A contribution to the discussion: two brief comments on What kind of radical organisation by Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper

 

Alan Thornett (July 7th)

This contribution comments on just two aspects of the many issues which Simon and Luke raise in their document called “What kind of radical organisation do we need?” Their text is a good starting point for the discussion but it is difficult to address everything on one go.

The first issue I want to raise is the relationship between and differences in character between a broad party (such as we hope LU will be) and a revolutionary party – such as the one we are seeking to regroup into. The second issue I want to raise is the functioning of democracy within a revolutionary party or organisation.

1) Broad party and revolutionary party.

The first thing to say is that we need to avoid any conflation of (or confusion between) these two very different forms of party organisation. They play different but parallel roles in the struggle and are strategically linked in today’s political conditions.

A revolutionary party has the long term strategic aim of bringing about (or seeking to bring about) the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement by socialism – i.e. social ownership of the means of production under democratic workers control – through the mobilisation and self organisation of the working class.

A broad party is designed to provide political leadership to the workers movement in the day-to-day struggle and to create the political conditions for a fight-back against the attacks of capitalism in all its forms and in doing so to take the movement in a socialist direction. Whether and when such a party adopts a full revolutionary programme, in the course of such a struggle, remains an open question.

Working in such a party can, under the right conditions, can allow a revolutionary organisation, if it conducts itself in the right way, to have an influence and an impact on the struggle beyond its own numerical weight.

Several factors over the past 30 years have put broad parties firmly on the agenda, in Europe in particular, but also worldwide. These factors are: the end of the post-war boom in the mid 1970s; the neoliberal counter-offensive, which was launched in the early 1980s by Reagan and Thatcher; the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; and the march of Social Democracy to the right – which accelerated during the 1990s, not least in Britain with the victory of New Labour.

After 1991 most of the old CPs collapsed, some into Social Democracy others (or parts of others) took a more radical turn, particularly in Europe – like the RC in Italy for example. At the same time the rightward course of Social democracy had opened up a space to its left which was there to be filled – either by leftward moving ex-CP fragments, or by new broad parties initiated by other sections of the left or by a combination of the two – as with the RGA in Denmark and the Left Block in Portugal.

This new space reflected a growing crisis of working class representation which could not be filled by the revolutionary organisations alone. This was not just because the revolutionary organisations did not (and still do not) have the forces or the social weight to do so but (more importantly) because the space which had opened up was not a revolutionary space. It was, and is, a left of labour/left social democratic/ radical left/ anti-capitalist space, which could only be effectively filled by a broad organisation which could embrace such a range of forces in a democratic framework.

This presented an opportunity for the revolutionary organisations to be part of such developments, constructively build them, argue for their political direction, and exert an influence on the political situation which they could not have exerted simply under their own banner. The fruits of this approach can now be seen in the role of Syriza within the crisis of Greek society today. Such a party can create the conditions for breakthroughs that can take the struggle to new political levels. In Greece, for example, the existence of Syriza raises the possibility of a workers government as and when the present pro-memorandum Government falls.

The involvement of revolutionary organisations in such formations today is therefore very important and compelling – even though in Britain most of the revolutionary organisations, and most importantly the biggest ones (along with powerful individuals like Scargill and Galloway), have got their involvement wrong (spectacularly so in some cases) and have damaged or destroyed each project as it has come along.

It is not that revolutionary organisations should not seek to influence the politics and the political direction of such broad organisations. Indeed they should remain as organised force within them, and argue for the most effective way forward. At the right time and under the right conditions they should seek to win them to a revolutionary programme. But to get this wrong and to attempt to do so before the political conditions are right (i.e. when revolutionary solutions begin to be posed by developments in the political situation and in the working class) simply destroys the whole project.

2) Democracy in a revolutionary organisation.

Simon and Luke say in their text:

“Wherever differences arise they should be openly and critically discussed inside the organisation and in its publications and website. The traditional conception on the left is that members should be compelled to abide by collective positions on pain of expulsion. In contrast to this, we believe that this should be entirely voluntary. The only exception should be individuals elected to a national leadership position inside the organisation, parliament, or inside the labour movement. They should be expected to abide by the collective instructions of the grassroots membership and to resign their position of authority if they are not prepared to implement the collective policies.”

I agree that differences should be openly discussed but I am not sure what this paragraph is saying about collective decision making and the implementation of policy. From SR’s point of view we are in favour of a democratically elected leadership (though what represents a democratic process is a subject in itself) which would have a political role to play and would have political responsibilities. We do not use the term ‘democratic centralism’, however, because we think that it is both confusing and conceptually wrong. We use the term ‘revolutionary democracy’ instead.

