Steam-cleaning Marxism

Mark Fischer recounts an interesting conversation with CPB general secretary Robert Griffiths

I had an interesting exchange with Robert Griffiths, the CPB’s general secretary, between sessions. I approached the comrade as he sat alone reading the Weekly Worker in the café. ‘Oh joy,’ he probably thought …

I asked how he evaluated the two days - had it been worthwhile staging? Yes, despite clashing with things like the Unison conference that had taken away some leading comrades, it had been a success, he confirmed: “Around 150 people attended,” he estimated (accurately, I thought), “so definitely worthwhile doing rather than not.”

In the spirit of the bold ‘Question everything’ branding I floated the idea of the merging our two Communist Universities. After all, I assured him, CPGBers would have plenty of questions for him and other members of his organisation. “I think we are probably looking to get different things out of the two events,” he replied diplomatically.

Judging from the reaction of many CPBers to Weekly Worker sellers, he is probably right. Apart from one or two older comrades - “Splitters!”, “Trotskyites!”, “Where do you get your money from, eh?” - there was little overt hostility and a good number of Weekly Workers were sold. On the other hand, there was hardly a rush to engage with us or to challenge us on the ideas contained in the paper. You would get little knots of their people standing a few yards away from our stall, ostentatiously finding some passage in the Weekly Worker hilariously funny - right up to the moment when one of our comrades would approach them to challenge, “Any questions, comrades?”

Most would then switch to sullen resentment and a refusal to either engage politically or even as socialised humans - it was all downcast eyes and incomprehensible mumblings. The general impression was not one of an organisation characterised by an optimistic confidence in the correctness of its world view.

That said, the two smaller workshops I attended - led by Mary Davis and Ed Griffiths (no relation) - were inclusive, with critics allowed to develop points at some length and with several bites of the cherry. The real problem was the political content and a pronounced squeamishness when certain subjects were raised.

For instance, comrade Davis led a workshop on ‘Introduction to Marxism: the relationship between capital and labour’. It was competently delivered, in an engaging manner that put the small audience at ease and gave them the confidence to ask questions and intervene with ideas of their own. Yet the mechanical notion she advanced of successive, discretely defined ‘modes of production’ (including ‘socialism’) is now - especially in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR - highly problematic for Marxists.

I challenged this supra-historical schema, mentioning how it had informed the methodology that had led both Stalin and Trotsky to deduce that the USSR was a workers’ state of some sort (essentially, ‘if it ain’t feudalism and it ain’t capitalism, there’s only one option left’). I mentioned the comments of Marx and Engels on the “Asiatic mode of production”, the “gentile”, the “Germanic” and so on. Comrade Davies was not keen to pursue this much further in a session dedicated to introducing Marxism to new comrades - although we must surely be cautious that what we are introducing to them actually is Marxism, of course.

It is a shame that the question of the USSR and the need to settle accounts with the defeats of the 20th century were not engaged with in the more heavyweight plenary led by comrade Davis on ‘The battle of ideas’ on the Sunday morning.

During the debate, I pointed to the extremely porous nature of the ideology of ruling elites - how they can actually absorb ideologies of the oppressed and turn these into their opposites, into apologies for the existing exploitative order. Christianity was one example of this, I ventured. Mary nodded vigorously. The ‘official communism’ of the USSR was another, I suggested. Mary stopped, mid-nod.

Given this, I underlined that it was incumbent on us to steam-clean Marxism, to remove the muck that had adhered to it in the 20th century and that, unfortunately, was still being passed off as the genuine article in schools like the one we were all attending.

As just one example, I ended by citing Robert Griffiths’ analysis of a few years ago of what went wrong with the USSR. As I recalled it, this suggested that despite the gross bureaucratic deformations in the “socialist countries”, they remained working class entities because of the existence of planning and the nationalisation of the means of production - features which allowed huge ‘progress’ in these societies. A version of Trotsky’s mid-1930s analysis of the USSR, in other words. I got a laugh for this. But later, I did get a few comrades admitting to me, “Yeah, I didn’t like that pamphlet, either” - although they did not elaborate.

In its way, this school actually expresses the CPB’s profound weakness. In contrast to the culture of our own Communist University, where we go out of our way to take on controversial issues and allow for the clear expression of differences, the big questions of working class history were not dealt with. Indeed, they were actively avoided wherever possible.

We speculated in the past that the advanced age profile of the CPB, plus its low level of activity, promised a slow and lingering death. The weekend event certainly had a sprinkling of young people, although they did not make up a significant percentage of the total. (It could be that a large number of younger people apply for membership, given the historical resonance of the name, but the CPB lacks the infrastructure to integrate them.) But it was not an old people’s gathering either. So perhaps another fate looms for this remnant of British ‘official’ communism.

As it feels compelled to stage more public activity, to reach out to a certain extent, it is precisely its pronounced reticence to “question everything” that threatens to tear it apart.