A misjudged Bonapartist initiative
Jack Conrad urges LU members to protest against leadership violations of our constitution
On February 12 the national officers of Left Unity issued an unconstitutional ‘Appeal for an alliance against austerity’.1 These comrades - Kate Hudson, Andrew Burgin, Felicity Dowling, Pete Green, Salman Shaheen, Micheline Manson, Chris Hurley, Tom Walker, Terry Conway and Oliver New - are directly elected on an annual basis by a largely atomised membership. Voting, it should be emphasised, is by email and post (an internalisation of the undemocratic straitjacket imposed on the trade unions by Margaret Thatcher’s government during the 1980s).2 Yet, despite being able to claim a unique individual mandate, the national officers have specific “areas of responsibility” only (Left Unity constitution, clause 12a). Clearly, then, they have gone far beyond any agreed remit, to the point of open revolt. In fact, the 10 national officers are attempting to foist an altogether rightwing orientation on Left Unity by, in effect, staging a Bonapartist coup.
Their statement, prominently featured on Left Unity’s website, calls for negotiations “with other parties” and envisages “uniting around one anti-austerity candidate in each constituency”. Below the text is a big, but lone, ‘Agree’ tick box. In other words a referendum without even providing a ‘Disagree’ option. The result is a dead certainty. The officers will get their 100% support. If this is an example of what our tops have grandly called “doing politics differently”, then, obviously, we are collectively making a mockery of ourselves in the eyes of anyone committed to the basic norms of democracy. Sadly Kim Jong-un could learn a trick or two from us here.
Our national officers are undoubtedly carried away, intoxicated, by the election of the (minority) Syriza government and are, understandably, desperate to support Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis in their stonewalling opposition to the immovable EU Commission-European Central Bank-International Monetary Fund troika. A ray of hope on an otherwise gloomy horizon. However, by making “defeating the big parties’ consensus on cuts” their “central priority”, the national officers have categorically rejected class politics in favour of the eclectic, rainbow politics of alliances - crucially with the Green Party. In Greece that resulted in the popular-frontist coalition with the rightwing Independent Greeks (till their MEP, Notis Marias, defected, they were part of the Conservative and Reformist bloc in the EU parliament led by David Cameron’s Tories3).
Left Unity’s officers make a solemn “public pledge”. They say: “we will support any candidate, whether they are from the Greens, the Labour left or a smaller party committed to equality, who states clearly that they will never vote for austerity and whose record leads us to believe that they are sincere.” On that basis our officers write: “Not only will we not be standing against these candidates: we will actively campaign for them where possible.”
The ‘Appeal’ is based on a series of elemental political misjudgements.
Strategically, there is the wrongheaded assumption that ending austerity within capitalism is the main task confronting the organised left in the European Union. That amounts to attempting to “save European capitalism from itself” (Yanis Varoufakis).4 Only once that goal has successfully been achieved does socialism appear on the agenda. Frankly, a degraded version of Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism and a recipe for endlessly delaying the immanent future.
Actually, if we want to fulfil our immediate programme, surely the emphasis must be on re-establishing the independent politics of the working class. In other words, Marxist politics that logically, in their fulfilment, lead to the rule of the working class, the supersession of the market and a society based on the principle of need. Therefore, at this juncture, it is surely vital to combine opposition to austerity with working class politics (even in the homeopathically diluted form of the Labour left, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, etc).
In terms of history, principles, financial backers and electoral base, the Greens are an almost pure example of what constitutes a radical party of the petty bourgeoisie in the circumstances of the early 21st century. Anti-corporate? Absolutely. Against Trident, Nato and the standing army? For peace, international cooperation and a popular militia? Yes. Seeking to reverse global warming and the degradation of nature? Of course. But opposed to commodity production, wage-slavery and private property? Not at all. These historically established relationships go unquestioned, are considered perfectly natural. No wonder MEP Molly Scott Cato is eager to stress that the Green Party is the friend of “sustainable, future-proofed businesses”.5
The Greens say they want to “build a society that works for the common good, not just the privileged few”.6 All very well and apple pie. But, once you accept commodity production, wage-slavery and private property, it is inevitable that monopoly capital, the overblown state machine and a privileged elite will follow. Within every small green capitalist there is a big green capitalist just waiting to get out. So, while the Greens’ critique of the environmental crisis, social inequality and zero-hours exploitation has some value, the same cannot be said of their plans for the future.
What of their base? Interestingly, Andrew Burgin, Left Unity’s treasurer, and one of the national officers, has posted this on Facebook:
A look at the Green Party: “Green voters are not radically leftwing on economic issues, nor are they primarily driven by environmental concerns,” finds James Dennison. Instead, the Greens are the natural alternative for disgruntled Liberal Democrats - the party’s prospective voters appear to be of the mainstream centre-left, but have become dissatisfied with the traditional parties.7
Maybe comrade Burgin is trying to walk a fine line. On the one hand, he wants an anti-austerity alliance with the Greens; on the other hand, he does not want to dissolve Left Unity into the Greens. Whatever his motivation, it is clear that Green voters are a long way from being socialists.
Anyway, in their attempt to foist “an alliance against austerity” on Left Unity, the national officers have clearly violated our constitution. Whatever its faults, and they are numerous, it stipulates that every member is obliged to “abide by the democratically decided rules and constitution of Left Unity” (clause 3b). Surely a requirement of membership in any worthwhile organisation.
