This is the speech that I gave in the opening plenary of Workers' Liberty's 'Ideas for Freedom' event in 2013 - originally published here.
On 23rd June 2012, Steven Simpson, a gay autistic student, was verbally abused, stripped, and his body scrawled with homophobic slogans. He was then doused in tanning oil and 20-year-old Jordan Sheard set fire to his crotch with a cigarette lighter. The flames engulfed his body, his attackers fleeing as neighbours tried desperately to extinguish the flames. Steven died the next day suffering 60% burns.
Steven was murdered because of his sexuality and disability. But on 21st March 2013 at Sheffield Crown Court, Judge Roger Keen dismissed the crime as “good-natured horseplay” that had “gone too far” and sentenced Sheard to only three-and-a-half years in prison. Sheard’s lawyer described Steven’s killing as a “stupid prank that went wrong in a bad way".
Workers’ Liberty members and supporters, along with others, have organised protests demanding justice for Steven Simpson. Through our efforts, next week RMT is taking a resolution to TUC LGBT Conference on this issue, and last month, we won the unanimous support of TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference.
At that conference, trade union delegates from across the country denounced government attacks on disabled people’s jobs, rights and benefits, and the vile slurs on disabled people propagated in order to justify those attacks.
On the first day of the conference, we adjourned at 5pm and occupied Tottenham Court Road, protesting against government persecution of disabled people and stopping London’s traffic for an hour.
The conference also supported the work we have done on the issue of autism in the workplace. Training courses have formed the central part of an organising approach, aimed at equipping rank-and-file union reps to actively and militantly fight prejudice and discrimination in the workplace.
It also takes an emancipatory approach, fighting for society to recognise that humanity is neurologically diverse, similar to the way that what was then known as the gay liberation movement began the fight for society to recognise that it is sexually diverse.
The despicable murder of Steven Simpson tells us that despite formal near-equality, homophobia and prejudice against disabled people still exist. It tells us that the institutions of the state are still anti-gay and anti-disabled.
It tells us that formal equality is not enough: we need fundamental change in society. We know that also from the continuing second-class citizenship of women throughout the world; and from the continuing, even escalating, racism against black people, Muslims, Jews, and others.
Capitalism is a system that announced its arrival with a claim for “liberte, egalite, fraternite”. But it did not deliver this. It relies so fundamentally on inequality and exploitation that it can not deliver its promise.
Full equality can only be achieved through the abolition of classes: through the achievement of socialism. Marx described the working class as ‘a class with radical chains … which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity.’
Working-class struggle, solidarity is the terrain on which prejudices can be challenged and overcome.
On Thursday evening, in a warm-up for this weekend, David Rosenberg took us on a walking tour of the East End, telling inspiring stories of Irish and Jewish workers in the East End in the 19th century. There are plenty more examples, up to the present day.
But, we can not simply assume that workers and oppressed groups will unite. There is an alarming level of hostility to Eastern European and other migrants from many British workers. Later today, we will be discussing what support benefit claimants can expect from those workers whose job it is to drive them off benefits.
Part of the purpose of our socialist group the AWL is to be active within the working class arguing against bigotry and division – for workers to aim our anger not at other workers but at those who are really to blame for society’s problems: employers and their political servants.
Marx also described socialism as a carnival of the oppressed.
But look at those movements whose job it is to create socialism – the labour movement and the left. Do they look as though they could organise a carnival of the oppressed?!
Sadly, I think not.
They are struggling even to deal properly with issues of discrimination within their own ranks – an issue we will be discussing later today in the session on sexism in the labour movement.
Another part of the job of our socialist group the AWL is to make our movement fit to carry out its job.
That means that we mobilise against racism and the far right, on the basis of working-class politics rather than ritual denunciation.
It means that instead of demonising feminism, we engage with it, and develop and champion a credible socialist feminism: another issue we are discussing this weekend.
As we have already heard from other speakers, we need to make the labour movement and the left put class at the centre of its politics, to make it more militant, more democratic, better internationalists, better focused on the route forward rather than the snappy slogan.
We also need to make it properly understand the oppression of sections of our class – of women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people, disabled people. To make it militant against that oppression, and fully accessible and hospitable to those members of our class.