Plenary Discussion – Do we speak the same political language?



Presentation Slides

Derek Keenan, Strathclyde University


Do we speak the same language…?

9th July, 2015 / Anna Basten / guest blogger

‘Socialism’, ‘feminism’ and ‘syndicalism’ are central concepts for the labour movement. But do we actually mean the same things when we speak about these issues? As a basis for discussion, three presenters offered their perspectives on socialism, feminism and syndicalism.

Bishnu Lamsal [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Bishnu Lamsal
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]

Bishnu Lamsal General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) started the session by presenting the view of his union on the concept of socialism.

He began by telling a little story: in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Nepal in April 2015, both rich and poor worked together to cope with the destruction and the shock. So people started saying: “We are all equal now, maybe this is socialism”. Four weeks later, the rich went back to their houses and the poor stayed in the refugee tents.

This of course was not the vision of socialism that his union has in mind. In their view, socialism means that class divisions will disappear, and society will be built on principles of equality, democracy, freedom and trust. While acknowledging that achieving this society is not a task likely to be completed very soon, they believe that it should be the political goal of the labour movement.

Stephanie Luce  [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Stephanie Luce
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
The next presentation by Stephanie Luce (Murphy Institute for Worker Education, City University of NY) provided a clear and informative analysis of how trade unions tend to use the concept of ‘feminism’ – and of what she believes ‘feminism’ could or should mean for the labour movement.

When trade unions talk about women’s rights they tend to refer to women’s ability to access the same rights and positions as men – in the neoliberal economy. In other words, trade union discourse on feminism fails to step out of neoliberal thinking, and hence, does not address the root causes of gender and other inequalities.

Neoliberal feminism may help some women to be successful in this system – mostly middle and upper class (white) women. But it will create further divisions amongst women of different classes, ethnicities, sexual orientations and so on.

Stephanie very convincingly argued that although we still need to fight against discrimination against women in its various forms, we must go beyond fighting for the individual rights of women. The labour movement needs to look for collective solutions, which challenge the system of competition and domination that is inherent in capitalism.

The aim should be for people to be themselves and make their own choices without being (directly or indirectly) coerced into roles and positions based on certain categories.

Derek Keenan [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Derek Keenan
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
The third presentation was given by Derek Keenan (Strathclyde University) and dealt with the concept of ‘syndicalism’. Syndicalism, Derek explained, aims at the emancipation of the working class by the working class themselves, not by political parties. All actions must be based on decisions made democratically by the workers themselves, not on decisions passed down from a labour party or trade union leadership.

The state is associated with the ruling class and therefore not a partner in the struggle for workers’ liberation. The chosen method for their struggle is direct action. Although syndicalists are sometimes considered militant, Derek pointed out that the emphasis had always been on educating and politicising the workforce. Syndicalism inter-relates with socialism as it is based on a strong vision of a future where workers have control over the means of production and no wage labour exists.

In fact, these interesting and thought-provoking presentations (although they were very different) showed how much the three concepts overlap: they all aim for a society based on true equality and the ability of everyone to choose who they want to be and how they live their lives. And it seemed to be the consensus amongst the Summer School participants that this will only be achieved through a democratic, inclusive and bottom-up approach.

Leave a Reply