Letters

Left unity

Applying glue to separate objects rarely forms parts as strong as a single, unbroken object, and so it is with the parties.

Marx indeed argued: “The communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties … by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement” (which could be interpreted as early attempts at anti-substitutionism rather than anything else). However, Engels once observed: “One must not allow oneself to be misled by the cry for ‘unity’. Those who have this word most often on their lips are the ones who sow the most discord … [Those] who have provoked all the splits shout for nothing so much as for unity … the biggest sectarians and the biggest brawlers and rogues shout loudest for unity at certain times.”

To their credit, the CPGB actually address the flipside of sectarianism: namely liquidationism. Mike Macnair’s identification of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative with anarchist, anti-party liquidationism (‘Liquidationism and “broad front” masks’, June 28) could prove correct, but the ACI also seems to involve another kind of liquidationism.

As Eugene Debs once said, “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.” The liquidationist sentiment guiding broad fronts is catastrophic for ideas. Macnair’s statement that “the two topics, liquidationism and ‘broad frontism’, are distinct, but nonetheless related to one another” is reminiscent of two types of a single Socialist Workers Party tactic. It would be more accurate to say the anti-party liquidationism ‘of the left’ is distinct from the anti-ideas liquidationism ‘of the right’. Broad fronts are SWP-style proposals to members of larger organisations, whilst arguing that smaller organisations are sectarian unless they liquidate their ideas. The effect of both is poisonous to independent thinking and is best termed ‘anti-ideas liquidationism’.

Macnair’s identification of liquidationism of the right with Bernstein makes rather puzzling the concluding praise for the 1875 Gotha unification of the Lassallean ADAV and Eisenacher SDP. Regarding practical unity as more important than socialist ideas is a dangerous road to go down.

Parties should be able to accommodate different opinions. Tolerance in a movement (as opposed to party) and anti-substitutionism (in relation to society) are among the key characteristics of the Occupy movement overlooked by the left. This is encapsulated in its question, ‘What is our one demand?’, and its refusal to answer it except that the 99% have one interest in common.

When it comes to my own organisation, there have been various splits from the Socialist Party of Great Britain - almost all of which have been reformist, or at least not attempts to narrow support. Generally this has meant trading principles for the prospect of increasing support. The most interesting have been the only two exceptions, the Socialist Propaganda League (1911-51) and Socialist Studies (www.socialiststudies.org.uk).

Socialist Studies has some degree of sterility - although their answer to charges of sectarianism against the SPGB tradition is worth quoting: “How they can regard an appeal to a whole class to emancipate itself as sectarian can be explained only by an understanding of political illiteracy.” And: “To be politically small does not mean to be ‘sectarian’. What it does mean is that the vast majority of the working class still support capitalism.”

Anti-substitutionism is something that seems to elude most parties. While Socialist Studies claim to share the same SPGB object, they were expelled for undemocratic means. Ends determine means and theory determines practice. William Morris’s last ever public lecture was for unity, but he was also vigilant against the liquidationism of socialist principles.

Jon D White
SPGB

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Live in a field

Brent Council has issued yet another eviction notice against the Counihan family - threatened with homelessness directly as a result of the council’s own benefit cuts.

Anthony Counihan and Isabel Counihan-Sanchez live with their five children in Kilburn. Anthony, a bus driver, inherited a small piece of land in Ireland, which he declared to the relevant agencies. This resulted in progressive cuts to the family’s benefits, far exceeding the £18 per week income the land brought in. The council then claimed the Counihans owed £46,000 in overpaid housing benefit!

Unable to afford the rent on Anthony’s £400 weekly wage, they were evicted from their flat. The council found them temporary housing in Ealing - despite all the children attending school in Brent. The council claims that the family made themselves intentionally homeless when they moved temporarily to Ireland to look after Anthony’s sick dad.

On November 7, an order to evict and change the locks was issued on the authority of housing officer Rose McIntosh. It was McIntosh who had ‘advised’ the family that the way to resolve their housing problems would be to move to Ireland, where they could live on their property in Galway - an empty field! They could live in a caravan (which they don’t possess), from where Anthony could ‘commute’ to work in Cricklewood.

If the resolution of the Counihan homelessness question were as simple as some have suggested, it would have been resolved last January, when the Counihans offered to give the field to Brent to retain their housing benefit. The council refused because they said that this would be a “dispersal of assets to gain a means-tested benefit” and therefore illegal.

