Autonomy – Issue 4 (Spring 2014)

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Introducing ‘Autonomy’: a new freesheet by AFed Scotland

We made a new free paper for handing out! The aim is to pull together grassroots campaigns and groups in Scotland, report on what they’re doing and advertise upcoming events. We’ll mix it up with other stories of struggle from around the world. Let us know if we should include your event, group or story by emailing: scotland[at]afed.org.uk  And feel free to print it out yourself if you find it useful.

Stitched up: The Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation

polltax

Déjà vu: the poll tax campaign which the Trotskyist Militant tendency also tried to lead.

The first Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax conference took place on 27th April in Glasgow, its aim to unite local groups across the country into one campaign with greater strength and resources.  I’m surprised it hasn’t received more coverage and criticism.  I suspect that’s because people are holding their tongues and focusing on organising locally and in other campaigns.  However, I would argue that we need to discuss what’s happening nationally so that we can be more effective in challenging the Bedroom Tax, and any government cuts, but also to ensure that a campaign like this is controlled by working class people themselves.

Here’s what I’ve written previously:

The old authoritarian Left, after having lost much of its credibility, recognises the importance of the anti-Bedroom Tax campaign and has been trying as usual to put itself in a position of leadership in order to control it and regain political influence and power.  Tommy Sheridan, out of prison for perjury, is back in the media spotlight as the face of the anti-Bedroom Tax campaign and, after everything he’s done, still manages to muster enthusiastic support from his fan club.  He briefly got himself elected secretary of the interim committee of the West of Scotland Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation, before being forced to resign because of his divisive role.  But don’t count him out just yet.

Well, that was a bit of an understatement.  What in fact happened at the Glasgow conference was that the West of Scotland federation effectively became a national federation.  Tommy Sheridan was elected the chairperson and, coincidentally, members of the Socialist Party Scotland (CWI) and SWP gained positions as secretary and deputy chairperson respectively.  These, just to remind you, were the same parties that backed each other up previously in manipulating things in the West of Scotland federation and in putting forward Dave Sherry, one of those high-ranking SWP members who covered up a rape in the party, as speaker on the last march against the Bedroom Tax in Glasgow, 30th March.  Sherry gave another speech at the conference. There were over 200 people there on the day, although it’s unclear how many of those were voting delegates.  In any case, out of all those present only one person actually voted against the officers during the election or seemed to have an alternative proposal.  Furthermore, amendments to the pre-written founding statement were not allowed.  And to cap it all, speeches were given arguing for the necessity of a workers’ party and that we should look, funnily enough, to the example of the Militant tendency’s influence in Liverpool council in the 1980s as to how local government should be run.*

This is all bad news. It is incredibly cynical to use a grassroots campaign meeting, presumably meant to attract people from different groups or none, as an opportunity for your own party political broadcast. That Sheridan has taken such a central position within this new organisation shows, as though any more proof were needed, the extent to which he’s willing to go to trample over any independent attempts at organising and promote himself.  As a politician, he is so toxic and divisive that his latest ego trip is his way of saying a big fuck you to the rest of the Left, and leads him to actively compete with any other organisation he can’t control.  As for the structure of the federation, the steering committee is meant to consist of 60 elected members from across Scotland.  That’s sounds democratic, right?  The problem is that the national federation’s officer positions appear to be permanent rather than rotated, there is no mention of recallability for the members from local groups, and it seems likely that the parties will between them be able to engineer things in enough local groups to marginalise any differences in the steering committee – after all, this is what’s happened so far.  And, just to be clear, a real federation doesn’t ‘steer’ things from the centre but co-ordinates what groups have already decided and told their spokespersons.  It all starts to look like a small group of party activists deciding things among themselves and then passing on these instructions to the ‘foot soldiers’ – without whom there wouldn’t be a “federation” in the first place.  That’s not a federal structure, it’s a party structure.

But this is an important point.  It’s not just party hacks who were at this conference or who will be involved in the “federation”.  Most of the people will be those who are genuinely concerned by the Bedroom Tax or are directly affected themselves.  And I am certainly not criticising them.  The number of people attending the first conference was certainly impressive.

