Marxists and anarchists at Sheffield University debate - sort of

Submitted by Anon on 28 July, 2008 - 4:25 Author: Daniel Randall

Recently, members of the Anarchist Federation in Sheffield formally withdrew from the Workers' Rights Coalition, an informal campaigning network of activists at the University of Sheffield set up by the local No Sweat group (which included some AWL members) to investigate and campaign around workers' rights issues effecting campus workers such as cleaners and catering staff.

The AFed comrades cites the AWL's "vanguardism" and our advocacy of encouraging workers to join mainstream trade unions (such as Unite, Unison and the GMB) as reasons why they could not work within the campaign. Following their statement of withdrawal, a lengthy email exchange between the AF and the AWL began, covering several points of political disagreement between us.

The AWL is firmly committed to the maximum possible debate between left groups and activists from different traditions within revolutionary, working-class anti-capitalism. We believe such debates should be had in the open; we do not believe that the exchange of ideas should be the sole property of an initiated elite. However, when we proposed to the AF comrades that the exchange should be published online, they refused. Although the Sheffield AF obviously has no veto over what we do with our own website, after some discussion and in the interests of courtesy we have decided to respect their wishes. We therefore apologise for not being able to publish the debate in full and print below only our own contributions, which appear with the earlier one first.


Comrades -

We are saddened, but not surprised, by your decision to withdraw from the Workers' Rights Coalition at Sheffield University. We write this response as AWL members within the WRC in the spirit of open and comradely debate. It is a little more comprehensive than your statement but given that you have, perfectly legitimately, opened up something like a formal political dialoguebetween us locally we thought we'd use the opportunity to draw out some broader areas of difference.

It's probably necessary to clear up a bit of the history before getting onto the politics; your description of the WRC as "an AWL initiative" is more than a little disingenuous and - we would argue - a notion you have constructed to justify your withdrawal from what a remains a potentially very significant campaign. It's true that AWL members were involved in launching the WRC in April 2006, but only as part of the Sheffield No Sweat group which included a majority of non-AWL activists. AFed members were present at early WRC meetings and at no stage made any attempt to intervene politically. At more recent WRC meetings, AWL members were in a distinct minority (there were, for example, as many AFed members present) and again, AFed comrades made no attempt to argue their politics despite the clearly open and democratic nature of the meeting. Describing the WRC as "an AWL initiative" implies that we have in some way attempted to establish and maintain ownership over it when the reality is quite different. If the AWL members at Sheffield University have any kind of "ownership" over the WRC "brand" it is only because comrades from other tendencies, such as yourselves, have failed to commit to the project or at the very least openly argue through the differences that would preclude involvement. One email summarily announcing your "withdrawal" isn't a very good substitute for discussing differences in the open.

Your email also hints at a particularly bizarre logic on your part in terms of joint work with other left groups. According to your email, collaboration with the AWL in the ongoing anti-military campaign is acceptable because it's a "single issue" campaign and because "our politics on the issue are united." We would take serious issue with both of those statements; firstly, we do not believe in conventional "single issue" campaigning and believe that, even when one particular issue takes primacy (anti-military work, opposing sweatshops, defending public services etc.), part of the job of revolutionaries within such campaigns is to explain how such an issue fits into class struggle more generally and to build links between other working-class struggles. To successfully conduct anti-military campaigning, for example, we believe that it's necessary to take up issues such as low-pay and precariousness (the social factors that drive young working-class people into the army) as well as issues such as university democracy (as you know, it is the capitalist nature of the university that compels and allows it to maintain such close links with the armed wing of the state).

Secondly, it is far from the case that "our politics on the issue are united." For example, for a piece of anti-military direct action in which we were both involved, an AWL member was democratically mandated by the Sheffield Activist Network to draft a leaflet. The leaflet he drafted was general anti-capitalist propaganda, expressing opposition to the British military's imperialist adventures abroad as well as solidarising with the struggles of working-class people effectively economically conscripted into the army. An AFed member dismissed the leaflet as "too long", and rather than attempting a redraft summarily replaced it with one that was far narrower and dealt only with the issue of how badly rank-and-file soldiers are treated by their officers and why people should therefore not join the army. Not only was this a particularly undemocratic maneuver for someone who places so much emphasis on organisational democracy, but it also meant that the politics on which the action was based were hugely insufficient. The most common response from the public that day was "why do you oppose the British military? They protect us." That question needs a comprehensive anti-capitalist answer; a leaflet that says "a soldier's life is very hard" is not good enough. Clearly, then, our politics are in fact not united.

