Discussion document adopted at the AWL National Committee 2 December 2006.
A large part of our whole effort is about organising ourselves to be at the right place at the right time - at the right meetings and demonstrations, in the right places for public agitation and paper sales, on the right doorsteps to talk with contacts.
To operate well, we need a number of activists who give their full time to political activity, or who take part-time jobs so that they can give most of their time to political activity.
Most of our activists have to work for an ordinary wage. But the time they spend working for a wage need not be dead time as regards socialist activity. In fact, our historical perspective on socialist politics tells us that, in the long term, among workers in the workplace is the most "right place" of all to be.
In the short term, too, workplace disputes and trade-union activity are central for us - and we can always intervene much better if we have people "on the inside" than just from "the outside".
Thus we should encourage our activists and sympathisers, when they are looking for jobs, to go for jobs which will give them the best chances of building a base for intervening in working-class struggles from "the inside".
This means, generally, going for jobs in those sectors where there is a higher level of class combativity in the workforce, a higher level of union activity, a greater political life in the union, and/or an already-established nucleus of AWL people in the sector and in the union.
We summed it up in our 2005 conference document:"The unions are a critical element in the work of a Marxist organisation that aspires to lead the working class. Persuading student comrades and sympathisers to take certain jobs and to add their commitment to our campaigns in certain unions has to be made a priority once again. The NC must set out the political arguments for, and strongly encourage, student comrades and sympathisers to get jobs in the Post, BT, health service and on the tube".
Four points need to be made about how the question presents itself to us today, in 2006-7, in Britain.
1. This rank-and-file project is not a matter of compulsion. Where compulsion, or something near to it, has been used in the past to "colonise" ex-student socialists into industry, the results have been destructive.
The prime example is the SWP-USA in the late 1970s. It announced that "world revolution" was becoming "more proletarian" and that therefore all its activists needed to get jobs not only in industry but in the hardest, most-exploited sectors of industry. The organisation shrivelled to a sect; much activity outside industry withered away; many activists became demoralised; not much was gained in the chosen sectors of industry.
Sensible encouragement to activists to get jobs where they can best be effective revolutionaries in work time as well as outside it is different from moralistic compulsion based on hype. It does not mean, for example, that activists who are currently school students should not go to university if they have a chance. We should strongly encourage comrades to use that chance. They can be politically effective at university as well as using what they will get at university (and possibly never again in their lives) in the way of access to libraries, free time, and so on, to learn a lot.
It can only be destructive if our discussion about an orientation to worker organising "from the inside" degenerates into a moralistic squabble between some protesting that they (for this or that reason) "deserve" "nicer" jobs, and others denouncing them for lack of self-sacrifice.
2. We are living in a time of low industrial struggle and low union activism. That could change rapidly; and even while the general level remains low, there is a tremendous amount still be done, and a lot of exciting things happen, in the workplaces and unions. But for now and in general the level is low. In the early 1940s the Workers' Party USA could quite easily convince hundreds of its young ex-students to take jobs in shipyards and car factories, because they were sure that a big wave of industrial struggle and political ferment in the trade unions was coming within the next few years. We don't know whether the next big wave of industrial struggle will be within the next few years.
Obviously this makes convincing activists to take the job which is better for political activity, but perhaps involves harsher conditions or lower pay than another, more difficult than it was in the 1970s or '80s. There is no administrative answer to this. Better to follow the example of the US socialists in "Solidarity" who have organised their "Rank and File Youth Project" in terms of offering help and support to young socialists interested in taking rank-and-file working-class jobs.
3. Generally, in previous eras, not only in the 1940s but also in the 1970s, this sort of thing has meant primarily persuading ex-students, usually from middle-class family backgrounds, to take manual jobs.
With the majority of the working class, and the majority of union membership, now in "white-collar" jobs, and a much larger proportion of young people going through university, the question is posed a bit differently.
For example, high-school teaching is one of the jobs that the US "Rank and File Youth Project" encourages people to go into, because it involves large workplaces and a relatively high rate of union activity and industrial action.
It would be very valuable for us today to have even a handful of keen ex-student activists in the post or on the Tube. In those areas, where there is a substantial history of WL activity and a relatively high level of union activism, a few new young activists could bring us gains much quicker than in other areas.
But the point is that the general orientation to rank-and-file workplace organising is not limited to that sort of more "dramatic" job choice. It is possible for ex-student socialists to participate in this orientation by going to jobs not very different from those that their classmates choose, and just choosing those areas which are better unionised or where they will work in a larger workplace.
