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Why Reuben got miffed

Jim Jepps

 

My friend Reuben left the G8 Alternatives youth forum spitting chips. He'd gone with a clear plan to discuss something he's passionate about - getting a real unionisation drive going among young and casual workers.

He's petrified that there's a new generation of young people who'll have no access to, or knowledge of, trade union organisations. But it was not to be, "no one of any interest got to speak," he told me, "because the speeches from the floor were dominated by Workers Power and Socialist Worker bickering about Respect."

This self obsession of sections of the English left discussing England only questions has been extremely detrimental to the debates in the G8 Alternatives forums which are, after all, meant to be international. The platforms have been invariably interesting and focused (or at least those I attended or heard about) but the floor and doorways have been clogged by the hard left more intent on lecturing on their obsessions than learning something from this unique opportunity.

On the Sunday I went to a forum on Globalisation, and heard some really excellent and informative speeches - the best of which was Alex Callinicos who was particularly incisive. Unfortunately, Alex's comrades had decided that their job of the day was to get up in seemingly unending numbers and counter "the sectarians" by making almost identical points (this perspective was later confirmed in conversation with SWP friends of mine that they were totally focused on 'countering' other left groups).

The cumulative effect was to drown out anyone from the movement uninterested in this English point scoring e.g. by being African, or emotionally well adjusted. Just as I was considering leaving this stifling atmosphere a real breath of fresh air blew in.

She was brash, inarticulate, nervous and muddled. She was moralising, badly informed and hectoring - but she was honest and she was real. "Where are the African voices here? Where are the voices of the ordinary people?" and brilliantly she ended by lambasting, "why don't you all just shut up for a change and listen?" Possibly not too persuasive for this audience - but jeez it felt good.

It's absolutely true that when a representative sample of the movement get up to speak they often come up with a mix of brilliance, idiocy and/or mediocrity, but these are genuine voices that deserve to be heard, they're fresh, interesting and express the issues that the left need to address, rather than the left dictating to the movement what we should care about.

Perhaps it's time the organised left took a chill pill, sat back and listened with open ears to the people it gives so little opportunity to speak.

I must be fair to the organisers though. They'd achieved a good balance of topics and speakers from many different strands of the movement and many different countries. They also made a good attempt to break up the old habits and began meetings with performance poetry or music, but the floor was not playing ball.

As the day continued the pattern seemed undeterred so I thought I'd catch up with the Corporate Nightmares conference. What a difference!

You could walk in comfortably and unharangued by a forest of publications and leaflets. The hall was light and breezy and the tone relaxed. Large screens and good sound quality made speakers, contributors and video showings easy to listen to.

But perhaps the most important difference was that the discussions seemed very issued focused - a stark contrast to the G8 Alternatives where sometimes you felt some catastrophe or repression was seen as a good way of getting protests and campaigns going, with the issues being purely incidental.

I'm positive that this issue based culture was a hundred times more healthy. I'm very glad that I wasn't an organiser of G8 alternatives because if I was, just like Reuben, I'd be spitting chips.

Maybe it's true, those with a revolutionary message should do something truly radical and just shut up and listen.

 

July 2005

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