However, you have collaborated with us in that project and us with you. This is because we believe that, as long as the space exists within a particular campaign to argue for our politics, we are happy to be involved - even if we have "irreconcilable" differences with the politically hegemonic element (which, in the case of SAN's anti-military campaign, was yourselves). It is disappointing that you do not share this attitude. A further example is the potential forthcoming collaboration between us around a meeting with an anarchist militant from the Oaxaca struggle. Although we undoubtedly have clearly differing conceptions of how such a struggle should develop, we are happy to be involved in any way we can with such a meeting because it is an opportunity to offer basic solidarity to a working-class militant involved in a hugely significant campaign and, within the framework of such solidarity, share ideas about the way forward for Oaxaca. Why is collaboration there possible - despite the clear differences - but absolutely precluded in the WRC?

To deal with the substantial politics of your email, we'd like to begin by rejecting your characterisation of the AWL. While the AWL is a democratic centralist and "vanguardist" organisation, you appear incapable of understanding these concepts in anything other than their Stalinised forms. We identify very much as libertarian communists and see no contradiction between this libertarianism and a belief in democratic structures.

We would appreciate it if you could point to concrete instances within the embryonic discussions around the WRC where you feel we have argued that "centrally-controlled professional cadres" should "lead" workers' struggles. The idea is a nonsense; firstly, the AWL has no "professional cadres" in Sheffield. Secondly, we are the only tendency on the left that places any real emphasis on rank-and-file control of struggles and have consistently argued in Sheffield that any workers' right campaign must be worker-led and not conducted as a philanthropic or paternalist exercise on the part of student activists. Indeed, in a recent WRC meeting the key argument was over this very issue and was between us and yourselves on the one hand and CPGB comrades on the other. Did you think we were play-acting?

There is, we believe, underlying political confusion on your part. For us Marxists - real Marxists, not Stalinists or Stalinised Trotskyists - socialism is an act of working-class self-emancipation. Our concept of the "vanguard" is therefore not only different from, but the polar opposite of the secretive, bureaucratic elite advocated by all exponents of socialism-from-above (including would-be anarchist autocrats like Bakunin). It is simply the conscious self-selection of the most advanced elements of the working class and its allies, organising themselves democratically to help the working class as a whole become conscious of itself so that it can break wage-slavery and bourgeois state power in a revolution from below. Without a revolutionary vanguard, the fight for working-class self-consciousness and self-emancipation is impossible. On this basis, we are not ashamed to be "vanguardists"; we are proud of it.

Your inability to understand this revolutionary democratic conception of the vanguard also demonstrates an ignorance of your own tradition; revolutionary anarcho-communists have, in the past, shared at least a version of such a conception and an anarchist newspaper published around the time of the First International was in fact called 'The Vanguard'. Your own organisation into an anarcho-communist group (rather than acting as nebulously affiliated individual activists, as many who call themselves anarchists do) also suggests that you believe that democratic collective organisation amongst the most politically advanced elements of our class is necessary.

You further willfully misrepresent us on the issue of trade union membership. At no point - either during the formation of the WRC or in the AWL's general political activity - have we argued that trade unions, as they are currently constituted and led, have working-class interests at heart nor that they are now, nor ever can be, vehicles for revolutionary change. We also emphasised from the very beginning that we did not want the WRC to function as a recruitment campaign for Unite or the GMB. However, the mainstream trade union movement as it exists is the only movement in this country in which workers are organised as workers at the point of exploitation (i.e. the workplace). We therefore believe that no-one who is in any way serious about class struggle can bypass or attempt to shortcut the labour movement. It is a key arena for struggle - in the first place, struggle against the very tendencies you identify towards capitulation, sell-out and class-collaboration. By refusing to countenance the notion of even joining a trade union, you abstain from this struggle.