True, there is provision for the national council to organise what is called an e-conference on “specific single issues or questions” and for subsequent voting to be conducted via the internet (clause 10b and 10c). A horrible idea worthy of dystopian science fiction. But the national officers are not even doing that. They are not proposing an e-conference, which would, notionally at least, provide space for oppositional viewpoints. No, they are in effect holding a public referendum, in which not only do they get to ask the question, but they are, as pointed out above, guaranteed to get a 100% majority.
Marxists have traditionally promoted representative democracy. In other words, we favour the election of accountable - ie, recallable - delegates, deputies, committee members, etc. Men and women who, because they are on some level tried, tested and trusted, are expected to thoroughly, exhaustively, debate and decide policies and any higher leadership posts. That was the method of the Paris Commune, that was the method of the German Social Democratic Party and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, that was the method of the Russia’s soviets, Germany’s Räte, Britain’s councils of action, Chile’s cordones and Iran’s shora.
So-called ‘direct democracy’ inevitably relies on and reinforces impoverished thinking and therefore favours demagogues. Not surprisingly then, Marxists have shown a strong aversion to referendums - the favourite device of modern dictators beginning with Louis Bonaparte.8 And it is, of course, not only Marxists who oppose referendums. Even rightwing Labourites have condemned them as alien to the spirit of parliamentary and party politics.9
Thankfully, however, there is no provision for Left Unity’s national officers to call an internal membership referendum. Indeed the constitution is perfectly clear. Principles and overall political direction are decided by our annual conference. Between these ‘one member, one vote’ gatherings there is the 70-strong national council. It is vested with the power to decide on policy matters.
The much smaller executive committee is expected to provide nothing more than “the day-to-day running of the party” (clause 12a). As for the national officers, they are “responsible for implementing the decisions of national/special conferences and the national council” (clause 12a). No more. No less.
Left Unity’s last national conference, in November 2014, not only accepted an amendment which, rightly, rejected calls for closer collaboration with Tusc, but “overwhelmingly rejected” moves to “extend cooperation to the Greens”.10 On each occasion the Communist Platform voted as a bloc for the winning side of the argument. So we remember it well. And, suffice to say, “national conferences of Left Unity are the supreme policy-making body” of the organisation (clause 9a).
Under fire from indignant NC members and branches, the officers are citing the September 2014 national council (that is, a meeting which took place two months prior to the “supreme” national conference). However, according to any serious reading, the September 2014 ‘General election strategy’, as agreed by the NC, fails to support the national officers’ ‘Appeal’. Even if it did, the last national conference definitely takes constitutional precedence.
Anyway, when it comes to the May 7 general election, the NC, back in September 2014, agreed: (1) to stand in constituencies where we have a “strong local identity”; (2) to “avoid standing in Labour/Conservative marginals; (3) to seek to “avoid standing against anyone who publicly commits to neither support nor implement a cuts programme”; (4) to stand in “primarily working class constituencies and where there are low voter turnouts”; (5) that the £500 deposit needed to stand a candidate was prohibitive; (6) to aim for around a “dozen candidates”; (7) to “avoid clashes with other parties of the left” (Tusc, Class War, Respect, the Communist Party of Britain, the National Health Action Party and the Socialist Labour Party were named); (8) to aim for “discussion with these parties, including the Green Party”, to ensure that “we are not just one of a long list of left parties on the ballot paper”.11
Nothing about publicly pledging “support” for Green candidates, nothing about an “anti-austerity alliance”.
If our national officers had sought to put a motion - eg, ‘in light of new developments’ - to the NC, that would be constitutionally permissible, though not politically acceptable to us in the Communist Platform. But, instead, they (cynically?) delayed the national council meeting scheduled for February 14. And the agenda of the February 28 NC meeting is to be entirely devoted to motions that fell off the overstuffed national conference timetable. So, presumably, the ‘Appeal’ is designed to achieve a publicly approved fait accompli to be presented to the following, March 14, NC meeting. Part established practice, part ultimatum.
What to do?
Firstly, the Communist Platform urges Left Unity committees, regions, branches, caucuses and sections to pass this resolution (unanimously agreed by Lewisham and Greenwich on February 12 2015):
This meeting is appalled by the ‘Appeal for an alliance against austerity’ statement from Left Unity national officers, which goes beyond conference and national council decisions. It advocates an electoral arrangement with parties or groups that, by implication, are not working class. Left Unity should support all working class candidates who agree to oppose all cuts to services, and try to ensure that no such candidates stand against each other.
Secondly, in the spirit of openness, we must demand to know how our national officers voted on the ‘Appeal’. Was there a majority? Was there a dissenting minority? Who was in the majority? Who was in the minority?
The election of national officers is just a month away. Left Unity members would therefore be well advised to support the constitutional minority (if it exists). The rest - the unconstitutional majority - surely deserve no support. Till they show their commitment to elementary democracy they should be relegated to the ranks.
1. For full text see http://leftunity.org/appeal-for-an-alliance-against-austerity.
2. See J Conrad, ‘Not fit for purpose’ Weekly Worker January 15 2015.
7. Retrieved February 17 2005.
8. See B Lewis, ‘Referenda and direct democracy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014.
9. Clement Attlee famously rejected Winston Churchill’s May 1945 call for a referendum on continuing the wartime coalition till after the defeat of Japan: “I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum, which only too often has been the instrument of fascism and Nazism,” said Attlee (quoted in V Bogdanor The people and the party system Cambridge 1981, p35).
10. P Manson, ‘Safe spaces checked, gains defended’ Weekly Worker November 20 2014.
11. Statement issued February 13 2015.