Socialist Appeal Conference 2012 - Full Report

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The weekend of April 14th and 15th saw the biggest gathering of the supporters of Socialist Appeal and the Marxist Tendency in 20 years. This year's conference discussed the World situation and the ongoing global capitalist crisis, which is developing into the deepest in the history of capitalism. The perspectives for Britain were discussed, with special reference to the question of a referendum on Scottish independence.

2012 SA congress audienceOn the Sunday, following on from the discussion on the World and British political situation, and with the aims of the Tendency clarified for the coming period, the comrades proceeded to evaluate their political work since the last conference in 2011. They discussed the priorities and most impending tasks in order to build the forces of Marxism in the immediate situation, as a means of arming the working class with the perspective of the socialist transformation of society in Britain and internationally.

The meeting was noticeable for the many new faces, young and old, who came to participate in the conference. Comrades left ever more convinced of the need for a bold revolutionary alternative as the only solution to the impasse humanity finds itself in in this period of capitalist decline.

A number of young comrades have written reports on the various sessions. This is what they had to say:

World Perspectives discussion

By Josh Holroyd, Manchester

This year’s National Conference opened with a full and varied discussion on World Perspectives. It has long been a tradition of Marxists to analyse the situation in their own country in light of international events and the importance of this was stressed throughout the conference.

The discussion was introduced by Alan Woods, editor of the In Defence of Marxism website, who highlighted the gravity and rapid tempo of events in this period. He pointed out that in the context of arguably the deepest crisis in the history of capitalism (and certainly since the 1930s), the driving forces of the global economy have become enormous fetters on society, causing tremendous shifts in the political and social plane. This led him to conclude that we have entered into the most turbulent period in the whole of human history.

Alan WoodsAlan WoodsThe colossal burden of debt in the public and private sector, the instability and crisis of the Euro and the enormous amount of excess capacity in industry were all prominent features in the discussion. The extension of credit, the capturing of markets and the production of commodities are all crucial elements of the capitalist economy, and yet during this period they are expressed not as progressive forces but instead as terrible contradictions that the capitalist system is completely unable to resolve. This is demonstrated by the sheer blindness and panic that can be seen in the theories of bourgeois economists worldwide.

Another important theme of the discussion was the bankruptcy of reformism. In every country the reformist parties are being forced to implement or advocate vicious cuts and austerity measures. This is because of their inability to look beyond the limits of capitalism and fight for a socialist solution to the crisis. On this basis they cannot offer workers a single concession, let alone meaningful reforms and so represent no alternative to the policies of the right-wing parties.

However, every attempt that is made to restore order to the economy causes major tremors in society. The inspiring events of the Arab Revolution, the pre-revolutionary situation in Greece, the movement of the Indignados in Spain and the Occupy Movement in the USA are all dramatic examples of this fact.

What was also stressed in the discussion was that the austerity imposed in order to save the capitalist system will last for many years, even decades to come. In this context, further events on a similar and even greater scale to those of the last 12-18 months are inevitable and with each struggle the working class will draw increasingly revolutionary conclusions. It is therefore imperative that we continue to build the International Marxist Tendency in every country. Only by building the forces of genuine Marxism will it be possible to break with the anarchy and misery of capitalism and transform society on a Socialist basis.

British Perspectives discussion

Michael Allan, Glasgow

Rob Sewell, editor of Socialist Appeal, led the discussion on the current state of affairs for the British economy and the working class movement amidst the weakest recovery from a slump in Britain for 180 years.

Rob SewellRob SewellRob began by underlining the global nature of the crisis of capitalism, placing Britain in a global context where it is not just the UK but also every other nation among the developed capitalist countries that are facing poor economic performance and little prospect of better in the future. This is of great historical significance, as it represents a turning point in a post-war era characterised by periodic, relatively short slumps and instead indicates a new epoch of protracted decline with little hope of recovery similar to that experienced in the 1920s – or, as economists have called it, ‘the long depression’, with years of austerity ahead. Since the crisis struck four years ago the Bank of England has had to revise down the growth figures for the British economy in every financial quarter – 16 times in a row. This shows the extent to which the Marxist analysis that capitalism has reached its productive limits has been (perhaps unconsciously) accepted by bourgeois commentators!

