Not a religious approach
Our aim is to have serious debate, Peter Manson reports, and this year’s CU certainly came up to the mark in terms of the quality of the speakers
Marxism requires constant enquiry, not shibboleths
This year our annual summer school, Communist University, took place from August 12-19 and attracted around 80-90 participants over the eight days. As well as comrades from the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists, the two sponsors of this year’s event, members and supporters of the Labour Party, Left Unity, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, the International Bolshevik Tendency, Platypus Affiliated Society, Economic and Philosophic Science Review, Socialist Party of Great Britain, the US Red Party and Socialist Fight also took part.
The purpose of CU is to clarify our ideas and attempt to resolve our differences through open debate - a feature that was noted by several of our guest speakers. For example, Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group stressed that Marxism is not a “religious ideology” - “we need to be able to think” and be “open to new ideas”, which was why he thought CU had such a useful role to play. His RAG comrade, Camilla Power, in introducing her session on ‘The revolutionary sex’, remarked that “this forum is very productive” for those who are “trying to think”. And Michael Roberts, speaking on the ‘Challenges ahead for global capitalism’, reported that when he puts forward his ideas in articles and on his blog, people often respond: “That’s all very well, but what’s he going to do about it?” Well, “that’s part of the reason we’re sitting here”, he said.
Unsurprisingly one of the school’s main themes was the Russian Revolution, as well as the historical background to it. For example, Neil Davidson of RS21 gave a talk entitled ‘How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions?’, while August Nimtz’s three sessions were: ‘Marx and Engels and the democratic breakthrough’; ‘Lenin, Bolshevism and the tsar’s duma’; and ‘Bolshevism, soviet elections and the Constituent Assembly’. US author and political activist comrade Nimtz featured for the first time at CU and proved to be a very welcome addition to our list of speakers. In the coming weeks we hope to feature articles based on his talks, as well as those of several other speakers.
A recurring area of contention - in comrade Knight’s ‘Lessons of the October revolution’, Neil Davidson’s ‘How revolutionary were the bourgeois revolutions?’ and Marc Mulholland’s ‘The Bolshevik problem of breaking with capitalism’ - was the significance of April 1917. Did Lenin’s return to Russia signify a fundamental break with old Bolshevism or was it a question of “continuity and adaptation”, as the CPGB’s Jack Conrad asserted in the final CU session, fittingly entitled ‘Bolshevism vindicated’?
While comrade Davidson had commented that “the Bolsheviks thought Lenin was crazy in April”, it was clear from the openings of comrades Nimtz and Mulholland that they did not see things quite that way. It was a question of applying the Bolshevik programme to the new situation - a position that the Bolsheviks overwhelmingly shared. For some comrades, including Gerry Downing of Socialist Fight, the call for the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” was - thanks to Lenin, in opposition to the majority of the Bolshevik leadership - completely ditched.
But for others the Soviets of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry given flesh and bone, and, as comrade Conrad pointed out, there was a unique form of dual power because the ‘socialist’ majority in the soviets were determined to hand power to the bourgeois Provisional government. Comrade Mulholland stated in his talk that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had always believed in a “bourgeois revolution led by the working class”, in a country where “the peasantry will hold back the proletariat from socialism”.
Comrade Conrad referred to this as a “bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie”. After October there was a working class-led government which relied above all on triggering the European revolution. He also pointed out that, when Trotsky began writing in detail about the so-called ‘fundamental break’ triggered by Lenin’s April theses, it was in circumstances of both a factional battle against Stalin and the cult of Lenin, so his writing cannot be seen as historical works pure and simple. The main lesson, however, was the need for unity around a principled programme, bringing together the many shades of opinion in the revolutionary Marxist movement, he concluded.
Other sessions relating to 1917 were Anne McShane’s ‘Women and the Russian Revolution’, Bob Arnott’s ‘The birth of Soviet healthcare’ and the two talks introduced by Hillel Ticktin. The second of these, titled ‘The real alternative when socialism in one country seemed inevitable’, involved some ‘what if’ history - if, for example, Trotsky had used his military position to seize power after Lenin’s death. This led to an interesting discussion about the relationship between the objective situation and the role of individuals.
But Communist University was about far more than 1917. For instance, the opening session, also presented by comrade Conrad, was about the political situation in Britain ‘After the June 8 general election’. But one aspect of his talk was misunderstood by IBT supporter Alan Gibson, who seemed to think that the CPGB believed the Labour Party could be transformed into the modern equivalent of soviet power or even a revolutionary Marxist party. But comrade Conrad was in fact comparing the Labour Party we aim to win with soviets in the sense of them being a united front of a permanent kind.
Comrade Gibson also took issue with CPGB comrades over the call for the organisation of rank-and-file soldiers in trade unions - he seemed to oppose this in principle, as the armed forces are state agencies pure and simple, and should not be touched by Marxists ... unless there is a revolutionary situation. For his part, comrade Knight reported the reaction of soldiers when in the early 1970s he had handed out leaflets calling for union organisation: “About fucking time!” they responded.
In his talk on the ‘Challenges ahead for global capitalism’ comrade Roberts identified these as the “huge rise in inequality”, the “inability to grow” and the apparent impotence of the bourgeoisie in the face of climate change. Other challenges - this time faced by our own movement - were explored in the session entitled ‘Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism’, whose two platform speakers were regular Weekly Worker writers Moshé Machover and Tony Greenstein. They stressed the need to remain firm in our opposition to Zionism despite the onslaught of a good section of the establishment, which absurdly equates this with anti-Jewish racism.
Then there were the sessions introduced by other Weekly Worker regulars and CPGB comrades. Mike Macnair gave two talks - ‘1967 and all that’ dealt with the Sexual Offences Act, while ‘The “rule of law” delusion’ emphasised that bourgeois legality in fact reflects current ideas in the “political class” and, although it is a question of the balance of forces, is “fundamentally a guarantee of property rights”. Which is why we “don’t trust judges”, concluded comrade Macnair.
Enigmatically entitled ‘Computer says no’, Paul Demarty’s talk came up with another challenge: how do we make use of the fruits of automation when “computers are rendering large parts of the workforce superfluous”? For her part, Yassamine Mather’s talk entitled ‘Trump and the Middle East’ covered a large number of questions relating to both US politics and those of several Middle Eastern countries - expect more from this comrade very soon in these pages! As for Kevin Bean’s ‘Populism, nationalism and the new/old politics in Europe’, the first article based on it appears elsewhere in this paper, so I will not say any more here.
Lawrence Parker gave the type of interesting analysis we have come to expect in his talk on ‘The Sunday Worker and the National Left Wing Movement’. He described the NLWM, set up by the CPGB in 1926, as a “generally healthy organisation”, which “doesn’t fit into any ‘right opportunist’ template” despite the efforts of some on the left.
All in all, even though the attendance at Communist University was disappointing compared to recent years, there were very many stimulating sessions. As usual, the discussion continued well into the evening - both informally over a drink and in the three fringe meetings. These were organised by Platypus, the Socialist Party of Great Britain and comrade Peter Moody of the US Red Party.