Serious and open debate
Danny Hammill reports on the 8-day Communist University, organised jointly by Labour Party Marxists and the CPGB
For this year’s Communist University we had a change of venue, moving away from our traditional stomping ground of south London to the playing fields of Harrow in the north-west - using the facilities at the University of Westminster, a pleasant if rather sprawling campus. In fact, the distance between the meeting room and the kitchens in the halls of residence presented a few practical problems when it came to providing refreshments between sessions. And alas, ambitious plans to live stream the whole event came to nothing.
As we always emphasise, our summer school is - unfortunately - entirely different from others put on by the left, and not just because we call it a university as opposed to a school in order to denote a higher level of seriousness. I say unfortunately because the CPGB would dearly love to be in a situation where the left, and the working class movement as a whole, had an ingrained or ‘institutionalised’ culture of open and genuinely free-ranging debate in which the voicing of different or contending viewpoints, sometimes in an acute or sharp form, is considered perfectly normal - where no one is afraid to speak their mind or submits to leader-worship. We in the CPGB have no sacred cows or taboos, no regiments of thought police. But this is certainly not the case with the other schools which, in reality, are more like rallies where we have to listen to one boring speech after another by various leading figures with an entitlement complex, and the time for ‘debate’ is laughably foreshortened - with hacks usually reading out prepared answers that spout the ‘party’ line (ie, sect line).
Another thing that marks out CU from the others, as anyone who has attended can readily testify, is that we make and prepare food communally, and do what we can to provide our own entertainment. In this way we hope to foster a sense of solidarity and human friendship, if not anticipate in a small way the communist society of the future - and also save a lot of money too! Furthermore, on the penultimate day we always have our ‘offensive’ meal - which, no, is not a comment on the quality of the food but rather marks the culmination of our summer fundraising blitz. This year we raised £31,546 and enjoyed a Kurdish banquet into the bargain.
Predictably enough, the implications of the Corbyn phenomenon - and the constant plotting against him by the right - in many respects provided the backdrop for the entire week. Jack Conrad, in his opening on ‘Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’, remarked upon the “weird” social experience that all of us recently must have felt to one degree or another - suddenly there are socialists everywhere, eager to talk politics to you. Or as comrade Ben Williams put it in the subsequent discussion, we are living in “incredible times” - with things “changing before our eyes”, Corbyn acting as a “projection board” for all sorts of people’s hopes and fears. Almost feels like an alternative universe from a couple of years ago.
Of course, the genuine enthusiasm for Corbyn’s radicalism - however described or understood - is an anathema to the right and their bourgeois backers, which has cynically thrown any shit they can in an attempt to take his scalp. Hence the flood of nonsense about “anti-Semitism”, whether from the likes of the learned Simon Schama in the Financial Times (did you know that Marx was a self-hating anti-Semite?), the Jewish Chronicle, Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, or the Chakrabarti inquiry which concluded that the Labour Party was not “overrun” by anti-Semitism - well, fancy that. Not to forget the crap, all painfully synthetic, about “intimidation”, such as the brick that was supposedly thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s constituency office (it wasn’t)1 - or Corbyn’s appalling failure to protect “vulnerable colleagues” on the NEC by opposing a motion to allow committee members to vote by secret ballot, as a tearful Johanna Baxter recounted.2
As comrade Conrad reminded us, who exactly is ‘intimidating’ who? Surely it is the right that is guilty, threatening to split the party if Corbyn remains leader, despite his overwhelming democratic mandate. What is remarkable about the Labour right is their lack of politics. Indeed, in the shape of Owen Smith, we have a right which dares not speak its name - aping many parts of Corbyn’s programme, as the rightwing press is only too quick to point out. What is the plan, what are they going to do when Corbyn is re-elected next month by another whopping majority? But what the left needs to do, argued comrade Conrad, is to get unions like the RMT, PCS or the NUT to “commit” to Labour affiliation and transform the party into a “united front of a special kind” - a party that allows left groups like the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party of England and Wales, Communist Party of Britain, etc to join up as affiliated organisations. This requires the call for mandatory reselection and the kicking out of the Blairites, as part of the struggle to equip the Labour Party with a Marxist programme. Challenging various left sectarians, comrade Conrad said that giving up on the Labour Party is like giving up on the unions - and giving up on socialism.
