Past, present and future

Scott Evans reports on a week of debate, engagement and thinking through the crucial questions of our time

Communist University, August 12-19, is unlike many of the other events hosted on the left, in that we give at least equal - often more - time to contributions from the floor after the opening talk, which we see more as an informed introduction to a topic than a speaker’s chance to say what they think and leave it at that. The annual event is a fantastic opportunity for all comrades to engage in insightful political debate - but especially younger comrades and those newer to the organisation and its perspectives.

It is impossible to do justice to the talks and discussions within one article, and we encourage comrades to listen to the archive recordings for the full picture.1

Rather pertinently, there were three talks on the climate crisis. Tam Dean Burn gave a theatrical piece, centred on the growth of a sapling to its death as a tree. You had to be there to get the full effect! He stressed above all else the urgency of the situation, but the question is what vision we have for addressing it and what social force can carry that vision through to reality. Comrades agreed on the key role of culture in provoking imagination around the possible, both in terms of future utopias and dystopias.

Mike Macnair’s talk looked at ecological destruction in the ancient world. This is a feature of larger-scale human society, which until communism also means class society. However, under capitalism, there has been a phase change, where climatic shifts and ecological destruction are reaching levels at which we are approaching a tipping point, beyond which we enter into a fundamentally different world climate system.

Jack Conrad meanwhile brought us up to the present day, looking at where we currently are with the climate crisis and the woeful inability of the capitalist order to deal with it to any necessary degree. There is more than enough awareness and radical feeling on the question, so what we principled communists now need to do is convince the workers’ and socialist movements of the necessity of the struggle for a Communist Party and the longer-term communist transformation of the world. The trajectory of the existing activist climate groups is escalation into minority acts of terrorism, as a strategy for producing radical societal rupture, which Marxists have been polemicising against since the 19th century.


Lars T Lih opened CU with a presentation of some new research he has been pursuing. His talk was focused on the notion of power and legitimacy and revolved around five key themes, four of which comrade Lih discussed in his Weekly Worker supplement on Vladimir Nevsky.2

Colin Turner of Communist Platform in the Netherlands3 spoke on the pro-war left, summarising the debate in De Socialisten and between CP and the CPGB up till now. Jack Conrad, from the floor, took issue with painting social-imperialism as “just another form of opportunism”. The CP comrades who responded said that they disagree with us on concrete tactical approaches to drawing lines between principled communists and social-imperialists within an organisation, and the minutiae of the history of what has occurred within the De Socialisten unity project.

Continuing the international debate, Joseph Perez gave a report on the recent Democratic Socialists of America convention, where the Marxist Unity Group won two of the 16 seats on the DSA’s national political committee. Their immediate aim, among other things, is to transform the DSA into a Communist Party united by a minimum-maximum programme and organised according to democratic centralism.

Rounding out the discussions of the historical and international left, Yassamine Mather discussed its sorry state in Iran. The final days of this year’s CU happened to coincide with the 60-year anniversary of the overthrow of Mosaddegh - a joint venture of the USA and UK, ending with the dictatorial power of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi - and roughly the first anniversary of the killing of Mahsa Amini by the morality police. This sparked the still-ongoing protests all across Iran, where the demands of women for the right to unveil has combined with protests against mass unemployment, inflation and so on.

Jack Conrad’s talk on the Russia-Ukraine war highlighted how war produces so much confusion on the left, but for those principled communists it can be very useful for clarifying whose politics can hold the line against the collapse before militarism and the capitalist state. Social-imperialism and social-pacifism must be resisted.

Lawrence Parker discussed the first few decades after the founding of the CPGB in 1920, which, despite all its flaws, the comrade considers the most advanced political achievement of the working class. Meanwhile, Kevin Bean dedicated his session to the Labour left and post-Corbynism. He explained that the compromising and cowardice of the official Labour left, especially in response to the anti-Semitism smear campaign, was not just a result of Corbyn and co being “too nice”, but that politically Corbynism is rotten at its core - enmeshed in the labour bureaucracy and loyal to capitalism and Labourism as a strategy for ‘socialism’.

Mike Macnair addressed the question of communist unity - a topic absolutely central to what we stand for as an organisation - and his key themes will be familiar to regular readers. Originally this session was intended to be a debate between the CPGB and Socialist Appeal, but the latter simply refused to take part. Some of the more probing questions from the floor asked how we can ourselves intervene to help bring about conditions more favourable to communist unity beyond polemic, so as to not appear to be passively ‘waiting for objective conditions to ripen’.


