An independent workers' focus

Submitted by AWL on 8 November, 2002 - 7:10

Draft document for AWL conference 2004

1. A new radical generation is emerging - piecemeal, fragmented and diffuse. The evidence is:
a. The continuing "new anti-capitalist" mobilisations. Most lately:
i. The G8 Evian protest in June 2003 drew up to 100,000 people;
ii. The European Social Forum in November 2003 drew over 50,000 people;
iii. The No Sweat campaign has built up thousands of contacts.
b. The big anti-war demonstrations of early 2003, and their sequels, not in a big continuing organised campaign, but in a large diffuse milieu, manifested at the 20 November 2003 anti-Bush demonstration of up to 200,000 people on a weekday.
c. New ferment among students against tuition fees: witness the 26 October 2003 anti-fees demonstration.
d. A continuing revival of assertiveness in the trade unions at the level of real trade-unionism as against "partnership", "adding value", and a concept of unions as service agencies. Most lately:
i. The left winning the majority of the TGWU Executive;
ii. The left winning 23 out of 48 places on the Amicus Executive;
iii. The left candidate winning the FBU National Officer election;
iv. The left winning a majority on the PCS Executive;
v. 497,000 striker-days in 2003. This is lower than the 1,323,000 in 2002, and much lower than the 1970s or 80s; but on a level with the 525,000 for the whole year 2001, and well above the 200-odd thousand typical of the 1990s other than 1996 with its postal strikes.
vi. Union membership bottoming out since 2001, though it still remains dangerously concentrated in declining areas, among older workers and in public services.
e. The rows over foundation hospitals, student top-up fees, and testing in schools should remind us that the welfare state and public services remain a major axis of revolt.

2. Our strategic task is to organise within this diffuse ferment for an independent workers' pole.
a. Most fundamentally, and constantly, to regroup activists around consistent and Marxist independent working-class politics, to create a pioneering force for the revolutionary party the working class needs as its agency for revolutionising the broad labour movement.
b. Wherever possible, to organise, help organise, or promote partial and united-front initiatives towards independent working-class action, international working-class solidarity, and independent working-class political representation.

3. We have the political ideas, the practical campaigning stratagems, the activist/ educational materials, and the core of politically-educated activists to do it.
a. The political ideas:
i. Workers' solidarity on an independent class basis (the "Third Camp") internationally;
ii. Independent working-class representation as the axis for politics in Britain;
iii. Building rank and file movements on a class-struggle basis in the trade unions;
iv. Fighting to transform the labour movement rather than create a sect beside it;
v. Consistent democracy, both internationally and in British politics;
vi. The need for a revolutionary party as a living political force interacting with class struggle, rather than just an organisational machine.
b. The practical campaigning stratagems:
i. Our work in and around No Sweat;
ii. Our work in the Campaign for Free Educationn;
iii. Our workplace bulletins;
iv. Our work in the trade unions;
v. And others we will develop.
c. The activist/ educational materials:
i. Our paper;
ii. The pamphlets, leaflets, petitions and briefing papers of No Sweat;
iii. Our workplace bulletins;
iv. Our magazine and pamphlets, and the large stock of basic material in past magazines, pamphlets, books;
v. Our website;
vi. The No Sweat website.
d. The core of politically-educated activists:
i. We have a solid body of activists whose experience goes back to the 1980s, who have been through many discussions, schools, and study courses, and who know our basic ideas.

4. We have to go out and find the forces for this independent workers' pole, at both levels, both rounded politics and partial campaigns.
a. An active and alert presence on campuses, on the streets, on doorsteps, and in demonstrations and protests is necessary to find them.
b. They are not ready-assembled, to be found in some set of routine meetings.
c. Their political starting points will be varied.
i. Some of the young people whom we should be interested in, and who may be interested in us, will not straight off think of themselves as "socialists", or have any clear idea of what "socialism" means.
ii. Some of them, having no direct experience of large-scale working-class struggle, will not straight off see the labour movement as central.
iii. Some of them will have no clear idea what "Marxism" means.
iv. Our job is to find the point of common interest which brings them into our orbit and build on that through discussion and activity.
d. "Independent" does not mean sour, stand-offish or snooty. "Workers" does not mean focusing activity on trade-union committee and personal case work, and regarding all else as optional extra.
e. Our best staple way of integrating ourselves into the new, diffuse political ferment, winning contacts, and grouping them round us in fruitful activities is through No Sweat campaigns, starting from young radicals' anger against global-capitalist exploitation and environmental destruction and linking into to a working-class perspective.

