The 2004 conference of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty took place on 8-9 May in London. Daniel Randall reports.
The year since AWL's last conference has not been an easy one. The millions mobilised on anti-war demonstrations have scattered, leaving life in the labour movement still low. We have seen the SWP liquidate the Socialist Alliance in favour of building the Respect Unity Coalition behind George Galloway; and the vast majority of the left collapse into classless, false 'anti-imperialism' over Iraq, ignoring the demands or even the existence of the new Iraqi workers' movement.
The AWL has persisted in our promotion of independent working class politics and international solidarity.
The build-up to the conference had seen months of internal debate as well as several regional AWL aggregates. Comrades from branches all over the country - from Southampton to Glasgow - were represented at the conference.
The first session of conference, introduced by Clive Bradley, discussed the war on Iraq and its aftermath. Clive emphasised that the re-emergence of the Iraqi workers' movement is one of the most important political developments in the region for decades. Marxists must build solidarity with this movement to ensure that it survives and can grow materially and politically.
Clive's document 'Iraq and US World Policy' - passed overwhelmingly - expressed AWL's 'Third Camp' politics on Iraq: supporting the working-class movement both against the occupation authorities and against the clerical and other reactionaries that dominate the 'resistance'.
Houzan Mahmoud of the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq spoke to conference and thanked the AWL for the solidarity it has built with the working-class movement in Iraq. She stressed the absolute necessity of such campaigns and urged the AWL to continue to take the lead in building them.
The second major debate focused on the issue of the hijab. Two opposing motions were before conference - one from the outgoing National Committee which said we should oppose the hijab as a reactionary tool of the social oppression of women, but dissociate from the proposed French law banning the veil in schools, and one from Mark Sandell supporting a ban on the veil in schools.
Both sides in the debate agreed that the AWL should campaign for compulsory, secular state education in Britain, an issue which the left has sadly neglected.
Several speakers felt the debate was a conflation of several issues concerning education and secularism rather than a clear-cut argument over whether we support the French law. Speakers defending the National Committee position argued that trying to 'liberate' Muslim girls by 'storming' them with state laws would drive them into the arms of religious reactionaries. Mark Sandell responded that "if the Islamists in France win the battle over this law, then they'll come for sex education, sport and science next."
The NC motion was passed with an addition on campaigning for complete secularism in education.
Several amendments from Denise Veerapol on the subject of secularism and compulsory education were remitted to the incoming National Committee.
In a debate on the labour movement, conference again discussed two positions. The first position, endorsed by the majority of the outgoing National Committee and eventually by the conference, argued that the AWL should combine support for socialist and working-class electoral challenges to New Labour with a fight for the trade unions to use the leverage they still have within Labour Party structures to assert themselves against Blairism.
The second position argued for a fight more exclusively focused within the Labour structures, for winning trade unionists to our political ideas, and held that the conditions do not exist for socialist electoral challenges to New Labour.
Moving the National Committee motions, Sean Matgamna argued that we must relate to the labour movement as it is - where the Labour Party, like it or not, has little life - and not on the basis of reading back from wished-for future scenarios. Other supporters of the majority argued that the counter-motion would tend to reduce the AWL to a propaganda sect buried in the structures of the trade unions and Labour Party.
Supporters of the counter-motion argued that experience had shown the tactic of standing electoral challenges to New Labour to be ill judged and that the potential for a fight within the Labour Party had been underestimated.
The majority argued that to oppose electoral challenges and union rule changes along the lines of those of the RMT would mean 'boycotting ourselves' and depriving the AWL of one of the best opportunities to raise the ideas of socialism and workers' representation with a broad working-class public _ elections. The minority said that this position represented "an orientation towards the left milieu", whereas "making a choice to prioritise trade union and Labour Party work was 'an orientation towards the class'."
The example of the SSP was frequently referred to. Some comrades cited it as an example of how socialist electoral challenges could help build a genuine base in the working class, while others criticised it for "splitting the British working class along national lines".
A motion had been submitted for the AWL to advocate abstention in the June elections, rather than voting Labour where there is no socialist candidate. After pre-conference debates, it was withdrawn before reaching the floor of conference.
As well as major policy debates, conference also included several side-meetings and caucuses, including a student caucus, a caucus to discuss No Sweat work and a meeting on campaigning in the upcoming council elections.
A new National Committee was elected on the second day of conference, increasing in size from the 23 of 2003 to 24 this year and bringing in a number of new members.
Sunday's discussion around the document 'Building the AWL: an independent workers' focus', looked at issues such as AWL's publications, the role of our website, our student work and the way in which we can work within No Sweat and other campaigns in the 'anti-capitalist milieu' to bring newly radicalised youth towards working-class socialist politics.
The gist of the document was summed up by its last paragraph: "The task before us is nothing less than going into the new but diffuse political ferment, as alert and articulate advocates of independent working-class politics, and from it assembling a new periphery for [the AWL] out of which to build a strong revolutionary organisation capable of making a decisive difference in the struggles to come."
Several speakers urged comrades to have more confidence in our ideas, which had the capability to "link the new radicalisation to working class politics and the fight for socialism."
In making the closing speech, I stressed that, while our organisation - like every revolutionary group throughout history - has its imperfections, it is vital to have confidence in the fact that the ideas we are developing are the ideas for the future emancipation of the working-class and with it all humanity. I asserted that in the current political climate of the left, no one but the AWL will tell the truths that need to be told about key issues such as international working-class solidarity and workers' political representation.
Appropriating a Jewish adage I learnt as a child in synagogue, I summed up by saying "if not us, who? And if not now, when?"
As the conference rose to sing the traditional anthem of communism, 'The Internationale', doubtlessly its words rang home to all comrades: it is time to 'face the fight' before us, and instill 'reason in revolt'. The 2004 conference of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty was about doing just that.