What we do: a week in the life of the AWL

Workers' Liberty

Author: 

Colin Foster

As Solidarity goes to press on 22 April, AWL members across London are going to Tube picket lines on the Victoria Line, and stations and depots on other lines, to distribute the Workers’ Liberty bulletin Tubeworker.

Victoria Line drivers are striking for one day over safety and management bullying, and workers across the Tube are about to re-ballot on a cross-network dispute over pay and jobs.

It’s the biggest move so far by a large, well-organised group of workers in Britain to push back the bosses’ drive to make workers pay for the capitalist crisis.

Tubeworker is not just an occasional leaflet for times of strike. Written by Tube workers in or around the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, it has published and distributed regularly for over 20 years now.

One of the Tube workers involved tells us: “In a lot of what do politically — including in RMT branches — we’re talking mostly to other people who already regard themselves as on the left. With Tubeworker we know we’re talking to the whole workforce, to the working class as it actually is.

“When we have a dispute, like now, Tube workers read Tubeworker because they’ve known it for for years as an honest source of information”.

Since AWL looks to organised working-class action as the agency to change society, industrial battles are very important for us — even small ones, because in those battles, small or large, the working class organises itself and develops its ideas, as a force concentrated in the workplaces.

But AWL life is not just about industrial battles. If AWL people are to be any use in providing ideas in those battles — not just news-reporting and printing facilities — then we have to educate ourselves.

So, in north London for example, just the evening before the Victoria Line strike started, AWL members were meeting for the last session in a study course on Karl Marx’s Capital (volume 1). Dave Ball has been taking part in the course.

“Reading the final chapters of Capital, we’ve learned in detail that capitalism isn’t the natural order of things. It has been brutally imposed on people, and is still being so — all over the world. We’re better equipped to explain how violently unreasonable capitalism is and why we have to build a different — socialist — world.

“We plan to start another Capital study course here within the next couple of months — this time, with some of those who have been the ‘students’ in this course becoming ‘tutors’ on the new course”.

When north-east London AWL members went to the Victoria Line picket lines on the evening of 21 April, they went as a group, straight from their weekly AWL branch meeting.

Stuart Jordan is the branch organiser. “We have branch meetings is to educate ourselves about our politics and organise our activity for the coming week. Young members can learn from the experience and reading of older members, and older members can be kept youthful”.

After the Victoria Line pickets, some branch members went on to the picket line at the Visteon car parts plant in Enfield. Again, we go is both to bring support and to introduce socialist ideas. AWL members have also been working to get Visteon workers invited to speak at labour movement and left events, to spread discussion of occupations as a way to fight back against closures.

Working-class life is not just work, and there are other dimensions to every week in the AWL’s life besides activity round industrial struggles, our own organising meetings, and our self-education efforts.

It is often easier to reach working-class people with socialist ideas when they are on the streets or at home than when they are chained to a workstation. Young people, not yet at work, or certainly not in one of the big, well-organised workplaces where AWL’s workplace activity might reach them, are generally more open to new ideas than their elders.

And socialism is not just workplace siding with workers against bosses. As the Russian revolutionary Lenin put it:

“Is it true that, in general, the economic struggle is the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into the political struggle? It is absolutely untrue. All and sundry manifestations of... tyranny... are not one whit less widely applicable as a way of drawing in the masses...

“Every trade-union secretary conducts and helps to conduct the economic struggle against the employers and the government. It cannot be too strongly insisted that this is not yet Marxism. The Marxist’s idea should not be a trade union secretary, but a tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression...

“A Marxist... must go among all classes of the population... propaganda and agitation among all strata of the people...”

So a staple of every “week in the life” of the AWL is street stalls and street and door-to-door sales of our paper Solidarity. Dan Randall is a student at Sheffield University. He reports: “Sheffield AWL has got quite a few people around us interested in joining AWL. The root reason why is simply that we have done the basics properly — making ourselves visible with regular paper sales and regular public meetings”.

