Communist University: Learning to talk to each other

September 4, 2013 in News by Geary Middleton

Danny Hammill reports on the CPGB’s summer school where also a Marxist Center editorial board member was present.

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We can work it out

For this year’s Communist University, the CPGB returned to the same pleasant south London venue – aviary and all.

Of course, we call our pedagogical event a university quite deliberately. Not in order to be pretentious or elitist, but simply to denote a certain seriousness about our attitude to education. Despite our obvious limitations as a small group, we aim to raise the bar high when it comes to political education and culture in general. Unfortunately, this is not something that can be said about most of the left in Britain – which at best tends to treat its membership as mere sheep to be trained rather than educated as self-confident cadre.

Just as importantly, whether at Communist University or in its own press, the CPGB positively seeks to tease out or highlight differences of opinion – both amongst its own ranks and the left as a whole. Once again this distinguishes us from other left groups that seem to regard disagreements as a dirty secret – not in front of the children, please. The CPGB utterly rejects this disastrous approach. Instead, only through the open clash of contending ideas can we arrive at the closest possible approximation to the truth. And we practise what we preach – just ask Gilbert Achcar, to name one person. Contrary to what is sometimes suggested by our critics, this is not some sort of weird CPGB thing. Rather, it based on the entire Marxist tradition and methodology. If we are to learn anything from history, and science, it is that today’s majority or ‘common sense’ viewpoint can quickly become tomorrow’s absurd dogma.

Another distinctive feature of our school is that we struggle to make it as all-rounded and collective an experience as is objectively possible – a small-scale anticipation of the communist future, if you like. Not to mention being fun, something else the far left appears sadly to have forgotten. Meaning that CU, in no matter how rudimentary or limited a form, should organisationally embody communist practicality – therefore meals are collectively prepared by participants using a flexible rota system. Childcare facilities can be provided on the same basis too.


As usual, given the ongoing nature of the capitalist crisis and the turmoil sweeping the Middle East, it is more a question of what to leave out than to include when it comes to reporting CU. However, having said that, life itself has to some extent thrown up an issue of special importance. Namely, the dramatic decline of the Socialist Workers Party following the ‘comrade Delta’ case and the emergence of various oppositional groups both internally (ie, the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century blog) and externally in the shape of the International Socialist Network. And then there is Left Unity, due to hold its founding conference in November.

In this way, a recurrent theme during the week was the fight for left unity – both the actual organisation and in general – and the centrality for socialists of the “vision thing”, to use the almost throwaway remark made by Marc Mulholland in his entertaining session on ‘Class revolution versus people’s revolution: left debates since the 1970s’. The slight irony, of course, is that the phrase was used disparagingly by George Bush senior – why do you need it? An attitude in total contrast to the great bourgeois revolutionaries of the past referenced by Marc during his introduction (incidentally, this was the most well attended talk).

Therefore it was encouraging that three LU comrades Nick Wrack (Independent Socialist Network), Tim Nelson (International Socialist Network) and Paris Thompson (International Socialist Network) gave openings at CU. Many thought the ‘Fighting for a mass party’ session featuring Jack Conrad of the CPGB and Nick Wrack (in a personal capacity) was one of the high points of this year’s CU. Comrade Wrack gave an excellent introduction, calm and measured – perhaps partly helped by his training as a barrister (see pp8-9). If only more on the left conducted themselves in such a manner. Even more positive was the convergence of views between the two. More like an exploration of ideas, as comrade Conrad said.

In his opening, comrade Thompson of the ISN succinctly outlined the systematic failures of the SWP – a “self-selecting” leadership that retains a “monopoly” over information and theory, a “strict division” between ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’ , a “deeply rooted” culture of substitutionism, the organisation of “passive’ foot-soldiers, etc. Not for nothing, mentioned comrade Thompson, was the SWP national committee widely known within the organisation as the “House of Lords”. The SWP tops and their minions think they are destined to rule.

