Report on Communist University 2021 summer, held online from Saturday August 14 to Sunday August 22. This report was originally published in WW1361, which can be found here
Tackling the key issues
With 27 sessions and a variety of international speakers, this year’s Summer Communist University covered many of the key issues currently facing the left globally. From climate change, the national question and the shifting balance of power in global capitalism, through to the nature of the revolutionary programme and the type of party we need, the CU provided the time and political space to discuss these important topics without the three-minute time limit that is sadly too often the norm in what passes for the left today.
The online event was organised around broad themes which were then developed in the three sessions that took place on each day. No written report can do real justice to the debates, but if you want to catch up with any sessions you missed or indeed the CU as a whole, the videos are all being made available online.1
One key discussion was on free speech and the politics of the left. In his talk on ‘The Chatham House rule, safe spaces, no-platforming and other such self-imposed barriers to socialism’, Mike Macnair located the demand for unrestricted freedom speech, assembly and organisation in the wider working class struggle against capitalism and the construction of a new, socialist society. He argued that freedom of speech was essential for the needs of socialist production, for the needs of socialist organisation and for the needs of the working class fighting the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Comrade Mike was particularly critical of much of the restrictive culture and censorship of the contemporary left and its rejection of the Marxist tradition of free and open debate, both within the workers’ movement and society more generally.
One such example of this restrictive approach was the current controversy over trans rights, which was the subject of Amanda Maclean’s talk on ‘Trans rights orthodoxy and its discontents’. Speaking from a gender-critical position, Amanda began by summarising how she saw the debate developing, but moved on to the wider questions of censorship and the attempts to characterise her views as essentially socially conservative and rightwing. Rejecting this, she argued that it was actually ‘trans rights orthodoxy’ that was socially conservative in its stereotyped views on the nature of humanity in general and women in particular, as well as in its understanding of the relationship between sex and gender.
The debate between Tony Greenstein and Norman Finkelstein, on ‘Free speech: unrestricted or restricted’, tackled the themes underlying the previous sessions.
Tony acknowledged the labour movement’s long history of fighting against state restrictions on free speech, but argued that under capitalism free speech does not exist and that those who advocate unrestricted speech ignore the class interests that underpin ideas. Like other comrades who took his part in the subsequent discussion, he drew on a reading of the historical experience of ‘no-platforming’ fascists, which forms so much of the ‘common sense’ of the contemporary left. Norman Finkelstein’s case rested on classic arguments about the importance of the battle of ideas for left politics and the ways in which the labour movement stood for extending the boundaries of expression and debate.
Although most comrades tried to stick to the broader questions raised by Tony and Norman in their opening statements, for some participants the discussion was simply about fighting fascism. They argued that, because no-platforming had been successful in defeating fascism in the past, restrictions on free speech were not only fully justified, but were an essential principle for the contemporary left.
This ‘common sense’ was strongly challenged by supporters of the CPGB, who drew on the authentic Marxist tradition of championing free speech in the context of class struggle and argued that, far from being successful, ‘no-platforming’ – while it should not, of course, be ruled out as a tactic – could never by itself defeat a serious fascist threat which would be backed, protected and promoted by sections of the capitalist class and the state.
The important issue of Marxism and the revolutionary party was discussed in four sessions spread across the week. Lawrence Parker talked about the way in which a ‘damning phrase’ taken from The communist manifesto had been used as an intellectual cover for opportunist politics.
The phrase, “the communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties”, has historically been utilised by some ‘Marxists’ to justify adaptation to the politics of the Labour left and pursue a strategy of remaining in Labour at all costs. Tracing the history of the phrase and the development of this interpretation, Lawrence suggested that the terms of the debate need to be changed and that contemporary Marxists should look at the experience of the early CPGB in the 1920s, and the origins of Labour as a united front of working class and socialist organisations.
These points were developed further by Kevin Bean, who argued that, “without a hegemonic Communist Party, the Labour Party can never be transformed into a vehicle for socialism”. He outlined the history and nature of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party and recalled the discussions in the Third International about CPGB affiliation to the Labour Party, as shown in Lenin’s Leftwing communism. Kevin outlined the current debates on the left about the future trajectory of the Labour Party under Keir Starmer and, although he did not rule out the possible ‘deLabourisation’ of the party, suggested that Labour still remains a site of struggle.
In campaigning against bans and proscriptions and for the re-foundation of Labour as a united front of a special kind, allowing the affiliation of all socialist and working class organisations, Labour Party Marxists were raising the wider issue of the type of Marxist party we need. This was not a Labour Party mark two, or a broad left party with a Marxist vanguard. The key element, he suggested, was a Communist Party, since the development of a Marxist current in the Labour Party could not be internally generated.
