Monthly Archives: December 2010

Tactics and leadership: A summary of the debate in the student movement

by Edd Mustill

This is most likely the last post of the year. A big thanks to all (both?) our readers, and here’s hoping for an Unrestful year in 2011.

It’s been good to see so many comrades using the Christmas break to think about the nature of the student movement and where it is going. The following is just a summary of some of the main contributions to the debate from around the internet, with some of my own thoughts thrown in. Apologies if I’ve missed out any contributions; this is not an exhaustive list.

Most controversy has been created by Laurie Penny’s polemic with Alex Callinicos of the SWP. Penny wrote an article attacking “the old politics” and much of the “old left” along with it. Rightly dismissive of the Labour Party’s attempts to attract young people by offering membership for 1p, Penny says that the new activists “have no time for the ideological bureaucracy of the old left.”

Callinicos responded by arguing that the student protests have actually been quite traditional in form, making the interesting point that “the crowd” as a political beast is centuries old. This does, I think, gloss over the possible significance of some of the demos; the “wild demonstration” on 30th November when thousands of people ran miles around London to avoid police kettles is something without precedent in modern times. Callinicos also puts across the SWP’s perspective that a general strike is basically a necessity ASAP. There should be more explanation from those sections of the Left calling for an immediate general strike as to how it would be brought about and what its political role would be, although perhaps that is a debate for another post!

Penny’s response touched on a theoretical justification for her position that I would be interested to hear her elaborate further:

“The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production whilst keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities. Thatcher, Reagan and Blair deregulated oppression. In order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate resistance.”

Does she mean that the state has been decentralised? That there are more potential targets for political opposition than there used to be? That movements need to first and foremost think locally? But isn’t it the case that the state is more centralised than ever, and monopoly capitalism as strong as it ever was?

Richard Seymour has picked up on this, warning that such thinking maybe be a symptom of neo-liberalism, rather than a cure for it. He also warns against ideological laxity leading to unprincipled alliances (no doubt some critics of the SWP will chuckle to themselves when they read that). Finally, he makes a brief case for the existence of hard-copy left-wing newspapers as a way of overcoming atomisation in a way that Twitter isn’t capable of.

Billy Bragg, whose political degeneration continued at speed with his desire to get four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence to Christmas number one instead of an actual song, is totally wrong to say that the British Left has historically suffered from “ideological nitpicking.” The exact opposite is true: the British Left has always been laced throughout with hardcore empiricism, and a rejection of the importance of theory.

In this sense, those who claim that the movement doesn’t, or shouldn’t, care about ideology have more in common with the old left bureaucrats than they would ever care to admit. Trade union leaderships have always shied away from theory as well. In fact, bureaucracies manage to cement their control over organisations and movements precisely when no theoretical or ideological challenge arises against them.

This is something that Liam has already replied to on this blog, in particular flagging up the dangers of discarding theory too lightly.

This is not to suggest that anyone who is anti-Trot is anti-theory. Far from it, as Patrick has shown on this blog.

Guy Aitchison, at the New Left Project, and James Meadway, at Counterfire, have been discussing the implications of a centralisation of leadership in the movement. Meadway frankly discusses the unevenness of the movement, and argues that the militant actions of students are a direct result of their lack of economic agency – students have to be more radical in order to be noticed at all. Meadway is essentially arguing for students to “turn to the class” without giving up leadership of their own movement.

Also at NLP, FE student Sophie Burge looks forward to more political radicalisation in the fight to save EMA, and predicts, with good reason, that the student movement will develop into a more generalised anti-cuts movement. How and why this will happen is definitely something we need to look at more in the immediate future – how can “the student movement” retain all the militancy that has made it so significant while it reaches out to the “traditional” workers’ movement?

Something that has begun to worry me about some views from “anti-leadership” activists is a lack of perspective on the movement’s significance and size. Paul at Though Cowards Flinch has noticed this too, and defends the traditional far left for, well, engaging in class struggle. He has a warning for us:

“If mutual respect between the current movement and ‘traditional’ working class structures and the accompanying necessary humility does not develop, however, history does show that the current movement, far from creating the revolutionary change that many involved now seek, may ultimately end up as a call for a vapid liberalism which fails to deal with the class inequalities that lie at the heart of all the social injustices now being committed by our Coalition government.”

For example, as someone who had grown weary of years of boring marches, I agree entirely with Jon Moses’ praise of new forms of protest, but the claim that they are part of a “new political mood” needs to be critically examined. I think what is happening at this stage is more a quiet polarisation than a general radicalisation. We shouldn’t forget that, in the grand scheme of things, only a handful of schools were hit by walkouts, and even at the majority of university campuses little or nothing has happened since November 10th so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Jon also seems to contradict himself: arguing that set piece battles with the forces of the state have given protesters a “political education”, he then goes on to say that such situations are outliving their use, and that we should be decentralising direct action into smaller, faster, more local protests like flashmobs. Nevertheless, discussions of what specific tactics to use on demos themselves have been rare, and it’s good to see this question being raised.

Jo Casserly of Revolution at UCL has raised a significant point; that the aim of the movement should be to bring down the government “by any means necessary.”

On leadership, Jo says something I agree with completely: “…my feeling is that those who praise the ‘leaderless’ nature of our movement are seeing what they want to see, and are often leaders themselves.”

“Leadership” is a word that raises the spectre of bureaucracy in the minds of many people, who are right to be wary given the history of the socialist movement in the last century. Perhaps it’s time we defined leadership in terms of a political phenomenon rather than a group of individuals on a Central Committee. All the most politically conscious elements within the student movement constitute a leadership of sorts. Whoever is behind Network X’s leaderless gathering in Manchester on January 15th / 16th, is part of this leadership too whether they would care to admit this or not.

Harpymarx has picked up on this with a call for collective leadership rather than an abandonment of leadership, staking a claim for the Labour Representation Committee as a model of such practice.

Other things worth reading that, for reasons of space, I’ll only mention briefly: The Really Open University have reproduced an interesting piece from Italy about the student movement there, which concerns itself, among other things, with the question of violence on protests. Alex Snowden at Luna17 has five tactical questions for us to consider.

A large proportion of the volume of material being produced has come from a relatively small number of places (UCL, Leeds), but it’s good to see comrades giving serious thought to serious questions. Hopefully, this will continue into the new year and beyond. Let’s keep talking, debating, campaigning, and fighting.

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A further contribution to the debate: ideology and the movement.

by nineteensixtyseven

Yesterday Patrick wrote an interesting commentary on two of the most polarised perspectives on the student movement.  In contradistinction were posed a ‘Leninist’  model of organisation and an ‘autonomist’ Marxist critique.  I, however, would like to address another aspect of the debate which I feel will become very important as the movement enters the new year: that of ideological direction.

