Another approach to party-building is that of the Communist Federation of Britain(Marxist-Leninist)(CFB(M-L)). Its line is that the major problem in party-building is to overcome the ’sectarianism’ of small groups correctly. By uniting groups into a federation, facilitating discussion and joint work without infringing the component groups’ autonomy, unification can take place and common lines can be developed. This, they say, is a ’political’ approach as distinct from the incorrect ’organisational approach of the CDRCU or the founding committee of the CPB(M-L). In fact, their party-building strategy is nothing more nor less thon an organisational formula, ’federalism’, for uniting Marxist-Leninist, groups. This federal approach contains fundamental violations of the principles of party-building as discovered and practised by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
The CFB(M-L) began on the 30th April, 1967 when some groups of young people who had left the YCL and the CPGB came together in the Joint Committee of Communists (JCC). The basis for unity was minimal and quite vague. The gathering included groups from London, Glasgow, Oxford, Leeds and, later, Birmingham. The groups were the Camden Communist Movement, the Glasgow Communist Movement and the Oxford Communist Movement. The Leeds and Birmingham groups had no name. The participants hoped that a leading line could be found or would emerge in some way. The Leeds group spent some little time in this grouping before it and the JCC realised that, being Trotskyists, they had no place in a Marxist-Leninist coalition. They left without a word, having obviously intruded like someone in a West End farce. Birmingham left and a Coventry group called the Organisation for the Defence of Marxism-Leninism, joined.
The first efforts at cooperation were not striking: a joint bulletin was produced giving individual group reports, in June and December, 1967. These were the only two issues of this ’internal journal’ to appear. Some cooperation was achieved over the Vietnam issue, but by and large unity of the groups had not been achieved and local issues continued to predominate in the work of the JCC groups. A common line was absent.
Not all was bad about these developments; there had been some coming together of hitherto unrelated groups and there was a general feeling that obstacles to party-building should be overcome. In April, 1968, one year after the JCC’s inception, a document was adopted by it which laid down the prerequisites for party-building. This included a vague statement which said: “We hold that the main characteristic of the Marxist-Leninist movement in Britain today is the existence of individual autonomous groups.” This was taken by some JCC members as a statement of unfortunate fact, and by others as a basic statement of intent that groups should remain that way for some time.
As the JCC continued, it gained member groups and lost them in accordance with its opportunistic recruiting policy and the misunderstandings arising therefrom.
The desire came from the JCC rank and file for progress on the party-building question, and the desire for more effective organisation was expressed continually. In November,1968 the JCC contained three groups in London, the Camden Communist Movement, the Revolutionary Marxist-Leninist League and the South-West London group of singers around Ewan McColl, one in Glasgow, the Communist Workers’ League in the West of England and one in Coventry. The eternal question of improving the organisation and arriving at some common strategy for party-building was the subject of discussion at the November, 1968 meeting. Some proposals from the JCC’s Glasgow group were being considered when a split erupted which had been incipient for some time with one of the London groups, half of another and half of the Coventry group on one side, and the rest of the JCC on the other.
The split was apparently between ’rightists’ and ’leftists’, alleged and counter-alleged. The question of the federal road to the party was not the point at issue. Leading elements on both sides insisted on the autonomy of groups to the extent of demanding unanimity for any JCC decision. This was the ’right of veto’ issue, and clearly indicated that neither side in that split realised that the federal road was impossible.
The formula that the JCC finally accepted as a ’new form of organisation’ did not include the right of veto, so the JCC could make majority decisions. But autonomy prevailed and no group was obliged to carry out decisions. Worse than this, no machinery was established to organise study and practice towards a strategy for party-building. The November, 1968 meeting where the split took place considered establishing a ’federation’ out of a ’joint committee’. This was felt to be a step forward, but events showed that it would mean a mere change of name and the continuation of the old problems still untackled.
Work was started on a policy document which would express the line of the new federation. It was completed in 1969. It expressed general truths about the world situation and the need for a party. It attempted to analyse the mistakes which it considered the Marxist-Leninist movement to have made. This document, ’Origins and Perspectives’, however made some serious mistakes in its analysis and these mistakes can be attributed to the fundamental opportunism of the federalist line on party-building.
The worst mistake was in connection with its criticism of the manner in which the CDRCU established itself. The document also made the claim that the CPB(M-L) had repeated the CDRCU’s errors. These errors, as the CFB(M-L) claimed, were the result of “over-emphasising and indeed distorting the role and possibilities of leadership”. This has been interpreted by the CFB in other ways. For instance, it regards both the CDRCU and the CPB(M-L) as having attempted to build the party “from the top”. It is perfectly evident that whatever the errors of the CDRCU and the CPB(M-L), this does not figure among them.
