Communist University 2013

COMMUNIST UNIVERSITY 2013

August 12-18, south London

Preparations for the Communist University, our annual school, are well advanced and the 2013 timetable features some outstanding speakers on key issues. The CPGB website will be regularly updated with tweaks to the timetable and profiles of our speakers, but here are a few who have confirmed so far and the subjects they will be addressing:

* Adam Hanieh is a lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is author ofCapitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States and a member of the editorial board of the journal, Historical Materialism. At our school, Adam will be speaking on ‘The political economy of the Muslim Brotherhood’ on Wednesday, August 14. For comrades’ interest, he opened on‘The capitalist crisis and the Arab Spring’ in November of last year at a gathering organised by the Kurdish Academic Forum.

* Hillel Ticktin is one of the leading Marxist political economists in the world. Originally from South Africa, he left the country to avoid arrest for political activism. After some time working for his PhD in the Soviet Union – where he again attracted the disapproval of the authorities – he began teaching at the University of Glasgow in 1965, and in 1973 he co-founded Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, an independent, scholarly Marxist journal. Comrade Ticktin has been a regular atCommunist University over years and a frequent contributor to our paper. He will be presenting three sessions for us in August – ‘Capitalist crises and the causes’ (Wednesday, August 14), ‘Capitalism: terminal crisis or long term decline?’ (Thursday, August 15) and ‘Socialism or barbarism’ (Saturday, August 17).

* The left’s response to the global crisis of capitalism has been essentially Keynesian. So the title of our morning session on Friday, August 16 – ‘Does Keynesianism offer an alternative to austerity?’ – is apposite for all those who regard themselves as Marxists, or revolutionaries of some stripe. It is presented by the CPGB’s Mike Macnair, a member of the party’s leadership and a frequent contributor to the Weekly Worker. Mike has written and spoken on this subject in the past and it is clearly one that we need to keep returning to given the left’s stubborn insistence that this non-Marxist (actually anti-Marxist) politics is a supportable ‘alternative’ to capitalist austerity.

* OnTuesday, August 13 Mike Gonzalez will be discussing with Nick Rogers the question, ‘After Chavez: where next for the Bolivarian revolution?’ Mike has written widely on Latin America from the state capitalist perspective of the International Socialist tradition of Tony Cliff. (See his Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution). He is a historian, a prolific author and literary critic. For a time, he also was the professor of Latin American Studies in the Hispanics department of the University of Glasgow. He was videoed speaking on ‘The politics of water’ at a Socialist Workers Party (Ireland) event in November of last year.

*Yassamine Mather is an Iranian socialist in exile in Britain. Her political activities on the Iranian left started in 1980s Tehran and later in Kurdistan. In exile, she has been on the editorial board of the monthly journal Jahan and a member of the coordinating committee of Workers Left Unity Iran. She is also a member of the Centre for Socialist Theory and Movements (Glasgow University) and the deputy editor of the journalCritique. Since 2007 she has been active in Hands Off the People of Iran (HOPI).She will be speaking in a debate on feminism(s) with Camilla Power.

*Camilla Power is a senior lecturer in evolutionary anthropology at the University of East London, with a particular interest in female coalitionary strategies, ritual and early human kinship. She uses modern Darwinian selfish-gene sexual selection theory to understand the origins of symbolic culture. She is a leading member of the Radical Anthropology Group and has spoken frequently at Communist University. She will be speaking in a debate on feminism(s) with Yassamine Mather.

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Comrades attending Communist University for the first time often remark that its culture is very different to other left schools. For example, writing in the Weekly Worker Paul Demarty regrets the “cosy diplomatic speechifying” that generally characterises the annual Marxism school staged by the Socialist Workers Party. This flows from a tacit “diplomatic arrangement” between the event organisers and the ‘star’ non-SWP speakers – the “horse trading” consists of “the SWP granting the speaker a large and enthusiastic audience in central London. In return, the speaker offers the SWP an implicitendorsement of the image it wishes to project: a non-sectarian, unifying force on the radical left, offering up its resources to ‘build the movement’.”

Our school actually makes an effort to explore real differences between comrades, to give critical minorities the time and space to make their arguments and to challenge comrades’ pre-conceptions. We are genuinely out to educate, in other words – both ourselves and others. In the lead up to last year’s CU, we made this video with the CPGB’s national organiser, Mark Fischer, to give comrades a feel for the event.

