This is a report back from the conference held in London on April 26 2014 by PSN member Roger Welch. Roger is a long time socialist and trade union activist in Portsmouth.
The organisations participating in this conference were Anti Capitalist Initiative (ACI), International Socialist Network (ISN), RS21, Socialist Resistance (SR), and Workers Power (WP). I was the only person from PSN there – formally as a member of the ACI but more accurately as an independent revolutionary socialist who is generally (but not always) in political agreement with SR. I did not count the numbers present but it was a largish room which was almost full – certainly there were well over 100 and possibly nearer to 200 people attending. My account of the conference is from a personal and therefore entirely subjective perspective and is based on memory not notes. However, I have endeavoured not to misrepresent or caricaturise any of the arguments that were presented. There were four debates as follows.
The Trade Unions
For me, this was the most disappointing debate of the day as I felt (possibly wrongly) that SR and WP saw this an argument with each other with speakers from both organisations not responding or relating to important and useful contributions from the ISN and RS21. The position of SR was that it is important not to write off the union bureaucracy as a whole and to recognise that there is a class struggle left wing that we should work with. WP put forward their established position of the need to build a national rank and file movement with an action programme.
I agree with SR’s view that the building of such a movement is not viable in the current period and it is important not to tar all union leaders with the same brush. However, I disagree with the concept of a class struggle wing of the bureaucracy. There are union leaders who are prepared to lead fights such as Serwotka, Blower and, I suspect, whoever replaces the late and lamented Bob Crow. However, all of these leaders insist on keeping with the law, only fighting on their own terms and respecting bureaucratic norms by refusing to criticise other union leaders in public, let alone appealing to members of other unions to join in industrial action. In my view, it is on this basis that the generalised strike action to defend public sector pensions was derailed and defeated. Prentis has to take most of the initial blame but other union leaders to his left also used his betrayal to slowly and quietly give up and concede victory to the government.
By way of contrast, contributions from ISN and RS21 members both reflected current realities and demonstrated how successful action at rank and file level is still possible. For example, it was recognised that many workers support strike action but then return to work and operate on the basis of their bosses’ agendas. This is most clearly seen when workers strike for a day and then do extra work to catch up on the work that was missed. However, examples were also given of successful action taken at rank and file level, and in defiance of local and/or national officials. It is building on this sort of rank and fileism that a
revolutionary organisation should focus on by creating networks where militants can share experiences and reinforce each other’s confidence to increase the circumstances in which independent rank and file action can be a realistic prospect. When union leaders fight this should be welcomed but no union leadership can or should be completely relied on.
WP aside, there was general agreement that Left Unity is a very important initiative that represents a new development on the British left. It is not an attempt to establish a new left reformist party that restricts itself to challenging Labour in elections. Bur nor is it, nor should it be, a party that seeks to restrict its membership to those who understand the need to overthrow capitalism. This is effectively the position advocated by WP with its perspective of the necessity of LU adopting a class struggle action programme. Otherwise, although a range of views were expressed at the conference, it seemed to me there was a consensus that Left Unity should be supported along with the Peoples Assembly as a campaigning organisation that also fights elections on the basis of socialist policies well to the left of the Labour Party. I remember Tom Walker and others emphasising that we as revolutionaries should be in LU but in the here and now the more we are outnumbered by non-revolutionaries the better.
The aim must be to build a party that non-revolutionaries feel comfortable in joining but also one where revolutionaries can operate without compromising or hiding their politics. The link is through fighting austerity and for demands, reformist or otherwise, which benefit the working class and advance the class struggle. This is the only debate in which I spoke and made/supported the previous points. I also suggested that LU benefits from the sectarian attitudes towards it on the part of both the SWP and SP as this has resulted in a party of over 2000 members which continues to grow rapidly but is not dominated by any single organisation as was the case with the Socialist Alliance and Respect and is the case with TUSC. Nor is LU just an electoral body – it will participate in elections but will have a permanent campaigning focus.
To reiterate, most people at the conference, irrespective of which organisation they belong to, see LU in its current form as a positive development. In Portsmouth I think that we, as the PSN, need to reflect again on the need and desirability of helping to build a LU branch in the city as well as maintaining and building PSN.
I thought this was the most positive and interesting debate of the day where again, with the exception of WP, no-one was promoting a party line but seeking to explore the relationship between Marxism and feminism. There was general agreement, WP included, on combating sexual violence and abusive relationships inside the left and the labour movement as well as in society more generally. There was also agreement on the need for autonomous organisation and quotas for women on leading bodies. In this context several women comrades made the point that it will be great when the day comes that women are not only taking the lead in debates on women’s oppression but also in debates on a variety of different issues. (As if to prove this point the next and final debate of the day was on Ukraine where all or certainly almost all of those contributing were men.)
