A week of debates and renewal

Mary Godwin reports from this year's Communist University, which took place from August 13 - 20 in south London

Well over a hundred comrades from various parts of Britain, as well as several other countries, gathered for Communist University 2005 last month for a week of debate on a range of current political issues and questions of Marxist theoretical controversy. It was a school for the thinking left - developing Marxist ideas rather than just repeating the line of the central committee. Attendance at the 22 sessions was higher than in 2004, and this year enjoyed co-sponsorship by the Communist Party of Turkey and Critique. Members of both groups made valuable contributions to many sessions and opened several of the discussions. Attraction of Marx We live in a time of extreme weakness and disorientation on the left, but Marx is still the most popular philosopher in Britain, according to a poll conducted by the Radio Four programme In our time. The first session of CU 2005, introduced by Mark Fischer, examined the reasons for the victory of Marx in this email vote. Modern capitalism is a system in decline - this was a theme which ran through CU 2005 - and people want a better world. Marxism has an unequalled explanatory power. There is a glaring discrepancy between the huge potential audience for progressive ideas demonstrated in this poll, and the feebleness of political forces which call themselves Marxist. For example the Socialist Party thinks a Marxist party is not viable now, and advocates a 'broad' workers' (or Labour) party. The Socialist Workers Party is collapsing into Respect, and moving away from its formal commitment to Marxism. However, we can take from this poll encouragement. We should also reinvigorate our education in the liberating ideas of Marxism. Respect There were fewer speakers at CU 2005 from other British revolutionary groups compared to the era of the Socialist Alliance. But there were two sharp debates with representatives of other organisations. First, Tina Becker of the CPGB debated with Duncan Morrison of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty the question, 'Galloway or King - who should socialists have voted for in Bethnal Green?' Comrade Becker argued that George Galloway's victory is a good thing for the left on the whole, and asked why the AWL did not support him. They supported candidates with a programme almost identical to Respect's. Comrade Morrison said the AWL urges the unions and the left to reorientate themselves in the Labour Party and provoke a conflict with Blair and a split. He claimed that Respect is a totally different organisation to the Socialist Alliance, and a vote for it sets back the labour movement. His comrade Mark Osborn, speaking in the debate from the floor, stated the AWL's position clearly: George Galloway is a "demagogic pig" who is "contaminated with dirty money" and the left should have nothing to do with him. Later in the week Lee Rock (CPGB) shared the top table with Andy Newman of the Socialist Unity Network in a session titled 'Respect - genuine left or popular front?' Comrade Rock belongs to the minority in the CPGB that denies any comparison between Respect and a popular front, and some comrades new to the CPGB (and perhaps accustomed to the SWP method of stifling dissent and telling the audience what to think) were surprised to find a representative of a minority view given the role of main speaker. But it is part of the CPGB culture of encouraging open debate and the development of ideas. Comrade Rock noted the similarity between the programmes of Respect and the Socialist Alliance, and gave examples of it taking a lead within the movement. He argued that as it does not appeal to any section of the bourgeoisie in programme or practice it is not a popular front, and should be supported. We should seek not to smash it, but to form a left wing within it. Comrade Newman said old categories such as united front and popular front are not helpful in analysing Respect. The argument needs to be about what Respect is and what it is doing. There is a crisis in social democracy. We need to decide whether the Labour Party can ever be reclaimed, and whether socialists can work within it. The paradox of Respect is that the SWP wants to take advantage of the crisis of social democracy but cannot deal with the second crisis, that of Trotskyism. The SWP still applies its control-freakery, stitch-ups and suppression of opposition. It does not appeal to organised left militants. There is a crisis of cadre. Comrade Newman stated that he approves of comrades joining Respect branches where they exist, but in his town there is a socialist group but no Respect branch, and as he has no way of being involved in Respect he has let his membership lapse. In the debate a candidate member of the CPGB who used to be in the SWP put forward the case for supporting Respect. It is not overtly socialist, but it is large, it is trying to do something and build something, and to defend muslims and provide leadership to struggles that are happening. CPGB comrades who advocate critical support for Respect with the aim of trying to force it to the left urged comrade Newman to join Respect despite its lack of structures for meaningful political debate. Comrade Steve Freeman of the Revolutionary Democratic Group in contrast agreed that comrade Newman should not break up the left base he has built up in his town in order "to join a dodgy organisation". He said socialists inside and outside Respect should work together. Party