For booking and venue details, go here. Main Communist University 2013 Index here.

Milton Keynes protest against the bedroom tax: a photo report

Around 40 protesters held a demonstration against the governments plans for a ‘bedroom tax’ on Friday March 15 afternoon in Milton Keynes. These government plans are yet another blatant attack on the poor – an act of outright class warfare on the part of this government of millionaires. It was heartening to see such a response from people in Milton Keynes. There will be another protest against the ‘bedroom tax’ on Saturday March 30 in Bletchley from 11am outside the old Co-op on Queensway.

All photos © David Isaacson 2013

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Protest against bedroom tax in Milton Keynes, UK.

Protest against bedroom tax in Milton Keynes, UK.

Protest against bedroom tax in Milton Keynes, UK.

Protest against bedroom tax in Milton Keynes, UK.

Protest against bedroom tax in Milton Keynes, UK.

Anti-war anniversary: Party with all-round strategy needed

Moshé Machover looks back at a decade of anti-war protest. This is an edited version of his speech to the March 9 ‘Ten wasted years?’ school, organised by the CPGB

Moshé Machover (photo credit: David Isaacson)

Moshé Machover (photo credit: David Isaacson)

The high-water mark of the anti-war movement was the great demonstration of February 15 2003, the biggest that I have participated in – and I am sure that is true for many others here too. It did not stop the war and it would have been very surprising if it had, but nothing very much seems to have come out of that movement. The question is why?

Of all the similar wars of intervention – what have been called ‘slaughter for humanitarian purposes’, perpetrated on behalf of the US-led ‘international community’ – the Iraq war was the only one that generated such protests. The first I can recall was Kosova in 1999, over which much of the left was confused; then there was Afghanistan in 2001; more recently there has been Libya, Syria and Mali. Remarkably also in the case of Libya much of the left was divided, and again it is worth asking why.

Some have claimed that the big Iraq demonstration 10 years ago was responsible for preventing war against Iran today. I think this is highly doubtful – there are many other considerations. Of course, the march was not without use – just the feeling of being in such a big crowd is a good thing. But my question is, why have we been unable to repeat such large demonstrations?

The attitude of the organised left – in Stop the War Coalition it was mainly the Socialist Workers Party and later the section of the SWP that split to form Counterfire – is that the anti-war movement provides an opportunity not to assert the revolutionary socialist view, not to assert a Marxist analysis of the impending war, but to use this movement for ‘leverage’. I mean leverage in the sense of using a small weight to move a larger one. A small group hopes to use the movement in order to move a much larger public through some kind of ‘united front’.

In my first real political activity I was sent by a Stalinist-Zionist movement to collect signatures for a worldwide peace petition during the cold war. Some communist parties were very small, but could ‘lever’ a lot of peace-loving people through these organisations. Of course, the Stalinists had no intention of making a revolution – they were about defending the Soviet Union – and on these terms the peace petition worked quite well. They did get leverage through a whole series of organisations that are very reminiscent of the types of bodies run by the SWP, Counterfire and so on that we have today. There was the Democratic Youth Movement, which had a succession of festivals in the ‘people’s democracies’, the Democratic Women’s Movement and a whole series of fronts for the various CPs.

But there is a price to pay for this doubtful privilege: you have to moderate your own analysis, as those people you are trying to lever are not entirely stupid: they do not want to be manipulated and they are prepared to form this kind of long-term alliance only provided that the left does not say things that they strongly disagree with. In February 2003 you could see SWP posters and placards, but there were many more Liberal Democrat placards – and, of course, Lib Dem support vanished not long after that – and there were also very big Islamic groups taking part.

Now, I am not implying in any way that far-left groups should not have taken part in this huge demonstration or in other anti-war movements. But they should have used the occasion to put forward their own specific revolutionary-socialist analysis of the situation. What was missing was a distinct, working class, leftwing presentation. The far left felt it had to adapt to what its bourgeois partners were thinking about the war.

Anti-war arguments

Some of the people who march against war are pacifists, who just think that war is bad. Again, I am not saying that we on the far left should not concur that war is a horrible thing, but this is not the mainargument – it is an additional, a supporting argument against war.