One topic that surfaced was how to respond to a snap general election, which seems extremely likely. After all, Theresa May just needs a simple parliamentary majority to scrap the Fixed-Term Act, and she would be mad not to take ruthless advantage of Labour’s ongoing civil war - but she is neither mad nor stupid, as her performance so far has amply proved: she is a very canny operator. This came up again in the discussion following Chris Knight’s interesting session on ‘The British Labour Party and the Russian soviets’ - where the comrade argued that the “genius” of Leon Trotsky was that he managed to find a “legal” way to do something that was extremely illegal: ie, make revolution. Comrade Tina Becker said she disagreed with the “Weekly Worker line” that Corbyn does not have a chance of winning an early (or ‘late’) general election - more likely than not, Labour will be hammered in a manner not seen since the early 1930s with the national government, which saw Labour reduced to 52 seats. Comrade Becker said this was tantamount to “sabotaging” the Corbyn campaign, citing an opinion poll showing Labour only a few percentage points behind the Tories.
But the majority of comrades rejected this approach - we need to tell the truth, not peddle illusions. Whatever this or that opinion poll might say at any one time, electoral defeat for Labour is a near inevitability - thanks to the ongoing civil war, the overwhelming hostility of the press, and so on. Marxists, however, should use this as an opportunity to point the finger of accusation at the right, not Corbyn - they lost it. It would be irresponsible to do anything else, or become simple cheerleaders for the Labour leader (‘Corbynistas’), as that would just generate demoralisation when reality intervened - possibly leading to a mass exit from the party, which would be a disaster. Under those conditions, the party would move “organically” to the right (as would the trade union bureaucracy) on the grounds of ‘realism’ and ‘electability’ - though, at this current political cycle, people like Smith, Eagle, Hilary Benn, etc have no more chance of winning a general election than Corbyn, probably less. Clearly, the right have lost the ability to think.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest attendance, at 68, was for the ‘star’ speaker of the week, professor Norman Finkelstein - who has been denied tenure for the last nine years, as he often joked. His talk on ‘The new anti-Semitism and the holocaust industry’ reiterated and developed themes found in his famous (or notorious depending on your viewpoint) book, The Holocaust industry: reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering. Maybe the turnout was slightly boosted by the unexpected but, of course, welcome publicity from the Jewish NewsOnline - which ran a short story about how “Jewish security chiefs blast UK visit of anti-Israel professor Finkelstein” to “Community [sic!] University’s” summer school, to “pervert the meaning of the word Zionist into a term of absolute hatred and abuse”.3
Anyway, Finkelstein - whose parents were both holocaust survivors - said that the modus operandi of the “new anti-Semitism” in Britain is to usurp Corbyn, very similar to the campaign against Bernie Sanders that regularly invoked the fact that he was an atheist, which still has sinister connotations in the United States. Finkelstein pointed out that when he was growing up, the Nazi genocide did not exist in American consciousness. Indeed, if anything, it was a “source of shame” to be a survivor - you must have done something ‘dirty’. At that time, the Nazi genocide (or holocaust) had a “remarkably slight effect” on American Jewry, and up until the mid-1960s, now hard to believe, there were only two books on the subject - Raul Hilberg’s The destruction of the European Jews and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann inJerusalem: a report on the banality of evil, the former being told that “it’s your funeral” to write a book about the genocide (ie, he would never get a job in academia if he pursued this line of study).
In fact, it went deeper than that - you did not go on about the genocide because you did not want to appear as a communist. Thus the doctoring of Pastor Niemöller’s famous ‘First they came for …’ poem, with the Washington Holocaust Museum omitting the communists as that did not fit with Cold War ideology depicting the reds as the ultimate evil. Just as importantly, the US’s main ally at the time was West Germany - which was staffed by former Nazis, so no rocking of the boat. As for Israel, to use Finkelstein’s words, it was considered a “strange backwater” in the Middle East that American Jews felt no particular affinity towards.
However, as Finkelstein argued in the talk and in his book, the 1967 Six Day War changed all that - then Israel became “the religion” of the US, a major strategic ally fighting America’s wars and winning. Of course, the actual war was over in five minutes but lasted longer because Israel wanted to grab more land. But, perversely, Israel now had to be portrayed as a victim - giving us the first beginnings of the holocaust industry, integral to which is treating the genocide as a ‘unique’ and unknowable event in human history. In a deliberate and calculated political move, the ‘uniqueness’ of the holocaust meant that ordinary standards do not apply to Israel as it is the object of ancient and eternal hatreds that will never cease. In other words, the holocaust (as opposed to the actual historical Nazi genocide) is an ideological weapon to delegitimise any criticism of Israel - which by definition must be irrational and anti-Semitic, even if you are a Jewish critic (making you that most loathsome creature of all, the ‘self-hating Jew’).
