Socialist Party’s working-class base

Submitted by Matthew on 29 June, 2011 - 11:58 Author: Dave Osler

In general, the “Who are the Socialist Party?” (Solidarity 209) article is a fair assessment of the history and politics of Militant/SP.

But what it doesn’t mention is the class nature of the SP’s base, and that is important. I only have my own impressions on which to base this judgement, but as an experienced observer of these things, my estimate is that the SP is alone on the British far left in having a predominantly working-class make up.

Yes, I know that this is not decisive. 30 years on the far left have taught me that political ideas outweigh sociological composition or weight of numbers. But it cannot be insignificant that the SP recruits workers, on a scale that no other Trot group currently can touch. I include the AWL in that stipulation.

Trotsky somewhere uses a phrase about the importance of “smelling of the workers’ whisky”. The thing that strikes me more and more about the SWP is that it smells of the university seminar room and the academic journal. The SP, whatever the deficiencies of its ideas — and its “theoretical” output is weak — is noticeably more proletarian and less ex-studenty.

Its members are also simply nicer human beings. Although they are deferential to their group’s received wisdom, they are not as robotic as goodthinkful SWPers. They know how to operate as citizens of the labour movement, in sharp contrast to some SWP I have observed in my own union branch. Sometimes civil conversation about political differences is possible.

And as Marxists believe that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself, I will freely admit to a grudging respect for the SP. So wrong on so many issues, but still ...


Submitted by AWL on Fri, 01/07/2011 - 16:59

Hi Theo,

On the SP's class base, I mainly agree with you and Dave. However, I think the SP have a grotesquely inflated self-image.

On the strike rally in London yesterday AWL comrade Jill Mountford approached Peter Taaffe to ask if they'd be debating us on Libya (the answer now seems to have shifted from a tentative yes to no - possibly this was Taaffe's spur-of-the-moment response to feeling pissed off). Two physically large male SP comrades then attempted to interpose themselves between Taaffe and Jill. One of them, a Tube worker whose name I can't remember, repeatedly told us that we are a "middle-class sect" with "no influence in the labour movement". I asked him how it was, then, that in his union our comrade Janine Booth had beaten his comrade Lewis Peacock hands down in the election to represent Tube and TfL workers on the executive - this as part of the process of building a substantial AWL group and a network around the rank-and-file bulletin Tubeworker. (Now I'm wondering if the comrade was in fact Lewis himself!) He denounced Janine and our other Tube comrades in very strong terms, as did Taaffe.

My point is that I think the SP have a tendency to behave as if they were a mass workers' party which leads the labour movement or at least a dominant left opposition in it, and dramatically downplay other tendencies' influence. They talk as if they were an elephant and we were fleas. Now, even if they were a mass workers' party, that would not require us to defer to them - what about the Communist Party from the 1940s to 1970s (which, in fact, the SP behaves more and more like)? But in reality they are very far from that, with 1,000 members maximum and perhaps a lot less.

That's also why I disagree with Dave that they generally behave more reasonably in the labour movement than the SWP. I think they are just as sectarian, but in a different way.

Theo, your other comments are interesting and I need to consider them.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 01/07/2011 - 23:33

1. All I meant was that, thinking about it, it occurred to me I didn't know the SP Tube worker's name - so it might have been Lewis. It wasn't. Good: no argument: that's clarified. However, I fail to see why the idea that Lewis would "slag off" Janine is so ridiculous, when his comrades did so at the drop of a hat. There is no "implication" involved: whoever he was, the individual in question said what he said.

2. Your characterisation of Jill Mountford's behaviour is completely untrue (you must spend time in some very tame pubs). So you were there, were you? The real issue, however, is that Peter Taaffe flatly refused to discuss with her. (He also, btw, asked me "Can't you take her away?") If someone comes up to us on a demonstration and tries to discuss, we discuss. Difference in culture - one of many! In the same way, if someone asks us to do a public debate, we generally do it - particularly if we've just published thousands of words criticising the people in question.

3. The SP has 2,000 members? Then how come only 900 people (SP website's figure) attended Socialism 2010? As for the quality of the SP's members, I'm still waiting for an explanation of Brian Caton, who - leaving his former profession aside for a moment - told us, as a Socialist Party member, that he thought Barbara Castle was "marvellous" and that "we're never going to smash financial markets altogether but we can restrict and regulate them" (see the interview here).

4. The point about the RMT election is that you lost it heavily (more than 2-1) to a member of a group you claim has absolutely minimal influence in the labour movement (not less than you, but almost none - I've heard this claim repeatedly). And who was running on a much more radical program than your candidate, arguing for a complete transformation of the union while Lewis argued to defend it, as it is, against the right. And despite him being part of the largest RMT branch on the Tube. And despite support from the SWP. Etc etc etc.

5. I think Janine has already used her position to good effect. See the Tubeworker blog for some examples. The Arwyn Thomas dispute is a case in point.

6. Another is being the only person on the RMT exec to oppose a pay rise for Bob Crow. Which brings me to another question. Can you explain why after ten years dominating the leadership of PCS you have made no effort to insist that full-time officials receive only a worker's wage, and why you have recently opposed quite moderate attempts to move towards this? It's a live issue: there's been more than one article in the bourgeois press recently about Serwotka's inflated salary!