Others have opposed some interventions because they say they lacked ‘international legitimacy’ or ‘legality’. In the case of Iraq it was clear that, as Blair stated, there would have to be a second United Nations security council resolution, so even in his terms it was not legal. And this actually influenced a lot of people: the Liberal Democrats opposed the Iraq war (until it actually began) on the grounds that it was illegal. Had the UN passed a resolution making the invasion legal, then they would have had no argument. Again, it is not a bad idea to point out the illegality, but this is not our main argument.

Then there are those who oppose war because it is so expensive. In fact this ‘cost of war’ argument is made not just by those who oppose wars, but also by those who wage them. There is a certain conflict of interest here, because war is very expensive, especially in these times of austerity, when so-called ‘defence’ budgets are being cut. But there is also the so-called ‘defence’ industry, which does not want to cut back.

Some people oppose war on the grounds that aggressor states have evil or unjustified aims. In the case of Iraq it was a very widespread argument that what the Americans were really after was Iraqi oil, which is to some extent true, but I do not think this was the main reason for the intervention and this certainly should not have been used as a main argument by Marxists. For example, the only resource Afghanistan had going for it was lapis lazuli, used for blue dyes!

Another argument made against the Iraq war was that Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction which he was accused of stockpiling. But suppose that he did! And, by the way, no-one was seriously claiming that Iraq had atomic weapons. The term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is in itself deceptive: it lumps together hydrogen bombs and mustard gas. And when Blair said that Iraq possessed WMD he was talking about poison gas. Again, what if Iraq did have this?

The problems of these arguments about the secret, evil intent of the aggressors are twofold. One, there may not always be obvious ‘evil intent’; the reasons given for war and intervention may be semi-convincingly depicted as humanitarian, as in the case of Libya. These rebels in Benghazi are going to be slaughtered so ‘we’ must save them. If your main argument against the imperialists’ intervention is that they are doing bad things, but this is not immediately apparent, then you are disarmed. And this is actually what has happened to a lot of people on the left – not just the usual suspects, but people who ordinarily should know better. They are confused and have justified (or semi-justified) the intervention in Libya.

On the other hand, if you are not ready to justify the intervention on such grounds but want to oppose the war on the basis of ‘good versus evil’, then you are pushed into actually idealising the victim of the aggression. This is very obvious in the case of Iran, where some of the bigger masses that the left groups seek to leverage are devout Muslims, who are not averse to a harsh theocracy. It is not that the planned American-Israeli war against Iran is ‘good versus evil’ in the way it is portrayed in the bourgeois pro-war press, but merely a reversal of this position – suddenly these regimes become staunch ‘anti-imperialists’.

I think that the lesson of all this is the need to organise independently – not in the sense of refusing to act together on a specific issue in a tactical way with people who have other motives. But one should do it in a way that does not inhibit us from putting forward our own analysis.

Who and why

The question then is, what should be our main argument against these interventions? At this point I cannot resist telling you a story from the Talmud. The Talmud is a huge compendium of Jewish legal and theological disputations ranging over several centuries, but it also contains various stories. Some of them are just fairy tales, but others are reports of actual events. One of them recounts a discussion between three sages towards the end of the 2nd century in Palestine, which was then under the rule of the Roman empire. The discussion was over the attitude that should be taken towards the Romans.

The first sage says that the Romans are not so bad. They build markets, bathhouses, bridges. They bring civilisation. The second sage keeps quiet in the discussion. The third sage says, look, it’s notwhat the Romans do, but what they are doing it for. They build markets as places for lodging whores. They build bathhouses for their own enjoyment, and they build bridges in order to collect tolls, to tax us. So don’t look at what is done: look at who does it and why.

According to the story, a fourth sage overheard this conversation, blabbed about it, and it got to the authorities. The first sage who praised the Roman empire was not touched. The second sage who had kept silent was sent into internal exile. But the third one had the death sentence passed against him and he had to go into hiding. I think this is a very instructive tale, which has a moral lesson.

The question is not whether or not the purported immediate aim is good or not – to save the rebels or whatever. The question is what the bigger picture is about: why are these wars being waged? You can make a whole list of interventions carried out for ‘humanitarian purposes’. It is a system, a method – although this method of justifying war is relatively new, a post-cold war phenomenon.

