating Marxism and transforming the Labour Party into a permanent united front of the working class. Socialist Fight from advocating its version of Trotsky’s anti-imperialism. The AWL from advocating a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. The NCP from advocating its juche version of Stalinism. Etc, etc.
Meanwhile, of course, the Graham Bash-Pete Firmin-Mike Phipps triumvirate continues with its bankrupt auto-Labourism, the narrow-minded, left Labourite objections to the European Union, the utterly weird notion that Ed Miliband and the existing shadow cabinet should be “leading” the Scottish independence and Ukip “revolt”.11
Arguably, the triumvirate are attempting to explain away their own palpable failings by shifting the blame. The Labour left is historically at a low point. It has not grown, as most of us expected. Numerically it has shrunk. So has the LRC (down by around a third). But this is not because of comrades Durham and Keable. Not because LPM members report meetings, not because LPM, Communist Students and Socialist Fight repeatedly raise political differences and criticise those with whom they disagree.
The triumvirate say that such “sectarianism” has no place in the LRC. Frankly, that amounts to an attempt to delegitimise Marxism in the LRC. That is the effective content of clauses A-E.
Lenin tellingly remarked that throughout the “civilised world the teachings of Marx evoke the utmost hostility and hatred of all bourgeois science (both official and liberal), which regards Marxism as a kind of ‘pernicious sect’”.12 Yet neither now nor in the future will we be demanding special measures to protect our sensibilities – some ‘right’ not to be attacked or misrepresented. As a principle we stand for free speech.
Does that imply that we Marxists are coldly indifferent about what is being published in the press and broadcast on radio and TV under the name of free speech? Obviously not. Using all our strength, we actively engage in the battle of ideas in order to win the mass of the population to socialism. We oppose everything which divides and therefore weakens the working class: religious hatred, sexism, homophobia, national chauvinism, trade union sectionalism, opportunism, etc. But not by prohibitions. Not by suppressing debate. Our weapon is criticism.
Karl Marx himself, it can usefully be pointed out, was a lifelong opponent of censorship. Even as a young man, in 1842, he can be found passionately arguing in favour of unrestricted freedom of the press against the Prussian state and its censors: “Whenever one form of freedom is rejected, freedom in general is rejected,” he defiantly wrote.13
Marx conducted an heroic struggle, first as one of the main contributors and subsequently as editor of the Cologne-based newspaper, Rheinische Zeitung – the Prussian state imposed double and then triple censorship. Finally, in March 1843 the authorities closed it down.
Magnanimously, the Prussian king announced that censorship would “not prevent serious and modest investigation of the truth”. Serious! Modest! Such loaded words bring to mind Jack Straw’s injunction not “to insult or be gratuitously offensive” during the storm over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Ditto, Charles Clarke’s Terrorism Act (2006), which, in the name of defending the “values of freedom and liberty”, made it illegal to “glorify terrorism”. Ditto, the NC’s strictures against “Wilfully misrepresenting the views of the LRC, its elected national bodies or officers, whether to other LRC members or the wider public.” All have the whiff of censorship.
In reply to the Prussian authorities Marx elegantly disposed of the cant:
Is it not the first duty of the seeker after truth to aim directly at the truth, without looking to the right or left? Will I not forget the essence of the matter, if I am obliged not to forget to state it in the prescribed form.14
No writer can discover the truth if placed in a bureaucratic straitjacket. Nor did Marx want anyone telling him what words to use:
You marvel at the delightful variety, the inexhaustible riches of nature. You do not ask the rose to smell like the violet, but must the richest of all, the spirit, exist in only one variety? I am audacious, but the law commands that my style be modest. Grey, all grey, is the sole, the rightful colour of freedom … the official colour!15
Marx claimed the right to treat the ludicrous seriously and the serious ludicrously. The truth can never be what a government commands. The state bureaucracy is not interested in the truth, only in safeguarding and extending the power and glory of the state bureaucracy: something which goes hand in hand with endemic suspicion, requirements to be responsible and a pathological fear of public exposure. Thought must therefore be manacled, placed behind high walls and guarded by prison warders.
During those times – the 1840s – Marx took delight in showing how the servile deputies of the Prussian diet (parliament) sought to put a stop to the regular reporting of their proceedings. They obviously regarded their debates as a private matter and of no business of the mass of the population (rather like the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales and the LRC’s NC).
When journalists daringly lifted the veil, they were accused of irresponsible behaviour and treated as spies who had revealed vital secrets. Members of the diet could no longer uninhibitedly express themselves. They felt constrained when they knew that some untrustworthy stranger would be publishing their unguarded words. Indeed that was the case.
