Very recently I was elected by the students at the University of Birmingham to serve as a first-year guild councillor for the University’s guild of students. Unlike most left candidates in student elections, I refused to adopt a reformist agenda. As a Leninist, I perceive elections to be first and foremost an opportunity to agitate people’s consciousness. I, along with comrades in Communist Students, was adamant that I wasn’t interested in putting forward ‘respectable’ and ‘reasonable’ policies in order to narrowly scrape a position onto the guild bureaucracy; I wanted to put forward politics that would make people think.
In my campaign materials I openly declared myself a Marxist and a member of Communist Students; despite the fact various people on the soft left encouraged me to drop such labels, as they thought it could cost me the election. I also refused to alter two of my key policies - the advocacy of freedom of speech/association on campus and the campaign for a more democratic guild. I was told that talking about reforming guild structures, so that the board of trustees (a body which is unelected, which can overturn decisions made by the guild, and whose members are mostly non-students) is either abolished or elected, was a ‘hard sell’; ergo I shouldn’t mention it to students, as they’d find it ‘boring’. On the contrary, I found that most students were aghast at the fact Birmingham is the only university in the Russell Group to have a body, made up of university management, which can overturn democratically agreed student decisions.
My advocacy of the freedom of speech/association on campus caused a lot of ambivalence amongst various lefties. Some comrades took it upon themselves to commend me for standing up for this, and for actively voicing my opposition to the suspensions imposed on students who took part in an occupation last year, whilst helpfully reminding me that my policy could be misinterpreted as advocating the freedom for unsavoury groups, such as the ‘rape apologist’ SWP or the ‘racist’ Young Independence, to organise on campus; or as advocating a deviation from ‘safe spaces’ (freedom of speech could lead to someone getting offended). It is scary that such Stalinist ways of thinking passes for common sense on the left nowadays, but that is where decades of defeats and demoralisation have led the movement. Many comrades have lost confidence in their politics; they don’t believe they can win people over through debate.
Unfortunately, guild electoral regulations mean candidates cannot be endorsed by an organisation, as that could provide them with an “unfair advantage over other candidates”. Such rules undeniably hindered the type of campaign I was trying to run, making the process much more individualised. As a lone communist, I obviously accepted help from friends, including people in the Green Party and Left Unity. Whilst I greatly appreciated their assistance, I think it is fair to say that, when they were arguing for free education, a lot of ‘We can afford it’, ‘Germany reversed their tuition fees’ and other such reformism came out their mouths. So, whilst I tried to avoid a reformist agenda, I think the campaign inevitably drifted into centrism from time to time.
Had I been allowed to be officially endorsed by CS, then perhaps things would have worked out differently. I also think that, had CS been in a stronger position, and had the guild allowed non-students to campaign for me, we could have drafted in volunteers from outside Birmingham who were on the same ideological page to help out with the canvassing and thus make the campaign message more coherent.
Ultimately, the campaign was a success. Two first-year councillors were elected: the candidate who secured the first position was from the Jewish Society and polled 190 votes (45%), I won the second position with 140 votes (33%), the candidate from Labour Students got 90 votes (21%), while ‘Reopen nominations’ polled 11 votes (3%). I’m not going to claim that all 140 people who voted for me have been won over to the ideas of communism. Indeed, many did so because they knew me, they were vaguely left, or because I was the only candidate they saw campaigning. In fact, the overwhelming majority of students didn’t vote at all; the election for first year guild councillors only attracted a paltry 1.3% turnout.
Despite these qualifications, the campaign did draw some serious people out of the woodwork. A batch of students did express their support for the ideas of Marxism and hopefully I can continue to have a dialogue with them now the election battle is over.
By the time you read this letter, I’ll have already taken my seat as a guild councillor. I’ll have also just moved a motion of censure against all the sabbatical officers, at my first meeting, for deciding to cancel guild-subsidised coaches to the upcoming free education demonstration in London, because it ostensibly breaches the National Union of Students ‘safer spaces’ policy.
While I thought Eddie Ford’s description of Ed Miliband’s difficulties was useful and interesting (‘The coup that never was’, November 13), I think he missed the central reason why Miliband and Labour are in such dire straits: namely, the disastrous and deeply unambitious ‘35% strategy’ - ie, the notion that a majority Labour government might scrape in with just 35% of the vote.