All the big wars in modern times, up to and including World War II, had been between the major capitalist countries over the competitive division of the world between themselves, over who could become the ‘top dog’ of the imperialist hierarchy. I think another war of this type is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. It may arise again – no-one can prophesy with certainty – but if it does it would be entirely catastrophic, given the weaponry that exists. So the last one in history for the time being is World War II.

Then during the cold war the world was divided, polarised, between the two main superpowers. They had a whole series of agreements to achieve this – Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam. In the period from 1945 through to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, wars were tools for the policing by the respective superpowers of their own mutually agreed spheres of influence. There were also conflicts between the two big blocs in cases where the borders were not sufficiently clearly defined – Korea certainly was a war of this kind and Vietnam arguably so. But additionally there were wars within the blocs, where one power would exercise itself militarily within its domain and the other superpower would not intervene. For example, the USA and its allies did not intervene when the Soviet Union made a regime change in Czechoslovakia in 1948, or when it intervened very forcefully in Hungary in 1956. Some Hungarian rebels called for American intervention, but that did not happen, as it was contrary to the established agreements and would have been destabilising.

Nor did Stalin intervene when the west crushed the resistance in Greece. Immediately after World War II, the Greek Communist Party and its resistance movement were as important as they were in Yugoslavia. But in Yugoslavia the west did not intervene and allowed the partisans to take power, while in Greece the imperialists, Britain mainly, did intervene, because, according to the agreements between the two major powers, Greece was in the western domain. Stalin not only did not intervene, but he actively betrayed his communist allies in Greece.

That period ended in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now we have a world which is structured differently, with one major power at the summit of the capitalist pyramid. It is not a case of the ‘imperialist countries’ versus ‘the colonial countries’ – each state has a role within this hierarchy. It is an intricate system, but certainly there is a top dog. And that top dog would like to assert its right to police the world as it wishes. So, instead of two domains, where in each case there is a major power policing its own backyard, we have one world, one domain, with one superpower that claims, along with its major allies – not least Great Britain and Israel – that it has the right to police the whole world.

Strategy

It is on these grounds that imperialist war must be resisted. It is part of the capitalist system – and a vicious and dangerous part from the point of view of revolutionary socialists. What the US is trying to do is to legitimise and to normalise its role as world policeman, and it is this that we ought to oppose. This is the major argument that I think the left should put forward in opposing wars.

We should never support a war undertaken by our own ruling classes. Often they are undertaken for domestic reasons. Kissinger said of Israel: it has no foreign policy, only domestic policy; and this is actually true of most states – their foreign policies result from internal class contradictions.

Of course, there are additional arguments that are useful to mention in each case, but this main argument applies just as much to Mali, Syria and Libya as it applied to Iraq and will apply to Iran. It is in principle incumbent on the left to oppose this role of world policeman. Why? Because we know what would happen if there were the possibility of socialist revolution anywhere: this world policeman would bring its power to bear against us. That is why it is essential to build up our opposition both practically and theoretically in order todelegitimise these police actions.

Finally I think it is important to distinguish between a ‘single issue’ form of opposition and one based on class analysis. It is the difference between protest and the presentation of an alternative. In order to do protest you do not really need a single, mass organisation based on the working class, and armed with a socialist programme. All you need is an organisation like STWC, which resists bad wars. Then you have another organisation to resist the cuts.

But in order to actually present an alternative you need an all-round theory, an all-round strategy. You need an organisation, a party. A party that is not just about protests, but whose main purpose is about presenting an alternative to the existing order of things.

(This article was first published in the Weekly Worker)

 

Did primitive communism ever really exist?

Speaker: Lionel Sims (Radical Anthropology Group). This meeting was part of Communist University 2012, the annual school organised by the Communist Party of Great Britain (cpgb.org.uk)

Lars Lih on Bolshevism

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95 years after the October Revolution, the CPGB invites you to join us to look back on an event that profoundly changed human history and which continues to inspire millions across the globe.

This London Communist Forum will not merely celebrate 1917. It will also interrogate the complex and conflicted legacy of the ‘Bolshevism’ that we on the far left have inherited. This has completely distorted our understanding of the very event that inspires so many of us.