And over the years, as parliamentary reporting became an established norm, as the democratic space in society has inch by inch been extended, professional politicians have perfected the art of lying, deception and double-talk.
Hence, Marx’s glowing description of the Paris Commune serves as a damning criticism of both 19th century parliaments and those on the left today who exhibit the exact same morbid fear of openness: “the Commune did not pretend to infallibility, the invariable attribute of all governments of the old stamp. It published its doings and sayings, it initiated the public into all its shortcomings.”16
Obviously, free speech comes with some unpleasant consequences. All decent people feel disgust for the bile and filth that pours out from the pages of the Daily Mail and The Sun. The same goes for the well-researched apologetics of David Irving. Notoriously, he used his considerable talents as a historian to belittle or deny the Nazi holocaust.
But the last thing we should do is call for censorship and bans. On the contrary, there must be freedom, even for sick, daft and crazy ideas. The long-term interests of the workers’ movement demands it. Marx tellingly writes:
Keep in mind that you could not enjoy the advantages of a free press without tolerating its inconveniences. You could not pluck the rose without its thorns! And what do you lose in losing a free press? A free press is the omnipresent open eye of the popular spirit … It is the merciless confessional that a people makes to itself, and it is well known that confession has the power to redeem. It is the intellectual mirror in which a people beholds itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom?17
What of religion? In 1842 Marx was fearlessly campaigning against the Prussian state’s legal protection of the Christian faith from “frivolous” and “hostile” attack. Such little phrases were nothing but gagging devices. Replying to the censors, Marx went to the heart of the matter: “Religion can only be attacked in a hostile or a frivolous way: there is no third way”.18
Of course, he never thought that freedom of expression was a perfect thing in itself, some kind of be-all and end-all. Free speech is not the same as general freedom. But it is surely one of its preconditions. Free speech allows us to cast a sharp light on what lies under the surface of events and what is kept hidden away by inveterate bureaucrats and place-holders. Thereby we educate ourselves.
In that spirit we urge LRC members and affiliates to vote for our amendment to section three of the NC statement (see below) and to cast your vote for Stan Keable for the NC and EB (see election addresses below).
1 . http://l-r-c.org.uk/files/NC_statement_2014.pdf.
2 . http://l-r-c.org.uk/files/NC_statement_2014.pdf.
3 . K Marx and F Engels CW 24 Vol London 1989, p98.
4 . http://l-r-c.org.uk/files/NC_statement_2014.pdf.
5 . Bk 2, vs 211-277, see http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Iliad2.htm#_Toc239244709.
6 . Weekly Worker September 9 and October 9 2014.
7 . See http://www.labourblogs.com/public-blog/annblack and http://www.christineshawcroft.co.uk/nec.
8 . Weekly Worker September 9 2014.
9 . http://l-r-c.org.uk/files/NC_statement_2014.pdf.
11. Labour Briefing November 2014.
12. VI Lenin CW Vol 19 Moscow 1977, p23.
13. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, p181.
14. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, p111.
15. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, p112.
16. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 22, Moscow 1986, p340.
17. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, pp164-65.
18. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 1, London 1975, pp117.
Amendment to national committee statement
Section 3. LRC Culture:
Delete all after para 2 and insert:
To safeguard and deepen this political culture, we must guard against bureaucratic tendencies. Examples include:
A. Equating heckling, strong opinions and political criticisms with verbal abuse, attacks or harassment.
B. Regarding reporting NC and EB meetings as treachery. Reporting is essential to democracy, encourages political debate and collective education.
C. Anathematising minority political viewpoints. Like women, youth, disabled, etc, political minorities make a valued contribution, including in our NC and EB.
D. Censorship: minority viewpoints must find fair expression in Labour Briefing.
E. Sectarian ‘anti-sectarianism’. Exclusion of members, LRC groups, factions or affiliates for supposedly sectarian views.
Vote for Stan Keable
National Committee (Section B, individual members)
Having attended NC meetings regularly during the past year as an observer, and previously as reserve delegate representing Greater London LRC, I will continue attending, whether as an NC member or observer – and continue reporting NC meetings publicly. I believe such reporting essential to involve the whole membership in the life and democracy of the organisation, and its ability to attract new forces.
My Marxist politics may be a minority view, but I believe minorities should be fairly represented in the leadership of socialist organisations.
I am Unison branch delegate to Hammersmith CLP, and Secretary of Labour Party Marxists.
As a coopted member of Labour Briefing editorial board, I have attended almost all EB meetings, worked hard on the production and distribution of the journal, and reported NC and EB meetings publicly at labourpartymarxists.org.uk and in the Weekly Worker, and will continue to do so.
I believe the pages of our own journal should report the affairs of our leading committees – essential to educating and organising members and attracting new forces.