and movement Comrade Freeman spoke further about Respect in his own session, 'The party question, Respect, the Scottish Socialist Party and the new Socialist Alliance'. He described the period since the defeat of the miners' Great Strike as a new epoch in which the working class has changed and the left has made several attempts to rebuild the workers' movement. All have failed except the Scottish Socialist Party, he said. But a new Socialist Alliance could take the movement forward towards a Communist Party, using a "transitional method" which he described using several historical parallels. CPGB members criticised him in the debate for failing to mention the most important example we should seek to emulate on a higher level: the formation of the CPGB in 1920. Why do Marxists need a "transitional" form when it comes to organising themselves? Graham Bash of Labour Left Briefing, speaking in a personal capacity, attempted to tackle the question, 'What will the British revolution look like?', and discussed how we can get to it. He asked, how can we struggle for power in current conditions of a weakened, bureaucratic trade union movement in retreat and a Thatcherite Labour Party? There are a few bright spots, such as the anti-war movement and the revolutionary situation in Venezuela, he said. But in general the picture looks bleak and he admitted that he had not got all the answers. The New Labour clique are direct representatives of the ruling class, he continued. In the era of Wilson and Callaghan the control was mediated through the trade union movement. He described the Labour Representation Committee as a step forward rather than a breakthrough. It had an excellent conference with 350 people and a good debate, but it would be meaningless for it to declare itself a new Labour Party. Comrade Freeman insisted that the Labour Party cannot be reconstructed: we need a republican socialist party. Comrade Fischer described our real task as uniting the Marxists in the mass movement and achieving theoretical clarity. Peter Tatchell, a regular guest speaker at Communist University, spoke about 'The democratic deficit in the UK and the need for a new Chartism'. He said a second Chartist movement is needed to address the lack of real democracy in Britain, and called for a mass popular movement inspired by and based on the tactics of the Chartists and suffragettes. He hoped it would unite the left and Greens. Houzan Mahmoud Iraq Communist University did not focus solely on the situation in Britain. Comrade Houzan Mahmoud of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq spoke about the situation in that country and defended the WCPI policy of boycotting elections. She said things are getting worse: islamist gangs are terrorising the people, using the occupation as a pretext, although many have no real interest in getting rid of the occupation. For women, workers and ordinary people life is worse than it was under Saddam Hussain. Neither the US occupiers nor their puppet government will be able to sort it out. The new constitution will be based on sharia law, and Iraq will end up like Afghanistan under the Taliban, with women having no rights. In the debate comrades argued against the boycott tactic, suggesting the WCPI should use the elections to put forward the working class alternative, converting supporters into voters and attempting to elect members who can stand up and fight the workers' corner in the new parliament - whether or not it is an illegitimate body. But comrades accepted that we are ignorant about conditions in Iraq and so unable to advise with any certainty. Some agreed with the WCPI approach, saying elections are irrelevant where civil society and the state have broken down and there is a situation of warlordism. The only strategy to adopt in such a situation is building red base areas where the movement can physically defend itself from both the occupation forces and the islamists. Comrade Mahmoud appeared to confirm that this is the tactic the WCPI is adopting - attempting to set up areas where the armed people can live free from oppression. A former SWP member asked comrade Mahmoud what she thought of the slogans of the Stop the War Coalition - troops out now and unconditional support for the resistance. In reply to this comrade Mahmoud said the Iraqi people do not want the unconditional support the STWC offers the islamic "so-called resistance". It does not help the ordinary Iraqis who just want to live in freedom and peace, and it makes the job of progressives more difficult. She said in conclusion that the job of communists in Iraq is to organise to fight the islamists and the occupation, and the job of communists is to support the workers' movement in Iraq. At the end of the session a solidarity collection was taken. Democratic rights Women's rights, and the threat posed to women in Iraq by political islam, is a crucial issue for comrade Mahmoud. Defence of women's rights is also important for the workers' movement in Britain. Anne Mc Shane spoke about women's rights with special reference to Respect and the right to choose, a subject of particular relevance, given the constant threat of state attacks on abortion rights and the weak and vacillating approach taken by Respect. Comrade Mc Shane described how despite the SWP's bureaucratic exclusion of communists from the Respect conference the CPGB helped to shame Respect into adopting a principled position at odds with George Galloway's well known reactionary views. Bob Davies introduced the session on 'Communists and minority