Report: rs21 national meeting

On the weekend of 10th-11th January, rs21 held its 4th national meeting, one year after its founding in January 2014. It was attended by over 100 members, and had around 20 observers from other organisations and campaigns. We discussed the political situation in both international and national terms, debated what was possible for the left, and what a small group like ours can contribute. 

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Global Economic and Political Crisis

The opening session saw a wide ranging discussion of the international picture, introduced by Neil Davidson, Kate Deer, and Jamie Allinson. Neil began by stressing a problem with the way socialists have approached the idea of socialist revolution, which is that we expect them to take the form of revolutions of the past. Instead, we have to start from where we actually are. Previous revolutionary moments have involved the combination (‘conjuncture’) of various different movements and struggles, and it is useful to think about what these might be in the current situation. One would be environmentalism and climate. Another would be unionisation of new forms of industry. A further one might be the question of migration, and the challenge to anti-migrant racism, especially Islamophobia. Neil also talked about the experience of the referendum campaign in Scotland, which gave birth to a radical social movement which no one could have expected, and argued that we have to prepared for the development of similar, unexpected opportunities.

Kate focused on global economic context. We are officially in a recovery, but most people don’t feel it as a recovery. This especially true in places like Greece or Spain, where being in the eurozone constrained them from being able to set their own agendas. Kate also argued that I was important to note that the deficit, the stated reason for austerity hasn’t actually come down, despite a vast amount of human suffering, and that to the extent that the economic crisis has been resolved it has been achieved by an unprecedented attack on living standards. You can see the consequences of this in Greece: The Greek people had no alternative – the only alternative was to fight back. And they have done it. There is now the possibility of SYRIZA being elected on an anti-austerity ticket, but this would mean leaving the Eurozone, which SYRIZA say they will not do. However, Greece shows us its own future. We have the choice between austerity and a more radical solution.

Jamie talked primarily about the Middle East and Imperialism, particularly in the context of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. He argued that the situation in the Middle East had to be understood in terms of counter-revolution. This was important, since it was important to recognise that there had been genuine revolutions, which had challenged state power, but which had also been defeated. The counter-revolutionary movements included both the authoritarian nationalist forces and elements of the old regimes, and new forces like ISIS, which Jamie argued it was important to recognise as counter-revolutionary, and shouldn’t be shoehorned into a traditional narrative about anti-imperialist terrorism. Jamie argued that in the current period it was important to be anti-imperialist without imputing a strategic consciousness to imperialism – America and the West were largely trying to clear up their own mess and making more mess as a result. He also stressed that in the context of these revolutions it was important for socialists to “own the bleakness”: “This is what happens when a revolution occurs and if there is not some kind of revolutionary alternative that builds upon the cracking open of the state.”  Revolutions which crack open the state clearly can happen, but it is not necessarily a route to passing over into social revolution. The idea that a political revolution will pass into a social one, and that the working class would lead that process, is a strategic proposition, not a fact in the world. [N.B. This was edited on 23rd January to better reflect Jamie’s remarks]

In the discussion, some people objected to Jamie’s formulation around imperialism, arguing it was important to recognise and oppose the imperial powers first. Others agreed with Jamie, stressing the need to develop new analysis and not fall back on old slogans. Several people reiterated Neil’s point about the need to be alive to developing opportunities. We also discussed how to develop our work around climate change, recognising it not as a side issue, but as something integral to all of our arguments. In respect of this, the meeting resolved to supports members from different places helping to organise student meetings on mobilising for Paris December 2015 in their locales, call on members to attend the 7 March demo and try to bring others, and make climate a continuing theoretical and practical focus.

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British Politics and the General Election

Jonny Jones began the session on British Politics and the General Election by talking about the general crisis of the political class in Britain. There has been a long term decline in support for major parties. Alongside this has been a general sense of hostility towards the political class, reflected in both left and right wing forms, as well as a growth of smaller parties. The events around the Scottish Referendum involved some of these trends, but involved a break with it to the extent that it involved large numbers of people engaging with ‘official’ politics, in part because people felt their vote actually mattered. There was a massive turnout, and a clear working class vote for independence, borne out by a range of statistic, people feeling their vote mattered. We have to be very aware of how things can explode in ways that was hard to predict. We need to think about what kinds of points have resonance in the election, Jonny argued, e.g. housing, racism, police violence, and to think about the difficult question of who to vote for. However, the most important thing is what happens after.