7. Lastly, we're still waiting for an explanation: how is that your "general secretary" will spend what must have been hours and hours to write thousands of words against us, but you can't meet us in public debate? (Or even give us a straight answer on whether you'll do it, apparently. We've still not had a formal reply, not even a one line email!) Although the Tube worker comrade did say that you'd debate us in the RMT, and that the meeting could be public: good, let's start with that.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by AWL on Sat, 02/07/2011 - 10:02

Also, one of the claims made by the SP Tube worker in question was that Janine got elected because she ran on an unprincipled platform (he actually said "And did she run on a principled socialist platform? I don't think so." The clear implication was that Lewis lost because, in contrast, he took a principled socialist stance.) In this context, let's have a look at Janine and Lewis' manifestos. I can only find a short one for Lewis - feel free to post a longer one - but it gives a flavour I think



I joined London Underground in 1997, and signed up to the RMT straightaway. I now work as a Station Supervisor, and represent station staff in all locations on LU's Stations & Revenue Council, as well as getting involved with and supporting other grades wherever I can. I am the union's Regional Council Secretary, and have been a branch secretary and branch chair in the past.

I am 100% committed to our union, and work tirelessly to build the union and fight for the interests of London Transport workers. Many reps have asked me to stand as they feel that I will stand up for rank-and-file members and improve the union we all believe in.


London Transport workers - and the whole working class - face an unprecedented onslaught from the new Con-Dem coalition government. The government and our employers are already attacking our jobs and trying to keep our pay down. Attacks on our pensions are not far behind, and workers are suffering a discipline clampdown and daily indignities from employers with no respect for our rights. The GLA Tories want to introduce driverless Tube trains, and our employers will see the Olympics as an opportunity to try out new forms of casualised working that they can use in the future.

In the face of this, we need a more effective trade union: one that is relevant and good to get involved with, and through which workers can defend our jobs and conditions and win a better life at work. We can not carry on ticking over or doing things in a particular way just because we have always done them that way. The RMT needs to be progressive and I believe I can help with this.

It would be better if we had one union for all workers in our industry, but until we get that, we need to build unity in action and to make RMT as big and effective as possible.


Our union needs to become more democratic, with rank-and-file members having more say. I know that many members and activists find it very frustrating when we work hard for union campaigns and disputes only for decisions to be taken above our heads.

I would aim to be an Executive member who represents rank-and-file views to the leadership, rather than representing the leadership's views to the rank-and-file! I will be told what to do by you, not by national leaders.

I will only propose to the Executive that a strike is put on, or called off, or a new policy agreed with an employer, following discussion and agreement by reps, branches and members. And if we don't agree amongst each other, we'll have a vote.

The union should make decisions about disputes that the members involved in that dispute want it to. The Executive member is crucial to making this happen. I have always stood up for this principle; last year even pursuing to the union's AGM an appeal to say that the Executive should consider listening to a members' meeting before setting strike dates!

Democracy also means accountability. I have always tried to make myself as accountable as possible in my union roles, for example by giving regular reports and visiting branch meetings when I can.

Throughout my involvement in the union, I have always sought to make it less bureaucratic, by circulating information, providing more transparency, reducing jargon, pushing for policy decisions to be implemented rather than ignored, and promoting changes to rules that extend democracy. I would now like to pursue this at the level of the union's national executive.


RMT represents workers in many grades and companies under the TfL 'umbrella'.

As Regional Council Secretary, I have worked closely with reps, branches and members in all these grades and companies, and have continually championed those grades which feel sidelined or ignored. No grade of workers should feel like second-class citizens in the RMT.

Our different grades need action:
- LU station staff fighting job cuts
- cleaners who have won the London Living Wage and now want to go on to win decent holidays, sick pay, travel facilities and freedom from harrassment, bullying and denial of immigration rights
- engineering and fleet workers, coming back into the public sector after the PPP fiasco, and determined to ensure that they are not made to pay the price of the private sector's profiteering
- LU drivers opposing dangerous changes to their working procedures and promoting all-grades trade unionism in a grade divided into two unions
- staff in TfL, who are divided into even more unions, and who need RMT to become bigger, stronger and more effective
- LU service control, battling the effects of a restructuring process that has divided workers
- admin grades, where RMT is not as strong as it could be
- other groups of members, from DLR to Taxi drivers, Alstom to CBS Outdoor, security guards to catering staff, who need to be brought in from the periphery into the centre of our union.

Most of all, we need all these grades organising together, taking up each grade's particular concern but always promoting common demands, seeking to 'level-up' to the best pay and conditions, and acting in a united way. I have actively supported all the grades mentioned above, for example by publicising their campaigns and issues around the rest of the Region, providing training and support to reps, getting grades committees set up, and taking part in protests and picket lines.

RMT has now decided not to organise or seek recognition for London bus drivers. But having accepted them into membership for several years before making this decision, it needs to work out a way of implementing its policy that addresses their concerns.


Knowledge is power! The more workers know about our rights, the better equipped we are to assert them. The more we know about our own and others' pay and conditions, the more we can see inequalities and demand improvements. And the more we know about how our union works and what it is doing, the more ordinary members can put forward our own views about what the union should do.

Both as a station staff rep and Regional Council Secretary, I believe that I have significantly improved information and communications for members. I set up the 'RMT Platform' and 'RMT London Calling' websites, and produced newsletters of the same names. I have also encouraged and trained reps to use the websites and produce newsletters, so we probably have more rank-and-file communication than ever before.

We need to pursue this agenda nationally too. There have been big steps forward, but national communications are still too top-down. In particular, I would like to see RMT News report on rank-and-file views of campaigns and disputes, not just the General Secretary's!


