Controversy and comradeship
Comrades from diverse political backgrounds gathered at the University of Sheffield over the weekend of April 21-22 to discuss revolutionary theory, strategy and practice at the CPGB-organised Communist University North. James Turley and Jamie Linney report
The event was jointly hosted by Communist Students, which received a number of enquiries from potential recruits. Around 35 comrades attended, including supporters of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Permanent Revolution, as well as not a few who were unaligned.
Comrade Yassamine Mather opened Saturday's proceedings with a talk outlining the events of 1978-79 in Iran - the release of political prisoners and subsequent upsurge of the fedayeen and mujahedin movements; the collapse of the shah's regime in the face of mounting discontent; the rise and falls of the workers' councils, the shoras; and the clerical counterrevolution.
In the absence of a united Marxist movement, the counterrevolutionary forces led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gained massive support. Political islam subsequently smashed any chance of progressive democratic gains for the people of Iran, leaving tens of thousands of Iranian comrades dead or in exile. Comrade Mather emphasised that the islamic revolution in fact involved no serious change in the economic order or mode of production.
Her characterisation of the situation as not one of dual power drew some fire. Barry Biddulph proposed that it was a textbook dual power situation, with the institutions, but not the revolutionary strategy, in place to resolve the deadlock favourably. Comrade Mather made the point that, since no serious working class force was even proposing a frontal attack on state power, there never existed the possibility of one and the state remained largely unthreatened.
Much of the debate focused on the current situation in Iran, where the islamic republic's capitalist rulers exploit the people with more ferocity than ever. Despite this there is growing defiance, as seen by recent reports of student and women's rights protests and worker's demonstrations. Comrade Ben Lewis said that a new generation is opposing the theocratic regime and turning to Marxism for solutions.
Comrade Mather stressed the importance of showing solidarity with our Iranian brothers and sisters, who face a fight on two fronts - against imperialist attack, against the regime - through the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign.
The next session was intended to be a three-way debate on youth and student revolutionary organisation between Ben Lewis of the CPGB and Communist Students, Dan Randall from the AWL and Education Not for Sale and Sam Durk from the Socialist Workers Party/Respect, but the latter was unable to make it due to illness - although his absence may have had something to do with the objections of Student Respect leader Rob Owen.
The debate, then, became a good old-fashioned CPGB-AWL ruckus. Comrade Randall, in his opening, claimed the main issue was to engage with larger and more amorphous groups such as People and Planet, and criticised as sectarian the failure of CS to do so. He was also puzzled by our relative silence on and absence from ENS, suggesting this was due to a desire to cosy up to the SWP. In response Ben Lewis argued that CS was created to fill a gap within student politics - there was no openly communist group, based on the need to arm students with the weapons of Marxism.
Mark Fischer rejected as ridiculous the idea that the CPGB or CS hoped to 'cosy up' to the SWP (that must also be news, one imagines, to the SWP), and he cited economism as the source of the rift between the CPGB and AWL. Mike Wood, another AWL comrade, was unconvinced - he suggested that CS's absence from ENS was primarily due to the thorny issue of Iraq, and the AWL's position against troop withdrawal.
Comrade Jim Padmore, a supporter of Permanent Revolution, attempted to open out the discussion. He claimed that what was needed was something like the old Labour Party Young Socialists: for all its faults, the LPYS was a mass organisation of leftwing youth relatively open to revolutionary ideas.
The final session of the day was a debate between CS and Permanent Revolution on a topic of the latter's suggestion, fighting fascism (a subject of contention between PR and the CPGB in the pages of Communist Student). Mark Hoskisson of PR opened the proceedings by outlining his main differences with the positions argued by CS comrade Benjamin Klein in a previous polemic against Jim Padmore. Though he agreed with the rejection of Unite Against Fascism's strategy of calling for state bans, he took issue with the characterisation of the BNP as a non-fascist formation, arguing that the "classical definition" cited by Klein (the victory of counterrevolution in a revolutionary situation) was one-dimensional, and failed to define a fascist party.
He also disagreed that no-platforming was a tactic among many, arguing instead that it was a strategy with a number of possible tactics, from physical confrontation to cutting the power to a microphone. The only tactic ruled out, it seems, is one that attempts to engage with reactionary ideas with the intention of exposing them as false in the eyes of our class. Comrade Hoskisson further argued that a positive alternative needed to be offered, and noted that the most effective anti-fascist activity had always been linked to revolutionary and socialist politics.