5. We have to gear ourselves to the realities of the present period, not conduct our activity as if this decade is a "bad 1980s".
a. In the 1980s, the early 1980s at least, there was an accessible left meeting-going public, in trade union branches, Labour Parties, Labour youth branches, student Labour Clubs, student unions, etc. A sizeable proportion of it was young. One-off campaigns were generally based in that public. Marxists could and did operate by attending the relevant meetings regularly, arguing ideas, proposing activities, selling literature, and thus grouping contacts and recruits.
b. The left meeting-going public today is much smaller and older, more demoralised, more averse to risk and conflict. If Marxists adopt the same mode of operation today as in the 1980s, geared around attending the usual meetings, we will find our activity dwindling down into a dim, slow routine pursued perfunctorily and without active hope of achieving new things or winning new contacts.
c. The arena in which we must find new contacts and generate new activities is, as noted above, more diffuse and fragmented.
d. This doesn't mean that we do not attend meetings. It means that we actively resist the sluggishness and demoralisation in those meetings.
e. Our 2002 conference voted to work to throw off accumulated inertia from the 1990s by setting clear minimum standards of activity and "re-registering" our membership.
f. Our 2003 conference voted to raise ourselves to a "new tempo" and turn outwards to recruit.
g. Those decisions have not been carried through adequately.
h. The core practical detail of the 2003 decisions was what we needed to do. It was not off-beam or beyond our means.
i. Help and train every member to find new people with an interest in our ideas in their workplace, college, trade union, social circle, and everywhere they go... become an articulate advocate for our ideas....
ii. Efficient branch meetings which organise and check on activity... regular public or open meetings... a bedrock routine of purposeful but simple AWL collective public activity [i.e., typically, stalls, paper sales, bulletin distributions] into which almost any new recruit or contact can integrate quickly and easily.
iii. Help in setting up a local No Sweat group (or a No Sweat caucus in some broader group)...
i. To carry through such decisions 50% does not bring 50% results. A "critical mass" of focused activity is necessary to bring any systematic results at all.
j. The key political reason for our lack of adequate follow-through was that we have not broken from a "1980s" model of activity. Efforts to implement our conference decisions tended to become "add-ons" to a bedrock of activity based on a reduced version of 1980s norms: attendance at a (dwindling) regular cycle of routine meetings. We must turn our culture upside-down, and make the effort to reach out primary, not an add-on.
k. To make the necessary turn in each area requires only a determined and consistent effort by one or two comrades. Given a lead, most of the rest will follow on later. We cannot afford to move at the pace of the slowest.

6. In addition to the three points above, this year's experience indicates two other priorities to gear ourselves to the reality of the present period.
a. Every branch, fraction and committee meeting should start with a "political report" discussion which covers key current events and draws conclusions for what the branch, fraction or committee will do, even if those are as modest as a motion in a trade union branch, a petition or poster on a street stall, or a decision to contact a local campaign. Without this, the branch, fraction or committee ceases to be an alert body responding militantly and collectively to the world around it. It succumbs to the pressures of inertia around it, and becomes at best a collective concerned with intelligent commentary and criticism.
b. We should help No Sweat groups and caucuses to gear their activity round definite campaign plans which:
i. Have definite and at least in part realisable aims;
ii. Are planned over a considerable period (some months at least) to go through a purposeful sequence of activities leading up to the achievement of those aims;
iii. Include canvassing for support from a wide variety of groups: student societies, student unions, trade union bodies, community and campaign groups.

7. Educationals, study classes and day schools must continue to be an integral part of our activity, using the materials now available from our website.
a. Self-education is central to Marxist politics.
b. Done properly local discussion groups can be a very valuable way to draw in contacts.
i. In a number of localities over the last several years, Capital study groups run by us have drawn in more contacts than public meetings on current events.
c. Educational activity must not become an excuse for not turning outwards, something that:
i. encourages comrades to wait for an ever-receding perfection of formal political education before they turn out to discuss with new people or:
ii. encourages a branch to settle into being fundamentally a private discussion group on general political theory with little dimension of collective public activity