It doesn't matter what the union does in committee meetings if it is not relevant or organised in the workplace. I have pushed an 'organising agenda' within the union: supporting reps, organising training, recruiting more members, unionising in new areas, trying to get more reps recognised (whether industrial relations reps, health & safety reps, learner reps or harrassment reps), helping the reps we already have to be more effective, encouraging members to get active in many different ways.

I aim to take this approach to the union nationally, always trying to ensure that its organising approach is led by, and relevant to, rank-and-file workers, and that it understands and addresses the reasons why some workers don't join our union - in order to persuade them that they should!

Effective organising also means providing the best possible representation for members who need it. This includes legal support when you need it - an area where the union is currently falling short.


I have represented union members at every level, from the local workplace to the Company Council, speaking up for individuals, grades and the workforce as a whole.

I always put our case as strongly as possible, and am not overawed by management. A particular highlight was giving a presentation to LU management explaining that all the top managers should take a hefty pay cut rather than cutting frontline staff's jobs! But I know that our real strength in negotiations comes from how strong and well-organised we are in the workplace.

We need an Executive member who will always argue our case as effectively as possible, but who understands that talks only succeed when the union is putting pressure on the company through action.


RMT is a union for rail and transport workers of all races, both men and women, young and old. It must challenge discrimination and champion the rights of all its members, always seeking to promote unity and overcome division.

I have always been an active anti-racist, am a former chair of the union's national women's advisory committee, and actively oppose homophobia, age discrimination and all forms of prejudice.

RMT's committees for women, young members, lebsian/gay/bi/trans and black & ethnic minority members must go beyond being talking shops. At the moment, they are just 'advisory', and nothing comes of their discussions unless Executive members ensure that they are enacted. I will do this.


RMT's campaigns, for example against staffing cuts and privatisation, are also campaigns which benefit our passengers, and can attract support from trade unions in other industries. But RMT has to put more effort into asking for that support!

We need to link up with other unions in the transport industry and beyond, so that we can support each others' efforts. I have been involved with my local trades council in Hackney, where we campaigned against East London Line privatisation and are now supporting RMT's campaign against job cuts.

I have consistently advocated and taken part in public campaigns alongside our workplace struggles. I organised the public leafleting and petitioning which helped stop LU's last attempt to close ticket offices. I am currently working hard on the 'SOS: Staff Our Stations' campaign, which fights against job cuts both in workplaces and among passengers. Although public opinion on its own does not win our battles, it does help, and it boosts the morale of our own members.


RMT needs to run its disputes more effectively. We can not continue to allow pay disputes to run for eight months or even longer, sapping members' morale. Disputes need to be better organised, action more decisive. The union should consider paying hardship money to strikers as other unions do. It should use 'action short of strikes' more often and with some imagination!

The union should give members support in standing up for themselves and taking action at work, for example refusing to do unsafe work, and insisting that managers respect our rights and agreements.

The union must also step up its campaigning to win the repeal of the anti-union laws which shackle us and other unions and which aim to prevent us using our democratic rights.

I have promoted ideas such as this as a rank-and-file activist, and now, with your support, want to promote them on the union's natioanl executive.


RMT needs to be political, because political issues affect our members - whether it is child benefit cuts or anti-union laws, climate change or education policies. The union can most effectively involve members in supporting these issues if it is doing an effective job on workplace issues. RMT's international solidarity should be based on links with workers not regimes, and on practical solidarity rather than jet-setting!

RMT should continue to work with those Labour MPs who stand up for our interests, such as John McDonnell, and support candidates against the mainstream parties where this is credible and represents genuine working-class interests.

I am a socialist, and have been active in community and other campaigns as well as trade unionism.

- 100% committed
- more democracy, less bureaucracy
- a relevant, effective union
- all grades count
- keeping you informed
- effective organisation at work
- standing up for rank-and-file members
- supporting equality, opposing discrimination
- a campaigning, outward-looking, political union
- solidarity amongst ourselves and with other working-class people
- a proven record of fighting for - and carrying out - these principles

Submitted by AWL on Sat, 02/07/2011 - 10:03

RMT executive election: Support Lewis Peacock

Socialist Party member Lewis Peacock is standing for election to the transport union RMT's national executive, the Council of Executives. Lewis has been an RMT member since joining London Underground (LU) as a train cleaner 21 years ago.

Now a signals support technician, Lewis is assistant secretary of the RMT's London Transport regional council and assistant secretary of LU engineering branch. Lewis has represented members on health and safety issues at all levels and was one of RMT's negotiators in the successful dispute over the terms of the return of Metronet members back to London Underground.

Lewis says: "We face an unprecedented attack on our jobs, pay and conditions as the government tries to make workers pay for an economic crisis brought about by bankers. I believe that with determined, united action, RMT can resist these attacks. I support Bob Crow's call for coordinated action by different unions to fight public sector cuts and I will strive to make this a reality.

"This is a time for involving all members in deciding our tactics and it is a time when the RMT executive must give leadership and explain what is necessary to win."

These are some of the many messages of support for Lewis from RMT reps: Paul Jackson, Metropolitan Line signals rep, branch secretary LU Engineering: "I'm advising members to vote for Lewis, as he is the common sense, unity candidate, with a proven track record of representing members across all grades and across all companies. He brings a health and safety, negotiating and organising expertise to this role and he is simply a winner."

