An inspiring weekend of discussion and debate
pictures by cwi photographer Paul Mattsson
Capitalism is a system of crisis, a blind system based on the creation of obscene profits for a tiny minority on the backs of the graft of the majority. It is a system that has been increasingly laid bare for all to see over the course of the last few months and a growing number are looking for an alternative. Socialism 2008 offered this alternative and laid out the case for socialism to a new layer of workers and young people thirsty for ideas to change the world.
Over the course of the weekend, around a thousand workers and youth piled into session after session to discuss what the economic downturn will mean for ordinary people, the roots of the crisis and how the ideas of Marxism can help us understand it. Almost 200 people packed out a discussion on the world economic crisis introduced by Lynn Walsh, editor of Socialism Today.
This is a worldwide crisis impacting on working people in every corner of the planet; therefore, a global fight-back is necessary. Sessions on international issues were packed out and reflected this; socialist activists from Greece, Germany, Italy, Bolivia and China spoke and for many, these first hand accounts of working people organising struggle were a highlight of the weekend. For instance, 150 attended a discussion on China introduced by Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe and Chinese socialist activist Fang Gouli. Hearing, for the first time at an event in the UK, the emerging voice of Chinese Trotskyism was deeply inspiring.
Sessions looking back on struggles from the past and drawing out the important lessons of them were also well attended, with discussions taking place on the 1968 general strike in France, the Prague Spring uprising against Stalinism and the civil rights movement in the USA, among others.
Following the electoral victory of Barack Obama on the back of a mass electoral uprising of working people, 90 attended an important discussion on the significance of the election and the celebratory mood that Obama’s win has elicited, with huge street parties taking place across the US and other parts of the world. Crucially, the meeting addressed the question of whether or not Obama will be able to deliver the change that millions of workers and poor expect.
The rally on Saturday evening was attended by 900 and clearly laid out the case for socialism. The weekend came to a close with 700 attending the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party-hosted rally.
This was another benchmark year for the Socialist Party’s Socialism event; in the face of capitalist crisis, we raised the banner of socialism in front of a new and growing audience.
Because I had to go to a wedding I could only make it to the session on Pakistan. It was insightful, unintimidating and everyone was drawn into the discussion. I learned a lot. You can quote me on that!
Kay Shipley, Walthamstow
Making the case for socialism
In front of a stage backed with the words: ‘Socialism 2008, making the case for socialism’, 900 people gathered in the main hall of Friends Meeting House, Euston, for the centrepiece event of Socialism 2008.
The rally got off to a rousing start with the showing of a specially-made film covering the recent upheavals in the world economy and the political consequences and reactions. Then the rapt attention of the audience was held through the course of eleven invited speakers (interspersed with more film), all of whom added without exception to the event’s success.
Robbie Segal, who recently gained 40.6% of the vote in an election for the general secretary of shopworkers’ union Usdaw, was the opening speaker. She explained that 360,000 households – mainly of low paid workers – had received her socialist message during the election, and she thanked Socialist Party members and supporters who had distributed her leaflets in their local shops.
Janice Godrich, president of the Public and Commercial Services union, spoke of how craven the leaders of most of the Labour-affiliated trade unions are in the way they support Labour’s pro-market agenda and just accept scraps that are thrown back in return.
She reminded the audience that it is not a natural progression of events for trade union leaders to sell out their members, and that the PCS leaders are different. Although the national PCS strike planned for 10 November was called off to allow talks to take place, the action will be restored if necessary.
A Fords worker from the Southampton Fords plant outlined the struggle that has taken place so far to save the plant from closure. He paid tribute to local and national Socialist Party members for their help in the campaign.
Tony Mulhearn, the president of Liverpool Labour Party during its battle with the Thatcher government in the 1980s, said that Gordon Brown bringing back Peter Mandelson into the cabinet is like inviting Dracula to be in charge of a blood bank or Billy Bunter to take charge of the school tuck shop. As socialists did in the 1980s, it is urgent again now to campaign for jobs, homes and a future for all young people.