Quite the opposite is true; the main fault in both cases was not the over-emphasising of the role of leadership, but their failure to provide a leading line at all. This is an error of which the CFB(M-L) is equally guilty and is the most important error made by the Marxist-Leninist movement to date. ’Origins and Perspectives’ proposed another organisational method based on a belief that the party would be built from the grass roots, from autonomous groups in localities. So, while other groups, most particularly the CDRCU and the CPB(M-L), were “over-emphasising ...the role of leadership” and failed to provide it, the CFB chose not to make any attempt to give leadership. That essentially is the line of ’Origins and Perspectives’.
However, some important points were made in ’Origins and Perspectives’. The most important one was the criticism of the sectarian line in the Vietnam movement which attempted to replace the need to build a party by the imposition of party aims on broad front movements with limited aims such as solidarity with the Vietnamese struggle. But this was overshadowed by, the general federalist line of ’Origins and Perspectives’ which was entirely in error.
The CFB(M-L) saw the production of ’Origins and Perspectives’ as an exercise to ward off criticisms from outside that it had no policy. Even the correct points that this document made were ignored by the CFB(M-L) and underwent no development. And the general federalist line was observed, in the sense that no leading line was developed.
So the JCC proudly filed away its policy document, happy in the belief that outside ’knockers’ could be given a copy if they complained that the JCC had no policy. But still the fact remained that the JCC really did have no policy.
In September, 1969 the long-awaited ’Federation’ was proclaimed which gave the Federation committee, comprising two delegates from each group, “the authority to immediately implement decisions which it has arrived at unanimously.” (10) Some enormous ’authority’, one might say! The highest body, the general meeting, was given no authority at all in this constitution, but naturally a unanimous decision could be “immediately” implemented.
This constitution is to our knowledge still the operative one in the CFB(M-L), though a few minor changes may have been made. One interesting aspect of this constitution is that the Federation secretary has no authority. The secretary’s responsibility is confined to “convening meetings, minutes and correspondence”.
The CFB(M-L) began to publish a monthly paper, ’Struggle’, in December, 1969 which included articles from the different groups and individuals supposedly of a primarily agitational character. The contributions were limited severely by the lack of political line in the Federation.
The Federation found itself having to make a decision on what to include in its June, 1970 issue of ’Struggle’ on the general election. There were three lines at a special meeting which was convened for this purpose in Coventry. One line advocated advising the workers to vote Labour in line with Lenin’s 50 year-old advice on the tactical advantages of so doing. Another line regarded Lenin’s advice as out of date because the conditions Lenin had described had passed away and no advantage could be seen in electoral support for Labour today. This line did not discount independent electoral campaigns in the future, but given the state of the movement it was felt that the slogan ’Don’t vote – Organise’ could best expose social democracy. The third line was S. Mauger’s, secretary of the CFB(M-L), who advised a ’fudge solution’.
Mauger’s opportunist proposal undermined the ’Vote Labour’ line of Dick Jones. Consequently the line of ’Don’t vote – Organise’ prevailed, although it represented a minority in the meeting. This issue has not been resolved since.
It is the logic of the federal road to party-building that no issue is clarified. Autonomy and individualism become gods to the federalists and principles lose their value in the subjective desire for unity.
On the 3rd and 4th April, 1971 there was a Special General Meeting of the CFB(M-L). This discussed group constitutions with a view to a unified group constitution. Essentially the same general ’principles’ were established for this, although proposals for tighter and more centralised groups were forthcoming. The most shattering fact of this meeting was its complete lack of politics. A secretary’s report was given which had been previously circulated but no political discussion on it was allowed. As the report made no recommendation to establish any authority in the Federation for party-building debate or theoretical advance, discussion should have been essential. A proposal was forthcoming that a programmatic commission should be established. This was circulated in advance also, but it was not allowed to be put to the meeting. The Special General Meeting of the CFB(M-L) actually resolved that the secretary’s report “should be taken as a product of one individual not a CFB document, but an introduction to discussion”.(ll) However, the ”introduction to discussion” was not discussed. Thus the CFB(M-L)’s lack of political line was enshrined and worshipped and everyone was happy that “some progress had been made”.
As a matter of fact, the proposal for a programmatic commission, which might have set some wheels in motion for theoretical clarity on the party-building question, was vigorously opposed and a way was found of expelling those who put the proposal, despite the federal structure of the CFB(M-L). Other dishonest methods were used which basically relied on silencing discussion on this topic. The reason for this was quite clear. The Federation puts its main emphasis on preserving unity. The federal approach most usually makes this mistake. Starting with the desire for unity, questions of principle are avoided and considered disruptive. Other organisations, for example the Communist Bund of West Germany, have avoided this error by deliberately seeking clarity on principle whilst upholding unity. In this way the federalist aspect of the original unity is quickly abolished and a new unity on a higher level is formed. The Bund in West Germany established a programmatic commission of the sort which was rejected by the CFB(M-L). This may well prove to be an important difference of approach to party building making the difference between the preservation or the abolition of the federalist structure.
