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IF YOU took up to 1,000 socialists and gave them the chance to debate, challenge and grapple with the tough issues of the day, you’d get a stimulating and inspiring time of it.
Add top international speakers, heroes of the movement, young activists, new books and films and then some music and poetry — a damn fine programme of events.
The Communist Party of Britain’s centenary celebrations were promising to be stupendous. Then came Covid-19, and lockdown, and isolation. Would it work online?
That’ll be a resounding “yes” from all those who took part. Saturday August 1 2020 goes down in history. Close to 70 speakers, with topics from the NHS to the EU to anti-racism, from technology to trades union activism to women’s rights.
In spite of the Zoom-room dynamic, and the restrictions of the webinar and the pre-recorded film, there was a huge sense of togetherness, and of passion.
Mollie Brown, of the party’s executive committee, had harsh words for the TV genre of “poverty porn, depicting working-class people as chavs.” In a session focusing on “Communist women in action,” she mourned closed libraries and children’s centres, foodbanks running out of supplies, and the fact that working-class women had been pushed out of the higher education system.
Alongside her, Professor Mary Davis, author of the revised and relaunched Women and Class, argued that identity politics was a distraction from the struggles of class and of the oppression of women, always inextricably linked. She spoke of “the just cause of the trans community” not being served by the erosion of rights women had fought for over centuries.
Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of Unite, focusing on the future of work, said that 99 per cent of banking staff were currently working from home. Productivity had improved, but this was a clear and present danger to collectivism. If automation resulted in fewer jobs, she argued, then it should mean fewer hours. If it increased profitability, then workers should get their share of the increase!
Ursula Huws, professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, said that the workforce was more polarised, with many working at home and others “out there” delivering goods and services to them. Both of these marginalised groups were unified — by minute digital surveillance. She added that a new definition of self-employment was needed.
There are some gems hidden in the treasure trove of material on the party’s website. Pam Pink, who joined the party in 1963, said in the “Veteran Voices” films that her father cautioned against joining the Labour Party — he knew its “tendency to move to the right.”
Only one of many phrases from the day that resonated with the audience.
She warned that capitalism was now destroying the planet, a theme embraced by ecofeminist Olivia Palmer, who spoke with passion and precision: “We cannot confront the problem of environmental destruction without tackling patriarchy. Ecofeminists need to challenge the hierarchies — challenge male supremacy, white supremacy and human supremacy.
“Women are resisting — we are resisting femicide, we are also resisting ecocide.”
Palmer said she had joined the party “because a radical problem needs a radical solution.”
Another in “Veteran Voices” was David Grove, who joined the Oxford students’ branch in 1942. He says: “I’m glad I’ve survived to celebrate this centenary — the party is three years older than me!” Both he and George Wills, now 93, spoke of their faith in younger comrades to continue the struggle.
A new and burgeoning union was represented by Jade Welburn, Acorn housing activist in north-east England, campaigning for housing security for all during and after the coronavirus emergency. The Acorn union was calling for an immediate and permanent end to evictions, she said, and demanding a rent waiver for the duration of the crisis. They also wanted mortgage and interest payment freezes, with protection from eviction, and that should be extended to lodgers.
In a session on the EU imperialism and austerity, Eugene McCartan, general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, said his party had always held the view, based on their experience as a people, of the nature of the relationship of imperialism. The heart of the problem with the EU, he said: “Nothing can be done which interferes with the primacy of the market.”
And, in a theme prevalent throughout the day, he linked the past and present: “The only way to understand history is to look forward.”
The Irish ruling class were a parasitic class, dependent upon their relationship with the EU and with the US. After the banking crisis of 2008-10, Ireland was forced to take responsibility for 42 per cent of all European banking debt — “the gambling debts of the European banking system,” as he labelled it. The result had been massive cuts in health and education.
Covid-19 had not caused this current crisis; it had exposed the inherent contradictions in capitalism, including the two-tier health system.
Tony Conway, convener of the Communist Party of Britain’s anti-racist/anti-fascist commission, said that Britain now had one of the harshest immigration systems in the world. He spoke of Windrush campaigner Paulette Wilson, who died recently at the age of 64. She was told at the age of 60 that despite living in Britain since she was 10, she was an illegal immigrant. Conway stressed the need for a campaign against racist immigration laws.
Big themes of the day — and there were many — included the cry for political education. Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite, said that this may have been replaced by Labour Party education: “And there’s a role for that — but it’s a different role!”
The recorded sessions from the day, as well as a superb film, Reds, on 100 years of communism, as well as book launches and music, are online at the party website: communistparty.org.uk
Assistant secretary of communications for the party, Phil Katz, charged with moving a complex programme of events from “real life” to online said: “Our centenary team was made up of volunteers, all highly skilled, working together, unflappable, enjoying the communal sense of history and of purpose. It was a glimpse of socialism, really.”
General secretary Robert Griffiths said in an address at the end of the day: “After 100 years, the Communist Party is still proud to hold high the red banner of socialism and communism. And one of the profound political lessons of the 20th century is that when the Communist Party is stronger, the labour and progressive movements are stronger. The ideas of socialism are stronger, too.”
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