This year’s Ideas for Freedom — the annual weekend of socialist discussion and debate hosted by Workers’ Liberty — will focus on how Marxist ideas can help turn the tide of class struggle.
For five years the ruling class, in Britain and all over the world, has been using the crisis of their system to their advantage — to ride roughshod over our living standards, our rights, and our resistance. Capitalism is widely discredited, but the tide of struggle is running strongly in the capitalists’ favour. We’ll be discussing how to change that.
Transforming the labour movement
To turn the tide, we need to turn the labour movement around. With almost seven million workers in trade unions, the British labour movement is still incredibly strong — so why has it made so little difference in stopping the Tories’ offensive?
What battles, both from the our movement’s past and going on today, suggest ways to revive and rebuild?
On the Friday night of IFF, we will be showing Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ‘45, about how workers gained the NHS and welfare state after World War 2.
Jill Mountford, a Workers’ Liberty supporter on the steering committee of the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, and Daniel Cooper, Vice President of University of London Union, will lead a discussion focusing on how and why a determined working class won so much but failed to overthrow capitalism — and what we can learn for our fight today.
The Labour Party of today is very different from the Labour Party of 1945: Ed Miliband is unwilling to even oppose all cuts. Yet the bulk of our trade union movement remains affiliated, and there is no alternative working-class political force, big or small, on the scene. What does that imply for socialists, who want the working class to have its own political voice? IFF 2013 will feature a discussion on what’s happened to the Labour left, with left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell and Jon Lansman of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. And at a time when there is much discussion about Labour councilors defying cuts, but relatively few actually doing so, Edd Mustill will speak about his new play The Rest of the Cod, about the victorious struggle of Clay Cross council against Edward Heath’s government in the early 70s.
Most of the Tories’ cuts have yet to go through. From benefit cuts to higher education, from the destruction of local government to the privatisation of the NHS, how can we stop them in their tracks? Edd Bauer of Birmingham Communities Against the Cuts and Ruth Cashman, secretary of Unison in Lambeth Council, will be among our panel speakers.
Cleaners’ struggles have been a major feature of the last few years, particularly but not only in London. Why is that the case? Is it a passing phenomenon, or could it be something like the beginnings of the “New Unionism” movement of the 1880s and 90s? How can other workers, both similarly precarious and more secure, support these inspiring campaigns and what can they learn from them?
We will be holding a forum on “The cleaners’ revolt” with speakers including Robinson, a University of London cleaner involved in the Tres Cosas campaign for sick pay, holidays and pensions, as well as activists from the IWGB union and the Richard Crane, a cleaner and RMT rep on London Underground. And our Saturday evening social will be a Latin-themed fundraiser for Tres Cosas, as part of their summer of action to win their demands.
How should we understand the “working class” today? Is it a disappearing force? Are most people in Britain workers? Martin Thomas of Workers’ Liberty and Scott Lash of Goldsmiths University will debate the issues.
Struggles like the cleaners’ revolt pose many issues about oppression and liberation in our movement.
So do recent controversies about sexism, sexual and violent abuse and women’s oppression on the left and in the broader labour movement. To provide a space for working-class activists to discuss these issues, we will be holding a forum on “Fighting sexism in the labour movement”. Confirmed speakers include Becky Crocker, an activist in London Underground RMT, and Maria Exall, a telecoms worker and Communication Workers’ Union activist who chairs the TUC’s LGBT committee.
Other socialist feminist discussions at Ideas for Freedom will include Camila Bassi speaking on the fight against gender violence worldwide, with a focus on India, and Hannah Thompson leading a workshop on the ideas of feminist theorist and “queer” theorist Judith Butler.
The role of Marxist ideas
Marxists trying to help develop class struggles do not simply repeat “More militancy!”
There is a rich tradition in Marxism about how to formulate goals for struggle and how to organise a fight — including the early years of the Communist International, before the rise of Stalinism, when workers inspired by the Russian revolution set out to win the majority of the world’s labour movements for socialist ideas.
Ideas for Freedom will include a series of workshops on the fundamental ideas discussed at the 1922 Congress of the Comintern, the last Congress before it began to be corrupted by the Stalinist counter-revolution: “transitional demands”, “united front” and “workers’ government”. We will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these ideas, how they have been misused and their relevance today.
The opening plenary of the event will also look at the role of “transitional demands” today, with RMT activist Janine Booth, Unite activist Elaine Jones and Unison activist Ed Whitby highlighting different aspects of a “workers’ plan” to fight back.
The SWP is the biggest “Marxist” group in Britain today, and it is in a deep crisis that shows no sign of ending. Sean Matgamna of Workers’ Liberty and journalist John Palmer, both of whom sat on the national committee of what became the SWP in the 1970s, will discuss the “International Socialist” tradition which generations of SWP have been taught is the pride of their organisation. The “IS tradition” was supposed to provide an alternative to Stalinism and Stalinist-influenced Trotskyism — how did things go so badly wrong?
The SWP claims to be “Leninist”. What does that mean? Cathy Nugent will look at myths about Lenin’s ideas and the claims of “Leninist” groups. We will also be continuing our reassessment of the contribution of Antonio Gramsci to Marxist ideas.
Learn from revolutionary history
Every year Ideas for Freedom features a stream of introductory sessions looking at a particular aspect of Marxist ideas.
This year, we decided to do that slightly differently, looking at revolutionary struggles around the world which we think were particularly significant for socialist politics.
Instead of looking at the non-working class revolutions sometimes lauded on the left — China 1949, Vietnam, Cuba — our choice highlights the ideas of socialism as working-class self-liberation. Rosie Huzzard will lead a workshop on the Paris Commune; Heather Shaw and Stephen Wood on China in 1925-7; Tony Byrne on the rise of Solidarnosc in Poland.
Other sessions on revolutionary history will include Vicki Morris and Chris Marks on the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and Sacha Ismail discussing the role of African American soldiers in the US civil war, illustrated with clips from the film Glory.
Other sessions will include a speaker from the rank-and-file workers’ organisation UID DER on working-class organising in Turkey; a radical East London walking tour, led by David Rosenberg of East End Walks; debate on Hugo Chavez’s legacy; victimised Australian trade union militant speaking by Skype; and Sarah Weston and Ellie Clarke leading a discussion on socialism and theatre.