Inside the last days of the CPGB-ML
This essay was intended to be a solely internal assessment of the problems in the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), that both diagnosed the party’s problems and attempted to set a baseline of theory that would allow these problems to be overcome. It was written in July and August 2018 after the party had begun to espouse outrageous positions on fascist dog-whistles and LGBT struggles (receptive to the former, hostile to the latter), and ‘theory’ was being used as a buzzword by the most reactionary elements of the party and the Central Committee to ignore any reasoning behind supporting LGBT struggles.
As someone in the Oxford branch of the party, who then had edited one issue of Proletarian and was about to launch a branch paper under the name Oxford Worker, my first experience with the party’s disapproval of LGBT struggles was after I’d publicly criticised transphobic statements from a particular Twitter personality. I hadn’t thought much of it at all; there wasn’t a party line on the issue and to me it seemed like common sense that the party would be against it. But it soon became apparent that the Central Committee of the party felt differently. After a two hour meeting with two members of the Central Committee in the party’s Birmingham headquarters, they made their views known and reasserted again and again that this was a view shared by the Central Committee – and although it wasn’t the party line, it soon would be. One particular moment that still stands out to me from this meeting was, along with the casual homophobia that wouldn’t be out of place in the ‘80s, was when one of them said to me softly, almost in a confiding way, ‘you don’t understand yet, you’re still young. When you’re older you’ll understand the urge to have kids.‘ Never has a Marxist strayed so far from Marx’s dictum that ‘philosophers have only hitherto interpreted the world, the point is to change it.‘ My membership was stalled and I was banned from attending the upcoming 8th party congress in September.
This essay never saw the light of day because of the pace at which things began to move, where every week internal bulletins were published with insults against its younger members and new rebuttals to the transphobia and homophobia went unanswered. We instead began to focus on more concrete plans and strategies for the upcoming congress, in light of the growing urgency after personal attacks on members, but this text sheds light on a particular moment in the CPGB-ML; some members had already left, fed up with dealing with the ignorance and incompetence of the Central Committee, while others, against their better judgement, stayed to try and correct the course of the party.
The disconnect of the Central Committee from the working class made itself more apparent at every step as it came under pressure from the more progressive elements in the party, and still the Central Committee could only picture the working class as a caricature – telling members of the party to lose weight and to get ‘working class’ haircuts, before going on to unironically describe Tommy Robinson’s hairstyle. The party failed in every possible way to act as a vanguard, to lead the working class, and instead attempted to follow their own caricatured image of the working class and parroted its most reactionary elements in the hope that they wouldn’t ‘alienate’ them.
Contradictions in the party have now developed into outright antagonisms, as party members saw it fit to write character assassinations against members of the same party. The younger members are presented as naïve, as unable to use theory in its analyses for the support of trans struggles, yet it has instead been senior members of the party that have demonised members of its own party and failed to meet its own basic criteria of theory. While contradictions within the party were exposed in the wake of the party’s tweets on whiteness, this was exacerbated after a member of the Central Committee then saw it fit to throw trans people under the bus to score points against an organisation that is only a few months old. These simple contradictions intensified after recent party bulletins, where not only was the theory utilised by the pro-LGBT members of the party entirely ignored and dismissed as ‘brainwashing’, but branches then outright attacked other members in the party. Briefly ignoring the basic fact that not a single source has been used in either any of the arguments against trans struggles, or anything even approaching dialectics, the readings of even senior members of the party in recent bulletins are left wanting; the Birmingham branch’s study of Engels’ Origin of the Family is so poor that it cannot grasp the basic function of criticism, let alone dialectics or dialectical materialism. Engels’ study is reduced to viewing the familial model in capitalism as an ideal model, rather than an assessment of the development of the family through primitive accumulation and into capitalism that allows it to function efficiently as the concentration of capital in the family. They can not even recognise that the nuclear family did not exist in the 19th century.
Members of the party will readily agree that if Marxism is a science, it can only be a science through dialectical materialism. Without a strict method this science is only reduced to a positivism, a science without a method that can only take concepts – and not what is material – at face value. Yet this is the exact position the party finds itself in. People are using the word theory, the pretence of theory, while their arguments are completely devoid of it, claiming that ‘reality’ is the highest level of theory to aspire to, as if they hadn’t grasped Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. Although Marxism-Leninism as a science is recognised for its concrete analysis of the material conditions, of liberation movements, and revolutions, its Hegelian – and conceptual – elements are considered to be something left with the Young Hegelians; as materialists, concepts are dismissed out-of-hand in various guises – as metaphysics, as identity politics, or merely as academic. Yet Marxist-Leninists are not materialists; we do not follow the philosophy of materialism as Hobbes did. We are dialectical materialists.
