British Marxist Weekend School: "An incredible time to be a revolutionary!"

On the 23-25 October, around 150 revolutionaries from across Britain and Europe gathered in London for the Red October weekend of Marxist theory and activities. The mood was one of tremendous energy and enthusiasm, reflecting the upturn in the class struggle in Britain and internationally.

RedOctober2015-2The highlight of the event was the Defend Corbyn! Fight for Socialism! rally, in which Matt Wrack (general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union), Steve Hedley (senior assistant general secretary of the RMT), and Rob Sewell (editor of Socialist Appeal) spoke about the need to defend Corbyn against the right wing attacks from the Tories, Blairites, and media, and to fight for a socialist programme within the labour movement.

The weekend was an important opportunity for a new generation of radicalised young people to discuss Marxist ideas and raise our theoretical understanding of the tasks ahead facing socialists; without doubt, everyone went away from the weekend eager to build the forces of Marxism.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

The weekend kicked off on the Friday afternoon, with a tour of Lenin’s London, given by Rob Sewell. London is steeped in revolutionary history, and the walk visited various locations where Lenin lived, worked, and drank. The highlight of the walk was a visit to the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell, where Lenin had an office in 1903 and produced the Russian paper Iskra. Speaking next to Lenin’s office, Rob highlighted the incredibly important role that the great Russian revolutionary had played in fighting for Marxist ideas, emphasising that contemporary revolutionaries are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The evening continued at UCL, with a film screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s October. Produced for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917, the film captures the mass participation of the workers, soldiers, and poor peasants in the revolution.

As noted by Alan Woods in his introduction to the film, Eisenstein’s portrayal of the revolution between February and October in 1917 was broadly accurate. However more people died in an accident in making the film than actually died in Petrograd during the insurrection itself! This, Alan explained, was due to the fact that the Bolsheviks had prepared the ground in advance for the taking of power, and the fact that almost no one was prepared to fight to save the regime of the Tsar, the capitalists, and the landlords. The film ends on a high, with the transfer of power to the Soviets, and set a good mood for the subsequent days of the weekend.

A system in crisis

The Saturday began with simultaneous sessions on “Crime, Corruption and Capitalism: the crisis of the bourgeois state”; and “Capital and Crisis: why Marx was right”.

Marie Frederiksen, editor of the Danish Marxist paper Revolution, introduced the discussion on Marxism and the state. She noted that everywhere, scandals are being uncovered involving all the pillars of the ruling class. Marie linked this to the class nature of the state, which - as explained by Engels - arose with the development of class society as an instrument for the suppression of the exploited class. In order to do away with the crime and corruption of the state, it must be smashed and replaced by a democratic workers’ state, which can only be the product of a socialist revolution.

Ellen Morton, of the Glasgow Marxists attended the session on Capital and Crisis, and reported the following:

“Adam Booth, editor of led the session on capitalism in crisis, where we discussed the fundamental nature of capitalism and how it no longer has the ability to be a progressive force in society. Capitalism is in an organic crisis, as can be seen by the weakness of the supposed 'recovery', where the majority of working people have seen no rise in living standards, the Euro continues to dangle precariously, and we have recently seen an economic crash in China, a country that was said by mainstream commentators to be immune to the sways of the world market. As Marxists, we know that no country is immune to the crisis of overproduction that is inherent in capitalism.

“In the discussion, people from the audience highlighted capitalism's inability to provide for human need; for example: millions of houses sit empty, merely owned by millionaires for speculation, while thousands of families and young people are faced with homelessness.  But with the deepening of the capitalist crisis there have also been bursts of consciousness: the Arab spring; the Occupy movement; SYRIZA in Greece; and the election of Jeremy Corbyn.  It was agreed that as another world slump approaches, if we can grasp at this consciousness, and with an educated Marxist party at its head, we can lead the masses of the world to revolution and put an end to capitalist crises once and for all.”

Scotland and Europe

RachelGRedOctober2015Later in the day we heard from Rachel Gibbs, from the editorial board of Revolution Scotland, and a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, who introduced the session on “One Year After the Referendum: where next for Scotland?” 

Rachel outlined the class nature of the Yes vote in the referendum, which was a product of the betrayals of the Labour Party over decades, who treated the working class in Scotland (and elsewhere) with contempt. Although the SNP leadership is bourgeois in outlook, and is in fact carrying out cuts, its support rested on its anti-austerity rhetoric. The subsequent discussion focused on the national question, and how, as Marxists, we should support the democratic right of any nation for self-determination. However, whether we argue for separation or not depends on the concrete circumstances of each case, and - importantly -whether such separation will advance the class struggle or set it back. Rachel argued that the task now facing Marxists in Scotland is to fight for a democratic workers’ republic, but that this should always be linked to the international struggle for socialism.

