- Category: Organisation
- Published on Tuesday, 6 May 2014
- Written by Tim Nelson
On Saturday 26 April, members of the International Socialist Network, revolutionary socialism in the 21st century, Socialist Resistance, Anticapitalist Initiative and Workers Power met to discuss a number of questions facing the revolutionary left. The day was divided into four topics - trade unionism, Left Unity, feminism and Ukraine. Despite there being sharp disagreements between many of the organisations on all these questions, the tone of the day was comradely and the manner in which the debates were conducted was positive. It is clear that divisions, most obviously between comrades in Socialist Resistance and Workers Power, are not going to disappear overnight, but hopefully continued discussion and joint activity will help break down artificial divisions on the revolutionary left and help us towards a new united organisation in the future. One of the reasons that the IS Network believes that this meeting should be the beginning of the process, rather than launching into immediate organisational unity as was proposed at our conference last year, is exactly because we feel that unity on a firm political basis, which in our view is a prerequisite for serious organisational unity; can only be achieved through a process of ongoing discussion and activity.
The first session was on the question of how revolutionary socialists should work within the trade union movement. In the bulletins which preceded the meeting, there had been a debate as to how revolutionaries should relate to the trade union bureaucracy, and whether they should be concentrating on building within the rank and file of the trade unions. This debate was reflected in the meeting, with comrades from Socialist Resistance arguing that the level of struggle and organisation in the class isn’t such that building a new rank and file movement is possible at this time, and furthermore that there is a clear distinction between right wing union leaderships and the left, such as Christine Blower in the NUT and Mark Serwotka in the PCS, who they referred to as “class struggle” union leaders. They also argued of the dangers of seeing the working class as poised for action, and only held back by the trade union bureaucracy. It has to be recognised that there is a dynamic relationship between the rank and file and the union bureaucracy, and union leaders cannot be held entirely responsible for the weaknesses of the movement. However, it was recognised that union leaders, particularly right wing union leaders, have a lot to answer for in terms of weaknesses of the movement and the failure of any serious fightback against austerity to materialise. While Socialist Resistance do not overestimate the mood of the workers to fight, they clearly have a tendency to go in the other direction, towards a certain pessimism with regard to workers, which can lead to conservatism. Their opinion, not at all unfounded, that the building of a rank and file movement is unfeasible at this time leads them towards arguing for reliance upon alliances with the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy , which in turn can lead to a tendency to apologise for the actions of some of the trade union leaders. This was most obviously displayed in discussion about the role of the leadership of the NUT. In the tradition of left wing meetings, there were many teachers present on Saturday. Some, mostly members of the IS Network, Anticapitalist Initiative and Workers Power, pointed out the failure of the “broad left” strategy of alliances with the left wing bureaucracy in the case of the NUT. This was argued against by Socialist Resistance members, who argued that the NUT had a “class struggle” leadership.
Socialist Resistance comrades were clearly the minority during this debate, with most others arguing for a rank and file, rather than a broad left approach to trade unionism. Workers Power members argued that the “crisis of leadership” in the movement was not just restricted to the top layers of the trade union bureaucracy, but rather was evident top to bottom. While we should work both with and against the bureaucracy, our focus should be on organising within the workplace. Similar arguments were made by IS Network members, who also countered the argument made by some in Socialist Resistance that a rank and file analysis meant viewing the working class as poised for radical action, but held back by the conservatism of the trade union bureaucracy. Both the view that the trade union bureaucracy needed to be replaced by the leadership of a revolutionary party, and that the right wing of the bureaucracy needed replacing by left wing, or “class struggle” bureaucrats, both fall into the same mistake of seeing the working class as an amorphous mass in need of proper leadership. The rs21 speaker focused on the failure of the left over recent years to correctly analyse what was happening in capitalism and the working class, and therefore failing to understand the “nature of the period”. The onus was on socialists to correct this, and work out a perspective for how to organise. Other rs21 members who contributed supported the argument for a rank and file approach to trade unionism.
There were some highlights of this session, which were when comrades in the meeting discussed real examples of rank and file activity they had engaged in. The IS Network lead speaker spoke of the contrast in her workplace, Tower Hamlets College, between an all-out strike led by the rank and file, and the bureaucratic one-day strike over pensions in 2011. The former won, the latter lost. Another member of the IS Network spoke of how members in his workplace defeated the imposition of performance-related pay by boycotting assessments. Another highlight was a comrade from rs21, a militant member of Unite, discussing his direct experience of Grangemouth oil refinery, its long history of militancy and potential power, and how the role of the “left” leadership of Unite was crucial to their recent defeat. Overall, this discussion was extremely positive, and Socialist Resistance members should be commended for how they comported themselves considering they were in a clear minority on this question. The discussion would have benefited, however, from Socialist Resistance members highlighting the rank and file work which they do in fact carry out. While they disagreed with many people in the meeting on any number of issues regarding the trade union bureaucracy, Socialist Resistance comrades are active in workplaces and their members have a good history of rank and file organisation. Also, an unfortunate false polarity developed, where a perception was of what a rank and file strategy was - where workers were poised for action and the main obstruction was the trade union bureaucracy - was argued against as opposed to what comrades in favour of the strategy were actually arguing.
