Controversy and clarification

Just over 140 comrades attended the annual Communist Party school, Communist University 2002, at Brunel University in Uxbridge at the beginning of August. Twenty-one lively and challenging sessions over eight days gave our comrades and those from other left groups and none an opportunity to argue and clarify their ideas. Most sessions consisted of an opening by a CPGB comrade or invited speaker, followed by extensive discussion, consistent with our tradition of open and democratic debate. Five sessions took the form of a round-table discussion involving a CPGB comrade and one or more speakers from other organisations. Organisations that supplied speakers were the Socialist Workers Party, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, the International Socialist Group, Workers Action, Communist Party of Turkey, Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran, Rifondazione Comunista, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and Lutte Ouvrière. On the first afternoon comrade Tina Becker and Marco Berlinguer of Rifondazione Comunista debated the European Union and how socialists should respond to its continuing evolution. Comrade Berlinguer outlined the history of Rifondazione Comunista, and described the European Social Forum as an opportunity to initiate a new phase of the development of the left in the continent of Europe, thrashing out a common programme for the 2004 European elections. Bringing revolutionary politics into the European Social Forum will be an important part of CPGB work over the next months. But our main focus of activity continues to be the Socialist Alliance and the long and patient task of forging it into a revolutionary Communist Party. Marcus Ström introduced a session on 'The CPGB and fighting for the Socialist Alliance paper'. Comrade Ström reminded comrades that at the Socialist Alliance conference in December 2001 a clear majority of non-SWP comrades voted for the unsuccessful motion in favour of an SA paper. The CPGB immediately proposed the launch of an unofficial paper, but since then negotiations have dragged on not least because of the failure of the AWL to recognise the partyist potential of the SA. The call for a SA paper must be re-ignited, said comrade Ström. The SA cannot move forward without one. In October the Socialist Alliance will hold a special conference on Europe and the euro, at which a vote will decide the Socialist Alliance's position in the referendum on whether or not to adopt the new currency. This important question was the subject of a debate at Communist University between John Bridge of the CPGB and Rob Hoveman of the SWP. Comrade Hoveman spoke in favour of calling for a 'no' vote in the referendum, on the basis that Europe is less democratic even than capitalist Britain and further integration would mean worse conditions for British workers. He denied that this meant campaigning alongside the Conservative 'save the pound' lobby. Comrade Bridge argued for the SA to champion an active boycott of the referendum. Comrades in other groups in the SA seem peculiarly unable to grasp the Leninist concept of an active boycott. We saw this again in the debate on 'Voting for the enemy: lessons of the French elections'. Alan Thornett of the ISG (fraternal organisation of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) claimed not to understand the phrase, which he described as a "ridiculous shibboleth of the CPGB". Comrade Thornett, backed up by SA comrade John Bulaitis, defended the LCR call for a vote for Jacques Chirac in order to defeat Jean-Marie Le Pen in the presidential elections. Franà§ois Rouleau spoke for Lutte Ouvrière, which, after some initial hesitation, eventually called for a spoilt vote. Comrade Rouleau said that LO with its few thousand members could do nothing more and, in any case, the million-strong demonstration that took over the streets of Paris in protest against Le Pen's success in winning through to the second round had been "middle class". CPGB comrades criticised both positions for their dismal failure to grasp the opportunity: the LCR, according to Peter Manson, constituted itself as the "extreme left of the bourgeois consensus to re-elect Chirac", while Lutte Ouvrière's abstentionist stance showed utter disdain for the mass movement which was overwhelmingly based on the working class. All sessions were conducted in a constructive and comradely spirit. One of the most contentious, however, was 'The struggle for Palestinian liberation: one state or two?' Cathy Nugent spoke for the AWL, Afif Safieh for the PLO and John Bridge for the CPGB. All three agreed that the only chance for peace and reconciliation in the region is if the Israeli and Palestinian people each recognise the right to exist of the others' state. Comrade Nugent differed from the other two in saying the continued existence of Israel is not compatible with the right of return of exiled Palestinians - that in their case an exception must be made to the general socialist principle of the free movement of people. Comrade Bridge described this as a concession to Zionism. Our Leninist understanding of democratic centralism involves minorities in the Party being free to discuss in public their differences with the majority. In the debate on Palestine John Pearson gave a CPGB minority view, in favour of a single secular Palestinian state. He called the Israeli state "an obscenity which must be destroyed". The healthy functioning of party democracy involves not only the right of minorities to express their views in this way, but also opportunities for members to debate how the Party is operating and examine the leadership. The two sessions at which internal Party matters were debated were of course as open to outsiders as all the others, and it was interesting to hear differing views from members of the AWL, the Revolutionary Democratic Group, the Movement for a Socialist Future and the International Bolshevik Tendency. Mark Fischer introduced a controversial and often heated session on democratic centralism, in which he outlined the Provisional Central Committee's understanding of the concept and criticised a minority of comrades for lapsing into liberalism with calls for a "free vote" within the SA and their undisciplined attitude to certain Party actions. Comrade