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Report on "Marxism at the Millennium"

Matthew Willgress

ON FRIDAY 9 July, off I went to the Socialist Workers Party’s festival of "discussion and debate". At times these things can be rather intimidating for a "liquidator" into social democracy and "orthodox" traditionalist like myself. Along with this, Paul Foot was unavailable due to his unfortunate illness, meaning that I was reliant on the non-SWPers (few and far between as the week went on) to provide some light relief from the dreary, although sometimes comically absurd, "party line".

Things didn’t get off to a good start when the opening rally "For Peace and Socialism" was full before I got there, but it did show the tremendous audience that there still is for the ideas of socialism. Although it has to be said that even Healy’s nutty WRP was able to attract this many people at certain times in the past, so members of the SWP shouldn’t get overexcited about their great success. One should also remember the boasting of Militant when they left the Labour Party. The SWP is still in many ways on the fringe of the labour movement.

Saturday was a great improvement – some would say because I spent much time talking to the assorted "57 varieties" of Trot outside. The meeting on "Marxism and Black Liberation" was one of the best of the week. I was very impressed with Manning Marable from the US Black Radical Congress. Graham Cee of the Trotskyist Group is setting up the BRC in Britain, although I doubt he’ll be invited to speak at the next "Marxism" (see below). In the afternoon, I saw Tony Cliff on "State Capitalism". It is amazing how even I had some sympathy with his analysis after his highly amusing talk. Of course he never really took on the classical Trotskyist position, but instead took the piss out of those such as Ernest Mandel who departed from Trotsky’s analysis at times anyway. The supposed "debate" after Cliff was a joke, with only one ex-CPer speaking against Cliff and no orthodox Trotskyist being called. One timely question about Trotsky describing Cliff’s predecessors as believing in "reformism in reverse" was read out, but then entirely ignored by Cliff in his summing up.

On Sunday I went to three sessions. First it was Chris Bambery on "Marxism and the National Question". He is a rousing speaker and what he said would be generally acceptable to most of the left. However, the "debate" afterwards, stewarded by the speaker slip system, was once again notable for who wasn’t called to speak. For example, a Workers Power comrade wasn’t called even though he put his organisation as Camden Unison. As far as I’m concerned, it was because he would have stood up for the Kosovars. I don’t personally agree with the "Arm the KLA" line, but it is definitely preferable to Bambery’s approach of trying to minimise Milosevic’s crimes.

The second session I attended was on "Labour: Past, Present and Future". The debate, between Tony Benn and the SWP’s Lindsey German, was better than usual, although entirely predictable. Basically, Lindsey German appealed to the Benns to join the SWP, and they declined. Benn made the same speech as he always does, with the same jokes ("I’m a member of the Labour Party, not New Labour"). Meanwhile, the debate was surprisingly refreshing, with Communist Party, Socialist Labour Party and Labour supporters speaking as well as SWPers. I was particularly impressed by the excellent contribution from a member of Chesterfield Labour Party who pointed out that you could be a member of the Labour Party and actually be involved in struggles, although I don’t think some of the assorted sectarians there understood this.

My final session for the day was John Rees from the SWP debating with Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson of the Guardian on "Is Britain Different?" Despite the fact that it clearly is – i.e. worse labour conditions, lower wages and less welfare than countries such as France and Germany – all three speakers decided it wasn’t different at all. As I left on Sunday evening, I thought about the debates so far, and it suddenly struck me that the SWP was happy to debate with social democrats but not with more orthodox Marxists. This was to be confirmed later in the week.

I attended Alex Callinicos’s "Capitalism: 100 Years of Boom and Bust" on Monday afternoon. It was pretty predictable, and there is little to report apart from references to the absurd "Permanent Arms Economy" theory. Then came the event of the day for "entrists" such as myself: "New Labour, Old Labour and Revolutionary Socialism". The presentation was generally good, apart from the false conclusion that British workers are moving away from Labour and that there is a space opening to the left which will be filled, of course, by the SWP.

