AWL school: Economism and frontist delusions
Mike Macnair was at the Ideas for Freedom school to listen, to learn and to debate
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty public summer school, Ideas for Freedom, was held last weekend, with evening events on Thursday and Friday and two full days on Saturday and Sunday.
Some CPGB comrades attended on the Saturday and, in casual conversation leading member Mark Osborn asked me what we were doing there. He said there was “nothing there” for us - which assumes we were engaged in some sort of sect manoeuvre. In fact, we were there to learn: we wanted to listen to what AWL comrades, and non-AWL invited speakers, were saying, and to participate (as far as possible) in educational debate and discussion; though we did sell some literature and distribute a leaflet explaining CPGB’s differences with AWL on the question of left unity.
Overall, the event looked like a success. There were over 100 people at the plenary, and a good mix of age groups and genders, if less of ethnicities: a good many left public events at the moment tend to be rather male, elderly and white. Ideas for Freedom does not seem to have suffered too much from the direct competition of the People’s Assembly, though it was obviously a much smaller event. While the AWL and its predecessor organisations (Workers’ Fight, International-Communist League, Socialist Organiser) have been operating on roughly this scale since the 1970s, it was a creditable attendance, given the dire state of the left generally.
The CPGB’s most obvious difference with the AWL is around the question of imperialism and the politics of British and US-led allied ‘western’ overseas interventions. Like the AWL, but unlike the Morning Star, Socialist Workers Party and others in the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, we refuse to prettify or support the various regimes at any time targeted by ‘the west’, and advocate support for - for example - the workers’ movement in Iran against the clericalist regime. Unlike the AWL, however, we insist on outright opposition to British and ‘western’ wars, sanctions, etc, and are willing to cooperate in the anti-war movement with those who do support the targeted regimes, while reserving the right to criticise their politics. The AWL in our view uses weasel words to avoid clear opposition to the British state’s overseas operations.
This issue, however, was not significantly on display on Saturday, and from the agenda seems not to have been on display on the Sunday either. The weekend was much more focussed on the immediate economic class struggle (here and abroad) and on ‘identity politics’, particularly feminism.
CPGBers went to the opening plenary, ‘Marxist ideas to turn the tide: liberation, workers’ control, workers’ government, expropriate the banks’, and to some of the following parallel sessions. I chose the session on ‘After Taksim Square: workers and the revolt in Turkey’, which featured speakers via Skype from the Turkish organisation, the Association of International Workers Solidarity (UID-DER); and that on ‘Transitional demands and the united front’, given by young AWLer Tom Harris. The major themes I got out of them were the ideas of working class politics and what it means, and ‘transitional demands’ and (more severely problematic) what that means.
The opening plenary started with the statement that the weekend would not be a rally, but an opportunity for discussion. Unfortunately, it also started half an hour late and, with four speakers, the time for discussion at the end was very limited. Three of the four were AWLers, billed as trade unionists - “Unite activist Elaine Jones”, “Unison shop steward Ed Whitby”, and “RMT executive member and AWL activist Janine Booth” - and Greek “revolutionary socialist” Theodora Polenta, who is an activist in Syriza and writes regularly for the AWL’s Solidarity newspaper.
Elaine Jones started with editions of the Communist manifesto that carry introductions claiming its ideas have been “disproved”: her own copy has an introduction by (ex- and anti-communist) historian AJP Taylor. The process involves, she said, distorting Marx’s ideas; but this was also done by people who called themselves ‘Marxists’. The most damaging form was Stalinism, exemplified by Castro, Chávez and Tienanmen Square; and, worse, the use of Marxism to give political support to Islamists. The reference to Marx in Ideas for Freedom would not be, contrary to Taylor, as a religious text, but with a view to understanding the world and to changing it.
The example of the (failure to) understand the world she gave was the ‘pop version’ of the 2008 crash as caused by problems in the US housing sector1 and leading to ‘socialism for the rich’ in the form of bailouts. The example of a doomed attempt to change it was the failure of the leadership of the labour movement to fight the current attacks. The alternative was to use “Trotsky’s idea” of transitional demands to develop a “plan to deal with the crisis”: generalised political responses, which also point the way forward to socialism. An essential element was the idea of a workers’ government, which could be used, as Klara Zetkin argued in 1922, as a way of propagandising for workers’ power. In Britain it would mean a government based on and responsive to extra-parliamentary workers’ organisation. This implied a campaigning orientation towards the labour movement.
