Communist University: Debate and controversy

Mary Godwin gives her impressions of this year's Communist University

The CPGB’s Communist University has been an annual event since the early 1990s. This year’s CU, attended by a record number, took place at Goldsmith’s College, London, from August 2 to 9. As in previous years, the CPGB tradition of full, free and open debate on the controversial issues facing the left was adhered to. There were speakers from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Scottish Socialist Party, Critique, Revolutionary Democratic Group, Socialist Resistance, Workers Power, Labour Left Briefing, International Socialist Group, What Next? and the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, as well as contributions from the floor from members of other groups, Socialist Alliance independents and unaligned comrades.

Sean Matgamna (AWL) debated with Jack Conrad (CPGB) the question ‘Afghanistan 1979: revolution or Stalinist coup?’ Comrade Matgamna’s only response to the charge that the AWL’s support for the counterrevolutionary mujahedin amounted to backing black reaction was to accuse the CPGB of support for a Stalinist coup. He admitted that he had no alternative to suggest for the people of Afghanistan. His agenda was simply to attempt to prove that the CPGB is still stuck in its supposedly Stalinist past, but he thought the differences between our two groups are not incompatible with participation in the same organisation, “all other things being equal”.

Another AWL comrade, Clive Bradley, debated with Ian Donovan ‘Islamic fundamentalism: ancient or modern phenomenon?’ The discussion in this session highlighted the differences between our two organisations over our attitude to such groups as the Muslim Association of Britain. For the AWL comrades it is all very simple - they equate standing in an election on a ‘peace and justice’ platform influenced by the mosque, which necessarily involves an unacceptable compromise on programme, with demonstrations co-sponsored by the MAB, which involves no compromise over principle whatsoever.

The AWL condemns both types of cooperation and Mark Osborn described any alliance with the MAB as a betrayal which gives them credibility and weakens left and secular muslim forces. Strangely though, the AWL is on record as being prepared to stand “shoulder to shoulder” even with reactionary clerics in the event of a fascist attack on the muslim community.

Every year Communist University includes such debates between the CPGB and other groups and also opportunities for discussions which clarify and develop ideas within the CPGB itself. These two types of debate are not really different, as members of other organisations can contribute to the ‘inner party’ discussions: we do not conceal our debates or our disagreements; and there are often different positions within the CPGB on topics debated with others.

This year there were two sessions focused on exploring differences which had arisen within the CPGB itself: on democratic centralism and revolutionary defeatism. The argument over democratic centralism arose after a recent meeting of the Socialist Alliance national council, when a CPGB member accepted a mandate from his local SA and cast his vote in opposition to his comrades. This incident provided the stimulus for a constructive, high-quality debate, in which a good degree of understanding was achieved.

In the session on revolutionary defeatism, comrade John Bridge gave a history of how Marxists have applied the slogan from 1848 to the present, but the discussion inevitably focused on its application to the imperialist war against Iraq. A number of comrades disagreed with the slogan carried on the front page of Weekly Worker, “Rather defeat for US-UK forces that their victory” (March 20). Some agreed with the content of the slogan but thought it was “badly expressed”, while others argued it was inadequate.

These debates do not mean the CPGB is inward-looking and detached from the real world. We seek to build a party to intervene not only in Britain but internationally. Tina Becker (CPGB) shared a platform with Socialist Resistance supporter Toby Abse on ‘Class struggle in Europe’. Comrade Becker said all working class organisations in Europe recognise the objective need to unite our class to combat the European bourgeoisie. She again criticised the European Social Forum for its obsession with the ‘movement of movements’ and for banning the open participation of political parties. Comrade Abse spoke mostly about Italy, and said he agreed with the Rifondazione Comunista majority about the importance of movements as opposed to parties.

Reflecting the importance we still attach to it, the future of the Socialist Alliance was the subject of the first debate of this year’s Communist University. Marcus Ström spoke for the CPGB, while Dave Church took the place of Steve Godward, who was unable to attend for family reasons. Comrade Ström said we should stay in the Socialist Alliance and fight the SWP misleadership, and try to build a campaign for a workers’ party. Comrade Church called for a federal structure for the Socialist Alliance or any new formation. He described the behaviour of the SWP in Birmingham as “a step too far”.

As always at Communist University, many of the debates were seen through the prism of the key questions facing communists and revolutionaries - first and foremost the strategic task of breaking the working class from Labourism, and building a united democratic party of the working class. Graham Bash, an editor of Labour Left Briefing, opened the debate on ‘Socialists and the Labour Party: organising the new left majority’. He said it is more important to build the Labour Party than to retreat into sect-building, and urged that the trade unions should use their link with the Labour Party, not set out to destroy it.

Greg Tucker, RMT activist and International Socialist Group member, opened the debate on the ‘awkward squad’, the new generation of left union leaders. There was broad agreement that we should stand with the awkward squad when they fight for the interests of the rank and file, but distance ourselves from them when they act like trade union bureaucrats. But on the question of democratising the political fund and breaking the link with the Labour Party, there was a range of views, including in the CPGB. In comrade Tucker’s words, the RMT is having the right discussion, even if it hasn’t got all the answers.

During the discussion on the ‘awkward squad’ comrades made the point that the Labour left has been boosted by the struggle against the war on Iraq - another major theme running through Communist University 2003. A highlight of the week was an account of the struggle in Iraq against the imperialist occupation by a member of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, which has begun organising women and the unemployed within the country. Unlike the Communist Party of Iraq it refuses to take part in the Iraqi national council in collaboration with the US-UK forces.

Critique editor Hillel Ticktin spoke on the underlying causes of the war, locating the motives of the US on the need to stabilise declining capitalism. He said for both economic and social control reasons present-day capitalism, with its huge arms industry, can only find stability in a situation of war or threat of war.

Comrade Mike Macnair began his fascinating talk on ‘Marxism and law’ by analysing the way the liberal anti-war left has made heavy use of the idea that the war is illegal, and resorted to arguing within the discourse of international law. He described how this sows illusions in bourgeois legality.

Openings on subjects important to Marxist theory but less directly applicable to the immediate questions of the present included ‘The Scottish bourgeois revolution’ by Neil Davidson, a member of the Socialist Worker platform in the SSP; ‘Popular fronts and Marxism’ by Bob Pitt, editor of What Next?; ‘The provisional government slogan’ by Steve Freeman of the RDG, and ‘Marxism and human nature’ by Michael Malkin. All three sessions of day four had a religious theme: following the debate on islamic fundamentalism, there was an opening on the ‘Origins of islam’ and a talk by Ray Gaston, a vicar sympathetic to the CPGB, on ‘Radical christianity, revolutionary Marxism and the struggle for human liberation’.

As in previous years, many of the openings given at this year’s Communist University will be published in forthcoming issues of Weekly Worker. As is always the case, none of the questions were finally ‘settled’ at Communist University. Establishing the truth means ongoing debate.