It seems that the successor to the UN Commission on Human Rights will be forced to examine abuses of freedom of speech. One may be forgiven for thinking I mean that the new Council on Human Rights will be forced to examine those cases where freedom of speech is curtailed. Au contraire. The Council will be examining those cases where freedom of speech is taken too far.
As a socialist, I do not believe the state has a role to play in curtailing freedom of speech. Though I occasionally gloat when the far right fall foul of the law, in truth I should restrain my urge to see the bourgeois state lock up such ignorant excuses for human beings. That is not to say that I think that anyone should be allowed to say anything. The question is, allowed by whom?
If we’re intent on building a conscious, political, workers’ movement, then we should be encouraging that movement to police for itself those areas over which it has control. For this reason I support the NUS denying fascists the right to speak at NUS events. Similarly, for this reason I support election candidates who refuse to share a platform with the fascist BNP. Similarly organisations like Searchlight and Unite Against Fascism.
This is a qualitatively different issue from the state taking a hand in determining who can say what. It is also different from allowing a multi-national organisation to take a hand in condemning those people who dare to speak out against Sharia law and other such occasionally barbaric practices. Doubly so when the self-same organisation is at best measured in its criticism of inhumanity in the Islamic world.
Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said before I don’t accept this notion of ‘rights’ and the only sense I use the word in is entirely superficial. The underpinning logic of the modern world is that one gets the rights which one can grab. Having rights handed down from above creates faith in institutions, such as the UN, which do not justify it. The UN, after all, was founded as the voice of the four world powers.
For the international labour movement, this change is superficial, representative only of the increasingly reactionary nature of so many national regimes. While our soldiers are off crusading in Iraq and Afghanistan, under the guise of ‘multi-polarity’ nations like Russia and China are strengthening themselves economically, politically and militarily. It cannot be long until each side renews its special brand of imperialism.
This is a real danger, something which we need to be waking up to. Against such powers the force of arms can do nothing. This is only highlighted by the lamentable fiction of success in Iraq, the truth of which is revealed with the disintegration of British efforts in Basra into violence. If a peace is re-established, it will be because it is in the interests of the Islamic clerics who run the fanatic militias in the region.
Having outlined the difference between bureaucratic superficiality and the real issues, I shouldn’t care about the change in the Council on Human Rights. I do though. I grew up with Model UN Conferences and the belief that the only thing stopping the United Nations from being an overwhelming force for good was the Security Council vetoes. None of that is true of course, but youthful ideas, however unworthy, die hard.
John McDonnell’s post on the Conferences from Saturday can be read here.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my previous article, the Socialist Youth Network held their conference yesterday, with Joanne Parry and John McDonnell as the guest speakers. There were 16 motions debated, plus two changes in policy, plus the re-election of the Executive of SYN for the coming year. Though I anticipated quite a dry day, it wasn’t so boring as that. Largely I think John himself was responsible, but I’ll come to that.
There were at most 35 people in attendance at any one time, though because of a meeting on immigration and asylum seeking held at the same time, many people stayed for a while and hurried on, or arrived late. It wasn’t to be helped, since the SYN conference was overdue slightly, the original founding conference having been held in January of 2007. The usual faces turned up: Socialist Appeal, Permanent Revolution, AWL, CPGB etc.
Despite that, I don’t think this meeting was preaching to the choir, nor do I necessarily think the room justified metaphors about echo chambers and such like. For those who don’t know, SYN was set up by Owen Jones and Marsha-Jane Thompson, among others, to bring together a youth wing of the Labour Representation Committee. The parliamentary LRC group is about the closest one gets to elected socialists in the UK.
At any rate, the purpose of the conference was broadly two-fold. A discussion needed to be held on the events of the past year, including the failure of the John4Leader campaign, and on where the SYN was to go next. Some discussion needed to focus on the other campaigns SYN had been involved with, such as COFUP, anti-deportation fights, immigrant worker rights and some protests, at the Saudi Arabian embassy for example.
The morning session got off to an uncontroversial start, since Bob Crow was meant to speak but couldn’t show up as a result of negotiations over RMT and TSSA industrial action. Several motions were passed unanimously, including support for the RMT dispute, anti-privatisation, anti-ID cards / anti-victimisation of young people and an anti-academies proposal. Only the Academies proposals had more than one person take the floor on the issue.
The afternoon session was much more interesting, opening with John McDonnell addressing conference. Far from being a set-piece speech on a specific topic, John sat down and talked to the room like they were adults, something that I’ve seen many Labour cabinet ministers fail to do when talking to young people. He was very candid about the reasons behind the failure of the John4Leader campaign and asked us to weigh in.
