About 120 attended the Saturday of the political weekend organised on 29-30 March by RS21, the most recent splinter from the SWP. On Sunday there were 50 at the start, and 70 by the end. According to RS21 treasurer Ruth Lorimer, RS21 has about 200 members.
A few of us from AWL attended. There were also a few from ISN (the group which split from the SWP in early 2013), and of course people interested in or close to RS21 but not members. No other left groups chose to attend.
Generally, the discussions were interesting and open. There was much less of the tone of "a therapy session, not a political meeting" about this event than there was about the public launch event of the ISN in June 2013; much less of a mood of relief at being out of the SWP and no longer having to sell papers or do street stalls or such, and being able to spend time Facebooking and blogging instead.
RS21's next large public event is a one-day conference on ecosocialism, organised jointly with Socialist Resistance, on 7 June. RS21 will launch a regular publication in May. It has already produced a small bulletin.
Jen Wilkinson, summing up for RS21 in the final session, said that RS21 had not yet formulated its perspectives, but was resolved to work at doing so: "We can't just sit around for the next 12 months saying we need a perspective. We need to start doing it".
One AWLer commented: "They seem to be asking a lot of questions as a tendency, trying to work things through - especially as regards precarious workers and the potential in 'social movements'."
The insidious effects neo-liberalism on working-class confidence were often cited. And indeed, as we noted in a background document for the 2013 AWL conference: "Neo-liberalism... increases dependence on the market in daily life... The ruling-class hegemony which Gramsci wrote of is today organised as much through market transaction mechanisms, shaping people to see life as 'an investment', as through parties, media, schooling, etc."
RS21 people seemed clear that this doesn't mean that "old-style" class struggle has lost its potential and we should instead seek a short-cut through vaguely-defined "social movements". As one RS21er put it, in a ringing understatement, "the People's Assembly is different from the poll tax groups of the early 1990s... neo-liberalism has changed the campaigns the left engages in as well as workplaces".
The ISN circulated a leaflet entitled "a letter to a RS21 member", rather tentatively asking RS21 to join the unity talks which ISN has with Socialist Resistance, Workers' Power, and the remnants of the ACI. That suggestion was not discussed over the weekend.
Speaking in the final session, I proposed on behalf of AWL that RS21 and ourselves should deal with each other on the basis of unity in action where we agree, and honest debate where we disagree.
We could collaborate in some unions. RS21 has decided to support Martin Powell-Davies for NUT General Secretary, while the SWP supports the incumbent, Christine Blower. (One RS21er I talked with was inclined to back the Blower-Courtney slate - which clearly presents itself as such - in the Deputy General Secretary slot. More to discuss there). RS21 includes most of what were the leading figures in the SWP's Unite union fraction, and some Unison activists.
We could also collaborate among students.
I proposed specifically that RS21 and AWL should work together to defend free debate on university campuses and stir up opposition to the current mood to ban the SWP. A number of leading RS21ers with whom we talked were very clear against the "banning", and they said they would discuss, in their steering group, action to promote that opposition.
As an example of an issue on which AWL and RS21 would probably disagree, and on which clear debate is urgent as the May elections approach, I cited Europe. I was pleasantly surprised to be told by an RS21er after the session that RS21 does not necessarily accept the long-standing SWP line of "get Britain out of the EU".
I was disappointed that the weekend included almost no explicit examination of the SWP's political record and tradition, and of what from that RS21 plans to continue and what to replace. Some of the discussion was conducted almost as if RS21 were a group of settlers from Mars who subscribed to Marxism in general, and liked Lenin, but otherwise had to start from scratch on every question.
And as if it started by scanning the university library shelves, rather than debating with the other Marxists. RS21ers made many references to Nancy Fraser (who, by contrast, came in for severe censure at ISN's launch event) - but almost none to other activist Marxists.
Of course we should read valuable work by academic Marxists and academic feminists. The possible problem is that RS21 may end with a "Marxist" version of the issue John Maynard Keynes identified among capitalists: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist".
"Practical" activists, who believe themselves to be quite above the debates of the various left groups, are usually the slaves of the ideology of one of those groups. Even after rejecting the group as such, they tacitly identify its ideology with Marxism, reconsidering only to the extent of arguing that chunks of Marxism should be rejected in the light of modern academic writing.
Ruth Lorimer argued that the SWP's rule that all member must pretend in public to agree with the Central Committee line should be replaced by unity in action with liberty to dissent, including publicly. However, in some RS21 contributions I heard a hint of the idea that they thought nothing more punchy possible than a loose discussion group, with its members active in the labour movement but disparately.
Maybe I'm being unfair on the basis of only one meeting. We'll see.
On the evidence of this weekend, RS21 includes a number of ex-SWP students, as does the ISN. But RS21 also includes other elements not represented in the ISN.
RS21 has a number of people who were previously fairly central organisers and activists for the SWP. And it has Colin Barker, Neil Davidson, and Ian Birchall (not, I think, actually an RS21 member, but present at the weekend and obviously close to RS21) - who were previously the SWP's three significant theoretical writers other than Alex Callinicos. Barker and Birchall are also the last remaining prominent activists from the old IS group of the 1960s.
The job for AWL, I think, is to adopt the same approach to RS21 as we advocate they approach to us: unity in action where we agree, honest and comradely debate where we disagree.