Ed Whitby cast a brief eye outwards to the People’s Assembly, which would no doubt be celebrated for creating the broadest possible movement, and would hear left talk, including the threat of strikes, from important trade union leaders. But this was cheap rhetoric without a plan or strategy, and the union leaders had achieved no more than protest actions ending in capitulation. What was needed was the demand that Labour councils refuse to carry out the cuts; a union mandate obliging councillors to follow this policy, and the withdrawal of funding from those who refuse; and occupations to physically prevent cuts. The movement needs an alternative which goes beyond ‘less cuts’ and ‘tax the rich a bit more’: it should articulate a bold socialist alternative, starting with expropriating the banks and placing them under workers’ control - in this workplace occupations were central.
Janine Booth started with the homophobic murder of Steven Simpson last year and the grossly lenient sentence passed on his killers. The TUC disabled workers’ conference had responded by briefly occupying Tottenham Court Road - a good example. The case showed the state institutions are still anti-gay and anti-disabled and that formal equality is not enough.2 Capitalism came into the world promising liberty, equality and fraternity, but is unable to deliver because of its commitment to class inequality. Only the working class can overcome such oppressions. But this is not automatic: witness hostility to migrants and to claimants. Socialists have to point the underlying anger at the ruling class and its political servants. For Marx, socialism was a carnival of the oppressed,3 but labour movement organisations do not reflect this. Socialists have to properly understand the particular oppressions of sections of the class.
Theodora Polenta gave us a report from the recent and current struggle in Greece over the closure of the public broadcasting service, ERT, to which workers have responded with occupations and mass mobilisation, forcing a (temporary) back-down through the courts, while the Democratic Left party has quit the government. German chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that fresh elections in Greece would mean an immediate freeze on bailout funds.
Two weeks ago, comrade Polenta said, she would have given a “whinging” speech about how bad things were in Greece. But the government has overreached, underestimating the energy of the Greek working class. The class had not been defeated by the government, but by the trade union bureaucracy and the sectarianism of the left. The struggle over ERT is now central. If the government is defeated here, it will fall. If it wins, it will “rule with an iron heel”. It is imperative for Syriza that it not only participate, but politicise the struggle, make it the centre of society and build unity in action through workers’ committees in every workplace, community and street movements, and through unifying the left organisations. It is necessary to put forward a transitional programme to link today’s struggle to the future: nationalisation of all the main industries and strategic sectors; repudiate the debt; workers’ control not only of production, but also of distribution; a workers’ militia.
Merkel’s statement shows that this is now a struggle against the international capitalist class. A movement to destroy the existing order is linked to the issue of Greek exit from the euro (‘Grexit’), but not in the form of the (widespread) idea of a national paradise and national roads to socialism. International proletarian solidarity will be essential. That it is possible is shown by the Spanish Indignados, US Occupy, the Chilean student struggle, Taksim Square and the Bulgarian movement: not Greece against the EU, but the working class against it.
The brief discussion was fragmented in character. Mark Osborn said that this event was Ideas for Freedom, and the organisation the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. He does not use the word ‘socialism’ if he can get away with it, because it is tainted by the history of socialist authoritarianism. The big movements around the world - whether against corruption, nepotism and abuse of police power - are about freedom. What is missing is political coherence, a working class political party that can integrate the struggles.
A comrade from the Iranian Revolutionary Marxist Tendency also posed the question of the necessity of organisation: in his terms, a revolutionary leadership that can advance transitional demands, starting from present consciousness, to pose the question of power. An AWL comrade working in Heathrow asked why - as in his workplace - highly organised workers had not only rolled over, but actively accepted a seriously bad deal. The unions had been rebranded as service organisations, despite a leadership that described itself as socialist. The absence of a political focus of leadership meant that struggles and issues were seen only in isolation. Other interventions were on more limited points.