One expects issues such as media bias to come up, for example, the deletion of various Comment Is Free articles which supported the campaign. Much more unexpected was the discussion about just how weak many Broad Lefts are within Trade Unions. It became evident that neither the campaign nor the Broad Lefts themselves realised how weak they were until they were out-manouevred by union leaderships regarding support for John.
Also aired was the deal which John and the campaign had struck with Jon Trickett of Compass to support a Compass member for deputy leader, if Trickett would organise his allies and friends to nominate John for the leadership. In the event, Neal Lawson and John Cruddas countered this deal and perhaps prevented John from getting on the ballot paper. The general consensus was that the PLP was afraid of a). the debate and b). what Gordon would do to anyone who nominated John, should John get on the ballot paper.
What really became most apparent almost all the way through every discussion – especially one held later on a Venezuelan named Chirino – is that the one weapon the left needs, we don’t have. This weapon is information. When one group can take the Alan Woods’ view of Venezuela and another can take the AWL’s view, clearly the left is not well enough informed about what’s going on in Venezuela. Similarly on most issues that we seem to end up disagreeing on.
On the question of TUC and union bureaucracy interference in the political activism displayed by many young people, the new generation of workers and socialists, the wider movement, needs to know about what’s going on. Every time a branch is suspended, people need to know. Every time a Labour council sells its soul to developers, we need to know. On every fight, we need information from the people on the ground, for orientation.
Most pressingly for the left is the question of what to make of the Labour Party. Ben Lewis of CPGB made a point which John also picked up that if we leave the Labour Party, where do we go? Militant exercised a lot of influence within the CLPs and union branches across the Labour Party – but they were trapped. They could neither conquer the Labour Party nor leave it, as the Open Turn subsequently demonstrated by splitting the organisation and weakening it.
This begs the deeper question of where, exactly, socialists draw their power from. The textbook answer is “directly from the masses” and so, technically, whether or not we’re in or out of the Labour Party should be a tactical question at best. In or out of Labour, socialists should be working within the organisations of the working class to build a united political front that will unite all socialist groups behind it. Does it really work this way?
The honest answer is, I don’t know. The information required to answer such a question is not readily available. It’s easy to sit on the side lines and read the different sectarian publications deriding Respect, CNWP or the various other groups, or, indeed, the self-serving propaganda each group puts out. That won’t get us closer to answering a vital question. As John McDonnell repeated several times; we need to be absolutely honest with ourselves, “it’s time to stop f**king about.”
A word that was mentioned several times was praxis, the concept of combining theory and activism, where each one informs the other. This is the ideal socialist practice, something which virtually all Marxist theorists agree upon. Currently I don’t believe that any of the revolutionary sects honestly have a real grasp of praxis. As far as I can see, there is not enough honest information being disseminated about praxis in order to inform theory.
This is true as much of past fights, such as Liverpool, as of the present ones such as the already mentioned debate over Venezuela. I don’t live in Liverpool and I don’t live in Venezuela so I have to rely on others in order to get an understanding of events in those areas. It’s as much true of fights within various Trade Union caucuses. If I’m not there, I have to rely on others in order to accurately assess what is going on and to draw the necessary theoretical conclusions.
Defining and critiquing modern capitalism is the most important task facing socialists – but it is still only one task. Should we cease entirely all activism until such times as we have a definitive model of capitalism, comparable to the model which Marx drew of Victorian-era capitalism, or which Lenin drew of the interrelation between finance capitalism and imperialism? Models exist, such as Hardt and Negri’s terrible book Empire. Should we stop the activism until everyone understands the why and wherefores thereof?
Of course not – and no one is suggesting that we do. I am one of the people looking to renew the powerful theoretical tools of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and the many other writers of the Marxist left. For all the importance of that attempt, however, it doesn’t answer the immediate practical questions. What do we do about union bureaucracy? How can we connect to the working class in the modern era? How can we translate such a connection into political (as distinct from parliamentary) power?
These are questions which require urgent answers and which require as much information to build as full a picture as possible. From that picture we might draw answers. Knowing what each party is actually doing with its union activists might be a start – knowing what motions they’re submitting, what fights they are fighting might allow us to organise a better fight back.
The SYN conference demonstrated that a certain level of openness between the sects was possible, that it was possible to work together. SYN could prove to be the hub for gathering and sharing out this information which we so desperately need, in order to inform our decisions on tactics. It certainly has the potential to unite the sects. Worrying cracks exist in that organisation, however, that prevent it moving from information gathering to far-reaching strategic decisions.