Laurie McCauley pointed out that, while the BNP still retained a fascist core, it had largely dropped conventional fascist strategy (armed squads in the street, and so on). The tactics required to combat it would thus need re-examination, to avoid fighting the wrong battle. He also suggested Weyman Bennett of the SWP was correct to appear on the same radio programme as Nick Griffin, since there was no possibility of no-platforming him on that occasion. The concentration on what he insisted was one particular tactic held back the fight against fascism.
Emily Bransom of Communist Students argued against physical confrontation for its own sake. Fascist ideas could be better combated by confronting the beliefs rationally. Various comrades responded, from PR and other groups, that a fetish should not be made out of some abstract principle of 'free speech' - since the fascists certainly do not respect it, there was no reason for a serious opponent of fascism to do so. Mark Fischer suggested that Hoskisson's and PR's enthusiastic advocacy of physical confrontation was an example of middle-aged men getting stuck on an old fight, which perhaps was not the main one of the day. Hoskisson, in his summary, complained that many had concentrated overly on this advocacy, and not on the other aspects of the anti-fascist fight he had outlined.
It was in many ways a circular and frustrating debate, but one that unveiled more common ground on the position than seemed to exist at the start.
The first session on Sunday was introduced by the CPGB's Mike Macnair, speaking on programme and the current debates around it within the Campaign for a Marxist Party. He brought along many examples of "classic" programmes, and noted that the best and most influential ones tended to be brief. While Bukharin and Preobrazhensky's ABC of communism was a relatively thick volume, it was not a programme, but an explanatory work in support of one - which happened to be a meagre 10 pages or so. Comrade Phil Sharpe's work-in-progress draft programme was, at a whopping 96 pages (and counting), rather heftier.
Programmes common on the left could be divided into "thin" lists of basic demands without a systematic strategy for power, and "thick" bodies of theory to which a member is bound. Some are both, comprising a short list of demands with an epic body of theoretical work going back through their own intellectuals, Trotsky, and Lenin to Marx. Comrade Macnair stated that such inaccessible programmes belong not to the members, but instead become the private intellectual property of the few leaders and as such are undemocratic.
The Marxist programme, properly called, is not limited to agreeable generalities, not concerned in itself with theoretical justification, but a strategy for power, and then for the transformation to communism: in other words the minimum and maximum sections. In practice, this meant an international programme, to prevent further catastrophes in the Soviet Union mould; and it must have as its goal the democratic republic as the form of working class rule.
It was objected that organising consensus across the entire world would be essentially impossible, and lead to the break-up of the socialist project. Jack Conrad of the CPGB responded that the democratic republic operates on the basis of majorities rather than consensus, if only for practical reasons.
The debate which followed centred on whether in a revolutionary situation communists within one country should necessarily attempt to seize power. Jack Conrad argued that in such a situation communists may justifiably decide not to do so, in the absence of any likelihood of international revolution. Lee Rock (also CPGB) pointed out, however, that a failure to act could lead to the crushing of the working class movement by counterrevolutionary forces.
Comrade Conrad, author of a forthcoming book on the subject, introduced the session on Marxism and religion. He characterised as inadequate the traditional definitions of religion, not least because some are deliberately widened in order to include Marxism. Instead, he described it as "fantastic reality" - to begin with a partial truth about the natural and human world which is necessarily partial and distorted. A religious outlook is, however, ultimately irreconcilable with a scientific one, such as Marxism. This does not mean that religious belief in the past was necessarily reactionary - eg, the revolutionary beliefs of the Jesus movement.
Jamie Tedford and others wondered on what basis Marxists could engage the religious in order to bring them into struggle. James Turley suggested swotting up on the key theological debates: it was more important to bring them round to revolutionary politics than to atheism as such.
Comrade Conrad argued that if religion is the opium of the people, the solution lies not in removing the analgesic, but in offering a cure for the social diseases endemic in class society. Marxists must engage believers in a way that includes them in the struggle for the emancipation of humanity from the exploitation of the ruling class. He noted that, for a time, the CPGB had a priest as a member - there was every reason why such comrades should be positive participants in the socialist future, and the movement to get there.
Huw Groucutt was less optimistic, suggesting that since religious belief was fundamentally irrational it was difficult to argue with believers in any meaningful way, characterising their outlook as "schizophrenic".
All in all it was a successful weekend that highlighted how Communist Students, especially in Sheffield following our election campaign, have established good links on campus, including with other left groups.
The debates were generally of a good quality and indicative of the honest and open approach the left must take if we are to become a real force once more.