Ollie Hughes and James Harvey report on Winter Communist University 2022, where discussions ranged far and wide
The central theme of the online Winter 2022 Communist University - ‘the party we need’ - was taken up in six sessions held over the weekend of January 8-9. Although the focus was on the important question of what type of party Marxists should aim to build, inevitably the discussions ranged far and wide over contemporary and historical issues of perspectives, strategy, and political organisation.
This reflects not only the open and democratic approach to political debate and ideas that has long been the hallmark of Communist University, but also our belief that we need to think seriously about the current parlous state of the left internationally and the strategy needed to put ourselves on a winning course. In that context it was pleasing to see a good turnout of comrades from the United States and Europe, in particular the Netherlands.
In the first session Kevin Bean looked at the question of ‘Party and programme: why the contemporary left fails to take programme seriously’. Comrade Bean outlined what he described as “the common sense” of most of the left. This was a reliance on the unconscious and untheorised movement of the working class. The existing consciousness of the working class is not only taken as a necessary point of departure, but to all intents and purposes it is regarded as unproblematic and sufficient as the basis for a developed socialist consciousness. This produces a ‘transitional’ form of politics and programme that blurs the distinction between subject and object and believes that, in this epoch of capitalist decay, there can be no permanent social reforms or economic concessions by capitalism. The argument continues that the simple defence of these social and economic gains will raise the consciousness of the proletariat and trigger the initial impetus for a struggle to overthrow capitalism. Kevin suggested that this rather economistic approach, which rejects classical Marxism’s minimum-maximum programme, is in fact a crude bowdlerisation of Trotsky’s transitional programme, and prizes spontaneity over a programmatic strategy for winning the majority of the proletariat intellectually and organising the working class into a conscious movement and political party.
Comrade Bean showed how an emphasis on “the logic of struggle” influences the political practice of the left, especially its focus on “immediate issues” at the expense of high politics, a diplomatic orientation towards Labourism and its attempts to build broad fronts that require programmatic concessions to reformism.
In the discussion comrades outlined a whole series of examples of these transitional politics and the political dead-end that they represent. It was also questioned whether the working class still has “a hunger and a thirst” for socialist knowledge and, moreover, whether a socialist intelligentsia, in the late 19th and early 20th century sense, committed to overthrowing capitalism still exists. Both the speaker and comrades from the floor argued that, while there is plenty of evidence of working class struggles and protests of all kinds internationally, the key issue remains the ways in which the left had proven woefully inadequate for the urgent task of building a genuine revolutionary working class party.
Ben Lewis looked at similar issues in his discussion of the politics of German social democracy: ‘1910 and all that: the republic, the mass strike, and the curse of reformism’. Comrade Lewis gave a detailed account of the politics of the mass strike in that period, and the debate between Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg over republicanism and socialist participation in bourgeois governments. He discussed the historiography of the politics of the Second International and the dangers of reading backwards from the betrayal of 1914. One important theme in the debates within the German SPD turned on what were the conditions for a successful revolution and how far the subjective strategy of a revolutionary party can accelerate the tempo of development. Comrades discussed both the specific issues raised during the pre-1914 period and the wider implications for the strategy of the revolutionary left internationally today. One important strand in the discussion was the relationship between the spontaneity of working class struggles and the role of the party in co-ordinating and developing these struggles to a higher, consciously revolutionary level. Above all, it was suggested, the left’s worship of spontaneity arises from its present profound weakness and its rejection of the necessity of a revolutionary programme as an essential part of raising the political level of the working-class movement.
In the session on ‘The Labour Party and its limits: why Labour can never substitute for a Communist Party’, Jack Conrad looked at both the historical and present role and nature of Labour as a bourgeois workers’ party. Tracing the history of the British working-class movement from the Chartists onwards, comrade Conrad outlined the forces that contributed to the development of the Labour Party and the debate about its character.
For Lenin in 1920, the Labour leaders were “reactionaries of the worst kind” because they pretended to be socialist and acted as agents of the bourgeoisie within the working class. Jack argued that the “bourgeois workers’ party” formulation advanced by Lenin was not just a label or slogan, but accurately captured - and continues to capture - the contradictory nature of the Labour Party. It remains a party with a base in the organised working class, but with a leadership resolutely loyal to the constitutional order and to capitalist society. Moreover, he suggested, because Labour has never been anything more than a bourgeois workers’ party, it could not simply be reclaimed to become an instrument of revolutionary politics. However, it does have the potential to “resolve the contradiction between these two poles; the bourgeois pole which has been historically dominant, and the proletarian pole which has traditionally been subordinate. It has the potential to reverse that - to put the proletarian pole … politically in command and resolve that contradiction by driving out the right.” For comrade Conrad and other comrades who joined in the discussion, that process requires the militant politics and strategy that only a Communist Party can offer: it is impossible for these factors to evolve spontaneously from within the Labour Party itself.