Previously council leader Muhammed Butt had suggested (during the occupation of the council chamber by the Counihan Family Campaign on September 10) that if they were to make an attempt to sell the land then housing benefit would be restored and all would be well. Isabel asked if putting an advertisement in the Galway papers would be sufficient and he replied, “Yes”. But a letter from the council a few days later contradicted this. The land is for sale with an auctioneer now, but still the case is not resolved.

Labour councillor Colum Moloney says there are 100 families in a similar position and the situation will get considerably worse in April 2013, when housing benefits are capped. So the council’s real problem is that if they accommodate the Counihans they will be under pressure to yield to everyone else, and that is just too much to contemplate. Even if they restored housing benefit to the Counihans now, what will happen in April 2013?

The real crisis is the absence of affordable social housing, dissipated under the pernicious ‘right to buy’ scheme. Until that is addressed, no resolution is possible. Hence the contradictory ‘advice’, the partial retreat under pressure of a campaign stressing this very human story and the harsh front once more following legal advice. But this legal advice is also rightwing, establishment-protecting, political advice. Until Brent council and other like them set needs budgets, they will have cases like the Counihans, and maybe even worse, on their consciences.

Here are excerpts from a letter sent by the Counihans to Brent council on November 11:

“May and June was a very distressing time, as Aiden (our second youngest, seven-year-old) wasn’t coping with the travel [from south Ealing to Kilburn for school] and was admitted to the Royal Free hospital via Ealing A&E with exhaustion. He was chewing his clothes with stress and still is. Over June and July he lost a lot of weight

“Anthony took unpaid leave from work due to stress. He returned to work on September 26, but still wasn’t 100%. Aiden had eye surgery in July, but was re-admitted to the Royal Free with risk of losing his eye, because it developed an infection. We were at panic stations, back and forth between the two hospitals. Aiden was discharged on August 7, but was re-admitted the next day and finally discharged on the 10th. But because he was so low, he found it hard to cope with the children over the summer period.

“On a human level we have acted in good faith. We moved into Rose Gardens with a weekly rent of £500. Housing were fully aware we couldn’t receive HB, but Mr Babalola still had us fill out the forms. Would not this have been the time for him to say this land needs to go on the market and we will reinstate HB?

“This is a three-bedroom house - one double room and two singles (we have five children: three boys and two girls, ages from 15 to five). The living room is a bedroom for the two girls. So we have no living space. It was only on Thursday November 8 that a Brent officer came to inspect the house.

“We left a council tenancy in July 2007 to move to Ireland to care for Anthony’s dying father and were not advised when leaving that we had an option to retain the tenancy. We say we are not intentionally homeless - Brent council have made our family homeless.”

Gerry Downing
Counihan Family Campaign

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G4S occupied

G4S occupiedMore than 50 campaigners for Palestinian human rights occupied the central London offices of G4S on November 20 in protest over the British-Danish security company’s supply of equipment used to maintain Israel’s illegal siege on Gaza. The protestors entered the building in Victoria at 4pm and staged a sit-in protest, while four people locked themselves together. Police removed them after an hour.

By providing equipment and services to the checkpoints that enforce the closure of Gaza, which includes severe restrictions on the movement of people and basic goods, G4S is helping Israel to engineer a humanitarian crisis for Palestinians. G4S is an active accomplice to Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza.

As I write, more than 105 Palestinians, including 23 children, have been killed since Israel launched its assault last week, and more than 800 have been injured. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has accused Israel of war crimes, including the direct targeting of civilians and civilian buildings, and indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.

G4S, which gained notoriety over its failure to provide security personnel to the Olympics, provides body scanners to the Erez checkpoint in Gaza, which serves as part of the Israeli closure policy over the Gaza Strip. G4S announced the deal on the front page of the website of its Israeli subsidiary.

The Israeli government has been proven to have purposefully restricted food deliveries to Gaza in order to, as one Israeli official put it, “put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger”. Why is G4S participating in these gross human rights violations? It has contracts with various Israeli agencies to provide equipment and services to Israeli checkpoints, and to businesses in illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

G4S also has a contract with the Israeli Prison Service to provide services and equipment to prisons to which Palestinian political prisoners, including children, are held in violation of international law and subjected to mistreatment and torture. Israel is forbidden to transfer Palestinian prisoners from occupied territories to prisons inside Israel under article 76 of the fourth Geneva Convention. Despite this, thousands of Palestinian prisoners are unlawfully held in prisons inside Israel that are supplied by G4S.

