Why don’t you call yourselves something different?

Report from the 1234 Festival, Sat 24th July 2010 in Shoreditch Park, also published in Weekly Worker.

From Greenpeace to Amnesty International, from the Metropolitan Police to Lucky Strike and the Socialist Workers Party, everybody was testing their credentials with those trendy young things at the July 24 1234 music festival in Shoreditch Park.

“You can take it or leave it as far as we’re concerned, what we want is buried in the present tense” sang 1970s punk poet Vic Godard from the main stage, as the SWP comrades began chatting up festival-goers to sign a petition against cuts.

Our CPGB stall was right opposite the SWP’s, and we had a pretty good view of the stage. What feedback would our openly communist imagery receive, compared to the prudent and economistic ways in which the SWP presented itself? Reactions ranged from positive to hostile, but they were frequent and always curious – leaving aside the obligatory couple of hipsters determined to take the mickey, who hastily retreated once they realised that their political ignorance disarmed them somewhat. What’s worse, they weren’t funny – not even by Vice Magazine standards.

A young guy from Poland proved to be one of our most open-minded visitors. Once we got past the stage of explaining that Polish-styled bureaucratic socialism was not what we had in mind (“that regime didn’t even like itself”, he ventured), he quickly picked up on our ideas of extreme democracy and full accountability of leadership. Well-versed in history, he took the words out of my mouth when he suggested that the Bolshevik Party had no right to cling on to power by force after losing the majority support of the proletariat following the Brest-Litovsk treaty. “I agree with so much of what you stand for,” he ultimately confessed, “but I don’t think you’ll get very far with the USSR hammer and sickle imagery. People don’t want to know about that. Why don’t you call yourselves something different?”

He wasn’t the only one. Throughout the day, this was the most common criticism addressed at us. And yet every single person who suggested that we change our name, banner or imagery had originally been attracted to our stall by those very things, and most took the time to hear what we had to say. In comparison – and I’m saying this without competitive gloating – the rather nondescript SWP stall didn’t create a lot of interest at all.

We were equally happy to chat with two stray SWP members, one of whom had managed to stay in the party for 20 years without getting expelled. Off duty, here for the music and slightly tipsy, they freely expressed their sympathies with our ideas of non-sectarian Marxist unity: “I love the entire left,” the comrade enthused after learning somewhat belatedly that the CPGB was, in fact, not a Stalinist organisation. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t all get together. But for the moment you should all join the SWP because they’re the biggest and know how to get themselves out there.”

We assured them that we would be the first to do just that if the SWP were transformed into a genuine Communist Party that guaranteed full, permanent factional rights. The SWP comrades couldn’t have agreed more and displayed awareness of certain ‘democracy problems’ within the organisation, expressing genuine regret when we informed them about the incident that occurred at Marxism 2010 (see ‘Thuggery at Marxism’ Weekly Worker July 8). Still, they argued that the best way to change a corrupted party was to do it from within.

Having warily observed from a distance what had now evolved into good-humoured fraternisation, one SWP comrade from the Hackney branch left her stall and casually came over to ours like a North Korean police officer that has spotted a tourist talking to locals. She didn’t look too thrilled, avoiding eye contact with us when our new friends cheerily prompted her to say hello and shake hands with us. And perhaps because our conversation had by now degenerated into arranging to have drinks later on, the duteous comrade soon left, noting the lack of suspicious sound bites.

Other festival-goers enquired into why our banner said ‘Provisional Central Committee’ and a couple purchased CPGB badges when we enlightened them about our work towards a united Marxist party. One of them asked specifically for a Hands Off the People of Iran badge, having read our slogans on the Hopi placard: “So much better than the usual Che Guevara shit, and something I wholeheartedly agree with: no war, no sanctions, no to the theocracy.” In our opinion, any sane person should see the issue from this angle. Two young Iranian women only partly agreed with our message; as ardent supporters of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, their illusions in the half-baked reforms promised by the erstwhile butcher of thousands of Iranian dissidents seemed unshakable for the best part of our conversation.

Perhaps due to the lack of traffic, the SWP decided to call it a day quite early, which means they missed out on both Peter Hook’s astonishingly authentic live rendition of Joy Division’s debut album and Bobby Gillespie’s 60s garage rock project, The Silver Machine. We persevered until the end, proud to have generated so much interest under a banner that still has the power to attract comrades and sceptics alike.

Photos by Emily Orford.


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