I must admit to feeling uneasy reading Laurie Penny’s recent contribution in the Guardian on the ‘old politics.’ Although I have no real time for several of the organisations mentioned there seemed to me to be in the piece a conflation of ideology and organisation (‘ideological bureaucracy of the old left’)  and a premature rejection of both.  I will not address the topic of organisation in great depth because I have not yet formulated my thoughts on the topic, save to say that yes- parliamentary democracy has become utterly discredited in the eyes of many members of our generation.  This is not just because of the betrayal of the Liberal Democrats over tuition fees but is a consequence of the decade or more of ideological triangulation, of which the coalition government is perhaps the logical conclusion.

At the risk of addressing an argument that was never explicitly made (and if have done so, forgive me), that is not to say that we should ignore the parliamentary process or refuse to engage tactically with existing parties if suits us (see here).  The fact that students have been demonstrating outside Parliament Square is a tacit admission that the neo-Gothic palace hiding behind lines of riot police still matters and the pedantic parliamentary numbers game still count.  Let us not ignore that fact along with our well-founded distrust of the ‘usual channels’.

However, returning to ‘ideology’, one passage struck me in particular:

‘At the student meetings I have attended in recent weeks, ideological bickering is routinely sidelined in favour of practical planning. Anarchists and social democrats are obliged to work together alongside school pupils who don’t care what flag you march under as long as you’re on the side that puts people before profit.’

No one would deny that endless meetings characterised by stale rehearsals of well-worn arguments are exhausting and often pointless.  Nevertheless, in my experience of the Cambridge occupation the balance almost tipped too far, with practical concerns consuming most of our time at the expense of political debate, and the whole endeavour at risk of becoming a circular end in itself.  It was Bernstein who wrote that ‘The final goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me: the movement is everything.’   This formula was a license for, at best, a rudderless empiricism which saw the Second International put off answering how they hoped to achieve Socialism until it dropped the question altogether.  At worst it was a carte blanche for brazen opportunism.  There are lessons to be drawn from that experience.

Marx, it is true, marked his exit from the realm of traditional philosophy with the exhortation to action but let us not pretend that the absence of ideology is a neutral plain.  In so far as ideology is meant in the pejorative sense, as narrow and closed system of thought which by means of its own internal laws of motion has sailed adrift of reason and reality, I am in complete agreement with the author’s sentiments.  However, in so far as it represents the mental framework by which we interpret and understand the world around us, its absence lays the trap of an empiricism which by its very nature is imprisoned in the iron cage of society’s dominant discourses.

‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,’ which are themselves ‘nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.’  In place of objectivity and the value-free selection of the ‘facts’ substitute a muddled and unclear derivation of ideology unconsciously framed by the prejudices of the ruling class masquerading under the guise of ‘common sense.’  No, it is only by developing a clear understanding of what we are against and, most importantly, how it functions as a system that we can hope to enact change.  No one would propose to a General that he set out without a map, a clear knowledge of the topology and the strategical and tactical lessons to be drawn from this information.  At the risk of sounding obvious, we have to plot a route for 2011 which takes us beyond January 29th and the next flash occupation of a high street clothing store.

These questions have a bearing for the tactics of the movement because only by assessing things in totality can we make a judgement of the relative importance of, say, potential targets of protest.  As the flashmobs were mentioned let us posit that our understanding of tax avoidance is presumably wedded to some notion, however vague, of the state-capital nexus.  Our conception of the relationship between the state and big business, then, informs the demand that Topshop pay its fair share of tax.  This demand is open to all sorts of questions but only by thinking through the broader issues involved can we judge the merits of continuing this form of protest, both in terms of political principles and the efficacy of the tactic.

Laurie is quite right that part of this movement’s strength lies in its creativity and inventiveness.  It would be tragic if this was subordinated to overly bureaucratic structures and smothered in its infancy.  Nevertheless, now that we have recovered from heady fumes of Millbank, it is time before the next big rally to engage in some much-needed dialogue and discussion on the way forward.  This is not a call for a reversion to our own respective comfort zones but quite the opposite.  Indeed, perpetual action is at risk of becoming its own comfort zone as difficult questions are postponed indefinitely.  Rather, it is a call which echoes Edd’s point that people need to have a serious think about politics and rediscover the traditions (if they ever existed) of earnest political debate, shorn of petty point-scoring and ad hominem attacks.  I don’t pretend to have the answers about how we can square the circles of individual creativity and collective action on the organisational and intellectual fronts.  I hope though that I have made some contribution towards asking useful questions.

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To control a movement is to kill it: More reflections on the student movement in Leeds

By Patrick

I’ve been following a really interesting discussion on the ‘Occupied Leeds’ facebook group, which started as a critique of ‘autonomism’, but has developed into a really important discussion about what the student movement is, how it organises, and how it develops.

First, a bit of background – the occupation at Leeds University started off massive (around 700 people in a big lecture theatre), but it quickly shrank to a group of highly committed people, and failed to broaden out participation beyond a very small group of activists (with maybe 50-100 people sporadically involved). Many of the activists involved felt that the constraining, boring, and even excessively ideological atmosphere in the occupation had driven many people away. Many claimed that general meetings were boring, few actions were planned, and directionless political discussion abounded.

Why was this the case? Are most people naturally bored by democracy? Are most students (even those who occupy a building) lacking in dedication to the cause? No. The meetings were seen as boring, people drifted away, and little was done because of the process by which the meetings were run – because of the social relations which existed in the occupied space.

This opened up a wonderful discussion on process.

Many people blamed ‘socialists’ of various types – mostly Leninists/Trotskyists for the stultifying atmosphere. It was claimed that requiring all actions to pass through a main meeting limited peoples’ confidence to act creatively, it was claimed that Lenin/Trotsky-ists were ‘controlling’ the meetings, consciously attempting to destroy opposition to their viewpoint, block-voting, and hammering people with a repetitive political line. It was felt that the inflexible, dogmatic approaches of many activists led meetings to look like a foregone conclusion, which made many people (especially people new to campaigning activity) feel disempowered.

A Leninist/Trotskyist helpfully explained their approach as part of the discussion:

‘In a group, whether it be the SWP, Workers Power, whatever, the people in it have grouped together around common ideas about ideology, tactics, strategy etc. They have decided that they will be stronger and better equipped to achieve their goals if they are in an organisation. I’m sure you won’t disagree that this is their right to do so.

If they then, as a group, want to make interventions into mass movements because they feel they have important contributions to make and feel it is necessary for the success of said movement to adopt a certain position, take a certain tactic etc, they will argue for that in the general and mass meetings of those movements.

What will then happen is that meeting will then decide on whether it agrees or not. If everyone does, great, if nobody does, great too. This is unlikely to happen. What happens most of the time is some will and some won’t, to varying ratios.

At this point, for the movement to make a decision and have maximum impact by uniting in a goal or tactic, a vote has to be taken. The majority decision is then respected by those present as what most people want to do.

If at any point someone feels that the way the group is going is so incompatibile with their beliefs etc that they can no longer put their name to it then they, of course, must leave. However in doing so, they forfeit the power of the united strength of that movement and their ability to win that movement to what they believe is the best strategy/position etc. This is obviously a very serious forfeit and so is not taken lightly. The compromise with one’s ideal scenario and the way the movement democratically decides to go is not always pleasant but is extremely frequent and one that needs to be accepted to retain unity and respect the views of the majority in that movement.