Natalie Powell-Davies, 14, made an excellent and moving speech about the election campaign which led her to become the deputy youth mayor of Lewisham in London. She said that although young people don’t like careerist politicians, they are interested in politics and will vote for real change.
Onay Kasab, one of the four Unison members being witch-hunted by their own union, said that the four were only guilty of demanding “democracy not bureaucracy”. He outlined the recent admirable work of his Greenwich council union branch in defending a worker who was sacked for being pregnant and another worker who is disabled.
Nicos Anastasiadis, from Xekinima in Greece, reported on the new left formation in Greece, Syriza. Over the last two years Greek workers have come to the fore in what has been “the most determined movement since the start of the 1990s”. Both the main political parties are falling in standing, and Syriza has great potential, especially if it adopts a socialist programme.
Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party, voiced most people’s relief at the departure of US president Bush and described the victory of Obama as “a defining moment”. He made a number of points about the world economic crisis, and called for “the nationalisation of the whole British banking system and a state monopoly of foreign trade”. We are witnessing “a generalised crisis of capitalism. …. The whole situation is crying out for socialist ideas”.
David Redelberger, a German school student, described the scope of the present movement in his country’s schools. There will be school strikes in 40 cities on Wednesday 12 November. He had needed to “look up on a map” where some of the new student committees are springing up.
Christel Dicembre from the group ‘Lotta’ in Italy also spoke of a huge movement against education cuts. One million school students demonstrated in Rome on 6 November and two million university students are expected to demonstrate on 14 November. It is the biggest student movement in Italy for 30 years.
Fang Guoli, a Chinese socialist, in the final speech of the rally gave a flavour of the tens of thousands of strikes and demonstrations that are taking place in China every year, and explained that although the highly repressed Chinese workers’ movement is still relatively unorganised, the power of workers is “increasing by the day”.
What more can I say but a fantastic weekend again. The contributions from the international comrades at the rally were really inspiring, and the meetings were invaluable in sharpening up my socialism! And of course it was great to meet up with members from around the country at the social.
Jake Moore, Shropshire
The working class needs its own mass party
The closing rally of Socialism 2008, hosted by the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP), was on the theme of the fight for a working class political voice. Chairing the rally was Save Huddersfield NHS Kirklees councillor Jackie Grunsell.
The first speaker, chair of the CNWP and Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist, highlighted the damaging legacy of eleven years of New Labour’s big business agenda – wars, unemployment, economic insecurity and a massive wealth gap.
Dave attacked the return of sleazy Peter Mandelson as a government business minister. He referred to Mandelson on his appointment as effectively saying: ‘I want to start where I left off – with the privatisation of the Post Office’. Dave demanded that the trade unions, who have funded New Labour that in return attacks pay and conditions, end their political affiliation.
Kevin Ovenden, a national leader of Respect, congratulated the Socialism 2008 organisers for their prescience in advertising the event with the subhead ‘Marx was right’ in advance of the current financial crisis! He spoke about the victims of this capitalist crisis, pointing out the extreme levels of poverty in inner city areas like Tower Hamlets where Respect has elected councillors and the MP George Galloway.
He said that Respect, which emerged from the anti-Iraq war movement, has had a difficult year because of its split with the SWP faction and recognised that Respect is not the ‘finished article’ in terms of working-class political representation.
Comedian and socialist Mark Steel started by saying that the biggest enemy on the left was cynicism – that the world can’t be changed. But, following the election of Barack Obama, everyone believes it can – even reactionaries like George Bush!
Mark went on to criticise what he considered to be the failure of the socialist left – its failure to embrace small campaigning groups and propensity to “squabble”.
Unfortunately, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil servants’ union was too ill to attend.
