Peter Manson reports on a week of debate, learning and comradeship
Communist University 2009, the CPGB’s annual week-long school, was the most successful ever in terms of attendance and quality of debate. That was the virtually unanimous opinion of all CU veterans.
Of course, we cannot match the Socialist Workers Party’s Marxism event when it comes to numbers – of either sessions or comrades attending – but, as we never cease to point out, Communist University is something qualitatively different. Whereas the SWP fears genuine debate between Marxists, and never invites other revolutionary trends to hammer out their differences or permits anything more than three-minute soundbites from the floor, the CPGB consciously seeks out areas of controversy. Not for its own sake, of course, but precisely in order to clarify what divides us in order to strive for the truth.
This year’s CU, held in Brockley, south London, featured 22 stimulating sessions attended by something approaching 200 comrades overall. While many of those came to just a few meetings, there was a hard core of around 40 who were there throughout – the overnight accommodation at the venue was oversubscribed, with comrades having to improvise in shared rooms. Attendance at the sessions never dropped below 35, while more than 50 came to some of the weekend meetings.
What of the content? While we were pleased to welcome back CU regulars who are renowned in their own field – not least Critique editor Hillel Ticktin, Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky and the comrades from the Radical Anthropology Group – the presence throughout the week of Lars T Lih, author of Lenin rediscovered, undoubtedly gave this year’s school something new and original in terms of the historical knowledge that we need.
Were the German Social Democratic Party and the Russian Bolshevik Party completely different animals? Did Vladimir Lenin discover long-held differences with SPD leader Karl Kautsky after the latter’s betrayal in 1914? Did Lenin discard his entire previous strategy in April 1917 and finally become a fully-fledged revolutionary communist? The answers to those questions are no, no and no again, according to comrade Lih’s painstaking research. In fact what stands out is continuity in relation to all of them.
Why is this important? Because the economistic left, having mythologised a non-existent break in 1917, has in the process moved away from a fully Marxist approach. An approach which puts the fight for democracy – in our own movement as well as in relation to society as a whole – at the very centre of our work. We need not only a mass democratic party like Kautsky’s SPD, but a strategy for revolution based on the direct rule of the majority, not the dictatorship of a minority elite ruling in the masses’ name.
That is why comrade Lih’s three talks – on Lenin’s relationship with Kautsky, their strategy for revolution, and the Bolsheviks’ 1917 “wager”, or gamble, on revolution in Russia as a spark for workers’ power in the west – were so invaluable, as were his interventions during other sessions.
Comrade Ticktin’s three openings on the economic crisis – the underlying theory, the particularities of the current crisis, and the prospects for capitalism and class struggle – were also insightful, while comrade Kagarlitsky dealt with the crisis as it affected Russia.
The particular contribution to the workers’ movement of the Radical Anthropology Group was once again highlighted – not least that of their three main theorists and CU speakers, Chris Knight, Camilla Power and Lionel Sims. Comrade Knight – recently sacked by the University of East London for organising the Alternative G20 Summit in April – looked at the theory of primitive communism and its implications for 21st century class struggle, while comrade Power focussed on the not insignificant aspect of human evolution that is religion. SWP member Lionel Sims showed once more how the archaeologists have got it wrong – this time in relation to the prehistoric Avebury monuments. Comrade Sims’ theory explains the significance of Avebury and Stonehenge in relation to the counterrevolution ushered in by the beginnings of class society.
For the second year running, CU was pleased to welcome comrades active in France’s New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA). Jean-Michel Edwin described how the NPA is developing and talked about both the potential and the dangers. Continuing the internationalist theme, CPGB member and chair of Hands Off the People of Iran Yassamine Mather gave a detailed analysis of the Islamic Republic and the Iranian mass movement.
Other CPGB speakers were Jack Conrad, Mike Macnair, Mark Fischer and James Turley. Comrade Conrad, author of the Marxist study of religion, Fantastic reality, looked at the historical context and significance of the Dead Sea scrolls. In an earlier talk he spoke about the origins 30 years ago of what is now the Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB. He outlined the centrality of the communist programme and the progress made in redrafting the CPGB Draft programme.
Comrade Macnair introduced a topic that has been the cause of controversy within the CPGB: ‘The Labour Party – still a bourgeois workers’ party?’ He answers that question firmly in the affirmative and spoke very much along the lines of his important Weekly Worker article on the question (‘Making and unmaking Labour’, July 30). Strangely, however, there was little by way of controversy in the ensuing debate, even though the analysis of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party was central in our decision to urge a Labour vote in the June 4 European Union elections – a decision that was met with strong opposition within our ranks.
The debate on the British National Party and the left’s response was also largely uncontroversial, although this too has seen disagreements in the CPGB, particularly in relation to the nature of the BNP – is it fascist or not? But comrade Turley chose not to focus particularly on that aspect in his opening – although it has to be said that, irrespective of this theoretical question, we are in any case solidly united around the kind of response that is needed and in our opposition to the no-platforming, ‘Smash the Nazis’ approach of most of the left, whether or not it merges with popular frontism.