I am not suggesting that individuals should dissolve themselves into that mass movement, giving up their own opinions and the fight to win people to those ideas. You seem to be suggesting that a group of likeminded people SHOULD do this however.’

The approach outlined above is a key element of much Leninist and Trotskyist politics, and it may sound like common sense, but we need to examine it. A self-proclaimed ‘autonomist’ Marxist criticises this argument, and explains the counter-position:

‘I think a recurring problem underlying this rather messy discussion is the way people are conceptualising ‘movement’ – a term which I think may is being used in different ways and towards different ends, an investigation of which may reveal the underlying problem.

Bryony suggested earlier that ‘the movement [can] make a decision’, that people may act ‘in the name of that movement’, and that people are capable of leaving a movement. What is occurring here is an attempt to name the movement – the placing of edges, constraints and definitions on who, what, and when is ‘inside’ this movement. In other words, ‘the movement’ is being conceived of as a thing, an entity [noun] which can be defined.

The problems with this are immediate; I referred to them in an earlier post, but I shall expand upon them. However open and progressive your attempt, ‘noun-ification’ necessarily leads to a definition of who belongs to ‘the’ movement, and who doesn’t – so you have the carving up of people, either based on their ideologies or based upon their actions (or by skin colour, sex etc.). This is, as I suggested elsewhere, an exclusionary approach by definition.

… Contra to this ‘noun-ification’ where ‘the’ movement is claimed as an entity, we ought to understand movement as the movement [verb] of social relations. Understood in this way, there is no privileged territory – whether this territory be cast as a revolutionary subject, space, or time. Rather, what becomes strategically important is seeing a multiplicity of events that cause a shifting in social relations. We affirm and critique these events, but crucially we keep strategising, realising that the political of yesterday often becomes the conservative forces of today.

Now, the point that I am making is that when we try and frame ‘the’ movement, we are inherently putting down barriers to movement. Calls to ‘expand the movement’ in fact lead to the complete opposite, as people become estranged from their own potential, distanced by the fact they must in some way ‘submit’ to the knowledge/process/praxis/teleology of ‘the’ movement.

Significantly, I’m suggesting that very idea of a ‘united, mass movement’ may be a contradiction. Unification and massification are part of the same process – the submission of the many to the one. Contrary to the concept of ‘movement’ – which suggests change, becoming, and uncertainty – unification and massification is in fact an inherently conservative force concerned with submitting the desire of the many to the sovereign. It is the replication of the state form, understood not as territorial lines, but as the way of organizing our thought and action.

So – the exclusion of music and dance, the critique of the Ziff and Santander actions [autonomously organised flash occupations], the repeated attempts of stewards to control and direct marches, the enforcement of the meeting as the sovereign body, the threats of violence – none of these are isolated occurrences. They are symptoms of a meta-ideological approach to organising human relations. They are premised on an ingrained fear of movement, and the desire to submit everything to the knowable and the controllable.

We must always be aware that any of us can fall into this ‘micro-fascist’ form of knowledge-practice. The sadness is that some have precisely taken this negative and suffocating form and placed it at the heart of their engagements.’

The first (Leninist) argument ignores metaphysics, and the second one maybe lays it on a bit thick. But this discussion has revealed something VERY important, something which should be obvious to all of us from the moment we learn to speak, but is actually something that bourgeois ideology beats out of us all our lives – social bodies, ‘institutions’, ‘groups’, ‘ideologies’ and so on, are NOT things, they are PROCESSES. Therefore, it is irrelevant, even nonsensical to ascribe a ‘form’ to them. Rather, it is crucial to determine HOW the process plays out.

So let’s refer back to our Leninist’s argument – coordinated intervention in a movement (a university occupation in this case) because the movement has the form of democracy. This democratic form is part of the movement’s character. Therefore any intervention within it will have to operate on democratic principles. No matter how much caucusing, secret meetings, block voting, political maneuvering and so on (described here) happens, democracy will prevail because the movement IS democratic.

Then on to our ‘autonomist Marxist’ argument – if ‘movement’ is a process, a VERB, then the actions that people take during the movement will determine whether it is democratic or not. Everyone who understands politics (including Leninists) understands that the actions taken during a movement are what determines its character. If a small group of people formulate an argument in secret before a meeting, then use tactics like repetition, vocal agreement, interruption, petty insults, and caricaturing the opposition to get their point across, then the meeting will almost always end up agreeing with that argument.

So why is this a problem? Because, as radicals, we are concerned with social relations – we are concerned with how POLITICS (the process of social interaction) affects our lives. If we ignore social relations, we end up with a situation of formal democracy, but of real dictatorship. I’ll give two examples –

1. The central committee of a political party makes a decision. It proposes this decision to the party’s annual conference. The people on the central committee are the most skilled, shrewd political operators. They use a network of personal contacts, repetitive arguments, some threats cajoling (which is dismissed by everyone as a few momentary temper tantrums), and they caricature their opposition. Of course, their decision gets voted through by a majority. The party activists then go back to their home towns. They ‘intervene’ in social movements, and, as the most dedicated political operators, they repeat their argument again and again, they use various tactics to bring people on board with their argument. The social movements are all formally democratic, votes are taken, and so the party activists see no problem with their style of intervention. Suddenly we have a situation where hundreds of thousands of people are acting on the basis of a decision made by less than a dozen. There has been no opportunity for new information or new perspectives to be incorporated into the decision. The decision will almost certainly turn out to be the wrong one. Or it will be appropriate in some places, but totally inappropriate in most places. The political movement dies, ends, and disperses. But the party, with its established structures, its office, its paid organizers and its bank account, lives to fight another day. The party lives on, to impose decisions on the movement again and again.

However, this rarely actually happens. What usually happens is this:

2. The party activists use all their normal tactics to argue their own ‘line’. The people who have no fixed political viewpoint see what’s going on. The ones who are less dedicated, or less embedded in activist politics see what is going on, and they think ‘this is bullshit’, and leave immediately. The more political individuals try to argue with the party activists as if they were taking part in an open discussion between individuals. They encounter a brick wall, and get annoyed that, no matter how much they critique, no matter how much they bring up new facts and considerations, the ‘line’ of their opponent never changes. The political individuals get frustrated and leave, they get bullied out, or they just shut up.

Either way – the party rules. More often than not, it destroys the movement it seeks to rule.

There must be a solution to this situation. I’ll try to write some comments about possible solutions in another post in a few days.

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Adventures in Music and Politics II: A “soundtrack for the movement”?

This is a guest post by the Ruby Kid., first published on his blog here.

Things are kicking off a bit these days. You’ve probably noticed. Comparisons to the Thatcher era abound and, while the workers’ movement isn’t as strong now as it was then (before she crushed it), the comparisons are not without legitimacy.