The parlous state of capitalism in Britain and its equally gloomy prospects for the future was underlined by the various figures given. Whilst the economy avoided a negative figure for GDP in the first quarter of 2012 (which would have signalled a return to recession for the British economy) growth in the last year was weak – around 0.8%. This means that output is still 4% lower than pre-2008 figures.

The expectation by the bourgeois that private enterprise would pick up the slack has also been shattered – it was speculated that private investment would increase 7.7%, that in turn would compensate for cuts in the public sector. Instead, it grew by a meagre 0.7%. Much emphasis was also placed on the export of goods to help recovery as well – but with other countries experiencing similarly poor or worse economic conditions and many resorting to protectionism, this path also seems an impossible one to traverse for the bourgeoisie.

Human impact

The human price behind these figures was highlighted also. Public expenditure is to be slashed by 25%, with 800,000 public sector workers to be laid off. This is likely to have the knock-on effect of 600,000 further redundancies in the private sector, adding more to the 2.7 million currently unemployed. Increased food and fuel prices mean the cost of living has increased by around 10%. Research by Netmums, a parenting website, found that 1 in 5 mothers skip meals so that they can afford to feed their children. And all of this after only 12% of the government’s cuts have been implemented, with the other 88% to be slotted into the next 3 years.

This malaise can be seen as the product of a long-term decline in British capitalism. The long-term destruction of the manufacturing industry in Britain, combined with falling consumer demand as well as the massively increased deficit in government spending to cover the cost of the bank bailouts and the loss in state revenue, means that this current situation represents the most extreme financial crisis ever faced by British capitalism. Previously the bourgeois could have used credit as a means to buy time and a way out of the crisis; however, with the high debt levels built up by capital during the 1980s-2000s credit no longer serves its purpose as a quick fix but instead plays the inverse role, in the form of a lead weight of debt around the neck of the British capitalist class. The move toward a rentier ‘services’ based economy in the latter half of the 20th century and the destruction of manufacturing – the generator of ‘real’ tangible wealth – has deeply undermined the British economy. Rob highlighted this decline of British capitalism in the post-war period with an apt illustration by comparing the present year with the last time London hosted the Olympic Games in 1948. Back then the Attlee government had just promised to build one million new homes for social housing and presided over what was still a massive empire. Now, house building is at its lowest since 1923 and the UK cannot even afford a single aircraft carrier!

The diseased nature of British capitalism underlines the necessity of a struggle for socialism by the working class. In the past year there have been stirrings of unrest in the class, as expressed first on March 26th of last year when there was the largest trade union demonstration in British history with the protest aimed directly at the austerity policies of the government which was followed by a strike of around 900,000 workers at the end of June. The riots across the UK in August can be seen as the result of decades of de-industrialisation and successive generations being cast upon the scrap heap of unemployment or at best precarious low-paid employment and little prospect of a good education thanks to the rise in tuition fees. These tensions, exacerbated by rising youth unemployment (to 20% among 18-24 year olds) saw this anger unleashed in the form of looting and violence. The failure of the labour movement to provide an effective alternative for this layer of the population also explains the violent and directionless nature of a layer that as a result feels completely neglected. This lack of leadership characterised the Occupy Movement, originating in the US and with similar occupations appearing in Britain during September and October.

Class struggle

Steve Kelly, UNITE electricianSteve Kelly, UNITE electricianHowever, the class pressures building up from below forced the unions into action, with 29 different trade unions coming out on strike on November 30th in defence of pensions against planned government ‘reform’. This represents the greatest number of people on strike in a single day in Britain since the General Strike of 1926. Large demonstrations underlined the extent of support with around 50,000 in London and 20-30,000 in Glasgow to name but a few. This was in conjunction with polls that showed the strikes were very well supported – around 60% of the British population supported them, 70% of Scots and 80% of 18-24 year olds were in favour of the action. Also notably, unions representing sectors previously unorganised or sectors which in the past were hostile to unions such as the civil service or head teachers came out on strike; for the head teachers’ union NAHT it was the first strike action taken by their organisation in 114 years. This represents a seismic shift in the British working class, with events and circumstances propelling consciousness toward one of more militant action after two decades of relative quiet and an emptying out of these mass organisations. However, the GMB and UNISON leaderships caved in to the pressure of the government and accepted the deal, to great demoralisation of their memberships who had been bolstered by this action.

