At London Young Labour conference on 4 February 2018 a witch-hunt was launched against Workers’ Liberty to brand us as a “secretive top-down” organisation; it instrumentalised and exploited a case about sexual assault.
Our report of London Young Labour conference is here
Our response on and report of our process of investigating the case about sexual assault is here
The charge that political organisations like Workers’ Liberty are “cults” is a common weapon in factional battles within the left today. This is our response to that line of argument.
The AWL is not at all a cult, and is exceptionally unsecretive and open. On the other hand, the badmouthing of us comes primarily from a cluster of small groups, many revolving around the top ranks of the Momentum youth wing (not of Momentum as a whole: in fact, the chair of Momentum recently felt the need to declare Momentum Youth and Students officially dissolved because of the reckless online behaviour of some of its people). These groups are secretive. Much of the badmouthing is anonymous posts on social media. They are not exactly cults, but in their self-regarding clique character, they have much in common with cults.
Anyone who pays attention to the AWL's activity can verify that our activists do not hide in a bubble, as the members of a "cult" would. Their activity is open and public, in their workplaces, on their campuses, in their union branches, in their Labour Party organisations. The ideas on which that activity are based have been debated and argued openly: they are not a special revelation available only to social-media-circle initiates.
There is no "religious" character about our ideas. We work to follow Karl Marx's motto: "ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be".
We know that there have been and are groups on the left which have taken on some of the characteristics of religious cults. We have warred openly and repeatedly against that spirit on the left.
Far from being "secretive", we make all the effort we can to publicise our ideas.
Like the old Russian Marxist Plekhanov, we "consider it [our] principal, perhaps even [our] only, duty to promote the growth of this consciousness among the proletariat [working class], which for short they [we] call its class consciousness.
"The whole success of the socialist movement is measured for [us] in terms of the growth in the class consciousness of the proletariat. Everything that helps this growth [we] see as useful to their cause: everything that slows it down as harmful".
The search for unity in action which can enhance confidence and involvement, and the search for dialogue and polemic which can educate and enlighten - that is what we do.
We eschew the search to manipulate, to gain "positions" by trading influence and favours, or to pursue "political careers" which will get our people to the "top".
Unlike most groups on the left, we make all the sizeable political debates among our members public, through our paper and our website. Our constitution, and all the debates and documents of our conferences, including the minority proposals which the conferences reject, are made public on our website.
We operate as an organised collective, but our constitution explicitly enjoins members who disagree with AWL-majority views not to pretend in public to agree with those views. It asks them, while explaining the majority view as well as they can, and not disrupting, to be clear and honest in public about their own views.
Like pretty much any organisation - a union branch, the Labour Party, a sports club, a tenants' association - we have meetings and committees in which we discuss among ourselves to settle our affairs free from interference by our enemies. No-one calls the Labour Party "secretive", for example, for not sending full minutes of all its National Executive, Shadow Cabinet, and Leaders' Office meetings to the Daily Mail. Distinctive about AWL is that all our committees are elected; that all our members get the minutes and have direct access to make proposals to the committees; that we guarantee representation to minorities; and that our organiser jobs are not well-paid career-path posts allocated by patronage but open to anyone who is willing to give the work of organising for socialist politics priority above bourgeois career prospects and the search for better incomes. All our branches and fractions elect their own organisers.
Precisely because we are not a cult, we do not enclose, or even have means or mechanisms by which we could try to enclose, our members in a bubble. The word "cult" suggests, and is designed to suggest, that the AWL is the sort of organisation where "the leaders" know everything that members do or talk about, even in the most personal parts of their lives, and control everything. It is not. The "leaders" do not want to exercise that control and supervision and would not have the means even if they wanted to.
The presumption is that the political activities of the AWL are somewhat a secret, but, on the contrary, our committees have wide knowledge of and control over our members' personal lives. The opposite is true. The political activities of the AWL are an open book. Our members, and our committee members, by self-selection, will have read that book more fully and more carefully than others, but our constant aim is to convince others to read more and more pages of that open book.
However, our committees have no great knowledge of or control over our members' personal lives, what they do outside our political activities. Their families, friends, and workmates will have much more knowledge and control. Our committees do not want such knowledge or control, and lack the means to get it if they wanted to. There are limits here: as we've said, we need something more in the way of "reporting mechanisms" and special measures to safeguard young activists. But the default rule is that we organise together specifically for political activities, and the authority of our collective decisions covers only political activities.
