Their socialism and ours
This year’s Winter Communist University, held online over the weekend of January 13‑15, was our most successful yet. Comrades from Britain, Ireland, the USA, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, France and beyond took part in discussions on important political and strategic issues for the working class movement. The overarching theme of the event – ‘Their socialism and ours’ – was designed to get comrades thinking about the various contemporary and historical definitions of ‘socialism’ and the ways in which we should frame our politics in the current period.
Things began with Marc Mulholland discussing ‘Marx and his dictatorship of the proletariat’. Marc outlined the development of the idea of dictatorship in Marx’s thought and politics, and the ways in which he drew on the experience of 18th and 19th century democratic and revolutionary movements. Linking the theme of dictatorship to the idea of revolution in permanence, Marc suggested the term was essentially democratic in content and that it described the subjective action of the working class in the revolutionary process.
Discussing how the examples of the mobilisation of the popular classes in the 1789 French Revolution and the working class in 1848 influenced Marx’s definition of the dictatorship of the proletariat, comrade Mulholland argued that dictatorship was not simply a synonym for ‘the democratic rule of the working class’, although neither did dictatorship carry the same connotations of violent repression for classically educated 19th revolutionaries as it might for a 21st century audience. The subsequent discussion took up these issues, with comrades looking at the experience of the Bolsheviks and the early Soviet state, and how this history has continued to shape the politics of the left since then.
A similar stress on the importance of historical (along with an anthropological) understanding for our contemporary politics was advanced by Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group in his talk on ‘Original communism: where everyone is king, no-one is king’. Reviewing recent literature on original communism – or ‘primitive communism’, as it has frequently been described – Chris outlined the attempts to undermine the concept by suggesting that forms of hierarchy actually existed in this period of human history and that the egalitarian nature of original communism was a myth. David Graeber in particular was singled out for criticism.
Comrade Knight showed how an understanding of this period had been central to the work of Marx and Engels: by tracing human development in this way they were able to undermine the ahistorical concept of an eternal human nature that ‘proved’ that there was no alternative to the greed and exploitation of class societies, such as capitalism.
Chris’s introduction produced a lively discussion on the significance of recent anthropological literature, the validity of the concept of ‘human nature’ and how far original communism could be a model for a future communist society. In keeping with the theme of the CU, comrades argued that discussing how we saw communism was not utopian speculation, but an important aspect linking today’s struggles with the type of society we wish to build in the future.
Jack Conrad’s session on ‘The USSR and bureaucratic socialism’ dealt with what still remains a major issue for the working class movement. Jack looked at some of the limitations of the main theoretical explanations of the nature of the USSR, especially the idea of the workers’ state and the nature of the economy during this period. Leaving aside the well-established canards propagated by capitalist politicians that equate the USSR and bureaucratic socialism with communism, comrade Conrad stressed that fully understanding the dynamics of this regime in the context of the epoch of the transition from capitalism to communism was vital for Marxists.
The comrade also touched on the question of China and the necessity of concrete analysis as opposed to attaching this or that, often trite, label. Whatever one calls China, it is clear that it is neither ruled by the working class, nor is it on the road to communism.
As we might expect, this opening produced a wide-ranging discussion that covered topics as various as the nature of Bolshevism, how the law of value did not operate in the USSR and the historical origins of the idea of socialism in one country.
Similar issues were raised in Yassamine Mather’s session on ‘Whatever happened to third world socialism?’ Yassamine began by outlining the variety of movements and regimes that emerged in the 20th century which described themselves as socialist. Although regimes such as those of Nasser in Egypt and Nkrumah in Ghana had obvious differences in origin and governmental form, Yassamine showed that there were common underlying dynamics that shaped the socialism of these leaders. A desire for modernisation and escaping from the domination of the imperialist powers, combined with the political and diplomatic rivalries of the cold war, drew these governments to adopt leftwing phrases and copy aspects of the Soviet Union’s model of ‘planning’.
In a similar vein comrade Mather traced the rise and fall of these third world socialist regimes in the context of wider geopolitics, the disintegration of the USSR and the apparent triumph of the US and the capitalist west. For Yassamine and those who took part in the subsequent discussion, third world socialism – whatever its specific national form and notwithstanding the prestige and high standing which it still holds amongst many on the left internationally – represented just another dead end and a mere rebranding of the disastrous strategy of socialism in one country.
The session on ‘climate socialism’ provoked an interesting discussion on a central issue in contemporary politics. Jack Conrad began by outlining the response of capitalism to the climate crisis and the limitations imposed on governments by a system of production for production’s sake. However, he suggested that, given the scale of the crisis facing the world, it was possible that there would emerge a form of ‘climate socialism’, analogous to the Kriegssozialismus of World War I or the Covid socialism introduced by bourgeois governments to maintain capitalism during periods of extreme crisis.
Climate socialism would be anti-democratic, would see fuel corruption on a grand scale and widespread repression, but would be justified by the existential nature of the emergency and could find wide-spread support from greens and even sections of the left. New forms of popular frontism and subordination of the working class movement to the politics of the bourgeoisie would carry the danger of appeals to rally behind the state in its attempts to deal with climate crisis. In the discussion that followed some comrades challenged the idea of climate socialism and the validity of the comparison with Kreigssozialismus. This opened up a broader discussion on the programme and the strategy the working class movement should adopt in the face of this crisis.
Kevin Bean of Labour Party Marxists opened the discussion on ‘Labour’s socialism’ with an historical overview of the Labour Party’s political and ideological development over the last 123 years. His starting point was the nature of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party and the way it had functioned as a barrier to the development of a real socialist party. Comrade Bean also stressed that as a bourgeois workers’ party Labour had functioned as part of the state and had both shaped and been shaped by the development of that state in the 20th century. He concluded by arguing that Labour was not an instrument for the socialist transformation of Britain and neither could we frame our politics simply in terms of ‘reclaiming Labour’. The task for Marxists was building a real Communist Party committed to the socialist transformation of society with a programme committed to the self-emancipation of the working class.
This led to a discussion on the lessons of the Corbyn moment and the perspectives for a future Labour government under Sir Keir Starmer. Comrades agreed that, whilst Labour remained a central factor in working class politics in Britain, a decisive break with Labourism and its essentially pro-capitalist politics was vital if the left was going to build a real alternative to capitalism.
The concluding session on ‘Our socialism’ was opened by Mike Macnair. This drew together several of the themes from the previous sessions, especially focusing on the nature of the transition from a capitalist society to communism. Mike’s introduction was wide-ranging and looked at both the historical and contemporary experience of the working class movement. He argued that it was important for Marxists to explain the nature of the communist society we aimed to build and not to limit our politics by concentrating on immediate demands and current issues. He believed that such explanations about how we saw a future society developing were not utopian speculations, but important ways to deepen our political understanding of the historic goals of the working class.
This prompted a discussion about the relationship between socialism and communism, and the pattern of the transitional period in the light of the experience of the Russian Revolution. Whilst most comrades rejected the ideas of blueprints and detailed roadmaps to the future, most participants in the discussion still believed that the vision of a future communist society could act as an inspiration for our contemporary struggles and politics.
This report is but a brief summary of a weekend’s discussion and debate. If you would like to look at the seven introductions to the sessions, please go to the CPGB YouTube page, where they are being uploaded.