More recently, the planned strike for March 28th failed to materialise with various vacillations on the part of the leadership. PCS, expected to take a fighting lead that could help motivate other unions chose to postpone action despite balloting their members and receiving a mandate for further strike action (the highest percentage in the union’s history) because other unions such as the NUT were failing to decisively lay down their position. The NUT in turn said that they were reluctant to push forward as the UCU were not doing anything and on it went! Clearly the awareness of the leaders of these unions is lagging behind that of their membership.

Steve Kelly from Unite, one of the leading figures in the Sparks dispute, explained the formation of the electricians’ unofficial rank and file movement within Unite in response to the 8 largest construction companies planning to withdraw from the JIB agreement as a means to cutting electricians wages by 35%. The dragging of feet by the executive on this led to organisation at rank and file level for the purpose of applying pressure to the union leadership – not for splitting from the union – which was ultimately successful, as it eventually saw official backing by the union against the agreement which saw the companies reversing their original policy leaving the wages intact. This victory for workers amidst a vicious economic climate shows the power that the working class has when prepared to take militant action through their mass organisations.

From the mass organisations of the working class on the industrial front the discussion moved to that of those on the political front with the topic of the Labour Party. Rob pointed out that although the struggles on the industrial front might have some successes, these were ultimately constrained by the limits placed on them by capitalism and could not completely halt the attacks on living standards demanded by a capitalist system in decline. It is from this that these struggles must be linked with the political struggle for working class power.

Crisis of reformism

At present the Labour leadership has failed to offer anything and on a reformist programme cannot, for capitalism no longer has reforms to give, as underlined by the fact that the Labour leadership talks of cuts not reforms, or else talks of reforms that won’t cost anything – which is a pure fantasy.

The recent victory of George Galloway on a ‘real Labour’ platform in Bradford West over an insipid Labour candidate with no policies to offer was symptomatic of this discontent with a Labour Party whose only alternative to Con-Dem austerity is Labour austerity. If elected at the next election in 2015 the prospect for a Labour government is of massive demand from capitalism to implement further cuts. Rob pointed out that this government would likely be a crisis government, being forced to put through cuts that would be met with revulsion from the working class across Britain. This would be a similar situation to that faced by the Labour governments in the 1920s, especially the 1929-31 administration which eventually split asunder due to the pressures of capitalist crisis, with the right wing leaving the party. In similar circumstances it would not be unfeasible for the same to happen again – in terms of their programme the right wing of Labour and the government parties differ little, although they differ greatly in the social base of their parties and this is what could force a split in the ranks. In such a situation there would be a flooding into Labour of the more politically advanced workers seeking to link the industrial struggles with the political, and the ferment in society and Labour would see the creation of the conditions in which a sizeable Marxist tendency could develop within the Labour Party.

At the end of British Perspectives, Ewan Gibbs from Glasgow outlined the National Question in relation to Scotland, given the context of the recently announced referendum on Scottish independence. He looked at the historical development of Scotland as a nation and the development of social relations over several hundred years, showing that the formation of the modern nation state is tied to that of capitalism. The joining of Scotland and England in the Union in 1707 was not simply a political act but the final task of the Scottish bourgeois revolution, facilitating the unfettered development of capitalism in Scotland by providing access to English capital and the markets of the British Empire. Unsurprisingly, at times when capitalism enters crisis the national question re-emerges, as it has done in Scotland in recent years. However, he placed this in context, as it is not only Scotland where the national question has arisen in times of crisis, but also in the likes of the former Yugoslavia, or at present in Belgium, Kurdistan and the Basque country. Rob then summed up all the points made to finish the session.

This ended what had been an excellent discussion on British Perspectives, with the tasks and prospects for the Marxists in the labour movement in the coming year laid out very effectively.