The cults of Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky, not to mention the anti-communist prejudice of Cold War historiography, have skewed our understanding of the nature of Bolshevism as a political movement, the strategy it was pursuing and therefore the Russian Revolution as a whole. This meeting aims to re-Bolshevise the Bolshevik Revolution.

In a world that is increasingly plunging into turmoil and crisis, enormous responsibilities and challenges fall to those of us who still uphold the need for revolutionary change. That is why it is so important to rigorously study our history, so as to learn from the lessons of 1917.

Lars T Lih is a scholar and historian based in Canada. He is one of the world’s foremost thinkers on Lenin and the Bolsheviks. He has been at the forefront of rediscovering Russian revolutionary history, helping to scotch some of the myths about Bolshevism common to both the far left and anti-communist establishment thought. His most recent publications include a biography, Lenin (2011, Reaktion), and his ground-breaking study Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be done?’ in context (Haymarket 2008).

Facebook event

Location: Calthorpe Arms, 252 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1. Map

Starts: 19:30, Sunday 11 November 2012

Ends: 22:00, Sunday 11 November 2012

General strike: Rebuild the movement

The call for a general strike to bring down the government is out of place, writes Mike Macnair

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The bulk of the far left sees the TUC October 20 demonstration against austerity as an opportunity to carry on an agitation for a general strike to bring down the government.

Socialist Worker headlines this week: “Out! Out! Out!” The accompanying text argues for a general strike and further escalation. “The magnificent strike on November 30 last year gave a glimpse of the power workers have, when taking mass action together. Strikes like this can drive the Tories into submission.”1

Last week’s headline in The Socialist read: “Kick out the ‘nasty party’!” The accompanying text claims (as the Socialist Workers Party has also claimed on other occasions) that “This is a weak government that we can kick out … The call for a general strike received huge support at the recent demonstration outside Tory conference.”2 (The Socialist says that the size of this demonstration was “thousands”; Indymedia reports 5,000, a lot smaller than the 30,000 or more who demonstrated in Manchester in 2011.3)

Socialist Resistance has published online its leaflet for October 20. “Step up the struggle! Strike against austerity!” are the opening headlines. But at least the leaflet flags up the party question in some way: “Demonstrations and strikes are absolutely necessary to stop austerity, as well as a massive and united movement of resistance. But we also need a political solution to our struggle so that we can have in government a party, like Syriza, which will reverse austerity …”4

Articles in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Solidarity do not display a consistent view. Martin Thomas’s introduction to the AWL’s coming conference is appropriately sober on perspectives:

 

On one level, unresolved capitalist crisis, which means continued depression at a global level and a high possibility of further economic dramas: for example, in the euro zone. In Britain working class conditions are being squeezed deeper and longer than in the 1930s or under Thatcher.

All that makes upheavals likely before long. Maybe not mass strike waves, which are more likely to come with some economic recovery than in the depths of the slump; but explosive local industrial struggles, street protests, and ‘molecular’ radicalisation of individuals.

On another level, Britain now has a period of working class lull following the setback on pensions on December 19 2011, which with each passing month becomes more like an outright defeat.

We cannot end the lull at will …5

 

On the other hand, Daniel Randall and Sacha Ismail offer ‘A workers’ plan to beat cuts’, which is in substance a general ‘action programme’ (a shortened and immediatised version of a party programme). After the introduction, it begins with:

 

No cuts to jobs and services: we need a massive campaign of industrial and political action against the cuts, starting now, not at some point in the future after the TUC demo.

Struggles must be fought around clear demands, and fought to win – not simply to express displeasure at some already-taken action of the bosses or government.

 

This is a slightly less explicit version of the ‘general strike now’ line of the SWP and Socialist Party in England and Wales.

