A collective lunch

From Trump to quantum computing

This year’s CU once again saw lively debate, reports Danny Hammill

Communist University this year felt like it had a particular relevance, thanks to the impending slow-motion car crash that is Brexit, the ongoing ‘anti-Semitic’ slander campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the left generally - not to mention Donald Trump. This just highlights the importance of an event like CU, where we try to thrash out answers to these complex questions and resolve our inevitable differences through open debate. An approach, it has to be said, in marked contrast to the stiflingly stage-managed schools of the confessional sects, which regard with horror the very idea of ‘confusing’ the poor sheep that are the membership through a clash of competing and contending ideas. Control-freakery first: politics and theory a long way second.

Fittingly then, the opening session by Jack Conrad was on ‘Trump, Brexit, Corbyn and communist strategy’. Comrade Conrad noted that Trump is “rattling the cage” when it comes to foreign policy - expressing open contempt towards Canada, Turkey, Germany, etc. Indeed, the US president wants to significantly reduce the power of the European Union - if not dismantle it altogether. Trump’s behaviour might look irrational, said Conrad, such as provoking a trade war with China. But, underneath all the sound and fury, there is a rationality. The US is in obvious decline, but Trump wants to reverse this process. One way to do this, argued comrade Conrad, is to “fight back” and create a new international architecture. After all, who is going to stop him? The commonly heard idea that China is somehow destined to become the new hegemon is just as risible as the previous notions that the Soviet Union would overtake the west and “introduce communism” by 1980, or the “inevitability” of Japanese economic dominance over the world. If Trump’s policies do create further instability, then in all likelihood money would just flow into … the United States - a safe haven in a stormy sea due to its status as the world hegemon.

As for Brexit, to quote Liam Fox, there is a “60-40” chance of a ‘no deal’ - comrade Conrad pointing out that this is obviously against the interests of big business and British capitalism taken as a whole. So why is it happening? But, as with Trump, the supporters of a hard Brexit are not totally crazy - they do have a plan of sorts, which is to turn Britain into a post-industrial society in an almost literal sense. The country will become a financial centre and offshore tax haven - probably involving selling off the NHS and finishing off the trade unions. The hard Brexiteers constitute the rightwing of the Tory Party and, in the opinion of Conrad, there is a sniff of a national government in the air. Its aim will be to save Britain from Brexit.

Meanwhile, the continued fake scandal about the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism should remind us that Jeremy Corbyn is far from a shoo-in for prime minister. Unless we have mandatory reselection, he will have the same Parliamentary Labour Party plotting against him, and the privy council will definitely have a substantial say in the matter. Even if Corbyn does scrape into Number 10, asked comrade Conrad, what is he promising to do if there is a run on the pound, for example - introduce a “siege economy”? The comrade criticised those on the left who tried to paint red Labour’s miserably reformist, pro-capitalist 2017 manifesto (For the many, not the few) and also the idea that we are obliged to vote one way or other in a referendum - as some comrades did in the subsequent debate (ie, vote ‘remain’ if there is another Brexit referendum). Why should we line up with one wing or another of the bourgeoisie? Alas, lesser-evilism has dogged the left for far too long.

Marcel van der Linden - author of Workers of the world: essays toward a global labor history talked about ‘The global crisis of the labour movement’. He reminded us that the traditional labour movements are in deep trouble almost everywhere, though there are some signs of renewal - albeit extremely weak. The challenges before us are immense, the comrade declared. For instance, cooperatives have either become hugely bureaucratic bodies divorced from the members or straightforward capitalist enterprises. True, the number of workers in the world now totals 2.9 billion - but union densities are in dramatic decline, their role becoming steadily diminished. There are various reasons for this, explained comrade van der Linden - such as the changing composition of the working class, with increasing numbers of workers employed from the so-called ‘third world’ (India, China, Brazil, Mexico), the aggressive neoliberal offensive against the old-style unions, and so on. For the comrade, the “minimum conditions” for a global trade union revival include a drastic change in the operational methods and systems of unions, unitary structures and democratisation, and less lobbying - but more effective action.

Van der Linden is also on the editorial board of the Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). This is a monumentally ambitious project to properly translate, ‘clean up’ and publish all the works published by Marx and Engels in their lifetimes, plus the voluminous unpublished manuscripts and letters. All MEGA material is edited in the original language it was written in by Marx and Engels - meaning mostly German, but also English and French texts as well - and the volumes will consist of separate text and appendix books, giving additional information and notes on the edited text.

