Notes of a speech introducing the AWL made by Sacha Ismail to a student group on 15/01/04.
1. The first, basic thing the AWL stands for is the idea of socialists being organised. We believe that individual socialists, no matter how right their politics or good their intentions, can never be as effective as an organised, educated, activist socialist group.
We also believe that the last hundred years have seen many historical situations in which socialism was possible - and that the absence of effective socialist organisation has meant dozens of missed opportunities.
2. As I'm sure you know, however, the AWL is only one of many socialist groups that exist in Britain today.
As an organisation, we believe wholeheartedly in left unity - the idea that most of these groups could unite in a single, democratic socialist organisation; and that such unity is essential if socialism is going to become a real force.
We believe in unity, but not unity at any cost. We think that to be effective the left needs to rethink and redefine its ideas.
3. Even if it were possible, it would be stupid to throw away the experiences and debates of the 20th century and try to start from scratch.
Equally, the 20th century has left us with many self-styled "left" and "socialist" traditions. Some, like Stalinism, discredit the left. That's why an effective socialist organisation needs to redefine the left's basic political vocabulary, establishing clear definitions for what words like "socialist" mean.
4. The AWL calls itself Marxist and Trotskyist - not as membership badges for a select political club, but in the same sense that any real scientist is in the tradition of Einstein and Darwin. We try to learn from earlier socialist thinkers and struggles.
At the same time, we recognise that all sorts of very different ideas go under names like "Marxist" or "Trotskyist", and that in practice we are closer to some people who don't call themselves "Trotskyists" than many who do. For instance, I think it's true to say that Marxists have more in common with some anarchists than they do with Stalinist or semi-Stalinist Trot groups.
So we work for left unity, but we do so by organising for some distinctive ideas - and two big ideas in particular.
5. Working-class struggle
The first idea I want to talk about is working-class struggle.
a) The working class which Karl Marx saw as the key agent of progressive social change is today a universal class for the first time in history.
By "working class" I mean the class that lives by selling its labour power - not just manual workers or people who call themselves working-class, though in fact more people in Britain define themselves as working-class now than did in the 1960s. The working class is defined as a class by its relationship to other classes, the capitalist class that lives by its ownership of property - ultimately, that is, by exploiting labour power - and the petty bourgeoisie of the self-employed, independent professionals etc. Today, teachers are as much proletarians as those who work in factories.
The working class is now more than a third of the world's population, the biggest single class for the first time. As capitalism has spread across the globe, new working classes and with them new labour movements have sprung up - in South Korea, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil.
b) Marx's central idea that all history is the history of class struggles is more true now than ever, not less so.
One of the big problems of the left in the 20th century, though, is that much of it looked to forces other than working-class struggle to make socialism. It looked to benevolent bureaucrats, Third World nationalists - or sometimes anyone that opposed the Western capitalist status quo.
c) That's what Stalinism in the USSR was - not genuine, working-class socialism, but an anti-socialist counter-revolution made by a bureaucracy against the workers' revolution of 1917. Other Stalinist states, from Cuba to North Korea, fit the same pattern.
This is a version of what Marx called "reactionary socialism". It is no better, and in some ways worse, than capitalism from a working-class point of view, because it completely atomised the working class and prevented even basic workers' self-organisation. And the effect of Stalinism on the international workers' movement is a large part of the reason why today's socialist left is at a historically low ebb.
There are not many self-proclaimed Stalinists left. But much of even the anti-Stalinist left has had its world view compromised by the anti-democratic, anti-working class politics of Stalinism.
d) Working-class struggle is not a thing of the past. We can see that fact not only in the new workers' movements in the Third World, but in working-class resistance in Stalinist China and the gradual revival of the labour movements of developed countries like Britain and France.
e) The AWL argues for, and tries to put into practice, a socialist politics based on working-class struggle. In every social or political battle, our perspective is to organise the working-class movement as an independent factor, a "Third Camp" independent of all others. Our main activities are oriented to support and encourage working-class struggle.
f) So what does that mean in practice?
- We focus on trade union work. The great majority of our comrades are active in the trade union movement; our student members, when they leave college, are encouraged to get jobs in industry (whether that means civil servant or postalworker, teacher or train driver). We fight to transform the really existing labour movement, rather than trying to build something outside it as many left groups do.