When the Labour Party was founded in the early 20th century, its supporters believed that in the end virtually all working people, the large majority of the population, would come to vote for their party. From its beginning, Labour’s vote grew dramatically. Originally, Labour was class-based. Britain was a society divided into two distinct classes with irreconcilable economic and social interests. In the conflict between these two classes, Labour represented workers by hand and by brain, while the Conservatives represented the property-owning class. The role of the Labour Party was to represent and serve the interests of the working class and to challenge the power and sway of the other. This vision and strategy was dramatically successful, displacing one of the two capitalist parties, the Liberals, and brought rising membership and votes right up to 1951.
In today’s Britain, the core working class still accounts for over half the working population. Including all those who are dependent on a wage, salary or benefit, the broad working class represents around 75% of the total population. Labour’s founders would have aimed to win the electoral support of at least 60% of the modern electorate, and were once well on the way to achieving that. Modern Labour’s ‘ambitions’ are pathetic and pitiable in comparison.
The ‘35% strategy’ in a funny way follows Tony Blair’s ‘triangulation’ policies - ie, the assumption you can take your core vote for granted, because there is nowhere for them to go. The only difference is that, while Blair shat on those core voters to demonstrate his capitalist credentials to Rupert Murdoch, Miliband makes minor, timid, tepid, limp policy attempts to appeal to them, while hoping the electoral system will produce an arithmetic majority in parliament.
A Labour government ‘elected’ by just 35% of the vote - a fifth of the electorate - would have no democratic mandate, let alone the organised mass backing which will be necessary, to implement any real reforms in the interests of working people.
Andrew Murray, in his polemic with Left Unity, was right to say that in 2010 Ed Miliband was the most credible leadership candidate on offer. It was excellent he won the support of a majority of trade unionists in the electoral college. It would have been better if he had won a majority of individual members as well. It was obvious leadership had come very early for him and he was far from the finished article. But we were optimistic he could grow into the role, build a strong team around him and develop strong relationships with progressive, organised labour.
It is clear now that Miliband is no calibre leader of any description, certainly no working class one. He is clearly intelligent, serious and compassionate, and would perhaps be at his best behind the scenes assembling the best possible team and thinking out strategy and policy. Coupling a 35% strategy with an electoral campaign based on his personality and ‘appeal’ is going to be a double disaster.
Two years into the job should have been enough for him to grow into the role, but in 2012 we had the utterly nonsensical and ridiculous notion of ‘one-nation Labour’. A silly, student prankish attempt to appropriate a phrase invented by a Tory prime minister for his own purposes. Ed Miliband is no Disraeli and clearly learned no Marxism from his father.
Murray was wrong in asserting there is no electoral space to the left of Labour. Working class people and working class communities have rejected patronising, arrogant Blairite ‘triangulation’ by either voting for other parties, not voting at all or even dropping off the electoral register altogether. Labour’s core vote is today haemorrhaging to the Scottish National Party, the UK Independence Party and the Greens. At the moment, even 35% would seem to be unachievable.
Modern Labour should be aiming literally to double its electoral support, and developing policies, organisations and relationships purely and simply with that aim. Labour can only win by once again becoming the political party of the working class, a working class with very different needs and indeed opposite aims to those of the establishment and the ruling class.
This clearly cannot be achieved in a few months or even a few years. But we need to aim big, and to win big and irreversibly. It may take five,10 or 20 years, but who cares, if when we do win we genuinely do bring about the ‘end of history’? That is the ‘long war’ we need to conduct.
Eddie Ford’s article on Miliband’s electoral future misses a crucial factor when he looked at voting polls. Labour is due to be wiped out in Scotland in the next election. ‘Yes’ voters are quite consciously preparing a campaign which will aim to render them as rare as Tory MPs, by voting SNP and Green. This, if effective, will reduce even further the chance of Labour producing enough MPs to form a government.
I must say that Nicola Sturgeon, the newly elected leader of the SNP, is shot through with hypocrisy and double standards. Don’t misunderstand me - I would have voted ‘yes’ in the referendum and believe in Scottish independence. But the principle that Scotland must be allowed self-determination and a voice is completely undermined by Nicola Sturgeon’s public statements that she doesn’t believe there should be an EU referendum. That the British public should not be allowed a vote to decide in or out of the EU after banging on for decades about the right of a similar referendum on in or out of the UK.
Her public desire to forge a coalition with a minority Labour government is in main part to prevent a UK referendum on the EU. Apart from the glaring hypocrisy and double standards, she misses entirely the point that many ‘no’ voters who would have otherwise voted ‘yes’ did so because the SNP had ruled out a Scottish referendum on EU membership had they won. She aims to deny the voice of not only the folk south of the border, but Scottish people too on this subject.
