Camilla Power: communism is our nature

Debating out differences

Danny Hammill overviews the CPGB’s summer school

Once again the CPGB held its annual summer school, Communist University, in south London, albeit in a new venue - the pleasing environment of an orangery (although the acoustics in this meeting hall were less than perfect).

As we always emphasise, CU is distinctly different from the schools organised by the rest of the left - unique, in fact. However, we do not say this in the spirit of one-upmanship. Quite the opposite: for us it is a matter of deep regret that most left groups regard their schools as either extended rallies or gatherings to affirm the correctness of the leadership - your role as a rank-and-file party member is most definitely not to raise awkward questions.

Another unique feature of our school is that we endeavour - maybe against the odds - to make it a prefiguration of the society of the future, no matter how rudimentary: a festival of primitive communism! Practically speaking, meals are collectively prepared by participants using a rota system (saving you money too) and we attempt to provide childcare facilities in a similar way. So, while CU may not exactly be the summer of love, it is fun.

War, then and now

Regular readers of the Weekly Worker will need no reminding that we have seen an alarming drift towards war over recent years, with the steady breakdown of the old imperial borders and geopolitical arrangements. There is the developing crisis in Ukraine, which has the potential to spiral into a regional conflagration. Then there is the Maghreb and the Mashriq - hellish chaos in Libya, the murderous assault on Gaza and continuing carnage in Syria.

Therefore comrade Moshé Machover’s talk on ‘After the Arab spring’ was timely - he gave us a useful summary of the situation today and also an historical overview of imperialist machinations. Comrade Machover noted that western attempts at intervention had “failed spectacularly” - delivering the very opposite of what the west wanted (like a staunchly pro-Iranian government in Baghdad). During the subsequent discussion, the 2003 US/UK invasion and occupation was described as a “historic miscalculation”: the ‘Iraq syndrome’ could turn out to be far worse than Vietnam syndrome. Yes, it is not a bad thing in and of itself that the Middle East “mosaic” is getting “rearranged”. But it is being done in a thoroughly negative and barbaric way, especially when you bear in mind that a declining US imperialism is more dangerous than an ascending one. The upshot being, in the words of comrade Yassamine Mather, that anyone who thinks US intervention against the Islamic State will be progressive “must be mad”.

That brings us neatly to comrade Pat Smith’s very interesting introduction on the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and social-imperialism. The AWL is notorious, it goes without saying, for identifying imperialism’s ‘progressive’ features - not so long ago telling us that the US occupation of Iraq would provide a ‘breathing space’ for the fructification of independent working class forces. Hence resistance to US occupation was “reactionary”. Then later the AWL started to say essentially the same about Syria. According to the group’s Mark Osborne, Bashar Assad was the “main enemy”, not imperialism - rather ironically, given that the most determined resistance to him has come from the “clerical fascism” of IS. Comrade Smith pointed out how the AWL previously fell hook, line and sinker for the exaggerated threats facing Kosovar Albanians and over Libya repeated western propaganda about Gaddafi, etc. Meanwhile, back in the real world, imperialist intervention has escalated the crisis in all these areas without fail.

Comrade Smith wrapped things up with an exposition of Martin Thomas’s theory of imperialism, which essentially argues that Kautsky was right - but he just got the dates wrong. History now back on track, the collapse of the Soviet Union has led to the spread of ‘ultra-imperialism’ across the globe with various “paleo-imperialist” and “sub-imperialist” states coming into conflict with the US “hyper-power”. True enough on one level, you could say, but the AWL uses this phenomenon to oppose revolutionary defeatism and argue that US imperialism is “not necessarily the worst option”.

Still on the theme of war, CU stalwart Hillel Ticktin gave three talks on World War I, whose impact is still felt today. After all, it led to the collapse of three empires (Austro-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, tsarist Russia) and produced the Russian Revolution. The ultimate cause of the war, in the opinion of the comrade, arose from the fact that Britain was the world’s imperial overlord, but was in a state of relative decline - in the period leading up to the war its share of global production had slipped from 32% to about half that; France was also slipping down the ranks. The US and Germany were eager to muscle in.