There was a motion yesterday from the AWL bunch, moved by David Broder and Sofie Buckland, requiring that the SYN support moves in certain LRC-affiliated unions to back non-Labour working class candidates. As a Labour member, I voted against the motion and it was easily defeated by a combination of other Labour activists and other groups not ready for a rupture with Labour. The motion demonstrated an important division.
Several unions have disaffiliated from Labour including the FBU and the RMT. The RMT particularly seems to be a centre of gravity for the workers’ movement. Certain other unions, such as that of the oil workers, have taken the decision to amalgamate with it. There is currently little pressure among such unions to field independent candidates but there is also growing disillusion with Labour over the stitch ups in choosing candidates etc.
Eventually, should the Campaign for a New Workers Party actually begin to make some sort of impact, or should another big union disaffiliate from the Labour Party, there will be pressure to take sides. Either one can be a member of the Labour Party and support Labour Party candidates, or one can leave Labour and support other candidates. It’s not an immediate choice, given that CNWP can’t even get PCS to affiliate despite having half the executive and the President as signatories to the CNWP founding declaration.
It’s pretty likely that the standing of trade union candidates or the backing of independent candidates (a la George Galloway) will cause a massive split amongst the members of the LRC, the SYN and between the different small parties. On the surface, it seems like a silly problem; back a Blairite versus back a trade unionist socialist. It’s hardly a difficult decision, yet we’d risk the LRC parliamentary platform not to mention risk disconnection from the many trade union activists who still believe Labour can be recaptured.
Nor is it clear that backing an independent candidate, despite being excellent on principle, would actually achieve anything. I’m not expressing timidity at a new venture – I’m measuring loss versus gain on the issue. As soon as Labour begin the final dismantling of the NHS or we openly involve ourselves in a much broader war, I’ll break my membership card in two and go out stumping for independents because there’s nothing to lose. At the moment, however, there is something to lose, there is still a reason to be Labour.
Any reader who has hung in there this long will see clearly the difficulty in articulating a correct theory and relating it to a correct practice – i.e. in praxis. We don’t need one more party trying to claim ground on which there are already a dozen groups, but, unless something changes, we can’t remain in Labour forever. It would be intellectually dishonest to stay in a party that doesn’t represent one’s interests when there is absolutely no chance in reclaiming that party, renewing its internal democracy and redrawing its platform.
A reader might also be fairly clear on the absence of all necessary information on this issue. Though debates might rage on as to what RESPECT is doing, what CNWP is doing and so on, we don’t have the entirety of the details. This is why the sects can denounce each other, safe in the knowledge that only a very few people actually have the information necessary to ameliorate or reject their point of view, rather than simply taking it on trust. I’m not attacking their basic honesty, this is just pragmatism.
This is the web which SYN now finds itself caught in. A certain degree of inertia is the result, a reduction to campaigning for individual issues. I look forward to taking a part in that campaigning and I hope that we’ll follow up Ben Lewis’ motion to get involved in a frank open discussion on where we go from here.
Dave Osler makes some interesting points on the depoliticisation of the population in general and young people in particular here in the British Isles (thanks to Tom Miller for pointing it out). I spent yesterday at a conference of the Socialist Youth Network, the youth arm of the Labour Representation Committee and I wanted to add my own thoughts to the depoliticisation debate, and to discuss what I saw yesterday at the conference in Malet Street.
Your average punter can make a lot of snap judgments about the state of the youth today. That they need national service to sort them out is one I hear both from the Tories and from our own “bluff traditionalist” right flank. People say we need corporal punishment in schools. The slightly more liberal commentators will lament the decline in the youth vote and direct youth participation in politics, as evidenced by the drop in the 18-24 band in all aspects of participation.
It is high time we put an end to the blatant hypocrisy of adults in general, and leftist organisations in particular. If a young person becomes politically active on the left, they’re told that it’s just their radical phase. When young people come along to meetings of University Labour Clubs and are lucky enough to hear ministerial-level speakers, the speakers would spout vagaries and urge everyone to be ‘progressive’ if there weren’t young people in the room willing to ask the difficult questions.
Yet that is just the beginning of the blame we must lay at the labour movement’s door. Some of the stories I heard yesterday were spine tingling. One former executive of the Young TUC told me about what an openly disdainful attitude the TUC has towards their youth division. Instead of acting upon concretely worked out, concretely supported proposals from the YTUC, the TUC prefers to grab photo-opportunities with the NUS. It looks good, it looks like they’re doing something, with their flagship agreement.