Report on the work of the Marxists in Britain

Rachel Gibbs, Edinburgh

Daniel MorleyDaniel MorleyThe second day of the conference began with a discussion on the organisational tasks of the Marxists in Britain. Daniel Morley’s introduction gave a concise overview of the period the organisation has gone through in the past year. First and foremost, it was clear for all the comrades to see that, in addition to an increase in supporters, the forces of Marxism have undergone a qualitative change. This was perhaps most clearly reflected in the number of new, young comrades present at the conference.

As was remarked upon by Daniel, this presence is the result of the positive and decisive turn to the youth made by Socialist Appeal over the past period. The initiative of open work, mostly on university campuses, has allowed the following for the Marxists  to grow both in numbers and in impact as Socialist Appeal has gained support from enthusiastic comrades in towns up and down the country. Success with these tactics has been felt by comrades all over Britain: in Scotland our support has doubled in Edinburgh and Glasgow whilst new supporter groups have been created in Manchester, Bristol and Sussex. As comrades engaging in similar initiatives of Marxist Discussion Groups and Societies we have been able to compare successes, mistakes and discuss experiences, which has led to the Marxists becoming more professionally organised and effective.

John Dunn, speaking on the Justice for Miners CampaignJohn Dunn, speaking on the Justice for Miners CampaignWith the current global financial crisis, coupled with the various international movements against capitalism over the past year, it is hardly surprising that we are meeting more and more young people interested in Marxism. Our societies and discussion groups have allowed us to meet and discuss with these young people; many of whom have then gone on to realise that Marxism is anything but an armchair debate; on the contrary, it is a call to action. While there is a large, radicalised layer of young people on campuses and in the schools, the traditional organs of the labour movement remain weak, particularly in terms of attracting youth and young radicalised workers. However, with resistance beginning to build up against the cuts being implemented, we have begun to see movements within the trade unions (particularly with November 30th). This has allowed us to link the aspirations of this new layer of Marxist youth to the working class struggle and show them the importance of the labour movement, whilst also enabling us to meet and discuss ideas with some of the best elements of the workers’ movement.

Our task in the coming year is to continue to professionalise our work through learning from our experiences as an entire organisation. The priority must be to continue discussing with our new comrades in order for them to become fully consolidated in the ideas of Marxism. Of course, we must also continue meeting and discussing with new, young people through our discussion groups whilst participating in the labour movement. Given the period that we are living through and the radicalism spreading throughout the world, our ideas have never before had such relevance. Now is the time for us to spread the ideas of socialism whilst building a strong tendency committed to the importance of Marxist theory.

 

Report on the work of the International Marxist Tendency

Paul Cummings, Edinburgh

Before reporting on the state of the International, comrade Jorge Martín of the In Defence of Marxism editorial board, praised the clear success of this meeting of the British Marxists and Socialist Appeal supporters, and suggested that the mood of enthusiasm was reflected across the International Marxist Tendency (IMT). Since last year's meeting there has been a marked increase in enthusiasm for Marxist ideas and this has been reflected in the recent successes of the IMT.

The Americas

Jorge MartínJorge MartínFifteen years ago the IMT had no presence at all across both North and South America apart from a solitary foothold in Mexico. Since then the IMT has established a number of sections in several countries from Canada to Argentina where Marxist ideas are finding a solid echo amongst workers and youth.

In Canada supporters of the Marxist paper Fightback have increased thanks to a bold orientation towards the youth. In particular as the Marxists of the New Young Democrats and within the Universities they have yielded good results, taking the ideas of Marx and Engels to the Canadian movement. The Canadian Marxists feel that by consolidating their support and continuing the work amongst the youth they can continue to grow by the end of the year in order to develop a more professional Marxist Tendency. The US Marxists have also made remarkable progress in the recent period. Much of the recent success has come from a solid intervention in the Occupy movement, particularly in New York where many comrades have been recruited to the ideas of Marxism in the past year. The Campaign for a Mass Party of Labour that is being spearheaded by the American Marxists has also had an impact and is making significant inroads into the American labour movement.