Unjum Mirza, Leyton stations group: "We've got big battles ahead of us - jobs, terms and conditions and safety. Lewis isn't just a fighter, he's a winner. From the defeat of the disgraced PPP [privatisation] and the signals maintenance victory last year, Lewis has a proven track record."

Arwyn Thomas and Bob McMunn, Train operator and Trains Health and Safety rep, Morden: "We fully support Lewis, who is a proven fighter, organiser and socialist and always delivers the goods. We were very impressed by the Metronet workers' strike, one of the most successful actions by RMT on LU for years."

Joanna Prestwich and John Reid, Stations Industrial Reps, Edgware Group: "We support Lewis because he is a proven winner of disputes and an excellent organiser."

Bill O'Dowd, Trains Council spokesperson: "Leadership is vital if we are to win this dispute and protect pay, jobs, and conditions. Only Lewis Peacock can provide this. He has support from all grades and all departments. He also has a long track record of negotiating, unifying, and building for the whole of the RMT."

Jared Wood, IR Rep, Rickmansworth Stations group: "Lewis will argue for the tactics he thinks will allow RMT to win disputes. But he will always involve members in decisions and represent the entire membership."

Submitted by martin on Sat, 02/07/2011 - 15:31

1. There is a simple explanation of how the SP gained a more working-class base than other left groups. Its growth was mainly in the Labour Party youth movement in the 1970s and 80s. The Labour Party (then, anyway) was more working-class in composition than movements like that against the Vietnam war. Quite a lot of young people who joined Militant came from "Labour Party families", joined the LPYS because of what they'd learned from their families, and then joined Militant because they wanted something more left-wing and Militant was the visible option.

Since 2000 the SP has focused its effort on street and door-to-door activity in working-class areas, and trade-union activity, utilising the cadres it has retained from the 70s and 80s.

2. Antonio Gramsci once commented on the mechanical Marxism common in the Italian socialist movement in his time that "in its most widespread form as economistic superstition, the philosophy of praxis loses a great part of its capacity for cultural expansion among the top layer of intellectuals..." He did not think that a good thing. I do not think that it is a merit of Militant/ the SP that they can only recruit people with little prior access to books and broad theories, and that it is extremely rare for anyone with any previous breadth of reading to join the SP. (You wonder, of course, why people with some previous breadth of reading join the SWP. I think the answer is that once you accept the snobbish, but common, view that "agitation" lives in a different world from "theory", and almost anything goes for "agitation" so long as it "fits the mood", the SWP looks more serious).

3. Peter Taaffe is an exception to this rule, but generally SP members do appear calmer, less nervy and shrill and "ranting", than SWPers.

I don't think it means that they are "nicer human beings". Most SWPers are congenial and reasonable as individuals. Probably all the groups are much the same in their proportions of affable types, surly grouches, timid say-nothings, and arrogant pontificators. It's a matter of what traits the group's customs accentuate and push to the fore.

The SP's relative calmness does not reflect good customs, or even better customs than the SWP. It reflects a collective culture of immense smugness, complacency, and philistinism (collective culture, I stress: I'm not talking about the personalities of individual rank-and-file SPers). In contrast, the SWP's nerviness at least reflects some unsureness and awareness that things may be questionable.

Look at local anti-cuts committees. The SWP goes off on crazy sidetracks (like their rival anti-cuts committees in Lambeth), and is often obstreperous and uncongenial, but usually it is there. The SP is usually not there, or there only to observe, unless it has local control.

Look at the experience at Vestas.

Recall the 1984-5 miners' strike, and leave aside Liverpool for now. The SWP were slow to join the miners' support groups, but once they joined they worked ok. Militant never joined the miners' support groups. While all other leftists, SWP included, were on the streets collecting for the miners, Militant would go on miners' demonstrations with collecting tins asking for money to launch the promised "daily Militant" (which never arrived).

Martin Thomas

Submitted by martin on Sat, 02/07/2011 - 17:55

On Theo's point: obviously it would be better, more productive, if we could unite the various factions into a single organisation with a democratic regime allowing debate and dissent.

The nearest we've come towards that in living memory was the Socialist Alliance of around 2001. But... the SP was never really "in" it, just observing. (For example, they played no part in the quite lively SA conference which debated the SA's 2001 election manifesto, just sending a small delegation which sat stony-faced at the back of the hall). Then they got out as fast as they could, in late 2001.

The SWP stuck with it a little longer but then decided to go for an alliance with George Galloway instead of with the rest of the left.

We (AWL) and others tried to keep the SA going, but weren't strong enough. (In fact, Pete McLaren and a few others still keep the name "SA" going, but I fear with little content now).

AWL launched a call for a new Socialist Alliance in 2009 at the time of the big UKIP and BNP electoral successes. Both SWP and SP were talking about forms of left unity at the time, but both made it very clear that they wanted unity with high-ranking union officials rather than other left groups.

From their own angle, I guess that was a rational response: as Taaffe's stuff on Libya shows, they do have more in common with some scoundrelly "left" union officials (who have Stalinoid right-wing views on world politics) than with revolutionary Marxism. The SP also has more in common "socially" with left-wing union bureaucrats, since in the unions the SP are, functionally, "the political wing" of the PCS bureaucracy, subordinated to it in the same way that the "political wing" was subordinated to the "military wing" in traditional Irish Republicanism. That might change, but it is the way things are now.

What now? We can't afford to wait, doing nothing, until the SWP and SP either think differently or become reduced over time to dimensions where their opposition to left unity is inconsequential. We have to build the best revolutionary socialist organisation we can, both to take forward the struggle now and to create the agency for welding future broader unity.