The whole issue can be falsified by seeing it as a matter of demanding ex-students make a romantic gesture of self-sacrifice. Yes, it includes some ex-students getting jobs which have harder conditions and poorer pay than they might otherwise have got. But they do that not so that they can play "more self-sacrificing than thou", but because revolutionary politics is central to them, and being revolutionary organisers among more the combative and responsive sectors of the working class gives them more satisfaction than pursuing a bourgeois "career". They do not envy their former classmates who become stockbrokers or managers.
Moreover, a BT engineer is fairly well-paid, enjoys better-than-average conditions, and is in an interesting, skilled job where he or she will constantly be learning something new. Tube workers have better-than-average conditions and pay, precisely because they are relatively combative and well-organised workers. BT engineers, and Tube workers, are "manual workers", but their jobs do not involve the sort of heavy physical exertion which might have made going into a "working-class" job seem too difficult to an ex-student seventy or even thirty years ago. The general orientation can be expressed in many different ways. For example, Lutte Ouvrière in France has never been keen on putting ex-students into manual jobs. Instead, it encourages ex-students to get part-time teaching or office jobs which leave them lots of time free for political activity. But it also encourages worker activists or sympathisers who work in small workplaces (manual or white-collar) to change jobs to get into bigger workplaces (manual or white-collar) with better openings for political activity. That, too, is an expression of the orientation to rank-and-file workplace organising.
4. Thus, many of the white-collar jobs which in the '40s or even in the '70s would represent for ex-student activists a choice not to "colonise" are today strong possibilities, though not yet top priorities, as ways to pursue a general orientation to rank-and-file workplace organising.
In that sense, it is much easier to pursue that general orientation today. There is, however, also a new problem.
These days, a lot of ex-student leftists go from university to jobs in NGOs or as low-level full-time union officials. Those job paths scarcely existed 20 or 30, let along 60, years ago. But they raise problems of a different order from ex-student leftists going into school or college teaching or into social work, the more likely "default" paths of 20 or 30 years ago.
An ex-student leftist absorbed in an NGO job will do very little workplace organising. The workplaces are generally small. The life of the workplace is geared around getting in the grants that will finance its continuing "good work", not around producing goods or services for an employer. It is almost impossible for the leftist - who will have chosen the NGO job because it is "more interesting", and seems to offer them a chance of "doing good" more immediate than the long-term perspectives of revolutionary socialism - not to get sucked into the terms of reference of the NGO, i.e. of their employer.
Sometimes it is good for revolutionaries to have "soft" jobs which offer little scope for workplace organising because those jobs allow them more free time and energy for essential political activities outside the workplace (meetings, demonstrations, writing, visiting contacts, and so on). But NGO jobs rarely offer that benefit. They usually involve more almost-compulsory (and often unpaid) overtime than even moderately well-unionised "regular" jobs. And of course it can always be justified in terms of doing the "good work" the NGO is all about, and securing the necessary grants for it to continue
A low-level full-time union official job, too, offer little scope for the person who takes that job to organise as a worker, with fellow-workers. To relate to worker organising "from above" is very different from relating "from inside". Where we have had AWL members in low-level full-time union official jobs, that has not brought us political or trade-union contacts from among the workers "below" them, but rather, as you might expect, from among their "fellow-workers", the other low-level full-time officials.
Like NGO jobs, the low-level full-time union official jobs offer little scope for workplace and union organising "from the inside", and simultaneusly do not allow for lots of free time and energy off the job for political activity. They tend to suck the person into doing the job (and then overtime, and then extra overtime) as a substitute for political activity (and one seeming to offer more immediate results).
Part of the degeneration of the WP/ISL current in the USA was the drift of many of its activists into full-time union official jobs. Of course, it was an effect of previous political softening and adverse circumstances; but it also in time became a cause of degeneration in its own right, a "social" factor skewing the activists' perceptions.
The large number of young people who have been radicalised by the "new anti-capitalist" mobilisations over the last ten years - by now they must count in the hundreds of thousands - have made surprisingly little impact on general politics as they grow up and settle down. Why? On all the evidence, a major factor is the propensity of so many of them to graduate into NGO or low-level union official jobs, and the ability of that sort of job to neutralise them. We should discourage our activists and sympathisers and contacts from taking such jobs, and encourage them to take jobs where they can take part in rank-and-file workplace/union organising from the "inside", by setting up a programme of help and support modelled on the US "Rank and File Youth Project".