Despite the lockdown, reports Daniel Harvey, Communist University featured fascinating debates and a vigorous exchange of views
This year’s Communist University had a different feel to it, thanks to it being hosted entirely online instead of at our usual venue in south London. The booking there had to be cancelled because of the ongoing pandemic, but we were determined to provide the space for the left to debate its ideas openly and in detail, in the CU tradition.
Unlike many other groups on the left, which unfortunately use their summer schools to put on a series of rallies, with top-table speakers talking down to the faithful, we emphasise genuine debate - and disagreement. The latter being especially encouraged, because if there is anything the left needs more than ever it is critical thinking and a breakdown of the sectarian silos in which most socialist activists unfortunately find themselves.
That said, there were some limitations to this format. Instead of having as many sessions as possible like we usually do when we meet in a physical space, sessions were pared down to two per day - although this did make the event less exhausting for participants. Neither could we provide for fringe meetings, as we normally do. In the past these have provided a platform for a range of different groups and individuals wanting to discuss their ideas with us.
And, of course, meeting online radically reduced the opportunity for comrades to discuss ideas informally in and around the different sessions, and actually get to know each other properly, as would normally be the case. This sort of discussion is really important for a successful Communist University if we really want to get to know where people are coming from politically.
There were some advantages as well, however. We had far more participation from comrades internationally than we normally do, as well as a higher attendance than normal. In addition to which, as I write, almost 1,000 viewers have watched some of the videos online. Go to communistuniversity.uk if you want to join them.
Jack Conrad opened up the event by placing the current period in a political context, describing the profound crisis in which the reformist left has found itself. He put ‘reformist’ in inverted commas in the title of his talk, because what much of the left would describe as ‘reformist’ does not actually conform to any Marxist definition of the word. We are not talking about a programme that wants to utilise state power to take us to any kind of ‘socialism’, even one based on a Fabian version of nationalised industries. What we are really talking about, he said, was support for minimal reforms under capitalism.
This has been dealt a severe blow by Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat in the December 2019 general election, while his preferred successor, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was way behind Keir Starmer in the subsequent leadership election, indicating a shift to the right in the Labour membership. He emphasised that Labour remained a bourgeois workers’ party, in which the trade unions still held sway - alongside a professional caste of careerists wanting to use the party as a platform for their narrow aspirations.
Comrade Conrad emphasised that, even if Corbyn had won a parliamentary majority and been allowed to take office, this would not have offered any kind of prospect for advance. In fact, with the Parliamentary Labour Party dominated by the right, combined with opposition from the entire capitalist establishment, he would either have been quickly removed from office or seen his manifesto pledges moderated even further. The organised left was hardly in a position to do anything about it.
Most of the organised left - including the two largest groups, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales - actually viewed Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in a negative way. The SWP knew that many activists would be drawn into Labour and away from extra-parliamentary demonstrations, while SPEW’s long-term project of setting up a Labour Party mark two via the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition would be completely redundant - which it had always been in practice. In reality, Labour remains a “site of struggle” - the party must be transformed into a permanent united front for the entire workers’ movement as part of a long-term strategy for working class power, within which the need for a mass Communist Party would be paramount.
Plenty of comrades contributed from the floor, including two comrades from the Platypus group, who thought that the CPGB position implied creating illusions in the Labour Party and simply ended in creating a lot of “Keir Starmer supporters”. Anne McShane stated that she did not fully understand the position we had taken with respect to Corbyn partly for this reason.
Comrade Conrad replied that our position was not about Corbyn being elected leader, or being deposed, but about a long-term strategic orientation to Labour as a “united front of a special kind”, with its historic link to the working class. At the same time, whilst he agreed with a contribution from Stan Keable that the “fight continues” in the Labour Party, like Mike Macnair he stressed that we could certainly lose the Labour Party in a similar fashion to what has partially taken place in other countries like France and Germany. We are not “programmatically tied” to winning Labour, but, whilst its structures and mass membership exist, it is essential we take the fight within it very seriously indeed.