Sophie Williams then went on to discuss one of the key election issues: The NHS. People’s attachment to the NHS is extremely powerful, in part because it remains one of the most genuinely egalitarian institutions in the country. Labour are playing on support for the NHS, and know full well they can make political capital out of it. However, Labour are also unable to address their own role in its privatisation. Sophie argued it was important we discussed how to unite local campaigns across the country into a clear campaign to save the NHS, and also questioned whether given Labour’s record it was possible to still call for a vote for them.

The first 30 minutes of discussion was given over to Scotland, in which Scottish comrades reflected on the success of the campaign and where next. Some have been involved in initiating the Scottish Left Project, which is seeking to draw together open discussions about the possibilities for the radical left in Scotland. There was also disagreement about how much support to offer for the SNP, and how much the massive influx of members might change its character. Whilst discussion about England did consider questions of who to support, most thought the space for a challenge from the far left would be miniscule. The key question was not who or whether we called a vote for someone, but how we take advantage of the heightened level of political participation and discussion to raise left-wing arguments around a number of key themes: Immigration, NHS, Housing, Austerity, etc.

In order to help this, the Steering Group was tasked with identifying a list of key themes to develop material around for the election. We also agreed to support and mobilise for the March for Homes on 31st January, and to continue involvement with the 999 Call for the NHS Campaign. In addition to this, we agreed to initiate a conference in the immediate aftermath of the election, which aims to engage with the heightened level of political debate it will likely throw up. This conference will hope to pull people together to discuss radical ideas and the way forward.


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Racism, Migration and Police Violence

Miriyam spoke in the aftermaths of the attacks in Paris. She compared them with the events she had experienced in the Netherlands in 2006 after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, which saw a wave of Islamophobic attacks and backlash. In these kinds of situations, we have to be prepared to confront this backlash, in particular we need to confront the narrative of guilt by association, in which Muslims are expected to condemn the attacks or somehow share responsibility. At the same time, she observed differences with the last decade, where sections of the ruling class have been much less willing to indulge in full blown racism, since they want to avoid giving credence to groups like the Front National which now appear to be serious competitors: “The ruling class is now seeing a competition in these far-right groups they helped create. So the call for unity by Hollande and Obama and others is partly because they see that they cannot continue with the same approach to far-right politics as they did before.”

Anindya Bhattacharya focused on the British context and the general election. ‘Immigration’ is now a major issue in British politics, having been talked up by both Labour and the Conservatives over a long period. “As a result of that there is a large right-wing constituency that is motivated by an anti-migrant racist vote. Ukip is hoovering up that constituency.” This means a race to the bottom when it comes to immigration. It’s important in this context to combine local, specific campaigns against UKIP, for example against Farage standing in Thanet, with a more general defence of migrants. He suggested the NHS is important here, since migrant workers make up the bulk of it. Alongside this has been the sudden catapulting of police violence onto the agenda in a big way, and the young, very large mobilisations around it. Helping develop and linking up with that movement is going to be hugely important in the coming year, and rs21 is supporting the tour organised by Defend the Right to Protest, United Friends & Families Campaign and NUS Black Students Campaign, bringing Rev Sekou, one of the key organisers of the Ferguson protests, to the UK.

The Steering Group was tasked with drawing up a timetable and map of anti-UKIP events and actions, in order to help activists develop a national picture. We also voted to develop structures which can allow our Black and Minority Ethnic Members to work together and develop initiatives better.

Students

Barnaby Raine of Oxford rs21 introduced a brief discussion about students. Barnaby talked about the pressures put on students by the growth of neo-liberalism and the burden of debt. However, universities also still provide a relative haven and space for collective organising around issues, and so remain important places for activism. He also discussed recent surveys which have found that whilst young people tend to be significantly more progressive on social questions like gay marriage and immigration, they also are more likely to be supportive of benefit cuts and right-wing on economic questions. This reflects the deep influence of neo-liberalism on this generation, and the absence of collective institutions that point an alternative. At the same time, there is a growing radicalism on campuses, particularly in Feminist Societies and Black Students campaigns, and it is often these groups who you see engaged in wider political campaigning, such as supporting striking cleaners. Barnaby stressed it was important to build alliances and engage with these groups, and recognise that they were rediscovering and renewing a tradition of radicalism.

