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A New Anticapitalist Initiative

A project is launched in Britain, bringing together activists from around the UK in a new network for united action and open debate.

Will it succeed where others have failed? Or will it fall apart like so many ‘unity initiatives’ in the past?

The answer depends on whether the participants can reach agreement on their strategy and their programme.

The initiative is an opportunity to rally of workers and young people who want to fight and see the need for an alternative to Labour and to the opportunism and sectarianism of the main socialist groups in Britain.

But for it to work will mean two things. First, joint action against the cuts. Second, a struggle within the new initiative: between libertarians who want to limit it to a network of activists, and Leninists who want it to become a revolutionary party.

 

Founding meeting debates first steps

The Anticapitalist Initiative (ACI) was founded on 28 April 2012 at a meeting of around 75 activists from across England.

The Initiative is backed by local groups in South London, Leeds, Manchester and Sussex, and involves rank and file trade unionists, students, activists and young people resisting cuts, privatisation and capitalism.

New local groups are being set up in Bristol, Doncaster, East London and North London.

Trade unionists attended and reported on their struggles against the cuts, the pensions robbery and privatisation. Activists came from the post union CWU, the teachers’ union NUT, healthworkers from Unite, civil servants from the PCS, and education workers from Unison and the UCU.

Students were there from Sussex, Leeds, Manchester and a number of London colleges.

Political organisations present at the launch included Workers Power, plus two breakaways from our group: Permanent Revolution, formed in 2006, and the Luke Cooper-Simon Hardy trend which left us this spring.

 

Representatives of the Workers International Network and the Committee for Marxist Renewal were also there and backed the initiative. Other groups present who did not support the new formation were the Alliance for Workers Liberty, International Bolshevik Tendency and the Weekly Worker.

 

The meeting had two sessions. The first was a discussion of the fightback against austerity and the prospects for building rank and file resistance today; the second discussed the nature of the new initiative and voted on three motions.

 

The first session showed that while the meeting was small, the people there were connected to and closely involved in the class struggle.

 

Nick Jones, an NUT member, reported on the pension dispute and the decision of the general secretary of the NUT to call off action, which had spurred a lively and angry meeting of local associations at the NUT conference, determined to stop the sell-out. A number of teachers present, including from East London, Birmingham and Leeds, explained how their union’s executive, despite having many representatives on it from the socialist left, had failed to stop the climb down and called for a new rank and file network of teachers to win control of the action and hold the leadership to account.

Jeremy Dewar, a teaching assistant, Unison and Workers Power member from South London, called for unity of all trade unionists in the education sector and beyond, and argued for a rank and file movement across the unions, reporting on how activists in Lambeth had formed a rank and file network in the past and how it could be relaunched.

A speaker from the Alliance for Workers Liberty questioned whether people were being too optimistic about prospects for building a rank and file movement in the unions, pointing to the fact that his own organisation had taken 30 years to win even modest influence on the London Underground via its workplace bulletin.

In one of the best speeches of the day, Kate Ford from Hackney NUT and Permanent Revolution replied by explaining how outraged ordinary teachers had been when their executive called off the action, and how people who wouldn’t normally be radical had been propelled into opposition to the union tops.

She recognised it takes time to build up a rank and file opposition, but said the vicious Tory attacks and the union leaders’ sell-out had created an urgent situation and an opportunity that the left should capitalise on now: “We haven’t got 30 years”.

She won cheers and applause when she described how the fight for a grassroots opposition in her union could be made concrete today: “by raising the demand to recall the General Secretary of the NUT.”

It wasn’t just trade unionists or education workers talking. Jack and Stuart from Leeds talked about how unemployed activists had rallied support for the disabled Remploy workers facing redundancy through Tory cuts. A student from Sussex raised the possibility of uniting people in a struggle against debt. Louise from Doncaster made an impassioned speech in defence of the health service, pointing out how the NHS had been set up to meet the demands of the working class after the huge Labour victory in 1945, and calling the fight to defend it the “struggle of our whole generation for their future”.

The first session also heard a number of contributions about the problems of the left today and the nature of the new initiative. Luke Cooper said there is a wide recognition that the left today is not working. The turnout at the meeting, built without issuing a single leaflet, showed that there is a mood in favour of something that is about unity, creates a space in which politics can be discussed in a fraternal atmosphere, where there can be debate, and where actions can be coordinated.

