I was sent the following by a friend, who, like me, attended Ideas for Freedom. Many of the thoughts that they expressed resonated with me, and I felt that this post deserved to be seen and discussed, so offered to post it.
The author would prefer to remain anonymous.
I went to the opening session on Friday night, entitled ‘1972-2012: How can workers fight and win?’, and stayed for most of the day on Saturday. The sessions I went to on the Saturday were ‘How do we make socialism a force again?’ (another opener, with everyone together), ‘Is Marxism Eurocentric?’, ‘Iran: class struggle, international solidarity, and the threat of war’ and ‘Women versus capitalism’.
People kept asking me immediately after the Friday evening event what I thought of it. Evetually, by Saturday morning, I reached the answer that ‘it felt like an introduction to the weekend, historically contextualising everything else, so my judgment will rest upon its relation to sessions which I have not yet attended.’ As things stand, I feel like it turned out to be a fair introduction, foreshadowing some of the trends which ran across the weekends events.
Overall, I left IFF feeling a bit like I’d been to a church: there were aspects of interest and which I feel could be lauded, but a marked set of assumptions concerning attendees, tensions in the purpose of the event, and tendencies towards orthodoxy and a veil of academicism in discussion.
The function of IFF is not something I can pin down to a singular aim. Some aspects pointed to recruitment, others to it being a space mainly for existing members, others to fundraising. I count the educational rhetoric of advertisements for the weekend as something which suggests recruitment, as it implies that AWL offer a welcoming space for people to work out their own ideas. This is something I’ve particularly also picked up on when talking to members, who seem to prize their organisations educational events and the debate offered therein as something above and beyond other socialist groups. In reality, I think this educational thrust might be of more benefit to existing members, as it presents them with a chance to share ideas, and arguments with each other. Most of the responses from the floor at each session I attended were from members, who were almost always positive about each others statements, but not so those of others. The way responses from the floor were set up (so several questions got asked before the panel responded) meant that these dissenting views would be argued, but without a chance for the original commenter to respond. In this sense, the set up didn’t allow for what could have been interesting debates or analysis, which the AWL claim so unusually to allow. While disagreement was officially all well and good, the structure of sessions all but rendered it meaningless. This is something I shall return to under the auspices of orthodoxy.
Before doing so, I shall touch on the fundraising aspects of the event. AWL was selling a special booklet of readings related to the event, as well as having a book stall, and selling posters (in a tube – apparently something worth specifically advertising). There was also an AWL fund appeal timetabled on the schedule. I had the joy of sitting in a room for 15 minutes being pressured to put money in a box which was being passed round. They also encouraged people who had attended but were ‘not ready to join’ to set up a monthly donation.
Returning to the discussion which took place at IFF, I have mentioned a tendency toward orthodoxy and a veil of academicism. One exception to the limited scope I encountered was offered by Camila Bassi in ‘Is Marxism Eurocentric?’ Camila offered an explanation and rebuttal of Edward Said’s accusations, which suggested an engagement with ongoing debate, in particular with responses from Marxist thinkers. I felt like the other speaker just went back to ‘what does Marx say?’ and then claimed one interpretation of it to be the correct one. Perhaps this is a sign that my interest in figures engaging with Marx is academic, but I felt that most of the time, Marxist tradition had been boiled down to Marx and Lenin, and they had some disciples. (I think I only heard Trotsky’s name twice, and one was when the booklet was being plugged!) I’ve already mentioned that most responses were from AWL members, and I think that an orthodoxy like this enabled them to have thought out comments in advance, knowing the canon of work. What it didn’t encourage was original thought or action, and it could feel like the self-and co-education which was encouraged was one of learning doctrine, rather than critical engagement. I don’t want to assume everyone approached it this way, but it’s a definite risk.
Maybe that’s one reason why AWLers I know have been dismissive of my claim to think of my academic work as political. (Amongst other things, I actually find this somewhat of a feminism fail. Have we forgotten to question what is personal and what is political and what that ostensible division might mean?) Indeed, I find their conception of positive political action to be somewhat traditional and limited. This was a major theme which came out in the opening session on Friday and ran onwards. The number of times political struggle seemed to be exemplified by trade unions was discouraging, and much of the work AWL does seems to being working in solidarity with strikers. Maybe someone might have mentioned unemployment figures at some point, but noone at any point discussed people who were out of work. Equally, examples considered were from large, public sector unions. Where does a union of people who are largely self-employed like the MU fit in, for instance? AND even here they were limited. Where do managerial unions like the FDA fit in? Too often, it felt like unions were the answer to everything, which cannot be the case. Inequalities and elites exist within and between trade unions too: rather than the vague nod which was given when a non-AWLer raised the question of supporting labour, a more critical stance and understanding needs to be put forward. Maybe it was in the Marxism and Trade Unions session, but my feeling of the event as a whole, providing answers rather than asking questions (so, um, what is the answer for?) suggests not, especially as it was marked as an introductory session.
Notably, every session I went to made explicit reference to women, and I get the idea that they’d tried to achieve a gender balance on panels. But everything felt cisgendered and binary, and people assumed and talked to me as a woman. I left feeling sadly dysphoric for an event held by a group which prides itself on its liberation work.
People also assumed when talking to me that I was a socialist. One person actually asked, and stopped talking to me when I avoided the question. All in all, people who I didn’t know before, or hadn’t heard of me, didn’t seem that interested in things I said which were related if they didn’t fit their expectations of what was to be discussed, or that’s how it felt. So, I also left feeling distinctly not socialist. Certainly not in the sense AWL organisers wanted me to. But maybe I could have told that from my immediate response to signs saying “we need a workers’ government”...