Finkelstein also gave two other talks - on the future of Palestine and John Stuart Mill’s On liberty. In the former, he noted that 2017 will see a series of significant anniversaries: the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, 50 years since the Six Day War and ten years after the imposition of the blockade on the Gaza Strip. He remarked that some want to undo the entire Zionist project pre-1917, reel the film backwards. This, he contended, is not possible from either a practical or political point of view - let alone when you consider the morality of it. For Finkelstein however, it was imperative to get the “international community” to actually act as an international community - that is, do the right thing and end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which it knows is wrong. To this end, Finkelstein appealed to the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi - who in his opinion focused entirely on what was practically possible, such as shaming the colonial authorities into retreat even if it meant ‘blood sacrifice’ (or revolutionary suicide).
Comrade Moshé Machover, an Israeli communist, whilst sympathising with most of what Finkelstein said, “disputed” his conclusions - he was relying on the so-called ‘international community’ or ‘free world’ to do what Gandhi relied on the masses to do: big difference. The comrade was much more “pessimistic” about the prospects for Palestine: the ‘international community’ was just another term for US-led western imperialism, and Israel was just far too important an “asset” for the US to readily relinquish. Israel has already ethnically cleansed the Golan Heights and is now waiting to do the same to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip - and, in his view, the ‘international community’ would accept that as a fait accompli. On the other hand, comrade Mike Macnair of the CPGB did not think it was impossible to drive Israel into the sea from a purely practical stance - he could imagine circumstances in which the US withdraws its support and the colonial-settler regime faces oblivion at the hands of vengeful neighbours. But he certainly agreed with Finkelstein that it was “morally impossible” - ethically inconceivable. With regards to Gandhi and so on, comrade McNair reminded us that it was US “coercion” that made Britain finally give up its grip on India, not a change of conscience by the colonial administration.
There can be no denying that the session on JS Mill was the liveliest of the week, with plenty of audience participation. On liberty had come as a refreshing tonic for Finkelstein after inhabiting the strange milieu of the US Maoist left, admitting that he stayed in bed for two weeks upon hearing about the death of the Great Helmsman. In retrospect, suggested Finkelstein, Marx was “totally unfair” to Mill in Capital when accusing him of “shallow syncretism”, trying to “reconcile irreconcilables”, “eclectic logic”, “neither extensive nor profound” research, and such-like. Finkelstein utterly agreed with Mill that truth has an “inherent advantage” over falsehoods, and that we all benefit in a utilitarian way from untrammelled free speech: it is useful for us.
Provocatively, Finkelstein asked us to imagine a university curriculum in which it was mandatory to attend lectures by a holocaust denier or a scientist arguing that from an evolutionary point of view women benefitted from, and enjoyed, being raped. Would we attend? This caused split opinions in the hall, ranging from the affirmative to the negative and all points between. For Finkelstein, communists should attend such lectures as there will be a kernel of truth to whatever is said (say, about the nature of the gas used in the Nazi death camps) - and therefore we all benefit: truth has an absolute advantage or pay-off. Needless to say, the CPGB would broadly agree with the thrust of Finkelstein’s argumentation - we would certainly never appeal to the authorities to ban this or that opinion. But, having said that, it all depends upon the concrete circumstances. Under such a scenario, we might organise an active boycott - or whatever - of such lectures. Nothing exists in the abstract or floats free above class society, including ‘free speech’.
Some comrades were also dubious that truth has an “inherent advantage” over falsehoods or lies, which sometimes can be very useful - the “anti-Semitic” campaign against Corbyn is partial proof of that, or possibly the rise of Donald Trump too: nothing is too outrageous or nonsensical for him to say at a megaphone level, hence the recent discussions about ‘post-truth’ politics.4
Regrettably, space does not permit us to detail all the other sessions. Moshé Machover and Tony Greenstein (the latter still outrageously suspended from the Labour Party for suspected “anti-Semitism”) both agreed that the Labour right, Daily Mail, Telegraph, etc have all suddenly become “terribly concerned” with anti-Semitism, which comrade Greenstein thinks is a “marginal” form of racism (he has even suggested at times that it is virtually non-existent within Britain). The comrade also reminded us that the first Zionists were not even Jewish, that historically the overwhelming majority of Jews have not been Zionists, and that far right groups like the British National Party, English Defence League and Front Nationale are all “ardently pro-Israeli”: feeling a common ideology. Comrade Machover mentioned that Zionism is a specific motivation for colonisation in the West Bank and elsewhere - referring to Leo Pinsker’s 1882 pamphlet, Auto-Emancipation, which essentially argued that Polish Jewry had been “corroded” by assimilationism - therefore you do not want to have too much or too little anti-Semitism, as it coheres the Jewish people.