Comrades Booth and Jones replied from the platform. Comrade Booth expressed disagreement with Osborn on ‘socialism’: lots of other words were “tainted” too; we should reclaim them. Comrade Jones reasserted the issue of transitional demands: these posed things that people could really do: for example, the demand that Labour councillors vote against cuts was “really getting under the skin of the trade union bureaucracy”, unlike grand policy resolutions at conference. They also led towards the next phase in the struggle. The revolutionary organisation with clear sight of the overall path would tweak and change them to fit the current stage.
This session consisted of a Skype presentation from a woman comrade of UID-DER with a following question and answer session from a male comrade (I did not catch either name). The presentation argued that, in spite of the external similarity of Taksim Square to other ‘square’ events, this was not a genuinely popular uprising. Though it started with a (small) struggle over correct environmental demands, what it developed into was a response of the urban middle classes and white-collar workers to the growing authoritarianism of the Erdo?an government and its Islamisation policies.
The ‘national bourgeoisie’ represented by Turkish banks and by the Kemalists of the CHP and MHP were attempting to use it to overthrow the government, due really to unease about the peace process with the Kurds. The protests are more popular in middle class neighbourhoods than working class neighbourhoods; working class supporters are CHP voters, or acting as isolated individuals without a class perspective; the Turkish left participates because it is detached from the working class. The working class in general is “not interested”.
The task of proletarian revolutionaries, the comrade argued, is to work for working class consciousness. The aim is to get all workers involved in the struggle for rights and freedoms, especially the right to strike. When the working class does stand up and fight, both camps (government and opposition) are united. The realities point to the centrality of agitation among workers, and she went on to describe the UID-DER’s work of this sort.
This presentation appeared so classically economistic in character that two of the first tranche of three questions were addressed to the point: the first questioner asked about UID-DER’s relation to other Turkish left groups; I asked whether UID-DER comrades were not repeating the errors of those in the French left before 1914, who took an abstentionist attitude to the Dreyfus affair; a third questioner made more directly the point that if the workers’ movement does not intervene in relation to the struggles of the middle classes, the latter will be used against the working class.
In response to these questions, the respondent shifted ground. The other groups were Stalinist. UID-DER was not saying that the protests should not be supported. The point was, in the first place, to differentiate between the various elements of the protest; secondly, that any real effect going beyond protest would require the participation of an organised working class. Since many workers supported the ruling AKP, this sort of protest could not convince them.
Most of the following questions sought basic factual information about the situation in Turkey or the work of UID-DER. However, Theodora Polenta, in two interventions, pressed the respondent further on the issues of the class character of the Taksim Square movement, on fissures in the regime, and on the illusion of seeking a ‘pure’ working class revolution. She appealed to the example of May ’68, which started with protests over sex-segregated student dormitories. In spite of my considerable doubts about the UID-DER comrades’ analysis and apparently economistic response to the protests, I also came back a second time, with the point that there was one aspect of their analysis which the British left should learn from: this was the need for working class organisation to make the difference between a broad, spontaneous protest movement, which inevitably would more or less rapidly evaporate, and a real revolution.
Tom Harris made a valiant attempt to introduce these two issues within the scope of a 90-minute workshop. They are distinct questions, linked mainly by their having first appeared in the experiences and debates of the German Communist Party (KPD) in the revolution of 1918-19 and the early Weimar republic, and having been carried from there into the Communist International, particularly at its Fourth Congress. Most of comrade Harris’s introduction therefore focused on the history: the split in the Second International; the resulting existence of mass, but nonetheless minority, communist parties; the problem facing these parties, of winning the majority of the working class; the ‘Stuttgart experience’ of experiment with united-front policy on the basis of a limited action programme agreed by communist and non-communist trade unionists; Bukharin’s opposition to these ideas in the Comintern, as representing a regression to the old socialist approach and “assuming a position of weakness”. While our situation today is very different, he argues that the issues are still relevant.
The substantive content of comrade Harris’s points can be stated as follows. The problem is how to win the majority. This is not a gradual process of patient persuasion, since there are constant class struggles - clashes on wages and conditions, state repression, self-defence against fascism, and so on: it is necessary to find the way to fight in the here and now. The possibility of common action with the rightwing workers’ organisations (Labour and similar parties and their trade union associates) exists because there is a contradiction between these parties’ working class social base and their policies, so that the rightwing leaders have to be able to some extent to justify themselves to their base. But their policies mean they do not have the means to fight effectively, and they will predictably sell out struggles.