Martin Thomas

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 08/07/2011 - 11:13

Self-evidently that wasn't what Martin was saying. Read what he wrote. But if you want more evidence, the AWL was founded by a self-educated working-class person - Sean Matgamna, the author of our last reply to Peter Taaffe.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by TB on Mon, 11/07/2011 - 10:24

Glyn, in your last but one comment on this thread you quoted the “offending” sentence from Martin’s post so that we could check your assertion against what he actually said. In your last comment you don’t quote but it looks like you are using the same sentence so I’ll quote it again and see if the meaning you give to it is correct:

[Martin] “I do not think that it is a merit of Militant/ the SP that they can only recruit people with little prior access to books and broad theories, and that it is extremely rare for anyone with any previous breadth of reading to join the SP.”

And you said:

[Glyn] “… it was also implied that it was wrong to recruit people without a previous knowledge of socialism which is a rdicilous notion.”

Martin’s sentence does not imply what you say it implies. As I read it he is saying that in general the SP does not have the theoretical depth and hence ability to convince people they come across who already have some experience and knowledge of Marxist ideas that the SP’s ideas are better. The AWL recruits people “without a previous knowledge of socialism” so we clearly don’t think it is wrong but these are not the only type of people we are able to recruit.

Take the present discussion around the call for a debate on Libya. We are confident of our ideas but can be convinced otherwise. How about the SP? Will they debate us, I don’t know; but the longer they don’t the more it appears to confirm Martin’s statement.

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 14/07/2011 - 19:40

Hi Yosser,

First a quotation that I will return to:

"Any small Marxist tendency which found itself at the head of a struggle as big as Liverpool's would be likely to make mistakes. The Bolsheviks, after all, made many mistakes in 1905 and 1917! Genuine Marxists differ from sectarians and opportunists not by never making mistakes, but by an honest and rigorous political method which enables them to keep workers' trust and to learn from mistakes."

1. You think the AWL is not worth debating with, but you're going to post on our website at length? Ok. Then I'll reply. I'd also point out posting on our website is not an option we have with the Socialist Party website, which doesn't allow comments - in the same way that, however you were treated when you debated us, we have *never* been invited to a Socialist Party event to debate.

2. I'd completely forgotten debating you at our event (it was a youth school in East London in 2008 - see here). I'm not accusing you of lying, in part because I don't remember. But if I did remember, what would it achieve for us to engage in punch-and-judy about it? If what you say is true, I apologise. However, I'm very surprised because normally our culture is one of scrupulously respecting the rights of those we are debating with, providing them with extra time and so on. That was, for instance, the case at this year's IFF, where we debated a speaker from Anarchist FAQ on anarchism vs Marxism, and Workers Power on the general strike slogan. We've debated various different groups over the last few years, and I'd like to think they'd mostly confirm my claims about how we operate.

I repeat: contrast this to the Socialist Party, which as far as I can tell almost never invites others on the left to debate anything.

3. I don't know what to say about swearing, since it is not very common in AWL meetings. I'm not accusing you of lying, but that is my experience, and my experience is quite extensive. In any case: get a grip!

4. You don't deal, concretely, with whether the SP does have a bureaucratic internal regime (and "other larger organisations" - you mean the SWP? Which others?) But you are happy to call us a cult, sinister etc. All I'd say is that you can read our constitution on this website (where is the SP's constitution?) You can also read our conference documents, and you can read many of our debates, not only in comments but as printed in our paper and other publications. There's nothing like that in any SP public outlet. Draw your own conclusions...

5. Some AWL members went to Oxford or Cambridge, and many went to quite posh universities. That's true. However a) when I visited Oxford two years after I left, there were no AWL members at the university, but a Socialist Party group of seven people. And so? b) The idea that most or indeed hardly any people in the AWL are from a bourgeois background is complete nonsense - and that includes people who did, say, go to Oxford. To give one example, a comrade who for a few months recently worked in our office part-time as London organiser went to Oxford. But he is from a working-class background. And of course quite a few of our comrades went to less posh universities, or did not go to university at all.

I cannot think of a single AWL member who comes from a ruling class background, as you claim. (Perhaps there is one or two I've forgotten.) Who did you have in mind? We have acknowledged that our class composition is not as proletarian as the SP's - that it what sparked this discussion! But that you distort reality is telling, I think.

6. Where did Martin say it was wrong or undesirable to recruit working class people with little education? He didn't. He said that the fact the SP cannot recruit people with extensive Marxist reading (which is not limited to those who went to university!) is instructive. Completely different point! Do you understand what the word "only" means?

7. The AWL only exists in London and Oxford/Cambridge? In fact we have only a very small number of comrades in Oxford and Cambridge. Our biggest branch outside London is Sheffield, where we have fifteen people I think. Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, Hull, to name a few, are all substantially bigger. So is our branch on London Underground (seven people).

Yes, we are a small group - we do not exist in many areas. But I think a member of a group of allegedly 1,000-plus (which cannot even get that number to its national school) telling a group of 150 or so that it's "tiny", "irrelevant", "a sect" etc is more than a bit offbeam.

8. Janine has built a base on the Tube despite the AWL's politics? But then why have we recruited substantially there are so that we are now the largest group - despite being smaller in broader society than our rivals the SP and SWP? We are not afraid to admit that we and those we work with are in a minority in the union - on industrial issues and on broader ones. But to claim we are irrelevant there is laughable. The same is true in at least three other unions, PCS, Unison and NUT.

