How COBI Proceeds – Three Letters on C.O.B.I.’s Perspectives

First Published: Proletarian, No. 3, n.d. [1975?]
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Not a barrage of criticism, but a stupefied silence greeted the formation of COBI as of 1st January, 1974. That a revolutionary organisation could commit itself to scientific socialism as a fundamental perspective, and in so doing, repudiate the whole British, empirical, nose-following ’labour movement’ tradition, stunned all the organised left into the silence of incomprehension – such an against-the-grain approach was after all ’so unrealistic and contrary to common sense’ that it was best ignored.

However, uneven development is an absolute law, and COBI received a considerable amount of correspondence from thinking individuals, anxious in the main to clarify what was unclear in their own minds and in our formulations.

This correspondence tended to fall into three broad categories:

1) scientific socialism and what is required for its development, i.e., on the leading role of theory and its relationship to practice;
2) how COBI sees itself as developing (on the basis of Proletarian No. l) and recruiting its cadres;
3) vanguardism versus elitism in the development towards the Leninist Party.

Obviously all these three aspects are interrelated parts of the process leading to the formation of the class party. Accordingly, most of the letters ranged over each of these aspects, but emphasised different parts. So to clarify (briefly) ’what COBI is all about’ in relation to the three basic areas, we sought and received permission to reproduce three items of correspondence (along with our replies), each stressing a different area of concern, thus to clarify our perspectives.


Dear Comrades,

I was recently sent a copy of Proletarian by a friend and I have also just read the recent issue of the N.E.R. on Gramsci [members of C.O.B.I. served as editors for three special issues of the New Edinburgh Review on Gramsci – MIA Note].

The article by Williams in N.E.R. seems a very solid piece of work and the review of Hinton’s book in Proletarian seems interesting, balanced and sensitive, though I lack the specialised knowledge which would enable me to agree or disagree with your assessment of the S.L.P. or Bordiga. In any case it is a major reassessment of our Marxist tradition.

I must add that I have known of the B&ICO group for some time, in fact I remember that I just met Brendan Clifford sometime in 1962 or 63 in a cafe off Soho Square! I have disagreed with many of the B&ICO’s analyses while admiring the very solid work that they seem to have done on a whole number of what I consider to be rather peripheral issues such as dealing with some peculiar Irish trendies in the academic world.

However I must say that despite the excellent research you seem to have done and I am sure are now doing, I consider your main orientation as laid down in your editorial of 1.1.74 in Proletarian to be lunatic.

Your line on workers’ control is obviously correct. B&ICO are now quite clearly to RIGHT not merely of Scanlon but the TUC!! To enter your group one has to pass an exam (a) write a dissertation (b); start a PhD (d) and start two subsidiary subjects (e)!!! All in Marxism! You must all be academics and I seem to remember a certain text by Karl Marx dealing with being and consciousness which seems apposite! Of course there is a gesture towards practice in (c). If you continue like this though you are bound to degenerate. The SLP was after all thoroughly working class if skilled working class (not to say Proletarian!)

In any case I would like to subscribe to N.E.R. while you control it! and Proletarian...

Yours fraternally,
T.C. (London, 16.5.74)


Thanks for your interesting letter. We are glad to see you found NER so worthwhile under its current management, and likewise Proletarian with the reservation over “academic elitism”.

You will note that we make (and often) a very firm distinction between bourgeois academic education and education for Proletarian self-consciousness. In so doing we will use bourgeois disciplines for all they are worth, and thus subsume its usefulness in the development of the Proletarian world outlook.

You point to the obvious danger of us going the way of the B&ICO, and also Theoretical Practice, in our stressing the priority for theoretical work. We think this by no means follows as: a) it was the very awareness of such degeneration which alienated us both from B&ICO and TP; b) more importantly, out of this consciousness we have structured a methodological framework and series of perspectives which should enable us as an organisation to keep the correct dialectical balance between theory and practice; c) consequently our members are engaged in tenants’ associations, rank and file work and trade union activity, but all this to develop and enrich their theoretical grasp of social realities.

So we unashamedly maintain that our premise of theoretical advance being the priority for the foreseeable future, is the correct one. Not only does vanguardism not equate to elitism (a fundamental point of Leninism in its cleavage from economism and trotskyism; (cf. What Is To Be Done? but the fact that you have found the practical results of our perspectives rewarding, we would think is sufficient proof of our approach’s validity. So if you find “our line on workers’ control is obviously correct”, on reflection you’ll probably agree that like the rest of the British Left, you still haven’t broken from what Engels described exactly 100 years ago: “Without a sense of theory among the workers, this scientific Socialism would never have entered their flesh and blood as much as is the case. What an immeasureable advantage this is may be seen, on the one hand, from the indifference toward all theory which is one of the main reasons why the English working-class movement crawls along so slowly in spite of the splendid organisation of the individual unions.” You must admit the British malaise hasn’t been cured these hundred years.

