Alliance for Workers' Liberty 7th conference, London March 4-5

Report of a partisan observer John Bridge and other Weekly Worker writers discuss the AWL

Five observers from the Communist Party of Great Britain attended the Alliance for Workers' Liberty's 7th conference over the weekend of March 4-5. In general we met with a friendly reception. There was certainly a keen interest in our ideas, as witnessed by a sale of over 40 copies of the Weekly Worker. An impressive figure and much to the credit of the AWL - especially given that there were no more than around 80 of their comrades in attendance.

The AWL is a small organisation of serious revolutionaries - it has 110 full and a handful of candidate members - with a relatively long history in Britain's Trotskyite milieu. Once they existed as a faction in Tony Cliff's International Socialism organisation. That is, until they were bureaucratically expelled. Since then, led by Sean Matgamna, they have been through a labyrinthine series of name changes, primeval unities and fragile partnerships. However, what distinguishes the AWL from that which often falsely passes itself off as Trotskyism is its culture of comparative openness and a willingness to think.

For example, the majority of its members would nowadays categorise the USSR not as a degenerate workers' state, but a new class formation commonly called bureaucratic collectivism. Hence retrospectively they stand in the tradition of Max Shachtman and Hal Draper. There is a state capitalist minority which occasionally surfaces in the AWL's press to explain its unconvincing case. Others in the AWL, I am told, broadly adhere to the theory outlined by Hillel Ticktin in his journal Critique.

Ireland too has seen the AWL think. It calls for a federal solution in opposition to green republicans, orange unionists and agnostic economists. Like the CPGB the AWL believes that the British-Irish question is pivotal and that for working class unity there has to be the fight for a distinct British-Irish territory with the constitutional freedom to exercise self-determination. There is no mental block which prevents it demanding something less than a disembodied maximalist 'socialist' Ireland.

So, unlike virtually every other leftist group in Britain today - who happily peddle minimalist demands around wages, NHS, privatisation, tuition fees, etc in the name of socialism - the AWL, or at least its main thinker, understands, albeit imperfectly, the necessity for consistent democracy under the socio-economic conditions of capitalism. In other words without fighting for and winning the battle for democracy there can be no socialism. We in the CPGB share and defend exactly that approach.

There is, of course, a huge lacuna when it comes to the national question in Britain itself. AWL cadre are very English and insular in their outlook (including comrade Matgamna himself). True, the AWL now says it stands by the principle of Scottish self-determination and has long programmatically envisaged a federal Europe. Yet it cannot bring itself to call for a republic in Britain and a federal - and therefore equal - relationship between England, Scotland and Wales.

Comrade Matgamna informed me during a debate a short while ago that the Scots already have self-determination, and that the monarchy system in the United Kingdom is at best a secondary issue. Not surprisingly then, most AWL activists seem to imagine that trade union and communist politics are virtually synonymous. So, although the AWL has of necessity recently launched its own tendency in the Scottish Socialist Party - Solidarity - neither Scotland, nor Blair's constitutional revolution, nor the fight against nationalism was debated during the weekend.

The AWL conference as a whole was conducted in a democratic and comradely fashion. Differences there were, but none of a particularly serious or fundamental nature. Debate was therefore rather unfocused. Apart from the absence of factional differences, the reason for this was perhaps the very limited time comrades had to argue their often purely individualised viewpoints. Three, five minutes. There was also an enormous amount packed into the two days.

I would have thought that the huddled meetings of trade union, youth and student fractions could best be arranged for another day and the whole weekend might have been given over to an in-depth and extensive debate on the real bone of contention - which in the AWL is its attitude towards the Labour Party, Livingstone, no longer automatically voting Labour and the alternatives such as the London Socialist Alliance, abstention, etc. There are still stubborn backward elements that need to be soundly defeated in debate. As it was, the controversy surrounding these issues was crammed into a single session on Sunday morning.

From a CPGB angle the election to the AWL's 26-strong national committee was long-winded, clumsy and altogether alien. There were almost 50 nominations: ie, nearly half the organisation. Comrades were then told to write their own list of 26 and the result was number-crunched in order to produce the leading committee. A very hit-and-miss method. Selection and balance according to political view, geography, trade union and experience is only ensured (if it is achieved at all) by the sheer size of the committee. The procedure is no doubt formally ultra-democratic. But to toy with democracy in such a way verges on anarchism. Surely a recommended list which is open to amendment and objection is altogether superior. A recommended list is presented as a coherent whole and arguments for additions and removals, this or that emphasis, novel direction, etc can be explained and thrashed out. Instead of reliance on chance, it brings consciousness to bear.