It is argued by some that anarchists only denounce things and retreat into ‘pure’, small-scale initiatives with little influence or give up entirely.  I would dispute this, but were it ever to be true it would be a mistake.  We need to be where people are.   What we share even with the parties mentioned above is the aim to defeat the Bedroom Tax: to pressure local authorities, housing associations and government, and to physically prevent evictions if necessary.  In campaigns like this it would naive to think that we can avoid working with other political groups we often disagree with.

However, It would equally naive to suggest that divisions aren’t ever meaningful and can simply disappear.  There is a line.  Pro-feminism isn’t an add-on or a separate issue, it has to be advocated by us in everything we do.  We need to oppose sexism wherever we encounter it or we are hypocrites.  And we should always argue for directly democratic structures.  This isn’t some sort of luxury; it increases the participation and popular base of organisations, making them stronger and more radical, and ensures that a struggle like this has a positive long-term effect on class solidarity and empowerment.

This all leads to the question: can and should anarchists and anyone with a commitment to genuine grassroots organising be involved in the Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation?

My mind isn’t made up on this, but I think there are a few options:

1.  If it becomes clear that this federation is a lost cause, and just another in a long-line of front groups then we could ignore it and concentrate on making the local community groups we’re already involved in as successful, as influential and participative as possible. At the same time we should continue to be actively a part of regional federations like that of Edinburgh & Lothians, which has taken a much more positive direction since it’s much more diverse, hasn’t yet been captured by party socialists, and recognises the need for directly democratic decision-making.  We shouldn’t take that for granted, but make sure that we build on this beginning.thisisanarchism

2. Let’s get one thing straight: anarchists love federations (the clue’s in our name).  We want to federate everything, and build a collective power from below, rather than have weaker isolated groups.  So, we definitely support the idea of an actual national federation.  Despite all its problems, if this federation is the only cross-Scotland organisation in town and continues to attract local groups and working class people (which is what it was designed to do) then perhaps we need to be involved.  But that would require us actively arguing for important changes in the structure, processes and current officers.  Sheridan needs to be ousted, and Sherry refused a platform altogether.  That all sounds like an uphill struggle.  On the other hand, Trotskyists and their ilk will always try to dictate and manipulate.  They’re the ones who call the A to B marches on Saturdays, who set up the ‘national federations’ and open ‘coalitions’, choose the speakers and speak to the media. We can either complain about this or challenge it with a co-ordinated response.

3. However, it may be that we can be involved in national organising and avoid much of the authoritarian Left.  The No2BedroomTax campaign seems to have originally been part of the West of Scotland federation but is now independent of it.  It seeks to support and link anti-Bedroom Tax groups throughout Scotland, and also seems to have a commitment to grassroots democracy and skepticism of politicians very unlike the Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation.  I’m sure they’re not interested in sectarian battles between left groups, but want to extend the campaign and have an impact.  So, as far as I can see, this is a much more positive initiative.  They’ve called a Day of Protest against the tax for the 18th May in Glasgow.

I’m much more inclined towards a mix of options 1 and 3.  But I know from my own experience that the Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation is trying to involve groups from across the country in their own organisation, and that many don’t see or aren’t aware of it being dominated by the Sheridan crowd.  At the moment, that’s really unfortunate.  The key points are to fight the tax without sacrificing or undermining other fundamental principles, not to surrender control of the campaign to the authoritarians, to be where working class people are, and to take our arguments to them.

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Here’s another, very different, report of the first Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax conference, and its founding statement.  I won’t bother linking to the Socialist Worker.

For remarkably similar insights into Trotskyist attempts at hijacking the poll tax campaign, AFed members who were active in it at the time have written a good deal.

*Funnily enough, because both the CWI and Solidarity come out of the earlier Militant tendency.  The Liverpool example is a bit hilarious, really.  Militant managed to dominate the Labour council through undemocratic machinations in the labour movement and their very own Sheridan figure, Dereck Hatton (who’s now a millionaire property developer).  When they got into power the Labour council did indeed build houses, parks and sport centres.  It ended up fighting teachers’ unions, the Black and Ethnic Minority community, making deals with the Conservatives so that Liverpool council didn’t support the miners, spreading mass disillusionment among council workers, especially after having to ‘pretend’  to deliver thousands of redundancy notices, and seriously undermining self-organisation and radicalism among the Liverpool working class for succeeding generations.  Another hierarchical leadership cult, whose vague Leftism was constrained by becoming the business managers of a council, and who were eventually chucked out of the very party they were meant to take over to achieve socialism.

