Spaces for left thinking
Despite witch-hunting attempts, CU saw a full week of open and frank debate, reports Danny Hammill.
For this year’s Communist University, the CPGB’s annual summer school, we returned to the very convenient location of Goldsmiths University in South London. However, for a while it seemed touch and go as to whether the event would even go ahead thanks to a little flurry of witch-hunting anti-red scare stories in outlets like the scurrilous Guido Fawkes blog and the high-Tory Daily Telegraph (August 15).
According to the Telegraph, the campus was hosting an event which includes a “number of individuals who have a history of baiting Jews or outright anti-Semitism” - naming Tony Greenstein of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign for his crime of “accusing Zionists of collaborating with the Nazis”; Graham Bash, editor of Labour Briefing, as guilty for having “spoken at events” organised by Labour Against the Witchhunt; Moshé Machover, born in British-mandate Palestine and a “notorious” anti-Zionist campaigner, who is Hampstead and Kilburn Labour Party’s elected political officer, and Tina Werkmann of Labour Party Marxists - giving a talk at CU about ‘Turning the tables on the witch-hunters’.
The fact that three of these comrades are Jewish is neither here nor there, of course - they must be self-hating. We were also invited to believe that Goldsmiths is no longer a “safe space” for students of “Jewish heritage” due to the presence of these terrifying individuals. Naturally, this made the university authorities very twitchy because of its lawful commitment to ‘safeguarding’ polices - nobody should be made to made to feel uncomfortable or have precious beliefs challenged, with the so-called Campaign Against Antisemitism agitating for the university to cancel the summer school. In the end CU got the green light from Goldsmiths, but the furore highlighted how the Marxist left could well find it increasingly difficult to book venues or spaces for debate, especially in corporate bodies like universities.
Appropriately then, the very first speaker at CU was none other than Graham Bash, who spoke on ‘How can we transform Labour into a vehicle for socialism?’ - a very timely question. Comrade Bash immediately referenced how the left will find it harder to find places to gather and talk. In his view, Jeremy Corbyn’s ascension to the leadership thanks to “the morons” marked a “shifting of the tectonic plates” in the Labour Party. Since then though, Corbyn and his allies have been surrounded by hostile forces and the left has been “firefighting” in the midst of a witchhunt and the “slow coup” against the Labour leader designed to restore the “primacy” of the PLP. One of the central tasks now, argued comrade Bash, was to build a “left alternative” to Momentum, which as a national organisation has become purely a bureaucratic tool of Jon Lansman in the service of the anti-left witch-hunt.
But the comrade stressed that “time is running out”, both for the Marxist anti-Zionist left within the Labour Party and also in terms of looming catastrophic climate change - a recurrent theme throughout the week. Comrade Bash feared we were reaching the “tipping point” in every sense of the term and worried too about a national government from above designed to prevent both Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s installation as prime minister.
In a related session, Jack Conrad discussed ‘Brexit, elections and the Labour Party’. While he had predicted from the very beginning that Jeremy Corbyn would win the leadership contest once he got his name on the ballot paper, comrade Conrad had, until now, never taken the idea of Brexit seriously, as the parliamentary numbers just did not add up - plus big business and the establishment were generally hostile. But things have changed radically since the 2016 referendum - primarily there was the election of Donald Trump as US president, who seems determined to break up the European Union. And then, of course, there is the advent of the Boris Johnson government, headed by someone determined to deliver Brexit by October 31, “do or die”.
Comrade Conrad remarked that Jeremy Corbyn’s recent letter to cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill - complaining that Johnson’s seeming intention to refuse to resign if he lost a no-confidence motion was an “unconstitutional abuse of power” - was a pristine example of “parliamentary cretinism”. If we do have an early election, with a totally unpredictable outcome, the comrade was adamant that there must be no collaboration with the Liberal Democrats and Tories - the very people who imposed austerity on the working class. Not for the first time, nor the last, Jack rejected the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach to politics regrettably favoured by much of the left and warned of the dangers of Millerandism - ie, ‘ministerial socialism’, which VI Lenin denounced as “practical Bernsteinism”. More broadly, the comrade reiterated the classical Marxist principle of hostility to referendums/plebiscites (so-called ‘direct democracy’), which divide parties and the working class - as obviously demonstrated by Brexit.
On the following day, comrade Conrad gave another talk, titled ‘Climate change and system change’ - nothing could be more important. Programmatically, comrade Conrad insisted, we need to move away from the mega-intensive nature of capitalist agricultural practices that inevitably involves despoliation of the soil, as Marx noted - saying that we need to heal the “metabolic rift” created by capitalism, being uniquely ‘designed’ to destroy the natural world, driven as it is by production for profit, not use (see pages 6-7 of this issue).
Moshé Machover gave an excellent opening on ‘One state, two states - two impossibilities”. The comrade outlined his theory that both ‘solutions’ are illusory as nothing can be resolved “within the box” of Palestine/Israel - that “deception is coming to an end”, he predicted. Nor is there any way of overthrowing the Zionist regime “without the consent and participation of the Hebrew working class”. The only viable way forward is within a wider Arab context that sees the Hebrew (or Israeli-Jewish) people become part of a wider, new, regional working class. In what the Jewish Chronicle described as “hugely inflammatory remarks”, comrade Machover said the idea that the Jews were expelled from the region 2,000 years ago under the Romans was a “historical invention”.
Later in the week, the comrade debated with Tony Greenstein on the issue, ‘Israeli Jews: are they a Hebrew nation?’ This was a curious debate in some respects, as comrade Greenstein conceded in his opening remarks that the Hebrew people in modern Israel could indeed be viewed as a nation - something he had previously consistently denied. However, according to comrade Greenstein, it did not matter that the Israeli Jews are a nation, as they still ought not to have the right to self-determination, since that right applies only to oppressed nations.
