This speech is from the closing rally of IFF 2012, where Esther spoke alongside Paulette Romain, Charlie McDonald and John Cunningham.
As Paulette said, my name’s Esther Townsend. I’m a social work student at the University of East London and an activist in Workers’ Liberty’s feminist campaign, Women's Fightback.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed the debates and discussions at this year’s Ideas for Freedom. I want to talk about why we call this event “Ideas for Freedom” – what we mean by it, and why we think it’s important.
Ideas are central to what we do. This weekend we’ve heard about some incredibly impressive activity and struggles Workers’ Liberty members and supporters have been involved in. Whether it’s organising strikes and industrial action, developing rank-and-file organisations in the unions or building mass action among students, we should be very proud of the role our organisation plays in the class struggle.
Our comrades, in other countries and in the past, have done much bigger things. But the reason we’re capable of playing a big role in the class struggle is not down to individuals just being clever or talented. It’s the revolutionary ideas we’ve made an effort to maintain, develop, share and debate with others and test in action. Those ideas, Marxism, are the only real framework to seriously understand the capitalist world around us, and by far the most effective framework for acting to change it.
My experience of the student movement has reinforced that belief. There are many more left wing, militant student activists around than there were a few years ago. But many of them – even some of the best of them – are suspicious if not disdainful of trying to systematically develop ideas. In the student movement and in the labour movement, it’s our job to change that.
There are lots of ideas we want to convince people of, but the big one is class. Class exploitation – class struggle – class politics. Even as the ruling class acts more and more on the basis of their undisguised class interests, there has been a systematic drive to mask and even deny the reality of class exploitation in capitalist society. Even some anti-capitalists accept this basic premise – look at Occupy. Class is something people experience every day, something that’s impossible to miss, something that makes sense, but only if people are provided with a framework for it to make sense. Because we know that it’s impossible to understand, let alone fight, capitalism without a clear idea of what it is, we have to fight to put class back at the centre of political vision.
But “class politics” is quite a general term. There are three aspects of working-class politics, which I think are central to Workers’ Liberty’s identity, which I want to focus on and which I think the discussions and debate this weekend have highlighted.
1. Democracy. By that I mean not just the limited, shallow democracy our struggles have won in the past or that we get every five years at the ballot box but consistent democracy in every aspect of human life – political, economic, social, sexual, racial, national. But above all, I mean workers’ democracy, a drive to transform our labour movement now through a fight for rank-and-file consciousness, rank-and-file initiatives and rank-and-file control, so that the labour movement can fight to expand democracy now, and in the future become the basis for a new society that is more fundamentally democratic than capitalism.
2. Internationalism. Internationalism is a buzzword on the left, but too often it is used to mean support for a few fashionable causes, divorced from class politics. Sometimes it is even turned into its opposite – an inverted nationalism where socialists support whoever is fighting “our” government and ruling class. We need to put working-class solidarity, across borders, back at the centre of what it means to be internationalist in the world of globalised capitalism.
3. Lastly, we need to fight for the idea of a revolutionary political movement, a revolutionary party which can act as what Trotsky called the “memory of the class”. If you don’t know your movement’s history, it’s like you were born yesterday. We need to systematically discuss and try to learn from class movements of the past – like Saltley Gate, Women Against Pit Closures, or the Minority Movement and other examples we’ve looked at this weekend. We do that not because we believe there was ever a ‘golden age’, but in order to gain inspiration and learn the lessons from both strengths and flaws, victories and defeats, so that we can reinvent class politics for our own time.
Ideas are central, but ideas by themselves are not enough. To live and have an impact in the world, they need to be consciously developed, tested, assessed and redeveloped by people who have made a commitment to this process. That’s what our organisation, Workers’ Liberty, exists to do.
In Britain, we’re facing a lull in the struggle, after the bureaucrats of our movement have engineered defeats. But if you want evidence that this is unlikely to last for long, look at the struggles breaking out in Greece and now in Spain. But whatever stage the development of the class and the struggle is at, independent working-class ideas are necessary to win. Socialist ideas are necessary to win struggles in the here and now – but also necessary if we are going to get beyond the struggles of capitalism to build a different society and a different world.
Right now we’re fighting in the trenches. Those battles – to stop cuts, to defend jobs, to hang on to the most basic rights – are vital. But we should aim for more than that. We should aim for a different world. A world in which our lives are not dominated by work to make a profit for someone else; in which we don’t have to worry about even basic necessities like housing and healthcare; in which we’re not continuously encouraged to pick on each other as a safe outlet for our anger. We can create a comprehensively democratic world, run on the basis of conscious planning for people’s needs, in which we’re freed from material hardship and free to make real choices about what we do with our days and with our lives.
The capitalist crisis is a reminder, if we needed one, that we live in a world of horrendous barbarity. In Britain, one in five mothers regularly misses meals so her kids can eat. That’s the same system that makes millions of people literally starve in others part of the world. It’s the same system in which almost all of us are having our wages and rights at work slashed back, if we’re lucky enough to still have a job. And it’s the same system which does all of this so that millionaires can stay millionaires and become billionaires.
The crisis is also a reminder that capitalism as it is won’t last forever. But it won’t automatically be replaced by socialism. If we want to end capitalism before it ends millions of lives, engenders the decline of human culture and perhaps even destroys the basis of life on earth, we need to organise for socialism.
Class politics is a means to the end of human liberation. The ideas we’ve discussed this weekend aren’t just ideas for how to defend what we have and bit by bit improve the world we live in now. They’re ideas for liberation, ideas for equality – ideas for freedom.
I hope the debate and discussion this weekend has inspired you to stay in touch with the AWL, discuss our ideas, work with us and – if you agree with what we’re saying – consider joining us in the fight.