This distinction is necessarily acknowledged by Marx and Lenin. To avoid the essential elements of dialectics in materialism, particularly in the avoidance of conceptual writing on the basis that it is either intellectual or academic, criticism descends into vulgar materialism and chauvinism and ignores essential the role of theory in Marxism-Leninism.
For a moment it is necessary to return to Hegel, where the conceptual elements of dialectics are most pronounced at the height of bourgeois philosophy. And while French philosophy was able to remove any Hegelian elements from Marx, those who have maintained dialectical materialism necessarily recognise Marx’s development of Hegel’s philosophy. And it is important to remember that Lenin, when exiled in Switzerland in 1914-15 at the beginning of World War I, did not choose to read the entire works of Feuerbach or any of the materialists – not even Marx or Engels – but the works of Hegel. As Ernst Bloch would write in Subject-Object,
Lenin renewed authentic Marxism not least by a recourse to the “core” of the Hegelian dialectic (“Contradiction is the root of all movement and life”) and to the selfsame Hegelian Logic…Thus it was precisely orthodox Marxism, restored by Lenin, which presupposed a knowledge of Hegel; as against a vulgar, traditionless, and schematic Marxism which, in isolating Marx […] isolated itself from Marx.
Yet, at this point, at a philosophy still stuck in the throes of German Idealism, it is still possible to critique both identity politics and the statements agreed upon by the Central Committee. The Central Committee has revelled in Hegel’s subjective naïvety; the objectivity of concepts themselves were ignored, and could only respond to legitimate critiques with ‘what is whiteness?’ with a naïve subjectivity that is unable to comprehend the historicity of both concepts and what exists outside of the subject. The concept of whiteness as something that is merely self-evident wasn’t engaged with at any conceptual level, let alone negated (either with Hegelian dialectics or dialectical materialism). If Marxist-Leninists place such emphasis on theory, how can such indeterminacy that leads to outright subjectivism be acceptable? This entirely ignores the objectivity of concepts essential to dialectics, yet to critique this approach more comprehensively it is necessary to move on to dialectical materialism.
Marx’s necessary response to Hegelian dialectics does not start from what is material, but from the second movement of thought – in negation. And rather than relying merely on the conceptual framework that Hegel constructed, the element of materialism was added and Marx responded to categories dialectically with materialism.
Marx and Engels gained a vantage-point from which they could settle accounts with all mythologies. Hegel’s absolute spirit was the last of those grandiose mythological schemes. It already contained the totality and its movement, even though it was unaware of its real character. Thus in historical materialism reason “which has always existed though not always in a rational form,” achieved that ‘rational’ form by discovering its real substratum, the basis from which human life will really be able to become conscious of itself. This completed programme of Hegel’s philosophy of history, even though at the cost of the destruction of his system. In contrast to nature in which as Hegel emphasises, “change goes in a circle, repeating the same thing”, change in history takes place “in the concept as well as on the surface. It is the concept which is corrected.” (Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, p. 18)
Marx does not begin by dismissing Hegel for his conceptual, metaphysical, or even his bourgeois elements, but by recognising how Hegel arrived at an objective position through dialectics – but this had not truly arrived at a concrete content. Hegel used dialectics to mediate the universal and the particular, the objective and the subjective, however Marx revealed the poverty of Hegel’s method and demonstrated that the content of Hegel’s philosophy remained universal and abstract. He was not able to arrive at the concrete, material content that Marx was able to when he added the materialist element to his philosophy – yet Marx’s philosophy still only arrives at what is concrete through the mediation of the material, through looking at the concrete particular in relation to the totality. As Lukacs writes, ‘Mediation would not be possible were it not for the fact that the empirical existence of objects is itself mediated and only appears to be unmediated in so far as the awareness of mediation is lacking so that the objects are torn from the complex of their true determinants and placed in artificial isolation.’ (Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, p. 163) The concept of mediation is essential to anchor concepts to history, the general to the particular, and this is what Marx was able to achieve throughout his work.