I’m a socialist and, I hope, not an armchair one. I’ve been involved in activist politics for a lot longer than I’ve been involved in hip-hop and I think it’s fair to say that my politics are pretty much the defining dynamic of my life. I don’t think music is going to change the world and it’s certainly not paying my bills, so it’s basically a glorified hobby for me right now. But it’s an important hobby, and one of the things that’s interested me about the general response to the upturn in struggle we’re seeing is the questions some people are asking about the movement’s artistic, and specifically musical, accompaniment. John Harris put it most starkly in The Guardian: His article was specifically about The Agitator, a band whose music I can frankly take or leave and who people whose opinions I trust have accused of bandwagon-jumping. To say that Derek Meins of The Agitator is “the one man” who is “rising to the challenge” of “giving voice to the anger of the youth” is a bit over-the-top, in my view, partially because there are loads of people making “political” music (as a follow-up article by Harris showed) and because I think we’ve already proven ourselves pretty capable of giving voice to our own anger. But I’m not writing this blog to slag off The Agitator (never met them, I’m sure they’re decent folk, etc.) or even to respond to the article. I’m writing it because I’m genuinely interested in the question and because it’s one of the main things interviewers are asking me these days. And if blogs aren’t for self-indulgently sounding-off in a manner that assumes anyone else cares about your opinion, what are they for?

I’ve played a fair few shows in my time with solid “protest” credentials. I did a show with Kate Tempest recently in the Goldsmiths student occupation (and was booked to do one at UCL which didn’t quite come off). I did a spoken-word spot at Climate Camp in 2008 and I’ve done more benefit gigs than I can remember, for a whole range of organisations and campaigns (including Workers’ Liberty, No Sweat, Hackney Alliance, The Mule and even a few I’ve got a few disagreements with like the Anarchist Federation and RIO in Germany).

My name’s even come up in some of the current discussions: in this blog, for example, or even in the comments section on Harris’s Guardian piece, picking up on a description of me as a “revolutionary prophet”, used by a reviewer in Sandman Magazine a couple of years ago. (For the record, I definitely don’t think of myself in those terms.)

Let me be clear about this: I’m not a “protest” rapper and I don’t make “protest songs”. I even baulk slightly at the description of my music as “political”, as if there’s somehow some music which is disconnected from or untouched by politics. I think all music, all art, is a product of the world that generated it and as such all art is “political”. We don’t need a special category for it. There are more (and, in my view, better) ways for music (or other art) to play a useful role in a struggle like this than simply communicating some of the movement’s ideas (or, in reality, an individual artist’s understanding of what the movement’s ideas are or should be) in its content.

Sometimes I write raps or poems that’re specifically, explicitly about class struggle. Sometimes I don’t. I don’t particularly think it matters. Fundamentally, that’s because I think it is that struggle – and not my music or The Agitator’s music or anyone else’s music – that is going to change the world.

Our movement will embrace art, but we’ll embrace the art that makes us feel something and we won’t vet it on the basis of its political credentials. When people bring sound-systems on demos they play dubstep or grime – music which, if it has political content in the crude sense that people who talk about “protest song” understand it, can embody some pretty reactionary ideas. They don’t play Billy Bragg or The Agitator or indeed The Ruby Kid. And that’s fine. I’m more than happy with that.

I also bristle at what I see as the snobbishness that sometimes underlies a lot of comment around this issue. People bemoan the lack of “political” music and disdainfully lament that people are watching X-Factor instead of listening to… I dunno… someone “political”, I guess. But firstly, the people who win X-Factor are invariably extremely talented singers and I have no interest in being snobbish or disdainful towards anyone who’s good at what they do. And secondly, the movement I’m interested in building will be made up of X-Factor viewers. It will be made up of people who listen to pop music. Undoubtedly as the movement grows and continues this debate will continue and probably a lot of people’s artistic predilections will shift and change. That’s good and healthy and I hope some people will be turned onto types of music and other art that they hadn’t experienced before. But for right now, a movement that demands people leave their existing musical tastes at the door and embrace only “political” music and “protest song” is not useful.

Here’s a crazy, fantastical scenario: every year, the X-Factor finalists release a song whose proceeds go to soldiers’ charity “Help For Heroes”. Maybe next year, some of the finalists will be young people who’ve been involved in this movement and who have done some thinking about the role of the state. Maybe one or two of them will make a fuss about the single. Maybe they’ll refuse to take part. Maybe they’ll argue that the proceeds should go to a working-class campaign organisation instead. Maybe there’d be a consequential explosion of debate about these issues not just within the movement but across society. Then we’d be getting somewhere…

One reviewer wrote of Maps that it’s “ironic” that there’s less explicit class-struggle content on the record at a time when there’s more class struggle in society. Is it “ironic”? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because there is more real struggle for people to see, experience and participate in that I feel less compelled to write tracks like Only One Victory that mention Sacco and Vanzetti and talk about dialectics in the hooks.

I think art does have a direct role to play in any social movement; it can be used to raise awareness, challenge ideas, to raise money. Sometimes a direct exposition of political ideas in the content of a work of art is useful and important. If people feel my music can be useful in any of these ways, then great. But we shouldn’t get hung up on that or turn it into a dogma or pretend that only art which does this is legitimate or worthwhile or of any value. Like wiser folk than me have said, art must be judged on its own terms.

There is no single “soundtrack” to this movement. We will have many, and none. The music we will listen to and the art we will enjoy will be as diverse as the movement itself. We’ll listen to The Agitator, Tempa T, Bob Dylan, Matt Cardle and Rebecca Ferguson. A tiny handful of people might even listen to The Ruby Kid. But most fundamentally we will remember that, whatever we listen to, the frontline of our struggle is in our workplaces, schools, colleges, and communities. And not on our iPods. So listen to whatever the fuck you like and I’ll see you on a picket line sometime soon.

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Review: Breaking Their Chains

by Edd Mustill

Tony Barnsley’s book on the Cradley Heath chainmakers’ strike is timely; it appears on the centenary of an almost forgotten industrial struggle.

Barnsley provides descriptions of the industrial Black Country, the strike itself, and the life of Mary Macarthur, the leader of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), who was the chief organiser of the dispute.

He gives a clear outline of the background to the dispute. The chainmakers of Cradley Heath worked 54-hour weeks for a pittance. Industry was small-scale, and the only way bosses could compete with more mechanised industries was to repress wages. Women in domestic chainmaking were exploited by middlemen who contracted out the work. They were paid a pittance, and could not afford childcare. Barnsley says, contrasting Cradley Heath with Stourbridge where the bosses lived, “The only public facilities that did exist were the workhouse and the mortuary.”

The Liberal government was pressured into setting up Wage Boards in industries like chainmaking, with representatives from workers and employers. Such measures constituted the beginnings of “industrial relations” as we know them today.

The demands of the dispute were eminently “reasonable,” simply that the women should be paid a statutory minimum wage that the employers had agreed to and subsequently reneged on. They did this by tricking the largely illiterate workforce into signing forms opting out of the minimum, then using this as an excuse for abandoning the minimum altogether. The new rate was double what the women had been earning, but still less than half the average national wage.

Barnsley does not mention the controversial nature of conciliation boards at the time. They were met with huge hostility by some, for example in the rail unions, at a time when state intervention in anything, including working conditions, was met with deep suspicion within the working class.

