Looking beyond the pandemic
Covid-19 continues to cause huge problems, but it has also forced us to adopt new methods. Vernon Price reports on the openings, contributions and elections
Comrades from Labour Party Marxists were among the invited guests last Sunday at the CPGB’s AGM, held on Zoom.
The first discussion, on the international situation, was introduced by comrade Mike Macnair. He began by likening the current pandemic crisis to a war, requiring huge amounts of state debt. Once it is over, the debts will have to be recovered - either from those with substantial investments or from the working class. If the latter course is followed, then the economic crisis can only worsen. Mike then outlined six underlying dynamics that are shaping developments at a global level.
1. Capitalism is in decline. Whatever economic measures are taken to protect capital, they do not work: they just increase the asset bubble and, in turn, the levels of inequality.
2. The USA as a productive power is in relative decline. The point of inflection for that decline was in 1971, when Richard Nixon broke with the Bretton Woods agreement, whereby the dollar was pegged to the gold standard. Now US foreign policy ceases to export ‘order’ and instead exports disorder - for example, through its interventions in Afghanistan, Angola, Lebanon and Iraq.
In the late 1970s the US realised that the post-war policy of containment was leaving the working class too strong. Jimmy Carter (president 1977-81) made decisive steps in the new policy of rollback - the shift to the promotion of ‘human rights’ and the Austrian school of neoliberal economics. This held that the free market and unfettered financial engineering will outperform the Soviet model and the post-World War II, west European, mixed-economy model. In fact this was a big lie - the US was and remains a mixed economy, with huge levels of state intervention, subsidy and regulation.
The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that capitalism was no longer required to make so many concessions to the working class and the end of the cold war led to the imposition of ‘free marketism’ throughout much of the world, with the threat of sanctions and force against those not complying.
3. However, the workers’ movement remains paralysed by its attachment to Stalinism. The collapse of the Soviet Union disarmed it, and now it is unable to offer a global alternative to the world market - an alternative that is international, democratic and has planning at its core.
Most of the left has conceded on the fundamental economic questions and clings to national roads to socialism, peoples’ front alliances and top-down management. As a result the organised left actually blocks the development of new struggles by the working class against the system.
4. The series of crashes provides categorical disproof of free market equilibrium ideology. The 2007-08 crisis was followed by stagnation and money printing. The next crash was expected in 2020, but instead was overtaken by the Covid-19 crisis.
5. US policy post-Trump is characterised by contradictions - coming to terms with decline while still wanting to control the world. It wants to concentrate on stopping the rise of China, but is constantly distracted by the complexity of events in other parts of the world. The US has a significant interest in controlling access to oil from the Middle East, so it needs to prop up or control regimes there. Hence Biden’s continued support for Israel and Saudi Arabia, and his further demands on Iran before any resumption of talks on the JCPOA nuclear deal1.
6. The attempt to achieve a unified Europe has failed. The EU was born as a cold war institution parallel to Nato. But while the USA supported extension to the east after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it did not support further integration. Indeed, under Trump the US became positively hostile, welcoming Brexit, for example. Notably, the Biden administration has conspicuously held back from denouncing the Brexiteers.
In summary, comrade Macnair concluded that the global dynamics we now see point towards more nationalism, nationalist populism, traditionalism and authoritarianism.
First into the discussion was comrade Farzad Kamangar, speaking from the chair. She noted that economists from the right, centre and left are recommending Keynesian policies for the post-Covid period - both to reduce the gap between rich and poor and to increase the role of the state in the economy. In the UK we have seen Rishi Sunak implementing a Corbyn-type spending programme that was previously declared impossible. Comrade Kamangar asked if this type of state involvement could extend the life of capitalism and reduce some of the features of decline. Finally she drew attention to the way China is using the Covid crisis to win support around the world by responding to shortages of personal protective equipment and vaccine.
Jack Conrad pointed out that state intervention in the economy has never gone away, despite Thatcher’s attacks on the organised working class and the selling off of state companies. Any increase in state spending now is unlikely to see a return to regular wage increases. Referring to Trotsky’s transitional programme, which identified the crisis of humanity as being the crisis of the leadership of the working class, he suggested that what we face now is the absence of the working class itself as a conscious political actor. Any shift by the ruling class to a policy of vicious austerity could well be met, on the part of the working class, by narrow, sectional responses. Equally possible is support for rightwing populism and nationalism.
James Harvey spoke about the new consensus in support of state intervention, which is often premised on recreating the post-war boom. He thought a period of stabilisation was possible, and those on the left predicting a cliff-edge collapse of capitalism were likely to be disappointed. He also drew attention to the growth in nationalism and protectionism, and the likely impact this will have on both internal and international politics.
In his reply to the discussion comrade Macnair explained the conditions which made possible the post-World War II boom. First was the default of 50% of global state debt. Then the huge transfer of British overseas investments to the US as upfront payment for arms supplied in the war. And finally the requirement to remedy the physical destruction of infrastructure all over Europe.
Given that these conditions are not present now, and the prevailing low rate of profit, any post-Covid recovery will be based on printing even more money, and so will be short-lived. It will not solve capitalism’s systemic problems.
The second session, ‘The CPGB, Labour and the left’, was introduced by Jack Conrad. Looking back over the past year, he noted how Covid-19 had interrupted our ‘normal’ party life, but there were also some positives. Yes, we had to stop physical meetings, but we have all mastered the alternative online technology. We have had to forego our London Communist Forum events, where we were able to socialise over a drink after the meeting, but instead we now hold a weekly Online Communist Forum which enjoys a much larger (global) participation. The Weekly Worker has had to suspend printing, but the production team have mastered remote working, and our electronic-only format has allowed us to exceed the 12-page limitation of the printed paper.