9. To sum up on the last few points: we don't claim to be "on a level" with the SP, to be as a big as you, to have the same number of stewards, executive members etc (again, which "other" groups do you think are more influential than us?) What we are denying is that we are somehow irrelevant, and the RMT election shows it.

10. Sorry, where do we say we never make mistakes? Don't be ridiculous! In fact one of the things that makes us different from the SP is that we are happy to admit we've made mistakes and try to understand them. And see the quotation at the top of this article, which I repeat. It is from a series of articles we published about what happened in Liverpool (see here).

"Any small Marxist tendency which found itself at the head of a struggle as big as Liverpool's would be likely to make mistakes. The Bolsheviks, after all, made many mistakes in 1905 and 1917! Genuine Marxists differ from sectarians and opportunists not by never making mistakes, but by an honest and rigorous political method which enables them to keep workers' trust and to learn from mistakes."

11. Our "whole reason for existing seems to revolve around pointing the faults of other organisations". Sorry, the evidence for this? As an accusation against, say, the Sparts, sure. Against us? Hardly.

12. Yes, we are small. Yes, we have always been small, and our membership has been stagnant for a while. Now, however, it is growing fairly rapidly. Militant was a relatively big force in the early 80s and then declined catastrophically from the early 90s, only to start recovering a bit after 2000. But... none of this proves anything except our relative size and growth. It doesn't solve the politics.

13. You say we distort your positions on various issues? But that doesn't get us very far, does it?

14. You ask where is our Liverpool? Actually, our history (which you can read a summary of here) is full of important contributions. But it's true that we never played a role as decisive as you played in Liverpool. However, that is not a reason for you to be proud. Your tendency could have made a decisive difference, yes, but you bottled it!

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 15/07/2011 - 01:16

Hi "Yosser". I find it a bit weird that you want to call out AWLers by name in your obscure and entirely unverifiable recollections, but hide behind a pseudonym on our website. Oh well.

It seems to me that what your post amounts to is as follows:

* Daniel Randall was rude to me once
* The SP is really big and the AWL is really small.

This is always what it comes back to with the SP. As anecdotal reminiscences seem to be your preferred mode of operation, I'll recall the debate I had with an SPer in which he said something along the lines of "we do more stalls, sell more papers and run more meetings than you: you're irrelevant". You can choose to believe that or not, but it fits pretty well alongside the line of "argument" you've adopted here. The question isn't whether you have more shop stewards than us, sell more papers than us, or even have more members than us; the question is what those shop stewards are doing, what those papers are saying, and what project those members are fighting to build.

The synagogue my parents belong to also has more members than the AWL; maybe that also demonstrates the absolutely irrefutable validity of Judaism as a worldview over the worldview of the AWL. Or maybe it doesn't and size isn't everything. As you also seem to be fond of grandiose historical analogies that draw comparisons between your own organisation in the current conditions and people doing a much better job in much harder times, let's remind ourselves that in the 1930s the Trotskyists in Germany and Spain were an absolutely tiny, insignificant, practically powerless force. Maybe the Stalinists were right then after all, "Yosser"? Or maybe not.

The general arrogance that contends that merely being bigger must make you right is breathtaking, but I think it also masks a basic lack of seriousness towards political ideas. The impression it gives is that you are insufficiently concerned with political ideas to conduct this exchange on that terrain, preferring instead to essentially repeat "we are big, you are small" over and over again. The side-swipe about AWLers all being privately-educated toffs with access to "mummy and daddy's libraries" confirms this; aside from being manifestly untrue with regards to the class background of most AWLers, the whole thing relies on the idea that serious Marxist theory is something you can only access if you're middle-class and privately-educated. This is the worst kind of snobbery. What you're basically saying here, "Yosser", is that workers either cannot access, are somehow incapable of accessing, or are not interested in accessing, books and theory.

Of course there's an issue of class privilege when it comes to education and having the time/resources to do lots and lots of reading. But there's also a very proud tradition in the working class in this country that shows that this privilege can be subverted and that workers can access and take ownership over the big ideas, and that workers can do this independently (i.e. it's not the case that workers are only capable of developing basic class consciousness, joining the SP and then having our hands held through the process of being given an "education" by the party). The political level of the SP's paper - dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator stuff that talks to workers as if they're incapable of understanding anything beyond the absolute basics ("bosses exploit workers" was a headline once, I believe) - tends to bear out the idea that the SP doesn't have a very high opinion of workers' ability to deal with big ideas. But as I say, that's all just an impression; please prove me wrong and actually respond politically (on Libya, on the PCS, on the class character of the USSR, on why it was right to back the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, on why Liverpool council was heroic, on "the third camp"... on anything you like really).

The debate at UEL you refer to was a long time ago and I don't remember it particularly well. From what I do remember I honestly do not recall it being anything like you describe.On the quotes you attribute to me, you can take or leave the swearing but if I did indeed say those things then I would certainly defend my characterisation of the 2006 PCS pensions deal, the acceptance of which your comrades helped engineer, as "a sell out".

If your recollections about the structuring and chairing of the debate are true, and my recollections are mistaken, I can only apologise. It is not our usual practise to give speakers representing a minority position less time to respond - in fact our culture is to do the opposite and give them longer if they are significantly outnumbered by AWL members. If this didn't happen it was a mistake on our part; again, I apologise.

