A proletarian debate in Edinburgh

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On 20 November we took part in the Edinburgh Class Struggle Day School. The initiative for this meeting came from the Edinburgh Group of the Anarchist Federation, although it also seems that the example of the Manchester Class Struggle Forum played an important part in the decision to organise it. Up to 40 people took part at different times during the day. A fair number belonged to anarchist groups like the Anarchist Federation (which seems to have the strongest presence at the university), Solidarity Federation and Liberty and Solidarity, while others would probably define themselves as left communists.

Workers’ Assemblies

The first presentation was made by a member of the Solidarity Federation and was on the subject of workers’ assemblies. He spoke about the experiences in Puerto Real in Spain, and his own personal experiences in South Africa, where he had worked in a factory and been involved in the creation of a workers’ assembly that had shaken the bosses with its determination and its ability to unify the workforce. He stressed a number of points about assemblies which we strongly agreed with, and which were taken up in the discussion that followed: assemblies are not the expression of a particular political tendency or organisation, or of a coalition between them, but express the unified will of the workers in a given workplace or area. They alone allow workers in struggle to control the results of any negotiations with the bosses, as opposed to entrusting ‘specialists’ in the form of union officials, 
Two strands of the ensuing discussion seem to us to be the most significant. On the question of political coalitions, there was a view among some present that anarchists may not like forming coalitions with leftist or reformist groups but in the present circumstances, where there is a real fight against the cuts to be organised, they have to be realistic and take part in such alliances or fronts. Opinions among the AF members present seemed to be divided on this point. But in this and subsequent discussions we found ourselves in agreement with the Solfed comrade who argued that assemblies take us beyond this dilemma. Certainly all kinds of political organisations will have members in the assemblies – there is no question of debates within them staying ‘neutral’ towards political questions - but decisions are made by the assembly itself and not through negotiations between political groups or factions. The other point raised the question of the shop stewards and their relationship to assemblies or mass meetings. They are not full time officials and usually continue working alongside their workmates, but the problem is whether their ultimate loyalty is towards the workers who elect them or the union whose apparatus they also represent. On this point there were two clearly opposed views expressed: one by a member of Liberty and Solidarity, who made a plea on behalf of the National Shop Stewards Network as a vehicle for fighting the present attacks, the other by an ICC comrade who insisted that in the final analysis shop stewards are part of the union machine and have to defend it if they want to remain shop stewards, even when it means going against their own workmates. For us – and we think for others as well – the main point is that it is the mass meetings not the union apparatus that should be in charge of mobilising the workers.

Community Organising

The next session, on community organising, was introduced by a member of Liberty and Solidarity. The present writer is not very well informed about this group but it appears to be a ‘platformist’ split from the AF, aligned with groups like the Workers’ Solidarity Movement in Ireland. We have noted that most of the ‘platformist’ groups today seem to represent what one might call the “neo-Trotskyist” wing of anarchism and this was certainly the case with the speaker on community organising, who came under a good deal of criticism (and not just from ourselves) for his ultra-pragmatic approach which talked about the possibilities of working with councillors, faith groups and even the police (“tactically”, of course) as part of the process of establishing a “left libertarian” presence within the community organising networks. Further justified umbrage was taken at statements along the lines of “doing things for the workers” which confirm the approach of an emerging local bureaucracy tied to the existing (state) institutions.   The main merit of this session is that it allowed people to see more clearly the dangers of a purely reformist approach to struggles outside the workplace.