The united front is therefore not merely about acting in unity, but doing so under conditions in which open debate and criticism of the rightwing leaderships is possible. There needs to be linkage between minimum sets of demands which can be agreed and the socialist revolution, to pose a persuasive alternative. If the far left is now much smaller than the 1920s CPs and Labour and similar parties far more bureaucratised and dead at the roots, the only alternative of pursuing the united front policy would be to limit yourself to small groups and individual contacts. In his summary at the end, he also made the strong point that the SWP’s (and Counterfire’s) concept of the united front is the opposite of the early Comintern’s conception: both because it silences criticism and because it has no commitment to a working class character.
The session was then broken up into small sub-groups discussing the application of the ideas of the united front and transitional demands to the Labour Party, the trade unions, the NHS and the struggle against fascism. This piece of ‘progressive education’ methodology was strikingly unhelpful: both the discussion in the sub-group in which I participated (trade unions) and the report-backs meandered.
In the small space afterwards for general discussion, I raised the issue that the AWL interpretation of ‘transitional demands’ is neither of Trotsky’s conceptions. It consists of isolated demands, not a programme which, in its totality, leads to working class political power (which would actually be a minimum programme). Nor is it a programme which bridges the gap between the minimum programme (for power) and the maximum programme (full communism): this would be a programme for Russian ‘war communism’ or for Pol Pot-ism, and is therefore now only used by dogmatists. Rather, the AWL conception was merely of techniques for agitation as “a dialogue with the masses” (Trotsky)4 familiar to the pre-war Second International. Comrade Harris responded in summing up that he had not used the usual Trot critique of the Second International on the max-min issue; but transitional demands could, nonetheless, be a “bridge to the maximum programme” more concrete than the party organisation itself.
The proletariat is the class of members of society who are not, and cannot be, in business for themselves, and are therefore dependent on working for wages, domestic labour on the basis of another’s wage, or the ‘social wage’ of pensions and benefits; and who do not have, unlike the middle and higher managerial stratum, the possibility of accumulating from the agency payments made by capitalists to this stratum and hence of themselves passing into the class of employers of labour or that of rentiers.
In pre-1939 capitalism, this class was highly stratified, with highly skilled workers forming an ‘aristocracy of labour’. Nonetheless, it was this stratum which provided most of the cadre - the activists and organisers - of the socialist parties and groups, including the Bolsheviks. During the cold war, the ascendancy of social democratic/Labourite and similar ideas in Europe meant a very significant destratification through low unemployment and mass trade unionism. With the end of the cold war, the trend has been reversed, and the stratification of the working class has sharply increased.
The highly skilled manual workers are still with us, though there are a lot fewer of them because of automation. The principal equivalent today comes in the form of educated white-collar workers of one sort or another. The error of the UID-DER comrades is to suppose that the working class consists only of factory workers and those living in the poor districts.
The AWL itself seems from this weekend to be affected by a closely related error: the supposition that class politics means, in substance, trade union politics centred on the immediate struggle over economic issues. This was reflected not only in the billing of the speakers in the plenary and what they spoke about, but also in the form of their strategic conception. The ‘present conditions and present consciousness’ from which their ‘transitional demands’ start is trade union consciousness; and the future to which they are to be a bridge is higher forms of trade union militancy, especially the workplace occupation, with other forms of activity very much in second place. Paradoxically, the UID-DER with its emphasis not only on trade union activity, but also on welfare activity and the development of working class collective culture,5 is here in advance of the AWL. From this point of view, Mark Osborn’s intervention in the plenary discussion was valuable, even if his idea of avoiding the word ‘socialism’ commits the same mistake as the ex-Marxism Today crowd.6
The crisis in Greece poses the limits of this approach most sharply. Comrade Polenta is absolutely correct to say that international solidarity would be indispensable to a revolution in Greece. But then, given the state of the European workers’ movement, to lead Greek workers in an attempt to take power through workers’ councils and the mass strike, relying on the existence only of ephemeral street actions, and to conclude that solidarity would be forthcoming would be to lead them up the garden path as surely as would the merchants of ‘Grexit’ claiming it would result in ‘socialism in one country’. But the same applies to Ed Whitby on cuts and hospital occupations. Yes, the workers could take the hospitals away from the bosses. But how would they then eat?
