New times, new challenges

The first post-lockdown CU saw an in-depth exploration of war and peace. Danny Hammill reports

After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic and lockdown, comrades were able to meet in person at our Communist University summer school in central London. But, as is becoming increasingly common, it was a hybrid event: yet despite various technical glitches we should be pleased with the results.

Given the Ukraine war, and the general rise in geopolitical tensions, this year’s event had the theme of ‘war and peace’. This themed approach - a first for CU - has bizarrely been criticised for suffering from “monomania” - but we do, after all, live not only with a bloody proxy-Nato war in Ukraine, there is the danger of a much wider conflict, including the use of nuclear weapons, and, of course, eventually war on China.

Logically enough, the first session was ‘What is war?’, introduced by Jack Conrad. He quoted the famous definition of war by the Prussian theorist, Karl von Clausewitz - “war is the continuation of policy with other means”. This is to be found in his seminal text, On war. In other words, under capitalism, peace is just the preparation for war and war is just the prelude to ‘peace’ - the dialectical unity of opposites. Unsurprisingly, Lenin mentioned Clausewitz many times and his influence is obvious. For instance, in his 1916 The peace programme: “War is the continuation, by forcible means, of the politics pursued by the ruling classes of the belligerent powers long before the outbreak of war.”

As the speaker from the Communist Platform (Netherlands) was unable to make an appearance, comrade Conrad stood in towards the end of the week in the session entitled ‘Why opportunists fear, loath and attack the demand for a popular militia and the abolition of the standing army’. Pathetically, nearly the entire British left thinks the CPGB is completely crazy for raising the question of a militia, even though it is a standard democratic demand, going back to well before the American revolution. The right wing of the German Social Democratic Party had no problem with it either, but it is too much for the r,r,revolutionaries in the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales.

The very last session by Mike Macnair returned to the theory and history of warfare. His main argument was that revolution immediately poses the question of international war - often of a very protracted nature. Indeed, you could argue that the Russian Revolution triggered the ‘70 Years War’ (1919-89).

There were two sessions from CU stalwart Chris Knight on the origins of war - the first on ‘Alpha male violence and chimpanzees’ and the second on ‘The human revolution and the Neolithic counterrevolution’. Of course, there is such a thing as human nature, whatever some might say. Marx and Engels were “pioneers of radical anthropology”, as demonstrated by The origin of the family, private property and the state, for all of its obvious flaws and mistakes. Chimpanzee society is highly competitive and violent, but many hundreds of thousands of years ago through growing female solidarity, the human revolution created an egalitarian, matriarchal-led society. Under ‘primitive’ communism there was no warfare. But from the Neolithic onward, the beginning of the farming revolution, warfare became endemic.

Two talks were given by Mario Kessler, a Trotskyist born in the German Democratic Republic. They were on ‘Marx and Engels: war, peace and revolution’ and ‘Not a penny, not a man: the heroic stand of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg against world war’. The comrade gave us plenty of useful, though mostly familiar, historical material. In the first talk he outlined the changes and significant developments in the Marx-Engels team’s approach to various conflicts, such as the 1870 Franco-Prussia War. Then Engels wavered towards a form of defencism, revolutionary or otherwise, after France attacked Germany - something almost certainly deliberately provoked by Bismarck in order to induce four independent southern German states to join the North German Confederation. But when talking about Liebknecht and Luxemburg, the comrade tended towards hagiography rather than critical analysis. He approvingly quoted, or so it seemed, Liebknecht’s voluntarist remark about how revolutionaries should “aim for the impossible” - revolutionary will alone can make things happen. But, as was said in the discussion afterwards, individual heroic actions aside, if you do that then you are bound to fail - therefore it is an object lesson in how not to make revolution.


As always, Moshé Machover gave an informative talk on ‘Zionism’s colonial wars’. In fact, the Zionist project has involved repeated wars since 1948. Comrade Machover once again excoriated the absurd notion that the Israeli tail wags the America dog - America is by far the dominant power, even if Israel has its own independent interests.

Replacing Marc Mulholland who unfortunately could not give his presentation, Kevin Bean spoke on the advertised subject of ‘Marx and Engels and the Irish question’ - the two taking different approaches at different times. They placed great importance on the Irish question, of course, as does the CPGB. The entrance to Engels’ house in London was festooned with Fenian colours and he planned to write a lengthy book about the history of Ireland. For his part, Marx thought that the English working class could “never do anything decisive” until Ireland had its freedom - otherwise it would always be tied to its own ruling class.

We returned to the Irish question with Anne McShane’s ‘Northern Ireland, the left, social pacifism and the peace process’. The British left has a generally appalling record on this issue. Indeed, disgracefully, the International Socialists (forerunner of today’s SWP) in 1969 described the British army’s “intervention” as a “useful opportunity to build a working class movement” - instead of unequivocally siding with the oppressed Catholic-nationalist community and its armed resistance to imperialist rule. Large sections of the left also called for a ‘yes’ vote in the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday agreement - whilst we in the CPGB called for an active boycott. The reality is that the agreement led to the further institutionalisation of sectarianism in the statelet - parties in Stormont now having to define themselves as either unionist, nationalist or ‘other’. Plus the erection of grotesque ‘peace walls’ that almost completely divide the two communities. Call that progress?

