rs21 – the first ten years

For the tenth anniversary of the launch of rs21, Jonny Jones, website editor and a founder member of the organisation, reflects on a decade of activity, our ups and downs, challenges and achievements, and considers our hopes for the future.

On Sunday 12 January 2014, 115 people gathered in Brixton for the launch conference of a new grouping of socialists, Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century – rs21 for short. While our launch statement said the group would be ‘possibly temporary’, ten years later rs21 remains a small but significant force on the revolutionary left in Britain. 

Taking our name from the title of the blog we had begun in the summer of 2013, the group emerged as a split from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), after a gruelling, year-long faction fight sparked by the SWP’s appalling handling of allegations of rape and sexual harassment. Those of us who left the SWP at the end of 2013 argued that its leadership had ‘failed to put our principles on women’s liberation into practice.’

From the very start, there were tensions amongst those who had left the SWP. Some were keen to make a fresh break and throw themselves into action after a long and difficult year, while others argued that a process of political clarification to develop common perspectives was the most pressing task. Ultimately, the group committed to develop ‘enough organisation to enable activity and political clarification’.

That year saw a flurry of activity from the fledgling group. In March of 2014, rs21 launched an eight-page print publication and held a political weekend at Goldsmiths University. The first full size magazine followed in the summer, and several day schools on ‘Revolutionaries at Work’ and writing were held. In the autumn, rs21 elected its first full time paid worker.

In May 2015, an event on democracy entitled ‘They Don’t Represent Us’ attracted over 250 people, reflecting the political and ideological questioning that followed the surprise election of a Tory-majority government. Later in the year, rs21 hosted a two-day organising workshop with Jane McAlevey in Manchester and a day school on Marxism and Feminism in London.

‘They Don’t Represent Us’ Conference. Photo: Steve Eason

The organisation also engaged in major debates during these early years. Questions of how to relate to the rise of Syriza in Greece and how best to build solidarity with the Syrian Revolution were sometimes contentious issues in our publications as well as at branch and national meetings. In Scotland, rs21 members were active in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) and after the referendum of September 2014 participated in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish RISE as a broad based socialist organisation that we hoped might capture the diversity and dynamism of RIC.

From late 2015 onwards, two big political events created challenges for the organisation. In September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader generated a lot of discussion about the role of revolutionary organisation. It also created an enormous gravitational pull on socialist activists to join the Labour Party. While rs21 decided not to join Labour as an organisation, we saw the necessity for being part of the movement around Corbyn, whether inside or outside Labour.

In some ways more challenging was the question of what position to take on the impending referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. There is no denying that this was a very difficult process for the organisation. There were strongly held positions in support of remain, leave, and abstain, and strong, often heated, arguments were made for the different perspectives. Ultimately, rs21 took an internationalist leave position. While we were in no position to have a significant impact on events – indeed, we only came to a final decision two months before the referendum – the debate over Brexit was a test of the organisation’s ability to collectively reach political conclusions. Despite our disagreements, we succeeded in making interventions on neoliberalism and combating racism.

Most significant was rs21’s initiative to call in advance for a demonstration in solidarity with migrants on the day after the referendum, whatever the result. We worked with several other groups to build the demo, and on the day, around 1,500 people marched on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp HQ, home of the Sun newspaper. As we reported at the time, the protesters ‘were mostly young, extremely diverse and very angry at what has been, from start to finish and with few exceptions on either official side, a referendum campaign driven and shaped by racism.’ The march fed into the Everyone Who Is Here is From Here migrant solidarity event rs21 co-organised later that year.

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Demonstration for migrant rights 24 June 2016 Photo: Steve Eason

In 2017, two elections loomed large. An rs21 member, Ian Allinson, stood for the leadership of Unite the Union on a rank-and-file ticket, receiving 13.1 percent of the vote. Soon afterwards, many rs21 members, whether or not they were members of the Labour Party, got involved in canvassing in what was expected to be a washout election for Corbyn, even while we published a number of articles critical of some of the Labour left’s concessions to the right. The surprise result, in which the Tories lost their majority, was welcomed by the organisation, but created a greater pull towards Labour. More rs21 members joined Labour, some of them leaving our organisation in the process.

In October 2017, rs21 held its first ‘Day Without Men’, an event open to women and non-binary people for political discussion and education that avoided the usual male-dominated dynamics of left spaces. That same month, the rs21 magazine ceased publication, as we agreed to focus on pamphlets and leaflets as our main print media. Over the next few years, pamphlets on diversification, the far-right, Israel, Covid-19 , the climate crisis, and fighting transphobia followed. Our members, including the late Colin Barker and Neil Davidson, were also involved with others in producing the book Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age, an ambitious survey of revolutionary movements over the previous 30 years.

