Where next after May 6?

Derek James reports on last weekend’s online meeting of CPGB and LPM comrades

Comrades from the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists, together with invited guests, met online on May 22 to consider two important issues: firstly, recent political developments following the May 6 local government and devolved assembly elections, and Hartlepool by-election; secondly, how Marxists should approach the question of artificial intelligence.

Mike Macnair of the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee opened the discussion on the elections by reviewing the results in England, Wales and Scotland. He stressed that there were considerable national and regional variations: the English local government results were bad for Labour whilst the Welsh Senedd elections and the metropolitan mayoral results were much better. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party had not gained an outright majority or clear mandate for an independence referendum, resulting in a stalemate - which, by avoiding a Catalonia-style confrontation between Edinburgh and London, suits both the SNP and the Tories, in their various ways.

Overall the results were good for a government in mid-term and pointed to a certain return of ‘traditional’ working class Toryism. However, whilst the results were bad for Labour overall, the party still remained an electoral force and its retreat could not be compared to the decline faced by other comparable social democratic parties in Europe. This was not the ‘Pasokification’ of Labour or the terminal decline that was being talked up in the media.

Comrade Mike argued that the press campaign against Labour and the criticisms of Keir Starmer’s leadership arose from a number of factors, including the capitalist class’s fear of, and desire for revenge against, the potential represented by the Corbyn movement; the Tory media’s aspiration towards a ‘one-party system’, which denies any legitimacy to ‘the opposition’; and their assertion of the hegemony of capitalism and the plutocratic oligarchy.

He then looked at the debate within Labour about the results. Whilst the right blamed ‘long Corbyn’, the left argued that, as leader, it was Starmer who was to blame. The Labour left had failed to learn from the 2019 election defeat, when the party had its ideal candidate and manifesto: the left was in charge and had to take responsibility for the defeat and the failure of its actual politics.

Moving on to the wider political context, comrade Mike said that the consequences of Brexit were still working through the system and would continue to do so for many years - it was a case of ‘long Brexit’ rather than ‘long Corbyn’! Furthermore, the Covid crisis had frozen society to a certain extent, and it was unclear what the new post-Covid normal would look like. At this stage, our perspectives are subject to what happens economically and politically after Covid.

In conclusion, the comrade said that the Corbyn movement had opened up the reasonable prospect of serious political work by Marxists in the Labour Party, but the various currents in that movement either fell in behind the official left and its de facto coalition with the right or advocated supposedly democratic ‘street politics’ - which in practice became a top-down control reinforcing the dictatorship of the Labour bureaucracy. Although Labour Party Marxists have had some success with our work in countering the capitalists’ and the Labour right’s ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign, LPM was unable to find much of an audience for its alternative conception of the left, based on the self-activity and mobilisation of a working class capable of building a hegemonic counter-narrative to that of the capitalist class.

The politics of the Labour left - even, or especially, those claiming to be ‘revolutionary’ - were at present firmly focused on office and ‘electing a Labour government’ at all costs, whilst for others, like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (the front set up by the Socialist Party in England and Wales), it was either all about building a Labour Party mark two outside the current party or, as in the case of the Socialist Workers Party, a return to the anti-parliamentary cretinism of ‘back to the streets’ and the ‘politics’ of protest. Comrade Mike said that all of these approaches were dead ends that were incapable of building anything worthwhile, either inside or outside the Labour Party. We should continue campaigning for a genuine Communist Party and building support for Marxist politics as the only strategy for the authentic, militant left both within and outside Labour.

In the discussion that followed comrades took up many of the issues that comrade Mike had raised and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of our intervention in the Labour Party. Talking about the current campaign for votes of no confidence in Starmer and a new leadership election, Ollie Hughes argued that this showed that the Labour left had no real perspective and was stuck in a political twilight zone, endlessly repeating ‘Corbynism mark two’. The focus on actually existing Labour as an instrument of achieving socialism meant that the Labour left’s emphasis on unity and governmental politics meant that in practice it would always tail behind the Labour right.

Other comrades suggested that, although the Corbyn movement had spent itself and the Labour left was clearly in confusion, disorientation and decline, there were no viable political initiatives outside of Labour: it was still important to intervene and argue for Marxist politics in left formations like the Labour Left Alliance. Drawing up a balance sheet of LPM’s work Andy Kirkland talked about aspects of the intervention that could be improved. We need to rebuild the concept of the working class press and use all the new forms of social media, build a stronger web presence, and develop our educational work: we need to get more out of what we do and draw on the potential audience that exists for Marxist politics.

Stan Keable, also of LPM, outlined the impact that the lockdown had had on politics, but he believed that, as conditions changed and activity resumed, new possibilities would open up. The demonstrations and meetings around Palestine showed an increased tempo and that new layers were being drawn into the movement.