Gus Ootjers of the Communist Platform talked about the experience of his comrades as a distinct tendency within the Socialist Party in the Netherlands and the witch-hunt that had been launched against them by the party leadership. He particularly focused on the internal differences over participation in a bourgeois coalition government and the way these discussions raised wider questions on the nature of the party and the type of strategy that Marxists should pursue.
In the discussions that followed these three talks, the nature of the Labour Party and the precise formulation of “the united front of a special kind” was a central theme. There was general agreement about the contradictory nature of Labour and its claims to be both a party of the whole class and a party loyal to the British state. Comrades agreed that Labour was not a ready-made instrument for socialism, and neither could it be “reclaimed for the working class”. The issue of the type of Communist Party and the nature of its programme had to become central if the left was to create a serious challenge to capitalism.
Donald Parkinson from the US magazine Cosmonaut took up a related question of party and programme, when he outlined the recent experience of the Marxist Unity slate within the Democratic Socialists of America. Outlining how the new slate was received at the DSA’s convention earlier this August, comrade Donald talked about how they had developed their maximum-minimum programme in the context of working for a split between the DSA and the Democrats, and creating the basis for independent, working class, socialist politics. In particular this entailed an explicitly anti-constitutional platform, which stressed the need to overthrow the constitution, not ‘deepen American democracy’. Comrade Parkinson argued that this approach took politics beyond mere activism and immediate demands, and posed the fundamental questions that confront American society and the working class.
Mike Macnair took up a similar theme in his session on ‘The transitional programme – the reformist banality of a supposed revolutionary profundity’. He discussed the origins and history of ‘transitional demands’, and how many Trotskyist comrades saw such demands functioning as a bridge to raising the consciousness of the working class and developing a militant working class movement committed to the socialist transformation of society.
Mapped out by Leon Trotsky in the late 1930s, during the severe capitalist crises and in the shadow of looming inter-imperialist war, these demands were designed as a response to the immediate situation. However, in the application of the ‘transitional method’ in the years after 1945, the limited nature and reformist practice of this approach belied any revolutionary objective. Far from acting as a bridge to socialist consciousness, and especially when combined with syndicalism or the worship of the politics of spontaneity, they actually closed off the development of revolutionary understanding and limited politics to economistic demands and agitation – ironically the very thing for which Trotskyists criticised the minimum-maximum programme.
Understanding the nature of capitalism, and the ways in which Marxists explain its operation and development, were the subject of three sessions by Ian Wright, Yassamine Mather and Michael Roberts.
Ian asked if machines create value and Yassamine considered whether machines can ‘create communism’, while Michael returned to Marx’s so-called transformation problem in Capital. Both in the presentations and the subsequent discussion, although much attention was focussed on the labour theory of value and the impact of the rate of profit on ‘the capitalist business cycle’, the issue of automation and the future of capitalism also provoked a lot of discussion.
In discussing how many on the left see the impact of artificial intelligence and automation, Yassamine described what she called ‘denialist’ and ‘super-optimist’ analyses: denialists argue that automation will simply create new jobs, whilst the super-optimists believe that the emancipation of humanity will take place because of AI: according to this school, capitalism will be transformed by a ‘crisis of work’.
Both from comrade Mather’s presentation and the discussion it was clear that the issue was much more complex than either of these approaches allowed for. In many sectors of the economy there would be large job losses as a result of AI and the replacement of routinised human labour in both blue- and white-collar work with machines. Whilst some new forms of skilled work would be created, these were likely to be limited. A much more likely scenario was the growth of ‘ghost work’ or service employment, which would be low paid and precarious.
The political and programmatic implications of these developments were raised by many comrades in the discussion. Capitalism will continue to try to break the power of labour and use AI in this struggle. Comrades naturally agreed that workers must organise to resist this, but such solidarity was not automatic. Our approach must be to counter the idea that unemployment and precarious work are natural and beyond human control. Along with the potentially negative changes to work and society wrought by AI and automation, there are also potential benefits for the working class. However, in rejecting the dominant consensus that ‘there is no alternative’, we also have to develop a working class alternative that raises the critical and political level of the movement and shows how we can run society in our own interests.
The politics of anti-racism in theory and practice were taken up by Paul Demarty and Daniel Lazare. In his introduction on ‘Anti-racism as the politics of consensus’ comrade Paul considered the ways in which the issues of race are analysed and addressed today, especially in the Anglophone western world.
The dominant consensus, which found expression in official multiculturalism, is that racism is a historical hangover from the days of empire, a product of ignorant white people and malfunctioning institutions: it can therefore be addressed by legislation, training courses and employment practices designed to overcome discrimination. He pointed to the illusory unity of the anti-racist ‘movement’ and its calls for diversity, both of which left the social and economic structures of capitalism intact. He counterposed the real unity of class against the platitudes of anti-racism and reminded us that, when the working class achieves its own emancipation, it also solves the problem of universal liberation.