Hannah Sell, deputy general secretary of the Socialist Party, said one of the main obstacles to convincing broader layers to subscribe to the idea of building a new party and fighting for socialism is summed up by sympathetic people we meet who say “But can you really change anything?” Of course, the massive events of the last few weeks have radically changed people’s political consciousness, namely, the crisis in capitalism and Obama’s victory.
Hannah contrasted the government’s £500 billion bank bailout with the union pay demands of all public sector workers which amount to only £5 billion – which the government says it cannot afford.
On the question of disagreements on the left, Hannah emphasised that striving for unity is very important but that in the course of this socialists must learn the lessons of previous failures to build new workers’ parties to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
On the question of a new workers’ party, the left trade union leaders have a vital role to play. They can begin by calling a conference of trade unionists to discuss the need for workers’ political representation.
Hannah concluded by saying: “the wave of capitalist triumphalism of the last 20 years has ended. We’re now entering a new period in history where the ideas of Marxism will be embraced by mass movements of the working class.”
It was inspiring. It was my first time at this event and it was a lot to take in, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed discussing with people who have similar ideas and it was interesting to see the national scale of the party.
Aimee Atkinson, Lincoln
A future for youth
A whole generation has grown up during a boom in Britain but are now faced with the crisis in the world economy and its consequences. Young people are looking for alternatives, looking to the ideas of socialism, of Karl Marx and others.
Matt Dobson, Socialist Students national organiser, explained in the session on the future for young people that there will also be increasing numbers of young people pushed into struggle as the capitalists attempt to make us pay for their crisis.
Lin from Southampton Socialist Students invited people to the demonstration they are organising for free education on 1 December, and reported on their campaigns against staff cuts at the university.
Iain Dalton spoke about the campaign for his students union in Bangor to take up a fighting strategy for free education, successful despite the scandalous efforts of the NUS leadership to derail it.
Neil Cafferky warned about growing alienation and the threat of gun and knife crime, especially in London and other big cities.
Others mentioned the fact that Paddy Power is now taking bets on which city will see the first riots as a result of the credit crunch. The threat of a growth in support for the far-right racist British National Party was also raised, but campaigns involving young people can be mobilised against them.
Shop workers also spoke of the anger that exists in their workplaces and the leading role that young people could play in the workers’ and trade union movement. Overall it was an excellent discussion and it is clear that there is enthusiasm for socialism, and potential for big movements of young people in the coming years.
It was so great to be at the Socialism weekend. I feel inspired and refreshed.
Marjorie Sachs, Ireland
Latin America in revolt
Secretary of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) Tony Saunois, introduced the session on Latin America with a vivid account of the struggles of the working class and poor.
The election of Obama has raised huge expectations in Latin America. But the brutal exploitation by US imperialism is likely to continue, especially with Obama publicly backing the vicious right-wing Uribe regime in Colombia in its ‘war on drugs’.
The slump in oil prices will affect Latin America’s export-based economies. The boom in oil revenues has been used by the Chavez government in Venezuela to finance a programme of social reforms which have improved the living standards of millions. The Chavez government will now have to confront severe economic problems and there was discussion about the future of the regime.
Tony described the tense and explosive situation of revolution and counter revolution in Bolivia. The mass support for the Morales government in landslide election results and mass mobilisations of workers and the poor against the forces of reaction reflect the demand of the Bolivian masses for a radical transformation of Bolivian society.
Socialist Party councillor Chris Flood gave an account of a visit to Cuba during the recent hurricane. He described how the planned economy meant that the regime was able to organise an effective response to this natural disaster.
However, tensions and frustrations in Cuban society are evident with the lack of political democracy, shortages of goods and corruption of government officials, as well as growing inequalities in society as the regime introduces market reforms.
Tony concluded by saying that the struggles of workers and the poor against capitalism, imperialism and landlordism across Latin American may suffer defeats and setbacks, but will never cease.
There were lots of interesting discussions and some inspiring speakers. I went to the session on the 1918 German revolution and it gave me an insight into a period of history that isn’t widely known, even in the labour and trade union movement. We can all learn important lessons from it for the future.