Providing that decisions have been democratically arrived at (and there is a whole discussion to be had about that as well) we do expect members and local branches to carry them out if they are able to do so. Branches, however, have a high degree of local autonomy within the overall approach and also to take local circumstances into account. It is in any case more a matter of having a political dialogue rather than issuing directives.

When it comes to political differences we have a very precise constitutional position. This is first that no comrade can be expected to argue in public for a position they disagree with. In fact we think that it is perverse to ask them to do so. Comrades are also entitled to express differences with SR policy in public providing they make it clear that they are not speaking for SR and that they do not do it in a destructive way.

Internally we have constitutional provision for the formation of tendencies and factions at anytime providing the political basis for such tendencies and factions are published in the organisation. We have a constitutional provision for tendencies and factions to be represented on the elected leadership bodies in direct proportion to the votes they get at SR conference. This applies not only to formal tendencies and factions but to strands of opinion on important issues if they are clearly reflected in voting at conference. We have always regarded this approach as one of the most important parts of our internal democracy.

We discussed this again at our conference in April of this year. This discussion was influenced (as you will see from the quotation below) both by the crisis on internal democracy which had opened up inside the SWP and by issues which were already being raised by ACI comrades. In fact we had a joint public meeting on the issue of democracy in revolutionary organisations. The IS Network, of course did not exist as such when this was written although it did by the time our conference took place.

The SR conference decided the following on revolutionary democracy:

Revolutionary democracy

The question of the internal organisation of revolutionary organisations has been highlighted both in the discussions raised by the ACI’s Simon Hardy on the legacy – and misappropriation – of Leninism, and by the SWP crisis.

These discussions have used the term ‘democratic centralism’ in referring to the way that revolutionary organisations organise themselves. Socialist Resistance avoids using this term to describe the way we organise. We think that the term has been so misused that it has lost its usefulness. It is also an obscure and confusing term.

FI leader Daniel Bensaid coined the term revolutionary democracy to describe a way of organising which we would argue builds on the genuine lessons we can draw from the writings of Lenin and sums up the core of our tradition. We should use this term more systematically in our projection of our way of organising.

SR is based on the principles of maximum participation in the decision-making processes and maximum unity in action. Whilst members are expected to carry out the decisions of the organisation, and not to campaign against them in public, they are not expected to advocate policies with which they disagree. When minority views are expressed in public there is an obligation to explain that they are minority views.

Members of SR have the right to constitute themselves into organised tendencies and factions at any time, including during pre-conference discussions, on the basis of a clear political platform available to all members of the organisation. The rights of such minorities should include the right to meet and organise around their views and adequate opportunity at conference to explain and develop their views.

The provision for horizontal discussion in the organisation, within the norms of comradely debate, through our discussion list, is also an important gain for us. While the discussion list is not the place for decision making – that must be done through the branches and the elected leadership – it allows for the development of political ideas, enables comrades to feel that their views have a hearing inside the organisation and gives the leadership bodies a better idea of what comrades think.

As we argue above, our long established position of support for women’s caucuses inside revolutionary organisations and broad left parties as well as for women’s self organisation more generally are things we want to and need to project in this discussion. Further our constitutional provision for an Appeals commission completely separate and independent from any leadership body is another important gain.

The way we have political discussions is something we should examine. Of course comrades are committed to the political positions they hold and therefore want to convince others inside and outside the organisation that they are right. However we need to try to develop our discussions in a non-adversarial way, which does not personalise discussions or dismiss the contributions of people we disagree with.

We want to create an organisation which in its internal meetings, its public forums, its internal discussions and its public face allows everyone to feel able to have their say whether they are a contact coming for the first time, a new recruit to the group or someone involved in revolutionary politics for decades. This is the reason why the National Committee took a decision that our discussion list should be moderated – a decision which we are asking the conference to endorse. Without moderation there was a danger that the democratic rights of some comrades were being ignored.

Learning from the movement

Another important aspect of a revolutionary attitude to democracy is our attitude to how we work in trade unions, campaigns and movements of the oppressed. Part of our political approach is that we attempt to learn from the struggles in which we participate and the discussions we have with others with whom we are fighting for common goals. This approach is what has enabled Socialist Resistance, together with other sections of the Fourth International, to learn for example from the women’s liberation movement and then make our own programmatic development in terms of feminism or from the environmental movement and then make programmatic developments in terms of ecosocialism. Our attitude is not that of the currents that Simon Hardy talks about in his writings of a current who thinks we have a monopoly on politics.