Daniel Lazare also looked at the politics of anti-racism in the Black Lives Matter movement and its development since 2012 in the United States. He described its chaotic upsurges, its formless and aimless politics in the context of a period of growing populism. For Daniel BLM is essentially a middle class movement that at worst encapsulates all that is reactionary in capitalist society: it defines black oppression as singular and unique, and sees the issue of race in moral terms, as opposed to the politics of class.
Indeed, the white working class is deemed to benefit from racism and white privilege. This is toxic and has a negative political impact by providing ammunition for the American right and capitalist politicians.
David Broder and Marc Mulholland looked at two contrasting aspects of Marxist historiography in their talks. David’s ‘Leftwing communism, a long-established disorder’ drew on his research for a forthcoming biography of the Italian Marxist, Amadeo Bordiga, and looked at how the political career of Bordiga had been misrepresented by both supporters and opponents alike. David argued that his politics were much more developed and rather different than what has been suggested and showed how Bordiga’s political trajectory was shaped by his reaction to the Russian Revolution and the wider context of Italian politics in this period.
Comrade Mulholland’s talk discussed an important issue in the English Revolution – the nature of the bourgeoisie and the significance of the yeomen as a revolutionary class. After surveying the debate about the gentry and their candidacy as the ‘bourgeoisie’, he argued that the yeomen were much better placed to be defined as the bourgeoisie which consciously acted a class for itself in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Hillel Ticktin spoke on the collapse of ‘really existing socialism’. The comrade insisted that the Soviet Union had nothing to do with socialism. What began as an historic revolution became its opposite. Had Trotsky carried out a military coup in the early 1920s, then things might have been very different: not socialism, but the horrors of Stalin could have been avoided, and perhaps Nazism too and World War II.
Members of the Radical Anthropology Group have long been a regular feature at CU and this year Chris Knight, Ian Watts and Camilla Power in their respective sessions looked at ‘Being human: what chimpanzees can teach us’; ‘The first human revolution: red ochre, the red flag of prehistory’; and ‘Capitalism as robbery: time and revolution’.
All three sessions produced lively discussion and opened up new ideas for both the understanding of human development and the nature of the structures and ideology that underpin contemporary capitalist society. On the basis of this anthropological research, bourgeois arguments about ‘human nature’ and our ‘essential violent instincts’ – used to justify capitalism and competitive behaviour – can be found to be fundamentally flawed and clearly ideological in origin.
Three sessions looked at the continuing significance of the national question in contemporary politics in three locations: Israel-Palestine, Scotland and Ireland. In his introduction on Israel-Palestine, Moshé Machover argued that a bourgeois-democratic solution in the Middle East was impossible: any “off the peg solution from the nationalist shop” was not in the interests of the working class.
Moshé’s analysis was rooted in Marxist debates on the nature of colonialism and imperialism, and the type of social agent who can carry out decolonisation. In the case of Israel-Palestine the overthrow of Zionism relies on the consent of the Israeli-Hebrew working class. Since they cannot be mobilised by a purely bourgeois-democratic revolution, this means that the only realistic road is the socialist revolution, which cannot be confined within the constraining box of Israel-Palestine, but can only be understood in the context of the transformation of the wider Middle East by an Arab-led working class revolution throughout the region.
Sandy McBurney discussed the national question in Scotland and the position Marxists should adopt towards ‘Indyref2’. He outlined the way that the bulk of the left in Scotland was tailing the Scottish National Party and Scottish nationalism, which they saw as historically progressive. He opposed this as essentially a policy of ‘socialism in one country’, which rejects real internationalism and the need for an international revolution. Whilst the Scottish people have the right to self-determination and independence, socialists should campaign for a ‘no’ vote and not provide a left veneer for nationalism.
In their introduction Anne McShane and Kevin Bean looked at the continuing importance of the national question in Ireland in the light of Brexit and the growing demands for a border poll on the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Comrade Anne discussed the development of the Irish state and society since partition, with a particular focus on the impact of the war in the north on the 26 counties and the changes ushered in by the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and the weakening hold of the Catholic church over society. She also assessed the arguments advanced by the Irish left in support of a border poll and the allegedly progressive dynamic it could create for Irish reunification.
Kevin dealt with the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and other recent developments in unionist politics, along with the political implications of the demographic shifts in the region. Comrade Bean paid particular attention to the position of the British-Irish and their historic relationship with British imperialism, and their reaction to a border poll. However, while he condemned the continuing carnival of reaction in the Six Counties, he did not support the call for a border poll – which tailed bourgeois nationalism and, if successful, would only see a reconfiguration of the status quo in a new form.
The closing session drew together many of the questions that had been discussed during the week in the context of what will be the major issue facing both capitalism and the working class movement in the coming century.