Claire Laker-Mansfield, Brighton
Too late to save the planet?
To open the discussion on the environment, Pete Dickenson highlighted the latest evidence showing a rapidly worsening global warming situation, which indicates some of its effects are now irreversible.
This means that not only must urgent action be taken to halt greenhouse gas emissions, but work should begin to mitigate climate change effects, such as building flood defences in the most vulnerable areas like Bangladesh.
Pete pointed out that the economic downturn is already providing an excuse for the capitalists to delay taking action in this area, since it is being said that the coming recession/slump will produce a cut in emissions anyway due to lower consumption.
Pete however argued that any reduction of greenhouse gasses due to the economic crisis will be small compared to what is required to tackle climate change, and furthermore it will be temporary, since after a few years an upturn in the economy will occur if the capitalist system is allowed to continue, quickly cancelling out any short-term cut in the downturn. Also, because the big corporations will be in a battle to survive during the crisis, they will probably be able to block any meaningful attempt to introduce the ‘green new deal’ that Obama and others are proposing, since it cuts against their vital short-term interests.
The 25 people there then had a lively and knowledgeable discussion, with a wide range of environmental topics being debated. It was agreed that it is a priority to build for the Climate Change demo coming up on 6 December in London.
I was very impressed, especially with the talk about how the Socialist Party is campaigning for free education. I very much liked hearing about the campaigning work for socialism in China as well.
Dan Collins, Worcestershire
Socialism 2008 appeal collects over £33,000
The hundreds of people who attended their first ‘rally for socialism’, not only heard the case for socialism, but also learned how the struggle to change society is funded.
Barack Obama’s election campaign caused a stir for what has been described as “democratising” party funding. This is because lots of ordinary Americans, desperate for change, donated to his campaign. Normally mainstream politicians do not appeal to ordinary workers for money but woo big business people, hedge fund managers and so on. Of course, Obama was also funded in unprecedented amounts by the rich.
The super-rich bankroll the mainstream parties in multiples of millions to ensure that they pursue the interests of big business.
We have to take the same approach to funding our interests. The struggle for socialism is the struggle of working-class people, youth and the masses of poor people across the world to take our destinies into our own hands. We cannot rely on any other forces to fight for us, or to fund us. The struggle for socialism has always been funded by the sacrifice of ordinary working-class people.
In the Socialist Party there are no rich big business people, lords and ladies with secret trusts, or well-heeled entertainers giving us money. Our members are out campaigning, day in and day out, asking ordinary people for donations, and make donations themselves.
They do not do this because they are rich or have lots of spare cash, but because they are contributing to the fight to change society and they are confident in the party and in the future. The appeal at Socialism 2008 brilliantly reflected this, raising £33,600.
We received a donation of £10,000 which a member had received as an inheritance. A longstanding member, who sadly died recently, left the party £5,000. Another supporter posthumously donated £1,000. Members who have worked tirelessly with our party for many years made fantastic donations: one donated £1,000 from her retirement fund, another donated half of her winter heating allowance.
New student and school student members made £5, £10 and £20 donations.
Low paid workers donated £50 and more. People who were at their first socialist meeting, inspired by the explanation of socialist ideas and by the example of others, also made substantial donations.
An historic economic crisis is developing worldwide, and the capitalist class aim to make working and poor people pay the price.
It is particularly important that we are able to produce leaflets, posters and pamphlets offering an explanation of what is happening, putting forward a strategy to fight and a programme to organise around, and explaining the case for socialism.
If you were unable to be at Socialism 2008, there is no need for you to miss out on the opportunity to contribute financially. Please make a donation to help fund our campaigning.
Socialist Books took almost £3,000 from literature sales during Socialism 2008.
At Socialism 2008 I learned that Stalinism is certainly not an inevitable consequence of a socialist revolution and why that is.
Mike Brooks, Walthamstow