Pearson accused the PCC of bureaucratism and, most seriously, of "abandoning" democratic centralism in unnecessarily curtailing the debates on the new 'What we fight for' column and our agreed theses on Israel/Palestine. However, the airing of these contentious issues at the beginning of the week had the effect of clearing the air somewhat. Weekly Worker editor Peter Manson robustly defended the paper in the session on 'Weekly Worker - gossip sheet or new Iskra?' He dismissed charges made against the paper and its predecessor The Leninist by political opponents of the CPGB - that it delights in scandal, is funded by the security services to discredit the rest of the left, and that it is introverted. He concluded that, while we are not arrogant enough to place the Weekly Worker on the same plane as Iskra, we recognise that the main task we face is exactly that set by Lenin's paper - the forging of a single, revolutionary, working class party. During his talk on 'The trade unions turn left' Alan Stevens said union activists within the Party should be organised more effectively as revolutionaries by the Party centre: at present they are largely left to do their own thing. Leading FBU and SA militant Matt Wrack and Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCSU, were billed to speak in this session, but both were unable to attend and sent apologies. Comrade Stevens welcomed the recent left victories in union elections, and the moves to democratise the political fund within some unions. He criticised union broad left formations which focus only on getting people elected to posts and motions passed at conferences, without involving the rank and file. He said most of the left tail the unions, confining themselves to supporting struggles. In contrast, we need a revolutionary strategy for the trade unions, and a revolutionary style of work within them. Comrade Dave Osler spoke on the themes contained in his book Labour Party plc, which will be launched at the party's conference next month. His conclusion was that Labour remains a bourgeois workers' party, with the bourgeois pole having come to dominate to an unprecedented extent. It is not yet an outright capitalist party, although the process or its evolution in that direction seemed to him inevitable and irreversible. CPGB members disagreed with him on this, arguing that there are always many possible futures. Comrade Osler in turn disagreed with the CPGB on the nature of the necessary alternative to Labour. While he was in favour of the regroupment of the revolutionary left, he advocated a broad, SSP-style 'party of recomposition'. The final session of the university was a debate on the attitude of socialists to New Labour - entitled 'We'll support you evermore?' - between Bob Pitt, editor of What Next?, Pete Firmin from Workers Action, and comrade Ström, chair of the London Socialist Alliance. Comrade Firmin insisted that the main site of struggle for socialists remained the Labour Party itself. He stated that in the history of the world the formation of a revolutionary party has only ever come about as a result of a mass split from within social democracy, and argued that standing outside and recruiting ones and twos, as the Socialist Alliance seeks to do, has never worked. Comrade Ström pointed out that provoking a mass split from inside has never worked either. The point was that, while defeating Labourism was the central strategic question for our class, the specific way revolutionaries went about it was a question of tactics. Comrade Pitt, however, said that he worked in the Labour Party not to split it, but to win it to a socialist programme. Bob Pitt also opened the session on 'The formation of the CPGB: premature or too late?' He gave a brief outline of the Marxist groups which came together to form the CPGB under the influence of the Communist International, which, he said, played a positive role in Britain - in contrast to Italy, for example, where it was disastrous. Comrade Pitt said the formation of the CPGB in 1921 was a good thing, but the Party's subsequent failure to affiliate to Labour was a mistake - in his view the early CPGB deliberately framed its approaches to the Labour leaders in a way that gave them no option but to reject CPGB affiliation. This year's CU saw comrade Pitt take his accommodation to Labourism to a new stage with his statement that it is unnecessary for revolutionaries to set up their own separate organisation apart from those to which the majority of class conscious workers give their allegiance. Marxists always gain valuable insights into present problems by the study of history, and this was a feature of many of the sessions. For example, in the debate on Europe comrade Becker referred to the slogan of a 'United States of Europe' as it was developed and used by Marxists including Kautsky and Trotsky. In the debate on Palestine, comrade Bridge used the historical analogy of Marx's call for an independent Ireland in the 19th century to illustrate how Marxists, including Marx himself, recognise that temporary separation of peoples is sometimes the best way to bring them together in the long term. Comrade Pitt's session was one of five at the University on specifically historical themes, all of which illuminated current issues. Al Richardson spoke on 'Class struggle in the ancient world'. He examined two periods of civilisation in decline: that of the new kingdom in ancient Egypt, at the time of the 19th and 20th dynasties, and the decline of the Roman empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He drew some interesting parallels between events in these periods and the present era of decline of capitalism. Pitfalls in using words from the past without being clear about what you mean by them now were highlighted by Ian Donovan's talk on 'The Paris Commune and the lessons for today'. The discussion after his opening uncovered differences among comrades in their understanding of the nature of soviets and when it is correct to support different types of councils of action and popular assemblies. This has relevance today for our analysis of developments in Argentina, where popular assemblies have been formed in a situation of economic and political crisis. Some comrades argued that there is a revolutionary situation in Argentina and a session at Communist