To suggest, however, that this anecdotal recollection is some kind of trump card on the question of whether the SP, after having written several thousand words of polemic against us, should feel under any obligation to have an actual public debate seems ridiculous. And ultimately we must return to the question of why, if we are indeed so irrelevant, Taaffe bothered in the first place. What he wrote was hardly the lazy action of an elephant swatting away a fly as he would have us believe; it was two rambling polemics that took in not only Libya but the PCS and what Sean Matgamna did in 1966. A bizarre amount of energy to expend on an "irrelevant sect". Why, for that matter, did you bother posting your piece here, "Yosser"? It's hardly on the short side. Shouldn't someone like you, a former (perhaps current; I don't know) full-timer for a big, important organisation like the Socialist Party with a real base and implantation in the working class have better things to do with their time than debate with an "irrelevant sect" like us?


Daniel Randall (rude, apparently)

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 15/07/2011 - 13:49

I suspect the stuff about disrespecting the RMT is also related to the fact that our activists in the union (primarily, though not only, on London Underground) have the cheek to criticise the RMT leadership, while the SP has a policy of idealising them.


Submitted by Tubeworker on Sat, 16/07/2011 - 15:36

Yosser: "Janine clearly has a base in her workplace or amongst a layer of union activists. I would contend that this would be in spite of her AWL politics rather than because of it."

Evidence please?

Submitted by Clive on Sun, 17/07/2011 - 19:55

This idea that the SP has been hard-done by in debates is quite hard to credit. Having been, for instance, a delegate to LPYS conference in which I had my hand up for pretty much every debate but was never called once; or having been to LPYS summer camps where I had my hand up in every session I went to but never got called once, I can tell you that the Militant was awful on this matter.

The norms of debate at any democratic conference is that you have speakers for and speakers against any motion, amendment, or whatever. Not the LPYS, though. There was a speaker for a motion - so if you managed to survive the compositing you might get to speak in proposing a dissident resolution (ditto an amendment), but then the 'debate' was simply whoever the chair wanted to call - which was usually just speaker after speaker from the Militant. (And if someone tells me the chair didn't know who the individuals were he - it was usually he - was or wasn't calling, I won't bother to respond).

Plus, entire subject areas - like, until 1984, for instance, lesbian and gay rights - would be disregarded and not discussed, on the grounds there wasn't time, no matter how many resolutions had been put in on the subject.

The Militant justified this utterly appalling attitude to democracy with the argument that 'the sects' were 'irrelevant' (not to mention 'strutting' and 'on the fringes of the labour movement') - so it didn't matter. I'm sorry. Who the fuck do you think you are?

I do remember Taaffe once agreeing to debate us, actually. It was at LPYS summer camp - it was early in the 1980s; I don't remember which year, exactly. (By a process of deduction on my part it must have been 1981, though I'm not sure). There was some heated exchange involving Taafe, and he agreed to an impromptu debate, there and then - with someone from the then-WSL (who was less than half Taafe's age, if that).

Taaffe spoke 'first' - not for long: five or ten minutes. And when his opponent in the debate (who I remember was eager but nervous) got up to speak, Taaffe simply walked off!

I wouldn't suggest he was worried about being beaten in the argument. But he plainly considered it beneath his dignity actually to listen to this kid from 'the sects' say anything at all.

'Wanker' doesn't really do it justice.

Submitted by Mark on Sun, 17/07/2011 - 20:39

Well, speaking as the person who has the all-time swearing record at LYPS conferences... I still don’t feel like being brow-beaten by the cynical or dull-witted; the tiresome, stick-up-the-arse sanctimosity of Militant full-timers doesn’t improve with time.
Let’s assume we were rude, and they were pure as the driven snow. In which case we were rude, and they were wrong. There’s not a single issue from Afghanistan to peaceful transformation, to gay or women’s rights, to the witchhunt in the Labour Party, to Transitional demands or Liverpool where we have anything to amend. They were wrong.
One of our people was rude when the Militant failed to oppose the raid on the gay bookshop, Lavender Menace? Good for them.
I was rude about Derek Hatton? Yes I was. But he was a disgrace, was he not? (And who is still about? The working class bloke who features in Christmas Pantomimes, or the kid from Harrogate?)

Anyway, the stuff about the Militant w/class base is being used demagogically. Yes, they recruited working class youth because they recruited from the LP – but we had a lot of young working class members too in the 80s, recruited from the same place. And ours could string an argument together.
A random example. I remember going to an LPYS Regional Ctte in 1984. I was the only non-Militant person on one of those things. They proposed a motion saying there was a pre-revolutionary situation in Chile. I started laughing. The regional LP official started sniggering into his hand, too. I didn’t know much about Chile, but at least I knew it was in South America, and I was pretty sure they were talking crap (after all, I read the press). The point is: the look of panic among their (dozen) people. One of them had to reply to me! Horror! That hadn't entered their calculations.

Anyway, part of the point about this discussion, above, is not only their w/class base but their fetish of it – the anti-political, sociological cult of the worker. And of course a lot of their leaders weren’t working class at all. More, not a few of their members weren’t workers either, just pretending to be: sporting the jeans-anorak-Tesco bag look and accompanying it with a strange accent which was half-South African (after Ted Grant) and half Liverpudlian. (After the 1989 Poll Tax moment it changed to Glaswegian for a while; and people who used to call themselves Richard became Richie).
So they took in working class youth and taught them to recite wooden-headed nonsense about the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies. Always accompanied by a strange chopping action with the right hand.
The cleverer kids mostly left, quickly – they didn’t like the regime and the lack of any sort of thinking space.

