Mountains out of molehills

Leading the Alliance for Workers Liberty's typically slippery response to our coverage of the Socialist Youth Network launch conference reveals an organisation in crisis and rapidly moving to the right, says James Turley

Leading the Alliance for Workers Liberty's typically slippery response to our coverage of the Socialist Youth Network launch conference reveals an organisation in crisis and rapidly moving to the right (www.workersliberty.org/node/7571).

The unsigned AWL article begins with a series of typically petty attempts to score points and thereby discredit the Weekly Worker and Communist Students.

Eg, the proportion of those present who were "members" of the organised left was smaller than we suggested; Socialist Action only had three comrades, not "up to 10"; not all those the AWL brought along were part of an "Education Not for Sale bloc". Pathetic.

The fact of the matter is that the SYN conference was dominated by the various left groups and campaigns in and around the Labour Party. Though there were 80 comrades present, not all had voting rights (or exercised them). Of those who did, most - yes, between two-thirds and three-quarters, as I estimated in my original article - operated under the direct influence of one or another of the groups.

Whether they were all fully paid up members we do not know and never said. Our coverage simply reported what was. Hence, though there might have been only three Socialist Action members according to the anonymous AWL author, on the day there were a handful of others who acted as SA supporters. As everybody knows, SA is a shadowy organisation with many fronts and many strings. Our article made exactly that point.

So why is the author of the AWL article so determined to accuse the Weekly Worker of peddling "factual and political errors"? It would seem that the AWL is worried by the growth and success of Communist Students and is acutely aware of its own threadbare leftwing credentials.

For instance, believe it or not, Sacha Ismail - a leading AWL student organiser - voted as a matter of so-called principle against our amendment calling for the "immediate" withdrawal of US and UK forces from Iraq. This is because of the AWL's disgraceful and ever more transparent pro-imperialism. This organisation also has a pro-Zionist record notorious on the left. It founding patriarch, Sean Matgamna, noisily characterises himself as a Zionist. Par for the course. He is a first camp 'socialist' who maintains that the 1945 Labour government - yes, the one that presided over numerous colonial wars, that broke strikes and helped to found Nato - was an example of a workers' government. In that craven spirit the AWL hysterically welcomed the election of Tony Blair and New Labour in May 1997. He would unleash a "crisis of expectations", it foolishly claimed.

Given these rotten politics, it is hardly surprising that the AWL considers that the best means of defence is to attack the Weekly Worker Why? Because our paper is the AWL's most determined and consistent Marxist critic.

However, being a mere minion, patently being unable to deal with the big political issues of the day, our anonymous AWL author is forced to make mountains out of molehills.

Hence, when comrade Ben Lewis wrote a rather mildly worded criticism of the AWL - perhaps too mildly worded - over Venezuela because it agreed at the SYN conference a compromise motion which removed all reference to Hugo Chávez as a Bonapartist, it produces a completely evasive response.

This is what comrade Lewis wrote: "While I may have reservations about the AWL position, it is far better than the uncritical tailing of Chávez favoured by the soft left. In my view the AWL should have stuck to its guns. Even if its position had been defeated, it would at least have been raised at conference for debate and discussion" (Weekly Worker January 18).

And this is the anonymous AWL author: "We decided to oppose the pro-Chávez motion by arguing for SYN, at least at this early stage, to concentrate on the points of agreement - support for the Venezuelan workers and opposition to US intervention. What is unprincipled about that?"

Of course, in the first place comrade Lewis never accused the AWL of being "unprincipled" - at least on this issue. As the reader can clearly see, what he wrote about was at the level of tactics.

Given the Chávez mania infecting the left, it would have been better to have had honest differences out in the open than a diplomatic compromise. Why surrender to the pro-Chávez left at this stage of the battle? Why not submit a motion expressing your actual perspective, especially given the rubbish about 'Venezuelan socialism' being pushed by sections of the left? It would be misleading to suggest that the comrades were keeping their beliefs to themselves - they were vocal in their criticisms on the SYN e-list (and rightly so). But what they did not do was to bring them to the floor of the conference in the form of a clear motion, where it might have actually have helped to clarify rather than obscure.

No, on this issue there is nothing necessarily "unprincipled" about coming to a compromise. But why did the AWL delegation feel the need to draw back from expressing its own position "at this early stage"? Why not fight for what you believe from the beginning?

The AWL's anonymous author also stupidly huffs and puffs in response to Dave Isaacson's criticism of its failure to support a Communist Students amendment on the minimum wage. Here is what is said: "The conference was asked to choose between a flat formula of 'at least £8 an hour' or the amazingly badly worded CPGB amendment calling for a commission to decide (wait for it) 'what the working people and oppressed sections of the population actually need to reproduce themselves physically and culturally'. Leaving aside the weird, tokenistic nod to the oppressed, what workers need to reproduce themselves physically is the bare subsistence minimum - 'culturally' just adds confusion. Evidently a commitment to pseudo-Marxist jargon comes before a commitment to clarity. That is why most of us abstained."