Other talks provoked debate on a whole spectrum of topics, often related to this. Of particular relevance was John Riddell’s discussion on the development and implementation of the united front policy of the Comintern immediately after the Russian Revolution. This was primarily a strategy for communist organisation in what was seen as a defensive struggle, as opposed to those who favoured a revolutionary offensive. However, social democracy, having betrayed the working class by sliding into social chauvinism in World War I, still held the leadership over the majority of the working class.
Comrade Riddell demonstrated how the united front was a strategy that allowed communists to unite with social democrats in those defensive tasks - with the specific aim of gaining the ear of the working class and exposing its social democratic leadership as inadequate in practice. The communists could then win workers over to a revolutionary position. This was not without difficulty, given that the social democrats were seen by communists as ‘agents of the bourgeoisie’ and were in fact the ones shooting at them in practice - in the German context especially. The discussion brought out the divide between this and the way in which ‘united front’ and particularly ‘transitional demands’ are deployed by much of the left today as an excuse to hide its own politics, or excuse it from supporting basic Marxist principles.
This tied into the session from Marcel van der Linden, who discussed what he described as the paradox between workers being able to make revolution more easily and readily in the earlier stages of capitalism and the relative paucity of examples in the more recent context of mature capitalism. In relation to this he posed the problems faced by the working class during the development of advanced capitalism. The first was the “transition dip”, as the early state changed from being something that only took from the population in the form of taxes and bodies for wars, to one that provided services which the working class came to expect. There was also “deflection” - the development of very large intermediary institutions, such as transnational corporations. Thirdly, comrade van der Linden believed that Marx had underestimated the ability of capitalism to incorporate the working class as a component of civil society.
Mike Macnair and Jack Conrad both challenged this position. Comrade Macnair set it in the context of the ‘Kautsky debate’ in the United States. While workers may accept that revolution is possible, they tend to believe that socialism is utopian. Comrade Conrad posed a number problems, particularly in relation to the absence of leadership - or misleadership. There was also the problem of “example”: eg, the Soviet Union could hardly be held up as a desirable alternative.
The intricate nature of the relationship between the working class and the institutional forms and structures of capitalism were explored in different ways in four other talks over the week, and set in very different historical contexts. The first was Lars T Lih’s talk on ‘The unwritten constitution and birth of Soviet Russia’. The second was Daniel Lazare’s interesting discussion on the role of the constitution in framing political development in the USA. The third was Jack Conrad’s opening on the formation of the early CPGB in Britain and the fourth was James Harvey’s detailed consideration of the effect of Brexit on the prospects for Irish re-unification. In separate ways these talks really got into the granular detail of this question with excellent debates in each case.
In the international context, Yassamine Mather spoke on the situation in Iran and the wider Middle East. This has been largely dominated recently by Donald Trump tearing up the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration. Comrade Mather pointed out that in large part relations between the Arab states, Israel and the US have been determined by a paranoia over Iran’s influence. She stressed that this was in large part a direct result of US intervention in the region and especially the US-led invasion of Iraq.
More recently there have been formal and informal alliances between the Gulf States and Israel, of which the recent overtures between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is really just the “tip of the iceberg”. Furthermore, comrade Yassamine said that the apparent conflict between Shias and Sunnis is really a proxy for competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and that the funding of jihadi groups in the region by Saudi Arabia and others should be seen in this context. There has been a ratcheting up of sanctions, which has ruined the Iranian economy. It has also had the effect of increasing corruption, and consequently there has been an upsurge in protests, to which the regime responds with repression.