Lenin repeats this dialectical movement in his Philosophical Notebooks, which he wrote in exile in Switzerland and notably after his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: ‘If abstraction is made from every determination and Form of a Something, indeterminate Matter remains. Matter is a pure abstract. ( – Matter cannot be seen or felt, etc. – what is seen or felt is a determinate Matter, that is, a unity of Matter and Form).’ (Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, p. 145) Determinate matter, matter with content – matter that is arrived at through negation and not through positivism, empiricism, or self-evidence – is a unity of form, ie matter mediated by its concept. This is the essence of Marx’s dialectic, of dialectical materialism, and it is only through this determination that we can both move beyond a vulgar materialism and German Idealism.
Materialism does not then mean subsuming thought in nature, for although Hegel recognised the development of thought parallel to history thought itself is not material. To assume that thought is merely material and reducible to it is to both abstract from what is material while underestimating the mediating and transformative role of thought, and returns to a monism that was revolutionary with Spinoza when the question of substance still pervaded philosophy. Lukacs necessarily brings this distinction between Marx and Engels into light, as Marx takes this Hegelian approach – in the use of dialectical materialism as a tool – rather than Engels, who saw dialectical materialism merely as an extension of natural history. While the latter view also recognises that man is an extension of nature, it does not recognise that it is not reducible to it; man becomes merely an extension of nature through its materiality, but is not able to recognise the element of subjectivity that is overcome by labour. This moment of recognition, of Aufheben, does then not take place in Engels’s natural history, and so man becomes undifferentiated from nature and man’s agency is removed.
The entirety of these dialectical elements are ignored in the name of theory, materialism, and even dialectical materialism, and dualisms such as idealism and materialism that had been resolved in earlier bourgeois philosophy are not only revived but made into a principle. Members of the party have praised ‘realism’, assuming that reference to what is ‘real’, ie material, fulfils the function of negation and of dialectical materialism itself. Yet, this does not come up against anything that exists but merely seeks to replicate it and keep things as they are; in assuming that it has established a natural history, it looks at the end product of the development of material conditions within capitalism and seeks to maintain it on the pretence of fighting idealism – establishing a positivist science out of dialectical materialism. Philosophers such as Althusser attempted to create a distinction between a naïve, young Marx that used Hegelian dialectics and the more mature one – yet this betrays a lack of understanding of dialectics itself. While the later Marx no longer critiqued Hegel directly, the form of dialectical materialism maintained the very movement of thought that Hegel used (and that Hegel takes from Aristotle, of the movement of the particular to the general, from the individual to the totality and so on). The analysis of dialectical materialism as merely materialism entirely forfeits mediation, and therefore history itself, and without confronting the objectivity of the concept with the material reality, mediating one another through history, any notion of ‘reality or ‘theory’ is merely vulgar materialism.
How to proceed
With this is mind, it is necessary to provide a proper critique of identity politics that does not fall to abstract Right and chauvinism, or does not revive the outmoded dualism of idealism and materialism – that critiques identity politics using dialectical materialism. This is the failure of identity politics, that the immediacy of identity is elevated into a principle; it is without concrete content and remains indeterminate, along with all of the contradictions that manifest itself from taking either race or gender as a self-evident apparition and the defining factor of oppression. To negate this is paramount, but – as dialectical materialists – it must not be negated abstractly, by refusing its terms outright, it must be negated by the content of material reality and how the manifestation of capitalism exist in class and identity. Without mediation, the material reality with the concept of the social construct of race is then reduced to race science. Mediation is not a trivial concept, and it is a crucial concept in Hegel and implicitly structures the entirety of both Marx and Lenin’s philosophy as a concept essential to dialectical materialism, and here it allows us to expose the poverty and contradiction of liberal concepts of race and gender. In this wider context, then, negation would be to add the class element: to follow the lines of the naïvety of identity politics and to expose it in contradiction to material reality, and to mediate that with history itself.
Trans struggles may appear as something that is new and isolated, but it is necessary that it is mediated by history to determine its development and look at how LGBT struggles impact the population.
As an oppressed group, trans people suffer tremendously. In the UK alone, 60% of transgender people have attempted suicide, with a further 25% more than once; 81% of transgender have received verbal abuse with 38% experiencing physical abuse; 59% have self-harmed, as opposed to the overall population of which 8% of people have self-harmed. As well as this, 62% of trans people have a dependency on alcohol as opposed to 12% of the population. (What Statistics Show About British Transgender People, Buzz Bournemouth)
In the workplace, 88% of transgender employees have experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace and recent hate crime against trans people has risen by 14%. (Strategy to drive out transgender prejudice) 95% of transgender employees were concerned about ‘outing’ themselves at work for fear of discrimination and harassment. (Transgender Equality)
Even when transgender people do seek help, this harassment and discrimination extends into medical services in the UK – with 11% of transgender and non-binary people being refused services outright and one third experiencing harassment in services in the last five years. (Transgender Equality)
Prior to this, ‘treatment’ was far more severe. While, ‘in 1981, the Harry Benjamin Institute estimated that 50% of the transsexual population died by their own hands by the age of 30’ it is not so long ago that aversion treatment in the form of electro-convulsive therapy was employed by the medical profession as a considered treatment for this “condition”; with a reputed 0% success rate, but a staggering 30% suicide rate.’ (The Workplace and Gender reassignment, Transgender Equality) That same study goes on to note that, ‘Medical treatment to enable transsexual people to alter their bodies to match their core identity has been highly effective with around a 98% success rate. Definitely a case of “Je ne regrette Rien”.’