And now they’ve built an organisation several hundred bigger than us. Nice.
Oh, I’ve spotted the problem: they’ve built it without much attention to the idea that the entire project – starting with the words ‘Socialist’ and ‘Party’ – is now problematic. So you can be in the SP and think Che was brilliant (or not) or that North Korea is a workers’ state (or not), or that workers’ reps should be on a workers wage (or not if you’re in the PCS). As long as you are for 'socialism' in general, and follow the latest tactical twist or turn with the National Shop Stewards operation or TUSC, that’s OK. You’re in.
And such an organisation is supposed to be what the workers’ need? Don’t make me laugh again. It is a soggy degeneration from the Militant of the 70s and 80s: the absurd peaceful transformation (plus degenerated workers states for most of the rest of the world) has been replaced by advocacy of a general ‘socialism’ (+ a continuing sectarian disdain). Camp, lowest common denominator, orthodox Trotskyist, 'socialism'.

Submitted by edwardm on Sun, 17/07/2011 - 21:30

"Yosser", you sensitive soul. You have nothing to say about the substantive issue of whether or not the PCS deal was a sell-out: you just object that it was very rude that Randall should have said 'fuck' while discussing it (I bet worse words have been used by the young civil servants who are having to make do with crap contracts, thanks to the Socialist Party leadership of the PCS...but you have nothing to say about that).

What an arrogant attitude! What kind of prince do you take yourself for, that you shouldn't have to reply to someone who is a bit rude? Why didn't Matt Dobson (and I claim my five pounds) reply on the real issue in that debate, beyond mumbling that "some comrades had to take very difficult decisions and I don't know much about that deal"?

If we're so irrelevant, why do you bear such a burning grudge against us for having roasted you in a public debate three years ago? Could it be that neither Yosser nor Matt Dobson, the sainted student organiser of the Socialist Party, have ever been subjected to any kind of political scrutiny before or since, whether by socialists in the SP or not? Was Matt Dobson's grilling on PCS by fellow socialists a unique life experience?

I remember handing out a letter at a Socialist Students meeting, inviting them to play a fuller role in constructing a left bloc in the NUS, asking them why they had held aloof from Education not for Sale, and leftwing agitation within NUS more generally. The leadership were outraged! To this day, the crime of handing out an open letter to comrades in Socialist Students - and worse, the crime of publicly insinuating the Socialist Students was linked to the Socialist Party - is held up regularly as a hair-curling example of the AWL's sectarianism. What a pathetic internal culture, where leafleting a meeting of socialists on an important matter of orientation is considered a high crime!

As for the comrade from Cambridge I spoke to about the CNWP (how dare I!), he said that the CNWP couldn't take steps to starting a Socialist Alliance-style project until the Socialist Party was bigger - that the project of left unity (and the CNWP) had to be subordinated at all times (or at least, for the forseeable future) to the construction of the Socialist Party. Interesting that you remember the outrage you felt at my having raised this issue (I don't recall ranting, but maybe I did - maybe I swore too!)... but you don't recall the point I made. Matt Dobson (if that is his real name) certainly didn't answer the point at the time, instead demanding to know who the comrade was who I had spoken to. Yet again, dodging the political issue, moving on to something secondary, accusing a comrade of lying or implying the comrade in Cambridge was stupid or unreliable. Anyway, I wouldn't bother about the comrade from Cambridge. A few years ago he and a couple of other members of Socialist Students protested at the undemocratic way the group was run and suggested ways to improve its functioning. Amid a flurry of abuse from the centre, he was driven out. Not anything for you to worry about any more, comrade Yosser/Dobson. He was last seen strutting around on the fringes of the labour movement.

Submitted by edwardm on Sun, 17/07/2011 - 21:35

And as for your comment about the AWL's high-handed, arrogant attitude towards workers at Vestas: what on earth are you talking about? Have you the faintest idea about what happened in that dispute? Will you ever back that comment up? Will I have to chase you to the ends of the earth before you explain what you mean? Or are you too important and too proletarian to explain yourself? After all, all I did was take part in the dispute - and you are the former student organiser of the Socialist Party!

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 02/08/2011 - 12:21

Hi Rob,

Thanks for your comments, which are comradely and thoughtful, and contain a strong element of truth.

I'd be interested to know where you're based (if you're willing to say - don't worry if not). I'm sorry if the AWL meetings you attended made us come across as mindlessly sectarian. It's very far from the case that most AWL meetings are like that, even when they are focused on the politics of other groups.

However, I do think you fail to engage with some key political issues.

For instance, what do you think about the way the SP operates in the unions, and particular PCS - damping down class struggle, presenting defeats as victories, maintaining bureaucrats on high wages and opposing attempts to challenge this and so on?

What do you think about its ultra-sectarian behaviour in, for instance, the NSSN and in the student movement?

What do you think of the fact you can be in the SP and love Che Guevara, or hate Che Guevara, and there is no debate about this? And that, meanwhile, the group's position is still that North Korea is a workers' state!

What do you think about the nationalistic, non-socialist politics of the No2EU initiative?

What do you think about the internal democratic culture of the SP, or lack of it? For instance, about the almost total lack of debate in its publications?

What's the positive case to be in the SP?

Yes, the left has a lot in common and needs to work together more (though as I note above, the extent to which the SP facilitates this may be doubted). But it's also necessary to grapple with the political differences, if we are going to get a unity which is both sustainable and fertile.


Sacha Ismail

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