languages', focusing mainly but not exclusively on Welsh. In Wales the language question has become prominent partly as a result of the decline of the workers' movement. His introduction was followed by an interesting debate on the voluntary coming together of cultures and how to protect minority rights while overcoming ghettoisation. Global trends A comrade from the Communist Party of Turkey and Mike Macnair of the CPGB opened the debate on 'Terrorism and reactionary anti-capitalism'. Comrade Macnair expanded on his analysis of terrorism developed in the Weekly Worker (August 11). He described how 'terrorism' can have several definitions, when used by establishment politicians, depending on the circumstances. For example, military action targeted at civilians in the hope of reducing morale and causing the collapse of the state. In comrade Macnair's view such terrorist acts should be described as war crimes even when they are committed by people whose cause we support, such as the IRA detonating car bombs in city centres. In Iraq blowing up army recruitment offices is a legitimate tactic, he said, but car bombs whose purpose was to cause indiscriminate death are both terrorist acts and war crimes. Turning to islamic jihadi terrorism of the 9/11 and 7/7 kind, comrade Macnair emphasised that this is a form of reactionary anti-capitalism. Religious terrorism is at the moment mainly an islamic phenomenon, but there have been christian and hindu terrorist acts, while the gas attack on the Tokyo underground was perpetrated by a buddhist sect. He reminded comrades that the US armed the jihadists to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. If the workers' movement revives, imperialism and jihadi islamism, which are now bitter enemies, will surely become allies again. He repeated the point he made in his article: we need to oppose both the imperialists and the jihadis and the way forward for our movement is to aim to organise workers' self-defence, and to rebuild our own forms of social solidarity to rival the religious charities. On the final afternoon of Communist University Ardeshir Mehrdad, co-editor of Iran Bulletin, spoke on 'Neoliberalism and global destitution'. He discussed the nature of poverty and its political and economic causes. As we see in Iraq, imperialism can destroy states with its military power, but is not capable of rebuilding anything to replace what was destroyed. Those who say capitalism still has the potential to develop the world's productive forces are mistaken. It is definitely in decline. Decline The decline of capitalism was the subject of a series of three talks given on successive days by Hillel Ticktin, editor of Critique. He spoke about the dialectics of decline, the decline of class societies before capitalism, and the characteristics of the current capitalist decline. He began by stating that all social formations undergo growth, maturity, decline and death. During the phase of decline there is a transition to the new formation, and the appearance of hybrid forms. He described the long period of decline of the Roman empire as ushering in the transition from slave society to feudalism. When it could no longer expand and obtain enough slaves, the slave mode of production had to give way. He described the Byzantine empire as a transitional form frozen in time for a thousand years. On the decline of feudalism and transition to capitalism, comrade Ticktin said between 1100 and 1700 a range of emergent forms came into being, and did not all continue. Portugal, for example, remained backward, not moving beyond primitive accumulation. Features of emerging capitalism, declining feudalism and transitional forms existed together. Capitalism emerged as a world system: it did come into existence in one country in isolation. Turning to capitalism itself, comrade Ticktin said the law of value is in decline. There is a constant tendency to replace it with administration and control from above. When sale and purchase, and labour and capital, can no longer work together, the system starts to disintegrate. At present we see three sets of laws operating: the laws of declining capitalism, the laws of the emerging system, and the laws of the transition. The transition period we are in involves aspects of the new society in conflict with the old forms. These aspects, such as the rising organic composition of capital, government control undermining the law of value, and the increased necessity of planning in large companies, contain elements of the future socialist society. Capitalism uses these pseudo-socialist forms as a temporary source of stability, but they simultaneously undermine it further. For example, the 1945-1973 boom was deliberately brought to an end by the capitalists because they feared the workers were becoming too confident and thus difficult to control. Similarly, denationalisation in the Thatcher era was carried out specifically to prevent large-scale cooperation among workers by breaking up the productive units. Comrade Ticktin spoke about finance capital, a parasitic form of capitalism which distorts the industrial capital it feeds off. It destroys companies producing both profit and use value if they do not show increases of profit and dividend. On the transition to socialism, comrade Ticktin described the USSR as a transitional form that failed. He spoke about the difficulties of large-scale planning, and about the need for abundance which implied an end to the waste inherent in capitalism. Above all, the completion of the transition from capitalism to