We can also look at past examples of how communist parties and countries have combated this issue. Cuba provides a shining example throughout the rest of world not only as a communist country under constant threat by the US and the longest embargo in history but for its role in the abolition of the apartheid state in South Africa, its doctors that work around the world in countries under siege by imperialism, and for standing in solidarity with the DPRK and Palestine. Now, too, Cuba inspires people across the world for its both its commitment to ensure the rights of the LGBT Cubans and the recognition of its past errors.
The history of LGBT struggles in Cuba has not been an easy one; the most notorious example is the labour camps that homosexuals were forced into as ‘supposed counterrevolutionaries’. (Fidel Castro Takes Blame for 1960s Gay Persecution) Fidel Castro acknowledges this criticism In his 2006 autobiography My Life, admitting:
At this point I’m not going to defend myself against all that – the part of the responsibility I bear, I accept. I certainly had other ideas with respect to that problem. I had opinions, and for my part I instinctively opposed, and had always opposed, any abuse, any discrimination, because that society which had been based on injustice was saturated with prejudice. Homosexuals were most certainly the victims of discrimination. ... In the sectors of society with very little culture or education – a country at that time with 30% illiteracy – there was a strong prejudice against homosexuals, and among semi-illiterates, too, and even in many people who may have been professions. That was a fact of our society. (Fidel Castro, My Life)
Discussing the attitudes which shaped this prejudice, Emily J. Kirk writes about how homosexuality was closely associated with capitalist excess and decadence that must necessarily be overcome:
Particularly in the 1950s, drugs, gambling, and prostitution were widely present in Havana and largely controlled by elements of the Cuban bourgeoisie and US crime syndicates. Homosexual males received greater employment opportunities in the tourist sector, as they were often used to satisfy the prostitution needs of US military personnel and tourists. Homosexuality was thus seen as an extension of pre-revolutionary ills, and as a trend that needed to be uprooted by the revolutionary government. (Emily J. Kirk, ‘Setting the Agenda for Cuban Sexuality: The Role of Cuba’s Cenesex’, Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies)
In a particular Ministry of Public Health report in 1965, it was declared that that there was no known biological cause of homosexuality and, therefore, ‘it theorized, homosexuality was a learned behaviour.’ It was in this year that Fidel Castro declared that ‘Cuba's leaders could never believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary.’ Castro’s attitude, however, soon changed, and he openly acknowledged this development.
I’d like to think that discrimination against homosexuals is a problem that is being overcome, and I do see it that way. I trust in that progress as I trust in the fact that our nation will soon be one f the most cultured, educated, sensitive and fair nations in the world. Old prejudices and narrow-mindedness will increasingly be a thing of the past. (Fidel Castro, My Life)
Parallels for this initial struggle of gay people is found in the more recent transphobia experienced in Cuba, however. Mariela Castro Espin, the daughter of Raul Castro, has been at the forefront of the recognition of LGBT rights with the founding of CENESEX out of the Federation of Cuban Women. For eleven years, Cuba has held an annual march calling for an end to homophobia and transphobia and, in 2017, CENESEX even invited UNESCO to join the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in order to continue to stamp out both homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools.