Comrade Thompson broadly agreed with the CPGB and others that the SWP crisis has long and deep-reaching roots. The idea that the current crisis within the SWP is the result of institutional sexism, so-called misogyny or ‘rape culture’ is absurd. Rather, to put it in a nutshell, the organisation’s profound flaw – shared by many on the left to one degree or another – derives from its bureaucratic-centralist model of party-building: an essentially military-style conception that has its origins in the post-1921 Bolshevik Party, the first four congresses of Comintern, and so on. Indeed, during the debate, comrade Andy Wilson – a former soldier as well as ex-SWP member – said joining the SWP was a bit like joining the army. Ultimately, whether the disease took hold in 1953, 1969, 1972 or whenever is an open question. The general consensus at the meeting – and beyond – is that the rot really started for good in the mid-1970s with Tony Cliff’s turn to ‘Leninism’.

Interestingly, during the lively debate on ‘Marxism and broad parties’ with the CPGB’s Sarah McDonald, it became apparent that comrade Nelson misunderstood what the CPGB meant by building a revolutionary party “top-down” – saying he had an instinctive aversion to the idea. Quite understandable, given his experiences inside the highly authoritarian, undeniably top-down, SWP – with the control-freaks in the leadership attempting to micro-manage every aspect of the organisation.

But in reality, argues the CPGB, it is a myth that any political party or serious organisation is built ‘bottom-up’ – it is an impossibility. Is there not initially an individual or small group of individuals who take the lead in forming the organisation, perhaps inspired by the “vision thing”? All the CPGB means by building an organisation “top-down” is that it will be a party based on – and built around – a revolutionary programme, which by definition cannot happen spontaneously or by miraculous conception. The organisation itself will be thoroughly democratic – full freedom of debate, access to the party press, right to forms factions, whether temporarily or permanently, etc.

So there is nothing inherently sinister or Stalinist in the idea of building a revolutionary party “top-down” – quite the opposite, in fact. A genuine revolutionary programme, as discussed at some length by comrade Mike Macnair in his session on the Erfurt programme, is not a confessional and diabolically detailed document which you have to (pretend to) agree with, but rather something you can accept as a guide to united action and a guard against opportunism – a document that can hold the leadership to account, in other words. A situation the self-perpetuating SWP leadership would absolutely hate, it goes without saying (and, of course, a revolutionary programme, as history has shown, can attract millions in a relatively short period of time). Afterwards, showing the healthy fluidity within LU, comrade Nelson readily admitted that he could imagine himself signing up to the sort of revolutionary programme envisaged by the CPGB – certainly he supports the Socialist Platform drawn up by comrade Wrack and others. Showing that there are grounds for optimism regarding LU.

This theme – what party model? – was revisited by comrade Mike Macnair in his fascinating talk (at least for this journalist) on ‘Lukács, Korsch, et al: philosophers of Leninism or ultra-left?’ – focusing mainly on Georg Lukács. The latter is significant because his short work, Lenin: a study in the unity of his thought, and History and class consciousness have essentially operated as organisational text books for the British far left. Alex Callinicos (‘Stalinicos’) and John Rees have repeatedly praised the “master-work”, History and class consciousness, predicated on Lukács’s theories of reification and the vanguard party. Some have wondered whether Callinicos and Rees have done their homework properly. But in the forthright opinion of comrade Macnair, they correctly interpret Lukács’s theory of reification, the vanguard party, etc as a blueprint for a monolithic, militarised organisation – negating the real history of pre-civil war Bolshevism.

Similarly, comrade Moshé Machover in his informative ‘Do we need a Marxist party? Do we need a Leninist party?’ session, remarked that the far left is built upon an invented or phantom ‘Leninism’ constructed after the civil war by the burgeoning Soviet bureaucracy – then loyally regurgitated by the Trotskyites. Inevitably, as comrade Machover commented, instead of a mass party we have a mass of Trotskyite sects – that “multiply like amoebas”, refusing to accept that the post-1921 model does not work. A state of pitiful denial.


