CPGB aggregate: Substitute for Marxism

The adoption of Keynesianism by the left and the confusion around the Assange case were the focuses of the latest CPGB members’ meeting, reports Michael Copestake

With no motions proposed for voting, the October 21 CPGB aggregate took on a more educational slant, with interesting presentations on two very hot topics of current relevance, both of which are acting like political lead weights around the feet of much of the left. These are its adoption of basically Keynesian economic ideas and agitational slogans, and the confusion over the Assange case, where questions of anti-imperialism and women’s rights seem to have been brought into irresolvable antagonism.

Opening the session on Keynesianism, Mike Macnair said that Keynesian economic ideas are now the default positions and slogans of substantial parts of the self-proclaimed Marxist left. Keynes, he went on, was not in the business of explaining why crises occur under capitalism: he mainly sought to suggest remedies to restabilise the system from the standpoint of a staunch supporter. The essence of Keynes’s solutions is that, when private investment falls, which reduces employment and wages and thus the level of demand in the economy, which in turn discourages investment in a vicious circle, the state must step in to increase effective demand through deficit financing, public works, lowering interest rates and so on until growth is restored, the deficits that arise being paid off in the subsequent upturn.

One of Keynes’s first texts was his 1919 The economic consequences of the peace, in which he opposes the level of reparations imposed upon a defeated Germany by victorious Britain and France in the wake of World War I. Given the events that followed - namely the rise of Nazism and World War II - Keynes’s views here have since been lauded as wise and prophetic by many. In practice, said comrade Macnair, they were simply naive. The fact of the matter was that the Allies could not engage in debt forgiveness for Germany, as France owed too much money to Britain, which in turn owed too much money to the United States, which was unwilling to play ball on the issue.

Until 1929 Keynes was a perfectly ordinary marginalist economist whose theoretical ideas only began to take on any real distinctiveness in the slump of the1930s, when he became an advocate of stimulus polices. Indeed, said the comrade, Keynes’s main aim was to preserve the body of marginalist economic theory, whilst changing parts of it to fit around his advocacy of stimuli. In part his championing of national economic management and tariff policies were a regression to pre-Adam Smith economics and in part were driven by the necessity to separate off, in theory, hyperinflation from ordinary inflation in order to justify stimulus measures - for traditional marginalists, hyperinflation was simply ordinary inflation in a more extreme form.

By the late 1940s Keynes’s ideas had become part of standard establishment ideology, albeit with modifications: added in was the idea of cutting off the top of a boom to prevent the economy ‘overheating’. Even the Bretton Woods settlement for managing world financial affairs set up in the aftermath of World War II appeared to express Keynesian ideas, though the central principle - that creditor states should allow their currencies to appreciate to restore the international balance of trade in relation to debtor states - was missing. In its place came a fixed rate of exchange between the dollar and a quantity of gold.

Ironically, however, Keynes and his prescriptions were to provide first the Fabian socialists and later the ‘official communists’ with the basis for their economic ideas. Keynesianism was viewed as a kind of non-class set of ‘technical’ ideas to improve capitalism to the benefit of workers, without fundamentally altering property relations, thanks to the actions of the state. Like the Fabians the ‘official communists’ needed a theory that did not undermine their fundamental political commitments - in their case socialism in one country and the popular front. The Fabians and the Stalinists advocate Keynesianism because they are nationalists and anti-revolutionary, he stressed. The adoption by the state of national economic measures fits their ideology.

The question then, continued comrade Macnair, is, why did the far left, mostly Trotskyist in origin, which had opposed Keynesianism for the same reasons the Stalinists supported it, suddenly start advocating it at the very moment it was disproved by the ‘stagflation’ of the early 1970s? Stagflation being the supposedly impossible combination of inflation and unemployment, for which Keynes’s theory was utterly unable to account.

The explanation was that it was in this period that, for example, the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party began to try and take over the role of the ‘official’ CPGB as the preferred interlocutor of the trade union bureaucracy in various spheres - anti-racism campaigns and Right to Work being two examples. Organisations such as the SWP, the comrade explained, seek to apply the nationalist and reformist ideology of the trade union bureaucracy in a more militant fashion (‘Moderate demands, militant action’), to push the working class into revolutionary action.

Leaving aside all the other problems with this idea, comrade Macnair suggested that we imagine the practical consequences of a left-Keynesian government. It would entail a run on the currency and the immediate necessity of Stalinist-type economic controls. Famously, the Mitterand government in France failed dramatically in attempting a Keynesian approach, finding itself facing a flight of capital. A forced reversal occurred within months.

In practice, he continued, the international division of labour is such that it is an illusion to think that any single country can opt out of the global capitalist order, whether fully or partially: rapid degeneration and collapse would be inevitable. Any economic area ‘taken out’ of the world market must be big enough and have a sufficiently developed division of labour within itself to be able to withstand capital flight, sanctions and blockade. The European Union is an example of such a potential economic area.

In the debate that followed Peter Manson questioned whether Keynesianism could only be nationally based, as comrade Macnair contended. Was it not possible for the leading capitalist powers to agree a programme of common Keynesian measures? For her part, comrade Farzad wondered about a worst-case scenario - we may not have time to ‘rebuild the movement’, the headline of comrade Macnair’s article in the Weekly Worker produced for the October 20 TUC march. We have to think about more immediate demands.

John Bridge strongly emphasised that the antidote to nationalist ideas must be anti-nationalism and the advocacy of regional communist parties. Contrary to the standard left approach, Marxist ideas are of crucial importance. While class-consciousness and the class struggle can develop very rapidly, there is no alternative to the patient work required for rebuilding the organisations of our class. And there is certainly no refuge to be found in Keynesian policies, he stated.