8. We must focus on recruiting more young people.
a. Young people are almost always the chief source of new life for the revolutionary movement.
b. Older radicals today are inescapably scarred by the years since 1985. We must strive to recycle the best of them. But we need help from the vitality of youth to do that.
c. Every comrade, however old, can help in turning us out to recruit more young people, for example through activity in No Sweat campaigns.
d. Student activism is reviving. To pick up on this we need to do four main things.
i. Develop systematic activity in student Third World/ environmentalist groups, as a way of working with a wide milieu of students potentially sympathetic to our concerns.
ii. Develop the Campaign for Free Education.
iii. Gear up our student comrades to become "political centres" on campus, widely visible as sources of ideas and literature, and our branches to back them up in that.
iv. Get branches to use their participation in No Sweat campaigns as a means to reach out to campuses and colleges where we have no members or contacts at present.
e. Our tempo must not be tied down to that of the broad labour movement.
i. In politics, not everything moves in lockstep. It is very unlikely that the revival of left politics will take the form of running the film of the defeats since 1985 in reverse, evenly winding all areas of activity back to what they were in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
ii. Possibly we will go through several chapters in the rallying, regrouping, and re-regrouping of a new generation of young political activists before they consolidate into a force able to reflate the trade-union movement.
iii. It is possible, as in France in the last decade, that a substantial revival of the radical left can develop in parallel to the trade union movement losing numbers and drifting to the right despite the best efforts of the leftists.
iv. We must agitate amongst, educate, and organise the keenest young radicals without waiting until the broad labour movement generates large-scale developments they can gear into directly.
v. A rising tide lifts many boats. But in politics the tide rises in different places from where it fell, and it submerges or wrecks many boats instead of raising them. Those who want to sail their boats have to patch them and haul them over by hand to meet the tide, not just keep the boats on the sandbanks where falling tides stranded them.

9. Re-gear our trade-union work so as to generate political contacts.
a. Strategically and historically, trade-union work is central to our politics, since we see emancipation as the task of the organised working class.
b. Many of our most experienced and able comrades devote much energy to trade-union work. This work is important and should be cherished.
c. It is necessary, however, to develop detailed links between the immediate day-to-day work and the broad historical perspective. The link is not automatic. The most important way to develop a real link is to develop a body of AWL recruits, sympathisers and contacts around us in the unions, as a living political force.
d. At present we are deficient in doing that. Our comrades' trade-union work, with individual exceptions, generates very few political contacts.
e. There are objective difficulties. Winning new political contacts among trade-unionists who (as in the movement in Britain today) have an average age of 47, and who thus typically have been trained in disappointments since their 20s, is harder than winning them among youth.
f. But there is some revival in the unions. There are young trade unionists. There are older trade unionists who still retain vitality.
g. We can identify four steps to move forward:
i. All our trade-union comrades should also be publicly active in broader politics. It is bound to be difficult to draw other trade-unionists beyond trade-union routine if we do not publicly go beyond it ourselves.
ii. We should use the artefacts of those broader politics - petitions, fund-raising appeals, No Sweat and other campaign activities - to help us get into conversations and discussions with workmates and trade-union associates.
iii. The general approach of finding the point of common interest which brings someone into our orbit and building on that through discussion and activity, applicable with youth, should also be used with trade-union and workplace contacts. We should recalibrate our sights so that we see a lively conversation about politics with an interested fellow-worker who is not yet a trade-union activist, and may not become one until he or she has developed politically much further, as a bit of "trade-union work" more important than a routine committee meeting or item of personal case work.
iv. A committee at the office, in liaison with fraction organisers, should ensure regular circulation and promotion of political model motions for trade union meetings.

10. Continue to argue for left unity around independent working-class politics and to seek discussion, interaction and where possible collaboration with the rest of the left.
a. We are much at odds politically with the rest of the would-be Marxist left, fundamentally because they have substituted criteria of opportunism and "negativism" (saying "no", "smash", or "f**k" as loudly as possible when the ruling class immediately before them says yes) for those of working-class autonomy.
b. So we are for firm and clear argument for our politics as against those of other left groups. But we are equally against any snootiness, standoffishness, or peevishness towards the individual members of those groups.
c. It cannot but be that there are many thousands of young people scattered round the political scene who have been mobilised and radicalised by activities like the anti-war mobilisations; who broadly identify with the left and are interested in the left groups; but who at present find no group convincing enough to join, or have been repelled by the biggest group, the SWP, after a short association with it. We want to reach and convince as many as possible of those thousands.
d. We must train ourselves to present ourselves, our ideas and our activities, positively to inquirers, rather than defining ourselves negatively against the SWP or other left groups. We must also be able to explain - but positively, taking our ideas as the base rather than the SWP's - when they ask us (as they will) how we differ from the SWP.
e. We desire friendly personal relations; collaboration where we agree; comradely if trenchant debate where we disagree.
f. The effective liquidation by the SWP of the Socialist Alliance is a setback, despite all the failings of the Alliance even at its best. It cuts out many of the limited possibilities which used to exist for collaboration where the left agreed, civilised debate where we disagreed.
i. We should support and work with local Socialist Alliance groups who want to continue on old SA lines against the liquidation. Unfortunately they are unlikely to be numerous.
ii. We work for a new, democratic, class-struggle-oriented alliance of socialists. So far as we can see at present, the main thing we can do towards that is advocate, explain and educate. We should keep our eyes open for larger possibilities as and when they arise.

11. Create a new periphery
a. 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 Solidarity and Workers' Liberty out of which to build a strong revolutionary organisation capable of making a decisive difference in the struggles to come.