At the same time, Josh Holroyd of the International Marxist Tendency introduced the session on “The European Crisis: past, present, and future”.  Ed Rosier, of the Manchester Marxists attended and gave the following report:

“Josh gave an engaging informative lead off on the topic of the crisis of capitalism currently playing out across the European Union. The talk began with a clear and effective explanation of the material conditions that led to the European Union being formed, and why this means that the European Union serves capital interests rather than those of unity and togetherness, as is often portrayed in the media. Then followed an explanation of the contradictions in capitalism that the European Union expresses and fails to alleviate, as well as why this is so.

“The discussion was just as engaging, with points being made on Greece, Syriza, and the upcoming EU referendum in the UK. The euro crisis is an extremely important and complex issue, and it seemed this discussion of it gave all those listening a clear and extensive understanding of these key issues. It became clear throughout that only through a Marxist understanding of economic and social forces can this crisis be explained. It was also clear that the European crisis will continue on and the question will become even more pertinent for all those who wish to see a decent future for the European people. The only true conclusion to be drawn from the events in Europe is that a revolution with strong, socialist leadership is absolutely necessary for the working class of Europe to be freed from the barbarism that private capital creates.”

Defend Corbyn! Fight for Socialism!

The Saturday culminated with the Defend Corbyn! Fight for Socialism! rally, with Steve Hedley, Matt Wrack, and Rob Sewell all speaking.

Cillian Davis, of the LSE Marxist Society said the following of the meeting:

“As the main focus of the weekend, this was the hottest ticket in town and proved to be an extremely productive discussion. Indeed, to have leading trade unionists like Matt Wrack and Steve Hedley talking of socialist solutions to the world’s problems proved not only that the trade union leaders have moved far to the left of what they used to be in the past (‘Lords, Barons, etc’ as Steve Hedley contended), but also the potential scope of the Defend Corbyn campaign.

“As my first weekend school, I felt the meeting was an incredible way into seeing what a revolutionary organisation seeks to do: agitate as part of the class struggle with clear Marxist ideas and socialist alternatives.  Indeed, this is what the Defend Corbyn campaign is doing: both explaining, but also expanding on, the amazing Corbyn movement, whilst also showing the limitations of reformism and the need for socialist policies.

“Furthermore, the current Corbyn campaign is something we can use to enthuse the new Labour members, and the Defend Corbyn rally certainly gave me confidence going forward to draw those at my own university into the Marxist society.”

“Going forward, lessons were learnt from the meeting. Firstly, we as an organisation need to carry on the struggle against the media and the right-wing of the party by pushing not only for mandatory reselection, but also for the selection of left-wing alternative candidates. Further, the demand for Labour MPs to take a workers’ wage needs to be revisited in the Party. Socialists need to be inside the Labour Party and at Momentum meetings to try and offer a Marxist alternative to those who have flocked to the Party in order to change the world. If the meeting has taught me anything, it is that this is an incredible time to be a revolutionary!”

Before the end of the session, a collection was held for the work of the International Marxist Tendency, so as to give us the financial resources to put our ideas into practice. Over £1,200 was raised on the day, demonstrating the commitment and sacrifice of the comrades in attendance. The day ended with a chance to socialise and relax, which was a great opportunity to meet Marxists from other areas of the country and beyond, and share experiences of how to build. The room was filled with optimism, reflecting the strength of the ideas discussed earlier in the day.

Revolutionary ideas

Joe Attard, of the KCL Marxist Society, gave the following report of two sessions from the final day of the event:

“The final day of the IMT’s Red October weekend school began with parallel sessions on Marxist philosophy and the Spanish Revolution. Socialist Appeal comrade and member of Podemos for Socialism, Jorge Martin, lead off on the latter topic. Jorge provided a detailed and impassioned overview of the six-year struggle between Spanish workers and the forces of fascist reaction (from 1931 through to 1937) - forces aided by Stalinists and abetted by the capitulations of anarchist and trade union leaders. Jorge demonstrated how the heroic efforts of Spanish workers, particularly members of the National Confederation of Labor (CNT) and Iberian Anarchist Federation (FIA), twice placed major cities in the hands of the Spanish masses.

“That the revolution was ultimately betrayed, setting the scene for a civil war in which the fascist General Franco would emerge victorious, is a grim warning of the importance of a Bolshevik party with a programme to translate revolution into socialism.

“The subsequent discussion made comparisons between the situation immediately preceding the Spanish Revolution and the present conditions in Greece, following Alexis Tsipras’s capitulation to the forces of European capitalism. The tragedy of the failed Spanish revolution further evoked Trotsky’s view of human history as turning on the failures of the leadership of the oppressed classes. While the anarchist revolutionaries who died in Spain were praised for their heroism, it was felt that their leaders – in their unwillingness to establish workers’ democracy – allowed a fascist regime to seize Spain and were thus culpable for the counter-revolution that ensued.”

“In the afternoon, comrade Sam Ashton was joined by Ray Goodspeed, an original founding member of Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners (LGSM), a group of lesbian and gay activists who provided assistance to striking miners in the small Welsh town of Onllwyn during the mid-1980s. After Sam had provided a Marxist historical analysis of the material basis of homophobia – as a divide and rule strategy employed by the ruling classes to sow dissent amongst the masses – Ray discussed the exploits of LGSM as evidence of the importance of marginalised peoples organising on class lines. “A gay worker is ultimately a worker when they leave the bedroom,” he said.