In Mexico the new Marxist paper La Izquierda Socialista has been founded with an inaugural meeting where there was a very encouraging turnout with over 280 people in attendance. In El Salvador, as has been reported elsewhere, the Marxist Tendency has recently suffered a setback after two leading comrades were injured in an accident following a criminal attack on the bus they were travelling in, although both comrades are recovering. Comrade Freddy who contributed a lot to the Tendency in a leadership capacity is still in hospital. The section is continuing on nonetheless and now has an active basis in the country, with a growing readership for their paper and have orientated towards the youth holding big meetings on campuses.

In Cuba the recent discussion on the restoration of capitalism have had an effect on workers and youth in Cuba about where the revolution is heading. Recently Alan Woods visited Cuba to take part in the discussions where Marxist ideas of the IMT are increasingly considered to be part of the debate.

In Venezuela there has been significant growth for the ideas of the IMT. The growth is encouraging and comes at a crucial time for the Venezuelan revolution with Presidential elections coming up and uncertainties over President Chavez’s health. The comrades have continued to take part in the movement and have been especially intervening in the occupied factories. In Bolivia where the government of Evo Morales has been coming under increasing pressure to move towards the left, the Bolivian Marxists have been working with the youth to build the Marxist Tendency, just recently establishing a group of supporters for the paper El Militante in the capital, La Paz.

In Brazil the comrades have held some spectacularly successful meeting recently with one in Sao Paulo where Estaban Volkov, the grandson of Leon Trotsky, spoke attracting over 1000 people. As a result the Brazilian Marxists have developed a large periphery of supporters. The ideas of Marxism are also spreading in the trade unions. The Argentinian Marxists are regularly publishing material on their website and paper both entitled El Militante. The comrades also plan on moving towards the youth by setting up Marxist Discussion Groups similar to those successfully run in Britain.

Europe

In Sweden the Marxists are campaigning in the universities and regularly publish the newspaper Avanti! In Denmark supporters of the Danish paper Socialistisk Standpunkt have increased thanks to the enthusiastic work of comrades who are finding an echo amongst the youth. The IMT now has supporters in both Norway and Iceland where work towards creating a supporters group is underway. In Germany comrades around the Marxist paper Der Funke are working as the Marxist Tendency of Die Linke.

In Austria the comrades have made excellent progress since last year and are growing the forces of Der Funke, the Austrian Marxist newspaper, as well as particularly fruitful work amongst the youth in Switzerland where the support for Der Funke has doubled over the past year.

In Belgium the comrades who support the Marxist paper Vonk are soon to be joined by a Dutch version of the paper, which will be launched in time for May Day as the ideas of Marxism spread to the Netherlands. In Ireland there are now a number of supporters of the Irish Marxist paper Fightback, and the website has been winning respect and influence amongst radical layers of the Irish labour movement.

In Spain the supporters of the ideas of the IMT in the United Left are increasing, where they publish a regular Marxist journal, Lucha de Classes. In Italy support for the Marxist paper FalceMartello has grown, as the Marxist current of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista where the Marxists have established themselves as the main left alternative to the leadership within the party.

In Greece, despite the chaotic situation, the Marxist Tendency continues to grow, with a strong base in Athens and also a regular paper and theoretical magazine. The comrades also publish a regular school student paper, Revolution! In France the supporters of La Riposte, the Marxist wing of the French Communist Party, are campaigning for a vote for the Left Front candidate Melanchon in the upcoming elections. In France the ideas of Marxism are gaining a greater echo amongst the youth.

Africa

In Morocco the number of comrades who support the ideas of the IMT has grown in the last year. The Moroccan Marxists also run the Marxist Arab language website Marxy.com, which has a very large following throughout the Arab world.

During the general strike at the beginning of the year, supporters of the Nigerian Marxist Paper Workers Alternative completely sold out of their paper. And now the Nigerian Marxists have a much wider periphery of supporters and sympathisers around them.

Work is also underway for establishing an official supporters group of the IMT in South Africa, where a small group of supporters hopes to soon hold a founding congress.

Asia and Oceania

In New Zealand, one of the newest IMT supporters groups, work has begun in spreading the ideas of Marxism with a regular website and paper set up. The IMT also has a small presence in Australia.

