Around 30 people attended the annual Communist University North - an event jointly sponsored by Communist Students and the CPGB. Ben Klein and Carey Davies report

Comrade Yassamine Mather from Hands Off the People of Iran
kicked off the school with a session on ‘Imperialism and Iran’. Giving a brief sketch of the history of Iran in the 20th century, she underlined how Iran had always been a plaything of the imperialist powers - particularly Britain and Russia. It had never been a colony, but its destiny was dictated by these powers.

She argued that the mullahs’ rise to power has highlighted the bankruptcy of political islam as any kind of solution - far from challenging the logic of capital, they continued the process of integrating Iran into the global system, while accruing for themselves enormous wealth. Despite the anti-western rhetoric, the regime has also been more than willing to enforce the neoliberal agenda of the International Monetary Fund.

Comrade Mather also pointed out that some sort of compromise has clearly been reached between the US and Iran over Iraq. Yet this is under constant threat by the destructive nature of the US global hegemon state, which must continually demonstrate its ability to control an important region such as the Middle East and ensure ‘rogue states’ like Iran are brought into line. This dynamic means that the threat of war remains real - whether under the sway of the Republicans or the Democrats.

However, this threat should not lead anti-war activists to fall into the trap of giving support, ‘military’ or otherwise, to the Iranian regime - still less apologising for its excesses.

Soviet Union

There was an interesting debate on the Soviet Union between two CPGB comrades, John Bridge and James Turley. Comrade Turley put forward the view that the Soviet Union was a form of primitive state capitalism, citing both the competition within its economy and the exploitative relationship it had to its satellites and colonies.

Comrade Bridge said that ‘state capitalism’ as a theory of the Soviet Union is plainly wrong. The theory relies on an extremely crude understanding of history - if the Soviet Union was not socialism, then it must have been some form of capitalism. However, it is necessary for Marxists to study the fundamental dynamics of Soviet society and its laws of motion - something Marx sought to do with capitalism.

The starting point of an analysis of the Soviet Union must be the basic unit of production, the product. He rejected the suggestion that the USSR could be described as capitalist, not least because there was no production of commodities. Its roubles were not money, nor was there wage labour or capital accumulation.

Comrade Bridge also rejected flawed theories that the USSR was some kind of ‘degenerated workers’ state’. In view of the atomisation of the working class and the absence of any social control on its part, it was clear that this was no workers’ state of any kind.

May 1968

In a further session comrade Bridge gave an overview of the events of May 1968 in France, where a student revolt catalysed a wave of industrial unrest in which up to 10 million workers (half of the French workforce).

He cited a conjuncture of economic and political factors as the cause, but there was particular emphasis on the cultural ferment of the era - the spirit of fierce resistance to conformism, a widespread determination to challenge established sexual, cultural and artistic norms, and a militancy fed by stories of resistance in the third world, crucially Vietnam.

The role of the Parti Communiste Française was also highlighted. It did its utmost to keep a lid on dissent, initially trying to prevent students agitating among the workers, opposing the revolutionary movements and then causing the revolt to fizzle out by limiting it to economic demands. Comrade Bridge said this was in its nature as a Stalinist party - ie, not a party of revolution - and that made the PCF’s decline inevitable.

During the debate, comrade Carey Davies pointed to the emergence of a ‘new left’, seeking to break from Stalinism, social democracy and the other ideologies of the ‘old left’ (including Trotskyism) and emphasising spontaneity. While this had its positive side, he said, the ephemeral nature of May 1968 highlighted its flaws. Comrade Ben Klein agreed, but added that the task must be to transform spontaneity through revolutionary leadership.

The most controversial part of the discussion followed comrade Bridge’s assertion that, given the leadership of the working class and its strength in France and elsewhere, a seizure of power would have been unfeasible. Instead, he said, it should have fought for a democratic Sixth Republic - for a workers’ militia, the abolition of the standing army and police, the full recallability of elected officials, political democracy, freedom to organise and so on. This would be the form of working class rule, if not immediately the content.

Comrade Jim Padmore objected strongly to this. He said this would be a bourgeois republic, and that there was no point in creating a bourgeois republic if the working class was in a position to take power for itself. He said it should have done this in France in 1968, as this was likely to trigger revolutions in Spain, Italy and Portugal.

Comrade Bridge responded that it would have been “revolutionary suicide” to attempt the seizure of power in the absence of any Marxist party either in France or elsewhere. He said that, while all revolutions are gambles, some gambles have better odds than others.


Comrade Mike Macnair explained the CPGB’s minimum-maximum programme and the strategy associated with it. The minimum programme lays out our immediate demands - measures a workers’ government would implement in the initial period after a revolution if they had not already been conceded. Its content sets out the programme for the democratic republic, and if achieved would amount to nothing less than the overthrow of the capitalist state order.

An example of a democratic republic of this sort would be the Paris Commune, where there is rule by the people at large, not the rule of law in a constitutional state. Karl Kautsky turned the democratic republic into less than this - in effect making it the latter rather than the former. In other words, he gutted it of its revolutionary content.

Comrade Macnair said the democratic republic provides a framework through which the working class can take over society positively, as opposed to the general strike route, which brings the working class to power in a situation of economic dislocation.

In reply, comrade Mark Hoskisson of Permanent Revolution argued in favour of Trotsky’s Transitional programme and argued that the minimum-maximum programme was a reflection of the CPGB’s Stalinist past. He said the strategy of the democratic republic was overly academic and inflexible and did not take into account the reality of working class struggle.

Trade unions

Dave Douglass of Industrial Workers of the World in many ways shaped his talk to follow on from the discussions on programme. He underlined how low class-consciousness currently had become, and argued for the centrality of the working class in any viable revolutionary project. The reason why workers engage in struggle is not because they have read Marx and Engels about why they should not live under this system, but that workers need to go to work - not as a hobby or as some philosophy, but because the capitalist class has stolen the means of production from humanity as a whole.

Comrade Douglass found the notion that workers need a particular political organisation to tell them there is something wrong with the system “arrogant”. In no way could the workers’ struggle for wages or workplace safety be described as false consciousness, trade union consciousness or economism. Workers had come to the conclusion that the system must go “a long time ago”. The IWW does not see itself as a political organisation in terms of being a party, but is actually a non-political organisation in that it is against political parties. Struggle creates consciousness - that was not invented by Marx.

Comrade Alan Stevens (CPGB) said that a lot of Dave’s opposition to the role of the vanguard party flows from the failures and mistakes of the 20th century. He underlined that for communists the party is part of the class (the term’s etymological root) uniting its best elements.

Yes, through their own experience, workers can come to the conclusion that there is a crying need for a new world. But in the absence of a programme it could never be achieved. And that programme must encompass not just workers as workers, but the working class as an entity, including the unemployed, students, pensioners, children. It must be a programme for the whole of society.

Video files from Communist University North will soon be available on the Communist Students website: www.communiststudents.org.uk