Critical for the working class, critical of the left and frankly self-critical. Those were the essentials at the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (AWL) conference in London on 1-2 March. Paul Hampton reports.
The purpose of the AWL's conference was to draw a balance sheet on the last 12 months' work, debate differences within the organisation and set out the main political lines of our activity for the coming year, and in these respects it was a great success. Some of these issues are certain to be debated further in Solidarity over the coming months.
The opening session of conference discussed the impending war with Iraq and the unprecedented anti-war movement that has grown up in opposition to it. Clive Bradley argued that the US government, on a roll after Afghanistan, believes it can re-order the Middle East and secure its oil supplies by bombing Iraq into submission. He argued that the war will not free the Kurds, or bring democracy to the Iraqi people, as the US plans to replace Saddam with military rule or another dictator.
Clive said our opposition to Bush and Blair should not lead us to give any support to Saddam's totalitarian regime. The AWL are right to couple the fight to stop the war with opposition to Saddam, he argued. Socialists should not support either side in this war - it will not immediately be a colonial war, but rather more like a battle between big capital and small capital, a feature of this period of the 'imperialism of free trade'. Comrades agreed that we oppose the war in the name of international democracy and working class solidarity.
Clive told the conference, "the priority of the Alliance is to immerse itself in anti-war activity", and a number of speakers reported on initiatives they would be taking at work, at college and in their community over the coming weeks. There is a massive audience open to our ideas in the anti-war movement and comrades resolved to step up our involvement, taking the initiative to organise discussion and action.
The conference also discussed the politics of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC). Their politics are not representative of the anti-war movement as a whole, where many people see the need to say 'No to Saddam' as well as 'No to War'. The STWC is very much the mirror image of the ruling class, putting a plus where our rulers put a minus, rather than setting out a truly internationalist and class-based campaign.
Comrades criticised the popular frontism of the STWC on the Cairo declaration, the call for a 'Peoples' Assembly' and on relations with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) fundamentalists. Our alternative is to promote the internationalist statement put out by the US Campaign for Peace and Democracy (CPD), and to work in solidarity with Iraqi and Iranian socialists against war and fundamentalism. The AWL will take the fight against the war into the labour movement by arguing for workers' action, for no confidence in Blair, and for a referendum on the war.
Other aspects of our internationalism were discussed at the conference. Mick Duncan reported on the progress the No Sweat campaign has made over the year. He described successes which included the Kukdong/Mexmode tour and Puma campaign, the £5,000 raised for Indonesia unions, the Commonwealth Games and Nike Fun Run interventions, and the unionisation drive with the GMB. AWL members have played a significant part in this important campaign.
Mick also reported on the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) conference - the biggest student movement in the US since the Vietnam War. USAS, like No Sweat, orientates to the working class, and many of its members are involved in union organising. The AWL resolved to help build No Sweat groups across the country, work with other campaigns such as People and Planet and gain more union support for No Sweat. Producing our youth paper Bolshy will be an important part of that work.
I introduced a report registering the rapid development of capitalism in the Third World, which has created large working classes. Militant labour movements in Brazil, South Africa, Korea and Indonesia have important lessons for international socialists, and comrades were urged to study them and make direct links with socialists in these struggles. Bruce Robinson argued for a Workers' International, on the model of the First International, as part of our struggle to regroup the left internationally. The conference acknowledged that we had not carried out all the decisions taken last year on international work, but resolved to step up work around the CPD statement, organise a conference of our tendency around the European Social Forum in Paris in November and to work more closely with our international co-thinkers over the next year.
The conference began a serious discussion on child pornography and paedophilia. Gerry Byrne argued the labour movement should 'stand up for the vulnerable', and that children's rights came first on these issues. Janine Booth said that an age of consent is an important part of protecting children from abuse, but made the point that we don't want to criminalise sex between young people. Comrades agreed that child pornography was abusive, but that the issues around sexualised images of children were complex. The AWL agreed to continue the discussion in Solidarity and in our branches.
Sean Matgamna introduced the document, A New Tempo, which dealt with the activity of the AWL over the next period. The anti-war movement, the anti-capitalist movement and the revival in the unions all provide great opportunities for our politics. The AWL has a coherent political tradition rooted in authentic Marxism (cleansed of Stalinism), and a cadre of educated members.
However, Sean said, we suffer from the same curse as the original Trotskyists in whose tradition we stand - to be clear and right on big political questions but too organisationally weak to affect events decisively. We needed a 'cultural revolution' in our attitude, and should judge ourselves over the coming period by our capacity to recruit new members. When we denounce the pseudo-left, AWL people have no grounds for smugness, he insisted. Much of the fault is ours: if we were more effective, the left would not be what it is. He ended by quoting from WH Auden's famous 1936 poem, Spain:
The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day and the time is short and
History to the defeated
May say Alas, but cannot help nor pardon.
The conference resolved to up the tempo of our activity, especially to reach out to new people, establish a better system of education and step up our involvement in the labour movement and in campaigns.
The conference also discussed the AWL and the revolutionary left. Martin Thomas said that the working class needs organisation, and that for a socialist to be 'independent', without organisation, was a contradiction in terms. Martin argued that the particular way we organise is also important, because the working class needs consciousness, clarity and memory of past struggles. Hence our emphasise on building a democratic Marxist party around independent working class politics, and fighting to re-arm the labour movement with those politics.
The conference had a vital discussion on trade union political funds. John Bloxam argued the AWL has registered the Blair counter-revolution in the Labour Party at previous conferences, adopting a dual strategy of supporting independent working class candidates in elections and by getting unions to fight within the Labour Party for union policies. That was why we would be supporting FBU members standing in forthcoming elections, while fighting against the fragmentation of union political funds. A lively debate took place on how we get unions to struggle for the fighting policies, and on unions using the Labour Party/union link to assert themselves politically there were important differences of nuance; John Bloxam's motion was carried, with some amendment, but further debate seems necessary.
The conference registered the stagnation of the Socialist Alliance under the SWP's domination, but resolved to carry on our involvement, fighting to orientate the SA and the best people in it towards working class political representation. The conference registered our relations with the CPGB (Weekly Worker), and how discussions in the last year have shown them to be far from our politics, despite some apparent similarities.
The conference discussed our relations with the Revolutionary Democratic Group (RDG). Martin Thomas said there were long-standing differences with the RDG but over the last year important collaboration had taken place in the Socialist Alliance and in the firefighters' dispute. Steve Freeman from the RDG said they were looking for 'constructive engagement', but this would lead to fusion only if both groups were convinced there was the political basis for it. The AWL resolved to carry on with the discussions, and appealed to the RDG to increase joint activity.
At last year's conference the debate on child labour was held over. It had not been resolved during the year, and so was discussed again. All agreed that child labour is a damning indictment of capitalism, that children are super-exploited at work and that socialists support the fight of working children to improve their lives. Cathy Nugent argued for a universal ban on child labour, while Dave Ball argued for regulation rather than an outright ban in all circumstances. Cathy's motion eventually won a majority.
The conference was preceded by eight weeks of pre-conference discussion in branches and by e-mail, two rounds of regional aggregates and eight printed discussion bulletins. It elected a new National Committee. There were union fractions and other additional meetings during the weekend.
The conference closed with a hearty rendition of The Internationale.
The full texts of documents passed and rejected is available here.