As usual, Mike Macnair gave two richly detailed openings grounded in history - ‘Identity politics and economism’ and ‘The programmatic bankruptcy of the left’. In the former the comrade pointed out that the recent split in the US International Socialist Organization was partly to do with intersectional politics, where essentially each group of the self-identified oppressed has a veto over the other - leading to paralysis and endless splits. The ‘anti-Semitism’ slander campaign inside the Labour Party is a mutated form of identity politics, he added, with the right saying that anti-Zionism is ‘anti-Jewish identity’ and hence anti-Semitic. But, of course, the essence of the Marxist programme was “for equal rights and equal duties of all, without distinction of sex or race”. In the communist conception of working class organisation (democratic centralism), everyone has a voice and vote, but no veto - we need common action.
As for the all too obvious programmatic bankruptcy of the left, comrade Macnair pointed out that the ‘mass strikism’ associated with Rosa Luxemburg and so favoured by the Socialist Workers Party and others on the left frequently leads to tailism. On the other side of the coin, you have the fetishisation of soviets, especially by Trotskyists - a feature that was on display at CU - as if that is the only form of working class rule. But the real Leon Trotsky, as opposed to the imaginary one, warned against this fetishisation, writing in 1931 with regards to the situation in Spain that “parliamentary cretinism is a revolting sickness, but anti-parliamentary cretinism is not much better”.
Instead, said comrade Macnair, we need a minimum-maximum programme: the minimum section specifies the nature of the transfer of power to the working class, the institutions of the working class, and how we exercise control over society. The maximum programme is the “imagination of the future society”, as Mike put it - how we envisage the first and second stages of communism. What definitely should not be in the communist programme is a series of tactics - which should always be supremely flexible and can only be decided in the concrete. Unfortunately, a lot of the left adhere to the reverse view - tactical intransigence, programmatic flexibility.
Now a CU stalwart, and entertaining as ever, Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group gave two openings - ‘Noam Chomsky and me’ (describing a very fraught relationship) and ‘When Eve laughed: the origins of language’. The latter session intersected to a certain extent with Yassamine Mather’s session on ‘The rise of machines, AI and quantum computers’: both comrades agreed that machines/robots/AI will never understand humour or can be consciously self-aware - they do not possess or understand language in any true sense, which seems a uniquely human attribute.
Hillel Ticktin gave a talk on capitalist decline - we are already in a depression, he stated - and another entitled ‘Predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union’ - something he had done decades before the USSR actually fell. As a student in Kiev in the early 1960s, he was confronted daily by the appalling backwardness of the Soviet Union. For example, it was near impossible to find items such as a ballpoint pen.
Michael Roberts informed us about ‘Modern monetary theory’, which is neither new nor radical - though it influences the likes of Chris Williamson, John McDonnell and Bernie Sanders. I do have to note that comrade Roberts does seem unduly enthusiastic about seizing the ‘commanding heights of the economy’, which ultimately is a variant of socialism in one country: in today’s truly interlocked global economy, what exactly is a British company or firm?
Lawrence Parker talked on ‘The Labour Party’s historical relationship to Marxism’. Yes, Labour famously owes more to Methodism than communism, but it is significant that the party republished the Communist manifesto in 1948 (albeit with a disingenuous introduction by Harold Laski). Anne McShane discussed ‘Russian Revolution: women as the barometer of social progress’, focusing on Zhenotdel - the women’s department of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) - and the Communist Women’s International, both closed down in 1930 as part of the Stalinite counterrevolution.
Ed Griffiths, author of Towards a science of belief systems (2014), covered a topic never explicitly discussed before at CU - conspiracy theories. He identified two main types: the “less interesting” one that involves a super-villain like Professor Moriarty or Fu Manchu manipulating events, and those that involve some sort of evil ruling power that is really running the world behind all the cover-ups. Pauline Hadaway’s session on ‘Brexit: are politics transcending left and right?’ was unusual in many ways. She is a regular contributor to Spiked Online, whose origins lie in the Revolutionary Communist Party - which left behind working class politics decades ago, embracing rightwing libertarianism. Pauline is also a member of the Full Brexit group, which is “committed to seizing the historic opportunity Brexit offers for restoring popular sovereignty, repairing democracy and renewing our economy”. But from her talk it was unclear whether she supported a no-deal Brexit or would back Boris Johnson’s attempts at a “do or die” Brexit.
In a positive development, there were five fringe meetings put on by non-CPGB comrades - even if the quality was somewhat uneven (there was a rather incoherent opening on ‘Stalinism and the new left’ from members of the Platypus group). In his fringe on climate change, Alan Gibson of the Bolshevik Tendency in Ireland, who is now working inside Extinction Rebellion, expressed the opinion that a left split will emerge from such a movement, obviating the need to get involved in Jeremy Corbyn’s “reformist” Labour Party. Naturally, as communists, we strive to give CU an internationalist flavour, and we must especially commend the constructive contributions from comrades representing the Marxist left within both the Socialist Party in the Netherlands and the Democratic Socialists of America in the US, who stayed for the entire week - as did comrade René Barthes of the Pole of Communist Revival in France.
Throughout CU Socialist Fight members, dogged as always, made frequent interventions - even if that meant repeating the same old formulations whether on ‘a party of the whole class’ or the so-called ‘transitional method’. And there were the usual inimitable interventions from the eccentric Economic and Philosophical Science Review group, who consistently warn us about an impending fascist takeover.
Apart from patience, this demonstrates our insistence on open and frank debate with our political opponents and different tendencies. This could not be more different from the dull summer schools of the left, the various sect leaders having no interest in developing the membership theoretically and politically. While the overall attendance was just over a hundred, many more joined us online.