Hillel Ticktin, a CU perennial, delivered three talks on capitalist crisis. Comrade Ticktin forcefully reiterated his view that the falling rate of profit theory (FROP) is only one cause of crisis – the others are underconsumption and disproportionality (between departments I and II). It should not be given a privileged status. You cannot find FROP in Lenin or Trotsky, for instance. Yet the left “obsesses” over it. As far as comrade Ticktin was concerned, there was no evidence – empirical or otherwise – that profits have been falling recently. Quite the opposite, if anything.

Comrade Ticktin outlined his long-held view that we are not witnessing the usual cyclical phenomenon, but rather a genuine crisis that the bourgeoisie might not be able to solve – they are running out of answers. For him, the capitalist system is in long-term decline and could be entering an epoch of permanent stagnation. The Soviet Union, eastern Europe, the Middle East – the ‘third world’ as a whole – are falling into a “void” of history, threatening total societal breakdown and barbarism. Given the lack of a viable anti-capitalist alternative, thought the comrade, most people now find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism – thus the rising popularity of dystopian films, books, etc.

Following in the tradition of such luminaries as Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson, Gabriel Levy in his interesting talk, ‘We’re all Luddites now’, attempted to rescue the Luddites from the slanders history has directed against them. They were real people struggling under concrete historical conditions against vicious oppression and exploitation. Comrade Levy was keen to counter the popular mythology, or prejudice, that the Luddites were intrinsically hostile to machines or technology. Actually, they only destroyed machines that were “hurtful to community”. We should learn from them, contended the comrade, and dismantle destructive technologies. Machinery and technological aids should be developed by those who use them. More than that, such technologies should be easily understandable. More controversially still, he made the argument for the superiority of small-scale technology – not convincing everyone.

Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group gave a particularly good and tightly focused session, entitled ‘Why is the left so scared of science?’ He quoted a piece of typical postmodernist gobbledegook (ie, Anti-crisis by Janet Roitman), but thought the left was not much better. In his opinion, the left has the habit of backing the wrong horses in science, whether more obviously in the mad pseudo-science of Lysenko or in its knee-jerk hostility to Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ theory – summarily dismissing it in true philistine fashion as ‘reactionary’. Comrade Knight repeated his conviction that the left should embrace selfish gene theory, which can be used to explain how modern humans – unlike primates – managed to develop culture, language, altruism and so on. Previous theories of group selection and suchlike were totally unable to explain this phenomenon, and in the case of someone like Konrad Lorenz put forward crackpot racist and fascistic theories of human development. All in all, summed up comrade Knight, we see a dismal pattern of “tongue-tied” science afraid of politics and mindless activism afraid of science.

His RAG comrade – and long-time SWP member – Lionel Sims, delivered the final session on ‘What the anthropology of human nature tells us about the struggle for left unity’. He gave an inspirational anecdote about his own Samba band – the rhythm that never stops – as a near perfect expression of the “rituals of solidarity”: rituals that have their origins in the human revolution and ‘primitive communism’, and stretch right up to the present day (ie, Durham Miners’ Gala). Comrade Sims reminded us that ‘primitive communism’ is in fact a mistranslation – it should be more like ur-communism (original communism). Which is where we want to be, but on an exponentially higher level. Theories of the human revolution should be fully integrated into SWP theory – and Marxist theory in general.

We should not forget to mention the two comrades from the Socialist Fight group, who attended for almost the entire week – ensuring a healthy exchange of views with the CPGB. There was also a fringe session held by the US-based Platypus group on Lukács, even if it was curiously abstract, given the previous discussions on how his legacy negatively impacts upon the contemporary political practice on the far left.

Finally, it does have to be said that attendance at CU 2013 was a little disappointing, with just 82 comrades coming along. However, there was less of a fall-off during the week this year, with at least 30 – and often rather more – attending every session. Every conceivable effort must be made to ensure that next year’s CU sees a bigger turnout, and that we get greater left involvement – left unity in every sense of the term.

On a more positive note, we possibly had our youngest ever participant at CU – one-month-old Emma. The future is surely red.

This article was originally published on the CPGB website. Please contact for republishing terms.