Sexism, Power and the Left

Trigger warning: general discussion of rape and sexual abuse in socialist organisations. | Written in a personal capacity.

saints of socialism

I’ve always thought the story of John MacLean was inspirational, despite the fact that he was never a libertarian communist.*  But, a cult was created around him which didn’t so much critically draw out the good things he stood for but turned him into something else.  MacLean became The Great Leader, and an image of the type of working class man who’s meant to save us and dies trying.  This idea of socialism as a very male, patriarchal, top-down movement, embodied in one man, has been repeated so many times it’s farcical.

Of course, I don’t mean to simply equate MacLean or James Connolly, who I have some time for, with other such icons as Che Guevara, who was a complete authoritarian, or more recent examples like Hugo Chavez, a successful political manager who passed reforms and also fought autonomous working class organisation and indigenous communities.  But wherever there’s a tendency to canonize these figures, it reinforces our enthralment to the past and its ideas, freezing them rather than moving beyond them, and it raises up representatives of real living, messy, anonymous class struggle, all to be conveniently used for present day attempts to impose statist, hierarchical solutions for change led by, almost always, Great Men.

yournewleader

Start printing the T-shirts: Nicolás Maduro set to replace Chavez.

Cults like these are a reflection of, and end up propagating both hierarchical forms of organisation and patriarchy.

Struggles in the Left

It was a long time in coming but at the anti-Bedroom Tax demonstration in Glasgow an important division in the Left in Scotland clearly came out into the open.  I’m talking about the heckling of Dave Sherry, one of the speakers at the end, by people from different political groups or none who all see themselves as feminists or pro-feminists.  Sherry, as a member not just of the SWP but also that party’s Dispute Committee, was directly involved in covering up the rape by a senior party figure of a younger member.  What happened and its background is explained in full here.

It was absolutely right that Sherry was openly challenged when given a public platform.  It was also really encouraging that socialists, anarchists and others were united in shouting him down.  I’m only sorry I missed my chance of heckling him because I was at the other side of George Square when it happened.  But I’m sure there will be other opportunities of opposing SWP speakers in the future.

This wasn’t an isolated incident, however, but part of wider developments where both misogyny and hierarchy have been closely linked.

tommyexploitsmaclean

Tommy exploiting the Cult of John MacLean in his own attempt to be the next Great Man.

The old authoritarian Left, after having lost much of its credibility, recognises the importance of the anti-Bedroom Tax campaign and has been trying as usual to put itself in a position of leadership in order to control it and regain political influence and power.  Tommy Sheridan, out of prison for perjury, is back in the media spotlight as the face of the anti-Bedroom Tax campaign and, after everything he’s done, still manages to muster enthusiastic support from his fan club.  He briefly got himself elected secretary of the interim committee of the West of Scotland Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation, before being forced to resign because of his divisive role.  But don’t count him out just yet.

Sherry was allowed to speak because those involved in the SWP, Solidarity party, and CWI Scotland  engineered it, and they quickly closed ranks in defending him and his actions from the hecklers.  Likewise, Tommy Sheridan, Great Leader of Solidarity, is supported in turn by the SWP and the CWI and they are all keen to give him a prominent place in public talks and  the media.

These parties are parasites on already-existing struggles, and it’s no coincidence that they have all been actively involved  in giving a place to misogyny in some form or another.

The problem that won’t go away

I agree with many of the points Mhairi McAlpine made in her article on the constant re-occurrence of sexism and sexual abuse in socialist organisations from Gerry Healy to George Galloway.  Why does it keep happening?  We live in a patriarchal society where misogyny is prevalent, men who gain influence in a party are able to manipulate lovers for their own ends and then marginalise and intimidate them, all men benefit from patriarchy and defend those, often in a position of power, who are called out.

But I think that we should also explore the structure of these organisations: the fact that they were all hierarchical parties.