Outlining the projections and findings of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which suggested that we have already entered the territory of irreversible climate change, Jack Conrad argued that quantity was giving way to quality and that we face the danger of one climate system tipping over into another climate system. He stressed that, despite the rhetoric of concern and even alarm, governments internationally had not yet acted in any decisive fashion on the issue. This could perhaps be explained in the past by the ‘denialism’ of big business and the short-termism of both individual capitalists and their political parties.
However, this was no longer the case, with corporate ‘green-washing’ and governments making commitments to carry out significant change to slow and eventually halt the process of climate change. There was no longer a pushback and much green virtue-signalling would be on display at the forthcoming Cop26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow.
While the left was right to be both cynical and critical, is it right to argue that capitalist governments will do little beyond such symbolic gestures as promoting electric cars and banning plastic bags? Despite the underlying dynamics and nature of capitalism as production for production’s sake, Jack suggested that we should not rule out state intervention and perhaps more radical measures to tackle the problems raised by climate change. The possibility of some form of ‘Climate socialism’ comparable to the Kriegssozialismus and state regulation introduced by the imperialist governments in the two world wars should not be ruled out. The British state’s response to Covid and the manner in which capitalist orthodoxy was thrown out during an emergency could be a pointer to how other capitalist governments might act in the future.
Given the severity of the problems posed by climate change in a period of inevitable and increasing state rivalry and competition for resources, along with increasing numbers of refugees and population movements, pressure for state action and ‘climate socialism’ will doubtless be combined with the suspension of civil rights and restrictions on democratic freedoms. Inevitably, in any response to this crisis, capitalists do not want the main burden to fall on them and they will launch severe attacks on the living standards and conditions of the working class. Like Kriegssozialismus before it, any form of ‘climate socialism’ will not be a step on the road to genuine, proletarian socialism, but will instead act to preserve capitalism.
The climate crisis has already thrown up a range of protest movements and political positions, some of whose demands and organisations are already being incorporated and managed by bourgeois politics and the capitalist state. The response of the left and the working class movement must be to reject the green capitalism upheld by some sections of the climate-change protest movement. The CPGB agrees that ‘the only solution is revolution’, but no revolution – that is, no socialist revolution – is on the cards anywhere in the world at the moment. That makes necessary a minimum programme (actually the maximum we can achieve under capitalism), around which the workers’ movement can learn, fight and form itself into a future ruling class, which can alone successfully respond to the climate crisis.
The resulting discussion considered both the programmatic and strategic implications raised by climate change and the response of states and capitalism in general. Comrades argued that the only real substantive and effective change that was possible was on a global scale, but this was clearly prevented by the existence of states and their competing interests. The economic disruption caused by the crisis will fall on the developing economies, as the richer capitalist states attempt to shift the burden onto their weaker and more dependent clients.
While there was general agreement about the CPGB’s programmatic demands, some comrades suggested that we should not overegg the pudding in relation to climate change. Not only do sections of Green opinion and the protest movement tend towards Malthusianism in their arguments for strong action to deal with the crisis, but this can be taken up by governments and used to justify ‘green austerity’ and attacks on the working class.
Nor should communists go along with what are essentially anti-human arguments about our relationship with nature. The ideal of harmony with nature and the realisation of the full potential of our species-being are strands in communist thought that go back to the intellectual origins of Marxism, and which have never been more relevant than in a period when the climate crisis brings both our existing and future relationship to the planet into focus.
Implicit in the programmatic demands is a curatorial attitude to nature which reflects the rationality and planning of a future socialist society. Our demands are about shifting the balance of human activity away from production for production’s sake and the environmental despoliation inherent in capitalism towards a radically different, cooperative commonwealth – not a return to either some pre-industrial green utopia or, even worse, a pre-human world.
In summing up the discussion, comrade Conrad said that only the working class is capable of taking the collective, global action that is necessary to overcome the challenges of climate change. National and partial solutions are incapable of resolving what is, by its very nature, a global issue, and the only class with real global and universal interests is the proletariat. The possible regimes that will be imposed by the capitalist state internationally to ‘deal’ with climate change will also ‘deal’ with the working class, with harsh restrictions and even dictatorship, when ‘climate socialism’ combines with economic crisis.
The working class movement as it exists today cannot adequately respond to this crisis and this poses ever more urgently the question not of even louder and larger protests, demanding that capitalist states take action, but of a programme and a party that is organised globally to repair the damage wrought by industrial capitalism and begin the transition to communism.
- Livestreams of the whole school can be found on the CU Facebook page: www.facebook.com/cpgbcommunistuniversity. Also, we are gradually uploading the CU videos to the CU website: communistuniversity.uk/category/cu-2021-summer, and the CPGB YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/c/CommunistPartyofGreatBritain/videos.↩︎