Ee, thank god these members of the political ruling class are around to tell us what our best interests are and to stay our hands and voices when we foolishly seek to decide things for ourselves.
Stan Keable’s article, ‘Threat of witch-hunt averted’ (November 13), correctly welcomed the withdrawal of the witch-hunting part of the national committee statement at the Labour Representation Committee annual general meeting. The bit of the statement that took my fancy was the last paragraph, which proclaimed: “Anyone may advocate a course of action and seek the approval or cooperation of the LRC through the appropriate forum [can’t get more democratic than that!]. If such action is not agreed, members are expected to refrain from continuing to advocate a course of action unless there is a material change of circumstances.”
Unless “material change of circumstances” means simply ‘tomorrow’, we can see that the Russian Revolution would never have got off the ground because only Trotsky and Shliapnikov agreed with the April theses initially. So under the watchful eye of the troika of Andrew Berry, Valerie Graham and Simon Deville, Lenin would have to shut up about all that ‘All power to the soviets’ stuff until “a material change of circumstances” - Kornilov’s attempted coup? - released him from his silence, by which time that other politically similar troika, Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, would have ended all hope of rallying the masses for the second revolution by their support for the war and the provisional government of Kerensky.
Which brings me to the big problem with Stan’s account: war, or rather the war against the Russian speakers of the Donbass. Advocating work within the “mass organisations of the working class” - the trade unions and the Labour Party - Leon Trotsky wrote: “A revolutionary group … can work most effectively at present by opposition to social patriots within the mass organisations. In view of the increasing acuteness of the international situation, it is absolutely essential to be within the mass organisations, while there is the possibility of doing revolutionary work within them.”
This was the central political issue at the LRC AGM and Stan cannot bring himself even to mention it. Stan’s Labour Party Marxists proposed a wrecking amendment to the Brent and Harrow LRC motion, which advocated affiliation to the Solidarity with the Anti-fascist Resistance in Ukraine (SARU), to delete all except the bit that proposed disaffiliation from Chris Ford’s pro-Maidan Ukraine Solidarity Campaign. So on the subject of the looming World War III the CPGB are neutral - a stance they confirmed the following week at the Left Unity conference by backing the Lewisham motion (which denounces the Kiev far-right regime and supports self-rule for Donbass), but not the amendment to it that proposes affiliation to SARU. Despite supporting self-rule, they won’t back the people fighting for it (as Richard Brenner reported on Facebook).
So we are back to 1914 in many ways; once again imperialism is beating the drums of war and Russophobia is everywhere - far more in the LRC than in the LU, of course, which is why the CPGB took a ‘firmer’ stance against the opponents of social-patriotism there than in Left Unity.
Maciej Zurowski speaks up for the CPGB on Facebook and takes a very orthodox-seeming line to cover this capitulation to social-patriotism: “I cannot think of many terms in the history of the workers’ movement more obfuscatory and corrupt than ‘anti-fascism’. True to tradition, Solidarity for the Anti-Fascist Resistance in the Ukraine employs it in a way that conceals more than it says about the politics on the ground. We support the right to self-determination of the various regions in the Ukraine, but we won’t idealise competing nationalist factions or sow illusions in their political character.”
Indeed, Zuri: the old Stalinist, popular-frontist hiding of the class lines is visible from some within the SARU and must be fought. But even more appalling are the capitulators to social-patriots on the leadership on the LRC and in the Socialist Resistance leaders of Left Unity. And they got a big boost on November 16, when Ukrainian nationalists commemorated their dead of ‘all wars’, including Nazi collaborators who murdered Jews, Russians and Poles in World War II, by laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. SARU managed a silent counterdemonstration, which carried a placard saying: “Remember the victims of Ukrainian Nazism - past and present”. Around 60-70 attended.
Revolutionary socialists know what a united front is and what a popular front is, and we are in no doubt that SARU is the forum to fight for the politics of the socialist revolution in preparation for the momentous events that are now unfolding in Ukraine and the Middle East. The CPGB are fence-sitting.
I would like to respond to the letter (October 23) regarding my article on ‘Democratic revolution and the contradiction of capital’ (October 16), critiquing Mike Macnair’s Revolutionary strategy (2008), and specify the issue of the proletariat as alleged “passive victim of history”. The Frankfurt School of the 1930s recognised that the two historic constituencies of revolutionary politics, the masses and the party, had failed: the masses had led to fascism; and the party had led to Stalinism.