Debate began on Saturday early afternoon around the document 'Socialism in the 21st century'. From what I gather it proved uncontroversial. Due to wrong information this observer arrived late. The second session started with the 'New anti-capitalism'. I disagreed with much of what was said, but the need to win the youth around, and associated with, Reclaim the Streets and other such spontaneous outbursts was powerfully reinforced.

The rapporteur went into overdrive in her praise for the Seattle WTO protest. It was the biggest demonstration in the US since the war in Vietnam. Trade unions played a vital role. Here is the future. Etc. Anti-capitalism is though not enough. As a movement those concerned with the environment are logically open to the ideas of socialism. Etc. Global problems require global solutions. Etc. The answer is simple - socialism.

One prominent speaker expressed his preference for the anti-city sort of protest compared to the dull routine of the official labour movement. Better to take part in Reclaim the Street's next stunt on May 1 in London than once more to tail after Bill Morris in Birmingham along with his usual bevy of TGWU old farts. Others warned against being seen to just jump on the bandwagon. There was even one brave green-red who criticised his own organisation for being slow on the environmental uptake. The general consensus was to fuse anti-capitalist environmentalism with trade unionism.

As an authoritative voice, Clive Bradley - author of the AWL's forthcoming pamphlet on the environment, We only want the earth - cited the floods in Mozambique as being a direct result of global warming brought about by the inability of the system of capital to rationally develop the productive forces.

To indulge in an aside, personally I am sceptical. Even if it is true that the tiny increase in the earth's average temperature over the last century is entirely due to industrial society, not solar flares, chaotic weather patterns or some other natural factor, it is surely the case that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels, etc are only releasing a minuscule fraction of what has been taken from the atmosphere and locked into geological deposits over the millennia.

During previous epochs the earth has certainly enjoyed on average much warmer weather than today. Dinosaurs used to roam the Antarctic. Was that unnatural? Would not a cool-temperate Antarctica and reclaiming not just the streets, but the vast African, Australian, North American and Asian cold and hot desert wastes be worth the loss of a few Pacific atolls and some low-lying farmland in Bangladesh? The key to the future of humanity is not trying to keep things as they are - impossible - but human control over human society. With that we can consciously direct the weather, bring about unimagined fertility and industrialisation, abolish the distinction between north and south and radically remake our planet.

Either way, the main thing about Mozambique politically in my view is not the evils of cars, cosy offices and homes, and industrial activity in the northern hemisphere, but the extreme poverty of the country's population and the lack of any sort of developed infrastructure. This is due to the combined inheritance of Portuguese colonialism, civil war, a corrupt aidocracy atop of the state and a metropolitan capitalist system which by and large ignores the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Let us note that far more powerful floods in the US result in a handful of deaths, not the thousands suffered by Mozambique.

Mark Osborn, AWL national organiser, perceptively located Reclaim the Streets, June 18, Seattle and other such protests in the end of capitalist triumphalism. However, he failed to consider that the 'new anti-capitalism' is the direct product of the actual continuation of capitalist triumphalism. Since Thatcher and Reagan, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union capitalism has openly declared itself. There is no alternative, proclaimed Thatcher. And, as our faces were ground under her iron heel, she told us - the workers, the unemployed, the social scum - that we were being crushed by a power whose name had previously been denied, hidden or talked about only in euphemisms - capitalism. People nowadays know and speak the name of the beast, even though they have no idea of how to kill it or what to replace it with. That is the sad tragedy of the 'new anti-capitalism'.

The late Saturday afternoon session featured comrade Matgamna and his opening on the 'AWL and the left'. This in part was an introduction to the critique he is publishing of the left's disgraceful record in the Kosova conflict (I will leave aside the AWL's semi-first-campism). But there was more to it than that.

The comrade argued eloquently and passionately that socialism was not automatic. Humanity is in an impasse. The working class could fail in the 21st century, as it had in the 20th. If it did, the result will be a terrible generalisation of the nationalist barbarism witnessed in Ireland, ex-Yugoslavia, ex-USSR, etc.

Much to my pleasure, he insisted that the anti-capitalism of Seattle, etc, was not only not enough. It could prove a disastrous dead-end. A Maoism of the 2000s. He demanded recruitment to the AWL. The cadre were to blame for the failure to grow.