Lawrence Parker gave an informative talk about the relationship between the Labour Party and the CPGB, a topic often misunderstood - especially by Trotskyist dogmatists desperate to demonise the CPGB leadership and the Stalinised Comintern. Hopefully the comrade’s researches will become a book in the not too distant future. Chris Knight gave a fascinating talk about ‘Decoding Chomsky: science and revolutionary politics’ - the title of his new book (make sure you get a copy). Once again we were presented with the enigma of the two Chomskys, the political activist who fearlessly speaks truth to power, and the scientist who works for the electronics laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - the premier department in the world when it comes to developing weapons of mass destruction. The two Chomskys, it seems, never talk to each other: there is a permanent firewall between the boffin and the anarchist activist. Knight’s book is an attempt to explain that paradox. Ian Birchall’s discussion of Alfred Rosmer (Lenin’s Moscow) and the early Comintern presented us with a very different Lenin to that of either the Stalinist or Trotskyist hagiographers - one who was more than willing to admit to making “stupid” mistakes.
Naturally, Hillel Ticktin gave his annual lectures on the world economy, capitalist crisis, decline and the current transitional period - CU would not be CU without such talks. Michael Roberts and Mike Macnair both looked at Brexit, albeit from different angles - the former dealing with the nature of international trade under capitalism and the latter concentrating more on British politics, especially the rise of nationalism north and south of the Scottish border. Comrade Macnair also gave talks on ‘class power and individual liberty’, using a BDSM group on the US West Coast as a case study, and an impromptu opening on 1688 and the meaning of the Glorious Revolution, after a speaker dropped out due to illness.
Perhaps disappointingly for a few, Marc Mulholland decided at the last minute to give a talk on Karl Kautsky’s theory of revolution instead of the “English Marx”, AD Lindsay - oh well, maybe next year. Comrade Kevin Bean gave a very thorough talk on revolution and counterrevolution in Ireland, this year marking the centenary of the Easter Uprising. Comrade Yassamine Mather added to the mix with her openings on the Chilcot report, which was not quite the whitewash we expected, and the aerospace industry - which, it goes without saying, has always been driven by military concerns first and foremost, including in the field of robotics: the possibility of almost fully automated warfare is very appealing for US imperialism for fairly obvious domestic political reasons (no more pictures of body bags coming home). Paul Demarty gave us a history of the media, old and new - saying the mass media is a “straightforward product of maturing capitalism”, used to disseminate a vast quantity of half-truths and untruths: we should remember it was not that long ago when it was illegal to report on parliamentary business. Once again, he lamented the fact - despite the vast array of talent at our disposal - we do not have our own workers’ media: why not? Given current technology it is a fairly easy matter to set up your own internet radio or TV station - something that comrades in Iran or South Africa can manage, but we in the ‘advanced’ west have failed to do.
In the last session of the school, comrade Conrad returned again to the fate of 1917. He confessed to a “bit of satisfaction” when reading back issues of TheLeninist, our predecessor publication. Though the analysis was far from perfect, these articles predicted that such a dysfunctional or freakish society as the Soviet Union was bound to collapse - its days were numbered. The real thing to explain was how it managed to survive for as long as it did. Comrade Conrad repeated his thesis that with the adoption of the first five-year ‘plan’ in 1928, which was no plan at all but rather an exercise in uninformed target-setting, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as any sort of workers’ state: it had become a bureaucratic dictatorship over the working class, who had absolutely no input or say in the running of society. Of course, Gerry Downing from the Trotskyite Socialist Fight group dogmatically insisted that the USSR was a “degenerated workers’ state” right up to 1991, as it still had nationalised industries - and a supporter of the rather odd groupuscule, Economic and Philosophical Science Review (whose founder member wrote a legendary letter to Weekly Worker in 1999 saying homosexuality had “obvious disadvantages for any species in evolutionary terms”), angrily declared that Conrad’s analysis was “crapulous”.
True, we in the CPGB cannot claim to have made a qualitative breakthrough when it comes to the numbers attending CU - up to 110 came in total (representing about a 10% increase from last year), with about 35 staying for the entire week or for most of it. What is worth noting was the appearance of ‘old faces’, comrades coming again into our orbit - something mainly, if not entirely, attributable to the Corbyn effect, which has obviously galvanised relatively large sections of society to enter politics either for the first time or to get active again after a period of dormancy. It has to be said that that we had quite poor attendance from CPGB members, some just coming for short stays or failing to appear at all. We hope to see an improved effort.