The discussion also dealt with the nature of the current Boris Johnson administration and the appeal of what comrades agreed was the most rightwing government since 1945. Its anti-democratic attacks on free speech and attempts to introduce voter identity systems, combined with the increasing rhetoric of the culture war, pointed to the direction in which Tory politics would continue for the next few years. Along with the economic impact of Covid this would frame the political situation we will work in, but, as Mike Macnair concluded, our basic perspectives and approach still remain valid, as we fight to rebuild the Labour movement and rearm it with revolutionary politics.

AI: problems and solutions

The second session was taken up with a discussion on some outline amendments to the CPGB’s Draft programme dealing with artificial intelligence. Yassamine Mather opened the debate by stressing that her suggestions were very much initial thoughts and should be considered the beginning of a wider discussion. She described the scientific and economic changes - many of which have been accelerated by the Covid crisis - that had occurred since these sections of the Draft programme were agreed 10 years ago.

Comrade Yassamine stressed that automation and robotics in areas such as car production had been established for many years, but what we were now considering in the form of machine learning and AI was of a qualitatively different character that impacted far beyond traditional blue-collar work. These more complex types of automation could bring significant changes to the nature of employment in wide areas of skilled, white-collar and professional work.

Put simply, any task or job that can be understood or written as a list of processes undertaken by humans can be replaced by systems based on AI because of its forms of teaching, machine learning, decision-making and self-correction of errors. Comrade Yassamine described current research into AI systems in areas such as automated cars, and transcription and translation work. Although the levels of sophistication varied between the various sectors, it was clear that, say, automated cars were moving towards human levels of interaction with their environment. She stressed that this reduction of human work to mere processes has a long history within capitalism and that this form of the division of labour ultimately paves the way for automation and artificial intelligence. Above all these developments remove human initiative, individual personality and creativity from all forms of work, and, in the process, diminish both individual and collective agency and subjectivity.

Comrade Mather argued that the introduction of AI under capitalism would not just produce wide-scale unemployment, but would also have a profound social impact on how we understood work, productive labour and even the nature and worth of human beings, individually and collectively.1 We are only just beginning to address these issues, but in outlining some specific demands she highlighted the need to encourage active resistance by workers and trade unions to the ‘dumbing down‘ of work and the growth of micro-management in the workplace. Communists should not be opposed to artificial intelligence - it is vital in many areas of medical and scientific research and is potentially very liberating. But we must be wary of the dangers of replacing humans with bots and transforming creative human activity into mere ‘processes’ and algorithms.

The discussion that followed, as was to be expected, covered a wide range of areas. Comrades drew on their experiences of algorithms and automation at work, and in society more generally, as well as considering the key themes of the nature of labour and its relationship to our understanding of humanity. All sorts of comparisons were made, from conflicts with time-and-motion systems through to industrial sabotage to slow down ‘speed-ups’ on production lines, as comrades tried to work out the possible impact of these new types of AI in the workplace. Comrade Macnair raised the problem of transparency and legal responsibility, where algorithms are involved in decision-making - a point which Gaby Rubin developed in a different way, when she talked about the impact of algorithms on last year’s A level examination grades.

In discussing the specific demands for work to enhance human creativity, comrade Kirkland pointed out that we do not get to write our job descriptions under capitalism, so the working class must fight a fundamental battle for control over production if we want to achieve these demands. Comrade Hughes talked about the role of labour in the development of humanity, and the importance that Marx ascribed to man as homo faber. He outlined some of the limitations of contemporary socialist calls for ‘fully automated luxury communism’ and the utopian implications of such approaches to work.

Anne McShane located the discussion in the ways in which managerialism and automation in capitalist societies result in deskilling and render the working class more powerless. In this process machinery becomes a power over the worker, increasing alienation, depression and social isolation. The labour movement needs to understand how automation and AI operates, so we can become aware of the issues and develop a working class response to this changing situation. Comrade Macnair agreed that the key issue was the subjection of humanity to capital and followed up on comrade Anne’s point on education by calling for the abolition of intellectual property rights, commercial confidentiality and data protection, so that we can unpick the algorithms and understand the thinking behind the application of AI, both in the workplace and in society.

In responding to the discussion, comrade Mather reiterated that automation was already taking place and that our demands were designed not only to educate the working class about what was happening, but to give them the knowledge and the power to impose their own solutions. The debate about artificial intelligence was not simply about workplace conditions or even unemployment, important though these issues are to the working class.

It was clear from the discussion that for Marxists the issue goes beyond the nature of our current capitalist economy and raises important questions about the type of socialist society we want to build in the future.

  1. See ‘AI and our tasks’ Weekly Worker April 1 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1341/ai-and-our-tasks.↩︎