Tommy Sheridan is in the position he is, as a socialist celebrity, because he was given power.  From his days in Militant he was made the figurehead and spokesman of the anti-Poll Tax campaign – apparently speaking on behalf of all the grassroots groups who fought the Poll Tax, whether they liked it or not  – and then in the SSP was at the centre of the party’s electoral strategy.  He was good in the media, he got votes and was encouraged to get as much publicity as he could. In other words, he was undoubtedly given a status and influence above ordinary members.  There were and are a lot of good comrades in the SSP, but the criticisms people are making about Tommy now were already around long before the party was split over his scandal and lying.  Those women and men who opposed him afterwards were absolutely in the right, but now that he’s trying to make a comeback maybe it’s time to look again at the context of his rise to influence.

Is it really surprising that manipulative, egoistic men are most successful in power politics?

Whether it’s in electoralism or controlling a small top-down party like the SWP, men not only find their way to the top and stay there but patriarchy shapes the operation of power and influence, just as it does in wider society.  Sure, there are prominent female leaders too, but they often end up doing just as much to defend male leaders, as happened in the SWP or with Solidarity.

What’s the answer?  I’d obviously disagree with those who argue that the aim should be another electoral, hierarchical party that replaces misogynist male leaders with pro-feminist leaders.

Patriarchy is one form of power over others, of hierarchy.  We want to get rid of it altogether just like we want to get rid of ableism, white supremacy, heteronormativity and capitalism itself.**  As anarchists we’d see this as being interconnected and that the organisations we build and the struggles we’re involved in need to be concerned with all these things.  Those most directly affected by an oppression, should be the ones to lead the struggle against it, and organise separately whenever they see fit, but those not directly oppressed should be just as much concerned with, for example, pro-feminism and educating themselves about it, and not just leave (pro-)feminism to self-identifying women.

In all cases, though, we shouldn’t pass on responsibility for challenging oppressions or exploitation to representatives to do it on our behalf but through structures that we ourselves build and control.  It’s entirely self-defeating to fight against people having power over us through means that contribute to people having power over us!

The Occupy movement might be pointed out as an example of how non-hierarchical organising doesn’t necessarily lead to pro-feminist spaces.  It’s debatable to what extent Occupy was actually non-hierarchical, since it was started and maintained by a small number of activists who had the time and were able to live out in camps in the city centre, and who would tend to have control.  AFed members that I’m aware of were never involved in Occupy in Scotland because of the many problems we saw with it, from its unclear demands and means to bring them about, to being dominated by liberal not anti-capitalist ideas as well as a toxic mixture of conspiracy theories.  At the very least, though, Occupy was an attempt at non-hierarchical or grassroots organising that led to the creation of incredibly unsafe spaces where sexual abuse was widely reported both in the US and here in Britain.  The nature of Occupy camps meant they were likely to be places where people were at risk anyway, but importantly the movement had no concern for adopting clear safer spaces policies and pro-feminism was conspicuous by its absence.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution to genuinely challenge something like patriarchy but I would definitely argue that it requires non-hierarchical modes of organising – by which I don’t mean ‘jazz hands’ and endless hours of consensus, but decision-making that’s directly democratic and effective – along with safer spaces policies, those directly affected having their own spaces and platforms, and a clearly pro-feminist stance adopted by everyone.  The structures we need don’t come ready-made but are developed through experimentation.

But, to be clear, sexism and misogyny is something that affects all organisations even those that actively try to challenge it and have structures that aim to ensure that control isn’t given to a minority.  It’s something we have to constantly try to deal with and that we all need to get better at.

athousandflowers

Lastly, I wanted to point out a new Scottish feminist and queer blog, A Thousand Flowers, and I think it’s awesome.  I might not agree with absolutely every point or article but it’s an interesting and vibrant site and the fact that it exists is really positive for anyone in the pro-feminist, non-authoritarian Left today.

*Check out Nan Milton’s biography which gives an excellent insight into radical Scottish history. Anarchist Guy Aldred, who worked with MacLean, was also one of the first people to write about him.  My argument isn’t that we should stop commemorating figures like MacLean,  but to be highly critical of how he is used and to what ends in the present.   I would say the exact same about libertarian communist figures like Emma Goldman, Durruti and so on.  In many other cases, though, I think icons of the past or present need to be ditched altogether.

** There’s an excellent introduction to privilege theory and intersectionality written by AFed’s Women Caucus:  A Class Struggle Anarchist Analysis of Privilege Theory.