Macarthur’s work was always quite legalistic, although she was prepared to use militant industrial action too. Barnsley explains how her many skills included making contacts in all walks of life, which helped with fundraising. She even used film, a new medium. A short reel was produced and watched by up to ten million people. Because of this, the strike got support from unlikely sources. Local conservative papers backed the women, and local Liberal Unionist Neville Chamberlain donated to the strike fund.

Macarthur’s popularity is shown by how close she came to beating a pro-war Liberal in Stourbridge as Labour candidate in the 1918 “khaki” election. Helpfully, her election address is included as an appendix. Barnsley criticises her for embracing electoralism in the years before her tragic early death in 1921, and rightly criticises the Labour leaders generally for being absent from the post-war upsurge in industrial struggle.

His assertion that the lack of a revolutionary party in Britain before, during, and after the First World War prevented a revolution on Russian lines is a standard Leninist view. Unfortunately it is tacked on the end of the book and not really elaborated. There were revolutionary and socialist groups around at the time, and more of an analysis of their role would be helpful. Then again, perhaps they simply had no influence on this particular dispute.

While the hellish industrial landscapes of Edwardian Britain are a long-forgotten memory, we are reminded that sweated labour (nowadays called sweatshop labour) is still here, in migrant communities, and in other parts of the world.

Books like this are necessary in order to rediscover lost struggles from the past. A minor criticism, from someone who is researching the period, is that clearer footnoting would be useful. Overall, this is a useful account of the Cradley Heath dispute, and should be read by anyone who wants to look at the Great Unrest as a whole, and can be a stepping stone towards a more detailed analysis of the period.

Breaking their Chains: Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ Strike of 1910 by Tony Barnsley, London: Bookmarks Publications 2010 , pp. 88, £6.99, ISBN 978-1905-192-649

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The Occupations in Perspective

by nineteensixtyseven


On the 10 November over 50,000 students, lecturers and sixth-formers took part in the largest demonstration so far against the coalition government. A fortnight later similar numbers took part in a ‘day of action’ called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts which saw a wave of marches, demonstrations and occupations all across Britain. Universities including University College London (UCL) and Cambridge were amongst the dozen or so occupations which started in late November, with the London School of Economics and Bristol joining similar numbers occupying in the first week of December.

Against neoliberalism

The occupations have been diverse in terms of their length, tactics and political content. Nevertheless, most of them express a general resolve to oppose what is seen by many as an ideologically-driven attempt to further push the market into higher education. As Stefan Collini wrote in November in the London Review of Books, under the Browne Report vision higher education is seen as ‘a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers’ rather than a public good paid for by general taxation. It is this agenda that the government has attempted to hide by framing the debate around the more narrow issues of fee levels and loan repayments.

The cuts to higher education represent the almost total withdrawal of the state from the funding of universities, and the transferral of the burden of payment on to individual students. The argument underlying this unprecedented shift is that students are the main beneficiaries of a university education. There is no mention of the bosses who benefit from the labour of an educated workforce nor a recognition of the wider social good of having teachers, doctors and writers- not to mention the negative consequences for social mobility that the higher fees will engender. The Browne Report is truly the repackaged vision of the nineteenth-century utilitarian philistine, from a political class so wedded to the dictates of capital that it knows the cost of everything and value of nothing.  Ironically, the site of the UCL occupation is the Jeremy Bentham room.

This struggle is only one frontier against the neoliberal market intrusion into all areas of life; a development which over the last three decades has seen public services wrenched open to feed the rapacious appetite of capital for profit and the systematic dismantlement and privatisation of state institutions. The inherent logic of neoliberalism is that which lies behind Margaret Thatcher’s infamous statement that ‘there is no such thing as society’- a dehumanising logic by which we are supposed to be socially atomised individuals, rendering collective action impossible and subjugating us all to the relentless exigencies of capital accumulation.

Against sectionalism

For this reason the political demands of students must transcend sectional divisions. The occupations were a stark and necessary reminder of the power of collective action. Necessary because of the relentless barrage of propaganda spouting pieties about the inevitability of the cuts and the futility of resistance, and because of the demoralisation induced by three decades of anti-union laws and the erosion of workers’ rights. In the Cambridge occupation, therefore, we demanded that ‘the University commit to ensure the autonomy of education from corporate interests’ and oppose not just cuts to the higher education sector but ‘use its influence to oppose the spending review’s threat to education, welfare, health, and other public services.’

Of course, we had no illusions that the University would do any such thing (and we were proved right) but, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote: ‘Only by demanding from bourgeois society all that it is capable of granting have we succeeded here and there in obtaining a small part.’ Indeed, one of the major achievements of the occupations was to erode the myth of a cosy academic community as an oasis of humanism in an inhuman world, set apart from capitalist society. Finding its power challenged by students and academics, the University bureaucracy resorted to coercive legal action rather than engage in the sort of open and democratic debate it professes to further. On the very first day, without having heard any of our demands or engaged with us in any way, the University sought a possession order from the courts.


In the case of the Cambridge occupation our demands were drafted democratically, the practicality of maintaining access to the building was organised voluntarily through a system of guard duty and the provision of warm meals was carried out collectively by those with the requisite abilities.  The 14th century room that we occupied was once the University’s ‘parliament’ where decisions were made and until recently contained a carpet made by William Morris in 1891.  Although situated in the university’s administrative complex it is now wasted as a combination room for senior members of the institution. Throughout the course of the occupation, however, we put it to a use Morris would have approved of, unconsciously creating the ‘great room’, of which he wrote, ‘where one talked to one’s friends in one corner, and ate in another, and slept in another, and worked in another.’ People were encouraged to share their own knowledge and skills by organising self-education sessions and speakers were invited from academia, trade unions and other occupations to equip us with the intellectual and practical know-how to convince doubters and continue the fight.

Humiliating authority

What give us the edge over some of the occupations which were evicted prematurely was the support of over 300 academics who signed a statement of support, supplemented by an international petition signed by Noam Chomsky and a number of MPs. For the University to use force would have risked international embarrassment and the alienation of a large section of its staff. This was undoubtedly a factor which contributed towards the longevity of the occupation- it lasted eleven days in total and we left voluntarily. Another factor was the openness of the space and the relevance of the cause which meant that this occupation was more genuinely popular amongst the student body than previous actions which I have been involved with. When a possession order was granted three days in to the occupation we informed the University and the press that we planned to defy it and resist eviction. A week passed and the bailiffs had not yet come; we had called their bluff and they were forced to resort to increasingly desperate and petty measures to thwart the occupation.

After a group of occupiers escalated the action by staging a sit-in at the Guildhall the police, accompanied by unidentified heavies no doubt hired by the University management, seized the opportunity to wrest control of the gate providing access to the occupation. A message was sent out to a list of emergency text contacts including academics and students and within minutes people were gathering outside facing the police lines. Several of us regained access by climbing over the fence and, emboldened by the show of support outside, those inside summed up enough resolve to non-violently breach the police lines from behind, re-establishing access for those trapped on the exterior. This was followed by a large and rather emotional meeting during the course of which one senior lecturer described how for the first time in his life he was proud to wear his gown. Several also spoke about how during the course of the occupation the relationship between student and lecturer had been redefined and that the united front should be maintained well beyond the occupation.

