‘Fresh’. ‘Energetic’. ‘Confident’. ‘Inspiring’. These are just a few of the early comments from members who attended the Socialist Alternative national congress which took place 25-27 September in Manchester. This was Socialist Alternative’s biggest members’ event so far, with 97 attendees, including nine visitors from Socialist Alternative’s sister organisations in Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Sweden and China/Hong Kong/Taiwan.
25 of those attending were not members of Socialist Alternative at the time of our last congress in March 2020. Despite lockdown conditions placing limits on much of our activity and meetings for the last 18 months, Socialist Alternative has grown. Speaker after speaker throughout the weekend commented on how good it was to see each other face to face again or for the first time. It was very clear that not only are we emerging from the height of the Covid crisis stronger than going into it, but that in every branch there is big determination to seize the opportunity of more normality to take even bigger strides forward over the coming months. Members from the newest to the most experienced committed to take on new roles and redouble their efforts to build Socialist Alternative.
Just one sign of this was that 33 attendees pledged to increase their membership subscription by a collective total of £347 a month. Added to increases in subs from earlier in 2021, this will raise our monthly income to a sufficient figure to employ another organiser! Additionally £5,615 was raised in one-off donations and local Socialist Alternative branches raised another £650 through selling books, snacks, t-shirts and badges.
Analysing the political situation
All of the political discussions were rich and delegates and visitors alike enthusiastically participated, filling every speakers’ list. We agreed six political documents, and also elected a new National Committee, which will meet monthly over the next year to discuss and analyse the political situation as well as bring forward initiatives and lead various areas of Socialist Alternative’s work.
We started the weekend by discussing trends in politics and struggle internationally. Capitalism is facing crises on all fronts. The so-called economic ‘recovery’ leaves growth low, debt astronomically high, and inflation rising in many countries and regions. Far from ending Trump’s approach of escalating tensions between the US and China, Joe Biden has in some ways escalated it, adding to inter-imperialist tensions and instability globally. The chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the widespread outrage towards it internationally has damaged US capitalism further in this context. This turmoil is of course exacerbated multi-fold by the Covid crisis, which has undermined the entire capitalist system in the eyes of large sections of populations around the world. This is feeding into a significant uptick in struggle as lockdown conditions ease in many countries. Perhaps most significantly many countries in Latin America have been rocked by mass protests, left electoral victories and social struggles. These struggles, and those in the many other countries internationally where similar events are unfolding make particularly clear the need for an international organisation putting forward the socialist programme and strategy needed to win.
Here in Britain a perfect storm of rising prices, shortages, below-inflation pay increases and the cut to Universal Credit means the Tories are gearing up for their ‘winter of discontent’. At the same time they remain ridden with internal divisions over issues like the approach to the economy, Brexit and Northern Ireland. Congress discussed looking below the surface of opinion polls and byelections results to the huge anger and potential for struggle to break out suddenly over any number of issues – from the NHS, to racism, housing to Scottish independence. Just one indication of this mood in recent months has been the success of left candidates in union leadership elections in Unite and Unison. This has also been mirrored by an increase in local disputes around the country around fire and rehire, for better pay, and improving health and safety at work. Congress heard first hand about the vital victories of Go Ahead bus workers in Manchester and victimised teacher Louise Lewis in Huddersfield. For the fourth year in a row, trade union membership has increased reflecting a growing anger in the workplace. Our Congress was overwhelmingly youthful and several speakers pointed to the growing radicalisation amongst wide layers of young people. The vast majority of young people have been radicalised by the huge wealth divide which has hugely widened during the pandemic.
Unfortunately in the arena of official politics the Tories are facing no real opposition, with Starmer’s Labour not only being ineffective but often appearing to the right of Johnson! Our congress met at the same time as the Labour conference but events in Brighton have confirmed the rightward and Blairite trajectory of Starmer’s ‘New Labour’. This makes even more urgent the need to build and organise rank-and-file movements which must be linked and instilled with socialist ideas and the aim of providing a political voice for working class and young people in struggle.
A serious approach to building SA
Congress is not just an opportunity to deepen our political analysis, but to discuss and agree the approach that we have to building our organisation. Socialist Alternative is not like other political parties. We want our new members to join on the basis of a firm agreement with what we stand for and then as members to be active, contributing to our understanding of what is taking place and building our party further. We heard from branches on how, despite the challenges of organising under lockdown, new members have become active organisers and many branches are planning to do campaigning work in new areas to build new branches.