There was a very interesting discussion on intersectionality with a range of views expressed, but also I think some consensus towards recognising that theories of intersectionality need to be taken on board by Marxists as part of developing our theory and practice as socialist feminists. However, clearly, we should reject any notion that class is simply another identity rather than the material basis for all exploitation and oppression within capitalist society. Yet again it was only comrades from WP who were arguing a separate line. Essentially, they seemed to be arguing that theories of intersectionaity should be ignored and the emphasis should be based on building a working class based women’s movement. Had I been called to speak on this debate I would have argued that there is no contradiction between embracing the insights offered by intersectionality and seeking to build a working class based women’s movement – an objective I have supported from the 1970s onwards. I would have added that the SWP made an important contribution to this by setting up semi-autonomous Women’s Voice groups in the late 1970s – only of course for their CC to panic (typically) because the women were getting beyond their control and therefore deciding to wind up the whole project.
As above, in its entirety this debate was highly positive and interesting. Most refreshingly, everyone in the room understood that fighting women’s oppression is an integral and central part of the class struggle in the here and now and women’s liberation is not something to be put off until after the revolution. Therefore, we were spared the normal lectures that what matters is that we are all workers with gender being of secondary or no importance.
I find this the most difficult of the four debates to encapsulate. This is because for the best of reasons – to allow as many people as possible to speak – throughout the day initial speakers from the organisations were given five minutes to speak and speakers from the floor three minutes. However, in the case of Ukraine we were dealing with a highly complex and evolving situation and it was very difficult for speakers to develop their points fully in the allocated time. Personally, I could only make real sense of the debate by reading what was in the conference documents as well as listening to what was said.
Essentially, I would say that everyone in the room agreed that there was a need to oppose Russian imperialism but that the emphasis must be on resisting all interventions by British/EU/US imperialism. There was complete rejection of the view, expressed for by example by Eamonn McCann, that in this conflict we should support Russia. Again there was a range of views expressed, irrespective which organisations speakers belonged to with only WP pursuing a party line. To me, it seemed that WP were downplaying the role of Russian imperialism or at least this was the case with their verbal contributions as against what they produced in writing. However, I did find myself in agreement with WP’s perspective that if a proper referendum was held in the Crimea the outcome would still be that an overwhelming
majority would vote to become part of Russia and that there might be a similar outcome in other parts of Eastern Ukraine.
In my assessment, other speakers differed in their analysis of the Maidan movement with regard to whether it represented a popular movement which was hijacked by the nationalists and fascists or whether the movement was entirely reactionary from the very start. Where there was some agreement was on the need to learn from socialists on the ground in Ukraine and Russia who oppose war, Putin’s expansionist plans and the presence of fascists in the current government of Ukraine. This was something that seemed to me to be missing from WP’s analysis. Essentially, our task must be to act in solidarity with these socialists and anti-war activists whilst recognising that our main responsibility is to campaign against EU/NATO intervention.
I came away from the conference with a very positive feeling. The whole day, including the potentially explosive debate on Ukraine, was conducted in a completely democratic and comradely way. All organisations had equal speaking time, everyone was listened to respectfully and there was no clapping, cheering, heckling, hissing, booing, groaning or feet stamping which as we all know often occurs at meetings of the left and acts to intimidate or inhibit many people from speaking. Nor did we have to put up with any of that points of order crap which as again we know is a tactic designed to waste time and stymie debate.
I am not sure what WP would get out of being part of a single organisation as they would be a permanent minority faction adhering to democratic centralism in an organisation where everyone else had rejected it, although, personally, I would have no problem with WP being so involved. However, much more importantly, I see no objective barriers to ACI, ISN, RS21 and SR moving rapidly towards fusion. This is probably easy for me to say as I have no particular organisational axe to grind. Nevertheless, it seems to me that in so far as there are any differences of importance (and I am not sure that there are) between the organisations they are all containable within a single revolutionary organisation and are the sort of healthy differences you would expect to find in any organisation that is genuinely democratic. On the other hand, there is a burning need to reduce the number of competing organisations on the left. A new organisation would in my view be a definite pole of attraction to people coming across revolutionary politics for the first time, as well as to present and past members of other revolutionary organisations who have dropped out not because of a change in politics but through having had enough of sectarianism and autocratic leaderships.