University should have been devoted to it. James Bull introduced an interesting session on student radicalism through history, starting as far back as the 12th century. He described the role of students in Russia in helping to bring Marxist theory into the working class movement. Students played a similar role in Iran in 1978-79. Comrade Bull went on to look at present-day Britain, where most students come from a working class background. Unfortunately most socialist student groupings are little more than fronts for existing left organisations and comrade Bull called for the setting up of Socialist Alliance student societies. John Bridge opened on 'What is fascism? Is it on the march once again?' He described in some detail the development and rise to power of Mussolini's fascists, and the confused response of the Communist International to this phenomenon. He reminded comrades of the way the capitalist class had re-invented its past after World War II - claiming it had always opposed fascism and been in favour of democracy. Some extreme right groups - most notably Le Pen's Front National - prefer to harp back to the pre-war anti-Bolshevik bourgeois consensus, but this does not mean that such groups are themselves fascist, comrade Bridge argued. He warned against devaluing the word by using it inaccurately to describe any rightwing or racist movement. As well as France, Europe in general and Palestine, the situation in Iran, the Middle East, and Scotland were debated at the university. Comrade Mehdi Kia spoke on 'The reality of islamic fundamentalism in Iran'. He began by drawing comrades' attention to the importance of oil in the region, and consequently the crucial role of oil workers in any class conflict. Comrade Kia described the continuing loss of authority by the islamic regime, and the forces opposing it. Unfortunately, the left is in a minority, smaller than the pro-US forces ranged against the islamic fundamentalists. The recent period has seen a proliferation of single-issue groups and non-government organisations in Iran. Comrade Kia said it was necessary to try and link these up into a powerful force from below to rival those which the US in particular wants to foist on the people in opposition to the current regime. He thought the left in Iran could do well to follow the example of Rifondazione Comunista in relating to them without being dominant - "give them a voice, so that they can give the left a voice". 'The political impasse in the Middle East' was discussed by comrade Esen Uslu of the Communist Party of Turkey. He spoke about developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Russia, Morocco, Algeria, Iran, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, and ended with the crisis in Palestine and Israel. Rejecting a two-state solution, comrade Uslu concluded that we have the responsibility to exert what influence we can to encourage the formation of a united Communist Party of Israel and Palestine. As a member of both the Scottish Socialist Party and the CPGB, comrade Sarah McDonald introduced the session on 'Scottish Socialist Party: one step forward, one step back for socialist unity'. She said that the SSP in one sense constituted an advance in that it has demonstrated that it is possible to form a relatively open and democratic party from out of the Socialist Alliance movement. The SSP was growing in membership and influence, but to develop real roots in the working class it will have to take Labour more seriously rather than simply calling on people to leave Blair's party. The main problem, however, was that the current SSP leadership had jumped on the nationalist bandwagon, offering a reformist vision of socialism in one country and separatist organisation. In this sense it is an obstacle to working class unity against the UK state. Our Communist University seeks to apply the Marxist method of analysis to contemporary events and draw appropriate lessons from history. It has also included openings of a more theoretical nature. This year Michael Malkin discussed the question of 'Human nature, can it ever change?' He outlined theories of human nature in the Judeo-christian and bourgeois traditions, and in the writings of Marx and Engels. Then the way the ideas of Marx and Engels have been suppressed and challenged in the history of 'official communism', and finally the normative role of the theory of human nature. By this he meant that our human nature produces in human beings material and social needs which can be fully satisfied only in a society in which alienation has been overcome and human nature can find its fullest and freest expression. When we recognise that this society can be realised by our efforts, it becomes a moral imperative for us. A welcome speaker for the past few years has been Hillel Ticktin, editor of Critique, who always challenges comrades with thought-provoking ideas on a range of issues. This year, in 'Capitalism and the communist future', he spoke of the increasing breakdown of classical capitalist mechanisms and his confidence in the communist future, which was inevitable in the Marxist sense, he said. One of the more light-hearted sessions was the discussion on 'Buffy the vampire slayer and fantasy television', introduced by Clive Bradley of the AWL. He illustrated his talk with excerpts from the series and this was followed by a wide-ranging discussion on the role of art for socialists. In the evaluation of the university on the final day, comrades agreed that all the sessions had been interesting, and the week was a valuable experience, both for developing comrades politically and theoretically, and as an opportunity to meet socially and get to know comrades from different parts of the country and the world. However, a disappointingly high number of CPGB members missed part or all of the university due to 'work' or other 'commitments'. Many of the openings given at the Communist University will be transcribed and published in the Weekly Worker. Others will be adapted by the speakers themselves into articles for the paper. Although nothing can match the experience of being there and participating in the discussion, comrades might want to listen to sessions they missed, or hear again sessions they found particularly interesting. Audio tape recordings will shortly be available. Mary Godwin