Assange and the left

Paul Demarty introduced the session on Julian Assange, rape and ‘no platform’ by also pointing to the left’s political crisis. He discussed its response to the allegations of rape made against Assange by a Swedish prosecutor, the comments made by Respect MP George Galloway, and the subsequent decision of the National Union of Students to formulate a policy of no platform for ‘rape deniers’.

Setting all this in context, comrade Demarty made it clear that the pursuit of Assange was an obvious part of a wider campaign by the capitalist class to deal with its loss of legitimacy following the Iraq war and the release of secret information via Wikileaks. Assange himself, said Demarty, is a strange character - politically eccentric, close to apologists for Vladimir Putin and the late Muammar Gaddafi, and someone who has been accused of anti-Semitism.

Demarty reminded those present that Assange was wanted for questioning by the Swedish authorities following the attempt of two women with whom he had slept to get him to take a sexual health test. They were not pressing for a rape charge. Assange made his way to the UK before suddenly Sweden changed its mind and issued a European arrest warrant.

Galloway then made his controversial “bad sexual etiquette” comments. Up until this point the response of the left, said Demarty, had not been too bad, with the usual exception of the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. There then followed the decision of the NUS ‘liberation officers’ to cook up a motion calling for ‘rape deniers’ to be denied a platform, naming Tony Benn and George Galloway. Benn quickly apologised for a remark deemed to be too dismissive of the rape allegations, but Galloway remained intransigent.

NUS officer Michael Chessum then wrote a piece advocating that Assange be turned over to the Swedish authorities. He supported the motion on the grounds that “safe spaces” must be created for women, free from ‘rape deniers’ like Galloway. Kate Hudson and Salma Yaqoob resigned from Respect in the wake of these remarks. Yaqoob did not fully explain her actions to the membership of the party of which she was leader, only giving her story in an interview with The Guardian well after the event.

The response of the SWP to this, said comrade Demarty, was a mixture of the well-intentioned and the risible. On the one hand, the SWP argued that the wider context of imperialism’s targeting of Assange could not be ignored, but, on the other, claimed that ‘no platform’ must only be used against fascists and to employ it against others dilutes the ‘principle’. Only the fascists are sufficiently irrational, beyond debate and dangerous, according to the SWP.

The main problem, said Demarty, is the fact that the motion would empower the NUS bureaucracy as the gatekeepers of debate, proscribing the limits of thought and discussion to its own liking in the name of ‘safe spaces’ against ‘rape deniers’, fascists or whoever else. The logic, actually reinforced by SWP arguments, is that no irrational ideas ought to be engaged with - presumably the power of individual demagogues promoting them cannot be countered.

Returning to the wider picture, comrade Demarty pointed out that the ruling class was seeking to relegitimise itself by delegitimising prominent dissident and leftwing figures - perhaps it is no surprise that the rightwing Labourites on the NUS executive were prepared to go along with this.

The question is, he asked, why is the left so unable to deal with all this? The answer, he said, is the left’s politics of seeking to “get people into action - any action” on a lowest-common-denominator basis, in the belief that doing so will in itself provide a motor towards revolutionary conclusions and activity. However, one negative side effect of this is that communists lose their political distinctiveness compared to social democrats and liberals. The only difference between the two becomes ‘action’ - in this case ‘no platform’.

What the left has done, comrade Demarty continued, is to abandon the idea, as expressed in the Communist manifesto, that communists understand and present to the working class “the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement” - that is, political ideas and a strategy - in whose place have been put single-issue campaigns. The general politics of ‘Marxism’ is replaced by a focus on various ‘particulars’, something which has led the left into chaos around the issues of Assange and imperialism, as two of its particular commitments - to anti-imperialism, on the one hand, and women’s rights, on the other - have come into antagonism with one another. Each of these commitments is framed within the reference of radical-liberal or social democratic politics in the name of getting people to move into ‘action’.

Comrade Farzad was the first speaker from the floor. She continued the theme upon which comrade Demarty had finished - that the left creates its own problems, thanks to its opportunist politics. From the political paralysis of the Stop the War Coalition, through the idiot anti-imperialism that sees people siding with Islamists, to trends like the ‘anti-Germans’, the left digs its own grave.

Phil Kent noted that the left these days is all too keen to trust the state, forgetting that it consists of an armed body of men, courts and bureaucrats. He also noted that, even in ‘progressive Sweden’ 90% of those accused of rape are not convicted, adding that it was unlikely that the various bourgeois states have suddenly developed a great concern for the rights of women.

Mike Macnair commented that the ‘hierarchy of oppressions’ to which the NUS liberation officers took offence was in a way quite real, in that capitalism can be anti-racist and anti-sexist, but it can never stop attacking the working class. The idea of special groups with special powers was antithetical to political democracy - the ‘safe spaces’ merely hand power to the bureaucrats.

John Bridge said that, if the left were to be consistent, then the no-platforming of racists would have to include the no-platforming of Zionists, while the no-platforming of ‘rape apologists’ would have to include all Muslims who fail to denounce Mohammed’s relations with young girls. Personally, he found capitalism pretty irrational and offensive - what with the war, poverty and mass suffering it produces - and perhaps we should therefore no-platform all pro-capitalists. He finished by saying that when the SWP and others claim that members of the British National Party or English Defence League are irretrievably irrational, that actually reflects their own irrationality.

Sarah McDonald cautioned against being blasé about what Assange had done. It was clear, she said, that Galloway was a politically dubious character, but was still a prominent oppositional politician whom we could critically support.

Mark Fischer found the whole idea of ‘safe spaces’ offensive - the effect of which could only be to create bureaucracies claiming to act for the benefit of others, infantilising the audience, the level of political debate, and also those allegedly being defended. All were to have their own agency removed by ‘benevolent’ bureaucrats.