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Anticapitalism 2011 discusses future of the left

Anticapitalism 2011 saw three days of discussion and debate over the big questions facing the left and anti-austerity movements. Just short of a 100 people attended across the three days.

(View videos of speeches and debates at the conference here: http://www.workerspower.co.uk/gallery-cats/anticapitalism-2011-videos/ )

After the student movement, the wave of revolutions in the Middle East, and preparing for mass strikes later this month, a fighting spirit and confidence pervaded the event. But there was also a serious and critical discussion of the challenges we face.

John McDonnell MP set the tone for the weekend on Friday evening when he said, “We need to have a balanced discussion of where our movement is at, the problems and successes. But there is definitely something special coming together – the direct action that the students pioneered is fusing with the trade union, industrial resistance. And that’s the combination we need to win.”

A recurring theme of the conference is how we could translate the mass resistance against austerity into a political radicalisation, one that rebuilt faith amongst a new layer of class fighters in a fundamental, socialist alternative to the capitalist system. Indeed, a feature of the current situation is that there is an appetite for resistance amongst a new layer of students, young people and workers, but that this has not yet led to a stronger radical left.

The question that socialists face is how to we can make this bridge – from resistance to a new politics.

A new left

The Saturday evening saw a discussion of what kind of left we need to build today – how do we move from resisting austerity to a fundamentally different society? It was a diverse platform with speakers each approaching the question from different perspectives.

Mick Dooley, who is standing for general secretary of construction union UCATT, complained that “people feel scared of talking about socialism today. But that’s exactly what we need to be doing. We have to see the fight back in the unions as part of a struggle for a socialist society”.

A number of speakers spoke of the need to involve activists from the movements in a discussion around the formation of a new, organised anticapitalist left. Mark Fisher, author of the book Capitalist Realism, said he hoped we had “established a sufficient basis of agreement to move forward”. And we needed to think about “how to achieve authority and leadership without authoritarianism, how to get effective organisation without bureaucratism”. Maeve McKeown, from New Left Project, similarly presented strengths and weaknesses of horizontal and hierarchical organisation, arguing that “both sides pose problems and solutions for the left”.

In a provocative contribution, Owen Jones, author of Chavs and a member of the Labour Left, said “I’m here as an unreconstructed member of the old left”, he later added, that “we needed to be clear that a class and political answer to the crisis is needed”, and “given that no attempts to found alternative parties to Labour have succeeded, this means working in the Labour Party”.

Simon Hardy, editor of Workers Power, proposed that we continue the discussion around a new type of left, towards a new anticapitalist organisation. He continued, “we need to revive the democratic spirit of the Bolshevik tradition. After all, Lenin once said that at its core Bolshevism united that part of the movement that was most consistent on the need for working people to take power into their own hands.”

The discussion was positive because it brought together people who saw the need to change the existing outlook, mindset and practice of the far left left. No one was saying, “just join us”. But rather that we needed to involve wide layers of people in a debate about what kind of left we need, how it should be organised, and how it can win.

The new organisation we want to build has to be the property of the activists at the base leading today’s struggles and combating the official leaderships.

Part of the answer is organisational as well as political. Many of the sessions across the weekend raised the idea of transforming the labour movement at a rank and file level. Billy McKean in the session on socialists and the unions, spoke of the work the Grass Roots Left in Unite had down in co-ordinating resistance from below, helping to bring electricians into struggle this autumn. The reality is that too often the far left is very conservative when it comes to developing these types of new rank and file organisations at the base of the unions.

Another recurring theme of the weekend was criticising the damaging divisions in the anti-cuts movement.

George Binette, convenor of Camden Unison, spoke of how the unions from top to bottom were preparing for the mass strikes on 30 November and how positive this was. But he added that sectarian splits in the anti-cuts movement were undermining attempts to organise a radical, grassroots wing of the movement independently of the official leaderships. A supporter of Permanent Revolution, he also said he welcomed a recent letter from Workers Power proposing collaboration in the movement and unity discussions.

There was agreement that the left was dominated by a sectarian opportunist ethos. Sectarian in seeking organisational advantages over one another instead of principled unity. Opportunist in its willingness to tail the arguments to what is deemed acceptable, or realistic, by the TUC lefts.

In short, too many far left organisations are going on “in the same old way”, without exploring new avenues for unity and the new organisations, politics and methods we need to win.

On the Sunday of the event we looked to the past to draw out the lessons for today. Socialists regularly confront the argument that an alternative to capitalism isn’t possible, because it was shown to fail in the Soviet Union. Launching our new book, The Degenerated Revolution; the Rise and Fall of Stalinism, Dave Stockton looked at how the Soviet Union collapsed into bureaucratism and Trotsky’s struggle against it, and Andy Yorke went on to analyse the revolutions of 1989.

Anticapitalism was the starting point for a discussion that will continue across the left and in many forums. What kind of organisations do we need to build? How do we combine seeking unity with moderate leaders of the labour movement without tailing their inadequate strategy? Many speakers spoke of the significance of #OccupyWallSt, because it had made a global critique of the neoliberal, rich get richer, poor get screwed, policies of the last decades.

Inspired by the mass movements of the Arab World it also showed the desire for real democracy – the yearning to take power over our own lives and not be dictated to by capital. As Richard Brenner put it on Friday evening the “challenge for the left is to combine the openness, transparency and participation of the popular assemblies with the social weight, power and discipline of the organised working class movement, less its bureaucracy”. Going forward we need to think creatively about how we turn this perspective into a reality that can fundamentally change our society.

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