Our fight-for-freedom weekend

Submitted by AWL on 13 July, 2021 - 7:53 Author: Gerry Bates
Khaing Zar Aung speaking at Ideas for Freedom 2021

Just over 200 people took part in Ideas for Freedom on 8-11 July, including our Thursday night film showing of Dear Comrades and our Friday evening “Battersea vs the British Empire” walking tour.

The film showing was solely online, and the walking tour solely in person, but the weekend was “hybrid”, run simultaneously in-person and online. Some people came in-person (and we took care about restricting numbers in rooms, having seats distanced, asking for face-coverings, having bookstalls and snacks outdoors rather than indoors); some people listened to and contributed to sessions via Zoom. Each session had both an in-person chair and a Zoom chair.

We’d never done an event like this before, and as far as we know we’re the first socialist group in Britain to do one. (The SWP, for example, did their “Marxism festival” this year online-only).

It was hard work, especially after some of the key people who had been working on the technical arrangements had to go into self-isolation in the days before, and one on the Saturday morning. But we pulled it off. Many participants, online or in-person, have congratulated our “techies” on their work.

The weekend had 30 sessions. Too many to report here, and the selection here of those mentioned is sadly fairly random. (The comrade prepared in advance to collate a report also ended up self-isolating at the last minute!)

The opening debate in the main hall (while other sessions ran simultaneously in smaller rooms) was between Ruth Cashman of Workers’ Liberty and John Strawson (once a leading activist in the International Marxist Group, now a law professor) on whether socialist revolution is possible or even desirable. It ranged over the nature of democratic revolutions, the question of who are the most consistent fighters for reforms, and the ecological emergency. It gave participants a useful introduction to who we are and why we are Marxists.

In the next main-hall debate on Saturday Anita Downs from Workers’ Liberty took issue with Frances Foley from Compass over the idea that Labour should unite with the Lib-Dems, SNP, etc. to form an electoral coalition to oust the Tories, a “Progressive Alliance”.

The same issue re-emerged in a Sunday main-hall session, where Alan Simpson, Michael Chessum, and Martin Thomas from Workers’ Liberty debated the lessons of Labour’s Corbyn era.

Simpson said that Jeremy Corbyn had been “brought down by his friends” in the “Leader’s Office”. Chessum argued that the Corbyn phase of the Labour left was more “Labourite” and electoralist than previous ones: his conclusion was that leftists should back a “Progressive Alliance” to get proportional representation, so as then to facilitate a split in the Labour which would create a party of the left (but not necessariy revolutionary left) in Britain analogous to those in Spain, France, Germany, etc.

Thomas dissented. A key limitation on Corbyn Labour was the grip of Stalinism at the “top”. Better outcomes would have been possible if the anti-Stalinist class-struggle left had done our work better over the years before 2015 and been stronger in 2015. A broad half-reformist-half-revolutionary party may sometimes be useful terrain for Marxist activity, but is no substitute for Marxist politics.

Epidemiology professor George Davey Smith spoke on what we know and do not know about SARS-Cov-2, notably about lessons from the four previous coronaviruses which have become endemic.

The discussion of free speech with Cath Fletcher and Shiva Mahbobi of the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran covered both the brutal attacks on freedom of expression and association in Iran, the Tories’ “culture-war” agitation presented as support for free speech on British university campuses, and a growing culture in the UK inimical to debate and discussion.

Paul Hampton’s session on “Why you should read Lenin’s What is to be done?” challenged the Stalinist myths about the book as manual set in stone for revolutionary organisation, and the mirror-image bourgeois myth about it being a manual for the Stalinist counter-revolution. In fact the book is instructive on how socialists can be active on all three fronts of the class struggle, economic, political, and ideological, so as to help elemental working-class upsurges develop their full potential rather than being limited by socialist “tailism”.

The session on Myanmar, with speakers over Zoom from the Myanmar workers’ movement Khaing Zar Aung and Moe Sandar Myint, found that the movement now calls on supporters abroad to demand that garment brands stop placing orders with Myanmar suppliers, rather than that the brands should call for supplies to guarantee leave, severance pay, etc. for workers.

Bruce Robinson’s session on “Alan Turing and us” generated lively discussion on the interrelation of human intelligence and computerised artificial intelligence.

To repeat, many other sessions produced good feedback: it’s just that this report is limited by our capacity to collect and collate comments, and by space.

About 35 people came to the Friday walking tour, “Battersea versus the British Empire”, including a fair number of new people, and people who are in touch with a Workers’ Liberty activist here or there but don’t usually come to our events.

It concluded with Kelly Rogers reading out an extract from Battersea’s local labour-movement newspaper, from over a hundred years ago. The words still ring true:

“We preach socialism as the only remedy for the ills and oppression the worker suffers. With the capitalists and politicians, Liberal or Tory or sham Labour, we ask and shall give no quarter. But to the working classes we do appeal, knowing their interests are ours, and by their support alone can we succeed.

“For the workers we have a message of hope: the destruction of this miserable system under which men become machines, and machines masters of men; and the erection of another system, where every man shall enjoy the fruits of his labour and live a long, happy life of wholesome work, joyful leisure and brotherly relations with fellow men.

“Every word is meant for men and for women. Indeed, in many respects socialism offers more to women than to men...”

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