Yassamine Mather gave two particularly interesting talks on ‘Sanctions: a weapon for peace or a modern-day form of siege warfare?’ and ‘AI, robots and drones: the revolution in warfare’. No prizes for thinking that sanctions are a form of warfare - both a “pre-war” measure to soften up the enemy and a “post-war” measure to punish the defeated.

As for robots and drones, it is fair to say that the “revolution in warfare” was a sub-theme of the week. Inevitably, we have seen the increasing use of drones - Ukraine being the obvious example. AI of various sophistication is behind ‘fire and forget’ drones - that loiter around waiting for a target - not to mention slaughter bots that are self-contained and can make their own decisions, choose their own targets, based on thousands of variables. Then there is the linked phenomenon of cyberwarfare, which looks set to become more and more prevalent. The wider use of quantum computing has the potential to qualitatively transform this type of warfare, which is a worrying thought.

Meanwhile, Ben Lewis continues his invaluable service of translating key documents from the German Social Democratic Party and its major figures - work of seminal importance to the Marxist tradition. This time he talked about ‘Clara Zetkin and the first World War’. Zetkin, it seems, was traumatised by the SDP vote for war credits and, of course, was totally committed to the fight against women’s oppression, through socialist means - she was deeply opposed to bourgeois feminism, which she rightly thought was a tool to divide the unity of the working class.

Of course, the Bolsheviks proposed to the Zimmerwald conference a resolution that advocated turning the imperialist war into a civil war, carrying out “revolutionary activity among the masses” - a complete break and denunciation of the pro-war socialists, and a Third International. Because of her anti-war opinions, Zetkin was arrested several times during the war, which took a serious toll on her health - which was never good at the best of times.

In ‘The political economy of war: the military industrial complex and modern capitalism’, Michael Roberts gave his usual solid and reliable presentation full of slides, graphs, charts, lots of statistics - definitely something to chew on later. Lawrence Parker supplied various insights into ‘The struggle against Henry Hyndman’s militarism in the British Socialist Party, 1909-14’. Engels despised the anti-German chauvinist Hyndman, who went on to form the ominous sounding National Socialist Party.

A refreshing new approach to the subject came from the well known and highly accomplished war photographer, Simon Norfolk. In ‘On looking at war and war photography: 20 years of experience’, he presented some very powerful and moving images in his bid to escape the clichés of war photography. As Deepa Driver was another listed speaker who was unable to make it to present ‘Exposing war crimes and state cover-up: the case of Julian Assange’, the organisers had to improvise by showing a YouTube video on the subject. We actually ended up with an interesting discussion - the US administration doing anything they can to punish Assange for the ‘crime’ of exposing their crimes and hypocrisy.


Then there was ‘The Ukraine war and US grand strategy’ by Mike Macnair. The US essentially wants full-spectrum dominance of the world - an aim made explicit by various policy documents produced at the beginning of this century by the Rand Corporation, an offshoot of the US army. Rand talks about disempowering anyone who could interfere with US policy objectives, even if formally an ally. Look at how Germany has been forced to stand in line over the Ukraine war and escalate military support despite being hit hard by the sanctions regime which has seen Russia radically reduce its supply of gas. This has thrown Germany into a serious cost of living crisis, facing the very real prospect of having to introduce strict energy rationing. But the US does not care - it will fight to the very last drop of Ukrainian blood. Clearly, the US wants to surround China, as it is the only serious rival to its hegemony. Defeating and dismembering Russia is a means to zero in on China, as Beijing well knows and is thus drawing Moscow ever closer in.

From Alex Gallus of the Marxist Unity Group in the USA we had the important topic - ‘Are the Democratic Socialists of America breaking from the Democrats over Ukraine?’ The answer seems to be ‘Yes … sort of’! Of course, the DSA is not a party and has no programmatic discipline, but its international committee did release a statement condemning both Nato and Russia in equal terms, which caused consternation and anger in the mainstream media. Then again, members of ‘the Squad’ in the US Congress voted for military aid for Ukraine. In other words, the DSA is an unstable formation that could go in almost any direction - which is all the more reason to get involved and shape that direction. With some 100,000 members - even if many are paper members only - any socialist and Marxist worth their salt should join the DSA. During the subsequent debate, Dan Lazare, the US-based regular Weekly Worker correspondent, was criticised for standing aloof.

Continuing his mission to make us think again about Russian and Bolshevik history was Lars T Lih. His subject was ‘Bolshevism in 1917: “revolutionary defeatism” or “anti-agreementist defencism”?’ Comrade Lih contends that when he got back from exile in Switzerland, Lenin basically dropped all talk about revolutionary defeatism, one, because the tsar had fallen and, two, because the phrase alienated the Soviet constituency. Rather, he adopted revolutionary defencism, or ‘anti-agreementist defencism’. Anti-agreementism rejected any wartime agreement between the working class and bourgeoisie in a given country, and instead anticipated full soviet power.

Special mention must be made of the American comrades from the Marxist Unity Group, and also those from Germany and the Netherlands. Their contributions and thoughts enlivened the school. We must also thank Gerry Downing of Socialist Fight for his dogged, often oppositional, contributions throughout the week.