It ends, as such programmes usually do, with “Fight for a workers’ government”. The formulations are muddled, but I am not concerned to criticise them here. The point is that the whole structure of the action programme, the ‘plan to beat the cuts’, supposes that the struggle is likely in the near future to escalate to the point of putting on the agenda the question of government – not in the sense of an early general election and handover of office to the Labour right, but in the sense of a left government, one which “could only take power on the back of struggles so wide-ranging that they would shake up (and, in all likelihood, break up) the current Labour Party to such a degree as to render it unrecognisable”.6

The Anti-Capitalist Initiative website has two articles by the same author, on the same day - John Bowman, October 14 – which are similarly schizoid. ‘After the march – will the TUC step up the action?’ is conventional general-strikism: “A one-day strike is ultimately a protest. It would need to be turned into sustained mass strike action to stop the cuts, and defeat a government that is determined to destroy the welfare state …”7 The piece headed ‘What should the TUC do?’ recommends a much more low-level set of policies to rebuild the trade union movement, but ends with “time to start matching fighting talk with real action that can win”.8

An awful lot of these far-left lines are written as if we were in the year 1974 – after the second miners’ strike had brought down Heath, and before the labour law ‘reforms’ of Wilson and Callaghan had succeeded in undermining the shop stewards’ movement – let alone, before Thatcher’s decimation of British manufacturing industry, the extensive robotisation of much that remains, the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike and all that has followed it.

Where we are now is not on the verge of a revolutionary crisis. The task we face is not the immediate struggle to bring down the government, but to rebuild the workers’ movement. Strikes, including one-day protest general strikes, have a real place in that task. Slogans or strategies of a ‘general strike to bring down the government’ are right now simply unrealistic.

Where are we now?

To begin with the positive: ‘Marx is back’. The crash of 2008 and its long-drawn-out consequences have meant that the tendency of capitalism periodically to threaten the foundations of its own existence is back on the political agenda. This is one of the distinctive predictions of Marx’s critique of political economy, and it has meant that even the rigid control of the academic economics profession and of economic journalism by ‘neoclassical’ marginalists has not prevented a ‘Marx revival’.

I do not definitely say, as Martin Thomas does, that the capitalist crisis is ‘unresolved’. This may be true, but it may also turn out that enough of the losses have been externalised away from the ‘core countries’ through money-market mechanisms for there to be a new limited upturn or even a new bubble, on the basis of the extraordinary levels of money-printing that have gone on in the last period.

Secondly, the politics of class is back with a vengeance. Occupy Wall Street’s slogan against the 1% – the ruling class – resonated widely, even if the movement itself has largely withered, as all such spontaneist direct-action ‘spectacular’ projects do. Owen Jones’Chavs becomes an Amazon bestseller. Government chief whip Andrew Mitchell calling cops ‘plebs’ becomes, for a while, a political running sore. David Cameron finds it necessary to claim that he stands for “privilege for all” – a nonsensical slogan.

The Eurocommunist idea argued by the late Eric Hobsbawm and others, that issues of class are gradually being superseded by identity issues – gender, race, sexuality – as motivators of radical critique of the present order, has spectacularly proved itself false. Capital has shown in the last 20 years that it can be anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc, in its own way; what it cannot do is avoid waging war on labour.

The crisis and austerity accentuate the issue, since the Con-Dem government is determined not to waste the opportunity to push through attacks on welfare and privatisation of the health and education systems. The effect is an obviously corrupt government acting in the interests of its ‘1%’ paymasters at everyone else’s expense.

This context has necessarily produced a real, if as yet small, revival of militant collective action. Days lost through strikes rose in 2011 to the highest level for eight years. A large chunk of this was the one-day public sector action on November 30, but if this element of the 2011 figure is subtracted, there would still have been a rise in strikes.

Downside

On the other hand, if days lost through strikes have risen, they remain at historically low levels relative not only to the 1970s, but to any time since World War II. Union membership is around half where it stood in the 1970s. The level of organisation remains extremely weak: paradoxically, it is this weakness which has allowed the far left and militants linked to it to make gains in elections and conference resolutions in the official structures of the trade unions.

Since the 1980s, robotisation and so on have produced an extremely productive industrial sector, but one with a far smaller workforce (the natural result of increased productivity) dispersed in relatively small (in terms of numbers employed) workplaces. Large workforces and workplaces have become a feature mainly of the service sector and in particular of the public sector.

