Reflections on the People’s Assembly Against Austerity – informed by Rosa Luxemburg

Firstly, let me say what an amazing achievement it was to bring such a collection of people together in one place, and all pretty much singing from the same song sheet. There was a real buzz at times and the genuine outpouring of affection for Tony Benn was one of those ‘tingle-on-the-back-of-the-neck’ moments. And yet I found myself winding my way home in rather sombre and reflective mood – for reasons I will explain later.

My first, let me share some highlights with you:

Owen Jones, Independent columnist, and one of the main promoters of the Assembly, gave a rousing opening speech that clearly identified the people who are going to have to rely on us to survive the persecution being inflicted on them by the Con-Dems, and rely on us to offer them hope. He also nailed the Tory tactic that gets us turning on each other when he says:
“You’ve been mugged, so you’ve got to mug your less deserving neighbour down the street”!

He was followed by what was, for me, a keynote speech by Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC. The first couple minutes are missable frivolity, but then she gets to the crunch of the matter. At 3:25 she stresses the point that we are engaged in CLASS WARFARE and that we need to take to the streets. She pledged TUC for all strike action supported by the membership (5:20), and called the patronising nonsense that there is no money in the country (7:00) for services. “Educate, Agitate, Organise!”

Mark Steel was predictably entertaining, and, as usual spot on with his theme of getting the poor to pay the massive debts of the country. He gets into his stride pretty quickly:

After these opening salvoes, we all dispersed to the impressive range of ‘workshop’ style sessions on many relevant themes ( Spoilt for choice, I went to the following:

  • Mobilising Millions: Re-unionising the UK – which stressed the calamitous consequences of the emasculation of the unions (only 25% of us are not Union members) and what that has meant for the principle of collective bargaining. The most common theme from the floor was that it is time to mobilise en masse – I.e. We need a General Strike!
  • Protecting the NHS: stopping cuts, privatisation and closures – which included another recurring theme of the day – the treachery of the ‘two-Edded monster’ that is Milliband and Balls, to the legacy of Attlee and Bevan. Accusatory fingers were also pointed at the Lib-Dems, the BBC and the NHS leadership (if that is what you can call it).
  • The Economics of Anti-Austerity: jobs, investment and tax justice – starred Ken Livingstone focussing on the importance of manufactutring, but more tellingly, sound economic analysis that emphasised the economic illiteracy of austerity, and the fact that it is only the financial institution to which we owe most of the national debt that can benefit from austerity measures. Validation of what I have been saying for years!

This meant I missed a few other gems, including a highly praised contribution from Caroline Lucas on the ‘Climate Crisis & Green Jobs’. “There are no jobs on a dead planet!” Praise be to video technology:

And then it was back to the final plenary for more rousing speeches:

  • LEN McCLUSKEY (Unite) – pledging support for a General Strike, and not letting anti-union laws get in the way; taking inspiration from Turkey and Brazil; saluting UK UNcut and Occupy; “Pay your taxes you greedy bastards!”
  • JOHN REES (Stop the War Coalition) – stressing the part to be played by all types of protest: demos, direct action, occupations, civil disobedience, and, yes, strikes! Quoting Nye Bevan describing the Tories: “So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”
  • MARK SERWOTKA (PCS) – Poignantly pointing out that all the main parties, Con-Dems and LABOUR, are pro-austerity, and that we need to reject them all. “Let’s sock it to these vicious ruling class bastards!”

But perhaps most eloquently, the most memorable speech of the session came from comedian and disability campaigner, FRANCESCA MARTINEZ. She focussed on the democratic deficit and the need for hope, and who the real enemy is. “I really hate the way ‘welfare’ has become a dirty word. As a taxpayer, I am proud to pay my tax to support these services, and to support those that need it, and those that become sick and disabled, because that is a civilised society… I am ashamed of my money being used to fund illegal wars, and making other people abroad disabled. That is what I am ashamed of!”

All very inspirational stuff.

But what next?

People kept bringing up the need for action and not just words, but is there a real appetite for it outside the few thousand in this Assembly? I have seen bigger crowds at Conference level – 5th Division – football games. The Sunday Politics Show described the whole event as ‘tame’ and ‘innocuous’ compared to the resistance of Scargill et al in the 1980s, whilst recognising it as perhaps the biggest sign of at least some resistance to date.

This was all brought into sharp focus for me by reading a book about Rosa Luxemburg on my way to and from the Assembly.

Perhaps it the fact I share a Polish heritage with her, or that she inspires so much by rising above her disabilities and the sexism of her age (1871-1917). More so, I think, it is because of how resonant her views are today – and how similar the struggles she fought are to those we face today. But I am not convinced that enough of the people present at the Assembly would recognise or accept the truth of this.

She recognised that trade unions can win higher wages and better conditions (by renegotiating the terms of exploitation) but that they will never eliminate the exploitation altogether. This can only be achieved by overthrowing the capitalist system.

She also offers some encouragement for the ‘People’s Assembly’ model. She recognised the need for leadership, but rejected the highly centralised Leninist approach. She valued the energy and inventiveness of a living, fluid movement. She puts it thus: “Mistakes committed by a genuine revolutionary labour movement are much more fruitful and worthwhile historically than the infallibility of the very best Central Committee.”

She also recognised the shortcomings of career politicians in providing the necessary leadership. They get engrossed in the political struggle to hang onto their positions, rather than focus on the economic struggles of the proletariat. How familiar is this to genuine socialists today, with successive Labour Party leaders refusing to back strikes for fear of damaging their electability?

Luxemburg recognised the power of solidarity in galvanising people behind irresistible calls for change. She recognised the vital role of mass strikes in bringing about the 1905 Russian Revolution. As she said: “The proletarian mass quite suddenly and sharply came to realise how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism. Thereupon there began a spontaneous general shaking of and tugging at these chains”. Has this not been seen many times since, for those that think this is old history? Witness Russia in 1917, Germany 1918-23, Italy 1920, Hungary 1956, France 1936 and 1968, Iran 1978-79, Poland 1980, Egypt 2011, Turkey and Brazil 2013. It is tried and tested.

“ECOSOCIALISM OR BARBARISM” is perhaps Luxemburg’s most famous quote. It speaks to us today more than ever as we face the challenges presented in the People’s Assembly; challenges of social injustice, climate change, nuclear weapons, a democratic deficit bigger than the financial one, and outright class warfare.

A last few words from Rosa Luxemburg:

“This madness will not stop, and this bloody nightmare of hell will not cease until the workers …. wake up out of their drunken sleep, will clasp each other’s hands in brotherhood and will drown the bestial chorus of war agitators and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the mighty cry of labour, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!'”

The way forward is clear enough. Are McClusky, Serwotka, O’Grady, and yes, Lucas, Phoenix and Bennett, truly leaders of people, or just career politicians? The coming months will tell. With women dominating this list, Luxemburg can be no finer inspiration.

Andy Chyba

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