In a society as developed, complex, insular (mentally) and stable as this, there can be no other way forward than by becoming more conscious in over-view and skilled operationally than its currently most competent element, i.e. the ruling class. How else but by the failure to do this, can one explain the singular lack of success (or even impact) by British revolutionaries?

So it has to be back to the drawing-board; back to doing it the hard, boring, unglamorous way; back to doing our homework; back to the British Museum!


I am writing for further information about COBI. I am a twenty year old T.U. Engineer and shop steward in the EEPTU. Until recently I was a member of the Labour Party Young Socialists but having read Proletarian No. l, Programmatic Documents, Proletarian Pamphlet No. l, Communism, The Labour Party and the Left, and also the B&ICO document – The Economics of Partition, I found I could no longer reconcile working for and within the Labour Party with the tasks of Marxism-Leninism as adumbrated by the COBI in the above documents.

I was, however, slightly perturbed by some of the ’entrance qualifications’ of the COBI. Whilst appreciating the necessity of developing a homogeneous, theoretically adroit Marxist-Leninist organisation I felt that some of the pre-conditions for membership would lead to the exclusion of even the most conscious worker, the consequence of this being the inevitable degeneration of the COBI into an ’academic vanguard’.

I will be interested to hear from you and appreciate a consideration of the above points.

Yours fraternally,
J.P. (Banbury, Oxon, 18.6.75)


Your letter was doubly interesting. In the first place you were able to correctly identify the fundamentally different perspectives of the B&ICO (before degeneration) and subsequently COBI, in relation to the rest of the Left: the scientific adumbration of the tasks of Marxism-Leninism to supplant the myth and magic that goes under the name of Marxism in British Left organisations. Specifically, you correctly perceive that COBI’s membership requirements are designed to develop ’a homogeneous, theoretically adroit Marxist-Leninist organisation’.

In the second place, again correctly, you point the possible dangers of stiff entry requirements as being the potential ’exclusion of even the most conscious workers, the consequences of this being the inevitable degeneration of the COBI into an “academic vanguard”. This is well put, and we are not unaware of the dangers. These lie chiefly in a rigid adherence to a purely formal set of entrance qualifications. Now, some formal structure is necessary so that an objective standard is posited – one designed explicitly to keep both ’pure and simple’ academics and ’pure and simple’ T.U. militants out. So the entry requirements (for full members) are set such that the theoretical/practical development demanded of associates continues to advance after the acceptance into full (voting) membership, and they don’t get the attitude that having ’passed the entry test’ they can sit back and coast, or be passengers. At no level whatsoever will COBI tolerate passengers, and full membership in particular is much more onerous than just voting and ’taking decisions’.

Turning now to the entry requirements themselves (in Proletarian No. l, p.8): Point 10 calls upon “all those who regard themselves as revolutionary socialists whether organised or not to work with us as associates”. This is the only entry requirement for associates. Having worked satisfactorily with COBI for some time, and having covered the reading required, associates can be admitted as full members upon the writing of something of substance in the field of Marxism-Leninism. This is not the PhD some spontaneists have suggested, and neither is it just any essay-subject that takes the fancy, but a meaningful treatment of a significant theme agreed in advance between the organisation and the associate. And that in sum is the substance of the formidable-looking items (a) to (d) of point 11.

Item (e) only seems remarkable in Britain. Throughout Europe a second language (at least) is standard and multilinguality is common. If we are real internationalists in fact, and not just in phrase, then the little effort to learn a European language – to which the term ’foreign’ scarcely applies – is the minimum required to break from British insularity, and exchange revolutionary experience, within and without, Europe. Neither is learning another language difficult once the British fetish against ’other languages’ (an Imperialist hangover) is overcome. In this (ideological) as well as in the technical regard, the first ’foreign’ language is always the hardest, each thereafter becoming easier as general linguistic skills are acquired. And all that point (e) demands of associates becoming full members is that they undertake to learn at least one foreign language; i.e. fluency at the time of entry is preferable but not mandatory.

Item (e) likewise calls on all those who would be full members to familiarise themselves with a natural science, which can be anything from Astronomy to Zoology. This does not mean that the prospective member should upon winning full membership be ready or able to get a job in an observatory or research lab; but it does mean that he/she should understand the inner workings of some body of natural science if his/her claim to scientific socialism (grasp of objective process) is to have any substance.