There is also an issue of legal protection involved, and - like it or not - trade union membership does afford workers serious legal protection, particularly where the union in question is recognised by the employer (as Unite and Unison are at Sheffield University). By opposing trade union membership, you are asking low-paid workers to stick their heads above the parapet without even the most rudimentary legal protection to fall back on.

We also find your use of this issue (trade union membership) to precipitate your withdrawal from the WRC a little contradictory; most AFed members in Sheffield are also active in the IWW, a revolutionary syndicalist group which - we believe - openly advocates dual-carding for workers in already-organised workplaces. How does the rest of Sheffield IWW, and the IWW nationally, feel about the fact that several of its leading activists have "withdrawn" from an embryonic workers' rights campaign on the basis that they could not bring themselves to suggest to workers that joining a recognised trade union might be a good idea? It is particularly disappointing that you have "withdrawn" from the campaign before fully arguing-through these differences given that AWL members within the WRC would certainly have been happy to discuss IWW involvement in any campaign. While we would always have emphasised the importance of joining a recognised union (in this case Unite or Unison), we would have been happy to discuss collaboration with the IWW (something for which there is already a precedent; AWL members worked alongside AFed members in a recent Starbucks campaign).

Your attitude to workers joining mainstream trade unions is, to be frank, bizarre. Yes, the unions are dominated by a bureaucracy which ties them to the ruling class; yes, as organisations which exist to negotiate within the wages system and capitalism, they have an inherent tendency towards bureaucracy and conservatism. But those are not the only tendencies they have. As organisations built by the workers to protect themselves against the ceaseless encroachments of capital, they are necessarily forced to struggle even while the bureaucracy remains intact. Moreover, in a situation of heightened class struggle and radicalisation, that bureaucracy can be weakened, pushed back and shattered. To make sure that happens, however, we must begin the task today.

We have no brief for the bureaucracies of the existing unions; nor do we claim that trade unions can by themselves ever be adequate instruments for the class struggle. But trade unions are, in essence, what Marx called "ramparts of resistance". They are the basic organisations of self-defence that workers create against the attacks of the boss class. Workers, despite the repeated and foul betrayals of the trade union bureaucrats, know this: it is no coincidence that every strike sees thousands of new members stream into the unions (something which you presumably oppose).

All in all, we believe your withdrawal from the WRC to be based on deliberate mischaracterisations of the AWL's role and our politics. We can only speculate about your reasons for this; we have, in the past, approached you with the idea of setting up a formal, public debate between our organisation with the aim of clarifying some of these areas of difference. We would like to reiterate that proposal now - if areas of potential joint work are threatened, such a debate becomes even more necessary.

Daniel Randall and Gemma Short (for the AWL)


Comrades -

We were sorry to read that you do not believe it's useful to continue the current discussion/exchange between our organisations. While we accept that simply continuing to exchange lengthy emails is not necessarily productive, we feel that debate between revolutionary organisations (particularly in circumstances in which the ideas under discussion have a direct impact on day-to-day class-struggle activism in which both groups are engaged) is almost always worthwhile. We would therefore like to make two proposals.

Firstly, we would like to publish the exchange thus far (comprising your initial statement of withdrawal from the WRC, our reply and your final response) on our website, All articles on our website have a 'comments' feature and publishing the debate here will allow a much wider range of people to engage with the ideas and contribute themselves. Hopefully this proposal will be uncontroversial; we see no reason why political debate about our ideas should remain the sole property of the members of our organisations (or indeed the recipients of individual emails).

Secondly, we would like to reiterate a proposal that has been made semi-formally on a number of occasions for a joint public meeting between our organisations in the freshers' week of the 08/09 term (which begins on 22nd September). We can discuss exactly how this meeting should be framed (a straight-up 'anarchism vs Marxism' debate may not necessarily be the most useful format) but we certainly feel that a forum in which different traditions of revolutionary anti-capitalist politics can be discussed and debated openly would be worthwhile, particularly given the traditional dominance of the Sheffield University left by the dogmatism of sectarian organisations.

In solidarity - Daniel Randall (for the AWL)

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