There was also Moshé Machover on ‘Illusions, solutions and demands’ relating to Israel-Palestine. The greatest illusion in the opinion of comrade Machover was that the Oslo Accords somehow laid the basis for a ‘two-state solution’, even though this is not even mentioned in that agreement. He said that he and Emmanuel Farjoun had as early as 1976 written a set of theses, laying out that Israel would not permit a genuinely independent state of Palestine. The discussion, he felt, was not about two states, but “a state and a quarter”. What is the purpose of this illusion? It is really about allowing Israel to get on with annexation without too much protest. Similarly ‘peace process’ is a term “without any product”, since “colonisation would continue apace”. In effect the “peace process” ended in 2014, when US secretary of state John Kerry acknowledged that negotiations had ended. Now we have the prospect of the annexation of perhaps the whole of Palestine.
Comrade Machover discussed the problem of a ‘one-state solution’, saying that it cannot be dismissed by Marxists simply because it would be a bourgeois secular state, but because Marxists cannot put forward utopian solutions. That is to say, there is no social force that could bring about such a solution in practice, as the Israeli working class does not see it as being in its interests.
There were three excellent talks on political economy, but unfortunately Hillel Ticktin was unable to speak on ‘transition’ because of illness.
Firstly we had Michael Roberts discussing the economic fallout of Covid-19. He said that since 2015 he had already been predicting a major recession due to the ongoing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and, of course, he had not expected that crisis to emerge through a pandemic. But capitalism had never fully recovered in terms of lost productivity since 2008 - or, for that matter, since the 2001 slump before it. There would be no V-shaped recovery because of the reduced level of productive investment.
He blamed this situation on a drop in the rate of profit across the advanced economies, which had been trending inexorably downwards since the 1950s. There was also a big rise in corporate debt and a halving in the growth of world trade since 2008. Comrade Roberts concluded with the assessment of United Nations secretary general António Guterres that the pandemic can be likened to an X-ray, “revealing the fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built”.
Looking at the wider context of this was Mike Macnair with his talk on ‘Growth, degrowth and planning’, which took on the thinking of environmentalist greens. He explored the notion of ‘degrowth’ as a way out of the environmental crisis and the problem that this posed to the legitimate needs of the global working class. He said it was not possible to dismiss as stupid ‘deep green’ notions of a collapse in capitalism brought about by climate change and other threats, and situated this in relation to earlier ‘collapses’ in organised societies.
In the ensuing debate the problem was posed by speakers, especially comrade Alan Gibson and myself, that the threat of climate change could not really be compared to earlier forms of collapse, as it represented a permanent, and indeed existential threat. Comrade Macnair did not dispute this, but said that in his opinion the threat of war posed more of a threat to human existence than that of global warming. Comrade Gibson also pointed out that the greatest problem posed by underdevelopment was the massive loss in creativity this represents.
Then there was Ian Wright’s talk, titled ‘Marx on capital as a real god’. He felt that capital, in abstracting value from concrete labour, represents a co-determining relationship and, as a result, appears to act as an entity in its own right - with its own consciousness and desires that are separate from and antagonistic to our own. Contrary to the opinions raised following Mike Macnair’s talk, comrade Wright felt that capitalism could continue to incorporate and neutralise outside threats to its stability, either from the working class or nature, and saw no reason why it could not continue for a very long time yet. This talk was seen by many as the most enjoyable of the week.
Of course, no Communist University would ever be complete without the involvement of comrades from the Radical Anthropology Group, and in this case comrades Camilla Power and Chris Knight both talked about the issue of gender in original communism and whether egalitarianism in itself was the initiator of the ‘human revolution’. Both these talks went a long way in undermining political narratives about human nature tending towards dominance, hierarchy and selfishness. The human revolution was precisely against these traits in practice, and returning to them under class society represents a major regression.
Despite the limitations of organising it under these circumstances, Communist University 2020 was clearly a success. We got through a great deal of discussion and debate. There was universal praise for our Dutch comrades, who did so much on the technical side, as well as comrade Mather for organising such an event. It could be that CPGB online events will become a more regular feature - we are now planning a ‘weekend CU’ in January 2021.