The occupation was empowering for many reasons. It is impossible to defer to power in the same way after it has been humiliated and reduced to impotence. This applies not only to the police but the University’s own authorities who embarrassed themselves in the eyes of staff and students by their arrogant refusal to engage with peaceful protesters. One will also never look upon the manicured lawns of Senate House, that hallowed space on which students receive their degrees under the watchful benevolence of the Vice-Chancellor, after it has played host to several subversive games of football and a protest by local sixth-formers who were our guests on the second national day of action.

Envisioning real utopias: towards a United Front

On a less trivial note, however, the occupations have played a concrete role in widening the realm of the possible beyond the constrictive paradigm of the status quo and ‘common sense.’   They have contributed to what Erik Olin Wright called ‘envisioning real utopias.’ Or rather (for we socialists have hopefully left utopian socialism behind) towards challenging the real utopian idea- that of the capitalists and their mouthpieces- that it is possible to continue indefinitely under a system which is so weighed down by its own contradictions that it throws millions on to the dole queues with a tragic periodicity and which is predicated on the unsustainable overexploitation of diminishing environmental resources.

However, while any action which marks a transition from inertia to positive political action is to be welcomed it is important that occupations as a tactic are not fetishised as an end in themselves. To be sure, they are an end in the important yet limited sense described above, in so far as they raise consciousness of the possibilities of political action. They are, however, a means towards more profound action aimed at more generalised and systematic change. Students, it is well known, have the spare time to devote to political action and- it is hoped- that the time spent gaining a critical appreciation of society contributes to a more immediate and informed perception of the changing world around us.

Nevertheless, we are not a powerful social force comparable to organised workers. In Cambridge we called on all research staff to unionise and for the University to recognise the University and Colleges Union (UCU). We also forged links with local trade unions and the trades council, by leafleting workplaces such as the postal sorting depot and the local government offices and welcoming delegations. It was in this endeavour that non-sectional nature of our occupation was crucial. To expand this activity we called for a General Assembly on the penultimate day of the occupation. In attendance were around 400 people, including representatives from the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the UCU, Unite, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). Delegations arrived from local high schools, sixth forms and anti-cuts groups, and local elected representatives also attended. The diversity of the assembled reinforced to us all the wide range of people who will be affected by the cuts, with women and young people predicted to be worst hit. Speeches were made highlighting the impact the cuts are already having across the community and expressing a desire to unite together in a common struggle. Plans were made to reach out even further to the local community and hold another General Assembly in late January.

In addition to messages of solidarity from occupations across the country we also received moral and material support from members of the public, from local businesses who donated food and other items, a letter of support from the homeless shelter and individual messages from local workers. It is this wide-based sort of movement, based on the time-tested principle that an injury to one is an injury to all, that is necessary to resist the cuts agenda. Being firm in principles but diverse in tactics, it will be necessary to keep up the pressure with marches and demonstrations but also to organise in workplaces, schools and community groups to defend jobs and services. Already good work is being done by Unison and PCS in the north-east of England with a model of ‘Public Services Alliances’ between organised workers and community and voluntary groups. Just as we asked the question of ‘whose university’ in Cambridge, and demonstrators have, in the face of police violence, asked ‘whose streets’ across the country, workers and communities should ask the same question about their workplaces and local areas. The answer should always be the same: ‘Ours!’

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When is discrimination not discrimination?

by Anne Archist

Can you discriminate* against an individual on the basis of group membership without discriminating against the group? And can you discriminate against a group without discriminating against the individuals that are members of it?

A story that seems to have originated with TabloidWatch has been doing the rounds recently. The gist of it is that Richard Littlejohn, notorious lower-than-gutter-press bigot, wrote something in his column that attracted complaints on the basis that it equated homosexuals with paedophiles. I don’t want to go into the details of this case except insofar as they’re relevant to the wider issue brought up above, though.

The reason that people are so dismayed is not because of Littlejohn’s article – to be honest, that’s at the tamer end of his inane and hateful ramblings – but because of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC)’s response to it. They “acknowledged the complainants’ concerns that the columnist had equated homosexuality with paedophilia”, but said that Clause 12 of their code “does not cover generalised remarks about groups or categories of people.“ They’re right, of course; Clause 12 (entitled ‘Discrimination’) says that “The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s [sexuality/etc]”. The key word there is “individual”; once more the liberal-capitalist ideological preoccupation with atomised individuals takes centre stage.

Unlike Liberal Conspiracy, TabloidWatch, or anyone else I’ve seen blogging on this issue, I don’t want to look at whether PCC’s ruling in this case or their stance on discrimination in general is right or wrong, fair or unfair, etc. Being the philosopher I am, I’m concerned with what I see as a more fundamental question about their code – is it even logically coherent, or is it merely nonsensical (at least insofar as it has been, and is still, interpreted)?

I want to suggest that actually the PCC’s rulings on Clause 12 (generally, at least) make no sense. Discrimination on the grounds of race/sexuality/whatever is discrimination on the grounds of membership of a particular group (or what logicians might call a ‘set’); conversely, discrimination against a group in general is discrimination against each and every member in virtue of their membership. In concrete terms, if Littlejohn says “he is a gay man and therefore a paedophile”, his comments discriminate against all gay men as a group because it is precisely the individual’s membership of that group that has been used as the evidence for the conclusion; conversely, if he says “all gay men are paedophiles”**, he is perpetrating and perpetuating prejudice in a way that affects all gay men as individuals precisely because they are each gay men. He is saying about each and every one of them that they are a paedophile; the fact that he uses an abbreviated way of expressing this by talking in terms of groups makes no substantive difference.

Of course, you can combine these two claims and derive a third. “He is a gay man and therefore a paedophile” comment is not just discrimination against the individual as an individual and all gay men as a group, but also against all gay men as individuals. The discrimination is generalised through the mediation of group membership. All discrimination against groups with members or against individuals on the basis of group membership is therefore discrimination against groups and individuals – you can’t have one without the other.

Note that I say “on the basis of group membership”; if you discriminate against someone purely because you don’t like them as an individual, there is no group to mediate and therefore generalise the discrimination. And, of course, it’s trivially true that if a group has no members (unicorns, for example) then discrimination against it is not discrimination against any individuals. Pointing these things out doesn’t invalidate anything I’ve said above, since I’ve worded my claims to take them into account – I’m merely explaining what might have seemed like an awkward wording.

If what I’ve said above is correct, then the PCC haven’t just ruled incorrectly in this instance (assuming Littlejohn’s statement would have breached the code had it been about an individual), but in fact have a completely illogical and nonsensical precedent of interpretation. This isn’t about just one case – many past cases (that don’t seem to have come to the attention of the people now discussing the latest Littlejohn fracas) have issued in a similar ruling. In the case of Jan Moir’s*** despicable comments about Stephen Gately’s death, for instance, the PCC said “Any complaint from the affected parties [Gately’s family and partner] will naturally be given precedence by the commission”.