Comrade Fischer, along with former National Union of Mineworkers militant and author David Douglass, recalled the miners’ Great Strike of a quarter of a century ago – an episode replete with lessons for today, not least when it comes to the absence of a single revolutionary party of the working class.
A lesson, it has to be said, that has not been learnt by Stuart King of Permanent Revolution. Invited to speak ‘On unity’, comrade King expressed some surprise when CPGB comrades criticised his failure to mention the unity that really matters – organisational unity for the class in precisely such a single party. Comrade King viewed this as beyond his remit – common, non-sectarian work in, for example, single-issue campaigns was the key for him.
Other sessions were introduced by Sandy McBurney, former member of the Scottish Socialist Party, who recalled how the potential unity of our class across Britain was deliberately sabotaged by the SSP – its leaders seemingly prefer the cross-class unity of Scots in the separatist fight for independence; and by Israeli anti-Zionist Moshé Machover, who looked at the role and potential of the Hebrew working class.
The remaining two sessions featured debates from the platform. The first was a rather confused affair, with comrades Kagarlitsky, Ticktin and Macnair addressing the question of Asiatic social formations particularly in relation to Russia. There seemed to be some misunderstanding as to what the differences actually were, making this perhaps the least satisfactory session of all, although it was certainly not without interest.
By contrast, the closing roundtable between comrades Ticktin, Knight, Machover and Ben Lewis of the CPGB was controversial and very pertinent: ‘Capitalism’s crisis: how should we organise?’ While all four comrades are agreed on the need for a Marxist party, they have very different views on how it can be won and what we ought to do in the meantime. See here for the comrades’ speeches.
One of the characteristics of an educational event like CU is, of course, the unevenness of those attending in terms of political experience and theoretical understanding. The fact that we aim for the very highest standards of debate means that the more inexperienced, often younger, comrades do not follow everything that is being argued in the main sessions. Many do not feel confident enough to contribute their own point of view or even ask a question.
That is why there were additional informal lunchtime sessions – held in the large, pleasant garden outside the conference room – where Jack Conrad led discussion on questions that arose not only out of the main meetings, but also out of comrades’ own experiences.
During the course of the week the basics of Marxism are touched upon during these lunchtime gatherings, but there is no doubt that the bourgeois education system does not equip students with any real means of understanding the workings of society. For example, most A-level history courses do not go back before the 19th century, so how can new comrades be expected to know anything at all about feudalism or the Asiatic mode of production?
Clearly we have a job to do in organising ongoing, year-round education for those new to communist politics – in parallel to the approach that aims to enrich our theoretical understanding to the highest level possible.
Not all the ‘fringe’ meetings planned for the evening actually took place, although the one I held – on the role of the Weekly Worker and how we should approach the duty to write for it – was well attended. However, just as important as all the organised sessions, formal and informal, was the social aspect of the week.
We organised our own catering and our own bar, so many comrades stayed at the venue to socialise, watch a film or just chat. And it goes without saying that the debates begun during the day often raged on into the evening and even the early hours. The use of the garden on a balmy August evening was very much appreciated.
It was also used, weather permitting, for the serving of lunch and afternoon tea. Which leads me to a key aspect of CU – the comradeship and cohesion that develops from organising, working and cooperating around a common project.
CPGB comrades each took a turn at providing lunch and supper, and most of the food served, while hardly cordon bleu, was well presented and appetising. And at £2 a meal it was certainly good value. (Come to think of it, where else could you get a full week’s conference, including accommodation, for just £160?)
While the big attendance meant that there were more comrades to share the work, in my opinion in the future we should ask non-CPGB comrades to help out if they wish. Collective self-catering should not, and generally was not, regarded as just a chore, but an integral part of uniting our ranks – politically, socially and organisationally. In that sense, CU can be viewed, in its own small way, as an example of the way common ‘work’ and ‘play’ will be reconciled in the kind of society we are aiming for.
Many of the comrades belonging to other groups and to none appreciated the spirit engendered. In this context particular mention to the two members of the International Bolshevik Tendency must be made. While they strongly disagreed with many aspects of CPGB politics, and with many of the conclusions reached by comrade Lih, for example, the fact that they stayed for several days and contributed to every session meant that after a while what they said went beyond the dogma that we have come to expect from the IBT.
The two comrades ended up playing a more than worthwhile role – Alan Davies even chaired one of the sessions for us! It goes without saying that the IBT, as well as other groups that attended, were able to have a stall in the conference hall and distribute their material freely.
In addition to the organisations already mentioned, there were comrades in attendance from the Labour Party, SWP, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Revolutionary History, Revolutionary Democratic Group and I am sure others too.
Communist University is more and more an event not to be missed. The question is, for how much longer will the excellent Goldsmiths College venue be large enough?