Lionel Sims: most interesting session?

Debate, solidarity and internationalism

Danny Hammill reports on the CPGB’s annual summer school

 As comrades assembled on August 20 for the CPGB’s week-long summer school at its new south London venue, the London Olympics were slowly being pushed out of the headlines. The reality of Middle East conflict and financial turmoil was once again making it to the front pages: Syria is on the brink of all-out sectarian carnage and redivision; a horrific Israeli attack on Iran seems more than just a possibility and the euro zone limps from crisis to crisis. A ‘disorderly’ Greek exit from the euro remains a distinct possibility. Given the near apocalyptic economic and social meltdown experienced in that country, it is no great surprise that Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) came a relatively second close in the June parliamentary elections.

So it was only fitting that CU was kicked off this year with a talk on ‘The euro crisis, the left and the question of government’ by Mike Macnair of the CPGB. Or, to put it another way, do we want to see a Syriza-led government in Greece? The comrade tried to lend a historical and theoretical perspective to the whole issue, with special reference to the debates and arguments that swirled around on the question of working class parties in office in the First, Second and Third Internationals. Comrade Macnair noted that Marx’s views on whether workers’ organisations should join coalition governments alongside non-working class elements were developed in reaction to the negative precedent set by Louis Blanc. A respected figure at the time, his decision in 1848 to join the bourgeois provisional government (Second Republic) led by Alphonse de Lamartine proved to be disastrous, only acting to discredit socialist politics - so Marx and Engels consistently argued.

Then there were the fierce debates around Millerandism (or ‘ministerialism’) in the Second International and the ‘workers’ government’ slogan at the Fourth Congress of Comintern, the full proceedings of which are only just appearing for the first time in English. Comrade Macnair concluded, to the exasperation of some, that the very last thing communists want is for Syriza - and formations like it - to ‘take the power’, which would surely lead to catastrophe for the Greek working class. Rather they should constitute themselves as parties of extreme opposition, a strategic line of march that was, after all, recommended by Marx with regard to Germany - patiently building up an independent working class movement that today must seek to organise on an all-European basis.

Directly following this debate there was a discussion on Iran/Israel (‘conflict and symbiosis’), jointly introduced by Yassamine Mather, chair of Hands Off the People of Iran, and comrade Moshé Machover, Israeli socialist and a founder of Matzpen (the Socialist Organisation in Israel). Comrade Machover outlined his central thesis that Israel’s real motivation for an attack on Iran, if it were to occur, would not be to deal with the so-called nuclear threat - an obvious nonsense only peddled by the tame bourgeois media and gullible pro-imperialist ‘Marxist’ groups like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Instead, he contended, a hot war with Iran would provide an excuse for the Zionist administration to implement a ‘solution’ to the Palestinian problem - that is, wholesale ‘population transfer’ by force to ensure that an enlarged Israel became an overwhelmingly Jewish state (and in this way consolidate the foundation myth of Israel as a home for the so-called ‘Jewish nation’).

In her contribution, comrade Mather detailed how imperialist sanctions against Iran were having a devastating effect on the working class - not the reactionary regime in Tehran. Workers were becoming more concerned with day-to-day survival, how to feed themselves and their families, than with the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The persistent threat of an Israeli attack clearly serves to maintain the mullahs’ grip on power and in that way imperialism, Israel and Iran are engaged in a deadly dance of death.

War on religion?

Later in the week CU saw the launch of Jack Conrad’s Fantastic reality: Marxism and the politics of religion - extensively rewritten and re-edited, with four extra chapters. Comrade Conrad explained in his talk that he had decided to excise some of the sections dealing with immediate or contemporaneous political questions, which by definition would turn out to be essentially ephemeral or of limited relevance, thereby leaving room for more historical material. Not for the first time, the comrade expressed astonishment at the fact that a question of such vital importance for the working class movement has received such scant attention - barely moving on from Karl Kautsky’s magnificent, though far from perfect, 1908 study, The foundations of Christianity.

Comrade Conrad emphasised how communists have no interest in fighting a Richard Dawkins-like ‘war on religion’, let alone in introducing a hellishly oppressive theocracy along the lines of Enver Hoxha’s Albania or some other Stalinist freak society. He reminded us that Marx’s famous comment about religion being the “opium of the people” has been continually misinterpreted, even though the intent should be more than clear. In the 19th century opium was routinely dispensed in order to relieve pain. Religion, therefore - or at least as Marx saw it - was a coping mechanism, or spiritual sticking plaster, sought after by those suffering from social alienation, exploitation and oppression (“the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”). Armed with this truly humanist understanding, we can see that all religions - to one extent or another - are promising pie in the sky, or communism, when you die. Trying to ‘abolish’ religion without first abolishing the alienated material conditions that give rise to religion is actually an inhuman policy. And another Stalinist legacy.

There was an interesting minor controversy when a comrade from Socialist Fight advanced the idea that the advent of monotheism was historically “progressive”, presumably on the basis that it was an inevitable stage in the ever forward march of the productive forces and so on, ultimately paving the way for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Such a reductionist viewpoint was strongly rebuffed by a number of contributors from the floor, CPGBers and non-CPGBers alike.