In a fascinating ‘progress report’, comrade van der Linden detailed how the project is expected to require 114 volumes - with 65 published so far. The challenges have been daunting, principally how to read Marx’s “swinish” handwriting - with project workers having to undergo an intensive course to prepare them for that task. The comrade said we must ready ourselves for “radically new interpretations” and discoveries - like six versions of Capital volume 1, the fact that The German ideology was never meant to be an actual book, his notes and thoughts on geology, maths, chemistry, anthropology, and all manner of other things. The only drawback is that you might have to take out a loan or remortgage the house to afford the entire MEGA series and, unfortunately, it does not look as if there will be English translations at this stage - so start learning German.

Slow coup

Tony Greenstein gave a stimulating talk on ‘the slow coup against Jeremy Corbyn’, which you can experience almost every time you turn on the radio or television. A lifelong anti-racist activist, comrade Greenstein himself is a victim of the ‘anti-Semitic’ witch-hunt for comparing Israel’s marriage laws to the Nazi Nuremburg Laws - when in fact, as he mentioned in his introduction, he was merely quoting Hannah Arendt, a Jewish refugee and writer of the famous Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Tony has no doubt that there are state actors behind the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ campaign, given its systematic nature. The allegations of anti-Semitism are nearly always entirely bogus, as proven by the Oxford University Labour Club saga and the farcical Baroness Royall report, in which she expressed “disappointment” at not finding any evidence of “intentional or deliberate acts of anti-Semitism”. The comrade pointed out yet again that “most Zionists are not Jews, and many Jews are not Zionists” - with genuine anti-Semites often hiding their bigotry behind fervent support for Israel. He emphasised that the nature of the witch-hunt has changed, now directly attacking Jeremy Corbyn - which we have all seen recently. Like many with legal training, comrade Greenstein thinks that the IHRA’s definition is a non-definition, as it is too open-ended and imprecise - and the accompanying examples are clearly intended to stifle criticism of Israel and Zionism generally. No matter what Corbyn does to appease or accommodate his rightwing and Zionist critics, it will never be enough - the witch-hunt will continue until he has gone.

In a related talk, Moshé Machover discussed Israel’s new basic law, which proclaims the country to be the “nation-state of the Jewish people”, and its “unintended effects on the US Jewish-community”. Of course, this law is overtly racist - yet presumably in the Labour Party you will now be branded ‘anti-Semitic’ just for pointing out this obvious fact. Anyway, comrade Machover strongly criticised proponents of ‘ITWAD’ (‘Israeli Tail Wags American Dog’) - which has all sorts of variations on the right and left, even pseudo-Marxist. This essentially says that the Israel lobby, or an ‘overrepresented’ Jewish bourgeoisie, is driving American foreign policy - as if rich individuals determine the overall policy of US imperialism, as opposed to the big corporations or the military-industrial complex.

But in reality it is US imperialism that is in the driving seat, stressed comrade Machover. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, as strongly argued by the likes of Norman Finkelstein, Israel became a strategic asset for the US in the Middle East and beyond. The US ruling class uses Israel to promote its political interests in America, not because of some irrational devotion to Israel. In fact, there is very little US investment in Israel and America does not allow Israel to develop its own fighter aircraft, as it does not want any competition. The idea that there is a US Jewish bourgeoisie pursuing its own agenda independently of the capitalist ruling class and contrary to US ‘national interests’ has clear anti-Semitic implications.

Still more to the point, comrade Machover continued, Israel’s Basic Law “pushes all the wrong buttons” for most American Jews, who are already falling out of love with Israel. They resent its growing illiberality and the way it tries to dominate the Jewish diaspora. In a stinging rebuke, Forward magazine - a progressive publication formerly known as The Jewish Daily Forward - remarked that it is “time for Israel to recognise that the Jewish diaspora are already home” (ie, in America).

Moshé also gave an opening on the ‘labour theory of value for the 21st century’, dealing with the so-called ‘transformation problem’ of how value gets turned into money, prices and profit. Comrade Machover himself has pioneered a form of econophysics, or probabilistic theory, to explain this ‘transformation’. However, most of those listening did not have the level of mathematics and statistics needed to really comprehend what he was saying. This was not helped by the way he used terms and concepts in his own unique way. For example, comrade Machover uses the words value and abstract labour in such a general way that value and abstract labour have always existed and will continue to exist under communism.