Richard Brenner, for Workers Power, said that given the scale of the economic crisis, there is a widespread recognition in society that capitalism is unfair, but very little belief that there is an alternative to capitalism. Resistance is not being connected together in a way that can bring down the austerity governments, and not being linked to a fight to overthrow the system. An alternative to capitalism will mean a working class government, which means we will have to build a political alternative and a political party. The initiative should therefore open a process of discussing the policies and programme around which a new political organisation could be built.

This proved controversial, and debate continued on whether the initiative should be a network or a political organisation, as well as whether Workers Power’s proposed motion should be adopted, which would have committed the initiative to “policies as a framework for common action, and as a starting point from which we will go on together to elaborate a common action programme for a new political organisation.”

Our motion went on to set out some brief policies, including resisting the attacks on the welfare state, bringing down the government through a mass strike wave, overcoming the division of the anticuts movement into rival campaigns through a national federation of anticuts groups, building a rank and file movement in the unions, supporting unemployed, migrant and precarious workers, opposing imperialist wars and occupations, supporting the Arab revolutions and the Palestinians, opposing racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia, defending the environment, and – most controversial of all – fighting for the formation of a mass working class political alternative to the Labour Party.

Many speakers opposed this, giving a variety of reasons. Some seemed to be opposed to adopting policy as a matter of principle, with one student from UCL saying she thought this would put people off, and another saying we should avoid it at all costs as it would delineate who could be in the Initiative and who could not.

By contrast, some said they thought it was too soon to adopt policy; some said they were not opposed to policy in principle but the policies proposed were too long; others objected that the policies proposed did not go far enough.

Simon Hardy argued that the Workers Power proposal reflected what he hoped would be the outcome of a long policy discussion, not its beginning; Toby Abse of Socialist Resistance argued that he wanted to see a ‘halfway house’ organisation with a ‘halfway house’ programme somewhere between reformism and revolution; the International Bolshevik Tendency said we need a revolutionary programme but the initiative should limit itself to coordinating action against the cuts.

Rebecca Anderson of Workers Power argued that simple policies like the ones proposed would help the initiative to grow and that otherwise if people asked what it stood for we would have no reply of any substance. Ian Hill, from Brighton, said the very thing that was missing from the left today was a programme. A speaker from the Barnet Anti-Cuts Alliance also drew attention to the need for a clear programme against the cuts and the system, contrasting that with the behaviour of the Labour Party in his borough.

There were only three actual objections to the content of the policies proposed. One woman said the word “imperialism” would put people off and would not be understood. Quite apart from the principle of the issue, she did not mention Bradford where opposition to imperialist war seems to have done Respect no harm at all.

Chris Strafford, from Communist Students, criticised the motion for “asking the union leaders to give us a party”. The motion did nothing of the sort, though WP does fight to stop the union leaders giving millions to Labour, and argues that political funds built through trade unionists’ contributions should be put at the disposal of workers themselves to fund the formation of a party of our own. Billy McKinstry objected to the words “support the Arab revolutions”, because he opposed the Libyan revolution.

Without responding to its content, Bill Jefferies of Permanent Revolution said Workers Power “should not have brought this resolution” because it showed a ‘top down’ approach.  Nick Jones by contrast said he welcomed the fact that Workers Power had brought the proposal, but that, on balance and given the feeling of the meeting, he would oppose it, but that the initiative could nevertheless consider developing some simple policies to build around.

The meeting adopted a very general motion from Luke Cooper and Stuart King which included no policy at all, with 35 votes in favour, 13 against and 11 abstentions. Workers Power’s motion was voted down by a similar margin. A proposal from Mark Renwick (Leeds) that “the Anti Capitalist Initiative will actively initiate, lead and participate in local and national campaigns to oppose the privatisation of the NHS”, was adopted almost unanimously.

An open steering committee was formed (later renamed a Coordination to appease the concerns of some of the libertarians present) as was a team to work on the ACI’s website.

A meeting of the National Coordination was fixed for London on 13 May.

 

Workers Power and the Anticapitalist Initiative

There is a clear need for a new political organisation in Britain.

The scale of the Tory attacks and the severity of the continuing capitalist crisis contrast miserably with the feeble response of the Labour and TUC leaders.