It apparently didn’t even cross the minds of committee members that people other than Gately’s loved ones might be “affected” by the assertion that most gay men lead a “different” and “dangerous” lifestyle resulting in unnatural premature deaths, which “impressionable young men” may be tempted to “emulate”. It all comes down to those “individuals”. And this is precisely the problem – the PCC seem to think of themselves as a latter-day equivalent of pistols at dawn for (primarily notable or notorious) offended parties, rather than an industry regulator preventing the wilful propagation of unfounded bias and hate through mainstream media.

Isn’t it about time the PCC were called on to change the code to something coherent? If they’re unwilling to protect people from prejudice in the face of free speech, the least they could do is be honest about it and thereby remove the legitimacy they confer (on the industry at large and Littlejohn/Moir/etc in particular) by claiming to regulate discrimination and failing to actually do so.

*For the purposes of this article I’m using “discrimination” specifically as shorthand for what the PCC call “prejudicial or pejorative reference”, but I’m fairly confident that you could extend that definition and my argument would still hold.

** Whether this is actually what Littlejohn said or meant isn’t relevant here – just interpret them as hypothetical examples if you feel I’m being unfair in my characterisation of his comments. My argument doesn’t hinge on the details of this case.

*** I won’t link to the article because I don’t want to give the cretin any more publicity than she deserves. Google is there for those who insist on reading the comments in context – I assure you they’re no more palatable in their original form.

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In defence of Trots

This is a guest post by Tami Peterson. Tami is studying a Masters of Research in Social and Political Theory at Birkbeck, and is Anti-Rasicm and Anti-Fascism Officer at Birkbeck SU and on the NUS LGBT Committe, writing in a personal capacity.

In the recent discussion around the protests and demonstrations that have happened across England an old spectre has come back to haunt the student movement. This is a spectre of plots by Trots to “overthrow” the NUS leadership, to incite violence and to generally cause mayhem. These Trots along with anarchists and self-described kids from the “slums of London” are the “bad protesters” to be shunned, disregarded as insane or irrelevant. The fact that the majority that make up this group are largely working class, poor and Black and Asian has, of course, nothing to do with the labels thrown at them by the media and rightwing groups like the EDL who are now targetting them.

Contrary to this are posed the “good protesters”, the apparently “peaceful students” who are overwhelmingly white, middle class, in Higher Education (as opposed to the rabble from FE colleges and Sixth Forms) and generally respectable. They work with the police, think all forms of vandalism are unacceptable (unless of course it is the state that is vandalising public services) and oppose violence (unless of course it happens to be a war or other state-sponsored aggression).

In reality, there is a fake narrative being created here. The first lie is that the new student movement is led by Trotskyists and Anarchists. Quite simply this isn’t the case. The scale and breadth of the movement which has happened in the wake of the 10th of November is being led by young people, most of them ages 16-18 or younger. Many of them are too young to vote or be members of the NUS. While the organised left has indeed been responsible for setting up organisations like the Education Activist Network, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and the London Student Assembly the reality is that others are the ones who have sparked this movement.

This false narrative obscures the real divide which is posited in the age-old question: Reform or Revolution? The “bad protesters”, or anyone questioning the very organisation of capitalist society, a system which is increasingly brazen in its pure marketisation and privatisation of every aspect of social life, is to be disregarded or belittled. Trotskyists, leftists, anarchists and anti-capitalists openly call for revolution, for the elimination of this illogical, inhumane system and the creation of new forms of creative action and collective human life.

Those on the side of reform don’t want to cause too much of a fuss because at base, they still believe that this system is one which is worth fighting for. They believe that they can force a kinder capitalism, a softer system. But the vitriol and scorn poured on open revolutionaries by the reformists is really due to the fact that in the early 21st century we are seeing the decline of social democracy. As leading Tory Quintin Hogg put it when the welfare state was being born: “If you don’t give them reform, they will give you social revolution.” As we witness the destruction of the welfare state, the inherent contradictions and inequality become more stark and the Emperor not only fails to wear clothing, but we are all now aware of that fact.

The sad reality for the reformists is that they are fighting for a dead ideal. They are fighting for a piece of the pie which is non-existent and the spectre of the “bad protesters” scares them into thinking, “Could they be right? Is there no future for me?”

I have had the great joy of being able to be a part of the British Qualitative Election Study which reviewed opinions of the electorate both before and directly after the most recent general election. Time and again it was evident that people viewed organised political parties with disdain or a sad acceptance that one must choose between the lesser of evils. Mostly gone from party politics is any kind of romantic notion that a party fights for one’s interests, much less that a party is a valid forum for practicing politics. Many expressed their support for the Liberal Democrats and indeed a coalition government in the hopes that issues would be addressed that had previously been ignored. Yet this hope for working within the system has once again been scuppered by blatant Liberal Democrat betrayal.

The “bad protesters” have displayed the gut instinct of the youth of modern Britain. These youth had the choice of apathy and resignation to the wholesale destruction of any progressive measures the state once supported or it could show the will to fight back, and not simply fight for what was being taken away, but for a whole different way of doing politics and for a whole different way of living. The deliberative democracy and creativeness to come spontaneously out of the occupations is just one small example of what “bad protesters” can do.

So in the end, I stand shoulder to shoulder with Trotskyists, anarchists, anti-capitalists, revolutionaries and those from the slums of London in rejecting strongly the destruction of the welfare state. I stand with them in our desperate fight to create a better world in the face of the full violence of the state which is helped and supported by the silence or excuses of the “good protesters” who make apologies for it. So the next time someone labels you a “Trot” because you have decided to put your hands onto the wheel of history don’t try to distance yourself from it, take it as a compliment.

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The Great Unrest: An Overview

by Edd Mustill

I wrote an outline of the Great Unrest for the Syndicalist blog here. It is very sketchy (it has to be to fit into one blog post) but hopefully gives a decent enough impression of the period.

It’s difficult to put an exact date on the start of the period known as the “Great Unrest.” Was it in March 1909 when students at Ruskin College went on strike to defend the idea of independent working-class education? Was it on 1st November 1910 when a lock-out at a South Wales pit provoked a sympathy strike throughout the coalfield? Was it November 18th 1910, Black Friday, when women calling for the vote were brutally beaten by police in Parliament Square?

A century later, as we enter a new period of struggle against the injustices of modern capitalism, we know that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly the birth and death of any movements. The Great Unrest is a chapter in the story of working-class resistance which will continue as long as it is necessary. It is part of the histories of socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, and feminists, but a part that has too often been overlooked.

Working-class independence

School children are still told of the great reforming liberal government of 1906-14 that paved the way for the welfare state, with its pensions and national insurance reform. What is forgotten is how controversial these measures were at the time. The working class had its own organisations independent of the state which provided welfare, and many mistrusted the government’s motives. Millions were members of friendly societies or the growing co-operative movement.