More importantly, comrade Matgamna stressed the absolute necessity of renewing and developing Marxism. Without that Marxism becomes its opposite. The comrade stressed that the AWL was not alone in developing Marxism. There are also those such as in the CPGB. A rap over the knuckles for dyed-in-the-wool, economistic AWLers such as Mark Neville and Alan (?), who are "very wary of moves towards the CPGB", because of our supposed "terminal sectarianism" (AWL Discussion bulletin No193, February 2000).

Comrade Matgamna roundly criticised petty bourgeois elements in the AWL who have no thirst for education, those who lack the single-minded determination to fight for the constantly unfolding science of revolution and human liberation. He bluntly told those who lack the stomach for Leninist politics to scarper, and those who were serious to buck up their ideas. To paraphrase: his slogan was education, education, education. Quite right. Without the renewal and constant development of Marxism there can be no hope for humanity.

Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Labour

Quite obviously the AWL has a problem with its attitude towards the Labour Party. This became clear in the three-hour-long debate on the paper, 'Labour, the left and the AWL'.

The most interesting discussion centred around an amendment put forward by comrade Bruce from Manchester. He challenged the new AWL position to call for an automatic vote for Labour wherever there is no socialist candidate standing (before last year only a Labour vote could be countenanced): "If the erosion of the organic links between Labour and the working class forces us to consider standing against Labour, it must also be grounds to reconsider a call for a blanket Labour vote in those areas where no left candidate is standing .. In the current situation, we recognise that our weakness may mean that there are situations where we have to reluctantly call on voters to abstain as there is no viable alternative. This should not be ruled out in principle."

Dangerous stuff. Auto-Labourism has always been one of the main defining positions of the AWL. But the contradiction is only too apparent: the AWL has at last recognised that "the rank and file revolt we expected after the 1997 elections" - the so-called 'crisis of expectations' - "has not happened", as comrade Cathy explained. Sean Matgamna emphasised over and over again the strict regime inside Labour that "makes it impossible for a normal member to influence the party". EC member Tom even called for the disaffiliation of trade unions from the Labour Party.

But still, it is "too early to abstain from a vote for Labour", as comrade Matgamna put it. There might not be a full-blown revolt inside the Labour Party, but "there is the beginning of a rebellion", comrade Tom argued. Comrade Nick Holden (Manchester) quite rightly asked: "If it is early enough to stand against Labour, why is not early enough to withdraw our blank ticket?"

Comrade Martin Thomas and others, however, put forward the old 'lesser evil' position that still paralyses sections of the British left: "If we do not have the resources to stand, then we have to say to people, 'Listen, I know this is terrible, but you should vote for New Labour'." I am sure the workers he talks with about this approach will be hugely inspired. After some heated debate the motion was defeated by around two to one.

There seem to be quite a few disagreements inside the organisation on the attitude to elections too. Where comrades like Mark Osborn and Jill Mountford argued that the AWL should attempt to stand candidates against New Labour wherever possible, Janine Booth wanted to stand only in areas where "we are the real representation of the labour movement". Where this could not be achieved, "we have to vote Labour, because they are a representation of the labour movement".

As another comrade correctly pointed out, "Standing together with a few more left groups in London does not make us a real representation of the working class." She emphasised the importance of raising independent working class politics wherever possible.

Unfortunately, this debate did not focus around any resolution and there was no vote taken regarding the AWL's position on standing candidates.

There is obviously need for clarification. Let us hope that the comrades can take the logical leap and with it a final break from auto-Labourism.

Tina Becker

Rapprochement begins

Two representatives of the CPGB's Provisional Central Committee and two representatives of the AWL's National Committee met on Friday March 3.

Discussion began with Mark Fischer outlining the history of the PCC's struggle for a reforged CPGB and why we put Partyism at the centre of our work. It was explained to the comrades from the AWL that we have no CPGB golden age. Our project is about the future, not the past.

We also discussed the importance of trade union bulletins and trade union work. CPGB comrades assured the AWL representatives that we had no objections to trade union work nor trade union bulletins. There was, however, the matter of priorities.

Blair's constitutional revolution was raised, along with the national question in Wales and Scotland. One AWL comrade did not see why we were so concerned with such issues. This led on to what the CPGB's PCC understands by economism.

The entry work the CPGB carried out in the SLP was praised and criticised by the AWL comrades. We replied that it was easy to criticise from the outside.