Another staple is following up people’s interest in individual conversation. Sacha Ismail reports: “In the last two weeks I’ve had meetings with five new people interested in the AWL. One we first met through her overhearing the political conversation I was having with another AWL member on a train! Another was at university with one of our members. She never made it to anything then, but has come to a few meetings since moving to London... It underscores the importance of getting out and about, always looking for sparks of interest, and not giving up if the interest seems slow to develop”.

Elections enable us to get the ear of more people for political discussion. At the next general election, AWL will be running Jill Mountford as a socialist candidate in Camberwell and Peckham, south London. Mark Osborn has been active in organising Jill’s campaign. He reports: “We have had hundreds of discussions on the streets of Peckham and Camberwell, putting forward Marxist ideas to many people who have never heard our case before. We learn how to listen and how to present our ideas in popular forms”.

AWL also joins, or initiates, protests and mobilisations on other issues. Bob Sutton was at the Climate Camp action in the City of London at the time of the G20. “It was good to see Bishopsgate [a main street in the City] taken over by the Climate Camp for the whole afternoon and evening, despite the huge police operation. And inside the Bishopsgate camp we had lots of discussions: I ran a workshop on solidarity with working-class struggles”.

Ed Maltby is an AWL student. “On 18 April we took part in a national conference of activists from the student occupation movement over Gaza. Out of that conference, AWL students are working with activists in Education Not For Sale and others on the left for a protest outside a conference organised by the university bosses’ organisation Universities UK on 7 May. Universities UK is lobbying for a doubling of university fees and eventually for a completely market-oriented university system. It has called this conference to celebrate and publicise university links with business”.

This week in the AWL’s life also including activity at the health service workers’ conference, in Harrogate, of the Unison union.

Alison Brown is an AWL member and a Unison health activist. “The odds were against us at this conference, but we were the people most effectively arguing for independent trade-union action, in the debate against those who want Unison to rely on the government Pay Review Board. We were also able to organise people from the Prisme occupation to come to the Unison United Left meeting at the conference. Our aim is to build a rank and file network independent of the union officialdom...”

How does it all fit together? AWL is an activist organisation — to have an underbelly of “paper members”, people who pay their dues but do little, just does not fit with the project of revolutionary socialism! — but obviously not every AWL member can be at every activity.

How do we avoid the AWL drifting into a collection of different sectors — trade unionists preoccupied with their trade-union problems, “issue” campaigners focused on their various “issues”, and so on?

There was another activity in this particular “week in the life” of the AWL addressing exactly that issue — a gathering, on Sunday 19 April, of AWL members from across London and the south, to discuss the ideas due to be on the agenda of AWL’s annual conference on 30-31 May.

Some years these conferences and pre-conference meetings see hot debates. Unlike most other organisations on the left, AWL does not require that our members pretend in public to be unanimous. We explicitly say that they should not make that pretence.

As Trotsky put it, “Revolutionaries are tempered not only in strikes and street battles but, first of all, during struggles for the correct policies of their own party”. Or again: “revolutionary ardour in the struggle for socialism is inseparable from intellectual ardour in the search for truth”. Pretending to share a consensus when in fact you think different can only compromise that ardour. We ask of members that they should not agitate publicly in such a way as to damage agreed AWL activities, but also that they should tell the truth when asked their opinion.

Thus, regular readers of Solidarity will know about some of the debates we have had at such conferences and meetings.

But the conference is also important when there is agreement on the basics and no big set-piece controversy. We debate, after all, not because we are a debating society, but to clarify and reach agreement on ideas we can go out with.

This year it looks like the set-piece controversies may be fewer; but that does not mean that the conference is unimportant. It has to serve to develop a sharpened common understanding of the capitalist crisis now upon, of its political implications, of the sort of workers’ plan needed to deal with it, and the increased energy and dynamism from AWL members necessary if we are to rise to the heights of the new challenges.