The April, 1971 Special General Meeting also spent some time talking about the need for a theoretical journal. Actually the decision to establish one was indicated in ’Origins and Perspectives’. There was much reluctance to undertake the production of a journal, but a decision was made to do so. The journal which finally appeared, ’MLQ’, reflects the federalist concept. Given the nature of the CFB(M-L), it could not take the responsibility of putting out a journal aiming to give a lead in the ideological struggle to defeat bourgeois conceptions in the movement and in the struggle to establish the theoretical foundations for a party. Instead, it aimed to establish a ”forum” for ”discussion”, with signed articles “not necessarily representing CFB(M-L) policy”.
This is similar to the concept underlying ’The Marxist’, the journal still published by the Brent Industrial Group at irregular intervals. And the Glasgow group of the CFB(M-L), not satisfied with these forums, has started a third, ’The Marxist-Leninist Forum’.
Communists who are concerned with basic theoretical problems relevant to the building of a revolutionary party will find ways to publish their views and will read and comment on all serious opinions published on such issues from any quarter. Such serious discussion does not necessarily require a ’forum’, although useful articles may appear in such journals. But what can be said of those who hold the establishment of such a periodical to be their principal responsibility?
Without an editorial policy representing a leading political line, it is purely accidental whether useful or weak, irrelevant or incorrect lines appear in a journal. The weakness of the MLQ, reflecting the federalist concept has been the complete lack of such a leading editorial policy.
In the issues of ’MLQ’ which have appeared(l2), this weakness is apparent. Some weak and incorrect articles have appeared, and there have been some correct refutations of such articles. For example, one question, reflecting an acute struggle within the Federation, has been the publication of articles on an opportunist ’two nations’ theory on Ireland, and its refutation in other articles.
Such argumentation is useful and the struggle against incorrect ideas is an important way in which correct lines emerge. However, the ’MLQ’ has not been able to put forward any useful lead on the central questions of party-building, on the analysis of British imperialist society and the development of a revolutionary strategy for Britain. There has been no consistent attempt to concentrate on issues most relevant to such questions, quite apart from the quality of those articles produced. Until a real lead is developed on such problems, any number of journals for theoretical discussion can appear but will have only a very limited usefulness. The ’MLQ’ as a periodical, just like the CFB(M-L) as an organisation, does not really accept the responsibility for putting forward such a lead. This is the basic weakness.
We have dealt in this detail with the history of the CFB(M-L) because it is important to deal thoroughly with the federal approach to party-building. The general principle of federalism, as distinct from the CFB(M-L) application, has decisive weaknesses.
Clearly the party must have Leninist principles of organisation, democratic centralism and the requirement that membership be restricted to those who participate in a disciplined, organised way in party work. The struggle to build the party will be hindered if contrary organisational forms are used in attempting to build it.
The development of fraternal discussion and cooperation between groups is fine, but to do this through a federation is incorrect. There is a slight possibility that federalism might succeed in uniting Marxist-Leninist groups, although the CFB(M-L) has had little success in doing this. However, party-building is not primarily unification. It is building a correct leadership for the proletariat. Federalism can only hinder this task; the unity achieved under federalism will always tend to be unity on the weakest, most backward line. Equality of groups implies equality of the political lines of groups. But some are more, some less, correct.
Federalism may provide a framework for the discussion of lines, but since decisions binding on the membership are not taken the struggle on political lines will be inconclusive and undeveloped. In order to develop correct ideas there must be testing in practice, and the fullest democratic discussion of theory and practice must be conducted. This is made most possible with democratic centralism. Federalism, preserving the semi-autonomy of groups, cannot be directly democratic in formulating a line, nor can it require that the majority line be tested in practice.
The development of communist leadership in theory and practice must be put in the forefront, rather than unity for its own sake. If this is understood, then the weakness of federalism can be easily seen. Federalism is no substitute for a genuine strategy for building the revolutionary party.
The CUA(M-L) has no mechanical, dogmatic line on organisational questions. Objective circumstances may necessitate organisational forms short of democratic centralist unity at times in the struggle to build the party. Such weaker forms of unity, if engaged in at all, however, must be recognised as backward, weak organisational expedients to be overcome as quickly as possible, and only a correct analysis of the political value of such unity could justify such temporary organisational forms.
Unity into a federation in the belief that it is a formula for achieving the party is totally incorrect. This is the basis of the unity of the CFB(M-L) groups. The one common line distinguishing them from the rest of the Marxist-Leninist movement is the belief in such a federalist formula. Otherwise they have no common political line and no lead to present to the working class. The contribution to the party-building struggle which constituent groups may be able to make is hindered rather than helped by their membership of the Federation.