What does it mean to be socialist? Debates at Labour Young Socialists conference

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By Sacha Ismail

On 20 September over a hundred activists from across the UK met to found a new Labour left youth and student movement, Labour Young Socialists.

I was an observer at the conference and made some notes on the debates which took place – which I thought were useful for getting the ball rolling in terms of discussion about what it means to be socialist. (For the documents passed and also what was discussed in terms of practical decisions, see the LYS website.)

Taxing the rich

Some comrades objected to the formula in the LYS where we stand statement about funding “free education funded by taxing the rich” and wanted to change it to “funded by expropriating the rich”.

They had a point, firstly in the sense that, to access the wealth needed to comprehensively rebuild public services, we will need to do more than just tax wealth individuals more heavily. That is why, for instance, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts frequently raises the demand to “Expropriate the banks” alongside “Tax the rich”. And secondly, because we should not limit our demands to what we think can be easily realised within capitalism, but attempt to develop and maintain a dynamic approach which always seeks to push forward against the capitalists’ wealth and power.

However, if we tie reform demands like free education too closely to the ultimate socialist goal, the dynamic will be lost in the opposite way. The implication will be that we cannot win any reforms – scrapping fees and introducing adequate grants, reversing cuts, rebuilding the NHS, or whatever – until we overthrow capitalism and expropriate the capitalist class. That is not true, and as a way of looking at things it is limiting and demobilising.

Certainly we should not limit ourselves to “Tax the rich” – and the statement does not – but the original formula was better and it is good the conference voted to keep it.

Nationalisation

Comrades from Socialist Appeal wanted the conference to commit itself to fighting for nationalisation of the FTSE 100 companies.

Of course I have no objection to the nationalisation of these companies per se, and it is certainly necessary to put both immediate demands for publc ownership and the wider idea of a society based on common ownership firmly back on the political table – as the original statement does. However, I think it was a good thing that the conference rejected the FTSE 100 demand – and not only because, in founding a new movement involving socialist and radical left-wing people with a wide range of views, there is no need to be so specific, particularly before LYS has not yet had a chance for extended debate.

There is a more fundamental difference here. In the old days, when Socialist Appeal were part of the Militant Tendency, they used to talk about “nationalising the top 200 monopolies”. This is the same basic approach. SA speakers at the LYS conference described arguing for such nationalisations as a “principle” and sounded as if they regard this as the basic substance of socialism.

In contrast, I would define socialism as meaning the wage working class (for what I mean by that, see below) and its labour movement leading an alliance of the exploited and oppressed to overthrow the ruling class, take power and reconstruct society without class divisions or exploitation. That obviously involves replacing private ownership of the means of production with collective ownership (as a step towards abolishing the concept of ownership altogether) – but nationalisation is a means, not an end, and its socialist character depends on who holds power in each industry or service, in the economy, in society and in the government.

In North Korea, the state owns the means of production, but that does not mean North Korea is run by the workers or has anything to do with socialism. In fact it is in almost every respect further from socialism than Cameron’s Britain.

When we propose nationalisation under capitalism (as we very often should), we need to find every way possible to avoid the implication that nationalisation is automatically the same thing as socialism, and to link the nationalisation to working-class struggle and to the range of working-class, democratic and socialist goals.

Socialist Appeal’s qualifier that nationalised industry should be “put under the control of the working class” begs the question – by whom? Again, the original statement is better.

Clause 4

Socialist Appeal also wanted LYS to campaign to restore the old Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution (see here). The current Clause 4 (see here), introduced under Blair, with its references to the “enterprise of the market” and the “rigour of competition”, is obviously awful – and was a major step back from the previous one. But the old Clause 4 was not great either: it lacked clarity; it had little relationship to what the party actually did in office or fought for in or out of office; and it used a formulation (“the full fruits of their labour”) which sounds socialistic but is in fact an unrealisable petty bourgeois craft ideal. A more socialist ideal is “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. Let’s fight to change the Labour Party’s aims and objectives, but not by going back.

Nationalism

Some comrades wanted to delete Rida Vaquas’ text stating opposition to nationalism (as well as various kinds of national, ethnic, religious etc chauvinism) on the grounds that it is insensitive to national liberation struggles.

In fact the statement was clear in its support of national self-determination. Nonetheless, you could see the point. Given the debate that ensued, however, I am pleased that opposition to nationalism was kept in.

As someone pointed out, there is a difference between nationalism and national rights. The left should support national liberation struggles while opposing nationalism.

We can recognise the differences between different nationalisms, but we should not try to prettify nationalism in any case. This is doubly important when no national liberation struggle is involved.

Socialist Appeal comrades argued that the left should recognise the progressive character of Scottish nationalism, indeed that what has happened in Scotland is not really nationalist but fundamentally a left-wing, class-based upsurge. They also implied that Scotland suffers from national oppression. Both these thoughts are wrong. Elements of Scottish nationalism clearly have a leftish flavour and the SNP has won wide support on the basis of claimed opposition to pro-austerity politics (including from the Labour Party). However it has channelled and shaped that leftish opinion in a fundamentally nationalistic direction, in support of a nationalist – and, ironically, neoliberal – political project. And the idea that Scotland is nationally oppressed by the UK is absurd.

Gender quotas

Socialist Appeal opposed reserved places for women on the new LYS committee, arguing that these are not only unnecessary but insulting to women.

There is no principle involved here. There might well be cases when socialists would not argue to have reserved places on a committee. But equally there is no principle against.

Many left and labour movement organisations are male-dominated; and even in organisations with a majority female membership, a variety of factors sometimes mean that men are predominant in the leadership. Quotas are one possible measure for responding to that problem. They are not a substitute for recruiting more women, for education and training to help women comrades step forward, or for a fight against sexism, let alone for taking women’s liberation struggle seriously; but sometimes they can help reinforce those kinds of struggles.

The issue at stake at the conference was not so much reserved places, but SA’s generally hostile, mechanical-“Marxist” attitude to feminism (so different from their attitude to Scottish nationalism!) Again, this is a logical continuation of the Militant tradition. It is a good thing that, in contrast, LYS seems to be leaning in a socialist feminist direction from the start.

Class

In passing, a couple of comrades raised doubt that Marxist class analysis is still of relevance. I believe that while capitalism changes constantly, its core division between the majority who have to sell their labour power (ability to work) to live, and the minority of owners who appropriate the surplus workers produce, does not. In fact that is what defines capitalism – what it is.

As capitalism changes, the working class also changes constantly, and moreover it is divided in numerous ways (income, degree of precarity, blue or white collar, public or private sector, education, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, natonal origin…); but the workers’ movement remains the only force that can seriously challenge, let alone replace, capitalism. Teachers or train drivers, factory or social workers, shop or building workers, office staff or engineers, wage workers have the interest and – when they organise – the power and creative capacity to shake and change society in ways no one else does.

One of the limitations of the inspiring movement around Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign is that it was quite populist and didn’t talk enough about the importance of a strong labour movement or what we can do to rebuild one. Another is that, in some respects, it seemed to be primarily a white collar, university educated movement (which is not necessarily the same as “middle class” – a teacher or social worker is still a worker). We need to think about and discuss these issues, not glory in the limitations.

In conclusion: there are many debates to be had in Labour Young Socialists, and no doubt its program and demands will evolve as it does. The founding statement seemed to me entirely adequate for now. The founding conference was positive in that, despite limited time, it debated important issues of socialist politics in a thoughtful and serious way. I hope that continues – it sets an example for the rest of the left.

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