Where is the incentive for young people to get involved? I’m involved because I’m an extremely angry young man who will probably be dead of stroke or coronary due to high bloody pressure by the time I’m forty. I have enough anger in me at the idiocy I sometimes see running our society, at the complacency with which people adopt lunatic ideas. I’m angry at the apathy with which workers and students in general are prepared to sit back and take their royal rogering with barely a complaint.
For everyone else, I really quite understand how young people can have a political opinion and not wish to descend into party politics. I mean, even one year of knowing the full-timers of Labour Students and I questioned my membership of the Labour Party. When young workers are getting screwed by bosses and the TUC still supports a three-tiered minimum wage, what courage can anyone have to think that something, somewhere might change?
I’m not saying that if the TUC supported a unitary minimum wage that people will automatically be political – but it might pull one or two people in each town towards wanting to be active as shop stewards or whatever. With each progressive measure, the infrastructure of the Trades Councils and CLPs might begin to be rebuilt, until we actually have a network of activists willing to go out on to the street and argue their case. We might have a chance, then, of occasionally winning industrial action in the areas that most need it.
That’s unlikely to happen. The tricks of the Trade Union bureaucracy are too advanced. When UNISON Scotland can nominate John McDonnell for leader, and the UNISON executive can simply write that out of their meeting, something is wrong. When activist branches of trade unions can be disbanded, when activists can be suspended, for political activity something is wrong. When Labour Party members can no longer get resolutions to the floor of party Conference to be debated, something is wrong.
This is not an apolitical generation of youth. These are young people whose future is being mortgaged by the leaders of the previous generation. For a quiet life, for an easy job, for whatever reason, the older generation have lost their bottle. They don’t want to fight so they try to make sure that no-one else can fight, and the rot spreads from the top of the labour movement right to the bottom. No wonder Dave Osler can’t get enthused about the difference between the Brownites and the “Cameroonies.”
This is a first run through of a couple of ideas which I hope will be published in the magazine of the Secular Society at Oxford University. If there are mistakes or people want to help me by suggesting possible criticisms, I welcome it and will probably produce a final draft later.
What is secularism? Can it be reduced to the desire to separate church and state? That is a very specific proposition with which all secularists would agree. What if I change the simplification to the desire to separate religion and politics? A dis-established church, a church with no power to structurally influence the state, is very different idea to religion being denied argumentative validity in the political arena.
Certainly I would support the latter proposition, but secularism encompasses many more people than I. Conservatives, Libertarians, Centrists, Social Democrats, Communists; secularism is represented across the political spectrum. Groups which have almost nothing in common, from the most vacuous pluralists, most ruthless capitalists to the most dogmatic socialists, often agree on something called secularism. But what is it?
Many people cite 12th century Islamic scholar Ibn-Rushd as the father of secularism, with his re-interpretation of Aristotle. Ibn-Rushd sought to outline secular philosophy and religious faith as two routes to the same truth. Ibn-Rushd’s concession, coming at a time when Muslims and Christians were slaughtering each other over religion, was a startling departure from the accepted wisdom of the time. Yet this was not modern secularism.
That concept was not coined until George Holyoake. In 1846, Holyoake said, “Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.” Manifestly, secularism was the belief in a world that was knowable to man and should be judged as such, indefatigably modernist.
Yet the knowledge such as Holyoake referred to does not simply spring out of nothing. Knowledge is shaped by a pre-existent base of material conditions, the changes in which create new demands and generate new ideas to satiate those demands. Holyoake’s ‘secularism’ was the result of several centuries of relentless rationalisations in how human society organised itself to meet each new demand as it was thrown up.
In short, Holyoake’s secularism was the result of the capitalist dis-embedding of economics from the filter of social relations. This conflation of capitalism and secularism will seem odd to some. After all, the birth of capitalism in England was accompanied by a civil war in which landed privilege and merchant capitalism fought each other cloaked in the languages of a flamboyant Anglicanism and an extreme Puritanism.
Puritanism, however, was the dialectical answer to the Anglicanism that was wielded like a weapon against the gentry of England by the King. It struck directly at one of the sources of royal power over the English church – the episcopacy. It preferred individual exegesis of biblical scripture to the received pronunciations of a cleric. This individualism is a key component of capitalism, the full development of which requires that each individual be a free actor in the market place. Wage-labour, rather than serfdom or slavery, was to be the way of the new capitalist order.
More recognisably, secularism was connected directly to the hearts of the American and French revolutions. These revolutions swept away the vestigial power of the aristocracy and placed the bourgeoisie, the owners and managers of capital, at the centre of the political system, each atop a heap of peasant and proletarian corpses. However this secularism was not merely a response to a feudal reliance and exploitation of the forms of religion.
