Britain: Steps towards revolutionary unity (updated with discussion documents)

July 10, 2013 -- Anticapitalist Initiative -- This joint statement was agreed by the International Socialist Network, Anticapitalist Initiative and Socialist Resistance delegations to recent unity talks. They met to discuss the formation of a united revolutionary tendency.

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Delegates from Socialist Resistance, the Anticapitalist Initiative and the International Socialist Network came together on Sunday July 7, 2013, to discuss the next steps on the road to forming a united, plural and heterodox revolutionary tendency on the left in Britain.

These discussions were born out of the recent crisis and split in the Socialist Workers Party, which led to the formation of the International Socialist Network, and also inspired debate all across the left in Britain and internationally on how we should move away from the top down and monolithic conception of revolutionary organisation that has proven so damaging in recent years. All of the delegations agreed that they were committed to building an open, democratic and radical left, which encourages free thinking, is built from below and can reach out to a new generation. Wherever necessary delegates tried to make clear the terrain of the debate within their own organisation to the other delegations. This was important for encouraging an open and honest culture in the discussions. It also made clear that the groups participating were not, and did not want to be, monolithic in their approach to revolutionary politics, but even in our own groups we were already attempting to practice pluralism.

Initially discussion focused on a document from Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper (ACI), "What kind of radical organisation?". Discussion was wide ranging but focused on the questions of building new left parties, trade union and social movement activism, and democratic organisation. Alan Thornett (Socialist Resistance) had produced a response to the document that focused on the difference between a broad party project and a revolutionary Marxist tendency, as well as raising some differences over how the question of democratic organisation was put across in the document.

After two delegate-based discussions of revolutionary unity it was agreed that the debate must be opened out to our wider networks and memberships, and a date for a joint national meeting was agreed for October. There was also a useful discussion of practical collaboration: plans floated for a joint 12-page publication, a common perspective for student and youth work in the autumn, working together to make Left Unity a success, and developing a joint BME [Black, minority ethnic] caucus. For more information on these discussions then contact any one of the three different organisations involved, the International Socialist Network, Anticapitalist Initiative and Socialist Resistance.

What kind of radical organisation?

By Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy

July 4, 2013 -- Anticapitalist Initiative

  1. IMAGINE A CLASSLESS SOCIETY Capitalism is a system based on the exploitation and oppression of the vast majority so that a small minority can live a life of vast wealth and privilege. Our aim is communism – not the hideous dictatorships that denigrated the radical project in the last century, but a truly democratic, classless, stateless society where ‘the free development of each is conditional on the free development of all’. This vision must shape how we organise in the struggles today. The empowerment that comes from self-organisation and building from below is fundamental to our political project.  Short-term goals need to be connected to the longer-term strategy of getting rid of capitalism. As technological development proceeds apace the question of democratically organising the labour process so that scientific breakthroughs result in cuts in hours, not job losses, becomes posed ever more sharply. Romanticism about mythical ‘golden ages’ of capitalism in the past need to be rejected. There is no going back and our future can be better if we develop a vision and strategy for anticapitalist change. A new left party will need to provide a space for different strategies and alternatives to be debated. It should be careful to retain its breadth but also provide effective, practical answers to the deepening social crises of modern capitalism.
  1. WORKING CLASS – OLD AND NEW The exploitation of labour by capital on the world stage is a complicated business. Due to the process of global integration over the last three decades and the growth in the size of the labour market in the West, there has never before been more people directly exploited by capitalist production. This means that never before have more people had a direct interest in getting rid of capitalism once and for all. Capitalism however reproduces this exploitative labour process anarchically. It creates hierarchies of economic and social privileges within the working class; between full time employees and the precarious, between the super-exploited and unskilled and the skilled, the employed and the jobless. Capital also readily exploits those outside of the ‘wage-labour’ relation. Peasants are driven into extreme servitude and poverty through the combination of financialization and capitalist modernisation. In the world’s biggest cities a vast army of formally self-employed labourers live at the mercy of the big banks. When we speak of a ‘working class’ that has an interest in getting rid of the system, we refer to all these social groups that are exploited by capital and can be drawn into the revolutionary movement. In short, we refer to the working class in all its cultural and social diversity. The radical left also tends to organise a layer of the working class that undertake relatively socially empowering forms of work (e.g. skilled jobs white collar jobs) and require a university education. Overcoming this isolation from poorer layers of the working class remains a central task of a new left, and recognising the problem is only the first step to solving it.
  1. A NEW LEFT Today the radical left are a small minority in most societies in the world. The marginalisation of groups that offer a radical alternative feeds into an absence of vision that blights the cultural life of modern capitalism. Elites take advantage of the widespread belief that there is no alternative to the system to present even the most limited of social reforms as utopianism and ‘socialism’. To rebuild a democratic, anticapitalist project we need to convince millions of people that they have the power and interests to overthrow the system and begin a transition to a new type of society, one where human need, not private profit, holds sway. Building mass movements of the exploited and oppressed is crucial to this project and we support every struggle against injustice or for progressive reform. Radicalise, democratise, and empower – these are the principles that guide how we relate to the emerging mass movements.
  1. POLITICAL ORGANISATION Mass struggles need to be connected to the aim of realising a transition to a new mode of production. For the great majority of working people in liberal democracies involvement in politics remains limited to the confines of representative electoral democracy. The way in which neoliberal hegemony has eroded political differences between major parties has however bred apathy with increasing numbers passively abstaining from electoral politics. We recognise that we need to bring the mass of the working class into an active engagement with politics in their localities and workplaces, creating empowering forms of self-organisation that can deliver victories in struggles and show in practice an alternative way of running society is possible and necessary. We reject the social democratic model of political party organisation – of a parliamentary elite in control of an apparatus that holds an unaccountable power over an atomised and passive membership. But we recognise that to convince millions they have the power to change the world, mass political organisation – a radically different type of political party – is necessary. A new type of party is needed that is democratic, built from below, pluralist, transparent, one that focuses on encouraging working class self-organisation, campaigning and direct action, and connects the daily struggles with the over-arching goal of a classless society. It should be open to people from different radical traditions – feminism, ecologism, anarchism, socialism, etc – and engage creatively with new ideas in today’s struggles.
  1. DEMOCRATIC STRUCTURE The revolutionary organisation that we want to build should aspire to unity in action in the working class movement. A culture of collective political discussion and clarification should try to work towards a political convergence of ideas that can be translated into practical outcomes. But we recognise that unity in action is not always possible. The organisation that we build will have to allow different strategies to co-exist and be tested inside the working class movement. We expect there to be differences on the practical questions posed by the working class struggle: for example, how to relate to the Labour Party, how to work within the unions, what position to take towards the labour movement bureaucracy, whether to prioritise grassroots campaigning, and how to analyse and respond to international questions. 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.
  1. ANTICAPITALIST TRANSITION Our vision of ‘socialism from below’ provides a link between how we work in the movements today and the kind of society we seek to achieve. Democracy must be at the heart of the socialist project. We reject the politics of top-down control in favour of participatory forms of organisation that are built from the bottom-up. Tragically in the last century with the rise of Stalinism, the illusion spread that undemocratic hierarchies of control and subordination provided protection from reformism. The opposite is in fact the case. Only truly democratic organisation can provide any guarantee that the left will not abandon a revolutionary perspective. Only an empowered membership can stop elites coalescing that push movement or parties towards managing the system for capitalism (‘reformism’). Direct, working class democracy is also central to a revolutionary, anticapitalist transition. This requires a new type of state – one that is neither rooted in the architecture of capitalist production nor based on the nation-state –, but is internationalist and democratic. This ‘commune state’ must be the property of all the oppressed social classes. We advocate a new economy based on participation, collective ownership, coordination and democratic planning. An effective democratic structure (free elections, a free press, re-callable officials, rotation of office holders, constitutional rights and freedoms, etc) will be needed to obstruct the development of a privileged caste of bureaucratic officials.
  1. INTERNATIONALISM Britain’s has failed to come terms with its colonial past and present. It is one of a handful of global powers capable of projecting military power in far-flung corners of the globe. Its interventions into the world’s ‘trouble spots’ are exercises in maintaining its global prestige, influence and commercial interests. Britain is strategically aligned to US imperialism that has only been tempered, rather than decisively setback, by the failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to produce stable pro-American regimes. This has led to a retrenchment to imperial war as ‘humanitarian intervention’ that has to be clearly opposed. Our anti-imperialist perspective also has to take into account a changing international system. The new world order of the second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of Chinese, Russian, and European powers that have a similarly self-serving agenda. If the last decade was defined by anti-imperialism, this one has been increasingly defined by the struggles for democracy in the Middle East. The alignment of some of the leaderships of these movements with Western imperialism should not lead us to deny the essentially progressive character of their struggle for democratic rights and freedoms.