Ed Miliband has backed the Tory cuts, the pay freeze and the benefits cap. Unison is calling for a TUC demonstration – but not till October. The unions fighting the pensions robbery are limiting action to one day strikes and repeatedly obstructing coordination.

Yet Labour has surged in the polls, because millions of working class people want protection from the Tory attacks and no mass alternative to Labour exists.

To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, the fate of British society, like that of the rest of humanity, is now focused on “the crisis of working class leadership”.

But in Britain today the socialist organisations are small, divided and unable to offer coherent opposition to the Labour and trade union bureaucrats.

The Socialist Party went along with the decision of the PCS leadership to back down from action in March over pensions; the Socialist Workers Party did the same with regard to the NUT.

Neither is committed to building a national movement of rank and file trade unionists to deliver action without the officials where necessary, to dissolve bureaucracy and put control of the unions in the hands of their members.

Nor do these two organisations advance a coherent strategy to link working class resistance to austerity to a challenge to the capitalist system itself.  The SP’s programme calls for a democratically elected socialist government to peacefully take over the economy from the capitalists – a parliamentiarist illusion that no capitalist state would ever permit. The SWP has no written programme at all, no strategy for power, just a carte blanche for its leaders to perform one tactical volte face after another, without reference to principle.

And both groups repel generation after generation of activists through their bureaucratic regimes, in which members cannot organise within the party to change policy or hold their leaderships to account, and through their cynical manoeuvres to gain short term organisational advantage within the movement. Most scandalously , this has resulted in the existence of three rival anticuts campaigns, each holding a succession of dwindling national conferences, each addressed by the same figures from the left wing of the TUC which each of them shields from criticism.

We need a break from this.

Workers Power has always recognised that the path to a revolutionary party will not come simply through individual recruitment to a small, mainly propaganda focused, group like our own. We are always seeking avenues to work with other forces and to debate and agree revolutionary policy with them. We believe a revolutionary party will come into being not through recruiting ones and twos, but through “the fusion of communism and the working class movement” (Lenin).

Today there are many activists in the unions, in the social movements like Occupy and UK Uncut, in the student movement and the youth, who see the need for a movement that opposes the system but are crying out for something new that they can shape themselves, that they feel is really theirs.

That is why Workers Power, with others on the left, launched the call from our Anticapitalism 2011 event last autumn for steps towards a new political organisation.

Should this be just a network coordinating action and debate, as some libertarians and autonomous Marxists said at the founding national meeting of the ACI? We think that would run the risk of replicating the work of existing anticuts and campaigning organisations, without developing a coherent political alternative to the misleadership of the reformists and the opportunist socialist groups.

And while a forum for discussion is no bad thing in and of itself, a discussion that reaches no conclusion and adopts no policy or programme runs the risk of being a talking shop – at a time when clear answers are needed to the question: how can we defend the NHS and the welfare state before the Tories succeed in demolishing them?

 

Too soon, top down?

Our motion to the founding meeting of the ACI was voted down, with most delegates feeling it was too soon and too delimiting to adopt even the very basic initial principles we proposed. We think this was a mistake, because the ACI needs to make a clear decision that it can and will adopt policies: otherwise by definition it remains no more than a network – and one vulnerable to adopting unstated policy, de facto, driven by whoever controls the balance of opinion on its website.

What is more, the ACI will need to be more than a coordination of local groups, because we are all fighting the same national enemy: the British capitalist state. Metaphors about local organisations being ‘from below’ and national ones being ‘top down’ are ideological and conceal key realities about class organisation. In this context the national organisation is the ‘totality’, something more than the sum of its parts, where decisions affecting every local group should be made. To describe, as Bill Jefferies has done, our proposal to a national meeting to adopt policy as ‘bureaucratic’ is a demagogic objection to democracy at anything other than the local level.

Autonomous local groups should take local initiatives and make local policy; a national meeting should decide on national issues, based on the inputs and the arguments brought to it from the localities. Representation should reflect not only the organisation’s geography but industries, race and nationality, gender, sexuality, age and, above all, political opinion. This can only be done if a national structure can make policy decisions and elect a leadership to carry out its will until the next meeting.