 

rs21 and revolutionary organisation today

Rob Owen and Charlotte Sykes discussed the question of revolutionary organisation today. Rob discussed the limitations of a model of revolutionary politics in which one organisation sees itself as forming the nucleus of a future revolutionary party. No group has the right to declare itself the party which all other must join. Nonetheless, there remains a need to develop revolutionary organisations, and Rob suggested 3 important roles: 1. Developing a shared analysis and understanding of the world. 2. “Making socialists” – helping develop and educate people in socialist ideas, and equip them to better understand the world. 3. Develop practical experience of working together that can allow for the trust that is required to develop analyses and to act together when necessary. These are all things rs21 can attempt to do, whilst avoiding declaring itself ‘the’ party.

Charlotte spoke about her experiences of organising events at Oxford, in particular the well-attended Feminism in Theory and Action conference, which attempted to link feminist campaigns with wider anti-systemic politics. She highlighted the problem of holding people together after these sorts of events, and stressed the importance of engaging people in practical activism, rather than just theoretical discussion.

In the discussion, several speakers criticised what is sometimes called the ‘primitive accumulation of cadres’ model – the idea that a mass party can be built through the slow accumulation of individual members recruited to an existing organisation. Rather, we need to see where new formations might emerge, either through breaks with more mainstream organisations, or from developing social movements. A small organisation has to be alive to possibilities, and flexible enough to embrace them when they develop. A proposal was passed that stressed that we want rs21 to be an open organisation, which encourages people to ‘get involved’ in order to use and develop their skills, rather than merely join, and that we want to work on joint events with other organisations.

This discussion also gave us an opportunity to reflect on rs21 as an organisation. We are far from perfect, and there are a number of things we could improve on, including communication across the organisation. We agreed to continue employing one paid worker in order to help co-ordinate our work, and elected a new Steering Group. One area it was stressed we needed to improve was in delivering solidarity to workers involved in strikes, and Ozzy from Cambridge organised a workshop to help students and others learn how to do this.

Marxism, Women’s Oppression and the New Feminism

Estelle Cooch and Annie Teriba introduced a discussion of women’s liberation and the new feminism. Estelle discussed how 2014 saw an enormous surge in protests and anger against sexual violence. Although there has been a quantitative increase in such violence, this cannot fully explain the scale of the reaction or the protests worldwide. A major factor in this is social media, which has allowed events to become national or global flashpoints: “Sexual abuse went from being an isolated and isolating event, that happened to you as an individual in society, to becoming something viewed as a pattern, as part of a social crisis.” This also allowed people to react to them collectively, as a social issue, not an individual one. This was also reflected in the findings of Estelle’s own survey into the contemporary feminist movement. Rape and sexual violence was given as one of the most important feminist issues by 64.6 of respondents, more than tripling from a similar survey in 2009. When asked to give reasons, it was clear that this was an issue that was linked to wider society. Of the 1200 activists who took the survey, the largest number, 33.1%, identified as socialist feminist, whilst ‘anarchist’, intersectional and ‘Marxist’ were also identified with in large numbers.

Annie began by considering the explosion of ‘pop-feminism’ in the past year. Many prominent celebrities have ‘come out’ as feminist, whilst the question is now repeatedly asked of others. This debate about who gets to be a ‘true’ feminist often happens at a superficial and racialised level – Beyonce’s membership of the Republican Party should be more relevant than whether she dances in a Lyotard! Annie also discussed how to challenge liberal feminism with a more radical anti-systemic politics, and was more sceptical than Estelle for how far this can carry into a more material analysis. The language of equality can quite easily be co-opted into a neo-liberal framework. She also discussed the growth of a kind of ‘identity politics’ which is rooted in a fetishisation of experience. It is important to push the argument that just being a woman does not mean you have a good understanding of gender – it is important to develop and make more structural understandings: Experience does not equal analysis.

