Eight days of debate and learning
Comrades attending the CPGB’s Communist University for the first time reflect on their experience
Hopeful for the future
You know that feeling when you’re joining a new class, club or school, and in some icebreaker game you have to stand up and say something about yourself? Whatever you say is going to form the first impression that all your peers have of you and, ultimately, form the beginnings of your identity in this new part of your life. You’re nervous, you’re apprehensive, you’re excited, but there’s also a vague sense of coming of age. A sense of, quite simply, ‘This is it. I’m finally doing it’.
That was how I felt walking into Communist University, the first large event hosted by the CPGB that I’d attended. I’d come across their comrades as a member of Left Unity’s Communist Platform for the last six months and had sympathised with the CPGB for much longer. It sounds dramatic, I know, but this was my first real foray into leftwing political organisation. And when you’re 14 years old, passionately communist and the only experience you’ve had of leftist discussion is with Che Guevara fetishists on Reddit, your first communist event is a pretty big deal. Granted, my expectations weren’t too high, thanks to the many debates with internet communists which made me want to fetch the ice pick, but I really did enjoy Communist University and the conversation that took place there.
One thing that I particularly liked about this event was the format: it wasn’t based around one person standing at the front talking the whole time, but around discussion and debate. Of course, there was a talk to start with, but a lot of time was devoted to collectively examining the points raised during the talk and responding to each other’s comments and criticisms. As well as simply making the event more exciting (talking is always fun), it emphasised something which I think is often forgotten in politics: dialogue. It seems to me from reading the various papers and activities of socialist groups that a chronic problem with the left is that, despite how much certain groups claim to support ‘freedom of discussion, unity of action’, there is generally a severe lack of engagement with opposing views, with people preferring to call names and emphasise that their tendency of post-Marxist neo-Luxemburgist Trotskyism with Maoist influences (or whatever they’re calling themselves now) is correct yet again. As we all know, this is not the way to build a revolutionary mass movement. At Communist University, the entire focus seemed to be on engaging with each other’s views, which was a refreshing change.
We discussed contentious issues, from the future of the Middle East to the nature of knowledge, to what the Labour Party should do next, and, although everyone had very strong opinions, we managed to have fulfilling discussions without the obfuscations of sectarianism and any sort of strict ‘party line’. This culture of conversation was much appreciated and made me hopeful about what our organisation could do in the future without the communication errors that so many other socialist organisations today are burdened with.
However, there is one thing that I found problematic - and it’s thanks to the open atmosphere and encouragement of debate and criticism, which were such positive features, that I could pinpoint this issue and raise it here. The general outlook of everyone who attended - many of whom were CPGB members and supporters - was a very optimistic one. There was talk of Islamic State being anti-imperialist, Iranian workers being radicalised, Corbyn providing an opportunity to “reclaim” the Labour Party … it’s as though the disappointments caused by the supposedly democratic socialist Ba’ath party, old Labour and, more recently, Syriza never happened.
I’m not suggesting that we should all just be negative about every movement, but a lot of the left seem so desperate that they get overexcited whenever it appears that there is ostensibly a mass movement which is ostensibly fighting against the imperialist powers (the Spartacist League’s position that the proletariat has to give IS “military support” and the Socialist Workers Party’s pro-Scottish National Party stance last year come immediately to mind) and forget that supporting, infiltrating or forming alliances with these reformist or in some cases downright reactionary movements has never worked. We should be looking beyond the progressive rhetoric of movements like the Corbyn campaign and thinking before we blindly give them our support merely for being an apparent lesser evil. My impression was that this wasn’t being done enough.
Overall, though, my first impressions of the CPGB were very positive. I think if we avoid jumping to conclusions about complex matters like the situation in the Middle East or Labour Party, and continue to be undogmatic and have vigorous debates, we could make some real progress. I learnt a lot and look forward to working with the CPGB more to fight capitalism and build a revolution.
I had an amazing time. There were different points of view on all sorts of different topics - all of them adding a new perspective to try and understand what is going on in today’s world.
The approach is really excellent: first there is the opening talk, but there is ample time for discussion as well on the topic being covered. For me the debates were full of insights and even the historical subjects were very much linked to current issues and events that are happening around us. So I am really happy to have been at CU.
There was, of course, a difference in quality between the various talks, but I suppose this is closely linked to the interests of the person listening. I am still trying to evaluate some of what was said, but many of the discussions I found very interesting and very engaging.
The organisation and structure of the debates was efficient. But one thing - it can be a bit tiring and I would recommend an earlier start and finish to each day. Starting at 10am and closing at 7pm is a bit late, I think. Also if there was coffee and tea available throughout the day, that would make things easier. Sometimes if you are sitting concentrating for a long period of time you can get a bit tired, and a cup of coffee would make a difference!
Other than that, things were really good.
The range of debate was really excellent - the right to bear arms, the colonisation of Palestine ... as someone who’s coming in fairly new to the theory of Marxism, it’s been a real interesting learning curve. Also, if you’re coming from outside this community, when you see it advertised, unless you see the timetable you might think it’s the same old stuff. But it’s so broad, it’s so varied.
And the level of debate is so good. Yes, people have got their own specialist area of knowledge, but everyone is so approachable and it’s very friendly, and I just wish I’d found it years ago!
There are lots of differences expressed, but the exchanges are comradely in the true sense of the word. As someone who has been a member of Left Unity, I find that quite refreshing. While I’m sure that not all LU branches are the same, in my experience if you say something that someone disagrees with, you can get one dominant alpha male and that just spoils it. But at CU it’s the antithesis of that. If more people knew about the range and style of debate here, there could potentially be an awful lot of people on board.
And the organisation has been pretty good. I booked up at the last minute, but when I arrived the key to my accommodation was ready and someone was there to show you where to go and make you feel welcome. The only criticism I have is that it would be quite helpful for someone coming in from the outside if there was a session where you were actually introduced to each other, so you get an idea of who everybody is.
It’s great the way that the kitchen rota was organised, with all the participants taking part. That’s how it should be. I didn’t know about it before, but when I was asked I was pleased to join in. It helped build that comradeship without it being forced on you.
The debates have been very interesting. I almost didn’t dare to contribute myself, because other comrades seemed to be making lots of notes and it sometimes felt like they could go on speaking for hours. They all seem to have so much more knowledge and I sometimes felt overshadowed by it all.
I had been disengaged from the left in the Netherlands for a while and I know that people who look at the left from the outside - via the internet, for example - often get the impression that they are some kind of fanatics. But if you go to Communist University you find that there are real active people. But they are also bright, intelligent comrades whose analysis is often striking - you get a completely different view of the left.
I was outside when a young girl was dropped off here by her mum. She was a bit nervous, but I showed her where to go and soon she was contributing to the debate! I was 16 or 17 when I got involved with the left and I know you need time to develop.
And I quite liked helping in the kitchen. There was a kind of competition to make the food better every day!
Bart von Holsteijn