“In the discussion, Ray also took the opportunity to rectify some of the historical inaccuracies of the recent movie Pride, which (despite being a fine film) alters and dramatizes LGSM’s activities for dramatic effect. For example, while the movie depicts the National Union of Miners as rejecting LGSM’s donations on homophobic grounds, this never occurred. Moreover, in spite of the tense introduction between gay activists and Welsh workers shown in the film, LGSM was in fact received rapturously by the strikers in Onllwyn. The miners even took the liberty of painting a pink triangle on the van loaned to them by LGSM, in which they travelled to London to join their gay and lesbian comrades on the London Pride march after the miners’ strike broke.

"The discussion also included several contributions on the limitations of petit-bourgeois liberation politics compared to the class politics of Marxism: the only effective path to emancipation for the LGBT community."

Parallel to the discussion on Spain, Daniel Morley provided an introduction to Marxist philosophy. Shaun Morris from the Glasgow Marxist society commented on this session:

"The 'Introduction to Marxist Philosophy' session was an interesting and thought-provoking discussion. Daniel Morley led off, explaining the basics of dialectical materialism that underpins Marxism and some of the misconceptions spread about the philosophy. As has often been pointed out by the Marxists, academics and bourgeois politicians alike have attempted to write off Marxism as irrelevant or distort its meaning for the last 150 years.

"Daniel explained the profound insight of dialectical materialism as a concrete philosophy that desires to uncover the laws and tendencies that govern the universe. This is in complete contrast to the mind-games of mainstream philosophy, which simultaneously claims to be “common sense” but obsesses over abstract ideas and problems.

"If someone sets their mind to the task, the supposedly convoluted method of Marxism can be grasped and applied to a multitude of philosophical quandaries. I will personally be pondering about two dialectical contradictions raised by Daniel: the contradiction between the ‘General’ and the ‘Specific’ and the ‘Potential’ and ‘Actual’. The first question is important in relation to the role of the individual in history and the second in relation to the development of states of matter, similar to the old chestnut of the change from quantity into quality.

"In the matter of quality, the discussion was very good. The spectre of “Continental” versus “Analytical” philosophy was exorcised by questioning this supposed divide in Western schools of thought. Importantly however, we raised the matter of Marxism’s application in wider fields such as science, ethics and the political implications of Marxism: socialist revolution."

The Sunday continued with a talk on Marxism and Art by Alan Woods. Nick Sherratt, Nathan Forster and Gareth Lynn Montes of the Swansea Marxists attended the session, and gave the following report:

“Marxism is not only concerned with politics and economics; art is also of interest to Marxists and the talk began by posing the question as to whether art was necessary.

“Alan continued by going millennia back in time to the time of early human beings whose art we can still find in such marvellous places such as Altamira or Lascaux. In this early art our ancestors painted the animals they found difficult to hunt, but at the same time, desired. They also drew their surroundings in a way to understand them. It was a tool for them; they thought they would gain some magical advantage over them if they were able to capture them on a wall.

“As time passed, art was continued to be used as tool. The Egyptian Pharaohs created huge rigid images of themselves to show their authority and power over their subjects. This political use of art has been maintained to this day.

“During the Middle Ages, art was held up to a high amount of scrutiny and in Europe it was mostly a weapon used by the church, with images of Christ and the Virgin being the trend in art.

“With the appearance of the bourgeoisie, there was a revolution in art. Other themes appeared and the new rising class wanted their portraits and their possessions painted to show their power and wealth.

“After this tour through the ages, Alan explained how art is not an indicator of the progress of a society, but a tool for its progress. In our society, art has become something to speculate with, something abstract, something for the elite, a limited thing done by a select few… but it should not be this. Soon after the October Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Moscow and Petrograd theatres were full of working class people wanting to see great works of art. Brecht’s Epic Theatre was committed to the cause of the proletariat and was performed in factories in 1930’s Germany. Also, during the Spanish Civil War, the working class soldiers craved for the poetry of Lorca, Hernandez and Alberti. Under communism, art would be accessible to all, not just to view it or listen to it, but to make it.

“To finish off, we drew some conclusions to the question posed at the beginning, discussing how art is necessary. A world without art would be an inhumane world - one without the expression of colour or the imagination.”

Swimming with the stream 

Alan Woods made the closing remarks of the day, where he noted that the event had been the best weekend school in Socialist Appeal’s history. Alan remarked that in the past, Marxists had to swim against the stream, but that now our ideas are warmly received among a wider layer of society. The proof of this was the overwhelmingly youthful composition of the event.

Alan explained that events such as this weekend school are important, in order to build a revolutionary organisation on the firm foundations of Marxist theory, so as not to be blown away by the turbulent events of this period.

The task now is to put these ideas into practice – as Marx noted - the point of understanding the world is so as to be able to change it. Undoubtedly, all the comrades went away with renewed enthusiasm, to go forward and build the forces of socialism internationally.

Red October 2015