The first speaker in the debate was a member of Young Labour, who rebutted the lie that there is no left wing in the Labour Party, pointing to the NEC results over the last two years. He then quoted Trotsky, from the old Militant pamphlet In the Middle of the Road, on the reformist opposition in the Labour Party and the need to counterpose to this a Marxist opposition. He was then polemicised against by a number of SWPers who all seemed to believe that the current political climate in Britain is ripe for a mass revolutionary party, and that people are leaving the Labour Party in droves. This is typical of the ultra-left, which is incapable of recognising downturns and upturns and the difference between revolution and counter-revolution. The derisory votes for the SLP in elections and the success of Labour Left Briefing supporters in internal Labour Party elections show this to be false, and should have underlined for the SWP the relevance of the traditional Trotskyist position of orientation to Labour, as laid out in Trotsky’s writings of the 1930s. Despite this, in his summing up the SWPer said that the young comrade should read Trotsky "more carefully", as apparently it is an absolute principle for socialists to have an independent party. Clearly, it is members of the SWP who should read Trotsky "more carefully"!

Tuesday passed relatively uneventfully, but Wednesday was far more interesting. I heard Mike Haynes speak about "Russia’s Market Madness". He gave a generally accurate description of the economic ruin facing Russia, although he still didn’t draw the conclusion that the USSR was post-capitalist! After all, according to comrade Haynes, "all socialists" should have been "rejoicing" at the collapse of the USSR! Then orthodox Trots and supporters of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (most of who seemed to be members of the Castroite Revolutionary Communist Group) amassed at the meeting on Cuba.

The speaker and his SWP followers in the "debate" afterwards decided that there wasn’t really a revolution in Cuba at all but a coup d’état, and one speaker announced that Castro, not US imperialism, was the principal enemy of the Cuban working class. Another SWPer informed us that even what the bourgeois press says about Cuba is romanticised and that free health care doesn’t exist. The events surrounding the "debate" were comical but tragic. During the main speaker’s contribution, a steward was heard saying that there were "Stalinists in the meeting" and that they were going to "disrupt" it. Basically, this was an order not to allow the RCG people to speak. However, as there was no speaker slip system this was going to be difficult. SWPers looked visibly embarrassed when Keith Harvey of Workers Power was clapped surprisingly loudly for a speech that included the idea that capitalism in Cuba had been overthrown. Then, later on, Graham Cee spoke about his visit to Cuba and the need to defend the existing social gains. He ended his speech with a plea to allow the Cuba Solidarity Campaign members to speak. He received an even bigger round of applause than the main speaker had.

It was around this time that the SWP stewards got into full swing. A note was passed to the chair which, someone claimed, pointed out who the RCG/CSC speakers were and said they mustn’t be called. They weren’t called, even though SWPers who had just put their hands up were called immediately. One of them couldn’t speak English, so required a translator – which had the advantage, as far as the SWP were concerned, of using up more time – and he didn’t speak about Cuba at all, but about Kurdistan! When the "debate" finished, a woman from the RCG/CSC shouted out that the SWP’s analysis of Cuba was "all lies" and as a result was escorted from the room in a heavy handed manner. She, in my opinion wrongly, resisted and was then accused by the SWP of physical assault. They later denied that they had stopped the RCG/CSC people speaking. However, a reasonably sized walkout was staged by non-SWPers.

Thursday was less eventful, with interesting meetings on "France, Germany and the Fate of Old Labour" and "Fascism". The former was good, although the obvious conclusion from what Callinicos said was the need to work in the mass parties of the working class. Indeed, although you wouldn’t have heard this at "Marxism", the SWP’s "sister" organisations have been doing this for years in continental Europe. The meeting on Fascism was excellent, although Bambery again seemed to excuse the oppression of the Kosovars by trying to play down the repression that had occurred. He even claimed that Serbia was more democratic than Britain. I challenge him to say this to an audience of Kosovars!

As I left "Marxism", I didn’t feel that I had learned much new during the week, but I did realise that the need for principled regroupment was the only way forward for the left. I also realised how important open and free debate is. If a socialist is proud of what they’ve said, then they should be prepared to defend their position against their critics.

From What Next? No.14 1999