In Indonesia, another new supporter group of the IMT has successfully taken off with groups in the country producing a monthly paper. The Indonesian group has also taken on the commitment to help contribute regularly to the cost of the In Defence of Marxism website, a sizable commitment for such a group. They are confident in making significant growth by the end of the year.

In Russia supporters of the IMT have established a website that regularly posts articles in Russian. The Comrades intervened well in the recent anti-Putin protests. The IMT also has small groups of supporters in Serbia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia and efforts are being made to expand the reach of Marxist ideas in these countries.

The Iranian Marxists also have growing support for their ideas inside and outside the country, among the Iranian Diaspora.

In Pakistan remarkable progress has been made recently. At the recent Pakistani congress over 2600 supporters attended. Despite the very difficult work of the Marxists in Pakistan support for the Marxist Tendency has risen significantly. There is a solid presence throughout every region. The work amongst Pakistani youth has been especially excellent with the comrades running their own unemployed youth campaign. The success of the IMT in Pakistan has also allowed for Marxist ideas to spread further afield. In Afghanistan supporters are now publishing a paper. Work towards establishing sections has begun in both India and Bangladesh with groups of supporters in both countries looking to start organisations in cooperation with the IMT.

Comrade Martín finished the report by emphasising that the IMT’s influence goes beyond its already established membership. Throughout the world an increasingly large layer of workers and youth are looking for radical ideas as a result of the failures of capitalism. He highlighted the success of the IMT’s In Defence of Marxism website where since 2010 2.2 million views have been recorded, with hits coming from far beyond where the International Marxist Tendency has a presence on the ground. The existence of such an enormous appetite for the ideas of Marxism should give heart to comrades and further their determination to go out and build the Tendency for the colossal battles ahead.

Summing up the conference

In summing up the conference, Alan Woods commented on the significance of the increased turnout as compared to previous years, especially the high proportion of young members. In particular, the conference showed the clarity of the ideas of Socialist Appeal as opposed to the confusion of bourgeois commentators and the pessimism of the left in the UK. He went on to emphasize the work that needs to be done in constructing the necessary vehicle to change society. Despite the enormously challenging task ahead, there is no greater enterprise than the struggle for the emancipation of humanity from capitalism.

Paying tribute to the organisation’s founder, Ted Grant, who consistently upheld the banner of the 4th International, Alan Woods stressed the Tendency’s historical unprecedented and moral and political authority. Reflecting on his own experience when he joined as a 16 year old recruit to Marxism 50 years ago, Alan described the tiny group of around 30 who were small in numbers and small in resources.

Singing the InternationaleSinging the InternationaleDespite this, they had the correct ideas and an orientation towards the labour movement. As a result, the small handful of Marxists eventually formed the Militant Tendency with over 8,000 members in Britain, the most powerful Marxist tendency since the Russian Left Opposition. It is the correct ideas and orientation that builds the organisation, not the other way around, as the some imagine. The criminal destruction of Militant showed that it is hard to build but very easy to destroy.

Despite this, Alan argued that the conference was proof that after huge defeats it is always possible to rebuild. During the previous boom, for years the organisation was fighting against the stream, but the tide has now turned. Now more than ever there are tens of thousands searching for an alternative to capitalism and the comrades have nothing to fear when attempting to connect Marxism with these new layers. Alan mentioned the unanimous political clarity amongst comrades and argued that this allowed for a solid basis to proceed with.

Alan insisted that the IMT is the only Marxist tendency that can solve the problems of the working class and therefore humanity. Finishing with a quote from Trotsky he added: “I am sure of the victory of the 4th International, go forward!”

Conference was closed with the singing of the Red Flag and the Internationale.

Fighting Fund

Around £5,000 was raised for the Fighting Fund through Raffles, Food and Drink sales but mainly through a magnificent collection carried out following a financial appeal made on Saturday afternoon by Steve Jones. One comrade gave £1,500 to get things going with a number of other comrades chipping in with £200 and £100 donations. After a forrest of fifties and a swarm of tenners, the buckets were filled up by spare change and pound coins - it all adds up.

To add to the collection click here.

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