A big focus of our work is amongst young people – many of whom are wanting to get active in a socialist organisation like ours – and in particular linking our plans for mobilising for the Cop26 climate protests in November to convincing people of the need to also join Socialist Alternative to continue the struggle further.
As part of this commitment to building Socialist Alternative, as an organisation we have resolved to maintain a political focus on struggles against gender oppression, and to work consciously to improve our gender balance. There are many political and practical reasons which mean that women and gender non-conforming people may find it harder to remain poltiically active, including lack of confidence because of the impact of sexism under capitalism and limitations on time because of caring responsibilies. In recent years, fighting sexism has been a big issue which has motivated people into becoming politically active, and in 2021 the protests over the murder of Sarah Everard and against the policing bill saw an increasing number of women and non-binary people coming towards Socialist Alternative. As well as discussing fighting sexism within capitalist society, congress also discussed how best to overcome these barriers women may face in being an active SA member and also how to tackle sexist attitudes and behaviour within the workers and socialist movement. We adopted a code of conduct and updated procedures for dealing with all forms of bullying and harassment within our own ranks to ensure there are no barriers to members’ full participation.
Publications and revolutionary finance
A key part of the congress was how to increase the readership of our various publications – giving more people access to our Marxist analysis of events and the revolutionary socialist programme needed to fight back. Since we started SA just over two years ago we have produced 18 issues our newspaper with the 19th now back from the printers and being sent to branches for the start of October. This is a significant achievement for our organisation – and is only possible based on a collective approach to its production and distribution to readers.We have sold thousands of copies in recent months – and during the Autumn we want to further increase our readership.
Alongside our paper we have put significant time into developing our social media presence across various platforms – to ensure that we are reaching as many people as possible with our ideas so this has been very important work since our last congress, particularly in the context of the lockdowns that we have experienced. Our Revolutionary Ideas Podcast has been a big step forward, helping us discuss and clarify aspects of Marxist theory, ideas that we need to challenge in the movement and looking at the history of the socialist movement.
Our publications all play key roles in our organisation, and our tools that are vital for the building Socialist Alternative. Central to that is the need for political education, as Lenin said ‘without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement’.
Delegates spoke about their experiences of writing for, and distributing our publications – and how many had been encouraged to write articles and to develop their skills.
Since the last congress we have also started producing pamphlets – on Climate Change and Socialist Struggle, a reprint of Marxism in our Time by Leon Trotsky with a new introduction, and most recently Fighting Fire-and-Rehire.
As well as the above we now have a growing range of posters, stickers and flags to help raise our profile and presence.
Nothing however would be possible without the financial means to do so. The session devoted to finance was a testament to our revolutionary and serious approach to raising money. As mentioned above the congress raised a considerable amount in one off donations from attendees, and significant increases in regular subs. This is vital to help us take Socialist Alternative to the next stage of our development as we consolidate in existing areas and build in to new areas for the organisation. If you would like to make a donation to help us do this, click here.
Building for mass protests at Cop26
But one main priority for Socialist Alternative was made clear throughout the weekend – campaigning for and turning out to the protests that will take place at the Cop26 climate change conference at the start of November. After a summer of extreme weather events around the world – from wildfires to floods – and the capitalist class’s ever-more-obvious inability and unwillingness to act, it is clear that climate change will be an increasingly important field of struggle in coming years and decades. International Socialist Alternative is organising a red block – advancing the need for socialist change to end the profit motive and genuinely tackle environmental destruction – on the demonstration on 6 November, as well as a major international rally that evening. Hundreds of members will attend from sections of ISA in at least eight countries. Over the weekend an extra 19 people signed up to attend.
Congress was given a particular boost by hearing excellent reports from the preparation campaign in Scotland for the Cop26 protests. Socialist Alternative’s fledgling Scotland branch, supported by ISA members from England, Ireland and Austria, have had very successful campaign stalls in town centres and at universities in both Glasgow and Edinburgh with dozens of people in discussions with Socialist Alternative about becoming members.
This congress was optimistic, positive and forward-looking. Attendees headed home raring to go into campaigning at universities and in communities over the next six weeks and coming back together for the biggest ISA intervention in more than a decade at Cop26. Get in touch to join us there! Furthermore, we urge you to join us in Socialist Alternative to help build an organisation that can fight back against capitalism and all forms of oppression, and for the socialist future so desperately needed.