In spite of the work done by CENESEX at every level of the state and society in Cuba, trans people still face obstacles and prejudice in the country. ‘We were unable to convince people of the need to carry out these operations. This reluctance also came from the professionals in the Ministry of Public Health who were not experts on the subject. There is where I feel the strongest resistance, even as we speak.’ (Cuban Parliament considers legal recognition of the rights of transsexuals) Mariela Castro Espin noted that this was reluctance was common, but that it ‘was part of a process of becoming conscious as a Cuban citizen who looked at reality, listened and questioned. Life in this country has taught me not to be a simple interpreter of reality, but to be part of it, to participate, to even try to change what I don’t like or what I believe should just be changed.’ (Mariela Castro’s hopes for Cuba)
While Cuba has laid the foundation for communists all over the world to recognise not only the oppression of trans people, but that these rights are integral under any communist society and must be acknowledged by all communist parties. It is then essential to note that Cuba is not an abnormality with its recognition of the trans struggle and trans rights. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) also saw the integral importance of these rights that afforded oppressed people the right to self-determination, providing free healthcare for trans people. ‘As it stands now in East Germany, men and women 18 years and older have been able to receive government-sponsored sex reassignment surgery, get married and adopt children.’ (Lou Sullivan, FTM Newsletter 1990) The GDR even influenced Cuba’s more progressive policies towards LGBT people with its legalisation of homosexuality in 1968. When Germany was unified, however, these and many other rights as well as more progressive ones such as abortion were lost. Capitalists rejoiced in the fact that socialism had been overcome, but women in the GDR – overnight – lost reproductive and employment rights that guaranteed them autonomy.
Mariela Castro Espin said that while she has faith in socialism, it is ‘one based on a dialectical focus in which we are required to address all the contradictions that continue to arise and to identify the changes needed for development.’ (Mariela Castro’s hopes for Cuba)
Abstract Right and chauvinism
As we have demonstrated, Marxism cannot be a science in the same manner of hard sciences; it cannot reduce truths to self-evidence, to take its principles for granted, and Marxism cannot be made indeterminate by the reification of truths as they are reduced to universal platitudes. Hegel’s recognition of the French Aristocracy’s abstract Right,where they held that history manifested through their will and so it was their birth right and plaything - that they were entitled to untold luxuries at the expense of all other classes. While this has inevitably developed under capitalism as the same abstract Right that lost Hillary Clinton the 2016 US election – that saw liberals announcing the upcoming presidency was ‘her turn’, that she could do no wrong, that history had ordained the Democratic Party itself. It proved deadly for the aristocracy and liberals and it is no different for communists. Communists cannot assume that, through the antagonism of history itself or through Marx’s work – rather than through the birth right of aristocracy or through an abstracted modernity of progress – the world will come to them, that they are right by default. The rigour of dialectical materialism must be maintained or else this abstract Right becomes outright chauvinism.
The party’s response to the fascist statement revelled in this indeterminacy and failed to meet the most basic criteria of theory; no attempt was made to approach this dialectically and the party soon descended into chauvinism when questioned by Marxist-Leninists both inside and outside the party. Fascism itself depends on this indeterminacy, in the fact that as a statement it is readily agreeable, yet the party is determined to revel in this abstract Right. Any indeterminacy that was present in the original statement was doubled down and there was no attempt to move beyond positivism and vulgar materialism. The same has happened yet again with regards to the issue of the very existence of trans people. Instead of approaching this dialectically – or even approaching this strategically, asking ‘what will the party lose by simply acknowledging the existence of trans people?’, and realising that the answer to this is nothing – members of the party have decided to once again jettison any attempt to broach the question with theory. Theory is essential, it is even printed on the front of our newspapers, yet, when the time comes, the abstract Right of chauvinists and vulgar materialism returns – parroting right-wing arguments verbatim – has now plunged the party into factionalism. Mao Zedong’s idiom no investigation, no right to speak has gone entirely unheard; people who have not read anything on either the issue of both the conceptuality of whiteness and its history as such, nor LGBT struggles, have felt that, for having read Marx, they are able to authoritatively comment on these issues without engaging in the actual content – without looking at statistics, without researching its internal contradictions, without researching its antagonisms and developments.
When members of the party have left out of frustration at the lack of self-criticism displayed by the party, or even for their own health, there has been a dismissive air that says, ‘if they’re not willing help now, how useful will they be when things get more difficult?’ Yet this same logic can be applied to the party as a whole: ‘if they are unwilling to undergo self-criticism now, how likely will they when the party grows should it become a force in British politics? Will it become increasingly vulgar and attack its own party members even when they are abiding by democratic centralism? Will it continue to ignore theory in order to position itself as the “only Marxist-Leninist party in Britain”?’ The refusal to self-criticise has opened up fissures in the party and lead to factionalism after these contradictions were not resolved and self-criticism was again refused. If the party successfully makes it through this period without undergoing this necessary self-criticism, then the next controversy will damage it irreparably. And it is only through dialectical materialism that this can be avoided.
After leaving the CPGB-ML and never looking back, Lewis Hodder is now the Editor of Ebb Magazine.