Much of the discussion was taken up with the nature of the Corbyn movement and the current politics of a rapidly disintegrating Labour left. Comrades described an “unsophisticated Bonapartism” desperately awaiting a saviour, a ‘man on the white horse’, to lead them, showing the volatility of society but also the lack of substance in the politics of the Labour left. Comrade Conrad concluded that we should indeed describe Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell as reactionaries of the worst kind. Corbyn might have been an anti-imperialist, but he and his immediate supporters threw all that away at the time when it was most important, when they were leading the Labour Party. They were quite happy to go along with the anti-Semitism big lie and throw comrades under the bus. They are precisely reactionaries of the worst kind - those who pretend to be fighters for our class.
Mike Macnair’s talk on ‘How broad-frontism requires top-down bureaucratic controls’ looked at an important element in the strategy and practice of the majority of the far left internationally. He argued that the broad front strategy in which revolutionaries attempt to bloc with left reformists has historically resulted in a diplomatic cosying up to the right and a watering down of the revolutionary programme. Interestingly, he identified the origins of this strategy in the Trotskyist argument that transitional politics can build a bridge from bread-and-butter demands to the conquest of power, and in the Stalinist policy of the popular front, in which the workers’ movement forms a bloc with a fictitious ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie. The fusion of these elements produces a form of “revolutionary triangulation” which, far from radicalising the masses, actually drags ostensible revolutionaries to the right through ideological concessions to Labourism and reformist politics.
It is characteristic of such broad fronts, as they develop internationally in the workers’ movement, that such spurious unity between revolutionaries and reformists also necessitates bureaucratic centralism and gatekeepers to preserve the bloc and thus cement a de facto shift to the right. The result is that the internal regime of left groups working in this way becomes increasingly bureaucratic and undemocratic, preventing principled political criticism of their reformist ‘allies’ and using the cry of ‘unity’ to close down debate and control the membership. The discussion that followed threw up many examples supporting Mike’s thesis, both from comrades’ immediate experiences in Britain as well as internationally. In particular, comrades considered the possibility of new broad front initiatives by the far left which attempt to revive the Corbynite left, even in the face of its all too apparent collapse, and the form that such unity projects might take.
‘The party we need and internationalism’ was the subject of Yassamine Mather’s opening. She began by looking at today’s international division of labour and the forms of global capitalism alongside the development of imperialism and global political instability. Comrade Mather then went on to look at the nature and importance of internationalism for the workers’ movement. She drew heavily on the historical experience of Marxism from the time of the First International onwards to show the importance of real rather than platonic internationalism in revolutionary politics. This means that we should not become apologists for imperialism and its fictions of human rights and international law, but neither should we support reactionary nationalisms or regimes that merely mouth opposition to the US imperialist hegemon - the “anti-imperialism of fools”.
This produced a vigorous and broad discussion around the issues of defeatism and defencism, ranging from the nature of the Protestant working class in Northern Ireland to the correct approach Marxists should adopt in relation to Iran, Syria, Israel and the wider politics of the Middle East. In particular, comrades raised how far we should defend the right of third world states, such as Syria and Iran, to defend themselves against foreign, imperialist attack. A strong case was made that our primary orientation must be the defeat of our own state and opposition to US imperialism in any conflict, and that some defencist slogans give support to reactionary regimes. The development of an organisation linking working class parties throughout the world is a symbolic and practical embodiment of the idea of independent working-class politics. It plays an important part in the proletariat gaining an awareness of itself as an international class, which is essential for a real revolutionary consciousness.
The final session covered ‘Cop26, climate crisis and the necessity for a Communist Party’. It was opened by Tam Dean Burn, who referred to his personal experience in the climate change movement and the illusory nature of the coalition that developed around the Glasgow Cop26 conference. He described the ways in which the climate movement had been incorporated into bourgeois politics and the need for a real alternative to sanitised protests and media events. Given the seriousness of global warming and its dire implications for the working class and society as a whole, the comrades who spoke in the discussion looked at the importance of the party question in that context. It was clear, given the fundamental and global nature of the climate crisis, that tackling the issue requires the overthrow of the international state system and the irrational capitalist system.
Thus, far from being peripheral to the politics of the climate crisis and the growing demands for ‘immediate emergency action’, the nature of the movement and programme required were actually the central political questions of the current period.