Thursday 1 February 2007

Branch Meeting: Marxism in Today's World

The subject of our meeting was actually less ambitious than the title suggests. The topic wasn't Marxism in today's world, rather it was Marxism in Today's World, the new book by Socialist Party general secretary, Peter Taaffe. The lead-off was again by me, and again next week we will be returning to the issue of constitutional crisis. Believe me I'm looking forward to taking a break from the hotseat!

Our meeting opened with a report on the NHS campaign. We learned about what friend-of-the-branch, Antony Sumara (former chief executive of the University Hospital of North Staffs) has been upto since assuming his position as head of Hillingdon Primary Care Trust. True to form the axe is out and he plans to cut a workforce of 300 down to 30! His stated aim is to scale back the operation to "core functions", whatever they are. What's interesting is the government claims there is no concerted effort to attack the NHS. Why then has Sumara (a guy who has appeared on platforms with Blair) been shuttled from awkward cuts job to awkward cuts job to awkward cuts job (he has had at least three) if he is not the government's favoured hatchet-man?

The business moved onto technical issues, and heard reports from Socialist Students, the wage cuts at Staffs Uni (upto £7,000 in some cases), yesterday's PCS strike rally, and the work done and future plans on Stoke SP's website.

I spoke for about 20 minutes on the book. It is a very broad text and comrade Taaffe ranges over the key issues facing Marxists today. Enough material is addressed that could inform branch discussions for many a month. In my opinion it is an excellent introduction to a Marxist take on the world in general, and the positions developed by the CWI in particular. I think all comrades, even weary sectarians like myself, would get something out of it. Not because Taaffe is correct on every issue (IMO he isn't) or possesses a uniquely arresting style of writing. No, the book takes the format of a question and answer session with Yurii Colombo, a comrade from an Italian autonomist organisation. This means questions are asked that a hack would never have asked. Issues that wouldn't necessarily get an airing in The Socialist or Socialism Today get discussed here. And yes you leftist trainspotters, that means membership figures ...

My talk briefly touched on each of the chapters. Because of the number of issues, the discussion centred around the processes unfolding within China and the relationship between it and the USA. Here's a lightly edited version of what I said;
Whereas in the past Marxists of whatever theoretical position were confident their theory of the class character of the Chinese state fitted the facts, Taaffe admits things are now a lot more open ended. To force a model on the processes unfolding in China would at best only highlight certain aspects of what are going on, and at worst neglect or pass over evidence to the contrary. What is happening in China is the majority of the working class remain employed by state-owned enterprises, but very often this ownership is obscured by the fact the relationship between these enterprises are no longer mediated by the bureaucratic plan, but by the market. For example, different IT firms compete with one another to secure contracts to supply the burgeoning offices in Beijing and Shanghai but all these firms are state owned. So in a sense China is truly an example of state capitalism – instead of private capital being risked it is capital raised by the state from taxation. At some future point such firms maybe privatised, allowing their directors and assorted bureaucrats to pick them up at knock down prices in a manner akin to what has happened in Russia and elsewhere.

We shouldn’t write off the working class and peasantry. The privatising moves of the Chinese state have provoked massive resistance. Marketisation may mean big profits for the bureaucrats but necessarily entail declining living standards or unemployment for our class. As a result privatisation in agriculture has slowed right down because of rural unrest. However these movements remain widely scattered and the opportunities for them to link up are quite slim. For the working class in the urban centres however, there are greater chances of basic trade union consciousness, and movements for democracy to develop.

Looking at China from an international perspective, the US and China look likely to be the axis around which world politics will increasingly revolve. The USA’s relationship with China is complicated and contradictory – it needs to invest capital there but this will also involve technology transfers, something the US fears a great deal. For US capitalism China’s massive markets requires it be wooed as a strategic partner. But as a military power in its own right starting to flex its muscles, China is a strategic opponent. How this contradiction resolves itself will be one of the key questions of the 21st century.
M responded on the character of peasant and workers' struggles against these unfolding processes, and the Chinese state itself. Matters are complicated by there not being a history of sustained independent trade union activity and the difficulties of organising in a police state. P added to this the role divisions in the working class could play in inhibiting organisation, and be used by the state to defeat struggles. There could be a divide between workers employed in state enterprises, and those who sell their labour power to "privately-owned" firms operating in markets. It is quite possible some within the latter section of our class could develop into a labour aristocracy whose privilege is identified with private ownership, and act as a trojan horse of sorts vis a vis the rest of the class. On the other hand most proletarians are first generation, arriving from the countryside in search of a better life in China's booming cities. Their continued ties to the country combined with living as workers in the city means these sisters and brothers are the literal embodiment of where the peasantry meets the working class. As the experience of the Russian revolution illustrates, this is where an alliance between the two classes will take flesh.

L contributed on China and the contradictions it will become embroiled in as its power approaches a global reach. N suggested one way China is building a strategic bloc of countries favourable to it is by coming in and offering loans without the neo-liberal strings the US likes to attach via the IMF and World Bank. As such its hegemony is being challenged in the traditional "backyard", central and southern America. L came back in on the international dimension contemporary environmental politics entails. As a polluter China is on course to dump more poisons into our environment, but on the other hand as the struggle for resources intensify China could increasingly look toward sustainable development measures to meet its energy needs. Finally A wrapped up by noting whatever happens, China's emergence as a world power guarantees a world system with greater instability. A possible outcome of this could be regionalisation, a decline in the volumes of globalising capital economic crisis; and in China, maybe a partial or total reversion of the restoration process.

The meeting then had to move on. We took a look and a vote on a conference resolution, elected our branch committee and sorted out the week's work. And so, that was our branch this evening.

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