socialism will have to be a conscious act by the working class, and it needs a powerful, informed, working class party organised across the world to bring it about. Comrade Yilmaz of the Communist Party of Turkey embarked on a description of Karl Kautsky's book The Dictatorship of the proletariat, which was famously criticised by Lenin. Chapter by chapter he dealt what Kautsky said and with comrades in the audience discussed whether Kautsky had any valid points and where he was going wrong. Comrade Macnair said Kautsky had no clarity on the question of ruling and governing. Comrade Conrad declared that by 1918 Kautsky had collapsed as a revolutionary and had surrendered to reaction. But when Lenin and Trotsky replied to him, they made errors of their own, including turning their dire emergency situation into a norm. The movement needs to go back to Marx for its theory, comrade Conrad said. Class rule Another session focusing on debate of fundamental Marxist theory was 'Worker-peasant rule, sense or nonsense?' introduced by comrade Macnair. This was a continuation of a debate begun at an earlier CPGB school about the viability of Lenin's famous slogan, the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry'. Comrade Macnair discussed the social position of peasants and petty proprietors in different class societies and analysed how this created their consciousness. He argued that Lenin's attempt to use the peasants as allies in the fight against capitalism was doomed. Comrades Ticktin, Conrad and others disagreed with parts of his conclusion, and it is a debate which will continue in the party. The decline of class societies was a key theme running through Communist University. Almost all the openings had a historical dimension. For example in his opening on the party question Steve Freeman spoke about the Levellers who in 1647 built the first modern party. It is important for Marxists to study the past so we can understand, and equip our class with the understanding of, where we are, where we came from and where we are need to go. Chris Knight Our study at Communist University spanned the whole of human history from the very beginnings of humanity. Radical anthropologist Chris Knight in his talk on 'Primitive communism' analysed the causes and social consequences of the 'human revolution' which transformed pre-human hominids into true human beings with culture. It is a radical idea: human culture was created in a revolution and can be transformed once more in a future revolution. This is another theme that looks et to develop: comrade Knight is due to speak at a future joint school with the CPGB. Lessons of history In his talk 'The Olympics, past and future' Marcus Larsen spoke about the role of the Olympic Games in the culture of ancient Greece, and the way the modern Olympics were developed first as an expression of an aristocratic ideal and then taken over by imperialism and the modern capitalist nation-state. Comrades discussed the role of sport in communist society, and started to consider our attitude to the 2012 Olympics, including the possibilities that the event will throw up for the working class. It is vital that communists retain the memory of working class history, and one of the most unusual sessions of the week was an illustrated account of the Paris Commune given by comrade Yilmaz, covering the events that led up to this first living example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, an account of the life of the Commune and its defeat, and lessons we can learn from it. History was also a theme in Jack Conrad's talk on 'Jesus, the communist', which analysed historical processes generating cults such as christianity in Roman-occupied Palestine, and the way the emperor Constantine adopted the religion in an attempt to legitimise his rule and overcome the crisis facing the empire. Comrades discussed the way the religion was adapted by selection and rewriting, and how it was reinterpreted to accommodate the change to feudalism and then capitalism, and in the 1960s even began to prepare to adapt to socialism. This was one of three openings by Jack Conrad on religion during the week, related to the book on the subject he has written and which the Party will soon publish. In the opening 'Why bother studying religion?' comrade Conrad discussed what religion is and its origins, and its impact today. As capitalism declines, religion is becoming an increasingly powerful reactionary force. In 'Why secularism is important - why we need a secular republic', after defining secularism and outlining the history of the secular movement he discussed several modern states which claim to be secular, then described how religion came to prominence in the 2005 general election in Britain and the shortcomings of Respect on the principle of secularism. He outlined communist demands on religion and secularism. We demand the separation of church and state as a basic principle, and unlike George Galloway are against faith-based schools. We want people to be educated about religion, not indoctrinated into it. There must be complete freedom of religious practice, so long as no one is harmed by it. Communist University 2005 was the CPGB's 16th annual week-long school and was generally regarded as one of the most successful, with 22 stimulating and lively sessions providing everyone who participated with plenty of opportunity to put forward ideas and to learn from each other. Mary Godwin * Related article Highly recommended A first time attendee gives his impressions of this year's Communist University