In the discussion, we considered how we could develop links with the growing feminist movements, and develop our analysis around women’s oppression. We will be hosting a day school on the topic in the new year, and we also discussed organising alternatives to more traditional speaker meetings, including film showings and fundraisers for relevant campaigns.

There are 5 comments

  1. James

    Shame no support for the anti racism demo in London in March. Rs21 last year attacked the demo in what was a deeply sectarian response. A few showed up to sell their magazine but did nothing to build it. Was hoping there was going to be a change this year. Also NHS discussed with no mention of next weeks strike! Perhaps the hostility to public sector trade unions and workers still runs deep but would have expected the strike to get a mention with some call for members to go to picket lines and show solidarity. Huge arguements in UNISON not mentioned! What are the sales figures for the magazine and membership figures for rs21 compared to a year ago. 100 people suggests it’s been a bit of a struggle. Think there needs to be more openness .

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  2. Nick Evans

    Every bit of this is wrong, James. We did discuss the anti-racism demo, and agreed to support and attend it. We did not attack the demo last year. We did discuss next week’s NHS strike, and will of course be showing solidarity on picket lines, and on the demonstration organised on the strike day in London. We did discuss arguments within UNISON and UNITE. Many of us our public sector workers.

    Actually it’s felt like less of a struggle than many of us ourselves expected. rs21 was started a year ago by people feeling very damaged by an organisation we had collectively given many years of our life to, but that had preferred to drive us out rather than deal with allegations of rape and sexual abuse. But now we find ourselves in a growing group with new members who never went through that experience, enabling us to rediscover what being revolutionary socialists and what building working class self-organisation might mean in 2015. We’ve also discovered that you can talk to other groups on the left without hurling accusations of deviation, sectarianism, navel-gazing at them. It seems to go down better.

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  3. R Burrett (@RBU81)

    James: I wish some of the regular critics of RS21 on here would ask fraternal questions rather than half assed insults – you never know, we might find we agree, or at least, find out where we disagree on!

    Re the anti-racist demo, there needs to be real questioning of how effective current anti-ukip tactics are. Having said that, I think there is a real need to mobilise in order to shore up anti-racist ideas in the union movement. Stand Up To Racism’s can have a real effect on the reappearence of BJ4BW type arguments – we know it already has done in the labour party. Other than that, I know RS21 have committed themselves to helping out the decapitation campaign against Farage in Kent.

    It was good to hear young NHS workers talk about there preparations for the strike. It was heartening to hear about the mass meetings of student nurses and recruitment to the union that they had helped with. Given our relative size, the focus has been on supporting these workers in their workplaces rather than pretending we can address the whole strike, though I am pretty sure there will be national leaflets (as there have been for all strikes).

    Related to this, I want to question the assertion that “hostlity to public sector trade unions and workers still runs deep” in rs21.

    Can you tell us why you think rs21 members are hostile to public sector trade unions? If its because someone wrote an article on their own blog titled ‘teachers, yes, but others too’ and made the unremarkable claim that their is no automatic solidarity from the rest of the class towards teachers, then you really need to sharpen up.

    I think a point of discussion should not be the usefulness of focussing on the broad lefts as providing anything more than short term, myopic answers to class struggle. As union organisation faces a stark demographic problem, which is replicated in concentrated form in the broad lefts, and the radical left (the profile of the rs21 is better than most, but that is not saying much), we need to cut the crap and face some uncomfortable truths.

    For instance, we (I use we to mean the far left) did not play a key role in getting the pension strikes “on”, as if we did, we would have been able to stop them from being called off.

    We may have many comrades NECs that voted for the right way, but other nice guys could have done the same. In reality, that SWP and SP members are over represented on NECs is a sign of a decline in union organisation, not a sign of the strength of those organisations. If our representation on NECs was representative of our industrial organisation, we’d have had that general strike we banged on about.

    If there was a proto-rs21 critique of the SWP industrial strategy, it was for a realignment on the workplace, whatever the sector, with a much more focused strategy on basic union building, along experimenting with finding the right political campaigns that can bring new activists into the union.

    This is very far from ‘hostility to public sector unions.’

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