Lawrence Parker gave a very interesting talk on ‘Communists and Labour: The National Left Wing Movement 1925-1929’ - which is also the title of his recently published book on the matter. Comrade Parker was especially keen to dispel the myths that have arisen about the NLWM, particularly the standard Trotskyist analysis. The NLWM was not a ‘broad left’ formation, as we might understand it today, nor was it closed down by the CPGB because of the Comintern’s ‘third period’. Indeed, the CPGB leadership and the Comintern wanted the NLWM to continue - but CPGB congress delegates voted to close it. However, the NLWM had been defeated by the campaign of the Labour Party leadership in 1926-28 to disaffiliate its local bodies that refused to expel communists.


As always, Camilla Power of the Radical Anthropology Group (RAG) gave a fascinating opening on how ‘gender egalitarianism made us human’- which in some ways was a reply to those like the anarchist anthropologist, David Graeber, who rubbishes as a myth the idea that we humans were originally equal (in turn attacking Engels, of course). Colin Renfrew, the British archaeologist and paleolinguist - and Conservative peer - notoriously dismissed hunter-gather societies as less sophisticated than termites: where were their great buildings? But archaeologists only get really excited when they see things, therefore primitive communism is generally invisible to them.

As it happens, the attacks on the ‘human revolution’ by Graeber and co are based on a relatively recent period of human history from about 30,000 to 10,000 years ago - when primitive communist societies were beginning to disintegrate for various reasons. These studies, argued comrade Power, do not have any evolutionary context and do not deal with sex or gender - nor do they, remarkably enough, even look at Africa. Hence it is hard to take these lines of argument seriously. The real question, for comrade Power, is how did we become human? Though obviously a complex question, our original state of equality - humanity - is fundamentally down to the development of the “deep social mind”, where we saw an increasingly Machiavellian intelligence, exponential growth in intersubjectivity and ‘mind reading’, and many different forms of cultural transmission. At this time, females were scrambling information to the males about their precise moment of fertility - this concealed or unpredictable ovulation, combined with continuous sexual receptivity, meant that the males had to hang around (unlike ape societies). In the end, comrade Power contends, symbolism and language - the very things that make us what we are today - depend on egalitarianism.

Also from RAG, Chris Knight, gave us two entertaining talks - the first on Noam Chomsky and his intimate connections to the military. Chomsky, of course, does not believe that language is social: apparently, a miraculous “cosmic ray shower” one day implanted a language organ in an otherwise primate brain - language is essentially only about talking to yourself. His second opening was on the futurist genius, Velimir Khlebnikov, the “prophet and poet of the Russian Revolution” - who like Chomsky was interested in the creation of a universal language or grammar based on ‘trans-sense’ sounds and the possible evolution of mass communication, in which all human knowledge can be disseminated to the world by radio and displayed automatically on giant book-like displays at street corners (the “Radio of the Future”).

Anne McShane gave another interesting opening on Soviet women and the Zhenotdel, the women’s department of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) - focusing in particular on central Asia, the subject of her PhD. The Zhenotdel was closed down in 1930 on the grounds that women’s issues in the Soviet Union had been ‘solved’ by the eradication of private property. Hillel Ticktin, a CU stalwart, gave two talks - the first was on the nature of the transition (‘Through what stage are we passing?’) and the other one was on Russia and the West (‘What is going on?’). James Harvey gave two informative openings on populism and nationalism in Europe, and politics 20 years after the Good Friday agreement. Abounding as ever with charts, graphs and statistics, Michael Roberts gave a lecture on ‘The relevance of Marx’s economic theories today’ - the main aim of which was to reassert the primacy of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in explaining capitalist crisis (a contested idea).

There was a very useful discussion by Peter Manson on the South African Communist Party, which still remains a vital area of struggle for the left, despite the SACP’s manifold faults and dreadful leadership. The same can be said for ‘Trump and the Middle East’ by Yassamine Mather - the latter also did a fairly mind-boggling opening on quantum computing, which has the potential to be millions of times faster than the current super-computers (one problem, however, is that they need to be kept at a temperature approaching absolute zero - so don’t expect to have one in your bedroom soon). Mike Macnair delivered two erudite, though occasionally dense, sessions on ‘The dead end of intersectionality’ and ‘The Tory interpretation of history’ - far more pernicious than the Whig view of history, as you could reasonably argue that in the very broadest sense you do see progress or advance in history. Jack Conrad wrapped up CU with a talk on ‘The place of the Soviet Union in history’ based on his recent six-page supplement in the Weekly Worker, which in turn is the final section (chapter 35) of his upcoming book on the Soviet Union.

Special mention must be made of the comrades from the Democratic Socialist Alliance in the US and the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, who attended for the entire week and held interesting fringe meetings. There were also lively and always provocative contributions from members of Socialist Fight and the undeniably odd Economic and Philosophical Science Review group.