It is useful to re-discuss these ideas about democracy in the run up to this conference given that they are issues coming up increasingly in the broader movement. Like us the ACI believe that pluralism is important but also that it can only be created by a cultural shift inside our organisations as well as by formal rules. Beyond this in fighting for a wider audience for socialism of the 21st century we have to show that we have a vision of a democratic society which not only is more democratic than the repressive capitalism we live under – but than the ideals of democracy that rotten system is still able to project as its ideal.

7 Comments

  1. This is a very useful contribution to the discussion on broad parties and on revolutionary democracy.

    I want to discuss the issue of elections for national leaderships. The SR leadership is elected by a slate system at conference, using a nominations commission, comprising conference delegates who are not members on the previous leadership, which is dissolved at the beginning of conference (presumably it wouldn’t be in the middle of a revolutionary crisis!) The nominations commission can take representations from any delegate about the composition of the slate and can call people to come and discuss with it as well. It makes periodic reports to the conference on what it is thinking about the political/regional/gender etc. make up of the new leadership, which can be challenged by the conference. It discusses acutal nominations, which any delegates can make to it. Factions can insist that their own candidates are on the slate, but conference can overturn their choices as well, though I’m not sure if that has ever happened. I can’t recall occasions in the groups I’ve been in (IMG/Socialist League/ISG/SR: there’s “continuity” for you!) where the actual mechanism has broken down, though others may be able to put me right on that.

    This system works for SR, I think, in part because there is a fairly narrow range of political views and a lot of trust in its ability to come up with a fair representation of members’ views in the leadership, which I think it does. I’m not sure it would work in a broad left party, however. I think there should be elections for an executive committee at a national delegate conference and I don’t think the multiple transferable vote system used so far is democratic enough, because, in a situation where one group is organised enough and commands 50% +1 of the votes, it can get ALL the seats. This is something we on the left used (undemocratically) to our advantage in student union elections in the 1970s.

    I think we need to consider methods of using Single Transferable Vote (proportional representation) elections at LU delegate conferences. There should be ways of doing this automatically, using a computer and interactive whiteboards handsets, to make a spreadsheet of everyone’s votes. There is certainly software around that can do the counts, using a spreadsheet containing each voter’s ordered preferences.

  2. Yes, that’s a useful comment by Phil. The slate system has some advantages, especially in allowing the curation of secondary leadership. However, it can undermine the need for the leadership committee to be posed of the actual leaders. Leadership is a social relation, and members and conference participants know who the real leaders are. One advantage of a secret ballot over individual candidates is that it allows that real leadership to be elected, and the numbers of votes allow individual leaders to see how highly they are valued. It also allows the organisation to remove people who are not valued on the leadership: In the ISG, for example, we built in faction and tendency leaders into slates, eve though they might not be the best people in that tendency to actually lead.

  3. Thanx for the analysis, Alan. I hope we in the ISN can come up with quite a few as well, & that most of all the ISN has a proper informed discussion, not least about what is lost & gained from a range of unity options.

    I was struck by 2 things you said:

    1) “SR is based on the principles of maximum participation in the decision-making processes and maximum unity in action. Whilst members are expected to carry out the decisions of the organisation, and NOT TO CAMPAIGN AGAINST THEM IN PUBLIC, they are not expected to advocate policies with which they disagree. When minority views are expressed in public there is an obligation to explain that they are minority views.” (my emphases – unfortunately italics are not available to commentators)

    a) I’m obviously thinking of the exemplar here, Lenin at the Finland Station. His public campaign was not even against an idea or a tactic, it was fundamental, against the Bolshevik & Menshevik STRATEGY of supporting the capitalist government of Kerensky, an attempt to entrench capitalist rule. For this Plekhanov called him “depraved”, the ‘April Theses’ the “ravings” of a madman (Neil Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, v.2, p.145 – adding a ‘space’ to the link, http:// books.google.com, two-vols.-in-one).

    So would Socialist Resistance have disciplined this miscreant, this heretic, for wrecking “maximum unity in action”?

    Or should speech acts, spoken or written, simply have their validity tested in the widest possible debate? (Some views, as here, can only get their practical test not in past behaviour but by applying rational standards in a continuous, dare I say permanent, discussion.)

    b) Also is it possible for Socialist Resistance to publish on this site all the documents & motions (esp. those that were rejected) from your April National Conference? Transparency of proceedings, out in front of ‘the class’, the ACI, the ISN, breaking with the culture of secrecy, etc.? As Joaquín Bustelo (Solidarity, USA) put it starkly this March, Lenin never wrote a word in an ‘internal discussion bulletin’, & Russian social democracy never had one during Czarist repression, the institution only starting in autumn 1920:
    http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=7727 ‘Lenin Was Not a Leninist’

    In the history of British Trotskyism has an ARGUMENT (again, wld. have used italics if available) ever been advanced for a secret IDB, or has it just been assumed that’s the way to be? Is today’s SR content to have an unthinking practice? Especially as we have a more than 150 year-old Marxian formula, ‘tradition, mountain, brains of the living’, there’s really no excuse for the supporters of this institution, the IDB, not to justify their view with evidenced arguments.