On Covid-19 he observed that there have now been over 120,000 deaths in the UK, far exceeding the early 40,000 worst estimate. This government and its predecessors must take the blame for running down the NHS, so that it was in a poor position to handle a pandemic, despite the warning provided by Operation Cygnus. But to deal with the pandemic the Tory government had to adopt Covid socialism. That was certainly the case with the development of vaccines in record time. Need, not profit, was the driver.
Going forward, he suggested that the economy will experience a post-lockdown recovery, but that will be short-lived and we should then expect stagnation and attacks on the organised working class. Despite the Sturgeon-Salmond rift, the Holyrood elections are still likely to see a win for the Scottish National Party, with the demand for a second independence referendum centre stage. But equally likely is a ‘hardball’ response from Boris Johnson. The pandemic has seen serious deteriorations in working conditions in various sectors. We cannot predict the form that any resistance will take, but resistance there will be.
Jack emphasised that for us the Labour Party is a strategic question. It was important before the Corbyn leadership and remains important now. Although under Corbyn there had been a chance to take a genuine historic step forward in transforming the party, neither at the top nor below was the left in any condition to achieve anything much. The push from below was barely organised, and from above the leadership was paralysed by the search for unity with the so-called centre, with the aim of neutralising the right. In reality this meant unity with the right, as the Corbyn leadership itself became an agent of the witch-hunt against the left. Labour remains a bourgeois party of the working class, with its trade union affiliates and a sizeable leftwing membership. Though the left has largely been tamed, we should expect the witch-hunt to continue: it has developed a logic, a momentum of its own which has already taken it into the media, academia and local government.
Looking to the future and being optimistic that the pandemic will be overcome, Jack discussed the CPGB’s perspectives. We expect to resume the printing of the Weekly Worker by late spring. Likewise we hope to hold our usual face-to-face Communist University in late summer. As we resume normal work, the normal costs will return, so comrades should expect a return of our Summer Offensive to raise the required funds.
He then moved on to discuss the Labour Party conference, which will take place in September, and he expected it to have a very different character to that of the last one, held in 2019. The overwhelming dominance of the left amongst delegates from constituency parties will be gone. Nevertheless Labour Party Marxists should prepare a significant intervention, producing Red Pages and hosting a fringe meeting. Obviously we will support the conference initiatives mounted by Labour Against the Witchhunt, the Labour Left Alliance and other campaigns against the purge. But, as the witch-hunt will be in full swing, we should anticipate attempts to deny us a platform, so early bookings and preparations will be important.
Jack then referred to the case of the comrade who resigned a year ago, causing a sharp division within the CPGB. He explained that, while it was presented by some as a procedural dispute, with the benefit of hindsight it can be seen there were clear questions of principle involved.
In conclusion comrade Conrad was sure that the CPGB will build on the positives gained from operating under the pandemic, and not lose the global reach provided by the technology we have been forced to adopt. While there can be no return to the old routine, he looked forward to resuming traditional events, where we will once again meet up in person.
In the discussion that followed it was clear that the case of the departed comrade still provokes strong feelings, in particular surrounding the events leading to her departure. But none of the comrades who spoke disagreed with Jack Conrad’s assertion that this was an issue of principle. Paul Demarty explained that the first he heard of the political difference was learning that the comrade had resigned. This is not how things should happen in a party whose rules specifically allow for political disagreements and encourage members to state their views.
Stan Keable called on LPM supporters to engage in the various left campaigns within Labour. Each organisation provides an opportunity for us to present principled Marxist politics to a new audience. Ollie Hughes argued for a more coordinated online presence to maximise the CPGB’s impact - he expected this to be taken up at a future aggregate. He noted that the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain has been boasting about a surge in new recruits following the purge in Labour, but that the assorted political baggage they brought with them has led to internal scandals and crises within that organisation.
I outlined problems with Labour Party members withdrawing from all activity during the current witch-hunt, and how this was paralysing local organisation. Whilst looking forward to LPM activity at the annual conference, I suggested that a fringe meeting this year will be problematic, given that most Labour members will stay away to avoid being fingered for suspension.
Paul Demarty came back in to point out that the CPGB has had a global audience for many years - he believed that the Weekly Worker still has marginally more readers in the USA than in the UK. He thought an important question was how to organise this international following.
Sarah Stewart expressed a view shared by many, that we should invest in suitable equipment to facilitate hybrid meetings in the future. That way comrades could share a similar experience, whether attending in person or joining remotely.
In replying to the debate comrade Conrad agreed that this year’s Labour conference will be a challenge. He recalled that even before Corbyn the delegates were always polite towards our comrades, and this contrasted with the hostility, even physical assaults, experienced at the SWP’s Marxism events. He still thought an LPM fringe meeting would be a good initiative, and suggested the comrades consider inviting Moshé Machover to be a speaker.
He was pleased that our global audience was increasing, and that supporters in some countries were organising to engage in politics, but he stressed that we will not be going down the path of declaring a new international any time soon!
The AGM concluded with elections to the Provisional Central Committee. Warm thanks were expressed to Peter Manson for his work over many years as a PCC member. Peter is stepping back for health reasons, but will continue with his role as Weekly Worker editor. The other full members of the current PCC - Jack Conrad, Mike Macnair and Farzad Kamangar - were re-elected unanimously, along with James Harvey, who was made a full member.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is an agreement on Iran's nuclear programme reached in July 2015 by Iran and the ‘P5+1’ (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States – plus Germany).↩︎