Trotsky had remarked, in his History of the Russian Revolution (1930), on the “interference of the masses in historical events”: “… whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists”. But, as Lenin had written in What is to be done? (1902), this was not a spontaneous development, but rather such apparent “spontaneity could be explained by the prior history of the workers’ movement for socialism”. The Russian Revolution had broken out on International Women’s Day, a working class holiday invented by Marxists in the socialist parties of the Second International.
Trotsky wrote, in ‘Stalinism and Bolshevism’ (1937), that Bolshevism was “only a political tendency closely fused with the working class, but not identical with it” and had “never identified itself with either the October revolution or the Soviet state that issued from it”. So what was political party for Marxists such as Trotsky, Lenin and Luxemburg? It was one part of a differentiated whole of society and its political struggles, a political form that allowed for conscious participation in all the variety of arenas for politics that had developed in capitalism: parliaments, labour unions, mass strikes and their councils, and popular assemblies, including workers’ councils for revolutionary governance. However, as a political form - as Andrew Feenberg has pointed out in The philosophy of praxis (2014), about Lukács’ account of the articulation of theory and practice in Bolshevism in History and class consciousness and related writings - the party was not only or even especially a subject, but also and, perhaps most importantly, an object of political action. It fell to Trotsky, in the aftermath of the failure of Bolshevism, to attempt to sustain this Marxist concept of political form, against Stalinism’s liquidation of politics in the USSR and in the international communist movement.
In this, Trotsky followed Lenin and Luxemburg, as well as Marx and Engels. Trotsky followed Marx in regarding both Stalinism and fascism as forms of the Bonapartist state. The death of the left as a political force is signalled by its shying away from and anathematising the political party for social transformation - revolution - not only in anarchism and left communist notions of politics without parties, but most of all in the long and pervasive, if largely unrecognised, Stalinist inheritance that justifies the party only by identifying it with the people, which puts an end to politics, including political consciousness. What Dick Howard, following Marx, means, when he warns of the ‘anti-political’ crisis of politics in capitalism expressed by Bonapartism, is this unmediated identification of politics with society, whether through the subordination of society or the liquidation of the party in the state - all in the name of quieting the inherent instability of politics, which society in its crisis of capitalism cannot afford.
For, as Marx recognised in the aftermath of failed revolution in 1848, Bonapartism was not only undemocratic liberalism, unbridled capitalism without political accountability to society, but was also the state run amok, dominating society, and with a great deal of popular support - for instance by what Marx called the ‘lumpenproletariat’; an example of the reduction of society to a politically undifferentiated mass, the very opposite of what Marx considered the necessary ‘class-consciousness’ of the proletariat. This is why Trotsky rightly regarded Stalinism as the antithesis of Bolshevism.
Stalinism’s suppression of politics in the Marxist sense was not only undemocratic, but also popular, both in the USSR and internationally. It was borne of the same social and thus political crisis in capitalism. Stalinism was not the cause, but was an effect, of the failure of politics in capitalism. We still need to try to overcome this problem of capitalism by constituting it through the inherently dangerous game of party politics.
The ethno-chauvinist ideology often purveyed by Jewish comrades is again on display when Moshé Machover (Letters, November 13) repeats the communalists’ tortured argument: we are uniquely qualified to prove Israel doesn’t speak for all the Jews! (‘White folks against the KKK’, anyone?)
That this ethno-chauvinism has been allowed to fester - covered for rather than exposed by official anti-racism - permits the flourishing of the thinnest of veneers. Who, in actual reality, would think possible that Israel speaks for Jews without exception?
These communalists pretend they perform internationalist service by proving (how wonderful!) that a few Jews don’t support Israel uncritically. Anyone not blinded by Jewish ethno-chauvinism sees that what they actually try to assert is that their beliefs are terribly important because they’re Jews.
That this licence is claimed based on Israeli boasts substantiates the symbiosis between left communalism and Zionism. The main function of Israeli leftists is to prove that Israel is a ‘free country’, which ‘tolerates dissent’ - unlike the loathsome Arab states.
Pete McLaren sets out very well the problem with free schools (Letters, November 13). Much of what he says can be found on the National Union of Teachers website (www.teachers.org) under ‘Edufacts’. But it is worth developing his last bullet point with a local example from Waltham Forest.
