There were well over a hundred people at the 15 November meeting organised by Workers' Liberty's London student branch, on “Our remembrance: a working-class history of war”.
The big turn out was partly because of the controversy generated by Workers' Liberty member Daniel Cooper, who in his position as University of London Union Vice President refused to take part in a university Remembrance ceremony (see his statements here). The majority were left-wing students who had come to support Daniel and find out more about our ideas; there were also about 30 Tory/nationalist types there together for a pre-planned intervention.
Ed Maltby introduced the discussion, making the case for a working-class socialist criticism of war and militarism, including of the official Remembrance campaign. Rather than summarising his speech in any detail, we publish the full text below.
It seemed that the nationalist interveners had planned to dominate the meeting: their spokesperson Jonny Prince got up as soon as Ed finished speaking to read out some kind of statement. The chair told him he would have to put up his hand and wait his turn. Plenty of right-wingers spoke, but they couldn't dominate the meeting or turn it purely into a discussion about ULU.
What was striking was how weak their arguments were: in fact, most of them didn't even try to make political arguments about war and “remembrance”, or even about Dan Cooper. Instead they relied on pedantry (not all soldiers were working class; in Britain only a minority, still 2.3 million, were literally conscripted) or on sweeping assumptions that pretty much all University of London students support them (“A hundred thousand ULU members are angry with you”) or simply on outrage without arguments.
In the course of the discussion, in the meeting and afterwards, some of the real politics came out: there were repeated sexist comments (all but one of the nationalists were men - our favourite comment was "Daniel Cooper should apologise - to apologise you have to be a man"!) and, eventually, at least two defences of the British empire, one of them from Jonny Prince (“It wasn't all bad – it's a complicated issue”). There was also an ugly comment when AWL member Rosie Woods pointed out that soldiers fleeing from death in the trenches were shot: “Well they shouldn't have fucking retreated then”.
Workers' Liberty members and other socialists spoke from the floor with thoughtful, reasoned arguments. We also pointed out that the pro-war right does not have a monopoly on moral outrage: we are outraged by capitalist wars, what they do to working class people on the frontline and back at home - and therefore also at events which glorify and justify them, commemorating not the dead as such but "our side".
Daniel Cooper and newly elected ULU President Michael Chessum spoke in defence of Daniel's position and his right to take it. They argued that being open, honest and proud about your political stances is much better on every level that keeping your “principles” private.
Despite the setpiece, confrontational nature of the debate, some decent discussion also featured, looking at how socialists understand questions of war, violence, the state and class struggle.
There was some interesting contributions about the effect of war on soldiers, particularly working-class soldiers, its ability to cow and terrify, but also embolden and radicalise, sometimes in a left-wing direction. Several people spoke about the role of demobilised soldiers in socialist and working-class movements during and after both World Wars. We refused to accept that all soldiers at all times think they have interests in common with the people who sent them to fight.
It is often said, not entirely unfairly, that the left is disproportionately “middle-class” (better off, more formally educated working class and lower middle class). The left-wingers who attended and those who spoke at the meeting were a mix of students (from a variety of backgrounds – some, this being University of London, quite “middle class”) and workers. The nationalists were, from what you could tell, from very privileged backgrounds or at least trying to sound like they were. This was representatives of the future ruling class in action – truly, as cleaner activist Alberto Durango put it afterwards, a “question of class”. What was interesting was how out of their depth they seemed to be debating with working-class and socialist activists.
Ed concluded by linking Daniel's stance to that of socialists like the Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, Eugene Debs in the US, and the Bolsheviks in Russia, who refused to buckle under ruling-class and establishment pressure, defied the First World War and prepared the way for the mass working-class movement which ended it.
If you want to be a socialist who can resist the pressure to abandon your principles, stand firm and prepare for the future – get in touch with us to discuss our ideas, work with us and consider joining. Please also feel free to get in touch if you would like to organise a meeting or debate about these issues on your campus or in your workplace or union branch.
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