Other debates centred on the growth of the far right and the women’s question. On the former, David Broder outlined how the far right in Italy, represented by current prime minister Giorgia Meloni, was part of the post-fascist milieu4 and represented a general trend in Europe. Notable about this wave is that it does not reject the EU, Nato and most democratic norms, and to the extent that it ever has, as with Le Pen in France, this has been significantly reduced in recent years. How can one tackle the far right, then?

Esen Uslu spoke on how not to combat it in relation to Turkey. After going over the legacy of Kemal Atatürk and subsequent Kemalist ideology, comrade Uslu explained that the left in Turkey has come up with little else despite varieties of popular-frontist ideas, sectism and oppositional politics without any clear programme for international socialist transformation.

Edmund Griffiths’s talk was one which a number of comrades particularly enjoyed for its engaging narrative structure and informative content, where he spoke on the unique nature of far-right, red-brown politics in post-Soviet Russia.5

Turning to the women’s question, Ben Lewis discussed the politics of Clara Zetkin,6 an outstanding German Marxist. It is particularly important to correct the historical record on Zetkin, her politics, and her life, given the instrumentalised and distorted use of her legacy by the German Democratic Republic after her death. Comrade Lewis emphasised Zetkin’s leading role in theorising the need for a clean break between the socialist and bourgeois women’s movement.

Anne McShane talked about the need to demand free access to abortion on demand as a central working class political demand, locating it in the history of the women’s movement, especially in relation to the Zhenotdel in Soviet Russia. Legalisation is not enough.

Marc Mulholland’s talk on socialism and bourgeois feminism began with a discussion on whether private property emerged out of patriarchy or vice versa.


Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group, discussed human nature in relation to the revolutionary origins of language. He argued that language must be explained as part of a complete theory on the human way of life. It is necessary to combine this conception with a full understanding of the human kinship system - especially in how it developed out of an early revolution in sexual relations between men and women.

Yassamine Mather discussed the question of artificial intelligence. Machine learning has come on in leaps and bounds in recent decades, leading to very flexible pattern-recognition systems for interpreting diverse kinds of data. Generative models have led to a new round of excitement and panic about AI across society. In terms of politics, clearly one of the most impactful would be a proliferation of autonomous vehicles, not least because of their potential deployment in war or to replace human-manned transportation of goods. AI does put some kinds of professional jobs under threat, and we will likely see further proletarianisation and increasingly precarious employment as a result of AI.

For his part, Moshé Machover presented a more accessible overview of the recent book How labor powers the global economy: a labor theory of capitalism (New York 2022) by Emmanuel Farjourn, Moshé Machover and David Zachariah.7 Beginning with the idea of labour content, they argue that one can use ideas from statistical mechanics, including the basic idea of a statistical variable, and one can construct an economic theory like Marx’s which bypasses the transformation problem. The discussion helped clarify some aspects, including the authors’ rejection of the notion of the division between simple and complex labour among other things. Also raised were interesting questions about whether or how the theory accounts for economic rents and interest rates.

Michael Roberts discussed his and Guglielmo Carchedi’s recent book Capitalism in the 21st century: through the prism of value (London 2022), intended to tackle recent crises and contradictions in capitalism, including the ecological crises and developments in AI, from the perspective of value theory. But what is value, anyway?

Later Ian Wright spoke on the spooky nature of value in capitalism, comparing Marx’s labour theory of value to the methodology of field theories, such as that of Michael Faraday. Comrade Wright contends that value as a dynamic attractor for price (competing with other forces which pull price away from value) is a useful conception for both popular understanding and further development.

If these debates sound interesting, you will soon be able to hear each of the talks (see note 1 below). Better still, do yourself a favour and join us for this year’s winter CU or next year’s summer CU!

  1. These will all be available very soon at communistuniversity.uk.↩︎

  2. weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1450/supplement-back-to-nevsky.↩︎

  3. Communist Platform was founded as a faction of the Socialist Party in 2014 before being expelled from 2020 onwards. The comrades argue in favour of forming a Marxist party in the Netherlands united by a programme for achieving communism: communisme.nu.↩︎

  4. See also comrade Broder’s book Mussolini’s grandchildren: fascism in contemporary Italy London 2023.↩︎

  5. See also his recent book Aleksandr Prokhanov and post-Soviet esotericism New York 2023.↩︎

  6. See comrade Lewis’s recent article, ‘Clean breaks and clear principles’ (Weekly Worker August 3: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1454/clean-breaks-and-clear-principles) and the new pamphlet Clara Zetkin: the women’s and women workers’ question of our time, translated and introduced by Ben Lewis.↩︎

  7. See also comrade Machover’s article, ‘L-content and price’ (Weekly Worker July 13: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1451/l-content-and-price).↩︎