Campaigners have also raised concerns with G4S’s track record of human rights abuses in the UK. The company lost its contract to deport people from the UK last September after 773 complaints of abuse were made against it following the death of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan asylum-seeker who died after being ‘restrained’ by G4S guards.

G4S also runs huge parts of the Lincolnshire police force and hopes to win government contracts to run police, immigration, welfare and prisons services in the coming months. How can the UK government give lucrative public contracts to a company that shows such disregard for basic human rights standards across all of its business activities?

Michael Deas
email

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War is great

War is inevitable, war is development. War won’t be erased in this oppressed and class-divided world. Rather it is a central part of this decaying system. The rationale of the system is if you can’t oppress others, if you can’t kill others, you have no right to survive. So war is good for this type of society. War is its motor.

A warless world means a communist world. But that also must come through another war - that is, a people’s war against the oppressing class. If you have to survive in capitalism and are fighting for communism, you have to love war. Without war nothing is possible.

So we, the world proletariat, should prepare ourselves for this sacred people’s war. Hail the war to end war! War is great!

Sanjib Sinha
Kolkata

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No joke

A Swiss comrade recently sent me a web link to the memoirs, in German, of a leading Bolshevik activist, entitled Hans O Pjatnizki: Aufzeichnungen eines Bolschewiks. Initially I planned to just skim the contents to look for anything of particular interest, but ended up reading most of the short book online in one go. The memoirs, written in 1925, chronicle his life - most of which was spent in exile in Europe, where he became acquainted with German social democracy in particular. Rather tantalisingly, the German version online draws to a close with the arrival of the February revolution in 1917, when he ceased to be an ‘outcast’ and returned to Russia to take part in the revolution.

His memoirs also shed some light on the 1912 ‘anti-liquidationist’ Prague conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. This conference is historically significant because it is often seen as a ‘turning point’, where the Bolsheviks supposedly organised their own conference, finally broke with the Mensheviks and created a completely separate ‘Bolshevik party’. This interpretation is particularly pronounced in the Stalinist tradition, but it is also present in the standard Trotskyist interpretation too, such as in the writings of Tony Cliff. But the recent work by Lars T Lih in particular has challenged this understanding (see ‘Falling out over a CliffWeekly Worker February 16).

Anyway, Hans O Pjatnizki (or Piatnitsky, as his name is spelled in the Anglicised transliteration) was charged with organising this conference, and he describes in intriguing detail how it was organised and prepared. This includes a rather John le Carré-esque account of how he arranged for delegates to get across the Prussian-Russian border on their way to Prague. Fears of being met in Germany by a spy and arrested abounded at that time. And with good reason: it was later revealed that two police spies attended the (very small) Prague conference: Roman Malinovsky and Georg Romanov.

Of interest to the 1912 debate is the following passage, which I have translated from the German: “When I arrived in Prague the conference had already begun, and I walked in during the debate on the organising commission’s report, which had proposed to the delegates that they constitute themselves as the All-Russian party conference, with the right to elect the party’s central bodies. Indeed, the commission had taken every measure to ensure that representatives of all groups and tendencies were present. It had invited Plekhanov, Gorky, the Vpered group, the social democratic parties of Lithuania and Poland, and other anti-liquidationist groupings” (emphasis added).

This is another blow in the struggle to destroy the myths surrounding the 1912 conference: Lenin and the Bolsheviks were seeking to unite all the ‘pro-party’ - that is, “anti-liquidationist” - factions and groupings in the RSDLP. They were not out to create a distinctly ‘Bolshevik’ party.

It turns out that Lars had actually referred to these memoirs in the article on 1912 cited above, and there is good news for those who do not speak Russian or German: the book is available to buy in English under the title of Osip Piatnitsky: memoirs of a Bolshevik. It might be a nice Christmas present, as it is full of little anecdotes, like the following one.

At the Prague conference, Piatnitsky recalls reading aloud an (unsigned) article from the party press that he found offensive and alienating. Indeed, so rude was the offending passage that the chair (a pro-party Menshevik, remember) felt compelled to interrupt Piatnitsky: he erroneously thought that Piatnitsky was not quoting an article, but expressing his own views. Such a tone was not welcome at the conference, the chair reminded him. Lenin then stood up and immediately cleared up any confusion: Piatnitsky was actually quoting an article of which he, Lenin, was the author!

The chair became rather embarrassed, but the momentary awkward silence was broken by the raucous laughter of the conference delegates. Good to see our comrades had a sense of humour. If only they had known just how significant this gathering was going to be for our subsequent understanding of Bolshevik history …

Ben Lewis
London

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