If items (a) to (e) are largely designed to overcome ouvrierism, Philistinism and academic specialism endemic in the British Left, then items (f) and (g) can be regarded as attempts to root out the carry-over of the bourgeois division of labour into revolutionary practice:

(f) means that every single member must (at least in the field of practical work) be able to perform the tasks that every other can. Thus we won’t have the situation where ’specialists’ in ’theory’ (as per Klugmann, Dutt, Cornforth, etc.) do the thinking while the rest just see to ’getting it out’ or popularising ’the line’ from the ’experts’ on high. Further, by such interchangeability, no member is enabled to become indispensable.

(g) ’mens sana in corpore sano’ has been an overworked cliche, but it has validity nonetheless. One thinks better when one’s physical state is good; the lack of which in Gramsci’s case he always lamented. Further, when the time comes for the translation of ’combative’ words into deeds, physical fitness and the mental aggressiveness thus prepared are the fundamental prerequisites for any real mass leadership. This does not mean, as some spontaneists/dilletantes have alleged, that you need at least one conviction for Grievous Bodily Harm to be even considered for membership. It does mean that members must get and stay fit, not get drunk or blown out of their minds by dope (no matter how ’soft’) and cut down/out smoking.

So what COBI Entry/Membership requirements really demand is that all ’intellectuals’ work and all workers ’intellectualise’ in a continuous learning process designed to break down the barriers between mental and physical labour, between thinking and actually doing. No aspect of this can be a once and for all ’achievement’ upon which to rest, but only part of a continuous dialectical interaction between theory and practice, with each informing and correcting the other.

And surely that is the least that can be expected of those who would take upon themselves the vanguard role of leading the class as a whole toward standing capitalist society on its head?


I have read your document ’The Crisis of British Capital’ which I bought in Colletts while in London. I can’t find a publishing date so I’m not sure how recent it is; have you considered further and published anything on your attitude to the need for a Marxist-Leninist Party? I think this is the paramount question for us at the moment.

On your document – I agree more or less with your analysis of the Labour Party et al, and of the Trade Unions – but your attitude to Industrial Unionism seems open to a Syndicalist interpretation, and unfortunately there is a great deal of Economism in the British ’M-L’ Groups (e.g. CPB(M-L), Feds, etc) who would leap onto such a bandwagon as an alternative to political struggle. Your last full paragraph on page 37 fully exemplifies the attitudes I have found within many M-L Groups – their economism and opportunism is rife.

I agree completely with the points listed at the end of your pamphlet as follows: SUMMARY, points 5, 6, 7, WHAT IS COBI – points 3, 5, 6.

Again, the main point of my letter is to find out your attitude to the formation of the Party.

Yours fraternally,
O.B. (Ormskirk, Lanes. 6.9.75)


Proletarian Pamphlet No. 2 – The Crisis of British Capital – is our most recent publication, having appeared about 6 weeks ago. You don’t mention whether you’ve seen either number of the (two) issues of the theoretical journal Proletarian to have appeared to date. No. l is largely concerned with the nature of the role of the Communist Party, while section IV of Pamphlet No. 2 systematises this, and ends with formulations as to how (upon what basis) the Party is constituted. Going to press this month is Proletarian No. 3 which analyses the Programmatic requirements for the proper constitution of the party upon strategic principles.

I agree with your statement that British M-L groups are permeated through and through with Economism. But for precisely that reason will they not jump on the bandwagon of industrial unionism, because:

a) the latter is part of a strategy for qualitatively altering the whole basis of Left politics in Britain b) as permanent tailenders and empiricist massworkers, the groups have no other perspective than being radical ginger-groups for working-class institutions and politics spontaneously thrown up in economic/defensist struggle.

As the development of industrial unions requires conscious building by militants of organs in opposition to the established Trades unions, no bandwagoneers could jump aboard, as the whole programme (including e.g. the replacement of Trades Councils by local Workers’ Committees) means embracing a wholly new integrated perspective antithetical to everything the Left now does. Likewise, we may be accused of syndicalism, but only by those seeking to pull out of context one plank in an integrated platform. And as you have noticed we stress the leading and initiating function of the Party throughout.

All of which goes to indicate our attitude to party-building: the Party is not something which can simply be called into existence by just recognising the paramountcy of having, and therefore creating, the vanguard party. To be a real leading party of the class, the party must emerge from work that is seen to be of crucial relevance to the class: e.g. the analysis of inflation and the need to build industrial unions, to mention but two aspects. When a party was just called into existence by subjectively perceived ’need’, we got the glorious CPB(M-L); and we will always get still-births like that unless the Party is gestated of labour; it cannot be conjured up out of the ground fully-fledged but grows from the struggle to do substantive work.