  1. FIGHTING THE NEW RACISM The last decade has seen the electoral rise of the far right, both the fascist BNP, and the xenophobic and nationalist, UKIP. Feeding this growth of the far right is the new popular racism that has targeted Muslims, asylum seekers and economic migrants. This new liberal ‘common sense’ that there ‘is really a problem with Islam’ that there are ‘too many immigrants’ coming to Britain, has been allowed to achieve a hegemony in political culture that then legitimises the rising tide of individuals acts of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim violence and abuse which blights the lives of ethnic minorities in this country. No platform for fascism – including physical confrontation and direct action – remains a central part of the response to the rise of the far right. But just as important is pushing for mass anti-racist campaigning that starts to turn the tide against mainstream ‘racist common sense’. Self-organisation and encouraging the development of Black-led social movement campaigning will be crucial for the radical left. This is not merely a question of the right to caucus – important as that is, but actively encouraging the political forms of self-organisation.
  1. SEXISM, OPPRESSION AND POWER Recent experiences on the left have highlighted once again all too clearly how anti-sexism must mean much more than a merely formal opposition to sexism within wider society. Having anti-sexist politics is a necessary but not sufficient condition for actively working in a way that is anti-sexist. The unequal power relations between men and women – expressed in sexual violence, rape, the double burden, unequal pay, domestic violence, etc. – that characterise modern societies requires special forms of struggle and organisation. Feminism should be a term of identification on the left – not a dogmatic way of narrowing the terrain of legitimate ideological debate. The creation of bureaucratic and unaccountable power structures in revolutionary organisations has a special impact on all oppressed groups, as they lack the proper, democratic channels to confront sexist and violent behaviour by members of the party elite, ultimately making the organisation an unsafe place.
  1. ECOSOCIALISM Capitalism is drifting into a deepening environmental crisis. Repeated failures to tackle global warming through fossil fuel emissions will result in catastrophic levels of climate change in the coming decades. The challenge for the left is that solving the environmental crisis requires political power and the development of a democratic plan for sustainable production. Outside of power we need to find ways of incorporating a “green thread” into the day-to-day social struggles, as well as working within environmental campaigns and protest movements.
  1. THE ‘OLD LEFT’ Traditional parties (or ‘sects’) of the radical left in Britain have failed to connect to the new spirit of democracy and self-organisation in the mass movements. Their ‘intervention’ into these movements lacks organicity. It appears not as a natural evolution of the movements but all too often as attempts to subordinate them to a preconceived dogma. The ‘control or destroy’ method of the left in the anti-austerity movement has persistently obstructed the building of a genuinely united movement, leaving it divided between several front organisations. These problems overlap closely with the issue of bureaucratism in the modern labour movement, where lay members feel alienated from complex and socially privileged bureaucratic structures that they have little control over. The weakness of the left and the decline of grassroots participation in the working class movement can foster dependency on the official bureaucracies. It would be wrong to abstain from the official structure of the unions for this reason. But we support wherever possible the development of grassroots and independent organisation that can act with the official structures where possible and without them where necessary. The creative formation of a ‘Pop-Up Union’ at Sussex University stands in a long tradition of grassroots unionism but it is also an innovative response to the legal and political challenges facing the modern-day labour movement. This kind of ingenuity will be central to building fighting unions.
  1. HOW TO BUILD A MOVEMENT The People’s Assembly is an example of the opportunities and problems of the left and social movements in Britain. Its size and popularity indicates the potential for a mass movement, but the way it has been organised risks negating this opportunity. Local people’s assemblies have no right to bring proposals or amend the statement that is being put to the conference. The leadership organising the event were never elected and will not be re-elected at the conference. A recall conference is promised but without a delegate-affiliate structure for local and national organisations to join (and have rights to bring proposals and elect a leadership) then it will lack an organised link to the anti-cuts movements at the local level. This means its aim of ‘uniting the movement’ cannot be properly turned from words into deeds. The Assembly remains, effectively, a rally or ‘spectacle’ rather than the concluding point of a movement, a process, of building from below. Criticism of the union leaders that have failed to deliver industrial action against austerity or the austerity-lite politics of the Labour Party have been actively discouraged. The danger is that it doesn’t provide a space for critical discussion on strategy or real organising. It underscores the need for an alternative type of politics on the left based on democratic organising, free and critical debate on strategy, and hostility to bureaucratic control.
  1. PUTTING DOWN REAL ROOTS There is a basic problem with how the British left campaigns that can be summarised as ‘the cult of the next big thing’. The focus tends to be on the next big conference, the next big demonstration, etc, and this results in frenetic bursts of activity usually followed by slump, then sometime later by another burst in anticipation of the next major event, and so on. Missing within this is a more permanent, locally rooted politics with a degree of permanence, able to draw in working people into a lasting political relationship with the radical left. A tendency to bandwagon jump needs to be replaced by a longer-term perspective. There are three major avenues for this that a new left needs to explore. Firstly, with the decline of the welfare state, the left will have to rediscover the tradition of ‘Mutual Aid’. Charities and religious organisations, rather than the unions or the left, tend to dominate the growing network of ‘Food Banks’ in Britain. But in the Bedroom Tax campaigns the left has been able to play a role in providing practical support and assistance, alongside political campaigning and activism. Secondly, Left Unity is an opportunity to build a lasting project to the left of the Labour Party. It is being built ‘from below’ through the formation of local organisations that then coordinate on a regional and national level. It is not dominated by a single left group and has attracted a diverse range of activists. It will only succeed if it retains this patient and democratic approach. A campaigning focus – with energetic activism and events – will, however, be needed give the project political momentum. A careful balance has to be struck between effectiveness and participation – with transparent and accountable structures the key to doing this. Thirdly, workplace organisation needs to be rebuilt at the grassroots. Patient work and activism in the localities needs to be coordinated through national campaigns and initiatives. The 80,000 votes for Jerry Hicks and the formation of a new grassroots project based on rank and file activism, Unite Fightback, indicates the potential.

Two brief comments on 'What kind of radical organisation?'

By Alan Thornett (July 7)

July 11, 2013 -- Socialist Resistance -- 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?” 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 Left Unity 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 Red-Green Alliance 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.