Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 3 December 1999
This weekend should turn out to be a bit special for anyone on the British left with a sense of history. Democratic Left, the organisation that used to be the Communist Party of Great Britain, is holding a special conference at the University of London Union. And if its executive committee gets its way, it will decide to abandon the last vestiges of the structure of a political party and turn itself into an umbrella group supporting a variety of radical democratic initiatives, the “New Times Network”.
The dissolution of the official wing of British Bolshevism, a small but highly significant political force for more than 70 years after its foundation in 1920, will be complete.
For every democratic socialist, this is cause to break open the champagne. And you’ve got a chance to do precisely that tonight (Friday), on the eve of the conference, at DL’s “Transformation Party” at the October Gallery in Holborn.
Here I must register an interest. Despite being, in the language of 1917, a Menshevik with anarchist sympathies – I fancy that if I’d been a Russian 70s years ago, even before the CPGB was formed, I would have been rotting in the Lubyanka, though probably with the privileges accorded to a “political” – I am currently deputy editor of New Times, DL’s monthly, which will be at the core of the new umbrella organisation.
The editor, incidentally, is a former Trotskyist who has sold his soul to Menshevism, Kevin Davey, well known to Tribune readers of a certain age for his reviews of obscure French books in the late 1980s. In Russia in the 1930s, he would have been shot.
Of course, the worst that could happen to either of us now is that we’d lose our jobs if the special conference decided to close down New Times. DL is not the CPGB, let alone the Soviet Communist Party of Lenin or Stalin. It is a democratic rather than democratic centralist, organisation, and it has done a lot of worthwhile things: promoting a constructive left engagement with Europe, playing a key role in the campaign for democratic constitutional reform – most recently as a key sponsor of Make Votes Count – and giving succour to democratic reformers in the trade union movement.
But I’ve never joined DL. I’ve always felt that it was too much like the old CP in its pretensions and culture. Everything good that DL has done has been a matter of getting people together from different parts of the political spectrum in ad hoc coalitions to push on key specific issues. Yet despite having only 800 members it has retained all the policy-making structures and petty bureaucratic procedures of a party that believes it has a serious chance of winning state power in the foreseeable future.
There’s a point at which you have to admit the game is up – and unless DL does it now it doesn’t have a future. If it doesn’t concentrate its remaining resources on what it does best, it will simply fade away.
On a different subject entirely, I’ve been amazed at the way most of the Labour left has got into a lather about Tony Blair’s discussions of coalition with Paddy Ashdown, revealed the weekend before last by the Sunday Telegraph.
Of course, it wasn’t very pleasant of “Number Ten sources” to go around spreading rumours that Gavin Strang and David Clark were incompetent and likely to be sacked. But wouldn’t the government have shifted to the left if the Lib Dems had joined it?
They would certainly have given momentum to the government in the area of constitutional reform – on proportional representation, on replacing the House of Lords, on regional assemblies in England, on freedom of information – and would have stiffened its resistance to Euroscepticism. They are notably greener than most Labour ministers. And they might well have scuppered much of Jack Straw’s illiberal home affairs legislation and perhaps even some of New Labour’s mean-spirited benefit reforms. Not for the first time, I’ve found myself this past ten days cursing the left’s pig-headed tribalism.