Fighting the cuts

The next session – which replaced a more historical one on syndicalism in the UK, since the intended speaker was ill – was a general round up of comrades’ involvement in the current struggles against cuts, particularly in the education sector. The question of coalitions came up again, as did the question of assemblies, and there was real interest in what we had to say about the ICC’s recent experience in France, where we have worked with the CNT-AIT and others in initiating street assemblies, not only at the end of demonstrations but on a more regular basis in between them. As a result of this discussion, the proposal was put forward, and accepted, that those involved in the various struggles in Edinburgh should try in the immediate future to take practical steps towards the formation of an assembly where workers and students could come together and discuss the way forward. No doubt such an assembly would be more like a struggle committee of a militant minority than a true mass meeting to direct the struggle, but when the movement is rising there may not always be a hard and fast line between the two forms of organisation. In the week after the day school a number of those attending were involved in an occupation of the university. It would be interesting to know whether this action is being linked to the idea of initiating an assembly.   
A question connected to the problem of working with leftists was this: do we agree with the orientation of the NUS activist wing, the SWP and others towards attacking the Lib Dems’ ‘betrayal’ of their promise to oppose tuition fees, typified by the routing of the march on 24 November to Lib Dem HQ in London. Although some present supported this approach, here again we were not at all alone in arguing against any policy of trying to ‘split the coalition government’ or ‘bring down the Tories’ because such ideas play directly into the hands of the Labour Party and the official opposition whose job is to stifle any real revolt. Furthermore, the focus on Lib Dem HQ would lead protestors into a trap set by the police following the events at Millbank on 10 November - a prediction that came only too true with the kettling of the demonstration on the 24th .
Finally, one comrade, playing devil’s advocate, posed the question: why should anarchists be defending public services when we are against the state in all its forms? A valid question given that the leftists always try to turn struggles against attacks on benefits into a battle to defend the state organs that manage them (the classic one being ‘defend the NHS’). But there was strong agreement when we said that in fighting these inroads we are defending the social wage and not the state that administers it.

Dutch and German communist left

The next session, given by a member of the AF, was on the Dutch/German communist left. We were in agreement with virtually all of it. The presentation made no attempt to hide the fact that the Dutch and German communist left were Marxists and were often very critical of anarchism; that they were unequivocal supporters of the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik party at the beginning of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave. The description of their positions on unions, parliament, national liberation and the USSR was accurate and nuanced. The speaker defended the left communists from the charge that they had been an irrelevant and tiny sect, showing that their membership and their influence among the most advanced sectors of the working class was far from insignificant; when the discussion turned to the reasons for the dramatic shrinking of this current in the late 20s and 30s, the emphasis was rightly laid on the general defeat of the working class which reduced all its revolutionary expressions to an almost invisible minority. At the same time he recognised that those sections of the Dutch/German left who had most theorised anti-organisational ideas also helped to dig their own political graves. One point in the presentation we endorsed with particular enthusiasm: at the beginning, when posing the question ‘why should we as anarchists look at this Marxist tradition?’ the answer given was that anarchists should learn as much as possible about all the genuinely revolutionary expressions of the workers’ movement. The comrade had also said that some had accused the AF of ‘pinching’ the mantle of left communism, which we took to be a reference to past statements the ICC has made about the AF. Our response to this was to admit that in the past we have been too dismissive of the revolutionary tendencies in anarchism; and while we had indeed made such statements about the AF, we are now fully convinced that we can only welcome the fact that comrades coming from an anarchist standpoint want to find out as much as they can about the history of the communist left.

Struggling against the Poll Tax

The final session was on the poll tax, in particular the rebellion against it in Scotland. The speaker, who had been directly involved at the time, supplied a lot of interesting information about mass mobilisations against the bailiffs and illegal demonstrations in working class areas. In the opinion of the present writer, this presentation confirmed a feeling that the ICC underestimated the anti-poll tax movement of the time, tending to stress the dangers of ‘inter-classism’ when, as the speaker showed, many of its expressions were definitely on a working class terrain, part of the ‘real movement’ of the proletariat that provides a good antidote to the actual ‘inter-classist’ approach embodied in the community reformism articulated by the speaker from Liberty and Solidarity earlier on.
The meeting ran out of time at this point. The only problem with this was that there was no opportunity to discuss what happens next: is the day school a one off or will it be a basis for more regular meetings on the model of the Manchester and Midlands discussion forums? We certainly hope that the latter will be the case and we will support it in whatever way we can. A number of the participants stayed for drinks at the bar afterwards where a lot more informal discussion took place in a very friendly atmosphere. The whole day had been a very clear expression of what we would describe as a ‘proletarian culture of debate’.
Amos 27/11/10  


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