The commitment of the CPGB to a minimum-maximum programme was touched upon. CPGB comrades questioned the AWL about their project of a new Labour Representation Committee. We were told that this was for propaganda purposes and at the moment was of no particular importance.

The principles of democratic centralism were emphasised by the CPGB comrades, as was the need for a polemical communist press in the conditions of today. We stressed the necessity of engaging with advanced workers - ie, those susceptible to theory.

Both sides agreed to hold a further meeting in mid-March and to have a joint day school in early April on the Party question. The three headings of debate will be: economism; organising the class; party and programme.

Developing Marxism

A contribution to the Discussion bulletin of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (No193, February 2000) from Alan provides an interesting insight into the mindset of some members of the group. Clearly, there are some pretty strong misgivings about the discussions with the Communist Party. Alan writes:

"I think Mark Nevill is right to be very wary of moves towards the CPGB, though not particularly for their Stalinist past, something they have clearly moved some way from. The problem, it seems to me, is that they are terminally sectarian, in the sense that - nice people though they are - they'd probably have trouble spelling 'labour movement', let alone knowing where it is. This is the nub, I think: how can you have unity in action with a group that doesn't really do anything?

"The statement from the EC is very reasonable: a few debates here and there, the odd day school ... All debate is obviously healthy, and the CPGB are, to their credit, one of the few groups prepared to defend their ideas in public.

"However, these ideas (1) aren't very good, and (2) are not very close to ours.

"I'm sure that the EC members I've heard suggesting we fuse with CPGB were joking .

"As I say, the EC statement is very reasonable. However, I'm sure I'm not the only comrade who would be extremely wary of a relationship with the CPGB any closer than that, and would like to be kept fully informed."

Alan's comments are not particularly well thought out. For example, the AWL is actually already in "unity in action" with the CPGB in the London Socialist Alliance, something that would be impossible if we truly were an organisation that "doesn't really do anything". But a narrower focus is implied in his comments on our tenuous relationship to "the labour movement". When Alan talks about 'doing things', he seems to mean trade union work.

It is true that our organisation does not emphasise communist work in the trade unions at the moment. This is hardly a principle of ours, however. It simply reflects the historically low level of industrial activity and the practical restrictions imposed on us by limited resources. At other times, our trend has thrown itself body and soul into industrial struggles, as in the miners' Great Strike of 1984-85.

Back then, I recall Clive Bradley actually wrote to us on behalf of Socialist Organiser (as the AWL then called itself) suggesting that representatives of our two groups meet for "some general political discussions". This approach was prompted by the fact that over the period of the strike SO had "been reading your paper with some interest" and felt that "on some issues - the general strike, rank and file movement, popular frontism - we have a broad area of agreement" (The Leninist May 1985). SO had encountered our paper - and miners influenced by it - up and down the country in the course of that year. Looking back, I think it would be hard to accuse our organisation of passivity when such strategically important challenges come along.

For Alan, it appears that routine trade union work is a principle that must never be violated. This is an expression of the type of pitiful economism that plagues so much of the left. The failure of the socialist and revolutionary movement in the 20th century is hardly explained by its lack of 'doing things' in the trade unions and elsewhere. We have 'done' lots. The trouble is that they largely have been the wrong things - or at least activities distorted and limited by false programmatic perspectives.

As a communist collective, our orientation at present is to develop Marxism in a relationship of conflict and unity with the rest of the left. We believe that the key task that faces all of us is the fight to produce a revolutionary programme adequate to the tasks of the 21st century. Of course, this is not counterposed to work in any sphere, let alone in the vitally important trade union movement. It must take precedence over it, however. For without such a programme, pure activism is merely struggle within the parameters of capital. It is the bourgeois politics of the militant working class.

It is this approach that dictates the type of paper the Weekly Worker is, its orientation to the rest of the left, its openness and polemical style. It is this that makes it incumbent on us to respond positively to approaches from the AWL or from any other groups looking to develop Marxism and seeking unity.

'Doing things' is fine, Alan. The Communist Party from 1920 maintained a level of intervention - in the trade union movement and beyond - which in truth dwarfs the efforts of today's left. In practical effect, however - given its deeply flawed programme - the efforts of our Party were in the end instrumental in integrating the militant working class into bourgeois politics.

We must take our collective failure in the last century a little more seriously if we are to make a worthwhile contribution to the fight for working class power in this one.

Mark Fischer