Especially interesting, at least for this journalist - given his prior ignorance of the subject - was the presentation on ‘anti-German Germans’ given by comrade Susann Witt-Stahl of the Hamburg-based Assoziation Dämmerung. This concerned the strange phenomenon of German lefts who claim to be communists - counting Marx as one of their heroes, alongside people like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer from the Frankfurt school of critical theory - yet are vociferous supporters of the state of Israel, almost equating the Israeli Defence Force with a socialist militia. Some ‘anti-Germans’ even provocatively maintain that George Bush is a communist in the tradition of Marx and supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq on that basis - there are others who back imperialist sanctions against Iran on a similar basis.

Over time, the ‘anti-German’ tendency has become increasingly antagonistic to the German left as a whole, regarding its anti-Zionism purely as the product of a pernicious “anti-Semitism” deeply rooted in German cultural history and hence almost impossible to escape from - meaning Hitler’s willing executioners are now opponents of US imperialism, Zionism and the Israeli state. Or so the ‘anti-German Germans’ would have us believe. Indeed, hostility to the organised left has reached such a point that a number of ‘anti-Germans’ have forged fraternal links with the English Defence League on the grounds of mutual ideological compatibility - ie, shared pro-Israeli/Zionist and anti-left sentiment.

It would be easy to dismiss the ‘anti-German Germans’ as a bunch of half-mad cranks or weirdoes not worth bothering with, but that would be profoundly mistaken. Increasingly, we find ‘anti-German’ activists trying to silence or even intimidate leftwing speakers and gatherings - leading some to suspect that they might have ties with the German secret services. More importantly still, the ‘anti-Germans’ are living testament to the decomposition of the left in Germany - they did not spring from nowhere. Only by rebuilding a genuine mass Marxist movement in Germany can we tackle and defeat non-working class trends like the ‘anti-Germans’.


In what many felt was the best session of the week, comrade Lionel Sims of the Socialist Workers Party gave us a stimulating talk on ‘Eden: did primitive communism ever really exist?’ Of course, this a highly complex subject - incorporating as it does the detailed study of pre-history, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, etc. Essentially though, basing his ideas on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s conception of invariant syntax, comrade Sims argues that there is a “meta-myth” underlining all origin myths, Christian and non-Christian. This accounts for the universal appearance of dragons (or serpents) in patriarchy myths concerning our origins as a revolutionary species - ie, the human revolution. Many were particularly intrigued by the Hebrew myth of Lillith, originally held to be Adam’s first wife, who was ‘disappeared’ by those who compiled the Bible - eager to remove all traces of our matrilineal communist past.

Another highlight was Gabriel Levy’s fascinating talk on ‘The trouble with “economic growth” and “environmentalism”’. A welcome antidote, it has to be said, to the lingering notion of ‘socialist growth’ that still afflicts some parts of the left - that is, the belief that under a post-capitalist ‘socialist’ society we would churn out more and more stuff. Capitalism on stilts, but this time with red bosses - hurrah, what progress! In other words, our ‘Marxist’ comrades cannot imagine anything other that the continuation of alienated social relations. However, the genuine Marxist understanding of abundance is one of a society that satisfies human needs - not swamps us with things on the basis of production for the sake of production. With real socialism, there will be no such thing as GDP, etc - why would we bother with such crap? Anyway, comrade Levy’s CU introduction is now available in its entirety on his excellent website, People and Nature (http://peopleandnature.wordpress.com).

There were plenty of other extremely interesting sessions, naturally. As per usual, all the presentations given at CU 2012 will shortly be available on the CPGB website (video and audio files) - not to mention the fact that transcripts and articles based on the various talks will appear in forthcoming issues of the Weekly Worker. But it should be mentioned in passing that one popular session was Anne Mc Shane’s opening on ‘Liberating women: the Bolshevik experience’ - where she touched upon, amongst many things, Anna and Maria Ulyanova (sometimes referred to as “Lenin’s forgotten sisters” - though, of course, they were serious revolutionaries in their own right) and gave a quick historical overall of the Zhenotdel, the women’s section of the Russian Communist Party from 1919 to 1930.

Also of particular interest was the debate surrounding Tommy Sheridan and the sad but distinctly avoidable demise of the Scottish left - so many thanks to comrades Gregor Gall and Sarah McDonald for their very good openings. And it almost goes without saying that CU perennial Hillel Ticktin gave a series of talks on capitalist decline and crisis. Appropriately, CU ended this year with a lively debate on ‘What sort of ‘anti-capitalist party’ do we need?’ - which saw sharply contrasting views put forward by Simon Hardy (Anti-Capitalist Initiative), Mike Phipps (Labour Briefing) and Ben Lewis of the CPGB.

A special mention must be made of comrade Paul Le Blanc of the US-based International Socialist Organization. Not only did he stay for the entire week, but he gave three engrossing talks (slide shows included) on the ‘real Lenin’, ‘building the revolutionary party in the USA’ and ‘Rosa Luxemburg’ - revolutionary pedagogy at its finest. In the same breath we also have to praise the comrades from the US Platypus group and the Socialist Party USA, not forgetting comrade Witt-Stahl, who also stayed for the entire week - thus fostering a noticeable spirit of solidarity and internationalism, a legacy we in the CPGB hope to build on for future CUs.

Another welcome innovation of this year’s CU was the introduction of fringe meetings: sessions were held by the Socialist Party of Great Britain on Martov’s criticism of Bolshevism, comrade Paul B Smith on ‘What is Marxist education?’ and the Platypus group.

Finally, total attendance this year was exactly 98, including the 30 or so comrades who stayed for the whole week.