A contribution to the history of the Midlands Discussion Group

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The Midlands Discussion Group (MDG) has existed for more than two years now, involving people from Leicester and Birmingham from various political backgrounds - left communist, councilist, anarchist, environmentalist, leftist. The aim of the group is to discuss the proletarian alternative to capitalism, like other discussion groups that exist or have existed in Mexico, India, France, Spain, Switzerland and Australia. Discussion circles: important moments in the development of class consciousness

Discussion circles (DCs) can only be understood in the context of the historical development of class consciousness. They are part of the proletariat's effort to develop its class consciousness through trying to understand the meaning and implications of the crises of capitalism within the framework of the political positions of the proletariat. "Class-consciousness is by nature a political consciousness: a consciousness of the necessity to develop the class struggle against the bourgeois state and the building of communism; a consciousness which involves an understanding of the need for the proletariat to create its own political party to deepen and extend communist consciousness" ('The proletariat: class of consciousness', WR 83). This consciousness does not develop in a mechanical and linear way, but through a very difficult historical process of twists and turns, of advances and retreats. An essential part of this is the subterranean maturation of consciousness. Whilst the mass open struggle of the class is essential for the generation of revolutionary consciousness: "the degree to which mass struggles can give rise to such a consciousness also depends on a prior process of 'semi-concealed' or subterranean maturation within the class - the 'old mole' that Marx talked about... On the broadest level, a subterranean maturation takes place in the mass of workers, in the growing contradiction between the way bourgeois ideology describes reality and the way the workers themselves experience it. Initially this development may remain 'unconscious' to most workers, or take the negative form of disillusionment with bourgeois ideals. But this 'negative' stage is a precondition for the emergence of a more positive and conscious critique when the struggle comes out into the open.

"But the term subterranean maturation doesn't only refer to this semi-conscious form of development. It also takes place through workers reflecting on past struggles, forming discussion circles in order to make sense of their situation, and so on" ('The subterranean maturation of consciousness', WR 73).

In the present historical situation it is important to underline that, with the ever growing imperialist and economic chaos engulfing the world the process of the growth of class consciousness has been extremely difficult, particularly since the collapse of the eastern bloc. The work of discussion circles is thus of real importance to the future development of the proletariat's understanding of its historical role. An open forum for discussion and clarification

The MDG initially began as the Leicester Discussion Group with some people who had been discussing with a long-term contact of the ICC in the area. These discussions had been stimulated by the war in Kosovo. In order to give these discussions a more systematic and fruitful form the ICC suggested that they form a discussion circle. The initial discussions of the LDG were animated by an ICC article which drew the political lessons of a discussion group that had existed in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1990s. This article explained that, "A circle is an open, but not permanent coming together of workers, who meet because they want to discuss and clarify political questions. They are places which the proletariat creates in order to push forwards its consciousness, above all in times when there is no party and no workers' councils... We consider them to be a concrete expression of the class. They express the consciousness of the class, showing that it is not willing to accept the crisis and the bankruptcy of capitalism without resistance; that it wants to defend itself against the attacks of the capitalist system. Also, they express an attempt to search for ways to fight back and to develop a revolutionary perspective..." (WR 207, 'Discussion circles in the working class: a world-wide phenomenon'). Regarding the function of Discussion circles the article also underlined that, "The goal of a discussion circle is the political clarification of the individual participants. The framework of discussion is a common one, corresponding to the collective nature of the working class. The direction and pace of political clarification however, vary according to each person. Since a circle is not an organisation regrouping with a political platform, a circle is not a permanent or stable entity. Rather, it is a moment of political clarification, allowing the militants, through participation in a collective discussion process, to find out where they stand politically in relation to the major questions of proletarian politics and in relation to the already existing historical and international currents of the marxist proletarian milieu...

"What's proletarian about a discussion circle is not a common 'local' programme but the common will to discuss and clarify. Thus, a discussion circle isn't the same as a political group with a fixed programme. Rather it is a place, a meeting place for political clarification." (ibid.). A positive process of clarification and opening out

Central to the discussions of the MDG has been a determination to better understand the main theoretical and historical questions of the workers' movement and to combine this with a concern to address and discuss international and national events as they have unfolded. Thus, after 11 September 2001 they too discussed the meaning of the events using the leaflets and communiqu�s issued by the ICC and other groups of the Communist Left. This particular meeting saw the attacks as an expression of worsening imperialist tensions. This concern to denounce imperialist war from a proletarian perspective has been a great strength for the group. All the participants have made clear their opposition to the Kosovo, Afghan and all imperialist wars.

The MDG's discussions are planned and comrades prepare presentations, reading lists are proposed for the preparation of the discussions. This systematic organisation of its discussions has allowed the MDG participants to carry out a serious process of clarification. The publication in WR 257 of the presentation for a discussion on the Paris Commune demonstrates the depth and quality of its discussions. Amongst other things, the MDG has discussed: the anti-capitalist movement; the Russian Revolution (which the group sees as proletarian, although there are disagreements on the role of the Bolsheviks and the reasons for its degeneration); and the consciousness of the bourgeoisie focusing on the role of the left against the working class

The confrontation of positions has been strengthened with the involvement of people from different towns and different political backgrounds. This rejection of localism has enabled a wider and deeper process of discussion to take place, and has allowed all of the participants to undergo a process of clarification at different levels.

From its beginning the MDG has made the Communist Left a reference point. It has invited the groups of the Communist Left to participate in its meetings. It has meant the participants have gained not only a better understanding of the positions of the different groups but also the experience of discussing with the political expressions of the proletariat. The ICC has intervened in the group's meetings since its founding, and the Communist Workers Organisation has also intervened more recently. Progress gained through determined political struggle

The MDG has succeeded in fulfilling its central role, that of clarification. But it has had to struggle in order to achieve this. In particular it has had to deal with confusions over its own nature and the role it plays.