There has been a long-term trend away from full-time into part-time employment, which has been accelerated by the effects of the 2008 crash. In itself, this would be a good thing: communists favour shorter hours for each worker and on that basis work made available for all. But under capitalism, part-time working leads to impoverishment and welfare dependency. This is because the combination share of rent and mortgage interest in the social surplus product, the multiplication of competing financial ‘utility providers’ for gas, electricity and so on, and agricultural subsidy in the form of price maintenance and set-aside (the EU Common Agricultural Policy) elevates the cost of living relative to full-time wages; and it is considerably harder for part-time workers to organise collective action in the workplace than for full-time workers. Iain Duncan Smith’s massive attack on part-time workers’ benefit rights is about to kick in, with incalculable effects.

This is only one of a number of cuts and austerity measures which are either not yet introduced in practice or have yet to take their full effect. The result is that, though the Con-Dems have been talking down the economy and emphasising how bad everything is, the need for cuts, the ‘unsustainability’ of pensions, the welfare state and so on, Britain remains in economic stagnation. It is not – yet – in a real deflationary death spiral like Greece or, to a lesser extent, Spain.

Going along with this, although there is considerable hostility to the government’s cuts/austerity policy, this does not yet in any sense amount to a crisis of the political order. Polls show Labour under a rightwing leadership around 10% ahead of the Tories – normal in mid-term. The Tory vote at around 30% is holding up quite well. The Liberal Democrat showing at 9% is dramatically down on the party’s 2010 general election result, but not in complete collapse territory, given its regional distribution.9

As far as far-left electoral support is concerned, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (run by SPEW with the support of the RMT union leadership and the episodic participation of the SWP) has been able outside London to achieve results comparable with the middle to stronger end of far-left candidacies under the names of the Socialist Alliance in 2000-05 and by the SWP under its own name and the rival Socialist Unity in 1976-78. It has not got beyond this level and shows no sign of mobilising activists on the ground sufficiently to do so.

Beyond this is the absence of the vision of an alternative to the system of capital. Marx’s diagnosis of the ills of capitalism may be ‘back’, but the alternative – socialism – is still in the shadow of Stalinism. The organised far left constantly reminds the broad layer of activists of Stalinism through its own bureaucratic-centralist internal practice, which generates both unprincipled splits and the duplication of bureaucratically controlled front organisations, which fraudulently pretend to be broad ‘united fronts’: Counterfire’s Coalition of Resistance, the SWP’s Unite the Resistance, SPEW’s National Shop Stewards Network, and so on. The unorganised far-left ‘independents’ and the anarchists are if anything worse: quot homines tot sententiae- as many opinions as there are individuals – forming thousands of sects of one member.

This Stalinist shadow also results in the unwillingness of the far left to actually propose anything more than immediate minimum demands, plus utopian fantasies of Keynesian management of national capitalism, which are disproved by the ability of financial sanctions to destroy the domestic economies of – in recent decades – Iraq, Zimbabwe and Iran. That unwillingness is reflected not only in the policies proposed by the Labour left, by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, by the SWP, SPEW and AWL, but also in the electoral platforms of strong left parties like Syriza in Greece and the Socialist Party in the Netherlands. This shows that it is not only a matter of electoral weakness, but of an underlying failure of imagination – the inability to conceptualise an alternative other than Stalinism.

Given these weaknesses, how on earth could we imagine that the question of the working class taking political power is immediately posed, in a way which would make the idea of a general strike to bring down the government an appropriate agitational idea? The problem is to rebuild the workers’ movement into one capable of posing the question of power: which, at the moment, it is not – even in Greece.

Rebuilding

Rebuilding the workers’ movement is a long and not straightforward task.

At the core of any workers’ movement are the trade unions. However, militants think in ways which are obstacles to rebuilding. Those above the age of 50 grew up in a world very different from today’s – a world of large, concentrated workplaces of full-time workers, under full-employment conditions, in which shop-steward workplace militancy could build the union. They transmit their ideas to the younger generations.

But high unemployment has become endemic; and the trend to part-time working and smaller workplaces has made union organisation problematic except for limited groups like railworkers and prison officers. Trade unions must therefore look to organise the part-timers, the casuals, even the unemployed. To do so they need to shift away from their focus on workplace organisation to district organisation. They also need to increase their emphasis on the welfare and educational roles of trade unions, as the state withdraws from this field.