The problem which faces us now is not that of Germany in the 1920s or France in the 1930s. It is not the immediate choice between mass action and parliamentarism. It is of reconstructing the elementary ideas of class solidarity at a level equivalent to that at which the socialists of the later 19th century were working. But we do so at a disadvantage relative to 19th century socialists. We have to do so in a way which addresses precisely the problem Mark Osborne’s concern about the word ‘socialism’ addresses, that ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ - and, indeed, ‘trade union’ - have become tainted by the experience of bureaucratic centralism. The problems of political democracy as an alternative to capitalist rule, both in the state sphere and in our own organisations, are therefore central to us.
In this context, the idea of ‘transitional demands’ is severely problematic, because the story which it tells is not really of ‘dialogue with the masses’, but of their manipulation by the enlightened (and therefore permanent) leadership, which always stays one step ahead of the benighted masses, leading them by the nose. It is anti-democratic as such.
In comrade Harris’s account of the history of the united front policy, there was a missing element. In Trotsky’s 1922 theses for the enlarged plenum of the executive committee of the Comintern, On the united front, we find the following at point 3:
In cases where the Communist Party still remains an organisation of a numerically insignificant minority, the question of its conduct on the mass-struggle front does not assume a decisive practical and organisational significance. In such conditions, mass actions remain under the leadership of the old organisations which by reason of their still powerful traditions continue to play the decisive role.7
These theses were endorsed by the plenum and incorporated by reference by the Fourth Congress later that year.
Comrade Harris quite rightly set up the Comintern’s policy against the policy of the SWP. But the policy of the SWP is merely a variant on the policy of the Mandelites, who first came up with the idea that, in the new conditions after 1968, small organisations could, by appropriate tactics, force the united front on the mass parties and unions. In reality, as the practice of both the Mandelites and the SWP shows - and as the practice of the old CPGB showed before them - the result is either unity on the terms of the leaders of the mass parties and those of the ‘official lefts’ - ie, with suspension of criticism - or the creation of a small party front pretending to be a ‘united front’; or a combination of both. The AWL has for years now operated with small party fronts of one sort or another.
The present situation of the left is, in fact, weaker than the situation of the early CPGB - which was too weak, according to Trotsky, to apply the policy. We do not have a party, even a weak one, but only a series of factional fragments or sects. Our present problem is not to win the masses to our large minority party. It is to create a small minority party which could have a chance of becoming first a large minority, and then a majority.
In this context the ‘united front’ approach, insofar as it means more than defending trade union unity and participating in mass actions, but seeks for the small group to ‘take the initiative’ on mass actions, is a snare and a delusion. It involves imagining that the small group can “find the road to the masses” around all the other competing small groups; and, as a result, it produces practical sectarianism. When applied to relations between the groups, it attempts to dodge the problem of bureaucratic centralism, the sovereignty of the several leaderships, which blocks unification and the creation of a real party.
With this we return to Mark Osborn’s casual comment with which I began. CPGBers went to Ideas for Freedom because we have things to learn from the discussions, and to contribute to them. There is nothing odd about us doing so. It is something that all the groups should do more of. Debate is educational. The idea that there is something strange about attending another group’s school is what ought to be seen as odd.
1. This is not, in fact, a version of any of the Marxist accounts of the crisis which have been offered, but one of the standard ‘media economist’ versions.
2. In fact, discriminatory sentencing of this sort is not an example of the (true) statement that “formal equality is not enough”, but an example of the absence of formal equality: the judge did not treat like cases alike.
3. A search on the Marxists Internet Archive does not bring up this phrase or any similar use of ‘carnival’ (Marx’s uses of the word found on such a search are mainly derogatory or neutral).
5. See the English-language site at http://en.uidder.org.
6. See my ‘Theories of deception’ (Weekly Worker June 20).