Looking back on Liberty & Solidarity

Liberty & Solidarity, the political organisation of which I was a member, has recently disbanded.  Consequently I think it is worth sharing some thoughts here on its successes and its failings.

I was a member of L&S for four years, from its founding conference where we adopted our constitution, to the this September’s, when we formally disbanded the organisation.  During that period I was national secretary for two and a half years and also held the post of education secretary.

The Anarchist movement

Starting at the beginning, L&S very much came from the anarchist movement.  All of those involved initially considered themselves anarchists and the project at that time was to build a “platformist” anarchist organisation.  From the off however we did things a little differently from our sister organisations in Anarkismo, the platformist anarchist international grouping.

For starters, though far more common even just four years ago than it is today, we refused to follow the standard leftist model and produce propaganda paper.  We felt that such initiatives tended to largely be a waste of time, with small print runs and little by way of tangible results.

Similarly, and scandalously to some in the anarchist movement, we tried to avoid political labels, preferring instead to describe what we actually believed, rather than whichever “ism” might be appropriately assigned to us.

Our relationship with the anarchist movement proved to be a difficult one.  Because of several L&S members having split from the AF not long prior to the foundation of L&S there was already much bad blood, and L&S’ political trajectory, moving us away from the anarchist movement, did not help matters.  Perhaps it would have been better if we had made a clean break at that early stage, however at that point in time we still thought of ourselves as anarchists, even if the rest of the anarchist movement didn’t agree with us.

Our reputation in the anarchist movement was also tarnished by some cock-ups on our part, including some less than diplomatic behaviour from our own members.  The blame for poor relations does not rest squarely on the shoulders of L&S however, the sectarianism of the anarchist movement meant that our organisation was soon the subject of various conspiracy theories which went largely unchallenged.  In part this was to do with the closed nature of L&S, with our internal discussions kept private by our members.  On reflection I think it would have served us well to have been more open and had more of our discussions in public, but given the attacks being directed at us from the anarchist movement the instinct to batten down the hatches was an understandable one.

We took the decision to take little heed as to what the anarchist movement thought, after all, 99.9% of the working class weren’t anarchist, so why should we care what this tiny minority thought? The problem however was that we were still in many ways part of the anarchist movement.  For some branches the anarchist social scene was still the norm, and even where this wasn’t the case, the largely anarchist dominated IWW was the prime focus of our industrial strategy.

Industrial strategy

Many L&Sers had first met each other through involvement in the IWW and indeed it was the shared project of the IWW that strategically united L&S for the first couple of years.  Initially we were concerned with helping win an international delegates convention so that the UK section of the IWW would have fairer representation.  This process involved conflict with corrupt bureaucrats such as Jon Bekken and his Philadelphia IWW cohorts.

Whilst the delegates convention was being won we also wanted to play our part in growing the IWW domestically.  The IWW had adopted as its official strategy a focus on building the union as a dual card union in the health industry.  We eagerly set to work on this, doing our best to assist IWW blood service workers in their fight to stop blood centre closures.

In a bid to support our strategy many L&S members got jobs in healthcare and most wound up in UNISON, the largest healthcare union.  As part of our work within the mainstream labour movement we also participated in the National Shop Stewards Network and helped initiate the NSSN syndicalists grouping within it.

Our participation in the NSSN however proved sadly short lived.  Sectarianism from the Socialist Party who held a majority on its executive meant that the network was soon forced to split, leaving the NSSN a shallow SP front.  In retrospect splitting at this point may have been a mistake, it certainly left us out in the wilderness in terms of our industrial strategy, with progress in growing the IWW as a base union slow to nonexistent.  We had also failed to grow our influence in the IWW, being regarded with suspicion by the majority of IWW activists due to our bad relations within the anarchist movement.

Internal organisation

Our platformist roots showed most prominently in our constitution, which started out life as a copy of that of the WSM, our Irish sister group.   Reacting to the structurelessness and disorganisation of the anarchist movement from which we had come we were keen to ensure that we had a well structured and democratic organisation.  The organisation was to be composed only of those who were active in pursuing one or both of our dual strategies, workplace or community organising.

This allowed us to experiment with new ways of organising ourselves. We implemented “battle plans” for branches and disparate members, which were to be derived from an overall national battle plan.  These plans consisted of SMART targets to be achieved over the next year, this way we could monitor our own progress.  This approached forced us to think strategically in the near term, about what we wanted to see and what we thought was realistic to achieve within one year.  Unfortunately we never quite managed to get the system working properly.  Part of the issue was that politics is obviously unpredictable, a more flexible planning mechanism better able to cope with the unforeseen might have been more implementable.

Another good idea that didn’t quite work out was the decision we took early on to concentrate on growing through the “mass organisations”, the unions and community groups we were involved in, rather than through recruiting from the anarchist movement.  Sadly recruitment was something we never managed in great numbers, with most of our new recruits coming from the anarchist movement in spite of our decision to look away from it.  Partly I think the issue was it was a rather big jump, from being a trade union member to joining a disciplined political organisation.  Some broader interim organisation would have been useful to enable potential recruits to politically develop and to allow us to work with allies who perhaps might never join our organisation.

Our failure to recruit meant that the organisation stayed roughly the same size, with structures like branches proving difficult to maintain and less useful with fewer members.  This resulted in L&S becoming something of a burden rather than a help to its members, with smaller branches seeming somewhat pointless.  Nationally the organisation had been useful at coordinating our work within the union movement, but when we lost direction in this arena after our withdrawal from the NSSN this left the organisation with less purpose.  On the community side of things this had always been a more disparate form of activity less likely to benefit from a national organisation.