What is badly worded in our motion? It is in perfectly good English and it makes perfect sense to anyone who has bothered to master the ABCs of Marxism. What is 'amazing' about a workers' commission deciding the minimum level of pay and benefits? That is exactly what the Third International called for - and later Leon Trotsky himself followed in those footsteps in his Transitional programme.

By contrast, the AWL prefers to let the European Union bureaucracy or the Low Pay Unit set our sights for us. That is practical politics for them. Practical trade union politics, yes. But it has nothing to do with communist politics as a method.

Idiotically the AWL accuse the CPGB of setting some "ideal or fair wage". Idiotically because, of course, we do no such thing. We simply have the temerity to point out that the minimum wage set by the Low Pay Unit is in all probability far below "what workers need to reproduce themselves physically and culturally". This only causes confusion to those wedded to the 'practical' politics of the trade union bureaucracy.

We say that workers not only need food, clothes and shelter - the so-called bare minimum sanctioned by the Low Pay Unit. Everyone in our class should as a right be able to operate as a full member of society. There is nothing "abstract" about this, as claimed by the AWL author. Such matters are decided by the ever changing level of culture in a particular society "¦ and crucially by the class struggle and class consciousness.

To reproduce labour-power in a society like Britain today requires that individuals are able to meet basic needs such as: education of their children to 'A' level and access to life-long learning; having a car for leisure as well as travel to work; comprehensive provision of healthcare that allows for a full and active life; the ability to buy books and TV subscriptions; access to the internet through a home computer; the watching of films, etc, on a DVD player; owning a mobile phone; being able to regularly go to the theatre, cinema, the pub or a restaurant; and taking a foreign holiday every now and again "¦ Or does the AWL's anonymous author think it right that the Low Pay Unit would effectively deny such 'luxuries' to those on its minimum pay level?

According to our anonymous writer, we are demanding "an arbitrarily maximised figure that supposedly fulfils need in the abstract". This is risible. The figure we suggest is neither "arbitrarily maximised" nor "abstract". What we emphasise is method.

Instead of turning to the state or the trade union bureaucracy for a realistic figure (the method of the AWL), we want to involve the working class itself - and through discussion and education raise expectations and thereby generate mass struggle. Yes, we champion the principle of need - the economics of the working class - not the economics of the capitalists and the trade union bureaucracy favoured by the AWL.

For the AWL £8 an hour is deemed practical because it has been agreed by the Low Pay Unit. Strange, in that case, that its rejoinder asks: "Would the AWL be content with a minimum wage of £8 an hour, or a student grant of £150 a week - or a 35-hour week for all workers? No, and we make no secret of this."

But by starting with what it admits is inadequate the AWL insists, self-deludingly, that its demands would "mobilise broader layers of people into struggle". Once again, then, we return to method.

The AWL's approach, if it were consistent, should see it demanding not £8 an hour, rather, say, £6. This is what the TUC is calling for "¦ by October 2007. Ditto the AWL's student grant and the working week.

Quite frankly, if workers fought as a class for a £6 minimum wage - through mass demonstrations, strikes and public and workplace meetings up and down the country - or a £100 student grant, or a 38-hour maximum working week, that would indeed represent a "major step forward" (the AWL's phrase) in terms of what really matters - the ability of our class to form itself into a collective.

We only suggest that the prospect of mobilising workers as a class to win any demand under capitalism is hugely increased if as many as possible of them are involved in the process of deciding what to fight for from the beginning. Our method is not only tried and tested: it is by the far the best in terms of education, widening the mobilisation and intensifying the conduct of the struggle - not least because it is squarely based on the readily understood principle of need. A principle that points beyond wage-slavery to an entirely different kind of society.

Both the struggle of the working class and capitalism as a system constantly create new needs (which in the advanced capitalist countries are not simply physical, but increasingly cultural). However, because need as a category is constantly shifting and expanding, it is almost always left unfulfilled. Logically then to meet need the system itself must first be challenged and then replaced.

The irony of all this is that the comrades really seem to believe that £8 an hour in and of itself is an example of "transitional demands" - transitional to what? In reality what we have is yet another example of the AWL's circular economism. That is, the politics of trade unionism within capitalism.

Finally, the CPGB and Communist Students say that unless the working class is organised into a mass Communist Party there can be no chance of a successful revolution or a transition to communism. The biggest barrier at the moment to achieving that goal is the abysmal state of the existing left. It is disorganised into countless confessional sects and aspires to all manner of hopeless halfway houses. However, it would be stupid to ignore the left, or to imagine that we can simply circumvent it. We must go through the existing left through a process of political combat and programmatic clarification.

Sadly, this task is beyond the AWL. That is why the anonymous author writes uncomprehendingly of the CPGB "flitting back and forth between the fight for workers' representation and fishing in Respect".

To the AWL this appears to be nothing but a contradiction. In reality it is part and parcel of the same fight. Where the AWL forlornly dreams of a Labour Party mark two, we fight in the here and now for what would really make a qualitative difference. The unity of Marxists as Marxists in the campaign to establish a mass Communist Party.

Certainly without such a party the working class is nothing - just a slave class within capitalism. With such a party, though, the working class can liberate humanity and become everything.