Differences cannot be aired in public

Fringe 2012

Jan Nolan reports from the CPGB fringe meetings at the SWP's Marxism Festival

The CPGB hosted two fringe meetings at Marxism. The first, held on the Saturday evening, was entitled: ‘The left in Europe: workers’ government or extreme opposition?’ The Sunday evening fringe saw the “pre-launch” of Israeli socialist Moshé Machover’s new anthology, Israelis and Palestinians: conflict and resolution.

In introducing the Saturday session, Mike Macnair asked, if Syriza had been in a position to form a government after the Greek elections, should it have done so? And if so on what programme? The CPGB contends that in such situations, where the working class is far from being in a position to exercise power, it is much better to take up a position of extreme opposition.

Marxism has always been for participation in elections, but has argued that we should only form a government if we are in a position to be able to implement our minimum programme - which would be inconsistent with the continuation of capitalist rule over society. Leaving aside the nature of Syriza and the left parties with whom it would have had to form a coalition government, trying to implement the communist minimum programme in Greece alone would be the same as “taking power in Somerset”, said comrade Macnair. It would have meant sealing off the country in order to prevent capital from fleeing, and trying to run a top-down command economy within an isolated Greece - which is not even self-sufficient in food, for example.

It would be different if there was a good chance that taking power in one country would spark a revolution in other, more powerful states. But that was just not a realistic proposition, as it was, for instance, in 1917. Across the whole continent the workers’ movement is weak and the immediate aim must be to rebuild our strength and combativity - and that applies in Greece too.

A couple of speakers from the floor were opposed to the position outlined by comrade Macnair. One said that if it was a case of the Greek working class itself taking power, then that would give a lead to the whole of Europe. Another agreed that comrade Macnair was “too pessimistic” - if a workers’ government was formed in Greece that would set off a “chain reaction”. A third comrade pointed out that a situation would never arise where workers across Europe were “at the same level”. Therefore, if there were a fresh election in Greece, Syriza should say it would form government if possible - or “Are you saying that the Greek working class shouldn’t fight back?”

CPGB comrades pointed out that Marx had advised against the seizure of power in what was to become the Paris Commune in 1871. Lenin had warned against taking power in Petrograd during the ‘July days’ of 1917. Indeed, when the Bolsheviks did make revolution in October, it was with the “reasonable certainty” that the German working class would attempt to follow suit, in the words of John Bridge.

Comrade Macnair reiterated in his reply that a Syriza government would be likely to trigger a coup, a judicial rebellion or a fascist attempt at counterrevolution. But the working class is unarmed and politically unprepared. The rebuilding of our own strength and organisation is the key priority, he said. Without that talk of taking power is just wishful thinking.

On the Sunday evening, Moshé Machover took this well-earned opportunity to reflect upon his writings on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which in his latest book cover the period from 1966 to the present. He was, however, unable to look back with satisfaction in the sense that the situation in the Middle East has not changed for the better. He has found that on the occasions that he and his contemporaries made optimistic projections, history has disappointed. The process of collating his articles (often co-authored with others) revealed that the forecasted Palestinian revolution has become, as he phrased it, an “unreal possibility”.

In the 1960s, as a founder of the anti-Stalinist, revolutionary Marxist Israeli organisation, Matzpen, comrade Machover’s opinions were often unique amongst his left contemporaries. Anti-sectarian, whilst also declining to follow uncritically the Palestinian solidarity movements of the time, Matzpen attempted to forge an analysis of its own. In the talk, he highlighted one article written during this period, ‘The class nature of Israeli society’, as an example of a ground-breaking position, but also as an example of how history has defeated their ambitions for a solution in the region.

The demand for an independent trade union centre in Israel has still to be answered, allowing the destruction of the welfare state throughout the 70s. In the extreme neoliberal Israel of today, class inequality has risen above that of the US. Comrade Machover mentioned, however, the rise of a new radical trade union, Power to the Workers, which offers a glimmer of hope to the country’s working class as an alternative to the pro-business, Zionist Histadrut.

Matzpen’s importance, Machover suggested, was in its now more widely accepted analysis of the Zionist role in the Middle East. Specifically, it had taken the dual form of waging an anti-colonial struggle against the British mandate in Palestine, while establishing a settler state. This process had brought into being two new nations - Palestine and Israel (although, of course, Zionism itself contends that it is Jews the world over, not just Israeli Jews, who constitute a nation).

Comrade Machover strongly asserts that neither a single state in Israel-Palestine nor two separate states can provide a solution in isolation. Instead, what is required is an Arab-led socialist revolution across the region - the only way to bring about real social change. He hopes that in reading his anthology we will be able to learn the necessary lessons from the disappointments he has written about.