However, trade unions alone are not enough. The importance of cooperatives and mutuals in redeveloping the institutions and traditions of working class solidarity is increasing and will continue to increase in the modern conditions of retreat from full employment and welfarism.

These activities sound banal and unexciting by comparison with agitating for the general strike. But it is the steady, long-term, banal and unexciting activities which create the conditions for broad layers to imagine themselves, rather than the ruling class, running society; and hence for mass actions which do begin to pose the question of an alternative to capitalism.

Alongside these activities is the necessity of working class politicalaction. This is grasped in a one-sided way by Socialist Resistance with its call for “a party like Syriza”; and in another one-sided way byThe Socialist, for whom it just means ‘Build Tusc into a new Labour Party’; and in yet another and equally one-sided way by the AWL – comrades Randall and Ismail characterise Labour as “woefully inadequate” (not pro-capitalist, comrades?) and argue for “fighting to restore Labour Party democracy”.

Randall’s and Ismail’s action programme has the merit of containing some democratic demands: annual parliaments, a worker’s wage and an end to “the assault on basic democratic freedoms” in relation to kettling, policing and free speech. But if they have done better here than the pure advocates of the general strike, they fail to grasp that rebuilding the workers’ movement demands a parallel political offensive against the active intervention of the capitalists in and against this movement through the legitimacy of parliament, the capitalist monopoly control of the mass media, and the corrupt ‘free market in legal services’ judiciary.

It is this fight against capitalist political control which demands a workers’ political party and workers’ independent media as part of the process of rebuilding the movement. A party is not just an instrument for elections and seeking office in government. Rather, intervention in elections, especially round democratic issues, are means to delegitimate the electoral system – and hence the government’s claim to a ‘majority’ – the media and the judicial system.

This question, however, is interlocked with the problem of democracy in the workers’ movement. A trade union controlled by bureaucrats, a cooperative by managerial tops, a Labour Party or SWP controlled by its full-time staff demobilises the membership and tends to weaken its own organisation.

But political loyalty to the British nation-state and the parliamentary constitution is the core of Labourist politics, both among Labour leaders and trade union bureaucrats, left as well as right. This loyalism inherently implies a party reliant on the capitalist mass media and subservient to its bidding. And this in turn implies the regime of bureaucratic-centralist control, and a consequent demobilisation and weakening of the movement itself.

By making unity with the trade union tops or with ‘broad forces beyond Marxists’ the precondition for unity with the rest of the left, the SWP, SPEW and other advocates of this approach in fact commit themselves to not doing in an organised way the work of ‘scandalising’ the political institutions, which is essential if we are to rebuild the workers’ movement.

The underlying need is to rewin our movement to the idea of solidarity and cooperation of the working class as a class, and recreate the institutions and practices which express this idea. This is why actions like the October 20 demonstration, why coordinated walkouts and one-day protest general strikes are useful steps towards rebuilding: they assert the common class interests of the working class.

They would be more useful still if they were organised on a continental scale, to reassert the common interests of the working class as a class across Europe; and, for example, to rebuild the May Day festival worldwide, in order to reassert our common globalinterests.

But the best should not be the enemy of the good. We should undertake the task of rebuilding the movement both in its banal and local aspects and also in whatever inspiring demonstrations of solidarity we can manage. By doing so we will create the conditions in which the working class in future will be able to take its destiny into its own hands.

mike.macnair@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. Socialist Worker October 20.

2. The Socialist October 11-17.

3. www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2012/10/501166.html.

4. http://socialistresistance.org/4047/strike-against-austerity-leaflet-for-download.

5. www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/10/17/getting-ready-upheavals.

6. www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/10/17/workers-plan-beat-cuts.

7. http://anticapitalists.org/2012/10/14/after-october-20-tuc.

8. http://anticapitalists.org/2012/10/14/what-should-the-tuc-do.

9. http://ukpollingreport.co.uk.

Communist University 2012 – August 20-26

Communist University 2012

The Communist Party of Great Britain’s annual school takes place in a world in great flux. Given its explanatory power and practical programme, Marxism has huge potential in this period – a potential that is irresponsibly squandered by the sectarian in-fighting and opportunism of the Marxist groups. Communist University points a way out of this mess. Come and join the discussions over the week of August 20-26 2012 in south London.

Full details can be found on the CPGB website.