Our concern that the organisation was becoming a burden rather than a useful tool stemmed from our now syndicalist perspective that a political organisation was only valuable in so far as it helped strengthen and influence working class organisation.  Rightly, we always prioritised this goal over building our own group.

In the end though we decided to disband the organisation we also concluded that we still held a lot of shared ground.  Hopefully in the coming years former L&S members will stay in touch and work together for our still common goal; the elevation of the working class to power in society.

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Winning the battle of ideas

For socialists, how workers power can be brought about is the central question.  Most socialist groups have different answers to this question, from the large idealogical chasm of revolution versus reform as a means of changing society to smaller more nuanced issues of tactics in the here and now.  One notion that does seem to straddle the vast majority of existing socialist groups however is the view that the “battle ideas”, the idealogical struggle against capitalism, is of central importance.  This is often cited as the reason for standing in elections, to give socialist ideas a platform, and the justification for endless paper sales and leafleting.

The problem is, we seem to be losing this battle of ideas.  Capitalism is undoubtedly the dominant ideology of the working class (all be it nice fluffy Keynesian capitalism) and over the past decade, even with capitalism facing possible collapse, the socialist left has gained little in terms of support.  If we are serious about winning socialism we need to examine the reasons for these failures and find out in what way we can improve our approach.

Current approaches

Nearly every socialist organisation, from the most authoritarian Stalinists to the most liberal anarchists, has its own publication. Usually this takes the form of a “newspaper” that comes periodically and espouses the position of the group and generally advocates for their chosen ideology. These newspapers are often accompanied by less frequent and more in-depth magazines and a web presence, more or less developed depending on the organisation in question.

Such publications do their best to convince the reader of the merits of a socialist transformation, and in particular of membership of that group, their aim being to create socialists (or to “spread socialist ideas”, which amounts to the same thing). Now there are undoubtedly cases where this approach works, and most experienced paper-sellers will have a couple of anecdotes up their sleeves about this or that comrade that was recruited via the weekly paper-sale.

Such benefits shouldn’t be dismissed, however at present the socialist movement is recruiting in ones or twos, and hasn’t increased markedly the percentage of the population that believe in socialist ideas. Now we can argue that this is because of “objective circumstances”, but, in the midst of a crisis of capitalism it is difficult to imagine circumstances more favourable to socialist ideas, and yet their take up, whilst increased slightly, is still minor amongst the population as a whole.

So why is it that our ideas are failing to spread? To answer this question it is necessary to look at how our political opponents, the capitalist class, promote their own ideas.

Learning from the enemy

Firstly, when we compare our own organisations to the capitalist political parties we immediately notice that these party’s do not have their own organ. Why is this? Would “New Labour Worker” be a successful publication? Probably not as most people are very sceptical of any publication with an explicit agenda, and prefer their media to have at least nominal independence. Of course all of the bourgeoisie press has its own allegiances, and most are not blind to this, but they are none the less considered a more reputable source of information than party-political election materials.

Newspapers may be partisan, but they are still more trusted

Another characteristic of the capitalist newspaper industry is its noted recent decline. Over the last decade there has been a marked decrease in newspaper sales as technology slowly makes this media irrelevant. The newspaper industry has been slow to adapt to this change and has thus lost out, however the left press has found it even more difficult to cope with change.

Various dogmas surround the notion of the centrality of the party paper, especially on the Leninist left.  Whilst party papers undoubtedly played an important role in the Russian revolution and we should seek to learn from that experience what we can, technology has moved on and such an approach is no longer effective.  The notion of organising around a paper these days makes little sense, and usually translates into yet more dismal paper sales.  Other media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as the present day revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt have found, are far more potent tools than party-political newspapers.

From action to ideas

However, there is a more fundamental problem than the technological out-datedness and obvious partisanship of the far left press.  For most people socialism seems unattainable, utopian, “nice idea but it’ll never happen”.  Whilst we can try to mitigate against this attitude by wheeling out Marxist dogmas on the inevitability of proletarian victory, or by quoting historical examples, “but look, in 1917, in Russia, for a bit…” neither approach is going to be hugely convincing to your average worker.

This perception of attainability is very important when it comes to looking at motivations.  Socialism does not appear to be in the immediate self-interest, because it appears to be unattainable, of working class people.  As it stands its difficult to argue that doing a miserable paper sale once every weekend at the local shopping centre will tangibly benefit the working class, and so surprise surprise few are drawn in by this sort of activity.

So a central project for us as socialists must be to make socialism, the empowerment of the working class, as attainable as possible.  To do this, we must look to empower working people, creating powerful demonstrations in their own lives that the working class can and should run society.  Such power does not have to come all at once, more naturally it can be built.  Every time an industrial union successfully stops a management attack on the workers, it is demonstrating its power over the workplace.  Every time the workers win a demand, even a small one, they have taken a little control over their workplace away from their boss.

Of course, winning a new coffee machine or stopping a pay cut is still a long way from attaining true socialism, but such victories can help us build the confidence of those involved in winning them and enable us to demonstrate to yet more workers the effectiveness of our popular organisations.  The more organised the working class is, though trade unions, community associations or any other mass organisation, the better able to assert itself it will be, and the more power it will wield.

Eventually, when unions become strong, the question ceases to be “who runs this workplace” and begins to be “who runs this country”.  Worker’s power has been made attainable and it is then that we will find the working classes responsive to our idealogical propaganda and can push for total control over society.  The terrain will be such that the battle of ideas can be decisively won.

But in the mean time, our focus should not be on trying to preach our socialist gospel to a largely uninterested working class, but rather we should focus our efforts on preparing the battlefield, building and democratising the popular organisations of our class.  With our limited resources this may mean tough choices, moving finance away from propaganda activities and towards the work we do within mass organisations, but ultimately this strategic realignment will render us better able to win the battle of ideas in the long term.