    2) You write, “. . . we need to try to develop our discussions in a non-adversarial way, which does not personalise discussions or dismiss the contributions of people we disagree with.

    “We want to create an organisation which in its internal meetings, its public forums, its internal discussions and its public face allows everyone to feel able to have their say whether they are a contact coming for the first time, a new recruit to the group or someone involved in revolutionary politics for decades. This is the reason why the National Committee took a decision that our discussion list should be moderated – a decision which we are asking the conference to endorse. Without moderation there was a danger that the democratic rights of some comrades were being ignored.”

    a) Did the (presumably) April Conference approve this proposal to vet comments?

    b) So are you really saying the flow of discussion has to become a stutter coz some members don’t have the self-discipline to be polite, unable to stop themselves being rude to their comrades? The best-known & most used discussion site in Britain, ‘Socialist Unity’, is also where professed revolutionaries & reformists mix, where one might expect ‘trouble’, but for years everyone there has coped without comments being vetted before being seen by the world.

    If ‘Socialist Unity’ can be that convivial, can’t Socialist Resistance? Is it really that edgy & scary inside SR?

    (Can admin please alter the software as it’s a lot easier to read the site if comments are able to have paragraph breaks? Italics too, perhaps, & the even better bold for emphases?)

  4. In the comparison between the Socialist Unity site and the SR discussion list Jara overlooks one fundamental point. The SR dicussion list is a place where all members of SR must feel comfortable and able to contribute because it is the discussion list of an organisation of which they are members; the SUN site isn’t membership based, if people don’t like it they have no need to go there. (I also doubt it’s the best-known and most-used discussion site in Britain, unless “for the far left” is taken as read.)

  5. “The best-known & most used discussion site in Britain, ‘Socialist Unity’, is also where professed revolutionaries & reformists mix, where one might expect ‘trouble’, but for years everyone there has coped without comments being vetted before being seen by the world.”

    “Socialist Unity” is only “un-vetted” as long as its contributors, whether “revolutionary” or “reformist” are useful to its ongoing campaign against “Trotskyite religious cults”.
    , follow its Gallowayish orbit around the Morning Star and are soft on Ed Miliband as he aims to shoot the Labour Party’s remaining foot.
    (Blair lost Labour 200,000 members, Miliband is trying to lose the party’s funding)

    Being overly critical of SU’s moderators is likely to bring down a torrent of abuse upon you and result in a ban.
    But ‘Jara Handala’ is obviously useful to them.
    Whereas most supporters of the ISN don’t seem to trust him, (or even know who he is).

  6. To focus on Alan Thornett’s article, it would be comradely, and enlightening, if Alan himself or another Socialist Resistance decision-maker would address the questions I raised more than two weeks ago. I still hope that SR can reveal, for the benefit of interested readers, your April conference documents and motions, especially the rejected ones; and, if this won’t happen, an explanation of why SR prefers to keep them secret, contrary to the practice of Russian social democracy (my above citing of Bustelo). I also hope that justifications for the institution of the internal discussion bulletin are presented.

    I’m sure I’m not alone in being surprised that my original comment on Alan’s article brought attention to the commentator. It’s also contrary to the tradition of the Fourth International to allow, in the absence of evidence, a slur upon a person’s reputation. We all remember how Hansen & Novack were treated by the Healyists. The vetter(s) of this site should have exercised better judgment.

  7. Just over 11 weeks ago, on 14 July, I commented on this article by Alan Thornett but unfortunately neither Alan, nor any other member or supporter of Socialist Resistance, has responded to any comments or questions put by anyone in the thread.

    Regrettably, what I want to say applies to the whole site, not just this article. To SR’s credit you have created an opportunity for dialogue but the record shows that authors, members, & supporters of SR by & large choose, & so refuse, to take advantage of this. Perhaps those on the outside are being presented with a Potemkin village, with those involved in SR prioritising talking to one another, somewhere else, rather than using the website to discuss politics with its visitors, your guests, those who one day may even become members of SR.

    This is all very odd. Not very socialist, but very resistant. And as a member of the International Socialist Network, which is in talks with SR & others about a possible fusion, I find this very puzzling. This is especially pointed because part of the title of Alan’s piece is, ‘what kind of radical organisation’ do we want – it seems to be one where national ‘leaders’ ignore questions & comments coming from mere members. The future doesn’t seem to be ours.

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