Slightly more controversially and revealing his “pathological anti-Stalinism” - as he cheerfully put it - comrade Ticktin dismissed Stalin almost from the day he was born as a “criminal” and “incompetent” who never amounted to anything, and reiterated the idea that Trotsky should have seized power and become a “revolutionary Napoleon”. Some comrades were not convinced, emphasising the objective factors facing a desperately backward country like the Soviet Union - a better explanation than Stalin’s original sin. Comrade John Bridge spoke of how Stalin to a very large degree was forced to do certain things, it is the very nature of freak societies to throw up weird leaders - Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim il-Sung, etc.


Prominent blogger and author Michael Roberts gave a lively and, for some, controversial presentation of his view that Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (FROP) best explains the current crisis - which in the comrade’s opinion has morphed from a great recession into a long depression. He looked at the mainstream bourgeois views of the crisis, which in many ways deny that it is such a thing. There is the standard Keynesian view that we went through a “technical malfunction”, albeit a frustratingly recurrent one. And, of course, we have the new poster-boy, Thomas Piketty, who believes that growing inequality was responsible for the crisis and the subsequent “feeble recovery” - if you can call it that.

Instead, insisted comrade Roberts, we should look at the “capitalist mode of production” itself - a profit-making machine not based on meeting needs or even providing services in any real sense. Presenting many useful charts and diagrams, the comrade argued that that the world rate of profit has declined over the last 140 years from 40% to 15% - and since the 1960s there has been a “collapse” in the rate. (This begs the obvious question - will the rate of profit one day hit 0%, and if so how will we know?) He added that the tendency can be partially offset by developments in robots, so-called ‘artificial intelligence’, genetics, etc. But ultimately this tendency will eventually override all the counter-tendencies, as far as comrade Roberts was concerned. Not for the first time, some comrades found his statistics, or empirical evidence, problematic: is the FROP a consequence of a law inherent to capitalism or a conjuncture of circumstances - is it really a “law”? What about fictitious capital or tax havens? Can we believe the capitalist books? Now we have a mad situation where investors are paying to keep their money in banks - why? New technology is all very well, but under capitalism it can create vast waste and essentially useless things: robots/AI can be more expensive to deploy than workers.

There was also controversy in other sessions. With the Scottish referendum only weeks away, comrade Ben Lewis had unearthed Karl Kautsky’s writings from 1893 on parliamentarianism and referenda (or direct democracy). In this period, voices were raised extolling direct democracy as superior to representative democracy. Using an exhaustive historical account particularly focused on Britain, Kautsky strongly disagreed, arguing that in a “modern state” you cannot get rid of representative democracy.

For Kautsky, parliamentarianism does not necessarily mean bourgeois rule; it is more a “reflection” of what is going on in society as whole - making it either a serious vehicle for working class representation or an obnoxious circus. Upsetting though it may be to many Trotskyists of an orthodox disposition, soviets were a form of representative democracy, said comrade Lewis. In fact referendums, plebiscites, etc, viewed historically, are more often than not based on the exclusion of certain people. Furthermore, referendums can cloud or obscure more important wider issues. For example, the Girondists asked for a referendum about the execution of the king, as a way to stall or avert revolution. In that sense, direct democracy can form the basis for “democratic despotism”, as we have seen over and over again. Communists want elections that involve a contest between different and clearly defined programmes that draw sharp lines of demarcation along class lines.