The MDG initially based its work on the lessons of the wider experience of the working class, especially that of the Zurich discussion circle. However, the full assimilation of these lessons has been hampered by confusions within the group about its relationship to the ICC. Some elements, whilst initially seeing the need for an open forum, began to see the function of the MDG as being a place for the discussion of the positions of the ICC. This vision tended to see the group as kind of ante-chamber to the ICC. The ICC firmly rejected this vision and has often stressed the need for the group to discuss the wider history of the workers' movement and the positions of other communist organisations.

The ICC has always held the view that discussion circles are places for clarification, not appendages or the property of proletarian political organisations. They include anyone seeking clarification: not just those who agree with the ICC's or any other proletarian organisation's positions. The only reason for stopping someone from attending would be if they wanted to disrupt or take over its work. MDG meetings have been attended by leftists, which has led to a healthy confrontation with bourgeois positions. Far from being a distraction, such discussions have lead to clarification on the nature and role of leftism.

Thus, as is the case with the MDG, discussion circles can be very heterogeneous. But there is nothing wrong with this. To seek to impose political criteria for participation means undermining their fundamental strength: their open nature, because this implies prior agreement on the political criteria - that is, a certain level of clarification - which is to put the cart before the horse. Any attempt to impose such criteria would lead to the freezing of the process of clarification. The political evolution of those who participate in the discussion is a result of the confrontation between different positions.

However, if a discussion circle is not the property of one organisation, neither is it a political group or organisation in its own right. "A political organisation of the proletariat is necessarily an internationally orientated organ, a product of the historical effort of the working class fighting for its programmatic clarity. It doesn't arise locally, but is a direct continuation of the political and organisational traditions of the marxist movement. A circle however, is a phenomenon that is limited geographically and in time. It is restricted to one area. Elements come together in one area in order to discuss matters of relevance to the proletariat and clarify them" (ibid.).

This does not mean that it is not the duty of proletarian political organisations to stimulate the emergence of such groups and to intervene towards them in order to contribute to the most effective clarification. The ICC's defining principles for its intervention are to carry out an "Organised intervention, united and centralised on an international scale, in order to contribute to the process which leads to revolutionary actions of the proletariat" (Basic Positions of the ICC). It is the duty of the ICC and other proletarian political organisations to intervene within discussion circles in order to work towards them having the healthiest proletarian life possible.

The MDG has also had to deal with a certain amount of personal tension in its ranks. However, following some frank discussion all the participants agreed that the interests of the group came first, and that the personalisation of discussion should be rejected.

Since confronting these difficulties the group has flourished. At the beginning of 2002 the MDG held a meeting on proletarian opposition to imperialist war. This drew in people that had not been to meetings before, along with the CWO and the SPGB (See WR 252). Most of these elements have since participated in the discussions of the MDG. Perspectives

In recent months individuals in the group have participated in meetings of the Sheffield No War But Class War; it has contacts with the London NWBTCW Discussion Group; the CWO has participated in its meetings; and the group has held another public meeting on the question of communism, all of which pose questions about activity of the MDG. We will not deal here with the questions of Sheffield NWBCW and the CWO's conception of discussion groups - they will be addressed in a forthcoming articles. What does need addressing is how to maintain and improve the healthy dynamic the MDG has had since last summer.

Central to the development of the group's life is the maintenance of its nature as an open forum for discussion. The importance of this cannot be overestimated. In the present very difficult situation for the proletariat the central need is for reflection upon and discussion of the historical and political questions and challenges facing the working class. The greatest danger for the group is to forget that discussion groups are not permanent political organs of the proletariat but moments in the development of class-consciousness. To seek, even if unconsciously, to turn the MDG into a political group would be a mistake and a failure to understand the nature of discussion circles and the class struggle in the period of decadence.

The holding of public meetings poses important questions. The meeting on proletarian opposition to war was based on the group's unanimous opposition to the Afghan war and defence of proletarian internationalism. The desire to make this opposition widely known was a proletarian response to a vital event. Nevertheless, it contained the potential for confusion on the role of the MDG. The fundamental characteristic of a discussion group is that it is an open place of clarification. To hold regular public meetings would call this into question and expresses an emerging idea of the circle as a semi-political group with its own positions to defend. Whilst most of the participants of the MDG support the positions and intervention of the Communist Left, its role is not to defend these before the class - which is the role of communist organisations - but to provide an area for the confrontation of positions. A recent public meeting on the nature of communism showed the problem: why a meeting on such a question? It is not a pressing immediate question confronting the working class, as it was with the war in Afghanistan. It is a question where there are many positions and ideas amongst the participants and therefore a question to be discussed in the usual way. The comrades need to discuss the danger of mistaking the nature of their role. Warning of such a danger is a vital duty for the ICC because its central concern is to defend the healthy proletarian life of the group.

The Midlands Discussion Group has expressed the wider effort of the proletariat to develop its consciousness. The dynamic that the participants have been able to maintain expresses the political vitality of this group. All of the participants have undergone a real process of clarification in their political understanding. This does not mean that everyone has gone beyond their various political backgrounds, but it does mean that the participants are much clearer on what they defend and don't defend, on how they see their political futures. The MDG is at a very important point in its development: will it continue as a forum of open discussion or will it increasingly solidify into a permanent semi-political organisation? The ICC is determined to do all it can to impulse the former and to struggle against the latter. We urge the MDG and all those interested in it to seriously discuss the analysis we have made.

WR, 4/10/02.


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