- Our comrades in particular industries and workplaces produce regular bulletins and newsletters. Our Postalworker and Tubeworker bulletins in particular have played an important role in big class struggles.
- Because the class struggle is a political struggle, we advocate a fight for the creation of an independent workers' party and, ultimately, the establishment of a workers' government - a government based on and accountable to the labour movement, which pushes through pro-working class policies like free trade unions and universal, high quality public services paid for by taxing the rich.
That's why we oppose the current drive of groups like the Socialist Workers' Party to bury independent working-class politics in a populist electoral coalition around middle class politicians like the Saddam Hussein-apologist George Galloway. The working class needs its own political voice.
- We aim to build up working-class solidarity in Britain and all over the world. In international conflicts, we take a position based on international workers' solidarity, rather than simply opposing whatever our own government is doing. During the Iraq war for instance, we used the slogan "No to war, no to Saddam" and developed our links with the socialist opposition in Iraq and Iran.
Even more crucially, perhaps, we've played a central part in establishing No Sweat, which is an activist campaign against sweatshop labour all over the world - from Britain to Cuba and the Mexico to Vietnam.
g) In addition to our work in the labour movement, we also organise in colleges and universities, and in the National Union of Students. We campaign for free education as a socialist principle, working with others on the left to force the official student movement to fight for the interests of students.
6. Consistent democracy
So - a left based on working-class struggle. But also - a left based on consistent democracy. That's the second big idea.
a) The working class, as a class, cannot govern society without democracy. Without democracy, what you get is control by someone or some group which only claims to speak in the name of the working class.
There can't be collective ownership of social wealth without collective democracy. In Cuba and China, the state owns everything, but because there is no, or very little, or fake democracy, a bureaucracy - as Trotsky put it - owns the state.
Under capitalism, a limited amount of political democracy is possible. But democracy is permanently excluded from the fundamental economic basis of society. At work, capital is dictator and crowned king.
b) At the same time, effective workers' struggle is impossible without democracy. More than any other class, the working-class needs democratic rights - to organise itself, to strike, to demonstrate, to publish freely - if it is going to defend and advance its interests.
Moreover, unions will be not respond to the needs of their members, will not be effective in struggle, unless they are democratic. And the biggest strike movements always throw up rank-and-file committees and councils far more democratic than either unions or parliament-type institutions, making possible the establishment of a new type of democracy throughout society.
c) We fight for a new, socialist form of democracy based on workers' councils and so on, as existed in the early stages of the Russian revolution. But we also campaign to win democratic reforms within the existing Parliamentary system - for instance, abolition of the House of Lords, proportional representation and parliamentary control of the Government - as an essential part of the fight for a workers' government.
d) We believe that the struggle for democracy - in the working-class movement, in society and in the state - is inextricably bound up with the struggle for socialism. "No real socialism without democracy - and no real democracy without socialism", as Rosa Luxemburg almost put it.
e) We support other struggles for democracy too - the struggles of women, of oppressed minorities, of oppressed nations - both as ends in themselves and as essential part of building an effective workers' movement.
f) Take national oppression. We are against all nationalism, but also for equal rights for all nations - including the right to national self-determination. This is an issue on which, under the influence of Stalinism, much of the left has gone astray.
When communities or nations are at war, only a movement which seeks to unite workers on both sides through the struggle for consistently democratic solutions can drain the poison of nationalism and chauvinism. An approach which instead looks for "good peoples" and "bad peoples" will never succeed.
For example: the AWL is for equal rights for both nations in Palestine - two nations, two states, rather than the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a single Arab state as some socialists advocate. The Palestinians should have the right to self-determination, but it is not as simple as "Arabs good, Israelis bad". In fact, we look to the Israeli workers to champion the Palestinians' cause.
To sum up - the AWL's socialism is based on the intertwined ideas of working-class struggle and consistent democracy. These two themes underlie many of our distinctive arguments and activities.
Lastly, we also differ from much of the left in how we organise. We have policies and decisions and organised actions decided by majority vote, but also guarantee the rights of minorities in the organisation and hold our debates in public. Our website and our press (for instance our fortnightly newspaper Solidarity) are open for debate, something which is virtually unique on the British left. We believe that without such democratic structures and norms, the unity of the left will be unachievable.
We want left unity wherever different socialist currents can agree and free and open debate where we can't. So find out more, continue to debate us and work with us - and if you agree, join us.