The session discussing Left Unity was less interesting than any of the others. This may be because views generally on this subject are less well established - Left Unity has existed for about a year, while trade unions have existed for a couple of centuries - and therefore, the position tended to be divided between “optimism” and “suspicion” rather than anything more concrete. An issue which was present during the discussion on trade unionism came more to the fore in this discussion, which was it felt like comrades from Workers Power and Socialist Resistance to argue with each other over everyone else’s head. Another reason why the Left Unity debate was less useful than the others was probably the number of straw men which were constructed. The polarity, it was maintained by Socialist Resistance, and one IS Network member, was between those who wanted Left Unity to adopt a “maximalist” programme - as in, they want Left Unity to be a revolutionary party. This was not the position of Workers Power, or any others, who tended to argue that revolutionaries in Left Unity should be seeking to pull its members leftwards, rather than pursue them rightwards.
Socialist Resistance members argued that the left was not in a position to build a revolutionary party at this moment, and all that was possible given the current conditions was to build a united left organisation which did not alienate those to the right of the far left. Once a broad left organisation such as Left Unity was built and the left as a whole was able to grow, we would be able to concentrate on winning people to revolutionary politics. The key task at the moment was to build Left Unity. While the lead speaker for Socialist Resistance claimed this was not a “stagist” perspective, where we first win people to more left wing politics generally, and from that pull people to revolutionary politics in the long term, it certainly seemed that way. He himself argued that it was a “step by step process”. Workers Power, on the other hand, argued that the revolutionary left should be concentrating on building a revolutionary current organisation rather than moving to the right to accommodate reformism. IS Network members tended to argue for the need for all revolutionaries, whatever their perspective on these questions, to join and help build Left unity, as it is one of the most important initiatives currently being built on the left. rs21 members did not have a position on Left Unity, though most tended to be less involved in the organisation than members of other groups. They therefore tended to ask questions in the meeting, rather than make arguments one way or the other, such as whether Left Unity would always be the best vehicle for every issue, such as within the trade union movement.
In the session discussing feminism the debate centred on two key issues, one was the role of feminist theories and intersectionality in the movement, and whether they can be incorporated, or have a positive relationship with Marxism. The other was how to increase women’s participation in the left generally and our own organisations in particular. Workers Power maintained that Marxists should reject identity politics, such as feminism and intersectionality, as they do not accept that the fundamental oppression which cuts across all other modes of oppression is that of class. They argued in favour of a “working class women’s movement”. Women are some of the most exploited in society - austerity, for instance, is disproportionately effecting women. Building a women’s movement based on working class women self-organising is what is needed to combat this. Socialist Resistance, on the other hand, have incorporated feminism into their own theory, and argue that while Marxism has effectively analysed class exploitation, we need other theories, such as feminism, to explain other forms of exploitation, such as the oppression of women. rs21 were clearly divided on the question of intersectionality. Their lead speaker argued that intersectionality views class as just one of several oppressions, which is a break from Marxism. Other rs21 members, however, argue, as others do in the IS Network, that it instead simply acknowledges that how people experience oppression is effected by the various forms of oppression they either experience or do not.
There was also an important discussion about how to increase women’s participation in left organisations. The lead speaker from the IS Network pointed out the dominant role men played on the left in general, including in this meeting. She pointed out how women’s self-organisation, through initiatives such as independent publications and caucuses could help overcome this. Women often feel unable to contribute and participate on the left due to the socialisation of women which can lead to less confidence in such situations. Both Workers Power and Socialist Resistance have, for a long time, supported self-organised women’s groups, while rs21 members remain in many instances sceptical.
The meeting on the crisis in Ukraine wasn’t the “bloodbath”, as one rs21 member put it, that everyone was expecting, and was actually conducted very fraternally. On this issue, it tended to be Workers Power who were in the minority. Workers Power’s main focus was on the fascist and far-right nationalist influence over the Maidan protests and the government they installed, and the role of US and EU imperialism in supporting them. The role of fascists in the Kiev government, and their increasing integration into the state apparatus means that the main role of socialists should be to call for its overthrow. Socialist Resistance and rs21 members tended to emphasise the progressive elements of the Maidan movement, and argue that the turn towards the EU was largely a democratic demand, based upon the Ukrainian people’s desire to break from Russian imperialism. This tended to be supported by IS Network members, who, however, also tended to argue that the reactionary nature of the Kiev government shouldn’t be underplayed, and that it should be opposed. IS Network members also highlighted the political bankruptcy of the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition’s position, both on Ukraine, and the Syrian revolution, and argued that a new anti-imperialist movement needed to be built.
Overall, the discussions were very useful, and actually showed that such debates can in fact be productive when they rise above the usual tit-for-tat polemics, and comrades actually engage with each other’s views. One problem, which was present throughout the day, was the dominant role men, particularly white, non-LGBTQ men, played in the discussions. In the last session on Ukraine, no women spoke at all, and it was only in the session on feminism where women were at least 50% of the contributors. These issues are not unusual to the groups involved in these discussions - this is common throughout the left. However, in light of recent problems on the far left with sexism it is something that the left will need to get much better at in future, both in getting more women involved in revolutionary politics, and in encouraging them to be more prominent in meetings such as the ones we held on Saturday.