It is even worse than Pete states in some cases. A local trust called Lion Academy, who have three primary schools in the borough, now want to set up a secondary free school in 2016 for 1,400 secondary-age students. This outfit have no experience at all of running secondary schools and their record at primary level is questionable. This has not stopped their application, because they see this as a business opportunity, pure and simple.
Any reasonable application would assess the geographical need for places and look for sites. This could mean two schools in different parts of the borough, for example. Not this lot! They want the biggest possible school on any site, no matter what chaos this could cause other schools locally. They don’t care where their business is done, as long as they can make money. We have heard of one site they are looking at, no more than 50 yards from an existing secondary school, and another at the far end of the borough.
Their arrogance knows no bounds. They are asking parents at their primary schools to sign up to their new secondary school. They already have the largest primary in the country and it seems their desire to build a school for 1,400 is based on the number of students they teach in their existing schools. The existing primary schools have a very high turnover of staff, with no NUT reps. They have a highly questionable management structure with excessively high wages for those at the top.
The local authority in Waltham Forest has told Lion Academy Trust that they have no support. The head teachers are up in arms at the disparaging public remarks LAT have made about other local schools and the unions are furious. It will be interesting to see if, despite these forces against them, the department for education still allow this totally unproven group to run schools in Waltham Forest.
I would like to comment on a Daily Mail front-page story, which asked: “Is there no-one left in Britain who can make a sandwich?”
The Greencore company has apparently travelled to Hungary to recruit 300 people to work in its Northampton sandwich-making factory, which already employs 1,100 workers. This news has sparked howls of protest in a town where 7,800 people are in receipt of job seekers’ allowance.
Greencore started out as the privatised Irish Sugar Company and has expanded into food processing, including sandwich-making for Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Asda. In the UK and Ireland it has a turnover of £25 million a week.
The story is a microcosm of what is happening across the UK. A closer look at the facts says a lot. Most workers in the factory are on the minimum wage of £6.50 an hour and are supplied via an employment agency. ‘Cold money’ payments of 26p an hour only kick in once a worker has passed a three-month probationary period. The jobs involve shift work and only one day a week’s work is guaranteed. With rents and mortgages to pay, no wonder very few of the 7,800 people on JSA in Northampton have considered applying for jobs at the factory.
The Daily Mail story shows the need for Unite the union to fight for a national minimum wage of £12 an hour; the abolition of employment agencies; a guaranteed 35-hour week; trade union control over hiring and firing; and the opening of the books of Greencore to inspection by experts employed by the union.
I’ve just learnt that my old friend and comrade from Leeds, Jim Padmore, has died of cancer. When I was based in Yorkshire we used to meet up regularly to talk politics and he was also an ally in much of my campaign work and political interventions.
I first met him when we were both involved in the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party - he had very little time for the dumbed-down politics on which the Socialist Party wanted to base the CNWP. He later helped set up an active Hands Off the People of Iran group in Leeds. He was a subscriber to the Weekly Worker right until his death and had plenty of comments and questions based on its content.
When he went back to uni (as a maths student at Leeds) he took up our challenge to join Communist Students and fight (albeit briefly) for his (fairly ortho-Trot) politics within the group. He drew up a raft of amendments to the draft CS platform, which was discussed at our founding conference. After leaving Yorkshire, whenever I met him at some conference or national demo, we would chat and he would fill me in on what was happening up in Leeds.
He was a really nice, if slightly awkward, person. He was generous with his time and books and other publications. He was also reliable. The last I heard from him was on Facebook where he was arguing against the collapse of many left comrades into Scottish nationalism.
One of his most striking features, which put him apart from the rest of the left (and was no doubt why he fell out with so many groups - he had been in Socialist Action, Permanent Revolution, Workers Power, Socialist Fight and possibly others over the years), was his honesty. He was always happy to point out where he disagreed with us and have a debate, but also he was not deterred by being seen to be in agreement with CPGBers by others when that was the case.
His death is very sad news. A real loss.
Do the bus stop
For the two weeks surrounding Remembrance Sunday I wore as a substitute poppy a CPGB badge - when out and about on my outside coat; when at work semi-surreptitiously on a bracelet.
I half-expected some active hostility, but everything passed off without comment, except that two German-speakers I gave advice to at a bus stop about the vagaries of road works and a diversion said they liked my political statement - which gave me an opening to engage them on the esteem in which the CPGB holds the pre-World War I German SPD and Karl Kautsky.
I had little time to elaborate before we were separated by our different bus routes. Nevertheless, I was gratified by this quite unexpected modest positive experience of wearing a ‘dissident poppy’.