Comrade Tina Becker, representing a minority opinion in the CPGB, disagreed with the main thrust of comrade Lewis’s argument. The question has evolved, and things are different now. She said that the “vast majority” of referendums today are not governmental initiatives, but launched from below - and hence can be useful. Direct democracy, she continued, must form a vital part of the future communist society, as political parties will not last forever. While many comrades agreed that all tactics are legitimate and we do not rule anything out as a point of absolute principle, at the end of the day referendums are no model for our future society. We are not in favour of the tyranny of structurelessness and you cannot get rid of the need for detailed and lengthy investigations into certain matters and problems confronting society: we are not against authority, only authoritarianism. Examine things exhaustively and lengthily if necessary.

This debate rumbled on into the session dealing specifically with the Scottish referendum. Like a minority of CPGB comrades, comrade Sandy McBurney advocates a socialist ‘no’. Convinced that a ‘yes’ vote would be a mortal danger to working class unity, the comrade thinks we need a “resounding rejection” of independence - ideally, the comrade mused, by 70% to 30%. True, he went on, a ‘no’ vote is not a “panacea”, but the CPGB’s agitation for a boycott is “irrelevant”, while our call for a federal republic is “totally abstract” and has no real purchase. The problem with the comrade’s position is that it is thoroughly economistic and downplays the fight for democracy - we must vote ‘no’ in order to get the national question out of the way and get back to ‘normal’ working class politics, like fighting austerity and so on. But a ‘no’ vote will not magically deliver working class unity, especially if the vote is close - as the latest polls indicate it is likely to be. First we need the conditions for working class unity, and the very fact that we are having this referendum at all demonstrates that they are lacking. The majority of comrades at the session continued to support the boycott policy.

Thorny questions

Naturally, the school covered an enormous array of other subjects - such as the thorny questions of quotas and ‘safe spaces’ - two questions that have haunted Left Unity. Comrade Yassamine Mather, in her introduction, explained how quota systems often breed toxic mistrust: a bubbling resentment at the perceived levels of patronage involved. The almost perfect example being herself, it being widely assumed in LU that she was elected to the national council because of the quota system, nothing to do with her political experience or theoretical knowledge.

In his fascinating talk on LU’s putative ‘safe spaces’ policy, Mike Macnair traced its origins to the “long march” of the post-Maoist left to Eurocommunism (and beyond) via the equal opportunities department of local councils - emerging from the darkness into LU. We have the implicit idea that the western working class forms one giant labour aristocracy and only the most oppressed can lead the revolutionary struggle - ie, blacks, gays. In turn, presumably, the most oppressed groups can effectively veto all the other less oppressed groups. Very easily, LU take note, ‘safe spaces’ can run grotesquely out of control. In order not to offend anyone, you only end up in silence.

There were plenty of other interesting sessions, including the talks given by comrades Camilla Power and Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group - on ‘communism in living’ and on ‘being human: what chimpanzees can teach us’. Such discussions are absolutely vital, as they demolish the pernicious myth - assiduously promoted for decades in university departments and popular culture - that dominance is an eternal part of human nature. Communists, however, believe in a “revolutionary return” to egalitarianism, but on a higher level.

Special mention must also be made of comrade Anne McShane’s introduction on the Bolsheviks and women’s liberation and comrade Mather’s informative, and rather entertaining, discussion about robots and artificial intelligence. For his part, Jack Conrad gave an excellent talk on the USSR. In my view, however, comrade David Broder’s talk on ‘leftwing communism’ was disappointing - he excoriated Lenin for putting “no outer limits” on what deals, tactics or compromises communists should enter into and blamed him for “sowing” the seeds of Stalinism. Even the single comrade present from the left-communist International Communist Current did not enjoy it.

Around 100 comrades came to the school - the best attended session being the very first one, introduced by comrade Macnair, on socialists like Alexander Parvus who ended up supporting the slaughter of World War I (about 60 were present, but attendance dipped to 29 for the last session of the week). The ratio of men to women was predictably poor - roughly 5:1. Encouragingly, the questions and contributions from the floor were of a high standard.

All in all, it was a highly successful Communist University - one of the best, in the opinion of this writer.