Paul Hampton reports on the AWL 2007 annual conference
Anyone wondering why AWL members are combative with those we disagree with in the left and the labour movement might be surprised at the way we argue with each other — it’s even sharper.
The culture of the AWL is to fight for clarity in our ideas, to tell the truth and to call things by their right names. It is a culture of debate we want in our press, in our public meetings, and of course in our annual conference.
Marx warned that the ruling ideas of the epoch are those of the ruling class. Lenin followed Engels in defining the ideological front of the class struggle as decisive. Without class-consciousness, the working class cannot liberate itself. And clear consciousness cannot be acquired just by rehearsing a few standard formulas, or by saying no wherever the majority of the ruling class says yes. It demands study, questioning of assumptions, and thorough debate.
In the first big debate, Daniel Randall argued that we should strongly encourage young activists to get jobs in large workplaces with a relatively high rate of union activity and industrial action — or to get part-time jobs which free them to be almost full-time political activists.
Cath Fletcher moved an amendment for a less prescriptive approach. Mark Sandell argued that: “The focus on a few jobs leads to moral blackjacking, it’s a substitutionist distraction from building our ideas in the class and strengthening our union fractions’ work”.
Daniel also noted that “these days, a lot of ex-student leftists go from university to jobs in NGOs or as low-level full-time union officials”. One reason why there has been so little impact in the labour movement from the many young people who have been radicalised by “new anti-capitalist” mobilisations over the last ten years is “the ability of that sort of job to neutralise them... We should discourage our sympathisers from taking such jobs”.
Mark Sandell responded that in history Marxists have built a real base in sections of the class as the result of winning over existing militants and winning new activists from the existing workforce, and the history is “full of socialists who helped the working class to organise and spread ideas without being workers in industry”. Tom Mann was a full-time organiser for the dockers’ union; James P Cannon, for the IWW.
After a hard discussion, the document proposed by Daniel, “Inside Organising”, was passed overwhelmingly.
A document for the conference on Iraq assessed the various stages of the occupation since March 2003. It concluded that the “US neo-cons’ experiment has taken Iraq into the abyss”, with outright (if still muted) civil war since February 2006. Weighing up the balance of forces, the document concluded soberly that the scene is dominated by the various sectarian militias and the brutal, arrogant US/UK occupation.
The labour movement is still alive, but for now is harassed and marginalised. The immediate options are all reactionary. A victory for the fascistic Sunni-sectarian “resistance” in driving out the US would lead to full-scale civil war, and the destruction both of the Iraqi labour movement and of any possibility of democratic self-determination for the peoples of Iraq.
Moving the document, Paul Hampton concluded that we should reject glib “immediate-answer” slogans like “troops out”, and focus on the basic orientation: “Solidarity with the Iraqi workers against both the US/UK forces and the sectarian militias”
David Broder argued the AWL should agitate for “Troops Out”. “If we do not express our opposition to the presence of the troops and our desire for their withdrawal in both our propaganda and slogans, we risk painting the Iraqi labour movement as passive, capable of nothing more than battening down the hatches while conflict takes place above its head between various imperialist and sub-imperialist forces”. He claimed the AWL’s position lacked a programme for mobilising Iraqi workers.
David’s amendment was lost and the main resolution carried.
Not all the debates were so controversial. There was broad agreement on a guiding idea for our activity in the coming period: politically, the educators need to be educated, and the educated need to be educators. For the AWL to make a positive contribution to the development of the working class, each one of our members must become a Marxist educator, a bearer of enlightenment.
Mark Osborn introduced the document on assessment and orientation. He criticised the AWL as a whole for lacking the necessary drive to intervene more effectively in the labour movement and in particular struggles. Yes, the class struggle is at a low ebb. But Mark called for a greater measure of “voluntarism” — efforts to take the initiative, to make things happen rather than wait for them to come to us.
As examples of realistic but important initiatives, he pointed to what AWL members have done over the past year to rebuild a socialist feminist current and to the solidarity tour for Oaxaca.
Such initiatives can and do turn up people interested in socialist ideas. But “everything depends on our ability to seek and carry through those discussions, in short, to act as Marxist educators”.
A PCS comrade made the case for a public sector alliance against Brown’s pay freeze.
Introducing a document specifically about AWL political education, Martin Thomas argued that the fundamental, all-defining task of a Marxist organisation is to help the working class educate itself. A systematic, organised political education effort by the AWL is even more important in times like the present when the labour movement is at a low ebb, the left has decayed, and opportunities for learning “on the hoof” are reduced.
The conference voted to develop a more consistent induction system for new recruits.
Pete Radcliff moved the resolution on anti-fascism. He pointed to the record number of BNP candidates in May’s local elections, often in areas where the labour movement was weak. He criticised the “vote anyone but the BNP” approach of UAF and advocated class-based anti-fascist activity.
The conference held a brief discussion on the environment, noting the growing importance of climate change and the need to engage with the issue of the environment more rigorously, both theoretically and in practice. The AWL has opened a public debate on nuclear power and will carry different assessments in the paper and on the website in coming months.
Cathy Nugent introduced a short motion on feminism, referring to a much longer document written as a collective effort by AWL women in the aftermath of the Feminist Fightback conference last year, the abortion rights march this spring, and the recent AWL socialist-feminist conference.
The last big debate was in relation to the Labour Party. The AWL was entirely united in working for John McDonnell’s campaign for the Labour leadership. But what do we do now, after Gordon Brown’s successful pressure to keep McDonnell off the ballot paper?
Sean Matgamna moved the document from the outgoing AWL committee. “With the political collapse of the SWP and the retreat of the Socialist Party into cultivating its own tiny electoral bastions, the necessary united left electoral effort has become much more difficult to organise... In anything like current conditions, we can effectively organise only very few independent candidacies”.
However, “the failures of the SWP, the SP, and the SSP in no way detract from the truth of what we said in 1998 about big structural changes in the Labour which have radically diminished working-class political life within it. On the contrary, those changes have been reinforced, hardened, and consolidated”. The McDonnell campaign, though welcome, does not change that basic fact.
Our tasks in such a situation cannot be read off directly from general abstract characterisations of the Labour Party — “bourgeois workers’ party” — or from estimates of the long-term prospects of the Labour Party eventually returning to a livelier condition. “Prospects is a Menshevik word”.
As Antonio Gramsci put it: “The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organised and long-prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favourable (and it can be favourable only in so far as such a force exists, and is full of fighting spirit). Therefore the essential task is that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed, and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact, and self-aware”. To do that we strengthen our independent AWL political profile and go where there is life.
Chris Ford moved a counter-motion, basing itself on the assertion that: “Labour remains the mass party of the British working class. It is now what it has always been: a bourgeois labour party...” We must not “abandon political struggle within the Labour Party”.
The various left electoral challenges to the Labour Party have been a failure. AWL should not stand candidates against the Labour Party, and should not support candidates such as those of the Socialist Party. AWLers should be active within the Labour Party structures, and all other initiatives and activities should be reviewed “to make sure they fit in with this basic orientation”.
A clause in Chris’s counter-motion stating that we should “add affiliation of the AWL to the Labour Party to our Where We Stand” was voted on separately and gained very little support. The rest of the motion gained a slightly bigger minority vote.
The conference elected a new AWL National Committee for the coming year. In the hustings, many speakers emphasised the importance of renewing the committee by bringing forward the most committed, energetic, and able of our younger members.
A number of new members were voted on, and in the last two years the committee has had a more significant rejuvenation than for many years previous. As always in the AWL, the elections also ensured — as a matter of course, not even requiring comment — that the various minority views expressed in the conference are amply represented on the committee.