It was at one of these institutions that the opening act of the drama of the Unrest occurred. Ruskin College in Oxford was founded in 1899, and provided education to a small number of students from the trade union movement. Some were concerned that the college would be absorbed into Oxford University, and formed the Plebs’ League. They wanted Ruskin to teach a socialist curriculum, not just extend the traditional liberal subjects to a few lucky workers:

“Enter the Plebs, not from above but from below, not to fight a sham battle among the shadows by the orders and for the interests of our masters, but to fight a real battle in the full light and with clear knowledge of the issue before us.”

After the college principal, who was sympathetic to the Plebs, was sacked, they launched a nine day long student strike, complete with picket lines and mass meetings. Eventually the radicals seceded to form the Central Labour College, which won support from the TUC on an equal basis to Ruskin for many years, and was a theoretical training ground for Marxist revolutionaries.

The strikes

Some Ruskin College strikers, like Noah Ablett, were Welsh miners. They became involved in the Cambrian Combine dispute in Autumn 1910, when sympathy action spread to the entire South Wales coalfield after a lock-out over pay at Ely pit. This was the dispute which saw the famous Tonypandy Riot occur on November 8th. A group of pickets comparable to the Orgreave mass picket in 1984 fought a battle during which one miner, Samuel Rays, was beaten to death by police. Shops were smashed, many of which had operated a “blacklist” denying credit to strikers’ families.

Eventually the miners had to return to work the next summer, but in March 1912 there was a national miners’ strike over the issue of a minimum wage. The Minimum Wage Act that was brought in allowed different regions to set different rates.

It was from these experiences that the Miner’s Next Step pamphlet emerged. It argued for taking the power to accept or reject agreements away from the union executive and giving it to a vote of the whole membership. It also argued for centralisation of the union to avoid different deals being reached in different regions, based on the principle that no-one section should get back to work until everyone had won.

A similar sense of solidarity was to be found in the huge transport workers strikes of the period. Tom Mann wrote tirelessly on the need for different grades on the docks to strike together, and to refuse to work with non-union workers. This was most successful in Merseyside, where the situation approached a general strike in the summer of 1911.

It was here that state repression reached its worst. Gunboats were sent up the Mersey to intimidate strikers, and troops were used to escort goods out of the docks. A police charge at a mass rally became known as Bloody Sunday as batons were used indiscriminately. Just a few days later, two people were killed by troops.

Four days after that, on 19th August, two bystanders were shot and killed at a mass picket in Llanelli, where railway workers were on strike.

The railway strike went national as Yorkshire and Lancashire workers walked out, and the leadership of the ASRS union was forced to back a national strike: “Your liberty is at stake. All railwaymen must strike at once. The loyalty of each means victory for all.”

Workers and women; women as workers

Unfortunately the majority of the trade union movement was deeply sexist at this time. Those few women who were organised were largely in separate organisations like the National Federation of Women Workers led by Mary Macarthur. The NFWW won a stunning victory in the Black Country in 1910 organising chainmakers in Cradley Heath.

The NFWW and groups like it eventually began to work with the militant suffragette movement which was emerging. Many suffragettes were socialists, members of the ILP which was the only left group which has substantial numbers of women members. It was during this period that Sylvia Pankhurst broke with her mother and sister by organising working-class women in the East End, with the help of George Lansbury who resigned his seat in Parliament on the issue of women’s suffrage.

Some conclusions

Many of the big strikes, like the railway workers’, did not achieve their immediate demands,. A further dock strike in 1912 collapsed after a month.

But many strikes were won. The unions grew enormously, especially unions for general, unskilled workers, some of which became three times their previous size. Whole industries were there had been no organisation before were swept along in the tide.

While the Industrial Workers of the World was never large in Britain, its idea of One Big Union found a ready audience during the Unrest. Sectional prejudices were broken down as unions amalgamated. The National Union of Railwaymen was formed (1913), as was the National Transport Workers’ Federation (1911) which later became the T&G. Even the relatively conservative engineering unions were affected, most of them eventually merged in 1920 to form the AEU with Tom Mann as president.

More than anything else, it is the spirit of absolute and unconditional solidarity in industrial disputes which makes the Unrest such an interesting period. The readiness to use unofficial action and sympathy strikes, to show the power of the working class by shutting down whole industries, to move towards workers’ control as the strike committee in Merseyside did, are all a million miles ahead of today’s trade union movement which sees the occasional 24-hour strike as all that is necessary for us to “make our voice heard.” Likewise, the suffragettes show us that tireless organising and a willingness to use direct action are necessities for any movement.

As we stand on the verge of our own huge struggles a century later, we need to rediscover these traditions. We should not do so out of academic curiosity or a sense of keeping our own, pure, history. We should do so because we are the same class, fighting the same battle against the rule of capital, as Tom Mann, Sylvia Pankhurst, and millions of others were fighting one hundred years ago.

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Adventures in music and politics I: Captain Ska

by Edd Mustill

The launch gig for Captain Ska’s single Liar Liar took place on Monday night.

The venue, Vibe bar on Brick Lane, seemed pretty trendy to my untrained eye, and there were a few obviously-Shoreditch types. But, as the place filled out, the audience becomes more diverse, at least in terms of age. This wasn’t a gig just for “the youth.”

Josie Long
kicked the gig off with a short comedy set, reminding us, simply, just how awful the government are. She says she wakes up every day full of fight, then remembers: “They hate LIBRARIES?! Who hates LIBRARIES?!”

Next up were the Hackney Colliery Band, exuding energy from their collection of brass instruments and getting the audience moving.

Then there was this:

What motivated Captain Ska to write the song? “I hadn’t been that political before,” he says, “Some of my friends were quite political but not that angry.”

It was as the government’s policies began to take shape, over the summer, that the song began to take shape too. In a sense it reflects the mood of the moment: not politically fully-formed by any means, quite vague in many ways, but incredibly angry.

By the end of October it was finished and emailed around, quickly finding a home in the left-wing blogosphere. “Once one person blogs about it,” he says, “The effects are amazing.”

There was a sense that no-one else was writing something, and that this is a song that is necessary for the times. In that sense, compared to the 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence recorded by, amongst others, the once fiery Billy Bragg, Liar Liar is streets ahead. It is not a too-clever-by-half post-modern protest, but a blunt political weapon of the sort that Bragg once wielded. And the Captain assures us that he has “two more tracks that are ready to go.”

“The idea was that this was something more for the mainstream,” he says, “There’s not much protest music in the mainstream but there are a lot of grassroots things.”

No-one could deny that getting Liar Liar in the charts, with some airtime on major radio stations, would be a good thing for the anti-cuts movement. But the Captain insists: “I don’t want to become a pop star latching on to the back of an anti-cuts thing.”

Unlike last year, the anti-X Factor Christmas Number One movement is hopelessly fragmented. RATM’s feat is unlikely to be repeated. But even as Cowell and Co reassert their monopoly over the Christmas airwaves, perhaps there are just a few more people who are turning the radio off and getting down to their local anti-cuts gig.

Events like this, mixing music, comedy, and politics could easily become big successes when the anti-cuts movement steps up its campaigning. There is more than one way of getting alternative messages across. The night was also the official launch of the False Economy website, for example. The challenge will be to change passive gig-goers into gig-going activists.

Liar Liar is available now on iTunes

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