Secularism was much more important than that. It embodied the rationalism required to develop the capitalist mode of production, with its inescapable logic of competition, profit and innovation. This was a rationalism existent in society which the embedded economies of previous modes of production found little use for. Concepts such as honour or manliness were more esteemed and were themselves currency for the ruling class as much as or more than mere coinage.
Capitalism changed all that, abolishing the embedded economies. On the coat tails of capitalism came secularism, a natural corollary of the destruction of religion’s structural position in feudal society, in all its variants. Secularism was a sharp challenge to the epistemological validity of religion in the same way that the capitalist revolutions were a sharp challenge to the relevance of left over feudal relics such as absolute monarchy.
If we are to understand secularism fully, we should not attempt to reduce it to a unidimensional profession of faith in rationality. We should understand it in the context of the material conditions which gave it birth, or at least which popularised it. For me, secularism is one more part of a wider emancipatory project which flows from the rational, dis-embedded economics that began with capitalism but which will conclude with the communal ownership of the means of production.
At its very root, secularism forms an explicit affirmation of the human ability to penetrate mysticism, of the human ability to know. In the modern era, secularism is much more than a renunciation of religious connection to the state. It defies postmodernist relativism and the modernist establishment and represents a beacon of hope for all progressive movements.
This story relates how the British government has decided to make an abrupt volte face on an early release programme which released some people convicted under the anti-terrorism laws. The scheme has now been changed to prevent anyone charged under anti-terrorism laws qualifying for early release.
It really goes to show exactly how much this government has no overarching ideological focus guiding it. I’ve listened in person to Gordon Brown dismiss the ideas of the ‘old’ left as ideological solutions to the problems facing the nation. The implication is that ideological solutions are the antithesis of efficient solutions to any problem.
Instead, what the government seem to be stumbling from one policy disaster after another without much in the way of consistency. The only constant feature of each policy is that it either a) will alienate the Labour base on the assumption that hardcore Labour voters (the ones with principles) can’t go anywhere or b) is a royal screw up.
This is the same government which decided to release Irish Republican and Loyalist terrorists, only for a large number of them to sink back into crime and gang warfare – Mr. “Mad Dog” Adair to name one. Of course, when it’s only happening in Northern Ireland, it’s not a PR disaster. It has to happen on the mainland for policy to change.
Abroad, the ‘troop surge’ is basically another way of British and American troops giving Iraq to one ethnic faction whilst the other starts blowing stuff up. Meanwhile at home we decide to invite the most right wing President that France has seen since de Gaulle for tea so we can announce what great friends Britain and France are.
Who am I kidding? Of course this government loves the French right. Long live internationalism eh?
The joint declaration issued by Brown and Sarkozy can be read here. It makes for interesting reading. On some issues, such as nuclear power, I’m all in favour of constructing nuclear power plants on a rational footing that can supersede national borders when relevant.
On that issue, however, it needs to be pointed out that we’re bringing the French on board because private companies want a piece of the cherry – the same sort of companies the government has been bailing out for ten years.
Apart from that, it’s all grand, vaulting stuff. Much like the announcements made by the G8 nations after the Live8 concerts around the world. I wonder, when we look back several years from now exactly how much of all this will have been met? Not a lot, judging by progress so far.
Economically, it’s more neo-liberal “trickle down” theory; the two nations are pledged to for an ambitious EU development action plan, to include action aimed at stimulating the private sector and growth with a view to achieving our goals on poverty reduction.”
We all know, after all, that the private sector has traditionally been known to keep anti-poverty measures close to hear. The same private sector which caused a world banking crisis because it was so profit greedy, ironically requiring billions and billions in state funds to bail out those people who attack the government for spending money on public services.
In foreign policy, the UK affirms a commitment to work within international institutions but, otherwise, bilaterally. This is the equivalent of Britain saying, “We’ll do it your way so long as you agree with us, otherwise we’ll do it our way.” Eventually we’re going to have to learn that Britannia doesn’t rule the waves.
It’s certainly nice that the UK and France have re-affirmed their promise to rebuild Afghanistan, though what that means for the blind eye policy towards Afghan poppy fields, who knows?
One also has to love the hypocrisy of challenging Iran’s nuclear programme as a breach of its ‘international obligations’ despite our own re-development of nuclear arms – something the French will be joining us with in the near future, when their own nuclear weapons need polishing.
And so we plough onwards, regardless that we’re alienating our base ever more. Choo-choo! Next stop, Conservative government 2009.