Some have charged the AWL with being a "cult" on the grounds that we seek to convince, persuade, and encourage our members into too much political activity, or that our meetings are too intense or too "boring". Some find it sinister that we advise members to be "persistent" in seeking to interest people in socialist ideas.
The implied comparison is with average bourgeois society. It is taken for granted that average bourgeois society pressures and pushes people into activities and opinions, and that it deploys severe threats to back the push (loss of job and livelihood, and more). It is taken for granted that in the labour movement, too, "career" pressures shape what people do and what they say. That is taken as normal and usual. Only the counter-pressure (by argument, encouragement, etc., not threats) to get people into left-wing activity, to stir up rank-and-file autonomy from the bureaucracy within the labour movement, to stimulate independent dialogue and questioning, and to open up space for critical debate, is indicted as "cultish", weird, etc.
A labour-movement activist with a workmate who won't join the union, or who won't vote Labour, will be and should be "persistent" in trying to get them to talk about the union or about politics. Respectful, polite, not harassing, but not giving up either. And us? We are the people who also don't give up in trying to engage people with full-scale, thoroughgoing, socialist politics.
For years now, especially since the Corbyn surge opened up interest in full-scale socialist politics and in alternatives to the half-and-half conventional ideas which gained a hold on the left in the long political depression of Blairism, there has been a whole stream of trolling on social media badmouthing the AWL. It has proceeded not by any even poorly argued polemic against our political ideas and activities, but by jeering - some based on Facebook-message-length caricatures of political positions without any substantive argument, some based on "jokey" Stalinist memes, some based on "jokey" unevidenced and anonymous false personal accusations of a type which if taken seriously by employers or public authorities could damage targeted individuals badly, some proceeding by Broken-Telephone-style amplifications and mutations of allegations. George Galloway and his friends have helped to set the tone, with social-media messages like this: "I never met a Trot group I didn't dislike but the AWL belongs in a league of its own. Vile secretive provocateurs. They will wreck Momentum".
A number of the recent social-media posts badmouthing us have even charged us, without evidence or specifics, with "antisemitism". For years we have been well known on the left, and much reviled too, for challenging left antisemitism and opposing the demonisation of Israel which too often takes the place of rational, just, and necessary criticism. How then are we "antisemitic"? It is in the nature of this business that there is no evidence, no discussion.
In bourgeois politics, the use of unevidenced "scandalising" epithets to sideline real politics, evade real political issues, and throw opponents on the defensive, is commonplace. Witness the US right-wing denunciations of Barack Obama as a "communist" and born outside the USA. That method thrives ever more in bourgeois politics. The social media campaign against us as "secretive", a "cult", "antisemitic" (or "ultra-Zionist": take your pick) is a case of that method spilling over from bourgeois politics into the affairs of the left.
Some of the anti-AWL campaigners present themselves as advocates of "safe spaces". They present themselves as advocates of making politics kind, sweet, and gentle. The outcome of their approach, however, is political milieus which squeeze out reasoned debate and are nasty and difficult, especially for the young, the shy, or the unconfident. Anyone who speaks out critically faces not thorough political argument, which at least can be met with counter-argument, but "moral" denunciation as one or another sort of disrupter of "safe space". Single-sentence moralistic denunciations, deemed powerful enough to fly without needing fuel from evidence or argument, replace even the shoddiest argument. And then, in the eyes of some, even for the critic to be allowed to contest the moralistic denunciation is an offence against "safe spaces".
In so far as there is an explicit political thread to the campaign against us, its substance is a melding of Stalinist or semi-Stalinist tropes against Trotskyists, of "identity politics", of self-satisfaction at feeling (or imagining) oneself "on the inside" with the big battalions of politics, and of sneering disdain for debate.
The approximation to "cultism" is all on the other side, on the side of the social-media networks and cliques which operate not through open political argument (even for bad positions) but through anonymous accusations, mutual self-regard, mutual self-accreditation and self-promotion, and political sneers, jeers, and smears in place of reasoned polemic.
Politically, they serve the cause of trying to dissuade revolutionary-minded young people from adopting full-scale socialist political aims, joining organised groups, committing themselves to serious planned collective activity. It serves the cause of going with the flow, if not of bourgeois society generally, at least of the established, more bureaucratic structures on the left of the labour movement and in the NGO world.
Every activist serious about making sure that the revival of the Labour left develops as it needs to develop, as a revival of full-scale socialist commitment, of debate, of questioning, of critical thought, and of labour-movement democracy, should join us in combatting the establishment-serving idea that intense organised, collective explicitly-socialist activism is "weird".