AWL debates perspectives for the next year

Submitted by Matthew on 3 October, 2012 - 12:31

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty gathers in London on 27-28 October for our yearly conference. One big task there is to assess where we and the labour movement are, and map out how to go forward.

Here, abridged, are three contributions to debate: excerpts from the main perspectives document put out for discussion by the National Committee, a criticism from Tom Unterrainer and a response from Martin Thomas.

1. After the lull (NC)

The global capitalist crisis remains febrile, and new upheavals are therefore likely within the next year. We need to prepare ourselves.

In Britain we have had a relative lull in working-class struggle since 30 November 2011 and the quickly-following setbacks on public-sector pensions.

The labour movement generally, and AWL, have suffered from the lull. Our move to a weekly paper, from early 2011, boosted AWL membership, activity, and tempo. Those have levelled off since early 2012, though they remain on a clearly higher level than 2010.

We cannot at will change the level of militancy and confidence of the broad labour movement. In principle, a shrinkage of “broad” activity should for us, as revolutionary Marxists, simply mean that time and energy previously given to “broad” activity is shifted to the “narrower” activity of our own education, training, paper-selling, contact work, etc.

In practice the shift is not automatic. It requires conscious and deliberate effort. A central function of revolutionary Marxist leadership and of a revolutionary Marxist organisation is to provide that conscious and deliberate effort.

We cannot predict the form of the next upheavals. They will not necessarily be mass strike movements, or even mainly mass strike movements. We can make ourselves ready to intervene.

There were 1,388,000 worker-days of strikes in 2011, according to official figures, but only 207,000 in January-June 2012. (Other recent years: 2010, 365,000; 2009, 456,000; 2008, 759,000; 2007, 1,040,000).

Despite this decline in industrial combat, the Tories have sagged electorally in 2012 after doing relatively well in 2011.

The Labour lead (9%) is modest in the circumstances. The Labour lead does, however, give more weight to the cautious arguments that the answer to the Tories’ measures is to protest with the main hope of getting a Labour government in 2015 and of that Labour government doing some good.

We seek dialogue with the workers who welcome 20 October as a move against the Tories and as yet have little confidence about proposing more radical policies or action. We patiently explain that an economy which will work for the working class requires expropriating the banks; public ownership and democratic and workers’ control of public services; and restoration of the NHS.

We urge both unions and local Labour Parties to demand such measures from the Labour leaders, and by doing so we both build a current in the labour movement able and willing to fight now and prepare the future.

2. anti-Toryism (Tom Unterrainer)

As it stands the perspectives document fails to clearly capture what seems to be the central problem of labour movement politics today. The problem, briefly stated, is this: within the labour movement — and the left of the movement in particular — there is a growing, vocal, but politically incoherent wave of anti-Toryism.

Opposition to cuts, austerity and neoliberalism (however understood) is combined with palpable class hatred against the government. At the same time, there is an expectation that a Labour government installed in 2015 will reverse the programme of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition.

[But] all the signs and signals from the leadership of the party indicate that Labour will govern — as they did before 2010 — as neoliberals.

It is our duty to answer this question: how to organise the anti-Toryism within the labour movement into a coherent political force? Rather than committing ourselves over the next year to our own political consolidation — educational and organisational — alone, we should combine an orientation to the developing problems and dynamics of the labour movement with the task of building the AWL.

Unless we can construct political movements and organisations to challenge the state and governments at the national level then we have no hope of constructing a viable internationalism to address the deeper roots of capitalism. The current proposed perspectives document lacks the reasoned urgency required.

For people who are concerned with addressing the question of who will govern and how — i.e. not the SWP, SP and other sects who substitute themselves for the labour movement — the contradiction between the anti-Toryism of a thick seam of workers and their electoral support for Labour and hopes for a Labour government is key.

Our urgent task should be not only to find a means of organising and grouping together this fragmented and currently incoherent constituency — which includes established activists from the Labour Party itself as well as the unions, a significant layer of newly radicalised youth etc. — but to organise them into a socialist force that recognises the roots of the crisis and the neoliberal continuation and addresses the likely path of the next Labour government.

In taking on this task, we face a number of problems: The first is how to overcome the apparent blind faith of many anti-Tories in a future Labour government.

We must honestly explain to ourselves and those around us that there will be no quick dash to victory. Our task is to organise the confrontations. Such work takes time and preparation.

3. Political markers (Martin Thomas)

I think Tom’s criticism of the first draft on “crisis and perspectives” is essentially correct.

Our error in the first draft was to drift from recognising the setbacks so far on organising the left into tacitly accepting large-scale political relations in the labour movement as fixed, so there's not much we can do in the way of campaigning for the political transformation of the labour movement.

The error was not one of snapshot assessment, nor one of inaccurate predictions. Political ferment in the labour movement is at a low level. On a cold estimate, it is quite likely to remain low. But our task is to advance big ideas about the labour movement transforming itself politically.

Administrative actions will follow from the big ideas. But our first focus should be on the big ideas, not on the administrative nuts and bolts.

I think Tom's argument about people having high expectations from a Labour government is probably wrong factually and a digression rather than central to the issues here. Lots of people want to see the coalition ousted, accept a Labour government is the alternative, and either think that it will at least not be as bad as Cameron, or choose not to think that far ahead.

The fact of them having low expectations (or choosing not to think that far ahead) makes it more, not less, important that we argue for rallying the left to put down political markers for the next Labour government.