Is there a risk that such a leadership could act unaccountably, against the will of the local groups? Yes. The answer is to guarantee the right of the members to convene a national meeting and recall the elected national leadership – not to pretend that we can dispense with leadership altogether. Such amorphous structures can be manipulated. Hence the title of one famous counter to libertarian prejudices in the 1960s: the Tyranny of Structurelessness.

 

Halfway house?

Of course in adopting policy there is a possibility that some people will not agree with it. To fear delineation and differentiation is to object to political organisation in and of itself.

But at the founding meeting of the ACI, many who objected to WP’s proposal said they wanted policy to be developed first in the local groups so that people felt they owned the process.

Workers Power agrees that the ACI’s fuller programme should be developed in that way, and ours was the only motion that committed us to “go on together to elaborate a common action programme”.

At the same time we did not feel for a moment that the short list of general principles we proposed would have excluded forces vital to the development of a political alternative. We think opposition to the cuts, racism and war are basic and that no-one who does not share these views can go forwards with us in a common political organisation. We think the need for a unified anticuts movement and a rank and file movement in the unions was affirmed and reaffirmed by countless speakers at the national meeting and are things that unify us, not divide us.

What then of the question of a new political party? That, we accept, is contentious. We brought it because we want to debate it, not whether we should be discussing it, but whether it is a good idea or not. Why? Because we are confident we can win that argument with many people who today have libertarian ideas, provided the argument is put, and provided a section of those who claim to support the need for a party do not continue to try to shield our libertarian comrades from that argument.

What is more, we are very clear that our proposals were just a few starting principles at the beginning of a discussion, not a systematic political programme, let alone the revolutionary programme we will need if we are to create a unified new organisation that will survive the blows of the class struggle over the years ahead and that will distinguish itself in the movement by promoting a far sighted and coherent strategy to the resistance, to connect it in practical ways to the fight for revolution.

It is therefore a distortion for Ben Lewis of the Weekly Worker to write that we promoted “an open, unashamed halfway house party“ on some kind of incoherent  programme intermediate between parliamentary reforms and revolution. We are simply practical enough to recognise that a programmatic discussion cannot be successfully concluded before it has begun. We want the movement to come together in the formation of a new mass working class party, and to win that party to a revolutionary policy in its formative discussions, not as an a priori demand from the armchair.

For this, the existence of a political organisation – Workers Power – that already develops revolutionary programme and which works to advance that programme in the movement in a disciplined way is not an obstacle to the formation of a new revolutionary party (as the Cooper-Hardy trend suggest), but a precondition for it happening. Against their view, which we have described as liquidationist, we will not dissolve Workers Power unless and until we can reach real agreement with others on the tasks of the working class movement.

To describe adherence to a clear programme as the cause of nothing more than endless demoralising splits, as the Cooper-Hardy trend do (following Louis Proyect, Pham Binh and, of course, Hal Draper) flies in the face of both logic and actual historical experience. Put bluntly, the left in Britain and internationally since World War Two has not distinguished itself by an excess of programmatic clarity. On the contrary, a series of ‘unity coalitions’ and ‘broad initiatives’, combining tragedy and farce in equal measure, have disorganised the left for six decades, from Pablo and Healy’s decisions not to push forward principled questions within the social democracy in the 1950s, through to more recent episodes such as Respect, the SSP and the French NPA today.

To blame the left’s problems today on too strict a conception of revolutionary programme is to wish the mourners at a funeral “many happy returns of the day”.

Conversely, we have no wish to deliver our condolences at a wedding, and if the forces currently assembling in the ACI are not convinced of our views this is no cause for us to walk out, lose patience or attempt to kill it with condemnations. It is a characteristic of intellectuals to refuse to accept majority decisions when they go against them; we will continue to build the ACI energetically and to pursue the argument for a political organisation, a revolutionary programme, and communist forms of organisation in a loyal and frank way.

We believe we were right to take this initiative, though given the resignation of the Cooper-Hardy group from WP it is not taking shape as we had first imagined or would have preferred. There are clear risks that the ACI could remain a mere discussion group, or become an intermediate ‘centrist’ organisation, or of course a libertarian network actually controlled from above by an informal leadership group.

The best way to raise the prospects for a strong organisation with a robust democratic structure and a vibrant debate on policy and practice is to build it. A few hundred more workers and youth should help overcome the current obstacles and create a real step forward to a new revolutionary party.

 

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