Doing their party turn
What lies beneath the new communist wrapping? Baris Graham takes a look at Socialist Appeal’s latest incarnation
This year’s ‘Revolution Festival’, held over the weekend of November 10-12, was the first such event after Socialist Appeal’s recent ‘Are you a communist?’ turn, and was possibly the best that SA has organised in terms of attendance. Some 400 were there in Friend’s House on London’s Euston Road (a thousand tickets were sold, though it should be added that the giant Palestine march must have diverted a good few).
What was really positive was that comrades were more than willing to talk. Also, again on the positive side, we were allowed to freely sell and distribute the Weekly Worker (unlike at the Socialist Workers Party’s ‘Marxism’, where its leadership ensures a hostile environment, including sometimes even dishing out threats, punches and kicks). So in general there was a very healthy atmosphere.
However, while the ‘Communist turn’ is most welcome, it seems to owe more to Mad Men marketing than a change in fundamental politics. We are told that 20% of young people in the US call themselves ‘communists’ … and so the ‘vanguard’ follows. Only a few years ago Socialist Appeal was championing Fabian clause four socialism and telling us that communists do not set up a party opposed to and separate from Labour (based on a stupid misreading of the Communist manifesto). Before that we had Chavismo socialism and the nationalist socialism of the Scottish Socialist Party. Heaven help us from the next turn.
Most of the comrades - say two-thirds - were directly associated with Socialist Appeal or one or another of the national sections of the International Marxist Tendency (including Germany, Italy and Switzerland). Their chosen reps were called on to report on the stunning successes of their ‘communist turns’ after the opening speech from Socialist Appeal’s leader, Alan Woods.
Over the weekend there were talks ranging from the French Revolution (Keelan Kellegher) to morality and communism (Ellen Morton). Most were pitched at the young and inexperienced. The sessions I attended included ‘How Marx became a communist’, ‘Race and class: do we need a “black Marxism”?’, and ‘The Soviet economy: how it worked, and how it didn’t’.
The first of these on the young Marx was a fairly uncontroversial retelling of his political heritage - from radical journalism to a communist freely borrowing from utopian socialist thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon, but, crucially, under the influence of Fredrick Engels, recognising the central importance of the working class movement and the necessity of equipping it with the theory it needed to achieve liberation from wage-slavery.
What immediately struck me, was the subsequent calling of obviously pre-selected contributions. Perhaps this was done in order to give self-confidence to younger comrades, but it more than smacked of stage management and certainly stilted debate. Instead of responses to the actual argument we got written or memorised statements. It came over as rather strange and even robotic.
The two sessions on Frantz Fanon and Black Marxism (referencing the book by Cedric Robinson) were used to reinforce IMT’s line against intersectionality and identity politics. Much of Jorge Martin’s talk on Fanon, for example, was used to critique the post-colonial theory prevalent in academia. As an example, Jorge highlighted an academic article arguing that Fanon was a pacifist (which is hilarious for anyone familiar with his work). Alongside this, both men were criticised for taking the point of focus away from the proletariat to other sectional groups (the lumpenproletariat in the case of Fanon and ethnocultural identity for Robinson). Crucially lacking, however, was the absence of a positive programme to deal with the issues of identity, oppression and class in a modern context.
The two sessions on the Soviet Union touched upon issues of culture and economy under proletarian rule and the difficulties faced by the Bolsheviks under conditions of ‘combined and uneven development’, as put forward by Leon Trotsky. Major debates concerning the Soviet economy (such as those on foreign trade, war communism, the New Economic Policy, etc) were discussed in chronological order and what was highlighted in particular was the difficulty of organising a socialist economy in conditions of continued capitalist world domination.
One concern I had, however, was the factual inaccuracies presented regarding the immediate economic debates after Lenin’s death (such as the claim that Nicolai Bukharin and the so-called right opposition wanted to preserve the NEP as it was). This is sloppy.
On Soviet art and culture, much of Nelson Wan’s talk was devoted to giving out specific examples of works born out of the October revolution. A wide ensemble of artists, such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vladimir Tatlin and Konstantin Stanislavsky, were touched upon and used as examples of the proletariat’s potential for artistic creativity. Not that they were from the lower depths. Likewise the debate on ‘proletarian culture’ was also mentioned, in which the post-revolution artistic school, Proletkult, was portrayed as both negative and positive, and ultimately the speaker predictably sided with Lenin and Trotsky against the notion of a ‘proletarian culture’. Wouldn’t it be great to have a speaker who is ‘off-message’, - an outside speaker (heaven forbid a CPGB speaker) - and a real, testing, debate?
The French Revolution (both 1789 and 1793) was given as an example of a lesson to be learned from by all revolutionaries. The lack of concern of the feudal aristocrats for the peasantry, the decadent lifestyle of the House of Bourbon and a rising capitalist class were given as causes for the revolution. The latter stage of the revolution alongside the terror, were, however, pictured as a continuation of the bourgeois revolution, instead of representing a partial break with it. Rather paradoxically, the same government abolished slavery, introduced universal suffrage, and in the 1793 constitution stipulated social welfare as a right and government intervention in economic affairs as a duty (much to the chagrin of the French bourgeoisie at the time). Despite the sentencing of members of the disaffected bourgeoisie to the guillotine, 1793 was represented as mainly defending the interests of that same bourgeoisie!
In Saturday’s closing session Socialist Appeal editor Rob Sewell announced SA’s pending name change - it is to be reconstituted as the ‘Revolutionary Communist Party’ some time next year. In line with this, Socialist Appeal itself will cease publication this January, to be replaced and re-released as The Communist. This is SA harking back, not to the RCP of Frank Furedi but the RCP of 1944 - a confessional sect squabbled over by Jock Haston, Ted Grant, Tony Cliff and Gerry Healy, which produced modern-day British Trotskyism in most of its not so glorious 57 varieties.
Unless I am wrong, these name changes came as a complete surprise to the membership. Comrade Sewell seemed to pull his communist rabbit out of his Socialist Appeal hat. They clapped and hooted in approval. But did they have any say in the matter? It appears that they are treated more like speaking tools than thinking militants who jealously hold their leaders to account. That or they were good actors and fooled me. Either way, bad practice.
Having had a glimpse of what lies beneath the new, shiny, communist wrapping, I fear it is really business as usual. This is best exemplified by the remark made by comrade Woods on the Sunday: “Comrades, beware of imitations”. In other words, he is not interested in engaging with the rest of the Marxist left to achieve communist unity, but rather promoting his particular confessional sect in the hope that one day the workers will see the ‘light’ of Marxism-Leninism-Grantism thought.
That said, there were many who were prepared to talk with us. While most loyally parroted the words of Alan Woods, Rob Sewell and Fred Weston, some appear willing to think for themselves. Excellent.