In 2018, hundreds attended the rs21-organised ‘The Revenge of Everyday Life’, a conference on Marxism and Social Reproduction Theory (SRT). SRT had become an important touchstone in rs21’s theoretical and political clarification, reflecting the seriousness which the organisation accorded to matters of oppression. The organisation played an important role in the development of militant anti-fascist mobilising that took on Tommy Robinson and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance. After developing links with Sudanese activists through our work in solidarity with the Sudanese Revolution, rs21 co-hosted Art of the Sudanese Revolution: An Exhibition with the Sudanese Doctors’ Union in July 2019. In October, the Endgames conference saw over 120 people debate the way forward for the climate movement.

Endgames conference

Like other left-wing organisations, rs21 was hit hard by the double-whammy of the landside Tory election victory in December 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic that immediately followed. Almost every member who had joined the Labour Party had left soon after Keir Starmer was announced as the new leader. While members attended in-person protests, particularly the Black Lives Matter mobilisations in the spring, throughout 2020 and much of 2021, rs21 moved to online meetings and social events that enabled members to stay in touch, and attend events organised on Zoom by branches across the country. Our online presence attracted a lot of interest during the pandemic, and we grew significantly as an organisation. However, the branch structure of rs21 suffered as area-specific organising became more difficult to maintain. We were involved in setting up the Zero Covid campaign in late 2020 and mobilised for the Kill the Bill demonstrations against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in 2021.

In January 2022, rs21 published an article arguing that the emerging cost-of-living crisis would shape British politics and that the left should ‘fan the flames of discontent’. The organisation emerged from a period of lockdown with a clear perspective and initiated several demonstrations, including one in London jointly with Disabled People Against Cuts, Fuel Poverty Action and the People’s Assembly. As the movement developed, protests were held in over 40 towns and cities, with thousands attending across the country. The connections built then laid groundwork for our support for the Don’t Pay campaign, which mobilised thousands of people and extracted significant concessions during the energy bills crisis. Over the last two years, rs21 has thrown itself into activity in solidarity with strikes, with many of us going on strike ourselves. Comrades in Scotland have been instrumental in building diverse activist groups including the climate group Scot.E3, Covid Action Scotland and  Resisting Transphobia in Edinburgh.

The last year was a busy one. In 2023, we used the Workers Can Win book (published in October 2022) as an organising tool and supported the Troublemakers at Work conference initiated by the network around the book, Strike Map and Organise Now!. We organised pickets at Extinction Rebellion’s Big One protest weekend, workshops at Fossil Free London’s Oily Money Out, and sent delegations of members to various climate camps across Europe. We were centrally involved in mobilising against transphobia, including selling 1,000 copies of our Fighting Transphobia pamphlet and organising big trans liberation events. Most recently, we have been building the huge movement opposing Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, joining the newly formed Free Palestine Coalition. As 2024 begins, we are publishing a second edition of our Israel: the Making of a Racist State pamphlet, as well as a new print run of the sold-out Fighting Transphobia. 

I’m not sure that if you asked any of us who founded rs21 ten years ago if we thought we’d still be around a decade later, that you’d have gotten many answering yes. When our statement said we were ‘possibly temporary’, it reflected hopes for meaningful growth and regroupment on the far left in Britain. Our launch statement also said that ‘At present, the basis for a genuine mass revolutionary party does not exist in the British working class movement, but nonetheless revolutionaries must do what they can to help facilitate this goal.’ While this remains true today, we are in a very different situation. The shared experiences of recent years have brought thousands of people into political activity in the workplace and on the streets. Tens of thousands of people who embraced Corbynism or chanted that ‘Black Lives Matter’ are now building strikes or blocking roads to support Gaza. Despite setbacks, the movement is bigger, more confident and more advanced than ten years ago.

Today, rs21 has over 400 members, well over half of whom have never been members of the SWP. Last year, we decided to examine the lessons of the last decade – points of unity and disagreement – to reaffirm the political basis for our organisation. Important to this will be more dialogue and debate, both internally and with comrades across the left, about the way forward. There is a growing confidence about the role we have to play in the wider movement, and we want to recruit more socialists to be a part in that. We remain an organisation committed to revolutionary socialism, to Marxism, and to the overthrow of capitalism by the working class. To do this, socialists need to get organised. If you agree, join us.

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